Alem knocked loudly on the door, thick knuckles bouncing off the stone-strand.
Then, he waited.
The seconds passed, as Alem and Eveth stood there in the silence of the alley. No one answered.
Finally, Alem nodded.
“It’s safe.” He said, apparently satisfied enough to open the door. “We can go in.” From beneath the hood, Alem caught Eveth’s gaze as he motioned for her to move ahead.
She waited, expressionless.
In all the years he’d known her, Alem had never seen the Mage look so exhausted. Under her eyes, the skin looked almost sunken. Her tone was pale, and he could hear her breathing heavily- even after he’d taken her bag over his own shoulder.
Another set of eyes stared back at him, as well. [Intuition] hummed.
“It’s safe.” He repeated. “Trust me.”
The humming lessened.
Finally, Eveth finally passed him by, heading inside.
“I’ll lock up.” Alem turned back to the doorway, avoiding the basilisk that had wrapped itself around her neck. He waited until they were completely inside, before following. “Watch your head.”
Eveth half-grunted, half-coughed a reply Alem couldn’t make out as the door closed with a heavy creak. It was an ancient thing, but not real wood. More stone-strand than anything, and the iron bolt was fiercely resistant, having not been oiled in what was likely a lifetime. Eventually though, the metal fit, latching shut to secure the small room.
Four walls and a ceiling, with a far less solid looking door at the center of the back wall. Its furnishings were lacking. Only a few chairs and a crate were in place, decorations limited to a single iron candle holder on the low-ceiling.
“Isn’t much.” Alem turned to scan the room over, eyes adjusting. He ducked carefully, as he stepped further inside. “But no one’s going to find us here.”
“Are they home?” Eveth asked, slumping down into a splintered chair. “Still out on Contract?”
“Tuth’s back.” Alem replied as he joined her, passing the bag with a heavy sigh. His own chair groaned, as he settled in. “Close thing, too.”
“You shouldn’t be.” He set his hammer down against the wall and reached for a flask on his belt. Alem took a deep sip, before passing that as well. “None of us should be.”
Eveth eyed the metal.
“What happened?” She asked. “If he’s here, where’s Val?”
“What happened to Val, Alem?”
The silence stretched.
“Take it.” He sighed, as the metal left his hand for hers.
He watched, as the flask tipped back.
Watched, while the seconds passed yet again.
Finally, Eveth brought it back down, coughing.
“Dead?” She gasped. “Is he dead?”
“Aye.” Alem replied.
“He’s in rough shape, but alive.” Alem replied. “In the back room.”
“Take it back.” Eveth pushed the flask back in his direction, coughing again. “Take it back.”
“I can’t, Eveth”
The flask dropped into his waiting hand.
The room was quiet again.
Time like these… they were always the hardest part for Alem. Not even the years spent fighting along the lines helped much. His father had always told him that if someone was lucky enough to survive, there was always a price for it.
Heavy, settled on his shoulders: building on itself like bricks.
Until one day, the it might fall.
“Not today.” Alem whispered, as he set the flask down, leaving it on the floor.
Imperfect silence returned, but outside their walls, the noises of the slums was creeping in. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the door of the small room, Alem could hear shouting. Raised tones, then yelling. Fighting, of some kind. Perhaps, worse: but overall, this was just the sounds of a realtively peaceful night. Through the slit of the door, far to the back of the room, Alem could taste the wind. Stale and tainted. He closed his eyes, and breathed it in. This was what it had all come to, now. This was what came, of living when others… didn’t.
It seemed the whole world was bearing the weight, lately.
“Who did it?” Eveth asked, wiping at her eyes with a dirty sleeve.
“I don’t know.”
“You must know, at least something?” Eveth leaned forward. Head in her hands, elbows on her knees, pale fingers ran up into dark hair as she held herself in place. The hood was gone.
“Mercenaries.” He answered. “That’s all. It’s a dead end.”
“What about the people who hired them?”
“There’s no way for us to tell.”
“Why not?” Eveth cursed. “Shouldn’t the Contracts list it?”
“Used to be that way." Alem replied. "Not anymore.”
Around her neck, the Basilisk unraveled, slipping down to rest on Eveth’s lap. It stared at him, before curling back up.
“So, you’re a Tamer now?”
“No.” Eveth wiped her face one last time. “No, Imra had to stay behind to keep Dren safe.”
“She left her partner to you?” Alem asked, surprised.
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Eveth sighed, slumping back in her chair. “Although, I’m starting to wonder if it’s the other way around.”
“Imra agreed to stay at the inn with him and wait for the dust to settle.”
“Thank the Gods for that.” Alem rubbed at his temples. “I won’t lie, Eveth. I’ve been looking everywhere for the two of you. Hoped you’d come here, after the Guild.”
“You weren’t the only one looking.”
“Aye, although finding them helped me find you.”
“Alem.” Eveth frowned. “This is serious.”
“I know it.”
“I’m worth a fucking chest, Alem.” She stated, pulling out a roll of paper- pushing it in his direction. “Look at this.” She said, unravelling it. “Look at it.”
“Not just you.” Alem replied.
He waited, as it dawned on her.
“The whole Guild?” She asked. “Everyone?”
“Aye.” Alem nodded, slowly. “Everyone.”
“I’d thought… hoped…”
“You’re certainly not the only one worth coin, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Show me then.”
“You won’t like it.”
“Fine.” Reaching into the pouch on his belt, Alem pulled free a crumple of papers, dropping them without ceremony onto an empty chair between them. He leaned forward with a sigh. “There it is.”
“Sssss…” The Basilisk straightened out, maneuvering closer to investigate. Eveth ignored it, reaching around its head without the slightest hesitation.
“Total opposite of the last time I saw you.” Alem mused, leaning back. “I distinctly remember a fireball in the kitchen. Almost burned the place down.”
“Well, someone felt the need to finish the job on that.”
“I’m aware.” He replied. “They started that fire while I was inside.”
Eveth didn’t respond, but her lips curled.
His attention had found itself shifted, from Eveth, onto the Basilisk. Leaving Eveth behind, the serpent had taken over the middle seat instead, slithering to stare at the pages Eveth set down.
“Curious little creature, isn’t it? Almost as though it’s trying to read.”
“You have no idea.”
“I’d almost think it harmless, if [Intuition] would stop reminding me otherwise.” Alem lifted a hand closer to it. The action prompted the serpent to lock up, and pivot towards him with an uncomfortable level of speed. Alem retreated his hand. “You said that Imra lent it to you?”
“Lent is not the word I would choose.” Eveth muttered, as she shuffled the pages.
“Ah.” Alem paused. “Well, these papers were all I could find. I’m sure there might be more, but they’re red ink. Through and through, more than enough for a trend.”
“This is…” Eveth picked up the papers, skimming. “Dren, you, Tuth… is this really the entire Guild?”
“It seems likely, based on what I could find.” Alem replied. “Although I’ve yet to find everyone’s.”
“Varar is missing.” Eveth stopped. “Why is Varar’s missing?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Just luck of the draw, or…?”
“Varar may have been the first one of us to be attacked.”
“The first?” Eveth looked up from the last page. “Really?”
“Val and Tuth seem to have spoken with him, around the time they made their return to the city.” Alem confirmed. “I know that much.”
“Ah…” Eveth trailed off. “I see.”
“I don’t wish it true.” Alem leaned down, to pluck the flask off the floor once again, unscrewing the cap to take a long sip. “For all his… shortcomings, though: Varar is stronger than any other man I’ve ever met. Without proof, it’s difficult for me to believe he would die so easily.”
“When was the last time you saw him, Alem?”
Eveth set the papers down, considering.
“You said Tuth is here?” She asked.
“In the back room.” Alem paused, before continuing. “With Val.”
Eveth rose, then stopped.
Her hands settled around the staff once more, as her face tightened.
“It’s alright, Eveth.”
“No, I thought you said-”
“Then, you’re a fool.”
“He’s not just an ordinary-“ She stopped, holding a hand to the bridge of her nose with her eyes shut. After a deep breath, she continued. “Val was very strong, Alem. Keeping him here: I don’t need to tell you how dangerous this could be.”
“I couldn’t leave him, Eveth.”
“One mana storm, one bad riot to cause a flux and-“
“I would have done the same for any of you.”
Eveth fell silent, their argument stopped just as quickly as it had started.
“If Dren were here, we could have him treat the body, but he’s not. With the things the way they are, we need to deal with this now.”
“It is not safe to leave Val as he is, Eveth. I understand that. We will need to burn the body, soon.” Alem spoke in a hushed tone, turning towards the door in the back of the room. “But right now, I don’t feel it’s safe to try and take him, either.”
Eveth stared at the door as well, staff ready in hand.
“Let me see him.”
“Now may not be the best time.”
“I’ll talk to him.” She insisted.
Reluctantly, Alem nodded.
“Tuth? We’re coming in. I’ve brought Eveth” He said, moving towards the archway in the back of the small room. The doorway was almost hidden by the poor lighting, rotten wood holding to rusted hinges that flaked as Alem gently pushed forward. “Tuth?”
He stepped inside, and Eveth followed. Behind them, the basilisk slithered at a distance. It seemed cautious.
“Tuth?” Alem asked again. The room was dark. “Eveth… can you make a light?”
Before he’d even finished his question, a small glowing orb sprouted in the air above their heads. It grew with intensity, illuminating the room further by the second.
There, on a cot, was a stained sheet draped over a still form of a body.
“Gods.” Eveth said quietly.
In the far corner of the room, almost invisible beside the cot, something moved.
“Easy, Tuth.” Alem said, raising a hand. “Easy, it’s just us.”
In the air, Alem watched as a knife seemed to drift.
Alem blinked, shaking his head.
“Tuth, you’re going to put that down.” Eveth stated this as a fact. “It’s us.”
The [Light] spell burned brighter with her words. So much so, that soon it was as if daylight had come to visit in the small room. Every trace of shadow was cut to a sharp line, revealing the figure in the corner to the unaided eye.
The man named Tuth faced them.
He was a thin figure. Pale, almost wiry, even wearing gear. The full leather chest plate, straps in place on his belt and shoulders, where several knives fixed to his person with tightly sown sheath. His clothing beneath was bloodied- but stained in a way that made the colors more brown than red, and in his hand the polished glow of the dagger seemed to drink in the light’s glow.
The blade didn’t lower.
“Tuth.” Alem spoke softly. “No one here will hurt you.”
Behind the dagger, a free hand wiped away puffy eyes before pointing past them. Alem turned, before nodding in recognition.
“Not even that.” Alem responded. “It’s tame.”
Slipping along the floor, the Basilisk slithered along by Alem’s feet, before coiling up the cot’s post. There it rested, wound up in the center of their company. Tuth stared at it, weapon still raised. The snake stared back.
Alem watched the snake turned back to her, tongue flicking.
“He’s a mute.” Eveth said aloud, to no one in particular. “He can’t speak to you.”
“Ssss…” It turned back to the dagger, and then to Tuth. “Sss.”
They locked eyes with one another for a time, before finally, the blade was lowered back to a leather sheath.
A collective sigh seemed to follow that.
“So, that’s how it is?” Alem rubbed at his chin, feeling the barest bit of fuzz that was starting to bloom. “It understands speech?”
“More than understands.” Eveth replied. “The snake talks back, on occasion.”
The Basilisk turned and stuck out its tongue in Eveth’s direction. Alem felt that it held that position just long enough to seem calculated.
“So, you really do speak snake?”
“No, absolutely not.” Eveth replied, lacking humor. “They communicate though magic. Some sort of healing-based link., which uses the resonance to pass messages.” She frowned. “I’d be lying if I said I understood how, exactly.”
“I’ll be damned.” Alem replied. “Here I was, just thinking it was poisonous.”
“I wouldn’t rule that out, either.”
Together, they watched the serpent as it maintained its strange staring contest with Tuth. The two had resumed their glaring at one another, now with a serious degree of intensity.
Then, without warning, Tuth’s hand shot forward: fingers closing around blue scales.
Alem recognized it immediately. It was a skill known only to a select breed of individuals. Gifted to those who used stealthy motions, delicate touch, and had the occasional interest in pockets or purses that weren’t theirs. It was an ability which let someone move quickly and precisely.
But- apparently, not fast enough.
Much to Alem’s surprise, Tuth’s hand had caught nothing but air. Just barely out of reach, the snake had reared back just as quickly as the thief had moved forward.
He’d almost think the Basilisk to be chuckling, as it bobbed up and down. The serpent uncoiled a portion of its tail, bringing it forward to drop down in the waiting hand, where blue scales glowed for a brief instant.
Though it was only for a second, the corners of Tuth’s face lifted into the barest hint of a smile before he nodded and retracted his hand.
“Well.” Alem stated, unsure what to make of it all. “I suppose that means the introductions are taken care of?”
“Yes, they are.” Eveth stepped forward, planting her staff firmly into the stone floor. “Now, we need to get rid of the body.”
The dagger was out again.
“Don’t start, Tuth. I don’t like it either.” Eveth growled, pointing her own weapon back. “But this has to be done.”
“Eveth, settle down.” Alem raised his hands as Tuth’s dagger quickly pointed closer, his body leaned over the cot with a snarl. “Tuth, put that back. We’re a Guild, we don’t threaten one another.”
“That’s fine.” Eveth turned on him. “But right now, we’re three reasonable people, and we’re in a room with a potential Ghoul. As sure as we can be sure of anything, it’s going to happen.”
Tuth’s eyes narrowed.
“Eveth: this part of the city has been calm, lately. Tuth has been keeping watch, as well.” Alem kept his voice level. “We can wait.”
“Can we?” Eveth turned towards him. “All it takes is a little bit of mana. One bad riot, half the city over, and this goes badly. Meanwhile, we’ve got no Building, no Guild Master, no resources- and a whole city looking to murder us. You really want to stack a Ghoul on top of this?”
“We can still wait.” Alem repeated. “Tomorrow, Eveth.”
“First thing tomorrow, then.”
Tuth didn’t budge, glaring fiercely in Eveth’s direction.
“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. If we don’t have a priest, we don’t have a choice.” Eveth growled. “It’s risky enough leaving him as it is.”
Tuth shook his head, knife holding an uncanny glow as he pointed it at Eveth.
“Tuth, calm down.” Alem stepped forward, in an effort to intervene. “If we find Dren tomorrow-”
Tuth’s blade began to glow a deeper shade of red. Escalating the danger in Alem’s mind to grow louder, and louder still.
Unnoticed in the stand-off, the Basilisk had abandoned the cot’s posts and come to rest atop the blanket. Smoke trailed from its mouth, body rearing back up with an aggressive posture. In the back of Alem’s skull, what had once been a recognized awareness of danger was twisting on itself: now a deafening blare.
As it reared back farther, green fire seemed to pour, rolling up in the faintest of ways from the creature’s mouth.
Alem stepped back.
Eveth frowned, as it puffed once at her: effort enough to fill the room with heat.
It turned to Tuth and repeated the gesture, eyeing the red dagger. The flames ceased, green glow of heat falling away as the snake looked on expectantly.
Tuth didn’t lower his weapon, stubbornly keeping it raised. His eyes darted: to Eveth, to Alem, to the Basilisk.
In the air around the weapon, frost began to form. Then ice, creeping up the metal, until the red glow had turned white. Chill, that soon reached Tuth’s hand, forcing the weapon to drop to the cloth below.
“Sss.” It stated, apparently satisfied, before slithering back onto the floor.
Alem stepped aside to let it past.
“Don’t look at me for answers.” Eveth replied. “Snake won’t give me any.”
“Sss.” It said, moving towards the doorway.
“What does it want?” Alem asked.
“Go pick it up and ask.” Eveth gestured. “Maybe it’ll tell you.”
“I’d… rather not.”
The snake puffed smoke in his direction, before looking towards the entry room.
“Sss.” It stated.
Eveth turned, as did Alem and Tuth.
Knock Knock Knock.
Someone was at the door.
Knock Knock Knock.
The noise repeated.
"One of yours?" Alem asked quietly, breaking the collective silence
"So, help me, I will stick you with this." Eveth whispered back, brandishing her staff. "Who else knows about this place?"
"No one, Eveth."
"Obviously, that's not true."
"It was." Alem replied. "I left my hammer in the other room."
"Shit. Tuth, give him one of your knives." Eveth motioned urgently.
"Sssss..." Back on the cot, the basilisk drew their attention. "SSssss." It repeated.
Knock Knock Knock.
"Sssssss. Sssssss. SSSsss-"
"Would you keep a lid on it?" Eveth growled. "We can't understand a single word you're saying."
"SssSSsssSSssSssssss." The snake replied. It dropped onto the floor, slithering past her with an angry puff of green smoke.
"Yeah? Well, I still can't understand you."
Alem saw its tail lift in a gesture he couldn't help but interpret as derogatory, before the snake slithered out into the adjoining room.
"Should we follow it?"
"No." Eveth raised a hand to stop them. "Trust me: you don't want to be in the way when it attacks."
Alem edged around the door, peeking his head around the corner as Tuth dropped a dagger in his hand. Beside him, Eveth readied her staff.
Knock Knock Knock.
"It's just... waiting, on the chair."
"Either it wants to see who it roasts, or it's waiting for something specific."
"That tiny blue bastard is more lethal than an Imperial flagship, Alem."
"You've got to be joking."
"I almost wish I were joking." Eveth muttered, leaning her head out as well.
Knock Knock Knock.
"Shush, listen: I hear someone speaking."
"Are you sure this is the right place?"
"No one is answering."
"I will make them answer."
Knock Knock Knock- Crack.
"Did they just break the door? By knocking?" Eveth turned back to Alem and Tuth.
Knock Knock Knock- Crack.
"They did it again." Alem mumbled, hand flexing on the grip of his borrowed dagger. “That means [Enhanced Strength] maybe? Possibly something worse.”
Knock Knock Knock- Crack.
“They should open.”
“Just calm down, they’re probably in the middle of something.”
“No. The Great One is calling to me. He says they are spineless.”
“Oh, don’t say that.”
"This is plenty familiar all of a sudden." Eveth stepped forward, leaving the relative safety of the backroom.
"I was thinking the same thing." Alem replied, following suit.
The Basilisk turned to them.
Again, Alem thought, with a serpent equivalent of laughter.
"Human, this is taking too long."
"No, Imra! Wait! Don't-"
"Imra! You didn't need to break the door!" A voice yelled.
"Their fault, for not opening." From the cloud of dust, a figure stepped through with a spear resting on their shoulder. “Should have opened.”
"Doors are expensive!" Behind them, a smaller- somewhat pudgier form trailed after. “They cost money.”
"I did not know."
"Well... they do." Stepping further in, Dren fanned the dust out of his way before smiling towards the back of the room with a wave. “Hello." He said with a grin. “It’s uh… good to see everyone.”