“For the safe return of the warriors of Duran and their completion of their mission, CHEERS!” Fred yelled, lifting his mug high into the air.
“Cheers!” the many patrons within the tavern screamed together, and everyone drowned their drink in a single chug.
“Hey Fred,” Hamish called out, “You sure it’s all right serving this many free drinks when the whole town’s still on rations? We don’t want you closed!”
“Ha ha,” Fred chortled, “my brilliant and fearless daughter has created an entire new type of ale, and you all can have as much as you want! I summoned you folk to celebrate, so celebrate to your heart’s content!”
“Hear hear!” Henry roared, “A toast to Milly, and her amazing ale!”
“To Milly!” the crowd roared as one.
Milly blushed deeply as she scurried around the floor, delivering drinks to the thirsty patrons. As used to the attention as she was, Milly could not help but feel embarrassed with all the praise thrown her way. She tugged at the hem of her tavern outfit and ran to hide behind the counter after giving the mugs away.
Fred chuckled and rubbed Milly head, “You silly girl, why aren’t you out there enjoying the party? Your and Rowen’s efforts are to think for this after all. Here, I’ll even let you have some booze for the special occasion.”
“Thanks poppa,” Milly murmured as she accepted the mug and took a sip. Her face warped and she spat out the drink with a cough.
Fred and the nearby patrons roared with laughter, causing Milly to feel even more embarrassed. She slid down lower and hung her head.
“Oh, sorry Milly,” one of the patrons apologized, “We didn’t mean nuthin’ by it. We all did the same thing when we had our first drink too.”
“Says you, ya light-weight,” a different patron called out, “You still can’t handle yourself after a mug. Go back to milk!”
“You wanna fight?”
As the quarrel spread, Fred brought out a line of drinks and hollered, “Oy, no fighting in the bar! You lot can have a drinking contest to prove your mettle!”
The counter was quickly filled up by men wanting in on the contest, and some of the tables were turned into gambling stations.
“The house gets 10%,” Milly yelled over the crowd as she peeked over the counter, “And put me down for 5 silver on the fat one!”
“That’s my girl!” Fred laughed heartily.
Having control over her emotions again, Milly grabbed a mug and went to the back wall, where Anadine in her adventurer was leaning. She watched the crowd with careful and curious eyes.
“Here, have a drink on the house,” Milly gave her the mug.
Anadine took a sip and shook her head, “you humans watered it down too much. Pure booze slime is the best booze slime after all.”
“Just drink it,” Claire ordered from within one of Anadine’s pockets, “You used up a lot of mana traveling back from the dungeon. Who knew the adventurers would get back so quickly and that Fred would host a party?”
“We already gave him the idea though,” Milly pointed out, “But I’d never be able to get away with skipping a party this big. Sorry for the trouble Anadine.”
“It’s no problem,” Anadine waved her off, “I’ll be back to full form in the morning, so be prepared to face Doc’s training trap rooms.”
“I can’t wait,” Anadine admitted, “But it’s really too bad that I won’t have my dagger with me(I don’t remember if I mentioned this before or not). Actually, I don’t really remember where that old man’s shop is.”
“I don’t want to go back,” Claire shuddered, “he gave me the creeps, like he could sense me almost.”
“Yeah, he was an interesting old man,” Rowen admitted as he entered the tavern from the back door.
“Rowen, you made it!” Milly squealed happily, embracing the younger boy in a hug.
“You know I wouldn’t miss a party like this; Fred would have my hide,” Rowen chuckled.
“Is that the only reason why you came back?” Milly frowned at him, emphasizing her point with a pinch.
“Of course it was to see you too,” Rowen visibly winced, “I haven’t seen you in a few days; how have you been?”
“Better,” Milly nodded, releasing his arm, “and I’ve been well. You’d better go to my father and help him before he gets suspicious about your whereabouts.”
“Alright, see you,” Rowen smiled and walked to the counter. Milly sighed and shook her head.
“Why do I have to be interested in such a blockhead,” she complained to the other girls, “if he really is a prince, he should be more dashing and sensitive. He’s as bad as my father sometimes.”
“All men have to be taught how to treat a lady at some point,” Claire acknowledged, “What they feel that can pass as signs of affection are more appropriate for close friends. They don’t often see the jump from friend to . . . significant other.”
“Is it me though?” Milly mused as she examined her hands, “After all, I am four years older than him. Maybe I’m moving too fast with robbing the cradle.”
“Considering Rowen’s true age lies in the hundreds, I doubt anyone can say you’re robbing anything,” Anadine pointed out.
“But we’re the only ones who know that,” Claire pointed out, “she should do what she wants since the time they have together is running out.”
“What?” Milly’s eyes widened in shock, “What are you saying?”
“Milly, that other boy’s heading this way,” Claire observed. The three girls turned their attention toward the door, where Rolf had appeared. Upon seeing Milly, Rolf smiled widely and marched toward her. Behind him, Danny was carrying a small parcel in his hands.
“Milly, you are as enchanting as ever,” Rolf bowed low and kissed the back of her hand. Milly couldn’t help but giggle at the feeling and blushed.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Milly though to Claire, “polite, charming, and affectionate. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome and rich either.”
“It is also good to see you Rolf,” Milly greeted out loud, “I haven’t seen you in some time. What brings you by?”
“Well, word of this celebratory event has spread throughout the town and I came to join the party,” Rolf winked at her, “I hear that even the elves and priests are planning to stop by to partake of the festivities. My father came as well; I believe he is talking to your father right now.”
Milly looked over and noted that the new merchant head was indeed sharing a drink with her father. The two seemed to be laughing over an old story.
“Rolf, has your father ever told you why our families are such good friends?” Milly asked.
Rolf rubbed his chin. “I believe our fathers had many dealing back when yours was an adventurer. He doesn’t talk much about the old days. I’m rather surprised he took the time to come here myself.”
“I guess everyone’s wanted a reason to celebrate,” Milly said softly as she watched a few elves enter curiously, only to be given a mug and dragged into the party, “It seems even the racism against elves have been forgotten, if only for a single night.”
“Hope is funny like that,” Rolf observed, “it can change in an instant, from burning bright to persisting silently.”
“I suppose. Now, what’s this?” Milly pointed toward the box Danny was carrying.
“Ah yes,” Rolf seemed to recall, “While I was on my way over, an old man handed me this box to deliver for you. He said something about having fixed the problem.”
“Yes!” Milly screamed as she grabbed the box and ripped it open. Inside, her magical throwing knives glistened in the candle-light. Milly cooed as she picked them up and caressed them carefully.
“Um, are you alright Milly?” Rolf’s voice shocked Milly out of her fugue.
“Oh, yes,” Milly stammered, “I’m, I’m sorry you had to see that. I . . .”
“No harm done,” Rolf held up his hands calmly, “I was just surprised to see this level of excitement from you in something not Rowen related.”
“Huh?” Milly tilted her head.
“What my lord means,” Danny interjected, “Is that you have been your happiest when talking with that unworthy lout who is stealing your affections.”
“Perhaps not as polite as I would have phrased it,” Rolf coughed, “but Danny is correct. Did you think your feelings could escape my noble eyes?”
Milly avoided Rolf’s gaze, “I’m sorry Rolf. I . . . I didn’t want to harm the friendship I’ve had with you by telling. I, he, it was just . . .”
Rolf carefully grasped Milly’s hands and pulled her into his embrace. “I know,” he murmured, “you always have thought of me as a friend and nothing else. How could I be a noble in the future if I acted selfishly now? While I will never give up on you, do proceed with my blessing. Just, allow me one little request?”
Milly smiled up at Rolf, “Sure, what is it?”
And Rolf bent down and kissed her. Milly, startled to high heaven, made no move to stop him and went along with it. Danny sniffled and wiped his eyes.
“Wahoo!” Claire cheered in Milly’s mind, “Yeah girl, get some!”
Before Milly could register, Rolf broke the kiss and smiled down at her.
He then went flying as a certain boy’s drop kick sent the both of them sailing into the tables and chairs. Men grunted as they avoided the tumble of bodies and protected their drinks.
“You son of dog!” Rowen roared, “How dare you steal Milly’s lips! It’s time I finally teach you a lesson!”
Rolf wiped his lips and snarled. “You arrogant little tard, allow me to impart a lesson of pain into that thick skull of yours!”
Rolf’s body lit up with golden light as his magic formed a splendid set of ethereal armor. Rowen’s fists released dark waves of smoke that covered his hands and wrists.
“Fight, fight!” the men roared together, loving the dinner and a show. Fred and Grecian quickly stood with their respective boy, but did nothing to stop the brawl that was soon to come.
“Give him hell son!” Grecian ordered, “Show that underage brat the strength of a knight noble in training!”
“Pssh, your son doesn’t have anything on Rowen,” Fred called over, “Rowen, just remember mine and Ganus’s training and show him the strength of arduous work and talent! Beat his butt!”
Milly rubbed her face in exhaustion. “Stupid boys,” she muttered.
Anadine took another sip of her ale, “Hm, looks fun. The only boys who ever fought for my affections were trounced by me. At least your suitors seem competent.
“That’s not the point,” Milly complained.
“Then it’s your loss,” Anadine chuckled, “I’m going to find a pure booze slime. You watch your man meats duke it out.”
Milly groaned as the boys began their fight.
With as much regal posture as he could manage given his current excitement, Prince James flung open the doors to the command room. With a joyful laugh, he embraced Alfred in front of the generals and other advisers in the room.
“Alfred, have you heard?” James cried out, “The mission was a success! Thanks to the actions of the adventurers, they were able to save most of the rangers and return to town with the seals. While most are in a close to death state, Master Mary was able to preserve their lives until they were stabilized. Unfortunately, it appears she has over exerted herself again.”
“I’m well aware your highness,” Alfred said calmly as he removed himself from James’ hands, “However, this kind of talk and behavior should be saved for other times.” He gave a pointed glance to the military leaders in the room.
James waved him off. “Come now Alfred, this is a time for celebration! The seals have been retrieved and the casualties were limited. Everyone should be excited! I plan on holding a mass celebration tonight in Tent City; I hear there’s an adventurer party already being formed there at one of the more famous taverns.”
“I’m sure you’re quite pleased you highness,” Alfred smiled smoothly, “As I’ve heard, if not for the adventurers, every ranger would be dead. It was your idea to send them, so the people have been singing your praises.”
“Indeed, indeed,” James rejoiced, “To think I was so distraught this morning over my decision, yet it all turned out for the best. Why, we don’t even need to send the army into the dungeon now; the murderer hasn’t been active in days and the adventurers will soon repopulate the dungeon.”
“About that your highness,” Alfred’s voice came suddenly from behind James. James turned to find his adviser across the room, staring down at the map on the table, “I’m afraid it is a bit too late for that. The men have been given the newly enchanted equipment and have ordered to prepare for the dive.”
“What? Who gave those orders?” James growled angrily, “I specifically ordered nothing to be done until we worked out the logistics and I gave the final order.”
“Everything is complete your highness,” Alfred explained, not turning to face his prince, “We were actually meeting today about the final order. Given your sudden rise to popularity, I believe it is the best time to strike the final blow to cement your leadership. Destroying the town’s murderer would surely accomplish this, so I need you to give the order.”
“Alfred, did you not hear what I said?” James sputtered in surprise, “There isn’t a need to anymore. The adventurers are back, and the murderer has disappeared. There’s no need to waste precious man-power on a pointless fight, nor rid ourselves of weapons and armor designed to fight demons.”
“There is a point,” Alfred sighed, “you just don’t see it.”
James narrowed his eyes and reexamined the room.
“Hold on, where are the other generals? Where are the clerks?” James asked pointedly. Over half of his surviving generals were missing, and the ones in the room looked . . . strange. Their eyes stared straight ahead, as if nothing was capable of catching their attention. “Alfred, what’s wrong with these men?”
Alfred said nothing, instead moving a few figurine pieces on the map around.
“Hey!” James yelled as he marched over to Alfred, “Alfred, I asked you a question!”
“So you did,” Alfred acknowledged, “Restrain him.”
Before the shocked James could react, silky spider webs shot out from the mouths of the generals and wrapped the prince in a cocoon. James struggled, but could not break free. His angry gaze turned to the one responsible.
“Annabelle,” James roared, “What are you doing? Release me at once! And release my men!”
Annabelle giggled as she cooed over a large red spider in her hand, “Sorry, my prince,” she whispered sarcastically, “But my lord and master has given me an order.”
James turned to face Josh, who avoided his gaze.
“Josh, as the head of my royal guard, surely you wish to help me?” James’ voice had lost some of his confidence.
Josh clenched his fists, but said “I’m sorry your highness, but I am unable to assist you at this time. I am not allowed.”
“Alfred?” James finally turned to look at the back of his best friend, his head adviser, “Alfred, why are you doing this? Aren’t we friends?”
Alfred finally turned around and examined the prince emotionlessly, though a hint of pity could be seen in his eyes.
“My . . . no, James,” Alfred said, “You were always a little too clever for your own good. If only you were more like your brother; arrogant, blind, and selfish. I actually regret having to do this to you, unlike what we did to him.”
“What?” James’ jaw fell open.
“It was easy enough once I pretended dissatisfaction working under you,” Alfred continued to monologue, “Once he was convinced I’d help him become the crown prince, I introduced him to my partners and they in turn gave him the summoning book. If that fool had even paid attention in magic classes even once, he could have avoided his fate. You, however, have always been a pleasure working under.”
“You, you killed my brother?” James muttered, “Why? Why betray me so? Have I not been good to you three for so long? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Alfred finally smiled, “You have been nothing but a good lord. However, I desire more than being a prized underling.” Alfred’s smile widened as his face contorted into an expression of wild mania and ambition. “You see James, ever since I was a boy, I knew that life’s only path was to move on up. I betrayed Fiora to make friends with you, and I’m betraying you to make friends with my new allies. Nothing personal, but you just happen to be in the way, just like she was.”
“How dare you!” James screamed as he violently struggled to free himself from the cocoon, “How dare you! Treason, this is betrayal of the worst kind! You are siding with demons and the Empire over your own people?”
“Oh, so you figured it out, bravo,” Alfred politely clapped, “Yes, that is exactly it. See, the plan was to eliminate that annoying third brother of yours and his rangers, but then you had to throw the adventurers into the mix. While we had hoped they would both perish, it’s clear the adventurers are a much stronger force than we gave them credit. Thankfully, keeping them all alive has incapacitated Master Mary, which is convenient to our plans. Now, I shall have the generals working for me send the army into the dungeon in order to weaken their and the dungeon’s strength. That thing has been a thorn for too long. This town will be no match for the full invading army of the Empire, and then I shall ‘miraculously’ survive with my friends and our master as we make it to the borders of the allied nations.”
“You won’t get away with this,” James warned, “I would rather die than work for you! I have my honor and dignity as a human and prince!”
“Yes, troublesome things those are,” Alfred mused, “But see, those generals behind you also said the same thing.”
With a snap of his fingers, Annabelle approached the prince, the red spider in her hand. She grinned evilly.
“Open wide,” she giggled.
The prince’s scream echoed through the tent, but as no one heard it, there wasn’t a sound to be heard.