Alphonse stared out the back of the wagon as the forest began to disappear on the horizon. A pale moon accompanied the sun in the sky as the cusp of evening drew near.
A day had passed since he and his party defeated the trolls terrorizing the village. The rest of the trip back to Forgedalk promised to be uneventful as they reached one of the guard checkpoints. In a couple hours, they would be back at the capital city.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” Anya said. The adventurer leaned her head against the arched canvas covering the wagon. Its passengers jostled on their rear ends as the wheels bounced over some rough terrain.
“I can't believe how flawed their intelligence was,” the warrior, Derek, commented. “You'd think the Guild Union had more competent people to fact-check the quests sent in.”
Alphonse simply nodded at his assessment and folded his arms, pondering what might have caused such inaccuracy. The recent quest had stated the number of trolls at the village around a dozen. What they discovered at the ruins amounted to almost double.
The Guild Union allocated much of its intelligence network throughout all of Tevilandis and made it a point to assign many of these individuals to the outlying villages around the capital city. Threats near Forgedalk were obviously a main point of concern since it was the central trade hub, and representatives tasked with analyzing requests from the villages needed to cooperate so the jobs reached the quest board at the Guild Union in a timely manner. It was a mix of being thorough and efficient that was supposed to promise little to no errors with job information.
The quest Alphonse and his party recently completed turned out to be a major blunder of misinformation. Normally, Alphonse would have called the attack off if the trolls were more of a coordinated threat. There were contingencies that might be unaccounted for, but miscounting by such a degree was inexcusable. If the quest had involved different monsters like ogres and the numbers were off by even a few, it could spell disaster for an unsuspecting, ill-equipped adventuring party.
Upon finishing the quest, they had reached out to the guild outpost leader at the village to submit a draft of their report. The man was positively infuriated when he went to the battlefield personally and confirmed that their claims were true. Alphonse and his party had watched with a bit of amusement as the leader almost cartoonishly pulled at his graying hair and gesticulated wildly as he threw his hands in the air. The scene reminded Alphonse of his one-sided conversation with Coremaul when the man fell into a frustrated tirade.
He immediately relieved the intelligence officers of their positions and wrote up a letter of demotion. He stated that in his thirty years of Union service, he had never seen such a show of incompetence and outright neglect.
As compensation for the potentially disastrous error, the outpost leader tripled the reputation and gold reward. He even took it a step further by issuing a proposal to replace all the materials utilized to complete the quest, as well as provide free repairs for their equipment.
People might voice some negatives about the Guild Union, but nobody could deny that their reparations for oversights on their part were more than generous.
“I'm glad we were able to work something out,” Derek said. “If we waited for reinforcements, then more people could've died while we waited.”
Anya rolled her eyes. “Can't disagree with that. Don't get me wrong, those people obviously didn't deserve to die, but they should've just listened and stayed at the village. I thought natives would be more knowledgeable about monsters.”
“Apparently not.” Derek gritted his teeth a bit. “Peasants and some common citizens might lack basic education with such things. It seems like this world also has a very basic printing press, and books are still rare outside Forgedalk.”
“Then someone should give them a damn pamphlet or something.”
Alphonse watched as the two fell into a light argument about tact and consideration of words during pernicious topics. Derek was obviously the more careful of the two when it came to choice of words, while Anya was more prone to voicing her opinions without considering the connotation of her phrases when speaking. Alphonse started drawing some strong parallels with her and Kirie's brusque temperament. He figured that a bit of Anya's bitterness stemmed from before they'd even started the quest.
The two adventurers had been part of a smaller guild that merged into a larger one with more power around a month earlier. Unfortunately, the original members of each organization usually kept to themselves. The only thing they shared was the Reputation gained from quests and the perks that came with it. Kaede had mentioned it in more detail when Alphonse returned to the Guild Union following the altercation with the warrior named Ruslin.
Derek and Anya found themselves short on party members when nobody else from their first guild was available. The main body of the guild sometimes required specific individuals for certain tasks, whether they involved quests or business around the city.
Fortunately for them, a strange guild named GRIM suddenly appeared on the scene. In a capital city with a massive population centered around adventuring, word spread quickly about the new guild that defiantly broke the typical conventions established by the system.
Alphonse accepted their proposal for a number of reasons, despite his waning trust. He was still opposed to the idea of taking on quests with other adventurers in confined places such as dungeons, but areas out in the open mitigated opportunities for egregious actions. News of a temporary alliance between guild members seemed beneficial. The larger guilds would hopefully leave them be if they found out that GRIM yielded the Reputation for this quest to its partner. They might even view them as a potential investment rather than a hindrance to their goals. It didn't hurt to have other guild members available to take on higher paying quests with a more generous split of the reward. It helped that Alphonse was also a scout.
Business as usual. Much like before, Alphonse thought.
“Damn, I didn't know Migunne blood could erupt like that,” Anya said. She laid on her side and messed with her spiky, brunette hair. “But if Asa can cast offensive magic, then why not just use a bunch of fireballs? It isn't easy taking down a Migunne.”
“That was a failing on my part,” Alphonse said. "Creating the protection pillars consumed a lot of mana. I wanted a larger area in case we needed extra space if the timing was off.” He looked to Asa. “Looks like I underestimated you. Your timing was spot-on.”
The catgirl's characteristic somber expression didn't change, but Alphonse thought he saw her chin rise a bit as she averted her eyes. “Yes, well, now you know.”
He looked to Kirie, who was resting her head on his shoulder fast asleep. It seemed the enhancement she received from Asa had really taken its toll.
His companions were definitely overworked. Even Asa seemed more detached than usual. This was their fourth quest completed as a guild in less than two weeks. It was probably time for an extended break. No more sleeping in wagons to rest up and less trips to the library during downtime.
Anya kicked at his leg and woke him from his thoughts. “Yo, you coming out with us tomorrow? We have this regular place that does half-off drinks.”
“Oh, uh, well...” Alphonse started. He didn't really consider himself the social type, and crowds definitely weren't something that put him at ease. He also preferred to limit the possibility of running into anyone he once knew as Alphonse Kneller.
He didn't even have time to consider a response when Asa answered for him, “Sure.”
Alphonse wanted to pull his scarf up all the way to his eyes when she made the declaration. Okay. Guess we're going. Great...
He narrowed his eyes and feigned a foul look. The unexpected expression she returned gave him swift pause.
Asa unveiled her secret weapon - a precious, willing smile, only revealed on the most rare of occasions. She'd smiled before, but this one was not spur of the moment. It was deliberate and unconditionally calculated. It spoke to him. It said, “Why would you be so mean to this adorable catgirl?”
Alphonse tightened his jaw and forced himself to keep a straight face. Goddamn you...
Her smile vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, almost as if it never happened at all.
Alphonse waved a hand in front of him and willed his transparent profile into existence.
Name: Alphonse Kneller
Mana regeneration: N/A
Health regeneration: .5/s combat exclusion= 2.1/s
Stats: Vitality - 11 Endurance - 12 __________ Agility - 15 _________ __________ Dexterity - 20 Sneak - 23 Perception - 27 Proficiency - 10 __________
Resistances: Poison - 20 Paralysis - 15 Bleed - 15 Fortitude Debuff - 16 Curse - 13
He frowned at the purposeful blank spaces where his previous stats once resided. After transferring his stats to Kirie and Asa, the open areas of his profile had always bothered him. It was as if the system (or whatever controlled the stats) still believed that something belonged there and attempted to interpret it as such. The other curious bit was that he no longer had a mana pool, yet the 'mana regeneration' section of the profile still remained.
Contrary to his previous intentions, he had decided to hold off on resting at their rented space at the Guild Union in favor of more research at the library. The nature of the Construct Contract nagged at him incessantly during his downtime, so he just simply couldn't help himself. It didn't make sense that the contract would take offerings in what appeared to be an exact fashion but leave behind different results.
Why are some offerings blank and others not? Alphonse wondered. Is it the party bond I formed with them?
His first theory had proven mostly conclusive when he made the deal to transfer his stats to Kirie and Asa at the Submerged Oasis. He had sacrificed his strength, constitution, focus and intelligence stats in order to increase the potential of his party as a whole. There was no doubt that outworlders with stats would eventually surpass natives in terms of power if given enough time and experience. The question was how long it would take based on what the stats actually provided. There was also the possibility of diminishing returns as more stat points were gained. Natives were far more competent in casting magic and wielding weapons in general since they'd been exposed to them for many years. Swords and bows weren't necessarily the weapon of choice on Earth when assault rifles and heavy explosives were available. However, the people in charge of the Hovestile project back on Earth must have taken this into consideration and chose individuals more adept at handling such weapons. But for native adventurers, it was their life. There weren't many opportunities to shoot a bow under pressure back on Earth compared to fighting monsters on Hovestile as an actual occupation. The experience couldn't be compared.
Now that Kirie and Asa had access to stats, they would be an even greater force to be reckoned with. Alphonse had high hopes for both of them, but he anticipated that Asa would grow into a particularly versatile asset. She claimed to have dabbled in magic since a very young age, and her progress certainly showed. If a native adventurer already extremely competent in magic had access to intelligence and focus stats as an extra buffer...Alphonse shivered at the thought of what she might be capable of.
Kirie likely had more combat experience than many natives as well. If she learned some more active skills to utilize her mana pool more, then she would surpass plenty of outworlders. Her lack of finesse indicated she was mostly self-taught in regards to close combat, and based on how reckless she was, Alphonse had no doubt she fought some strong opponents in the ruins around the Submerged Oasis. Her confidence had only been bolstered to the level of borderline ludicrous when Alphonse joined the group.
Alphonse shook his head and dismissed the flood of ruminations. There was too much to consider, and the fatigue started settling on more than his body.
He opened a book from the stack next to him on the table titled: Tribes of the Shin'ryen. He hadn't forgotten what the young girl, Eve, mentioned about a group of assassins situated around the northern kingdom. It was mostly light reading to take his mind off the frustration with the contract and other research that demanded complete attention and note-taking. So far, most of the material he acquired was hearsay and stories that sounded fictional rather than actual history. But there was an old saying that some myths were based on a form of truth.
It also helped take his mind off of the outing with Anya and Derek they'd planned for the following evening. It wasn't the worst idea to deepen their relationship with the duo. Camaraderie wasn't something just built on the battlefield.
They were meeting at a tavern popular with adventurers, but he doubted anyone would recognize him with his attire.
He took a deep breath and went back to his book. Yeah, it'll be fine.