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  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Earthdawn-ish | Chapter 1 |



Chapter 1

Early morning of an early spring day in Crapaud, and the residents went about their usual business, much of which involved the local giant toad-farming industry. During the morning just about everyone got a visit from some member of the reeves' families, asking them to gather in the town square on the east bank for a meeting at noon. Of course everyone said they would be there.

And miss a chance to hear the exquisite babbling of our so-called town fathers? Terzin Bufon thought to himself, but smiled just the same, and said sure he'd come. As the meeting assembled, he naturally gravitated to the cluster formed by his few friends in this one-toad town, quasi-outcasts like himself: Jared, the quiet fisherman with a temper who didn't like to write poetry; Harrick, who was not only an orc with all that brought with it but was being trained as an Elementalist; and Terzin's cousin Robin, who hung around with the other three and was therefore also suspect.

Almost everyone in town was packed into the square, apparently to hear an announcement from Kendrick, representing his father the armiger. After a while he raised a hand, and the reeves began shouting for quiet.

"I'd like to thank everyone for coming. I've just spoken with several members of the Ram family as well as Mr. Cooper, and we have a potential situation," Kendrick announced. "Several sheep have gone missing in the past few days. Ordinarily this would not be much of a concern, but it is early spring, and there's a possibility that it might be time for another major culling. Ordinarily we would just arrange this with the Bufon and Wart families, but something more serious has happened. Keep it down in back, please? Mortimer Cooper hasn't been seen in the last 36 hours. He was last seen going out into the woods."

"What a pity," Terzin muttered. Robin kicked him. Mortimer was a scrawny kid who liked to wander the woods by himself when he wasn't pestering people, a few years younger than any of them—the sort likely to end up as toad kibble one day.

Kendrick went on, "That being the case, it's a combination of factors. There might be some bull toads out there, and young Mortimer has gone missing. I'm going to ask everyone who can spare the rest of the afternoon to get together in groups no smaller than four, and head out. Do some searching, see if you can't find Mortimer or any sign of him, and if you locate any toads older than three, three and a half years, either deal with the beast yourself or call in any of the toad wranglers in town. I don't expect everyone to go," he added, "but could you please come up and talk with Emmett or Emmanuel to state who's going where, so we can coordinate the searches."

A gift from the gods; something to do, something interesting, a change from routine, even a chance to do something important. The four all but pushed their way to the front of the crowd in their haste to volunteer.

"Robin, good," Emmanuel nodded, taking down their names. "Yourself, your cousin, Jared...." He didn't acknowledge Harrick, though he did write down his name. "If you could take the west side of the river, heading straight north. That's your family's land anyway, shouldn't be any problems. If you run into anything really nasty, remember you don't have to try to handle it on your own. If you find Mortimer, just bring him back."

"Yes, sir. I think we're gonna do just fine," Terzin assured him glibly. He was always a little too cheerful around adults to be sincere.

"I'm sure you will, lad."

They hurried off to get armor and weapons, anxious to be about their task and certain there would be nothing in it that they couldn't handle. Robin and Harrick had the y-shaped toad spears, Jared a straight spear, and Terzin had his prized short sword and bow. Terzin wanted nothing more in the world than be an adventurer and to get out of Toadtown, and he took his preparations seriously. He always told the others that they needed to think higher; it came of having been raised in the city, they figured. The fact that the other three tolerated his occasional oddities—even shared them, if to a smaller degree—was in large measure the basis of their friendship.

The four set off into the woods north of the town, covering ground slowly and methodically, searching for signs of Mortimer or wild toads of dangerous size. No one much went north for any reason, except Old Man Jenkins in his trapping and hunting. Harrick and Robin took the lead, with the most experience in the woods. They found some game trails, signs of other peoples' passage, and the prints of a very large toad. The possibility that it or one of its family had eaten Mortimer was on everyone's mind.

"What a tragedy that would be," Terzin commented out loud, now that they were away from the town.

Robin sighed. "You could try harder, Terzin." He always had such an attitude about things.

"I can let my guard down around you guys."

"And we are in fact incredibly touched," Harrick replied with a rolled eye.

"And that's why I like you, Harrick!" he grinned. "'Cause that's what I would have said to you."

"He's a git, but we don't want toads to eat Mortimer," Robin declared, trying to get them back on track. There was lackluster agreement on that score.

The trail wound near the river, then away again. Hours passed without sign. They discussed the various possibilities for Mortimer's death with the morbid cheer of normal teenagers. After some time the group turned into an unexpected clearing and froze as one. Dead center, maybe ten feet away, sat a huge bull toad and a smaller female. The big one was at least five years old; Robin guessed it probably weighed four hundred pounds. The other was probably three and a half years old.

Terzin scrambled for a tree, unlimbering his bow. Robin made a slight movement indicating that the other two should move out to flank it, staying in the middle of the path herself. A toad this size either saw a human as food or as part of the landscape. It considered the group with one bulbous eye. The heifer didn't seem inclined to attack on her own, but she might follow the other's lead. The bull made a short hop closer to Robin; it was within five feet, almost at the tip of her spear, which looked very slender and fragile all the sudden. No one moved.

Terzin felt a branch bending under his weight and shifted slightly, carefully. The branch moved back up. A flock of birds rose with a sudden rattle of wings. Robin glanced that way despite herself. The bull toad sprang in that moment of inattention, clamped its jaws on her arm and flattened her to the ground, partially under its vast weight.

Harrick went after the she-toad with a spell even as she lunged for him; a stream of thorns flew from his hand, forcing her to abort the attack and leap off to one side. Jared thrust his spear at the toad on Robin, but the point glanced off its side, opening up a cut but not wounding it seriously. Terzin aimed and fired; the toad sprouted an arrow from its back, but didn't seem very concerned about it. Robin dropped her useless spear and aimed a weak blow at the beast, trying to get loose.

Jared switched to his powerful fists and punched the toad solidly in the eye. It squealed, let go of Robin, much to her relief, and made a massive leap straight up. Toward Terzin. It missed him and slammed into the tree, which shuddered and cracked, before falling to the ground.

"Stupid animals," he muttered, grabbing for a branch as the tree swayed.

Harrick threw another barrage of thorns at the she-toad. Already bleeding from a thousand tiny cuts, this attack pretty much finished her, though she was still alive. The others had never seen him do anything like that; blending into backgrounds, doing neat things with wood, sure—this was new. They were more than a bit impressed, though Robin had to mourn the loss of the creature's hide—some other time.

Terzin drew his sword and dropped onto the bull toad from above while Robin scrambled out of the way and finally regained her feet. It was a good strike; the toad sprouted a sword to go with its arrow. It convulsed, throwing Terzin against a tree, which collapsed behind him. As he staggered backwards in an explosion of rotting wood, something fell onto him. It was a corpse. Terzin yelped and pushed it away, rolled over, grabbed his bow in a smooth motion and snapped off another shot into the thing's head.

The toad was still moving. It usually took them a while to figure out they were dead; no sense taking chances. Jared hit it again. Robin grabbed her spear and lunged at the toad at the same time as it went for Jared, slashing at its side. Toad blood spurted everywhere; Jared was left standing, a dead toad slumped half over him, its jaws clenched on his shoulder. Harrick finished off the female as the others made very sure the bull was dead.

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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al