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the promise of gold

The fire's warmth flickered and disturbed the shadows across the cave walls. The distinct shape of four mercenaries cast outward from the comforting flame. A rare moment of peace.

For this was a time of conflict across Nova Thera. Before the Triumvirate guilds saw the folly of their infighting, or the Waveborn denouncing their raiding ways. A time when the Lifetenders raised armies, and the Wingfolk flew together in numbers not seen since.

Ravena counted a stack of gold coins from their previous job while Oberos carved the finishing touches on a wooden figurine. Mort silently gazed into the flames. Alaric recited a joke he had overheard from a soldier they would never see or fight alongside again. On the fire, a skewered bird roasted.

Oberos was a quiet giant of a man, but occasionally, he would chuckle at one of Alaric's jokes. Each time, his rumbling voice would reverberate down the cave’s depths. When Ravena spoke, she would embellish the danger and thrill in her tales of her time at sea. Mort paid close attention to them all, studying their stories, but he could not hold back his whispered sighs at the more absurd aspects.

The sound of approaching footsteps caused the group to tense, all except for Mort, who rose as though expecting this. His sensitivity to danger wasn't by choice but a harsh lesson born of misfortune. 

Mort readied his daggers and prepared to meet whatever it was. However, it was Alaric who first stepped toward the sound. His curiosity was a trait Mort did not envy. Ravena carefully set down the coins and lifted her bow. Her usual cocky smile replaced by strict focus. Oberos continued his carving but kept his eyes on Alaric as he drew near the sound.

An exhausted man appeared at the entrance, he was panting as he stumbled into the cave.

"Apologies sir, but this cave is fully booked," Alaric jokingly welcomed the man inside.

Seeing all the weapons drawn toward him, the stranger held up his hands in an effort to regain his breath. 

"Please wait! I've been searching for you. We need assistance."

Ravena raised an eyebrow, "Work? Ha, means you already know we're mercs."

"And who is 'we'?" Mort added.

The stranger's soiled and torn clothes indicated his journey had been rough.  He gasped, "My name is Thoma. I'm from a village called Respite. The beasts of the forest are growing more dangerous by the day. We're willing to pay for capable fighters to aid us."

Ravena's ears perked up, "How much are we talking about?" she inquired.

For the first time, Oberos stepped forward and interrupted, "How do we know we can trust you?"

Thoma strained his neck to look up at the muscular man towering over him. He fumbled with his bag before quickly presenting the mercenaries with a purse that jingled with its contents. 

"T-This is the downpayment, and we'll triple this amount after your services are complete."

Ravena jumped past the others and grabbed the pouch, checking its weight. 

"What do you think, boys?" she asked as she turned to face her team with a satisfied smile.

"We could use the money," Alaric shrugged as he snatched the purse, briefly whistling, "A little bit of monster hunting doesn't sound so bad."

Oberos returned to his seat and resumed his wood carving. Mort nodded in agreement and removed the now-readied dinner from the flames. The relieved Thoma joined them as they ate and rested. Ravena slung one arm over their new employer as she commented on the state of his clothes.

The group packed up their belongings the following day and left the safety of the cave. Thoma awkwardly made small talk with the mercenaries as he led them to Respite.

They travelled over the many countryside hills on their route. Alaric’s face was buried in his maps but Thoma, who was beside him, pointed out that Respite was too new to appear on any of them. Alaric gave up and relinquished his role as the group’s guide as Thoma took the lead. 

As they walked, Ravena positioned herself at the front of the group to watch for signs of impending danger. Oberos, however, worked nonstop on his carvings from the rear of the pack. Mort continued to silently watch Thoma's every move.

By the third day of their travels, the relatively peaceful journey was disturbed by the sound of metal clashing against metal. Two groups of Triumvian soldiers were engaged in combat with each other. From a distance, the mercenaries observed and evaluated the scenario.

"Why are the Triumvirate fighting against themselves?" Mort muttered to himself.

Oberon gestured towards the different groups of soldiers, "A civil war, my friend. Those there are from the Steelsmith guild, whereas the ones they fight are the Delvers."

He let out an immensely disappointed grunt.

A squad of troops abruptly appeared from the trees and headed toward them. The Steelsmith guild's insignia imprinted on their shining new armour. Reinforcements, no doubt.

Their leader approached the group without hesitation. Despite the immaculate gear, his history with warfare was evident from the scars on his face.

"Travellers," he inquired, "can you not see this is a battle?"

Mort stepped forth, "We are simply passing through."

The leader cast a wary glance toward the group's well-equipped arsenal. Alaric sensed the man’s thoughts and stepped forward to diffuse his rising suspicions.

"It would be reckless to travel without these," Alaric suggested while slowly tipping his spear toward the forest in the distance, "Between the woodland creatures in there and the battles out here, it is better to have them but not need them."

The man paused to acknowledge the wisdom of Alaric's words. His attention switched to check on the state of the battle. He grimaced as he noticed the battle was not heading towards the Steelsmiths’ favour.

"Would you be interested in earning a fair amount of coin for joining us?" he proposed, now with a more pleasant tone of voice.

Ravena's eyes lit up at the notion of even more pay. 

Mort shook his head, "We’ve renounced warfare. Besides, we're currently in the middle of a contract."

Ravena reluctantly pointed her thumb in Thoma’s direction. The leader quickly dropped all pretences of pleasantries by spitting on the grass.

"If you are too afraid to fight the men on these hills, go face your monsters in the forest," he growled before leading his men into a charge toward the battle.

Ravena was about to shoot an arrow at their hides when Oberos abruptly reached out and tipped her bow.

"We’re committed to Respite. Let us keep our attention and resources on the mission," Oberos spoke calmly.

With no choice but to enter the forest, the mercenary group continued their journey within the dark woodland. The light of the sun was dimmed by the thick foliage overhead. According to Thoma, they should soon find a fresh trail cut by Respite's residence, but even then it was still challenging to move through as the tangled ground was far from smooth.

Progress was slow as they also had to keep vigilant for the unknown threats lurking beyond view. Although the village of Respite was still some distance away, the journey continued to be surprisingly uneventful.

They came upon a clearing with a solitary tree standing in the middle. Only its trunk and a few leafless branches remained. Mort deduced the area perfect for his trip alarms, but Ravena felt unsettled. There was something off with the warped shape of the tree’s bark.

Shaking off the feeling, Ravena reasoned a decaying branch would make ideal kindling for their soon-to-be campfire. However, the moment she ripped one off, the tree unleashed a piercing scream.

What was thought to be the remains of a tree was actually a slumbering Drootle. The monstrous fusion of insect and plant quickly tore its roots from the ground. The back of its carapace opened outward to reveal four large translucent wings. It began its assault on the group, continuing to scream as it hovered around in circles around them. 

Thoma dove to the ground and covered his head while the mercenary band sprang into action. Oberos used his shield to block the Drootle's claws, whereas Alaric took the opportunity to swiftly slash his spear at its exposed belly.

The steel blade slashed a chunk of bark free. The monster screamed again but was quickly silenced as one of Ravena's arrows entered through its open maw and pierced the roof of its palate. 

Shocking everyone, the Drootle ceased its noise by biting down. The arrow effortlessly snapped in its beak. The Drootle landed on the ground with a heavy thud and lowered its head, ready to charge at the group with its massive horn.

Mort, who had been preparing something this entire time, held a flaming piece of cloth which he lit using flint from their campfire. He dodged the Drootle’s attack and threw a bottle of black liquid at the creature. The bottle instantly shattered against the Drootle's horn. Mort quickly wrapped the flaming cloth around the horn before making distance.

Fire rapidly spread around the Drootle’s horn, causing the beast to unleash its loudest scream yet. It blindly charged into the forest, desperate to escape the inescapable flame.

"One down," Ravena proclaimed. 

The team began to relax with the returning silence of the forest.

Thoma picked himself up off the ground, "No, the Droots and Drootle have never been a problem. They only attack if you cut healthy trees or attack them first."

Flustered, Ravena shouted at her employer, "Well, then why didn't you tell us that wasn't a tree?! What are you expecting us to fight anyway?"

"Slyth," Thoma reluctantly answered.

Mort's face twisted in disapproval. Oberos sat down and began carving a new piece from the wood Alaric had chipped off from the Drootle.

It took a while, but Alaric managed to calm everyone down. The group readied themselves for one more sleep before their destination.

They awoke at sunrise and set off immediately. None wished to risk the charred Drootle's return by loitering in its grove. After a few more hours of traversing through the forest, the mercenary group was finally greeted by the relieved villagers of Respite.

Ravena, Alaric, Oberos, and Mort were eager to fulfil their contract, unaware of the impending battle.

To be continued...

A Moment’s Respite

The village of Respite had carved a place for itself deep within the forest. There, quaint wooden homes were organised in a ring around the centre of the woodland. The forest canopy had been cut away, allowing sunlight to flow to the inhabitants.

Hope infused with lingering exhaustion permeated the air as the mercenary group entered the small village of Respite. Behind the windows of the freshly constructed buildings, many eyes watched them silently. An uneasy silence hung in the air.

"What a nice and warm welcome!”, Alaric jested.

"I'm back!”, Thoma called as he stepped forward. 

"I found them, come out and greet them. Father!"

A door opened, and a middle-aged man stepped out. The similarity in his face left no doubt who he was. Thoma's father stared steely at the four visitors.

"Welcome, heroes. I'll admit, I didn't believe my son when he spoke of you, but we're all relieved to have you join us," he spoke while gesturing for them to follow.

"Here that? Word’s out we're heroes now," Ravena grinned while ribbing Alaric in the side.

"They're just buttering us up, or have you been doing heroics on the side while we weren't looking?", Mort loosed a rare smile.

Ravena chortled at the absurdity of the accusation coming from Mort of all people.

"This could be our start," Alaric finally replied.

Thoma pushed past them all to embrace an elderly woman with a hug. He introduced his grandmother, Lyra, to the group. She was immensely relieved they had returned Thoma to her unharmed.

Lyra was the only healer in Respite. Her kindness matched her skill as she treated the group for the various afflictions their lifetime of experiences had accrued. It was a team effort to crack Oberos' back, and he hummed pleasantly at the relief.

While Lyra was treating the group, Thoma and his kid sister Emma prepared a meal for everyone to enjoy. The warm meal was a welcome treat after the group’s tense few days of travel.

At the dinner table, Thoma's father recounted the history of Respite. The people gathered here had all fled the atrocities from conflicts between and among the rivalling powers. Farmers who had lost their homes, soldiers who couldn't stand the bloodshed anymore, and those who just wanted to protect their children.

The desire to establish a sanctuary hidden amid the forest was the founding principle, hence the town’s name. But, just as progress towards this shared dream was going well, the dangers of the forest revealed themselves. Droots were initially furious over the clearing of the canopy, but more pressing matters were the obstinate Slyths.

It took a lot of work for them to gather resources. Most had to leave the village limits for anything beyond water from the well. Slyth attacks had thwarted their attempts to expand the settlement or improve the paths into the forest. The serpents were elusive and crafty, and every time the villagers believed they had solved the Slyth issue in one location, they would simply migrate elsewhere and return.

The situation was made worse by the disappearance of Derick, one of the most dependable men in the village. He had vanished while gathering wood to the South.

Thoma had proposed using a professional tracker to find either Derick, the Slyths, or both. After hearing the mercenary group's prowess and accomplishments from a group of travellers, he recommended them to his village. Derick's family offered all the coin they could afford and entrusted it to Thoma to find these so-called heroes of the battlefield.

After hearing  this, the pouch on Ravena’s hip felt significantly heavier. She tried to hide the emotion in her voice as she spoke.

"We'll find their son,” she promised. 

The band members looked at her with surprise, but Alaric smiled at Ravena’s unusual selflessness.

Mort felt it essential to make it clear they no longer fight on the battlefields. He didn't want people to think they were killers for hire. Bloodshed has been part of their lives for far too long; all they want now is to help others. 

The unassuming Oberos nodded in accord and placed a completed miniature Drootle on the table. It was carved from the bark of the real one they had fought.

Emma was immediately fascinated and asked if she could have it. Oberos smiled and let the child take it with her. He took out his whittling knife and began work on a new piece.

Being the last to finish her food, Lyra spoke up.

"More than just coin, there are other benefits for clearing out the Slyth. They're a source of food, material, and, more importantly, medicine. Of course, you are free to take what you want, and I can prepare several ailments for you should you succeed."

The jokester, Alaric, playfully suggested the mercenary group expects several pairs of Slyth boots before their contract ends.

Mort rose from the table with clear intent to begin their quest, but Lyra called him back. 

"You've all been marching for days. You must rest."

"And how many days has Derick been missing?” Mort replied bluntly, turning to Ravena. "We gave our word."

Mort quietly left the house, with Oberos and Ravena soon following. Alaric thanked the family for the treatment and food before scurrying after his team.

As they headed to the village's southern path, they heard Thoma's familiar voice  from the rear. Ravena grabbed Thoma by the collar.

"You stay. Go tell Derick's family we've headed out," she ordered with a tone that expected no questioning.

Mort took the lead, making use of his superior tracking abilities developed through his many years leading a Wingfolk hunting band. He looked at the earth and the woodland beyond, then set to work.

After they were long out of earshot of Respite, Alaric turned around to check if Thoma wasn't still following. With a mixture of sympathy and understanding on his face, he watched the village disappear out of view.

"I could never have risked settling my family in such a perilous abode," he announced.

Ravena spoke softly, for she knew of Alaric's past, "Beasts are more predictable than men. A village in the hills is an easy target, I know."

Alaric winced at the reminder that Ravena was a former Waveborn raider, the same kind who stole his future with his family. It had taken time, but he didn't blame Ravena since she had renounced those ways before they even met.

Mort's perceptive eyes noticed a lone shoe on the woodland floor. He bent over and snatched it up as a sombre conclusion struck him. 

“One doesn’t often abandon this willingly,” he said worriedly.

The trail revealed that Derick had broken into a sprint. The damage to the  vegetation told his story of a relentless chase. Then, the footprints vanished. 

It would be here where most trackers would be at a loss, but not Mort. He closed his eyes to focus. Mort envisioned himself in the role of a predator pursuing its prey. Having finally caught its meal after a long chase, where would he go next?

Mort opened his eyes and spun on his heels. There! A burrow or a cave would be the safest place to rest and feed. He drew his daggers and pressed on.

It didn't take long for the serpentine hissing to warn the group of their intrusion. Two Slyths were huddled near a burrow of rotting leaves. Their emerald scales and gold crowns sparkled even in the overcast light from the forest canopy. The two serpents rushed at the group while a third lazily emerged from the burrow.

The third was monstrously rotund. Its entirety swollen with the bulge of a recent meal. Ravena shouted in horror at the realisation of who was inside. The attacking Slyths struck rapidly at the intruders, poisonous fangs flashing.

Oberos struck a Slyth with his hammer and grabbed the other with his bare hand, tossing it aside before it could react.

Mort cut through the stunned creature rebounding from Oberos' hammer while Alaric kicked the other Slyth away. This bought time for Ravena, who notched an arrow aimed at the engorged one in the distance. A perfectly placed shot between its eyes was all it took to cease its revolting motion.

Oberos and Mort relaxed at having dispatched the Slyths, but Alaric still had his defences up. Being a Lifetender, he had grown up with the warnings of Slyth hordes. He looked to the treetops and cried out for the other's attention.

Above them, the canopy seemed alive as dozens of Slyth glided between the branches. They released themselves from their grip and rained down with righteous anger.

Meanwhile, more serpents erupted from the burrow. The four mercenaries quickly found themselves surrounded and fighting for their very lives. Blades flashing, arrows flying.

Their backs pressed against one another to cover every angle. Oberos suddenly took to one knee. Despite his impeccable defence, a set of fangs had managed to pierce his thigh. The venom acted fast to steal his strength.

Alaric and Mort immediately took Oberos' role and shifted to defending him while he recovered. Having lost initiative after a while, the Slyths hesitated to charge at the circle of lethal blades directed at them.

Oberos gripped his thigh with both hands and squeezed. Blood mixed with yellow venom erupted from the wound.

"I-I can't feel anything, but my legs still work,” he stoically proclaimed through gritted teeth.

Hearing this, Mort yelled for a retreat. They carefully headed back the way they came, blades threatening any Slyths emboldened enough to approach. Oberos was turning pale but continued to block the Slyths with his shield.

A thunderous roar reverberated throughout the forest, and the ground trembled. The canopy shook menacingly, causing even more Slyth to fall to the ground.

Having lost their sense of coordination, the terrified Slyths quickly scattered into the forest's depths. They disappeared as fast as they had arrived.

Ravena breathed a sigh of relief. Shifting focus, Alaric immediately turned to aid Oberos by applying Lyra's medicine to his wound. Mort's instincts screamed at him to escape, but he tipped out his bag onto the forest floor instead.

They’ll need every trick he had to face whatever nightmare was approaching.

Fate of the Gilded

The atmosphere in the forest grew tense. The Slyth had vanished entirely, and the only sound that could be heard was a constant rumble that grew closer with every passing moment.

Oberos' breathing became difficult. Despite the amount of venom he'd extracted, that which remained continued to drain his strength. The giant of a man struggled against the effects; he had to survive and see his friends return to the village safely.

Mort quickly sorted the numerous bottles while looking through the tools he'd strewn across the forest earth. He snatched a green flask and turned to face Ravena with a look of determination. Mort forced the bottle into her hands and ordered:

"Save this for the right time."

She paused, hesitation written across her face, but Mort's certainty assured her. Ravena shifted her attention to the approaching danger while pocketing the concoction. She nocked an arrow and waited.

Mort busied himself with tying a wire to one of two throwing knives, followed quickly by a set of bells they used for their trip alarms during camp. Alaric bravely raised his spear, but he couldn't hide his nervous tremble.

The source of the noise finally came into sight. A great and terrible dragon, clad in emerald scales and armoured with gold, made its grand entrance. Trees had no hope of slowing the monstrosity, its strength and bulk forging a path through them like a grown man might through grass. It was a Behemoth, a lord of the weald and the true master of these lands.

It slowed to a halt to gaze down upon the mercenaries, appraising those who would attack its subjects. The sight and smell of the slain Slyths ignited the Behemoth’s fury and it let out a mighty roar, which deafened the group. It was unlike any sound they’d ever heard before. No thunderclap could ever measure up to the power of the Behemoth’s bellowing.

The group's eyes widened in awe of the creature's immense size and strength. But amid the wonder, Alaric rediscovered his voice. Once again, he alerted his team to what they were facing, or so he hoped. He couldn’t even hear his own voice.

"We must flee!" the weight of the understanding hitting him almost as hard as the dragon’s bellow.

Mort responded as the ringing in their ears slowly faded away, proving that at least one of Alaric’s companions had heard him.

"We cannot hope to outrun that thing, nor can we lead it back to the village! Keep it focused on us!"

Mort disappeared into the brush the moment the dragon began to move. The Behemoth kicked one of the toppled trees, sending it hurtling toward the clustered group. Without hesitation, Alaric shoved Oberos out of harm's way. His selflessness was not rewarded as the tree struck him in the chest, knocking him off his feet and carrying him along like a rag through the forest’s undergrowth until he was out of sight.

Despite all of this, Ravena drew her bow and released an arrow. It deflected off the dragon's thick scales, bouncing off with a quiet clink. Her fear was getting the better of her.

The dragon turned its attention to the archer and, in return, unleashed a mighty roar that bellowed directly at her. Ravena's hands immediately flew to her ears, dropping her bow to the ground. She struggled to breathe as the vibrations shook her entire body, the sheer might of the roar forcing air into her lungs, she couldn’t exhale. Her vision darkened as she slumped to the forest floor, only faintly aware of the rumbling beneath her as the dragon approached.

Ravena roused from the daze only to see the great dragon’s fanged maw reaching down for her. She felt her death was certain and closed her eyes, only to be violently shunted aside by something else. She opened them once more, and realised it was Oberos.

Venom was not going to stop him from saving his friend. He had instinctively lunged for her and snatched her up in his arms. Oberos allowed his momentum to carry them forward, momentarily pushing them out of harm's way, if only thanks to whatever element of surprise had been on Oberos’ side.

He kept running as fast as his legs would carry him, but his steps quickly grew shakier as he pushed himself. The venom's effects were taking their toll as he turned a pale white and his breathing grew ragged. He set Ravena down as he came to a halt, bracing his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. She realised he’d brought them down the path where the tree had been flung when she found Alaric, his legs trapped beneath the trunk. He was gasping, a pained expression on his face as he clutched his left side.

Ravena attempted to lift the tree off of Alaric's legs. She struggled against the enormous weight, but it was in vain. Helplessness threatened to overwhelm them as Alaric struggled to breathe with his one functioning lung.

The ground began to tremble as a now familiar roar reverberated across the forest. The trembling drew ever closer.

“Go, leave me here,” Alaric sputtered, “There’s no sense in you staying.”

“No.” came Oberos’ stern reply. He turned to face the oncoming Behemoth, hammer in hand.

Ravena pushed with all her might against the tree, speaking through gritted teeth, “We’re not leaving you behind.”

The Behemoth wandered into view. It hadn’t even bothered to run them down, as if it knew there was no need. It looked at the weakened Oberos, ignored him, and planted a massive, clawed foot on the tree that pinned Alaric down, slowly crushing his legs into the ground below and the man screamed in pain.

Having had the tree torn out of her grip by a strength she could never hope to match, Ravena’s fear was replaced, usurped in her mind with a single, vengeful goal. She rushed forward, snatching Alaric’s fallen spear off the ground as she stormed headlong toward the dragon, her voice raised into as loud a battle cry as she could muster. Oberos tried to keep up, but the venom simply wouldn’t let him.

For a brief moment, the dragon appeared either impressed or confused by Ravena's reckless fury, but that moment passed as quickly as it arrived. Swiftly it lashed out, and this time its fangs found their mark. The monster’s teeth sank into her flesh and bone as it raised its head, lifting her off the ground as it savaged her arm. Screaming in agony as the bladed maw tore through her, she tried to stab it with the spear but couldn’t land any meaningful hits.

Suddenly, a dagger flew past the Behemoth's head and lodged in a neighbouring tree. A jingling sound rang out, diverting the dragon's focus to the bells fastened to the dagger. Perhaps confident that it faced no real danger now that the perceived threat was dangling from its maw, it lowered its head to inspect the oddity with idle curiosity.

In that very moment, another blade thrown with a precision only Mort could manage pierced the dragon’s eye, releasing Ravena from its fanged grip as it reared back in pain, now half-blind.

"Do it now!", Mort shouted.

Ravena sprung from the ground, an adrenaline rush like she’d never felt in her life coursing through her veins, keeping her going. She struck at the dragon’s opposite eye with Alaric's spear, and struck true. The spearhead lodged in the beast’s eye socket as the now blinded, raging monstrosity struck every which way, claws and tail laying waste to trees and ground alike. Despite his efforts to get clear, its tail struck Mort right across the face, a glancing blow. The sharp scales cut into him and past the gashes, he too was now missing an eye. He stumbled a few steps before collapsing into an unconscious heap. Oberos hauled him away from the Behemoth, then slowly made his way to Ravena’s side.

Ravena drew the green bottle, the one Mort had entrusted her with, thankful that it had survived the ordeal. She threw the thing as hard as she could, aiming for the dragon’s blood-filled eye socket, but struck it directly across the nose instead.

Whatever Mort had brewed, the dragon did not appreciate it. The Behemoth spat and convulsed in agony, sending another furious tail swipe Ravena’s way.

Oberos, almost entirely exhausted, threw himself in the way once more. He braced himself, arms raised into a guard.

The tail connected and struck the man down. Oberos tumbled an awful distance before coming to a halt. His limp body lay there, only barely breathing, arms twisted and bent into horrible, unnatural angles.

Mort, conscious once more, hauled himself to his feet, one hand clasped across his missing eye. He saw Ravena reach for the spear, grasping it with her good arm as the weakened dragon clawed the air, failing to hit her. He darted forward, still unsteady on his feet, and practically slammed into Ravena, giving the spear the final push it needed to pierce the dragon’s bone and, ultimately, its brain. With a dull, sickening gurgle and erratic convulsions, the dragon fell silent and still. Ravena too collapsed from this final effort, clutching her near-severed arm to try to staunch the bleeding.

"We did it! Ow,” Alaric moaned from ground level, still pinned by the tree the Behemoth now lay next to.

Mort assessed the situation. Sure he’d lost an eye, but at least his bones weren’t broken, he wasn’t pinned under a tree, nor had his arm just been shredded by a dragon’s teeth. Oberos and Alaric were both incapacitated, Ravena’s arm was about to fall off, and most of the team’s weapons were lost or broken. There was still an army of Slyth nearby...

Mort bandaged Ravena’s wounds as best he could, deeming her state to be the most critical. Oberos would be fine, the bastard was too damn stubborn for any other result and well, Alaric seemed to be managing well enough.

“We need help. I won’t be gone long, I’m going to get the villagers.” His voice was calm, but in his mind he feared what might happen if the Slyths decided to avenge the fallen lord of the forest. He hurried along as fast as he could, and when he arrived, the villagers didn’t need to be told twice. He himself was left in Lyra’s care as the others rushed off into the woods to retrieve his companions.

Over the following months, the mercenary group remained at Respite while recovering from their life-changing injuries. Derick’s funeral was a sombre affair, and his bereaved family withdrew themselves to grieve alone. Mort, being fit to walk before the others, quietly snuck their money back to them in the dead of night, leaving it on a window sill.

Despite the tragedy of this loss, the four were celebrated as heroes. The village collected the valuable hides of the numerous Slyths and the slain dragon. From this, a former Steelsmith living in the village fashioned them each a masterwork set of arms and armour, to replace those lost in the battle and to, in her own words,

“Shield you in armour worthy of your deeds.”

Once the emotions in the wake of both the triumph and the loss had settled somewhat, the four offered to remain in Respite. After recovering, they would resolve the Slyth problem once and for all. The villagers readily agreed, and arrangements were made to build the four a house of their own. Ravena protested, but Lyra argued that “It’ll still be useful whenever you decide to take to the road again.”

They remained in Lyra’s care, but despite her tireless efforts, there were injuries that she simply could not mend. Skilled though she was, she was no miracle worker.

Alaric lost the use of his left leg, and had it replaced with a pegleg. Still, he insisted on a pair of Slythskin boots nonetheless. As for Oberos, his bones healed well, but the venom caused him to develop a chronic tremble in his hands. It made carving challenging, but he persisted. Mort had lost an eye, his face scarred by reddened slashes. Ravena’s arm could not be saved, and she would never use a bow again.

News of the gilded heroes and their dragon-slaying adventure spread, slowly at first, but as the occasional trickle of new arrivals grew into a steady stream of those wishing to affirm the truth behind the tale, the story became a legend.

Leveraging all the unused gold they’d collected, the village of Respite began to prosper as trade between the distant communities bloomed. Even as Respite became known to the wider world, its neutrality was respected. Sure, there was plenty of gold for a few dozen people to trade in, but not enough for the tribes to be interested in taking the region.

In the end, the four settled into Respite for good, forming a mercenary company free of any affiliation, yet welcoming of anyone who had grown tired of the wars, just as they once had. The four became the core of The Gilded League, and despite their injuries, their company would forge many more tales over the years that followed.