Rinka analyzed the lime-green text that melded and shifted on the pages. Many of the symbols flashed and reinstated themselves to the beginning and end of phrases, reorganizing the information in a variety of confusing ways. She was accustomed to this, and she traced a finger along the most recent section, cordoned off from the rest of the language with a set of brackets.
With this text, she saw the world.
Rinka closed her Construct Contract and released the breath she'd been holding.
Well done, my dear daughters.
She'd read much in the contract depicting the events that occurred within the capital city of Forgedalk. The goings-on of the world were usually random, but the link established with Alphonse's contract allowed her to narrow the proximity. She considered telling him about it, but thought it best that the adventurer not know about her prying eyes. Such unnecessary information might change his perspective and decisions. She couldn't have that.
But she had to wonder, how was he able to ward off a Siren's influence for such a considerable length of time? And why would a monster agent in the city reveal itself so suddenly?
It has to be him, Rinka thought. She bit her lower lip as she considered it for a moment. No, this is too reckless. There's no way he's still alive.
She rose from the throne sitting atop the dais and stared up at the sun partially obscured by the rippling water. She closed her eyes and allowed the water running down the walls to soothe her with the steady, permanent sound.
The calm was short-lived. Her eyes shot open just before the slight rumbling of the double doors to the Submerged Oasis echoed around her unnaturally. They pushed inward to reveal the darkness of the dungeon beyond. An individual clad in armor emerged from the blackness. The warrior's heavy boots clacked on the smooth stone walkway. The thin visor of the helmet stared with feigned curiosity at the faceless, immaculate statues to either side.
Rinka maintained control of her demeanor as the warrior slowed and took more deliberate steps. She had sensed the presence of many individuals around the ruins of Hollow'dys One, but she never expected them to actually discover the Submerged Oasis.
Rinka moved forward and rested one foot a step down from the flat surface of the dais. She held a hand out to her side and flecks of light and swirling mana emerged from her palm. The conjuration took a specific shape and made a light burst, like a hand swiping away dust from a table. She glanced down at the elegant rapier in her hand and let it fall easily to her side, assuming an air of calm.
“No further,” she said to the individual.
The armored warrior stopped at her command.
Neither side uttered another word as they analyzed each other.
A full minute passed before the armored figure raised a hand in a placating gesture. A muffled male voice spoke, “At ease. I'm a friend.”
Rinka raised an eyebrow at the simple declaration. She examined the long sword in his hand, which was nearly as long as he was tall, stained with the blood of monsters fought in the dungeon. As he set the blade carefully on the ground, she noticed the handle was obviously worn from heavy use. The weapon might easily be mended in this regard, but it was clear the wielder chose to leave it in such a state. Etched into the base of the blade was a symbol of two birds carrying fruit in their claws.
Rinka didn't betray any emotion. A Guild Union symbol?
Her eyes bore into the man. He took an almost imperceptible step back, as if her gaze managed to pierce the armor.
“I know about Alphonse,” the man ventured. “And your daughters,” he added, after a bit of hesitation.
His reluctance was well-founded when Rinka raised the rapier a few more inches at the mention of the catgirls. However, to her surprise, he did not shy away at the threatening gesture. Instead, he stared around the oasis a bit more in admiration.
“I must say, you've kept this place tidy. I really expected more deterioration. You must've had your daughters maintain it from time to time. I guess that sort of thing teaches some discipline as well. My associate also said they conducted themselves rather well when they signed up to become adventurers.” He stopped himself when he walked to the edge of the path and observed his reflection in the water.
“Oh my, where are my manners? Not only have I intruded on your home unannounced, but I didn't even introduce myself. Sorry, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with only politicians for company has worn my propriety."
The side of Rinka's mouth twitched as the only indication of her displeasure, but the gentleman in front of her seemed lost in his own candid speech. He certainly was talkative enough.
She bent her knees a bit and almost assumed a fighting stance as the man reached up and started undoing the clasp holding his helmet in place. He pulled the helmet off to reveal the face of a middle-aged man with deep lines crawling from his temples. Gray strands stood out on the side of his head with thinning dark black hair.
“How did a man like you...” Rinka started.
The man smiled, rested a hand to his chest and made a formal bow. “Oh, I didn't make it through the dungeon on my own. I must say, I'm even more impressed with your daughters and Alphonse. To survive in such a place...it's impressive to say the least.”
Rinka narrowed her eyes. “Enough, I'd like you to get to the point. If your explanation is unsatisfactory, then I will cut you down and whoever else escorted you.”
The man eyed the rapier and didn't fail to notice the ancient, glowing symbols gyrating around the blade.
“I have no doubt,” he said. He made another bow, this one more apologetic.
“As I stated before, I am a friend. My name is Daichi Coremaul, leader of the Adventurers' Guild Union outpost in Halieuna. I believe we may be able to help each other.”
"How so?" she asked.
"By finding the true meaning of the Construct Contracts," he answered immediately.
Rinka lowered her weapon a bit. The water seeping down the walls from the ceiling stopped simultaneously with the motion. She looked up at the now placid surface on the ceiling and saw the blood-red sun pulsing in all its glory.
“Very well," she said. "Let's talk.”
...to be continued in volume two...
A preview of volume 2...
The spellcaster lifted his hand and the book appeared in his possession once more. He smiled at the book and caressed it lovingly for a moment before regarding the man who had forced him into such an unsightly display.
“You disturb the goal of True Equivalence. Who are you?” he asked.
His opponent bent over and casually pulled a dagger from a holster hidden within the cuffs of his pants. He tossed the strange glass sphere in the air and turned his palm over to catch it with the back of his hand.
“No one important,” the white-haired man said. “Just a wandering alchemist.”
The spellcaster narrowed his eyes. “I see. Not one of True Equivalence. You are outmatched.”
The alchemist shrugged. “I can slow you down until they escape. Don't underestimate alchemy.”
Evelyn was so engrossed by their words that she failed to notice that she was falling forward when the staff completely dissipated. The other woman caught her, rested her on the ground gently and went to work on the rest of the medical procedures.
The woman flinched and looked up. Evelyn turned her head slowly to follow her gaze and noticed what held her attention.
Three humanoid silhouettes emerged from one of the side roads between the buildings. The cat ears on the heads of two of them were obvious when they stepped from the shadows. One wore white healers robes with an accompanying staff that displayed the shape of a crescent moon and glowing sphere at its end. The other demihuman was covered in heavy warrior armor and wielded a large double-edged axe. Behind them stood a young man wearing dark leather armor. A scarf covered the lower half of his face.
He raised his gloved hand. On its back was the faintly glowing symbol of a double-edged axe and spellcaster's staff.
No, Evelyn thought. Evan?
Evan curled his fingers into a fist. “Alright, looks like you're up, Ash.”
A fourth figure took shape from behind them within the darkness.
A woman outfitted in thin, unremarkable leather armor stepped in front of the scout. The portions of armor were scuffed and discolored in some places, but still held a sheen of care and frequent maintenance. A brown bandanna with a circling leaf design was wrapped around her neck. A headband pushed back her hair with two furry ears that stuck straight up. Flowing back and forth behind her was a fluffy, dark brown tail with a touch of white fur at the tip.
She drew her twin scimitars and observed the plaza. Her hazel eyes held a quiet intensity that would give anyone swift pause.
“You're still recovering,” the scout said carefully. “Nothing too flashy.”
The fox woman, Ash, brandished her weapons and took an offensive stance. “No guarantees.”