“Want some more?” asked Moxy.
“Thanks, but I’m good,” I replied, setting aside my plate, and popping the last piece of bread into my mouth.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked, her back to me as she put away the dishes, and cleaned the strange triangular stove she’d used to make breakfast.
“Glad to hear.” She finished cleaning up and sat down in front of me. There was another empty chair to my right behind a plate of eggs and a loaf of bread. Moxy looked at the untouched food and frowned. She yelled, “Elenor, come down already, your food’s getting cold.”
“Be there in a second,” said a voice from upstairs. I’d already been surprised by how big the hut was from the inside, but after accepting that I’d come to a new world, a little space-bending magic wasn’t going to upset my sensibilities.
“Right, a little advice for the journey,” said Moxy, leaning closer. “Since you don’t have any burn marks, you should pretend to be from Clef. No offense, but Epilians aren’t very well-liked around here.”
“No offense taken, but couldn’t I just get some burn marks?”
“The people of Fore don’t have just any burn marks, their burn marks are very specific, and they’re tied to their social class, and city of birth. So unless you have campfires on your cheeks, you won’t pass as a local in Sett.”
“I see.” Branding citizens? This new world was already making me uncomfortable.
“Sett’s the closest city, by the way. You take the forest path out the Broken Woods, and it’s a few hours walk to Sett. Elenor will get you into Sett using my name but you’ll want to find a way to get into the other cities. I recommend a caravan.”
“Where’s the guy I’m looking for?”
“He’s in Bendeck, the capital. You’ll need to go through four other cities first; Sett, Chart, Devel, and Bass. Once you get to Bendeck, go to the Black Kettle Bar at midnight, the guy’s taken a shot of Coldwyrm there every night for twenty years.”
So specific, I thought. But what if someone else was taking a shot of this Coldwyrm or whatever? I needed more to go on. “What’s his name?” I asked.
“What does he look like?”
“Black hair, blue eyes, about six fingers taller than you. If you can’t find him, just ask the bartender for help.”
“Got it,” I said, when I heard a knock behind me.
“Finally,” said Moxy. “I thought I’d have to go up there myself.”
“Sorry,” said the voice I’d heard yesterday as I heard another knock from the stairs. “Yesterday was exhausting, what with the Flaxxers going into heat, and the Flopflappers migrating for the summer.”
“I told you, you didn’t need to run the experiments,” said Moxy as a figure stepped into view.
“Yeah, yeah, but you would’ve complained about it the next day, I know you Mo,” said the brown-haired girl wearing sunglasses. She tapped the ground with the large metallic walking in her hand, and turned to face me with a big smile on her lips. “And you must be –”
“Jean,” I said, getting up to shake her hand. “Jean V. Forster.”
“Mas,” she said, shaking my hand with one hand as she put her stick against the table, and fixed the red pin in her hair. “Elenor Mas Cramer.”
“Jean, honey,” interjected Moxy. “Like I said, you need to pretend to be from Clef. Elenor and I don’t care because we’re Humanists, we’re shunned by society too, but you really don’t want to be known as an Epilian around here.”
“Oh right,” I said. “Sorry. The name’s Valkyrie, Jean Valkyrie Forster, but you can call me Val.”
“What a lovely middle name! Make sure to introduce yourself properly from now on.”
Elenor had already sat down, and was about to finish eating her breakfast. She tapped the plate with her fingers while eating, humming a quiet tune that I couldn’t hear. The light from the glowing moss that lit the room reflected off her sunglasses.
“So you’re an Epilian?” asked Elenor between mouthfuls.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, committing to the convenient explanation of my origin.
“What’re you doing all the way here?”
“Looking for someone. He stole a book from me.”
“Damn,” she said. “That sucks. I hope you get it back.”
“Thanks.” I found this world’s love for books incredibly heartwarming. Both Elenor and Moxy had expressed so much concern for the stolen book, something the people of Earth would have never done.
“Alright,” she said, picking up her dishes.
Moxy moved to the sink and grabbed the dishes from Elenor. “I’ll take care of the dishes. You two get going. And Moxy, take the travel pack in the closet, we haven’t heard from Sett in a while so it’s best to be a little prepared.”
“Got it, Mo,” said Elenor, tapping over to the closet, and swinging a backpack onto her shoulders.
“Right, take care honey,” said Moxy, waving a hand in the air as she washed the dishes. Elenor walked to the door but I hesitated.
“How long have you two known each other?” I asked.
“I’ve raised her since she was a baby,” she replied, not turning around.
“Come on Val,” said Elenor from outside.
“Hurry along now,” said Moxy, her voice lower than usual. “You don’t want to be stuck out there at night. I’ve given Elenor all the supplies. Also, I left a fresh pair of shoes for you by the front door.”
I looked at her back, she wasn’t even pretending to wash the dishes anymore. After another call from Elenor, I left the hut. I threw off the one shoe I’d been wearing before, and slipped into the leafy green sneakers with little Ms on them, that were leaning against the wall by the front door.
“Finally,” said Elenor, tapping her stick. “Let’s go.” She started walking toward the edge of the clearing, and I followed. As she reached the dense thicket of trees, she tapped them with the orb on top of her stick, and the trees dove to either side, making a path that stretched into the horizon through the green sea. I was far enough down the rabbit-hole to be unsurprised by this, but not enough to be unimpressed, so I let out a whistle.
“So do you know where that person is?”
“Huh?” I said.
“The person who stole your book.”
“No, but Moxy, your uh…”
“Mentor, step-mom, whatever.”
“Yeah, she had a lead that I’m following right now. It’s where we’re going.”
The trees swung back into place as we walked further down the path.
“Oh, so that’s why you’re going to Sett.”
“Yep, then onto some other cities she mentioned. Chart, Devel, and Bass, I think. The guy with the info is in Bendeck.”
“You’re going all the way to Bendeck? You’ll need a good guide for that.”
“I have you, don’t I?”
She chuckled. “I’ll put in a good word for you at Sett. A few guys in the Fighter’s guild owe me a favor or two, should knock off a few Inketts from their charges.”
I frowned. “You don’t –”
“Don’t mention it,” she interjected, tapping her stick on the ground, and walking as briskly as ever. “Mo took a real liking to you for some reason, kept talking about you for hours last night. I haven’t seen her that excited in years, this is just my way of repaying you for that.”
A booming roar rang through the air, sending flocks of pink birds flapping away.
“Raxxers,” said Elenor before I could ask. “Don’t mind them, they get a little loud when they’re in heat. Nothing to worry about though, they’d never hurt a bumblefly. Not unless you attack them first.”
“What were we talking about again?”
“Guides. Look I’m sorry but I feel like we’re not on the same page here.” I stopped and faced her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, tapping her stick in my direction without facing me.
“When I asked Moxy for her help, she asked for a favor. She wanted me to take you with me.”
She leaned her stick forward while pressing its tip into the ground. “To Sett?”
Elenor turned swiftly, and tapped her stick on the ground. The forest path stopped closing for a moment but then the trees slowly began gliding back into place. Elenor rushed forward and hit the trees with her stick. They didn’t budge.
“Mo! What the hell are you doing?”
The vines hanging from the branches above her uncoiled, landing on the ground with a loud thud.
“Open the path, now, or I’ll never speak to you again.”
The vines flopped around on the ground.
“What do you mean that’s alright with you? When I get my hands on you –”
A single vine separated from the bunch and began tapping the ground in a pattern. I watched quietly, both because of the strangeness of the event and because there was a distinct solemnity to the occasion.
“No, I will not. I’m going to go to Sett, get a pinch of Tinpin, and cook up your potion for you.”
The vine tapped.
“Why are you doing this? Why would I even want to go to Bendeck?”
“I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me. You know it’s never mattered to me.”
The other vines slithered back into the underbrush.
“No, no, I’ve never thought about them for a second. You raised me, not them. They can go to hell for all I care!”
Elenor cut a pitiful figure standing in front of a wiggling vine, tapping the ground with her stick – in frustration, I reckoned, because she wasn’t walking anywhere. I couldn’t see her face because she had her back to me, but I could see the frustration in her arms.
“No, I… you’ve been reading me, haven’t you?”
The vines tapped furiously.
“Don’t lie to me. You promised you wouldn’t do that. You promised!”
This time the vine didn’t tap on the ground. Instead, it slithered forward and gently knocked on Elenor’s shoes. She kicked it away.
“You know what, fine! I don’t need you. You’re a liar, and an ass!” She turned away, face lowered to the side away from me, and began stomping away.
The vines stood up, and after seemingly looking at her for a while, they turned towards me, and nodded politely. I nodded back.
“Come on Val, let’s go. We aren’t welcome here anymore.”
The vine – in all its inanimate fauna-ness – seemed to shudder, as if it had been cut from its roots. The tip in the air leaned forward before stopping, lifting the leaf on its head towards Elenor’s furious figure, then slinking back into the decomposing leaves and splintered twigs that blanketed the forest floor.
As we left the forest, the path no longer closed behind us. Perhaps we were on a public path now, instead of the magical forest path from before. Or maybe we had been severed from the fantastical parts of the forest after Elenor’s exchange with the vine. Either way, the overburdened trees and the tepid, humid air were no longer as oddly welcoming as before, having taken on a distinctly normal feeling that seemed incredibly out of place in this world of wonders. Now we were just two teens walking through the woods.
The woods eventually gave way to open plains, and empty roads leading to a city just barely visible upon the horizon. Elenor walked five steps in front of me, a distance she maintained by furiously tapping her stick and increasing her gait whenever I tried to walk up to her. She didn’t stop once we left the forest, but she did pick up her stick and refuse to tap during the last few paces when we had trees to our sides. She eventually brought it down on the crumbling stone road that the dirty, somewhat grassy forest trail gave way to, a few feet from the edge of the forest.
We walked the rest of the way to Sett silent, save for the rhythmic tapping of Elenor’s stick on the pebbles along the road. Somehow, it always seemed to make the same sound despite the unevenness of the road.
It was only when the walls of Sett began to loom, and a throng of travelers started to coalesce around us that I noticed a whimper in the rhythmic tapping of Elenor’s metallic stick, and a crack in her otherwise steely breathing.