Episode 5 Scene 3

“Val!”

“Elenor!”

We reunited with the others as the moon reached its zenith. We’d heard them long before we’d seen them, as Sally’s footsteps echoed across the empty plains, and the clinking of Jerome’s contraptions rang up to the hill.

Elenor was on Sally’s back, and the large red gash on her thigh explained why. Jerome was also in bad shape, with soot all over his face, and the left side of his shirt in tatters. He was also limping slightly, favoring his left leg where his knee squeaked.

Sally was breathing heavily and her boots were caked in mud, dirt, and ash, but she seemed fine otherwise. Her trusty pickaxe looked a little battered but it was still useable.

“Ben!” cried Jerome. “What happened to your leg?”

“Twisted my ankle a little,” said Ben. “I’ll be fine. More importantly, what happened to you guys?”

“Got caught in a little scuffle,” said Sally as she laid Elenor down beside the big rock. “The F3 militia was trying to mediate between some guards and rioters, but things went sour and they ended up fighting both. Some of the guards recognized us and thought we were with the militia, and almost hit us with the turret.”

That didn’t sound like a little scuffle.

I eyed the cut in Elenor’s thigh. “How deep is it?”

“It’s not that bad,” said Elenor.

Sally sat in front of Elenor while Jerome sat beside Ben.

“We need to cover it up,” said Sally. “You said you’d let me do it once we found them.”

“Go ahead,” said Elenor.

Sally ripped up her own tattered robe and tied it around Elenor’s wound. It helped slow down the bleeding but it was a temporary measure at best.

“We should have bought medical supplies,” said Jerome.

“We probably would have left them behind like we did the tent,” said Sally.

“We couldn’t bring the food either,” I added.

We were hungry and wounded, and the closest city was a cesspool of disasters. Even the refreshing breeze couldn’t lift the cloud of melancholy hanging over us. Ben helped Jerome fix his mechanical knee while Sally and I tended to Elenor.

“I’ll sneak into the city in the morning and get something to clean your wound with,” said Sally.

“Don’t, it’s too risky. Besides, all the shops will be closed,” said Elenor.

I looked at her wound more closely. It was long and narrow, so it was probably made by a sword or spear. Some dust and blades of grass was stuck around its edges, which I tried to clean with the rag Sally had given me. There was a stream nearby so I went to dip the rag in it.

Crystal clear water flowed down the stream, reflecting silver moonlight in its gentle current. I thoroughly wet one end of the rag while ringing the water out of the other. I returned to Ben telling the others how we had escaped the city.

“… and then she used her unburnt magic to persuade the guards to leave, and the rioters to help us put out the fire raging over the escape tunnel. It was amazing, she had us all eating out of the palm of her hand in an instant. Even I got caught up in it, and barely reacted when she grabbed me and jumped into the building.”

“You jumped into a burning building?” asked Sally.

“That would explain why the back of your arms are so raw,” said Jerome, looking at Ben’s arms.

“It wasn’t that impressive,” I said. I walked over to Elenor and began wiping the dirt, blood, and grass from her wound.

“No, it was! She even kept it running until we reached this hill. Kept it running continuously,” said Ben.

“That is impressive,” said Sally. “Impressive mental fortitude, as expected of the witch’s apprentice.”

As Sally said that, I looked at Elenor, who was facing Ben while rhythmically tapping her fingers like she always did. However, when I glanced at her, she mouthed, “Later.”

“It was nothing,” I said.

“What do you mean? You fainted from exhaustion! I even thought you’d burnt your book,” said Ben.

“Well, I didn’t,” I said. I decided to change the subject. “Is it okay for us to stay here? We’re still close to the city.”

“I know,” said Sally. “But this is the best cover for miles. The road to Devel is on the other side of the city, and it’ll be the first place the guards will check.”

“What’s in that direction?” I said, pointing straight ahead.

“The national border with Clef,” replied Sally. “Correction, the heavily guarded national border with Clef.”

“Can we get to Devel without the road?” Ben asked.

“Maybe, but it’ll be hard with so many injured people,” said Sally.

“It’s fine, I can walk,” said Elenor.

“You’re lucky we didn’t have to cut your leg off,” said Sally. “I’ll carry you until it gets better, but it’ll take forever to get to Devel like this. Especially because of Ben’s ankle.”

“He can use my walking stick,” said Elenor.

“Still, we’d be in no position to defend ourselves if something happened. You hired us to keep you safe, and we’ve already failed to an unforgiveable degree. We won’t let it happen again, even if we have to wait a month for your leg to heal,” said Sally.

“Can’t you build something to help us walk, old man?” asked Ben.

“If I had the materials and a couple of years, sure,” replied Jerome. “What we need right now is a healer. Know any good healers in Chart, Sally?”

“Not personally, but we could get one at the Healer’s Guild.”

“They’ll give priority to the guards,” said Jerome. “We won’t get a turn at the guild for weeks, assuming we aren’t arrested before that.”

“Damn healers, sucking up to the government,” said Sally.

“I thought the guilds were closer to the Side Party. Why wouldn’t the Healer’s Guild help the rioters first?” asked Elenor.

“The guilds are all technically neutral,” explained Jerome. “The Side Party takes the best care of their interests, so most guilds support them, but the only people with healing books are Headers and rich Cheeks, who tend to support the Front Party, which is why healers are usually partial to the government.”

“Are healing books that rare?” I asked as a thought came to my mind.

“Yes,” said Sally. “The government rarely gives out new ones, and when they do, they get auctioned off for insane prices. And since no one burns them, they get passed down within rich families. In fact, if someone gets a healing book, they’ve pretty much guaranteed Header status for their family a few generations down the road.”

I looked at Elenor’s leg.

“I wonder…” I looked around while speaking, then stood up and ran back to the stream. I scoured its banks and found a spiky plant hidden under a rock just outside the water. I dug the mud around its root and picked up the plant, then ran back to the others.

“Sally, can I borrow your knife?” I asked.

Everyone stared at the plant in my hand. “What’s that?” asked Sally.

“An Alver plant,” I answered. “Knife, please.”

She took off the knife hanging around her belt, and put it in my outstretched hand. I placed the Alver on the ground, unsheathed the knife, and chopped off one of its spiky leaves. I peeled off the skin, which got rid of the spikes, and revealed the soft, fibrous flesh inside.

“Anyone have a needle?” I asked.

“Yeah, I should have one in here somewhere,” said Jerome as he rummaged through his pockets. “Ow! Yep, here you go.”

“What are you trying to do?” asked Elenor.

“Disinfecting,” I said as I pressed my fingers against the peeled Alver, and a sticky liquid came out. I rubbed the liquid over Elenor’s wound, ignoring her uncomfortable wincing. Then I used the knife to separate a thin fiber from the plant’s flesh. I held up the needle, squinted with one eye, and threaded the fiber into the needle-head.

“Sally, could you hold Elenor’s arms, please?” I said.

“Wait, tell me what you’re going to do, first,” said Elenor.

Since Sally didn’t budge, I acquiesced. Really though, questioning the doctor was not good practice. “I’m going to stitch up her wound so it heals faster.”

“You’re going to stitch it?” said Jerome. “Like a tailor?”

“Somewhat like that, yes,” I replied. Of course, only a fellow admirer of science could understand my intentions so quickly.

“I’m not a piece of cloth,” protested Elenor.

“Don’t worry, Alver juices are both antiseptic and anesthetic, your entire leg should be numb right now.”

Elenor prodded her leg. “Oh no, I can’t feel my leg. No!”

Silly girl. I looked at Jerome and shrugged. These unscientific people were so smallminded. Jerome met my gaze with a blank look. Had he succumbed to the pressure of the ignorant?

Sally’s eyes were widening and Ben was frowning while looking at me.

“You’re using magic, aren’t you?” said Ben.

“Magic is what the ignorant call Science!” I replied. “I am merely using my knowledge of the medical arts to take care of my lovely patient.”

“Yep, she’s using magic,” said Ben.

I sighed. Communicating with cavemen was incredibly difficult. Well, I did not need to communicate with them to carry out my duty.

I faced Elenor again. “I highly advise letting our good friend over there hold you down, lest you overreact to the faint discomfort you may feel during the procedure. And hurry, the anesthetic effect should wear off fairly quickly.”

“If she’s got a healing book…” Sally said.

“Fine,” said Elenor after another moment’s hesitation. She tapped her finger and turned her face toward me. She took a deep breath. “Go for it.”

I stitched up her wound, rubbed some more of the Alver juice over it, then wrapped it with a cloth I had washed with stream water and Alver juice.

“And for you, Mr. Stane,” I said, turning to Ben.

Ben jumped. “Wait, I don’t need to get tailored!”

“Of course you don’t need stitches, silly boy,” I said, shaking my head. “Let me see that ankle.”

He reluctantly put his foot on my lap when I sat beside him. I put a stick behind his ankle and wrapped it tightly with some rags.

“Grab a stick to lean on and you’ll be good to go,” I said.

“I see,” he said. “Thanks.”

“Now do you see the value of the medical arts?”

“You can stop using your magic now.”

“No, there is still something I must do.” I took some peeled Alver, put it inside a piece of cloth, and scrunched it up as best I could.

“Rub this on your burns, Ma’am.” I gave it to Sally.

Sally rubbed the dripping cloth on her face and shoulders.

“Please pass it to the others,” I said.

By the time I’d replaced the Alver leaves inside the cloth a few times, we had all rubbed it on our wounds.

I tied the cloth around my leg, stood up, and took a deep breath. “This air is great! We should go for a jog. Exercise is the most important part of healthy living!”

“You don’t need to use your magic anymore, Val,” said Ben.

“But that’s unsafe! What if something happens after I stop using it? The medical arts are the greatest lifeline known to humanity, foregoing them would be akin to suicide. Nay, murder!”

“Please stop using your magic Val,” said Elenor.

“I need to make sure you have a safe recovery, Ms. Cramer. I cannot, in good conscience, abandon a patient before they are fully recovered.”

“Then just check again in an hour.”

“What if something happens within that hour? Complications and abnormalities do not have a clock.”

“But your magic does,” said Ben. “If you burn it, you wouldn’t be able to use your medical arts for at least a day.”

I looked at the book hovering over the shelf in my mind. The pages were flicking back to the start at a swift rate but it wasn’t even a hundredth of the way through.

“It is fine, I can use it all night.”

“Please don’t. We may need it in the morning,” said Elenor.

I nodded. “That’s true! In fact, I am certain we will need the assistance of the medical arts once we begin moving. Very well.”

I let the Cannon fall back onto the shelf. I also let go of the breath I’d been holding.

“Glad that worked out,” I said.

“Having a healer in the party is a blessing,” said Ben as he stared at me. “But…”

“I’ve never wanted to punch a client so hard in my life,” muttered Sally.

“I think I’ll let my legs rot next time,” said Elenor.

“It wasn’t that bad…” remarked Jerome.

I looked away.

Episode 5 Scene 2

Stars dotted the sky and the moon blanketed the Earth with its silvery glow. A cool breeze blew past me, making my clothes flutter. It also made me wince as it brushed past the burns on my back.

“Val, you’re awake!”

“Yeah,” I said. I tilted my head but didn’t get up. The night sky captivated my gaze and the smooth grass was too comfy to part with.

“Are you alright? Your back’s all burnt, and you were tossing and turning in your sleep,” said Ben. He was sitting against the rock with his legs outstretched.

“Just a nightmare,” I said. “I don’t even remember what it was about.”

“You shouldn’t let your back touch the ground.”

“Don’t worry about me. How’s your ankle?”

He put a hand on his leg. “It’ll heal.”

But it would take a while. Which meant we couldn’t move very far on our own. “Any idea where Elenor and the others could have gone?”

“A little. I found traces of them while we were running away.”

“Oh yeah, Jerome said you were a finder.”

“Not really, it’s just what I’m good at.”

“You don’t like being a finder?”

“No, I mean, it’s fine. I don’t mind. It’s just,” he said as he looked at his hands. “I’ve always wanted to be a fiddler; making things is so much more fun than finding them.”

“Can’t you do both?” I asked.

“I could, but then I wouldn’t be very good at either.”

I frowned. “Elenor said you were a good finder. All you have to do is learn how to make things, right? Can’t Jerome teach you that?”

Ben furrowed his brows. “That’s not the problem. I already know how to make stuff, I just can’t do it very well. Not unless I throw away my finding abilities.”

How could he throw away something he already had? “I’m sorry, I don’t get it.”

“I’ll have to burn them,” he said. “My books. Unburnt, they’re great for finding, but not so much for fiddling. I could change that if I burn them right but…”

“Then you wouldn’t be able to use them for finding, anymore,” I finished.

“Exactly.” He looked away.

I frowned. There was more to this than what he was willing to tell me. However, I decided not to push him on it. “Well, you haven’t burned them yet, so could you use them to find the others?”

He nodded. “I can try.”

As he said that, I focused intently on his face. After what happened at the wall, I thought I had a rudimentary understanding of how magic worked but I still wanted to confirm a few things.

His eyes stared blankly into the distance for a second, probably from having accessed his shelf. Next his posture shifted and his eyes darted swiftly in various directions. He focused on the foot of the hill and closed his eyes. He raised a finger and began moving it in the air as if he was tracing a route on a map. He opened his eyes and pointed back in the direction from where we had come.

“You mean they’re still in the city?” I asked.

“No, I said I found traces of them while we were running away, didn’t I? They definitely left the city, and I’m fairly certain they used the same exit we did.”

“But we didn’t run into each other?”

“They left after we did. Probably an hour or two later.”

“What?” I said. “How do you know that?”

“It’s simple, really. Since we couldn’t find them at the store and they weren’t at the inn, they must have gotten caught up in an incident. By the time they were done, we were in the Collar’s district, or at least at the wall.”

“Couldn’t they have gone looking for us at the market?”

That’s what I had assumed when we couldn’t find them. A comical error where we both went searching for each other but ended up where the other had started.

“No, they have Ms. Cramer. They wouldn’t just assume we were still at the marketplace, instead, Ms. Cramer would have searched for us with her magic.”

Of course! That made a lot more sense.

“But wait,” I said. “Why didn’t you find them with your magic while we were in the city?”

“My magic doesn’t work that way. Ms. Cramer’s magic works as far as she can hear, and it is a lot more effective than mine. All I can do is look for clues, and use them to answer questions and solve problems.”

“I see.” His was like a detective skill, while Elenor’s was like echolocation.

“Which is why all we need to do now, is wait,” he said.

“Wait?”

“Yes, wait. Ms. Cramer should fine us soon enough.”

“You have a lot of confidence in Elenor. Did you know her before we met in Sett?” I eyed the red-haired boy sitting by the rock.

“No, but how could I not have confidence in her? She’s the Broken Witch’s apprentice! I mean, that’s why I had so much confidence in you, after all. Even though you were doing something absolutely crazy!”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Well if you weren’t the Broken Witch’s apprentice, I would have never followed you into a burning building after you’d been blazing magic for so long. That was so risky, burning your book to make sure we got out safely. My heart was in my throat the whole time!”

“Yeah,” I said halfheartedly while I considered what I had just learned. It made a couple of questions come to mind.

Why had Elenor told him I was Moxy’s apprentice, and what was that about burning books?

“You recovered so quickly too,” he continued. “Master said it usually takes people a long time to recover from burning a book, especially if it’s a powerful one like yours. Oh, I know!”

I had shifted my gaze to the stars while wondering about what Ben had said but now I brought it back.

“Why don’t you test your new burnt magic while we wait?” said Ben.

I got up to look at him.

“Only if you want to, of course,” he said, quickly. “I understand if you want to keep it a secret.”

“No,” I said. “It’s just…”

He waited for me to continue but I didn’t. Honestly, my understanding of magic was still pretty slim, and I had no idea how to use this new burnt power he was talking about.

“Master said you can use burnt magic just like regular magic. Just grab the burnt book from your shelf and the rest should come to you naturally,” said Ben, as if he’d read my thoughts.

He was probably still using his detective magic, so maybe he was kind of reading my thoughts. “I’ll try.”

I pictured my shelf in the back of my mind, however, I couldn’t find any burnt books. It was the same familiar mahogany shelf floating in an awkward part of my vision, with a large green tome and a smaller leather book standing on top of it.

“Huh,” I said. “Guess I didn’t burn it after all.”

“Really?” asked Ben, his eyes widening. “But you were using it for so long. Was it a large book?”

I shook my head. “No, it wasn’t. I guess I must have stopped at the last moment.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Just what you’d expect from the Broken Witch’s apprentice.”

That title didn’t seem very flattering to me, but I didn’t rebuke him. Elenor probably had a reason for associating me with Moxy, and I had a hunch what it was.

“Is there a way we could help Elenor find us without giving ourselves away to the guards?” I asked.

“Yes, we can do this.” Ben snapped his fingers.

And so, we waited by a moonlit stone on a grassy hill under the stars while snapping our fingers.

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Episode 5 Scene 1

Lights flickered with an electric buzz, illuminating two armchairs. Giant white pillars held up the sky, and rows of empty shelves ran between them. The marble floor made cold shivers run up my legs.

The sight was familiar, not just because it reminded me of the House of Wisdom and the room at the back of the library of Fenbay. I’d been here before, and that experience had not ended pleasantly. I walked over to the armchair on the right but didn’t sit down. Instead, I glanced at the figure sitting in the other armchair.

It looked like a floating blob of white noise but something was different this time. The blob wasn’t completely shapeless, it branched out in five directions, making what may have been four limbs and a head.

Garbled noises came out of the figure, making the marble floor ripple, the pillars shake, and the lights flicker. The noises ended. I stared at the figure, trying to discern a pattern in its surface. However, staring at it made my head hurt.

One of its protrusions pointed to the armchair I was standing beside. I accepted the offer and sat down. The protrusion on top of the figure moved up and down, as if it was nodding. However, the movement left afterimages in its wake, and I averted my eyes because the sight made me queasy.

Doing so made me notice the shelf in front of the armchairs. It was my shelf, with the Cannon standing on it. However, the Tempest hovered above the shelf, the way it did when I had used it during the chaos in Chart. It was frozen in place on the first page, which had nothing but the title of the book, and the author’s name on it.

In the corner of my eye, I saw the figure move its arm. The air rippled and white noise flooded my ears. I grit my teeth but my eyes stayed locked onto the Tempest. The first page lifted a little, fell back, and then flipped. Then the next page flipped. And the next. Then the next.

Pages fluttered until the back cover hit the final page. The Tempest was closed and it slowly sank until it nestled next to the Cannon on my shelf.

I gasped as a weight I didn’t know I had been shouldering, was lifted off me. The figure pointed at me and my vision dissolved into tiny particles buzzing around erratically. Some areas began to attract more particles and became denser. Those areas formed a vague outline that loosely resembled the figure in the armchair.

Then all the particles that weren’t a part of the outline rushed into the protrusion that seemed like the figure’s face. They continued to gather until they formed a roiling mass of particles so dense, they made a tiny black line on the figure’s face. The black line parted in two.

The figure spoke but as the words reached my ears, I was struck by an intense feeling of vertigo, and the particles that made up the figure dispersed. My vision stabilized for a moment, and I glimpsed the armchairs, the shelves, and the room before sinking backwards into the depths of the chair.

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Episode 4 Scene 6

I groaned. Pain racked my brain and my vision was swimming, but I had retained my consciousness. As my vision settled, I saw a redhaired boy lying motionless under a pile of burning wood.

“Ben!” I said as I made my way toward him.

His eyes twitched as I dragged him out from under the debris. He coughed and blinked his eyes open. I smiled and slapped his cheeks lightly.

“Come on, we have to keep moving.” I helped him up.

He stumbled when I let go, and held his ankle. He winced audibly. Cursing, I put his arm over my shoulder and stood up. He winced as I walked forward and tried to get as much weight off his bad foot as I could.

The tunnel was dimly lit by torches whose smoke made them almost redundant. We hobbled along until we reached a ladder.

“I can climb with one foot, I think,” said Ben as he leaned against the wall.

I let his hand slip off my shoulders and looked up the ladder that stretched out of view. I walked up to Ben, turned, crouched, and motioned for him to get on my back.

“No, I –” he began.

“Hurry up, those guys might come after us,” I said.

“But –”

“Oh, for the love of…” I backed up into him, making him double over. As I stood up, his hands wrapped around my neck. I grunted, grabbed the ladder with both hands, and slowly ascended into the darkness.

There were no torches here so I could only keep putting one hand over the other, and hope for the best. A fainter darkness appeared above, and a breeze blew through my short, bristly hair. I grabbed the edges of the hole and lifted myself up. Panting, I let Ben get onto the edge first, before stepping onto solid ground.

We were in a courtyard under the open night stars. The hole we’d crawled out of appeared to be a well. Faint explosions echoed from beyond the walls behind us, as did cries and shrieks of pain and terror. The buildings on either side of the courtyard were shoddier than the ones that had been damaged in the fighting inside the walls.

Supporting Ben on my shoulders again, I walked down the road leading away from the wall. Even if we’d escaped the fighting, there would be guards searching the slums in the morning, looking for wounded rioters and their families.

The Collar’s part of Chart was a cesspool of poverty, disease, and misery. The streets were littered with junk and outlined by open sewage drains that overflowed with foul smelling wads of grey gunk. The houses were made of mud, with holes and collapsed walls to complement broken ceilings and tiny doorways.

When we’d first arrived, I’d noted how much larger the Collar’s part of town was here compared to in Sett. Sally had said it was because Chart had a larger population, and because Collars weren’t let inside the city. Jerome had added that many Cheeks couldn’t afford to live in the city either, so they moved outside the walls.

He’s also said that it was even worse in Devel and Bass.

“Where are we going?” asked Ben.

“Away from here,” I replied. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was going in the direction of Devel – the next city on the way to Bendeck – I felt confident that getting out of the city was our first priority. Finding Elenor and the others, was the second.

The streets were empty, and all the windows and doors that could be closed, were shut tight. Nobody wanted to be caught on the streets on a night like this, even if the guards were preoccupied with everything that was happening inside the city.

I saw a pair of black eyes peeking out from a window, but they vanished as soon as I met their gaze. I kept to the shadows as much as I could, while avoiding the open drains. I breathed heavily but it was the sound of Ben’s breathing that filled my ears.

I shifted his arm further up my shoulder. His warm breath fell on my neck as he winced from the pain in his ankle. Finally, after what felt like hours of trudging along dirty mud roads, we left the ramshackle mud huts behind, and got onto a hunting path that wound through an open plain.

Under the silvery moonlight, I saw a stone lying on a hill against the navy-blue heavens, and decided it would be a good place to get our bearings. The thought came to me immediately, just like all the other brilliant ideas I’d thought up on the spur of the moment tonight. My brain seemed particularly impressive at the moment, even to me.

Wind blew silver waves into the grass. A starry sky greeted me from above. Despite the soot in my hair, the dust in my mouth, and the injured friend on my shoulder, I felt pretty good. We’d made it out alive to enjoy a lovely night.

I climbed the hill and made sure to hide behind the rock before letting Ben slide off. I moved my stiff left arm and stretched my back. I took a deep breath and looked up at the moon and the stars.

I could never have seen a night sky like this back on Earth. Although I’d lost the House of Wisdom as soon as I’d gotten here, and been involved in one misfortune after another, this sight almost made up for it.

“Val, are you alright?”

I smiled. Cheeky little kid worrying about me despite the state he’s in. “Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

A soft thud, like something closing shut, echoed in my ear. As I exhaled the crisp night air, my energy flew out with it. The image of the front of a closed book imposed on my vision as I crumpled to the ground.

The image faded until there was only darkness.

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Author’s Note: If you like the story, leave a comment below! You know, writing seems a lot more glamorous when all you’re doing is reading. As I reader, I’d project my thoughts to the author like: You’re in charge of the story, you can make the characters do whatever you want! Seems amazing, doesn’t it? Well it’s a terrible responsibility. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Episode 4 Scene 5

“Hold!” cried the knight. The guards stopped but the inertia of their charge led them within striking distance of me.

The masked figures hesitated but after seeing my covered head, they shuffled closer until they were right beside me. I had intended to mediate but judging by my appearance and the reaction of the masked figures, it wouldn’t be difficult to assume that I was with them.

The guards readied their stances.

“Thank you,” I said, confident my charisma would keep them at bay. “Although you really should put out those piddling torches.” I pointed to the Molotov cocktails. “And didn’t anyone ever tell you not to run with sharp objects?” I faced the guards. “What if you hurt yourselves?”

The knight spoke, “Another miscreant?”

I feigned indignation with a hand on my chest and a foot behind me. “Me? Never. I’m just trying to make sure no one gets hurt. I want to resolve your hostilities, not partake in them.”

“You sound like a bloody bug,” said a masked figure behind me.

“Bugs can’t speak, silly. I used to be terrified of spiders as a kid and I would have never gotten over it if they could talk. The thought sends shivers down my spine as we speak,” I said.

“Enough,” said the knight.

The masked figures and the guards locked eyes. I was losing what little control I had over the situation. I needed something to shock them back into place. A daring strategy that nobody could predict which would give me total authority once again.

“I didn’t want to say this, but I guess I have no choice.” I took a few steps towards the masked figures, until I could smell the smoke from their molotovs. I turned my back on them and stared into the knight’s eyes. “Do you know who I am?”

The guards locked their gazes on me, looks of confusion and anger on their faces. The knight lifted his visor and squinted with his beady black eyes.

“A ruffian who dares disturb the peace of our glorious city,” he said.

“That is true,” I said, putting a hand under the rags that covered my face. “However, I am no ordinary ruffian, and you would do well to keep that in mind.” I lifted the rags just high enough to show my empty cheeks and neck. I also flashed a white-toothed smile for extra measure.

The knight crumpled his nose and slammed his visor shut. “Squad, hold.” Then he addressed me, “What house are you from, milady?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“My apologies, but we must ask you to vacate the area for your own safety.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Then we will have to take you under our protection.” Some guards shuffled forward.

I raised a hand and they stopped. I tilted my head a little to the right and looked at the knight on his pedestal. “What’s your name?”

The knight hesitated. “I am the third captain of the Chart chapter of the Fore Armed Forces.”

“I asked for your name, captain.” I tugged at the rags around my eyes to better meet the captain’s eyes.

He hesitated. From up there, he must have seen me standing calmly between two hostile groups of battle-ready warriors. The molotovs – which had somehow not exploded yet – burning in the hands of the people behind me, and the reflection of sunlight ricocheting off the armor and swords of his soldiers, made the scene even more dramatic.

The burning building to the side was now the most major source of light in the vicinity, and the flickering red glint it cast on my body paired with the aura of assuredness that I exuded, must have finally tipped the scale.

“Captain Casio Dent, milady.”

“Well then, Captain Dent, please order your troops to withdraw. I spotted several people in need of assistance up the street, and would appreciate if you would limit yourself to containing the chaos, rather than exacerbating it.”

He nodded and motioned for his troops to retreat. Some of them stole glances at the masked figures and the burning building, confirming my suspicions.

I let the rags fall over my face again. The figures behind me were getting agitated. There were murmurs of bug and licker. I swiveled to face them. “I saw children running into that building. Instead of fighting a pointless battle, how about we go help them out?”

A few of them looked at the building but most of them eyed me defiantly. One of them spoke, “You’re just another lousy bug. You can’t stop the revolution of the burnt!”

“I’m not stopping anything. I came here because that douche on the jabber box asked me to come fight with you. Now, if you’re here on the outskirts of town instead of in the middle of the fight, you’re probably trying to protect that secret exit out of the city.” I pointed at the burning building.

That was why I’d made sure to get the guards to leave, rather than get their help rescuing the people in the building. Besides, those people had run into the building, so they were probably trying to escape the guards in the first place.

“Most of the usual spots are sealed, and the main gates are, obviously, blocked. If we wanna get kids like him.” I pointed at Ben, who jumped a little as a dozen eyes shifted onto him. “Out of the city, we’ll need to put out those flames.”

I didn’t wait for a response and ran straight to the well on the other side of the street. I started rotating the wheel attached to the well, which began lifting the bucket full of water.

“Fine,” said one of the figures as he grabbed another bucket lying next to the well. “We’ll talk after we’re done.”

“That’s alright with me,” I said. “In case you couldn’t tell, I love talking.”

He grunted in response as he grabbed the bucket I had lifted out of the well, poured the water inside into the bucket he was carrying, and ran back to the burning building. Other masked figures followed suit, grabbing whatever they could find and filling it with water before running back and attempting to douse the flames.

I let a more muscular person take control of the wheel, and soon there was a train of people carrying water across the street. Even Ben helped out, which was a problem because we didn’t have the time to help them.

I caught up to him as he was pouring water on the front of the building. “Ben, do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” he said.

I threw the pot I was holding aside and heard it shatter. “Someone’s crying for help, come on!” I grabbed him and rushed inside the building.

A few shouts arose, as well as some curses. Someone said, “Stop them!”

But the people who had been near me told them what I had said, and the shouts abated. That was the last I heard of them as I pulled Ben further into the building.

The furniture was on fire. The walls were on fire. The ceiling, the floor, everything was on fire. Wooden beams lay smoldering in the living room, and part of the ceiling had collapsed in the kitchen. I tried to remember which way the wall was while avoiding the flames, and trying to breath as little smoke through my rags as possible. I let go of Ben’s hand so he could cover his mouth with his shirt.

I crouched and made Ben do it too, so we wouldn’t be blinded by the smoke. However, we still couldn’t find a backdoor. I checked the walls for a secret doorway but there was nothing there. Sweat trickled down my back only to evaporate immediately. My eyes stung and my lungs protested in agony.

There was a creak above us. I shoved Ben aside and dove for cover as a wooden beam crashed into the floorboards. I coughed. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” yelled Ben over the crackling wood.

I got on my feet and saw the floor. The beam had gone straight through to the basement.

The basement.

“Ben!”

He looked at me from across the hole in the floor.

I pointed down the hole. “Jump!”

He shook his head.

More creaks. The walls swayed.

“Ben!”

The floor collapsed under him and he fell into the abyss. As the flames licking the walls behind me ignited the rags around my face, I followed Ben into the hole while tossing them off.

A loud crash accompanied my jump, which was succeeded by an even louder, and more painful, crack, as my head met the ground.

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Episode 4 Scene 4

I stood next to the box, even though there were no words coming out of it. Even the crowd outside the window was silent.

Goodbye? After saying all that and putting us in this dangerous situation, he was just going to leave? At least tell the guards to clear the way, damn it.

“So that’s Gecko Ross,” said Ben.

“Who the hell is he?” I asked.

“The new leader of the Side Party. I’d heard he was stirring up trouble but I didn’t know he was crazy.”

You probably didn’t know he was a douchebag either, I thought.

“We should leave,” I said, crouching to avoid being seen from outside the window as I made my way to the back door.

“What about the supplies?” asked Ben.

“No time, we need to get as far away as possible.”

I looked out through a crack in the door. There were no guards in sight but I made sure to open the door carefully. I still had a foot inside when the jabber box came back to life.

The now familiar voice of Gecko Ross, fiery leader of the Side Party, shouted:

“Go!”

Explosions punctuated his command and a series of shouts arose from out the window. Throwing caution to the wind, Ben and I ran into the street behind the inn. We stuck to the shadows of the buildings to avoid the waning sunlight. Guards streamed out from buildings behind us, but none of them chased us.

They had bigger things to deal with.

“Any idea where Elenor and the others could be?” I asked.

“The shop they went to is that way, near the center of the city,” he replied.

Near the center of the city? I did not want to go there right now.

“What are the chances they’re running for the gates and we can meet them outside?” I asked.

“They’re probably coming to look for us.”

Of course they would come looking for us, the inn was right next to the square. I resolved, at that moment, to always decide on an emergency rendezvous point before entering a city, and to always avoid politics like the plague.

“Fine then.”

We sprinted across the road and made our way to the inner walls. All the windows and doors we saw on the way were shut tight. Small bands of people scurried around in the shadows like us, while some of the bolder ones walked around wearing masks and rags while brandishing makeshift weapons.

The number of guards increased exponentially as we neared the inner walls. A group of people wearing black and white clothing had surrounded a guard and were beating him with sticks, stones, and household objects. Further in, groups of guards were pushing people to the ground or beating them with the flats of their blades.

The first corpse we saw was an old man lying in a pool of blood with an arrow in his throat. A middle-aged woman was crying next to him while an angry mob assailed the wooden doors of the guards’ barracks. Another scream pierced the air as we left that place behind.

The jabber boxes that people had put next to their windows had mostly been taken away but the few that remained replayed the same words repeatedly:

“A state of emergency has been declared. All citizens are advised to stay inside their homes for their own safety. Failure to comply absolves the government from any responsibility for your wellbeing.”

Ben said that we were almost there, but I had been expecting to meet the others on the way. Had we missed them or did they leave the city after all? Or maybe they’d gone towards the market, expecting us to still be there?

As we reached the gate that led to the inner city, Ben grabbed me and ducked behind a building. Peeking out, we saw dozens of guards facing off against a mob of masked figures in black and white. The guards’ swords were unsheathed and the turrets on the gate were whirring. There was a fully armored knight on a pedestal, just like the one in Sett.

The mob stood behind a red semi-circular line that bounded the area immediately in front of the gate. To the right of the mob was the shop Elenor and the others had gone to, and on the left, were three familiar buildings – the guilds. The red, yellow, and blue buildings looked almost identical to the ones in Sett.

There was no sign of Elenor, Sally, or Jerome.

“This is your final warning. Disperse!” said the knight on the pedestal.

In response, a single masked figure strode forward. Even the mob around him was confused by what she was doing. The figure turned around and took off the black sheet covering her clothes, and the mob hushed.

At first, I thought it was just the Side Party flag: a white rose on a black background, just like the ones I’d seen in the square. However, although the color scheme was the same, the flower was not a rose. It seemed vaguely familiar, as if I’d seen it very recently, in fact.

It was… a poppy.

The poppy was incinerated along with the rest of the masked figure, as the turrets began to shoot.

The people in the mob scattered but none of them ran away. Taking cover behind buildings and trash cans, they threw stones at the guards behind the red line. One of them even came to the building we were hiding behind, but didn’t say anything after seeing my covered face and the marks on Ben’s cheeks. That person pointed a finger at a guard who then promptly collapsed with an icicle lodged in his head.

The guards ran out of the red semicircle and fought the masked figures. Despite having better armor and weapons, the guards had a tough time beating back the figures because they kept ducking inside buildings or hitting the guards with magic.

I grabbed Ben. “They’re not here, let’s go.”

As we left our spot at the corner of the alley, the ground shook. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a crater in the ground, a hole in the corner of the building, and a charred corpse. Screams, shouts, and explosions rang out in all directions.

I had no idea where we were going. We couldn’t leave through any of the gates because they were guarded, and the secret entrance we’d entered the city through was on the other side of the city. The only thing we could do was hunker down in a relatively safe part of town and hope for the best.

We ran to the outskirts of town and came across a group of unmasked people who ran inside a burning building right next to the wall. I heard boots marching on the ground and turned around. A contingent of guards was headed towards us. On the other side of the street were masked figures with Molotov cocktails and stones. There were no alleys to duck into nor any buildings to hide in, except for the burning one.

“What do we do?” I said, backing up against the wall. The guards and the figures ignored us as they inched closer to each other.

“I don’t know!” cried Ben.

The last vestiges of sunlight reflected off the guards’ swords as they closed in. A tall masked figure snapped his fingers and lit a torch. He passed it to the person beside him and lit another one. The burning building was the brightest light source and since it was behind us, our shadows stretched between the two forces, soon to be trampled upon by their feet.

“Val,” said Ben

“Yeah?”

“Do you have any magic that could get us out of this?”

Magic? Right, this was a world of magic.

I imagined the shelf in the back of my mind, and it appeared. The Cannon hadn’t done anything when I tried it, so I reached for The Tempest. It had a faded leather cover, with its title stenciled in golden ink. It opened on the first page, flipped through to the last page, and hovered in the back of my head.

I didn’t feel any different. Maybe it had given me some magical powers but I couldn’t tell what they were? I snapped my fingers. I pointed them. I imagined hellfire falling raining down upon my enemies. But nothing happened.

Was it useless after all? Maybe I couldn’t use magic. Was it because I was from Earth? As the guards charged and the figures lit their molotovs, I prepared to avoid getting killed in the crossfire.

However, I felt a strange sensation in my chest. It wasn’t a bad feeling, in fact, it made me feel strong, more confident about myself. I could get through this, no sweat. Those swords didn’t even look scary, and those cocktails? They were for drinking, dummies.

Seriously, someone needed to stop that scuffle before people got hurt. Someone powerful, self-confident, and with just the right amount of crazy to risk getting burnt alive and sliced to pieces at the same time. Someone like that Gecko Ross character. Now that’s a leader with presence.

I was sure that if he’d strode up into the middle of that fight, everyone would’ve stopped and listened. In fact, I was so sure of it, I felt offended. An uppity douche like him fixing an important fight like this? Nay, only someone pure of heart, full of wisdom, honor, and integrity, could stop this battle.

Someone like me.

I let go of Ben and strode into the middle of the road.

“Hello friends! How about we put those nasty weapons away and have a chat, hmm?”

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Episode 4 Scene 3

“Hello friends!”

The crowd cheered and shouted, “Gecko! Gecko! Gecko!”

“Alright! Lovely seeing you all out here tonight, thank you so much for being here. Thank you Alderan for an amazing introduction. Thank you, Dennis, Eliza, and everyone else who helped make this event possible. Let’s have a round of applause for them!”

The crowd applauded, cheered, and chanted. The energy here was at a peak.

“And a big and special thank you to the people of Chart who came here despite the obviously malicious intentions of the bastard guards and soldiers who are currently surrounding this square with orders to follow and kill the most enthusiastic people here!”

It took a while for the words to carry, but then there was silence.

Absolute silence.

“I never get used to this,” the voice continued unfazed. “Everyone always shuts up so fast, it’s kinda funny. Although, I thought they’d get used to it by now, even if I haven’t held a rally in Chart before.”

Some soldiers began to shift. The one’s closest to the window were glaring in the direction of the stage, and a few even had their hands on the hilts of their sheathed swords. But then the most well-armored one signaled for them to stand down.

“Right now, the dumbass soldiers’ captains are telling them to stop confirming everything I just said. See, some of these maniacs may wanna jump into this crowd of innocent people, and swing their swords and cast magic to murder kids in public!”

The people on the edge of the crowd looked back, saw the scenes playing out between the guards and their captains, and inched closer together.

“Ignore them for now. Also, you guys. Yeah, the ones powering the jabbers. Thanks so much for your help, but I’ll take it from here.”

There were some murmurs from the front of the crowd.

“Don’t worry, I can run them on my own. Go join the crowd. There you go!”

The black box in the living room crackled to life even though it hadn’t been turned on.

“Nice!” came the voice from the box and from outside the window. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, the Front Party leadership in Chart told me to stay away from the Header’s part of town. They wouldn’t let me hold this if I didn’t agree, so I did. But I thought it was unfair for you all to have to endure my crappy speech alone, so let’s make sure this reaches the rest of the city too.”

There were some more murmurs, and even a half-hearted cheer, but the energy that had been accumulating had all dispersed to be replaced by a heavy sense of unease. Or perhaps the unease had existed beneath the excitement and had only been laid bare by the incendiary words of Gecko Ross.

“If I know that old coot up in the Tower, he’s probably got some snipers trained on me right now.”

What was this guy doing? I understand this wasn’t really his fault, but he was fanning the flames too hard. The crowd was getting more agitated. The guards were on edge. The tiniest spark could set this place ablaze.

“The government’s probably planning to round up everyone who came here and take you in for some reeducation,” continued the voice of Gecko Ross. “Maybe a few men will wind up dead in the sewers, or some women and children will mysteriously disappear. Or perhaps guards will crack open some heads for minor infractions. The wells will be poisoned. A strange disease will appear and Chart will be quarantined. There’s a very good chance that as soon as I leave, this place will go to hell.”

I felt goosebumps on my skin but I couldn’t tell if it was because he was saying the government would do those things, or because he was implying they would do those things because of him, and he was totally aware of it.

If he was so sure these people were going to be punished, then why the hell was he saying all this crap? His words seemed to be designed to fuel anger at the government, but honestly, at that moment, I could only feel angry at him.

“Now don’t get mad at me, this would have happened even if I hadn’t insulted the guards or told you about their evil plans. Just seeing so many of you showing up at a rival party’s event would’ve been enough of a reason for them to crush you.”

Ben and I were sitting out of view of the window, listening intently to the black box in the old lady’s living room. I met Ben’s eyes and confirmed that he was just as frightened and confused as I was.

“And you know why I can say this with absolute impunity? Why I know they won’t come after me? Even if I wasn’t the leader of the second largest party in Fore, or a damn good fighter, the reason I’ve never been scared about getting killed for opposing the government, is because I was born a Header.”

Gecko paused. The murmurs stopped.

“And you weren’t. That’s all there is to it. I was born a Header, while most of you in the crowd are Cheeks, with a few Collars who managed to sneak in somehow. And just because of those little marks on your body, you’re going to look over your shoulders on your way home tonight. You’re going to stay up all night worried for your family. You’re going to know that your life and the lives of your loved ones are at risk because a stupid bug from the capital said some bullshit words that he won’t have to face any consequences for!”

That makes no sense, I thought. Why were these people going to be punished for his words?

“I suspect a lot of lickers like me are listening to this on their jabber boxes from inside the inner walls. To them I say, come put yourselves on the line. You’ve got the power, you’ve got the social status. Come here and fight with your burnt brothers and sisters. Come on!”

A group of people tried to leave through the road by the inn, but the guards wouldn’t let them through. Several other groups detached from the main crowd too, and were trying to escape the square.

“To all of those trying to leave, do you wanna know why you were willing to come here even though I’ve given this speech in every other city in Fore?”

No, I thought to myself. No, we don’t.

“It’s because the papers aren’t allowed to publish my speeches. It’s part of why I say all this stuff. The Official Press and the Daily Scribbler would rather pretend I never speak than talk about what I say. Even the Gazette won’t run my speeches, but that’s because they’re a bunch of spineless pansies.”

I motioned to Ben. We were outside of the square but it might be a good idea to try to get as far away as possible. I peeped out the window and saw the guards drawing swords and pushing people back into the square.

“And since we’re on that topic already, how about I explain why I’m doing this. Why I’m so blatantly challenging the government while obviously alienating my own supporters and putting their lives on the line.

And the answer’s quite simple. After centuries of lethargy and apathy, we need a little kick to get us all motivated. Because if we don’t stand together all at once, they’ll pick us off one by one. They’ll keep us weak, disunited, and most importantly, afraid.

Afraid to challenge the Header who got you sent to prison for talking back to him. Afraid to get justice for your friends killed by the guards for no reason. Afraid to look for your daughter who went missing even though you can hear her screams coming from a bug’s window. Afraid to fight for a future where your vote counts as much as theirs, and where those on top can’t stay inside their pretty little walls without having to breathe the same air as everyone else.

A future where you don’t have to burn an empty book just so you can be identified as socially inferior.

You’re lying to yourself if you think your life isn’t terrible. You know that in the world we live in, your life isn’t worth the dirt on a Header’s foot. That your future was crippled the moment you had to devote a slot on your shelf to the Book of Chart, or even the Book of Bitany, and the rest to whatever cheap bundle of pages the Headers will throw out of their libraries.

Don’t you see, friends? You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain! Come, let us shape the future together. A future where all of us are equal. A future where your dreams can come true. Vote for the Side Party, and together, we will change this unjust system, together! We will make a more just, more righteous society.

Let us start a new chapter in the book of Illustair. One where we are the heroes, our struggle is the plot, and our dreams the conclusion!

Thank you all for giving me your time today. Stay strong and united, and nothing will stop us. Goodbye.”

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Episode 4 Scene 2

“Brothers and sisters, thank you all for being here this evening. I would especially like to thank the Chart branch of the Side Party, local party chief Dennis Smith, and whip Eliza Carton for all of their hardworking towards making this rally possible.”

Ben and I were several blocks away from the square but we could still hear the voice. It was being projected from boxes lying in windows all over the city, and although some guards were attempted to get the people to turn them off, most of them walked around the streets with a notepad in hand, scribbling something whenever they passed a speaker.

A guard met my eyes and his eyes narrowed. He was probably suspicious because my head was wrapped in a scarf. I’d seen a lot of people in the square, with hidden faces, and the guards had even attempted to stop some of them from entering the square at one point.

The guard took a step in my direction. I grabbed Ben’s shoulder and ducked into an alley.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Ben was startled but didn’t ask any questions as we bolted. I heard a shout behind us, then several more in reply. Clanking armor mixed with the words blasting out of the speakers.

“… they said we couldn’t do it. They said the only way to win was to appeal to Headers, to beg them for inketts, to work with the Front Party no matter how much we disagreed with them. Even today, they say this rally is a bad idea. They say it’s dangerous for the leader of the opposition to come out here.”

The voice was high-pitched and raspy, like someone was speaking at the top of their lungs after yelling for several hours. Cheers and chants would sometimes carry through the speakers, usually when the voice paused.

We entered the inn through the back door. The old lady wasn’t there anymore. The others weren’t back yet, so we put away the fruits and canteens, and walked over to the window behind the old lady’s desk.

People, just people everywhere. The noise was deafening, the chants only mildly catchy, and the stage too far away to see. Despite all that, there was a certain energy in the air, an energy that was building up gradually. Even the raspy voice was getting louder, more high-pitched, more enthusiastic.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Ben.

“Don’t they have rallies like this in Sett?” I asked.

“No. Since the Side Party’s held it forever, no one even bothers to campaign there.”

“I see.”

Honestly, I was surprised this world had a democratic system – albeit with a limited franchise. In the books I’d read, fantasy worlds had kings, knights, emperors, and feudal lords. If there was magic, there had to be a king. A magical kingdom that wasn’t a kingdom was a dumb idea.

“They told us to give up,” continued the voice, so loud it almost hurt my ears. “They told us to stop fighting! To let our brothers and sisters suffer under the Front Party’s draconian policies. They told us to shun hope, to throw away our pride, to never think that things could get better than they already are. But we said no! We said no!”

The crowd chanted, “We said no!

“When are the elections?” I asked.

“In a little over a month,” replied Ben. “So we’ll probably see more of these rallies along the way to Bendeck. Depending on how long we stay there, we might get to see the results too.”

With all the smiles, and cheers, the happiness and joy in the air was almost palpable. It made me curious, however, why so many people could get so worked up about politics. It had always been strange to me, reading history books and novels set in those days, that people cared about stuff like this.

Back home, I never gave it a second thought. Politics was messy, annoying, and kinda pointless. Even if your side won, nothing ever changed. I wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but it was safe to say I wasn’t going to change my mind in two years.

My parents had strong opinions on it though, and they almost never agreed. Dad had been a social worker before going into real estate, while Mom had been a career politician all her adult life. During the little time we spent together, they always bickered about some policy, or new treaty, or whatever whoever the president was, was doing last Thursday. Suffice to say, thanksgiving was my least favorite holiday.

Which is why the legions of raving fans that made this political rally seem like a concert looked silly to me.

“And what do you think?” I said, repeating what my parents always said at the end of their arguments.

“I don’t care,” said Ben, repeating what I always said before leaving the table back home.

“Me neither.” I turned to watching the crowd again. When were Elenor and the others going to come back?

“Actually…”

“What is it Ben?”

“I’ve started to care a little, recently.”

“Oh.” I tried to meet his gaze but he was still looking out the window.

“Yeah, it was a little before master died. The kids around the neighborhood started talking about this new guy who was shaking up the system. Most of them liked him cuz he was a troublemaker, like us. I never stuck around long enough to really get what was going on, but I used to hear parts of it.”

The crowd started chanting again. “We said no!”

“And then those words would come back to me sometimes. Like when I overheard one of master’s friends say he could be cured at the Header hospital, but master refused because he wasn’t qualified. Or when he gave me his own unburnt books after he died, cuz they were the only thing he could pass on to me.”

“We said no!”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. He sighed. “I’d rather not think about it right now.”

“Should we have something to eat while we wait for the others?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ben, turning away from the window. “Where’d you put the camcot berries?”

“On the shelf over by the door,” I said.

I cast a quick glance over my shoulder. The crowd seemed to be bursting at the seams. The voice on the speakers was trying to cut through the endless chants, and eventually managed to calm them down. Although I joined Ben in the kitchen and washed some camcot berries, we could still hear the voice, and the noise from the square. There was a tiny black box in the corner of the living room too, although it was turned off.

“Once again, thank you all for coming. It was a privilege and an honor for me to speak to you here, but without further ado, I would like to introduce the star of this evening. A man who has revolutionized all of Fore, who fights for our well-being every day, and whose compassion is only trumped by his humility, the leader of the Side Party, Gecko Ross!”

The crowd erupted.

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Episode 4 Scene 1

“Testing, testing. One, two, three…”A painful screech followed the words. A crowd was beginning to form around a tiny makeshift stage in the middle of the town square. Banners stretched across the street from building to building, posters plastered every visible wall in the vicinity, and flags blew in the wind as people waved them gleefully.

One would assume it was a festival. Musicians stood next to the stage, playing strange instruments that had a passing resemblance to those from my world. Families came to the square with their children and elderly, all of whom seemed to be in good spirits. Food stands had been propped up on the outskirts of the square, ensuring that the scent of roasting meat and sweet fruit drinks wafted through the window from which I was looking down at the event.

But reading between the lines, I found hints of unease, and the potential for unrest. Armed guards had cordoned off all roads leading up to the square, and insisted on checking everyone for weapons. All the shops around the square were shut tight, and their doors had been boarded up from the outside.

Only one door was open, the one directly opposite the stage. The flags around this building were the largest, the posters the brightest, and the crowd the thickest. In fact, the front of the building had been painted with the same somber colors that contrasted sharply with the mood of the gathering.

The colors were on the flags, the posters, the backdrop of the stage, and the building too. Even the people wore one of the two colors, making the square resemble a chessboard.

A flag fluttered in the wind, blocking my view out the window. It was a black flag with a white rose and the words ‘Side Party’ written on it, just like everything else in the square today.

As we’d entered the city, the guards had warned us there was going to be a political event in the square, but Sally took that as an opportunity to book us cheap rooms near the best part of the Cheek’s district. The rest of the inn was virtually empty, with a single old lady sitting behind the counter and looking out the window at the sea of people outside.

Even she was wearing black and white.

“The sooner we get out of here the better,” I said to myself.

“What did you say?” asked Elenor who was sitting across the room.

“Nothing, it’s just… this thing outside has me on edge. I keep expecting something to happen.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sally. “The new leader of the Side Party likes to stir up trouble, but he isn’t violent. And he sure isn’t a big enough threat for the government to take him seriously either.”

“Why not? Doesn’t the Side Party control Sett? And the crowd outside is nothing to laugh at,” I said.

“The Side Party’s held Sett for centuries and the people outside aren’t even a fraction of the city’s population. Plus, most of them are Cheeks. No Header will vote for him, and their votes are the heaviest,” explained Sally. “Now let’s get going. The city of Devel is at least two days away, and the rest stop is pretty far away. We need supplies to camp out for the night.”

I nodded. While I waited for Elenor to wear her shoes, the flag blew away. The crowd was denser now, a churning monochrome sea that made my eyes water a little. The guards closed off all entrances to the square except for the road besides the building with the white rose painted on it, and were redirecting newcomers there.

“We’ll need to split up to gather everything before the speeches start,” said Sally as we met up with Jerome and Ben downstairs.

“What do we need?” asked Ben.

“I’ll rent some sleeping bags and a tent from the Fighters Guild. Jerome and Ms. Cramer, could you come help me carry them?” said Sally. “Val, could you go with Ben to get some food and a few canteens of water?”

She called Elenor Ms. Cramer? Must be because she contracted her.

“Wait,” said Ben. “Why don’t I come carry the tent and stuff, let Elenor go with Val.”

Sally narrowed her eyes and glared at him. “Ms. Cramer is obviously stronger than you. Besides, we need to check in with the guild to formalize the assignment.”

Ben looked away. “Got it.”

“What kind of food do we want?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter, just grab whatever suits your fancy. It’s your quest,” said Sally.

“What about the reduction of the provisions fee?” said Elenor.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” said Sally. “Is it okay to subtract it from the reward?”

“Yes,” said Elenor.

“Then let’s go with that, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

I clutched the edge of the cloth I’d wrapped around my head, to prevent it from blowing off. Elenor had insisted I wear it because I didn’t have any marks on my cheeks. Most of the people here had three lines on their cheeks, with the people in the Collars district having three rings around their neck.

We split up. Ben didn’t know the way to the market, so Sally gave us directions. We left through the back door of the inn because the front door had been boarded up, and walked toward the city gates. The only open market was on the edge of the wall, at the border of the Cheek’s district.

Even here, the effects of the event showed. There were barely any people, only the cashier, and an old man wearing a purple sweater. The cashier eyed the old man warily, but the old man paid for his vegetables and left without a word.

The market itself was incredibly dirty, and smelled of rotting produce. Flies buzzed all over the place, and trash covered the floor. The only clean parts were around the cashier’s counter and near the entrance.

I grabbed some Golpens and Camcots, since they were the only things I knew about, and Ben collected a bunch of other fruits and vegetables. The cashier weighed them on his balance and we paid for them with the Inketts Elenor had given us. Then we left the market.

The streets were empty. I could almost hear the dust blowing in the wind. Dirt crunched under our feet as we strolled straight down the center of the road. I glanced at Ben. He’d slung the larger bag of food over his shoulder, while I held on to a smaller one. We were walking to the store that sold canteens, but a thought came to me as we walked.

“You’ve been out of Sett before?” I asked.

“Not really. I came to Chart once, but master didn’t really let me do anything.”

“I’m sorry about your master.”

“Nah, don’t be. He was getting old anyways,” said Ben, kicking a stone. “And he died happy too.”

“You know, I can tell Sally and Jerome to let you go back to Sett while they escort us to Bendeck.”

“It’s okay. Jerome was right, I need to move on. No point moping about him in an alley back home. They repossessed the house too when the old man died, so I got nowhere to go.”

“Who did?” I asked. Were there banks in this world?

“The government, of course. Inheritance is illegal in Sett. The only city in all of Illustair that does it.”

“Does what?”

“Take everything from you once you die,” he said.

That was kind of morbid.

“But other than that, it’s a good city,” continued Ben. “Or at least, that’s what everyone says.”

“Just because people say it, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” He kicked another rock. “I wanna see the capital.”

“Bendeck?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“I heard it’s huge. Bigger than any other city in Fore!” said Ben. “I also heard the food there’s the best in the world. Oh, and the buildings are all beautiful, straight out of a fairy tale.”

“That does sound lovely,” I said.

“And the best part is, it’s got tons of books. They say even the Collar’s district has books in it!”

Books? For a world where magic ran on books, there had been surprisingly few book shops. In fact, despite keeping my eyes peeled, the only one I’d seen so far was old man Ather’s secret shop.

“We are definitely going to the capital,” I said.

Ben giggled and raised a fist in the air. I joined in. It was comforting to know that little things like this were the same as back home. If expressions of joy, anticipation, fear, and other emotions had been drastically different, I would never have gotten used to Illustair.

We arrived at the general store and bought a few canteens. We filled them up at the well right outside the store, and began to lug them all the way back to the inn.

I recalled the thought I’d had, looked at the red-haired kid beside me, and tried to remember the crazy Ben who had whisked me away.

This Ben was younger and more innocent. If they were twins, this Ben was obviously the pampered one. If they were separated at birth, then while this one was picked up by a kindly old man, the other one must have been thrown into the river and picked up by a pack of wolves.

We took a different path back, but weren’t worried about getting lost. All roads led to the square in Chart. There were absolutely no people here. Even insects were crawling in the dark, with the sun so high in the sky.

“Hey Ben.”

“What is it?”

“You know, when I first saw you, I thought you looked a little familiar.”

He stopped walking. Crap, was I too direct?

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s probably nothing. I’ve met a lot of redheads, that’s all.”

“Well…” Ben shifted, and his eyes traced the ground at his feet. He crept closer and said in a quiet voice, “Maybe you met my family.”

“Your family?”

He shushed me.

“Sorry,” I said in a lighter voice. “Your family?”

“I was adopted by my master after he found me on the streets as a baby. He didn’t know what happened to my parents, but he took care of me like I was his own kid.”

“I see. Your master sounds like a wonderful man.”

Ben clenched his fists. “I used to call him grandpa. I grew up calling him that. I only changed it to master after he died.”

I frowned. It sounded like he really loved his master, and their relationship was essentially that of parent and child. “What happened?”

“He told me the truth.”

“What truth?”

“That I was adopted.”

“Didn’t you already know that?”

“Nope.” Ben looked at me with a smile that wasn’t a smile. “Waited until he was on his bloody deathbed before telling me.”

I didn’t say anything.

“All those years, living a lie. And he could have told me. I wasn’t going to think any less of him but no. He had to be a fucking liar, a goddamn coward. Admitted it himself.” Ben was shaking now.

“Damn it,” he continued. “Why didn’t he tell me sooner. I get not telling a little kid, but I’m old enough to handle it, aren’t I? Did he get some sort of weird kick when I called him grandpa? Was that it? Didn’t have any kids of his own, so he pretended he did. Why, why wouldn’t he tell me? Why?”

I waited for his rant to end, walked up to him, and tried to put a hand around his shoulder but he swatted it away. He continued walking with his head lowered.

Seeing him in that state, I couldn’t bring myself to answer his question. But then I didn’t really need to, anyway. The answer was trailing across the burn mark on his cheek.

<Prev|TOC|Next>

Episode 3 Scene 6

“…are you alright?”

I blinked my eyes. There was a silhouette surrounded by a bright light. A window with a person’s face in it.

“Val, are you alright? Val!”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied. My head was a brick, dumb and heavy. There was a weird buzz in my ear that I couldn’t get rid of.

“Here, drink this,” said Sally as she passed a glass to Elenor.

Elenor tried to make me drink the water but I waved it away. I put my hands against the bed and lifted myself into a sitting position. I accepted the glass from Elenor’s hands and drank it.

“Were you having a bad dream?” asked Sally.

“I don’t know,” I said, putting the glass on the bedside table. “Maybe? I can’t remember.”

“Don’t sleep with your head in the pillows, my ma used to say that made you have bad dreams,” said Sally.

“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks,” I said.

Elenor backed up and faced the window. The sky was a lighter shade of blue than I had expected, dawn must’ve been right around the corner. We had planned to leave at the first sign of sunlight but I had probably messed up that plan despite having slept the longest.

“Ben and Jerome are downstairs having breakfast. We need to leave early to beat the crowds,” said Sally.

“How far is the city?” I asked.

“A little over an hour’s walk from here, which is why most people wait until there’s more light out.”

“You two go ahead, I’ll be down in a minute,” I said.

Sally nodded and left the room. Elenor didn’t budge from the window.

“I’m sorry,” said Elenor.

“For what?” I asked.

“This must have been because of me. I must have messed with your head when I tried to read you.”

“Nah, that wasn’t it. Besides, trying to read me hurt you more than it hurt me.”

She released a breath. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Go get some breakfast.” I stretched and yawned. “I’ll be down after I change.”

She didn’t reply but grabbed her walking stick. I heard metal hit wood as she descended the stairs. Whatever she had tried to do to me was still weighing on her conscience. I remembered her saying Moxy had read her too. Was that why she disliked it?

I looked out the window. I smiled in spite of my nightmare. I took a deep breath and told myself not to dive too deeply this time. Just the shelf. Think of the shelf.

It appeared in the back of my mind – rich mahogany with a thin layer of dust. Two books stood on it, their spines pointing towards me. I fought back a little nausea that had been creeping up my throat.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like, still seeing everything in front of you while also seeing a floating shelf in the back of your mind. It’s kind of like looking inside your own head. Very disorienting, and I never quite got used to it.

I focused on the books. The larger one was The Cannon with its flaky hardback cover. The smaller one was The Tempest, a faded leather tome with golden letters. I focused on The Cannon as if I was reaching for it even though my hands were still. I felt its coarse cover, and the heaviness of the animal hide pages, like I was holding it between mental fingers.

Something told me that opening its pages would cause something amazing to happen. That an ocean of light would burst forth, and rainbows would beam across the sky, fireworks would explode, and I would be able to do magic, magic so mystical it would make a white-bearded wizard go back to being grey.

I pictured the book turning over so the spine would face away. It opened straight down the middle, and pages flicked by, racing all the way till the end of the cover and Ave’s note. The back cover met the last page.

Nothing happened.

I’d opened the book but nothing happened. There were no lasers coming out of my eyes, my muscles weren’t any bigger, and I certainly didn’t feel like I could jump out the bedroom window unscathed.

Did I do something wrong? Was I supposed to do something else? Elenor said something about burning books. Was that it?

I imagined The Cannon bursting into flames. I imagined the fire’s tongues licking away at its spine, its pages wrinkling and shrinking into themselves as the fire consumed them, leaving ashes to fly with the wind before resting on the ground, unnoticed.

But nothing happened. There were no flames, no ashes. The Cannon hovered in front of my imaginary shelf, held aloft by my imaginary inner hand with no flames to lick it. It floated like an imaginary man. A blindfolded man made unaware of his surroundings, and certain of only one thing.

That he existed. In some form or another, he existed.

What a strange thought. A little out of the blue. Like someone else was speaking in my head instead of my own voice.

Curious. One would imagine having any voices in one’s head would be grounds for seeking medical assistance. Perhaps I could begin to diagnose my condition on my own. Let’s see…

Painful dream I can’t remember. Voices in the head. Ignoring all sense of time. Abandoning my cold breakfast downstairs. A severe case of self-delusion caused by an inability to be honest with myself which led to a wild-goose chase predicated on finding a needle in a haystack in a new world that already meets my needs and desires. Is that a sign of greed then? I could abandon the House and go around reading other books.

In my pursuit of a greater goal, am I rejecting a satisfactory situation? Perhaps that is the cause of my current mental anguish. No, that’s not right.

More symptoms include pathetic passivity, lack of caution, self-diagnosing oneself without being a licensed professional, and talking to oneself in the voice of a condescending scholar.

Conclusion: put back the book and go downstairs or Sally will drag you there herself.

I proceeded to listen to my own advice and put The Cannon back on my shelf. Nothing changed. I let the shelf fade away, and looked out the window. There was a little more light out, but it hadn’t been as long as I thought it had. I changed into a new set of clothes I’d bought in Sett, and slipped into the shoes Moxy had given me.

I went down the stairs, had breakfast, and prepared to leave the inn. We left way before the sun peeked out from behind the horizon, and barely saw any people on our way to Chart. Sally chased off some angry looking birds who had tried to dive at us with their pointed beaks, and Jerome scared away a pickpocket who had crept behind us, by showing off the sharp, rotating teeth that lined the mouths of his pockets.

Other than that, we faced no trouble on our way to Chart, and came up to the city just before the sun was completely out.

Author’s Note: From now on, the end of an Episode will mean I’ll skip releasing the next chapter (so no new chapter today after this one.) Also, I hope you’re liking the story so far. Even though I don’t know you, we’re connected through this work. Isn’t that a strange thought? We have no idea who we are, yet I already feel like I know you, just because you’ve read this story. How remarkable!

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