A car waited for us in the train station of the inner city of Jahar’taw. It had the words MTC written on its side, with a pair of Golem guards standing in front of it. I ducked my head low as I entered it, followed by Gennady.
“Is all of this really necessary?” I wasn’t wearing my mask. However, I definitely wished my face was covered right now. It was very embarrassing, causing a scene.
“I did not arrange this,” the Dwarf snorted. “I was just told that your transportation would be waiting for you here.”
“Then why are you following me?”
“Because they need me to verify it’s you. I was the one who asked Adilet to ensure your safety, after all.”
“I guess that makes sense.” I didn’t have any sort of identification other than my Hunters Guild card. And it wasn’t like I could use it. It had my fake identity on it— one which was actively being hunted down by both the Dark Crusaders and the Holy Knights right now.
Sure, both sides also knew of my real identity, but at least they couldn’t act against me if I had the entire government of the Taw Kingdom watching over me, right?
Maybe I’m still too idealistic. Regardless, the Holy Knights had their hands tied if I was kept safe in the MTC’s headquarters. The Dark Crusaders could try something, but they’d have a very hard time trying to infiltrate one of the most heavily guarded locations in the entire city.
We reached the gated complex after half an hour of driving. It was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of Golems— not just the regular ones you’d see patrolling the streets. But these were large Golems, made of various tough metals. Dwarf guards halted our car as we exited the vehicle.
“Gennady Usenov.” He showed the guard an identification card. Gesturing at me, he continued, “This is Melas. The girl under the protection of King Adilet.”
The Dwarf guards exchanged a look. “Yer melas, huh? Yer a lotta younger than we thought.”
I kept my head low, almost hiding it under my purple pointed hat. “I’ve… been thought a lot,” that was all I said.
“Well, ye’ve got clearance ta enter.” They ushered me in. But they stopped Gennady. “Not ya, though.”
“Wait.” I blinked. “He’s my friend— and he’s also a Scientist, isn’t he? Why can’t he enter?”
“Because, lass, he does nae have a pass to enter.”
“But he brought me here!” I exclaimed as Gennady glowered.
“An’ he’s done his job. Let us do ours.”
The guards were insistent. Gennady hadn’t said anything in return. I was certain he knew this beforehand, but he hoped that they’ d have let him in because of his old title as head Scientist. I hesitated. “Gennady—”
“Let them through, guards,” a voice said from the side. Bertrand stood at the gates, leaning against his cane. “Melas, it is good to see you are well. I was worried when I heard about what happened.”
“Bertrand.” Gennady fixed him with a glare.
“It’s good to see you, Master Gennady.” The old Scientist hobbled over to us. He gave a reassuring nod to the guards. “They have my permission to enter.” Stepping to the side, Bertrand smiled. “Please, come on in.”
“Thank you for your help there, Bertrand.” I gave him a grateful look.
“It is no trouble, Melas. I’d prefer your welcome to the MTC to be more than accommodating.” Bertrand was rather old, and he did have a slight hunch, edging towards his left shoulder. He couldn’t walk too fast, so I slowly followed behind him.
“I’ve been here before, but only ever at the section dedicated solely to mana tech testing. This place is more…” I glanced around at the simple hallway, not incredibly reinforced as if anything in the rooms around us would blow up at any moment. It seemed more like a dorm, with a few rooms used for classes and studying.
“Yes, this section was built for research purposes. And as the trait of many Scientists such as myself and Master Gennady, we often would prefer to sleep and eat at our labs. So, this is where the sleeping quarters are located as well.” He smiled at the Dwarf following behind me, grumbling with his arms crossed.
“Don’t just make assumptions about me, boy.”
Wait, was Gennady calling this old man a boy? Actually, who even was older? Dwarfs had older lifespans, so it was entirely possible that Bertrand was truly younger than Gennady.
Snorting, Gennady came to a stop. “I conduct my research vastly different from you lot.”
“Ah, of course, of course.” Bertrand’s smile never slipped from his lips. He was calm and collected, a sharp contrast to Gennady’s brash and hot-headed nature.
“Why did you even help me get in, anyway?” The Dwarf didn’t bother hiding his animosity. “Is it to brag that you stole my damned job from me?”
“No,” Betrand said, ignoring the accusation. “I simply thought Melas would be more comfortable with her introduction here if she had someone she knew accompanying her.”
I nodded at him. “Thank you.”
He shook his head, laughing. “Also, Master Gennady, a friend of yours was visiting today. I believed you would have liked to meet with him.”
Gennady cocked a brow. “A friend?”
Bertrand pushed open a door, entering a carpeted room. In it sat two couches around a coffee table, with a Dwarf man standing before it.
“Gennady Usenov, you mad bastard!” He spread his arms wide.
“Akerke, is that you?” Gennady blinked, only to be tackled by the other Dwarf in a hug.
“You’ve been back in Jahar’taw for months, and you didn’t think to pay me a visit? Has old age really rotted your brain that far?”
He scowled. “I’ve been busy, Akerke. What are you even doing at the MTC?”
“I’m busy doing things for my business here too.” Akerke was a younger Dwarf. His beard wasn’t nearly as long as Gennady’s, with a deep shade of black that was rare even for Dwarfs.
“Just a man trying to make his living, eh?” Gennady laughed. He gestured at me. “This is Melas.”
I tipped the brim of my hat at him. “A pleasure, Mr Akerke.”
“Akerke is fine. Bah, don't’ remind me of my age with all that ‘mister’ stuff.” Akerke grinned and peered at me. “So, you’re the Melas I’ve heard lots about, huh? Had a run in with the Church and the Dark Crusaders yesterday, didn’t ya?”
I narrowed my eyes. “You know about that?”
“Everyone in the know knows about it,” he said as if that wasn’t obvious.
My shoulders sagged. “This is becoming a bigger deal than I thought it would be.”
“Ye didn’t think seeking asylum wouldn’t be a big deal?” Akerke snorted. He was big for a Dwarf, and he was louder than even Gennady. More boisterous and carefree too. “Come now, of course it’s a big deal! Although, compared to making an enemy of both the Church and that bloody terrorist group? I guess I can see why you thought it wouldn’t matter.”
I glowered. “The Dark Crusaders are…” They were a lot of things. I guess terrorist was an appropriate term. But it was misleading too. “They’re a lot of things. Not just terrorists.”
“Right, right. You’re a spellcaster, ain’t ye? Of course you’d like ‘em.” He paused. “Wait, aren’t they trying to kill ye? I thought you’d hate ‘em for being evil an’ all.”
“Not all of them are evil. Just some of them are.” Although all of them were indeed trying to kill me, which was rather inconvenient. Hence, this whole setup.
“Hrm, yes. That is quite an impartial take. You’re a mature one.” Akerke shook his head. “I wish I could think like that, but alas, they’re the reasons why business ain’t so well for me these days.”
“What’d they do?” I raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Oh, just what they usually do. They target my shipments, stealing our tools and selling ‘em for gold. I never invested as much into protection as other companies, since I usually played it safe. Thought I could save money. Turns out it was not the smartest decision for the Elusive Goods Enterprise, eh?”
Gennady smacked him in the back. “Your shitty name was why your company isn’t doing well. Elusive Goods? Hah, more like Elusive Customers.”
I winced at that comment. I thought Akerke would grow angry. He surprised me by chuckling and waving a hand off.
“Elusive? More like non-existent.” The younger Dwarf was completely unoffended. “It was a play on words. My company was the only place you could buy these tools. I even sold some of your your patents too.”
“What failures they turned out to be.”
Both laughed. I glanced between the two. They were old friends, catching up, hanging their arms around each other’s shoulders.
We took a seat as the conversation shifted. Akerke was curious about how Gennady and I even met. I told him a recount of the time I nearly killed him, and Akerke sighed.
“You shoulda finished the job.”
I couldn’t help but grin too. It was a relaxing conversation, one filled with inane chatter and some candy and tea added to the mix. The Dwarfs carried most of the conversation. Of course they did. I offered some contributions, mostly when they asked me questions.
Bertrand didn’t say much. But that was not unusual of him. The chat finally ended as Gennady stood up.
“Well, lad, I gotta head out now. And Melas probably has to see her room, acclimate to this new place, not just hole up in this room.”
“Of course, of course.” Akerke turned to me. “Stay safe, lassie. And show me some of your tools sometime. That toaster thing sounds ingenious. Maybe you might even pull me out of bankruptcy if you let me sell it.”
I shook his head. “Thank you. And I will.”
The two Dwarfs left the complex— they knew their way around it well enough that they didn’t need to be escorted out. Bertrand brought me to my room, at the corner of a hallway on the second floor.
I pushed the door open, revealing a dark room. And a shadowed figure pounced on me. I leapt back as a pair of gleaming, yellow eyes stared up my way. I drew my dagger in a panic, but I slowly lowered it when I realized what it was.
A black cat sat on the floor, its tail pointed up, its head tilted to the side. I stared at it. “What is a cat doing in my room?”
“Ah, there she is.” Bertrand started forward and picked up the cat. “Luna, was this where you’ve been hiding all day?”
“Luna? Is she your cat?” I sheathed my dagger and leaned over Bertrand’s shoulder.
The old man shook his head. “No, not mine. She’s a stray who wandered into the MTC once. She lives here now. We simply feed her and take care of her.”
I paused. “Wait, you just let a cat into this highly secure complex?”
“We don’t allow her near the other sections of the MTC. And she’s well-behaved, see?” Bertrand ran his fingers through Luna’s fur, and she purred. “There’s no need to worry for her.”
That wasn’t really what I was concerned about. That just seemed like a security oversight. What if someone transformed into a cat to infiltrate the MTC? Or wait, actually, was transformation magic even possible?
It probably wasn’t. I was just overthinking things, bringing preconceived notions from my world and applying them in a world where it was inapplicable. I never saw anyone perform transformation magic before. I would have heard about it by now.
Elara never brought it up. My mom would’ve just turned to a crow and flown away if Inquisitors showed up. That was a stupid thought.
Luna was just a cat and nothing more. My lips curled up as I watched Bertrand pat her. I was a Witch, wasn’t I? There was no reason for me to be suspicious of a cat. Witches and cats went hand-in-hand.
“Who’s a good kitty?” I offered Luna a hand. She looked at it. Then she swiped at it, scratching my fingers, and darted away. “Ouch.”
“Apologies, Melas, I should’ve mentioned: she’s not good with strangers.”
Well, I guess that was another idea from my world proven wrong. “I’m bleeding.”
“I’ll get you a bandage. Sit right here.”