The Profits of War
Two shadowed figures bet over an iron cauldron, the silence punctuated by soft bubbling and occasional, rough giggles. The scene was nestled in a dark glade within a forest, with a thin mist creeping forth from the trunks and encircling the twosome until it seemed as if they were knee-deep in a misty sea.
The clink of a moving spoon stopped when another, a cloaked neopet, appeared from the woods, carrying itself with an air of authority. The two witches at the pot gave pause to their doings and rushed to greet their fellow, who was hanging the outer cloak upon a wayward branch, revealing her Aisha ears.
"Sister, are you hurt? You cloak bears many scrapes!" cried the first witch, a lanky Poogle.
"I am fine, I am fine," muttered the Aisha. "Ah, how foul it is to see the forces of Kass descend upon our haunts. I cast a spell so they would avoid us, however, it seems to be that it gets harder and harder to acquire the herbs and poisons that we need for our profession." To punctuate this, she dropped a bag upon a table, letting the meager herbal contents spill upon the roughly sanded wood.
"Dear Nightshade, do not be vexed." A JubJub witch smiled, revealing sharp teeth. "After all, there is benefit to their coming."
"Of what sort, Hemlock?" queried the Aisha.
The JubJub leaped upon the table and pointed towards a few empty vials that were scattered on the far end. "Why, the customers, of course."
Nightshade's expression opened up like dawn with comprehension, and she grinned malevolently. Henbane the Poogle, dragging her cloak along the dew-cast grass, suddenly widened her eyes and began to speak in a low voice that rose in pitch with excitement, yet was no less than a hoarse whisper from her ragged throat.
"There comes one, a customer! A youth in livery of Skarl, a knight, distraught, is seeking an answer to his... concerns."
The witches leaped into action, their robes flying behind them as they prepared for the knight's presence. Hemlock began to ready the pot, which was still bubbling with green ooze, and Henbane was sorting through the vials in which to use, while Nightshade took care of the herbs that she brought.
Indeed, as foretold, the knight came. He was a green Kougra, with dulled harness of armor and a shabby blade. He was also pretty young, and Nightshade suspected that he was probably conscripted to fight shortly after Kass' tide of destruction spilled into the countryside, razing farms and burning fields.
"Welcome, Sir Knight," cackled Hemlock and turned around to greet the newcomer.
"I would not have come here... if the situation were not dire," said the Kougra cautiously, glancing around as if expecting someone undesirable.
"But it is, is it not?" queried Nightshade. "We witches can do all sorts of things; increase prowess, form adoration, riches, fame and more, all with a single potion or spell. Come forward, and tell us what you wish."
A flash of greed came into the eyes of the knight, and already the threesome knew that they had found the wound in which to pick.
"It was not long ago that a battle did occur..." the Kougra stammered.
"Ah yes, the Battle of Meri Acres." Henbane nodded wisely. "Was it not an ignominious defeat, where the fifth platoon fought against a more skilled battalion of Kass?"
"Yes... I was in that platoon." The knight paused, shifted awkwardly, and fumbled around with the hilt of his blade. "Anyways, I escaped, but I fear that I will be looked upon like a coward when I return."
"Get to the point, boy!" grumbled the JubJub witch.
"I want something that will – that will make me look like a hero. I want fame..."
"Is that all you want?" Nightshade grinned.
"Ahh... no. I want fame, adoration, riches, skill, everything!" The knight's eyes were pleading and his voice was laced with avarice.
Hemlock and Henbane exchanged triumphant glances while Nightshade began to walk over towards the cauldron, which was now magically emptied of the previous concoction and was filled to the brim with water. The fire underneath lit up with such suddenness that it made the inexperienced knight jump up with surprise. It was not long before the water was boiling, and Henbane began to chant, laughing all the while.
"Eye of Mortog,
This bless'd brew!"
A few of the said items began to drop methodically into the pot, puffs of noxious steam intermingled with smoke rising into the black canvas of overcast sky. All three sorceresses were now intoning before their creation, and a veil of expectancy dropped upon them all. The liquid was changing now, and their tone became more urging. Blue, green, and then a dark, foreboding red formed within the confines of the iron cauldron. Bursts of flame punctuated their syllables, and then rushed outward, ending their song and their cooking.
With a flourish, Nightshade stretched out a hand towards the waiting knight, and plucked a whisker from his cheek. The Kougra growled with surprise, but quieted as the little white hair was dropped from hand to pot, melting with a sizzle into the fluid.
Again did Nightshade stretch out her hand, but this time to grab two flasks from the table. Both were filled with the brew, but one was given to Hemlock, who inconspicuously dropped a few leaves into it, turning the liquid a more brilliant red before handing it back to Nightshade. Fortunately, the Kougra was too busy marveling at the first potion to notice the slight alteration in the second. Soon, both were brought before his hungry eyes.
"These are the potions of Might!" whispered the eldest Nightshade hoarsely, her eyes faintly glowing with power. "Drink and be as you wish to be, but drink the dark one only, not the bright one. And remember-"
She did not continue, for the knight clasped the flasks, flung them a sack of coins, thanked the witches profusely, and rushed out of the glade, laughing at his fortune. As soon as he was out of earshot, the three witches burst into peals of laughter of their own. "Foolish knight, be gone! You shall regret not listening to the instructions further." Henbane rumbled with mirth, pawing the coins as if they were priceless treasures.
Hemlock quickly made her way towards the cauldron, which was filled with greenish ooze once more. "Come hastily, my sisters! Let us see the fruits of our labor!" She took up the metal spoon with a foot and gently touched the seething liquid, making it still.
Nightshade and Henbane surrounded their sister and watched gleefully as the waters shimmered slightly to reveal a wide field. A field that would play host to a future battle.
"His greed will be his downfall," said Hemlock.
"His impetuousness will see his demise," agreed Henbane.
Nightshade said nothing. Wrapping her inner cloak around her tightly as a gush of wind flattened her ears, the witch glimpsed into the cauldron and smiled enigmatically.
"I fought them well, you see." A mighty warrior sipped his drink from a golden goblet and bequeathed upon his admirers a bright smile.
A nearby Scorchio princess sighed and swooned beside him, followed by an Ixi and a Moehog who did not wish to be left out of his glorious sights. The Kougra knight ignored their attempts for his attention and skewered a piece of cheese upon his claw, chewing slowly.
"I was surrounded by five Skeiths, each burlier than the King." The last was said in a quiet whisper, but the joke was sent across and the maidens tittered with amusement; everyone knew about Skarl's girth and few did not make droll comments about it.
"They slashed at me with their blades they did, but I dodged each one and defended myself bravely with my shield. One by one I took care of 'em; in the end they were so scared that I sent them running back to that dingy Citadel of theirs." All laughed heartily and the knight sipped his beverage once more, content.
Indeed, he was quite successful at the latest skirmish, and it was all due to his special potion. Liquid courage it was; each and every single battle he fought in was amazingly easy and he rarely tasted battle. But he saw it, and tended to exaggerate his stories based off of hearsay and what he saw himself in the thick of combat.
Now he was pretty well known. Maidens grew dreamy-eyed at his name, boys glared with envy, and now he had the best food and the best housings in the barracks because of his luck.
No one would forget the name Sir Galvin now!
The knight swelled with pride, especially when the Quartermaster arrived to inform him of another battle. Sir Galvin simply chuckled and bid his admirers elsewhere as he put on his armor and polished his sword. Today was going to be a big battle, the Quartermaster had said. Kass' Twelfth Platoon was to arrive, and it was intended to raze the fields just beyond Meridell Castle. What was worse – the Twelfth Platoon was the biggest one of all, and it filled even the once-cowardly-now-brave Kougra with foreboding.
Then again, there was a way to deal with that foreboding.
Sir Galvin grasped his sack and tore out a stained flask, grinning eagerly like a young child before an unopened gift. The difference here was that the gift was already opened, yea, and not as full as it was before, but it was still full of surprises.
The Kougra quickly pulled out the cork stopper and raised the flask to his lips, waiting for the warm sensation of the potion to go down his throat.
But it did not come.
At first, Sir Galvin thought that maybe there was a blockage, but when he looked inside, he realized that there was no blockage – there was not even a single drop of potion left. He began to panic, but then becalmed himself and uttered a long, deep sigh. He would just ask the witches again, no trouble. They would give him another potion, he would give him a coin, and all would be well.
There was only an inconvenient problem: the fields were located away from the Meridell Woods, and he was to report to the Training Grounds in five minutes. What could he do? What option did he have? Without the potion, he was just a train wreck who fought poorly. His fame and adoring crowds would trickle away like water from a cracked cup.
Again did panic rise in his throat and the knight began to feel woozy. As he swerved to hunker down upon his bed, his eyes caught a flash of red. Sitting, abandoned upon a dusty shelf, was the second potion given to him. The witches told him only to take the dark potion, but what about this red one?
Sir Galvin rushed to grab the flask and inspected it, suddenly overwhelmed with desire. Desire to have his power back. Surely nothing bad would happen if he took the second potion? After all, it a brilliant red, not like the murkier potion... maybe it was better than the previous one?
In a sudden rush of impulse, the Kougra tore off the stopper, fumbled a bit with the flask that was oh so slippery with dust, and felt the potion run down into his stomach. He felt a strange tingle in response, which was not the same as when he drank the first tonic, but the rush of courage and a sudden wish to dive into battle made him smile. Yes, this was the same potion.
Straightening, Sir Galvin quickly sheathed his sword and began to walk towards the Training Grounds to meet his own fighting squad.
The whole world had gone mad.
One moment, the brave knight was standing on the front lines, filled with pride, his eyes narrowed with determination and his muscles tensed with expectancy. But when the tide of purple and black began to run towards them, it seemed as if everything he felt but seconds ago had fled, and all that remained was but an empty, discarded shell.
With a high-pitched scream of terror, he tried to run away, but was met with a wall of shield and blade that prevented him his freedom. The two opposing forces met, black upon white, with a crash that made his ears ring. The Kougra dodged a swing of a sword and tried to crawl through the milling feet, the screams of battle rending the crisp morning air.
Of course, Sir Galvin tried his best to avoid the feet, but a quick yelp as he was stepped upon earned him the attention of a rather powerful looking Darigan Scorchio. In moments he felt himself overpowered by the larger soldier, and swung his sword to try and give himself enough time to escape. But the Scorchio was quick, and parried the blow, descending upon the hapless knight.
"You are now my prisoner, coward," he said loudly, as to be heard over the cries of combat.
Sir Galvin was about to muster up enough courage to spit back a reply and try to escape, but lost all of it when he saw his Quartermaster call for a hasty retreat against the never-ending tide of fighters. With a meek nod, he threw down his sword to accept his new title. The Scorchio tied his hands behind him and began to lead him towards a rather ominous camp set up about a mile away from the battlefield, grumbling something about the uselessness of war or something.
Maybe being a coward had its benefits, thought Sir Galvin bitterly, at least he wasn't injured in any way.
A gutless, greedy coward.
He deserved no less.
"I knew that the fool would do it!" cackled Henbane triumphantly and stretched out a paw to the Aisha. "You owe me ten neopoints."
Nightshade reluctantly parted with her coins and sat upon a rotting stump, her ears atwitch. "He deserved what he got," laughed Hemlock, adjusting her robe so that her seat upon an adjacent stump would be more comfortable. "Such avarice! If he had not been so greedy as to grab the second potion, he would not be sitting in the chilling dungeons of Darigan's Citadel right now. Or maybe he would anyway. He just needed a push, for all we know it was a good favour!"
Nightshade nodded absentmindedly. "It seems this war has not only brought us customers, but amusement as well."
As they all contemplated, the lanky Poogle suddenly raised her head, ears low, and her maw spread into a toothy grin. "What is it, Henbane?" queried the JubJub nearby.
"Speaking of customers... I think that we got another one..."