THE bar was crowded when Kaderin came in. After doing a quick scan around, she made her way towards an unoccupied table at the far end corner of the room, passing by a group of snickering Rangers over big mugs of beer, undoubtedly boasting about their newly acquired weapons. She tried her best to avoid eye contact and pulled her hood lower over her face. She hated all kinds of attention, especially from strangers.
After what seemed like forever, she finally reached the empty seat. A middle-aged waitress in a faded blue apron approached her and placed a glass of cold water on the table. "Would you like anything else?"
"A glass of apple juice please," she replied quietly.
The waitress came back with her drink. Kaderin held her breath and spoke. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure darling. What is it?"
"Is there someone here who knows the way to the Umbala Tree?"
The kind waitress blinked in surprise. "Oh dear," she muttered, her face full of concern. "No, because adventurers who went there never came back."
But she was already expecting that kind of answer. "I just need someone who knows how to get there."
The woman eyed her for a while and darted her gaze towards the counter. "See that guy over there? You can try talking to him. He might have some answers. Be careful though, that person is dangerous." With that, the waitress turned to resume her work.
The man was hunched over, his arms resting on the countertop. She could only see his broad shoulders from where she was seated. He was also wearing a dark hooded cape. Kaderin could tell that the man was tall and lean. She could also sense the darkness and danger surrounding him, telling everyone to leave him alone.
Oh great, she sighed. What am I getting myself into? But he could be the last hope left for her.
The man stood and sauntered towards the door. Without thinking, Kaderin followed him. It was already dark when she stepped out, but she caught a faint silhouette of someone heading towards the end of the street beside the pub. She hesitated for a moment. Anything could go wrong when you follow a stranger into a remote alleyway. Kaderin started thinking about all sorts of things lurking in the shadows but immediately scolded herself for being such a coward. She held her healing staff close to her chest and followed the path with quick long strides, hoping to reach the man right away.
There were no streetlights so it had gotten harder to see around. Kaderin summoned a blue orb of holy fire which started to circle around her.
She was about to take a step forward when suddenly a rough force pushed her against the concrete wall. Strong fingers encircled her throat, making it hard to breathe. She saw the sharp edge of a knife near her face before her orb completely disappeared.
"Why are you following me?" a deep voice asked.
Kaderin grabbed his wrist with all her might. "P-please… I mean no harm."
He loosened his grip a little after hearing her voice. "Who are you?"
"M-my name is K-Kaderin… Please, I j-just need… to ask you s-something…"
He contemplated for a moment before letting her go. Kaderin slumped to the hard ground, clutched her throat and coughed, gasping for air. The man watched her silently until she was able to breathe normally again.
"I-I'm sorry. I just used the orb to see through the dark. I did not mean to—"
"Stop following me if you don't want to die," he said and turned to leave.
Kaderin managed to grasp his cloak to stop him. "I n-need someone to take me to the Umbala Tree."
The man looked down instead of answering her. She could not make out his face but as the night sky cleared and the moon shone brightly upon them, Kaderin saw his eyes—a pair of vivid red and blue. His right eye as red as blood, the left as blue as the ocean.
The eyes of the devoted. The truly devoted have seen into the infinite and have been forever changed.
It was her first time seeing the eyes of the devoted. She had heard a lot of stories about those whose eyes have changed as a result of experience beyond understanding. Some speculated that these people have died and came back to life. The Pope of Arunafeltz, a state of drylands at the western edge of the world, was also known to have these eyes.
He pulled his hood lower to cover half of his face when he noticed her stare.
Kaderin could not stop thinking about those eyes… and how handsome the man was.
"Do you have money?"
Kaderin blinked. "I'm sorry, w-what?"
"I can take you there for a price."
"Oh. Of course! I can pay you." She stood and composed herself, patting her skirt to remove the dirt. She could feel him staring at her. With that, she became conscious of the fluttery sensation in her stomach.
"Two million zeny. Half of it for the upfront payment. You can pay the other half when we get there."
"Miss, you must have heard the stories. It is not like a simple trip to Mjolnir or Payon forest."
Kaderin sighed. Fortunately, she was able to save a good amount of money by doing freelance exorcisms and participating in high-level dungeon raids.
"Alright. So, when do we set off?"
"Meet me at the southern gate before sunrise." He started to leave.
"Wait! Can I at least know your name?"
He paused. "Rhye." Then he was gone.
Hiding and disappearing just like that. That guy is probably a highly skilled Guillotine Cross, a much-advanced class of assassins, Kaderin thought. An assassin and a priest embarking on a long and treacherous journey to an unknown land? What an odd pair.
"It's very nice to meet you, Rhye." She whispered, still looking at the direction where his presence vanished.