A group of three seasoned adventurers were having a little get together at a nearby pub. They had just seen three rather exciting fights earlier that afternoon, and their blood was still boiling with excitement, despite being of a rather advanced age.
“Look! Ah’m tellin’ ye, ye cannae take down a cyclops just by aimin’ fer the eye!” said Hilda in a loud voice.
“And I’m telling you, that teaching your students to ‘go for the dick’ will just get themselves flattened under his feet!” insisted Faehorn.
The female dwarf Warrior and the elven Ranger were at each other’s throats as per usual. This time they were heatedly discussing ‘proper takedown procedures’ for a cyclops, a 6 meter-tall, one-eyed mountain of muscle that usually hovered around the Level 60 to 70 threat range. Lichter, the Paladin trainer, was just watching them have at it with a nostalgic smile on his face.
The three of them had been a team many years ago, and those two bickered and argued even back then, and Lichter would be the one that had to put a stop to their quarreling. Still, they were able to put aside petty differences when it counted, and trusted each other without question. Something that Lichter was sure still continued to this day, despite them living out the past decade or so in peace.
“As if! Ye just need to slice his cock off and he’ll be down fer the count!”
Well, relative peace.
“Hilda,” said Lichter calmly, “please refrain from screaming about slicing cocks at the top of your lungs.”
The dwarf just now realized they were in a public space, and the other patrons were throwing curious glances their way. She gave the onlookers a curt ‘Sorry ‘bout that’ before turning her attention back to the drink in her mug.
“Honestly,” said the Paladin with a sigh, “I wish you’d consider your position already. How is that the behavior of a Stonekin?”
“I’m a Stonekin,” said the dwarf after taking a swig of her drink, “so anythin’ I do is the behavior of a Stonekin.”
Hilda, Faehorn and Lichter had all reached Level 100 of their respective Jobs at roughly the same time and achieved their respective Rank Ups. Hilda was a Stonekin Dwarf, who were not only naturally stronger and sturdier than regular dwarves, but also highly resistant to toxins and disease. Faehorn had become a High Elf, granting him superior kinetic vision and reflexes. Lichter, however, was different.
Normally when an enlightened being Ranks Up upon reaching Level 100 of their Main Job, their bodies become that of a stronger variant of their species. Normally this happened regardless of the type of Job they had, unless it happened to be of a religious nature. Lichter, who was a Level 100 Paladin and a Champion of Nyrie, was technically no longer an elf. Although he looked like one outwardly, his species had become that of an Angel.
These quasi-divine beings were granted a tiny fragment of their chosen deity’s power. This manifested itself as the ability to manifest a pair of gigantic, dove-like wings from their backs at will. Although normally concealed, these limbs allowed them to soar majestically through the air with little effort. However, even though they had extended lifespans like other enlightened Rank Ups, Angels were still very much mortal. Ranking up a second time would let them become Archangels that were truly immortal, although very few people managed to reach that far. And what lay beyond was the realm of rumors, myths and legends.
Regardless, these three had seen enough violence and bloodshed in their lifetimes. Much like all adventurers at their Level, they had gone through more than a few horrifying and mentally scarring events. They had therefore decided to take a step back and focus on passing on the knowledge and experiences they had accumulated during their storied careers to future generations. Like true adventurers, they still aimed to grow even stronger, although right now they were focusing on enjoying these peaceful, laid back times while they lasted.
“... Think the Empire’s gonna be comin’ fer us?” asked Hilda with a grim look.
Although a dwarf, she honestly considered Azurvale and the Republic to be her home, while her students and those two pansies she was sharing a drink with were her family. If push came to shove, she’d defend them all without a second’s notice, regardless of who the enemy was.
“Probably,” half-sighed Faehorn. “Actually, a friend in the government gave me some rather solid advice on the matter.”
“Oh? Let’s hear it,” urged Lichter.
“She said to stock up on lubricant and burn medicine,” he said while giving the others a wry grin, “because we’re about to get F’d up the A. Without the sweet talk.”
Hilda gave a hearty laugh while the Paladin covered his face with his palms.
“Seriously though,” continued the Ranger, “It was a long time coming. Those humans will always be like that. I mean, we all know Jennifer, right?”
He was referring to the human Monk that had been a part of their troupe in their glory days. They had to eventually part ways with her years back due to how ruthless, merciless and greedy she was.
“Knew Jennifer,” said Lichter. “I heard that problem child’s bad attitude earned her the ire of some bad people and she got herself killed.”
“Ah… That’s a shame,” lamented Hilda. “I liked her, she was funny.”
“Yeah, you muscle-heads were always on the same wavelength. I mean, violence was the only thing you agreed on, but then again that was, and still is your answer to everything.”
“Now see, I know yer tryin’ to insult me Faehorn, but I ain’t gonna fall fer it. Not when I’ve had a few drinks in me.”
“Still, her skill in combat was quite promising,” offered the Paladin. He was trying to change topic before those two got into another petty squabble. “Compared to her, my students are a little… lacking. You saw them yourself, right?”
“I don’t know, Lichter, I think that guy with the buzz cut and the scar on his cheek was quite good. He actually recognized that Juggernaut as the superior fighter and was far more cautious than the others.”
“Still got his ass handed to him,” pointed out the dwarf. “Me lot fared no better though.”
It wasn’t just the Ranger students that sparred against the so-called Rustblood Juggernaut today. The Warriors and Paladins also had a go at her, though unsurprisingly none could even come close to even scratching her. Still, it meant the trio were able to see all of their respective pupils in action, which was more or less the point of the whole affair.
“There’s sumfin’ about the way she moves,” she continued. “I swear she could see the blows comin’ before they even took a swing at her!”
“You still gave her a good few dents, though,” pointed out Lichter.
“Well yeh. Don’t matter who or what it belongs to, all armor is naturally weak in certain places. Golems ain’t no different ya know! What sorta teacher would I be if I didn’t show my lot how to fight a well-armored target like that?”
She gave an accusing glare at Faehorn, who returned it with a dagger stare of his own.
“Any Ranger that tries to fight that thing head on is already a failure in my book.”
“Bullshit! Ye could take her easy!”
“I’m not so sure about that. I mean I could definitely do it if she were an ordinary steel or iron golem, but a mithril one that’s also a Paladin?! I’m not saying I can’t beat her if push came to shove, but it certainly wouldn’t be ‘easy.’”
“Ye about that, how in the blazes did a golem become a Paladin?”
“Well, Hilda, as it turns out she used to be a gnome,” said Lichter.
“No, I’m serious. I was one of the people the authorities consulted regarding her strange condition. I won’t divulge her circumstances beyond that though. It would be rude to her as a person.”
“Betcha you woulda loved to make her yer student, huh?”
“Oh, immensely so. Unfortunately, she already follows another path, different from that of Nyrie.”
“Lemme guess. She follows the good ol’ God of Probability, right?”
“Figures. She fits right in with the rest of those nutjobs.”
The three of them had come across several of the God of Chance’s followers. There weren’t many of them, but one or two always turned up whenever big things were going down. Whether they were involved in said events directly or ‘just happened to be there’ was unclear, but it didn’t matter. Any adventurer that traveled the continent for long enough eventually learned that the appearance of the faithful of the Goddess of Uncertainty heralded great and sudden change, both good and bad.
“No wonder she’s so fecking random. I mean that muffin song? Seriously?!” complained Hilda.
“You sang along with the rest though,” retorted Faehorn.
“... It’s a funny song, okay?”
“I suppose spreading that jingle is her way of worshipping her God,” offered Lichter. “I suspect that’s who she refers to when she sings of the muffin man that lives inside her head.”
It was way better than trying to write out the deity’s ever-changing name with pig entrails like that one guy they met years back.
“That or she’s completely bonkers,” said the dwarf. “That sort of viciousness she showed in the arena? That’s not something a sane person would do.”
“Perhaps,” agreed the Paladin, “but she knows enough to hold back outside the ring and obey the same laws as everyone else. Even if turbulent, her life still seems like an honorable one.”
“I’m actually with the old bat on this one. The way her attitude changes in the blink of an eye is downright terrifying.”
“Anyway, I think we’ve gotten a bit off topic. Tell me Faehorn, do any of your Rangers show any promise?”
“Hmm… there’s none that are completely hopeless and all of them should graduate the way things are going. Only three of the bunch show any real promise though.”
“Ah, that’d be the green haired lass, the black-haired lad and the kitty, right?” asked Hilda.
“Yeah them. Miller shows a lot of promise, despite being an Empire-born elf and a power-leveler. The fact he’s willing to throw away his old mentality and mend his ways is truly worthy of praise.”
“Isn’t the green-haired one Lia Torlee? The innkeeper’s daughter?” asked Lichter while cupping his chin in thought.
“That’s her. She has great aim and superb judgement. I expect her to go far if she specializes as a sharpshooter.”
“What’s the deal with the kitty though?”
“Please don’t call her that, Hilda,” said Faehorn. “She’s my precious student, and I’d prefer if you didn’t belittle her.”
“Bah, ye know I mean nothin’ by it! Go on, then! Out with it!”
“She’s… strange. I don’t mean the way she looks or acts, but the way she uses a bow. It’s like - both her stance and draw are good while her hands and eyes are steady, right? Yet I could swear she shifts her aim at the very last moment. As if she misses her targets on purpose, like she doesn’t want to stand out because of her ability.”
“Her Appraisal showed she’s a normal girl, right?” guessed Hilda.
“Think she’s a Hero?” asked Lichter in a hushed tone.
It was a little known secret that those chosen by the Gods could choose to hide their strength from an Appraisal so as to not attract the wrong kind of attention. The only reason these three knew about it was because they worked with the Hero of Rain for a time. He was a raptor, a species of beings that looked like lizard beastkin, although their animalistic features were far more pronounced. Rather than a man with scales and a tail, he looked more like a crocodile that head learned to walk on its two hind legs. The type of visage that sometimes got him mistaken for a monster. He was also rightly fucked in the head, and that was putting it mildly.
“That’s what I thought too, so I tried to confirm it,” said Faehorn while speaking softly. “I tried attacking her from her blind spot, directing all my bloodlust towards her as I swung a dagger at the nape of her neck. I figured if she’s hiding her strength, then she’d avoid or catch it.”
“Oh my Goddess…”
“Sweet fuck, Faehorn!” shout-whispered the dwarf. “What if ye were wrong and the poor lass was just a messed up kid?!”
“I wasn’t actually going to hurt her, okay?! I was planning on stopping short, maybe giving her a small cut at most, you know!”
They exchanged some difficult looks. All three of them knew what he did was a terrible idea that could have gone horribly wrong. That clearly didn’t happen though, considering how the girl was alive and healthy just a few hours ago.
“So?” asked Hilda. Even if she didn’t exactly approve, she still wanted to know.
“So, nothing. She didn’t even notice my presence until my dagger pressed against her skin, at which point she leapt in shock and cut herself on it. I managed to play it off as a training exercise, but…”
He shook his head in remorse before continuing.
“I feel really terrible for pulling that on her. I was probably just imagining things since I expect too much from her.”
Only truly exceptional individuals got chosen as Heroes - people who already had the potential to become legends. It wasn’t hard to imagine a teacher yearning to have such a promising individual under his or her wing.
“She’s honestly the most promising one of the bunch, even if her stamina is terrible,” he added.
“Wasn’t she the one that turned tail and ran like her life depended on her the instant the spar started?” asked Hilda. “Well, she still got caught in the end though, despite being a scaredy cat.”
“That’s exactly why she has potential. You know, I asked my students to think up of countermeasures against that golem ahead of time? Morgana’s the only one that had the right answer.”
‘It’s okay to run away,’ was the lesson Faehorn had been trying to teach today. Rangers often worked separated from others as it was their duty to scout out the enemy, look for traps or ambushes, and highlight targets of high importance. The ability to know when to withdraw was a vital skill in that sort of situation.
“Heh, she’s a scaredy cat! Hee hee hee!” laughed Hilda into her cup, clearly not paying attention to Faehorn’s words.
“Still better than that moron that just kept mindlessly swinging at the Juggernaut until her weapon broke,” mumbled the clearly irritated Ranger.
“Hey! Lola had the right idea, okay?” snapped back the dwarf. “Mithril is stubborn, so it doesn’t crumble unless you really put yer back into it! She would’ve done better if her weapon was dwarven-made or Empire forged! Not this shitty Republic pig iron! No wonder you elves got your asses handed to you in the last war!”
The dwarf’s sudden outburst reminded the rowdy group that a war was looming over them, and they grew quiet once more.
“Those kids will probably be sent off to fight, won’t they?” lamented Faehorn.
“Yeah,” agreed Lichter. “Best we can do is prepare them for the worst, and hope they survive. Think we ought to start teaching mixed unit tactics ahead of schedule?”
“Aye, that might be for the best... I’m thinking of pulling some favors from my days in Horkensaft, try and get me lot geared up in the good shit on the down-low. Enchanted Azurite, probably.”
“Don’t suppose you can spare a few of those armor sets for mine, Hilda?” asked the Paladin.
“I’ll try. Cannae promise anything though. Faehorn, any idea when it’ll start?”
“My contact in the government said they’ll likely hit us in a month or two.”
“What? Right before winter?”
Common sense dictated that forced marches during the cold season were tantamount to suicide, especially this far up north where the winters were harsher. Azurvale was still more or less comfortable due to the blessed Hylt trees, but long distance travel across the Republic was basically gridlocked.
“Something about occupying a bunch of land and using the season to consolidate their power while the armies are unable to move freely. My contact’s an Underwood that owes me one, so I’m sure she’d only tell me if she believed that.”
He took a sip of his drink and gave the dwarf a humorless smile.
“You know what else she told me?”
“What?” asked Hilda.
“That there was a ‘non-zero chance’ of the Sandman moving in to repel those humans.”
“Ye, right,” said the dwarf with a snort while nursing her drink. “There’s also a ‘non-zero chance’ that a bloody meteorite was the cause of that Hylt fire last night.”