It was quarter-after six at the Nook and Cranny Inn. The evening breeze filtered in from the half-closed door, dappling the bar room with dusky light. It was as lively as usual, especially ever since three soldiers came in for a reprieve from the harshness they endured. It didn't matter that the three were so out-of-place in a small bar like this, which was usually the haunt of the local sell-swords and miscreants; they were only interested in getting away from the bittersweet task at hand with some much welcome camaraderie. The atmosphere was a vibrant mix of cheery laughter and small-talk, and none of the patrons gave their odd company more than a second glance. Such was the town's respect for the warriors that protected them. For a short while, it was as if the war didn't even exist to the band of weary soldiers. The Nook and Cranny may as well have been a sanctuary from enmity.
The two men, a jolly, scarred field medic called Ragnar, and the eager, child-like sniper, Ace, sat at opposite ends of their table, exchanging loud, bawdy jokes over a pint of ale. Meanwhile, the quiet, lady-like sorceress, Ivy, sat with her nose in her spell-book, nursing a glass of wine. A thundering burp from across the table surprised the studious girl, making the young blonde jump in her seat. She sighed and peered over her glasses at Ace, who had a guilty smirk on his face.
“Yeah!?” Ragnar said with a huge grin, snatching up his mug from the table and only just managing to keep his red beard out of the cup, “You call that a belch!? Rookie.” He waved a hand in the air. “Ey, barkeep! Get me some Dragon's Breath over here!”
“Dragon's Breath? Really?” Ivy shook her head, knowing full well the strong drink would have Ragnar inebriated quickly. “You're going to wind up passed out again. I'm not explaining this to the Commandant this time.” Ivy readjusted her spectacles and returned to the book.
“Aw, quit being a party-pooper!” Ragnar said, smacking the mage playfully on the back and making her drop her book. “We're supposed to be celebrating here! Gods know when we'll get another break.”
“That's exactly why I'm studying. I can't afford to forget my spells.” Ivy picked her book back up.
Ragnar grinned again, narrowing his blue eyes jovially and shoving his ale mug under Ivy's nose. “Just drink with us! Loosen up!”
Ivy's response was cool, but decidedly irritated. “I was relaxed.” She pointed at her wine glass, shoving his ale aside. “Now quit being a bother!”
Ragnar should have known better than to push her buttons though. She once turned him into a frog for an entire hour when he spilled water on her favorite gold, velveteen cape she always wore. Ragnar could see he was definitely beginning to annoy her. A sharp stare from the young witch was all it took to remind the medic of her somewhat testy demeanor, and he sat back down, focusing his mischievous gaze on the kid sniper instead.
“Yo, Ace!” Taking a big breath, the older soldier leaned across the table and let out a rumbling burp, blowing Ace's dark hair back a little. Ivy rolled her eyes and continued reading as Ace sat laughing in his seat. “Take that, kid!”
“Oh, you're on, grandpa!” Ace slammed down a big mouthful of his drink. Scrunching his face, the teenage soldier retaliated loudly, earning a huge grin and a guffaw from Ragnar.
“C'mon, Ivy! At least pretend to have a good time!” Ragnar teased her, standing up again and throwing a hand around her shoulder. Ivy simply picked up Ragnar's arm and dropped it away, still not bothering to look up.
Ace took another big swig from his mug and shrugged. “Aw, it's no use, Ragnar. You know she only smiles when she gets to set things on fire.” That comment earned a quick glare out of Ivy before she returned yet again to her studies. Ace shot Ivy a warm smile and a wink, trying to lighten her mood. At least, it seemed like a wink. It was often hard to tell with his eye patch. The gleam in his one, bright-green eye was quite a giveaway to those who knew how to read the wily kid. Ace cleared his throat and looked down at the rifle in his lap when his affectionate gesture went unnoticed by Ivy, who had barely even looked up. Ace sighed, somewhat defeated, and started polishing his weapon on his leather jerkin. Ragnar seemed oblivious to Ace's distraction and cheerily finished off his ale, propping his heavy, steel-capped boots up on the table.
Such joshing and lighthearted banter was commonplace between these close-knit soldiers. They had been through a lot of hardships together, each the sole survivors of different units. This gave them an unbreakable common ground, and the trio had quickly grown close from swapping tales of their survival. They worked in the same unit these days, and they complemented each other well. The ribbing, jesting, and teasing was their favorite form of group therapy, and it was all in good spirit. Even Ivy enjoyed their time together, even though she might never admit it to anyone but herself.
A sudden, particularly loud, roaring sort of belch suddenly erupted from the table. The noise in the bar fell completely silent as all heads turned to the unexpected perpetrator. A shocked Ivy sat with one hand on her lips, seeming nearly as stunned as everyone else.
“Oh!” She hiccuped from behind her hand, glancing back and forth awkwardly as an embarrassed blush spread across her face. “Pardon me. How vulgar...”
The entire bar burst into laughter, with the exception of a very chagrined Ivy, who had now turned as red as her robe. Ace fell out of his seat from his mirth, while a chortling Ragnar leaned on the table, pounding it with his free fist.
“Haw! You win, Ivy!” He laughed, slapping Ivy on the back again. “Gods, to think that came out of our little lady!”
“D-don't call me little!” Ivy blurted, clearly mortified by her own noise. “L-ladies m-must unfortunately pass air at times.” This earned a snort and a giggle out of Ace. “Oh ye gods, I am surrounded by apes...” An exasperated Ivy groaned, burying her face in her tome.
A slamming sound from the doorway grabbed everyone's attention. A dripping wet, half-drowned hunter stood in the entryway. He was breathless and resembled a stray dog. “They...they're here!” He panted, propping himself on the doorjamb. “Profanes!”
The soldiers' glee was drained in an instant. Ragnar sighed and looked at the hunter. “They, hm? Sounds like the Chaos Profanes again.”
Ace shouldered his rifle. “I'm betting they're of the Aquans breed.” He turned to Ivy, but she had already stood up and was halfway to the door.
“Where are the Profanes?” She asked the hunter.
“They came from the eastern Heartwood. Are you gonna take them down?”
“It's our job.” Ivy said simply. She looked over her shoulder at her two comrades. “Looks like it's time to get to work.”
Ragnar sighed again, trailing behind the sorceress and the sniper. Nobody could blame him for his reluctance, but this was the ugly truth of being a soldier. There could be no such thing as a true sanctuary for the soldiers, not so long as the foul and violent Profanes existed. The medic nodded grimly, shouldering his pack and following his two companions into the night.
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