The Outlands

Chương 105: Chapter 100: Exams Begin

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As it turned out, the return trip from the expedition was slated to be much quicker than the one they had taken on their way to the expedition site. It was by no means fast, still a matter of a couple of weeks of travel, but it was better than the month or so they had taken to get there. While the buses were still slow, they didn’t have to do any mapping, and they only needed to scout briefly, so they could go almost full speed the entire way.

Still, after a week of travel, Tess couldn’t wait to be back home. Yes, she could visit her home on Mael almost any time she wanted thanks to the door the gods had built into her party’s hoverer, but that wasn’t the same; they could only do that for brief moments while the caravan had stopped, and it was often more trouble than it was worth.

So, like on the trip over, she spent most of her time playing games with Ellie, Alice, Maven, and occasionally Jin or Ker in The Rumors’ hoverer. Even that, though, was slightly different; Maven was acting…oddly around Tess and Ellie, slipping back into more formal ways of speaking when she had previously been getting less and less formal around them.

And, via tremorsense, Tess was able to catch Maven sneaking glances at the pair when Maven thought they weren’t looking. Tess couldn’t read expressions through tremorsense very well, but she could tell enough to know that Maven likely wasn’t angry at them. With that in mind, Tess decided not to confront her about it until after the wedding; it was entirely possible that Maven was just thinking about the wedding or something, and confronting her about it would only put her in an awkward position.

So, she let it go and carried on as normal. And the routine they fell into carried on until they were roughly two days away from the City, at which point The Rumors called for a meeting to be had within the hoverer. Once all six occupants of the hoverer had assembled, Jin began to speak.

“So, I’m sure you’re wondering what this is about.” He said, looking at the three members of Tess’s party, who were seated across from the three members of The Rumors. “The three of us have been talking about training, and when we would consider you fully trained. And, after some deliberation, we have come to a decision.

“First off, we’d like to congratulate you on your performance on this expedition. You learned quickly from mistakes you made, and you listened to our orders well. That might seem unremarkable, but believe me; people you escort or teach in the future are not all so cooperative. Many are, simply put, liabilities beyond what their status as someone being escorted would suggest.

“But you’ve learned your lessons well, and we think we would feel comfortable with you handling simple requests on your own. To that end, we have a pair of final tests for you before we can truly call you trained. First off, we want your party to take the ranking tests coming up soon, and if you are put in rank four or better, we will consider that test passed.

“Second, in the month leading up to the ranking tests, we wish for you to operate separately from us, to complete requests on your own initiative. We’ve talked with the Guildmaster, and he’ll be reporting to us with the details on the requests you complete and your evaluation on those requests.

“Furthermore, you will not receive any aid from us during this time, material or otherwise. We have decided that it would be prudent to give you the hoverer as we had discussed before the expedition, but you’re otherwise on your own. If your conduct in this month satisfies us, then we will consider that test passed. If you fail either test, we will continue to mentor you for three more months, at which point we will redo any of the tests that you failed, and reassess things then. Questions?”

“Um…are we allowed to call you just to talk?” Tess asked. “Not ask for advice or anything, just as friends.”

“Please do!” Alice said. “I’m more than happy to talk with any of you at any time, for any reason. And, of course, I’ll likely be reaching out to Tess regarding business for the new gambling machines she’s introducing as an Appointed.”

“Likewise, the two of us are happy to talk as friends, or be emotional support.” Ker added, motioning towards Jin. “And this goes for the future as well. We happen to like working with you girls, and we think it would be a shame if we never spoke again after your training is completed.”

“I feel the same, but I can’t speak for the others.” Ellie said.

“I, too, would like to work with you again in the future.” Maven said.

“And, of course, I would love to keep in touch with you guys.” Tess said. “It just wouldn’t be the same without you guys around.”

“Glad to hear it.” Alice said warmly. “Now, since we have two days left before we get back to the City, please use this time to ask us any last questions you may have before your test starts. Consider this your information gathering period, okay?”

“So, let’s talk scheduling.” Ellie said, sitting down at a table she had set up in one of the guild’s private rooms. “And, before we get into anything else, I don’t expect preparations for the wedding to conclude before this month is out, so we shouldn’t need to worry about that. And we don’t need to worry about me needing to stay in the City for prep, I can just use the hoverer to get back to our house on Mael and then the portal there to get to the City.”

“Alright, so, I guess, first question, do we want to do our work in the City?” Tess asked. “It seems like there are a lot of requests we can pick up there, but I’m not sure they’re suitable for us. I’ve been given to understand that there’s pretty fierce competition for requests at our level that are entirely contained within the City, but stuff that takes us outside is relatively open. We’d probably be near guaranteed to have work near our skill level, but it’d probably take longer than otherwise.”

“As far as I’m aware, that is correct, yes.” Maven said. “And do note that we do not need to be worried about completing a large number of requests, The Rumors simply said that they would be watching our activity. If we attempt to complete a lot of requests and only do mediocre work, I imagine we would fail. I believe this is to be more an examination of our standard day to day as freelancers, not a test on how quickly we can do things.”

“I think we should find an area outside of the City with a dungeon around our skill level and do work there.” Ellie said. “We’ll be able to both make progress on a new dungeon and be able to work in an area where there’s less competition.”

“I agree.” Tess said. “But the problem is finding a good place.”

“That is not a concern.” Maven said. “I know of several within Paumen.”

“Is that…alright?” Tess asked. “Our results might be considered not as genuine because people might be reporting that we did better than we actually did to get on the good side of royalty?”

Maven blinked. “I…had not thought of that.” She admitted. “Still, it shouldn’t be a big deal; the guild keeps a database of dungeons, we just need to look at the ones in our level range and find one that is located close to a city.”

Tess nodded. “I see. In that case, I don’t have any objections. What about you, Maven?”

“I would be more than happy to travel.” Maven said. “The City is nice, but visiting different environs is more fun.”

“So, we’re traveling then.” Ellie said. “When do we leave?”

“Well, I don’t have any obligations or anything, and all my stuff is in my bags.” Tess said. “So, I can leave whenever.”

“Likewise, everything of import that I own is in my bag.” Maven said. “And I do not have any prior engagements here.”

“Same.” Ellie said. “We’ll just need to tell Grandpa and The Rumors about this and we’ll be set. So, let’s decide on a place and get going, shall we?”

With a little help from the gods, they were able to decide where they wanted to go without much trouble, and they were on their way in less than two hours. After some deliberation, they had chosen a town named Eris high up in the mountains in one of the older planes.

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This was for a couple of reasons; first, the environment was harsher there; it was cold and snowy all year round, and that would make for different types of requests than they had worked on in the past. Over the course of their training, The Rumors had had them do a couple of requests, just to get them familiar with the process, and Tess’s party wanted to show The Rumors that they could handle different things.

Second, the town was in a rather unique position where permanent housing wasn’t much in demand; the environment was harsh at all times, doubly so in the winter, and the only reason there was much of a town at all was because it was nestled in a mountain pass on a major trading route.

In essence, the only people that lived there full-time were people who ran small businesses catering to travelers. As such, the dungeon’s housing wasn’t in use as housing for the town’s residents, and instead the Reshi Suites were operating a hotel within. They had briefly considered asking Alice to help them make arrangements, but had decided that wouldn’t be a good look for their test and went to do things like everyone else.

The travel time to the town was still about half a day even with the hoverer at max speed, but it wasn’t as bad as the trip to and from the expedition. For one, they were moving significantly faster, and passing by inhabited places made Tess feel like they were making more progress than moving through the wilderness. For two, the scenery was just more interesting; it was much less flat, and their view wasn’t obstructed by a convoy of hoverers.

So, they trip went by quickly, and they reached their destination just before nightfall. Or, rather, when nightfall would be back at home; here, night had fallen a few hours prior. The dungeon was located in the center of town, and stood out starkly from the rest of the town, being a large structure made out of snow, as opposed to the more standard materials the rest of the buildings were made of.

They got out of the hoverer and packed it up, then entered the dungeon. Within the lobby was the familiar sight of a receptionist’s counter, staffed by a bored-looking dwarf on his phone. As they entered, he looked up disinterestedly at them. “You lot look like freelancers.” He said. “Here to stay, or just to raid?”

“We’re here to stay.” Tess said, walking up to the counter. “We’re looking for a room for a month, what do you have available?”

“Let me check.” The dwarf said, turning to a computer nearby. He typed away for a few moments, then looked back up at the group, frowning. “Tess Los and co? Can I see your ID?” He asked.

Tess blinked in surprise. “What? How did you know?”

“Says here there’s a reservation in your name for the penthouse suite and a note to give to you, and that it was a surprise.” He said. “I just need your ID to confirm.”

“Um, sure.” Tess said. “I’ve got it on my band, how are we doing this?”

The dwarf rummaged down below for a moment before pulling out a small stone plate. “Put your finger here, please, it’ll read your band for you.”

Tess did as instructed, and after a moment the dwarf nodded. “Your ID checks out.” He said, pulling out a set of keys and a small folded up piece of paper. “Here are the keys and the note, breakfast is from eight to noon, and on the day of your checkout we’d like you cleared out before noon. Enjoy your stay, and let us know if there’s anything we can help you with.”

Tess accepted the items, then turned to her party members. “Shall we go?”

They set off for the teleporter, and once they were safely inside their room, Ellie turned to Tess. “What does the note say?” She asked curiously.

Tess unfolded the note, and began to read it aloud.

First things first, I’m glad that you’re taking this seriously and not using us in any way. It read. But for something like this it’s not super important. This is just a matter of your comfort and I fully expect you to use me to help you get lodgings in the future, so it’d be silly to have you not use me here.

This is not just an expectation; it is a threat. If I find out that you’ve been ignoring my advice and paying for your stays, I will put you on the VIP list and make sure you’re treated uncomfortably well. So, if you don’t want that, check in with me first. Having someone who’s like a sister to me pay for staying in my buildings makes me feel bad, and I can’t be having that. Plus, it’ll give us more chances to talk, and that’s always nice. Love, Alice.

“Uncomfortably well?” Ellie asked.

“I believe she means near sycophantic treatment; you would receive copious amounts of free high-end food and luxury items, priority in every single way, up to and included kicking guests out of their rooms if the rooms are full, that sort of a thing. Essentially, you would be causing a great deal of trouble for the hotel staff.” Maven explained.

“Yeah, not happening, just the thought of it makes me uncomfortable.” Tess said. “I’ll just talk with Alice beforehand.”

“Well, if we get free lodgings, I don’t mind.” Ellie said. “Anyway, I don’t think we have time to do work tonight, so is there anything you guys wanna do before bed?”

“Um…this might be presumptuous, but I would like to try video games.” Maven said. “Is there something you have that could be played with the three of us. Preferably something that allows us to be on the same team”

“It’s not presumptuous at all, we’d love to play with you!” Ellie said, beaming at Maven. “And I have plenty of games that fit that description; I figured there’d be a TV here, so I brought some consoles in my bag. Now, what kind of game are you in the mood for, platformers, party games, shooters…anything.”

“I am not really familiar with game genres.” Maven said. “Pick one you think I would enjoy.”

“We’ll get you something simple, then…probably a 2D platformer, most of those only use a couple of buttons so they’re relatively easy to pick up. Give me a second and I’ll have it ready, okay? Oh, uh, if that’s fine with you, Tess.”

“Yeah, sounds good.” Tess said. “I’ll give her the rundown while you work.”

“Thank you.” Maven said. “What is our objective in these games?”

While Ellie set up, Tess explained the genre to Maven. It was a little weird, having to explain things that she took for granted, but it made sense that someone who grew up with little to no contact with games wouldn’t understand all the unspoken rules of game design. Still, Maven was smart, and Tess was sure she’d pick things up quickly.

And, as it turned out, she did. Within just an hour or so, she had mastered the basics of the game and was able to play pretty well. They played for another couple of hours after that, before eventually turning in for the night, refreshed and ready to begin their test proper the next morning.

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