No monsters had barred their way as Alphonse and his group broke through the edge of the forest. The open plains welcomed them with nothing but a calm breeze. A winding road trailed at the bases of rolling hills, easily noticeable thanks to the knee-high grass that dominated the rest of the landscape.
The trek had been gratefully uneventful. The only time Alphonse found himself putting forth extra physical exertion was when the young girl, Eve, jumped on him from behind a few times for a piggyback ride. Reiko commented on how impressed she was that she'd taken a liking to him so quickly. Sebastian was even more surprised when she pressed the outworlder scout with questions that pertained to adventuring. She also seemed particularly fascinated with his enigmatic appearance thanks to the concealing, dark garb created by Rinka.
"It's like your an assassin from the Nin'ryen tribe!" Eve said. "I read stories about them. They take down bad guys, and nobody ever knows they were there! They're so much more interesting than the ones about big battles and glory or whatever."
Alphonse thought about it as Sebastian eased the girl off his back. "Alright, Eve, don't distract the sneaky assassin." He gave Alphonse an apologetic look which was waved off good-naturedly.
"Yes, they always need to be aware of their surroundings." Reiko held a hand over her mouth and giggled. "That's why they don't need to fight big battles."
Eve clamped her mouth shut at their reasoning, even though it was apparent to everyone else that Alphonse didn't need to focus much in such an open area. Even a half-blind goblin could see an enemy approaching far in the distance.
Nin'ryen tribe, huh. Alphonse had to admit that the mention of an assassin group did pique his interest. He imagined there were books available at the library in the capital for research.
He ran a quick check of everyone out of habit before they approached the entrance of the hunting village. Kirie and Asa quickened their pace to match his and flanked to either side. Sebastian and Reiko took up a similar idea and stood to both sides of their daughter protectively. There was no way for the guards at the village entrance to know they were Xercians at this distance, but their mild touch of ashen skin from the cold climate up north and pale blue eyes might give them away up close.
The entrance sat between two slabs of rock that extended upwards a few dozen feet and branched off to connect with the foothills of the Barrier Mountains. Its strategic placement prevented attacks from the rear and forced monsters to funnel through the two lengths of stone. Pairs of spiked, wooden palisades guarded the narrow path with two archer towers standing between. Wrapped staircases hugged the stone for more ranged fighters to take position at higher ground behind palisades of heavily stacked, flat rocks. A few jagged apertures opened on either side that enticed less intelligent monsters to slip through one at a time. Trenches were dug as a further precaution to slow enemy advance and filled during the rainy seasons as a secondary measure.
Engraved upon a short, propped stone was: Halieuna Village - Adventurer Hunting/Trade Location.
Alphonse let Kirie borrow his hood to cover her cat ears, which were also pressed down by a makeshift headband. The only part of the outfit he needed was the scarf for concealing their stats and other information from advanced appraisal magic. His disheveled hair pressed down over his forehead almost enough to reach his eyes from wearing it so long.
Asa already had the spacious hood of her healer's robe pulled up. She cast a bit of illusion magic to transform the appearance of their cat eyes. It would have worked for all parts of the body they wanted to conceal, but too much magic meant risking the attention of other spellcasters. The tails were wrapped around their waists and tucked beneath their attire.
A pair of guards wielding spears held out a hand to stop them and requested that Alphonse present any documents. They seemed entirely unconcerned with the group, going through the motions of their duty with plain callousness. The guards barely gave his adventurer's papers a glance, and they were admitted without issue. The men eyed Sebastian and his family through their visors but didn't move to stop them.
"As long as you don't cause trouble we won't have any issues," one of them said.
The guards' demeanor nagged at Alphonse. He wondered why they seemed so plainly disinterested.
The village had a certain charm to it. The wattle and daub method of constructing the buildings seemed more refined compared to other small settlements Alphonse visited in the past. The strips of wood and dried clay seemed sturdier with some brick foundations added. Beyond these characteristics, the village was much the same as any other. An ornate building sat at the far end hugging the mountain's base with stain glass windows, labeling it as a place of worship. The lane of shops and merchant stands led to another section billowing smoke. A building comprised of limestone and lumber standing at two stories was placed near the monastery. A symbol of two birds holding fruit in oversized claws hung outside the entrance. The guild outpost.
Despite the calm atmosphere, Alphonse sensed something off about the place. Hardly anyone walked the streets, and only about half of the stands had occupants selling wares. Some areas in front of buildings with plants and small gardens seemed recently cultivated, while others laid barren or dominated by weeds.
He pointed to the smoke trailing over the village. “I think that might be your forge.”
“Hopefully they will appreciate our situation,” Sebastian said.
When they entered the guild outpost, the first notable detail was the line of guards standing along each wall. The place had plenty of furnishings, a fireplace and paintings of lush scenery. Alphonse didn't understand how anyone could enjoy some relaxation after a quest being surrounded by so many prying eyes. This was a place for adventurers to converse and strategize. It held the atmosphere of a prison.
They approached the receptionist, who didn't acknowledge them immediately as she prepared a stack of papers. She set them in a neat row on the counter space Alphonse rested his hands on. She examined them over her glasses and purposefully parted a length of blonde hair. Her words were concise and formal, but lacked any sort of enthusiasm when she welcomed them. She examined Alphonse's adventurer documents with more scrutiny than the soldiers outside.
“No guild affiliation?” she asked in a matching impartial tone.
“Not yet,” Alphonse answered.
He gestured to Kirie and Asa first. “They just started. I'll need papers for them. Also, I'd like to make some changes for my own, if you don't mind.”
She arched an eyebrow at this and gave the catgirls a cursory glance. “Not at all. But you'll need to finalize them at the capital. Lucky for you, the Guild Union doesn't have permanent records or authority since you aren't part of a guild yet,” she said. "Since you're an outworlder, I assume you don't have citizenship papers processed yet to pair with your adventurer documents. I can put in a request to discard your previous files as well, if you like."
"No, that's fine. You can leave them there."
Her words were technically true, but everyone knew the Adventurers' Guild Union held power rivaling the rulers of Tevilandis. Applicants could fill out the documents needed for their adventurer identification using the Guild Union as a mediator, but most of their rules didn't apply until membership for a guild was submitted. An adventurer could work as a sort of freelancer in order to make use of Guild Union services through a hiring party.
He would be starting fresh once his documents labeled under his new name, Evan McCarthy, were approved, while the others pertaining to Alphonse Kneller would remain. He assumed that at the main archive of the Guild Union his information as Alphonse Kneller had him marked as "deceased." Someone from his previous party likely mentioned it, or he'd possibly be marked as "unknown" if he didn't report back.
"As part of protocol," the receptionist continued, "I am obligated to inquire about your reasons for changing your Guild Union identification."
Alphonse had already anticipated the request. It wasn't entirely uncommon for adventurers just starting out to change their identity. It was much like changing a username in a game, or receiving a nickname for a noteworthy accomplishment. The Guild Union paired the adventurer's identification with Tevilandis's official citizenship documents so that their real identity was always on record -- so no matter how many times an adventurer changed his/her adventuring name their official one was always paired with it in the main archive. Changing a name incurred drawbacks like losing contacts that eventually needed reestablishing and losing reputation gained for a guild. In his case, none of these were much of an issue. He had no sort of notable reputation built and no guild affiliation as he'd previously confirmed. Furthermore, a temporary loophole worked in his favor; outworlders were still relatively new to Tevilandis and didn't receive approval for citizenship as of yet - which meant that once his new documents were processed they would have no relation to Alphonse Kneller at the capital.
He was now Evan McCarthy.
"As a scout, I am frequently employed under contracts made by adventuring parties rather than applying for the quests myself," Alphonse answered. "It is easier to work freelance thanks to my specific skillset, and it has been enough for me that I didn't see the need for joining a guild with more rules binding me. Also, you could say I had a bit of a falling out with one of my previous parties, which could falsely debase my reputation as a freelance scout." He gestured to Kirie and Asa. "But I met some individuals who hold similar ideals to my own, and I have come to trust them enough that I would like to change my perspective on adventuring."
He noticed Kirie and Asa give him a confident look of approval. They recognized his choice of words matched their mother's when she mentioned something similar upon first meeting at the Submerged Oasis.
The woman looked to the two catgirls and nodded an affirmation. "Very well. That is understandable."
“I need to speak with someone about the other three,” Alphonse said, gesturing to Sebastian and his family. “It's a bit complicated.”
“Northerners?” the woman asked to everyone's surprise. Alphonse had expected some suspicion, but not such a confident, outright declaration.
She gave them a half-smile. “They aren't the first, so we're getting used to their sort of complexion around here. We heard about the forts."
Alphonse was about to speak when a muffled shout emitted from the wall behind the desk. It may as well have burst right through as it escalated to a roar. The sound slipped through a door open ajar off to the side. The receptionist eased over in her seat and closed it all the way. A number of expletives were thrown around with more angry shouts.
“That would be my boss,” she said. “You'll relay the details to him. He likes to hear it from the source.”
“I assume you're the leader,” she said.
Alphonse sighed. “Yeah, that would be me.”
The door next to the desk suddenly burst open and slammed hard enough to shake the hanging frames on the wall. A man with a beet-red face stomped out with fists clenched and arms rigid at his side. The wrinkles of his face deepened as he clenched his teeth and swiped at a stray strand of hair that hung over his nose. He turned around and pointed at the receptionist with a trembling finger. His mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but he seemed to think better of it when he saw the disapproving frowns of the guards circling him. He settled for planting his foot on the sill of the exit and nearly tripped as he stormed out.
Two soldiers near the fireplace whispered to each other and started to follow. They were disciplined enough and ready to carry out predetermined duties. Alphonse watched as they waited a deliberate few seconds before leaving. A pair of guards standing rigid on the opposite wall relaxed their stances a bit. The closest one elbowed his partner in the side and whispered something that brought a slight grin and quick guffaw.
The receptionist readjusted her glasses in a carefree manner, as if the whole ordeal never occurred. A flash of light over the lens and a knowing smile gave her the semblance of a scheming miscreant. “Looks like he'll see you now.”
Great, Alphonse thought.
“Good luck, leader.” Kirie slapped him on the back.
“Yes, leader,” Asa added.
“In the meantime,” the woman continued, “I'll see to it that arrangements are made for this family.”
She nodded to one of the guards who stepped behind Sebastian and motioned for him to follow. The guard gave Eve an encouraging wink to assuage any fears. He waved to his fellow that stayed behind who tipped the end of his spear in a quick salute as he departed.
“Thank you again.” Reiko bowed to them, tears brimming in her eyes. She wiped them away before righting herself and gave her a daughter an encouraging pat on the head.
“I'll get straight to work on what I promised you,” Sebastian said. His lips trembled a bit as he watched his wife and daughter.
Eve ran up to the catgirls and embraced them together. She hesitated a bit before approaching Alphonse and fidgeted on her feet. He gave her a reassuring nod as the folds of his scarf curled up in an obvious grin.
“We'll come visit once we're done here,” he said.
Her face beamed and she gave him a quick hug. She ran over to Reiko and peaked out from behind her with a blush rising on her cheeks.
“Aw, does Eve have a crush?” Kirie nudged Alphonse's shoulder.
“Without question,” Asa said.
He ignored the catgirls and made his way to the door leading to the office where he imagined sat a most disgruntled individual. He hesitated for a moment as he saw the receptionist push forward the already prepared stack of documents. Kirie and Asa's jovial tone collapsed upon seeing the paperwork. They sulked over to a couple of love seats in the middle of the room and went to work. Alphonse had explained what information they needed to write down over the past few days during their travels. He hoped they'd paid attention. Well, he wasn't too worried about Asa, and she would assist her sister with whatever she didn't recall.
The receptionist gave him another smile he couldn't quite read. "Don't worry. I'll help them out if they get stuck."
“Alright. Thank you.” He pushed the door open.
The room was about as large as he expected for the leader of a guild outpost, but the sparse furnishings seemed uncharacteristic. A single bookshelf hugged the wall near a window carrying a small potted plant. Around the room were more flowers, some hanging from hooks on the wall and others placed in spots with no notable pattern. A simple chair sat in front of a large mahogany desk. Nothing else decorated the room to illustrate the type of person he was about to speak with. Well, judging by the previous argument, he probably had a bit of a temper.
A big man with deep lines trailing below his temples stared at Alphonse with heavy eyes. Gray strands of hair stood out on the sides of his head and curled naturally towards a thick jawline. The man showed his age, and the sword propped against his desk with the worn handle exhibited plenty of comparable years. He rested a hand within a few inches of the weapon as Alphonse stood behind the guest chair. It seemed more out of habit rather than seeing him as an actual threat.
“Please tell me you're an adventurer,” the man said.
Alphonse stared at him awkwardly. “Um, yes.”
“Thank the gods! If you were another politician, I would've lopped your head off.” He pat the pommel of his sword.
The sword had been partially obscured by one of the potted plants. Alphonse now saw that it truly was a magnificent weapon. It was personalized by the Guild Union symbol etched into the base of the blade with a smudged owner's signature. Judging by its angle, the length may have been as long as its wielder.
“Tell me, what was the first thing you noticed when you arrived at the village?”
Alphonse found himself at a loss for words with the sudden bizarre question. Mostly because it didn't seem all that relevant given the urgency brewing at the western border. Regardless, he took some time to think about it.
“Well, actually, now that you mention it, it seems kind of...” He thought back to the bored guards standing out front. The area became an important hunting ground for adventurers not too long ago - about a month if he recalled correctly. Everyone knew that. With so many monsters, a heavily-armed presence was necessary. The regulations to enter the village seemed rather lax. The secretary out front and this man didn't seem distressed at all by the people of the north arriving.
“...Empty,” Alphonse concluded.
The leader threw his hands up and smacked the desk. The sound echoed harshly off the walls. “Exactly! This place is floundering! We've been waiting two weeks for the capital to send more manpower. And what do we get? Politicians telling us to throw out the northerners. They think these people are spies. What in the hell is there to spy on out here? In other circumstances, if I had more men and they were a major pain in the ass, then I would do it without a second thought -- damned Xersceld crosses our borders while we deal with the monster issue. And shit is already bad enough with councilman at the capital sticking their dicks in everything." He threw his hands up again but managed to restrain himself at the last moment before slamming them down again. "I have positions that need to be filled. My hands are tied, so why not give the Xerscians some work? Really, this area becomes a popular adventuring spot, and we don't have the people to keep up with it, so adventurers just make a quick trip and go on their way. There's nothing available to them once the hunt is over! I can't build this place up. And the Guild Union throws me into this with the idea that...”
Alphonse stared dumbstruck as the man continued his rant. A few times he opened his mouth to speak when he thought there was a lull, but he was forced to remain silent as the man continued unabated.
The leader caught himself when he saw the look on his face. He laughed and scratched the back of his head apologetically.
“Eh, sorry about that. Been dealing with a lot of shit.” He gestured to the chair. “Have a seat, kid. Name's Daichi Coremaul.”
Alphonse accepted when he managed to gather his bearings. He waited for him to speak further, but the man just sat there with his arms propped on the desk staring over his hands. It was like he used all his words up to vent his frustrations.
There was a strange aura about him. He didn't speak with the usual authority of a Guild Union leader.
"Nice to meet you," Alphonse said. "I'm Evan McCarthy. A scout."
"A scout. Very nice. Not many willing to take up that role. Alright, Evan, what do you have for me?”
Alphonse relayed the situation to him concerning the monsters and the northerners that built the forts within the border. Even though Daichi seemed plenty aware of the situation, he sat patiently and took in all the information. He rested his hands on the desk when Alphonse reached the last part of the story.
“Hold up. Did you say 'demons?'"
Alphonse nodded. “Yeah, that's what I heard.”
“Now this is news. None of the other survivors mentioned this. Oh boy, this definitely exacerbates things.” He reached into his desk and pulled out some parchment and ink. As he was writing, he fished out an envelope from his vest pocket.
“What's your guild name?” he asked.
“I don't have one yet,” Alphonse answered.
The quill went still. Daichi eyed him curiously. “That so? Well, I do have a personal quest here that's pretty simple with a decent payoff." He waved the envelope in the air as if to emphasize some importance. "Comes straight from me. Where are you headed after this?”
Alphonse stared at the letter. “The capital.”
“Well, it's a quick detour if you're up for it. You'll be entering the capital from the east, I reckon. All you have to do is deliver the message to the guard post at the western gate. The guys there will know what to do with it when they see the name. I've offered this simple quest to three other parties and they all turned it down. Three! Catherine and I were absolutely baffled. Oh, Catherine is the woman out front by the way. I can't give you a signature for the full rewards, but I can hold onto it until your guild is official. Just keep it on the low. I'm not supposed to have a backlog of that sort.”
“Sure.” Alphonse rose from his seat when he was sure the man wouldn't fall into another tangent and accepted the envelope. He turned it over in his hand and examined the wax seal depicting the two birds carrying fruit. The name written in the middle was in a fanciful form of script that made it practically illegible. He didn't see any reason not to accept it. A bit of easy coin.
Daichi then handed him another envelope with a different, plain seal. Alphonse assumed this was a copy of the quest details with a blank space for the receiver's signature. Pretty standard.
"What are you planning to name your guild?” Daichi waited with his quill hovering over the same parchment.
“GRIM. All capitals.”
“Hm, simple. So, it's like an acronym? I like it. Evan McCarthy of GRIM. Don't let the major guilds bully you into a merger. I like seeing smaller guilds. Much more enthusiastic about their work in the long-term.”
“I don't plan on it.”
Daichi rose from his seat and extended his hand. “Glad to hear it! I'm looking forward to your progress. And thanks for taking the quest.”
Alphonse hesitantly stood and shook hands. He realized that Daichi still didn't have the full story but figured Sebastian's family would be questioned later for the rest.
The guild outpost leader sat down and went back to his work as a final sign of dismissal.
The conversation as a whole was relatively painless. The man was a bit rough and worn on the surface, but he had the vitality of someone with less years. Alphonse chuckled to himself as he replayed the beginning of their one-sided conversation.
He started opening the second sealed envelope out of curiosity as he let himself out, just in case some extra details or suggestions accompanied the delivery.
He slipped the letter out of the envelope only a few inches before his mind blanked. His legs locked in place and a short gasp escaped him as his mouth opened slightly. He struggled to maintain control of his trembling arms when he fully comprehended what was written at the top.
'To the survivor, Alphonse Kneller. For his eyes only.'