I kick the pebbles across the path, humming a tune of old childhood memories. The birds chirped loudly in the trees as if they were singing with me. "Hm..." I think aloud, "Berries, there have to be berries here somewhere..." I scan the sides of the trail when my eyes lock onto small blue fruits hanging from a bush. Excitement rose to my face causing a smile to spread across my lips. This is a perfect amount!
"Please, Crane and Kurky..." a low rumbling voice speaks.
I instantly duck beside the bush of berries. Adrenaline rushes through me as worse-case scenarios run through my mind. A hairy, man-like creature stood only a few yards away. What in the Pantheon... The man stood tall at around six foot four, his body covered in thick black-brown hair. Claws stretch out from his fingertips where his nails should be. What is this humanoid? The trees and weeds in front of me from getting a better look. I tried to stay calm and hidden behind the leaves.
A scoff came from nearby. I hurriedly brush the leaves away to view the individual. A man, who looked to be in his thirties, stood in front of the hairy individual with arms crossed. A robe elegantly draped over his body. His hair was a dirty blonde color, and his skin gleamed with an olive hint in the sunlight. It was obviously of higher class. Its stitching was golden, and the fabric itself was velvet. A style not seen in this area often.
"I have no time for little quests" his voice was cold, confident, with a bit of roughness to the syllables he spoke.
Werebear? Like a werewolf? Why is he so nonchalant with a creature like a werewolf? Aren't they dangerous? My thoughts were interrupted by a third voice.
"C'mon now, Crane." It spoke obnoxiously, "A little coin never hurt anything. Ya know we need it."
A gnome maybe half the size of Crane stood beside the Werebear, holding his arms behind his back. I could only assume that this tiny individual's name is Kurky. He was small and also robed, but not in the same elegant way as Crane. It was simplistic and open in the chest. Definitely not for colder weather like this time of year.
"I need this small issue handled. They are ruining my food supply, and I do not trust myself to handle this." the Werebear pleas, holding his claws in his fingertips.
I shake myself away from the conversation. This is definitely inappropriate. It's none of my business. At this point, I'm just wasting time.
I open my small bag and begin plucking the berries from their bush. The conversation in front of me falls to a mumble as my mind wanders to other matters. I place the berries in their own pouch and tie them tightly. This should do.
The gravel behind me shifted. My pointed ear perks up, and I turn in the direction. Nothing. It's probably another squirrel. I think, brushing the noise off. I stand from my squatting position and continue down the road. I gaze up to the white streaky clouds, holding my items close to my side.
A deep snarl echoes from the bushes. My eyes grow wide as I quickly jump from the center of the road. I snatch my staff from my back, pointing it in the direction of the noise. "Come out, damnit!" I screech with confidence.
A seven-foot hyena creature emerged from the trees, crushing the bushes that surround it. Its teeth were long and had a reddish tint. I lower my staff, gazing up at the tall creature. Rags were tied around his waist, and armor covered his shoulders. In his hand was a massive spear dragging the ground, digging the dirt up beneath it.
"Gnolls..." I whisper to myself, fear shaking my body.
The branches and leaves behind me made a cracking and crunching sound as three smaller gnolls appeared from the forest. I jumped around, so the larger gnoll was to my right and the smaller ones to my left. I can't take them all; I need to run away! The three smaller gnolls began laughing hysterically, drool pooling out of their mouths.
I sprung forward as fast as I could, attempting to flee. The gravel below me shifts as my footsteps ring throughout the forest. Behind me, large footsteps crash into the gravel. I peek over my shoulder to see two smaller gnolls moving quickly behind me. One reaches out to me, swinging his claw in my direction. Adrenaline pumps through my blood, and my mind begins to spin. A sharp pain runs through my leg. I fall to the hard rocks, scratching my face and brow. I look to my leg, finding a crossbow bolt sticking out of my thigh. The pain overwhelms me as tears stream from my eyes. I quickly use my elbows to pull myself a few feet.
This is how I die.
The two gnolls surround me, stretching out a rope tied to the side of one. "Firebolt!" My voice cracks, sending a ball of fire in their direction. To my dismay, the ball of light zoomed between the two. They let out a loud, cackling laugh: my vision spins, and spots appear across the scene. No, I have to find her. I will not faint to bloodloss! I glance down at my leg, blood spills from the wound.
By this time, the larger gnoll had caught up to us. A smaller gnoll stood beside him, holding a crossbow. One grabbed my good leg and dragged me towards him. "Get away from me!" I knew my words were fruitless, but my mind couldn't think straight. The larger gnoll slapped him, causing him to drop me. "Need" He barks in broken common, "healthy."
The spots grew larger as my leg gushed against the bolt. A pool of blood settled beside me. He grabs me and begins to wrap the rope tight around my ankles. I kicked and flailed violently, using my arms to try and claw away. The other gnoll dragged me back before holding my neck down against the pebbled path. I squirmed and screeched, "I will murder you!" My eyes blurred, and my heart jumped in my chest. Cold and darkness surrounded me; my vision goes completely black. There was no getting away.
My head throbs and aches as I feel the grass kiss my cheek. What? I thought to myself, confused. My thoughts ran in circles. Berries? Yes, I got the berries. I was headed to the town over. The werebear? No-
I attempt to move my arm to my forehead, only to be met with resistance. I open my hazy eyes and try to take in the environment around me. My back was firmly pressed to the grass below me, trees howling loudly in the wind. The rope was tight around my body, but the pain that jolted through my leg not long ago was now numb. Gnolls. Those damn gnolls! My mind raced. Why haven't they killed me? They're ravenous and savage creatures.
My body felt heavy and exhausted. I gaze down at my leg; the bolt was gone, and the wound patched—my things were nowhere to be found. I laid quietly in the grassy meadow. I begin to hear growling and slight barking noises coming from my right. I decide to lay still and pretend I am unconscious. My brain continues to throb in my head violently. The dagger in my boot! I wiggle slightly, brushing my boot against my calf. Aha! Stupid gnolls! They forgot to check for weapons on me! A glimmer of hope passes through me. I slowly scrunch into a ball, reaching into my boot. I feel the handle's tip with my fingertips when I hear the loud crunch of grass. I tightly close my eyes, hoping for the best.
My body quickly drags the grass before I'm lifted from the ground. "Ah!" I screech, surprised. The Gnoll laughs maniacally, hoisting me over his shoulder. I winced in pain from my thigh. I look behind me, seeing my things over beside a pile of food and barrels. "What do you want?!" He throws me to the dirt. I look up, seeing the three small gnolls from before staring intensely to my left. My eyes follow their gaze to see the large armored gnoll tinkering with a stone staircase in the center of the dirt patch. Stone hedges line the dirt patch to form a rectangle.
The gnoll leader trudges over to me, snarling viciously. He reaches down, picking me up by the ropes around my body. Suddenly a boom erupts from one of the gnolls. I'm dropped to the ground with a thud as the larger gnoll glares in the opposite direction. I watch as the small hyena hits the ground with a whimper. He shakes his head and snarls loudly behind him.
"Nasty, Nasty things." A familiar voice speaks loudly in distaste, "Even so, you would make interesting little playthings when I resurrect you." My wide eyes gaze behind the large figure. A velvety-dressed wizard stands at the edge of the forest. "Crane?" I ask aloud.
The gnolls bark, lunging themselves towards the man. I take this opportunity, diving my hand into my boot, snatching my dagger from its place. I begin sawing at the ropes that bind me together. I gazed up to see the gnome spring from the forest and dash in front of the wizard. He jabbed the neck of the gnoll, blood spilling onto his fists and clothing. I wince at the coughing and bloody mess. The gnoll shakes like a dog and attempts to bite at the small man. Kurky dodges out the way, jumping on the snout of the hyena creature. A boom shoots to the gnoll leader, exploding on impact. "Magic Missle!" Crane's voice is raspy and strained. The seven-foot gnoll slams into the ground in front of me.
The dagger finally slices through the ropes that entangled me. I jump to my feet, groaning at the pain coming from my thigh. Blood seeps from the bandages that were wrapped securely. I have to get out of here!
"Hey, half-elf!" Kurky's cocky voice rings out. I turn quickly, my braid slapping my shoulder, to see the gnome calling out to me. "Can you fight?! Cause if so, don't be a coward!"
I could always handle myself since I've left home, but I've never been up against anything other than a tiny goblin. Four gnolls seem like too much for us to handle. I'm injured, and my magic is too unpredictable... Tell him no. I contemplate; He's right, though. I can't be a coward. I owe them since they technically saved me.
"Yeah!" I yell back confidently. Kurky punches a gnoll in the snout, taking it out completely. It lays on the ground motionless, its crossbow to its side. I limp-run back from the heat of the fight, mentally preparing myself.
"Ray of Frost!" I point my arm up, facing the group of monsters, clenching my fist tightly as a bright ball of cold shoots forward. The orb shoots across the field towards a small gnoll. The frost engulfs the gnoll, covering it in a bright white frost. Its fur stands frozen for a couple of seconds. It whimpers as its claws and fingers freeze. His claws shatter into frozen pieces as he jumps around in pain. It worked! I celebrate mentally before I see the gnoll turn his attention on me.
The small gnoll runs towards me in a dash. He slashes at me with his intact claws. I roll on the ground, barely dodging out of the way. I have to get back! I have no melee experience! I attempt to back up when the gnoll raises his hand without the claws. His arm slashed at me, to my surprise. The gnoll's palm slaps my torso, sending me to the ground. I gasped sharply, pulling myself out of the dirt. "Bastard..." I hiss. I flung myself in the direction of Crane and Kurky, trying to lead the gnoll back to the group. There's only one thing I can do. The gnoll follows behind me, snarling loudly. I position myself, so Kurky is to my right, and Crane stands behind me.
"Okay! Kurky, move back!"
"Move back!" I screech, holding both of my arms out in front of me. I cup my hands together, concentrating on my inner energy. Kurky leaps back, quickly landing beside Crane.
A giant ball of fire erupts from my hands, pushing me back two feet. It flings to the center of the gnolls, slamming into the ground. A loud explosion lights up the meadow's center, sending shrapnel and gnoll dismemberment outwards of the circle. The light was blinding and caused parts of trees to catch fire. The blaze was hot and hard to stand, so I shield my eyes from the bright light. The grass was now black, and a medium-sized crater stretched out across the meadow.
Whimpers and whines echo from the smoke coming from the lesser gnolls. The large gnoll walks out of the smoke, his arm incinerated off. My chest rises and falls rapidly, as my head feels heavy. I shake myself violently, pulling myself from my haze.
Crane walks up beside me, acid dripping from his hands. "Acid spray!" He sprays the beast with a green acid-like liquid. The gnoll moves, only taking minimal damage—a roar beams from the woods behind us. The three of us jump, turning to face the noise. We all turn our attention to the edge of the forest, seeing a large hairy man appears; his anger is apparent.
"Esben?" Crane questions.
His clothing rips and tears away from his body. Pieces of cloth fall to the ground as his skin sprouts thick hair across him. The cracking of bones and joints rang through the field. His form broke and rebuilt itself into a large grizzly bear. He roared out, his paws outstretched to the sky. His body lunges forward on all fours, rushing towards the armored gnoll.
He jumps far into the air like a breeze, clawing and attaching himself to the gnoll. His sharp teeth sink into the flesh of the gnoll's neck, ripping and tearing at its jugular. Crane, Kurky, and I stand in amazement at the pure rage radiating from the Werebear. Blood spilled from the neck of the gnoll, causing him to stumble backward. The gnoll whimpers clawing down the Werebear's back. He lets out a loud rumbling roar sinking his teeth further into the bloodied wounds. The armored gnoll thrashes his arms in an attempt to throw the bear from his place, his pay slipping and breaking a smaller stone pillar. The gnoll falls backward, slamming his back into the sharp stone stairs. A blistering whine echoes through the smoky meadow. A silence falls on the forest around us, only the crackling of fire to be heard. As I try to peer into the thick smoke, my vision was hazy and fuzzy.
Crane walked forward with his nose turned upward, brushing the dust off his robes. I study him intensely, noticing the small scuffs across his chin. Kurky follows behind him, quietly walking toward the scene that had unfolded. I wince, making an audible breath. I grasp my thigh with a tight grip, noticing the bandages bloodied and torn. They both turn to face me, their steps halting.
"You okay there, half-elf?" Kurky asks, his face void of any emotion.
"Uh-" I stammer, "Yeah, I'll be fine. I just need to get this patched." I scan the area, searching for my things, hoping they didn't get destroyed in the blast. I see it laying a few yards away, ripped but somewhat intact. I limp over to it, hoisting it over my shoulder. Well, I guess the berries are gone...
I hear Kurky and Crane continue to walk in the opposite direction. I study their movements before quickly following them into the wreckage. I lean on my cracked staff limping behind them quietly. A low hum vibrates in front of us as I notice the smoke settling. My eyes trail down to the ground below us to see fresh green grass. White flowers and vines cover the ground and small cracked pillars. There is no way this was here before, nor could they have survived the blast. I think to myself. My eyes land on the now-deceased gnoll lying draped beside the stairs. His once bloodied neck was now covered in variations of flowers trailing down to his armor. Vines consume his body, holding it tight to the ground. My eyes follow the vines surrounding the stone stairs, watching the leaves dance in the wind. What? I turn to see a beautiful glowing beam of light on top of the stairs. It was in the shape of a circle and hummed lowly. It felt almost comforting and welcoming. The grass spreads across the once dirt patch in a radius of the light, healthy and luscious.
"Esben!" Cranes raspy voice calls out loudly.
"Esben!" Kurky calls out after him.
A pile of stone to the left of the stairs crack and crumble, lifting from the ground. He throws the debris to the side of him, letting out a hacking cough. He limps forward, holding his right arm, as a stream of bright blood leads down to his fingertips. His clothing was tattered and barely hanging on.
"Well, I didn't think you would jump in. I thought you said you didn't trust yourself to handle it?" Crane cocks a fuzzy eyebrow.
The werebear named Esben laughed with a breathless scoff, "It seemed you fellas needed some help. I didn't want to be the cause of your demise." He teased.
"Ah-" Kurky scoffs, "As if we needed it, old man. We could've handled it."
"You couldn't have done it without her." He gestures towards me with his good arm.
Crane and Kurky turn to meet my gaze. I laugh awkwardly, adjusting my things, "Oh no, I didn't do much. Thank you for saving me, however."
Crane gives me a sideways glance, disregarding my words, "What's your name, half-elf?"
"Oh-" I hesitate, "My name is Meli."
"And how did you know our names, Meli?" Kurky chimes in.
"Uh-" I stammer, "Well, before the gnolls kidnaped me, I was scavenging for berries, and I overheard you three talking." I paused, "Not that I meant to, however."
The two stare at me, studying me over before turning to face Esben. "So, what is this?" Kurky gesturing towards the glowing light on top of the stairs.
Crane sighs, "A portal. A magic portal, to be exact."
"Yes," Esben starts, "I had no idea the gnolls were doing something to this extent."
"What would be the point in opening this?" Kurky asked, annoyed, crossing his arms over his open chest.
"That I don't know." Esben stated, "I do know; however, they needed a sacrifice to make it open. Hence why it only opened when that gnolls dead body lays beside it."
"A sacrifice?!" I gasp out without a thought.
"I mean, I'm sure they weren't going to keep you alive anyway." Crane doesn't look in my direction, "You would've died, sacrifice or not."
I knew that smart ass... I think to myself. I didn't expect them to sacrifice someone...
"Where does it go?" Kurky ponders aloud.
"I don't know; you're welcome to find out." Esben coughs out.
"Hm." Crane strokes his chin, walking towards the portal, "It would be interesting, no telling what I could find to toy with."
"I want to go." Kurky exclaims, "There's no telling what in there." Kurky shakes with excitement like a mere child. I stare at the two, dumbfounded at their curiosity.
"There's no telling where that portal leads to," I stated, hobbling closer to them. "What if it's a lava plain? Or somewhere you can't breathe? Are you two really going to walk in there with no prior knowledge of where it leads?"
"Well, Mrs. half-elf, we won't know until we journey into it." Crane gleams.
"We?" I question, laughing humorlessly, "I have other business to tend to. You three have fun, but I am not going to get myself killed." I cross my arm over my staff dismissively.
Esben lets out a rough chuckle, "I'm staying here." He says firmly, rolling his injured shoulder with a hiss. He reaches to his tattered leather belt, pulling two vials of red liquid from a pouch. "Good to see these weren't damaged." He spins the liquid around the bottle.
"But how? You were a bear?" I asked him, confusion coating my tone.
"Magic." He says with a cheeky smile, fluttering his fingers in the air. He turns the vial up with a loud gulp. "Here." Esben throws the second vial in my direction. I clumsily catch the vial, almost dropping it from my fingertips.
A health potion. I ponder in my thoughts.
"Well, you gonna drink it or stare at it?" Esben lets out a belly laugh before turning back to Crane, who seemed lost in thought.
I pop the cork from the vial before turning it up, gulping it down. Its taste was bitter, with a touch of sweetness. I squeezed my eyes tightly, swallowing the harsh liquid. I haven't had one of those in a while. I definitely didn't miss the taste. My thigh begins to tingle as warmth spreads through my veins. I graze my fingers down, brushing lightly against the wound. I unraveled the bandage throwing it to the ground. My leg had no scratches; neither did the rest of my body. I leaned up from my staff, kicking my foot against the ground. All healed!
"So, the coin, Esben?" Kurky rubs his fingertips together.
"Oh, yes!" Esben perks up, "Thirty gold, split evenly." Esben hesitates, gazing over at me. "Ah yes, Meli, I would say you deserve a share, hm?" He digs in his pouch, hanging to the side of his belt. Esben rummaged through his things before pulling a smaller pouch from the bag. "Here we are." He says, reaching out to Crane, "Fifteen for you," then Kurky, "for you," and lastly, he stops in front of me, "and for you." He holds the gold out to me; I slowly take the shining pieces into my hands, holding them close.
"Well, fellas," Esben smiles a toothy smile, "oh, and lady, I will be leaving now. Thank you for all the help. Best wishes." Esben gives a joyful nod before bouncing off to the edge of the forest.
"Such a strange, werebear." Kurky states as all three of us watch the bear skip away.
"Kurky, you say we take a look at this portal? Crane exclaims, a bit more enthusiastic than before.
"You didn't have to ask." He smiles a childish smile.
They both turn away from me, strutting up the staircase. They pay me no mind and act as if I didn't exist. I stand there, baffled and unsure of what to do. I grasp tightly onto my staff, placing the fifteen shiny coins into my pouch. Crane stops slowly, turning to face me. His expression was indecisive and distant. Crane studies me once more, intensely studying my figure. I meet his eyes, a sigh escaping his lips.
"You are quite the sorceress, Meli." He adjusts his sleeve, "I would like your partnership."
"Thank you," I was shocked, "But..." I trail off.
Would it really hurt, though? I've never been one to make rash decisions. I think to myself. It could be dangerous, but it could also help me find her sooner. I can always come back, right? It's a portal; it's not gonna close. I don't think it will... Crane clears his throat, pulling me from my thoughts.
"I don't see why not." I laugh with an awkward shrug.
"C'mon then; we ain't got all day." Kurky chimes in, waving his hands.
I attach my staff to my bag as I hurriedly rush up the stairs paying attention to not step on the vines. I stand beside Kurky and Crane, looking to them both, seeking reassurance. Kurky gives me a half-smile while Crane couldn't meet my gaze.
Gods help me now.