I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This piece of shit Caveling had used Shiro and I to get back their stupid worthless treasures? I could’ve used that reward staff! Shiro had to revive me so many times, and for nothing? They totally scammed us! I faintly heard Bag saying something about how the Collector’s Rules meant we couldn’t attack NPCs, but I didn’t care. My grip tightened on my staff as I clenched my fists angrily, the cool metal slipping in my sweaty palms. Dammit, the only reason I’m a Collector in the first place is because Shiro got lucky and found that card, so really that just means she’s the real Collector here! I’m just… a party member… which means I’m not bound by their rules, probably? That obnoxious laughter rang out again, echoing around the damp stone walls, grating on my nerves. Bag growled at me to go, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I shifted my grip on the staff, holding it like the iron sword I used to use.
What happened next surprised even me, the ferocity of the attack catching me off guard. “Woah kid, what the ‘ell! I’m not a monster, remember? You can’t attack me! Collector’s Rules!” yelped the Caveling (whose name I hadn’t bothered remembering). I bared my teeth and growled, swinging again.
“Do I look like I care, shitstain?! You scammed us! We waded through poison and monsters and who knows how many puzzles to find that useless shit, then you turn around and say that you found it?!” I snarled, dimly registering this was probably the first time I’d spoken since leaving the town for Tai Ming. Shiro and I were rarely apart, so she tended to do more of the talking.
“Tyler, it’s not worth it. Let’s just go, we can find cooler stuff later.” Shiro said, sounding…..frightened? Worried? Can’t be, Shiro’s too cool of a customer for that. She faced down that hydra thing without batting an eye, why would she be scared of some fight with a stupid Caveling? I turned my glare on her, feeling heat and tingling magic building in my fists.
“Stay out of my way, Shiro.” I snarled, before turning back to the Caveling. They had pressed themself against the wall and was now sweating nervously, eyeing my red-lit hands with unease. I grinned darkly, savoring the fear on their face.
“H-Hey, kid, no need t’be rash now. W-We can work this out, I-I’ll give you the stuff, just quit it with the creepy magic thing!” stuttered the Caveling, smiling nervously and holding their hands up like they wanted to ward me off.
“THIS ISN’T ABOUT THE LOOT ANYMORE!” I screamed, releasing my rage in a powerful inferno. The fireball shot out of my outstretched hands towards the Caveling, my hate and rage fuelling it to greater heights. They screamed, scrunching in on themself, but it petered off when they didn’t immediately fry. As for me? Well, I was pissed.
Taking advantage of the friendly fire rule, Shiro had stepped in front of the Caveling and blocked their quivering form with her shield, deflecting my fireball with its icy surface. I scowled, shoulders trembling. “Shiro, what the fuck?!” I snapped, shoulders trembling with fury as I recovered enough to start building another blast.
“Come on Tyler, be the bigger man here! ...literally and metaphorically.” She shook her shield towards the Caveling’s general direction, not dropping her guard in fear of more fireballs.
Did she just…? “Are you seriously siding with a con artist we just met half an hour ago over me?! You were just as mad as I was not even five minutes ago! Hell, you were ready to bust heads when you saw that two-hander, what gives?” I snapped, dropping the blast in favor of building up lightning instead. Despite her insistence that the world didn’t work like Pokemon, I knew that a dripping ice shield plus some electricity wasn't exactly pleasant, friendly fire be damned.
“Tyler, I'm going to speak slowly… You don't want to do this.” Shiro enunciated every syllable painfully slowly, while setting the shield on the floor. “I'm not the one you want to fight.” She kicked the shield, sliding it across the room.
I grit my teeth, wincing when I felt my jaw pop. “You’re right, I don’t have any beef with you. So get out of the fucking way so I can fry that little bastard you’re protecting!” I growled. Stray hairs from my ponytail were standing on end, the static buildup in the air almost tangible. Some vain part of me wondered if I looked cool.
Shiro, the calmest person I’d ever met, was fidgeting a little, almost as if she was unnerved. “You know I won't move unless you moved me, and I know you don't want to do that.” A hand slid into her bag, almost invisibly, and plucked out the one-handed sword that she had stolen- er, “borrowed” from the Collector’s test. “I also know you're too fast for a two-handed weapon to even get close, so I won’t use it. Just don't make me use this one.”
I felt something shift in my chest area with those words, almost like a vague change in my soul. I checked my own stats list quickly and sure enough, right there on the enchanted parchment, it said I wasn’t in a party. Did her threat of fighting me break the party contract? I wasn’t sure, nobody had ever explained how it worked officially. I glared at her, stuffing away the paper in my own bag. “Like you’d even be able to touch me. I know you, Shiro, and I know how you fight.” I sneered, taking a step back out of her reach. Truth be told, I was a little nervous. She could kick my ass in melee, and her magic wasn’t half bad either, despite me being the one with a greater inclination towards it. If I got into a direct battle with her, I knew I’d lose. Unfortunately, I also knew she wouldn’t kill me, instead opting to keep me alive in case I “changed my mind” or whatever. I tapped the back of my earrings carefully, making sure they wouldn’t fall out if I did happen to get into a battle. Just in case, I didn’t want to lose the health boost.
“I know when you're lying, I can almost feel your nerves.” She wasn't even holding her sword up anymore, it was down to her side. How cocky.
I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t fucking patronize me, Shiro! If you’re gonna fight me, then don’t be a coward! Do it! Fucking kill me, don’t just stand there talking shit!” I yelled, loosing the lighting blast and following up with a tiny fireball.
Shit. Shit shit shit. The thrusting move. She jumped back, the fireball disappeared as she glowed blue for a split second, then all I could see was a silver glint flying towards my face. I thought I was dead, but I just felt a hard metal sheet against my face. “Come on Tyler, be more mature than this.” She had slapped me… WITH A SWORD!
My brain had shut down for a second. The stinging pain where her sword had hit me brought me back to reality, and I cautiously poked it. My fingers came away bloody from where the sharp edges had dug into my face when the flat side hit me. I wasn’t sure how to react. Do I get angry? Do I surrender? What the fuck are you supposed to do when someone bitchslaps you with a sword?!
“Sorry about the cuts, better than the tip, right?” She chuckled. How dare she laugh at me, after slapping me. With. A. Sword! I started shaking, seething with anger. Her laughter echoed in the small cavern, worming its way into every crevice of my brain. How dare she?! How dare she mock me, laugh in my face after humiliating me like that?! I wouldn’t forgive her. No, I couldn’t forgive her.
“......shut up.” I muttered through clenched teeth, fighting down the urge to punch her square in the nose. If I got any closer, she’d have an even easier time hitting me. I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
“Huh?” She stepped closer, “What was that?” In my rage, I clearly mistook genuine confusion for mockery. Sword at her side once again, she took a few more steps, closing the distance between us to less than 3 feet.
“I said SHUT UP!” I screamed, accidentally losing my grip over my magic. It was only for a second, but it was long enough for flames to roar up behind me, casting her face into stark relief. I glared into her eyes, hair whipping around my face as my hat fell to the ground behind me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?! You have no right to act like you’re better than me, like I’m somehow less of a person than you just because we don’t follow the same damn rules!” I raged, swinging my slightly melted staff at her with all the force I could muster.
“I wasn't mocking you, I just didn't hear yo- this is no use… he's snapped. Guess we’ll be be fighting then?” Shiro sighed, parrying the swing. Due to the staff being gold, and Shiro’s raw power, the staff sliced cleanly in half. “Uh… whoops.”
My eyes widened, and I could feel the drop on my reserves almost immediately. That had been my only weapon. I sold the rest to get money to buy the stuff I needed to make her a better shield. At that point, mercy was the last thing on my mind. Hell, even the Caveling that started this whole shitstorm was shoved out of my thoughts. I dropped the useless metal on the ground, growling low in my throat. I hope she didn’t want a fair fight, because I’m not about to hold back. Every dirty trick and weakness I learned while sparring with her in preparation for the exam was coming into play. I wouldn’t go easy on her.
“Look, Tyler, I’m sorry. It was an accident.” I choked out. I've never seen him this… crazy? I started to back away from him, I needed my shield, it’s probably melted by now. “I-I can get you a new staff! A better one!” I couldn't stay calm, as hard as a tried. I was silently preparing to fight him.
Gone was the quiet, kinda wimpy kid he had started as. In his place stood...this. No wonder Dad always said meddling in magic was dangerous, because hell if he didn’t look scary right now. I wiped my palms on my leggings, shifting my grip on my sword. I doubt there’s any way to get out of this without a fight, at this point. “Oh, are you scared now? You gonna run away back to Evergrind, tell your Daddy I lost it?” he asked, voice sickly sweet and crooning. It didn’t match at all with the murderous smile he was wearing.
“Tyler…” I kept repeating his name, even though it didn't even fit anymore. “Don't do anything you'll regret.” I was almost able to reach my shield, almost. Suddenly a whip made of fire shot past me and smacked my shield to the other side of the cave. “Damn… guess I’ll be going without, huh?”
He laughed cruelly, smirking down at me. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want your shield? Don’t you remember that you never needed it before? When we tested it back in that temple? Don’t tell me we both consider the party over!” he gasped, clapping his hands to his face and pouting, the searing heat filling the room and making the slime on the walls evaporate.
“The party was over when you lost it…” I muttered, holding my sword up. “Let's get it over with then, of you're gonna attack me.” I bounced slightly, preparing my legs to dodge. “I'm not taking the first strike.”
He sneered at me, clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white, a sharp contrast to his normally tanned skin. “The party was over when you defended that Caveling, or did you not bother checking the Stat List? Oh wait, that’s right. You were too busy drawing another weapon, huh?” he snapped, particles of magic starting to swirl around his fists as he started to glow an angry red.
“Defending the caveling, when you lost it, what's the difference?” I was practically jumping at this point, I didn't know how this… thing was gonna attack, so I had to be ready for anything. Two handed or not, I was faster than him. At least, faster than he was.
“The difference, Shiro, is that one of those times was NOT MY FAULT!” he screamed, letting loose with a stream of fire. The hatred he injected into my name… I didn’t realize one word could cause my heart to crack.
I barely had time to roll out of the way, that fire definitely would have hurt, if not worse. Taking the near dodge as an opening, I ran in and hit him on the head with the hilt of my sword. I don't want to kill him, but he’ll surely kill me if I don't do something. I knew immediately after, that wasn't a good idea. He rubbed the spot where I slammed my sword, then glared at me. I made him angrier. “Look, you don't have to do this. When you stop, I'll stop.”
At least the flames had died down… Maybe the shock of all his wounds was finally getting through to him. “Quit trying to make this out to be my fault, dammit… Why couldn’t you just let me get the Caveling, what’s so different from them and all the other monsters we fight?” he asked quietly. That wasn’t the surprising part, though. No… What really surprised me were the tears welling up in his eyes as he said it. Had I...been wrong?
“The cavelings, as annoying and shitty as they are, have feelings.” I sighed, lowering my sword, “He might have used us, but that's part of being a Collector… kinda.” I walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder, “You just ignore the rude people and keep collecting.”
Normally, this kind of pep talk would result in a small smile, maybe a watery chuckle before we both kept on going. This time, though… This time, I forgot one very, very important detail.
His hand shot up to grip my wrist, but his head didn’t move an inch. “Shiro… You forgot something…” he mumbled. His grip tightened and his head tilted up, a creepy smile marring his features as shadows danced across his face. “I’m not a Collector. Those rules and ideas don’t apply to me. You’re the one who found the card, remember?” he said sweetly, nearly crushing my wrist bones in his hand.
In fear for my wrist’s health, I delivered a swift kick to his ribs, causing him to stagger backwards. This staggering gave me enough of a chance to grab his arm and flip him onto his back. “I found the card, but I wouldn't have been able to of not for your help, you dork!” I half shouted in his face.
He struggled to get out from under me, but he’d always sucked at grappling. “Not true! You’re so much better than me in fighting… In everything! You solved the puzzles, I just messed them up! With that swing of yours, my attacks are practically as dangerous as throwing fucking dandelions at someone! You’re better than me, Shiro, and everyone knows it! I just wanted to do something for you for once, and I thought that maybe if I could get those things for you that you'd finally respect me! That you’d finally recognize me as your equal, instead of a wimpy little shrimp who’s only good for soul shields!” he argued, trying to free a hand to spark another fireball.
“I'm not better than you at everything! You're way better than me at magic and that stuff. I don't have the slightest clue how to make half of that stuff you do happen. All I can do is summon that snowman.” I regrabbed his hands so he couldn't shoot me in the face with fire or lightning. “I can't fish either, or do anything besides melee fighting and strategy.”
“Magic isn’t something you’d do anyway, not with how your dad is… I’m sure that if you grew up in a house like mine, you’d welcome the chance to use it. It’s… addicting. Powerful. Without preconceived notions of what it is and isn’t, you’d probably take to it like a fish to water. Which is why…. I can’t let you try it. I’m better than you at one thing and I refuse to have you take it from me!” he snarled, snapping out of his calm daze. He bit his lip, a look of intense concentration spreading over his face. His skin started superheating, causing me to grit my teeth through the blistering pain. He smiled darkly. “If you ever want to hold a sword again, I’d recommend letting go.” he threatened.
I’d have to let go before my hands melted, but I noticed his clothes were still cool. In the swiftest motion I could manage with burnt hands, I folded a hand over his chest, pulled his shirt over my knee, and pinned his arm to his chest. Unfortunately, I forgot about his second hand. He lifted his hand to my face and summoned a fireball. I realized my mistake and the fact that I couldn't dodge this one, so I turned my head and prepared for the worst.
“Nice try. Reeeeeeal clever. But even you’re just human.” he said coldly, the heat getting closer and closer to my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut and bit my lip, tensing for pain when his hand landed on my cheek. Oddly enough, all I felt was a small shock. I heard him cursing under his breath, something about the Stat Sheet, but I couldn’t make it all out.
“What?” I stood up and pulled out the Stat Sheet, and started to laugh. “Well would you look at that?” Smiling, I put a hand out to pull him up.
He batted it away, grumbling. He looked like a grumpy kitten, all pouty and bedraggled. His hair had fallen out of his ponytail, the dark blue locks sticking to his face. “I’m still mad at you.” he grumbled, but at least there was a little less heat behind it.
“Oh come on, you're too dorky to be an ultra badass.” I laughed harder, walking to get my shield. “Leave that to the boys, alright?” I whipped around and gave him a concerned look, “I was joking. That was a joke.”
I felt my face flush, embarrassment rolling over me in waves. I can’t believe I let it go that far… I nearly killed her, just for something stupid like revenge. “Please don’t tell your dad...You know how he feels about my magic, and...what he said he’d have to do if it ever got out of control…” I whispered, the guilt eating away at me.
I expected her to be mad, but she was still laughing. “Seriously? I might be rude, but I'm not a total bitch. Why would I tell him if I handled it? ...for the most part.” Suddenly, two pieces of a staff, my staff, landed at my feet. “I’ll pay for the blacksmith to fix it, it’s too good to leave here.”
I blinked in surprise, before picking it up. “T-thanks…” I said, smiling slightly and ducking my head. I considered the pieces for a minute, before looking up. “Hey… If I were to patch these together and put them in Snowman Dan to cool, d’you think he’d attack me?” I asked, slightly nervous. That snow golem was waaay more bloodthirsty than any creature his size had any right to be.
“Probably, but I can do it for you.” she sighed, “One more thing…” Oh no. Here it comes… The after-battle awkwardness where everyone tries to figure out the new dynamic. Did she not trust me anymore? Did she not want to fix it yet, at least not until we were back on neutral ground? Was...Was she still scared of me…?
She practically teleported in front of me, grabbed my collar and pulled me close to her face. “Attack me again, and I won't use the flat parts of my sword. Got it?” I nodded frantically, before she let go of me, “Good! Then let's go, we have items to collect!” She said all of this with a smile, what was she, a monster? A demon? My sister?!
Definitely some kind of demon, I decided. Nobody can bounce back from a threat like that to pretending nothing happened in the span of a second. I sighed silently, drooping as she turned, and watched her walk away through the door the Caveling was guarding.
She never saw me glare at them, a few orange sparks dancing threateningly between my fingers.
“C-COLLECTOR LADY!! YER FRIEND!” the Caveling screeched, running straight into Shiro and grabbing onto her waist.
Shiro looked at the Caveling, trying to pry it off with her two handed Lamp thing. “Ew, get off of me, he’s chilled out now.” She got sick of it grappling on to her waist, so she started kicking. I snickered, closing my hand to douse the sparks before going to help her pry off the hooded gremlin. “TYLER! THIS LIVING BOOGER WON'T LET ME GO!”
“Chill, Shiro! I’m coming!” I laughed, clapping my hands together to spark the shield around us before tapping the Caveling on the shoulder. Stooping down to look it in the eye, I smiled pleasantly. “You know NPCs aren’t supposed to attack Collectors right? Why, I’m pretty sure that only mobs do that.” I said, voice just as pleasant, but hiding a sharp edge.
The Caveling’s eyes were perfect circles, it clearly understood the threat and ran back to where it was. “Wow Tyler, you managed to scare something. Good job, you've levelled up from girl to slightly less girl. Maybe even woman!” Shiro jabbed a finger into my ribs, as much as I knew she was joking, I wanted to punch her again.
I ended up blushing and shoving her, covering my face with my hands. “Shirooooooo…..” I whined, embarrassed. “Not all of us can be mega-scary badasses like you!” I added, peeking out through my fingers at her.
“Was that a comeback or are you hitting on me?” She laughed. She doesn't quit, my life of mockery will be permanent. I'm gonna punch her.
I punched her. Lightly, but it was still a punch. “Cut it out, Shiro! You’re embarrassing me!” I said, electing to ignore the “hitting on me” part. I stalked off through the open door, blushing pink to the tips of my ears.
“Tyler! I was jooooking!!!” She jogged after me, trying not to laugh, “I know you wouldn't hit on me, you like Luuuuke too much.” she jabbed my shoulder, “Just tell him how you feel, I already know he’s into you.”
My eyes widened, and even as my blush deepened into shades of red nobody’s ever seen before, I turned to face her. “He is? Did he tell you something? C’mon Shiro, please you can’t just say something like that and then clam up it’s not faaaaiiirrrrr…..” I begged, looking up at her with my best puppy eyes.
“I can’t, I’ve said too much.” she laughed, poking my tomato-cherry-ruby red cheeks. “I totally didn't know you actually liked him! That's adorable!”
I pouted, looking away. “You’re mean.” I whined, shivering as her icy hands poked my cheeks. A thought occurred to me, and I turned to her with wide eyes. Yep, exactly as I thought. A devious smirk crossed her face, the one she dubbed her “I Have a Plan” face. Unfortunately, it was usually “I Have a Plan to Embarrass Tyler” face. “Shiro, no. You can’t tell him, please. I know he’s dumber than a box of rocks but seriously even Luke won’t think you’re joking if you tell him directly.” I begged.
Oh no, the smirk has turned into a full on grin, the kind insane people do. “I’m gonna tell him.” she did her best rich lady ohoho laugh, “or maybe I'll tell him I like him, he iiiiis kinda cute.”
“Shiro no please if you love me at all please don't.” I pleaded, face getting redder by the second. I was practically hanging off her scarf now, pouting up at her.
“Don’t tell him I like him? Or maybe you don’t want your feelings to be known?” She ohoho’d even harder, basically trying to drive me insane. “You better act quickly, I hear Richy McMoney is trying to make moves on Luke.”
My eyes narrowed and I growled angrily. “Not if I have anything to say about it. Shiro, get your stuff, Tai Ming can wait. We need to go back to Evergrind right now.” I said, already pulling out my map and opening a portal.
“Woah man, I didn’t think you’d be that motivated!” She laughed, hopping into the portal, “Let’s go get your boyfriend back from the clutches of money.”