Lylandros never wanted much out of life. Just to become really famous and get all the ladies. A simple, straightforward dream. But that was then, and this is now. Thoughts of fame and fortune were so far removed from his consciousness that he questioned if he really had them in the first place.
“Oy, twiggy,” came a voice from outside his cell. “The cap’n will see you now.”
Lylandros meekly got up from the pile of hay that served as his bed for the night. Not like he could fall asleep anyway. His night terrors wouldn’t let him. The horrifying scenery of that girl he sort of liked exploding all over him was still fresh in his mind. He remembered it vividly like it was yesterday. Although that’s not really surprising considering that’s precisely when that happened.
He ambled over to the iron bars that made up his cell door and put his hands through a gap in the vertical bars. The guard on the other side then cuffed the elf’s wrists with solid iron shackles connected by a short, thick chain. Lylandros pulled his wrists back inside so that the guard can unlock and open the cell. He then roughly grabbed the shackled elf by the arm and almost literally dragged him off.
This all happened so smoothly and methodically, onlookers might have mistaken it for a well-rehearsed play. It was just that, like most small-time hoodlums, Lylandros was no stranger to being locked up. His captors would insult and manhandle him all the time, so this treatment was nothing new.
He was actually glad to be in here. It was safe and quiet. They even confiscated his soiled clothes and armor. The elf would probably never see those again, but that was undoubtedly a good thing for his peace of mind. Right now the only thing he was wearing were rough, ragged trousers that did little more than preserve his dignity. The brown cloth was so rough and riddled with holes that it wouldn’t be a surprise if these pants were sewn together from old potato sacks.
The armed guard roughly escorted him through the damp, rat-infested dungeon. About a dozen tiny jail cells much like his own dotted the dark corridor. Wall-mounted torches illuminated the thick walls made out of hewn stone. Intermittent cries from the other prisoners could be heard echoing around him. Lylandros and the jailer eventually reached the steep staircase that was the only way in or out of this depressing place. They climbed up out of the dungeon and into the keep proper.
The walls looked pretty much the same, but at least there were windows here. Lylandros was guided through several corridors, up some more steps and finally arrived at the office of the local guard captain. His escort rapped twice on the thick wooden door. After hearing the “Come in,” he opened it and dragged his prisoner inside. He then threw him roughly onto the floor.
“Hey, come on!” complained the captain. He was a slightly plump, balding man that was way past his prime. He stood up from behind the heavy desk in the middle of the room. “Don’t do that! You’ll stain the carpet!”
“Sorry, sir,” said the guard. “This one was rather violent yesterday, so I-”
“Enough! I don’t care! Just put him in the damn chair so I can interrogate him.”
The grunt replied with a simple “Yes, sir,” before picking up the scrawny elf by the armpit and putting him in the simple wooden chair next to the desk. The captain eyed the prisoner up and down. He looked like your typical hoodlum elf - lanky, hollowed out face and several scars from various stab wounds. He was certain he had whip tracks over his back as well, but that was unimportant.
This particular street rat had entered this city yesterday afternoon. Well, ‘entered’ was perhaps too strong a word. He ran up to the city gates covered in blood and started screaming something about explosions, brains and a ‘horrible monstrosity.’ Since he caused a disturbance and refused to calm down, the guards at the scene subdued and incarcerated him.
It was the same day that the big incident at the nearby dungeon complex was discovered. Captain Reeves knew better than to assume it a coincidence. Although it took some time for him to go through all the reports, his experience told him this elf and the disappearance of his patrol were somehow linked.
When the 5 man unit failed to report back on time, Reeves had sent in a contingent of 30 guards to look for them. And they had made several extremely worrying discoveries.
First they found four piles of clothed ashes. Former adventurers by the look of it. The dog-tags recovered from the remains revealed their names as well as which guild they belonged to. Using that information, the guards then learned these four were on their way to the Yellow Zone of the complex. That meant they weren’t total newbies and were between Level 5 and 10. Otherwise they would have stuck to the Green Zone or moved onto the Red Zone that went up to Level 15.
The second clue the investigation uncovered was on the way to the quarantined area of the Green Zone. The walls and floor of a particular tunnel were bathed in dried up blood. Dead monsters and their bodily fluids would be absorbed back into the dungeon as a form of mana recycling. This meant this particular blood came from those outside of the dungeon’s influence. And judging by the bloodied pieces of armor that had been discarded all over the place, it came from Reeves’s patrol.
The third and perhaps most worrying thing was that the quarantine itself had been breached. His guards brought back the circular portion of enchanted steel that had been neatly cut through. This degree of precision and power was way beyond everything the veteran officer had ever seen. The dwarf responsible for putting that grate together claimed it would take something that was well over Level 70 to make that sort of cut.
Or someone, Reeves thought to himself. Several high-leveled elven terrorists were still at large. This sort of sabotage was clearly within their abilities and lined up with their MO. He theorized they had heard about the appearance of a Sweeper and cut it loose to spread terror among the populace. The captain estimated the Sweeper itself was a threat between Level 20 and 30. If it were any weaker, it wouldn’t be able to kill that Necromancer or take down five of his guards at once. If it were any tougher, it would have broken through the steel grate with sheer force within days rather than two weeks later.
And now, this suspicious elf was in his office. His background check revealed he joined his guild as an initiate only recently. That was good enough reason to assume he wasn’t the one who sabotaged the quarantine. After all, things like adventurers ‘hiding their true powers’ was impossible. The organizations known as guilds had all their members undergo routine Appraisal inspections to track their growth and progress. If a Level 70 no-name appeared out of nowhere and offered to join a guild, it would cause a huge uproar. They definitely wouldn’t leave such a person as a mere initiate - doing so would be disrespectful to their more senior members.
Still, Lylandros’s guild refused to tell Reeves anything other than the elf’s rank within their organization. All guilds collected and recorded information concerning the Jobs, Attributes and Skills of all their members. However, that was kept strictly confidential. Requests to release that data to people like Reeves were reviewed on a case-by-case basis and usually declined. It wasn’t unheard of for adventurers to become criminals, but their guilds needed more than mere suspicion to comply with such demands.
Then again, even the fact he was an initiate was good enough for Reeves - it was more than he usually got out of those people. It was also sufficient grounds to dismiss this elf as the main perpetrator, though he could still be an accomplice.
After sorting his thoughts, the captain began the interrogation. He asked the man’s name, age and occupation for the record, then inquired about the events of yesterday’s afternoon. The elf answered his questions without holding anything back. He spoke of their janther hunt, of his comrade’s sudden and violent demise, of how the ‘horrible creature’ tortured their quarry to death and finally how he ran screaming for his life. The way he spoke about such terrible events with a flat monotone and vacant, fish-like eyes left little doubt in the captain’s mind. The young man before him was broken by what he had witnessed.
“Thank you,” said the captain, concluding the interrogation. “Private, show this man back to his cell. Gently this time. I mean, for real, be gentle. It’s not some euphemism to rough him up, okay?”
The guard saluted with a “Yes, sir!” before turning to his prisoner. “Come on, twiggy, up you go!” he beckoned. He then lifted him by his shoulder and led the man outside the captain’s office.
“Oh!” exclaimed Reeves. “Send word to Sergeant Hargan that I need to speak with him when you’re done.” The guard nodded with another “Yes, sir,” then slammed the door shut. Now left alone, Reeves let out a long, tired sigh. “Fuck this,” he cursed and reached over to one of his desk drawers. He pulled out a bottle of wine, uncorked it and took a mouthful straight from the bottle. He was gradually becoming an alcoholic over the last several weeks. All because of this damned Sweeper.
A Sweeper was a term used to describe a particular abnormality within a dungeon. A monster that had broken way past the Maximum Monster Level. It would roam the dungeon and annihilate everyone and anyone it came across. Isolating and quarantining the Sweeper so that it died of starvation was one way of dealing with it. The worst, laziest, cheapest way. It fit that idiotic mayor perfectly. If he had listened to Reeves and approved a proper subjugation quest immediately, then things would be different. His men and who knows how many others would still be alive.
He took another swig of the bottle.
After all, very few adventurers stuck around this province once they reached Level 20 or so. The few that did were ‘retirees.’ Adventurers who did easy quests way below their pay grade so they can live peacefully and humbly. A lot of his guards were ‘retired’ adventurers around Level 15, too. Many of them were simply disillusioned when their childish dreams crashed into the impenetrable wall called reality. They had simply given up and settled down. It’s not a bad way to live life, thought Reeves before swallowing yet another mouthful of wine.
But now, he would have to take action. He would put his foot down. Although he would still send an armed patrol to scout out the janther’s lair and confirm the elf’s story, he was more or less convinced. The Sweeper had broken- no, had been set free from the quarantine and was running amok in the nearby forests. Judging from Lylandros’s disheartened babbling, it seemed to be a type of Mimic. Since it clearly had access to some form of magic on top of being particularly vicious, Reeves made another conclusion. This Sweeper was a variant or rare species that had appeared in the nearby dungeon. Most likely it was summoned by this phantom saboteur to spread fear and terror among the populace. It was a common strategy of the elves during the big war, so it was entirely possible.
Later that day, Sergeant Hargan returned with the results of his investigation. Reeves had sent him to scout out the site of Lylandros’s battle with the janther. The sergeant reported three piles of ash being present at the scene. Two of them were wrapped in clothes and armor and the third one was much too big to be a person. There was no sign of a headless corpse, but he did locate a huge day-old blood smear on the grass.
That settles it, thought Reeves. The Sweeper was definitely at large in that forest. He gave the order to assemble a punitive force to subjugate the threat. The minimum Level required was 20 and the monetary compensation would be split up between the participants based on merit. As for the reward itself, the total amount came out to a formidable 860 Gold Pieces (G). It was a sizable sum that would allow a regular person to party it up for a whole six weeks. That or live off it for almost a year if they were frugal. Even if it had to be split up between several people, it was still an extremely attractive prize for a day’s work.
The captain didn’t want to deal with that scumbag of a mayor, so he put the reward together himself. Most of this money came from the 500 GP set aside for the janther bounty that was now void. The remaining 360G was collected from soldiers the barracks. Word had spread among the tightly-knit City Guard that the subjugation target was the same bastard that murdered five of them. Some that were over Level 20 volunteered. Most that couldn’t or didn’t participate directly gave freely of their own pockets. A larger reward would mean an increase of both quantity and quality of adventurers willing to take the quest. It was their own way of taking vengeance for the death of their friends and colleagues.
And so, about 4 days later, a force of 23 people was gathered. 8 of those were guards. The remaining 15 people were adventurers. As per the quest requirements, they were all at least Level 20, reaching up to Level 27 in a few cases. This was the best they could gather on such short notice, but time was of the essence. They needed to stamp out that Sweeper before it became too big of a threat. The near-two-dozen men and women were gathered outside the city gates, eager to set off. Reeves appeared on horseback and in full ceremonial armor and stood in front of them. He raised his arm to quiet down the murmur and began the briefing.
“Thank you all for coming. I will now reveal what we know of the Sweeper. It species is suspected to be a Mimic variant. We estimate its Level to be in the higher 20s, possibly lower 30s.” Most of the adventurers found this news odd. The fact that this many people were gathered for one lousy box was, in a word, overkill. Some of the adventurers let out an amused snort while others threw the captain a look that said ‘What, that’s it?’
Reeves read the casual mood and immediately moved to dispel it. “This is not, as you might think, overkill,” he declared. “This monster is unnaturally intelligent and vicious. It has killed over 50 people in the last two months, possibly more. We also have good reason to believe it has an offensive Caster Side Job.”
The gazes of everyone present sharpened. With this many people, even if the monster was Level 50 they could probably take it down if they worked in waves. Assuming it couldn’t cast Spells, that is. Monsters that were capable of magic were much more dangerous than those without. If the Level 50 monster in the previous example could use magic, then there was a good chance the punitive force would suffer heavy casualties. It might even be completely wiped out.
“We will commence a sweep of the woods. We will split into four 6-man teams. Be mindful of anything even remotely box shaped, including rocks and fallen tree trunks! Look for fresh blood smears, discarded gear or piles of gray ash! If you find the monster, make sure you launch a flare immediately to notify the other teams of your position!”
The captain held up a small wooden tube. It was 5 centimeters in diameter and 20 centimeters long. A string came out of one end of it. Everyone present had been given one of these earlier. Those that weren’t familiar with the device were briefly taught how to use it. The instruction consisted of someone saying “Pull the string and a shiny thing will pop out the other end, easy peasy!” One would think that much would be obvious, but the guards knew better than to expect common sense from adventurers. A few of those drifters seemed genuinely surprised that the flare-launchers were that simple to use.
“Do not get cocky and try to take it on by yourselves,” cautioned the captain. ”We’ve lost too many good people to this foul beast already! If you fuck up, you won’t even leave a body behind for your bereaved loved ones to bury! Understood?!”
“Yes, sir!” came the immediate reply. The spirited response from the 8 soldiers seemed to invigorate the other adventurers. They realized that, for these guards, this was no longer just a job. It was personal. And if some pencil-pushing lazy bums were about to give this mission their all, then how could they, as professional monster hunters, possibly do any less? So what if guilds and law-enforcement didn’t always see eye to eye? They were still allies in the grand scheme of things.
“Very good!” shouted the captain. “Sergeant Hargan will be taking over from here! I have given him command over this operation! Good luck, and Godspeed!” He saluted and rode off back inside the city without even answering any questions. That’s what Hargan was there for. Besides, the only questions the adventurers wanted to ask that captain were things like “What the hell?! You’re not coming?! What was the point of the horse and fancy armor?! Why’d you even come out here in the first place, fatass!?”