"Do you hear anything, Tulok?", a bald young man with a dark complexion ran his hand through his non-existent hair as asked the short man he was approaching. A dark elf by his pointy ears and lilac skin.
"No," Replied the short man. People might think of him as a dwarf if not for his shadowy skin tone. He was a half dwarf and dark elf. A rare hybrid in Anovar because of how bad those two race's relationships was. But here in the Leon Federation it was nothing too unusual. Because of how common half-hybrids were in Leon, everyone just called them Halflings.
"Just the sound of water droplets.", The half-dwarf named Tulok continued. He was still feeling tipsy from the previous night at the bar. But not enough to make him slack at his job. Tulok was thankful to his dwarven heritage. Not many people could afford to get drunk the night before a quest. Well, not if they wanted to end up as monster feed.
The bald dark elf nodded and ran off to one of the other watchers. Tulok grunted softly and turned back to keeping watch for anything unwanted. He liked the lad, it's just that he and the bald elf recently took liking to the same barmaid. And even though the dark-elf's hair was literally non-existent compared to his mighty tangle of tumbleweed that he called hair, the barmaid seemed to like the one with the prettier face.
'Damn sissy.', Tulok burped quietly.
They were a J-Rank Party, part of a very small sized clan called The Shimmersong from Ezora city. But their party had a different name, called the Shimmering Spear. A similar name to their clan to denote their relation, like a child taking after their parents. And he was the leader of this party, as well as a vice-leader of Shimmersong.
Tulok liked the name. He liked both names. Even though a lot of people in their clan had a 'dark' heritage, he knew their hearts were shimmering with the light of honour. Not the foul gleam the dark-elf seemed to be giving Miss Rebecca last night.
'Damn sissy.' Tulok burped again. The alcohol was pretty strong, yeah, it definitely wasn't because he wanted to hide his irritation.
Tulok slowly pivoted his gaze from one side to another, passing by his party mates and the dark of the cave. Tulok, Tauran, Gine, Dubsil, Croan, Croal and finally the bald dark elf called Fizam who was the 2nd in command. It was a party he made with his own two mighty fists. Figuratively and literally.
He won their hearts with honour, he gave them a place to belong to, he supported their passion, and most of all, he could beat the shit out of them if they went out of line.
'Ay! Good times.' Tulok burped again, but this time with a happier smell to it. He remembered the time when he clobbered Fizam into joining his party, the time he made that pretty boy's face look like his second cousin's boar steed's buttocks.
'Good times indeed!', He looked at the running Fizam again, but this time with a toothy grin. As if the dark-elf could sense the malicious intent, he shivered and looked left and right for potential foes.
Nah, Tulok wasn't that petty. He wouldn't hit his party mates for that.
Putting away his random thoughts, he put his sight back to overseeing the area.
Their purpose for coming here today was to get better loot, and prove their strength for promoting their party to I-Rank. Including Tulok, their party already had 3 I-rank members with the rest being J-rankers. But their overall strength could only be called J-rank because of their low coordination and some other factors. It hadn't been long since they formed their party, about 2 years if they counted when the last of their members finally joined. Not a long time indeed for the long-lived mana infused people of this era.
But Tulok would change that. He had it all planned out, somewhere, in squiggly written form on a piece of paper he lost.
However! He remembered most of it. First step? Rise the average Rank of their team.
Second, improve teamwork, not in the pub when trying to cajole an innocent barmaid, no. Improve their teamwork in the battlefield.
Unlike grade which was the potential of a person, monster or treasure; Rank defined only the combat prowess of a person, party, monster et al. Grade was something people, things and monsters were born with. It could be changed, improved, and even transformed. But it didn't define how quick you could separate a Centinewt's head from its horrible body. Rank did just that.
This wasn't their promotional test though. That was for later. Nevertheless, the monsters they had to face were similar in rank to the Centinewt they had just defeated. So it was good practice. And even though this dungeon only had a threat level of I, like grade, you really couldn't guess how good a monster was at killing other things. Occasionally, like the Centinewt lying dead, there would be higher ranked monsters appearing. Accordingly, the loot was decent too.
As Tulok watched the twins, Croan and Croal, harvest the Centinewt for its core, scales, meat and other valuables, he called out to Tauran, "How long till you recharge enough mana?"
Tauran was a halfling dwarf like him. But his mother was a human. He was also the mage of the party.
"Twenty minutes." Tauran replied as he supported his body on the wall. His face a bit pale and legs wobbly. And he couldn't be blamed. Even though the Shimmering Spear had the numerical advantage against the vile insect, fighting a monster of a higher rank was always dangerous. And the support of the mage had been crucial.
As he was about to called out to Gine, an elf woman who was also the healer, he suddenly heard a warning from Dubsil, "Two Centinewts incoming! By the looks of it, they're both J-Rank. Probably got lured here by the sound!"
The final member of their party, Dubsil, who acted as the scout, had excellent discerning capabilities. Being a lupine, he had excellent dark vision and sense of smell. Though often than not, Tuloks burps alone were enough to subdue his mighty poodle nose.
Besides, as the 3rd I-ranker other than Fizam and Tulok himself, it was sufficient to trust his judgement.
"Fizam, Dubsil! Go take care of it. And Gine, support! Use whatever mana you have." Tulok sent out a few orders swiftly but otherwise didn't move from his post. The Section of the cave they were in had multiple openings. And there could be more monsters coming.
The twins and Tauran were also concentrating on their respective tasks, leaving their safety up to their party members.
[Master! They're finally leaving!] Sugarette sent Eliot the latest mental report nervously. [I thought my heart would stop when that Centinewt crashed into the wall!]
[That's physically impossible.] Eliot shot back. Or was it? Eliot actually never pondered on it. An Ethereal heart was a possibility. Maybe?
But he had to agree on having a heart attack. He also saw that scene where the bald dark elf and the human were fighting off some of the monsters that showed up. One of the Centinewts charged right into a section of the wall bordering the hidden room. But the wall held.
This was the most nervous he had been the whole day. And they even went through a life and death battle a few 10 minutes ago!
Who knew peeking on other people while they were in the vicinity of your hidden stash of unspeakable things would be so...not-good? Eliot certainly didn't! In his past life Eliot lived in the era of information, everything was in the cloud!
[Uwuuu, master. I feel like you're thinking bad things.] Sugarette complained through the mental link. As usual, she was sharp where it didn't matter.
[Can you follow them to see where they're going? Also try to find out if they noticed something.] Changing the subject hastily, Eliot still wasn't sure if the party were here just to hunt or for some other reason. He put his hand in his pouch and took out a pill that would help him regenerate his mana faster. An expensive little round ball of compressed glowing vegetables found in the enchanted forest. But the situation might call for it.
So, with an aching heart, he put it in his mouth and swallowed.
'Ewgh, how can something taste like both broccoli and grapes and wasabi at the same time.' Squinting his nose, he concentrated on what the adventurers were doing.
This whole thing gave birth to a degree of rush in Eliot's heart. No, not the type Sugarette always made him feel. This was the badder kind.
He had been too complacent, thinking the secret room wouldn't be discovered. But there was always a chance. He needed to hurry up. Getting stronger could wait, after going back today he and Sugarette would have to finalize their smuggling plan. Or, think of any alternatives.
Sugarette quietly hovered above the unsuspecting group of adventurers. After they stripped clean all the dead monsters, they headed into one of the tunnels leading deeper into the dungeon.
There was no wind, only rocks and a damp ceiling. The only sound was that of the footsteps of the adventurers and the sound of dripping water.
Sugarette tried to be as quiet as possible. And she had a plan. She read in one of the novels about how if you matched your footsteps with the person you were tailing, they wouldn't notice! And she was putting that knowledge to good use. Even though she, an ethereal being of silence and invisibility, was floating midair, away from the ground, where your feet needed to touch to create footsteps.
"Hey boss, do you think we could aim for a wright? I heard Nolan's clan was going for it. Said the Ezoraleons posted a new one." Said one of the twins. The male one. Sugarette was sure his name was Croan.
"I'd not if it was up to me. But we'll see, pretty sure clan leader already knows.", The grumpy short one replied. Sugarette liked him though. His burps were funny, they made faces at her.
"And quit the yapping. More walking, less talking. We need to get back before sundown, and we're still short on 12 Centinewt cores." Tulok said grumpily.
"Yeah, Rebecca is waiting for me." The Bald tall one suddenly said. His face breaking into a weird grin. Sugarette didn't like him. She tried to see her reflection on his head, but she couldn't. Sugarette felt cheated. He probably was a bad person, playing with a girl's heart like that.
Tulok grunted and sent the dark-elf a stink-eye. But then, he suddenly beamed a shimmering smile and said, "Croal, isn't that load heavy? Well I'll be! Fizam! Stop daydreaming and help the young lass! Or I'll be docking your pay."
Fizam suddenly shuddered and with an indignant heart, went to help the younger twin. He wanted to protest and call out the leader for being a sore loser. But the last time he did that he woke up in a brothel that served orcs.
And Sugarette giggled while all this was happening.
'Great, none of them looks like an assassin.' She still didn't let her guard down. Something told her there certainly was an assassin here. But it definitely wasn't that cute dogman. His fur looked so fluffy! Sugarette wanted to pet him but her hands were ethereal.
[Come back, they're leaving the area.] Her master said so. She still wanted to follow them, maybe they knew where the assassin was? But she liked her master more, so after blowing an invisible kiss at the cute lupine, she flew back to her master.
She knew they would commence a grand plan. She didn't know what the plan was, but it was her master's plan. And she liked that plan.
Tulok was taken by surprise when his ever so calm canine companion suddenly shivered, fur standing up and a pale look on his face.
"What's wrong?" He could see his party going on guard in case of an enemy.
"No… Nothing, just felt like someone was...No, forget it." Dubsil himself was confused. The last time he felt like that was when his mother used to pet him as a child. A strange feeling to appear when they were in the middle of a den of monsters with one too many hands.
Maybe it was a ghost. Who knew?
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