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Seren and Rive poured over the book while Tairdi took xyr nap. Atois Burke had a lot to say about how Guilds were fleecing people, and how they didn’t let just anyone in, but that wasn’t really matching with what she knew about Guilds. Which, admittedly, was very little.

“It’s just... it doesn’t make any economic sense,” she complained to Rive. “If they’re doing this to make money, then they’d want everyone signing up.”

“They could be creating a false supply and demand?” They shrugged. “I don’t know. It could also be Atois eating sour grapes; he and his friend couldn’t get in, so now everything the Guild did, does, and will do is them taking advantage of people.”

One of the more interesting facts had been Atois interviewing beings who had made it through the Guild tests. There had been a group of seven, a trio, and one pair.

For us, we’ve been friends long before this, so the testing was nothing new and we all passed with flying colors.

Seren read out the passage again and tapped the book. “This part makes it seem easy. Even with all the testing that Atois and his friend did, this group of people didn’t care about the results and could sign up. And then there’s this quote from the trio.”

I know most people don’t care that much about their siblings, but honestly, I think they do and don’t want to admit it. It’s amazing to think that some groups have such strong bonds between them, right?

“See? So, I’m confused. Atois specifically interviewed people to talk about the test itself, and neither one of them is actually talking about it.”

“What does the pair say?” asked Rive, craning their neck to read the passage.

At the base of it, you’ve got to be a powerful pair, two individuals that are simply... Connected.

“Helpful,” grinned Rive as they rolled their eyes. “But at least we know what to expect with fees, that they’re going to—” they broke off, shuddering—"tattoo us."

“And with that, we’ll be able to level up. Another thing talked about, but which didn’t really go into details.” Seren closed the book with a sigh. “I wonder why?”

There was a slight sound off to the side, but when they checked, they could see it was nothing to worry about. Tairdi was slowly making xyr way to them. Xe was... not limping. Exactly. But certainly not as well rested as xe probably could have been, and a far cry from the energetic being that had waved them in.

Xe’d also changed their clothing. Now xe was wearing durable brown pants that went to xyr ankles, a pair of black braided sandals, and a blue tunic with lots of pockets. The belt had more pouches hanging from it, in case the pockets weren’t enough.

“Have a good nap?” asked Seren. Tairdi nodded as xe stumbled past her and headed back to where the tea was kept. Rive jumped up from their seat and followed, asking if they could have another cup of whatever coffee Tairdi was brewing for xemself. There were some clinking noises, a quick clattering of something metal against ceramic, and then they reappeared, bringing fresh cups to the table.

Tairdi gulped about two-thirds of xyr cup, but Rive sat and watched the liquid as if there were fish swimming about in it.

“So. Did the book come in handy?” xe asked, stifling a yawn halfway through. Seren couldn’t help but stare at xyr sharp teeth, but when xyr jaw snapped shut, she remembered that xe had asked a question.

“Not really? I mean, yes, because it told us things we didn’t know, but no, because there’s really no in-depth information. It skims and stays pretty shallow. It even talks to people who made it into the Guild, and I’m assuming only printing their base thoughts.”

“Most likely,” said Tairdi, “the successful beings interviewed are under Charm or Thread to keep their mouths shut. That’s pretty common. You sign an agreement that says you won’t talk about whatever it is they ask you not to, and then you’re Charmed or Threaded by two different people.”

“Why two?” asked Rive.

“Because if the first one dies, or loses concentration enough,” replied Seren, “then they won’t be able to keep you charmed.”

“Exactly.” There was a last gulp, and after Tairdi lowered the cup to the table, xe threw xyr head back and shook xemselves briskly. “Okay. We need to go to the undercity. That’s where I have a few errands to run, and that’s where you’re going to meet my friend who needs workers.”

“Do we need to wear something like that?” asked Seren. Tairdi raised an eyebrow.

“Do you have another outfit you wish you could change into?”

Seren sighed. Most of their clothing, and the blankets that had saved Rive’s life, were in the need-to-be-done laundry pile.

“I changed for two reasons. First, I dislike carrying one big bag and would rather keep the items I purchase in pockets and pouches. Second, some pathways might be dusty, moldy, or damp, and so over the years I’ve found it’s better to dress in something I don’t mind getting a little dirty.” Tairdi took xyr cup and walked back to put it in the sink; when they realized what xe was doing, Rive and Seren copied the act, also sliding their stools back to where the pieces had originally been.

“Right, it’s time to go.” Tairdi stretched a bit, several bones cracking. “Or else I’m going to lie down again and sleep longer. Tell me, what did you glean about Guilds from the book?”

As xe asked, xe led the way out of the library, locked the door behind them, and turned in the direction the shellship was floating.

“... and that’s pretty much it. Overall, I think the idea is a little more complicated than the feelings of the author,” answered Seren. Tairdi walked down toward the field, but was taking a right at a set of stone steps, instead of a left, which would lead them back to the Pictotree Drop.

“Mind the gap and keep your eye on the steps. For those of us who live here, the dips aren’t a problem, but they can be treacherous for visitors.”

“Thanks for the warning,” muttered Rive as they slid forward, frantically grabbing onto the metal chain that ran along on both sides.

“What’s the other chain here for, then?” asked Seren. “If the outside one is to keep a being from falling, why’s there an inside one as well?”

“To help those with misplaced steps. Though, if both chains are combined properly, then it can be used to haul items to the surface or to carefully lower items into the city.”

Rive and Tairdi began to talk about How to Join a Guild and the “wealth” of information they’d found in it. Seren tuned them out and kept a close eye on the steps. And it wasn’t just that, though. There were pictures etched into the wall she was passing on her left. Drawings in such detail that she wanted to sketch them in her notebook, or at least spend time letting them soak into her brain. None of them were cut from the rock.

She paused; that wasn’t right. All of them were cut into the rocks, but it was in such a way that it didn’t seem like an intrusion. Almost as if nature, over the years, had carved instead with wind, water, and soft sand. There was one scene involving a battle of two-legged beings against a giant worm. The next setting was either dawn or dusk, she could tell by the rays stretched out over the top, but no matter which it was, there were beings down below, inside a town, all showing parts of the day that were usually reserved for specific activities. Sleeping. Showing. Eating food. Relaxing.

“I see you enjoy art,” said Tairdi softly. Seren flinched as xe put a paw on her left shoulder. This close she could smell xem, a slight musky scent that wasn’t bad at all, but would probably overpower if Tairdi was ever caught in the rain. “Normally, I would stand with you and comment on the pieces that speak brightly to your soul, but we are in a bit of a hurry, or time crunch.”

Xe smiled and nudged her to go with Rive. She took the right side of the pathway, trailing her hand along the chain that separated her from the open air. The links leeched the heat from her hand, leaving a coldness along the middle. There was also a sharp metallic tang in the air, and for a few seconds she wondered if that also came from the chain.

“Sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about when the beauty of the world catches your eye.” Tairdi’s smile grew larger. “Though, if the small apprentice carvings here were such a sight, then I admit, I look forward to when you enter Azmar.”

“Why do you live on the surface if you think it’s that beautiful down here?” she asked. A small sigh echoed, growing larger, and she was sure the enhanced movement mimicked the feelings Tairdi was holding inside.

“There are many reasons why I live up there. Foremost is that my books can have a better life. The other reasons I have...” xe trailed off. “At this moment in time, they are still secrets from those who were not there during the events that transpired.”

Ah. That made sense. She and Rive really weren’t friends with Tairdi yet, even though they’d all been friendly with each other. It was the same as not explaining all of her thoughts, worries, and dreams to Rive, though she had already talked about quite a bit by this point.

Kept close to her chest were thoughts she didn’t want to share, though. Not her worries about what her parents were going to do when they finally found her—when then found her, because she’d never been able to get away with anything when she’d been back on the island—and not her worries about magic and the lack she had even though both her father and her dad had confirmed that she had magic. All those thoughts began swirling in her head and blanketed out everything in front of her, almost as if they had put a wall up before her eyes.

Seren took a step, and it felt as though the steps were crumbling beneath the weight of her anxieties.

“Captain!” Rive’s shout came from underwater, a whole ocean away, and then there was a hand around her arm and her waist. The one wrapped around her midriff was very hairy, but the one bruising the skin around her arm was like hers. No claws, pads, or fur. She blinked.

Below her was a dark grey river. Nothing else.

Seren let out an eep and backed away from the edge.

“Interesting.” She blinked to see Tairdi staring into her eyes. She stared back into amber circles, a small pinprick of black in the middle of them. “I don’t think vertigo was your problem.”

“It wasn’t,” she muttered with a blush and looked away.

“What happened?” asked Rive. “Captain, are you okay? Is this an allergy from the tea? Adrenaline failure from our landing?”

“Let’s just keep going.” She put herself on the rock side and started off again, this time making sure to concentrate on where her feet went, almost like how Bri had threaded her. Rive, she was pretty sure, wasn’t happy with that decision, but she didn’t want to explain why she kept reading books on magic, why she kept practicing, and why she was convinced she had magic she hadn’t shown an ounce of. Or talk about her parents again.

The question had been haunting her since she was a child. Dad was a master of Air and father wielded Charm as smoothly as his rapier, so she’d grown up expecting to have one or the other. They, in turn, had continued testing her against all ten elements. Well, at least against the ones that were easy to check.

“Does she often not explain things?” she overheard Tairdi ask Rive behind her.

“No. The opposite, if anything. Are you sure it’s not because of the height?”

“Those beings whose balance is assaulted in that way rarely walk straight and often need to be carried down, or blindfolded if they’re with a person they trust.”

Seren looked at her feet and their steady tread. She squared her shoulders, then turned around.

“You don’t need to talk about me behind my back.”

Rive blinked at her.

“Xe asked a question. I was trying to answer it.”

“You could have just said no, you didn’t need to make it sound as if I never shut up.” She held her hand up as they opened their mouth. “I allowed my worries to overwhelm me, that’s it.” No, this problem hadn’t occurred before, but she’d previously lost track of time when thinking about something.

“What worries,” asked Tairdi softly, “would blind a person to the dangers before them?”

“Honestly? The fact that my parents are going to find me—maybe not here, maybe not for a while longer—but when they do, I’m never going to be allowed off the island again. All of this,” she added, gesturing around them, “is going to be taken from me. And I let that fear grow until I was incapacitated.”

Tairdi nodded, but Rive shook their head.

“I’ve mentioned it before, but I really dislike your parents.” They bared their teeth and put up their fists. “They think they’re going to come take my captain away? Fine. They’re going to have a fight on their hands.”

Seren laughed—she’d tried to stop it from bubbling out, but her father would just charm Rive, or her dad would create a gust of air to blow him away.

“You will not defeat them, but... thank you.” Some of the anxiety twisting around her heart eased up a little. “Really, I mean it. Thanks.”

She went back to descending the stairs, this time ignoring when Tairdi asked Rive who her parents were. Rive explained how they didn’t even know the name of her island, let alone the men she called father and dad, but stopped when Seren gasped.

There was a landing, with two carved benches cut into the rockside; beauty they’d stumbled upon as the stairs continued down into the dark depths. However, from the landing they could see hundreds of flickering lights below them, some moving, but most remaining still.

“Welcome to Azmar,” said Tairdi, stepping forward to stand where Seren and Rive were, slack-jawed, looking in awe at the underground city. The river flashed silver as it continued moving, and if each light was a person... This was so much better than Viadora. Easier to see, easier to understand the amount of beings living here. The worries that had been growing since she’d stolen the shellship slipped under the idea of known life and unknown darkness contrasting. She might be in the dark right now, but she was sure she’d see light at some point.

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About the author

CoffeeQuills

  • Tokyo
  • Dust Warrior

Bio: CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”

(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)

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