Alphonse sat on a bench in the fitting room of the armorer's shop. He only wore his undergarments and white cotton shirt to ward off the slight chill in the air. He stared at the scars on his arm, one of them self-inflicted when he first invoked the Construct Contract back at the Submerged Oasis.
On his hand, between thumb and pointer finger, was another depressed mark from when he drew his own blood a second time. He didn't have a knife at the time, so he resorted to using his teeth. It was recent -- the third invocation he'd made with the contract – just a few days following the Siren attack.
Sorry, Rinka. He picked up a hand mirror and examined his tired features. It only made him feel worse. A faint bit of dark color sat under his eyes and his hair was more disheveled than usual.
Laid out on a low table were his gear, weapons, packs and everything else necessary for an adventurer. Some of it was new, and some he refused to part with even if he could afford to replace them.
Alphonse grit his teeth as he pulled on one of the leather gloves and thought back on that evening. If he hadn't lost his composure, the Siren would've never slipped through his mind's defenses. Not only that, Asa blamed herself for the whole ordeal. He resolved to make it clear that it was his choice to accept Anya's invitation to meet at the tavern -- not hers. There was always a choice.
But they'd been lucky – too lucky by his reasoning. Kirie and Asa had managed to kill the Siren with the help of the other adventurers. He was alive because of them.
During the aftermath, the city guard had arrived, along with a number of other individuals in attire labeling them as something akin to Forgedalk's police force. In this world they were known as Field Agents and Masters.
They had tended to him right there as a precaution, in case moving him might have any adverse side effects. None of the first responders to the incident had any real experience dealing with mental probing from Sirens. None of them had even seen a Siren since their numbers dwindled after the war when the western border was pushed back during Tevilandis's infancy.
The guards and officials then took them to a facility at an undisclosed location and conducted the screening magic to determine if they had any abnormalities with their condition. A Field Master named Jin Hanlon had given Alphonse's adventurer papers a once-over. He didn't seem to care whether he was an outworlder or a native. Jin's expression suggested that he pitied him rather than suspected anything strange, but he still needed to explore every possibility.
They let Alphonse rest for a few days before going into the deep questioning, and everyone except Asa and Kirie (who made themselves as scarce as possible) were interviewed. Those involved were forced to remove articles of clothing that might conceal anything on their person or engraved on the skin meant to interfere with appraisal magic.
When it was their turn, Alphonse let his companions lead through the appraisal and lie detection magic. Kirie went first. Asa second. They didn't come back to the small room where they were told to wait. It made sense to Alphonse as he sat there contemplating. It would be difficult and tendentious if the witnesses started discussing the inspection process amongst themselves. They respectfully left him alone in the room since they considered him a victim, but two guards were posted at each door outside as part of typical procedure.
Luckily, the days spent bedridden had given him ample time to come up with a plan. But the bad news dawned on him during the last day when he failed to come up with anything that didn't involve using the Construct Contract.
He had wrapped the scarf around his wrist as they questioned the catgirls. Rinka's sacrifice was their blessing. All the parts of his attire hid specific portions of their information from appraisal magic. The runes engraved on the components indicated what was hidden. This one piece, the scarf, hid their stats from the appraisal magic since they were a party. The catgirls were natives to Hovestile, and it would've been strange if the appraisal found them with a few stats.
Alphonse figured Rinka must have anticipated a similar scenario to the one they found themselves in. As long as he wore the scarf on his wrist, nobody would suspect that the catgirls actually had stats. The rune translation also didn't reveal that it affected his entire party as a whole.
But he wouldn't have the scarf available when his turn arrived. The spellcaster, who called herself Evelyn, would surely notice the abnormality. This would lead to other lines of questioning that didn't pertain to the Siren incident. That was the crux of the problem. He would be completely exposed.
He considered a possibility along the lines of illusion magic, but without being necessarily magical in nature. A skilled spellcaster would detect it otherwise. He stumbled on another idea when he recalled his mental state after being attacked by the Siren: how did the contract perceive the state and value of memories? What about time associated with memories?
Spurred by lack of said time and desperation, he had made his third deal with the Construct Contract.
It was at the cost of some of his memories in regards to that evening, and others lost unintentionally, that allowed him to create an illusion in his stat menu. All of his stats, even those that were given to Kirie and Asa consisting of strength, constitution, focus and intelligence appeared when the female spellcaster performed the appraisal.
Memories held images of truth and fiction. There was even such a thing as suggestive memory. Alphonse theorized that the imperfections might be viewed as an illusion. He assumed even photographic or eidetic memories were included.
He was no expert on the topic, obviously. It came down to innumerable theories he didn't have time to consider. It was a hasty gamble.
Alphonse remembered wringing his hands and attempting to suppress his nerves, wondering if somehow she would be able to sense the power of the Construct Contract at work. He thanked whatever gods existed that she didn't. She had confirmed with Field Master Jin Hanlon that all of his profile was in order.
In the end, he'd made it through the questioning with no suspicion towards him, but at great cost.
The illusion of his stats lasted until evening the next day. He couldn't fathom it. The deal was different compared to sacrificing his mana pool and stats.
Alphonse was convinced after this one-sided deal that the Construct Contract truly wasn't equivalent at all. It was a patient parasite in the long-term. He wanted to offer it his memories of that night during the Siren attack, but it had taken more without his intention.
He theorized that it greedily accepted memories that he randomly strayed towards. The mind was an unpredictable thing when it came to memories. They sometimes functioned like dreams and nightmares. It was impossible to determine what the mind decided to pull from its endless, disorganized files. When focusing on certain memories, it is inevitable that others will interfere, even if it is for less than a nanosecond, or any small amount of time immeasurable by human standards.
Most of the notable memories he unintentionally gave up concerned Earth. He could tell based on the random blank spaces as he attempted to recall what should have been prominent. In regards to other, longer strings of events stored away, he couldn't be sure what was missing.
But the time when his adoptive father found him in the city...parts of it were now gone.
He viciously scolded himself as he sat back down on the bench in the armorer's shop.
Enough of this, Alphonse thought. I can't even tell how much I lost. I'll never do it again.
He flexed his fingers as he pulled the last glove on and tightened the strap around his wrist.
He needed to make some changes. He wouldn't allow Asa to torture herself over what happened. Kirie wouldn't be left out of it either. He needed to know where she stood in the whole scheme of things.
Alphonse knew that he and his comrades worked well together when it involved combat. He trusted them to uphold their weight and have his back, but outside of battle was a whole different story. Beneath the light banter and good nature, there was still some uneasiness. They tip-toed around the serious discussions concerning the specifics of their future.
Rinka had told him about their likely desire for revenge. They wanted a person dead that destroyed their village. Denying his own yearning for revenge would've made him a hypocrite. He wanted that damned archer dead almost as much as he'd wanted a home.
Alphonse tightened the buckles of his leather armor in a fit of frustration and tied the straps around his waist. He grabbed the new pair of low padded boots and put each one on slowly as he tested the fittings. He planted his foot on the stone floor a few times. The boots answered with barely a whisper.
I owe them my life anyway, he thought.
He settled the shawl over his shoulders. He wrapped the scarf and widened the wool hood. The sectioned chainmail made no sound as he jumped up and down a few times. The wool garments actually aided in muffling them a bit, an unintentional side-effect that was most welcome.
He inserted the daggers into the many holsters on his leather armor and snapped the holding straps in place. Another dagger went into one of his boots. His father said something to him about this once, “You can never have too many knives. Well, unless it impedes your movement. Or if they make too much noise. Or if they are too heavy for you to swim...you get my point.”
Alphonse chuckled to himself at the memory. At least he hadn't lost that one to the contract.
He locked the sheath for his shortsword to his waist. He settled the weapon in its home after examining the blade. It needed a bit of work. He'd borrow the blacksmith's whetstone when he stopped by.
Alphonse hesitated as he lifted the scarf over his mouth. His fingers brushed the slight change in friction of the sewn symbol on the front. He removed the scarf and laid it out on one of the benches to stare at the white emblem of double-edged axe and staff.
“'It is the symbol of your unity,'” Rinka had said.
He put the scarf back on.
Unity...right... His resolve manifested once again, but the bit of disquiet still lingered.
Alphonse stood in front of the quest board at the Adventurers' Guild Union. A week had passed since the Siren attack, but he needed some work.
He didn't want to deal with the inevitable follow-up questions from that field master either, and figured it was best to get out of the city as soon as possible.
The capital was also going through an increase of monster screenings at the gates. The security was already top-notch with all the wards placed atop the walls encircling the city and the security checkpoints along the roads, but it was a display of force for any other monsters that might still lurk within the city.
Alphonse reasoned they might even include further measures that compromised his unique abilities. Soldiers and spellcasters wandered in groups through the streets, taking anyone aside that seemed suspicious.
He shifted his attention back to the board. One of the jobs involved checking a nearby cave to locate monster areas for newbies. He'd had enough of caves, so he immediately scratched that one off the list.
Another requested a scout to map an area on the eastern edge of the rough landscape near Halieuna. It seemed promising enough. Most of the sections were fairly open and skirted high ground. There were reports of trolls and goblins settling around the area. He wouldn't be surprised if some monsters from the west managed to slip through. The army had more pressing concerns with the three forts that fell. However, there were plenty of soldiers patrolling a short ways north at one of the breaks in the Barrier Mountains.
The job paid rather well.
He pulled the quest off the board and approached the reception desk. Kaede was there. Her usual enthusiastic demeanor was absent today. She rested her head in her arms at the desk and muttered something inaudible. Cynthia was next to her, patting her on the back meekly.
Kaede stared over her folded arms. She analyzed Alphonse up and down with a pitiable look.
I am the victim of a Siren attack, after all, he thought.
“How are you, Evan?” she asked. She handed the job request to Cynthia while still maintaining direct eye contact with him. He appreciated the sentiment. Most people just averted their gazes.
“Doing alright. You?”
“Just a little shaken up is all,” she answered with a humorless chuckle. She paused, as if realizing how poor a job she did of diffusing the tension. “I'm not sure how you could be alright,” she continued. “Should you really be taking on a quest so soon?”
Kaede did her best to force a smile through her weariness. “No, you're not. If I'm not fine, then you sure aren't. That damn thing went into your head, didn't it?”
Alphonse glanced at the tables full of adventurers. Nobody looked in their direction. He still expected more word to get around about it, but apparently his appearance still stayed clear of the budding rumors.
“Then why are you working?” he countered.
“I stand at a friggin desk all day. My battles involve settling pointless arguments, signing papers and dealing with inappropriate comments. You fight monsters. You need to be at your best.”
“I'll sleep in the wagon,” he said.
Kaede planted her hands on the desk. She took a deep breath and locked eyes with him. He stood there unwavering.
Cynthia glanced between them with the quest document clutched to her chest. She was about to add her own opinion, but Kaede held a finger towards her and shook her head. The young receptionist clamped her mouth shut and gave Alphonse an apologetic look.
“My job also involves ensuring the well-being of adventurers to the best of my ability,” Kaede said. “You are in no condition to do a quest. Where are Kirie and Asa?”
Alphonse was taken aback by her sudden outburst. If he had his usual energy and wits, he might've shown a bit of surprise. It was as if even the muscles of his face were too tired to form anything.
Kaede sighed and folded her arms in a more relaxed stance. She waited a moment for an answer before speaking in a softer tone, “You remind me of my brother. Both smart and dependable, but damn you're numskulls when it comes down to it.”
You don't really know me, Alphonse thought. The scarf hid his mouth as it tightened.
“Yeah, I get it. We might as well be total strangers.” Kaede shrugged, as if reading his thoughts. “But your friends never shut up about you.” She shifted her voice to a more lighthearted, silly tone as she recited a string of conversation she'd heard from the catgirls, “'We saved a family because Evan set up this ambush. Evan did this. Evan did that. Evan came up with this awesome plan and we wiped out all those trolls. Evan planted this cool death trap for a group of goblins. We didn't need to do anything because Evan managed this. Blah blah blah.'” Kaede laughed. “Seriously, sounds like they think the world of you.”
He lowered his gaze and stared at the floor. He rested an arm on the desk. They said all that?
All they did since the Siren attack was apologize profusely. Especially Asa. After a while, she started avoiding him out of pure guilt. He wanted to shout at Asa and tell her to stop blaming herself for something out of her control. He found it ridiculous. Nobody could even consider the possibility of a monster in the city at the time.
They saved him.
He assumed the same pose as Kaede and planted his hands on the desk. He looked up at the ceiling and let out an exasperated chuckle. “Friggin stupid.”
They hadn't known each other long, and yet, Kaede still read him like a book. Maybe it was the danger of being too much like someone she was close to.
But isn't everything we've been through enough?
He thought back on when the catgirls complained about wanting a bed after one day on the road. Sleeping with weapons held close and arguing about him through light, restless dreams. They always tried to find every little thing to prod at his nerves. And they were so damned rebellious with what little recreation they had.
Asa acted all smart, collected and professedly wise. Kirie saw herself as the superior warrior, acted first with violence and resorted to impulsive speech.
Alphonse rested a hand over his mouth in a poor attempt to stifle his laughter. “Haha-Hahahahahahaha!”
The two receptionists glanced at each other with plain surprise at his sudden mirth.
Alphonse slapped his hand on the desk. “Alright. Fine. You win. If they come along, will you give me the quest?”
Cynthia stared at him for a moment, then at Kaede. She nodded with a full smile on her face. Cynthia mirrored it and handed the document to Alphonse. He signed his copy and theirs for the record-keeping.
He rolled the parchment and placed it in the waist pack on his hip. “I'll be back, with my companions.”