The Golden Guild: Catfish Hunting

I’ve been playing more Etrian Odyssey III as of late, which means more adventures of the Dorato Guild. I’ll hand you over once again to Dorato’s de facto leader, the bewildered princess Megaera…

The Golden Guild: Catfish Hunting

That could have gone better, I thought to myself as I surveyed my battered charges.

It had seemed simple at first. The Dorato Guild had mapped out the first stratum with such speed and accuracy that the Senatus had assigned us the task of killing the great beast Narmer, which lurked in a swamp on the final floor of the stratum, blocking the passage to the second stratum. I hadn’t expected it to be much of a problem — aside from a mishap with a Great Lynx from which Nezu was still recovering, we hadn’t had much trouble defeating the wildlife that attacked us as we explored. We’d evaded the F.O.E.s, of course, but I had no way of knowing just how strong Narmer would turn out to be. The creature was immense, and seemed to shrug off attacks that would hamper the weaker creatures that surrounded his lair.

Well, my beaten guildmates gave the lie to that particular bit of arrogance on my part. Phoebe was uninjured, but her armor was dented and spattered with mud from the enormous fish’s wild flailing, and there was an enormous rent in her shield. My heart had nearly leapt out of my chest when I saw my cousin stumble to her knees, blinded by the muck that Narmer seemed to spray at random, but she seemed unharmed, as steady and as confident as ever.

Tristan wasn’t in nearly as good a shape. He was unconscious, and Phoebe and I had been forced to manhandle him away from the battle while Anja covered us. I was always a bit shocked that such a measured, educated-sounding man could fight like such a berserker, and he’d been especially reckless against the massive fish, taking a gruesome-looking bite to the side and a nasty blow to the ribs. Currently Jin knelt over his prone form, her knowing smile gone for once as she tended to him, soft white light swirling around his injuries.

It was only lucky that the creature had spooked and retreated, giving us a chance to regroup, but its crazed howl as it had done so had awakened a swarm of enormous insects, which now patrolled Narmer’s swamp while the beast itself wallowed in the corner, licking its wounds. We’d managed to slip into one of the narrow passages that lined Narmer’s lair to lick our own. The entrances were too small for anything larger than a human to follow us, but Anja watched them just the same, ready to raise the alarm if one of the F.O.Es tried to force it. The young arbalist had put on a brave face, but her expression was tight and her complexion pale, so I could tell that she was terrified. I didn’t blame her. Our situation was not enviable.

I sighed. “Well, that didn’t work out so well, did it?” I said to Phoebe, my only guildmate who wasn’t otherwise occupied.

“It could have been much worse, Princess,” she said seriously. She’d washed her face with water from a nearby stream, but her hair was still limp and dirty from the mud. “We’re all still alive, and — except for him — we’re all still mobile.” She turned away. “A couple of wrong turns and we could all be dead.”

I didn’t want to think about that. “How is he?” I asked Jin.

“He’s not in any immediate danger,” she said, her voice surprisingly weary. I was used to Jin always being energetic and in control, so it disturbed me to hear her so beaten down. “I’ve stitched up his cut, so he won’t bleed out. If we gave him a couple of weeks he’d heal on his own. That’s what I’m doing right now, actually — I’m giving him some of my qi to accelerate his natural healing process.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“No,” she sighed. “He just needs rest. We all do, really. I can still fight, but after fixing up him I won’t be in any condition to heal anymore.”

That was encouraging. The last thing I needed was a corpse on my conscience. I decided to save my self-recrimination for later. “What should we do next?”

Phoebe grunted. “Isn’t it obvious? Back to town. We can’t finish off Narmer in our current state. We’ve still got some Ariadne Thread, right?”

“No,” said Jin with surprising heat. “We have to finish the job. In the time it would take us to get back to town, rest back to full strength, and then make our way back down here, Narmer will have recovered. We’ll never have a better chance to kill him than right now, and we won’t be able to proceed any further until we do.” She looked directly at me. “If we don’t finish this now, we might as well dissolve the guild right now and go our separate ways, because we won’t be able to go any further.”

“I agree,” Tristan muttered sleepily.

“He’s awake!” I said.

“Obviously,” Jin said coolly. Then, to Tristan, she said, “Shut up. You need all the strength you can get right now, so don’t waste it talking.”

“That’s all very well and good,” Phoebe said, “but he can barely stand, much less fight. You can talk all you want about ‘finishing the job,’ but it would cost us our lives. We simply can’t finish off Narmer and a room full of lesser F.O.Es in this condition.”

“We may not have to,” Anja said suddenly from her post by the entrance. “Princess Megaera, you might want to take a look at this.”

The blonde archer stepped aside, allowing me a view of the swamp. My eye was drawn immediately to our mark, Narmer, who lounged in a pool of mud in one of the opposite corners, moaning bestially. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around a creature that large. Its slick body writhed inhumanly, and I could see that several of Anja’s arrows still stuck out of it. It didn’t appear to be in any hurry to move.

Also skittering back and forth across the swamp were the hideous Bog Dwellers, which had erupted from the muck the moment Narmer had raised the alarm. The insects weren’t as large as their master, but their ugly-looking claws and proboses didn’t look as though they’d be fun to fight.

“I think they’re blind,” Anja said.

“What?”

“The Bog Dwellers,” she answered. “I don’t think their senses are very good. They’re not going to Narmer’s aid or trying to follow our trail. They’re just patrolling back and forth.” She pursed her lips, absorbed in this new puzzle. “It makes sense if you think about it, though. Those things live in the mud — they’re not designed to hunt prey in the open air. This is just a guess, but I don’t think they’ll chase us, or help Narmer if we were to attack him. As long as we stay out of their way, they shouldn’t bother us.”

“Hm.” Anja was young, but I was learning to trust her instincts. She’d been the hero during our first fight with Narmer, dealing more damage than the rest of us combined. When Narmer had tried to dive into the mud, her quick thinking had saved us — a spray of arrows revealed the creature before it had a chance to ambush us. I pulled out the map of this floor and examined it, trying to envision the Dwellers’ movements.

If Anja was right, we should be able to sneak around through the side passages and get the jump on Narmer again without running afoul of the lesser F.O.E.s. Moreover…

“We’ve still got those tents, right” I asked.

“What? Yeah, I think so,” said Phoebe, clearly baffled.

“Okay, then, here’s the plan,” I said. “We’ll backtrack to the campsite not far from here and rest as long as we dare. Once Tristan and Jin are in good enough condition to fight, we’ll come back here and finish off Narmer. I don’t think the Bog Dwellers will attack us if we position ourselves properly, and Jin’s right — we’ll never have a better chance to finish Narmer than right now.”

I stood up. “Phoebe, you and I will take the point. Tristan, you’re in the middle — hang back unless our situation is desparate. Anja, you stay close to him in case he needs help walking. Jin, you bring up the rear, and let us know if anything’s following us. We avoid fights if we can. Any problems?” There was silence in the tunnel. “Let’s go, then.”

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