“Wake up dear.” Someone shook me awake.
I groggily rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. The world slowly swam into view, wobbles and waves stilling as the ripples of unconsciousness died out.
Where am I? I thought. Damn it! I shot up ramrod straight. The Goddess. Runir. The smoke. Kai. Where –
“A lively one, aren’t you?”
I turned to face the voice, and saw a kindly old lady looking at me with an affectionate smile. Her apron was splotched with grease, and her oaken hands were full of calluses accumulated over decades of work.
“Where am I?” I asked aloud this time. “What happened…” I rubbed my forehead as a sharp pain shot through my skull.
“Careful, dear,” said the old lady. “You were hurt very badly when I found you. Worse still, you were mumbling in your sleep. Nightmares, I reckon.” She waved her spoon at me. “That’s what you get for swimming in the swamps, dearie. Full of nasty things, that swamp.”
“Been telling them to drain it for years,” she continued prattling. “But they say the evil spirits will escape. Flummery, I say. Scared themselves, those government pennies. One egg or two, dear?”
“Huh?” I voiced, staring at the bleached bones holding up the old lady’s hair.
“For breakfast, dear. One egg or two?” she repeated.
“Ah, one’s fine,” I replied, completely caught up in her pace.
“No, no, that won’t do dearie. You’re young, you need your energy. Besides, you’re recovering, you need the protein. Listen to Granny Nipa and you’ll be back on your feet in no time,” she said as she cracked two eggs over a frying pan, lit her stove with a spark-stone, and began frying two eggs.
As Granny Nipa bustled around behind the kitchen counter, I looked around the room. It was a cozy little room, with knitted sweaters hanging over the couch, and photographs framed and placed on top of the shelves.
“Did you find anyone else at the swamp?” I said, thinking quickly. Runir being the Demon Lord complicated things, but I still wanted to know where my friends were.
“Sorry dearie, seems only you were silly enough to jump into the rapids,” she said, speaking over the crackling sounds coming from the pan.
Shit, so now I’m lost too, I thought, as I inspected my body. Everything seemed to be in place, although there were some nasty bruises on my stomach.
Maybe it’s for the better, I thought, spitefully. Runir was the Demon Lord. The fucking Demon Lord! God, I feel so stupid.
I picked up one of the photographs on the shelf. A younger Granny Nipa greeted me with a warm smile, a little girl shyly burying her face in her clothes. Must have been her granddaughter.
Amy and Kai were no better, damn it. They obviously knew what he was, but they never told me! Hell, they could have at least told me to watch out for Runir. What if he’d stabbed me in the back to get rid of me?
I picked up another picture; this time the little girl’s face was visible, although her eyes were hidden by her long, navy blue hair.
Damn it, why did he have to be the Demon Lord? Tears trickled down my cheeks. It’s unfair, damn it! Why me? Why is it always me? First Rusty, and now Runir; why is everyone I love, always a fucking traitor?
“Breakfast’s ready dear, come wash your hands!” Granny Nipa called.
“Coming!” I said, wiping the tears off my face and replacing the photo on the shelf.
However, something caught my eye as I turned to leave. The last picture on the shelf was a simple one. Just one person staring into the camera. It was the little girl from the other pictures, somewhat grown up and with a wide grin plastered over her face.
Navy hair, rosy cheeks, and a mischievous light in her bright blue eyes; this was a sparky little girl. She reminded me of myself, or rather, she could have been me in another life. One where I hadn’t been born a street urchin, beaten to death after being betrayed by my best friend, or fallen in love with the Demon Lord who played me like a fool.
I walked into the kitchen and saw the tabletop covered with steaming hot dishes. The smell wafting through the air melted my mouth, but I checked myself immediately. I’d been betrayed twice. No matter how nice this old lady was, nor how delicious her cooking seemed, I wasn’t about to trust her so easily.
“Sit down dearie, I’ll be right over,” she said, bustling over the counter.
I pulled up a seat but didn’t start eating, warily eyeing the old lady as she searched for something in her cabinet. I’d already checked her Status as soon as I’d woken up, but there had been nothing strange in there. She was level four, although a note stated she had been level 16 in the past. Her Ability was a simple one: Porridge Queen, and its result were obviously not very threatening at all.
“Now where did I put it. Nipa, old gal, you’re losing it,” she wheezed before exclaiming in triumph. “Here it is!” She grunted as she picked something up and tottered towards the table. She put a glass bottle next to the steaming porridge on her side, breathed heavily, and smiled at me.
“Vintage scotch. Been saving it for a while,” she said. “You see, today’s a very special day.” She scooped up some porridge and dropped it on her plate, before doing the same for mine. Still wary but unwilling to seem rude, I took some of the other food on the table before the old lady served it to me. However, I didn’t eat a bite.
“Yes, very special day,” she continued, her voice petering out as she nodded solemnly. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day,” she whispered, creeping me out.
She didn’t say anything further, nor did she touch the food growing cold on her plate. Instead, she stared into the distance with her baggy, wrinkled eyes unfocused. It put me on edge, so I readied a magic spell just in case and held my breath.
She muttered something again, her eyes growing a little watery. But then she turned her face towards me, breaking from her trance.
“Why aren’t you eating, dearie? Your porridge’s gone cold. Dear me, children these days…” she said, shaking her head and tut-tutting.
I was just about to respond when there was a knock on the door. Granny Nipa’s eyes lit up as she heard the sound, and she frantically tottered over to the door.
“You came! Look at you, you little rascal, you!” came the old lady’s voice.
I tried to see who she was talking to but she was blocking my view.
“Oh, no! You look thinner than a toothpick! You haven’t been eating right. Dear, dear, what am I to do with you,” she rambled. “Come in, let’s get some meat on those bones. Your hair’s a mess too! Have you been combing it properly? You haven’t! Oh, how will you ever find a husband like this, dearie?” She continued to prattle for a while, commenting on the visitor’s clothes, shoes, height and who knows what else.
Finally, an exasperated voice cut through the tide of fretting. “I’m fine, granny. Can I come inside now?” It was a feminine voice, with a hint of childishness weaved together with the sternness of an adult.
“Of course, of course, silly me. The food’s ready, come join us before you go take a bath. You smell terrible,” she said.
The visitor sighed before following Granny Nipa inside.
“Oh, by the way, we have a guest, dearie. Little girl washed up by the rapids just like you did, all those years ago,” said Granny Nipa as she turned around.
“Picked up another tramp, huh,” said the visitor in an exasperated tone. “You know you don’t have the energy to take care of them like you used to.” She stepped out from behind the old lady, and I instantly caught my breath.
Navy hair, rosy cheeks, and bright blue eyes. This was the girl from the pictures! However, there was something very strange about her. For one thing, the spark in her eye was gone; replaced by a cold, analytic gaze. But there was something else too. Something I couldn’t quite place…
Her eyes combed through my appearance as she evaluated every aspect. I shifted uncomfortably, not used to being analyzed like bacteria in a petri dish.
She frowned a little, but then her face returned to normal and she smiled politely.
“Hi, I’m Fabar. Pleasure to meet you,” she said, extending a hand in greeting.
I grasped it firmly. “Lily, pleasure to meet you too.”
She smiled and took up another seat around the table. Granny Nipa sat on her seat, and continued to fuss over the girl. The girl didn’t seem to mind the old lady’s nagging as she smiled and nodded, and played along with the woman’s requests.
I didn’t even notice as our plates emptied, and the jovial atmosphere put me slightly at ease. I ate the meal but didn’t say much, keeping an eye on Fabar even as she ignored me. Granny Nipa opened the bottle of scotch, but Fabar wouldn’t let her drink, saying something about her liver and kidneys. She had a glass, and although she offered to pour me some, I declined.
“Now then dearies, it’s getting late. Off to bed!” said Granny Nipa.
“Ah, it’s okay. I should be going, I’ve bothered you enough,” I said, getting up from my seat. “Thank you for your hospitality, I’ll be sure to repay you in the future.”
“Nonsense, it was nothing. But dearie, you can’t leave now. There are no lights in the swamp, and you can’t take any torches because they’d blow up the gas! I don’t want to fish you out again, my hips ache too much already,” she said.
I looked out the window, and had to agree that I wouldn’t be able to find my way in the darkness. I finally agreed to share the night, but I had to share a room with Fabar. Granny Nipa came into our room just as I had snuggled under the blanket. She walked over and gently patted my shoulder and stroked my hair, and began humming a strange tune. Fabar was still in the bathroom, and at first I assumed that Granny Nipa was just waiting for her but then she started singing.
Little girl, little girl, don’t say a word,
Granny loves you more than, the whole wide world,
Little girl, little girl, don’t you cry,
Granny knows that one day, you will fly,
Little girl, little girl, fly like a bird,
Go and fly, all over the world,
Spread your wings, far and wide,
Toss your problems, to the side,
And if you get hurt, just you remember,
You can come home, just you remember,
Little girl, little girl, if you ever need a rest,
Just fly on back, to Granny’s nest.
Her guttural voice, and the simple, unsophisticated melody made it a little jarring at first, but soon I couldn’t help but feel as if a strange spell had been cast over me. A strange mix of nostalgia and longing overpowered me. I thought of the old lady at the orphanage back home, and how she’d sing us lullabies in the winter. Only in the winter though, mind you, to help us go to sleep in the freezing cold. But there was something different going on here. This was a real family, they had real bonds and real love for each other. Something I’d never experienced. Not with Rusty, Runir, nor anyone else.
Fabar had entered the room at some point, although she stood still in front of the door with her eyes downcast. Granny kept humming the song while patting my head. She stopped, ruffled my hair, and heaved herself up. She tottered over to Fabar, who was trembling visibly.
“Little girl, little girl, don’t say a word,” she sang, hugging Fabar. “Granny loves you more than the whole wide world.”
They stayed like that for a while. Fabar’s sobs muffled by Granny’s clothes.
“You came back,” whispered Granny. Fabar grunted in reply. They separated, Granny kissed her forehead, and left the room.
Fabar walked quietly into her bed and nestled under the blankets without a word. Her irregular breathing suggested she wasn’t asleep, but I couldn’t blame her for that. I couldn’t go to sleep either, partially because of everything that had happened today.
The Goddess who attacked us for no reason, that Saar girl working for Circle, Runir being the Demon Lord, and now my intrusion into this family. It was a lot to digest and kept me awake for hours. Eventually though, Fabar’s breathing evened out and my eyelids began drooping.
Just as I fell asleep, many images flashed inside my head. The Goddess’ smoke, Runir’s face, Kai’s hands, Amy’s robe, and the pictures on Granny Nipa’s shelf. The last picture, in particular, stayed stuck in my head. Navy hair, rosy cheeks, and a mischievous glint in her eye. It was a sparky little girl. She looked just like Fabar, except for the look in her eye.
My eyes shot open as a great weight pressed on my stomach. A hand covered my mouth, muffling my shout of alarm. I couldn’t see who it was, but I knew there was only one person it could be. The bright blue eyes staring coldly at mine, confirmed it.
“I don’t know who you are, and what you’re trying to do here, but if you hurt Granny…” hissed Fabar, as her hand curled around my neck. “You’ll wish you’d drowned in the mud.”
Silence, broken only by shallow breaths. I nodded. Her hand slipped off my mouth.
“You never grew up,” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
A sharp intake of breath.
“Your name isn’t Lily.”
My turn to hold my breath.
Damn it Lily, you dumbass. You were supposed to use your fake name!
“Now answer my question,” she said, pressing down on my stomach a little more.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be gone in the morning,” I replied.
Yet, a part of me wanted to stay. To forget everything and live with Granny forever.
“You don’t have to be so possessive, though,” I said, not knowing when to shut up. “I’m sure Granny loves you even though you left her for so long. And hey, wouldn’t it be better if someone stayed with her to take care of her. What if she got sick, or couldn’t cook anymore?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Hell,” I continued. “Would you even know if she died? Out here, in the middle of nowhere.”
She grabbed my neck and brought her face inches from mine.
“You don’t know anything, kid,” she breathed. “You know what. I’m not going to risk it. Can’t let a liar like you be around Granny for long.”
Something cold pressed against my skin. Something cold and wet.
Water magic? I thought, confused.
I checked her status again, and found no mention of water magic. In fact, her level and Strength should not have been high enough to pin me down like this. A sinking feeling in my stomach told me something was wrong. Very wrong.
What little light came in through the window reflected off a giant blade of water that swung silently towards my neck. I frantically prepared some magic to counter it but it was too fast, and too close, for me to dodge!
It struck, splashing me with a cold, wet feeling. But there was no pain.
The bright blue eyes blinked a couple of times, before narrowing once more. And then the little girl spat out in a venomous tone:
“Hero or Demon Lord?”