“Stop!” yelled a bald, muscular man with a scar on his cheek. The huge sword on his back had ridges and spikes jutting out of its flat sides. The man stood on the front porch of the rest-stop – a gloomy, triple storied building surrounded by a rotting wooden fence and a yard full of dried weeds. He glared at us and took three, large steps forward.
I met his gaze and prepared to read him, The Tempest fluttering wildly in the back of my mind. Ben put a hand in his pocket. Sally traced her pickaxe’s handle. Jerome reached for his belt buckle.
The bald man pointed a big, stubby finger at my feet.
I jumped back. Was this magic? Was he preparing to attack? Crap, I’d taken my eyes off him. Was that his plan all along? If he knocked me out while I was staring at the stony ground, the others could get caught in illusion magic like the kind Ulfric used!
“You dropped something.”
I stopped. What was he saying? It was a ploy to get me to keep my eyes averted from his figure, wasn’t it? Well I wasn’t going to fall or it. I forced my eyes away from the golden coin by my feet and fiercely met his flaming red eyes.
“Pick it up.”
It wasn’t the bald man’s voice. Did he have a friend? This voice sounded familiar, did we have a traitor?
“Pick up the coin, Val,” repeated Elenor as she tapped the back of my knee with her baton. Then she turned to the intimidating bald man. “Thank you.”
The bald man grunted in response, and turned around, releasing me from his angry glare. I exhaled. Ben scratched the back of his head, Jerome coughed, and Sally continued to caress her pickaxe.
“At least I’m not the only one,” I said, in a hushed tone no one else could hear. I picked up the coin and pocketed it.
The bald man went inside the building but we didn’t follow. The sun had only just begun its ascent and the air had that special early morning smell that made you want to go for a run with a flock of ducks. We walked past the rest-stop, pretending we didn’t notice each other glancing at the door with wary eyes.
We spent most of the day silent, trudging along towards Bass. Gravel crunched under my feet. Birds chirped in the distance. Leaves rustled in the breeze. The sun rose higher and higher, until our shadows vanished as if they had receded into our bodies. We stopped for a water break, saying nothing of importance.
I mulled over my conversation with Elenor but there wasn’t much else left to consider. I’d kept an eye on Sally, Jerome, and Ben, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Their reaction to the scary looking bald man was also within my expectations.
Clouds floated over the sun. We continued walking. The shrubs beside the roads gave way to a sparse blanket of dead, yellow grass. The stumpy trees were replaced by stumps, most of them so overgrown with fungi and rot, they held no hope of reclaiming their former glory.
The clouds passed and the land was flooded with light. The sunlight brought with it heat, and the lack of plants amplified the simmering temperature several folds. As the sun began to dip, the shadows lengthened. We huddled behind a large rock to have lunch – uncooked camcot berries, washed vegetables, and some leftover meat from breakfast.
“Will we reach the next rest-stop before nightfall?” asked Ben, finally breaking the suffocating silence.
“No,” replied Sally, inviting the silence to return.
My left leg cramped but I ignored it. I used to exercise every day, so a little discomfort wasn’t going to stop me. I almost tripped on a rock but I caught myself. These minor annoyances and setbacks faded from my mind within minutes. I had to keep walking. I had to get to Bendeck. I had to find Demetrius.
What was Demetrius doing? He came to this world as clueless as I was, yet he understood this world, its magic, its rules, far quicker than I had. After our meeting in Sett, I hadn’t caught wind of him once. Did he find a group of friends like I did?
He had to know I was looking for him, so was he trying to hide or did he not care if I found him? Even after understanding how to use The Cannon and The Tempest, I didn’t feel like I could defeat him. He probably chose the best books he could find in The House; his shelf would be envied by the richest of Headers.
The sky was red, orange, and gold. With no plants to block the view, I admired the sunset. I admired the aesthetics of the event but it was the poetry that spoke to me. So many authors loved writing about sunsets. They could be a romantic backdrop, a sign of encroaching darkness, a symbol for a waning life.
Or a sunset could be a sunset.
Life wasn’t as complicated as it seemed. Sometimes, turning off your mind and gazing at a sunset was good enough. That could be life. Simple, pure, and beautiful.
Yet, complexity begets simplicity. A red circle on the horizon against a pale blue canvass may seem simple from the perspective of a seventeen year old girl walking down a road, but behind that painting was a story, rich and complex, that couldn’t be captured by that image. The red circle was not a red circle, it was the sun – a giant ball of flaming gas that had overseen the entirety of human existence. The pale blue canvass was the sky we had tried to tame for so long, only to realize it was a blanket, a blanket we could snuggle under without worrying about the monster under the bed.
And the girl wasn’t an ordinary person. She was young, foolish, and naïve. She cut her hair when her mom told her to let it grow out. She read books in an age where books were obsolete and knowledge could be plugged straight into one’s brain. After finding herself in an alien world, this girl hadn’t moped around, she hadn’t questioned her sanity. When things went out of control, she always reminded herself that she was always in control of one thing: her own future.
This girl had ambitions, goals, dreams. She had hopes, fears, and concerns she couldn’t voice aloud. Sometimes she even wondered if she could voice them inside her head.
This girl was me. The picturesque scene had warranted some quiet introspection and I didn’t regret it. I felt like I had a better understanding of myself. Ever since I’d come to this world, I’d never really stopped to think like this.
Sure, I desperately wanted to retrieve the House of Wisdom and read all the books inside, but that didn’t mean it was all I wanted to do. I was in a new world, a world where people weren’t plugged into computer screens all day. It was a world where the sky wasn’t gray with fog, where the land wasn’t littered with plastic, and the sunsets were still pretty.
Elenor walked in front of me. The rhythmic tapping of her baton soothed me and it fit the scenery. She tapped a slow, regular beat, like a clock with long seconds. As always, it made the same noise regardless of how patchy and gravely the ground was.
Ben yawned. His pace was irregular, so he’d shoot to the front of the party, only to fall behind a moment later. It would have been entertaining if it wasn’t so repetitive and mundane. He could have thrown pebbles around but perhaps he didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere.
Sally walked in the middle of the road, taking long strides but pacing herself so she wouldn’t leave us behind. Her breath was the least ragged, her shirt the least soaked in sweat. Her eyes stared straight ahead and never flickered. When a bug buzzed around her ear, she snatched it out of the air, and wiped her hand off her thighs.
Jerome wasn’t fiddling with his inventions for once. In fact, he was the only one looking pensively at the sunset like I was. His feet followed the rhythm of Elenor’s baton, supplemented with Sally’s footsteps. The red circle floated in his black eyes. It was in his eyes that I saw the red circle get consumed by the horizon.
The sun was down and the shadows were up. We scrambled to set up camp. We had enough water to cook with, so all of us worked together to pitch the tents and light the campfire. As the fire crackled to life, Sally began chopping vegetables while Ben and I boiled water in the pot. Elenor tapped her baton on the ground. The campfire made her sunglasses mauve, like the color of Ben’s clothes. Sally had chosen them and there was no time for the dejected fifteen-year old to exchange them.
I stood up. The stars were out but the moon wasn’t. I walked to the edge of camp and stared into the darkness.
I recalled the gold coin that had dropped out of my pocket in the morning. I had money now, I could hire people to look for Demetrius.
But what was the point? They weren’t going to find him, he was too slippery. My only choice was tracing him with another Wonder.
Another Wonder. Would it be as amazing as the House of Wisdom? Was it going to be something lame like pyramid or a skyscraper? If it was another library, I could give up on the House. No, Demetrius would track me, wouldn’t he? He would want it too.
Why did I care so much about the Wonders, anyway? I had books. Although, I’d already reread The Cannon and The Tempest dozens of times since I absorbed them onto my shelf. I knew every medicinal plant, every blank verse. I was Ave, I was Prospero.
My body shook. A hand lay on my shoulder. The hand squeezed and left my shoulder.
“You alright?” said Jerome, a warm smile on his face.
“Yeah, just thinking about stuff.”
Jerome nodded. “I like doing that too.”
“What do you think about?”
The fire crackled behind us. No one spoke. Jerome and I were out of earshot of everyone, except perhaps Elenor.
I turned my gaze. Jerome’s face was hidden in shadows.
“I think about the past,” repeated Jerome.
“I’m thirty-four years old, you know. There’s a lot of past to think about.”
“Does it make you sad?”
“Getting old? Not really.”
“No, your past.”
“A bit. I have my regrets, of course. But hey, everyone makes bad decisions. Lie to a friend, steal some berries, stay up late, chase cats, light old men’s beards on fire.”
“It was. Almost as bad as sinking all my youth into useless stuff when fiddling was my true destiny.”
“Your inventions blow up, even the ones that aren’t supposed to.”
He chuckled. “They work when they need to.”
I recalled the coil I’d used to finish off Skinner. “I guess.”
“I heard this was your first time so far from home,” said Jerome, still facing ahead.
By home he probably meant Moxy’s hut. “Yeah.” Being in a different world definitely counted as far from home. “It is.”
“You’ve been handling it well. Don’t you miss home?”
“A little,” I said. “But home wasn’t nearly as exciting.”
“That’s probably true.”
I paused. “Jerome.”
“What does home mean to you?”
“Well, I was born in Bass, that’s the city we’re going to right now, but I was raised in Devel.”
“Sally was raised in Devel too, right?”
He nodded. “We’re childhood friends. We did everything together: steal some berries, stay up late, chase cats, light old men’s beards on fire.”
I chortled. “Nice.”
“Yeah, it was nice. We promised each other we’d join the guilds together, and then do missions together!”
I smiled. “Guess you kept your promise.”
“Yeah,” he said finally. “Guess we did.”
“Wait, wasn’t Sally in the military?”
“And I was in the Orange Hats.”
“That’s the guilds’ militia, right?”
“Why’d you join different organizations?”
“I don’t know. The Orange Hats offered better pay for fiddlers, the FAF promised retirement benefits to fighters. We don’t really need to take guild assignments anymore, we have the money and our ranks are about as high as they can go.”
“Then why do you take them?”
“Because they’re fun, and they keep the blood flowing and the mind whirling.”
It didn’t seem like he would sell us out to Inline for money. In fact, didn’t seem like he’d sell us out at all. I recalled my actions from earlier in the morning, and considered whether my paranoia had gone too extreme.
“Stop skulking!” yelled Sally. “Foods ready.”
I turned and walked back to the campfire.
“Jerome, didn’t you hear me?” shouted Sally.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Jerome as he joined us. “Just got a little lost in thought.”
The food was good and the night went by quickly. In the morning, we started walking again.
We crossed another rest-stop, this one a simple clay-brick building that couldn’t have fit more than ten people in it. We passed it by.
“Why are the roads so empty?” I asked, breaking the silence with a hushed whisper.
“I don’t know,” replied Sally, who stood next to me.
The others had no answers either. The lack of fellow travelers filled me with a sense of foreboding but I didn’t mull on it for long.
We spent the night outside again, although we could have made it to the rest-stop if we’d tried. The food was warm, the tents were cold, and the stars were bright. I didn’t have any other meaningful conversations until the city of Bass finally appeared in the distance.
“Finally,” said Ben.
“Are we going to sneak in again?” asked Elenor.
Sally turned to face us, her eyes resolute. “I don’t think we should go into the city.”
She probably expected objections, but there were none. The long journey had been tiring but we’d felt the tension build from the moment we left Devel.
Devel had been the city of optimism, where all evil had been swept away by a tiny helicopter-bird. But we could tell that Bass was different. There were no lucky animals this time. There were no jostling crowds to avoid.
There was only an eerie silence, one that promised an unhappy ending.
There was no reason to go inside the city. We had food, we had supplies, and we knew there was something strange in the air. We also knew Inline had an outpost in the city, and they would be looking for us. We would probably be arrested at the gate, dragged into a dungeon, and tortured to death.
But as the sun began to set, I recalled the painting I’d made in my head, of the red circle, the blue canvass, and the tiny little girl. I had goals, I had ambitions. I had things that I needed to do. There would be risks, but I needed to take them.
Demetrius could be in that city, the House of Wisdom tucked under his elbow. That was why I’d come here in the first place. This entire journey, wasn’t the whole point of it to find The House? I couldn’t let a single opportunity go to waste. I’d chickened out in Devel, and I didn’t have the means nor the will to do so in Chart and Sett.
But I was done being passive. I was done waiting for things to happen according to the script. It was time for me to go on the hunt.
I took a deep breath. “Let’s go sightseeing.”
Author’s Note: A nice, soothing chapter. It was very cathartic to write and I hope it was just as pleasant to read. I’ve been writing for a long time, and sometimes it feels like there isn’t much of a point to it. The story ebbs and flows, and whether I’m the captain or the vessel is uncertain. All I know is, I enjoy putting words on the page, even if it screws up everything else in my life.
From now on, we will be moving to a simple daily schedule. Two chapters a day isn’t enough for me to be satisfied with what I put out anymore. It was fine in the beginning, but now I need to think longer, harder, and in more ways than normal. I hope you’ll stick around for the journey, regardless! ^-^
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