Lydia’s eyes darted around like a pair of confused bees as she scanned the crowd around her. It wasn’t that she was nervous so much as she was being wary. Though she was told she would have people watching over her, she hadn’t seen a single one of them. She looked and felt quite defenseless, so it was inevitable she’d be a bit on edge. Surely the point of guarding someone was to dissuade people from even attempting an assault through a show of force, not to use the one being protected as some kind of bait.
She had very little to worry about, however. Though she imagined her horn would earn people’s animosity, Azurvale’s citizens had a lot more to worry about than some girl with a questionable head ornament. The only reason any of them even paid her any attention was because of the royal blue robe she was wearing. The color alone was quite vibrant and eye-catching, even by adventurer standards. That said, her appearance wasn’t all that unique to warrant more than a passing glance, allowing her to navigate the crowd without causing any disturbances.
At least until she made it to the Central Consortium building. The four-floored compound housed eight major guilds, all of which had their hands full even before the Collapse turned the city on its head. Almost all of the adventurers working here recognized that this blue-robed, blonde-haired, green-eyed, horn-headed human was an outsider, and treated her with an appropriate level of suspicion. Lydia’s unease grew to full blown anxiety as their probing glances converged on her. The pressure in the air was almost palpable as she walked up to the front desk.
“Good morning, miss. My name’s Linden,” the clerk behind it greeted her. “How may I be of assistance?”
The man in question was an elf of impeccable manners and appearance. A confident look on his handsome face, a no-nonsense ginger hairstyle and a crisp vest and shirt gave him an undeniably reliable atmosphere. His looks practically radiated the fact that he was a professional that was prepared to promptly and politely respond to any and all queries a client might have. At the very least his simple greeting served to put Lydia’s emotions at ease. She realized the people in here did not mean her any harm, they were just being cautious.
“Good morning,” she replied firmly. “My name is Lydia Law, I was told you were expecting me?”
“Indeed we were, miss Law,” Linden smiled at her. “We’ll just need to quickly confirm your identity, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
The clerk gestured for one of his associates, a dwarven woman with a bright green ponytail, to come over. She introduced herself and shook hands with Lydia, whereupon she performed a Basic Appraisal. This would normally be the point where the Scribe would be freaked out to learn that the woman in front of her was only two years old and belonging to a species she’d never heard of before. However, that did not happen. What transpired instead was that she calmly reported that the visitor was an eighteen year old human Priest that did indeed bear the name she presented herself with.
“Here is your visitor’s pass, miss Law,” the handsome clerk handed her a stamped white card. “Just show that to anyone that asks for it. Your appointment is up those stairs on the top floor, in the west wing.”
“Thank you. Have a nice day.”
“You too, miss Law. And pass my regards onto miss Morgana.”
The adventurers in the lobby relaxed significantly upon hearing that this stranger was somehow affiliated with the Hero of Chaos. Not only did Keira’s name carry quite a bit of weight in this place, but she also had a reputation for attracting oddballs and weirdos like it was an occupational hazard. Therefore, since Lydia passed the front desk without any issues, they no longer felt the need to be as wary of her.
And the reason she was able to get past the Appraisal so smoothly was because she, along with the rest of her siblings, had their true Statuses masked by Essence Concealment. The Hero-only Skill was something they had received as part of the divine blessings bestowed on them by Terrania’s pantheon. This particular boon had been given to them by none other than Angela, the Goddess of Luck.
Teresa and Sigmund weren’t all that happy with this arrangement, of course. They hated the fact that the children would have to lie about who they really were, but at the same time recognized the need for it. Though there would never be a good time to reveal the nephilim’s existence and origins to the rest of the world, it was probably best to at least wait until they had a more stable population. The girls themselves were aware of this, even more so after they had been attacked in their sleep. They had also been exempt from making the traditional Oath of Honesty that was mandatory for the rest of Teresa’s clergy, allowing them to enhance the truth without fear of Taboo.
That said, this had been the first time Lydia’s god-given gift had been put to the test like that. She managed to keep up a calm and composed attitude while in the lobby, but had been approaching a nervous wreck underneath. So she took a moment while climbing the stairs to lean on the wall and catch her breath. She panted heavily as if she’d just run a marathon, with cold sweat to match running down her forehead.
“Damn, I wish I had something to wipe myself down,” she grumbled.
She didn’t want to use the sleeve of her robe since it might stain the luxurious fabric, but she was thankfully handed a handkerchief by someone just outside her field of view.
She casually accepted the white piece of cloth, only to turn around in a frenzied panic. The only reason she had allowed herself to take a breather was because the wide staircase between the second and third floors was practically deserted. Yet not only had someone snuck up on her to silently offer her a handkerchief, but they had disappeared right after. Having no other clue as to what had just transpired, the girl looked down at the article in question. Now that she was paying closer attention to it, she couldn’t help but notice it was so smooth and silky that it threatened to slip out of her hand even though she was gripping it between her fingers.
Almost exactly like her Demon Silk robes.
It was only then that she remembered that each of the triplets had gotten their own otherworldly escort. The Sandman had made a brief appearance in front of Keira’s house to inform them that he’d be lending them his familiars as an added security measure. Kora had gone with Robin and that objectionable woman went along with Madeline, but Lydia’s escort was so undetectable that the girl had completely forgotten about her.
“Claws, right?” she spoke in a near-whisper. “Show yourself if you can hear me.”
A few tense moments passed before Drea’s upside-down face dropped into view, startling the nephilim hard enough to make her hop in place with a slight yell. The demon had been clinging to the ceiling, so she had to dangle from a line of webbing in order to comply with that order.
“Tktktktktktkt,” she chittered quietly. “What?”
Lydia gazed dumbly into the webstalker’s eight orange eyes for several long moments, though the sounds that fell out of her quivering lips could not be interpreted as words.
“Tktktktkt… Don’t call me out like this unless it’s urgent.”
Seeing as how her ‘client’ didn’t have anything to say to her, Drea pulled herself back up to the ceiling and reactivated the Clear Ice Skill. The flabbergasted nephilim tried to track the demon as her body shimmered out of view, but from her perspective the stalker ended up vanishing into thin air. That was the first time she’d gotten such a close look at her, so it was only natural she’d be shocked speechless. After all, Drea’s arachnid features made her far more alien and disturbing than either Kora or Xera. The way those massive mandibles clacked together as she spoke had been especially unnerving.
Lydia was… not the biggest fan of spiders.
The girl regained her composure and wiped her face down with Drea’s freshly woven gift before putting it away inside the satchel dangling from her hip. Though she was a bit bothered to have someone as creepy as that watch over her, she nevertheless felt better knowing that she was, indeed, being watched over. As for the demoness herself, she regretted trying to be helpful. After all, it wasn’t as if Lydia had ordered the stalker to make her a handkerchief, but Drea felt that providing good service might cause the nephilim to speak of her favorably to Keira. It was just her roundabout, awkward way of trying to earn her master’s approval.
After finally making it to the top floor, Lydia went into the Magus Emporium offices on the west wing. This was an artisan’s guild with a focus on alchemy and enchanting with close ties to the Caster-centric Broken Mirror guild that resided on the other side of the floor. The staff here had been told to expect her just like the front desk had, and were more than happy enough to guide her to her appointment. However, the clerk didn’t direct her towards a conference hall or magical laboratory, but to a secondary flight of stairs that led up to the building’s wide and flat rooftop.
Waiting for her there was a male beastkin sitting in a cross-legged meditation position with his eyes closed. His short brown hair looked untamed and wild, though it faded to gray at the ends. The lupine ears that sat atop it had a similar coloration, as did the wolf tail resting on the floor behind him. His face was manly and chiseled, though his left cheek bore some visible burn scars. The same went for his left shoulder and chest, the dark, tanned skin permanently marked by devastating fire magic. Even his bushy tail seemed to have been badly singed in the process, now that Lydia had a second look at it.
And the reason she was able to get such a good look at this man’s scars was because he was currently shirtless, the only piece of clothing on him being a pair of baggy shorts.
“Uhm, excuse me?” she called out to him. “Are you Dahmon Greymane?”
The wolfkin’s hazel eyes flew open and he looked at the curious girl with an inquisitive glance of his own.
“Who wants to know?” he asked flatly.
“I’m Lydia, Keira sent me.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed in a much more jovial tone. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
He smiled, rolled from a seated position onto his back and then leapt to his feet in one fluid motion.
“Give me a moment to get ready, will you? Got a bit carried away with my morning meditation.”
He then reached for the neatly folded stack of clothes and equipment next to him and proceeded to get dressed. He wrapped his torso up in what looked to be a traditional Monk’s light robe, though the azure garment left the scarred portion of his chest and shoulder uncovered. The bracers, boots and trousers he slipped into next struck Lydia as a bit odd, as the numerous pouches, pockets and knives strapped to them made them seem like something a Rogue or Ranger would wear.
Seeing as how Greymane wasn’t going to answer a question that wasn’t asked, the girl decided to do just that.
“Excuse me, you are are a Monk, yes?”
That was what Keira’s note claimed, at least.
“I am many things,” he said evasively. “Wanderer, adventurer, scholar, soldier… but yes, Monk is one of them.”
More specifically, he was a Disciple of Magic, a follower of Lunar’s brand of monastic teachings. His special faith-related Skill allowed him to release a wave of Ki that dispersed magical effects, similar to a Wizard’s De-spell but in a much narrower and longer area of effect.
“Why do you ask?” he prompted.
“I just thought Monks didn’t like to rely on… munitions.”
Lydia’s assertion was quite accurate, as Monks typically avoided relying on some of the more advanced tricks and traps that scouting Jobs normally employed. The sort of things that would be difficult to pull off without preparing and carrying the necessary weapons and materials.
“I can’t speak for all Monks, but I personally have no problem with them,” the wolfkin shrugged. “However, I do dislike random people putting labels on me before we’ve even exchanged words. Though you were not wrong, you would do well to avoid doing that in the future.”
His voice had transitioned from a bemused timber to a more aggressive rumble before Lydia even realized it.
“I apologize, I meant no disrespect,” she bowed politely.
“Of course you didn’t, that’s why I’m only mildly scolding you. Now, is this all the gear you’ll be bringing along?”
Aside from the enchanted robe on her back, Lydia was also carrying her blessed Caster’s staff in a sling over her shoulder and had a Bag of Holding with various supplies dangling off her hip.
“Is it… insufficient?” she asked in a confused tone.
“Not at all,” he reassured her. “I was just making sure you were prepared for the trip we’re about to take.”
“A trip? Where to?”
Greymane didn’t answer with words, but a sagely smile.
“You’ll find out when we get there. Come on, then. Daylight’s wasting.”
He took charge and led Lydia down the stairs, though he made a stop at his locker to fetch the rest of his gear before leaving the building. Much like the nephilim had surmised, he loaded himself up with throwing knives, smoke bombs, sleep powders, alchemical vials and other such roguish tools of the trade. His main weapon was a straight wooden staff that had some glowing magical circuits etched into the handle and metal reinforcing both ends. His secondary was a steel-reinforced shortbow, for which he brought along two quivers with thirty arrows each.
The pair then promptly left the Central Consortium, went past the boundaries of Azurvale and headed north towards the neighbouring sparsely-populated forests along an overgrown path. It was an exceptionally dull walk, so much so that Lydia found her focus and wariness wavering despite her best efforts to remain alert. Even if that spider-demon was likely keeping watch on her from the shadows, this was her first time traversing the wilderness on foot. With a near-total stranger, no less. She just couldn’t feel at ease unless she checked over her shoulder every several steps.
The tedium eventually got to her, however, and she couldn’t help but want to break it up somehow.
“So… how long have you been a Monk?”
Which she did by asking a question that a book on social interaction had told her would be a ‘good ice breaker.’
“Ever since I was old enough to hold a Job,” Greymane answered. “Not exactly by choice, mind you. My family’s circumstances required that I spend my childhood in a monastery, which just happened to be run by one of Lunar’s orders. Becoming a Monk was my only real option, so I just sort of went with it.”
Lydia felt rather awkward, as she got the impression that she had struck a nerve. Come to think of it, ‘Greymane’ sounded more like a dwarven clan rather than a traditional beastkin family name. There was a chance his father was a dwarf, though Dahmon didn’t have the shorter and stockier proportions a half-breed like that would usually display. His physique in terms of bulk and height had been quite average as far as Lydia could tell.
“No need to get all sullen about it,” he reassured her. “I imagine your familial situation is rather complicated as well.”
Lydia wanted to comment on how that was a gross understatement, but opted to remain silent and let Greymane continue.
“Every adventurer is like that, to be honest. Our line of work just doesn’t attract anyone who’s had a ‘normal’ upbringing. Aside from the odd moronic glory-seeker, people only turn to this sort of dangerous work if they have serious problems to deal with. I, for instance, ran away from mine.”
“That seems rather… cowardly,” the girl offered her honest opinion.
“Haha! Appreciate the sincerity, miss Law!” he guffawed. “It was indeed cowardly, but those who run away live to fight another day. And me, I’ve spent an entire lifetime doing nothing but running and fighting. Mostly running, actually. Like there was this one guy that I borrowed money from.”
The man then started regaling Lydia with tales of his many exploits and escapades as he wandered the continent for decades on end. Unlike most other adventurers, he didn’t embellish the parts that made him look good, nor did he gloss over the ones that made him look bad. He told her of every dumb mistake and bad judgement he made, but also of what he learned from those failures. There was nothing epic or fantastic about his journey, just a lone wolf trying his best to survive. His nomadic lifestyle was also reflected in his versatile skill set, which combined Monk and Ranger abilities to allow him to fight effectively at any range. True, he lacked focus and was not as powerful as he could be, but there were very few situations that he wouldn’t be able to respond to.
“I even know the Healing Rain Spell,” he boasted at one point.
“A Spell? As a Monk?” Lydia raised an eyebrow. “I thought Ki couldn’t be used for that sort of thing.”
“You’re right, it can’t. Unless you’re a Disciple of Magic with the appropriate Skill.”
The ability in question was called Spirit Surge. It not only allowed Lunar’s Monks to mold Ki into Spells, but also greatly amplified their effects based on the user’s FTH Attribute. It had certain limits, however, most notable of which was the twenty second cooldown period between casts. Not very suitable for sustained magic use, but invaluable should Greymane suddenly require the aid of one of the incantations he had picked up over the years.
“But isn’t Healing Rain a Druid Spell?”
Lydia naturally had no idea of what his limited arcane arsenal consisted of, so she felt justified in being a bit suspicious about this claim.
“Indeed it is,” he confirmed with a nod. “I learned it from a friend of mine in the aftermath of the Calamity Conflict a few years back. I’m still mastering it, but I can show you right now if you’d like.”
“No, that’s quite alright, I’ll take your word for it. Actually, you mentioned before you were a soldier, right? Does that mean you also took part in that war? I’m guessing you must have. The Republic relies on conscripting adventurers in times of war, so you probably got roped into that.”
The conflict in question could be seen as the reason that the nephilim even had a chance to be born, so the topic was of significant personal interest to Lydia. As for Greymane, his predominantly cheerful expression turned rather solemn as he stared up at the cloudy afternoon sky.
“Aye, I did. Though despite how things may appear, I am proud to have done my part in preserving this nation and its people. It is why I do not treat or cover up my scars. They are a badge of honor, a living testament to the lengths I will go to protect the place I’ve chosen to finally settle down.”
He ran his fingers over the burned skin covering the exposed part of his chest, his serious expression twisting into a smile of self-derision.
“Though I will admit they don’t exactly make me popular with the ladies.”
Lydia had to agree those blemishes weren’t at all flattering, but having heard the sentiment behind them made her see them in a new light. This was also the first time she’d seen a man outside the Inquisition so openly wear his convictions on his sleeve, as it were. She kind of wanted to know more, but at the same time felt awkward about opening up old wounds.
“So I need to ask, why Azurvale?” she tactfully changed the subject.
“What do you mean?”
“You make it sound like you’ve been all over, yet you chose to settle there in particular. Why was that?”
“Ah. Quite a few reasons, actually,” he cupped his chin in thought. “For starters, you will never find a place as unique as Azurvale no matter how much you look. The hylt trees are as fascinating as they are majestic, and their fruit is bloody delicious. You’d think I’d get bored of it after a while, but the elves have an incredible number of recipes to spice it up. I even took up the Alchemist Job just so I could personally prepare the more advanced ones.”
He then went on for several minutes, describing the various elven traditions and customs that he did or did not enjoy before he finally arrived at his point.
“I’d say the culture as a whole is quite fascinating, but the best thing about Azurvale is its people. They are far more accepting of strangers and newcomers than one might expect, even in troubled times such as these.”
“Mmm, I suppose…”
Lydia had to admit that, based on her walk through the city earlier that morning, she didn’t feel as big of an eyesore as she imagined herself to be. She hadn’t been treated as an unwelcome pest or nuisance simply based on her ‘physical deformities.’ Then again, Azurvale was where the Hero of Chaos lived, so the citizens were likely used to a certain degree of weirdness by now. This morning had also been the first time Lydia had gone out in public without any visible supervision, so she had no idea whether she’d be treated differently in an Imperial, Kingdom or Alliance town. But, for what it was worth, she was glad that there was nobody around to question her regarding that horn jutting out from the side of her head.
At least, not until now.
“Mind if I ask what’s the deal with that horn, by the way?” Greymane asked in a casual tone.
“Uh… W-well, y’see,” Lydia stammered, “there’s this, uh, demon curse thing, and, uh-”
“Stop!” he shouted at her with a raised hand. “Just stop, okay? If you’re just going to feed me some bullshit excuse about a random curse, then please save your breath.”
Keira had already claimed something along those lines, though he wasn’t inclined to believe her any more than he was about to trust Lydia’s bumbling words. He was, after all, a Monk raised by followers of Lunar to be a Hex-hunter. His knowledge regarding the darker side of magic was quite thorough, which was how he knew for a fact that there was no such thing as a curse that gave people demonic features. The only reason he hadn’t bothered to question the redhead’s story was because he knew he’d never get a straight answer from her even if he tried.
“It’s alright to refuse to share a secret, but replying to genuine curiosity with disingenuous fabrications is not,” he sternly reprimanded her. “Such behavior leads to misunderstandings and misinformation that could cause far more damage than they’re worth, not to mention it puts you at risk of violating your vows.”
“S-sorry,” Lydia apologized, her face beet red.
Greymane seemed to be the ‘quick to anger, quick to forgive’ type, as he let out a troubled sigh before explaining his outbursts.
“Look, it was my fault for poking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I’m just a curious old dog, is all. I’m used to people telling me to shut up or get lost, so just do that next time I make you feel awkward, okay? I promise I won’t get mad… much.”
He then grinned brightly, and the girl returned with a smile of her own. Which became a bit strained when she caught a brief glimpse of something long, sharp and translucent move past the wolfkin’s neck. She tried not to think about it at first, but it steadily dawned on her that perhaps the stalker demon hadn’t been sent just to protect her from harm, but to also permanently silence any potential leaks. The man himself seemed oblivious to the danger her careless words had placed him in, which only added to her creeping sense of horror.
Her unease gradually lessened as they kept walking down the old, unkempt forest road. It was almost completely gone by the time they reached an old fishing village shortly before sunset, where they spent the night. It would appear this mysterious trip was going to take several days at least, which Keira must’ve know about in advance. After all, the fact that she had explicitly told Lydia to bring only the bare essentials when she sent her off to meet Greymane suggested she must have known something like this would happen.
Upon waking up the next day, Lydia found her Monk mentor to have already left his inn room. She found him meditating shirtless at the bank of the river the village had been built on, and decided to join in. Later that morning they spent a few hours fishing, then collected some herbs and mushrooms from the surrounding woods that Greymane used to cook up the fish they’d caught for lunch. It was an incredibly tasty meal considering how simple it had been. The afternoon was spent addressing a minor goblin infestation that the locals were having trouble with before chartering an overnight boat trip to take them south along the river.
The two of them spent the next few days performing seemingly random tasks and odd-jobs like this, all while essentially running in circles around the capital. They fixed an old wagon that had broken down, helped find a little kid’s lost toy and took part in a local fair that celebrated the summer season, to name a few. That said, there were also a few mishaps, such as when Lydia accidentally set fire to a wheat field while messing around with an old magnifying glass on an especially sunny day. Thankfully Greymane was on hand to douse the flames with a Healing Rain Spell before they got out of control, though they did find the field’s owner and apologized profusely for the damage caused.
All things considered, the trip so far had been an intensely fulfilling experience for Lydia. She finally got to live life instead of just reading about it. She even managed to apply all those book smarts she’d accumulated in unexpected ways, though she couldn’t hold a candle to Dahmon Greymane. The old wolf might’ve been something of a walking contradiction, but he always seemed to have an answer for any issue that propped up. Granted, the most harrowing thing the pair faced had been a chance encounter with a pissed-off treant, but even then the Monk was able to beat it down without difficulty thanks to Lydia’s support magic.
Bottom line was that the more time the nephilim spent on the road, the more she came to understand what the purpose of this trip was.
“Hey, Dahmon?” she spoke up during one of their morning meditation sessions.
“Yes, Lydia?” he replied without opening his eyes.
“The destination you’ve been guiding me towards isn’t a physical one, but a spiritual one, right?”
“Heh. Took you long enough to figure it out,” he teased her with a light chuckle. “And here you said you were supposed to be the smart one.”
“Yes, well, you’re not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, either.”
“Oof, that comment cut me deep.”
“I’m trying to have a serious conversation,” she frowned at him through her shut eyelids.
“Are you? Or are you just trying to show off the ‘brilliant’ deductions every rookie adventurer eventually makes?
Though slightly vexing, Greymane’s attitude was somewhat understandable. The very basic principle he had been demonstrating over the past five days was that all knowledge was precious. That no matter how seemingly minor and unimportant it seemed, every piece of information was useful to someone. Some tidbits were perhaps more valuable than others, but there was no telling when a seemingly useless piece of trivia might save a life, solve a crime or just brighten up someone’s day. Assuming, of course, one possessed the insight necessary to put their knowledge to practical use, and the only way to obtain that was by trying, failing, and learning.
All of which was a fancy and roundabout way of saying that the purpose of this destinationless trip had been to give Lydia the confidence and experience she needed to apply herself. And she was making amazing headway, if Greymane had to be honest. Teaching hadn’t been his strong point, and he wouldn’t have even agreed to this thing if Keira didn’t pressure him into it.
He was therefore quite relieved to see the young Priest adapting so well on her own. He barely even had to do anything other than wander in a random direction like he usually did, though the redhead Hero did insist he stay within spitting distance of the capital. His ‘pupil’ was supposed to have been completely green, so it made sense to stick to the safer parts of the Republic wilderness.
“There is something else that’s been on my mind,” Lydia’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “I have a request to make.”
“I’m listening,” he responded.
“A… personal request.”
Those words made the Monk open his eyes, only to be instantly met with the blazing green of Lydia’s irises, which were staring intently into his own. This was clearly a serious matter, so he decided to address it with a fitting level of severity.
“If you feel comfortable asking it of me and think that I can help, then I will do everything in my power to assist you.”
A relieved smile floated onto the girl’s lips.
“I was hoping you’d say that. You see, I’ve been looking for someone like you. A man with a strong body, a sharp wit, a noble spirit, and a kind heart.”
“Before we take this any further, you’re not going to suddenly ask me to go on some grueling quest to avenge your parents’ murder or something, right?”
Greymane wasn’t all that used to being complimented like this unless the other side was trying to butter him up, so it was only natural he would feel uneasy.
“No, no, nothing violent like that,” Lydia reassured him. “It’s really just a small favor, won’t take more than a few hours.”
“Alright, lay it on me.”
“I want you to mate with me.”
“I want you to mate with me,” she repeated.
“So… You… want to… sleep with me?” he asked in a thoroughly confused tone.
It wasn’t as if the wolfkin was particularly opposed to the idea. He would normally be more than happy to spend a night of passion with a beautiful woman like Lydia. However, neither he nor the blonde had expressed any intentions of the sort thus far, so both the timing and phrasing of her proposition had caught him completely off guard.
“No. I want you to be the father of my child,” she clarified.
“I suppose the act of sex is integral to the whole mating process, but I’m sure I can manage if you just squeezed some seed into a cup for me.”
It was at this moment that Greymane decided to deal with this situation the same way he dealt with any problem he ran into for the first time.
Which was to say he stood up, turned around, and ran for the hills.