Quest 6: Who Are You?
A man glanced around the barren landscape, glaring through squinted eyes at the setting sun on the distant horizon, the faint grey of the stone ceiling high above him only barely visible past the distant wisps of white that passed for clouds, and everything in between as if it was the source of some perceived insult to his character. This metaphor was probably a little more accurate than it should have been, considering the adventurer and self-proclaimed Hero of the day was none other than Ascheritt Myrion, infamous worldwide, or at least as much of the world as he had covered in his travels, primarily for his unrivaled egotism and terrible personality.
Turning his indignant glare to the faint traces of a stain on his black glove, he withdrew a rag and a gourd of water, freshly filled with the droplets along the outside having not evaporated quite yet, and quickly scrubbed at the stain, applying a few droplets of precious water to his cloth. “Tch, what a waste. Being forced to spend my limited resources in this worthless desert is only slightly less distasteful than having the blood of that ingrate staining my gauntlet.” Satisfied for the moment, he rung out the rag and sneered at the now useless liquid as it soaked into the sand and vanished. “Dictate my actions, now will they? HAH!” He tossed the strap of his water gourd over his shoulder to hang next to the cloth-covered zweihänder that already rested there and gesticulated in a rather grandiose manner as he ranted to the air. “Presumptuous fool of a 'king'!” He made the title sound more like a curse than an honor. “A Hero like me isn't some mindless vassal to order about! And to have the gall to attempt to pass on and enforce his blockheaded mandates on me through nothing more than a common guard! Ridiculous!”
Ascheritt stormed through the dull brown of his surroundings towards a distant speck of black he could see protruding from the earth, not out of any real curiosity, for his mood was far too poor to commence his Heroic duties by starting an investigation at the moment. His next grand adventure could wait a few hours while he relaxed, certainly, and if a few people, perhaps a certain pretender with a nonexistent throne and some of his minions, were disadvantaged by his lack of action... well Ascheritt wouldn't be too upset in that case.
The source of his current ire, as could be deduced from his frustrated ranting, could be most certainly found back at the main encampment surrounding a small oasis of colour in the barren landscape, dubbed 'Mirage' by whatever undoubtedly incompetent and creatively bankrupt minion had initially stumbled ignorantly into the sanctuary, probably not even noticing it until they fell straight in, knowing the types of grunts that could be found setting up a perimeter there. Ascheritt sneered in a decidedly nasty manner and marched onward, recalling his rather brief stay at the watering hole.
As the Hero, it was obviously both his right to acquire water and supplies whenever he needed them, and their duty to allow him to do so. Of course once he started his first adventure in this new land he would be more than well-off enough to pay whatever peasant was in charge of what passed for a general store in any towns they founded or came across for their wares, though of course he wouldn't stand for overcharging, naturally. However, as things now stood, they possessed no economy to speak of, so such trinkets as money would be useless as barter was the word of the day. Ascheritt was not unfamiliar with such situations, and so naturally he acted with peerless logic and sense when he informed the soldiers securing the oasis of his status as the Hero and all that entailed. In fact, since he was feeling magnanimous and he liked to exercise his infinite patience from time to time – it was a virtue after all, something any Hero has in great supply – he also explained to them the good sense of allowing him to resupply so that he could be properly prepared when the call to adventure inevitably found him, and he was required to save them from whatever monster or villain rose to be defeated by him this time.
He should have known, of course, that such elegant words were wasted on meatheads like them, and he did, naturally, but it wouldn't do for a Hero to be confused with a common thief, so he explained anyway, more for the benefit of anyone of at least some intelligence who might have been in the vicinity than anything else. That did not make the subsequent interruption of his resource acquisition and the attempt to detain him from the guard captain on duty any more forgivable. Luckily for them, as previously mentioned, Ascheritt was feeling magnanimous at the time. After all, he had, against all odds, successfully been magically transported to a majestic castle in the sky; a new domain, simply waiting for a Hero to come answering the call to adventure to reveal its wondrous and/or dark secrets and create a grand epic that would have history books millennia in the future praising his name. Since he was in such high spirits, and after all, they were simple grunts, not worth mentioning, he left his sword where it hung on his back and incapacitated any who dared attack his person. If his methods were somewhat humiliating, like say tripping up a charging guard and slamming him face-first into the oasis, well, their sheer ignorance and arrogance in daring to presume they could pose a threat to him was quickly dampening his spirits. When the imbecile that served as commander of the lot on duty finally made to strike at him, Ascheritt was certainly quite a bit more out-of-sorts than he had been initially, and so if the man received a broken nose as punishment and a reminder to remember his place, well, it was no more than he deserved really.
Checking over his glove, which had unfortunately been sullied with the blood of an idiot due to being Ascheritt's instrument-of-choice in the aforementioned nose-breaking, for the tenth time since he had cleaned it and nodding approvingly when he saw that the damp spot from his scrubbing had finally vanished and taken the stain with it. It was only natural of course. Water was the best removal method for blood. Anyone of any intellectual standing knew that, so of course such a fact was obvious to a hero of his caliber, but he still gained satisfaction from a job well done.
Brushing a bit of dust off his tattered coat and in better spirits than earlier, though not quite up to the same good mood he had been in upon awakening that morning, he turned to inspect the black object he had walked to as the sun slowly disappeared below the lip of the castle floor. Before him, a crooked black husk of what might once have been a tree stood hunched over, the only landmark in sight as the light dimmed over the deserted floor. Shrugging, he walked the last few meters to the ancient plant corpse and brushed some sand off of a protruding root with his boot, an expression of mild distaste on his face at dealing with such a dirty terrain.
Before he could sit, he heard a gentle scrabbling noise echoing from within the black trunk a few feet away and his keen eyes caught a flicker of movement within a hole in the bark. Kneeling silently, he fluidly withdrew a small hunter's knife from his boot and twirled it languidly through the air, projecting an air of relaxed disinterest in the world around him, but focusing his eyes on the small opening in the trunk before him. The head of a small lizard, or some equivalent life-form, poked its head out of the crevice and looked around, beady eyes meeting the smug grin of Ascheritt as the hilt of his knife fell back into his hand with a soft 'thunk'. He lunged forward before the lizard could finish processing the danger it was in.
The fire crackled merrily before the Hero's seat on his chosen root as the pitch black of the castle night finished settling over the land. It had been child's play to use the desiccated branches of the ancient tree to set up his fire and get it alight, and use his knife to prepare and cook the small lizard he had found living in the tree. He recognized the species only vaguely, not recalling its name – useless information for him – but easily calling to mind proper preparation methods and important information like the nutritious nature of the tail when properly prepared, which granted a temporary boost in strength.
Not one to pass up a free advantage, he had flawlessly cooked the tail and slipped it into a small vial in his pouch to be stored for the proper moment of need, which, of course, would inevitably find him. After all, such a bounty had been simply waiting in his path to be found, so clearly the valuable tail would come in handy when his adventures began in earnest. That was simply how a Hero's life worked, though he made a mental note to keep an eye out for the lizard's kin, which surely inhabited this floor and perhaps other areas of the castle as well. He was a Hero, not a hunter, and would not demean himself that way, but if he happened to come across more... well, he was proud, not stupid, and at the very least they would be valuable bounties to sell off once a proper economy started in this forsaken wasteland.
As he finally finished off the last of his meal – he hadn't seen any need to hurry himself and had taken his time with the small dinner – he heard the crunch of sand underfoot and harsh, chattering voices approaching from the darkness to his left, the side facing away from the tree. Narrowing his eyes, though not bothering to look toward the approaching creatures, he smoothly cleaned his knife blade and stowed the tool/weapon out of sight within his boot once more. It was always good to have a trump card. Shifting himself so he lounged arrogantly with his back against the trunk, laying with one leg extended down the root carelessly and one boot in the sand next to his fire, facing the noises that were quickly coming closer. It gave him a suitably regal air, and conveniently placed his cloth-covered blade, which was leaning against the tree as well, within reach of his hand and his boot next to the fire in case hostilities broke out and the enemies were rude enough to try to stop him from drawing his sword. People and monsters alike tended to get distracted when flaming sticks and embers flew at their eyes, after all.
Soon enough, the source of the mysterious chattering came into sight, in the form of three hunched figures that approached hesitantly at first, but grew bolder as they drew closer, seeing that the man by the fire wasn't moving to interfere with their steady advance. Drawing into the circle of light provided the fire, their features fell into stark relief, revealing sharp, angular faces colored in earthy hues of green and brown, discolored by the dust and sand. Their attire was ragged, their frames thin, and their hunched, hungry demeanor most unsightly in the eyes of the Hero they had dared to approach. Nevertheless, he hardly even looked at them, even as they began to slowly encircle him, clutching various makeshift weapons in their scrawny hands. The leftmost of the three carried a small, jagged blade, while his counterpart on the right flank wielded a large wooden stake, leveled at the man beneath the tree in a thoroughly sloppy fashion. The Hero spat under his breath as this second figure deigned to step into his view. The demi-human's posture was all wrong, with all its mass shifted so far forward it was a wonder the pathetic creature didn't simply fall flat at his feet, as it ought to have.
The third figure, though, at least seemed to have some potential. Clad in a red cape, and wielding what looked to be an actual bronze sword, it carried itself in a much more upright manner. The Hero sneered, giving a slight chuckle to himself. The little thing even had an eyepatch! Part of him wanted to commend the unsightly creature for its effort to actually uphold its image as a bit part villain. Even so, it was still a poor showing, but he supposed this stage would have to suffice as entertainment to go with his dinner.
"'Wake, are 'ye?" Hissed the middle goblin, presenting several lopsided fangs in a mirthless sneer. "Lucky 'oo." The creature's voice was hoarse and raspy, as though it had been spending the past day inhaling the sand that filled the desert around them en masse. "Spares me da trubble o' wakin' ya. Ya seez, me an' my boiz here 'been walkin' since da sun come up, and we ain't been gettin' nowhere. So now we'z tired. Tired... an' hungry." The creature grinned, pointing the tip of its sword at the fire and the visible evidence of a meal of meat having been prepared. The Hero sneered back. It thought it could take what was rightfully his, did it? Adorable.
"Hoooh~" Ascheritt made a small noise that somehow managed to convey immense amusement and absolute disdain all in one as an insufferably smug and predadory grin slid across his face. "It's not everyday one gets a trio of hunchbacked sub-humans as evening entertainment, I suppose. If you're here for food, then, I wonder how your begging holds up." He completely neglected to inform the creatures that he stared down upon that he had already eaten the only food in camp. Maybe if they were suitably amusing to toy with, he would give them the scraps that were inedible for him. "Perhaps you know a good dance? It's been a while since I've met a competent minstrel, so I'm sure my standards have dropped at least a little."
"SHUDDAP, redblood!" Snarled the goblin with the knife, looming ever closer in the firelight in a manner that suggested it actually thought it could intimidate him, Ascheritt Myrion, while being a three foot tall hunchback with a bent cooking utensil. The idea was almost ridiculous enough that he could overlook the insult. Almost. "Da boss don't beg for nothin' from nobody, least of all you! Now then, we tellz ya how this workz. Hyu givez us dinner, and we don' make ya into it!"
Amusement vanished in an instant from Ascheritt's face as a stick in the fire snapped with a crack that made the imbecile posing as a spear-creature start in surprise. "Well, well, insects with an attitude. I suppose that could be considered entertaining in its own right, but if you presume to insult me with such impotent threats, that takes the humor out of the situation quite quickly, now doesn't it?" He sneered down at the goblins before him with an expression that made absolutely no attempt to conceal that he was now considering them as prey instead of potential playthings. He focused his gaze finally on the garishly clad leader of the group. "Your minion's presumption is grounds enough for me to take my time separating your limbs from the rest of your body, but if you throw yourself in the dirt and lick my boots at once, perhaps I'll stop at disembowling your underlings and only mildly cripple you in reparation for his foolishness." He glared down at the three creatures, tone holding an immense weight of threat. "Well?"
The Goblins drew back in surprise, seeming not to have anticipated the possibility of their target not even considering them a threat. Nevertheless, they remained confident in their positions surrounding him, and in the advantage of numbers, and after a few moments of quietly chittering to each other, held their places. The Hero breathed a heavy, disgusted sigh. As usual, these lesser beings' intelligence - or lack thereof - continued to disappoint him. He supposed he'd just have to take his time in dissassembling each of the three miscreants before him, so that he could be sure that they'd understand the full extent of their foolishness prior to exsanguinating into the sand. But, before he could make a move to do such, he became aware of something, as an instinctive sense of wrongness came over the small camp beneath the tree. The Goblins seemed to sense it too, as they didn't even try to stop him from rising to his feet immediately and reclaiming his sword, their attention wholly focused on... his right shoulder? No, something above it, rather. He realized this just in time to be relatively unsurprised by the sudden peal of laughter that resounded from directly beside and behind him - a gentle, and yet somehow cruel-sounding giggle that held no outward malice, but rather, simply seemed somehow wrong, given the current context.
"So, you've chosen to kill them, then?" Asked a curious voice as a small figure seemed to materialize in the firelight, its - or rather, her - tiny frame seeming to perch weightlessly upon his shoulder. The strange girl's red eyes peered at him at an odd angle as she cocked her head, spreading two batlike black wings proportionate in size to her own miniscule frame as she lifted off of where she'd alighted and floated casually into the air.
This fourth being was, at a glance, the tiniest of all those who were assembled around the fire. And, given the rather diminuitive stature of his would-be assailants, that was saying something. Given her current proportions, with a somewhat oversized, rounded head perched atop narrow shoulders and a wiry thin torso, and possessing stumpy limbs seeming only haphazardly designed to look vaguely humanoid, without offering any attention to detail in the process, she looked less like a living being and more like some kind of construct or doll of some sort. And yet she'd spoken, so she was clearly alive. Either that, or simply the puppet of the best ventriloquist he'd seen in his time.
The girl laughed again, giving a shrug with her tiny arms. "I suppose I should not be surprised. In such a situation as this, the most practical solution is to simply dispose of one's attackers," She observed, floating casually behind the Hero's head and around onto his other shoulder. "Although, who knows what the consequences of such an act might be? It might spell full blown war between the Goblin tribes and the other Humans who've appeared on this floor. If I recall correctly, they forged an alliance of some sort or another, did they not? I doubt the other Goblins would be happy to find that an interloper had killed some of their own. They would demand reparation, and when it was not granted, surely, they would seek blood," She observed casually, strolling out along the span of his shoulder before stepping off into thin air. Idly, he noticed that the Goblins hadn't moved so much as a muscle since this girl had appeared, seeming too transfixed in apparent horror to either speak or act, as though they feared they would be killed in an instant should they do so.
"Hah! Do not presume to speak down to me, creature!" The Goblins seemed to be screaming to him in silent horror, imploring him not to speak so brazenly to... whatever this floating girl-thing was, but he ignored their fright completely. Heroes did not fear anything, least of all beings 1/7th their own height. "If those scum take issue with my justified punishment of these criminals and rise against the humans, then I shall make ending that war and avenging their unrighteous acts of aggression the beginning of my adventure in this new land!" Actually, that idea didn't sound half-bad. He might even be able to uncover some conspiracy guiding the goblins' actions that would lead him further into the Castle and closer to whatever ultimate evil lay in wait at the top to be vanquished by his hand.
"So all who commit acts of evil will be punished, and all who are innocent will be saved, hmm~?" The demonic-looking girl asked, her voice disturbingly sweet, as though praising the Hero for his noble aspirations in the same way a parent might commend a very, very young child. "But can you really protect everyone?" She asked pointedly, speaking in a thouroughly innocent tone as she began to walk across thin air, strolling back around the Hero, and once more into his direct line of sight. "To Humans, is not war of any sort most strongly defined by those who die because of it?" She continued, before giving another idle shrug, as though such things did not concern her. "But then again, what would I, Luquiere, know of such a silly thing as what you call death?" She gave another quiet, shrill laugh, and stopped her floating circle around the Hero's head directly in front of his face, giving an elegant aerial curtsey to complete her impromptu self-introduction.
Ascheritt snorted, seeming amused by the little being's attempt at condescention, and schooled his body language to give the appearance of looking down at her despite the fact that she stubbornly floated at an even height, which he supposed he could forgive, since this was at least the first intelligent conversation he had had since his arrival. "Nonsense. If a Hero saved everyone, the people would soon forget the need for such a person and scorn his aide. Humans are nothing if not foolishly and obstinately forgetful of even the most important facets of their bleak existence." He waved dismissively at her, seeming to think the very idea of her arguments were ridiculous. "No, a Hero's duty is to stop those who commit evil, and bring a just punishment down upon them! If innocents can be saved in the process, all the better, for then they can face the reality of their helplessness and truly understand the accomplishments of their saviour, but only a fool would run himself ragged trying to save every being who suffers. It would only lead to his own self-descruction and leave the world without a defender of right to smite the forces of darkness."
The tiny Demoness gave an unreadable expression, her miniscule shoulders seeming to slump slightly as she uttered a quiet sigh. "So you do good and punish evil simply for your own personal fulfillment," She observed, reading between the lines of what he had said. "A life of the utmost selfishness, wearing a guise of utter selflessness? I suppose it is fitting that such hypocrisy should weigh so heavy upon the shoulders of one who would become a paragon of strength for all men to admire. In that regard, Humans are oh so predictable." Although it had seemed at first as though the Demoness was trying to tempt him, to poke holes in his moral code and lure him away from the path of the Hero, this particular comment didn't seem like a declaration of triumph, or even the traditional claim that "you're not so different from me." Rather, she simply seemed... vaguely disappointed. Turning, she strolled casually back across the empty air separating them, resuming her earlier perch on his shoulder.
Ascheritt's eyes narrowed dangerously and he looked for a moment as though he was considering striking the small thing out of the air, which he, naturally, was, for it had spoken a grave insult. "It would be wise, whatever you are, to pay better attention to the person you are addressing such that you do not take away such grevious misunderstandings from my speech." He began to gesticulate dramatically to emphasize his speech once more. "That which I desire and the path of a Hero are one and the same. I do not act simply for my own amusement, with justice being a mere cooincidence. Such a man would be no better than swine! What amuses me and what actions I take are naturally the same as what is just, as it should be for a Hero! The path of the Hero is not an indulgence of whims or flight of fancy! It is a responsibility that can only be borne by the greatest among men, and I have taken that weight upon myself willingly. Not for any reward, but for its own sake! The fame and prestige that I will one day gain are merely a natural result of the process I have set out to complete, not a goal that I chase across this land!"
"So that is why you remain so fixated on punishing the few, even though the many may suffer for it," The Demoness, Luquiere, gave another quiet laugh. "I had thought you a mere charlatan, but it seems that your desire for justice, at least, is genuine." Shrugging, she sat upon his shoulder, looking up to see what choice he would make. "So?" She inquired curiously. "If you plan on killing them, then go ahead. I wonder, will the burden of the lives lost in the future be a worthwhile price to pay for seeing justice done now?"
Ascheritt smirked, brimming with confidence bordering on arrogance. "Naturally! A Hero cannot allow injustices to go unpunished when he has the power to do so or else he would be nothing but a hypocrite. The burden of lives lost because of the pursuit of justice is a weight I shall proudly bear until I can extract the appropriate penance from those who would presume to cut them down!" He smiled coldly down at the goblins before him, Luquiere seeming content with her perch on his shoulder. "Now then, where were we?"
His smug assurance, however, swiftly turned to outrage as his eyes were met not with the three cowering bandits, soon to be punished, but rather with a cloud of sand kicked up in their wake as they fled wildly into the darkness of the night, screaming about vigilante madmen and tiny Daemons who hungered for blood. Luquiere blinked, watching as they disappeared into the shadows, until even her keen senses could follow them no more.
"Who would have guessed," She said innocently, although her voice contained a hint of sarcastic mirth that she couldn't quite conceal, despite her best efforts. "Apparently, evildoers are unwilling to simply stand and accept their death at a Hero's hands."
Moments after her comment, she found herself floating where there had once been a shoulder as Ascheritt whirled on her in a cold fury. "I possess working ears, 'Tiny Demon', so spare me your attempt at wit. This breach of justice lies entirely on your undersized head!" He angrily stomped out the fire and slung his sword across his back for travel once more. "Absolutely unacceptable." Whirling back around and fixing the flying thing that was the target of his ire with an icy glare, he addressed it once more. "For obstructing my work here, you must also face punishment." He considered for a moment. "However, since I find myself growing bored, and you have provided me with the only thing approaching decent conversation since my arrival here, I think it would be best if I am at least somewhat merciful." Nodding emphatically in agreement with himself he pointed straight at the flying doll-girl who was observing him curiously. "Henceforth, until such a time as I see fit to absolve you of your guilt, you shall serve as my assistant in hunting the forces of darkness that are sure to lurk within this Castle!"
Luquiere gave a slight smirk, seeming rather amused by the Hero's outrage. More than just that, even as he who advocated the swift delivery of justice above all else claimed that she herself was guilty in his eyes, she hardly batted an eye, seeming unconcerned with the danger he presented, although she never once attempted to retaliate. And, surprisingly, when he made his declaration that she would have to serve as his assistant, she did not offer even the slightest protest, in spite of her obvious pride, which, although much more understated, may well have been a match for Ascheritt's own. Whatever her reasoning, she merely crossed her arms casually, seeming amused. "To think that I should see the day that I, Luquiere, became an ally of justice. I suppose I should thank you, Hero. Few of your kind have ever shown me much more courtesy than simply refusing to kill me outright." She gave a wry smile, seeming to be comparing the Hero before her with others in her mind before at last, she settled upon a final verdict.
"How interesting," She murmured, almost more toward herself than to the Hero, nodding with approval. "You may prove worthy of such lofty ideals, indeed." Deciding thus, she adressed her unexpected new traveling companion. "Very well. I shall follow you and see where this path will take you, then. But where do you intend to begin this hunt of yours, Hero?" Indeed, located in the middle of a vast wasteland in the dead of night, there were few obvious paths that would take them in the direction of wrongs to be righted.
Spinning slowly in place, Ascheritt scanned the horizon with a critical eye, before seeming to finally find what he was looking for. Grandly pointing in the direction of the edge of the Castle, where stars glimmered in the distant night sky, he seemed to be singling out one star in particular - though which one of the hundreds available was anyone's guess. "There! We shall let the light of that star guide us through the night! Now that I have a suitable assistant, it is time to begin this next great adventure!" So saying, he marched with somewhat comical determination into the darkness, leaving the old broken tree and the fading embers of his fire behind.
Shrugging to herself, Luquiere spread her wings and floated aimlessly off after him. As they journeyed off into the night, something seemed to occur to the Demoness, who hovered alongside the wandering Hero. "Although your enthusiasm is commendable, I was under the impression that Humans were required by their biology to regularly pass out, hallucinate vividly, and then discard their memories of the entire experience as preparation for any major undertaking. Is this not the case?" She asked.
"Bah!" Ascheritt waved derisively over his shoulder. "Justice never sleeps, and as a Hero, the pursuit of justice is my sworn duty!"
"Ah, yes, we were talking about justice, weren't we?" Noted Luquiere, deciding to resume their earlier conversation to pass the time. As she must have realized, this was all the prompting Ascheritt needed to launch into yet another speech about his ideals, to which the curious Demoness listened with interest. His search for evil to vanquish was only just beginning, but her search for those possessed of extraordinary convictions had apparently already yielded most promising results...
Normal people are the easiest to manipulate. Too smart and they have an annoying tendency to catch wind of your plans, too dumb and, in the words of a certain pirate, "You can never tell when they are about to do something incredibly...stupid."