4-1 And Then There Was a Shadow in The Foreground
Erik watched Not having an energetic discussion with the mechanic. Then he turned the rest of his colleagues, who seemed completely unconcerned with the current state of things. Then he looked towards the rover.
It wasn’t the best he’d ever seen it. The windshield was gone, basically every metal rod or bar on the outside had been pinched or bent somehow, and there was a hole punched through the bed where the elf had missed the Captain. It looked terrible. When they’d stopped for the night after escaping the forest, Erik was sure he saw Not shed an actual tear at the sight. He hadn’t known the man for long, but he was sure that was a big deal.
Looking over the car again, Erik bit his cheek and frowned. Everyone had said he’d done a good job. Even Not had said that. Plus, it was unreasonable to expect someone to pull off a flawless escape in that situation. He knew all that. Yet, he still couldn’t keep from feeling guilty. If he’d just been more careful…
“He can fix it…” Not spoke up as if reporting on his child’s illness. Erik broke out of his reverie in time to see the burly man cross his arms and look over the team. “But it’ll take at least a week.”
“How much?” The Captain asked, narrowing his eyes as he glanced over the car’s damages again.
“7000,” Not answered, decidedly not following the Captain’s gaze.
“That hurts,” Champ declared, theatrically turning away from Not and taking a few steps away.
‘Split seven ways,” Not declared, holding out one had towards Champ.
“It’s your car,” Champ complained, turning to face Not again.
“Actually, I think it’s the Captain’s car,” Cauliflower added, looking up and placing a finger against her chin. “Technically.”
“It’s the team’s car,” the Captain declared, his face taking on a noble, egalitarian expression and his heart holding nothing, but self-service.
“1000, each,” Not insisted again. “Hardly too much for us and we need a car to do anything.”
As the rest of the team grumbled, Erik barely heard Champ mumble, “I…” Then he fell silent.
Before Erik could ask about that, Edge stepped forward and declared, “I don’t feel like dipping into my savings and the Newbie has no money.”
After hearing Edge’s words, Erik’s heart quavered as he realized that he didn’t. “Ummm… yeah… I-“
“Plus, he sucks at everything and is basically useless,” Edge continued, interrupting Erik’s awkward rambling to stab him right through the heart. As Erik’s expression froze and his knees grew a bit weak, Edge continued. “Champ, could you help me chaperone him on a hunt or two? We can get some cash and maybe by the end he’ll be able to shoot straight.”
“Yeah… No problem,” Champ responded, his smile looking a little strained. Once again Erik felt like he was out of the loop on something.
Erik frowned at the two of them for a moment before his thoughts were interrupted by the Captain’s voice. “It’s a good idea, but before anyone takes any jobs, we need to resupply. Champ, Cauliflower, Lotus. Can I leave that to you?”
The Captain watched the trio nod their ascent and turned towards Edge. “And are you still-?”
“I’ll visit Evelyn. Hear what can be heard,” Edge answered with a wave of his hand. “Thought I’d bring the Newbie with me. Let him meet her, networking or whatever.”
The Captain nodded and slowly said, “Good. Tell her I love her and I’ll come by soon.”
“I’ll try,” Edge said, averting his gaze.
Seeing that the Captain gave a warm smile. Then he turned to the rest of the team and asked, “You’ll be staying at the usual hotel? Reserve me a room. I’ll be there later tonight.”
“We’ll see you when we see you,” Edge responded with a grin.
“I’ll be back tonight,” the Captain replied, giving Edge a pointed look before turning to walk away.
“You don’t have to, you know!” Edge called toward the retreating back. The Captain gave no answer and merely waved his hand without turning around.
After the Captain had disappeared through the shop’s door, Knot sighed and said, “I guess I’ll go get the money.” Then he turned to look over the team and added, “Don’t forget to pay me back.”
“Why didn’t you tell the Captain that?” Cauliflower asked defiantly.
“Cause I didn’t need to,” Knot responded as he also turned to leave.
With just the five of them left, Edge turned to the shopping team and tentatively asked, “You guys are gonna be getting more ammo, right? Could you see if they have any new knives?”
“And if they do?” Champ asked, wrinkling his eyebrows.
“Then ask about them and let me know.”
“Ask what about them?” Champ questioned, his face contorting further into confusion.
“We will,” Lotus declared, cutting in front of Champ.
“Thanks,” Edge responded with a smile. Then he grabbed Erik by the shoulder and roughly ushered him out of the mechanic’s shop.
As Erik was led away by Edge, he could barely hear Champ’s voice behind them. “They’re just supposed to be pointy, right?”
They quickly passed through dark garage area and into the streets of Narabesque, the city of heroes. Erik was prepared to awe at the vision of this historical city, but he didn’t get the chance to.
Edge continued roughly pulling Erik along through the crowds and across the alleyways. Erik didn’t get to take everything in, but he could get a feel for the place. There the things that he imagined came with being a city. Buildings and people and whatnot. However, for their similarities, Narabesque was a different place than San Ranto.
For one thing, it felt much brighter. In part, that was because the city was larger. Big enough that the buildings could spread out a bit more and the shadows of the towering walls didn’t cover everything. More than that, Erik felt like the artificial lighting was somehow more rich and vibrant as well. Though, that could just be an illusion. The bricks, stone, and concrete used on the buildings and streets of Narabesque were all much lighter than their counterparts in San Ranto. Some buildings were even covered in white marble. That small change made everything less dreary.
After being pulled through people for about ten minutes, Erik was dragged inside a building. It happened so suddenly that he couldn’t get a good look at it, but he caught a glimpse of marble and glass. It didn’t feel like the kind of place Edge would be associated with, but Erik would never say that out loud.
Once his eyes had adapted to the change in lighting, Erik found himself in a room covered in dark marble, with about a dozen chairs lining the walls to his left and right. Once again, Erik didn’t have much time to absorb his environment before he was whisked away.
In seconds, he was on the other side of the elegant, yet empty lobby. For a second, he caught sight of what looked to be the first elevator he’d ever seen. Then, he was dragged through an adjacent stairway and up five flights of stairs. When they exited the stairwell, Erik’s legs were burning from trying to keep up with Edge’s long legs. Once he found himself on solid ground, in a long, empty corridor, he tried to catch his breath.
Edge paid no attention to that, however. Erik, still gasping for air, was unceremoniously pulled down the hallway through a door. Then he finally got his rest. After bending over and leaning on his knees for a few seconds, Erik looked up at the room. It was small room with a few chairs along one wall and a simple desk in the middle. Sitting at that desk was a woman who Erik could only describe as old enough to be his mother’s younger sister.
The woman spent a while looking down her glasses at them severely. Then, her eyes met Edge’s and suddenly her face morphed into a polite one with a slightly stiff business smile. “What can I do for you, sir?” She asked, sitting up straight in her chair.
“Tell her I’m here,” Edge answered gruffly, presenting a thin, white card to the woman.
The woman’s smile twitched when she heard his presumptive tone. Then she accepted the card and looked it over for a second. Then she looked over Edge critically. Then she looked back at the card. After a few seconds, she leaned down and whispered into something on her desk.
The woman spent a few seconds having a hushed discussion that Erik couldn’t hear. Then she sat up again. Gesturing towards a door on her left, she said, “Please, go ahead.”
With no hint of hesitation, Edge moved passed the woman and through the door. Erik, on the other hand, was a bit nervous. He’d never met anyone you could call important in his life. With all that set up, whoever was in the next room had to fit that description. Taking one last look at the woman, Erik followed Edge. When he passed through the wooden doorway, he entered into another office. Though, this one was a real office, not just a glorified waiting room.
It was about the same dimensions as the room before, but its atmosphere was completely different. The lighting was comfortably dimmer, just bright enough to be able to read by. The entire back wall of the room was covered by sturdy, mahogany shelving. In the center of this sat what Erik assumed to be an expensive set of decanters and glasses. Other than that, every inch of shelf space was filled with thick ledgers. There were so many that all the shelf space appeared to have long ago been expended. Now dozens more ledgers sat in front of the shelves, in neat stacks on the floor.
In the middle of the room was a comfortably large desk and at it sat a woman. She looked much younger than the woman outside. She had short, brown hair and a small build. Normally, it seemed that she would give off a cute, energetic feeling. Though, now her eyes were starting to a hint of bags and what had to have once been a very carefully managed hair style was sliding into disarray.
Stepping into the office, Erik took brief note of all these things. However, he couldn’t bring himself to focus on neither the woman’s beauty, nor her exhaustion. Instead, his eyes were drawn to her most obvious feature: her chest. Across it hung a thick cloth strap atop which sat, what appeared to be, half a dozen active grenades.
Catching that sight, Erik froze in the middle of the doorway. He wasn’t exactly scared of the explosives. Their presence in that moment was too absurd to allow him to be. Instead, he was just perplexed. He needed to know why. He wanted to ask, but he felt like wasn’t allowed to, so he remained silent.
Looking up from her work, the woman’s eyes alighted on Edge for a moment. Then they moved on to stare through Erik and out the door behind him. Then they returned to Edge. “Where’s my uncle?” She asked, unceremoniously.
“You haven’t seen my in two years,” Edge accused easily, stepping forward and taking one of the two seats across from the woman. “Is that any way to talk to a dear friend?”
“It’s good to see an old friend. Where’s my uncle.”
“He’s headed home for now,” Edge answered, apparently accepting the woman’s entirely disingenuous pleasantries.
As soon as she heard his words, the woman’s mildly disappointed face lit up and she eagerly asked, “Is he-?!”
“Right about now, he should be accusing her of committing crimes against humanity. Or something to that effect, anyway,” Edge answered with a shake of his head.
“That’s the opposite of what he should do,” the woman complained, deflating into her chair.
Edge knitted his eyebrows and asked, “What exactly is the opposite of that?”
“You know what I mean,” the woman responded, turning an accusatory glare towards Edge.
“Yeah, but you know that’s not in the cards,” Edge replied with a shrug.
The woman frowned and then she turned to look at Erik again. “I see you’ve brought someone new.”
Seeing that he was the subject of conversation, Erik forced himself from his reverie and stepped forward.
“This is the New-“
“I’ll learn your name when you’ve completed your sixteenth mission,” The woman interrupted Erik as he was trying to interrupt Edge’s introduction. Being shot down, Erik dejectedly shrunk into the seat beside Edge.
“Sixteenth?” Erik muttered in confusion. It was a weird number. Also a weird policy.
“The sixteenth mission is when mercs die,” the woman explained with an innocent smile that didn’t suit the subject. “I’d rather not get to know a walking dead man. No offense.”
“Why sixteen?” Erik asked, still a little confused.
“It’s just a thing people say,” Edge Elucidated. Then he seemed to think for a moment and added, “But it’s not wrong. I’d say between the twelfth and the twentieth job is when mercs start to get used to it. Even if you warn them, even if they know they shouldn’t, they get comfortable and let their guard down. Then they either learn a lesson or…”
“Or they learn to get dead,” the woman finished cheerfully.
“I don’t think they have to learn that,” Edge responded skeptically. “It’s supposed to come naturally.”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied with a playful shrug. “You seem to have a hell of a time learning how to do it.”
Edge couldn’t seem to come up with a response and looked away. Satisfied, the woman turned back towards Erik and studied him for a second. Then she said, “So he’s really new, huh?”
“Joined less than a week ago,” Erik volunteered with a bow. He felt that if he could beat Edge in saying that, she would at least say a word in his direction.
That didn’t seem to work, however, as the woman turned back to Edge. “He doesn’t seem impressed enough. Have you told him where he is?”
Edge shrugged and Erik furrowed his brow. He wondered what was supposed to make him impressed about an office building.
Then the woman stood up for the first time since they’d entered the room, spread her arms wide, and said, “Welcome to the head office of the E.M.T.L. mercenary guild. One of the four largest guilds, of any kind, in the entire world. I am Evelyn Corning, Vice President in charge of dispatch.”
Hearing that, Erik’s eyes went wide. Even he’d heard stories of the four guilds. Power to rival countries… and… other things. Okay, so maybe he’d only heard one story, but it was still impressive. Talking to someone who had an office in their headquarters was huge. Like having a personal audience with a prime minister or something, right? Before he knew it, he felt faint.
“Now tell him the real name,” Edge demanded, narrowing his eyes in amusement.
“I did,” Evelyn responded with a forceful glare.
“The Eliot and Meredith True Love guild,” Edge declared, grinning to himself.
“It’s not my fault those morons were so good at killing things,” Evelyn responded, crossing her arms and dropping back into her chair. “Or that their son thought it was HILAROUS!”
“It is hilarious,” Edge replied. “To be fair.”
“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t change it or we’ll lose the brand,” Evelyn complained bitterly.
“You ok, Newbie?” Edge asked, looking over at Erik.
“Even if we did, the other guilds would still call us that anyway.”
Suddenly, Erik realized he hadn’t blinked in about a minute. He quickly reached up to rub his eyes then he asked, “I thought the names of the four guilds were supposed to send people quivering in fear.”
“Quivering from something,” Edge responded with a laugh.
“It’s not that funny!” Evelyn shouted irritably. “We have the most high level subjugation completions of any guild. A stupid name doesn’t matter!”
“It matters to me, because it bothers you so much,” Edge confessed happily.
“Dammit!” Evelyn yelled, slamming both palms against the table violently. Seeing how the grenades hanging across her chest vibrated with her movements, Erik’s blood ran cold. “What did you come for, Edge?”
“I came to catch up with an old friend,” Edge responded, leaning back in chair.
“We both know that’s not true,” Evelyn countered, closing her eyes. “You hate coming to any of the big four. Or going anywhere, really. If you’d wanted to talk, you’d just have one of your lackeys kidnap me on my way home.”
“That time with Champ was a misunderstanding,” Edge replied defensively, sitting up and planning his elbows on firmly on his arm rests. “He was still new and didn’t get what we were about. I’m pretty sure he thought we were holding you for ransom.”
“What. Are. You. Here. For. Edge?” Evelyn asked again, punctuating every word by leaning a bit farther over her desk. “I’m a busy woman with stuff to do and a job. Job stuff to do.”
Edge let his grin fade and said, “I’m here to ask if there’s anything weird lately.”
“Vague,” Evelyn declared, looking down on Edge critically. Then she sunk back into her chair and looked towards the ceiling as she idly said, “Does you people coming back count?”
“Oh, did you miss us?” Edge asked with a playful grin.
“Yes.” Evelyn answered, looking down to stare at Edge with serious eyes. Seeing him cough and avert his gaze, Evelyn broke into a smile and let off a few laughs.
Edge scowled, then seemed to remember something. “Your uncle says he loves you and he’ll be by later.”
Caught completely off guard, Evelyn stared at Edge for a moment. Then she shook her head and said, “Something weird… well, some elven woman went crazy and spread a blight on her own clan’s crops. That’s weird.”
“It is,” Edge agreed, furrowing his brows. “Do you know why?”
Evelyn shook her head. “We sent them some fresh kraken tentacles and a griffon egg, but they’re being as tight lipped as ever.” She then frowned and stared at a paper on her desk accusingly as she continued, “it’s not good for business whatever the reason. Apparently they’re having a food shortage. Farantine and Norpeak are doing their best to prepare for a possible elven invasion.”
“Shit.” Edge spat, running his fingers through his coarse, black hair.
Evelyn nodded and Erik put up a hand nervously before asking. “When was the last time elves went to war?”
“Against each other? Not that long,” Evelyn answered with an untroubled expression that relaxed Erik’s heart. Then she frowned and stared into space for a moment before she continued. “Against humans… I dunno, but it must’ve been before even uncle was born.”
Erik nodded gratefully.
Edge tapped his finger against the desk twice, drawing attention to him. “That’s good to know, but… I was more curious if there was anything weird happening with monsters. Specifically.”
“Monsters…” Evelyn said slowly, puffing up her cheeks to make an adorable face that clashed horribly with her position. Then her eyes regained clarity and she blew all the air from her mouth as she said, “Well, we’ve been having problems with strays from the wastes lately. Not just here in Narabesque. Every country that borders the Barrier Mountains is having the same problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Edge asked, narrowing his eyes.
“There are too many of them,” Evelyn sighed as she collapsed against the back of her chair.
“Ummm…” Erik interrupted uncertainly. When both of their attention gathered to him, his heart quavered a bit, but he held firm and asked, “What’re The Wastes?”
Evelyn cocked one eyebrow at Erik, then turned back to Edge and asked, “Just how fresh is this kid?”
“We pulled him out of a tree in a forest,” Edge completely failed to answer or tell the truth, with a shrug. “Or something like that, anyway.”
“Bumpkin,” Evelyn observed with a nod. A small fire lit in Erik to object to the word. However, Evelyn was too pretty, too powerful, and also not wrong. So he remained silent. “Ok, The Wastes or The Badlands or whatever you want to call it, is to the north of the north of where anybody lives. You see, the Barrier Mountain Range cuts the continent into two… or one third and two thirds…”
“Cut in two works either way,” Edge observed helpfully.
“Whatever!” Evelyn shouted, waving her hands to shake away the complication. “The point is, the mountains are big and tall and hard to pass.”
“Plus, they’re full of corundum and lead and iron and just a bunch of stuff,” Edge added, counting off on his fingers until he gave up. “All together, it makes it very difficult for magic energy to pass through. So it doesn’t.”
As Erik nodded his understanding, he was wondering how the stuff that makes rubies is at all similar to lead.
“All that magic power trapped up there makes the whole area dangerous,” Evelyn picked up the explanation. “It’s supposedly so dense that there are random mana storms sweeping through all the time. Raining fire. Sandstorms blowing in from the rocky coast. Tornadoes filled with sharks.”
“I don’t think that last one has ever happened,” Edge observed skeptically.
“But the point is that it could!” Evelyn shot back vehemently. As Edge rolled his eyes, she continued. “It’s so chaotic and energetic up there that no animals or plants can survive. Anything you try to plant will either turn to ash in the soil or mutate into something horrible. The only things that survive in that mess are monsters. Surrounded by so much magic and without the elves or the guilds to clear them out, they get big and old. The most dangerous monsters on the continent live in the wastes.”
Erik shuddered at that thought. From all they’d been saying, all that horror was just to the north of them… to the north of Narabesque… Erik pursed his lips in confusion. Then he asked, “I thought the demons lived to the North of here?” Seeing Evelyn’s warm smile and Edge pinching the corners of his eyes, Erik’s heart sank.
“He’s talking about-“Evelyn started to explain.
“I know what he’s talking about,” Edge interrupted gruffly. Then he turned to Erik and exasperatedly explained, “Over the Barrier mountains are the waste, and no one has ever crossed the wastes far enough to find anything, but more wastes.”
“And the hero bravely traversed the blackened wasteland, entering the demon’s domain,” Evelyn recited with a bemused smile.
Now that she mentioned it, Erik did remember a line like that. Though, if the place is as they say, he wondered why the book only spared it one sentence. That’s some kind of poetic license.
“You actually believe in that myth?” Edge asked with an almost painfully despairing sigh.
“Ummm… I guess not?” Erik answered, fidgeting nervously. It was the only book his mother owned. It was what he’d learned to read on. A tale that gave him hope and inspiration. The hero banding together with mercenaries and scholars to head north and seal away the demons and their king forever. He’d never had any reason to question it, but Edge’s presumptuous tone was hard to talk back to.
“Let the kid be,” Evelyn answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. “He can’t help being green.”
“It’s important. Those kind of fancies get people killed,” Edge shot back with a glare. Then he turned a slightly gentler expression on Erik and said, “Besides, knowing this is important. The wastes have never been crossed. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise and give you strange ideas. No one has even mapped out the ley lines up there, let alone put down any pylons. That means no fuel. No driving. You have to march hundreds of miles carrying everything you need. Rations, ammo, everything. The only food you’ll find are monsters. You’ll only find firewood if you are lucky enough to find a monster to turn into some. Only god knows how far it is between sources of drinking water. Passing the wastes is a death march. No matter what riches people promise on the other side, don’t forget that.”
“Y-yes, sir,” Erik nodded and gave an answer he thought was suitable, but sounded wrong as soon as it left his mouth.
“It is important to know these things,” Evelyn cut in, narrowing her eyes at Edge. “That’s why you can’t make him feel awful every time he’s wrong about something. Then he won’t tell you the next time he’s wrong.”
Turning to Erik, Evelyn put on a warm expression that made him blush a little and said, “You don’t have to feel bad about being ignorant. That doesn’t make you stupid, we’re all ignorant at some point.” Then her eyes seemed to harden as she suddenly finished, “It’s just when you’re ignorant of the same thing twice. That’s when you’re stupid.”
“Of course, thank you!” Erik answered eagerly with a nod. Somehow, for a moment, he felt like he wanted to make her proud.
Evelyn looked him up and down, then declared, “I still don’t want to know your name.”
Hearing that, Erik’s eager smile froze and he stared at her in confusion. He’d completely forgotten about that whole thing, but she’d brought it back just to stab him in the heart with it.
“And you say I’m rough with him,” Edge criticized from the side.
“This and that are two different things,” Evelyn replied, turning up her nose ad Edge. “I don’t like knowing the names of dead men.”
“I’m not going to die. Not soon, at least. I think,” Erik declared, his confidence fading fast under the two veteran gazes.
“All mercenaries are dead to me until they can prove otherwise,” Evelyn responded coolly.
“Whatever,” Edge sighed, leaning back in his chair and placing his head on his hands. Then he craned his neck to look at Evelyn. “How many are we talking about?”
“How many what?”
“How many strays. From the wastes.”
“Oh, right,” Evelyn responded, her face immediately donning an irritable expression. She spent a moment pawing through some papers on her desk, but never once looked at them before saying, “Well, usually we get one every year or two, but since the beginning of this year, we’re averaging three a month.”
“That’s…” Edge said slowly, sitting up and leaning forward.
“A real problem, but not enough of one for anybody to actually solve it,” Evelyn stated with an exasperated sigh.
“How bad has t gotten?” Edge asked Staring into Evelyn’s eyes.
“Not awful,” Evelyn answered, the contrasting look on her face almost giving her statement a sarcastic air. “No real disasters yet. Nothing of a millennial class has come down in twenty years, but we can’t deal with it every week. The weakest of them are century class and half of them have been alive for at least five hundred years. That’s beyond the scope of your average team.”
“How many have you…?” Edge asked, frowning as he couldn’t quite figure out how to finish.
“Can’t speak for the other guilds or foreign branches, but I’ve lost five teams this year.” Evelyn answered. Combing her fingers through her short hair, she added, “That includes the golden scepter.”
“Cedrick?” Edge asked, his eyes widening in surprise. “He was-“
“He wasn’t good enough,” Evelyn interrupted with a bitter smile. “Got statued by a wondering catoblepas. Whole party was wiped. Had to block off the whole region until we could get an expert sniper to deal with it.”
Hearing that gave Erik pause. From her words, and what the team had said before, sniping was a rare affinity. He wondered just how in demand Lotus’s talent was. She’d certainly was good at giving big damage. He really hoped he’d be able to do something like that someday.
Then Erik remembered. He still didn’t know his affinity. He’d tried to find it before, but then the whole mess with the elves made him forget about it. They’d said something about taking him somewhere to figure it out. He had to remember to ask.
Not paying attention to Erik’s internal struggles, Edge asked, “Has there been anything weird about them? The monsters?”
“All the monsters that come from the wastes are weird,” Evelyn replied with a frown. Then she asked, “Are you talking about what happened in San Ranto?”
“You heard about that?”
“We hear about everything,” Evelyn answered with a self-assured smile. Then she deflated a bi as she added, “but we couldn’t get the details before the country was locked down.”
Seeing Evelyn’s eager eyes, Edge looked to the ceiling and started, “Okay…”
Erik only half listened as Edge retold the story of the team’s mission at his village. He really didn’t want to remember it. Plus, he didn’t entirely understand everyone’s reactions to the whole thing. Why was a slightly large lizard man more concerning than a giant, eight-legged snake that can petrify you with a look?
Hearing the end of the story, Evelyn frowned and rubbed her eyes. Then she spent a moment staring at the papers on her desk for a moment before looking back at Edge. “A lizard man being that hard to kill is a little bit more than concerning. Do you know how many more there are? Do other shamans have the ability to make them now?”
Edge shrugged and Evelyn went back to staring at her papers. Then she slowly lifted her head and said, “You were asking about monsters, not lizard men. You don’t think it mutated from something other than a shaman? Do you?”
“Me personally?” Edge asked back. “Not really. But, I mean, there’s a reason why we came back here so suddenly without notice. It wasn’t because the Captain was feeling homesick.”
“So he really thinks that she…” Evelyn muttered, her eyes widening. Her eyes flitted towards Erik, then she continued, “I know how he feels about her work, but this is too far.”
“It is what it is,” Edge responded with a shrug. “I don’t think she had anything to do with it. I don’t think this is anything other than a shaman’s experiment, but it’s good to run down the possibilities. If there is such a thing as a supercharged revenant…”
Evelyn shuddered. “I’ll get some people to look into it more carefully.”
“I never mention your name, Edge,” Evelyn interrupted with a knowing smile that somehow made Erik’s heart leap.
“Or your uncle’s,” Edge added without a pause.
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn responded with a wave of her hand. “Now, is there anything else you needed? I really do have things to do.”
“We’re looking for some good work,” Edge answered, picking a paper from Evelyn’s desk and looking over it idly until it was snatched back by its owner. “Thought you could help us with that, while we’re here.”
“Work,” Evelyn said thoughtfully, looking over the confiscated document before shoving it in a drawer. After considering the request for a moment, her face lit up with the thrill of recall as she quickly answered, “I’ve got a great job for you. Perfect, in fact. The pay is good and it shouldn’t be too dangerous.”
Edge crinkled his brow skeptically at her claims, but nodded for Evelyn to continue.
“We got an investigation commission for a dwarven ruin recently,” Evelyn explained happily. “Should be a simple job. Just walking through a few dozen stone corridors and collecting whatever interesting artefacts you might find.”
“What kind of useful artefacts?” Edge asked with a frown.
“You’ll know them when you see them,” Evelyn responded, throwing up her hands. “That was the impression I got.”
“So,” Edge began, narrowing his eyes. “If this is such a profitable and easy job, why haven’t you already given it out?”
“Well,” Evelyn answered slowly, crinkling her nose and averting her gaze. “No one’s been to the ruins in at least two hundred years. Not that we’ve heard of, at least. It should be an easy jaunt, but we can’t rule against the unexpected cropping up.”
Evelyn rested her elbow on her desk and leaned her body weight on her upturned hand as she continued. “You know how it gets. When we can’t confirm the difficulty, we have to get really picky about assignments. Plus, veterans have been at a premium lately, what with everything going on. It’s been pretty troubling, actually.”
“How far is it?” Edge asked while nodding his understanding.
“A little less than a day,” Evelyn answered, straightening up as Edge seemed to be acquiescing. “drive out there, camp for a night, do the investigation, then leave the next day. Simple job.”
“No good,” Edge dismissed with a wave of his hand. “Rover’s out of commission for a week. I was looking or something Champ, the Newbie and I could take to cover the repairs.”
“You can still take it after the repairs are done, right,” Evelyn replied, leaning forward and staring into Edge’s eyes forcefully.
“That’s not for me to decide on my own,” Edge responded, turning away from her.
“Fine,” Evelyn said, withdrawing suddenly. “I’ll just get my uncle to agree to it.”
“Whatever,” Edge sighed, shaking his head. “Do you have a job for me?”
Evelyn looked him over carefully. Then she bent down under her desk and retrieved a huge ledger. “How much do you need?”
Evelyn opened the ledger and ran her finger through some of the entries. After about a minute, she looked up and declared, “twenty-five hundred’s the best I’ve got.”
“Fine,” Edge answered immediately without batting an eye.
Evelyn nodded. Then she pulled a sheet of paper from a drawer in her desk and handed it to Edge. “Some baron’s daughter went about a mile outside the capitol’s safe zone on her own and never came back. When they went to investigate, they found signs of wererats near some of her personal effects. Find out whether she was captured or killed. You know what to do based on the answer.”
Erik squinted as he tried to think of why a monster might capture a person alive. None of the answers he came up with sounded good.
“You’ll meet up with the other three mercs tomorrow morning at out guild lobby. Head out from there. We’ll arrange the transportation.”
As soon as Evelyn finished her explanation, Edge frowned at her and asked, “There’ll be six of us?”
“The reward’s 5000. Two teams. Split half and half,” Evelyn answered as if she expected the question.
Edge nodded. Then he stood and said, “Thanks, as always, you’ve been helpful.”
“I could be more helpful if you’d join us,” Evelyn answered with a soliciting smile.
“You’re helpful, cause we don’t have to join,” Edge responded with a grin of his own.
Watching the two’s banter, Erik felt like he’d missed his timing to stand up. Frozen half on his feet, he waited for his next opportunity.
“C’mon, Newbie!” Edge demanded impatiently as he turned to leave.
Erik hurriedly jumped up and rushed after him. As they left the office, Erik leaned into Edge and was finally able to ask, “Were those grenades?”
“Yes,” Edge answered simply.
Erik waited for a few seconds for further explanation, but none came and he was forced to ask, “Why?”
“All four guilds require their executives to have some experience in the field,” Edge said. His voice sounded explanatory, but Erik was hard pressed to find the answer in there. “That’s doubly true for someone like Evelyn. If you’re going to be in charge of choosing who is qualified for what request, you have to understand how the work is actually done.”
“So, she’s a mercenary and… grenades are her affinity?” Erik asked, trying to piece together how that would be a valid response to his question.
“Yes,” Edge answered. Erik felt like Edge’s voice sounded a little approving there, but he was probably just hearing what he wanted to.
As the pair came to the end of the hallway, back t the stairs, Erik pointed to the metallic double doors beside the door to the stairwell and asked, “That’s an elevator, right?”
“Yes…” Edge answered slowly, for some reason narrowing his eyes and giving Erik a sidelong glance.
“Can we take it down?” Erik asked excitedly. Then he remembered he was a mercenary now and supposed to be more composed. He swallowed down his exuberance and continued, “I’ve never ridden one before, so I thought it’d be a good experience.”
Edge looked at Erik. Then he looked at the elevator doors. After seeming to consider something for a moment, he wordlessly reached forward to press the button to call the elevator. When the doors opened, Erik eagerly stepped into the simple metal box. Stoically, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, Edge followed him.
Pressing the lobby button and causing it to light up, Erik was a bit happy. Also a little embarrassed at being happy, but mostly, happy. He was able to experience so many new things ever since he joined their team. It was revitalizing.
As the mechanism started up, Erik indulged in that moment of weightlessness before his falling caught up with the movement of the elevator. Maybe it was because it was his first time, but he felt like this was fun for a competitor to stairs. Looking over at Edge, Erik found his commander’s face to be entirely stony. With every shake and bump of the machinery, it only grew grimmer.
By the time they reached the lobby, Edge looked ready to murder someone. As soon as the doors opened, Edge quickly stepped out of the elevator. For a second, his whole body went limp as the tension left him.
Erik couldn’t help but smile at that unexpected figure. As he was doing so, Edge regained his composure and turned to face Erik. Seeing Erik’s expression, Edge’s eyebrow raised. Then he smiled and said, “We still need to figure out your affinity, don’t we?”
“Yes!” Erik answered quickly. He’d almost forgotten about it entirely.
“We’ve got time,” Edge replied with a smile. “How about we go by the range?” With those words, Edge led Erik out of the guild building and down the street. In Erik’s excitement, he didn’t notice the evil light in Edge’s eyes.
The pair spent the rest of the day at a firing range. Erik tried dozens of different weapons, but couldn’t find any that stood out. After running out of weapons to try out, Edge handed Erik an assault rifle and said that it was a good opportunity to practice. Edge only let Erik go when his arms had been reduce to pudding and his eyes had grown teary.
The Captain stood outside the home’s red door and worried. Compared to the rest of the houses in the neighborhood, this one was small and unimpressive. Compared to the rest of the houses in this district, it could be considered a hovel. However, by any normal measure, the home in front of him would be considered exquisite and expensive. Just enough to fit a small family, it was the biggest home he could be comfortable living in.
Looking at his watch, it was one o’clock. No one should be in. Stepping up to the door, the Captain tried his key. This time as well, the lock gave way. It hadn’t been changed. Smiling at that, the Captain opened the door and stepped through. Once inside, his mind was overwhelmed with a feeling of bittersweet nostalgia. Almost everything was the same as when he’d left. The only difference were the small mound of discarded manila folders that littered the entry way. She was still taking her work home with her.
After tidying up the garbage a bit, the Captain took off his well-worn boots and ventured further inside. Passing into the simple room with only a long table with eight chairs at it. As he passed the dining room table, he absently ran his fingers along its surface. They came back to him covered in a thick layer of dust.
The Captain smiled wryly as he wiped his fingers on his pants. He’d always said they should hire a maid. She’d said it was a waste of money. That they weren’t going to have company over anyway, so it wasn’t needed. The compromise was that he was the one to clean, since he was the one bothered by it. Funny how those irritating things can become happy memories if given enough time.
Entering into the kitchen, he found it normal. For the most part. In the sink, dirty dishes had piled up to the point of almost overflowing. That gave him pause. She’d always at least been willing to do dishes. She only cultured bacteria in its proper place.
When he tried to turn on the faucet to clear out the dishes, he found the cause of the mystery. The water didn’t come out. He turned back towards the main hall to retrieve his tools, which were still stored in the same closet. Then he ducked under the sink to work on the problem.
It took him almost two hours to get the water running again. Then it was another thirty minutes to clean the dishes before he could resume his tour. Walking through the rest of the house, he found that half the lightbulbs were burnt out. Returning to the utility closet he found, as expected, about a dozen unused bulbs. He unconsciously pursed his lips at her attitude. She probably only bothered to replace the bulbs in the kitchen and he bedroom. That was exactly like her.
After another thirty minutes, the Captain had almost finished replacing the lights when he heard the faint rattle of the front door opening. Looking at his watch, he frowned. She shouldn’t be home until six. She was a woman of habit if anything. A time for everything and everything in its time. Though, that was a petty lie, since she spent all her time at home working too.
Quickly moving down stairs and into the entryway, he saw her. Just the sight, after so long, stole his breath away. Of course, she was older now. Her long black hair had splashes of grey and she made no effort to hide her crow’s feet. However, that was somehow just a part of her charms to him now. It was all… he missed her.
With a jolt their eyes met and he unconsciously spoke, “Nari…” After saying her name, he couldn’t figure out what should come next, so he awkwardly finished, “You’re home early.”
“They told me when you entered the gates,” Inari spoke just as hesitantly as he did. “I thought you wouldn’t come here to later and I’d have some time to…” As her eyes surveyed the neatly stacked folders by her feet and the newly illuminated rooms to her right, she finished lamely, ‘tidy up.”
With their greetings finished, the pair lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Neither of them were willing to meet the other’s eyes or able to think of anything to say. It seemed like they’d be trapped in that moment forever.
Inari was the one to break the silence. “I brought wine,” she declared, raising the paper sack the Captain had just noticed in her left hand. “I thought we could drink some and order in. I didn’t buy any ingredients. I didn’t know…”
As Inari devolved into looking at her feet, the Captain gave a smile and said, “That sounds good.”
Inari raised her head, gave her own smile, and energetically said, “It does.”
The Captain followed Inari into the kitchen and took a seat at the small, round table in the middle of the room. Inari grabbed two wine glasses from a cupboard and took a seat beside him. Then she withdrew the wine bottle from the paper bag and worked to get it uncorked. Once she had and was pouring the crimson liquid into the Captain’s glass, he caught of glimpse of the label. Erevise, that name tickled something in his long passed memories.
“That’s an expensive bottle,” he observed, squinting as he remembered the details.
“Well, neither of us will be able to tell the difference, but I thought I should splurge anyway,” Inari declared as she poured her own glass. “It’s a celebration after all. My husband came home.”
Hearing that word sent a lightning bolt through the Captain’s core. He looked down at his glass and hesitantly asked, “So, we’re still…”
Inari gave a small frown and glared at the Captain as she said, “I don’t know why you’re so surprised every time. What would even be the point of divorcing you at this point?”
‘You could find someone else,” the Captain said, still refusing to meet her eyes. “I wouldn’t blame you. I… was the one who chose this.”
“That wouldn’t make me happy,” Inari whispered, staring into her own glass.
Once again an uncomfortable atmosphere descended upon them. Silenced reigned as they sipped their whine. It was a bit fruity and a bit acrid. Just like any wine. It was just as Inari had said. He could never tell the difference. Not even after all those times Berenger had sat them both down to teach them the complexities of expensive wines, neither of them had grown any wiser.
After a few sips, Inari spoke up. “So, what brings you home?”
Being reminded of his business here, the Captain’s stomach grew cold and he made a slightly bitter expression. After a few seconds of thought, he said, “I found something strange in the outskirts of San Ranto…”
After hearing the story, Inari’s eyes grew bright with a researcher’s curiosity. “So, what happened to the body?”
“We burned it,” the Captain answered bluntly. “Every piece we had. We wanted to be sure it wasn’t coming back.”
Inari gave a disappointed frown. Then she nodded and said, “I guess that makes sense. Besides, it didn’t sound all that smart. I doubt the tissue samples would have been useful to me anyway.”
Then Inari’s brow furrowed and she asked, “Why did that bring you back…”
Seeing her face grow sterner, the Captain winced unconsciously. “You thought I had something to do with that?” Inari’s fierce eyes demanded an answer. “You thought I’ve become a villain who sends out her creations to murder villages? For what? Data? I am not a monster!”
“I never said you were!” the Captain shouted. Realizing he was yelling, he reflexively put his hand to his mouth. The he continued in a more measured tone. “It’s just that things can get away from you.”
“Getting away from me, running rampant. You’re always saying that,” Inari accused, narrowing her eyes and glaring fiercely at the Captain.
“You can’t keep all your assistants from doing what they will do,” The Captain tried to sound reasonable, holding up his hands in hopes of calming her. “You don’t know what they might be doing in places you can’t see.”
“You’re one to say that, after what was happening in the slums.”
“That’s exactly why I can say that.”
“You just don’t think I’m good at what I do,” Inari shot back, biting her lip. “You don’t think I’m capable of pulling it off! That’s why you left!”
“No matter how talented you are, there are some things that you can’t control!” the Captain shouted, slamming his hand on the table. “When things do go wrong, people are going to die!”
“You don’t trust me!”
“I don’t trust your judgement.”
“Is there a difference?”
“There is,” the Captain answered slowly in a whisper. “I’ve known you for too long, Nari. I know how smart you are and I know no one else can do what you do.” The Captain let that sink in for a moment, before finishing, “But I also know that you can get too focused on your work. You fall in love with the potential of what you’re doing and forget to consider the consequences.”
Inari rested her eyes on the table and quietly asked, “After fifteen years, you don’t think I’ve had time to think about the consequences?”
“You don’t think I’ve had time to think about its potential?” The Captain rebutted, sinking back into his chair and bending down to meet he eyes. “Better than anyone else. Better even than Berenger, I know your vision. It’s a beautiful idea, but there are some walls we can’t surpass. You can’t change human nature.”
“It’s not human nature I’m trying to change,” Inari responded, raising her head to look across the table at her husband. Then she turned her eyes down again and asked, “You’re leaving again, aren’t you? Soon?”
“Then we shouldn’t waste our time on this,” Inari declared. Standing from her seat, she took a step forward and placed her hand on her husband’s face. “Let’s settle down, order some food, and you can stay the night.”
“If I stay, I don’t know if I’ll be able to leave again,” the Captain responded, not meeting his wife’s gaze.
“That’s the plan,” Inari responded with e bright smile. Then she looked into his eyes and playfully added, “You’re gonna be so embarrassed when my project is finished and everything goes fine. You’ll be the one who has to deal with the fact that you’ve wasted the best years of both our lives.”
It won’t, the Captain didn’t speak the thought that ran through his head. Instead, he embraced Inari and took in her scent. A strange mixture of plums and formaldehyde. A scent that almost brought tears to his eyes.
For the next four days, the team saw nothing of the Captain. The room he’d forced them to rent for him would’ve remained vacant, but Edge unhesitatingly gave it to the Newbie so he wouldn’t have to bunk with Knot and Champ.