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The train ride back to Merow City seemed much shorter compared to when they first set out, though Amber figured that was because she didn't have nearly as much on her mind. The guys sat in a different cabin for the duration of the trip, leaving Shelly and Amber one of their own. Just as the city began to make itself visible over the horizon, Shelly grabbed her bags from under the seats and leaned in close to Amber. "When we arrive I'm going to try and leave as fast as I can." She explained slowly. "If I'm lucky I can be gone before Leo even gets off the train."
"What?" Amber asked in surprise. "Isn't ditching him going to make him mad?"
"He's already mad, so I don't see how I could make it any worse." She shrugged, puffing out her cheeks in annoyance. "Besides, he's being a pain in the butt. And I don't want to have to listen to him nag me all the way back to the guild."
Amber slumped back slightly, agreeing that Leo had been pretty harsh on them. "Why are you telling you me this?"
Shelly glanced out the window, appearing somewhat apprehensive about what she was going to ask. "I can't outrun him with my bags; they're too big to drag through a crowd, and Leo can use his magic to fly. So I wanted to know if you could lend me you're familiar for a little bit."
"You mean Armeria?" Amber's hand instinctively moved to her belt. "What for?"
Sensing Amber's apprehension, Shelly withdrew a little. "Well, she can fly too. So I thought if she helped me I could drop my stuff off at home real quick and we could head out shopping." She said with a hopeful look in her eye. Amber perked up too, having forgotten about their plans with all the excitement of her first job. "You've got some spending money now, so if we meet back up at Harbors it should work out great, right?"
"I don't know..." Amber muttered, not sure what to say. Sure, she wanted to go shopping, and this sounded like the perfect way to repay Shelly for everything she had done for her. But at the same time she'd never been separated from Armeria before, at least since they had met.
Just as the train station came into view, Armeria jumped from Amber's midriff and transformed into her imp form on Shelly's lap. The abrupt action left everyone suppressed, however the tiny familiar spoke up before any questions could be asked. "We'll be back soon."
Hearing her say that set Amber at ease, just in time for them to feel the train begin to slow. Shelly quickly placed Armeria on the seat next to her and jumped to her feet, taking Amber's silence as a yes. "OK, can you turn into that shield thing for me?"
Armeria did as she asked and soon the blue shield Amber had summoned in the swamp hovered face down just a foot off the floor of the cabin. After a second, save for her book bag, Shelly had loaded her baggage on top and opened the cabin door.
The train entered into the station, and Shelly disappeared into the hallway with a single wave. "Alright, see you in a bit." Amber waved goodbye as well, watching Armeria slowly float after her.
The train slowed to a halt as Leo appeared in the door of the cabin. He seemed unsurprised to find only Amber waiting there, slowly sliding his hands into the pockets of his hoody with a heavy sigh. "Where's she gone?" Before Amber had a chance to say anything, the train's whistle abruptly sounded off. Amber covered her ears, forgetting about everything but keeping the sound out.
She gasped when the noise stopped, and glanced back to see Rift patting Leo on the shoulder. "Uh-oh. Looks like we got a runaway." He glanced out the window opposite the cabin just in time to see Shelly sprinting for the terminal. Amber thought he'd rat her out in an instant, but he simply grinned again and glanced back at Leo. "So what's the plan, dude?"
He dragged Axel and Geno away by the arm, with Zeke flying after them. Amber got to her feet as well, when she noticed Rift staring at her. "Where'd that big belt of yours go?" He said with an innocent grin, catching her by surprise. Before she could think of a response, he simply waved goodbye and headed after Leo. "See ya at HQ." Slightly dumbfounded, Amber exited the train after the others, watching them all disperse before setting off for the rendezvous on her own.
For the first time, Amber found herself left to her own devises in the streets of Merow City. She roamed around for a while, occasionally glancing into the odd shop window to see if anything picked her interest. She couldn't really focus however, having passed by over a dozen shops without a second thought. She knew exactly why that was; she felt strangely light without Armeria hanging around her waist. Just as Amber began to ponder why it was so hard to get used to, she rounded a street corner and saw Harbors just a few blocks away. Her thoughts seemed to fade the closer to the café she got, thinking that she'd be reunited with her familiar soon. She sat at one of the outer booths again, same as before, and began glancing over the menu to see what she wanted to eat.
"Amber?" A familiar voice called. Amber looked up to see Payla sitting at a table not far away from hers, looking over a file while she sipped her coffee. "I thought I'd see you here again, this place has quite the reputation."
"H-hello." Amber waved timidly, remembering the storm of worries she'd had the last time they talked. She looked around quickly, seeing no one else she recognised in the area. "What are you doing here?"
"Well as I said, this place is quite famous." She said with a chuckle. Slowly closing her file, Payla got out of her chair and joined Amber at her table. "And I just wanted to check in. Make sure you are doing well amongst those... People."
Amber shrugged. "Yeah, I'm fine." She noticed Payla's voice seemed more hostile than she remembered, and it was beginning to make her feel uneasy. "I just got back from my first job too."
"We've made excellent timing then, we've discovered something else I feel you should be made aware of." She said quickly, throwing her file overtop of Amber's menu. "Recently, a small group of mages from that guild made contact with one Nina Firart. A known fugitive of the law." Stunned, Amber flipped the file open and found a picture of Nina clipped to a number of papers. "Now given the group's relative lack of injuries, and the fact that they failed to bring her in, we have to assume they were affiliated with her in some way. Maybe even collaborating."
"Affiliated with her?" Amber repeated in disbelief. "N-no, we just bumped into her on a job is all."
Payla waved her off, in a way that Amber began to find annoying. "I understand what Ms. Donwheel may have told you, but I assure you that things are much more serious than she may have let on."
"Jaina didn't tell me anything. I was there." Payla froze in place, prompting Amber to continue with her explanation. "We were hired to find something lost in the swamp when we ran into her. Then she attacked us." She paused a moment to correct herself, trying to clear up what must have been a miscommunication. "Well, she had a bunch of animals' attack us, but we didn't work with her or anything."
Payla took the file back, running her finger down the page in an attempt to locate something. She stopped somewhere near the bottom, and took a long sip of coffee before asking. "So you where there then? In the swamp with the Thrill Seeker team?" Amber nodded, convinced that there had been some misunderstanding. That all changed however, when Palya abruptly flicked the file onto the ground. "Damn false information." She mumbled, taking another drink of coffee. Amber sunk back from the sudden outburst, completely caught off guard. "Look, I'll be brief, I need to know what's been going on at that guild. I need to know what Jaina has been up to."
"I..." She was at a loss for words. The kindly expression on the councilwoman's face was gone, and Amber was move worried now than she was when she first heard this woman's warnings about Blazing Soul. Feeling Payla's now scornful eyes burned into her, Amber slowly rose from her seat to leave. "I don't think I should-."
"This isn't about what you think!" Payla snapped, grabbing Amber's arm to stop her. She winced, feeling the old woman's hand land on the bruise left when Nina twisted her arm. It wasn't enough to cause her to cry out, but it hurt enough to deter any thought of pulling away. "Now I need you to listen to me, very carefully." She growled, leveling a bony finger at her face.
Amber's hand moved to her waist, readying to defend herself, but her blood ran cold when she remembered that Armeria had gone with Shelly. She reached up with her other hand to pry her arm out of Payla's grip, however this did nothing but make her elbow ache more. "That hurts!" She cried out, trying to attract attention to herself. Several of the café's customers turned to investigate, some even stood up to intervene, however they all stopped after spying the emblem of the Magic Council emblazoned on the back of Payla's jacket.
A small smirk crept across the old councilwoman's face, causing a sweat to break out over Amber's forehead, when a voice echoed out. "Chairman Morsetty!" The crowd parted to reveal a black haired woman with deep red eyes glaring at Payla, one hand resting at a sword that hung from her hip. She wore what looked like a sleeveless military uniform, and brushed her long hair over her shoulder as she approached the table. "You're ordered to return to the capital, immediately."
Payla loosened her grip on Amber's arm, enough to allow her to slip free, and slumped back in her chair. "What do you think you're playing at, Captain Andrews? You have no authority over me." She grumbled. "As your superior, I suggest that you-."
"Master Zephyr has recalled you." The woman interrupted. "He says he has something urgent to discus with you. And you are past due reporting in from your leave of absence." She spun around to leave, glancing over her shoulder expecting Payla to follow. "Unless you want me to tell him that you sent me away?"
A deathly silence fell over the café, no one daring to move as the two women stared each other down. After the longest few seconds of her life, Amber heard a familiar voice behind her. "Amber! I'm back!" She spun away to see Shelly approaching from down the street, holding Armeria in her arms. She skidded to a halt just a few feet away when she saw what was going on, gaining a look of both surprise and fear. "P-Payla?" She stuttered. "W-What are you doing here?"
Armeria instantly jumped away from Shelly, and Amber caught her with a tight hug. Payla looked back and forth between the two girls, looking as if she was about to say something more when the black haired captain cut in. "Chairman, I don't want to make Master Zephyr wait."
With an annoyed grunt, Payla pushed herself out of her chair and gulped down the last of her coffee. The crowd parted again to allow the two councilwomen to pass, and the last thing they heard of them before the usual chatter returned was Payla saying. "If I found out you're lying to me..."
Just as the crowd began to disperse, Shelly placed a hand on Amber's shoulder and began pulling her away. "We need to find Jaina." Amber was slow to respond, her head still spinning from everything that had just transpired. Shelly began pulling harder, eventually grabbing one of her hands to lead her away. "C'mon, hurry."
The long jog through town gave Amber a chance to clear her head, comforted by the hug of her familiar hanging around her waist. She stuck close to Shelly throughout the journey, not wanting to risk being alone again, and soon the pair of them where traveling down the path to Blazing Soul.
The gate came into view just as a threesome of girls stepped out onto the road. The first had long blue hair and deep blue eyes and donned a vest, skirt, boots and gloves; making her resemble a character from a comic book. The next had red hair and red eyes, and donned a rather elegant blouse and skirt combination with a blue bow tied in her hair. The last also had blue hair and eyes, however her clothes appeared significantly plainer, consisting of a grey hoody, loose jeans, and a pink news cap.
Just as the duo passed by the corner wall, the first girl waved and said. "Hey Shelly, did you-."
"Sorry Leena, I can't right now." Shelly brushed past the trio and darted through the gate, practically dragging Amber behind her. Amber herself stumbled as she rounded the corner, bumping straight into someone else along the way.
Whoever it was caught her across the stomach as she fell, then gently lowered Amber to her knees. "Are you ok?" A gentle voice asked. Amber slowly opened her eyes to see who had caught her, but froze when she saw the tired red eyes of Isa looking down on her. "You should be careful, you could hurt yourself."
Before Amber had time to think, Shelly grabbed Isa's arm and pulled her back towards the guild building. "I need to talk to you, right now."
Isa stumbled slightly, letting go of Amber's shoulders with a look of surprise. "W-wait Shelly. I can't." She stuttered, righting herself to stop from being pulled any farther. "I promised to go with Leena and the others on a job today."
Shelly stopped pulling to look at the three others, curiously watching them from outside the gate. "I'm really sorry girls, can you wait a little? I need Isa for a second."
The two accompanying her stared at Leena, obviously curious as to what was going on, who shrugged in response. "Sure, no problem." She spun on her heel, taking her friends by the shoulders. "Come on Sasha, Bell, we're off."
The trio headed towards the city, whispering to themselves about what might be going on. Amber watched them march for a while, beginning to wish that she could leave with them and avoid any drama that was about to unfold, when she heard Shelly call to her from the guild's door. "Amber, c'mon!"
Forgetting the others, Amber hurried inside to find Shelly and Isa standing at the door. Quite a number of people where present today, though they were all people she recognized. Jon sat in one of the guilds far tables with Elligr, conversing amongst themselves, while Peltin sat at the bar in the exact same seat he had been in the day they left.
Someone cleared their throat rather loudly, drawing Amber's attention to Shelly's father Davin sitting on one of the corner tables. "You're in quite a bit of trouble, little lady." His eyes fell on Shelly, crossing his arms in annoyance. "Where's your brother?"
Shelly quickly looked away, glancing all over the guild. "Is Jaina here?"
"Don't change the subject, little missy." He mumbled, trying not to raise his voice. He slowly stood up to approach, towering over them in a stern yet somehow unintimidating way. "I understand that you want to help our new friend, but that's no excuse to-."
"Dad, Payla is in town." Shelly huffed, having grown annoyed that Davin was trying to lecture her. Everyone present seemed surprised, stopping whatever they were doing to look in their direction. "She was yelling at Amber."
Davin sighed, thinking Shelly was trying to change the subject again. He opened his mouth to say something, but shifting his vision from his daughter to Amber gave him pause for thought. "Is that true?" He asked slowly. Amber gripped her elbow, still tender from when Nina had twisted it and Payla grabbing it. She kept her eyes down, not liking being the center of attention, and nodded slightly. "I see..."
"What's that I hear?" Jaina's voice echoed from overhead, and Amber found her looking down on them all from the second story balcony. "The wicked witch giving you trouble, new girl?"
Amber nodded again, causing Jaina to grunt in annoyance. Davin caught on quicker than the others, holding up a hand to try and calm the tense atmosphere. "Alright now, let's think about this for a second."
"Bite me, Davin." She spat, storming down the spiral staircase to the main floor. "If she wanted to start a pissing match, she should've remembered I've got her boss on fucking speed-dial."
Quickly moving past the others, Isa caught Jaina before she could make the bottom step. "Hold on, let's hear her story first. Ok?" Though clearly still fuming, Jaina stopped instantly and Isa led her and the others to a table to sit down. "Go on, tell us what happened."
Amber found this rather jarring. Isa was being so kind that she almost felt bad for being afraid of her before. She slowly sat down at the table across from the others, feeling their gaze upon her, when Shelly spoke out. "Payla came to Harbors today. Before we got off the train we made plans to-."
"Shelly..." Davin interrupted. "Let Amber tell us what happened."
Shelly huffed, but sunk back in her chair to allow Amber to speak. Something she said made Amber think back to the day they had left for her first job however, where all this trouble started. "Well… It wasn’t just today..."
Though a lot of it was hard to put into words, Amber explained what had happened the morning after she joined the guild. From their encounter with the fire mage named Raven, to Payla's initial warnings about the guild; and all the accusations she had laid against them. While she explained, Jaina had begun tapping her peg leg on the floor, something that had become very distracting as her explanation dragged on.
Finally, Amber got to today, and how it had all turned itself completely upside-down. "Then a woman with black hair called her away, Payla called her Capitan... Andrew? I think..." She had tried to avoid eye contact with everyone throughout her explanation, not knowing how they would react; but when she finally worked up the courage to look up she found everyone with a somewhat distant look on their faces. "T-then Shelly brought me back here right after."
Jaina rested her hand the top of Shelly's head and gently ruffled her hair "That's my girl." She seemed more tired than angry now; a pleasant change, in Amber's mind.
"The woman you mentioned sounds like Hanna. Hanna Andrews." Isa spoke up, trying to sound more upbeat. "The two of them always use to butt heads, so I guess things haven't changed much."
"Yeah, thank god for small miracles." Jaina said sarcastically.
"I'm sorry..." Amber lowered her head, feeling rotten for suspecting them of anything. "I didn't really know anyone, and she made you out to be a bunch of criminals. I didn't know what to think..."
"It's ok, you were right to be suspicious." Davin assured. "You've got the right to feel safe, and if an elected official tells you to be careful it's probably best to listen." He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and chuckling to himself. "Though I guess something like this is evidence to the contrary, isn't it?"
"Not like she's wrong though." Everyone turned to see Peltin watching them from over his shoulder. "Not all of us started out as the law abiding citizens we are now." Everyone at the table let out a sigh as he spun around in his stool, raising a hand to point at himself. "Case in point."
"You're not helping!" Shelly yelled, standing up out of her chair.
"I ain't trying too." He responded, grinning though her glair. "But I'm sorry, would you prefer I lied?"
As the pair of them fought back and forth, Isa spoke up. Despite bearing the brunt of Payla's accusations, she seemed to be taking everything in stride, even as she wore a sad smile on her face. "I'm sorry she dragged you into this though; she's held a bit of a grudge against our family for quite a while now."
"Family?" Amber questioned. "What do you mean by-?"
"What, she leave that part out of her little rant?" Jaina interrupted. "How very convenient for her." Amber's blank stare was all the answer she needed, and she rested her chin on Isa's shoulder. "What, you can't you tell? Sleepy head here is my adorable twin sister." Ambers jaw slowly dropped, remembering the correlation she had drawn between the two of them when Payla first showed her Isa’s photo. "Yeah. That changes the dynamic a little, doesn't it?"
Isa began to blush as Jaina stepped away, but another question came to Amber's mind. "Why did she single me out?"
"There's a bit of bad blood between us and her." Davin said with a shrug. "But it's really not important."
"Aw, c'mon Davin. Just tell her already." Jaina complained, flopping back down in her chair. "After all this, if we leave her in the dark it'll drive her bloody mad." Davin sighed, but after a quick glance at Isa and Jaina, he motioned for her to go ahead. "Well, after this happened..." She began, bobbing the stump of her right shoulder. "Ms. Friendly decided that I wasn't fit to run a guild anymore, so she tried to swoop in and grab as much of our stuff as she could."
Shelly, having finished her feud with Peltin, sat back down and cut in. "Isa worked at the council back then. She gave us a heads up and bought enough time to make Dad the guild master to ward her off."
"And she's been pissy about it ever since.” Peltin said with a grin.
"Anyways." Davin interrupted, obviously trying to change the subject. "I'm sorry for all the trouble this little feud has caused you. I can't imagine it was very fun carrying that around for your first job." Amber nodded slightly, though she had to admit at the very least it made the adventure memorable. "If you ever want to know something about us, feel free to ask."
"How did that job go, by the way?" Jaina asked, half looking at Davin. "Hope it was a good one, because it raised one hell of a stink around here."
Amber was too busy remembering everything that had happened to answer, and after a second Shelly shrugged and said. "We got into a fight." Davin made a noise, something like a combination between a gasp and a hiccup. "We did fine Dad, you don't have to worry about me."
"That's like telling water not to be wet, sweetie." He said with a sly grin. "Like it or not; if I can't see ya, I'm probably going to worry about ya. It's my job." Everyone began to laugh; except for Shelly that is, whose face had blushed red. "And before you say it, we're still going to talk about you running off like you did."
Shelly slumped her shoulders a little, having thought she was off the hook. "Fine..."
Next chapter – Pain in the…