Dungeon Denizens - Chapter 5: Lackadaisical
“There aren’t many decipherable and whole pieces of text from before the Calamitous Merge available for scholars to study today. What we know about this era comes mostly from scattered texts, legends, and oral tradition that some olde families have passed down from years long lost. This has led to immense speculation with regards to life from before the merge.
Most scholars agree that everyday life for the average person from before the merge was likely not much different from our lives today, save for a few key factors. The world before the merge was one heavily influenced by the work of the gods. We know very little about the gods, only that they were beings of immense power– power that they wielded with almost childlike capriciousness. Or so the stories go.
The existence of gods is a point of great contention amongst intellectuals in the modern day. The term ‘Calamitous Merge’ was coined eons ago from an age immemorial. In fact, little is known about what transpired during the merge, only that the event changed the world as we know it. As such, any claims about gods and deities fall under the same purview with which we view the coinage of the term ‘Calamitous Merge’: one of wonder, awe, and most importantly, skepticism.”
‘On the Origin of Our Era’ by Yose Waldenrit
Chapter 5: Lackadaisical
“Do humans always sleep this much?” Gregory asked, having forgotten that he was also a fellow ‘human’.
Janice gave him a look, then turned towards Sister. Sister shrugged and continued walking with Ash on her back. Janice took one more look at Gregory and sighed, she really should have just kept to herself.
“So, do they?” Gregory prodded, this time fully expecting an answer.
“No not really, but we’re also talking about someone who incurred massive internal bleeding who then chugged a fully mature ogre’s heartblood in one swig,” Janice replied, pinching the skin above her brow in exasperation.
Gregory cooed in response, content with the short lesson in human physiology.
Ash had cooled down considerably after the initial ten minutes or so of extreme fever, allowing the group liberty to carry her indoors without risking more damage. Gregory’s potion had worked miracles on the girl and ended up being more than enough to keep her body in one piece while the ice bed kept her fever in check.
The trio plus one unconscious Ash had begun walking towards Janice’s hut, introducing themselves to each other in the meantime.
“Grego, Ash, and I are on a roadtrip to visit friends and family before finally touring the Western Divide,” Sister managed to say, just barely remembering the backstory they had all agreed on. “So, lone medic of the wilderness, what’s your story?”
Janice felt a shiver run down her spine. The medics, like all progeny of peregrinus, were abhorred by the human nations. Though the medics had somehow remained sanctioned by the Topri royal family up until thirty years ago, a beacon of light for all schools of peregrinus– well up until they were purged. Humans were, and still are, fearful creatures, and the mere existence of otherworldly knowledge propagating amongst the masses was enough to incite genocide. Whether it be the scientists or the medics, they all fell under the same persecution.
So seeing how friendly Sister was and how interested Gregory was in her knowledge, Janice felt like she should feel relieved, not nervous. Janice had spent years on the battlefield tending to the wounded. Those years had sharpened a sixth sense that was currently screaming at her to get away from Sister and Gregory as soon as possible. Maybe it was the way they carried themselves– the nonchalant way they walked through what was known to be the most dangerous place in the west, or maybe it was the fact that Gregory had asked if humans slept this much.
Janice wasn’t an idiot. The area she had chosen to sequester herself away from society was meticulously chosen. Her research had told her that there were two dominant monsters in the region, an ogre and a gnoll shaman, with another more powerful monster that every creature in the western wilderness answered to. She’d spent months carefully marking down the boundary of the ogre, but hadn’t caught sight of the gnoll’s tail. Humans had documented that stronger monsters used weaker creatures as servants and vassals, so after half a year of scouting and zero sign of the gnoll, she theorized that the gnoll shaman and its progeny resided within the territory of the more powerful monster, whose boundary she simply marked down with a question mark. Presumably it was the entire western wilderness, but she didn’t know the exact location of its abode, only that it was somewhere deeper west and was most likely a dungeon.
Gregory wasn’t human, and by extension, Sister was likely not human as well. Dragons? Unlikely. They were known to be far too arrogant to take on the physical form of a lesser creature like humans, but they had to be powerful, pure-blooded creatures. Whatever relief she thought she should be feeling probably came from a subconscious acknowledgement that her identity as a medic was safe with the two presumed non-humans. The panic, however, was definitely coming from an overtly conscious realization that the two ‘humans’ traveling with her were both stronger than the ogre.
“Hello? Medic? You still there?” Sister prodded.
“Ah, sorry, just lost in my own thoughts,” Janice replied. “What was the question?”
“What’s your story? Why is a noncombatant living in a place like this?”
“Oh, well it’s not as exciting as you’d think. I was an orphan living outside the castle walls of St. Sebastian’s. I got into a fight with some of the other street rats and got a nasty cut on my arm. The following day, a traveling medic saw the dirty shirt I had wrapped around my arm and offered to clean the wound for me. Was a good thing too, otherwise I probably would have had to lose the arm.”
“This was what, thirty-five years ago?”
“Yeah, about so. The purge happened not too long after I completed the advanced courses. I was away at the Battle of Stowerlink Bridge. The medics had set up a neutral zone to tend to the wounded regardless of allegiances. We saved a lot of lives that day…” Janice trailed off.
The party trudged forward in silence for a little bit. Gregory wanted Janice to continue her story, thinking that she’d spoken woefully little on the topic of the medic school of teaching, but he kept silent after a stern glance from Sister.
“The medics were good people. They provided free education for anyone who wanted it. Wasn’t anything substantial, but just learning the letters and numbers was enough to change an orphan’s life. We provided free medical services and ran a bunch of charities across the northern lands and the Topri Republic. Before I left for Stowerlink, my mentor told me that the chairman had gotten into an argument with a bishop from the council. Something about monetizing our services and limiting who gets access to what.”
“So you and your cohort fled to the wilderness after Stowerlink?”
“No, we returned to headquarters to verify with our own eyes the rumors we’d heard.”
“The second wave..” Gregory whispered.
Janice nodded her head. Her face betrayed no sign of any tears, but the wrinkles that contoured her skin seemed to deepen.
“They were waiting for any returners and my cohort was ambushed when we arrived. The medics may be healers, but even a healer needs a means to survive on the battlefield should things go awry. After all, not everyone respected the boundaries of a neutral zone.”
“So you fought your way out?” Sister asked, the tale of death and tragedy having piqued her interest.
“Barely. Just a handful of trainees, some of the bodyguards, and me. The trainees dropped their uniforms and went back home to wherever they came from. I suppose their conviction wasn’t as strong as they claimed. The bodyguards were sourced from a handful of different mercenary outfits, and after laying eyes on the smoldering ruins of their former employer… well, they weren’t going to get paid.”
“So it was the Council that pulled the strings behind the medics’ annihilation. How very typical for humans in power to abuse their authority in order to destroy their competitors,” Gregory chimed in. First brother had donated some history books to Gregory’s library some centuries ago, and though by now they’d be quite outdated, Gregory was beginning to learn that human nature tended to stay the same– that was if Janice’s story was anything to go by.
Most of what Gregory knew about human nature came from “The Rise and Fall of the Divine Dynasty of Merseil”, a particularly gruesome account of human depravity, although to be fair, the gods had played a significant role in the wickedness. Like most events mired in tragedy and evil, the gods had played a hand in orchestrating certain crises that ultimately led to the fall of Merseil and the destruction of its surrounding neighbors. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that entire continents ceased to exist.
Gregory had been willing to give humanity the benefit of the doubt, but Janice’s story was starting to paint a picture of human nature wherein humanity served only itself, gods or no gods.
“I’m sorry but I can’t help but mention that you’re doing a really poor job of pretending to be human,” Janice snapped, annoyed at Gregory’s generalisation of human nature. “Yes some people in power are complete asswipes, but not all of them. The chairman was a powerful politician from the Northern Alliance who left his post and dedicated all of his time and money into growing the medics so as to provide free medical attention and education for the lower class.”
A wry smile crept up onto Sister’s face.
“I guess the jig is up,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Grego’s not the best actor, a bit airheaded at times, though you wouldn’t want to be the subject of his ire.”
Janice shuddered, having realized that snapping at what could possibly be the overlord of the entire western wilderness was not the wisest thing to do. It was up there with returning to the medics’ headquarters and sticking her nose in an ogre’s rampage. That was the other thing, why exactly was she allowing these strangers into her home? It wasn’t like she could just say no, the two entities known as Gregory and… she didn’t introduce herself.
“I wouldn’t worry too much though, it’s not that easy to piss him off, at least not anymore,” Sister cooed with a wink.
Gregory simply gestured for Janice to continue, seemingly nonplussed by her outburst.
“Well I… err.. Anyways, I spent some time traveling in the sticks. Never put down the uniform, just helped out wherever I could, never staying in one place for too long. A single medic wasn’t going to hurt anyone, so the bounty hunters and the church mostly just left me alone.”
By this point, the party had reached Janice’s humble abode. The sloped roof broke over the top of the treeline, the clearing slowly coming into view as foliage and branches slowly revealed a wooden cabin. Gregory walked around towards the left of the cabin, admiring the patchwork of vines that climbed the walls where the sun would shine every morning. Attached to the other side of the cabin was a fenced off pasture occupied by a few chickens and a goat.
“Come on in and make yourselves at home. You can place the girl on my bedroll for now while I go put on the tea,” Janice said with a sigh. Whatever reservations she had about allowing two possibly murderous monsters into her home had fallen onto the backburner, except the backburner had become a raging inferno that swallowed up those reservations like a kraken swallowing a whale. It was too late to turn back, and she could only hope that the two creature’s propensity to help the human known as Ash extended towards the human known as Janice.
Janice headed to the kitchen while the other two settled into the couch that ran alongside the wall opposite the fireplace. Janice’s kitchen was immaculate, it had to be. She was a medical professional by trade and the most important lesson the medics taught their trainees before anything else was cleanliness. The reasoning behind it seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, but she caught sickness less often and patients tended to survive more often than before. She wasn’t one to argue with results, so she took to learning about ‘cells’ and ‘microbes’ much faster than the other members of her cohorts.
The medics had also played a significant role in getting the Topri Empire to adopt new ‘indoor plumbing’ technologies that the expedition had retrieved from beyond the Western Divide, a technology that greatly improved the lives of the empire’s citizens despite its immense cost. It was a feat that forced many detractors to acknowledge the possibility that the medics were a net positive for the empire. The chairman had assumed that such praise would protect them from the forces that sought to extinguish any light of the peregrinus, an assumption that would prove to be false.
Janice reached into her cupboard for a jar of dried tea leaves she’d prepared just the week prior. The leaves were easy enough to find, but the preparation that went into drying them and prepping them for consumption was a completely different task. If the guests weren’t of the ‘annihilate you and three hundred acres of forest in one blow’ variety, she definitely wouldn’t have opted immediately for the good stuff. Janice sighed once more, praying to a higher being she didn’t believe in that the two monsters would leave her well enough alone soon.
Ash’s eyes flung open, though her limbs remained still. She lay there, on the bed roll, trying to recollect her thoughts and make sense of the out of body experience she just had. The muffled sounds of laughter and the scraping of wooden utensils against roughly hewn wooden bowls accompanied her waking. It was loud, but not entirely unpleasant. She recognized the playful sound of Sister’s voice as she joked around with some stranger whose voice she failed to recognize. Filling in for the position of bystander was, as always, Gregory, whose inquisitive questions and curious gurgles would sporadically inject themselves into the conversation.
Ash’s body ached. She felt like she’d just spent thirty minutes getting slammed with a battering ram over and over again. The dreamlike experience she just went through was already starting to fade from her memory, and she desperately endeavored to cling onto any memories that hadn’t already dipped away into nothingness.
‘There was a man… I think his name was Young. A foreigner I think? And a warning about rotting? There was also that drawing, some sort of branding?’
Ash felt her head throb with pain, she felt as if there were something actively hindering her from reaching further into her memories. She made an attempt to barrel through, but was met with a searing burst of pain right behind her eyes. Ash let out a yelp and dug her hands through the wooden frame upon which the bedroll lay. Her fingers carved through the wood like it was sand, splintering the underlying support structure and causing the wooden frame to collapse. Ash fell onto ground with an audible thud and a hush fell over the room like a blanket of snow.
Janice burst into action, aiming to rush to Ash’s side and help her up, but before she could even take her first step, Gregory had already restrained her. Her immediate reaction was to try and break free, but a timely word from Gregory was able to calm her down.
“Stop, stop, relax. Sister’s already on it, look,” Gregory urged, gesturing towards the spot where Janice’s bedroll used to be. Ash seemed to be possessed by some terrible spirit. Her body was writhing in pain, and she seemed to have been bestowed with a supernatural strength that granted her the power to just trash that corner of the room.
Janice looked on with terror, the blood draining from her face. She’d spent years– YEARS– building up a hovel in the middle of nowhere into a proper living space. The medics didn’t train anyone in woodworking or mining or metal shaping of any sort. She’d sojourned out here with nothing but a pack of provisions and some essential tools. The skin on her hands had cracked and calloused over countless times before she’d finally fashioned together her first table. As for her cabin, that had been a multi-year project she’d worked on almost completely by chance.
She’d started with a rickety lean-to while she gathered enough branches to make herself a serviceable shack. Then as the years went by, she expanded her shack into a hut, which she then eventually expanded into the current rendition of her cabin.
It wasn’t long before Sister had managed to konk Ash on the head hard enough to send her back to dreamland.
“Did you see that?! She ripped through wood like it was butter!” Janice exclaimed. “It was like.. Like an–”
“Like an ogre youngling ripping through a tree?” Sister interjected, her hands pressing down on Ash’s chest, just in case she woke up again.
“Yeah…” Janice mumbled, the image of Ash lying on an ice block bubbling up to the forefront of her memory.
“I’d count that as a success, wouldn’t you say Grego?” Sister commented.
“I’m not completely sure of that. It looks like there might have been some residual problems, otherwise I don’t think she would have woke up screaming bloody murder in a spasming heap of bones and meats,” Gregory replied.
“My bedframe…” Janice whispered, her voice falling onto the ground in place of tears she could not shed.
Gregory placed his hand on Janice’s head in an effort to comfort her. Janice did not feel comforted. She shook off his hand and let her medic training take over.
“Quick, sit her up! You can’t just hit someone in the head hard enough to knock them out, she could have a concussion!”
Janice dashed over to Ash and materialized a small block of ice in her hand. She placed the block over the area where Sister had smashed Ash on the head.
“Sit her up on the couch for now and keep that ice on her head,” she barked, to which Sister complied.
“I’ll be right back, I’m going to go grab a salve from my workshop.”
Janice made to rush out the backdoor, but was once again restrained by Gregory.
“No need, I have one right here,” Gregory explained, materializing a glass flask in his hand. The glass bulb housed a grey goo-like substance that seemed to emanate a sinister aura. Under normal circumstances, Janice would have declined Gregory’s offer, but she’d seen what the man’s concoctions could do. The last healing mixture had literally held Ash’s body together while it was deconstructing at a molecular level, and if that wasn’t enough, she knew that he wasn’t out to hurt anyone. Well, at least he wasn’t out to hurt Ash.
Janice nodded her head. Gregory walked over to Ash in one fluid motion, dipped her head back, opened her mouth, and fed her the brew. The scene was strangely nostalgic, reminiscent of Gregory’s first encounter with the human woman. It’d only been a few days, but the experience was novel for him. First brother was really the only human he maintained any sort of contact with, so being able to study not one but two humans was quite the experience.
“So what now?” Sister inquired.
“Well, just keep that ice block on her head and I think she’ll be fine,” Janice replied.
“Sorry about your bed frame,” Gregory added.
“It’s alright, I can always make a new one. I’m just glad Sister subdued her before she could do some real damage to the house.”
“Yeah, and imagine if Gregory hadn’t stopped you before you reached her. She would have ripped you apart!”
Janice shuddered at the thought of her insides splashed across the interior walls of her home.
“Thank you Gregory. I can’t believe it worked, the barbarians must use some sort of herbal poultice to help stabilize body temperature and slow down cellular degradation,” Janice mumbled.
“Cellular degradation?” Gregory asked, perking up at this strange new term he had not learned from his books.
“It’s a… well, the subject is quite complex and uh…” Janice trailed off, hesitant to speak any further.
“I assume the knowledge is passed down from the medics? Are you unwilling to part with their teachings, or are you unable?” Gregory asked in a flat tone.
Janice started to feel that nervousness she felt when she first encountered Gregory. That sort of creeping feeling that prompted a screaming response from her sixth sense. She felt her breath caught in her throat. Gregory wasn’t asking for the knowledge– he was demanding it.
“Stop scaring her Gregory. The medics don’t hoard their knowledge, their entire school of thought revolved around free education. Probably why they got offed in the first place– nobles and them bunch don’t want any educated peasants rising up in revolt and all that,” Sister admonished, coming to Janice’s rescue.
A dark feeling seemed to recede from Janice, the tension in her chest relaxing and allowing her to breathe again. Gregory simply stared at Janice, almost seeming to beckon her to continue.
“As Sister said, we don’t hide our knowledge. I paused because of the implications of sharing this knowledge. It’s– it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to freely teach,” Janice said with a sigh. “I don’t even know how much I remember. I can try and teach you, but I don’t think I can get past more than just the basics.”
“That is more than acceptable,” Gregory replied with a nod.
“Good, do you know how to read human script?”
“Not the modern version, no.”
“Then I’ll stick with drawings and diagrams, is that agreeable?”
“Yes,” Gregory replied, materializing a leatherbound journal, two pens, and some ink. He handed one of the pens to Janice, who declined in favor of a piece of charcoal she fished out of the fireplace.
“Okay, so let’s start with cells. Cells are tiny, microscopic units…”