“Eh, sir. Are you absolutely certain that this is a good idea?”
Grazel swiveled his head to gaze at the assistant that had asked him the question before giving a rather empty grin and responding, “Nope. Not in the slightest.”
His assistant sighed, suppressing the need to fling her hands in the air. “Sir, I know that your work resides sort of in the grey area, but didn’t you say that if you let your experiments start to cause pointless damage that the organization that backs you would cut ties?”
Grazel felt a bit of actual delight slip into his usual smile as his assistant expressed her ability to retain information. “If the civilian population were in any real danger, than yes, I would run that risk. But for this experiment, there is no risk at all. Look.”
Grazel slipped her the device that he called ‘binoculars,’ and pointed her at a specific individual near the center of the town that they were watching.
She looked through it and saw a slight blonde haired man standing a little off to the side of a group of people gathered around an old well. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
Grazel rolled his eyes. “At Allman, obviously!” He started waving about a rather sizeable pamphlet and gesticulating wildly at a particular hand sketched image.
His assistant sidled away from him as best as she could, considering that they were lying on their stomachs in a confined camouflage shelter that Grazel had produced that morning. She wondered, briefly, if his mind had finally snapped before she realized what he was so frantic about.
“‘Alfred Allman, A-class Monster Hunter, specialized in killing wyrms.’ Do you see now, Cicil? Do you see why I chose to conduct this specific test, at this place, at this time?”
It was Cicil’s turn to role her eyes. “Because you just thought of the experiment yesterday? Furthermore, what makes you think that some random fellow is a high ranking wyrm-killer that just so happens to be in the very same town that you get the inspiration to see whether or not wyrm eggs blow up when they hatch?” Cicil shook her head. “I mean, if we had set foot into town and you had seen him up close, I could understand. But we hadn’t even entered the town’s gate when you suddenly spouted out your latest idiotic plan. Hell, you didn’t even let us enter the inn and sleep in an actual-”
Grazel shushed her with a waved hand and a particular look. Cicil had seen it before and knew that he was completely dead to the world except for what he was focusing on. “It has begun.”
The assistant saved the rest of her complaints for another time and put the binoculars to her eyes as the ground started to rumble. She could see the people that had gathered around the well were starting to run away like scattering mice. She chose to ignore the fact the blonde man hadn’t run off like the others.
The rumbles suddenly erupted in the form of a great column of steam that rose from the aged well. Cicil unconsciously held her breath as a shape started to move in the covering steam. Her eyes tracked the shadows through the steam until it slowly revealed itself.
There were a vast variety of wyrms, ranging from subspecies that barely resembled the traditional limbless snake to the dominant few that were almost indistinguishable from their greater cousins, the dragons. This particular wyrm was a subspecies, possessing a pair of forelegs that it used to drag itself along the ground as well as to combat what would turn into it’s food. This wyrm’s skin had a pale pink color, and whether that was what all wyrms looked like when freshly born, or that shading was a characteristic of this breed, Cicil did not have the knowledge to tell.
She turned her gaze slightly to glance at the still enraptured Grazel, feeling that he could answer any bit of trivial knowledge about any kind of dragonkin, if one could tolerate the hour long lecture that would accompany the answer. She decided not to ask and returned her attention to the newly born wyrm.
The monster seemed to be blinking against the harsh glare of the noontime sunlight as it staggered forth from the well. Just as the wyrm started to move towards the fleeing townspeople, a glittering flash came down upon the monster’s neck, separating the head and neck with admirable precision. The sword that had introduced the wyrm’s head to the ground belonged, of course, to the blonde man that Grazel had identified as the A-class Monster Hunter, Alfred Allman.
Cicil gritted her teeth knowing that the next time she tried to call Grazel on his intuition, he would have another example of him being right to use against her. She could hear her employer muttering to himself, complementing Allman on his execution of the wyrm.
“That’s not the last, though.” He shook his head to illustrate his point, as if speaking directly to the monster hunter. “No, the Blackmoore Wyrms lay eggs in clutches of up to fifty at a time.”
This certainly caught Cicil’s attention. “Fifty?! Grazel, shouldn’t we do something? Even if he is a specialist, anyone would have difficulty with fifty wyrms, newborn or not!”
Grazel twitched as if just realizing that she was there. “Ah, no, not fifty, two to five at most would be able to escape the well. I can see how my statement could be misleading, but most wyrms would first feed upon each other for sustenance and to eliminate future competition. Many animals do that, for example, - Ah! Speak of the devil, and in he walks.”
Cicil quickly returned her attention to the scene just as another wyrm was launching itself at Allman from the rim of the well. He managed to catch it on the edge of his sword, and then made quick work of it as it fell to the ground. The third was dealt with using equal skill, and the fourth was decapitated before it could fully clear the lip of the well.
All three of them waited for another pink snaky head to peek over at them. When that didn’t happen, Allman stepped away from the well and Grazel muttered, “Four it is then. I must admit, that does not strike me as a particularly fortuitous omen, but, whatever goes.”
Cicil breathed out a sigh of relief. “Then that’s it? We can stop this ridiculous experiment, we’re done?”
Grazel blinked at her. “What are you talking about? The experiment hasn’t even begun.”
Cicil blinked at him. “You said that the experiment was to see if wyrm eggs blow up. We saw the explosion, all the steam, they blew up. That means we’re done.”
Grazel shook his head. “No, no, no, the steam was just the water burning from the newborn wyrms’ high body temperature. We have to go inside of the well and examine the interior with our own eyes to see whether the eggs blew or not.”
Cicil looked at the mud the caked most of her clothes. “Then, why are we here, wallowing in mud, when we could be in the town, wallowing in soft beds.”
Grazel blinked again. “This was the best view of the fight, of course.”
Cicil hung from a rope that, she hated to admit, wasn’t causing her the slightest bit of discomfort. This was due to the rig that had been designed by her employer in his obsessive fascination with virtually everything that, for once, actually benefited her. She did not want to know how Grazel had designed it to so perfectly fit her body, though.
“Testing, testing, this is Night Owl to the Assistant, do you copy Assistant? Over.”
Cicil gritted her and lifted the conch shell that was affixed to a cord hanging off of her belt to her ear.
“Shove it up your ass and die, Grazel. Why the hell do I have to do this?! I believe that I described my opinion of enclosed spaces very well.”
“This is Night Owl to the Assistant, I will repeat. You are in the well because you will not hyperventilate and die the moment you lose sight of the sun. Over”
“Remind me why that event should make me unhappy?” Cicil hissed the words through gritted teeth into the stupid conch shell as her legs dangled listlessly over the near black abyss.
“Because you don’t get out of the well unless I pull you up, Assistant. Have you encountered the bottom yet? Over.”
“How do we know that the bottom isn’t under twenty meters of water and your just lowering me to a slow drowning death?”
“Because, Assistant, this well was dried up thirty years ago, and the advent of the wyrm hatchling should have vaporized any significant amount of water remaining. Tell me when you hit the bottom, over.”
After a few minutes more, she felt the tips of her feet brush against something solid and held the conch to her face again. “This is Underpaid Assistant to Dirty Barn Owl, I’m on the bottom”
Cicil felt a sudden laxity of the rope holding her up and she dropped down on the ground. A moment later a shining light floated down until it was at chest level, revealing the interior of the well.
“Shit.” The light revealed dozens of shattered and burned egg fragments and shredded wyrm corpses surrounding her from when the hatching had occurred earlier that day. That was not, however, why she had cursed, and she pulled the conch up to her mouth as quickly as she could.
“There are scores of untouched eggs down here. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this many -.”
She was interrupted as half a dozen oversized leather sacks hit the ground besides her.
“Assistant, pack as many of the most pristine eggs that you can find into the bags, it is critical that they receive as little of your body heat as possible. Over”
Cicil was genuinely stunned for all of a moment. “If you actually expect me to risk my life for the sake of your insane curiosity, then I swear that I’ll crawl up this shaft and stuff you.”
“Poor quality wyrm eggs are currently going for twenty-eight gold pieces per ounce on the open market. Over.”
Cicil managed to force five eggs into the first pack without damaging them, then tying it off to a free hanging rope to be pulled up. In all, she managed to get twenty-four of the best looking wyrm eggs out of the well.
“Grazel, there’s still a lot of eggs down here, what do you think that we should do with the rest of them?”
“Assistant, I’ll deal with them when you come up. Over”
Cicil positioned herself under the now ascending ball of light and felt the tension as the harness tightened slightly against her body and she began to ascend. Now that the return trip was illuminated, a fair bit of her anxiety disappeared with the darkness. Now that she could see properly, Cicil took note of several different kinds of moss and lichen that she knew from her studies of herbs.
That was the original reason for her employment, after all. Grazel had burst into the inn that she was staying at and had loudly proclaimed that he was searching for a competent authority on plants. Cicil had been desperately short on money, and Grazel paid very well, his other personality quirks notwithstanding. Four months later she was debt free and being pulled out of a well by a half crazed scholar who was as likely to get them both killed as do something useful.
Cicil couldn’t help but let a faint laugh escape her as she thought about being debt free. A year ago she had been desperate enough for money to go to a loan shark. One thing led to another and the next thing she knew, Cicil Dorclease was up to her not-quite-curved ears in debt. The loan sharks were trying to force her to do unsavory things when Grazel had hired her. After the job that he wanted done was complete, which was to identify a particular strain of poison in a collection of ruins, when she returned to town, the loan sharks had mysteriously disappeared.
The funny thing about Grazel was that for an amiable fellow who was rarely ever even impolite to most people, the strangest things could set him off at the strangest times. Cicil had seen it happen once, and had almost felt bad for the swindler that the scholar had virtually dismembered. So it would have been perfectly in character for him to try to take her debt from the loan sharks, not to free her, but probably to force her into continuous and continuously insane work, only to butcher them all in a fit of pique over some perceived slight.
“And good riddance to the blood sucking parasites.” Cicil muttered this under her breath as she reached the lip of the well and pulled herself over.
She managed to unhook herself from the collection of straps and buckles without assistance while Grazel took down his pulley system and managed to break it down and store it away in a tiny bag in a process that Cicil doubted anyone else could copy. She spied the group of bags that contained a small fortune and wished that she could have found something like that a year ago.
She turned back towards Grazel and asked, “So how are you going to dispose of all of those eggs before they hatch?
Grazel turned towards her with a look in one eye and a half smirk. “Like this, of course.”
He produced a bottle of liquor that Cicil knew for a fact wasn’t his, stuffed a piece of cloth into the neck, set it on fire with a spark from snapping his fingers and then tossed it down the well. The assistant had enough time to deeply regret not hiding the liquor in a safer place as her employer started to pick up their loot.
“What do you two think you’re doing on this fine night?”
The unexpected voice froze them both in their tracks, though Grazel reacted quickly enough after that to fool any amateur by turning the sudden jerk into a sweeping bow. “Master Allman, it is our humblest pleasure to meet your most august personage.”
The large blonde man was much more intimidating than his drawing in Grazel’s guide to notable monster hunters and their underworld bounties. Perhaps it was the deep lines to his face, or the sword on his back that she had seen him use to effortlessly slice through the wyrms earlier that day, but the sight of Alfred Allman caused Cicil to freeze in fear.
Grazel could work his guile to gods and demons, but Cicil just wasn’t that crazy. Her employer moved himself in front of her, obscuring a great deal of her panicking face from the monster hunter. “As to what we are doing this fine night as you asked sir Allman, why we were simply working to contribute to the scientific knowledge of the time.”
Grazel swept one arm towards their collection of egg filled sacks and maintained the meaningless smile that he seemed to specialize in. That might almost be believable, aside from the claptrap about scientific advancement, if a sudden rumbling in the ground and a tremendous burst of fire hadn’t erupted from the old well, melting the stones around it into so much molten rock.
Allman just raised one thick eyebrow halfway up his forehead. Grazel’s smile turned just a touch macabre as he continued. “Of course, cleaning up a bit of harmful trash is also considered a public service, I believe.”
Allman nodded, if only slightly, and Cicil’s legs unfroze just a bit, before his next words sent ice straight into her heart. “You two are not from this town and you’re not merchants. There is too little foot traffic through this village for the two of you to be here through mere coincidence. Since you scavenged the eggs fair and square, as well as taking care of the remaining eggs in the well, I will only ask this,” he looked specifically at Grazel now, completely ignoring Cicil, much to her relief. “How did you know about the wyrms?”
Grazel’s smile twitched back into a more normal, for him, expression, just as Cicil’s snapped into an angry expression at the use of the term village to describe the largest town in the area, though Grazel was still blocking her. “The same way that you did, I imagine. I read about it.”
Now both of Allman’s eyebrows rose up his head. “You read it? Is the Association publishing details about secret missions now?”
Grazel bowed his head in apology. “Of course not, sir. What I mean is that I read about the temporary invasion of this town some forty years ago by a particularly unpleasant wyrm. I just assumed that, well, if big nasty had managed to reproduce, then it would require a dark, dank, and inaccessible place for those eggs to grow. I simply wondered if my theory happened to be correct.”
Allman watched him for a moment, before grinning rather toothily himself. “Well, I could hardly have reason to hold up such an exemplary person, especially when a crowd is gathering. Though as a passing recommendation, I feel that the Association could use such outstanding fellows as the two of you. I strongly advise applying.”
With that, the monster hunter withdrew as a crowd was beginning to gather after having been woken by the noise of Grazel’s explosion. Cicil, whose legs had grown shaky again at the implied threat, was quickly hurried off by Grazel and the two withdrew to the inn that they had rented a pair of rooms at earlier that day, their loot from the wyrm nest safely in hand.