/Author's Note: Thank you for all the kind words and feedback! Knowing that people enjoy reading the story is definitely the best incentive an author has to keep writing it. Enjoy Chapter 8! End Author's Note/

- CHAPTER 8: Welcome to the Party -

"Um…" Raguna uttered, "Why exactly are we at… the bar?"

A cursory glance around informed him that nearly all of Kardia was seated comfortably around tables or on barstools. Moments earlier, following a particular nasty goblin attack on Raguna's farm, they had followed Mei to Godwin's home. The two spoke in hushed, grave tones, engaging in exclusionary conversation. Raguna, Melody, and Mist waited rather awkwardly in the doorway, where Felicity offered them some tea and snacks which they politely declined. Then, rather unceremoniously, Mei wheeled around, exotic purple ribbons trailing behind her, and left the building. Then Godwin followed suit. Then Felicity flustered after them. It was hard for the trio not to feel slightly hurt that they had been so blatantly forgotten.

Regardless, they too left the mayor's abode and followed the others down the street to Emmett's bar. There, he, Melody, Mist, and Mei waited at a table, and Godwin and Emmett left to gather the villagers. It didn't take much time at all for the doors to fly open and the Kardians to stream in, buzzing with excitement and curiosity. That the mysterious Mei and the amnesiac Raguna were at the center of this town meeting made it very worth interrupting their days to attend.

"Well," Melody answered next to him, "It's the only building in town large and convenient enough to house the entire village whenever the mayor needs to throw a meeting. We kind of had something similar the night you came to town, actually. But of course, there's usually always some idiot who insists that just because we're in a bar –"

"Hey Em!" shouted Neumann as he entered, "Since we're all here, how 'bout servin' up a round, eh? Can't have a proper town meeting if our throats are too parched to talk, right?"

"This… is going to end badly, isn't it?" Raguna asked with a wry smile.

"No, it'll just end the way these things always end: with everyone too drunk to actually constructively contribute and Godwin making all the decisions in the end."

"Huh, that's actually rather smart," the boy mused, "Maybe that was his plan all along."

"How sneaky!" said Mist approvingly, excited at having come to the bottom of this conspiracy.

If Mei disapproved of any of the situation before her, she did not show it, choosing not to sit but to stand unflinchingly with her palms pressed down on the table. When Emmett came around, jovially offering a tankard of mead to whoever was old enough, she didn't even give him the satisfaction of looking longingly at the alcohol, like most of the village's teenagers did. Then again, how old was Mei anyway? Raguna had quickly noted that she looked no older than any of the other girls around Melody and Mist's age, but her disposition was so stalwart that it was easy to think her much older.

The town settled in and made themselves comfortable; this took a fair amount of time. Pulling her hat over her ears to block out the din, Melody explained exasperatedly, "Anytime they get the entire village together, no matter what the reason, people always see it as an excuse to party." Raguna soon found that she was not exaggerating.

"Hey Emmett! Over here!" called Rosetta from a table over. She tried to wave down the bartender, despite her father's reproachful hushes. Emmett gave her a hearty laugh.

"That was just for New Years, little lady! I can't go around giving out alcohol to minors. Give it a few years, won't ya? I promise the wine'll taste just as good – probably better!"

The blonde slammed her fist down on the table in response, her father and everyone else seated around her flinching. "Fine."

Jasper, the wealthy self-proclaimed gastronomist, was somehow on his second course of food and was noisily slurping up spaghetti. Neumann and Sabrina were already downing their beer as quickly as possible, with an unwilling Camus between them, acting as referee to their impromptu drinking contest. Lukas had mounted a table and was reciting lewd poetry – complete with pelvic thrusts and other such gestures to compliment it. Lady Ann had taken Godwin aside against his will and started talking his ear off about an expansion for the Inn she had planned out and needed his approval for; Raguna overheard such snippets as, 'I was thinking at least three more floors. Maybe four, if we cut corners. Literally! Who needs corners in a room anyway?!' and 'Have you heard about those new 'hot-tubs' they're developing in the Empire? They're like mini-hot-springs for your room! Yeah, we'll need about fifty of those.' To say that Godwin's patience was reaching its limit was an understatement.

"Enough!" Godwin's voice rung out over the crowd, cutting off the ambitious innkeeper mid-sentence. "I've gathered you all here for a reason, and that reason was not to watch you drink yourselves silly."

"Of course it's not…" Mist whispered conspiratorially under her breath.

"Earlier today," the mayor continued, "Something happened that has given me reason to believe that… Kardia - and by extension, the whole lot of us - have become the target of some sinister plot."

This dramatic proclamation successfully silenced the crowd.

Godwin brushed a strand of golden hair behind his ears, satisfied. When the man took a stand, it was made noticeable just how impressive a leader he was. He had an air of majesty more befitting a king than a small town mayor, and the blonde hair framing his face made him seem almost lion-like.

"If I understand correctly the events of the past few days, I've deduced that it can be no coincidence that the farm on Kardia's outskirts has been targeted by monsters numerous times. Counting the events of New Years' Day, there have been a total of three monster appearances; each time, the beast was aggressive and riled. These are not our run-of-the-mill fauna keeping check of their territory; these monsters were out to kill."

Chills trickled down the spine of every Kardian present. The Mayor spoke in such a way that he could have been reciting the lyrics to 'Happy Birthday' and he'd still instill everyone with fear.

"Furthermore, Mei has brought word that monster attacks on neighbouring highways have been on the rise. Caravans have been attacked, as well as merchants, patrolmen, and guards. The once secure Carmite cave has also grown more dangerous as of late, as Zavier can attest."

"Uh-huh!" Zavier nodded enthusiastically, proud to be of relevance.

"Gah!" Raguna started as he realized the boy had, at some point during Godwin's speech, pulled up a chair and squeezed himself in between him and Mist. "

"The usual goblins 'n things just keep to themselves, but there were newer ones! Meaner ones! Bigger! Scarier!"

Godwin nodded, eyes clouded with concern and trepidation. "Kardia and its surrounding vicinity seems to be alone in its misfortune; at least for now. That monsters are no longer satisfied with occupying their foul dens and are, instead, venturing out to actively attack humans…" He paused, eyes shut, lips pursed. "Whatever this could mean, I assure you, it is not good."

Silence followed. As radiant as the spring sunlight was, pouring in through the windows, Raguna felt the need to wrap his arms around himself and shield himself from the cold.

"Well, uh… sir? What do we… What exactly do we do about this?" asked Emmett, clutching an empty tray with both hands. "I mean… What's our next move?"

The broken silence was filled with murmurs of various tones: worry, disbelief, even excitement.

"We should take this to the Empire… Shouldn't we?" Russell offered uncertainly. "I'll have to check my history books – see if anything like this has happened in the past."

"Who needs 'em?!" piped up Sabrina angrily, the glaze of inebriation present on her features. "I'll gut 'em like the catch-of-the-day, and that's all there is to it." She brandished an imaginary fishing spear.

"That's the spirit!" guffawed Neumann, "If any dang ol' monster comes marching up to me, I'll just give it a whallop it won't forget!"

The town was getting riled again.

"Listen," Godwin said, his rich baritone once again commanding attention, "We can't live like that. Our children are in danger, as well as our less able citizens," he spared barely a sideways glance at his sickly daughter, "We need to nip this problem in the bud. I'd prefer a thorough investigation before we take anything to the Empire."

Mei, reacting for the first time since they had entered the bar, gave a barely-perceptible but curt nod.

"Mei suggested this, and I agree that it is the most logical move to make: I want to organize a specialized task force to investigate Carmite Cave and report any and all findings of unusual activity." His blue eyes swept the tavern, gauging reactions.

The murmuring intensified, and he added, "Do not volunteer unless you are absolutely sure you can handle this. It will be dangerous, and should you feel that you would slow the team down – or escape mid-battle – " his eyes lingered on Zavier, but he lifted them off him as quickly as he could, " – Then do not be tempted to join. Those who do wish to volunteer, speak now. You will be accompanying Mei through the caves, immediately. Today."

Heads were turning in every direction, everyone eager to see who would bravely join the stoic foreigner to the depths of the cavern. Raguna recalled what Melody had said about the place: Carmite cave had been a well-known enough locale to many of the villagers. It was fairly hospitable, as far as monster dens went: so long as no one ventured too deep inside, the land within was fertile and the climate was temperate enough to grow a plethora of spring crops. The subterranean rivers housed a surprising amount of fish, and the walls of the cavern had many useful ores embedded in them. Like many of the caves in the region, Melody had said, there was a wide range of resources to be harvested: this was why caves were so rigorously moderated by the officiaries of the regions. No one could enter unless granted a permit by the region's governor. Godwin was clearly making a special exception here – something he had the power to do, as it was he who distributed permits for the Kardia region.

"How hard can it be? I'll do it," said a voicee, from the back of the tavern. The broad-shouldered, well-defined monster rancher Camus stood up, stretching and cracking the bones in his shoulder. "Hell, I deal with those uglies all the time."

"Settle down, bucko!" said Neumann from his seat, "These aren't Cluckers or Buffamoos, we're talking about. These are real, honest-to-goodness, bona fide monsters!"

"Absolutely not." Doctor Edward sat shaking his head with his hands in his lap. "You're a fantastic monster trainer, son, but don't get ahead of yourself."

Camus' fists clenched and he scowled at his father. "Don't – I wouldn't be - Who else in this village has experience with monsters?!"

"Well, Raguna kinda does," chimed in Rosetta, inconspicuously taking gulps from her father's tankard. "Remember? He's the one who kinda fought off the beasties whenever they showed up."

All eyes were now on the unkempt farmer. Rosetta continued drinking away, taking advantage of the distraction.

"Rosetta brings up a good point…" Tori said softly.

Russell agreed, adding, with his hand on his chin, "He certainly has the… potential."

Melody's heart rate instantly accelerated. Had the poor boy not been put into enough danger as it was?

"I – I don't know about that…" Raguna jabbered in his usual way, "The first time I was acting on pure adrenaline," he put up a second finger, "The second time was really all Leo's doing," he put up a third, "And I would be… well, goblin food if not for Mei, just now."

"Goblins don't eat humans, silly!" Rosetta hiccupped from across the tavern.

"Right. Well, the point still stands…"

Lady Ann disagreed with them crossly: "Oh, come off it, guys. It's not Raguna's damn problem if our town becomes a monster free-for-all or not. The kid's been here three days, and he's already done more for us than a whole damn lot of other people sitting here!" For the second time that night, pairs of eyes lingered on Zavier for just long enough to avoid being conspicuous. "I'm just sayin', Raguna should only go if he really wants to. He's hardly a Kardian – don't give him a duty that rightfully belongs to us."

The farmer in question felt equal parts gratitude and hurt at being excluded from 'the Kardians'. "I – It's not that I don't want to. I'll come along, if Mei will have me! My farm is at stake, and – and they nearly got my turnips! I need to get… um… revenge!" He mustered up whatever conviction he could come up with.

"Yes! Now that's more like it! Finally someone brings up the important stuff! Those poor turnips!" Mist shot to her feet, fist in air, a look of utter seriousness on her face. There was a collective decision to pointedly ignore her.

"What I'm saying is – even if it's not forever, Kardia is my home, too. I'll gladly go with Mei to Carmite Cave." He gave the silent warrior a trepid look, and she responded with her favourite gesture: a curt nod, all business.

"That settles it, then. You're a real piece of work, kiddo." Lady Ann seemed satisfied, as did the other villages. Everyone was smiling, and Melody couldn't help herself: she gave him a grin, masking the worry as best as she could. Camus' face soured as he slumped back in his seat, glaring daggers at both his father and Raguna.

"Very well," said Godwin, "I'd suggest taking a third with you, but no more. The passages winding through the cave are narrow and unaccommodating to large groups."

"Take someone that knows magic," Melody said instantly. "Neither of you are really that great at it. You'll have all your bases covered in that case." The robed girl adjusted her witch's hat subconsciously. She ignored the way her insides felt like they were being held in a pinch; there was no way she could accompany them, and she knew it. However, suppressing disappointment was something Melody was all too accustomed to.

"Melody makes a fine point, y'know," growled Leo, seated at the bar, face half-hidden behind a tankard, "Yeh'd be foolish wandering around there without some firepower – or at least someone t'mend your wounds, should yeh need it." The blacksmith polished off the remains of his ale and smacked his lips.

Godwin gave him a respectful nod, "Yes. Which of you is adept at magic and would like to round out this team?"

As the villagers discussed this, Raguna's thoughts were on the tome of magic under his bed at the bathhouse. He wished he had had more time to practice with it – it wasn't destructive or curative, but teleportation magic would no doubt be helpful in getting them out of a pinch. Between caring for the farm and his promise to Russell not to let Melody find out about it, there had been little opportunity.

"I – I don't think I'd be appropriate," Tori said, apparently answering someone's suggestion that she join the force, "I've used magic for house-hold purposes before, but never b-before an actual monster!"

Lady Ann, equally hard on both her children, agreed. "Plus she's a total klutz. You guys'd be safer without her, if we're being honest here." Of course, there was never a time when Lady Ann was not being her honest self.

Tori could not deny this, but still stared at the floor in embarrassment.

"The next obvious pick is Russell, then," Doctor Edward suggested, with a sage nod. "I don't think anyone in the village can out-cast him."

Russell simply pushed his glasses further up his nose, choosing not to accept or deny the compliment. "I'd be willing, if you'll have me. However, healing magic has never been my forte. I've never been able to mend more than scrapes and cuts; battle wounds are, I'm ashamed to admit, beyond me."

Godwin turned to Leo, as if for advice, but he only stared back at him through his one visible eye. Although it didn't look like it, the gaze was a significant one.

"I'm sorry, Russell, but a healer is absolutely essential when exploring the caves. Best not to take chances, you understand." He told him. Russell nodded his understanding, ego unbruised. Camus still seemed to be fuming.

"I suppose that doesn't leave us with many options though, does it…" Felicity observed, raising her head to look out at the remaining villagers.

"Well, there's still me!" Mist's voice rang through the room."I'm the one who healed Rags right before we came here, even! Right, Mei?"

Mei's lips thinned and she said nothing, giving the blonde a scrutinizing look. Mist's reputation was far too… notorious to actually consider her for such an important mission - but their options were certainly dwindling, and competent healers could not simply be made overnight. Mist, scary though it was to admit, might actually be their best bet.

Eyebrows furrowed, Godwin spoke again in an obviously strained tone of voice: "Very… well. Mist, you are… capable. I suppose if no one else –" he gave the rest of the villagers a long, hard, look, " – is willing… Then you shall join – "

Call it divine intervention if you will, but the doors of the tavern swinging open at that exact moment could not have been better timed. Bathed in mid-day glow, the lithe form of a female appeared.

"It's an aaaangel!" slurred a drunken Rosetta, flapping her arms like overgrown wings, "An aaangel here to saaave us aaaall!"

The villagers' eyes adjusted to the sudden outpouring of light and there stood a girl with long grapefruit-pink hair, slightly covered in a white nurse's habit. Her hands were clasped together as she took dainty steps into the tavern, as if in perpetual prayer. This likely wasn't far off the mark, as she seemed to be muttering barely perceptible litanies. Raguna had no idea who she was, but just faintly heard the request to "keep me safe in this place of licentiousness and indulgence" and to quicken "my stay in this, the home of gluttony and depravity".

"Who –"

"Lara. Sorry – Sister Lara." Melody corrected herself in a hushed tone.

"Oh, we're in for it now…" said Zavier, his tone a curious mixture of fear and exasperation. "She's the priest's daughter, and a nurse who works for Dr. Edward. She's deathly against anyone doing anything she considers 'dangerous'. She once chewed my ear off for eating candy off the ground. It's candy, for goodness' sake! You don't just ignore that stuff!'

Lara entered looking perhaps the most out-of-place one could look in Emmett's tavern. Her thick blouse and long skirt kept even an inch of skin from showing, and her rose-coloured hair was neatly parted in two long bangs on each side of her face. She seemed to have a constant smile on her face, one that seemed to radiate gentleness.

"My apologies, Mr. Godwin," she said, her voice as softspoken and sweet as one could imagine, "I do hate to make a late appearance, but I had lost track of the time while my father was sermonizing. He also wishes to apologize for being unable to be here."

"It is of no matter, Lara," Godwin said kindly, "I understand your father has little desire to congregate at a tavern."

"Oh goodness, no! Think nothing of the sort!" Lara said, taking delicate steps further into the establishment. "Father has no qualms with this – business! And nor do I, of course." The way she sniffed the air, as if walking among the diseased, suggested otherwise. "Ingesting spirits is a… pleasant way to pass the time." Her breath caught in her throat and she started over.

"Now, what's this about you… er, mobilizing a group to plumb the depths of Carmite Cave?

Godwin quickly summarized the predicament, then gestured to Raguna and Mei, "These are our volunteers, thus far." No one corrected him when he left out Mist. Mist, in fact, had lost interest in the meeting and was entertaining herself with the candle at the center of their table, amused at how, well, shiny it was. This reverie was best left unbroken, for the time being.

Smile still in place, Lara frowned and tilted her head to the side, as if she hadn't quite understood Godwin. "But… Mr. Godwin, sir… this is quite the dangerous endeavor, no? You do realize that?"

There was a collective sigh, though barely audible, as if the entire town had been waiting for this.

"It is, indeed. This is why Mei, a seasoned warrior, will be leading the expedition. Raguna, too, has proven himself an asset in battle. We're taking every precaution we can."

Lara's amber eyes flicked over to Raguna, and then back to Godwin. "Goodness…" she whispered, still smiling, "I have to express my… distaste with this plan."

"No, you don't." Lady Ann hissed under her breath, which the nurse chose to ignore.

"Sir, it's just that, those caves are no place for civilians. The fact that they haven't been sealed up as of yet is outrageous in itself, but to send these plebeians –"

"They've been open to licensed adventurers for generations now," Mei said coldly. The lurid sprightliness of Lara's disposition made Mei's skin crawl. Raguna sensed that being called a 'plebeian' probably hadn't helped either. "And furthermore, this is what we call an emergency. Kardia is in peril, and if we don't do something – and quickly – you can be sure that these very streets will soon become as dangerous as those blighted caves."

Lara pursed her lips and closed her eyes to the tavern, bolstering her courage with what seemed to be a lighting-round of prayers.

"If what you say is true, Miss Mei, then this is most dire, indeed." She spoke after a long silence, and opened her eyes again. "However, as Kardia's nurse and a servant of God, I cannot allow for the two of you to journey there yourselves. Certainly, a seasoned warrior such as yourself wouldn't consider such a weary expedition without a healer?"

"Well, actually, we were about to elect –" Zavier began, but Lara overrode him.

"I suppose I'll just have to accompany you myself, then, won't I? It is my job – no, my vocation – to do the work of God; Who better than one of His blessed acolytes to ensure that this little venture goes without incident?

She turned to Raguna and offered him a smile brimming with confidence. He returned hers with an uneasy smile of his own.

Why did he suddenly feel like they were better off with Mist?