Episode 6 Scene 3

“We aren’t using the sewers?” I asked.

“No, the canals are cleaned regularly, and they fix the steel grates at the same time,” said Sally. “That’s why Devel’s the hardest city to sneak into, it’s the only city where the holes get plugged up.”

We stood in the thicket where we’d set up camp for the night. Now that the stars were hidden behind the veil of a pale blue sky, we could see Devel shimmering in the distance. Little dots scurried over the bridges as people went about their daily lives.

Something buzzed by my ear. I swatted it away but it came back. I took a step back and saw the tiny bird hovering in front of my face. It looked like a hummingbird, with a long beak and tiny frame. It didn’t have wings on the side like most birds. Instead, an appendage extended from its head, attached to a rotating wing. Like a hummingbird with a helicopter propeller.

“Oh, a tiker!” said Sally. “That’s a good omen.”

“Says who?” said Jerome.

“Says all of Devel.”

“Since when did you start believing in superstitions?”

“I don’t believe it, but it’s good to have a positive attitude.”

Jerome stared at the city in the distance and sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We could all use a little positivity sometimes.”

Sally slapped him on the back. “There we go.”

“Is Ben back yet?” asked Elenor.

“No,” said Jerome. “He said he was preparing for the worst.”

Sally shook her head. “Pessimists.”

“I’ll go get him,” I said as I swatted away the tiker again.

He was probably by the stream so I made my way there. The tiker followed me, the buzz of its rotating wing ringing in my ear. Annoyed, I tried to grab it but it fluttered out of the way. Eventually, I gave up and tried to ignore it.

“Ben, where are you?” I shouted. The stream flowed silently but I couldn’t see him. Something fell, a rock or a stone. I peeked behind a rocky outcropping.

Ben stood in front of the stream with his back to me. He lobbed a pebbled in the air and caught it. He took a deep breath, then threw the rock. There was nothing in front of him, so what was he aiming for?

Movement in the distance. A flock of birds flew into the sky. Ben picked up another pebble. He lobbed it in the air, caught it, doing it again and again, until he could repeat the motion perfectly. Another deep breath, then he threw it upstream. The pebble skipped twice, thrice, four times, before vanishing from view. A faint plop announced the end of its journey.

Ben cursed and clenched his fists. He said something under his breath but I couldn’t hear it. I was so focused on what he was doing, I forgot what I’d come to do. It was only when he saw me peeking at him that I stepped out.

“We’re about to leave,” I said.

“Oh, right, sorry. I got a little carried away.”

We began making our way back to camp.

“You’re pretty good at throwing pebbles,” I said.

He chuckled. “I was practicing my magic.”

“Was it the same magic you use to find stuff?” I asked. It would make sense for magic like that to improve your accuracy.

“No, I was practicing my other unburnt magic.”

“Both your magics do the same thing?”

“With pebbles, yes. But they’re very different, trust me. Sometimes I wish I could use both of them at the same time because they complement each other so well, but I guess that’s a little too much to hope for. I’m already fortunate enough to have two amazing books.”

“And the third?”

He pointed to the flame signs on his cheeks. “The Book of Sett. I’m a Cheek, so I had to burn it.”

“Oh right,” I said, as if I’d asked a dumb question.

“It must be really nice having three books on your shelf,” said Ben. “The best part is, you aren’t even a stupid Header! I can’t stand them, and I know Sally and Jerome don’t like them either.”

“I haven’t even met one yet but I know I won’t like them,” I said. These noble types always rubbed me the wrong way.

“There you are,” said Sally as we approached.

“Sorry, I lost track of time,” said Ben.

“It’s fine,” said Sally. “Alright, everyone knows the plan, correct?”

We nodded.

“I’ll go over it just in case. Ben, Elenor, and I will cross the Collar’s bridge first. We’ll pay the toll and let the guards inspect us. While the guards are busy with us, Jerome will fall into the canal with Val under his robes. We’ll help Jerome out of the canal, and deal with the guards’ complaints while Val will swim under the bridge with one of Jerome’s air boxes on her head, and meet us on the other side.

Then we get what we need and leave the way we came. Just remember to jump into the canal on the Collar’s side, Val. The water’s dirtier there so it should be easier to hide in. Any questions?”

“What if something goes wrong?” I asked.

“It won’t.”

“But what if it does?”

“We’ll figure something out when the time comes. Stop worrying so much, you met a tiker just now, didn’t you?”

I hadn’t heard its buzz in a while so I looked around. “It’s gone though.”

“But it came to you! Now just stick to the plan and we’ll be out of Devel in no time,” Sally lifted her pickaxe. Its handle was broken and its end had dents in it, but it was still an intimidating weapon. “Honestly, I wanted to show you guys around a little bit. I’ve been to every city in Fore, and even a few in Clef, but none of them can hold a candle to Devel.”

“Maybe I’ll come sightseeing one day,” I said.

Sally smiled. “Let me know when you come, I’ll show you around.”

“Deal.”

We walked to the road. There were only a few people there, probably because this road led to the Collar’s bridge and most people who traveled between cities were Cheeks. Our fellow travelers looked as worn out and destitute as we did, with torn, patched clothes stained with mud and grease. They traveled in groups but spoke very little, and no one batted an eye when we arrived.

I walked in the center of our group so I’d be hidden from sight. Peeking between Sally and Elenor, I saw a stone bridge over a murky canal. At the foot of the bridge stood a couple of guards, their resplendent armor at odds with the filthy garb of the people they were checking. In the middle of the bridge were another couple of guards who surveyed the crowd, with their spears pointing to the sky.

We joined the line in front of the guard on the left – a dark-haired woman with a sharp gaze and a thick lower lip.

“Just as planned, alright?” said Jerome in a hushed whisper.

I nodded as he wrapped his robe around me. I was glad he’d washed himself in the stream before we left camp. I didn’t risk using the air box yet, in case it ran out.

“Next,” said the guard in a neutral tone. It was early in the day and her shift had only just started, so she wasn’t tired yet.

“Sally Josef from the Fighter’s Guild. This is my teammate Ben Stane, and that is our client, Elenor Cramer. The big guy back there is my other teammate, Jerome Nandy. Here’s my badge, Ben give her yours please.”

“Here.”

“And you, sir?”

“Ah, it should be…” Jerome stepped to the side and tripped.

“Watch out!”

With a jerk, we stopped moving.

“That was close,” came the guard’s voice from close by. “Be careful sir.”

Jerome chuckled lightly. “I will, thank you.”

I cursed. Things were already going wrong.

“Your badge?”

“Here,” said Jerome as he rummaged inside his pocket.

I bit my lip. What was I going to do? The guards would find me for sure. Damn it, Sally, this is why we needed a backup plan!

“Hey, quit pushing,” said Ben.

“Is something wrong, young man?”

“It’s nothing, the people behind us are getting a little impatient, that’s all. Hey, quit it, would you?”

“Please stop pushing,” said the guard. “We’ll all get through this faster if everyone cooperates.”

“Hey, I said sto –”

Ben bumped into us and a sense of vertigo gripped me. A splash and a wave of coolness told me the plan had worked. I put the air box around my head and breathed. The box’s sides were transparent, but I couldn’t see much in the brown water anyway. I heard another splash to my side, someone coming to Jerome’s rescue, no doubt.

I swam towards the bridge until I hit a wall of stone. Sally had told me the bridge extended underwater and I planned to follow it to the other side. Being able to breathe underwater was a strange experience. It was unnerving because I couldn’t see anything and instinctively felt like I needed to hold my breath, but once I got used to it, it felt nice.

My head hit something. I felt it with my hands. It was coarse but solid, the kind of stone the bridge was made from. It extended away from the bridge. I followed it until a bright red shape appeared within the murky, brown water.

I surfaced.

“See, what’d I tell ya? Tiker’s are good luck.”

“We almost got caught, Sally,” I said as I climbed out of the water. My clothes stuck to my skin and the breeze made me shiver.

Jerome put his robe around me and said, “Good job there.”

Ben pocketed the crumpled red rags. “We should get you some dry clothes first.”

“Let her pick something she likes,” said Sally.

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I don’t need to look good, just grab the first thing you find.”

“Fine,” said Sally as she walked out of the alleyway we were in.

“Good job back there, Ben,” I said.

He put a hand on the back of his head. “It was nothing.”

“No, she’s right. You kept your head straight and got us out of a tough situation,” said Jerome, beaming. “Being quick witted and resourceful are essential qualities for a good fiddler.”

Ben nodded but didn’t say anything.

“Hey, where’s Elenor?” I asked.

“She was here a moment ago,” said Jerome. “She must have gone with Sally.”

“That must be it,” I said, frowning. I thought Sally left alone.

“How are we splitting up this time?” asked Ben.

“Like we did in Chart,” said Jerome. “You and Val go get food from the market, Sally, Elenor, and I will get the sleeping bags, tents, and other amenities.”

“That didn’t work out very well last time,” I said.

“But you hadn’t met a tiker then.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in Sally’s superstitions?”

“I don’t, but I have a good feeling about today.”

I exchanged a glance with Ben. He shrugged.

“Look what I brought!” said Sally as she returned with two bundles of cloth in her hands.

“Were they cheap?” asked Jerome.

Sally gave him a pointed look. “This is for Val, we can afford to splurge a little.”

“It’s going to get ruined in a day.”

“Again with the pessimism, Jerome. Besides, these were reinforced with magic so they won’t tear easily.”

“Unless we want to make bandages,” Ben chimed in.

“We’ll buy proper bandages this time.”

“Just give it to me and let’s get on with it,” I said, cutting in.

“Right,” said Sally as she handed me one of the bundles.

The cloth felt coarse and made me think it’d be uncomfortable to wear. I opened the bundle and something fell by my feet.

“I’m sorry,” said Sally as she bent down to grab what had fallen. “Should have told you there was a mask inside.”

“A mask?”

I stared at the mask in her hand. It had a smooth, curved black surface that would probably extend just beyond my chin and forehead. There was a black leather strap on the back, with a golden buckle that made it look like a belt.

“Wrapping rags around your face isn’t very reliable, but this mask is built to handle some rough falls and tumbles,” said Sally.

“How’d you get this?” asked Jerome. “Stuff like this is always in the Header’s zone.”

“I called in a few favors,” said Sally, with a wink. She passed me the mask.

I had no idea what it was made of but it did feel pretty solid. “Won’t this make me look suspicious?”

“You were going to stick out regardless, at least now you can do that in style!”

“Great.”

“Try it on,” urged Ben.

I still had the rest of the bundle in my other hand so I passed it to Jerome for a second. I unbuckled the belt on the back of the mask, and pressed my face into the black surface of the mask’s interior. However, when it touched my skin, the darkness vanished and I saw Sally’s smiling face in front of me.

“Neat, right?” she said. “You can see us but we can’t see you.”

“Is it magic?” I asked, looking around. The streets were just as brown and gravely, the houses as derelict and poised to crumble, and the sky the same shade of pale blue as when I wasn’t wearing the mask.

“No,” she said. “It’s made from tint.”

“Tint?”

“A rare metal mined in Epil. This mask is made from unrefined tint ore, which is why it wasn’t that expensive.”

“It’s still worth a fortune!” said Jerome. “How’d you get the money for this?”

“I sold that book Val gave me,” said Sally as she rummaged inside her pocket. “Here’s your change.” She handed me five large strips of paper, each worth a hundred inketts.

“I can’t take all of this!” I said.

“You defeated Skinner, it’s yours.”

“We fought him together.”

“No, she’s right,” said Jerome. “We should have been the ones protecting you, but you ended up saving us in the end.”

“But –”

“Just take it,” said Ben.

I hesitated, then nodded and accepted the money. No point refusing it if they were insisting so much.

“You should get out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold,” said Jerome, passing me the unfolded bundle.

There was a long black robe with large, upturned collars. The sleeves were a little long but the other measurements seemed fine. There was also a couple of brown undershirts and black tights, as well as three pairs of black socks. The cloth they were made from was soft but firm, leagues better than the crude stuff I was wearing.

“Do you like them?” asked Sally.

“They’re amazing,” I said, sizing up the robe. “Thanks Sally!”

Sally smiled and lifted the bundle in her hand a little higher. “I’ll give you these once we buy some backpacks.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Oh right,” said Ben. “Is Elenor still at the store?”

Sally frowned and looked behind her. “She helped me pick out these clothes for Val. I thought she was behind me but I must have lost her.”

“Sorry,” said Elenor as she appeared around the corner. On her nose sat a new pair of sunglasses, which had sharp, angled edges that formed triangles. “I got sidetracked.”

“Wow Elenor, those shades are amazing!” I said.

“I didn’t think you could look any cooler but I guess I was wrong,” said Sally.

“I haven’t seen a pair like that in years,” said Jerome. “Glad to see they’re coming back into fashion.”

Elenor smiled. “They were the cheapest ones they had.”

“Great bargain then, I suppose,” I said.

“Right, get out of those wet clothes already, Val,” said Sally.

I changed behind a pile of trash. The robe stopped just over my knees and didn’t hinder my movements much, but the sleeves stretched beyond my hands. I considered rolling them up but it wasn’t like I needed to hold anything yet. I left the dirty wet clothes on the pile of trash and joined the others.

“Wait, you guys don’t know where the market is,” said Sally to Ben and me.

“Oh yeah,” said Jerome. “Guess I’ll go with them, then.”

“Elenor and I can’t carry the tents on our own,” said Sally.

“I’ll come with you,” I said.

And so, Ben and Jerome went to the market while Sally, Elenor, and I went to the camping supplies store. It was a tiny change to our initial plan, but it made me uncomfortable. The mask and robe didn’t help either, since we were still in the Collar’s zone. Sally and Elenor hadn’t bought new clothes yet either, so we must have seemed like an odd bunch.

Worst of all, it felt incredibly strange being able to look at people without them noticing. Even when they looked at my face, they never met my gaze.

Unlike the other Collar’s zones I’d been to, Devel’s didn’t stink of sewage and human refuse, probably because all of that got channeled into the canals. Still, the roads were full of potholes and the people walking on those roads were just as obviously impoverished as the Collars in Sett and Chart.

“Here,” said Sally.

The store was small and the sign on its wall simply said, “Camping Supplies.” We bought five sleeping bags which we tied on top of as many backpacks. With two tents, a few canteens, pots, pans, and some bandages, we were ready to go. Sally gave me the other bundle of clothes, which had an extra robe, several sets of underwear, and another couple of shirts and tights in it. I offered the extra robe to Elenor but she refused, saying she didn’t like long robes.

“Let’s go here next,” said Sally, pointing to a store with glass windows showcasing dresses.

I helped Elenor pick out a few shirts and pants, and convinced her to buy a cloak. Sally bought a set of green robes and brown clothes. She also bought a new pair of shoes, since her old ones had been ruined by mud and rain.

I looked at my own shoes, the ones Moxy had given me. Despite everything I’d been through, they were unscathed, and the little metal M’s on them shone just as brightly as ever. Elenor’s shoes were just like mine, except hers were brown while mine were green.

“That should be everything, right?” asked Elenor.

I eyed the walking stick she was tapping on the ground. It was smooth and undented, but it had traces of mud and dirt on it.

“Let’s get this too,” I said, grabbing a cleaning cloth. I handed it to Elenor. “Take care of your walking stick with this.”

Elenor accepted it but said, “It’s not a walking stick.”

“It isn’t?”

“No, it’s a baton.”

I frowned. It did look like a musical baton, with a sphere on top and thinner end at the bottom, but it was a little too big to be conducting an orchestra with.

“My bad,” I said. “But that just means you need to take even better care of it.”

With everything we needed on our backs, we made our way to the alleyway we’d set as our rendezvous point. Ben and Jerome were waiting for us with baskets of food which we promptly emptied into the backpacks.

“Do I need to dive into the canal again?” I asked.

“Well, they probably won’t stop us on the way out,” said Jerome.

I sighed. “But it’s still possible. Let’s play it safe.”

“No,” said Sally. “It’ll be fine. Trust the tiker!”

“The tiker won’t help me get past the guards,” I said.

I couldn’t convince her in the end, and for some reason, I was swept away by her optimism. I’d been anticipating disaster in Devel, but so far, I’d gone for a dip, bought new clothes and supplies, and generally enjoyed myself for what may have been the first time since I lost the House of Wisdom.

Maybe tikers really were good luck.

People leaving the city walked between the two lines of people entering the city. The lines were bigger now, and the guards were grumpier because of the hot midday sun. The crowd leaving the city was thinner so our group stood out more than I would have liked. Still, the guards didn’t stop anyone in front of us, not even glancing at most of them.

Sunlight bounced off the murky water flowing gently in the canal below. As we left Devel, I felt a slight urge to stay a little longer. It was the best city I’d been in so far. It was pretty, it was safe, and there were so many things Sally had mentioned that I wanted to experience, food I wanted to taste, sights I wanted to see.

But Bendeck was just one city away. As I passed the guards standing in the middle of the bridge, I thought about Bendeck, and the lead Moxy had promised me.

Henry, once I met him, I could finally begin searching for another Wonder, which I could use to track Demetrius, and reclaim what was rightfully mine! I could almost see the blue dome, and feel the coldness of the marble beneath my feet, and smell the musty air that only a giant gathering of books could possess.

To top it off, the other Wonder was probably just as amazing. In fact, I should gather as many of them as I can. That seemed like a brilliant idea! I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before, and why it had come to me so suddenly, like an epiphany borne out of a daydream.

I took a deep breath, and stepped forward with confidence. After an endless cascade of mishaps and inconveniences, things were finally looking up.

I smiled. Guess that tiker was a good omen, after all.

“You in the black mask!”

I stopped. Looking over my shoulder, I saw one of the guards staring at me.

The guard pointed in front of himself. “Over there.”

I bit my lip as my heart began to race. I eyed the edge of the bridge; could I jump into the canal? No, even if I could make it, they’d jump in after me. If any of them were finders, they’d catch me instantly.

“You dropped something.”

I blinked and followed his finger. A single sock lay on the stone.

“Oh, thank you,” I said as I grabbed the sock.

The guard nodded. Sally and Jerome had taken position on either side of me, while Elenor and Ben stood right behind me. As the guard’s gaze shifted, all of us loosened.

Once the bridge was no longer within sight, someone chuckled.

“I’m glad I wasn’t the only one expecting something to go wrong,” said Ben.

“I’m sorry I almost threw an exploding box at him,” said Jerome.

“Don’t be, I almost smashed my pickaxe into his head.” Sally laughed.

“I almost sent him flying into the canal,” said Elenor.

I let The Tempest fall back on my shelf. Then I tutted. “Unbelievable, how dare you guys doubt the great tiker?”

“Unforgiveable,” said Jerome, shaking his head. “We need to atone for our sins.”

“How can we possibly make up for what we have done?” asked Sally, feigning incredulity.

“I’ll tie my hands over my head and spin in circles,” suggested Ben.

“No.” I shook my head. “That’s not good enough.”

“What if I do this,” said Elenor as she blew a raspberry.

“That’s it!”

We blew raspberries on the empty road. It was silly, childish, and made our lips hurt, but we didn’t care. The sun shone brightly over our heads, a fresh breeze brushed past my skin, and flowers bloomed beside the road.

Someone blew a raspberry close to my ear. “Ben, stop it!”

“Huh? Stop what?”

A tiny black shape hovered in front of me. “Oh look!” I said. “It’s back!”

“It could be another one,” said Sally.

“Maybe,” I said, as the tiker buzzed past my ear and disappeared behind a tree. “Or maybe it came to see us off.”

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Episode 6 Scene 2

I woke up in the middle of the night, breathing heavily. Sweat trickled down my forehead.

Another nightmare. But there was something else, something important. I could feel the memory of the dream slipping away so I clung to it as hard as I could. What was it about? Where did it happen?

Who did I meet?

My fists clenched around a handful of dirt. The ground was still moist from the rain, and since we’d lost everything in Chart, we’d spent the night on the bare earth under the open sky. The ground was cold, just like in the dream, but the marble floor had been colder.

The marble floor had been colder.

I remembered! The House of Wisdom, the dream had taken place in the house of wisdom. No, it wasn’t the House, at least not exactly.

The moon was out, but the trees blocked most of the moonlight such that it fell like a spotlight. Or a reading light.

A reading light!

The room! The room at the back of the library. I went there in my dream, or I dreamed I was there. And there were chairs, two armchairs. I sat in one and in the other…

Someone else, there was someone else there but I couldn’t remember who.

The answer came to me but my memories began to fly away. I rolled over and jabbed my finger into the ground, stubbing a nail. The pain made me lucid. I held onto the word echoing in my head, letting all my other memories about the dream fade away.

My finger traced the word on the ground. It was a name, a name I’d heard before, outside my dreams. I could feel my memories collapsing the way the House had collapsed.

The house collapsed? Was I thinking about the time Demetrius stole the House of Wisdom from me or when Villa Serenity collapsed in a big pile of mud? I couldn’t remember, but it was important. This was all I remembered from the bad dream, I’d held on to it with all my might.

Wait, what did I hold onto? The House? No, I lost that. I shouldn’t have lost it, but I did. Completely my fault, nobody else to blame. Not even the person I’d met in my nightmare.

My head hurt. My finger hurt too. I looked at it and found it was bleeding. I cursed and sat up. Did I hit my finger on a rock or something? There were drops of blood on the ground, but no rocks. There were grooves in the mud. Almost like a word or a name.

I squinted and in the bleak moonlight I read the word on the ground, “Static.”

The grooves had splotches of my blood in it. I’d written this, but I didn’t remember doing so. All I remembered was waking up from a nightmare with no recollection of it.

“Static,” I whispered under my breath.

“Oh, you’re up, Val?”

I turned around. “Elenor, you’re on watch?”

“Yeah. Why are you up though, had a bad dream?”

“I guess,” I glanced at the word on the ground. “But I can’t remember what it was about.”

“That’s how dreams work. They’re not real so they don’t deserve to be real in your head either.”

“I’m too groggy to tell if what you said was pure genius or pure crap.” I stood up.

“Probably a bit of both,” she said.

“I’m going to the stream but switch with me when I get back. You look like you could use some rest,” I said.

“I’m fine. Just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

“Let me guess, thinking about Moxy?”

“No, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

A stronger reply than I’d expected. She was probably thinking about Moxy, after all. I didn’t say anything else as I left the camp, making sure to step around Sally, Jerome, and Ben’s sleeping bodies. I also made sure to step over the word I’d scrawled on the ground, obscuring it with my footprints.

At the stream, I washed the blood and mud off my finger. Then I applied some Alver juice so it wouldn’t get infected. I’d used The Cannon while applying Alver juice to the others’ wounds, but I didn’t do that for myself. It was a tiny cut and I felt like I knew how to use the stuff myself by now.

I washed my face and gargled. The water was cool, clear, and drinkable, so I drank my fill. In the distance, I could make out the city of Devel, our next destination.

Sally made us camp at a distance so we’d stay hidden. Unlike the other cities, Devel’s Collar zone was also warded off, although not by walls, so we needed to sneak in regardless of which part of town we wanted to stay in. Squinting, I saw the large canal surrounding the city as well as two canals that branched out from it, dividing the city into three areas. Two bridges were visible from where I stood, one connected to the area with small, earthen houses and huts, the other to the middle area, which was better lit and had nicer buildings.

The only walls were around the first zone, which I assumed was where the Headers lived. If there was a bridge across the canal that led to that area, it was probably on the other side. Not that it mattered, since we wouldn’t be going there at all.

I was a little worried about Devel. So far, my experiences with cities in this world had not been pleasant. In Sett, I’d been attacked by blurry wolves that made things explode, and in Chart, I’d gotten caught up in political riots and almost died in a burning building.

Sally assured me there was nothing to worry about. Devel was her hometown, she knew it like the back of her hand. We were going to go in, grab some supplies, and get out as fast we could. We’d be out of the city in hours. Nothing could go wrong that quickly.

Under the moonlight, Devel seemed blurry, hazy, almost ethereal, like a mirage or a hallucination. Or perhaps a dream, a dream like the one I’d had that night.

I left the stream and took over the watch from Elenor. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, giving me ample time to mull over the word that I had scribbled in the ground. But even when the first signs of dawn appeared, and the others began to wake up, I was no closer to unraveling the mystery of Static.

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Episode 6 Scene 1

The buzz of electric lighting.

Two armchairs on a marble floor, shelves lining the walls between marble pillars shooting up to marble slabs that blanketed the sky.

And two books on a shelf, one green, one black.

I sat on the armchair. I knew how things were going to go, by now. The figure was in the other armchair. Its outline was better defined but it was still just a blob of white noise with a few protrusions. Normally, I would wait for something strange and trippy to happen to me before falling into the back of the armchair and waking up with no memory of this dream.

But this time, I decided to do something different. I tore my gaze from the figure and stared intently at my shelf.

“Hey, how are you?” I asked.

After a brief pause, a garbled, gravelly noise resounded through the air.

“Sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying,” I said.

Silence ensued. I stared at the shelf, fighting the urge to look at the other armchair. The figure probably thought those trippy experiences helped me understand it better, but they usually just left me more confused than before. They did seem to make its outline more well-defined.

“Instead of trying to speak to me or showing me weird stuff, why don’t you just write out what you want to say?” I proposed.

A short burst of noise that sounded oddly like a yes. Then a book flew out from one of the shelves between the pillars. The book opened to the first page, which was blank, and hovered in front of me. Then words began appearing on the page, in an elegant cursive script that was still somehow easy to read.

“Hello,” read the text. “My name is Static.”

The ground shook and the words stopped coming, as if the writer had put up their pen.

Then the words returned.

“It seems your tactic has worked for the moment, but it is very unlikely we will be able to communicate like this again, so I will make this brief.

I am Static, one of the three gods of Illustair, and the only one who cares about the people who inhabit it.”

The ground shook again. Some of the books began falling off the shelves.

“The other gods wish to destroy humanity to prevent anyone else from ascending into godhood and challenging the status quo. Fortunately, I have been able to keep them at bay for centuries while hoping that the next human to ascend will assist me in my struggle.”

A pillar collapsed in the background. Pages flipped as the writing reached the end.

“However, all of that changed when you appeared, or rather, when the two of you appeared. I was caught completely off-guard and Bit, who had experience dealing with your world, managed to recruit the boy who came with you to her side.”

Pillars continued to collapse, the marble slabs in the sky fell, and cracks snaked across the floor.

“And before I could contact you, she cut off her connection to the boy, and locked us back into a stalemate! Even now, she attempts to sever our communications while interfering with Illustair in some other way. It will undoubtable make your journey more difficult, but it is essential that we have this talk.”

The lights flickered and the ground shook.

“I know I cannot compel you to do anything. I too, was once human, so I understand your suspicion. All I ask, is that you defeat that Demetrius boy, and gather all the Wonders before he does. It is the only way to save Illustair from Bit’s machinations.”

Everything collapsed except for my armchair and the reading light standing next to me.

“Although, perhaps I didn’t need to tell you this. I get the sense you were going to do that anyway.

You really do love reading books, don’t you?”

The light went out.

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Episode 5 Scene 10

Cold water splashed over me. Jerome put the blue box back into his pocket as I spit out water and shivered. I’d agreed to let him throw water at me to get rid of the mud clinging to my clothes, but he didn’t warn me it would be so cold.

Water stood on the ground in pools and puddles. It had stopped raining but the sky was still overcast. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The storm hadn’t died, just moved.

Elenor dug through the mud, looking for something. Ben shook his hair and sprayed water all around.

“We need to leave before Inline comes to investigate,” said Sally, one hand on the bandages on her arm.

“Devel’s still a day away and all of us are wounded,” said Jerome. “They’ll be searching for us as soon as we reach the city.”

“It should take them a while to realize what happened, shouldn’t it?” I asked.

“No, every member of Inline burns a copy of the Book of Inline, which lets their superiors know where they died and how,” said Sally.

That was an incredibly specific detail, I remarked to myself.

“Would they know we were here, though?” I asked. “In the end, it was Skinner who killed her.”

“They must have only seen Skinner’s face, but they probably knew there were more people here,” said Sally. “Let’s have a look at her.”

We turned to the black-haired woman’s corpse. Her robes were still intact, albeit a little muddy. Skinner had already taken all the gold in her pockets, although I questioned why she had gold coins in the first place.

Weren’t inketts the currency of Fore?

“It’s because Inline works with forces from across Illustair. Gold works in Clef and Epil too, although the exchange rates are terrible and only the wealthiest trade in it,” answered Sally.

“She seems familiar, doesn’t she?” said Jerome.

“Yeah,” said Sally, crouching by the corpse’s face. “Kara Tanner. She ran the May Cray Inn, it’s where I was planning to have us stay, in Devel. Her husband should still be there but it’s probably best to avoid the place for now.”

“All these years Bob thought she was cheating on him,” said Jerome, shaking his head.

“In a way, she was.” Sally stood up. “No books, she must have burned all of them.”

“What about Skinner?” asked Jerome.

I was closest to his remains, so I checked. His body was so charred, I barely recognized him as the murderous psychopath who’d tried to suck the soul out of me. He had some inketts and gold coins in his pocket, as well as some strange smelling cigars and a lighter.

Around his neck hung a necklace with a shiny black orb on it, and I had a hunch why he hadn’t crushed this one. I buried it in the ground.

“Check under him,” said Sally.

I turned him over with my feet. A small leather-bound book peeked from the mud. I picked it up and wiped the mud from the cover.

“What does it say?” asked Sally.

“The title’s too faded, I can’t make out all of it,” I said, squinting my eyes. The lack of light didn’t help. “The author’s first name is Max, and the title says something about ethics and capitalism.”

“Explains his obsession with money,” said Sally.

“What do you mean? He couldn’t have been using it all the time,” I said.

“Magic relies on the user’s personality, their character, who and what they are. It’s why the same book can give two very different results depending on who uses it,” explained Sally. “But it’s a two-way street. The user can change the magic, but the magic can change the user too.”

“Are you saying magic can change your personality?” I asked.

Sally nodded. “Unburnt magic especially. You’ve already felt it, haven’t you? It’s a temporary change, but use it long enough and the changes might stick.”

I eyed the book in my hand. I didn’t find what Sally had said strange at all. Even on Earth, books could leave a mark. I remembered reading several books that made me spend hours staring at ceiling fans, or listening to music in the shower with the lights out. Not every book could do that, not every story had that special something that could make me think about my life in a new way.

But when I found a book like that, the experience stayed with me forever. It was one of my favorite things about reading.

Even when stories ended, they never truly ended.

I threw the book to Sally. I didn’t feel the urge to read it myself. At least not this copy. “Can you sell it in Devel?”

“Probably, although it’ll be hard making it so they can’t trace it back to us,” she replied.

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah, I probably will.”

Elenor walked up to us, tapping a familiar looking walking stick on the ground. “Are we ready to leave?”

“Where are your glasses?” I asked, staring at her empty grey eyes.

“I’ll get new ones in Devel. We need to buy new clothes too.”

We looked at our clothes. Most of them were torn and ripped in several places, either from fighting, falling, or making bandages.

“I need to hide my face better next time, inside and outside cities,” I said. “Those two guys, the ones Skinner made into skeletons, they were looking for me.”

“They were looking for you?” said Elenor.

“They even knew I’d be here. They said something about a boss, probably the guy who sent them after me.”

“Do you know who it could be?” asked Sally.

“I can only think of one person who’d want to keep an eye on me.”

“The guy you’re looking for, the one who stole your book?” asked Elenor.

“Exactly.”

“So now we need to worry about finding him without being found ourselves,” said Jerome. “That’ll be tough.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said, staring at the cloudy sky. “The only thing I know for sure is, we’re camping out tonight.”

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Author’s Note: And that’s the end of this episode! Thank you so much for reading and please let me know what you thought about it, below!

Part of the joy of being an author is knowing there are real people reading something you put your heart and soul into, so I always appreciate feedback, no matter what form it takes! I especially appreciate if you find any allusions I make (such as to books I don’t name completely) because that gives us a special connection, doesn’t it?

Also, an annoying bug insisted I remind you there is only one chapter on the day an episode ends so see you tomorrow!

Episode 5 Scene 9

Lightning flashed across the sky.

I held my head in my hand, and raised my surprisingly heavy body off the ground. My clothes were caked with mud, and the rain had soaked every inch of my skin. The mound of mud that had once been Villa Serenity lay around me, parts of it washing away with streams of murky water, while others were raised in tiny hills.

One of those hills moved, and dirty red hair peeked out from underneath. Ben appeared from the mud, followed closely by Jerome, who was still working on a black box. Sally helped Elenor to her feet, but Elenor let go of her hand even though she had no stick to lean on.

Skinner’s blurry figure stood on the other end of the mound of mud, the robes and remains of the black-haired woman lying next to his feet. When he turned his gaze towards us, my vision went a little blurry. Or rather, my image of him blurred when my gaze met the whirlpool in his eyes.

Grey smoke swirled around him as he smirked at us. Crushing that Soul Orb had apparently fixed all his wounds too, because there wasn’t a scratch on him. His hand was still outstretched, even though the entire building had collapsed, and an orb materialized in front of his palm.

He gripped it. It was smaller than the Soul Orb he had crushed, but the swirling shapes inside were just as hypnotic, and the malevolent air around, just as insidious.

“Guess I’ll have to leave this dump, after all,” said Skinner in a calm voice. As if he wasn’t addressing anyone. He walked over to the remains of the black-haired woman and kicked them. Clinking noises came from the woman’s pockets.

Skinner bent over and began collecting the coins, showing me his back.

I frowned. What was going on?

I glanced at Sally and held my breath.

Her mouth was frozen open, with the cloth on her arm slowly reddening. Elenor stood beside her, her figure still, not even her chest rose to indicate breathing. I turned to Ben, and saw him glaring at Skinner’s back, unblinking. Jerome had a hand inside his black box, but wasn’t tinkering with it.

They weren’t moving and their eyes showed no sign of recognition. I looked at my hands, and apart from a slight wooziness that I had been feeling ever since I’d met Skinner’s swirling eyes, I felt fine.

“Right, this one had nothing good on her,” said Skinner as he turned around. “I’ll need some inketts to get to Clef before they send more goons after me.”

I met his gaze but didn’t move. He began walking towards us and raised his hand the way he had done before he’d sucked the life out of the black-haired woman.

“Maybe I should go to the Broken Woods instead. Lay low for a couple of years, make some more orbs with kids from Sett,” muttered Skinner. Grey smoke began appearing around his hand.

I pounced. The Tempest’s pages fluttered rapidly towards the front cover inside my head, as I felt my mind heat up.

“What the –” Skinner stumbled backwards and the grey smoke disappeared.

I’d caught him by surprise but defeating him on my own would be a challenge. Luckily, the character I was playing, relished challenges.

I charged at him as he raised his metal fist in my face. However, before my teeth could be knocked out of my skull, I dropped to my knees and repeated the sliding tackle I’d hit him with before.

It was just as ineffective, only this time, touching his skin made me feel like the air was being sucked out of my lungs. I saw grey smoke leave my body, but I clung on. He kicked and sent me sliding across the slippery, muddy ground.

“Why are you not frozen?” he asked.

I coughed. There was an acute pain in my chest that made breathing incredibly difficult. “It’s too warm out,” I quipped, my voice barely escaping throat.

I propped myself up with an arm and met Skinner’s gaze. For some reason, he hadn’t finished me off even though I was lying prone and defenseless. Had he realized I was waiting for him to approach? No, that wasn’t it. He was staring at me intently, wondering something. Then, he approached.

In the movies, the bad guys always came running at the heroes while shouting goofy phrases and insults. Even monsters would howl, or screech, or declare their evilness while barreling towards the protagonists in an exaggerated manner. But this was different, and I took the time to appreciate the cinematic setting.

Under flashing lightning and rumbling thunder, a man walked towards me with a steady gait, his cold, metal fist glimmering under the feeble rays of moonlight that filtered through the dark storm-clouds blanketing the sky, while swirling grey smoke whistled past my ear. He left heavy footprints in the muddy ground, although the incessant rain would wipe them away as surely as this man wished to wipe away my life.

His angry, yet curious gaze met mine as he reached striking distance. Even through the scent of rain and mud, I could smell the rancid odor that came from his body, as if he was a walking, rotting corpse.

“Who are you?” he said as he focused his gaze at me.

I gasped as I felt something probing my head. It was an invasive force that drilled into my mind, heading straight towards my shelf.

I panicked. I couldn’t resist the force. It was going to take everything! My books, my memories, my thoughts, my mind, everything!

My ears buzzed and the force was gone. I heard a scream as my vision returned from the battlefield inside my head, to the one outside.

Skinner lay on the ground by my feet, shouting in agony and holding his head with his hands. He was shaking, and the grey smoke around him was gone. Muffled gasps came from his mouth, and his eyes bulged as if they wanted to pop out of his skull.

He’d tried to read me, I realized as the scene played out before me. His reaction reminded me of Elenor’s from when she had tried to read me, although Skinner’s was much more severe, probably because he had been more forceful.

The Tempest still fluttered in the back of my mind and thunder still rumbled overhead. A thought came to me, and as I stared at Skinner’s writhing, squirming body, I convinced myself that the idea was a good one.

I could already feel the others begin to move behind me but I didn’t move to help them or ask them if they were alright. Instead, I focused on Skinner the way he had focused on me, and tried to read him.

I shuddered and my eyes widened.

A flood of information began filing into my head. Information about Skinner.

His name was Jukas Skinner Tamp, and he was an ex-member of the Fighter’s Guild who left the guild to take over his aunt’s rest-stop inn, after he lost his arm to an Inline operative during a raid on a bandit’s lair.

But running the inn was difficult and tedious, so Jukas spent all his time drinking and messing around, and left all the work to his daughter, Melissa. Jukas had slept around with many women during his life, but Melissa was the only child he knew he’d had, so he’d taken her in after her mother died.

Melissa worked at the inn all alone for a long time, trying to get her father to stop drinking and spending all their money gambling. He raked in a ton of debt, and pissed off a lot of powerful people in Devel. Soon, they came knocking on the door of Villa Serenity, demanding money and apologies.

Jukas watched from the stairway, pretending to be away, so they crowded around Melissa. She managed to calm them down, and promised them she’d have the money for them in a month.

That night, Melissa scolded Jukas, and threw away all his alcohol. It was only then that Jukas sobered up a little and realized the predicament he was in. He tried borrowing money from acquaintances in the guild, but no one trusted an old, crippled drunkard like him. He even tried begging on the streets, but only got some chump change.

With the deadline approaching, Jukas sat in an alleyway with his head between his hands, sobbing. He didn’t want his daughter’s life to be ruined any further because of his actions. He wanted a way to make money appear, as if by magic.

Magic, he’d thought to himself. That was it!

And so, he burned a book on his shelf, a science-fiction story about the inevitable reaction of human society to the crisis of overpopulation. He fainted as the book reached the front cover, and his shelf burned.

It was night when he awoke. Jukas looked at his hands, and saw grey smoke flying out of them. He didn’t know what his new power was, but he noticed the smoke was blowing to the left. He turned and saw a rat rummaging through the garbage in the alley.

The smoke was leading him to the rat, and he instinctively grabbed it. As soon as it was in his grasp, the rat withered and died, and a tiny black ball appeared in the air. He grabbed it, crushed it, and felt the power coursing through his veins.

He could sell this, and he knew just who he could sell it to.

He returned to the inn and told Melissa he had done it, he had figured out a way to pay back his debt! Melissa didn’t believe him, but he insisted it was true. Melissa was overjoyed.

“You did it dad!” she said as she ran over to hug him.

He embraced her too. “Don’t you worry, I’ve got it all under control.”

Then something happened. There was a wall in Skinner’s memories, a wall around what happened next. I felt angry. What was he hiding? How did the story proceed? I needed to know, I wanted to read. Read, I wanted to read more!

The wall burst and the memory continued.

“…under control.”

Melissa sniffed. “You smell funny, dad.”

“Sorry,” said Jukas, still holding his daughter to his chest. “I tripped and fell into some garbage, but it’s alright now.”

“You tripped, huh?” Melissa whispered. “I’m glad to hear, you’re back on your feet.”

Jukas smiled. “Yes, yes I am!” He let Melissa out of his embrace and put her at arm’s length.

Her smile was frozen, her lips chapped. Her cheeks had sunken in and there were wrinkles on her forehead.

I heard a scream.

“No!” shouted Skinner. “No! It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault!”

He stood up, and glared at me, veins bulging on his neck. His thin eyebrows were furrowed, and his nostrils flared. However, his eyes glistened in the weak moonlight.

“I don’t care who you are anymore. Die!” He punched at me with his metal fist.

He was too close, I wouldn’t be able to dodge.

A fist collided into the back of his arm, making it miss me by a mile. Then another fist smashed into his face and he toppled over. A shockwave rippled across the muddy mound, sending Skinner’s body hurtling across the ground. Then a black box flew through the air and exploded right next to him.

“Val, are you alright?” asked Ben as the others attacked Skinner.

I let go of the breath I was holding. “Yeah, thanks.”

“I couldn’t move but I saw everything,” said Sally. “It’s a good thing you have such powerful anti-reading measures. As expected of the Broken Witch’s apprentice.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking at Skinner’s body. “Is he down?”

“He should be,” said Jerome. “That was my strongest exploding box. That thing can take down a herd of flopflappers.”

“I think he’s tougher than flopflappers, Jerome,” said Sally.

“But is he tougher than a herd of flopflappers?” said Jerome.

“Doesn’t matter, what matters is that –”

Sally froze in the middle of her sentence. The others were frozen as well. I looked up, and saw Skinner glaring at me from across the field.

Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed across the sky. A familiar scene replayed itself as Skinner stalked over to me.

“I don’t know who you are,” said Skinner, enunciating each syllable separately. “Or what you did to me. But you dared to look inside my head. Killing you won’t be enough. I’m going to rip your soul from your body, slowly, then stuff it back in and do it again.”

I smelled the odor of rot and decay that surrounded him.

“I’m going to listen to your screams as I rip every toenail off your foot, chop your limbs off, and skin you alive.”

I fell to my knees. Skinner chuckled. “That’s right, beg for mercy and I’ll let you die faster.”

The Tempest was getting dangerously close to the front cover but I wasn’t worried. My character flourished in the face of adversity, he was always at his best when things looked the grimmest. Determined, confident, and resourceful; that was the kind of person Demetrius was.

Skinner brought his fist back, his eyes locked onto my face. I pulled out the thing Jerome had given me, and raised it in front of Skinner’s face.

The air around me heated up, and my hair began to float. My vision was submerged in a sea of whiteness that withered away almost immediately. The fleeting flash of whiteness left behind a charred corpse with a half-melted metal fist, and a metal coil that still had sparks dancing on it.

I let The Tempest fall onto my shelf, just as the tempest subsided.

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Episode 5 Scene 8

Rain splattered my head. The roof and walls were gone, blasted away by Elenor’s magic. Skinner and the robed figure squirmed in the corner, Sally and Jerome lay in the wreckage of the chairs they had been bound to, and Elenor helped a groggy Ben to his feet.

Normally, I would have raced to help my friends first, but I realized the most effective way to help them, was to take down our enemies. I dashed through puddles towards Skinner, frowning inwardly at all the mud that was getting on my shoes.

Sacrifices had to be made for the greater good, I reminded myself.

Skinner turned around, trails of muddy water running over the droplet sign on his cheeks. The robed figure jumped back, leaving Skinner alone in a pool of thick mud.

I had no weapon, no offensive magic, and no training in any martial arts, yet I was running headfirst at a large, obviously well-trained man who had just sucked the life out of two people in front of my eyes after kidnapping my entire team of powerful magic users and experienced fighters.

And I saw absolutely nothing to worry about.

“I knew I’d missed one,” said Skinner as he picked himself up. His sleeves had been ripped, revealing how he’d been able to grab heads despite supposedly not having his right hand.

Sleek metal fingers glistened under the paltry rays of moonlight that escaped the roiling clouds blanketing the sky. Skinner’s metallic hand seemed brittle at first glance and it didn’t look like he could bend his wrist, but the ends of his fingers were sharp like needles. That explained why the bald man had been struggling more aggressively than the bearded one.

Skinner lunged forward and punched with his metal hand, but I fell to my knees and let the momentum of my charge carry me forward as I skid through the mud. I rammed into his feet, but he didn’t topple like I’d hoped, probably because his legs were thick and sturdy while I weighed barely anything.

I grabbed his leg and swung around behind him. Mud splattered through the air as his kick passed by my face. I pulled on the leg I was holding just as he put all his force into his kick, and he fell backwards, hitting his head on the muddy ground.

I rolled out from under him and acquired a layer of wet earth all over my clothes.

“Damned kid,” cursed Skinner as he lashed out and sent water and mud splattering everywhere. “Who the hell are you?”

I saw Sally get to her feet in the corner of my eye, and noticed Elenor tapping the ground with her stick. Ben stood on his own with a hand on his head, but it didn’t look like he’d be much help. I couldn’t tell where Jerome was.

“Who am I?” I said as I got to my feet. I made sure to keep the robed figure who stood next to a half-broken wall, within my sight. “Interesting question, fascinating even. Although you’re seeking a superficial answer, like a name or a description of my occupation, that question warrants a far deeper, more meaningful answer than one I can provide within the short time we will be able to spend together.”

Skinner cursed and glared at me with infuriated eyes. The rain couldn’t wash off the mud that painted his hair, but it did make some of it drip into his mouth and down his chin. He began lifting himself up but I couldn’t let him do that so I prepared to tackle him again. But I stopped.

“Skinner!” yelled Sally. She dashed past me, splattering me with muddy water, and pointed a broken piece of wood – likely a wooden leg from the chair she was bound to – straight at Skinner’s neck.

Skinner parried it with his metal hand, and punched with his left. Sally swayed to her right and brought the sharp end of the wooden leg trailing down Skinner’s arm. Skinner screamed and pushed Sally away with both hands, sending her shooting away from him.

However, Sally didn’t lose her balance, and stood ready to jump back at him again. “You knocked me out after offering me a drink. I knew you’d lost your hand, Skinner, but I didn’t know you’d lost your mind too.”

“I’ve lost neither.” He flexed his metal fingers and charged at Sally.

“Behind you!” shouted the robed figure.

Skinner stepped to the side, avoiding my sliding mud-tackle.

I cursed and dug into the ground to stop myself. I’d almost forgotten about that guy. I met the robed figure’s gaze. “Feeling hot under there?” I asked.

“Mr. Tamp, we will not be paying for those orbs if we have to collect the souls ourselves,” said the figure, ignoring me.

“Yeah, yeah, just make sure you keep an eye on all of them this time,” said Skinner.

The figure stared intently at me. “I will.”

Ironically, that’s exactly when the figure was blown away by a shockwave.

“Takes you a while to prepare that one,” I said.

“Yeah, and I can’t move while I’m doing it,” said Elenor, breathing heavily. The area around her was clear of mud, but that just meant the earthy ground beneath her was thinner and more likely to collapse.

Her attack uncovered a face I’d been searching for. “Ben,” I called out and pointed to the face. “Help Jerome!”

Ben nodded and trudged over to Jerome. Skinner eyed him but was distracted as Sally swung the piece of wood at him. The robed figure sat hunched in the corner, unmoving. Elenor tapped her stick on the ground while catching her breath.

And I observed everything calmly.

The puddle by my feet reminded me of Demetrius and the time he had stolen the House of Wisdom from me. I was winning our little scuffle until his unburnt magic turned the tide, and it was only now, after I had used unburnt magic of my own to turn the tide of this battle, that I finally understood how effective it could be.

Skinner tried to stab Sally with his fingers but she hacked them away with the piece of wood, and struck his face with her fist. He growled and punched with his metal hand, Sally met it with her weapon, and they both locked their other hand together and began grappling.

The robed figure suddenly turned, and a jet of water flew towards Elenor. I was about to call for her to dodge when she sidestepped it neatly, and charged at the robed figure.

I ran to Ben as he raised Jerome out of the mud. I let The Tempest fall back onto my shelf, and used The Cannon to inspect Jerome’s wounds. He had a vicious gash on his lower thigh, which I covered with some cloth I ripped from my shirt.

I let The Cannon fall back onto my shelf and grabbed The Tempest again, noting that it had flipped back a few pages while sitting on my shelf. I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. It was Jerome. He pushed something into my hand, and I almost gave it back in fright.

But then I realized what he wanted me to do, and accepted it.

Then Ben tackled me to the ground as a freezing jet of water shot overhead. A boom resounded through the air, and the mud rippled. Spitting mud out of my mouth, I saw Elenor huffing while facing the robed figure, who was lying on the ground again.

Skinner growled as he punched at Sally again, but Sally dodged it and thrust her makeshift spear at his neck.

Alarm bells rang in my head, and to confirm my fears, the corners of Skinner’s lips curved upwards. Then he brought his left arm to his chest, and broke the large piece of wood into splinters, before bashing Sally’s head with his own.

Sally tottered backwards, showing her back to him. He stepped forward and aimed his pointy fingers at the back of her neck.

“Sally!” I cried out.

The ridiculously sharp fingers bore down towards Sally’s neck, piercing through the raindrops in between the cold metal and the warm flesh. I could almost picture them cutting her skin, and jabbing all the way through her neck.

But with a sharp twist of her feet, Sally let the finger drills rip the back of her shirt, and punched Skinner in the gut. Skinner doubled over, his head above Sally’s crouched figure. Sally swung her other fist, aiming an uppercut for his chin.

Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning flashed, painting the battle on the de facto roof of Villa Serenity in black and white. Light also flashed off the metal hand that Skinner had brought towards Sally’s hand, but the flash was gone when Skinner’s spiky fingers scraped the back of Sally’s arm.

Neither could react in time, so two, long, bloody lines ripped into the skin on Sally’s arm, while her fist connected squarely with Skinner’s chin, sending him toppling backwards into the large pool of mud from which he had just crawled out of, moments ago.

Sally winced as blood dripped from her arm and mixed into the muddy rainwater below, but she didn’t stop. She rushed over to Skinner.

I ran towards her as well, while observing Elenor’s fight, in case she needed help.

The robed figure had given up trying to use surprise attacks against Elenor, and resorted to whirlpools and dozens of water jets to try and clip the nimble girl. Elenor stepped between the robed figure’s attacks, avoiding all of them with ease and precision. She was within striking distance of the figure.

Sally jumped at Skinner’s head, aiming to crush it under her feet. Skinner’s eyes shot open and he rolled out of the way, spluttering as the muddy water flew into his mouth. Sally kicked his back with her other foot, and he grunted. She aimed for his head again, but ended up jumping backwards as he swiped at her leg with his metal hand.

He pointed his spiky fingers at her and sat up, breathing heavily.

“It just had to be you, huh,” said Skinner, between breaths. “Yui Sally Josef, the bloody miner. If it was anyone else from the force, I could probably take them out, easy.”

“Nobody else would be stupid enough to accept a drink from you,” said Sally as her eyes darted around, looking for an opening from where she could finish him off.

Water splashed near them as the robed figure slammed into the ground. Elenor was breathing so loudly, I could hear her from where I stood, despite the sound of rain and thunder.

“This is your fault, you know,” said Skinner. “I was promised a competent assistant.”

“I am not your assistant, Mr. Tamp,” said the robed figure, standing up as if nothing had happened. “And considering how much assistance you have required of me, I think it is safe to say, I will be expecting a discount on these orbs.”

“Funny, you say that like you’ve been helping.”

“I did not say anything funny, Mr. Tamp.”

“You did,” said Skinner as he stood up.

Elenor had caught her breath. Sally had torn off the bottom of her shirt and wrapped it around the gashes on her arm. Ben had tottered over, and Jerome was tinkering with a black box.

“Because for some reason,” continued Skinner as he pulled out the Soul Orb from his pocket. “You still think we can get out of this without a little…”

He crushed the orb.

“…investment.”

Grey winds howled around Skinner, as rain swirled around him. The winds blew the hood off the robed figure’s head, revealing the face of a black-haired woman with raised cheekbones, furrowed brows, and enraged blue eyes.

“What are you doing?” she shouted.

Skinner faced her and smiled. “Collecting my payment.” He pointed a finger at the woman and grey smoke began flying out of her mouth.

The woman’s screams were drowned out by the deafening thunder above, both of which masked a softer sound that I could only barely hear.

Elenor shouted something but I couldn’t tell what. The thunder was too loud. The ground beneath me shifted, and I slipped despite not moving an inch.

Rain pelted my face as my heart lurched with vertigo, and the sky and the rain fell away from me.

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Episode 5 Scene 7

I rubbed my eyes. No nightmares, that was a good sign.

I stared at the ceiling. It was damp, earthen, and looked like it could collapse at any moment. I was glad we didn’t have to stay here too long. I got up because I needed to use the toilet.

Sally sat on a chair by the door. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said. “You haven’t been waking me for my watch.”

“Elenor told us not to. Said you weren’t a finder so there was no point.”

“But you’re not a finder either?”

“I’ve got experience. And well, I only agreed because I didn’t know how strong your magic was. If you want, you can take the next watch.” Sally leaned on her pickaxe. “I could use a nap.”

“Got it. Just give me a minute.” I opened the dark wooden door, which creaked as its ancient joints protested the sudden motion.

The hallway was dim, dimmer than it had been when I went to sleep. Only the candle by the toilet was lit, the others having blown out or run all the way to the metal plates they rested upon. Gravel crunched under my shoes as I walked towards the candle, carefully checking for uneven ground.

The hair on my arms stood up as goosebumps popped all over my skin. The air was cool and the faint rumblings of thunder echoed in the distance. I couldn’t see out of the muddy windows that lined the hallway, but I could sense the humidity in the air, feel the chilly breeze that blew in through the cracks in the wall, and hear the muffled pitter-patter of raindrops pelting the walls of the building.

The candle by the toilet flickered. There was a crack in the wall right next to it so it was only a matter of time before the tiny dancing flame vanished in the trail of a particularly powerful gust. I didn’t know what time it was, but the situation reminded me of a phrase I’d read in a book by my favorite author of children’s stories.

Among his tales of humongous peaches and incredible factories, was a story about a large but good natured giant. But of course, no matter how large and good natured he may be, he was still a giant, so he could only appear at a special time in the night. The story had made me frightened of staying up late as a kid, despite the giant’s friendliness. That was because the name itself was terrifying to a child.

Being reminded of the witching hour while walking down a dimly lit corridor inside a creepy inn in the middle of nowhere with a thunderstorm brewing overhead, made me walk a little faster. A little too fast.

I tripped.

A whistle rang in my ear and the orange glow that had so warmly lit up the corridor, vanished.

Just the wind, I told myself. Screw the boy who went solo, there’s no such thing as a witching hour, Jean.

I stood up and rubbed the dirt off my chin. I couldn’t see anything but I could probably crawl over to the toilet.

But then what? I’d have to call for Sally, most likely. I could ask her to bring the candle, and hope it didn’t get blown out by the wind too.

The wind still whistled through the cracks, and I imagined the thunderstorm was in full swing. Not just because the rumblings overhead had become more frequent, but because if the storm wasn’t blotting out the moon and the stars, there would have been light filtering through the cracks in the walls.

I felt the damp earth in front of me and slowly crawled to the toilet. When my hand hit the rotting wood that was the door, I stood up with my hands feeling for the metal plate that held the candle. I found it, but had no idea how to light it.

I pushed open the door but there was no light inside either. Surprisingly, this door didn’t creak. I rummaged through what seemed like the drawers beside the sink and hit a metal box. I grabbed it. It was rough on one side. I opened the box, took out the only match inside and struck it against the rough side of the box.

It didn’t catch. The door closed as I tried to light the match but I couldn’t hear it close over the whistling winds that were just as loud inside the toilet as they were in the hallway. Finally, a flame jumped to life on the end of the match with which I lit the candle I had taken from the metal plate outside.

I put the candle on the table by the sink, and relieved myself. After washing my hands, I was about to grab the candle when I stopped.

What was that outside? Didn’t sound like the wind. It was rougher, more gravely. It was also familiar.

“You sure…” said the hushed voice from outside.

I carefully pressed my ear against the door.

“I told you, the one with the short black hair. That’s the one the boss was talking about,” said another voice.

“The boss is amazing. He said she’d be here and she really was. I had my doubts cuz nobody comes to this place, but that’s probably why she came here.”

“He did say she was a slippery one. He was also right about her being dumb. She stayed here even though we were right here waiting for her.”

“Or maybe she knows but she doesn’t care.”

“Come on, she ain’t smart enough for that.”

“The boss told us not to kill her. He only wants us watching. That means he doesn’t think we can take her.”

“If she’s half as strong as the boss, then that’s probably true.”

“Still, not being as strong as a little girl rubs my teeth the wrong way.”

“Screw your teeth. Just go back to watching the door. Don’t get too close, she’s got a scary character working for her.”

“Who, that icepick chick?”

“Sally Josef. The best cadet the army had seen in years. Shot through the ranks like my aunt’s toenails do on toenail day.”

“Screw your aunt and her toenail’s. I ain’t afraid of some army chick.”

“Dumbass, she was almost recruited by Inline. Do you understand that? Inline. Forget the girl, Sally Josef could wipe the floor with us on her own. Now get back to snooping and stay out of her sight.”

“Fine, whatever. Let me take a leak first.”

I heard footsteps.

“Damn, this place is dark. You got a candle?”

“Yeah, there should be one here… what was that?”

A piece of wood had fallen off the door and clipped the candle’s metal plate on the way down, sending a clank ringing through the air.

“Sounds like it came from the toilet.”

“Was someone in there?”

“I dunno, didn’t see anyone leave.”

“You were watching their door, right?”

“Yeah, except for when you called me, that is.”

“Shit, what if it’s her.”

“It can’t be. But if it is…”

“You still have that amnesia magic, right?”

“Yep.”

“Good.”

I backed up. Was there another door? No, there wasn’t. Could I use my magic on them? What was I going to do, heal them to death?

I put the candle on the sink and grabbed the metal plate. I stood against the wall next to the door so that it would hide me when they opened it, but then I remembered the door opened outwards.

The handle shook. I readied my plate and brought my shelf to the back of my mind. The Cannon wouldn’t be much use, but maybe I could do something with The Tempest.

“Sirs!”

“Oh, um…”

“Skinner.”

“Oh yeah, hey. How’s it going.”

“Fine, just heard some noises here so I thought I’d come look. Do you want to use the toilet?”

“Yeah, I mean, I do,” said one voice. “He came along because I was… scared.”

“I see. Well, if you’re scared, how about you come with me now,” said Skinner.

“It’s fine, I need to use the toilet,” came the bearded man’s voice.

“I need to use it too,” said the bald man.

“Don’t worry, nobody cares if you piss yourself where you’re going.”

“Huh?”

A loud thud, a muffled groan, and another thud. A gust of wind blew out the candle, plunging me into darkness. I held my breath as the door handle clinked.

The door whooshed open and an orange glow filled the room. The glow moved around, then the door closed and I released my breath.

The door opened both ways, I noted with relief.

There was a grunt outside the door, as if someone was hauling a sack of potatoes on their shoulders. Footsteps receded into the distance and my racing heart calmed.

I gingerly opened the door but I couldn’t see anything outside either. I peeked over the edge of the door and saw an orange glow fade into the distance.

I jumped as thunder rumbled. Hugging the wall, I made my way back to my room.

Something was happening in this inn. Those men were after me, and I had no idea who hired them. And whatever Skinner was trying to do, it didn’t seem like he was up to anything good either. To be fair, he had one of the most obvious evil villain names of all time.

As I reached the room, I hesitated outside. Something was missing, something you never noticed when it was there, but whose absence was deafening in the empty corridor outside the door to our room.

Breathing – I couldn’t hear any breathing. Elenor should have been asleep, and Sally should have been sitting right by the door.

I peeked through the door. The candle still burned quietly on the table but all the beds were empty. Sally’s chair was overturned, and Elenor’s sheets were strewn across the room. Sally’s pickaxe and Elenor’s walking stick lay abandoned on the floor.

I tiptoed backwards, breathing as quietly as possible. I backed up into the door to Jerome and Ben’s room and it swung open.

Shrapnel littered the ground; lots of metal, wood, and stone. One of the beds had been completely destroyed, with splinters and feathers covering the floor around it. The other bed was smeared in a trail of blood that fell to the floor and led to the doorway I was standing in.

Thunder rumbled as I took another step back.

Elenor, Ben, Sally, Jerome, they were all gone. Was this a nightmare? Was I having one after all?

Cold air brushed my skin and I shivered. No, this wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t afford to pretend like it was. Skinner, he was behind this. I had to find him.

I grabbed the candle and cupped a hand around it. Back in the corridor, shadows danced a frenzied waltz around the earthen walls. My heart thumped in my chest, louder than the incessant rumblings of thunder overhead.

Rain had cleaned a window of mud and grime, and I looked out of it. The world outside was grey, mirthless, and muddy. I hurried forward, sticking to the corners, letting the warmth of the candle flame fight the chilly air that burrowed into my bones, and hoped for a miracle.

My shelf was ready, with The Tempest just a thought away. Fitting, considering the relentless rain and roaring thunder outside. I still wasn’t quite sure what The Tempest did, but it had helped me through one inescapable situation, hopefully, it would help me through another.

I stopped. Footsteps echoed through the air. They were coming from upstairs. I covered the candle as best I could, and crouched near the stairway. The footsteps went away from me, towards the center of the building. I stared at the top of the stairway while I climbed the stairs. I peeked over the edge of the final stair, covering the candle’s glow with most of my body.

I saw Elenor, Ben, Jerome, and Sally, strapped to chairs in the middle of a candlelit room.

Two marble slabs stood in the center of the large, otherwise empty room that stretched over the entirety of the floor. On top of the slabs lay the two men who had been whispering outside the toilet, both of whom were struggling against the restraints that bound them face-up against the slabs. Their mouths had been stuffed with dirty rags so I couldn’t even hear their muffled protests from where I stood.

Skinner stood in the middle with a dark, robed figure I didn’t recognize.

“Will you be able to fill your orders with these?” said the robed figure in a coarse, raspy voice that scratched the inside of my ears.

“Yes,” said Skinner.

“Then get to work. I need three grade-twos by the hour, or we will no longer seek your services.”

“Don’t worry,” said Skinner as he turned around and walked between the marble slabs. “This shouldn’t take long.”

He gripped the men’s heads and stared blankly with the look of someone reaching into their shelf. The men’s struggles intensified but Skinner only tightened his grip. The blank look on his face vanished, replaced by furrowed brows and a wrinkled forehead.

Grey smoke began floating out of the men’s heads. It swirled like a whirlpool in front of Skinner’s chest, a whirlpool that raged and boiled as it consumed more grey smoke. The men’s struggles weakened, and their bindings loosened as their bodies shrank. Soon, their skin stuck to their bones, which in turn stuck to the slabs.

The whirlpool of grey smoke solidified into a sphere and as the last wisp of smoke flew into it, Skinner grabbed the sphere and smiled at the robed figure.

“One Soul Orb, fresh out the oven.” Skinner threw the orb.

“Spare me the theatricalities, and finish your job.” The robed figure caught the orb.

Skinner released the bindings on the men’s corpses, and brushed their remains to the ground.

“You know, this would be a lot easier if you funneled more people to me,” said Skinner as he removed Elenor’s bindings and slugged her over his shoulder.

“We are your customers, Mr. Tamp, not your suppliers.”

“You brought these guys to me, didn’t you?” He put Elenor on a slab, tied her to it, then went over to Ben, who had a bloody wound on his head.

“No,” said the robed figure slowly. “This was merely chance.”

“Really?” said Skinner. “Guess Bit must be rewarding me for my patience, at last. Funny though, I could have sworn there was another one in this party.”

“My senses do not detect another,” said the robed figure.

“You Inliners use Bit’s magic, don’t you?” Skinner put Ben on the other slab and tied him up too.

“We make use of the magic granted by burning the Goddess’ book, yes.”

“Funny, all those Collars out there with the same book as you, yet none of them can use it to become superhuman monsters.” Skinner walked up between the slabs. “It’s kinda funny, when you think about it.”

“Just get on with it.”

“Alright, alright.”

Skinner grabbed Elenor’s head after brushing the hair out of her face. She wasn’t wearing her glasses and her eyes were wide open. Skinner grabbed Ben’s head, keeping his hand away from the still bleeding wound.

“I need you two awake for this,” said Skinner. He shook their heads until Ben blinked his eyes open.

Elenor didn’t show any signs of waking up, which made my heart skip a beat. Ben struggled when he saw what was happening, but his mouth was gagged too.

“Hey sweetheart, you awake?” said Skinner as he shook Elenor’s head while ignoring Ben’s struggling. “Move your mouth if you are.”

Elenor didn’t respond.

Skinner cursed and put a hand on her throat. “She’s alive and she’s breathing too quickly to be asleep. I’m going to assume she’s awake.”

“You sure?” asked the figure. “We will only accept grade-two Soul Orbs.”

“Damn it,” said Skinner. He shook Elenor’s head more violently. “You better say something before I start punching out your teeth.”

Elenor didn’t respond but I saw her finger twitch. She tapped it lightly and then, I felt like she knew I was there. She tapped again.

I took in a deep breath and snuffed out the candle in my hand.

“Fine then.” Skinner raised a fist into the air.

“Stop!” I yelled as I burst into the room.

Skinner’s gaze turned to me as the sound of rain outside subsided. The robed figure looked at me too, although I couldn’t see beneath the shadow of their hood.

The pages of The Tempest flipped in the back of my head, and a warm energy flooded my body. I felt confident despite the bleak circumstances, as if the melodramatic thunder and rain, the theatrical lighting, and the overly dramatic situation were completely ordinary.

However, I felt like I was missing something. I had the will, the drive, the push, to do something amazing, but I needed direction, I needed a voice. I needed a character. One that could beat the odds no matter how bleak and hopeless the situation may be.

Ruthless, cunning, and resourceful. For a situation like this, only one person came to mind.

“Goddess damn it,” said Skinner. “I knew I’d missed one of them.”

I smiled. “I see your brain is as empty as the abyss. Haven’t you figured it out yet? The Goddess is dead.”

A shockwave blew the room apart, sending Skinner and the robed figure flying against the wall, and making the roof collapse on top of us.

Rain pelted my skin as I dove into the mud.

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Episode 5 Scene 6

We had to camp under the night sky, twice, before we reached the rest-stop.

“That should be it,” said Jerome as he pointed to a ramshackle mud-hut in the distance.

The road in front of the hut was empty, unlike the road leading to the rest-stop between Sett and Chart. The hut itself was larger than any hut I had ever seen, standing at least three stories tall despite looking like it was about to collapse under its own weight at any time. If this wasn’t a magical world, I wouldn’t have felt safe going in there.

“Are you sure?” asked Ben.

“Here, take a look,” said Jerome as he let Ben see the compass and map in his hand. I was standing between the two of them so I got a look as well.

The compass looked like any old compass from a museum back home. Glass cover, pointy metal needle, and the four cardinal directions. I could confirm that the hut in front of us was to the East, and the sun was to the West of us.

I stared at the map. It showed Sett, Chart, Devel, and Bass on the same major road, with the capital city Bendeck far to the East. There were no other towns or villages in between, with the only other markings on the map showing the rest-stops between the cities, and a blacked out part labeled ‘Broken Woods’ to the West.

The map only showed the country of Fore, but it did label the desert to the South the ‘Indent Desert,’ and an arrow pointing South of the desert said, ‘To Clef.’ To the North of Fore was another blacked out space title simply ‘The Ocean,’ which also wrapped around the Eastern edge of the continent of Illustair.

“This does seem like the place,” said Ben.

The rest-stop we were walking towards was labeled ‘Villa Serenity’ on the map, which was why we were having a little trouble reconciling ourselves to its appearance. However, the sun was approaching the horizon and we were tired of sleeping without a roof over our heads. I was especially looking forward to taking a bath, since dipping into streams wasn’t enough to clean the grime on my knees.

We approached the front of the hut and found a sign with ‘Villa Serenity’ lazily scribbled onto it. Sally opened the door and I crinkled my nose at the musty smell that came out. A bell rang, signaling our arrival.

The inside was dim, with a candle burning on a window ledge. The window itself was so dirty it blended into the dirt walls. There was a counter at the back of the room, and I could barely make out some tables and chairs scattered across the rest of the room.

There were other people here. A disheveled middle-aged man sat behind the counter, smoking a pipe with his legs on the counter. A couple of men sat on the chairs closest to the candle. The older one had a scraggly grey beard that hid his mouth, and the younger one was bald. Both wore the same outfit – leather shirts and brown pants – and their cheeks had the water droplet signs of Devel on them.

Sally stopped and cast her gaze at the men by the candle. Jerome stepped up instead and led us to the counter.

“Hi, how much for a night?” asked Jerome.

“Ten inketts for a single, twenty for a double, thirty for a triple,” replied the man behind the counter, without getting up.

“Give us a triple and a double then, please.”

“That’ll be fifty inketts.”

Sally hit the counter with her hand and said, “Hey dumbass, don’t try to shank us without meeting our eyes.”

“What did you say?” The guy pulled his feet from the countertop and leaned into the candlelight.

“I heard you’d come to this dump, but you’re still here, Skinner?” Sally smiled.

“Sally?” said the guy, Skinner. “Sally, the bloody miner, Josef. The hell you still doing with that pickaxe?” He lowered his voice while looking over at the couple by the candle. “And did ya have to be so loud?”

Sally leaned over the counter. “Course I still have the pickaxe. Not all of us can afford to leave the guild to go live off a dead aunt’s estate.”

Skinner chortled. “What estate? I got stuck with a bloody inn in the middle of nowhere. Nobody even comes here after they built the other road.”

“They built another road?” asked Jerome.

“Yeah, just a few miles North of here. It cut travel time by a day so they didn’t even need to make a second rest-stop.”

“Must have built it recently because I’ve never heard of it.”

“Yeah, just finished it a couple of months ago. Now what can I get for ya?” Skinner opened a cabinet and pulled out a dirty glass bottle. “I have some 1643 Cleffan wine, straight from Straf. We have some ale in the back drawer, and a little whisky that I wouldn’t recommend to the kids.

“Just the rooms, Skinner,” said Sally. “How much?”

“For you?” Skinner smiled. “Sixty inketts.”

“The hell?”

“You still owe me for that rescue at the bandit’s Den.”

“That was five years ago! Besides, I saved your sorry ass too, didn’t I?”

“I never asked you to.”

“Neither did I.”

“Fine,” said Skinner as he wiped the counter with a dirty rag that only made the counter dirtier. “Fifty-five and I’ll forgive you for that sword you broke when we first met.”

“You beat me up for that,” said Sally.

“You deserved it. It was my favorite sword.”

“You know what, fine,” said Sally. “We’ll sleep outside. Come on guys.” She motioned for us to follow her out.

“Alright, alright,” said Skinner. “Fifty?”

“Thirty.”

“Come on, you know I’m not getting any business here. Cut me some slack.”

“This is still an official rest-stop, don’t you get a subsidy from the government?”

“Yeah, but that’s barely enough for some beer. Can’t expect me to drink beer.” He almost spat that last word out.

“Thirty-five,” said Sally.

“Forty-five,” he said.

“Thirty-five.”

“You were supposed to say forty!”

“Forty? Deal.”

“No, no deal!” Skinner threw the rag to the side and rummaged under the counter. “You know what, fine. Take em for forty. But you’re paying extra for breakfast.”

“I wouldn’t want to eat anything you cook anyway, Skinner.” Sally chuckled as she grabbed the keys from the grumbling Skinner.

“Not going to take us to our rooms?” said Sally.

“Screw off,” said Skinner as he sat on his chair and plopped his feet onto the counter again.

I couldn’t see what he looked like because of the low light, but I caught a glimpse of his face as Sally lead us to the stairs.

His black hair was pulled back over his head, and a short, cropped beard ran just under his lips. His eyebrows looked like someone had painted tiny lines on lumps above his eyes. His black shirt was ripped in numerous places, revealing a dirty yellow shirt beneath it. The air around him reeked of the strange cigar he was smoking.

There was nothing surprising upstairs. Our rooms were at the end of the corridor, next to the stairs that led up to the second floor. None of the rooms I’d crossed seemed occupied, and the floor was covered in dust.

There was a bath on the other end of the corridor. Elenor went straight for it so I waited in our room with Sally. Sitting on the bed, I tried to rub the dirt off the window but it was caked from the outside too. We lit the candle with a match from the matchbox on the dresser.

At least this world had matches. I was wondering how far technology had advanced in this world. If they had so many books from our world, it made sense for there to be more inventions around. Yet, I hadn’t seen any electric lights or cars, so far. Maybe the Header’s kept them in their part of the cities.

“Is that guy your friend?” I asked, looking for something to talk about.

“Yeah, Skinner and I ran a few assignments together. He was one of the best fighters we had in the guild in Devel. Amazing with a sword, that guy. He could’ve sliced the specks and boomers from a couple of days ago all on his own. That was before he lost his hand, though.”

“He lost his hand?” I said.

“Yeah. Don’t tell him I told you that. He likes to hide it under those tied up sleeves.” Sally sat on her bed. “We never should have taken that assignment. Fighting monsters is one thing, but fighting people is completely different. The guild thought it was just bandits, but those assholes from Inline were involved.”

“Inline?” I’d heard that name before.

“The government’s secret police. They’ve got their nose in everything from Sett to Epil. Nothing good happens when they’re involved. The bandits were bait. Inline thought there were Project Poppy members in Devel’s Fighter’s Guild so they were going to kidnap us to extract some intel.”

Damn, that sounded terrifying. “But you escaped?”

Sally laughed. “Escaped? We beat their sorry asses into the ground! I must have smacked a dozen of them into the air myself. Course, we couldn’t kill them or we’d be rounded up for execution. Only reason they didn’t send any more of them after us was because we ran back to the guild as fast as we could. Once the old farts on top found out what Inline had done, they made such a fuss the Official himself apologized.”

“But what happened to the people who tried to kidnap and torture you?”

“Nothing, probably. They might have gotten reprimanded for failing but nothing’s ever gonna happen to someone from Inline. They’re the government’s most powerful combat force. Their existence alone keeps people from joining Project Poppy.”

“Is Project Poppy really that scary?” I asked, remembering old man Ather from Sett.

“I get what you’re saying,” said Sally pointing towards me. “The government shouldn’t be able to use that excuse anymore. The Project’s been dead for years. People come along claiming to be members but they’re all posers, none of them have the sign. Inline has no reason to exist anymore, other than putting down any Collars or Cheeks who step out of line, of course.”

I recalled Ather and the Shop. Despite seeing a guy go in and out of the Shop, I felt like what Sally said made sense. Ather had seemed tired, defeated even. I couldn’t picture him fighting the government or causing trouble.

“You don’t seem to like the government much, Sally.”

Sally leaned against the wall and looked at the ceiling. “They’re a bunch of lickers who won’t come down from their tower to look at the people they’re supposed to be working for. They spend all their time bickering about which Header family gets to run which industry without a care for how those industries work or who the people working for them are. Bah!”

She put a pillow under her head. “I shouldn’t be talking about politics so much. None of it matters, anyway, and it always annoys people.”

“What annoys people?” asked Elenor as she entered the room.

“Nothing,” said Sally. “Just talking politics.”

“I guess that can be annoying. I don’t mind, though. Never had to deal with much of it in the woods.” Elenor was drying her brown hair with a cloth while tapping her foot while walking. She’d left her stick and her glasses in the room.

I saw her eyes for the first time, they were grey and at first glance, didn’t seem particularly different. It was only when they rolled over me with no hint of recognition that I noticed she didn’t have any pupils. She put her glasses on as I stood up.

“I’m next,” I said as I left for the bath.

It was a simple bath, with a few buckets aligned against the wall and a drain in the corner. There was a bar of hard, yellow soap that I tried to clean myself with, but I couldn’t find any shampoo. The bar of soap was unscented but it did help me clear the grime that had accumulated over the exposed parts of my body.

It felt good being clean again. I wished I could change my clothes too, but I only had one set. I decided to buy some in Devel, another addition to the long list of things we needed to acquire in the next city.

I left the bath rubbing the water out of my ears. My hair was short so I didn’t have to worry about drying it the way Elenor had to, but I wanted to dry it out quickly so I could go to bed early.

I heard a whisper. Turning around, I saw the two men I’d seen sitting by the candle downstairs. The grey-bearded one was talking to the bald one in a hushed voice while looking at me. I kept my eyes on them as I crossed the hallway, and told Sally to be careful on her way to the bath.

“I don’t like this place,” I said to Elenor as Sally left the room.

“I agree. Something feels strange but I can’t quite tell what it is,” said Elenor. “Worst of all, my magic doesn’t work very well with these walls. I can barely tell what’s happening in this room.”

“Guess we’re keeping watch again, tonight.”

When Sally came back, she told us the men had disappeared. She offered to take first watch but Elenor suggested Sally take the second because she wanted to check something with her magic.

I went to sleep fully anticipating another nightmare. If I wasn’t going to have a scary dream in a spooky hotel in the middle of nowhere, there must be something wrong with the universe.

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Episode 5 Scene 5

“Jerome!”

“Give me a second.”

“Hurry the hell up,” shouted Sally as she swung her pickaxe at a swarm of red dots.

Explosions rang out as brown pellets shot out of the swarm. Sally weaved between the pellets, dodged the small impact craters that littered the field, and swung her pickaxe through the swarm.

However, the swarm was huge and the dots were incredibly fast. Only some of them splattered against the flat side of her pickaxe before falling to the ground. For some reason, the brown pellets didn’t explode when they struck Sally’s pickaxe, which annoyed Sally.

“Damned thing, can’t you stop being resistant to magic and be resistant to magical explosions for a bit?” As her lengthy grumblings would suggest, she wasn’t worried about the dots and their bombs, since she hadn’t gotten hit once. Perhaps pissed off would be a more accurate description.

I stood far away from the action, observing the battle with Elenor and Ben by my side. Jerome stood further ahead, just far enough that the dots wouldn’t go after him but close enough that he could jump to Sally’s rescue if he needed to. He was tinkering with a metal ring that could probably fit around my fist.

“Almost done…” he said.

“Do you want me to die to a swarm of specks?” shouted Sally.

Specks can’t kill someone of your size,” said Jerome.

“They can bloody well try!”

“And there we go!” He tapped the ring and it tingled.

“Gimme,” said Sally.

“Wait,” said Jerome as he gripped the ring from two ends, and looked at the swarm through the hole. “Right, it should be just big enough.”

“Come on!”

“Fine.” He threw it to her as she dropped her pickaxe.

Holding the metal ring between her cupped hands, she jumped away from the swarm, and aimed. “About time.”

The ring buzzed and a bright light zapped towards the swarm of specks. There was a flash as it hit, and a loud buzz followed. Charred specks fell on the ground as Sally lowered her arms. She was breathing heavily but her clothes were untouched. Apart from a light dust on her boots, she’d managed to avoid most of the debris from the explosions, too.

“Damn specks. Good thing they went for me or this would have been a lot harder than it was,” said Sally as she handed Jerome the ring.

“Good thing you had me, or you’d have been here all day, trying to swat them outta the air,” said Jerome as he pocketed the ring.

“Oh, like you could have used that thing without me here to distract them.” Sally picked up her pickaxe.

“That’s why we’re a team, partner.” Jerome went up to the carpet of red dots and crouched.

I started making my way over but Ben put a hand out to stop me. I looked at him and he pointed at Jerome.

“I don’t think we got the boomers,” said Jerome.

“Lightning doesn’t go through earth, does it?” said Sally as she joined him.

“Should we let them go?”

“No, they might come back with more specks. I’ll try to use this pickaxe the way it was meant to.”

“You mean kill tiny brown monsters?”

“Yep,” said Sally as she struck the ground with her pickaxe.

My knees shook from the impact and grass was blown all the way to where we stood. A few of the dead specks landed on my feet and I crouched to look at them.

They were red spheres with no eyes, ears, or other discernable organs or appendages of any sort. Their skin was smooth, and the ones who weren’t completely charred black, gave off a glossy sheen. A couple had been split apart, and dripped red blood and entrails.

“And another one,” said Sally as she brought the pickaxe down again.

After a few more ground-shaking hits, Sally wiped the sweat from her brow, and motioned for us to come over.

“Sorry that took so long, these things are always annoying to deal with,” said Sally.

“It’s okay,” said Elenor as she tapped her stick on the ground. “I appreciate the thoroughness.”

“Don’t sense any of them down there?” asked Jerome.

“Nope.”

“Perfect.”

“Did they drop anything?” asked Ben.

Oh, was this like one of those video game worlds where monsters dropped items?

“No, can’t expect a book from pests like these,” said Sally.

“Darn,” said Ben, echoing my thoughts.

Being able to get books from monsters sounded like my kind of video game. If I’d found out that lame game my friends used to play – Choices or something – had stuff like this, I might have tried it.

“Honestly, this is the worst part of going off-road. Monsters rarely come onto the main roads these days,” said Sally.

“Guess it was a good thing we hired you after all,” said Elenor.

“Of course!” said Sally. “We won’t let these things trouble you at all. Just sit back and watch the show, Ms. Cramer.”

“I told you, call me Elenor.”

“As long as you’re the client, I can’t refer to you with your middle name.”

“It’s okay.” Elenor smiled. “It’s my first name.”

“Right, you were a Humanist,” said Sally. “Still, it’s guild policy.”

“What about Val?”

“She’s a part of the client’s party, not the client herself. That’s different.”

“I won’t tell the guild if you won’t.”

“But if someone finds out…”

“Just tell them I was part of the client’s party, not the client herself.”

Sally frowned. “Then who’s the client?”

“Make something up. Say it was Moxy,” said Elenor.

“But it wasn’t…”

“Is anyone going to go ask her?”

“Ask the Broken Witch?” said Sally. “Alright, fine. No one can find the Broken Witch, let alone meet her. Pleased to meet you, Elenor.”

Elenor smiled. “Likewise, Sally.”

Jerome clapped his hands. “Now that that’s settled, let’s get going. I’d like to reach that thicket of trees before nightfall.” He pointed far ahead.

That didn’t look like a thicket of trees so much as a slightly darker line on the horizon. Regardless, we kept walking.

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Episode 5 Scene 4

We spent the night behind the rock on the hill, rotating watches to avoid getting ambushed by the guards. I didn’t have any nightmares this time, which was a pleasant surprise.

“What’s this about me being Moxy’s apprentice?” I asked Elenor.

Everyone else had gone foraging for food while I stayed back to look after her. It was still early in the morning and the sun wasn’t out yet. I was rubbing Alver juice around her wound while Sally went to clean the cloth that we’d wrapped around it.

“We can hide your empty cheeks and neck from most people by wrapping you up, but Sally’s team would notice your lack of signs eventually, so I needed an explanation. The easiest one to give was that you were raised by Moxy like I was, and she didn’t make you burn the Book of Sett, or the Book of Bitany, or whichever book the Bitanists of Fore make the poor burn to get a free meal at their temples. I had to tell them you were a Humanist though, so keep that in mind,” said Elenor.

So that’s why I didn’t need to hide my face around them.

“Then why do I have to hide my face around other people? Can’t I just say I was raised by Moxy.”

“Because most people don’t know Moxy, or if they do, they don’t respect her. It may have worked in Sett, but not in Chart or any of the other cities we have to go to now.”

“What was so special about Sett?” I felt like I already knew the answer.

“Because it’s the only city controlled by the Side Party, who don’t think believing in the god One instead of the goddess Bit is grounds for execution.”

Of course. The party that just threw all of Chart into chaos is also the most respectful of religious minorities.

“Wait, then why are you hanging around uncovered? What if people find out you’re a Humanist?”

She smiled. “I’ll be fine. Most people who look at me don’t think I’m a heretic or whatever. They just think I can’t read because I’m blind.”

Sally appeared in the distance, holding a wet cloth.

“That’s not to say most people are mean,” Elenor continued. “I really wouldn’t be able to read if I hadn’t met Moxy. She had this special book that you didn’t need to see to read, and after I burned my first book, I could use magic to read the rest.”

“Your magic is pretty amazing,” I said.

“So is yours,” said Sally as she reached us on top of the hill. “Ben’s still gushing over it, despite the unpleasant side-effects.”

“I already apologized, alright?” I said.

“You didn’t need to. You can’t help a little personality warping with unburnt magic. However, yours is the worst case I’ve ever seen.” Sally smirked.

“That’s not my fault!”

“Hey, I never said it was. It isn’t a bad thing either, since it makes your magic more effective.”

“Does it really?” Sounded like bullshit to me.

“Depends on how you think unburnt magic works. Since unburnt magic can’t manifest outside your body, is a change of personality a sign of how strong your magic is, or does changing your personality make the internal manifestations of unburnt magic stronger? Personally, I think it doesn’t matter. Even if it doesn’t make your magic stronger, it does at least show how powerful it is.”

Unburnt magic doesn’t work outside my body – that was good to know. The Cannon helped me treat Elenor’s wounds, but it couldn’t heal her directly. Would burnt magic let me do that?

Judging by how Ben thought I’d burnt The Tempest after using it for so long, I guessed the way to burn a book was to let it flip all the way to the start. I considered burning The Cannon but I recalled the conversation I’d had with Ben last night. To get the benefits of burning The Cannon, I’d have to throw away the ability to treat wounds the way I’d treated Elenor’s.

I decided to wait. I still didn’t know enough about magic and didn’t want to mess anything up. For now, I’d make do with unburnt magic.

I also had to be careful with the third slot on my shelf. The books I had now didn’t improve my fighting abilities, so I needed one that did. I needed a book like the one Demetrius must have used to defeat me the day he stole the House of Wisdom.

Could I use The Cannon or The Tempest to fight? Maybe. I needed to practice using them, first.

“How are we planning to get to Devel, now that Ben and I can sort of walk on our own?” asked Elenor.

“As long as Val’s magic keeps you two in shape, we can afford to circle around the city. It should be safe to go onto the road after the first rest-stop but I don’t want to risk it. We should aim for the second rest-stop and try to stick to flat ground for as long as possible,” replied Sally.

“How will we find our way without the road?” I asked.

“Jerome’s great with directions. He’s got this weird invention, and one of those high-clearance maps from his militia days. I never get lost when I’m with him,” said Sally.

“He was in the militia?” asked Elenor. “I thought he just made weapons for them.”

“He started out in the Fighter’s Guild, if you can believe it. He was a genius with the spear, but when he joined the F3 militia, they made him guard the Fiddler’s Guild in Bass, and ever since then, he’s been making exploding torches and collapsing boxes.”

I stared at the black-haired blue-eyed woman sitting in front of me as she told us about her friend’s past. The burns – or signs, as Elenor and the others called them – on her cheeks were shaped like water droplets. Her red, leather shirt seemed strange and itchy, but it looked great with her black trousers.

She’d taken first shift last night saying she needed to sharpen the pickaxe peeking over her head, but she was probably just being responsible as always.

“How did the two of you meet?” I asked.

“We’re not together.”

“No, I didn’t mean –”

“I’m just messing with ya,” said Sally with a chuckle. “We met in Devel during a guild assignment. The client needed a fiddler and a fighter, and there were no teams with that composition in the city at the time. The assignment went well and the two of us got along, so we formalized the team when we got back. Team assignments pay way more than individual ones, so it was something we were both looking to do anyway.”

The guilds sounded like great places to find contacts in this world. I’d been interested in the guilds for a while and this was the perfect opportunity to get some info.

“Can anyone join a guild?” I asked.

“If you can pass the test, yes,” said Sally. “But they only hold their tests once a year.”

“When’s the next one?”

“For the F3 Guilds, it’s usually the thirty-first of December.”

“What’s the date today?”

“Yesterday was the twelfth, I think, so today should be the thirteenth.”

“Of which month?”

“June.”

“Right, of course,” I said. “Sorry, I’m bad with time.”

Sally laughed. “It’s okay. We’ve got a saying back at the guild: time is fake. One of the smarter things us muscle-brains have come up with, that’s for sure.”

I smiled politely while considering the information she’d given me.

I had considered hiring some finders in Sett and Chart to keep a look out for Demetrius in those cities, but the money Moxy had given us wasn’t enough to cover it. If I could earn some quick inketts in Devel before we left, I could maybe hire one there, or at least put out a reward for information.

“Oh, but if you’re looking to join one, the Healer’s Guild should be holding its tests in a week or two. You can give it a go once we reach Bendeck,” said Sally.

That wouldn’t help me look for him on the way, but it would be useful after I contacted Henry, Moxy’s tip for finding the next Wonder. The thought reminded me of how much further I still had to go. We were still two cities away from the capital, and even that would only help me begin my search.

After Ben and Jerome returned, we ate the berries and fruits they had collected, and helped Elenor to her feet. She could walk at a leisurely pace with the help of her stick but she set the pace for the rest of us.

We left the hill and began making our way to Devel.

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