The rest of the week was uneventful. Even the weather held steady, a series of warmer than usual days with only a light breeze. No rain accosted them, and the only monsters they had to face were ones they hunted themselves. During that week Kahari’s training was reduced to give Nissa time to work on his literacy, but otherwise it continued much on the pattern it had until they had found Sok. The sun rose on the last day of their journey, and with it Kahari had officially gotten further from home than he had ever been before. Rising from his bedroll, he stretched and yawned. He still had some trouble sleeping at night, but since killing the Ghast it had gotten somewhat easier.
Nissa and Bedora were up and about not long after him. He made sure any embers from their fire was extinguished while they packed gear. Refilling their waterskins, he turned to find that once again they had hidden things away where he couldn’t see them. His curiosity burned, but he had given up asking since the day after they’d left Sok. The answer had never changed, never wavered, it was and always would be ‘you’ll see’. So he waited for that chance, confident now that at the very least, it was something to do with the Association.
Once everything was packed, they hit the road once more. Kahari watched the colors of sunrise fade away as they walked, keeping his focus on the journey ahead of him instead of the things troubling his heart. Today he would make it to Ixul, today the first leg of the long journey to finding and saving his sisters would be finished. He didn’t know what awaited him in Ixul, what obstacles he would have to overcome. If he didn’t, if he faltered here, he would never get Aiyoko and Tanaya, or any of the others back.
It wasn’t far into the day that they saw the city. The great white walls of Ixul came into sight as they crested a hill, the rays of the mid morning light playing across the walls surface made it a beacon in the countryside. They were at the edge of the forest now, the landscape between them were gentle hills dotted with farms, villages, and a few small towns. There was even a naiad village, different than the one rumored for Seras, in the region that had set up along the river that flowed down from the mountains to the north-east, flowed through Ixul, and continued west towards the capital and the ocean. It was much like Kahari’s old home, much of the valley kingdom was like this. Peaceful, gentle, people living their lives unafraid of the darker things in the world. The Night Talons had ruined that. Even now Kahari could see that one of the towns had been attacked, the smoke from now extinguished fires still lingered in the air. His hands turned white as he clenched them, anger boiling within. They would rebuild, in time life would return to normal, but the Night Talons...they must pay for what they’ve done.
They continued down the hill, they’d reach Ixul by about mid afternoon at this rate. They didn’t stop for lunch, now that they were free of the forest even the threat of monsters was basically zero. They ate as they walked, the villages they passed through were wary at first, but as soon as they realized Bedora and Nissa were adventurers, they came back outside. The mere presence of these people gave them reassurance that the Association had not abandoned them, and when Bedora passed along that the Association itself was moving against the Night Talons, the villagers cheered. Every stop was like this, Bedora and Nissa returning life and hope to the people with just the mention of what was coming. What they didn’t say was that they’d received reports that morning that it appeared the Night Talons had gathered all the people they wanted, it was now a waiting game for them. Their forces were retreating into Fota, the kingdom and city alike, to prepare for Spring, and repel any attacks launched in retaliation.
It was, even to Kahari, a breath of fresh air in the darkness that clouded his mind. No more people were being taken, that meant they’d stopped one of the very last raids a week ago. The fact that they were bringing so much hope meant the people here trusted the Association implicitly. He smiled as they walked, realizing full well that the Night Talons had sealed their fate when they’d severed ties with the Association and declared war on the independent organization. One could say the Association was simply a framework to facilitate hunting monsters, clearing dungeons, and completing quests. That was accurate, but in time they became more than that. They were a beacon of hope for the common people, farmer and thief alike. They had allowed the Night Talons to conduct their twisted practices while they remained within the bounds of the Association.
That wasn’t enough for the Night Talons, hounded by countries on all sides for their practices, they demanded the Association shield them. The Association refused. They guided, tracked, and facilitated actual adventuring, but they did not interfere with the authority of nations in enforcing their laws. In fact they warned that while they would not stop criminal behavior by their members, they also wouldn’t shield their members from the consequences. The only exceptions were that the Association's property was sacrosanct, seizing it was a declaration of war on it’s members, all of them. The Night Talons had seized Association property, broken their city from the pancontinental teleportation network, and attacked Association leadership in the build up to their plot.
Kahari smiled to himself, knowing now that even if he had died in Seras, the Night Talons were doomed from the start. Even Ouroboros, the Angel and country alike, respected the Association out of fear of what would happen if they gathered their membership for war. A lesson learned the hard way when they’d first been expelled by force. They weren’t allowed to occupy land in the nation, but Adventurers were allowed in, reparations had been paid, and they now avoided interfering in internal Association affairs. It was a little worrying to Kahari that the Night Talons believed they could succeed where even Ouroboros, the unquestioned superpower of Northern Nisteria, failed. He had been given hope again when he learned that the Association, with all their intel, did not fear the Night Talons.
Kahari was snapped out of these thoughts as they approached the walls of Ixul. There was a large line of carts, farmers with goods, merchants coming in and out, in front of the gate. Kahari let out an exasperated sigh, it’d take hours to get through this line. Bedora and Nissa though gestured for him to follow. They avoided the line entirely, walking past it. Kahari blinked and followed them. The people in line started to complain, but ceased as soon as they saw that two of the three were Adventurers. Once they got to the front, six very bored looking guards stood in front of the gate. One went over paperwork while two inspected the cargo, and the last three were extra hands in case they were needed. A seventh guard, their captain, stepped out of the gatehouse at the approach of Bedora and Nissa. It looked like he handled the expedited process Adventurers used himself.
He said simply, as if this was just routine to him. Bedora stepped forward and answered.
“Reporting intel on the Night Talon conflict to the Association here, escorting a prospective new Association member, turning in the Orb Weaver nest quest, and general intent to rest and resupply.”
The man nodded and stepped back inside, emerging with a few papers and a magic inkpen. He raised a small crystal shaped in an emerald cut to both Bedora and Nissa’s badges. After confirming their identities, he checked the paperwork. After only a few minutes he went back inside, and stepped back out with a sealed letter.
“Entry granted, as the first members to arrive today you two get the honor of delivering this letter to the Association branch in the city, I had specific instructions to hand it off to Adventurers in order to ensure it’s safety. Alongside it is a small couriers fee, to be paid by the Association on delivery to the message bearer. I wish you a warm welcome to Ixul, but if you’ll excuse me, I have to keep track of everyone else coming in and out.”
He waved them past the gate, and into the city itself. The first thing that struck Kahari was how clean the city was, someone or something took good care of even the privately owned property within Ixul. The streets were paved in grey flagstone, with dedicated sidewalks for people to walk on when the streets became clogged with wagons and carts. The buildings were made of a variety of different stones, with colorful walls and tiles. Even here in what Kahari could only call slums given the cramped conditions, things were colorful and well maintained. Whoever ran this city tried to keep up appearances at least. The people were a bit more what he expected. Tattered clothes, plain colors, and so forth. They didn’t look as miserable as he’d seen in even worse places, perhaps actual secure housing helped.
Bedora and Nissa led the way through the winding city streets. As they approached the center, the buildings grew nicer, and the people better off. This was far from the rich section of the city, that was up closer to the keep, but it was where merchants and Adventurers alike did business, or lived. At the center of town was a large pitch black obelisk. It reflected almost no light even in the afternoon sun. Around it was a circle of magical runes that glowed faintly at all hours. The teleport crystal of Ixul. By supplying mana, one could connect to the nearest crystals along ley lines in the ground, and step through the obelisk. In order to use one, the person in question needed the mana of at least a Ruby class mage, but their party could go through as soon as it was opened. Longer the distance, more mana was needed, one could say the mana of the user was a signal, the leylines carried that information, and the obelisks processed it. The rich that could afford the mana stones, or to rent a mage with the mana used these to go between cities, as did adventurers. This was the most valuable property the Association maintained.
It was these crystals, and the leylines they tapped into, that the Night Talons had ripped away from the Association, separating themselves from the network to buy themselves time. There was one problem with the network, it only worked on the continent itself. Water and air leylines flucated and shifted too quickly to maintain the connection, and ground ley lines shifted into water leylines after the water got too deep. This prevented the Association from linking other continents, and the island empire of Ocren to Nisteria, limiting their influence to the supercontinent. Sure they sometimes sent Adventurers to the distant lands, but they had to use air or water ships to get there, a much slower prospect. Of course, using the crystals consumed a large portion of a mages mana, and Ruby Adventurers could only get to the closest cities, making it jump by jump. It also meant that the one facilitating the creation of the bridge would be unable to use much or any magic or techniquest that relied on mana until after they’d gotten rest.
For this reason the crystals were nominally used for important travel, Adventurers generally preferring to go on foot both for random encounters, and the scenery. Bedora and Nissa had chosen that path when they’d received word of the declaration of war. Ixul had been the nearest crystal, but by the time they got to Seras, the Night Talons had succeeded in cutting themselves from the network by altering their obelisk. Spies in Fota itself didn’t have exact details as the Night Talons maintained a heavy guard around the obelisk.
Kahari turned his attention to the six story building they were approaching, practically a mansion in its own right. A much larger building than the one in Seras. He spotted guards loitering around that were marked as Emerald class, far above the Golds he had known in Seras. Infact, those Emeralds were the strongest people he’d ever seen. He saw that they had a variety of equipment, likely all personal, and that they were different classes. Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock, several Samurai, a few Clerics, at least one Priest, and he swore the shadows moved more than once.
As they approached the building, Bedora and Nissa’s badges gave them automatic access, though a guard did have to confirm who Kahari was, and check his things. Once they stepped inside, Kahari was pleasantly surprised to find the air was warm, but there was no sign of a fire, or even chimneys. He had to remind himself that the Association was a magical superpower, with Adventurers constantly exchanging Essence for Crowns or other currencies, they had practically unlimited mana stockpiles somewhere. It was used to power their buildings, their wards, magical transportation like airships, and more. It was even given to enchanters so they didn’t have to use their own mana when creating items, increasing the upper scope of what they could do.
There were many Adventurers milling about inside, most were Gold or Ruby, the most common classes in this more peaceful area of the world, but it still represented a great amount of power. Kahari could only imagine how dangerous the Association’s floating headquarters was, where adventures of Titan, Naga, and Dragon class gathered. Above all of them stood the ranked titles, people like the ‘Lady of the Frozen Heart, Rank One’ or ‘Master of the Night, Rank Two’ were. Above even them was Lady Shiro, the Demoness that was the current head of the Association, and considered one of the strongest beings alive, standing in the realm of Oroborus himself and Elder Wyrms.
Kahari found it hard to even imagine that level of power, but it was a fact. Above them all stood the Gods and Goddesses, innumerable beings that controlled the ebb and flow of reality and fate. The top of everything and everyone was the Great One. A being only the divines themselves had ever seen, their creator and master. The God of the Gods. Even the divines didn’t know if the Great One was a he or she, or if it even mattered. For all the world they were whatever they wanted to be. They were to the lesser gods what a dragon is to a common ant. Even the weakest god had levels in the three hundreds, to stand that high above them the Great One must have the power of the universe itself. That was what Kahari thought anyway, some doubted if the Great One was even a real being, or wondered if it was just the consciousness of the universe made manifest.
All if it was so far above the ant that was Kahari, but Kahari was starting to understand something that only those that clawed their way up from the bottom did. That even an ant can make a god flinch. His eyes were set on the future, and his next step was here. Kahari was snapped out of it as the line to the counter moved. It was their turn, standing behind it was an elderly Goblin man. He had clean but simple dress clothes on, and an Association badge of the Emerald tier. Behind him were more Emeralds serving as guards, including a pair of Giantkin, the largest and physically strongest of the Continental races.
“We have information regarding Operation Shadow Cat, a quest to turn in, Essence to exchange, and we are sponsoring the entry of a new Association member.”
Nissa answered this time, as it seemed Bedora was tired of taking the lead in these conversations. The Goblin man nodded and raised a crystal identical to the one the guard outside had used. Scanning their badges, he confirmed their identities.
“First which quest are you turning in?”
“Altesia Forest Orb Weaver Nest Clearance.”
He pulled out a piece of paper and examined it for a moment, and then nodded.
“Confirmed, Orb Weaver nest has been destroyed. Quest difficulty advanced from F5 to F4 due to nest expansion. Rewards have been updated, please sign here to confirm completion.”
Nissa signed the piece of paper with a magical inkpen. The Goblin took the paper and put it into a large slot next to him labeled ‘IN’.
“Crowns have been processed directly into your account. Next the Essence.”
Bedora put the bags of Essence they’d collected, two in total, onto the tray under the counter. The door closed and a small piece of paper printed out of the top of the counter.
“Essence processed, your receipt, Crowns have been placed directly into your account. The manager is out right now so there is no one authorized to get your information for Operation Shadow Cat. Instead if you will follow my assistant, we shall begin the paperwork for Association sponsorship. Trials have ended for today, so he’ll have to wait till tomorrow. We will provide a room for him, and seperate rooms for the two of you on the Low Tier floor.”
As he spoke a quiet angel girl opened the door next to the counter and gestured for the trio to follow her. Once they were through the door, a guard shut it, and turned back to watching the lobby. The trio filed through, Bedora going first as she had to duck through the gate, though the rest of the building was comfortable for her.
“Right this way.”
The angel girl gestured for them to follow her. As they walked, they came to a small cubicle room at the end of a hallway. She gestured for them to get in, and Kahari was skeptical, but stepped forward. A large glowing grey crystal was mounted into the ceiling of the thing. The girl pressed a button marked BSG-2, and the room started moving. They were moving down, and Kahari’s eyes widened, and looked up at the crystal. Some kind of magic, he wasn’t sure what kind, was moving the room.
When the room stopped moving, the girl opened the doors, revealing a much more plain, though still comfortable, stone hallway.
“Rooms five, six, and seven are available, the others are occupied or being cleaned.”
She held out keys with numbers attached. Kahari took one, the six, and the angel girl bowed, and stepped back into the elevator.
“The room will not open without the key, don’t lose it, and if you visit another room, if they leave and take the key, you will be expelled back into the hallway. Have a nice day.”
Before she shut the doors, a quiet hum came to life indicating the thing was getting ready to move again. Kahari looked down at the key in his hand and moved down the hallway towards his room. Bedora put a hand on his shoulder.
“Put your bag down and go ahead and get out of your armor. We’ll talk in my room after we’ve all had a bath.”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll see you in...about an hour?”
“See you then.”