We had to camp under the night sky, twice, before we reached the rest-stop.
“That should be it,” said Jerome as he pointed to a ramshackle mud-hut in the distance.
The road in front of the hut was empty, unlike the road leading to the rest-stop between Sett and Chart. The hut itself was larger than any hut I had ever seen, standing at least three stories tall despite looking like it was about to collapse under its own weight at any time. If this wasn’t a magical world, I wouldn’t have felt safe going in there.
“Are you sure?” asked Ben.
“Here, take a look,” said Jerome as he let Ben see the compass and map in his hand. I was standing between the two of them so I got a look as well.
The compass looked like any old compass from a museum back home. Glass cover, pointy metal needle, and the four cardinal directions. I could confirm that the hut in front of us was to the East, and the sun was to the West of us.
I stared at the map. It showed Sett, Chart, Devel, and Bass on the same major road, with the capital city Bendeck far to the East. There were no other towns or villages in between, with the only other markings on the map showing the rest-stops between the cities, and a blacked out part labeled ‘Broken Woods’ to the West.
The map only showed the country of Fore, but it did label the desert to the South the ‘Indent Desert,’ and an arrow pointing South of the desert said, ‘To Clef.’ To the North of Fore was another blacked out space title simply ‘The Ocean,’ which also wrapped around the Eastern edge of the continent of Illustair.
“This does seem like the place,” said Ben.
The rest-stop we were walking towards was labeled ‘Villa Serenity’ on the map, which was why we were having a little trouble reconciling ourselves to its appearance. However, the sun was approaching the horizon and we were tired of sleeping without a roof over our heads. I was especially looking forward to taking a bath, since dipping into streams wasn’t enough to clean the grime on my knees.
We approached the front of the hut and found a sign with ‘Villa Serenity’ lazily scribbled onto it. Sally opened the door and I crinkled my nose at the musty smell that came out. A bell rang, signaling our arrival.
The inside was dim, with a candle burning on a window ledge. The window itself was so dirty it blended into the dirt walls. There was a counter at the back of the room, and I could barely make out some tables and chairs scattered across the rest of the room.
There were other people here. A disheveled middle-aged man sat behind the counter, smoking a pipe with his legs on the counter. A couple of men sat on the chairs closest to the candle. The older one had a scraggly grey beard that hid his mouth, and the younger one was bald. Both wore the same outfit – leather shirts and brown pants – and their cheeks had the water droplet signs of Devel on them.
Sally stopped and cast her gaze at the men by the candle. Jerome stepped up instead and led us to the counter.
“Hi, how much for a night?” asked Jerome.
“Ten inketts for a single, twenty for a double, thirty for a triple,” replied the man behind the counter, without getting up.
“Give us a triple and a double then, please.”
“That’ll be fifty inketts.”
Sally hit the counter with her hand and said, “Hey dumbass, don’t try to shank us without meeting our eyes.”
“What did you say?” The guy pulled his feet from the countertop and leaned into the candlelight.
“I heard you’d come to this dump, but you’re still here, Skinner?” Sally smiled.
“Sally?” said the guy, Skinner. “Sally, the bloody miner, Josef. The hell you still doing with that pickaxe?” He lowered his voice while looking over at the couple by the candle. “And did ya have to be so loud?”
Sally leaned over the counter. “Course I still have the pickaxe. Not all of us can afford to leave the guild to go live off a dead aunt’s estate.”
Skinner chortled. “What estate? I got stuck with a bloody inn in the middle of nowhere. Nobody even comes here after they built the other road.”
“They built another road?” asked Jerome.
“Yeah, just a few miles North of here. It cut travel time by a day so they didn’t even need to make a second rest-stop.”
“Must have built it recently because I’ve never heard of it.”
“Yeah, just finished it a couple of months ago. Now what can I get for ya?” Skinner opened a cabinet and pulled out a dirty glass bottle. “I have some 1643 Cleffan wine, straight from Straf. We have some ale in the back drawer, and a little whisky that I wouldn’t recommend to the kids.
“Just the rooms, Skinner,” said Sally. “How much?”
“For you?” Skinner smiled. “Sixty inketts.”
“You still owe me for that rescue at the bandit’s Den.”
“That was five years ago! Besides, I saved your sorry ass too, didn’t I?”
“I never asked you to.”
“Neither did I.”
“Fine,” said Skinner as he wiped the counter with a dirty rag that only made the counter dirtier. “Fifty-five and I’ll forgive you for that sword you broke when we first met.”
“You beat me up for that,” said Sally.
“You deserved it. It was my favorite sword.”
“You know what, fine,” said Sally. “We’ll sleep outside. Come on guys.” She motioned for us to follow her out.
“Alright, alright,” said Skinner. “Fifty?”
“Come on, you know I’m not getting any business here. Cut me some slack.”
“This is still an official rest-stop, don’t you get a subsidy from the government?”
“Yeah, but that’s barely enough for some beer. Can’t expect me to drink beer.” He almost spat that last word out.
“Thirty-five,” said Sally.
“Forty-five,” he said.
“You were supposed to say forty!”
“No, no deal!” Skinner threw the rag to the side and rummaged under the counter. “You know what, fine. Take em for forty. But you’re paying extra for breakfast.”
“I wouldn’t want to eat anything you cook anyway, Skinner.” Sally chuckled as she grabbed the keys from the grumbling Skinner.
“Not going to take us to our rooms?” said Sally.
“Screw off,” said Skinner as he sat on his chair and plopped his feet onto the counter again.
I couldn’t see what he looked like because of the low light, but I caught a glimpse of his face as Sally lead us to the stairs.
His black hair was pulled back over his head, and a short, cropped beard ran just under his lips. His eyebrows looked like someone had painted tiny lines on lumps above his eyes. His black shirt was ripped in numerous places, revealing a dirty yellow shirt beneath it. The air around him reeked of the strange cigar he was smoking.
There was nothing surprising upstairs. Our rooms were at the end of the corridor, next to the stairs that led up to the second floor. None of the rooms I’d crossed seemed occupied, and the floor was covered in dust.
There was a bath on the other end of the corridor. Elenor went straight for it so I waited in our room with Sally. Sitting on the bed, I tried to rub the dirt off the window but it was caked from the outside too. We lit the candle with a match from the matchbox on the dresser.
At least this world had matches. I was wondering how far technology had advanced in this world. If they had so many books from our world, it made sense for there to be more inventions around. Yet, I hadn’t seen any electric lights or cars, so far. Maybe the Header’s kept them in their part of the cities.
“Is that guy your friend?” I asked, looking for something to talk about.
“Yeah, Skinner and I ran a few assignments together. He was one of the best fighters we had in the guild in Devel. Amazing with a sword, that guy. He could’ve sliced the specks and boomers from a couple of days ago all on his own. That was before he lost his hand, though.”
“He lost his hand?” I said.
“Yeah. Don’t tell him I told you that. He likes to hide it under those tied up sleeves.” Sally sat on her bed. “We never should have taken that assignment. Fighting monsters is one thing, but fighting people is completely different. The guild thought it was just bandits, but those assholes from Inline were involved.”
“Inline?” I’d heard that name before.
“The government’s secret police. They’ve got their nose in everything from Sett to Epil. Nothing good happens when they’re involved. The bandits were bait. Inline thought there were Project Poppy members in Devel’s Fighter’s Guild so they were going to kidnap us to extract some intel.”
Damn, that sounded terrifying. “But you escaped?”
Sally laughed. “Escaped? We beat their sorry asses into the ground! I must have smacked a dozen of them into the air myself. Course, we couldn’t kill them or we’d be rounded up for execution. Only reason they didn’t send any more of them after us was because we ran back to the guild as fast as we could. Once the old farts on top found out what Inline had done, they made such a fuss the Official himself apologized.”
“But what happened to the people who tried to kidnap and torture you?”
“Nothing, probably. They might have gotten reprimanded for failing but nothing’s ever gonna happen to someone from Inline. They’re the government’s most powerful combat force. Their existence alone keeps people from joining Project Poppy.”
“Is Project Poppy really that scary?” I asked, remembering old man Ather from Sett.
“I get what you’re saying,” said Sally pointing towards me. “The government shouldn’t be able to use that excuse anymore. The Project’s been dead for years. People come along claiming to be members but they’re all posers, none of them have the sign. Inline has no reason to exist anymore, other than putting down any Collars or Cheeks who step out of line, of course.”
I recalled Ather and the Shop. Despite seeing a guy go in and out of the Shop, I felt like what Sally said made sense. Ather had seemed tired, defeated even. I couldn’t picture him fighting the government or causing trouble.
“You don’t seem to like the government much, Sally.”
Sally leaned against the wall and looked at the ceiling. “They’re a bunch of lickers who won’t come down from their tower to look at the people they’re supposed to be working for. They spend all their time bickering about which Header family gets to run which industry without a care for how those industries work or who the people working for them are. Bah!”
She put a pillow under her head. “I shouldn’t be talking about politics so much. None of it matters, anyway, and it always annoys people.”
“What annoys people?” asked Elenor as she entered the room.
“Nothing,” said Sally. “Just talking politics.”
“I guess that can be annoying. I don’t mind, though. Never had to deal with much of it in the woods.” Elenor was drying her brown hair with a cloth while tapping her foot while walking. She’d left her stick and her glasses in the room.
I saw her eyes for the first time, they were grey and at first glance, didn’t seem particularly different. It was only when they rolled over me with no hint of recognition that I noticed she didn’t have any pupils. She put her glasses on as I stood up.
“I’m next,” I said as I left for the bath.
It was a simple bath, with a few buckets aligned against the wall and a drain in the corner. There was a bar of hard, yellow soap that I tried to clean myself with, but I couldn’t find any shampoo. The bar of soap was unscented but it did help me clear the grime that had accumulated over the exposed parts of my body.
It felt good being clean again. I wished I could change my clothes too, but I only had one set. I decided to buy some in Devel, another addition to the long list of things we needed to acquire in the next city.
I left the bath rubbing the water out of my ears. My hair was short so I didn’t have to worry about drying it the way Elenor had to, but I wanted to dry it out quickly so I could go to bed early.
I heard a whisper. Turning around, I saw the two men I’d seen sitting by the candle downstairs. The grey-bearded one was talking to the bald one in a hushed voice while looking at me. I kept my eyes on them as I crossed the hallway, and told Sally to be careful on her way to the bath.
“I don’t like this place,” I said to Elenor as Sally left the room.
“I agree. Something feels strange but I can’t quite tell what it is,” said Elenor. “Worst of all, my magic doesn’t work very well with these walls. I can barely tell what’s happening in this room.”
“Guess we’re keeping watch again, tonight.”
When Sally came back, she told us the men had disappeared. She offered to take first watch but Elenor suggested Sally take the second because she wanted to check something with her magic.
I went to sleep fully anticipating another nightmare. If I wasn’t going to have a scary dream in a spooky hotel in the middle of nowhere, there must be something wrong with the universe.