Over and over, he turned it in his hands, trying to figure out what had happened. There was a dead cleric wearing some sort of religious medallion, laying in the middle of the woods near a cave. Was it a random murder? Or was there something else? Usually unlooted bodies weren’t just found as such for no good reason.
Nyssa eyed the medallion and sighed. Whatever, he’d just head back to camp. He’d walked around the area a few times, and besides this body and the cave, there wasn’t anything of much interest.
Hopefully, they still have some food left for me.
Still unsettled by the corpse, he turned to leave, heading back into the underbrush—
A snarl tore through the night.
“Don’t move,” ordered an icy voice, and Nyssa froze, even as his hands flew to the hilts of the axes on either hip. He slowly looked up. As he watched, a tiger emerged from the shadows of the trees, teeth bared and blood flecking its coat, while on its back sat a halfling woman with an eyepatch, one of her hands encased in flickering flames. The woman eyed him coolly, before asking, “Who are you?”
Nyssa automatically raised his hands into the air, showing he meant no harm. “I’m—”
The woman’s eye widened, and the fire in her hand petered out abruptly, while the tiger gave a sort of disgruntled noise. “You’re my contact.”
He trailed off, somewhat speechless. What in Avandra’s good name was this lady on about? Contact? He’d just been on patrol! Warily, Nyssa lowered his hands to rest on his axes’ hilts, but didn’t otherwise move. “Contact?” he echoed.
The other halfling shot him an unimpressed glance as she slid off the tiger’s back, the ease and grace of which she did so hinting at years of repetition. “Yes, my contact. Our mutual…friends sent me out here to deal with the problem? You’re to guide me to the den.” Despite her clear impatience, there was a soothing tone to her voice, as if he was a skittish horse she was trying to tame.
Nyssa blinked. Mutual friends…? Who the hell…oh, maybe she was referring to the rest of the group? It wouldn’t have been the first time they’d ran into some other travelers. “By problem, are you referring to the ones who did this?” he asked, pointing to the body of the dead cleric.
The halfling’s gaze narrowed, and her lips cocked in an angry sneer. “Slavers,” she spat. “They kill anyone who won’t look the other way or submit.”
Anger at the injustice began to curdle, hot and low, in Nyssa’s stomach as he looked at the corpse anew. “Slavers did this?” he demanded.
She nodded her head, shifting her weight slightly so it was baring onto her staff.
Nyssa took a long look at the dead cleric’s face, sex indeterminable but terror still frozen on their face, and scowled. “Disgusting,” he declared. If slavers were the ones who did this, he’d have to make them pay for such injustice—murderers, the lot of them. Nyssa stuck out his left hand, as his right was still holding the medallion, and the other halfling took it after half a heartbeat.
“I look forward to working with you, Vlita.”
Vlita’s brows furrowed. “Working with me? I was under the impression you were just to lead me to the den.”
The den? What den? Nyssa frowned, thinking hard, before remembering the cave. Caves were like dens, right? He shook his head. “No, I couldn’t just leave these fiends to you alone. They have to be stopped.”
The halfling tilted her head in his direction. “I’m glad you agree, Nyssa. I’ll be sure to report your helpfulness and dedication. Now, where is the den?”
Nyssa led her, through the crumbled rock and fallen boulders that littered the mountain slope, towards the mouth of the cave he had seen during his passthrough of the area. Every once in awhile he glanced over his shoulder, making sure Vlita and her tiger were still there—they made no noise as they walked over the patches of loose earth and stone, making them ghostly shadows amidst the landscape, and the only glimpses of them he caught were tinted in red from the full moon above.
As they twined behind a large boulder that had been driven into two by its long fall, the halfling glanced behind once more and let out a yelp as he came face-to-face with Vlita. The sharp noise echoed through the mountainside, and she hurriedly clamped a hand over his mouth, baring down on him with a fierce scowl as she demanded, “What are you doing? Do you want them to know we’re here?”
Nyssa shook his head violently, and then pleaded, his words muffled around her hand, “Can you please stop doing that?”
“Doing what?” she hissed, voice low.
He wiped the back of his mouth with his hand after she removed hers, retreating back several spaces so there was more than a hair’s breadth between them. “Being all…quiet. It’s creepy.”
Her one black eye narrowed at him. “It’s common protocol. You’re the one lumbering around like a lame elephant in all that armor of yours.”
“Hey, it stops me from getting killed.”
“Just be quiet,” she snapped.
Nyssa awkwardly scratched the back of his neck and offered a sheepish smile. “Will do, Vlita.”
The two halflings stood before the mouth of the cave, squinting against the darkness.
“Is this the place?” Vlitha asked, her voice barely audible.
Nyssa peered into the lightless cavern, and made a sort of shrugging motion. “I think…? I can’t really see that well, though.” He was pretty sure, considering this was the only cave he’d seen, but he supposed there was always the possibility that there was a second or third one around.
She turned to look at him, and as she did so Garon’s light caught on the metal clasps of her eye patch. A brilliant thought struck him. “Hey!” he said in an excited whisper. “I hear that pirates wear eyepatches so one eye is always adjusted to the dark. Can you—”
“I only have one eye,” she said shortly. “The other is gone.”
Vlitha furrowed her brows, straining to see into the formless shadows before turning, face taut with anger. “Sahari says she smells that they’re down there,” she said, voice tight. “Can’t tell how many. Likely more than fifteen slavers.”
Sahari? Who’s that? The blond halfling blinked. “Who’s she? And why can’t she tell?”
Vlitha gestured sharply to the tiger besides her, her movements quick with what was clearly agitation. “She can’t tell because of the smell of all the fear,” she hissed.
Nyssa felt his face shutter, and his easy smile quickly fell away into a thin-lipped expression. There were slaves within, huh? Fearful ones. These slavers had already killed an innocent cleric, and were also in currently possession of slaves?
He shuddered to think what would’ve happened if Vlitha hadn’t found him. He didn’t want to know how the rest of his group came to know of these slavers, and what was so vile about them that made them send a complete stranger his way instead of coming to assist him themself, but based on what he’d heard so far there was no way they could let these slavers go unpunished.
“So, what’s the plan?” he whispered, removing his axes from their sheathes and taking comfort in their familiar weight.
Vlita gazed into the dark cave. “We’ll proceed as one unit,” she finally said after some time, voice quiet. “Whenever Sahari smells anyone close, I’ll scout ahead before signaling her, and she’ll signal you.”
“Got it.” He nodded.
And then, after a split second, Vlita turned into a mouse.
She crept, silent and quick, through the winding corridors of stone, sniffing every odd while and darting from shadow to shadow. The world loomed before her, large and unsettling, but now in faint shades of gray instead of pitch black.
No matter how many times she assumed the form of a mouse, she would never get use to it. Honestly, Kithra preferred that of a cat for both appearance and functionality, and the fact that they were inherently more graceful than a rodent, but if she was seen by any of the slavers a cat would be far more incriminating than a small black mouse who’d crept inside the cave for shelter.
Nyssa’s reaction had been…something to see in the least. Based off his startled look, she assumed he’d never seen a druidian transformation before. Surely, he hadn’t lived in seclusion all his life?
But then she remembered that the other halfling was no more than that: a mere halfling. Normal halflings weren’t raised around those of magical talent, she supposed, and he was obviously a warrior.
Regardless of either, she was pleasantly surprised when he had opted to join her. Most of their contacts were members who’d been undercover for a long time and were, consequently, quite skittish, or those on the inside of groups who’d offered up information in exchange for protection from the Cult. Nyssa was part of the latter group, based on what Phanen had told her. Still, although he seemed a bit confused in the head and somewhat…dim, not to mention forgetful, he had the necessary drive and will that would surely make him a valued member of the Cult after he went through training.
Kithra sniffed, following her nose through the next corridor and there, unsurprisingly, were two mangy guards, smelling of alcohol and sloppily observing the area before them. She paused for a moment, ran up between them, and squeaked.
“Ah?” the one on the left slurred, looking about.
Kithra squeaked again.
This time, the one on the left (who seemed to be far more sober than his companion), looked down. “It’s jus’ a wee mouse,” he told the other, waving his hand loosely. “Prob’y right scared of the big beasties outside.”
The drunken one squinted down at her, and frowned. “But I though’—I though’—”
“Ya though’ wha’, ya great oaf? That this wee little mouse,” the sober one gestured largely in her direction, “is somehow a mouse assasin? Ooh, fear the wee beastie, it’s come to eat yer face!”
“Oi, no need to be mean.”
“Yer dumber than a post, lad. If yer stupid enough to get sloshed when Taria is here, than tha’ alone gives me the right to shit on you.”
‘Two guards,’ she told Sahari, feeling her presence approach. ‘One drunk, one not. Kill them. If they raise the alarm after we’ve passed, there’ll be trouble.’
The two guards’ bickering faded away as she darted past them and continued on, scampering through the dark caverns and caves. They certainly had made it…extensive, in the very least. The cave had been hollowed out and passages had been chiseled through, clearly having the appearance of being man made rather than natural. Was this a more organized group than the Cult had originally assumed?
Taking note, she shoved the information away from later, pausing and heading towards the sound of voices.
Nyssa moved past the two guards that Sahari had just killed, eyeing her bloody teeth warily. He’d knocked them out, as per usual, but the tiger had torn their throats out soon after, apparently displeased with his softness.
But still, he supposed, they were in the right. These slavers deserved no mercy for what they’d done, and anyone who helped them were equally as guilty.
The blond adjusted his grip on his axes, following Sahari as she faded in and out of the shadows, golden eyes glinting off the lanterns that now dotted the walls. Apparently, Vlita had found no more resistance ahead, as the tiger hadn’t signalled him again. It was strange—he’d never seen anyone turn into a mouse before, and after Vlita had darted off into the darkness Sahari had shot him the most unimpressed look he’d ever seen on an animal.
Perhaps she was more intelligent, since she was Vlita’s companion…? Ah, Avandra, he didn’t know how magic worked, nor did he particularly want to.
Lost in his thoughts, he very nearly missed Sahari’s soft growl and the warning whip of her tail, but managed to catch himself just in time. He smiled apologetically at her, and she scoffed in response, but turned and headed down a more darkened corridor, laying her ears flat against her head and turning easy lope into a predatory prowl.
Carefully, he followed, wincing at every screech his armor made and feeling like it echoed down the long hallway.
Eventually, the two of them emerged at the end, and what Nyssa saw made his heart stop. In the tavern below, a large group of what were clearly slavers milled about, all grunting orders at each other and laughing. A woman clad in fanciful clothing was in the center, noticeable by the way the crowd parted around her.
“Slavers,” he growled, flipping his axes around in his hands, and Sahari softly snarled her agreement. It occurred to him that the tiger had brought him there for a reason and he lowered himself down into a crouch, minimizing the chance someone could see him from below as he asked: “Is Vlita down there?”
She rumbled in affirmation.
Nyssa shifted, feeling sweat gather on the back of his neck. There were so many. Most of them appeared to be men, but there were also women scattered about, all of them scarred and mean with the exception of the gilded one that strode about like a queen. Regardless of gender, however, one thing was for certain: all of them were human.
He narrowed his eyes at the mob, trying to access whether they had weapons or not, when a question occurred to him. Slowly, he turned to Sahari.
“When are we—?”
Before he could even get the question out, the tiger was leaping over the edge of the overhang and into the crowd of people; cursing, he quickly followed, wincing at the yells and shouts that assaulted his ears.
He supposed it wasn’t everyday you saw a large, bloodthirsty tiger coming from above.
There was a scream as Sahari snarled, and he turned, fixing her in his field of vision as she tore a man’s throat out, spraying blood across the nearby humans and the floor.
And then there was chaos.
Rallying cries were heard and weapons were drawn, and as Nyssa danced between them all his axes felt like deadly extensions of his arms, flaying all who got in his way. He shoved them into bone and muscle, carving out holes where there hadn’t been before and being continually thankful for his armor after he felt attack after attack land on his back, left undefended whenever he struck.
Between the streaks of blood and violence, however, he wondered where Vlita was. Had she already died? Did she flee? No, she seemed far too noble to flee. Dead, then…?
Screams filled the air.
From the shadows burst Vlita, terrifying with the flames riding across her skin and making her look like some sort of evil deity raised out of the deepest, darkest pits of the earth. Nyssa couldn’t watch, too busy driving the blades of his axes into the vulnerable flesh of the evil, screeching slavers that surrounded them, spitting oaths and curses, but every odd heartbeat he’d hear a scream that he knew he didn’t cause and smell burning flesh, and knew that she had hit her mark.
Sahari was her own sort of terrifying monster; large and heavy and strong, she ripped her way through the humans as if they were wet parchment. Blood and gore splattered across the cavern floor, painting it slick and red—Nyssa felt it flek his hair and skin as he chopped through another, indistinguishable arm, narrowly dodging a limb that flew through the air and landed somewhere on the floor with a wet noise.
His stomach rolled.
Behind him, he could hear the tiger and Vlita snarling and roaring as if they were both wild, untamed beasts, in symphony to the wails and screams of the dying men. Gritting his teeth, he stared at the limb for a heartbeat longer before whirling around, slicing through a woman who had just leapt at him, sword positioned to run through his neck.
They were murderers, thieves, slavers—they deserved no justice, let alone his pity.