“Hey Tomo, how do you know Zha?” one of my classmates brought up as we studied in the library for an upcoming test.
Oh, she was talking about Tess. I never called the Gatekeeper by her family name so it took me a moment to realize who she was talking about. I stopped taking notes and pondered how to explain my connection to Tess.
“Te-, um, Zha is a friend of Felicity’s. They’ve known each other since they were kids,” I responded.
“Felicity, huh? Never would have thought she and Zha were friends. The Zha name is legendary here at the university,” my classmate revealed.
“Really?” I glanced at my phone and noticed a message from Kisai.
“I’m surprised you don’t know since you hang out with Zha so much,” she said.
“I mean, I don’t hang out with her that much, Yoon,” I pointed out, unlocking my phone to read the entire text from Kisai.
“I see you with her around campus all the time! Actually, since we’re talking about Zha, why don’t we take a short break? I got snacks!” Yoon slid two packets of fruit snacks over to me.
“Thanks. So how’s the Zha name connected to the university?” I tore open the packet and placed a grape snack into my mouth.
“Her mom was a famous professor. She only taught for five years but she supervised a lot of famous alumni. And if you go back a generation, her grandmother was one of the longest tenured professors here too,” Yoon revealed, showing me pictures of them on her laptop.
“That’s crazy. What did they teach?” I already had a few possibilities in mind.
“Her grandmother was involved in the mechanical and electrical engineering department. And then Zha’s mom was involved in the applied math field, mainly computer sciences. Her lineage is crazy,” Yoon elaborated, pulling up an archived class webpage.
“Yeah, it’s wild ,” I agreed.
“What an intriguing conversation,” Tess commented, sitting beside me all of a sudden.
“Oh, Zha! Sorry if I got anything wrong. Most of it I got from researching the school when I was a senior for a project,” Yoon continued, no reaction to Tess’ appearance.
“Your information is accurate. Yuki, did you respond to Jin already?” Tess glanced over at me.
“Yeah. Did you come here just for that?” I questioned.
“No, I have an item for you,” Tess answered, placing a key onto the table.
“What’s this for?” I noticed my name engraved on the key head.
“In case of an emergency. I must withhold more details for now,” Tess answered before departing.
“And you said you didn’t hang out with her that much,” Yoon teased, opening up her textbook.
I inserted the key into the swivel hook on my lanyard. Mysterious as always. Knowing Tess’ meticulous planning, this was important in the future.
“You know, just give me the final key and uh I can go kick your boss’ ass,” Kisai stated, speaking with a Knight’s Guild representative.
Yeah, don’t think they’ll just hand it over. We were in the Knight’s Guild administrative offices after they denied us entry into their main headquarters. Kuan wasn’t present today, busy with an online event for one of his games. Shan accompanied us today under Tess’ orders. I rarely worked with the gravity manipulator so it was a nice change of pace.
“Jin’s confidence is always impressive,” Shan commented, zipping up his rain jacket.
“I could say the same about you, Shan. Honestly, you’re worst because you do it on purpose,” I pointed out, watching Kisai provoke the representative.
“Damn, I would never, Yuki. You misunderstand me,” Shan denied, standing up as Kisai returned.
“They don’t have the key anymore,” Kisai revealed, laying out a map of the region on the coffee table.
“Seriously? Who the hell has it then?” I sighed as the magic user marked spots on the map.
“According to them, it got stolen by a fringe group. Maybe the vagabond mages but there’s a lot of possibilities. Ready for a treasure hunt?” Kisai stepped back, staring at his spots of interest.
“Fuckin’ great. Where are we starting?” I leaned back on my seat.
“The black market. No wonder Tess wanted you to join us today, Shigetzu,” Kisai answered, rolling up his map and stuck it into his back pocket.
“She already knew. I’ll see what I can do,” Shan said.
“That our guy?” I stared at a stand selling skewers.
“Yep, know his face anywhere,” Shan confirmed, sipping his bubble tea drink.
“Hang on, is it okay for us to be so relaxed?” I shook my empty drink and watched the melting cubes of ice strike each other.
“Sure, not like we’re going to be fighting or anything,” Shan replied, keeping a close eye on the skewer stand.
“You say that but that almost never happens,” I countered with a sigh.
“Nah, we got this. Let Shigetzu handle everything. That’s why he’s here,” Kisai said, offering me a mochi from the plate he ordered.
“Fine, I’ll trust you, not like I have another choice,” I responded, picking a matcha flavored one.
We sat at a food court, scouting out the target. This was the first of four potential spots Kisai suspected of harboring the last key. Tess, with her uncanny foresight, requested Shan for this mission because she predicted Za’ard involvement.
“What do you think about the market so far, Yuki?” Kisai popped a strawberry mochi into his mouth.
“Super shady. A whole bunch of random things sold here. Honestly, I’m surprised the Knight’s Guild hasn’t shut this down yet,” I replied, watching the long line at the skewer stand finally subside.
“Hard to crack down on everything but there’s a reason why they ignore this place,” Kisai said.
“They have some kind of deal with sellers here?” I guessed.
“Most of the shops here are legitimate. But for the few that aren’t, the Knight’s Guild gets a lot of information from them,” Kisai confirmed.
“Probably about time we head over and have a little talk,” Shan said, standing up.
I checked the display stand. Only five skewers left and the seller wasn’t making any more. His back was to us, busy with packing up cooking equipment and ingredients.
“Sorry, almost closing time, those are the only ones left,” the seller said in a deep voice.
“Been awhile, Boren,” Shan greeted him, tapping the display stand glass.
“Ah shit, what are you doing here, Mr. Shan?” he turned around, revealing an orc wearing a pair of old-fashioned spectacles. “Someone send you over?”
“Hanging out with friends. You know Kisai Jin, right? Pretty big name around these parts,” Shan replied, pointing at the magic user.
“Fuck, what have I gotten myself into? Doubt you want some skewers from me. So, what you after, Mr. Shan?” Boren placed his hands over his face.
“You hear anything about a key?” Shan questioned, placing money on the counter to purchase the remaining skewers.
“That’s what you’re after? Shoulda known if Kisai’s with you. Listen, I’m not about that life anymore, Mr. Shan. All I know is couple of customers came in the other day bragging ‘bout stealing something big from the Knight’s Guild. Don’t know if it’s the key you’re after,” Boren revealed, slipping the last five skewers into a paper bag before giving them to Shan.
“What did they look like?” Kisai pulled out his notepad.
A couple of minutes later, Kisai sketched rough portraits of the customers Boren served. Two humans and a lizard. Not a lot to go on but it was progress.
“What did the hell did you do to him, Shan?” I was curious about the orc’s respectful tone toward the gravity user.
“Huh?” Shan responded as he watched Boren depart.
“He called you “Mr. Shan”, definitely fishy,” I pointed out.
“Oh that, not much of a story, Darryl and I helped him out in Za’ard,” Shan revealed.
“Forget about it. I’ll ask Ichaival when I have the time,” I decided.
“That’s exactly what you should do,” Shan agreed, nodding with a grin.
When we approached the exit, a group of five people blocked our way. They wore red robes, a hood obscuring their faces. I glanced over at Kisai who shook his head. He stepped back and I did the same. Guess Shan was handling this one.
“Jin, you’re a pain in the-,” one of them spoke but Shan’s roundhouse kick knocked him out cold before he finished speaking.
The gravity user tapped the unconscious person on the ground with the tip of his shoe and sent them flying into the rest of his companions. They were all knocked to the ground. He picked up one of the fallen individual by their left leg, swinging them around. When the others stood back up, Shan launched the person he held into them. They retreated afterwards, dragging their unconscious ally away.
“You know them, Jin?” Shan bent down and checked his shoelaces.
“Maybe? I didn’t see anything on them that was recognizable. Their outfits are similar to the vagabond mages. Should probably check that spot out next,” Kisai decided.
“Let’s go then,” Shan said, stretching out his legs.
We entered a small clearing near the Mage’s Association’s territory. Five tents were pitched and a smoldering fire was in the center of the area. Kisai placed his hand on the ground and light orbs traversed the entire camp before returning to him.
“No one’s here,” he reported, checking the cauldron resting on top of the fire.
“Should we investigate the tents?” I noticed no markings in the dirt.
“Yeah, let’s see if there’s anything useful,” Kisai replied, heading over to the left tent.
I entered the middle tent and found a beat up journal inside. Empty wrappers were piled in the corner along with a broken fountain pen. I picked up the journal and flipped through the pages. Just a bunch of diary entries written in excellent penmanship with the occasional doodle at the bottom of the page. Near the back, I found a detailed drawing of a key that included ritual instructions. I exited the tent and showed it to Kisai.
“Is it useful?” I saw gray clouds assemble in the sky.
“So that’s what they were after, could work if they perform it correctly,” Kisai muttered, staring at the journal page.
“You find anything good, Shan?” I checked in with the gravity user.
“Just some spare parts, no idea what they’re for. Guessing it’s related to whatever is in the journal you found,” he answered.
“They’re trying to enter the main fortress without the three keys. Pretty dangerous ritual,” Kisai revealed and checked his map. “But they’re missing a few things. They’ll probably try to get it from here which is where I planned to go anyways.”