Book II - Chapter 26

Chapter 26

 

[Farstrider Guild]

 

Alem Stonewalker peered over worn and polished spectacles as he went about handling the necessary paperwork. Callused fingers carefully flicked along the pages, occasionally stopping to squint more closely through the lenses. It seemed they were a bit less effective, as of late.

He'd won the pair of glasses years ago, from a Mage along the Eastern Front. Either a game of dice, or cards... There had been a significant amount of drinking involved, and the exact details were rather hazy. However it was they'd come to him, though, they did a greater service every season since. His eyes were finally faltering with the finer-print, it seemed.

How out of practice he was in this particular set of paperwork, didn’t seem to help matters much.

“So, miss…” Glancing up from the paperwork, Alem flipped to the next page of the contract, confirming.

“Imra.”

“Imra… how do you spell that?”

“It matters little.”

“Ah, I see.” Alem nodded, maintaining a calm composure. “I’ll just keep it consistent, then.”

By all accounts, the ordeal that had taken place not even a hour prior should have lead to quite a bit more trouble. Bloodshed, at the least- possibly death, and yet, it seemed to avoid adhering to expectations. Unusual, even compared all the years Alem could remember soldiering.

Here he was, hammer set aside so that he might hunch overtop a table like some sort of burly scribe, filling out the ledgers for a complete and total stranger. The very same who just so happened to have caused the establishment he'd resided for almost a decade a rather impressive degree of property damage. Barehanded… barefooted?

They weren't even wearing shoes.

Carefully, Alem continued his steady skim across the words, passing along each piece of parchment illuminated under the soft glow of a lantern's wick beside him as his rough hands parsed out the pages.

When was the last time they’d recruited a new member? Dren… had to be when Dren arrived, almost a year ago? No… two, at least two.

Alem paused, to watch a flash emerging through one of the shuttered windows. Blinding light, sudden and fading off to a slow glow. The accompanying thunder, was softer, which he took as a good sign. That meant the ships were moving towards a different section of the city.

Though, he would have much preferred Dren not tempt fate to confirm it, a solid portion of the Royal navy was flying tonight. Whatever backlash was going to from this would likely to be severe.

"This page holds the conditions of a contract for Imperial bounties, as those are taxed under a different bracket and require a separate signature..." Alem listened to his own words as one might listen to an old bookkeeper writing down someone else's order. It was coming back to him, now. The scripted words droned on the same routine he'd always performed, maintaining composure regardless of the circumstances. "Income will be averaged by the number of jobs performed, the number of missions participated, and additional bonus will be associated by solo or duo contracts only. A portion of any pay will be allotted to the debt incurred by breaking the front doors, to which I currently lack an estimate..."

To the front of the hall, the door was now wedged shut with a spare spear. One of the many dusty covered decorations that had been mounted on along the wall, put to improvised use. Every gust of wind outside, rattled it. Ordinarily, Alem would have been quite angry about all of this.

He was, at first. Furious, to be more precise. Breaking the front gate, a set made of real wood- mind you, and then having the audacity to state their intention to join? No prior warnings, no references, no guild seal, nothing at all, yet…

"More writings?" The woman's voice was calm and collected beneath the odd accent. "Why more? We accept."

Alem glanced up at her, before quickly turning back to the pages. The obvious didn't seem to be keen on adjusting itself: those ears, those features... human- almost, but oddly alien. Beautiful, but in an unsettling sort of way.

“All part of the process.” He assured. “Formality, really.”

The only response to that, was a frown.

Behind Alem, somewhere in the backrooms, a crash could be heard. Then, several loud curses, announcing the Eveth was still searching for the assessment equipment. Beside Alem, though, the youngest remaining member of the Guild, sat attentive.

Too attentive.

Plastered on the Dren’s face was a fascinated expression: the variety that marked one of curiosity, while complete disregard regard for anything else. Intelligent and knowledgeable as the boy's once-noble background provided, should Alem step away from the table for longer than a minute…

Shaking his head, it was Alem’s turn to frown.

He could only imagine.

Pushing his spectacles back into place, Alem push another page across the table.

"If you'll look on here: this is for your review only and will be requiring no signature. I request that upon your reading and inspection, that it be returned within a week. From that point on, it will remain for your inspection at any time, but is to be kept in the backroom on the fourth shelf so that it might be reused for other applicants-"

The paper was returned to him, immediately.

“Very well, then.” Alem risked a quick look up, before passing along the next sheet.

Nothing had changed.

The person sitting across from him was still an Elf, no matter how many times he checked.

"Ah, two signatures there, both top and bottom. Any script will do, just sign your initials..." Alem let his voice drone on. Quietly, the figure set another round of spotted ink across the lines indicated.

"Many writings..." They grumbled, language slipping back into something unintelligible.

Songlike humming-sounding words, if they even were words in any conventional sense. Alem felt that they flowed together too much for him to truly differentiate where one word stopped, and another began.

"Here?" The scribbling stopped suddenly to look at him, slender finder pointing out another line.

"Ah, yes. Sign there as well." He managed to salvage a quick reply as the motion began, once again.

It seemed their script was also unrecognizable.

More symbol than actual lettering, and that was where the ink hadn't simply run into a solid puddle. What had they introduced themselves as again? Im... rah? He'd heard stranger names before, but he couldn't quite remember exactly when.

"Next." The stranger called Im-rah motioned to him impatiently, and he handed them another page.

This was all much too mundane.

He'd seen oddities in his younger years. Back along the fronts, there were a lot of soldiers from all sorts of places. Backwater villages, cities- anyone in the Empire could enlist saying they could pass the physical requirements, though most had some form of training before jumping feet-first into the business of war. He distinctly remembered there were even a few mixed breeds in the crowds. Folk, who had ancestry which traced back to some unfortunate soul who had likely been spawned by combination of some exotic-lusting noble and an unlucky prisoner of war.

Those were far from common in the Empire, certainly but not unheard of. What little blood of their inhuman ancestor they still possessed, it was diluted tremendously. Most who had the knowledge of their background would claim no more than an eighth blood at most, and those were likely exaggerations. But this?

Alem caught himself staring again, forcing himself to look back down at his quill and paper. No, this was something else entirely.

The person across the table, roughing up his ledgers as they signed into the Guild's blessing without the pretext of even pretending to skim the fine print, was a completely different subject from the current matter of attention.

"The next page assesses the rights to our Guild License. If you're lacking Empire or Academy credentials, with permissions from the Guild Master you can freely act beneath the Guild's authority..."

Like his father, and his grandfather- and perhaps most men in the long line of family heritage before that, when Alem turned twenty, he'd signed up to serve along the Front of the Eastern border. Eyes set to the Blood-ridge Mountains, he'd begun his military career: marching with all the other Greenhorns for the privilege of fighting back against the Dwarven Constructs and ritual magics that passed from those unnatural territories. During this chapter of his life, he'd traveled the entire length of the Empire's Eastern Front and seen it all. From stone monsters with eyes of glass or gemstone, to behemoths of depth within the storms along the coast. Light, he'd even witnessed ancient wreckage washed up from the deep by the summer tempests, and had once been assigned to retrieve some of it for Empire mages to study.

Yes, Alem knew he'd seen much of what the world had to offer, and still... he had never once seen an Elf.

Ever.

There hadn't been any real Elves on the continent- much less within the city limits, for hundreds of years, and the last of those had likely been war criminals- or slaves. Which brought to question, why exactly, there was just that very thing standing across the table in the Guild's hall, angry expression carefully picking through the sheets provided to them.

Or, perhaps, she was a half? Could that be it?

Maybe she was only a half, looking to make some coin in a profession that was… less judgmental than most? If that were the case, though, certainly there were better ways of going about making a first introduction than large-scale property damage.

"Why in the name of gods..." Alem caught his tongue, as the long ears twitched, quill stopping for the barest instant, before continuing on its war-path across the page. "Apologies."

Bringing attention to the absurdity was probably the worst possible choice, Alem decided. No matter how much he tried to reason the situation out, he found himself simply lacking the capacity. If there was a clear explanation for any of this, it wasn't for someone like him to know

"You'll need to sign here... and here as well."

“Tss.” Came the reply, clearly annoyed.

The quill of bird feather seemed to drip ink in a sloppy manner along the waiting stack of pages, before it etched out the rather unusual signature. Continuing on, in fact. One strange character after another.

Elven language... for Elves. Elven script- to specify, of which they most certainly were matching.

"Just your name, please."

Again, the frown.

"Just name?"

"Yes, again- just your name." Alem hoped none of the confusion he felt was reaching his face, unlike Dren- who was now staring like a loon from his seat at the next table over.

Like anyone with a head on their shoulders and ears to go with it, growing up he'd heard of Elves. The savage race of the Northern and Southern continents past the Northern ocean scars, and the dangers of the great sea: they were the race among the forests. Beings who lived in horrible jungles covering the inland for untold miles. Filled with beasts and dangers just as fearsome as the Dungeon- if not worse. Or so they had been, up until the Human Empire had been reborn beneath the Holy Emperor's Prophesy, and human armies were sent across the sea to cut those down.

Just figures in ballads and songs that immortalized a select few battles from those ancient times, perhaps to some artistic degree of embellishment by generations of laughing bards or drunken battalions.

That was what they were, of course: embellishment

Fighting, while riding giant monsters? Advancing on the backs man-eating beasts, wearing armor made of gold? Those with mixed Elven ancestry were known to be better tamers than average folk, sometimes holding to other abilities, but they definitely weren't dragging around behemoths on leashes, either. That wasn't even remotely plausible.

“Sssss...”

Then again, Alem had never heard of a tamed Basilisk before.

“Ssss…”

Quietly coiled around Imra’s shoulders, scanning the room with a slow head-bob, was a small blue serpent.

Blue.

In place of a darkened set of red, green or black: instead, the snake’s body was a pale, almost sky-blue. Far off anything Alem had seen in the past, or even heard of. Slender jaws, not so much rounded, while missing the classic pronounced venom-glands. Odd, as obviously it wasn't a gigantic variation of the species which would most commonly lack venom. Alem felt he could safely rule both of those out.

No venom, not a massive... what was left? Acid? Those were usually deep green though, and almost always larger to medium in build. For something so small, typically that had to mean venom. The classic danger of smaller Basilisks: their bite was almost always paralyzing or fatal even at a young age. Yet, if this serpent didn't have venom, though… Alem didn't know what that meant.

All he could say for certain was that his [Intuition] for happened to be ringing out like church-bells.

Danger.

Thankfullynot in the sense of an active threat, but in the sense of a warning. Fickle as the skill was, Alem felt safe in that interpretation.

Clearly, the serpent didn’t seem agitated. In fact, it looked quite calm, almost… half asleep. Blue scales or not, perhaps, it just some odd regional variation Alem had never had the pleasure of learning about. Adventuring hadn't been his first career, after all. Though he'd heard of strange creatures on the far side of world among the Northern and Southern Continents, he didn't claim to know all the details. Those places had warrens and dungeons which frequently displayed different species from the Empire-controlled Dungeons local to the Old Country, so it seemed plausible but...

“Ssssss…”

The creature had decided to stare back at Alem, head bobbing and weaving with a careful flick of its tongue: tasting the air. It seemed to be analyzing him, assessing him.

Peculiar...

The longer Alem looked at the creature, the more he could find wrong with it, and [Intuition] was persistent.

Danger. Danger. Danger.

Though not nearly so accurate as some skills, or cleverly designed Magecraft, Alem had learned to trust in the skill. Picked up years ago, during an ambush along the Eastern Front, it had saved him more than once. For [Intuition] to be aggressively warning him about such a small monster…

It was said that dungeon monsters grew in strength the more they killed and the longer they lived. Despite its slender appearance, that probably meant this one was at least an adolescent of its species, with some level of maturity and age behind it, and not a hatchling.

Alem was troubled by this, among other things.

It was no secret that the Farstrider Guild was dwindling in members. With several members out of the city on extended contracts, and the Guild Master missing for weeks at a time... Compared to just a few years ago, they were downright pitiful.

The timing was undeniably ominous.

The Mercenary Guild had been been acting more and more aggressive, and the Merchant's guild had them under contract recently. On a night like this, when the City Guard most obviously occupied, it wasn't even a huge leap. Anyone with military background could see the advantage there, to seize the element of an ambush and burn the building to dust with the evidence afterwards.

Could this all be a trap, or some sort of ploy? He paused for a moment, uncertainty pressing in for the briefest of instants before it passed.

No.

When the door had been kicked down, Alem half expected a full squad of men to be rushing in after it. Instead, they had found an Elf.

Alem shook his head, rubbing at his eyes. That an Elf would show up out of the blue in the middle of the night by kicking their door down with a forceful request of employment was strange. Perhaps almost as disconcerting that there was even an Elf in the city at all, but that was half the point.

There were no Elves, anywhere. Not the continent, not the region- and if there were any in the city, Alem would have likely known of it within a day.

This was an outside variable.

Either a miracle or a disaster, but at this point the gamble was probably worth it. The Guild wasn't in a real position to be picky about who came to work for them.

 

Don't spit in the eye of fate, was the expression that came to mind.

It also seemed to help, somewhat, that the Guild's newcomer happened to be easy on the eyes. If Alem managed to trick himself into looking past their ears, that is. Tanned skin, and toned muscles to fit with a light warrior's build. Something Alem was personally rather fond of-

"Stop."

His stare was interrupted, jumping startled as the Elf suddenly turned to look up and back at him with eyes narrowing. Their gaze was very much akin to what Alem might expect from someone glance at a pile of cattle-shit, if it happened to be dropped on their doorstep.

"You watch... much." They growled. "The boy too."

Beside them, another set of eyes also stared, transfixed on the foreign newcomer without the slightest hint of courtesy. Alem turned to see Dren leaving halfway across the table beside them, eyes wide enough to rival dish plates.

"Ah- ahem, of course. My apologies." Alem replied, waving a hand at the young healer until the boy leaned back with a sour expression and grumble. "We just-"

"I do not care." They turned back from the papers to stare at him. "We join." She pushed the parchment back across the table. "Last page. Join now."

Apparently, Elves were rude. Alem was adding that to his list of worldly knowledge.

"Certainly, we'll need a blood print on this stone. It's attuned to the records."

"Blood." A statement in response.

“Yes?” Alem felt they had intended this as a question, and yet somehow pronounced as something else entirely.

"Ask... Blood."

The language barrier was indeed one of the more troubling aspects so far noticed amid the current ordeal. Still, Alem didn't need to speak... whatever language it was Elves happened to speak, to know the one in front of him wasn't particularly thrilled with him.

"Yes, you'll need to sign this form here, and we'll need a blood-print on this seal. That's how we can register you.” Reading right on through the script, just as he'd done hundreds of times before for any other would-be adventurer, Alem paused. This was rarely an issue, considering Adventuring often involved quite a bit blood. Most weren't squeamish over the subject. "I'm aware you'll probably be registering as a Tamer, which is fine- but in addition you yourself, we'll also need to take a blood-print of your partner."

Now the Basalisk was staring at him.

Alem had lived a dangerous life. On the fronts, he’d fought waves of Dwarven Constructs. He'd seen men die, armies clash, seen Mage-fire volleys turn the night sky back to day: but something about the tiny serpent made Alem extremely uncomfortable. If he had to choose between the two of them, the snake was even worse than the Elf.

He caught himself staring back, shaking his head to break free, before continuing.

"Right. So, if you might simply made your prints here, and here..."

The Elf eyed the papers as he pushed them over, expression providing little to no insight beyond the fact he wasn't quite appreciated.

"If you need a knife, I have one right here-"

"No." An immediate reply.

As Alem reached for a small letter opener, Basilisk let out a long hiss that silenced the room rather nicely. He stopped short, uneasy shiver running down his spine.

"No metal."

Not a request, from the way the snake was suddenly looking at him.

“Ssss…” Its tongue flicked, once.

Alem slowly brought his hand back to towards the stack of papers. In all his many years within the Guild, this particular situation had never arisen.

He paused, uncertain, until Dren spoke.

"Blades might cut, and wounds might heal." Dren recited. "But to Elven blood, there's death in steel." He hummed the second line proudly, until he realized the attention it brought him. "Elves are poisoned by forged metals." He said nervously, rubbing at his cheek with a sheepish expression. "I learned that once, from a tutor my father hired.”

"No knife, then." Alem said quietly, grateful it was Dren who had now attracted the attention of the snake. "I still need you to place those blood-prints, so... glass perhaps?"

Elves used glass weapons, didn't they? That was in the legends, if he remembered them properly. Glass weapons and gold armor. He glanced over at Dren, receiving little to no helpful information. The boy's attention was once again on the newcomer. More specifically the snake: Dren’s curiosity seemed to have been replaced by a healthy level of fear.

For the best, Alem thought. As long as it didn’t decide to bite the boy, Dren could do with a small dose of terror. Might keep him in line, make him think twice about doing something stupid, or reckless.

Glass though…

Alem wondered if they even had a blade of glass. The Guild had a large number of oddities acquired over the years, but a foreign piece like that wasn't exactly common. Maybe Eveth had broken a mug, or there was some chipped ceramic that would work? Gold…

They certainly didn't have any gold laying around. Certainly not here, at least. The Guild was lucky Alem hadn't had to start pawning off their equipment at the end of every month. It was no lie to admit that he’d been deeply considering the sale of loose floorboards.

Replacing those with a cheaper stone-strand composite, and they’d still have coin left over.

"I found it." Behind them Eveth reappeared from the hallway, covered in dust, with her arms wrapped around a large metal contraption. Dropping it down with a loud clunk, the old assessment device settled on the table: an impressive piece of metal and gears.

Alem watched as she nimbly slipped the piece into the machine, adjusting the dials as it spun to life with a quiet glow.

"One drop of blood, right on the stone." Eveth stated, hand drifting to the opening. "This will get a read and draft the seal. From there, it will match up in the archives though the paper Alem's holding. Here and in the Empire's ledgers. Royal trick, that. Still haven’t figured out how those runes work, exactly."

Despite Eveth’s instructions, neither the Elf, nor the snake, made motion towards the device. Instead they turned to one another, the basilisk quietly hissing before they turned their attention back to Alem, who self-consciously put the parchment into place.

"At the very least, we'll need one drop from you." Alem said, turning to them as the lever on the device was shifted into place. "The tamer's blood is absolutely mandatory. We can write an exception for the Basilisk if there's a good reason we shouldn't-"

"Mine only." The Elf stated, again almost a question, but much more a statement.

"And what reason will we list as the exception for your Basilisk?"

"Death."

“Death.” Alem nodded. “For who… exactly?”

“All.”

"Oh." Alem nodded again.

Well.

That seemed a rather convincing reason. Alem didn't like the sound of that.

"One drop, agreed." The Elf said, holding out her hand. "And only one."

Suddenly, the air seemed swirl about over the table. In seconds, a small sphere of mist had found itself condensing before the Elf’s outstretched hand. Folding together, the mist turned to water droplets, which then turned to a small needle of ice.

That dropped.

“How the fuck-“ Behind him, Alem heard Eveth gasp, then cough, then possibly choke, from the sounds of it.

He supposed something impressive had just occurred, but magic wasn't quite his field. Mages would do whatever it was they did, and he would swing his hammer. Occasionally into their skulls, should it come to that.

Still, he had to admit there was something impressive about the delicate work unfolding before him, as the ice dropped in a perfect angle from where it formed, dropping down to carefully pricked the Elf's finger. The blooming drop of red was pressed to the machine without hesitation, before being pulled away, leaving a perfect seal of crimson over the glowing surface.

"Hissss..." There was a subtle glow, and the pinprick wound healed.

"I’ll be." Alem blinked. “You’re a healer?”

“I am Imra.”

“No, I meant…” Alem trailed off. “Never mind that for now.”

“You’ve got to be joking, never mind?” Eveth seemed to have regained her composure. "How did you just do that?" She asked, leaning in over the table, pointing. "How, in all the Light, did you just do that?"

The Elf leaned back, giving the Mage a disgruntled sneer as she folded her arms. "You ask for blood, not for question."

"Yes, fine: but how-"

"We join. One drop. Was agreed." Their expression darkened. “Join, now."

In the back of Alem’s mind, [Intuition] had begun shouting out a different kind of tone. One with slightly more urgency.

“But, you just healed!” Eveth continued, ignorant- or intentionally ignorant. “Without a hymn or incantation, no less. Besides that, how did you make the water-“

"All right then! Excellent!" Alem found himself forced to intervene, roughly hitting the lever on the machine's side. The humming spin of the objects began to intensify as the drop of blood turned to smoke, and the small piece of parchment beneath the crystal imprinted. With a light, but stern hand, he pushed Eveth away the table, back to where Dren was still sitting with wide eyes. “Enough of that, now.”

He pulled the card free as it finished, giving the details a quick skim over.

It had processed, at least. Readers like theirs weren’t the most accurate, but they could give a rough estimation of ability, though it seemed to have skipped over skills… there was barely anything in that section.

Elven heritage, playing interference, perhaps?

Alem kept looking. Maybe… maybe not. Odd, but not nearly so odd as everything else that had happened so far this evening. Certainly not unusual enough for Alem to ask for another drop of blood. Heavy handed, he stamped the record with a copper ringed ink-press, attached to the side of the contraption, handing it across the table.

It was done. Their Guild Master might very well be missing. The city might very well be in flames. Yet, for the first time in months, the Farstrider Guild found itself with a new member.

Or, should he say members?

"Welcome to the Guild."