Book II - Chapter 37

Chapter 37

 

[Eveth]

 

Eveth let the door's bolt click shut heavily, as she traced a finger along its frame. Beneath her skin, the air spun and whittled away carefully: the energy carving a simple rune of [Warning] as mana locked itself away within. Closing her eyes, Eveth pressed her palm with a slow shove against the etching, pushing the final remnants of the energy present within those confines.

She scanned the script for a moment, squinting.

It was hardly up to her normal standards. The rune was leaking a slow trickle of energy that might render it useless in a month's time and it looked sloppy to boot, but it was acceptable for now.

At the very least, it would suffice for one night.

Leaning her staff against the wall, Eveth could only just hear the muffled tones of rowdy voices below. Other guests seemed to have wandered in from the streets as night fell, and the common room beneath their feet was now filling with a mix of sounds. Shouts, arguments, song, and conversation. The concoction of noise that fit well with the odd creaks and stomps of heavy footsteps on the stairwell, and down the halls, but in the room itself, there was no sound out of the ordinary. Without what leaked in from the outside, there was really no noise at all.

As Eveth turned, silence greeted her.

Simple, ordinary, safe.

Two beds, set with rough fabric that might have been wool- were it not so coarse. One table sat between those, directly behind the door's line of sight: set with only a chipped ceramic vase of pre-boiled water, and two mismatching chairs. Beyond that, the only other furnishing was a single thick window frame which held shutters of crude-composite makings that failed to meet any sort of quality standards. In fact, should Eveth test them, she doubted that they would even line up properly enough to fully close.

According to the script above the bar downstairs, this inn only provided meals twice a day, with drinks charged as extra- and it was painfully apparent that the establishment didn't even have the semblance of a bath-house, much less any legitimate latrines. Many of the inn's regular visitors downstairs had both looked and smelled the part.  For five silvers a night, many would agree that this was very close to robbery.

Those were just a few of the noted flaws Eveth had been mentally collecting since their arrival.

Still: with the door now locked, and the window shut, Eveth's state of mind was finally winding down.

Though she had never set foot inside the establishment previously, second-floor room with a thick composite door sporting iron hinges checked off all the requirements of what Eveth would have chosen for them- had it been her decision. Considering the recent events, Eveth had to admit that they certainly could have done worse. Heading back to the Guild, for example. If the people who had attacked them were bold enough to try for blatant murder in the streets, what was waiting for them back at home?

“Farstrider.”

One of the men who attacked them had said the name. They had known who Eveth was, she was certain of it. That hadn't been intended as robbery, those people had been hunting them.

Hadn't they?

With a sigh, at last Eveth finally found the pressure in her chest releasing. Hours had passed, and she still wasn't sure what to think. There was just too much.

Hours of watching for danger, barely awake, as she came back to her senses. Sitting on the edge of their seats, expecting something else to happen. For someone to draw out a hidden dagger, or one of the others among the tables to stand up, and raise a cry: for one of the few men who had escaped to find them. 

All while that Basilisk watched.

Eveth had tried her best to ignore it: the feeling of her hair standing on end, while two sets of eyes trained themselves on her every move.

Of the pair, Eveth didn't know which was worse.

The serpent terrified her, but the Elf seemed to hug that invisible border of open-hostility with a glare so fierce, that from the moment they had arrived, passing unto when they had eaten whatever it was that the barmaid had brought, and long after: all actions were completed in silence.

Eveth hadn't dared to speak, and Dren- the youth normally unable to maintain a stretch of more than the briefest moments, had gone the first hour without, and the second... well, he'd tried. In the very second he'd attempted to vocalize the first syllable, the Elf's had cut him off.

"No." Imra said.

One word, but perfectly clear. So, it had been decided. In silence, the Healer had quietly finished whatever it was the bartender had brought them. Whatever noble qualities of arrogance or privilege he'd hoped to keep, seemed just barely enough to hold him together. Eveth made sure to avoid repeating his mistake.

If anyone had a given right to break the tense mood, it was Imra, herself.

Eveth felt this was fair, on account of the facts. Just being in her and Dren's presence earlier that day would have been a death sentence for almost anyone. That all of them were still alive and breathing didn't change this fact. Still, the hours only continued to pass, and the mood didn't break. In fact, it didn't even show the faintest signs of weakening, as Imra's dark-eyed stare continued: never wavering.

There were no openings for conversation to begin.

Not during their meal. Not after their meal. Not after a round of drinks, brought by an oblivious bartender. Not as they were guided up the stairs by the inn-keeper to the second floor...

Truth be told, it was only now, as Eveth shut them away behind a thick stone-strand door sporting iron hinges, that pressure finally found itself being lifted. Imra’s anger finally appeared to be fading off.

The Elf was seated by the table, with perfect posture. Face calm, arms and legs folded, Imra almost seemed the spitting image of tranquility itself. Beside her, the Basilisk seemed far less elegant, but equally calm, laid out in a coil which hid its face from view at the far edge of the table. Perhaps asleep, should Eveth venture a guess on the subject.

Across the room, Dren was already out-cold. Laying down on the bed beside the wall, his mace laying next to him on the sheets. Even from a distance, Eveth thought she could smell the faint scents of vomit and sweat- but she wasn't about to complain. They didn't have spare clothing handy, and, Gods above, Eveth was already counting her blessings on the fact that the youth hadn't pissed himself.

It had been a day.

Leaving her boots beside the door, and hanging her hood beside the staff, Eveth felt the weight lifting. Any other night, she would have given into that sensation. Rest was what her body wanted, as would anyone after receiving healing to a near-fatal wound, but at the same time: she knew it should wait.

Cautiously, she approached the table.

"Imra?" She spoke the name quietly. "We should speak."

The Elf's eyes didn't open, even as Eveth took a seat across from her. Still, Eveth pressed on, From where she sat, at the far side of the table, Imra made no motion. Posture unchanged, breathing as slow and steady as it ever had been.

"Imra?" Eveth tried again, to no avail.

Was the Elf... asleep?

Asleep, while sitting up?

There was a trick Eveth wouldn't mind learning. She felt her hands run down her knees, uncomfortable as she straightening out the fabric there with a tense motion. This wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind, although admittedly, she'd never planned to be in this sort of confrontation. 

"A Mage, a Healer, and an Elf with a tamed Basilisk walk into an inn..." Eveth whispered quietly. The situation alone almost felt the start of a crude tavern joke.

The Elf made no response.

For a moment, Eveth considered giving up. Letting it lie, until morning. She was tired enough, certainly, but...

Eveth's eyes narrowed. Under Imra’s skin, there was a haze. Familiar motion, beneath the surface. It was almost as if Eveth could see a current of...

Mana?

There was some type of [Skill] in use. The traits were unaligned with what Eveth knew, but the classic signs were there. Eveth could see it pulsing along at a steady gait. Internal energy: personal mana, as some might define it. Now that she'd seen it, she couldn't unsee it.

How did it work? What did it do?

Her curiosity was already getting the better of her.

As an [Adept] Eveth had always possessed a knack for catching these. [Skills] and [Spells] were typically easy for her to spot once she'd knew what to look for, but up until now she'd only ever tried this on humans. Did Elves work differently?

She never actually met anyone who'd claimed more than a quarter Elven blood.  Of the few of those Eveth had, she'd doubted. None of them had been Mages, either, which dulled her interest further.

But this... this was different.

The [Skill] worked in a bizarre fashion. Slowly pulsing beneath Imra's skin, Eveth thought it almost resembled a Mage technique. It was similar to [Meditate] but it wasn’t the same.

[Meditate] (or, if she were of the more stubborn sects along the Southern Coast, then [King's Gift] or [Inner Resolution] or whatever other outdated variants they claimed superior) was a skill taught during an apprentice's first year of Academy. It was meant especially for those with lacking mana reserves, as a method of growth. Anyone with potential typically mastered it by the second year in order to increase the length of practice sessions for spellcraft. Only Imra's version seemed...

Restricted?

Instead of drawing the flow of energy towards the body and refining it, the movement was internal. Only, internal: there was no gradient of energy in motion. Nothing was directed into the body from the surrounding air, like a normal [Meditate] would do. It almost seemed that, instead of taking in more, it was reorganizing what mana was already within the body. Reshuffling of an equilibrium, as it were.

Very different from what Eveth had been taught. Very different of what she might even capable of replicating.

Mana was a part of life. For a Mage, this was even more true. As she used mana, it would return to her- so long as the environment could provide it, and the longer she practiced, the greater that effect would have. Eveth could avoid mana just about as much as she might avoid breathing. Still, as she watched Imra, it almost seemed like the Elf had no interaction with ambient mana, at all. The longer Eveth stared, the more it seemed that the energy of the room seemed to actively move around the Imra's skin. Much like oil might slide across water.

They were completely separated, in a manner Eveth found deeply uncomfortable.

Yet, fascinating.

She couldn't help but move closer, then: leaning farther over the table. It was as if Imra was cut-off from the source, Eveth decided. The Elf's own blood was the only carrier of mana. Efficient, refined, but so very limited-

"Ssss..."

The quiet sound startled Eveth enough for her jump back, as Imra's Basilisk woke, lifting its head to stare at her, barely a full arm's reach from her face.

"Ssss..."

"Imra?" Eveth tried to speak again, as she froze very still. Unwilling make another move as the snake watched her.

"Ssssssss..."

Despite Eveth's efforts, Imra didn't stir. Instead the Basilisk leaned in closer, tilting its head to watch with a look of apparent indifference.

"Ssss..." Slowly it bobbed once, as if waiting for something. "Sssssss...

Eveth held still.

Normal basilisks in the dungeon would have leapt for her neck or arms by this point. At best, they would have retreated, or shown some sort of fear- or anger, but instead this one was... expectant?

Maybe that's what it was, but Eveth wasn't sure. All bets were off when it came to tamed monsters, much less ones capable of magic. Still, it hardly seemed ready to attack. If anything, the snake appeared keen on waiting for Eveth to do something instead.

"Ssss." It prompted. "Hisss..."

Mana surged into the air.

A lot of mana.

Eveth's eyes caught the spell just as it manifested, sparking to life in the air as a sudden sensation of chill began to reach towards her. Her mouth grew dry as she exhaled, breath turning to vapor, condensing to droplets of floating rain.

Just like that first night: Water magic was being used without a true source of its element. 

Eveth's mind raced, watching as it spun about in patterns that seemed impossible to track. Dozens... more, all mingled together and tied in knots. Was it some kind of... molding technique? No... what was happening wasn't anything Eveth could hope to learn from a book. The free-form of it was completely against the typical teaching preached by the Academy. 

Without further thought, curiosity won the battle as Eveth's hand rose to touch the manifestation in the air, her fingers slipping through without resistance.

What was forming seemed to be nothing more than a collection of... ice?

Thousands of tiny particles, barely larger than a grain of sand.

It was cold.

Very cold.

Like a mist, it moved: pushing forward as if on a slight breeze as it suddenly began to collect on itself to form a frozen line that ended lightly against her shoulder.

"Ssssss..." the snake bobbed its head once more.

"How does this work?" Eveth asked, curiously brushing a finger against the cold now settled on her shirt. "Is it just manipulation, without a true spell?"

"Sssss..." The snake bobbed its head again, as if to indicate progress. "Ssss." It repeated.

The tamed monster watched Eveth with an almost innocent sort of gaze, its head bobbing once- then twice, as the snake flicked its tongue with a quick motion.

Docile in posture, almost timid.

"You don't look nearly as horrifying as you should." Eveth mumbled under her breath. "I hope you realize that."

"Sss..." The snake tilted its head, but didn't look away. If Eveth didn't know any better, she might have considered it a reply.

Maybe... it was?

Abruptly, a huge rush of mana swept across the table, far quicker: as more mist manifesting into ice with a sweeping current that formed to a single shard. It fell to the table, landing point down in the form of an arrow. Perfectly sculpted, as if a work of art.

Eveth's mind seemed to go completely blank, her jaw slipping.

As if the most ordinary thing in the world, the arrow stood at the table's center. What's more, is the piece seemed to be engraved with details and intricate patterns that twisted and twirled along the surface.

"Are those... frogs?” Eveth wondered, looking closer.

"Ssss." The reply silencing her as the snake lifted its body higher. From a strange posture, it watched her. The same uncany stare, head tilted just like before.

Again, it seemed to be waiting for something.

"This magic," Eveth pointed towards it. "Can you show me this again, I don't-"

"Sssss." It cut her off once more, irritated. "Ssss..."

Again, mist began to form.

Her eyes soaked it in as the patterns of mana almost seemed to be pulling like a drag-net that gathered things too fine to see. Almost as if it were using some quality of water to pull at itself. Solidifying, drops coming together in free-fall to-

"Ah!" A cold drop of ice landed on Eveth's nose. "Ah!" Then another one, and another one still. "Stop that!" She shouted, hand covering her nose, pushing back from the table just as another drop of ice dropped towards it.

"Ssss." The magic cut-off at once as the Basilisk flicked its tongue at her, before dropping back down in the position it had been resting in before, paying Eveth no further attention. Apparently, the creature was giving up on whatever it had been waiting for.

Eveth was left to sit in a stunned silence.

Had a monster just made a joke at her expense?

The arrow quickly dissolved into a quiet puddle of slush as the Basilisk turned away further, returning to its original coil with a resigned "Sssss..."

Whatever constructions of mana in the air began to collapse, their frameworks were fading slowly as the movement of the air carried them off: stretching them into wisps of vapor.

"Could you show me that again, sometime?" Eveth asked slowly.  "I'd very much like to learn how it works."

"Sss..." Came the reply, tucked deep within a coil of odd blue scales.

Eveth blinked, uncertain. That had been a reply, hadn't it?

"You will?"

"Sss..."

"You can understand me, can't you?"

No response was earned from the final question, but Eveth's mind was spinning in circles as she began to follow what mana still remained in a form she could understand. How did it just do that? That was the same magic she'd seen before, when Imra had signed for the Guild membership. Pulling water from the air, like it was nothing more than child's play.

Eveth felt at the residual wisps of the mana in the air, desperately trying to hold onto the strange framework that the creature had just put to use in front of her. She had seen them, two occasions now she had seen them- for an [Adept] that was usually all she should need to do in order to...

Her mind focused.

The mana in the air coalesced under Eveth's guidance, wavering and shimmering ever so slightly as she held the framework left behind, slowly reassembling the pieces and putting them together. Patiently... carefully... there is was, not as polished but was this how it-

"Plink."

A single drop of water landed on the table in front of her, spawned as if from nothing but the air itself. The liquid settled on the table as Eveth's eyes went wide, astonished.

"Light above." She whispered, grabbing the reins as she tried again, and another drop fell down to the table. Another drop landed, and then more followed to form a small puddle on the surface. "First King himself, it works." Eveth stared into the reflection, letting the magic release. "I really did it."

"Did what, human?" Staring back from within the surface, two orbs of green-ringed glass were waiting for her. Imra's eyes had opened at last. "Steal further gifts?"

"Imra! You're awake-"

"It is difficult not to be." The Elf cut her off, lips curling into a sneer. "Go. Play with your stolen gifts elsewhere."

"Sss." The snake flicked its tail with a quiet slap on the table.

Imra turned towards the coil of blue scales with a guilty expression. Eveth watched as the slightest hint of a curled lip reemerged, before fading off into an absence of any expression as Imra turned back towards her.

"He favors you." The Elf said with finality, closing her eyes and folding her arms once more. "Go and sleep. I will watch this night."

The seconds began to stretch. Then a minute passed.

That was it?

Eveth blinked in disbelief.

With that, it seemed that the conversation was at an end.

It was almost as if she had been dismissed by some nobility far above her station. It seemed she'd already forgotten the Elf's apparent disposition: unpleasant.

With a slow sigh, Eveth let it go, choosing her next words carefully.

"Listen, Imra." Eveth did her best to ignore the angry scowl forming across the table. "About what happened-"

"I do not care. I do not wish to speak." Imra stated again, stopping Eveth short. "Go and rest, human."

"At the very least, if you don't want to discuss what happened: let me thank you."

"No." Imra opened her eyes in a scowl, irritation clear as she glared back at Eveth. "You will stop."

"You saved our lives."

It was a blur too fast to follow, but in the time Eveth might have used to blink, two fingers had already dug into her shoulder. Her view of the room had found itself replaced by an irritated expression.

"I did not save you, human." Imra pressed harder, applying pressure against Eveth's body where an arrow had rested only hours prior. The table creaked beneath the strain of her weight, as she growled. "You cursed-blood misunderstand much with your short lives. Many things forgotten, perhaps ignored, but know this." Eye to eye, the black glass and green rings peered from the merest of inches as the Tamer held her. "I have not saved you, or any human. While you may feel you owe a great debt, it is not to me"

"Sss." Again the serpent's noise brought an end to the discussion.

Imra's hand drew back, body flowing back to her seat with ease like a sword returning to its sheath. Beside her, the Basilisk had turned to stare at the Tamer, not wavering until Imra bowed her head in its direction.

Quietly, the creature settled back down, blowing a quiet puff of greenish smoke as it did so.

Eveth let out a breath of her own, swallowing down the lump in her throat as the moment of intensity settled back into a peaceful silence. This time, Imra did not close her eyes as she resumed her meditative posture on the chair. Instead, she only watched the creature on the table beside her, as another tiny puff of flame sputtered up from the center of the scaled coil.

Unraveling, it slipped to the floor, quickly passing across the room to settle in the corner away from them.

Eveth watched it go, marveling somewhat, as a puff of flame was soon followed by a swirl of dust, and then trailed after by a now-familiar use of [Water] magic. The pattern began to repeat as the serpent flicked its tail, agitated. Every so often its scales seemed to glow with... healing magic?

"Is it... sick?" Eveth asked, finally working up the courage to speak again.

"The Great One is not sick." Imra replied after a moment's hesitation. "He is troubled."

"Hurt then?" Eveth ventured, watching the strange bursts of mana curiously. "Injured some way?"

"No." The Tamer responded, eyes following one of the patterns of mist that seemed to be spiraling across the air towards her. "He has survived much worse."

"Then, what is it doing?"

"The Great One is doing many things." Imra stated bluntly, considering the frozen ice that had begun to plink onto the table's surface. "All at once." She added, with a frown.

"That... that doesn't answer my question."

"Ask a better question." Imra growled, picking up one of the frozen pieces, rolling the orb along their raised palm.

"I..." Eveth held her tongue, considering. "Listen, Imra: I know you need an explanation for all of what happened today, and I'll give you one as soon as I understand, myself. Before that though, thank you-"

"No." The Elf stopped her. "I said once before: I did not save you."

"What are you talking about? Imra, you saved our lives-"

"The Great One saved you. The God saved your lives." Imra insisted, dropping the ice back to the table with another soft plink. "I did no such thing."

"The God?"

"Yes, God believes you are important." Imra replied, folding her arms once again. "I simply follow his will."

"The God's... will..."

"Yes, the God." Imra nodded in the direction of the Basilisk, utterly ignoring the brilliant glow of healing magic that appeared to be setting its scales alight. "I too have debt."

"You mean the Basilisk." Eveth responded carefully, waiting as the glow settled back down to the dim light in the room's corner. "The God... is a snake?"

"The sun rises in the sky?" Imra asked suddenly. "And falls at night?"

"What?" Eveth blinked. The Elf across the table offered nothing visually constructive, expression unreadable. "Wait, what?"

"I've just returned it." Imra replied.

"Returned it?"

"Your foolish question."

"Ssssss..." Another burst of water magic manifested in a widening spiral, plucking droplets from the room's air to mist. It seemed to leap from ice to liquid, to mist: changing with no particular order. Eveth could clearly see there had to be a tremendous mana expenditure, but the creature seemed far from stopping. On the outer edges of the coil, the farthest end of its tail flicked in an aggravated manner as it huddled in the corner

"Well, God or not: it seems like it's in pain."

Imra didn't answer, eyes drifting back to watch the small basilisk turned on itself, hissing and biting at the air. Dust seemed to spiral, and the water magic had scattered as it did so, small patterns forming and reforming in the center incoherently: an unorganized cluster of mana filling the air

"Have you ever killed, human?" Imra asked quietly, watching the display expressionless. "Killed with your gifts?"

"Of course." Eveth responded. "I'm a Mage."

"But enemies, yes?" Imra continued the question. "Beasts?"

"In the Dungeons? Yes, many times."

"Then... what of those who think?" Breaking for her meditative posture, Imra lifted one of her hands up, gesturing up towards the ceiling.

"What do you mean?"

"You have killed, others?" Imra pointed towards Dren, then Eveth, before her hand gesturing towards her own temple with a light tap. "Those who think?"

"I've seen people die." Eveth replied carefully. "Yes."

"But have you been the one to kill them?" The Tamer asked. "Have you been the one who takes?"

Eveth saw Imra's eye as they lit up in the glow of light from the room's corner, green and black mixing with white for the briefest instant. Caught in the small, temporary brilliance of the basilisk's magic, what waited on the other side of the table seemed far from familiar.

Then the illumination ceased, magic stopping all at once to plunge the room back into darkness.

"Only once." Eveth answered.

The eyes watching her closed. Imra's arms folding as her silhouette settling back into the shadows now overtaking the room: making her almost invisible in the absence of further spellwork. In the corner, the small snake lay still, no longer showing any sign of movement: magic or otherwise.

"Go and rest.” Imra stated. “I will take watch this night."