“You took your time in there,” Gray said as he made his way down to the first floor of the Pavilion with Rakna. “You were bargaining or something?”
“Not really,” Rakna replied blandly as they went down the staircase. “What do you know about Abyss Paths?”
“Abyss Paths?” The clown frowned. “Where did you hear about those? You don’t have one, do you?”
“No, Allan has one.”
“Uh,” Gray exclaimed with a hand on his chin. After reaching the bottom of the stairs, they ‘parked’ on one side of the hall and he continued, “Well, I do know a bit about it. The Abyss Paths are quite infamous in the higher Plateaus. There’s even an Abyss Guild in fact. Though, they’re branded as an evil one. Was this what you talked about with your shopkeep?”
Rakna nodded and he hummed, “How rare. A shopkeeper that knows about these kinds of things must at least be above the 500th Plateau. Who was it?”
“Foxy,” Rakna replied without thinking.
“Oh… I meant Kaelith Yahkshasa.”
Gray’s thought process creaked for a few seconds. “…damn, kid. You move fast. Not only do you call her foxy but she apparently even exercised her connections to be your personal shopkeep.”
Rakna shrugged indifferently as they watched the people pass by while leaning against the wall.
“Well, that aside, back to the Abyss thing. If you talked about it with that woman, you should have a pretty clear idea of what it is. So, what do you wanna know?”
“Any idea how to help Allan?”
“No, I’m sorry. But he did join the Madness Guild, right? If I had known his Path beforehand, I still would have sent him to Quill. That guy’s guild name isn’t just for show. They’re used to deal with berserkers, for the lack of a better word. That’s the best I can say.”
“I see…” Rakna closed his eyes and a minute later, he opened them again as he finally realized something. “What are we waiting for, by the way?”
“Well, the other Guilds, of course. And your friends. It’s better to go together,” Gray replied while fiddling with his cane.
“How long will that be?”
“I don’t know… Thirty minutes? An hour? Since I only have you, it’s fast. But the other guilds have several people to guide and awaken. So… we wait for them.”
* * *
Forty minutes later, Rakna was mentally playing Tetris with his HL when he heard someone call his name, “Rak!” He looked up to see Allan walking in his direction together with around ten other new Hosts on top of Quill Frazen.
“Well, well, if it isn’t little Quill,” Gray quipped as they got close.
“Whisles,” the man greeted curtly and glanced at Rakna. “This is the S+? Worth your participation this year?”
“Worth?” Gray cackled. “The kid’s probably worthy of being a VIP for the first guild. How could I be disappointed, honestly?”
Quill lifted his eyebrows but stayed silent otherwise.
“So, is your guild going on ahead or are you waiting for others?” Gray followed up.
“I’ll wait for the Wiccans. We agreed that we would go together,” Quill stated.
“Oh? Nice, three of the top hundred guilds cooperating for their new recruits’ training. It will be a fresh experience.”
Quill nodded and waved at the Hosts following him. “Relax. We will wait for a little more and then head to the Station with the Wiccans and the Clown.”
The new Hosts nodded silently and made sure to stand somewhere where they wouldn’t bother anyone passing by. Rakna inspected them for a short moment. There wasn’t a lot of them all things considered. Fourteen, all in all.
But, one thing he noticed was that other than Allan, all of them seemed to be… cold? They all held this empty expression as if their life had been robbed from them in the nastiest way imaginable.
‘Is it this guild’s preference?’ He thought to himself then faced his friend. “Hey, Allan.”
“You told them about your Path, right?”
“Oh,” Allan seemed to understand something. He scratched his head and sighed. “I guess that means you learned what it means. Yeah, I told them about it. Quill asked me about it when I told him I was recommended by the clown. He looked surprised for a second but then he accepted and explained to me what Abyss is usually associated with.”
“You’re okay with it?” Rakna asked with his usual countenance and anyone who didn’t know him would have mistakenly assumed that he didn’t care.
“I’m fine,” Allan shrugged. “It adds to the thrill, you know? It sounds fun to try and not to give in to darkness or whatever,” he said while laughing.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Gray commented from the side. “I like it though. You won’t survive long in here if you can’t find at least a bit of enjoyment in your difficulties.”
“Uh, surprisingly deep from a cyborg that dresses like a clown,” Allan retorted and Gray cackled.
At the same time a feminine voice reached them, “Well, well, it seems we’re last to arrive.”
Everyone looked to the right where the end of the staircase was and saw Vera approaching them with exactly eight recruits behind her. All of them were women and two of them were Nyx and Flavia.
“Ah, Vera. Good morning,” Gray tipped his hat. “How are your recruits this time around?”
“Fantastic, actually,” she grinned and started hugging Flavia who was next to her. “This little girl here has so much talent I’m practically drooling.”
“Please… Lady Vera, let me go,” Flavia said weakly as Vera rubbed her face against hers. The other women seemed to be smiling at the scene.
“Really? How talented are we talking about?”
“Sextuple Affinity,” Vera said almost too smugly but going by the reactions Gray and Quill showed, it wasn’t without the right incentive. “And the lovely Nyx over here,” she then started hugging the former goddess as well. “Has awakened Eternal Night and Lunar Magic.”
“Well… shit,” Gray uttered. “Maybe I should have broken that damn unspoken rule.”
“Thank god you didn’t,” she huffed. “How did you get so lucky with your group anyway?”
Gray shrugged with a smirk. “I guess I’m just that awesome.”
“…” Silence was all he got.
“Really? At least, try and refute it instead of closing your mouths like that,” he grumbled.
“Let’s go. We’ve wasted enough as it is,” Quill declared unbothered and started walking toward the exit of the Pavilion.
“See? I told you he was grumpy,” Gray muttered to Rakna as they followed him with the rest.
As the sizeable group left the Pavilion and pierced through the crowd outside, the new recruits of the Wiccan Guild quickly surrounded Rakna in curiosity. They started fawning over him while barraging him with questions.
“What’s your name?”
“How did you get those ears and tails?”
“That little snake is so cute!”
“Are you a werewolf?!”
Rakna retained his stony façade but the way his eyes were twitching wasn’t a good sign about his current mood. Pronos had also retreated under Sonata at lightning speed. Rakna raised his hand to stop them from speaking further. “If you want to bother someone, go for Allan. Not me.”
“Hey!” Allan shouted in consternation.
“Aww, come on. At least tell us your name?” One of the girls said.
“…Rakna Xiorra,” he said as he felt that answering their questions would take less energy than arguing with them.
“Can I pet you?” One other girl raised her hand as if she was asking permission from a teacher.
“Can I touch your tails?”
“No,” he didn’t even wait for the next question before giving his answer. Flavia watched on with a wry smile while Nyx let out a quiet chuckle.
Vera’s giggles sounded and everyone looked at her. “Come on now, girls. Let the poor boy go.”
“Fine~” The girls complied with pouts and Rakna grunted. He threw a look at the beautiful woman who was smiling at him.
“Do you overseers have anything to gain by sticking to profile stereotypes like this?”
“Ara?” Vera tilted her head with an impish smile. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Not only did you choose a bunch of women, but all their personalities are also too outgoing to be a coincidence. There’s also the people behind that guy,” he replied while pointing at Quill’s group leading on ahead of them; far enough that they wouldn’t be able to hear their conversation.
“Too broken. Shells of human beings; something that I guess must be a recurrent thing every year and that man willfully picked them. They, who must have lost things like lovers or siblings or perhaps seen too many exposed guts for their untrained minds.”
Vera smiled sadly at his words. “Not as broken as you, I’d say.”
He huffed and didn’t even bother to humor her with a comeback.
“Well, you’re correct. The Wiccan Guild is a witch clan of sorts and witches, on top of being exclusively women, need to know how to let their desires and emotions free. They should always be outgoing, genial, and sociable. Thus, it is but natural to pick people matching these traits. Of course, there are exceptions. Your two lady friends here are a lot more reserved but still have tremendous potential.”
“Indeed,” Gray nodded in agreement. “Guilds need to keep a sort of decorum regarding their image and reputation. The Throne of Glory for instance only accepts powerful people but what you don’t know is that all of us are for the most part very independent. All of us hate being ordered. This is why we joined a Guild that would let us stand as equals. That is also why we’re not numerous.”
“Then, there’s Quill’s Guild,” Vera continued. “The Madness Guild is a… gloomy one. They are a group that welcomes mostly people that are unafraid of pain or death. The majority of them also have incredible physical capabilities and their extremely cold attitude makes them terrifyingly calculative in combat.”
“Damn… I’m starting to regret joining this guild,” Allan muttered. “I’m not sure I can cope.”
“True,” Rakna nodded knowingly. “There’s absolutely no way you can be calculative in a fight.”
Allan let out comical tears. “Raaak! Can you stop calling me stupid on every occasion!?”
“I’m not calling you stupid. I’m calling you an idiot.”
“That’s the same thing!”
Gray laughed at their small banter. “As much as I’m enjoying the small chat, I have to interrupt you there. We’ve arrived,” he said as he pointed forward with his cane.
Everyone looked at Quill’s group, who had taken a decent head-start, going down a staircase to the side of the street that anyone would be able to compare to the entrance of an underground metro station.
Vera and Quill led their group down the stairs until they were about twenty meters underground and a spacious place welcomed them. For being underground, the ceiling was quite high and the lightning felt very natural.
Several people were sitting on the benches there, seemingly waiting for the transport that would probably be coming on the large rails they could see on each side of the station.
“Let’s see,” Gray hummed and he looked at the time on his pocket watch. “It should arrive at any time now. The Black Steel’s Spear is never late.”
“Black Steel’s Spear?” Allan reiterated. “Sounds grand. By the way, why are these rails so big?”
True to his words, the rails they could see were a lot larger than anything they were used to back on Earth. Before Gray could answer, the echoing sound of a locomotive reached their ears through the tunnels. The clown grinned, “Well, see for yourself.”
Barely half a minute later, the new Hosts jerked back in surprise as a massive red train with two floors reached the station at high speed. It zoomed by in the tunnel to their right and disappeared inside again.
But the sound didn’t disappear and it soon came back from the other side before slowing down with the loud sound of the steam being discharged and the grinding of the rails against the train’s wheels.
When it stopped, Rakna observed the train again. At first sight, it looked like something that was too old for a city as advanced as Black Steel but the way the doors smoothly opened as well as the seemingly clean and modern interior forced Rakna to admit that this train was more than it met the eye.
Though, as they all began to enter the rail transport, he couldn’t help the small roguish instinct he had gained from his uncle as he opened his mouth, “Are you sure we don’t need a wand and pointy hats before going in?”
That day, Gray was sure that he hadn’t laughed harder in years.