"How hard can it be?"
Levinia placed her hands on her hips and pouted at the bar tender. The large swarthy man met her defiant glare with a calm gaze of his own, as he rubbed a plate dry with a napkin. "I won't do it if I were you, that's all," he replied with that languid accent that somehow made Levie want to harass him a little. Everyone she had met in the tavern had sung the praises of Big Olaf, saying that he was wise and stuff, he knew the missions that would cause trouble and the ones that would be a walk in the park. According to them, if Olaf said that the mission contract in her hands was a bust, then it was a bust. Levinia didn't think that was sufficient reason to advice her to drop this one. Besides, if she was correct, this would take her another step further in helping those who could not defend themselves.
Perhaps it was wise to find out why Olaf had disapproved taking that mission. According to some other adventurers hanging around, once they had read the details and asked a thing or two from the sagely barkeep, they had dropped the contract immediately and sought out others, even missions that were less well paying. Now that was strange. Most adventurers took the more expensive quests first, so that implied that this mission was going to have a serious catch.
"Okay, why would you suggest that I shouldn't do this? Yeah, it looks tough and all that, but who wouldn't feel more confident with their pockets jingling with more jewels?"
Olaf smiled and put the plate away. "Well, kid, unless you want to fight against an entire army, you'll pin it back up on the notice board."
"An army?" Levinia burst into laughter. Olaf was surely pulling her legs. Fighting an army required raising an army of one's own, and such a thing was not usually the kind of work mages were asked to do. "You're surely exaggerating, Mr. Olaf. I think I should be able to take on fifty persons, or even a hundred... I'm not boasting or anything, mind. I'm just saying that you can't call a small band of hired thugs an army."
Olaf stared at the girl with surprise, then he threw back his head and laughed. It was a rich laugh, pure mirth at something she had said, and had Levinia (who admittedly was in a mildly testy mood) not felt he was laughing at her expense, she could have liked the way he laughed. She resumed the pout and glared comically at him. Olaf raised his hands in a placatory offer. "Now, now, I apologize for laughing, kid. Didn't mean any offense." He put down his hands, though the apologetic smile stayed. "I was just amused that you thought I was referring to a hundred men or thereabouts."
Something sank in Levinia's stomach. "I... I don't understand."
Olaf's expression became more serious. "I'll be level with you, kid. Baron Malley has an army. By army, I mean a-r-m-y." Levinia's eyes slowly widened. "Uh... how many people are we talking about here?"
"Ten thousand strong. As expected, the army has units. Foot soldiers, archers, cavalry, and his elite fighting force."
Levinia's head swam. What sort of mission was this? How was anyone expected to go up against an army? Okay, Olaf was certainly brimming with wisdom. She would just quietly place the mission back where she had picked it from... then a thought struck her, one that filled her heart with a burden. "So, if nobody takes this mission, what will happen to the one who put it up?"
"Well, from what's stated there, they need protection from Malley's boys because they crossed him somehow. He's going to send his army against that town, and they'll stamp it into the ground. The children that are lucky to survive will likely be sold into slavery." Olaf's mood fell. "I pity the poor fellows, and I sure don't envy them."
Levinia felt her heart would be unable to take this. "Where are all the powerful 'good guys'? Can't anyone do something?"
"Well, there are those who are probably strong enough to face that army, if they went with their guild or something. From my experience, though, it is rare for anyone to pick a mission such as this, and even rarer for the mission to succeed. That's why it's a ten year mission; things like this are successful like once every ten years."
Levinia was torn between taking this mission and putting it back. She knew she had become way stronger than she had ever been, but she was not sure if she could take on an entire army by herself. Maybe she could find someone to help her. Or perhaps this was bigger than she was. Like Olaf, it was saddening, but he couldn't do anything about it, and perhaps she couldn't, too. Just as self-preservation had almost convinced her to pin the contract back on the wall, she heard someone whisper to her colleague, "Hand over the money, Bille; I told you she was going to drop the contract."
Something in Levinia snapped.
She looked up at Olaf, an angry light in her eyes. "Well, someone better tell Baron Malley that if he doesn't back off those villagers, he won't have an army to command."
"If I don't, who will? Don't try to dissuade me; just wish me luck."
Olaf sighed, like he had seen this before. "You're a very brave kid. I'll pray for your safe return. If you survive, I'll throw you a celebratory party in your honor."
Levie grinned. "Hear that, folks? Free drinks on the house when I get back. See y'all around."
She had tried to make the mood cheerier, but she was replied with halfhearted farewells. Thanks to her magic, as she left, she even sensed some guy remove his hat and bow his head, like he was having a moment of silence, as people did in honor of the dead. What an inspiring way to start a tough mission.
Half a day later, Levinia sat in a carriage headed for Era, struggling to distract herself from macabre thoughts. She had been reading a magazine, and someone had given her idea. She'd heard that there was someone who hosted an "agony aunt" section in the widely read Sorcerer's Magazine, and people said she was quite powerful, too. So far, reading the "Dear Seri" articles convinced her that whoever this woman was, she was quite wise. So, Levinia had a battle plan: she would find "Seri", and convince her to aid her to help gather an army that could match Malley's own. Since "Seri" was quite famous, provided the woman had the time to listen to her, she ought to have some connections that she could make use.
"Please, Dear Seri, be a nice person..."
It was not quite difficult to find where "Dear Seri" was, although Levinia was slightly surprised when she found herself standing in front of the Rune Knights headquarters. Perhaps "Dear Seri" had an office in there... yes, she probably did, maybe being an honorary member of the Knights or something.
Levinia pulled all the courage she could muster, walked in through the doors and went straight to the reception office. She smiled at the woman behind the counter and said:
"Hello, and good morning. I'd like to speak with Dear Seri. Any chance she might be in?"