"Yet another day passes, and you're nowhere to be found." Alem spoke aloud to none but himself as he stared up, eyes following the sun as it crept past the cobbled rooftop looming beside the small clearing.
It was well past noon, and the air was finally starting to cool from the passing of the midday sun. Just enough so Alem was starting to feel the slightest chill, as the stones began to fall into shade.
"Where in all the hells are you, Varar?"
Stretching his back, Alem sighed, rising from the stone bench of the abandoned fountain. It seemed that no matter how many hours he might waste waiting, the Guildmaster wasn't going to show themselves. For the third day in a row, no less: this was turning out to be a growing problem of no small consequence. Their traditional meeting place was just as empty as when Alem had first arrived. There was nothing but the distant clamor of street merchants for company.
At this point, Alem knew he was going to have to give up.
With a grumbling curse, he left the seat behind while rubbing at the barest specks of hair at his chin. He'd been maintaining himself as best as possible, but there was only so much a Veteran of the fronts could do to improve appearances. No matter how well-groomed his look, it could do little to hide the scars.
So, the saying goes: once a soldier, forever a soldier.
Stretching with a groan, Alem began his walk beside the growing lines of shadow along the streets: their examples loudly proclaiming the obvious with a sense of urgency he wished would settle off somewhere and never return. The day was slipping off into tomorrow at what felt as though it were an accelerated pace- clearly over halfway towards its end. Hours from sundown and he'd passed over an entire day's work in exchange for nothing.
The bitter truth. He'd come away with nothing.
No Varar, no completed contract- hell, not even peddled change for him to scrape together. All he had was the nagging sensation that something, somewhere, was going very wrong.
He'd tried to write it off as the times changing for the worse.
Farstrider Guild might be hard-pressed, but so was just about everything (and everyone) else. Merchants, nobles, farmers, trades-folk... it wasn't as though anyone in the region seemed to be doing particularly well. Food was becoming more expensive by the day, goods that were common a year ago seemed to be in short supply, and tensions for any source of income seemed to be growing... and yet the bounty on rat-tails seemed just as fair as it ever had been.
It wasn't difficult to imagine that while he'd been sitting on his rear doing nothing of value, the others in the Guild had likely been filling another cart with those blasted things.
Coin was a coin, after all. When work was short, and the last jobs to go would be the one's no one else wanted to do. Still, Alem hadn't done much in the way of earning coin recently. He had to wonder if maybe that was where some of the stress was coming from.
It was fair for him to say that normally he would have. Either by taking a more difficult hunting bounty, or possibly signed up along for an escort mission with one of the Caravans. Time consuming in both respects, but those jobs still paid well when stacked beside the rest.
Just a few years ago, he would almost certainly have been organizing short expeditions down into the Dungeons, but tolls for entrance had scaled up with the price of just about everything else, so that was more or less a wash for profits. Even with the Guild's License reducing Dungeon costs, Farstrider Guild's current short-handedness meant a risky gamble.
Alem knew he could lead them down, especially in the early layers, but even with everyone still accounted for he had to guess they only had seven or so who would be willing. Seven, and that was assuming Varar came back- so at this point it was likely six, and they'd have to wait on two of them to return from an escort, and then they'd be stretched thin on a gamble to collect whatever materials of value they could in dungeon on a short dive, and come back to the surface safely. That wasn't even counting the time it would take to haggle and sell their goods at a reasonable price. Every Merchant was out for blood recently, and his contacts were shrinking by the week.
All things right in the world, Alem would rather have ten, no: fifteen people. There was a proper expedition team number, especially if they were all veterans. Even in some of the deeper zones, a team like that might as well be unstoppable, but of the six he felt sure of, as he could only seriously count the Veterans on one hand.
Himself, Varar, the brothers, and Eveth. After that, he had two variables.
Of course, there was Dren: their only remaining healer. Greenhorn in almost all respects except his craft. Certainly, Dren could heal a wound, but taking that boy down into the Dungeon on a serious dive would be utter-foolishness. He simply wasn't ready for something of that level. Hell, Alem felt nervous letting him roam the city, streets being what they were.
The newcomer Imra, on the other hand. She was likely a skilled fighter.
It hadn't been long, yet Alem felt sure of this. The monster she'd tamed likely had value, as well: but those sort of things weren't always a clear indicator of skill when exploring the depths beneath the surface. Dungeon dives were all about experience, of which there were no shortcuts.
With another sigh, Alem squashed the thoughts.
He was letting himself find distraction in idle daydreams. Clearly further acts of escapism from the fact he might be returning to the Guild once more with nothing. This was far from a role model in the chain of command as he could get in times like these. It wasn't as if the coin Farstrider Guild needed was growing on trees.
There didn't even seem to be any trees left, which only served to make things considerably more difficult. Just a couple dried up husks burning away beneath the heat on the plains.
Wood: once a stable building material, was becoming an imported luxury.
Those famed lumber markets of the lower district had been overtaken by the Merchant Guilds. Their desperate conglomerate, merging now by purchasing all the Stone Crafting enterprises... a true mess. Stone strand composites might as well be the future at this point, for all the material’s lesser qualities. It was a topic he'd been trying to learn more about, recently. Prompting in conversation and reading Empire newsletters, if only to know the going rate of used floor-boards.
What was currently in the Guild’s building, itself, might be enough to keep them going another year. All Alem needed to do was find the right buyer.
Already, there he went again.
Alem knew he was letting himself find distraction over excuses once more. It was just... well, it was just considerably difficult for him as of late.
He was a soldier, he was someone with experience, and above all Alem considered himself a fairly educated man. He would never compete with the likes of Eveth or some noble with a lofty background, but he had his wits about him. He could read, write, and above all: he could lead people in absence of someone who would be better suited.
Still, Alem wasn't a leader. He'd never been a leader. As a soldier he'd been someone who took orders and carried them out as best he could. That was how he functioned best, and right now... for some time, Alem felt the growing sensation of unease that only comes with being outside of one's element. It was because of that he knew Varar needed to return, and soon. If he didn't...
Well, Alem wasn't quite sure. His current plan was to start selling off floor boards, tables and chairs. It wasn't quite a joke any longer. He might even need to tap into some of the odd trinkets and contraptions Eveth horded in the basement. There were strict fees due, and soon. Prized and difficult to obtain as the Guild License was, it needed to be renewed every so often, for a healthy sum. Taxes as well, for a large structure like the Farstrider Hall, those numbers were nothing to ignore either. With so few members pulling in coin, and the places they'd had to borrow from…
It was just so deeply out of character for Varar to be away this long.
This wasn’t right.
Alem supposed that was what it had to all boil down to, in the end. Varar been gone like this before, but surely not delayed this many times in a row. Mission after mission, the Guild Master had always been the type to send a courier if he happened to be running late. Or, at the very least: a street urchin with a note. The whole situation smelled of trouble, and there was nothing Alem could do about it.
He was at the mercy of fate at this point.
Sighing, once more, Alem began to make his way back towards the main arteries of the city. The day was mostly spent, but he knew there were a few contributions he could make towards the Guild's well-being before day found itself finished. Mostly, minor errands. Check-ins, follow-ups, conversations… In Varar's absence Alem always had more than just a few people to seek out. Short (but in-person) verbal confirmations of agreed work, or quick signatures and renewals of longterm contracts.
The most pressing was currently the hiring of a real carpenter on account of the badly damaged door, so what little was left didn’t find itself walking away.
In theory Eveth could work stone or earth in place of this, but there would be a trade-off in such a case. On a personal level, it wasn't something Alem would accept. Having the wood was about status. Those doors were a clear indication to anyone who came knocking, that the Farstrider Guild was still strong. They had to look the part.
Alem was a firm believer in such a concept.
Still... the prices would be the concern. Real lumber was in remarkably short supply, but taking a situation like this and turning it around? Perhaps, this could potentially be a stepping stone towards a connection who might buy the stock of boards he already had...
All these details to keep track of.
Numbers and scripts and copies of receipts? It was enough to drive some men insane. Possibly, more than enough. With a grumble, Alem picked up his pace and got on with the day.
He moved quickly.
The late start forced him to shorten up on what would have been a tediously long and winding route through the City's Commerce belt. Skipping a shopkeeper here, passing over a weapon's smith there, a conversation with a more friendly merchant found itself abridged, soon after. Conversations, quick discussions, coins and papers exchanged. Alem rushed along, racing the sun by the time he reached his final intended stop before returning to the Guild. The final leg of the journey, in a manner of speaking, and one that couldn't be skipped or put off.
Familiar to any guild worth its weight in contracts:
The Imperial Office.
"Have I seen Varar? No, I haven't." The attendant replied cheerily as she brushed aside a strand of wheat-blond hair. "I believe his contract is still out, actually. According to the board... hold on for a moment, let me check."
"Really, you're sure? Nothing?" Alem asked, uncertain. "I thought for sure he'd have returned today."
"Well, there's certainly a possibility he came in last night..." Alem watched as white-gloved hands flicked through parchment with surprising speed. "These are turbulent the times. Riots in the streets can cause trouble in the ledgers." She paused, eyes skimming, "Let's see... Guilds, contracts, open... Farstrider... ah, here it is. Varar Gondost was it? No, I'm afraid this job is still not turned in."
"Really? Nothing?" Alem asked, leaning over the counter to try and check the pages himself, squinting. "I honestly thought for certain-"
"Oh, but wait one moment!" He jumped back startled as the attendant snapped her fingers barely inches from his face. "Farstrider Guild- of course!" She said, before shuffling through another several pages. "What were their names..." Alem blinked as the book closed, and another replaced it. "Vah? No, not Vah, what was that name... I know I saw it this morning." Blue eyes caught him off guard as she looked up from the book. "Val! Val and Tuk? Tuth? Horrible spelling, but Farstrider Guild. Says so right here. Left a contract for pickup on your arrival."
"What? Val?" Alem found his question pointless as the woman rushed away from the counter. "They shouldn't be back quite yet." He finished quietly, with no one to hear him.
Drumming his fingers against the countertop, Alem waited.
It was genuine wood. That seemed... fitting.
Actually, everything was wood and polish, now that he looked for it. The walls were framed in the same material, from the edges to the baseboard: they held a well-maintained glow. The Empire spared no expense, or so it seemed.
Standing alone with nothing else to do, Alem soon found his attention wandering as the seconds pushed into minutes. The attendant still hadn't returned.
There was almost no one visibly in the building this time of day, but the woman seemed to have completely run off. Aside from the two guards by the front entrance, Alem was the only one present.
He continued to wait, listening.
No noise from the back. It was almost as if they'd stepped out, entirely.
As he waited, his eyes continued to wander.
To the far wall there were numerous boards, full of parchments and postings for requests. At their distance the details escaped him, but even without looking closer Alem knew most of them were requests for rat-exterminations. Idly he squinted, making note of the larger printed ink. Same price as before, but of course, there would always be some variety.
Roughly drawn portraits were hidden among their numbers: parchment and paper of rougher quality. Some seemed to be missing the touch of printed text all together: several missing-persons papers mixed in with the typical local monster bounties. Requests for information, or... worse. The red ink at their titles told Alem all he needed to know, and just the sight of them was enough to make his lip curl. Offend the wrong noble, hell- the wrong Merchant, and that seemed to be all it took these days.
Dead or Alive. The text was visible proof that the city was changing for the worse.
"Rotten scum." He muttered, inspecting the papers. "Mercenaries are sure to be thrilled.”
Whatever happened to good and honest work? Well-paying monster bounties, or escorts that didn't try to squeeze a man out of his own provisions? Alem squinted a bit more, leaning further as one of the newer postings caught his eye.
New contracts, several of them- all likely posted in the last day or so, from the looks of it.
Strange as it seemed, from a distance...
"Hmm..." Alem looked closer.
He could swear they almost looked like-
The heavy sound of a coin purse landing on the counter broke him from musings.
"There we are! Twenty pieces." The Attendant said, smile widening to reveal a pearly white. "After fees, of course. Feel free to count, it's the full sum."
"Twenty?" Alem stared. "Twenty gold?"
"That's..." He paused, uncertain. "Well, that's more than I was expecting."
"It's the full amount with nothing withdrawn."
"Ah" Alem returned to the counter, staring at the purse of coins with a frown. Beside the bag was a contract page, completed job and stamped quietly waiting for him to simply scoop them up.
"Something wrong?" The attendant asked, leaning back as her grin faltered slightly. Their gloved hand slid the payment forward. "I don't normally see a man frowning at a bag of gold."
"Wrong? No, nothing's wrong. I just wasn't..." He paused, uncertain. "I just expected them to take half, and they weren't due for another day."
Across the counter, he caught the attendant's eye flick back to him, perfect smile returning as if painted on. The back of Alem's mind seemed to spark with an unexpected, but familiar sensation.
He held his face passive.
"Well, the note here says that their convoy came in last night, ahead of schedule." She replied. "With all the commotion- well, I wasn't there for it, but it says someone from the Guild would pick it up today. Full amount, they signed so here it is."
"I see..." Alem slowly retrieved the gold and papers, skimming through the detailed contract. There were two signatures at the bottom, sure enough. Sloppy... but clearly authentic. "Did they say anything else? Another further details?" He looked up, again catching the Attendant as she shifted her attention back to him. Alem frowned, slightly.
There it was again.
Behind him? No one was in line...
"Not anything that I know of, there's nothing written down." Another strand of blond hair found itself tucked back as the attendant's smile continued, "Like I said, I wasn't in last night."
"Ah, of course, of course... well, thank you." Alem replied, folding the paper and pushing it into the crease of his leather armor. Setting the purse to the belt on his waist, he shifted the straps to adjust for the weapon already slung on his back. "I appreciate the assistance..." Alem paused, hands through tying the coin purse to the belt at his waist before looking back to the counter. "I'm sorry, it's bothered me for some time now. For some reason I don't seem to recall your name. Are you new?"
"Jule, Alem. My name is Jule." The attendant flashed Alem another grin, expression one of mock-offense. "I must say I'm surprised you don't recall, I certainly remember you." She plucked a quill in an exaggerated motion, "If it helps though, I could write my name down."
"No, no that's alright." Alem waved his hand and chuckled as he partly turned to leave. Casually, his eyes glanced to check behind him. As expected, there was no one there: just the the building's guards, waiting as they always were beside the entry doors. He turned back. "I have one last question, Jule."
"Yes?" The attendant replied startled, leaning back with surprise. "What is it?" Her face seemed caught between an expression Alem recognized, and another he wasn't quite sure. "What is it Alem?" She asked innocently.
"I had just expected Linda to be working the desk today. I don't suppose she's still in?"
"Linda?" Blue eyes seemed to narrow by the barest of margins, but the painted smile returned and held firm. "No, Linda hasn't been in." Alem watched her, weighing the balance. "Why do you ask?"
"Ah... it's no reason, nothing to worry over." Alem paused, considering, before nodding in the woman's direction. "Well, thank you again for the help. Emperor's blessings be upon you." With that he turned once more, and took his leave.
Alem made sure kept his smile, as he turned and walked past the armored soldiers waiting patiently to either side of the stone threshold out of the building. He made sure to keep his posture aloof, and his pace comfortable. He even made sure to pat down the pouch of coin, as he casually dropped his feet down the steps with relaxed ease.
Quite the feat, for a man who wanted nothing to do but run as fast as his legs would carry him.
To his back, though was difficult for Alem to know with certainty what lay beneath those full-faced helms, but he could feel their eyes following him. Cold eyes, trained eyes: the gaze of men who had given up blood for the Emperor himself. The gaze of men who were more than just men. He felt the Royal Guard's attention linger on him, just as he felt the high-pitched screech of a trusted skill rattle in its cage.
But, they weren't what scared him, now.
The feeling was no longer just odd, it was wrong.
He quickened his pace, just as much as he could. Adopting the posture of a man rushing off to make the next errand, but unwilling to jog or sprint.
Running was not an option. He knew that. If the Empire wanted a person dead, whoever it was wouldn't have time to run at all. So, with that in mind Alem knew he had time.
At least, some time.
Whatever was setting off the alarm in his head wasn't the Empire's doing, or not directly. All the same, Alem also knew that if the Empire happened to be undecided on the subject of someone's life, running might give them a reason to end the debate.
So, no running.
Walking, quickly- but not running.
"Jule" was it?
There had been a pretty face behind that counter, just as there always seemed to be: but it hadn't been one he'd recognized. Alem would go so far as to say he was absolutely certain he'd never seen that woman before in his life. He was absolutely certain she was new to the job. Recently hired on... placed there?
Yet, she said she wasn’t.
And, she said that she knew him.
Why did she know him?
More than that: why did she lie?
He’d made up the name “Linda” on the spot. Might as well have pulled it from a hat. Was she just being polite? Trying to avoid embarrassing him, maybe?
That didn’t feel right- and, in all the Gods: why wasn’t Varar back yet?
Alem kept moving.
[Intuition] didn’t normally sound out a warning in one of the safest areas of the city. There were ways it might be tricked, but it didn't lie. In situations like this, when it happened to be rattling in its cage with all manner of warnings, Alem would usually act on it. Instead though, he continued his effort in retaining a much more professional composure. Eyes ahead, posture settled, he made his way out into the plaza taking the thick stone steps from the Imperial buildings down towards the open square.
What was driving this? What was it, exactly, that was wrong?
Rather quickly he found himself among the throng of people. Faces barely even glanced his way as he moved among them, slipping past and across towards the far side and the main street it opened to. Traders, craftsmen, nobles, soldiers: all rushing from one place to the next as they passed about inner-city plaza beneath the watching eyes of Royal guards on the looming walltops.
There were quite a few more Guards than normal, even without taking a real count Alem could see that much. Four Guards stationed regularly where there might have only been one or two the week before. It seemed even if the riots from the night before had been settled, the garrisons weren't about to take further chances.
Normally, Alem might consider this a comfort. It was almost impossible to imagine anyone trying to attack him with so many guards. Doing something that foolish would be suicide, but even now that he was in the open: that prickling feeling of goosebumps along his neck hadn't settled. In fact, it seemed to only be getting worse.
From the heights those last stood, Alem couldn't really be certain of anything but their general direction. Unlike the Guards at the office, they weren't focused on him specifically- but he felt as if they were clearly watching something.
The edge of [Intuition] beginning to ring out more clearly.
It was enough for him to almost hate the skill: for the sense of urgency that accompanied the ability, rivaled almost anything.
Alem decided he wasn't about to take chances.
Moving across the plaza, he stayed his direction towards the main road as he continued, aiming toward the sprawl of side streets which would follow it. Further and further he went, past the point in which the neatly cut stone shifted into blocks and cracks of less-than-perfect tolerances, past the oversight of Royal guards. Soon the number of other people began to lessen, while the buildings too: first well-fashioned and maintained, quickly began to degrade. Signs hanging out front of commercial structures no longer polished or pained, but dulling: faded and rotten things, if there happened to be any at all.
Walking on, Alem finally gave into the urge to jog, briskly letting his steps carry deeper into this region of the city, ignoring the looks that passed his way from the side streets and windows.
Finally, he reached a crossroads.
The scent of shit, the haunting look of the now deeply shaded streets beneath the far-setting sun, the distant noise of yelling and violence. Standing before this invisible threshold, in the space between the true city and what lay beyond. To either side, the alleyways began to splinter off into forks. Here was where the city's maze truly began. From this point on, the neat lines of streets would be broken up by buildings built atop buildings. By halfway structures and shacks carved out of abandoned skeleton foundations and leftover stone. Where alleyways were literally cut out of the wreckage, through burned wood and broken earth, to be filled with desperate occupants that had no means to better their circumstances.
Walled off entirely in some sections, or visibly open but uninviting as it happened to be here: the slums were a far-cry from the average daytrip for most who could help it, and almost always a confusing and dangerous nightmare come sundown. One wrong turn, and it might take hours to sort out how to find one's way back out. In the current situation, this was exactly where he wanted to be.
Alem took a deep breath. "Fine, then." Without any further warning, he took off in a dead-sprint along the left-most path of the street's fork.
Behind him, he heard someone raise an angry shout, followed by several others as he rounded the first corner, but by the second turn he could barely make out any of those voices at all. By the third, the only noise left was [Intuition] ringing in his head and the beating of blood in his ears. Whoever it was, whatever they wanted: disappointment was all they were going to get.
Experience, skills, mastery of their talents: there were things only a few people in this world possessed. The legends often spoke of men who could do the impossible, and Alem had seen enough in life to know some of the stories were probably true. In battle he'd seem things many would believe impossible. He'd witnessed acts that no clever mage would know how to classify, name, and categorize. Skills that had no true title, or perhaps too many- jumbled and confused so well that no one really knew how one might work unless they happened to possess it themselves.
Much like this one.
Alem dropped down to the empty canal without the slightest hesitation, as he tapped deeply into the well of power waiting for him. His feet smashed against the stone with a deep exhale, before his body sprung forward into a dead sprint.
His lungs puffed, as his strides expanded, twice what they should have been, perhaps more. The canal began to blur- curve, then weave, then split. Left, right, left again. Ducking low, Alem ran beneath a street, kicking off a wall to launch himself up on the far side. Faster, and faster still, he felt his body rush as the wind took him up and his blood soared.
Several rats screeched with surprise as they fled. Alem laughed and caught his breath as they scampered off, several squeezing into cracks along the alley's foundations to escape.
That was what Alem's father had called it, so that was how he thought of it now- although he'd heard dozens of other names for it over the years. No two seemed much the same, but outside of those who had survived combat along the Eastern fronts, the talent was far from common.
Perhaps it was some unique set of conditions that brought it to life, for he'd never met a Mage or healer who possessed the skill, nor much of anyone who'd not lived as a soldier for several years. In that way, the title his father had provided it seemed quite fitting. "Mage's Rush" simply wouldn't have as good a ring to it.
Still, as many did, the skill had come to him gradually over the years. It expanded with use, each time slightly stronger than the time before. With it came the ability for Alem to push past his limits: to run faster, fight harder, to break the bonds of human restraints. At the same time, it also came with a debt. The stronger it became, the worse this sensation was as well. Even now, Alem already felt the burn of fatigue settling in. Not enough to cripple him by any means, but certainly a warning to avoid repeating the recent actions.
His lungs and legs ached.
Deeper than his bones, it almost seemed to come with a chill of his very soul. The price of a talent not to be used frequently. Perhaps a subject which Eveth might lecture him about, though Alem knew little of such things.
Luckily for him, using such a skill twice in a row didn't seem as though it would be necessary today. He'd made it, free and clear, and [Intuition] was settling at last: the warnings of danger were fading off, farther and farther, left behind by his maddening sprint down the canal. Whatever was causing the warnings in his mind was now far behind him, hopelessly lost.
"The hammer falls another day." Alem recited, picking up to a light jog down the side street as he continued towards his destination. He felt a smile touch his face as he carried on down the road. "Another day, another day."
Early or not, if Val and Tuth were back, they'd be waiting for him. Considering the weight of coins on his hip, Alem was optimistic there might finally be some good news.
It took him time, winding down the side streets until finally finding his way back to a main road among the city blocks, but by nightfall Alem had once again returned to the Farstrider Guild. Tired and hungry, there was little more he wanted then to sit down with some food and drink, but instead Alem stood outside.
For a long moment of hesitation, he chose to wait.
Something was wrong.
This was a quiet sort of feeling. The kind Alem hated the most, for it wasn't [Intuition] that warned him this time. The likes of that buzzing alarm in the back of his skull was pleasantly absent. No, unfortunately this time it was a mix of what he knew, and what he expected. The recognition of several small differences to what should have been. The primal sense of "wrongness" that permeated even when there was nothing visible wrong but instead just slightly "off."
The first thing he'd noticed was that the front doors had been left open.
Not wide open, not gaping open as an invitation for anyone who happened down this dead-end street, but certainly not closed. At the minimum, he would have expected them to be shut at this hour, if not bolted in some basic fashion, but that simply didn't appear to be the case. They were ajar. Cracked ever so slightly so one might peer into the shadows behind them.
Which was the second thing that happened to be unusual: the street itself was dark- as in, completely dark.
Alem knew that many of the surrounding buildings were boarded up or otherwise unoccupied, but that wasn't quite his concern. What worried him was the lack of light from the Guild's own shutters, from the cracked door. Nothing cast a glow: no flicker of candle or torch, and no voices audible from the outside. It was almost as if the building were completely unoccupied.
The trouble was that it really shouldn't be.
Yes: Guild membership was most certainly down. Alem wouldn't argue that point, but he would argue that by this time of night everyone who was still accounted for should have returned.
By his own count, tonight that meant five people at least.
Five, and some of which were well-known to him as habitual night-owls.
This hour of the evening, normally Eveth would be seated somewhere in the front hall, drinking. If the brothers, Val and Tuth, had returned- there was a fair chance they might be as well. Even Dren had been taking up such behavior recently, minus the alcohol.
But… that didn't appear to be the case.
Tonight, it seemed, was an exception to these things. Behind the doors to the Farstrider Guild, there was nothing but silence. Even as Alem held his ear to listen, no sound reached him.
An uncomfortable quiet stillness. No matter how many seconds passed, nothing stirred. [Intuition] was also silent.
That was exactly why Alem had stopped short.
Alem found times like these to be a troubling mix. He was safe to assume that living and breathing danger wasn't waiting on the other side of the door. There was no one standing there with a weapon at the ready: of that he felt confident, but on the opposing side it might very well be something that [Intuition] couldn't warn him of. Possibly some sort of clever trap.
In theory there were ways around any ability if one did their research. No skill known to man was utterly perfect, always followed rules of their own sort. Laws of an unspoken kind, there was always some loophole. So, it was he stood there, waiting. There had been danger earlier, so why not now?
Trouble. Somehow, this meant trouble.
After seconds stretched to minutes though, Alem finally took the risk and entered to find... nothing.
As he'd expected, no one jumped from the shadows to attack. No crossbow bolt launched itself at him, nor did a spell manifest upon some hidden tripwire. There was nothing for the sort.
One glance over the room revealed an absence of figured brooding by the bar, and a quick turning step cleared the balconies of the same. Not a single soul happened to be leaning on the balconies, no gleam of wide smiles or watching eyes.
No one was present in the Guild to greet him at all. In fact, there seemed to be no one in the building at all.
The tables and chairs were all as dusty as when he'd left earlier that day, utterly unchanged. Yet, something was different. Alem knew it clearly, but whatever the change was... it wasn't something that [Intuition] was picking up. Slowly, he took a step inside. Then another, thick hands pressing the doors closed behind him. They creaked with resistance, hinges unsettled and not yet repaired from the previous night’s damage. Still, as he pressed, they did close, shutting out the street behind him with a final groan of wood.
In the hall before Alem, nothing moved.
Visibly there was nothing different from when he'd left in the morning. The chairs were where he'd left them, the tables hadn't rearranged, and the Guild's Crest watched as it always did... but something was different. Alem knew this.
Somehow, there was something different. Something very important that set him on edge in ways many might never understand. It was... not the visual, not the noise or the lack thereof... no, it was a different sense which bothered him.
This was the scent he knew all too well, soaked and waiting in the air like the stale scent of spilled ale. Once noticed, it was unmistakable. Crouching down carefully, Alem peered at the floor, hand reaching out to trace through what was waiting.
There it was.
Wet and cooling, just as he knew it would be.
Parsing his fingers together, he felt it on his skin as he rose back up to full height- unslinging his weapon with practiced ease. The hammer fell into place, metal cool as his hands wrapped around the shaft to level it into a ready position. All talents hovered on the edge of his mind like an array of invisible currents.
There was someone's blood on the floor.
The only real question now, was whose?
Though the darkness made it difficult to be sure of anything, Alem's eyes were adjusting quickly, and he could see the outline of the liquid clearly enough. The drops were running in a trail, leading deeper into the building. Past the open area of the lobby and hall, and into the passageways towards the lodgings.
A steady trail.
Whoever they were, from the looks of things they were more than simply injured: whatever wound they'd taken was of a bad sort. There was simply too much in too short a distance, and with the careful steps that followed it, this trend only continued.
He advanced, eyes wary as the wood softly stretched and bent under his weight. Past the lobby, past the bar, down the hall. The farther and farther it went, the worst it seemed. What had started as fine drops were quickly turning into larger spills. On the wall, Alem saw a hand print, then another. A smudged stain seemed to skid along the floor, as if someone had slipped in their own gore.
This continued, pools growing larger... uncomfortably large. Whoever it was had slowed down. Stopped to rest, then continued, stopped to rest... continued...
Alem turned the corner cautiously peering into the darkness ahead.
Much farther down the hall, it seemed that the trail stopped at its source: a shrouded form leaning against the back wall. Alem hesitated, eyes squinting to see through the lacking light within. He could see no clear details, and there was still no noise other than what he made himself.
A body, or... a trap?
"Who goes there?" Against his instincts, Alem let his voice bellow. It seemed to echo off the walls, but no answer returned. "Answer me!" He shouted again, steps careful as he raised his weapon in advance. "Who's there?"
There was no reply.
The darkness began to close in around Alem as he moved in further, eyes fighting for ever inch of sight they could. The floor creaked infrequently, as some boards gave more than others. There were too many questions to count now, and Alem was already starting to doubt the lack of warning bells in the back of his mind. [Intuition] was utterly silent as he approached the still form.
Then, he heard a whisper.
He stopped cold at the sound of a rasping voice uttering his name. Up ahead in the darkness, the shrouded form moved slightly, two eyes blinking aglow in the shadow of the hall.
"Alem?" There it was again: weak, almost indiscernible from the silence. "Is that you?"
Slowly, the hammer lowered.
"Val?" Alem's careful steps found themselves abandoned as he rushed forward, "Val, is that you?"
His hammer found itself dropped beside him with complete lack of ceremony as he pulled a glowstone from his pack, crouching down as he struck it to life with a heavy hand. Raising it up revealed the grisly scene.
Everywhere there was so much red. So much red, covering and pooling beside a thin body. Eyes unfocused, hair matted, the man who stared at him seemed paler than a ghost.
"You've come, Alem." Came the rasping whisper. "I'm glad."
"Val- dead Gods, what's happened?" Alem grasped at the man's hands, eyes widening as they dripped, staining his own. "Who did this to you? Val, please, who did this?"
"We weren't... ready. They caught us... Alem. Tuth... he lead them away, but there were… so many." A cough sputtered with foam, as the gasp continued. "So… many... at first… we'd thought... they were only thieves..."
"Who? Val, please! Who?" Alem glanced at the wound, basking in the light of the glowstone on the floor. It was a deep puncture, beneath the ribs. Not only a cut, but a twist- a hole. "We need to get you to a healer. Right now, Val: a healer."
"Please Alem. Stop... it's not just us. The others… you have... to warn them." A cold hand lifted, settling on Alem's shoulder. "Soon, Alem. Warn them-" He coughed, gasping in pain.
"Val, calm down. Don't move, you're hurt."
"No, no!" Another fit of coughing overtook him then, spittle dripping down his chin as teeth set themselves to grind. "I heard them Alem! I heard them say it-"
"Stop moving! Hold on." Alem reached into his kit, bloodied hands drawing out a roll of bandage cloth, slipping on the bindings as he struggled to free it. "We'll patch you up, get you to Dren, or a city healer." He pulled back the cloak, wincing at the oozing trail beneath it as he froze with the cloth half unraveled in his hands.
His face turned grim.
"Ah... I'm sorry." Val's grip on his shoulder seemed to slacken. "It's too late Alem... too late for that. It's my skill... got it young, from a life in the slums... I've always been... difficult to kill..." A grim smile formed as he coughed horribly, further red dripping from his lips. "But not even brave little Dren can fix me now... this..." The arm began to slide, Alem catching it, clasping the man's hand with his own- bandages forgotten. "Bolt went clean through... clean through… so, you must listen."
"No, we'll get this fixed." Alem tried to hold his face steady, unable to look away from the wound. "I've seen worse on the battlefield, you're going to be fine Val."
"Don't lie now Alem, it doesn't fit you... just listen." Val coughed again, seizing as he tried to laugh. "They were too late. Those... bastards... we found it..."
"No, we'll get you a healer-"
"No Alem. Tuth and I... we've owed you. You... for everything, we always have... should have told you…" The man's voice was growing quiet but still he pressed on, chest barely rising as he continued. "We found it... we found it... at last."
"Stop talking Val, save your strength-"
"Please Alem." The man looked up with a fierce expression, smile pulled back in pain and pride. "Tuth and I... it was just like Old Drother's said... it was there all along."
"What?" Alem asked, eyes wide. "You can't mean-"
"In my pocket... left side... still sealed… They don't know... those fools..." Val's voice was barely audible as Alem leaned in, wheezing gasps slipping away to a total absence. Still, the final words came, forced out on the last of Val's breath with a single heaving gasp. "Even if they catch Tuth... he'll never talk... can't..."
"What Val? What?"
"Varar… knows... it's all real."
"What do you mean Varar? You've seen him? When did you see him?"
"We set the ropes- it's real... it's real... it's real..." Val's breathe caught, as Alem held him, mouth moving, but no words seemed to flow. Again, and again, he tried, only to fail.
Alem held him until his efforts ceased, and the grip on his arm went loose, then limp, then finally slack.
Still, Alem held him there. He held him until the glowstone beside them sputtered and died. In the darkness of the hallway, he said not a word.
If one could have seen though such shadow, perhaps one might have seen the horror of his rage. Or maybe the sorrow of his tears. In the darkness, should there have been anyone to listen, it's possible they might have heard words which would have etched fear into soul of even the bravest man, or witnessed a eulogy equal to that of any saint.
Yet no one was, and such things matter little in the grander scheme if there's none present to witness them.
What is far more important, is that Alem did stand. Not for revenge, not for emotion or a sense of wanting justice. Instead, it was as the scent of open fire and acrid smoke began to take hold of the air. The heat which forced Alem to flee, as the Guild began to burn.