Episode 7 Scene 5

It was raining. We’d caught up to the storm.

Water splashed as my feet crashed through a puddle. The mask shielded my face from the rain but my hair and body were soaked. Ben and Elenor weren’t faring any better. After the incident with the statues, we had lost a lot of time and felt the need to push through the storm instead of waiting for it to pass.

Ben estimated Jerome and Sally would be reaching Bendeck soon, assuming they went over the road – which was unlikely. This meant they were probably already inside.

I ran a hand through my hair and a drop of water formed on my forehead. It trickled down my nose and onto my lips. The trail of water was uncomfortable. I lowered my head, took off my mask, and rubbed my face with my wet hands.

Gray eyes stared back at me. My reflection rippled as water droplets dripped from the sides of my head and fell into the puddle. My face was distorted but my gray eyes stared back at me, unwavering.

I kept the mask off.

Elenor tapped her baton on a puddle but there was no splash. Instead, the water trembled, and only rippled from the raindrops. I walked a little faster because I’d fallen behind. Ben wiped the water off his face and shielded his eyes with his hands as he peered into the distance.

“I can see it,” he said, his voice loud enough to cut through the din of heavy rainfall.

I squinted but I couldn’t see anything except for grey skies, muddy fields, and rain. I didn’t feel the need to use The Tempest, despite the appropriate weather. Instead, I followed Ben’s lead.

We took shelter under a gnarled tree, which stood alone in an empty field. On the horizon, a mountain jutted out of the ground like a tooth.

“That’s Bendeck?” I asked.

“What do you see?” asked Elenor.

“A mountain.”

“It’s called the Hill,” said Ben. “It’s the most important place in all of Fore.”

“I’m guessing it’s where the Headers live?” I said.

“That’s right. All the big shots. Heads of all the major families, military generals, landlords, and of course, politicians.”

Politicians, I thought to myself. I’d always found this world’s political situation odd. Despite having a strict social hierarchy, it would sometimes feel like a liberal democracy from Earth. Even if the electorate was skewed, it was still a somewhat democratic setup.

They probably didn’t let Cheeks or Collars run for office, which was why there could be a bunch of career politicians inside the tiny Header community. The parties themselves seemed more inclusive, or at least the Side Party did. They seemed to let Cheeks and Collars manage things to a certain extent. Then again, perhaps the other parties wouldn’t organize a rally like Gecko did in Chart.

“But that’s not why it’s the most important place in Fore,” continued Ben.

“There’s something more important than Headers?” I chuckled, dryly.

“Look.” He pointed to the Hill.

I squinted and noticed something strange. The mountain was unnaturally symmetrical, it must have been carved by people. Like any normal mountain, it became thinner at higher altitudes. However, the peak was different, it was bigger than the tip of the mountain.

There was something on the peak. A building of some sort. A palace, perhaps?

“That,” said Ben. “Is the Senate.”

The Senate. That must be the parliament the parties wanted to control.

“That’s where all the bigshots are?” I asked.

“Yep, all the representatives from the cities, foreign dignitaries, and the Official himself, have offices inside the Senate.”

“Why is it on top of the mount- the Hill?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Doesn’t that make it easier to attack?”

Ben chuckled, then he giggled, and then he broke down into laughter. I was surprised, Ben wasn’t the kind to laugh so hard he wouldn’t reply to a question.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Attack the Hill?” he said, still fighting his laughter. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

I frowned. “Why? Project Poppy said they were starting a war, didn’t they? If someone with long distance burnt magic showed up, they could attack the Senate from a lower point on the Hill. Hell, they could blow up the tiny base of the building and send it falling.”

Ben started laughing again. I felt a strong urge to punch him but I couldn’t muster the energy. The air was humid and walking through the rain had drained me.

Elenor put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t mind him.” She poked Ben with her baton.

“Ouch!” he cried. He rubbed his arm, barely managing to stifle his laughter. “What was that for?”

“Don’t laugh at her just because she doesn’t know how big the Hill is.”

I squinted at the mountain city. Now that I thought about it, it was probably huge up close. The space between the Senate and the rest of the Header’s district was substantial, too.

Still, Ben’s reaction was a little extreme. My knowledge of magic was limited, but all the burnt magic I’d seen so far was incredibly powerful. Maybe there were some limits I didn’t know about, perhaps no magic could work outside a certain distance, but I felt like magic in this world couldn’t have those kinds of universal rules.

After all, magic came from books. Books were too different, too diverse for limits like distance or power to apply the same way to every magic.

“That’s not it,” said Ben as he glared at Elenor. “It’s nor its height that stops people from attacking it, nobody has ever even tried to attack the Senate.”

“Why not? That would be the fastest way to bring down the government. If that’s what Project Poppy wants to do, they must have tried to attack the Senate,” I asked.

Ben shook their head. “It’s not just the government up there. The opposition sits there too. Then again, Project Poppy didn’t care about the official opposition in the Senate before Gecko Ross took over the Side Party. Still, they’d never dare attack the Senate directly.”

I frowned. I still didn’t get it. On Earth, attacking the parliament was the way most revolutionaries and dictators tried to take over the government. From Fawkes to Napoleon, if they didn’t try to blow up the parliament, they at least threatened to do so.

“First,” continued Ben. “There’s the fact that only Headers can get into the Hill, and no Header is about to take down the government. Gecko Ross was a special case, an outlier. I haven’t heard of any other Header willing to oppose the government in any way, beyond tiny disagreements of course. And trying to hit the Senate from the Cheeks or Collars districts on the ground is impossible.”

I guess there weren’t any long distance magics that could hit that far.

“Second, there’s a magical shield around the Hill, and another shield around the Senate. No bombs, arrows, or rocks could ever get through.”

“Hey, that sounds like people have tried to throw stuff at them!” I remarked.

“No, the government boasts about the impenetrable Senate all the time. They like to show off.”

“Ever think it was a ploy to stop you from trying?”

“Nope.”

How could he be so sure?

“The third and most important reason is: not only do Inline and the Fore Armed Forces have their headquarters there, which means its full of the most powerful magicians in the world, the Official himself is there too.”

“So?” I asked. The Official was like their president. So what if he was in there? If anything, that should make it more enticing. You could take out the president, the parliament, and the heads of the army and secret police, all in one go!

Ben blinked. He opened his mouth then closed it. “So?” he repeated. “So? What do you mean, so? He’s the Official. The Official!

“That doesn’t mean anything. Just because he’s the most powerful person in the country doesn’t mean he’s the strongest person too. He’s a politician, not a soldier.”

Ben shook his head. “I really want to laugh right now, I really do. But I can’t. Goddess, this is tough. Don’t tell me you two don’t know about the Official? Every kid in Fore grows up hearing stories about him. That’s the way it’s always been.”

I furrowed my brows. That’s the way it’s always been?

“The Broken Witch doesn’t like history lessons,” said Elenor. “She says they’re boring.”

“She must have been shy, considering how prominently she features in those history lessons,” said Ben. “Did you ever ask her about the Official? Or about Fore? This country, and how it came to be the way that it is?”

“No,” said Elenor. “Never crossed my mind.”

Ben cursed. “Fine then, it’s time for some education. Listen up, kids.”

“Elenor, hit him with your baton again,” I said.

“Sure.”

“Don’t! Okay look, I’ll make it simple. Who founded Fore, around one thousand, six hundred, and sixty-six years ago?”

“I don’t know,” said Elenor.

“Me neither,” I said.

“It was the Official, the Official!”

“So the first Official made the country,” I said.

“No, I mean yes. But that’s not the point!”

“Then what is it? You said you’d make it simple!”

Ben grit his teeth. “I am! Damn it, why don’t you understand.”

“Why don’t you make it easier to understand?”

Ben yelled, “One thousand, six hundred and sixty-six years ago, the Official made the country of Fore. And that Official, the first Official, the only Official, is the same man who sits on top of that mountain, the one we call the Hill, inside the building on the peak, the Senate. Does that make sense? Is that easy enough to follow?”

He breathed heavily. The rain continued to pour.

“Oh…” I said.

Elenor stood silently, leaning against the tree trunk.

“He’s been alive for almost two thousand years. He’s run the country forever. He carved out its boundaries through war and conquest way before any of his opponents were born. The only people who would ever dare to attack him directly would be the President of Clef or the Goddess herself! Gecko Ross, Project Poppy, all they’ve ever tried to do was threaten the system enough for the Official to grant them some concessions. That’s it. That’s all anyone has ever tried to do.

So now do you get why I was laughing at you? Why the idea of attacking the Senate is the dumbest, most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard? I’ve grown up hearing stories about the Official and how he can make his enemies explode at a glance, flip continents with his fingers, and make the world spin on a whim.

They say he was blessed by the Goddess Bit herself, and became her champion. They say he owns one of the most powerful books in all Illustair: one of the six Wonders that are the origin of all magic in the world. They say he killed the Epilian God Static. Think about it: he killed a god.

The Front Party has never lost an election. That isn’t because they’re the most popular nor because the Headers’ votes are worth more than the Cheeks’, it’s because the Official runs the Front Party, and nobody wants to make him angry.

Bit may be our goddess, but I’ve never met a person who venerates her more than they do the Official.

Most people love him. The rest respect him. All of them fear him. He hasn’t shown himself to the world in centuries but nobody has forgotten him. We can’t. Even now, nobody says his name lightly. They always praise him the way I just did, make sure his name hasn’t been uttered in vain.

He’s the king who isn’t a king. The immortal who isn’t immortal. The god who isn’t a god. He’s the most powerful man in the world.

Suigon Flecht, the Official of Fore.”

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(END of Season 1) Note: Thank you so much for sticking with the story so far! With this chapter, season 1 is over. I intended for this season to lead up to Bendeck, which will be the scene for season 2. I’m already looking forward to it!

But first, I need to address some things. I really messed up my upload schedule near the end of this season. I apologize for the delays, and hope you can forgive me. Although it was pretty tough to write around three hundred pages in a little under two months, I could have done more to give you the experience you deserved!

However, writing takes time, effort, and mental energy. I don’t want to half ass the next season. Therefore, the next season will come in the next season i.e. Winter. I know it’s a long wait, but I feel it’s necessary to ensure the quality of the series remains where it is. I have a ton of things planned for the next series but the details have to be worked on, the words have to be typed, and the themes need to be examined a few more times.

So yeah, thanks so much for your support and feel free to hit me up with a private message or comment, because I’ll check those periodically.

See ya soon!

Episode 7 Scene 4

A giant mountain touched the empty blue sky.

There were no clouds but the sun hid behind the mountain, giving the mountainside a dull, grey color. A dense forest stretched into the far distance in the East, while smaller mountains ran to the West. The faint sound of running water told me the river lay beyond the forest.

“At least nobody’s following us,” said Elenor as she tapped her baton on the ground.

“Are you covering our tracks?” asked Ben.

“Of course.”

There was no path, not even a game trail. We picked our way through the shrubbery and wild grass. Elenor raised her hand and we stopped. I was about to say something when Elenor pointed to a bush.

I narrowed my eyes and read the tiny green serpent that had blended into the bush. It was even swaying in the breeze, in sync with the leaves. The snake froze and information flooded my mind.

“Sasper. A tiny serpent that camouflages itself inside leafy bushes and trees. Injects victims with magic toxins that immobilize prey within seconds, regardless of size and species. For reasons unknown, its victim’s bodies become green after death.”

We walked slowly around the Sasper, making sure to give it a wide berth. A part of me wanted to stomp on it, especially because it lay prone in the aftermath of my reading, but I decided not to risk it. Ben and Elenor could have taken it out from a distance, but chose not to, so they must know something I didn’t.

I asked them about the Sasper once we’d left it behind.

“There was no reason to,” explained Ben.

Elenor nodded. “It’s not like you could extract the venom or sell any part of it.”

Snakeskin purses weren’t a thing in Illustair, I noted to myself.

We took a short rest at the base of the mountain. The mountain’s sides were steep and crumbly, and there was a deep ravine between the mountain in front of me and the ones to the West.

“There’s no reason to climb the whole thing,” I said.

“We should skirt around the edges, going as high as we can without climbing it with our hands,” said Ben.

I nodded. It would make the journey a little longer but it was safer and less tiring. We could make up for the lost time by walking faster.

“Actually, the quickest way through might be over there,” said Elenor, tapping her baton in the direction of the ravine.

“Do you know how deep it is?” I asked. We would waste a lot of time going to the other side, especially because the mountain was too steep and crumbly on that side.

“Not much, just a few dozen feet. It’s a straighter path to Bendeck than climbing the mountain and the drop isn’t very steep. We could walk on it.”

I shook my head in amazement. Elenor’s magic was ridiculously effective for this sort of stuff. However, it wasn’t like her magic was foolproof.

“What if there are a ton of monsters down there?” I asked. “We don’t know if the other side is climbable, either.”

“I think we can handle most monsters, and if a dangerous one appears, we can use your reading ability to incapacitate it while we run,” said Elenor.

“She has a point,” said Ben. “It’ll be easier than climbing the mountain, and shorter than skirting around it. Let’s give it a try.”

I relented. After snacking on some wild camcot berries, we made our way to the ravine.

The mountainside was sharp, with rocks and boulders poised to roll down into the chasm below. Like Elenor had said, the ravine didn’t have a steep drop, so we could walk all the way to the bottom along a winding trail of crumbling dirt. This was probably the result of several landslides.

The bottom of the ravine was dark and lifeless. The mountain hid the sun, and the sky wasn’t bright enough to light up the dry soil and spiny plants beyond a dreary shade of black. It would get better as the sun reached its zenith, but for now, we had to trek across the barren landscape while watching our every step.

Everything was silent. Even the air was still in this place. I could hear the echoes of our breathing and the thumping of my heart, as if these sounds had been amplified inside a recording studio. The end of the ravine wasn’t in sight, but judging by how far the mountain went, it couldn’t be that far ahead.

It had taken us a day to get to the mountain, and it would hopefully take us less than a day to pass it. I didn’t want to be stuck in that ravine during the night.

Sunlight never came in, even after hours of walking on the barren, desolate ground. I looked up and saw why. Thick clouds blanketed the sky, prolonging and intensifying the darkness that covered the ravine. The clouds looked heavy with rain, which would mean mud and mudslides. It would be best to get to high ground before the heavens burst.

We didn’t speak while we crossed the ravine. Sometimes Ben would juggle a pebble, sometimes Elenor would miss a beat with her baton, but usually, it was the same pattern. We breathed, our footsteps fell, Elenor’s baton tapped the earth, breathe, walk, tap, breathe, walk, tap. Over and over again under a veiled sky.

Elenor skipped a beat, probably lost in her thoughts or she could have noticed movement somewhere. I glanced at her and saw the frown on her face. She rarely made facial expressions so I stared at her.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked her before I could.

“There’s something up ahead,” said Elenor in a quiet voice. “Something I can’t see with my magic.”

I surveyed the empty land in front of me. It seemed like more of the same, an endless stretch of grainy topsoil and weeds. But I focused, reading every bush and bramble. Elenor’s burnt magic was incredibly overpowered. She had seen all the way down the ravine from the foot of the mountain, could identify people for miles around, and could even cause shockwaves with her control of sound. For her to be unable to see something, it had to be extraordinary.

The horizon had a dot on it. As we approached, it grew to be a dark hole in the hitherto unbroken ground. The hole wasn’t very big and since the sun was still covered by clouds, I couldn’t see inside it at all.

We stood on the edge, looking down at the abyss.

“What is it?” I asked.

The Tempest was already fluttering in the back of my head as I played Ben’s character. Yet, even with his deductive skills, I couldn’t figure out what lay inside the hole.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s worth finding out,” said Ben as his eyes skimmed the hole’s perimeter.

I followed his gaze and my heart skipped a beat. The hole’s edges were curved, as if someone had carved them with a scalpel. Looking at it as a whole, it seemed frighteningly close to a perfect circle. A perfect circle of darkness.

“Val, can you read it?” asked Elenor.

I tried focusing on the hole, on its edges, on the bottom I couldn’t see, yet nothing happened. “No,” I said. “I can’t read it at all.”

Then the clouds shifted and the sky brightened up just a bit. Under the pale sunlight, I could barely make out the insides of the hole.

It wasn’t very deep. If I jumped in, I could pull myself out with my own hands. However, I wouldn’t dare jump in for real. I had goosebumps on my arms and a single bead of cold sweat trickled down my back.

At the bottom of the hole, lay a ring of statues. They were old and decaying, covered in moss that shouldn’t even be able to grow in that godforsaken ravine. All the statues were different. Some were old men, others little girls. Some were tall enough to almost reach the top of the hole while some lay virtually buried under the earth.

The soil inside wasn’t the grainy, arid kind I was standing on. The ground near the statues teemed with life. Grass grew in tufts along the statues’ feet and insects crawled on stony faces.

The statues’ faces were so lifelike, it was as if real people had turned to stone. The various emotions frozen on their faces also suggested the same. Some were happy, some were sad. A few of them were crying while others clenched their teeth and glared at me.

I met one of their gazes. It was a tall, slender youth. He wore a stony robe and hair that didn’t stick out much. I shivered as I looked at him, because the smirk on his face was so arrogant, so full of self-confidence and playful mockery, I almost became angry.

I wanted to punch that guy in the face. That’s what you did to people with smirks like that. I had to take him down a notch, show him he wasn’t as amazing as he thought he was.

The nerve. A statue smirking at me! My blood boiled and began breathing heavily. I took a step forward.

Then I clutched my head in pain.

Static filled my head, along with a high-pitched whistle. It ended and I gasped for breath. The first thing I noticed was how precariously close I was to the edge of the hole.

The next thing I noticed, was how close Elenor and Ben were to jumping at the ring of statues. Elenor had a wistful expression on her face, with sunken, drawn out cheeks, and quivering eyebrows. Ben had a giant smile plastered on his face, but his eyes were about to overflow with tears.

I grabbed Ben’s outstretched hand and flung him back. I lunged at Elenor just as she jumped into the air. I clenched my fists around her leg, stubbing a finger as I pushed her to the side. My foot slipped and the ground beneath me crumbled.

I slid. Rocks and gravels rubbed against my clothes, and even the high-performance clothes Sally had bought for me couldn’t fight against the friction as my left thigh was rubbed raw.

I coughed and blinked the dust out of my eyes. I glanced behind me.

I had stopped right in front of a statue. It was a statue of a little girl. Her eyes were wide and vacant. She couldn’t have been older than ten. A strange cat curled around her shoulders. This cat had several eyes and even as a statue, I could tell it had a silky coat of fur.

I looked away from the statue, and scrambled to my feet. Elenor’s voice vaguely registered in my head as her figure appeared over the edge of the hole. Ben appeared beside her and he stretched an arm into the hole.

I grabbed it and he pulled me up.

I collapsed onto the ground, breathing quickly and irregularly. I gulped some saliva that had caught in the back of my throat.

“Val! Val, are you alright?” asked Elenor as she put her hands on my shoulders.

I nodded because I couldn’t speak. The little girl’s gaze still flashed in front of my eyes, filling me with dread.

“We should get out of here,” said Ben as he helped me onto his shoulders.

Elenor led the way with her baton, never looking back once at the hole of darkness. Ben stared resolutely ahead as we stumbled away from the hole.

But I couldn’t help myself. I glanced over my shoulder for a split second, unable to resist the phantom of the little girl’s stare.

There were no faces. All of them had turned their backs to me. Even the little girl and her cat weren’t looking at me anymore.

The phantom in my head disappeared and I regained some calm. My breathing smoothed out and I kept staring at the statues out of curiosity, not compulsion.

What were they and why were they here? Could this be linked to one of the Wonders? I couldn’t let an opportunity like this slip by. I needed to investigate. If there was even the slightest chance that they were related to the Wonders, I needed to seize the opportunity immediately.

But first I needed to regroup. Ben and Elenor were in no shape to deal with those statues right now, and I couldn’t just go rushing back into the middle of the ring with no plan.

In fact, I couldn’t rush anywhere because my legs felt like jelly.

Right, plan and prepare. I would calm my nerves, gather some more information, then confront the ring of statues again. Calm down, plan, and prepare. That’s what I had to do. No big deal. I could do this.

As I glanced away, I caught something the corner of my eye. The ring wasn’t perfect. A single statue stood just out of line, hidden from my sight by a couple of larger statues who stood too close together.

This statue had a young face, a young face with a sad smile. His gaze was calm. When I met it, I couldn’t help but catch my breath. His eyes sparkled with minerals, unlike the dull grey stone the rest of his body was made from. Its eyes looked like a sky full of stars. For a moment, I even thought I caught a golden streak run across it. Probably a trick of the light.

We left the ring of statues behind. It took two hours for us to calm down and collect our wits. It took me another hour to convince them to go back. We got into an argument but I eventually won. This time we knew what to expect, so we could handle it. Just don’t look into their eyes, and don’t let your thoughts wander.

The clouds were gone and sunlight lit up the whole ravine. The storm had passed without bursting over us. In the brightness, what had been a desolate wasteland now showed signs of life. Insects wriggled beneath the soil, greener plants poked through the dead weeds, and a few birds began to peck at the ground.

It bolstered my confidence. I felt like I could face the statues and their trials. The sunlight galvanized Elenor and Ben too, as they didn’t seem as opposed to returning to the hole. In fact, they were anticipating it.

We kept walking while retracing our steps. Elenor tapped her stick and Ben looked for signs in the ground. After a while, I frowned. I used The Tempest and Ben’s character to inspect the area on my own.

Footsteps. Signs of our passing. I followed them until I realized I was too far away from the center of the ravine, which was where the hole had been. I backtracked, focusing intently on the ground.

Eventually, I noticed something odd. The footsteps I was following, my footsteps, which had been facing North, suddenly faced South on the next step.

Elenor stood next to me, tapping her baton on the ground, her eyebrows furrowed. Ben had followed different signs that led him to the same place. I crouched and dusted off some topsoil.

It blew away in the wind.

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Episode 7 Scene 3

“Screw the revolution,” said Ben.

“Should have said that to their faces,” said Camry.

“They ran away before I could.”

I stood in the basement, several hours after Sally and Jerome had left. They had been too fast for the rest of us to stop them. It was almost daytime but the curfew was still in place, so there would be no crowd to mingle with, but there would be a lot of light to help the patrolling guards see us.

“Should we try to follow them?” I asked Elenor. Both the finders were with us, so tracking them would be a simple matter. Whether we could catch up to them, was a different question.

She shook her head. “Let them go, they didn’t make this choice lightly.”

That was true. I felt close to Jerome and Sally, they were some of my closest friends in this world, and I was sure the feeling was mutual. We’d gone through a lot together, so their decision to leave us behind while they went to Bendeck alone must have been a tough one.

Besides, they’d left behind Ben.

I glanced at the red-haired boy. He was sulking in the corner, without his usual thoughtful demeanor. He’d been unwilling to leave Sett with us at first, but now he was objecting to being left behind. He wasn’t just friends with Jerome, he was Jerome’s apprentice, entrusted to him by Ben’s previous master and foster father, Postick. Even if Elenor and I couldn’t be considered part of their team, they should have at least taken Ben with them.

Then again, that just proved how serious the situation was. From what I could make out of their cryptic conversation, Sally and Jerome were going to throw themselves into the middle of the conflict. I also finally knew why Jerome knew so much about Project Poppy: he was a former member. Or at least, that’s what their conversation implied.

They weren’t going to be working together, although they were probably on the same side. I didn’t know what Sally was going to do, but it seemed like Jerome was going to work with the Orange Hats – the guilds’ militia – who Camry had said had been rounded up by Inline.

I felt the cold mask on my face. Going to Bendeck with this on would be suicidal. The government would pounce on me, and if they saw I didn’t have any signs, they might think I was Epilian or a rebel Header trying to run away.

But I had to go. I was too close to give up.

“How far is the capital?” I asked no one in particular.

“Around five days by road, a little less if you go off the road,” answered Elenor.

“Why is it faster to go off-road?” I asked.

“It’s faster if you cut through the mountains. The roads circle around them, near the river by the foothills. It’s shorter but building a road there is tough, and it’ll be hard trekking through it, too.”

“It’ll be harder to track us, though. Alright, let’s go through the mountains.” I faced the door.

“Don’t go,” said Ben.

“Why not?”

“Sally and Jerome were right, it’s too dangerous. The situation should be resolved in a few days. This isn’t the first time the Project has tried to stir up trouble. Things always settle down quickly,” said Ben.

“I can’t afford to wait,” I said as I stood up.

“Why not? The guy you’re chasing wouldn’t be stupid enough to go to the capital in the middle of this mess,” said Ben.

But I wasn’t looking for him in the capital, I was chasing a lead to a Wonder. Demetrius could afford to wait, but I couldn’t. Besides, I felt like Demetrius wasn’t going to let a civil war interfere in his plans.

According to Static, Demetrius was being guided by Bit. He already had a head start and the gap between us was only widening.

The thought made me frown. I hadn’t given much thought to what Demetrius was doing while I chased him. He couldn’t know about Henry, the guy Moxy told me to meet in Bendeck, but Demetrius could have found another lead to the Wonders.

In fact, the whole reason I was searching for the other Wonders was so they could lead me back to the House of Wisdom, so Demetrius was probably using the House to track the other Wonders. He might even be after the same Wonder I was!

I looked around. Sally and Jerome had left most of the supplies and gear here, wanting to travel light and to help the kids deal with the next few days. All the stores and markets were closed, so I couldn’t take the kids’ food.

I’d just have to make do with whatever I found outside.

“Thanks for the hospitality, Camry,” I said. “Is it alright if I go out the way I came in?”

Camry nodded. “I’d rather you stayed but I won’t stop you from leaving. Thanks for coming, Val. Be careful.”

“Stay safe,” said Idel.

Olive glanced at me but didn’t say anything. Betsy gave me a quick hug and said, “Could you tell uncle Jerome and aunt Sally to come visit more often?”

“I will.”

“How will we avoid the guards?” asked Elenor.

I smiled. I was glad she was coming along. “Make sure they don’t see us, and if they do, take them out.”

“Sounds foolproof,” said Ben, dryly.

“Got any better ideas?” I said.

“Yes. You ever hear stories where people throw pebbles to distract giant monsters, then rush through?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s do that.”

“You’re going to throw pebbles?” asked Camry.

“Don’t doubt my pebble throwing abilities.”

“How’s that going to help us leave the city?” I asked.

“You’ll see, come on.”

We went upstairs. Only Camry came with us, while Idel made sure Betsy and Olive didn’t follow. Elenor tapped on the back door and signaled that the coast was clear. I peeked out.

The dusty roads were empty but the sun was shining brightly. The air was dense with silence, suffocating silence. There were no guards on the walls, but one would probably appear soon.

Ben stepped out, picked up a pebble, and juggled it with one hand.

“You should stay inside, Camry,” he said as he clenched the pebble in his fist and pulled his hand behind his shoulder.

Camry peeked out like I had.

Ben chucked the pebble then waved hurriedly for us to run. I grabbed Elenor’s hand and followed him, hugging the wall and crouching to stay as hidden as I could. There was a loud crash in the distance, one that couldn’t have come from a tiny pebble.

I heard footsteps above us as guards raced towards the sound.

“What did you do?” I asked in a hushed voice as we continued to run.

“The outer walls aren’t very well kept. All you have to do is apply the right amount of force in the right places, and whole chunks of it will collapse,” he said.

I looked over my shoulder. There was a sizeable hole in the wall near the edge of my vision. I saw tiny figures running towards the hole, leaning out over the edge to judge how much damage had been done. They were probably scouring the area for the culprit. They’d end up blaming the Project, just another senseless act of terror by Project Poppy.

“It’s here,” said Elenor.

We stopped. Ben bent down and dug into the earth. The soil gave way and the tunnel appeared. I was the last one to step inside. I cast a glance at the city behind me.

The air was still quiet. I couldn’t see the guards from here, but they were probably raising a ruckus near the hole. Camry and the other kids were underground like most of the other Cheeks in the city. Was it different in the Headers district? Most Collars couldn’t afford basements, so was their district full of life or were the people more subdued because of what was happening in the country?

I crouched down and crawled through the hole.

I shook the dirt off my clothes as I came out the other side. The skull was still standing on the pillar of earth Jerome had left for it when we first came through.

“Won’t they see us running across this open field?” asked Elenor as she tapped her baton on the ground.

“What else can we do?” asked Ben.

“The Collars district is outside the city. Can’t we walk onto the road from there?” I asked.

“They’ll be guarding the Collars district and the road too,” said Elenor.

“Then should we wait for nightfall?” I asked, biting my lower lip. We should have stayed with Camry for the day.

“Well, there is one thing we could do,” said Elenor, slowly.

“What?” I asked.

“The river’s that way, right Ben?” she said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Do you know how to swim?”

I grew up in Fenbay. They taught us how to swim almost as soon as we learned how to walk.

“Yes,” I said.

“I’m not very good at it,” said Ben. “But I won’t drown.”

“That’ll have to do,” said Elenor as she shuffled along the perimeter of the wall.

The river appeared a few minutes later. I could barely make out the Collar’s district in the distance. The river itself was murky, probably full of waste and human refuse. Clumps of dirt appeared sometimes, pulled away by the powerful current.

“There’re people above,” whispered Elenor while she tapped her finger on the wall.

The guards didn’t move. They were probably told to keep a watch on the river. Although we could hide ourselves underwater, they would notice us splashing into the water. We needed a distraction.

“Got any more pebble tricks, Ben?” I asked.

“None that could help us in this situation,” he said.

I frowned. My books wouldn’t be much help either.

Tap.

I glanced at Elenor. “Any ideas?”

“There is something I could try, but if it fails, we’ll be found out for sure,” she said.

It was the best choice we had. “Go for it.”

Elenor stopped tapping the wall. She grabbed the top of her baton and brought it to her lips. Her fingers grabbed it like a flute and she took a deep breath, then blew.

A familiar tune began to play. It was an old song, one I’d heard on Earth. Back when my grandpa was still alive, he used to play it on one of his ancient machines, something called a CD Player. I remembered sitting next to him on a rainy afternoon, listening to his squeaking rocking chair while lamenting my inability to play with the neighborhood kids because of the weather. He’d tried to talk to me but I’d ignored him. In the end, he pushed a button and listen to the song.

I was never particularly close to my grandpa, nor to any of my family, for that matter. Yet, hearing this song made a layer of sadness drape over my shoulders. I couldn’t shrug it off.

The song promised that the world was a beautiful place, full of trees of green and clouds of white, red roses too under skies of blue. It was a whimsical song, naïve and hopeful. I couldn’t take it seriously, not when it talked about rainbows and laughing children. It was corny. It was cringeworthy. And it was old as all hell.

Worst of all, it was a lie. A sweet, sweet lie, but a lie nonetheless. The world wasn’t wonderful. It was full of sadness, pain, and loneliness.

My shoulder shook and I blinked.

“Jump,” hissed Elenor.

I heard a splash. I didn’t move.

Ben cursed and grabbed me by the arm. I rushed into the cold water, smooth Jazz still playing in my head. There were no cries of alarm from above. Ben pulled me forward underwater but I slipped from his grip. I swam forward, squinting my eyes in the murky depths. I could barely make out Ben’s figure in front of me, but I could see that he was struggling.

This time, I grabbed his arm and pulled him forward. He began struggling, so I helped him surface. Peeking from the surface of the river, I filled my lungs and glanced back at Bass.

We’d surfaced in the shade of a tree, so I wasn’t worried about the guards spotting us. The walls were far away, and I could only barely see the Collar’s district in the distance.

Elenor surfaced beside us. Muddy water dripped down her glasses, and her brown hair stuck to her head.

“How far does this river go?” I asked, between breaths.

“To the ocean,” replied Elenor.

“Does it go to Bendeck?”

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t it be faster to follow this?”

“No, it curves around the mountain and runs along the road. We’d be found at some point.”

“So we have to go through the mountains after all?”

“Yes.”

I thought for a moment then nodded. I took a deep breath and prepared to go underwater again. We should put some distance between us and the city.

“Wait!” cried Ben, who was still gulping for air.

“Oh, my bad,” I said.

We waited for Ben to catch his breath before diving back in. I kept close to the surface and surfaced once I thought we were far enough away.

I dragged my soaking wet body out of the river and caught my breath. It was only then that I noticed I was wearing my mask. I’d gotten so used to wearing it, I hadn’t questioned the lack of water splashing onto my face.

Ben lay sprawled on the ground, breathing furiously. Elenor pulled herself out of the river and tapped her baton on the ground. I shook my clothes, then took off my robe. Elenor did the same. We went off to the side behind a tree and began to dry off as best we could.

“Where’d you learn that song?” I asked, as I scrunched up my robe.

“It’s one of the books I read. The second one, to be precise,” Elenor said, wringing the water from her hair.

Had she read the sheet music or something? “Was that burnt magic?”

She shook her head, sending drops of water my way. “No, it’s unburnt magic. The baton lets me play it, but all my magic does is tell me what notes to play.”

An interesting way to work around unburnt magic’s inability to affect the outside world. The music definitely effected my state of mind, and it lulled the guards into not noticing us.

“I see.”

“Why were you asking?”

I cursed. I couldn’t tell her I’d heard it at my grandfather’s house on a different planet. “No reason, it sounded like something I’d heard before.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s strange, it was a book Moxy gave me personally. She said nobody in the world had ever read a book like it.”

“It wasn’t exactly like the song I’d heard before.”

“Epil must be a wonderful place.” Elenor laid most of her clothes on a rock under the sun.

“Yeah,” I said, thinking about my grandpa and his old CD player. “It sure is.”

We stood in silence, waiting for our clothes to dry. My skin was still wet and the chilly breeze made me shiver.

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Episode 7 Scene 2

I twiddled my thumbs.

There was a pebble on the ground and I stared at it. As the light from the lantern flickered, the pebble seemed to change – holes appeared in different places, edges carved on one side became depressions. Idle thoughts to distract myself.

All I wanted was the House of Wisdom. I wanted to sit on the cold marble floor, raise a book above my head, and read it against the sky. And now I was stuck in the middle of a civil war, just one city away from my destination.

I clenched my fists. It was unfair. I was the one who found the House, but it was stolen from me. And now after all the pain I had endured, all the hardships I’d faced, and the challenges I had conquered, I was forced to stop right before the finish line.

Someone kicked the pebble.

I looked up. Sally paced around the room, lost in thought. Jerome sat on the corner of the closest bed, staring at the empty glass in his hand. Idel stood with Camry, who was looking at Sally and Jerome with a trace of worry in her eyes. Olive still clutched the card in his hand as he stood on the bed where his youngest sister was sleeping.

Camry had told us Gecko was Olive’s idol, his hero. Olive was already a member of the youth wing of the Side Party and helped at the local party office whenever he had some free time. His room upstairs was plastered with pictures of black and white roses, and the black-haired, blue-eyed man who had incited a riot in Chart.

I recalled the rally in Chart, and particularly, I recalled Gecko Ross. I still thought he had been a reckless, arrogant, and selfish person who put his political aims above the lives of ordinary people. The damage done to Chart that day could not have been light, and since the whole incident had obviously been planned, he knew there would be casualties yet went with it anyways.

Yet, my heart felt a little empty. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the somber atmosphere in the room, or the gloomy expressions on everyone’s faces, or if I truly felt sad about Gecko’s death, but I did feel something.

The Tempest was still fluttering in the back of my mind. Before letting it fall on my shelf, I used Ben’s character to analyze my own emotions.

I didn’t know Gecko Ross. I didn’t like him, I didn’t agree with his methods, I didn’t think he was a good leader in any way, nor a good human being. It made no sense for me to feel sad. I was being irrational.

Besides, I wasn’t sure if he was dead. The words of a crazy terrorist group didn’t carry much weight. Even if he had died, there was no way to be sure he had been killed by the government, so wasn’t Project Poppy sending the country into chaos based on a hunch?

I let The Tempest rest, then took a deep breath. There was one last thing to consider.

I may not have liked the person, nor his methods, but maybe I felt sad because his message resonated with me.

The social hierarchy in Fore was terrible. The Collars lived in poverty and squalor, while the Headers lived safe, luxurious lives. I’d only ever seen the Headers district of Sett, and I’d rushed through that while being chased by Raxxers. The only significant memory I had of Headers was of Gecko Ross himself.

I almost wanted to chuckle. In the end, he’d been wrong. He thought he could get away with anything because he was a Header, but then he’d gotten himself killed. But then his death had been a success too, it had upset the social order, just like he wanted to.

There was something else too. If the guilds were effectively disbanded and all missions had been suspended, Sally, Jerome, and Ben had no reason to take me to Bendeck. Considering the situation, it wouldn’t be right for me to ask them to do so.

But I couldn’t give up. I needed to get to Bendeck. This was the first step on my journey to reclaim the House of Wisdom, and no civil war was going to stop me. I’d go to Bendeck alone, if I had to.

Would I be alone? I glanced at Elenor. She could come with me. No, she was only doing this because Moxy had wanted her to see the world, it was unreasonable to expect Elenor to go through so much on my behalf. Sticking to me for so long was more than what I deserved, anyway.

I heard a murmur. A yawn.

“Get off me,” mumbled a young voice from the back of the room.

Nobody was near her bed, so I wondered who she was talking to.

“You woke up early,” said Camry as she walked over to the bed.

A tiny figure sat up on the bed. Her blonde hair reflected the orange lamplight in strange ways, with a sort of metallic luster.

“Who’re they?” asked the little girl, rubbing her eyes. Her hand fell away and her eyes widened. “Uncle Jerome! Aunt Sally!” She pulled off the sheets, revealing a lilac nightgown, and ran up to Sally to give her a hug.

Sally hugged the little girl, and put a hand on her head. “Hey there, Betsy, you’ve grown up, haven’t you?”

“No, she hasn’t,” remarked Jerome with a smile. “She still sleeps like a baby.”

“No, I don’t!” said Betsy, releasing Sally and giving Jerome an annoyed look. “Big sis made me go to sleep early.”

“And I never said you could get up, so go back to sleep,” said Camry.

“But Aunt Sally is here,” said Camry, in the voice little kids make when they’re about to insist things go their way.

“Come on, let her stay up a bit,” said Jerome. “We’re about to leave, anyway.”

I glanced at him. They were going through with the mission?

“Jerome’s right, we can’t stay for long,” said Sally.

“But you just got here!” said Idel.

“I didn’t think the situation was this bad, we can’t risk getting stuck in Bass. I still need to think of a way to get into Bendeck, too,” said Sally.

Yes! With Sally’s team’s help, I could make it to Bendeck to meet Henry, and begin searching for the House.

“You’re still going to Bendeck?” asked Camry. “It’s too dangerous. If they’ve killed Gecko Ross, Bendeck could be a warzone right now. Not just Project Poppy, the Ross family and their supporters won’t let this go without a fight. Inline’s First Column will be there too, along with the FAF! This is no time to be working on a guild assignment.”

“You’re right,” said Sally as she turned to me. “I’m sorry, Val, Elenor, but I’ll have to terminate our contract.”

I frowned. But she said she was going to Bendeck?

“I understand,” said Elenor.

I looked at her. Her face was indiscernible, as always, but she wasn’t tapping her finger on the table.

“Same for me,” added Jerome as he stood up. “My apologies.”

“Are you going to Bendeck too?” asked Camry.

“Yes, but not with Sally.”

Sally faced him, her eyes slightly narrowed. “How much do you know?”

“A bit. He likes to play things close to the chest, doesn’t he?” said Jerome, with a smile.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Both of them.”

Sally nodded. “Are you going to the Project or –”

“The Orange Hats. I have nothing to do with the Project.”

“Not anymore.”

Jerome looked away.

“And what about me?”

I looked at the owner of the voice. Ben stood next to the wall, and looked at both Jerome and Sally with a thoughtful expression.

“Isn’t it obvious? Stay with the kids here. You’ll need to look after Elenor and Val, too,” said Jerome.

Ben was about to say something but someone else spoke up first.

“No.” Elenor tapped her finger on the table.

“No?” said Jerome.

“He won’t need to look after us, because Val and I are going to Bendeck.”

I smiled. I could always rely on Elenor.

“It’s too dangerous, at least wait for things to calm down. We’ll hear from the capital, soon enough,” said Sally.

“The only reason we need to hurry, is because we need to be there when it happens,” said Jerome.

“When what happens?” I asked.

Jerome looked at me and said very slowly, “The revolution.”

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Episode 7 Scene 1

There would be no moon tonight.

I shivered as I hugged the wall’s surface. The sound of footsteps came from the top of the wall. A dim orange glow outlined long shadows along the ground. The glow stepped away as the footsteps faded. I felt a tap on my shoulder.

Sally gestured to the side with her head. I nodded and tiptoed over. Jerome and Elenor were already waiting for me. Ben appeared from the other side, signaling the coast was clear. Elenor kept gently tapping the wall while Jerome crouched to the ground and stroked the tiny skull embedded into the earth.

As he stroked the skull, the sand around it began to shift, before collapsing to reveal two holes on either side of the skull. If we removed the unnatural pedestal of earth the skull was stuck on, there would be enough space for us to crawl into the hole.

Jerome sighed. “It’s a lot smaller than I remembered.”

“Nah, it’s because we aren’t kids anymore,” said Sally in a hushed voice.

“Can’t we dig out the skull?” I asked.

“No,” said Sally and Jerome together.

“Taking it out will alert the kids at the orphanage, who’ll rat us out to the guards for some candy,” said Jerome.

Sally gave him a tired look. “They won’t tell the guards, this is their secret. However, if we dug out the skull, they wouldn’t let us stay the night.”

I pursed my lips. It would be hard finding an inn inside the city this late at night, and we didn’t want to stay in the Collar’s district outside the walls. These kids were Jerome and Sally’s acquaintances, and were the people we intended to stay with.

“Movement up top,” said Elenor.

I froze. Footsteps echoed, accompanied by an orange glow and long shadows. When the guard left, Elenor nodded. She was the only one who had moved when the guard approached, as she continued to tap her finger.

“Can’t we apologize to them and fix it on our way out?” I asked.

“Maybe… I have an idea, hold on,” said Jerome. He grasped the earth around the skull with one hand while clearing away the dirt beneath. He slowly lifted the patch of earth with the skull in it, and placed it to the side.

“At least her magic won’t light up immediately,” said Sally.

Jerome nodded. “She shouldn’t be that mad if we keep the skull buried. We should still head over and apologize.”

“Should we take it with us?” asked Ben.

“No, I’ll set it up again once we’re all inside,” said Jerome.

I opted to go first. I wore my mask to keep the dirt from getting on my face but I took off the robe because it would catch too much earth. I squeezed into the hole, felt my hair scrape against crumbling soil and the bottom of the wall, and pulled myself forward with my arms. The hole was tight, even with the skull out of the way. I wiggled my way forward until I smacked into a wall of dirt.

I breathed, particles of dust and soil getting into my nose despite the mask. I grunted. The soil above my head wasn’t as hard as before and it felt colder, like the other side was exposed directly to the air. I pushed up with the back of my head and soil crumbled past my cheeks. I blinked as the breeze pushed some of the loose soil onto my mask.

Someone prodded my leg. I shook the soil off my hair and pulled myself out. I shrank behind a box and dusted myself off while Sally emerged out of the hole. Ben came next, followed by Elenor. Jerome’s grunts came out of the hole. It was still too small for him, even without the skull.

When Jerome finally came out, breathing heavily and with his hair caked in dirt, he crouched and went back into the hole. After a while, he backed out again, and sat on the ground.

“Done,” he said, wiping the sweat and dirt from his brows.

“Remember to tell Camry to come fix it properly,” said Sally.

Jerome stood up, ruffled his coat, and nodded at Sally.

We were in the shadow of a large building, with trash piled up behind it. Sally led us to the back of another building, making sure to stay out of the light of the torches by the road. The roads were empty, the stores closed, and all the windows shuttered.

My eyes flickered from side to side. My heart skipped and I glared at the object that had moved.

Words entered my mind, “Cat. Stray. One year old.”

I blinked and the cat crumpled like paper. It was still breathing but I wanted to make sure it was alright. I was about to sneak over to it when a hand landed on my shoulder. If I hadn’t just paralyzed an innocent cat, I probably would have read Elenor too.

She shook her head. The others were already behind another building. I bit my lips, glanced at the cat, then followed Ben’s figure behind a corner. A guard appeared on top of the wall, walking towards us. I ducked behind a box and waited for him to leave.

Usually, we would have tried to blend in with crowds of pedestrians or walked down the streets with our heads down, but the streets were too empty. Even this late at night, there should have been drunkards going bar crawling, prostitutes doing house calls, or unsavory hooded figures stalking people from the shadows.

We assembled behind a single storied, red-bricked building whose bricks weren’t aligned properly and had too much cement between them. The windows were tinted green, and the curtains had fist-sized holes in them. I tried to peek through the holes in the curtains but there weren’t any lights on inside.

“You do it,” whispered Jerome.

“They were always closer to you,” replied Sally.

“I’ll do it,” said Ben.

“No,” said Sally.

“They don’t know you yet,” said Jerome.

“You can be their big brother later,” said Sally.

“I don’t want to be anyone’s big brother, I just want to get inside before we get caught!” said Ben.

“Fine,” said Jerome. “I’ll do it.”

He approached the center of the wall and knocked on the bricks. It sounded like he was knocking on wood. Jerome closed one eye and pressed the other one against a hole between the bricks.

“Maybe they’re out,” he whispered as he moved his head back.

The brick wall opened like a wooden door, revealing a dark doorway and a shadowy figure. The figure pressed their fingers to their lips and shushed, then beckoned us inside.

The floorboards creaked as I walked on them. The door shut, engulfing us in the darkness, but a hand – which I recognized to be Ben’s – guided me forward.

“Stairs,” hissed an unfamiliar voice.

I kept walking until Ben’s hand lowered slightly, indicating I was at the stairs. I felt ahead with my feet and took a step down. As I kept descending, an orange glow appeared inside a doorway at the bottom. A brown-haired head went into the doorway, followed by Sally and the others.

“Why aren’t the kids asleep?” asked Sally, as I entered the room.

Lanterns hung in the corners, shedding light on the muddy ground and wooden furniture. The room was small, with four beds lined up against the back wall, and a table in the middle. A black-haired boy, who looked around thirteen years old, sat on one of the chairs around the table. An even younger black-haired boy stood next to him, his face just like the older one’s except for a scar on his forehead. They both had triangles on their cheeks, the signs of Bass that Ben had said were supposed to be mountains.

“Why aren’t they asleep?” said the brown-haired girl who had led us in. Even though she was shorter than the boys, the look in her eyes, and the way she carried herself made me think she was older. “The whole city’s on a knife’s edge and you’re asking me why they can’t sleep?”

“Betsy’s asleep though,” said Jerome, gesturing at the head of blonde hair peeking out of the sheets in the furthest bed.

“Betsy’s eight,” said the brown-haired girl through gritted teeth.

Jerome chuckled. “You haven’t changed a bit, Camry.”

“Neither have you, old man,” said the brown-haired Camry.

“Yeah, he has,” said the older black-haired boy. “You have a new knee, Jerome?”

“Yes, I do!”

“Did Sally break the last one?”

“Of course.”

Sally glared at Jerome. “Don’t make them so easy to break, then.”

“If I make them too tough, it’s hard to walk,” said Jerome.

“Have a seat,” said Camry.

The younger boy offered me his seat but I declined. Ben stood next to me, casting lazy glances around the room. I stood behind Elenor and grabbed The Tempest off the shelf in my mind. I played Ben’s character and imitated the way he was analyzing the dimly lit brick walls.

The room was stocked with food and water, and there were a couple of doors in the back. The bricks were old, the lanterns well used, and the ground had piles of dust on it. The room was older than the kids, so either every house in Bass had a panic room, or these kids had incredibly paranoid parents.

“We have to apologize for using Corin’s tunnel,” said Sally.

“I felt like someone touched it,” said Camry. “I might have gone and checked if it wasn’t so late.”

“We kept him in the ground,” said Jerome, in a low voice.

Camry nodded, her eyes on the ground. The boys didn’t meet our gaze either. We stayed in silence for a while.

“So why are you here?” asked Camry, finally breaking the tension as she poured Elenor a glass of water. The boys offered Jerome and Sally some snacks, while Camry poured me a glass of water too.

“We’re on an escort mission to Bendeck,” said Sally.

“And these must be your clients?” asked Camry.

“Yes,” said Jerome.

Camry put away the metallic water-jug, faced me and Elenor, and smiled. “My name’s Bo Camry Kemp, but you can call me Camry.”

I smiled back but then I remembered I was wearing my mask, so I nodded too. “Jean Valkyrie Forster, but please call me Val.”

Elenor tapped a finger on the table. “I’m Elenor.”

“And these are my brothers,” said Camry, pointing at the boys.

The older one met my gaze. “Idel.”

“Olive,” said the younger boy.

Sally put down her cup. “Now that introductions are out of the way, mind telling us why you’re hiding in the basement?”

Camry shook her head. “You really don’t know, after all. No wonder you haven’t abandoned your mission yet.”

I frowned. She wanted Sally and Jerome to cancel their guild assignment. They’d get a huge fine if they did that, and they’d lose a lot of prestige. Besides, they weren’t the kind of people who’d break their promises, and if this girl knew them nearly as well as I did, she wouldn’t even suggest something like this.

Not unless the situation was astronomically terrible. Like if the sky was falling.

“What happened?” asked Jerome, leaning forward. “We were in Devel just a few days ago. Things couldn’t have gotten that bad so quickly.”

“The cities are in lockdown. All of them.”

“All of them?” repeated Sally.

Camry nodded. “As far as I know, yes. The Official himself gave the order. I’m not sure if there’s resistance in Sett or Chart, but I know nobody’s been in or out of Bass in two days. Even the secret entrances are being blocked by the guards.”

Sally swore under her breath. Jerome narrowed his eyes. The older boy, Idel, refilled Sally’s glass.

“And the capital?” asked Jerome.

“All roads to the capital are closed. The army’s been mobilized near the first rest-stop, but that’s all I know. Even the Headers in Bass have no idea what’s going on in Bendeck.”

“Wait, they’re not letting Headers pass either?” interjected Elenor.

“Yes,” said Camry. “Some of them protested at the Front Party offices but they were greeted by members of Inline. Most of them hightailed it back to their mansions but the head of the Rand family wouldn’t budge.” Camry paused, then continued in a quieter voice, “Nobody knows where he is.”

Sally’s eyes widened. “They arrested a Header?”

Camry nodded.

In the corner of my eye, I saw the frown on Ben’s face. It was more intense than mine, as if he had seen something I hadn’t. I followed his gaze to the younger boy, Olive.

Olive’s black hair fell on his face, hiding one of his brown eyes. However, his other eye was welling up under the orange torchlight. His lips were pursed and his fists were clenched tight. He wouldn’t be that tense for the head of a Header family.

“I’ve never heard of a Header getting scolded, let alone arrested,” whispered Jerome.

I recalled the chaotic rally in Chart. The leader of the Side Party, that crazy Gecko Ross, had said he could do whatever he wanted because he was born a Header. He’d incited a riot, confident he wouldn’t face any repercussions for it.

“What about the guilds?” asked Sally. “You said we should abandon the mission, are the guilds not allowed to send people outside either?”

“Yes,” said Idel.

Sally sighed. “I feel like I didn’t really need to ask that question.”

“That’s not all,” said Camry. I met her eyes with my own. She looked away. “The Official ordered the guilds to cease all operations immediately.”

“What?” cried Sally.

“He can’t do that,” said Jerome. “He doesn’t have the authority. The Orange Hats would revolt!”

“That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.” Camry stared at Jerome. “You really don’t know what happened?”

“No, we don’t,” said Jerome.

“The notices are all over the rest-stops. Anyone outside the cities is probably trying their hardest to stay out, yet you snuck in.”

“We didn’t go inside any stops.”

“Alright, then I’ll explain everything from the start. A few days ago, something happened at the capital, and the Official sent out orders to close all the cities and guilds, and assure the people that these emergency measures were only temporary. He also ordered everyone to comply with the FAF soldiers, and Inline, so they could resolve the issue quickly.”

“What happened at the capital?” asked Sally.

“I’m not sure. The Official’s notices said there was a terrorist incident but I’ve heard some people who work in the inner city say that wasn’t all of it. There was a terrorist incident, most probably Project Poppy again but…”

“Project Poppy?” interjected Jerome. “They’ve been dead for years.”

“They were probably laying low for a bit,” suggested Sally.

“No,” insisted Jerome. “The entire organization fell apart years ago when they lost all their core members. They couldn’t have recovered this quickly. It’s probably an imposter. They used to inspire a lot of imitators.”

The Tempest fluttered in the back of my mind. I recalled old man Ather from Sett, he didn’t seem dead, at least not yet, although his eyes didn’t have a lot of hope in them. I also noted how much Jerome knew about the Project.

“I don’t understand,” said Elenor. “Even if there was an incident in the capital, that’s not enough of a reason to shut down the entire country.”

“Exactly,” said Camry. “They weren’t telling us everything. The Headers know a little more than we do, but not much. Apparently, the incident happened at the parliament, and several members of the Front Party and the Down Party, were killed. Nobody from the Side or Middle parties got hurt at all.”

“That does sound like something the Project would do,” admitted Jerome.

Olive stood up.

“Olive?” said Jerome.

The little boy didn’t respond. He went to a table on the side.

“The F3 Gazette was shut down too,” continued Camry without glancing at her brother. “Only the Official Press and the Daily Scribbler are allowed to print, but they don’t say anything useful.”

“At least that hasn’t changed,” said Sally with a chortle. “Where are all the guild members?”

“Nobody knows for sure, but they’re probably at Inline’s outpost. There are rumors going around, saying Inline raided the guilds before the Official’s orders were announced.”

“By Bit,” swore Sally. “What hell is going on?”

Olive returned with a faded piece of parchment in his hand. He handed it to Camry.

“Idel found this yesterday, it was pasted on the inside of our house. As soon as I read it, I made everyone come down here and locked all the doors.” Camry put the parchment on the table.

I couldn’t see what was written on it. The light was too dim and I was standing too far away. However, I noticed Jerome’s eyes widen and his breath pause. Sally squinted, trying to read it. Elenor tapped her finger but her expression didn’t change.

“That’s a card,” whispered Jerome. “A Poppy Card.”

I focused on the parchment and saw the flower printed in the corner. It looked exactly like the sign on old man Ather’s cheek.

“What does it say?” asked Elenor.

I leaned forward but still couldn’t make out the words.

“I’ll pass it around and you can read it for yourselves, but the gist of it is: Project Poppy is declaring war on the government, pledging to continue fighting until their demands are met,” said Camry.

“They’re holding the country hostage,” said Jerome, in an angry voice.

“No, their demands are on the back.” Camry flipped the card. “They want to abolish the extra votes given to government officials, since all of them are members of the Front Party. They also want Inline to disband, the FAF to pledge neutrality in their conflict, and the Orange Hats to be released. The guilds must be allowed to operate again, and no more fear, intimidation, or force must be used to resolve political disagreements.”

Jerome snorted. “A little hypocritical, I’d say.”

Camry ignored him. “They also demand the release of all political prisoners, the confirmed neutrality of the papers, and they want the Official to order a new election, one where he is not allowed to participate.”

“They’re not even trying to get them to agree to their demands,” said Jerome. “This is an obvious ploy to justify their actions, the Project is well known for its deviousness.”

Camry shook her head. “No.”

“No?” asked Jerome. “What do you mean, kid? You think you know the Project better than I do?”

“No, I meant this isn’t their justification for their actions.”

Sally frowned. “Is there something else?”

Camry didn’t respond, choosing to pass the card around instead. Olive stared blankly at the bottom of the card as it passed from Camry’s hand to Sally’s.

Sally took in a sharp breath. “By Bit…”

Jerome leaned over and his eyes went wide. “This can’t be real…”

Elenor reached forward and yanked the card from their hands. Then she passed it to me.

“Read this for me, would you?” she asked, her voice serious but annoyed.

I grabbed the card and confirmed what Camry had told us. Then my eyes drifted to the bottom and I read aloud:

“We fight in the name of our friend and ally, the late Sir Maximilian Gecko Ross, who was martyred by the vicious hands of the government’s dishonorable assassins, on the sixteenth day of June 1666 A.B. May you rest in peace, comrade.”

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Apologies for the massive delay. There was a bit of a medical emergency, but it has now been resolved. Please expect a daily release from now on!

 

Episode 6 Scene 8

“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?”

“Stuff.”

I nodded.

The fire crackled behind us. No one spoke. Jerome and I were out of earshot of everyone, except perhaps Elenor.

“The past.”

I turned my gaze. Jerome’s face was hidden in shadows.

“I think about the past,” repeated Jerome.

“I see.”

“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.”

“Sounds terrible.”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.”

Silence.

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

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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! ^-^

If you like this story, recommend it to your friends!

Episode 6 Scene 7

“Why shouldn’t I trust them?”

The air was humid and insects buzzed by my ear. Elenor splashed her feet in the water, sending ripples across the surface.

“They’re nice people,” continued Elenor. “They’ve saved our lives before, suffered a lot of pain to protect us, and even gone out of their way for our comfort and security.”

I frowned. That wasn’t grounds for suspicion, it was grounds for friendship. “And their niceness makes them untrustworthy?”

“No, that was a disclaimer. Just wanted to let you know I like them.”

“Then why shouldn’t I trust them?”

“Because they’re not our friends.”

I frowned. I thought she was going to talk about the stuff with Inline, not question friendships. “What do you mean? Of course they’re my friends.”

She shook her head. “What I mean is, they aren’t helping us because they like us, they’re helping us because it’s their job. We hired them to take us to Bendeck. The second we reach the city, they’ll be released from the assignment, and we’ll be on our own.”

That was true. They were on a guild sanctioned mission to escort us to Bendeck, and we couldn’t rely on them after the mission ended. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. After all we’d been through together, we’d gotten pretty close. I could eat with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and rely on them to have my back.

“That’s not enough of a reason,” I said. A part of me was happy I wasn’t the only paranoid one but since I’d been over those doubts in my head already, I shrugged off Elenor’s concerns and stood up. “Come on, the sun’s going down.”

Because of the battle with Ulfric’s team, we hadn’t been able to reach the first rest-stop in time, which was why the others were setting up tents back at camp. We needed to get back with the water so we could start cooking dinner.

But what I love even more than hearing about those stories is reading them.”

I stopped and turned around. “What’d you say?”

“I didn’t say anything,” said Elenor, still kicking the water. “Those were your words. You whispered them into that Inline guy’s ears.”

I frowned. She must have heard me with her magic.

“I didn’t hear it with my magic.” She tapped her ear. “I heard it with these.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I’ve heard a lot of things, you know. Sally’s complaints about having to keep track of her pickaxe, Jerome’s mumblings about his inventions, Ben’s tone-deaf humming. I’ve heard you muttering crazy things in your sleep, something about books and armchairs.”

My eyes widened. How much did she know about my dreams? Did she know about Static? Did she know about my mission? Humbug, I couldn’t let her find out yet!

“Did I say anything else? I keep forgetting what my nightmares were about, please let me know if there was anything else.”

She shook her head. “Most of your sleep-talking is gibberish. You said something about bananas once, if that helps.”

It didn’t. “I get it, you’ve been eavesdropping on everyone. What’s the point of bringing it up?”

“Because I’ve heard more than sleep-talk about bananas, and humming,” she said. She stopped kicking the water and turned her face to me. The action surprised me, Elenor rarely turned to me while speaking if she wasn’t already facing me. “They knew Inline was going to come after us.”

“Yeah, Jerome said so, didn’t he? It’s not that surprising, considering everything that happened.”

“You don’t get it, they knew we’d be attacked outside Devel.”

“What?” I frowned.

Elenor nodded. “I heard Jerome discussing it with Sally. You were looking for Ben at the stream, and they thought I’d gone after you.”

“What did they say?”

“Jerome was arguing with Sally. He said they should tell the guilds about Skinner and Tanner, but she said no.”

“Why would she say that?”

“The same thing Jerome told us later, Inline wouldn’t come for us that quickly.”

“Doesn’t that mean Jerome was telling the truth? None of this means anything.”

“They kept arguing,” continued Elenor, putting up a finger to stop me. “And Jerome said Sally didn’t know Inline the way he did. They were ruthless, amoral, and unpredictable, they needed to prepare for the worst.”

Sounded like Jerome had some history with Inline. “If he was so concerned about it, why didn’t he just go to the guilds on his own?”

Elenor nodded. “My thoughts exactly. It gets worse though. Sally agreed.”

She did?

“But then…” I paused. “They didn’t tell the guilds.”

“They said they would.”

“But they didn’t, did they?”

“Maybe they did.” Elenor stood up. “But that would mean they lied to us.”

“Could have been a white lie. We were in front of the team from Inline.”

Elenor shook her head. “That makes no sense. Telling them we had already told the guilds would be a deterrent. Telling them we were going to tell the guilds, would make us high priority targets.”

My eyes widened. “They want us to get attacked again!”

Elenor shrugged. “Maybe. It’s still possible something happened that made them decide not to tell the guilds after all. However, that was all they said at the time. I don’t think they were ever alone again afterwards.”

Elenor was right, they could have talked about it later and decided not to tell the guilds, although I couldn’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t. But there was a more important question on my mind.

“If they did end up telling the guilds while we were in Devel,” I said. “Then why did Inline still attack us?”

“Maybe they don’t care about the guilds after all? Honestly, Inline has the Front Party behind them, there’s no reason for them to worry about the guilds. In fact, it’s the guilds who wouldn’t want to lock horns with Inline over an insignificant escort mission.” Elenor tapped her baton. “What’s more, the current Official’s been shoring up power like crazy. Devel, Bass, and Bendeck are almost completely under his control, and his votes in Chart were rising just last year. If Gecko Ross wasn’t such an absolute madman, the Side Party would have collapsed by now.”

That was counterintuitive but I guess that’s politics. “Do the others know this?”

“Of course, they probably understand the situation way better than I do. I didn’t know any of this when we left Sett.”

“You overheard it all, didn’t you?”

“People love talking about politics.”

“Nobody likes hearing about it though.”

“I do,” said Elenor. “It’s like a game, sometimes. One with really high stakes.” She began walking.

I followed. “If the others know the guilds aren’t going to stop Inline, does that mean they said all that to make us feel better?”

“I doubt it. In my experience, they’ve been forthright about our situation, most of the time. I think they wanted that team from Inline to know the guilds were involved.”

“Why? Like you said, that just makes us bigger targets.”

“I don’t know.” Elenor tapped her baton on a tree trunk. “They’re hiding something, and I don’t like being kept in the dark.”

I had to walk slowly and carefully because of the pot full of water. It swished and swirled with my gait, threatening to spill. I made sure to test every step so I wouldn’t trip.

“I agree, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it right now.”

“Yes, but stay vigilant. Inline is going to attack us again and Sally’s team knows it. And…” She tapped me with her baton.

I stopped and raised an eyebrow.

“When that happens, keep an eye on them too, okay?”

I hesitated then said, “Okay.”

She nodded. We continued walking. The sun was so low it hid behind the short, stumpy trees around us. Elenor led us back through the shrubs although I was worried about snakes and scorpions.

“Oh wait,” I said.

Elenor stopped, her baton on a stumpy, gnarled tree branch.

I squinted in the dimming sunlight. “You said I shouldn’t trust Ben, but never told me why.”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? But you told me I especially shouldn’t trust him. You can’t just say that for no reason.”

“I said I didn’t know, not that I didn’t have a reason.”

I expected her to go on but she didn’t. “What reason?”

“It’s a hunch.”

“A hunch?”

“My intuition is strong.”

“It also isn’t a reason.”

“It’s good enough for me.” She shrugged. “I’m sure you can think of something more concrete, all I’ve got is a vague sense of unease. Something about him, it rubs me the wrong way.”

“Do you know what that something is?”

“If I did, I would have already told you. All I can say is, he’s the only person who makes me question my abilities.”

He makes her question her abilities; what the hell does that mean? “I don’t get it.”

“Me neither.”

A long silence.

“I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Thank you.”

We reached the camp as the last bit of red in the sky turned blue. The camp was by the road, since that was the only clearing and there was nowhere to hide. Ben stood by the campfire while Jerome fixed up the last tent. Sally sat between them with her backpack open in front of her.

“Finally, you’re back!” said Ben with a smile. “I was about to go looking for you.”

I nudged Elenor with my elbow. “Somebody wanted to dangle her feet in the pond.”

“A pond?” said Sally. “Was it clear?”

I shook my head. “No, it wasn’t.”

“That’s fine,” said Jerome. “I have a filtering box. Just make sure to boil it afterwards.”

Oh, so the people of this world did know how to clean water. A lesson against small sample sizes, I guess.

Jerome filtered and boiled the water, while Ben and I cut vegetables for the stew. Sally washed the meat to get rid of the preserving salts, then put it into the pot with boiling water. We added the vegetables later, once the pot hung over the fire on a makeshift spit.

The stew was warm and the vegetables had a strange texture that made me pucker my lips and roll my tongue. There was enough for seconds but I was full after one round. After cleaning up, Ben elected to take first watch, so the rest of us went into our tents.

Elenor, Sally, and I got into the larger tent, which was big enough for all our sleeping bags and some equipment. We kept the tent’s flap open, even though it let in a ton of insects, because the air was humid and three unwashed bodies smelled really bad.

“Goodnight,” said Sally, yawning.

“Night,” said Elenor, having put away her glasses.

“Yeah,” I said, watching Ben through the flap. “Goodnight.”

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Episode 6 Scene 6

“It was incredibly reckless,” said Elenor, as she pushed a branch out of her way with her baton.

“You’ve been saying that for an hour now. I already apologized,” I said, exasperated.

We were searching for a source of fresh water while the others set up camp. I carried canteens and a metal pot to be filled with water for cooking, while Elenor carried a couple of canteens and tapped her baton in every direction before directing me to move.

“You went up to a member of Inline and whispered in his ear. He could’ve stabbed you, taken you hostage, or bitten you on the neck!”

I seriously doubted he’d have tried to give me a hickie. “I had my eye on him, if he’d so much as twitched, he would have been rolling on the ground, screaming.”

The ground was littered with thorny shrubs and stumpy trees, and Elenor didn’t care to follow the relatively clear animal trails. I remarked at my new robe’s durability. Even if thorns stuck to it, they didn’t leave a single tear or pluck a single fiber. As much fun as it had been roughing it under the stars with only a few dirty rags and wild berries, I appreciated the convenience of having the right gear.

“Don’t let your abnormally powerful reading ability get to your head, it does you no good having a big brain if it isn’t connected to your body,” said Elenor.

I sighed. Elenor was right, I’d endangered myself for a little theatricality and unnecessary intimidation. Ulfric wouldn’t have chased us with most of his team unconscious, and knowing they had been unable to subjugate a single one of us even at full strength and with the element of surprise. At the time, I thought it was a good way to ensure they wouldn’t try to eliminate us before we reached Bass, since they knew we were going to inform the guilds about their actions.

But they wouldn’t have done something so risky for something so trivial. They said all they wanted were some answers regarding Kara Tanner’s death, and we had already said we’d submit ourselves to questioning. Assuming they weren’t lying, the situation was easy to resolve.

However, they were lying. I had noticed discrepancies in Ulfric’s words while I was using The Tempest, but hadn’t pointed them out at the time. First, even if they had the legal right to use as much force as they deemed necessary, why would they think they needed to use so much force to subjugate us? Even if we had killed one Inline agent, sending an entire team after us was overkill, especially considering how any one of Ulfric, Nene, or Gaben alone could have taken us down if it wasn’t for my reading ability.

Second, an organization like Inline should have known Sally, Jerome, and Ben were members of guilds, and were escorting us on a guild-sanctioned mission. If what Sally had said was true, Inline wouldn’t have done something so provocative and risked the guilds’ ire for something as small as the death of an agent they knew had been killed by someone else.

And finally, if they only wanted information about Tanner’s death, they could have accepted my offer to answer their questions there and been done with it. There was no reason to insist we go to Inline’s outpost and be interrogated there. If nothing else, they should have tried to get some answers from us to help corroborate what we said at the outpost or so they’d have some information to work with, in the event we didn’t go to the outpost after all.

No, they wanted to make sure we were caught, and going to Inline’s outpost was most likely a trap as well. Rather than investigating Kara Tanner’s death, Ulfric’s team probably had another agenda: the Soul Orbs. Considering how powerful Skinner had become after using them, it was easy to imagine why a shady governmental group like Inline would want them. Since we knew how they were made, they wanted to silence us.

But if that was true, I didn’t regret my actions at all. In fact, we shouldn’t have let them live at all. They were almost certainly going to attack us again, but this time, they wouldn’t be trying to capture us.

The somber realization didn’t disturb me. If they attacked again, we’d just have to defeat them again. What concerned me was how nonchalantly everyone else treated the situation. Apart from Elenor, who was always brooding about everything, the others barely seemed to care that a group of murderous assassins had us in their sights. They should have realized we’d be attacked again.

In fact, I’d come to this conclusion while playing Ben’s character with The Tempest. At least he should know the danger we were in. Yet when I’d brought up my concerns, he’d brushed them off saying we’d reach Bass way before Ulfric’s team would.

He didn’t know I was using my magic to imitate him, but he’d been giving me weird looks lately. I thought he might be trying to figure out my magic, but if that was the case, he could have just asked, it wasn’t like I wouldn’t tell him. I already knew what his magic did, it was only fair I told him about mine.

Even with The Tempest, I couldn’t figure out Ben’s relation to the Ben who’d dragged me across Sett. I had my guesses, from time travel to long lost twins, but I couldn’t say for sure. The only silver lining was it made me realize the limits of his deductive magic, so I was sure he didn’t know I’d come from another world.

“So reckless.” She shook her head.

“I got it, alright!”

Elenor chuckled. “We’re almost there.”

I grumbled. She really wasn’t letting this go. I couldn’t hear any running water yet, but I didn’t doubt Elenor. She knew what was happening for miles around, in fact, she’d probably eavesdropped on more conversations than she’d admit.

But we’d been at it for half an hour now, and she’d been on the lookout ever since we’d left Ulfric and his team behind. Was she feeling guilty for not noticing the ambush? She had no reason to be, we’d been distracted by that damn tiker. She didn’t need to push herself so much, what if she ran out of magic?

Wait, wasn’t she using burnt magic? Maybe burnt magic didn’t have a time limit like unburnt magic did. Once again, I felt the limits of my knowledge of magic. I resolved to buy a book or something, once I got to Bendeck. The lack of books in my possession was disconcerting.

My foot sank into the ground. I grimaced and pulled it out, a coating of mud plastered all over it. I still couldn’t hear any running water but there was a pond a little further beyond the mud.

“There’s another way around,” said Elenor as she sidestepped the mud.

A warning would have been nice, I thought as I rubbed my feet on the ground. “We came here for the pond?”

“Yes.”

Pondwater wouldn’t be very clean, although rivers and streams weren’t exactly Perrier either. Still, it was unlikely a pond like this would have drinkable water. Did Elenor not know about germs and waterborne diseases? That was another thing about this world that I found odd, if they had so many books from our world, why didn’t they have stuff like water purification plants or a rudimentary understanding of biology?

There were no cars, no lights, no modern medicine. To be fair, I hadn’t seen a lot of modern non-fiction books in this world, but all this knowledge and the ability to utilize it directly should have at least started the industrial age.

I followed Elenor over a rocky path, avoiding the patches of mud between the rocky bits.

“This is rainwater, so it should be fine,” said Elenor as she crouched near the water’s edge and dipped a finger in.

The water was a muddy brown color, with weeds sticking out of it. I didn’t know how she could tell it was rain water, but even then, it wasn’t necessarily safe to drink. I doubted her ability could tell what kind of microbes were in the water. Finding cholera with echolocation would be almost as farfetched as finding love in the time of cholera.

“We’ll boil it back at camp.” I crouched and submerged a canteen. Bubbles of air emerged from the canteen’s mouth, popping intermittently. “Did we buy a filter in Devel?”

“What’s a filter?” She filled her canteen too.

“Guess that’s a no.”

It wasn’t that bad, I told myself, I’d been drinking this world’s water for weeks and hadn’t gotten sick yet. Still, dying of dysentery was not on my to-do list, so I kept the canteen near the surface where the water was clearer. The deeper I looked, the darker and murkier it would get.

Elenor cursed and slapped her forehead.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Just a bug,” she answered, wiping her hand on her clothes.

I looked at her. She wore the black cloak I’d picked out for her in Devel, as well as the black shirt and trousers she’d bought for herself. With her shoes hidden in the grass and her black sunglasses on her face, the only color on her body came from the red pin in her hair.

I needed to voice my suspicions, get a second opinion on them. I’d already unpacked the packet of paranoia I’d set aside earlier in the day, and those questions needed answers.

Why did Sally and Jerome suggest we shouldn’t go to Inline’s outpost, in front of Ulfric and his team? Maybe Jerome could be that tactless, but I didn’t peg Sally as someone who couldn’t see the benefit of letting the enemy think we would listen to their request.

Not informing the guilds in Devel about Skinner and Kara Tanner was also strange. Jerome’s excuse for not doing so had been laughable, and they obviously knew being attacked by Inline was a real possibility.

Being attacked right outside Devel was suspicious too. The roads were empty and there were no witnesses, but we could still see the city on the horizon when we were attacked. It would have been safer to bring us down at night, maybe after a couple days of tiring traveling.

My canteens were full and I skimmed the top of the pond with the pot. I breathed. I was probably overthinking things. Sally’s team had put their lives on the line for us several times. They were nice, friendly people, and I liked them. They’d shared plenty of secrets with us, and we’d talked about mundane and serious things together.

Together, we’d survived explosive wolves, political riots, crazy soul sucking murderers, the secret police, and mud. A lot of mud. If they wanted to kill me, they’d had plenty of opportunities to do it. I could trust them, or rather, I had to. Bendeck was only one city away. I was about to complete the first step on my quest to recover the House of Wisdom, and I was not going to let unnecessary paranoia stop me.

“Hey Val.”

“Yeah Elenor?”

“Let me give you some advice.”

I looked up. The pot was full and heavy, and despite my best efforts, still full of dirt. Elenor had finished filling her canteens a while ago and dangled her feet in the water. “What is it?”

She kicked the water, making the clearer upper layer mix with the murkiness below. “Don’t trust them. Sally, Jerome, and Ben, especially Ben.”

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Episode 6 Scene 5

“The girl is looking away,” said Ulfric. “You did it, Nene.”

My body was frozen in place. I couldn’t even blink my eyes. My chest ached because my lungs refused to inhale, but I was using The Tempest so Ben’s character kept me focused even as the gears in my head began to slow.

“Don’t let her go,” said Ulfric, his voice coming from behind me.

“Understood, captain,” said the brown-haired man with his hands stretched in front of him.

He’s the guy who shot those arrows at us, I thought. They must have curved because of someone else’s magic or because of the bow.

Next to the brown-haired man stood a green-eyed woman who stared over my shoulder. In fact, my oxygen-deprived brain realized the brown-haired man was looking behind me too. Ulfric’s footsteps came from the side, instead of behind m, even though I was an easy target.

Which meant I wasn’t the one they were trying to lock down. Sally stood on the edge of my vision, as still as a statue. The lack of explosions to my right signaled Jerome’s incapacitation. Ben would have thrown a pebble at the brown-haired man by now, since he would have deduced the binding magic required the user to be completely still, which meant Ben was out of the equation too.

The only person behind me was Elenor, and although it was safe to say she was frozen too, she was probably thankful her plan to confuse the enemy had worked. They thought Elenor was the one reading them and breaking their magic, which gave me the opportunity to read the guy who had frozen us.

The brown-haired man hadn’t blinked yet. Ulfric ran into my vision, no longer a blur now that Gaben Yao was unconscious. A sword shone under the midday sunlight. Ulfric ran towards me but his eyes stared over my shoulder.

I focused, clearing the fog in my head. I had to read the brown-haired man to break his magic. Why was I hesitating? He wasn’t shaking, he wasn’t blinking, and his eyes were focused as if he was casting magic. Was I doubting my ability to read him, was his confident demeanor shaking my resolve, or was my lightheadedness confusing me?

Or maybe, I was wondering why the man was holding his hands in front of him when he knew he couldn’t move. He was trying too hard to appear like he was the one casting the spell. The green-eyed woman, on the other hand, stared behind me with a relaxed gaze.

I focused on her.

“Nene Banter. Forty-seven. Header of Bendeck. Member of Inline’s Third Column. Burnt Book of Bendeck, Book of Bitany, Book of Inline. Interprets Book of Bitany to bind the wicked.”

I gasped for air as Nene screamed. But her screams were cut short by a pebble that shattered her collarbone and an explosion that threw her several feet into the air. She didn’t make a sound as she hit the ground. A shockwave knocked me down, pushing the air right back out of my lungs.

I coughed as pain racked my shoulder. Dust covered the front of my mask, making it hard to see.

“Sorry,” said Elenor as she helped me up.

I told her it was fine. She’d managed to knock Ulfric back.

Ulfric cursed. “We picked the wrong one.”

“She didn’t fall for the bait either,” said the brown-haired man.

“Surrender,” said Sally, as she walked towards the two with her pickaxe poised to strike. “You can’t win.”

Sweat dripped from Ulfric’s hair while blood dripped down his arm. The brown-haired man’s bow was by his side, but without Gaben’s boost, he wouldn’t be able to shoot it before he was knocked out by Ben’s pebbles or Jerome’s explosions.

“Stand down, Icarus,” said Ulfric.

The brown-haired Icarus looked at him and dropped his bow. “Understood.” He met my gaze.

“Why did you attack us?” I asked, holding Icarus’ gaze. I didn’t know his magic because I hadn’t read him, but he was probably the one making their arrows curve. Still, I was ready to read him if he tried something funny.

“We were going to bring you in for questioning,” said Ulfric. “One of our fellow agents was killed near Devel, and we believe your group was involved.”

“You could have asked without trying to kill us!” Ben remarked.

“We never tried to kill you. We are the Third Column, we specialize in capturing our targets without killing them. We only used preemptive force because you were suspected accomplices in the murder of a fellow agent. We had to ensure our safety.”

“And if you had killed us by accident?” asked Elenor.

“Collateral damage,” said Sally. “I know how they work; if they kill someone, it’s a mistake, if someone kills one of theirs, it’s grounds for execution.”

“Resisting arrest and injuring us is a punishable offence, as well,” said Ulfric.

“Stick a sock in it,” said Sally. “We’re on a guild sanctioned mission to protect our clients, and you attacked us. If you want to take us in, go file a complaint with the guilds.”

“We will,” promised Icarus.

I pursed my lips. I knew we couldn’t kill them because Inline would know we did it and would send more people after us, but letting our attackers leave left a bad taste in my mouth. They could call in reinforcements and come attack us again, and there was nothing we could do about it. Wait, maybe there was something I could try.

“Ask us your questions,” I said, addressing the still bleeding Ulfric.

“Excuse me?”

“You said you wanted to take us in for questioning, that shouldn’t be necessary if we answer your questions right here.”

“I’m afraid that wouldn’t work,” said Ulfric. “The Second Column handles interrogations. We bring our targets back to them, and they make sure everything you say is true and accurate.”

“Can’t they come to us?” asked Elenor.

Ulfric shook his head. “They’re too valuable to risk on a mission like this. However, you can always come with us willingly. We intended to take you to our public outpost in Bass.”

I didn’t trust them enough to allow them to escort us there. “We can’t come with you, but we can come to your outpost and give you our testimonies.”

Ulfric met my gaze and after a brief pause, nodded. “The outpost is in the Header’s district. Tell the guards you were summoned for questioning, and they should let you through the inner gates.”

“We don’t need to do this,” said Sally, facing me. “I’ll be reporting everything to the guilds in Bass, even Inline wouldn’t risk offending the guilds over something this trivial. They’re already pushing their luck with this attack. Moreover, we’ve already fended off the Third Column, and the Second Column is too weak to be a threat. We only need to worry about the First Column, but those guys aren’t very good at capturing people alive, so they won’t be deployed unless Inline wants to provoke the guilds.”

“We didn’t think they’d send people after us this quickly, or we would have informed the guilds in Devel of our interaction with Kara Tanner,” said Jerome. “But Sally is right, we do not need to submit ourselves to questioning in Bass.”

I was about to frown but checked myself, feeling, for the first time, a gnawing suspicion in the back of my head, just behind the shelf above which The Tempest fluttered. I understood their concerns but why were they voicing them in front of Ulfric and Icarus? It would be better to let them think we would go in for questioning, then let the guilds take care of it. I also noted how knowledgeable Sally was regarding Inline’s inner workings, and how flimsy Jerome’s excuse for not informing the guilds was.

I packed away those thoughts, intending to review them later.

“I feel like it’s the most efficient way to resolve this misunderstanding,” I said, facing Ulfric. “I understand your circumstances, so I’ll forgive you for attacking us this time. We’ll even help you bandage your wound and treat your teammates.”

“Val!” exclaimed Ben.

“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ve already agreed to submit ourselves to questioning, and they know what’ll happen if they try to attack us again.”

I met Ulfric’s eyes and held his gaze. I slowed my breathing, angled my chin, and took a few steps forward. My actions seemed odd to me, as if they weren’t in character. I couldn’t picture Ben doing something like this, which meant this wasn’t me acting a part, even though I was still using The Tempest. This was me doing something completely off my own accord.

I approached the captain, and stepped so close I could smell the blood on his arm and the rankness of his breath. He didn’t move a muscle, almost as if he was petrified by Nene’s magic. Nobody else spoke a word either.

“Do you have any children, Mr. Jenkins? Or perhaps a wife or a lover?” I said in a hushed voice only he could hear. “You know, I love hearing stories about people’s lives, there’s always something exciting, something dark; a secret to take to one’s grave, a skeleton lurking in the closet.”

I smiled, stepping so close I could see the sweat forming on the middle-aged man’s brow, the panic in his eyes, and the terror evident on his face as he thought about his life, his family, and his deepest, darkest secrets.

“But what I love even more than hearing about those stories,” I whispered into his ear, “is reading them.”

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