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The uncanny love child of a lizard and a scavenger gave a loud, squealing wail before it collapsed on the ground. Insides spilled across the rocks, dyeing the ground dirty brown with their content, and if the animal had not been stinking to high heaven before, then it certainly did so now; a putrid, sickness-inducing smell, a mix of rotten meat and organic tissue so strong even the few compost pits strategically placed as far away from the largest body of the camp and the lake as it was possible would have envied the creature right now.

- Beliar’s cock! – Lares exclaimed, poking the snapper’s twitching corpse with his sword, frowning as its intestines popped and thick, brown goop spread on the stones. – There must be a path somewhere we haven’t discovered that lets these things come crawling through. I hardly believe they keep sneaking past the camp without ending up sliced into servings. Snappers, wolves, molerats; the best this miserable shit hole of a valley, - he had to stop for a breath and wipe his brow, brushing back hair which stuck to his forehead, - has to offer. Thank gods Wolf doesn’t want their skin, only teeth and claws! To think some people eat them, too!

- They do, in Varant. In fact, it’s considered a delicacy, - Lee found it necessary to share this knowledge, completely unbothered by how the rogue stared at him both horrified and disgusted at the same time. – You skin them, remove the insides, wash thoroughly, boil for a couple of hours...

- You want me to throw up? Because that’s what is going to happen if you keep talking about cooking and eating these things!

- I’m just saying I’ve had some in the past, - the General paid no attention to how Lares’ facial expression changed while he spoke, - and I’m still standing here. The taste is strange, but— What?

- What do you think, - Lares began, thoughtfully so, - if we find that route now, will there be a snapper or two left to tear me to pieces? Because that will be better than a crash course in how to cook and eat something that stinks like a rotting copse while it’s still alive!

- Rejoice at the thought that the Ore Barons probably have one every now and then because the bastard with the crown would. And that Wolf doesn’t know how to tan them properly to make the snapper hides wearable. Yet.

- That doesn’t make it much better, - the thief shrugged, - but I guess it’ll have to do. Humans are disgusting. Not even scavengers, let alone the orcs, will touch these, but we will happily munch them down because some asshole decided it’s exotic cuisine – or whatever the nobles call it.

The visits to the mine (just so Lee could see for himself how the situation there was, for, as much as the messengers sent by Okyl covered it, the General still rather made his way to the valley every now and then to witness the progress with own eyes than rely on pieces of paper or somebody’s memory) lately took longer than anticipated, much due to the beasts having claimed the land between the New Camp and the Free Mine as their rightful home. As much as Lee ground his teeth at the thought, he had to admit Lares was most likely right: somewhere, there must be a passage known to the animals – hopefully to the animals alone – for there were too many of them here each time to believe a pack had separated and these were just hunters out looking for prey.

As for the rogue, it was not often he took up the position of a companion after the time with the abandoned monastery and the shadowbeast. Currently, however, he would have done anything more gladly than sit in his hut as though deadly ill when, at least according to him, the “scratch” was just that – a scratch one should not worry too much about.

Well, Lee smirked, I am not the one wheezing like an old dog right now.

- I’m coming with you. Of course I am fine! You know, I am becoming convinced that you are the embodiment of bad decisions.

If looks could kill, the General would be lying dead right now, for the look Lares shot him was enough to strike down two and injure three more – and it mattered very little he had invited himself on the stroll.

- Go ahead and mock me all you want, General, - Lares grimaced, crossing arms on chest and leaning against the wall in an attempt to mask exhaustion behind a veil of carelessness. It would have looked convincing, too, had it not been for the colour having left his face, leaving only dark circles under the thief’s eyes and the sheen of perspiration on his brow. – Really, really mature of—

Low rumble rolled in from the depths of the mountain, cutting him off half-sentence; the earth beneath their feet trembled; the rock walls around them shook. Dust swirled from the steep walls and the ceiling, preceding a downpour of sand and cobble. Steel and leather kept Lee safe from injuries and bruises, but not from receiving a shower of sand behind his collar. Dust found its way into his throat, leaving the man wheezing.

And then, as fast as it had begun, it was over again, and the General breathed a sigh of relief as he realized that the worst the life had decided to throw at him today was, indeed, just sand under his armour, an unnaturally dry throat, and a few insignificant scratches here and there.

The frequency of these short earthquakes that were, at least for now, more annoying than they were dangerous had only increased lately, and the Water mages were worried they might merely be the foreshocks to a bigger one that promised to be anything but harmless. Knowing the area’s proneness to similar whims of nature, Saturas and the rest of them assured Lee that they would not have picked the large cave to build a settlement in if there was any danger for the inhabitants, and that it was going to withstand, should such unlucky chain of events unwrap. No danger for anybody. Save for those in the mine, most likely, but, to have the work continue, the Circle of Water deemed this a case where a little lie here and there was not going to hurt anyone. If anything, they had said, the mine collapsing will give a quick death to most of them.

So far, however, the Free Mine had proven itself surprisingly resistant towards the small earthquakes, thus Lee hoped they would not find out one day that it had collapsed and taken everybody inside at that moment along.

If the mages were right, and this earthquake only forebode a big one in near future, Lee reckoned they should have an emergency plan ready. Just in case. As much as he trusted the judgement of the Water mages, the leader of the New Camp knew he was going to feel easier knowing there was a plan to back them up in case things went south, rather than if they just waited to see how it goes. As expendable as human lives in the Valley of Mines traditionally were, losing a whole lot of them at once and only because they relied on a hope alone that it was going to be okay, would be a foolish deed – not to mention piss poor management of things.

Meanwhile, the actual life went on and was, in fact, far from done with Lee for the day.

- While I do appreciate such care towards my humble person, - a voice tore the General from contemplations about his and the well-being of the camp in general, - don’t you think this is getting a bit awkward?

Checking on any damages that might have been caused to him, as well as letting his thoughts wander towards the safety measures that had to be taken in near future, the mercenary had been too busy to wonder why he was leaning against the wall with one arm and why there was something locked under the other. Or, to be more precise, he had failed to notice any of it.

Never before had Lares witnessed somebody retreat this fast from anything. Even a smelter accidentally turning over one of the pots containing blazing ore could rarely brag of such speed.

Granted, Lee had never retreated from anything this fast in the first place, much due to the fact he had never been in a situation like this, to begin with. Not even that one time as teenager when father caught him and Inge behind the house.

Even worse – the expression on the rogue’s face clearly told him there was a barely contained remark just waiting to be spoken, for Lares looked as though he had just witnessed the Barrier crumble and fall from the sky. At least the General had never seen – or thought it possible somebody would be capable of producing such maniacal yet strangely excited smile on their face.

- I swear, - Lee pointed a finger at the thief, when Lares opened his mouth to speak, - one word, and I’ll make it look like an accident.

- Threatening, - there was not a hint of fear in his voice – to the General’s great disappointment, Lares had already figured out the man was all bark and no bite when in a state of utter confusion. – How’d you know what I was going to say? Maybe I just want to say thanks?

The unarticulated growl (which was all the mercenary was able to come up with at the moment) expressed, surprisingly, a myriad of emotion before Lee turned and began walking towards the camp, preferring to ignore the problem and everything that had happened until the moment said problem appeared along with it, silently praying an aftershock happened right about now. At least in that case he might be rid of what had recently become headache in human shape – and he would also not have to worry about the possibility of half of the camp whispering behind his back approximately two days from now as though they had been present and witnessed everything with own eyes.

Unfortunately, judging by the hasty steps, Lares, too, found very little charm in waiting around for another shower of sand and stone.

- Hey, wait up! What did you mean, tanning the snapper hides? Don’t tell me people wear these things!

- Do not get too joyous, - there was a hint a schadenfreude in Lee’s voice; just a little bit. – Knowing Wolf, he’ll have learned it by trial and error by the end of the summer.