A New Adventurer Appears

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I didn't think someone could push me down and cover me in foul-smelling Troll juices and somehow not be mad about it, but Sam finds a way. I hug and kiss her right back without hesitation because I'm just as excited and happy over her success as she is. I usually try my best not to show my pride in her progress to balance her out and keep her grounded, but as we embrace here in the grass, that mask slips.

It's a shame that I have to tell her to get off of me and go cut that Moss Troll's rancid smelling foot off so we can bring it home with us. She's about as thrilled about me ruining the romantic moment as one would expect, but we can't just linger here on the edge of the Gnarled Woods like this, especially not while Sam might be injured.

The warrior takes a few minutes to hack off the monster's foot, but once she's done working through the monster's tough hide and we have it all bagged up, I have Sam take her boot and her stockings off so I can inspect her wound.

Ever the flirt, Sam can't resist commenting, "Right here? Right now? Didn't know you were into that kinda thing, Daddy. Can't say I'm surprised, though, you perv..."

I roll my eyes at her latest teasing. "I regret to inform you that while I am a man of wide tastes, feet are most certainly not within my sphere of interest. Perhaps if you didn't smell like the aftermath of a Troll battle, I would humor you by sniffing your stockings, but alas."

"Well, there's always next time, right?" She playfully smirks while I hold up her naked foot for inspection.

Worst case scenario avoided, I don't think the ankle is seriously injured at all. "Hmm. Not too bad. It's swollen, but you can probably walk on it until we get home. Looks to me like it'd clear up in a day..." Sighing, I add in under my breath, "Big relief there, thank the Gods I won't have to take you to the Doctor..."

She picks up on my strange comment and asks, "What's wrong with Doctors?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking to myself is all..." I know I'm avoiding Miss Hart and all that, but my pride is not above taking Sam to see her if I absolutely have to. I'm just relieved that for today, this isn't the case.

Sam gets the wrong idea as usual. As she slips back on her stocking, she grins, "Oh? Didja just let your weakness slip there, Daddy? Is someone afraid of Doctors?"

Clarifying, I avert my gaze. "Someone is afraid of a particular Doctor. I'd rather not talk about it."

"Hey, If it's about the needles, I'm totally not gonna judge ya or anything. I get it. Needles suck."

"Enough about Doctors. For now, we need to get you home."

Sam ends up dropping the topic, although I can tell she's not going to go forgetting it, either.

Really, the longer I put off introducing Sam to Miss Hart, the worse it's going to be for me in the end. I ought to set aside some time to visit her soon, but I've seen her less and less over the last five years. She sent me a cake and a light pouch of gold for my birthday a few months back, telling me to come and visit, but... I was just such a wreck.

My depression made it hard to summon up the energy to visit the one person I cared about before Sam, and I'm ashamed of myself for that.

I put the thought aside, for now, opting for more positivity. Instead, I focus on thinking more about Sam's progress on our way back home. She exceeded my every expectation when defeating the Moss Troll, and I couldn't be more pleased over that fact.

I wasn't lying when I said I knew she could win for sure, but that doesn't mean I made the best call here. I saw an opportunity and weighed the odds of success versus the risk while keeping the 2,200G bounty in mind, and I pushed Sam to take it. This could have turned south all because I saw an opportunity for us to make some gold...

No, no... I'm being pointlessly negative again, as always. I need to look at this objectively. My job is to put adventurers in situations of risk and peril for monetary gain and prepare them for the job. I shouldn't doubt my calculations, even if I feel that withholding the information to see how she fended for herself was maybe a risk that I shouldn't have taken.

Sam isn't the only one here who has a lot to learn, it seems. I also have to critique myself and the decisions I make to improve my abilities as a Guild Master, or I won't ever grow.

Speaking of abilities, Sam surprised me out there in more ways than one. Her capacity to improvise during battle is much greater than I previously thought. Adding in slashes to her dodges wasn't something I taught her, and there's also the fact that she figured out the fire without my help which ultimately won her the day.

Sam has proven that when she's out on the field, she's capable of making split-second decisions that can alter the flow of combat- and that's entirely without my guidance. As a mentor, I couldn't be more pleased with her.

I'm not going to outright tell her this, but I think it's plain to see that she's a natural at fighting. Not sure if I'd go as far as calling her a prodigy, but her sheer potential just becomes more and more apparent every day.

All this and more stirs throughout my mind as we make the journey home. The townsfolk avoid us even more than usual, thanks to the way we smell. Perhaps we should make a habit of this?

When we finally reach the little road leading towards the Guild, I end up floating an idea at Sam.

"How would you feel about taking a break tomorrow?"

She stops, rubs her chin, and tilts her head. "Maybe if my ankle still hurts? I still kinda wanna get back out there, y'know?"

"Admirable, but you've been adventuring for three days in a row. It’s for the best if you don't push yourself. Getting into the habit of feeling like you have to be out killing monsters every day of your life is a very toxic trap to fall into." Granted, with the hundreds of thousands of tricks that the Association uses to put its adventurers in debt, most of them can't help it...

With a smug smile, Sam asks, "Does this mean you just wanna lay around and fuck all day?"

"Well, that would be an option after we get the final strength test out of the way... but it wasn't the reason I brought it up, no."

"Uh-huh. Sure..." Sam gives me an over-dramatic wink while I reach over and ruffle her hair, rolling my eyes. "Then why did ya bring it up at all, then?"

I teasingly turn my nose up at her and scoff. "I am shocked that at this point in our relationship, you still fail to grasp the simple fact that, above everything else, I care about you and your well-being and only have your best intentions in mind."

"W-Wha? Relationship?! W-W-Who said anything about a... a relationship!?" Sam's cheeks turn my favorite color as she inexplicably looks off to the side.

By the time I finish laughing at Sam's adorable antics, we're already at the ruins of what used to be the front door. Here, I notice an oddity that I was not expecting.

At the nearest table to the left of the entrance sits a human-sized doll roughly four and a half feet tall. It is dressed in a black, frilly dress with oversized puffy sleeves and with white and blue accents, as well as similarly styled stockings, boots, and fingerless gloves. Around the doll's neck is a large red bowtie with a gold heart inlaid with a purple amethyst in the middle, which holds together a blue cape that tapers off into three points.

The doll has short lavender hair styled in a pixie cut, a large pair of circular framed glasses sitting on top of icy, chilled blue eyes, and the cutest little beret resting on the back of its head. It's looking down to something it holds in its hand, a book titled, 'Age Gap Relationships: Totally Ok, or Alert the Town Guard? - A Treatise by H. Humbertius'.

Right as I notice the number of suitcases situated around the doll, as well as the magical staff laying horizontally across the table, it blinks, raises its head, and closes the book. As Sam and I stand at the broken-down door, I make eye contact with our visitor and observe.

Everything about this tiny girl is so lifeless, still, and quiet. Even with eyes as powerful as mine, I couldn't detect that she was breathing initially. Her eyes are expressionless, studying me with cool integrity and clear purpose.

I wait for her to say something to break this awkward silence, but I don't have to wait very long, thanks to Sam.

Before I can say a word, Sam rushes past me. "Zuzu! You're finally here!" She shouts, inadvertently shoving me out of the way and slightly dislodging my glasses. In that short moment in time where my eyes are uncovered, I look straight at the girl, expecting my eyes to seize up and throb with pain.

They don't.

Instead, that same sensation of longing, destiny, and desire that I felt when laying eyes on Sam for the first time returns, and it's just as intense as it was then. I feel it coursing through my everything. My heart rate speeds up, and for the life of me, I can't look away from her. Only when Sam gets closer, and the girl reaches for her staff to shoo Sam away like a rabid beast do I regain control of myself and push my glasses back onto the bridge of my nose.

Finally, Zutiria speaks... sort of. She doesn't open her lips, but magical blue text appears that conveys her thoughts. 'Step away, Sammy. You smell worse than I have ever smelled you. As we both know, that is saying something.'

"Come on and let me hug you, damn it!"

More text materializes, reading, 'Not until you bathe.' As the guest continues swatting the Princess to keep her at a distance, what appears to be a minuscule smile shows up on her blank face.

Sam groans and sits a good five feet away from the Mage on the table, slumping her shoulders and finally accepting that she won't get to hug her old friend until she washes off the Troll residue.

I'm still a little surprised by the way that Zutiria communicates. I've met one or two Mages who exclusively spoke through telepathy, believing that using their mouths was beneath their high-and-mighty magical asses, but I've never met one who 'speaks' entirely through floating text. 

I brush the observation aside for now since I'm afraid the way I've been staring might’ve left a wrong impression on our guest. I need to remedy this, so I take a step forward and perform the most courteous bow. "Greetings, and welcome to the Dewhurst Adventurer's Guild."

'Nice.' She blinks.

"...Yes, indeed. It is an honor to meet you after hearing so much about you, Miss Syndaline."

Sam rolls her eyes. "You don't gotta be so stuffy, Boss. Just call her Zuzu."

'Thank you for the warm greeting.' Zutiria looks at me, her almost invisible smile disappearing. 'I assume that you're the one in the letter, then? The Guild Master that my dear Sammy is currently involved in a scandalous relationship with?'

Well, that's one way of putting it. It's impossible to guess this girl's tone or her implications, given how I'm literally reading plain text whenever she speaks. Still, it certainly feels like I'm being put under scrutiny here.

There's no use in fighting it, and I decide it's better to just openly admit to everything I've done. With a weary sigh, I hang my head and tell her, "That would indeed be me, I suppose."

"Hey! I-I'm not in a... r-relationship with him or anything!" Sam cuts in, embarrassed about the r-word, until the Mage whacks her over the head with her staff, silencing her. It's a soft blow that's not anywhere near enough to hurt Sam, making the whole affair look rather comical.

'Behave, you.' Zutiria gives Sam a look that I guess is supposed to be threatening. It doesn't look that way to me, but Sam shrinks in her seat. 'And as for you, Guild Master... how did you come to entangle yourself with my dear little Sammy?'

The feeling that I'm about to face the repercussions of seducing a barely legal Princess intensifies. Now my heart is beating, but it's for a whole different reason. Sam thought this friend of hers would be understanding, and for whatever reason, she even assumed the Mage would hop into bed with us, but so far, I'm not getting that impression from her at all.

Why I trusted Sam's judgment for even a moment is beyond me, that naive little...

"If anything, she was the one who entangled herself with me. After that point, well. We were already entangled, so I may have thrown caution to the wind and crossed an additional line or two..." I mutter defensively, unable to look this little lady in the eyes.

The Princess laughs heartily. "Yeah. I kept flirtin' with him and told him to grow some balls. He did, and he owned up to wanting to fuck me, so we fucked." Sam unnecessarily explains, making this situation sound infinitely worse.

'I was afraid something like that might be the case,' Zutiria sighs, but almost no sound comes out. 'You poor man. Has she hurt you? Have you been threatened? Ah, wait...' The Mage looks around the room, then shakes her head out of what I assume to be pity. 'I see how it is. Is Sammy the reason this Guild is in tatters? She must have had one of her tantrums...'

I'm almost tempted to say yes and blame it on the proverbial dog, but I merely retort, "No, that's actually my-"

"What the fuck, Zu?!" Sam blushes, looking like she's about to pounce on the girl she claimed was her dearest friend, but who until now has only swatted her with a magical staff and teased her. "I am gonna come over there and cover you in SO much Troll slime...!!"

Zutiria ignores this threat, merely looking right into my eyes as she says, 'Thank you for watching over her until now. Now that I've arrived, If you wish for me to take Sammy away, then all you have to do is say so. Judging by the state of things around here, you clearly have enough to deal with as it is.'

The mood in the room becomes dark. Sam's mouth hangs wide open as she grows panicked. "Zuzu...? Wait, wait, wait... the fuck are you even saying right now?"

Zutiria responds without looking at the Princess. 'I'm talking to the good Sir, Sammy. Not you.'

Sam grits her teeth, anger rising. "You can't take me back home. I'm not ever going back. I refuse."

'I didn't say I would take you home, merely away from here. I don't want you inconveniencing this poor gentleman if he doesn't wish for it.'

Sam becomes mortified as if the thought of being separated from me were somehow even worse than being forced to go back home. "Boss-"

"That's enough out of both of you!" I catch everyone's attention by raising my voice and placing my hands up. "Let me speak before this escalates any further. Zutiria?"


"It's very kind of you to be concerned over whether or not Sam is inconveniencing me. The thing is, I'm afraid you're mistaken. What would be the greatest inconvenience is if you took her away from me."

Rudely interrupting, the still grumpy Sam feels it necessary to add, "Yeah, 'cause you'd lose all this free pussy..."

I'm not proud of it, but my anger gets the best of me. I slam my fist on the wooden table, snapping, "Let me monologue, woman!"

Sam shrinks back, and Zutiria's blank expression changes when she raises a single eyebrow. 'The floor is yours, Sir.'

"Thank you..." I let out a relieved sigh and brush back my hair with my hand before looking down at the petite Mage sitting on the table. "I've not known Sam for very long, but she already means more to me than I could reasonably expect anyone else to believe. This isn't about romance, or even sex, although there's that, too. Sam represents the only hope I have to salvage my career and make something of myself before it's too late."

Zutiria tilts her head, adjusting her glasses. 'You're openly admitting to using her?'

"Yes. We're using each other. I help Sam, Sam helps me, and we both become better off for it. I can't run this Guild without her, and I don't want to. Furthermore... Sam has so much sheer potential. I'm insulted to see that her talents have been left to wither on the vine until now. This might not be the best place in Karnalle for her to receive the training she needs, but damn it, I want to support this girl with everything I have because I want to see how just far she can rise!"

Silence. Pure, unadulterated, uncomfortable silence.

Sam's face turns red, and Zutiria stares at me without saying a word.

Realization sinks in.

Did I really say all of that? I... did not mean to monologue for as long as I did. Forget Sam getting shy. Even I feel myself start to blush at how embarrassing all of that was... not that I didn't mean every last word. 

Zutiria pauses, then looks at Sam. 'You weren't exaggerating in your letter. He does say embarrassing things.'

Sam stares at her feet, her face so distant that I worry it wandered into a different dimension, "H-Huh? Yeah... uh... that... uh-huh..."

"Ok, that was a little much, I admit-"

Zutiria places a finger to her lips, telling me to quiet myself. 'Shush, Sir. I wasn't actually planning on taking Sammy anywhere. Changing her mind is next to impossible.'

"Wait, really? Then what was all this drama about?"

'I merely wanted to put you in a situation where you would show your true feelings for Sammy and illuminate to me what sort of character you truly possess. I might have done something had you proven yourself to be a scumbag, but even then. I trust Sammy's judgment. I knew you would live up to everything she said about you in her letter, and I'm pleased to inform you that no further action on my part is necessary. I've concluded that you do not give off creepy predator vibes.'

Never have I been happier to hear that sentence in my life. I let out a deep sigh, and my heart rate finally settles into something resembling normalcy.

Now that there's a significant load off of my chest, I feel like I can afford a little joke to further lower the tension. "Well, with all due respect, there's plenty of time for me to prove you wrong."

It works, and not long after, Zutiria's smile reappears. 'You're funny. I'm already starting to see what Sammy sees in you.'

"Yeah," Sam replies, thinking someone was talking to her. Zutiria and I both look at Sam and then each other.

'You really did a number on her with that monologue of yours.' She says, adjusting her large, circular glasses.

"She'll get over it. She always does."

"Uh-huh..." Sam awkwardly nods, cheeks still red.

"Now that all of that business is settled, can I ask if you'll be staying with us? I'm not sure what all Sam said in her letter, but-"

'I'm planning on staying here, yes. I don't ever have much going on in life, so here I am. As for what was discussed in the letter,' She pauses her text, deliberately letting me idle on the implications. 'We'll see how things pan out.'

"Alright. If you'll excuse the both of us so we can go and get cleaned up, I'll help you with your luggage."

'That would be lovely. Would you mind doing me a favor, first?'

"Anything to be of service."

'Come here for a moment,' Zutiria reaches out with her hand, crooking her finger to beckon me closer.

With no good reason to refuse, I step forward. The Mage stands up on the wooden bench so that we're roughly equal in height. Seeing this new girl up close and personal only brings back those odd desires I felt when staring at her before. I feel her icy blue eyes staring me up and down, only for her to lean in close enough that I can almost taste her delicate lips.

'I was told your eyes are magic,'

"You were told correctly."

'And that unless you're wearing your glasses, your eyes hurt whenever you're not looking at Sammy?'

"...Yes, for whatever reason."

'Yet only moments ago, I caught you staring at me as if I were the most beautiful thing you'd ever seen. you were doing so without your glasses.' Zutiria places a single hand on my cheek, taking me by surprise. She trails it across my face before taking the rim of my glasses and pulling them down over my nose. 'What do you feel when you look at me?'

Part of me struggles to be truthful when confronted like this, but the rest of me feels overwhelmed with the feeling that I can trust this strange little Mage with all my secrets and then some. Just like with Sam, Zutiria pulls on my heartstrings despite rationality.

'Go on,' She pats my head as if I were a child. 'There are no wrong answers.'

Sighing, the dam breaks, and it all comes flooding out. "When I look at you, I feel something that you might say resembles love at first sight. I felt it with Sam, too."

Without even blinking, she continues to stare as she questions, 'And do you believe this feeling is natural?'

"No, of course it's not natural to feel this way over someone I just met. Especially not twice in six days."

'But you do feel it, yes?' She leans in even closer, our lips only inches apart. 'When you look at me, you feel that you want to hold me? That you want to kiss me? To make me into your woman just as you did to innocent, little Sammy?'

"You're putting a lot of words in my mouth, Zutiria," I feel like I'm losing my mind being so close to her, and I don't like the thoughts racing through my head. "But I can't say that you're wrong."

Zutiria's expressionless eyes remain the same, but her mouth lifts up into the most genuine smile I've out of her yet. Her lips tremble as if she's not used to this, and a slight pinkness rises in her dainty cheeks.

'Interesting... very, very, interesting. I think I'm going to enjoy my time here, Sir.' Her text reads. Zutiria brushes her lavender bangs to the side of her face as she pulls away from me, ridding me of all that temptation.

"Sure will," Sam mindlessly says, still staring at her feet.

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Rise of the Guild Master