“Are you sure this is where the rings were found?”
“And why are we trusting that person again?”
“The guard who told you where the rings were found,” said Kai, as he dusted off his robes for the umpteenth time. “Why are we trusting them so easily?”
“She had no reason to lie,” I replied, dusting off the dust he’d dusted onto me. “You’re more irritable than usual, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he mumbled, under his breath. “I don’t like this place. That’s all.”
“I can sympathize with that. This isn’t the most pleasant place on Erath,” I said quietly, the somberness of our surroundings weighing down on me.
We were walking through an empty wasteland. The scarred, craggy ground was devoid of all life, yet it wasn’t a desert or some other naturally dreary and lifeless place. The vestiges of once-flourishing flora and fauna could still be found under bleached stones and in isolated crevices. The dried-up husks of old trees and shrubs, animal footprints preserved in clay, and empty riverbeds that snaked across the land, drew the outlines for a long-forgotten picture of a faded land.
But there was something more sobering than that. Craters gouged into the earth, rocks stained with splotches of pale red, and decrepit graves scattered about, all signs of what this place was most famous for.
But the worst part was…
“This isn’t even the real thing,” said Kai, finishing my thoughts.
A gust of wind sent our robes fluttering about. In front of us lay the most dangerous place in the world. Dangerous not because of any environmental dangers like in the Wastes, but because if you found yourself here at some point in your life, chances were, you would not be getting out of here alive. More people have died here than on any other place on Erath. More blood has been spilt here than on the rest of Erath, combined.
Waves crashed against the shore, spraying the air with a salty mist. A giant bridge stretched out of sight. In the distance, a caravan slowly trudged its way along the seemingly never-ending road.
“So, they found the rings here,” said Kai, his eyes locked onto the bridge.
“Yes,” I replied. “At the foot of the bridge, to be precise.”
“I’ve been here before,” said Kai. “But there were a lot of people here, back then.”
“Yes, this is usually a bustling trade route. Although people rarely talked to each other. A consequence of the eeriness, I suppose.”
“There’s usually a tent in front of the bridge with military men checking documents and collecting tolls.”
I nodded. We didn’t discuss it any further, knowing full well what was on the other’s mind. There could be only one reason why there were no travelers on the bridge. However, the absence of the military tent was perplexing.
I scanned the area for any houses or buildings, and found a little hut nestled behind a rock, a stone’s throw from the bridge’s first pillar. Further away, the caravan had stopped in place, presumably to rest. Kai noticed the hut too. We exchanged glances and ran up to the hut as fast as we could.
“Halt,” came a loud voice from within the hut. Kai and I stopped in place.
“State your name and business.”
“I’m Ken and this is my sister Tulip, we’re looking for someone. Could you help us find them?” said Kai, loudly.
“This area is under lockdown by orders of His Majesty the Demon Lord. Only people bearing the Demon Lord’s seal may approach the bridge,” said the voice.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Kai, rummaging inside his robe. “We have the Demon Lord’s seal right here.” He lifted a piece of parchment and unfolded it.
The door to the hut opened and a disheveled old man tottered out, knocking his walking stick on the ground as he made his way toward us. His eyes were wrapped in a dark cloth that went around his head, and his robes were dirty and reeked of sweat. He approached Kai, grabbed the piece of paper with his other hand, mumbled something under his breath, and shoved the paper into Kai’s hand.
“Right, go on ahead,” he said, turning his back to us.
“Wait!” I said. “Have any little girls gone past here, by any chance?”
“Wouldn’t know even if they had,” grumbled the old man. “Now get going before I change my mind on letting you through.”
“But–” I began, but Kai raised a hand to cut me off. He looked at the old man walking back to his hut, and signaled for me to follow him. The two of us followed the old man to his hut, apparently without him noticing us, and looked through the door.
The hut was barely furnished, with a single raggedy old rug lying on the dusty floor. The old man hobbled over to the rug, sat down, and summoned a gust of air to shut the door in our faces. Kai raised an eyebrow and stood still, thinking about something. He dismissed the thought with a shrug and walked away from the hut, toward the bridge. I followed him wordlessly but snuck a glance back at the hut. Oddly, I managed to catch a couple of voices coming from the hut that certainly did not belong to the old man.
Having found no trace of Lily or Zoe near the hut, we went up to the caravan to ask for help. It was a large caravan, with around fifty donkeys and other pack animals carrying large bags and pulling carts full of ores and metal trinkets. We were stopped by the caravan’s guards, but Kai convinced them to let us through with a flash of his paper. We asked around for their leader, and wound up in a line outside a makeshift tent in the center of the caravan. We were the last in line so we occupied ourselves by gathering some more information.
We were told that the caravan was carrying supplies ordered by the LeAgua company but that it operated under the direct command of the Dark Kingdom’s government. The Demon Lord himself had ordered that they take these supplies to the LeAgua company despite the ban on trade that the Demon Lord had mandated a few days ago.
Hearing this, Kai and I exchanged a meaningful glance, confirming what we’d suspected ever since the old man in the hut had mentioned the Demon Lord.
“At least we know that Runir is safe,” said Kai, when there was no one within earshot.
“That cunning little devil isn’t worth worrying about,” I said. “It’s the other two we need to find.”
“Oh, come on, admit it,” he said, chuckling. “You were worried about him too. You’re too nice to not worry about everyone.”
I sighed, knowing that he was right. I’d been worried about Runir, and finding out he was safe had taken a big load off my chest. However, the two I was most worried about were still missing so the knot in my stomach was still quite tight.
“Next,” beckoned a hoarse voice from inside the tent. Kai and I entered, pushing aside the thick, hempen cloth. Light filtered through the walls of the tent, shedding a dull red glow onto the interior. A candle flickered near the far end of the tent, where a tiny, elderly person lay curled up on a bunch of cushions. Bones that stuck to a thin layer of pale, spotted skin, hair so thin and wispy you almost couldn’t see it, and eyelids that drooped well over their eyes; it was a wonder this person was still alive, let alone leading a caravan, in that condition.
“Welcome to Madame Rasmene’s caravan, how may I help you?” she said while drawing in a raspy breath.
“I’m Tulip and this is Ken,” I replied. “We were looking for our friends and saw you passing by. Have you seen any little girls around here? One should be about as tall as me but obviously younger, and the other comes up to my waist.”
The Madame nodded slowly, taking a few more raspy breaths before reaching for a tube lying by her side. She gingerly put it in her mouth and inhaled deeply. She put it down somewhat more firmly and scrunched up her faded eyebrows.
“I remember picking up a girl wandering around these parts. Don’t know what she looks like because I never saw her but she should still be out there somewhere. Lunch is about to start soon so everyone will gather around my tent. I’d recommend searching for her then,” she said, before taking another whiff from her tube.
I looked at Kai and he smiled hopefully. We thanked the Madame and left the tent. After asking around for a bit, we found out that there was still around an hour until lunch so we decided to search on our own until then. Kai went down one end of the caravan while I went down the other, intending to meet back at the Madame’s tent for lunch.
A little boy rose into the air, cackling with laughter as his father tossed him up and caught him. A couple sat under the shade, snuggling up to each other. Donkeys and magical beasts grazed together, tethered to makeshift fenceposts. The people in the caravan drank without a care, laughed with each other and, surprisingly, didn’t seem to be perturbed by the blood-soaked land they were traversing. Observing the younger members of the caravan playing with the horses might make one forget that the busiest trade route in the world was virtually deserted.
Something brushed past my foot, startling me badly enough to make me lose my balance and fall. I rubbed my head and pushed myself up, only to see a purple cat licking itself next to my feet. It looked at me intelligently, stopped licking, and trotted towards a couple of barrels covered with a tarp. Something rustled underneath the tarp, and a hand emerged to pet the Hell Kitty. A familiar face peeked at me.
“Hello, I hear you were looking for me,” said Clare, the girl we’d met back in the Fire Kingdom.
“But I wasn’t looking for you?” I blurted out.
“Yes, you were,” she insisted. “I heard some strangers asked this caravan’s leader about me.”
“Oh,” I said, my heart sinking. “You’re the little girl they picked up.”
“Wow, now that hurts. I didn’t expect you to be excited to see me, but outright disappointment? That’s harsh,” she said, letting the Hell Kitty curl up in her lap.
“Sorry, it’s just that –”
“You’re worried about your friends, yes,” she interrupted. “The Hero and the Demon Lord, correct?”
I frowned. How did she know-
“If you’re wondering how I know, you can thank Kai for that,” she said, interrupting my thoughts.
“Kai?” I said, totally thrown off by this little girl with a cat. Kai wouldn’t blabber about our identities like that.
“Yep,” she said. “Ask him about me sometime.” She leaned forward. “Then tell me afterwards, I like hearing what he thinks about me.”
“Uh, sure…” I trailed.
“Thanks. In exchange, I’ll tell you two very important things, okay?” she said, but began speaking before I could respond. “First, you don’t need to worry about looking for your friends anymore!”
Her words struck me like thunder. Did she know where they were? Or maybe she knew they were dead? Or –
“You see, if you stay here.” She gestured to the ground. “Right here on this bridge. Then they’ll come straight to you!”
“That’s right,” she said in an excited tone but with an expressionless face. “The Hero and the Demon Lord are going to war again.”
“In the Light Kingdom. Of course, I’m not sure if she’s made it to the Palace yet. The Demon Lord has a very big head start on her, I’m afraid. In fact, she might not have an army by the time he sends the orders to march.”
“Wait what –”
“Doesn’t help that Origin’s sown chaos into the Fire Kingdom, which is where the Union gets most of its warriors from. The LeAgua company’s been acting sluggish too, probably because the Water Goddess has been missing for so long. I heard she came back, though, so things are picking up pace again.”
“How do you –”
“We’ve been over this before, haven’t we?” she said, looking me straight in the eyes. “If you really must know though, then it’s because of my Ability. I say this because you’ll probably arrive at that conclusion as soon as you Appraise me.”
Her Status popped into my vision just as she said that.
One who defies death? What kind of title is that? Starry skies? That Ability sounds…
“Right, time for advice number two.” Clare stood up, appearing right in front of my face, and making me fall on my back again. I could’ve sworn the Hell Kitty sniggered, but it might have been my imagination.
“Can you stop –”
This entire conversation had been incredibly confusing but for some reason, something clicked and I was finally on my feet again. Only figuratively though, I was still sitting on the ground.
“No,” she whispered. “Not really.”
“You’re lying, you do know,” I said, standing up slowly.
“All I know,” she said, taking a step forward. She was short; barely reaching my shoulders, yet she pressed herself against me and glared at me without changing her expression once. “Is that you are a terrible, terrible Goddess.”
The Hell Kitty hissed. Clare stepped away, then walked off. The Hell Kitty followed, tail upright.
“I also know,” she continued, as she disappeared behind the sea of tarps and tents. “That you are a good person. A very, very good person.”
I met up with Kai and told him I’d found the girl but that she wasn’t Lily nor Zoe. Disappointed, he told me he’d suspected as much. However, he perked up when I told him that I’d heard that the Hero had been spotted in the Light Kingdom. We bid the Madame farewell and left the caravan behind as we raced across the bridge.
Terrible Goddess, good person, I thought, as the surroundings became a blur. Can’t deny that.
I could still hear one thing though:
The waves crashing against the shore.