Wolf Lessons

Charles snuffled the grass at his feet, dragging his snout through the dew and loose ground.  He could easily smell the squirrel.  It was so close he could probably swing his head around and find it staring him in the face.  Squirrels might be quick and all, but they weren’t the smartest.  Slow and deliberate, he stepped backwards, one foot at a time, like he wasn’t really thinking about turning around, just sniffing in reverse.

Mocking chitters rang out behind him.  Whirling on his back legs, Charles reared up and brought his front paws down hard on the empty earth behind him.  Blowing air through his muzzle, he glowered at everything he could see, looking for some sign of where the squirrel was hiding.  It was no good.  Not a blade of grass twitched in the night smeared forest.  He straightened his spine and whined into the darkness.  More chittering spilled down from the branches of the oak beside him.  Wrinkling his nose he looked up, his fangs flashing in the sliver of moonlight that managed to burrow down through the leaves.

“Well, that’s just rude,” he said staring at the tiny black orbs looking down at him.  “How can I ever catch you if you keep running up a tree?”  With a soft, complaining wuff, he dropped his rear end tiredly onto the ground.  “I give up.”

“I would expect you to have learned to look up by now.”  Giving him a scowl that only a squirrel can make, the rodent inched onto an overhanging branch and stretched out, letting its tail hang down.  “Wolves are especially praised for their intelligence.  What happened to you?”

“I’m tired.  We’ve been playing for hours.”  His voice was almost a whine.

Rubbing one foot across its face, the squirrel looked down with an expression of extreme judgement.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I thought you wanted to learn to hunt.  If you’re too tired, by all means we will stop.”  Thoughtfully, it pulled at the small, branching leaves and let them pinwheel to the ground.

“You don’t need to be a bitch about it.”  Aggravated and not in the mood, he shook his shaggy head back and forth, dislodging the tree litter from his fur.

“Ooo, somebody needs a nap.”  

Another leaf floated down, twirling across his nose as it landed.  He gave the branch, and its occupant a hard look.

“We can start again tomorrow night.  I need to get some real food and try to sleep.”  Pushing against the ground with his front paws, Charles raised himself back to a standing position and tilted his head to stare at the red rat.  “You look like you could use a rest yourself.”

“How considerate of you.  Thinking not only of yourself at a time like this.”  With a sneer, it dropped another leaf.  “You are a prince among wolves.”

“Whatever!”  Charles wanted to rip the bushy tail down from its branch and fling it against the tree trunk.  The whole night had been nothing but chittering and mockery.  He was sick of it.  Maybe he would ask one of the cats to help him.  They at least knew how to hunt.  What did squirrels know about it?  The gathered nuts and stored them in knotholes.

“Fine, go home and take a hot bath like the human that you are.”  The squirrel sat up and began combing through its tail with its paws.  “When you decide you are serious about being a wolf, let me know.”

Lowering his head, Charles let his ears droop and looked stricken.

“You don’t have to be so mean,” he said softly.  “You have been a squirrel for years.  I have only been a wolf for a month.”

Pausing in its grooming, the squirrel twitched its nose and sniffed at him.

“My bad.  Clearly you should be given special consideration because you’re new.  The safety of werefolk everywhere should be disregarded while you grab a sandwich and a soda.”  The sound of the voice rose high in aggravation, morphing into a chitter.

Belatedly Charles realized that he could understand it.  Their conversation had changed from words to growls and squeaks.  Delighted with the novelty of it, he grinned, letting his tongue loll freely out one side of his jaws.

“Pffft!”  The squirrel pointedly turned its back and scratched at the branch with its back legs, sending a shower of bark down on the wolf.

With a tremendous leap, Charles sprang high into the air and closed his jaws tightly onto the bushy, well-groomed tail.  The squirrel shrieked with surprise as it was dragged forcefully to earth.

“Very clever,” it gasped, its whole pinned against the dirt by one massive wolf paw.  “You tricked me.”

“Not really.”  Charles growled through his teeth without letting go of the tail.  “I just got tired of your chatter.”  Lifting his foot, he gave a sharp twist of his head and flung the squirrel against the trunk of the oak.

Lightly he pawed at the body, confirming that the spine had broken.  He snuffled it thoroughly before crunching it between his jaws.  It wasn’t a large meal, not nearly enough to fill his belly, but definitely satisfying.  He had been correct, Squirrels were not the smartest animals in the forest.

The Mine – 04 (GW2 Fanfiction)

(Guild Wars is the property of ArenaNet.  I do not claim ownership over any location or character, except those that I have specifically paid for or are in agreement with me over their use.  While some NPC dialogue is taken from ingame, it has been modified and paraphrased to suit the story.  This is strictly fanfiction and is intended for entertainment purposes only, not profit.)

Dropping back, Ian tried to breathe normally, shifting his grip on his staff.  He noted the dark stains on the wood from his sweating palms.

Caithe crouched at the base of the ramp, peering over the top.  “There are sixteen soldiers on the catwalk,” she informed them.  “Zerela, use your long bow to shoot the closest one.  Garm will act as a decoy.  Hopefully we can pull the skirmish over this way and not draw a lot of attention.  Reaper, can you place marks between the catwalk and the ramp?  If things get out of hand, maybe we can bottleneck them there and leave ourselves an escape route back this way.”

Azumae rose slightly and pointed her staff at the metal floor between them and the catwalk.  Feeling her magic gather and release reminded Ian of diving into Lake Delavan on a hot day, the cold water suddenly enveloping his steaming skin.  He wondered if it felt the same way to her?

Nodding agreement with the plan, the Zerela slipped an arrow from her quiver and eased forward, nudging past Eir who was crouched in readiness, holding her sword across one knee and gripping a large dagger in her off hand.  Pausing to remove the owl from her bonnet, the Charr passed the bird back to Ian.  “Keep her close.”  

Feeling honored to be entrusted with the pet of another ranger, Ian gave her a solemn nod and lifted the owl up to his shoulder.  Digging for a stable purchase on the smooth leather armor, the bird squeezed his shoulder tightly, her talons gouging deep enough to leave permanent impressions.

“Garm, to me.”  Inching up the ramp Zerela stayed close to the wall and crouched on one knee.  Muzzle crinkling slightly in concentration, she notched her arrow and took careful aim.

Feeling the magic gathering, Ian kept his eyes fixed on the ranger.  He had used this spell himself a few times so he knew what was coming but, each time he saw it he was still surprised.

Releasing her shot with a tight, twang of the bow string, Zerela vanished from sight.  The nearest dredge barked in pain, the ranger’s arrow sticking in his side.

A sudden shifting of the air above his head ruffled Ian’s blond hair, causing the bird to dig even deeper into his shoulder.  He was positive the Bloody Ranger had just jumped over them all.  

Trotting forward to the catwalk, Garm planted his feet, yipped at the soldiers and wagged his tail.

Three dredge stopped working and gathered around the wounded one, two of them looking blankly at the arrow in his side.  Garm yipped again and danced in place, pounding his feet excitedly.  All four stared at the lupine.

“Where did the wolf come from?”

“Stupid moles!”  Hissing in disgust, Zerela rematerialized between Ian and Eir.  She reached for another arrow.  “How many times do I have to shoot?”

Azumae covered a snort of laughter with her hand.  Seeing Caithe’s sharp look of caution, the necromancer shrugged.  “So, I have a droll sense of humor,” she whispered.   “Throw me to the warg.”

Ducking his head to hide his smile, Ian couldn’t help being impressed at how the necromancer didn’t seem affected by the legendary status of their prickly thief.

“I’m going to stick this one right in his nose.  Maybe they will take better notice?”  Rising to her full height, Zerela took aim and launched a quick, powerful shot at the same Dredge then ducked down again.  Whistling through the air, this arrow thunked into an eye socket, knocking the life right out of the soldier.  His body dropped limply to the mesh. The three standing soldiers looked from their fallen comrade to Garm, surprise on their faces.  

Huffing irritably, Zerela rose and stomped up the ramp, waving her bow above her head.  “Hey!  He didn’t shoot you, I did!”

“Intruders!”  The three Dredge grabbed for their weapons as they yelled to their comrades and began firing.

Grinning nastily, Zerela fired back rapidly, each arrow finding a target.

With a deep sigh, Caithe reached for her guns.  “So much for stealth.”  The Sylvari rose and headed up the ramp.  “Plan B, everyone.”

Feeling his flesh erupt in goosebumps, Ian rose beside Eir and Azumae and lowered the business end of his staff.  Melandru be with me.  The prayer was automatic, a desperate plea in the face of a storm.  His next thought was there is no plan B!  Then Garm howled and all thoughts stopped.  The fight had begun.

“Moon go!”

The white wolf bolted up the ramp and flew onto the catwalk, charging the nearest soldier.  Panicking at Moon’s sudden action, the owl launched into the air, clearly aiming for the Charr’s bonnet.  Having no time to react, Ian watched in horror as she sailed toward the Charr.  Surprised, Zerela paused in reflex to catch the bird.  That moment cost her as one of the Dredge hurled a net, landing it securely over Charr and owl.

Ian felt sick as Zerela froze with her pet in her claw, both of them stunned into immobility.  Lowering his staff to focus on the spot directly beside her, he released the magic and felt himself jerk forward at blurring speed.  As he jarred to a halt the excess energy of the spell flowed outward, melting the netting like it was made of sugar and, soothing its former captives.  Ian groped blindly for the wall, trying to brace himself as his head spun for a second.  That spell was definitely not his favorite.

The Dredge who had thrown the net ran forward, sword in hand, eyes fixed on the Charr.  As he stepped off the catwalk the metal beneath his feet exploded in a mushroom cloud of poison fumes.  Unable to prevent it, the soldier inhaled.  Instantly his pale, moleskin became tinged with putrid green and he bent over, retching uncontrollably.  Eir leaped forward, the metal floor shaking with her weight, and drove her blade down through the back of his neck.  Before he was fully down, she yanked the sword free and thrust it into the next soldier.  More Dredge poured toward her from the left side of the catwalk, all firing guns and stun beams.  The Norn dodged and blocked with amazing speed, her sword and dagger moving so fast they could barely be seen.

Pulling herself together Zerela launched a barrage of arrows over the bulk of the soldiers.  Her face was carved in stone while her eyes sparked with hatred.  The snowy owl dove past Eir, tearing frantically into the face of the nearest Dredge.

Getting control of his balance, Ian shot a wisp into the fray where it found a target, a Dredge with a net in both hands, and began to circle him, draining his strength and throwing off his aim.  Taking advantage of the wisp, Caithe shadow stepped to the weakened soldier and put a bullet into his face.  There was no time to call a victory though as two more soldiers charged her.  Switching spells, Ian sent a surge of energy toward them, molding it into a mass of rolling vines that tangled their feet, drained their strength and locked them in place.  Switching quickly to her sword, the thief sliced their throats.

All light on the catwalk seemed to become sucked away as Azumae took the form of a Reaper.  Her features were indistinguishable as she slid through the soldiers.  Black, smoke-like magic curled around her in tendrils.  Three Dredge fell dead almost instantly.

Ian froze for a second.  Reaper magic was new to him.  It felt like a vacuum, reminding him of stepping through an Asura gate only, nastier.  Trying to hold his staff steady, he wondered if the Reaper would even be affected by his heals?  She looked like a different being altogether.  Maybe she didn’t even need to be healed?

Garm howled again, his fearful noise being echoed immediately by Moon’s icy one.  Better suited to the lower vision, the owl swooped through the air with her talons bared, ripping any dredge she could reach.

Abruptly the light returned and Azumae staggered as the dark mists faded away.  Bracing himself, Ian aimed for a spot beside her and triggered the astral spell again.  The dizziness hit him on the stop.  He staggered against her as the overflow gushed around them.  At least the spell fixes what it breaks, he thought as his head cleared.  

The necromancer straightened abruptly.  “Get back!” she growled and shoved him away from her, back the way he had come. “I don’t need your help.”  Spinning away she immediately blasted out a powerful spell, drawing on the living force of five Dredge at a time, the magic so strong that red lines seemed to flow out from the soldiers in streams, directly to her.  The Dredge stumbled, their knees folding as their strength drained away.  

The force of the shove turned Ian partway around, tangling his feet and twisting his ankle. Sprawling face down on the catwalk his breath rushed from his lungs.  The elder wood staff slipped from his grasp and skittered away as a net landed heavily over him, pinning him down, the edges of his warhorn digging into his hip.  He lay still, gasping for air, trying to move.  His limbs felt like they had fallen asleep, every attempt to use the muscles sending that fuzzy, nerve clenching feeling rushing through him.  His chest refused to expand.  He was suffocating!

The catwalk fell away as Ian felt his pack gouge into his shoulders like something was trying to tear it from his body.  For a heartbeat he hung in the air, bewildered at what was happening, then he was lowered onto his feet.  Air rushed into his chest.

Sword flashing in the dim light, Eir sliced down the next net sailing toward them.  Giving the Dredge that had thrown it a pissed look, she whipped her off hand forward, hurling her dagger into his grinning mouth.

“GET DOWN!”  Zerela shouted.

Ian dropped back onto the mesh, Eir right beside him, and the Bloody Ranger fired across them, hard enough to knock back another rushing Dredge.  The armored mole flew a solid eight feet through the air, crashing against the far side of the catwalk.  In a flash, Eir was on her feet and charging.

Scrambling upright again, Ian hobbled behind the Charr, favoring his ankle, and snatched the warhorn from his belt.  The chance to sound it was past though.

“How many left?”  Caithe shadow stepped toward Ian, her face showing deep lines of exhaustion.  Immediately he triggered his glyph, letting the magic flow around them.

“Just two!”  Azumae yelled and hurled her daggers, dropping the count to one.

The remaining soldier, seeing his odds, turned to run.  Garm, Moon Moon and the owl landed on him in a bloody fury.

The five would-be-rescuers stood gasping on the catwalk amid the bodies of their enemies.  Every face was drawn and shadowed.  

Limping to the center of the group, Ian counted to five and triggered the glyph again, sighing slightly as his ankle finished mended.  He stared directly at Azumae.  The lines of her facial marking, the skull of her profession, stood out in her exhaustion.  He hadn’t noticed them before.  She didn’t meet his eyes.

Taking a deep breath, Caithe waved Ian toward the far side of the catwalk where he had fallen.  “Druid, find your staff.”  Turning away from him she directed her next words to the others.   “Rest a bit, you’ve earned it.  I’m going to scout ahead a bit while… Zerela loots the fallen.”  The thief’s face twisted into a tired smile.  “You fought well ranger.”

Zerela grunted softly in acknowledgment and stroked the feathers of her owl, now cradled in her arms.  She also did not meet Ian’s eyes.

Shoulders sagging, he turned away from the group, his boots making heavy sounds on the wire mesh of the catwalk as he searched for his weapon.

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

The Mine – 03 (GW2 Fanfiction)

(Guild Wars is the property of ArenaNet.  I do not claim ownership over any location or character, except those that I have specifically paid for or are in agreement with me over their use.  While some NPC dialogue is taken from ingame, it has been modified and paraphrased to suit the story.  This is strictly fanfiction and is intended for entertainment purposes only, not profit.)

“Ranger, wait up!”

Pausing just before the bridge Ian turned to face Azumae.

“I wish to know about your runes.”  The Sylvari necromancer peered intently at his thick, leather armor.  “They have a look of superior craftsmanship.”  

Flattered that she had noticed, Ian flushed a little.  “They are druid runes.”  He gestured self consciously at the purplish, round stone fixed tightly to his coat.  “I made them myself after completing my training.  Originally they were ranger runes, intended to help me with my precision as an archer but, once I became a healer I thought I would be better off with runes specifically designed for that.”

Looking all down his armor, Azumae chuckled.  “Where one is good, six is better?”

“Yeah.”  Ian smiled.  “Having six of them really enhances my power.  My healing and overall vitality is much stronger.”  He wondered if the Sylvari would think him weak without his runes?  Perhaps he shouldn’t have answered quite so honestly.  The look she had given him while arguing with Caite was still fresh in his memory.  He was the weakest member of the group, currently a liability.

“I too have runes,” she said and swept aside a leaf to expose a similar, purple stone fastened to her armor.  “More power is better.”

“How many do you have?”  Ian stopped himself from sweeping his eyes down her body to look for the others.  He was suspicious of her sudden friendliness.

“Three.  They are expensive to craft.”  Azumae touched the rune’s symbol, a scythe etched deeply into the stone.  “But I would have six also, like you, if this adventure rewards me enough coin to afford it.”

Why had she allowed Zerela to loot the bodies alone?  If gold was her motivation, shouldn’t she have been filling her pack alongside the Charr.  

Together they began walking to the bridge, their feet moving in sync.  Caithe and Eir were well ahead of them, talking softly as they eased up to the bottom edge of a wooden ramp leading up to what appeared to be a wire-meshed catwalk.  Ian’s boots clomped against the iron and he stopped, surveying the area the where the Dredge had been working.  The ground was littered with metal fragments and tools.  It looked like a weapon but, unsure of its function he didn’t want to touch anything.  Dredge were not known for superior design skills so it was likely the instrument was of Asuran origin.  The Asura were phenomenally advanced in their weaponry.  He had seen a few of their golems and thought it wise to avoid them as much as possible.

“Inquest design,” Azumae said, confirming his thinking.

The bridge vibrated beneath their feet as Zerela joined them, her pack riding high on her back.

“I can smell the Dredge,” she said, turning her head to watch Caithe and Eir still crouched near the ramp.  Her bonnet was tightly bound to her head, it’s owl accessory securely in place.  “There are more just over there.”

From where they stood, they could hear the sounds of metal striking metal and large, circular motors could be seen, their backsides accessible by a short set of steps just beyond the top of the ramp.  While they watched, Caithe shimmered and vanished from Eir’s side, seeming to dissolve into thin air.  Garm sat down to wait.

Putting her hand on Ian’s forearm, Azumae stopped him reaching for his longbow.  “Not your weapon,” she said.  “You are the healer.  Stay back and heal.  Don’t fight unless you have to.”

Zerela nodded her agreement and plucked Ian’s elder staff from it’s holder on his back, handing it to him with great formality.  “The weed is correct.  You must stay out of the battle as much as possible if we are to remain alive.”  Reaching out with a meaty paw she patted Moon Moon on the head.  “Your wolf can fight in your place.  He is a strong animal.”  Moon ducked his head a bit and rolled his blue eyes up at the Charr.  He looked uncomfortable with the contact.

“I suppose.”  Not liking the idea of not fighting, Ian fingered the warhorn hanging from his belt.  He looked up to see Zerela’s eyes still on him.  Curling her lip into a slight grin, the Charr winked at him.

“Heal first, fight second.”

“Hey,” Ian fixed his eyes on her bonnet.  “Out of curiosity, does your bird have a name?”

“Not yet.”  Zerela shrugged.  “We are new to each other.”  

Looking a bit awkward, the Bloody Ranger dug into her pouch and came out with four, small vials filled with a thick, yellowish liquid.  She held them out to Ian and Azumae.  “For the dredge.  These will help you.”

“Potions?”  Ian took one and held it up, letting the hot, shifting light of the lava shine through it.

“Good thinking, Zerela.”  Azumae smiled at the Charr and pulled out the stopper.  “How long will it last?”

“About an hour.”  She grinned.  “It’s not much but, every extra ounce of power we can get is a good thing, right?”  Holding up her sword she pointed at the sigil on the pommel.  “Force,” she growled.

Ian facepalmed.  He hadn’t even thought about adding sigils to any of his weapons.

“I didn’t think of it either.”’  Azumae patted him consolingly on the shoulder.

“We’re all going to die,” Zerela joked.

“I see you are all bonding nicely.”  Caithe shimmered into view directly in their midst, causing a moment of panic among the trio.  The Charr actually raised her sword to block before realizing the intruder was their thief.  “Good, maybe we can actually get something accomplished here.  There are numerous Dredge up ahead.”

“Told you I smelled them,” Zerela grunted and tipped one of the potions down her throat.

“We’re going to try and draw them close in small groups and take them out as quietly as we can.  If we alert the whole bunch the fight could become more than we can manage so, everyone stay on your toes and be as quiet as you can.  Stealth is our friend.”  Caithe looked each of them in the eye.  “Are you ready?”

Fear and excitement rippled over Ian and his palms became sweaty.  Shifting his grip on his staff he downed the potion he was holding. The taste was harshly metallic, like sucking on orichulum ore.  Making a face he forced himself to swallow.  This was it.  

Taking up her own staff, a ghoulish looking, length of blackened wood, Azumae nodded and swallowed her potion.

Seeing the slight wrinkling of her nose at its flavor, Ian grinned.  “For power,” he chuckled.  Warmth spread through his stomach as she returned the smile.  It was probably the potion.

Hefting her sword in readiness, Zerela bared her teeth at the Sylvari thief.  “To battle,” she growled.

(The Mine – 01, The Mine – 02)

The Mine – 01 (GW2 Fanfiction)

(Guild Wars is the property of ArenaNet.  I do not claim ownership over any location or character, except those that I have specifically paid for or are in agreement with me over their use.  While some NPC dialogue is taken from ingame, it has been modified and paraphrased to suit the story.  This is strictly fanfiction and is intended for entertainment purposes only, not profit.)

 

Ian felt painfully obvious as he prowled ahead of the group scouting for Dredge.  Having managed to sneak past hundreds of them already to reach the mine entrance, he was betting their luck would run out anytime now.  A narrow stream of lava ran alongside their path, giving off welcome warmth after days of trudging through the icy countryside of Dredgehaunt.  Moon Moon was noisier than normal, his every step seeming to echo and, he panted constantly.  He told himself the Alpine wolf was probably just hot in here.  Eir’s black wolf, Garm didn’t seem as affected, pacing along beside Moon like he was taking a casual stroll through Hoelbrak.  Self-consciously Ian snuck a glance behind him at the Sylvari in the middle of the group.

Gliding along like dandelion fluff on a soft breeze, Azumae looked nothing like the deadly necromancer she was.  The delicate Sylvari was a few inches shorter than Ian, her head just topping his shoulder.  Armor the color of moss, threaded throughout with gold, browns and purple, made her pale skin look like alabaster in contrast.  What passed for hair from a distance, on close inspection resembled leafy ferns curling beguilingly around her ears and neck.   Nothing about the reaper was human yet, her physical form was so intriguing he couldn’t seem to stop himself from looking at her.  Still, Ian hadn’t missed the implications of the small, sharply pointed, thorns protruding from her forehead.  She had awoke beneath the Pale Tree.

“Something on your mind again, ranger?”  Azumae stared blandly at him, shifting her axe from one hand to the other as she walked.  Twin, deldrimor steel daggers, sheathed in her belt, seemed to strain toward her  empty hand.  Over her shoulder glowered the hilt of her reaper sword, a gigantic, vicious looking weapon that made his own  sword seem like a Charr cub’s training toy.

Quickly Ian faced forward and tried to control the flush in his cheeks.  Even with his new druid skills, he knew she could drop him in an instant.  He had overheard Caithe grilling her intensely about her battle experience during their first night on the road and, more than once, in these past few days, he had watched Azumae fire off a spell before she had even turned to see what was coming.  It unnerved him that she always hit her mark.  

“You guys?  I need to rest for a minute.  Can we just stop and take a break?”

Wearing blood red armor and carrying the most obnoxiously, large, long bow she could find, Zerela Glub huffed and panted dramatically, shoving her pack and weapons back and forth like she couldn’t find a comfortable position for everything.

Pausing mid step, Ian looked back again, his mouth tightening as his eyes were drawn to the other thing he couldn’t stop staring at, Zerela’s red bonnet with its snow owl passenger.  Even Azumae had turned up a leafy eyebrow at the sight of it.  That bonnet clashed fiercely with his private nickname for the Charr, the Bloody Ranger, but he couldn’t shake the impression from his mind.

Halting just behind Azumae, Caithe’s breath cascaded down the reaper’s neck as she gave Zerela a pitying look.  “For a Charr, you are considerably out of shape.”  Wearing armor the color of sweltering, summer grass, the Sylvari thief was easy to miss among the trees and only slightly more visible in the cave.

Stiffening at the close proximity, Azumae turned her head and narrowed her eyes at her clan woman.  “I do wish you would learn to not choke me out every time we stop.”  Her smooth voice had a slight lilt that seemed native to their race.  The warning in her tone was unmistakable though.

Amused, Caithe looked sideways at Azumae.  “Excuse me, cousin.  I meant no harm.”  Taking a single step back she smiled and ran her eyes down the necromancer’s body.

“Of course you didn’t.  You never do – cousin.”  Azumae curled her lip in distaste, her opaque eyes seeming to flicker.

Zerela dropped to the floor of the chamber with a heavy exhale and shrugged off her bulky pack.  “While you two sort out which plant is deadlier, I’m going to rest.”  Her nearly white muzzle was turning mauve from the dust inside the dungeon, rusty powder coating the ends of her whiskers.  Growling softly to herself she began rubbing the pads of her back paws and digging out hard, balls of ice that had formed between her toes during the past couple days.

“Just don’t start licking things again?” Ian requested.  He could feel the spot right between his shoulder blades burning from the weight of his own pack.  “That last time was really… uncomfortable.”  His stomach tightened nervously as Zerela twitched all four ears simultaneously and glowered at him.  Her cat-like head was the size of his entire torso, the sharp tips of her horns seeming to twinkle at him in the low light.  Unnervingly, the owl followed her master’s gaze.

“I like to be clean.  You could try a little hygiene yourself, human.”  Sniffing pointedly at him, Zerela wrinkled her muzzle and sneezed soundly, sending up a small whorl of dust from the ground.  Digging in with it’s talons the owl spread its wings and held on, keeping its balance on the bonnet.

Crossing her arms, Caithe huffed rudely.  “Zoja could be dead already and you two want to quarrel about bathing and stare at your feet.”  She looked toward Garm, apparently thinking he would agree.  The wolf sat down beside Eir and began to scratch behind his ear, tongue lolling from his jaws.  “I ask for heroes and this is what I get.”  Pressing her lips into a thin line the thief stalked away from the group, pushing past Ian toward the iron bridge just visible in the distance.

Watching her go with a surprised look, he thought, you get what you pay for.  A share of any treasure found is a pretty vague incentive.  He couldn’t speak for the others but, his reason for coming was the hope of making a name for himself.  Despite his training as a healer he was still just a ranger in the eyes of his peers.  The druid’s staff riding beside his backpack was mostly untried, it’s warm, elder wood, smooth and unmarred.  Getting this group through here in one piece was his main goal.  Treasure, if there was any, was secondary.

“Caithe is just worried about Zoja,” Eir explained.  The great Norn, looking more battle hardened than any of them, towered over the party in her iron and leather armor, her bound, red hair seeming to hold a fire all its own.  Setting the point of her sword against the hard packed dirt she leaned on the pommel and looked worriedly after Caithe’s vanishing figure.  “Knowing Zoja as well as we do, her reason for storming in here must have something to do with Snaff’s inventions.  If someone has stolen one, Caithe fears that getting it back may be too much for our little genius to do on her own.  We both do,” she added, her eyes clouding with dark thoughts.  “Try to not let her get to you.  She’s really just trying to protect everyone.”

“How very motherly of her,” Azumae said, managing to sound sincere and rude at the same time.

“Factoring in the small size of our group it’s not surprising that Caithe is worried.  Five people isn’t nearly enough to be making a rescue attempt in here.”  Eir looked hard at the Necromancer, seeming to make an unspoken point.  

Azumae met her eyes for a moment before looking away, her expression unreadable but, she began feeling for her weapons, touching each one as if to reassure herself they were exactly where they should be.

“Snaff?”  Flicking a small, ice ball into the lava stream where it hissed out of existence, Zerela looked up from her grooming.  “What is a snaff?”  Her amber, feline eyes jerked suddenly toward Azumae as she spoke.

Curious, Ian followed the Charr’s gaze and coughed loudly to cover his laugh.  The necromancer’s staff was ornamented on one end with a small lantern on a short chain.  It was this lantern that had captured Zerela’s attention, her eyes twitching as she tracked it’s movement back and forth off.  A quick glance at the Sylvari’s face gave no clue to whether or not she was swaying it deliberately.

“Not what, who.  Snaff was Zoja’s mentor.  He passed on many years ago but Zoja is steadfast in her devotion to his teachings.”  Eir smiled grimly at the Charr.  “She is rabidly protective over his inventions, always hunting down those who misuse them.”

“Misuse of Asuran inventions?  That smells like Inquest activity to me.”  Grunting lightly Zerela tore her eyes from the lantern, pushed herself onto all fours and stretched deeply, arching her back and splaying her paws wide.  Her tail rose high over her back, giving Ian a clear view at what lay beneath it.  Swiveling its head, the owl watched his reaction.

Rolling his eyes, Ian backed safely away.  The word Inquest made his stomach flip over.  He had met several of the order while passing through Brisbane awhile back and had not cared for the experience.  If they were here in the mine then, Eir was right.  Five people were not enough.  Taking a knee he began to wriggle out of his pack to ease that spot between his shoulders.  Following his master’s lead, Moon Moon sat and began an intense, nibbling inspection of his own underside.

(The Mine – 02, The Mine -03)

Grotesque Conversations

From his lofty perch above the main entrance to Milwaukee’s Mackie Building, Gandar watched with interest as the Shambler pawed slowly, almost languidly through the green trash can below.  Its movements were careless and cautious at the same time, one hand holding up the lid while the other churned the contents carefully, pausing now and then to assess an item.  Looking for food, he thought.  

“It’s the bottom of the ninth and the Shambler is looking for a final score to take him to victory.”

“So you are awake,” Gandar said with a soft chuckle.  “Once a Brewers fan always a Brewers fan, hey Jesticar?”

“Indeed,” came the response.  “Too bad I haven’t been able to actually see a game in over seventy years.”

“The price of choosing  to be a Grotesque.”

“Mmpf.”

Gandar recognized the vocal shrug of his companion.  Choosing to be stationary for eternity – or what passed for it in Milwaukee – came with a set of rules that most of them had known going in.  Jesticar was the youngest of the group guarding the entrance of the building that was once referred to by the locals as, the Grain Exchange and, occasionally registered dissatisfaction with that fact.  For the gazillionth time he thought the young Grotesque would have been happier at the Bay Shore high school where nearly two hundred Grotesques lived in various states of harmony.  He was certain there were Mysticals over there that had watched the Brewers before they were major league and could empathize with Jesticar.

Returning his attention to the Shambler who was now rubbing softly at its forehead just over its left eye, Gandar tried to distract his companion from his self-induced pity.

“Looks like he’s going to survive long enough to choose.  What do you think he will become?”

Jesticar repeated his noise and rolled his eyes.

“Probably another werewolf or vampire.  It’s what they all choose these days.”

“Yeah…”  Gandar wondered if the appropriate libraries were still functioning.  “It’s as if the other choices have all been erased.”

“Not only that but, once they choose, they all act like they have been that way since the dawn of time.  None of them talk about how they started their mystical existence as a Shambler.”

“Do you remember your time as a filthy, mindless, meat seeker?”

Jesticar cranked his eyes as far toward Gandar as he could and looked shocked.

“Of course I do… kind of…”  He rolled his eyes away.

“Exactly.”  Gandar knew he had started as a Shambler but it was a very vague memory for him.  His memories of being mortal and part of a family were easier to access than the brief window he had spent groping in garbage cans and shuffling around as a zombie.  The memories were part of the choice.  Nothing was erased, it all just faded with time like everything else.

“First human babies then, mystical amoeba.”  He mused aloud.  “The same thing just a different stage in development.”

The Shambler gave up on the trash can and began to shuffle west along the sidewalk.  Gandar watched it vanish into the distance, blending into the deep, night shadows of the downtown streets.  Silently he wished it well.