A bustling market place goes from alive with activity to dead silent in the span of five seconds. People turn their heads away awkwardly and playing children are ushered to safety with hushes and warnings not to look. Beggars look away and citizens hold their bags close to their chests.
This is a sight that Maki Harukawa knows all too well. Before she was even born, she was cursed to wander the world as a demonic monster. Her fiendish heritage is even evident in her name. Of course, it's not that she's one to complain about the loneliness. The fact that people scatter whenever she turns up only means she's not going to get bothered. She also knows that the vendors who matter will put aside their fear of her so long as she has coin.
The only problem with being hated, despised and feared is the fact that the occasional glory-seeking nimrod would accuse her of some form of treachery and attempt to dispatch her. It never ends particularly well for them, and Maki's had to get her hands dirty more than once thanks to particularly stubborn would-be heroes. She isn't evil, per say, but she'd be lying if she said the memories of tearing people apart didn't make her tail swish in delight.
Speaking of foolish, there's someone now. He rounds the corner and upon laying eyes on her, his face breaks out into a goofy grin. He holds a hand up and shouts for her to halt before rushing to confront her. Just behind him is a shorter person who's struggling to keep up with him and calling for him to slow down.
Maki crosses her arms over her chest and glares at the human, her tail thumping the ground impatiently. "What do you want?"
"I heard tell of you being in town again," the man says, one hand running through his stupid purple hair and one resting on his hip (dangerously near his weapon, she notices.) "At least, I assume you're the tiefling I was told about. There ain't exactly a bunch of them milling about around these parts."
Maki clenches her fist. "So what? Here to confront me about all the evil I haven't been here to do? If so, you've picked an unfortunately public place to die."
The man barks a laugh, and Maki can't help but notice now that he's not really wearing any armor. He's got pants on, of course, but he seems to have forgotten to wear a shirt today. The minuscule halfling trailing after him finally catches up and adjusts the gigantic hat sitting on her tiny head to look up at Maki. "Sorry for disturbing you," she says. "We'll be going now. Isn't that right, Kaito?"
"Oh no, you've both got me all wrong," Kaito says. "I'm not here to confront you or anything. I just want to see ya."
Kaito nods proudly. "Yeah! See, the ol' man running the tavern was talking about how people are scared of ya. Said something about a demon being hard to make friends with. But I decided I needed to see it to believe it."
"Well, now you see me," Maki says, spreading her arms out. "I'm red, I have horns and a tail, and staying away from me would be the wisest course of action."
Kaito shakes his head, dropping his arms to his sides. "That's not what I meant. I meant I wanted to see ya in person to judge whether you're actually evil."
Maki scans the man's poorly clothed body, one eyebrow raised. "And?"
"And now that I get a look at ya, I don't see it."
"Thanks for the evaluation," Maki says, pushing past him and the halfling behind him. "Now if you'll excuse me..."
Suddenly, shouts and screams ring out from the other side of the marketplace. Maki whirls around to see three brigands starting to lay siege to the stalls and people along the road. Kaito frantically grabs the greataxe at his hip and brandishes it toward the bandits. "Halt!" He shouts, closing the distance slightly.
The halfling produces a spellbook from her bag and holds up her free hand, which is crackling with magical energy.
One of the rugged men turns to Kaito and chuckles. "Oh? Looks like we've got ourselves a hero, boys."
His two pals grin and join his side, weapons brandished and ready for battle.
"Are you ready for this, Himiko?" Kaito asks, hefting his axe into a battle-ready stance.
The halfling sighs. "We're gonna die."
"They're going to die," Maki agrees, sticking around just to watch the proceedings.
The first brigand, who seems to be the leader of the bunch judging by his significantly more scarred face, charges for Kaito and swings down, clearly with the intention to cleave him in half. Kaito ducks out of the way, letting the axe bury itself into the ground. He takes advantage of his opponent's miss and takes a swing with his own weapon. He manages to cut a gash in the bandit, who yelps in pain and slaps a hand over the wound. "You'll pay for that you little shit!"
"Fireball!" The halfling apparently named Himiko squeals from a distance. Flames coat her hand and she tosses the mote of fire at the head bandit. It explodes against his chest and he staggers backwards, smoke pouring from the impact zone.
"Help me, you idiots!" He barks at his compatriots.
His two lackeys jump into action one at a time. One lunges for Kaito and takes a swing, cutting a gash in his arm similar to the one he'd just given the first brigand. He cries out in pain before the second subordinate takes a swing at him as well, taking some skin off his back.
Maki sighs, her shoulders slumping toward the battle. "I guess I should do something," she mutters to herself. She takes a step forward to help, but stops herself. "Or I could...not. They don't look to be in too much trouble yet."
The leader of the bandits swings at Kaito again, and Maki can tell he's going for the neck. Kaito ducks, but not low enough to save all of his hair from the attack. The very tip of his obnoxious hair floats to the ground, and once it passes his face, he shoots the leader a fierce glare. "Watch it!" He shouts. He swings at the leader, who steps backward, but he growls and turns the axe for a second swing, which tears a huge hole in the leader's chest.
Himiko inhales sharply through her teeth. "Probably not the brightest idea to get reckless when two people are about to attack you." She pauses as if waiting for a response, but eventually shrugs and lobs another ball of fire into the fray. This one sails over everyone's heads and explodes uselessly against the ground just past the ruffians.
The first subordinate attacks Kaito again, nicking his axe against his shoulder, and the second one advances on Himiko. Himiko screams as his axe swing goes right over her head, just barely missing her obnoxiously large wizard's hat. "A little help here, tiefling!"
Maki rolls her eyes. "Fine." At long last, she jumps into the battle. Her first target is the man who just attacked Himiko. She punches him in the gut as hard as she can. The force of the blow knocks the wind out of Himiko's attacker, but Maki's not done yet. She whirls around and brings her foot to the side of his head. As her kick lands, she hears a sharp crack! The man stumbles backwards, the life rapidly draining from his face. He falls backwards, and by the time he hits the dirt, he is already dead.
"Holy shit!" Himiko gasps. "You just one shot your first enemy!"
Maki cracks a self-satisfied smirk. Unfortunately, Himiko's shouts and the swift death attracts the attention of the leader. He snarls at the tiefling, putting his full mouth of poorly kept teeth on display. "You filthy demon!" He leaps at Maki and swings hard, and Maki foolishly puts her forearms up to deflect his axe as if it were a fist in a hand-to-hand battle. As a result, the blade sinks into the skin of her forearm. Maki hisses in pain and grits her teeth as her blood splatters to the ground.
"Maki!" Kaito lifts his axe high above his head and brings it down against Maki's attacker, burying the blade in his bare back.
Maki takes a step back, her skin making a sickening sound as she wriggles it free of the axe. Meanwhile, the man who attacked her cries out in pain, screaming curses at his opponents and one remaining teammate. Himiko holds up one hand and another fireball springs from her palm, exploding against the bandit leader. His underling looks visibly nervous as he takes a halfhearted swing at Kaito, who doesn't even notice he's being attacked because of how bad that attack missed.
Maki cracks her knuckles and glares at the leader, who seems to be on his last legs. "I didn't want to be a part of this battle, but I have to admit, this does bring a smile to my face."
Himiko sounds unimpressed. "Your one liners could use some work. Referencing other stuff just feels cheap."
Maki breaks out into a full sprint and brings her knee to the brigand's face, bashing his nose in and watching blood spray every which way from the sheer force of the impact. She brings her hands down and uses his head as leverage to lift her body off the ground until she's doing a perfect handstand on his head. From there, she snaps his neck and continues to flip over him. She lands hard on the ground behind him, grips his head tight and brings him over her shoulder to slam him into the ground. His mangled body lies uselessly on the ground, the last traces of his life quickly fading.
His underling drops his own weapon in dismay. "Boss! No!" He turns on his heel and hightails it out of there, screaming and begging for mercy all the while.
Maki glares at the thief and starts to follow, but the sharp pain from her forearm causes her to pause just long enough for Kaito to place his hand on her shoulder. "Let him go," he says. "I don't think he's gonna be bothering anybody anymore."
"Yeah, didja hear how he was crying?" Himiko adds. "He's probably going home to cry into his pillow."
Without waiting for Maki to respond, Kaito barks a boisterous laugh. "Well, that was fun, wasn't it? We sure showed them who's boss!"
"Yeah, great," Maki says with an eye roll.
Suddenly, the people of the bazaar start gathering around the trio, mumbling amongst themselves about the heroes who just saved their businesses and livelihoods. Maki can feel many more eyes than usual bore into her, and it makes her profoundly uncomfortable. No sooner than the first person congratulating them on a job well done does Maki start trying to worm her way out of the crowd. "Hey, Maki, wait up!" Kaito calls out, shuffling to keep pace with her.
Himiko may or may not be lost in the crowd forever.
Eventually, Maki ends up at the dirtiest, grungiest tavern she can find. She takes a seat at the poorly-kept bar and orders a rum.
However, instead of complying, the bartender eyes her with suspicion. At least, that's what she thinks he's doing; his black hat's large brim is mostly covering his eyes, so she doesn't have a lot to go on in that regard. "Well, did you hear me?" She demanded, growing impatient. "Rum. Now."
The bartender flinches back at her tone, but stands his ground. "Are you sure you're good for it, tiefling?"
Maki can feel herself grow tense. "Of course I am. Are you sure you should be a bartender with such a nervous demeanor?"
The bartender sighs, shaking his head. "Look, I'm not fully in character yet, give me a second. Geeze."
Seconds later, Maki has a rum in front of her, but the satisfaction only lasts a moment. As soon as the expired alcohol hits her lips, Maki wishes she'd ordered a water instead. To make things worse, she's barely swallowed her first sip before Kaito is bursting into the tavern, naturally drawing all eyes to his stupid face. "There you are," he says, taking a seat next to Maki and happily patting her back. "I've been looking everywhere for ya."
"Yay, you found me," Maki grumbles. "What do you want, a trophy?"
Kaito seems to ignore her remark in favor of ordering his own drink. To Maki's left, Himiko hops up onto the stool and casts a worried glance at her arm. "I can heal that, if you like."
"Yeah, I was gonna ask about that," the bartender says. "I hope you're not too hurt...and I'd like you to, y'know, not be bleeding on my bar."
Maki looks down to see a small puddle of blood forming around her arm. She watches her blood slowly trickle down her skin for a moment, and then quietly offers Himiko her injured arm while Kaito takes control of the conversation. "Man, you missed it! Maki here took out two brigands basically by herself! And that little cut was all they managed to do to her!"
"Impressive, I suppose," the barkeep says with a shrug.
"Just you wait," Kaito continues, unaffected by the boredom in the other's voice. "We're gonna go on more adventures and the three of us are gonna become household names."
"Hey, I never said I'd go anywhere with you," Maki says quickly.
"We could really use your muscle," Himiko says, letting go of Maki's newly patched up arm. "Otherwise Kaito might just get himself killed."
Maki finds it hard to argue with that, but there's still one issue she can find. "I really don't think you want a tiefling around. That's just asking for trouble."
The barkeep nods quickly, trying to conceal his agreement, but Kaito still seems more focused on his own line of thought. "Oh, what's the worst that can happen?"
Maki has several ideas, all taken from experience. "Discrimination. Merchants deciding not to do business with you. Everyone assuming the worst about you, accusations of fucking a demon, that kind of thing."
Kaito purses his lips, taking a moment to think over his next words. "I don't think that will be too much of a problem."
"And why is that?" Maki asks before taking another gulp of terrible rum.
Kaito flashes her a thumb's up and a cheesy grin. "Because once it becomes common knowledge that you're a hero, people will start to love you."
Maki barks a laugh, her tail swishing behind her and nearly taking Himiko's stool out from under her. "Fat chance. But..." Maki downs the rest of her drink and waits to speak again. "You're so confident about this stupid idea of yours that..."
"You're coming with us?"
Maki shrugs. "More like, I want to see your face when it fails."
"So you're coming with us!"
Maki lets out a heavy sigh. "Don't make me change my mind."
"Yeah! Himiko, that's one more party member!" Kaito slams a hand on the bar and gives the barkeep a wide smile. "One round for each of us, good sir! This one's on me, you two!"
And so, Maki begins her travels along with with the odd duo of Himiko and Kaito. At first, they take small jobs like escorting cargo shipments or routing bandits, but it doesn't take long at all for the tales of the ragtag team of a tiefling monk, a halfling wizard, and a human barbarian to start spreading through the settlement they call home. But most importantly, Maki is no longer steeped in loneliness, instead having two friends to turn to when she needs them.
One day finds another person joining their ranks. While Maki browses the selection of the weapon store in town, she hears a jingling as someone prances through the doorway. Kaito and Himiko take one look at the tabaxi and their eyes light up. "Hey, it's our other friend!" Kaito calls, rushing to the newcomer and taking her up in a hug.
The strange cat-like creature laughs and wraps her furry arms around Kaito. "Good to see you two again," she says. "What have I missed?"
Kaito lets her go and beams in Maki's direction. "Excellent question!" He bounds over to Maki and grabs her hand to lead her to the new face. "We made a new friend!"
Maki puts on her most dour expression and looks toward the creature. She's a tabaxi just about Maki's size with yellow fur. She has several pins in her fur shaped like musical notes, and the instrument on her back immediately gives her away as a bard. When she sees Maki's grave expression, her eyes narrow and her ears go flat against her head. "You could at least put on a smile when you meet a new person," she says, slender yellow tail swishing behind her aggressively.
"Force of habit," Maki says flatly.
The manager of the weapons store sees trouble brewing and pulls his black hat over his eyes in an attempt to distance himself from what might turn into a brawl. "Hey, if you ladies are gonna fight, you better take it outside!"
The tabaxi puts on a sweet smile and looks past Maki to the storekeeper. "Sorry, sir!" She shakes her head and turns her attention back to Maki. "Sorry about that," she says, all signs of aggression melting away, replaced by an outstretched hand...paw? "Let's start again. What's your name?"
Maki puts her hand forward as well, shaking hands as she introduces herself. "Maki. And yours?"
The cat puts her free hand to her mouth and giggles. "See, us tabaxi have a history of giving our kids weird names. My real name is Red Maple Tree At Dawn. But you can call me any shorter version of that you like. I'm partial to Maple."
"But Kaito just calls her Kaede," Himiko says with a laugh.
Kaito ignores the fact that what Himiko said was obviously a dig at him and pats Kaede on the shoulder. "See, Kaede here can't always join us because she's a very busy kitty, but when she does, we have tons of fun!"
Kaede lifts one of her hands and slides her claws out. "Would you like to take your hand back, or should I keep it as payment for you calling me a kitty?"
Maki smirks. "I like her moxie."
"Me too," the shopkeeper says dreamily.
Kaede waits until Kaito is done invading her personal space to speak again, but when she does, she puts on a warm smile and raises her hands excitedly. "So what's on the docket today, guys?"
Himiko shrugs, taking a look around the store. "I dunno. We were just shopping for a new weapon for Kaito."
"Well, that can wait," Kaito says, turning for the doorway. "It's not every day we have Kaede here with us, so let's make the most of it."
"Okay," Kaede says, watching him march toward the door. "So what is there to do?"
Kaito freezes in place, eyes wide. "That… is an excellent question. What is there to do?" He turns toward the shop owner with a raised eyebrow.
The man behind the counter returns a perplexed look for a second. "Oh, uh..." He grabs a book from behind his counter and starts to flip through its pages."Let's see, I'm sure there's some kind of sidequest you guys can do at this point..." From Maki's vantage point, the way his head is bowed over the tome makes him look like a man with a hat for a head, which makes her chuckle. Finally, the man puts a finger down on a page triumphantly. "Ah, ha! This one will do nicely."
"Lay it on us," Kaito says eagerly.
The shop owner clears his throat and starts reading directly from the book. "See, there's a problem with trade caravans mysteriously disappearing around the town of, er, actually, doesn't matter, it's an abandoned town. A lot of them have been disappearing and those that don't go missing entirely reach their destination with looted wagons and injured oxen." He looks up at the group and smiles. "How would you like to fight your first dragon, guys?"
Kaito, Kaede and Himiko all gasp while Maki raises an eyebrow. "Hell yeah!" Kaito says, fist pumping in the air. "Just point us in the right direction and we'll take care of it!"
Before sending them on their way, the merchant takes care to inform the group of the proper context of their quest. Their goal is to investigate the town that was in ruins last time anyone saw it and see who—or what might have attacked all those shipments.
Thanks to Kaede's clever thinking, the group sets out with a dummy shipment: a covered wagon with nothing of import inside. Himiko sits at the reins, directing the oxen pulling the carriage while Kaito, Kaede and Maki walk along the outside. "We'll make sure this gets there safe and sound," Kaito says a few hours in, patting the side of the wagon proudly.
"Have you already forgotten this isn't a real shipment?" Kaede asks with a giggle.
Kaito doesn't respond.
'That's a loud silence," Maki remarks. She and Kaede share a laugh at Kaito's expense while the latter scratches the back of his head awkwardly.
"Well, I'm just glad you gals are getting along," he says with a smile.
Kaede turns to Maki with a smile. "I'll admit, I was a tad worried about you making friends with a tiefling at first, but now I can see she's a good person."
"Don't run around telling people that," Maki warns. "Or else I'll be forced to kill you. I'm sure that fur makes for a nice, soft coat.
Before their banter can continue, the group is approached by a half-orc man with bloodshot eyes, weathered armor, and a large-brimmed black hat. "Ho, travelers!"
Kaito gives the man a friendly wave while Maki tenses up. "Ho!" He calls. "What brings you out to us?"
The man looks behind him, where Maki can see a small town—or rather, the ruins of one—just over the horizon. "I come with a warning," he says quickly. "Please, I implore you to find a way around the settlement just ahead."
"Why is that?" Himiko asks.
The half-orc seems to notice Himiko for the first time, doing a double-take at the red-headed halfling. "It may seem like an abandoned trading town, but recently, a dragon has decided to make it his home, and he's been laying siege to any shipments that come through."
"So that's why these things have been going missing," Kaito says, stroking his goatee thoughtfully. "What kind of dragon is it?"
"It's a towering green dragon, and his maw bubbles with poison whenever he opens his mouth." The traveler seems to scare himself just by talking about it.
"You seem scared," Kaede says. "Would you like me to play you a tune to ease your nerves?"
The man shakes his head. "No thank you."
"If you're so scared, why are you still hanging around here?" Maki asks, crossing her arms.
"I'm merely stationed around here to warn travelers to avoid this place," the man explains. "I'm keeping an eye on the dragon. Just, you know, from a safe distance."
"Well, we have our culprit," Kaito says. "Shall we go try to put a stop to this dragon's sinister schemes?"
"Yeah!" Kaede cheers.
"Let's go!" Himiko shouts.
Maki can't help but smile. "Sure."
"Wh-what?" The half-orc seems astounded. "You're going to confront the dragon?"
Kaito nods proudly. "We're here to make sure travelers can get through safely again, and there's no other way to do that then kicking the dragon out of town, yeah?"
"My god, you're all suicidal."
Moments later, the oxen are pulling the covered wagon into what remains of the town. Maki looks around the ruined buildings and mounds of rubble, trying to imagine what the town looked like in its heyday. Kaito does much the same, musing to himself, "if I were a dragon, where in this former town would I hide?"
"Probably the only building that's really still standing," Maki says, pointing at the remains of a tall tower standing in the middle of the ruins.
Kaito's face scrunches up. "Yeah, but where would that be?"
"Dumbass," Maki says, grabbing his cheeks and forcefully turning his head to the tower.
"Ah! There! Perfect." Kaito wrests from her grip and starts marching toward the tower. Maki shares a look with Himiko and Kaede, and after the girls shrug at each other, they follow after.
When Kaito reaches the door, Himiko speaks up. "Should we really be barging in? We could at least, y'know, try to be stealthy."
Kaede crosses her arms and nods along. "Yeah, I'd rather get a surprise attack on a dragon."
Kaito freezes in place and hums to himself as he considers this course of action. "What do you think, Maki?"
"Do you want to die?" Maki asks. "Because if you break the door down and go in screaming, that's how you do it."
That seems to convince the dumbass. "Alright, let's be sneaky, then." He hunches over and reaches for the doorknob slowly. However, he seems to misjudge the door's strength, as when he tries to ease it open, the weak, wooden slab goes flying off its hinges, nearly taking Himiko's head off as it soars away.
The door clatters to the ground just before a loud, bellowing roar shakes the ground beneath them. "Good job, idiot, now we're going to die," Maki says, putting up her fists. The group starts toward the door, but before they can see their way inside, a massive green dragon emerges from the destroyed roof and soars over their heads, setting foot on the ground behind them and putting it in the middle of the town.
"Who dares disturb my slumber?" The dragon snarls, maw dripping with acid just as the half-orc warned. It leans forward and digs its front claws into the ground so its eyes are relatively level with its visitors.
"We're here to stop you from snatching up caravans!" Kaito declares, stepping to the front of the group.
In her periphery, Maki sees Himiko and Kaede step back, making sure the two close range fighters are closer to the action. Maki takes a deep breath and cracks her knuckles. "Just leave this place if you want to live to see tomorrow."
The dragon's eyes narrow and it roars indignantly. "You are either extremely brave, or exceedingly stupid. Very well, just try to stop me!"
Maki snorts, barely containing laughter. "Sorry, you're still not intimidating no matter how mean a voice you put on."
The dragon roars angrily and the battle begins.
Kaito sprints to the dragon and grabs his axe from his back, taking a vicious swing at the beast. He barely scratches its hide, leaving what looks like a mere scuff on its hard scales.
"Good job, dunderhead," Himiko shouts before coating her hand in red magic. "I cast Fireball!" The fire ball that springs from her hand soars over the others and explodes against the dragon's body, causing it to recoil.
"Insolence!" It screams, turning its anger toward Kaito. It raises its hand and smashes its claws into the ground. Kaito jumps out of the way, but not without one of the dragon's claws digging slightly into his flesh.
Seeing this, Kaede steps forward. "Can't be having that now, can we? I'll cast Vicious Mockery. Hey, idiot! You couldn't hit the broad side of my fuzzy feline ass!"
"Jesus, Kaede," Maki gasps.
"What can I say? I get into character," Kaede says with a grin.
The dragon hears her and turns his gaze towards her. "I cannot hit you, you say? We'll see about that."
The color starts to drain from Kaede's face. "Well, that didn't work."
Maki scoffs and stands between the dragon and his new target. "You'll have to get through me if you want to eat that pussy."
"You really could have thought that one out better," Himiko mumbles to herself.
Maki breaks out into a sprint and leaps at the dragon. She lands a drop kick directly on the monster's snout, kicks off of it to do a backflip (for style, of course,) and thrusts her palm at it. The dragon takes a step back and snarls at her, but that's when Kaito intervenes. He swings again and this time, lands a good hit. His axe cleaves off some of the dragon's scales and leaves a gash in its wake.
"Fireball!" Himiko throws another fireball at the dragon, which smashes the ground near his feet and leaves a singed crater in its wake. The dragon responds in kind by opening his mouth wide and spraying a cloud of poisonous gas at his three nearest attackers. Maki covers her mouth, but it isn't enough. She can feel herself get dizzy, and judging by Kaito and Himiko's similar reactions, they seem to be worse for wear as well
"Don't you know any other spells?" Maki snaps. Once the fog begins to clear.
"Sure I do," Himiko says with a shrug and a cough. "But Fireball's all that matters."
"Maybe something that hits more often would be of better help," Kaede says, getting ready to cast another spell.
"Tough talk coming from someone in Fireball distance..."
"Maki, Kaito, cover your ears!" Ignoring Himiko's threats, Kaede kneels down and slams her hand on the ground. "Shatter!" She screams. A loud, intense ringing sound erupts from nearby. Maki and Kaito just cover their ears in time, but the dragon isn't prepared. He flinches back and hisses harshly, poison dripping from his teeth onto the ground.
While he reels, Maki jumps back into action, punching the side of his snout as hard as she can. She leaves a noticeable dent in the dragon's scales and decides to double down by kicking the same spot hard. The dragon flinches back, though, and her second attack whiffs.
Kaito makes up for the miss by bringing his axe down hard on the dragon, burying the blade deep in his snout. The dragon roars and reels back, standing up on his hind legs. "Enough!" He roars. He opens his mouth wide to prepare another poison breath attack, but Himiko lobs another fireball at him, which lands square in his maw. The explosion rocks his entire body, And he nearly falls backwards, but he catches himself. "Pests!" The dragon lets loose a roar and leaps over Maki and Kaito. He lands with a thud directly in front of Himiko and Kaede. "Face me head on, cowards," he snarls, swiping at Himiko with his claws. His attack lands and throws Himiko's tiny body thirty feet away.
Maki's eyes go wide and she screams Himiko's name just as the halfling thuds against the ground and skids another ten feet. Kaede cups her hands around her mouth and casts Healing Word. "Chopin!" She shouts. The magic emanates from her mouth and within seconds, Himiko's chest starts weakly rising and falling.
"Chopin? Really?" Maki asks, incredulous.
"That word heals me, at least" Kaede says calmly.
"You're next," the dragon says, huffing green smoke from his nostrils.
Maki clenches her fist and puts on a snarl of her own, her tail lashing out behind her like a whip. "Not if I have anything to say about it." She literally leaps into action, landing on the dragon's tail and running up his back. Once she reaches his head, she jumps into the air and comes down in between his eyes with a spinning axe kick. His tough scales shatter beneath her foot, and she can tell by the drops of blood flying through the air that she broke the skin as well. The dragon throws his head back as he screams in pain, which sends Maki flying through the air. She braces herself to hit the ground hard, but instead a warm body catches her and breaks her fall.
"Whoa! Whew, that was a close one, Maki Roll," Kaito says.
The dragon roars and whirls around, blood dripping from the wound on his head. "That's enough! You brats are more trouble than this land is worth. You win this time, but if I ever see any of you again, I'll melt the flesh off your bones!" He stands tall and spreads his dark green wings as wide as they can go. "And I'll start with you, you filthy tiefling demon!"
The dragon flies off into the sunset, leaving the party to tend to their halfling's wounds. "Himiko, are you alright?" Kaede asks as she drops to her knees.
"I'm fine," Himiko groans. "Did...did Maki just basically solo that dragon?"
"Hey, that's not fair," Kaito says. "We all helped."
"And Maki just got good rolls," Kaede says.
Maki crosses her arms and nods. "Kaede's right." As Kaede starts healing Himiko, Maki sighs. "...Kaito?"
"Put me down if you want to keep your hands."
A couple of days later, the group hobbles back into town, ready for some cold drinks and warm beds. However, the town seems to have other plans judging by the fact that, at the mere sight of the troupe, everyone bursts into loud cheers.
"Whoa, are we havin' a party or something?" Kaito asks as the crowd forms around them.
"We are now!" One of the townspeople says with a cheer.
"What's going on?" Maki demands.
From the crowd, a familiar half-orc emerges with a shy grimace on his face. "I may or may not have watched that battle and ran back here to tell everyone of your deeds."
"You defeated that dragon and finally saved our shipments!" A burly man says.
"And who knows when that nasty creature would have set his sights on our humble town?" An old lady adds.
"You're our heroes!"
Maki can feel her face warm up. If her skin wasn't already red, she would be blushing. "I...never thought I'd be welcomed anywhere as a hero."
Kaito slaps her back, stunning her out of her disbelieving daze. "Well, get used to it, Maki Roll. We're genuine, certifiable heroes now!"
From that day, Maki's life changes drastically. Tales of her exploits with Himiko and Kaito (and sometimes Kaede) spread through the countryside like wildfire, and wherever they go, they are met with adoring fans and generous tavern owners willing to part with a drink or two for the mighty dragon slayers.
They try not to tell too many people that they didn't actually kill the dragon...
Then, a year after she first met Kaito and Himiko, Maki's life changes again.
That day seems to start normally enough. The trio helps clean up a cave full of goblins acting as highwaymen, but once they arrive back at the tavern, Maki can tell something is different about the air around the table. Kaito seems to be looking around nervously and fiddling with something in his pocket and the barkeeper keeps nervously adjusting his wide-brimmed black hat. Even Himiko seems affected by whatever's going on, as she looks to Kaito expectantly whenever he opens his mouth to say something.
Before Maki can ask what's going on, a barfight breaks out between a regular patron of the bar and a man with mysterious tattoos on his head. The latter has reinforcements, so Kaito, Maki and Himiko join the fight to even the odds. The trio clears out the assailants with relative ease, and after Maki makes sure the victim of the ambush is alright, notices that Kaito has mysteriously vanished from her sight. She hears him start to say something behind her, but his words are drowned out by the roar of a terrible monster attacking the tavern.
As they do battle with the beast, Maki notices Kaito missing several attacks and generally not paying much attention. "Hey, stop daydreaming or you're gonna get yourself killed," she warns after delivering a swift kick to the side of the ogre's head.
"Sorry, I'm just trying to gather the courage to—whoa!" Kaito is interrupted by the ogre smashing one of its giant fists against his chest.
Maki sighs and shakes her head. "Idiot."
After that, Kaito pulls his head out of the clouds and the trio manages to defeat the monster. In the smoking wreckage of tavern, Kaito grabs Maki's arm and pulls her aside, away from the patrons hailing their heroic exploits. "Maki Roll, I gotta ask you something," he says, a dead serious expression on his face.
Maki crosses her arms smugly. "Are you going to ask me to pretend you didn't get your shit kicked in by that monster?"
Kaito frowns, a blush spreading across his cheeks. "Stop it, this is serious!"
Maki is utterly confused. "Then out with it already."
"I'm trying, but..." Kaito pauses to take a deep breath. "Oh, I'm just wasting our time, aren't I? We should just get on with things."
Maki drops her arms to her side. "Do you want to die?"
"No, actually I'd rather marry you."
The fictional barbarian Kaito and the real Kaito both drop to their knees hastily. One knocks over several dice and sends a character sheet floating gently to the ground, but both produce a small box containing a sparkling ring. "Excuse me?" Maki demands, dropping out of character entirely and springing out of her chair. The colorful world she had imagined melts away, replaced by the somewhat dull walls of Shuichi's living room. The owner of the house buries his face in his hands to hide his bright red face and in the process, his hat falls off his head, knocking over his DM screen and sending the table even further into chaos.
Himiko seems mostly unaffected.
"You heard what I said," Kaito said, pushing the ring closer to her. "Maki, will you marry me?"
Maki blinks back tears, her face almost as red as her tiefling counterpart. "Y-you fucking idiot!" She yells. "Of all the ways to propose after years of dating, you choose during a session of Dungeons and Dragons?"
Kaito's grin is replaced by a sheepish grimace. "W-well, after we convinced you to join last year, you seemed to really enjoy playing, and I thought that our characters would have to get married too, so, uh..."
Finally, Shuichi speaks up from behind his hands. "We had this big, elaborate battle planned to lead more naturally into it, but of course, Kaito's rolls just couldn't live up to it."
Maki sighs, her gaze landing on the ring in Kaito's hand. "It's...gorgeous," she gasps.
"Uh, yeah, I thought you'd like it," Kaito says, awkwardly frozen in place.
Maki huffs and puffs, preparing another lashing of insults, but all she can manage is a sob, after which she tackles her boyfriend to the ground in a hug that further destroys the set-up. "Fine, I'll marry you, you idiot," she says. "But you have to promise to give me a real proposal, okay?"
"Aw man, I have to do this again?" Kaito groans. "The first time was nerve-wracking enough!"
"Maybe it'll easier knowing the answer was already yes?" Shuichi suggests, trying not to look at the tangle of limbs on the ground just in case things escalate.
Kaito seems unsure, but Maki cuts off his response with the most heartfelt kiss she can remember giving him. Once their lips part, Kaito smiles wide. "Y'know, I think that does make things better."
He gently places a hand on Maki's cheek and pulls her in for another kiss; one that isn't interrupted until Himiko clears her throat.
"Can we get back to playing now?"