The sky grows pink in the minutes before dawn. The guildhall is nearly empty, save for a group of three young men eating breakfast. I knock on Guild Master Rhaine’s door.
“He ain’t in yet!” one of the members yells from across the room.
“Ah, thank you!” I shout back.
I might as well try to find a partner for Hugo while I wait.
I walk over to the trio. They stop their conversation and to turn to me.
“Good morning,” I say, “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“You’re fine,” one of them says, “Stu was just complaining about one of his shirts getting old or something.”
Stuart, Steven, and Samuel. All three are age nineteen, have mana densities near point-two-fifty, and excitements near eighty percent. Upper C-rank magic levels. For people so similar, they don’t look related.
“They didn’t get old,” Stuart says, “you scorched it last week. You said you’d pay me for a new one.”
“That could have been anyone, do you have any proof?” Steven says.
“I was wearing it! And Sam was right there, tell him Sam!”
“I’m pretty sure you set yourself on fire again. You should work on that,” Sam says.
“I haven’t done that since I was eight!”
“No, no,” Steven says, “I think Sam is on to something. You know, Stu, I could help you with your aim for a couple of silver.”
“If I aimed as poorly as you, we’d all be naked!”
“He has a point there, Steve,” Sam says, “As fun as this is, I can’t dodge both of you.”
“Woah hey there,” Steven says, “When did we start picking on me?”
“Around the same time you set me on fire,” Stuart says.
I rub my temples as the conversation makes another two or three circles before finally coming to a close with all three of them laughing.
“Oh right!” Steven says, “I almost forgot you were here. You’re the new guy, right? The one with zero magic?”
“Yes, but hopefully not for long,” I answer.
“Did you need something?” Samuel asks.
“Yes, I’m trying to find someone willing to work with Hugo for the day. He needs someone who can keep up with him to help talk to the customers.”
“Hugo? As in Hugo Dixxon?” Steven asks.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“Isn’t Sophie always following him around?” Steven asks.
“Yeah, Hugo’s fine and all, but that girl gives me the creeps,” Samuel says.
“Sophie won’t be in today, that’s why Hugo needs a partner. Are any of you interested?”
“Yeah!” the three shout in unison.
“Hugo’s at the top of the pile around here,” Steven says.
“It’d be pretty nice to see his magic,” Samuel says.
“He probably won’t set me on fire,” Stuart says.
“I’m glad you’re all eager, but I don’t know if there are any jobs that would merit all three of you. Maybe--”
The three turn to the center of the table and lock eyes. Their mana excitements spike to ninety percent.
“So it’s come to this,” Steven says in a deep, threatening voice.
“It would seem there’s no other way,” Stuart says in the same, fake voice.
“Such a shame, having to bury both of you on the same day,” Samuel says, again using a nearly comical voice.
Steven cocks his fist back. Red flames leap from his skin and swirl around it. The other two do the same. I take a few steps back.
“Winner pairs with Hugo,” Steven asks as he stands.
“Loser pairs with Stu,” Samuel says as he stands.
“I hate you both,” Stuart says as he stands.
“Three! Two! One! Fire!” the three shout.
Their fists flare as they strike towards the center of the table. Each one unfurls their fist into a chop and they stop just short of making contact with each other.
“PAPER!” they all roar.
They pull back, count down, and fire again.
They all share the same brain, and there’s not enough to go around.
“PAPER! ROCK! PAPER! PAPER! SCISSORS! PAPER!”
As the sun rises members begin to bleed into the hall. Eventually, Master Rhaine shows up. Steven, Samuel, and Stuart are still competing with raspy voices.
They can figure the rest out on their own. Hugo can probably track me down if there’s a problem anyway.
I leave the three, along with the sizeable crowd that has formed to cheer them on, to their battle.
I knock on Master Rhaine’s door.
“Get in here and shut it!” he barks.
I slip into the room. The cheap door does little to block out the cheering and shouting.
“Annoying bastards,” Rhaine moans.
Squinted eyes, subtle aroma of alcohol, slight shakes in the hands, and a heightened heart rate. This is the first time I’ve spotted such an obvious hangover and not handed out a pink slip.
“Is now a good time to talk about me helping with your paperwork?” I ask.
Finally, a stroke of good luck. The last thing he wants to do with a headache is math. I should be able to squeeze a good deal out of this.
“Before we talk about pay, what exactly would you like me to do?” I ask.
Rhaine drops his hand on the pile of papers next to his desk.
“These are the jobs from last month. You split up how much the guild earns and how much each member earns and you write that in the ledger.” Rhaine pulls a journal from his desk. “When you’re done you add up all the days for the total for the month.”
“Sounds awfully tedious,” I say.
“That’s why I’m paying you to do it,” Rhaine says, clutching his head. “One silver an hour.”
That would take a thirteen-hour day to afford room and board. Even without magic, I could probably make more killing rats.
“I admire your ruthlessness,” I say, “but even I can’t live on that. How about three silver?”
“Two, take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it.”
He’s too tired to negotiate properly, should I feel guilty about this?
“Since you’re paying me by the hour, do you intend to keep watch on me to track the time?” I ask.
Rhaine sighs, rubbing his aching head.
“How about this, how long would it take you to finish this stack?” I ask.
“Ugh. I worked on it yesterday, so three more days.”
“How many hours do you put into a day?”
“On this? I don’t know, four hours.”
“So there’s about twelve hours of work left? At your pace.”
Rhaine starts to bring his fingers out to count but waives away the idea.
“Yeah, sure,” he says.
“Twelve hours at two silver an hour, how about you just pay me twenty-four to take care of the stack?”
“Twenty-four…” Rhaine mumbles.
He stares at the stack of papers. His face almost turns green for a second. He swallows, readjusts himself, and digs through his desk. After a couple of minutes, he tosses a pouch of coins in front of me.
“Just get it done,” he says. “I need a few minutes to handle something important, so take it all out into the hall and get started.”
I gather up the papers and journal, borrow Rhaine’s abacus, and find a table in the corner. The fire trio is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Hugo.
I wonder if Hugo will make it through the day without getting burned.
I set out the papers and fill my fountain pen. The ink flows unevenly as I write, and constantly tries to leak onto whatever’s underneath it. Thanks to the aggravatingly primitive tool, I work at a snail's pace and it takes me an entire two hours to finish.
Looks like earnings average ten silver per day for C rank, and fourteen for B rank. Excluding myself and Rhaine, there are twenty-seven members, eight of which are B rank. The total guild earnings for last month were just over nine-thousand silver.
I scan through the ledger again.
Sophie’s view on time off isn’t isolated. There are only three times for the month were a member earned zero silver for a day. No regular days off for anyone.
I spend the next few hours scanning the members with my glasses and taking mental notes.
The younger members have higher excitement levels, but it quickly drops as they reach into their twenties and the work wears on them. If they were at peak excitement, most of the members would be B rank.
I mull over the possible suggestions I could give to Rhaine, and the best ways to present them when a jarring thought comes to mind.
I’m out of paperwork.
An entire month’s worth of work sits in a neat stack on the table. Enough silver to almost last two days practically laughs at me in my pocket.
I rub my temples, gather everything up, and knock on Rhaine’s door.
I knock again.
I peek inside.
Rhaine is fast asleep on his desk, about to drown in a puddle of his own drool. I set the papers down by his chair and sneak out of the office.
This is what happens when no one can fire you. I suppose I should look for a job I can do on my own. Technically I think I’m qualified for C rank.
As I head over to grab a job, the door slams open. Hugo locks onto me and stomps in my direction with Samuel backpedaling in front of him. Samuel is apologizing profusely and Hugo’s clothes are charred. Hugo stops in front of me. He grabs Samuel by the head, turns him around, and pushes him toward Rhaine’s office. He grabs the top job in the B rank basket.
“Let’s go,” he signs.
“Right behind you,” I sign back.
The two of us head out while Samuel knocks louder and louder on Rhaine’s door, completed job in hand.
I hurry in front of Hugo so I can sign to him, but he starts before I can begin.
“Is Sophie okay?” he signs.
“Yes. She’s taking the day off to rest.”
“Okay. The hotheads said you said she wasn’t in today, but they didn’t know why.”
“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
Somehow, there manages to be an even more silent silence in our conversation.
“Is your magic back?” Hugo signs.
“Not yet. Sophie thinks she didn’t have enough power to unlock me. She wanted me to ask you to help tonight.”
“Sophie didn’t have enough power? How much magic do you have?” he asks.
“I have no idea. My memories from before you two found me are fuzzy.”
“That’s fair, it was the same with me when I got mana locked. They’ll clear up after a few weeks.”
“If you don’t mind, how did you get locked?”
“If I tell you, it stays between us, okay? I don’t like the idea of people chit-chatting about me,” he signs.
“I won’t speak a word you don’t want me to.”
“I’ll admit, you seem better at keeping secrets than Sophie, and she’s barely let anything slip. Alright. It happened about five years ago. At the time I lived way out East in a village called Applegate. I worked at the guild there. Sophie already mentioned it, but at the time I used explosion magic.”
Hugo snaps his fingers. Nothing happens. Hugo shakes his head.
“It wasn’t anything too fancy, just enough to knock down a tree after a few shots, but I got better every day. One day an S rank freelancer showed up.”
“Freelancer?” I ask.
“If you get certified at the capital as an S rank, they give you a special card. Any guild in the kingdom has to allow you to take jobs as though you were a member. Anyway, this guy’s name was Austin Erickson. He was an explosion wizard too. I wanted to follow him on a job, just as an observer to try to learn from him, but all he ever did was throw around money and tell stories. Everyone was so fascinated by him, we didn’t notice a horde of goblins sneak up to the village.”
“Sorry to interrupt again, but what are goblins?”
“Didn’t your parents ever read you ‘Toothy Little Bastard’?”
“If they did, I can’t remember.”
“Right, sorry. Do you know what a chimpanzee is?”
The monkey that’ll rip your face off?
“I’ve heard stories about them,” I sign.
“Well imagine a chimp with less hair, more teeth, and a lot of friends.”
This world is the worst.
“As I was saying, these goblins showed up and started ransacking the town for food. The whole guild ran out on an emergency mission. I stuck where I could see Austin. That’s when…”
Hugo winces and covers his ears. After a minute he shakes it off and continues, clearly still in pain.
“Austin used a massive explosion to take out a bunch of them. He caught me and half a building up in the blast. When I woke up my ears were bleeding and all I could hear was this crazy loud ringing and my magic was gone. Austin blamed the explosion on me losing control. I couldn’t afford repairs on the building and I got run out of town. I spent a year hunting and scavenging before I wound up here.”
Looks like I need to add insurance to the list of missing necessities.
“I’m sorry you went through that,” I sign.
Hugo clenches his fist then opens it. A spectral eye floats out and spins in a circle before disappearing.
“I’m just glad my magic wasn’t like his when it came back.”
Hugo pulls the job he grabbed out of his pocket and looks it over. He scoffs and stashes it again.
“This one shouldn’t take long. There’s a creep peeking into his neighbor’s window at night. For now, they just want us to ‘coerce’ him into apologizing. Let’s go explain we don’t want to visit him more than once and head over to Sophie’s. I’ll help with your mana lock.”
The world trembles with an inhuman roar. Hugo and I turn back to see Samuel bolting away from the guildhall, his feet literally on fire.
“Why can’t any of you shut the hell up!?”
Rhaine’s voice echoes through Duckhaven. Samuel flies past us. A chair flies past us.