"Where the hell did everyone come from?" Misa said, looking around in slight bewilderment. "There weren't this many adventurers around when we left."
"Word got out, I'm guessing," Sev agreed, frowning slightly. "Means it's a big announcement."
Vex was mostly silent — the lizardkin didn't particularly enjoy crowds, instead using Derivan's presence to deter onlookers. Indeed, the other adventurers tended to give Derivan a bit of a berth. Something about his armor being intimidating, he supposed.
Everyone was gathered in the Guild's lobby, and a restless sort of energy hung around amongst the adventurers as they waited. There was a makeshift stage where the questboard was normally stationed, and it was the only spot in the lobby that wasn't already full, with just the one woman standing idly there. Derivan and the others, who had returned pretty much exactly on time for the announcement, had to stand near the door. There was no space anywhere else.
Derivan hadn't actually seen the Guildmaster — nor had he seen any of the leaders in charge of individual Guild branches, for that matter. As he understood it, they tended to be somewhat reclusive, rarely meeting with adventurers in person; when they weren't resolving a crisis, they were handling administrative work. What that administrative work was he didn't really know, though Sev had once explained it had to do with how the Guild handled individual teams, as well as each branch's relationship with nearby cities and towns.
Now that he thought about it, the fact that the Guildmaster was personally handling this announcement was probably some indication as to its importance.
"Greetings," the Guildmaster said, and Derivan blinked, the lights in his helmet flickering. It was like a switch had flipped in his mind. He'd seen that woman standing in the middle of the stage — of course she was the Guildmaster. Who else would she be?
But he hadn't made the connection, for some reason, and it seemed like he wasn't the only one. Other adventurers seemed to be similarly startled, with several of them letting out a brief curse as their brains suddenly told them in no uncertain terms that the Guildmaster was there.
She was... she was a middle-aged, nondescript woman? Her features were indistinct, and try as he might, Derivan found he couldn't pinpoint anything about her besides her identity.
"Some kind of perception-based Skill?" Vex muttered at his side. His voice was slightly strained, like he, too, was trying to see through it.
Derivan tried to watch her more carefully, but his attention slid off of her like it was water; there was nothing for him to latch on to —
— No. Wait. He could latch on to something.
|You are circumventing a powerful anti-identification Skill.|
He couldn't get a read on her appearance, but he could still read her with Physical Empathy. He could tell he wasn't supposed to, somehow; there was a strange resistance to it that required him to focus his efforts. Her skill should have masked everything from him, he suspected, even her body language, but it seemed like the stat could go around it, somehow?
He could see that her eyes were sharp, the corners crinkled just slightly in amusement at the way the adventurers reacted to her. Her shoulders were hunched, just barely; deeper-set stress and irritation from something unrelated to the adventurers muttering amongst themselves about her appearance.
You have partially circumvented a powerful anti-identification Skill. The owner of the Skill will be alerted.
Derivan frowned at the message. The system could have warned him about that earlier.
Sure enough, the Guildmaster paused in her announcement, searching the crowd with faintly narrowed eyes. Her eyes met his own for a moment.
Then, to his surprise, she winked.
No one else seemed to have noticed, though, and she continued her announcement like nothing had happened. Derivan realized vaguely that he hadn't been paying attention, and sheepishly tuned in.
"Normally, a new dungeon forming would be something to celebrate," she said, her gaze sweeping impassively over the crowd. "And indeed, this dungeon is unique, even among the core dungeons cultivated in the Prime Kingdoms. We don't know how or why this formed the way it did. We do know this dungeon is dangerous."
"It is a platinum-tier dungeon," she said, and whispers swept over the crowd of adventurers. Her eyes hardened. "Which means," she added, "no one below Gold will be allowed to delve it."
There were groans and loud complaints. The Guildmaster's gaze was unrelenting, but then she sighed, holding up a hand; the adventurers quieted without really knowing why they did so. "But it doesn't matter; I tell you this only to lighten the blow. Even Gold teams will not be allowed to delve it, for Elyra has claimed it for their research."
"What?!" One adventurer in particular said loudly — he was clad in silver armor that was trimmed in gold. Some sort of paladin class, Derivan assumed. He didn't look happy, and neither did any of the adventurers he was with. "How is that fair? We were the ones that discovered the dungeon!"
"Technically," the Guildmaster said pointedly. "You didn't do shit. I messaged you when the dungeon was forming, telling you that there was only a single adventuring team on site and they might need assistance. You were the only team that could get there and scout it within minutes. You said, and I quote, 'Get back to me when there are rewards that are actually worth my time.'"
"I didn't know it was going to be a fucking platinum-tier dungeon," the strange man scoffed.
"That shouldn't have mattered. You were hardly on an important assignment, and you were well aware that I had already allocated all the resources the Guild has available to the task as a reward." The Guildmaster's eyes narrowed again, and this time Derivan didn't feel the resistance that meant he was circumventing her skill. This time, she wanted everyone to sense her displeasure, and most of the adventurers shifted uncomfortably. "Any more compensation would result in deaths in many of the villages that rely on us."
"And how's that any of my business?" The man shot back. "The more I level up now, the more I can help you get your stupid crystals later."
Derivan felt Vex freeze next to him. He didn't see it, but he knew Misa's eyes were narrowed, and that Sev had taken a step forward, hands clenched around his staff. He, too, found that he felt disgust coiling around inside him.
But they held back. There was no reason to get involved now — not when it was already being handled.
"And when will that 'later' be, Jerome?" The Guildmaster asked, her voice icy. "One year from now? Ten? How much do you want us to sacrifice for the sake of your upward progress, on the promise that you will eventually help, even assuming you survive the entire process? And you want me to believe that, having tread on bodies to get there, you would not do so again? Once you are too strong for anyone to deal with?"
The man — Jerome, apparently — glared, and opened his mouth again. But the Guildmaster waved a hand, and no words came out of his mouth. He seemed furious, but she ignored him, simply continuing on with her speech. "On that note. I had planned to do this privately, but since you did me the courtesy of causing a scene, know this: I will be demoting your team."
There were shocked whispers, but she ignored them, even as the adventurer she was staring at grew even more angry than he already was. Her eyes were narrowed and intense. "Gold and Platinum rankers in the Guild are held to a moral standard, not just a power standard. This was made clear to you when you joined. You may have been powerful within Anderstahl, and we gave you a rank matching your power and prestige as a professional courtesy — but you are an adventurer now. You will be held to our standards and our rules. If you cannot behave like a Gold ranker of the Adventurer's Guild, then you will not be one, until you have been judged worthy of the rank."
Here, Jerome paused. His fury seemed to double, and the adventurers around him that weren't a part of his team quickly backed away, sensing danger.
Derivan, further away and not in any particular danger, frowned. Jerome had joined as a Gold ranker, instead of working his way up the ranks? That was unusual, in and of itself; the only people able to reach Gold and Platinum were usually people who had powerful backing.
Which meant that this Jerome had been... what, kicked out of somewhere else? The Guildmaster had mentioned Anderstahl, one of the other Prime Kingdoms, if he remembered correctly.
His thoughts were interrupted when a low cry of fear rose up from within the ranks of the adventurers, and several defensive Skills activated as they rapidly backed away from the enraged man.
Brilliant flickers of light were gathering around him, mana so condensed and packed together that it became visible even without the benefit of [Mana Sight]. His party members stood behind him, their eyes narrowing. Two of them were women; archers of some sort, it seemed, and the last member was completely hidden within their robes. All of them seemed to be getting ready for a fight. The air grew dense with power.
And yet... the Guildmaster didn't react. She stood relaxed at her position on the stage, unflinching and unblinking. The message was clear: You don't want to do this.
Then something seemed to resolve within him, and the lights abruptly cut out. "Fine," the adventurer spat. "I'll see you later, then, Guildmaster."
He spun and stormed out of the guild, brushing past Derivan and the others as he did so, his party members following behind him. No one stopped them.
"Bastards," Misa muttered, and Vex gave a shaking nod in agreement.
"As I was saying." The Guildmaster's eyes were dark, even more irritated than before. "Elyra has claimed the dungeon, and the Guild will not be allowed to touch it. For now. I was able to negotiate a partial contract with Elyra; once most of the dungeon's secrets have been pried out, we will be allowed in. Elyra has first pick of any loot that drops, but will pay twice the value of the artifact to the adventurers that find it, with the value determined by Guild-issued evaluator."
"Negotiations with Elyra are ongoing, but they are very insistent about getting this dungeon, and the Guild doesn't have the political power to fight them on this." The Guildmaster paused, her eyes surveying the crowd. "Most of you aren't Gold or Platinum ranked anyway, so it won't matter for you in the short term. For those that are, we ask that you don't endanger our negotiations by trying to force the issue."
"As for the adventuring team that discovered the dungeon." The Guildmaster spoke so smoothly that Derivan's party almost didn't register that she'd said it at all; it felt like just another part of her speech. It was deliberate, Derivan realized — she didn't want them to react obviously to the announcement. "I will be personally visiting your quarters later in the day. Please expect a visit."
With that, she left; the crowd began to disperse. Derivan's party glanced at one another.
"Well, let's head back to our room, shall we?" Sev eventually said.
"That Jerome guy is a dick." Misa frowned.
"The Guildmaster said he is from Anderstahl," Derivan said. "I believe that is the northern Prime Kingdom? Perhaps he was removed for this behavior?"
"Probably," Sev sighed. "And he's almost certainly planeshifted. That name is very... Earth."
"Does that matter?" Vex cocked his head at their cleric.
"...No. I don't know. Maybe." Sev grimaced, looking up briefly and then back down as a woman slipped into their room. "I don't feel great about other planeshifted, but I think that's just because I haven't really had good experiences with them."
"Well, the guy was an ass, though, we can agree on that much," Misa grumbled. "Kinda wanna kick his ass."
"He's level 72. I checked. Please don't provoke him," Sev deadpanned, and Misa huffed.
"I worry that he will do something anyway." Derivan's voice was concerned; he stood leaning against a wall at the side of the room, unable to convince himself to sit. "He was very angry, and he did not stop because he realized his anger was unjustified. He stopped because he formed a plan."
"There's not much we can do about it," Sev said, shaking his head. "Especially since we don't know what he's planning. We'll have to trust that the Guildmaster saw the same thing and is preparing countermeasures."
"I suppose." Derivan glanced over his friends. The answers they needed were in the dungeon, but none of them could get in, and the only adventurer that did technically have the power to get in was loud and worryingly hostile. Sev looked withdrawn, Misa looked agitated, Vex seemed distressed, and that woman still seemed irritated, though now that irritation was colored with amusement.
Derivan paused. The woman seemed irritated. How strange. There was something about the way her shoulders were hunched...
One thought linked to another. He blinked, eyes flickering in his helmet. He didn't know who that woman was, but the set of that irritation was familiar —
Two notifications blipped out at once.
|You are circumventing a powerful anti-perception Skill.|
You have partially circumvented a powerful anti-perception Skill. Owner of the Skill will be alerted.
"The Guildmaster is here," he blurted, startled by how easily she'd slipped beneath their notice. To their credit, none of the others doubted him, though they seemed to interpret his surprise as a warning — they reacted in a flash, Misa reaching for her mace and the other two preparing spells. They looked puzzled, though, unable to parse any kind of target.
"So that's how you did it," the Guildmaster said, amused. "Not many can see through my Skills. I'm impressed. But you can put your weapons away; I'm not here to fight, and I apologize for startling you. I was just curious about how your friend saw through me. You have a skill that recognizes body language, and somehow associated that body language with me?"
All three of the others started as the Guildmaster spoke, then relaxed, slowly putting their weapons away. Derivan nodded awkwardly — it wasn't a correct assessment, exactly, but it was close enough. He could hardly explain what was going on with his status.
"Yes," he said out loud, and she grinned at him playfully.
"Should've stuck with the nod. That's a partial lie, but I'll let that one slide; I shouldn't have asked you in the first place, and you shouldn't be able to make that association at all."
"You have a crazy-ass set of skills," Misa muttered.
"Necessary, when you're the Guildmaster." The Guildmaster chuckled, the irritation bleeding away. "To address your concerns — yes, Jerome almost certainly has something planned. I've got eyes on him. They'll try to stop him if he does anything stupid, but I'd appreciate it if you could keep an eye out, too."
"You are here for a different reason, though," Derivan said, observing her. She was being... cautious?
"I am," the Guildmaster nodded. "You've probably already figured it out, but I lied a little bit back there."
Her voice turned serious. "I need to know what system messages you got during that formation event. That dungeon is not platinum-tier. I'm not sure it fits any of our categorization schemes at all."