Chapter 01 – The Beginning – Markus
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A/N: So there is a story-based reason for German and French being spoken throughout the story. a change of color is provided. The primary protagonists, Markus and Aela will quickly adapt to one another's preferred languages relatively quickly, so the language barrier is primarily only an issue in these earlier chapters and becomes less frequent as the story continues, from a reading perspective. Just try to bear in mind that many people in the story are not multilingual and will be accidentally or deliberately excluded from certain dialogues as the story progresses. Underlined dialogue references a non-preferred language for the character being followed for the chapter.

I probably made everything seem far more complicated than it actually is <,< So anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.

 

Chapter 01 - The Beginning - Markus

German - Blue French - Green English - Red

 

Endem’s adventurer Guildhall was disappointingly quiet despite the plentiful bounties adorning the notice board. Markus had initially chalked this up to the downpour that morning, muddying the streets. Still, as time had passed, only a relative handful of adventurers and reputable would-be retainers had stopped in at the ordinarily bustling adventurers Guildhall.

 

Markus couldn’t help but fidget nervously while warming his hands by the heat-stone he had laid on the table. What little savings he had managed to put together were now tied up in this endeavour. For better or worse, this adventure would determine his fortunes.

 

“Why couldn’t I have had a more desirable class?” Markus lamented inwardly and groaned, his right index finger ruefully tracing the etched lines he had painstakingly carved into the heat-stone’s surface over a year ago. It was hot to the touch, almost uncomfortably so, but he still didn’t draw his finger away.

 

Markus had interviewed a dozen or more candidates earlier that day, but unfortunately, they had either been too inexperienced, too expensive, or surprisingly both. The lowest tier adventuring party contract was the best he could afford right now, and that limited his options to two non registered adventurers as companions when entering low to mid-tier dungeons. This restriction put even more pressure on selecting the right retinue, which he, in all honesty, couldn’t afford.

 

Suddenly, the main door of the Guildhall swung wide with a crash. Moments later, three large cloaked figures swept in from the deluge outside. As they advanced on the main desk, Markus could sense the clerk’s unease and could imagine her reaching for the cudgel stowed by her chair.

 

Adventurers would usually be well behaved enough, as the overwhelming majority were children of the kingdom's plethora of noble families and had to be ever mindful of public appearances lest they disgrace their house. Sometimes though, a far rougher sort had to be reminded of the rules and decorum required on Guild grounds.

 

“Damnit,” Markus muttered, his left hand drifting to his sword hilt as he slowly got to his feet. Part of the Guild membership agreement required all Guild members in the immediate vicinity to protect Guild property and personnel. Now on his feet, Markus gave one last hopeful look around the room. His heart sank. It was as empty as it had been ten minutes before. Moving closer, he could now hear the heated exchange between one of the three strangers and the increasingly flustered clerk.

 

“The bounty said one shilling a beast!” The leader growled, his voice deep and dangerous.

 

The young clerk, still forcing a polite smile, tried stammering out a reply but was cut off by the stranger again.

 

“Look!” He leaned in closer and across the desk, “The bounty only said to kill the beasts, never said we had to bring proof for each body.” The stranger lowered his voice, “You calling me a liar?” The question oozed with contempt and the threat of violence.

 

The desperate clerk had seen Markus approaching, and she now seemed notably buoyed with undeserved confidence, “T-that as may be, b-but Guild regulations clearly state-”

 

“Damn your regulations! We want what’s owed!” There was the unmistakable sound of a blade being drawn.

 

Gritting his teeth, Markus rushed the leader, his sword coming down hard on the man’s shoulder with a muted clang. The unexpected shock of the impact almost caused him to drop his sword in surprise.

 

For a handful of seconds, everyone was silent and still, unsure of what exactly had happened and how best to react.

 

With mounting horror, Markus realised that he must have struck a pauldron concealed by the man's cloak.

 

The man Markus had assaulted swung about, his pitiless gaze fixed upon him with murderous intent. Little more than a common highwayman with his scraggly unkempt beard, tattered gambeson, and lone battered pauldron, he was very likely more than a match for Markus.

 

Markus cursed his luck and made to step backward to give himself some breathing room.

 

“BASTARD!” The bandit bellowed and charged after him, swinging wildly with a battered-looking blade, sweeping a glow-jar off a nearby table.

 

Markus’s mind raced. He was not a good swordsman on his best day. This bandit had forty pounds on him and was at least a head and a half taller besides. Pride be damned, he tried for the most congenial tone he could muster, “I don’t suppose we can talk about this?” Three to one, Markus knew he was as good as dead. The moment the other bandits joined in, it would be all over.

 

Markus parried desperately, turning the larger man's blows away as best he could and inwardly cursing himself for not waiting another week to finalise his registration. He was left-handed, giving the bandit a little trouble, but not enough to matter for much longer.

 

“Got you now!” The bandit crowed gleefully as Markus lost his grip on his sword and backed hard into a table. “Prissy little nobles,” the bandit spat in disgust, “You just think the whole world is yours for the taking,” he kicked Markus's sword far out of reach, revelling in Markus’s mounting despair.

 

Desperate, Markus reached behind for something to throw at the bandit to distract him. His fingers closed around something hot, and Markus threw it with all the strength he could muster, hoping that the distraction would give him time to make a break for it.

 

The bandit recoiled but still caught a glancing blow to the brow. Roaring in pain and momentarily taken aback, the bandit was too slow in striking at Markus as he fled back towards the clerk’s desk, the exit, and as he had momentarily forgotten, the bandit’s two companions.

 

Surprisingly, they had not made any moves to engage either Markus or the clerk, seemingly content to watch things as they played out. They had now barred the doorway, preventing anyone from entering or leaving without going through them first.

 

“Bastard!” The bandit roared, “I‘ll gut you for that! See if I don’t!” He then pelted the object back at Markus, missing woefully and striking the shorter of his two companions in the arm. The second bandit let out a hiss of frustration and scooped up the improvised projectile to return the favour but lowered their arm mid-swing and regarded the object curiously.

 

“Don’t just stand there!” The bandit thundered, “Kill him! That’s what I pay you for!”

 

The third bandit made as if to comply, suddenly bearing down on Markus with deceptive speed, his hand whipping out from beneath his cloak and wrapping around Markus’s throat so quickly he didn’t even have time to register what was happening.

 

“Yeah, hold him nice and still for me!” The bandit crowed gleefully, rubbing at the swelling welt on his brow and stalking closer.

 

“Don't kill him,” the second bandit hissed to his companion.

 

Markus groaned. Northern barbarians. It all made sense now. They hadn’t even read the requirements of the Guild for claiming bounties. It was all written in southern imperial script.

 

“Why not?” The second northerner asked, turning back to his companion and dragging Markus around at the same time. The minor solace Markus took in the act, since it hurt immensely, was that the Northman had inadvertently placed himself between Markus and the bandit looking to sheath a blade in his entrails.

 

"Ask him if he did that," the first northerner hissed excitedly, “Interrogate him.”

 

The northerner holding Markus drew him in close, “You will answer my questions, understand?” He growled menacingly, making it evident that Markus’s participation was mandatory.

 

Markus was taken aback a moment upon discovering that the northerner was actually a woman! A tall and clearly powerful woman, but a woman all the same. Encouraged by a brief but painful squeeze against his trachea, Markus coughed out his reply, “Yes,” accompanied by some undignified wheezing “I-under-stand.”

 

“You made this?” The northerner asked, pointing with her free hand at the object the other northerner was holding.

 

The first northerner had crowded closer, waving the object in front of Markus’s face as if his now darkening vision would be able to make it out better if it were constantly moving. Feeling the familiar sense of heat, Markus was overjoyed he didn't need to see the object to know what it was. “Y-es,” he croaked, and as the grip around his throat slackened, he hastily added, “I made that, it’s one of mine,” at this, the northerner let him go entirely, and he fell to the floor slumping uncomfortably against the clerk’s desk.

 

"He forms magic," The first northerner exclaimed excitedly.

 

"He could lie" the female northerner replied dubiously, making a gesture in Markus's direction.

 

The first northerner holding the heat-stone was all but mashing it into the female northerners face as he exclaimed excitedly, "No, I can taste it, it's fresh," now holding the heat-stone uncomfortably close to his own face, "This is a good find for us."

 

“Get out the way! Mongrel bitch!” The injured bandit spat as he shouldered past her.

 

The insulted northerner stiffened as if the bandit had struck her, then she began to growl. At first, Markus couldn't hear it over the blood rushing in his ears, and the sword edge drawing ever closer to his nether regions was not doing his peripheral awareness any favours.


“Gonna enjoy th-” The bandit was knocked off his feet as the northerner punched him square in the ear, sending him crashing to the ground. Crying out in pain and confusion he had little time to figure out what was going on, before she was on top of him, grabbing a fist full of his gambeson and dragging him bodily across the floor and slamming him into the wall with a muffled crunch.

 

"I warned you!" She roared as she slammed him into the wall again and again.

 

“N-no!” The bandit babbled, feebly trying to pry her fingers loose, “M-mercy I be-” His pleas were cut short as he was dashed against the wall again, this time hard enough that the rafters rattled and the room was dusted in a cascade of loose debris.

 

"Nothing but a waste of space," the tall female northerner sneered, then let go of him, allowing his body to fall limply to the floor.

 

"Is he dead?" The other northerner asked, clearly curious but not particularly concerned.

 

"If not, I'll beat him up again," the taller northerner replied, her tone suggesting she was only half joking.

 


The pair of them laughed at the joke, and Markus thought it best just to stay quiet. Maybe they would forget he was there?

 

As if he had spoken these thoughts aloud, the female northerner rounded on Markus, moving in uncomfortably close for a woman capable of throttling a man one-handed. Standing so close, Markus now had little doubt as to how she could manage such a feat. She was a chimaera.


She had concealed most of her face with a thick northern scarf, leaving only her lower brow and eyes exposed. Her eyebrows were wild and unkempt, longer even than those of the eldest retired gentlemen Markus had ever seen, and her eyes... Pale blue-grey tinged with crimson in their periphery. The presence of the crimson pigment was slowly but steadily receding, a good sign that she would be willing to at least talk before Markus met the same fate as the bandit.


As if only just realising she was making him uncomfortable, the chimaera took a few steps backwards. Probably intended as an attempt at giving Markus the illusion of safety, though they were both still aware of her reach and how fast she could close the gap between them should she have a mind to.

 

The chimaera cleared her throat before speaking, her speech clipped and stilted as she frequently paused to choose the right words, “We apologise for our rudeness,” she held her right hand to her heart, bowed and held it for a few seconds before standing straight again. She paused and Markus wondered if perhaps he was meant to say something in reply, but she continued speaking just as he began to stammer a reply of his own. “I am Svala Frejatochter,” she paused and waved for the second northerner to join her, “And this is my tochter,” Svala paused muttering to herself, probably trying to remember the right words “Err, my daughter? Aela Svalatochter,” she paused again looking sidelong at the second northerner, who despite having joined her side, was making no signs of bowing or even moving as her mother had done. Svala slapped her daughter over the back of the head, prompting her to behave.

 

Aela turned on her mother and hissed a string of syllables Markus could only assume were insults from the reaction elicited from Svala.

 

Svala began to growl, drawing herself a good foot taller than her already impressive height, now towering three feet taller than Aela and Markus both.


Aela lowered her head and mumbled something Markus couldn't make out clear enough to understand.

 

Svala stopped growling and lowered herself again, most likely attempting to conceal her large wolf feet under the cloak again. Like most canine-blooded chimaera, she had distended wolf hindquarters for legs, no doubt responsible for the lion's share of her height. Svala’s tone of voice had changed now, less uncertain with fewer pauses, clearly more proficient in the southern tongue than she had initially let on, “I apologise for my toc-daughter. She is young and often foolish,” Aela began hissing something in reply but stopped as she met her mother's gaze, falling silent. “We would appreciate assistance in explaining events to authorities.”

 

Markus took a moment to think about that, the chain of events that had unfolded and trying to recall when exactly the clerk had beaten her own hasty retreat. It looked bad for the chimaera, whichever way he looked at it. They either (A) engaged in financial intimidation against crown authorities, of which the Guild clerk is one of, (B) willfully committed unlicensed manslaughter or at best, assault assuming the man hadn't died, or (C) both of the above and quite possibly more besides. It didn't look good for them. Assault on an imperial citizen, even in self-defence, was a dangerous prospect for a northerner, let alone a chimaera northerner. To put it bluntly, they were screwed, and she knew it.

 

Tempering his nerve for what he was going to attempt, Markus gestured for the pair of chimaera to take a seat at the long table he had been occupying before his day had gone to hell. Retrieving and sheathing his sword, he took a seat opposite them and quickly explained his plan.

 

“Okay, we need to act fast. I am Markus Farus, and I am going to need you to sign on the dotted line-” Markus was grateful for their shift in allegiance and honestly doubted the local guard would be a match for two chimaeras. So it was best for everyone involved if this passed as smoothly and peacefully as possible.

 

When the imperial soldiers arrived with a half dozen adventurers in tow, they were almost disappointed to find the bandit, unsurprisingly a wanted fugitive, gagged and bound to a chair opposite the door.

 

They were disappointed still further when Markus revealed the protected status of Aela and Svala as his retainers and escort, as stipulated in his adventuring party contract. To hear Markus’s retelling of events, he had taken the chimaera into his employ a week before events in the Guildhouse in an attempt to secure evidence of Denvil, the bandit’s identity. Unfortunately, things took an unfortunate turn in the Guildhouse and required more immediate intervention and resolution.

 

Markus was not an altogether convincing liar, but despite what the imperial officer personally chose to believe, Markus's explanation of events was supported by the only available evidence. The bandits own prejudicial testimony against the chimaera, further incriminating himself and supporting Markus’s fragile fabrication. No doubt just a commoner himself, the sergeant decided to side with Markus's version of events, wrongfully assuming that Markus was probably a man of means and no small amount of influence, even though he clearly had poor taste in company.

 

All in all, the afternoon’s events had proven moderately profitable. The bounty on the bandit had been thirteen shillings and forty-three pence. Even giving half to the chimaera had still left him enough to live comfortably in the Guild accommodations for a rather long time, provided he didn't mind living frugally.

 

As her way of apology for the events earlier, Anabelle, the clerk on duty that day, had brought out three of the more expensive meals provided by the Guild's kitchen staff, free of charge. Markus felt a little guilty, as his meal had noticeably larger portions of both steak and wine, despite the fact that Svala had done all the actual work and was far larger than him.

 

With their cloaks drawn back and scarves pulled below their chins, Markus had plenty of time to get a better look at them as he ate.

 

The chimaeras were both similar in many respects, their muscles lean and hard, as both clearly kept themselves in shape. Both were also better armed than Markus had realised, each bearing a medley of short hafted axes and knives, as well as a battered pollaxe retrieved from just beside the door. He thanked the divinities again for the encounter resolving in his favour.

 

Svala’s features were heavily altered by canine influences, her facial features hardened and feral. Sharp, thickened and elongated canines protruding from her lips, as well as the thick claws adorning her fingers, made it abundantly clear that she was never truly without a weapon close to hand either.

 

Svala’s mane of grey-black hair swept down the length of her back in a myriad of warrior knots and braids, near concealing her large lupine ears. Pushing the boundaries of Imperial decency, Svala wore little in the way of clothing besides her cloak, a short-cropped leather lamellar cuirass, and a reinforced and studded battle skirt. Immodest for some, it was perhaps excusable as it seemed necessitated by the thick grey fur that covered everything but her face and palms, and even those seemed to be protected by a finer, shorter, and lighter coloured fur.

 

Svala’s daughter Aela on the other hand, was more difficult to get a handle on, as she appeared to be appropriately clothed for the weather and a little more besides, a stout but still somewhat flattering maroon gambeson, thick woollen pants and sturdy reinforced knee-high boots cut an impressive enough figure on their own.

 

Markus’s best guess was that Aela was reptilian-blooded, as he had briefly glimpsed a long dark-green scaled tail sweep free of her cloak and under the table as she had taken her seat. Although her hands were hidden inside padded gloves, thick clawed nails protruded from the fingertips. Aela’s loose blonde hair made it difficult to see much of her face clearly, even as she ate. She seemed to take care of angling away from him to better conceal her face, but even still, her eyes were captivating, a deep intense amber giving way to a vertically slit pupil.

 

“Uh, so, how are you related again?” Markus asked nervously, trying to start a conversation now that they had all finished eating.

 

Svala leaned back and yawned, the chair beneath her groaning in protest. “Aela is my daughter,” she stated rather matter of factly.

 

“But she doesn't really look all that much like you...” Markus rapidly began losing his nerve as both women narrowed their eyes at him, “W-well except m-maybe the eyes,” he stammered, trying to laugh it off as a joke, but it came out somewhat squeakier than he intended and thoroughly unconvincing.

 

“Aela is my daughter,” Svala repeated, her features softening somewhat as she continued, “When her parents passed, I raise her, feed, clothe, teach-” She locked eyes with Markus, “-Aela is my daughter,” her features hardened again as if challenging him to refute the claim.

 

“Oh-” Markus said in reply, painfully aware of how insensitive and foolish he looked right now, nothing more than the tip of the iceberg on how he felt. “-I didn't understand that you adopted her, I misunderstood, I’m sorry,” still feeling more than a little foolish, he stood, bowed and promptly sat back down, desperately trying to stop his cheeks from pursuing their career in becoming tomatoes.

 

Svala seemed content to let it go.

 

Aela had followed the exchange but didn't seem to fully understand it. "Mother, did you ask him about the stone?"

 

"I'll get to it, patience," Svala waved her daughter's question down. “My daughter-”, Svala let the words linger uncomfortably for a moment before continuing, “-wants to know more about the stone.”

 

Aela was still holding the stone and, as far as Markus knew, hadn’t released it since she picked it up earlier.

 

Markus wasn't sure he could really answer any questions they had since he was quite new to it all himself. Relatively speaking, he learned from doing more than being taught from books or even other experiences or advice. “What do you want to know?” He asked in reply, desperately trying to convey his own lack of confidence in answering any deep questions about the craft.

 

"Can he do more?" Aela asked excitedly, pointing to Markus and then the stone.

 

Markus hadn't understood a word of it and looked to Svala to translate.

 

“Can you make more?” Svala asked apologetically. She turned to Aela before Markus could reply and gave her daughter a quick earful, "Stop being rude to him. Use the words I taught you." With her daughter suitably chastened, Svala smiled, “Please forgive my daughter's rudeness,” the way she apologised gave Markus the impression she did this a lot more than she liked.

 

Markus smiled amiably. “It’s okay, I understand. Magic is a pretty interesting subject,” he paused, collecting his thoughts for a moment.

 

Aela seemed to be at odds with herself in containing her excitement.

 

“I guess the short answer-” Markus stopped and changed his phrasing “-the easy answer is yes-”

 

Aela gave an excited squeal, but a sharp glare from her mother held her silent.

 

“-but the problem is in the amount of mana I need to invest-” He paused again, unsure if the word choice would translate well, but Svala nodded encouragingly, so Markus continued “-well, I could make many stones that produce and release heat, but each stone will only last so long before I would need to reinvest them with mana again, lower temperatures, in this case, lasting longer, and higher temperatures lasting a lot less so,” he shrugged non committedly, “Mana maintenance is the biggest factor for Artificers really. Replenishing mana stores inside items can become impossible and even dangerous if you don't prioritise effectively.”

 

Svala nodded, “I expected this,” she pointed to the heat-stone, “How long does it last?”

 

“Well, that kind of depends, like I said with the temperature earlier, the intensity of the effect, but it also depends on its adversity and efficiency of the conduit item. In this case, the temperature of the room is its adversity, being a cold day and the room only being warmed by the cooking fires in the back rooms, it is burning through mana faster than say on a midsummer day, and the conduit item is only a stone I took out of a river bed last year, so its efficiency isn't great. So at the moment, I would expect if I refilled the stone, it would probably last from sun up to midday or thereabouts,” Markus shrugged again, trying to emphasise how much guesswork was involved.

 

“And how many such stones if you were to exhaust yourself,” Svala seemed genuinely curious.

 

Markus had to give that some thought. He had never truly exhausted himself on any of his Artificing projects thus far, as he had yet to undertake enough projects in such a short period to warrant the expenditure. “I‘m not sure, maybe forty or fifty, something like that? Temperature isn't a high adversity effect at these levels. It’s not like it’s dragon fire or anything.”

 

While Svala translated the conversation for Aela and was talking about the weather for all Markus knew, he took the short break in the conversation to think on a few things. Artificers, as one of the four classes, possessed superior mana reserves to the other three. This was more or less common knowledge amongst adventurers, with Priests and Mages pairing for second and Warrior types being the least.

 

From the little he knew of other Artificers, by listening in on other adventuring parties discussions in the Guildhouse and in the markets. It was typical of the Artificer to ward five suits of armour, five weapons and invest heavily into a special item of their own to fill the desired need, usually heavily warding their own armour.

 

With the admittedly small amount of adventuring experience Markus had, largely wolves and other mundane predators, his rather low-quality gambeson armour had not needed its wards replenished in the whole time he had worn it. Closing his eyes and concentrating on the wards, Markus visualised them in his mind, a dark silhouette of greaves, gauntlets, pauldrons and gambeson forming in his mind, a couple of dozen glyphs scattered across their surface gleaming like stars. The hardening glyph was, as it had been last he checked after a badger had locked onto his right greave and tried chewing through to his tendon, still fully charged. There was a niggling thought in his mind about the levels in the gambeson.

 

In particular, it should have depleted at least part of its reserves when Svala had taken hold of Markus earlier. The force of her grip alone, let alone the claws on the ends of her fingers, should have been a form of resistance to the enchantment and depleted a proportional amount of mana. Even so, it remained full. He resolved to look into it in more detail later.

 

Markus realised Aela and Svala had been asking him more questions and blushed apologetically, “Sorry, I was in my own little world there for a minute,” the pair of them shared a quizzical expression, and Markus realised the saying did not seem to translate well, “I was lost in thought,” he amended.

 

Svala smiled, a well-intended gesture that set Markus on edge, as it showcased far too much of her canines for his comfort. “That is okay. We have much to discuss, much to explain,” she smirked at Aela. “My daughter is strong but not very smart, sometimes explaining things takes time,” she said this in such a tone of voice that Aela clearly had not picked up on the backhanded compliment, half-smiling but still hiding her face.


Markus felt a little bad for her, all the more for not seeming to have recognised the insult, “It’s a good thing she is beautiful then,” the words had blurted out before he had time to think.

 

Svala seemed taken aback for a moment, clearly surprised.

 

Aela, slower and less proficient with the imperial dialect, seemed to have not understood and was thankfully silent.

 

Settling back into the conversation, Svala drew herself up taller for a moment, “Of course she is. She gets it from her mother.”

 

Markus could only nod agreeably, his face flushing hot enough to be mistaken for one of his heat stones.

 

“But I had been asking how we can repay you for the hostilities earlier,” Svala seemed quite earnest on that point, and Markus had to chalk it up to the northerners warrior honour codes he had so often heard about.

 

“No, err, you don't really owe me anything for that really,” Markus raised his hands placatingly, “I kind of had to do that. It’s part of being a member of the Guild, it's all okay really heh...” It was difficult to think straight, small wonder if the volume of blood flushing his cheeks was any indicator.

 

“All the same,” Svala pressed relentlessly, “You have ensured my freedom and that of my daughter. I appreciate the risks you have taken on our behalf and would see you comp-”

 

Aela suddenly sat bolt upright, "He said I'm beautiful!" She exclaimed, pointing excitedly at Markus then herself, “He said it. That's what he said, right?"

 

Svala smiled at Markus apologetically before addressing her daughter, "You are very rude-"

 

Aela interrupted her mother for a second time, "Did he say I was beautiful?"

 

Svala rubbed at her temple, speaking slowly and deliberately in such a way that Markus was reminded of mothers he had observed in the markets patiently explaining misunderstandings to their children, "Yes, but-"

 

Aela had stopped paying attention to her mother and flashed Markus a wide and terrifyingly toothy smile, “Thanking-you-for-” She paused, her smile wavering slightly as she struggled to form the sentence, “-beautiful-” Aela drew her smile still wider, “-words-to-me!” Her teeth were like knives, and Markus was quite sure her smile was a good couple of inches wider than it should have been.

 

“Uhm, err, you're welcome...” Was all Markus could manage, doing his best not to run screaming from the table. “I-I‘m going to get another drink,” equal parts embarrassed and terrified, he retreated from the table, trying to take as many long deep breaths to calm down as he could before ordering another drink from Anabelle.

 

Anabelle appeared quite sympathetic. No doubt quite experienced with the ever-present misunderstandings of the cultural and language barrier created in a border town such as this one.

 

She smiled warmly, “There were worse things to say for sure, and to worse people, let me assure you,” she laughed, “Just imagine you had said it to a great bearded warrior from the shattered wastes!”

 

Markus envisioned a grizzled battle-scarred warrior punching him in the face, “Yeah, hehe,” he had to agree with her. There were worse things than someone accepting a compliment.

 

“I mean, it's not like you actually meant it,” the way Anabelle said it was innocent enough, but it still came uncomfortably close to the more mean spirited bigotry commonly directed towards chimaeras.

 

The memory of Aela’s toothy maw still fresh in his mind, Markus was surprised to find that he still stood by what he had said, “What if I had meant it?” Markus's tone was a little harsher than he intended, but Anabelle hadn’t appeared to notice.

 

“You know, it’s a good thing you settled your business with the outlaw when you did. There is no telling when another party will attempt the dungeon you were asking about earlier,” Anabelle commented.

 

Markus gave Anabelle as sincere a smile as he could muster and walked back to his table, having completely forgotten to refill his cup.

 

Sitting down at the table, Markus only now realised that Aela was nowhere to be seen, and that unsettled him more than he would like to openly admit, particularly in present company. Before he had even opened his lips to speak, Svala cut in.

 

“I sent my daughter to pack down our camp. She will be gone a short while at the least,” Svala said matter of factly.

 

“Oh,” was all Markus could manage, not disappointed but considerably relieved in knowing that she wasn't lurking just out of sight somewhere.

 

“We can help you with your problem,” Svala leaned in closer, “The dungeon, I mean.”

 

Markus's nerves hiked right back up again. Clearing a dungeon alone with a pair of chimaeras was liable to get him killed. Trying to be tactful, Markus tried being diplomatic, “Look, um, I'm grateful for-”

 

Svala cut him off, “-you don't feel safe clearing a dungeon with chimaeras?” She had plucked the words straight out of his head. Svala frowned disapprovingly, “I had thought after what you said to that woman-'' Her left ear twitched, “-that you were different from the others,” Svala had apparently overheard Markus and Annabelle’s conversation from the other side of the room.

 

Markus's mind raced to formulate a plausible excuse and, to his horror, realised he had already begun speaking, “-I have nothing against you or your daughter, I am truly grateful. I-Its just-” He was quickly losing his nerve and had to strike fast or risk making things worse, “-after all this, you know, I realised I am just not that good a fighter, I wouldn't last a minute in a dungeon-” Svalas smouldering outrage seemed to have just as suddenly turned to surprise, encouraging Markus to push it a little farther, “-let’s be honest here, I couldn't even fight off a lone bandit on my own,” It was embarrassing but true, and he was sure that's what would sell it, “What hope do I have against even the weakest of a dungeon’s denizens?”

 

Svala leaned back again, thinking it over for a few moments. She nodded in agreement, “True, you were flailing around like a newborn, hardly surprising that he got the better of you as quickly as he had.”

 

Markus’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment, but he bore through it, knowing this was probably his best chance at avoiding teaming up with the chimaeras without the falling out resulting in his imminent dismemberment.

 

“But you were quick on your feet, quicker still in the head, where it really counts,” Svala leaned back in again but was far less intense than earlier, “We’re on the contract already. We can make sure nothing happens to you. What do you have to lose?”

 

Defeated, Markus sighed and nodded his head. It just seemed inevitable at this point. Besides, it didn't seem like anyone else was going to make the offer any time soon anyway. “I guess we should probably get a move on then. No telling if another party isn't headed there already.”

 

The dungeon wasn't far from town, but the mud made travel on the backroads slow going, and they often had to detour around pools of coalescing water. The Guild bounty board directions had seemed reliable enough thus far, but if the rain didn't let up, they probably ran a very real risk of walking right past the entrance.

 

Or at least that is what Markus had initially thought. As the afternoon had worn on, it became clear that both of his companions possessed a disturbingly infallible sense of direction, taking only moments after a detour to unilaterally agree on a new heading. This was hardly surprising since the first chimaeras had been made by fusing humans with dungeon beasts. Their descendants probably possessed a homing instinct of some kind, or that was Markus best guess at any rate.

 

The heat-stone inside his gambeson made the miserable weather tolerable enough, keeping his core temperature high, even as the rain slowly found its way through his cloak and slowly began soaking through his outer layers. He had made one for Svala, but she had just handed it off to her daughter Aela instead, seemingly content with just her cloak.

 

The cross country march so far hadn't been too bad. The awkwardness of being left out of conversations had started to get to him, though. Markus had no real proof since he understood precious little of the northern tongue, but he strongly suspected they had talked about him. The occasional furtive glance from Aela and inscrutable stares from Svala as she waited for them to catch up really weren't helping.

 

An oscillating keening tone emanating from within his gambeson caught Markus quite unawares, very nearly causing him to lose his footing in the mud as he suddenly came to a stop and looked about for the source of the noise. Pulling his left hand free of his glove and fumbling down his front, he pulled the Guild identification tag by its chain and free of his shirt.

 

The Guild identification tablet was thin and deceptively strong, made from a minor magic crystal. The top half displayed his personal information, name, an etching of his face in profile and his class and level in large bold copperplate font beneath it. It was the bottom section of the identification that now gave him pause. As it had been explained to him, the bottom half of the tablet would display important Guild information as he approached Guild relay stations and would, in turn, forward his current information through the same method. “Request for aid detected” flashed urgently. “Dungeon: Barrow of the Despoiler [Aberrant] {??}. Adventurer: Zoe Chavare. [Priest] {1}. Status:[Unknown]”

 

A chill took hold of Markus's chest. Another party had beat them to the dungeon after all, but that was not what scared him, [Aberrant]{??} the dungeon bounty on the board had been for a level one goblin dungeon. During the past couple of hours, it had changed.

 

The sudden evolution of the dungeon was almost definitely the cause for the distress call. Dungeons are isolated, self-sustaining environments, the dungeons core or heart as they were known spawned monsters into existence to prowl its ever-growing passageways and caverns. If a party did not make progress in short order, they would run the risk of exhausting themselves and being consumed by the dungeon, fueling its inexorable growth.

 

“What's the matter? Why have you stopped?” Svala had closed the distance between them in short order, clearly concerned, her cowl was drawn back, eyes scanning the nearby woods for possible threats.

 

It took Markus a moment to calm himself enough to trust his voice not to tremble. “The dungeon evolved,” he replied matter of factly, his expression clearly conveying his apprehension.

 

Svala froze for a moment before giving Markus her full attention, “You are sure of this?”

 

Markus showed her the identification plate and message, “As much as I can be.”

 

Svala took a half step back to give him some space, casting her gaze back in the direction they had been headed, “What do you want to do?”

 

The crushing weight of the question was more than Markus could bear. His first instinct was to turn around and head back to town as quickly as the weather allowed, travelling through the night if needs be. “We keep going, double-time,” his mouth had formed the words without his conscious thought.

 

Svala looked taken aback for a moment, then grinned savagely, “Just when I think I have you figured out, you say something like this,” she turned to her daughter, "Double the pace my daughter, we have foundlings to save."

 

Aela smiled wide, exposing an alarming quantity of teeth, "When are you not?" She replied jokingly, giving Markus a sly grin before turning back towards their original heading and setting off at a lurching jog, her tail trailing through the mud and helping keep her balance.

 

"So eager!" Svala called after Aela before she too set off in a loping sprint, easily catching up to her daughter then maintaining a stable lead.

 

Now would be an easy time to turn tail and run, Markus thought to himself. No one would see him do it, and with how excitedly the pair of them were increasing the distance between them, it would doubtless be some time before they even noticed he was missing. “No, I have to do this!” Again the words came without thought, a stark contrast to his frantic mind, so certain of purpose and action. ”S-screw it!” This time the words were Markus’s own, their uncertainty and desperate lack of confidence making a stark contrast in comparison, hardly lifting his spirits as he had hoped. All the same, Markus grit his teeth and set off after the chimaeras as best he could manage.

 

Lacking Aelas tail for balance or Svala’s unnaturally sure footing, Markus was not optimistic of even keeping pace with them, let alone the condition he would be in upon reaching the dungeon entrance.

 

The dungeon had thankfully not been so far from where Markus had received the distress call, only another half hour at the chimaera’s aggressive pace. The pair of them had arrived fresh and ready to fight, even now limbering themselves up with combat exercises and stretches, joking in their northern dialect, as damn near breathless, Markus had stumbled into the rocky clearing.

 

Pushing his back against a nearby tree and desperately trying to catch his breath while also trying to quench the fire in his throat with water from his canteen. Markus came damn close to choking as he tried accomplishing both at the same time, achieving only in spluttering and spilling water down his front. The icy chill of the liquid sobering him enough to slow himself up to avoid the mistake a second time.

 

“Are you recovered?” Svala asked.

 

Markus tried to reply, driven more by bravado than anything else, but could only nod as he coughed violently, trying to expel water that had gone down the wrong way.

 

Svala pursed her lips, choosing not to challenge him on his self-assessment, instead turning her gaze to both the immaculately preserved marble statue in the centre of the clearing and the large granite doors and archway beyond it. “When you are ready, converse with the guardian, so we may enter.”

 

The statue was a Guild constructed guardian, one of the hundreds dispatched to stand vigil over newly discovered dungeons. Animated and imbued with magic by powerful Artificers, these stone guardians duties were two-fold. Firstly, destroy any dungeon monster that tried leaving the dungeon's bounds and preventing those without Guild permission from entering the dungeon. Secondly, to assess a dungeon's strength and capabilities by analysing monsters it kills as they exit the dungeon.

 

The guardians also served as relays, magical pulses of communications magic transmitting information to nearby adventurers and to relatively close-by Guild offices for assessment and dissemination. As dungeons fed on the magic of the dead and dying, these functions served as triage until adventurers could be mustered to enter the dungeon and destroy its heart, and in this particular case, was responsible for passing on an adventurer’s call for help.

 

Still trying to settle his cough, Markus approached the guardian. It was styled after an imperial knight in plated mail, an intimidating figure standing over twelve feet tall, a wickedly sharp blade fused into its left hand and a long spear in its right.

 

Drawing the adventurer's I.D from his shirt again, Markus warily approached the guardian, unsure of exactly what to expect, having never seen one on active duty before. As he came within a dozen paces of the guardian, his I.D made a grinding rumbling sound, like stone scraping on stone.

 

Below the request for aid, another message had appeared.

 

Guardian #96: “Adventurer designated as Markus Farus [Artificer] {1} and accompanying retinue detected... Bronze level membership acknowledged... Dungeon designated as Barrow of The Despoiler [Aberrant] {??} Extreme caution advisory is in effect... Request for aid [Active] Adventurer designated as Zoe Chavare [Priest] {1} current status: [Unknown], Guild Bounty of [Crowns] {250} confirmed for rescue service... Warning... Adventurers designated as Garrus Lambert [Mage] {2}, Viviene Dupree [Warrior] {4}, Henrik Jariksohn [Warrior] {5} are unaccounted for and presumed deceased... Retainers {4} presumed deceased... Adventurer designated as Markus Farus [Artificer] {1} strength is deemed insufficient to contend with [Aberrant] {??} threat... Advised to delay entry indefinitely...”
Guardian #96: “Do you wish to enter the dungeon [Yes] / [No]...”

 

The guardian would require a verbal affirmation of intent for its records. Refusing to provide an answer would result in the guardian taking ever-increasing hostile action until either an answer is given or the offending party was driven off or killed.

 

Markus thought he had been scared before but felt a numbing terror take hold of him now. There was no way they could do this. Mana potential was effectively power, and each class level was roughly a multiplier indicative of that potential.

 

To say the Warrior Henrik was five times stronger than Markus would be a gross understatement. Warriors could enhance their combat abilities many times over by consuming mana, something an Artificer like Markus could not do.

 

There had been four adventurers, and they couldn't handle it. All of them had combat classes with powers and abilities he did not have, so what chance did he have in succeeding where they failed? It was ultimately hopeless, better to live as a coward than to die for nothing. Besides, it wasn't like this was his fault. Those adventurers knew what they had signed up for when they entered the dungeon.

 

Who knows, maybe another party was on its way right now. The two hundred and fifty crown bounty guaranteed that the Priest was from a wealthy family. By the abyss, they had probably mobilised an elite team the moment the request for aid was received by the guardian and relayed to the Guild offices in town.

 

The more Markus thought about it, the less reason he saw to intervene at all. The bounty for her rescue was likely just to buy time for the elite party to travel to this location, bought at the expense of the greedy and well-intentioned. Unlike protection of Guild property, adventurers were not beholden to answer requests for aid, particularly given that different parties were, in effect, rivals competing for the same rewards. This was the reason relatives had to post bounties for their rescue in the first place, to avoid ‘accidents’ from occurring during the rescue.

 

Svala had been trying to get his attention, applying gentle pressure to his right shoulder. Her close proximity made it easy for her to read the tablet in his visibly trembling hand. “It is okay to be frightened.” Although her tone was measured and intended to demonstrate understanding, clearly empathising with the fear she knew he felt, it cut Markus to his core all the same.

 

It wasn't meant to be like this! He had worked so hard, sacrificed so much just for this chance! And now it was slipping away!

 

“You don't have to do this. No one is forcing you,” Svala smiled wanly, “This life is not for everyone. Many die young, some would say too soon.”


Markus had never thought of himself as brave. Far from it, in fact, he considered himself a coward. He had sought out becoming an adventurer for the easy living it had promised, clear a dozen or so dungeons and retire early, replenishing mana reserves of adventuring equipment for the coin. Markus was a coward, and now they knew it too. Word would spread, and his adventuring career would end before it even had a chance to begin.

 

“I am not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do-” Svala glanced over at Aela, “If you want to walk away right now, I will not think less of you for it,” she pursed her lips. “We have our reasons for doing this and cannot enter the dungeon without you. The guardian will not allow it.”

 

"Everything solved? Can we enter now?" Aela called out, clearly impatient and finished with her preparations and equipment check.

 

“The decision is yours,” Svala gave his shoulder one final squeeze and then joined her daughter, making a fuss as she evaluated Aela’s armour straps and weapon belt.

 

Letting out a deep, mournful sigh, Markus desperately sought the courage to give voice to his cowardice, the irony not lost on him for a single moment. It was easy enough for Svala, he thought. Northerners were reckless and bloodthirsty at the best of times, and she was a feral hearted chimaera. Seeking out violence was in her blood. “Just say the words!” He thought desperately, “Just say them so you can go home.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Markus made to give voice to his cowardice, to free himself of the fear gripping his heart, only to have his fear redoubled in intensity as his lips once more formed words counter to his intent. “Confirm-” Markus tried to stop himself, even going so far as to try and clasp his right hand over his mouth, but he was too late “-I am entering the dungeon.”

 

Guardian 96: “Intent to enter the dungeon... Confirmed...”

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