Tessa was onboard a wagon again, but this time it was to subdue bandits. Staring out the back at the clouds above she smiled, thankful to how a little good luck put her back on track and now she was chasing her dream all over again. It’d only been a little while since she’d become an Adventurer and she expected to start the quest tomorrow morning at the earliest, but it seems that Adventurers prefer to strike while the iron’s hot.
Looking back to her new friends, Tessa watched as they polished their blades and checked for gaps in their armor and wondered how each of them became Adventurers. How did they plan on handling this quest? Tessa had her own ideas about how she’d handle it, but lacked any actual experience. But Burf, Evera, and Puff must all be experienced fighters already if they’re looking forward to this.
Tessa’s curiosity got the best of her, she needed to know more about her new party members. Where were they from? How did they grow up? What was their plan?
“Um, may I...ask a question?”
Burf stopped polishing his spear, “Yes? What is it?”
“I know we just met, but…”
Evera’s eyes sparkled but Puff nudged her with his elbow to try and keep her from getting too hopeful.
“I was wondering where you’re all from and what your lives were like before becoming Adventurers. I didn’t know many people at my academy, so...I got curious.”
The three of them stared at her blankly, unsure of how to respond to someone interested in their backstories.
Burf thought for a moment, “Well, if you’re curious to know, I grew up an urchin on the streets and often had to steal food or hope the spot I found for the night wouldn’t get taken by someone else while I was away. But after a while I found out about the Adventurers’ Guild. They didn’t care what I’d done or where I came from, only if I could complete quests. So, after joining, I started clearing quests like a madman and, well, now I’m here.”
Puff spoke up next, “I think Burf had the roughest life among us. I grew up a little ways away from Faethun in one of the Human Kingdoms’ border towns, a place called Verdanthill. Grew up learning stuff in school, but always wanted a life that was more action-packed. So once I turned 18, I joined the guardsmen thinking it’d be a more adventurous life than continuing with school. But, soon I found myself daydreaming of adventuring all over again and one day I met some Adventurers who were passing through. Spent that night drinking ‘til morning, but now I knew for sure what I was going to be. First chance I got, I left the guardsmen and came to Faethun to be an Adventurer. That’s pretty much it for me.”
Tessa started loosening up with Burf’s and Puff’s stories, and she could empathize with Puff a little. She remembered all the times as a child she would dress up and run around with a stick in her hand pretending to be a Hero while her father would pretend to be the big bad evil guy. The memories made her chuckle to herself and smile brightly.
Evera, feeling upset at being left out, started telling her story, “Well, unlike these two, I grew up in one of the distant forests of Venris. Dad wanted a son, but wound up with five daughters instead. So our days were spent learning how to skin, fish, identifying plants and other things the old man wanted to teach us. I got bored at home and wanted to do something more interesting, so I left. After 20 or so years of wandering around, I wound up saving these two from a pack of wolves in the middle of the night and then became an Adventurer.”
The three started bantering, mentioning how they'd saved each other time and again or brought up hilarious and embarrassing stories from the past; such as the time when a wolf had bitten Burf so hard on the butt that they had to get a blacksmith to pry the teeth out while he was still in it.
As Tessa gazed in wonder at them, Puff asked what her story was, “What about you Tessa? Only polite to share your own story too while we’re at it.”
“Huh? Oh! Yes! Umm...let me think for a moment,” Tessa hadn’t really ever thought much about her own past. Thinking about it, everything she’s done has gone by in a flash, “I grew up in Solis, one of the larger cities in the Human Kingdoms, and around 10 years ago a horde of wyverns attacked the city. Thankfully we were saved by some Heroes and…”
While Tessa seemed to gush with happiness at mentioning “Heroes”, she noticed that the others were disturbed by the title.
“Did I say something wrong?” Tessa was afraid she’d horribly offended them.
Burf tried to explain lightly, “Heroes are...a taboo subject among Adventurers. They’re not something we like to talk about.”
“Oh...is that so? I didn’t know, sorry…”
Puff tried to ease the mood, “It’s alright, let’s just say that Adventurers and Heroes have a rocky relationship. We know you’re new, so it’s alright, but best to not talk of Heroes when around Adventurers.”
Tessa was confused, why were Heroes a taboo subject around Adventurers? She’d only ever heard of good things when it came to Heroes, what happened between Adventurers and Heroes to cause this kind of reaction?
Tessa wanted to ask something to break the awkwardness, but the others now seemed more distant than they had been just a few seconds ago.
Burf cleared his throat, breaking the silence, “I’m guessing after what happened in Solis, you became infatuated with the idea of going on your own adventures and that led to becoming a cleric?”
The three of them all had a feeling about why Tessa came to Faethun, but none of them wanted to say it. All of them wanted to try and fix the derailed conversation, but it was too uncomfortable to bring up a new topic.
“I have one other question, if you don’t mind me asking…”
Evera nervously inquired, “What is it?”
“What’s the plan for when we find the bandits? I know it’s a ‘hunt’, but do we capture them or…?” Tessa’s words trailed off, not wanting to continue her question any farther, and creating an awkward silence.
Burf spoke up, “Killing the bandits is an option…”
Tessa felt a bit sick to her stomach hearing this.
“But, it’s not something we need to do. There are quests that require the target’s death, but most of the time it’s left up to the Adventurers to decide. If capture or diplomacy are easier, then Adventurers tend to go the path of least resistance.”
“D-does that mean…?”
“It means we don’t have to kill them, but doesn’t mean we can talk them into turning themselves in. There’s a good number of them according to the quest’s details, so it’ll be a fight one way or another. However, we will be able to subdue and capture them. Then we just let the guardsmen take it from there.”
Puff saw this as his chance to keep the conversation moving, “While there are people in the Adventurers’ Guild who do actively...take care of their targets, those weirdos are in the minority and are seen as ‘questionable’ by the guild as a whole. So most people prefer a less than lethal approach.”
Tessa now understood what the plan was, if only vaguely. They’d find the bandits, take them out, and hand them over to the authorities for processing. The idea that she’d be turning in criminals like a real Hero got her a bit pumped, the others were satisfied that the tension in the air was starting to dissipate.
Burf spoke sternly to Tessa, “Just make sure you don’t get too focused on capturing the target. Not every target can be subdued easily and could put up a do-or-die resistance, so always be prepared to defend yourself. Your own safety is to be prioritized over the target’s, got it?”
Tessa paused for a moment, then met Burf eye-to-eye, “Got it.”
Tessa still didn’t like the idea of killing, even in self-defense, but it was a bridge she’d have to cross at some point.
Just as their conversation came to an end, the wagon’s driver stopped the cart, “Alright, this is as far as I can take you.”
Burf handed some valins to the driver for the ride as they hopped off, doing one final check on their gear before sending the driver back as the four of them stood at the edge of a thick forest.
Burf took the lead, “Evera, go ahead of us and search for the bandits’ hideout. We’re looking for a cave, so it might be fairly deep into the forest.”
As soon as Evera was set she sprinted towards the forest, climbed the tallest tree in front of her, and disappeared into the forest. Some leaves rustled, but it all went quiet the moment Evera vanished.
“While Evera scouts ahead, the three of us will continue on foot. Keep your eyes peeled for anything unusual.”
Puff tugged on his armor’s straps, making sure everything was taut, “You got it.”
Burf turned to Tessa, “Make sure to stay between me and Puff. I’ll take point while he defends the rear.”
Tessa’s heart pounded while a cold sweat formed on the back of her neck, but this time she was excited, “Y-yes!”
Burf smiled and turned to the forest, “Alright. Let’s head out.”
Marching into the forest, the three of them looked for any traces the bandits left behind with Burf tapping the ground with the bottom of his spear every now and again to check for traps. As they moved forward, the sunlight speckled through the treetop canopy while their steps crushed dead leaves and twigs. They spotted some birds flying through the forest or even a white-tailed leaf fox sniffing out a root rabbit’s hiding spot, but nothing suspicious yet.
Puff came to a stop, squinting his eyes at something in the distance, “Hey, Burf, I see something.”
“Can you make it out from here?”
“Not really, no.”
“Gotcha. Go check it out first, Tessa and I will follow.”
Puff nodded and ran over to an out of the way spot in the forest, finding some planks of wood hidden beneath a tarp covered with leaves and dirt. As Tessa and Burf caught up with him Puff pulled the tarp back, revealing not just planks of wood, but also some banners and lanterns.
Puff cocked an eyebrow, “What the…?”
Burf was just as confused, “Good find, but what are these things doing here?”
“Not sure, but these are definitely what you’d call ‘suspicious’. If this stuff belongs to the bandits, what use would they have with building supplies?”
Burf scratched his chin, “These are probably just pilfered goods, they might be aiming to fence this stuff.”
“Could be, but doesn’t make much sense any way you think about it.”
“For now, cover it back up and let’s continue farther in.”
Puff moved the tarp back over the planks while Tessa and Burf kept an eye out for anyone. Once it was how it used to be, the three of them continued exploring the forest and found more unusual things strewn about. They found costumes, more construction supplies, patterned tarps, sacks of toys and more.
Puff scratched his head, trying to make sense of what was going on here, “Are we after bandits or a traveling circus?”
Burf couldn’t make sense of any of this, “You have any ideas Tessa?”
“I’m not sure either. It looks like supplies for a big event, but I don’t think there’s anything interesting going on anytime soon.”
Moving farther into the forest, the three continued finding more supplies including covered barrels of water, rope, pitons, disassembled tents all in camouflaged spots. Maybe Evera had been able to get a better idea of what was going on.
A bit later, Evera came back, “I found the cave entrance along with the bandits, though they’re a bit weird looking to be honest.”
Puff relaxed against a tree, “Can’t be weirder than what we’ve found.”
“What’d you guys find?”
“Lots of building supplies that were camouflaged all over the place.”
Tessa continued explaining, “Burf, Puff, and I came across several spots where the bandits hid mostly construction supplies, but we can’t figure out why they’re in the forest or being kept hidden.”
Evera thought to herself for a moment, “Well, what I saw was also strange. While some were as you’d expect, others were wearing parts of costumes or clothing similar to merchants. There were tents and supplies being moved back into the cave as well. Any of that help figure things out?”
Burf had his eyes closed, trying to figure out just what these bandits were doing, “Even with that new information, I can’t say I’m able to. Puff wondered if we’re even chasing bandits, I’m starting to wonder if he was right.”
Puff stepped forward, “Well, at least we know that the bandits are in the area. Let’s get a closer look at what they’re up to, might even be able to ambush them while they’re busy.”
Burf nodded, “Agreed. Evera confirmed that the bandits are here and occupied, so an ambush would be the best idea at suppressing their numbers quickly.”
Tessa was finally going to see actual combat, and readied herself as best she could. Grouping together, Evera took point this time with Burf and Puff to the left and right of Tessa. Once they were close enough, they watched from the forest as the bandits disassembled all kinds of tents and stalls in a clearing outside the cave. Sneaking around the edge of the clearing, they got close enough to hear some of the bandits talking amongst themselves.
“Why are we taking this stuff down all over again?”
“Chief said that he got word that they’d be here soon, so we don’t need to keep the act up anymore.”
“Ugh, finally! I was getting sick of having to wear these crummy disguises and crap.”
“Not a fan of being a clown literally and figuratively anymore?”
“Hey! It’s an honest profession that I don’t see myself being a part of!”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m just eagerly waiting to cave in those bastards’ heads finally!”
Burf, Evera, Puff, and Tessa all looked at each other confused. Had these bandits been waiting for them to show up? At least the idea that they were a traveling circus wasn’t true, but what was going on here?
Burf spoke first, “Are they talking about us?”
Puff scratched his head, “I’m not sure. Did we slight these guys in the past or something?”
Evera tried to recall their past adventures, “I don’t think so, most of our past quests were monster hunts or low-risk escorts.”
Tessa tried to keep her voice down, “What should we do now?”
Burf thought hard for a moment, wondering if they should go in now or wait, “Hard to say. I don’t think these bandits are after us at the least, but they definitely have a mark on someone. What do you think, Puff?”
“Whether these guys are after us or someone else, it’s still our job to take care of ‘em. They’re also preoccupied, so we could probably take out the ones in out here quickly before moving inside. Were you able to see inside the cave at all, Evera?”
“I saw some torchlight, but not much else. Inside the cave things could be a lot bigger, might also be where they’re holding most of the stuff they extorted from passing merchants and travelers.”
Burf readied his spear, “Then let’s focus on taking them out before someone else gets hurt. Tessa, once the battle starts, use your support abilities and stay hidden for now.”
Puff, Evera, and Tessa all nodded.
“Then let’s go.”
Firmly grasping his spear, Burf ran full speed at the nearest bandit, “RAAAHHHH!”
The bandit was holding a stack of planks, turning his head wondering what in the Nine Hells he was hearing, “What the-”
Burf swung his spear at the bandits legs, sweeping him as the planks of wood flew into the air and scattered about. Following his first strike, Burf quickly hit the bandit with the butt of his spear before running to and grabbing the closest bandit before throwing him at the next nearest one.
Turning their attention to the half-orc the bandits dropped whatever they were holding and scrambling for the weapons at their hips. Puff rushed the next bandit, using his shield to force the man into one of the nearby trees and knocking him out quickly with a hit to the side of the head. Puff then threw his shield at the next bandit, hitting his target in the head and used the pommel of his sword on another one.
Evera took aim from the clearing’s edge, staying hidden within the bushes, nocking an arrow and quickly shooting a fleeing bandit through his right thigh. She then followed up her first shot with hitting the hands of two more bandits and disarming them as they writhed in pain.
Tessa prayed to Aeon and blessed her party members, their hands all started to shine with a golden glow. Continuing their ambush, they took out a total of thirteen with five laying on the ground disabled. A few had managed to escape into the cave, alerting the rest of the bandits.
Burf gestured for Tessa and Evera to come out now, “Looks like we managed to get the ones out here cleanly, good work.”
Puff retrieved his shield, “Went smoother than expected, but gonna be close quarters for a bit inside the cave.”
“Right. Evera, be prepared to change to melee once we’re inside. Tessa, stay behind me. Puff, you and Evera focus on attacking. I’ll keep their focus on me.”
The cave’s entrance was wide enough to fit three people shoulder to shoulder comfortably as they stepped into the torch lit passage. Drops of water fell from the ceiling with little plops and plips while Puff and Evera were on high alert. But it wasn’t long before they came to a large opening. It was a massive room with tents, chests, campfires, and torches. This was the bandits’ hideout. The Adventurers scanned the area, watching and waiting with the bandits ready for a fight this time.
Puff scoffed, “Looks like this is the last of ‘em.”
From the back of the cave a booming voice shouted, “Is this really what you guys were panicking about? Some irons and a bronze?”
One bandit, not wanting to be punished, apologized profusely, “S-sorry Chief, they took us by surprise. We weren’t able to respond in time when they appeared.”
The bandits took steps back as a man larger than the rest of the bandits came to the forefront. He was taller than Burf by at least a foot and rested a large ax on his shoulder. He had dirty, dark brown hair with a beard and a mustache to match.
“Well, this’ll at least serve as a warm up for us. Let’s show our guests some...southern hospitality.”
The bandits all let out a hearty laugh while Burf, Evera, Puff, and Tessa all stood waiting to see who would make the first move. The bandits all smiled ear to ear before rushing ahead and attacking as a large wave. Seeing an opening, Burf slammed the end of his spear into the dirt, taunting all who could see him and challenging them to fight. Burf’s armor glowed bright green, attracting the bandits’ eyes and forcing them to change targets. Evera nocked a new arrow and whispered something while at full draw. Letting it fly, the glowed gold and split in three, knocking three bandits to the ground. Puff charged the bandits, his sword glowing red as he stabbed into the ground just in front of him and swung it upwards with a shockwave. The bandits in front of him were sent flying into the air and landed on the cave’s floor with a heavy thud. Tessa prayed as quickly as she could, the golden aura on her companions’ hands fading as now their armor glowed blue. When the bandits’ blades struck Burf’s armor their weapons couldn’t find purchase on him, the protective aura forcing their blades to just be slightly off. Burf quickly countered and sent them back with a sweep of his spear.
Puff fell back, regrouping, “Heh, here I thought that this would be difficult.”
Burf agreed, “And with Tessa’s support, we should be back before morning.”
“You’re right! This should be difficult, shouldn’t it?”
A loud, slow clap came from the bandits’ Chief. Burf narrowed his eyes while watching as the bandits’ Chief stepped forward.
“We definitely underestimated you, you’re a lot more impressive than I thought you would be for some low ranking Adventurers.”
Evera got annoyed, “That’s some big talk for a man with his men in the dirt.”
“That’s fair. But I’ve got a quick question for you, if you don’t mind answering it.”
Burf’s eyes scanned the room, feeling something was off, for anything even slightly off. The bandits they’d just fought were lying face down in the dirt, so why was their leader so confident? He had to buy some time to figure things out.
Burf allowed the question, “Oh? And what’s that?”
Puff looked at Burf confused, “Burf! What are you doing?”
“When you saw the quest’s details, what was the rank of the quest?”
“Silver, why? That bruise your ego?”
Puff and Evera looked at one another, then noticed that the bandits were starting to get back up; dusting themselves off and mostly uninjured. Puff immediately took a defensive stance with his shield while Evera started nocking her next arrow and keeping her bow half-drawn. Burf, Evera, and Puff had dealt with silver-ranked targets before, but these guys were different.
“No, not at all! I’m just glad that the spell worked!”
“What do you mean by ‘spell’?”
“Oh nothing just…”
Suddenly, the bandit Chief rushed the three of them, closing the gap incredibly quickly and was already mid-swing with his ax. Burf tried to raise his spear in time to block, but he wasn’t going to make it in time. Puff raised his shield and jumped in front of Burf as quickly as he could. He took the hit with both arms to soften the blow, but the swing was too powerful and the Chief sent Puff rolling into the dirt.
Watching his friend go flying, Burf cried out, “PUFF!!!”
The bandit leader smiled, “He sure flew far, and I’m glad that we extorted that scroll-merchant.”
Puff struggled to his feat, his shield in pieces on the ground and arm broken, “I’m...I’m alright Burf. This is n-...”
Mid sentence the bandit leader dash to Puff, and with another swing of his ax and a loud CRACK and CRUNCH, Puff was partially embedded into the wall. His head fell forward as he lost consciousness.
Evera grit her teeth and shot a volley of arrows at the bandit Chief, “Burf, get Puff over here so Tessa can heal him. I’ll draw his attention!”
Just as her arrow was about to land, one of the bandits ran in front of their Chief caught the arrows with ease, smirking back at her.
The bandit leader put a hand on his minion’s shoulder, “Nice catch, but this is my workout. So you guys sit this one out and enjoy the show.”
“You got it boss.”
The bandits took seats around the cave to watch, sitting on whatever they could find and all grinned excitedly.
“I guess you’re my next opponent then?” The bandit leader brought his axe back up to his shoulder, pointing his free hand at Evera.
Evera growled and reached for the next arrow in her quiver, but the bandit Chief made another quick dash to close the gap. Evera wasn’t going to get caught like Puff had. Hopping and jumping back to keep her distance, she fired one arrow after another. The bandit Chief dodged and Evera jumped high to get some distance. However, the bandit Chief threw his axe straight at her. It was too fast and she couldn’t dodge while in the air. Raising her arms and bow to block. The ax cut through her bow with ease but the handle caught Evera in the stomach and she fell to the floor.
Tessa began to panic, “EVERA!!!”
Gasping for air, Evera got back to her feet. Tessa cast what healing she could from a distance, but unless Evera’s injuries would need something stronger. It was enough to keep Evera stable, but with her bow now useless she threw it aside and took out two daggers she kept at the back of her waist.
Burf could only stand there, stuck in place for fear the bandit Chief would go for Tessa if he made a move, “Are you alright Evera?!”
Snarling through her teeth, “I’M FINE!”
Tessa tried to be the voice of reason, “W-we need to regroup and come up with a p-”
Just as Tessa was about to finish her sentence, Evera charged at the bandit leader. The moment she got in front of him, Evera tried to dart around his large body to catch him in the back with one of her blades. But midstep to get around him, the bandit leader caught Evera by the leg swung around before letting go and sending her flying into a pile of crates and barrels.
Burf and Tessa both called out to her, “EVERA!!!”
The bandits cheered, “10 outta’ 10 boss!”
The bandit Chief whistled to himself, “I don’t think she’ll be waking up anytime soon,” he then walked over to and picked up his ax, “So...Who’s next?”
This was a bad situation, and both Tessa and Burf knew it. If they both stayed, they’d both die. Tessa still didn’t know how to fight very well, but he could at least buy time.
“Tessa...you need to run.”
“But, if I do that, you won’t survive!”
“Yeah, I know.”
“This isn’t the time Tessa, get out of here and alert the guild!” Burf stepped away from her and towards the bandit Chief, “ I’ll buy what time I can. I'm at least sturdy enough to be a punching bag for a minute or two.”
“A heroic last stand, huh? How admirable.”
Tessa wanted to stay, they had a better chance at making it out if she did, right? If she could just get over to Puff or Evera, they could turn the tide of the battle and win. She just had to get over to them and...
Burf snapped her out of it, “I’ll be fine now get out of here!”
Tessa remembered what happened ten years ago. This wasn’t the time to try and be a Hero and unlike back then, there weren’t any heroes around to save her this time. She had to run, needed to run, but she didn’t want to leave her new friends behind. Why did everything go so wrong? How did it all go so wrong? She should’ve just gone home after graduating…
Turning her back on Burf, Tessa started running as fast as she could out the way they’d come. Burf let out a sigh of relief, relaxing as he prepared himself for one last fight.
“I don’t know what you’re getting so relaxed for.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you forget about the people outside?”
“The ones we took care of first?”
“Yes! Now based on what you’ve seen in here, do you think that they’re any weaker out there?”
Suddenly, Burf turned his attention to the cave entrance, “No…”
“Well, let’s have a little fun now, shall we?”
As Burf turned around to face the bandit Chief, he found a knee cracking through his armor and slid back several feet. Burf didn’t have time to focus on Tessa. He could only try and buy time and hope she got away. Gripping his spear, Burf made a wild charge into the bandit Chief.
At the same time, Tessa started to navigate back through the way they came in while the sound of clashing and clanging metal echoed behind her. But unlike the way they came in, everything looked different. When they came in, there was only one entrance, but back through the passage she saw three ways she could go. They all looked the same but she didn’t have the time to figure out which was the right way. Taking a blind guess, Tessa ran through one at random and found herself going through a long and winding passage. The cave looked the same, but it felt like she was going in a different direction. She couldn’t hear the wind through the leaves of the forest, just more dripping water and crackling torchlight. Even the sounds of combat behind her didn’t get any quieter.
Eventually she saw an orange light at the end of the tunnel. It had to be the way out, that had to be the evening sun, but just as Tessa came out she found herself back in the room she just left.
“Well, look who’s back?”
Burf was on one knee, his spear broken and armor hanging from his body in pieces while the scattered about.
The bandit leader put his foot on Burf’s head, crushing it into the dirt as the half-orc blacked out.
“Well, at least I got a good warm up out of these three.”
Tessa slowly fell to her knees. Nothing had changed in these last ten years. No matter how hard she’d trained and practiced and struggled to get better, she was just as helpless as when the wyverns attacked. She was useless. Because of her inexperience and recklessness, others got hurt. She stared at the sight before her, Evera, Puff, and Burf all unconscious at best and dead at worst. And here she was, helpless and at the bandits’ mercy.
The bandit Chief snapped his fingers, “Go and capture her. She has healing and support abilities, so don’t get too rough now.”
The bandits all snickered and chuckled as they slowly got off their seats and began cornering Tessa, she could only stare back in fear. Her back was against the wall and her hands tried to push her backwards, but there was nowhere to go.
Tessa started flashing back to when she could see the wyvern’s fangs up close, the bandits all smiling sinisterly.