Looking over the pond, Balthazar observed Henrietta sitting on a rock by the small waterfall that rolled down from the mountainside. The toad had her eyes closed and a content expression on her wide face. She had been like that all morning, and the crab had a feeling she was not about to get tired of it any time soon.
As much as he felt protective of his little pond, even the grumpy crab had a hard time not empathizing with her. After having spent so long being held prisoner in a cage, down in a basement, suffering at the hands of a petty, vindictive man, he could only imagine how good it must have felt for her to just sit idly by the water, feeling the sun and enjoying the breeze.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized how precious his little territory was, and how much he needed to value what he had.
“Speaking of value…” Balthazar said, finally snapping out of his trance and focusing back on the gold coins he was counting on the counter.
Just as he was about done with his count, the sound of heavy steps coming from the road pulled his gaze up to the bazaar’s entrance, where soon an imposing figure appeared.
It was a woman, muscular and taller than most. She wore a sleeveless leather top that exposed her toned arms, which matched her chosen weapon that hung from her back: a long and thick wooden handle ending in a steel axe head. Swinging such a weapon could not be an easy task for most.
As the woman stepped inside, she looked around, light blue eyes peering from behind her helmet. Whatever that piece of headgear was, it resembled an upside down metal bucket with two holes for the eyes and a portion of the edge cut off for the mouth.
Balthazar eyed her through his monocle, wondering what kind of adventurer had stumbled upon his place that day.
[Level 26 Barbarian]
As the crab hopped off his stool and moved to meet the new arrival, he noticed there was a second, much smaller figure following behind the barbarian.
A young man, scrawny figure and messy sun bleached hair, framed by a large backpack strapped to his back that seemed to threaten to topple him at any moment.
[Level 4 Farmer]
“Hello there,” Balthazar greeted, staying a few extra paces out of reach from the intimidating adventurer. “What can I do for you?”
“Soles,” the barbarian woman grunted bluntly.
“Excuse me?” the crab asked, confused by the request. “Souls? I don’t really have any of those to sell.”
“No,” she grunted again, slightly louder, before lifting her foot off the floor and pointing at the bottom of her thick leather boot, which was riddled with holes and small tears. “Soles!”
“Oh! Soles, like shoe soles,” Balthazar said. “I get it now. Still, I don’t sell those either. I can sell full boots and shoes, though. You can look around at my selection of footwear over on that shelf. I’m sure you’ll find something that will suit you.”
The merchant directed her attention to a nearby shelf full of shoes with his pincers, and the barbarian followed them with her eyes before walking over to inspect the wares without giving another word.
“Strong silent type, that one,” Balthazar casually remarked, before turning his attention to the bag boy. “What about you? Need anything from Balthazar’s bazaar, young adventurer?”
“Who, me?” the boy responded, pointing a finger at himself, as if surprised to be noticed at all. “Oh, no, no. I’m no adventurer. I’m just tagging along.”
“So you’re not an adventurer? But you’re traveling with one?” the now intrigued crab asked.
“Not really traveling. Well, sort of, I guess.” He readjusted the strained straps of the backpack on his shoulders, eyes scanning the floor, looking as if he was feeling awkward about his own explanation. “I’m just a humble farmer from outside Ardville, see? My friend over there, she passed by my family’s farm three weeks ago, and I asked her if she would help me look around the nearby fields for our mule that had escaped through a hole in the fence.”
“Wait,” said the merchant. “Did you just say three weeks ago? You’ve been looking for a runaway mule for that long?”
“Uhh, no, not exactly,” the farmer boy said. “We concluded the stubborn thing was probably gone for good after just a few days and that it was time to escort me back to my farm.”
“But… you just said you’re from the farms outside Ardville. Aren’t those right outside the gates of town to the west? That’s barely a couple of hours' walk, as far as I know. How the hell are you still here, going south of town three weeks later?”
“Ah, you know how it is,” the boy said, scratching the back of his head. “She has a lot of open quests, and so one thing keeps getting in the way of another. Get a little sidetracked here, a little sidetracked there, and next thing you know, weeks have gone by, you’ve visited half a dozen dungeons, went halfway across the continent and back, but never get around to pass by the farm again.”
“What?!” the baffled crab exclaimed. “That’s ridiculous! Why don’t you just go back home on your own?”
“Alone? No way! The whole reason I asked an adventurer to help me look for the mule was because I didn’t want to go out there into the wilds on my own. There’s no chance I’ll try going back home on my own. I wouldn’t even know how to handle a rat by myself. No sir! I’m sticking with Thunk. She can handle everything we’ve come across so far.”
“With… Thunk?” Balthazar repeated, unsure if he even should be asking.
“Oh, yes, that’s her name,” said the farmer boy. “Or at least, what I call her. I’m not entirely sure what her name is, but she really seems to like that word, ‘thunk,’ so I took to using it as her name. She’s not the talking type.”
“I’ve noticed,” the crab muttered, looking back at the barbarian, who was still browsing the shelves, having picked up a boot and brought it up to her ear, as if expecting to hear something from within. “Not the type to invest much in Intelligence either, I suspect.”
“What you said?” asked the farmer.
“Nothing, never mind.”
“Alright, well, that’s her, brave and strong barbarian. I’m Joshua, by the way.”
“Yes, yes, nice to meet you,” the merchant said dismissively. “Balthazar. The name’s outside. I’m sure you didn’t miss it. Not sure about her, though. I have my doubts she can read, honestly.”
“Oh, come on, she’s not so bad,” Joshua said.
Balthazar turned his gaze back to the young man, looking him up and down with an expression of disbelief.
“Boy, you just wanted to go look for a mule, and now you’ve been roped into being a bag boy to an adventurer for almost a month! How are you not mad about it?”
“Don’t be so harsh,” the overburdened companion said, his knees occasionally buckling from strain. “I kind of enjoy it, to be honest. It gave me an excuse to get out here, leave the confines of the farm I’ve lived my whole life. I actually get to see the world, go on adventures! It feels almost like I’m an adventurer myself! I know it started as a small quest for her, but now it feels like my own epic quest! Besides, look at her, she’s great! What’s there not to be impressed by?”
Balthazar turned to look at Thunk again, who was impolitely scratching her backside while looking at a horned helmet on a nearby shelf before scoffing away from it.
“Yes, of course. Very… charming,” the crab said with little conviction.
The barbarian rejoined them, bringing a pair of heavy leather boots in her hand.
“Boot,” Thunk grunted, briefly showing her choice of shoes before turning to leave.
The merchant opened his mouth to protest and remind her his items weren’t free, but Joshua spoke first.
“No, no, Thunk,” the farmer said in a soft tone of someone explaining something to a small child. “We can’t just take things from merchants, remember? The crab isn’t a dungeon monster. We have to pay, like I showed you before, you know?”
The barbarian gazed at the boy for a moment with her mouth slightly ajar and scratched the top of her bucket-like helmet. Balthazar could have sworn that one more second and drool would have started dripping from her mouth.
“Pay. Give something, like gold coins, in exchange for what we want,” Joshua insisted.
Thunk let out a long grunt that could only be assumed to mean some semblance of understanding had finally reached her.
The young man put his backpack down on the floor and started looking through its pockets and pouches.
“Unfortunately,” he started, wincing slightly as he searched, “I’m afraid we’re all out of coin after she used it all to pay for ale at the tavern last night.”
“That’s a shame, but no pay, no product,” the crab said, reaching for the boots the barbarian was still holding.
Thunk pulled her arm away, refusing to return her chosen items.
“No,” she grunted. “No coin. No problem. Trade stuff.”
“That’s right!” Joshua said, looking proud of his adventurer. “We may not have money, but surely we could trade you some loot for the boots, right?”
“If you have something good, sure,” Balthazar agreed, giving the side eye to the barbarian, who was looking smug and proud of herself for her grand solution.
Putting the boots down next to it, Thunk began rummaging through the backpack. Joshua stood back, looking at her with curiosity.
Finally, she pulled her hand out, holding within her thick leather gauntlet a box, shiny, ornate, and entirely golden.
Balthazar’s eye stalks popped up at the sight of the box, his monocle falling off and hanging by its chain as the merchant’s mouth opened in surprise.
“What is that?” the farmer boy asked. “I don’t remember you getting that. Did you find it in yesterday’s dungeon?”
The barbarian extended her arm towards Balthazar, offering the ornate artifact to him with a grunt.
“I don’t know, Thunk,” Joshua said. “Maybe you shouldn’t trade away that for a pair of boots. It looks pretty valu—”
“I’ll take it!” the crab blurted out. “That box for the pair of boots. They’re all yours! Done deal!”
The adventurer smiled from ear to ear, pleased with her bargaining skills, as she picked up the pair of boots again with her free hand.
Balthazar struggled with his monocle, trying to place it back on his eye with his shaky pincers, the excitement of taking a better look at his shiny new golden treasure taking over him.
As soon as the lens sat in front of his eye again, he saw a new notification.
[High-value item traded. Experience gained.]
[[Heavy Leather Boots] traded for [Cursed Music Box]]
[You have reached level 15!]
Balthazar scanned through the text quickly, before his eyes stopped and read through the name of the object he had just purchased again.
“What is that thing, anyway? Some kind of music box?” Joshua asked Thunk.
The barbarian shrugged and placed the boots back down before opening the small box’s lid.
“No! Don’t open that—”
The opening of the box cut Balthazar’s warning short. As soon as the adventurer flipped the lid open, an ear-piercing shriek filled the air around them, like a banshee’s shrill.
The three of them were forced to cover their ears with their hands. Except for the crab, who did not have hands, so had to use his pincers. To cover the sides of his shell, because he also did not have actual ears.
Through tearful eyes, Balthazar could see the barbarian and farmer screaming, their mouths open in an expression of pain, but none of their screams could even be heard over the sound the box was producing.
Just as the crab thought his shell was about to crack from the deafening cries pouring out of the cursed object, the sound suddenly stopped.
The trio looked at each other, hands slowly coming down from their heads.
Balthazar looked at the box lying open on the floor through his monocle.
[Cursed Music Box]
[Plays a cursed sound when opened that calls out unpleasantness from nearby]
“What in the world was that?” Joshua loudly asked.
“Shh! Wait. Do you hear that?” the crab said, freezing in place as he tried to listen for something over the ringing left by the box that was slowly dissipating from his hearing.
The farmer and the barbarian looked around and listened as well, their frowns deepening as they caught something too.
“I think it’s coming from that way,” the boy said, pointing to the back of the bazaar.
Balthazar skittered his way across the shop and towards the back exit, the other two following him.
As they stepped out of the platform and onto the grounds around the pond, it became clear the sound was coming from the water.
A buzzing, first quiet and barely noticeable, was rapidly becoming louder and filling the air around them with its noise.
Noticing tiny ripples appearing all over the surface of the pond, Balthazar squinted at it, trying to figure out what was causing them.
Tiny black dots were flying above the water, their numbers quickly increasing as if they were materializing from nowhere.
Balthazar took a step back as he saw the giant cloud of thousands of buzzing mosquitoes that began forming over the surface of his pond and that was quickly rolling in their direction.