He huddled beneath a stray vine branch, leaning out slightly to see around the foliage that covered most of his body, with a cluster of unripe fairy grapes hanging just above his head. A haunted shadow dimmed his huge eyes, and his wide lips were working in agitation.
Ceria moved forward carefully, until she reached four paces or so from him. When he looked ready to bolt, she sat down on her heels to be more level with him.
“Is anyone hurt here?” she asked gently.
It may seem strange for an adventurer to approach a monster and ask if things are alright, but gnomes are an exception. They don’t fight anyone who doesn’t mess with their fields. Really, the only thing that makes them ‘monsters’ is biology. If they weren’t so reclusive, they would easily integrate into civilized society. Most adventurers treat them like any other villager, even doing business with them.
“Y… you girls watch out, you hear?” he stammered, still looking ready to run. “We see your fire last night. Maybe… maybe they looking for you.”
I approached and stopped near Ceria. “Who attacked you?”
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“Big ones… and a really mean one in charge. Maybe a demon. Maybe. Don’t know. They took… most everyone. Took ’em away prisoner. Yes, not many of us left. Too few left.”
I glanced at Bruna and down to Ceria. The two nodded back to me, silently confirming that his claim disturbed them as well. Something that could kill gnomes was one thing, but an enemy that could take them captive was a frightening thought.
I know that those garden gnome statues on Earth make it seem like I am exaggerating horribly, but the real things are not those jolly little Santa Claus wannabes in pointed red hats. Gnomes are tiny, but they are no pushovers. Frankly, they can put up quite a fight. They usually have plenty of magic to rely on, and in a melee they are tough little critters physically as well.
So I’ve heard. Tiana never had a chance to see it, but there were plenty of observations in the Royal Knights records of gnome villages defending themselves.
So I wanted to know what could have him so spooked. “Sir, if you can give us some of your time, we would like to learn more about these enemies. Perhaps we can help recover the missing…”
The gnome grew worried on top of being frightened. He shoo his head in agitation. “No… no… no!! You girls! You don’t try to fight them! No, you girls run away! Quick as you can, you run away, you hear?”
He disappeared behind the vines. Letting out an exasperated sound, I dashed to his last position hoping to spot him behind the foliage, but he was gone. Springing into the air, I beat my wings hard to get enough altitude to look down on the field, but he was nowhere to be seen.
I returned to the ground, still frustrated, and put my wings away. Bruna had her arms folded, deep in thought, and Ceria was standing back up. She spoke up first.
“He was too scared to tell us anything, but he gathered up his courage enough to come warn us. I suppose we should be thankful.”
Bruna nodded. “Well, we already know that ‘big ones’ included at least one troll, and the ‘really mean one’ could have been that demon people have reported.”
I asked her, “What kind of demon do people think it is? Have you heard any descriptions?” I hadn’t been able to hear anything concrete, but I’d had few opportunities to ask. Arken had never had a decent look at him, and couldn’t tell me.
“People have talked about a Drude, but too aggressive and powerful, or a Fiend, but too small. Nobody agrees.”
“We should get moving,” Ceria said. “We know what happened here, so we should hurry up and find your friends and get them away from here.”
I hesitated. I had a pretty good idea how much I could expect out of Ceria, but Bruna would get gradually worse and eventually overwhelm the bracelet, as her stable mana ran low.
Noticing my glances and guessing my thoughts, Bruna asked, “How’m I doing?”
I took a careful look at her body and frowned. “The miasma is still decreasing, but the speed is slowing down. It might take us a full day to make it to the surface, so we need to be careful about pushing it.”
“Let’s go, then,” Bruna said, and started walking… in the direction of the locator stone signals. Ceria followed.
I hurried to catch up. “Listen, I can probably defend us if we run into something big, but I need you two to do things my way. I don’t want to be the sole survivor.”
Ceria looked annoyed. “So you assume you would be the survivor?”
But her sister said, “She’s probably right, Sis.”
Ceria was looking over at her, puzzled, as we exited the fields and entered the open meadow. Bruna looked over at me. “You said something earlier about when you were a squire. You really are a fairy knight, aren’t you?”
I scowled at her, then put my attention back on where I was walking. “The fact that I am being doubted is a little annoying, you two. Yes. I am a real knight. Although I suppose I’m a bit disappointing compared to most fairy knights. I was only knighted six months ago, and I’m quite young.”
A little self conscious, I answered, “I’ll be sixteen in a couple months.”
“What? You’re younger than me?” Bruna retorted. “No way!”
“I had to at least be younger than you!” I retorted.
“What? I’m only eighteen!”
“What? Seriously?” I’d imagined her only a year or two younger than Robert. I guess I wasn’t the only one who looked mature for her age.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Ceria’s the only old lady here.”
“How rude! I am not old!”
Bruna leaned closer and said in a stage whisper, “She’s twenty eight.”
“I’m twenty two, b***h!”
The amazon burst out laughing at her sister’s retort.
Ceria muttered to herself, “Twenty eight? Mom would have been like, twelve!”
Unlike Bruna and I, Ceria looked way younger than her age. I thought she was the younger sister, actually. These two just kept on surprising me.
Bruna added, “Look, I get that you’re strong and you don’t really need our help, but we can take care of ourselves.”
“You,” I said pointedly. “I know you have body strengthening magic because I’ve seen you use it. Don’t. Rely only on your muscles. Your stable mana will last longer that way. And you,” I looked across Bruna to Ceria, “Your number one priority is defending your sister and yourself. Don’t waste your magic on things I can do. Conserve it.”
“So we don’t defend you? We just abandon you? That would look bad for us, back at the jobs office.”
“It would look worse for me, if I returned without the girls to whom I currently owe a half crown.”
“You owe a full crown, Lady,” Bruna answered with a grin. “That amulet, remember?”
I gave a short laugh. “Yeah.”
They seemed to be okay with my instructions, so it was fine. Except for the part about how every inch of me was screaming that we should be turning around and going back right now to fetch more help.
Their willingness to move forward, plus my concern about the traitor adventurers who had double-crossed Ryuu’s party, kept me from putting my foot down. If we went back with the news of how far we had made it, the enemy would likely organize an effort to prevent a larger team from returning.
Going forward now was the only option, despite my misgivings. I frowned and set my sights on the distant locator stone signature, somewhere beyond the woods ahead of us.