TDW: Emergence (Volume 4); Chapter 121

Chapter 121: Defining Greed

(Saturday, March 12th Game Day / Thursday, May 27th Real Day)

 

No longer bothered by unwanted spectators or other nuisances, the bustling street outside my window was the only minor distraction left as I stood and watched without much interest. Far removed from the activity of the reward table, those who found themselves this far out were either late to the party or had already received their rewards.

Those cries of happiness remained foreign and the shouts of sales seemed to have happened ages ago and miles away. They weren’t so far though… only a few hours had passed and as day turned to night and began to turn back once again, I found myself rather calm and collected amidst a swirling sea of information. All of the time spent alone in my room allowed me to gather my thoughts on the subject and for that I was better off.

There were a lot of questions after all… as there always were. Too many issues to concern myself with but ones that clouded my mind regardless. Answers on the other hand were short or absent as usual though as the reality was never quite so clear.

I didn’t know all of the details of the situation but I did know one thing and that was that the Harmonts had yet to punish me for my actions. For my blatant attack on the senior reward-giver with my lightning or the maiming of the bastard that pushed his luck, no penalty had arrived. There was no red name, no reputation hit, not even a warning that I was a marked man or that I should cease my deviant behavior or else suffer the consequences. The system had yet to even issue a message.

And that meant some crimes were above reproach.

It also meant the Harmonts’ hands were dirty too.

Somehow our activities canceled out as the leverage held by each party leveled the playing field. They had a reputation to preserve, trust that needed to be kept with a player-base that their just rewards would be paid as advertised. The support of the players was a necessity in this game as they needed us to survive… yet at the same time, they held a position of power over us as the economy started with them.

We were players in their game, in their world and that was something that we would never forget, could never forget as the constant reminders were not only always there but blatantly so. We could not sustain ourselves in this world without them… not yet. And as such, my options were limited as the truth of the matter was evident, we were tied together and any action taken by either party would have an effect on the populace as a whole.

Any extreme positions or moves made by me would only hurt my cause as public opinion went both ways. If I were to abruptly and publicly take gold from them, gold that I rightfully deserved… I would be labeled a thief and the player-base would blame me for any shortfalls or actions taken by the Harmonts after the fact.

That reality left me with little recourse and in the end there was no easy answer here but I wasn’t one who lacked forethought. If there was a way, I would find it in time. Even if it eluded me for now, another discussion would serve me well as information was one of the most valuable commodities known to humankind.

It was likely even valuable to the artificial-kind.

And then as if on cue after the minutes slowed to a crawl, a single text message arrived from a certain acquaintance that didn’t need to be read. The contents were obvious without having even glanced at it as the time of day said all that needed to be said. Barik, Ethan, Emily, and maybe even Claire too would all discover the state of their rewards and as the situation had unfortunately played itself out, the results were already a given.

Land for coin, territory for services rendered instead of hard currency.

As if this were a fiefdom and we were their vassals.

An absurd thought… but one that sadly made sense.

“Hey! Did you get your reward yet?!” Emily blurted out through a new voice message, one that was hard to hear properly due to the speed and volume of the delivery. But before I could even consider replying I was interrupted by a ringing that denoted an incoming call as she seemed unwilling to wait for my response.

“Hey,” I replied after accepting the call.

“Tell me you were paid in gold,” she said bluntly.

“Heh,” I said with a low chuckle, as I wondered how many other players had been swindled on this deal. “No… despite it sitting in front of me, I wasn’t paid. Piles, bags, and chests of copper, silver, and gold but not an ounce for me, not an ounce for you.”

“Ugh… you too… I could scream right now,” she mumbled. “But I won’t.”

“Appreciate that,” I whispered softly, as my virtual ears were grateful.

“It’s not supposed to be this way,” she said, reiterating a thought that we seemed to share. “I mean… they have the option but… it’s not supposed to happen that often, not like this, not in this situation. It doesn’t make sense, it’s ridiculous! Tell me I’m not the crazy one here, tell me you’re as mad as I think you are.”

“Mad huh, I’m not sure mad even covers it.”

Sigh I can’t even, I can’t deal with this right now,” she said strangely as her voice seemed to waver slightly. “This is just too much, what the hell am I even going to do with a bunch of territory? I don’t want land. I have no use for that crap… it’s beyond useless.”

After hearing her words, my opinion on the matter solidified slightly as my mind had been all but made up. I was still wavering as the time after the fact had actually given me too much time to think over the details and to question my actions as I ended up reevaluating my stance at every turn once the self-doubt crept in. The more I thought about it though, the more I believed in my cause. Even if there were still questions.

That uncertainty… wasn’t enough on its own to convince me otherwise.

I knew these Harmonts wanted to take the easy road after all. The one where they had the least to lose and the most to gain with the cost falling to those select few who happened to give it their all for the cause. We bled blue... we bled those colors of the Harmonts and made our enemies bleed theirs. Purple, yellow… it didn’t matter, in the end they all dripped red but we had sworn allegiance to our benefactor and fought for them.

We killed for them and now we were being betrayed.

And that led back to the one question that lingered far longer than the others: was it really a betrayal? Glancing at the system menu that had been opened long before, the details of the Oath and the Call to Arms had been floating inconspicuously in front of me as I stood by the window of my inn’s room. I had combed through the details repeatedly over the hours and despite all of my efforts… I still felt wronged… but was I alone in that?

“Emily, in the Oath it stated, ‘If the Settlement is razed, territory can be assigned instead as a reward for participation.’ If I took that literally… are we actually being screwed over or was it in plain sight? Am I overreacting? Are we?”

“It’s out of context and you know it, you can’t analyze it like that,” she replied quickly as her voice raised in pitch slightly. “I have it open too… that whole clause reads, ‘After the Call to Arms has ended, the victorious Houses will be able to allot additional rewards to the region’s greatest supporters. Those that have collectively supported a House can be rewarded with control of the conquered Settlement if it still stands. If the Settlement is razed, territory can be assigned instead as a reward for participation.’”

Pausing for a second to catch her breath after reading the entire thing out, it was in the silence between her shallow breathing that I could faintly hear the noise of the crowd behind her and the single declaration that had likely been repeated thousands of times by now. Calls for the players to organize into a line depending on the amount of their rewards… a sign that she had yet to actually leave the reward tables behind.

“It’s a direct continuation from the previous sentence,” she stated with a light exhale, likely in an effort to relieve her tension and anger. “You have to see it.”

“Yeah… that’s how I interpret it too,” I mumbled.

“Right? Right?! I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way! This whole situation is so fucked,” she said without any reservation as her voice again raised considerably with a mix of anger and excitement. “I even talked to a co-worker about it a few days ago because I was worried this would happen ugh. Why now… of all times.”

“You were expecting this?” I asked, as my interest was piqued.

“Ah… kind of,” she mumbled hesitantly.

“If you can’t explain that’s fine,” I replied as the truth was already out there.

I didn’t need my hand held here. The world was changing right before my eyes and what I thought I knew was no longer entirely valid. Perhaps some of it remained accurate but the situation had changed and more changes were coming. These NPCs could act with their own interests in mind… inhabitants… actually had motives too.

That knowledge changed a lot of things.

And it really got me thinking.

“If I knew it would end up this way, I would have said something earlier,” Emily said softly, as the conversation had gone quiet for a few seconds. “The chances were so low.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’m… just surprised that they can make moves.”

“I didn’t think we’d see it so soon,” she replied almost off-handedly.

“Are there any other hidden restraints in the system that I should be worried about, that you can share?” I asked, as the notion of secret checks unlocking awkward and unpredictable behavior could be rather dangerous. “How far will this game evolve?”

“Ah… I… can’t answer that,” she mumbled.

“I understand, not trying to put you in a compromising position,” I said sincerely.

“Guess we both have things we can’t really share huh,” she replied curiously as the noise of the crowds started to grow louder. “Sigh, what am I going to do with territory….”

Ignoring the loaded statement that she led off with, there was a legitimate concern there with the line on a territory. What would we do… if our worst fears are realized?

I didn’t really want to think about that.

“Don’t know about the territory but if there’s a way for us to get out of it, I’ll figure it out in time,” I stated confidently, though mostly in an attempt to reassure myself.

“Are you planning something right now?” she asked pointedly.

“No, not yet… though I already asked for an alternate reward.”

“An alternative? Do you really think they’ll give it to you? When I asked they turned me down on the spot. Practically spat on my face… as if he didn’t care.”

“Honestly? No, I don’t expect them to give me or anyone else an alternate reward, they seemed… dead set on toeing the party line and I’m not sure I can sway them.”

Dead set you say?” she asked as she caught on to my enunciation.

“Yeah, I nearly electrocuted one of the bastards and nothing came of it,” I explained briefly. “He still resisted after. At the time I thought maybe it could be forced but honestly after thinking it out more… I’m not expecting any changes really.”

“You did what!?” she questioned bluntly as her pitch rose.

“Well a part of it was in anger, I admit that,” I mumbled quickly. “But I mainly wanted to gauge their response and… well, it’s about time to test that response again.”

“You’re not making any sense Sigurd, what are you saying?”

“Well if you want to see why don’t you tag along?”

“What?” she exclaimed, confused. “Come on….”

“The reward room, you’re still there right?”

“H-how did you know that?” she muttered. “Are you watching me?”

“I’ll see you in five Emily, get ready though… I don’t know how this is going to play out,” I said softly as I closed the line of communications between us before she could reply.

Sliding the last of my knives into its sheath, all that was left was to grab my recently-repaired axe that had received a new wooden handle and then my preparations would be complete. My leather armor remained heavily damaged from the fighting but there was no way to replace or fix it at a reasonable cost… and so, it stayed the same. Equipped beneath some loose cloth that was able to conceal it in its entirety, no one would know.

Stopping at the door as I looked at the brown and gray heavy robes hanging from a rack, I selected the gray one as the other had been worn the in-game day before. Putting it on quickly while tossing the hood up, the completed ensemble gave little away as both my identity and my armaments were cleanly and safely hidden underneath. And with that my threat level was now as minimal as it could be on the surface while hardly being a hindrance. If the Harmonts wanted to get physical, I was more than ready to oblige.

Leaving my room behind and stepping outside and into the crowded dirty streets of Wesstown, a pleasant spring breeze brushed against my face as the noise of multiple commotions immediately reached my ears. Alerted if not reminded of the scene in front of me, the bustle of hundreds of individuals moving in and out of buildings and through the streets brought a certain sense of scale to the entire place that I wanted to appreciate.

As there was certainly a scale to it all.

Yet… I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the sight as their carefree attitudes bothered me deep down. Celebrating their newfound wealth that I was responsible for while I had nothing to show for it, the whole scene left a bitter taste in my mouth as I continued to walk along the path by my lonesome. Though in the end it didn’t really matter. None of it really mattered as even if they didn’t deserve the rewards they were receiving, the Triumvirate were my original enemies and the rest who suffered were incidental casualties. Likewise, those who gained were incidental recipients.

I could not fault them for their gains, I could only envy them.

 

Though as I approached the small building that sat precariously behind the reward table with Emily standing nearby, what little peace and calm that returned earlier quickly disappeared as disgust took its place. Taunted by the very existence of a reward room and of reward-givers handing out silver and gold, the fact that a hundred and thirteen gold had been denied to me could not be easily forgotten in the moment.

Adding to that fact was the reality that nearly a dozen guards were clearly visible by the doorway while three dozen or more loitered about in the background, masquerading as innocent inhabitants simply out for a stroll. Too stiff, too established in their ways from countless months or years of artificial training in an imagined rigid environment, their awkward behavior gave them away as they stood out against the regular crowd.

Secret police… special forces, agents even, whatever they were these soldiers or guards had littered the area with their stench. A glut of guards that prohibited my movements and attempted to threaten me into submission. As if I would be intimidated by their presence, as if my behavior would improve due to a show of force.

These Harmonts… they were serious about their betrayal.

Walking past the guards without a care to their positions, I made my way up to the door and kicked it in while keeping my hands relaxed and at my side. With a loud snap, the door flung open and teetered to the left as the board near the hinge had cracked, only to reveal the contents of the room inside as it no longer blocked my view. Reacting quickly to the scene, Emily was the first to move as she joined in from the crowd a few steps away.

Not bothering to greet her, I simply looked at the surprised faces of the officials and guards that had been sent to receive me as Emily came to a stop behind me. Spotting the new official standing next to the old reward-giver from the past game-day while surrounded by twice the previous number of guards, it was apparent that the stage had already been set and that the cards had been stacked against me. Nearly thirty of them packed tightly into a small room… but at least my escape route had been secured.

“I don’t see any signs of an alternate reward,” I said bluntly to all present.

Looking once at the man from the previous game day before I turned and focused my gaze on the new official, all that was received in reply was a slight head-turn and head-bob from the lowly reward-giver as he confirmed my presence to his superior. Largely ignoring my words, the entire collective sized me up with their eyes and noses inside the small room as the atmosphere was already one filled to the brim with tension and hostility. What would happen next was up to them as all I could do was stand and wait.

 “Are you the one known as Alliance Zero?” asked the official, with a dismissing wave directed at the titled-peon that stood next to him. “The one that maimed another of my subordinates and tortured, threatened, and generally intimated this one here?”

“Are you the one with the power to negotiate?” I replied with arms folded.

Letting my eyes show a tinge of red in the dimly lit room, I could tell Emily was caught completely unaware by my antics as she stood uncharacteristically still and quiet a step behind and to the side of me. Though as I observed the faces of the guards in the room, it became obvious that these were much harder soldiers than the ones from the day before.

“We dictate the terms, not you,” he stated defiantly after some time.

“Your terms are not valid,” I stated confidently, not allowing him the edge.

“Says who,” he said quizzically with a laugh, clearly not bothered by the words. “By you, you mean? As if you had some say in our terms under the misguided belief that you are far more important than you actually are? Please, I won’t humor you.”

“You would not be alive right now if not for me,” I stated calmly. “So tell me then, how important am I… if days ago your very life depended on my existence?”

Bursting into laughter with the guards quick to follow, the man began to tear up as he grabbed at his gut and rolled his head back with a loud exclamation. Exhaling loudly only to casually wipe away tears as he attempted to restrain his laughter, the resulting smirk was one for the ages as his arrogance was on full-display.

 “You contributed magnificently in the war, I give you that,” he explained, with a few muffled laughs that were hardly concealed. “You were a shining star on the battlefield but that’s all you were. A rising star in a small battle that was won due to the mistakes of the enemy, not because you yourself won it. If it weren’t for greed and the ensuing treachery between foes all of your accomplishments would have added up to nothing. Nothing at all… so do not take us for fools now that the situation has turned in your favor. We are not so simple to be coerced by a single man… no, we are not simple at all.”

As I contemplated his choice of words, Emily’s gaze had changed to a rather strange if not puzzling look as she seemed conflicted by what she had heard but I could only ignore it in the moment as there were more pressing matters to attend to.

“Do you not realize the irony of your statement,” I said more than questioned, as I let out a small laugh of my own. “As if this situation hasn’t turned in your favor? As if we were so simple to not realize your deception and greed now that you are the one left standing as the houses of your enemies lie beneath the rubble?”

“Greed?” he questioned with a rising pitch as he shook his head and looked down on me. “We offer you the greatest privilege known to the central kingdoms and we don’t stop there, no, we offer you a share of one of the most defensible positions around these parts.”

Stopping short to adjust his collar, he shook his head once more before continuing.

“Tell me, where do you see greed?” he asked, with a serious expression.

“A more honest faction would have honored the payments originally offered,” I replied in an instant as I relaxed my arms. “Yet instead you substitute it entirely with land that has conveniently been acquired. Land that you cannot hope to defend without us.

“You need us to occupy that territory so that we will have a vested interest in defending it and then to top that, you would tax us on it. Instead of paying us what we are owed, you would seek to use us twice for your benefit and abstain from a third. The fact that you won’t even negotiate… that only leads me to wonder if you can even afford to defend Wesstown if another large scale war erupted, let alone defend Cleftside if a rival army launched a campaign. So tell me, in your defense, if it’s not greed then what is it?”

“I fail to see your accusations of greed,” he said with a carefree demeanor as he tossed his head back with a shrug. “If that is all, out of benevolence, I will extend the offer once more for you to meet with our representatives in Cleftside to pick out a plot of land as a reward for your service despite your transgressions and near treacherous actions. Do not say that I am a greedy man, for nothing is further from the truth.”

“And if I am not interested in your territory?” I asked.

“Nonsense, land is the most valuable commodity known to man.”

“I have more land than I know what to do with, it does not benefit me in the way you seem to think it would,” I said with a slight sigh. “I am interested in anything but land.”

“There will be no negotiations, you only have the choice to accept or refuse our offer, nothing more, nothing less,” he stated plainly with arms relaxed to match mine.

“If you would deny me an adequate reward then I am inclined to consider this a betrayal of trust,” I replied sternly as I eyed the guards. “You would be breaking the bond between employee and employer… and as such, I would consider you an enemy.”

“The House of Harmont will not bend to one man’s petty desires,” he shot back.

“Honoring a contract is petty?” I asked as I scanned the room once more. “Does reputation mean nothing to you? I won’t presume… but I stand on my reputation.”

As I waited for a reply, a few of the guards in the back of the room adjusted their positions and stealthily drew their weapons in preparation for a fight. Knowing that the table had already been set and that things were only continuing down a preordained path, the time to make a decision was almost at hand. To fight here and now… or another day.

“I will admit that you do not strike me as a man that lacks reputation,” replied the Harmont. “Yet if you hold such a large swath of land as you claim… if such is true then you must realize the value of land, especially in a coveted area such as Cleftside. There is little reason for us to become enemies… especially when one can remain an ally.”

“Yet you still refuse to negotiate terms with me?” I asked, as every guard in the room pulled their weapons and raised their shields. “For something so desirable as you claim?”

“The House of Harmont will not negotiate,” said the Harmont.

“Are you willing to die for that conviction?” I asked, while loosening my robe and dropping it to the floor as I removed my axe from its sling. “As petty as it may seem to you, concerning the matter of contracts… trust is of paramount significance in a working relationship like the one we share. Your betrayal will not end well for you.”

“Are you willing to kill?” he asked as all of the guards in the room moved into defensive positions. “Or should I say, are you able to kill… as I don’t believe you will succeed. Your confidence is born from achievement against inferior competition. You have functional eyes, do you not? Ask yourself, are these soldiers so insignificant?”

“You might be unaware,” I said softly, as I shifted my feet in preparation to defend myself from an attack. “But I’ve already beaten the champion of the Blacktombs. The one who bested your champion with ease not long before I arrived.”

“I am aware of your achievements,” he replied.

“Then you know as well as I do that the men and women here are strong but they are not that strong,” I said confidently as I caught a glimpse of an archer positioned outside, aiming through the crack of a window across the way. “Even the archers won’t save you.”

Catching the nervous tick that caused his eye to twitch ever-so-slightly from the remark, it became obvious that his confidence came from the fact that they prepared for a fight to unfold. The entire stage had been arranged and set before I arrived, to trap me and kill me if I refused their terms… as if I were a senseless animal only able to react.

“You would lose it all,” he said sternly, regaining his composure. “You will be a marked man from this day forward, banned from all villages, towns, and cities within our reach.”

“Only so long as the House of Harmont exists,” I stated casually, understanding the threat he was using. “In times of war… that could change as soon as next week.”

“You act as if it is easy to raise an army,” he said, scoffing at the notion.

“I already have an army,” I replied quickly. “And your soldiers here would not last the fight. I have seen your best, I have seen your worst. What you believe to be a solid foundation has cracks. They are not as disciplined as you believe.”

“And your… army is?” he asked, laughing lightly.

“I have razed entire villages without casualty,” I began to explain as I stepped slightly to the side, moving out of the archer’s line of sight. “I have repelled attacks by the hundreds without casualty, I have killed earls and their families and burned their bodies in the town square. What you know of me is very little… but I know a lot about you.”

“If you were as great as you say, I would have heard tales with your name, Alliance Zero,” he stated with a gesture towards the guards as they formed a wall in front of him. “Alas, I have heard little to nothing of your deeds, only what you have spouted yourself.”

“So it has come to this,” I muttered as I raised my axe.

“So it seems,” he said clearly.

Eyeing the targets in front of me, the quickest route to victory was to flash step and decapitate the Harmont in front of me before the others could react. Emily would have to make her choice to fight or flee, but I would push towards the back exit and make an escape while grabbing a bag of gold on the way. After that… the hundred soldiers surrounding this building would be too much for me alone, so a hasty escape from Wesstown would be required but the consequences of such actions were monumental.

Left with only an option to hit and run… this was a terrible outcome and even if I wanted it, the end result simply wasn’t worth it. I needed to figure an easy out, a way to reset the situation and leave before it turned to blows. If this continued… the next step wouldn’t be reversible as more than my reputation was at stake. I could only steal my gold here… that lone positive along with ending a corrupt man did not outweigh the negatives.

But as I tightened my grip on my axe, the truth was I wanted it.

“Ah, um… excuse me,” said Emily as she stepped in front of me, placing her hand on my axe in order to push it down slightly in an effort to mediate. “I think we’re all letting our pride get in the way here… perhaps we’re just a little emotional from the recent events? Maybe… we’re all still a little tense from the outcome? Let our cooler heads prevail gentlemen, there is no need for us to go to such lengths to shed blood.”

“The issue is solely with your acquaintance, miss adventurer,” said the Harmont as he stood comfortably behind a line of ten shield-bearers. “I have already offered you a more than fair reward not long ago, if anything… I am surprised to see you return.”

“Ah… right,” Emily replied with a quick smile. “My apologies for his behavior, he… gets a little too emotional at times… I was just on my way out when I saw him. Believe me when I say that this entire situation was completely unexpected.”

“Unfortunately it was expected,” said the Harmont with a disdainful tone.

“I’m sorry for the trouble,” said Emily as she clapped her hands together and bowed slightly, while nudging me to do the same with her hips. “We’ll be leaving now.”

Taking advantage of her actions to save face, I lowered my axe and placed it back in its sling as I decided to walk away from the fight. Emily bought us an excuse to leave… and even if it was a loss, it was worth getting out without having to risk losing significant amounts of reputation. She actually saved the situation… from myself.

“Maybe she’s right,” I stated while picking up my robe from the floor.

“It seems you do have the ability to reason,” replied the Harmont before I could walk two steps away. “You will find your territory in Cleftside… but do not expect me to show leniency a second time. This matter has been concluded. You will take the land as is and if I hear of another disturbance, I will have your reward revoked, your status changed, and then have you banned from this town and all settlements connected to us.”

“Or maybe she’s wrong,” I said with a shrug as I locked eyes with him. “Know this Harmont, if you make enemy out of me… then you will suffer the consequences.”

“You’re an arrogant fool adventurer,” he replied. “Do not say I did not warn you.”

Turning around and exiting the building at a leisurely pace without bothering to reply, half of me still wanted to turn back and finish what they started but the consequences were too severe to ignore. Even if I felt it was within my right inside this game, it was possible that I could lose hundreds of reputation points or maybe even more.

Half of my hard-earned reputation could disappear with one decision… not unlike someone ruining their life with one terrible mistake. As much as I wanted to settle things now once and for all, the smarter option was to bide my time and find another way.

As for now… their response was what I needed to focus on.

There were clues there, clues to use for the future.

And then as we were walking away without any further incident this time around, a poke from Emily got my attention as her impatience was getting the better of her. Looking back as we had put some distance between us and the guards that were now conversing with each other, it seemed somewhat safe in the moment to have a discussion of our own.

Not wanting to wait any longer for me though, Emily decided to send a party invite with the chat parameters set to private as I accepted without complaint. Now able to converse freely with no threat of eavesdropping, we could finally get to the heart of matter.

“What the hell was that all about!?” Emily inquired hastily.

“Which part?” I asked, with a shrug of my shoulders.

“All of it,” she said firmly. “Explain.”

Taking my time to think over what had happened as I noticed a few discreet soldiers tailing us, the purpose of the meeting was largely a failure in terms of acquiring an alternate reward but that was expectedly. Yet in terms of information gathering it was rather successful. His words had confirmed a lot of suspicions and raised a few more as the reality of the situation could not be truly described away with a simple turn of phrase.

He said it himself, he wasn’t so simple… nor were the other Harmonts. To say he was greedy and thus acted in such a way was ignorant at best… greed was a motive but it would take an obscene amount for it to be a main activator and as they say, correlation does not imply causation. For one to act in such a way there were likely other factors but at this point in time, I was tired of thinking about it. All of the tension was draining and the cumulative frustration of the events were a burden on my mind and soul.

“Don’t leave me in the dark,” she said in reply to my silence.

“I won’t,” I replied quickly, only to grab her hand as we turned around a corner as an opportunity had presented itself. Pulling her along with me as I rapidly increased my pace towards the same flower shop that had served me well a day before, as we reached the jagged corner with only seconds to spare and without the time to explain, I scooped her up into an arm and held her against my chest with only a flush of red as a response.

Jumping with all of my might and grabbing onto a protruding ledge with my one free hand, by the time I had managed to pull myself halfway up a shift of weight was required as the girl in my arms slid across my chest and into my unoccupied arm. Rotating and alternating my free hand in such a fashion took less than a second as the building was scaled in four quick movements. Reaching the top without a moment to lose, a slightly forceful push had her rolling over the edge and onto the roof as I followed shortly after.

Looking back down as two inhabitants shook their heads at me with a disapproving glare, I could only shrug with a weak wave as apology as the guards who had been tailing us were lost in the crowd. Satisfied with the result, my attention returned to the girl in front of me whose red face had turned from surprise and shock to one of anger.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked while crossing her arms.

“There was no time to explain,” I mumbled as I looked the other way.

“Uh huh… that’s starting to become a common theme with you.”

“Now that you mention it, yeah I guess so,” I replied calmly as I began to nonchalantly walk along the relatively flat rooftops. “Well we were being tailed and I saw an opportunity to escape, spur of the moment thing. Second time that’s happened today actually.”

“And so you just grab me like a doll and throw me over your shoulder,” she said as her eyes and brows narrowed in anger. “Then when you’re done, you shove me over the edge onto the roof. That’s very kind of you Sigurd, every girl’s dream right there.”

“I knew you would like my modified princess carry,” I teased with a grin.

Punching me in the arm as a slight smirk snuck its way in, she turned her face away for a second as she continued to walk alongside me. Concealing her smile with a shake of her head, the mood had suddenly turned from anger to mischief as I decided to play.

“Oh since we’re talking about common themes… your penchant for violence is rather disturbing when you’re angry,” I stated whimsically with an innocent expression following. “Can’t you just talk it out like a normal human being? Must you hit me so?”

“Really?” she questioned immediately, only to stop in her tracks in order to give me the eye. Letting a smile crack as I rubbed my arm, my teasing was only somewhat appropriate in the face of my own actions but we were amongst friends… friends didn’t beat each other up. Well, maybe close friends did but were we so close?

“You should punch a Harmont next time in my opinion,” I said with tongue firmly in cheek. “But yeah, I’ll let your troubling, abusive behavior slide this time… no bones were broken at least. And thanks for cutting in when you did, you saved the situation earlier.”

“Hey wait, don’t just slip in a compliment with an insult!” she shouted.

Laughing a bit to relieve the tension, the two of us continued our playful game of words as we made our way back towards my room while conveniently ignoring the past events for the moment. There was plenty of time to come to a decision after all, as a meeting would likely need to take place with everyone present before any actions could be taken. We were all facing the same issue now and in that sense, our futures were somewhat tied to together. Though in saying that, I had my doubts about that future.

If I wanted to act in this game… I was going to need help from those that could be trusted. The problem there was who to trust as the list of potential allies was rather short due to my hermit-like lifestyle. Barik and Ethan were the highest on the list while Alan was gone but two plus one didn’t make for much of a party in the here and now.

Ellieby on the other hand was only a trading partner and couldn’t be counted on for anything else. Then there was the newly acquainted Claire who seemed trustworthy but her guildmates were unknown entities that likely came with her. That left Emily and Valerie who were somewhere in between as I had yet to make up my mind on the two.

Going forward my plans would require a lot of faith in whoever ended up being involved as I was going to need their help in this game. And though I still didn’t know who all would be included in those plans in the long-term, there was at least an opportunity here to test them in the short-term. The Harmonts had unknowingly gifted me with an opportunity here… and I had every intention to capitalize on the moment.

“Come on in,” I stated calmly as we made our way to the front of my door, after passing through the hallway of the multi-storied inn. “We’ve… got a lot to discuss.”