The capital city of Forgedalk sat at the heart of the singular continent in the world of Hovestile. The city derived its name as an essential hub for blacksmiths during the Central Kingdom of Tevilandis's infancy.
In decades past, monsters ran rampant throughout the country, long before the arrival of the outworld adventurers. The small city-states were forced to turn to Tevilandis due to the aptly named Northern Kingdom of Xersceld establishing a strict policy of isolationism beyond their comfortable mountain border. The Eastern Kingdom was mostly non-existent since demihumans were still in the process of fleeing the western lands, their numbers dwindling due to previous internal skirmishes with humans.
Xersceld had also been content to let other countries deal with the monster problem rather than sending their own forces. It was surmised that the Northern Kingdom likely figured that the remnants of the senseless monster forces would be easy pickings if fortune didn't fall on the side of their neighbors.
In Tevilandis, the King's High Council had accepted the burden of dealing with the monster invasion. Adventurers were called upon and soldiers reassigned to venture out in raiding parties to quell the threat at the sources far to the west. As a result, blacksmiths spent most of their time crafting weapons and armor rather than farm tools and simple wares. Their competent abilities soon developed into a mastery. Forgedalk then grew into a fortress city at the forefront of the monster cleansing.
In the present day, monsters still roamed the land, but with Forgedalk leading the charge, the threat decreased to a somewhat manageable level. The western lands blighted by the monster threat were mostly reclaimed, allowing villages such as Halieuna to exist. But much of the further territory was deemed untenable and remained in monster control.
Soldiers turned adventuring into a permanent occupation. Those who weren't adventurers desired to become one.
Then, years later, the outworlders appeared. What seemed a desperate threat turned into a most profitable business. More adventurers meant more safe work, less monsters and fierce competition among the guilds in a booming economy.
Tevilandis maintained its individuality and integrated the city-states. Forgedalk soon evolved to become the prominent trade location – a perfect place for the Adventurers' Guild Union to construct its main headquarters. Its power soon rivaled that of the High Council, and the monarchy slowly morphed into a form of government sharing elements of representative democracy.
The main headquarters of the Adventurers' Guild Union was Alphonse's destination.
Establishing a guild required meeting certain criteria: it needed to comprise of at least a minimum party-worth of adventurers (three), a preliminary payment issued at the time of request and the signatures of all members. Also, an appointed guild leader must be announced for starting a chain of command. A simple process on the surface, but Alphonse's case was a unique one.
Well, here we are, Alphonse thought.
He stood before the impressive three-story building that headed the city centre. Its design resembled a sort of neo-classical architecture. Tall columns supported various balconies with rounded windows to either side. The building's grandeur was enhanced by its blank white walls and prominently lined tiles, complimented by a number of flags and tapestries hanging from narrow ledges. Weapon symbols were carved in a horizontal line at the second floor and curved up in a U formation to the roof of meshed shingles. The grand, meticulous symmetry of the building made it seem even more dominant.
Alphonse swallowed hard and touched the scarf covering his mouth. He glanced over his shoulder at the two catgirls whose demeanor didn't instill him with much confidence. He couldn't blame them. They may as well have been thrust into a whole other world compared to the simplicity of the open road and Halieuna. Asa's eyes were locked onto him with the staff held to her chest. Kirie stood with her mouth agape, staring at all the impressive structures of the plaza.
They both wore the steel headbands crafted by Sebastian to conceal their cat ears. Asa pulled up the hood of her healer's robe to hide them further, while Kirie opted for another accessory they'd bought from a traveling merchant that hung on one side of her hair. The tails were wrapped around their waists hidden beneath their attire.
Their eyes were still the tricky part with those thin pupils. The city was filled with spellcasters that would pick up the traces of encompassing illusion magic in an instant. Using too much made it easier to locate the source. The caster could then provide true sight to ascertain what the illusion magic camouflaged. But a small area such as the eyes made the magic nearly imperceptible to individuals with spells even as a focused occupation. Even if they sensed it, locating the exact spot where the magic was cast became another step. Kirie and Asa could also avert themselves from curious onlookers. Alphonse also suggested that Asa change his eye color as well. His reservations bordered on paranoid, but it didn't cost much mana for such a minor illusion.
It was only a temporary amenity. Demihumans weren't entirely uncommon, but a three-person guild just starting out with a single human as the leader might draw some undesirable curiosity, or worse, unsavory intolerance. They were not ignorant to some of Tevilandis's darker history, and old biases still festered.
Alphonse took a step towards the wide stairs leading up to the structure. “Alright, you two wait outside and-” he started.
“No,” they both interrupted him.
He nearly stumbled at the quick response. I should've figured.
He would've preferred to enter the Guild Union alone, but he also understood that their over-protectiveness wasn't necessarily misguided.
“Fine. Compromise. Wait a few minutes, and then find a place to blend in. Don't make eye contact if you can help it.”
The catgirls looked at each other and reluctantly nodded in agreement.
They ascended the stairs with Alphonse leading the group. He removed his hood as an afterthought to avoid drawing too much attention. Unfortunately, the scarf needed to stay up in case he ran into anyone he recognized. His steps slowed a bit at the thought as he fixated on the possibility of his old party being just behind the double doors at the top of the stairs. The chance was low, but still...
He opened one of the doors and assumed an air of calm. Kirie and Asa waited outside.
The entrance hall was a generous size. Not surprising given the traffic that came through on a daily basis. Tables were set up on one side of the room where adventurers sat and conversed. To Alphonse's dismay, most of the seats were filled. He was hoping to have less prying ears so he could get his business done without interruptions. Hopefully they would be too engrossed in their conversations to notice what he was doing at the reception desk.
Alphonse averted his gaze and made his way along the red carpet that covered most of the marble-tiled floor. Shadows shifted as light from the windows reflected off the glowing chandeliers hanging from the arched ceiling.
He approached the long desk with the two young female receptionists.
They both wore a typical blue open-collar dress suit with matching black skirt. Despite the heat, one of them also had a white long-sleeved undershirt. Two thin braids dangled on either side of her head with the rest of her brunette hair lightly brushing her shoulders. The second female let her blonde hair fall to her waist with one curled length covering one eye.
“You're going to die in this heat,” the blonde said with a laugh. She rested her arms casually on the desk.
The brunette tugged at her collar and wiped the sweat off her neck with a handkerchief. “Ugh, stupid adventurers waited until the last minute for an evaluation last night. I just passed out here and forgot to do the wash.”
The blonde noticed Alphonse first and gave him a friendly wave. She straightened herself nonchalantly while the other went rigid when she noticed him.
“I-I'm sorry, sir. That was so unprofessional of me.” The brunette bowed respectfully.
A few adventurers glanced in their direction.
So much for a low profile, Alphonse thought.
“Uh, really, it's no problem,” he said. “I'd be pretty pissed too.”
The blonde grinned. “Thanks for understanding. Nice to meet you. Name's Kaede. I assume you're an adventurer.”
The stuttering receptionist next to her managed to regain her composure. “Ah, yes. I'm Cynthia.”
“Evan,” Alphonse said simply. “Nice to meet you as well.”
“What can we do for you?” Kaede asked.
Alphonse glanced at the other adventurers and noticed that a few were still eyeing him. They seemed more curious than anything.
Even at a glance, one particular group stood out among the rest. A heavyset man with impressive gear and a double-edged axe rested a thick arm on a table as he watched the exchange with a deep grimace on his face. A young, somber looking girl with white hair and an eye patch sat to his left. Sitting across was a man with dark, curly hair and a scar that hooked from one ear to below his chin. He seemed to stare through him rather than at him as he strummed the string of his bow.
There's always that one group, Alphonse thought. Sometimes a visit for guild business just needed an individual or two making snide comments or whispering something purposefully audible for confrontation. Friggin typical.
Alphonse nearly jumped when the heavy oak doors to the guild hall opened with the heavy rattle of iron hinges. As expected, Kirie and Asa appeared. They certainly didn't wait long to make their entrance. But the timing couldn't have been more perfect. All eyes shifted to the two women who took a seat on a bench in front of a ground floor window. They purposefully avoided looking at anyone, including Alphonse.
Alphonse took advantage of the distraction and lowered his voice, “Uh, right. I'd like to establish a guild.”
'“Establish a guild?”' Cynthia parroted, a little louder than Alphonse would've liked.
Kaede rested a hand on the younger receptionist's shoulder and shook her head. She put a finger to her lips. Cynthia realized her mistake and clapped a hand over her mouth.
Alphonse presented the fee and signatures. He subtly cocked his head in the direction of his comrades. “Those two.”
“Of course,” Kaede said, just barely above a whisper. She gently nudged Cynthia aside and started preparing the necessary documents to finalize the exchange. Apparently, she was the more experienced of the two and understood Alphonse's apprehension. Nobody started new guilds anymore. It was an unwritten sort of rule that became customary a short time after the outworlders arrived. Adventurers only joined already-existing ones, for various reasons that Alphonse assumed he might soon be reminded of. He really hoped nobody heard Cynthia.
He instinctively pulled at his scarf and stared at the long board of quests tacked to the wall. He focused his gaze and pretended to find something of interest.
Unfortunately, out the corner of his eye, Alphonse noticed the large adventurer rise from his seat and ease the axe across his shoulders. The girl was muttering something and waved a finger in front of her. Alphonse recognized the common motion of a spellcaster's advanced appraisal spell. The archer stared at the table with a deep scowl and continued to strum the string of his bow like a harp.
Some of the looks from other adventurers went from curiosity to hostility. The minority gave him a look that he interpreted as pity and/or apprehension.
The big man started making his way to the reception desk.
Sonuvabitch... Alphonse thought.
Alphonse maintained focus on the documents that Kaede slid forward. He pretended not to notice the axe-wielder who now stood a few feet to his side.
The expected interruption came. The man cleared his throat. “Hey, you.”
Alphonse made it a point to finish signing one the documents before turning to regard him. He gave the big man a once-over, as if it was the first time he'd seen him. He knew his outfit gave him the appearance of some rogue adventurer, which wasn't too far off the mark concerning his style of fighting, but he also feared the outfit made it seem he was trying too hard for the edgy look some outworlders were familiar with -- the kind of edgy that was laughably rebellious or distant. He tried to recall an old saying he heard from his world: 'the clothes make the man?' But in this case it was more along the lines of: 'The clothes make the persona.'
Unfortunately, it didn't work so well in this situation.
Alphonse took an unseen breath and lowered the quill. “Can I help you?”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Couldn't help but overhear. You said you're making a guild?”
“Not a good idea, friend. Most people join guilds nowadays.”
“Really,” Alphonse said. He feigned a bit of surprise and turned to Kaede. “Could you explain this?”
To the guild receptionist's credit, she maintained a perfect professional tone, “Of course, sir. Most guilds were established up until a couple months ago. During that time, many smaller guilds merged or were taken in by the larger ones. Only a few still refuse to disband. This happened because of the increased competition for high-tier quests. If a group of adventurers completes a quest, then they receive payment in the form of coin for themselves and something called Reputation for the guild. If there are too many guilds, then rewards are taken from the larger ones and their growth is diminished.”
“Sounds fancy,” Alphonse commented.
Kaede stopped for a moment and gave him an admiring look as she caught on to his sarcasm. The false ignorance didn't go unnoticed by the big adventurer either, judging by the growing scowl on his face.
“And let me guess,” Alphonse said. “This Reputation contributes to a guild's, well, reputation – their status in the eyes of important people that might contribute to an organization.”
Kaede made sure the big man wasn't looking at her and risked a wink at Alphonse. “Wow, a very astute observation. You catch on quick.”
Despite the tension, even the anxious Cynthia had difficulty suppressing a giggle.
The big adventurer's brow furrowed. “You mocking me, asshole?”
“Not at all,” Alphonse said. “I just needed a bit of a refresher. Sounds like the bigger guilds are claiming a monopoly on quests or something.”
“You been living under a rock?”
“Well yeah, you could say I was under a pretty big rock. But in all seriousness, I have my reasons for making a guild. I don't plan on interfering with anyone's business.”
“We don't need anymore small guilds taking away rep." The man lowered the axe off his shoulder and held it at his side. He twisted his wrist so the edge pointed in Alphonse's direction. "We don't need things more difficult than they have to be.”
As I figured, Alphonse thought. He gave the axe a bored look. The competition is pretty fierce.
He hadn't kept in touch with much guild business even before he met Kirie and Asa. Their ideals didn't hold much appeal. He preferred being more of a freelancer since most outworlders chose stats that were straightforward for their class. Scouts were used for their perception, sneak, and critical stats to make the job of the main party more manageable. People like Alphonse were considered a rare commodity. Over time, people saw their value, and a scout could make a decent bit of coin without having to join a guild.
Quests paid out well enough, but larger guilds provided access to high-class merchants, an invitation to meet with the High Council that governed the country (with enough Reputation) and other perks.
Alphonse was beginning to wonder if he pushed too far with this monster-of-a-man, and so he steeled himself.
The young, white-haired girl appeared behind her companion and nudged him in the back with her staff. She was barely able to reach his lower back.
“Let's go, Ruslin,” she said. Her soft voice and distant eyes made it look like she'd fall asleep standing up.
“Not yet, Rachel,” he growled. “We're-” He stopped when he noticed the two new individuals standing behind her.
Asa examined him with an intense expression and flexed her fingers. Kirie slid a hand down her axe's handle to the blade and tapped it casually against her leg.
The big man, Ruslin, hesitated a moment as he observed Alphonse's companions. He seemed to have more of an interest in Kirie's wry grin rather than the axe now spinning methodically along her fingers.
He regarded Alphonse one last time. “Fine. Your guild will get eaten up like the rest of them.” He motioned for his party to follow. “Let's go.”
The archer got up from the table and didn't take his eyes from the floor. The girl, Rachel, lingered for a bit longer.
She looked up at Alphonse. Her cold blue eyes purposefully betrayed a bit of intrigue and examined him wordlessly.
He forced himself to remain still.
“Your stats...you concealed them," she said. "A special item?”
Alphonse didn't respond. For some reason, he knew that silence was the best answer for someone like her. It felt as if anything he said could be taken as a hint.
Her eyes narrowed. "I wonder...how many masks do you wear?" With that last bit, she turned and followed her comrades.
Alphonse released the breath he'd been holding when the double doors of the guild hall collapsed shut with a soft echo. Well, we're off to a great start.
“What a shame,” Kirie said. “I was hoping for an excuse to lop his head off. That axe was nice.”
And then we'd go to jail, Alphonse thought.
Asa tapped his shoulder to get his attention. “You act weird when you wear that scarf.”
He arched an eyebrow at the curious comment. “Well, I guess that's because-”
“We should burn it. It makes you say stupid things.”
Alphonse's mind screamed, No! It was a gift from your hot-
His face nearly collided with the desk as Kirie's fist drove into the back of his head.
He straightened immediately and gave her a confounded look. “What did I do?”
“I know exactly what you were thinking!” She jammed a finger into his forehead.
Alphonse was about to form a rebuttal when he noticed the guild receptionists glance at each other and smile awkwardly. He'd completely forgotten about them.
He hated to admit it, but talking to that Ruslin guy just about shot his nerves. Wearing the scarf did make it a bit easier, but he decided to give himself a pat on the back later for a battle of words well-fought.
“So, where were we?” Kaede asked jokingly.
Kirie and Asa backed off when they realized the ruckus they were making in front of all the other adventurers. The faces of the adventurers seemed to shift from sour to amused.
"Right." Alphonse dismissed the previous exchange and finished the preparations. To top it all off, he chose a quest from the board. They offered him the option to have a guild emblem made for a small fee. Alphonse politely declined.
“We'll have it made when we establish ourselves,” he said.
“Oh wow, aren't we confident.” Cynthia laughed.
Kaede grinned. “Well, you're certainly a curious bunch. I'm looking forward to seeing you three around here."
Alphonse thanked them for the help and swiftly exited the guild hall. He still made sure that he took even, controlled steps despite his haste to avoid all the eyes that followed him. Kirie and Asa walked to either side of him.
“Alright, what was that all about?” Kirie asked. She walked backwards in front of Alphonse to get a better read of him.
"Believe me, I would've preferred to avoid any altercation, but since he started it, I wanted to see how he'd try to stop me from making the guild. It looks like the competition isn't fierce enough that the adventurers are going at each other's throats. Mostly just idle threats. When people don't share a common, overwhelming enemy, they end up going after each other instead,” Alphonse explained.
It seemed Kirie at least had the gist of it and nodded thoughtfully at his explanation. Asa remained reserved and fell into her own contemplation.
“Anyway, let's just focus on our first quest," Alphonse suggested.
There was plenty of work to be done over the next few days.