It’s almost Finals week, and that means procrastination-fueled fiction progress! Gosh I’m so sad…
Anyway, I finally reached this arc, and I’m once again touching upon stuff I’d been wanting to for… I hope only months. Because if I can legit say “years,” that kinda depresses me. Quite a few things get revealed in this chapter, and yet more are to come in the next!
Also, while we’re on the subject of Bardass!, you really ought to check out Melissa Pagluica’s Twitter feed (@darksunrose). If you do a little digging, you just might find her working on something special that won’t become particularly important until about 20 chapters down the line (though it’s a topic I covered 20 chapters ago…). Oh god, that means I commissioned her to work on something that won’t be relevant for another 2 years! Why am I so… Wait, seriously? I actually get around 10 chapters done a year? I thought I was slower than that. Nah, I was probably just much busier in one year than the other years. Maybe I should make a graph.
Quest 27 – Prelude to the Hunt
–25 years ago–
Jegan: This heat… this pressure… I think we might have bitten off a bit more than we can chew this time.
Duggan: Don’t talk like that, boss. You’re gonna bring morale down.
Balken: He’s just being realistic. As good as we are, there’s no chance of us taking down a Guardian Dragon without backup.
Duggan: Even the prodigy thinks so? So what do we do? Back out while we still can?
Magma Dragon: [Fight or flee, there is no escape. You will die a pitiful death.]
Balken: The Dragon knows we’re here.
Silvia: You can understand it? What am I saying… You can speak to Arco; of course you can understand another dragon… Hey, what about Arco? Make it a dragon-on-dragon fight!
Balken: Not a chance. If I let loose all of Arco’s power here, we could end up killing everyone else in the crossfire. And even though Arco might be able to win under normal circumstances, we’re in our enemy’s domain.
Jegan: Well, there are going to be casualties regardless. The best we can do now that we have its attention is to hold him off long enough for reinforcements.
Silvia: The Harlians are still having trouble with the Heat Wraiths. Can we really count on them?
Jegan: If we can trust nothing else, trust in Harlian tradition. They’ve killed the Dragon Guardian of Mt. Harlig every 25 years without fail. Why should this time be any different?
As soon as the three slave parties entered Harl, they checked into an inn made specifically for slaveholders; it was a former barracks, which meant large groups of up to 30 could stay in a single room. Rowena spent some extra gold to make certain their room was reserved and no outside parties could join.
Woll: Good thing those guards don’t do heavy duty inspections. How much Astorian Armor did we manage to smuggle over?
Rowena: It’s certainly a lot. Won’t it be harder to smuggle it all out in their current forms? Tell me you know someone willing to reforge this.
Avery: I don’t suppose we can forge it ourselves?
Woll: You’re joking, right? Only native Harlians are allowed to use the forges here.
Avery: Then how are we going to unload all of this merchandise?
Woll: Heh. We unload them here in Harl. You ever heard of the Dragon Hunt?
Avery: According to what I’ve read, it is an event that occurs every 25 years, in which the people of Harl slay the Dragon Guardian of Mt. Harligg.
Woll: Exactly. But it’s not just Harlians. Adventurers from the outside are allowed to participate. Of course, not a lot of them do, since it’s more or less a death trap. But the rewards for participating and surviving never fail to bring in the fodder. Only the strongest adventurers with the best equipment survive a Dragon Hunt. And I’d wager we have the best equipment.
Avery: I see… So we use the armor and win the prize from the Dragon Hunt!
Woll: What are you, stupid? I’m leaving before the Dragon Hunt even begins. No way I’m getting caught up in that.
Rowena: Your plan is to fence this armor off to participants.
Woll: And you can bet they’ll be willing to pay top gold for Astorian Iron armor.
Rowena: It’s a solid plan, but you’re forgetting one thing. This armor was definitely being stockpiled for a purpose. Someone in Harl was counting on getting this armor.
Woll: Well you just leave it to me. You can all try to fence the armor yourselves, but if you give me your share, I’ll sell ’em for you and give you a generous cut. Say… 25%?
Rowena: Go right ahead. It’s not like I’m losing anything.
Avery: I think I’ll hold on to my share. I’ve read that those who participate in the Dragon Hunt are allowed temporary access to the Dragon Forge.
Rowena: You plan on participating?
Woll: I thought you were smarter than that. Oh well, your loss. But you have three sets of armor there. Why not sell the other two?
Avery: No, I have plans for them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to visit my client.
“Arod of the Warg Clan.” The name stuck in Avery’s head, and his inquisitive nature compelled him to follow up on it. He wondered if there was such a person. As it would turn out, there was. Arod inherited a small fortune from his father, a famed warrior. Arod was not nearly as powerful as his father, and he was loose with his purse strings. Arod perished only two days ago when some ill-advised bar boasting after a game of Volc-Ale-No led to a brawl that ended poorly for everyone involved: Chief Arbel kept the peace by skewering the brawlers – Arod included – through one his Obsidian Lances.
Warg Housekeeper: Even if he hadn’t died then, he likely would have died in the Dragon Hunt… even if he had slave help. But he won’t need any help now that he’s dead and pinned.
Warg Housekeeper: Oh, well… we aren’t allowed to remove his body from Chief Arbel’s lance until he removes it himself.
Avery: This doesn’t bother you?
Warg Housekeeper: Death by Arbel tends to result in an outdoor cremation, so I rather prefer not having to touch a dead body for burial.
Avery: Good for you, I suppose. But you work for the Warg Clan, correct? Now that the master of the house is gone, what is left for you?
Warg Housekeeper: There are always branches more than willing to hold on to a relative’s assets. But there likely won’t be any action on that until after restructuring following the Dragon Hunt.
Warg Housekeeper: Foreigners only care about the glory and the reward, but for the Harlians, the Dragon Hunt is an opportunity for Harlian clans to earn merit. Clans with higher merit get a better standing and more political power. Some smaller clans die out or get absorbed into larger clans after a Dragon Hunt. I’m not even sure if the Warg Clan will still exist.
Avery: Everything always comes down to the Dragon Hunt, it seems…
Rowena: So, you came here after all.
Rowena: I overheard. Looks like you won’t have to lose those two after all.
Avery: So it seems.
Rowena: You should go back and remove that collar from the girl. The Bard, on the other hand…
Avery: What happened to Brier?
Rowena: He disappeared.
Avery: Wasn’t someone looking after him?
Rowena: There were, myself included. He was sitting on his bed, then suddenly… he vanished.
Avery: Oh, dear…
–25 years ago–
Duggan: D-damn him…
Silvia: Ugh…. my arm… my arm!!
Balken: Nothing a Cleric can’t fix, right?
Silvia: Aaaaaagh, SHUT UP! How would you like to feel this kind of searing pain throughout your entire arm, huh?!
Jegan: Balken, it wouldn’t hurt to show some concern for her every now and then.
Balken: Trust me, I worry about her constantly.
Jegan: I don’t quite think we’re talking about the same meaning. But it looks like some of the Harl clans have shown up.
Duggan: They’ll have the same problem as us. Latham?
Latham: We barely did any damage to it… but we were able to successfully damage it. That is, until it restored its armor. All it needs to do is submerge itself into lava and it basically heals itself. And since there’s no lack of lava here…
Jegan: The only way we can win is to either prevent it from entering the lava, or deal enough damage in one burst that it has no opportunity to enter the lava.
Latham: The artillery weapons were built quickly. Most of them won’t survive the Heat Wraiths. We can’t count on the latter.
Brier: Then we’ll have to prevent it from entering the lava. ARCOOOOOOO!
–Harl, a bar–
Coleen: Is that… Brier? He’s actually playing?
Avery: Well, he IS a Bard.
Coleen: Not singing, thankfully…
Avery: Bards do more than sing. They are also historians and storytellers. It is through the Bards that legends are preserved.
Coleen: I thought we had books for that.
Avery: Books can be censored and destroyed. Entire libraries, entire histories, destroyed by time, by jealousies, by fear… Books can be burned. But the Bards cannot be silenced.
Brier: …it was a weapon secretly developed by the Steinn clan, which would prove deadly against any other dragon, but not this one! Exolith absorbed lava from the mountain itself to reconstruct its outer armor. Had it not been for the mysterious Dragonmaster, keeper of the Shadow Dragon, the concentrated effort would have gone to waste then and there.
Avery: Does that term mean something to you?
Coleen: I heard it, once… It’s a name that refers to Balken. But there was never any proof. Bards, huh?
Brier: The Dragonmaster used the power of the Shadow Dragon to enchant the Star Archer, Silvia, with arrows capable of warping Exolith back into the battlefield before it could regenerate. Following that miraculous save, the mercenary lord of Helia, Jegan, drove his body into the weapon, launching him at high speed at Exolith’s head.
Avery: I believe I heard of him from some obscure record.
Coleen: Jegan was my father… He fought in the last Dragon Hunt?
Brier: With regal command, the spirits heeded Jegan’s call and surrounded his fist. Armed with no other weapon, Jegan tore through the dragon’s eye. For the first time since the assault on his keep, Exolith screamed in pain. But he never re-emerged. Steinn clan continued their assault. Dragonmaster could do nothing but continue his own assault and prevent his ally’s sacrifice from going to waste.
Barfly: Enough about the foreigners and the Steinns. Get to the real heroes of that Hunt! Get to Bjorn Clan and Berserkers!
Brier: Well, well, look at who’s interested now? Didn’t you say I was only worth half a pint?
Barfly: I don’t want you screwing up the story drunk!
Brier: I can drink you under the table any day.
Barfly: Hah! Have it your way. Another round for the Bard!
Brier: That’s more like it. Now, let me check the recesses of my mind… Ah, yes. Around that time, a towering, fiery figure made its way into the battlefield. Stones were thrown at it out of the belief that it was the largest Heat Wraith ever formed, but it was in fact Bodolf of the Bjorn clan, who had torn a path through the Heat Wraiths, ignoring pain and marching forward even after his armor and much of his skin had been burnt to dust.
Barfly: They say his spirit made his body move even after death!
Barfly: Some say he actually turned into a Heat Wraith and still marched to Exolith!
Brier: Bodolf threw one axe at Exolith, then fell into the lava pit below, his mission accomplished. His reckless charge paved the way for artillery to make it to the battlefield. Slowly but steadily, iron spike after iron spike was thrust into Exolith’s hide, and the Guardian Dragon could do nothing but continue its stalemate against the Dragonmaster, for if he were to turn his attention away, the Dragonmaster would surely cut him down. Finally, Exolith’s armor was completely shattered, and his body was left vulnerable. The Dragonmaster lured Exolith into position for Dreadspire, the legendary spear bathed in the blood of Harligg himself. It took ten Berserkers to lift and launch Dreadspire into the heart of Exolith. The Guardian Dragon was pinned to the ground, and the Berserkers, with a rallying cry and bloodlust in their eyes, hacked away at Exolith’s exposed and vulnerable body. Their axes chewed away the Guardian’s flesh, and would not stop until his head had been severed. Astonishingly, Jegan was still there, alive, within Exolith’s head. He had expended his energy attacking Exolith from within and was found asleep next to a crack in the Dragon’s skull.
Normally, the conclusion of such a tale would have been met with a raucous cheer. However, the patrons were disappointed that the Bard chose to finish the story on a foreigner’s accomplishment. The crowd that had formed around Brier thinned out as they returned to their tables to discuss the tale and their expectations for the upcoming hunt. This allowed Avery and Coleen to approach their comrade.
Avery: I never expected to see you do something so… bardly. Hold still, I’m going to remove that collar.
Brier: Well, it’s about time.
Coleen: That story you told… was that all true? Did Jegan really participate in the last Dragon Hunt with Balken?
Brier: Balken? When did I mention him?
Coleen: There aren’t a lot of stories about Balken’s early years, and those that do exist usually refer to him as “Dragonmaster” or “Prodigy.”
Brier: Huh. So you know that much. Okay. Yes, they participated in that Dragon Hunt. Five of Jegan’s famed mercenary elites, the “Seven Stars,” were present. Jegan, a man who would be king if he but had the desire; Latham, his second in command and owner of enchanted eyes; Duggan, veteran and former bandit turned Monk; Balken and Silvia, preteen prodigies – one of magic, the other of archery. Waiting safely outside the battlefield was Jegan’s son Aidan, who was instructed to return to Helia if his father fell in battle. The last member of the Seven Stars was Jegan’s wife, Elena, who stayed in Helia, too sick to travel.
Coleen: You seem to know a lot about the story.
Brier: I’m quite familiar with every story told of that day. The truth often gets lost in favor of the dramatic. In most variants, the hero is usually Bodolf. The most popular version of that story has Bodolf devouring a Heat Wraith and leaping into the mouth of the Dragon. Until about ten years ago, another popular variant focused on Cyrus, captain of the Berserkers that threw the Dreadspire. Though actually, Cyrus was only a lieutenant at the time. The actual captain’s name was…
Coleen: You’ve made your point.
Brier: Just a word of advice – never trust a Bard. The stories they tell are almost certainly embellished to appease their audience.
Coleen: Your audience sure didn’t seem appeased.
Brier: They weren’t my audience. Still, I got a few drinks out of it.
Coleen: Are you telling me you embellished your story? Even after all that talk about the truth being warped?
Coleen: Wait, so how much of that story was embellished?
Brier: Who knows? That was the first time I told it. Maybe I embellished a corrupted story and ended up telling the truth. By the way, Avery… You’re the reason we’re even in Harl. Mt. Harligg is replenished of Obsidian following a Dragon Hunt. Obsidian should go down in price directly after the Hunt, so we should just take it easy and wait it out. Maybe take some part-time jobs carrying supplies between Harl and Mt. Harligg.
Coleen: You mean we’re not going to participate?
Brier: You can’t be serious. Do you have any idea how dangerous the Dragon Hunt is? I’m not going anywhere near that battlefield.
Coleen: Why not? I’m the Cataclysm of Water. If we combine that with these Dead Ash staves…
Brier: You would destroy the entire mountain and everyone in it. No profit in that. And if Avery and I don’t rely on you, we’re practically useless. Do you have anything in your inventory that you’re confident can even damage a Guardian Dragon?
Avery: Hardly. And I doubt these bolts will do any good.
Brier: They won’t even take out a Heat Wraith.
Coleen: Fine, I won’t ask you to join me.
Avery: You’re still going?
Coleen: I have to. My father participated in the last one.
Brier: And you think you’re obliga- What do you want?
Five Harlians had approached the table and surrounded it. Brier was swiftly shoved to the floor, and his Obsidian Lute taken from him.
Brier: H-hey, unhand that!
Harlian Soldier: Not a chance. Under edict of Chief Arbel, all Obsidian is to be immediately confiscated and brought to the forge for repurposing.
Harlian Soldier: Hard to believe that report was true! A lute made out of Obsidian. We’ll put it to good use.
Brier: That lute’s worth more than all your lives piled together!
Harlian Soldier: All the more reason to keep it out of unworthy hands.
The soldiers stomped Brier’s chest, then walked off with his lute. Coleen turned to pursue them, but Brier grabbed her ankle to stop her.
Brier: You attack them, it’ll just get Arbel’s attention.
Avery: It seems they’re collecting Obsidian. This will make my task much more difficult.
Coleen: You plan on taking your lute back, don’t you?
Brier: Only if I can get to it before they melt it down.
Avery: Melt it down?
Brier: Why else would they be collecting Obsidian? Especially this close to Dragon Hunt…
Avery: They’re making something?
Brier: Armor or weapons. Probably both. We’re going to have some fierce competition during the Hunt.
Avery: We? You mean…
Coleen: Sounds like we’re fighting after all.
Avery: What about our being too weak to fight the Dragon, and our trump cards being too strong to use?
Brier: All still true. But we be better prepared. The first thing we need to do is sell our Astorian Iron armors, fast. We need to undercut Woll before he’s done selling off his stock.
Avery: Wouldn’t we better off stronger armor?
Brier: No. Reaction speed is more important, and only Obsidian is going to protect you from Dragon fire. What we buy from selling that armor will more than make up for what protection we would gain. I’m going to work on selling our armors right away. Coleen, you look for a Monk or Cleric we can hire.
Coleen: If any of them are around, they’re probably already with a group.
Brier: We don’t need them to join our party. We just need one of them to do some enchanting. Avery, you can help me carry the armor. We’ll discuss what ingredients you need to mix along the way.
–25 years ago–
From Balken’s shadow emerged Arco, a pitch black Dragon that formed a pact with him to serve as his Familiar. The Shadow Dragon was only half the Magma Dragon’s size, but it was still a fearsome sight to behold.
Balken: Arco, you know this guy?
Arco: [Exolith… Five-wing soldier of Harligg. So, you have come to the surface.]
Exolith: [What can you hope to accomplish, four-wing? You are not my equal. Will you die amongst humans?]
Balken: “Exolith,” eh?
Latham: Is that his name? Sounds fitting.
Balken: Don’t underestimate Arco and me. My Familiar!
Arco: [My wings are yours!]
It appeared as if the Shadow Dragon devoured his master, but it was closer to the reverse. Blackness crashed into the boy’s body and surrounded him, then seemingly disappeared. Ordinary men could barely comprehend the remaining sight: an impossible floating shadow. No form could be detected aside from the air being somehow darker in a certain place. But, if one knew what to look for, they could begin to make out the form of a young boy with wings sprouting from his back, wielding two black, wing-shaped blades.
Balken flew at Exolith and slashed its armor with his swords. With a single motion, he dealt more damage than ten minutes of bombardment. In response, Exolith whipped about its armored tail and struck the boy, who would have collided with a volcano wall had he not thrown his blade and warped to its location. With Exolith on guard and vulnerable to Balken’s attack, and Balken easily overpowered but capable of warping both himself and others, the two came to a deadlock, neither side able to take the upper hand. However, Balken’s role had been set: he was in a position to prevent Exolith from diving into the lava.
–Harl, slave barracks–
While his companions slept, Brier stayed up to consult his Familiar.
Brier: It’s been a long time since we even attempted this… Give it a shot, Arco.
Arco hovered in front of Brier and turned into a living shadow, then flew at him. Rather than enter Brier’s body, the shadow splashed around his body and re-formed behind him. Brier clutched at his chest and fell to the floor, covering his mouth to suppress a cry of anguish.
Brier: Urgh…. Yeah… I didn’t think so. That curse really is something, huh?
Brier: Don’t worry about it. That’s why we bought the arrows.
Brier sat on his bed and tried to recover his breathing. A dull ringing could be heard in the distance at that time, and Brier looked out the window to confirm his fears. More and more lights appeared and moved toward the base of Mt. Harligg.
Brier: Coleen! Avery! Get up!
Coleen: Hnngh… Wha’s goin’ on?
Avery: What’s the matter, Brier?
Brier: It’s the signal. The Heat Wraiths have appeared.
In the next chapter of Bardass! The appearance of the Heat Wraiths signals the start of the Dragon Hunt. As our heroes work to pave their way into the Dragon’s lair, we learn more about the history of the Hunt, and the connection between the Dragons, Heat Wraiths, and Obsidian, as well as Arbel’s plans in Quest 28 – Blood for the Forge!