It wasn’t all bad in the end, though. The best part of the day turned out to be the moment Gerry saw them walking across the road in front of the Sleepy Fiddler’s Inn, guiding the two rescued children back home. As Viridiane watched Annika break out of Axk’hran’s supporting half-embrace and run for her father, jumping into his arms crying and laughing, she temporarily forgot every single one of her problems.
The other kid—a quiet boy with straw-coloured hair—hobbled forward awkwardly on bruised legs, searching the small crowd that had gathered beside the father and daughter, but Gerry reached out for him too, hugging the little guy to his side. It looked like the man knew him, so the group didn’t interfere, hoping his true, seemingly quite neglectful family would turn up too, sooner or later. Viridiane couldn’t suppress a smile, and the tiefling beside her hummed in a satisfied manner—an interesting contrast with his threatening appearance.
Susan stood aside, her faint grin more like a grimace, holding the end of their rope and with it, the still-bound Bobbi close to her. She hadn’t shared her plans with Viridiane and Axk’hran but was very adamant in not leaving the little goblin behind as they’d made their way out of the bowels of the old church.
Bobbi was the last survivor after their rescue group was done in the nest. Viridiane looked at the small creature’s clueless and not at all menacing expression as he shifted from one foot to the other beside Susan, and she cast her eyes down in guilt. It was worth it; they had to save the kids. Who knew what would have happened to them in the claws of those bastards? Bobbi might have been amiable even after the tiefling’s charm had ended, but none of the other goblins seemed friendly.
Still, they could have maybe gone some other route. But in the end, it didn’t look like her death-magic had a non-lethal setting.
She turned back towards the reunited family—a much nicer sight than what her darkening thoughts were conjuring up—and noticed in surprise that Gerry was already making his way towards them. The two kids had gotten lost in the circle of worried townsfolk who sat them on a bench next to the tavern, offering them blankets, cups of hot tea, and warm hugs.
“Thank you so much, brave adventurers! You saved my baby!” Gerry exclaimed, planting himself in front of the group with a wide smile on his face. His eyes glinted with tears, and he extended an arm to Axk’hran. “Thank you for ridding this town of those awful goblins! Please accept this meager amount. It is all I have to offer…and maybe you’ll join us for a meal in our home tonight?”
There was a spiteful scoff from behind, and Susan walked forward, dragging Bobbi with her. When Gerry noticed the creature, he took a step back, but he did not budge as he held the bag of coins towards Axk’hran.
The tiefling didn’t react, only his brow raised in question, so Viridiane almost moved instead of him to not leave the poor man hanging. But Susan launched at the bag first, practically tearing it out of Gerry’s hand.
“Sure, my good man, of course!” she said quickly, jingling the small sack between her fingers. Viridiane narrowed her eyes at her. Clearly, the woman’s contempt was not enough to stop her from accepting monetary compensation. “You are very, very welcome!”
She met Viridiane’s gaze with a smirk but must have seen something in her stare, because she rolled her eyes a moment later. She loosened the bag, pouring its coin-content into her palm, and quickly counted and distributed the silver pieces, offering Viridiane and Axk’hran their parts.
Viridiane took the coins with some trepidation. This felt weird. Was this what “adventurers” did? Was she an adventurer now, and if yes, what did that mean? Sure she’d picked mushrooms or chopped firewood for coin before, but…killing? Gerry was still standing there, however, nodding along as if giving his blessing on the transaction.
As Susan reached out towards the tiefling with his coins, Axk’hran just smiled, lifting his palms in a polite denial. “No, no, thank you. I’d rather not.”
The woman glared at him for a long second, then shrugged, pocketing the money.
“Now,” Axk’hran went on, looking at Gerry now. “Thank you for your offer, but please, be with your family now. We will not intrude any longer.” The man gave a timid nod, then made the same motion towards Viridiane and Susan with gratitude and some confusion on his face. He backed away, returning to the children and his friends. Axk’hran followed him with his eyes, then directed his whitened stare at Viridiane and the woman again. “Do you guys want to get a drink?”
“Is that an offer to buy?” Susan retorted, but if she wanted to shake the tiefling’s composure, she had to be disappointed.
“Yes, of course,” he said in an even voice. Then he inclined his head towards the right where a few uniformed figures had just stepped out of a larger stone building next to the tavern. The town guards, probably. The tiefling winked at Susan. “Let’s get off the streets with our little friend, if you agree?”
“Oh. Oh!” Susan whirled around to look at the guards talking to Gerry, then she spun back to quickly unwrap her grey cloak from her shoulders, throw it on Bobbi and practically cover his whole body with it. She clutched the creature’s shoulders and started off with him towards the tavern. Bobbi wobbled forward, releasing a noise that could have been a laugh. Susan grunted, ushering him through the inn door. “Let’s go, let’s go!”
By that time, the guards had started to walk towards them, and Viridiane’s throat dried at the thought of having to give a recount or an explanation for all that had happened. Wait, did we just do something illegal here? Oh no.
Then she felt Axk’hran’s hand on her shoulder, nudging her towards the inn as well. “Go. I’ll deal with this. It’s going to be okay. I’ll be there in a bit.” His deep voice was confident, and he shoved her at the door gently but categorically.
Viridiane had no other choice than to step in. And standing on the threshold as the faces inside turned towards her, and the innkeeper’s mouth opened to speak, she didn’t have any other ideas but to follow Susan and Bobbi to a table in the corner and sit down with them.
Even though she hadn’t much motivation to talk to Susan, it was better than getting lost in the townspeople’s questioning when it was still difficult to even process what she had just done not but a half an hour ago.
As Susan flagged down the barmaid to order a round of something strong for them, Viridiane sat, staring at her hands in her lap, feeling—again—very out of place. She tried to conjure up Annika’s happy face as she embraced her dad, but the memory was quickly fading, leaving nothing but cold uncertainty behind. She was thankful that at least the aftereffects of whatever spell she’d managed to use—twice! at the same time!—on their foes had faded. Axk’hran’s healing potions had been gladly received.
She raised her head and met Bobbi’s button-like, clueless eyes. Susan sat beside the goblin, her face now empty of any fake smile or even a sneer.
“What are you planning to do with him?” Viridiane asked, just to say something. They were no friends. The woman had no obligation talking to her; it was already surprising she hadn’t shooed her away from her table. If anything, she’d pushed herself at the two of them unprompted, running after them like a puppy to the church, and then caused a lot of problems.
Still. She was alone in the world now, more and more sure that she couldn’t return home until she sorted out this magic business. Maybe Susan or Axk’hran could point her in the direction of a big city, or even come with her. Jarven always said travelling in groups was safer.
What a selfish reason to stick with them though. Ugh! She moved to bury her face in her palms, embarrassed, then noticed that Susan had been talking for a few seconds now, actually giving an answer to her question.
Overthinking striking up a conversation? Yeah, that sounded like par for the course.
“—really interested in this Master person; you don’t really hear goblins talk about other authority than their own chief,” Susan finished her sentence. She stared into her flagon of ale that had appeared in front of her while Viridiane had been chastising herself. There was another mug next to Viridiane’s seat and another further up the table. That’s nice of her, she thought. She’d seemed so eager accepting the money and the tiefling’s invitation to drink, and she still bought the drinks.
So, even though Viridiane didn’t really like beer, she took a sip to show her appreciation. Susan lifted an eyebrow but did not react otherwise.
“Who do you think he is?” Viridiane asked.
Susan shrugged, then turned to Bobbi. “Care to explain?”
But the little goblin’s answer had to be delayed, because that moment Axk’hran entered the inn and as usual, for a second, everyone inside turned to stare at him. But the reason for this—his commanding presence—was also the reason most of those people looked away pretty quickly too, so by the time the tiefling spotted them and walked to their table, the group, luckily, had their relative privacy back.
“How did it go?” Susan asked, and Viridiane didn’t miss the slight tinge of anxiety in her voice. She was not at all happy at the thought of dealing with those guards.
Axk’hran sat, lightly shrugging, adjusting the dark cloak around his shoulders. This was the first time Viridiane really noticed the piece of clothing—it was a very expensive-looking material, finer than anything else the tiefling wore…or anything she’d really seen being worn in Enley, as a matter of fact. She remembered from the church that she’d noted there was a large “R” letter stitched at the back of it. “No problem,” he said. “They thanked our assistance in this sensitive matter, and went back to their lives.”
Susan narrowed her eyes, but Axk’hran did not go into further detail. He grabbed the mug of ale and took a large swig. And when he put the tankard down again, he surveyed his three table-mates with curious eyes. “So, good job, us! Right?” Viridiane made a non-committal humming noise, and Susan just snorted. A smile grew into a grin on the tiefling’s face in response. “Just a bunch of regular heroes, we are.”
“Did you really turn into a giant animal back there or was I seeing things?” Viridiane asked. The question was out before she could consider whether it was a good idea to push. She’d never met anyone with such abilities before. How did that type of magic even work? Was it too much of a personal inquiry, though? Damn, how would I know?
Viridiane rolled her eyes at herself—but only internally, so as not to seem even more of a lunatic. She hadn’t known she was so awkward in the company of half-strangers. But then again, it wasn’t like she had a lot of occasions to flex those social interaction muscles.
But Axk’hran only smiled, gently tilting his head. “Yes, that’s one aspect of my skill set.”
“And what is that skill set?” Viridiane asked, encouraged.
“My connection with nature provides me with an access to elemental magic,” the tiefling answered, with his unshakeable calmness. “Natural powers and living creatures of the world all lend their forces to me, occasionally.”
“You’re a druid?” Susan snorted. “A tiefling druid?”
Even not knowing much about druids or tieflings, Viridiane had to agree with her confusion, although she might not have expressed it in such a brash way. Druids were nature’s priests, as far as she knew, from a few books she’d managed to procure during her visits in Hollowhold. And tieflings…well, they had connections to more nefarious forces, didn’t they?
Axk’hran stared at Susan, but it was like he wasn’t even seeing her. He was lost in his thoughts for a moment, then his eyes re-focused, and he shrugged. “I guess so. I haven’t really thought of myself as a druid so far, but I suppose I am.”
Viridiane frowned. What kind of druid didn’t know they were a druid? Wasn’t that a thing you had to learn and train in? And then what about the expensive cloak? Was he a nobleman? But she didn’t ask. She’d pushed enough already, and Axk’hran turned back to his drink, not at all looking like he wanted to elaborate.
“So what is your skill set, girl?” Susan asked suddenly, and the air caught in Viridiane’s chest. Oh, no. Questions. “Those spells of yours were pretty gnarly.”
“You saved our lives,” Axk’hran added. That didn’t help with the air problem either. Saving lives by extinguishing others? “But I agree. It seemed like an effective, but very destructive power.”
“Did it?” Viridiane asked in a thin voice. She gave a cough, trying to get ahold of herself. “I’m…pretty new to this thing, to be honest.”
“You don’t say,” Susan grumbled.
“Are you studying magic somewhere?” Axk’hran’s stare was piercing, but his voice remained casual. “Oh, where’s that academy of yours…in Starhand, right? Are you on a practice mission or something?”
“Uh…no. But I am travelling to Starhand right now. To the academy. To learn,” Viridiane babbled. But why not? It’s a good enough explanation for my presence and lack of experience. And she did want to find a magic school or something similar. Starhand might be her chance to get to know more about all this chaotic stuff.
“Oh, okay. Well, good luck with that!” Axk’hran gave her a warm smile. Thank the gods, he wasn’t asking more questions. Maybe it was normal for magic users with absolutely uncontrollable powers to be strolling around in these parts of Ostia. Who knew? The tiefling then turned to Susan, who was still examining Viridiane with narrowed eyes, but at gaining the man’s attention, she straightened her back, looking wary again. “And what is your deal?”
Susan gave him a grimace. “I’m a helpful citizen.”
The two of them glared at each other, repeating their interaction from earlier when Axk’hran had been the one reluctant to go into detail. It didn’t seem like they would stop their silent duel any time soon, so Viridiane decided to intervene.
“I noticed before that you were speaking in Goblin language. And you said you’re an expert?”
Susan looked at her, and a big smile lit up her face. She snickered like she’d just heard the joke of the week. “Expert? Yeah, sure! We can say I’m an expert. Hey, that reminds me!” She turned to Bobbi again, and the creature who’d been following the conversation and chewing on something that looked like a dirty rag, now trembled and stared back at her. “What can you tell me about this Master, again?
The change in Bobbi’s demeanor was immediate. His shoulders slumped, he started fiddling with his fingers, and his eyes wandered around the room with an anxious urgency. “The Master. Yes. He will not like this. He will not like this for one bit.”
“Why do you listen to this Master?” Susan asked, her face also intense. “Why did your Boss work with him?”
Bobbi’s eyes widened. He looked like he was about to cry. “The Master has been good to us. He brought us here. Gave us food and shelter. Said to stay put until he comes back. But he didn’t. He will not like this, not at all!”
“That is so weird,” Susan muttered to no one in particular. Then she glared at Bobbi again. “Who is he? What does he look like? When will he come back?”
Bobbi’s mouth pitched down, and he started sobbing. His body hunched like he was trying to make himself as small as possible. It was working; he almost disappeared under the table, even sitting on a tall bench. “I don’t know! I don’t know! He…he’s a man…he’s just a person. He’s the Master!”
“Urrgh!” Susan threw her hands up, frustrated. “Can’t you put a truth spell on him or something so we can be done with this?” she asked the tiefling.
Axk’hran’s face darkened. “I really don’t think he knows much more than this. But why are you so strung up on it?”
That was an interesting question. Susan—still debatable whether that was her real name – clearly had some private business connected to goblins. Or possibly this Master too. She wasn’t telling them a lot. And Viridiane was becoming interested.
Axk’hran too, obviously. His warning back in the church rang in Viridiane’s head. “I don’t trust this ‘Susan’ though. Keep your eyes on her, will you?”
He’d trusted her, Viridiane, the person getting them in trouble and failing to assist them again and again, over the woman. That had to mean something.
“I’m just concerned!” Susan retorted. “If he’s some kind of weird mafia boss who employs goblins to wreak havoc over the land, we need to know. This town may be in grave danger.”
“Danger!” Bobbi wailed from below the table. “Grave danger!”
“See? I’m going to find him.” Susan shrugged, drinking up the last of her mug of ale and dropping the tankard on the table with emphasis. “You do whatever you want. It was nice to meet you anyway.”
Viridiane opened her mouth to talk, but Axk’hran was faster. “No, no, no. We’ll come with you. It could be dangerous. You might need some help.”
The statement was innocent and simple, but Viridiane heard the caution behind it. The thing that was really dangerous might be whatever Susan was hiding from them.
“Well, you don’t have to, come on!” Susan drawled, reluctant. “I’m going to be fine.”
The tiefling straightened his back, suddenly looking twice as big, and he wasn’t even moving to stand up yet. Viridiane gulped, although the presentation was not intended for her.
Susan furrowed her eyebrows, but her hand twitched, nervous. “R-right. Sure,” she said. “You can come. Whatever. Let’s get to the bottom of this, eh?”
Her voice was timid and sullen against her nonchalant words. But Axk’hran wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. He turned to Viridiane, a question on his face. “You coming too? It might be good practice before your quest to Starhand.”
What does that even mean? Good practice, in what? Killing more people? But Axk’hran met her eyes, and the soothing calm radiating from his face, inexplicably, put her to ease. He didn’t let a lot of things rattle him, did he? And, she remembered suddenly, he didn’t accept money for his good deed. This tiefling might just be “good folks” as her father would say.
And Susan was being very shifty, to be honest.
So Viridiane straightened her back too, instinctively clutching at the crystal in her neck. The stone felt smooth and cool on her skin, and she felt her mind clear, just a little bit. “Yes,” she answered, maybe with a little more conviction than the situation warranted. “I’m coming with you.”