Chapter 8

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Vandarkaï 27th, 108 6A

Onestrio's Trading Post

"I need a bed."

Jupus looked to Arina questioningly.

"We've been sleeping on the ground every night while we're traveling," Arina continued while she stretched to get rid of the creak in her back. "If we get to sleep at the trading post, I'd at least like it to be in a decent bed."

Jupus was not feeling very sympathetic to the former noblewoman. He had long since gotten used to sleeping without a bed. At least out here, there was no shit lying underneath him. Still…

"Well, this place is getting pretty crowded," the gnome mused. "We should start expanding. Maybe a bunkhouse? I imagine our prisoners would really appreciate having more than a pile of hay to sleep on. And Onestrio would appreciate being able to enter his storehouse without an armed escort."

"Splendid idea! Let's start getting the resources needed for this." Arina was already calculating what resources and how much of them they would need.

Davona was ambivalent about the idea.As far as she was concerned, they deserved less than a storehouse. Like a shallow grave. 

However, she knew those thoughts were contrary to her path of redemption. As much as it galled her, she knew that more comfortable lodging had a higher chance of convincing their prisoners that the Company was going to keep their work as long as the former bandits did. With reluctance, she joined her companions in this endeavour.

Meanwhile, Cethin had been keeping himself scarce, appearing only in his guise as Rob the bartender. The other kitsune unnerved him. Her story of a long lost brother, switched at birth, matched exactly the story his guardian had recounted to him as a child. 

Was his coven, the Nine-Tail Coven, the witches that were promised land in Iku? Everything lined up too closely for it to be coincidence. So, if Cethin really was this Ayaki's lost brother Yasu, what did that mean for him?

Tuck Tootle, the "king" of the mockingfey and Cethin's fairy patron, was of no help. As usual, Tootle responded to Cethin's inquiries with mocking jibes, ostensibly to stimulate insight. Or so Cethin hoped that was the intention.

If he was to be completely honest, an act he gifted only to himself, the whole story was entirely in character for his coven. He had seen his former family engage in numerous sneak deals that turned the tables over the other party; many that he himself had a hand in. What happened to the House of Iku was entirely in line with what they had done to those who failed to uphold their side of any bargain with his coven. 

Perhaps it was selfish, and Cethin was happy to own up to his own selfishness, it was a whole different feeling when he was the one on the receiving end of Ninte-Tail trickery. On the other hand, the mischievous kitsune had to admit it was quite the feat.

Cethin resisted the urge to growl out his frustration. He never had to think this seriously before! Seriously, how do the other three deal with their drama? Thinking about it, Cethin concluded that the answer was 'not well'. Fortunately, a distraction soon arrived.

As he was cleaning some glasses, Onestrio walked up to his bar. "Welcome back, Rob! How about a beer?"

'Rob' took one look at Onestrio. The man had a slight unsteadiness in his stance. His eyes were a bit bloodshot. A faint smell of alcohol was already on his breath. Rob made a decision.

"I think you've already had enough, Onestrio," said the bartender. "You should take a break."

Onestrio was taken aback. He slammed his open palm down onto the bar counter. "Now listen here! What kind of bar doesn't serve drinks? And don't forget whose outpost this is!"

The barkeep took a deep breath, and then looked Onestrio straight in the eye. In his most suave voice, he told the other man, "Sir, think about it. You're the owner and caretaker of this now prosperous tradepost. But you need to keep a clear head and steady hand to keep it that way. I'd be happy to serve you a drink, free of charge, even, but only once you've shaken off the effects of your last drink."

Onestrio was still unhappy, but mollified now. The respectful tone and compliments about his life's work agreed with him. The man grunted, then walked off.

Rob thought he had gotten through to the man, but a little while later, he spotted Onestrio behind his house. From the corner of his eye, Rob saw the man uncap a flask, and drank from it deeply. 

Sighing, he shook his head and walked off. The shapeshifted kitsune felt a heavy feeling inside him. Great, was that supposed to be guilt? No, that would be nonsense. But maybe there was a hint of regret regarding some certain past actions...

He came across the priest Joram, who was counselling several of the former bandits on how rewarding hard work can be. Hmm, perhaps some sage advice would be in order. Not for himself, of course...

Once Joram was done speaking with the prisoners, the bartender approached the cleric of Deianeira. He told him about Onestrio and his drinking, and his own attempt to cut him off.

"Something's obviously troubling him," Rob ended his explanation to the priest.

Joram nodded solemnly. "Thank you for telling me this, and for trying to help him. I will speak with Onestrio whenever I can, and try to relieve what ails him."

Rob nodded, and hoped it would be enough. For both their sakes.

Ayaki had grown frustrated. She knew that the other kitsune, her long-lost brother, was here somewhere. She had, quite literally, caught his scent at this trading post. But for the life of her, she could not find him!

Finally, she decided to go join the other newcomers currently in the wild. She had committed her services to the Evergreen Company's mission for the time being in exchange for residing at Onestrio's, and ronin or not, she would honour her pledge. Besides, hacking away at monstrous beasts was one way to work out her frustrations, and perhaps she would pick up a new trail.

The ronin had caught up to Argus, Sky, and Rishoi quite quickly thanks to her mighty steed, the horse Thunder. Team two had no need to obscure their tracks, so it was also quite easy for Ayaki to follow their trail. 

Upon meeting up, she and the others exchanged friendly, but curt, greetings. They still hardly knew each other, after all, joined together due to the goals of others. The four of them then continued the exploration of the Gnarlwood.

That night, Ayaki got her first taste of the dangers of the wilderness. She had volunteered to take the first watch while the others slept. All was quiet in the night until her sharp senses noticed the grass around her shift. Before she could react, the grass seemingly erupted around her!

No, not grass. Thick and long vines lashed out from the vegetation that hid them, and wrapped around Ayaki. The vines were incredibly strong, and began crushing and choking the girl. With horror, Ayaki recognized the danger from her studies. They had made camp amidst an assassin vine!

A dangerous carnivorous plant, assassin vines were much more active in acquiring their nutrients. They generally used their camouflage to wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey travelling pass, but it was not unknown for them to actually crawl and wander in search for food.

No! I've heard enough stories to know where this is going to go! Ayaki panicked. The murderous plant was crushing the kitsune ronin to death. 

Ayaki refused to die so early in her life. She had too much to do. She had to find her brother, restore the honour of her clan, and reclaim her inheritance. With incredible resolve, the young woman was able to grab and loosen the vine around her throat. 

"Wake up!" she cried out in a hoarse voice. It was enough to rouse the veteran adventures.

But before her new companions could react, all of the grass and roots around them suddenly grew in length, and started writhing around them. A gift from the assassin vine. The enlarged plantlife started entangling the new members of the Evergreen Company.

"What the Seven Hells?!" Rishoi spat out. She drew her revolver and started firing at the mass of vines.

Argus rolled out of his bedroll. Thanks to his strength, he easily broke free of the entangling grass, and grabbed his earth breaker. He felt very naked without wearing his armour. Nonetheless, he shuffled up to the assassin vine, and started swinging his deadly maul into it.

Sky sat up in his bedroll. He was amazed at the way this killer plant moved, but that amazement was tempered by how dangerously it was mangling Ayaki. Sky knew better than to get close to it, lest he suffered the same fate as his new companion. In fact, he had something to help with that. 

Reaching into his pack, the sylph pulled out some alchemical grease and started applying it all over his body. The enlarged grass around him easily slipped off his greased form.

Now fully roused, and pumped full of adrenaline, the new Evergreen company smashed and shot at murderous plant. However, it was Ayaki's slash with her wakizashi that delivered the killing blow. She was unceremoniously dropped to the ground as the vine died. The vegetation around them returned to their normal size and behaviour.

"Damn, Ayaki, I thought you were done for!" Sky exclaimed as he rushed to provide her with some celestial healing.

"Good job, girl," Rishoi said approvingly.

The kitsune ronin could only groan. While taking care of Ayaki, Sky collected some of the assassin vine's juices into a vial. This could be useful…

The next morning, Rishoi and Argus were woken by getting slapped in the face by the two halves of the assassin vine. Severely annoyed, Rishoi threw it away in the air, and shot it. There was some faint clapping from the trees. The applause was not appreciated by the irate bounty hunter.

On the other hand, Argus awoke groggily to the slap. Looking at it, he only muttered "What is this?", then rolled over and got a bit more sleep.

Another prank was that Ayaki's and Sky's horses changed colours. Ayaki's horse was pink with red hair, and Sky's was blue with rainbow-coloured hair. Unlike the other two members of their party, Ayaki and Sky were amused. 

"I'm not even mad," Ayaki said. Sky even used his own magic to keep the illusion up after the feys' original illusion had faded.

Another time, Rishoi sat down, and a loud farting noise was heard. "You know what, enough's enough," she said, and she started firing wildly into the trees. Tiny laughter could be heard, ending with another fart noise in Rasho's direction.

"Not helpful," Ayaki muttered at Rishoi.

Several days later, the Evergreen Company encountered a naturally made shelter of fallen trees and branches. What was not natural was the area around it. 

The ground had been torn up, covered in plenty of debris of broken branches, overturned stones, and more dreadfully, the remains of dead animals. Including those of men.

Animal tracks were immediately apparent. It was hard to miss the massive hoof tracks heavily pressed into the ground. They were large enough to easily crush even Argus' head.

The beast that made these tracks was hard to miss. The first sign of its presence, even before it emerged from the shadows of the fallen trees, was its scent. The smell was potently rank and musky, smelling of animal waste and rotten food. It reached the noses of the Company while they were nearly a hundred feet away from the den.

A deep, thundering growl emerged from the shadows within the den. It was followed by the hulking figure of a gigantic boar, dwarfing in size even Ayaki's own powerful steed. Its thick hide was covered in many scars. A pair of enormous, jagged tusks protruded from its maw, each as large as Argus' torso.

The beast huffed and snorted ferociously, stamping its hooves in the ground as its bloodshot eyes stared daggers at the party.

"This must be Tuskgutter," Rishoi said.

Sky immediately cast a spell. Tuskgutter squealed and snorted as he slipped onto the grease coated ground beneath his hooves. Ayaki and Argus charged forth on horseback towards the down beast.

Rishoi fired her pistol, but missed horribly. "Damn it! C'mon Rishoi! Get your head in the game!" the malephilim muttered to herself angrily.

Ayaki's katana swung true, and sliced deeply into the beast's side. Tuskgutter roared in pain. Argus lifted his earth breaker over the beast, but the boar swirled around and gored Argus' horse. The former housecarl slammed hard into the ground, but he narrowly dodged his horse's falling corpse.

As Rishoi continued firing, Sky summoned a celestial eagle over Tuskgutter. Although the bird did little damage against the boar's thick hide, it served as a useful distraction. Enough so that Argus could get back up on his feet and slam his maul into boar!

Argus and Tuskgutter tussled fiercely with each other. Ayaki saw an opening. She swung her katana again, and sliced through the boar's gut. Tuskgutter reared up and squealed in pain. 

Another opening appeared. Ayaki swung again and missed, but Argus slammed his earth breaker down onto the Tuskgutter's head, cracking it open. In that one blow, the fearsome Tuskgutter of the Evergreen died.

Now that the giant boar was dead, the party skinned his body, harvested his meat, and severed his head to bring back. However, Argus lost his horse in the fight, so their travel speed slowed down.

The party set their direction to leave the forest, but surveyed the unexplored portions that were on their way. They returned to Onestrio's trading post a few days later. They turned in Tuskgutter's head to Gaspasi, the representative of the Monster Hunter Association of Lurindor. 

"Marvelous!" he exclaimed. "You slew Tuskgutter! Please, recount to me the tale of your hunt of this fearsome beast." 

The Company told him the story, and the old gentleman rewarded them with an enchanted longbow. 

"This is Hide Piercer," Gaspasi told them. "It came to fame in the hands of the huntress Silvani Laralli. She graciously donated to the Association upon her retirement. May it serve you just as well." 

The Company agreed that Ayaki should wield the bow. She was the only among them that was properly trained in using bows thanks to her samurai upbringing.

In addition to the bow, Gaspasi offered each of them an invitation to join the Association, which they all accepted. Sky, being already a member of the MHAL, was rewarded with having a successful one-star hunt added to his record.

The second Evergreen Company team reunited with the original members, and updated them on their discoveries. Once done, the group as a whole prepared for their next expedition.

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