Chapter Five: Birds die for grain
They sat around their fires, eating food that might have as well been ash. Each adventurer made sure to keep their weapons at their sides as well as maintain a measure of space between themselves and their fellows. Only the closest of comrades would stick together, and when they did, they watched everything around them like hawks. They did not do so out of privacy but caution. Too many of them were high strung and tense, and all it took was a rustle, a flutter or footfall before swords were unsheathed. Nothing could be done about it.
Dungeon delving was dangerous. That much was to be expected, but even if you ignored the danger, it was still a high-pressure situation. Then, of course, there was the killing and dying. The stress and trauma it imposed were known to break people. Luckily, they were adventurers. In much the same way garbage collectors often got so used to the smells they encountered they practically became oblivious to it, adventurers also adapted to their circumstances, at least for the most part. There remained a high turnover even when you discounted the deaths. It was not a profession for the weak of heart and swathes of hopefuls washed out regularly when they discovered they could not get a handle on the life. The adventurers camped outside Brandr’s dungeon were made of stern stuff. Even the challenges he threw at them were only enough to fray and frazzle their nerves.
More than one fight had broken out, and far too many adventurers could be found sullen and quiet, sitting off by themselves glancing ever so often at the mouth of the dungeon. Usually, they had ways of dealing with stress. There was a reason why adventurers were nearly synonymous with bawdy inns and taverns or why their guild halls were known to serve copious amounts of food and alcohol. Warm food, strong drink, good sex and warm beds meant a lot to people in their profession. Life was short, and they knew that better than most. Best enjoy the moments in between. Not here, though. All they had was tasteless game and cold bedrolls. Imagine dragging yourself out of the jaws of perdition, weary and burdened by your injuries and the memories of those you had lost. Now imagine doing so with nothing to look forward to on the other side but a thin bedroll and cold unseasoned game. It was neither good for their health nor their morale. Something had to change.
“Hey?” someone yelled. “The Bears are back!”
Everyone looked up at that, turning to see for themselves. This was cutting close in the truest sense. While it was easy to lose track of time in a dungeon, anyone with sense would leave before dusk even if only to rest, heal and resupply. Night’s cloak had long covered the sky, and despite Utir’s rumoured strength, many already believed him, and his bears lost to the dungeon. They would neither be the first party never to return nor the last.
As if rubbing their survival in the faces of their naysayers, Utir’s Bears swaggered into the camp, their leader, the big bearded brute known as Utir, at their helm. Ironically, the man himself had taken his own helm off, allowing everyone to see the shit eating grin on his face. However, that was not what caught the eyes of the onlookers. Everyone did a double take when they took in his state. Utir had come sans armour. This was a right shock to everyone as the man practically slept in his gargantuan suit of darkened steel. It did not help that what remained of his undergarments was torn and covered in blood or that his left arm was in a sling.
Utir was without question one of the most experienced and most powerful adventurers among them, and his party were not called The Bears without reason.
“Argoth!” Utir yelled, calling to his son.
“Yes, Da!” the youth answered excitedly.
“These people are curious, why not tell them the good news”, the man said. His son had no trouble doing what he had been told.
“WE KILLED THE ARMOURED BEAR!” Argoth yelled, loud enough that his words carried throughout the camp.
The bustle his claim raised made his smile widen till it mirrored his old man’s. Heads poked out of tents, and a few more curious adventurers made their way over to congratulate Utir’s Bears and hear tale of their feat firsthand.
Utir laughed, patting his chest with his good arm as he took in the praise. This was the scene he pictured in his head the moment he heard that the second boss was a bear — Utir’s Bears beating the bear dungeon boss. It was so fitting it seemed fated. It was just too bad that they were not the first to do so. They would have to settle for being the first to do so under their own power. Geoffrey’s party did not count. Everyone knew the Warden carried them through the dungeon and even then they lost a party member. That fact made Utir exercise caution. He knew bears, but there was no telling if the bears in this dungeon would be anything like the ones back home. Heavens knew nothing else was. So, he took his time. They challenged it several times to learn its habits and style, always retreating before things got too intense until finally, they cracked it.
He watched his son strut around in his new gauntlets, to the amazement and envy of the watching adventurers. Argoth showed off their enchantment by picking up a giant boulder and holding it over his head.
Gauwyn watched the commotion from the lip of his tent. Gauntlets that elevated the wearer’s strength to D-grade. His job had just become that much harder. It made him wish the dungeon would quit with the surprises. A first glance, the gauntlets were inferior to the breastplate that could summon a magical overlapping armour for five seconds, but that was subjective. Sure the monetary worth was higher, but the gauntlets had the power to change the game.
D-grade was a watershed. It signified entry to the journeyman tier. G-grade for initiates. E and F for beginners. D and C for journeymen. B and A for masters. That’s how it went. The breastplate was a valuable piece of equipment, but it was something adventurers were likely to sell. Those gauntlets would more directly affect their power. For those adventurers who lacked secret arts and ways to ascend the ranks, it was a godsend.
Already, the Warden could see some adventurers courting members of Utir’s party trying to glean the method for beating the second-floor boss. He found himself hoping that they would stand firm, but in his mind’s eye, he could already see the outcome. A lot more adventurers would challenge the armoured bear in the coming days, and a lot more would die. It was not that they did not know the risk. They would brave them anyway for a chance to ascend the ranks.
How did the saying go? Birds die for grain.
Not even the combined efforts of the farmer’s traps, bows, scarecrows, dogs and farmhands could keep hungry crows off his crop. He could kill as many as he liked, but others would feast. Any efforts Gauwyn made to stop the adventurers would be just as effective. He was not even the farmer in this scenario, just an older crow. Who was he to deny the adventurers grain?