Beorn brushes a snoring Theros, adding clumps to the fluffy gray pile of fur between his hard leather boots. As he works to smooth the gruff’s coat, the children of Badgertown creep closer.
None of the dozen boys and girls have the height to reach Beorn’s elbow, and only the boy that interrupted yesterday’s story time has the ambition to stretch fingertips enough to pet Theros who stands tall while sleeping.
The gruff bugles like a drowning donkey. The brave boy stumbles backward, and his abnormally large ears turn beet red as several of his peers snicker.
Beorn chuckles and sets his brush on a bench connected to Theros’s stable stall. “Do you kids want another story about Theros?” He points at the boy. “I know you do, Abbot.”
Abbot rubs his big ears and nods, and the other children filter in behind him. Their eyes are wide, and their lips are thin lines.
“So well behaved.” He pats Theros’s neck, quieting a fresh snore. “I must thank your parents for raising you all to be patient and respectful. It is refreshing to have an audience so unlike my bandmates.”
“Can you tell something about riding Theros into battle?” says Abbot.
Beorn rubs his chin. “Well, I was thinking more along the lines of detailing the rituals of gruffs so their culture and intelligence can be properly respected.”
Abbot rolls his eyes. “That sounds boring.”
“I suppose so. Allow me to give some background to how he became my mount and friend.” Beorn cracks his knuckles and grunts as he settles onto the stall’s bench. “Not so long ago, the Scarlet Crusade controlled the coast to the east of Titantale city—all the places of power in a line within several weeks of travel. There were seven or maybe eight fortified workshops spread across the dusty and bleak landscape. This was enough mystic places to keep a horde of rusties on their feet, and the enchanted gear of a half-dozen knights attuned.”
A girl with a tiny nose shakes her head. “Rusties are scary. They eat souls.”
Beorn wiggles his hand. “Regular ones only do that when they are cut off from their place of power. It’s really only a rusty lord that consumes souls regardless.” He points at Theros. “I told you last night how his herd hid their intelligence?”
Several children nod, and a few others yawn.
“Well, they couldn’t hide it from a rusty lord. Those metallic devils only eat the souls of smart things.” Beorn points at each child in turn. “Don’t lose any sleep tonight. I am sure you are all quite safe.”
Abbot frowns. “Hey—”
Beorn holds up his hand for silence. “Now, each of these fortified workshops had a garrison of rusties and redorcs to guard and serve the master caster in charge, who was always a smithmage with the ability to devastate with fire-based attacks. But, what really dissuaded assault were the demigods of Red, the Ruby Knights. Who here has heard about hosts for demigods?”
Abbot starts to raise his hand, but the tiny-nosed girl beats him to it.
She says, “Hosts are bulbs. They are bulbs because they glow one of the five alignment colors of the overgods.”
Beorn says, “I am… or I was a host. No one knows why, but our demigods stopped answering our summons. People say they’ve been purged. I think they are taking a break and seeing how we live without them. I can still draw upon my demigod’s power for magic, so I’m sure he will return some day.
“Now, with the demigods of the Ruby Knights gone, the fortified Scarlet workshops lost their greatest defense. The Pale Crusade based in Titantale City took advantage despite their own Diamond Knights lacking demigods.
“The Pales gathered all their strength and captured a Scarlet workshop. As friends of one of the Pale leaders, I, along with my band, Lute, were asked to help—”
“Did you kill them all?” says Abbott.
Beorn clears his throat. “Our band leader, Colgrevance, agreed only to help our friend lead a retreat. You see, we also brought them news that twice their number of Scarlet Crusade troops were in route for revenge, including a squad of siege-class rusties.
“This brought division to the Pale Crusade raiders, and they could not hold what they had taken from the Scarlets. So, they destroyed the workshop and moved down the line. Keeping ahead of their enemy and destroying, destroying, destroying.
“This disrupted the magic item support network for the Scarlet Crusade, and helped the Pales eventually win a war of attrition, at least in that region. Although, since similar disruption of mystic networks was happening all over, what the Pale Crusade won was as good as ash.
“Titantale city fell to item-wraiths, death knights, and titans from the Undersea. The Pale Crusaders ended up abandoning Titantale City along with every other authority. Do you understand the cursed nature of items cut off from places—”
“Hey.” Abbot raises his hand. “What about Theros? I want to hear story about Theros killing redorcs with his hooves and horns.”
Beorn fingers his ear tips. “Oh… Well, I saw Theros battling redorcs on the field near the first workshop. He was one of a dozen or so gruffs that the Scarlet Crusade rode against the Pale Crusade. He was fierce and brutal with his hooves, but he was on the redorcs side then. In fact, Colgrevance lanced the redorc that was riding Theros.”
Tiny-nosed girl says, “Theros is bad?”
Beorn shakes his head. “Theros was serving as a mount. His herd was captured remember? If he didn’t serve well, his family would be punished.
“Anyway, it was the next day at Luted Inn in Titantale that Theros wandered into my life as a friend.” Beorn pats the gruff. “He had blood stained hooves and wounds covering his body. I’m not sure how he remained on his feet.
“I felt a connection to him and healed his many wounds with Lord Thorn’s magic, that’s my demigod’s name. My lord hadn’t been answering my summons, but I presumed he would favor me helping out such a fine beast.
“What I didn’t realize then was the remarkable intelligence of Theros, even more than my wolf companion, Ronin.” Beorn points out a window. “They still don’t love each other. Instincts of predator and prey will never go away, but they’ve learned to fight as companions which embraces the spirit of our band, Lute. We take in all colors, all races, all things and beasts. We judge you on your actions for the group, not what you are or what you’ve done before.
“Theros would not be judged for serving our enemy the day before, not if he agreed to serve me going forward.”
Abbot raises his hand again. “So, did you start killing redorcs with Theros?”
Beorn nods. “We did. In fact when we heard that your village’s place of power was threatened by remnants of the Scarlet Crusade we killed a bunch.
“We rode day and night before camping exhausted not far north of here as Colgrevance rode ahead to meet with your sanctuary’s master caster.
“For mounts we had Theros and a family of centaurs we had befriended, but the horsemen got spooked during the night by something they couldn’t name. At dawn, they decided to leave us and return to their rolling green hills. We understood and appreciated them helping us come as far as they did. So, when a squad of stone devils flew out of the sky to attack them, we jumped to defend them.
“At range we fired crossbows and spells. It helped a little, but before we could decide to do more, a pack of desert dogs attacked. They are as big as Theros and howl with laughter when they battle. They were lead by one with two heads, each with jaws wide enough to swallow any of you boys and girls whole.”
Abbot shakes his head. “Not me. I’d poke out their eyes.”
Beorn nods. “Maybe. I admire your grit. Certainly your Badgertown folk showed great grit and bravery in coming to our aid.
“But I’m getting the flow tangled.” Beorn taps his chin. “Right. So, stone devils flying—they had a giant leader and were tough for the centaurs to fight, but we were busy with the desert dogs and the rest of the ambush.
“We were near a river and a bridge. Giant vipers infested the water and redorcs ran to defend the bridge against our advance. This wouldn’t be so bad, but they had a smithmage and a barbed rusty bombarding us with fire magic.
“We were split. Divided between helping our allies, the centaurs, and dealing with the desert dogs plus the ranged attacks that were protected by redorcs and giant snakes. And our boss was here in Badgertown, helping defend your sanctuary against the rest of the Scarlet Crusade force desperate to claim a place of power to replace the ones lost to the north.”
Abbot raises his hand. “So Theros killed redorcs with his hooves?”
“Yes Theros killed redorcs with his hooves, but only after your village’s reinforcements attacked from the south. It was crucial timing as despite my band’s expertise we were divided by the chaos and weren’t doing a good job of supporting each other.” Beorn licks his lips. “In fact, your reinforcements soaked quite a bit of fire magic that would have finished us.”
Tiny-nosed girl raises her hand. “Did my daddy die from fire?”
“Yeah,” says Abbot. “They all got burned alive.”
She lowers her head. Another girl sniffles, and all the children shift around.
Beorn clears his throat. “Enraged by the cowardly fire magic and emboldened by your people’s bravery. Theros charged the redorcs on the bridge and knocked them into the water to be bitten by the giant snakes. He continued on, leading the charge to disband the remaining redorcs and force the barbed rusty to retreat.”
Abbot raises his hand. “What about the smithmage?”
Beorn scratches his head. “He was slain. I think Solaris took him out with a thunderous wave of water summoned from another world.”
Tiny-nosed girl claps. “I like Solaris. I want to hear her story.”
Beorn smirks. “Go on and pester her tomorrow night, but wait until she’s reading. She loves it when children interrupt her studies.
“Anyway, Theros scattered the enemy in time for us to get to your downed men. We saved who we could with potions and chased the surviving redorcs and the barbed rusty to the outskirts of your land.” Beorn chews his lip. “Which is when we ran into a creature of legend, the rusty lord I mentioned. It demanded souls be fed to it, or we would all suffer its wrath.”
Abbot claps his hands. “I know this story. This is the one where you all run away, and Jacob saves the day.”
Beorn frowns. “Let me guess. He told you that he saved folk with supernatural gymnastics, flipping onto a high rock and kicking people free from the giant rusty’s grip?”
“And did he say that he randomly guessed the creature’s secret name which gave us the clue to kill it?”
“And did he also go into great detail about his mystic fist disabling the rusty lord to save the day in a heroic fashion.”
Abbot nods. “Well, yeah.”
“Well, that’s horseshit.” Beorn crosses his arms. “The creature was defeated by teamwork and the horns of Theros.”
Tiny-nosed girl frowns. “Is that the fight where your friend becomes a giant and tries to kill you?”
“No. That happens later, but is related.” Beorn sighs. “Look, let’s keep things simple. Theros was ridden by redorcs, but we killed its rider and took him in. After joining our team, he killed redorcs to save your people and now he continues to help protect you.” Beorn picks up his grooming brush. “So, that’s why your chores now include caring for a gruff.”
Theros bugles again in his sleep, stomping his hooves and scaring gasps from the children. Beorn pets his neck until the gruff settles. He holds his finger to his lips and waves the young ones off to their homes.
Beorn, Ranger of Thorn—Colgrevance’s right hand
Colgrevance, Paladin of Valor—Leads from the front
Jacob, martial artist—tumbling scout with mystic fists
Solaris, sea witch—whimsical lover of the grotesque
Theros, giant goat—a gruff that serves as Beorn’s mount