Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Bat's Lair Inn (Spring, 898)

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but the Bat's Lair Inn was actually a decent looking place. There were only a few tables in the small eating area, and it only took a moment for me to spot Kuto-Lulu.

"Hello again," I said, stepping up to the table and pulling out the chair opposite his. "I made it through my registration without any problem, surprisingly."

Kuto-Lulu nodded, his mouth full of what could only be bretzel. "Sounds good," he said after a swallow. "Did you get a room yet?"

I nodded and sat down, my mouth almost watering from the bready aroma of his bretzel. "I got a single room, but they haven't assigned me just yet. I have to go back in an hour."

"Should have said you were here with twelve brothers and sisters. Then you could've had a huge house!" He giggled, making me reasonably sure he was only joking.

"Right, because frauding the republic out of free housing is the best way to start my life here in Bastok." I smirked, settling deeper into the chair, still eyeing up his bretzel. "Anyways, once I get settled in, I can decide what to do with myself. Rashid, the gate guard, said I could seek employment with one of the guilds." I shrugged, adding, "He said it's a way to make a decent living."

Kuto-Lulu nodded, his mouth full of bretzel once again. "But which guild would you join?" he asked after another large swallow. "The ones they have here are the alchemist, smithies and goldsmithing." He shrugged, adding, "Of those, I think goldsmithing sounds the best, but I never had any patience for that kind of work."

I nodded, my resistance finally breaking down. "I guess so. Hey, where do I get a bretzel? That one is killing me with how good it smells."

Kuto-Lulu pointed to the counter by the main door, where a Hume woman stood, looking rather bored. "That's Griselda," he said in a lower tone. "She runs the place here. Don't mess with her; I've seen her throw Galkas out that door."

I laughed, making my way over to the counter where Griselda stood. A sign looking slightly older than me proclaimed all manner of foods for sale for reasonable prices, but right now all I wanted was one of those bretzels.

"One bretzel, please," I said with a smile.

Griselda looked my way, and nodded, saying, "That'll be twenty-six gil, please." I nodded, and pulled some of the meager coins from my belt pounch, counted out twenty-six gil, and handed it to her.

"Thanks," she said with a small smile, depositing the coins into a pocket on her apron. She turned back to some shelves, gathering some ingredients. I watched, slightly confused. Was she going to make one from scratch for me?

As it turned out, she was. She combined the ingredients in a large bowl, mixing it up quickly. I saw a large egg, some flour, a knob of butter and some salt all go into the mix. Then, she produced a crystal with an internal red glow, much like the ones I had found.

She concentrated on the crystal, holding it over the bowl of combined ingredients, until suddenly a gout of raw fire was released, surrounding the bowl in a bright nimbus. The flame roared louder, finally culminating in an expanding ring before fading away complately.

Instead of a raw mix of ingredients in the bowl, there were a handful of steaming salted bretzels in a neat stack.

"Here you are," she said, handing one of them to me. "One bretzel."

I nodded my head, fascinated with the display I'd just seen. So much, in fact, that I didn't even register the heat of the bretzel in my hand until I reached the table, where I dropped it with a surprised hiss.

"Hot?" asked Kuto-Lulu, his eyes twinkling with unvoiced laughter.

"You know it is," I replied with a slight flush. "You saw her doing the crystal synthesis." I shook my hand lightly, though I wasn't even feeling any pain. "I had no idea a fire synthesis would be so hot afterward."

Kuto-Lulu cast a sidelong glance at me, his mouth slightly agape. "You've never done a synth before?" he asked, incredulously. "I didn't think there were people left on Vana'diel who had never done a synth." His eyes shined merrily, as he looked me over like some newly-discovered scientific specimen.

"I've done some synthesis before," I said, my cheeks flushing in spite of my best intentions. "Just not with fire. Only with wind, making arrowheads for my brother." I shrugged, then took a massive bite from my bretzel to try and disguise the flush in my cheeks. It really was tasty, with a crispy, salty outside and a doughy inside.

"I see you're a fan," said the Taru. "Having the first bite of a bretzel is like a religious experience, you know." He cocked an eyebrow as a few small giggles slipped out of his mouth.

"It's quite tasty," I said, licking the salt from my fingers. "Better than my Ma used to make, and she did it the old fashioned way, with a brick oven and patience." I chuckled, taking another huge bite from my bretzel. "I bet she's glad she doesn't have to do that anymore," I added, inclining my head toward Griselda.

"You bet yer Hauby," she exclaimed from her post at the counter, breaking into a series of shrill cackles.

"Well, if you want to be any sort of craftsman, you'll have to get used to more than just wind synths. They're using all the elements in almost every guild these days." The Taru shrugged, finishing off his bretzel in a few small bites.

I nodded, taking another, smaller bite of my own bretzel. "I know that," I said once my mouth was free. "I just can't decide which guild to look into. I know I could probably be a good goldsmith, but I just don't know if that's the path for me." I shrugged, nibbling some more on my bretzel.

"You want my advice?" asked Kuto-Lulu. Why did everyone assume that I needed advice? "You should go into goldsmithing. You never know when I might need to know a famous..and rich goldsmith!" He broke into another giggling fit, as I tried to look cross while finishing off my bretzel. As soon as it was gone, I wanted another one, but I could wait until I had a little more gil in my pouch.

"We'll see about that," I said with a short laugh. "I'm a long ways away from being either rich or famous, you know." I chuckled again, looking toward the door. "I suppose I should be heading back to the gate to get my housing assignment. It's probably been more than an hour."

Kuto-Lulu shrugged, saying, "Why should you care? It's not like they're going to give your house away to someone else. Besides, all the housing is the same at first, anyways. You have to make it your own home."

"Is there any furniture?" I inquired, suddenly a bit nervous. It wasn't like I had a lot of gil to spend on furniture, or anything else for that matter.

The Taru shrugged again, saying, "There's usually a cot, and a small chest of drawers for your things. You know, the basic amenities."

I nodded, letting out a sigh of relief. "Good to hear," I said with a smile. "It'll be nice to sleep inside tonight." I stood up, brushing a few errant crumbs from my tunic, and turned toward the door. "You coming?" I asked Kuto-Lulu over my shoulder.

"No thanks," he replied. "I've got some business to take care of in the metalworks district. Why don't we meet up at the main gate later?"

"Sounds good," I replied with a short nod. "I'll do some thinking about a craft while I'm out. Maybe I can come up with an idea that isn't completely ridiculous." I laughed softly, pushing the door open and holding it for the Taru.

Kuto-Lulu nodded to me, turning up the north-bound street. "We can talk about it later. There's no rush, as long as your supply of gil holds out." He giggled, and disappeared into the crowd.

"Holds out.." I muttered, self-consciously patting my thin pouch of gil. Though I knew it could turn into a problem before too long, I had faith that I could make something happen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bastok: Mines District (Spring, 898)

I walked in through the gate, and got my first look at the mines district of Bastok.

To be honest, the only impressive thing about it was its size. The streets were quite dirty, and everything seemed to be the same uniform shade of beige stone. The smell was a bit oppressive, which is bound to happen when you pack so many people into a city, no matter how large.

"Where do we go first?" I inquired, looking expectantly.

"You have to register with the gate guard," Kuto-Lulu replied, motioning over to a blonde man standing near the gate with a large book close at hand.

"Why do I have to do that?" I asked, anxious to begin exploring the new city.

"All sorts of reasons," came the reply. "They need to assign you temporary housing, plus you can't apply for citizenship without being 'on the books', so to speak." He paused, then added, "And if a guard catches you, they can eject you from the city and fine you. Let's not do that."

I nodded with a quick sigh, and headed over to the short line in front of the gate guard.

"Are you going to wait here with me?" I asked, as the Taru made no move to join me.

"Why would I? I'm already registered," he replied with a giggle. "I'll tell you what, meet me over at the Bat's Lair Inn. It's just down this street," he said, waving northward with his hand, "and through the small arch. You can't miss it." He giggled again, and disappeared through the crowds toward the north.

I waited in line patiently for my turn to speak with the blonde man. Though there were only a handful of people in life in front of me, it still took quite a while before I finally stepped up.

"Welcome to Bastok," he said in a dull tone, looking me over carefully. "I'm Rashid, of the Iron Musketeers. How can I help you today?"

"I'm here to register," I said with a smile. "It's my first time in Bastok."

He nodded, pulling the large book closer. "Name?" he asked, not looking up from the paper.

"Aspen," I replied, trying to remain cheery.

"Where are you from, Aspen?"

"From the Konschtat Highlands." I wondered just how many times he had done this today.

"Reason for your visit?"

"Seeking a trade."

"Ahh, one of those." He gave a short laugh, jotting the information down. "My advice would be for you to check with one of the local guilds, or else get good at adventuring."

"Thank you," I said, slightly taken aback by the sudden show of humour in Rashid. "I'll have to do that."

"Don't mention it," he replied. "Now, are you here alone, or with family?"

"Alone," I said, wondering the significance.

'Single house,' he wrote on the paper, then asked, "Any skills of note?"

I hesitated a brief moment, then said, "None, really. Not bad with a staff, I guess."

He nodded, again jotting everything down. "Well, Aspen," he said, "we can give you a small living quarters to stay in at this time. I'll get this information processed, and if you come back in an hour, I can give you the key." He nodded, and added, "Was there anything else I could do for you today?"

I hesitated, then nodded and said, "I may be interested in signing up for military service. I've heard it's a decent living."

He leaned in close, his voice dropping to a hushed tone. "Do you want my advice?" Then without pausing for an answer, "Be an adventurer who takes on work for the military. Don't sign on. It's fine once you get a little rank under you, but for new recruits, it's a tough job." He shrugged, as if to say, 'take it or leave it.'

"Thanks," I said with a smile, slipping to the side. "I'll be back in an hour or so."

I began wandering northward, looking around at the buildings and people as I walked. I suppose it tattooed a giant 'Tourist!' sign on my forehead, but I didn't care.

As I rounded a corner, I caught sight of a milling crowd of people in front of a large building. As I drew a little closer, I saw they were all standing in front of a series of counters, all waving their arms and shouting at the people who, luckily, were behind sturdy-looking steel grates.

"What's this?" I asked an official looking man on the steps of this building.

"This is the auction house," he replied with a friendly smile. "Anyone can put their items up for public sale for a modest fee, and of course anyone is able to buy. We make it so no one has to sit at their own bazaar all day."

"A nice idea," I said, remembering the long days trying to sell our produce. "Certainly are a lot of people here," I added, looking around.

The man let out a short laugh, then said, "You should see the auction house in Jeuno easily twice the size, and that's just the main office."

I nodded, privately thinking that the man was just humouring me. "Sounds pretty immense." I looked over the crowds again, then asked, "Say, do you know where the Bat's Lair Inn would be? I'm supposed to be meeting someone there."

"Sure thing," he replied. "Just go around this corner here," he said, pointing west, "and then turn north. Take a right through the small arch, and it will be right there." He nodded, saying, "The bretzels there are legendary. Very good." He laughed, then added, "Make sure you come back and check out the auction house."

"I will," I replied, already walking around the massive construction.

I followed his directions, and soon arrived at the small archway. I swear, I could already smell the bretzels cooking. I passed through the archway and entered the door for the Bat's Lair Inn.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Road to Bastok, Part III (Spring, 898)

I rose early the next morning, simultaneously happy and dismayed that Kuto-Lulu had not woken me up for a watch. I stretched a bit, looking around for my diminutive companion, finally spotting him a few dozen yards away, doing some sort of exercise.

"What's that you're doing?" I questioned as I drew closer, evidently startling him out of his current pose.

"It's a form of stretching," he answered, raising his arms up over his head and gracefully moving back into position. "Keeps me limber, and builds endurance."

"Maybe I should try some of that," I said, eyeing up the easy-looking stretching.

"Don't be silly," he replied with a smirk. "It's a lot tougher than it looks; and besides, you won't need this training if you end up in some magic unit. You'll be working on the powers of the mind instead." He giggled, and let his arms down gently. "I suppose you want to get moving?"

"Of course," I replied. "I'd like to make it into Bastok today, if possible." I looked downward among the trail speculatively.

"Of course we'll make it today," came the response. "It's just around the corner for the main gate. We probably could have made it in last night, but finding someplace to sleep is a lot tougher when it's already dark."

I nodded, and then added, "And you probably wanted to have that little talk, too."

Kuto-Lulu grinned in response, and we got down to the menial task of breaking camp. Before too much longer, we were back on the road toward Bastok.

"Shouldn't we be able to see the city by now?" I complained, looking around as we walked. "I mean, it's a huge city, right?"

Kuto-Lulu stopped, and looked over at me. "You really don't know?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with mirth.

"Know what?" I replied shortly, not appreciating being the butt of the joke.

"Bastok was built inside a mountain," he replied slowly, as if explaining to a child. "To be specific, this mountain," he added, sweeping his hand toward the massive stone outcropping to our left. "We're just headed for the gate." He giggled, clearly amused by my lack of knowledge.

"Oh," I said, flushing with embarrassment. "It's not like I've ever been here before, you know. I thought-"

Kuto-Lulu cut me off with a wave of his hand. "I'm just teasing you, Aspen," he said with a smirk. "You take the bait way too easily, you know." He giggled again, and we resumed walking around the massive stone wall.

"How did they get the mountain hollowed out?" I asked, more for the point of making conversation.

"A lot of years, and most of it was Galka power. They're good at things like that, you know. And I'm sure the Humes helped too. Probably built some giant machine to move the rocks for them, though. Galkas love to do that sort of thing by hand."

"I'll have to remember that, next time I need a hole dug." I laughed, my gaze continually drawn to that rock face. It was so big! How could anyone-or anything hollow out an entire mountain?

As we made our way past the corner of the rounded mountain base, I saw that the little Taru was right: Carved into the side of the mountain was a massive white stone gate. We walked forward, joining with the small flow of people waiting to enter the city.

'Here we go,' I thought to myself, with a little anxiety. 'For fortune or ill.'

As if reading my thoughts, Kuto-Lulu turned to me and smiled.

"Welcome to Bastok."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Interlude: The Back Story (Spring, 898)

We sat around our small campfire, eating the last of what actually turned out to be a pretty decent meal.

"How did you manage to find such tasty things to eat?" asked Kuto-Lulu, scraping the last of his plate clean.

"It comes with being the son of a farmer," I replied, looking into the small flames. "You learn what you can eat and what to avoid. Sometimes you can even make it taste pretty good." I smiled, leaning back against my pack. "And I brought some of it with me, like the dried meat and some of the greens. So it wasn't all found around here."

"Well, it would've been nice to have you along on some of my other adventures, you know. We travellers always appreciate a good cook." Kuto-Lulu belched softly, then covered his mouth and giggled. "My compliments to the chef," he said, his eyes shining mischievously.

I laughed easily, and scooted a little closer to the fire in an effort to keep warm. "It certainly gets cold around here at night," I remarked. "To be honest, I'd hoped to be in a nice cozy inn by now." I laughed, looking upward into the night sky, and added, "Though this is nice."

A faint scuffling sound to me right told me that Kuto-Lulu was moving closer, probably to have that little talk he had alluded to earlier.

It was several more quiet moments before he spoke, his voice sounding uncharacteristically serious. "What's your real story, Aspen?" he asked. "You say you're the son of a farmer, and you certainly look the part. But then you can cast White Magic, which you need training to do, so..?" He trailed off, leaving the question hanging.

I sighed gently, shifting my gaze back down to the fire. "I am the son of a farmer," I began after a moment, "but not truly by my birth. From the way my Da told it, they found me sleeping in one of the windmills one day on the Konschtat Highlands. They took me home, and no one ever came to claim me." I shrugged gently, keeping my gaze steady on the flames.

"But what about the magic," came the interruption from my right, the Taru evidently deciding I would never get to the point without some help.

I help up my hand gently. "I'm getting to that," I said with a faint smile. "As you know, it usually takes some time and training to be able to cast magic of any kind. I...never had any kind of training, at all. I've always been able to do a small amount just by willing it to happen."

Kuto-Lulu nodded, silently urging me to continue.

"My Da told we should keep it a secret. He said that others...wouldn't understand. And of course, there's a few people who would really want to find out why I can do these things without training." I shuddered a bit, adding, "I really don't want to spend the rest of my life as some study subject."

"Oh, I hear there's plenty of gil in being a study subject," Kuto-Lulu said, trying to make light of the situation. "My uncle did that for a while, and he made enough to buy a dhalmel farm!"

I laughed, shaking my head gently. "Is that the same uncle who was the first Taru to climb Dekfult's tower? Or the one who fell into Ifrit's Cauldron and lived to tell the tale?"

"Nooo.." came the defensive reply, as Kuto-Lulu began giggling.

"In any case," I continued, "we hid the fact that I could do these simple spells from everyone for my whole life. But recently, my Da decided I should have a better life than that of a farmer, and urged me to head into the city to seek my fortune." I shrugged, adding, "I suppose he thought I would take up life as a cleric in the Republic Army."

Kuto-Lulu giggled, saying, "And I can be the first person to say I knew Gold Musketeer Aspen when he was knee-high to a Quadav." At this, he dissolved into a fit of giggles, rocking back and forth on the ground.

I nodded, saying, "And that brings us up to this point. I'm headed into the city, trying to figure out how on Vana'diel I'm going to make ends meet."

"Welll...," interjected the Taru, "you could always be an adventurer, like myself. Your talents could really come in handy in the field, you know. You'd have no trouble finding yourself a nice group to fall in with."

I shrugged, saying, "I never pictured myself as the adventuring type, you know. I always figured I'd be a farmer like my Da, scraping an honest living out of the soil. It might lack a bit in excitement, but it's a lot safer." I laughed, and added, "Though I would like to see the world. Farmers don't get to do that."

Kuto-Lulu nodded emphatically, saying, "That's right! You want to see the world, you have to be an adventurer, like me!"

"Let me sleep on it," I practically yawned, rolling out my bedroll by the fire. "Do you mind taking the first watch? Those spells left me a little tired." I laughed softly, already looking forward to crawling between the blankets.

"Go ahead and sleep," replied the Taru. "I'll make sure no harm comes to us in the middle of the night."

I drifted off to sleep quickly, glorious visions of adventure-dom dancing in my head.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Road to Bastok, Part II (Spring, 898)

Unfortunately, the road to Bastok proved to be a very hot and dry one.

" much further is it?" I panted as we mounted yet another crest in the road. I think my question was justified, as we'd been walking since our little turtle encounter, and the sun looked just about ready to set.

"Just a few more hills," answered Kuto-Lulu, punctuating his response with a short giggle.

I have to admit, I was less amused. The Taru had proven to be better at travelling than me, and was handling the journey with a lot more style.

"Easy..easy for you to say," I responded, slowing down slightly as we approached the crest of the hill. "I have to tell you, I wasn't prepared for quite so many hills." I found a conveniently placed rock beside the trail, and sat down to catch my breath.

Kuto-Lulu strolled up beside me, the beginnings of another fit of laughter playing across his features. "Are you tired again?" he demanded, putting his hands on his hips and glaring at me. "At this rate, we'll never make it to Bastok!"

"I'm sorry," I puffed, slightly embarrassed. "I'm not used to walking quite so much. Farm work I could do all day, every day; but this.." I trailed off, looking at the desolate landscape. "In a more forgiving climate, I'm sure I would be in Bastok already. This is killing me." I laughed softly, stretching a bit, and stood again, ready to continue walking.

"Finally!" was the response, as an eager Kuto-Lulu fell in step beside me. "Did I ever tell you about the time I got lost in Castle Oztroja? I wandered in looking for-"

I looked over as his story was suddenly cut off, only to see his whole body enveloped in an ominous purple-black cloud. I straightened, looking around anxiously for the source of this magical attack.

"Poi..poison," spat out Kuto-Lulu, his body wracking from the spell's effect. He gained his feet, hunched over in pain. "We find the caster," he managed, gritting his teeth against the poison.

"There," I said, pointing in front of us, where a dark shape was barely discernible against a rock. I started towards the shape, pulling my staff free from its sheath on my back.

"I're good with..that stick of yours," said Kuto-Lulu, struggling to keep up as the poison sapped his strength. "I won't be much good against this one."

As we drew closer to the rock, the dark shape separated itself, heading toward us quickly. The distinctive sound of a blade clearing its sheath rang out as the masked adversary came into the light.

"Damn gobbies," grunted Kuto-Lulu, dropping into a defensive fighting stance. "I should've known!"

I followed suit, gripping my staff in a defensive fighting style. I was a little nervous, as we'd had some pretty intense Goblin raids on the farm where I was raised. I'd battled them before, but never with just one comrade. Especially not just one poisoned comrade.

The Goblin charged in, its dagger swinging down in an arc toward Kuto-Lulu. Just as it seemed it would end the fight, he dodged out of the way, and landed a quick series of punches on the beastman's torso. At the same time, I closed in and took a powerful swing at the side of his head with my thick ash staff.

The Goblin fell back a couple steps under our assault, seeming suddenly unsure of itself. It turned toward me, somehow judging me the bigger threat. Perhaps that poison had taken more out of my Taru friend than I had originally thought.

He stepped toward me, his dagger flashing in the setting sun as it flashed toward me. I darted to the left an instant too slow, and the slash meant for my face ended up glancing off my elbow, leaving a shallow cut.

I hissed in pain, and closed in again, swinging my staff overhead in an effort to end this fight quickly. The Goblin, however, raised his shield to deflect my blow, and slashed his dagger at Kuto-Lulu as he closed in as well.

The blow stuck true, leaving a vicious cut across the Taru's torso. Kuto-Lulu cried out, and fell to one knee, clutching his bleeding chest. The Goblin grunted and stepped forward, ready to deliver the finishing blow.

I gave a hoarse shout, and shifted my grip on my staff. I stepped up behind the Goblin, and swung with all my might. The resulting blow left my hands numb, but the satisfying crunch it made on impact was well worth it.

The Goblin turned towards me, the dagger falling out of its grasp as it staggered backwards. It fell to the ground, its body going limp. I breathed a sigh of relief, then rushed over to where Kuto-Lulu was crouched.

"I'm..I'm afraid, Aspen," he said, not shifting his gaze from the ground. "I'm hurt..pretty bad. And this poison.." He trailed off, his body shaking gently.

I shook my head gently, and gathered in my will, placing my hand on Kuto-Lulu's shoulder, and whispered, "Poisona." A sharp, white light pierced the dark aura around his body, quickly dissolving it into a mist. I braced myself, and whispered, "Cure," watching as the magic began to close the gash on Kuto-lulu's chest. Exhausted, I stepped back, and picked up my staff from where it had fallen.

I felt a small hand place itself into mine, and turned to look into the grateful eyes of Kuto-Lulu. "Thank you," he said warmly, smiling at me. "And now...we're even," he said with a short giggle, unmindful of the danger we had just been in. He got to his feet, and headed over to the body of the Goblin, and began looking through the pouches along its belt.

"Let's see..some raw meat," he began, casting the item in question aside. "A bit of chocolate..some cloth.." He trailed off for a moment, his hands busy. "Aha!" he exclaimed, holding up some red crystals, "two fire crystals, and a handful of gil." He held the coins and the crystals out to me.

"Oh, I don't need.." I began, before I was cut off by the Taru pressing the items into my hand.

"You know you need these more than I do," he said, his eyes bright. "Plus..your kill, your gil." He giggled, stepping away to grab the Goblin dagger. He appraised it, his bright eyes looking over the dark metal. "Worthless," he said after a moment. "Some of these daggers get pretty awful," he said with another giggle.

"You should be glad it was so dull," I said, pointing to his torso. "Otherwise you would have been beyond help, you know." I laughed softly, and turned back to the road, saying, "What do you think? Should we make camp, or press on for the city?"

"Oh, let's make camp," he replied. "I think you've heard enough about me, Aspen. There's a few things I'd like to know about you.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Road to Bastok (Spring, 898)

As I walked along the long, dusty road toward Bastok, I couldn't help but curse the situation that had brought me here.

"Stupid farmers.." I muttered under my breath, ignoring the fact that my own parents were considered among that group. "Not making enough money..stupid military service," I continued muttering, trudging along with my head down.

"Look out!" I heard from somewhere to my left, just before an enormous, jagged sword came slashing down in front of me. I looked up slowly, directly into the ugly, grinning face of a Quadav.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Quadavs, imagine a turtle the size of a man, standing on its hind legs. Then give it plenty of muscle, armor, and a huge sword. Yeah, that's about right.

I broke into a cold sweat, dodging to the right side as the Quadav raised his sword again, but he proved to be quicker than I had expected, and knocked me to the ground with a quick bash from his shield. I exhaled and closed my eyes, waiting for the inevitable as the Quadav raised his sword again.

Nearly half a minute later, I dared to peek out again, as the inevitable seemed to be taking an awfully long time to arrive. Instead of a six-foot reptile, there was a very short Taru looking back at me, struggling very hard to hold in his laughter.

" should have seen the look on your face!" he said, holding his stomach as he doubled over with laughter. "Just sitting there with you...with your eyes closed," he nearly squealed, literally falling over in gales of laughter.

I picked myself up, my face burning. "Thanks...for your help," I muttered, brushing my tunic off and looking for my dropped pack. I found it a minute later, and shifted it onto my shoulder, resuming my travel toward the road.

"Wait..wait," came the voice from behind me, as the Taru came running up behind me, his short legs pumping. "All I get is a grudging 'thank you'? I saved your life there!"

My face burned again as I turned to face my savior. "I would offer you some money," I began, "but I really don't have much beyond the clothes on my back. I'm headed to the city," I continued, inclining my head in a general eastward direction.

"I..I don't think I would want your gil anyways," he responded, looking over my clothes briefly. "You seem like you're having a hard time of it, and I would hate to make it even tougher." He began to walk beside me, keeping up with my slow pace. "Why don't I come with you," he suggested, his eyes growing bright. "I've been to Bastok at least a hundred; no, two hundred times!" He giggled again, looking me over.

I blushed again under the scrutiny. While I certainly wasn't wearing rags, the budget of a simple farm family doesn't really allow for finery. My favorite blue tunic wasn't too patched, and my boots weren't even a decade old, yet.

"I suppose I wouldn't mind a little company," I said slowly, wondering if I would end up regretting this decision. "Makes the trip go faster, and I who knows when we might run into trouble." I smiled, as if to allay my silent fears. "My name's Aspen," I said, extending my hand down to the Taru.

"I'm Kuto-Lulu," said the Taru, grinning broadly as he put his little hand inside mine. "I made the trip from Mahura. You ever been there? It's all the way across the ocean. I took a big ferry, and we saw some pirates! And a giant squid-thing!"

I smiled back, listening to Kuto-Lulu's tales grow even taller as we headed down the road together. If anything, perhaps the trip would be a little less dull.