When we walk in the door of any given pub or inn or shop, there’s always a quick scattering of tense whispers. They see some muscled people, armed to the teeth, attractively scarred, chain-mailed and fiery, and obviously that would make them worried. But bandits and thugs don’t use black draconic leather armor with hammered dwarven metal accents. The older Monster Hunters say the leather is our “signature look”. Most of the mercenary bands and the other wanderers-by-trade used magical defense or had switched to sleek cloth vests with metal plates inside. Flak jackets? That felt like the right word. Draconic leather, however, is the best defense against most of the creatures we deal with, so the League felt justified in their adamancy that we stick with the traditional style. Really, the League is just trying to adhere to their aesthetic of secrecy and daring. People respect us for what we do and it’s considered a valid life path, but it’s not like we’re Revenant Knights with their shiny white armor and community service exploits. Running into burning buildings and saving kitties from trees and whatnot. We work in the shadows and the dark parts of the forests, keeping the creatures at bay. We do the hard work that sustains the livability of the world we’ve all chosen to live on.
This particular inn was too busy to notice us this time. The check-in counter had a cluster of people around it scrambling for rooms, and the tavern in the back, just beyond a set of folding doors, spewed voices out into the lobby. We moved toward it with the intention of figuring out our lodging after seeing who was already in residence. The road between here and the city had washed out after a torrential storm in the early hours of the morning, and safe harbors in the backroads are few and far between. An able body could go off road fairly easily, but with the constant drizzle through the day making everything muddier and muddier as the day progressed and dark clouds brewing in the distance, even we decided it might not be a bad idea to seek shelter for the night.
“Brigham,” Alexios said, tapping me on the shoulder. He gestured to a table against the wall to our left near an outward facing window.
Like we had both expected, two more of us were sitting there. The older one—a grizzly old bear in his early forties that had started going gray early like we usually do—was named Edgar. Legend around the Lodge was that he had been on the bad end of a basilisk one too many times. The guy with his back to me was probably his new partner. Name was Digger, or something. I’d only met him once. Alexios started ahead of me, squeezing down the aisle between the little too closely spaced tables. I gave him a second, then followed.
Despite the danger of the wilderness, there was still quite a bit of money to be made in hunting, trapping, and trading with the village to the southeast of the city. As I looked out over the heads, I could see humans and elves and sylvan and halfies and mixies and even a bull-horned ariesian or two all cobbled together under one roof in their sleek rain splattered traveling cloaks and dirty boots. There was a dreadlocked mountain elf puffing on a long necked pipe in a way off dark corner. A tiny cluster of mercenaries chuckled over something probably super dirty in another corner. And there was a really hot girl totally flirting with me.
She was sitting at a table on the other side of the aisle just before the table I was heading toward. First it was just a look up to see Alexios passing, then a double take when she saw me. Then she bit her lip and raised an eyebrow and took a long, slow sip of her drink. Her eyes stayed on me as I passed, giving me that sideways “I’m looking but not really looking” glance that girls are so amazingly good at.
Alexios took the seat next to Edgar, so I was forced to sit with my back to the girl next to what’s-his-name. Edgar was looking more haggard than usual, but that wasn’t unexpected. We were at the end of a three-day magic spike in the area. I couldn’t feel it, but Edgar would. He’d feel it hard. He was born a non-magician, like myself, but he had gone through an Alteration. He had been made Magic Void. He could sense and dispel magic. It wasn’t easy on the body, but it made our jobs easier if we could strip the energy off a rabid therianthrope or mess up a draconid’s internal chemistry.
“Alexios, Brigham,” Edgar greeted in his low, gravelly voice then nodded to the man I was sitting next to. “I think you met Duggar once, yeah?” Right, Duggar. Not Digger. The giving of surnames wasn’t particularly common.
“Yeah, I did.” I turned to him for a handshake, and he returned it half-heartedly.
“What were you blushing about as you sat down?” Alexios asked, and I grinned.
“Ah, man, hot blond at that table behind us was totally flirting with me.”
Edgar made a harrumphing noise. “You young ones. You notice tits before you notice the important stuff.”
“I didn’t say anything about her tits- ”
“She’s a magician,” Duggar cut me off.
“Maybe a wizard, probably a witch,” Edgar said. “And she’s traveling with a greenwitch.”
Alexios raised an eyebrow and ever so slightly peered around my shoulder. I turned as well, not really bothering to be subtle. Low and behold, next to the blond was an elf, half her head shaved and a tattoo hidden behind one of her pointed ears showing she was one of the tiny population of elves that could perform active magic.
“A halfie,” Alexios mused aloud quietly. Being full-blooded himself, he’d know. I turned back around.
“So? Half the humans in Tomar are magicians of some sort. We gonna start witch hunting? All of Areylan got kicked out for that.”
Edgar grumbled again, and squared his shoulders for the lecture he was about to give.
“Young humans with high magic are dangerous. Just enough power to get in trouble, but not old enough to control it. She’s got scars on the inside of her arms, too. Ritual ones. Probably an augment or an at-home Alteration. It’s one thing to do that after decades of study, but at her age it’s just the kind of reckless thing that puts craters in the ground. It’s our responsibility to watch for that sort of thing, too.” I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Right. Part of our “calling.” Whatever. It’s a well paying job.
“Did you guys get a room here already?” Alexios asked in an inexpertly veiled attempt to change the subject.
“Yeah, and it was one of the last. That was an hour ago. Share ours. I already asked the concierge about it when we checked in because I had a feeling at least one other pair was gonna get stuck out here. Said he’d still have to charge you, but half price. Just throw your bedrolls on the floor.” There was silent agreement.
“What can I get for you, this evening?” A cute, perky barmaid was at our table. “You boys don’t usually drink, right?”
“You know what?” Alexios banged the table emphatically. “It’s raining, and I’m soaked to the marrow. I would love love something warm and fuzzy.”
“We have mulled hibiscus wine from Apolais Hollow, if that sounds good.”
“Yes, certainly. What about you gentlemen? On me.”
Duggar and I just got coffee. The girl was right. We weren’t, technically, supposed to drink while wearing the armor. The older ones could get away with it a little bit, but we had to toe the line. Edgar took an extra second to decide, considering all these things.
“Screw it,” he muttered. “You guys have a decent brandy?”
Alexios raised his eyebrows. “Right, I pay, so you go for the expensive stuff. It’s Bertie’s party all over again.”
The barmaid giggled a little. “Um, yeah, we do. Plum brandy from some of the best.” Edgar signaled that this would do, and she skipped off.
As to be expected of an entire species of lightweights, Alexios was starting to get giggly only halfway into his glass of wine. And, of course, a giggly elf is a site to behold, but it was decided that maybe he shouldn’t drink anymore. Someone had to finish his glass, though, and being just ever so slightly more veteran than Duggar, it was I who took up the mantle. Elven wine’s an acquired taste, sickeningly sweet and thick. Being mulled made it even headier, but it might as well have been cornstarch and water for all the buzz it was capable of giving me. I made motions of distaste, but no one rescued me. Edgar, all the while, kept sipping his brandy, then his whiskey, then his ale, the gloom around him getting darker and darker all the while. The magicians at the table behind me kept drawing his eye, then he’d sneer a little, and look at his drink again. There was something going on in his brain. Something boiling. Something the alcohol was feeding. I wasn’t able to linger on the thoughts for too long, though, before the call of nature drew me out the back of the tavern to their semi-attached latrine. There was a line, which was odd, but then everything seemed extra weird at the moment. The strangeness of it had been creeping up on me all evening, growing more and more intense as the night grew long.
I ended up a bit turned around coming back into the tavern, finding myself in the hallway that led to the rooms. As I cast around for my new direction, I heard and felt a slam against a wall just around the corner from where I was. Several instincts kicked in at once. The first was for making sure someone wasn’t in danger. The second closely followed it as instant stealth. I backed up against the wall nearest me, inched down it, and peered around the corner. Edgar was there, wobbly, but mostly together. He had someone pinned against the wall. I leaned just a little farther out. It was the blond from before. He held her wrists, not overly hard it seemed, but firm against the wall above her head. If it had been any other man, I would have jumped in immediately to help her. But this was Edgar—one of us.
“How’d you know I like it rough?” she asked. Very tough. Very commanding. Her body was tense, her hands balled into fists, every muscle ready to react at a moment’s notice. Edgar didn’t respond, just looked down at her, swaying a little, eyes glassy. Her body relaxed; her hands released. She was choosing non-confrontation. “What do you want, Hunter?”
“The boy that was at my table.” His speech was slurred.
“The brunette with the undercut ponytail? What about him?”
“Were you trying to cast a spell on him? Poison his mind?”
She made a sound of disdain in the back of throat. “Oh, honey, a little flirting and I’m poisoning his mind? You need to get laid.”
He slammed her wrists against the wall. His right hand released then spread itself out flat so that he was pressing his palm against hers while still keeping her pinned. The sleeve of her shirt had dropped down to her elbow, and I could see, even in the darkness, the scars that Edgar had mentioned before. They pulsed a little.
“This is some taboo magic research shit,” he muttered, staring at the inside of her forearms. “You gonna push yourself? Think that magic can be controlled by someone like you? It’s gonna end bad, and someone’s gonna get hurt.”
“It already got bad. That’s the reason I did it in the first place. Don’t be jealous.” He slammed her arms again and pressed up against her. He was getting rough, and I skulked there, mesmerized. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t the interrogation of a warlock, it was harassing a girl in an inn. I should have already put a stop to this, but that wasn’t how things were done in the League. No matter what you provided a unified front. We weren’t supposed to show any of the cracks in the plasterwork.
“You stop at your arms, or you go further? Huh? Maybe I should check?”
“Edgar!” I shook myself into action. “Hey bud! You look like you’re having a great time, there, but, I think, maybe you need to go sleep it off, yeah?”
He turned his head to me languidly. I stared at him hard. He dropped her hands, grumbled something unintelligible, then stalked off down the hall toward the stairs at the end. She sighed and watched him go.
“I’m so so sorry I didn’t stop him sooner. Are you okay, Miss?”
She turned back to me. “It’s Arcmage, not Miss. He was half a second away from getting his skull cracked, so really, it’s fine. I could smell the booze on him. Piss poor excuse, but I’d rather just drop it. Don’t feel like dealing with the League, right now. So, thank you.” She patted me on the arm, then she strolled down the hallway and up the stairs.
I didn’t tell Duggar and Alexios what happened. They accepted that I had met Edgar on the way back, and he was on his way to bed. The only problem was that Edgar wasn’t in the room when we got there. They didn’t make note of it, and neither did I. We were all grown men after all. He was there the next morning though, stretched out on the floor looking ragged, clothes and hair in disarray. I stayed behind an extra half a minute when Alexios and Duggar went on ahead downstairs. Edgar was fumbling weirdly with his belt and didn’t seem to be entirely together. The reek of booze was even stronger than it had been the night before.
“So, uh, last night,” I started hesitantly.
“You’re a young one.” I nodded. “You know what they do to you at the seven year mark, yeah?”
I nodded again. We all knew. That was the year they Altered you, the year they made you Void.
“But they don’t tell you what it’s like to be magic void in a place like this. The magic beats at you and it burns. It’s why we go gray early. And, ugh, Alexios felt it when he walked in, I’m sure, but he’s an elf. They adapt better to the void. They’re used to being able to feel magic without being able to move it. But that girl…she was radiating it…I couldn’t take it. She must’ve charmed me or something. I wouldn’t have done those things otherwise.”
“You were pretty drunk.”
“I don’t get drunk! It was her. Used some kind of incantation. She was pissed at me for trying to call her out. But you know women. They’d rather seduce you than fight you face to face. Why else would she answer the door dressed like that?”
Oh? Some things weren’t clicking together all that cleanly. I sensed something was amiss.
“Edgar, did you see her again after I broke you up in the hallway?”
“I didn’t have a choice! I could feel that temptress everywhere. And she must have enchanted me. Or some kind of glamour. And I’m certain I would have used void to break the magic, but she’s probably done something to make herself immune to it. And that greenwitch could have saved me, but no, she just walks in, starts cackling and walks out. They’re probably working together to bring people like us down.” He grabbed me by the arm. “Magic types always stick together, so we have to stick together too.” He looked down at me, eyes wild and uncertain. He let out a quick burst of air from his nose and let go. “Come on. Let’s go. I’ve got to get something for this headache. Some kinda magic after effect, probably.” He half bumped into me as he staggered out the door. I moved into the doorway and watched him go, shuffling down the hallway toward the stairs.
When I joined the League of Monster Hunters fresh out of secondary school, a young idiot with no money for college, I was told I would have to make a lot of sacrifices for the job if I wanted to do it properly. The chance for an active social life, stability, maybe even my life if I got a claw in just the wrong part of my chest. I was ready for all of it. What I saw in Edgar, though, … it didn’t seem quite so worth it anymore.