There weren't always dragons in the Valley. They were once lizards that crawled along the ground and through the roots of the great Arch Trees, but now they soared to their canopies and roosted there among hovels inhabited by low-lives and mercenaries. This was the region of Arcadia, one of the few where humans still reigned after The Blackening.
This was where Lotel Deyak stopped. He dismounted his pigmy drake and looked upon the haphazardly built structure before him. He was at the top of an Arch Tree and here stood a tavern, the Floating Keg. The wooden paneling was stained by years of heavy rain with pieces jutting out as if some child had glued the building together with his own shit. Disgusting. He grimaced as he approached the building, fully aware it would only get worse on the inside.
He opened the door and gagged from the strong smell of ale and musk. The place was full of people, many scattered about different tables or crammed in between them. There was no room to move, though he didn’t want to enter such a vile place anyway.
“Close the damn door; you're letting out all the heat!” A voice yelled from across the room. Lotel peered into the dimly lit room and suspected the voice came from the would-be owner of this 'establishment'. All he could see was a mass of burly men crowded around what seemed to be the bar counter. He smiled to himself, enjoying the delicious sight. Maybe this place isn’t so bad.
“I'm not going to tell you twice!” Lotel came to his senses, his fantasy ripped from him. He glared in the general direction of the voice and walked into the room, closing the door behind him. On the bright side, he was now surrounded by the walls of flesh that caught his eye. He looked around with glee while the tavern goers eyed him up and down, cautiously studying the odd man. Sadly, he couldn’t revel in the moment for long. He slowly made his way deeper inside the tavern, trying to focus on his mission.
He was dressed very differently from the rest of them. Many seemed to be mercenaries wearing different qualities of mail and linen armor—most dirty and sweat-stained. Lotel on the other hand was wearing a dark cloak to hide his face and overall frail body—though his weakness was still apparent to anyone who saw through his façade.
“Nice dress!” Someone commented. “How much to take you out back?” A nearby table roared with laughter. Lotel laughed with them. “I’m off the clock tonight, boys. I only serve nobles, anyway.” He gave them a quick smirk, and this only preceded to piss them off. He quite enjoyed this, though.
Lotel continued walking through the tavern. These mercenaries are quite the bunch, he thought to himself, but they’re pathetic in the grand scheme of things. There’s only one man that can satisfy my needs, and he’s the one that will have all my attention.
He was near the middle of the tavern now, but even then, he still couldn't find who he was looking for. Generic mercenary after generic lowlife with the occasional female warrior. They all looked alike, a sea of subhuman trash who didn’t deserve to walk in his shadow or be objects of his desire, merely slaves to serve him and his superiors. But his search had come up to something.
A noteworthy conversation brushed his ear, and he listened as best he could despite the chaos around him. It was coming from a table near a surprisingly quiet part of the tavern. A man and a woman sat there, and the woman wore a white, linen cap that hid most of her dark brown hair. She was holding a wooden cup that she used to scoop up several dice before shaking them and rolling them back out onto the table. Lotel grinned and made his way over to them.
“I'm telling you; it was the worst beast I had ever seen, greater than anything you've taken down before.” The lady paid him no mind and examined the dice. She had rolled two 5s, two 1s, a 3, and a 4. She moved the 5s and 1s to the side and put the rest back in the cup. “And I'm telling you that you couldn't handle worse.”
The man slammed his gauntlet-covered hand on the table. “A Ranveth is one of the most dangerous things out there. It has claws and teeth that can pierce armor and is sneakier than any assassin. Those things have taken out entire caravans singlehandedly, and you're telling me there's something worse than that?”
“Yep.” She rolled the dice again, and this time came out with two 1s. “That's 500 so far.” She then picked up all six dice and shook them again.
“Fuck the game! I want you to understand that when I took that caravan job two weeks ago and beheaded that son of a bitch, I became a legend in my own right! How many people can say they've taken out a Ranveth singlehandedly?”
“Not many,” she agreed. “But it's still not the worst monster out there.” She rolled out the dice once again and this time had one of each number. “2,000.”
“Then what is?” He was leaning over the table now, a couple of feet from her face. Her eyes remained on the dice, picking them back up.
“People.” The man sat down and pondered her response. He didn't like it, but he couldn't help but agree.
She continued. “They’re the ones that made this world the way it is. All the poverty, the monsters, and the misery they’ve spread all in an attempt to grow stronger. People are the real villains, viler than any beast.” She then rolled 5 of a kind, to which the man groaned. “Damn, I'm out my wit and my coin now.”
“Maybe next time you should just stick to your caravan duties.” They both chuckled, but their friendly moment was cut short when a cloaked figure appeared next to them. He laughed too.
“May I have next?” Lotel asked. The man glanced at the woman, but she didn’t seem worried.
“Sure, if you’ve got the coin to play.” She gave a friendly smile and gestured for the man to move, and he gave up his seat with no issue.
“Let me know if you need me.” He eyed Lotel closely but didn’t make a scene before walking off.
Now it was just the two of them. Lotel sat down and placed a couple of gold coins on the table before reaching for the dice. She stopped him, though, covering them with her own hand. “What's your game?”
Lotel moved his hand back slowly and got a good look at the woman. Her smile was replaced by a cold stare that looked right through him. “I'm just here for some information,” he assured her. “Won’t you be a doll and help me out?”
She gave an unamused chuckle. “Sorry, but you’re not getting anything out of me.” She then leaned over the table and whispered in a serious tone. “You're obviously not from around here, so let me give you some advice: don't go around looking in other people's business if you aren't willing to face the consequences.”
“Oh, I like taking risks,” he said, matching her energy. “A good gamble can have so many rewards.” Lotel then sat up straight in his chair, resting his hands on the table. “I'm looking for a certain man. I have a quest for him, and something tells me he's hiding out here. You don't need to tell me anything else besides if you know exactly where he's at.”
The woman eased up a bit, sitting back in her chair. “I know nothing. If you need someone to do a quest for you, go put it up on a quest board like everyone else.”
Lotel smiled deeply. It wasn't every day you met someone as shrewd as the woman sitting across from him. He could play this game just as well, however.
“Have you heard of the Angel's Gasp?”
“Of course,” he said. “They're the best mercenary group out there for taking out high-value targets. You probably also know that they've been in hiding for several months now.”
Lotel sighed, trying to keep his composure. She clearly was going to say nothing, but he couldn't stop either. “I'm looking for them. I have a quest for them only they could accomplish, but I need to know where they are.”
“Don't know.” Her face showed no expression at all. Maybe she knew something, but she wouldn't let it on either way. Lotel knew this as well and was becoming visibly frustrated.
“You must know something, right? Anything?”
“Like I told you, I'm not saying anything. If they wanted to do quests, they'd be out there taking them. Their business is their business.”
Lotel's breath tightened, eyes staring intently at the woman. She remained calm, but he couldn't any longer. From the stench to the noise to the stuck-up nature of this bitch, he had grown tired of this forsaken place and wanted to return to civility. Not even the array of delectable playthings would satisfy him anymore.
He straightened his face, trying to hold back the wicked grin that wanted to sweep across it. He sat there like a doll with soulless eyes peering up at the unknowing human who welcomed it into their home.
“Coris of Tret.” The woman blinked, eyes dilating at the sound of her name. Lotel's voice was strained—serious and demonic. “Where is Aalart?”
Lotel choked on his own breath as a knife appeared against his neck, just barely digging into the skin. “You should have listened to her.”
Everyone nearby turned away and ignored the event. It was best to stay out of the Angel's Gasp's business, especially when someone had provoked them. Meanwhile, Lotel just kept his facade of a calm demeanor as he knew full well who he was messing with.
“Eeadva Tuoris. You're not known for using knives.”
“And you astronomers aren't known for being tactful.”
“Well, you could say I’m unique.”
Eeadva peeked around from behind Lotel so she could see his face. His skin was smooth and somewhat aged, in complete contrast to her battle-scarred face. She expected nothing else from a nobleman. Her face contorted itself into a hateful scowl. “How'd you find us?”
“You should know. The Magi have their ways.” He grinned and glanced over at her. “At least you should. No telling what happened to your mind when you decided to run away with these heathens.”
“You astronomer bastards know nothing about the world!” Eeadva clutched her dagger, struggling not to slice his neck open right then and there. “Tell me how you found us!”
Lotel chuckled and turned back to Coris, ignoring her question. “She's quite the catch, isn't she?”
Eeadva ran her blade against Lotel's neck in an instant. She had grabbed onto his hair, fully expecting to peel it off his bloody body, but instead, she was rocketed back into the opposite wall of the tavern by some mysterious force.
She opened her eyes and pushed aside the debris that had fallen on top of her. The entire tavern was completely silent except for the humming of the yellow aura that surrounded Lotel. Never had she seen that magic before.
Lotel panted, clutching the golden amulet around his neck, and looked back across the tavern at Eeadva. He was smiling, half expecting to be dead, but the Magi's magic had proven to be effective. The amulet’s protection spell warded away Eeadva's attack, but now the vial in the center of its encrusted frame was left empty except for ash and subtle tinges of crimson.
“That was stupid,” a voice said from the entrance of the tavern. Everyone turned and looked. He was a man over six feet tall with braided hair and a thick beard that complemented his muscular frame. Scars and tattoos covered his body like a patchwork quilt of flesh and ink. On his shoulder was a mace nearly as long as he was tall.
Eeadva jumped from her spot. “Easy for you to say. I didn't know they could do that!”
“That's not why it's stupid,” the man said, walking into the tavern. “It's because you didn't use your head.” He gazed out upon all the patrons and raised his hand, saying “Go back to your drinks. I'll handle this.”
That’s him! Lotel sat in awe, his smile beaming with the realization of the overwhelming force he had summoned. Aalart was as intimidating and handsome as the stories said. He had grown up in some village called Surmfass and was a street urchin until he joined a mercenary band because of his strength. Now he leads one, using his magical pole mace to give his already unnatural body even more abilities.
Aalart walked over to Eeadva who informed him about Lotel. He then made his way over to the dumbstruck man and took a seat. “You caused a lot of trouble for no good reason.”
“I think I had reason enough. You’re here, after all, and you’re quite the sight.” Lotel maintained his deceitful air, but he was pitiful in comparison to Aalart. He spoke with no strength or magic to support his words, yet Aalart was everything he thought he appeared to be. Unimpressive, to say the least.
“What's this quest you wanted my companions and me to go on?”
Lotel recovered somewhat from his initial shock and regaled his story. “Now that I have you here, I'll tell you everything. My name is Lotel Deyak, and I come from Loagle College, one of the Magi, as you know.”
“And what do the Magi want with me and my group?”
Lotel sat back in his chair, twirling his amulet around in his hand. “There is a monster that threatens the capital and all the research the Magi have been able to conduct over the last few decades.”
“I don't believe it.” Aalart interrupted. “New Reosponant is so well protected with all your fancy spells. Any monster going near that deathtrap would be destroyed.”
“But that's the thing: we can't destroy it. Or better yet, we don't want to. We've started calling this monster the 'Umarthing,' and it’s made of pure goo from the Black Bog.”
Aalart studied the cloaked man carefully. Some of what he said didn't make sense, but that's just how these magical type people spoke. They didn't make sense; they made up things as they go and claim them as “magic.” A monster made of black goo made no sense.
“You seem puzzled.”
“I don't need you to clarify,” Aalart said. “Just tell me where and how much.”
Lotel smiled. “It's in the Black Bog of course.”
“No deal.” Aalart immediately got up and picked up his mace.
Lotel jumped to his feet, not wanting to let his target get away. “Wait, listen! Hear me out. If that monster escapes the bog, it will spread the bog with it. It must be defeated and collected for research.”
“I'm not taking my people up there. It's a wasteland that kills almost every living thing that tries to cross it.”
“But you and I both know there are paths through the bog. You can avoid the magic sludge that makes it so dangerous.”
“I said my answer.” Aalart was walking back to Eeadva when Lotel called back out to him, his voice firm and wielding rented confidence.
“15,000 gold.” Aalart paused, not fully convinced but listening. All who heard this were taken aback. 15,000 gold was three times the going rate for such a high-value monster and was more than most people would make in two generations.
Aalart turned around, still towering over this pitiful man though he was several feet away. “Not enough.” He then walked over to Eeadva like he had intended to.
But Lotel was not finished. How many people had he stepped on? How many favors had he fulfilled, pleasing people with his hands? His status, his wealth, was built on pleasing those who could give him what he wanted, but Aalart wasn’t one such man, and they both knew this. Lotel even hated him for the fact. However, Lotel would not give up. No matter how vile the act, he would do it in the name of “success.”
“You're getting old, aren't you?” Aalart ignored him, but he continued. “You'll be my age soon enough, and then what will you do? You won't be able to fight like you used to, and your company will suffer.”
Nearby patrons voiced their anger. “Shut up!” “Watch who you're talking to!” And many more vulgar things were said, but Aalart silenced them with a raise of his hand. He let Lotel continue.
“Why not take this one last quest and be rich enough for your entire company to retire? You can keep running from us if you'd like, but we have a common interest. You want gold, and we want to stay in power.” His smile grew. “Take the quest.”
Aalart marched back to Lotel, a fire in his eyes and a hatred begging to be unleashed. His words remained calm, however. “20,000. 5,000 upfront.”
“Deal.” Lotel retrieved a bag of gold from underneath his cloak. He was already prepared to give that much and more.
Aalart grabbed the bag and leaned in close to him. “Make sure I never see your face again, or I'll get rid of it myself.” Lotel glanced down, refusing to meet him eye to eye. He didn’t dare rile him any further.
“So be it. Arrive at New Reosponat when you're done, and you'll get the rest of your pay.” He then made his way for the door, barely holding in his excitement in finally leaving this place. The decadent capital awaited.
Aalart stood there for a moment, pondering the decision he had just made. The Magi were not to be trusted, but they never soiled their deals. They needed mercenaries to help them find magical items and creatures, so pissing them off would be a huge mistake. But you can still never tell with them. He would be careful.
“I'm surprised you took the quest,” Coris said, putting her crossbow on her shoulder. Eeadva had also recovered and was busy in thought.
“He's scum, but he does have a point. This is too much coin to pass up on.”
“But you don't really think you're getting too old for this, do you?”
Aalart didn't say anything. Instead, he walked toward the door. “You're really gonna ignore me?” She asked.
“Yep.” Aalart exited the Floating Keg and was greeted by the bright sun that did little to warm one's body at this height. The top of this Arch tree was mostly barren except for a pen where the pigmy drakes were kept, some small houses, and of course, the tavern.
Eeadva and Coris exited the tavern soon after. Coris took a deep breath of the fresh air and got a head start in walking toward the drakes. “Let's get going on this quest then.” Eeadva was less than energetic.
She stared at Aalart who was quiet as usual. He knew why she was upset.
“I know you hate the nobility,” Aalart said, “But could I really pass up on this opportunity?”
“I would have liked it if you did. They're nothing but trouble, and we've both seen it firsthand.”
“But this was the best option.”
Eeadva paused for a moment. She folded her arms, wrestling with the thought, but she had to agree. “They fucking found us here.”
“And they'll find us wherever we go. They're getting stronger, and I don't know how any of us could stop them.”
“So, you're just going along with all of this?”
Aalart looked down at her, fully content. “Just enough to keep them off our backs. Now come on; we gotta tell the rest of the group about the quest.”
The three of them approached the drake pens where the two other members of the Angel's Gasp were guarding their rides. Oan Sment was the newest member of the group. He came from the same village as Aalart and had been a fan of his for the longest. He had trained hard and eventually earned the right to become a member.
Then there was Delk. He was completely focused on juggling knives until the entire group was assembled right before him. “When the hell did you guys get here?”
“Just now,” Aalart said. “Now listen up, we got a quest.”
“A quest?” Delk dropped his knives and flapped his hands about, jumping up and down in excitement. “A quest! A quest! We haven't been on one of those in forever. Fuck yeah! Who's the target?”
“It's a monster called the Umarthing.” This fact calmed Delk down, and he frowned. “A fucking monster? We should be out killing some noble or hunting down assassins.”
“Well, a noble hired us for this,” Coris said. “And we're getting paid good money.”
“Of course, we're getting paid good. We're the fucking Angel's Gasp! People dump more money on us than on whores in Itverish.”
“And that's why we're taking it,” Aalart said.
Oan stepped up to speak. “I for one am really happy to prove myself against a monster.”
“That's cause you haven't gotten your dick wet with battle yet,” Delk laughed.
“Enough,” Aalart. “Let's get going.”
They all entered the pen and got on their respective rides. The Pigmy Drakes were the size of large horses with fleshy wings that extended from their backs. The saddles were attached at the base of their necks. Some joked that if you needed to get better control over your beast, just yank their neck. Ironically, this did prove to be effective.
The Angel's Gasp took their drakes and leaped off the Arch Tree with Aalart in the lead. They descended past the clouds into a pristine forest basin occupied by the wild roots of the Arch Trees that made caves of themselves in between clearings that served as landing spots for the drakes. The group landed in one such clearing and dropped off their rides in a nearby pen.
All that remained was to start their quest.