Chapter Thirty: Marshes
“Anything?” Francesca asked.
“Nothing,” Seon answered.
Francesca let out a groan. “I thought Orlo would be a small city! I mean, who would build such a big ass city in the middle of a swamp?”
After two hours of searching, neither of them could find anyone who knew of a hunter named Kroc. Much to their dismay, they found out that Orlo was about the same size as the capital. This was a mistake that could have been avoided if they had just flown a bit higher up to see more of the city.
The two of them agreed to a much deserved break and stopped at the nearest tavern. The tavern was full of people coming in from a long day’s work. In a corner was a group of gnomes heartily laughing with mugs of ale in their hands. Right beside a window was a table where there seemed to be a drinking contest taking place; because a rather mousy looking waitress ran from the bar to the table with a tray full of mugs.
Francesca started looking around for an open table, but Seon grabbed her arm and dragged her to the two empty chairs at the corner of the bar. He didn’t stop at her protests and seated himself.
“Seon, I’m not even old enough to drink,” she told him.
“I know, just...” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I’m still uncomfortable being stared at.”
Before Francesca could say anything, the bartender came over. He was a short man with a mop of slightly curled, dark hair and glasses. He gave the two of them a toothy grin.
“Welcome to the Punted Gnome!” His voice was smooth and light. “The name’s Skelly. What will you be having?”
“The Punted Gnome?” Francesca and Seon asked together.
“I know, I know, weird name.” Skelly’s face melted into a fond smile. “My partner came up with it. I’m part-gnome and they thought it would be a funny name for a tavern. Uh... Anyways! What would you like?”
“I’ll just have some water,” Francesca answered.
“And you?” Skelly turned to Seon. Something seemed to click for him, then he raised an eyebrow. “How old are you?”
“Five hundred and fifty,” Seon answered stiffly.
Skelly threw his hands up. “S-Sorry! Sorry! My mistake! You can have something on the house for that!”
Seon dismissively waved a hand. “I’ll just take some apple cider.”
“Alright! Coming right up!” Skelly ducked into the door behind the bar.
Seon groaned and put his face in his hands. “Why does this always happen?”
“What?” Francesca asked.
“Being mistaken for a kid!” Seon said. “I mean, I understand it happening when I still was a kid by elven standards. But now?!”
Francesca shrugged. “Maybe curses stunt your growth?”
Seon seemed to mull over it for a bit before shrugging. “I guess. I’ll have to research it a bit when this ends...”
Skelly emerged with their drinks in his hands. He handed it to both of them with a smile.
“Thanks,” they said together again.
“My pleasure,” Skelly said. “It’s always nice to serve a group of friends.”
Francesca’s eyebrows went up. “We’re not-”
“We’re just looking for the same person,” Seon said bluntly.
Skelly’s face seemed to fall at that. “Oh. My bad. Who are you looking for? Word tends to reach you when you work in a bar.”
“Do you know a hunter named Kroc?” Francesca asked.
Skelly’s face lit up like a candle. “Do I! I’m writing a book about adventuring and I’ve been using Kroc as a reference point! I’d be happy to introduce you! Give me a minute!”
Skelly scrambled into the back room. Francesca and Seon could hear excited chatter from behind the door occasionally interrupted by a concerned voice. The concerned voice soon morphed into a more enthusiastic tone. Skelly burst out with a chubby and long-haired individual in tow.
“This is my partner, Dandy!” Skelly said proudly as he presented the newcomer. “Let’s go!”
Skelly dragged them all out the door, despite the protests from several patrons. Francesca was only able to open her mouth before Dandy answered with a “he does this often.” As Skelly showed them the way, he rambled on and on about the book he was writing. Only Dandy seemed to listen with rapt attention, despite having heard Skelly’s stories before.
Skelly lead them out of the main part of the city, where the dirt roads were much messier. The woods and muddy terrain hugged the houses. The few fences standing were crooked and the houses were more spread out the further they walked. Soon there were no more houses and the road faded away.
When they finally arrived, they were standing before a crudely made cabin. The trees surrounding it were smaller than the others. Stuck to the front of the door was a sign saying “Do not enter unless it’s for business.”
Skelly strolled up to the door and knocked on it. He swayed on spot until the door opened.
The person who opened the door was a muscular woman wearing a sleeveless shirt. Her hair was cropped short. Scars criss-crossed her skin like thick, pale brown spider webs. The look on her face made it obvious that she wasn’t happy to have visitors.
“What is it now, Skelly?” she asked. “I don’t have anything new since you last interviewed me.”
“Oh! I-I’m not here for an interview!” Skelly said with a wave of his hands. “A pair of adventurers were looking for you!”
The woman, now confirmed to be Kroc, covered her face with her hand. She took in a deep breath then looked over to Francesca and Seon. She let out a sound that might have been a stifled laugh.
“Adventurers, huh?” she said. “What do you want?”
“We heard that you could kill rogue fairies,” Seon said smoothly.
“Yeah,” Kroc answered. “It depends on who’s asking.”
Seon gestured to himself and Francesca. “I’m Seon Smokebait and this is Francesca Benedict.”
The smirk on Kroc’s face dropped instantly. Her eyes scanned over Francesca’s face. “Benedict? As in Xavier Benedict?”
Francesca’s eyebrows went up. “Yeah. He’s my father.”
Kroc immediately slammed the door in their faces. Skelly jumped backward with a squeak. He walked back to them with both confusion and disappointment evident on his face. Dandy placed a hand on his shoulder and approached the door.
They rapped at the door. “Kroc?” Dandy asked.
“Fuck off!” was the instant answer.
“What did I do?” Francesca asked Kroc.
“Tell that asshole father of yours that I already repaid him!” Kroc answered. “Leave me alone!”
“I’m not here for my dad! I’m here because I need a hunter!”
There was a pause before Kroc said anything. “Why should I work for you?”
“I’ll cook your dinner for you,” Dandy piped up.
That convinced Kroc to finally open the door. She looked almost defeated when Dandy smiled at her and hurried to her pantry.
“Why must you always bribe me with cooking?” Kroc sighed.
“Um...” Skelly said with a sheepish grin. “Because it usually works?”
Kroc’s cabin was rather cramped and unsuited to accommodate more than one person. Just a few feet from the door was a worn cot. Sitting atop it was a broadsword and a sharpening tool. Immediately next to the cot was a fireplace and the pantry Dandy was shuffling through. Lining the walls from the pantry up until the door were several weapons that had all clearly been used recently. Beneath the weapons was a chest, which Francesca presumed contained even more weapons.
Kroc glanced over to Francesca and Seon, who were still by the door. She loudly yanked out a pair of stools for them and gestured for them to sit. Once they were seated, she stood over the two of them with her arms crossed.
“Start talking,” she said.
By the time they were done explaining the circumstance around Victor and Vandi, Kroc looked about ready to kick them out. The incredulous expressions at the beginning of their tale were soon enough replaced by looks of horror, before finally being covered up by her hand. However, she didn’t say a word throughout their story.
Skelly, occasionally with Dandy, frequently interrupted them with commentary and questions. He explained that it was to lighten the mood but it made everything drag out longer. Seon, keeping an eye on Skelly hands, presumed that the commentary was also to buy him enough time to take notes.
Dandy was the one who finally broke the silence after their story.
“You managed to piss off the most powerful species in the continent,” Dandy said. “Fucking incredible.”
“He’s the one who started it...” Seon grumbled under his breath.
“So,” Francesca said, “now that you know the situation, Kroc, what do you suggest we do?”
Kroc took her hand off of her face and inhaled deeply.
“Kroc?” Skelly asked.
Suddenly, she stood up. She stiffly walked over to the chest and pulled it open. She rummaged around for a few moments before she pulled out something small. She tossed it over her shoulder to Francesca without turning around.
Francesca clumsily caught it, nearly dropping it from her surprise. She carefully examined what seemed to be a gemstone, no bigger than a strawberry. Its surface was a soulless black that reflected Francesca’s face back at her.
“What is this?” she asked the hunter.
“It’s a Stone of Void,” Kroc answered. “It was discovered recently but so far that thing makes fighting fairies a lot easier. Just get him to touch it and he won’t be able to use magic.”
Francesca’s eyes lit up with glee. “Really? How can I thank-”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Kroc said firmly. “Just get out of my house already. I have work to do. Someone told me just before you got here that a dragon’s been spotted outside of town.”
Francesca and Seon both jumped out of their stools. Francesca said “He’s with us” at the same time Seon said “Don’t hurt him.”
Before Kroc could say anything, she was stopped by a drawn out gasp. Everyone turned to Skelly. His hands were together and he had a absolutely ecstatic smile on his face.
“You two have a pet dragon?” he asked.
That was when Dandy grabbed the two by the shoulders and hurriedly directed them to the door with a “run while you still can.” The door slammed shut behind them. Afterward there was the sound of a struggle and someone desperately trying to keep a grip on the doorknob.
Before they walked out of earshot, they heard Skelly whine “But Dandy, they have a dragon!”