Dretch slunk through the shadows of the ruined city. Occasionally he found a victim, but most times he ran from those who’d find him the prey. He was getting hungry…he wasn’t sure how much longer he could control himself, remain invisible.
The city was gray and brown, rubble and garbage and piles of food mixed with excrement alongside makeshift houses and shops of wood, cardboard and rusty metal. Rough looking men with tattoos and piercings were beating the blood out of each other at every street corner is seemed. Others stood around, noticeably ill, some vomiting. Dretch longed to escape, almost as much as he wanted a full meal.
He tried to make his way south, towards where the electric lines ran. There must be something there, some civilized settlement where people didn’t live in their own filth. Somewhere he could eat in peace.
Finally, making his furtive way through the peaks and troughs of chewed up asphalt and concrete, skirting small bands of hoodlums and squads of uniformed soldiers, Dretch came to the wall. Here there was less trash, and more guards. They didn’t bother him, he…had a way with peoples’ minds, they just preferred to not admit that they’d seen him.
Inside the settlement, he found several of the soldiers disarmed and with their hands in the air, as prisoners. Apparently at least someone was in control here, although it looked like it might be only a more organized breed of hoodlum at least they were maintaining some sort of peace.
Dretch quietly snuck out of sight, unnoticed by anyone, and found a nice fresh piece of clean meat and settled down in a dimly lit spot behind a dumpster in an alley to consume his meal. Satisfied once more, he slowly faded out of sight and into sleep. He always found it was best to sleep while invisible, in case some ruffian came to disturb him.
On Fesiun, in the Bresugese city of Bonsol, a new bounty hunter posted himself for hire. Though he was not Bresugse by descent, but rather a native Achewbre, he knew he was going to have a tough start. That was why he had come to this profession in the first place: he couldn’t get hired anywhere else. Now he had a second child on the way, and his funds were running low, and he needed a break.
So it was that Kurose came from a small village down the coast to a youth spent as a sailor, but nowadays the seas were so dangerous that only a few brave or desperate captains sailed. It would certainly end up more dangerous as a bounty hunter, but Kurose couldn’t sail a ship by himself.
Once, when he’d had his fortune read at a carnival, the old crone across from him had claimed to have seen a pleasant sight. A slow river meandered casually across a meadow, with mountain peaks rising in the distance. A place of serenity. It was far from where he was now.
Ranks of mercenaries had set up behind every available stretch of cover. Lasers and projectiles zipped past, explosions crackled, dust rained down in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict. Kurose made his way as best he could. All he had to was keep an eye out for particular enemies, and dispatch them, or see them dispatched. This last part was crucial; it allowed a lot of interpretation.
Still, it was very difficult to find safety in the zone.
He’d walked through the medic chamber one day, for some reason, and stood as one of the people was writhing in pain. The man, he couldn’t tell if he was a soldier now that he wore hospital clothes, he was tossing and turning, evidently in great distress. Kurose didn’t ask. He was shocked. The experience was just unsettling in a way he couldn’t define, a deep sense of injustice and wrongdoing. How could it be that people could come to bring each other to this condition? What could have done this?
Not the robot that tended to them, ironically. This was a humanoid droid with a variety of sensors that was busy monitoring the patients and administering aid in a quick, methodical, tireless manner. Though it didn’t show feeling of any sort and wasn’t intended to, and its actions were purely the result of programming, it still succeeded in the actual act of healing people.
Outside again, the air yellow with dust and sun. Great domes of the city beyond rose into the clouds while below the battle raged on, endless. Aware that he must do as he was paid to, Kurose again entered the battlefield.
After a brief excursion where he hunkered down beside some burly gunners he was sure were orcs he found that he couldn’t see any evidence of his targets, so he made his way to the nearest ‘safe’ location, a huge building that was part casino, part bar, and hotel. There might have been other parts too, Kurose was never sure because he never went down some of the halls because of the people that loitered near them. Soon he was seated at a private table downing a cool refreshing glass of juice. Another day of pay, risking his life, but it was better than nothing.
Mossbark stood and stretched. Before him the valley peaks were sheathed in morning mists; the back of a monk’s robe rose and fall with his breathing as he too looked out at the scene. Other monks came and went, some talking and excited, some slow peaceful.
Mossbark had been a page, but hadn’t been very good at it, and had committed a rather serious sin while employed. The local priest had of course intervened, and the young man had been shipped off to the monastery to be taught a lesson. At times he longed for his childhood home in Doronede, where he’d lived in the rooms above a busy inn, listening in on the talk of the sailors and merchants below. It was during this time that he’d befriended a faery, a ratty sort that spent a lot of time on ships and ended up stealing all of his gold at one point.
Then had come that whole night when she had nearly killed him, and then in turned saved him from certain death moments later…it had been quite a youth. For the most part, days at the monastery were a god-send, literally. There was peace here, and he was expected to focus on bettering himself, and the scenery was amazing. He still got stiff joints whenever it rained, and he was young for that, but that was another problem.
When he’d arrived, the head monk had divined his fortune using a sacred method known only to himself, and then laughed at the answer.
A peasant woman baking bread.
Then they both laughed, but then they were serious. After all, maybe it was a sign of a calm family to come? Of a good woman, working in the kitchen and bringing food to her family? Mossbark had never thought of himself as a father, or husband, until then. As a monk, of course, such things were forbidden; but his stay here was temporary, so the future could look as bright as he liked.
One day he had found a tiny green statue down by a stream that ran down by the monastery’s watermill. Mossbark couldn’t quite make out what it was, but when he touched it, his entire vision faded to white. When he awoke again, he found the world much as he left it. At least, it seemed to be so.
The first thing he noticed was that he now had a much different body…that of a sort of hulking bear-like humanoid with brown fur. The others around him had similar fur, and no one else seemed to find this odd. Even the head monks were bears. He noticed then too that the architecture was somewhat more fanciful, with more curls than necessary, and the air had a certain vivid glow to it. He couldn’t guess at what had happened, or how he had got a bundle of odd sticks into his pocket. Something very strange was going on, and he felt tremendously uneasy.
He followed along as though he were still a monk, and no one noticed him out of place. Soon he was led to a small temple, one of several shrines in the complex. It was similar to the one he knew, but much more complex, and the markings were done in a motif that featured bear claws set with turquoise against red painted wood with golden inlay. He entered the cool darkness within.
Inside bear-monks sat meditating on a hardwood floor, utterly peaceful in the tranquil dim.
Mossbark padded softly through. Not time for him to meditate, not yet. First he had to figure out a little more about where he was at.
One important thing he noticed was that this monastery had no walls, and he was free to come and go as he pleased, which he soon did. Taking a path leading east, he soon came to an amazingly breathtaking spot where an emerald waterfall cascaded down into a tranquil stream that passed under a gracefully arched bridge. The stream and waterfall were decorated with mossy boulders; the bridge was decorated with elaborate woodwork. Mossbark went and sat on the ground at the base of the falls, watching cat sized frogs and dog sized turtles splash in and out of the water. Above him a vividly green pine branched its needles for shade; beyond the cliffs wore mottled sunset shadows. Behind him the shrine stood on a hill against a peach sky under a brilliant white sun slowly dipping to cottony evening clouds.
He made his rest that night in a small cave occupied by two other monks and a collection of scrolls and other divine texts. The air inside the cave was tangibly sacred, and sleeping in it was a spiritual nourishment that he’d never have guessed could exist.