Book II - Chapter 20

Chapter 20

 

Snake Report

 

The first sightings of people were almost insignificant.

A man slumped against a stone wall, followed by the odd form here or there. Just a few people, wrapped tightly in a ragged blankets. There were a few randomly places tents, roughly propped up.

Then, came the feeling of… pressure.

Pressure.

Like that feeling, when you know there’s going to be a storm.

The kind that makes you feel nervous.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see people watching us. Not slumped up against a wall, or sleeping in a shoddy looking tent: but really looking. The kind of folks who seem to have their hands on something, which can catch the light- just so.

Metal.

The street we came in on was mostly empty in the beginning. Pretty wide, probably meant as a main road, but it feels like it’s constricting.

Squeezing in on each side, bit by bit, on account of the people.

Humans, all of them. Just scattered about. Either sitting in groups, or alone… but more and more of them, all the same. With them, comes this… smell.

Stench.

Stains of run-off and rotten waste slung in on the divots of rock to either side, passing under or through the side streets. There are canals built, from the looks of it, but there’s no water in them. Each one we’ve passed over has been dry, for exception of what’s been thrown into them.

The atmosphere is far from comfortable.

“Move along.”

Someone’s shouting, in the distant. Not at us, I don’t think, but all the same. Echoing calls, coming from out of sight.

There are more and more people, while there’s less, and less light.

However it is that the street lamps happen to function, they’re not working so well in this district.

“Want a piece of me, eh?”

Curses and crashes, people yelling or shouting- I think there’s a fight nearby.

I don’t like this.

Imra’s moving with purpose. We haven’t slowed down, but this kind of environment makes me want to slink back beneath her cloak and hide. Everywhere I look, people are watching us.

Hungry gazes.

It reminds me of the dungeon.

Instinct is starting to scream.

Threats.

Enemies.

Danger.

Are we prey? Are we predator? The people watching us don’t know, yet.

Imra, I think that it might be best if we leave.

Ssss…

Did she hear me?

She’s still moving.

Maybe I wasn’t loud enough?

Imra? We should leave. This isn’t safe for us.

Still no response, verbal or otherwise. If anything, Imra's pace seems to have quickened.

The terrain has become increasingly less-friendly.

Oh, I don’t like where this was heading.

Maybe it’s a small price to pay for all the leveling I’ve done, but my senses are too much.

I can hear it all.

Shouts now… screams and curses… the unmistakable sound of pottery smashing, of arguments and violence. I can hear the clang of metal striking metal, of gasps and pain…

Imra isn’t stopping or turning back, though.

She’s caught onto something. Some sound, or smell, or…

We’ve reached a plaza.

The noises are echoing all about the buildings and streets. There’s a body, limp against a stone wall. Beside it, a group of men are throwing dice. Laughing, with coins and fists in the air.

Ahead of us, there’s a crowd of people. All standing, all bustling and pushing against one another.

“Form a line!”

Someone’s shouting.

“I said, form a bloody line! Emperor’s blessing demands order! Order, light help me!”

No more than fifty paces from where we are now, and it’s packed.

People: skin, hair, ragged looking clothing. Desperate faces, shouting and shoving one another- fighting one another.

Some are trying to get through, to move forward, while others are trying to break free- trying to get out: moving with arms wrapped tightly to their chests around... something.

“Back off!”

A man just came stumbled out from the throng of people. Someone is trying to wrestle something out of his arms.

“Back!”

He’s not giving up, but they’re overpowering him.

“Stop!”

They’ve wrenched it free taken off running- only to trip and drop everything.

I get it.

There they sit, untarnished and alone for the barest of instants: food, and drink.

It’s bread.

Bread, and a metal flask.

“No!”

The man shouts in vain, as the crowd is reacting: fifteen or so others descending on these. Clawing and punching, feet kicking ruthlessly, with one or two coming away bearing pieces and portions before sprinting off the street and into the waiting alleyways.

It’s like we’ve stumbled into hell.

“There's water ahead.”

Imra's might as well be growling.

I didn’t realize how thirsty she was, but it’s painful now. I can’t block it out, anymore than I can block out the noise, or the smell.

“Water.”

A fact, or a... statement?

Imra’s moving in.

Not walking, not jogging- picking up speed.

Momentum.

Wait! What are you doing-

I don't know why I bothered asking. I know exactly what she was doing.

Breaking through.

“Order!” Someone ahead of us is shouting. “Emperor’s blessing demands order! Just because this shipment arrive late, does not give any of you the right to violence!”

Imra doesn’t listen.

As people howl and yelp, she’s pushing through with violence. Her hands thrust and pull, throwing back shoulders and bodies, sometimes even to the ground, as she’s dragging her way past with terrible efficiency.

Ruthless.

Wait! Imra! Stop!

WATER.

That’s the only response I’m getting.

I’ve totally lost her now.

We’re pushing through. People in front of her just end up thrown to the ground, tossed aside. Imra’s stronger than them. Whats more: she doesn’t care.

The way she’s handling them, someone could get really hurt- and she’s not even hesitating.

Just like that, we’re at the front.

We’ve broken through.

As suddenly as the crowd formed, it’s ended. Almost abruptly enough to sending us sprawling right into the waiting spears of soldiers. Dozens of them, in the glow of torches.

Ah.

Behind the people with weapons, there are wagons being unloaded.

“I said: order!” Someone in the back is turning towards us. They’re in armor, plated and polished in the flickering lights. “Anyone who can’t understand that, can go hungry!”

If we hadn’t just attracted enough attention, now more people are looking at us. Not just the people Imra elbowed through, but the soldiers themselves.

Back by the wagons, a few have bows. Nearby, many have swords and spears: deep red metal and crests matching some hard stares.

They’re advancing.

It’s like death approaching.

Imra-

From the hands of a person beside us, just coming from the front of the line, Imra has ripped something free.

WATER.

She’s already pouring, as fast as gravity can provide. Greedily swallowing, while more than half of the liquid is just raining down on the ground.

“Hey!”

More shouting, more attention.

Someone grabs us.

Imra’s arm lashes out, and someone falls.

She’s grabbed something else, they’re too weak to stop her.

“ORDER!” That figure in the back is fast approaching. He’s drawn his sword- I can see it.

Imra!

Why won’t she listen?

“YOU! IN THE NAME OF THE EMPEROR, I ORDER YOU TO STOP!”

The man in armor has drawn his sword. More soldiers are advancing, breaking away from the crates and wagons they were unloading.

Imra, we need to go. We need to go, now.

Is she listening?

God, I don’t know what’s getting through. She must have recognized the danger, but I don’t know if she can hear me. Imra’s fighting through the crowd, again, but this time in reverse.

In between shoves, she’s taking bites of something.

When did she manage to get her hands on a loaf of bread? Who did she take that from?

“YOU THERE! I SAID: STOP!” A soldier shouted, spear lashing out towards our position, metal rippling as it cut along the air.

“AGGGG-“

Imra side stepped it, and they just took someone else through the shoulder by accident.

“AGGGG, it hurts! Mercy!”

Oh god.

"HALT! The wind just boomed. I felt a gust fly past us. “IN THE NAME OF THE EMPEROR!”

Was that a skill? Magic?

We’re too deep in the crowd already, they can’t get to us without other people getting in the way.

“I SAID, HALT!”

The pressure. The air.

Shit.

This is not good. Not good.

Barrier of skin and bone are falling before us now. People bowled over, thrown to the ground. Imra is just ramming her way through.

IMRA! STOP-

“__________________ !” Someone is shouting at our backs, but I can’t understand a word. "__ ____ _____!"

Just that the tone is furious.

Maybe it’s the soldiers.

Maybe the crowd- but that same roil of anger and shouting is only growing.

“ORDER!”

Loud as that voice is, it’s being drowned out.

Every push and shove seems to put more energy into the system: more shouts and yells. Like a wave, only we’re ahead of it. Imra’s moving quicker now, several bodies deep into the thick of this crowd.

Clanking armor, shouts- it’s all too far behind us.

“Filth.”

Imra took one bite of bread, before throwing it onto the ground.

People are already diving for it. Kicking and screaming.

“Hey! You think you can just-“

Someone is moving to block our path.

Imra’s moving too.

Crack.

Sound, like a board of wood meeting its limit.

Followed by a scream.

Imra just broke that person's arm.

All around us, tensions are just getting worse. People are shouting, pushing and shoving one another- to and fro in the masses.

We still haven’t even slowed down, but the air… the air has. More than slowed, it’s grown still. Like a giant breath had been sucked in- and held.

That pressure, like right before a storm.

I’ve been feeling it this whole time, but now?

Imra, we need to leave.

I say that, but there’s no point.

Even if she’s listening now, it’s too late.

Ssss…

The storm’s here.

Book II - Chapter 21

Chapter 21

 

Snake Report

 

This could not get worse.

I don’t know whether to blame Imra for this, or if she just brought about the inevitable. Either way, it’s as if someone dropped a match onto a bucket of gasoline.

Things here have effectively erupted.

DODGE!

Was that a fucking lightning bolt that just missed us? I don’t even know.

COVER! FIND COVER! GET INTO AN ALLEY!

No clue if Imra can hear me, but I’ve cranked my mental shouting to 11. I hope she’s at least able to get the gist of it. If not the words, the message behind the words.

We’re moving in the right direction, at least-

DUCK!

God damn it! Was that a fireball? I didn’t shoot that.

It’s total chaos here.

“ORDER!”

Behind us, past the crowd Imra just fought through, there’s a flashing light.

It’s bright.

Some sort of skill? An ability? I think it’s a sword, but the weapon is glowing, raised up like a beacon.

“ORDER!”

It’s the one wearing the armor, shouting over the crowd.

“ORDER, OR LIGHT TAKE YOU! THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING!”

Spears, halberds, they’re all doing the same.

Trying to fend off the masses, intimidate them into compliance.

It’s not working.

People are still pushing.

“SHIELDS UP! SPEARS READY” The armored man is shouting commands now, not stopping. “STAY BACK, IF YOU WANT TO LIVE! YOU UNDERSTAND?”

Those people they’re trying to fend off, maybe the one’s in the front are scared. I bet they are- I bet they want nothing to do with what’s about to happen, but the hundreds of people behind them don’t care.

With bodies too thickly packed together, it might as well be a wave.

BANG

Overhead, something’s just lit up the scene.

From the back, way back, behind the soldiers, it’s taken to the air. Whistling like a firework and an almost lazy sort of speed: a flare of some kind.

Rising, up and up…

CRASH

It burst.

Everything’s illuminated now. As if a whole stadium of floodlights just switched on, it’s showing the entire scene.

Hundreds of gaunt, hungry, angry faces, all looking in the same direction.

“ORDER! I WILL HAVE ORDER!”

Under their command, they’ve grouped up, but the soldiers are looking more nervous by the second. They’ve got some men scrambling with their bows, and a couple with staffs, back by the caravan of goods. Nocking arrows, trying to draw, maybe getting spells ready-

It’s too late.

The crowd is surging.

“HOLD THEM BACK!”

Bloodied and angry, raging and fearful: it’s chaos.

They’re simultaneously charging and fleeing in a stampede. To the front of the pack, the soldiers are trying to hold them back with shields and spears.

Weapons are moving, magic is flying, cutting people down left and right- but the spears are getting stuck. Wedged and trapped in the unlucky victims. For all the people trying to escape, a dozen people behind them are still rushing forward.

They’re not going to stop.

“ARCHERS! LOOSE!” The commander of the group is weighing in on the melee now. That glowing sword of there is swinging down, cutting into the masses. “MAGES, LOOSE!”

Behind him, several men with bows are firing indiscriminately. Two men with staffs are throwing crude looking fireballs into the sea of bodies. One even comes our way, forcing Imra to pull back behind the stone corner of the building, farther into the alley.

“HOLD THEM BACK!” The commander is shouting, louder. “HOLD THE LINE!”

It doesn’t make a difference.

It’s not a matter of discipline.

The Soldiers formed their lines immediately, and from the quick glimpse I had of them up close, I know they’re not pushovers. Falling in beside one another to level their shields and resist, they’re lashing back out with wicked precision.

Peeking back out at the violence, from where we’re standing, I can tell this is already over.

This isn’t a fight you can win with skill.

They’re being heaved backward by a mad rush of bodies. Shoved ruthlessly back, not by skill or tactical advantage, but by weight. Shove until they’ve back among the cargo- tripping and falling over crates and half-unloaded supplies while the archers fire off their arrows in a blind panic.

“ORDER! ORDER!“

The commander, for all his bluster and glowing sword, is quickly disappearing from eyesight.

“HOLD! HOLD THE BLOODLY LINE YOU BASTARDS-”

He’s being bowled over by the stampede, as more people are coming out of the alleys: people with rusted swords, axes, and knives.

Maybe they’ve just been waiting for a good chance.

“Agggg-“

One of those arrows from the back of the caravan just found its way in front of us, taking someone through the eye, and sending them rolling down into the canal beside the street.

More folks with weapons have showed up from the side streets, though. Some aren’t even bothering with the mad rush, and have settled for attacking people who are just breaking free of the crowds. Stealing what they can in the confusion, before running off.

There’s one mage still standing, on top of the wagon to the far back. He’s just blasting fire spells at this point. One after the next, like he’s some sort of machine-gun.

The wagon’s tipping, and he’s still shooting.

The soldiers by the cargo are still fighting, but I don’t think they’re going to last much longer.

This is not good.

I’ve seen enough.

We gotta go.

I have no idea where to, but we really need to leave.

Any place but here seems to be the overall sentiment. People are already shoving past us down the side street, running for directions where there isn’t a crowd.

Imra’s picked up on this.

We’re moving.

At this point, I’m not even bothering to hide. If a random person in this mess thinks they seen a monster riding on someone’s shoulder, nobody is going to believe them. Things are too crazy for me to be ducked under Imra’s cloak.

Left… right, left again…

Where are we going… I don’t know this place at all, but I would've thought the pattern should have weaved us back towards a main road.

There were some people in front of us, but they’ve practically vanished. Ducking into buildings, slamming doors behind them.

Shoot.

I don’t know where we are.

Imra’s slowing down.

Collect our bearings.

We’re out of the mess, temporarily.

Somewhere behind us, the noise is echoing off the walls of buildings. Sound distorted, crashes and screams, all mixing up. I can’t even really pinpoint exactly where its coming from.

Overhead, more of those flares are rising. First one, then two… three… four…

Signals?

That would make sense.

They’re mostly in the sky, behind us. We must be moving ahead of whatever response is coming… ah. The ships I saw earlier are moving.

Slow, but steady, they’re drifting towards the illuminated orbs in the sky, banking a turn. Whatever they’re doing, I doubt we want to be around for.

Where the hell do we go, though? If we could get back to the main road, I swear that would make a huge difference. Instead of these side streets and weird alleys cropped up between these rundown buildings.

Wait.

I just heard something.

Footsteps? Dragging a bit, but someone else is here.

To our right…

BANG

Another flare has gone up, overhead this time. Bright enough to reveal the whole alley, from top down. It gives off a pinprick glare, like a discolored lightning strike- only it doesn’t fade away.

Imra-

“I see them, Great One.”

Standing, only a little ways down the alley, they’re staring right at us.

Just one person. Tall, lanky, bloodied up… more than a little bit, actually… really hurt. Gash on their head, their neck, arms…

Wounded from the riots?

Maybe.

They’ve got a knife, though.

“Graa…”

They’re saying something.

Asking for help?

I don’t understand them.

“Graaaa…”

It’s not a language barrier, I don’t think.

Maybe they’re so badly hurt they can’t speak properly?

I could probably try and [Heal] them…

“Graaaaaaaaaaa...”

You alright, buddy?

“Grrrrrraa…”

You don’t sound so good.

“Grrrrrrraaaaaaa…“

The flare just went out.

Dark again.

Hmm.

Is it just me, or are they moving towards us?

“GRAAAAAAA-“

Oh.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

 

Book II - Chapter 22

Chapter 22


Snake Report

 

To her credit, I think Imra saw the attack coming, even in the dark. The millisecond before impact she swung back with a wicked spin motion.

The “THWACK” sound.

Pretty much a guarantee that something painful just happened.

Something broke, I'm sure of it.

“Grrrrrraaaaaa!”

What?

He's carrying in on momentum: didn't even flinch.

Another kick.

This time, Imra swept his legs. Really low, she threw him down: hard.

“GRRAAAAAA!”

Is he drunk? Immune to pain?

Apparently, that just pissed him off.

Crap.

That was a heck of a tumble, but he’s still coming for us.

What the hell is wrong with this guy?

“Cursed Blood.”

Arm broken, practically rolling on the ground- and he’s trying to get up and take a swing.

Nasty looking knife he's got.

“Graaaaaaaa…”

Getting up.

His posture is a wreck. Hurt this bad, most people would stay down.

"Grrrrrraaaaaaa..."

Screw this, too creepy.

Imra, we need to leave.

“Yes, Great One.”

“Graaaaaaaa…”

Yeah.

Absolutely not.

Something’s wrong with that guy.

Instinct has been in panic mode since the riot started, but this is it’s own special batch of “nope.”

We're moving again.

Covered in blood… maybe some type of disease? Some sort of fantasy rabies, or something? I mean, Imra definitely broke his arm, probably one of his knees...

God, as if humans in this world weren’t already scary enough.

Imra's got a good sprint going. Zig-zagging along at a decent pace.

It's just a cluster of buildings here. There's no rhyme or reason to them. Even the "streets" we come out on are basically widened alleyways.

We've got company, though.

More voices are sounding.

Angry shouts, the rapid patter of steps and heavy breaths, clanking of armor.

Gotta be soldiers.

Out in force, too.

"You! Stop, in the name of the Emperor!"

Definitely soldiers.

We’ve broken out into larger side streets, but whatever riot’s happening has spread to them too. I saw a whole group of soldiers marching down the last one. One of them was clearly casting fire magic, not sure on what.

Or, who

I think they’ve been dropping down from the ships.

One of them can't be more than a hundred feet above us, floating low.

The flares being set up are getting more and more aggressive. They’re sounding out like gunshots. “CRACKING” in the sky. Raining down from all directions now. Whatever started, isn’t coming to a quick stop.

Speaking of which.

Hey, Imra. We need to keep moving: gotta keep ahead of this mess.

“Yes… Great One…”

She says that, but she’s still slowing down.

Sprint has dropped to a jog.

Now, we're walking.

What’s wrong, you were moving just fine a minute ago?

“Yes… Great… One…”

How about “No, Great One.” Considering we’re not even moving at all, now.

What’s the deal?

I seriously don’t want those soldiers to find us. Plus, that weirdo might still be running around, somewhere nearby. Just cause you dealt with him once doesn’t mean we should risk something like that again.

Guy gave me the creeps, big time.

Sss…

I guess we’re just going to sit here?

Are you really that tired?

We can't stay here, you know? Those soldiers are only a street or two off from here.

"Yes... Great... One..."

Imra’s starting to slump against a wall.

I don’t get it. What’s…

Sss.

Why’s your hand clenched to your side, Imra?

“Apologies...”

Apologies?

Oh.

 

Holy.

That’s a lot of blood.

[HEAL-

Book II - Chapter 23

Chapter 23

 

Snake Report

 

[HEAL]

Why didn’t you say something earlier? Are all Elves this stubborn?

“Apologies, Great One…”

[HEAL]

Was it that guy in the alley? The one way back there?

Why didn’t you tell me?

“I was… foolish...”

[HEAL]

Foolish.

She calls running after being stabbed, "foolish."

[HEAL]

If she’s foolish, though, what does that make me?

[HEAL]

That’s the tenth time I’ve cast this.

[HEAL]

Eleventh…

I cast the magic as soon as I realized, managed to seal up some of the edges right away. The wound is bad, but it’s not impossible

[HEAL]

So why?

[HEAL]

Why isn’t the wound disappearing?

[HEAL]

Why can’t I fix it?

“No one… can heal death… Great One…”

Shush, Imra. Sit tight, I’m going to fix you.

[HEAL]

I will.

[HEAL]

Sss…

Why won’t this close?

Using this on someone else isn’t quite the same as using it on myself, but at this point I’m just trying to stop the bleeding.

[HEAL]

Shit.

We’re falling over.

“It is… as it was… always… the same…”

Imra, stay with me. Just focus on breathing.

I’m a pro at this: you’re going to be alright.

Come on…

[HEAL]

I’m missing something.

When casting on someone else, healing magic isn't internal any longer. I have to pass mana along into a foreign entity, which can be weird- but that’s not the problem.

I can do that.

[HEAL]

Mana is passing along just fine.

What’s different?

[HEAL]

I’ve done it before, back when I helped Miss Paladin. When I was with the Goblins, too: I healed plenty of injuries.

So, why won’t this work?

[HEAL]

Is it because it shouldn’t?

[HEAL]

Should it not be used this way?

As the logic seems to follow: serpent monsters from the dungeon normally aren’t normally familiar with bipedal fleshy things that live near or atop the surface world.

That's fair.

Most are not going to have gone to university, established an unhealthy number of life-science credits, or spent late nights watching poorly remembered surgery channels on youtube. Human experience shouldn’t normally enter the equation.

Snake monsters typically just want to eat things and avoid being eaten, themselves.

[HEAL]

But it worked, then!

It worked for Miss Paladin and a few Goblins… do Elves need to be treated differently?

Elves aren’t humans, so I have to treat the spell a specific way? Goblins weren't humans, either...

[HEAL]

No.

No, if that were true, I wouldn’t have been able to fix what I already have. The tears and rips from running on a stab wound are fixed, it’s just the original part of the injury that seem to be resisting.

Resisting.

Is it a strength thing?

I’ll up the voltage.

[HEAL]

God.

My headache is getting worse by the second now, but I felt something there.

[HEAL]

Is that it?

[HEAL]

Maybe…

It won’t budge, but there’s some sort of resistance… something is in there…

I need to look deeper.

If I flood the wound with mana…

I need to really look.

[HEAL]

There’s a blood vessel… there’s another one… big ones. Arteries- they’ve been cut.

Make’s sense.

She’s losing blood, so she’s losing consciousness. Even if I close the skin, she’s still going to bleed.

Mana is fading…

Okay, one more.

[HEAL]

I can’t close the skin, either…

Why not?

Ssss… I’ll try something stronger.

[HEAL]

I can see it. Blood, veins, arteries: the knife went in straight, and out jagged. The cut swerved, like a crescent. Nasty, but fixable…

Still, these… won’t seal up.

Only the ones on the farthest edges of the damage are responding. For the rest…

Backlash? Resistance?

[HEAL]

I still can’t see it clearly.

More mana.

Spell needs to be stronger: I need to see what’s happening.

[HEAL]

Power.

I’ve got it concentrated now, saturated more with every heartbeat in Imra’s chest. Layers upon layers of the same spell, lingering.

Earth might not want to listen to me, [Voice of Gaia] might have taken a hike, but right now: this is my domain. I can fix this.

Let’s seal the skin, work our way in.

[HEAL]

Resistance, again.

What the hell is in there?

The blood stopped flowing out, and the skin started to come towards itself and- stopped. Like it hit a wall or something, my magic just stopped.

[HEAL]

Shit.

It’s like recoil.

[HEAL]

Ssss…

[HEAL]

GOD, DAMN IT.

[HEAL]

[HEAL]

[HEAL]

My head.

God damn it all, my head…

I swear, the wound is fighting back. With that last one, I tasted… metal? Swear it was metallic.

“Twisted...”

What? Imra, don’t talk. Just try and breath.

“Earth…”

Imra, I’m serious: don’t talk.”

“Twisted… Earth…”

Twisted earth.

She’s trying to tell me something.

Show me something…

An image of the knife?

The knife.

… Iron?

“You have done... more than... enough…”

No, I haven’t. Just hold on.

“Death… cannot…”

I can heal anything.

Don’t talk, Imra. Don’t move, I can fix this.

[HEAL]

Again. I just smashed against resistance. It’s like a block, between me and the wound.

One more.

[HEAL]

It’s straining. Like the wooden limbs of a bow: bending, but not breaking.

Shit.

Can I beat this?

Shit, shit shit shit shit.

[HEAL]

You bastard. Break.

[HEAL]

It’s bending… bending…

[HEAL]

“No one... can heal... death...”

Quiet, Imra. Hold on. Death doesn't enter into this.

I didn’t lead you here to die in an alley.

Death isn't going to take you.

No one takes from me.

[HEAL]

I don’t care how bad the backlash is, or how bad my head hurts: I can beat one stupid cut.

Just one stupid cut.

[HEAL]

“This is... why... we could... never... win...”

Her voice is trailing off.

Fuck it all! How do I make this work?

“Why... we… needed... a... God...”

I only have so much mana left at this point. I’ve cast too many spells, as it is.

I’m going to fix this.

Gathering my strength, reaching deep down until I feel like my scales my rattle, tearing down the mana floodgate.

We’re going all in.

[HEAL]

I can see it.

We can see it.

I can hear it.

The wound is screaming.

Howling.

Like oil on water, violent- spiteful.

Hate.

It hates me.

HATES US.

Skin, sealing- ripping back open. Sealing, tearing back again.

I can taste it, now.

Acrid.

Metal.

Agony.

ANGER.

There it screams, of pain and agony: of something horrid and wrong wishing for all that upon it to be damned away to the farthest reaches of-

[HEAL]

Silence.

It’s over. The wound’s sealed. Erased for the slightest graying scar, almost silver.

No further noise.

No metallic taste.

See? What did I say? No one steals from me.

No one…

That’s a... weird thought.

Huh.

Whatever.

Headache or not, I declare this a victory.

Sss…

Ahem… I said, “I declare this a victory.”

Hey!

Come on!

Nothing?

Where’s my [Level] up?

Seriously?

You’ve got to be joking. My entire body hurts from that, my head feels like it might pop, I’m practically out of mana…

That might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Hey, [Voice of Gaia]

"..."

I know you’re watching.

“…”

Screw you, [Voice of Gaia]

“…”

Seriously: you suck.

“…”

Sss…

I’m so tired.

Imra, how are you doing?

“I owe you a second life, Great One.”

She’s sitting back up, at least.

Looks shaky, but that’s good.

Was getting a little touch or go, not gonna lie, but immediate danger has been avoided.

All it cost was a boatload of mana and a horrible migraine...

“The Elders taught that, long ago, the first Gods of our people could perform miracles. Still, I never thought I would live to witness one.”

Yeah… well, uh… you’re welcome.

I’m flattered.

Tired, too.

Pretty sure people are coming.

I can hear boots, armor.

Soldiers?

Can we move like this?

Maybe.

We need to move, I think…

We need…

Ssss…

My head hurts… so… bad…

SLEEP.

What?

SLEEP.

Oh... alright.

Good idea.

Book II - Chapter 24

Chapter 24

 

[Imra]

 

The Great One slept.

Wrapped around her neck, were fevered dreams. Pitched and fragmented memories: flickers of impossible secrets. Dreams and echoes: screens of light, towers of glass, flames that reached past the sky. Perhaps, these came from the world of Gods. Perhaps not.

It mattered little, for Imra did not try to understand. Instead, she chose to remain still and silent.

As the chosen guardian to a bringer of miracles, it was her duty to defend in times like these. She would not let harm fall to the Great One in this moment of weakness. Hidden among the shadows, they might well be, but all around them, enemies lurked.

In the streets behind the canal Imra now crouched, humans marched in great numbers. Her ears twitched at the clamor of armor. Flesh encased behind twisted earth, there were warriors afoot. Men armed with spears and swords of the same. Cloaked ones, as well, shouting out their stolen gifts, bringing to life pitiful excuses for fire- but death all the same.

Overhead, massive entities lurked, bringing about their own clouds of smoke and magic. Heavy impacts and false sunlight, blasting at a constant drum. Thunder and lightning, of a different kind.

Danger.

Violence.

On a divine epiphany, the Great One had commanded their entrance to this city. Despite its fill of cursed blood and stolen gifts, he had brought them here for a reason. Regardless of the threat, they had come on a most sacred of missions. Though it was not her place to question why, but if Imra understood correctly, the Great One was in search of something. Even now, in his dreams.

Seeking out a sign.

“Check the alley! Orders from high: we’re sweeping every alley, every canal!”

The voices grew closer, and Imra began to move once more. Passing beneath the cover of a canal’s tunnel, Imra’s eyes adjusted to the darkness ahead. Step by step, she felt her way along the cool stone, mindful of every crack and crevice beneath her skin. Much as she wished to run, as she did before, her body could only move slowly.

Still, this was a small price to pay.

The pain in her side had faded, and the wound sealed. Remaining so, no matter how many times she found herself checking the grove of silver scar tissue. Perfectly smooth, it could almost catch the dim light where she now stood. Just the faintest trace of metal, where death had marked her.

Marked her, only to fail.

One life-debt, alone, was a uniquely heavy responsibility- but now? How did someone go about paying two: much less to a being of divinity?

That was something Imra pondered. Even in the legends she knew of, there were no examples.

Wulaca of the Misted Glade, Qolatu of the Golden Pine... those were the closest.

One had slain an entire army on the fields of sorrow, spilling their own blood for a ritual to bring vengeance. The other had traveled across the oceans, braved the deserts and the depths themselves to seek out the People of Stone and forge an alliance. Tales and legends which traced back to an era when the world had only just begun to howl its hatred. When her people still fought, and warriors would still strike back at the coming tides of cursed blood. Majestic figures wearing gold, bonded to the World’s chosen Gods.

Imra could not see herself accomplishing such feats.

She would lead no armies. Even before their foolish ritual, people had dwindled to the last. Their tribes were fragmented and faded. Their riches had been pilfered, and their blood had already been spilled. Oceans of it, more than any ritual could ever hope to control. Some even abandoned the forests of their ancestors, foolishly choosing to turn toward the depths and be corrupted.

In this current day, it seemed Imra's only offering could be loyalty.

Well and good, but would that be enough? Even if she were to be loyal an entire life time, that still left another life to be owed…

Imra frowned.

There will be a sign...

Interrupting her thoughts, Imra heard the Great One’s voice.

Seek a sign…

Rising like a leviathan from the oceans of the far north, before retreating beneath the crashing waves of thought. Passing instruction, or perhaps just idle thought. Still, the impression this left was hardly a match for the faint hiss, as blue scales shifted beneath the hood of her cloak.

Imra stopped.

All at once, the visions of his dreamscape had changed. No longer of cities cutting the sky, but of heat. Blood, death, and mocking laughter it could not escape.

Forcing her legs into motion took great effort, but it was not impossible. Imra found her resolve, continuing along the tunnel. If anything, it was not the loyalty she felt, but the guilt which drove her now.

This was her fault.

She’d been too confident. Too arrogant, in fact: so certain that her first strike would bring the fight to an end early. That the Great One had been reduced to such a condition, that he now fought nightmares for which there could be no refuge: Imra knew the blame lay with her.

When it came to cursed blood, a warrior must always listen for the beating of their chests. Hidden beneath weak bone, laughable as the opponent might seem: if there is nothing to hear, a warrior is always to flee.

With all the noise, all the confusion, she forgotten her tribe’s teachings. Beyond a doubt, this had been a grave error. Or, it should have.

“You! Get down there, check the tunnel!”

“Sir!”

Human language.

Unfamiliar to Imra’s ears, in many respects. Vowels and harsh sounding cuts. Words that ended too quickly or seemed to mean far too many things. Yet, the Great One understood. As a result, Imra did as well.

The sound of boots impacting stone, followed by steps which echoed along the tunnel walls. Far off as they were, someone was approaching.

Imra felt for her makeshift knife.

In her current state, she had her doubts that such a crude weapon would be enough. It would be far better to avoid conflict. Keeping to the edge of the tunnel walls, Imra felt along in the darkness, searching. There were cracks, here and there. Old things, broken from long ago. Some were small, barely a hair wide, but some…

She found purchase.

There was a gap, split along the foundation.

Empty space.

Carefully, Imra slipped her foot inside. Crouching down: her leg, her torso, she slipped by until her entire body was within the recess of stone. The break in this wall went on for quite a ways, it seemed. Though Imra could not see into the pitch black behind her farther than a few paces, the opening seemed to widen towards the ground.

Feeling along the surface, Imra confirmed that the texture quickly changed from a natural break, to something that was scratched and chipped away. Not quite of natural making, then. It had been dug out with purpose.

Distantly, she could hear the skittering of noises down the narrowing passageway.

“Anyone down here?”

Imra focused back on the tunnel she’d left.

The light of torches: Human voices, again. They were loud- too loud, for they boomed through the enclosed space. Even in the side passage Imra had found, the noise made her ears ring.

More noise, behind her.

Perhaps in response, the skittering sounds seemed to draw closer. No longer a single source, but several.

Danger…

Around her neck, the Great One stirred.

Closer still, the noises became more distinct, as Imra managed to turn. Scratches of claws on stone. The clicking of teeth, with glowing red eyes. First one, then a handful, then dozens: all staring at the invader on their doorstep.

Rats.

Threats…

Imra knew of the creatures, remotely. She had seen them in the forest she once called home. Cowardly creatures when lived in hiding among the warrens and ruins. Existing on the threshold of what was and was not within the depths.

Yet, she had never seen them so huge.

In the widened space, only a handful dared approach her, but those that did were excessively large. Five- six times the size of the rodents she remembered. Each with teeth that gleamed milky white in the darkness of the tunnel.

They seemed hungry. Imra felt for her weapon, once more.

You foolish creatures… you do not flee?

In her mind, the voice was no longer patient.

Slipping out form the cover of Imra’s hood, the Great One emerged to face the inky blackness behind her. Smoke began to stream from tiny jaws. Heavy and thick, it billowed in a deep glowing green: halting the more aggressive of the rat numbers in their tracks. Chattering, they froze, staring at the serpent.

The smoke increased, glowing like a trapped cloud of green lightning. Heat rising in the cramped space, until Imra believed her skin might blister.

No one steals from me…

At the sight, Imra’s aggressors backed away. Then, turned tail, and swiftly disappeared into the winding burrows they’d originally emerged. Gone, into the shadows, perhaps down to the depths themselves. Imra was not sure.

Outside, in the canal tunnel itself, Imra heard shouts grow more distant.

“Nothing here! Anything on your side?”

“No ghouls! Looks like this one’s clear!”

Imra waited.

Only a moment later, and the sound of footsteps had faded. Peering out from the edge, Imra watched the torchlights disappear.

Once more, the passage was clear.

“Great One?” She whispered. “Have you awoken?”

No further instructions issued from the blue coil around her neck. Only the visions, once again. Shifting like vapor, impossible to hold, distorted images and unfamiliar landscapes passed along the edges of her mind: The Great One had returned to his slumber.

What she already knew, would have to suffice.

Imra pulled herself free of the crevice in the tunnel wall, moving once more. Step by step, she found her pace, working back to a soft jog as she left the tunnel. Hood pulled down over her head, a dusty grey, Imra knew she would be hidden in the shadows of the canal, so long as she was cautious.

“Seek a sign.” Imra repeated the command. “Seek a sign…”

In her mind, the images formed and swayed.

Then, they settled.

“I understand, Great One.” Imra confirmed. "I will find it."

This time, she would not fail him.

Book II - Chapter 25

Chapter 25

 

[Farstrider Guild]

 

BOOM

With a rumble, the Guild hall shook beneath the pressure of a distant explosion, windows rattling and dust falling from the ceiling with a quiet resistance.

BOOM

From where she sat, Eveth watched the dust as it fell. Fragments and pieces twirling and spinning off into oblivion like a semi-invisible snow.

How long had those tiny portions of dirt and grit waited there, up among the rafters? Had they been here as long as she had, only now choosing to free themselves? Or were they falling against their will: wishing only to remain in the safe places they'd once resided.

Though the answer was uncertain, if she listened closely Eveth was almost certain she could hear them scream.

BOOM

She shook her head and closed her eyes as the room's spin settled, vision no long filled with dancing fragments or imagined assumptions. Of all people, she was the last one to be interpreting signs of fate among the mundane.

Especially on this night.

BOOM

The windows shook again, pressure difference stirring in the air. Rattling ornaments and shutters alike. She watched as a few of the older pieces rattling, violently shaking with thick glass of printed runesmoke. Low drumming beats that almost resembled music, eventually finding themselves muted against their cages of wood and stone-strand composite.

BOOM

The rest were far less elegant. Those cheap shutters of iron bands and discolored frames violently smacked against their hinges, throwing a riot of their very own to go along with whatever madness was occurring outside.

BOOM

On and on it went: an unholy racket and symphony, all together enough to drive a person crazy by noise alone.

Truthfully, Eveth felt she wasn't all that far from seeking solace within the welcoming arms of insanity. Seated far beneath the rafters which traced along the ceiling, or the neighboring shutters alongside them, at the center of the Guild's hall Eveth waiting on a stool. Her elbows leaned upon a long-emptied bar, and in her hands, she nursed a large glass of lukewarm ale. Idly content to spin and swirl its contents, off and on into a quiet spiral between deeps sips.

BOOM

“Will they shut it, already?” Eveth muttered. “For Light’s sake.”

BOOM

Another blast answered her question, almost immediately. This time, powerful enough to shake the glass- spilling some of its contents, much to Eveth’s displeasure.

“Shit.” She grumbled, pulling free the now-soaked parchment. The ink was already starting to blur together.

Calling All of The Magic Arts: The Chance to Serve!

Licensed or Unlicensed: By Emperor’s Decree and Sponsor!

For All Those Who Provide Their Service for The Empire-

Bleeding together, the next lines were ruined. She’d read it already, of course. At least a dozen times over, perhaps more.

It wasn’t like she was going to accept it, anyways.

BOOM

Eveth grimaced. Not even the brew was helping, now. This particular batch was from the second to last keg she'd tapped, dragging it out of the cellars by her own hands with only a small amount of magical assistance.

Though it had never been intended for domestic use, her personal take on the form of [Create Golem] had been more than adequate. Over engineered, perhaps, considering the task she’d set it to. Several drastic modifications from the tolerance of Empire texts weren’t exactly necessary for moving kegs of ale, but that was neither here nor there. It had moved the keg, all the same.

Just because it could have also done in a well-prepared enemy with brutal efficiency, as well, was just an added bonus.

BOOM

“Will you stop, already.” Eveth grumbled, as she cleared whatever residue was left in the glass. "Dhut up."

Window shutters, dust… and now her head. With so much spellcasting in the air, it was bound to raise the ambient concentrations, eventually. The inevitable pain behind her temples was inevitable, in these conditions. Drink in hand, or not.

BOOM

"Light help me, my aching skull." Eveth growled. "When will it end?"

BOOM

The pounding bravado of artificial thunder smashed down from its far-off sources, waves of sound and air shaking the very timbers above her head.

BOOM

It continued.

BOOM

"Gods and blood, damn them. Don't tempt me to go back for the second keg, you Royal-bastards..."

[Create Golem] was already on the brim of her mind's eye by the time those far-off impacts subsided. Her eyes darted to the doorways around her. The hall to her right, a pantry and maze of rooms to her left behind the bar. Beyond that, a large elevated floor in the open hall, above and to far back. Railing curving around in a horseshoe-like shape that widened out to either side.

She'd almost done it, then. Knowing full well someone else might waltz right in and catch her smuggling the last of the Guild’s alcohol out of the basement. Trouble just waiting to happen, considering she wasn’t the only one here tonight. Still, there were other uses for magic. Considering the ample supply of it floating airborne, the room was over saturated, and she'd been sitting here, unable to escape it for taking it in for hours now.

Burning some of residual mana was perhaps the simplest solution her problems. Cautiously, Eveth glanced about the room. Bad as the pressure building up behind her temples, seemed to be, it never hurt to check.

BOOM

Every detonation lighting up the sky beyond the Guild walls was further motivation to throw spells about, though. Light help her: if it got any worse, Eveth might actually consider taking one of those damned contracts to wander the sewers and trim-back the ever-swarming number of crypt rats. Flesh-rot wounds and stray ghouls be damned. She'd throw the coin down a dried out well, and it would still be worthwhile- if only to get rid of this migraine.

Contract like that, one a night like this? There was so much mana in the air, Eveth was certain she could blast spells until the sun came up, and still have reserves left over. Or she would, if the Soldiers already outside weren't all but guaranteed to have instructions to kill anyone stupid enough to be wandering the streets on-sight.

While rats and the occasional half-decomposed ghoul were Eveth's definitions of acceptable risks, Imperial soldiers were not.

With a long sigh, she let her shoulders slump back over the bar. Decisions like that were meant to be made sober, anyways. There would be no adventuring tonight, even if the Guild could use the coin. Eveth wasn't about to die over a headache.

Beside her, worn down stools of antique wood and chipped splinters waited quietly, each more in need of a dust-rag's attention than the last. A theme at seemed to remain consistent, no matter where Eveth let her gaze wander.

BOOM

Another blast, noise building up the steady pressure within her skull. The sounds were bad enough, but she knew that it was the mana getting to her now. The drink was failing to hold off the worst of the oncoming symptoms.

BOOM

Ambient and airborne: plain and simple density. The City of the Emperor was famous for higher gradients than normal. Famed for it even, finding few rivals in human controlled territory unless one counted the general radius about the Northern Continent's dungeon entrances or what had once been the Forest territory, should someone be stupid enough to try and go there.

She'd never heard a terribly convincing pitch to go and pay the region a visit, personally. Beasts, dangerous enough to lock the Empire's Westernmost Garrisons into a complete standstill, and just recently: disaster of an entirely different variety- or so some said. Reports from across the ocean were few and far between, these days. Rumor and fact were mixed together and jumbled up, until she couldn't be sure of much.

"Problems over there, can stay over there." Eveth muttered. "We've got enough of them here, as it is..."

She stopped, her words trailing as a feeling of unease settled over her, prickling along her scalp as if something were watching. Her hand reacted as she summoned a small orb.

[Light]

Wordlessly summoned, the spell flashed into a tiny brilliant sphere of warm yellow and white,

Simple, weak, but perfectly executed. No verses recited, no choice phrase or shortcuts: just willed into existence. Eveth felt the pressure within her skull lessened, however slightly; dimness of the hall seeming to retreat off into the distance beyond the bar.

Looking up to the wall behind the old wood and stools, Eveth's eyes narrowed to see the Guild's crest, same as always. The large portrait of metal and faded coloration, it seemed to stare at her from its perch, eight eyes glaring with expressions that fell beyond any ordinary human comprehension. Even after years, she still wondered about the blasted thing.

"Why, of all the creatures in the world?" Eveth asked, as she returned its stare.

Never blinking, never turning away, the paint and steel seemed to see right on through her, down the way towards the barred doors at the hall's entrance. The longer she watched it, the worse it seemed.

"Of all the beasts they could have picked, you would have thought they'd go with something a bit more... traditional." Eveth sighed, letting her spell flash out with a sigh. The thin drain on her reserves ceased, quickly filling back to that unbearable pressure behind her eyes. "What are you looking at, that you'd need so many eyes, anyways?"

The Guild's crest didn't answer. Not that she truly expected it to, even after several glasses of ale.

"You're an ugly son of a bitch, you know that?" She added.

Again, the Guild crest took the highroad, of silence.

BOOM

BOOM

BOOM

Her head was fit to burst, or so it seemed.

It was a taste on the air now, mana so dense she might as well have just found a hole down to the upper dungeons. Something had to be done, and soon.

[Light]

Another orb floated into the air, replacing the first.

Eveth glanced about, casually searching the room and confirming her solitude.

[Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light]

Five more orbs burst into the air around her, each silent as the first, wordlessly cast with the barest gesture from Eveth's hands. The pressure beneath her temples lessened again, prompting a long breath of relief.

"Thinking they can ruin my night off." Eveth let a grin reaching her face, pointing towards the Guild’s crest. "Watch this, you four-headed bastard."

The magic began to spin.

There were reasons she shouldn't have several glowing orbs of refined air and soul magic floating about her person. Quite a few of them, actually- many more than most trained mages might have to worry about. None of those mattered to Eveth in the slightest though. Not while she was alone behind closed doors.

The orbs began to dance.

It had been a long time since she played this sort of game, but the ale was in her blood now, and no one was around to judge her for it. Besides that, in theory, the Guild's Mage License held effect while she was in the building, contract or not.

Probably.

It was a noted legal grey area.

[Light] [Light] [Light]

Nine of them now, each floating about among the ceiling and rafters like paper lanterns on the wind. Eveth pressed and spun them about with her mind's eye, letting the colors swirl and adjust. Then came the shaping, to spears, to swords, to shields: the basic sequence of any normal mage in training, multiplied by several levels of difficulty. Simple air magic, with the shaping of soul laid atop it- within it. To pass a second year's examinations, an aspiring mage would need to be able to do this for a single orb.

 [Light]

Eveth had ten going now, and she still hadn't reached her limit- not just yet. Twisting them together, she made them run and form more than just static shapes.

A glowing wolf ran along the wall, bursting into several more, leaping and rolling with no care for the constraints of gravity. Ten wolves running along among the dust that fell from the rafters, as if a pack through snow.

[Light] [Light]

Two more and her limit was almost up, but with so much mana she might do just one more. She might just crack through past the limits.

Perhaps on a night like this, and only this.

[Ligh-

BOOM

The sudden sound made her jump, spells fluttering as her concentration lapsing as the lights and colors wavered and failed. The wolf of glowing blues and silver scattered to a rainbow of specks, then mist and then...

Whatever had been in that moment, seized and held with a glint of something more, was left behind.

Plain old dust quietly fell from its distant perch upon the rafters. Dim and grey as it always had been, while the impacts continued. The noise pushing away all traces of what had transpired

BOOM

BOOM

BOOM

From outside, further explosions shook the air, reverberating through the antique wood and new-age composite alike. Apparently, the riots in those slums had spilled out further than normal.

BOOM

A large round of riots.

BOOM

Very large, it seemed.

In all of the years she'd been a resident of this city, Eveth couldn't remember another evening quite on par with this one. It gave her a bad feeling.

BOOM

Perhaps those explosions off in the distance were a mixed blessing.

BOOM

Still, Royal orders or not, Eveth wished that those damned Impiral Mages would let up with it soon. Each blast that echoed through the walls was enough to make her head spin, and that was without the alcohol's help. How many glasses had she partaken in, now? Four... no, five?

Enough for her to notice it, at the very least.

BOOM

Not nearly enough for her to escape that ungodly racket.

BOOM

The pressure had returned, as if it never left.

"Make it bloody stop." Eveth growled, fists forming on the growing urge to smack the bar. It wouldn't help her situation one bit, but it was still tempting. "Damn it all, you're just wasting the spells! So, the sky needs to be lit up! You could do twice as much with half, if you were smart about it." Her let her palms flatten out, cooling on the once polished wood beneath them.

How quickly it came back to haunt her. Her head ached.

BOOM

"Damn it all, damn it all, damn it all..." Eveth muttered as she reached for her glass again. "They're just wasting mana stones at this point. Wasting stones, while torturing me."

When she had been in the Academy, one of her instructors had done a lecture on the very spell they were likely casting off in the sky, no doubt. The proper [Night-Sun] spell was done by a calibrated mana crystal and firing rod. Something which had the force to match whatever caliber and density stone was used. Of course, she'd found a better way to perform the spell during her second year, but-

BOOM

She gritted her teeth. None of that mattered now. Who in their right mind would listen to an unlicensed mage speak of magic theory?

Still, Eveth could only imagine what crude spell was used to launch that casting airborne, somewhere high overhead. She could picture the abomination clearly. Some horribly inefficient rune-set, laid into some god-forsaken press to be mass produced on the premise of functionality and assembly-line methods alone. Just staring at the froth on her glass she could think of ten different ways they might achieve the effects above, most of which were no doubt superior to whatever method was actually in use at the current moment.

BOOM

The arrogance of it all.

Not only did her skull ache, but each crashing blast in the sky above the city was followed by an ungodly sum of wasted mana. Even from a distance, locked away behind walls of stone, the taste of the air was making her teeth itch.

How many stones had they wasted tonight? Just because they had control of the Dungeon entrances- what kind of money had been spent just in the last few hours? How many breakthroughs would she have made with that kind of capital funding her?

BOOM

Eveth wasn't sure that she even wanted to know. It was a daunting figure, no doubt.

BOOM

One dungeon harvested gemstone overhead was probably worth a decent fraction of every asset the Guild still had its hands on, and at the rate those shots were going out...

BOOM

Taxes might be going up.

As if that would solve anything.

BOOM

The gift of her bloodline, rare for someone of common birth: one of the few downsides to being an [Adept] Mage, to be in the presence of saturated mana and not casting something was a struggle.

BOOM

"I've had enough! When in the First King's name will it end?" Past the point of preserving her dignity, Eveth shouted loudly, rubbing once more at her temples as the urge to cast something- anything, grew. "Stop this misery already-"

BOOM

[Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light] [Light]-

[LIGHT]

"Ha!" A hoot of laughter broke out from somewhere above, followed by cheerful encouragement. "Go Eveth! Go! Make another one!"

The voice stopped her short, her hand drawing to a fist that snuffed out each one of the casts with an immediate cut as she turned towards the source of the laughter. Her eyes keened in on the chuckling figure, and even in the sudden dimness of the Guild hall, she could make out the pale face and gleaming white teeth now leaning over the rafters above.

 "You know, you're really quite talented. I don't think I've ever seen a mage cast so many of those in one go, and I some rather impressive tutors when I was younger."

Younger. Eveth snorted at the notion of it.

"How long have you been hiding up there Dren?" She replied, annoyance clear as she turned back towards the bar. "I thought you'd have been in your bunk hours ago."

"Well..." The youth paused, raising a hand to his plump chin in mockery of thoughtful composure. "I've been here long enough." The boy swung forward, then backward with a foolhardy motion beside the balcony as he grinned wide again. "Say, how exactly did you make that wolf look so real-"

"What wolf?" Eveth gestured to the empty hall. "I don't see anything."

"Oh, come on now! Don't be like that Eveth!" Dren's cheeky smile faded somewhat, disappointment clear. "You were doing some real magic a minute ago. It was quite impressive."

"I never cast a thing, Dren." She replied bluntly. "You're mistaken."

"Sure, I won't tell a soul- but did I hear you, earlier? You actually want this to stop?" The youth disappeared momentarily from her view. "I'm right about that much, at least."

"Stop?" Eveth scowled. "Of course I bloody do, there's so much mana on the air right now I'm choking in it." Spinning her stool, she pointed towards the ceiling. "They keep this up, and I'm going to start blasting it back at them."

"Well that would be a sight. I certainly look forward to it. Especially, if it turns out to be anything like those wolves." Distantly, now Eveth could hear wood creaking from the far back of the second floor Dren replied with excitement. "But, I'm sorry to say Eveth, this night is only just getting started!" The familiar clatter of shutters opening "clacked" as a swell of night air rushed though, filling the hall with a faint scent of smoke. "Ha! I knew it, they've called in the fleet reserves!"

Unbridled enthusiasm: not usually something Eveth could appreciate, even on the best of days- and certainly not now.

Somehow it seemed that for some, unlike herself, the imperial's [Night-sun] casts outside were having a profoundly opposite effect.

"Gods above, help me." Eveth half muttered a response as she turned to slump back over the bar. "Dren, if you've got even half a brain in that head of yours, I'd get down from there."

"Down? Down and miss the show? Half the Fifth district is up in smoke right now!" Rushing back to the railing to stare back at her with a wide grin, the boy looked as far from saintly as Eveth could possibly imagine.

An odd appearance, especially for the only remaining user of faith magic of the Farstrider Guild.

"Shouldn't you be outside tending to the wounded then, your holiness?" She growled, leaning back. "Take your training and go out to care for the wrenched masses, healing the injured and feeding poor?"

"Me?" The boy laughed aloud as he turned another look towards the opened windows behind him. "Oh, heavens no, Eveth. Empire reserves have been pulled in by now, and honestly from the looks of things this might go until morning." Leaping back away, the youth pulled open another set of shutters, peering out through an angle with wide eyes. "I think those soldiers would probably put me on a spike, or shoot me full of arrows just like the rest of them. If they didn't burn me, first-"

The boy's reply came as he reeled back, turning towards the window just as another flash of light burst in, gust of wind smacking the shutters both wide open with a loud "Slam."

BOOM

"Woah!" Dren shouted, hopping back to the window with renewed passion. "Did you see that Eveth! That was a big one! Come on up here, you really should see these!"

"Dren, you're a damn fool." Eveth replied, turning back to the bar. "I'd close the shutters and get away from the windows before someone who actually cares sees you."

"Close them and miss this? Light, I think that was right outside the building!"

"You're asking for it Dren. If you don't get down from there and lock those back, you're going to be in a world of trouble."

"Trouble? From you?" The cheeky response followed with another cheerful grin from the balcony. "Me, trouble?"

"Not from me. I'm just telling you how it is."

"Well I'm telling you Eveth, by Gods and thunder, you should come up here and watch this yourself. I mean, have you honestly even looked outside? I count three- no four Royal ships airborne! Four of them visible in full battery: and they're still casting! That's part of the most powerful fleet in the world out there!" Dren turned back towards the window down from the main hall's balcony, shoulders leaning in beside the wooden frame of the second-floor's open shutters.

As if on cue, a loud "Crack" sounded, simultaneous with a blinding flash of light that sent the youth stumbling from his perch with a hoot.

BOOM

"Holy hells! It's like green daylight-"

Hiiiisss- BOOM

The next sound wave knocked him to the floor, rolling back with a shout. "That was close! Really close!" Scrambling, the youth forced himself back to his feet. "There's someone outside Eveth!"

"DREN!"

Eveth flinched from the unexpected shout, almost knocking her glass to the table as a door behind the bar flew open with a horrible crash.

"What in the name of dead gods is that window doing open!" The deep voice shouted, emerging from the shadowed threshold to reveal an angry face- very angry.

The kind of rage that came with a purple sort of hue.

"DREN! You damned fool!" A large-framed man in leather armor barreled his way through from the stockrooms so fast he almost seemed to generate his own wake in the air, moving towards the stairs as he shook a thick fist of deeply tanned skin. "I thought I told you to close those blasted shutters! In fact, I know I did!"

“Alem! Hold on-“ Dren was far too slow.

“I will not!” The large warrior was already up and past the stairs with speed akin to some sort of earned skill, unnaturally loud voice booming just as loud as the magic outside. "Close these damn shutters!"

"But, wait Alem! Hold on, the skyships are just starting to summon another round of castings, and I think there's a-"

"I said CLOSE THEM!" Dren's resistance was swept side by massive arms.

SLAM

The force of the shutters closing shook the Guild hall almost as much as the [Night-sun] casts had, and Eveth couldn't help but wince as she saw the man turn on the unfortunate Paladin, simmering rage painted clearly on his expression.

"But there's someone out there Alem!" Dren protested. "I think they're fighting!"

"What's outside, stays outside." The warrior growled, not slowing in the slightest to close another set the youth had opened.

SLAM

"But Alem, I-"

"No, Dren! I thought you were finally past taking these kind of risks!"

"But there's no harm in it Alem, really! I was just taking a look-"

"Just taking a look were you? What if someone decided to take a shot at you? Eh?" A shaking fist unfurled to point at the closed shutters, spittle all but flying now as the warrior's shout grew louder. "You remember what they did to old Drothers, don't you? You been with us long enough to remember, haven't you? Streets aren’t safe, especially not now!"

"I... I do." The reply came with a sudden lack of intensity, voice faltering. "I remember."

"Do you?"

"I do." The boy seemed to shrink beneath the onslaught of words. "I really do Alem."

The man sighed, scarred hands settling down upon the boy's shoulders as he spared a glance down below at Eveth, displeasure clear.

"You're still young Dren, and in youth we all make stupid choices. I remember it." He spared another glance at Eveth.

Quite a dismissive look, if she had to put a trait on it.

"But now's not the time to be taking risks. Especially not on a night like this." Eveth watched the larger man pull the youth up, hand settling on Dren's shoulder to push the youth towards the stairs with a solemn grimace. "Nights like this get people killed." He muttered. "Just because you can heal a wound, Dren, that doesn't make you invincible. Faith's full of dead men."

It was true, and Eveth knew the youth certainly needed to hear it, for all the little good it would probably do. Still, sitting on the outside of this mess, she found herself looking away. Her eyes quickly fell, seeking towards her glass as further stern words continued.

It wasn't quite right, but Eveth couldn't shake the impression that that she was on the bordered edge of eavesdropping now. An innocent bystander who just happened watching something unfortunate and embarrassing.

"This Guild's a fucking disaster waiting to happen." She whispered, quietly reaching back towards the glass of ale. "Complete, fucking, disaster." She frowned, disappointed, as she found it empty. Of course, she'd known it would be. If there was ever something to be called a tragedy…

Perhaps she really might find reason to draw up another Golem-

KNOCK KNOCK

Eveth froze again.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

Now there was a noise which didn't fit the night's theme.

Slowly, her head turned- seeking out Dren and Alem as they reached the bottom steps before her head half-turned towards the entrance of the hall. Thick iron bands holding solid cut timber. Dren and Alem looked as well, Dren uncertain, and Alem with a curious expression.

"Expecting someone, Eveth?" Alem asked quietly. "Late night company, perhaps?"

"No, unless you think it's one of yours." Eveth didn't entertain the warrior's humor for even a second as she reached over the bar for the staff propped beside the empty barrel. "Besides, I don't court madmen."

"Aye..." The Dark-skinned man rumbled his reply, pushing the younger man behind the bar with a light shove as he too retrieved a large hammer from its resting mount beside the stairs. "I suppose you wouldn't."

KNOCK KNOCK

"Someone's out there, I told you." Dren muttered from behind the bar, stating the obvious as he stared at the Guild doors with wide eyes. "What do you think they want?"

"To come inside I imagine." Eveth muttered, her staff lifting to point at the door. "What else?"

"There's the question, isn't it?" Alem's voice rumbled, war-hammer settling in quietly on his broad shoulder as he took a slow step forward. "Think it might be Ral and Tuth?" He asked gravely. "Or Varar?"

"No, they're still out on a contract. Two days until they're back." Eveth replied. "Sent a bird back three days ago, they were still with the convoy, and Varar's been gone for even longer."

KNOCK KNOCK

The doors kicked the slightest layer of dust from their wide beams.

"What should we do?" Dren asked nervously. "Should we open it? They might need help."

KNOCK KNOCK

"Are you daft?" Eveth spit back. "No, we're not opening it."

"I'm not daft Eveth, what if they need help?" Dren hissed. "What if they're from a Guild? Doesn't Farstrider have sister Guilds on the coast? What if it's one of them?"

"Destitute lots that are even worse off than we are? Sure." Eveth hissed, hands flexing along the staff, fingers feeling the familiar polished grooves her hands hand run into the wood. "They would have sent a messenger."

KNOCK KNOCK

"Dren... get back." Alem's hands wrapped around his own weapon, posture shifting as his eyes set themselves upon the door. The war-hammer lifted until it was in position for a heavy downward stroke. "Now."

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK-

The knocking stopped, resolving to an eerier silence.

"Have they left?" Dren asked quietly, feet still glued to the floor. "Maybe they've gone?"

"I highly doubt that." Eveth muttered, spells floating to the front of her mind's eye. "You think it's a Ghoul, Alem?"

"Maybe."

"Shit." She replied.

Trained, honed, sharpened- like a warrior's skill, her spells were ready, now. Air and soul seemed promising, but the impacts on the door had her doubting those would holding a threat capable of shaking such a thick door like these. Someone with strength would push right through them. She could go with Earth, but there wasn't much material to work with unless she fetched another [Golem] from the basement's foundation.

"I told you to get back, Dren." The warrior moved further in front of them, hammer still readied. "Behind us."

"But what if..." The young healer's question faded to nothing as they all stared, and the doors stared back.

Silence.

Behind Eveth, she felt the eight eyes of the crest drilling into her back, as if the metal and paint were actually bearing witness to the strange scene unfolding. She'd never hated the guild's outdated mascot more than now.

The silence lapsed, stretching onward until Eveth felt like dancing on her toes. The other two seemed equally disturbed.

"Are they-"

KNOCK KNOCK - KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK – KNOCK KNOCK

The doors shook, iron bound wood trembling under the heavy hits, effort from the opposing side redoubled. Just watching those old hinges creak, Eveth felt unease.

The doors had to be half as old as the Guild, made of real wood. If her memory served, age was rarely kind to such material.

"Dren, go get the Guild Master before-"

CRACK

The wooden piece barring the threshold splintered, then broke entirely as the doors to fly inwards with a final and massive impact.

"Son of a Dwarf." Alem uttered, as the tempest outside ushered in with winds and lights flashing. “What do you want!” He shouted. "State your business!"

Standing on their doorstep, someone waited.

Alight in the sky, the tempest was flashing with thunderous magics and horrible fires. The few clouds among them scattered to the detonations high overhead, brilliant strikes of artificial lighting: but before it all, a lone figure stood, cloak rippling in the wind.

“What do you want?” Alem shouted again, stepping forward.

Silently, fearlessly, the newcomer stepped into the hall, eyes dead set and forward without the slightest care for the staff and hammer pointed in their direction. In the glowing street behind them, Eveth could see green flames burning. Bodies… ghouls?

Truth be told, she was more worried about whatever magic had been cast. Licks of green flame still sparked and shuddered in the wind, feeding on it until even the bones were wasting to ashes in the wind.

Before she'd realized it, the trespasser had closed the gap between them.

"STOP" Eveth ordered in a panic as she summoned her full array to visible space: twelve spells of light, soul and air flashing to lances above her head: [Barrage] attacks readied to solidify at any moment. Her own terror had undoubtedly reached her face by now, gaze fixing itself about the rag wearing person before them. Searching out upon the stains of blood and gore, of wounds and evidence of combat. More than anything else though, Eveth felt her eyes fixated upon the figure's shoulder, locking onto the glowing blue form of a serpent that flicked its tongue in Eveth's direction while callously letting out a long hiss.

“Ssssss…”

The sound drowned out the storm, overreaching even the heavy impacts of the city outside as slowly, the doors swung shut, weighted hinges pulling the separate halves back to a whole with a resounding:

SLAM

There they stood: Alem with Warhammer readied, Eveth with her magic wavering- not unlike an archer held back to loose. Before them the lone stranger stared back, expression alien and indifferent to the danger before them.

Then, in the most horribly broken excuse of dialect Eveth had ever heard, the figure spoke aloud.

"We're here to join."

Book II - Chapter 26

Chapter 26

 

[Farstrider Guild]

 

Alem Stonewalker peered over worn and polished spectacles as he went about handling the necessary paperwork. Callused fingers carefully flicked along the pages, occasionally stopping to squint more closely through the lenses. It seemed they were a bit less effective, as of late.

He'd won the pair of glasses years ago, from a Mage along the Eastern Front. Either a game of dice, or cards... There had been a significant amount of drinking involved, and the exact details were rather hazy. However it was they'd come to him, though, they did a greater service every season since. His eyes were finally faltering with the finer-print, it seemed.

How out of practice he was in this particular set of paperwork, didn’t seem to help matters much.

“So, miss…” Glancing up from the paperwork, Alem flipped to the next page of the contract, confirming.

“Imra.”

“Imra… how do you spell that?”

“It matters little.”

“Ah, I see.” Alem nodded, maintaining a calm composure. “I’ll just keep it consistent, then.”

By all accounts, the ordeal that had taken place not even a hour prior should have lead to quite a bit more trouble. Bloodshed, at the least- possibly death, and yet, it seemed to avoid adhering to expectations. Unusual, even compared all the years Alem could remember soldiering.

Here he was, hammer set aside so that he might hunch overtop a table like some sort of burly scribe, filling out the ledgers for a complete and total stranger. The very same who just so happened to have caused the establishment he'd resided for almost a decade a rather impressive degree of property damage. Barehanded… barefooted?

They weren't even wearing shoes.

Carefully, Alem continued his steady skim across the words, passing along each piece of parchment illuminated under the soft glow of a lantern's wick beside him as his rough hands parsed out the pages.

When was the last time they’d recruited a new member? Dren… had to be when Dren arrived, almost a year ago? No… two, at least two.

Alem paused, to watch a flash emerging through one of the shuttered windows. Blinding light, sudden and fading off to a slow glow. The accompanying thunder, was softer, which he took as a good sign. That meant the ships were moving towards a different section of the city.

Though, he would have much preferred Dren not tempt fate to confirm it, a solid portion of the Royal navy was flying tonight. Whatever backlash was going to from this would likely to be severe.

"This page holds the conditions of a contract for Imperial bounties, as those are taxed under a different bracket and require a separate signature..." Alem listened to his own words as one might listen to an old bookkeeper writing down someone else's order. It was coming back to him, now. The scripted words droned on the same routine he'd always performed, maintaining composure regardless of the circumstances. "Income will be averaged by the number of jobs performed, the number of missions participated, and additional bonus will be associated by solo or duo contracts only. A portion of any pay will be allotted to the debt incurred by breaking the front doors, to which I currently lack an estimate..."

To the front of the hall, the door was now wedged shut with a spare spear. One of the many dusty covered decorations that had been mounted on along the wall, put to improvised use. Every gust of wind outside, rattled it. Ordinarily, Alem would have been quite angry about all of this.

He was, at first. Furious, to be more precise. Breaking the front gate, a set made of real wood- mind you, and then having the audacity to state their intention to join? No prior warnings, no references, no guild seal, nothing at all, yet…

"More writings?" The woman's voice was calm and collected beneath the odd accent. "Why more? We accept."

Alem glanced up at her, before quickly turning back to the pages. The obvious didn't seem to be keen on adjusting itself: those ears, those features... human- almost, but oddly alien. Beautiful, but in an unsettling sort of way.

“All part of the process.” He assured. “Formality, really.”

The only response to that, was a frown.

Behind Alem, somewhere in the backrooms, a crash could be heard. Then, several loud curses, announcing the Eveth was still searching for the assessment equipment. Beside Alem, though, the youngest remaining member of the Guild, sat attentive.

Too attentive.

Plastered on the Dren’s face was a fascinated expression: the variety that marked one of curiosity, while complete disregard regard for anything else. Intelligent and knowledgeable as the boy's once-noble background provided, should Alem step away from the table for longer than a minute…

Shaking his head, it was Alem’s turn to frown.

He could only imagine.

Pushing his spectacles back into place, Alem push another page across the table.

"If you'll look on here: this is for your review only and will be requiring no signature. I request that upon your reading and inspection, that it be returned within a week. From that point on, it will remain for your inspection at any time, but is to be kept in the backroom on the fourth shelf so that it might be reused for other applicants-"

The paper was returned to him, immediately.

“Very well, then.” Alem risked a quick look up, before passing along the next sheet.

Nothing had changed.

The person sitting across from him was still an Elf, no matter how many times he checked.

"Ah, two signatures there, both top and bottom. Any script will do, just sign your initials..." Alem let his voice drone on. Quietly, the figure set another round of spotted ink across the lines indicated.

"Many writings..." They grumbled, language slipping back into something unintelligible.

Songlike humming-sounding words, if they even were words in any conventional sense. Alem felt that they flowed together too much for him to truly differentiate where one word stopped, and another began.

"Here?" The scribbling stopped suddenly to look at him, slender finder pointing out another line.

"Ah, yes. Sign there as well." He managed to salvage a quick reply as the motion began, once again.

It seemed their script was also unrecognizable.

More symbol than actual lettering, and that was where the ink hadn't simply run into a solid puddle. What had they introduced themselves as again? Im... rah? He'd heard stranger names before, but he couldn't quite remember exactly when.

"Next." The stranger called Im-rah motioned to him impatiently, and he handed them another page.

This was all much too mundane.

He'd seen oddities in his younger years. Back along the fronts, there were a lot of soldiers from all sorts of places. Backwater villages, cities- anyone in the Empire could enlist saying they could pass the physical requirements, though most had some form of training before jumping feet-first into the business of war. He distinctly remembered there were even a few mixed breeds in the crowds. Folk, who had ancestry which traced back to some unfortunate soul who had likely been spawned by combination of some exotic-lusting noble and an unlucky prisoner of war.

Those were far from common in the Empire, certainly but not unheard of. What little blood of their inhuman ancestor they still possessed, it was diluted tremendously. Most who had the knowledge of their background would claim no more than an eighth blood at most, and those were likely exaggerations. But this?

Alem caught himself staring again, forcing himself to look back down at his quill and paper. No, this was something else entirely.

The person across the table, roughing up his ledgers as they signed into the Guild's blessing without the pretext of even pretending to skim the fine print, was a completely different subject from the current matter of attention.

"The next page assesses the rights to our Guild License. If you're lacking Empire or Academy credentials, with permissions from the Guild Master you can freely act beneath the Guild's authority..."

Like his father, and his grandfather- and perhaps most men in the long line of family heritage before that, when Alem turned twenty, he'd signed up to serve along the Front of the Eastern border. Eyes set to the Blood-ridge Mountains, he'd begun his military career: marching with all the other Greenhorns for the privilege of fighting back against the Dwarven Constructs and ritual magics that passed from those unnatural territories. During this chapter of his life, he'd traveled the entire length of the Empire's Eastern Front and seen it all. From stone monsters with eyes of glass or gemstone, to behemoths of depth within the storms along the coast. Light, he'd even witnessed ancient wreckage washed up from the deep by the summer tempests, and had once been assigned to retrieve some of it for Empire mages to study.

Yes, Alem knew he'd seen much of what the world had to offer, and still... he had never once seen an Elf.

Ever.

There hadn't been any real Elves on the continent- much less within the city limits, for hundreds of years, and the last of those had likely been war criminals- or slaves. Which brought to question, why exactly, there was just that very thing standing across the table in the Guild's hall, angry expression carefully picking through the sheets provided to them.

Or, perhaps, she was a half? Could that be it?

Maybe she was only a half, looking to make some coin in a profession that was… less judgmental than most? If that were the case, though, certainly there were better ways of going about making a first introduction than large-scale property damage.

"Why in the name of gods..." Alem caught his tongue, as the long ears twitched, quill stopping for the barest instant, before continuing on its war-path across the page. "Apologies."

Bringing attention to the absurdity was probably the worst possible choice, Alem decided. No matter how much he tried to reason the situation out, he found himself simply lacking the capacity. If there was a clear explanation for any of this, it wasn't for someone like him to know

"You'll need to sign here... and here as well."

“Tss.” Came the reply, clearly annoyed.

The quill of bird feather seemed to drip ink in a sloppy manner along the waiting stack of pages, before it etched out the rather unusual signature. Continuing on, in fact. One strange character after another.

Elven language... for Elves. Elven script- to specify, of which they most certainly were matching.

"Just your name, please."

Again, the frown.

"Just name?"

"Yes, again- just your name." Alem hoped none of the confusion he felt was reaching his face, unlike Dren- who was now staring like a loon from his seat at the next table over.

Like anyone with a head on their shoulders and ears to go with it, growing up he'd heard of Elves. The savage race of the Northern and Southern continents past the Northern ocean scars, and the dangers of the great sea: they were the race among the forests. Beings who lived in horrible jungles covering the inland for untold miles. Filled with beasts and dangers just as fearsome as the Dungeon- if not worse. Or so they had been, up until the Human Empire had been reborn beneath the Holy Emperor's Prophesy, and human armies were sent across the sea to cut those down.

Just figures in ballads and songs that immortalized a select few battles from those ancient times, perhaps to some artistic degree of embellishment by generations of laughing bards or drunken battalions.

That was what they were, of course: embellishment

Fighting, while riding giant monsters? Advancing on the backs man-eating beasts, wearing armor made of gold? Those with mixed Elven ancestry were known to be better tamers than average folk, sometimes holding to other abilities, but they definitely weren't dragging around behemoths on leashes, either. That wasn't even remotely plausible.

“Sssss...”

Then again, Alem had never heard of a tamed Basilisk before.

“Ssss…”

Quietly coiled around Imra’s shoulders, scanning the room with a slow head-bob, was a small blue serpent.

Blue.

In place of a darkened set of red, green or black: instead, the snake’s body was a pale, almost sky-blue. Far off anything Alem had seen in the past, or even heard of. Slender jaws, not so much rounded, while missing the classic pronounced venom-glands. Odd, as obviously it wasn't a gigantic variation of the species which would most commonly lack venom. Alem felt he could safely rule both of those out.

No venom, not a massive... what was left? Acid? Those were usually deep green though, and almost always larger to medium in build. For something so small, typically that had to mean venom. The classic danger of smaller Basilisks: their bite was almost always paralyzing or fatal even at a young age. Yet, if this serpent didn't have venom, though… Alem didn't know what that meant.

All he could say for certain was that his [Intuition] for happened to be ringing out like church-bells.

Danger.

Thankfullynot in the sense of an active threat, but in the sense of a warning. Fickle as the skill was, Alem felt safe in that interpretation.

Clearly, the serpent didn’t seem agitated. In fact, it looked quite calm, almost… half asleep. Blue scales or not, perhaps, it just some odd regional variation Alem had never had the pleasure of learning about. Adventuring hadn't been his first career, after all. Though he'd heard of strange creatures on the far side of world among the Northern and Southern Continents, he didn't claim to know all the details. Those places had warrens and dungeons which frequently displayed different species from the Empire-controlled Dungeons local to the Old Country, so it seemed plausible but...

“Ssssss…”

The creature had decided to stare back at Alem, head bobbing and weaving with a careful flick of its tongue: tasting the air. It seemed to be analyzing him, assessing him.

Peculiar...

The longer Alem looked at the creature, the more he could find wrong with it, and [Intuition] was persistent.

Danger. Danger. Danger.

Though not nearly so accurate as some skills, or cleverly designed Magecraft, Alem had learned to trust in the skill. Picked up years ago, during an ambush along the Eastern Front, it had saved him more than once. For [Intuition] to be aggressively warning him about such a small monster…

It was said that dungeon monsters grew in strength the more they killed and the longer they lived. Despite its slender appearance, that probably meant this one was at least an adolescent of its species, with some level of maturity and age behind it, and not a hatchling.

Alem was troubled by this, among other things.

It was no secret that the Farstrider Guild was dwindling in members. With several members out of the city on extended contracts, and the Guild Master missing for weeks at a time... Compared to just a few years ago, they were downright pitiful.

The timing was undeniably ominous.

The Mercenary Guild had been been acting more and more aggressive, and the Merchant's guild had them under contract recently. On a night like this, when the City Guard most obviously occupied, it wasn't even a huge leap. Anyone with military background could see the advantage there, to seize the element of an ambush and burn the building to dust with the evidence afterwards.

Could this all be a trap, or some sort of ploy? He paused for a moment, uncertainty pressing in for the briefest of instants before it passed.

No.

When the door had been kicked down, Alem half expected a full squad of men to be rushing in after it. Instead, they had found an Elf.

Alem shook his head, rubbing at his eyes. That an Elf would show up out of the blue in the middle of the night by kicking their door down with a forceful request of employment was strange. Perhaps almost as disconcerting that there was even an Elf in the city at all, but that was half the point.

There were no Elves, anywhere. Not the continent, not the region- and if there were any in the city, Alem would have likely known of it within a day.

This was an outside variable.

Either a miracle or a disaster, but at this point the gamble was probably worth it. The Guild wasn't in a real position to be picky about who came to work for them.

 

Don't spit in the eye of fate, was the expression that came to mind.

It also seemed to help, somewhat, that the Guild's newcomer happened to be easy on the eyes. If Alem managed to trick himself into looking past their ears, that is. Tanned skin, and toned muscles to fit with a light warrior's build. Something Alem was personally rather fond of-

"Stop."

His stare was interrupted, jumping startled as the Elf suddenly turned to look up and back at him with eyes narrowing. Their gaze was very much akin to what Alem might expect from someone glance at a pile of cattle-shit, if it happened to be dropped on their doorstep.

"You watch... much." They growled. "The boy too."

Beside them, another set of eyes also stared, transfixed on the foreign newcomer without the slightest hint of courtesy. Alem turned to see Dren leaving halfway across the table beside them, eyes wide enough to rival dish plates.

"Ah- ahem, of course. My apologies." Alem replied, waving a hand at the young healer until the boy leaned back with a sour expression and grumble. "We just-"

"I do not care." They turned back from the papers to stare at him. "We join." She pushed the parchment back across the table. "Last page. Join now."

Apparently, Elves were rude. Alem was adding that to his list of worldly knowledge.

"Certainly, we'll need a blood print on this stone. It's attuned to the records."

"Blood." A statement in response.

“Yes?” Alem felt they had intended this as a question, and yet somehow pronounced as something else entirely.

"Ask... Blood."

The language barrier was indeed one of the more troubling aspects so far noticed amid the current ordeal. Still, Alem didn't need to speak... whatever language it was Elves happened to speak, to know the one in front of him wasn't particularly thrilled with him.

"Yes, you'll need to sign this form here, and we'll need a blood-print on this seal. That's how we can register you.” Reading right on through the script, just as he'd done hundreds of times before for any other would-be adventurer, Alem paused. This was rarely an issue, considering Adventuring often involved quite a bit blood. Most weren't squeamish over the subject. "I'm aware you'll probably be registering as a Tamer, which is fine- but in addition you yourself, we'll also need to take a blood-print of your partner."

Now the Basalisk was staring at him.

Alem had lived a dangerous life. On the fronts, he’d fought waves of Dwarven Constructs. He'd seen men die, armies clash, seen Mage-fire volleys turn the night sky back to day: but something about the tiny serpent made Alem extremely uncomfortable. If he had to choose between the two of them, the snake was even worse than the Elf.

He caught himself staring back, shaking his head to break free, before continuing.

"Right. So, if you might simply made your prints here, and here..."

The Elf eyed the papers as he pushed them over, expression providing little to no insight beyond the fact he wasn't quite appreciated.

"If you need a knife, I have one right here-"

"No." An immediate reply.

As Alem reached for a small letter opener, Basilisk let out a long hiss that silenced the room rather nicely. He stopped short, uneasy shiver running down his spine.

"No metal."

Not a request, from the way the snake was suddenly looking at him.

“Ssss…” Its tongue flicked, once.

Alem slowly brought his hand back to towards the stack of papers. In all his many years within the Guild, this particular situation had never arisen.

He paused, uncertain, until Dren spoke.

"Blades might cut, and wounds might heal." Dren recited. "But to Elven blood, there's death in steel." He hummed the second line proudly, until he realized the attention it brought him. "Elves are poisoned by forged metals." He said nervously, rubbing at his cheek with a sheepish expression. "I learned that once, from a tutor my father hired.”

"No knife, then." Alem said quietly, grateful it was Dren who had now attracted the attention of the snake. "I still need you to place those blood-prints, so... glass perhaps?"

Elves used glass weapons, didn't they? That was in the legends, if he remembered them properly. Glass weapons and gold armor. He glanced over at Dren, receiving little to no helpful information. The boy's attention was once again on the newcomer. More specifically the snake: Dren’s curiosity seemed to have been replaced by a healthy level of fear.

For the best, Alem thought. As long as it didn’t decide to bite the boy, Dren could do with a small dose of terror. Might keep him in line, make him think twice about doing something stupid, or reckless.

Glass though…

Alem wondered if they even had a blade of glass. The Guild had a large number of oddities acquired over the years, but a foreign piece like that wasn't exactly common. Maybe Eveth had broken a mug, or there was some chipped ceramic that would work? Gold…

They certainly didn't have any gold laying around. Certainly not here, at least. The Guild was lucky Alem hadn't had to start pawning off their equipment at the end of every month. It was no lie to admit that he’d been deeply considering the sale of loose floorboards.

Replacing those with a cheaper stone-strand composite, and they’d still have coin left over.

"I found it." Behind them Eveth reappeared from the hallway, covered in dust, with her arms wrapped around a large metal contraption. Dropping it down with a loud clunk, the old assessment device settled on the table: an impressive piece of metal and gears.

Alem watched as she nimbly slipped the piece into the machine, adjusting the dials as it spun to life with a quiet glow.

"One drop of blood, right on the stone." Eveth stated, hand drifting to the opening. "This will get a read and draft the seal. From there, it will match up in the archives though the paper Alem's holding. Here and in the Empire's ledgers. Royal trick, that. Still haven’t figured out how those runes work, exactly."

Despite Eveth’s instructions, neither the Elf, nor the snake, made motion towards the device. Instead they turned to one another, the basilisk quietly hissing before they turned their attention back to Alem, who self-consciously put the parchment into place.

"At the very least, we'll need one drop from you." Alem said, turning to them as the lever on the device was shifted into place. "The tamer's blood is absolutely mandatory. We can write an exception for the Basilisk if there's a good reason we shouldn't-"

"Mine only." The Elf stated, again almost a question, but much more a statement.

"And what reason will we list as the exception for your Basilisk?"

"Death."

“Death.” Alem nodded. “For who… exactly?”

“All.”

"Oh." Alem nodded again.

Well.

That seemed a rather convincing reason. Alem didn't like the sound of that.

"One drop, agreed." The Elf said, holding out her hand. "And only one."

Suddenly, the air seemed swirl about over the table. In seconds, a small sphere of mist had found itself condensing before the Elf’s outstretched hand. Folding together, the mist turned to water droplets, which then turned to a small needle of ice.

That dropped.

“How the fuck-“ Behind him, Alem heard Eveth gasp, then cough, then possibly choke, from the sounds of it.

He supposed something impressive had just occurred, but magic wasn't quite his field. Mages would do whatever it was they did, and he would swing his hammer. Occasionally into their skulls, should it come to that.

Still, he had to admit there was something impressive about the delicate work unfolding before him, as the ice dropped in a perfect angle from where it formed, dropping down to carefully pricked the Elf's finger. The blooming drop of red was pressed to the machine without hesitation, before being pulled away, leaving a perfect seal of crimson over the glowing surface.

"Hissss..." There was a subtle glow, and the pinprick wound healed.

"I’ll be." Alem blinked. “You’re a healer?”

“I am Imra.”

“No, I meant…” Alem trailed off. “Never mind that for now.”

“You’ve got to be joking, never mind?” Eveth seemed to have regained her composure. "How did you just do that?" She asked, leaning in over the table, pointing. "How, in all the Light, did you just do that?"

The Elf leaned back, giving the Mage a disgruntled sneer as she folded her arms. "You ask for blood, not for question."

"Yes, fine: but how-"

"We join. One drop. Was agreed." Their expression darkened. “Join, now."

In the back of Alem’s mind, [Intuition] had begun shouting out a different kind of tone. One with slightly more urgency.

“But, you just healed!” Eveth continued, ignorant- or intentionally ignorant. “Without a hymn or incantation, no less. Besides that, how did you make the water-“

"All right then! Excellent!" Alem found himself forced to intervene, roughly hitting the lever on the machine's side. The humming spin of the objects began to intensify as the drop of blood turned to smoke, and the small piece of parchment beneath the crystal imprinted. With a light, but stern hand, he pushed Eveth away the table, back to where Dren was still sitting with wide eyes. “Enough of that, now.”

He pulled the card free as it finished, giving the details a quick skim over.

It had processed, at least. Readers like theirs weren’t the most accurate, but they could give a rough estimation of ability, though it seemed to have skipped over skills… there was barely anything in that section.

Elven heritage, playing interference, perhaps?

Alem kept looking. Maybe… maybe not. Odd, but not nearly so odd as everything else that had happened so far this evening. Certainly not unusual enough for Alem to ask for another drop of blood. Heavy handed, he stamped the record with a copper ringed ink-press, attached to the side of the contraption, handing it across the table.

It was done. Their Guild Master might very well be missing. The city might very well be in flames. Yet, for the first time in months, the Farstrider Guild found itself with a new member.

Or, should he say members?

"Welcome to the Guild."

Book II - Chapter 27

Chapter 27

 

[Snake Report]

 

[RESTRICTION – LOCK IN PLACE] [!]

[CONDITIONS NOT MET] [!]

[PROGRESS 0/100]

Sss...

Another horrible nightmare.

Nothing but.

I’m awake.

There's the sun.

Calm and warm. Not red, not swirling. It watches from beyond a window of thick glass. Lazy and bored, rising up towards the sky.

Distant sounds of voices follow it. Echoes from outside the walls, shouts of commerce, hollers of trade. Around me, there's cloth, wool and dust.

There are no unearthly voices screaming, and there are no creatures are dancing around in my vision.

In this room itself, there's nothing but a quiet sound of breathing.

In... and out.

In... and out.

It was only a dream. I'm alright.

Just a nightmare.

I really don't remember getting dreams like this, before.

Not even when I was human: not ever. Not after late-night takeout, not when I was sick, not that one time I took too much nightquill just to see what would happen.

At least, I think that’s true...

Weird.

That's just the trouble.

The more I dwell on this, the harder it is to remember. Fades off into the black. Just like every time this has been happening…

I'm just not sure anymore. Whatever it was that I think I saw is already halfway to oblivion now.

Hiss... there are bigger fish to fry than weird dreams anyways.

Weird dreams ain't got nothing on reality.

True facts.

Now, waking up with an existential dream-induced sort of dread is distracting even when it happens on a regular basis, but mixing that in with the lack of a human body can really take one's focus away.

I don't know how long I've been alive in this world, but I still can't really claim I'm completely used to it.

Sometimes, when I wake up, I still really feel like I'm in a different body for a couple of seconds. I get an odd sense of phantom limb syndrome before my mind catches up. I'll try to rub my eyes, I'll try to yawn, and then nothing happens.

I'll try to sit up, and I feel all bendy. Like a rubber man, sort of feeling. After this, I typically try to mutter something along the lines of horrified profanity, and it comes out a "ssssss"

The rapid and jarring sort of adjustment settles in shortly. It's routine.

Today I got through all of these pretty quick though, so I guess I'm streamlining this process as time goes on.

[Voice of Gaia] what is my status.

"..."

Check that off the list.

I figured as much, troubling or not.

I've got more questions than just that one.

Lot more, in fact. There's a very long list of things I want answered right now. The jotted mental notes in my brain have been keeping track bit by bit.

Where are we, exactly? How long has it been since the forest? What happened to us? Why did it happen?

The list goes on, and on…

These aren't questions I would save for a lazy afternoon to pick at [Voice of Gaia]'s weird rule-set, or whatever system it once seemed to operate on. These aren't silly curiosities like "Why was that lizard I saw in the desert licking a rock?" or "what was making those boulders move around?"

I can live happily without really digging much further into depth on those, but I'm not fully certain going without answers to the rest is going to be good for my long-term health. Somehow, I'm going to have to manage on my own to get to the bottom of these things. If I don't, my gut tells me I'm going to deeply regret not doing so.

Little warning in the back of both my human and my snake instinct says so.

Ssss...

But this can wait.

There's always something gearing up to kill me. It's a new-normal, but I don't have to let it drive me any more crazy than I probably already am.

See, it's very important to start the day out right.

Crucially important, I think, so thoughts of unanswered questions can slither aside for a minute. First thing's first: I must adhere to daily tradition and begin the morning ritual.

Yes, it's part of my "maintaining sanity" how-to guide.

I've been adding to this as time goes on. Whatever I throw at the wall and happens to stick, this is part of a growing work in progress.

As a human, I could argue that I had things really good. Great even, better than great. I could talk, I could walk around, I could pick stuff up- I even had hands! That's like... ten tails worth of picking up capacity: maybe even twelve if you could how you could hand things on the crux of an elbow.

No, as a snake I'm no longer the NA Grocery-Bag carrying champion. That title among many others is no longer within my grasp.

But still, there are a few benefits to the body of a serpent.

For one, when emerging from a deep sleep (after the existential panic attack has settled) there's a wondrous feeling of simplicity.

Your arms can't get that awful pins and needle thingy going, which is pretty great. Your legs don't hurt or have those annoying skin textures from a pillow or a blanket. The downside, of course, is not having arms or legs at all, but hey: there's a tail, and a tail can sort of do arm stuff if you really-really focus on it.

It's like a long and scaly pinky finger, in terms of usefulness. It can do stuff... things. Mine doesn't have a rattle, but I've heard some of them do- which is cool.

Not completely worthless.

So anyways, there's that.

No limbs can fall asleep or anything, and sleeping in weird places is a lot easier. Rocks, holes in the ground, weird tree stumps- whatever. Snakes can just do that. Easy-peasy stuff.

Another thing I can vouch for though, is the stretch.

Oh yes.

The perfect stretch.

You know, when you wake up and give a big yawn, push your feet down and your arms up in the morning, and you try for the big one. The "hoo" and "haaaaa" and "foooooo"

It's an art really.

We've all tried to get one of those perfect, and probably failed. With a human body, it's simply not obtainable for mere mortals to pull off. There's always some sort of flaw.

A pulled muscle here, a knee-jerk there, or god-forbid a shoulder twang.

Homo-sapian physiology simple doesn't allow for such a thing to be pulled off.

But beings given form in the image of a higher tiny power don't have these problems. Those are strictly human issues. Flaws of a body not modeled upon the perfect that is the Tiny Snake God.

I now can obtain the perfect stretch. Behold my power.

Hissssssss

Upward, like a tiny serpent tunneling towards the heavens!

Hissssssssss

Downward, like the path of the sun reaching for the horizon's distant air!

Sssssssssss

Move it side to side, like he just don't care!

Ssssssssssss…

In the legendary words of the goofy glasses and the dancing robot: "Wiggle wiggle wiggle, yeah."

See?

It's not all bad.

Life can really suck sometimes: soldiers can try to chop you up, undead can try to feast upon your flesh, cults can try to murder you with blood magic-

But, it's not all bad.

Not all the time.

I've come full circle, and perspective is a powerful thing.

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping... I think those are birds. There's a scent of... cinder? Fresh cinder in the air. I guess that makes sense, in light of all the god-awful nonsense last night.

Point is: this is exactly when some people might say "it's time to attack the morning!" or whatever it is peppy folks used to say in my world. "Take on the new day!" or whatever.

I should get out of bed.

That's sort of what I'm working myself up to.

It was a late night, I was half-alive after the mana-induced tired started setting in. Slithered the line on passing out for a little ice needle and paper-cut heal so my memory is a bit frazzled.

I remember shouting some really weird… stuff about stealing?

Did I say that?

I know I set some stuff on fire. Imra was running this way, that way- she told me she found a sign, I believed her…

Pretty sure I had a reason.

Sss…

Now…

Simple and easily answer question to start with... where the heck am I?

I guess I'll start with the basics.

A room.

Okay, so far, so good.

In this room, to the untrained or unexperienced, many might think it simple.

The furniture is lacking- perhaps even spartan to the point of poverty. Scuffs and scratches lay abundant on the surfaces visible, and the dirt on the floor seems to go right on with that theme.

There are walls, yes. Nothing pleasant to the eye, they look sort of... malformed. Made with of some sort of ancient plaster: cracked in some places, crumbling in others. Even the window seems decrepit. It's just some weirdly thick glass compensating for the lack of quality in its un-uniform mold.

A small desk and a matching dresser sit side by side at the far wall, and there are some wooden posts for hanging things by a shoddy looking door I think I could easily slither right underneath. No closet, so listing this as a bedroom probably doesn't even work in my understand of the old-world legal context. It's more like a really large pantry or something.

That more or less completes the box room.

If someone were to peek into this reality, at best they might raise concerns of splinters, the need for a dust-rag, and perhaps provide a lecture of the dangers of poor indoor air quality. Nothing I have described would impress anyone in my old life.

But my eyes have been opened on this beautiful day.

Though the room which houses these things smells weakly of dust, my eyes witness this place as a splendor which might surpass any pile of riches or wealth.

We shouldn't have made it here in the first place. By all rights, we should be dead somewhere out in the street, getting eaten by people who-might-be-zombies, or giant rats.

I understand now, oh Tiny Snake God: this room is a precious gift.

The very image of peace and safety.

Ssss...

Thought my morning ritual has freed me from the covers, beneath me is still a bed. Cloth blanket, some sort of covering and... straw, I think.

But still, it's a bed.

A real human bed. Not made out of stone, or moss, or leaves and dirt: this is a solid frame with fabric and stuffing and pillows.

Laying here, stretched atop it from head to tail, I feel like I've obtained more in life than I deserve. This whole giant bed, all for little ol' me.

I suppose the only ways I'd feel better about this if Imra wasn't sleeping on the floor.

Ssss...

Am I the jerk here?

I find myself asking that a lot, but to be fair she's not really sleeping and I definitely didn't order her to the corner of the room. I don't live by the strict rules of an old-fashioned household's slumber party.

She's meditating.

I think it's a [Skill] on account of this world being weird like that.

Apparently.

I mean- I knew it wasn't just me, and I've seen humans do some rather impossible things, but I feel like I've gained a bit of awareness since the start of this.

Miss Paladin and Young Gandalf used spells, which I've come to think are probably different from skills. They sometimes said something, even if I didn't really understand the language. Little bit of gestures and some sort of verbal command.

But then Young Gandalf did some stuff without talking. He made a creepy box to put me in, and I saw him throw some crazy magic around without yelling or doing fancy prep work... so maybe that's something. I got to personally witness Talia pull off some pretty inhuman feats beyond magic though. She scaled us up a tower most Olympic athletes would have had some trouble with, and she beat monsters to death with a tiny bit of rock. Most women I knew back in my last life wouldn't have been able to do three chin-ups.

Makes me think some sort of weirdness had to be involved there.

Of course, after all that, I watched Swordmaster Zane wave around a bit of metal and break the laws of physics, so I know some humans are absolutely in another class when set beside what I'd think of as a normal.

All along though, I guess I've had the same thing.

Most are sort of lame, passive things that aren't really flashy- but I've gained abilities for killing things. Destroying the nest of spiders (and a large list of unfortunate bystanders) got me [Leviathan Breath] which is like a spell because it uses magic, but isn't scaling off of the regular magics I had before that. [Resistance] has, or had, been accumulating for all sorts of things, and was slowly grinding upwards based on experience. The aspect of painful-trial and direct reward for actions seemed to feed right along, even though I started almost hopelessly disadvantaged.

So why wouldn't the same apply for everything else in this world?

There were plenty of monsters in the dungeon that had seriously unnatural abilities. The Megalodon for example: that was a straight-up boss level sort of creature. I'll bet that had probably been swimming around eating everything for centuries, but even huge and terrifying: there's not a single creature on earth that could just munch down bed-rock like birthday cake.

It was eating an island.

That’s not a normal creation of nature: that's something that can bypass the rules.

Heck, even when we were in the plaza, when the riots started I saw things that looked impossible for a normal human. One minute they're just an average-looking person, the next they've gone and broken some sort of agreement with nature and someone in front of them died.

Imra sitting here in silence with a weird mix of mana moving around her skin is almost tame compared to any of that other nonsense.

Some of the Elves did much crazier stuff... well, actually... did they?

Quick and strong, sure, but I didn't actually see anything too out-there until they started draining dino-blood into a bowl. None of them were throwing around magic like humans seem to.

Hmm...

Racial differences?

Now I'm second guessing myself.

That's no good, I've only been up for like, a minute or two. Questioning like this is best left for the late afternoon and evening, I think.

Still, I wonder-

Ah.

Hold on a second. What it this? This smell?

Cooking?

Ssss...

Flicking out my tongue to grab this flavor doesn't do it justice.

Someone is definitely cooking... Oh.

Oh: hell yes.

Human food.

Book II - Chapter 28

Chapter 28


[Farstrider Guild]

[Eveth]

 

When morning came, Eveth had to acknowledge that she hadn't slept well.

More accurately she hadn't slept at all, but on a morning like this, there was at least a fairly good chance she wouldn't be alone in this. If she was the normal sort, the lack of shut-eye would have easily been attributed to the disaster that had befallen the local districts of the city. Sleeping through a night that was filled with Royal Skyships, intent on bombarding whatever slum riots hadn’t possessed the sense to cut their losses early, all but guaranteed exhaustion for anyone this side of the city.

Indeed, as the sun came up and the shutters were pulled back from the kitchen windows, it wasn't hard to stretch one's imagination for reasons why many within the city walls might have found it difficult to rest.

There were still several columns of smoke rising out over the skyline. The sight, mixed with a scent of burning on the air, and quite a number of localized scorch marks on the street below, provided more than enough residual proof. Neither civil unrest or military crackdown were exactly a lullabies.

Still, that wasn’t why Eveth was tired. It should have been, would have been: but, Eveth wasn't the normal sort.

Normal girls born in small farming villages, don’t leave them. Even if they did, rarely do they head out, alone, walking on the road towards the famous City of The Emperor. No, those women live and die no more than a few days march from wherever they were born: married off to the first man who offered more than a few plots of land. Growing old while having child after child, harvesting whatever few crops might still be stubborn enough to grow: never having so much as set foot inside the Royal Academy, never having grasped the art of spellcraft or theory…

She let out a long sigh, at the thought.

Being born as an [Adept] was either a blessing, or a curse. Puzzling out which, seemed to be more and more difficult, recently. Being tired like this didn’t help matters, either. The harder Eveth tried working her focus towards something more productive, the more it felt like she was marching her way through sludge, and the tea she brewed was hardly a help. So far, at least.

Perhaps, it simply needed more time to take effect. Like a weakened stamina potion…

No, for now, she was left with tired and arrogant thoughts. Irritated, spiteful things that skimmed along the surface like storms over the inland sea. Especially angry, considering it was such an early morning. Typically, it took Eveth a full day of human interaction to even come close, but in fairness, her state of mind was almost justified.

With all the extra mana in the air, she’d had to call off her studies early: unable to focus on her research at all, much less write accurate notes on the experiment she'd planned on performing. Besides, the field of underlying mana-mechanics and capacity analysis seemed utterly trivial compared to the impossible nature she'd witnessed, just hours ago.

Someone had casually kicked down their front door, and then upended her understanding of almost everything that mattered to her: and no one else noticed.

Should she be even be angry?

Would astounded make more sense in the grander scheme?

There was a question.

She'd felt that very same she'd found herself awake long into the hours which the riots were settled. Not because the city had been aflame, or because the sky was filled with bursts of light and thunderous roars of magic: but because she'd seen something considered to be totally impossible.

Her very foundation of worldly understanding had been dragged right out, like a rug pulled beneath her feet. Before her very eyes there had been a paradigm shift in reality itself, and apparently she was the only one willing to ask the most obvious question available:

"How the hell did they do that?"

The omelet waiting in quiet sizzle upon the pan provided no suitable answer.

“The first magic, with Water… maybe that’s possible.” Eveth lifted the iron, watching as the yolk ran along the surface, solidifying as it went. “States of matter can change, but from the air? It wasn’t as though they were sitting in a steam bath… so, how?”

Still, the omelet remained taciturn.

"You know, it would be a lot easier for me to answer if you'd tell me what you're talking about." Eveth jumped, as behind her, a muffled reply coughed. "You- Ack" Another bout of gagging interrupted the words, choking on a mouthful of breakfast. "Ack-darn it all. Also, you're going to burn that omelet if you leave it any longer."

“Morning, Dren.” Eveth didn’t bother turning around to respond. “You’re up early.”

“Am I?”

“Yes.” Eveth stated, frowning.

“It’s really burning, you know?”

So much for a quiet morning, alone with her thoughts.

Adventuring folk were an odd mix. The veteran soldier here, an intrepid explorer there, a few treasure hunters of varying capacity churned in. Every so often, though, one might find something else in the pile. Such as, the occasional ignorant youth who was making terrible life choices.

"I like it burnt." She muttered.

"Good morning Eveth, Dren." With a loud creak, Eveth heard another unwanted intruder enter the small kitchen, passing behind Eveth with heavy steps. "You're both up early enough, can't say I'm not impressed."

"Good morning Alem." Behind her, Dren replied with his mouth full of what Eveth presumed to be stale bread he'd scrounged up from the pantry, yet again. "I couldn't sleep after all that happened, so I thought I'd start the day. Contracts won't stamp themselves!"

"That's the spirit!" Alem chucked, taking a seat at the far head of the table, just on the edge of her vision. "Same for you Eveth?" He reached for the bowl of dried fruit, pulling free a runty-looking example of patea, biting right though, skin and all. "Empire's got a healthy bid on rat tails, four copper a piece, or a ten silver for a wagon-load."

"I'll think about it." Eveth grimaced.

"She's got bigger things on her mind than rats, Alem." Dren swallowed the last of his bread, greedily reaching for another loaf. “Talking to herself, like a loon.”

"Ghouls then?" Alem took another bite of the patea, as he too reached for a portion of bread. It seemed that Dren had dragged an entire loaf out to the table. "Standing order of a three silver a head for those, but they're not easy to deal with when they're fresh."

"Not sure- but she's been muttering since I came in here, like some sort of mad-woman."

"Shut your trap, noble boy." Staring down at the crystal-tuned stove, Eveth let the heat dim-out with a wave of her hand before dropping her breakfast onto the waiting plate. "Honestly, if you had half a brain to go with your talents for healing, I imagine you'd be in the same state I am."

"No need to be so rude Eveth.” Dren replied, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Lesser men than I might take offense, you know?"

"You can call yourself a man once your beard comes in." Eveth scoffed, picking up her plate to take a seat at the table alongside them. "Or, when you actually learn to use that mace you lug around for more than just a prop."

"I'll have you know, Rat-crusher and I have dealt with more than our fair-share of threats together."

"I'm sure. What a tough Paladin you are." Eveth replied dismissively, digging a fork into her breakfast as she mentally tuned the boy out. "A real expert, doesn't even bat an eye at the impossible."

"I still don't know what you're talking about. What's something impossible got to do with this? Eveth?"

Eveth ignored him.

Dren might intrude on her morning meal with his presence, but she didn't have to listen to him. At the very least Alem was intelligent enough not to test her this early. Faith healing, or no: for all the Light, the boy did realize she could set him on fire, didn’t he?

"Now... how did they manage to make the spell work?" She muttered, flipping the slowly charring lump of egg with a rough motion. "It still doesn't make sense..." Three bites in, Eveth pushed aside the plate to reach for her notebook. Quickly, her fingers began flicking through the pages.

She had scribbled her thoughts on this already, several times over, but she felt as if she was on the edge of understanding "something" on what had been witnessed last night.

The water magic, for example.

At the very least, the element being pulled from the air was a recognized theory, so long as it was spoken with a heavy emphasis on the title of "theory." For an esteemed Mage, privileged enough to peer into the few existing books of experimental water-craft, this exact type of spell had long been presumed a possibility. Prying the liquid from air without outside assistance had been demonstrated on several fields, but only in the presence of pressure gradients. Sudden shifts could assist in manifesting the needed condition, which then, relying on the corner-stone foundations of Air and Soul magic: could indeed prompt vapor if the properties and atmosphere met the conditions.

Yet, that wasn't what Eveth had seen.

There were no pressure gradients or Air magic of any kind. In place of some repeatable and practiced function, there had been some sort of… improvisational pattern. Something which seemed much more instinctive, as it worked through the spell. If Eveth wasn't [Adept] Eveth knew she never would have been able to follow even a portion of what had passed along in those seconds.

"It was as though they were reaching for tiny pieces the eyes can't see..."

She stopped on the final page of her notes. The title of a book she’d once read.

It was much more a body of work and study than it was a direct conclusion, although it certain did reach several assumptions that appeared to be well-supported by lengthy and complicated ritual and runic-pressed tolerances, if simply not by many mages in the field.

Details on the cooling rate of heated liquid when compared to that of average resting temperature. Summaries of vapor formed directly from the solid of ice, and several personally designed spells that seemed almost trickery in their deviousness to produce a specific and exact result. Somewhere, in the lengthy library of Eveth's memory, she was dredging up one particular ritual. Though Eveth had never been given permission, directly, she remembered skimming the final thesis of the Archmage Qoules Artanis: properly titled as "A summary of the weakest Element, and the strength that lies within." In it, there had been carefully crafted technique, recorded as replicated twice by a circle of mages with excessive mana reservoirs and controlled conditions. Intended to draw out the elements of water from the elements of air. In the end, it had worked... somewhat. Perhaps that was why Eveth could temporarily forgive a total and unnamed stranger's blatant use of the very same concept in her presence.

Taking water from the air wasn't thought to be completely impossible, just extraordinarily difficult.

The problem was that they decided to follow such an outrageous act up with some sort of augmented and free-form healing magic, and they did so with their mana unconstrained by so much as a simple framework of faith or ritual to hold the portions together. Half of it wasn't even tuned properly, straying back from faith, to the element of Soul.

That broke rules: a lot of them. So many, Eveth wasn't even sure how to count them all.

In magical terms: it was very much like she'd dropped something, and it had decided to fall up and not down.

"How in all the hells below did they do that?" She muttered, again.

Had it been the brew? How many glasses had she finished, four... five? Had she simply imagined it?

No, that couldn't be the case. Logically she'd seen them do it, she just couldn't wrap her mind around exactly how.

"Whatever it is you're stuck on right now, just remember we're still ten gold short this month. Val and Tuth should bring in half of that from the full-sum of their escort missions, but unless I start pawning off Guild property, we’re barely going to make the interest payment..." Alem drained the last of his mug before glancing about the table. "Dren, did you take my bread?"

"No, but now that you're asking: did you take my cut of cheese? I purchased that at the far market last week, and I really don't appreciate-"

"Mother of Gods!" Eveth looked up, startled, as Alem grabbed Dren by the scruff of his robes and moved backwards from the table. Quickly enough, that his chair fell back with a loud crash that continued skidding for several paces.

Then, she froze in shock, as her gaze inevitably moved to what now sat just outside her line of sight. It hung there, faint impression of blue… and… scales…

"Eveth..." Alem said, voice falling into a false-steady sort of tone. "Do not move."

"Ssss…” Beside Eveth, a quiet noise issued. Before she could help it her eyes turned towards the source.

Sitting in a perfect coil: a live basilisk stared back.

"Ssss..." It stared at her.

In that instant, an eternity might have passed. Time slowed, as it always did when life was flashing before one’s eyes. She could see the world so clearly: Dren and Alem's expressions widening in shock, the strange scales of the serpent glowing almost like glass in the morning sun from the window. The panicked look on its face, and the charred half-swallowed remains of her omelet hanging from its mouth.

Of course, Eveth only managed to process all these facts in retrospect: after her instincts had kicked in, and she’d hit it point-blank with the largest fireball she could muster.

Book II - Chapter 29

Chapter 29

 

[Snake Report]

 

"Put it out! Put the flames out! Eveth, what in all the gods did you just do?"

"I don't know! I panicked! It was just there! You know what Basilisks can do to a person-"

"Dren! HEAL IT!"

"I don't know how! It's not a human! It might be different!"

"Do it anyways! Go!"

"Oh lord of blessed sunlight, please grant me your favor so that we-"

"Eveth! Do something!"

"I don't know-"

 

Wow, what a morning.

It was off to such a promising start, and yet here I am.

On the floor.

Voice of Gaia, give me a good ol' Status!

"..."

Sure, sure: I expected you would pull that. Forced my lack of hands- fine then! Impersonation voice of Gaia! Status!

"Fireeeeeee, smoke on the horizon!"

Surprisingly, this isn't so bad.

Really, getting hit by a fireball is like... no big deal. I'd sorta figured getting set on fire would be a heck of a lot worse, but it's just not as bad as I'd expected- or didn't expect, really.

I didn't even have time to consider the possibility before I took a glowing orb of fire to the face.

Beyond passing daydreams gone wrong though, I'll stand by my previous assessment: the whole situation could be a lot worse. Besides, I've already learned something here. Something really important.

I am 100% sure I still have my skills.

Well, my passive ones, at the very least.

Even if voice of Gaia won't tell me about them, I'm obviously not dead right now- and I feel [Passive-healing] as it chugs along.

Keeping up, too. Whatever burning is occurring is being outdone, so it's probably stronger than I remember, but for all I know that's resistances or something.

Still, that's all good. All good news.

Whatever it was that got thrown at me has the mana-consistency of blueberry jam, so I'm all sorts of wrapped up in it, yet the flames are barely scorching me.

Creative sort of fire spell. Never seen this before.

Light roast... I don't think my scales are singed yet.

Hmm… It's actually kinda nice.

Like, I'm bathed in one of those icy-hot packs. Tingles a bit, but not unbearable or anything.

The omelet, on the other hand, is absolutely ruined.

Managed to swallow some of it, but the rest is charcoal. Nothing left there: from ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

I mean, the egg was a little too well-done to begin with if I'm going to be a critic, but beggars can't be choosers. Just because I prefer them runny over singed, I'm not going to complain, although I've got no idea why she was so against me taking it.

Mage-lady decided to just leave the sorry thing out there, pretty much untouched. Clearly, I could see it was getting cold. Who wants to eat a cold omelet?

That's downright barbaric.

Hiss...

My first real human breakfast in ages, such a promising start. Go figure, someone would try to torch me.

"Oh, Light above, it's still alive! It's still alive! Keep healing it Dren!"

"I'm trying! I don't know if it's working! I've never healed a monster before!"

"Eveth! Put out the bloody flames! For gods and mercy, what are you doing?"

"I can't! It's not that type of spell-"

"Get me that towel then!"

Well…

I guess we've also learned that crazy mage-women probably won't be the end of me. Anyone attempting murder is going to have to try harder than a measly little fireball.

Seriously.

Who smells what the rock is cooking?

It’s me.

If you walked in on this situation and saw the grizzled looking warrior man hitting the snake on a floor with what might be an empty bag of flour- I think you'd say it's me.

"Stomp out the flames Alem!"

"I don't want to kill it Eveth! Get some water! A bucket, a cup! Anything!"

Again, it's surprisingly, not so bad. The omelet might as well be dust in the wind, and the heavy flour-sack beat down isn't great, but he's withholding the boots.

[Das Boot]

Could be a skill, maybe?

He's sparing me, that's what I'm getting at here. Mercy is being given in this extinguishing. I respect that.

If I remember correctly, my affinity is with fire and not heavy adventurer steel-toed cleats, so I'm pretty sure this is for the best.

"It's working! Get some water!"

"Gods damn you Eveth. We finally get a new member to join, and you've murdered their partner!"

"On the first morning, no less!"

Ah... Flames are out. Finally. I was getting just a little too warm at the end there, but all in all I'd rate it a 7/10. Worth the experience, but might not repeat.

"Hisss!"

Woah! Don't just dump a pitcher on me! That's cold!

"Look! It's moving!"

"It's not dead?"

"It's alive!"

Well of course I'm not dead. I've survived a lot crazier stuff than this.

What would you even call that, a little bit of fire? Get real. Once I figure out where my [Spirit Attendants] wandered off to, I'm going to have some stories to tell.

Giant skeletons, cannibal eels, a hoard of giant spiders, dinosaurs: I mean, there was even a tribe of blood thirsty Elves-

"AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYIYIYIYIYI-"

Ah.

Speak of the devil.

Book II - Chapter 30

 Chapter 30

 

[Snake Report]

 

Ahem:

Behold, the Farstrider Guild!

Recognized and bestowed with the rights of operation by the Emperor himself, this renowned and respected institution holds a legacy stretching back hundreds of years.

Handed down by direct descendants for generations, passed from father to son ever since the first founding, it is the only independent, legally-licensed, Adventurer's Guild in the Entire City of the Emperor. The Farstrider Guild proudly stands, even in the trying times of late: a symbol of resilience. Proof that if a group of like-minded individuals work hard, they can survive any challenge.

Marked by the prominent crest of a most legendary and respected beast, they are also, undeniably, the chosen people of the Tiny Snake God.

All Hail.

Yes.

Something like that.

Completely accurate?

I stopped paying attention to the history spiel by the time we got out of the kitchen. So, I might have filled in the blanks with some improv, a little.

Here and there.

My focus was more on convincing Imra not to try and hit anyone else with a chair, because lord- did she want to. Seeing me set on fire was not good for the potential comradery.

Gonna have to work on that.

Ssss…

Adventurers, though.

Guilds.

These are not a totally new concept for me.

Miss Paladin was an Adventurer, as was Young Gandalf, as were those humans that tried to murder me when I broke their sanctuary, and the group I followed before finding the goblins...

Compared to all the weird things I've had to deal with, at this point, the premise of people being in the “Adventurer” profession is almost familiar.

Already had the general gist, even before Alem gave us the Guild tour.

He’s the big guy, by the way.

Tall fellow, build like a truck, main weapon appears to be a giant hammer. Probably tough as nails, too, considering Imra decked him with a piece of furniture and he’s still walking around. From what I’ve gathered, Alem is the “in-charge” person, but not the Guild owner.

So… the second in command.

Probably.

Anyways, like I said: every before the tour, I already fit together the pieces of how this all worked. Contracts are taken to do certain tasks by the Guild members, and the members get paid based on those. Fractions of the pay go back to the Guild, itself. So, it's like a freelance based business, but scarier. In summary, Adventurers are basically people who don't mind taking risks for rewards, and a Guild is a bunch of them lumped together.

Or, so I'd assumed.

The "a bunch" of Adventurers part, might have been an overestimation, as there are only three people in this Guild, currently.

Alem, the big guy I mentioned. Already went over him.

Eveth, the omelet slaying Mage. She set me on fire. Not my favorite.

Then, there’s… Dren.

Trickier to puzzle this one out. He’s a Paladin? Heard him called one, but it might have been sarcastic, because he’s still kind of young. Presuming, some sort of healer.

The rest of the Guild members are "out."

Fishy?

I’m not one hundred percent sure. Alem went over a lot of boring stuff with us today, while we were walking around. Showed us the building, the lodging spaces- we’ve got our own room, which is nice. He went over the main hall, the storage room, opened the door to the basement- but didn’t go down because Eveth seemed to have some excused for why we shouldn’t.

I guess she does some sort of studying down there, and it’s a mess?

Oh, also: Alem told us to pick out a weapon.

By us, I mean Imra. I guess they’ve just assumed I’m some sort of tamed monster, and at this point I feel like it would be too much work to correct them without making Imra sound crazier than she already does.

Besides the point.

There was an old spear hanging on one of the walls, and Alem said we could have it as long as we paid the Guild back for it with our work, which was nice of him. It has some sort of metal for the pointy end piece, but the rest is wooden. Imra seems happy with it.

Anyways, seems like our first day has been spent wandering around the building, helping them pick things out of the backroom to sell, or to clean… sort of dull, for Adventuring standards.

Alem had a bundle he filled up with random odds and ends, I guess heading out to the markets. Said something about getting food and seeing what he can convince someone named Stefano to buy from him.

Mentioned something about floorboards…

Eveth took off in the middle of the day, too. After trying, and failing, to talk with Imra about magic related things for about an hour, she gave up. Mentioned something about a contract and that she’d be back by the evening, bailed out of cleaning right after.

Which left us, and Dren- who apparently messed up and got in trouble for something, recently, as Alem told him he had to dust the entire hall.

Boring day, really.

Dren tried to talk to Imra, but she was having none of it. Didn’t get much out of a one-sided conversation, other than the fact that Dren likes to talk.

About food.

About ships.

About the coming festival and the food which comes with it, here in the city.

About how tomorrow we’ll be helping him with a job before Alem sends us out on a few tougher ones.

About how he likes life as an Adventurer a lot more than life in the Church…

Ssssss…

Okay, I take it back. Maybe I did get a lot out of that one-sided conversation, but not all that much of it was of any real value. Just Dren, talking… a lot.

Like, a LOT.

Man.

The only real bit of information that seemed to be a true importance is that the Farstrider Guild is probably in massive debt.

Guess times have been tough. Contracts that pay well are getting trickier to find, and the Guild’s leader, Varar, has been away.

Dren seemed a little worried about this.

Make’s sense, but he shouldn’t be.

He’s got nothing to worry about.

Nothing at all.

Clearly, the Tiny snake God sent me here to get this place in order.

Just you wait.

Everything’s gonna be just fine.

Book II - Chapter 31

Chapter 31

 

[Eveth]

 

"Creeeee-!"

Eveth watched on stone-faced as the monster rat screamed its last, finally falling limp on the stone as the spear ran it through. She continued watching, expression nonplussed as the weapon's owner followed it up with several more strikes, each more gruesome than the last.

As awful and unnecessary as she thought it was, the creature never stood a chance.

Beside her, Dren looked away. His face scrunched up, eyes averted to any direction but the brutality ahead.

"Does she really have to... It's just... It's already..."

"Apparently so."

"I know they're monsters, but..." Dren trailed of, wincing as a sudden motion abruptly brought an end to the barbaric act. More than a just a hint of disgust reached his face. "Maybe things are different, where she comes from."

"Thud."

The creature's tail landed in their general vicinity, just as blood-soaked as Eveth would have expected it to be. Together they stared at it, neither moving as the seconds passed, until finally Dren stepped forward, flexing his gloves with reluctance.

"What number is that? Forty-five?" He asked.

"Forty-six, by my count." Eveth replied. "Might be best if we plan on making two trips today."

"Ah." The boy grimaced, plucking the body-part from the ground with a defeated look, before adding it to the growing pile in the wagon beside Eveth.

“Thud.”

Another tail landed.

“I don’t understand why she doesn’t use magic.” Eveth frowned at the sight. “Like she did the other day, it would be easier, more efficient.”

"Yes, well, speaking of efficiency: I'd appreciate if you picked up at least a few of these." Dren replied. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

"Crrrrrrraaaaaa-" Another scream cut off ahead, shortly followed by the meaty thump' of another tail a few paces away.

“Nope.” Eveth snorted. “Not happening.”

Dren sighed, shoulder sagging somewhat as he reached for it.

"Just every so often, that's all I'm asking. When you feel like helping. Maybe… I don’t know: make the golems you're always tinkering with do it."

"Mana doesn't grow on trees Dren, and [Create Golem] isn't a spell Mages just throw around for any old reason." She replied, nose wrinkling at the results of their day's labor. The small cart was filling up quickly, and the stench was multiplying as the day's heat began to make its climb. "Besides, I'm just the escort here so Alem doesn't worry about you and the newbie."

"I thought it was to pay for all the furniture you ruined this morning." Dren paused, turning towards her with a look of suspicion. "Like the wooden table you set on fire… or the stools, for that matter."

"I'll accept responsibility for the table, but nothing more."

"Considering you burned it to charcoal and choked us half to death on the smoke... I think you probably owe more than that."

"Listen, you didn't see me beating Alem over the head with those chairs: that was her fault." Eveth gestured towards the spear-wielding figure ahead of them. Half a block down the alleyway, their companion crept along: head and body covered by a blackened cloak as they aimed their weapon towards another unsuspecting victim. Seconds later, there was another scream, followed by another sickening round of stabbing motions. "She's nothing but trouble. Alem should never have let her join."

"Maybe." Dren replied, raising a hand to shade his eyes as he watched the spear-wielder from a distance. "Alem says we don't have the luxury of picking people that aren't trouble anymore though. Says we need people."

Eveth didn't immediately respond to that. Dren was right, at least this time.

Alem Stonewalker and the Guild Master, Varar Gondost, were the two pillars of the Farstrider Guild. Each with a long list of years and experience, skills and knowledge that stretched on over decades: so long as both were standing and capable, Eveth felt assured that the Guild would do the same, but… Eveth hadn't seen Varar for weeks, now.

If her suspicions were correct: Neither had Alem

So, how many people were even left in the Guild, as of the moment? Under ten, surely. The brothers, Tuth and Val, would come back. Saying they hadn't died, she was certain of that much. Alem, herself and Dren: that together made five, but that was about all she could be certain of.

Croly had up and left half a year ago without a word to anyone, as had Mel, a month after that. Kleth, their designated gear specialist for Dungeon work, at least the common-decency to report in confidence that he was taking his family West. Apparently, they were heading to a port city in hopes of catching a boat to one of the continents across the seas. Yuri and Mack had done the same (or, Eveth hoped they had, as they simply disappeared one day without coming back for their possessions or gear) but she knew that might be nothing-more than wishful thinking on account of the fact that old Drothers was shot dead with three bolts to the back, in the middle of the market-square not a week later.

To say that the past year had been brutal, wouldn't be an understatement.

“Maybe we can’t be too picky.” Eveth admitted. “But, if someone’s going to join a Guild, they should at least try and make an effort to talk a bit.”

“Maybe she doesn’t like to talk. Tuth doesn’t.”

“Tuth’s a mute.”

“Still.”

Eveth glanced up towards the sky, covering her eyes to squint. The sun was starting to heat up, now. Warmer and warmer, the temperature would keep rising for a few more hours, yet. Around them, the backstreets were already starting to cook, which meant it was going to be another unbearably hot day, for which, Eveth was somewhat grateful.

She might not enjoy the heat, but fewer people would be out.

“See something?” Dren asked.

“No.” Eveth replied. “I think it’s just us out here, today.”

“Ah… well, that’s good.”

They continued their slow pace, as Dren continued his task of tail retrieval. Eveth mulled over her thoughts.

Despite how little she enjoyed this sort of work, even if Alem hadn’t asked her, she would have come out with Dren for this. The city streets weren't safe like they used to be. Nothing was, truly.

The rain just wasn't falling when it should, the crops were dying, the people starving, while the storms coming in off the flats whipped up sands strong enough to ruin homes. Altogether, that meant the prices on goods were rising. From what she’d heard, the Merchant Guilds in the city had settled into tearing apart one another like hungry wolves, many resorting to less than legal means. Add the occasional breach of along the Eastern lines, or the rumors of what had happened just recently on the Northern continent: many folk were calling it the end times.

Eveth would call the lot of them as dramatic, but the Empire seemed to be acting under the same premise. Entire battalions marching off from their posts to head West, noble houses buying up any goods that seemed likely to hold value.

Much as she felt she might want to, Eveth knew that she really couldn't get angry at someone for wanting to leave this mess behind.

“If you had to leave, Dren, where would you go?”

“Leave?” Dren looked up from the latest tail to arrive, surprised. “Why would I want to leave?”

“Just curious, if you did.”

“I suppose I would try and go to one of the port cities. Join in with one of the sister Guilds.”

“So, you’d try and stay an Adventurer?”

“Of course. I’m not going back to the Church.”

“What of your family?”

“They’re one and the same. Noble families only need one or two heirs, not five. I’m last in line, so can’t go back there, either.” Dren huffed, dropping another tail in the pile. “What about you?”

“Me?”

“Yes, where would you go? Back to the academy?”

“No.” Eveth sneered at the thought. “Even if they’d take me, I wouldn’t.”

“Ah… sorry. I forgot.” Dren mumbled.

“It’s fine.”

They walked in silence for a moment, conversation lapsed once more. Rare, considering Dren’s usual methods of dealing with extended moments of quiet.

Still, it was a thought she’d been drifting towards, recently. There weren't really a lot of places someone like Eveth could go.

As an unlicensed Mage, she’d have a hard time practicing her craft, legally. The Farstrider's Guild was the last Adventurer's Guild in the City of the Emperor, the others having collapsed and been bought out years ago. Either completely dissolved by the Empire or integrated into some other type of Guild for the sake of profit. Merchants and Mercenaries, or others looking to get a cut of the potential for coin to be made in the Dungeon. Keeping a Guild going through all those was no simple feat, but the Farstrider Guild had somehow always managed to pay their dues. All the way back to the founding, the Guild had remained independent: run without benefactors or Imperial loans, while still managing to pay for its highly-coveted Imperial license to operate within the city limits and surrounding territories.

That was before the troubles had begun to stack, though. Sustainable as it had been to remain its own entity, the Guild had never once expanded. One building, one license, one Guild: The City of the Emperor was the sole home of the Farstrider Guild. They’d made a few connections across the continent, but nothing with any official context. So, if Eveth left, that meant leaving the shelter of the Farstrider License, which in turn meant leaving the protection which allowed her to legally practice magecraft. She could try and find another Guild to join, but she’d need to leave the city for it, which meant leaving the only central hub of magic on the continent and giving up on her studies…

Or living with the constant risk being arrested.

That was always on the table, she supposed. The ever-present possibility that the Empire might lead her to some dark cell in rune-covered chains, while the Academy greedily helped themselves to her life's work.

She could only imagine those smiling faces of the Academy Archmages as they sentenced her, drinking from their goblets of gold and gemstones. How clever would they feel, taking credit for her discoveries a second time?

Her fist closed around the staff in her hand, so tightly her knuckled stretched white.

Walking beside her, Dren cast an uneasy look in her direction, quickening his pace somewhat as he quickly tossed another tail into the cart behind him. Eveth felt this was an unexpectedly wise decision for a boy who often had the social awareness of a braying donkey. Dren was a great many things, but on occasions like this one, Eveth knew it was wrong to write the young noble off as a complete idiot.

Aside from Varar and Alem standing firm in the Guild, it was actually Dren's presence that forced the scales of her mind to secure her decision to stay. Eveth had held her ground and carried on as normal when many others decided to flee, in part because the boy had decided the same. Select few personality flaws aside: Dren was a still healer- a good one.

Not some shoddy wipe-out from the Churches bottom-barrel dredges who only knew a few basic castings, but the kind who could work the type of castings needed on a dangerous mission. Eveth had seen Dren set a bone broken in five different places, then wipe away the injury as good as new. She'd once even seen him put someone's arm back on when it was hanging from a few tendons. Young and immature as Dren was, Eveth didn't know many others she'd trade him for.

The fifth-born son of a noble family, he'd been passed over to the Faith and removed from the line of succession as per tradition. There, he spent his time learning all the things one might expect a future Paladin to learn. Unlike tradition though, Dren had decided that it might be far more interesting to be an adventurer than a Church attendant.

She watched the boy as he walked ahead, mace swinging awkwardly at his belt.

There was a mess, there: a rather large one, actually. Large enough that Eveth hadn't quite gathered all of the details, but she knew for certain that the boy was disowned, and now a noble in nothing more than blood. At the very best he might have a few silver to scrape together instead of the typical sacks of gold and a summer-estate out in the country, that one might typically expect of the more distinguished family lines.

Watching Dren casually drag a wagon of dead monster-parts around the alleys of abandoned slums, Eveth personally thought this was for the best. A life like this might actually make the boy tolerable, given a few more years.

Picking up rat tails could humble anyone, given time.

"Smack."

Another tail landed with a wet sound on the stone blocks of the alleyway, directly in front of her. Turning back to look, Dren gave a hopeful nod in its direction that followed through towards the cart.

"Absolutely not." Eveth stated. "That's your job."

"Oh, come on Eveth. It's just a tail."

"No, I didn't sign on to work for the Guild to dirty my hands with rats." Eveth replied, motioning at the severed appendage with her staff with a sneer. "I did it for the-"

"Oh sure, the Guild's license. I know, I know..." Dren accepted defeat bitterly as he waved a hand over his shoulder, plucking the tail from the ground himself. "Something-something magecraft, something-something thesis, something-something research. I've heard it all before, oh great Magician."

"You know, just because the laws say it would be illegal for me to torch you doesn't actually mean I can't do it." Eveth's eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms. "I hope you realize that, before you inevitably piss off someone who might seriously consider doing so."

"Well, if it turns anything like the Basilisk, I suppose I wouldn't even care." The youth said, turning to stick his tongue out in her direction. "So, you can roast me all you want, oh great and wise Mage Eveth. In fact, I dare you to try."

 

"That's-" Eveth tripped on the cracked-edge, catching herself with a stumble as she turned on her companion, scowl in full form. "That's an entirely different subject, you pampered idiot."

"Oh, and how so?" Dren asked, innocent expression widening into a cheeky grin. "Don't tell me a powerful mage like yourself can't use some simple fire-magic?"

"Simple fire magic? Is that what you think summoning a vocal and staff absent incantation of [Fireball] is?"

"Fancy words for someone why couldn't even crisp their target."

"No, I'm telling you right now: that snake should be dead. That's one fact of concern on a growing list when it comes to our newly recruited talent over there." Eveth managed to keep herself from shouting, just barely. "I still don't understand how you're not questioning that healing magic last night. I can forgive you for the rest- but don't you find anything about that a bit strange?"

"Anyone dedicated enough can learn some basic healing magic: it was pin-prick."

"I know basic healing magic, and this wasn't it: she didn't organize the mana at all! The spell had no framework! Nothing to box it in- and the white mana had other elements shoved into it!"

"Yeah, yeah, rub it in that I'm not an [Adept] like you. I'm sure what you saw was very impressive, but all I remember seeing is a paper-cut heal with some low-class spell. Hardly worth mentioning."

"I can't believe you're a trained as a Paladin sometimes. How do you heal people of their wounds without understanding how it works? Didn't they teach you any theory in the church?"

"The Church simply provides us the methods that have worked for centuries. The teachings from the God of light, and the manner by which our minds can understand it." Dren recited as if reading from a textbook with bored tone. "Theory is for mages, trying to understand things they shouldn't bother with."

"You're like an idiot savant."

"I've been called worse things, and by much more beautiful women." Dren cast another prize-winning smile in her direction, as Eveth gritted her teeth.

"Maybe I will set you on fire." She growled. "Then you can be barely singed, just like the Basilisk was."

"Listen here Eveth, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for why, but I think you should just be thankful that it's not actually dead. Our new companion probably would have done a lot worse than socking you on the cheek if it hadn't gotten up and started hissing at her" Dren pointed in the direction of their group's third member, before frowning. Slowly he bent to pick up another disembodied tail that had seemed to magically appear since he'd last looked. "A lot worse. Honestly, I've never seen someone take Alem to the floor before. I know he didn't have his armor on, but still..."

"Craaaaaaaaa! Creeeeeee! Cra- 'Thump."

"Thump."

"Thump."

"We never should have let that maniac in." Eveth muttered, free-hand massaging her jaw unconsciously. It was healed, but the memory lingered. "I don't care how bad we need people, this one is nothing but trouble."

"Well, Alem said there's no way she's from the Mercenary Guild, and by my count she's already paid for the doors she broke." Dren paused, counting off fingers as he pulled the wagon forward down the sidestreet. "And probably the chairs from this morning too, if we get stone-strand composite instead of wood... still not enough for the table, but I think we're close. When Alem sees this haul, he'll probably even forgive her for kicking him in the-"

Dren froze, letting go of the cart's handle before reaching down towards the mace at his belt.

Eveth followed his gaze, glancing down the sidestreets that branched off from their route. The shadows of the alleyways hung about the edges of the buildings, noon-day sun forcing them into the cracks and overhangs of ruined stonework, and he eyed them, uncertain as he slowly reached back to drag the cart just a bit further.

There in the dark patches, something moved, prompting Dren to raise the mace beside his head in some sort of half-cocked position between a real stance, or someone with a paper-scroll looking to smack an aggressive fly. The scene was almost comical as Eveth watched it continue: youth puffing up his posture like some sort of exotic bird, weapon at the ready for the perceived threat.

Dren was a lot of things, but a fighter wasn't exactly one of them.

Eveth tapped into her mana, calmly pushing a spell along the practiced avenues in her mind's eye. "Just a rat." she chuckled calmly, shouldering her staff as a lazy orb of [Light] appeared beside them, floating out towards the source of motion. "See?" Several skittering forms took off in a frenzy, leaping over trash and filth towards cracks and breaks of the foundations around them. Many more than Eveth had anticipated, but not enough to show outward concern. "Not a Ghoul, though I can't imagine why you of all people would be scared of one."

"I'm not scared, you're being ridiculous." Dren retorted, lowering his weapon and continuing his march forward with the cart. "Ghouls don't frighten me at all."

"Sure they don't." Eveth replied, feigning ignorance. "Why would they?"

"They wouldn't. Besides, the Empire take clean up very seriously. The bounty for Ghouls is mostly just for show, and it's rarely collected."

"You almost sound like someone who's trying to convince themselves of something." She responded, holding back a slight smile. "Almost."

"Well, when was the last time you heard of someone actually collecting a bounty for Ghouls inside the city?"

"Two weeks ago I heard a rumor that the Mercenary Guild brought a few of them in." Eveth replied. "One of the shopkeepers told me."

"I heard the same thing, but Alem said me that they just dragged some people down into the dungeon, and then smuggled their bodies back up once the mana did its work." Dren countered. "So that doesn't count- that's just murder."

"Maybe, I mean who can say?"

"Alem can."

"Sure, but sometimes Alem is wrong."

"Not about things like this!"

"Well, what if the other rumor about the Mercenary Guild is true then?"

"What other rumor?" Dren stopped walking again, cart wheels ceasing with a loud creak. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, I heard that they've reached an agreement and finally been bought-out by the main Merchant Guild. There's not much point in risking their necks for a few gold when they're already fat and happy." Eveth replied. "Besides, on a day like today I think there's still enough residual mana around that they wouldn't need to drag you down below at all."

"You're... you're lying." Dren turned back towards her, rat-tail still in hand as she caught his eyes widening somewhat. "You're absolutely lying."

"Mmm... am I? Stranger things have happened"

"Yes, you are! Don't lie about stuff like this Eveth. There's no way that's true!"

"Oh, maybe you're right. Maybe, for the streets, it would be a stretch to have a Ghoul on a day like this-but not the canals. I'll tell you right now, the air down there is still dense with mana. It's not quite like the Dungeon, but it’s probably enough to invoke a reaction." Eveth motioned to the deeper path that ran now ran parallel to the alleyway. At least seven paces deep, ten paces wide where they now looked, her eyes squinted as she stared at the dried and empty water-ways, occasional puddle the only trace of its original purpose. "If this drought would ever end, I seriously doubt it would be able to stick around though. Current would wash it away, none the wiser."

Dren eyed the canal warily, before slowly dropping the tail into the cart with all the rest. "So… if someone were to fall down there, and..." He looked ahead, then back the way they had already come from. Nothing but the occasional rat-corpse, trash pile, or puddle seemed to break up the monotony of stone. "You're telling me they might get back up."

"I'd wager coin on it." Eveth replied with a grin. "If you point me towards one of those more beautiful women you mentioned earlier, we can test it out." Eveth let her grin shift into her most villainous expression, as Dren's look of terror turned into sudden realization.

"I knew it! You're just messing with me." He shouted, pointing at her with an angry stomp of his foot. "You're such a jerk!" He yelled, pulling the latest rat tail to arrive from the cart and swinging it at her- forcing her to take a step back to avoid it. "I can't even believe you sometimes!"

Eveth almost had time to break into laughter, before an arrow took her through the shoulder.

Book II - Chapter 32

Chapter 32

 

[Barrier] is a well known spell.

Any mage worth their weight in salt will have some variation of this magic in their toolkit. Respected, multi-purposed, easily imitated but rarely mastered: [Barrier] is an essential part of a Mage's spell list no-matter what profession they follow. Be they Soldiers or Mercenaries for hire, Entrepreneurs, or Adventurers: the magic is one of the few which bridges the elements and affinities to almost any combination of talent and disposition.

As such, there are different kinds of [Barrier]

For those who take a more literal approach on things, there is a [Wall of Earth] or [Wall of Stone] for those of the Southern regions. Otherwise known as a physical construction, made by whatever surroundings happen to be fitting of the characteristic for stone or soil. Though it is rare for a human to have the talent or efficiency to mold into anything truly grandiose, the [Wall of Earth] is a respected method of shelter, but for many of the higher circles, it is looked down upon as... crude.

How unrefined must a Mage, a distinguished Mage- master of all the manipulated elements, be to simply lift dirt and stone in a roughshod effort of shelter? Given enough time, even a farmer might be able to accomplish the exact same by hand. Why bother with dirt, when a [Wall of Flame] is far more impressive? Many would argue that this obtains the status of both offense and defense by the very same measure, while offering similar results. Or perhaps, for the more eloquent: a [Shield of Water] or [Shield of Ice] could be utilized. Both are respected, and it is well-known that the element of water can crafted and worked far more quickly and efficiently than stone- unless perhaps a Mage happens to habitually travel among territories consisting of perfect clay or fine sand (of which there is still an ongoing matter of academic debate that will likely rage on bitterly for years to come.)

Regardless, if one was to sit down any number of mages in a tavern (true mages, mind you: real ones that hold experience and years of practice long since passed to the graying of beards, hair, scars and wild eyes) and then force them to reach a consensus, you would likely find them in agreement of the following:

They will agree that the purest example of [Barrier] is forever out of reach, locked within the powers of faith-bound magics. Some might even, begrudgingly, admit respect to whatever token-member of clergy happens to be present at this gathering, before turning back and arguing bitterly as to why, exactly, their capacity to mold and refine the rare element of belief will never find itself strong enough for even the most accomplished Archmage to make more than a passable work of it. To which, perhaps, the present member of the Church may point out the obvious flaw of study-driven mind-sets, now perhaps forever trapped upon the self-imposed cycle of rational thought and realism.

In that lies another academic debate, quite possibly pushing into the boundaries of known psychological and divine spheres very few have the background to tackle, but should one prompt a group of Mages with such a statement, at least one of their will begin the inevitable counter-argument.

 A position and stance steeped in pride: That even-though the [Barrier] of faith is the most beautiful, and perhaps the most malleable defensive spell that can be cast outside of full-circles or group efforts: it is not the strongest form of [Barrier.] For all of its positive attributes, a wall of faith is notably brittle, easily shattered and reliant on layers. Layers upon layers of radiance, woven together atop one another: through these it can gain strength by the quirks of its nature- but alone anyone would admit is hardly capable of resisting the onslaughts of powerful forces, and therefore not suited for the title of strongest.

 That title, of most powerful [Barrier] belongs only to the most unforgiving, unstable, difficult and tedious variation. A spell so confounding, it is claimed to only be summoned by a master. Only one who has practiced for years, diligently studying its nature of spirit and air will ever hope to bring it to fruition.

 The [Barrier] of Frozen Wind.

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------

 

[Snake Report]

 

[Eveth]

 

"Defend us." Those were the only words Eveth said, before the air began to freeze.

Slowly at first, building upon itself in coiling spirals of mist: the warm air of the shadowed alleyway bowed to the magics at her command as the rush of power filled her arm, past the wood it clutched, along the fibers and crystal at her staff's end. There, it surged forward to do her bidding.

Ruthless, by the very nature of its creation.

That was the first thing Eveth had been taught to become, on the path to Magehood. It had been beaten into her, again and again. To survive as a Mage, one must become cruel as the ice, and unforgiving as the flame, as strong as the stone: A Mage's spirit can have no weakness.

[BARRIER]

Eveth didn’t need to speak the word for the spell to cast properly. She hadn’t needed to speak the command for years, but in that instant she did, regardless. Half shout, half scream, her magics soared along the framework of a spell. There it rose, higher and higher as her knees buckled. There was no thought or consideration on how or what she needed to do. Those had been dealt with long ago, years ago, hammered into her bones by practice and repetition.

"Stop her!" A voice shouted, and her eyes saw the death that came in flight- arrows whistling almost too fast for her eyes to see. "Kill the Mage, quickly!"

With loud impacts, the arrows exploded as they connected with the magic. Ripple effects, almost holding the appearance of glass- being shattered and reformed.

"Defend us."

Again, Eveth demanded, forcing and bending the element to her will, and again the eruption of fog soared, rising like cold flames trapped between panes of thin glass.

Still, she knew it wasn't enough.

Her right hand joined with her left, knees biting into the stone as she shouted again- power surging to smash the incoming attacks.

[BARRIER]

Two layers became three: thick sheets of opaque glass, frozen and dense enough to chill to the bone on a single touch. Though fleeting, Eveth felt a sense of pride at the sight of it before the cold smashed against her skin and ripped into her lungs. Colder than ice in winter, beneath a howling wind, but it was proof.

Proof no one could steal from her: the wall of air stood, defiant to any and all.

Then, came the pain.

Creeping, dull, burning- worse by the second. Eveth was already on her knees, but now her arm felt aflame, agony creeping past her mental defenses. Inching onward to cross the point which her willpower could halt it.

The fingers of her left hand seized, fingers locking onto her staff as she gritted her teeth. Beneath her, the ground approached as her body sagged towards the staff, almost falling before Dren appeared beside her. Stripping away his gloves in a panic, he caught her by the shoulders.

Shouting something… no, screaming something?

She couldn't process yet, but the words didn't matter. Dren was too inexperienced to know what to do in this situation, panic was a natural state. The trick was overcoming it, to fall back on what was already known; to fall back on her training.

First, she needed to identify the threat: Who, and what? Where?

She looked down.

She'd been hit: an arrow. It came from behind her, she’d reacted. There were voices, so the threat was human, but who? Some group of opportunists looking to cut their throats and steal their coin? It seemed the most likely option, but in broad daylight?

Would they really be so bold-

She gasped as another wave of pain hit her.

Lights above: it hurt.

The burning feeling in her shoulder broke the pattern of thoughts further by each beating of her heart: like a hammer that smashed against her wound. Lords and mighty, did it hurt.

It hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it HURT-

With a grimace, Eveth clenched her teeth, and focused.

“Dren, heal me.” She heard her voice growl. “Do it, quickly.”

There was no time for this now: focus or they would die. She heard the quiet shout in her skull, cold logic pressing back on the pain.

This was a problem to be solved, nothing more. Battle was little beyond a calculation. Concentrate on the spell, hold the [Barrier] up, and then think through to the next move.

She just had to focus.

Keep the spell going. That was what she needed to do, right now.

Eveth clenched her teeth as behind her, all along the alleyway the air began to shimmer and freeze. Denser, thicker, colder: a wall of swirling fog was rising upwards as her mana poured into it, seizing the space like chilled flames from the stone towards the clouds.

"CRASH"

Another arrow flew towards her, exploding as it hit the swirling cold, pieces scattering like snow and dust that rained harmlessly out the other side.

"CRASH, CRASH, CRASH!"

More followed to similar effect, as the spell solidified once more. It would hold- would have to hold. The first part of the problem had been solved, driving Eveth's mind to turn towards the second.

There was blood. A lot of blood.

Too much blood.

Its tiny rain drops of deep red seemed to steam as the chill of the magic beside her spread further, freezing to the stone as the heat fled. Lethal?

She wasn't sure.

The black metal of an arrow tip shown, inches of wood behind it protruding. Iron and fiber doubling and crossing with the throbbing beats of pain as her body fell forward, leaning precariously against the wooden staff.

Her vision swayed again.

Focus... focus...

The spell would keep them safe, now. As long as she could stay conscious, it should hold. She just needed to stop the bleeding, Dren was still holding her upright, still yelling.

He hadn’t tried to heal her yet.

Why?

His attention... she needed to get his attention. Calm him down, focus him to something useful.

"Cut it off." She coughed the command as the pain swelled, her brow leaning in against her staff as she held back the urge to fling it and writhe about the ground. Focus... she had to stay focused. Hold the spell. "Dren." She forced herself to look towards the youth, catching his darting eyes just as the fear began to get its clutches in. "Dren, I need you cut off the head, and pull the arrow free."

Was that really her voice? A hoarse whisper, more a gurgling gasp than true speech.

That wasn't good.

"CRASH!"

The boy flinched as another shower of fragments and dust burst beside their heads as the [Barrier] intercepted another missile.

"Light have mercy. Eveth, I'm so sorry-"

"CRASH"

The wall behind her rippled, scattering before forming again, ten thousand fibers splitting into dust and splinters on another arrow's impact.

They weren't giving up yet, redoubling their efforts to breaking through. She had to focus, stronger, don't split attention- don't waste time on the details or the finery: Make it stronger. If it was the last thing she would do, she had to make it stronger.

The wall of fog rose taller, wider. Ten paces, fifteen- down as well as up, bridging the canal, across to the far wall of stone.

"CRASH, CRASH, CRASH."

Three arrows smashed beside her head, blasting her with more splinters, more fragments scattered to the air, but still, the wall held. From beyond it, the echoes of shouts reached her ears.

"It's that fucking mage! Oeth, we're not getting past!"

"Damn it all, the contract said she was just a bloody wash-out! You four, go around!" A command from behind the hollered orders. "We already hit her once- it won't last! Get ahead and block them off, the rest of you stay here: Break it down!"

A sword crashed against the wall of fog, terrible ringing pitched to the air. An axe followed it, shadowed figures towering behind the [Barrier]

There was no time.

Her vision swayed, before clumsy hands grabbed her face, and wide blue eyes stared at her.

"Eveth! Look at me!" Dren shouted, bare hands to either side of her head. Beside him, the newcomer crouched, eyes peering out from beneath their cloak. The blue serpent stared at her from within their hood, a strange shade of crystal. "The arrow- it's not good Eveth. Will your spell hold if I do this? Should we run?"

She remembered being like that once: panic... fear... he was in its grips, all tangled up in the net of terror: but she needed him to focus.

"Don't run." Eveth gritted her teeth, barely processing the terror in Dren's voice. "We can't run, too many... no time." She heaved, bloody spittle trailing down her chin. "Just break it... pull it free..."

Dren's hands let go of her, replaced by another's. That's right: Imra was it, had that been her name? Their newcomer was holding her steady.

Eveth's vision was swirling. Numbness... not just pain, her left arm was going limp. "Poison..." Eveth muttered, as her left arm slapped against her side, useless. "Bastards... they're using... poison..."

Her staff wavered, only her right hand now clinging to it as the [Barrier] swirling in wild motions. Unstable clouds spinning about beneath powerful currents. An axe’s edge shown through the dense chill, before rebounding with a muffled curse.

She had to hold.

"Do it." She gasped. "Now, Dren!"

"Alright Eveth, get ready." Dren murmured as his hands gripped the arrow shaft. "Three... Two... one-"

The world was pain.

Fire, brimstone, magma: Along her arm, down her spine, red in her eyes- her skull. Was that her screaming? In that moment, Eveth couldn't be certain.

"Oh lord of light, bless this traveler with the way of peace."

Dren's voice was soft, a melody of noise that wrapped her up in mana. She could see it, swirling along the imperfect boundaries of the ritual. A beautiful mastery of logic hidden beneath the layers of faith, each word binding its currents, holding the magic in place as the mana slipped through her veins. Each beat of her heart pushed it further, forced it through deeper into her chest, her lungs, her bones.

"Banish this bringer of sorrow, calm this tempest of death"

It was working. The poison's effects were lessening: Her left arm, still limp, was joined in the agony: fingers stabbed all at once by the points of ten-thousand angry needles as the pain returned.

"Defeat the shadows that haunt the minds of your people, and guide us through the storm-"

The magic ceased with a sudden lapse. Dren's voice was gone, his casting left as if a painter had thrown their canvas aside, or a chorus had left the stage mid-song.

 In her arm and shoulder, pain still burned: her hand still refused to move- and though her mind floated however barely as it rode the final upward drafts of faith magic, Eveth could feel herself falling. A returning sensation of relapse that quickened with every further beat of her chest.

"Is it done, Dren?" Her voice again, but so far away. It was as if she were listening to echoes from down a long and winding hall, both in sound, and image.

She realized suddenly that Dren's face was gone, absent in her returning vision as it spun about. Almost drunkenly, her eyes fell to the distant view blurred figures seeming to dance in the hues of shadows and color. The familiar outfit of poorly fitting cloth, thin shoulders aglow with a rising swell of wind. A pale hand held its mace once more, light seemingly drawn to its surface as it swirled to life with the fierce intensity of an entirely different kind of spell.

Was he... fighting? Dren was fighting?

"Is it done?" She coughed, with a spray of red. Had the ground always been so close? "Is it done, Dren-"

"We are not Dren, foolish human."

Ruthless hands grabbed her as a cold touch of scales tightened about her neck.

[HEAL]

A tidal wave of force smashed Eveth's mind, pain wiped away with a resounding impact of lucidity that rushed onward. Stronger, and stronger: more power than Eveth could have ever imagined breaking down and rebuilding as it moved ever forward.

Unstoppable.

Her eyes closed in an agony of a different sort as the voice alongside it shouted for all the heavens, and all the hells.

That wall you made is breaking, Eveth. Get up.

Her eyes opened, face still cradled in the hands of a stranger. They stared at her, both features of human, and beast, as her left hand clenched to the beacon glow of her staff. Flickering, sputtering like a candles flame- but still alive. Slowly their hands pulled her, lifting her upward with ease until her legs stood on their own as the sounds of the world around her came in a whirlwind.

Rise up, Eveth.

The crashes of weapons, the shouts of men. Dren's voice sang aloud as his mace held before him- and a second wall resisted to their front. Angry faces and blades of steel cracking the defense, slowly but surely making their way in.

"And though death has come to face us, we shall not yield. We shall not give, nor turn from the approaching thunder..."

His chant carried on as the attack settled, grim-faced men staring from behind the translucent glow of white. With each further blow, it wavered, but still he fought. How much time had passed?

 She felt disoriented: had it been seconds, minutes? Her wound... was sealed? Experimentally, Eveth flexed her left hand with a deep breath. It moved, perfectly responding to her efforts. "How?"

"Your wall. He says it breaks." The slurred words came from over her head, delivered with certainty. Imra stared at her, frowning.

"What?" Eveth asked again, blinking away the shock. The sounds of battle crept in, as the blood settled in her ears. Growing louder and louder by the second. "What did you say?"

"Your wall, it is breaking." They said again, with a sigh of disappointment. "Yet, you still sit here. You do nothing." Crouching back down until they filled her entire vision, the eyes stared curiously. Tan skin and pupils that seemed to swallow up all but the faintest ring of green: inhuman and beautiful in the most frightening ways. With complete lack of concern, their hands took Eveth's face as they drew her closer to their stare. "Are you so weak?" The question seemed one of idle curiosity, slurring tone unconcerned as their hands forced Eveth's face to turn, twisting it until the scene that had been hidden behind them was revealed once more. "Watch them, cursed-blood."

Dren was in the center of her vision, faith magics bursting with fits of sparks. His weapon swung, raised like a torch to come down for a shower of shattered glass as a spell was crushed, and instantly replaced anew. Barrier after barrier, summoned against impossible odds- unable to weave more than a single layer before being forced to start again.

"Do you see? The boy fights, even though he knows he will not win." From between the grip of the hands on her face, Eveth turned her eyes to watch as the woman lowered their hood, blue scales of the Basilisk spinning about their neck with a long hiss. Slowly they bent down to retrieve their spear. "I do not like your kind, but even I see this is waste." Their free hand gestured dismissively to their other flank, prompting Eveth's eyes to follow the direction. "Just like your own stolen gifts."

"CRASH"

Eveth gasped as a shower of wood exploded into the air, a cloud of snow falling short of the ground before returning to its natural state. Beside them, the [Barrier] she'd created was almost gone.

Now, only a mere shade of its former self, the reaches of the trapped and spinning clouds seemed nothing more than mist. Behind it she could see them clearly: the grinning faces of men, swords and axes grinding against the fading resistance. Another arrow smashed against the barrier, fragments blasting through to land on the ground about their feet: They were getting through.

Ten men, and well-equipped. Just ten on that side alone, while four others smashed their blades against Dren's wall of Faith to their other flank. He was layering magic, but it was forcing him back. One step, then two, then three.

“No!” Struggling to stand, Eveth felt her legs shake- refusing to budge as she clung to her staff. She knew, she had to get up!

"Break it down! Break it down!" A wild cry rose from beyond the weakened wall of air, howls of preemptive victory raising to the air. "They're done for! Just keep at it!"

 

"No, stop-" Eveth tried to focus, but another arrow smashed against her barrier in a shower of splinters directly beside her. Then another, and then another.

First poison, now this.

Those bastards! They knew! Knew exactly how to deal with a Mage. Relentlessly attacking, keeping her from maintaining focus. Already, her [Barrier] was too unsteady, slipping towards collapse. Whatever residual control she still had on the spell was slipping away.

"CLANG"

An awful pitch resonated as a sword struck against the cold mist, rebounding with violence, but not before a deep groove was cut: a portion of the air that would not fill back in. From beyond the gap, a deep laugh bellowed. "We've got' you now, Farstrider."

Farstrider?

Eveth stared back, struggling to her feet with great effort as she tried to rally her willpower. It would fail any second now. She couldn't recast it, but she could do something, anything. It would fail, but she could try to counter with a fire spell. She had at least enough mana left for two of those, and then-

A body stepped between Eveth and the approaching figures, hooded cloak dropped to the ground to reveal the slender frame of muscle beneath. Casually, a spear began to spin, whooshing through the air in a lazy arc as it gathered speed.

"You are blessed, human." Faster and faster, Imra spun her weapon, until it moved so quickly the spear seemed to blur. "The Great One thinks you are important. He believes you are not so weak. That you will fight." The butt of their spear smashed against the stone of the ground beneath it, fragments of rock exploding beneath the force as their hair swayed, black strands catching in the wind as they began to laugh. "Still, it is your decision."

Imra threw her head back without the slightest hint of fear, laughter growing louder beneath the percussion of weapons.

Eveth stared in awe, in horror.

Was she mad?

The barrier was crumbling. Pieces slipping towards the ground below to shatter into mist, cracks running through the panes with horrible cracks and groans. The faces of the men waiting beyond the barrier were visible, toothy grins no longer quite so pleased as they readied their weapons as the spear leveled in their direction.

"Whatever choice: know this." They turned to her with a cruel smile, as the Basilisk on their shoulder let out a long hiss: mouth opening to reveal a ghostly trail of green flame as the dust about their feet began to swirl. "You will not die here."

Then, the [Barrier] collapsed.

Book II - Chapter 33

Chapter 33

 

[Snake Report]

 

"Lieutenant Snake! Status of the offensive Water Magic!"

"Offensive Water Magic is primed and ready for action Captain Snake! It's spinning up at 95% capacity!"

"Will it be effective?"

"No Captain! Still almost completely useless!"

"Damn it all! What about our Earth Magic?"

"Sir! Also useless! Currently only good for dramatic effect!"

"By gods- we'll have to keep using it, then! Push that to maximum capacity: I want as much dirt swirling in the air as possible!"

"Consider it done, Sir! We've pushed ahead to full-throttle! What's our following course of action?"

"I'm afraid it's time to make peace with your Tiny Snake God, Lieutenant. We're going to have to heal them to death."

... No.

No, unfortunately, that's not the plan.

Much as I wish it were, that's not what's going to happen.

Sssssss...

I don't like this.

There's only one way we can go from here, and I've avoided it up until now.

Actively avoided, because on a fundamental level: I can’t take this sort of thing back.

This isn't what I wanted.

Not once, not ever.

Sss...

I think I've just gotten so used to my enemies being monsters.

Scary as monsters can be, they're simpler.

Giant and terrifying beasts that leap out from the shadows with hungry looking teeth. Alien features and eyes in the dark. In a way, that's almost better. Easier, because I have nothing in common with those things. I don't feel any sort of connection to them.

Still, in the end: they're not what's truly horrifying.

Humans...

Humans are scarier, in a lot of ways.

The perfect sort of predator, really.

Intelligent, powerful, tool-using... pack-hunters. There's a reason the Mankind ruled the world in my last life. We were dangerous enough without magic and supernatural abilities thrown into the mixer.

"We."

There I go again, kidding myself a bit.

I'm not really a human anymore, but those old ties are in deep. Even if the only place I'm still human is in my head, the feeling is hard to shake off.

The rest of me, though...

I don't even know for certain anymore.

At one point I would have just settled on being a monster, but ever since I woke up... it's different. As if, maybe, I'm starting to be more than just a Basilisk, or some monster. As if, I've passed some sort of limit, or I'm hanging right on the edge.

But, none of these things matter.

Not urgently.

Only a few seconds have passed, I think.

There's stilla little time left.

Just a little.

The thing that really gets me, is that I heard this before this spiraled out of control. Before I saw anything, I heard that sudden, distant sort of "Thwap" sound that made me turn back.

I guess that was an arrow.

My senses are much better than they used to be, but good reactions or not: the damage was already done. By the time I could mentally put two and two together, I was too late.

Even then, maybe I could have made a decision.

Maybe, there was still a chance: if I'd gotten us all moving before some of them ran around- down the side street to come out on Dren's flank. If they'd all been stuck on Eveth's side, the walls and a canal are the only alternative options, and they're both heavy stone.

But, I didn't.

The exit has closed shut, like a pincer.

So, I suppose that means we're stuck, now.

The barrier spells Eveth and Dren pulled together are coming down, both to the front and the back. There are a lot of people trying to get to us.

I can’t even find a joke to make about this.

They're coming to murder us.

Ssss…

Rough count, but twelve or so on one side, four or five by Dren: they're moving in for the kill.

What kind of person can just do that, I wonder?

Not in some sort of emotional state, but in a calm collected sort of way...

Who can just decide to kill someone?

I just don't... I don't get it.

Someone did it to me once. I died from exactly that, and I still don't get it. Whatever way of thinking drives this… it’s more alien than any of the horrible shit I've seen in the Dungeon.

It's strange.

Yeah... just strange.

Sss... I'm surprisingly calm about all of this.

The whole situation couldn't really get much worse, but I'm calm: watching this all play out from above, following all the pieces. The spells, the arrows, the people... Their faces, their shouts. It's all just "there" and I'm in the middle of it.

I already know what I have to do.

I’m just making my peace with it, listening as my usual inner-voices fight for dominance.

To run, to hide... but, there’s a new one, too. Louder and louder, harder and harder to ignore.

It’s stronger than I remember.

[THEY THINK THEY CAN STEAL FROM ME?]

Ssss…

The healing did it, I think.

Brought that back when I channeled Eveth's arteries together: just like when I healed Imra that first night. The magic I used carried it along, bubbling back to the surface. Now it's still hanging around.

Just screaming.

Over and over...

Over, and over, and over... it has me wondering if something's wrong in my head.

As in: damaged.

Broken.

It's possible.

Likely, even.

Later.

I'm tabling the subject for now. There are more important things to deal with at the present.

Much more.

Our next move, for example. Where do I go from here? What do I do? What does Imra do, or the others?

I already know, really. I said it before. I do.

I know how exactly this goes.

In some ways, I've been here before. Different circumstances, different pieces on the board- but the same story…

The only thing keeping me now, is that I'm trying to look for another option.

Another way.

Sss...

Considering the ambush, Dren and Eveth reacted well. Spells went out: two barriers of different variation. Eveth threw one up without a second of hesitation. Impressive, to keep that kind of magic at the ready. She kept it going for a long time while Dren attempted to stabilize her.

Shot clean through with a poisoned arrow and she still had the fortitude to summon one hell of a wall.

Made out of Air if I'm not mistaken, not Water.

It's strong.

Arrows, axes, swords: none of it got through, yet. They’re still trying, of course. It won’t last much longer, coming to pieces by the second, but it’s still holding up.

Eveth has seen some shit, I think.

Strong…

Yeah.

Eveth’s gotta be pretty strong to have managed this. Still, even in this ridiculous world: people have limits.

Doesn't matter if they're the best of the best, everyone is going to hit their ceiling eventually. As a party- defensively, I think in the we've just about reached ours.

The spells are going down.

Dren's own is barely holding with a slow backpedal. Eveth's wall is pretty much broken.

On account of the fact she's barely conscious, I’m not surprised. Killers are terrifying, but… this is also what makes humans scary.

Limits get passed.

One step- then two, then three.

Still, while I’m sitting here, debating things: Dren is digging in his heels, trying to force his barrier forward against four grown men flailing at it with axes and swords. Eveth is covered in blood and slumped like someone about to hit the dirt, but she's still breathing.

People don't die easy.

If you give someone a chance, they'll fight until there's nothing left.

Miss Paladin was like that.

Young Gandalf, too.

Eveth... she really reminds me of them.

I have to wonder if that means something.

I like to think it does.

Ssss…

These other people, the one's attacking us? I don't know who they are.

Looking over their faces, I don't see a single trait that sticks out in my memory. Fairly certain I've never seen them before in my life. Don't recognize them at all.

They're strangers.

The way they're hacking at the wall, the motions and postures they're taking: three archers spread to the back, melee assorted to the front... I've got to consider them tougher than the average local.

Professionals, then.

The average person I saw in the slums was lucky to have a weapon at all, but these guys have the whole nine yards. Leather or plated armor, some chain-mail with helmets. Swords, bows, and grizzly looking mugs for faces. Equipped for some serious combat, too… went right for Eveth. I'm guessing that meant they were intentionally trying to take out the magic first- and move in before Imra and I had a chance to even see what had happened.

Organized killers.

They've got numbers. They look strong- not pushovers, whoever they are.

It was a good plan.

Almost.

They don't even realize it yet. From the looks on their faces, they think they're about to win. Laughing, cheering, gloating... They don't have a single clue how badly they've messed up, but I suppose I can understand.

To them, I'll bet they think Imra is just some no-named notice with a spear, killing rats in an alley. Doesn't stand out much. Besides, what's one person going to do against such an overwhelming force anyways? I'll bet they expected us to run when Eveth got hit.

That would have been the smart thing to do.

Run away while we still had the chance.

Much as we all like to think we'd be heroes, I think a lot of folks probably would have run when faced with these sort of odds.

Pick the best option, between fight or flight? Most lean heavy towards the second.

I know it pretty well.

I'm not ashamed of it. It's a rational choice, self-preservation. That's what all living things are hardwired to do: [Survive at all costs]

We can’t all be brave, much as we like to imagine it’s that easy.

But right now, we're not running.

No... we're not.

It’s got nothing to do with bravery.

Bravery, would mean I feel threatened. That I’m doing something, knowing the odds are not in my favor. That I’m scared and choosing to stay despite this.

I’m not scared.

I’m… upset.

I don't like this.

In fact, I hate it.

No matter how hard I look for another solution, I already know there isn’t one. I’ve gone through it already.

I know I’m not making sense.

I know.

Maybe, I'm just going insane.

There’s a chance, too. That all of this is just coincidence. Complete luck, with no meaning or purpose behind it.

But, I don’t believe in that.

I believe that the Tiny Snake God lead me to them: left me a sign, in my darkest hour, to bring Imra to the Farstrider doorstep.

Even if it's not true, I'm going to believe it.

This isn't a choice.

I have to.

For my own sake, I have to believe there was a reason I've come here.

That there's a reason for all of horrible things that have happened: this is why I'm here.

These people matter.

I choose to believe that they’re important. In some way- some shape, some form, they're important to a figment of my own delusions, and maybe that makes me crazy. Maybe I've lost touch with reality, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't make the slightest difference.

They're what I was sent here to see. Them, and all the others in the Guild. They'reWhat I was lead here to do, to help, to become... I don't know why quite yet, but I do know this.

The Farstrider Guild is under my protection.

Even if it's just this once, I'm siding with that third voice.

The angry howl, rising in the back of my mind.

No one steals from me.

Book II - Chapter 34

Chapter 34

 

[Oeth]

 

Oeth was unpleasantly surprised when the Mage took a lucky step on the first arrow, but after the bitch had summoned a full-blown [Barrier] he was downright furious.

His contract hadn't said anything about that.

In fact, the contract had glossed over the Magic-user's details with a brief sentence. One scribble, which labeled them an "Academy reject."

A reject.

After ordering ten men to waste their effort hacking at a frozen wall, Oeth was just about ready to call the contract a steaming crock of shit. If this was just some run-of-the-mill failure from the Academy training fields, he'd chew on his own sword. What made matters worse, though?

The woman didn't even have the god-damn decency to die.

Like some sort of manic, capable of throwing spells around with poison and shafts sticking out of them, the [Barrier] just wouldn’t fucking break. Somehow, she was still resisting.

Oeth knew his trade. Red ink contracts were his bread and butter in the Mercenary Guild, and the recent times were hardly hindering this. He'd cut down plent of men, plenty of warriors or would-be or self-proclaimed Mages, and front a hit like that: the woman was dying.

Good as gone.

Even if she'd turned by luck, she was bleeding and poisoned by a solid hit to what was likely a major artery under her shoulder. Still, there she was: clinging to that staff, crystal glowing. For whatever reason, the Mage was still fighting. All the way down to the bitter end.

He had to respect that, in a way.

He might not be leading the cream of the crop, but it was rare for a target to cause Oeth's team so much trouble.  These men were no greenhorns. Each and every one of them had been picked out, or trained up, under Oeth's watchful eyes: and they were very good at what they did.

As planned in case of resistance, the secondary target, the Healer, had already been forced to abandon his companion. Now, the boy was pitifully attempting to stop Oeth’s forward team. The men he’d sent around to cut off any chance of escape, once he realized the Mage was still breathing. Irritating as Faith magic might be, half-formed [Barrier] could be broken the second they managed to solidify. There was nothing left that could keep his men from making their way through- and even if there was? Mana always ran out eventually.

In Oeth's experience, it was just a matter of “when.”

Which left one loose end.

The unpredicted variable.

Apparently unimportant enough to be left off the kill-list, the only real resistance remaining was the spearman. Cloak-wearing, shorter fellow- for a warrior. Even if they were halfway-decent, Oeth's men outnumbered them by a dozen, though. Once the Mage lost control of their spell, Oeth's men would skewer the them in short notice.

That was all that really seemed to be left at this point. Best warrior in the world, but rush them with enough men who knew their way around a balde, and the tables would turn. Few quick steps before Oeth could put their heads in the sack and collect the gold. 

Sweet, sweet gold.

Honestly, he was surprised the third member of this party hadn't just made a run for it. Would have been the smart thing to do, considering they'd had the chance.

For a minute there, Oeth had seen them ignore a perfectly clear window, before his men came around from the side street. Then, though it might have been a sprint, they could have just left the Mage, abandoned the boy and made a break for it. If they had headed down the alley and hoped the next corner cut off the chance of an arrow in the back... it was plausible.

Oeth knew that he would have done exactly that, if he'd been in their shoes.

Or their lack of shoes, apparently.

Had they had really been walking barefoot, in these alleys?

He wrinkled his nose in disgust. Maybe, they were so desperate for the job that they couldn't run after-all. Compared to the other two he almost pitied them, but job was a job: it had to be done right. Unlucky as they were, this was the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps if they'd tried to run, he might have let them - but, they hadn't, and Oeth's generous mood had long since faded.

Faded, because somehow that Mage was still holding that bloody fucking [Barrier]

"Break it down already!" He barked, kicking one of his men in the back to push them into the fray wailing against the frozen wall. "Earn your bloody pay you bastards!"

The shouts returned with an increased pace. Axes and swords slamming against the frozen chill.

That was a real Mage's [Barrier]

Colder than ice, it still stood with wisps of frozen air swirling between the layers that held the massive form upright. Wasn't something you'd see any old day.

"Just a fucking washout..." Oeth muttered. “They had better be paying extra for this.”

Stepping back from the crowd, squinting as he peered through the thinning magic. Somehow, that mage was trying to stand. Wobbling there, legs giving up into a slowly falling lean- right hand clinging to her staff like it was a rope hanging over the depths.

Beside Oeth, one of his archers thumbed another arrow, nocking the piece.

"It's a damn good thing we hit her." Oeth grumbled, as he gave them a signal. "Bitch probably would have half this street on fire, by now."

In response, the archer drew back with a perfect motion and let fly, right towards the Mage's head: shaft disappearing in a flurry of splinters.

The woman behind the wall stumbled. Some of them must have gotten through.

The wall shimmered, then.

"It's coming down!" A larger mercenary in the front of the pack shouted as they found purchase in the magic, ripping it free with a shower of cold. "We're coming for you! Hear me?"

They were finally making headway. Oeth could see that axes seemed to be particularly effective, and he finally let himself grin; gold teeth glinting as one of his men broke through the first layer of the magical barricade.

A slow chill pooled out from it, like blood from a wound.

Strong as it was, the wall was finally crumbling, and in the far distance he could see the healer all but flailing with their faith magic: they had them right where they needed to be.

"Any second now, men!" Drawing his sword, Oeth raised a shout as he turned towards the archers. "Let them have it!"

Thick quivers began to empty, shafts zipping past as they smashed further cracks and gaps on the failing structure. A sword smashed through and out the other side, ripping free with a gust of misty wind as they cackled with laughter. Hundred gold a head had never been so easy.

Still, there was still that one object of concern.

The one with the spear was facing them now, and they'd dropped their cloak. Slender, but graceful- a woman, then? Woman, but with a spear...

Oeth's eyes narrowed as the The weapon in their hands moved at a terrible speed.

Not just any woman.

The weapon abruptly ceased its motion, as it drove itself into the stone with a horrible "crack" that rang clearly through the failing barrier. The ground beneath the spear shattered.

Oeth let out a silent curse as his men slowed their assault on the barrier, several taking a cautious step back. Some of them glanced back over their shoulders, looking back to Oeth for explanation, as the spear-user threw her head back in a bout of mad-laughter. Behind her, Oeth could see that the Mage had somehow managed to stand, bloodied arm flexing as it once again planted itself on the glowing staff.

Just his luck, on both counts. They had to deal with a lunatic, and the Mage still wasn't dead. It was one unpleasant surprise after another today, but Oeth knew it was they still had the numbers. Besides, standing or not, that Mage wasn't about to cast anything impressive after burning their stamina.

The lull was only inturrupted by the desperate chanting of the Healer, still behind them.

"Alright! You lot, we do this right!" Oeth shouted, signaling towards his archers once more as the men up front took several paces back. "Let the arrows deal with them! Get ready to deal with that spear!"

With a rush of cold he watched as the final crumble of the Mage's [Barrier] began to splinter, heavy mist pooling out like a lazy waterfall that settled about their feet. Behind it, the two figures were completely shrouded, but he knew it was nothing more than open air between them now. Nothing else remained to stop the inevitable.

"Ready your shots." Oeth growled, shouldering his weapon as the archers prepared. "Hit the Mage first if you can."

In the mist, he thought he saw the slightest hint of movement, before a voice hollered back.

"Surrender!"

A heavy accent. Oeth wondered idly why he couldn't place it, as the Spear-wielder strode out from her temporary cover of the mist. Her spear casually pointed in his direction as she shouted once more.

"Surrender, or die!"

Bravado when being faced down by a brutal death.

Wherever the accent hailed from, she was a foreigner, it seemed. Tan skin, exotic features- without that mess of a cloak, Oeth might consider her a beauty.

Quite the shame, wasting something like that in times like these.

On their shoulder, Oeth saw a blue serpent, which seemed to be rearing back with a loud hiss.

"Is that a fucking Basilisk?" One of the archers muttered. "Who in their right mind would get even get near one of those bloody things?"

"Some sort of tamer, maybe? Just stick it with an arrow." Another replied, lifting their shot. "Bet you silver I hit it first."

"Two silvers, and done."

Beside Oeth, their bows both twanged: arrows zipped towards the small blue target and-

As if a leviathan from the depths, it swallowed the street whole. Swirling, burning, expanding in a wave that crashed against the stone, the ground, the walls: it spread until it had engulfed all with horrible heat.

Green.

That was the last thing Oeth saw, before he realized he was screaming.

Book II - Chapter 35

Chapter 35

 

[Alem]

 

"Yet another day passes, and you're nowhere to be found." Alem spoke aloud to none but himself as he stared up, eyes following the sun as it crept past the cobbled rooftop looming beside the small clearing.

It was well past noon, and the air was finally starting to cool from the passing of the midday sun. Just enough so Alem was starting to feel the slightest chill, as the stones began to fall into shade.

"Where in all the hells are you, Varar?"

Stretching his back, Alem sighed, rising from the stone bench of the abandoned fountain. It seemed that no matter how many hours he might waste waiting, the Guildmaster wasn't going to show themselves. For the third day in a row, no less: this was turning out to be a growing problem of no small consequence. Their traditional meeting place was just as empty as when Alem had first arrived. There was nothing but the distant clamor of street merchants for company.

At this point, Alem knew he was going to have to give up.

With a grumbling curse, he left the seat behind while rubbing at the barest specks of hair at his chin. He'd been maintaining himself as best as possible, but there was only so much a Veteran of the fronts could do to improve appearances. No matter how well-groomed his look, it could do little to hide the scars.

So, the saying goes: once a soldier, forever a soldier.

Stretching with a groan, Alem began his walk beside the growing lines of shadow along the streets: their examples loudly proclaiming the obvious with a sense of urgency he wished would settle off somewhere and never return. The day was slipping off into tomorrow at what felt as though it were an accelerated pace- clearly over halfway towards its end. Hours from sundown and he'd passed over an entire day's work in exchange for nothing.

The bitter truth. He'd come away with nothing.

No Varar, no completed contract- hell, not even peddled change for him to scrape together. All he had was the nagging sensation that something, somewhere, was going very wrong.

He'd tried to write it off as the times changing for the worse.

Farstrider Guild might be hard-pressed, but so was just about everything (and everyone) else. Merchants, nobles, farmers, trades-folk... it wasn't as though anyone in the region seemed to be doing particularly well. Food was becoming more expensive by the day, goods that were common a year ago seemed to be in short supply, and tensions for any source of income seemed to be growing... and yet the bounty on rat-tails seemed just as fair as it ever had been.

It wasn't difficult to imagine that while he'd been sitting on his rear doing nothing of value, the others in the Guild had likely been filling another cart with those blasted things.

Coin was a coin, after all. When work was short, and the last jobs to go would be the one's no one else wanted to do. Still, Alem hadn't done much in the way of earning coin recently. He had to wonder if maybe that was where some of the stress was coming from.

It was fair for him to say that normally he would have. Either by taking a more difficult hunting bounty, or possibly signed up along for an escort mission with one of the Caravans. Time consuming in both respects, but those jobs still paid well when stacked beside the rest.

Just a few years ago, he would almost certainly have been organizing short expeditions down into the Dungeons, but tolls for entrance had scaled up with the price of just about everything else, so that was more or less a wash for profits. Even with the Guild's License reducing Dungeon costs, Farstrider Guild's current short-handedness meant a risky gamble.

Alem knew he could lead them down, especially in the early layers, but even with everyone still accounted for he had to guess they only had seven or so who would be willing. Seven, and that was assuming Varar came back- so at this point it was likely six, and they'd have to wait on two of them to return from an escort, and then they'd be stretched thin on a gamble to collect whatever materials of value they could in dungeon on a short dive, and come back to the surface safely. That wasn't even counting the time it would take to haggle and sell their goods at a reasonable price. Every Merchant was out for blood recently, and his contacts were shrinking by the week.

All things right in the world, Alem would rather have ten, no: fifteen people. There was a proper expedition team number, especially if they were all veterans. Even in some of the deeper zones, a team like that might as well be unstoppable, but of the six he felt sure of, as he could only seriously count the Veterans on one hand.

Himself, Varar, the brothers, and Eveth. After that, he had two variables.

Of course, there was Dren: their only remaining healer. Greenhorn in almost all respects except his craft. Certainly, Dren could heal a wound, but taking that boy down into the Dungeon on a serious dive would be utter-foolishness. He simply wasn't ready for something of that level. Hell, Alem felt nervous letting him roam the city, streets being what they were.

The newcomer Imra, on the other hand. She was likely a skilled fighter.

It hadn't been long, yet Alem felt sure of this. The monster she'd tamed likely had value, as well: but those sort of things weren't always a clear indicator of skill when exploring the depths beneath the surface. Dungeon dives were all about experience, of which there were no shortcuts.

With another sigh, Alem squashed the thoughts.

He was letting himself find distraction in idle daydreams. Clearly further acts of escapism from the fact he might be returning to the Guild once more with nothing. This was far from a role model in the chain of command as he could get in times like these. It wasn't as if the coin Farstrider Guild needed was growing on trees.

There didn't even seem to be any trees left, which only served to make things considerably more difficult. Just a couple dried up husks burning away beneath the heat on the plains.

Wood: once a stable building material, was becoming an imported luxury.

Those famed lumber markets of the lower district had been overtaken by the Merchant Guilds. Their desperate conglomerate, merging now by purchasing all the Stone Crafting enterprises... a true mess. Stone strand composites might as well be the future at this point, for all the material’s lesser qualities. It was a topic he'd been trying to learn more about, recently. Prompting in conversation and reading Empire newsletters, if only to know the going rate of used floor-boards.

What was currently in the Guild’s building, itself, might be enough to keep them going another year. All Alem needed to do was find the right buyer.

Already, there he went again.

Alem knew he was letting himself find distraction over excuses once more. It was just... well, it was just considerably difficult for him as of late.

He was a soldier, he was someone with experience, and above all Alem considered himself a fairly educated man. He would never compete with the likes of Eveth or some noble with a lofty background, but he had his wits about him. He could read, write, and above all: he could lead people in absence of someone who would be better suited.

Still, Alem wasn't a leader. He'd never been a leader. As a soldier he'd been someone who took orders and carried them out as best he could. That was how he functioned best, and right now... for some time, Alem felt the growing sensation of unease that only comes with being outside of one's element. It was because of that he knew Varar needed to return, and soon. If he didn't...

Well, Alem wasn't quite sure. His current plan was to start selling off floor boards, tables and chairs. It wasn't quite a joke any longer. He might even need to tap into some of the odd trinkets and contraptions Eveth horded in the basement. There were strict fees due, and soon. Prized and difficult to obtain as the Guild License was, it needed to be renewed every so often, for a healthy sum. Taxes as well, for a large structure like the Farstrider Hall, those numbers were nothing to ignore either. With so few members pulling in coin, and the places they'd had to borrow from…

It was just so deeply out of character for Varar to be away this long.

This wasn’t right.

Alem supposed that was what it had to all boil down to, in the end. Varar been gone like this before, but surely not delayed this many times in a row. Mission after mission, the Guild Master had always been the type to send a courier if he happened to be running late. Or, at the very least: a street urchin with a note. The whole situation smelled of trouble, and there was nothing Alem could do about it.

He was at the mercy of fate at this point.

Sighing, once more, Alem began to make his way back towards the main arteries of the city. The day was mostly spent, but he knew there were a few contributions he could make towards the Guild's well-being before day found itself finished. Mostly, minor errands. Check-ins, follow-ups, conversations… In Varar's absence Alem always had more than just a few people to seek out. Short (but in-person) verbal confirmations of agreed work, or quick signatures and renewals of longterm contracts.

The most pressing was currently the hiring of a real carpenter on account of the badly damaged door, so what little was left didn’t find itself walking away.

In theory Eveth could work stone or earth in place of this, but there would be a trade-off in such a case. On a personal level, it wasn't something Alem would accept. Having the wood was about status. Those doors were a clear indication to anyone who came knocking, that the Farstrider Guild was still strong. They had to look the part.

Alem was a firm believer in such a concept.

Still... the prices would be the concern. Real lumber was in remarkably short supply, but taking a situation like this and turning it around? Perhaps, this could potentially be a stepping stone towards a connection who might buy the stock of boards he already had...

All these details to keep track of.

Numbers and scripts and copies of receipts? It was enough to drive some men insane. Possibly, more than enough. With a grumble, Alem picked up his pace and got on with the day.

He moved quickly.

The late start forced him to shorten up on what would have been a tediously long and winding route through the City's Commerce belt. Skipping a shopkeeper here, passing over a weapon's smith there, a conversation with a more friendly merchant found itself abridged, soon after. Conversations, quick discussions, coins and papers exchanged. Alem rushed along, racing the sun by the time he reached his final intended stop before returning to the Guild. The final leg of the journey, in a manner of speaking, and one that couldn't be skipped or put off.

Familiar to any guild worth its weight in contracts:

The Imperial Office.

 

"Have I seen Varar? No, I haven't." The attendant replied cheerily as she brushed aside a strand of wheat-blond hair. "I believe his contract is still out, actually. According to the board... hold on for a moment, let me check."

"Really, you're sure? Nothing?" Alem asked, uncertain. "I thought for sure he'd have returned today."

"Well, there's certainly a possibility he came in last night..." Alem watched as white-gloved hands flicked through parchment with surprising speed. "These are turbulent the times. Riots in the streets can cause trouble in the ledgers." She paused, eyes skimming, "Let's see... Guilds, contracts, open... Farstrider... ah, here it is. Varar Gondost was it? No, I'm afraid this job is still not turned in."

"Really? Nothing?" Alem asked, leaning over the counter to try and check the pages himself, squinting. "I honestly thought for certain-"

"Oh, but wait one moment!" He jumped back startled as the attendant snapped her fingers barely inches from his face. "Farstrider Guild- of course!" She said, before shuffling through another several pages. "What were their names..." Alem blinked as the book closed, and another replaced it. "Vah? No, not Vah, what was that name... I know I saw it this morning." Blue eyes caught him off guard as she looked up from the book. "Val! Val and Tuk? Tuth? Horrible spelling, but Farstrider Guild. Says so right here. Left a contract for pickup on your arrival."

"What? Val?" Alem found his question pointless as the woman rushed away from the counter. "They shouldn't be back quite yet." He finished quietly, with no one to hear him.

Drumming his fingers against the countertop, Alem waited.

It was genuine wood. That seemed... fitting.

Actually, everything was wood and polish, now that he looked for it. The walls were framed in the same material, from the edges to the baseboard: they held a well-maintained glow. The Empire spared no expense, or so it seemed.

Standing alone with nothing else to do, Alem soon found his attention wandering as the seconds pushed into minutes. The attendant still hadn't returned.

Why?

There was almost no one visibly in the building this time of day, but the woman seemed to have completely run off. Aside from the two guards by the front entrance, Alem was the only one present.

He continued to wait, listening.

No noise from the back. It was almost as if they'd stepped out, entirely.

Odd.

As he waited, his eyes continued to wander.

To the far wall there were numerous boards, full of parchments and postings for requests. At their distance the details escaped him, but even without looking closer Alem knew most of them were requests for rat-exterminations. Idly he squinted, making note of the larger printed ink. Same price as before, but of course, there would always be some variety.

Roughly drawn portraits were hidden among their numbers: parchment and paper of rougher quality. Some seemed to be missing the touch of printed text all together: several missing-persons papers mixed in with the typical local monster bounties. Requests for information, or... worse. The red ink at their titles told Alem all he needed to know, and just the sight of them was enough to make his lip curl. Offend the wrong noble, hell- the wrong Merchant, and that seemed to be all it took these days.

Dead or Alive. The text was visible proof that the city was changing for the worse.

"Rotten scum." He muttered, inspecting the papers. "Mercenaries are sure to be thrilled.”

Whatever happened to good and honest work? Well-paying monster bounties, or escorts that didn't try to squeeze a man out of his own provisions? Alem squinted a bit more, leaning further as one of the newer postings caught his eye.

New contracts, several of them- all likely posted in the last day or so, from the looks of it.

Strange as it seemed, from a distance...

"Hmm..." Alem looked closer.

He could swear they almost looked like-

"Thump."

The heavy sound of a coin purse landing on the counter broke him from musings.

Very heavy.

"There we are! Twenty pieces." The Attendant said, smile widening to reveal a pearly white. "After fees, of course. Feel free to count, it's the full sum."

"Twenty?" Alem stared. "Twenty gold?"

"Yes, twenty."

"That's..." He paused, uncertain. "Well, that's more than I was expecting."

"It's the full amount with nothing withdrawn."

"Ah" Alem returned to the counter, staring at the purse of coins with a frown. Beside the bag was a contract page, completed job and stamped quietly waiting for him to simply scoop them up.

"Something wrong?" The attendant asked, leaning back as her grin faltered slightly. Their gloved hand slid the payment forward. "I don't normally see a man frowning at a bag of gold."

"Wrong? No, nothing's wrong. I just wasn't..." He paused, uncertain. "I just expected them to take half, and they weren't due for another day."

Across the counter, he caught the attendant's eye flick back to him, perfect smile returning as if painted on. The back of Alem's mind seemed to spark with an unexpected, but familiar sensation.

He held his face passive.

"Well, the note here says that their convoy came in last night, ahead of schedule." She replied. "With all the commotion- well, I wasn't there for it, but it says someone from the Guild would pick it up today. Full amount, they signed so here it is."

"I see..." Alem slowly retrieved the gold and papers, skimming through the detailed contract. There were two signatures at the bottom, sure enough. Sloppy... but clearly authentic. "Did they say anything else? Another further details?" He looked up, again catching the Attendant as she shifted her attention back to him. Alem frowned, slightly.

There it was again.

Behind him? No one was in line...

"Not anything that I know of, there's nothing written down." Another strand of blond hair found itself tucked back as the attendant's smile continued, "Like I said, I wasn't in last night."

"Ah, of course, of course... well, thank you." Alem replied, folding the paper and pushing it into the crease of his leather armor. Setting the purse to the belt on his waist, he shifted the straps to adjust for the weapon already slung on his back. "I appreciate the assistance..." Alem paused, hands through tying the coin purse to the belt at his waist before looking back to the counter. "I'm sorry, it's bothered me for some time now. For some reason I don't seem to recall your name. Are you new?"

"Jule, Alem. My name is Jule." The attendant flashed Alem another grin, expression one of mock-offense. "I must say I'm surprised you don't recall, I certainly remember you." She plucked a quill in an exaggerated motion, "If it helps though, I could write my name down."

"No, no that's alright." Alem waved his hand and chuckled as he partly turned to leave. Casually, his eyes glanced to check behind him. As expected, there was no one there: just the the building's guards, waiting as they always were beside the entry doors. He turned back. "I have one last question, Jule."

"Yes?" The attendant replied startled, leaning back with surprise. "What is it?" Her face seemed caught between an expression Alem recognized, and another he wasn't quite sure. "What is it Alem?" She asked innocently.

 "I had just expected Linda to be working the desk today. I don't suppose she's still in?"

"Linda?" Blue eyes seemed to narrow by the barest of margins, but the painted smile returned and held firm. "No, Linda hasn't been in." Alem watched her, weighing the balance. "Why do you ask?"

"Ah... it's no reason, nothing to worry over." Alem paused, considering, before nodding in the woman's direction. "Well, thank you again for the help. Emperor's blessings be upon you." With that he turned once more, and took his leave.

Alem made sure kept his smile, as he turned and walked past the armored soldiers waiting patiently to either side of the stone threshold out of the building. He made sure to keep his posture aloof, and his pace comfortable. He even made sure to pat down the pouch of coin, as he casually dropped his feet down the steps with relaxed ease.

Quite the feat, for a man who wanted nothing to do but run as fast as his legs would carry him.

To his back, though was difficult for Alem to know with certainty what lay beneath those full-faced helms, but he could feel their eyes following him. Cold eyes, trained eyes: the gaze of men who had given up blood for the Emperor himself. The gaze of men who were more than just men. He felt the Royal Guard's attention linger on him, just as he felt the high-pitched screech of a trusted skill rattle in its cage.

But, they weren't what scared him, now.

The feeling was no longer just odd, it was wrong.

He quickened his pace, just as much as he could. Adopting the posture of a man rushing off to make the next errand, but unwilling to jog or sprint.

Running was not an option. He knew that. If the Empire wanted a person dead, whoever it was wouldn't have time to run at all. So, with that in mind Alem knew he had time.

At least, some time.

Whatever was setting off the alarm in his head wasn't the Empire's doing, or not directly. All the same, Alem also knew that if the Empire happened to be undecided on the subject of someone's life, running might give them a reason to end the debate.

So, no running.

Walking, quickly- but not running.

"Jule" was it?

There had been a pretty face behind that counter, just as there always seemed to be: but it hadn't been one he'd recognized. Alem would go so far as to say he was absolutely certain he'd never seen that woman before in his life. He was absolutely certain she was new to the job. Recently hired on... placed there?

Yet, she said she wasn’t.

Why?

And, she said that she knew him.

Why did she know him?

More than that: why did she lie?

He’d made up the name “Linda” on the spot. Might as well have pulled it from a hat. Was she just being polite? Trying to avoid embarrassing him, maybe?

That didn’t feel right- and, in all the Gods: why wasn’t Varar back yet?

Alem kept moving.

[Intuition] didn’t normally sound out a warning in one of the safest areas of the city. There were ways it might be tricked, but it didn't lie. In situations like this, when it happened to be rattling in its cage with all manner of warnings, Alem would usually act on it. Instead though, he continued his effort in retaining a much more professional composure. Eyes ahead, posture settled, he made his way out into the plaza taking the thick stone steps from the Imperial buildings down towards the open square.

What was driving this? What was it, exactly, that was wrong?

Rather quickly he found himself among the throng of people. Faces barely even glanced his way as he moved among them, slipping past and across towards the far side and the main street it opened to. Traders, craftsmen, nobles, soldiers: all rushing from one place to the next as they passed about inner-city plaza beneath the watching eyes of Royal guards on the looming walltops.

There were quite a few more Guards than normal, even without taking a real count Alem could see that much. Four Guards stationed regularly where there might have only been one or two the week before. It seemed even if the riots from the night before had been settled, the garrisons weren't about to take further chances.

Normally, Alem might consider this a comfort. It was almost impossible to imagine anyone trying to attack him with so many guards. Doing something that foolish would be suicide, but even now that he was in the open: that prickling feeling of goosebumps along his neck hadn't settled. In fact, it seemed to only be getting worse.

From the heights those last stood, Alem couldn't really be certain of anything but their general direction. Unlike the Guards at the office, they weren't focused on him specifically- but he felt as if they were clearly watching something.

Several... somethings... 

The edge of [Intuition] beginning to ring out more clearly.

Danger.

Danger.

Danger, Alem.

It was enough for him to almost hate the skill: for the sense of urgency that accompanied the ability, rivaled almost anything.

Alem decided he wasn't about to take chances.

Moving across the plaza, he stayed his direction towards the main road as he continued, aiming toward the sprawl of side streets which would follow it. Further and further he went, past the point in which the neatly cut stone shifted into blocks and cracks of less-than-perfect tolerances, past the oversight of Royal guards. Soon the number of other people began to lessen, while the buildings too: first well-fashioned and maintained, quickly began to degrade. Signs hanging out front of commercial structures no longer polished or pained, but dulling: faded and rotten things, if there happened to be any at all.

Walking on, Alem finally gave into the urge to jog, briskly letting his steps carry deeper into this region of the city, ignoring the looks that passed his way from the side streets and windows.

Finally, he reached a crossroads.

The scent of shit, the haunting look of the now deeply shaded streets beneath the far-setting sun, the distant noise of yelling and violence. Standing before this invisible threshold, in the space between the true city and what lay beyond. To either side, the alleyways began to splinter off into forks. Here was where the city's maze truly began. From this point on, the neat lines of streets would be broken up by buildings built atop buildings. By halfway structures and shacks carved out of abandoned skeleton foundations and leftover stone. Where alleyways were literally cut out of the wreckage, through burned wood and broken earth, to be filled with desperate occupants that had no means to better their circumstances.

Walled off entirely in some sections, or visibly open but uninviting as it happened to be here: the slums were a far-cry from the average daytrip for most who could help it, and almost always a confusing and dangerous nightmare come sundown. One wrong turn, and it might take hours to sort out how to find one's way back out. In the current situation, this was exactly where he wanted to be.

Alem took a deep breath. "Fine, then." Without any further warning, he took off in a dead-sprint along the left-most path of the street's fork.

Behind him, he heard someone raise an angry shout, followed by several others as he rounded the first corner, but by the second turn he could barely make out any of those voices at all. By the third, the only noise left was [Intuition] ringing in his head and the beating of blood in his ears. Whoever it was, whatever they wanted: disappointment was all they were going to get.

Experience, skills, mastery of their talents: there were things only a few people in this world possessed. The legends often spoke of men who could do the impossible, and Alem had seen enough in life to know some of the stories were probably true. In battle he'd seem things many would believe impossible. He'd witnessed acts that no clever mage would know how to classify, name, and categorize. Skills that had no true title, or perhaps too many- jumbled and confused so well that no one really knew how one might work unless they happened to possess it themselves.

Much like this one.

Alem dropped down to the empty canal without the slightest hesitation, as he tapped deeply into the well of power waiting for him. His feet smashed against the stone with a deep exhale, before his body sprung forward into a dead sprint.

His lungs puffed, as his strides expanded, twice what they should have been, perhaps more. The canal began to blur- curve, then weave, then split. Left, right, left again. Ducking low, Alem ran beneath a street, kicking off a wall to launch himself up on the far side. Faster, and faster still, he felt his body rush as the wind took him up and his blood soared.

Several rats screeched with surprise as they fled. Alem laughed and caught his breath as they scampered off, several squeezing into cracks along the alley's foundations to escape.

[Warrior's Rush]

That was what Alem's father had called it, so that was how he thought of it now- although he'd heard dozens of other names for it over the years. No two seemed much the same, but outside of those who had survived combat along the Eastern fronts, the talent was far from common.

Perhaps it was some unique set of conditions that brought it to life, for he'd never met a Mage or healer who possessed the skill, nor much of anyone who'd not lived as a soldier for several years. In that way, the title his father had provided it seemed quite fitting. "Mage's Rush" simply wouldn't have as good a ring to it.

Still, as many did, the skill had come to him gradually over the years. It expanded with use, each time slightly stronger than the time before. With it came the ability for Alem to push past his limits: to run faster, fight harder, to break the bonds of human restraints. At the same time, it also came with a debt. The stronger it became, the worse this sensation was as well. Even now, Alem already felt the burn of fatigue settling in. Not enough to cripple him by any means, but certainly a warning to avoid repeating the recent actions.

His lungs and legs ached.

Deeper than his bones, it almost seemed to come with a chill of his very soul. The price of a talent not to be used frequently. Perhaps a subject which Eveth might lecture him about, though Alem knew little of such things.

Luckily for him, using such a skill twice in a row didn't seem as though it would be necessary today. He'd made it, free and clear, and [Intuition] was settling at last: the warnings of danger were fading off, farther and farther, left behind by his maddening sprint down the canal. Whatever was causing the warnings in his mind was now far behind him, hopelessly lost.

"The hammer falls another day." Alem recited, picking up to a light jog down the side street as he continued towards his destination. He felt a smile touch his face as he carried on down the road. "Another day, another day."

Early or not, if Val and Tuth were back, they'd be waiting for him. Considering the weight of coins on his hip, Alem was optimistic there might finally be some good news.

 

 

It took him time, winding down the side streets until finally finding his way back to a main road among the city blocks, but by nightfall Alem had once again returned to the Farstrider Guild. Tired and hungry, there was little more he wanted then to sit down with some food and drink, but instead Alem stood outside.

For a long moment of hesitation, he chose to wait.

Something was wrong.

Again.

This was a quiet sort of feeling. The kind Alem hated the most, for it wasn't [Intuition] that warned him this time. The likes of that buzzing alarm in the back of his skull was pleasantly absent. No, unfortunately this time it was a mix of what he knew, and what he expected. The recognition of several small differences to what should have been. The primal sense of "wrongness" that permeated even when there was nothing visible wrong but instead just slightly "off."

The first thing he'd noticed was that the front doors had been left open.

Not wide open, not gaping open as an invitation for anyone who happened down this dead-end street, but certainly not closed. At the minimum, he would have expected them to be shut at this hour, if not bolted in some basic fashion, but that simply didn't appear to be the case. They were ajar. Cracked ever so slightly so one might peer into the shadows behind them.

Which was the second thing that happened to be unusual: the street itself was dark- as in, completely dark.

Alem knew that many of the surrounding buildings were boarded up or otherwise unoccupied, but that wasn't quite his concern. What worried him was the lack of light from the Guild's own shutters, from the cracked door. Nothing cast a glow: no flicker of candle or torch, and no voices audible from the outside. It was almost as if the building were completely unoccupied.

The trouble was that it really shouldn't be.

Yes: Guild membership was most certainly down. Alem wouldn't argue that point, but he would argue that by this time of night everyone who was still accounted for should have returned.

By his own count, tonight that meant five people at least.

Five, and some of which were well-known to him as habitual night-owls.

This hour of the evening, normally Eveth would be seated somewhere in the front hall, drinking. If the brothers, Val and Tuth, had returned- there was a fair chance they might be as well. Even Dren had been taking up such behavior recently, minus the alcohol.

But… that didn't appear to be the case.

Tonight, it seemed, was an exception to these things. Behind the doors to the Farstrider Guild, there was nothing but silence. Even as Alem held his ear to listen, no sound reached him.

An uncomfortable quiet stillness. No matter how many seconds passed, nothing stirred. [Intuition] was also silent.

That was exactly why Alem had stopped short.

Alem found times like these to be a troubling mix. He was safe to assume that living and breathing danger wasn't waiting on the other side of the door. There was no one standing there with a weapon at the ready: of that he felt confident, but on the opposing side it might very well be something that [Intuition] couldn't warn him of. Possibly some sort of clever trap.

In theory there were ways around any ability if one did their research. No skill known to man was utterly perfect, always followed rules of their own sort. Laws of an unspoken kind, there was always some loophole. So, it was he stood there, waiting. There had been danger earlier, so why not now?

Trouble. Somehow, this meant trouble.

After seconds stretched to minutes though, Alem finally took the risk and entered to find... nothing.

Nothing.

As he'd expected, no one jumped from the shadows to attack. No crossbow bolt launched itself at him, nor did a spell manifest upon some hidden tripwire. There was nothing for the sort.

One glance over the room revealed an absence of figured brooding by the bar, and a quick turning step cleared the balconies of the same. Not a single soul happened to be leaning on the balconies, no gleam of wide smiles or watching eyes.

Empty.

No one was present in the Guild to greet him at all. In fact, there seemed to be no one in the building at all.

The tables and chairs were all as dusty as when he'd left earlier that day, utterly unchanged. Yet, something was different. Alem knew it clearly, but whatever the change was... it wasn't something that [Intuition] was picking up. Slowly, he took a step inside. Then another, thick hands pressing the doors closed behind him. They creaked with resistance, hinges unsettled and not yet repaired from the previous night’s damage. Still, as he pressed, they did close, shutting out the street behind him with a final groan of wood.

In the hall before Alem, nothing moved.

Visibly there was nothing different from when he'd left in the morning. The chairs were where he'd left them, the tables hadn't rearranged, and the Guild's Crest watched as it always did... but something was different. Alem knew this.

Somehow, there was something different. Something very important that set him on edge in ways many might never understand. It was... not the visual, not the noise or the lack thereof... no, it was a different sense which bothered him.

The smell.

Familiar.

Unpleasant.

This was the scent he knew all too well, soaked and waiting in the air like the stale scent of spilled ale. Once noticed, it was unmistakable. Crouching down carefully, Alem peered at the floor, hand reaching out to trace through what was waiting.

There it was.

Wet and cooling, just as he knew it would be.

Parsing his fingers together, he felt it on his skin as he rose back up to full height- unslinging his weapon with practiced ease. The hammer fell into place, metal cool as his hands wrapped around the shaft to level it into a ready position. All talents hovered on the edge of his mind like an array of invisible currents.

There was someone's blood on the floor.

The only real question now, was whose?

Though the darkness made it difficult to be sure of anything, Alem's eyes were adjusting quickly, and he could see the outline of the liquid clearly enough. The drops were running in a trail, leading deeper into the building. Past the open area of the lobby and hall, and into the passageways towards the lodgings.

A steady trail.

Whoever they were, from the looks of things they were more than simply injured: whatever wound they'd taken was of a bad sort. There was simply too much in too short a distance, and with the careful steps that followed it, this trend only continued.

He advanced, eyes wary as the wood softly stretched and bent under his weight. Past the lobby, past the bar, down the hall. The farther and farther it went, the worst it seemed. What had started as fine drops were quickly turning into larger spills. On the wall, Alem saw a hand print, then another. A smudged stain seemed to skid along the floor, as if someone had slipped in their own gore.

This continued, pools growing larger... uncomfortably large. Whoever it was had slowed down. Stopped to rest, then continued, stopped to rest... continued...

Alem turned the corner cautiously peering into the darkness ahead.

Much farther down the hall, it seemed that the trail stopped at its source: a shrouded form leaning against the back wall. Alem hesitated, eyes squinting to see through the lacking light within. He could see no clear details, and there was still no noise other than what he made himself.

A body, or... a trap?

"Who goes there?" Against his instincts, Alem let his voice bellow. It seemed to echo off the walls, but no answer returned. "Answer me!" He shouted again, steps careful as he raised his weapon in advance. "Who's there?"

There was no reply.

The darkness began to close in around Alem as he moved in further, eyes fighting for ever inch of sight they could. The floor creaked infrequently, as some boards gave more than others. There were too many questions to count now, and Alem was already starting to doubt the lack of warning bells in the back of his mind. [Intuition] was utterly silent as he approached the still form.

Then, he heard a whisper.

"Alem?"

He stopped cold at the sound of a rasping voice uttering his name. Up ahead in the darkness, the shrouded form moved slightly, two eyes blinking aglow in the shadow of the hall.

"Alem?" There it was again: weak, almost indiscernible from the silence. "Is that you?"

Slowly, the hammer lowered.

"Val?" Alem's careful steps found themselves abandoned as he rushed forward, "Val, is that you?"

His hammer found itself dropped beside him with complete lack of ceremony as he pulled a glowstone from his pack, crouching down as he struck it to life with a heavy hand. Raising it up revealed the grisly scene.

Red.

Everywhere there was so much red. So much red, covering and pooling beside a thin body. Eyes unfocused, hair matted, the man who stared at him seemed paler than a ghost.

"You've come, Alem." Came the rasping whisper. "I'm glad."

"Val- dead Gods, what's happened?" Alem grasped at the man's hands, eyes widening as they dripped, staining his own. "Who did this to you? Val, please, who did this?"

"We weren't... ready. They caught us... Alem. Tuth... he lead them away, but there were… so many." A cough sputtered with foam, as the gasp continued. "So… many... at first… we'd thought... they were only thieves..."

"Who? Val, please! Who?" Alem glanced at the wound, basking in the light of the glowstone on the floor. It was a deep puncture, beneath the ribs. Not only a cut, but a twist- a hole. "We need to get you to a healer. Right now, Val: a healer."

"Please Alem. Stop... it's not just us. The others… you have... to warn them." A cold hand lifted, settling on Alem's shoulder. "Soon, Alem. Warn them-" He coughed, gasping in pain.

"Val, calm down. Don't move, you're hurt."

"No, no!" Another fit of coughing overtook him then, spittle dripping down his chin as teeth set themselves to grind. "I heard them Alem! I heard them say it-"

"Stop moving! Hold on." Alem reached into his kit, bloodied hands drawing out a roll of bandage cloth, slipping on the bindings as he struggled to free it. "We'll patch you up, get you to Dren, or a city healer." He pulled back the cloak, wincing at the oozing trail beneath it as he froze with the cloth half unraveled in his hands.

His face turned grim.

"Ah... I'm sorry." Val's grip on his shoulder seemed to slacken. "It's too late Alem... too late for that. It's my skill... got it young, from a life in the slums... I've always been... difficult to kill..." A grim smile formed as he coughed horribly, further red dripping from his lips. "But not even brave little Dren can fix me now... this..." The arm began to slide, Alem catching it, clasping the man's hand with his own- bandages forgotten. "Bolt went clean through... clean through… so, you must listen."

"No, we'll get this fixed." Alem tried to hold his face steady, unable to look away from the wound. "I've seen worse on the battlefield, you're going to be fine Val."

"Don't lie now Alem, it doesn't fit you... just listen." Val coughed again, seizing as he tried to laugh. "They were too late. Those... bastards... we found it..."

"No, we'll get you a healer-"

"No Alem. Tuth and I... we've owed you. You... for everything, we always have... should have told you…" The man's voice was growing quiet but still he pressed on, chest barely rising as he continued. "We found it... we found it... at last."

"Stop talking Val, save your strength-"

"Please Alem." The man looked up with a fierce expression, smile pulled back in pain and pride. "Tuth and I... it was just like Old Drother's said... it was there all along."

"What?" Alem asked, eyes wide. "You can't mean-"

"In my pocket... left side... still sealed… They don't know... those fools..." Val's voice was barely audible as Alem leaned in, wheezing gasps slipping away to a total absence. Still, the final words came, forced out on the last of Val's breath with a single heaving gasp. "Even if they catch Tuth... he'll never talk... can't..."

"What Val? What?"

"Varar… knows... it's all real."

"What do you mean Varar? You've seen him? When did you see him?"

"We set the ropes- it's real... it's real... it's real..." Val's breathe caught, as Alem held him, mouth moving, but no words seemed to flow. Again, and again, he tried, only to fail.

Alem held him until his efforts ceased, and the grip on his arm went loose, then limp, then finally slack.

Still, Alem held him there. He held him until the glowstone beside them sputtered and died. In the darkness of the hallway, he said not a word.

If one could have seen though such shadow, perhaps one might have seen the horror of his rage. Or maybe the sorrow of his tears. In the darkness, should there have been anyone to listen, it's possible they might have heard words which would have etched fear into soul of even the bravest man, or witnessed a eulogy equal to that of any saint.

Yet no one was, and such things matter little in the grander scheme if there's none present to witness them.

What is far more important, is that Alem did stand. Not for revenge, not for emotion or a sense of wanting justice. Instead, it was as the scent of open fire and acrid smoke began to take hold of the air. The heat which forced Alem to flee, as the Guild began to burn.

Book II - Chapter 36

Chapter 36

 

Snake Report:

 

It’s been a few hours.

Night’s here, now.

I was forced to take control of the situation. That, and what came after.

Really, I think Dren would have been the much better choice to handle it, but his hands were shaking too much to even hold his weapon.

That was after he finished throwing up.

I suppose it makes sense.

I’m surprised I didn’t throw up, too.

Wouldn't be very Great One-like, if I did.

Still.

The smell...

The screams...

God.

God damn it.

Eveth was half-dead, and Imra… well, Imra being Imra. I had to do something.

Considering my track-record and lack of local knowledge, I think I managed.

I found us an inn.

Picked one at random.

Easy enough to do, if you're spending someone else's money.

Since then... I don't know.

Thinking about it, I guess. About a lot of things. The alley... that was the easy part. It's the hours after, which have been more trouble.

Sitting quietly and waiting, while the messages ring out in my skull.

Messages?

Oh, yeah.

They're back.

After such a long period of silence, it felt a lot more intrusive with their sudden arrival. I was starting to get used to things as they were, but now...

[Level up – pending:]

 

Should I only happen to try to look at them. Everything that has recently floated to the surface, all lined up and patiently bobbing in my mind's eye.

Just like us, they're just sitting and waiting.

Quietly, for the most part. Dozens of them, scrolling on by, silent reminders...

All, except for this last one...

[Level up – pending:]

There it goes again.

This one's silent, but not so silent. An odd combination.

It's like a silence that could be... shouting? Kind of a difficult sensation to explain.

The lack of noise isn't really something that someone else can hear, and the message isn't something someone else can see. Even if they could, I doubt anyone would be able to provide a decent description for this weird lack of noise, but I'll simplify the concept as best I can.

I’ll just say it rings out like a gong.

Over and over.

[Level up – pending:]

It repeats.

[Level up – pending:]

Proclaiming loudly, with all its cryptic glory. What's more, if I pay even the slightest bit of attention to it, the message expands-

 

[Level up – pending: Progress – 12/100]

[Skill points - pending: 12,000]

[Title - pending: Servant of the World]

[Accept: Y/N]

 

There.

That's what it says.

Simple enough.

I think under different circumstances, I might have already moved on.

Typically, I don't interact with these things, anyways. Or, I didn't after [Voice of Gaia] came onto the scene. I'd wait for a better time to deal with them, and pull it back up manually.

Who needs to interact with a short and temporary [Level up] screen menu, when you can just deal with it later?

Ssss...

Well... that's part of the issue.

[Voice of Gaia] hasn't spoken to me in a while now, but even if it did, I'd leave this be. Let this one fade away forever, and never speak of it again.

This isn't reminder I want to interact with. In fact, I'd much rather it disappear.

But, it won't.

[Accept: Y/N]

It's been over an hour, and the messages still won't go away.

[Accept: Y/N]

It seems non-answer is not something that will be accepted.

I have two choices here, not three.

[Accept: Y/N]

I don't like that much.

Despite the obvious similarities, this life has never been much like a game.

That's not to deny there are occasional similarities. This level-up menu, for instance, has always been one of the more obvious. The reward system seems to indicate additional reinforcement to that, but it's still not quite the same.

These similar qualities aren't enough to put me into a false sense of blissful security.

This life hasn't been like a game.

[Accept: Y/N]

Not to me.

In a game, no one actually gets hurt.

Games are for fun.

[Accept: Y/N]

The truth of the matter is that I liked those. Really, in a post-industry society there isn't much else to do, ignoring work. I probably played more than my fair share of them in my past life, but this... this isn't fun. This isn't enjoyable.

And if this is a game, the rewards system is all sorts of messed up.

[Accept: Y/N]

Yes or No.

The "menu" if that's even a good term for this incessant hallucination, is locked down. I can't get past it, under it, or around it: I have those two choices to interact with and nothing else.

I have to choose.

There is no freedom in this. I need to pick one, and soon.

The urgency of this demand is only getting more intense.

 

[Level up – pending: Progress – 12/100]

[Skill points - pending: 12,000]

[Title - pending: Servant of the World]

[Accept: Y/N]

 

My head hurts.

It's a quiet type of pain. Like pressure, but not a physical pressure: a mental pressure, built up and waiting as if ready to burst.

Every single time this message rings at me, it gets worse.

[Accept: Y/N]

And worse.

[Accept: Y/N]

I'd very much like for it to stop.

[Accept: Y/N]

The message won't go away.

[Accept: Y/N]

Stubborn as I can be, no matter how long I wait this just won't go away. While the other notifications slowly fade off into whatever oblivion they came from, this one just gets worse.

[Accept: Y/N]

It's so loud.

[Accept: Y/N]

It's so loud, and I can't get around it.

[Accept: Y/N]

[Voice of Gaia] still won't answer. I tried.

A dozen times, I tried.

This choice exists regardless of [Knowledge] magic. It's off on its own, a natural part of things.

[Accept: Y/N]

Not that I even need [Voice of Gaia] to understand it.

[Accept: Y/N]

I know what it means.

[Accept: Y/N]

It's just like how it was way, way back at the start of all this. Like that very first message, deep in the dungeon where I first woke up.

This is a choice I have to make to continue, and nothing more.

Persistent.

Irrational.

Completely alien.

But still, a choice.

Some outside force, or maybe just some weird quirk of this reality. Floating in my mind's eye, no matter where I turn it follows. Haunting me.

It won't leave, it won't stop.

It demands an answer.

[Accept: Y/N]

Are you taking the reward... or not?

[Accept: Y/N]

It's not even really a question, it's telling me: "Take the reward."

[Accept: Y/N]

Take the reward…

I can see it there, on their faces.

Eveth across the table, and Dren to her right. They're watching me from beneath their hoods, as much as they're watching the door of this inn.

I recognize those expressions.

[Accept: Y/N]

An uneasy truce is in play, here in this corner booth.

Seated with our hoods up and stone walls to our backs: we've been left alone. Sitting, waiting, listening to the sizzle of bubbles in the mugs of ale, counting specks as they pass us by.

Waiting for something to happen.

For someone to make a move.

The barmaid weaves around the tables, the regular patron eye us with passing curiosity. Drinks get poured, glasses get passed, and the hearth on the far corner gnaws at whatever fuel is keeping it alive. To everyone else here, we're just the strangers in the back of the room: nothing more.

No one else has tried to attack us, and no one here looks like they're about to.

I don't know who in their right mind would try.

[Accept: Y/N]

Fear.

I see it there, seated uncomfortably across the table. White knuckled grops settled on those false-wooden mugs of ale, their eyes now looking anywhere but at the thing which scares them. Eveth is much more subtle about it than Dren is, but every time I move, they flinch.

They're nervous.

Even with Imra...

I can feel it, however slightly. There's this distant sense of terror, wrapped up in the tangle of loyalty.

She's stuck, in some ways. Trapped and tied to the nightmare that slithered its way up from the underworld.

I'd be scared.

[Accept: Y/N]

I am scared.

[Accept: Y/N]

It was so... easy.

So simple.

The kind of simple that makes a person stop even thinking about the action itself, their mind casually skipping past it and onto the next.

[Accept: Y/N]

I killed people.

A lot of people.

With the effort it might have once taken me to snap my fingers, I ended them.

Lives that screamed, begged for the pain to stop, as the flames swallowed them whole. Lives that didn't just disappear, but howled, flailing as they crumbled off into cinders and dust.

[Accept: Y/N]

So easily.

It was so easy- too easy to take.

To steal...

To take and take, and take...

To steal.

I won't.

You must.

[Level up – pending: Progress – 12/100]

[Skill points - pending: 12,000]

[Title - pending: Servant of the World]

[Accept: Y/N]

[Selection received]

[...]

[...]

[...] [!]

[...] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!]

[Level up – LOCKED: progress – 12/100]

[Skill points: -12,000]

[Title: Servant of the World – Declined]

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[Title awarded:]

[ENEMY OF THE WORLD]

Book II - Chapter 37

Chapter 37

 

[Eveth]

 

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

She scanned the script for a moment, squinting.

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

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

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

As Eveth turned, silence greeted her.

Simple, ordinary, safe.

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

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

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

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

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

“Farstrider.”

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

Hadn't they?

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

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

All while that Basilisk watched.

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

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

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

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

"No." Imra said.

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

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

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

There were no openings for conversation to begin.

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

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

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

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

It had been a day.

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

Cautiously, she approached the table.

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

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

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

Was the Elf... asleep?

Asleep, while sitting up?

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

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

The Elf made no response.

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

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

Mana?

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

How did it work? What did it do?

Her curiosity was already getting the better of her.

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

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

But this... this was different.

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

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

Restricted?

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

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

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

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

Yet, fascinating.

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

"Ssss..."

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

"Ssss..."

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

"Ssssssss..."

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

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

Eveth held still.

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

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

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

Mana surged into the air.

A lot of mana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was cold.

Very cold.

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

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

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

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

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

Docile in posture, almost timid.

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

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

Maybe... it was?

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

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

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

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

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

Again, it seemed to be waiting for something.

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

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

Again, mist began to form.

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

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

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

Eveth was left to sit in a stunned silence.

Had a monster just made a joke at her expense?

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

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

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

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

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

"You will?"

"Sss..."

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

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

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

Her mind focused.

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

"Plink."

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

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

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

"Imra! You're awake-"

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

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

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

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

The seconds began to stretch. Then a minute passed.

That was it?

Eveth blinked in disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You saved our lives."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Then, what is it doing?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The God?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Returned it?"

"Your foolish question."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In the Dungeons? Yes, many times."

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

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Only once." Eveth answered.

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

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

Book II - Chapter 38

Chapter 38

 

Snake Report:

 

I've cracked the code.

Answered something that's been bugging me for a long time.

Puzzled out the reason for why this world works the way it does.

Leveling.

If you meet specific criteria, you'll level up.

I know that well.

I've done that almost 100 times now, so you could say I've gotten pretty good at it.

If I destroy monsters, practice skills, survive dangers, grow stronger: the world will reward me.

More than that, really: the world will sweeten the deal.

[Skill points] are handed out, and those can be used to buy abilities after a level up. My senses get better: each new level lets me move quicker, see further, smell and taste and notice details farther and farther down the line, but it brings up some questions.

For example: "why?"

Why does the world invest in creatures this way?

It's clearly not just me. I've always felt that other monsters in the dungeons likely operated on the same premise.

They tried to kill other monsters the first chance they got, and when it came to humans? Then, they were even more bloodthirsty.

It was a clear-cut sort of life: kill, survive and grow more powerful.

But again, why?

If there was a reason for it all, why encourage such a system?

What purpose does that hope to serve?

[Enemy of the World]

I think I get it now.

It makes sense. The pieces fit together, all too well really. This title, these last few hours, they're the final nail in the casket.

I can't sit out on the sidelines, any longer.

It told me as much.

I have to pick a side.

Either, I'm with them or against them.

[Servant of the World] or [Enemy of the World]

The whole purpose of the dungeons, the leveling, the skill and the points: it was to create a monster.

Like me.

How many creatures did I kill and receive nothing for? Maybe I might have leveled from them, but outside of a few exceptional circumstances, they typically gave me almost nothing besides the [5] points I'd get with an ordinary level.

That’s measly hand-out.

Probably just enough to give a few basic skills in a lifetime... but killing humans?

Not so.

No wonder that monsters try to kill people.

Even if they're lacking intelligence, I've always found that instinct knows a good deal when it crosses paths with one.

If you practice a skill, it gets stronger. The skill will rank up or evolve as you work at it, but they were always available in the menu too. The next rank was always there for purchase if I wanted to waste the points on it.

[1,000] points at a low level could mean a huge edge on the competition.

[12,000] points, offered up and fresh for the taking. Works out to [1,000] for each person.

But... how many would I have if I burned down this city, I wonder?

Hundreds of thousands?

No... millions?

If I destroy an entire city, I doubt there would be a single skill I'd have to pass up.

What's a few hundred points when I've got hundreds of thousands to spare? I could simply purchase them all, scroll through the menu and take whatever I wanted.

What a deal.

All I'd have to do is kill every human I came across.

Kill everyone.

All humans, no exceptions.

Simple.

Easy.

To just take, and take, and take...

So easy.

No.

No. No. No.

Absolutely-fucking-not.

No way in hell.

I'm not playing this stupid game anymore, and I certainly I don't care what sort of titles get slapped on me for not cooperating.

[Enemy of the World] huh?

Well bring it on. I'll gladly bite the hand that feeds me if it's going to try and make me swallow that pile of shit.

[Servant of the World] huh? Just be a good little serial killer! Rewards aplenty!

Well I got news for you: I don't serve the world.

Never have and I never will.

You know what I serve?

The Tiny Snake God.

That’s right, motherfucker.

There's only room for one mystical and divine force in my life, and it ain't you!

Yeah. You heard me. I don't need your [points] or your stupid menu, or even your dumb levels! What good have levels ever done for me anyways? Huh?

Nothing! That's what! Hell, [Voice of Gaia] hasn't even worked recently, and I've gotten by just fine!

Just fine!

Watch me: I'll just take my skills and make them stronger on my own! I'll practice every day and be the strongest snake you've ever seen, and if you send monsters after me? I'll torch the shit out of them! I'll go full green-fire barbecue on their asses!

Like this!

And this!

And I'll swirl dust in their stupid faces! I'll drop ice-cubes on their back! I'll pierce their foolish flesh with my fangs!

Unbearable suffering will befall them!

Like this! And this!

More dust! More ice! Cold yet? HA! How about this!

Yeah, you bastard! Take that! I'll show you!

You try to mess with my people? You try to mess with me? Look at this tail! This is an Italian mafia tail-wave! This is some god-father level shit! You're going down! You won't even believe how bad it's gonna be!

I heal you back to life just to fry you a second time!

Like this!

Ha! Ha- HA!

And this!

Feeling healthy?

You're God-damn right you do- but you're about to be back in a world of pain!

Hissssssss!

And if that doesn't teach you? Well the Tiny Snake God will-

Ah.

Shit.

I'm out of mana.

Book II - Chapter 39

Chapter 39

 

Snake Report:

 

I'm the first one awake.

Room's completely quiet.

Just the sound of breathing, just a slight chill.

Shutters on the window aren't rattling, but there's a breeze. Shaded air from an empty city street, cool flow of something that's not quite wind. The kind where warm is on its way, but not quite arrived.

I'm still on the floor.

Like an idiot, I'm still on the floor.

I've just been... just really dumb recently.

I haven't adjusted.

That’s a nicer way of putting it, I think.

Haven't adjusted.

Reality has pulled the rug out from under me. I've been pushed back an uncomfortable number of steps- slithers, whatever.

I'm not what I was before: that's what I'm trying to get at.

I also messed up, yesterday.

Really badly.

What’s worse, is I think this will probably keep happening unless I do something about it. If I act as if I'm still in control of the situation, this is exactly what I'm going to get.

Because, I’m not.

I'm not in control anymore.

I can't interact with the world the way I used to. For the second time now, it's like I've lost my voice and limbs.

Without Earth magic, I’m in trouble.

Almost as if I were once a master craftsman, but I've lost all the tools.

Ssss...

Like anyone, I got so used to looking at the world through this lens. The perspective of someone who could manipulate and adjust some of his surroundings, maybe even majorly: to change them if he wanted.

But now I can't.

If things get bad, all I've got left is one awful choice.

The whole mess, it was almost laughable. If I still had my Earth magic, I could have easily gotten us out of that situation.

It was so avoidable.

I could have raised the ground up, I could have dropped us down and sealed us off from danger- I could have lifted a statue. Some serious plans have been constructed for dealing with threats, and they were not all fire and brimstone.

Hell, if I'd had my [Spirit attendants] I could have probably just scared those bastards off.

I would have had a choice, but instead I took the easy way.

Too easy.

Way too easy.

I'm looking down from the edge of a slipperly slope.

Almost anything would have been better, but that was just it: I got cornered so quick, and suddenly that was the only thing left I knew would work.

Sssss...

What would a master craftsman try do first, if they lost all their tools?

Mourn?

Sure, they might- but then what?

Buy another set?

I think they would.

[Voice of Gaia] open the skills list.

...

...

...

Nothing.

This is worse than before. It's really nothing.

I don't get a sense of any sort of brooding silence, or judgemental anger: it's just not there.

Completely absent.

That's exactly what I should be expecting, though.

Of course, there's nothing.

Of course.

I'm an [Enemy of the World] now.

Why the heck would the system help me now?

Far as that mess is concerned I no longer root for the same team. Don't want to be a servant? Well, don't let the door hit out on the way out.

Fine, so let’s rule out purchasing.

Buying won't work. Safe assumption.

What then? I have to make one?

I suppose that makes sense.

[Imitation voice of Gaia] what magics do I have?

...

Sss... Ahem:

Level 99 and a half or something.

Titles: [Servant of the Tiny Snake God] and whatever. Guardian and some others I'd just rather not remember.

Branch: Divine something or another.

Unique traits: Something-something, I can eat whatever... something-something, Don't eat me... something something, Affinity with fire... I honestly can't remember anymore.

Status: [Blessed by the Tiny Snake God]

Resistances: A bunch, I think. I don't remember. Fire, Mana, Acid, and Poison. Whatever.

Skills:

[Healing:] Healing magic, rank... I don't know. It's up there, but if Imra has taught me anything I'm going to need to work at it. Useless for combat. Passive healing, decent enough for combat. Rank whatever.

[Fire Magics:] Fireball, not the whiskey. Rank… I don't remember. Leviathan Breath... Rank twenty of something very high, but again I don't remember. No molding or manipulation allowed further than controlling the output in a general “less fire or more fire” so more or less useless for doing anything but killing people and party tricks… Or opening boxes.

[Earth Magics:] Sculpting, rank... I don't remember. Very, very high, but currently not working.

[Water Magics] Manipulation and molding, don't remember the rank but it wasn't much compared to Earth.

[Knowledge Magic:] Not working.

Well... mostly not working.

The passive stuff seems to work, as I can understand people. Spirit Attendants on vacation. Voice of Gaia is a jerk. In summary: no active abilities.

[Divine magic:] Seriously: No idea. Never figured out what these did in the first place. Probably not working.

... Okay.

So, in summary: I can either burn my enemies alive, heal them, or splash them with a bit of water.

Even with the gaps in my memory leaving out a few numeric details, this isn't looking all that great.

If I run into more danger and I want to protect the people with me, I'm going to have no choice but end up cornered again.

Either I murder people, or I heal them.

There is no middle ground: I'm like a coin flip.

Life, or death.

Sss...

I don't like that.

At all.

Clearly, this is a case of being up the creek without a paddle. I used to have options, and now I don't. I need to make a plan.

No use in stressing over this and not doing anything productive, I just need to make a plan. There's a solution- I know there is. I just need to find out what it is, and then follow through.

[Skills]

I need a new skill I can rely on, and so far as I know, there are three ways to get that figured out. Buy it, earn it, or make it.

"Buying" a skill is out, and by the same reasoning "earning" a skill is probably out- so I have to make it.

That's decided for me.

Operation [Create a skill]

Alright, so I need to make something that fits the role Earth magic did- at least partly. I need to improve something I already have into a comparable of defense to go with my offense: shield with the sword.

Okay. Okay, so far so good. What's plausible?

Well, first up there's clearly Fire. That's been with me since the start- I know it pretty well.

But: no.

No, that magic's good for nothing but burning stuff, and it can't be manipulated well. It's a danger the moment I set it loose.

So that leads right to Earth?

But of course, Earth has been mostly unresponsive, and that's the exact reason I'm in this situation. Okay, alright- just check that off too.

Healing? No, doesn't fit. Maybe I could [Heal] through damage, but I can't do that for everyone- and it's not like I'd survive a really well-placed attack. I can only imagine some of those guys trying to murder us yesterday could have easily cut me into tinier tiny snake pieces.

Besides, recently using that magic makes me feel like I've got an extra voice in my head.

Worrisome, and no good.

So… what's even left? Knowledge? Probably all tied to the system. None of it's been working but passive stuff.

Divine Magic?

Frankly, I don't even know what that stuff is, much less how to use it for something.

So that just leaves... Water. The good ol' two H and O: a form magic I might as well have shut away and ignored until recently.

That's what I've got left.

It's not ideal, but Water is the clear choice here.

Ug.

Sure, I had plans to get better with this. Water magic, I mean- that's just cool sounding right? I seems like it would be so great- if not for the fact I'm a REPTILE.

Cold-blooded.

Thank god I have Fire magic, or I'd be slowing down just thinking about it. Not like I've really been living in a warm environment to begin with, but damn. I can only imagine what my life would have been like starting Water instead of Fire, or Earth.

I'd probably have died to the spiders. Heck, I might have just died: can't grill a mushroom without some sort of flame.

Water magic hasn't really been that great for me.

Like how everyone after new-years has plans to hit the gym, I was telling myself I'd get around to working it out a bit, but I guess I was just leaning heavy on what I knew best. I mean, who needs a little trickle when you can mold the ground itself, or breathe a massive burst of fire?

It wasn't like Earth: it couldn't protect me. It certainly wasn't in league with Fire- it wasn't ever capable of killing monsters in the dungeon. In its full range of uses, Water magic was mostly just convenient when thirsty. Earth was clearly the favorite. Fire was a matter of survival.

Water wasn't.

Hiss...

Stay productive.

I'm going to need a Tiny-Snake breakdown of the pros and cons with this. Think it through.

Focus.

Alright. Let's go.

Pro: It still works.

Con: It's pitifully weak. Earth was better

Pro: It can make objects and hold its shape.

Con: Earth Magic was stronger.

Pro: It's literally the only option available.

Con: Earth Magic was way cooler. Earth Magic for life. Earth Magic best gir-

No, stop.

Enough, enough.

Obviously, this magic is a long, loooooong way from where I need it to be, but the pros force the cons into submission here. Technically speaking, it's close enough to earth in form and function. It can do most of the same things, short of burrowing tunnels. I can mold it into shapes, make it move as I want.

But again, it's weak. The only reason it can do much of anything at all if because I've got a lot of magic power to throw around. My mana capacity is pretty large I think, so that... that might actually help this along, but that doesn't mean I'm anywhere close to the level I was with Earth Magic.

But then... maybe I won't need to be.

I mean, I'm watching myself mold water right now, and there's one obvious difference between these so called “elements.”

Water's way easier to move. In fact, it's the mana equivalent of lifting feathers compared to... well, rocks.

It's not as dense, and it's naturally a liquid so it flows whereever I happen to direct it. Sure, it needs a bit more micro-management, but it's not so bad. Shapes are easy, and when I get what I want I can just make it turn to ice.

Liquid, to ice, to liquid, to vapor... simple now that I've got it all figured out. It's just a weird trick, spread it out, pull it together. Like casting a net, or something like that.

But… I never even thought to try this with Earth.

Could I have made Earth a liquid? Sure, I “molded” it to shift around, but I think all I was really doing was having it dissolve into super fine fragments and then reform. Could I have melted rock?

... Maybe?

Alright, so that's a start.

See, that's something: I've got a plan coming together.

I obviously need to improve water magic, and so I'm going to need to practice with this. I had to burrow out from the depths of the world itself, miles worth of bedrock, just to get Earth Magic sorted out. For Water? I assume this is going to take a lot of usage.

Probably like a lot, a lot: just grinding its use over something I can easily repeat to rank it up...

Rank it... up... that will still work, right?

... right…

Woah.

Wait a second.

That's a really good question. Will that work?

Shit.

[Enemy of the World]

That's the stupid title the system gave me, and when it did, it capped my level. Does that mean it capped my skills? Does [Enemy of the World] come with additional fine print?

Can I even tell?

Oh.

Oh no.

No, no no no- is there even another way for me to tell?

There has to be a way.

There has got to be a way to check- but what if I check and it just proves I can't?

Oh crap.

Don't tell me I'm in a checkmate already.

What the hell, is this a “Kill the humans” or full-stop? Is this reality really that twisted?

Shit.

Shit shit shit.

Okay, calm down.

This is way too early for this: total-panic comes after breakfast. Get it together, and simmer.

Simmer down.

Start it all out slow. Vapor into droplets. Droplets into ice. Ice to droplets, droplets to vapor...

Get that nice and low mana expenditure established. Commence operation [Aqua Grinding] and relax.

Fall back to the oldest coping mechanism in the book, just focus on the magic.

Watch the magic.

Make it do what you want it to do. Make ice, mold the ice, shape it...

There we go.

Let's be optimistic.

Let’s just assume skills aren't capped. The messages didn't explicitly say they were capped, but they did for the level, so that probably means they're not.

Probably.

Gotta relax.

Too early to be stressed out. I already know I've got my passives, passive healing, flame resistance. I had those, even if I couldn't check.

Most magic still works, too.

No reason to think that would fundamentally change. That's too much, wouldn't make sense. Leveling can get stuck, but skills still improve. I can get better, I can improve.

I just gotta relax.

Move the ice... back to water, back to vapor... back to water... back to ice...

Hiss...

Keep it going.

Keep it going, and stay calm. Think your way out of this: there's a solution here. Panicking won't do anyone any good.

Think.

Is there a way to tell?

Really think.

What rank was water magic before all this?

Something sort of low... low, but not completely at the start. Maybe around ten?

Okay.

Let's assume that. It was at rank ten or so, maybe something close. So, if there's a way to check, any number over ten could confirm: it ranks up.

What else?

I could focus and narrow down some sort of mana to magic-output ratio or something. Tough to test without any form of measurement, but that might work... maybe...

That second option is going to be tricky. All I've got to work with is gut-feelings and muscle memory. Not exactly refined forms of calculating values.

But lock it down.

Set the baseline for mana. Form a decent sized ice-pebble. Try to make it float.

Not floating, make it smaller.

… there.

Easy.

There it is.

Memorize this.

This is the baseline. It floats, now make it bigger again.

Doesn't float easily: wants a lot more mana. Don't give it. Keep it ice and cold. Keep it the same size, now multitask. Another set of mana, keep it separate.

Vapor, water, ice, water vapor. Keep that going. Get another layer.

Keep both going.

Another layer. Good.

Now wait.

Keep those going.

Keep those-

Oh. There, something changed.

Try to lift.

No... not yet, but... there: it's trying. Wobbling. Close.

Keep it going.

Another minute. One more minute... one more... one more...

There.

There it was again, that slight change.

Try again to lift it... lift it... it wobbles... wobbles...

Keep it going.

Keep it going...

Hiss...

It lifts.

Call it. Too much mana, rein it back and recover.

That's proof. Sloppy proof, but close enough.

That was an invisible rank-up. Had to be.

So, they're still happening, just not out loud. The system isn't gone, it's just muted.

It’s trying to hide things.

God damn.

I never considered this before.

Of course, I noticed that I haven't been seeing any rank ups at all- it clearly wasn't just [Voice of Gaia] that wouldn't respond, it was everything. Everything was dead silent.

But it was still working.

The system piped up when I killed those bandits- or whoever they were, and now everything has gone silent again: but it's still working.

Somehow, I'm still attached.

Does that mean it can't cut me off after all?

Wait a minute...

Does that mean the system is has limited control?

It can lock levels in some respect, clearly. It's got me capped out at 99. I know it can allocate or remove skill points, assign titles... but it can't actually stop skills?

Are these a loophole?

I shouldn't be questioning the laws that govern this messed-up reality before breakfast.

Ssss...

My mana's slowly coming back. It's so sluggish though, I remember this being quicker when I was in the Dungeon. I'm at about seventy percent full on that... now maybe seventy-one... maybe seventy-two?

Gut-feeling, but there it goes.

Slow and steady, I feel it coming back.

If using magic can still rank up an ability, though, I should try to find a balance. The most productive manner, by which I can casually grind up what I have into a tool I can use.

Everyone else is still out-cold so it's not like I've got an excuse to procrastinate.

Imra's in one of her trances.

She's dreaming about climbing an endless tree, always reaching one branch further as the winds try to throw her down to the darkness below.

The dark is following, though. Slipping up like reaching hands that whisper and burn- but not with light. They burn without a glow, but above her: above her is a light. A real light, like the sun- but it's not the sun. It's something else, like a glowing coil way up in the sky, whirling and twisting about itself in a massive spiral. It's watching, as it holds back the darkness.

Don't ask me how I know this.

Sss...

Vapor, to water, to ice, to water, to vapor.

It's way too early for this shit.