PART I: UNDER THE WING
"What about them?" asked Edith, looking over the shoulder of a cringing wagon-driver. "See any weapons?"
"Don't think so," Tavon replied, similarly positioned, having long since abandoned his meditation.
The two adventurers quickly scurried to the rear of the carriage, careful not to disturb Tavis. Stopping just short of tumbling out the back, the pair set their sights on the group of mercenaries they'd just passed. Wardens, separated from their fellows, forced to make the long march home. Without an ounce of reservation, Edith and Tavon began making a variety of obscene gestures, accentuating them with the occasional colorful profanity. And as soon as they'd had their fill, the pair sat back down, giggling to themselves like children.
Even Brenda found herself stifling a chuckle as she sat across from pair. "I know this is where I should do the responsible thing and scold you, but... can't say they don't deserve it. Better than any blood being shed. Just, you know, keep your heads down."
The younger pair looked at each other before slouching ever so slightly, ensuring the tops of their heads dipped beneath the sides of the wagon.
"As bad is it was to see a line of crossbows aimed my way, I'm glad to have seen their true colors," Tavon admitted. "My brother and I... when we couldn't make it as adventurers by ourselves, we were just so eager to join an established company. But if the recruitment worked out? What if over time, we had no choice but to become like them? This was supposed to be a noble profession, damn it."
Brenda let out a soft sigh. "I wish I could say things were better before, but this has always been a career dominated in equal parts by saviors and scoundrels. However, even though some of the larger companies have been making an extra mess of things lately, never believe that there aren't good people out there."
"Well, I guess you're proof there's still some good in this world," Tavon replied. "And if someone can conjure the beast's fire and still possess a noble soul, what excuse do others have?"
Brenda shifted her gaze toward the girl. "Speaking of noble souls... I suppose it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Pristine armor. Perfectly fitted. Not the sort of thing you see on a novice. Had to come from somewhere."
"Well, like I said, I left that life behind," Edith explained, softly biting her lip. Whatever advantages her background offered, she held little pride toward the upbringing. "I just want to be an adventurer. Nothing else."
"Still, must have been quite the life to leave behind," said Brenda. "Most people turn to adventuring out of necessity. The last refuge for people who... don't quite have any other place in the world."
"I don't know how familiar you are with Altyrian nobility, but there's an... unpleasantness that runs beneath the surface," Edith declared. Absent her typical boisterous delivery, the girl instead spoke with something of a tired, weary tone. "Nobles are supposed to have this code of honor, but it only pertains to how you're seen. Behind closed doors, the worst of the worst act only in the interest of elevating their own standing. And considering our family had been whittled down to only myself and my mother, it was only a matter of time before we got swallowed up by a more dominant house. But mother, she... she refused such a fate. And I lost her."
"Gods," Brenda muttered, shaking her head. "I'm so sorry."
"It was inevitable, really," Edith continued, almost coldly blunt. But after drawing and releasing a deep breath, the girl lifted her gaze, the light not yet stricken from her eyes. "But before I could lose everything, I remembered my father's letters. He'd gotten out of the 'game' years ago, moving to Gheran, becoming an adventurer. And every so often, he'd send back these letters, regaling me with his stories. But as I looked through them, I began to see something more. Lessons. Instructions. Through him, I was able to learn everything I needed to know about being an adventurer."
"So, you chose to follow in his footsteps," Brenda suggested, a wholesome smile forming on her lips.
But Edith's demeanor brightened little. "I may have chosen to become an adventurer like my father, but I have no intention of emulating him. No, my wish is to surpass him. To beat him at his own game. The man abandoned his family. And while we languished and suffered, he'd send missive after missive, reminding us that he was having the time of his life. Well, I finally took it to heart. And now, I'm going to become a greater adventurer than he ever could. I'm going to build something extraordinary and rub his nose in it."
"Well, I suppose it's good to be motivated," Brenda hesitantly replied, still trying to be supportive. "But it's also important to focus on what's right in front of you. Keep looking back, and you'll inevitably trip. The same is true for looking too far ahead. Keep yourself grounded. You're young. You have your entire life ahead of you. What you want now may not end up being what you truly need." A pause. "But I can see this is more than just some fleeting want. You're determined. And you've set yourself a goal. While it's not the largest outfit, I do lead my own mercenary company. And while it's mostly just a refuge for mystics and other peoples who might face prejudice from the general populace, if you need a place to stay while you get yourself established, we can-"
A bright-eyed Edith cut off her fellow, leaning forward with a renewed investment. "Other mystics? You mean you work with others like yourself?"
"I wouldn't say they're exactly like me," Brenda admitted. "Everyone mostly operates on their own, but we pool our resources, just enough to keep each other supported. We'd be happy to have you, Edith. Same for you and your brother, Tavon."
"Appreciate the offer," Tavon replied, wearing a smile of his own. "But that all depends on what Tavis needs to recover."
"Hey, whatever it costs to get him back in action, I'd be happy to cover the expense," said Brenda.
A chuckle from Tavon. "Wow. Guess I'm super lucky to have met someone who could throw around a couple thousand giln like it was nothing."
"Well, it wasn't nothing. That's basically everything I have in my guild account," Edith admitted.
Tavon quickly snapped toward the girl, almost speechless. "You mean, you were willing to give the Wardens everything you owned, just for the sake of getting my brother home?"
"It's an adventurer's duty to help a fellow in need, right?" Edith replied, grin widening. "And I had enough of people skirting their obligations back in Altyr. Besides, it's just money. I'm sure I'll be earning more in no time."
Tavon offered another chuckle, practically in disbelief. "Well... thanks."
With that, Edith raised her left arm, presenting her fist to her fellow. Tavon quickly did the same, and the two bumped their knuckles together. However, despite being the lightest of taps, the girl couldn't help but wince.
"Let's be sure to get you looked at once we're back in Tolwynn," Brenda suggested. "If there's one thing you don't want in this profession, it's a limb going from bad to worse."
Edith offered a chuckle and a nod. "Yeah. I guess as the only mundane person in this group, I should take a little extra care of myself."
"Hey, we still don't actually know if I'm a mystic," Tavon admitted. "Then again, I honestly don't even know how I'd be able to tell."
"There's... no mistaking it once it manifests," Brenda replied. "You'll feel something inside. Something heavy. Something that doesn't quite belong. I remember when I first felt my magics swell within me, I honestly thought I was possessed. I believed what so many others did, that I was afflicted. That I had... become something else. But eventually, you start to understand it."
"How do you... you know, actually use it?" asked Tavon.
"Well, I'm hardly an expert. Everything I know stems from personal experience. But in the beginning, I really couldn't. It felt like I was sharing a body with some entity. Some uncontrollable, unknowable force. And it decided when to act, not me. But with time, as I began to look inward, as I began to truly recognize what I was... who I was, I gained more and more control. It went from this outside force to an instinct. Something I couldn't readily call upon, but something that nevertheless served me. Then, it turned from an instinct to a facet of my being. Like a heartbeat, ever present. Finally, I learned how to channel it. I had this energy inside me, building and building. And eventually, it became too much. No matter how hard I pushed myself, I couldn't burn through it all. Some days, I would start running, sunup to sundown. Others, I'd train, hacking away at bundles of straw with my sword for hours on end. But that's when I noticed something. I went to maintain my blade, to sharpen and polish it, only to discover it was in perfect condition." Brenda paused, looking to the greatsword by her side. "So long as I held that blade, I could put a piece of myself into it. It became my focus, and eventually, the means by which I could exert my magics. With just my hands, I can't so much as light a candle. But with that sword, I've the power to slay beasts with a single stroke."
Edith stared at the woman, wide-eyed, mouth almost agape. "Wow. Why do you think that is?"
Brenda continued to look upon her weapon, a slight curl upon her lips. "Maybe because I'm not the only who put a piece of themself in that blade. I forged this weapon several years ago, but I was not its original user. That honor fell to my husband. Every day, he'd carry it with him, all the way up until... until..." Brenda shut her eyes, softly shaking her head. "Sorry. I'm... not as comfortable discussing the past as others might be."
"No, that's fine," Edith replied, trying to subdue her continuous fascination.
"Yeah, I understand plenty," said Tavon. "Thanks for the explanation."
Brenda reaffirmed her smile. "Happy to help. Mystic or mundane, all one really needs is to find what gives them focus. Something that ties them to this world. Because for as insignificant as we might seem at times, we all have our tether."
"Well said," came the somewhat meek voice of the wagon driver. "And let me just say, so long as we're all being open and honest, I never thought you or the girl were monsters. Mystic, Imperial, you both seem like...like swell folk. Really, I was just following the boss' lead, I would never-"
"Just keep driving, Warden," Brenda interrupted, affording the man little more than a sideward glance.
"As you wish."
With that, the wagon continued on its journey toward Tolwynn. Distant was a calamity that surrounded the tannery. Fleeting were the surrounding trees. Under a calm sky, the group finally found some measure of relaxation. Even with Tavis in his current state, his brother found himself at ease. Tavon would continue to offer his unconscious sibling a passing glance, but gone was the dread lurking behind his eyes. In its place, positivity. Hope. Something he could only hope empowered the slumbering mystic.
"So, this father of yours," Tavon spoke up, switching his focus to the girl beside him. "He based in Tolwynn as well?"
"No, I don't think so," Edith replied. "His letters made it clear that he likes to move around. But I'm in no hurry to meet him. When I look him in the eye, I want him to be able to see a fully realized adventurer."
"Hey, with as much bank as you've got, there's a good chance you've already surpassed the guy," Tavon replied. "I know we all like to perpetuate the story that adventuring is a straight road to gold and glory, but most of the time, you're just getting by."
Edith let out a chuckle. "Oh, I'm sure even with what I brought with me, I'm nowhere close to matching him." The girl paused, building a dramatic flair as her grin began to widen. "You see... my name is Edith. Edith Gylbard."
Eyes closed, chin held high, the girl expected various expressions of awe to steadily stream from her fellows. But all the came was silence. Cracking open an eye, she saw Brenda looking at her with a blank expression on her face. Snapping toward the boy, she found only more of the same. She then looked past him, hoping that maybe the driver had overheard her. Nothing.
"Gylbard?" Edith repeated. "The great Gervas Gylbard?"
"I'm sorry, but... I've never heard of him," Brenda admitted.
"The Shimmering Shield, Lochsur's Liberator, that Gervas Gylbard?" Edith continued, doubling her efforts. But the others remained stone-faced. "People have raised statues of the man in no less than seven towns across Gheran."
"Your father, did he... tell you all this in those letters of his?" Brenda asked, soft, almost comforting in her delivery. Edith simply nodded. "I'm... I'm afraid he might have exaggerated a few things. I like to think myself cognizant of the goings on of our profession, but... I've never heard the name Gervas Gylbard, even in passing."
Mouth agape, Edith stared blankly into the distance as she slumped lower and lower, chestplate scraping against the side of the wagon.
End of Part I