Eveth watched on stone-faced as the monster rat screamed its last, finally falling limp on the stone as the spear ran it through. She continued watching, expression nonplussed as the weapon's owner followed it up with several more strikes, each more gruesome than the last.
As awful and unnecessary as she thought it was, the creature never stood a chance.
Beside her, Dren looked away. His face scrunched up, eyes averted to any direction but the brutality ahead.
"Does she really have to... It's just... It's already..."
"I know they're monsters, but..." Dren trailed of, wincing as a sudden motion abruptly brought an end to the barbaric act. More than a just a hint of disgust reached his face. "Maybe things are different, where she comes from."
The creature's tail landed in their general vicinity, just as blood-soaked as Eveth would have expected it to be. Together they stared at it, neither moving as the seconds passed, until finally Dren stepped forward, flexing his gloves with reluctance.
"What number is that? Forty-five?" He asked.
"Forty-six, by my count." Eveth replied. "Might be best if we plan on making two trips today."
"Ah." The boy grimaced, plucking the body-part from the ground with a defeated look, before adding it to the growing pile in the wagon beside Eveth.
Another tail landed.
“I don’t understand why she doesn’t use magic.” Eveth frowned at the sight. “Like she did the other day, it would be easier, more efficient.”
"Yes, well, speaking of efficiency: I'd appreciate if you picked up at least a few of these." Dren replied. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
"Crrrrrrraaaaaa-" Another scream cut off ahead, shortly followed by the meaty thump' of another tail a few paces away.
“Nope.” Eveth snorted. “Not happening.”
Dren sighed, shoulder sagging somewhat as he reached for it.
"Just every so often, that's all I'm asking. When you feel like helping. Maybe… I don’t know: make the golems you're always tinkering with do it."
"Mana doesn't grow on trees Dren, and [Create Golem] isn't a spell Mages just throw around for any old reason." She replied, nose wrinkling at the results of their day's labor. The small cart was filling up quickly, and the stench was multiplying as the day's heat began to make its climb. "Besides, I'm just the escort here so Alem doesn't worry about you and the newbie."
"I thought it was to pay for all the furniture you ruined this morning." Dren paused, turning towards her with a look of suspicion. "Like the wooden table you set on fire… or the stools, for that matter."
"I'll accept responsibility for the table, but nothing more."
"Considering you burned it to charcoal and choked us half to death on the smoke... I think you probably owe more than that."
"Listen, you didn't see me beating Alem over the head with those chairs: that was her fault." Eveth gestured towards the spear-wielding figure ahead of them. Half a block down the alleyway, their companion crept along: head and body covered by a blackened cloak as they aimed their weapon towards another unsuspecting victim. Seconds later, there was another scream, followed by another sickening round of stabbing motions. "She's nothing but trouble. Alem should never have let her join."
"Maybe." Dren replied, raising a hand to shade his eyes as he watched the spear-wielder from a distance. "Alem says we don't have the luxury of picking people that aren't trouble anymore though. Says we need people."
Eveth didn't immediately respond to that. Dren was right, at least this time.
Alem Stonewalker and the Guild Master, Varar Gondost, were the two pillars of the Farstrider Guild. Each with a long list of years and experience, skills and knowledge that stretched on over decades: so long as both were standing and capable, Eveth felt assured that the Guild would do the same, but… Eveth hadn't seen Varar for weeks, now.
If her suspicions were correct: Neither had Alem
So, how many people were even left in the Guild, as of the moment? Under ten, surely. The brothers, Tuth and Val, would come back. Saying they hadn't died, she was certain of that much. Alem, herself and Dren: that together made five, but that was about all she could be certain of.
Croly had up and left half a year ago without a word to anyone, as had Mel, a month after that. Kleth, their designated gear specialist for Dungeon work, at least the common-decency to report in confidence that he was taking his family West. Apparently, they were heading to a port city in hopes of catching a boat to one of the continents across the seas. Yuri and Mack had done the same (or, Eveth hoped they had, as they simply disappeared one day without coming back for their possessions or gear) but she knew that might be nothing-more than wishful thinking on account of the fact that old Drothers was shot dead with three bolts to the back, in the middle of the market-square not a week later.
To say that the past year had been brutal, wouldn't be an understatement.
“Maybe we can’t be too picky.” Eveth admitted. “But, if someone’s going to join a Guild, they should at least try and make an effort to talk a bit.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like to talk. Tuth doesn’t.”
“Tuth’s a mute.”
Eveth glanced up towards the sky, covering her eyes to squint. The sun was starting to heat up, now. Warmer and warmer, the temperature would keep rising for a few more hours, yet. Around them, the backstreets were already starting to cook, which meant it was going to be another unbearably hot day, for which, Eveth was somewhat grateful.
She might not enjoy the heat, but fewer people would be out.
“See something?” Dren asked.
“No.” Eveth replied. “I think it’s just us out here, today.”
“Ah… well, that’s good.”
They continued their slow pace, as Dren continued his task of tail retrieval. Eveth mulled over her thoughts.
Despite how little she enjoyed this sort of work, even if Alem hadn’t asked her, she would have come out with Dren for this. The city streets weren't safe like they used to be. Nothing was, truly.
The rain just wasn't falling when it should, the crops were dying, the people starving, while the storms coming in off the flats whipped up sands strong enough to ruin homes. Altogether, that meant the prices on goods were rising. From what she’d heard, the Merchant Guilds in the city had settled into tearing apart one another like hungry wolves, many resorting to less than legal means. Add the occasional breach of along the Eastern lines, or the rumors of what had happened just recently on the Northern continent: many folk were calling it the end times.
Eveth would call the lot of them as dramatic, but the Empire seemed to be acting under the same premise. Entire battalions marching off from their posts to head West, noble houses buying up any goods that seemed likely to hold value.
Much as she felt she might want to, Eveth knew that she really couldn't get angry at someone for wanting to leave this mess behind.
“If you had to leave, Dren, where would you go?”
“Leave?” Dren looked up from the latest tail to arrive, surprised. “Why would I want to leave?”
“Just curious, if you did.”
“I suppose I would try and go to one of the port cities. Join in with one of the sister Guilds.”
“So, you’d try and stay an Adventurer?”
“Of course. I’m not going back to the Church.”
“What of your family?”
“They’re one and the same. Noble families only need one or two heirs, not five. I’m last in line, so can’t go back there, either.” Dren huffed, dropping another tail in the pile. “What about you?”
“Yes, where would you go? Back to the academy?”
“No.” Eveth sneered at the thought. “Even if they’d take me, I wouldn’t.”
“Ah… sorry. I forgot.” Dren mumbled.
They walked in silence for a moment, conversation lapsed once more. Rare, considering Dren’s usual methods of dealing with extended moments of quiet.
Still, it was a thought she’d been drifting towards, recently. There weren't really a lot of places someone like Eveth could go.
As an unlicensed Mage, she’d have a hard time practicing her craft, legally. The Farstrider's Guild was the last Adventurer's Guild in the City of the Emperor, the others having collapsed and been bought out years ago. Either completely dissolved by the Empire or integrated into some other type of Guild for the sake of profit. Merchants and Mercenaries, or others looking to get a cut of the potential for coin to be made in the Dungeon. Keeping a Guild going through all those was no simple feat, but the Farstrider Guild had somehow always managed to pay their dues. All the way back to the founding, the Guild had remained independent: run without benefactors or Imperial loans, while still managing to pay for its highly-coveted Imperial license to operate within the city limits and surrounding territories.
That was before the troubles had begun to stack, though. Sustainable as it had been to remain its own entity, the Guild had never once expanded. One building, one license, one Guild: The City of the Emperor was the sole home of the Farstrider Guild. They’d made a few connections across the continent, but nothing with any official context. So, if Eveth left, that meant leaving the shelter of the Farstrider License, which in turn meant leaving the protection which allowed her to legally practice magecraft. She could try and find another Guild to join, but she’d need to leave the city for it, which meant leaving the only central hub of magic on the continent and giving up on her studies…
Or living with the constant risk being arrested.
That was always on the table, she supposed. The ever-present possibility that the Empire might lead her to some dark cell in rune-covered chains, while the Academy greedily helped themselves to her life's work.
She could only imagine those smiling faces of the Academy Archmages as they sentenced her, drinking from their goblets of gold and gemstones. How clever would they feel, taking credit for her discoveries a second time?
Her fist closed around the staff in her hand, so tightly her knuckled stretched white.
Walking beside her, Dren cast an uneasy look in her direction, quickening his pace somewhat as he quickly tossed another tail into the cart behind him. Eveth felt this was an unexpectedly wise decision for a boy who often had the social awareness of a braying donkey. Dren was a great many things, but on occasions like this one, Eveth knew it was wrong to write the young noble off as a complete idiot.
Aside from Varar and Alem standing firm in the Guild, it was actually Dren's presence that forced the scales of her mind to secure her decision to stay. Eveth had held her ground and carried on as normal when many others decided to flee, in part because the boy had decided the same. Select few personality flaws aside: Dren was a still healer- a good one.
Not some shoddy wipe-out from the Churches bottom-barrel dredges who only knew a few basic castings, but the kind who could work the type of castings needed on a dangerous mission. Eveth had seen Dren set a bone broken in five different places, then wipe away the injury as good as new. She'd once even seen him put someone's arm back on when it was hanging from a few tendons. Young and immature as Dren was, Eveth didn't know many others she'd trade him for.
The fifth-born son of a noble family, he'd been passed over to the Faith and removed from the line of succession as per tradition. There, he spent his time learning all the things one might expect a future Paladin to learn. Unlike tradition though, Dren had decided that it might be far more interesting to be an adventurer than a Church attendant.
She watched the boy as he walked ahead, mace swinging awkwardly at his belt.
There was a mess, there: a rather large one, actually. Large enough that Eveth hadn't quite gathered all of the details, but she knew for certain that the boy was disowned, and now a noble in nothing more than blood. At the very best he might have a few silver to scrape together instead of the typical sacks of gold and a summer-estate out in the country, that one might typically expect of the more distinguished family lines.
Watching Dren casually drag a wagon of dead monster-parts around the alleys of abandoned slums, Eveth personally thought this was for the best. A life like this might actually make the boy tolerable, given a few more years.
Picking up rat tails could humble anyone, given time.
Another tail landed with a wet sound on the stone blocks of the alleyway, directly in front of her. Turning back to look, Dren gave a hopeful nod in its direction that followed through towards the cart.
"Absolutely not." Eveth stated. "That's your job."
"Oh, come on Eveth. It's just a tail."
"No, I didn't sign on to work for the Guild to dirty my hands with rats." Eveth replied, motioning at the severed appendage with her staff with a sneer. "I did it for the-"
"Oh sure, the Guild's license. I know, I know..." Dren accepted defeat bitterly as he waved a hand over his shoulder, plucking the tail from the ground himself. "Something-something magecraft, something-something thesis, something-something research. I've heard it all before, oh great Magician."
"You know, just because the laws say it would be illegal for me to torch you doesn't actually mean I can't do it." Eveth's eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms. "I hope you realize that, before you inevitably piss off someone who might seriously consider doing so."
"Well, if it turns anything like the Basilisk, I suppose I wouldn't even care." The youth said, turning to stick his tongue out in her direction. "So, you can roast me all you want, oh great and wise Mage Eveth. In fact, I dare you to try."
"That's-" Eveth tripped on the cracked-edge, catching herself with a stumble as she turned on her companion, scowl in full form. "That's an entirely different subject, you pampered idiot."
"Oh, and how so?" Dren asked, innocent expression widening into a cheeky grin. "Don't tell me a powerful mage like yourself can't use some simple fire-magic?"
"Simple fire magic? Is that what you think summoning a vocal and staff absent incantation of [Fireball] is?"
"Fancy words for someone why couldn't even crisp their target."
"No, I'm telling you right now: that snake should be dead. That's one fact of concern on a growing list when it comes to our newly recruited talent over there." Eveth managed to keep herself from shouting, just barely. "I still don't understand how you're not questioning that healing magic last night. I can forgive you for the rest- but don't you find anything about that a bit strange?"
"Anyone dedicated enough can learn some basic healing magic: it was pin-prick."
"I know basic healing magic, and this wasn't it: she didn't organize the mana at all! The spell had no framework! Nothing to box it in- and the white mana had other elements shoved into it!"
"Yeah, yeah, rub it in that I'm not an [Adept] like you. I'm sure what you saw was very impressive, but all I remember seeing is a paper-cut heal with some low-class spell. Hardly worth mentioning."
"I can't believe you're a trained as a Paladin sometimes. How do you heal people of their wounds without understanding how it works? Didn't they teach you any theory in the church?"
"The Church simply provides us the methods that have worked for centuries. The teachings from the God of light, and the manner by which our minds can understand it." Dren recited as if reading from a textbook with bored tone. "Theory is for mages, trying to understand things they shouldn't bother with."
"You're like an idiot savant."
"I've been called worse things, and by much more beautiful women." Dren cast another prize-winning smile in her direction, as Eveth gritted her teeth.
"Maybe I will set you on fire." She growled. "Then you can be barely singed, just like the Basilisk was."
"Listen here Eveth, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for why, but I think you should just be thankful that it's not actually dead. Our new companion probably would have done a lot worse than socking you on the cheek if it hadn't gotten up and started hissing at her" Dren pointed in the direction of their group's third member, before frowning. Slowly he bent to pick up another disembodied tail that had seemed to magically appear since he'd last looked. "A lot worse. Honestly, I've never seen someone take Alem to the floor before. I know he didn't have his armor on, but still..."
"Craaaaaaaaa! Creeeeeee! Cra- 'Thump."
"We never should have let that maniac in." Eveth muttered, free-hand massaging her jaw unconsciously. It was healed, but the memory lingered. "I don't care how bad we need people, this one is nothing but trouble."
"Well, Alem said there's no way she's from the Mercenary Guild, and by my count she's already paid for the doors she broke." Dren paused, counting off fingers as he pulled the wagon forward down the sidestreet. "And probably the chairs from this morning too, if we get stone-strand composite instead of wood... still not enough for the table, but I think we're close. When Alem sees this haul, he'll probably even forgive her for kicking him in the-"
Dren froze, letting go of the cart's handle before reaching down towards the mace at his belt.
Eveth followed his gaze, glancing down the sidestreets that branched off from their route. The shadows of the alleyways hung about the edges of the buildings, noon-day sun forcing them into the cracks and overhangs of ruined stonework, and he eyed them, uncertain as he slowly reached back to drag the cart just a bit further.
There in the dark patches, something moved, prompting Dren to raise the mace beside his head in some sort of half-cocked position between a real stance, or someone with a paper-scroll looking to smack an aggressive fly. The scene was almost comical as Eveth watched it continue: youth puffing up his posture like some sort of exotic bird, weapon at the ready for the perceived threat.
Dren was a lot of things, but a fighter wasn't exactly one of them.
Eveth tapped into her mana, calmly pushing a spell along the practiced avenues in her mind's eye. "Just a rat." she chuckled calmly, shouldering her staff as a lazy orb of [Light] appeared beside them, floating out towards the source of motion. "See?" Several skittering forms took off in a frenzy, leaping over trash and filth towards cracks and breaks of the foundations around them. Many more than Eveth had anticipated, but not enough to show outward concern. "Not a Ghoul, though I can't imagine why you of all people would be scared of one."
"I'm not scared, you're being ridiculous." Dren retorted, lowering his weapon and continuing his march forward with the cart. "Ghouls don't frighten me at all."
"Sure they don't." Eveth replied, feigning ignorance. "Why would they?"
"They wouldn't. Besides, the Empire take clean up very seriously. The bounty for Ghouls is mostly just for show, and it's rarely collected."
"You almost sound like someone who's trying to convince themselves of something." She responded, holding back a slight smile. "Almost."
"Well, when was the last time you heard of someone actually collecting a bounty for Ghouls inside the city?"
"Two weeks ago I heard a rumor that the Mercenary Guild brought a few of them in." Eveth replied. "One of the shopkeepers told me."
"I heard the same thing, but Alem said me that they just dragged some people down into the dungeon, and then smuggled their bodies back up once the mana did its work." Dren countered. "So that doesn't count- that's just murder."
"Maybe, I mean who can say?"
"Sure, but sometimes Alem is wrong."
"Not about things like this!"
"Well, what if the other rumor about the Mercenary Guild is true then?"
"What other rumor?" Dren stopped walking again, cart wheels ceasing with a loud creak. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, I heard that they've reached an agreement and finally been bought-out by the main Merchant Guild. There's not much point in risking their necks for a few gold when they're already fat and happy." Eveth replied. "Besides, on a day like today I think there's still enough residual mana around that they wouldn't need to drag you down below at all."
"You're... you're lying." Dren turned back towards her, rat-tail still in hand as she caught his eyes widening somewhat. "You're absolutely lying."
"Mmm... am I? Stranger things have happened"
"Yes, you are! Don't lie about stuff like this Eveth. There's no way that's true!"
"Oh, maybe you're right. Maybe, for the streets, it would be a stretch to have a Ghoul on a day like this-but not the canals. I'll tell you right now, the air down there is still dense with mana. It's not quite like the Dungeon, but it’s probably enough to invoke a reaction." Eveth motioned to the deeper path that ran now ran parallel to the alleyway. At least seven paces deep, ten paces wide where they now looked, her eyes squinted as she stared at the dried and empty water-ways, occasional puddle the only trace of its original purpose. "If this drought would ever end, I seriously doubt it would be able to stick around though. Current would wash it away, none the wiser."
Dren eyed the canal warily, before slowly dropping the tail into the cart with all the rest. "So… if someone were to fall down there, and..." He looked ahead, then back the way they had already come from. Nothing but the occasional rat-corpse, trash pile, or puddle seemed to break up the monotony of stone. "You're telling me they might get back up."
"I'd wager coin on it." Eveth replied with a grin. "If you point me towards one of those more beautiful women you mentioned earlier, we can test it out." Eveth let her grin shift into her most villainous expression, as Dren's look of terror turned into sudden realization.
"I knew it! You're just messing with me." He shouted, pointing at her with an angry stomp of his foot. "You're such a jerk!" He yelled, pulling the latest rat tail to arrive from the cart and swinging it at her- forcing her to take a step back to avoid it. "I can't even believe you sometimes!"
Eveth almost had time to break into laughter, before an arrow took her through the shoulder.