The Demonologues - Chapter 032
Haylen had the audacity to physically drag me out from under my bed in the morning. She wanted to get some training in and, I suspected, use me as a punching bag to work off some of the stress left over from the night before. My perfectly reasonable complaints and protests were entirely ignored, and I was only given enough time to change before she was bustling me out the door.
Kearse was waiting in the hall, wide awake. He was a damn morning person, and right now, I hated him for it.
“Have either of you heard of this great new thing?” I asked. “It’s called ‘sleeping in.’ How it works is, you don’t get up at the crack of dawn. Instead, you stay in bed for an extra hour or two. You get rest. Reeest. Amazing, right?”
Halen and Kearse looked at each other and pretended to seem confused.
“Sleeping longer than you need to? Do you think that’s possible?” Haylen asked innocently.
“I’ve always had to wake up before sunrise to go to work, so I wouldn’t know. Also, are we sure we should trust the words of a girl who doesn’t even know how to use a bed properly? I don’t think she knows what she’s talking about.”
Kearse did his best to sound skeptical, but couldn’t hide his smugness, so I kicked him in the shin.
Our warm-up run did help to wake me up though. Even more so, because Haylen had picked a great spot. We jogged along the top of the wall surrounding the manor. The wall itself was thin enough that we had to run single file, but wide enough that we didn’t have to worry about someone falling off when we passed by any of the guards at their stations.
I could admit that I took a childish delight in it. Maybe it’s something hardwired into our brains, but when a person sees a wall, they will instinctively want to stand atop it.
Like the previous night’s moon, the wall reminded me of how different this world was. But unlike the moon, this was something I could touch and interact with. It was physical, real, and I was running on it. Descriptions in novels or history books just couldn’t compete with the real thing.
“And the view! It’s all so beautiful!”
In Peninsula, I had spent the better part of two years being surrounded by gray. Gray concrete. Gray mist. Lifeless gray zombies. There were plenty of things that were colorful, but they were muted, faded by time that even the necropolis couldn’t keep at bay, and invariably surrounded by more gray.
But here was green. Real green. True green. Vivid and bright.
The forest growing on the lower half of the hill was small by my standards, but the trees were tall and strong with rough brown bark and large heart-shaped leaves. White flowers bloomed in the canopy, a sign of Spring. Birds were wrapping up their morning calls, and had begun to swoop around between the branches.
From my vantage point, I could see past the woods to the fields and orchards beyond. They were neat and orderly, but still flowed naturally with the landscape. Smoke rose from a few chimneys of the farmhouses, and I wondered what the people inside them might be doing. It was probably breakfast, but what were they eating? How were they cooking it?
In the distance, on a low hill sat the town of Ramen.
“No. Wait. Rannen. It’s Rannen, not a noodle. I probably shouldn’t have let Haylen talk me into skipping breakfast.”
Rannen was wide, and I could vaguely make out the forms of people already walking around inside. As expected, most of its buildings were boxy and made of brick, but there was a clear variation in the roofing. Some sections were primarily thatch, while other areas tended to have slate tiles.
I immediately vowed to go into the town as soon as possible. I was in a semi-medieval kinda-renaissance totally magical fantasy world. And I had been squandering my opportunities! Sure, I had a kick-ass sword made by a nearly legendary blacksmith, but I hadn’t used it. Yes, I had bought an alchemy book that would probably give a chemist an aneurism, but I had hardly done more than skim through it. I had an entire shelf of the rarest and most detailed arcane tomes in the world, and I had read those, but I still couldn’t think of myself as a mage.
Arlonia had its drawbacks, lack of internet and the scarcity of internal plumbing being two key factors, but it was still pretty damn cool. I didn’t even want to guess at the number of people that would start throwing themselves in front of trucks if they thought they could be reborn in a place like this. I should be calling myself lucky. I was lucky! I should appreciate the chances I had been given.
The town was out of sight as we ran along the wall, but my mind was made up. I was going into that town, and I was going to enjoy it, dammit!
Wanting to avoid Mayra’s family was another reason to distance myself from the manor. They’d probably be easier to deal with now that the miscommunication had been cleared up, but I wanted to give them a little extra time to forget my own involvement in last night’s fiasco.
“The longer they spend talking with Mayra, the less they’ll be thinking about the number of sharp objects I sent flying around their dinner table.”
Kearse was a little out of breath when we finished our last lap. He was more used to long slow marches, unlike Haylen and I who could run forever so long as we weren’t weighed down. Luckily for him, his morning training was only target practice. After setting up a few empty cans and dialing the gun down to its lowest damage setting, I handed the gun off to him along with a few spare crystals of the appropriate size and got well clear of the firing range.
Haylen and I had a much more strenuous activity ahead.
The guards, vile monsters that they were, even loaned us a few practice swords and showed us to the open area near one of the gatehouses that they used for their own drills.
We started with a review of stances and basic techniques, but I was given only a few minutes of peace before the half-elf decided that I didn’t have enough bruises and set us to sparring. She was a good teacher, and distributed compliments as easily as criticism, but I disapproved of her methods since they literally involved beating me with a stick.
“Is this supposed to be motivation? Get better so that I can’t hit you so much?”
“Don’t try to lock swords. It’s bad for the blade and turns the fight into a contest of strength, which you won’t win. It also leaves you open because there are a lot of ways to counter it. If you were twice your weight, half a meter taller, and wearing plate armor, the move might work. But since you’re not any of those things, don’t try it.”
“Stop trying to hit my sword and aim for me! It doesn’t bleed. It doesn’t die. You’ll never win a fight if you don’t strike at your opponent.”
“Don’t let your legs come in line with my own. It makes it too easy to sweep them out from under you. Just because this is a sword fight doesn’t mean that the blade is the only thing that can hit you.”
“That thrust had good form, but you were too far away and overextended. Even if I could have blocked it, I wouldn’t need to.”
Each of her comments was accompanied by a firm blow to my legs, arms, or other meaty bits. Not hard enough to break a bone, but more than enough to be a painful reminder of how low my current skill level was.
“And you wonder why it’s so hard to get me out of bed in the morning. Anyone would want to hide from this!”
I didn’t tell her that though. Most likely, it would only prompt a lecture on how she was doing me a favor, and a reminder that this was for my own good.
I was proven wrong when our spar and or torture session was interrupted by one of the guards. He turned out to be more than just a guard though when he introduced himself as Sir Hoffmann. Despite having a title, he was only slightly better armored than most of the regular guards. Whether he was lightly armored for a knight, or the other guards were just very well equipped, I couldn’t tell.
“Miss Albidis,” he began, politely addressing Haylen once we had exchanged names, “would you be willing to have sparring match with me? It is a rare honor to have a paladin candidate such as yourself among us, and I am most impressed by your skills. I propose a friendly duel. Or a sparring match. Call it what you will, but you accept the challenge?”
Haylen seemed surprised by the… offer. She had been raised in a militant lifestyle and regularly fought both alongside and against people like Corlo, but being called out for an honor duel by a complete stranger seemed to be a new experience for her.
“Practice swords, or real steel?” she asked after some mental deliberation.
The knight smiled and shrugged, showing his honest intentions.
“Your choice. First blood, or last blow, it matters not. I say ‘duel’ only out of respect. A friendly match is all I ask. As a knight, it would be remiss of me to see one such as you and not desire to challenge myself.”
I couldn’t tell if Sir Hoffmann was hitting on Haylen, or simply wanted to try and hit her, but either way, the guy was smooth. Actually, it was probably both. I were in her shoes, I’d be hard pressed to find a reason to refuse.
And she didn’t.
She chose to use wooden practice swords, with the match being a best two out of three for blows. There was no referee. They were both people of honor, and didn’t need such things.
Like a book trying to describe the emotional value of a really big wall, I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking for when gauging the quality of these fights. I had never held a real sword before Snowflake, and I had yet to even use it in so much as a practice match. I simply wasn’t good enough to recognize a good swordsman from a bad one.
The first rounded ended in a victory for the knight. How, I couldn’t tell. I could hear the sound of wood sliding against wood, but didn’t see which blow had landed before Haylen shouted, “Touch!” and the two separated back to their beginning points.
The second round lasted longer, but ended when Haylen somehow combined a parry with a full pirouette and managed to land a clean strike on Sir Hoffmann’s side. I was proud of myself for knowing which words to attribute to the different techniques.
The last round was finished almost immediately. Instead of any finesse or skill, Haylen caught the knight off guard by charging him wildly, even going so far as to leap onto his chest and punch him in the face. She reminded me of the zombies during respawn day, and I could tell that she taken the idea from them. It was a suicidal berserker tactic, but few people had ever faced an opponent with such a complete and utter disregard for their own safety, and it worked. No sane person would expect another sane person to fight in such a manner.
When the final match had ended, she extened a hand to the stupefied knight, and gave him a formal bow once he was back on his feet. He looked around to make sure none of the other guards were laughing at him, and after finding his pride to still be intact, returned the bow and shook her hand. If I lost a fight in the same way he had, my ego would be a little bruised as well.
“As… unorthodox as that last bout was, I must admit defeat. But we knights do not take kindly to our losses. I hope you will not find me stubborn if I challenge you again some time. Perhaps tomorrow?”
Haylen readily agreed and… was that a hint of a blush I could see on her cheeks?
“They’re both crazy. First they hit each other, then they hit on each other, and their idea of a date is to start hitting each other all over again.”
Maybe I was fucked in the head as well, because I was actually a little jealous. Haylen was a natural hunk-magnet. I solidly preferred women, but I’d be more than tempted to ignore that for some of the men that Haylen seemed to attract. Orlis’ festival night had helped me work out most of my sexual frustration, but that didn’t mean I had stopped thinking about that type of thing.
While the two of them flirted, and utterly failed to disguise phrases like ‘vigorous thrusting’ as a reference to a sword technique, I was looking for a chance to escape. My opportunity came in the form of Lord Stalard Damfeld himself. He approached, clapping slowly, probably having seen the duel from a distance.
“Apologies, Sir Hoffmann, but might I steal these two for a moment? There are things we must discuss.”
The knight bowed to his master and took his leave after a few polite words of departure and sending a very meaningful look in Haylen’s direction. He dismissed the small audience of guards back to their posts as he did, and we were alone with the lord.
Mayra’s father sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and looked both of us in the eye before he spoke to us directly.
“I owe the two of you an apology,” he said. “A proper apology. Last night, I behaved in a manner unbefitting of my station, and treated you poorly. I am sorry. I should not have acted that way, and neither of you did anything to deserve the foul treatment I laid upon you.”
He did not bow and scrape, but merely nodded deeply, and I supposed that that was all he could do for people of a lower social class than his own. Haylen seemed shocked that he was apologizing at all, but to me, his actions seemed perfectly normal. Bows were over the top, and an apologetic nod was plenty.
Simply by the fact that he had the balls to admit that he had been a bit of a dick made my level of respect for the man go up a notch. I had expected him to think that we would all simply pretend that last night hadn’t happened, but here he was admitting his wrongs, and that took effort.
Haylen was stammering out a poor acceptance of his words, but I jumped in to save the day.
“Your apology is accepted, and very much appreciated. Thank you. It means a lot to us. But don’t worry about it too much,” I told him. “After all, it would have been pretty funny if you had been right.”
The two of them looked at me in confusion, not at all understanding how last night’s dinner could have been anything but an embarrassment.
“Do you guys not have that trope?” I asked. “It is a father’s right, nay, his duty to terrorize any potential son-in-laws. Or daughter-in-laws,” I said, pointing at Haylen. She glowered at me for that, but I went on with my explanation. “You are the father, the first line of defense! If anyone wants to get at your daughter, they should have to get through you! You trusted Mayra’s judgement and allowed her to make her own choices, which is good. Wonderful even. But that doesn’t mean you should let her go without a fight, even if that fight is only symbolic. Right? Even if Mayra were queen of the world, she would still be your daughter, and as her father, you would want what’s best for her.”
Lord Damfeld sighed again, but this time I could tell it was from relief at being understood. I hadn’t blamed him for his actions. Instead, I had praised him. I had not only accepted his apology, but reaffirmed his choice to behave in the way he had. It wasn’t his fault. It was circumstance’s. I may have gone a little overboard with what I told him, but in the moment, I believed it was what he needed to hear.
Haylen still seemed at a loss, but I left it to her to figure out why. She had never been a man. She wouldn’t get it. I had never married or had children in my past life, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t take a sick pleasure in reading through scripts and strategies for making my potential daughter’s potential boyfriends feel uncomfortable.
In a world of equal gender rights, it was one of the few times a man could go all in on his alpha-male bullshit without anyone calling him out for it. Even though I now thought of myself as female, it was still a hill that I was willing to die upon. A precious daughter is a treasure, and shouldn’t be given up without a fight! Viva la dads! Long live the fear of the young boyfriend!
“Really?” Lord Damfeld asked, dropping the noble act for a brief second. “I mean, um… Yes. Thank you. I appreciate your understanding of my motives. It is more than I could ask for. My daughter has explained to me her reasons for choosing to go on the pilgrimage at this time, and yet I still feel the need to exert myself as her father. Haylen, Miss Albidis, while I no longer suspect you for stealing my daughter away, you are still the reason I will be unable to see her for several years. Would you provide me with the honor of a duel as well? I do not doubt the outcome, but as a father, I must ask. Think of it as a formality.”
Haylen hadn’t expected the apology to turn towards this, and her face went pale at the request, but she accepted.
Me? I didn’t stick around. This was my chance to get away from the manor and the people that lived there. I had accepted the apology, and my role in the events were now done and over with. I made myself scarce.
I found Kearse sitting in the grass, not far from where Haylen and I had been practicing. He held one of the elongated mana batteries in his hands, and was doing his best to refill it.
“Damn. He went through those things fast. He had three, right? One in the gun, and two more in the holster. Lowering the damage output lowers the mana requirements, but… damn! How many shots did he take?”
I didn’t stop to question him, and hardly paused to grab him by the collar and drag him along with me.
“Come on Kearse, we’re going into town to do something stupid.”
* * *
Kearse calmed down once he realized that by “do something stupid” I meant “pay too much money for a new pair of boots.” I still had a few pairs of shoes, but they weren’t nearly as durable as my boots had been, may they rest in peace. I could not, and did not expect them to last very long with the amount of walking I expected to be doing in the future.
Getting to the town hadn’t taken more than a few minutes, and actually entering the place took even less. Once I shown them the papers proclaiming me an imperial citizen, the guards allowed us in without protest. They didn’t even bother to ask Kearse for identification. A simple, “My family’s from the south,” combined with his Orlisian accent was all it took for them to overlook his different skin tone and treat him like any other person that wanted inside the walls.
Finding our way to a cobbler took a little more effort, but it wasn’t long before my feet had been measured, silver had been exchanged, and the two of us found ourselves back on the streets.
“That fast?” I asked in astonishment once we were outside.
“Well you did pay for priority. Having them done by the day after tomorrow seems fairly reasonable. Why? How long are you used to waiting for a pair of boots to be made?”
“I’m not, actually. I’m used to buying shoes that are premade. Remember the clothing stores in Peninsula? They had a set of styles, but premade in different sizes. Boots and shoes were the same. Doing what I just did, getting something custom made, would usually cost more. A lot more.”
“Was it any good? The premade stuff?”
“I’m wearing some right now,” I told him while giving a slight tug at my favorite tights and denim combo. “Most of the things in my old life were mass-produced.”
We walked along the road while Kearse though about what I had said.
“Wouldn’t it be better to get them made specifically for you?”
“Meh. Once you know your size, finding something that fits isn’t hard. But honestly, I dunno. This is the first time I’ve ever bought clothing that was custom made. Tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths… their jobs had been replaced by machines, but they stuck around as artists. Other things could reproduce their work for cheaper, but quality is hard to replace. You always get what you pay for.”
We wandered the streets for a while, two souls willingly lost.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Kearse asked once he realized that I didn’t have any specific destination in mind.
“Nope. Don’t care either. I just wanted to see the town.”
He accepted the answer. Kearse probably wanted to visit Rannen as much as I did, though probably for different reasons.
And what a town it was.
I had been right about the roofing thing. Like the farmers outside, the buildings with thatch roofs seemed to be poorer, and only a few of them were whitewashed. Tiling meant that the residents had enough money to pay for a more long term form of leak prevention, and alongside whitewash, some buildings were even painted. A few of the buildings were only topped with more bricks and plaster, but they seemed relegated to warehouses, workshops, or other structures that people didn’t actually live in.
A majority of the roads were of packed earth, but the main ones were cobblestone. Sidewalks were common, and while they served to separate the pedestrian traffic from the carts and wagons, they also helped to prevent people from walking through mud. That was something I learned the hard way when I sank up to my ankles in a puddle that had been slow to dry.
Rannen was Orlis made small. While it lacked some of the city’s variety, it had all of its individuality. Despite the common theme of boxy architecture, no two buildings were alike. An inn we walked by would never be mistaken for the cobbler’s shop we had just left, and neither looked anything like the baker or dyer’s shop that came after them. Each establishment had a backstory, and everywhere was somewhere to someone.
“Indigo! Kearse! Is that you?”
We turned, hearing a voice we didn’t recognize calling our names. It turned out to be Jeck, riding a horse down the street and coming our way. If I hadn’t eaten with him the previous night, I wouldn’t have had any idea who he was. On that note, I still knew next to nothing about him besides the random assumptions I had made.
“I suppose our town must be small if I ran into you so easily. I’m on my way to the guild, would you care to join me for lunch?”
I ignored the word ‘guild’ and focused on ‘lunch.’ It’s said that the fastest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, but Jeck had just won mine, proving that the phrase held equally true when applied to women. I had skipped breakfast, and at that moment, I would have followed anyone who offered me food.
“Why do I suddenly feel like I’m about to get kidnapped again? I’m not that easy, am I?”
Apparently I was, because I immediately started pulling Kearse in the direction of Mayra’s older brother. Two of my favorite words started with ‘F’, and he had just used one of them. I could live with being abducted so long as tasty treats were involved.
“I really am hopeless. The amount of time I spend with a kidnapper can probably be measured by the length of their menu.”
We followed him and his horse. Half the people got out of his way, and the other half gave him a friendly wave as they did so. Jeck seemed to be genuinely popular among the populace, but my own good feelings for the man faltered when I saw where he was taking us.
“The Honorable And Esteemed Association And Union Of Rannen’s Freelancers, Mercenaries, and Individual Workers?” I asked, not recognizing the building, but finding it eerily familiar. “I thought we were going to get something to eat.”
“We are. This is the adventurers guild. I’m here to meet some friends. And yes, also lunch. Come on in.”
He held the door open for us, and I felt compelled to enter. I disliked the very idea of adventurers guilds. Adventurers were fine, but the idea of them having a guild didn’t make any sense! Most of what fiction depicted them as doing always seemed like jobs the nobility and government should be taking care of. What sane noble would want to outsorce the security of their territory?
I was dubious about entering the building. This was enemy territory. Any moment, I was sure, someone would pounce and try to poach my horns.
“They’ll never take me alive! I will have a nice meal, I will enjoy it, and anyone who gets in my way has only themselves to blame!”
Curiosity forced me into the building as much as my stomach did. My argument was with the guild itself. Most of the adventurers I had met had been more than accommodating. Even the ones that I didn’t like had ended up being fairly reasonable compared to Verdis. Now that I thought about it, I had rather enjoyed the last time I was in an adventurers guild. It was only how I got there that had been problematic. I could do this!
I stepped inside to a disappointing lack of fanfare and attention. Not only was the common area more than half empty, but less than half of the people in attendance looked up at my entry, and less than half of them took the time to notice that a strange girl had just walked into their midst.
“Where’s the secretary that’s supposed to confuse me with a rando normie? Where’s the low ranked asshole who wants to pick a fight with the newbie? Why isn’t anyone trying to harvest my body parts for a profit? Tits and horns! A rack and a rack! Why isn’t anyone taking note of my awesome assets?”
Maybe they just had good upbringings and knew that it was impolite to stare.
Although smaller than the Orlisian guildhall, the building was still larger than I had expected for a town of this size. Not that I knew what to expect in the first place.
Most of the ground floor was dominated by a tavern-like common room. The guild apparently didn’t care about uniformity and the sawdust covered floor was filled with a variety of mismatched tables and chairs. Waitresses flitted about, delivering food and drink, and against the far wall was a long bar, complete with bartender.
The section that had to do with actual adventuring work looked more like an afterthought in comparison. There was a long desk with a pair of bored receptionists behind it, and next to that was a large bulletin board, but it looked rather empty with how few jobs were actually posted.
“If any of my preconceptions end up being right, we got here at a slow time of the day.”
That was it. If it weren’t for the big sign above the front door, or the fact that Jeck had specifically called this place the adventurers guild, I would have assumed it was a regular inn.
The only real hint as to what this place was, was the fact that nearly all of the occupants were armed and occasionally armored. But they too looked surprisingly normal. There were no warriors with oversized swords or mages with glowing staves. Most of their clothing was simple and rugged, and I tisked at the complete absence of bikini armor. That was something I’d love to see, even if it was a stupid idea.
Jeck waved and greeted a few of the people that looked his way before guiding Kearse and I to one of the larger tables.
“My friends should be here soon,” he told us before placing an order with a passing waitress.
“Are you an adventurer yourself, or are you here to place a bounty?” Kearse asked him.
He still showed a little nervousness at dealing with the baron’s son, but his talk with Elber the night before seemed to have cured him of most of his fear. Mayra and her siblings all seemed to share a relaxed attitude towards their status. Being in a place like this, away from noble finery, also put Kearse a little further into his own comfort zone.
“I am, but my position limits the kinds of jobs I can take, so I’m not that important.”
An orc sitting at the bar overheard him and laughed.
“Don’t let him fool you,” the orc said while pointing to Jeck with his mug. “Jeck’s an asset that any team would love to get their hands on if he ever decided to stop playing at being a lordling and do this full time.”
“You know me, Pokka.” Jeck replied with a laugh of his own. “I’m greedy! I’d rather have a little of this and all that than all of this and none of that.”
Maybe it was an inside joke, because the orc chuckled and raised his drink in a one man toast.
“Who’re you goin’ out with today?”
“Ah, the scar? Good hunting then. And good luck.”
Deciding that he had interrupted us long enough, the orc gave us all a friendly nod and went back to his meal. His final sentence could have been taken ominously, but he had said it in such a casual manner that his meaning was clear. Kill something worth bragging about.
“So… you jump between groups a lot?” I asked.
“More like I never join one. Like I said, because of my position, I can only take the most local of work. No guarding caravans or escort work. Nothing that takes me away from home for more than a day or two. Usually I just go hunting with any groups that are willing to let me go with them. I always work with a team, but I’m a solo merc as far as the guild is concerned.”
I nodded, and lowered my voice for the next question.
“But what’s the point of the guild? Why is it even needed?”
Both Kearse and Jeck looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language, and I had to review my words to make sure I hadn’t been.
“Are you… asking why the guild exists?”
“Yes? Wait. Hold on a second.”
I rose from my seat and went over to inspect the job board. After glancing over the different bounties and requests, I returned to the table, armed with the knowledge I’d need for my upcoming debate.
“Right. So… Of the bounties posted, one was for killing… sewer slimes? Another was for gathering herbs or something, two were for getting rid of monsters that were bothering farmers, and three were from merchants requesting guards. The rest seemed to be temp jobs like hauling boxes! Really?! Why?”
Jeck still didn’t see the point I was getting at.
“Why is the guild the one doing all that? No offense, but shouldn’t all that be your job?”
“My job? They could be. Some of them at least. That’s why I’m here.”
“No, not you as an adventurer, you as a noble. None of those jobs need to be done by mercenaries, so why are they?”
Tact was important here. I couldn’t just come out and say, “Adventurers guilds are a sign of a failed society. If the nobles did their jobs correctly, half of those job postings wouldn’t need to be posted in the first place!”
“Take the sewer slimes for example. Kearse is a street sweeper. Don’t you have people that manage the sewers as well? Why can’t they handle the slimes?”
“Because slimes can be dangerous to deal with?”
“You heard me. Bullshit. I’ve seen slimes before. Big ones. As big as a frikkin house! And going by the pay that job was offering, I refuse to believe that they’re even remotely close to being the same size. If the regular workers had better equipment they’d be able to handle the slimes themselves, right? It might cost a bit at first, but Rannen would probably end up saving money in the long if they didn’t have to constantly hire extra workers. And why do you even have slimes down there in the first place? Are the sewers really so big that you can’t get rid of them? They’re not rats. If you wanted to, you could exterminate the lot of them.”
“That’s a… decent point, and I’ll make sure to bring it up with my father and the mayor. But we don’t want to get rid of the slimes. They’re sewer slimes. The purpose of the bounty is just to keep their numbers down.”
“Oh… kay? So what’s a sewer slime.”
Kearse was facepalming, and Jeck was now looking like I had just asked him what a dog was. A sewer slime was a sewer slime. Obviouosly.
“They’re slimes? And they live in the sewers? They help to break down refuse and keep the water clean. They’re a good thing. They aren’t even aggressive. The only time they become a problem is when they start dividing too much and start blocking the regular workers from getting around the tunnels.”
“That’s… actually pretty cool. It’s a good thing I’m not an adventurer, ‘cause if I did that job, I probably would have killed them all without realizing it.”
Our food arrived, and if Jeck thought that he was free from my diatribe he was sorely mistaken. Even though the beer had a very nice head and the egg soup was wonderfully seasoned, I would not be distracted so easily! It merely slowed me down as I spoke between sips and slurps.
“Alright, well what about the monsters out near the farms? Shouldn’t your dad be handling that?”
“No? Yes, yes, noblesse oblige and all that.” Jeck answered, accepting some responsibility. “But keeping a standing military is expensive, and our soldiers are already busy just keeping the roads clear. You did see some of them patrolling when you came here, yes?”
I had. Twice yesterday I had had to pull the wagon aside to make room for a squad of soldiers to ride past.
I nodded, and Jeck continued.
“Sending soldiers out to fight individual monsters doesn’t work. It’s too slow. I can’t just yell, ‘send in the troops!’ and expect the problem to go away. It takes time and effort to get them gathered and organized. By the time they kill one monster, two more have popped up. The adventurers guild works because everyone in here is ready and waiting. On a slow day, they fill their pockets by taking odd jobs, but when they are needed, they can be out the door at a moment’s notice.”
“And your dad doesn’t mind that that there’s an entire building of heavily armed people, that he has no direct control over, only a few minutes’ walk from his home?”
“Not at all. If it were an entire mercenary company, then yes, and we’d keep a close eye on them. But you have to remember that everyone in here is an individual. They’re not organized like that. And even if the guild was gone, a new one would form naturally. Look around. What does this place look like to you?”
I didn’t have to look, and I could guess what he was leading up to.
“It looks like an inn with extra features.”
“Exactly. Almost every adventurers guild in the empire started out as a bar, or an inn, or… hells, I think there’s one that even started as a brothel. But that’s how it happens. People gather, trade information about work or rumors about what areas are dangerous, and before you know it, an adventurers guild is born.”
“Alright, alright, you win. I’ll stop complaining about the guild.” I said putting up my hands placatingly. I could tell that he was beginning to get annoyed with my opinion. I still though of adventurers guilds as stupid, but he had managed to make a few good points.
Jeck grunted in acceptance.
“Don’t worry about it. That thing about the slimes wasn’t a half bad idea. Why do you dislike the guild so much though?”
“Because reasons. It didn’t help that the first group of adventurers I met broke into my room and shoved me into a sack.”
Jeck did a spit take, and Kearse was eyeballing the room, very much hoping that no one was listening in on our conversation. They probably wouldn’t take kindly to what we were saying.
“Why?” Jeck hissed, aware that this wasn’t something to be talked about loudly.
“Because I’m the only homunculus in the empire? And because I’m a foreigner? It took a few days for the church to get me citizenship. Because I wasn’t officially considered a person at the time, someone was able to convince the guild that I was free game and put a bounty on me. So yah, reasons.”
Jecks face went pale with sympathy. It was the obvious reaction, but not the one I wanted.
“Meh. It’s done,” I said, as if it was of minor importance. “The guild dropped the bounty, and I ripped the hands and feet off the guy that placed it,” I continued with a vicious grin.
If Jeck was going to ask me if I was being serious, he didn’t have the chance. A new group of people had just walked in the door. They looked around the room, called out to the noble with a smile, and didn’t wait for an invitation before they sat down at the table with us.
It seems his friends had arrived.
“How are you all this fine day?” one of them greeted us. “New faces? Jeck, you’re not cheating on us with another team are you? My names Tamel. Nice to meet you. You here for business or pleasure or both?”
He spoke a mile a minute, and neither Jeck nor Kearse nor I knew who should answer, or which question to respond to first. Jeck, being our host, finally decided it would be him.
“Tamel, this is Kearse, and Indigo. They’re friends of my sister and are making the pilgrimage with her.”
“Oh really? So the little miss is back in town? When are you going to introduce me to her? Nice to meet the two of you by the way.” Tamel replied, again holding a conversation with everyone at once.
“Probably never. And that’s for your safety more than hers. She’s in a bit of a mood right now, and would probably end up setting you on fire.”
While Jeck told the story of how both he and his family had thought that Mayra was in love with another woman and the hilarity that had come from the misunderstanding, the rest of us made our introductions. The group also ordered some food, which I used as an excuse to order seconds.
First among the adventurers was Tamel, leader of the group Rannen’s Bow. He looked to be in his late twenties, and while his cloth gambeson was patched in several places, it still looked well maintained. He had a natural exuberance about him, and I didn’t need my extra sense to tell me that he was practically bursting with life.
Next up was Trudy, the only woman in the group. Aside from her gender, the first thing I noticed about her was her weapon. Unlike the others, who carried spears and bows, she had no bow, and her spear looked more like a hefty orichalcum-bound club that just happened to have a pointy steel tip on one end.
“Magic is my main weapon,” she explained when I asked about her choice of armaments, “so if anything gets too close, I like to be able to give them a good whack.”
A woman after my own heart. I liked her already.
“You’re a mage?” Kearse asked.
“No. Unfortunately my family could never afford to send me to the guild in Orlis. They were able to get me some basic training, but not enough that I could call myself a mage.”
I nodded in understanding. Mayra seemed to think I was a magical prodigy, but I had my own reservations. There were a couple areas where I could excel, but I doubted that I could have passed whatever tests she had gone through to earn her mage title.
Last were Valter and Mick, brothers, and the party’s front-liners. They were the ones with chain-mail, and each had shield and stubby axe in addition to their other weapons. One gave a friendly nod and the other a wave, but they both seemed content to listen rather than partake in the conversation themselves.
“So you want to bring them along on our little hunting trip then?” Tamel asked, looking us over.
“I was hoping to, but I wanted to get your permission before asking them.”
Before Kearse could politely refuse, which I knew he would try to, I had my hand firmly clamped over his mouth.
“We’ll go!” I half shouted. “Er… If you’ll have us.”
Kearse began to lick at my hand, but if he hoped that would make me release him, he was wrong. I only squeezed him harder. We were going!
I had set my expectations for today’s fun at ‘buying boots,’ but I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for something more.
Tamel’s eyebrows rose at my enthusiasm, but it was Jeck that he ended up questioning first, speaking slowly for the first time.
“You sure they’re up to it? Can they take care of themselves? ‘Cause I don’t want to be leading anyone to their death if they don’t know where we’re going.”
“You won’t be disappointed. You have my word. Kearse is an expeditionary veteran, and believe it or not, Indigo has salvage rights.”
That had everyone in the Bows talking at once as they tried to ask if it was true, but Tamel shouted them down and turned to me, ignoring the fact that I still had Kearse’s face in a death grip.
“I take it you’re good with that sword then?” he asked while his eyes pointed towards Snowflake.
“Not at all. I’m absolutely horrible with it. But if you point me at a monster, I can make it dead. I have yet to meet anything that I can’t kill. I’m probably like Trudy,” I said with a nod in her direction. “I’m not a mage, and my selection of spells is limited, but I’m really damn good at using the ones I know.”
“That’s quite some confidence you’ve got there, but I can’t help but notice that your friend seems to object.”
“Oh don’t mind him. He’s just the cautious type. Kearse is perfectly capable of being a badass when he wants to be.”
Kearse scoffed beneath my hand, so I gave him another squeeze before releasing him.
“So, Kearse, cautious is smart. Why don’t you want to go?”
“Because… I don’t want to risk my life on a whim.”
“Good answer. And Indigo? Is she as good as she says?”
Kearse looked at me sideways before answering, and I was caught off guard by what he said.
“When the expedition arrived in the necropolis, we spent the first couple days wondering why there were so few cursed. There just… weren’t as many as there should have been. Then we found Indigo, and we realized that it was because she had been killing so many of them. I have personally seen her wipe out a horde of the cursed, thousands strong, in only a few minutes. She is every bit as good as she says she is.”
Silence followed, and Kearse was the only one at the table who wasn’t looking at me. He seemed embarrassed to have praised me so openly. It was a little awkward for me as well, so I punched him in the shoulder, maybe a little bit harder than I should have, but I was small and it probably didn’t hurt him much.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Tamel said carefully, “what exactly are you? I have to admit that I’m curious. Even more so now.”
“I’m a homunculus. I may be the first of my kind to call Arlonia home, and I’m currently taking the grand pilgrimage to help me understand it.”
Trudy had cocked an eyebrow, likely recognizing the word ‘homunculus,’ but didn’t say anything. Tamel looked to Jeck, then to me, and finally Kearse before making his decision.
“Alright. You can come,” he said before turning to Jeck. “But their share of the profits come from you portion. Agreed?”
Jeck was about to nod, but I waved him off.
“He can keep what’s his. Like I said, I’m on pilgrimage. I’m here for the experience of it all. And Kearse…?”
Kearse looked resigned to his fate.
“Fine. I’ll go. Even if it’s only to keep you from causing trouble.”
I ignored that remark.
“Should we ask Haylen or Mayra to come too?”
“No!” Jeck and I shouted as one.
“Our parents would never let Mayra go to a scar. They’d try to stop me if they knew where we were going.”
“We’re going to a scar, right?” I asked. “They were half ready to change their minds about her going on the pilgrimage. They’d never let her go if they thought we would be dragging her off to a scar!”
“What about Haylen, then?”
“She’d probably try to stop us too! She’s been overprotective of me since that whole Verdis thing. If she found out, she’d probably try to lock us in our rooms and feel justified for doing so. You go back to the manor, grab your spear, take what you need, and don’t tell anyone.”
I turned towards Tamel.
“We can be ready in thirty minutes. How does that sound to you?”
I was smiling. Jeck was smiling. Tamel and Trudy were smiling. Everyone was in a good mood except Kearse.
“Sounds good to me,” said the leader of Rannen’s Bow.
Fuck yes. I was about to go on an adventure.