Water, earth, fire, fire, air, earth, fire, air.
Earth, air, fire, air, fire, water, earth.
Water, fire, air, water.
I glanced down at the final combination of symbols; it was not a common sight to see water paired with fire, since the two were supposed to be diametrically opposed in their real elemental forms. But this was simply a representation— the symbols were named as such because they roughly resembled the elements, however they were not the direct equivalence of said elements.
The theory behind these symbols was a result of complex observations, with its origins stemming from the Great Hero Xander himself. There were basic fundamental rules to creating working runes to draw the power out of a mana crystal— such as how increasingly complex polygons made out of the fire symbol would generally increase the energy drawn from the mana crystal— yet it was entirely possible to create a brand new, working rune out of a random shape with an arbitrary arrangement of the symbols.
So far, I had been making simple shapes: ones that had been studied thoroughly and was good for training, but had little practical use for real mana tools. It was like learning calculus as a mathematics major hoping to pursue a Doctorate in Mathematics in the future— I had a long way to go before I could create the kinds of tools my Dwarven companion did.
I was diligent, but I was not a genius.
I picked the piece of paper up, and inspected it carefully; there were no mistakes that I could see, which instilled in me a sense of accomplishment. I proudly laid the sheet back down onto the table, admiring my work for just a moment longer.
Then the door to the room swung open, and I craned my neck away from the paper lain on the desk to see Gennady enter the room. The rotund man strutted in, his heavy footfalls thumping on the hard wooden floor as he lifted his hood.
“Welcome back,” I greeted him, standing up and stretching my back after being seated for over an hour.
“Ya are one studious kid, you know that right?” he commented as he peered over my shoulder. “Good job. You got everything right this time.”
I was just about to grin in response when the Dwarf smacked me across the back. Ouch, still not used to that. I rubbed the spot and the light sting quickly went away. Then I finally asked the question that had been in my mind.
“So,” I started, “how did it go?”
“Other than the fact that I had to keep even lower than I usually am? Pretty damned good if I had to say so myself.”
He placed both hands on his bed, and hefted himself up onto it; he pulled out a small metallic flask and drank from it.
“I managed to speak to a few guys, and they said they could arrange a meeting between us and these two smugglers. They’re one of the best in the city.”
I lifted an eyebrow, and tilted my head to the side. “Are they trustworthy though?” I asked. “That’s more important than how good they are at their job. They could be amazing, but if they betray us, it doesn’t matter.”
The Dwarf furrowed his brows, and sighed. “Lass, has anyone ever told you that you are sometimes very paranoid?”
“What’s wrong with erring on the side of caution?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head and stood up. “I hear that they’ve never failed a job. But the thing is, they’re used to smuggling goods out and into the city, not people. There isn’t much illegal slave trafficking coming out of Luke by sea, and people who try to flee the country generally do so through land by the southern border.” He took another swig of his alcohol.
“Good,” I said, nodding curtly. “I prefer it that way. I’d rather not deal with slavers or people who aid slavers. It just doesn’t sit well with me.”
“Because it’s illegal?”
“Because it’s evil,” I corrected the Dwarf, before changing topics. “So, where will we be meeting these smugglers?”
“They have a hideout in a tavern near the docks. That’s on the northern side of the harbor, so we won’t have to worry about running into too much trouble, I hope.”
Right, trouble, I thought, remembering the reason why Gennady had to wear that cloak over his head, and I was staying in the inn by myself: there were very angry sailors on the lookout for us— as confirmed by Gennady— after the incident at the main pier area a few days ago. And it did not help that we tricked the guards to buy us some time so we could escape.
Were we wanted by the guards for tricking them? Probably not. However, picking a fight with dozens of sailors was probably against some law in Laxis, which meant that the city guards were keeping at least one eye out for us; we were not criminals, but there was most definitely a hefty fine we had to pay for partaking in a brawl.
Gennady wanted to avoid paying it if we could, and I did not disagree with that sentiment. So due to both those reasons, we were keeping on the down low while searching for a way out of this city.
I walked over to the closet, and pulled out my ‘Aria’ disguise. “Well then, let’s get going,” I said to the Dwarf.
He frowned, scratching his scruffy beard. “Right now?” he asked. “I arranged a meeting for tonight.”
“We want to scout out the place first, of course,” I replied casually, taking off my pointed hat. “Plus, I’m sick and tired of being locked up in this room. Maybe I can look around for anything I might want to buy in the market. You’ve bought your Superior mana crystals, well I want something of my own too.”
“Aight, if that’s what you want.” Gennady gave a noncommittal shrug.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” I said, gesturing at the door. “Could you please get out?” I held my change of clothes up, indicating I needed some privacy.
“Right.” He hurriedly left the room.
I carefully inspected the array of mana crystals before me, reaching for one that was about the size of my hand and held it up against the lamplight. The blue-green gemstone glimmered, reflecting the shine into my eyes; it was bright.
I had read in A Tinkerer’s Guide— one of the books Gennady had loaned me— that mana crystals of higher quality had highly reflective surfaces whereas lower quality mana crystals did not. This was due to the difference in the mana density inside each crystal, with an increase in mana leading to a more opaque body that allows less light to pass through. And yet, it was easy to mistake the light refracting through a translucent mana crystal as light being reflected on its surface, which often caused many without a discerning enough eye to be scammed out of their silver or gold.
I squinted, making a hole with my fingers and looking through it as though it would help me see better; it did, but by a small margin. I was almost certain that this mana crystal was worth its price— it was a Lesser mana crystal of ostensibly high quality costing 6 gold coins: that seemed like a steal to me.
“Hey Gennady,” I called out to my Dwarven companion. “Is this one any good?”
“That?” He frowned, and took the mana crystal out of my hand; he scrutinized it for a moment, then waved his hand dismissively. “Bah, it’s only a Lesser, and it’s barely above average. Maybe for its price it’s good, but otherwise I wouldn’t buy it.”
I nodded. “Thanks,” I said, and turned to the store owner. “I’ll take it.”
The woman smiled eagerly, rubbing her hands together as I completed the transaction; I managed to haggle the price down to 5 gold and 10 silver— it was only a two silver discount, but that was worth over a dozen meals, or a few nights in most regular inns.
I returned to Gennady as he crossed his thick arms over his broad chest; I inclined my head to the side. “What?” I asked.
“I told you not to buy it— it wasn’t even a good,” he said.
“Are you saying it’s not good because it’s not a Superior mana crystal, or are you saying it’s not good because I was scammed out of my money?”
“Well, uh, it’s…” the Dwarf stammered, scratching the side of his beard. “I was more leaning towards the former,” he finally said.
“Exactly.” I smiled, and placed a hand on his right shoulder. “I got it because it was what I was looking for, and you told me it’s good for its price. I was taking your advice, don’t worry.”
“But if you’re planning on getting a mana crystal to practice with, you should at least start with Inferiors, not Lessers,” he objected.
“I’m not planning on using this just yet,” I said, placing the blue-green gemstone into a small pouch, and tying it closed. I attached it to my leather belt, and strolled past Gennady. “It’s not for practice now. It’s for when we’re at sea and I’ve already mastered working on Inferiors. I’m planning ahead.” I gestured for him. “Come on,” I said, “let’s get going. We don’t want to be late.”
We left the shop and headed towards the docks; we passed by ships that were not currently being used— many of them looked as though they had been left in disrepair for months— while others seemed as though they were having improvements added onto them. It was mostly empty of life however, since it was evening, and the little noise we heard came from the nearby bars, taverns, or inns which were beginning to teem with life at the end of twilight.
I followed Gennady as we made our way through the cobble street, finally stopping a block away from our destination. “There it is,” he said. “The Merlion’s Alcove.”
I glanced at the small, wooden building; it was a much more subdued tavern than the ones we had seen on the way here, yet there were clearly suspicious people making their way for this spot. With a name like that and with people as shady as this, you really can’t be more obvious that this is a cover!
“Let’s take a look around,” I said.
We spent the next hour loitering around the area; the brilliant vermillion sunset was covered over by the thick, dark clouds before it had fully disappeared beyond the horizon, and a light pattering of rain began to fall upon us.
The drizzle slowly got heavier and heavier, and when it looked as though it would turn into a full-blown storm; Gennady and I had seen nothing indicating that we would run into any trouble in the tavern, so we decided to finally enter the tavern.
The double doors swung open with a hard push, as the bottom of the wood frame scratched across the floor. The tavern, which didn’t seem lively from the outside, actually had some minor activity on the inside; the thick walls must have prevented noise from leaking out, which led to my earlier assumption.
Regardless, it was almost evidently a facade: the bards playing in the corner evoked too large of a reaction from the early night crowd, and the boisterous laughter of sober men as they chatted only made the scene all-the-more jarring. I made sure to keep my hood up as a few faces inconspicuously eyed Gennady and I from their seats.
The Dwarf waded his way straight to the bar, plopping himself on one of their stools as his hood fell off his head. I wanted to throw it right back on, but it was already too late; the barkeep looked over him once over and nodded.
“What do you want?”
Gennady grinned in response, gesturing past the barkeep. “I want your best whiskey in the house— no, the cellar. And add in a nice strawberry on top. With one of those little pink umbrellas. Make sure to mix it with a good dose of nylos, I want it as bitter as possible.”
The barkeep raised an eyebrow, and slowly said, “That’s… a long way to order our special drink. But I do believe that’s not a problem.” He lifted the small wooden barrier separating us from the bar counter, and ushered us towards a door. “You can find someone able to set you up with your drink inside,” he said.
Gennady stepped in first, almost too nonchalantly, as I kept two paces behind him. Isn’t he worried at all? I thought, narrowing my eyes.
We entered a dimly lit hallway, leading to a kitchen with cooks busy preparing more meals than they should have; a roughly dressed man stopped us in the middle of the corridor, and folded his arms. “What are you looking for, Dwarf?”
“Just a Merlion’s special— a nice bitter drink from below.”
The man seemed to accept Gennady’s answer, and he gestured for us to follow him. He led us into a corner of the kitchen, and opened up what appeared to be a cellar door. He lifted the latch, revealing a stairway leading down into a hidden basement.
“There’s only one rule down there, and it’s ‘don’t cause any trouble’, got it?”
“‘Course,” Gennady said, nodding. The man seemed unconvinced until Gennady nudged me.
“Oh— yeah.” I nodded curtly, catching myself from stumbling over my words.
With my affirmation, the man stepped aside and let us enter; we went down the stairs— it wasn’t a long way down, only two flights at most— and reached a doorway. It was far easier to open than the front door of the Merlion’s Alcove, probably because they didn’t worry as much about noise escaping due to the rambunctious cover they had at the top.
I found my nose wrinkling as the door opened; an eclectic of scents ranging from food, to drinks, to drugs, to sex wafted in my direction, with an incredibly pungent smell leading the assault. I reached up to pinch my nose to protect it from the terrible stench, but only heard the clacking of my gloved nails striking my mask.
I cast my gaze around the room and was greeted by a far more naturally raucous crowd than before, with many of the individuals in it partaking in illicit activities. In addition to being set up like a regular tavern with tables and chairs strewn about with men and women consuming various foods and drinks, there were also various other forms of… entertainment available here.
There were men lounging in violet couches creased with golden lines at its edges, indulging in various kinds of substances: I recognized the smell and smoke of tobacco coming from most of these men, yet a few of them inhaled a colorless gas from a pipe which a hunch told me was the source of the pungent smell.
There was also a gambling area set up in the corner of the room, with scantily dressed women serving alcoholic beverages to the men dressed in robes playing with their gold and silver. While this might not seem like an unusual sight, it was, in fact, quite an uncommon one here in Laxis due to the laws banning any acts of gambling.
I conveniently ignored the corner of the room where moans and grunts were coming from, and followed Gennady as he strode forwards without even blinking. I stepped up beside him, and spoke quietly.
“Do you go to places like this often?”
“Yes,” he said, continuing past a table of where an argument just broke out. A man stood up to throw a punch, and bouncers immediately swarmed him and dragged him out of the room. Gennady didn’t bat an eye. “But not for any of the reasons most come here for.
“Ever since I left the Taw Kingdom, I’ve been trying to widen my worldview. They thought I was crazy, but they also praised me as their best, and at the time, I thought that was a compliment. But when they went ahead with replacing me with that Scientist from Xan? I realized perhaps they truly thought me mad.”
“Didn’t you say that your King pleaded for you to stay?” I asked, cocking my head.
“He did.” Gennady nodded as he sat at the now vacated table. “Him and half of the other Dwarves I knew. But the other half? They’re glad I’m gone, and they’re willing to embrace that madman Bertrand to get it.”
I pulled out the chair opposite to him, and took a seat as well. “And what exactly have you been doing to… widen your worldview?”
“For starters,” he said leaning in, “I learned magic.”
I frowned. “What does that have to do with any of this?”
“Magic itself is against the law. Even in the criminal world, it’s not exactly commonplace to find a spellcaster. But that’s the only place you can find spellcasters. The Dark Crusaders have many connections in the underground, and that’s how I first contacted them.”
I drew in a sharp breath, and remembered why I had good reason to not fully trust Gennady just yet; I did not know what his motives were— he told me he just wanted to help me out and return to his Kingdom because of the Abominations, but how much of that was true? What if he was fully aligned with the Dark Crusaders? Could this have all been a trap for me because I killed Victor—
A voice broke me out of my thoughts, stifling my paranoia for just a moment. “Ah, I was told to expect a rather rotund looking man tonight, but I never suspected it to be a Dwarf.”
A rough, older looking man approached the table accompanied by a delicate, young woman. The juxtaposition between the two was immediately visible; the man was dressed in rough leather clothing, giving his already tough exterior emphasized by his scowl an even more weathered look. Meanwhile, the young woman wore more of the fashion I had seen in Laxis, wearing pure, white robes that covered everything but her smiling face. Looking between the two was like looking between the fragile bud of a flower and its sharp thorns.
“Oh, uh, Mr Jack and Ms Lisa?” Gennady greeted them.
“No need for formalities, Dwarf. Hearing it from your kind just doesn’t sound right. I’m assuming you’re Gen?”
“Yes, and this is my companion, Aria.”
I nodded my head slightly at the two smugglers. Jack ignored it, and joined our table without any invitation by taking a seat and throwing his feet up onto the table.
“So,” he started, “what do you two want?”
“We heard you two are the best smugglers in all of Laxis, and we’d like your help to get us out of this city.”
“We don’t smuggle people, Dwarf. It’s too hard, and if you’re wanted by one of the gangs or pirates here, we’d be burning a lot of bridges.”
“Of course. But that’s not a problem with us,” Gennady said, waving a hand dismissively. “We arrived in Luke just the other day. Ain’t got problems with any of the groups in the city.”
“A few days is a lot of time.” Jack stared at us as his brows arched darkly over his forehead. “Or did you think I didn’t hear about what you did at the harbor just the other day?”
I saw Gennady gulp, hesitating.
“That was a minor incident,” he said. Then he glanced down at the table. “Y’know, we haven’t even had anything to drink just yet.” He turned to a passing server and waved them down. “Get me and this lad a drink—”
“I’m not a lad, Dwarf,” Jack spat, cutting him off. “And I don’t have time for this. We’ll be leaving—”
“I think we should at least stay for a bit, Jack,” a soft voice spoke over him. Lisa glanced at her companion with her smile still plastered onto her face. “It would not be wise to turn down a free meal.”
The man hesitated, eyes darting between Lisa and Gennady, then he acquiesced. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m only staying because you asked me to, Lisa. The Dwarf better not get his hopes up that we’ll do this job for him.”
“Hah,” Gennady laughed, “is that a challenge? Ye don’t know how friendly us Dwarves get over drinks.”
“I know all too well, little man.”
Gennady ignored the provocation; he continued his negotiation with Jack as drinks were served to the table. I just sat in my chair, neither contributing to the conversation nor consuming any of the beverages in front of me.
I watched on as both men got drunker and drunker, while the young woman simply sat there, sipping on a glass of wine. I would have thought that getting inebriated would make Jack more amicable to striking up a deal, but it seemed to have only affirmed his resolve.
“—I don’t care about who you are or if you’re a damned Hunter or the King of this country. I told you, I’m not bringing you to that damned Dwarven Kingdom!”
“Don’t call me that! The only reason I’m sitting here, listening to you yap your mouth off is because my partner of six years— who usually has a good intuition— thinks you would be worth our time! But now I’m starting to doubt that even is the case anymore.”
Gennady sighed, taking a swig of ale. “Listen,” he said, slamming the mug down. “I can offer you twice whatever the usual cost you charge for smuggling goods our size over the same distance we’re asking you. In fact, you don’t even have to bring us all the way to Taw— you can stop at Puer… no, before Puer, and we can depart from there. I’ll even throw in a good enchanted sword to replace that rusty, old blade there.” He pointed a tired arm at the man’s waist.
Jack’s eyes flashed, looking down at his sword. I looked at his furious gaze, and I also remembered Gennady’s talk of a Dwarf’s craft; I could almost predict what would happen next.
And I did not like it one bit.
The smuggler opened his mouth, spit already coming out—
“You boys are intolerable,” Lisa said, cutting him off once again. This time, Jack looked irritated at his partner’s casual interruption of when he was speaking. But she ignored him, and stared at me. “You haven’t spoken all this time, what do you have to say, little girl?”
I raised an eyebrow at that, but did not comment on how she knew I was a girl. She probably heard about it being mentioned in the same breath as Gennady fighting with sailors in the harbor. A simple extrapolation of events and their associated characters.
“What do you mean by that?” I replied with a question.
“I’m curious,” she said, lowering her wine glass. “You and your companion want to leave this country, and we’re not going to do this for you: what do you have to say?”
“If you reject us, we’ll just have to find others to do this for us.” I shrugged.
“Interesting.” Lisa played with her wine glass, rocking it back and forth on the wooden table, causing a swirl in the lavender liquid inside of it. “And what happens if they all reject you? Suppose we’re the last possible person you could approach to bring us to your destination: what would you do now?”
“Oi, Lisa, what are you doing?” Jack asked, annoyance clearly written across his face.
I peered into the young woman’s eyes, and looked past her smile. “You want us to win you over,” I stated simply.
She did not look away. “…perhaps.”
Gennady, in his drunken stupor, just seemed confused and could not help me. So I drew in a deep breath, and reached for my sides.
“If you were indeed the last people I could approach,” I said softly, “then I would be desperate. If that were the case, I’d offer you this.”
I pulled the coin pouch, slightly loosening its string, and slid it across the table. The yellow glitter of gold coins barely escaped the small opening, but it was enough to get a reaction out of the two.
“A platinum and a half,” I said. “That’s all I have to offer, yet it is more than you’ve made in a job as simple as this, no?”
I saw Jack’s eyes cloud over with greed and Lisa’s smile widen even further. “That is quite the offer,” the young woman commented.
“It is.” I nodded my head.
“We’ll take it—” Jack began, his speech still slightly slurred.
Then I scooped the pouch back up and placed it. “But since this isn’t that kind of a situation, I think my friend and I will be taking our leave.”
“Wait, but…” Jack exchanged a glance with Lisa, and he quickly straightened. His tone of voice changed when he spoke up again. “We’ll do it for… three quarters the price?”
I stood up, but Lisa put up a hand to stop me.
“A half,” she said. “Give us a half of that, and you’ll soon find yourself on a ship heading straight to Jahar’taw.”
I paused to consider this for a second, then I nodded. “Deal.” I brought a hand forward and shook with the young woman.
And with that, it was over. We decided to meet two days from now at the docks, just before dawn. We agreed to pay a tenth of the cost upon our next meeting, and the rest when we arrived in the Taw Kingdom.
Then Lisa grabbed her drunken companion by the arm and left the table. As they did, I could hear Jack whispering angrily at Lisa about how she lowered the price so quickly; he seemed like a man who only cared about money once it was a large enough sum, and I was right.
“Lass, are you sure you should’ve paid them so much?” Gennady quickly asked once they left. “That’s over 70 gold!” he exclaimed.
I rolled my eyes. “I paid you half as much just to escort me to Taw, don’t act like it’s a ridiculous sum now that I’m paying someone else the same amount.”
“Well yeah.” The Dwarf scratched the side of his head, frowning. “But you’re paying more than two times what I was offering to pay them. Don’t you think you jumped the gun a bit?”
“No.” I shook my head. “This is the reason why I save my money, Gennady: money is to be spent, and I’m spending it to guarantee my safety. We’re not just buying passage through the sea with that, we’re also buying their loyalty. If they know we can pay them more, they would be all the more incentivized to make sure nothing happens to us.”
“And don’t pretend that I’m paying it all,” I said, cutting him off. “We’ll be splitting the bill since it’s for the both of us.”
Gennady’s jaw dropped.
“That’s just for the payment to go to Taw, not for the drinks tonight. That’s on you.”
After all, while we were both going to Taw together, he was the only one to have consumed all those drinks.
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