“There’s something I want to give you,” Helena said.
Nova adjusted the bag on her shoulder before looking up at Helena. “What’s that?”
Helena pulled out a dagger and sheath, handing it to Nova.
Nova took it, a little surprised. She pulled the dagger out and sure enough, the dagger was a sharp metal blade. It was nothing fancy, definitely made for function. Nova put the dagger back in its sheath.
“What happened to not wanting me to use pointy objects?” Nova teased.
“I guess your worrying got to me,” Helena said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m just lending it to you. So, make sure to bring it back.”
Nova looked down at the dagger with a smile. “I will. Promise.” She then buckled the sheath around her waist. It felt heavy and reassuring against her hip. She glanced back at Helena and spread her arms. “How do I look?”
Nova was wearing regular work pants, a plain tan shirt, and boots. Her curly hair was in a single braid that she put in a bun on top of her head. The staff she kept in her hand. She considered wearing it on her back but when she practiced reaching for it, it felt too awkward. Instead, she was using it as a walking stick.
“You look like some sort of traveler,” Helena said with a chuckle. “Like the ones in the stories my mum used to read me as a little girl.”
Nova chuckled at that. “Fitting.” She sucked in a breath, held it, and let it out. Unfortunately, the tension didn’t leave her. “It’s time for me to go.”
“Yeah,” Helena said. The woman reached over and gave her a quick hug. “You’ll be fine, Nova. Just let the Sanitation Guild and guards take care of things.”
Nova nodded. Helena had been telling her that all week. She closed her eyes and reminded herself that she was better prepared now and there were people there to help her. She would be fine. She opened her eyes.
She turned to say goodbye to Helena but it felt too final. She searched for words and found them in the phrase Helena had used before. “May your fortune shine bright.”
Helena nodded and smiled. “May your fortune shine bright.”
Nova quickly left before she delayed any longer. Outside, she was surprised to see someone waiting for her.
The man pushed off the wall and paused to look her over. He nodded to her staff. “You brought a weapon?”
“Didn’t you?” She nodded to the knife resting on his hip.
Mathius patted it. “Just in case.”
She found herself relieved to discover that she might not be the only one nervous going down there. For the moment, she put away her anger at Mathius and just focused on him being a companion. Someone who knew what she was going through since he had been there himself. Together, they began making their way to the meeting point with Oren.
They had stepped outside of the Cavern when they saw Korn waiting for them. The boy’s hair was tied back and he looked cleaner but not by much. It was as if someone had attempted to clean him up and as soon as he was free, he rolled in a dust pile.
“Korn, are you coming with us?” Nova asked a little surprised. Though she knew Korn was strong she still couldn’t help seeing him as a child.
Korn hunched over with a pout. “Yeah. The Guildmaster sent me to get you.”
“Scared we wouldn’t show up?” Mathius said, glaring at Korn.
Korn shrugged and kept walking.
Nova frowned at Mathius. She lowered her voice. “You don’t have to be so hard on him. He’s just a child.”
“He’s a weapon,” Mathius said sharply. “You better get that through your head.”
Nova’s lips tightened. “He’s being used just like we are. You would do well to remember that.”
“That doesn’t make him any less dangerous,” Mathius said back.
“You know I can hear you,” Korn said, twisting around to glare at them. “I have real good hearing.”
“Sorry,” Nova said.
“Whatever,” Korn said and turned back around stalking off. “And I’m not a kid! I’m twelve!”
Nova snorted and even Mathius cracked a smile. For a moment, the tension between them broke.
“Helena taught you to use a staff or did you know how to use it from before?” Mathius asked, waving his hand vaguely.
“Helena,” Nova said. “She’s really good at weapons.”
“She is. She taught me to use a dagger years ago. She has been obsessed with weapons since she was a little girl. Would drag me around to blacksmiths and weapon shops all the time. We even snuck into an armory once.”
The conversation was easy and before she knew it, Mathius was sharing stories about him and Helena as children. It made the walk to the ruins move fast. Soon, they had reached the front entrance to the ruins. It felt strange to not be entering the area through the tunnels. Instead, they stood in front of a large metal gate with several white warding crystals surrounding it.
A large group of Sanitation Guild members, as well as some of the city guard, were there. Oren stood off to the side of the group with Kellston and a very pretty rotund woman with wavy hair haphazardly piled on her head and a large satchel across her shoulders. Korn immediately made his way over to them. With a sigh, Nova followed.
“Ah, Mathius and Nova. You have arrived,” Oren said and gestured to the woman. “Let me introduce you to Professor Olivia Melio. She is an expert in the field of Artifacts and Historical Magics at the Academy. I hope that you can work together with her while you search the premises.”
Nova’s eyes widened in surprise. So, this was the Olivia that Tinle had mentioned before. She had hoped to avoid meeting her but now that plan was ruined. Of course she could still try to keep Olivia separate from her research with Mortimer. She just wondered if it would be a futile endeavor.
How long would it take her to connect the dots? I’ll have to talk to Tinle and Mortimer about it next time we meet up.
Nova nodded in greeting to the professor. “Nova Davis.”
“Shall we get started?” Oren said and nodded to Kellston.
The man walked towards the guard in his clipped way and notified them to open the gates. The group walked in together, with the guards taking the lead. Oren fell into step with them. His attention turned to Nova.
“This will be your first time returning since your attack?” Oren asked.
“Attack?” Professor Olivia asked, startled. “I thought you said your people cleared out the monsters.”
“This was before we were involved,” Oren explained gently. “Though, the monsters do have this annoying habit of rushing the area in waves.”
Nova blinked. “Waves?”
“Don’t worry,” Oren said. “It took us some time but we have set up a system to handle the attacks.”
“Well, that’s certainly a relief,” Professor Olivia said. “You do have this terrible habit of putting people in dangerous situations. As I have mentioned before, I am a scholar, not an adventurer.”
Oren chuckled. “Sometimes you have to take a risk in order to uncover the treasure underneath. I thought you would agree, Olivia. Artifacts are rarely safely out in the open for people to grab.”
Professor Olivia let out a deep sigh. “I suppose but there is a difference between a calculated risk and suicidal recklessness.”
“Of course,” Oren said, amused before turning to Nova. “What do you think, Nova? Do you see this as a calculated risk or suicidal recklessness?”
Nova frowned. She didn’t want to be here. With every step they moved closer to the Explorer’s Guild she grew more anxious. But was it worth it? She didn’t think so at first, but now that Jace had confirmed that Mathius might be right that the Explorer’s Guild could get them out of Hayeln she thought it just might be.
“Ask me later,” Nova said, shifting her grip on her staff.
Oren laughed and shook his head. They soon stopped in front of the door leading to the entrance to the Explorer’s Guild.
Kellston stepped forward and tapped on the door in the series of knocks that Mathius had used before. A moment later the door opened and the group began filing in. When Nova walked under the doorframe, the door lit up. Nova silently swore to herself. She had forgotten about that. Everyone turned around in surprise. Several of the guards and guild members drew their weapons.
[I see that your system is online.]
[Would you like me to allow your group companions level 1 clearance?]
[Would you like Mathius Crux to maintain companion level 1 clearance?]
She thought about it but in the end, this was Mathius’s project.
Yes, but no auditory translation. I don’t want the others to know about your existence.
“How interesting,” Oren said.
Panic washed through Nova. Did Oren know about Ava somehow? Did he have a way to detect her?
She tried to stay calm. “What is?”
Oren didn’t answer. Instead, he stepped forward and addressed the group. “There is no need to panic. It is simply lights. Proceed.”
The guards gave nervous looks but the guild members didn’t hesitate to move forward and soon the others followed. Nova started walking while Mathius looked at her nervously. She could see the unspoken question in his eyes but she ignored it. She knew Oren or one of his people would be watching them.
A moment later, Oren said something to the professor and she hurried after the group while Oren fell into step with Nova and Mathius.
“You are turning into quite the mystery, Nova,” Oren said. “Can you tell me why the lights went on when you walked through the door?”
“I wasn’t the only one who walked through the door, Guildmaster,” Nova said easily.
“You think it could’ve been one of the others?” Oren said, watching her closely.
“It could be. Or maybe it’s reacting to a crystal or artifact. There are many possibilities,” Nova said easily.
“Hmm, I suppose there could be,” Oren said, amused.
Nova knew that he didn’t believe her pretext but she wasn’t sure what conclusion he was drawing from that. At least it seemed that he didn’t catch on about Ava. Surprisingly, Oren didn’t pry further and they continued to the entrance that led to the Explorer’s Guild ruins.
Stepping inside, Nova’s heartbeat sped up. She quickly looked around her, waiting for an attack but there was nothing there. Most of the debris had been cleared and the floor had been rebuilt. Small pillars embedded with multiple crystals lined the area. Shifting to her mana sight, she could see the pillars humming with mana that spilled down them and threaded through the floor underneath, stabilizing it.
“A work of art, isn’t it?” Oren said beside her, making her jump.
She turned to him and nodded. “The way the mana flows is so intricate.”
Oren smiled. “It’s a process used in the bridges in the market. It’s only known to a few and the merchant was kind enough to use his skill to fix the floor here.”
Nova couldn’t help being impressed. “I didn’t expect crystals to be able to do something this elaborate.”
“Most can’t,” Oren said. “This particular crystal crafter has quite a large mana pool so it allows him to do this sort of thing. Luckily, it only needs the use of wind mana and a specially designed weaving of the man’s own invention.”
Nova was curious how big a mana pool a person needed to pull this off. She looked around her and realized that during their conversation they had made it halfway across the area to the ruins and she hadn’t noticed. She felt a moment of relief but it quickly vanished as Kellston hurried to Oren’s side.
“A wave will be coming shortly,” Kellston said.
“Handle it,” Oren said and then took Nova’s arm, pulling her away from the group.
Nova would have normally jerked away but as soon as Kellston mentioned a wave, she was looking around her in a panic. Her breathing started to grow tighter in her chest. She raised her staff in shaky hands.
“Nova, it’s okay.” She felt a hand on her cheek and she was looking at Mathius. “The guards will take care of the monsters. We’ll be safe.”
“How can you be sure?” Nova said, her voice rising. “What if-“
She choked on her words as all her attention was swallowed up as a rush of flesh sethers surged up from the tunnel.
The group was ready. The monsters lunged forward. The flesh sethers attacked ferociously, trying to bury their teeth into skin and muscle. They were met with swords and axes. Nova watched it all with tension on her face. The guild members cut the monsters down with uniform precision. Nova watched it all, frozen in place. They were killing them so quickly like they were no big deal.
It looks so easy.
It made something inside her stomach twist up. She had almost died from these things and they were handled like they were nothing.
Nova twisted around to see Professor Olivia running towards the group. One flesh sether was chasing her and gaining quickly. Before Nova could think, she acted and started running toward the woman.
“Nova!” She heard Mathius shout behind her.
She kept running, moving faster and faster. It was faster than she had ever run before but still, the distance was too far.
I’m not going to make it.
A blur of motion passed her and suddenly Oren was there. The flesh sether launched itself at Olivia’s face and before the monster could reach her, Oren snatched it from the air. Nova watched as the man held the wiggling creature in his hands and then it slowly began to break down.
Quickly, Nova switched to her mana sense and she saw it. Black threads climbed from Oren’s hand and wrapped around its body, eating away at it. Nova could only gape. As she watched, the creature dissolved in front of her until there was nothing left.
Oren held out his hand with a sigh. “How unfortunate.”
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands. Once he was finished, he leaned down to help the professor to her feet. Olivia was trembling and clung to Oren’s hand. Oren whispered something to her and then guided her back towards Nova. He walked over to Nova, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Shall we continue forward?”
Nova could only nod her head numbly. She glanced around her. The attack was over and all around her Sanitation guild members pulled out black crystals, pressing them to the dead bodies of the monsters. Bit-by-bit wherever the crystals touched were eaten away until not even dust was left behind. The city guards either looked away or had uneasy expressions on their faces.
This was the Sanitation Guild.
Nova finally understood what that meant.
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