Asa and Kirie watched as Alphonse conversed with the young woman, Rachel. They kept out of sight behind a short, inserted dividing wall on the other side of the bar that angled towards the tavern. A few patrons outside only paid them a curious glance before going back to their conversations.
Asa didn't want to leave Alphonse alone, but she also didn't know how to approach him. She wondered if he would be angry with her if she pried too much. The poor guy didn't have his full wits about him still. Time seemed like the best remedy for his reluctance and anxiety. She didn't want to force herself in if it threatened pushing him away. People are fragile, moreso with the parts beyond the physical.
Guilt welled up in Asa. She cursed herself for convincing Alphonse to accept Anya's invitation to meet at the tavern when he clearly wasn't ready. He still had his reservations and made a few half-hearted attempts to convince them to call off their plans. It was a rather perfunctory effort, since he did want to develop a deeper relationship with Anya and Derek, but it was there all the same.
Asa had been through her own share of hardships, but it was impossible to understand Alphonse's. Comparing their minds and coping mechanisms was a mistake. It was disrespectful to make such assumptions. She cursed herself when they first arrived at the tavern, watching him struggle with the cramped space and unknown faces, but no will to pull back out of pride
But Alphonse was far from weak. He was their pillar.
And so she'd waited for him to exit the tavern to the back porch. She watched through one of the small back windows as he supported his trembling arms on the railing and suddenly punched it in a sudden fit of rage. His shoulders heaved as he took a few ragged breaths.
A decent, but broken person. Someone who fell into a dark abyss when given too much time for stray thoughts.
She watched him rest a hand over his scarf as if someone had come from behind, pulled his head back and drew an imaginary dagger across his throat. Even in the lines of shadows cast among the encircling buildings she could see his face darken with worry.
He'd managed to calm somewhat and seemed to stare somewhere distant – nowhere in particular. It was then that he made his way to the outside bar. Asa had to nearly press herself against the window to see a familiar individual beckoning to him. A young, girlish-looking woman with white hair and an eye-patch sat in a corner wearing an unmistakable spellcasters robe. Asa recognized her, they'd seen her at the Guild Union with the annoying warrior on their first day in the capital, but the name eluded her.
She frowned and gripped at the dividing wall as Alphonse hesitantly took a seat. Asa motioned to Kirie, who stood a few feet behind since there wasn't enough room for both of them to look.
They listened to the discussion between Alphonse and the white-haired girl. It didn't take long for a feeling of dread to build in Asa's stomach.
Asa knew something was wrong with Alphonse. At first, it seemed his unstable mental state was prompting him to reveal more than he would have if he'd been calm and focused. But she knew better. There was a shift in his tone as he spoke. She was so used to his calm collectedness that it instinctively felt jarring and wholly unnatural. The answers lacked his usual calculated pauses when responding to the woman's prodding questions.
Asa was able to pick out the forced smile from him at a glance as he turned to avert his gaze for a moment. He shouldn't have to so often, she thought. She wanted his real smile.
The catgirls continued staring around the dividing wall with painstaking slowness so as not to be noticed. The conversation had halted. Only a few stray words were uttered as Alphonse flipped a coin, and the woman attempted to call it.
"I don't like this," Kirie muttered. She moved to intervene but stopped when Asa rested a hand on her shoulder. She gently urged her to stay behind the wall. They couldn't be sure of exactly what was happening, whether the woman was using some sort of magic or other means that made Alphonse more forthcoming. But if Kirie was agitated then her own brimming suspicion felt justified.
“Alright, I'll bite,” Asa heard him say. “You could say I put a lot of points into it. Why would you be interested in that?”
“I suspected as much,” the young spellcaster answered. “Then, let us continue. Your call.”
What the hell is he doing? He would never... Asa's thoughts trailed off. And then, Wait...
She narrowed her eyes and caught a glimpse of one of the coin's sides. The angry eyes of some strange tiger-reptile gazed back at her. A tongue like a snake's hung out the mouth, as if it were salivating over a fresh kill.
Something clicked in Asa's head, and the recollection spilled somewhere from the nearly-forgotten confines of her mind. A number of specific details latched together. She suppressed a gasp as she recognized the symbol. That symbol, it was in one of the books she'd read. The book was one of the ancient tomes she'd found in the ruins of the ancient city near the Submerged Oasis: Hollow'dys One.
If she recalled correctly...
“Kirie,” Asa hissed. “Get our weapons.”
Her sister only responded with a brief confused look before rushing back into the tavern. Asa listened to what they said next. She needed to be sure.
“Heads,” Alphonse said. He guessed correct fifteen times in a row so far.
“Interesting,” the woman said. “Your passive perception is quite impressive.”
“Yes. Is this why you hide your stats? You don't want people knowing the secret? I'm sure it does place you as a highly desirable investment on quests.”
“I-it's not bad,” he stuttered.
No...what is she doing to him? Asa rested a hand over her mouth to suppress a distressed whimper. What have I done?
Nobody could have expected a development such as this, but still, she told herself it never would have happened in the first place if she'd not been so pushy. He never would have fallen into that pit of rage and melancholy that weakened his mental defenses. She only wanted to help him, but instead, he was put in a position that brought him more suffering.
I'm so sorry. A tear trickled down her cheek as Alphonse continued to listen to that soft, melodic voice. The distress in his own was terribly palpable now. The words he spoke came unbidden.
He's fighting it. Goddamm it, Kirie, hurry!
Any trace of doubt was gone. This woman wasn't normal. The woman's voice melted the weakened minds of men and molded them through manipulation. It was a voice with a hidden song.
Asa knew her true form. A Siren. Somehow, an ancient, high-class monster had managed to sneak into the city. Not only that, this monster had inserted herself within a guild.
And she wanted Alphonse. He was a strong man with enviable fortitude. The monster must have lurked and waited for the perfect opportunity to breach his mind. Two pints of beer might dull the senses and cloud some judgment. Nothing more. A resilient being like Alphonse wouldn't be swayed by such impediments. But his mental state and enough deception...
Asa nearly jumped when Kirie tapped her on the shoulder with her staff. She turned to her and saw the infuriated determination on her sister's face as she tightened a flexible, armored glove over one hand. The dried tear on her cheek didn't go unnoticed. They nodded to each other and readied themselves. No more waiting.
Asa quelled her self-loathing.
“What other reasons would someone have for hiding themselves from fellow outworlders?” the woman asked.
“W-well...Rachel...” Alphonse started.
Asa slid out from behind the wall and extended her staff. “Protection!” A wall of translucent, melded hexagons appeared between Alphonse and the young woman. She reeled back in surprise and raised her hands to ward off the luminescence.
Kirie moved in from the side with great speed and swung her axe down at the disoriented woman. Despite being caught on her heels, Rachel raised her arm and caught the edge of the axe with a bare palm. The momentary shock from this development lowered Kirie's guard and the Siren extended her other hand. Kirie released her weapon and fell into a roll as a blast of crimson energy clipped her shoulder. Blood spewed from the wound and splattered on the wooden porch.
It all happened in a matter of seconds. The bartender immediately took cover and the other patrons stood briefly dumbstruck at the sudden violence. Some of them drew their weapons but shifted back and forth on their feet, unsure of which side was the hostile party.
Asa pointed her staff at Rachel. “She's a monster! Be on guard!”
An adventurer took a single step forward and was about to ask for confirmation when a thin red line crawled around his neck. His head slid, almost langorously, off his shoulders and a spray of blood spewed forth and splattered on the wooden floor. The adventurers that stood to either side went stiff in paralyzed shock as they saw their friend collapse. They slowly turned their blood-spattered faces towards the humanoid standing a short ways behind them.
The humanoid monster stood with its back turned to them, hand raised in a follow-up motion. Sharp nails extended from disjointed fingers pressed together in a bladed posture. Her face was concealed by the hood of the healers robe that pulled up from the sudden halt after such speed.
“Jesus!” One of them screamed and fired his hand crossbow. The bolt stuck in the Siren's forehead as it turned and whipped it back from the close proximity and force. The hood fell away to reveal an open-mouthed smile full of sharp teeth. It was the last thing the adventurer saw before it lurched forward and bit into his face.
A sword ate into the Siren's back, but managed no more than a slight flesh wound. The monster whirled about as its body continued to transform mid-fight. Bones snapped and limbs stretched. The sharp nails extended from its fingers and left three jagged tears in the third attacker's throat and collarbone. Flaps of skin caught between his fingers as he dropped his weapon and grasped desperately. The monster casually placed its hand over his shocked face and shoved the failing body aside.
The creature absentmindedly gripped the bolt sticking from its forehead and jerked it out. Blood spurt from the wound briefly before sealing in a matter of seconds. It turned to regard everyone else that cowered behind the two catgirls. A seething, gleeful breath escaped the wide mouth upon observing their plain fear. An amalgamation of voices emit from the monster's bloody mouth as the jaw unhinged sickeningly. One voice was of its human form, the woman known as Rachel, while the other melded with a high-pitched rasp.
“Seems I took too long,” it hissed. “Such a steadfast mind. Impressive.”
There were muffled screams from inside the tavern. Some people stared aghast from the open door, while others were consumed by pure, disbelieving dread. Those trying to escape blocked others with more courage who grabbed their weapons and attempted to push through and assist.
The Siren grinned and pointed at Asa, who stood protectively in front of a gasping Alphonse. Kirie rose to one knee with her shoulder bleeding profusely. A trail of blood crawled over one eye from a scrape on her temple.
“Korv desires him!” the monster shrieked. “Don't make me kill you, demihuman!”
Korv? Asa didn't recognize the name, but a heaviness welled in her chest all the same.
Blood dripped from the Siren's sharp teeth in that wide maw. The spellcaster robe fell from its shoulders to reveal pale skin with spiked lines of cerulean reaching over its belly. A mounded, ribbed upper body heaved sporadically. It raised a hand in a threatening gesture and the nails extended visibly a few more inches.
Kirie stepped in front of them and drew a shortsword from its sheathe. Alphonse's sword.
“Not a chance,” Kirie muttered.
“I'll cover you,” Asa said.
The Siren rested its clawed hand on the ground and bent forward. “Stand aside, whore-!”
An arrow stuck into the Siren's head as it prepared to charge them. It stumbled for a moment and grasped at its face before leaping away in a temporary retreat. Kirie pursued it and narrowly missed with a quick swipe from the shortsword. The railing of the porch splintered and bent as the Siren pushed out of reach. Kirie dropped the sword and seized the opportunity to retrieve her axe as she pressed forward.
Asa glanced behind her and saw Anya standing in the doorway with another arrow notched. “He alright?” the archer shouted.
“I-I don't know.” Asa looked down as Alphonse let out a sputtering breath.
“Just the-wind knocked out of me,” he gasped. “Th-thanks.” His eyes seemed distant as they shifted to look at her.
Derek's burly form charged past them as he rushed to join the fight with his warhammer leading. A few more adventurers followed close behind.
Kirie managed to slice the Siren's thigh in the meantime and drove all her weight forward. They crashed through what remained of the wooden railing and collapsed to the cobblestone walkway. She fell into a roll and once again barely missed the opportunity to cleave the monster's leg.
They stood in the growing darkness of the small square area, sizing each other up. The tall iron fences leading towards the alleys prevented the Siren from retreating.
Escape seemed to be the last thing on the monster's mind. It raised both arms and the nails shot forward to a seemingly impossible length. Kirie ducked underneath, but the adventurer rushing up behind her wasn't so lucky. The claws pierced through both eyes and tore off a chunk of his jaw. The body remained upright, jerking with random instinctive response before death. He collapsed with a sickening thud as the nails retracted back to the Siren, caked in gore.
Derek appeared next to Kirie with his warhammer at the ready. He grit his teeth and tightened his grip on the handle to stop himself from shaking as he stared at the twitching body of the dead adventurer.
“What the hell is this thing?” he growled.
Outworlders and natives united to take on the unfathomable creature. Four more adventurers skirted to either side of them. Asa noticed a young woman in a spellcasters robe rush next to her with staff held in trembling hands. Anya took a position on the bar for a higher angle above the heads of her allies.
"Seriously? Again?" the monster shrieked as it gripped the shaft sticking out of its cheek. There was no acknowledgment of pain as the arrow stretched the skin and tore chunks off. It spun the arrow in its fingers a couple times before tossing it aside with an irritated huff.
The Siren straightened itself and let its lanky arms hang loose at its side in a casual stance. An obscenely long, curled tongue licked at reddened teeth. “Pitiful weaklings. Hand over the human, and I'll spare you.” The mixed voices from its mouth struck fear into some of the adventurers once-willing to fight. Two of them took a few sliding steps back.
They circled the creature in search of an opening. It backed away slightly to the wall to block any opportunities to surround it. The tips of its nails clacked together menacingly and screeched against the stone wall.
“I had to flip that coin so many fucking times to get anywhere with him,” the Siren hissed. “No wonder that bitch chose him for the contract.”
Asa's eyes widened at the declaration. There was no way she could misinterpret the monster's words. It somehow knew about the Construct Contract.
The Siren reached for its face and tore off its eye patch to reveal nothing but a gaping pit. Tendrils of white fluid crawled out of the hole and merged with disgusting sloshing sounds, like a viscous fluid swirled in a bowl. A yellow eyeball with a curled pupil formed and stared back at them.
Asa lended Alphonse her shoulder as she watched the standoff and guided him behind the bar for protection. His eyes still stared at nothing as his pupils shivered. Red caked the back of his head from his fall earlier.
“I-I failed,” he murmured. “Mind-too weak. Shouldn't have...”
“I'm so sorry,” Asa whispered. She fought back the tears. “I'm so sorry.”
“D-don't be,” Alphonse said as she propped him up against the wall. He clenched his teeth and grabbed her arm in an act of pure willpower. “J-just kill that bitch.”
She rested a hand on his cheek as he wavered. She forced herself away and stood next to Anya.
“How is he?” Anya asked again, plainly dissatisfied with the previous answer.
Asa shook her head. “Not good. We need to kill this thing. Now.”
The adventurers shifted on their feet restlessly. They needed to attack, but fear froze their legs. Kirie and Derek wouldn't be enough on their own.
Asa pointed her staff. She took a deep breath. Her timing was always spot-on. After all, Alphonse said so. Alphonse didn't just hand out compliments.
“Heh heh,” the monster cackled. “How pathetic. Look at you. He's made you his bitches. You're nothing without him."
Kirie visibly flinched.
The Siren's arm twitched.
“Protection!” Asa shouted.
The extended nails collided with the wall of light just as the arm rose. The monster's arm reeled back from the reverberating force.
Kirie and Derek charged to either side. The Siren slashed desperately with its other hand and managed to slice the male adventurer's arm. He ignored the stinging pain and swung his hammer just below the Siren's armpit. Its body whipped to the side from the collision and was about to meet the edge of Kirie's axe, but the catgirl's weapon collided with what appeared to be nothing at all before it could connect with the Siren. An arrow fired by Anya also rebounded a few feet in front of the monster and clattered to the ground.
Kirie fell back on her heels as the invisible force pushed outward. The Siren shifted on its feet and brought its claws up to strike.
“Gotcha!” it shrieked.
Asa screamed as she attempted to form another protection spell. But everything that unfolded happened in the span of a few seconds, and the Siren was far too fast for her to conjure the wall in time with such a small gap between them.
The Siren let out a wicked laugh as it brought its arm down towards Kirie's head.