A/N I guess I should explain the unexpected hiatus in this story's publishing. And honestly, it's going to sound like a massive excuse, but frankly it doesn't matter. So at the beginning of July, I received the syllabus for my first college class. Taking into account the incredible weight of the books it required, it also required some work to be done in three books before school started the 17th. Naturally, academics should come first, kids. And so, I got that done over the course of a couple weeks (thank procrastination, not me) and writing slipped from my mind until a few weeks ago. Again, thank procrastination, for me just now getting around to publishing another chapter. Now onto the good news! I'm currently about halfway through writing the last chapter, and it will be coming soon. Don't worry your pretty little heads it's not like I'm pushing it out by next year or anything just give me a month or two to wrap things up and over that time expect Chapter 9. Enjoy!
Ascanor and Sharyas hurried back to the camp to gather their stuff and catch up to the other rangers. However to his surprise, the two hadn't seemed to have moved since he left. Ereven had fallen to his side off his log, snoring like a thunderstorm. Alandil's eyes were turned to a small, worn red book in his hands. He looked up as the two quietly slipped in, a faint smile curling the edges of his lips as if he knew something they hadn't revealed quite yet. Ascanor kept his eyes low and sat down next to his knapsack. He began to root through the contents, slipping more vials of potion into the bandoleer across his chest. He reached down into the bottom, pulling up his remaining rations of food. He'd planned to use them on the trip back, so he felt confident he'd be able to make it back home.
Alandil broke the silence with a intrigued sigh. "Fascinating. It says here a hydra egg incubates for six years before it hatches."
Ascanor frowned. "That's a long time to guard an egg."
"Indeed. It says here the infant won't reach mature size for another ten."
"No wonder the hydra was so desperate back there."
"Yes I'd say the infant was close to hatching."
Ascanor nodded slowly. "Was. Didn't we let the egg cool?"
Alandil sighed. Ascanor jumped as Ereven's backpack shook. The elf looked at him. "What does that tell you?"
Ascanor gave a sharp kick to Ereven's breastplate, which resounded like a gong. The warrior jerked and gave a snort. "Wha's goin' on?" He yawned.
"Where did you leave the egg?"
"The egg? Oh I put it in my backpack?"
Ascanor really didn't need anymore, but he decided to press further. "And where did you put your pack?"
"Near the fire. Where are you going with this?"
"And what do you think an egg, plus heat, equals?" An aggravated squawk coming from Ereven's bag answered his question. Ascanor sighed. "Alandil?"
"It's a...boy?" The elf replied.
Ascanor turned around. Ereven's backpack had fallen over onto its side, spilling a small, scaly bundle out onto the ground. The hydra squirmed, its necks entangled like a nest of serpents. Ascanor knelt down and peered closer. Orange stripes flickered up the hydra's five necks, coming up to meet twisted, infernal horns. The tiefling shook his head sadly. This creature wasn't spared the twisted, corrupted appearance of its mother. He only hoped the creature's minds didn't suffer the same, lest they have another problem waiting for them in the future.
The hydra managed up onto its feet, squinting in its first taste of bright sun. Sharyas, having left some unknown time before, appeared out of the forest with a piece of meat in her hand. She stopped abruptly, her lunch falling into the gritty dirt. "What in the gods is that?"
Ascanor smiled awkwardly. "It's...Ereven's...pet?"
"What?" The warrior roared. "No way, I am not taking care of that!"
"It's your fault it hatched in the first place!"
"I...well...okay, fine. I'll take care of it. But as soon as we get to the client it'll be their problem."
Ascanor grimaced. "Fine parenting there."
"Hey, maybe they'll have a private zoo. Or maybe we can get extra gold for it!"
"Fantastic." Ascanor cast a sarcastic glance over to Sharyas.
The hydra cried out, its mouths open like a baby birds. Ereven, with some prodding from Ascanor, picked up a couple of venison bones from the ashen scraps of the fire. He brushed them off, some gristle and meat still stuck to the bones. He got up to give the hydra the scraps, but found the infant to be greedily tearing into Sharyas' fallen lunch, much to the kitsune's dismay. The hydra quickly finished off the morsel, giving its gratitude in a roaring burp. Ereven sidled up to the creature, slowly and gently picking it up it his arms. The hydra's heads darted around briefly before accepting Ereven's grasp. Its heads moved up to his cheek, nestling against him, its gentle humming not unlike a cat's, reverberating through the warrior's armor. Before long, the beast had fallen asleep in his arms. Ereven placed the creature back into his backpack, curling up his blanket into a warm nest for it. When he sat back down, Ascanor was giving him a grin on the verge of laughing.
The warrior shrugged his shoulders. "What?"
"What are you going to name him?"
He rolled his eyes. "Shut up."
Alandil clapped his book shut. "Can we handle this once we get back to civilization?"
Ereven got to his feet and quickly slung his pack on. "About time."
The hamlet of Gullfeather was a small town, large enough to only appear on the maps of caravans, whom it made its primary wealth off of. Other than its sporting name and bizarre lack of its namesake, the town had little uniqueness to draw in others than its residents. Nevertheless, it was the destination of the Raven's Fist. Hours passed and Ascanor thought the trees would never end before the light began to brighten. They breached at a small hill overlooking the valley Gullfeather nestled itself in. The tiefling scanned the weary roofs of the village and sighed. "You can't tell me your buyer lives here."
Alandil shook his head. "They don't. But this is where we met their courier and this is where we have to meet them again. Let's get down to the inn, I'll have to send out a letter telling our success."
They shuffled down the hill and onto a cobbled path leading into the labyrinth of buildings. Ascanor frowned. "Nobody seems to be home."
"They're not really for outsiders."
Ascanor exhaled sharply. "Doesn't that figure."
They stopped in front of a stooped, white-washed building. A sign hung from a horizontal bar, its crusty chains grating softly in the mid-morning breeze. The Hogshead Tavern and Inn the sign read. At least, that's what the tiefling thought the flaky, faded paint said. His nose crinkled as Alandil opened the door. He realized the accuracy of the tavern's name because based on the smell, they had a few of their namesake in the back. The party passed between the clusters of tables that sat on either side of the door. Despite the time of day, a surprising amount of men sat hunched over steins at various places. Ascanor sneaked a peek as he passed. What hadn't been chipped, gouged, stained, burned, or damaged in some other unknown way on the tables had been taken up by a barfly. He cringed to himself, muttering silent words of pity.
The barkeep rested himself against the decrepit bar with one arm, peering at the adventurers with an unwelcome gaze, while his other eye stared blankly at the wall behind them. Ascanor jumped a little when he saw the thin pink line that drew a lightning bolt down the man's forehead and over his right eye to end at his cheek. The man wore a glass eye.
The bartender scratched at his unshaven stubble. "So, ye managed to come back, did ye?" His eye turned to the tiefling. "And ye brought me another mouth to feed? Fantastic."
"I'm afraid we don't have time to eat." Alandil held up a hand. "We need to get out a message as quick as we can. Where is the messenger?"
"Ye just missed 'im. He's headin' north to Greenest."
"That's a full day round trip!"
"Aye, and ye'd be doing best if ye just waited like the rest of us."
Alandil sighed and hung his head. "I guess we'll need rooms then."
"It's six silver a night." He pointed a gnarled finger at Ascanor. "Is it paying itself or do ye want me to set it up in the stable."
Sharyas squawked in rage but Ascanor held her back. "No sir, it's quite alright. Six silver you say?"
"Aye, for my regulars. Travelers expect to pay two gold."
"Now Beran," Acid had begun to creep into the elf's voice, "you wouldn't want a scene on your hands, would you?"
"Nay, I got meself enough problems with me customers."
"Then it'll be six silvers for all of us."
Beran glared at the elf for a few seconds, before unwillingly holding out his palm. "Six silvers, tiefling."
Ascanor reached into his coat and dropped a small coinpurse onto the bar loudly. It turned the eyes of more than just the barkeep. Six coins flashed from his crimson hand into the sandpaper, grimy one of the barkeep. The man grunted and made the coins disappear. "Ye get rooms three through eight."
They climbed the stairs, each one creaking like they threated to break at each footfall. At the top of the stairwell rough oaken doors lined a narrow, dim hall lit only by a lantern flickering on a three legged nightstand. Lightly scratched in the center of each door at eye level were numbers. Ascanor ran a claw along the grains, barely making out the numbers of their rooms. He opened the door to Six.
He expected the interior to be as bad as the exterior, but deep down he silently prayed the opposite. The left wall sported a floor to ceiling tree of cracks whose branches bloomed in leaves of an unknown fungus. At least the bed looked decent, a bit hard, and creaky, but decent. Ascanor sighed, dropping onto the bed, which protested loudly. A sudden weariness took over him, and sleep overcame him as he stared at the uppermost canopy of his wall foliage.
He dreamed again of the circular room, but this time, a small pinprick of light dashed into the black isolation down near his feet. He bent down, watching the light grow sideways, until it shone as a bar as wide as his feet. The bar began to move its way upward, growing to Ascanor's height before tapering off as a rounded arch. He smiled. He'd been given a door out. I've succeeded, Father. I am coming home.
His eyes flickered open as his door echoed a sharp rapping. He stretched, the nearly barren bed frame left a sharp crick in his neck, as well as an aggravating headache. Sharyas stood at his door, a weary look in her eyes. "Ereven's new pet started up right as I tried to get to sleep and now it won't quit."
He laughed softly. "Like to go get some air? Let's take the servant's stairs, I don't like the way the barkeep looks at us."
Evening had set in while he napped, the sun nestling down in the horizon for a nap of its own, painting the sky a deep orange in its wake. People had begun to move around the streets, and the two easily melded into the crowd. Sharyas moved closer to the tiefling, pressing herself against his arm. He held her closer. "Relax, nobody knows who you are."
"You don't know that." She whimpered.
"Sharyas, come on. We're out of danger for the time being, try to enjoy it."
She sighed, but her grip on his arm slackened a little. They turned a corner into a form of marketplace. Here, the majority of the town had to have gathered. To his right, seven chickens roasted on a massive spit over an even larger fire. Sharyas eyed the meals with a vulpine hunger. Ascanor approached the heavily muscle-bound man turning the cookery. "How much?"
The man eyed the tiefling for a second. Ascanor saw suspicion flash in the man's eyes, but it quickly disappeared. "Six copper."
Ascanor nodded. "Two please."
With greasy birds in hand, they moved their way out of the marketplace to sit at a grassy knoll just outside of town. Ascanor bit into the tender meat of the chicken, eagerly slurping up the peppery juices simmered in.
Sharyas licked some grease off her fingers. "You know, Ascanor, I've been meaning to ask you. How can you flash around your money so easily like that? Somebody's bound to come along and burgle you."
He handed her the coinpurse. "Go ahead and open it. Just don't breathe too deeply when you do."
She frowned, but took the small bag. She parted the strings and pulled it open, inviting a small puff of acrid green gas out into the open. She held out like a dead animal, before repeating the action to the same effect. "You hexed it?"
He pocketed the bag. "It, and all the rest of my stuff, are imprinted to only be used by me. Lest you feel like dealing with nasty consequences."
"That's clever. Can't it backfire?"
He shrugged. "It hasn't happened yet. I've just trained myself not to breathe too sharply when its open. It's only real lethal if you leave it open long enough. Or if you're foolish enough to stick your face down to it, I guess."
He stopped as a small group of children rushed out of the town and approached them. Sharyas backpedaled up the hill a few steps, but Ascanor grasped her arm. They came up to the kitsune and grinned wildly. "Hey lady you wanna play with us?"
Sharyas cocked her head. "Me? Why?"
"Nobody here likes to come with us. But you're not from here, that means you can play with us, right?"
Sharyas looked to Ascanor questioningly, who shrugged back. She looked at the kids. "Well if I go, my friend here will have to go too."
The kids turned a wary eye to the tiefling. The little girl pouted slightly. "He can come too."
They led them around the town, showing them random landmarks only a child's eye could really bring to life. They visited the various locations in the dank alleys where the kids found animals, every nook and cranny they erected castles in, and the trinkets they'd collected over the years that served as their treasure. At one point, a little girl brought a squirming puppy over to show off. Before the dog had even laid its eyes on the strangers, a deep rumble leapt from its throat as it began to bark savagely. Sharyas yelped and jumped backwards, her tails visible and bristled.
The kids gasped, the puppy dropping from the girl's arms to dash off into the darkness. Every eye was turned on the cowering Sharyas. Ascanor's hands defied his common sense as they strayed to the blades at his side.
"Y-you're not a human." One of the little boys stepped forward. "What...what are you? Are you a monster?" They looked ready to bolt, but Ascanor dove in quicker.
"Now, don't be so hasty, kids."
"Ascanor, I can handle this." She sat down next to the kids. "I'm a kitsune."
The boy frowned. "What's that mean?"
"Well, it means I can do this." She dropped to the ground as a fox and beamed at the aghast children. "I'm afraid foxes and dogs don't get along too well. I apologize if I caused any panic."
The kids looked at each other, waging a nonverbal war on what to do next. A boy was pushed forward by his peers. He smiled feebly. "That's a pretty trick."
Sharyas pawed forward and pressed her head into the boy's hand. "It's no trick."
The spell had finally broken on the kids and they rushed forward to stroke her silky fur. "How do you have two tails?" One of the little girls asked.
"Every hundred years we gain another tail. I am one hundred and ninety eight." Another chorus of amazed sighs. Ascanor leaned against the wall of a building, watching the childish curiosity over an unfamiliar race with a curiosity of his own. At one point, a feminine shadow draped across the alleyway. The woman scoffed. "There you kids are! Your parents have worried themselves sick! Do you know what time it is? Get home, now. Joffen, Lilly, you too."
Joffen and Lilly groaned. "Fine, Mum."
Ascanor watched with a chuckle as the kids trudged their way home. He hadn't noticed the swollen orb of the moon casting its chiffon light over the drowsy townsfolk. Ascanor met Sharyas' eyes and together they quickly hurried back to the inn.
Once he'd gotten from his bed the next day Ascanor checked the neighboring rooms but found them empty. He rubbed his stiff neck, barely remembering the night before. Through the haze he could remember a kiss with Sharyas before he dove for his bed. His head collided with the pillow and everything had gone black after that. His fingers probed a tight knot in his neck. Another visit to this inn would be way too soon. When he stepped down to the lower floor he found Ereven mingling with the bar regulars while the rest huddled alone on the other side of the room at a table of their own. Ascanor shuffled awkwardly past the other customers and took a protesting seat with his friends.
Alandil's eyes were locked unwaveringly on an envelope sized manila packet on the table in front of him. Ascanor raised an eyebrow questioningly at Sharyas. She shrugged.
"This waited for me when I awoke this morning. Beran told me it'd arrived last night however someone neglected to inform me until this morning." He glared at the barkeep, who threw up his hands.
"Don't be blamin' me ye bleedin' elf. Tis none of my business what ye do. Ye got the thing, now shut yer trap."
"Something tells me that's not the only thing bothering you today." Ascanor noted.
"Yes, well, the contents are rather...disturbing, to say the least."
Ascanor shook the packet. "What, somebody cut off someone's finger or something?"
"You might as just read it, my friend."
Ascanor shrugged and lifted the torn flap, shaking out a thick parchment that revealed to be a finely penciled map. A red line had been drawn from a halo around Gullfeather to an unmarked location slightly northeast. Ascanor frowned, something began to simmer in the back of his mind. Along with the map, a more ordinary piece of parchment held a letter scrawled in eloquent, flowing ink.
Dearest Raven's Fist
I offer my congratulations upon the completion of the task bestowed upon you by me. However, proof shall be required before payment. You shall deliver said goods to Demonsfell Manor before the peak of the full moon or our contract shall be nullified. The aforementioned location can be located by the map enclosed within this correspondence. I shall be waiting, but I shan't forever.
The paper slipped between Ascanor's fingers, cutting an arc in the air before it came to rest on the table. Deep down he'd known this setup was too much to be coincidence. But Sharyas, dear Sharyas, and the others, their friendship, pushed it to the back of his mind. Another party at the location, an unexpected, uninformed, obstacle they'd get paid to take down. Pain flooded into his heart. What gain could his father possibly receive from this.
"Ascanor? Hey, Ascanor?" Alandil snapped his fingers in front of the tiefling's face. "Everything alright? Do you know of this location?"
He managed a nod.
"Well? Where are we going?"