Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ratonga and the Prowler

Here is the first part of a story about my latest EQ2 character, Samarya the Ratonga Monk. There is no MMORPG analysis here, and I've attempted to use Blogger's post truncation function to keep this from taking up too much space on the front page. If you're on the blog proper and actually want to read this thing, there should be a read more link below the second picture. If you're on an RSS reader, this monster just filled nine pages of your RSS feed, sorry about that. :)

Shout-outs go to Stargrace, whose contest inspired this story, and to Lessah and Samius of the DDO cocktail hour, for being an entertaining duo with a good pair of names to stick on two protagonists of a story.

The slums of Freeport
Samarya finished lashing the pad of hay onto the wooden pole, and stood back to examine her handiwork. The stick, now adorned with a crude pad and a helmet, vaguely resembled a target dummy. She smiled, and her whiskers twitched. It would be good enough for her.

“Hi-ya!” she shouted, lashing out with one arm and then striking the dummy again with the palm of her other paw. She spun her whole body around to give the dummy a good swift kick, but she had spun awkwardly, too fast, and so her tail whipped around and slapped her in the calf as she landed. She winced but stopped herself before she could cry out. A true master would never show pain. She took a step back to unleash a final attack. “Rising dragon kick HIII-YA!!!” she shouted, as she leapt toward the dummy with a flying kick.

Her foot had never touched the pad. At the last moment, someone struck her leg and she went flying, landing in a sprawl on the dirty warehouse floor. She slowly crouched and returned to her feet, dazed and wary, to see a strange old Dark Elf regarding her with a smug smirk on his face.

“Rising dragon technique?” he scoffed. “You aspire to be some pansy monk from Qeynos? Perhaps next you can profess your devotion to Mithaniel Marr.”

As it happened, much of Samarya’s desire to be an unarmed fighter came from a banned book she had found a year earlier, telling the tale of a heroic monk from the city of Antonia Bayle. However, she had quickly learned that admitting anything of the kind was a good way to get a beating, or at least spend the rest of the afternoon running from the Dreadguards of the Overlord.

Instead, she snapped, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a big deal!”

“Oh it’s fame you desire?” the Dark Elf chuckled. “Well, that day may arrive sooner than you expected, young Ratonga, if what they say on the Stonestair Byway is true. It is rumored that you have the best arm with a throwing knife amongst all the numerous vagabonds and urchins of Freeport.”

Samarya had been about to go for a throwing knife anyway, so she took the invitation. In a single smooth motion, she slipped a blade out from her bracers and flicked her wrist. With a dull thud, followed by a slight clank, the blade embedded itself in the wooden pole of her dummy with such force that the tip had pierced through the wood and been stopped by the back of the rusty metal helm. If the dummy had been a man, the knife would have been squarely between his eyes.

“A perfect Mantis Bolt toss,” the Dark Elf said, impressed, as his expression warmed up slightly. “It appears that there may be a proper Bruiser in there waiting to come out after all. Perhaps I might propose a mutually beneficial arrangement. My… performance troupe has just secured a lucrative appointment at the Wanderlust Fair, just outside Neriak. Unfortunately, our knife-tosser ended up on the wrong end of a bar brawl with a Sarnak. Unfortunate business for him, but lucky for you. If you will take his place, I will teach you the martial arts you seem so eager to learn.”

Samarya considered for only a moment before responding. “When do we leave?”

The Commonlands

The Dark Elf was known to his troupe as Master Jeriah. It seemed to Samarya to be a bit of an odd circus; many of the performers were, like herself, fresh recruits who had joined the company in Freeport to replace someone for one reason or another. The only exception was Arandak, the intimidating Iksar in charge of the animals. It was clear that Arandak and Master Jeriah went back a long way.

Unfortunately, their reputation did not precede them at the city gates. The Dreadguards did not believe that this ragtag band was a legitimate performance group, and demanded that several of the company demonstrate their skills. Samarya had to hit an apple at 30 yards with half a dozen guards scutinizing her closely to convince them that she was a legitimate knife-thrower, and it appeared that some bribes had still been necessary for the company to leave the city.

After the first day of the journey, though, Samarya was too tired, if satisfied, to complain. Master Jeriah lived up to his word, and she was forced to admit that she had learned more from a few days under his tutelage than she had been able to glean from a dozen fights she had observed at the Freeport docks. The hot sun was beginning to get to her, though, and the dust of the Commonlands had begun to mat itself into her fur. One evening, she pilfered a jug of Jum Jum cider and a chunk of cheese from the provisions cart and snuck off towards the makeshift animal enclosure to enjoy her spoils.

Each night, when the group made camp, the Arandak the Iksar animal handler would carefully trace a circle of runes in the dirt around the caravan before opening the cages and unleashing the other animals so they could roam freely within the runed enclosure. Lumbering elephants tromped around for a bit before settling down to sleep, while trained dogs frolicked off-leash, but Samarya was confident that she could dodge any of these animals, at least for long enough to escape the circle. She gingerly hopped over the runes, careful not to disturb them, and gave the sleeping elephants a wide berth, on the way to a spot hidden behind the cart.

No one knew exactly what lived in the cart, but Samarya had been watching the enclosure for a night or two now, and she’d never seen anything emerge from its depths. Meanwhile, more importantly, the cart was perfectly positioned for hiding her from any prying eyes in the camp.

She removed the stopper from the bottle of cider and took a sip. Nodding, satisfied, she set it down on the ground, and began to nibble on the hunk of cheese. That was when she heard the growl. She looked up and was horrified to see a giant blue cat with glowing eyes staring straight at her. It had come out of nowhere, completely silently, and it had her trapped – the cart was behind her, and the cat was between her and the other edge of the circle.

“Oh gods…” she squeaked “Nice kitty, please don’t eat me, please don’t eat me…”

The cat took a step closer, sniffed at her, and hissed, baring its teeth. Then it lunged forward and snapped its jaws. Samarya winced, closed her eyes and heard a sharp crunch. There was, however, no pain. After a moment, she heard a slurping sound. She cracked one eye open and then the other, and could not believe what she was seeing. The cat had snapped the top off of the jug of cider with a single bite, and was lapping up the liquid that was spilling out of the container. It looked at her and purred.

“Good kitty… cider tasty, Ratonga not so tasty…” she squeaked. The cat finished drinking the cider, snorted at her, and padded off into the night, back to the crate that it had emerged from so quietly.

The following days went by in a blur. After a long day of traveling, Master Jeriah would put her through a tough session of training. Though this left her exhausted, she would next help the cooks prepare dinner for the troupe. This chore was also tiresome, but it gave her ready access to the portable stove, and the camp’s crates of Jum Jums. The cooks no doubt thought that she was a real lush based on the amount of Jum Jum cider she brewed up each night, but they kept quiet in exchange for a share of the beverage. Finally, when things had quieted down in the camp, she would take the remainder of the cider – a bottle for herself and a bowl for her feline friend – and eat her dinner behind the carts with the giant cat.

The group picked up more performers outside the Crossroads, including a strange Dark Elf Dirge named Narilya. Samarya did not trust the newcomer, who seemed to be watching her every time she went out to visit the cat. One night, while Samarya was eating her dinner, the bard appeared out of the shadows.

“What’s her name?” Narilya asked abruptly.

“Who, the cat?” Samarya answered.

“Yeah, the cat,” said the Dark Elf. “If she’s going to be in the show, shouldn’t she at least have a stage name?”

Samarya thought about this for a minute. “You know, you’re right. I’ve seen the bills we’re posting, and none of them mention her. Maybe she doesn’t have a name.”

The bard was silent for a minute, considering this. “If this cat is to have a destiny, she will need a name. Perhaps you should give her one?”

“Me?” asked Samarya, puzzled by the entire conversation.

“I can’t imagine that she cares for her Iksar keeper”, Narilya replied, “So you’re probably the closest she’s got to a friend. What should her name be?”

Samarya looked down at the cat, who had finished lapping up her cider, was looked back up at her, expectantly. “Maybe Lessanna?” she suggested. “I had a Kerra friend named Lessanna once.”

The cat cocked her head at Samarya once, then purred and curled up into a ball to take a cat nap.

“Looks like the name fits,” said Narilya.

Samarya patted Lessanna on the head once and nodded, but, when she looked up, the bard was gone. She thought she might have seen Narilya heading out to the animal carts a day or so later, but somehow she and the bard never had the chance to speak about it again.

Darklight Woods

“Sabotage” was the rumor amongst the performers. The group had been nearing their destination, and had just passed the Wizard spire in Darklight Woods, when the axle on the cart that housed the animals had broken without warning. Word had it that a crucial iron bolt had been replaced with a perfect replica crafted from stained gold. All had appeared normal to the naked eye, but it was only a matter of time before the softer metal of the replacement had given way on the road.

The preparation that was needed to accomplish this switch – an experienced jeweler would have had to work the gold – showed that someone had planned this attack far in advance. Worse, Arandak the animal handler had been mauled by one of the animals while keeping them from escaping the damaged cart, and lay close to death.

Amidst the flurry of uncertainty and confusion, Samarya was very surprised when Master Jeriah sought her out and demanded to speak with her in private, immediately. As soon as they were out of earshot, he confronted her.

“The cooks say that you have been sneaking out at night to feed the Ulteran Prowler. Is this true? IS IT?!” he demanded.

Samarya, horrified, could only nod silently. Master Jeriah bowed his head for a minute, as if he was considering a very hard decision. Whatever he was pondering, it appeared that he had made up his mind by the time he finally looked back up at her.

“Your disobedience of the rules of this organization,” he began, “That the animals are not to be disturbed… has presented me with the solution to a dilemma. As you may have guessed, this is no mere circus. I am a smuggler, and that cat is my cargo. The Dark Bargainers of Neriak are paying me handsomely to see that it arrives safely in their city, and without attracting the attention of Freeport. Unfortunately, someone found us out.”

He shook his head, clearly angry at the situation. “I should have known not to trust that bard. She seemed too skilled to be looking for work in a hovel like the Crossroads. She must have been an agent of the Overlord. She’s gone now, but my men found her jewel crafting tools. I don’t know why she waited so long to strike – the Freeport militia dare not venture this close to Neriak to reclaim their prize – but her treachery has destroyed both our means of transporting our cargo and the one member of my crew who might have been able to wrangle that blasted cat.”

“But we’re close to the Wanderlust fair, aren’t we?” Samarya asked. “Can’t we just leave some guards here, do the show tonight, and come back to fix the cart in the morning?”

Jeriah shook his head. “Our instructions were very specific. The Dark Bargainers want the delivery to be made while the show is in progress. Freeport knows that we left town right around the time their cat went missing. If the cat turns up in Neriak in my caravan, things could get ugly. Qeynos and Kelethin have allied with some iceberg full of Coldain Dwarves that they’re calling “New Halas”. Barbarians have been flocking to the forsaken rock on nostalgia for the name alone, making it an instant power in Norrath. Neither Freeport nor Neriak can afford to have their alliance fall apart as our enemies grow more numerous. Unfortunately, without the cart to conceal her presence, the only way to make this delivery is for someone who can actually control that animal to deliver her, alone.”

“So you want me to take Less… the cat into Neriak?” Samarya asked. “Fine. You’ve done a lot for my training while we’ve been on the road, this is the least I can do for you.”

She looked over her mentor, and noticed something unusual. She could never tell what he was thinking, but, looking back at her at this moment, he looked almost sad. “Say, if this whole thing was a cover story, why did you put so much time into training me?”

Suddenly looking more his true age, Jeriah replied, “Once I was a young adventurer. You reminded me of how I was. You’re probably the one act in this sham of a circus that would actually have been worth seeing.”

“Well,” said Samarya with a smile, “maybe there’ll be another job that’ll let me make my big debut.”

“Maybe.” replied the Dark Elf. “Perhaps there will.”

His eyes said that he did not believe this.

Jeriah had ordered the circus to leave the ruined cart behind and move on to their destination, leaving Samarya hiding in the bushes with a saddle. After the group was out of sight, she emerged and undid the wards keeping the cart, with Lessanna inside, sealed shut. The Prowler looked angry at first, but promptly came out and settled down when she saw that it was her friend who had come to let her out.

Within a few minutes, Samarya had fitted Lessanna with the saddle and hopped on board for what she thought would be a peaceful ride down the road to Neriak. Lessanna apparently had other ideas. Free from a warded enclosure for the first time in who knows how long, the cat leapt into motion, faster than any mount that Samarya had ever seen. It was all she could do to stay on Lessanna’s back. They had arrived at the gates of Neriak faster than she had thought possible.

On Jeriah’s advice, she told the representative of the Dark Bargainers near the city entrance that she would have to bring the cat to their headquarters herself, because of the likelihood that Lessanna would bite anyone else who tried to lead her. The Dark Bargainer emissary was displeased by the change of plans – he had been expecting an Iksar with a cart – but he was equally unwilling to risk his own limbs on trying to take Lessanna away from her rider, so he waved the duo on through.

The two were riding over a narrow ledge across a giant chasm in the underground city, when Samarya heard a creepy laugh from above her. She looked up and saw a particularly deranged looking Arasai staring down at them.

“Sneaky kitty cat,” the Arasai sneered. “Lots of shiny dark cloaks out of her hide.”

“What are you talking about?!” exclaimed Samarya, simultaneously freaked out and angry.

“The Ulteran Prowler has stealthy magic,” the Arasai explained, with a giggle, “Lucan wants it, but now Neriak will know how it works. Maybe they will let me have a paw…”

Lessanna hissed threateningly at the fairy, and Samarya pulled out a throwing knife. “Get the heck away from us!” she shouted. The Arasai flittered away out of sight without another word, but Samarya was troubled. “They wouldn’t do that to you, Lessanna, would they?”

But she was worried, so she decided that she should investigate. Instead of marching in the front door as promised, she hopped off Lessanna's back and led her around the alleyways of Neriak, up to the the back of the Dark Bargainer headquarters. As the Arasai had said, Lessanna seemed a natural sneak, almost disappearing into the shadows without a word from Samarya; she herself would not have been able to spot the giant prowler, if she did not know where to look. This observation was cut short, though, when shouts broke out inside the building.

“Let me get this straight,” a furious Dark Elf was screaming at the emissary who had waved them through the gates earlier. “Jeriah promised that the cat would be delivered in a discreet cart so that, once we killed the Iksar, no one would know that we had it. Instead he makes a spectacle of having a Ratonga parade down the city streets on a cat three times bigger than it, because NO ONE was going to notice that, and you just waved them on through? And now they’re not even here?! WHERE ARE THEY? FIND THEM!!!”

Samarya’s heart caught in her throat. She could hardly believe what she had heard, but the evidence was clear. Jeriah had sent her to die, in an attempt to ensure that he would still get paid after the accident. She took off at a run, hoping to find someplace to hide, or perhaps a way out of the city. She ran through an archway and stopped short.

She had come to a dock, but there were no boats moored there and no tunnel to daylight. Instead, the only feature in the still waters of the cavern was a giant portal archway, glowing ominously with purple and black energy. She could not tell by looking at it whether the Sea Gate of Neriak was safe or where it would lead, and she was out of time.

Behind her, she heard shouts of guards running their way. She looked at Lessanna and said, “Run and hide, nice kitty. Maybe you can find a way to sneak out of here.” She turned towards the archway and assumed a fighting pose, ready to fend off the approaching guards. Suddenly, she felt hot breath on the back of her neck. The next thing she knew, Lessanna had picked her up by the collar of her tunic.

“What are you doing, you crazy cat?!” she squeaked in shock. That was all she was able to get out before, with a mighty leap, Lessanna plunged into the dark, icy water.

To be continued....


Yeebo said...

Good job, I'm not surprised you were in the top five.

Tora said...

I want to have whiskers too!

Great story! Thank you!