I woke up a bit before dawn, finally having had a proper sleep. I escaped the tiny tent and spied Carla stirring some sludge over the sputtering fire.
"Morning," I greeted the girl with a slight smile. Her wild dark brown hair was messily combed back, a ponytail barely holding everything together. She glanced back with a grand smile. "Good mornin' milord."
I sat beside her on the log, warming my hands on the fire while she resumed her stirring. Without any prompt from me, she spoke up, "Grandpa Carl's gone out again, milord John went with him this time. Lady Julie is still asleep."
"Oh, good to know," I replied and gestured at the dented vessel containing our breakfast. "What's cooking?"
"Rabbit stew, just like last night. It'll go down well with some bread, but it be a little stale now." She replied.
'Ugh, not again.' I grimaced.
"Hahaha," she laughed out loud. I glanced at her, a bit surprised at the unexpected sound. "Ah, beg your pardon milord. Just, your face... Not used to the forest fare?"
'Holy crap, are the NPCs reacting to non-verbal ticks now?' I was stunned. "Um, yeah," I mumbled back.
She must've misunderstood my shock for embarrassment, as she started consoling me, "Aye, I know how you feel sire. I was just the same when I started as a proper Scout. Mam spoilt me rotten on all the delicacies before. I love the woods, no doubt, but I also miss the home comforts some. Or used to. Now I've gotten used to it all. You'll get used to it soon enough."
"I dearly hope so." I gave a weary smile. 'I'd rather just not be in the forest if I could help it.' "And please, call me Pat. I'm in your care after all."
Her cheeks gained some color at that. She stared back at the pot on the fire, giving a few vigorous stirs, then whispered out, "Pat." A second after that, she sneaked a glimpse back at me. Using her other hand to put back a few strands that fell free behind her ear, she continued, "Call me Carla."
'Wait, is this NPC flirting with me?' I was pretty sure she was, yes. I took a good look at her, a rounded, average if pretty face. Light brownish hair, freckles across her nose. She was cute. I was curious which of my words must've triggered her flirting sub-routine.
Her reaction to me checking her out was ultra-realistic as well. Her pinkish cheeks were almost rosy-red now. She was back to boring into the cooking pot and stirring with more vigor than necessary.
"So, Carla." I started. She almost dropped her ladle. "How long you've been out like this?"
I expected her to stutter a little, but beyond a slight hesitation, her speech was as usual, if a little high-pitched. "I got the Class when I was ten, like everyone. But I first started venturing into the forest with grandpa after I turned 13. Over a decade ago, that be."
'Wow, that's... a lot. 10 years and still in double marks level? NPCs must have massive restrictions on leveling up.'
"You must know most of the forest by now." I joked.
"Haha," she laughed freely, earlier awkwardness barely an undertone. "I wish. Grandpa has forgotten more than I have ever learned. As he likes to remind me so often."
I laughed with her. It felt nice. The early dawn ambiance, sputtering flames, easy-going companions. Reminded me of the times I went out camping with my friends, sitting around a campfire, pursuing random topics in our useless chattering. A small ache formed in my chest. I buried it over more conversation.
"So where are they gone?" I asked. 'If they are going to take their time, I can do a few more experiments.'
"Milady Julie insisted that she wants to hunt more monsters, that we be staying here until her class evolves." Carla shrugged. Noticing my questioning gaze, she elaborated, "Normally, we'd be back in the village for rest like as not." She pulled the ladle from the pot and sniffed. Nodding to herself, she conjured a bowl from somewhere and filled it up to the brim. "So they went in search of prey. Here, how about some early breakfast?" She handed it to me. I took it gratefully, the heat was welcome enough against my stiff fingers. She then opened a sack on her other side, pull a couple of loaves out, and handed me one, while filling another bowl for herself.
"Thanks," I murmured and smiled gratefully.
"Aye, welcome," she whispered and smiled back, cheeks still slightly colored.
¤ ¤ ¤
"Were-deer?" I rolled the words in my mouth. They were strangely rhythmic.
"Aye, a proper herd of 'em." Carl puffed out. They had just returned from their scouting trip and found some manner of monster deer. "Headed south right over to us too. And it gets worse."
"Worse?" Julie quipped from her bowl. She was more excited than worried. Carla, instead, had her eyebrows rising up with each reveal.
"Yes," John answered. "They have a Maricha at their head." Carla's brows disappeared under her bangs. 'Wait, Maricha? Where have I heard it before?'
"What's a Maricha?" Julie asked while I dug deeper into the memories of folklore I read as a child.
"A Maricha is an evolved variant of were-deer," Carla spoke up. "They are well-known for their shiny golden hide but are extremely hard to catch because of their illusion magic. They are known to fool both eyes and ears, using tricks to flee predators and catch prey. But..." She looked at her grandfather with concern, who nodded to her to continue along. "Were-deer are not known to come here so far south, let alone a high-leveled one. This region is not in their migration path. They prefer the grassy plains of northern Alteraz, not the forested areas here. Why are so many monsters coming down? What is happening?"
'Illusions? Fool eyes and eyes. Hmm, this is ringing some bells.'
"As you say." Carl nodded at his granddaughter. "Methinks the Dragons are waking up."
I was roughly yanked out of my ruminations by that statement. I had not forgotten the "lesser dragonling" we had encountered in the Tutorial. Julie and I exchanged a glance, both thinking of the same. I suppressed a shiver.
John gazed at Carl with intensity, "Are you sure Carl? The Clans must be informed if it is so."
"Sure? Will 'ave to see 'em Dragons meself to be so," he snorted. "I simply canne think of another reason. I remember the last time those spiky bastards showed up. Thought the world was ending, aye."
'The old man has seen them?' Carla beat both Julie and myself to the punch. "You were there?" She shouted, "When the Salvation Dungeon was discovered?"
'The Salvation Dungeon?' my face twisted towards Carla. 'So many questions! Holy shit this cutscene is intense.' I decided to let it play instead of interrupting. Questions can be answered later. Thankfully, Julie did not interrupt either.
"I was, aye." Carl sounded a bit subdued, "lost many friends then. Almost died meself." He glanced up and smiled at Carla, "Went lookin' for the fabled Dungeon from the prophecy. Along with the big wigs from many Clans. Found it we did, but couldn't get inside. And we lingered too long. Aye. And them hungry beasties sniffed us too. Woke 'em up, I think we did. Thought the mountains were crashin' first. But no, it was just them prancing about. Would never forget the sight."
His words were greeted with silence. He looked around and chortled as if satisfied with the scare he had given us. "Ach, might be nothing. Those lazy scalies are known to sleep for ages. So, about them were-deer."
'No wait, I wanna know more about the Dungeon... And Dragons.' But before I could raise my point, John spoke up. "Even if it is Dragons, discussing about it would get us nowhere. We must focus on the threat in front of us."
Carla nodded. Julie did too, although a bit reluctantly. Then they all stared at me. 'Jeez, peer pressure much?' I wasn't gonna be the jerk who wouldn't let go. So I let it go. Temporarily. Information should be pursued as a blood-hound pursues... 'Holy, I remember what Maricha is.'
"Say, do you know have Demons here?" I inquired tentatively. In Hindu mythology, Maricha was the "Rakshasa" who took the form of a golden deer to aid in a kidnapping. He also faked the death cries of another towards that end. Rakshasas were loosely related to Demons in most mythologies elsewhere. 'Could this Maricha be based on that one? Illusions that fool eyes and ears, seem like it. But there is more than one here? The one in the myth was a unique existence.'
"None, Sire." John immediately replied. Carla looked confused at the sudden topic. Carl looked thoughtful, I noted. "Unless you count the tales told by mothers to have their little ones sleep without a fuss."
"Hmm," I pondered, 'So there are no demons at all except scary stories?' "What do you say, Carl?"
Carl looked at me askance. "Them folks who fought the Calamity, they spoke of demons. That is all I know."
"Why do you ask Pat?" Julie butted in. "Ah, just curious," I answered. "We should get on with this deer thing, time's wasting." From her look, I knew she wasn't going to let it rest. A woman after my own heart. Thankfully, she didn't insist right then.
"Let's go hunt some were-deer then! By the way, what's a were-deer?"
¤ ¤ ¤
"So, why Demons?" Julie questioned. It was almost afternoon. We were now trekking north, but instead of the forest, we took a slightly eastern route that had more grass than trees. Straight towards the herd.
Apparently, were-deer were classified so by the Rangers for their varied diet. They ate everything from grass to carcasses, despite looking not that different from normal deer. Their magical intestines aside, they were the major part of the food chain in the northern plains. Them migrating down would not be a problem by itself, but they would bring more dangerous monsters down sniffing their trail. And that would be a big problem.
Julie and I were hanging back, both Archer and Battle-Mage being long-ranged Classes. John was slightly ahead of us, far enough that we had privacy to speak but close enough to come to our aid if needed. Carla was even further, but still in sight, unlike her grandfather.
"Maricha, the golden deer we are about to hunt?" I asked. She hmm'ed. "It likely comes from the story of Ramayana. He was supposed to be a shape-shifting Demon in that, so I asked if there are any here." She hmm'ed again, thoughtful this time.
"What do you make of this Salvation Dungeon?" I asked her.
"I thin-" She started, but stopped immediately after seeing a signal from John. Carl had rejoined the group at some point.
We shuffled quickly up to where the three NPCs were waiting for us in a huddle.
"Spotted 'em, about half a mile ahead. About a hundred of them. Most are level 30 to 50." Carl started giving up the situation report as soon as we arrived. "And the big shiny one. He be at the front leading them."
'Hundreds.' I sucked in a breath. "We can't fight so many."
"We can't if they all fought us." Carla explained, "But many of the herd are fawn and female who care for them. If they had a choice to fight or run, they will always run. And so will most of the low leveled males, when they are scared enough. For a herd of hundred, their realistic strength would be around a dozen or so fighters."
I exhaled, letting some tension flow out. The area had sparse vegetation, I couldn't escape up a convenient tree. Nor would I have Circles prepared in advance to trap the unwary, since we would be going to them instead of them coming to us. The only advantage was that I was not alone. I had three experienced NPCs and Julie along with me. And I wasn't a weakling anymore either.
'We can do this!'