Fox Votes: 25 67.6%
Lizard Votes: 6 16.2%
Shark...."A" Votes: 6 16.2%
Wolf Votes: 16 43.2%
More catgirls, dammit! Votes: 7 18.9%
Other (post in comments. Please be reasonable. i.e. no centipedes. Lol) Votes: 1 2.7%
The week following their arrival at Forgedalk proved fruitful and far more structured in comparison to the unpredictable events after leaving the Submerged Oasis. The members of GRIM spent most of their time around the capital city and accepted quests within a day's journey by wagon.
Alphonse had fulfilled the quest for the guild outpost leader in Halieuna, Daichi Coremaul, and presented the letter to the guards at the western gate of the capital city.
Their reaction wasn't wholly unexpected. The guards had stared at him in plain confusion when he mentioned Coremaul and how the signature should have been enough to signify its intent. One of them had wandered off to find someone else a step up on the chain of command and returned with a captain who mirrored their confounded looks when Alphonse felt the need to explain further. They promised to pass the letter along to the next group on duty and, if all else failed, they would make a modest effort in locating a presiding lieutenant at the barracks closer to the city center.
Alphonse had figured that the letter might be a ruse from the start. It was just an excuse to give him something concrete that diverted attention from the missive meant specifically for him that concerned his secrets.
Upon finishing the quest, Alphonse gleaned some information about the plant-life in Hovestile, since he didn't know what the final statement of the letter meant about meeting 'when the healrings are in full bloom.' None of the books at the Submerged Oasis mentioned such a thing, and Asa confirmed her own lack of knowledge when he inquired about it. The choice of 'bloom' indicated that it was probably some sort of flower, and he confirmed this with a local botanist who said that the flowers were used for rare restoration potions (not all that surprising) when they reached maturity towards the middle of their summer season, which was at least six months in the future. It also grew further southeast near the coast, which explained why the catgirls had never actually seen one.
Six months seemed a long time. Alphonse couldn't be sure why the unknown contacts would wait so long, but he decided to table the cryptic letter and focus more on the growth of his guild.
He didn't much care about recruiting new members any time soon. Building a reputation as a trustworthy party was enough for him at the moment. Scouts were still the rare commodity since all outworlders had solidified the focuses of their classes by now. Even native adventurers didn't seem enticed by the occupation. As a result, Alphonse had plenty of choices for jobs at the quest board.
GRIM's first two quests had been fairly straightforward: kill some monsters at a designated location and bring back any severed parts as proof of completion. Although the second one was rather specific in just how many body parts were required. Alphonse couldn't fathom why the quest-giver needed so many goblin ears...
They completed a third quest that involved mapping routes for another party to attack monster encampments near a village called Lamfell. Rather than deal with them on their own turf, Alphonse took the tail end of the plan a step further by utilizing Kirie's chaotic nature and having her funnel the monsters through a deep gorge. Asa then erected two protection spells with help from the accompanying spellcaster to trap the monsters and turned what might have been a brutal battle into something far more trivial. It was quite literally like shooting fish in a barrel. The party that hired them took Alphonse's advice and brought along an extra ranged attacker to deal with the monsters. The melee fighters cleaned up the survivors when the protection spells shattered and the quest ended with only a few minor injuries. None of the outworlders saw any of their health statuses go below yellow either.
The hiring party had been impressed with Alphonse's thorough descriptions and strategies with the terrain and gave him some positive feedback at the Guild Union.
Alphonse thought they were off to a pretty decent start.
A few more days later, this sentiment was reinforced when the receptionist at the Guild Union, Kaede, presented them with a request that specifically asked for GRIM.
Alphonse drew back on the bowstring and scaled the distance. Approximately forty yards to the nearest group of targets – about twenty extra to the other group within sight down the narrow path. He might have considered the distance a tad beyond his skill for an assured kill, but the stats in dexterity might make up for it.
The ruins of the fortress were a labyrinth of collapsed walls and towers. Four entrances at each cardinal direction, once portcullises, were still visible from back during its glory days. Some of the blackened skeletons of scorched structures remained within waist-high walls.
Near the southeast corner closer to the forest was a decrepit barn that still managed to stand defiant against the test of time and weather. The doors on one side had long-fallen off, but the internals still remained structurally sound. A wheeled door on the side closest to him was permanently lodged halfway open.
More troll camps were littered throughout the dead fortress, but this angle provided no view of their exact positions. He could anticipate their movements once the battle started, since he'd already scouted the area ahead of time. The section of the fortress closest to him at the southern end presented a clear shot with two pathways hugging a central dividing wall about ten feet high. Trolls were tall, but not enough to see what was happening to either side when they were separated.
Trolls were troublesome monsters, but they lacked even more intelligence than goblins. At least goblins had some amount of coordination and knew how to set basic traps. The folded ears on the trolls' heads seemed to bend over and deafen them, as if evolution decided to play a cruel joke. The dimwitted monsters snorted through their wide, bulbous noses and stumbled with drooling, tusked mouths at anything that smelled halfway decent -- namely cooked meat, raw meat and walking meat. It left them wide open to attacks, but one bite could sever the limb of a lesser adventurer. They were big, hulking bastards standing almost eight feet on average.
Alphonse narrowed his eyes. A burst of static flashed across his vision as he momentarily attempted to activate an enhancement. The angry red gnawed at the edges of his sight. He slapped the side of his head to bring himself back in focus. The absence of a mana pool was still a difficult adjustment. He was pretty conscientious about it at this point and rarely considered it, but he still made some offhand attempts when a quest promised to be particularly difficult. It could be a costly mistake in the middle of a battle. Better that he mess up now.
He looked below his perch on the branch and observed Kirie crouched behind a length of thick foliage. The axe rested at her feet with her fingertips brushing its handle. She maintained focus on the troll camps when she wasn't sparing a glance at Alphonse every so often, waiting for his signal. That hungry look was in her eyes again.
Alphonse gave his party another few minutes to get in position. The other ranged attacker to his right was tasked with drawing out another encampment. The perpendicular pathways within the ruins only provided one way out for each. If the other archer followed the plan, then Asa's task would be made all the more simple as the enemy funneled down the cramped areas.
The spotted, bald head of a troll appeared above one of the walls and started making its way to where the narrow paths intersected. It dragged a body in its big, clawed hand. Definitely a corpse, judging from the grievous wounds – a person from the town that issued the quest to kill the trolls. The dead human's feet were missing and left behind streaks of red on the hard earth. In the monster's other hand was a club crafted from bones, tied together with something that seemed more elastic than typical rope.
Alphonse didn't expect any survivors. He'd received the summons for aid on this quest a day after the people were attacked on the outskirts of the nearby village. It also took another half-day to reach the ruins when the trolls were located, and then another to make preparations. It was entirely possible there were more victims during that time. Despite their massive strength and durability, trolls didn't attack villages or any other settlements with populations beyond their own numbers. But there were probably a few fools who might wander from the village's safety and travel the roads despite the warnings.
Trolls captured humans for sustenance. They didn't torture like some other monster types. They fixated on singular instinct with simple-mindedness. These chaotic beings followed the brutally honest cycle of nature.
Alphonse winced as the troll picked up a hatchet and went to work cutting off the limbs.
He had to admit that he was more than a little unnerved at the sight. A shiver coursed through him as the hatchet connected with sickening thuds that eventually muted as it sunk into the ground, completing its work on one body part and moving to another.
As long as they don't grab me, I'm good, Alphonse reassured himself. He knew that their exaggerated attacks wouldn't connect with his reflexes, but if he didn't pay enough attention to his surroundings and one flanked him...
Alphonse took a couple deep breaths through his nose and released with slow control out his mouth. I'm good...I'm good...
He decided to wait a little longer until the troll sat down to eat. It would be one extra enemy kept unawares when the fighting broke out. Every enemy without a weapon in its hand was a few precious seconds added to deal with its fellows.
He glanced to the right. His companions were out of sight. He wouldn't see their acknowledgment when he gave the signal, but the motion put him at ease.
His eyes met Kirie's. She stared up at him and grasped her axe in both hands. They let out a breath in unison.
Alphonse cleared his mind and aimed at one of the group facing towards him. Three monsters resided in each camp. Six more camps amounted to a little over twenty. A whole lot of trolls - far more than what was mentioned in the quest description. It would've been terrible odds fighting out in an open field. But he was a scout. His plans relied on surprise in many forms. And if things went sour, they could always retreat to the designated meeting place and regroup. Trolls were especially slow monsters.
Alphonse parted his mouth slightly and let out a final, slow stream of air. He observed a troll that jabbered in its gurgling language to the one eating. The monster eased back and scratched its rear end with a stupid grin on its face.
He let the arrow fly. It struck true – right between the troll's eyes. One might think their simple-mindedness meant they had thick skulls, but the bone was surprisingly thin for those large limbs and rounded heads.
Alphonse readied another arrow. The only enemy that might have seen the source of the attack was lying dead at the feet of its confused allies. They rose from the ground and looked around without even bothering to take cover. The second arrow was slightly off and dug into a shoulder. A third stuck the back of another as it turned at the last second.
Kirie was already rushing forward. She hoisted her axe above her head and shouted some obscenities when she slid to a halt at the entrance to the broken fortress. Alphonse didn't know if the trolls understood what 'ugly bastard' or 'stupid fuckhead' meant, but they seemed even more enraged. The monsters roared and started making their way out of the walled sections to the intersecting paths. The ones already there lumbered towards them.
Huh, so they can coordinate a little bit, Alphonse thought.
Alphonse fired another arrow that claimed the lead troll's left eye.
Good thing they don't understand what it means to 'take cover.' He jumped down from his position and took up an angle a few feet behind Kirie.
A wicked grin splayed on her face as the trolls drew closer. Her knuckles whitened on the handle of her axe and she took a step back to establish an offensive stance.
“Come on, assholes,” she muttered.
An arrow flew from the trees to the right and lodged into the neck of a troll near the intersection. It didn't go unnoticed by its comrades. They turned and scanned the forest, searching for the sniper lurking in the trees. Another arrow stuck into a troll's thigh. The lot of them broke off from the main group and charged towards the eastern side.
About half went east while the others continued south.
All it took to draw a troll's attention was an attack. Each recent action canceled the former in their tiny brains. Draw the attention of some, don't alert the whole force and they'd wander off like moths to a flame.
Alphonse held up his hand with three fingers extended. The trolls closed a bit of distance. They were still in the ruins with high walls to either side of them. There was only one direction to go. They headed straight for the crazy catgirl with the axe.
He lowered one finger, then the second. He dropped his arm.
A pillar of light rose from the ground just as two trolls crossed the threshold. The rest slammed into the bright cylinder and collided with those barreling from behind. Alphonse saw them fall over each other in a tangle of bulky limbs, grasping at their bloody faces through the translucent beam. Another blast of light appeared at the eastern entrance with the same outcome.
Asa's timing was perfect with the delayed protection spells. They'd planted them a few hours earlier when the trolls left for their hunt since it was difficult to aim from such a distance. The spellcaster only needed to activate the prepared spells by feeding sufficient mana in the general area. The major drawback was the extra mana cost since it was harnessed in an approximate space rather than precise.
The trade-off was worth it.
Alphonse fired another arrow, but this one was deflected by the first of the trolls to make it through the barrier. It swung the massive bone club and sent up a splash of dirt where Alphonse stood a second before. He rushed the troll and dodged a clumsy grasp from its other hand. A quick slice along the stomach and then another at its achilles heel was the most damage he could muster before he rolled out of the way, dodging the anticipated horizontal strike from the club.
The other troll focused on Kirie. A deep cut already trailed along one of its arms and a gaping wound smiled on the thigh. Kirie deflected the troll's spear and closed the distance. She dug her axe into the monster's chest and immediately wrenched it down in a spray of blood. The axe extended parallel to the ground when she extended her arm, and she settled the curve of one of her blades to hook behind its ankle. The foot pulled out from underneath the ogre and it seemed to float through the air for a brief second as it stared at the sky in bewilderment. She came up along the side as it fell and brought the axe down on the exposed neck.
Kirie didn't linger to admire her work. She turned and engaged the troll focused on Alphonse. The monster prepared to charge the adventurer until Kirie's axe cleaved its back. The monster fell to one knee and reached over its shoulder as if the axe was a terribly painful itch it couldn't quite reach. Alphonse took advantage of the opportunity and stabbed the troll through the throat with his short sword.
He backpedaled away as the monster flailed and fell forward on its face.
“That's some fine work,” he said. Adrenaline pumped through him, and he momentarily forgot the monster's attempt to grab him.
“Not a problem,” Kirie replied. She wrest the axe out of the dead troll's back. “Ready for round two?”
They turned their attention to the pillar of protection that blocked the path. Black cracks crawled along its face as the trolls swung their weapons against it. Some of the monsters attempted an unsuccessful detour to climb over the side walls.
Alphonse distanced himself and readied another arrow. “Of course.”
He glanced to his right and saw that a similar battle was reaching its conclusion at the collapsed eastern portcullis. A bulky adventurer in heavy armor stood over a felled troll and brought his warhammer down on its face. The monster's head exploded in a spray of gore. A woman wearing light armor and leather archery bracers stood off to the side and fired an arrow into the other troll's ear. The monster reeled and swung its axe in a frenzy. On pure instinct it grasped the shaft and pulled the arrow out, which actually inflicted more harm. The hulking warrior avoided the wild strikes and shattered the monster's knee with a devastating swing from his hammer. He dispatched it in the same manner when it fell to the ground, bringing the weapon down in a wide arc and crushing its face.
“Here they come!” he roared.
The protection wall near Kirie and Alphonse shattered first. An arrow stuck one of the monsters in the chest and hindered its comrades that trailed behind. Kirie already hugged the wall out of sight. She waited until the first troll nearly crossed the threshold. She shifted to the side, swung her axe into its gut and jerked the handle towards her to slit open the troll's belly. The monster dropped its weapon and grasped desperately as its innards threatened to tumble out.
“Regroup!” Alphonse shouted.
“Shit, already?” Kirie's dismay was barely audible as she reluctantly broke off and sprinted towards him.
They broke off from their respective areas and ran towards the dilapidated barn.
Trolls really were slow. Their over-sized, thick legs seemed to cause friction that restricted their speed. Alphonse loosed a few arrows as he broke his run and even managed to get a kill out of the deal. The other archer was blessed with similar luck.
The adventurers entered the barn with the trolls a generous distance behind. They stopped at the other side and moved out of sight, risking a few glances from concealment and awaiting the next phase.
Alphonse remained inside the barn to hold the monsters' attention and pulled three vials from his waist pouch. He gripped them between his fingers and waited.
He glanced up and focused on Asa, who sat waiting in the hayloft. He held up a hand to ready her, and she nodded an affirmation. She rose to a crouch and aimed her staff.
Alphonse brought the vials up to his mouth and tore the corks off with his teeth. He brought his arm forward in a throwing motion and spattered the dark contents around the barn. He had waited long enough so that some of the liquid spattered on the lead trolls as well. He let momentum take him and fell into a full on sprint towards where his fellow adventurers waited at the ready.
“Fire orb!” Asa shouted. A sphere of flames exploded from her staff and plunged into the ground. Fire magic wasn't necessarily her specialty as a healer, but it accomplished the job just as well.
Lines of fire erupted from behind and in front of the trolls. The flames intensified far faster than they normally should have, even with the volatile wood and traces of hay available. Some of the trolls ignited almost instantly.
Kirie dug her axe into the nearest, panic-stricken troll that attempted to flee the barn. She moved to the next one, ducked underneath its arm and swung into its crotch. Both monsters went down, bodies nearly aflame and screams bubbling in their throats. The large adventurer shattered the knee of another with his hammer and drove an armored fist into its chin when it fell on its one working leg. The trolls head whipped aside with a terrible popping sound as the jaw dislocated.
Alphonse counted down the seconds. Distance yourselves!” he shouted.
The adventurers obeyed and backpedaled away.
The trolls to the rear had already instinctively begun to change their approach in the face of such unfathomable turmoil, but they found the other exit barred by a final protection spell. Asa stood on the other side with her staff extended in one hand and the other tossing aside an empty mana potion.
“Secondary passive effect of protection - absorbed damage has reached peak,” she said. “Kirie, get ready!”
Asa gripped the staff in both hands and channeled the damage that her protection barriers absorbed from the constant assault of the trolls. She converted it into a temporary strength buff for her sister and transferred.
“Stalwart Safeguard!” she shouted.
Alphonse watched as Kirie's back arched when she received the extra damage boost. The contours of her body shimmered with a crimson hue as she fought to control her limbs. She slumped forward as the wave of power subsided after a short time.
Alphonse had never seen such a large energy buff transfer at work. They'd experimented on lesser creatures before, and the spell didn't last more than a few seconds. He wondered if something went wrong due to the lack of control; but then he saw the wide grin and insane eyes of the warrior catgirl and knew that the trolls were about to have a bad time.
“Fuck yeah!” she screamed. She rushed forward and dug her axe into a troll's side. The muscular body of the monster didn't slow the blade in the slightest. It cut through clean and severed the monster's torso at the waist.
Alphonse had fought trolls before. He always thought they were so dumb that they couldn't possibly comprehend a feeling such as fear. But here they were, the remaining few who managed to avoid the flames were taking a few trembling steps back. After all, they had just witnessed their fellow monster practically cut in half. They seemed more than willing to dive on the fire rather than feel the wrath of this crazy catgirl's axe.
The hammer-wielding adventurer rushed up next to her, fueled by her impressive display and fighting spirit. He slammed his hammer into the stomach of a troll, and Kirie finished the job when the monster doubled over. She swapped the handle of her axe to her opposite hand and made a one-handed swing at a troll with some bravery left. Its remaining leg whipped out from underneath it, and the warhammer from the other adventurer crushed its rib cage with a follow-up attack as it drifted through the air.
Alphonse had never seen Kirie like this. Sure, she was always ready for a good fight and even enjoyed it more than what he considered was probably normal, but he wondered if this blood lust was some extraneous effect from the absurd amount of damage drained. So bloodthirsty. Such brutality. Such enjoyment. He flinched when she stepped on the chest of a writhing troll clawing at the last vestiges of life. She brought the axe high over her head and mercilessly cleaved its face. The few that remained wriggled on the ground as the flames ate away at their skin.
Holy shit, Alphonse thought.
He'd been on plenty of quests, but this one was some nasty business. He was used to dealing with his own stealth missions while his comrades dealt with the up-close, personal work. His blades made clean slices and whittled away at the enemy until there was an opening for vitals. But Kirie swung that massive axe at anything it could bite into. Those brutal strikes and sheer strength turned any part of the body into a vital. She certainly didn't need any finesse when she received Asa's spell for that few seconds.
Alphonse was jarred from his thoughts by a troll that charged through one of the barn's walls in a blast of shattered wood and splinters. It fell on its face, unable to stop its momentum as it thrashed about trying to put out a flame that erupted on its shoulder. Alphonse took his time aiming and fired an arrow into its head. He waited for Kirie to follow-up, but noticed that the buff was extinguished and left behind a bout of fatigue that forced her to her knees.
He shouted to her, “Hey, you alright?”
She sluggishly waved him off and fell to her back. “I'm-good. Just... wow! That was something.”
Alphonse chuckled as he strode over and stared down at her. She let out a stream of curses between heavy gasps and ignored his relieved laughter.
The adventurer with the hammer propped his weapon on the ground and rested an arm as he took a few deep, heaving gasps. The archer next to him crouched down and leaned forward as she recovered with a few controlled breaths.
“That's some good shit,” the big man gasped. He ran a hand through his short black hair and waved to Kirie. “You...you're a fucking lunatic. Y'know that?”
Kirie splayed her arms out. “You too,” she forced out.
Alphonse gave Asa a thumbs-up as she approached. “Nice work getting the traps up. Absolutely flawless.”
He wanted to collapse in a tub of cold water. Then warm himself up with some alcohol. He regretted that they had to pour so much of it in the barn.
She nodded to him. “Those barrels were a little heavy.”
“A waste of some fine cask whiskey,” the archer said.
“I agree with you, Anya,” her companion said. “But we make do. Devastating all the same.”
“You can blame Evan for that,” Kirie added.
Alphonse waved her off. “Our options were limited. No loss for me though. I'm a vodka guy.”
The archer, Anya, clapped a hand on her friend's back. “All good, Derek?”
“I need a fuckin drink.” He looked up at Alphonse. “I'm real curious though. Whiskey shouldn't erupt like that. I know we dumped it to speed things along, but what else did you use to make the barn go up so damned fast?”
Alphonse allowed himself a bit of an immodest grin as he presented one of the vials with the black liquid and shook the contents.
He allowed Asa to explain. It seemed rather fitting given their last blunder with the stuff.
“Migunne blood,” she explained. “It's highly flammable.”