"I am far from perfect. I consider myself versatile, but there are aspects where I am lacking. This is why I place the party before the individual.
Even with my careful planning and foresight, I will be backed into a corner -- just as she said. But even the flawless being I viewed her as is capable of oversight. Her only lapse in judgement was underestimating an even greater gift. When I am backed in that inevitable corner, I will have them with me." -the Lord of GRIM
Beastkin of GRIM: Volume 2
The two adventurers stared up at the grand structure that dominated the capital city's main plaza. The headquarters of the Adventurers' Guild Union blocked the sun as it lowered in the west, creating faint rays of light between the pillars that touched the ground and shorter buildings like a mass of grasping fingers. The white walls took on a dull yellow hue from the crawling patina and seemed to bring the engravings of weapons to life that lined the protruding ledge at the second floor.
The spellcaster of the duo lowered the hood of her blue healers robe and took in their surroundings. Most of the city's inhabitants were finished with their daily routines. Only a few merchant stalls stood near the road leading to the lower suburban districts, hoping to nab a few extra customers on the way home. Soldiers patrolled the streets in accordance with the High Council's wishes to remain ever vigilant of disguised monsters since the Siren Incident a couple weeks earlier. Weary workers passed by or took a relieved seat near the stately fountain at the plaza's center that murmured a steady cadence.
She glanced over her shoulder as her brother quickened his steps to fully immerse himself in the shade. The young warrior scratched at his disheveled blonde hair nervously as he stared at the guild hall. His eyes were mostly focused on the intimidating double doors. Adventurers would be occupying the many standing tables even at this hour, absorbed in their discussions or passing curious gazes over those who entered.
He lowered his hand in favor of fiddling with the curved blade of his pole arm. After a bit of silent self-deprecating, he adjusted his grip to lower the angle of the glaive in a more comfortable position to calm himself.
“Okay. We're sure about this, right?” He glanced at her when she didn't respond. “Emily?”
The spellcaster, Emily, twirled a nervous finger around a strand of her long red hair. The stairs leading to the entrance seemed to stretch ominously and grow taller the more she stared at them.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course,” she said. “We'll be taking small quests. The other guilds won't care about that.”
She realized that speaking the words aloud actually instilled the opposite effect she intended. She let out the breath she'd been holding and observed the mostly-empty plaza one last time before refocusing.
Emily rested her foot on the first step as if it were a trail of burning coals. Her brother followed close behind in a similar fashion. They soon abandoned their careful strides and skipped some of the steps with unsteady movements as their legs urged them on when they neared the top. When the doors were just within arm's reach, Emily pushed them open timidly and stared at the red carpet inside – a most prominent red carpet that seemed to hold the purpose of drawing eyes to anyone standing on it.
It was as intimidating as she imagined. The brilliant chandeliers sparkled in the dying light. Stained glass windows hugging the ceiling filtered otherworldly patterns. A pair of wide stairs at the large room's center led to an overarching balcony with hallways to either side. The blank eyes of expertly sculpted busts near the railing seemed to acknowledge their presence. The place held an aura of sanctity.
Adventurers standing at the tables turned to regard the newcomers. The doors were eager to announce their arrival as they slowly closed.
A few stares lingered, but most went back to focusing on meals or conversation.
“Try to ignore them, Liam,” Emily whispered as they made their way to the reception desk.
Her brother mustered some spare courage and gave her a stiff nod.
A blonde woman stood behind the desk with a portion of her long hair covering one side of her face. She spoke enthusiastically to her associate, a petite brunette with two thin braids dangling on either side of her head. They both wore the typical attire of guild receptionists with blue open-collared suit and black skirt.
“Seriously?” the blonde was saying. “I thought you were into him.”
The younger one rolled her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. “I never said that. You just assumed." She paused for a moment. "Wait, hold on! So that was your fault!”
The blonde looked away from her awkwardly. “Um, well...” She then noticed the brother and sister duo walking down the red carpet. “Oh, hey, adventurers! Time to get back to work.”
“You aren't getting off that easy!”
Emily approached the desk and looked between the two, unable to find the right words to break in on their conversation.
Thankfully, the energetic blonde took the reigns, “Welcome, how may we help you? I don't think I've seen you two around here before.”
“W-We're new,” Liam said. He introduced himself. Emily did so as well when she saw her brother overcome his nerves.
“Nice to see some new faces. I'm Kaede.” She then motioned to her associate.
The other woman bowed. “Cynthia. A pleasure to meet you.” To her credit, she had regained her composure in a most professional manner, even if the start wasn't as practiced.
“Do you have your adventurer documents finalized?” Kaede asked, clearly the senior of the two.
“Yes, we do,” Emily answered. “We don't have a guild though.”
She glanced at Liam, who fumbled at his waist pouch for their papers. Emily winced as the strap caught on the cuisse of his warrior armor and stubbornly latched on. He grumbled a bit to himself as he wrenched it free with a bit of effort and found the documents.
The receptionist considerately pretended to not notice the embarrassing display. She tapped at her chin thoughtfully. “Well, do you have your eyes set on one? It isn't uncommon to take on quests without a guild in the early stages, but I do recommend you apply for one eventually.”
Emily's grip tightened on her staff. She'd heard about the fierce competition between the guilds. Most of them frowned upon new guilds being established that ruined the economy of the larger ones, but joining one of them felt so daunting. Their bars were set high and expectations strict in order to receive enough Reputation for earning and maintaining a seat on the High Council in Forgedalk.
It was no mystery that the Adventurers' Guild Union, with all its organizations, also held a vast amount of power in the Central Kingdom of Tevilandis. After all, they were the main bulk of the force that dealt with the local monsters. But the Guild Union wasn't without its own pressure in politics as well. It left newcomers between a rock and a hard place concerning guild options.
However, there was a guild Emily heard about recently that broke the typical conventions established within the system.
“We will, one day,” Emily said. “But we'd like to take on some lower-tier quests first. I heard it's a good idea to recruit a scout.”
“That's definitely a sensible recommendation,” Cynthia chimed in. “They've become rather popular over the past few months.”
Kaede nodded. “They can locate important areas in dungeons, mark enemy positions and are experienced at developing strategies. Though I would be careful with who you recruit."
“We wanted a second opinion on that,” Liam said. “An archer woman told us she recently worked with a reliable one.”
“His name is Evan McCarthy,” Emily finished for him. “He belongs to a guild called GRIM.”
Kaede clapped her hands together. A sudden sparkle flashed in her eyes. “Oh, Evan! Absolutely. He comes highly recommended. We've had quite a few requests for him recently.” She lowered her hands and a nervous smile replaced her previous enthusiasm. “But, um, he is pretty difficult to get ahold of.”
“He also adheres to a strict policy,” added Cynthia.
Emily struggled to hide her disappointment. They'd been wandering around looking for someone the better part of a week. Living in the outer suburban districts for regular low-class citizens made matters difficult with the new monster screening policy, thanks to the Siren Incident. The city officials had taken security a step further and set up checkpoints for each district instead of settling for the ward detection placed on the outer walls. Traveling to the library and meeting adventurers became a painstaking task for people in her position.
She'd put in her research: studying the maps of the land outside the capital, poring over books on different monsters, consulting other adventurers. She wanted to be ready when they requested someone. They were newbies, but she didn't want to be a total hindrance.
Their main concern was finding someone to assist them. The second was whether anyone would even bother with a young brother and sister duo from the lower district.
Their bad luck took a fortunate turn when a friendly archer overheard their conversation at a tavern and said she knew a scout who didn't care about such things.
Emily sighed. I knew it was too good to be true.
She assumed they would need to search for someone else if the scout received so many requests. She considered putting up an application for a scout on the quest board, even if they did risk finding one that was greedy or a bit inept. It was mainly for the experience anyway – to understand what it truly meant to be an adventurer.
Kaede's voice vied for her attention, “Would you like us to leave a missive for him?”
Emily looked at her, surprised by the possibility. “He does that?”
“Sure, but he doesn't wait around. He's always taking on quests. That's why he's so hard to track down. He asked that all his jobs be left confidential.”
Wow. This guy doesn't play around, Emily thought. She found herself admiring this mysterious adventurer, someone so thorough and with the smallest details considered.
“What are his terms?” Liam asked.
Cynthia reached under the desk and produced a pile of documents. She separated one and ran her finger down the side as she searched for the more relevant details.
She turned the parchment towards them and pointed to a section.
Emily was about to start reading the document when she noticed strange markings outside some of the indented paragraphs. One was a seemingly random circle with dots and a curved mark. She soon realized it was a poor rendition of a face – one with a silly, happy smile. One of the eyes was winking. Small letters were written in a speech bubble leading to the mouth, 'Better follow the rules, or Evan will get super mad.'
“Um, what are these drawings?” Liam asked. He frowned at them as if trying to decipher some hidden meaning.
Kaede laughed. “Oh, don't worry about that. It's nothing.”
Emily found the drawings to be rather unprofessional, completely out of character compared to the man they were just discussing.
She forged on and read the esteemed scout's conditions:
'GRIM's terms for guild/adventurer cooperation and other temporary employment. Terms are non-negotiable (all subject to change without notice):
- Parties planning to employ any members of GRIM will receive all individuals of the guild. GRIM works as a set package deal. One member requested means all members requested.
- GRIM does not currently accept dungeon quests.
-During quests, the leader of GRIM, Evan McCarthy, assumes authority of the expedition. All actions, suggestions and payments are subject to his approval. Evan McCarthy has final say on all votes for proceeding with the desired quest(s).
-Loot is split equally at the conclusion of the quest(s). Distribution is up to Evan McCarthy's sole discretion, and unequal payment will be distributed if assisting party's involvement with said quest(s) is deemed unsatisfactory. Basically, pull your weight or don't get paid.
-Any attempts at swindling, backstabbing or other forms of foul play are punishable according to the severity of the crime...'
More information followed this, but it was mostly concerning a few additions to Tevilandis laws and Guild Union rules.
Emily stared up at the receptionists upon reading the terms. “Um, can he actually do that?”
Kaede made an exaggerated shrug. “Well, it is his contract. So technically, yes. But I wouldn't worry about it, unless you plan on cheating him in some way.”
“W-we don't,” Liam stuttered. He raised a hand next to his mouth and leaned towards Emily. “Does this guy seem a little, I dunno, not right in the head?”
She scanned the document further and reread the previous terms without answering him. She moved on to the final statements to try and piece together what type of person they might be dealing with. Most of them seemed reasonable enough, but at the same time, the wording seemed off. Others just appeared outright harsh. It was as if multiple people made additions and separate rules without consulting the original writer.
“But it's like we're handing full power to this guy,” Liam said. “Why would anyone risk hiring him?”
Emily shook her head as some specific words sunk in. “I think that's the point. This is very deliberate.”
Especially with the terms of authority, she noted. And yet, people still request him?
Emily looked up and noticed Kaede's cheeks puff up a little as she attempted to suppress a fit of laughter. She didn't know what to make of it until she looked at the other woman.
Cynthia held a hand over her mouth and pointed behind them. “Speak of the devil.”
Emily and Liam whirled about just as the double doors made their resounding announcement.
A trio of adventurers entered the guild hall. Two young women took the lead with a heavily-concealed individual in black attire trailing behind them.
Emily immediately noticed the two individuals in the front who wore steel headbands with curved pyramidal parts. The accessories were pulled back a bit to partially reveal what looked like cat ears.
Demihumans? She knew about the tensions between humans and demihumans. Most everyone in Tevilandis did. It was as if the headbands were meant to fully conceal them, but the wearers chose to don them for a different purpose.
Emily's lips parted in plain astonishment when their faces registered. She recognized them. They were the ones she saw at the tavern – the ones at the very center of the Siren Incident.
They defeated the Siren! Emily stood rigid and attempted to regain her bearings. So...they're GRIM?
The first woman's heavy boots thumped on the carpet, drawing attention to her first. She wore a heavy set of copper-toned warrior armor with a large chestplate and battle skirt that reached over black stockings. A massive double-edged axe was propped casually on one shoulder, with wave designs the color of blood trailing down the edges. Her brunette hair flowed to the middle of her back and blended with a cape of similar hue. There was a dominating presence about her with the aggressive-looking gear and half-grin on her face.
The young woman next to her wore a solemn expression and mostly stared at the floor, as if in some deep contemplation. Her white healers robe with blue trimming seemed to match the passive, indifferent aura emanating from her. The lowered hood revealed her elegant, milky-white complexion and long crimson hair that fell to her waist. A deceptively simple staff was held in both hands with an elaborate crescent moon at its end. Emily didn't even need to run an appraisal spell to know that this person of the same trade held a substantial amount of mana to form such a shape.
As they drew closer, Emily could tell that the one garbed entirely in black was a man of similar age to his companions, somewhere around his mid-twenties. A shawl hung over his leather armor and portions of sectioned chainmail. He lowered his hood to reveal hard eyes partially obscured by disheveled brown hair. A scarf covered the lower half of his face with a symbol of two weapons crossed in white stitching. A bow was slung over his shoulder and a shortsword strapped to his hip. The leather armor held a number of daggers strapped in with buttoned clasps. Emily wouldn't have been surprised if more were concealed in other places on his person.
The two female adventurers stopped and turned to regard the man in dark attire. It was then that Emily noticed what was really interesting about him.
What was most striking wasn't necessarily his appearance, but that his light boots didn't even seem to make a whisper as they left the red carpet and met the marble floor. His steps were careful and controlled, as if they barely touched the ground.
The adventurer rested a hand on his hip and waved one of his companions off dismissively. The warrior rolled her eyes at his response and playfully punched him in the shoulder. It was as if their intimidating presence took a complete shift in tone. The red-head narrowed her eyes at the man and he slumped forward in a fit of plain frustration.
Emily managed to pick out some strings of their conversation.
“Okay, next time, let's try using Evan as bait,” the warrior said. She gestured to her weapon and armor. “He isn't lugging around all this gear.”
The healer shook her head. “He can't use his critical strikes if they see him.”
“But he used the poison gas. Doesn't that damage negate it for a while?”
“It depends on the range,” the spellcaster explained. “We went over this. It's better if he stays on the periphery and deals with the fodder.”
The outspoken warrior opened her mouth to try and form a rebuttal, but was plainly unsuccessful. She glared at them and crossed her arms.
“Another tactical victory for Evan,” the dark-garbed man said as he took the lead. He was barely audible as the scarf muffled his voice. He dramatically placed a contemplative hand on his chin as if he fell deep in thought. “You see, this is why I'm the leader.”
Emily stiffened as the conversation cut off, and his eyes suddenly met hers. She wanted to turn away, but found herself drawn to his gaze. It was as if he wasn't simply looking at her, but more along the lines of analyzing.
He's Evan McCarthy? Emily thought. The one who was attacked by the Siren? But I thought-
Emily was grateful for Kaede's interruption. “Evan! How was the goblin hunting?” She leaned forward on the reception desk and gave them a friendly wave.
Evan folded his arms over his chest and the two companions stepped to either side of him as they approached the desk. The catgirl spellcaster answered for them, “No difficulties. Though your people really need to verify information with the villagers.”
Cynthia laughed nervously off to the side. “Oh boy, how many?”
“How does two dozen goblins and a troll sound?” the warrior said with a smirk.
Kaede pulled out her copy of the quest and accepted the edited version Evan handed to her for comparison. She muttered something under her breath. “Sonuvabitch. What the hell is going on lately?" She shook her head in irritation. "Yeah, no mention of trolls here. And that's a lot more goblins. Looks like you have a matching signature of proof from the outpost leader as well. Not that I had any doubts, mind you. Don't worry, we'll compensate you for the error.”
“Ah, um,” Emily ventured to say something but found the words catching in her throat as Evan looked at her again. He stood there waiting awkwardly as she fumbled with her staff.
“Um, yes?” he asked with about as much grace.
Emily felt the air catch in her throat, surprised at his casual response. She'd almost expected his words to sound more stiff and formal. Deeper and intimidating. The black outfit and part of his face being hidden made him look like some dark specter of death. But he sounded rather normal.
She watched as his eyes scanned over the reception desk and noticed the rolled open parchment. He then looked back to Emily and Liam. He said nothing, as if respectfully waiting for her to speak.
“Crap! Sorry about that!” the warrior catgirl jumped in between them. “Did we cut in front of you? We got so caught up.”
“No! Not at all!” Emily waved her hands in front of her. She looked over to her brother, but he stood off to the side just about as awkward, if not more. A mass of crimson blossomed on his face as he stared with his mouth partially hanging open, entranced by the two attractive demihumans.
Oh god, of course... Emily thought.
Kaede intervened to save the day again,“They were wondering if you might help them with a quest.” She gave Emily an encouraging wink.
“Ah, I see.” Evan turned to her with that calculated gaze. His scarf folded up as he grinned underneath it. “How did you find out about me?”
“Um, from an archer. Her name was Anya, I believe.”
He stared at her for a full three seconds before answering, “Yeah, she's a talker. Well, guess I'll have to thank her later. I assume you've read my terms.”
The two younger adventurers nodded in unison. Liam managed to tear his eyes away from the catgirls.
Evan was about to press further when the warrior catgirl stepped in front of him and leaned towards them. She furrowed her brow a bit as she considered something and hummed thoughtfully.
“Hold on,” she said. “You seem kind of familiar.”
The healer catgirl nodded an affirmation. “I believe we have met before. I apologize if we fail to recall where exactly.”
Emily looked between the two catgirls. Her mouth clamped tight as she struggled to form an answer. She didn't want to mention the Siren Incident as her bargaining chip. It would have made her feel sleazy for using such a thing to guilt them into helping on the quest. But since they asked...
Before she could answer, the warrior punched a fist into her palm. “Wait! You were at the tavern! You're that spellcaster!”
A flash of familiarity crossed the red-haired catgirl's face. “That's right. You cast the protection spell that prevented the Siren from escaping.”
Emily hunched her shoulders a bit in a submissive reaction from the attention. “Ah, yes. That was me. I just sort of reacted. It was nothing.”
She felt her words made it sound as unremarkable as it was. She'd simply reacted at the time as the monster attempted to climb up the walls of the enclosed area outside the tavern. She remembered Evan lying on the ground in an otherworldly daze after having his mind assaulted by the Siren. The swift action taken by the catgirls to protect their friend fueled her admiration for them. She had wondered how special it was to be part of a group that cared so much for each other. To her, they were an inspiration.
They were whisked away by the authorities before given the chance to exchange any words. At the time, Emily didn't know who they were. And she certainly didn't know they were the members of GRIM.
The three adventurers shared an unreadable look. The two catgirls looked to Evan expectantly as he folded his arms. After a short while, they all seemed to reach a silent consent.
“Looks like GRIM has a debt to repay,” Evan said.
The catgirls nodded their approval. The warrior gave Emily a thumbs up, while the spellcaster inclined her head slightly to show her gratitude.
"Thank you for helping us," the healer said.
The warrior gave her a broad grin. "You must be pretty tough to step up against a Siren."
Emily fumbled with her words as they continued showering her with praise. She realized just in time that she was gesturing with her hands randomly and barely managed to keep her staff from falling over.
“So, what's the job?” Evan asked, plainly noticing her discomfort.
Emily nearly forgot to hold on to her staff again. Wait, really? Just like that?
She felt the heat rising in her face. Surely he could see it. But if he did, he was doing a fine job of hiding it. Emily thought her cheeks couldn't turn any more red when she realized that they'd forgotten to do something crucial before requesting his services. They'd gone through so much preparation but omit the most important part.
They hadn't even picked a quest yet.
Evan seemed to catch on to her silence but made no comment on it. He tilted his head to the quest board. “Let's have a look.”
The two demihumans jumped next to her as she followed him. They went through the typical introductions. They were sisters: Kirie and Asa. They were the lieutenants of GRIM, and practically polar opposites. One solemn and soft-spoken, the other exuberant and voluble. But both of them were pleasantly conversational.
Emily and Liam found themselves pulled in by their kind-hearted nature.
Asa took a particular interest in her since they were both healers. Liam stood rigid next to Kirie as she commented on the glaive he held tight in both hands and assaulted him with questions about combat style and monsters he fought. She slapped him a couple times on the back in a friendly manner when he didn't provide enough details.
Liam only had a few slain goblins on his record when he traveled with his father outside the city. Emily had been in the wagon casting healing spells. She couldn't even remember how much she actually helped since she'd been so terrified at the time. But the two catgirls didn't seem concerned by their lack of experience in the least.
All the while their leader strode up and down along the wall perusing the board for a suitable quest.
Emily felt bad that he was already starting to do the work for them, so she went to stand next to him with Asa.
“Perfect,” he said as they approached. He tapped a few quests on the board but settled his finger on one in particular. “How does deirgu hunting sound?”
Asa nodded. “Should be easy enough.”
Emily had researched the strange rodent-like creatures at the library. They had a bit of intelligence, but their single-mindedness in combat made them manageable. According to the quest, a group of them had recently moved in on the outer plains to the north. There was no threat to the villages at the moment, but it might turn into a problem if left unchecked.
This is perfect, Emily thought.
They could do something to help people while learning about the life of adventuring. They even had a competent scout. Not only that, a warrior and another healer. She figured nothing could go wrong with so much guidance.
The location was about a half-day's journey by wagon. It would be the furthest they'd ever been from the capital.
Emily tightened the grip on her staff and swallowed hard. “Let's do it.”
I can do this. I'm going to be an adventurer!