The city of Erosa, of the Lodrak Empire, stood on the banks of a river known as the Whispering Canal. Named after its calm waters and predictable currents, this body of water flowed in from the Sawblade Mountains to the north and kept going in a relatively straight line until it flowed out into the ocean. Its sprawling delta some 5 kilometers south of the city had formed the massive Whispering Marshes that spanned an area of about 450 square kilometers.
To the West of Erosa were the Troll Woods, named for the dominant species of monster that lived in those parts. The depths of this sprawling forest were mostly unexplored, but it was still a valuable source of high-quality lumber and magical ingredients. The numerous small villages that dotted its outskirts dedicated their time to farming and tending to the fertile soil, but had to deal with the very real threat of monster and bandit attacks.
The city itself was located in the South-Western corner of the Empire. Going beyond the Whispering Marshes or through the Troll Woods to the west would lead one to the shores of the Shimmering Ocean, at the edge of the continent. The relatively nearby Sawblade Mountains ran northwest-by-southeast through the middle of the Empire’s territory, all the way to the western edge of the continent.
With the mountains to the north and northeast and the Shimmering ocean towards the south and west of it, this province was simply known as Cradle Valley. The only easily accessible land route in and out of this place lied was to the east of the city of Erosa along the imperial highway. This wide cobblestone road continued north out of the city and ran between the Whispering Canal to the east and Troll Woods to the west. Following this road north for about a week would lead travelers to the city of Montal.
This Cradle Valley was, simply put, one of the weakest and poorest areas of the Empire. Being mostly isolated from the heartland meant that traders, merchants and travelers barely went through these parts. Although the city of Erosa was actually flourishing, this was mostly due to its geographical position near the entrance to the Valley. This was a far cry from the rest of the province, which was sparsely populated with only two cities, 6 towns and 31 villages. Its total population was a mere 55,000.
Or at least that’s what it should have been about two weeks ago. The Calamity of Monotal that killed over 8,000 of the empire’s citizens was one thing, but the aftershocks of the event were still underway. Rumors spread of a foul green mist that spread outwards from the former city - a thick miasma that poisoned the very ground and air. The subsequent investigation by the emperor’s spymaster had revealed the depth and breadth of this Calamity to the crown and the young emperor had passed a decree than the crown would spearhead an effort to contain and repair the damage to the land.
The Empire’s response to this catastrophe would have been far slower if it wasn’t for Bernard Samson - the Hero of the Hammer and Teresa’s Chosen. Having lost his life in the Calamity, he revived at the Temple of Teresa in the capital the very same day, allowing him to relay the dire news of this disaster before the proverbial dust had actually settled.
However, the only reason the spymaster’s investigation could be carried out so swiftly was due to his team utilizing the half-lion half-eagle creatures known as griffins. Riding the large winged beasts allowed them to pass over the highly inhospitable and treacherous Sawblade Mountains and reach the site of the disaster within the span of a few days.
Such a method was simply not economically feasible when one considered the sheer amount of manpower and raw materials that needed to be transported in order to properly address and contain this situation. Simply organizing and transporting all of that was bound to take weeks, possibly months, and there was no guarantee they would be able to actually do much to salvage the area. And even if they could, then it would be a question of how much time they would need to actually carry out any solutions they came up with.
In other words, the crown was unable to properly reassure the populace. Unrest and fear spread like wildfire throughout the Cradle Valley.
“What if the wind spread that poisonous miasma around?!” said some.
“What if some strange new illness spread because of this?” questioned others.
“That place is cursed! The undead will rise in great numbers and spread throughout the land!” was a popular, but misinformed opinion.
As a result, over 5,000 people had already migrated out of the province. The region’s total population of 55,000 had already fallen to just under 42,000 and was expected to get much worse. It was already at a stage where the lords and nobles had serious doubts the region would ever truly recover.
There were, however, those who profited immensely from this. Namely adventurers in the 40-to-60 Level range. The city of Erosa that normally held about 10,000 residents at any given time had suddenly found itself bloated with hundreds upon hundreds of adventurers who came to profit off the event.
After all, it wasn’t just the people that were looking to abandon this valley. All manner of monsters and wild animals had also began pushing south and east, away from the Cataclysm. Bandits also became a bigger threat as more and more hapless villagers went on long journeys while unable or unwilling to hire protection.
Under such circumstances, it was really no surprise that adventurers found themselves privy to an unnaturally large volume of Quests involving monster subjugation or working as armed escorts. And of course, overseeing all of this, were all the various guilds that each individual belonged to, but the one that made the most money off other people’s suffering was, as usual, the Mercenary Guild.
Their office was a wooden two story building on a busy road near the northern gate of Erosa. This organization had the rather unorthodox policy of running a bar and restaurant at all of its offices and often doubled as an inn. While other guilds also offered goods and services to their members, they focused on seemingly less frivolous things, like selling potions, crafting materials, weapons, armor and reference materials.
However, this guild knew its members well. The stereotypical mercenary was a drifter, someone constantly on the road and with no roots of their own. Having a safe place where they could enjoy a warm meal, a cold drink and a clean, soft bed was more than enough. And while they could get those things elsewhere, it was often accompanied by distrusting looks or busybodies poking their noses where they don’t belong. Such things didn’t happen at the Mercenary Guild. The rooms they offered all had locks and nobody asked any personal questions.
This attitude was probably why the restaurant on the ground floor was so quiet right now, despite there being over 30 people in it. While some of them were exchanging information and a few others were recruiting temporary teammates, the vast majority of them ate their breakfast and minded their own god damned business. The most that could be heard is soft murmur and the clanking of spoons and forks.
The wooden front door swung open slowly and an enormous figure over 2 meters tall walked into the building. He wore a heavy black cloak that obscured most of his body and his face and hair were wrapped up in a dark blue cloth to make a makeshift mask that left only the area around his eyes exposed. What little could be seen of the skin on his face was rather pale and his irises were a piercing yellow color that seemed to notice every little detail around him. The feet that poked out under the hem of his cloak wore a pair of sturdy-looking brown leather boots that were a size or two larger than your typical adventurer, much like the rest of him.
Just looking at his tall figure and wide shoulders made it obvious his body was well-built. A physique well suited to close combat Jobs that relied on muscle power and stamina, such as a Warrior, Berserker or Paladin. Well, his presence in this guild made it crystal clear that last one wasn’t the case. Paladins were way too self-righteous to be caught dead in a place like this, not to mention they knew nothing about subtlety, a far cry from this stranger.
He moved along the wooden floorboards without making any of the heavy footsteps one would expect from a man of his stature. He also carried himself with a sort of grace that made it clear he wasn’t just some brawler. Indeed, his odd demeanor had allowed the more observant mercenaries gathered here to deduce he was of an agility-based Job, like a Ranger or Rogue, perhaps even one of His Majesty’s Spies. The fact he was doing it seemingly unconsciously was a telltale sign that his Job Level was beyond 25, meaning he wasn’t a Novice, but a Journeyman. It was also possible he had broken past Level 50 and reached the rank of an Adept.
The people in the guild all stared at the newcomer as he walked across the restaurant, towards the bar at the far end of the hall.
“What, it’s just him again?” said one of them dismissively under his breath.
The elf that spoke up stopped gawking and resumed minding his own god damned business. His breakfast, which consisted of a cup of tea, 2 grilled sausages and a bowl of gruel, was far more important than some dark figure.
Most of the others had much the same reaction and went about their morning routine. People like him were rather common among mercenaries, after all. Granted, that guy’s size made him stand out a bit more than usual, but this was hardly his first visit to this place. He always seemed to come in during breakfast or diner, yet never actually ordered any food.
The wrinkled old dwarf attending the bar wore a long-sleeved off-white tunic and slightly baggy dark gray pants, ending in a pair of town shoes that were beige in color. He had a thick brown beard with streaks of gray in it and his head was almost completely bald. The barman/receptionist put away the glass he was pretending to clean and turned his attention to the newcomer.
“Ah, Mister Morningwood,” he said in a strictly professional manner. Several people that overheard him giggled or snorted as they failed to suppress their laughter.
“I take it your Quest is complete?”
The tall figure opposite him nodded once. The bartender ducked momentarily under the counter and came back up holding an aquamarine-colored crystal ball, about the size of a child’s head. It was set into a circular wooden base like a plaque or pedestal, though its function was to keep the thing from rolling around the place rather than show it off. He placed it on the counter, right in front of the other, much taller gentleman.
“You know the drill,” said the dwarf.
Mister Morningwood nodded again and stretched out a hand from under his cloak. It was fittingly large and bandaged in such a way as to cover his palm and the back of his hand, leaving his thick pale fingers free to move about as they pleased. He placed his palm on top of the crystal like he was trying to grip it.
“Confirm Quest,” he chanted with a deep, clear voice and the ball flashed a few times in response.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has completed a Quest: Slay 10 Murk Dwellers.
Both men at the bar saw the same notification in their heads.
“Confirm Quest,” repeated the man without taking his hand off the crystal.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has completed a Quest: Slay 5 Ogres.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has completed a Quest: Deliver the Steel Ingots.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has completed a Quest: Night Watch.
“Very good, Mister Morningwood, I believe that’s everything,” said the aged dwarf behind the bar. “I will prepare your compensation immediately,” he added, then disappeared into a back room.
The receptionist would probably be a little while, so Boxxy decided to make use of its time and walked over to the Quest Board. It was a large wooden notice board that took up most of the wall to the right of the bar and had a large number of parchments stuck to it. He gave it a once over, looking for any suitable work an enterprising young Mimic could do in a day or two. Killing other monsters, standing guard at the city gate or ferrying goods were the types of Quests it preferred since they were simple and straightforward. However, none of those types of commissions were available to it. Most of the notices left on the board were related to escorting people, collecting ingredients or odd-jobs.
Acting as an escort was out of the question. Boxxy had a tough enough time acting human without having to also babysit a number of them over a period of several days. It was more than that though. The thought of escorting people and protecting them was, simply put, ridiculous. That was like asking a butcher to make sure a pig doesn’t get slaughtered.
Almost exactly like that, actually.
Odd-jobs were also out. Those also looked to involve a level of interaction that the Mimic was not willing to undertake, not to mention the ratio of time taken to gold earned was really bad. In the end, he monster-cum-mercenary reached out and grabbed a parchment detailing a collection Quest. The notice peeled off the board with little resistance and was then placed on the bar counter.
The receptionist returned a minute later with eight leather pouches in his hands.
“Here are your deposits,” he said while placing four of them side-by-side, “and these four are your rewards. Would you like to confirm the amount?”
Boxxy nodded and reached out to feel the weight on each of them. The unmistakable clack of gold they made when shaken was like music to its fake ears. The monster-in-disguise used its magical perception to peek inside the pouches and make extra sure that the agreed-upon amount was all there. The Mimic nodded its dummy head at the old dwarf and put away seven of the pouches under its heavy cloak. The last one, however, was placed on top of the parchment it took from the Quest Board earlier.
“Ah, another one?” exclaimed the bartender. He picked up the pouch and looked over the notice, then nodded.
“Very good, Mister Morningwood.”
He then set the parchment back down on the bar and placed the crystal ball from before on top like it was a glorified paperweight. Boxxy placed a hand on top much like before. It glowed slightly and fed a stream of information into the Mimic’s mind.
Collect 120 KG of Bouncewood Bark
Time Limit: 4 days
Description: Deliver 120 kilograms of Bouncewood Bark to the Mercenary Guild in the city of Erosa. Bouncewood trees may be found in the Troll Woods west of Erosa and are easily recognizable due to their smooth and black surface.
The deposit was something unique to the Mercenary Guild. They were an organization that allowed pretty much anyone to accept Quests from their Board, no questions asked. However, such individuals would have to leave behind a certain amount of gold for every Quest they took. If the part-time mercenary accomplished their task, they would get their deposit back in full, along with the Quest’s completion reward. Should they fail or disappear never to be heard from again, then the guild would re-post the Quest and keep their deposit for themselves.
That way the guild either had a satisfied customer in the face of the one who posted the Quest in the first place, or they had a lump sum of gold with which to settle any damages or grievances that resulted from the failure of the Quest. They even had the authority to withhold part of the deposit even if the Quest was technically complete.
The Mercenary Guild would make a profit no matter what happened.
There were of course a significant number of Quests that were not made available to outsiders. Non-members also did not have the backing of the Guild should things go awry with a client or the authorities, but such trifling matters were of little concern to Boxxy. The Mimic could get paid without having to subject itself to an Appraisal examination, and that was all that mattered.
“Accept quest,” it chanted.
Both the crystal and the parchment glowed with a soft yellow light for several seconds. The tracking-type magic then enveloped Boxxy and a message appeared for both it and the receptionist.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has undertaken a Quest: Collect 120 KG of Bouncewood Bark.
“Will that be all?” asked the wrinkled old dwarf while putting away the crystal and the parchment behind the counter.
“No,” answered Boxxy. “Selling.”
Its arm reached out from under its cloak once again and placed what appeared to be a rose flower made out of steel razors and wires. The receptionist picked it up carefully, making sure not to cut his hand on the numerous sharp edges that jutted out from it.
A disposable weapon made by a rookie Artificer. Pulling on the wire at the base of the Bladeblossom will trigger its mechanism, which launches a high number of spring-loaded blades in all directions. This particular item is of superior construction, allowing it to inflict additional damage despite being made out of common materials.
Estimated Value: 24GP
Boxxy had placed three more of these things on the counter by the time the receptionist was finished appraising the first one. The dwarf then quickly verified those as well then made an offer.
“Alright, I’ll buy the four of them for 70GP.”
The man-shaped monster on the other side of the counter simply nodded in response. The dwarf then quickly produced the money and handed it over to complete the transaction. With its business for the moment concluded, the Mimic simply turned away and went out of the building. One of the human men that had been silently staring at the cloaked figure since it walked in here walked over to the bar and took a seat on the stool.
“Hey Grog, who was that?” he asked, a hint of worry in his voice.
“Mister Morningwood,” came the casual answer. “He showed up about a week ago and has been working hard ever since.”
“What do you think his deal is?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Though I do kinda like the guy, to be honest.”
“Sure. He’s quiet, efficient and doesn’t try to haggle with me like the rest of you mooks. He’s basically the ideal mercenary in my book.”
“Oh… Right. Yeah, you have a point. I don’t like him one bit, though.”
“Hah! Why? Jealous he’s been scooping up all the work?” asked the dwarf with a small chuckle.
“No! Well a little, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Something about him just doesn’t feel right.”
“Okay, granted, the fellow is a bit creepy, but-”
“No no no, Grog. Not creepy. Terrifying. My hair stands on end whenever I’m in the same room with that guy.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing,” said his ginger-haired companion while sitting on the bar stool next to Torel. “There’s a thick stench of death about him. Just looking his way makes some small part of me want to run for my life.”
“Ah, you two are just imagining things. I mean sure he’s got that ‘mysteeeerious’ and ‘inteeeense’ atmosphere about him, but he’s no different from most of the other part-timers I’ve seen. Besides, has he ever shown even the slightest sign of hostility?”
“N-no… I guess not,” admitted Torel.
“Well, maybe he hasn’t shown any hostility, but I definitely fucking felt it!” claimed the other human.
“Hah! Look at you!” said Grog, mockingly. “You’re actually scared of the big guy in the heavy cloak! You’re way too green if you let superficial stuff like that get to you.”
“But what if he’s actually a criminal?! Some mass murderer or psychopath?!” insisted Torel.
The dwarf shrugged his shoulders in response.
“Ain’t none of my business. Ain’t none of the Mercenary Guild’s business. And unless he does something to you, it ain’t none of yours, either.”
“Well… what if he has a huge bounty on his head?!”
The dwarf stopped organizing his bar and sighed.
“Then it would be the Bounty Hunter Guild’s business. Look lad, I like you, so let me offer you some advice on the house. Do not mess with that part-timer.“
Torel briefly considered the elderly bartender’s words. Of course the dwarf was right. There was no legal profit to be made from poking one’s nose into some suspicious individual’s private matters. Yet some part of Torel didn’t want to let this go.
“And just so we’re clear,” added the bartender, “neither me nor my bosses are gonna be responsible if someone finds you dead in an alley, alright?”
“Y-yeah, okay. You’ve made your point. I’ll keep my head down.”
Those last few words really struck a nerve with the young man. Not because he was afraid that scenario would happen, but the far more terrifying prospect that it wouldn’t.
Something was telling him they wouldn’t find him at all once ‘mister Morningwood’ was done with him.