by Costin Becheanu

Part I

‘Could we please move this along?!’ Kozz desperately cried out; the leprechaun then threw his hands up and continued, ‘Those people are in grave danger and in dire need of an escort back to town!’ he rasped at his counterpart as he pulled his battleaxe out, swinging it around with miraculous ease.
Diana whipped her tail, irritated, the scales on the nape of her neck bristling. She was browsing through a merchant stall, looking at various vials, bottles, boxes, and baskets filled with myriad substances and extracts. She took her time meticulously sampling potion ingredients on the best of days, but this was beyond even her slowest. And Kozz was always about the action.
‘This doesn’t sound like anything we’ve come across recently, so it pays for at least one of us to be cautious.’ she said.
‘Apocatheries…’ Kozz scoffed and leaned against the shaft of his axe in boredom.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Diana’s pupils narrowed and a guttural clicking built up in her throat as she eyed Kozz, who raised his arms and took a step back.
‘Nothing, nothing’ he giggled ‘it’s just that I don’t recall your fancy potions choking that pack of wolves to death the other night.’ he cleaned a speck of caked blood from his blade and grinned, full of himself.
‘That may be, but my fancy potions brought you back from the brink of death when you thought you could take those bandits on alone a few days back’ Diana hissed at him ‘barbaric twit…’ she muttered under her breath, then paid the merchant and stormed off down the main street.
‘Boy, do I love our little pre-questing chats… Soul food, I tell you!’ Kozz rolled his eyes, adjusted his supply pouch strap across his bare chest, and started after her in his usual, sprightly step.
Restwind Dale was a colourful town when it came to travelers but the odd pair still drew many awkward glances as they headed out. Of all the people in the land, a 6-foot lizardfolk with a packful of clinking vials, overflowing with plants and berries going off on an adventure alongside a 3-foot leprechaun barbarian carrying an axe that measured significantly more than 3-feet was something not even a scribe hooked on smoking the bad weeds could conjure.
Diana was at least content she’d tempered Kozz from breaking into blade-swirling anger at all the gawking locals. She’d put much work into that since their infamous encounter with the blind monks, the Band of the Unseeing Faith a few months back. The event had turned the Band into a Duo, and had brought the tally of religions Kozz had been explicitly banned from to an even dozen.
‘It’s all well and good’ he’d said with a wry smile, ‘I’m nothing but a godless heathen anyway.’
Just thinking about the ordeal gave Diana a headache, and Kozz’ usual, ever so slightly off-tune whistling that started when they were only just out the city gates was doing her no favours. He could go at it for hours and it was still very early in the morning. She contemplated a spell of silence but thought better of wasting precious Energy and saw to the trail, instead. It would take them a couple hours at least to get to their destination, and with the weather turning, things weren’t looking good for them in the long run.
‘Told you we need a horse…’ Kozz muttered, squinting at the clouds overhead.
Diana hated it when he was right. She also hated it with a burning passion when he voiced concerns she’d decided were too obvious, or better left unsaid. It was fine when it was just the two of them, but he tended to do that during negotiations or other tense circumstances where one word could do more damage than the Dead King’s hosts themselves. In any case, she couldn’t really snap as she was the one who maintained they rather needed supplies than a mount, especially with what they risked facing along the way.
Kozz had caught wind of the halfling merchants being attacked not far along the road to the Southwest and at the mention of bandits he was sure these were the same band of miscreants he’d barely survived fighting - once he got a thought wedged in his mind, you couldn’t carve it out with an icepick.
With not much else to do and in dire need of gold, they ended up jumping at the opportunity and tried to find a guide as they were still relatively new to the area. They ended up having to go it alone as nobody dared leave the relative safety of town unless it was to flee the valley for good. Between the roving bandits, increased wild animal activity, rumors of the undead shuffling across the land and the ever-present spectre of the Dead King hovering over proceedings, people were either content with their inevitable doom or trying to get away before it all went downhill - no in-between.
But it was because of this very set of circumstances that Diana and Kozz had made their way to the valley and were trying to turn a profit out of, walking in the exact opposite direction of the current exodus.
‘Despair and need make for plenty of shots at the shiny.’ the leprechaun had said, so a shot at the shiny they took.
While their initial endeavours were more miss than hit, they were slowly settling into a rhythm: travel, get a job, get Kozz not to kill anyone or anything that people don’t explicitly want dead, get the job done, get the shiny, repeat. The “repeat” part was getting annoying, and Kozz didn’t waste any opportunity to make his feelings on it known. This was such an opportunity.
‘Betting on rain within the next ten minutes.’ he mused out loud.
‘And this road doesn’t look like it can take the storm all that well… Ruts, holes, loose gravel, and all this soft, clingy sand that gets everywhere... We’ll be swimming in mud and crud in no time.’ he started patting along, slapping his feet down harder with every step.
‘One spell’ Diana thought ‘a few words and this could aaaall be done with. No one would know, and fewer still would care. Except for me.’ She sighed and glanced behind.
‘If this works out, the first thing we’re doing is buying a horse.’
‘Well, of course we are! Should’ve done so last week!’ Kozz smirked, self-content.
‘Hey…’ he paused ‘What do you mean if this works out? You’re not going goobey on me again, are you? Not having those weird whatchallits… Pray-monitions again, right?’
‘I don’t know, but something’s off.’ Diana frowned ‘Those clouds… This is more than just a storm.’
Kozz looked up, wincing, and his ears slumped back at the look of the sky. He went off the path and headed towards a nearby copse of trees.
‘Come on’ he called ‘let’s keep traveling along that ridge further into the woods. Might as well try to keep dryer until it all blows over.’
Diana nodded and started after him.
‘Hey’ Kozz put in, stopping next to a dead tree stump and cocking his head towards his companion ‘about having my back with those bandits… It was… I mean, I...’
‘You don’t need to say anything.’ Diana spat and moved on, smiling ever so slightly in spite of herself.
‘When I don’t say it, I get grief. When I’m trying to say it, turns out I don’t need to!’ Kozz grumbled, ‘I’m gonna need a bigger share of the loot for putting up with this…’
He hitched up his pants, sniffed at the air again, and hurried after Diana.

~All existing names, characters, images, and references pertaining to the HexploreIt IP are the property of their respective owners, and are used in this work of fan fiction without the express intent of monetary gain or other benefits. Any new characters and locales are original works of the author and bear no intent to infringe upon the existing IP in any way.~

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