Kirie peered over the side of a standing workbench and watched as Sebastian went about his work. The methodical rise and fall of the hammer mesmerized her. It almost seemed as if the metal didn't undergo any changes, but after a few calculated blows Kirie saw the shifts.
Heavy hits fell with parallel strikes and edge hammering like a barbarian beating a foe into submission. Quick taps against the faces and angled regions contrasted to demonstrate more finesse. She wondered how this man saw these minuscule alterations. His trained eyes narrowed as he observed the metal and made one last calculated strike before placing it over the flames. He waited until it assumed a yellow-orange glow and repeated with glancing strikes to create angles. The pyramidal piece that resulted nearly matched another that cooled off to the side.
The guards that escorted Sebastian from the guild outpost had inquired about their situation and assumed responsibility for relating the information to the blacksmith of the forge, Desmond. The big man had crossed his burly arms and grunted a few responses before approving the arrangement. He dropped a few questions on Sebastian that took little time to answer. An unnaturally wide, gap-toothed grin crawled up from beneath his bushy mustache as the counterpart of his trade answered each question in abundant detail.
Once satisfied, Desmond was decent enough to let Sebastian scrounge up some spare scrap metal for a project. There was plenty to go around.
It didn't take long for Kirie to realize that the meticulous work was for their sake. Sebastian eventually told her about Alphonse's request to make an accessory for each of them. The scout really did have their best interest in mind. His thoughts were on the strength of the group -- not the individual. It was a defining trait she'd become accustomed too.
She recalled the time spent when she first found Alphonse as they wandered through the darkness of that dungeon with his one leg barely functioning -- hungry, thirsty, drudging through the aftereffects of poison and bleeding profusely, he'd always inquire about her condition at the conclusion of a fight against the monsters that pursued them. He didn't ask for a break, no word of complaint uttered and his self-pity stubbornly quelled. The latter was such an unbecoming trait, but if anyone deserved it in those moments, it was definitely him.
The deceptively cunning human had a way of getting under her skin. But he also had this seemingly unintentional habit of tickling her amusement. Their banter and disparaging comments always held that smidgen of underlying humor and understanding. There was no hesitance with sarcasm or bluntness that might mean offense with someone as a recent acquaintance. Even after only a few weeks, their coordination was almost second-nature, as if they'd hunted together their whole lives. It was as if he was a long lost friend from back during the days when her village still stood.
The harsh sizzle of metal jolted her back to reality as Sebastian settled his latest work in the slack tub to cool. Her ears nearly pushed through her headband with the surprise.
Sebastian noticed her as he removed a section from the water. “Y'know, you can stand up.”
She rose at full attention. “I thought pieces might fly off.”
“Have you never been in a forge?” The blacksmith laughed.
She shook her head.
“Well, it doesn't work quite like that,” he explained. “Well, I guess some pieces do fall off during the process.”
Kirie moved closer as he proceeded to another anvil with a steel slab propped up. A set of grooves trailed the top that went from larger to smaller. She propped her tall, double-edged axe up and rested her arms on the base of the handle as she continued watching. She settled her head in her arms after a few minutes. The tail wrapped around her waist quivered as it attempted to wave back and forth contentedly.
The design of the accessory widened at two spots to envelop the base of her ears like the makeshift headband she currently wore. The one forged by Sebastian would have two open portions at the top that stuck up and angled towards the back of her head, like a set of curved ears. Two rounded sections held it in place that provided protection from a heavy fall or impact.
She inquired about the strange slab and what it was used for. The blacksmith called it a swage, and he demonstrated its purpose by working on the thin piece that would eventually curve to the shape of her head and angle around the ears.
She fidgeted as a new hammer made graceful, controlled arcs. That looks so fun, Kirie thought. She figured it might be an interesting hobby and a great way to ward off frustration.
Sebastian seemed to notice the plain longing in her eyes and decided to prepare a square of steel in the fire. As the metal began to take on a similar glow, he held out the other hammer to her. Kirie's eyes lit up brighter than the forge.
"Wanna flatten this one out a bit?" The blacksmith laughed as the catgirl snatched the hammer from his hands.
"Oh, hell yes!" she exclaimed.
Kirie prepared to line up her first strike but stopped when she saw her sister staring at a large stone wheel. She shifted her attention fully when Asa parted a length of her flowing red hair, as if it was blocking a crucial bit of vision that hid some unknown purpose behind the attached mount and pedal on the wheel's bottom. She moved her hand down the wheel and it started to spin. It spun faster as she made this motion over and over. She propped her staff up against the wall and started using both hands. It continued to spin faster and faster.
Sebastian followed Kirie's gaze and watched as Asa slapped her hands against the grinding wheel in quick succession. Her expression of indifference didn't change in the slightest as she continued to play with the wheel.
“Yeah, you're definitely catgirls,” Sebastian said.
Kirie sighed. “Don't lump me with her. I'm not so easily amused.”
A voice from behind made her jump. “But you seem to enjoy watching the swing of a hammer.”
She whirled about and saw Alphonse standing behind her. His arms were crossed and a folded envelope stuck between his fingers.
“Why do you always..." She trailed off and shook her head. Alphonse sneaking up on her all the time was something she'd never get used to. "Never mind. How long have you been there?” she asked.
“About five minutes.”
A smile crawled across his face. Perhaps he'd forgotten about the sharp eyesight of a cat since she noticed how forced it was by the slight twitch of his mouth. He was a sneaky guy. His stats somehow allowed him to slip away from her sight out in the field, but he was terrible when it came to emotion. He should've left the scarf on if he wanted to hide his feelings from her.
She looked down and saw that the paper was slightly crumpled in his hand. He moved past her and waved to Sebastian, who gave him a quick salute with his hammer. He moved stiffly to the stairs leading to the second floor.
“Grab your sister,” he said. “Meet me upstairs.”
Alphonse sat in the spare upstairs bedroom with his feet propped up on one of the stools. A lantern with a withering flame sat on the table and barely cast enough light for them to see in the growing twilight. The window was closed and curtains drawn.
Kirie and Asa stared at the letter Alphonse held out to them. His hands were steady now. The two catgirls looked at each other uncertainly.
“What is that?” Asa asked.
“A quest,” he answered.
Kirie took the letter from him and unfolded it. She blanched after reading the first line.
'To the survivor, Alphonse Kneller. For his eyes only...'
Asa inched next to her and read along. She bit her lower lip in a similar reaction.
'Twice now. Remain steadfast.
Trust no one.
Continue along the path you set on arrival.
Reach beyond the system, and bring true equivalence.
We will contact you in person when the healrings are full bloom.
“'Trust no one,'” Kirie recited. She turned to Asa and saw a look of familiarity in her eyes. She imagined her sister probably saw the same in her own.
She reread the letter. It was impossible to understand exactly what it meant, being so cryptic. But two words caught her that seemed like more than a coincidence: 'trust' – 'equivalence.' The latter word and the contract Alphonse recently made held too close of a relation. She wondered if whoever wrote this letter knew about the Construct Contract.
The rest of the letter didn't mean much to her. It was meant for Alphonse, and the other words must have resonated with him.
But my understanding doesn't matter, she thought. The first of the two words gripped her heart. 'Trust.'
She remembered her words back at the Submerged Oasis, during that critical moment when Alphonse fought with his convictions over the contract:
“Trust only goes so far. I get that. But trust us when we say that we will work with you.”
Kirie then recalled her mother's understanding of his plight:
“Trust is such a fickle thing. One must have your quality of resilience to understand...”
Kirie locked eyes with him. He didn't waver under her gaze. The smile on his face wasn't forced this time.
“You showed this to us...” Kirie trailed off as the acute significance of his action took hold. "Even though it said not to."
He shrugged. “Well, whoever they are, they certainly don't want me dead. I'm pretty sure I'd be done for already if that was their goal. But I'm not just going to readily accept the words of a random letter. I'd rather put my remaining trust in you two.” He laughed. “Although, my instincts are pretty shit when it comes to people.”
Kirie rested a hand on her chest and crumpled the letter further.
She was about to read the note again when it suddenly swiped from her hand. She faltered for a moment as Asa ignored her shocked protests and tore the letter in half. Kirie stared dumbstruck as her sister held the pieces over the open flame of the lantern. She cast an orb of protection magic that encased the burning pieces until they faded to ash.
"Why did you...?" Kirie started.
“I'd say he made a fine choice,” Asa replied. She turned away and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “After all, how could he doubt two adorable catgirls?”
Kirie held a fist up in agreement. “I know, right? And look how dependable we are.”
Alphonse rested a hand over his face. “Don't push your luck.”
“So, what did the note mean?” Asa asked. "I understand that some specific words indicate that this person knows something about equivalence. That's way too big a coincidence considering you just recently made a contract."
Kirie couldn't deny her curiosity either. It was as if the one who wrote the letter anticipated that Alphonse might not listen to the advice and confide in others– or perhaps the careful choice of words didn't want him to fully understand either.
Alphonse reached into his pouch and presented his new adventurer documents. “I'm convinced the guild outpost leader, Daichi Coremaul, knows about me. Whether he wrote the letter himself or delivered it for someone else is still up for debate. The receptionist we spoke to, Catherine, does as well."
The catgirls leaned forward expectantly as he bit his lower lip. He tapped a finger on the table as he struggled with some conflicting thoughts.
"The first bit," he said with a bit of hesitance. "The part that says 'twice now,' I would prefer to not go into detail about it, but I know what it means. The only way someone could possibly know about that is if the person is an outworlder."
Kirie and Asa shared an uneasy glance. Knowing that it was an outworlder narrowed the potential candidates quite a bit, but not nearly enough to even make an educated guess. There were hundreds of outworlders sent from Earth.
"I spent some time thinking about the conversation leading up to this," Alphonse continued, plainly eager to move the subject in a different direction. "Coremaul also said that three other adventuring parties turned down the offer for this fake quest."
Asa caught on immediately. “So the mention of those three...” she started.
“...you think he's talking about the party that betrayed you,” Kirie finished for her.
Alphonse grimaced slightly upon hearing it so plainly. “Possibly. I thought it might've been a coincidence. But why bring up such a detail in the first place? Maybe it was just to make conversation, but I'm not willing to bet on it with how deliberate and discreet this letter is. I'm not sure of its whole purpose, but I know the path it mentions. I've had this goal long before I arrived in this world. I wanted a home.”
“Hey, we could use one of those too,” Kirie said.
“Agreed. We can't go back to mother just yet. There is much for us to do,” Asa concurred. “How will we go about this?”
“First thing,” Alphonse said. “I was only going to worry about it in public or around prying eyes, but you should refer to me as Evan McCarthy as often as possible. Second, the Guild Union still has documents on Alphonse Kneller, so we need to confirm if those have been nullified. It may take some time if I do it as discreetly as possible."
The catgirls nodded in affirmation.
"Third, we're making a guild.”
“Finally!” Kirie punched a fist into her palm. She'd anticipated the official declaration.
“I figured as much,” Asa said. Even her usual calm countenance was unable to contain a broad smile. “What is our name?”
Alphonse planted his fists at his sides dramatically. “GRIM.”
“Not sure how I feel about that,” Kirie said. "But whatever."
They both went up to him and each claimed a shoulder to punch. Kirie's was notably harder as his body jerked back on her side.
He rubbed at his shoulder and feigned a bit of hurt. "Seriously. A handshake. A fist bump. Anything will suffice. Stop friggin hitting me!"
Kirie's focus was long gone at this point. She bundled up her excitement. She needed to grab her axe. She needed to swing it around and shout at the world. She wanted to announce her arrival and dare anyone to mess with her team.
"So, um, I already copied it down in the contract, but..." Alphonse looked over at the lantern. "Just make sure you ask before burning something so important."
Asa averted her eyes. "Sorry. It was spur of the moment."
Late the next morning they said their farewells to Sebastian, Reiko and Eve.
Kirie and Asa rested their hands on the steel headbands the blacksmith made for them and massaged the intricate shapes that hid their cat ears.
“Now you have horns!” Eve laughed. The two catgirls bent forward and let the happy girl pat them on the head.
Sebastian and Alphonse clasped wrists in a firm, gratified handshake.
“You outdid yourself,” Alphonse said as he watched his companions enjoying themselves. The ringing of the hammer had faintly echoed through the whole night. It was a soothing background noise, like the ticking of a clock urging him to sleep.
“It's not nearly enough,” Sebastian said. “The next time you pass through, make sure to stop by. I'll have something waiting for you.”
“I hope it's a quest.”
The blacksmith grinned. “Something better.”
Reiko appeared from the forge and rushed up next to her husband. She hid something in her clasped hands and extended them to Alphonse. “Please, take this. It belonged to someone close. I made some changes.”
She held his hand in her own and placed a thin iron necklace in his palm. A simple circular piece hung at the end with the letters E.K.A. engraved.
“I-I can't possibly...” Alphonse was about to bow in thanks when she stepped forward and embraced him.
“You saved my family," she said. "Please see us again. We won't ever forget.”
Eve jumped in seemingly out of nowhere and joined the hug. She snuggled in between them.
Sebastian laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “I don't know what you have planned for the future, but I imagine you'll be doing the world a whole lot of good. Don't get yourself killed.”
His companions overheard this and stepped in. Both of them wore matching grins.
“He's got us,” Kirie said.
“We'll keep him on a tight leash,” Asa added.
Alphonse finally managed to break free of Eve and rolled his eyes. “Oh yes, I feel so safe. When your kill count is higher, get back to me.”
Kirie pointed an accusing finger as she fell in behind him. “You always get a head start!”
He was only half-listening at this point as he started making his way down the road. “Uh-huh. Yup. Sure.”
Alphonse turned to wait for Asa, who made one final bow to Sebastian and his family. He raised a hand for his own last farewell when he noticed a familiar individual standing a ways down the road at the intersection to the guild outpost.
He recognized the woman -- the blonde receptionist, Catherine. She rested an arm casually under her breasts and seemed to await some sort of response. She readjusted her glasses and gave him a knowing smile.
Alphonse's arm fell to his side, and they engaged in the staring contest for another few seconds. He placed the necklace from Reiko around his neck, nodded to her and continued his departure without looking back.