She could still remember the tunnels. Weeks spent, climbing, only to find those flames waiting. Those horrible, undying, specters, haunting the world above. Even more terrible than the creatures hunting the world below.
Fires, that could only be of Chaos.
Some couldn’t endure the sight of them. Those who stared deep within those flames, became blinded, they clawed at their skin, in pain, begging to stop the visions. Others, lost their minds entirely. Mad with laughter, they turned on one another, violent and hungry as the flames in the distance. As she fled, though, she could never quite escape the screams. Whose it was, she could not have said.
Even after the spirit found her, even after she began her journey through the caverns and tunnels, through monsters and ancient secrets best left forgotten: she knew one thing.
Those voices could break a mind.
Listening to language not meant for the ears of men, furious as it was euphoric. Even the faintest whispers she’d heard, before she ran from them. From those words, those tones, those cackling bouts of screaming laughter, came creeping secrets that pulled thoughts in patterns and shapes, building the pieces needed to twist, to pull, to snap-
Talia sat up, drenched in sweat, reaching for her weapon. Her hand felt… skin. Cloth, not armor. Blankets, not steel. Where had…
Ah, that was right.
She wasn’t in the Dungeon, any longer. There had been a fight.
The City, the earthquakes, monsters… the centipede...
“Thank you, Spirit.” She whispered aloud.
For once, no one answered.
Looking about, the room she now found herself was a far cry from the battlefield she remembered. Laying in a comfortable bed, covered in warm, clean, sheets. Beside the bed, a small end table, with a cup of water and some folded cloth. Her armor- dented and scuffed, in all its glory, hung from a shelf beside a thick door of wood.
Deep reddish texture, with layers that seemed to shine with a glossy polish, or stain. She hadn’t seen much of that material since arriving on the Old Continent, but it appeared genuine. Which meant wealth… perhaps? Leaning further forward, she groaned..
Regret hit her, in time with the pain.
Unpleasant ripples up her arms and shoulders from what could only be broken bones that had been healed. Even set right and seamed together by faith, the echoes of what had occurred could never be entirely wiped away. Then, came the vertigo.
“So cold…” Talia wrapped herself up, breathing deeply.
The price had been paid, surely. Just as the Spirit had warned her. Considering what had been asked, it was a wonder she was even alive.
Talia lay back, letting the feelings settle. As her vision swam back into shape, she found herself looking up to what rested above her bed. There, a crest stared down. Badly burned about its edges, as if dropping into open flames.
A four-headed frog… that was quite a strange symbol.
“Why so many?” She murmured the question aloud, as she eyed it. “Two heads would have been plenty.”
“I’d just like to know who she is.”
Talia froze. Looking back towards the door, she could hear a voice approaching.
“Dren said she’s a ‘good person’ who deserves our help.” Someone else replied. A woman’s tone, this time. “But, I’m fairly certain that good people are a myth.”
“Again with the sarcasm.” The man’s voice grumbled, as heavy steps brought them closer. “Tuth seems to agree with him. He’s normally much more suspicious of people.”
“Tuth? Of course he does.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Have you seen her. Alem?”
“Aye, huh? Always knew you had a weakness for blonds.” The voices stopping briefly at the scuffing sounds of something moving. “Stefano needs to clear more space for us. He agreed these rooms weren’t for storage.”
“Stefano doesn’t need to do anything, Eveth. We should be glad he’s been as patient with us as he has.”
“We paid him. He’s gotten his fair share.”
“Dungeon’s still off-limits. Haven’t been able to collect for some time now, but you don’t seem him asking for rent.”
“The nice lump-sum up front was more than fair for a wagon and some supplies-”
“And trust, Eveth. Compared to Gold, trust is far more valuable to me. We’re rather short on friends, recently. Just because the Empire is being friendly with us, doesn’t change the fact that both Merchants and the Mercenary Guilds blame us for that fiasco.”
“Fine.” The woman cut the conversation short, as Talia heard another door open. “Trust it is.”
The voices grew quieter, as Talia turned her head to listen.
“I would still like to know who she is, though.” She heard the man grumble. “Saw a lot of Magic I’ve never even heard of, out there. I know I’m not a Mage, but I thought I knew a thing or two.”
”Faith and Earth were present, but I don’t know what the fire was.”
“Do you think it might be…” The voice hushed, as Talia strained to hear. “Dren thinks she’s related to our… friend.”
“It’s ridiculous enough have been him.” The woman replied, voice almost inaudible. “After hearing a ball of flame shouting, I’ll agree to that much.”
“Any thoughts on the rest of it? I know you can see more than most.”
“The Earth Magic wasn’t normal. Not nearly as complex as our… friend’s, but close. Instead of an entire spell, it was just a small fraction, molding things into shape over and over.” They paused. “I’d say it was far more than any ordinary Mage would have been capable of.”
“So, you agree?”
“I think it’s reasonable to assume our guest might know something. She might be involved, in some way.” They paused, again. “Why now, though? He’s been silent since Imra-”
“We know Imra wasn’t from around these parts. Safe to assume they traveled before coming here. I doubt we’re the only people who worked with them, at some point.”
“I’ll be honest, Alem: that’s exactly what’s worrying me.”
Their voices were quieter, now. Talia had to lean over the edge of the bed, to try and listen.
“I should talk to her.” The man said. “See what she knows.”
“I’ll see if we can get some answers-
“Sometimes, I swear. You’re as bad as Tuth, Alem.”
“Talk to the gorgeous blond woman, lying half naked on the bed.” The woman snorted. “Just because you were the last one to talk to the snake, doesn’t mean-”
Talia gasped, as her palm slipped- barely catching herself on the end-table. She watched, as the cup tumbled, landing with a loud sound.
The voices stopped.
She held her breath.
“Should we check on her?” The man asked, quietly. “I heard something.”
“Should we check on her, he says…" The reply was icy. “I’ll do it.”
“Poor woman barely has clothes on.”
“Stefano offered to provide some.”
“Oh, I bet he did.” The footsteps drew closer. Seconds later, there was a knock at the door. “I’m coming in.”
“Yes-” Talia didn’t get to finish her reply, before the door opened.
“I’ll yell if I need anything, Alem.” Standing by the entrance, a cloaked woman surveyed the room, eyes sweeping over Talia, before turning back to the hall with a frown. “Don’t even think about coming in, otherwise.” She finished, closing the door behind her, before glancing at Talia, again. “Hello.” She said. “I’m Eveth.”
“Hello.” Talia replied, cautiously. “I’m Paladin Thorolund.”
“So formal.” Talia saw Eveth raise an eyebrow. “Let’s get some [Light] in here.”
At once, several spells came to life. Not few one or two, but eight… nine… ten… eleven?
She gave up counting after they all began to move about the room.
“Wow." Talia blinked. For a Mage who didn’t introduce themselves with a title, it was quite a lot of spellwork. “Grant could never do more than nine, no matter how hard he tried. That’s amazing.”
“Grant?” The Mage stopped short, frowning.
“Ah, I’m sorry.” Talia shook her head. “You reminded me of a friend. He was a Mage, too.”
“I see.” Eveth answered, pausing for a moment. Finally, after what seemed intense deliberation, she spoke. “You should be dead.” She stopped again. “You should be dead, twice over.” She clarified. “In fact, I suspect you’ve probably been wondering why you’re not.”
“I… was, actually.” Talia admitted.
“You drank two mana potions.”
“After the fight, I managed to get you to drink two mana potions. All I had on me.” Across from the bed, Eveth pulled a chair from beside the bed-side table, and took a seat. “Even after both of them, you still almost ran out of mana. It was like watching the spiritual-equivalent of a bleed-out.”
“So, that’s how.” Talia nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
“The talking ball of flame was using you as a siphon.” Staff resting atop her knees, the Mage ignored the formalities as she leaned closer. “Tell me about that.”
“Yes, that.” Eveth answered.
“I didn’t know Mages these days were so religious.”
“I’m not, and you can’t fool me. I know it wasn’t some secret Church Miracle.”
“Ah.” Eveth replied, bluntly. “The ball of fire sounded an awful lot like someone I used to know.” She said. “I found that interesting. As did my friends.”
“Was this someone you used to know… an ally?” Talia asked, cautiously.
Across from her, Eveth sighed.
“You know why people don’t trust the Church, Paladin Thorolund?” She asked.
“Because the Church has a bad habit of tricking people into trusting them, and then torturing them to death.” Eveth picked up her staff, tapping it on the floor. Simultaneously, the [Light] spells in the room around them drew in behind her. “Tell me: what do the words tiny, blue, and destruction, mean to you?” The [Light] spells shifted, molding into daggers. “You have three seconds.”
“What?” Talia asked, eyes wide.
“Two seconds, and I’m not joking.” The daggers got longer. “Tiny, blue, destruction. Answer.”
“A snake.” Talia choked out, quickly continuing. “They mean a snake- a Basilisk.”
“What else?” The daggers of [Light] elongated further. Now all but thin swords, just inches away.
“What do you mean-”
“What else do they mean?” Eveth pressed. “Death, danger? Are they a threat? Tell me!”
“No!” Talia gasped. “No, they’re not!”
“Then, what?” The blades approached. “What are they?”
“A friend.” Talia shouted. “They’re a friend!”
The blades stopped.
Eveth stared at her, before finally shaking her head.
The [Light] spells fell to pieces, crumbling off into dust, before reforming behind her, once again.
“I swear.” With a long sigh, the Mage held the bridge of her nose. “You’re either the worst Inquisitor this world has ever seen, or you’re something else.”
“You know the snake?” Talia asked. “Do you know where he is?”
“Why would I tell you?” Eveth asked. “You’re the stranger who inexplicably attached themselves to two of our Guild-members in a single afternoon.”
“Dren and Tuth? Are they here- are they well?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Eveth leaned back. “It’s them you’re worried about?” She muttered. “They’re fine.”
“To think, people like you still exist.” Eveth crossed her arms, staff once again resting on her lap. “Thought the world swallowed all of you up years ago.”
“It tried.” Talia replied. “Tell me, what happened to him?"
"No. Tell me, what happened to the snake."
"I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Eveth shrugged.
"I’m talking about the blue serpent, with green flames."
"Did the Church send you?
"I swear to the First King: I'm not an Inquisitor." Talia stated. "I don't work for anyone. Not for the Church, or the Empire."
"Knowing what I do, there's no denying those are both likely searching by now." Talia replied. "But, I'm not with them."
"Fine." Eveth frowned. "Say, by chance, I believe you, Paladin Thorolund. What do you want?"
"To find him." Talia answered. “I’ve been trying to find him, for some time now.”
“And, why’s that?”
"For the same reason you won't give me an answer." Talia answered. "Or, so I'd like to assume."
“Oh?” Eveth’s eyes narrowed. “How so?”
"There should be a hole in your chest, but there isn’t." Talia let the statement sit in the air.
"There should be. I can see it, because the Spirit lets me see it.” Talia continued. “Just like he lets me see the traces of him on all of you.”
“The Spirit." Eveth repeated. "The orb of flame, we saw earlier?"
"It was once his voice." Talia answered. "One of them, at least."
"Of course it was." Eveth muttered. “Is that how you found us? Residual mana traces, or something similar?”
“Do you know what’s happening on the Northern Continent, Eveth?” Talia asked. “What is happening to the world, at large?”
“There’s a fire.”
“No, it’s not just a fire.”
“That’s what people around here are calling it.” Eveth replied. “A fire.”
“They’re wrong.” Talia shook her head. “When the flames of Chaos took the Northern Continent, and covered the surface, do you know what I did?” With great effort, Talia pushed herself upright, ignoring the pain. “I fought my way through the Dungeon until I reached the coast. I stumbled through a dying city, to throw myself into the waves.” Turning herself, until her feet could touch the floor, Talia continued. “When no ships would fly across the ocean, I found one brave enough to sail.” Legs shaking, she stood, blanket draped over her shoulders. “From that ocean, I arrived to cross a wasteland, filled with monsters and worse, to finally make it here.”
“Why?” Eveth asked, quietly.
"He once saved my life. Just like he saved yours."
"And that's why you want to find him?"
"No." Talia answered. "But, that's why I have to."
She watched as Eveth closed her eyes. The frown was gone now, and with it, the apprehension had faded away. Whatever the Mage had seemed to have felt before, there was a different expression.
No… it was empathy, Talia realized.
"Trust me, you don't."