Nova considered abandoning Mathius. Despite what he said, she didn’t feel compelled to make a deal with him or follow his orders. At least not right now. The thought she might be compelled later made her anxious and she looked around the underground room. There was the tunnel they came from and another tunnel to the left. There was also a ladder leading up. She could make a run for it. Nova doubted she would get very far in the dark while Mathius had weaved through the area without a speck of light.
I don’t like my options.
In the end, she decided to wait. She could at least hear him out and get as much information out of him as she could. So when Mathius started moving again she followed and listened as he babbled on about his guild.
“It’s a guild for travelers. We’ll explore the realms together, discovering new and wondrous sights.” He led them up the ladder and to Nova’s surprise they entered more tunnels.
It’s a good thing I stuck with him.
“My own specialty is cartography,” Mathius continued. “I want to map the entirety of Galius. Of course, it’s ambitious and probably not something I can do in a lifetime but what a legacy I would leave behind!”
“You’re a mapmaker?” Nova asked, a little surprised.
“Cartographer,” Mathius corrected.
Nova squinted and looked down at his robes. “Really? I thought you were some sort of cult member.”
Mathius gawked and then looked down at himself. He grabbed his robe and pulled it over his head. The dagger clattered to the floor when he did. Mathius quickly grabbed the bloody dagger and wrapped his robes around it, tucking the whole thing under his arm. “I am not a cult member. This is just a hobby.”
Nova raised an eyebrow. “You’re a cultist as a hobby.”
Mathius flushed red. “No, no. I’m a summoner.” As soon as the words left his mouth he paled and looked around him.
Nova followed his gaze but only saw dirt and more dirt. When she looked back at Mathius he was staring at her intently.
“What?” she asked, shifting nervously. The discomfort of wandering around with a potentially unbalanced stranger itched at the back of her mind.
He shook his head. “Don’t tell anybody about what I said.”
“About the explorer’s guild?”
He shook his head, stopped, and then nodded. “Not that either, at least not right away. But definitely don’t tell them about me being a summoner.”
Nova looked at him. He had been talking about summoning her since he introduced himself, now it was a big deal to him. Still, this presented an opportunity to test a theory. A smile curled her lips. “It’s a deal.”
As soon as the words left her lips she heard a clicking sound. A glowing light swirled around her wrist and Mathius’s.
That actually worked!
“Wait! Wait,” Mathius said in a panic. “No deal. That’s not why I summoned you.”
Nova looked down at her wrist. The light was red and encircled her wrist without touching the skin. The deal he had mentioned really had been active, just waiting to be sealed. That was worrying but now she had a plan. From the way the glow was still humming around their wrist it looked like it hadn’t been sealed yet.
Nova gave Mathius a thoughtful look. “Then you’re saying I should tell people you’re a summoner?”
Mathius paled and shook his head wildly. “No, but I need you to help me with the guild.”
“Well you have a choice,” Nova said, placing her hands on her hips. “I can either keep your secret or help you build this guild.”
He glared at her. “That’s completely unfair.”
She shrugged. “Sorry, but I’m not keen on being magically shackled to some random guy. Is it a deal?”
His entire face turned red and he began to pace. He stopped, opened his mouth, and then began pacing again. Finally, he stopped and looked at her, a gleam in his eyes.
“You’re new to this world,” Mathius said and she wondered if that meant he knew she hadn’t been there long or if he was just guessing. “I can help you and believe me you’re going to need the information I can provide. In return, you help me with the Explorer’s Guild and keep my secret.”
Nova scrunched up her nose. “That’s the best offer you have?”
Mathius growled in anger. “You’ll be in as much danger as I am if people know I summoned you.”
Nova stopped herself from taking a step back. She knew she was pushing it. This man was an unknown and could be incredibly dangerous. Yet, if she appeared meek, she could end up being his slave or worse.
“You need me,” Nova said, knowing he had to if he had been desperate enough to summon her when it would obviously get him into big trouble. “You haven’t shown me why I need you. I can ask other people for information.”
Which opens up a lot of questions. How can I even understand him? Does everyone speak English?
Mathius’s frown deepened and then he perked up. “You need a place to stay and food. I can give you that. You’ll also need clothes if you’re going to fit in. I will provide for all your needs as part of our partnership.”
Partnership. Nova liked the sound of that. She considered her options. She could go it alone but having someone obligated to provide her with a place to stay, food, clothes, and information would be a big help in getting a foothold in this world.
“Four hours a day I’ll help you with the guild. The rest of the day is mine to do whatever I like. You provide me a place to live, food, clothes, and answer any questions I have. I’ll keep your secret and you keep mine. Deal?”
He frowned. “Twelve hours.”
She squinted at him. “Six hours.”
“Ten,” he said and there was a plea in his voice. “It’s an explorer’s guild. There might be times when I need you on longer missions.”
Nova frowned but she could see his point. “36 hours a week. That way you can have longer days if you need me for them.”
He scrubbed his hand through his hair, causing strands of slightly oily hair to fall out of his ponytail. “That’s too little.”
Nova wondered just how long people worked in this world but she wasn’t budging. “36 hours is my offer. If you need my help for longer then we can work something out at that time.”
He grumbled and then nodded. “Fine.”
“There’s one more thing,” Nova said and met his eyes straight on. “The deal lasts only for 60 days then after that we’re both free to go our separate ways.”
He shook his head. “You expect me to build a guild in two months. That’s crazy.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know if you’ll have a guild but you’ll at least have the beginnings of one. I’m not budging on this one.” She didn’t plan on being his indentured servant forever. She could see a stubborn look appear on his face and she knew he was going to fight her on it. “Look, after the sixty days I’ll at least give you a chance to convince me to stick around a bit longer.”
Mathius’s expression relaxed a little though the frown didn’t completely leave his face. “What about my secret? I don’t want to have to worry about you telling it after the 60 days are up.”
“I’ll keep your secret as long as you keep mine,” Nova replied.
Mathius squinted at her and then nodded “Fine. It’s a deal but don’t think I’ll be easy on you. I’m going to squeeze every drop out of you that I can.”
“Likewise,” Nova said. “It’s a deal.”
The band of light tightened around Nova and Mathius’s wrists. As the light touched her skin, strange symbols appeared on Nova’s wrist. When she focused on the symbols, she could see a red thread of mana leading from her wrist to Mathius. The symbols vanished.
[Summoner’s Deal has been sealed.]
Nova jerked as the message screen flashed in front of her eyes. She had almost forgotten about the screens in the chaos. She glanced at Mathius. He didn’t seem to notice the screen or at least he didn’t comment on it. She wasn’t sure if that was because it was normal or not. From what she could see, there was no screen floating in front of him but that could mean he didn’t have one or she just couldn’t see it.
She would need to go over her screens soon. She was tempted to run the diagnostic check but hesitated. If her skills went offline would that mean she wouldn’t have access to them at all? Mana transfer was the only weapon she had, though she didn’t think it was supposed to be used for offense. Still, she wasn’t opposed to improvising. She already knew it worked well enough as her own mini-bomb maker as long as she managed to throw the unstable item far away enough from her.
She didn’t want to lose it and leave herself defenseless. She at least wanted to get her bearings in the new place. She decided to wait. It was better to get to know her situation before doing something that would leave her at a disadvantage.
“I can’t believe all that work for two months,” Mathius grumbled as he adjusted a piece of cloth around his hand. She hadn’t been paying attention to it before. It was crusted in dry blood. It was likely a makeshift bandage.
Was that why the dagger had been bloody? He had cut himself?
Nova hadn’t seen any dead people or animals, so it was likely it was his own blood. She wasn’t sure what to think about that.
Mathius led them further through the tunnels. As they walked, Nova’s thoughts drifted back to Miko. So much had happened in such a short amount of time, but the girl’s sad face drifted in her mind. She felt a wave of guilt when she thought of her. Nova had given the girl hope only to abandon her in the end. She knew she hadn’t meant to leave her behind but it didn’t change the fact that she did. And Jace.
Rage engulfed her at the thought of Jace. He had purposely ripped Miko away from her. She didn’t understand why he did it. They were so close. She could have freed Miko if she had a little bit more time. If Jace hadn’t interfered she could have-
“Girl,” Mathius said, they had stopped again.
Nova looked up to see Mathius looking at her. She frowned. “Excuse me?”
Mathius rubbed his head. “Uh, I don’t know your name.”
Nova’s lips twisted but she nodded. “It’s Nova.”
Mathius nodded his head. “Nova, right. I need you to stay here.”
“What?” Nova said, frowning.
“I need to get some clothes for you. What you’re wearing is going to make you stand out.”
Nova looked down at herself. She was wearing jeans, a teal blouse, and black flats. The blouse’s right sleeve was ripped. She hadn’t noticed and she wondered how the rest of her must look. She raised her hand to her head. She could feel part of her hair had escaped from her bun. With a practice motion, Nova plucked out her bobby pins and then pulled out the scrunchy wrapped around it. Her hair fell down in a mass of curls.
Mathius cleared his throat. “I’ll be going then.”
“How long will it take you?” Nova asked as she gathered up her hair and wrapped the scrunchie around it, placing it in a high ponytail.
“Not long,” Mathius said and then he quickly scrambled up a pile of debris against one side of the wall. When he got to the top he pushed up against a stone, peeking out. Everything must have been clear because he slinked out, leaving Nova alone.
Nova sighed. She was both relieved and anxious for him to be gone.
“Finally, some privacy. Can never be too safe,” a familiar voice said.
Nova whipped her head around. There was no one there except for the purple kraken perched on her shoulder. She looked at it suspiciously.
“Am I losing it or did you talk?”
The beak of the miniature kraken didn’t open but a voice poured from it.
“This fellow? Nah. He doesn’t talk unless you speak kraken or bird. No, I’m using him as a sort of go-between.”
Nova blinked in astonishment. The voice was coming from the kraken like some sort of radio. “Who are you?”
“You forgot me already? I thought we had something special,” the voice said, letting out a dramatic sigh.
Then it dawned on her where she had heard that voice. “Jace?”
“The one and only.”
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