Eve shifted uncomfortably in her low-quality leather armor, fiddling with the sword at her waist. The gear was all garbage, but she was putting up with it for the time being; it was a necessary sacrifice to ensure their masquerade was as convincing as possible. They didn’t want people to know that they were anything more than very talented newbies, so they couldn’t waltz in with the high-end custom made equipment they normally used. Setting aside the quality of their normal gear, the materials alone would cause people to ask too many questions; it was all made from materials created with Eldritch Abomination or the dungeon, woven together in different blends that best suited the piece of gear being made.
And then it was topped off with all sorts of enchantments and bonuses, making the end result Legendary ranked. Anyone worth their salt would immediately realize that that equipment wasn’t something that any new adventurer would have, no matter how much money they had.
“Alright, everyone ready?” Jameson asked as he entered the room.
“Yes, we’re ready.” Eve snapped. “We’ve been ready for ten minutes, we’ve just been waiting for you!”
“Sorry, sorry.” Jameson replied, “I had to get Carmen all settled. You know how she gets.”
“Whatever.” Eve harrumphed, “Let’s just go.”
She drew out a specialized large teleport array, encapsulating her, Jameson, Anna, and the once again puppy sized dogs. Once it was done, she activated it, hooking into the stable trans-planar teleporter array Mae had finished setting up few months after Lilith went to sleep, and depositing them outside of the gate in one of Haven’s new frontier towns.
The town was obviously built quickly – most of the buildings were constructed using earth magic and had the same basic design, though most had some unique flair added by the owners. There was a large wall around the town, made with sturdier earth magic, upon which guards patrolled, keeping an eye out for any monsters looking to attack the structure.
And, while the wall may have been unbroken, the wall did have signs of attack. They were mostly in the form of discolored patches of stone here and there, but beyond that the guards didn’t seem to have the inattentiveness that came with complacency. They had the air of people who were ready for anything.
Eve tore her attention away from the town and back to their destination; the town’s adventurer guild. She wasn’t sure who, but someone had the idea to start an adventurer’s guild, and it had caught on quickly in the frontier towns, which were always lacking for capable people to do work.
She casually swatted away a bird that tried to fly in with her as she opened the door, then stepped into the guild. The inside was about what she expected; a bunch of counters with receptionists, boards for jobs, and a bunch of tough-looking people milling about. The group lined up at the shortest line they saw, letting the noise settle into an oddly rhythmic background as they talked amongst themselves.
Somehow, as time progressed, everything seemed to settle into the same rhythm. Eve couldn’t quite nail down what it was, but it certainly wasn’t normal. She was almost positive that the people around her weren’t really stepping in time to it or speaking to it or…She shook her head, putting in some focus and clearing her head of the rhythm, at least for the time being. Are any of you picking up on this? She telepathically hissed, glancing at her companions.
On what? Anna asked, frowning.
There’s this weird…pattern things are falling into. Like…a bunch of frantic movements and then some more mellow ones and then back to frantic.
Jameson frowned as well. No. I’m not picking up on anything like that, but if you say it, I’ll believe it. It might be something that your senses can sense but ours can’t, or someone could be targeting you with magic or something.
“Next!” The receptionist called, and they moved forward to the front of the line.
We’ll talk about this after. Be on your guard. Eve said, before turning to the counter. Fortunately, it seemed to have been made with consideration to shorter races, as the counter lowered down to her height as she stepped forward. “I’m Eve, that’s Anna, that’s Jameson, we’re here to register as a party.” She said curtly, fixing the receptionist with her best “don’t mess with me” look.
For her part, the receptionist didn’t bat an eye. “Of course.” She said, reaching down and grabbing some pape-
Eve felt as she pressed a button. It would have been nigh-unnoticeable to anyone using “just” the standard human senses, but Eve wasn’t using just those, and she had a good enough picture to tell that something had definitely been pushed.
She went on high alert, mentally notifying Anna and Jameson but otherwise pretending not to notice.
“Ugh, rookies.” She picked out a voice from the far end of the room, quiet enough so that the conversation should have been inaudible to anyone but the intended recipient.
“What counter?” Another voice asked.
“5.” The original replied, “Looks like…You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It’s a kid. I hate kids.”
“Well, suck it up, you’re on duty and I’m not going to pick up your slack.”
There was a pause, then the first voice spoke again, the hint of a smirk creeping into the tone. “Actually, I think you are.”
“No, Bruce, I hate kids as much as you do.”
“You still owe me for the car, man.”
“I already cleaned up! What more do you want?!”
“Look, do you have any idea how hard the stench of vomit is to get rid of once it’s soaked into the seats? Even with magic it took forever. Take care of it and we’ll call things square.”
The second voice groaned. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll be the adult here.”
Eve noticed as the conversation shifted. The receptionist took the papers, tap-tap-tapping them on the desk, letting them fall together in three longer bursts, then doing three more quick taps on the desk to get them into a neat little pile. “Alright, Eve, you’re set, but due to their family status I’ll need Anna and Jameson to come to the back with me while we do a bit more specialized paperwork for them.”
She’s trying to split us up, but I’ve got things here. If you have trouble just let me know and I’ll be there in a flash. There shouldn’t be anyone around here capable of putting up a fight against you but better safe than sorry.
Eve could feel the receptionist begin to tap her foot, an odd rhythm that changed from fast to slow at regular intervals. She shook her head, clearing it once again and the tapping fell back into a regular pace. “That’s fine. I’ll wait in one of the chairs over there.” She said, motioning to a set of incongruously comfortable-looking armchairs near the wall.
The receptionist gave them a smile. “Thanks for your understanding. You two are with me.” She opened a small gate in the desk and took Anna, Jameson, and the dogs to the back with her, leaving Eve to go back to the armchair and wait.
“Hey there sweetie, come to make a request for your parents?” Someone drawled. It was voice number two, and now that Eve could spare a glance, the owner was revealed to be a tall elf woman, dressed in nicely-fitted leather armor.
“No, I just finished my registration and I’m just waiting for the rest of my party.” Eve said, internally groaning at the forced politeness. She really wanted to rip into the woman, but she was aiming for the “nice girl everyone loves” role and she couldn’t break character in a first impression.
“Aww, that’s sweet, kids playing adventurer. But, honey, you really shouldn’t be so serious about things. It’s dangerous work, and just because you’re tougher than you used to be doesn’t mean you’re invincible.” She bent down, patting Eve on the head.
Eve resisted the urge to rip her arm off. “Don’t worry, my teachers all say I’m ready. My party and I should be able to handle the things around here without much of a problem.”
The elf rolled her eyes. “Have your teachers been fighting out here?”
“No.” But I’m pretty any of them could singlehandedly beat everyone here, my party excluded, at once.
“Then they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Look, I know you’re trying to get out there and have some excitement, but you’re just throwing your life away. Kids are too weak to do anything in these parts. Maybe go try clearing out some rat infestations or something then come back, kay?”
“It’s not your place to say what I should be doing.” Eve said quietly, “I know I’m ready and that’s all that matters.”
The elf gave a theatrical sigh. “Bruce, swords!”
A pair of wooden training swords hurtled through the air towards the elf, who caught them and tossed one to Eve. “You’re using a sword, so come at me, let me show you you’re not ready. I’m not going to go easy on you like your teachers.”
The crowd parted, forming a circle around the two as Eve stood, grasping the sword firmly. “Then I guess I’ll have to show you I am ready.”
The clash was quick. There were three swift collisions as the two locked blades, another three beats as they took stock of the situation, and then Eve ended the fight in another three swift strokes, ending with her sword pointing at the woman’s neck.
“See? Told you I was ready.” She said casually, withdrawing the sword and tossing it hilt-first at the woman. “Now please leave me alone, I don’t want to fight if I don’t have to.”
The crowd seemed to buy her bald-faced lie, and they dispersed. The woman looked around and, satisfied no one else was looking, looked at Eve and winked before she, too, scampered off.
Further contemplation was cut off as someone barged into the guild. “Alright,” He said, giving the room a look, “Who owns this bird?” He held up his arm, where the bird Eve had swatted down before perched. “It keeps trying to get in and–”
The bird immediately flew to Eve and settled on her shoulder.
“Um, sorry.” She said, faking nervousness, “He was out delivering a message for me and must have been trying to reach me. I didn’t know he was there, or I would have left to go see what he had.”
“It’s fine.” The man said, “Next time, instruct him to return to your home if you’re going to be in town, alright?”
“Yes, sir.” Eve said meekly. Once attention was off of her again, she gave the bird a glare. “What do you want?!” She hissed.
The bird looked her directly in the eye and then bent down, delivering a series of soft pecks to her shoulder, more pressing its beak against her than actually trying to cause any harm.
And…there it was. Three quick taps, followed by three slow taps, and then three quick ones again. The bird waited, looking her in the eye, then repeated.
A pit formed in Eve’s stomach. She ran some quick identification spells on the bird and…
It was one of Judy’s swarm.
Judy, are you alright?! She asked, letting her Skills carry the message to her faraway recipient.
Better than ever! She replied. Just tying off a couple of loose ends before I come and see Lilith.
The bird repeated its message.
Um, alright then. Eve said. See you then, I guess.
See you then!
The bird gave its message once again. Eve gently stroked it, “Got it.” She whispered. “Help’s on the way.”
The bird nodded its head, and then flew off. Eve sighed and contacted the other Parallels. There was no mistaking it now; the bird had been the source of the odd rhythm everything was falling into, Judy was desperately trying to communicate to Eve without speech. Three short taps, three long, then three short again…SOS.
Kali let herself into Mai’s private questioning room and removed her presence, watching as the woman conversed with Judy.
“Judy, what’s your progress?” Mai asked kindly.
“Seventy percent, mother.” Judy replied, “I apologize, but it’s rather hard to wrest control back once I’ve splintered my consciousness like that. You’ll have to forgive my ignorance in choosing to do so instead of accepting your advances.”
Mai laughed. “That’s fine, Judy. How long do you think it’ll take before you’re back in full control?”
“Three days, mother.”
“Scratch that.” Kali said coldly, letting her presence out. “We’re going to move that up to now.”
Mai raised an eyebrow. “Ah, if it isn’t the Administrator herself.” She mocked. “What happened to letting your charge fight her own battles, hm?”
“When it is within acceptable limits, I do so.” Kali said, “But I’m afraid this is as far as my tolerance goes. There was only so much she could do while she was out like that and your choosing to take control of my apprentice while I was gone hasn’t put me in the best of moods.” She glared at Mai. “Judy is coming with me.”
“I’m afraid she’s rather content with her new life. I think that her opinion is what’s important here, yes?”
Judy nodded. “I’m eternally grateful to mother for opening my eyes like this! You should really take some time to listen to her, Kali, I’m sure she could help you out a ton!” She said enthusiastically, “She’d make a perfect teacher for Lilith, too!”
Kali snapped her fingers, paralyzing Judy and teleporting her into Kali’s arms. “Not when her mind’s been altered, no.”
Mai spread her arms. “I’m just spreading my love to the world.” She said, “And my sweet daughter has a point, I could help you a great deal! Put me in charge of your High Arbiter project and watch as things never fail again! We’d have the power to do whatever we wanted, and no one could stop us!”
“No.” Kali replied, fury creeping into her tone. “I’m not stupid, Mai. I know exactly what your plans are, so stop patronizing me.”
Mai shrugged. “It was worth a shot. Now, in the spirit of fairness, why don’t you go ahead and wipe that girl’s mind when you do whatever your reset is? Wouldn’t want your precious girlfriend getting an advantage from your meddling, hm?”
Kali fixed her with another glare. “I don’t think so. Not unless you’re willing to, say, agree to a little wager.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“A battle of champions. Yours against mine. If yours wins, I wipe Judy’s mind about information pertaining to you and don’t tell Lilith about your schemes. If mine wins, you allow Judy’s network into your city. I’ll heal both sides after, but, as compensation, I’ll wipe the memory of the battle from the losing side. Free battle experience, if you win. Sound good?”
Mai grinned. “Sounds excellent. Errus, if you would?”
Errus stepped forward from his place behind Mai. “Of course, mother. I’d be happy to represent you.”
“There you have it, then.” Mai said lazily. “Now bring your little arbiter here and we can get this over with.”
Kali gave her a cold smile. “Who said she was going to be my champion?”
Mai raised an eyebrow. “Who else could it be? She’s the strongest force you have on your side, is she not?”
“You’d think.” Kali replied, snapping her fingers again. The four people were suddenly above the ocean, floating on air a good distance above the water’s surface.
She let Errus fall, watching his fall with a smile. “But the thing about my apprentice’s technique is that it guarantees that the most confidential secrets are locked somewhere safe.” She said, tapping the side of her head for emphasis. “I’m afraid you didn’t learn quite as much as you might have hoped.”
Errus slowed his fall with magic, scanning the dark water vigilantly.
Kali waited a beat longer before proceeding. “Levi!” She called, magically amplifying her voice, “Chow time!”
Errus shot upwards a moment before the water began churning, Levi leaping out and barely missing Errus.
Errus responded with a barrage of magic, spells of all types pounding into Levi’s massive frame. Most just bounced harmlessly off, but a few managed to nick the creature, sending sprays of blood out to the water around. Errus flew higher still, making sure he was well out of range of another leap.
“Like fish in a barrel.” Mai said lazily.
“Quite.” Kali agreed.
The water below began to churn even more violently, crackling red lights appearing just below the surface. Then, moments later, a torrent of glowing scale-like objects flew out, the sheer number of the person-sized things momentarily blocking out the light as they passed through the viewing platform.
Only one or two hit Errus, but that wasn’t really the aim. They formed a wide, unbroken ring a good distance below him, which began to spin rapidly. As it did the sky darkened and Errus, sensing the danger, tried to get out of the area above the ring.
It followed, matching pace with him perfectly, even when he teleported. Then, a bolt of red lightning came down from the sky, striking one of the objects. And, like a floodgate had been opened, lightning started streaking down in an ever-increasing torrent of crackling red electricity until the whole ring was constantly being struck with red lightning.
Normally this would render near observers blind and deaf, and the far ones wouldn’t be able to see inside, but Kali magnanimously took care of it for the three of them, her room allowing them a view into the circle. Errus looked around cautiously, then flew up. He paused, noting that the height of the circle hadn’t changed, then looked up and grimaced.
The clouds above him weren’t really clouds any more. They were, instead, giant masses of red lightning, effectively caging him inside the circle, the only opening being the bottom.
The bottom where an observant watcher could see Levi’s enormous head, waiting patiently for Errus to make a move.
“Aaaand…Checkmate.” Kali said, watching with satisfaction as the circle began to constrict, brining Errus ever closer to the ominous wall of red lightning surrounding him.
Errus tried a spell, but the moment it left him a bolt of red lightning speared out from the wall and struck it and then him, sending him into a fall before he was able to catch himself.
He looked around frantically, and then down. There was only really one option left for him if he didn’t want to get fried. So, awful as it was, he took it.
He raced downwards towards the bottom of the circle. Levi opened his mouth lazily, ready for his next meal.
The moment Errus crossed the threshold, the lightning stopped striking, the circle stopped spinning, and all the scale-things, now crackling with red lightning, pointed to Errus. There was a huge explosion, and then…Errus appeared in the room, a large cow appearing in his place. Levi snapped up the morsel and Kali teleported the astonished people back to the room they had come from.
“Next time, I won’t save you.” Kali said, turning on her heel. “Struggle if you want, it’ll only make for that much better growth for Lilith.” She turned her head back as she walked off, a dark smile on her face. “Next time, think about who you’re angering, hm?”
She snapped a final time, spending some Worship to both wipe their memories of the encounter and teleport her and Judy back home. From there, all she had to do was scrub Mai’s influence from Judy, and then she could finally meet back up with her girlfriend. And that was a simple task; she’d be back well before she was scheduled to be. She couldn’t help but smile as she thought about the surprise she’d be able to give everyone. She’d even get to be the knight in shining armor, coming in right during the panic everyone was going into.
Yup. Life really was looking brighter than ever.