Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Home Again, Home Again (Spring 898)

We trudged back through the Bastok city gates in the early evening - just about supper time, actually. My stomach made me acutely aware of this last fact.

"I'll go and sell these," said Garrick, hoisting our collection of lizard skins in a worn leather sack. "I think these usually sell pretty quickly, so maybe we'll see our gil tomorrow." He began walking toward the auction house.

"I need to get something to eat," I said with a nod. "I'm going to head home for a bit. You'll come find me when Garrick has our gil?"

"Yup," came the response from Kuto-Lulu, punctuated as always with a giggle. "And if nothing else works, we can always meet at the Bat's Lair for some food and drink."

"That doesn't sound too bad, actually," I replied with a grin. "My mouth is watering just thinking about those hot, fresh bretzels." I considered for a moment, then added, "Actually, why don't we just plan on meeting there? Maybe tomorrow morning?"

"Sounds good," the Taru replied. "I'll let Garrick know." He dashed off in the direction of the auction house, following after the large man.

I made my way through the residential area of Bastok, and finally to my front door.

"Moguri," I called, opening the front door, "I'm back." I shrugged my pack off my shoulder, hanging it on one of the pegs by the front door.

"Good evening, mast-Aspen," came the reply as the Moguri came flitting into view. "How was your lizard hunting, kupo?"

"Not bad," I said with a nod. "We were able to skin twenty four lizards. Garrick is off selling them right now." I looked around at the sparse living area, and added, "Once we get paid, we'll have to buy some furniture."

"After re-stocking the pantry," piped in Moguri, fluttering closer to me. "Our supplies are running a little bit low," he added with a mournful expression on his feline-like face. "Do you want some dinner? We have some rice and vegetables..." He trailed off, waiting expectantly.

"Sounds good," I replied with a smile. "Hunting up lizards is hungry work," I added with a chuckle. I sat in front of the fireplace, happy to be able to relax for a bit.

I must have dozed for few moments, because I awoke to Moguri hovering by my side, a steaming bowl cradled in his paws.

"Here you go, kupo!" he proclaimed, passing the bowl over to me. Inside was a bed of white rice, with several steamed vegetables sitting on top, drizzled over with a bit of some sauce. It smelled great, especially after the long afternoon on the trail.

"Thank you," I said, nodding my head to Moguri before starting to eat. The dish was nice, but a bit more flavor would have been nice. "After I get paid, we'll make sure you always have a full pantry," I said, nodding once again to Moguri. "This dish would have been perfect with a little more spice and some meat."

"I know, kupo!" replied Moguri, hovering near my elbow. "You give me the gil, and I'll make you the most perfect meal, Aspen!" He was fluttering even more rapidly in his excitement.

"Deal," I replied with a chuckle. I finished eating, and handed the bowl off to Moguri. "I think I'm staying in for the evening, but I should get my share of the gil tomorrow. And I might be meeting with a someone who will train me in magic."

I stayed up for a couple more hours with Moguri, just talking. He was actually very interested in the lizard hunting trip, presumably because he didn't get to go outside the city much.

"So Kuto-Lulu killed the Quadav with a Ki focus?" asked Moguri. "That's a useful skill to have. One of my old masters was a monk, and he was still training to use his Ki strike. It can take a long time to master."

"I imagine so," I said, remembering the white aura and devastating impact of Kuto-Lulu's fists. "That Quadav certainly noticed the years of training, just before he crumpled to the ground in pain." I chuckled, and stood up, stretching my back in front of the fire.

"Anything I can get you, Aspen?" inquired Moguri, hovering near my left elbow.

"I think I'm going to head to bed. Tomorrow I'm meeting up to see if we get paid for our skins, and talking to Garrick about his friend that can train me."

"I'll do a bit of housework for you, then," replied the Moogle as he nodded to me. "Leave that tunic where I can find it. It needs a good wash and probably some stitching." His feline nose wrinkled as he spoke, eliciting another chuckle from me.

"I will," I said, walking toward the bed. "Have a good night, Moguri."

"You too," he replied, flitting around the room, probably making some mental checklist.

I got ready for bed quickly, and slipped under the light covers. Relaxing my body as sleep took hold, I managed one last thought:

'It's good to be home.'

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Skins (Spring 898)

By the next morning, I was strong enough to move around on my own. After we had eaten our trail breakfast, I was feeling almost back to normal. I resolved to myself to take it a bit easier in today's hunting.

By mid-day, we were back in the bottom of the ravine, with another small stack of lizard skins to our name. There were a few brief moments of danger, which made me realize we had actually been extremely lucky yesterday.

At one point, Kuto-Lulu sustained a nasty gash on his arm, courtesy of a lizard's row of knife-like teeth. Garrick became poisoned during one prolonged fight, sapping his strength as the battle wore on.

I both cases, I was able to gather my energy and remedy the situation without any overwhelming side effects - just a bit of fatigue after each one. After each casting on my end, we took a short break.

"It's good to see you all better, Aspen," said Kuto-Lulu during one such break. "You really had us worried last night."

"I'm doing a lot better," I said, looking over to the Taru from my perch on a small boulder. "As long as I don't overdo it, there shouldn't be any issues."

"Let's try not to catch on fire again, then," replied Kuto-Lulu, grinning over at me.

"Aye," came the solitary reply from Garrick. "Let's get a few more of these lizard skins, then head back and sell them."

"Sounds good," I agreed with a nod. "I'm looking forward to buying some new clothes, personally. And seeing your friend, Garrick," I added with a smile. "Maybe I can learn how to control this wild talent of mine."

Within another hour, we had twenty four-lizard skins - enough to sell two groups of twelve.

"I think we should head back," was my input. I placed my staff butt-first into the ground, using it to stretch my back. "We have plenty of skins, and we can do an even three-way split."

"Aye," was Garrick's response. "Should net us a tidy bit of gold."

"I like that plan," added the energetic Taru. "Then we can buy Aspen some new clothes." He giggled, turning toward the distant rise of Bastok.

We packed up camp and began walking back to Bastok under the hot sun. On the way, we discussed the best way to get paid for the skins.

"Look, if you want, I can put the skins on the auction house, and I'll send you the money when it comes in," I suggested. "You both know you can find me at the Goldsmith's guild if things go wrong."

"Do you have the funds to post them?" asked Kuto-Lulu. "The auction house requires cash up front to post."

"I guess not," I said with a sigh. "What do you think Garrick?" I asked, turning toward the big man.

"Trouble," he replied, raising his hand over the next hillock. "Two Quadav. And they've already seen us."

I nodded, shifting my pack off my back and gripping my staff tightly. "I guess we'll have to fight it out," I said. "I'll try to heal some of your wounds if I can," I added, silently wondering if I could do more.

"Aye, don't overdo it," replied Garrick, unshouldering his bow and swiftly nocking an arrow. "If ye fall unconscious, ye're no use to anyone."

"I'll remember that," I said, gazing at the small hillock in front of us.

Suddenly, the two Quadav burst into view around the side of the small hill, rushing toward us with a speed that belied their bulk. Faster than my eye could follow, Garrick let an arrow fly, nocked another, and released it toward them.

The arrows impacted into the chestplate of the lead Quadav, staggering it slightly. The other drew ahead of it, drawing its large jagged blade as it moved. Garrick and Kuto-Lulu moved into position, trying to box it in slightly and keep it from me.

"Bind," I cried, releasing my will toward the rushing Quadav. It took a little more energy than I was prepared for, but I had the satisfaction of seeing the roots of some desert plant reach up, and ensnare the Quadav's legs.

The Quadav began to jerk against the roots, and I could see them starting to tear, but his progress was slow. Garrick began loosing arrows at the bound Quadav, and nearly all of them found their mark.

The previously staggered Quadav pulled past the bound one, rushing for Garrick and Kuto-Lulu once more. I gathered in my energy, and said, "Blind, releasing my will at the charging Quadav.

The Quadav stumbled on the hardpan, and then regained its balance, but its path to my two companions was noticeably unsteady. The Quadav removed a large, two-handed axe from its belt, and took a mighty swing at Garrick.

The axe missed by a good foot, and Garrick drew back out of range, loosing another arrow into the Quadav as he retreated. Kuto-Lulu stepped in, his fists blurring toward the unprotected abdomen of our foe, staggering the creature back once again.

I stepped into the fray, swinging my staff as hard as I could toward the blind Quadav's neck. There was a gap between its plating and helmet, and my aim was true. There was a large cracking noise, and the Quadav's eyes rolled back in its head as it slumped to the ground.

There was little time for exultation, as the previously bound Quadav finally broke free of its entanglement and rushed for our group. Garrick released another pair of arrows, and connected with both, but the Quadav seemed to ignore them, charging straight toward me.

Kuto-Lulu stepped in front of me, a wordless roar rising from his throat. As the Quadav drew into range, swinging his sword, Kuto-Lulu's fists blurred once more toward an unarmored spot, but sheathed in an intense white aura. Each impact of against the Quadav's body resonated loudly, driving the Quadav back under the onslaught.

After three hard impacts, the Quadav fell over onto its back, unmoving. Kuto-Lulu drew a deep breath, the aura fading from around his fists.

"What was that?" I asked, feeling amazed. I'd never seen anything quite like that before.

"That was a Ki focus," replied the Taru. "One of the things I've been working on mastering. It tuckers me out me to use it, so it's a last resort, but it can come in handy." He giggled, but he sounded out of breath. "Can we rest here?" he asked, abruptly sinking to the ground.

"Aye, I suppose," came the answer from Garrick. He walked over to the bodies of the Quadavs and began examining them. Apparently one was still alive, because he drew his knife and crouched down next to it. I turned away, not wanting to watch the coup de grĂ¢ce.

Kuto-Lulu sat on the ground, breathing heavily. I watched him for a moment, but determined there was nothing I could do. He just needed some rest.

Garrick came over a moment later, holding a few items. "Just the loot from the Quadies," he said with a faint smile. He spread it out before us, and stepped back.

The only items to take our pick from were a couple of blue-green crystals and a small pile of gil. I picked up the gil, intending to count it and split it evenly. Near the bottom of the pile, I encountered a few odd coins. They were made of a different metal, and had an odd edged shape.

"Those are beastcoins," Garrick offered, seeing my confusion. "They aren't used in towns, but ye can melt them down. These are made of bronze."

"I might be able to refine them," I said, thinking of my Goldsmith training. "Maybe make something of worth from them." I slipped them into my pouch, and divided the remainder of the gil.

"Are the weapons worth anything?" I asked, casting a glance to the large sword and axe on the ground.

"No," replied Garrick, casting a dirty glance at the axe. "They're too large for Hume use, and made cheaply. Best to break them, or leave them here." He took hold of the sword, and lifted it with an obvious effort, before smashing it downward on a nearby rock. The large blade broke in half, rendering it useless.

The axe proved to be to difficult to break, so we dulled the blade on a rock and left it lying in the dust.

We gathered up the rest of the Quadav items, and resumed our trek towards town, and our meeting with the auction house.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Firelight (Spring 898)

I awoke beside a roaring fire some time during the night. I pushed the thick woolen blanket off, and tried to sit up, ignoring the buzzing pain in my head.

"Ye're awake," came the gruff voice from my right. I turned my head to see Garrick sitting by the fire, whittling on a piece of wood.

"How long.." I asked, unable to get the rest of my question out. I figured it had been quite a while, due to the dryness in my throat. Luckily Garrick understood the question.

"Ye've been out for a few hours now. I think ye may've overdone it when trying to heal the Taru." He paused, carving another long, thin shaving from the bit of wood. "He's doing much better, by the way."

"...good," I croaked out. "Water?" I was more thirsty than I could remember being, and the pain in my head was still pounding along with my pulse beat.

"Aye," was the reply, as Garrick got up and grabbed his waterskin from the ground next to him. "Ye'll want to drink this slow."

I nodded, using my arms to drag myself into a sitting position. My entire body ached, but I was eager for the water.

Garrick crouched down beside me, holding the waterskin up to my parched lips. It was a bit humiliating, but I don't know that I could have done it myself, to be honest. And I really wanted that water.

Garrick tilted the waterskin, trickling warm water down into my mouth. He controlled the angle with a steady hand, being careful not to let too much out at once. After a moment, I raised my hand slightly, signalling him to stop.

Warm or not, the water had helped immensely. The throbbing pain had diminished down to a low ache, and I felt a bit of my strength return.

"Thank you," I said, nodding my head to Garrick. I finally had the energy to look around a bit. I noticed we were in the shadow of what must have been the same rock outcropping where we had originally intended to camp. "How did you get me back here?" I asked.

"I carried you," Garrick said, rising from his crouch and moving back to his previous spot. "It wasn't even all that far," he added, a deep chuckle rumbling from him.

"Where's Kuto-Lulu," I asked, looking around slowly for him.

"Standing watch," came the reply. "We're still in Quadav territory, and we're down a man. Bad timing, aye?"

"Aye," I agreed with a smile. "But I think I'll be all right, Garrick. I just need a good night's sleep and some food. By morning we'll be back down hunting up some more lizard skins."

"Aye," he replied, "that may be, but we must be prepared for the worst. If ye can't battle with lizards, we best get you back to town." He continued whittling as he spoke, shaping the bit of wood into a still-hidden shape.

"I guess we'll see in the morning," I said, settling my body back down to conserve energy.

"Aye, that we will," came the response. After that, he went quiet for a while, and the only sound was the crackling of our fire.

"Aspen," he asked, finally breaking the silence, "why did ye use up all your energy on the Taru? Ye could have done yourself some real damage, or even been killed." He paused, his hands continuing to deftly whittle away on the wood. I could finally see the shape of a bird trying to emerge. "Did ye not learn how to manage your energy in training?"

I was silent for another long moment, considering what my reply should be. For something was supposed to be largely a secret, my innate casting ability was certainly becoming common knowledge.

"I..never had any training," I finally responded, looking toward the fire. "I've always been able to make a few things happen. I just have to will it, is all." I paused, shifting my gaze over to Kerrick, then added, "It's not really something I wanted spread around, but.." I trailed off, shrugging my shoulders.

"Ye need training," came the quiet reply after a moment. "Ye're likely to kill yourself without it. I think ye got off extremely lucky today in that canyon."

"Your probably right," I said with another shrug, still gazing into the dancing flames. "I just feel like I wouldn't be a free Hume anymore. Like maybe they would lock my in a laboratory somewhere and run horrible experiments on me."

"Ye're not the first spontaneous caster, ye know," replied the large man. "I mean, aye, ye're uncommon as a dancing Galka, but ye're far from the only one."

This was news to me. I'd never heard of any other spontaneous casters.

"I'd advise ye to get some training when we get back to town. I can use a couple connections from my service days, and I know of a trainer who'd be happy to teach ye a few things." He paused a moment before adding, "And he'll let you out when you want for adventuring, or 'field training', as he calls it."

"That doesn't sound too bad," I said with a smile. "I'll sit down and talk with him, if you can arrange it."

Perhaps learning a few things about my abilities could be a good thing. At least I could try to avoid things like today's events.

I shifted my body, trying to get comfortable on the hard-packed sand, and drifted off to sleep. Maybe tomorrow we could all get rich off lizard skins.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Leaping Lizards! (Spring 898)

I swung my staff at the mottled brown lizard, hitting it in the thick armored plating just behind its neck. The lizard glanced at me, growling deeply in its throat, and Kuto-Lulu stepped in with a quick combo punch to the exposed side of its head.

The lizard fell, the venom it had been collecting in its mouth dribbling out into a noxious purple puddle.

"That was close," said Kuto-Lulu, a shrill giggle escaping him. "Another few seconds and he would have sprayed that poison all over you."

"The fact didn't escape me," I said, in considerably less humor than my companion.

As it turns out, lizards could be plenty dangerous. Between the sharp teeth, armor plating, poison and fire breath, it was no wonder these skins sold for so much.

"Can we skin this one, at least?" I asked, squatting down for a moment to catch my breath. We found out the hard way that the lizard's skin was incredibly difficult to remove in one piece, and the leather workers weren't very anxious to spend their money on torn skins.

"I'll see what I can do," came the rumbling reply from Garrick. He was a large man of few words, but he was an excellent tracker and the only one of our group who could reliably skin these things.

We had met up with Garrick by the main city gates, and had set off in a south-west direction. After about an hour of hiking, we ended up in a large ravine, with small flocks of lizards dotting the sides and bottom.

As we quickly learned, the hardest part was luring a solitary lizard away from the pack. If the group was watching, they would respond as one and charge us all together. This wasn't a desirable outcome, so the hunting was taking a little longer than planned.

Adding to the general fun was that Garrick wasn't able to use his sword, or his arrows, as skins slashed to pieces generally don't sell. He was down to using a staff, not unlike mine. Kuto-Lulu just used his fists, of course.

"This one's good," Garrick rumbled, holding up a bloody lizard skin. "That brings our total up to...fourteen."

Not a bad total, but it had taken us most of the evening to get there. It was going to be a long night.

"Are we going to camp out here?" I asked, looking to Kuto-Lulu and Garrick. I had no problem camping in the wilds, but if we were going to make it back to Bastok, we should have been on the move already.

"Aye, it's likely," replied Garrick, with one of his rare smiles. "We'll pull back in the shadow of that outcrop," he said, pointing to the north, "and make camp. Then tomorrow, we can try for more skins."

I nodded, saying, "Sounds like a plan. Why don't we try for another few before pulling back? I see plenty of lizards across the way." I shifted my staff, dropping into a battle stance.

"Aye," said Garrick, doing the same.

Kuto-Lulu nodded his head, and crept up to the nearest lizard, several dozen yards away. We found the best way to make this work was for a single person to provoke one, and then run back to the group, normally dragging the lizard along for the ride. Safely away from the rest of the flock, it could be dispatched easily.

Kuto-Lulu lined up his shot, and pelted a good-sized rock at a large lizard who had wandered away from the rest of the group. It whirled around, and charged the Taru, who was busy running back to us as fast as his little legs could carry him.

"Oy! Over here!" shouted Garrick, swinging his staff at the charging lizard. It connected with one of its powerful hind legs, sending the beast sprawling into the midst of our group. We set in relentlessly, not giving the beast a chance to even get up.

It looked like the end of the poor beast, when it managed to raise its head, a thin wisp of smoke trailing from one nostril.

"Look out-" was all I could get out before the fireball exploded in the middle of our group. I had been trying to throw myself backwards, so I was spared the brunt of the flames, but Garrick and Kuto-Lulu were both caught off-guard. I was sure the lizard was incinerated, but that was the least of my concerns at that moment.

Kuto-Lulu and Garrick we both thrown to the ground, their clothes and armor smoldering. I picked myself up from where I had fallen, patting out my tunic to be sure I wasn't still burning myself. I could hear Garrick groaning faintly, which gave him secondary importance in my mind.

I rushed over to Kuto-Lulu, who was lying unmoving on the ground. His hardened leather cuirass was smoking, and I pat it down quickly with my hand and sleeve. He was breathing regularly, but was obviously unconscious.

"Damn," I swore under my breath, preparing to cure him. I placed my hands on his, pushing a little more power into him. "Cure," I whispered, willing his wounds to close. I felt the power flow from me, but his eyes remained closed.

"Cure," I repeated emphatically, putting even more energy into it. His breathing strengthened a bit more, but his eyes still didn't open. I decided to give Garrick some attention before I completely depleted my energy reserves.

I made my way over to Garrick, who had managed to pull himself into a sitting position, and was weakly patting at the smoldering spot on his own cuirass. He didn't look great, but at least he was still conscious. I raised my hands toward him, but he shook his head.

"See to the Taru," he grunted, before breaking into a short coughing fit. "Looks like he got the worst of it."

I nodded and made my way back to where Kuto-Lulu lay, his eyes still closed. I raised my hands, starting to feel the weariness from repeated healing.

"Cure," I repeated, putting even more energy behind my will. At last, Kuto-Lulu's eyes flickered open, and a low groan escaped his lips.

"What..happened?" he managed to get out, before he broke into a coughing fit as well. "Did we get him?"

"Lie still," I instructed, doing a quick visual inspection of Kuto-Lulu's body. He didn't appear to be bleeding, and he had at least stopped smoking. "We almost had him, and then he decided to explode on us. We're all extremely lucky," I concluded, twisting my mouth into a wry smile.

"Did we get the skin?" asked Kuto-Lulu, attempting a smile of his own.

"Aye, we'll get it," came the response from Garrick, who had apparently moved over to the lizard corpse. "These beasties are resistant to fire," he added, chuckling gruffly. Up to that point, I don't think I'd heard him laugh.

"I think it's about time to pull back and make camp," I said. "We shouldn't push our luck, especially with the light starting to fade. I lowered my body into a crouch once more, placing my hands on the prone Taru.

"Cure," I intoned, intent on getting Kuto-Lulu back on his feet. As I released the curative energy, I put a little more will behind it, wanting to be able to get moving toward the safety of camp.

Suddenly, the world faded to grey scale. I stumbled backward from my crouch, completely losing my balance as the light faded from the world.

"Aspen?" I heard, seemingly from miles away, as everything faded to black.

Back to Business (Spring 898)

As I made my way back toward the residential area, I decided to stop by and see Fatimah at the guildhouse. I was hoping she would be able to tell me what the metals I had found in the mines were.

I'll admit there was a small part of me that just wanted to see her, too.

I strolled through the front door of the Goldsmith guild, waving a quick hello to Teerth and Visala, and walked into the large workroom where Fatimah's workbench was located. She was posted at her usual spot, peering through her lenses. As if I would find her anywhere else during the afternoon?

"Fatimah," I said as I drew closer to her workbench, "I found some minerals down in the mines, and I was wondering if you could take a look at them for me?"

"Good afternoon, Aspen," she said, looking through her lenses for a moment longer before turning her attention to me. "In the mines? I wasn't aware you were a miner now." She chuckled, and held her hand out to me. "Let's see what you found."

I placed the dull metallic chunk of ore into her hand, and she brought it a bit closer to her face for inspection. "This is silver," she said after a few seconds. "Not incredibly valuable, and pretty common, but a few more ores and you could make a nice ingot from this." She held the silver ore back out to me, asking, "Got any more?"

I nodded, holding out to accept the ore back. "I found this one as well," I said, digging the shiny ore from my pouch. "It was being guarded by a worm, who wasn't fond of me trying to take it." I laughed, placing the new ore in her outstretched hand.

Fatimah gave a low whistle as she held the ore up for closer inspection. "Nice find," she said, eyeing the material closely. "This is mythril. Expensive stuff, and you can make some nice pieces from it. A few more of these, and I could help you make an ingot." She handed it back to me, adding, "Or you could try selling it on the auction house. People pay good money for mythril."

"I'll think about it," I said with a smile. "I don't know that I'm ready to craft anything from mythril quite yet. I'm still working with copper, where it's cheap to screw up." I laughed, slipping the mythril into my pack.

"You'll get there," Fatimah replied reassuringly. "Anything worth doing takes time."

"I'll bear that in mind on this long road," I said with a chuckle. "I should get going. I've nothing to work on today."

"Have a good day," she said with a smile, before turning back to her lenses.

"You too," I said, turning toward the front counter. I had decided to sell the mythril ore on the auction house, since I couldn't really use it yet, anyways. Also, the gil from the sale would help me get more copper ores, which would bring in even more gil.

As I opened the door to exit the guildhouse, I ran into Kuto-Lulu, who was apparently on his way in.

"Hello!" I said, startled to see him here.

"Aspen," he said, obviously pleased. "Just the goldsmith I've come to see! I have a business proposition for you."

"I'm listening," I said with a smile. Knowing him, it would be something so incredibly outlandish that it could never work.

"I found out that you can make really nice leather goods from lizard skins," he said with a smile. "Gustaberg is just crawling with lizards. If we can harvest some skins and sell them to leather workers," he continued with a smile, "we could stand to make a large profit."

"Not bad," I said, musing over the idea. "Do you know anything about skinning lizards?"

"Well," he said, "not really. But," he continued, a gleam coming to his eyes, "my friend Garrick does. He's a ranger. I figured we could all go out together and split the skins evenly."

"I could probably help out with that," I said with a smile. "How dangerous could a bunch of lizards be, anyways?"

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Zehrun Report, Part IV (Spring 898)

The rooftop area of the Bastok Metalworks was surprisingly clean and pleasant. The builders had obviously taken the time to make it into more of a relaxation area, with some planted greenery and even a running stream through the entire area. The stream terminated by flowing into the building, powering two large water-wheels on its way out.

Knowing Cid, the wheels probably powered the pumps to get the water up here in the first place.

I saw a number of building on the other end of the roof, some bearing the official flags of other nations.

"Those must be the embassies for Windurst and San d'Oria," I said to myself. Even further down, there was a larger building bearing the seal of the Republic of Bastok. I could only assume it to be the office I was looking for.

As I walked through a small garden area, I noticed a Hume girl on the bench apparently talking to herself.

"Yes...I know that...sitting in the gardens. It's such a nice day out.."

I watched her for a moment, amused, before noticing that there was likely more going on than appeared. She wasn't merely talking to herself, but also clearly listening to responses. Her head was tilted at a slight angle, and I realized she was 'hearing' whatever it was through one ear. I approached her, fascinated.

She looked up as I came closer, her young face lighting into a bright smile. "Hiya, mister," she said, swinging her feet under the bench. "Nice day, huh?"

"Hello," I said, nodding my head in greeting. "I couldn't help but notice you were talking to someone who...isn't here," I finished lamely. "Can you tell me how you can do that?"

She looked at me like I had just aged about 100 years in front of her. "You never heard of a linkpearl?" she asked incredulously. "You put it in your ear, and anyone with a pearl from the same shell can talk to each other. Here."

She raised her hand to her ear, worked something free, and held it out to me, palm up. Nestled in her palm was a tiny pink pearl. I could actually hear tinny voices coming out of it, as if whoever she was talking to hadn't yet realized no one was listening.

"That's...great," I said, trying not to sound as amazed as I felt. We certainly hadn't had anything like that on the farm, and I hadn't exactly been watching every movement of every passing adventurer. Besides, adventurers were kind of an odd lot, and I'm not sure I would have noticed one talking to himself as odd.

The girl smiled at me again, and slipped the tiny pearl back into her ear. "I have to go," she whispered to me.

"Thanks for the advice," I whispered back, a smile crossing my face. I would have to make a point to get one of those pearls for myself and Kuto-Lulu. Maybe I'd meet other people who might want one, too.

I continued strolling through the rooftop gardens, making my way over to the largest building. As I drew closer, I could see a Hume man posted outside the front steps. He was clad in dark scale mail, and had the look of a sentry. As I approached, he spoke in a bored voice.

"I'm sorry, but this area is off limits to-" He broke off suddenly, looking me over. "Would you happen to be Aspen?" he asked me.

"I am, actually," I said with surprise. "I have the report from overseer Makarim in the Zehrun mines. You must be Naji?" I asked hopefully.

He nodded, and extended his hand. "I'll take that report," he said with a smile. I noticed, however, that the smile never reached his eyes. They remained cold and assessing the entire time. "I understand this was your first mission," he continued with the same empty smile. "Not bad work. Normally we-"

He was interrupted by a deep baritone voice from just behind us, saying, "Is that my report, Naji?"

I turned quickly, to see a tall Hume man with long brown hair. He had a noble look about him, and I thought it was perhaps more than the fine doublet and hose he was wearing. It was more in the way he carried himself.

"Sir Lucius," Naji said, snapping a quick, neat salute, "this adventurer just brought the last one. I was just going to bring them-"

Lucius cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Of course you were," he said with a smile. "May I have it, please?" He held out a gloved hand, arching his eyebrows.

"Of course, sir," Naji said, obviously flustered. He handed the envelope over to Lucius, who examined it briefly.

"Did you open this," he mused, turning his attention to me suddenly.

"No..sir," I said, belatedly remembering to add the honorific. He merely nodded, broke the seal, and unfolded the paper that lay inside.

"I see," he murmured a moment later. He looked up to Naji, and said, "More Galka are beginning to believe in their Talekeeper's return."

Naji nodded his head, saying, "Talekeeper, sir? I was under the impression that he was but a Galka myth."

"If that were only true," Lucuis murmured, re-folding the paper and slipping it into a belt pouch. Addressing Naji again, he added, "We're received reports that the Talekeeper is already back among them." He paused a moment, and continued, saying, "Naji, if any more of these reports arrive, deliver them to me immediately. And do not bother the president with such trivial matter."

"Yes, sir!" exclaimed Naji, snapping a salute so hard I was afraid he would render himself unconscious.

"As for you," Lucuis said, turning to me, "you have done well, adventurer. Your republic thanks you." He turned, quickly walked up the stairs to the building, and disappeared inside.

I heard Naji exhale a sharp breath. "I'll submit your credit for completing this mission, Aspen," he said to me. "Make sure you go and see the gate guard when you want another." He nodded to me, which I took for an end to the conversation.

"Finally," was my thought as I strolled back toward the Metalworks entrance. "That was more trouble than it was worth. Now, what to do with the rest of my day?"