Steel Wolves of Craedia
"Oh really?!" a warrior in heavy armor clambered out of the water and onto a shore carpeted with dry, soft, olive-colored moss. Lending a hand to a green-haired priestess following behind, he gave an exasperated sigh and plopped down on the ground, his armor rattling in indignation. "What fools would expect me to take such risks on an empty stomach!" he shook his head with almost palpable sorrow, looking on as more dark elves emerged from the swamp.
"Have you no shame, Bonbon? You've been munching on something the whole way here," Masyanya said wearily, taking a seat next to him.
"So? Would you prefer it if I fell into a hunger-induced coma? Would you carry my fat ass then?"
"You're the last candidate of all of us for a hunger-induced coma," smirked Rexar, cleaning algae stuck to his pants. "Eww!" the ranger held up a large black leech for everyone to see, spat on the ground in disgust, and tossed it back in the swamp.
"Everybody, check one another for leeches and other parasites," commanded Max, the last to emerge from the swamp. As if on cue, all the females' eyes went round with horror. Max motioned in the direction of the bushes no more than thirty feet away. "Go behind the bushes, ladies."
"Need any help?" taking a swig from his flask, Bonbon gave the girls a roguish look.
"That goes for everyone," Max frowned, looking right at him. "And be quick about it. We'll rest here for two-three hours, then keep moving. According to the map, it's a little over a mile to our destination."
"Have a heart, Max," putting his flask away, Bonbon spread his arms wide and fell back on the ground, suddenly looking like a starfish. "We've been wading through a waist-deep swamp for ten freaking hours! When are we going to sleep?"
"When we get there," the latter shook his head sternly. Then he turned and gestured at the trunks of mighty trees sticking out of the water. "I don't like it here. It almost feels like the swamp is creeping up on us."
"We're in a fairy tale," shrugged a young fellow in loose black garb. "It's not out of the realm of possibilities. But check out the level range for this zone: 40-48. It's perfect for us! And there's some fowl for us to pluck," the assassin motioned to his right, where small flocks of large birds promenaded along the water. "We can only hope there are more zones like this!"
"Donut, take Rexar and scout the area," Max gestured at the forest line about a hundred yards away. "But don't go too far. Once you find a suitable spot for camp, head right back. We need to dry up and eat something."
"Got it, boss," the rogue saluted and, with a wave to the ranger, headed for the trees.
"And who's going to check for leeches?" Luffy watched them go with a dubious look. Then, with a glance at his silt-covered hands, he sighed and headed for the water.
"Leeches are good for you," Bonbon answered for everyone, without changing his pose.
"Next you'll be telling us they taste like chicken," the mage gave him a sideways look. "It wouldn't surprise me after seeing you eat slugs."
"Haters gonna hate," the tank grunted, sitting up. "Max, who's got the smokes?" Bonbon proceeded to clap at his pockets in a habitual motion, checking for a light. Then, taking the rolled-up cigarette from the commander, he held the tip with his teeth and opened his inventory. "As for you, Luffy, I'm beginning to seriously question your utility. You're supposed to be a fire mage, right? Then how come I'm always stuck looking for a damn light?"
"Have you counted how much paper and tobacco you've wasted on those roll-ups?" the mage's voice came from the water. "You're flushing money down the toilet. Actually, I'd like to see you light up from a fireball—maybe that'll finally activate some gray matter in your noggin. Then again, you're already bald, so I'll just be wasting mana. And besides, smoking is bad for you!"
"You don't say," the tank mused philosophically, his smoking cigarette pointed at the sky. "It was bad for you IRL, but here it is actually pretty great. A smoke helps me to think and focus."
"You? Think?" done with his impromptu bath, the mage turned toward Max and Bonbon, lounging on the grass. "With your intellect? The only thing your head is good for is to wolf down everything in sight, edible or not. Well, that and maybe endure the occasional head trauma..."
"You're mean," Bonbon shrugged, then proceeded to pull off his boots, the cigarette still in his teeth.
In the meantime, the sun had risen over the swamp, dispersing wisps of fog from the shore and illuminating growths of coastal reeds. Covered with colonies of moss and vegetation creeping out of the water, the bark of the trees looked crimson-red in the light of the rising sun, creating the illusion that the forest titans were bleeding out, awaiting their final hour with stoicism, having made peace with their fate. The pungent scent of water lilies filtering from the water mixed with that of rot and resin upon reaching the shore. Everything around seemed to be frozen still in anticipation of unknown yet imminent and inexorable events.
Max sat there, his chin in his palms, watching the local fowl species stride to and fro along the water line. They looked kind of like ostriches, but their cries closer resembled common crows.
A chain of hidden quests is nice and all, but are we strong enough to see it through?
He had been racked by doubts from the moment his companions had appointed him as their leader. Who was he? Just your average noob, to use the game's own unofficial terms. Hell, he had needed to memorize a warrior guide just to be able to allocate his talents.
He had outright offered the leadership role to Donut as the more experienced player. It was during one of the short stops they had made while crossing the swamp, making use of the few islets encountered along the way. The assassin seemed to consider it, staring off into the mist for a good minute, then raised his eyes at Max and shook his head. "This is your burden. I'm a good player, but that's all I am. I can even lead raids, but to be responsible for all these people? Sorry, but no. It won't take long for you to hone your skills, but being a leader is not a skill you can teach. That comes from right here," Donut stuck a thumb into his chest. "For example, if I had been in your shoes, I never would have believed me back there in the woods," the rogue gestured toward whence they came. "And we would all be sitting around a graveyard right about now. This is a magical world, Max, where luck isn't just some empty notion. It is very much real. And you're one lucky son of a bitch, let me tell you! So, I will follow you, along with everyone else," he smiled. "You can rely on my blade and my full support, but not to lead. That's all you, brother..."
"Hey, fellas?" Luffy's alarmed voice broke through his reverie. Having leaped to his feet, the mage was waving at them while pointing at the water. "The trail! It's gone!"
"Were you planning on going back?" Bonbon smirked, unperturbed by the development. "For all your intellect, you seem to have forgotten the quest description—the trail was supposed to disappear. Which of us is the fool now?"
"The quest mentioned it disappearing after twelve hours! But only ten hours have passed," the mage puckered his brow.
"Everyone who'd had the quest made it across, so it disappeared," rising to his feet, Max walked over to the water. Arms folded over his chest, he proceeded to study the vapors rising over the swamp. "This is good for us—what if those scumbags had been following us?"
"Good or not," Luffy's shoulders slumped. "Now there's no going back for us."
"There was no going back the moment we stepped on that trail," the tank objected. "And don't worry—there's always a way out, no matter the predicament," he gave the pouting mage a reassuring clap on the shoulder. "Even if some beast gobbles you up... Actually, in that case, there are two ways out!"
"Bonbon! Do you ever swap out your foot wraps?" Masyanya wrinkled her nose, having just emerged out of the bushes. Helliona followed shortly after.
"Only for vodka!" the tank twirled his non-existing mustache like a true hussar.
"That joke is as old as it is corny," the girl sniffed, giving a wide berth to Bonbon as he kicked off his boots.
"Where's Alyona?" asked Max, looking but not seeing the familiar figure.
"She's coming," Helliona winked to him, adding a mysterious smile. "You've sent our boys to scout ahead?"
"They're coming back already, see," Bonbon replied for the commander, pointing toward the forest. The scouts were moving toward the rest of the party, with Rexar walking just behind while carrying a small animal over his shoulder. "Is that a snack for his kitty or something?"
"That's too much even for you," Helliona parried, flicking a lock of raspberry-red hair off her forehead.
Those players who had departed into the game had long made the observation that if you didn't loot a killed beast, after just several hours you could cut up its carcass just as you would in the real world. Moreover, the veterans claimed that this new option hadn't existed before patch seventeen. The result was a tremendous spike in demand for game animals. Whereas before you had a dozen players for every boar or deer, nowadays the number of aspiring hunters surged by an order of magnitude, driven by the basic necessity to eat.
"What can I tell you, ladies and gents?" Donut spread his arms theatrically, drawing attention to his rather satisfied self. "We're in paradise! You can't imagine how much wildlife is in those woods!"
"Considering this zone is level 40-48, we can easily grind here till at least 60 without any trouble," the assassin shifted his eyes to Max and added, raising his index finger didactically. "Going back to our discussion about luck. Now, it may sound like a boring option, but don't underestimate its effectiveness."
"You're saying the area is teeming with these beauties?" Bonbon walked barefoot toward the piglet slain and delivered by the scouts, grinning as Masyanya sidestepped to get out of his way. He bent over the dead animal, then looked up and winked to the huntress. "Things are looking up!"
"Did you find a suitable place for camp?" Max raised his voice a bit to make sure he was heard over the joyous and excited chatter brought on by the rogue's declaration.
"Sure thing, chief," Donut motioned toward the forest. "About a thousand feet in there's a lush meadow with a spring and some deadwood. We would have been back sooner if not for a certain greedy ranger who had decided to drag this piggy all the way here. He didn't want it going to waste, you see."
"Damn right," Bonbon lent his support before Rexar could express his indignation. Whipping out his carving knife, the tank got to work over the animal's carcass. "Come to papa, my darling..." he purred with a lustful smile.
"Get help!" the green-haired priestess recoiled from him. "That mental mage from Talyan might have done something," she added with a sigh. "Too bad we're so low on money, and my proficiency in mental magic won't be nearly enough for a long while..."
"Let's wrap things up here quick, and move out," Max eyed his companions, their faces a few shades brighter than before. "Masyanya, where's Alyona?"
"Here she comes," the fair-haired huntress nodded in the direction of the young woman walking towards them. "Good news?" she asked.
"Max! I got through! I called and finally got through!" Alyona threw her arms around the warrior's neck and pressed her face to his chest, crying.
"What happened?! Is Roman all right?!" he frowned, holding the girl by the waist.
"Everything's good," the redhead backed away, fished a handkerchief from her bag and proceeded to wipe away her tears. "These are from joy," she smiled. "Give me a moment, I'll explain everything..."
Not an hour had gone by before the elves were sitting around a campfire on a cozy meadow discovered by the scouts, the flames crackling soothingly. The dawning sun was just beginning to filter through the crowns of mighty trees, enclosing the camp like columns of some grand and ancient temple. The flames' tendrils swirled in a mesmerizing dance with the breeze, which carried a heavy cocktail of odors from deep within the woods, the most prominent notes being of rotting leaves, tree bark and fragrant flowers.
"It's so gorgeous here," Ellanca exhaled in awe. Touching the mage's shoulder, she pointed toward the trees surrounding them. "What are those, Luffy? Mallorn trees?"
"Certain herbalists ought to have paid more attention in botany class," Bonbon drawled, imitating the world's most boring teacher while sticking sliced pieces of meat onto a long metal skewer. "At the very least, they should have collected preserved plants as a hobby during childhood. Maybe then they would be able to tell an oak from the myriad other species of trees found in nature."
"Well then, mister botany expert, won't you educate my ignorant self what mallorn trees look like?" the green-haired priestess shot him a sardonic look. "You see, I haven't chanced upon a single one in the month and a half I've been in this game."
"How should I know?" the bald man shrugged. "Unlike some people, I was looking at the ground on the way here, so don't expect me to know what those acorns look like. And those boars over there," he pointed at wild pigs roaming amid the trees to the side of them, "would probably agree with me."
"If I remember my Tolkien, mallorn trees are immense in size, with bark that's smooth as velvet and silver-gray in color. Their lower branches and trunk take on a circular shape, forming a giant bowl," explained Donut, back from gathering firewood. "And you didn't see them for the simple reason that they don't exist."