The wanted poster said there would be a thousand crown reward for the head of a dreadful, fierce ogre. Ava smiled to herself, amused by the excessive price for such a simple job. Her father had taught her to hunt creatures like this one since she was old enough to swing a dagger. That training had proven to be an effective way to make a living. Dukes and barons across the continent were eager to part with their gold in order to rid their land of annoying monsters.Ava did a quick inventory of her weaponry, checking to make sure all seven of her daggers were still resting in their sheaths. Her coil of rope was still wound around her belt, hidden beneath her charcoal cloak. On the other side of her belt was a pair of pouches, one filled with sleeping powder and the other with crushed hemlock leaves. Several hidden pockets were woven into the inside of her cloak, each one containing a small handful of coins. Satisfied, she pulled her hood down, concealing her fiery strands of hair.She headed out through the north gate in town, blending in with a band of merchants traveling along the road. She decided she should head toward the Valley of Kismet. Ogres loved to settle in valleys for some reason, but Ava had never been able to figure out why. She figured it probably had something to do with the fog.And there was bound to be fog in the valley today. The sun was no where to be seen in the overcast, grey skies above. Days like today were the sort of day when the nobles and most merchants staying indoors, assuming that a downpour would be inevitable. Days like today were the days that bandits and monsters loved, both coming out in greater numbers. That meant that Ava had to like these days as well if she wanted to collect bounties.She moved swiftly across the vast plains, her leather boots making no sound as she walked through the grass. The top of the valley was coming into view and she sped up her pace, determined to make it into the valley before the weather turned worse. The grey skies had started to turn black, thick clouds threatening to unleash torrential rain. While the rain wouldn’t affect her work, it would make things unpleasant. It might also send the ogre into hiding in a cave or tunnel. That could become dangerous.Ava reached the edge of the valley and looked down into the depths below. Swirling wisps of fog blanketed most of the valley below, concealing everything from view. Ava whispered a curse under her breath and mentally braced herself for a steep descent into the shrouded depths of the valley. When she entered into the depths of the fog she crouched low to the ground, carefully picking her way down the steep valley slope. After a few minutes the grass beneath her feet was slick with dew and she lost her footing, tumbling down to the bottom of the valley.Her cloak had come unclasped during her fall and lay twenty feet from her. Two of her daggers were missing from their sheath. Her red hair was in disarray, pieces of grass mixed in with strands of her hair. She silently cursed her bad luck as she got to her feet. She turned to retrieve her missing daggers and her cloak when she spotted movement off to the side. She cursed again as she watched the hulking form of a brown ogre disappear into the fog. She scrambled to gather her things, loosely refastening her cloak while she ran toward where the ogre disappeared. Reckless or not, she was not about to let a thousand crowns slip through her fingers. The bounty would be hers.Rain came pouring down as she moved through the fog, cold droplets plummeting into her face. She tried in vain to wipe the water away from her emerald eyes, moving ahead as quickly as possible while hoping she didn’t pass its cave. She knew that, with this visibility, she could end up spending hours trying to find the ogre’s shelter. She started to reconsider whether the bounty was worth all of this effort. After all, there would be other monsters needing dispatched. She was about to turn around and climb out of the valley when a massive tunnel came into view, leading straight into the wall of the valley.She hurried into the shelter, shaking the water from her hood and kicking the moisture off her boots. She reached into a pocket inside her cloak and pulled out a small gray stone. She clasped it tight with her left hand and drew a dagger with her right. After a few moments of warmth, the stone started to give off a faint, pale glow. Ava held the stone out in front of her, casting enough light to be able to see in front of her. Clutching her dagger tight, she ventured into the depths of the cavern.The path snaked along through slight curves with no signs of side tunnels in which the ogre could have concealed himself. After an hour of searching the sound of running water became perceptible. She smiled, knowing that the ogre would likely have made its lair near fresh water. Her pace hastened as she anticipated catching the ogre by surprise, driving the tip of her poisoned dagger into its misshapen spine. She could already feel the weight of the gold in her hands and the lavish feast the duke would hold in her honor. Her toe caught in a dip on the floor, sending her crashing to the ground as a boulder flew above her head, smashing into dust on the wall.The wind was knocked from Ava’s lungs by her fall and she winced in pain. Her light stone rolled free from her hand upon impact, casting her surroundings in darkness. The crashing stone overhead put her senses on high alert and her eyes searched the shadows for signs of her assailant. She laid as still as possible, holding her breath and waiting for movement. She hoped the ogre, like many others she had hunted, could not see well in the dark. But there was always that rare one she would track that had excellent night vision.The footsteps of the ogre caused the stones and dirt around Ava to shift around. She inched her way backward, praying that he could not see her movement. A thick, brown leg stomped down where she had lain earlier. The ogre spoke in sharp, guttural sounds that indicated his anger at her absence. He stormed over to her light stone, bending over to retrieve it with a hairy arm. The ogre picked the stone up, which was smaller than the size of his fingernail. He looked closely at it, scratching his coarse hair. He let out a cry of rage and closed his fist, crushing the stone into fine powder.Ava groped her way back along the tunnel of the cavern, feeling along the wall for any sign of an opening. The footsteps of the ogre echoed through the walls, reminding her that she needed to move fast. If he caught her in the open, with no light to aid her, she would be done for. Her hands felt a small crevice in the wall, barely large enough for her to squeeze into. She backed into the hole, a dagger drawn in each hand, waiting for the ogre to come after her. She heard its heavy breathing drawing near. Its breath smelled like a mix between rotten eggs and raw fish, which was rather good for an ogre. Ava waited patiently for the moment to strike as the ogre lumbered forward.A dirty foot slammed to the ground inches away from her hiding spot. Ava took a deep breath, bracing herself for an attack. She counted to three, collecting her thoughts, then reached out and drove both daggers into the foot of the ogre. It roared in pain, swiping blindly in the air as Ava rolled out of her hiding spot and ran back toward the running water. She needed light in order to survive a direct confrontation, and the fog was not going to work in her favor if she led it outside. The agonized roars of the ogre drowned out all other noise, and she envisioned it groping about trying to remove the daggers from its foot. With any luck it would think she went toward the entrance, buying her time to prepare a fatal ambush.Icy water chilled her to the bone as she stepped into the stream of flowing water. She paused to try and see her surroundings, hoping to find some source of light. It seemed like the tunnel continued beyond the water, which made no sense to Ava. Every other ogre she has tracked into a cave made their home at the water source. The roaring of the ogre had diminished, a sign that he was fooled by her diversion and was headed outside. The bounty was as good as hers.She moved deeper into the cavern, running her hands along the rough stone wall. A faint glow came into view, making Ava smile. She was almost to its lair. She moved faster, determined to have plenty of time to prepare an ambush. She stepped out of the tunnel and into a massive chamber. A thick yellow-hued moss covered the ceiling of the room, casting light throughout the room. A giant bed of straw stretched along the wall on the far side of the room with a thick tree trunk leaning against the wall beside it. The carcass of a half-eaten deer and a bucket of water was laying off to the right side of the room. The stench of the rotting meat nearly gagged Ava, forcing her to breathe into her cloak. On the left side of the room was another tunnel, leading into a different part of the cavern. In the center of the chamber was a massive pile of assorted artifacts and stacks of coins. Rusted shields and shattered swords are tossed haphazardly onto the stack of treasure. It looked like this ogre has been hording treasure, which struck Ava as being oddly dragon-like for an ogre. She paused to listen for signs of the ogre’s return and, hearing nothing, she stepped toward the pile to see if there was anything that might be useful in taking down the ogre.She tossed aside coins and jewels, not wanting to weigh herself down yet with the monetary treasures. She picked up the charred remains of a longbow, wondering why the ogre would keep such a worthless item among everything else. She dug deeper into the treasure, still not finding anything in good enough condition to be of use. Her hand gripped the hilt of a large sword and she pulled it free. She let out an audible gasp when she saw the elegant blade, running her fingers over the familiar engraving. She had seen this blade before, and knew the owner of it very well before his death. She finally found her father’s lost sword.How could her father’s sword be here, in the lair of a meager ogre? These were the monsters she grew up hunting because they were slow and stupid and predictable. She refused to believe that her father could have met his end at the hands of an ogre. He had been hunting monsters for decades. His death had to have something to do with that unusual visitor who he left with. Ava tried to think back to the day when her father left.A short, muscular man appeared in the dead of night, his horse slathered in sweat and on the brink of exhaustion. They spoke together in hushed tones, but Ava had learned a thing or two about eavesdropping and could hear enough. The man was called Jerek, and he was forming some sort of organization to free the people in the kingdoms. Her father tried to say his place was at home, hunting monsters because that was all he knew. He was not a soldier, he was a mercenary.Then he showed her father a piece of parchment and, whatever it was, it changed her father’s attitude. He rose from his chair and they went outside to continue their conversation. Ava waited for him, hoping he would return and go to bed. She fell asleep before she could see him, and when she woke up both of them were gone. Her father had left her a note, saying that he should be back within a fortnight or two, but he never came back. She was fifteen when her father disappeared.And now she held his sword once more. The sword he used all his life to vanquish monsters for the kingdoms. The sword he trained her with. Even after all of the years that had passed since his absence, she still struggled to contain the emotion. She bit her lip, trying unsuccessfully to fight back the tears. She vowed that this ogre would die.She heard the lumbering footsteps of the ogre coming down the tunnel. She glanced around the room and decided to head into the dark tunnel. She clutched the sword in her hand and slipped into the shadows, prepared to strike down her prey. It would pay for her father’s death with its life.She slowed her breathing as she saw its towering frame enter into the chamber. It walked over to the treasure horde and leaned down, sniffing it momentarily. She bit her lip, confused by its behavior. Did it smell her presence? Every ogre she had ever encountered had an extremely poor sense of smell. It contradicted everything she had been taught about ogres. And then it did something that was even more confusing to Ava.The ogre turned toward the tunnel where Ava was hidden and raised something over its head. In the light she couldn’t know for sure, but it looked like one of her daggers that she jammed into its foot. The ogre made a few guttural grunts and growls before bowing low to the ground, extending the dagger toward the tunnel. Could the ogre see her? Was it trying to offer the dagger back to her? This was the most unusual, and apparently the most intelligent, ogre that Ava had ever witnessed in her life. She was about to step forward out of the shadows when it got back to its feet and set the dagger on the pile of treasure. Evidently it hadn’t seen her, but then what was the purpose of that reverent display? She didn’t have time to sit and mull over what it could mean. She had to be ready to strike when it had its guard down.The ogre had its back to her and was rummaging through a small stack of bones and rocks on the other side of the treasure. Ava crept closer, her breathing measured as she crouched low. One hand gripped the sword tight while the other brushed a strand of hair from her face. She pressed against the wall when the ogre stood back up, a giant femur in its hands. It snapped the bone in half, the crack echoing through the chamber, and sucked on one of the halves. It sat down and leaned back against the wall, its eyes growing heavy as it sucked. It had clearly forgotten that there was an intruder in its home. This was going to be easier than she thought, as long as she could be patient. It would be asleep before long.In the dim light it looked like the ogre was asleep. The bone dangled from its lip as the ogre snored. Everything was in order for a quick finish to this assignment. Ava could already picture the bags of gold crowns weighing down her horse as she rode back home. She stepped out of the shadows and moved toward the ogre. She reached the chamber, the dull light illuminating her body. She took in a deep breath and took another step toward the treasure. All of a sudden the ogre’s eyes snapped open and it let out a roar that reverberated through the cavern, shaking rocks loose from the ceiling and causing the treasure to shift. Ava tried to dodge the falling stones as the ogre got to its feet, towering over her. It looked at her and it gave her a crooked grin.A bright red glow began to fill the chamber. Ava paid no attention to the glow and braced herself for an oncoming attack, but the ogre wasn’t moving. It stood there, watching her intently. And then she smelled the smoke. Years of hunting monsters had sharpened her reflexes. She dove aside, rolling along the floor away from the ogre as a stream of fire burst into the room and enveloped the treasure. It all made sense now. The ogre wasn’t alone; it was sharing a home with a dragon. This is how her father had died, lured into a monster’s trap, and now it was her turn to meet that same fate.Ava had no time to ponder the cohabitation of the ogre and the dragon. The ogre had circled around the treasure horde with unusual quickness wielding a large tree trunk for a club. He slammed it down with a powerful overhead strike but Ava rolled out of the way. Shards of bark shot into the air from the impact, flying into the walls of the cavern. As Ava got to her feet the ogre swung the trunk again. She ducked as the weapon passed over her head and took a small step backward.The ogre let out a grunt that echoed in the chamber. Moments later another stream of fire came pouring out through the side tunnel, preventing Ava from moving further back. The ogre moved to the side, his huge frame blocking the passage out of the cave. She was trapped between and ogre and a dragon’s flame, and she didn’t care for her current odds of survival.She reached into one of her pouches and grabbed a fist full of sleeping powder. It wouldn’t knock the ogre out, but it might slow it down and irritate its eyes. A lucky throw might even blind it. She feinted a strike with her sword and the ogre responded by swinging the trunk. She dodged the blow and moved in close, tossing the powder into its eyes. The ogre roared, dropping the trunk as it tried to rub the powder out of its eyes. She took advantage of the opportunity and drove her sword into its chest up to the hilt, black blood oozing from the wound. It staggered back and swatted the air, but Ava had retreated back near the center of the chamber.The ogre stumbled forward, swinging its arms in an effort to catch her. Its meaty hands slammed into the walls and the ogre cried out in pain. Ava slipped under its blind groping, stabbing its limbs with quick dagger strikes and darting back out of its reach. She was damaging the monster, but not fast enough. Every attack and retreat moved them further into the chamber and closer to the range of the dragon’s fire. Every once in a while Ava could feel the heat from the flames behind her. She had to think fast.She ducked under another blind strike but wasn’t fast enough. The hand crushed her up against the wall and the ogre grunted in satisfaction. She stabbed its wrist furiously, hoping the pain would make it release her. It brought its other fist back to strike her while she was immobile. She stopped her attacks and began to squirm, trying to free herself from her cloak. Inch by inch she slipped down in its grip. The ogre’s fist sped toward the wall and her head vanished beneath the cover of its other hand in time to avoid the attack. The ogre roared in frustration, letting up enough for Ava to get free.The flames from the dragon had stopped for the moment. It was likely trying to get another belly full of fire to blast through the tunnel. She moved across to the other half of the room and paused a moment to regain her wits while the ogre searched in vain for her on the other side. It crashed into the treasure, toppling over gold coins and old shields. Ava did her best imitation of the ogre’s roar that started the fire in the first place. The ogre tripped over a suit of fallen armor, landing on top of the remaining stack as a stream of fire blasted out from the tunnel.The smell of burning flesh filled the air as the ogre was incinerated. When the flames stopped Ava grabbed an old axe that had fallen from the pile and chopped off the ogre’s charred head. She wrapped her trophy in her cloak, retrieved her father’s sword once it was cool enough to the touch, and then left the cave. She had what she came for. The dragon would have to wait for another day.They sky was still grey and overcast, but a few stray rays of sunlight managed to pierce through the cover. The fog in the valley had dissipated, making her journey out much easier. The sun had nearly set by the time Ava climbed her way out of the Valley of Kismet and found the road leading into Andover. The baron of the city was probably enjoying a lavish feast, and Ava was about to brighten his day and lighten his coffers. It was time to collect the bounty that she had nearly died for.She was forced to wait in the great hall for the baron to see her. He was not allowing visitors during his meal, no matter the reason. Apparently uninvited guests must ruin the taste of his mead. So Ava paced in the empty room, her cloak slung over her shoulder. The doors eventually opened and a rotund old man stumbled his way into the room, his attire in disarray. He hiccupped and plopped down on an extravagent throne in the center of the room, beckoning for her to approach. Ava sighed, thinking that a fool like this deserved to part with his gold crowns.She bowed before him, ringlets of red hair dropping to cover her face. When she rose she looked him square in his brown eyes and tossed the bundle at his feet. He frowned and bent over to grab it, falling flat on his face in the process. He pulled himself to his feet, the bundle in his hand, and smiled at Ava. She rolled her eyes, wishing he would get on with it so she could reach the next town before nightfall. He pulled the cloak open and his face drained of all color.“What have you done?” he asked, suddenly sober enough to function.“I’m here to collect my reward,” Ava answered, “for killing the ogre.”“You can’t kill the ogre,” the baron stuttered.“You have its head as proof. Once I have my gold I will be on my way.”“We’re doomed! The dragon will return and raze our town.” He started shaking as he rang a bell. A servant appeared and he issued a silent order.“You knew about the dragon?” Ava asked. The servant disappeared into an adjoining room.“It was our agreement. We would lead adventurers into its lair with promises of glory and gold for an ogre’s head. For years we have maintained a peace with the monsters, and now you’ve ruined it.”“Not my problem,” Ava said, taking a step toward the baron. “I expect payment. Consider yourself lucky that I don’t burn the town myself to avenge those you’ve lured to their deaths.”“Take the gold,” the baron said as his servant returned. “Leave at once before you bring greater disaster upon us.”Ava took the bag of gold from the servant, shrugging. She got what she came for. She bowed her head and spun around, heading out the door. The fate of Andover was not her concern. Some day she would return to avenge her father and slay the dragon, but she needed a plan. And help. Until then she would ride from town to town, seeking jobs until the time was right to strike.
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