Just that, eh? Well, that’s not enough. Obviously, I can write a ton of things about insects, but this simple of a prompt neither motivates nor inspires me! Thus, I will use a random noun generator to add another two words to the prompt.
*One word generating session later*
Uhh….okay, here are the words: Insects, Marketing, and Recognition.
Oh boy. Those new words are making this a lot more difficult than I thought…
Whatever, I’ll just get on with it.
“At this point…I’m considering boiling rocks.” Muhena mumbled as she used her sword to turn over a large stone that was previously imbedded in the dirt.
Goldens rays of sunlight shined upon the surrounding vegetation, combining with the previous night’s light rain to make it all dazzle magnificently as the cool evening wind brushed by, carrying the swordswoman’s long, dark green hair with it.
And into her face.
“PUA! PTA! GAAAAAAGH!” Muhena spat out her hair and roared in frustration. “I’m THIS close to giving myself a bob cut!”
I laughed as she began moving her blade to her head, but just before she could cut a lock off, I placed my hand on her shoulder.
“Ignoring the fact that the middle of an extremely dense and dangerous forest is not the best place to give yourself an impromptu haircut lest you wish to suffer a sneak attack by one of the many beasts stalking us…I really like your hair as it is.”
Immediately, Muhena regained control of her emotions and returned her deep frown to a straight face. She sheathed her silver sword, brushed her hair off her shoulder, and looked at me.
“You’re right. I should be more careful.” She took a quick glance at the trees around her, no doubt taking another count of exactly how many rodents, birds, and small cats had eyes on us and where they watched us from. Then, her gaze turned stern as she returned to eyeing me. “Plus, I also think that the long hair does a lot for my image, which is the same as what I keep telling you about your horns and spines.”
My smile quickly transformed into a cringe as I instinctively reached for and touched one of the many bone spines protruding from my natural bone armor, unhappy that I still had the unique genetic markers synonymous with crime.
“Don’t even say a word, Luuvadri.” She threatened. “I know you hate arguing this, but I’ll make you, nonetheless. What your family did has no bearing on you. It doesn’t matter what stigma your appearance may carry with it. Shave or cut them off and I—” her voice cracked a little, “I’ll leave you.”
I turned away, unwilling to face her in my frustration. I brought my mace to my shoulder, letting it rest there as I thought about how to counter her—but was unable to. She was completely right about everything, but I was too stupid at the time to accept the truth. My family had done terrible, heinous things that I wanted to distance myself from, but she didn’t care. Her perfect self paid no heed to my outcast form nor the stares of others from when I walked through the city. She so easily separated me from the acts of those I was related to, but I couldn’t. Not easily, anyway.
Instead of fighting a battle I had no chance of winning, I changed the subject as I finally managed to return Muhena’s gaze.
“About boiling rocks… Why?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
Her glare softening, Muhena chuckled, “Well, with how you’re rationing our food so strictly, my mind couldn’t help but to turn to a story I heard as a child about three hungry wanderers who happened upon a small village who didn’t want to share any food with them. The wanderers reassured the villagers that they didn’t need any food, only a large pot and some stones they found on the ground. They began a fire and set the pot to boil the stones they picked up. The villagers got curious, asking if that was all they really needed, to which the wanderers confirmed, but mentioned that the rock soup would taste much better if they had some vegetables and meat to go with it. Slowly, they coaxed the villagers to put more and more food into the pot and everyone eventually enjoyed a tasty soup.”
I absentmindedly pushed some branches out of my path as I thought over Muhena’s story.
“Ah, that one. Yeah, good reference and all, but where would we find a bunch of villagers to swindle for actual food?”
My words caused the swordswoman to pause, so I also stopped. We looked at each other for a moment, but I knew not why.
“Wait,” Muhena said, putting her hand up in front of herself, “swindle villagers? I just meant that I wanted to try boiling rocks. See if it tasted any different than what I’d expect, y’know?”
“I—I’m not sure I know what you mean, actually.” I replied, incredulous at her response. “You literally wanted to boil water with some rocks in it to…savor it?”
It was my hand that went up next, signaling for her to not finish the sentence.
“You didn’t know that the wanderers, er…how do I put this nicely? They manipulated the villagers into sharing their food. The stones they placed in the pot were a pretense.”
I didn’t, at all, mean to sound condescending in my explanation, but…my efforts were not backed up by the forest when it decided to become dead silent—birds and insects alike stopped chirping, and no leaves shook as all scurrying ceased.
Despite knowing exactly what was happening, Muhena allowed her embarrassment to take over, and she crouched down low, covering her face with her hands in a very clear sign that meant she was contemplating all of her life decisions.
Seeing the perfect opportunity for an attack…
“Y’know, you should h—”
“NOT ANOTHER WORD!” She shouted through her hands, somehow having predicted what I’d say.
I covered my mouth to hold in my laughter before I lifted the mace off my shoulder, stepped toward Muhena, and spun on my heel. My swing was followed by a thud and the crunching of bones as I obliterated the owl that thought it could land a sneak attack on my best friend.
“Since I killed it, you should retrieve the Core.”
I tapped Muhena’s shoulder, letting her know that rest time was over and we had to get back on the move. The woman begrudgingly lifted her head, gave me the stink eye, and stood up with her carving knife already in hand. She trudged to the mangled owl corpse just a few steps away and stabbed it—hopefully not while imagining me at the knife’s tip.
“Should have placed more points into Intelligence!” I quickly finished my joke, cackling in malevolent glee before running away with Muhena’s angry growl echoing behind me.
Sky glowing in beautiful hues of orange, the sun had begun to set by the time Muhena and I found a place set up camp. Unfortunately, the lump on my head between my horns that the swordswoman gave me in her rage had yet to cool, as it still hurt to the touch.
When she saw me gingerly pressing on it and wincing, she only commented, “I warned you against finishing that sentence.” Before harrumphing and returning to the fire she was stoking.
Gods, I loved her so much.
As always, we took watch for five hours at a time at night, and it was Muhena’s shift first. Besides a few desperate beasts launching sneak attacks, nothing happened before it came time for me to awaken, at which point Muhena roughly smacked my face. Though, it wasn’t out of malice, but rather the standard procedure for awakening anyone when in a dangerous location, because if the person taking watch isn’t always on high alert, everyone they guard are put at risk.
“Sleep tight, sweet dreams, and pray that I don’t slip up during an attack.” I chortled as the swordswoman lied down in her bedroll. She merely grunted in reply.
By the time the rhythmic thrumming of Muhena’s light snoring sounded from her blanket, the part of my mind I had allowed to wander had set its sights on the entrancing sky above. Thousands of itty bitty—and a few not so small—stars sparkled with impressive fervor, all in order to light up the nightscape. My eyes traced the imaginary patterns between some of them, picturing countless scenes the Heavens might have been trying to communicate to us mortals below them.
I saw fierce beasts war for dominance over their territories, immortals discussing what treasures they were willing to trade, and a giant banan—
My mace shot up.
Woops. I was so lost in thought that I had almost let a beast one-up me in its sneak attack.
“Damn insect made me lose my train of thought.” I grumbled, glancing at the gooey remains of the creature I had almost smacked into the bonfire. A pile of assorted flesh bits and chitin exoskeleton pieces were spread out on the grass, creating the most disgusting piece of artwork I had ever seen.
“Okay, but not the most disgusting…” I admitted to myself. “There was that one ti—”
I stopped, then forced my gaze back onto the insect mess I had created.
Not even daring to waste time on expletives, I shot to my feet and raced to Muhena’s side, who was already rousing from her sleep simply from hearing my footsteps. She was a light sleeper.
I got on one knee beside her and slapped her face. Hard.
Hair whipped about lightning fast as the swordswoman got to her feet faster than I could blink—her sword’s tip at my neck.
“Oh, sorry.” She mumbled, still half asleep, before sheathing her sword. “What’s the situation?”
I looked up at her from my crouched position to see that her eyes hadn’t even fully opened by the time she realized that something was afoot.
“Approximated red danger level, unfortunately.” I replied, cutting straight to the point as I stood up and brushed the dirt off my green robes. “Specifically, a bug-type beast just attacked, and it was not of the lone variety.”
I pointed at the pile of goop around the campfire with my mace, and once her eyes opened enough to see me, Muhena directed her attention to the spot I had blasted the insect apart.
“Yep, that’s definitely some kind of scout. Unless the infant of a loner species somehow escaped its parents’ reach and gambled its life on attacking two beings of significantly more power, those are definitely the remains of a scout. Any idea of which direction it attacked from?”
I pointed somewhere else with my mace.
“Then, we pack our stuff and move.”
I nodded as Muhena quickly began shoving everything we had taken out into our backpacks, but before she got to her bedroll, she turned to face me again.
“And wipe those guts off your robes. They’re gross.”
We didn’t bother with stealth as we switched to high gear and barreled through any vegetation in our way—we had no time for hiding and careful inspection.
Merely three minutes into our run was when our fears were confirmed, and we crossed paths with bad news.
Scuttling across the ground in our direction was an insectoid appearing identical to the one that attacked me earlier—at least, as far as I could tell. I didn’t exactly get that great of a look at the thing before I obliterated it.
The insect didn’t hesitate before jumping at me as soon as it was within range, but I had nothing to worry about. I didn’t even bother raising my mace, because the expert swordswoman beside me made quick work of the enemy as soon as it entered her range. Some thuds resounded as the pieces landed on either side of us. Yet, that wasn’t nearly the end of it.
From the same direction the second scout had reared its ugly head, bushes shook and leaves crunched as more of the same beetle-like bugs, but bigger and with thicker chitin armor, charged at us in a steady stream. Clearly, the stakes had risen.
But not by much.
Muhena mowed down what appeared to be the warrior variants of the beetles with as much ease as, well…crushing bugs. Wave after wave of several insect beasts at a time jumped up at us and attempted to overwhelm us with numbers, but the swordswoman didn’t even break a sweat. They weren’t going to get far with that plan.
Which is probably why they switched things up.
I wasn’t sure if these beetles were of the type to be controlled by a single mind or were the average ground-dwelling insect beasts, but that information would not have changed the fact that they picked up on the fact that they weren’t making a dent in their odds of victory—which was unusual, because bug-types tended to be much simpler than the level of intelligence they were displaying now would suggest they were.
Very quickly, the swarm of insects arranged themselves into surprisingly neat units of warrior beetles front and center with some new ranged ones in the back. Had they been fighting any regular creature from these woods, they would have quite efficiently overcome them with their numbers.
But, of course, Muhena was no normal creature.
The organized attacks made no difference to her, who didn’t experience any increase in difficulty. However, when I turned to look at her, she was clearly annoyed by something.
“What are you doing, Luuvadri? Get to it!”
Oopsies. I was too distracted by her impressive combative form to remember my role in our team.
“Sorry!” I quickly apologized, raising my hands in front of myself and beginning to channel mana. Power coursed through me as I gathered, condensed, and shaped the energy of the world, words not in our common language spilling from my my lips.
It ended after merely a few seconds, and the bright white light I had formed in my hands immediately shot forward in a way reminiscent of the ocean’s waves—more width than height. Which was very useful in this situation, because the enemies were spread out in front of us so as to cover as much ground as possible.
Only after my wave of magic reduced hundreds of the detested little buggers at once did the rest finally give up their pursuit. The ground seemed to ripple as all the beetles changed direction, now on the move back to wherever they came from.
Suddenly, I felt a force against the back of my head, and I turned around to see that Muhena had smacked me. Her expression had not lightened up after I cast the spell, so I figured that I’d crack a joke to ease the tension…but as soon as I opened my mouth, she stopped me.
“Yeah, yeah, you were distracted by my beautiful form. I’ve heard it before; no need to say it again.”
“You can’t blame me for being fixated on you, right?” I pleaded with a pout.
“I can if it gets you killed.” Somehow she looked even more menacing after my question.
“But you were here with me…”
“I won’t always be at your side.”
“I won’t ever venture deep into a dangerous forest without you. Even if I did, I’m capable on my own.”
“You might someday, and I know you are. But you clearly aren’t as capable in a group. There may come a day when you need to spend a lot of time fighting without me, and instead with people who will only drag you down.”
I tried to interject, but a noise from the direction the beetles retreated towards cut me off, reminding me where we were. I admitted to Muhena that she was right about it all before we continued our march. We had very important business to attend to.
Past a few hundred trees and beyond a hill in that direction was where we had our next encounter. Muhena’s sword was tight within her grip and my mace hung uselessly at my hip—if I was to do any more fighting against these bugs, I certainly wouldn’t need to use the weapon I was very proficient with. Against so many small enemies within close proximity of each other, my area of effects spells were far more useful.
In front of Muhena and I, smack dab in the middle of a large clearing, sat a humongous pile of dirt and stone—clearly unnaturally formed. Around the clearing stood the many beetles that had retreated from us and then some, and from the mound’s top crawled out even larger versions of the warrior-type beetles. Their bodies were easily over three meters long and almost half as tall. They scuttled forward in our direction with the intent to charge us.
Muhena and I looked at each other as the bugs approached, exchanging a silent conversation, smirks sprawled across our faces.
We turned and booked it, even casting spells to increase our speeds.
But, of course, it was not of fear. It was only a tactical retreat so that we could discuss the new situation in depth.
“You know what that means, right?” Muhena asked, still running.
“I…yeah…the queen…” I sputtered, struggling to keep up with her pace.
Muhena looked at me, laughed, then slowed way down.
“Although new to maces specifically, you’re so good with melee weaponry that I forget you’re a mage.” She admitted with a smile.
Her words brought me back in time for a moment, remembering how we nearly killed each other the first time we met. But it wasn’t the time for that.
“Well…don’t forget it again.” I grumbled. “This is far enough…right?”
Muhena shrugged before coming to a complete stop.
“I guess it is.”
She gave me some time to catch my breath.
“Anyway, yeah, those big warrior beetles mean that their queen is at least in its 4th stage. We can still wipe them out, but…”
“There are a lot more variables at play.” She finished my sentence.
“Indeed. To begin with, this will postpone our mission, but I don’t think that’ll be too bad. It’s not like we weren’t given a lot of discretion, and he never mentioned a time limit.”
“Agreed. It will be fine to put the mission on hold so that we can squash some bugs. Other problems: First, it might take us so long to get through the beetle armies that the queen escapes.”
I nodded. “But if we’re super careful, that won’t be a problem.”
“Second, are we going to capture the queen? That’s a lot of money.”
“Worst case scenario, we kill it. We don’t really need the money, nor do we have the necessary equipment.”
“Third, other beasts here will want to take advantage of the chaos to score some easy prey. They might even take us by surprise. And what if these beetles were keeping back an equally powerful group of beasts?”
“All good points, but…uh…”
“Fourth, the corpses of the regular beetles are also worth enough to spend the time to strip for resources.”
“That’s…” I began, unsure of how to respond. “You’re…right. It’d be way too wasteful to leave all the corpses intact.”
“And that’s why…” Muhena pursed her lips, with a face that said she was about to deliver bad news. “We should contact the Locice Guild.”
My body stiffened as I glared at her.
I stopped myself from finishing that word. It wasn’t a good thing to refuse Muhena’s idea so quickly—she must have thought it over more than I did. I gritted my teeth a little.
“D-do we have to? There are other guilds.”
Muhena winced, aware of my distaste for that particular organization and prepared for my response.
“But an insect colony of this scale would give others a reason to betray us…considering your infamy.”
“They worked for my family!” I countered, my fists clenching.
“Firstly, they were found to have not participated in the worst of it. Secondly, that’s why they won’t even dare to screw us over. They’re still loyal to you!”
I emptied my lungs through my nose in frustration and turned away from her. It was the same as before—she was right about it all, but my feelings on the matter clouded my judgement. The Locice scum had worked for my family since their organization’s first day, carrying out some of the not-so-bad dirty work, but crime, nonetheless. The only reasons they still existed included the fact that they didn’t have the chance to assist their lords before they were wiped out, and that more than four-fifths of their revenue came from legal dealings.
Reminding myself of those facts, I took in a deep breath, then faced Muhena once more.
“I’m sorry, and you’re correct. Taking my reputation into account, it’d be safest to use the Locice Guild. Not only will they not wish harm upon me, but they are known to carry out any job so long as they’re paid.” I noticed that I was still frowning, so I pinched my cheek, leaving a mark. “Plus, this whole situation with the beetles might just turn the public’s opinion in my favor.”
Seeing the change in my attitude, Muhena smiled, then placed her hand on the cheek I pinched.
“That is my main motivator. Since those top guilds have teamed up to strictly regulate the market of raw resources, the influx of cheap, decent-quality beetle chitin should make a lot of people very happy.”
We stood there for a while, with Muhena’s hand on my face feeling the smooth bone armor that resembled scales growing from parts of it.
I finally took her hand in my own with a half-smile, and grumbled, “Now, let’s go recruit those Locice bastards.”