(Characters & Summary)
(Prologue) (Next Chapter)
The chief of the capital’s city-guard looked at the ever-mounting stack of papers on his desk, and sighed. Rolling the empty stump of his cigar from one end of his mouth to the next, he rubbed his bald head as he contemplated the mess his office had become. There were papers everywhere; not just on the desk, but on the floor, against the wall, in the mess-hall and even in the restroom, where they were put to proper use. What had happened to that young and handsome dwarf that was the bane of criminals, the infatuation of women and envy of men? He had become entombed in paperwork; a former emperor mummified by memos.
A small yet insistant pile was the one of complaints of a supernatural order; unexplainable phenomenons and the like. There weren’t many of these cases, but what little there were clung to the chief’s desk like flies to rotting meat. His men had the time, the courage nor the expertise to deal with ghosts.
He used to have a Special Spirit Squad to deal with these kinds of supernatural cases, but they met with an…unfortunate accident. It was time to form a new team to quell the rising tide of requests, so he had put out a call for help. An exorcist, a detective and some muscle in case they ran into trouble. Simple. Basic.
Sadly, only four ‘suitable’ individuals had applied to the position. So far, only one of them had arrived at the office.
The surly chief hopped from his chair and peeked through the blinds, spying into the waiting room where the newly appointed Special Spirit Squad was to gather. The strange toad-creature was still the only recruit there. It was early, but still; the chief would have liked it if the others had been, too. Punctuality is silver, arriving early is gold.
Why did only freaks and nutjobs apply to these positions? His recruiter had informed him that yes, this frog – or toad, whatever – was the exorcist, and yes, it understood Common, it just didn’t say much. Best case scenario? Strong and silent type. The chief could use strong, and silence was always pleasant. Worst case? It would eat somebody’s kid and invite an expensive lawsuit.
The toad was pacing back and forth across the waiting room, waggling in an awkward way. It looked ridiculous in the armor his men had outfitted it with; like a frog with scales – or toad, whatever – but the extra protection was no luxury considering what had happened to the last exorcist.
What was that thing thinking? Did it think? The chief couldn’t read that big dumb face at all. He stared at the crooked legs, fascinated. Those things were obviously made for jumping and swimming, not for walking. Toads weren’t supposed to get this big. Or apply for jobs as exorcists. None of this made any sense. Then again, he was dealing with the supernatural. Fight fire with fire, let the freaks take care of each other. Where were his matches? His cigar had gone out.
As the chief spat out his stump and lit a fresh cigar, the toad waggled towards the water-cooler. It drew a cup and splashed some on its face, spilling most on the floor. A huge tongue flopped out of its mouth, ready to scoop the spillage, but as soon as it tasted the ground it retracted with a snap. Then the toad tried to wash off the dirt on its tongue with water from the cooler, spilling even more on the floor, prompting her to take out her tongue again to scoop it up…
Just as the cycle threatened to repeat itself the door to the rest of the station swung open, letting two newcomers in: An exotic warrior with a yellowish complexion carrying strange, thin blades, and a tall figure with flowing golden hair and piercing blue eyes. The warrior was carrying a bucket of colorfully-wrapped taffies and was casually talking to his comrade with his mouth full of candy. His companion only seemed to be listening with half an ear.
“Is it really so hard to make these offices horse-accessible? They only need to widen the doors a little. And what’s with all these stairs? Add some ramps! Havíer can’t-”
“I’M GLURF,” the toad belted out, interrupting the warrior’s rambling and surprising him so badly he gulped down a mouthful of taffy and started to choke.
“O geez, O Heqet, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
The fair figure rolled his eyes and smiled. He slapped his companion on the back, causing him to eject a disgustingly molten-together ball of brown taffy to the floor. “Gesundheit,” he quipped, not all-together unsympathetically.
“Thanks, Nate!” said the yellow-skinned human in between coughs. He wiped the tears from his eyes, grinned and pointed at the blob of taffy on the floor. “Do you want some candy?”
Glurf looked at the blob. It didn’t look very appetizing to them.
“Well, not that candy, obviously, I mean-”
“How about introductions first, hm?” suggested the fair figure. “My name is Nathaniel Sharp, aasimar inquisitor of Serenbae.” Nathaniel approached Glurf and offered them his hand. Glurf hesitated, but ultimately took it.
“I’m Glurf.” said Glurf.
Glurf’s skin was sticky with mucus, some of which stuck to Nathaniel’s hand. The inquisitor studied it carefully, curiously sniffing the stuff and tapping his fingers to his palm to test the strength of the adhesive. When he was satisfied, he rubbed the mucus off on his armor and looked Glurf straight in the eye, expecting them to say something. Yet, the toad remained silent, trying to avoid the aasimar’s gaze.
“The exorcist, I presume?” Nathaniel asked after some time.
“Uhm, yes, ek-sor-sist,” confirmed Glurf slowly, stressing each syllable separately.
“Which means you are a cleric of sorts?” Nathaniel added, indicating the toad’s armor, shield and mace.
“Of Heqet, yes.”
“Heqet,” Sharp repeated carefully, tasting the word, savoring it. “Heqet. Can’t say I’ve heard of Them. Where are you from, Glurf?”
Glurf was getting increasingly nervous as the aasimar questioned them. Sensing their discomfort, the yellow-skinned human butted in.
“Alright that’s enough questioning for now, inspector Sharp,” he quipped cheerfully. “I’m Koumi Ko, a samurai and veteran of the Yonder Wars.” Ko reached into his bucket and unwrapped a taffy for Glurf. “Candy?”
Glurf whipped out their tongue and scooped up the candy from the palm of Ko’s hand, swallowing it whole.
“Woah!” Yelled Ko in surprise as he reflexively withdrew his hand. “That’s…huh.”
“I’m sorry!” Glurf belted out immediately.
“O, no, it’s fine, it’s just…”
“Different,” said Nathaniel. “I’m sure that, for a huge toad, picking something – especially food – up with the tongue would be as natural, if not more so, than with the hand.”
“Uhm, y-yes, that’s right,” said Glurf, their eyes lighting up with thanks.
“I’d appreciate a warning first, next time,” said Ko, clutching the touched hand by the wrist and shaking off the saliva. “Since it’s not as normal for the rest of us.”
The door to the rest of the office swung open and another human burst into the waiting room, panting and sweating all over his toned body. He wore a very tight leather outfit that showed off his meticulously groomed muscles and had a bow and quiver strapped to his back. Posing dramatically, he seized the stopwatch that was swinging across his chest and hammered down on the one button.
“Tch – sixty-five minutes and thirty-three seconds. Disappointing.”
“Hi!” said Ko, “Candy?”
The human snorted in distaste, curling his upper lip and wrinkling his nose. “No thank you – empty calories. I will have some water.”
“Here,” said Glurf, offering some from the water-cooler.
“Thank you,” said the newcomer. He took the water, but did not drink immediately; he studied it first, swirling it around in the cup with the air of a potion-brewer. “This is just water, right? It’s not been carbohydrated?”
“Uhm…” grunted Glurf in confusion.
“With fizz,” translated Nathaniel.
“N-no, no fizz…”
“Alright, then,” said the sweaty human, downing the cup in one long swig. “Ah! Refreshing!”
“I think we can presume that this gentleman will be our fifth and final member, completing our ranks,” said Nathaniel.
“Five? I’m only counting four,” said the newcomer.
“You’re the fifth,” Ko insisted. “The second member is waiting outside.”
“Second? Does that make me third?” said Nathaniel, feigning offense as a jest.
“Don’t get competetive. I love you both equally, but I’ve known him longer,” said Ko. “Anyhow, what’s your name, sir?”
Ko let out a snicker. “Really? Maurice?”
“Yes, Maurice, what’s wrong with Maurice?”
“Nothing, nothing, it’s just that-”
“I’m Glurf!” said Glurf
“And my name is Nathaniel Sharp,” added the inquisitor, “and this sweet-tooth is called Koumi Ko.”
“I already declined, thank you very much.”
“I’ll have another one!” said Glurf.
This was quite enough ruckus for the chief. He widened the slit in the blinds through which he had been spying on his new recruits and yelled at them to come inside. “Alright you bums! Are you finished with your little chitchat? I haven’t got all day!”
“That’s our cue,” said Nathaniel, opening the door and brazenly stepping inside. Ko joined him, followed by Glurf, with Maurice in the rear.
Since the chief had been smoking a fresh cigar – and many, many stale ones before that – the whole room was filled with thick smoke. Glurf instantly looked nauseous, shifting colors like a sick chameleon. The chief rummaged through his papers, casually knocking some over and producing a small chest. Glurf swooped down to help pick up the fallen leaflets, inviting a sharp yell. “Don’t touch that!”
“Hrmph. Honestly, you’re an exorcist, not a secretary. Which reminds me: I need to hire a secretary. Remind me to hire a secretary.”
“Yes, sir!” said Glurf.
“Not you! That’s what a secretary is for!”
The beleaguered chief sighed and took a long drag from his cigar. “Nevermind all that. Since the last Special Spirit Squad met an…unfortunate fate, complaints of a supernatural nature have been piling up. Literally”
“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about that,” said Ko. “What did you expect when you hired an all-women squad? Women can’t do exorcisms. They’d bleed their panties out of fear whenever they’d see a ghost. Ghost-busting is a man’s job.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t just hear that,” said the chief as he dropped on all fours, crawling underneath his desk to sift through the papers on the floor. “I can’t afford to have my blood pressure raised any higher; I’ve already had three aneurysm this week alone.” He swiftly compiled a neat little stack and handed it to Nathaniel. “Here’s the jobs. And here’s your badges,” he added, indicating the small chest. Ko eagerly snatched it, handing the badges out like candy. When he was finished, he looked down at the chief, frowning.
“I’m sorry, who?” asked the chief.
“His horse,” explained Nathaniel.
“Is he serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” huffed Ko. “He’s as much part of the team as anyone else; he deserves a badge. He needs a badge.”
“Are you…are you taking the piss?”
“Which reminds me,” Ko continued, “you really need to make these offices more horse-accessible. Haviér couldn’t even fit through the door.”
“Fine, fine,” bit the chief, “I’ll get your damn horse a badge.”
“Haviér Estaban Gonzales,” dictated Ko, “noble equestrian partner-in-arms. O, and don’t forget the accent aigu on the ‘e’. He gets very upset when people misspell his name.”
“I’m sure he does,” remarked the chief sarcastically. He sat back down and looked at his newly-appointed Special Spirit Squad through the mountains of paperwork. “Well? What are you goofing around for? The Hill Giant Bus to Lamelf leaves in an hour. Dismissed!”
As his newly appointed Special Spirit Squad left for their first missions, the chief could not help but worry. Fine bunch of clowns these were. The detective seemed fine, but the muscle was a loon and the exorcist an actual toad, and he didn’t even remember why he had hired the fourth – or fifth, whatever – guy. What even were his qualifications? He was carrying a bow. Was he a ranger, a tracker, maybe? What would they even need a tracker for? Ghosts didn’t leave any traces!
Better put out another ad.
Just outside the office, basking in the late morning sun, stood the last member of the Special Spirit Squad, the magnificent Haviér Estaban Gonzales, a once-in-a-generation pale stallion with flowing golden manes. The beautiful beast scraped his hoofs on the pavement impatiently, neighing angrily at any pedestrian that dared look upon him without paying the proper respect. Haviér would only admit gazes of the purest admiration; here was an animal that demanded worship, rather than the base attention that so easily amused lesser beasts.
A small child approached Haviér, nervously balancing a sugar-cube on his open palm. Behind him stood his mother, encouraging the child with a warm smile. “Go on Clarence, I’m sure he won’t bite.”
She was wrong.
As soon as the human creature punctured Haviér’s killzone, the stallion snapped his powerful jaws at the boy, forcing him to drop the sugar-cube and sending him to run to his mommy, crying. Haviér took the cube, triumphant.
“Why, I never!” remarked the mother, “What a poorly trained horse!”
“Why, I never!” thought Haviér, “What a poorly trained human.”
Thankfully, Haviér did not have to endure any more disgrace, as the Master was finally done, appearing with his good companion ‘Nate,’ and two new people.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Haviér,” said Ko to his horse. Ko was proudly wearing his shiny new badge on his chest, showing it off for all to see. Haviér neighed and jabbed his nose at it.
“They didn’t have one for you yet.”
The horse neighed with indignance and turned from his master.
“I know! That’s what I said!”
Nathaniel, who had come to expect these kinds of shenanigans from his old companions, wasn’t paying any attention, and turned his attention to the stack of papers they had received from the chief. Most of them were letters, written in various styles of handwriting. “All these requests come from Lamelf, which is a city east from here,” he thought out loud. “We should be able to make it within a day with the Hill Giant Bus.” Nathaniel folded the letters and put them away. “I know the way. Come on.”
The capital of Driszaw was a remarkably busy place. Ostensibly a human city, it was actually inhabited by all sorts of creatures. Houses were built in various sizes, shapes and colors, from small and bright gnome-shacks to rickety giant’s mounds, without much thought or planning. It was a beautiful, cheerful mess that allowed for much enterprise; there were street-merchants everywhere, catering to every imaginable appetite and then some, peddling the most exotic wares. It was a smelly, noisy and busy place; truly this city was a modern-day metropolis.
As the group made their way to the Hill Giant bus station, there was plenty of time for chitchat. Maurice seemed very interested in Ko’s horse and decided to ask Nathaniel about it. “Your companion is quite the impressive trainer. He can talk to his beast?”
“That’s what I’ve been assuming,” quipped Nathaniel dryly.
“An impressive specimen. It shows great intelligence.”
“Yeah,” Glurf agreed, “And she’s pretty, too.”
Ko and his horse froze. “She?!”
“Uhm…I’m sorry,” apologized Glurf, “He’s pretty.”
“Since you were paying Haviér a compliment, we’ll let it slide this time,” decided Ko. Haviér glared at Glurf, obviously not willing to let just anything slide. This horse knew how to carry a grudge.
This exchange spoiled the mood, and the squad continued without much further dallying, arriving at the bus station with plenty of time to spare. There were several giants lounging around, waiting for their time of departure. They were harnessed with great palanquins, which the giants wore like backpacks. Even for hill giants, these creatures were humongous; Haviér didn’t even rise above their calves. Unlike most hill giants, who were notorious for being rowdy brutes, these chaps looked fairly docile, seeming perfectly happy ferrying folks around on their backs.
The hill giant that carried people to Lamelf was a particularly cheerful fellow called Jeff, who was very happy to welcome the Special Spirit Squad on board. Although Ko tried to bribe the bubbly giant with candy, he did not allow Haviér to ride on his back; mounts had to ride with the bus, not on it. Haviér handled this newest indignation with the grace his master had to come to expect of him; that is to say: none. The sulking horse kept spitting at the giant’s ankles like a llama slighted, but Jeff did not seem to notice, preoccupied as he was chatting with his passengers.
When the bus left the capital it was just a little past noon, meaning the Special Spirit Squad would arrive at Lamelf early in the evening. Sometime during this long journey, after Nathaniel had carefully finished reading everything the chief had given him, he called for a meeting. Glurf and Maurice listened carefully, one anxiously and the other eagerly, while Ko slept through the whole thing, twisting and turning and muttering something about birds. It seemed like he was having a nightmare, but when Glurf suggested waking him up, Nathaniel stopped him.
“It’s best to let him have his beauty sleep, or he’ll be cranky when he wakes up,” he explained. “Well then, I know what Ko is capable of, and this toad here is an alleged exorcist, but I’m not too sure what you bring to the table,” he said, addressing Maurice, “ and I need to know before we run into anything dangerous.”
Maurice scoffed. “Well, I don’t know what you bring to the table, either. And who put you in charge, anyway?”
“Excuse me,” interjected Glurf, “did you say dangerous?’
“Since the last Special Spirit Squad met a, quote: ‘Unfortunate fate,’ I think it would be safest to assume that we might run into some, yes,” said Nathaniel calmly.
“Not to worry,” smirked Maurice as he grabbed his bow and notched an arrow, pointing it straight at Nathaniel’s head. “I am a dead shot; I shoot to kill.”
“You do realise that we’re expected to encounter spirits?” said Nathaniel, unfazed, “As in incorporeal specters? I don’t think arrows would be very effective-”
“Pah!” scoffed Maurice, “Don’t tell me you actually believe in that kid’s stuff?”
Nathaniel paused, looking at Maurice in disbelief. “You mean ghosts?”
“…Yes? You mean you don’t?”
“I only believe what I can see.”
“But spectres are supposedly invisible.”
“How very convenient!”
“I’ve seen a ghost,” Glurf blurted out.
Nathaniel smiled. “See? He’s seen one.”
Maurice was skeptical. He obviously wasn’t going to believe just anything some strange toad-creature was croaking on about. “Anecdotal evidence,” he rebutted, “All I’m saying is that there’s no proper evidence that proves ghosts are real. If you ask me it’s all just one big sham by the clergy to spook people into donating to the church.”
“And yet you applied to a job in the Special Spirit Squad,” said Nathaniel.
“To prove they’re not real!”
“Ghosts aren’t real?” asked Glurf, doubting themselves. “Then what did I see?”
“Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” decided Nathaniel. “And if any try to attack us, you can shoot them with your bow, to test whether or not they’re corporal. If you can see them, that is.”
Maurice lowered his weapon and took the arrow into his hand, twirling it. He looked irritated; he didn’t take kindly to being mocked. He decided to turn the conversation around.
“Well, why did you take this job?” he asked, pointing the arrow at Nathaniel. “I doubt it’s the coin.”
Nathaniel smiled with the patience of a schoolteacher lecturing a difficult student. “Let’s just say that I’m looking for something.” And, before Maurice could ask: “And Ko’s with me.”
“I took this job because Heqet told me to.” Glurf helpfully explained without being asked. Maurice looked confused.
“The deity he serves,” said Nate.
“The frog goddess of fertility and water!”
“But you’re a toad,” remarked Maurice.
“Yes!’ Glurf agreed, glad someone noticed.
Before Maurice could ask any further questions, Nathaniel spoke with the authority that Maurice had been hesitant to give him. “We’ll have plenty of time to get to know one another later. For now, I suggest we all follow Ko’s example and get some sleep, so that we are vigilant for our first job in the evening; most ghosts only come out at night, after all.”
And with that, all four members of the Special Spirit Squad, the exorcist, the detective, the muscle and the skeptic went to sleep, untroubled by the nightmarish horrors that lay ahead yet undiscovered. They would awake in the evening, in the dark, to the evils of Lamelf, where their mettle would be put to the test
Next chapter: The Squad tackles their first case – a blacksmith’s tools have been vanishing mysteriously…