A/N: There is nothing suspicious about today's song. Type out the link.
watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ - Guess Who
Suddenly, I hear the voice of a woman behind us, and we jump.
I whirl around and come face to face with a woman wearing just enough to cover her essentials and nothing more. Her long brown hair is tied up in a ponytail, which falls down her neck and frames her chest.
After we all take a step back in surprise, I take the time to analyse the stranger, placing my chin in my hands as I examine each carefully tuned contour.
She smiles smugly as I do, and in a perfectly sultry tone she addresses me.
"Would you like me to spin around for you?"
"Actually, that would be great. Motor functions and access to all angles are very important, as I'm sure you're aware."
She does so, and I do not fail to notice a single detail. Very nice, all told. The look is uniform, down to the most minute details, like the twitch in her pinky finger as it dances on her hip. As I do, I am dimly aware of the gaping expression of Leanna and several cracks in Zack's stony glare as they watch me. Leanna in particular seems to be sputtering in some degree of embarrassment.
"Hmm… very nice. So, here's my verdict."
The lady blinks.
"Not quite a perfect hourglass, which I like. Skin very white but not pale like some mistakes of engineering I've seen wandering about, pretending they look like humans. This tone is more… ivory, with evidence of solar bronzing here and there. The light tone variance is something a lot of people never seem to understand, and makes looking at different parts of you a unique experience. Motor functions are top-notch, especially for the look you're going for: I can absolutely picture your saunter. Hair is also great: you might want to consider exotic highlights, as a few strands of chaos can really make this sort of thing, but that brown is amazing."
She smiles at me, eyes narrowing in a subexpression I cannot pin down.
"You don't miss much, do you?"
"Some things, but not in this subject. My biggest gripe would be your chest: it very much rides the border of what can be considered natural."
I hear Leanna gasp.
"From other people attempting similar looks, I can say with some authority that you would benefit greatly from either a 10% decrease or a 25% increase. Perhaps something to look into whe-"
Suddenly, the wind is knocked from me by an elbow in the stomach. I look towards the face of a furiously blushing Leanna.
"What? It's obvious she's a-"
SOL. There are none of those here. I just critiqued a flesh and blood human. Telling someone that 'your look could be so much better if you just changed the shape of your body' works great for people that can just… do that as part of a monthly tune up routine. For organics, on the other hand...
"Uuoohh… right… I really shouldn't be doing that."
The lady advances, regarding Leanna.
"Well, is the missus jealous of him giving others attention?"
Leanna looks startled.
"What? No, it's just that he doesn't know he shouldn't do that to every other person he meets."
"It's a cultural thing." I offer, then take a step back.
"In any case, could you not be so close?"
Her face is turned up towards mine, wearing an expression that would probably be more effective on a person not trained in the niceties of Human Arts.
"Used to dishing it out and not taking it?"
I smile uneasily.
"I'm not a work of art, just someone who's trained to judge them. Your mannerisms reminded me of the ones back home who are."
Her mouth tweaks.
"So… I'm not a work of art, then?"
Her voice has a veneer of false insecurity.
"You're good enough to pass for one, but unless you can change your eye colour on a whim, you aren't the kind of person I should be critiquing."
I can feel my face begin to heat up as she applies pressure. I didn't say I'm immune, after all.
On my back I can feel Amelia's gaze, the blessedly cold gears of science spinning in her head to reach an inevitable conclusion. The longer I spend with a person it seems, the more my lie starts to fall apart. It's a good thing I'll be going home soon. However, those gears suddenly break into the real world.
"You claim to be an impartial judge of the physical forms of others?"
I look back at her.
"I will admit to the preferences I hold, but I do claim such."
"Really? I would then request that you critique Zack. For an impartial judge, that should be no problem."
"I could, but we're wasting time. Maybe later."
The Zack in question finally breaks through his confusion at the situation, asking the more important question.
"Anyway, who are you?"
He steps in front of us, crossing his arms and shielding her view from Amelia specifically. Good to know that he's taking his role as bodyguard somewhat seriously. Amelia, of course, peeks out from behind him, while Leanna continues to try and shake off her embarrassment.
The woman, in a fashion that is already familiar to me despite never seeing it before, salutes with a wink.
"Kara Noir, treasure hunter extraordinaire, et un bon amour!"
While Leanna blinks and the others fail to understand, I roll my eyes.
"Sexy french lady is so overdone at this point. I would recommend pilfering a different culture."
Zack and Kara completely ignore my consternation, with Zack pressing on with his questioning.
"What do you want with us?"
"Well, I couldn't help but overhear that you're interested in the Fire Temple."
Amelia steps out to the row we form.
"I fail to understand how our interests are of relevance to you."
"I was just getting to that! You see, I've come to extend an offer of friendship."
Both Zack and a recomposed Leanna raise an eyebrow.
"Or at least an offer of mutual benefit."
"It's true that the villagers maintain the Fire Temple, but from what I've discovered, they are unaware of the temple's secret passage. If you're interested in the energy of the temple, I guarantee that's where you'll find it."
Leanna looks skeptical.
"If the Dal'kana have forgotten it, how did you find it?"
"It's all in the treasure hunting gig. You have to be looking for it to find it."
Kara winks and gives us a thumbs up.
"The best part for you is that I've already disarmed or made note of most of the traps there."
My eyes widen.
"There are traps at the temple?... wait… nevermind, of course there are."
What ancient society can resist?
"Well, I've disarmed most of the traps and obstacles. There's a magical barrier at the end of the tunnel which I can't figure out. And it just so happens that two of you are nice and magiced up."
She gestures to Leanna and Amelia.
"If you can get that barrier out of the way, then that's at least one step closer to finding your energy."
Zack crosses his arms and glares at Kara.
"How does that benefit you exactly?"
"All I'm interested in are the artifacts and relics. From the sounds of it, you guys are more interested in something else, so none of us lose anything from this partnership!"
The grin slides into a cocky smirk.
"So, what do you think?"
I look at the rest of the group. Wordlessly, we huddle closer together and whisper.
"Well, I don't know if I trust her. I mean, she 'conveniently overheard' our conversation."
"Like I said, I happen to have very sensitive hearing."
I glance sharply at her and she winks at me.
"Since you do, the minimum standing range increases. Back up several more paces, please."
She does so, and I return my attention to the group.
"On the other hand, her data on the temple could be incredibly valuable, and she doesn't really need to stay with us for very long."
Amelia is the next to speak.
"I must concede that I am impressed by her resourcefulness. It is plainly evident that she is not native to Embermyst, which means that she discerned the location of this place on her own."
I nod, and Leanna looks thoughtful.
"As a treasure hunter, her tracking skills could come in handy in the future."
We all stare at Zack. He shrugs.
"Do what you want."
I consider it for a moment.
"That sounds like a yes to me."
Zack doesn't respond. Instead, he just fixes his steely gaze on me. Leanna then speaks.
"So does this mean we're agreed to join up with Kara?"
We all nod.
Forest sits in the middle of our circle and blinks happily.
"Where do you even go when you're hiding?" I wonder aloud.
I roll my eyes, but smile broadly at the little guy.
"Good to know you agree."
Leanna coughs, reverting her attention from Forest.
"Let's go tell Kara."
We turn around to find Kara standing mere centimetres behind Leanna, her face an incredibly chipper smile. Leanna lets out a startled gasp, and my eyes widen. I didn't hear her at all. Is she some kind of ninja or something?
Kara rubs her hands together in what I can only assume is excitement.
"Alright, this will be fun!"
Leanna narrows her eyes in an irritated expression, her eyebrows performing a neat little sine wave.
"We didn't give you our answer yet."
She steps back and gestures for Leanna to continue. Leanna speaks awkwardly, as if feeling a little silly about stating something that Kara already appears to know.
"Um, well… we decided to take you up on your offer."
"Excellent! Since we're going to be working together, first things first. You all know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Mage-Knight, from the guild?"
She nods, and Amelia steps forward
"I am Amelia Estelle, a Fourth-Class Mage from the Mage Academy."
"A student Caster? But you just look like a teenager!"
She may not look like it, but she's actually 800 years old! The writers said it, that makes it true! I haven't repressed anything, what are you talking about?
While I snicker subtly at my internal monologue, the real world progresses as normal.
"It is natural that my physical appearance would represent my age."
Kara looks at her with some measure of respect.
"That is pretty impressive. Well, who's next?"
She looks at Zack, who crosses his arms.
She chuckles to herself.
"Very clearly a mercenary."
THANK YOU. Someone else gets my viewpoint.
"And Alasdair Shaw, at your service."
As I speak, I suddenly wish for my cloak so I could swish it.
Her green eyes study me, and although she's very clearly examining me, I don't feel uncomfortable under her stare. Probably some combination of still being in assessment mode myself, and something about her personality which I cannot yet place.
"Hmmm, a six or seven. Nice base, but I can't say I like the look of wearing both gambeson and leather. Fix your wardrobe and try again."
"I think I deserved that."
"Well, now that that's out of the way-"
Kara steps back and views the Forest at my feet.
"You have a pango! How cute!"
She reaches down and pats him on the head. Forest beams at her touch.
"And what's your name?"
I step in.
"He says his name is Forest, and that he's pleased to meet you."
I mock frown.
"No, I'm not going to translate that for you. Write your thesis yourself."
Forest pouts at my lack of willingness to make up dialogue for him, before hopping onto my shoulder. Kara shakes her head in time with the others, while Amelia cocks her head.
"I was not aware that you could understand him."
"I can't. I decided it would be fun to say those things."
With that, we are led out of the city by Kara. Amelia turns towards me.
"We now have time. Analyze Zack, if you would please."
Alright… I'm not entirely certain what she expects to gain from this. Maybe some more insights into my home culture, that would make some sense.
I scan Zack, absorbing as much information as I can, while keeping current biases out of mind as much as possible. I find that I do my best work on people I don't yet know, as an opinion of the person in question can easily sway one's judgement of appearance, just the same as appearance can sway the judgement of personality.
After taking a few extra moments to be sure of my decision, I issue the verdict.
"Normal is how I would describe Zack's appearance, rather than handsome. Nothing about him is normally noticeable, tailored instead towards practical ends. A sane amount of muscle mass is the only thing that really stands out about him, and yet everything still works."
I shake my head.
"I have no suggestions. That kind of look cannot be easily improved upon."
As we walk, another slight yet ominous rumble sends butterflies through my stomach. I can't shake off the feeling that we are literally walking into fire. At the same time, though, this place seems to fill me with an almost giddy energy, which itches to be released. Every step I take brings me closer to home.
Pushing insecurities and excitement both down, I silently follow the group towards the temple, taking the time to observe the landscape. I see that much of the volcano's surface is farmed, and the farmers appear to be using a kind of black dust as fertilizer. They grow many things: some kind of grain, grapes, and a few other plants I don't recognize.
Looking up towards the summit of the volcano, I see a small group of mages holding large crystal staves coming down from the mountain, chatting with a particular energy and fervour. I can't hear what they're talking about, but on seeing them, a large number of villagers climb the slopes and enter the caldera, returning a few minutes later with baskets of black powder which I now assume to be volcanic ash.
Several mountain streams run down from nearby summits and pool into a clear lake near the city, which several boats roam lazily across. From my vantage, it even appears that several people are swimming.
As we climb, I notice Kara's eyes still on me from time to time. It isn't uncomfortable, as I've stated before, but it is a little odd. Eventually, she matches pace with me-
-and withdraws my sword from its sheath.
"Whoa, whoa! What in the marshals' names are you doing?"
HOT LADY HAS TAKEN HOLD! EVASIVE ACTION! EVASIVE ACTION!
The blade swings left and right, trying to dislodge itself from her grip and forcing me further away. Despite being at the centre of a whirlwind of steel, Kara is smiling.
"I knew it! This is-"
"A SWORD. IT'S ALSO MY SWORD, GIVE IT BACK NOW!"
She restrains the frantic piece of myself, and calmly lays it on the ground. I jump forward, picking it back up and raising it menacingly. She is still smiling at me.
"You're a spellblade! That makes so much sense!"
She stands with a certain cockyness, needing only to look slightly upwards at me.
"Of this entire group, you seem very inexperienced at going on adventures. Everywhere you look, you're fascinated, whether it's an ancient palace or a few people fishing in a pond. Spellblade."
Well… she's right, but not for the right reasons. Oh well, all the better for my story. If it lets her believe my fascination with nature and everything, then that's fine. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like she's done.
"But why? From what I've seen, spellblades arise for people who want to make a difference and already have some kind of ability, be it something simple like sheer commanding presence, or something more exotic. Have I seen anything that might… wait."
She smiles at me, and adopts a rather sultry posture.
"Umm… what are you doing?"
"Looking for something. I thought I saw something earlier, but I'm not certain."
She resumes the look, and I can tell that the others (except Amelia) are getting very uncomfortable.
"Could you stop that?"
"There it is!"
There what is? What is she doing now?
As I think this, Amelia looks back at us and cocks her head at me.
"Your eye is on fire. Leanna reported this anomaly to me last night. I do not recall her mentioning that it was-"
Kara's eyes seem to sparkle.
"PINK! It's so cute!"
"What in the marshals' names are you talking about? I distinctly remember a blue tinge to… whatever happened in Raven Pass."
"Oh, I'm sure it was."
I begin walking again, hoping that this insanity will end and that we'll get me on my way home. The others start as well, while Kara ponders the meaning of my inclement accoutrement. Leanna walks up to me.
"I can't believe I didn't recognize it. I learned about spellblades in my first year at the Academy!"
I raise an eyebrow.
"Well, what do you know about them?"
"Spellblades are credited as being the precursors to the modern Mage-Knight. They aren't common, but they aren't exactly the rarest thing either. A lot of people want to change the world, for good or ill, and have something about them that'll get them started."
She looks at the weapon at my hip, a small fire blazing in her eyes.
"It looks like yours is Water-based. Do you know what part of you is in it? There should be a strong part of your personality to it. Something that wants to change things."
I look at myself.
"Whenever it speaks, whether as a joke or in battle, it has a sense of command. Confidence, I guess. I feel like that sometimes, usually when I'm in a martial environment. I think my sense of duty is in there."
"That's probably a good guess. A lot of people are driven by what they think others need from them."
A/N: As my minuscule test audience thought that the Rickroll was weird, allow me to explain myself. The fact that the link wasn't advertised properly suggests deceit, a desire to trick or lead on a person for one's own amusement. The song itself, however, is about admitting to a person that you care about that you care about them. Thus, the song is like someone in the story: on the surface it is a trick that no one wants to fall for, but if you listen to it... it's a good song about two people who weren't ready to open up until now.
On another note: I started posting these with a buffer, and the intent to use that buffer judiciously. This is the last completed chapter in that buffer. With work leaving me drained at the end of every day, I'm afraid I won't be able to update Crystalline Coalition with the frequency I had hoped for. While I still intend to finish the story - there are people in real life who can bother me about it - the next chapter may not be for a little while.
I have, however, written something recently, so the muse hasn't left me just yet. May the Marshals ward you all; I hope to get back to you soon.