“No! Stay away!” Claire screamed as she flew as fast as she could. Behind her, a slobbering dog chased after her, barking excitedly as its eyes seemed to lock on to a new favorite toy.
“Bad dog! Stay away doggy!” Claire pleaded.
“Woof woof!” the dog barked at her, as if telling her to give up and accept her fate.
In the midst of her escapade, Rowen’s voice echoed in her mind. “Claire, we’re almost done with class for today. Did you find a tracking beast?”
“Help me Rowen! The doggy is trying to eat me!” Claire cried out.
After a moment’s pause, Rowen said, “Have you tried flying to a roof where it can’t reach you?”
Feeling the heat blossom onto her face, Claire stopped flying on street level and flew up to the nearest roof. The dog barked sorrowfully as it could only watch its prey fly out of reach. It seemed to be cursing its lack of wings.
Claire fell onto her hands and knees as she panted in exhaustion. Her beautiful striped wings twitted back and forth as the fatigue began to set in her back. Finally, she carefully positioned her wings so she could lie on her back without hurting them.
“Rowen, have you ever wanted to have wings?” Claire whispered.
“I suppose on one point in my life I did,” Rowen contemplated, “Why do you ask?”
“Because right now, if I could, I’d give you my wings,” Claire muttered to the sky, “They are a constant weight on my back cause me so many problems. The two of the together weigh a fourth of my total weight. If I lie down wrong, I run the chance of tearing or breaking them, which is both painful and sometimes crippling. I doubt anyone with six appendages would be able to survive without magic.”
“Uh . . .,” Rowen mumbled, “That does sound like quite a bit of work. But, uh, about my previous inquiry?”
“Hm?” Claire scrunched up her face in thought, “Oh right, the tracking beast. I found three stables where tracking beasts are rented, but it looks like most of them have already been given out. I’m not too sure they’ll be any left by the time you get here.”
“I see,” Rowen said calmly, “Well in any case, Milly and I are going to go meet with the guildmaster in a moment to plead our case. After that, we’ll get Fred to take us to Olaf’s blacksmith shop to pick up Milly’s daggers. We’ll meet you at home.”
“Alright, good luck,” Claire sighed. She got up and peeked over the side of the roof. Below her, the dog was looking up at her, its eyes alert and playful.
“How can you see me when I’m invisible,” Claire wondered out loud, “Hey, go away!”
“Woof woof!” said the dog.
“And that’s the end of today’s lesson,” Ganus announced, “Do either of you have any questions?”
Milly and Rowen exchanged a look and grinned. “No sir,” they chorused together.
Ganus grimaced. His two pupils had been oddly knowledgeable over the topic of slimes. He had been prepared to walk them through the basics of fighting against slimes, just in case, but in the end he had been forced to abandon the effort and returned to lecturing about the various forces of the Empire.
“In that case, consider today’s lesson ended,” Ganus grumbled as he grabbed his notes and opened the classroom door, “Milly’s father has insisted on taking you both home, so wait in the lobby until he arrives. Good day children.”
After the door shut, Milly looked over at Rowen. “Ready to meet the guild-master?” she asked.
“This is our one chance,” Rowen clenched his fist, “Let’s do our best to persuade her.”
The two exited the classroom and returned to the lobby. It was as dead as when they arrived, as every adventurer was out on their mission. Milly skipped over to the receptionist desk.
“Hi Belle,” she said cheerfully, “We’d like to see the guild-master!”
“I’m sorry children,” Belle shook her head, “but the guild-master is in an important meeting right now. If she finishes before your father arrives, then I’ll inform her to see you.”
Milly turned her head to look questioningly at Rowen. Rowen shrugged and gave her a thumbs-up.
With an evil smirk, Milly turned her attention back to Belle, who looked confused after watching the teens interact.”
“Hey Belle, can I ask you a question?” Milly asked cutely, “do you think I’m pretty?”
“Your highness,” Mary greeted with a bow, “It is my pleasure to welcome you to my office. What can I help you with today?”
Prince James returned the greeting with a small bow of his own, “I thank you, guild-master, for allowing me to enter your office.”
“Stop that,” Mary frowned, “As a future king, it is beneath you to bow for anyone, even those stronger than you. Your princely instincts are still ingrained in your body I see.”
“Please spare me the lessons guild-master,” James said with a tired smile, “I’ve only known you for what; 12 years now? Was it not you with Guild-master Vance who attended my brother and I’s tenth birthday? I recall those few months learning the art of the blade and magic from you and Vance.”
Mary sighed, “Indeed. Those days were so long ago, back when I was learning how to lead a guild. Even one as long-lived as I need a teacher for new things, and Vance was one of the best. I still cannot believe he has fallen, but I am pleased he did not succumb to the enemy’s magic.”
She shook her head, “But that was then, and so much has changed. You are king now, with your parents, brother, and dear sister dead. Are your other sisters handling it well?”
James sighed, “They spend their days cooking and cleaning, though they are not good at either. They have thrown themselves at any task so long as it distracts them from the horrors of reality. After all, Diana was my only sister who enjoyed battle, and I’m afraid that my sisters will break under the stress.”
“While I wish to continue this nostalgic conversation, I’m sure your highness did not come here for mere small talk,” Mary rubbed her head ruefully, “Tell me, what has happened?”
“My guards have confirmed the murderer’s identity as that of a slime,” James replied evenly, “My counsel is advising me to take action . . . against the dungeon.”
Mary grimaced and groaned, her hand rubbing her head harder. “Are you completely sure? There is no mistake?” she asked.
“No mistake guild-master,” James reiterated, “The substance used to melt the necks was confirmed to be an acidic substance consistent with slime acid. In addition, before I came to you today, my men hired many tracking beast throughout the city and used them to follow the scent of the murderer. They located five holes hidden throughout Iron Town, the closest part of this town to the dungeon. My mages confirmed the presence of dungeon magic deep within the holes.”
Mary tapped her fingers on her desk in thought. “So, you think the dungeon has become corrupted and has begun to move its attack from inside itself toward the townspeople? Why?”
“I believe the reason is fairly obvious,” James said pointedly, “I recently sent every adventurer on the mission with the rangers. Before that, the adventurer casualty rate has decreased dramatically in recent times has it not? Its source of food gone, the dungeon was forced to seek alternative means to continue to eat. The tavern massacre is only the first of such tragedies.”
“I will admit, the timing of the adventurer’s departure and the escalation of attacks is suspicious,” Mary acknowledged, “but it is also quite the coincidence. Given our current . . . situation, there are many parties who would benefit from both the destruction of the dungeon and the weakening of our forces. Tell me, are your men anywhere near equipped and trained to fight against a horde of slimes in tight corridors?”
“No,” James admitted, “Which is one of the reasons why I came to see you.”
Mary chuckled and leaned back into her chair, “Why do you need to come to me? You’ve already taken every single one of my adventurers into your army and sent them on a mission that frankly, I deem worthless to the protection of the town. What can I do?”
“Mary, I didn’t . . .”
“Didn’t what?” Mary’s fist slammed down onto the desk, startling James, “Didn’t mean to subvert my authority and send my adventurers on a suicidal mission to an enemy controlled town with minimal supplies and preparation? Or perhaps you didn’t mean to remove the guards who were ‘guarding’ the town and replace them with your own men who can’t seem to ever be at the right place at the right time? And now you have the gall to come to me to ask for my HELP in planning the destruction of what could be our best and only ally? That dungeon has worked with us before, or have your spies not been reporting properly to you? Has your little spy-mistress been keeping secrets?”
“Leave her out of this,” James shouted, “I don’t care how you treat me in private, but don’t you dare slander my friends! They . . .”
“Friends? FRIENDS?” Mary laughed sadistically, “Oh James, anyone in the city can tell you how your so called friends really are. Alfred is an opportunistic snake, Annabelle is his willing lapdog, and Josh is the attack dog on a short leash. Don’t tell me you forgot how they abandoned Fiora for you when you asked?”
“We were young,” James instantly deflated as he tried to defend himself, “I was just messing around with her. I didn’t mean to cause her to get thrown out. It wasn’t . . .”
“Your fault, right? I’m sure that’s what everyone tells you these days,” Mary scoffed, “Allow me to tell you, your highness, that as former royalty myself, that is just not true. Being a king isn’t all luxury and riches, it’s about responsibility. Your mistakes will come back to haunt you. Everyone will whisper when you do something wrong. And when you cross the line, no one will come forward to save you. Your sister understood that better than anyone else, as did your father.”
“They are dead!” James yelled at her, his fury renewed, “They’re gone, and now I have to pick up where they left off! I need to protect my people!”
“You need to make your own decisions!” Mary roared back at him, “Instead of letting others decide things for you, you need to man up and be a king! This is your role now!”
The two of them breathed hard as they stared across the table at each other.
“If you’ve come for my help in destroying the dungeon, you don’t have it,” Mary said calmly, “A dungeon willing to seek an avatar in your sister, and one that allied without against an invading dungeon, is one I do not believe would turn on us so easily. If your culprit really is a slime, then find its true identity. I won’t condone wasteful slaughter.”
James took a deep breath as he locked eyes with Mary. He stood up, opened his mouth . . .
Mary and James whirled about to find a collapsed Milly and Rowen in the open doorway.
“Um, we aren’t the slimes your looking for?” Milly smiled awkwardly.
Mary glared at the two teens in front of her, “How much did you hear?”
“Enough,” Rowen grimaced as he helped Milly to her feet, “We were on our way to talk to you about the slime issue ourselves, but it appears the prince already tracked down its lair. We’ll be leaving now, my apologies.”
“Hold,” Prince James ordered, causing the two youngsters to freeze in place, “Who are you both?”
“These little spies are my two newest disciples: Milly and Rowen,” Mary explained, “and I’m quite curious to hear why they have been investigating a hazardous situation. I’m also interested to hear how they got past the receptionist desk.”
James’ eyes flashed in recognition as he beheld the two sheepish children before him, “Mary’s disciples are you? Well, what say you about the murders?”
Rowen locked eyes with the prince, “The dungeon isn’t to blame. It’s a wild slime.”
“Do you have any proof?” James asked.
“None that you’d believe,” Rowen replied.
“Is that so?” James pondered, “Well, thank-you for your insight young one.”
“Responsibility has no age limit,” Rowen said dutifully, “However, knowing when to listen is a sign of maturity.”
The tension grew palpable in the room as the two princes glared at each other. Milly looked uneasy as she back away from Rowen.
“Respect for you elders is a core value young one,” James cautioned.
“The wisdom of youth should never be doubted,” Rowen argued back.
Mary coughed awkwardly, “Well, if you too are finished comparing each other’s smooth tongues, you children should get going before you father finds you missing from the main hall. Off you go.”
Milly pulled Rowen’s arm until the two were out of sight.
James collapsed back into his chair, an odd look on his face. “You said that boy is your disciple?” he asked Mary.
“Yes,” she nodded, “he has immense magical talent. I look forward to the day he realizes his true potential.”
James slowly scratched his head with a wry grin, “He argues just like my sister. Heh, she and I would get into the worst tirades when I tried to tell her what to do. How curious.”
“Diana was a special child,” Mary agreed, “and she is sorely missed by me and Fiora.”
“And me,” James whispered quietly, “The dungeon is her grave, and I have no wish to disturb it. But, what can I do? I must protect the legacy of my parents and their people.”
Mary smiled sadly, “That’s the most truth you’ve said since you entered my office.”
Mary stared at the prince in thought, before moving over to her shelf. She pulled out a blue folder.
“Prince James, would you take a look at these findings with me? I think . . . I think you should be made aware.”
Claire, Milly, and Rowen all collapsed onto the floor in Milly’s room.
“I got berated by daddy and Belle for charming her and not telling him about not having my daggers,” Milly admitted.
“I argued with the crown prince over nothing but empty words,” Rowen moaned.
“I got chased down by a dog and slobbered on before escaping,” Claire sniffled.
They all sighed together.
“Our plan won’t work anymore,” Rowen muttered, “The prince already had tracker beasts chase down the remnants of the slime. Unfortunately, that only led them to Doc’s emergency exits around the town. Now they really think he’s the murderer.”
“At least we won’t have to break into their headquarters now,” Milly pointed out, “That’s one less thing to worry about.”
“I feel so dirty and violated,” Claire whined.
“What are we going to do now?” Milly asked Rowen.
“I have no idea,” Rowen sighed, “This seems to be the end of our investigation. We have no more leads.”
“In that case, why not try a vacation!”
The trio exchanged a confused look.
“I didn’t say that,” Rowen said.
“Me neither,” Milly exclaimed.
“Uh, that voice sounded a lot like . . .” Claire trailed off.
With a bang, the floor opened up into a hole, revealing two small pups, a blue woman in old armor, and a purple slime. The purple slime waved its tentacles in greetings.
“Claire, we came to join you on vacation!” Doc announced happily.