Dedicated to the dungeoneering crew. You know who you are.
Also TVTropes. Bless your millions of little hearts, you timesink.
Chapter 1, Fall-Forged Friends
If one discounted the ogres, the Branded, the devourers and other assorted nasties, today was a pleasant day in Blazeridge Steppes. Certainly, somewhere – multiple somewheres – there were people fighting for their lives, but at this one particular point in the middle of nowhere, there was no fighting yet.
There was only an asura scrambling up a tree.
A cool wind blew through the autumnal landscape, rustling the ever yellow and red leaves around Tivi as she worked her way upwards. It was easier now that she had gotten past the first part of the climb. Now there were more branches that even an asura could easily reach. She did not have to dig her claws into the bark to heave herself higher, but could actually plop down on a thick branch and enjoy the view.
Through the dancing leaves she could see the vast landscape dressed in warm oranges and rocky brown. Even the Brand looked beautiful at this distance, just a dark purple river floating past behind the rolling hills on the horizon.
No, "rolling" was when it was all soft curves, wasn't it? This was more like heaving, with the smooth hills suddenly cut off in rough edges by rock. Or was there a better word than "heaving"? It didn't sound very nice. She considered it for a minute, then realized what she was doing. Rubbing her forehead, she sighed at her own incorrigible mind.
More than once in her life, Tivi had witnessed her teachers – and later superiors – sigh in exasperation and throw up their hands. The phrase "cannot see the equation for all the numbers" had haunted her since childhood. Normally people did not mean such a thing literally, but when it came to Tivi, it was heartfelt.
When doing alchemy, she ended up getting distracted by arranging the bottles by size and the color of the contents. When working on a golem, she would stop and consider how the shape of a foot or arm piece might be better designed. And so on and so forth.
"… up there?"
This behavior would not frustrate other asura if she had done these things for the sake of creating a better system or improve output. No, what drove them up the wall was because she did it for style. Those bottles were not arranged from most useful to least, or in an order based on the contents' pH value, or any such thing. Tivi arranged things according to what she thought looked the nicest.
"You're not dreadful," one ofher former, favorite teachers had commented once. "You just incapable of sorting out the superfluous details from the significant particulars."
Once she got out in the world, Tivi had learned that among norn and humans, she might have been considered artistic. Might being the key word, if she had been actually good enough to create anything that would be considered art. Sadly she was an asura and so had no training in such things – and even so, neither painting nor sculpting actually interested her.
But again, again, she had yet to find anybody who cared more about how a golem looked than how well it worked. Finding herself likewise unable to find a krewe where she fit in, she had just thrown up her own hands and decided to wander around until she figured out what to do with her life. There were so many travelers and would-be heroes running about these days that nobody back home even raised an eyebrow at this plan.
Nobody could accuse her of being easily distraught, at least. Case to point, her current situation. She might be hopelessly lost in the Blazeridge Steppes, but it sure was beautiful. Even this tree was neatly situated, near the edge of a small canyon. She had chosen it mostly because it stood on higher ground than other nearby trees, but… well, she could admit to herself that she liked the picturesque scene of that lone tree near the abyss.
"… don't see any…"
Even to her sensibilities, calling it an abyss was probably stretching it. It could not be that deep.
She was getting distracted again. Realizing this she shook herself out of her thoughts and grabbed a nearby, higher branch to keep her balance as she stood up and resumed her climb.
If she continued much further up than this, the branches would start to get thinner. Tivi set sight on a spot where the leaves opened up in front of a safely thick branch, where she would be able to get a better view and get her bearings straight. She made it over there and crawled as far out as she dared. Satisfied with her position she pulled out her crystal map reader and set it in the Y-shape where the branch split.
"… kidding me?"
She punched in the commands on the console panel, and the small, hexagon shaped device came to life with a series of soft beeps. The map of what was supposedly the closest area appeared on it in a flash of blue. Tivi narrowed her eyes at it, then looked up and around to check for landmarks. She had already suspected that the built in pedometer was malfunctioning, and this confirmed it. But now she could adjust the map to her current whereabouts, and then climb down, make repairs and…
… and that was a strange orange spot far below, standing out against the dark rock. Tivi glanced away from the console to see what it was, expecting to see a patch of grass growing on the cliff side or something.
As soon as she looked, she realized that she had scooted out on a branch reaching out over the canyon. It took a second for her eyes to refocus, longer than usual because the surprising height sent her heart right up into her trachea – a silly figure of speech, that, the heart didn't really have a way up th…
A voice in the back of her head hollered at her that something very important was going on, and she needed to focus for once. She blinked, and caught up on the fact that the spot that had caught her eye was actually a charr, or rather what could be seen of his fur between all his leather armor.
He stared up at her as if between the two of them, she was the one of inferior intelligence.
Tivi found this look very rude, until her mind – working on its own for survival's sake, apparently – broadened its view and informed her that there were other things to take note of. Such as the fact that the charr was actually standing inside a crude but tall enclosure of iron.
More importantly, outside of that enclosure were about a dozen humans, giving her the same look as the charr.
Tivi might not be that good at grasping the bigger picture, but she was not stupid. A group of humans – and only humans – in this area, wearing simple armor without an emblem in sight, who kept a charr prisoner…
With a yelp Tivi recoiled, forgetting where she was. The branch was not nearly wide enough to save her from that kind of foolishness, and she fell.
The landscape blurred around her and yet everything seemed to slow down, stretching out in an excruciating journey toward nothing. Her life flared past, family and friends and frustrations and good times and…
With a rough jolt and swinging sensation her world disappeared in a warm darkness, and she heard a grunt. She gasped in shock, and instantly her nose filled with a lovely scent her dazed brain could not quite process. Death was, apparently, weird.
She pried an eye open and gazed up to find the charr's face inches from her own. He had caught her fall, saving her from becoming an asura pancake at his feet.
His fur had a deep orange color cut through with dark stripes, surely serving him well if he needed to conceal himself in this fire-colored land. Yellow golden eyes set low beneath thick brows and dark horns stretching back and what nicely sharp teeth…
… and for a split second Tivi had the weirdest mental image of him kissing her. Before the shock of that could vault into horror, the charr dropped her like an overheated platinum alloy. She bounced on the ground, hearing the separatists erupt into roars of laughter. The sound droned in her ears as if she had heard it through water.
Her heart hammered in her chest from the last ten second's conga line of shocks, and she needed a few moments to calm down. The ground felt wonderful beneath her. She dug her fingers into the grass, ignoring the logic of it all and just glad to feel steady and safe.
Alright, "safe" was definitely not cutting it in any sense of the word.
One crisis at a time, please.
Right. On the ground. Not dead. Not hurt – apart from aching, despite the save that had not been a soft landing, but nothing broken at least. She took in a deep breath to get a hold of herself. That wonderful smell invaded her nostrils once again, making her feel dizzy all again. Now she was not in a state of near-death panic, however, and could attempt to analyze it. There was a sting to it, overlapped by sweetness that only just managed to not be sickening.
Despite her current situation, it mystified her – not only by how it made her feel, but there was no reason there should be any of that out here. She sniffed again, to make sure. Yes, it had to be that. It reminded her of that cozy dark corner of the lab, and Fizzer starting to stutter as the empty test tubes slipped out of his hands, and herself blushing.
"My ears, who would be preparing––" she started.
"I don't want to hear it!" the charr snapped.
"–– Phenidone out here?" Tivi looked around and up at the charr. "What?"
He stared back. In the background, the separatists were still having fits of chuckles. They probably did not have much to laugh about usually.
"Pheno–– what? Wait, no!" The charr shook his big furry head and threw up his hands. "Whatever it is, I don't want to know!"
Tivi had gone through a whole rollercoaster of unpleasant emotions in a very short time, and even her cheerful disposition had its limits.
"What are you on about?" she snapped, climbing to her feet and bending her neck back to glare up at him in a huff. She might only reach a bit higher than his knees, but asura had long since learned not to let being shorter than as good as everything else get to them. And he wasn't being threatening. Just very strange.
And how nicely his horns lined up with all four of his ears to form a logical whole…
Tivi's annoyance completely derailed when that runoff thought zipped away and returned with what she had briefly imagined when the charr had held her in his arms.
Her eyes shot wide open in terror and she grasped her head, desperately trying to ward off the insanity. Where did those thoughts come from? He was a charr! Loud and brash and stupid and equipped with a mouth so big he could bite off her head!
She heard a deep, growling sigh.
"Hold your breath and walk away," the charr said. He sounded tired all of a sudden. "It helps."
Tivi was panicky, but still lucid enough, to be pliant to just about any suggestion. Without a second thought she turned around and walked as far away as the cage allowed. It wasn't far, but she did not stop until her nose touched the slanting iron bars. Then, very carefully she released the breath she had held and sucked in a new.
She could not feel that smell anymore. There was only the scent of grass and rusty iron. Slowly her head cleared of all thoughts of the charr's ears and soft looking fur, leaving only confusion and disgust. She grimaced, feeling like she needed a bath – and thoroughly glad nobody had any idea what had passed through her mind.
But what by Primordus' fangs had that been?
"Hey you." A separatist stepped into her sight on the other side of the bars, so suddenly that she almost fell backwards.
Oh right. Imprisoned by separatists.
"Yes?" she said, her voice a lot more high pitched than usual. Today was really not developing well for her.
"That was fun and all," he said in an airy tone, lifting his hand and dropping it with the pointing finger loosely stretched out to indicate her fall. Behind him, the camp erupted in snickers again. "But maybe you should give us a reason to not kill you, you little rat." Saying so, he put his hand on the gun by his belt.
Tivi had seen her life pass by, been embarrassed, utterly confused, and finally shaken up by some kind of mind altering whatever-it-had-been. Under normal circumstances she would have been rattled by being trapped and threatened. But the sneer on the man's face was the final spark to lit the volatile phlebotinum.
"Shove it!" she shrieked and leaped into the air. As she came down, she slammed her hands into the ground as hard as she could, banging all her inner turmoil into one liberating explosion.
Like everything else, Tivi was not that great with magic. However, she had probably never once in her life been so upset. She'd just wanted to make the smug snake lose his smirk. Instead she sent him and several people behind him flying, and uprooted part of the cage. Bars that had been dug three feet into the earth shot up and toppled over with a series of deafening clangs.
With her breath stuck in her throat Tivi took in the momentarily stunned looks on the still standing separatists' faces, and knew full well that there were still too many of them upright. Within a second they'd have shot her dead.
Several dark orbs sailed over her head and crashed amongst the separatists' feet. As soon as the projectiles hit anything they exploded, filling the air with a thick, stinging smoke. The separatists disappeared behind the misty curtain, stumbling about coughing and shouting. A few random shots were fired, before somebody yelled to not shoot blindly.
A pair of big hands grabbed Tivi under her armpits and hoisted her upwards. Next thing she knew her whole body was painfully bouncing against the charr's back as he ran, leaping past the half blind separatists trying to stop the escape. On all fours he rushed into the narrow natural corridor leading out of the crevasse and into the open field. Tivi grit her teeth and held on to the edge of his armor for dear life, deciding not to complain about being uncomfortable just yet. Priorities.
At least she thought she had priorities until the smell of chemicals invaded her senses once again. Chemicals and something more. Yes, something that made that scent even better. That of Fizzer.
The charr jumped over a rock, landing hard and giving Tivi an extra hard jolt. Considering all, it was merciful. It slapped her back into reality and she blinked, coming back to here and now. Forcing herself to focus she looked around, spying for the separatists. A couple of them appeared from the crevasse, but wiping their eyes and staggering it was obvious that they would not be able to catch up or hit the fleeing target.
It appeared that the improvised escape was a successful, if unintentional experiment.
The charr eventually slowed down when the two of them had gotten far enough away from the camp to at least feel safe from the separatists. He kept running, however, and did not care for Tivi's inevitable objections until he found shelter by a cliff face. Even then he stopped with tense muscles, ready to rush off again. Tivi grumbled while her mode of transport sniffed the air and flicked his ears this and that way.
Finally satisfied with the place's safety, he shook Tivi off and walked away to sit down in the shadow, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.
"Really, that was most inconsiderate," Tivi muttered as she picked herself up and brushed off her deep green pants. "You could at least show a little gratitude."
"We're even," he grunted, voice even more hoarse than before.
She had to admit that, but she still did not care for his rough treatment of her. With a huff she plopped down. They were silent for a little while.
"Got any water?" he finally said, slowly as if he had to pry the words from his tongue.
Tivi thought about it for a moment. Well, he had saved her life, and that he was rude just gave her a reason to show she was better than him. She unhooked her flask from her belt and tossed it over. His hands were too big, and he had trouble with the cork. After a second he tore it off, breaking the flask in the process. Ignoring Tivi's shout of "Hey!" he emptied the flask in two gulps. It was hardly more than a mouthful for him.
Her annoyance stumbled, however, when she watched him stick out his tongue and shake the flask hard to get the last drops out. Even if he tried to do it with some dignity, he could not hide how thirsty he was.
"How long were you in there?" Tivi asked.
"Last night," he said and tossed the empty flask back. She did not even bother to try catching it, and it bounced into the grass by her feet. "They wanted to get information out of me."
"Oh." She watched his hunched form, shaking a little from the long run and lack of nourishment. It was no difficult guess that he had probably not been fed by the separatists. Now that she had time and peace of mind to look closer, she noticed the blood stains and rips on his armor. Not all of that blood looked like it had come from his enemies. They had been working to "soften" him up. The only reason he still had his armor on had to be that they had been waiting for him to weaken from hunger and thirst, so that he'd be easier to beat up.
Tivi hesitated only for a moment before reaching for her backpack.
"I, um, I have some beef jerky."
His ears flicked up at the word "beef", but the sideways glance he gave her was guarded. Being an asura, Tivi very well knew stubborn pride when she saw it. Asking for water had sounded like it physically hurt him.
"Well, you could have left me back there," she said to stop him from starting up about not needing pity. With that she hauled a pack of jerky out of her bag and threw it over.
In the next moment she was very glad that she had tossed it instead of handing it over. From the way he tore apart the anti-bacteria wrapping and scarfed down the dried meat, he might have taken off her hands had they been too close. Feeling that it was in her best interest to not leave him too hungry, Tivi fished out a second pack and chucked it within the charr's reach as well. It was gone in five seconds.
Licking his claws in a most unsettling manner but thankfully not looking at her while doing so, the charr sat back and breathed a loud sigh of relief. Tivi decided it was safe to not give him anymore food – which was good, because she wasn't sure how far it was to the next place to get any more rations, and it was best to save what she had left.
Speaking of finding a place to get rations, it might be a good idea to not go looking for that alone. She did not feel nearly as at ease as she had just an hour ago. Until now, she had done pretty well on her own, but the beauty of the landscape suddenly seemed a lot more treacherous than before.
But on the other hand, now she had somebody around who should know the area better than she did. Unless, of course, he decided to leave her behind now that he was fed. She wasn't sure she could really trust any random charr. Well, only one way to find out.
"I'm Tivi, by the way," she said, deciding to be tactical about gauging his continued helpfulness.
He looked up and seemed to hesitate, weighing her with his gaze. She huffed at this and folded her arms.
"Xander Dredgerip," he said after a moment.
Tivi thought about that.
"I like that surname," she said, smiling a little for the first time.
He did not smile, but he sounded a bit less gruff than before when he answered:
"Yeah, we hear that a lot."
Tivi thought that over for a second.
"So your warband is called…?"
Tivi bit the inside of her cheek to not laugh out loud. She did not like dredge by any stretch, but that name sounded like something a child would think up. A very small, non-asura child.
"Oh, I thought it was usually just one word, like the Fierce, or Rip warband," she managed without snickering.
"Our legionnaire really, really hates them. And it couldn't be called just Dredge," Xander said, calmly and matter-of-factly.
"Yes," Tivi had to admit, though still struggling to keep from laughing. "I suppose that's true."
She cleared her throat and pulled herself together.
"So then," she said and looked around. "We can't stay here. Is your warband nearby?"
His ears drooped, and he got to his feet to turn away in an obvious attempt to hide that.
"I can't go back to them," he said in a low, grumbling voice.
"You're on a mission?" Tivi asked, jogging up to him in case he was going to take off.
"Something like that," he responded, but even before he had finished Tivi stopped dead just a couple of feet away in surprise.
The smell of Fizzer and chemicals invaded her nose once again, reaching deep into her subconscious and pulling up memories that–– that––
Hang on a second.
"It's you!" she exclaimed, pointing at him.
He stared at her for a second, then his shoulders sagged even more than usual and he looked away with a sigh.
"Yeah," he grumbled. Whatever it was, he was obviously used to it.
"How can you––" Tivi started, but Xander raised both his hands to stop her again.
"Whatever you think I smell like, don't tell me more." He turned away and growled. "You'll regret it."
"But… what is it?" Tivi asked, frowning.
He shook his head and started to walk off.
"Don't help trackers," he absently said and waved over his shoulder. "Pick up that flask."
"Hey!" Tivi shouted, although she did rush back to grab the broken flask and cork. She then rushed after him, jogging to keep up with his long, quick strides. What strong legs he had, nice even though they were too… she shook her head hard. "What are you, a mesmer who can't control your power?"
He scoffed at that.
"Do I look like a weakling?" he said.
Tivi was too distracted to catch on to that that insult included her as well, being an elementalist. She was completely wrapped up in wanting to know what was going on.
"If you don't tell me, I swear I'll follow you around and bother you until you tell me," she said, glaring up at him. "I warn you, I am genetically programmed to never give up on solving an unexplained occurrence."
They traded death glares for several seconds until Xander growled and rolled his eyes.
"Fine!" he snapped. "It's a curse."
"A curse that makes you smell like––"
"Don't tell me! Kalla's claws…" He grunted. "Look, will you shut up if I tell you?"
Tivi had to consider the possibilities for a moment.
"Depends," she finally said, honestly.
Xander sighed the sigh of one who knows things aren't about to get any better anytime soon.
Don't worry, this is not a romance. At least not between those two.