Chapter 26: Preparation

(New and improved! If you've read ch26 prior to this, please go to the topic linked on my profile page for an explanation)

Brynn's lab...

Knock, knock.

"Erm, come in," Brynn looked up from his work at the door.

Eve walked in and looked around, amazed. She had borrowed an old shirt and pants from Bapple for the day. Brynn cleared his throat.

"Oh. Hi, my name is Eve."
"Hello. I'm Brynn. Thank you for knocking. Courtesy is a novelty these days. I presume you are the former succubus."
"Not really, but yes," she blushed.
"Hm? Oh. Apologies."
"It's fine. Anyway, Bapple told me you were the first person she went to when she arrived in town with me. I wanted to thank you face-to-face for helping."
"Oh, well, um," Brynn stuttered. "It was nothing. It's good that you're alright."
"I feel indebted," she looked at the floor.

Brynn put his beaker down.

"Please don't. Bapple deserves ninety-nine percent of the credit for being sufficiently out of her mind to go find and retrieve you. However, if you'd like to help me, you can answer some questions about your experiences, whenever you're ready that is. As a scientist and magician, I am intrigued. I'd like to test some theories against your story."
"Of course," she smiled.

Meanwhile at the outpost...

Riordan rambled on about the mission at hand. Maks reclined in his chair which wasn't meant for reclining, so far back that he lost balance. Nalus caught said chair with one hand and firmly shoved it back on all fours, narrowing her eyes until Maks sat up straight. Bapple stared at the clouds through the window, chin in her hand. Dima stared at Bapple from another table, chin in his hand. Dijkstra, the only one actively paying attention, stood against the wall and silently reviewed each of Riordan's words as they were spoken.

"... and that's why it's imperative that you find the holy artifact. Understood?"

The room was silent. Riordan rubbed against a spot on his head to soothe incoming pain.

"Stupid mercenaries," he muttered to himself.
"Sir," Gwynn spoke up, "perhaps I should take the burden of briefing them."
"Right you are, Gwynn. I'll be waiting in the carriage."

Riordan walked outside. Moments later,

"Ow! Damn it! What is this black beast from hell?"
"Bark! Bark!"

Gwynn cleared her throat.

"Mercenaries," she started.

Suddenly, the daydreams came to a simultaneous halt and everyone turned toward her attentively.

"I trust you're all at least vaguely aware of the importance of this mission."
"At least," Nalus smiled.
"Good. I'll see you all at 0700 tomorrow. Remember, you're expected to be on the way to Hoarfrost at no later than 0800.

Later, outside the forge...

Shayla brought out a glass of water and sat it on a ledge near Bapple who was sharpening her sword on a large stone.

"I hear you were the one carrying someone in, for once," Shayla crossed her arms, grinning.
"Yep," Bapple didn't look up from her work. "Her name is Eve. If you see her around, try not to be too intense."
"Me? Intense? I'm offended!" she laughed.

Back at the magic laboratory...

"I'd practiced magic before all of this happened."
"Interesting," Brynn carefully plucked a hair of his and dropped it into his green concoction. "Perhaps that is why the Fomor used you... utilized your body so well."

Nyle, covered almost completely in his black cloak as usual, strode in from a back room.

"You've been chatting up this mercenary for nearly ten minutes now, Brynn. You must be sick or something."
"She's no mercenary, Nyle, which is probably why."
"Hmph. Whatever." Nyle returned to the back.

Creeeeak.

Sunlight filled the room as Nalus walked inside. In her hand was an orange, glowing essence.

"Here's that wisp heart you asked for, Brynn. Hi Eve!"
"Lovely. Put it on that shelf, please. I'll work out your payment when I get a chance."
"Take your time! Hey, Eve, I'm having lunch with Bapple in a few. You're welcome to join!"
"Thank you..." Eve made eye contact for a brief moment.
"Toodles!" Nalus waved and went out as quickly as she'd arrived.

Eve turned back to Brynn.

"Well don't let me keep you from lunch," Brynn said. "You should go be with your friends."
"I don't think they see me as a friend yet," Eve said quietly. "I was kinda forced into their lives."
"Trust me," Brynn sniffed the flask and silently gagged, "you'll be fine."
"Bapple's the only one I've really talked to at all. She's nice to me, but the rest are strangers."

Brynn sighed audibly.

"Her choices for friends tend to be annoying and loud, but they certainly could be worse."

Eve smiled, knowing Brynn would short-circuit if he came any closer to complimenting them.

"I guess I'll head over, then. I'll tell you more when I get a chance."
"See you."

Eve turned to the door and had almost touched the knob...

"Hold on."

She turned around to face Brynn and cocked her head. Brynn bent over behind his desk and rustled through whatever was back there, coming back up for air soon enough.

"Take this," he raised his arm to show he had a simple-looking staff in his hand. "Everything that girl touches turns into a mercenary. I wouldn't have you using second rate equipment."

Eve walked over and cautiously grabbed it.

"Um, thank you. This looks very nice."
"Yes, yes. I'll see you later."

Inside the inn...

Eve walked through the front doorway and looked around. No one was in the room, but a delicious smell filled the air. Tieve poked her head out from behind a wall.

"Nalus told me you'd be joining them for lunch. I'll have some soup ready for you all in a few minutes!"

Without giving Eve a chance to reply, Tieve disappeared again. Eve blinked and hurried up the stairs to put away the staff and wash up.

Eve came back down the stairs to find Bapple and Nalus sitting by the table expectantly.

"I could eat a steak the size of the giant polar bear right now," Bapple complained. Once she noticed Eve, her face lit up. "Hey! Come on down!"

Eve sat opposite Bapple and Nalus, switching back and forth from glancing at them to looking at her feet.

"How'd you like Brynn?" Bapple asked. "I know he's not much of a teddy bear, but he's more fun to talk to than Deputy Commander Riordan at least."
"Who's that?" Eve looked up.
"Bapple's best friend," Nalus answered matter-of-factly.

A few seconds of silence passed before Bapple and Nalus let out a huge snicker together. Eve couldn't help but giggle.

"Is he the man you were all with last night?"
"Nope, that's Ingkells. He actually is my best friend," Bapple said. After a pause, she quickly added, "One of them, I mean," and softly shouldered Nalus.
"Yeah, Ingkells was visiting from Ortel Castle which is... well, I guess you know what that is," Nalus added.
"Oh, yes. I think I knew that. Oops."
"Riordan," Bapple reclined, "is much less fun to be around. What's even worse is he's in a position of power. Imagine Brynn with ten times the grumpiness and add the fact that this guy actually believes he's more of a person than any of us is."

Eve looked genuinely puzzled.

"Are you in his army?"
"Nope. We're mercenaries. Riordan's in the Royal Army over in Rocheste," Bapple pointed arbitrarily. "If you're gonna ask why he's here dealing with us, your guess is as good as mine."
"My guess," Nalus said, "is the Royal Army's not insane enough for the job."
"Or they're not good enough," Bapple added, puffing out her chest and beating on it.

Eve giggled again. She felt oddly comfortable. Tieve walked over with three steaming hot bowls on a tray.

"The Royal Army isn't all bad," she said, smiling. "Keaghan is there, after all. He keeps Riordan in line whenever he's around."
"This girl," Bapple pointed a thumb sideways at Tieve, "has the hots for Keaghan."
"Understandably," Nalus said. "I saw a picture once. He's gorgeous." She winked at Tieve.

Tieve blushed as she passed out the bowls. Eve and Nalus both bowed their heads before picking up their spoons; Bapple had already grabbed the bowl and started many bowl-to-mouth transfers of soup.

Later, just outside the outpost...

Bapple dragged Eve, who was kicking up a bit of dust by resisting, by the wrist.

"I think I'm too nervous!"
"This was your idea!"
"Well I'm having second thoughts!"
"C'mon, it'll be fine. We'll go sit down by our friends and they'll like you and we'll live happily ever after."

Before Eve could protest any more, the door swung open.

"After you," Bapple said. "They'll be on the left. Just go on and sit down like it's natural."

Eve sighed, realizing she wouldn't escape Bapple's vice grip any other way. She walked onto the wooden floor of the outpost and spotted some faintly familiar faces from the night before at a table on the left. She went directly to the table, not looking at anything else, and sat down immediately. Bapple casually followed, waving to the rest of the Crimson Blades.

"Hi Eve," Dima said. "I'm Dima."
"Hi Dima," she answered, "Oh, you're the one Bapple – ow!"
"Sorry," Bapple looked down at her, "gotta watch where I'm going."
"I'm Maks. Nice to meet you!"
"Likewise," Eve smiled.
"The life of the party over there is Dijkstra," Bapple pointed. Dijkstra nodded and bowed to Eve. "That guy's got stories for days once you get some strawberry brandy in him."

Bapple put her face next to Eve's and pointed across the room.

"That man is Captain Aodhan. He's the leader of the Crimson Blades. Everyone else in the room is a Blade, even the people running this place."

Toward the end of Bapple's spiel, Aodhan walked over to the table.

"Hey there," he said. "Every time I turn my head, Bapple adds someone else to her team."
"This one's innocent," Bapple put a hand on Eve's shoulder, "I'm just showing her around."
"Alrighty," he smiled. "Just don't let Gallagher hear about an 'innocent' new girl."
"I can cut off his ears if you think that'd help."

That night...

Eve sat at the edge of Bapple's bed. She was dressed in a new nightgown, bought from Clodagh at the general store by Bapple as a gift. Bapple had on a long, oversized shirt.

"Thank you again," Eve ran her finger up and down the material. "This is really comfy."
"Don't mention it. I don't imagine you've got much of a wardrobe at the moment."
"I just don't feel like I can ever repay you for all of this."
"Well, if you feel that way," Bapple winced as she slid her brush's bristles through knots in her hair in front of a mirror, "don't repay me!"

Bapple noticed a distinct silence and continued.

"I treat you like a friend cause you're a friend, not cause I want anything back for it."
"Well, when you put it that way," Eve's voice sounded noticeably more at ease.
"So how'd you like the gang?"
"They were really nice. I feel like I made a good impression."
"You bet you did. You almost looked like you belonged there. Sheesh!"

Eve was starting to recognize Bapple's flavorless humor and caught herself laughing loud enough to be heard.

"That joke you told about the blonde guy and the vampire sealed the deal."
"You really think so?"
"Oh yeah. I'm telling that one to Shayla." Bapple looked at the moon outside. "Ah, it's getting late. I gotta get some beauty sleep so I can kick some ass tomorrow."

Eve stood up.

"Do you like being a mercenary?"

Bapple stood still in thought.

"It's exciting," she finally said.
"I see."
"It's not really something you like or dislike. Sure, I hate parts of it, but if I just gave up and minded my own business then humans would be one step closer to being wiped out."

Bapple walked over and stood next to her.

"Each of us has a different reason for ending up in this town and fighting the Fomors. Whether someone's got a personal vendetta, is out to prove something, or is just bloodthirsty, the people in my group all have one basic thing in common."

Eve looked at her.

"They're crazy?"

They laughed together and wished each other a good night. Eve walked to her room and closed the door behind her before seeing a fairly large book on her bed. Next to it was a small piece of white paper that had "Eve" scribbled on it in awful handwriting. On the other side, it read "A refresher."