Alem awoke as the sun was setting into twilight, listening to the quiet conversation by the fire. Eveth and Dren sat before a pot brought to boil. He was surprised to find Imra there as well, waiting across from the others.
“Tuth?” Alem asked, rising to join them by the fire.
“Not back yet.” The fire flared, briefly, as Eveth moved over to make room. Alem saw the rune at its base glow brightly.
“Should we be worried.” Across the magic flame, Dren looked to Alem. “He’s been gone for a whole day.”
“Give him time.” Alem took a seat. “He needs it.”
“Given him plenty.” Eveth grumbled.
“Little more, then.” Alem inhaled, letting out a quiet whistle of appreciation. “Damn, this is something.” Leaning in, he inspected the cookpot’s contents. “I recognize the spices, but for the life of me, I don’t remember asking Stefano for cooking rations.”
“That’s because you didn’t.” Dren replied, giving the pot a stir.
“Ah.” Alem paused. “What is it?”
“Don’t know.” Eveth nodded in Imra’s direction. “Ask her.”
“Meat.” Imra answered.
“Meat…” Alem eyed the spear leaning on her shoulder, noting a vibrant shade of red. At her feet, was a bloody pile of fur. “What kind, exactly?”
Alem rubbed at his chin, uncertain of what to say to that. Across from him, Dren swung his arm in a rough imitation of a throwing motion.
“Two hundred feet away and running.” Dren whistled, spreading his hand open with the gesture of an impact. He shook his head. “Poor fox didn’t even stand a chance.”
Imra nodded proudly.
“I see.” Alem decided to leave it at that, as he settled in.
Darkness was coming on quickly now. The faint remnants of daylight still clinging to the landscape around had begun to fade, as the first stars started to show. Already, he could feel a breeze turning cold. The chill urging him to move closer towards the fire. As he did, the scent of stew wafted up, warm flavor reaching the rest of the camp in a steady wave. It wasn’t long before Eveth began filling bowls with careful scoops, passing them along.
“Imra?” Dren asked as he handed the Elf a bowl. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get here?”
“Here?” Imra asked, lifting the bowl to inspect its contents. “Wagon.”
“No, I mean here, here.” Dren pointed his towards the ground. “I’ve lived my whole life on this continent, and I’ve never once seen an Elf.”
“Dren.” Alem warned. “Not everyone’s keen on talking about their past. If you’re going to be an Adventurer, you need to remember that.”
“I’m simply curious, that’s all.” Dren passed a bowl his way. “I just thought that the people of the forest… well, didn’t leave the forests? Not since the wars, anyways.”
“Forgive him, he’s still young.” Alem intervened. “Enough, Dren.”
“It is fine.” Imra replied. “He is right. Leaving the forests is rare for my people.”
“Sssss…” Previously unnoticed, the Basilisk slipped out from beneath Imra’s sleeve, coiling next to her on the crate.
Imra placed her bowl down, beside it.
“How did you get here, to this continent?” Dren asked. “No matter how I think about it, you must have crossed an ocean. Did you take a boat?”
“No, it was… not by sea.”” Imra paused, then pointed up. “By air.”
“Wow.” Dren’s eyes widened. “You flew in a ship, then. That’s amazing.”
“It is as you say.” Imra glanced at the serpent, before shrugging. “We flew.”
“Sss.” The creature bobbed its head.
“I’ve read the Northern Continent has a Great Forest where Elves still live.” Eveth spoke up. “It’s known as a place so hostile, the Empire gave up invading what’s left. Whole top of the Northern Continent is nothing but those forests, until you reach a coast.”
“Oh?” Imra’s ears twitched. “Have you, now?”
“I’ve heard the same.” Alem replied, carefully blowing on his spoon. “Monsters the size of houses, with teeth a long as a man’s arm: worse than what the Dwarves send out of their bloody mountains.”
“Is that where you’re from, Imra?” Dren asked.
“My homeland is not so bad-”
“-perhaps you do speak of it.” Imra agreed.
“Are the monsters really that large?” Dren asked, surprised. “The size of houses? Is that even possible?”
“I can only speak from what I’ve seen.” Alem replied. “But in the Dungeon, it’s certainly possible. Deep enough down, there are some real terrors lurking about. Massive things, capable of swallowing up a man whole.”
“Isn’t the Great Forest above ground, though?”
“It’s connected to the Dungeon.” Eveth answered. “Mana leaks up in higher concentrations, so side-effects are bound to happen.”
“That’s a terrifying thought.” Alem muttered. “How’s that work?”
“Roots.” Eveth shrugged. “If you think the monsters are big, I’ve heard the trees are enormous. They apparently grow right down into the bedrock, tap into the Dungeon itself.”
“Gods.” Alem glanced over his shoulder. “Thank the Light there’s nothing like that around here. If you ask me, the scorpions are large enough already.”
“I wonder if that’s why the rats can get so large in the city, recently.” Dren mused.
“What do you mean?”
“They must be going down to the dungeon, don’t you think? Maybe the mana makes them grow larger.”
“It’s possible there’s some sort of burrow.” Eveth looked up, nodding in thought. “Probably not so deep as the Dungeon, but close. The City’s ancient, and things have been built overtop whatever what there before dozens of times by now. There’s bound to be some pockets before the actual Dungeon.”
“Northern Continent, though.” Alem tapped his foot. “You know, I come to think of it, I once met an Adventurer who spoke of living there. Told me a story about hunting down some sort of giant lizard.”
“Yes, that’s what he called it, but from his description, it sounded more like a wingless dragon. One with very small front legs.”
“Yes.” Imra nodded, knowingly. “They are a delicacy.”
“Like mimics.” Dren blew slowly on his spoon. “Those are a delicacy too, right Eveth?”
“No, I hear they taste sour.” Eveth replied. “Meat’s spoiled by all the chubby Paladins they swallow.”
“Not funny.“ Dren grumbled.
“I’ve heard rumors about what’s going on overseas, recently.” Eveth continued, as she set down her bowl. “News trickles in slow, but there were a few strange stories.”
“Aye.” Alem replied. “You’re not alone in that.”
“Southern Continent has had monster troubles for years. All sorts of unguarded entrances are causing problems. Nothing new with them, but more and more people have been talking about the North. All sorts of trouble.”
“Ssss…” The Basilisk stopped its relaxed head-bobbing. “Ssssss…”
Imra’s ears twitched.
“Just talk, nothing more official.” Alem assured them. “Rumors.”
“Maybe, but the ships yesterday have me thinking it might be more than that, now.” Eveth lowered her voice. “They had to be heading somewhere. The course they were on seems about right.”
“What do the rumors say?” Dren asked. “Anything interesting?”
“Few weeks ago, I heard talk about a horrible monster that suddenly appeared in the dungeons. There were even a few wild claims that a Sanctuary that got destroyed.” Eveth replied.
“What?” Alem coughed, forced to take a swig from his water skin and clear his throat. “Where’d you hear that second one?”
“People.” Eveth shrugged. “Last thing I caught someone saying was about a wildfire fire that won’t extinguish, and an expedition in disarray due to that sanctuary disaster.”
“Well, those are new.” Alem cleared his throat again. “Did you happen to catch a Guild name for the expedition?”
“If I remember right…” Eveth tapped her spoon on the bowl of stew, thinking. “Wayside?”
“I’ve heard of them, at least.” Alem nodded, thoughtfully. “Might be at least some truth to it.”
“Could a monster really do that?” Dren asked. “I always thought Sanctuaries repelled monsters.”
“More than just repel.” Alem shook his head. “If a creature from the dungeon so much as touches a Sanctuary, they burn.”
“Or worse.” Eveth added. “The runes can wipe a monster away, completely. Nothing but ashes left, after that.”
Alem turned to catch sight of the Basilisk slipping away, slithering off into the darkness beyond the camp’s fire. Imra frowned, as she too watched the serpent go.
“Where’s the Great One off to, at this hour?” Alem asked. “Seems as though he’s in a hurry.”
“Probably going to stare at the boulder again.” Eveth replied.
“You noticed that, too?” Dren spoke up. “I thought it could see something I couldn’t, but there’s nothing.”
“How could anyone miss it?”
“The Great One has been suspicious of the stone.” Imra folded her arms, disapprovingly. “He does this for your own safety.”
“He’s suspicious?” Alem asked, curious. “Of the boulder?”
“Yes.” Imra confirmed. “The Great One will protect you, though. So, there is nothing to fear.”
“Protect us from a rock?” Eveth wondered.
“What it truly is, matters little.” Imra replied. “The Great One will defend you, regardless.”
“While he’s at it, maybe the Basilisk can keep an eye on those boxes we found too.” Eveth chuckled. “In case one of them gets hungry.”
“Oh, you’re hysterical.” Dren muttered. “Mimics aren’t real, I’m not a child.”
“Don’t come crying to me when you lose those greedy fingers of yours to a chest with teeth.” Eveth wagged her spoon in his direction. “I hear they much prefer young blood, you know?”
“Oh, really? I’m glad you’re safe, then.” Dren snorted, as he earning himself an elbow in the ribs.
“Tell me more of this fire that you mentioned.” Imra interrupted, unconcerned by the Mage’s following attempts to smack Dren with her spoon. “You said it was large.”
“Fire?” Eveth stopped. “You mean on the Northern Continent?”
“Yes, I am curious.”
“I’m not quite sure. News takes time to travel, but there was talk that people abandoned some cities because of it.”
“Cities abandoned? That would never happen.” Dren interjected. “The Empire Mages would put the fire out before that.”
“Maybe around here they would.” Eveth motioned to their surroundings. “Nothing but dirt.”
“So, Fire doesn’t listen well as some of the other elements. Large expanses of forest and grassland, and maybe enough that they might choose to let it burn out on its own.”
“I see.” Imra said quietly.
Alem watched as her ears twitched again, before Imra pulled her hood to cover them.
He cleared his throat, loudly.
“You know, when I was a soldier, there were times we might go for weeks without hearing from anyone. Left to wonder, with no answers.” Alem set his bowl closer to the pot, filling it with another scoop. “If I learned anything from it: there’s no point in getting worried over talk. The truth will come out, sooner or later.”
“That’s fair.” Dren nodded. “Besides, the Empire would tell people if things really had gotten that bad.”
“Doesn’t matter while we’re out in the middle of nowhere.” Eveth accepted. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Imra didn’t seem convinced.
“While we’re asking questions, Imra, if you don’t mind, I’ve been wondering something myself.” Alem nodded towards the direction of the boulder where a small blue form had settled, curled atop it like a tiny crown. “What’s the story behind that Great One of yours?”
“You wish to learn?” Looking up from under her hood, Imra seemed surprised.
“Talking Basilisk aren’t exactly common in these parts” Alem glanced around the circle. Eveth and Dren seemed in agreement. “So, yes, I suppose we do. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“What you like to know?” Imra asked, cautiously. “Some secrets are his own.”
“Nothing you wouldn’t share freely.” Alem clarified. “Just… where did he come from? How did he learn to speak?”
“How did he get healing magic like that?” Dren asked, looking to Eveth.
“I never got many of my questions answered.” Eveth added. “Wouldn’t mind having some of the blanks filled in.”
“I understand.” Imra answered, expression thoughtful. “His past is not something even I know fully, but I do know some.” Leaning into the fire, Imra raised her hands hand, just short of the flames. “As all Gods have been, the Great One was born. Yet…” She paused, closing her eyes. “He also comes from another place: a different place.”
“What do you mean?” Alem asked.
“His body and his mind.” Imra clasped her hands together, fingers intertwined. Slowly, she spread her hands apart, again. “Unlike most, who must prove themselves worthy: The Great One was born whole.”
“I see…” Alem scratched at his chin. Looking towards Dren and Eveth, he was grateful to find that they looked equally confused.
“The snake is from the Dungeon.” Eveth spoke up. “Very deep down.”
“How do you know?” Dren asked.
“Because it told me.” Eveth rubbed at her temples. “Among other things, I might add…”
“His body emerged from the depths.” Imra accepted. “But only his flesh, not his spirit.”
“The Dungeon, eh? Tiny thing, considering that.” Alem said. “I’m surprised a monster of that size could survive for long down there.”
“I’m not.” Eveth muttered. “You haven’t seen that lunatic in action.”
“Lunatic?” Dren asked, curious. “What do you mean?”
“The Basilisk is intelligent, but it’s also a bit... Just wear it around all day, and you’ll understand.” Eveth shrugged. “It talks to itself, constantly-”
“The path to Godhood is not to be taken lightly.” Imra interrupted, eyes narrowed. “The wise recognize this.”
“Well, it’s the truth.” Eveth muttered. “They’re not quite all there, if you follow me.”
“For what the Great One has been through, his mind is sound.” Imra replied.
Alem raised a hand, as Eveth gave Imra a doubtful look.
“Well, there’s surely a tale to be had if you can ever convince him otherwise, I’m certain.” He said. “Either way, they’ll be an excellent resource for us once we’re in the Dungeon.”
“You are under his protection.” Imra agreed. “And those under his protection have nothing to fear.”
Eveth snorted in her stew, covering it quickly with a cough, but not quickly enough to avoid another glare.
“He’s really never spoken to you about being down there?” Dren asked. “Not even in passing?”
“No.” Imra shook her head. “He does not speak of it.”
“I’d have expected at least once story.” Dren pressed. “Eveth said he talks a lot.”
“It does.” Eveth replied. “Nonstop, sometimes.”
“No stories.” Imra stopped to consider her answer. “I have only seen fragments. Perhaps, those might do instead.”
“Sight of things seen before… visions. I believe that is what you might call them.”
“You can see that?”
“Well… what were those like?” Dren asked.
“You wish to know?” Imra leaned forward, appearance ominous in the light of the fire. “Are you certain?”
“Of course.” Dren apparently took no notice, as he continued. “Even experienced Adventurers have a hard time getting to the deeper levels. There’s a good chance he might have seen things that no one else has ever laid eyes on. Caverns filled with gemstones, or mana crystals the size of someone’s head, or ruins hiding magic artifacts.”
“Hmm.” Imra folded her arms, considering. “The depths hold many secrets, you are not wrong in this.” Imra replied. “Things of power, long hidden… but these are not what I have witnessed.”
“There must be something.” Dren urged, looking to Alem and Eveth for support. “If he really was born in the Dungeon, just imagine.”
“Maybe a quick summary?” Eveth reluctantly joined Dren. “If you don’t give him something, Dren is just going to pester you all night.”
“You truly wish to know?” Imra closed her eyes, as she leaned back, arms still folded so that the spear against her shoulder was carefully tucked.
“Of course.” Dren nodded. “I do.”
“You think this, but you are young.” Imra stated. “Those who are young ask for things they do not understand.” She opened her eyes, passing her stare over Dren, Eveth, and finally to Alem himself. She continued. “To my people, even your oldest would seem a child.”
“What’s you point?” Eveth asked, frowning.
“What you ask for, is not something you will want.” Imra replied. “Not now, as you plan to descend beneath the surface.”
“So, you won’t share?” Dren answered, uncertain. “I was only curious.”
“I will share if you insist, but know this: what your kind has forgotten, mine still remembers.” Imra stared into the flame, eyes catching the glow. “In my tribe, there were still some who held living memory of the long past. Those who knew the horrors wrought, when those of your blood were swallowed up by the stolen power.”
“You mean the Great Wars?” Alem asked.
“What is a war compared to mountains rising in an instant, or entire Forests folded beneath the soil?” Imra’s lip curled into a barely withheld sneer. “When impossible creations burned through the sky, and waves taller than even the Great Trees themselves, were crashing down miles from the shore. Oceans reaching out to bury and erase entire cities.” Leaning closer to the fire, her tone grew dark. “There were still those among my tribe who lived through those years, and the conflicts which came after. Elders who remembered the terror brought as your kind slaughtered one another: empowered with the gifts of Gods and the minds of arrogant children. Of a time when the world was bent to your will, no matter how it screamed for mercy.”
No one moved.
Alem swallowed. It was a hush that took them, now. Their group had fallen deathly silent. Beneath Imra’s hood, all that stared out at them was pure black, ringed by a glowing eclipse of green. Her pupils stretched wide. Perhaps it was a skill, or possibly something greater, but Alem felt the hair on his neck begin to rise. No longer did she seem a woman, or even to resemble the form of a human at all: what sat across from them at the fire was a creature alien in nature, unlike them in all ways but speech itself.
“What I have seen of the Great One’s past, is hidden and buried. Memories deemed better to be forgotten: of an endless darkness, filled with hunger and hatred. Where swallowed cities from an age of foolish Gods still linger: their streets filled with eyes of glass, jaws of blood. Ancient lakes, where cold teeth lurk beneath black waters, devoid of any hope.”
The silence stretched.
“Oh.” Dren finally croaked out a response. “That’s terrible.”
“It is.” Imra agreed. “What lies beneath is a place none should stray. Not even Gods.”
“So, there’s no stories about treasure, then- Ow!”
“Shush, Dren.” Eveth smacked him on the shoulder with her spoon. “I told you before, it’s not like the stories: diving into the Dungeon is dangerous.”
“Did you find the Basilisk there?” Alem found his own voice, joining back into the discussion. “Did you come across him within the Dungeon?”
“No.” Imra replied. “The Great One was already upon the surface, when I pledged my loyalty.”
“And he was already a God by then?”
“Yes, and stronger than any my people had ever seen.” Imra replied. “They feared him.”
“Is that why you left the Forest to come here, then?” Alem asked. “Forgive me for saying this, but I can’t imagine you ran away to become an adventurer.”
“I never wished for this, you are not wrong.” Imra replied. “What lead us to join you, is fate.”
“The Great One follows the signs, and the omens. They were what brought us to you.”
“You’re telling us the snake can see the future?” Eveth asked, expression skeptical. “I find that difficult to believe.”
“Not the future.” Imra corrected. “The Great One interprets the will of the divine. In doing so, it guides his actions.”
“The God believes in God, huh?” Eveth sighed. “See what I mean?”
“You are quick to mock.” Imra frowned. “But without the Great One’s belief, you would be long dead.”
“I’m sure I’d have found a way around it.”
“Oh?” Imra asked. “The way of bleeding on the ground?”
“Half of the trouble I’ve been through these last few days could have been avoided if you and the Basilisk hadn’t shown up.” Eveth shot back. “I’ll have you know, us humans aren’t nearly as weak as you like to think we are.”
“You aren’t as strong, either.” Imra smiled.
“Are you trying to piss me off again, or does it just come naturally to you?”
“Hey now, no fighting.” Alem raised a hand. Eveth’s jaw was clenched, further statements apparently held back by sheer force of will. “Tomorrow, we’ll be trusting our lives to one another. If you two want to fight, wait until we’re through with this.”
“If you say so.” Eveth growled. “But don’t blame me if we come back short an Elf.”
“You need not worry.” Imra smiled. “My people do not stray beneath the surface. I will be waiting for your return.”
“What?” Alem asked, startled. “Come again?”
“At worst, some of my tribe might follow the roots down.” Imra admitted. “A few to hunt, or to collect herbs: but never further.”
“You’re not coming with us when we find the entrance?” Dren asked.
“No.” Imra shook her head. “The Great One will be with you, but I will not descend.”
“That’s a bad joke, Imra.” Eveth growled. “Not funny.”
“I do not jest.”
“Well, you’d better be.”
“Dren, quiet.” Eveth snapped, the cooking fire flaring up as she turned. “Did you know about this, Alem?”
“I had thought you would be joining us, Imra.” Alem admitted. “You’d given us every indication that was the case.”
“This spear will guard you from any who might follow, but I will not descend.” Imra stated, remarkably unconcerned by the raging flame beneath the spitting cook pot. “I cannot.”
“Did it ever cross your mind to tell someone that crucial fact before we came all the way out here?” Alem reached an arm to stop her, as Eveth stood up. Her disbelief was quickly giving way to anger. “We made this plan assuming you were with us.”
“The Great One instructs you not to worry. As you have been chosen, you are under his protection.”
“His protection- oh, that’s just wonderful.”
“It is.” Imra agreed, eyes narrowing. “Wonderful.”
“This puts us in a difficult spot, Imra.” Alem swallowed the growing sense of unease, standing to block Eveth from advancing further. “We had thought this might be difficult with all of us working together, but now…”
“The Great One will protect you.” Imra repeated. “There is nothing to fear.”
“While that might be true, working with as few people as we have...” Alem stopped, uncertain. “I mean no offense intended, Imra, but it will be difficult. Should something unexpected happen, we’ll be-”
“We’ll be in serious trouble.” Eveth interrupted.
“What we’re trying to say-” Alem cut in. “Is that I would hope there’s a way we might convince you otherwise, Imra.”
“I am not of your blood, human. I cannot join you in this, but there nothing for you to fear.”
“If there’s nothing to fear, you can come with us.” Eveth growled. The cook pot beside them boiled over with angry bursts of steam.
“I cannot go. It is fact, human.”
“Human again?” Eveth stood up. “What is wrong with you?”
“Oh?” Imra’s lip curled, as she rose to Eveth’s challenge. “With me?”
“Let’s calm down, both of you.” Alem pushed Eveth back, raising an open palm to Imra’s direction to slow her advance. “I’m confident we can still make this work, Eveth. We’ll just need to be more careful, maybe make a shorter run.”
“You’re tell me that we’re supposed to just take her Basilisk, and waltz down there like nothing’s wrong?” Eveth took a step forward, forcing Alem to hold her back. “Absolutely not.”
“Eveth, what’s this about?” Alem asked.
“That God of hers is a mess.” Eveth snapped. “If she’s too scared to deal with it, what are we supposed to do?”
“Tread carefully, human.” Imra warned.
“I’ll admit, I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of communicating with it.” Alem tried to mediate. “But the Basilisk seemed sane when I spoke to it.”
“You didn’t wear it around your neck for an entire day.” Eveth jabbed a finger in Imra’s direction. “Ask her. She knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
“I advise you stop, human.” Imra met Eveth, eye to eye.
“If you’re too afraid to keep that thing in check, I’m not about to try.” Eveth retorted.
“Is that true?” Dren asked.
“That snake of hers might be able to talk, but it’s got more than just a few screws loose.” Eveth growled.
“The Great One has endured many horrors on his journey here. To assume these were not without a cost would be foolish.” Imra’s stare bored into the Mage. “But, he would spare you the same.”
“Spare me?” Eveth glared back. “You mean, like he spared those mercenaries?”
“That.” Imra’s expression darkened. “Was not a decision to be taken lightly.”
“Snake didn’t seem to mind, then.”
“You pass judgement on him, but in his place, the mind you seem to prize so dearly would have broken long ago.” Imra’s voice was ice.
“Having spent a day with that thing’s voice in my head, I’m not so convinced it’s really my mind you need to be worried about.” Eveth planted her staff down.
“Alright!” Alem rose to separate the pair as [Intuition] began to ring. Roughly, he tried to push Eveth back. “Enough.” He repeated. “I don’t know why you feel the need to do this now, but it ends here.”
“At this point, it’s a matter of trust.” Eveth growled. “We’ve come all this way, and now she wants to stand guard? I’m sorry, I don’t buy that for a second.”
“Trust, human?” Imra retaliated, stepping forward, and forcing Alem to hold them apart from one another. “You owe a debt, same as I do. Your fate was for life to end, but here you are.”
“This is about debt?” Much to Alem’s dismay, it seemed that Eveth wasn’t backing down. “If that’s what this is all about, how about you pay yours first, then?”
“I cannot enter, human.” Imra bared her teeth as she forced out the words. “I cannot.”
“Human, again?” Eveth growled back. “I know us humans might not matter to you, but what if that little God of yours doesn’t come back-“
“Eveth!” Alem found his warning arrived too late. Whatever restraint Imra had still been holding onto, was released in a flurry of motion. In an instant, Alem found that he’d been thrown aside: tumbling over his seat. Scrambling, Alem’s experience served him for the better as he rolled with the landing, and fought his way back to his feet.
The air was roughly pushed from his chest, as Imra’s foot to intercepted him. With a hard shove sending him backwards once again, much further this time. It was as he’d already long suspected: Imra was disturbingly strong.
“Damn it all.” Alem swore as he continued his roll. Head over heels, and unable to stop his momentum, he landed in a mess of tent cloth and bedrolls. All the while, [Intuition] was sharpening to two distinct notes of urgent danger.
By the raging fire, the conflict intensified.
“If you think this is fear for my own safety, you are wrong.” Imra dragged the Mage towards her with one hand, lifting until Eveth’s boots helplessly digging against the sand.
“What’s stopping you, then?” Eveth asked, apparently indifferent to the scream of danger pulsing in Alem’s mind.
Struggling to his feet, Alem watched as Imra lifted further. She had the Mage by the scruff of her cloak, enough so that Eveth was on the toes. Still, as she pulled Eveth from the ground, a glowing blade burst to life in the air beside Imra’s neck.
Mana crackled in the air around them. Not as subtle or careful manifestations, but as crude and sharp looking daggers. In seconds, more formed: at Imra’s neck, her back, her arms. More, and more still, whistling into existence as energy molded to shape and substance.
The two women glared at one another, yet the difference in power was finally clear.
Still, neither moved.
“You said you cannot enter.” From the sidelines of the conflict, Dren found the courage to speak. “Cannot, as in, unable to.”
Alem held his breath, as that statement hung in the air. His hand was on his hammer, now, but he wasn’t necessarily sure the weapon would even help at this point.
Imra didn’t respond.
“That it, then?” Eveth asked through gritted teeth. “That how it is?”
Imra didn’t answer.
“Eveth, call off the spell.” Alem raised his hands. “We’re all on the same team.”
“If we’re a team, how about she proves it?” Eveth clenched her fists, and several of the glowing blades began to elongate as they drew in closer. “What’s it going to be?”
“No.” Eveth’s spells remained where they were. “If you want us to help you, Imra: right here and now, I want you to say it.”
Slowly, Alem watched as Eveth was lowered to the ground.
“You have won.” Imra muttered. “Are you now satisfied?”
“Not even close.” The blades moved closer still, pressing to draw the faintest drops of blood on Imra’s skin. “We both know that’s not what this is about.”
“Just drop the spell-”
Eveth’s hand raised, and a wild gust of wind and sand rose up in response, pushing Alem back a step.
“Say it.” She repeated. “If you want a favor like this, you owe us that much. Say it, Imra.”
Alem held his tongue. He knew better than to interfere as things were now, but the concern of what might happen if he didn’t was mounting. Disadvantage or no, Imra still had Eveth in her grip.
The noise in his skull was growing louder, and louder still. For an instant, Alem thought he knew how this would end.
Then, half of [Intuition] hushed.
“You have won, Eveth.” Imra dropped the Mage, releasing her grip.
“What about them?” Eveth pointed.
“Alem.” Imra spoke quietly. “Dren.”
“Thank you.” All at once, the magic dissipated. As if smoke on the wind, the swords of light and vapor were pulled away, fading into nothing. Beside them, the fire dimmed.
[Intuition] had gone silent. So much so, that Alem’s head was ringing with the absence. It felt entirely eerie.
“Are you both done?” From where he stood, still entangled in the mess of what had once been a tent, Alem waited.
“Yes.” Eveth replied.
Alem stared at the two women, still uncertain.
“You’re sure?” He asked, unwilling to approach. “Because if either of you try to throw me again, I’m not going to be polite about it.”
“When we go into the Dungeon, Imra’s staying up here to watch our backs.” Eveth replied. “That’s the plan.”
“And you’re both alright with that?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?” Eveth asked.
Beside her, Imra nodded, slowly.
The two of them stood with their arms crossed. Expressions disapproving enough, that it almost felt as though he was the one who’d kicked someone into a tent, and not just valiantly attempted to stop them from killing one another.
“Alright.” Alem replied, dusting off his armor. “Long as everything is settled.”
Alem wisely chose to take a seat by Dren when he returned to the fire, leaving Eveth and Imra to the far side.
“Hey, Alem?” After a few minutes, Dren leaned towards him, hand cupping a whisper. “Do you understand what just happened?”
“Enough of it.” Alem replied from under his breath, as he fished out a flask. “Why?”
“Could you tell me?”
Imra’s ears twitched. She looked in their direction, prompting Eveth to do the same.
“Not if you want us to live.” Alem said, taking a long swig, and electing to seem remarkable interested in the fire, until their attention moved elsewhere. Then, another drink: for good measure.
“When do you think Tuth is coming back?” Dren asked, quietly. “He’s been gone a long time.”
“He’ll be back when he’s ready.”
“I hope that means soon.” Dren muttered.
“Aye.” Alem agreed. “Same here.”