Together, we head back in so I can break down the plan for today's questing. Sam has herself a seat on the nearest table while I gather something from the quest board.
The monster I have in mind will be a slight step up in challenge, but Sam doesn't initially take the threat seriously when I reveal the monster's quest flier. I hand it off to her, and right away, she squints her eyes, looking at the drawing of her target with confusion. "What the hell is a 'Pigling', Boss?" She asks as if I were playing a prank on her.
It's not hard to see why she might think that. The illustration is of a small, human-like monster with a pig's head wearing shabby clothes made of grass, straw, and leaves. It looks somewhat cute without context. "Piglings, my dear Sam, are the younger form of a very frightening creature. Are you familiar with the Demon Lord, Thalrad, by any chance?"
Sam's ears perk up, and she clenches her fist. "Nah. I mean, I've heard the name... but I dunno what set him apart from any of the other Demon Lords."
"Thus far, we've had seven previous Demon Lords..." Not counting the current one, who has made only one appearance five years ago and hasn't been seen since. The less I think about that one, the better. "Each one of them was tied to one of Karnalle’s seven provinces. Thalrad, the Butcher of the Forgotten Abattoirs was Arrark's very own Demon Lord."
"Huh. How are these cute little pig things connected to him?" She looks back to the poster while raising an eyebrow, her interest growing.
"Among all the other horrific things he did, Thalrad corrupted a forest-dwelling race known as the Pigmen to do his bidding.”
“No shit?” Sam asks, eyes open wider.
“They used to be a fairly non-aggressive race of beings who avoided humans, but his influence warped them forever, cursing them with his never-ending hunger. After Thalrad’s defeat, adventurers tried to purge the Pigmen population. Sadly, the Gnarled Woods hid them too well. Thinning them out entirely is near impossible, but at least a sizable dent was made such that they’ve never recovered from it. Nowadays, these monsters roam the forests looking to eat anything and everything they can get their snouts on- people most definitely included."
"And how strong are these baby piggies? Says they’re worth 90G. That’s not much more than the shroomans."
“You shouldn’t get in the habit of using a monster’s bounty as an indicator of its strength. It’s a good starting point to assess the risk, but it doesn't take into account all the different factors that can influence a monster's strength."
Ever eager to learn, Sam nods her head. "Gotcha,"
"All in all, they're very weak but stronger than anything else thus far. Faster, too. Piglings shouldn't pose a major threat, but you will be forced to think on your feet even faster than with the Living Fungi. Think you can handle it?"
Sam thinks to herself for a few moments before summoning up her resolve. She looks at me with determination, saying, "You can count on it."
"My, my. Someone sounds fired up."
Shrugging, the young warrior looks off into the middle distance. "Guess so. We can't let the remnants of a defeated Demon Lord continue to harass the Realm forever..." She sounds much more severe than usual, as if this target was somehow personal to her.
Right as I start to grow concerned over her grim demeanor, she hops up from the table and smiles brightly like it never happened. "Go do whatever you gotta do, and I'll wait for you outside, ok, Boss?"
Seems I shouldn't have gotten ahead of myself. Sam's as perky and excited as ever, despite the subject appearing to weigh on her mind for a moment.
"Sure thing, give me just a moment," I rise and give my lover a kiss on the cheek before ducking back into the kitchen to prepare us some rations as well as some monster bait.
Because of their unending hunger, Piglings are on the search for food at all times. If we set some food out at the edge of the Gnarled Woods, it shouldn't be long until we attract some. Luckily for us, a fully grown Pigman being drawn instead is just about impossible. Unlike Piglings, they tend to stick to the deeper depths of the woods. On top of that, we don't hear much about Pigmen sightings over in Dewhurst.
That's more of a Cransmere problem.
For the bait, I just throw together some leftovers that I had sitting around and drizzle some grease over the slop to make it smell even more potent. On our way to the south gate, I tell Sam about the strategy, and she's eager to try out this passive approach to hunting monsters. She mentions having been taken out on hunts as a child with her father, but she was forced to just sit on her pony while drunk men chased around boars.
This has me wondering why Sam's upbringing was the way it was. Karnalle has always been very progressive with women's rights, unlike some other Realms. This mainly comes down to our creator deities being a pair of Goddesses. From what I recall about our history, we've had numerous Queens, some of whom were tomboyish firebrands not unlike Sam.
There has to be some reason why she wasn't allowed to play with swords of hunt boars with the rest of the boys, but as long as she keeps her lips sealed on her identity, I can't outright ask her about it.
When we arrive at the edge of the woods, Sam and I find ourselves a nice spot hidden behind a thick group of bushes that we'll use as our cover. Sam pours out the slop all over the ground and runs back to sit with me, and in a couple of minutes, we've already lured in our first target.
A four-foot-tall creature resembling a human child crossed with a pig waddles out of the Gnarled Woods. Its eyes are empty and soulless, and from its open mouth, the creature drools an unending torrent of pitiful saliva. It wears a grass skirt and nothing else, its stomach bulging out and gurgling with hunger. It steps forward with its cleaved toes, sniffing out the slop with its desperate snout.
Sam glares at the monster with an intensity I've yet to see from her. She looks like she despises this creature with all her heart, but a twinkle in her eyes tells me she also feels a bit sorry for it in some way.
As we agreed, Sam waits for the creature to make its way to the bait and lower its guard before she leaps in with her blade.
"Here, piggy, piggy!" She shouts while I click my tongue at her antics. I'll have to dock her some points for alerting the enemy to her presence as she strikes.
The Pigling squeals, using its surprising agility to scurry several feet away and dodge Sam's sword. The monster pauses to assess the situation, briefly staring down Sam before coming to the only conclusion that a cursed creature such as itself can.
Rather than sensing any danger, it views Sam as food and is ready to put its life to try and consume her.
My goal is to watch her from afar and see how she handles this independently, without my guidance. If I were to reveal my presence, the Pigling would likely see me as the weaker threat and rush to try and eat me. In that scenario, all Sam would have to do is attack the monster when its back is turned, which would hardly qualify as training at all.
The Pigling rushes forward, letting out a repeated series of high-pitched oinks as it dodging another slash from the young adventurer. Sam isn't used to fighting such a speedy threat, and it shows.
She keeps up with it well enough, but her sword's weight makes it hard for her to hit the Pigling. Sam could easily make up for this with some of the Great Blade’s Arts, but I am not remotely the right person to teach her about those, so I haven’t even brought them up. All I can help her improve on is her fundamentals.
After the latest dodge, Sam turns her head to follow her foe, but by the time she locks eyes with it, the Pigling has picked up a nearby stone and hurls it at Sam. Having never faced an enemy who can improvise to this extent, Sam is shocked to see the
She reflexively throws out her sword to block the oncoming attack, opening herself up for the Pigling to rush in and bite her ankle through her boot. Sam shouts out, even if the attack doesn't do all that much damage. This is the first time she's actually been hurt in combat, so I watch closely to see her response.
Most beginners freak out and lose themselves to panic when a monster actually hits them for the first time, but most adventurers aren't Sam.
Her eyes shine with momentary anger as she grits her teeth. Then, she kicks out her leg with mighty force. This pushes the Pigling off her, and the momentum carries the monster several feet into the air. Sam only has a precious few seconds before it lands, but she capitalizes on her chance without delay.
Leaping after it with her heavy weapon raised overhead, the Great Blader brings her sword down on the beast, ending its life with yet another gruesome cleave straight down the middle.
Sam lands on the green grass, as do both halves of the defeated Pigling. Blood and pig innards cover her weapon. Even more rains down to the ground, a few drops of the crimson fluid landing on her near-naked flesh.
She looks at her bloody sword and then at the enemy, her slightly troubled emotions visible on her face.
I emerge from the bushes to run to her side and discover how this battle has affected the warrior. "Good job, Sam,” I say, placing my hand on her shoulder. “Tip for next time- don't give away your position as you attack.”
She sighs, then frowns. "Gotcha. My bad, Boss."
She’s not dismissive, but she’s acting more distant than I like to see. "You holding up alright?"
Sam thinks about this for a moment before slicing her sword in the air away from her body, the wind cleaning off a lot of blood. "The fight wasn't so bad, but killing something that's actually 'living' feels different. Slimes and ugly lookin’ mushroom men are one thing, but I can’t say the same about this one.”
A pang of guilt hits me. “I should have considered this. I figured since you hadn’t had any reaction to killing the monsters until now, you’d have no problem with Piglings. This is my fault, I-”
“Don’t even,” She laughs. “This is part of the job description, right? I ain’t scared of killing. It actually felt kinda good in the moment... just...”
"A lot of adventurers experience this feeling of disassociation after their first kill. If you aren't ready for this, we-"
Sam cuts me off, shaking her head. "Hey, c’mon, Boss! I ain't too bothered. I'll prolly get used to it after a few more." She then looks toward her fallen enemy before poking one half of its lifeless corpse with her sword. "What do we send in for the proof of kill?"
I give Sam a closer look, my eyes verifying that the warrior is telling the truth. While reminding myself not to coddle her, I say, "Its snout will suffice."
Sam grunts as I toss her a hunting knife, and she gets to work cutting off the nose from the defeated Pigling. "Is it gonna be ok like this?" She asks, holding up two halves of one snout.
"People turn in much messier kill trophies. It should be fine. If it bothers you so much, then don't cut the next one clean in half down the middle."
Laughing, Sam vows to try and remember that before tossing me the snout halves to put away into the loot bag.
After she's done harvesting the trophy, Sam looks at the corpse then asks me if I'm planning to take it home with us to eat. I tell her no, not this time. Piglings and Pigmen are indeed edible, but eating the meat of a being cursed by a Demon Lord isn't counted among the wisest of ideas.
Everything I've read says that devouring a Pigman will slowly impart Thalrad's insatiable appetite on the eater, which will drive any sane man mad over time. The long and short of it is; avoid scary pig meat that will inevitably make you a cannibal.
That's not to say we won't make use of the pig carcass at all.
I brought along some oil and matches, knowing that the smell of a burning Pigling would attract more of its kind to the slaughter. Outside of their breeding season, Pigmen are cannibalistic, so they'll come running at the scent. There's always a chance this might attract a more dangerous threat from out of the woods, but even in the worst-case scenario where something really, really bad crawls out of the Gnarled Woods, it'll be too busy devouring the succulent pork to pay us much mind as we flee.
Sam is worried about the possibility of a wildfire, but I remind her how she could blow out a fire with wind created by her sword before it spreads using her tremendous strength. Her concerns laid to rest, Sam takes the oil and covers the dead Pigling in it before striking up a fire with the matches.
She runs back to sit with me in the bushes as the greasy skin of the carcass crackles from the roaring flames. A pungent smell of burning pork and sizzling fat practically explodes out into the air around us. Despite my mind repeatedly warning that it would be a bad idea, my mouth waters at the thought of taking a single bite of that monster, and I'm not the only one.
Sam looks just about ready to run out of the bushes and have herself an early lunch. Not only is she salivating, but she's drooling like a dog.
"Sam," I jab my elbow into her rib, snapping her out of her trance.
A blush fills her cheeks as her embarrassment rises. "Gah! I'm sorry, Boss, it just... oh, Gods, it smells good..."
"Maybe this was a bad idea..." I reach for my canteen, unintentionally licking my lips. I knew the smell would be powerful, but reading about it in a book doesn't do it justice. I’m not one for exaggeration, but if I was asked to describe one scent in this world as ‘orgasmic’, then let’s just say I found a strong contender.
It goes without saying that this is the point. Obviously, the cursed pig meat wants to be as enticing as possible so that someone will eat it.
"N-No, it's alright..." Sam grabs my hand by the wrist, stopping me from putting out the fire. Renewed determination surges in her eyes. "I can hold back. Promise."
True to her word, Sam resists the pull of the burning meat much better than she did at first. My self-control is a tad stronger, so I don't have any problems as we wait. That's not to say I would attempt this strategy again. If I had known it would be this tempting, I wouldn't have ever done it.
We wait for several minutes until the dense foliage of the Gnarled Woods begins to shift as something approaches. But something is off. Sam feels it, too, as she takes a brief look into my eyes out of worry. Something is coming, but it's a lot bigger than a little Pigling.
As the minor trembles in the earth rumble closer still, the outline of this unknown beast becomes revealed to us.
A lumbering, hunch-backed monster with grayish-blue, wart-riddled skin takes a step out of the dark forest. It's tall, at around seven feet, and has a small head contrasting wildly with its hulking proportions. On its face are a set of beady eyes, a huge, bulbous nose, and a set of tusks coming from the corners of its mouth. On the top of its head, shoulders, arms, and all over its back is a thick carpet of moss, making the creature look like a part of the forest that came to life and wandered away.
Above all that, though, what’s most noticeable about this monster is its overpowering odor. Smelling like the culmination of the body odor of a thousand sweaty knights who’ve been marching for weeks, it takes everything I have to not take back that hunting knife I gave Sam and chop off my nose with it.
"What the fuck is that?" Sam looks at the beast, then back to me as she blocks off her nostrils with her nose. A single bead of sweat trickles down her brow.
"A Moss Troll. Just one of the many types of trolls one can find in the Gna-"
"Ok, ok, you're an encyclopedia, I get that. I’m asking do we get the fuck out of here, or what?" Sam grabs my wrist, ready to use her strength to drag me away like a ragdoll if it means protecting my powerless ass.
Rather than answering the warrior, I watch the troll as it stands in the open field.
After sniffing the air and slowly lumbering toward the wonderful-smelling meat, it squats down to pick up the burning Pigling. Trolls are known for many things. Their strength, their power, their unmistakable smell... what they are not known for is their intelligence. The searing carcass predictably burns the monster’s flesh, sending it back as it falls on its ass from the powerful recoil.
“No guh! No guh rar!” The troll lets out a booming sob while blowing on its fist. After around twenty seconds, it tries to pick up the meat a second time, only to get burned and cry even harder.
“Boss! C’mon man, what do we do?!” Sam’s panic rises, all while I take in a deep breath and close my eyes.
Over only a couple of seconds, I run myself over everything that I’ve read about Moss Trolls and Trolls in general. I analyze the situation. I consider our position, our advantages, accounting for as many probabilities as I can while asking myself one question.
Do we actually need to run away?
The answer I ultimately come to find is surprising, but it’s an answer I find myself fully confident in. Turning to face my adventurer straight in the eyes, I shake my head. "No, Sam. We're not leaving. You're going to kill that troll."
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