but madness is a little more interesting.
If Aeron thought she hated this job before, it was nothing in comparison to what she was going to be feeling by the time the first monster encounter came around. Duskbroods were pesky, annoying creatures that were a bit horrifying in appearance but at the end of the day weren’t all too much of a threat for the average mage. She had fought plenty of them during her solo stint out in the wildernesses, when Janet had sent her out to survive for almost a week by herself. Or well, mostly by herself. Thana had been there for part of it but she’d disappeared after the first night and the rest of the trip had been a blur that she honestly didn’t remember much of.
She’d hated that trip, but even she had to admit it had ultimately done wonders for her self confidence. Fighting for survival was the story of her life, and not her favorite activity in the world, but she was good at it. The Duskbroods had intimidated her once upon a time, but now they were little more than a bother. In fact, she’d be happy to just deal with those creatures for the rest of the trip, though the chances of that were astronomically slim. Aeron explained a bit about them and their strengths and weaknesses, so the group would know what to expect and how to move forward with their desired foray into monster hunting.
But apparently, her understanding of what this group was here to do was completely wrong.
Her and Mythal both waited for the tourists to get going, except that they never did. The Rune Knight was the first to speak up, giving them the more straightforward permission to get going that they were clearly waiting for. Except, that wasn’t what they had been waiting for at all. A woman spoke up in surprise at the insinuation that she would possibly be expected to do her own fighting, stating that part of what they had paid for was for the Elysium and Rune Knight representatives to take care of that for them. In fact, all they wanted was footage from the many cameras they had out so that they could crop themselves in later to make it look like they’d fought when they hadn’t.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Aeron muttered in the same breath that Mythal incredulously asked them to confirm the sincerity of the claim. Oh, and she did, stating rather proudly that it had been part of the “all inclusive” expense that they’d paid, which Aeron highly doubted. Not once had anyone at Elysium informed her that she would be expected to do all the fighting, else she would have put up more of a fight in telling them to shove the job listing right up their ass. In fact, she was getting ready to make a similar request to the crowd about their cameras when Mythal spoke up with a sigh, telling her that he would take care of the beasts himself, asking Aeron to stay with the group just in case.
“Yeah, alright…” she grumbled, casting an annoyed look at the rest of the group. At this point the monsters seemed like less of a headache. Then again, this poor dude had already been stuck with them for at least a day or two during the trip to Sin and would have to stick with them a bit longer even as her portion of the job ended. She supposed he probably could use the temporary relief in taking some aggression out on some monsters. Aeron wasn’t typically much for empathy, but despite her nature she couldn’t help but feel it for him just now. Besides, it would be good to watch and get an idea for how he worked and fought.
With Darius there to alert her to anything else coming up on the group, Aeron followed the fight along with the clients. Mythal started with a large sword that looked far too heavy to wield efficiently, but he managed to do so rather easily indicating that he was either much stronger than he looked or the sword itself wasn’t as heavy as it appeared to be. She figured the former was the more likely option, particularly after he brought out some rather subtle magic that encased his hand in something akin to a black gauntlet. Aeron had flinched at first upon one of the Duskbroods clamping its jaws around his limb, thinking she was about to have to jump in to help him, but she quickly realized he’d allowed it to bite him on purpose.
She couldn’t help but be a bit fascinated as she watched him go, somehow clamping onto the monster from inside its own mouth and whipping it around like a club, beating members of its own herd to death with it. Ultimately, the beast was sent quite literally flying through the air and far out of sight where there was no mistaking the fall would kill it instantly. With his sword back in his hand, he somehow got it to hover near him outside of his immediate grip where it acted of its own accord to attack the remaining monsters with him. She was further shook when the weapon extended into a fully realized scythe that he continued to wield with expert ease. It was a complex and versatile weapon, one that made the plain gun on her hip look boring and limited by comparison.
All in all, the battle lasted hardly longer than a minute or so. Aeron had been able to keep up with watching most of it and had truthfully been paying very little attention to the tourists themselves, so she almost missed the annoyed looks on their faces as they checked their cameras and confirmed the man had moved far too fast for their devices to efficiently capture. He even spoke up in a dry, sarcastic tone about hoping they had gotten what they wanted when he very well knew that they didn’t. Aeron didn’t even realize she was grinning with open amusement at the comment, quickly covering her mouth the moment it dawned upon her. Another embarrassed flush took over her face momentarily. When was the last time she’d smiled? Even she didn’t know. The expression felt weird, and she hastily squashed it.
“Alright, well, uh… guess we’ll move along then. There’s a cave I wanna make it to by nightfall.” Back to leading the charge, Aeron moved them along again. Over the course of the next several hours they ran into quite a number of strange and gruesome looking beasts that all seemed quite content on tracking the group down. Between her and Mythal, the vast majority of them were taken down rather quickly, but it was only going to be a matter of time before they ran into something a little harder to deal with. They were much further inland now, and the encounters were happening more frequently as time went on. For the most part, Aeron kept to using her gun rather than any obvious magic, looking to preserve her strength for more wearisome fights that were sure to come up.
It was Darius who alerted her to the danger ahead. Waving for everyone to be quiet and stay where they were, Aeron quickly sprinted ahead a bit and eased her way up a rock formation, crawling along it on her belly to peek over the edge into the small ravine beyond. There, loitering just outside the cave that Aeron had been planning on setting up camp at, was a Tusked Umara. It was a creature covered head to toe in dirty white fur that almost resembled a cross between an ape and a wild boar, and it stood over twice as tall as any of the present humans. “Well, that’s just great,” she muttered to herself.
Slipping back down from her perch, she quietly made her way back to the group. Talking in a soft tone, she informed everyone, “Well, the good news is we made it to tonight’s camp. Bad news is there’s a Tusked Umara making itself comfortable down there. They’re pretty nasty. Hides are super thick, and they only got a couple of weak spots. I should be able to handle it but, uh… it ain’t gonna be a pretty fight.” Glancing to Mythal, she said, “They can watch from the ledge where I was if they keep low and quiet. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to make your way down.”
Presuming that was agreeable, Aeron allowed herself a resigned groan before hurrying off to the right, down the path that would eventually lead everyone down into the ravine. Before she could rush out of view, her body disappeared as she turned invisible, the only clue that she was still moving forward being the continued appearance of her bookmarks in the dirt until she turned a corner past a rock and her tracks were obscured out of sight. Aeron slowed her gait when she got within range of the beast’s exceptional hearing. It was hunkered over a kill of its own, having stripped nearly all the meat off its dinner and leaving an array of bones scattered about the place.
Tapping into a bit of her magic, it began to rain in the ravine, despite the fact that there were no rain clouds in the air. Mythal and the rich idiots would be too far up to feel the liquid themselves, but they would easily be able to see it with the naked eye, as well as the little tendrils of smoke that started to rise up from everything it touched. The muscles on the creature began to twitch irritably until it eventually started fidgeting and spinning around in pain and confusion. It may have had skin thick enough to make piercing it with a weapon difficult, but it could still feel the burning agony of acid when it was being rained upon its body.
It growled and threw itself around frantically, trying to find a place to get out of the rain, and that’s when Aeron made a more direct attack. She had used its own noise making to cover up the sound of her approach and seemed to materialize out of nowhere right underneath it. Her arms had changed completely, no longer appearing human but rather looking more like a monstrosity herself, sullen and gangly with dull grey flesh that hung loosely over more bone than muscle. Her fingers were grotesquely long with sharp nails more akin to claws. Before the beast could recover from her sudden appearance, still too preoccupied with the acid rain to notice her, she put several deep gashes along the Umara’s soft and unprotected underbelly.
It went appropriately ape shit.
Screeching in pain, it made a mad swipe at her with one of its thick arms, looking to backhand her across the ravine. Aeron quickly shrunk the size of her body down to that of a pixie, causing the creature to miss her by a wide margin. She reversed the size change almost instantly as soon as its arm was swung, latching on the limb with her own arms and, with a loud grunt of effort, hucking the hulking beast across the ravine floor and into one of the walls of the cliff. It hit with such force that several rocks shook loose from the wall above it and pelted its head, which really only made it angrier.
It surged to its feet in a rage, snatching onto one of the small boulders that had dropped from the wall. Aeron knew immediately where this was going. “Oh shit,” she said, eyes wide as the beast reared back and hurled the rock at her. It was too big for her to avoid by shrinking again. Morphing her arms back to normal, she braced herself with her arms out and caught the rock with her bare hands, her boots scraping against the rocky floor as she was pushed back by the impact. With a growl she deposited the boulder in front of her only to turn and see the Umara leaping down at her from over the top of it.
Aeron threw herself to the side just in time to avoid being crushed under its body, scrambling quickly, if not gracefully, back onto her feet. The beast was just as quick to recover, coming at her with arms raised and ready to pummel her under fists about as large as her own body. Thankfully, Aeron was much stronger than her thin frame suggested. She reached up her hands and caught the Umara’s fists much in the same manner that she had the boulder, the two wrestling for dominance.
Finally, Aeron managed to get enough leverage and the right angle to pull herself up over the things arms. With the sudden loss in resistance, its fists slammed into the hard ground leaving a couple small caters. She quickly scrambled up one of his arms and onto its back where one of her arms elongated itself enough to stretch out and around the beast’s neck until she had the thing in a full chokehold. It raged and tried to pull her arms away from its neck to no avail, even as she poured spell after spell into boosting her strength until the hold got tighter and tighter against its windpipe. When pulling at her limbs didn’t work, it resorted to trying to slam her up against the ravine walls pinning her between the coarse rock and its back and dragging her along it. The pain sucked but she’d certainly had worse and somehow managed to hold on.
After close to a minute, the Umara finally started losing the battle for oxygen and slumped to the ground, fighting the impending unconsciousness the whole way down until it was fully prone and no longer fighting. Aeron groaned and rolled off the thing, landing on the ground with an unceremonious thump. It wasn’t dead yet, but it was at least not thrashing at her anymore. Dragging herself to her feet with all the gusto of someone that looked more annoyed than physically impared, she took her gun out of its holster. “It will be a good opportunity for you, Aeron,” she muttered, either forgetting or not caring that the acoustics of the ravine allowed her voice to carry quite easily up to the listening ears above. “Show them our hospitality, they said. Show them how we want to make the world a better place, they said. Build up your social skills. Build up your confidence.”
Clearly, she was grumbling about all the various ways that she’d been talked into taking the job. Several more sarcastic quotes escaped her lips even as she pulled one of the Umara’s arms away from its head. Pressing the barrel of her gun right up against the hole that served as the creature’s ear, she unloaded several rounds of ammo into the small space where it immediately broke through the thinner flesh and fragile bone to pierce the brain directly. Once she was sure it was no longer breathing, Aeron finally turned to look up. “Alright, it’s dead.”
Presuming everyone made their way down, she pointed out the rather large cave where people could set up their tents, by which all they really had to do was toss the equipment on the ground and the tents would set themselves up instantly. Figuring since her current outfit was already fucked up, she decided to get to work making dinner. Which, coincidentally, happened to be the Umara. Anyone that expressed uncertainty in eating the monster was met with a shrug as Aeron explained that it was perfectly safe to eat, and tasted more like wild boar than anything else. She also reminded them that part of her job as their guide was to show them what in the wilds of Sin was and wasn’t edible.
Thankfully, they didn’t argue with her too much. Most of them seemed quite interested in trying an “exotic” meal, especially since she said they could keep pieces of the thing’s pelt and teeth as souvenirs if they wanted to. Getting a knife out of her pack, she turned the thing on its back while the tourists set up their sleeping arrangements and made themselves comfortable after a long day of walking-but-not-fighting, and used the soft belly of the Umara as a starting point to skin the thing.
It wasn’t long before an ample amount of meat had been cut out and cooked over a number of small personal fires that were enchanted not to have any smoke. Part of the tourist’s packs had been supplied with a number of spices so they could flavor the meat however they wanted. For her part, Aeron made no attempt to sit with any of them, wanting as much distance between herself and the rich folk as possible. She had set up her tent closer to the entrance of the cave against one of the walls, with a small fire where she sat in relative isolation from the rest of the group. Eating her food without any added spices, Aeron made no attempts to socialize with anyone, her gaze only panning over to the group from time to time as they laughed loudly or otherwise did something to draw her attention. Otherwise, she simply sat in silence as the daylight waned, looking about as miserable as she had at the start of all this.