Alem stared at the door.
It had been a long while now, but he didn’t feel as though the droning noise in his head had sufficiently faded. That kept him still.
In all his life, in all his years, Alem had never had a conversation go quite like... that.
"You're certain they're gone?" He finally asked. “Not just standing there, outside.”
Beside him, Eveth also stared at the broken door. The stone strand material was, once again, propped up to block the frame. She eyed it for a long moment.
"They're gone." She said, apparently convinced. “The snake doesn’t really do subtle.”
“Don’t even want to go there.” Eveth shook her head, rubbing at her temples.
"Did she happen to say where they were headed?" Alem asked. “I was… preoccupied.”
“Not every day you get to wear a live monster around your neck, right?”
“That speaks.” Alem added.
“That speaks.” Eveth agreed. “No, I didn’t catch where they were going.”
“I thought I heard Imra say something to you.”
“I’m sure she did, but I doubt it had anything to do with where they were going.” Eveth grumbled. “The way she’s been looking at me, I swear the Basilisk is probably the only thing keeping my head attached."
"Aye… She's certainly got an edge to her."
"You were the one who let her take that spear from the Guild."
"Under the condition they'd pay for it with their first job or two." Alem replied. "Apparently a good thing, considering it would have burned up with the rest of the Guild otherwise."
"Well, she's scary enough without a weapon." Eveth grumbled. “I get the feeling the only person here that Elf can even pretend to tolerate is Dren.”
"Somehow, I don't find Imra to be the scary one." Alem grumbled, rubbing at his neck. "I still can't believe that monster of hers can talk. For Light’s sake, how does that work?"
"Ha, oh Alem. If only you knew. The snake can do a lot more than just talk." Eveth replied, shaking her head. "They’re not really so bad, once you get used to having a monster around your neck. The only trouble with the Basilisk is…” Eveth paused. “I think it could be. If it wanted to."
“Dangerous?” Alem asked. “I feel as though that’s self-explanatory.”
“No, not just dangerous, Alem. Of course, it’s dangerous: you don’t even know the half of it.” Eveth shook her head. “What I mean is it’s…” She frowned, as if unsure how to continue.
"I know you mentioned fire, earlier."
"Fire magic, Water, apparently Earth, and Faith? I'm almost completely certain I was shot through the heart, but apparently that's a non-issue." Eveth answered. “That’s not what worries me about it.”
"Through the heart?” Alem sat forward in surprise. “It healed something like that?"
“In an instant.” Eveth replied. "Few more of those flasks, I'd show you the scar."
"Don't tempt a man." Alem shook his head as he emptied another coin purse onto the seat of the chair in front of him. "That creature’s not normal. Light, it’s not even close to normal."
“No, it’s not.” Eveth watched the door, carefully. “Smart, though, which is part of the problem.”
“That Basilisk, or God- whatever it is: it’s not quite sane.”
“You think the snake’s a God, then?" Alem asked. “Like Imra says?”
"I'm not sure. If anything, it might be close. Only monsters I’ve ever heard of speaking are the ones from the legends.” Leaning back in her seat, Eveth sighed. “Creatures that strike up deals, old and ancient things. The Basilisk fits this description a little too well, I’ll admit.”
“You don’t sound happy about that.”
“No… I don’t. If you’ve read as many books as I have, there’s a common theme with Gods.” Eveth responded.
“No matter how happy the story ends…” Eveth glanced over in Dren's direction. The healer was snoring softly, propped up against a pile of old blankets in the corner of the room. His mace was cradled in his arms. Beside him, Tuth sat in a dark silence, spinning a dagger as he stared at the backroom's door. “Gods don’t ever give their help for free.”
“Aye.” Alem mumbled, passing her the flask, again. “I suppose that’s true.”
Eveth coughed, clearing her throat as she passed it back.
"This is a real mess of a week we’re having." Alem replied, in turn.
Distantly, Tuth glanced in Alem’s direction, with a bitter nod. His dagger spun, caught by the tip between two fingers.
"We'll need to deal with Val tomorrow, Tuth.” Alem said, quietly.
Tuth's glare hardened.
“Faith magic doesn't hold forever. It has to be done.” Eveth added. “There’s no choice.”
"We'll have a ceremony." Alem stated, "Once we're far from the city. Where there’s nothing but sky and earth. I know Val liked it, out on the road."
The dagger dropped, wedging heavily into the dirt floor to be left behind. Turning away from them entirely, Tuth got up and headed to the back room.
The door slammed shut, and Alem winced at the sound.
In the corner, Dren woke up with a start. The healer grabbing at his mace, sputtering.
"W-who's there!" He shouted, rolling to his feet in a clumsy fighting stance. "Come on! I won't let you-"
"Dren, calm down." Eveth interrupted him with a raised tone. "You're fine, we're fine. Go back to sleep.”
"Eveth?” Dren blinked wildly. “Where are the enemies?”
“There aren’t any.” Eveth reassured. “No one is here but us.”
“You're sure?" The boy turned in a flustered panic, as he lowered his mace.
"Yes." Eveth replied, standing up and walking over to the youth.
"Really sure?" As he sat down back down, Dren continued his attempt to survey the room for threats. “There’s no one?”
“Yes.” Eveth leaned over, and gently pushed him back down. "We're all fine, Dren. You can save that for tomorrow."
Dren’s face looked exhausted, as if he’d accumulated years in a matter of days. Skin dirty, hair jumbled… it was his eyes that Alem really saw, though. On the frontlines, in the East, Alem had seen eyes like those, many times. After battle, after loss… Cautiously, he leaned back into the blankets as Eveth slowly stood back up.
Alem felt his hands clenching into fists, and took a deep breath. Dren was still too young for this sort of life. Not a child, but not an adult either.
Whatever had happened, though, it was already done.
"Eveth… there’s no one here, right?” Dren whispered.
“We’re safe.” Eveth replied. “Alem and I will deal with anything, if it comes.”
“They’re the last people who need protecting. I’m sure Imra and the Basilisk will be fine, regardless of what might happen.”
“Alright.” He spoke quietly, expression not quite convinced. “She showed me her scars, you know? After you left.”
“Imra’s a lot like you, I think.” Dren leaned back, slowly shutting his eyes as the pull of sleep began to take him once again. “A lot like…” Suddenly, his eyes opened- fighting sleep one more time as they locked on to Eveth’s. “I wanted to tell you, I’m sorry.”
“Sleep, Dren.” Eveth pushed him back down. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Just sleep.”
“But I am sorry.” Dren resisted. “I am, you know."
“Don’t be.” Eveth stopped. "You did your best. There's nothing to be sorry about."
"I was scared, I could have done better."
"Then, next time."
"But what if I freeze? What if someone gets hurt, and I'm not fast enough."
"Dren." Eveth leaned back down, pushing the youth back until he was laying down once more. “You did great. Today, yesterday: you did great. Just sleep."
"Sleep." Dren whispered, considering the word as if he’d forgotten about such a thing. "Right... sleep." He closed his eyes, as Eveth quietly withdrew, walking back to her chair.
Alem watched her, curiously, as she made her return.
"I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you be so nice to him.” He spoke quietly. “You never did explain what happened to the two of you.”
“Because it’s not something to think about.”
"It was bad."
"Ah." Alem let it rest there, callused fingers plucking through as coins slowly stacked upon the seat. Tiny piles of copper, silver, and just a bit of gold.
In front of him, the small pile of coins glimmered beneath a pale [Light] spell. On the floor beside the chair-turned-table, empty purses lay abandoned on the floor. Here it was, their combined wealth. A fortune to some, a pittance to others: to Alem, it was something in between.
As the minutes passed, the pieces had organized to a clearer picture.
“Not quite enough.” He grumbled. “Close, I think, but not quite enough.”
“They’re not going to be happy if we can’t make it work out. I heard your side of the conversation, at least.” Eveth replied, as she paced along the far edge of the room. In her hands, Val’s paper held the most of her attention. “Hey, maybe when you tell Imra no, the Basilisk will fly across the room and latch onto your face.”
"Don’t joke." Alem nursed the skin at his neck, ignoring the creeping pricks of fresh beard already reemerging. “That thing might as well have been made out of steel coil.”
"Just be glad it didn't decide to use you as a mana-conduit." Eveth replied.
“I’m going to assume that’s as bad as it sounds.”
“Like having the inside of your bones set on fire, with a heavy side of vertigo.”
“Well.” Alem let the word rest, as he set about to hunching over once again, stacking coins atop of coins into rough piles. “At least for now, this thing seems to be on our side. Not fond of having a voice inside my head though. Did Imra really not say anything about what they were going to do?"
“The snake is on our side, but Imra…” Eveth sighed. “I don’t know, maybe she did say something?”
“Anything you remember?”
“She might have mentioned money… It was quiet, like a whisper or a mumbled word. She’s got that accent, too. I’m not sure.”
“Aye, she does.”
“Her and the Basilisk, Great One… God… whatever we settle on. I don’t know where they were going, but I’d bet it was because of that.” Eveth motioned towards the coin.
“Where in all the Light are they going to get coin at this hour…” Alem stopped. “I’m better of not knowing.”
“Same.” Eveth replied with a sour laugh. "How much do we have to work with, anyways?" She asked.
"Really, not much." Alem inspected the small pile of coins atop the chair. "Haven't fully counted yet, but not much."
"Are we close?”
"Enough for someone to take a hike out into the country side, and not come back for a year? Maybe. For what we’re looking to do? Probably not.” Alem let out a disappointed huff. “I'd guess under thirty gold, total. Quite a decent sum, but not enough to fund a real Dungeon expedition."
"Well, if we don’t have a choice, I do have a few things I might be able to sell. Just some spell books and trinkets that got tossed into the bag. I might part with them."
"If I’m selling things on the street? I’d think silver.”
“The markets aren't going to net a nice profit. I’d need to go to the shops for that, and the shops probably know about us by now. If they don’t, it won’t be long." Eveth sat down with a heavy sigh. "Though, I know this isn't going to buy us a wagon."
"Might buy us a cart."
"If we're serious about this, I think we both know we're going to need more than a cart. Plus, we’ve got Val to consider. We’ll have to move him, somehow.”
“Sometimes, you need to make do with what you’ve got. This is a tricky spot." Alem rubbed at his chin, uncomfortable. "We might have to settle.”
"If you want to pull some farmers busted cart out into the wastes, be my guest. Just don’t be surprised when you die of heat stroke.”
“I’ve still got some old soldiering skills that could help me. [March] and [Hardy] go well together, you know.”
“Sure, but what about the rest of us? You think Dren’s going to be able to hike out miles past the walls without trouble?” Eveth thumbed in the healer’s direction. “Because he won’t get far.”
“Fair.” Alem conceded.
“It's not just the wagon, or the cart, or whatever we decide on, either. That's not the only thing we need: it's also gear. Alem, we need food, water, rope, weapons, potions, armor-"
"I know, Eveth. I know."
“Storage runes, like the kind I know you’ve got hidden in that flask of yours. We might repurpose that for water, but the ring I have isn’t great for larger volumes, and I don’t think we have the equipment to even get out to the location.” Eveth gave a dismissive wave. "We're worn down already. Healing can't fix exhaustion, and I'm not about to waltz out, already tired, to put myself through the process of heat-stroke where I half bake myself to death-"
"-and then climb down into an uncharted dungeon without equipment, to face Gods-even-know what the hell might be down there. Doesn't matter if there's a mountain of gold waiting for me, I won't risk my life for a gamble-"
"I don't expect you to." Alem raised a hand, stopping her. “Eveth, I told you: that’s not what I’m expecting from anyone.”
"If we go ahead with this, though, I feel as though that's exactly what it sounds like you expect us to do." Eveth replied. "Honestly, even if this is as good an opportunity as we think it is? Taking on a risk of this magnitude… it's almost suicidal."
"No, we’ll do this right. We'll get the gear, we'll be equipped. Tuth said he left some equipment buried out by the site."
“I’m… reasonable sure, yes.”
"What kind of gear, then?"
"I know he gestured potions. Some rations, some stored water, maybe a weapon or two. Enough for him and Val."
"Fine, if you trust that." Eveth replied.
“It just sounds to me they’ve been keeping this a secret for quite a while now.” Eveth shrugged. “Enough to make me wonder.”
"I trust Tuth, just as I trusted Val.”
“It is.” Alem set the last coin atop the pile. “We’re looking at thirty-three gold, and forty silver.” He changed the subject. “All counted, that’s a decent sum, even if we’re short.”
“That’s it?” Eveth didn’t seem very impressed.
“That’s it, but I have some additional options we might be able to put to use.” Carefully, Alem took the crystal back out of his pocket, rolling the small piece in his palm. “Especially, given this.”
“Additional options…” Eveth trailed off on the word as she eyed the mana crystal. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“There are favors I can call in."
"Doesn't have to be."
"We're worth a lot of money, Alem. Our faces are posted all over the city by now. What's going to keep someone from calling us in?" Eveth pulled out another paper, waving it in his direction. “You’re worth a whole bag, for Light’s sake. Until we find a way to get those taken down, we’re not going to be able to trust anyone.”
“I still have a few people I trust."
“All of you, for starters.”
“I’m flattered.” Deadpan, Eveth stared at him. “Who else?”
"Well, there’s a trader.”
“A trader.” The glare didn’t subside.
“You know them.”
“I suspect I do, Alem. What’s their name?”
“Stefano." Alem replied with a sigh.
"No." The response was immediate. Eveth dropped the papers she’d been holding onto Alem’s carefully crafted pile of coins, scattering a few stray coins of silver. “Absolutely not.”
"Hold on Eveth, at least hear me out."
"You know my feelings when it comes to him."
“If this is about trust-”
“Trust has little to do with it, Alem” Eveth growled his name, lip curling. “That man can take his lute, and he can shove it.”
“He’s a businessman, and a good one.” Alem defended. “I find it difficult to believe you’ve held a grudge as long as you have.”
"The fact you’ve continued to do any work with him at all, irritates me.”
“Just because you have a history-“
“He humiliated me.”
“Isn’t how I remember it.”
“What else would you call an improvised proposal before of a whole street of people?” Eveth shook a fist. “He followed me for three blocks! Singing, all the way.”
"Mmm… how did it go, again? Eveth, my lass, you've such a sweet-"
Flames sprouted in the air above Eveth’s open palm, putting Alem’s words to quick end.
“Apologies.” Alem stopped, letting the conversation lull until the magic died out, and Eveth had once again returned to her seat. “Somehow, I expected to get a laugh out of that.”
"Aye.” Alem paused again, watching for further magical activity. Satisfied there wasn’t any, he continued. “Well, regardless of how you feel about him, Eveth,” Alem began cautiously, “Stefano owes me a few favors. I think I can get him to help us, depending on what he's got in stock."
"And if he turns us in?"
"Light, you’ve got a lot of trust for people." Eveth muttered, reaching into her bag to pull free some small biscuits. Without looking, she tossed one in Alem's direction.
Alem caught it, taking an experimental bite. It was stale. Hard as a rock, but edible.
“Only in the right ones.”
"Ha... right.” Eveth let the laugh die, slouching back in her seat. “If you ask me, Alem: I think we should consider relocating.”
“You mean leaving the city? You’re the last person I thought I’d hear that from.” Alem replied, chewing carefully. “What of your research?”
“My research tried to murder me.”
“Ah.” Alem wasn’t quite sure what to say in response to that.
“I had two fields of study anyways. Generalized Soul Magic I can practice anywhere, though supplies might be difficult to obtain in some parts of the country.” Eveth took a second biscuit out, gnawing on it. “But dying is the end, and after today… I'm not going to lie to you, Alem: I'm not so keen on staying here with things the way they are. We should consider heading towards the coast, laying low.”
"The Western coastal cities are a mess though, Eveth. Most are worse off."
"Then, it's simple: we save up and cross the ocean. Do a job or two, get ourselves to the Northern Continent or the Southern, and rebuild over there. I heard that getting a Guild License is easy if you’ve got some recognition. It’s not like here, with rules and regulations, and constant fees."
“Those have helped us more than they hurt. We’re the only independent Guild in the city, and we haven’t had a lot of competition.” Alem replied. “Do you really want to have to run against those massive entities overseas?”
“Few more weeks and we won’t even have a Guild anymore, Alem. We’ve got nothing to pay our dues with, and the License will go up to auction.”
“If this is a success, I’m sure we could pay for those.”
“I know there’s debt, too.” Eveth responded. “Probably a lot.”
“There’s… a little.”
“Varar and you were both borrowing, Alem. Don’t think I didn’t notice. What, with all that sudden interest in lumber you were having?”
“It was nothing.”
“I think it was a lot more than nothing.”
“The Guild is what protects us, Eveth.” Alem replied. “It always has.”
“Until it doesn’t.” Eveth replied. “Even if there is a Dungeon, and we succeed in finding it: I think we’d be lucky just to limp on by another year. Instead, we should try to make one big haul and catch passage over the ocean.”
“You really mean that?”
“Give up on the bounty, the License, the fees, the City of the Emperor: we should start anew with different names and rebuild on the Northern continent.”
"Even if I did all agree to that, Eveth- I know you’ve heard the rumors about what’s over there. I don’t think they’re just common talk, either.”
“I’ve heard some things.”
“Some things? Do you know how many ships have been flying out that way recently? Always the same: North West. Dozens more, just in the last week."
"We go to the Southern Continent, then."
"They've been dealing with their own set of problems. Stories I've caught, I don't particularly like much, either."
"What? Rifts in the ground, unguarded entrances? We can handle monsters, Alem. It's never been the monsters which scare me, it's the people."
"People." Alem felt for his flask, shaking the contents. Even with the runes, it seemed to be close to emptying. He’d need to restock that as well. “Aye… I suppose a lot has been going wrong, recently. Not just for us.”
"Talk like that… you don't really believe it, do you?" Eveth asked, leaning back in her seat.
"What people have been saying."
"You mean the Prophecy?"
“I don’t know.” Alem paused, in thought. "I didn't used to." He said, finally. “It was just an excuse for the Empire. An old lie, that let them do what they needed to do. Unite the people, crush everything else: what better reason could you give?”
"Now...” Alem stopped, staring up at the ceiling. “I'm not so sure sometimes, Eveth. The older I get, the more I wonder."
"Old? You're not that old. What's a few summers after thirty got to do with anything?"
"I'm old enough." Alem tipped the metal back to his lips, catching the trickle of drops as they came. The alcohol soaked his throat, burning as it passed. "I’ve certainly lived long enough to have had times in my life where I thought the world might be ending. I can still remember the fronts during the last forward expansion: clear as if I was just there. Men that weren’t old enough to be called such, dying. Fighting for their lives, sometimes fighting each other in an effort to escape the inevitable. Life stretched thin, and wrong.”
“You don’t have to-“
“I do.” Alem dropped the flask to the floor. “I do.” He repeated, as he rubbed at his eyes. “It’s just that, Eveth. I've seen the bad and put it behind me. Yet, recently I've been watching it come back. Bit by bit, I see it creeping in. Faint bits of that wrongness, returning. This city is slipping.”
"So, you do believe it."
"The crops, the drought, the hunger- those are all bad, but like you said: it's people that scare me, Eveth. It's as if all of mankind is starting to turn on one another, violence is becoming the norm. The world is pushing people to tear themselves apart, and not even the Emperor can do anything to stop it. It’s not the Dwarves, or the constructs, or the monsters that will kill us: we’ll do the work ourselves."
"Never took you for the type.” Eveth frowned.
“I don’t think this is the end.” Alem replied. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Then, what do you think?”
“Just that maybe… maybe it could be.”
Alem stopped, as [Intuition] buzzed.
No… danger that wasn’t danger.
To his far right, Alem turned and Eveth jumped as the door opened. Well, more accurately: as the door was pushed aside.
From the shadows, a slurred accent spoke with pride.
"I did not kick, this time." The voice said. "You see? Did not kick." They paused, as the door was moved, wedged once again into place as they stepped inside. "My tribe did not need many doors. It is a human thing. No trust."
"Imra, you're back." Alem greeted, with a nod. "We're glad you're both safe." He glanced towards Eveth. "Aren't we?"
"Oh, we're glad." Eveth replied. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Sssss..." Emerging from beneath Imra's ragged clothing, the Basilisk bobbed its head in Eveth's direction. "Sssss."
"I take it, that's a yes?"
"Yes." Imra replied, reaching towards her waist to throw something towards their feet.
A coin sack landed with a heavy "thump."
It was bloody, Alem noted. Very bloody.
Another two joined it shortly after. "Thump. Thump."
"Gods." Eveth gritted her teeth. "We're desperate, I’ll admit it: but we're not that desperate." She pointed to a particularly soaked purse. "This is drenched, and it’s not water."
"Not water." Imra confirmed with a smile as she stared down Eveth.
"Oh, time to get some rest, I think." Eveth stood up from her chair, to walk over and drop down beside Dren.
Alem watched as she stubbornly closed her eyes, arms crossed.
Seconds later, the glowing [Light] spell began to dim. Soon, all that was left to illuminate the room was the glow of the candle overhead.
Alem had almost forgotten how late it really was.
Imra calmly took her seat, folding her legs and assuming a stance he could only interpret as meditative. Around her neck, the snake curled until it was just a mass of scales, head invisible within the coil.
Perhaps, even monsters needed to sleep.
Or, maybe not.
Imra was watching him.
In the dark of the room, it wasn’t difficult for Alem to notice the differences in the Elf, compared to that of a human. Eyes that were slightly too large, with wide pupils. They seemed to open up until the color at their edges was but the faintest ring, surrounding a reflective black.
Like a cat, staring at its prey.
Waiting for him to make a move. To see what he might do.
Alem swallowed down the after-taste of liquor, ignoring the feeling in his stomach. He wasn’t afraid. No, he was simply… cautious.
"Imra, did you kill for these?" Alem asked, as he pointed towards the bags. From where they lay, Alem could see that the bags were far from empty. Even if they were only filled with silver, it was a relative fortune.
One didn’t just “find” bags of coin like these.
Certainly not in a few hours, in the middle of the night.
“Imra?” Alem repeated.
The Elf didn't answer. Instead, she continued to stare, head tilting somewhat to the side. She was looking for something, as she watched him.
It made him uncomfortable.
"I'll ask again, Imra: did you kill for these?" Alem raised his voice somewhat.
From around her neck, the basilisk answered.
"I can't understand you." Alem responded. “If you’d like to speak, though, I’m willing.
"The Great One is tired." From her seated position across from him, he could see her lips curl into a smile. “But, he says, no: we did not.”
In the faded light, Imra's grin seemed feral.
Ordinarily, she possessed a certain aura about her. Alem wouldn’t lie: she was an attractive woman. Fit, visibly powerful, with a face that might charm if she only wanted it to. Here and now, though, she was no longer a thing of beauty. No: in the dark, sitting across from Alem was something else. Dangerous… deadly. Waiting for him to show fear.
Alem felt the humming in his skull, a loud drone that somehow made not a sound.
"Where did you get them, then?" He asked, resisting the shiver in his spine. “Don’t tell me you just found these.”
“We found them, yes.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“I dislike you less than the others.” From her seat, Imra replied by ignoring his question. “Your strength is one I respect. Of gifts, not quite so stolen. More fairly earned.”
“Imra, I’m willing to work with you and your… Great One. Please, don’t misunderstand, I am grateful for the help you’ve both given us so far, but killing others for coin? That’s not what the Farstrider Guild stands for.”
“Quick to pass judgement.” Imra's smile turned to a frown, as she pointed to her nose. “Tell me, human: do you feel stronger?”
“What?” Alem stared, uncertain. What was she on about? “Imra, those bags are soaked with blood. You mean to tell me they just happened to come that way?”
“Patience, we are curious.” Imra held her hand there, one finger on the tip of her nose, as she continued. “Could you answer?
“You first.” Alem replied, stern as he could muster. “Where did these come from?
“If that is what you wish.” Imra frowned. Her hand moved, slowly pointing.
Alem’s eyes followed the direction of her hand. Past the chairs, past himself, towards something behind him. Turning, he saw the only thing there to see.
In his nostrils, the stench Alem had already been ignoring for so long, took form over the scent of spirits and metal.
He looked back to find Imra once again.
“Next time, you should offer them.” Imra stated. “At least, such is the way of my people.”
Alem stood up.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Imra’s eyes were closed now, her body quietly slipping into a meditative trance. Still, her smile lingered in the silence: oppressive
Just like his hammer, stained in red against the wall.
“By all the Gods.” He whispered.
“No, not all.” Imra answered, behind him. “Only one.”