The words echoed inside my head as I fell through the mists.
No…not again! Not again!
I struggled; both mentally and physically. I lashed out with my fists, guarded my thoughts by trying to think of something else but it was all in vain. The song kept playing, over and over again.
I heard a loud crash behind me. The boat had smashed into pieces as it hit the ground. Luckily, I hadn’t.
Get out of my head!
I grabbed my head and rolled on the ground.
“You okay Runir?” I heard someone shout from above.
Can’t show weakness…no vulnerabilities. Can’t let them see…snap out of it…snap out of it!
I steeled myself and cursed as I picked myself up from the wreckage.
“And why couldn’t you grab me too?” I complained.
“Can’t let you get too close to Lily,” said Amy as she landed.
“I knew you’d be fine. You have a hard head,” said Kai.
“Don’t know which is worse…” I muttered.
“Besides, you could have used Air magic to soften the fall. Don’t know why you didn’t,” said Lily.
Shit! She’s right. I was too distracted by the voices…wait, I can’t hear them anymore?
“Hey Runir,” said Lily, snapping her fingers in my face. “Stop zoning out.”
“Ah right, sorry,” I said. “Yeah, just a little tired, is all.”
“Now that you mention it, it is getting pretty late, we should make camp for the night,” said Kai.
“Don’t need to. This is the Corridor. There are rest stops and free public inns all along the way. Should be one nearby,” I said, remembering what I’d learned from the books I’d read.
“Aw, but I like camping out…”
“Hey!” shouted Zoe suddenly.
I looked at her. Come to think of it, she’d been frozen stiff ever since we fell off the sludge-fall.
“How did you two fly?” she asked, pointing at Amy and Kai.
“Ability,” said Kai.
“Spell,” said Amy.
“Don’t answer so easily!” said Zoe. “What kind of spell lets you fly?” She pointed at Amy. “And you used your Ability to make that soup. I saw it!”
Kai laughed uneasily. “Damn, looks like I’ve been caught. I’m a good cook but I use my Ability to give it a little extra zing.” He winked.
“Zing…” said Lily.
“It was a special spell I made myself…” said Amy, shyly.
…How the fuck did that twerp make them reveal their secrets so easily? I’ve been trying to do that for-
“So you two are cheaters,” said Zoe, pointing at Kai and Amy. Kai gave her a sheepish grin while Amy refused to meet her gaze.
“And you two are useless,” she said, pointing at Lily and I.
“I am not useless kid!” said Lily.
“Yeah, she makes good sandwiches,” I said.
Lily glared at me.
Hey, it was a compliment wasn’t it?
“Whatever, stop fooling around already. It’s late and we need to find an inn,” I said.
Seriously, why do I always have to tell them to stop messing around? I feel like a babysitter.
“I can see some light over there!” said Amy, pointing down the road.
We followed the light down the road, taking in the sights in the waning daylight. To our left was the wall of mist that we had fallen through and to our right was a dense forest filled with tall trees and thick undergrowth. The road itself was paved with stone, not asphalt like in the Air kingdom, but this stone was maintained by magic formations carved into rocks placed every few hundred feet or so.
This was the ‘Corridor.’ The most famous road on Erath. Running between the Twilight Forest and the Alderan Wastes, it was the only route the invading forces of the Holy Union could use to reach the Demon Lord’s Castle. Although we couldn’t see it right now, those stones had been covered with blood countless times. The corpses of the dead were thrown unceremoniously into the Wastes but many believed that their souls continued to haunt the Corridor.
A small building appeared on the side of the road ahead. It was a homely cottage with a wooden sign hanging beside the door. A single lamp hung on a pole standing in front of a fence circling the cottage. There was a vegetable garden inside the fence, with what looked like cabbages and pumpkins growing in it.
As we approached the Inn, we instantly noticed a sour smell wafting through the air. Behind the cottage was a lemon orchid with small yellow fruit peeking out from within the leaves.
We pushed open the fence and were greeted by loud barking. A white fuzzball jumped out of the pumpkin patch and growled at us.
“What’s this?” said Kai.
The little fuzzball was glaring at us with its beady eyes but it didn’t look menacing at all. In fact, it looked-
“Cute!” said Zoe as she bounded over and grabbed the stunned fuzzball.
It struggled in her grasp but it couldn’t get away.
“A torabal?” said Amy.
“Yeah, it is pretty adorable isn’t it?” said Lily.
“No, she means it’s a ‘torabal;’ a kind of domesticated monster. They’re harmless and make great pets. You have to watch out for the fur though. It can get stuck in your throat. Really annoying,” I said, recalling what I’d read in a book.
“Ah guests! Please come in!” said someone from inside.
Zoe turned her head to listen to the voice and the torabal used the opportunity to jump out of her grasp. It landed on my head. Kai and the others entered the Inn. Zoe stared longingly at the torabel on my head but reluctantly allowed herself to be dragged inside by Amy. I began to follow them.
“Hey, let Fuzzy go!”
A little girl stood in front of the lemon orchard. She glared at me angrily with her arms stretched to her sides.
I turned to the girl. “Fuzzy? That’s a great name. So original. Wish I had that kind of naming sense.”
The girl’s face lit up. “Really?”
“Yep, whoever thought up that name is a genius,” I said, smiling sarcastically.
The girl smiled so brightly that I almost felt bad about making fun of her naming sense.
“But it looks like Fuzzy here likes me. Don’t you ya little fur-ball?” I grabbed the torabal, as it tried to jump off, with one hand.
“See?” I said, stroking the squirming torabal with my other hand. Surprisingly, it settled down and started purring.
The girl’s face fell. “Fuzzy…you…you…traitor!” She ran away crying.
Er, I might have gone a little too far. Oh well.
“Shoo, I don’t need traitors,” I said, throwing Fuzzy the torabal in the direction the girl had fled.
Having satisfied my conscience, I entered the Inn. As expected, it was a simple Inn with a reception desk and a space for eating. A wooden staircase adjacent to the desk probably led up to the rooms and a door besides that presumably led to the kitchens. Behind the desk stood a middle aged man talking to Amy. Kai, Zoe and Lily were sitting around a table, talking to a teenage boy with a notepad in his hand.
“Are you sure?” asked Amy.
“Yes. I’m sorry miss, but I’d be lying if I told you I knew when the road’s gonna clear up,” said the middle aged man. “We’ll have to wait for the Earth magicians but all the Earth magicians in the kingdom are busy clearing up the mess at the Air kingdom. It could be weeks before one gets here.”
“Would you like some drinks with your order? Our beer is famous all along the Corridor. Try it, you won’t regret it!” said the boy.
“Sure, five glasses please,” said Kai.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Unless you’re planning on drinking two,” I said as I sat next to them.
Kai frowned. “No, there’s five of us. Unless you’ve forgotten how to count.”
“Um, Kai, did you just order beer for Zoe?” asked Lily.
“Yeah. Oh I get it, did you want something else Zoe?” said Kai.
Zoe shook her head. “It’s fine.”
“Er, so you’ve had it before?” asked Lily.
“Yeah, that’s how they made us wash down all the drugs,” she said, nonchalantly.
Right, she’s a messed up kid. I guess a little beer wouldn’t be all that bad considering everything she’s been through. Still…
“But you’re only ten!” exclaimed Lily. “You can’t-”
“We’re stuck here,” said Amy as she sat down. “Some rock fell out of the Wastes and blocked the road for miles.”
“Wait a second-” began Lily.
“Can we fly over it, please?” asked Zoe excitedly.
“There are camps on both sides of the blocked road. We’d be seen immediately,” said Amy.
“Well, can’t we just plow through it with magic?” I asked.
“We should lay as low as possible after what happened in the Air kingdom. Being able to use different types of magic and at such a large scale will draw too much attention.”
“I give up.” Lily folded her arms.
“True,” I said, ignoring Lily completely. She glared at me and I smirked.
“That’s unfortunate, but what really surprises me is how interested you are in all of this, Amy,” asked Kai. “It’s not like you to be so concerned about anything, Amy.”
I blinked my eyes in surprise. Now that he mentioned it, it was unusual to be the one asking the questions for once. And from Amy of all people!
Amy was also visibly startled by the question. She gave a nervous laugh and said, “I just thought I’d play my part too. I just want to make sure we get there on time.”
“On time for what?” I asked.
“The exams. Don’t you remember? You’re the one who told us about them.” she said.
“Oh right. Yeah, the exams,” I said.
“Well, it’s great to see you taking a more active role in the party,” said Kai, with a large smile on his face.
There’s something going on here.
“Here you go!” said the boy as he laid a couple of dishes in front of us.
We thanked him and he went away. His dad – the old man behind the front desk – came soon after, bringing a flagon of beer with him. He poured us five glasses and thanked us for our patronage.
“Let’s leave this discussion on hold for now. We can figure something out in the morning,” said Kai.
We all agreed and started eating. The food was great and the beer even better. Also, it was non-alcoholic. Lily’s expression loosened as she realized that Zoe wasn’t about to get drunk. We finished up our meal and made our way upstairs to our rooms. The boy led us up a dark staircase with only a single flickering lamp to light the way.
“So your name’s Sett?” asked Lily.
“Yep, Sett Uratoh.” said the boy.
“That’s a nice last name. Don’t think I’ve heard anything like it in Erath,” said Kai.
“Thanks, ah here are your rooms,” said Sett.
The others went into their rooms but Sett told me that mine was on the other side of the hallway. He apologized for separating me from my friends but I told him it was fine. Along the way, he told me about some of the paintings lining the walls.
A blue horse with a turtle on its back. A castle set on fire. And a raging storm at sea.
As we walked along the hallway, I noticed a group of paintings that Sett hadn’t explained. Probably because he didn’t need to.
A painting of a thick-bearded, middle aged man hung there with words written on a golden plaque beneath it.
“Seta Uratoh, a loving father.”
Next to it hung a picture of a young boy with his family’s characteristic blonde hair and gray eyes.
“Sett Uratoh, a wonderful son.”
And in the end was a picture of a smiling little girl with a familiar fuzzball on her head.
“Setsu Uratoh, a beloved sister.”
I was just about to comment on the pictures when we reached the end of the hallway and Sett gestured for me to go inside before running down the hall while answering his father’s call.
The room was a simple one. A single bed and a small table with a couple of chairs. There was a window with drab, black curtains pulled across it but I went over to pull them open. Moonlight shone into the room; with its dancing silver beams lighting up the otherwise boring furnishings.
I stood at the window for a while, running the events of the day through my head. We’d toppled a kingdom and sent thousands to their doom while trying to save thousands from oppression. My plan was proceeding flawlessly and the two biggest variables – Kai and Amy – were becoming less threatening as I managed to guess their identities. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of foreboding.
The statues and their song had made a mess of my head. I kept racking my brain trying to figure out what it meant but I couldn’t unravel any of it. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important. That I needed to understand this shit at all costs.
Having made no progress on this for a few hours, I decided to stop thinking and relax. Watching the moonlight bathe the vegetable garden in silver hues, the dancing shadows cast by the fence in the flickering lamplight and the swaying leaves of the lemon orchid blowing in the gentle breeze helped calm my heart a little.
I’d done this before – calming myself by looking at nature. When the bullying got too hard to endure or the pressure from my parents made me suffocate, I’d always climb up to the roof of my house and loose myself in the world around me.
The sound of crickets chirping used to fill the night. Nightingales sang, owls hooted and sometimes, a bat screeched in the distance. That’s what I remember hearing from atop my rooftop.
Of course, other sounds – unwanted ones – would find their way to me too. A loud curse. Someone shouting like at the top of their voice. Something crashing against the wall. Something else crashing against the ceiling.
But those weren’t memories I wanted to visit tonight. Tonight, I wanted to remember the few times I was happy on Earth. Funny, how I was always alone. Well, I wasn’t really alone. No one was ever alone.
We’re always surrounded by life; in its many forms and shapes. At least that’s what I believed. It’s what kept me going for all those years. I was never alone, I was important. I was a part of something greater, something grander than any friendship or family could ever hope to be!
On Erath, however, I didn’t quite feel the same. I still valued nature. Still loved to immerse myself in it. Yet, this was only the second time I’d let myself forget everything and admire the world around me since I’d come here – the first being the night I’d been summoned here.
I was distracted by my Lily and the others. My friends. Maybe they kept my loneliness at bay. No, if that was the case, then I must have been pretty lonely back on Earth and calling the world my friend would have been an excuse.
But that couldn’t be true. I was seeking solace in the moonlight and the trees and the shadows right now. This has nothing to do with my loneliness, it’s just something I like to do when I’m feeling…cornered? Is this how I handle despair? Is this the shell I go into to escape my worries?
Funny, I drown myself in nature, in the world itself, to escape the world I can’t handle.
A flicker of movement caught my attention. It wasn’t natural like the swaying of the leaves or the dancing of the shadows. There was something down there.
Must be that little fuzzball, I thought.
However, although the torbal did emerge from the lemon orchid, it wasn’t alone. It met my gaze and held it. I chuckled, internally chastising myself for entering a staring contest with a living plushy.
I jumped out of the window and landed silently on a pumpkin. The torabel started growling, alerting its owner of my descent. Of course, it wasn’t like I was trying to hide anyways.
“Hey, what are you doing up so late?” I said, smiling.
The little girl blinked her eyes, then she pointed at me and said, “You’re the thief who tried to steal Fuzzy!”
“I’m not a thief, although I can hook you up with the best thief on Erath if you like,” I said.
“Liar! You’re a thief! A Fuzzy thief!” she proclaimed.
“Er, do you see any fuzz on me?” I said.
“No, I mean you’re a thief who steals Fuzzies!” she said. “Listen better next time!”
“Explain better next time!” I said. “Wait, what am I saying, what ‘next time’? We’re leaving in the morning.”
“You’re leaving?” said the girl.
Oddly, her eyes were welling up with tears.
“Wait, why are you crying?” I asked. “So what if I’m leaving? You don’t even know my name!”
“Leav…you too…but…so long…” she sobbed as tears rolled down her cheeks.
I sighed. “Well I’m not leaving right now, so save your crying for the morning.”
She kept crying.
Giving up, I sat down on the grass besides the vegetable garden and forgot everything again. The moon was bright, the night was warm and comforting. I blocked out all the annoying thoughts in my head, all the annoying voices echoing inside my mind were forced to shut up.
However, the only voice outside my head kept on bawling her eyes out.
“Hey kid, shut up and sit down,” I said.
She ignored me.
“Come on, I’ll teach you how to never be lonely again.”
She stopped crying. A few hiccups and sniffles, then silence.
“Sit down and I’ll show you.”
She did as I said.
“Now the trick is to realize that even when you think you’re alone, you never are! Listen, can you hear them? The birds in the trees and the insects hidden in the grass. Or maybe the animals in the forest or even the monsters lurking somewhere in the darkness.”
The torabel on her head hopped over and started rubbing against my head.
“And hey, you have this little guy with you right? He might be a useless little fuzzball but at least he’ll love you for as long as he can. Pets are great that way,” I said, stroking Fuzzy’s head.
The little girl sat up and grabbed Fuzzy. “Mine.”
I raised my hands in surrender, “All yours.” I chuckled.
She dusted herself off and rose to her feet. I close my eyes and let myself drift in the nighttime symphony one last time before doing the same.
“Setsu right?” I said.
The girl nodded. “Setsu Uratoh. And you?”
“Runir, Runir Candela.”
“Look who’s talking.”
We walked back towards the Inn without saying anything. Fuzzy had fallen asleep on her head and was snoring loudly.
“Hey Runir,” she said.
“I wanna show you something.”
I followed her across the vegetable garden. A strong, sour smell hit me as she led me into the lemon orchid. Rays of moonlight illuminated the path forward but it was hard to see nonetheless. Soon, she came to an abrupt stop in a dark patch under a giant lemon tree.
She bent down on her knees. The wind blew and the leaves shifted, letting a few rays of moonlight shine through.
There was a tiny tombstone under the tree. It didn’t have anything written on it, nor could you make out a grave beneath it. In fact, you might have thought that it was just another stone if it wasn’t for the flowers laid down in front of it.
“Someone very important to me,” she said.
Ah, her mother? Didn’t see her portrait up in the Inn. Guess now I know why. Only the living can get their portraits made.
“I see,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
The wind blew again and the moonlight dimmed. Only a single beam could make its way through.
“Ever since she died, I’ve been so lonely,” she said. “Family, friends, I didn’t talk to any of them.”
“I can understand that. I never wanted to talk to my family either. Never had any friends either.”
Until now, I thought, but I let that remain unsaid.
“Fuzzy’s made it easier but you’re the first person I’ve talked to in a long time.”
You should talk to your brother, I wanted to say, but since I didn’t know her situation, I decided to keep my mouth shut.
“Hey Runir,” she whispered.
“Please don’t go.”
“Sorry, but I have to.”
Silence fell again.
We stood there for hours, it seemed. She sat there, facing a tiny grave in front of a massive lemon tree while I stood respectfully behind her. The only ray of light that could get past the leaves struck her hair, bathing it silver.
She eventually stood up and apologized for keeping me awake so long. I told her not to worry about it and that she’d helped me clear my mind too. I went back to my room and went to sleep.
In the morning, we had breakfast at the Inn. Kai and Zoe were talking about something while Lily and Amy chatted with Sett. After eating our fill, we paid the Innkeeper and made our way out of the Inn. Although the road was blocked, we figured we’d come up with something after we saw how bad it was.
Since we were the only guests at the Inn, Sett decided to see us off.
“We don’t get a lot of visitors so come by again if you’re ever in the area!” he said.
“We’ll try,” said Lily, smiling.
“Well, this is as far as I go. Good luck!” he said, waving at us as he closed the fence.
“Thanks, you too!” said Amy.
“Give our regards to old man Seta too,” said Kai.
I turned to leave like the others but I stopped.
“Oh yeah, where’s the little girl?” I asked.
“Little girl?” said Sett. “There she is!” He was pointing at Zoe.
“No, I mean the little girl in the portrait upstairs. Your sister, Setsu.”
“My sister? Oh no, you’ve got it wrong. She wasn’t my sister, she was dad’s sister,” he said.
“Yeah, there was a war back when my dad was a kid.”
I felt my scalp go numb.
“She got hit by a stray fireball when the fighting reached the Corridor. Burned to a crisp is what my dad says.”
I stood there dumbfounded; my feet rooted to the ground. I recalled her words in my mind,
Ever since she died, I’ve been so lonely…
You’re the first person I’ve talked to in a long time…
…please don’t go…
A flicker of movement caught my eye, but it was just the wind rustling the leaves of the lemon orchid. It carried the sour fragrance to me, stinging my eyes and making tears fall out of them.
I turned away. The others had already left down the road, but I couldn’t help but look back one last time.
A homely cottage with a wooden sign reading “Firefly Inn.”
A still burning lamp hanging on a pole.
A vegetable garden with what looked like cabbages and pumpkins growing in it.
And a lemon orchid with small yellow fruit peeking out from within the leaves.
As I watched, a lemon fell from a tree and hit the ground, startling a tiny white fuzzball that jumped in fright.
Its hair stood on end and it looked completely unsettled, but then its eyes drooped and it started purring.
Like someone was stroking it.