Another Day at the Office
Five explorers trudged through the endless forest in a ragged line. Anya, a woman clad in a tattered cloak and massive hat, stalked ahead far in front. She carried a bow, an arrow nocked at the ready. She took even, light steps, her eyes darting from shadow to shadow in search of new threats. Silently, she cursed the din of her fellows; if the dolts didn't start moving quietly, they'd find themselves neck deep in the wolves she'd been, so far, able to avoid.
Marius, clad from head to foot in stifling mail, clattered with the racket of a dozen tinsmiths. He passed his axe from one hand to another in a futile attempt to keep his arms fresh. Each step sunk his greaves half a foot into the muck of the forest floor. Sweat poured down his face, stinging his eyes. The blood and grease of slain foes covered him in a gummy film, giving him an abattoir reek.
Behind Marius trudged Falkirk, a woman similarly burdened by a suit of armor. Strapped to her limp left arm was a tower shield, nearly as tall as herself, the weight of which threatened to pitch her over every time she pulled a foot free of the moss and leaves that formed the forest floor. It was no idle threat, either; every inch of her was covered in dried mud.
Po, a diminutive young woman, wore no mail and carried no heavy weapon or shield. She made up for this by carrying a satchel almost as heavy as she, packed to bursting with bandages and potions. She kept her head down as she marched, staring at Falkirk's stomping feet and brushing away the hordes of biting flies that settled on her bare arms.
Brahe brought up the rear. He carried a satchel also, though his was filled with reagents and fire bombs. His body rebelled with each mile, more suited for the reading than forest paths. He simply forced his way forward, map in hand, focused more on their directions than the fire in his lungs. He had sweat his clothes through in the first minutes of walking, and now their salt-crusted fabric scraped him raw with every step.
“Break time!” barked Marius. “Ten minutes!” He dropped his rucksack and axe in one fluid motion before crashing to the ground on his back. Falkirk let go of her shield and started to work herself loose of her backpack's straps. Brahe sank to his knees and fell into a coughing fit. Only Po kept her feet, walking from one comrade to the next with a handful of salt tablets.
Anya came upon them silently. “What in the Five Hells am I looking at?”
Marius held up his hands in defense. “We need a break. Brahe is-”
“Don't you dare! Don't you dare blame this on me! I'm tired of being the scapegoat every time your feet hurt!” He stared daggers at the larger man before falling into another coughing fit.
“I don't care who's tired,” hissed Anya. “We're all tired. We can't afford to waste time like this. We took a rest not two miles back. If we keep doing this we'll be off pace.”
“And?” said Falkirk as she eased out of her boots. “You're the only one here who ever talks about pace. Brahe doesn't care about the pace. I don't care about the pace. Po, do you care about the pace?”
“Leave me out of it,” said Po, handing a packet of foot powder to Falkirk. “I move when you guys move.”
“You don't think pace matters? If we stop every time your iron-clad asses get a little sweaty we'll never-”
A howl cut Anya's tirade short. No, not a howl. This was to howls what the World Tree itself was to a spinach sprout. It echoed, split the calm of the day like a crack of thunder. It was a howl that held in it centuries of hunger, power and evil.
“Fenrir,” whispered Brahe.
“He's close.” Anya spun, eyes wide with fear. “He's close.”
Falkirk slid her arm into the straps of her shield and drew her sword. The blade sang as it came free of the scabbard. “Leave the rucks. We'll come back for them after.”
“I got everything I need right here,” said Marius, grabbing his axe and roaring with laughter. Po dug into her satchel, pulling up bandages and poultices she would need in the fight to come. Brahe loaded his pockets with vials of poison and Molotov cocktails.
Without a word, the five explorers left their burdens and strode into the deep of the woods.
Marius set a boot on the Skoll's corpse and pulled back on his axe, freeing the blade. His arms were numb with exhaustion, his face a mask of blood. Behind him, Po knelt over a pale and shivering Anya, feverishly stitching together an ugly gash along the archer's back.
Falkirk stood in front of the massive entrance to their quarry's lair. She stared into it over the top of her tower shield, tasting the warm air that blew out like the breath of the earth itself. “We don't have long,” she said.
Po nodded acknowledgment as she packed a poultice into place over Anya's new stitches. She produced a bottle from which she fed Anya small sips. Color and life seemed to pour back into the archer's face. “Thanks, Po,” she whispered, “I can stand now.”
Marius walked to Falkirk's side, his whole body shaking with anticipation of the fight to come. “What's the plan, boss-lady?”
“Two abreast. We give Anya and Brahe range to fight.”
Marius pounded a fist on Falkirk's shoulder pad. She pounded his. Behind them, Anya whispered prayers as she knocked an arrow. Brahe traded smiles with her and lit a firebomb. Po inspected Anya's wound a final time before double-checking the contents of her medic's bag.
The cave's breath warmed, thick with the smell of a beast on the hunt. Falkirk set all her weight against her tower shield. If the gods were kind, Fenrir would be drawn to it first and it would fall to her to absorb his charge. Then Marius would hit the monster's unprotected side just before Anya's arrows and Brahe's flames came in. It would be the hardest fight of their entire lives to that moment.
Falkirk had never been happier.