"Hey, have you found the mosswart village yet?" asked Hearding.
Mu shrugged as he unloaded his sixth delivery of slightly used spears, maces, clubs, and knives off at the Sawato pawn shop. His experience with dealing in black market weapons in Shoushi proved very useful, as the same general business practices applied to all such enterprises, no matter how powerful the particular species you happen to be extinguishing at the moment. "Seem to be enough of ‘em running around the woods for me."
"Well, it’s pretty interesting… lot of them just sorta milling about, and a hut in the middle where the chief lives. I, uh, ran past there once…" he mumbled.
"Sounds interesting… let’s gear up and check it out. " Anything would be a welcome break for Mu at this point… his quest to learn about Life magic was beginning to wear on him. Life magic, arguably the most powerful school of magic there was currently (until someone notices and decides to tweak it a bit, probably right after Mu learned it), was difficult to learn if you did not study it as a child. Mu knew this all too well, as he was slowly earning the right to begin practicing it in a logical manner: killing hundreds and hundreds of creatures and selling their possessions off. It seemed ironic, the fact that once could only learn about what made life work by untold wholesale slaughter. However, it beat tailoring by a mile, so Mu didn’t complain as he casually went about his rounds, orphaning young monsters and visiting ruin upon entire tribes of lesser foes in between bouts of his favorite activity… waiting for mana.
The trip south was not unfamiliar… this had been Mu’s primary hunting ground for a few days. The landscape was teeming with Barker Mosswarts, Wood Golems, and any number of critters who were susceptible to long-range sniping. He was therefore justifiably surprised when Hearding informed him that there was not only a lifestone in the vicinity of the mosswart tribe, but a travelling merchant who regularly set up shop in the area! He didn’t believe these rumors at all, until he saw the lifestone himself, out in the midst of nowhere, and not a stone’s throw from it, a merchant with a number of bags and packs sitting around a campfire. "She must be insane," said Mu. "Great idea she got… hmm I bet I could make a lot of money by standing out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by dangerous creatures and selling leather armor."
"Maybe she’s in league with the mossies," offered Hearding. That idea was possible; maybe this was the fence who sold used weapons back to the mosswarts after buying them from their killers, in the same way that Ven Ounan was recycling knives to the drudges for a bloody profit. Arms dealers are much the same the world over.
"Hmm… quite intriguing…" remarked Mu, when just then a low pounding sound was heard. Turning slowly, Mu knew exactly what to expect, as a wood golem started to bear down on him. A practiced enemy of these creatures, Mu began casting and dancing around, mostly avoiding the brunt of the golem’s physical assaults, somehow finding himself behind the peddler in the process. However, the peddler did not run, simply standing there calmly, watching the golem continue to charge Mu, with Hearding hacking huge chunks of it off, as if she was not concerned about these events at all. Mu began to seethe at this person who stood by and did nothing… probably waiting for them to die, so that she might pick up whatever equipment got dropped by them. As the golem finally succumbed to Hearding’s bladework and Mu’s pathetic attacks, Mu wheeled on her and shouted, "Thanks for nothing, you monster sympathizer!"
"Welcome! What is your pleasure today?" the peddler replied, ignoring Mu’s angry interrogative.
"My… pleasure… would be to see you show some courage!" growled Mu. "As unlikely as that is, maybe the sight of you being impaled by your friends the mosswarts, using your own stock, might give me a smile."
Oblivious as always, the peddler merely showed the angry travelers a catalog of sub-standard gear for sale, and an outrageous selection of trade notes no one would ever buy. Muttering to themselves, the pair simply pawned a few odd weapons they had recovered and moved on to their objective, trying hard to ignore the merchant’s cheery good-byes.
Avoiding the creatures they spied on the way to the village, the pair managed to work their way around to a high cliff, with a mossie scout and black rat taking refuge on it. A few fizzled spells and some swipes of a real weapon later, Mu and Hearding were using their new vantage to observe their objective. It seemed to be a clearing of sorts, nestled in the foothills, with a few trees scattered about and a low stone structure in the middle, but it was hard to tell for sure, since the dozens of swarming mosswarts got in the way. "Cripes, look at them all," whispered Mu.
"I count about 2 dozen barkers with feeder/creeper support… plus a chief and a shaman," reported Hearding, who didn’t seem as dissuaded as Mu at the numbers.
"Uh, don’t forget their friends," reminded Mu, indicating several wood golems who seemed to amble about unmolested. This trip was seeming like a worse idea all the time.
"Hey. let’s get a closer look!" said Hearding.
"Uh, how’s your running ability?"
"Pshaw, I know you want to get a good look at the chieftain!"
"Hmm… well I could take a pot shot at one of them, maybe draw them off in small groups."
"Go fot it."
Mu tried to pick out one of the mosswarts that was away from the main concentration, selecting a small worker-type who seemed to be standing next to a rock for no reason. No wonder there’s no village built yet, he thought as he cut loose with a spell. The pair watched the ball of frost spin slowly towards its unsuspecting target, finally connecting with a crystalline sound. "Well, that worked out well," commented Mu as the creeper turned towards them and started running…
… with 3 more workers behind them…
… and a barker who was patrolling the area…
… and half a dozen more barkers that were alerted by the sound…
… and what looked like the whole mosswart nation, visible only as an ambiguously moving mass of green skin and assorted metals way off in the distance. "Time to go!" said Mu, as he and Hearding took off around the hill they had used as a vantage point, losing most of the mosswarts in the process. Breathless, they sat down on the grass. "Well, that was great… what say we go fight some drudge skulkers?" suggested Mu.
"Wow, did you see all of em! I need to get a real look!" said Hearding. Mu gaped at him; this plan went against all of Mu’s carefully honed instincts for cowardice, an ability that had kept him away from death for many many days now. Normally Mu would hide and wait for a generous supply of mana to charge before taking on one barker from a hidden vantage; by his standards, he would have needed an army of a thousand or so screaming expendable vassals in order to consider an assault on this place.
"Ah, it’ll be easy!" Hearding insisted. "We just run in there, take a look around, and run away! We don’t stop to fight, we just look around and get the hell out."
"Uh, okay… I’m sure this will be worth it," mumbled Mu as he began trotting back towards certain death.
The mosswarts were not amused by the intrusion, and they offered Mu gifts if he would simply leave the area. Although they were quite generous with their offerings of spears, javeling, and assorted thrown weapons, Mu had some difficulty gathering them us, as they were all headed at him point-first. As a trained coward, though, he had managed to develop an ability to run really fast, and now put his training to good use as he ducked around trees, zigzagged between barker mosswarts, and even did circles around the chief’s hut itself in an effort to stay alive. "I think it’s time we were off Hearding!" he shouted amidst the cacophony of weapons and mosswart battle cries.
No answer… Hearding must have been engaged. "Hearding, we have to go now…" he repeated. Still nothing. He must already be at the fallback point, thought Mu as he began running that way himself, not noticing in his haste the pair of familiar boots comically sticking out from inside the chief’s hut, surrounded by a press of enemies performing aerobics on Hearding’s corpse.
As expected, Hearding was waiting for him… at the lifestone. "Crap, my sword!" he exclaimed, feeling at the empty scabbard that now dangled mockingly from his belt. "I’ve got to get it back!"
"Err…" mumbled Mu. On his run-through of the mossie village, he had gotten a good idea of how powerful they could be in unbelievable numbers, and the idea of going back there was none too appealing. However, Hearding was inconsolable, and so he shrugged. "Okay."
The pair made their way around the cliffs again until they were in sight of the village. "Okay, this time wait here… I’ll flank around to the south, get a line of sight into the hut, bolt inside, hopefully draw them out to get me… I can evade them while you duck in, grab the stuff. I’ll lose them around the mountain there, we rendezvous back at the lifestone."
"Roger that," said Hearding.
Within several minutes, they made their rendezvous, the whole process made easier since they had both been killed.
Although Hearding was all for writing off the sword (and now his steel hat) as a loss, Mu had been gripped by the insanity which affects people recently dead. "Hmm, I have a idea…" he said, beginning to unstrap his armor.
"Uh…" muttered Hearding as Mu shucked off his armor and threw it into his assortment of packs. "… there’s something you should know. I may play a male character, but in RL I really am male."
"No… this is my plan. When you get killed, the critters that killed you manage to snatch up some of your money and a piece or two of gear before you get to the lifestone, right?"
"Well, I’ll just give them nothing to grab. I’ll run in there, snag what I can, and hopefully be able to carry some of it into the afterlife," said Mu as he struggled out of his leggings, by now stiffened with the dried blood and gore of the countless creatures he had been forced to destroy on his way to Life magic. "Hey, what can go wrong?"
"You could die horribly."
"Yes, well, I think I’m grown used to that," said Mu, stuffing the last of his gear into a pack and handing all of his equipment to a straining Hearding. "Well, here goes nothing," he called out as he ran, defenseless, towards the mosswart tribe, who stared at him in disbelief.
Ducking the main press of laughing enemies, Mu zipped inside the hut, gravitating easily to the by now large pile of coins, papers, and equipment that littered the florr right in front of an enormous mosswart, whom Mu had a dim recollection of as the chieftain of this particular group. As he frantically tried to grab as much as he could, he was confounded by the fact that his scrolls of Fire Resistance III, rather expensive pieces of parchment which he could not personally use, were piled right on top of the sword and other equipment, and so he was barely able to grab two of them before finally succumbing to the press of spears. As his vision faded yet again and a nearby barker grabbed one of them out of his hands, he could have sworn he heard the chieftain cackle, "You idiot, that trick never works."
He was right.
"That was fast," remarked Hearding as he watched Mu slowly materialize at the lifestone.
Grumbling, Mu snatched his packs from the amused Hearding and began to paw through them, hands still shaking from the weakness that comes after resurrecting in Dereth. "Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had…" he remarked.
"Did you manage to get anything?"
"I really miss my lightning sword… electricity arcing down the edge, the bits of gemstones set into the handle… how I long to feel it in my hands again!"
"Well, I did get something back," muttered Mu, handing his expectant companion a battered, slightly corroded steel kabuton.
"My… hat…" Hearding murmured, placing the ugly piece of uncomfortable metal on his head. "Gee thanks," he murmured unconvincingly, and without a word, the two started sullenly trudging off to Sawato, not speaking much of the embarassing trip, except for trying to find ways to explain it away as a heroic sacrificial quest on their parts…