Non Player Character is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it!
Chapter Seven: Storytellers
‘All right.’ The hulking man in blood-spattered plate armour braced his foot against the still twitching body of the manticore. ‘We’ve killed your abomination — fine waste of a good man-eater, I’d say — so take us to the nearest city and we’ll be out of your weird, feather-filled hair.’
This was a bit rich coming from a man who appeared to never clean his armour, crusty as it was with blood and gore, but nonetheless I touched my hair self-consciously. Shocking white streaked with grey and flecked with bird feathers of the same, I understood that it was not normal for either humans or elves, both of which I peripherally resembled. I knew my father had been half-elven, but of my mother I remembered only a warm white light — a sorcerer, perhaps, or some other practitioner of the arcane. My eyes, too, were unusual — molten gold with cat-eye slits, a gaze which seemed to make people uncomfortable.
Not that it usually concerned me — I rarely had anything to do with people. I guarded my grove and the animals and plants therein. There had never been any need for people — not until the Ninth Rain wandered into my Grove. I was still uncertain how much of their story was truth and how much was lies, but they had been fair in their treatment of me thus far, and helped me dispatch the creature corrupting the Grove, as well as being considerate of the land at my request and to their own inconvenience. Not without complaint, of course, but then people did complain a lot, in my limited experience.
‘I’m grateful for your help,’ I said. ‘No outsiders have ever done so much good for this sacred grove. Of course I will show you to the city.’
(Me: Do I know the way to the city?)
(Pauline: You have the Nomad background trait, right? You remember everywhere you’ve ever been — you know the way.)
‘See?’ Vandellis turned to grin at the little bard. ‘Killing people always leads to good things for us.’
‘And helping people,’ said the golden dragonborn, Arries, with a furrow of his scaly brow.
The gore-spattered cleric shrugged. ‘I’m less sure of that.’
‘Come with me,’ I said. ‘And quietly.’
‘Why?’ Hanley walked over and gave the manticore’s lolling head a good kick with her tiny feet. ‘We’ve killed your big bad beastie. There’s nothing else here you want us to fuck up, is there?’
‘Nothing I would allow you to harm,’ I said. ‘But plenty of things I would allow to harm you. This is their grove, after all.’
Hanley looked ready to argue, but the horn-headed one, Ram, held out a calming hand. ‘It’s fine, Hanley. I’ve got a spell for this.’
‘We ought to harvest materials from the manticore before we go,’ I said thoughtfully. ‘There’s much there it would be a shame to waste.’
‘You know how to gut and skin such a beast?’ said Ram. ‘Because I could certainly make use of the stinger.’
‘And I’d like the eyes,’ added Ellis. When everyone looked at him, he added, ‘What? I just want them. Why does Ram have a monopoly on gore?’
‘It’s not so different from a mortal beast,’ I said. ‘It may take some time.’
(Me: How long will it take?)
(Pauline: Depends on how well you roll on your survival check. 2 hours at a minimum.)
(Me: Okay, I’ll roll …)
(Ellis: I’ll assist!)
(Me: Okay, that’s an 14)
(Pauline: +2 for Ellis. Okay.)
It was bloody work and as the body was cooling fast, we had to pick and choose what we claimed from the body. Vandellis took the eyes, and the heart besides. I took the hide, which would turn aside most weapons and might make good armour if I could find a tanner to make it. Ram took the stinger, after extracting a good portion of its venom and blood.
I found the whole process repulsive. I had skinned many an animal over the years — it was wasteful to let rot what could be used — but never something with a humanoid face. This abomination had spoken Common in a long forked tongue, and smiled with an over-sized human mouth full of yellowed human teeth. It had been a person, in its way, a cruel one who desired only the suffering of others. It’s birth, life, and death were all unnatural, and I was glad to see it gone, but it still felt wrong to tear the skin from something that wore a human face.
Once our grisly work was done, we went to a stream to wash before I guided them north, out of the Grove, out of the swamp, and toward the city of Sinterlan, which I knew little of but had travelled around many times.
As we walked, Hanley bickered with whoever she could bait into an argument — sometimes Vandellis, who seemed to enjoy the conflict, sometimes Arries, who tried to agree with everything she said just to get out of the argument, and sometimes Ram, who she seemed to genuinely dislike and for whom she reserved her sharpest barbs.
Arries and Hanley walked behind me, Vandellis behind them, and Ram trailed at the rear, trying and failing to read as he walked, and stumbling often.
The third time I had to stop and go back to find him, when it became apparent that he was out of hearing range and certainly far from sight, I suggested, somewhat out of desperation, ‘Perhaps you would do better to focus only on walking?’
He blinked his unnerving purple eyes at me. ‘Walking requires very little concentration — and it would be a terrible shame to miss out on reading time, when I have so much reading to do.’
‘Little concentration,’ I repeated, with a slight cant of my head.
His lips twitched. ‘I admit, it’s … it is somewhat easier with a road underfoot rather than all of these roots and shrubs. I’ll put away my book for now, out of respect for your guidance. You know this environment far better than I, after all.’ He tucked his book into his satchel; it vanished inside with no visible change to the pack itself.
Magic, perhaps. I’d heard of such creations, which held a far greater space internally than they appeared to hold externally. It was something far different than the magic I knew — that was a magic of arcane luxury, where the power I drew from the land was primal and sacred, something I had to tend and grow as surely as if I tended a tree from seed to sapling.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked over my shoulder as I guided him over root and rock, back to the others of his party. ‘Some magic book, I suppose?’
‘I, um, I’d rather not say,’ he replied. His cheeks darkened to a more blueish shade of purple.
‘It’s only you and I here,’ I said. ‘But I respect the desire of privacy.’
‘Well … look. And don’t tell Hanley.’
He pulled the book out of his bag. It appeared to have a leather cover, but he passed his hand over it and the illusion dropped, revealing a cover with a woman in a flowing dress pining for a topless red tiefling with cloven hooves. I couldn’t read the title — I’d never had the need nor the opportunity to learn — so I found it hard to make sense of the cover. ‘What’s it about?’ I asked.
(Hanna: Oh my god.)
(Ellis: Oh my GOD.)
(Hanna: This whole time Ram’s been reading romance?)
(Pauline: Shh. No out of character chatter.)
His brow pinched at my question. ‘It’s … well, it’s a romance novel.’
I stared, uncomprehending. ‘A love story?’
‘Well, yes.’ He paused. ‘You … are you literate?’
‘I can’t read, if that’s what you’re getting at,’ I said. His expression became amorphous, as if he was fighting to keep it calm. ‘I didn’t know there were love stories.’
‘There are books about everything you can imagine, some for the facts, but some just for the pure joy of a story.’
‘When my people gather, we tell stories,’ I said. I looked at the book and felt a pang of longing. ‘We gather rarely, and the stories are always my favourite part.’
‘It sounds lonely,’ he said.
I blinked and met his eyes. ‘I never thought so. But I did miss the stories.’
He nodded, then cleared his throat and looked away. ‘Hanley’s a storyteller. I’ll see if I can convince her to tell one around the campfire tonight, before we make it to the city.’
‘I’d like that,’ I said. He placed his illusion on the book again and tucked it away, but though it was gone from my sight my thoughts turned to it again and again. A story that one could enjoy privately. A whole world inside one’s own mind.
When we caught up to the group, they were setting up camp on a hillside. Vandellis was gutting a boar while Arries set up divine wards and Hanley played a gentle tune on her flute. She set it aside as we arrived.
‘Finally! Talk about anything exciting?’
‘Not really,’ I said, and Ram gave me a grateful look.
‘Although I was thinking — it’s been a while since you gave us a story.’
Hanley grinned. ‘I could use the practice — I’m getting fucking rusty and I’d like to make coin doing it when we get to Sinterlan.’
I warmed myself by the fire while Hanley considered her choice of story. I looked for Ram, but he was again on the edge of the group, gazing out across the plains to the city, sprawled and twinkling in the distance.
I found myself wishing that he would sit at the fire as well.