“What did I say to them?” Eveth muttered to herself, as she marched from the building. “I knew whatever it was, would be bad, but for light’s sake.”
Somewhere in a room behind her, Alem and Stefano were still negotiating. The two were likely oblivious to her absence already- not that she’d been involved in much of the conversation. Her being present during that meeting was about equal in formality to Stefano’s bodyguard. The large swordsman who, she could only imagine, was now waging a fierce personal battle of duty: torn between chasing after Eveth or manning his post.
For his own sake, Eveth sincerely hoped he was smart enough to choose the latter.
“It’s like a bonfire.” She squinted, stopping just outside the doorway of Stefano’s shop. Her eyes didn’t need to adjust to the noonday sun for her to find what she was looking for.
Across the street, the remainders of a spell raged on. Formless essence dispersing from a scorch on the ground it had been cast. Residual magic, carried along by a massive explosion of magical force. Even if she were half-blind, the heavy stain of a colossal quantity of mana would likely be enough to put spots in her vision.
“Don’t you dare, I said.” Eveth growled, as she crossed the street for a closer inspection. “Hoped Dren would keep the trouble to a minimum…”
Crouching down, she stared at the patch of stone. It almost seemed a scorch mark, unnatural to the extreme. An illuminated scar on the landscape. Just being within range of it, Eveth could choke on the smell alone. The residual aura of Faith magic leaking out in all directions, almost like a heavy perfume bottle, broken on the rocks.
She glanced back up, continuing her scan of the street.
It was times like this, Eveth was very glad [Adept] like herself were a rare breed. No one else seemed to have taken notice quite yet. Traffic was lessening, as the morning market packed their wares. Many walking or riding along, as carts and traders mingled. No one so much as glanced towards the mystical-equivalent of a burning crater.
Dren and Imra, though, were nowhere in sight. Not that she honestly expected them to be.
If they had even half a mind between them, they’d have relocated after… this.
Whatever this was.
Eveth ran a finger across the stone. There was so much energy, it looked like she was dragging her hand through fog. Upon her touch, she watched as the magic dispersed with random patterns of discharge. She stood up, glancing around once again.
Far as spells went, something major had gone down- in a magical and mystical sense. She’d seen the residual mana leaking in under the crack in the door, back with Stefano and Alem. Whatever it was had been monumental.
It didn’t take a genius to recognize that much, though. No, what was troubling her now, were the secondary considerations. Faith magic… Eveth didn’t particularly enjoy puzzling the after-images of spellcraft in-general, but Faith was its own beast. The longer she stared at it, the more she could feel a migraine approaching. Even after a full minute, the best she could come up with, was the basic determination that it hadn’t been a battle.
Or, she had to assume it wasn’t a battle, as those typically didn’t involve monstrous amounts of Faith magic… usually.
She frowned, as she considered that possibility. If someone had been hit with this much magic, Healing or no: they’d be lucky if they hadn’t evaporated.
Besides, now that she was really inspecting the area, was that blood? Just a few steps away, and there seemed to be drops of reddish brown, scattered about.
On second thought, no… that was most definitely blood.
“What were you idiots doing?” Eveth swore under her breath, following the speckles of drying red atop the stone. “Light, we weren’t even gone for a few hours.”
She stood up, travelling a few more steps as she pieced a story together. There were scuff marks of feet sliding. Oddly patterned ones, she thought. In fact, it looked like someone fell… maybe a few times. Bloodied up, more than just a bit, too.
In summary: one huge patch of mana and a fight of some kind, had likely taken place. Were they unrelated? Tuth or Alem would know more by looking at the scene.
“So… you beat the stuffing out of someone, then heal someone…” Eveth mumbled. “Where the did you go after that?” She looked about the street with a slow turn. There was a trader’s wagon pulled away from a distant shop. Several women argued by a food stall. Two farmers packed their goods back into a cart… “Where did you go?” Eveth asked.
“Not far.” Behind her, a voice answered.
“Light!” Eveth jumped, finding Imra, directly beside her. The Elf’s expression was more than amused.
“Are all humans so quick to let down their guard?” The Imra asked, evidently quite pleased with herself. “I am curious.”
“If we’re on the street, in the middle of the day? Yes, I’d think so.” Eveth shook her head, as she did her best to regain composure. It seemed that Imra was alone. “Where’s Dren?”
“The boy? He is on an important mission.” Imra replied, leaning against her spear with a lazy expression. “The Great One willed it.”
“The Great One is with him.” Imra replied, nonchalant.
After looking the Elf over, Eveth decided there was a distinct lack of blue, scaly, death present. The Basilisk was nowhere to be found.
“He’ll be back soon, from this… mission?”
“Perhaps.” Eveth repeated Imra’s answer, not satisfied in the least. Again, she thought the Elf looked rather pleased with herself. “What about this, then?” Eveth asked, pointing towards the small splotches of blood, still visible on the street. “Was there some sort of fight?”
“I would not call it a fight.”
“What would you call it, then?”
“An argument.” Imra shrugged, stretching back- almost in a catlike mannerism, before shouldering her weapon. “I won.”
“Dren won, too?”
“You worry about the boy too much.” Imra smiled. “They will return soon, human”
Eveth frowned, keeping eyes on the Imra.
“It’s not ‘the boy’ like you keep saying. His name is Dren. For that matter, my name is Eveth- not human. If you join a Guild, you should start by learning names.”
“Should I?” Imra asked.
“Yes.” Eveth frowned. “We call you by your name, don’t we?”
“Mmm... this is true.” Imra looked up towards the sun, expression thoughtful. “Do human names hold meaning?”
“For my people, these can be powerful things.” Imra answered. “The name is not just a name. There is always another purpose.”
“Well… some might, depending on where you go.” Eveth considered. “Not most, but maybe some.”
“I see.” Imra nodded. “In the language of my people, though it does not translate well, my name means: the one who creates.”
“Creates what, exactly?”
“Human words are clumsy. They mean too few, or too many things.” Imra paused for a moment, clearly thinking. “The closest word the Great One has shown me is… opportunity.”
“Well, my name means Eveth, in human language.” Eveth stated, plainly. “But it’s still common courtesy to use it, when talking to me.”
“I see.” Imra nodded. “You should be very glad God values you.”
“Oh, I am.” Eveth replied.
“This is good.”
“Did your God finally tell you to play nice, or have you decided to be friendly today?” Eveth asked.
“You… mock?” Imra’s aloof grin turned into a smile that seemed a bit too wide for Eveth’s liking. “More often, the Great One commands me what not to do, human.”
Eveth ignored the small shiver as it ran down her spine.
“Right.” It wasn’t really the strange way Imra spoke, exactly, but there was something laced into her odd accent. Lost in translation, perhaps, it still made Eveth uncomfortable. Turning away under the guise of surveying the market street. "Just tell me where Dren went.” Eveth repressed the feeling as best she could. “This blood’s not his, is it?”
"No, it does not belong to the boy." Imra replied. “He is safe.”
“I don’t see him, though.” Eveth motioned to the street. “He’s nearby?”
"Are you going to point me in a direction?” Eveth turned about the street with a hand raised to shade her eyes. Dren and the snake were nowhere in sight. “We’ll need to leave as soon as Alem is done inside."
"Near… the Great One is with him."
"You said that already."
“Did I?” Imra slurred the question. “I did not realize.”
“Gods.” Eveth shook her head, upon the recognition that Imra was, apparently, done being pleasant. Eveth let out a long sigh, before heading back towards Stefano’s building. “Not worth it. Just not worth it.” She muttered. “At least the Basilisk is civil.”
Much to her dismay, it seemed that Imra had chosen to follow after.
“What is not worth the price, human?” Strolling along, unconcerned, Imra matched Eveth’s steps perfectly. “You are buying something, like the boy?”
“No.” Eveth growled. “So, he’s buying something?”
“Perhaps?” Imra shrugged. “Perhaps, I’ll tell you, if you tell me what is not worth the cost?”
“You’re not.” Eveth frowned.
“I am not for sale, human.” Imra tilted her head.
“No, really?” With a sigh, Eveth made a point not to look in Imra’s direction. “Never would have guessed.”
“If I was for sale though, I do not think you could afford me.” Imra mused. “You would need many coins.”
“It’s an expression.” Eveth frowned. "And don’t flatter yourself, I wouldn’t even put in an offer."
“Ah… your language is a strange thing.” Imra slowed. “I understand. You are saying I have no value: this was meant as a playful insult.”
“You...” Eveth stopped for a second, then shook her head in disbelieve before continuing her trek across the street. “Well done. Glad you figured it out, Imra. You must be proud.”
“In truth, the Great One explained this trick.” Imra replied. “He often does, when I am uncertain. The Great One knows many things.”
“Oh, sure. The snake told you… Wait. He’s listening?” Eveth stopped again, surprised. “Can he do that?”
“Of course.” Imra caught back up to her. “Is this so strange?”
“Yes.” Eveth replied, brow furrowed. “Is he still listening?”
“Mmm…” Imra closed her eyes, unhindered in the slightest as they continued walking. “No longer…. Now, he is focused elsewhere.” She opened her eyes again, smiling. “You are curious? Does this mean I have value, after all?”
“No.” Eveth stopped as she reached the marketstall in front of Stefano’s building, propping her staff against it as she fixed her cloak’s hood. “But I give as I get.”
Imra stared blankly, head slowly tilting to one side.
"I’m saying that you don’t think I’m worth anything, either.”
“The Great One believes-“
“Forget the snake, for a minute.” Eveth folded her arms. “What do you believe, Imra?”
“Since you first showed up, you’ve been acting like you despise the whole lot of us. Which is trouble, because you came to us: not the other way around.”
"Ah." Imra replied, nodding along. “I see.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“Are you… agreeing with me?” Eveth’s eyes narrowed. “You hate us?”
"I feel no kindness towards your kind.” Imra replied, bluntly. “Your people have forgotten the crimes committed, but mine have not.”
“Here I was, hoping you just possessed a rather chilly personality.” Eveth held the bridge of her nose, with a long exhale: processing the information. “That explains some things, I guess. Why in all the Light did you come here, then?”
“You misunderstand” Imra raised a hand, stopping her. “I do not feel hate.”
“What?” Eveth blinked, looking at the Elf with surprise.
“I have come to understand, this is too strong a word." Imra set a hand on Eveth’s shoulder. "You must understand: to be chosen by the Great One is a great honor, worthy of great respect. I could never hate someone such as this.”
“Then why… ?” Eveth’s question trailed off. She had almost forgotten what was waiting underneath Imra’s hood. Turned just so, to catch the light of the sun: the Elf’s eyes were like polished gemstones. Deep and wide pupils, expanded too far for any human. It was as if Eveth had found herself trapped in place, worse than any spell could bind her.
“Chosen or not, you are special.” Imra continued. “You are different from the others.”
“I’m… what?” It had taken her off guard, to say the least. Eveth felt trapped, as Imra moved in closer, nose barely a hair’s width away from her own. “Hold on, just a second, Imra-“ Eveth could feel her face flushing red- and her heart pounding, Imra was perfectly calm. Her expression was like the surface of a pond on a windless day.
“You are more than chosen.” Imra continued, unperturbed.
Imra was too close. Eveth could smell the earthy scent, of forest and cool wind. Of sweet pollen, and warm leaves. There, beyond what she would see, was a place that time could barely touch. As much as she wanted to push away, it was as though a rope had been tied around her- pulling closer.
“W-what?” Eveth managed to choke out the question. “What do you mean?”
“You…” Imra leaned in, ever so slightly. “I dislike intensely.” Eveth felt the grip on her shoulder release, as Imra stepped past her. “Ah, look there: they return.”
“Wait. They- did that, you really just?“ Eveth stumbled, tripping over her own staff, barely catching it as she turned about. “What?”
“Let your guard down, much too often. Foolish to do.” Imra stated, pointing down the road. “The boy is back.”
“Who?” Eveth caught her footing just as shop bells rang out, diagonally across the street.
There, a shop door opened, revealing Dren, with a child and a rather dangerous looking man, who headed out into the street. After what seemed a brief interaction, the man and child bowed. Then, the man took the child's hand and headed off, leaving Dren free to make his merry way back towards Stefano’s building. In both his hands, she recognized the bright red shades of candied appals.
Four of them.
"Hello!" Dren shouted, as he waved awkwardly on approach, mindful of the candied fruit that he carried along with the motion. "I don't suppose you'd like a snack?"
"How did you afford those?" Eveth shouted back. “Who were those people?”
"Well-" Dren stopped as he got to the stall, carefully handing the contents of his left hand over to Imra, who took them without question. "It’s a long story.”
“A long story.”
“Yes…” Dren trailed off. “Are you well? Your face is red.”
Beside her, Eveth was completely sure Imra snorted.
“I’m fine.” Eveth shot a glare in the Elf’s direction, only to find a perfectly calm expression waiting for her. “These appals have anything to do with the spellcasting across the road?”
“Uh… yes, in a way.” Along Dren’s arm, Eveth saw the blue scales slip out his sleeve, passing back over to Imra's waiting hand. It collected itself, before reemerging along the bottom of her sleeve with a quiet tongue flick as Imra walked off.
“That so?” Eveth asked.
“Here, have one. They’re quite good.” Dren pressed a candied fruit in Eveth’s direction. “I know, because I already ate one in the store.”
“This a bribe?”
“Yes. Besides, I don’t think you’d believe me, even if I did explain.” Dren replied, before biting into the last remaining candied fruit. Chewing loudly as he continued. “Et wus poort razee.”
“Here I was, thinking nobles all had good table manners.” Eveth held the appal, awkwardly. “How much did these even cost?”
“Ot oo ‘old.” Dren replied, taking another bite. “Ut ah oosd woo mooch a’gic. Em stawarving.”
“Gods, alright- alright. Close your mouth already.” Eveth rolled her eyes. “Just confirm we’re not about to have the Guards coming down on us.”
“Ope noot.” Dren swallowed, clearing his throat loudly before continuing. “Pretty sure we’re fine.”
“I haven’t seen any. If they were around, I’d have expected them to show up already, but none have come around, all morning.”
“None? Not even a patrol?”
“No, nothing.” Dren replied. “You sure you’re alright? Your face is still really flushed.”
“For light’s sake, I’m fine.” Eveth huffed, as she looked down the street. Sure enough, she didn’t see anyone that fit the description of a Guard. Maybe the slums weren’t monitored so closely, but here on a market street she’d have expected some sort of presence.
It was odd, now that he brought it up.
“I wonder if something’s happened.” Dren voiced her thoughts for her. “Maybe another riot?”
“Yes… are you going to eat that?” Dren pointed to the appal he’d handed her. The molasses was already starting to melt in the day’s heat. “Because, if you’re not, I want it back.”
“Take it, then.” Eveth shook her head, pushing it back in his direction. “Some briber you are.”
“We of noble blood, have gifts, Eveth.”
“Girls aren’t going to like you much if you keep eating this way.”
“Don’t worry.” Dren replied, unconcerned. “I can’t afford the habit.”
“Yet, you’ve got friends who could, from the looks of it.” Eveth looked down the street for the man and child, but they were already gone from sight. “You going to tell me who those people were?”
“Don’t play dumb. The two you left the shop with. That man, and the boy.”
“Ah… yes.” Dren replied.”
“Saying yes, generally means you’re going to elaborate further.”
“He was a wealthy land owner, from a village near the Western Front. I believe his name was Carlot Gran… Gran-something.”
“Someone you knew from home?”
“No.” Dren shook his head. “We healed his son, and Carlot was very grateful.”
“That was the child he had with him?” Eveth asked. “We, huh?” She glanced back at the fading spot of mana, still smoking out from the mystic crater left behind on the street. “I guess that explains the Faith magic everywhere.”
“I suppose it does.” Dren agreed. “Never seen anything quite like that, honestly.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“Well…” Dren took bite, chewing noisily.
“Well?” Eveth waited, patiently. “Go on.”
“O’m moost pleet lee-“
“For Light’s sake.”
“Orree- sorry.” He coughed. “I was trying to say: I think you’re right.”
“What you said a few days ago, about the magic. Remember, when you told me that the healing shouldn’t have been able work the way it did? How the spell didn’t make sense?”
“The night Imra signed up at the Guild?” Eveth asked, waiting for Dren’s nod. “Yes, I remember you brushed it off as if I was crazy.”
“Well, that may still be true, but I’ve been considering things.” Dren nodded, thoughtfully. He ignore Eveth’s light punch against his shoulder. “I think I know how it works.”
“I’m absolutely serious.”
“What brought about this sudden epiphany?”
“This wasn’t much of an epiphany. All in all, it’s very simple.”
“The concepts of previously unknown magic theory and mana usage are simple.” Eveth raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
“In this case, yes.”
“The anticipation to hear how you’ve put the pieces together is all but killing me.”
“Yes, well, I’ll admit: it’s because we already heard the answer.” Dren pointed the half-eaten appal towards the sky. “Imra’s been telling the truth.”
“Her pet snake is a God.”
“Oh.” Eveth rubbed at the bridge of her nose and shook her head in disappointment. “You’re not even joking, are you?”
“I’m not just saying this for the sake of a joke, Eveth.”
“Light, help me. I understand better than anyone: The Basilisk is beyond abnormal. I’ll give you that, Dren, but a God? You believe it’s a real, living, God?”
“I’m not saying this just for the sake of saying it.”
“You can’t use Imra’s personal beliefs as a source here. Whatever goes on in that head of hers, it doesn’t translate into a convincing argument.”
“Listen, Eveth. You’re a Mage, so you know more about magic than most people- but I’m a Paladin.”
“If we use a loose definition on that title.”
“Faith is something I’m very familiar with.” Dren ignored her interruption. “Maybe I can’t see mana- not the way you can, but I was trained by the Church. They do more than teach spells there, more than how to cast or heal.” He stopped, confirming her attention, before continuing. “One of the first things the Church will teach someone, is history. They start, as you might expect, at the beginning.”
“Yeah, yeah: The Lord of Light rose up from his tomb and-”
“No, Eveth. They start before that: with the old legends, from a time before the Lord of Light gave humanity magic.” Dren waved appal. “Old stories, almost like fables, really. Well-read as you are, I’m sure you know of some of them, but the Church has its own books. Detailed and ancient texts, older than anything you would find in the Academy, or a store.” He pointed the appal down. “Do you know, Eveth: back in the times before people could heal with Faith, do you know what they did?”
“Uh… yes- a majority of them.” Dren admitted, reluctantly. “But, not all of them.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Before we had Priests who could heal, back then, if someone was afflicted with an illness they couldn’t survive with bedrest and medicine, they only had one option. That person, whoever they were, was to appeal to one of the old Gods.” Dren munched away, swallowing quickly as he continued. “The books are all very clear on this: they were to appeal to the old Gods. If they did so, properly, there was a chance they might receive a miracle, and thus become well again.”
“Properly…” Eveth frowned.
“Offerings of some sort. Blood sacrifice, lifelong servitude, or promises of some variety. Even the old books the Church had were quite vague, being honest, but they refence this, all the same.” Dren shrugged. “Any of what I’m saying sound familiar?”
“Yes… but, you’re honestly saying that…”
“If the armor fits, wear it.” Dren replied. “You know the phrase, I presume. At this point, I believe it’s the only explanation which makes sense.” Dren answered. “The Basilisk is a God.”
“The snake’s a God.”
“Well, either that, or it’s close.” Dren shrugged. “Some of the old texts mentioned that, too.”
“Uh-huh…” Eveth glanced in Imra’s direction. The Elf was holding one of the appals, while a small cord of blue struggled with the object. Its tiny set of jaws had found themselves affixed to the side of the candied fruit but were too small to fully envelope the edible treat. The result reminded Eveth much of a mudfish, sucking on a stone. “Well, it’s something. That’s for sure.”
Imra looked back in their direction, eyes narrowing.
“I think she heard you.” Dren finished the appal, picking at his teeth with the remaining stick. “Really impressive hearing. It must be her ears.”
“She’s not fond of me.”
“Imra’s like that with anyone who isn’t tiny, scaled, and blue.”
“Still a good chance she’s put me in a special bracket, all on my own.”
“How do you figure?” Dren asked, suspiciously.
“Doesn’t matter.” Eveth turned towards Stefano’s shop, changing the subject. “Alem should be done getting our gear soon. After we’re settled here, we’re going to leave the city.”
“Everything was under control… right? Does he need you to go back inside?”
“No, I think leaving the lot of you alone once was enough.” Eveth replied.
“Fair.” Dren chuckled. “Can’t even imagine the stories I’m going to have. My first trip into the Dungeon, and it’s going to be something like this.”
“Stories? Dren, this is going to be dangerous.”
“Of course, I know.”
“You say that, but the Farstrider hasn’t had enough people for a Dungeon dive in a long while. Even when we did, we usually went down to places we’d been before.”
“I know. I’m a member of the Guild, just like you.”
“I’m not saying otherwise.”
“Doesn’t sound like that to me.” Dren wiped his hands roughly against his pants. “Listen, this sort of thing was the reason I joined. I’ve slain enough rats, fixed enough injuries to put most to shame. Besides, Eveth, if you’re worried I’m going to freeze again-“
“That’s not it, Dren. I just want you to understand, things are different once you go into those tunnels. The Dungeon isn’t anything like the world up here.”
“Alem’s told me this very lecture, at least a dozen times.” Dren replied. “I’m not oblivious to the danger.”
“I don’t care what Alem’s told. I’m telling you, because you’ve never been through this before, and what we’re all about to do is risky and stupid on top of it. You’re still just a kid-”
“I’m not a child, Eveth.” Dren cut her off. “I can make my own decisions.”
“Just short of seventeen summers doesn’t make you a man, either.”
“I’m not going back to the Church, if that’s what you’re getting at. I left there on my own terms, and I’m never going back.”
“What about your family? They might be angry with you, but they could probably pay your bounty. Get you a clean slate.”
“The Farstrider Guild is my family now.” Dren drove his heel into the ground, grinding an appal stick against stone. “So, I’m a part of this. Same as you, same as Alem, same as everyone. I’m going.”
“None of us would blame you, if you didn’t.” Eveth met his stare. “Alem, especially. You can still get away from this mess, Dren.”
“I’m not leaving.” Dren stared back.
Their conversation was interrupted as, to their right, a the noise of door being swung open echoed loudly against stone. Behind it, voices and footsteps echoed from the building’s threshold.
“Howard will have things ready in a moment’s notice.”
“I’m sure he will.” Alem stepped out of the doorway, Stefano at his side. Behind them, the massive swordsman trailed obediently. His stony expression passed over Eveth briefly, apparently still displeased with the dilemma she’d forced on him by leaving early.
“Everything ready?” Eveth asked, leaving Dren where he stood, as she headed to meet them.
“More or less, sorted.” Alem replied, gruffly. “Stefano, just a moment.”
“Certainly.” The merchant nodded, turning to pass instructions to the looming swordsman, who soon disappeared back into the building.
“He didn’t rob you, did he?” Eveth asked quietly, as Alem lead her slightly out of earshot.
“No, Stefano agreed to everything we asked for."
"I’m sensing a but?"
"We're going to owe him, just a little."
"A little… what, you mean gold?" Eveth asked. “If you offered my hand in marriage, like he joked-“
"No- no.” Alem assured her. “It’s not that, but it’s not gold, either."
"What does he want, then?"
"If we’re right about this, no one knows about where we’re going but us. That means this Dungeon has no fees, no taxes: this is off the books. He expects a couple quiet trips, early on."
"Stefano didn’t directly ask about it, but he suggested a flat rate.”
“Fifteen out of a hundred. Whatever we find, whatever we sell."
"That’s the best deal anyone in the entire city is going to offer."
"Light... that’s a huge cut, for what? Wagon and supplies?"
"He’ll buy the product, too. Arrange it so we don’t have to get entangled with anyone else.” Alem nodded. “Saves us a lot of trouble.”
“He didn't have to help us, you know. Could have easily turned us in." Alem looked back, before he continued. "It’s a fair deal, Eveth. Our priority is to pay the bounties at the gates when we return. First we clear our names. Then, we worry about the details. The cut he'll be seeing is after that's done, I made sure of this.”
“Alem?” Stefano called out. “If all is well, I think it best we head around back. Howard will have the wagon loaded quickly enough.”
“Excellent.” Alem replied, turning back to Eveth for one last word. “Remember: if this goes well, that price isn’t going to matter. We’re already looking towards the future.”
“And if it doesn’t go well?”
“It will.” Alem answered, leaving Eveth. to head back over towards Stefano.
“The Guild is in agreement?” Eveth heard Stefano ask him.
“Eveth just wanted to make sure you didn’t rob me in there.” Alem took the man by his shoulder. “I told her that you only fleeced me a little.”
“I would never!” The Merchant huffed, pushing his chest. “Never, Alem!”
“A joke, Stefano. A joke!” Alem stopped him. “You’ve been more than fair, you have my thanks.”
“It is the least I could do. Besides, out of everyone you could have turned to, you came to me.” He gestured towards the small side street beside the building. “Come, we’ll see that Howard doesn’t miss anything.”
“Sounds good.” Alem gestured, waving the rest to follow as he and Stefano began to move.
Eveth trailed along, letting Imra and Dren go ahead of them as they made their way around, and into the space beside the building. She was surprised to find that, unlike most, the alleyway was wide, and almost to the size of a city-built side street. What was even more unusual, though, was that it appeared to be remarkably clean. There were no piles of stone-strand lumber, or crates, or storage, or rubbish of any kind, and the stones seemed freshly swept. As they walked, Eveth thought she could make out several faded runes carved into them, scattered along the way.
Slowing to look on over more closely, she could make out what seemed to be a complicated [Warning] symbol. It was laid, not just in carving, but also in some form of metal that had been poured within the blocks themselves. She recognized this as a much more permanent style of construction, one intended for decades of use.
"Just a moment." Whatever the intended purpose of the runes, though, Stefano made no mention of them as he continued leading them down the way. He strode on with confidence, until stopping to pause at a large iron gate. “Here we are.”
At the end of the alley, the thick black bars seemed to tower, unnecessarily high between the stone walls beside them. Their tips ending with what almost seemed to be sharpened spear-points, angles sharp in the sun that reached them. The merchant began to rummage within his draping sleeves, fishing for something. With a practiced technique, he pulled free a large brass key. The polished piece spinning about a hoop of metal on his finger, until it was caught and wedged into the waiting lock. Unseen gears clicked loudly as his wrist turned.
"I take pride in security." Stefano stated.
Something changed. Eveth watched as a light… faded. There had been a glow there, she thought, just a second ago. Very subtle, but now that it had released, the absence was noticeable to her. In those metal bars, she could make out faint runic patterns as last bit dimmed away. Inscriptions, flickering out of existence.
Bit by bit, they disappeared, as if sinking back into the iron.
“Just a little longer.” Stefano waited, hand still on the key, perhaps counting beneath his breath. Then, he pushed. The fence to swing inward with barely a creak. He turned about with a wide smile. “And, here we are.”
"I didn't recognize those runes." Eveth said, stepping to the side for a closer work. all she could make out now was the plain looking iron. Ordinary, if she didn't know better. "What are they for?"
"Oh, just something I had custom-made. For safety's sake." Stefano plucked the key from its lock, once again making it disappear within his sleeve. "Come along, everyone."
Eveth slowed, letting the others go on ahead as she continued inspecting the metal pieces. Now that the mana was discharged, she couldn't be quite sure of anything, but on the ground directly before the gate, she noted the faint outline of what might have been scorch marks.
Odd as it seemed, they almost resembled footprints, were they not melted into the stone...
Looking back up, Eveth watched as Alem kept a wide-berth while walking through to the enclosed courtyard: staying as far from the gate as physically possible, while he followed Stefano through. Slowly backing away, she elected to do the same.
“Howard! Is everything ready?”
"Yes, Master Stefano." A wagon waited for them, pulled in front of a small stable. Several beasts of burden peered out from the open stalls, as Stefano's assistant lead one of their number along. Hitched with a leather harness, a young Ro' buck trotted on six legs, happily chewing at the handful of feed offered to it. Quickly and skillfully, the swordsman tied the creature down, fitting the ropes to the wagon, while the Ro’ stood obedient.
"And you've not left anything out, have you? Did you remember the extra set of gear?"
"All is prepared, Master Stefano."
"Well done." Stefano clapped his hands together, before waving the large man away, mid-bow. "I'll see them off from here."
"Understood." With yet another bow, the massive swordsman stepped away. Despite his great size, heseemed to vanish entirely upon entering the building, as not even his footsteps could be heard.
"To think, they say good help is hard to find. You should see him with that blade in use: a sight to behold."
“I’m sure it is.” Alem replied.
“Well then.” Stefano turned to Alem, offering a hand. "I wish you luck, my friend.”
"Stefano." Alem took his hand, nodding. "You have my thanks."
“And you, mine.” Stefano bowed. “Few left in this city have the integrity you possess, Alem. It is a rare quality." He rose back up, releasing Alem’s hand. "You should make haste."
"Aye, let's get a move on, everyone." Alem nodded in Eveth's direction.
“Agreed.” Stepping up onto the wagon, Eveth set her staff down behind her as she took the reins. In the back of the wagon, Dren and Imra found seats among the supplies.
"Ah! One last thing, Alem. It's probably just a baseless rumor.” Stefano approached the wagon, one more. “You see, I’ve heard something about Varar-"
Alem stopped suddenly, and stepped back down- but not for Stefano. In an abrupt motion, he raised a hand towards the weapon on his back.
“Alem?” Eveth asked, turning to follow his stare. She could see that Imra had also stood up, spear in hand.
“Hold.” The warrior stated, fingers wrapping around the hammer’s shaft. “Something’s wrong.”
Over the rooftops, birds took flight.
"Alem?" Eveth reached for her staff. Behind her, Imra had leapt to her feet, now staring up towards the sky. "Alem?" She asked again. "What is it?"
"I don't know." He replied.
In the distance, bells were sounding. First one, distantly, then several- until it sounded as though every tower in the city was ringing freely. Louder, and louder: the sounds were surrounding the courtyard from every direction.
Eveth stared in confusion as the ambient mana in the air, normally almost imperceptible, began to tremble. Beneath her feet, she felt the same effect reaching the wagon. It was shaking- no, the very earth was shaking.
“Did you turn us in?” She shouted, turning towards Stefano.
“No!” Stefano raised his hands, eyes wide at the sight of Eveth’s array of spells- already coming to form. “I didn’t, you must believe me! I did no such thing!”
“What’s happening, then?”
"It’s coming!" Alem pulled his hammer free, raising it as a guard as he turned about. "It’s coming! Get ready!"
From the rooftop, a tile fell with a loud clatter, as the ground began to shake. In front of Eveth, the Ro' bucked- forcing her to drop her staff again and pull back on the ropes for control.
The ground had begun to shake. Stefano shouted something indiscernible, covering his head as more tiles crashed and shattered. Alem yelled something to Eveth, as well, but she couldn't hear him. All she could hear was the low rumble, replacing every other sound.
Then, the sun was gone.
At first, it seemed a cloud: an impossibly dark and looming tempest, casting the courtyard into night. Yet, as Eveth stared at it, all noise turned to a deep droning, Ro' before her bucking wildly, she realized what it was.
The keel of a ship.
One, utterly massive, ship.
Affixed with golden sails, a hull of timber and glass: her skull rattled from the force of it, not even a hundred paces above their heads, as it moved above the rooftops. Though she could never have imagined there was a way to cut above the noise, suddenly a horn sounded. Clear and pure, it sliced like a knife: soon joined by another, and another still.
The ship passed, but the sunlight didn’t return. Another had replaced it.
And then, another.
Higher in altitude, scattered among the sky, more and more ships were passing. Not just a few dozen, but hundreds. The air was shaking violently now, responding to the tremendous output of energy. Mana sparked like lightning through the sky, as heavily finned sails ripped through the wind. At their front, though, that single ship of gold accelerated: ribbons of fire trailing in its wake.
"That's the Emperor's flagship!" Dren had appeared at her shoulder, shouting over the noise as he leaned over the wagon's edge to point. "The Emperor's ship!"
"Why?” Eveth tried to reach over the noise, but it simply swallowed her voice whole.
"I don't know! That has to be the entire Royal navy!" Dren replied. “This has never happened before!”
"It doesn't matter!" Alem shouted back, jumping up beside her. “Hold onto something!”
"It doesn't matter?" Eveth shouted back, pointing herself. "That's the Emperor up there! The Emperor, for Light’s sake!"
“Might be true!” Alem threw his hammer in the back as he grabbed the reins from her, cracking them down hard. The startled Ro' took off with a vengeance, motion tossing Dren among the wagon supplies behind them. “But if we’re leaving: this is the best chance we’re going to get!”