Volume 1: Amberfall by fyzu | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 10: A Vermillion Reunion

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            The party steps out of the wormhole into a walled courtyard. They stand before the entrance to a huge palace, built of limestone and marble ornamented with amber. From the courtyard atop the hill at the center of the city, the vast expanse of Ambstalt stretches to the edge of the horizon. The courtyard is lined with guards, including several dressed in black plate armor and gold banners bearing the symbol of a golden lance. They salute Saelihn as she leads the party through the palace gates.

            “First, I’ll show you all to your quarters,” Saelihn says, turning towards the party. “You can leave your supplies there before you see the Queen.”

            The group ventures further into the palace. Its inside is just as lavish and extravagant as the outside—and just as filled with guards. As they proceed down the hall, aged paintings of various nobles gaze down upon them. Some of the paintings seem centuries, even millennia old.

            At last, they arrive at the guest quarters of the palace. Compared to the rest of the palace, they seem rather plain—though still far superior in quality to anywhere else anyone in the party has stayed before.

            “The Queen will see you in about an hour,” Saelihn says. “Take this time to freshen up and look your best, won’t you?”

            “…That’ll be easier for some of us than others,” James says, turning his eyes to Rognalad.

·    ·    ·

            An hour passes. The party has taken the time to freshen up and look presentable for the Queen—relatively speaking. None of them were of noble origin, and had the social grace of a fish out of water. Least of all was Ben, who seemed if anything to make a point in looking less presentable than normal.

            Before long, they are summoned to the throne room. The room is extravagantly furnished with marble pillars, statues, and paintings. Everything is embroidered with glittering amber. Many guards dressed in the armor of the golden lance stand at the ready nearby. At the far end of the throne room is a great silver and amber throne, glistening under the chandelier lights. Sitting upon it is a human woman dressed in violet robes with silver and amber filigree, with flowing brown hair and amber eyes. She bears a crown made of silver and gold with a large glowing amber crown jewel.

            Ben takes a deep breath, toying with the collar of his shirt. “There’s the Queen…” he mutters, his mouth a thin line. “Hello, your uh… Majesty,” he gives a seemingly friendly wave.

            The Queen closes her eyes, exhaling slowly, before looking the party in the eyes. “The customary etiquette is to bow before royalty… but given the scenario, I will forgive it, just this once.”

            Ben’s breath gets caught in his throat, and he quickly bows. “Apologies for our behavior. We’re not really… used to this type of honor.”

            The rest of the party bows. “Thank you for your kindness, your highness,” Rognalad says with a smile.

            The Queen nods, before moving to speak. “I’ve personally invited you all here for an urgent issue. The Lance has informed me of your exploits in Folngrove, as well as your possession of a particular book. The book in question relates to a prophecy, originating from several hundred years ago…”

            The Queen continues. “In any case, you’re likely familiar with the organization known as Amber Fall. Their name says it all—they are violent insurgents; terrorists, seeking to destabilize this city and kingdom. If the prophecy holds true, then you all have been chosen by the gods for a special purpose. We have reason to believe that you’re meant to help quell the rebellion. Ambstalt has long since been a holy site to Firmaren and his followers, after all.”

            Ben keep his eyes trained on the floor, his stoic face hiding a whirlwind of thoughts underneath.

            “Your mission is to root out the leaders of this rebellion, find them, and bring me their heads,” the Queen states. “You will have some of the resources of the Silver Blades and the Golden Lance. Unfortunately, we will not be able to spare you too many resources, as we are also dealing with other important matters.” The Queen waves her hand. “You may speak now.”

            Ben chuckles, his grin sinister. He cracks his knuckles and looks up at the Queen. “So you want us to bust up some outposts and take out their leaders? It just so happens a promise I made to someone goes hand-in-hand with that order. We’ll do it… but we’ll have time to prepare and all that before setting out though, right? There’s still some stuff I need to do in the city.”

            “Yes; as a matter of fact, I’ll introduce you to the operation leader right now to discuss the details.” The Queen motions to one of her retainers, who exits the throne room through a side door. She returns a few moments later, followed by an elven woman in a black military dress uniform decorated with medals and a golden lance insignia on the upper arm, as well as a glass left eye.

            Ben gives the woman a bow. “I take it you’ll be heading this operation?”

            “Yes,” the woman responds, her expression unreadable. “I am Sergeant Major Aneirin Elwenys, and I’ll be overseeing your involvement with operation Torchlight, as requested by Her Majesty. If you’ll follow me to the war room, please.”


            The party enters the war room. A large table inset with a world map sits in the center. Against one of the walls is a large map of the city. Several filing cabinets and charts line the walls; Aneirin opens one and pulls out a thick sheaf of papers.

            “So far, we have reason to believe that Amber Fall seeks to overthrow the Ambstalt government. Given the info you acquired at the outpost, we’re preparing for an attack about a month from now—however, we are still largely clueless as to the nature of the attack. What we do know, however, is that they are likely not acting alone.”

            Aneirin opens the sheaf and places several documents onto the table, spreading them around. “We have identified three potential groups that may be aiding Amber Fall in their operations.”

            Aneirin points at a paper depicting a silver rose surrounded by swirling thorned vines. Adjacent to it is an image of a silver-haired middle-aged human man with a stony scowl. His face is crisscrossed with knife scars, and he bears a tattoo of knotted thorny vines in a crown about his head.  

            “The first of these groups is Argent Rose. Their leader, Powell Lockton, has been a thorn in our side for many years. Argent Rose was once the pride of our city during the Millennium War—an elite mercenary group that would be hired out to fight for the dwarves or the elves. They were once represented in our insignia, as a silver rose entwining the golden lance. They mostly operate out of the Block.”

            Ben’s eyes widen, the color draining from his face. “That explains the rise in gang activity.” He starts to bite at his fingernail, deep in thought. “Hopefully they haven’t gotten themselves involved in something crazy…” he mutters beneath his breath.

            Aneirin shuffles the papers, before gesturing at another paper. Upon it is an insignia of sorts—the clockwork hand of an automaton grasping the hand of a human, as if helping it to its feet. Adjacent to it is the image of a male dwarf whose face has almost entirely been replaced with metal and wiring. He holds his right hand before him in a grasping motion; his right index finger ends in obsidian-black metal, glistening with copper wiring like worms out of a festering wound.

            “The second of these groups is the Clockwork Missionaries. Led by Mokhin Blackfinger, the Missionaries are a radical cult that follows the Machine. However, they deny the passive nature of most of the Machine’s followers, instead believing it their sacred duty to spread their technology and cult as widely as possible. They are likely responsible for the tech that Amber Fall has access to. They operate out of the Amber Docks and the Corridor.”

            Aneirin retrieves two more papers. The first depicts a thaumaturgic ritual circle, with a seven-pointed star inscribed in its center. The second image depicts a dark-haired middle-aged woman in a traditional witch’s hat. Her visage is like that of a spider, with a set of eyes below and above her normal pair, and a seventh vertical eye on her forehead, forming a semicircle of eyes across the top of her face. The sclera of each eye is totally black, and each eye bears a solid white iris and pupil inscribed with the symbol of one of the seven alchemical planetary metals.

            “The last of these groups is Coventia. Lead by Marie Oriven, they are a gang composed mostly of powerful magic users. They specialize in developing illegal spells, as well as human trafficking. They believe that magic users like themselves should be free to use their abilities unregulated… leading to some rather unethical results. Blood magic, mind control, bodily transfiguration, and worse. As you can see, they are not opposed to testing their spells upon themselves. They operate out of Bathory Park and the Vermillion District.”

            Aneirin gathers the papers. “As for your role, you will first spend about a week doing light reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. You will have access to specialized seals of the Golden Lance, which you are to show to vendors to obtain gear. You are to use these seals for authorized mission purposes only. Now, choose one of these groups to investigate first.”

            “Argent Rose,” Ben says immediately, without hesitation. The rest of the party pauses; from how Ben spoke, it seems that any opposition would wind up getting… personal.

            “Well,” Norixus says, looking at Ben, “let’s go with Rose for now.”

            “Very well,” Aneirin says as she hands out the badges bearing the Golden Lance insignia. “Should you need to contact me, simply hold your Golden Lance seal and wish to speak with me.”

            “Is there anything else, or are we good to prepare and spend some free time?” Ben asks.

            Aneirin pauses for a moment. “You may go.”

            Ben nods with determination, his smile growing. “I’m getting close to finding my buds, I can just feel it.” His ears perk up as a thought springs to his mind.

            “Oh yea!” He turns to the group. “I need to talk to Saelihn—she has some information on someone I’m looking for.”


            The party tracks down Saelihn near the palace gate. “Hey,” Ben starts, attempting to grab her attention, “I wanted to ask about this Freya Lockhart—you know, the one I mentioned back at the Library?”

            “Hm?” Saelihn asks, thinking for a moment. “Oh, right!”

            “Assuming I’ve got the right one, she’s an old friend of mine from the Block.” A genuine smile makes its way onto Ben’s face, and his cheeks flush a light red. “Now that I’m back in Ambstalt, I wanted to check in on her.”

            “Ah, hmm… gimme a moment.” Saelihn unholsters her staff and summons her magic, opening a wormhole to the library before her. Reaching through, she combs over one of the shelves…

            “Lockhart, Lockhart… ah, here we are.” Taking a book off the shelf, she flips through its contents and stops on a page. “It looks like she’s enrolled at the Academy, currently. She’s out on a visit to the Vermillion District for a project. The Academy always assigns the strangest projects…”

            Ben’s smile grows, his eyes shining with joy. “Thank you, Saelihn!”

            “Yeah, sure, now get goin’.”

            Ben nods, turning to head out the door before stopping. “Oh! Could you tell me what type of project she’s been assigned? It’ll help with finding her.”

            “Ah, it appears to be a research project regarding magic use and fraud. Interesting indeed…”

            “Huh… so I should find her around the market area most likely… Alright, I’ll be on my way then, and thank you again.”

·    ·    ·

            The subway system beneath Ambstalt was cramped, dirty, and full of all sorts of unsightly people—but at least was fast. To Ben, at least, it was far from the worst of places he’d been before… though it didn’t mean he’d hate it any less.

            “Ugh…” Ben groans, crinkling his nose. “Fuckin’ hate the subways…” he turns to Norixus. “Yo, Nori, take any interesting notes?”

            “Well…” Norixus says, eyeing over his notebook. “I mean… it’s fast? It’s not really making me feel nauseous or anything. Bit cramped though.”

            “I have never seen anything like it,” Joe remarks, gazing in awe at the tunnel walls whizzing by. “Civilization sure has created wonders!”

            Ben chuckles and rolls his eyes. “Yea, well, make sure all your items are on you before you get off.”

            After a few minutes they arrive at their destination—the Vermillion District. True to its name, the entire street is lit up by lamps burning with vermillion flame. Bright signs crowd the walls of the high buildings, leaning over the street below like crimson leaves on concrete trees. The street bustles with the loud shouts and clangs of merchants advertising their wares. Given the nature of some of the shops and services advertised, this seems to be a red light district of sorts…

            Ben inhales, taking a look around. “Man, last time I was here, I was a scruffy lil’ kid picking wallets off passerby…” he mutters to himself, scanning the crowds. “Hopefully I’ll be able to find her.”

            While Ben looks around, the rest of the party enter a magic shop. A salesman with a well-oiled mustache stands at the counter. Jars full of a variety of magical materials line the walls—some seem fresher than others.

            “Hello Sir,” Joe says, giving the salesman a wave. “My friends and I here are in need of some items,” he says, showing off his Golden Lance badge.

            “Welcome to Julian’s Trinkets and Supplies, how may I—” the salesman stops, squinting his eyes at the badge as he frowns. “Ah… so you’re one of those guys…” He crosses his arms and gives Joe a deadpan stare. “Well go on. What do you need?”

            “I’ll need 300 gp worth of incense, herbs, and charcoal if you have it, thank you,” Rognalad sounds off.

            “Yeah, yeah. Sure.” The salesman steps into a back room, and pulls out a large carton full of items, heaving it up onto the counter.

            Ben whistles. “Good luck with that, Rognalad.”

            “Alright sir, give me a moment because my list of needs is quite long…” Joe begins, pulling out a shopping list.

            The salesman grumbles and swears under his breath. Ben winces, watching his demeanor. “Yea, I don’t think I want to stick around for this.” He steps out of the store, waiting for the others.


            Ben sits outside the shop, continuing to scan the crowds for anyone matching Freya’s description. His brows furrow in frustration as the minutes pass, unable to spy anyone that could be her, grumbling to himself.

            “No wonder I used to pickpocket around here, there’s so many people…” he lets out a sigh, standing up. “I’ll probably have better luck asking someone.” Tapping his chin, Ben begins to scan the passerby once more, his eyes lighting up when he finally spots someone matching Freya’s appearance… heading for a brothel.

            “...There’s no fuckin’ way.” Ben winces, a pang of disappointment washing over him. “But… I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try..?” Before he can take a step, a hand claps on his shoulder. He jolts, suddenly shaken from his stupor.

            “Hey, Ben, what’s up?” Willington tilts into view, smiling softly, though it wavers when he sees the expression on his friend’s face. “Uh… are you alright?” His eyes follow Ben’s gaze, noticing the brothel, his breath catching in his throat. “O-oh, was I… i-interrupting something..?”

            Whirling around to face Willington directly, Ben’s face burns a bright red, embarrassment flaring up in the half-elf when his words finally register. “W-what?! No! I was just… it’s a friend of mine, I’m pretty sure I saw her going into that uh-” He trails off, noticing the odd glances he’s drawing, “...establishment.”


            “Y-you’re joking, right?” Ben’s expression grows even mortified, glancing behind him and seeing Norixus standing there, James at his side. The swordsman glances at Ben, then the brothel, back at Ben once more, then again to the brothel, shaking his head. “Dude.”

            “I’m being serious! C’mon, you guys have spent enough time with me to know I wouldn’t just… I’d at least be sneaky about it!” Unable to sway his companions and flustered to high hell, Ben buries his hands in his face, groaning. “Ughh… fuckin’... I’ll just go in there myself, and bring her out to PROVE that I’m not a horndog!” Straightening his posture and swallowing down his embarrassment, as well as pride, the half-elf begins to make the march of shame towards the brothel.


            “Mm… yes, I think this is everything.” Joe counts the numerous products he ‘bought’, stashing them away in his bag and giving the salesman a friendly smile.

            “Good. Now leave.” His eye twitches, and he seems like he’s inches away from blowing a blood vessel…

            “Thank you, Julian! Your help was most crucial for our mission here.” As Joe turns to leave, the man takes a sharp inhale, barely biting back the string of curses that threaten to spill out from his mouth. 

            Stepping outside, Joe glances around for the rest of the group, his eyes landing on Ben standing right outside the brothel, turning to face everyone gathered around him.

            “You know you all don’t have to follow me to the door, right? This just makes it even fuckin’ worse…” He mutters, his face beet red. They stare at him, and James shrugs his shoulders, leading to Ben to sigh, turning back towards the door. “My parents must be rolling in their graves…” With that, he pushes his way into the brothel.

            “Hello, everyone! Why are you all so afraid of this building? Is it dangerous?” Joe says nonchalantly as he walks up, piles of magic supplies in hand. The others turn to him awkwardly, glancing at one another, until Valse speaks up. “It’s… better if you don’t worry about it, Joe.”

            He tilts his head curiously, sizing the place up. “But Ben went in, did he not? He seemed very stressed, too… perhaps I should check on him.” 

            “Wait, don’t--” 

            They clamor to stop him, but before they knew it Joe had already entered the brothel as well…


            Inside, the lights are dim, and a fragrance of roses fills the air, setting the mood effectively. An elven lady sits at the front desk, seeming disinterested, fiddling with something in her hands. She glances up when Ben approaches, beginning to exchange words with him.

            “Welcome to Elven Elegance, name your requests here and sign below.” The receptionist passes him a form, and Ben takes a deep breath, opening his mouth, only to be cut off by Joe’s sudden intrusion.

            “This aroma is magnificent! I do not see the problem with this establishment, Ben.”

            “...Oh, for fuck’s…” Ben whirls around, glaring at Joe, his brow furrowed in embarrassment and frustration. “Didn’t I say that I was going to go in here alone?!”

            “Ah.. I wasn’t there to hear that, my apologies, Ben. If you wish, I could step out? Though this place has quite caught my interest…” He gives him an apologetic bow, and Ben groans in response, rubbing his temples.

            “Fuckin’... just don’t be a nuisance, okay?” Ben sighs, putting his hand to his face. Turning his attention back to the receptionist, Ben sheds any ounce of dignity he still has, beginning to inquire about Freya. “Has uh… anyone like this swung by recently? Bout this high, brown hair with pretty blue eyes. A half-elf, too, like me.”

            “If you’re looking for a girl matching those specifications, she’s probably busy with a client right now.”

            Ben winces, shaking his head. “There’s no way she’d work at a place like this..!” “I uh… I don’t think she’s a worker.” “I hope.” he adds in his thoughts.  “Is there any chance a customer matching that description has stopped by?”

            “Ohh… not a customer, but there was this one Academy girl who wanted to observe and take notes. Says it was for a project or somethin’...” She trails off, letting out a sigh. “I swear, if she wanted to apply, she probably would’ve been accepted.” Ben's very soul shrivels up in agony at the thought. 

            Attempting to brush off her last sentence, Ben focuses on the positives… if there even were any in this predicament. “Is… is she still here?”

            “Yeah, but you might want to wait a few minutes.”

            Joe peers over Ben’s shoulder curiously. “An Academy student coming here to take notes..? This place must have some interesting magical properties! May I take a look around?” A look of realization hits him. “Ah, but if I am to do that, I should have something to take notes with!” He rushes outside before the receptionist can respond…

            Moments later, he bursts back through the door. Norixus's notebook in hand, he runs up to the receptionist, who arches an eyebrow at his puppylike eagerness. “...Viewing isn’t free. It’ll cost you fifty gp, and it’s kept to specifically designated sessions.”

            “Fifty gold pieces, you say?” Joe remarks, pausing for a moment before heading outside.

            Ben sighs. “Fifty… oh man. Yeah, I’ll just wait.” He mumbles, unable to lift his head anymore. 

            A few seconds later, Joe enters the brothel again-- the jingle of coins ringing out alongside his footsteps.

            “Oh. Oh no.” 

            “Do you happen to know where the client Ben here was looking for is? I can pay to watch her do her studies, if I have to.” Joe says, dropping a pouch of coins on the counter. Ben’s blood runs cold, his eyes widening at the sight. 

            “By the gods, if there’s anyone I wouldn’t want her to meet besides Rognalad, it’d be this schmuck!” Ben lifts his head-- and with every fiber of his being, reaches into his bag, pulling out his own pouch of gold pieces. “If he’s going, I am too.”

            “Alright, then. Right this way.” The receptionist says as she takes both pouches, leading the two upstairs. Joe skips behind her with a spring in his step-- Ben trudges behind with boots full of lead. As they round a corner, strange sounds enter their ears, growing louder and louder with each step closer. 

            “What are these sounds? Verbal spells can only be cast with words, no?” The druid’s head tilts in confusion as he cracks Norixus’s notebook open and begins to jot down notes.

            “Oh, Joe… if only you knew, man. If only you knew.” Ben mutters. The pair enters what appears to be a side-viewing chamber for the main room, behind a one-way mirror. On the other side is a human man and elven woman in the midst of a heated… session. Ben hurriedly averts his eyes, trying his best to unsee what he has just seen. Joe, on the other hand, works his pen across his notebook even faster. 

            Sitting at the far end of the viewing room is a half-elf matching Freya’s description in an Academy uniform, her face red and mortified as she takes notes. “Magical signature of some sort… maybe enchantment or divination type..? Gosh, the things I do for a grade…”

            With a deep breath, a glint of light fills Ben’s eyes, his expression softening slightly at the sight of Freya. He raises his hand in an awkward wave and calls out to grab her attention. “Yo… uh, long time no see.”

            “Wh--” Her head snaps to his direction, eyes widening in mortified shock. “B-BEN?!”

            “Hello! Are you the student?” Completely oblivious to his surroundings, Joe lifts his head from his notes for a moment, giving Freya a friendly wave. Freya is too dazed to respond, her eyes locked with Ben’s in a shared look of sheer embarrassment.

            “In the flesh.” Ben mumbles, quietly… 

            “I-I can explain, uh… ahem-- you see, I’m doing a study on fraud and magic, and I was following a r-report on how some brothels would log the magical signatures of their clients and then sell them f--” Freya cuts herself off, trying to regain control of her racing thoughts and speech. “Of all the times to see you again, why, why, whyyyyy right now.” 

            “I do not see the issue, other than this ritual being quite strange… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it!” Joe quips with a childlike smile. “Hm… perhaps I should make some detailed notes on this ritual’s procedures… I’m sure Norixus will appreciate them!”

            Ben sighs, his head hanging low. “Don’t uh… don’t mind baldy. He’s… an acquaintance?” He winces, glancing at Freya sheepishly. 

            “Look, I know I chose a really bad time to step in, but calm down a little. I ain’t gonna judge you, or anything…” He trails off, scratching his head. “...You think we should continue this outside? Without the… y’know.”

            “Sure… but I uhm… just let me take a few more notes real quick, Ben. This project is very important.” Freya sighs, returning her attention to her notebook.

            “Right, I’ll just uh…” He turns, facing the wall with his hands in his pockets, eyes locked on the floor. Ben chuckles softly as the situation sets in, shaking his head. “Man… all those years surviving on our own, doing whatever we could to stay alive, and we can barely handle somethin’ like this.”

            As the two on the other side of the glass continue to go at it, Freya holds up some sort of mana detection meter, recording it’s values…

            “Could be a divination type spell, given these values… but the correlation might not be high enough…”

            “Oh, I take it that the meter can detect magic? How interesting and useful technology can be…” Joe peers over, gazing curiously at Freya’s device. She shirks away from him nervously.

            “Y-yeah… I think this should be enough.” She closes her notes and stands up, heading back downstairs with her face strikingly red. Ben follows suit, followed by Joe a moment later. As they go down the stairs, a fresh wave of mortification crashes down on Ben as he realizes the party is still outside. 

            “Oh shit-- Freya, I forgot to tell you about…” He grits his teeth, mumbling a string of curses beneath his breath. “About the time I’ve been gone, I haven’t been on my own, but uh… the ‘friends’ I’ve made aren’t exactly… normal, I guess.”

            “Yeah, uh, I decided to forget about normalcy ever since you picked the worst possible time to contact me again…”

            Ben’s gaze falls the ground, mumbling out a weak apology… “Yeah, sorry about that… I just didn’t want to miss my chance at seeing you again.”

            “It’s one thing to miss someone, it’s another to be willing to follow them into a brothel…” Freya mutters, glancing back at Ben, who continues to hang his head in shame. “Not to dig up old wounds, but you leave me somewhat skeptical…”

            “All these years, and we’re still on that… let’s just go outside, yeah?”



            “Wow, Ben wasn’t lying! He really does have a girlfriend!” 

            The party turns to Rognalad in shock and Ben freezes in the doorway, staring at Rognalad, pure rage filling his gaze. 

            “Rognalad… I’m gonna KILL YOU!” 

            As Ben leaps off the steps with his fist drawn back, Freya sighs, giving both the warlock and Ben a look of disapproval. “After all these years, you still succeed in choosing the worst types of company.”

            While Ben pummels Rognalad to the ground, Joe approaches Norixus, notebook in hand. “Here you are, Norixus! I took lots of notes on that ritual! The movements of both people involved were very fluid, though I’m unsure where the magic comes into play…” Norixus takes the notebook back and flips the page open-- before muttering a silent prayer upon seeing its contents.

            At last, James manages to pull the two apart. Ben pants, catching his breath, then glances over at Freya. “Freya, these are… my acquaintances. ...Regretfully.” He mutters beneath his breath as she takes a step forward, introducing herself to the group.

            “Freya Lockhart, fourth year student at Ambstalt Academy. I’m majoring in mental and biological magic studies.”

            “Ohhh… well it’s good to meet you, Freya. My name is Norixus Tarhun.”

            “A dragonborn, huh. Don’t see many around here. Brings up old memories…” Freya wistfully replies and Ben wrestles himself free of James’s grasp, returning to Freya’s side. He smiles with nostalgia, nodding his head. “When was the last time you saw Virgl, actually, or any of the old gang?”

            “It’s been a few years…” Freya shifts uncomfortably, fiddling with a strand of her brown locks… “Ever since I was accepted into the Academy, it seems I’m no longer welcome in the Block that much… It’s like spidercrabs in a pot, y’know?”

            Ben sighs, rubbing his eyes. “Yea, I get what you mean.” He pats Freya’s shoulder sympathetically before speaking again… “I’ll be heading for the slums soon, so I’ll be sure to let ‘em know you said hello.”

            She smiles softly, glancing up at Ben… “I appreciate it… actually wait.” Her head tilts curiously, crossing her arms. “What brings you to Ambstalt? I thought you set off on a quest for self-discovery?”

            “Hehe… it’s a bit of a long story, actually.” Glancing over at the group, Ben waves his hand dismissively, shooing them away. “You guys still have stuff you want to buy, right? Go ahead and do that while I bring Freya up to speed, we’ll meet up after and head for the Block.”

            As the group disperses, Ben and Freya take a small stroll as he recounts the events of the journey so far to her, admitting a few bits and pieces, such as those odd dreams and Altium, as well as the Tome of Firmaren…

            “I see… in that case, my research may prove valuable.” She takes out her notebook, showing it to Ben. “You see, I had this running theory that some of the gangs around here can collect samples of the magical signatures of their clients, known as imprints.” As her lecture begins, Ben takes a deep breath, doing his best not to zone out…

            “Based on my data, it’s likely true, given the high correlation. They run brothels or other… uhm… unsavory services, while having those who… give the services, carry an enchantment that collects their signature.” Focusing on Freya’s eyes, Ben nods his head in partial understanding. “Man… I should’ve asked Norixus to stick around. He’d want to take notes on this.”

            “Obtaining an imprint usually requires high-quality biological samples, but obviously that’s no issue here… with an imprint, a sufficiently knowledgeable mage could cast some real nasty spells. If what your ops leader said is true, then it’s likely that a gang is partaking in these activities. Coventia, I’d wager, considering the type of mage you’d need…”

            The two find a place to sit down and Ben leans back, letting out a sigh as he digests all of that information, doing his best to commit it to memory. He glances over at Freya, humming in thought. “I appreciate it, Freya… I’m sure that’ll come in handy  as things move forward.” He glances up, looking at the color of the sky. “I think I’ve still got some time, how ‘bout you bring me up to speed on things in your life?”

            “Hm… alright. If I recall correctly, we split up about two years before I was accepted into the Academy… you were on the run from Argent Rose, so you left in a hurry.” She sighs, her gaze growing somber. Guilt pangs in Ben’s heart lightly, glancing away. 

            “Virgl, Shinji, Charon and I stuck together for a while, but Shinji had a falling out with the rest of the group. He didn’t want to be affiliated with their increasingly illicit lifestyles, and ran off.” Freya says, eyes lost in thought. “As for myself, I… felt like I was attached at the hip to Virgl and Charon, since I had nowhere else to go. So when I was finally accepted into the Academy, I left the Block… despite their wishes.”

            “I can’t imagine they took that too well…” Ben mutters with a sigh, and Freya nods her head. The two sit in silence briefly. He feels an urge to place his arm around her, like he used to way back when-- but after her earlier comment, he decides not to.

            “Once at the Academy, things were rough, but I finally had a sense of freedom and hope…” Her head lifts, eyes locking with Ben’s. Her blue orbs were filled with warmth and happiness, yet tinged with sadness and nostalgia all the same. “Seeing the city from so high up… watching legendary mages like Saelihn work their craft… it was like I had always dreamed. I swore that I’d work hard, for you and the others, so we could all see that same view…”

            Ben’s mind turns to his visit at Ambstalt Academy, how it felt, finally looking down on the city he was born and raised in. That sense that he was freer than he had ever been, that at that moment, he felt like he could take off and soar through the sky, leaving behind his worries and stress for even just a single moment… he smiles softly, and lets Freya continue to speak.

            “But… Virgl and Charon are still miffed at me, I bet. I… did come across Shinji a few times, but it was a little awkward. He’s never been a talker, but it seems it's gotten worse since he split off.”

            Ben sighs, shaking his head. “I’ll be sure to check in on ‘em… I still feel like shit for leaving without even telling them goodbye.” He flashes a genuine, beaming smile for Freya, deciding to go in for the hug. She accepts it, and the two share a tender moment together…

            “I’m proud of you, y’know? Finally being able to follow your dream… it feels like just yesterday we were starin’ up at the Academy in wonder, imagining what the view would be like up there.”

            “It feels like… after all this time, things seem to be finally looking up for me.”

            They stare there for a while in silence, taking in the moment together, before Ben pulls away, glancing up at the sky once more.

            “...I’ll have to get going now, but it’s been nice seeing you again. I’ll be sure to stop by whenever I have time.” He chuckles somewhat, giving Freya a coy grin. “And I promise it won’t be after a few years, either… or in a brothel.”

            “Heh… seeya soon, Ben.”

            “Likewise, Freya… stay safe, and good luck with your project.” The two rise and part ways, but not before Ben turns around, flashing one of his trademark grins and giving her a wave. She smiles warmly, and waves back.

            As Ben strolls to meet up with the rest of his group, he draws in a slow breath, looking up at the blue afternoon sky… “Charon… Virgl… Shinji… I’m home.” With his friends in his thoughts, he lets out the exhale, and makes his way to the rest of the party, envisioning their next destination in his mind. The place he had called home for most of his life… the Block.


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