By any other name.
The last Summoner lets out a screech of agony as it falls to its knees, blue sparks jetting out as it starts to lose control of its powers.
"Get down!" I yell to my companion, running for cover as a few more sparks shoot out from the summoner's dying body.
She looks up, and her eyes widen, her longsword pausing momentarily as she lets out a quiet curse and runs for cover. The Minion she was fighting looks momentarily confused as it watches her retreating back, unaware of the danger building behind it.
The Summoner explodes; electrocuting the Minion Briar Rose had been fighting mere moments ago, and scorching the ground around it. Its charred husk falls stiffly to the ground, and the sickening smell of cooking meat fills my nostrils.
"Were you trying to get me killed, just then?" Briar Rose asks angrily, as I jog over to make sure she's unharmed.
She's leaning up against a tree, her sword held loosely in her right hand, while her left holds her right side. I can see small rivulets of red escaping from between her fingers and trickling down under the waistband of her leather pants.
She notices my gaze and tries to stand up straighter, sucking in a sharp breath as she does. "Well?"
"No," I reply quietly. "I just didn't realise you had your back turned to me." I notice with concern that her hand and side is now covered with blood. "Are you okay? Did that Minion slip in a strike as you were running?"
I reach out a hand to try to get a better look at the wound, but she bats it away and takes a few slow steps towards the lighthouse.
"A creature like that? No. This little scratch is a present from that exploding Summoner of yours. The force of the explosion threw me into that tree. Unfortunately my sword was in between me and it." She tries to sheath her sword, but the action causes her to hiss in pain.
I sheathe my own blade and move to help her, wrestling the sword easily out of her grasp all the while ignoring her protests for me to stop. "Quit being so stubborn and hand me your scabbard," I order.
Her eyes glint in defiance for a brief second before she sighs and moves her right hand to undo the buckle at her chest. After struggling with it one-handed for a few seconds, she manages to slip it free and hands it to me.
"Well, at least it looks like the Fire Heart is still working," she comments, looking up at the lighthouse. "Hopefully that ship of yours will arrive soon, so you can make your way to the Northern Wastes, and we can end this thing."
I wipe her blade free from blood and gore on my undershirt and slip it easily into her scabbard. "Do you want to be rid of me that badly?" I ask, looping the scabbard loosely over my shoulder.
The corner of her mouth twitches. "Oh, I'm sorry; did I hurt your feelings?"
It's funny; I never would have imagined that I'd be able to fight beside, and joke with her like this. She'd always been a rather snotty, well, bitch before. It was only really after that incident in Darkwood that she'd started being civil to me. Although I suppose by that stage I'd started to become a little more well-known too.
"Okay," she says, breaking my musings, "as pleasant as this is, I'm still bleeding, so I'm going to go and procure some medical supplies. That ship can't be too far off, so you just wait here until it comes. Activate the Cullis gate once you get there, and I'll follow you to Snowspire."
She turns and starts walking away, and I take a few quick strides to catch up with her. She looks at me quizzically but keeps walking towards the village. "I'm pretty sure the boat will be appearing near the coast. And if I'm not mistaken the coast is back the other way; I don't need babysitting, Paladin."
"I know you don't. But you're injured, and I'm not just going laze around on the beach while I wait for the ship," I explain. "Once your wounds are tended to, I'll leave you alone."
She studies me wordlessly out of the corner of her eye, and I feel somewhat nervous under her scrutiny.
We approach Hook Coast's General store and I try the door. It's locked tight. I frown. I suppose I could break the door down, but I'd really rather not damage it if possible. I hear the creak of leather behind me, and glance over my shoulder at Briar Rose, who is fishing what looks like a small pouch from her utility belt.
She throws it to me, and I find a set of small tools inside. I look up at her in confusion.
She looks at me blankly. "Lock-picking tools."
I nod dismissively. "Yes, I can see that. But I don't know how to pick locks."
Briar Rose shoots me a tired frown. "Well, you're going to have to learn. I need two hands to do this, and one of them is busy holding my innards in. So if you really wouldn't mind…"
I take out two of the tools under Briar Rose's guidance and set about picking the lock. She tries to explain what I need to do, and I try to follow her instructions. It's delicate work, which I've never been particularly good at; I'm much more a slash and run kinda guy.
I hear her shift her weight and glance at her out of the corner of my eye. I can see her face starting to lose its colour, and her jaw clenching—I need to hurry this up. Just as I'm on the verge of giving up, and smashing the damned thing open, I hear a soft snick, and tentatively try the doorknob.
I've never been so glad to open a door before.
"Took you long enough," Briar Rose taunts, although her acerbic wit is a little duller than usual. She calmly pushes past me and walks into the store, and I try to ignore the little red droplets marking her path.
"Medical supplies, medical supplies…"
Briar Rose starts hunting around on one of the display shelves as I make my way to owner's living area; preparing the small fireplace and attempting to light the kindling with a pair of flint stones.
"You know, we should probably leave some money for the shop owner since we're using his stock."
Briar Rose scoffs as she walks over towards me, a box of supplies under her left arm. "Why? We risk our lives for these people and their homes. I think it's a small price for them to pay." She drops the box and settles herself gingerly on the wooden floor, her back leaning up against the foot of a nearby armchair. "If it weren't for us, this place'd be destroyed – along with the rest of his precious stock."
"That's true, I guess," I mutter. "But that's what the Guild reward is for, isn't it? To pay us for our services." I get up to fetch two pots of water and a few clean strips of cloth.
Briar Rose looks at me with tempered patience. "Yes it is, but you really don't get it, do you? Not only do we get our supplies for free, but the owner will profit out of our little visit."
"How do you figure that?" I ask, setting one pot over the fire.
"I'm pretty famous, wouldn't you agree?"
I nod and settle myself next to Briar Rose, slipping both swords, my quiver and longbow over my shoulders and onto the floor beside me with a clatter.
'Pretty famous' would be an understatement; Briar Rose had been one of my idols when I was in the academy. Only a few years my senior, she had managed to make quite the name for herself in the few short years she had been named a fully-fledged hero. Mostly for her superb skill with that longsword of hers, and partly because she was young and not particularly unattractive. She was often a favourite subject of conversation among the boys, and a few girls, my age.
She unclips her utility belt and drapes it over the arm of the chair she's leaning against, being careful not to stretch out too much and disturb her wound.
"Well, knowing the interest that we heroes generate, this storeowner will probably start boasting that his store and supplies saved the lives of Paladin and Briar Rose after they were ambushed by some otherworldly creatures. The bloodstains will be a selling point." She tugs off her scarf and sighs. "I'm sure there'll be some embellished story to go along with it. All in all it'll make him a tidy profit."
I glance at her cynically. "I'm sure they wouldn't go that far."
She lets out an amused huff. "It continues to amaze me how utterly naïve you are, Paladin."
I make a non-committal grunt, consoling my wounded pride at the thought that Briar Rose thinks me a complete moron. I slip off my gauntlets and my plated chest piece, so that I'm left in my light tunic. If anything else attacks right now, I'll just have to resign myself to being more vulnerable; I need mobility to do this sort of work.
I give my hands a good wash and busy myself laying out some of the supplies I'll need to patch Briar Rose up.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?"
I look up to see her studying me in concern.
"Preparing the supplies," I supply. I study her armour. "You're going to have to get that chest piece out of the way if I'm going to clean that wound."
She looks at the warm basin of water and the cloth in my hands. "Since when did we decide that you'd be the one treating me?"
"I did, as soon as I noticed you'd been injured," I supply. "It's pretty hard to stitch yourself up; you're better off letting me do it."
She seemed to consider it for a moment before resigning herself to logic. "Fine. I'm assuming you've had experience treating wounds before?" I look at her in disbelief, and she explains herself. "I mean in a way that won't leave me with a scar the size of Albion."
I can't help but be taken by surprise by that. "You're worried I'll do a messy job and leave you disfigured?"
Briar Rose looks a little unsettled. "Exactly how vain do you think I am? I'm a hero, Paladin, not a bloody courtesan. I have my share of scars. I'd just rather not be left with a messy one if we can avoid it. Those things cause problems down the track."
I spread a sheet on the floor and throw a pillow down next to it.
"I'm no medic, but I've had enough experience stitching up my own small cuts. Now lie down."
She studies me for a few moments, before grumbling her displeasure and starting to unfasten the straps that hold her leather chest piece to her pants. It really is quite an unconventional set of armour – leaving her stomach, sides, lower back, and shoulders bare. Where my armour is made for ultimate protection; hers is made for increased agility. Where I use my brute strength to overpower opponents; she uses her speed and reflexes to generate explosive power.
She catches me studying her, and frowns. "What?" she asks irritably.
"Nothing," I mutter, "just thinking about your armour. It's a bit risky, isn't it? Leaving yourself exposed like that?"
She seems placated by that answer, and she lies down on the sheet, easing the now free chest piece up her abdomen. "Not if you don't get hit. I'm good enough that I don't let strikes slip through my guard like that." She points to her side. "This is a rare occurrence."
As more blood-covered skin is revealed to me, I am suddenly rudely reminded of how attractive she is.
I busy myself with a few clean cloths, warm water and some medicinal alcohol to restore my focus. Briar Rose studies me, but says nothing.
"Now then, move your hand out of the way so I can see what we're dealing with."
Briar Rose hesitates for a moment before easing her hand away from her side. "It's really not that bad," she states. "Just a flesh wound."
Her hand is slightly sticky, as is the now congealing blood around the wound. She's right – it is a flesh wound from the looks of things. I gently test the edges of it, trying to see just how deep it is. To Briar Rose's credit, she doesn't even flinch as I examine how deeply it goes. I frown; it looks fairly deep, but it doesn't seem to have damaged anything more than skin and muscle.
"So, your expert opinion, master physician?"
I ignore the jibe. "Superficial cut, clean edges. Looks like the bleeding has cleared it of any dirt. We'll give it a quick clean, close the edges of it, and you should be right to go."
She nods and I dip the first of the cloth strips in slightly warmed water. Her entire side is covered in sticky red, and it seems as if my poking around has opened the wound up again. I start cleaning the blood that has migrated down near the waistband of her pants, slowly working my way up towards the actual wound itself. The water gradually starts to take on a pink hue with each rinse out.
"You know, you don't have to be so gentle about it, Paladin. I'd rather this was over and done with." She looks vaguely annoyed. I suppose she knows that the worst part is yet to come. "Though I am rather surprised," she continues, "who'd have thought a big brute like yourself could even manage to be gentle."
Once again, my ego prickles from the glancing wound it has just received. I press a little more firmly over the wound, and I feel her stomach muscles tense in objection.
"Oh, I'm sorry; it must be those brutish instincts of mine," I mutter gruffly.
She laughs forcefully, winces and continues chuckling more subduedly. "That's more like it! I was wondering when you'd finally bite back. I was beginning to think you were a pushover!"
I grunt in reply and set the bloody cloth and water aside, picking up a small cup of clean water and pouring it over and into the wound itself. I mop up as much of the run-off as I can, but I can see the sheet underneath starting to turn a light shade of pink.
The medical alcohol comes next, along with a few clean strips of cloth. I dampen the cloth slightly and wipe around the edges of the wound—being very careful to avoid getting it in the wound itself.
I hesitate when I come to the next step, my hands momentarily stilling as I reach for the glossy suture thread and a thick needle.
Briar Rose props herself up on her elbows, a wry grin on her face.
"Come on, I'd rather this was over and done with already. If you had left me to do it, I'd be finishing up by now."
"Right." I pause. "Do you want a stiff drink before we start?"
She raises an eyebrow. "You want to get me drunk?"
My thoughts start to wander down more… pleasant avenues, and I clear my throat to force them away.
"Well, yeah," I reply, and feel a small thrill of satisfaction as I see the other eyebrow raise in surprise. "It'll help with the pain."
She scoffs. "No thanks. The last thing I need is to be blind drunk if any more of those blasted Summoners arrive. This wound will be enough of a hindrance."
I frown. "I'll take care of them if it—"
"Oh, really? So you're going to protect both the Fire Heart and drunk and wounded hero while fighting multiple enemies? You're good, Paladin, but you're not that good."
My frown deepens as reality slaps me in the face; she's probably right.
"Look, I'll be fine without it, so hurry up and started!"
I nod and threaded it through a thick eye in the needle, pushing Briar Rose back onto her back.
"Lie still," I order, "otherwise this needle will end up in your guts."
"How poetic," she remarks, but obeys my request anyway.
I try to steady my hand as it hovers over the edge of the wound. I suddenly have a newfound respect for surgeons. Although I suppose it's different when you're working on someone you know.
I push the hooked needle forward, feeling that awful resistance as it hit skin, and then slips easily through the softer layers of flesh underneath. The tip of the hook then hits resistance again as it passes through the opposite side of the wound and bursts through the skin. Briar Rose sucks in a sharp breath and her eyebrows lower in a pained frown. This is the worst part about receiving wounds, since the skin around the edges is ten times more painful than normal.
I try to hurry so that it's over with, but I want to make sure that it's done properly. Briar Rose is probably almost reaching her limit anyway. I pass the needle through one more time and make a fine knot in the end of the wound.
"Done," I mutter, cutting off the remaining length of thread. As long as this thread isn't too old, it should gradually dissolve over a few weeks.
"Thank Avo," she mutters tiredly. She strains to sit up a bit, craning her neck to see my work. "Hmm, not bad," she says.
"As I said: I've had practice," I reply as I grab a length of cloth and prompt her to stand.
She moves a little stiffly, but manages to get to her feet, still unable to fully straighten up. I grab the strips of cloth and turn her to face me, still kneeling for convenience sake. As it is, I'm nearly as tall as her on my knees. Without saying anything, she lifts her top up, and I begin fastening the strips around her stomach to keep it clean, and to give her some support. She is strangely quiet during the whole thing, until I secure the edges to the bandage.
"Thank you," she says quietly. "You do come in handy sometimes."
I sigh in exasperation. "Why, thank you," I reply dryly, packing up my mess quickly.
I watch out of the corner of my eye as she slowly walks over to the alcohol display and picks out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.
"Hey, what are you doing? I thought you said you didn't want any."
She turns to me with a wry grin. "That was before I was skewered with needle and thread." She walks back towards me and settles herself back down on the ground. "Besides, it's not like you're going to be able to have much to drink over the next few weeks anyway. Let's just call it your going away party."
I finish tidying up and let out a small laugh. "I'm not sure it can be called a party with just the two of us here." I lower myself down to sit opposite Briar Rose against the other armchair.
She pours out a few small amounts in the glasses and hands me one. "Depends on the company. I'd much rather spend time with a small group of people I like, than a hall-full of people I don't," she sighs.
I don't question her on if that means that she likes me.
"That sounds like you're talking from experience," I observe.
She shoots me a piercing look and sculls her drink. "You could say that," she says darkly.
I decide not to press the matter. That response was weightier than I was expecting. "I see," I say awkward.
Briar Rose snorts as she pours herself another two fingers of whiskey. "That's your response? No follow-up questions?"
I down my drink and she offers the bottle to me, pouring me out another.
"It didn't seem like you wanted to talk about it."
She swirls her drink around as she considers my response.
"More like I'm just not used to talking about it," she replies. "Your past is a well discussed fact – mine is speculated about."
I nod. "There are a lot of rumours about you. It's a popular topic, actually," I reply.
"Oh? What's the most popular, then? I don't really follow all that rubbish," she asks, intrigued.
"The most popular rumour? About your past?"
She nods, and I consider my response.
"Well, that would have to be the one where you're the daughter of a wealthy noble family from Bowerstone North, who discovers she has the traits of a hero, but her family objects to her joining the Guild. According to rumour, you ran away from your family, and joined the Guild on your own. Of course it's much more elaborate than that, and the story sometimes varies in that you had a young lover who was a part of the Guild who you ran away with."
She has a small look of surprise on her face, which quickly morphs into a wry smile.
"Well, I must admit, some of that is based in truth. Though it is much more romanticised than the reality."
"Oh?" I reply.
She pauses and jabs a finger at me. "Are you going to do that again? Enough with the ambiguous answers. If you want to know something, ask me."
I frown, even though I am curious, it kinda pisses me off that she assumes I'm that nosy.
"Well, would you answer me if I did ask?"
She smiles devilishly. "Only one way to find out."
I shake my head and take a sip of my new drink. "Okay, then, what is the truth behind the infamous Briar Rose's mysterious past?" I ask.
She pauses for an instant, indecision wavering on her face. I panic, and wave a hand dismissively.
"Look, if you really don't want—"
"If I did tell you… could you assure me that it wouldn't leave this room?" she asks directly. "I've only told a few people, and I'd appreciate if you kept it to yourself."
I nodded. "But why tell me? You know you don't have to?"
She shrugs and takes another sip of her drink. "It feels like the right thing to do. I know your past, but you don't know mine. If we're going to work together it makes sense if you know me a little better." She laughs genuinely. "And contrary to popular opinion I'm not completely antisocial."
I can understand that. She's very blunt, not particularly tolerant, and really quite prickly if you don't know her. But she seems rather pleasant now.
"So? What's your story?" I finally ask.
She fixes her eyes on her glass. "Similar to the rumours. I come from an influential and wealthy family. When I was eleven my physical aptitude started to make itself apparent, and it became clear I had the ability to become a hero, my parents decided it would damage the family reputation to have a daughter with brutish abilities, so they disowned me, and threw me out on the streets. The Guildmaster found me and took me in." She knocked back the last of her drink. "And here we are."
In a way my story seems less cruel. At least I know my parents tried everything they could to save me. Briar Rose was betrayed by the people who should have loved her more than anything.
"I'm sorry," I mutter. I don't really know what else to say to that. What do you say to something like that?
She shrugs. "It's not like it's your fault."
"I know, but it still mustn't have been easy."
She sets the glass down on the floor. "No, but it made me who I am today. I can't complain about that."
I finish off my drink and put it down next to me. "No, I suppose you can't." I consider my next question. "Do you hold it against them?"
Briar Rose looks up. "Who? My parents? All the time. I don't think that will ever fade." Strangely enough she says it without any malice. "They took my choices away from me, and they discarded me."
"Have they ever tried to get in contact with you?" I ask.
She laughs again. "I tell you it's okay to ask me a few questions, and now I feel like this is an inquisition. But they have. Not long after I started completing a few quests, they sent a letter to the Guild. They said they wanted to see me again." She paused and reached for the bottle again. "I burnt the letter."
I snatch the bottle away from her. "Too much and you really will be blind drunk, not to mention it will slow healing."
"Hmm. Speaking of which, don't you have the ability to heal?" she asks, though I think she might want to change topics.
I shake my head. "I'm not very good at using will, and I've only bothered learning offensive spells."
She curses and lets her head drop back against the armchair. "You and me both. I really need to rectify that when I get back to the Guild."
I hide a smile. I think Briar Rose is the only person I've ever heard use 'rectify' after two drinks.
We sit there in silence for a few seconds, before a question forms on my lips, unbidden.
"Why did you tell me about your past, Briar Rose?"
She looks up at me before dropping her head back on the armchair.
"Because you're an okay guy, because you know what the whole hero gig is about and because we're going to be working together." She looks back up again. "Need any more reasons?"
I shake my head. "So, we're friends?"
She doesn't move. "If that's what you want to call it."
We sit in silence for a bit longer. It's just comfortable sitting here with the fire gently crackling, and the warmth of the whiskey spreading though our bodies.
"You know, you'd really better get a move on for Snowspire," Briar Rose prompts.
"The longer you sit here, the more likely another round of Summoners will arrive," she points out.
"Then get going." She struggles to stand up, coming over to collect the rest of her belongings, and fastening them to herself gingerly. "Have you got supplies?"
I almost groan in disappointment as I get to my feet and set about putting my armour and weapons back on.
"Not yet. I was planning on stocking up here."
She nods and starts rummaging around in the store. I can see her packing dried meats, fruits and a few baked goods.
"It takes about three weeks to get there, so you'll need that plus some just in case you lose it. And it's probably a good idea to take a line as well. That way you can catch fish."
I finish strapping my scabbard to my chest and pull on my gloves. When I get to the storefront I see a few boxes of food all ready for me. I hide a smile as I spy a small amount of gold just near the register.
"Thanks," I mutter, as I survey her choices. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'll head back to the Guild and start poking around to see what I can find out about the Northern Wastes. Once you get there, activate the Cullis gate and I'll come assist you."
I nod and pick up a few of the crates, balancing them with one arm. Briar Rose smiles at me as she reaches for her Guild seal. "Bon voyage, Paladin. See you on the other side. Try not to get too seasick on your way there," she says, and is then gone as she warps back to the Guild.
I pick up another few crates as I head out towards the dock. It's going to be a long three weeks… but at least now I have something to look forward to on the other side.