A black-haired man was leaning his shoulder against a wall with his arms crossed. His body was as well built as one would expect from a veteran front-line fighter, which was plainly evident thanks to his decision to go shirtless for the moment. His toned torso was covered in various tattoos, giving him a slightly intimidating atmosphere. Which was almost immediately dispelled by the carefree smile on his surprisingly handsome face that made it hard to believe he was in his mid thirties.
Another human, this one brown-haired and wearing an off-white tunic, approached the buff mercenary.
“Yo, Ages,” he said, lifting his hand in greeting. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Oh hey, Scrap,” the black haired one replied. “Didn’t see you there.”
“You wouldn’t see a flippin’ meteor falling on your head with that spaced out look on your mug. What are you smirking at anyway?”
Ages cocked his head towards the large wooden warship his body was facing, some fifty meters away. Anchored to the side of the busy harbor, it was certainly an impressive looking vessel. It was nearly eighty meters long and its tallest mast reached up a good fifty meters above the water level. Its majesty was only slightly diminished by the other five nearly identical ships lined up on the other docks, though that one was without a doubt the fanciest. Its hull was polished and decorated with various carvings, its sails practically glowed white in the sunlight. Its figurehead was a brass statue depicting a winged female angel brandishing a mace and shield, befitting the name of the S.S.S. Teresa’s Judgement.
However, though the vessel was certainly a sight to behold, it wasn’t the ‘her’ that Ages was referring to. The man’s eyes were fixed on a person standing next to a small pile of crates and suitcases on the dock next to the ship, presumably one of its passengers. She was an elf wearing a white one-piece summer dress that was so thin one could clearly see the outline of her legs through the fabric of the knee-length skirt. The garment showed off a lot of her flawless pink skin, especially around the bountiful chest region. Her hair was a brilliant platinum blonde and her beautiful face was curved in a carefree smile that matched Ages’s own.
“Forget it, man,” Scrap said while putting a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t stand a chance with her.”
“Says you. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m quite good with the ladies. As you should know.”
He had a buff body, a handsome face, a wild air around him and a lighthearted yet confident attitude, all of which combined to make him practically irresistible to women. Or at least that’s what Ages liked to think, but he had good reason to do so. He saw ‘action’ quite often, though him being a shameless womanizer meant that one night stands were about as deep as his romantic relationships went. However, that was mostly by choice. The life of a traveling adventurer made it incredibly difficult to pursue any sort of meaningful relationships, especially since all of his traveling companions were guys. He therefore avoided starting anything serious and merely indulged himself in bedding random women for the fun of it.
“Look, you need to trust me on this,” his comrade continued. “You are not her type.”
“Sure I am. She just doesn’t know it yet.”
Scrap could do little but roll his eyes at that ridiculous remark.
“Fine, do what you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Ages ignored his grumbling and confidently strode over to the elf in white. The woman seemed to be looking around as if trying to get her bearings, which gave him an idea of how to hit off a conversation.
“Excuse me, madam, are you lost?”
She stopped glancing about and looked back at him, her emerald green eyes not even glancing at his topless torso.
“No. I’m quite fine, thank you,” she said in a courteous manner.
“Are you certain? I do not mean to intrude, but I couldn’t help but feel that a precious flower such as yourself is quite out of place around here.”
That was something of an understatement. The overwhelming majority of people that walked up and down the harbor were either deckhands or adventurers. There were a significant number of women among them, of course, but this elf’s casual attire and well-maintained appearance made her stand out like a diamond in the rough.
“I’m honestly quite alright. I appreciate the thought, but you needn’t bother with me.”
That was a surprisingly neutral answer on her part. She didn’t seem to be shooing the human away, but she wasn’t exactly swooning over him either. A reaction Ages took to understand that he just needed to push a bit harder.
“That is good to hear, madam, though I cannot simply leave you out here alone. There’s all kinds of shady individuals roaming about. Would you mind me keeping your company to ward them off?”
“I’m fine with it either way, but I’m afraid she would probably disapprove.”
The elf pointed upwards with one of her hands, directing the confused man’s gaze skyward just in time to see a pair of falling feet smack him in the face. The surprise dropkick had just enough force behind it to knock him on his back without doing any serious damage, but it still left him feeling a bit dazed. He was about to sit up and complain about the assault when a head of crimson hair topped by a pair of fuzzy triangular ears loomed over him, followed by a short mithril blade being pressed against his throat.
“And who are you supposed to be?!” the bronze-skinned beastkin growled at him.
“Don’t mind him, sweetie,” the elf called out. “He was just making sure I wasn’t lost.”
“Really now? You weren’t trying to do anything suspicious to my girlfriend, were you?”
“O-of course not!” Ages replied in a hurry when he felt the weapon dig into his skin. “I swear, I didn’t mean any harm! I also had no idea she was taken, so can you please put the knife away? I already shaved this morning.”
The catgirl continued looming over him for several more seconds, and though she eased off him and let him stand up eventually, the intensity in her yellow feline eyes refused to diminish.
“Please don’t mind her, mister,” the elf said in a casual manner. “She’s just being overprotective since this is our first trip across the ocean. I promise you, her intent was to just give you a fright, not hurt you.”
That was a point Ages wanted to disagree with wholeheartedly given how much cold sweat poured out of his palms and back. His many encounters with both women and monsters had afforded him a sort of intuitive sixth sense he liked to call his ‘psycho meter,’ and that red-headed beastkin was making it spike like crazy. What she just pulled was no act, it was genuine bloodlust.
“That’s quite alright, I understand completely,” he said in an attempt to defuse the tension. “She’s only looking out for a friend, and doing a very, uh, enthusiastic job of it. I’d do the same if I were in her shoes, hahaha…”
His assailant was having none of it though, and the way she refused to let down her weapon or her guard was a not-so-subtle hint that he should really not be here anymore.
“I’m… going to go away now… Sorry if I disturbed you.”
The man turned around on the spot and began to walk away. He could still feel that scary girl’s piercing glare hitting him in the back of the head, only to have the odd pressure disappear so rapidly he momentarily questioned whether he was imagining it.
“Rowie! Stop telling random people where we’re going!”
“It’s not like it’s a secret. Why else would we be here if we aren’t going to cross the ocean?”
“Ugh, I guess you have a point. Still, please be more wary of shameless guys like that, okay?”
His ears burned a bit as he overheard their minor argument, and were practically beet red by the time he returned to where Scrap was waiting for him.
“Told you you weren’t her type,” he said with a smug look on his face.
“Yeah, yeah… Wait, how did you even know she didn’t swing my way?”
“That’s easy. The elf had her ear pierced, right?”
The womanizer seemed to recall a beautiful teardrop-shaped sapphire earring dangling from her left ear, but he didn’t think anything of it. It made a lot of sense, actually. A high-class lady like that deserved high-class jewelry.
“So, in elven culture that’s the equivalent of a wedding ring,” Scrap explained. “And guess who has the matching one.”
Ages’s eyes went wide for a moment, after which he looked over his shoulder towards the couple he intruded on. He didn’t spot it during the scuffle, but an identical blue gemstone was attached to the catgirl’s fur-covered right ear.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
Now that he had a look at her from afar and without a knife to his throat, he couldn’t help but also notice just how beautiful she really was. The elf was already a ten out of ten in his book, but that fierce redhead was in a class of her own. She was slightly taller than the other one with a figure that was equally as attractive. The happy smile she had on her lips made her beauty radiate, while the wild untamed hair that hung past her shoulders and glistening bronze skin gave her an exotic appeal the reserved elf could not hope to match.
The word just rolled out of his mouth all on its own. Ages didn’t mean to leer at the couple, he was just appreciative of the sight of two beauties flirting with one another. He honestly wasn’t even mad he got booted in the face and held at knifepoint anymore. Well, he didn’t care too much to begin with since such incidents were bound to happen when this many adventurers gathered in one spot. A clash of personalities could turn into an ugly scuffle in the blink of an eye, especially among veterans. Incidentally, that catgirl most definitely was one of those. Though he didn’t see it, he was fairly certain the only way she could’ve gotten the drop on him like that was by leaping off of the ship’s deck. It was a ridiculous distance to cover in a single bound, though not impossible if one was a high Level Rogue or Ranger.
“Good for them,” Ages said in conclusion. “I hope their marriage is a long and joyous one.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” his companion chimed in.
“That’s kinda harsh, Scrap.”
“Maybe, but it’s realistic.”
“Come off it. Look at them, they’re so lovey dovey I feel like I might get a toothache.”
“Oh, I’m not saying they’ll break up, I’m just saying it won’t be a peaceful relationship. Because unless I miss my guess, the girl that kicked you is Keira Morgana.”
“Wait, that Keira Morgana?!” the other man blurted out. “The one they call the Crimson Lotus?!”
When he first heard that nickname Ages thought it to be strangely cute, and the girl herself was certainly beautiful enough to deserve a pretty-sounding moniker like that. However, having felt her intense hostility firsthand, he couldn’t help but feel there was a far more sinister meaning hidden behind that alias.
“Holy crap,” he muttered under his breath. “I got beaten up by a genuine Hero!”
“That’s… not something you would normally brag about.”
“Okay, maybe not, but it should certainly make for an interesting story. It’s not like Heroes are just coming out of the woodwork you know.”
“They kind of are, actually. I’ve been snooping around, and I’ve been hearing some things.”
Scrap was a Rogue, one of three scouts that were part of the twelve-man mercenary group that called itself the Alpha Operatives, which Alex Sales, or ‘Ages,’ also belonged to. It was his job to seek out potentially valuable information prior to departing on a Quest. And since there were nearly a thousand people undertaking the same mission gathered at this port, he was able to gather a rather obscene amount of intelligence. One such helpful tidbit was ‘don’t bother the white-haired elf if you value your balls.’ He could’ve stopped his companion from taking that risk, but he felt like it would be best if his mate got knocked down a peg or two.
“Things? What things?” Ages asked.
“Well, you know how this continent-wide distress call from the south’s Eight Tribes was basically ‘all hands on deck,’ right?”
“Yeah? Oh, duh! Of course there’d be a Hero or two around if they’re asking everyone.”
There were all kinds of big-shots answering the raptors’ plea for aid, so it was somewhat inevitable the chosen of the Gods would find their way into the mix.
“Not quite,” Scrap said while shaking his head. “The way I hear it, it’s not one or two, but six of them.”
“You what, mate?!”
“I’m serious. Aside from Morgana, we also have the Hero of Magic coming with us on this trip. The Hero of Rain and Hero of the Sword are already there since they’re both raptors and their people are in danger. Then there’s the Imperial Inquisition, who are sending an entire fleet headed by Teresa’s chosen himself.”
“Really? Those guys are getting involved in external affairs now?”
“You know how that bunch are like ever since Sigmund Law took over. The may be sanctimonious self-righteous pricks, but they’d never turn down a genuine plea for help. And way I hear it, those folks down south could use all the military aid they can get.”
The dominant species of the jungle-covered continent of Velos were not the raptors or the humans, but orcs. That savage and ferocious bunch were the main reason why the southern landmass had remained largely wild and untamed for millenia. Thankfully those green-skinned brutes were too busy fighting amongst themselves and against other monsters to threaten the people that lived there. They still raided the occasional village or attacked a passing caravan, but it was nothing that the region’s adventures could not handle.
However, once or twice a decade, that would all change with the appearance of an orc warlord, an individual that was significantly tougher, larger, meaner and smarter than the average orc. These traits allowed a warlord to bring dozens of roaming warbands under his control, forming a single, massive horde. And with them no longer killing one another, their population underwent something of a drastic explosion that always resulted in them invading the civilized portion of the continent.
Normally the Eight Tribes would be able to handle an orcish ‘Scourge’ on their own, but this time around the warboss was an exceptionally powerful one. It was said the orcs under his command easily surpassed a hundred thousand, a number that had not been seen in over two hundred years. Even if the Eight Tribes somehow fought them off and dispersed them, the casualties and destruction left in their wake would cripple their civilization. It was therefore rather fortunate for them that the residents of Atica so readily responded to their plea for aid by sending supplies, healers, soldiers, architects, blacksmiths, and, perhaps most important of all, Heroes.
“Wait, you said six Heroes, right? So far you only listed five,” Ages pointed out.
“Oh, right. I saved the best for last,” Scrap replied. “Apparently Solus got himself a new Hero.”
“What? You’re sure of that?” his shirtless companion asked with a troubled expression.
“Yeah. Passed through this very port on his way to Velos not four days ago.”
“Ah. I see.”
“What’s up, Ages? I know you’re a Paladin mostly in title only, but I thought you’d be more excited considering this is the Hero of your patron deity we’re talking about.”
“Oh no, that’s great and all, but doesn’t this mean that every deity has an active Hero right now?”
“Hmmm… Well, Mortimer’s always got an assassin on his payroll, and Goroth’s Hero of the Anvil is known to be a performer. Not sure about Nyrie’s Hero of the Staff since nobody’s heard from her in decades, but it’s probably safe to assume she’s still around. So yeah, I’d say they’re all accounted for. Though I don’t see what that’s got to do with- Hang on, are you worried a Shift might be coming?”
“I’d say it’s already here, mate. Just look at how much shit has happened in the past few years. Cities blowing up, ancient dwarves found living deep underground, entire villages disappearing, demonic Overlords running amok, glass dragons flying around the desert, and now we have the biggest Scourge in centuries to deal with. To be honest I had no idea there was even a God of Probability until his Hero took down Teresa’s. Let’s not even mention the way the Goddess went MIA for a few weeks before suddenly starting that Inquisition business.”
“You… may have a point,” Scrap grumbled, his expression darkening. “Never thought I’d live to see one with my own eyes, but it’s hard to argue when you put it like that.”
The phenomenon referred to as a Shift was something that occurred twice or thrice a millenia. It was a time of great unease and drastic change - sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always turbulent. And it always seemed to happen at times when all of Terrania’s deities had active Heroes. It was unknown for sure whether the events of a Shift were caused by the Heroes or whether the Gods appointed their chosen ones in response to it, but the link between them was undeniable.
As was the fact that the world was never the same after a Shift if history was any indication. For instance, it was during a Shift that the old Elven Dominion fell, throwing the western continent into chaos. It was also during a Shift that the nosferatu-run Addams Theocracy disappeared and became the Oculus Sea. Shifts were also suspected to be responsible for the creation of especially stubborn breeds of monsters, orcs being one of them. Some even claimed that three of the world’s four elder dragons were heralded by a Shift, though the timeline was a bit fuzzy on that one.
“Think we should quit this job, then?” the brown-haired Rogue suggested.
“And do what?”
“I don’t know, prepare for it somehow?”
“Hard to prepare for something when you don’t know what it is or when it’s coming,” Ages stated in a serious manner. “Besides, Heroes are supposed to be at the eye of the storm during a Shift, right? Now I’m no weather expert, but I hear that’s the safest place to be, and there’s a half dozen of them that are going to be on Velos to deal with this Scourge thing. Therefore, we would do well to get friendly with them while we have the chance.”
Scrap’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I hope you’re not saying this because you want to ogle Morgana some more.”
“Come on, you know I don’t bother with married women. I wouldn’t dare do that to a happy couple. Nor is it worth the drama.”
This was more than a bit unconvincing coming from someone who joined the Order of the Golden Sky and became a Paladin just so he could get it on with the Sun God’s buxom nuns and priestesses. Well, that and take part in their outrageous parties and celebrations. Then again, he was being upfront about his intentions when he signed up in the first place. It was a bit weird that Solus’s faithful apparently had no quarrel with his morally objectionable motives and let him in regardless, though that didn’t diminish his honesty in the matter. Bottom line was that while Ages may have been a fun-seeking carefree pinhead, he also did his best not to be a scumbag.
“Yeah, fine, I guess you might have a point,” his companion conceded after mulling it over a few moments. “However, it’s also possible we’re overthinking this Shift stuff. People have a tendency to see the things they wanna see.”
“I suppose that’s true. We should talk it over with the others first, decide what we’re going to do from there.”
“Was just thinking the same thing. Come on, let’s go meet up with them.”
The two men made their way towards where the rest of their squad were staying, but didn’t make it all the way to their destination before they were interrupted by a bizarre scene.
“I swear, if I have to go through one more customs check as an ‘item’ I will freaking lose it.”
That annoyed voice belonged to a radiant white metal golem in the size and shape of a gnomish woman, who was pushing along a small cart with various metal and wooden boxes on it.
“It can’t be helped. You know these Alliance states all have their own borders and laws. And the rest of us are technically just remotely controlling a bunch of armored shells, so classifying us as items isn’t wrong.”
A second, nearly identical mithril construct was following behind, pushing her own load of miscellaneous objects. Her face and body were nearly identical to the first, though with a few notable differences. Such as the pigtail-like things poking out of the sides of her head, which were shorter and perkier than the one in front. Not to mention she also had a plus sign carved into her shiny forehead.
“Screw that noise, I’m with the boss on this one! Being lumped in with a bunch of ugly rust buckets is an insult! Those pathetic meatbags should be worshipping us given how much time and effort Fizzy and Null put into making these bodies!”
The third and most pissed off in the golem procession had her ‘side-tails’ pointing upwards like a pair of demonic horns, and had a minus sign on her face.
The fourth of the quadruplets just nudged her luggage along without making a peep, her face frozen in a dull and lifeless expression. This one had a big fat zero stamped on her forehead and her ornamental ‘hair’ was formed into a no-nonsense ponytail.
“Look on the bright side,” said Plus. “At least they didn’t ask why we’re bringing all these weapons with us.”
“That’s mostly because the morons don’t recognize them as weapons,” Fizzy pointed out.
“Yeah, speaking of which, are you sure you two worked all the kinks out of that prototype arc-caster thing?” Minus asked with a dubious expression.
“Prototype - a first or preliminary version of a device or vehicle from which other forms are developed,” the last in line explained in a mechanical monotone.
“What Null’s saying is that it wouldn’t be a prototype if it didn’t have a few minor glitches.”
“I wouldn’t call accidentally blowing off Plus’s arm a ‘minor glitch,’ Fizzy. Unenchanted or not, it was still freakin’ mithril.”
“Okay, relatively minor glitches. Besides, we fixed it back up didn’t we?”
“Yeah, and I’m kinda glad we did,” the entity in question claimed. “I wouldn’t have gotten these cute flower engravings on it otherwise.”
“You’re the alter ego of a kickass golem, why the rust would you even want those?”
“Well, it’s not like these models were meant for combat, so what’s wrong with making them look good?”
“No, I get that, but flowers? Really?”
The entire harbor seemed to grind to a hold and stare as the mithril dynamo golem and her entourage of animated armors casually walked by while discussing seemingly inconsequential topics. Ages and Scrap were no different, though their gawking had a slightly different, more uneasy feeling to it.
“… Uh, Scrap? What did we just witness?”
“I do believe that was the Rustblood Juggernaut. You know, the one from way up north?”
That individual was the only mithril golem in existence widely known to be controlled by an enlightened mind, so her identity was hardly in doubt. Her participation on this expedition was hardly surprising considering all the big names that were said to show up. In fact it was practically an inevitability considering it was no secret that she was a close companion to the Hero of Chaos. However, her appearance just now did raise a certain question.
“No, I get that, but how come there’s four of her?” Ages asked.
“I… don’t… know…”
The pair just continued silently staring at the mithril convoy as it boarded the S.S.S. Teresa’s Judgement. It was at the point where the one in the lead suddenly transformed to a much bulkier and more armored version of herself to handle some exceptionally heavy luggage that they decided not to think too much about it.
One would do best to avoid questioning every single weird thing they saw during a Shift, after all.