So many sensations all at once, none of them pleasant, and each declaring itself to be the biggest problem. There was the cold, with Daniel’s weak body struggling to make up for the debt accrued by the sea. There were all of his bruises, courtesy of the savage beating he had taken the night before. There was the stab wound in his gut, bleeding just slow enough to ensure he suffered throughout the night while being tossed by the waves. There was the stinging of his eyes from the salt and sand, both of which had also been swallowed to an excess and now made him want to retch. But perhaps the worst pain, as it had been all along, was his body crying out for intoxication. Despite all his suffering, some part of him wouldn’t let him forget it, wouldn’t let him ignore it and focus on anything else.
He didn’t know where or when he finally washed ashore, sometime during the night, he just remembered crying in relief with what little energy he had. But now, as the rising sun cast its light on him, he wished he had never been brought back to the land, and had instead sunk peacefully into depths, never to return. He didn’t want to feel the warmth of the sun. He didn’t want to feel anything. He simply wanted the pain to stop. This was what his whole life had been, and it was only fitting that this was how it would end.
‘I should have died on that road. I should have died a long time ago. Of all the people to get this second chance, why did it have to be wasted on me?’
They were coming on stronger now, the cravings, and behind them, his sister’s anguished voice, grinding against his cranium like a scalper’s knife. He tried to curl himself into a ball, as if that would shield him from the sun on this day of reckoning, and retreated into himself, searching the filthy basement of his subconscious for anything that would block it all out. He thought back to all the songs he had memorized, the patterns of notes he had burned into his soul while working his fingers until they bled.
It wasn’t working, none of them could give him peace. He ripped them apart, grabbing for scraps of melody and piecing them together in desperation. He began to hum as his mind smoothed over the rough edges of his work. He sounded out the notes, cycling through over and over while adding something new each time. His left hand, outstretched ahead of him, began to move, as his fingertips dug into the sand while remembering the sharpness of his guitar strings.
The pain began to fade, so he kept building into it. He thought up simultaneous rhythms and began adding them on, with each note falling into place like a jewel on a ring. His right hand, without him realizing, began to stretch out, and with strength he didn’t even know he had, dug into the beach and began pulling him forward. His battered and exhausted legs, which felt like they would never work again, pushed him up, and his face briefly left the ground.
Again, this time his left side, he managed to lift himself up long enough to move farther away from the water. He’d gasp for air and groan in pain each time, but he continued crawling, and without ever letting his mind drift away from the song.
Noah tried to resist it, tried to close his eyes and sleep a little longer. He had returned to his perch in the church to enjoy the last few hours of night, but now the sun had risen and, unfortunately, his cloister wasn’t as peaceful as he had hoped, as the people inside and the city outside woke up. His growling stomach helped convince him to rise. He packed up his things and left the church on the hunt for sustenance. Some fried fish, hardtack, and an apple served as his breakfast.
Like him, the city was rising from its slumber as the flames of both ovens and forges were lit and stalls and shops opened. Men and women, the young and old, they set out on their business for the day. Noah even spotted several dwarves and even a few elves amongst the crowds, as tourists from Vandheim and the elf kingdom to the southwest journeyed for the festival. This was the last day to get all the final preparations made, so no one who planned to contribute was wasting time. Any damages or messes resulting from the Red Revelries were cleaned up and concealed, with several belligerent adventures being arrested. Yet despite the many that were caught, more and more fighters were taking part in the Red Revelries. It was taking all the city’s strength to keep the violence contained.
Noah’s first stop was a garment shop, filled with blankets and clothes made of linen woven on a loom and hand-spun wool. The smell of the fibers and dyes muffled all other scents like white noise. After his encounter with the knights and Harajin, he needed a new outfit so that he wouldn’t be recognized, and he was open to any excuse for changing out of his sandy clothes. There were several coins and even a few weapons hidden in the linings and secret pockets, all of which he first removed.
After paying for his new clothes, he went to a nearby water fountain and washed the dirt out of his old ones. It was against the law to do so, but the patrolling soldiers couldn’t stop what they couldn’t see. When done, Noah climbed up onto a nearby roof and laid his clothes out to dry in the sun. Then, it was on to the Knight’s Sheath. The overnight guests that had yet to vacate were nursing hangovers with the house tea, and Noah went to the counter and ordered himself a cup.
“Is Cyrilo available? I need to talk to her.”
“She doesn’t see people this early in the morning. You’ll have to wait. Say, do you have any idea where Daniel is?”
“He’s not here?”
“He went out yesterday at the end of his shift, hasn’t come back.”
“I haven’t seen him, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t take part in the Red Revelry if that is what you’re thinking.”
“You must have been busy yourself.”
“Nah, I managed to find a hayloft to sleep in. Did you get any rowdiness here last night?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle, though some furniture and glasses were broken. Bella has been in a foul mood. If she sees you, she might just drag you back to her room and never let you out.”
“I suppose I’ll make myself scarce, then.”
He finished his tea and left the brothel, setting back out with a goal in mind. He lost his bow and longsword in that pit the Harajin created, so he needed replacements. He found a shop specializing in wooden weapons and shields, though most of their inventory consisted of staffs and wands.
“This line of runes, what does it do?” he asked while examining a length of rosewood.
“It enchants the wand with a spell or an effect,” the shopkeeper replied. He took his long-stemmed pipe out of his mouth and examined the wand. “This helps speed up your mana recovery.” He picked up another, a curved piece of oak. “This one raises the range of fire spells. Wands and staffs are favored by long-range magic casters and are used as tools in magic experiments. You’ll find that runes on weapons and armor use magic to enhance the item, while runes on wands and jewelry use the item to enhance the magic. However, depending on the material, the process, and the in***********ion, wands can either last for years with little deterioration or burn out after a single use.”
Noah remembered the Harajin scroll from the night before. With a dash of blood to act as a trigger, it activated a powerful earth spell and immediately turned to ash. When he was in Clive, getting his ring, the local jeweler said something similar. Wearable items like jewelry, when inscribed with runes, could apply continuous enhancements to the wearer or continuous spells, in the case of Noah’s pocket dimension. Compared to wood, common metals were a poor material for conducting mana, but they lasted far longer without losing their power or disintegrating. Unfortunately, enchanted items, at least the ones on the open market, didn’t work well with others of the same type. His storage ring would become significantly weaker if he wore another enchanted ring at the same time.
“If a line of runes is broken, would there be a reaction? A burst of mana or something similar?”
“There have been instances of such a thing, but only in legend.”
“What do you have in the ways of enchanted bows?”
The shopkeeper used to pipe to point up to two bows high on the wall, one being a recurve bow made of elegant wood, and the other appearing to be carved from a ram’s horn and only two and a half feet long. “The green one is elven, and the arrows it shoots are less affected by the wind during the night. The other is from Vandheim, and it shoots with greater power when aimed downward.”
Noah payed two gold coins for the elf bow and a wand to experiment with, then moved on to find a blacksmith specializing in swords. Until now, enchanted weapons and armor were difficult to find, but the markets of Colbrand were a rich treasure trove, and he managed to buy a longsword with enhanced durability. Rather than buying one from a street vendor, he specifically needed a blacksmith, or, more importantly, their workshop. While the smith was busy polishing his merchandise, Noah snuck in and used some tools and an anvil to perform a quick side-task.
When he returned to the Knight’s Sheath, Lucius gave Noah the go-ahead to see the Cyrilo. He climbed up the now familiar stairs to her room and knocked on her door.
“Who is it?”
A pause. “Come in.”
He found her in her study, sitting atop her desk in feline form, surrounded by paper and papyrus documents.
“Do you have a minute? I hope I’m not interrupting your work.”
“An interruption, yes, but hopefully one worthwhile. What brings you before me so early in the day?”
“I was hoping you could tell me more about the Harajin, things you might have learned from your connection to Grond.”
“As you can understand, information like that isn’t cheap. My girls earn money their way, I earn money my way.”
Noah reached into his pocket and pulled out a ruby the size of an acorn, collected from within the dungeon crab. It was rough and uncut, but pure and radiant, and just one of many. “Might this interest you?” he asked as he set it down on the desk.
Cyrilo’s eyes widened and she began swishing her tail. “Indeed it does. Indeed it does. Take a seat. Shall I pour you a drink?”
“No, thanks.” He sat down and paused, but not out of uncertainty. “Last night, I saw a Harajin use a strange spell, one that allowed him to disappear and reappear. Do you know anything about it? Anything Grond might have told you?”
Cyrilo gave a deep sigh. At least, Noah thought she did. It was hard to tell when she was in her cat form. “I am familiar with the spell, at least I know its name. Grond is a loyal Harajin and won’t divulge secrets, even to me. ‘Bakudan’, from the Ezerian words ‘bakui’ and ‘dandora’, meaning ‘hidden from God’. The technique is only rumored to exist, as the Harajin do whatever they can to conceal their abilities. Better your enemy thinks you’re hiding one way rather than knowing you’re hiding another way.”
“Yeah, I can understand that. Anything else you can tell me?”
“I’m afraid not.” She looked down at the ruby and began batting it around lazily. “I can’t deny I want this, nor can I accept it without offering more in return. What else can I do for you?”
Noah huffed. “You said you taught the girls how to use shamanism. Any chance you could teach me? I doubt it’ll be in the curriculum of the knight academy.”
“I simply gave them a crash course in order to enhance their sex appeal. I’m far from being any kind of teacher for what you’re probably thinking of, but I can at least get you started. I’ll help you find your totem beast. It is an animal that you share a strong connection with, even if you don’t realize it. Not everyone has one though. The presence of a totem beast and the ability to use shamanism can happen randomly, but like all magic, affinity usually comes from the parents. In Handent and Vandheim, you’ll find clans where each individual has the same totem beast.
That cabinet over there, open it. There is a wooden basin with a vial and jar sitting within. Place all three on my desk and go into my room to get my tea kettle. It should still have water in it, so pour that into the basin.” Noah set up everything as she instructed. “The liquid in the vial is known as Moon Tears, used since ancient times to see truth within oneself, and the jar holds the mixed ashes of all the beasts that walk, fly, and swim in this world. Both are expensive, but we only need a little bit. Add a few drops of Moon Tears and some of the ashes, as well as some blood.”
Noah opened the vial and poured a silvery liquid into the basin. It shined like mercury, turning the surface of the water into a mirror. Next went the ashes. The water became a deep gray, like polished obsidian, still showing Noah’s reflection with perfect clarity. A small cut on his finger provided the blood and broke the stillness as the water rippled and swirled like a puddle full of tadpoles.
“Once the water settles, look into it with a calm mind devoid of thought. If you have a totem beast, you will see it looking back at you.”
Once all was still, Noah cleared his mind and stared at his reflection for several moments. “I don’t see any kind of animal.”
“Hmmm, I’m sorry. It appears you lack the gift. I was hoping you might provide something unusual. Are you sure there is nothing different? I could easily picture you as a tiger-striped cat.”
“My reflection hasn’t changed. If I can’t use shamanism, can you test other affinities? Like elemental?”
“If you don’t know your elemental affinity by now, you probably don’t have one. For your sake, I hope you can at least use warrior or monk spells. Otherwise, you probably won’t last long in the academy.” She once more began batting around the ruby. “Between the name and that test, I still feel that this gem has yet to be earned fully. Third chance. What can I give you?”
“You’ve been in Colbrand a long time, right? Shaken a lot of hands, met plenty of powerful people? And I assume your girls get no shortage of pillow talk, much of which gets passed on to you and is overheard with those pointy ears.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be in the city, but while I’m here, I need a reliable information broker. I need someone who has multiple ears to the ground and can give me intel that even the gossipiest sewing circles don’t know. Say yes, and that gem will be a down payment.”
“Very well, but loose pillow talk aside, I can’t tell you anything that was spoken to me or my girls in confidence, understand? I have a reputation to uphold and selling client secrets is an easy way to lose all my business, or even get myself killed.”
“But if I provide you with information, would you be willing to provide me with some as well?”
“Who are you, really? And where did you come from?”
Noah let slip a bitter chuckle. “Fucking Daniel, he told you more than just my name, didn’t he?”
“He told me some things, such as how you both died in another world and appeared in this one. I was ready to write him off, as it was difficult telling apart the truth from his drunken incoherence, but I knew something was strange about you two. The things he described, a world of machines instead of magic. I can’t help but hope such a thing is real, something so strange and fascinating. I’m simply asking in order to indulge my curiosity.”
‘So this is how it feels to hear that line. Perhaps the gods are real and they have a sense of humor,’ Noah thought. “The curiosity of a researcher, correct? Someone who studies and experiments with things like magic as more than simply a hobby? Your collection does suggest a love for knowledge over materialism.”
“Researcher, sage, alchemist, whatever you want to call it. Running the Knight’s Sheath helps pay for my studies, and taking a patron now and then is trivial compared to the resources it gets me.”
“So that potion you were supposed to get was research material?”
“Of sorts. Magic experimentation can be very dangerous, and not just physically. I had hoped the potion could alleviate the curse I suffer from.”
That word caught Noah’s attention. “Curses?”
“Ah, ah, my question first.”
“Very well. You’re fortunate to be asking me this now. Your cause is one is one I can sympathize with today. Yes, Daniel’s stories are true. We come from a world without magic, where only the human race reigns. Instead of casting spells, we have to build and use tools. People can fly from one country to another at hundreds of miles an hour. We’ve landed men on the moon in metal ships propelled by fire. We have weapons that can completely erase entire cities. Everyone drives in metal carriages that aren’t pulled by animals.”
Noah revealed a small pouch and pulled out his phone, setting it on the table next to the ruby. “In my old world, this device could grant me access to the entire combined knowledge of the human race and enough free entertainment for several lifetimes. I could put it to my ear and talk to someone thousands of miles away as easily as I’m talking to you now. It could keep track of the days and time, predict the weather, control my finances, and a hundred other things. Almost everyone in the world had one. It uses electricity to function; lightning, running through metal, but its energy is all gone, so now it’s just a paperweight.
I could go on. And yes, it’s true that we came to this world after dying in our world. I just happened to meet him in the street when I arrived the other day.”
“I may be a courtesan, but there are things even I can’t swallow. That can’t all be true. It’s impossible.”
“For me, the idea of someone turning into a cat was impossible. Monsters spawning from circles out of thin air was impossible. Potions that can cause flesh to heal instantly were impossible. Would you be convinced if I told you all of that technology is taken for granted? The people of my world are just as ignorant and irrational as the people of this one. Just as kind, just as cruel, same basic problems and desires.”
“Are there other worlds? Beyond my world and yours?”
Noah didn’t answer and instead looked out the window. It was getting close to noon. “Do you mind if we pick this up later?”
Holmes’s relief to be confined to bedrest had worn out, as he now desperately wanted to be out of the infirmary. Both he and Frigga were nursing fevers, a side effect caused by the fungus. Its growth was dormant, but once it had spread, it was next to impossible to fully remove. Even Holmes’s arm, carved up like a turkey, still had specks of the fungus peppered across the exposed tissue. It was a miserable experience through and through, no matter how many rags or medicines the healers brought the two knights.
“Still not ready?” Frigga asked when Elyot stopped by.
“Not yet, just checking on you.”
“Can’t you just lie and tell Sir Tarnas you performed all of the tests?”
“I’m going to let that one slide and assume those words were the mumblings of delirium. He has a point about checking the potion. There is no telling what poison or curse could be mixed into the antidote. It could be something they’re immune to but would kill us. We don’t even know if it actually will cure you of the fungus.”
“You’re just stalling because you want to create your own antidote, aren’t you?” Frigga accused.
“Yes, no, whatever answer will satisfy you.”
“What in the world could have spooked Sir Tarnas like that?” Holmes asked.
“Don’t ask me. But if he is hesitant about that potion, you should be as well. You may be uncomfortable now, but weigh it against your life.”
“I’m willing to take the risk. Can’t your stupid alchemy work any faster?”
“It used to take weeks to perform. You should count yourselves lucky that you only have to wait a day, rather than ridiculing the magic I’m using to save you. I strongly suggest you not insult my work.”
“Complaining is the only thing that truly blocks the pain,” Frigga groaned.
Elyot sighed, straightened his glasses, and walked away. “Keep it up, you mewling dullards, and I’ll send in Gradius to take care of you.”
This time, it was Grond who arrived at the warehouse early, and he took a favorable position up in the rafters. He kept his eyes on the nearby window and the door, anticipating, hoping, and dreading the arrival of the second party. The door opened, Noah standing in the way, his face hidden once again by bandages. He walked out into the center of the warehouse with an audacity that irked Grond. He readied his knives, just looking for an excuse to kill this stranger.
“I know you’re here, Grond. Reveal yourself. If you make me look for you, if you take any kind of hostile action, you will meet the same fate as your three comrades.”
Grond remembered his training, the years spent learning to control his fear, to harness it as a power rather than suffer from it as a hindrance. He and the Harajin channeled their fear to move faster and fight harder rather than tremble and hesitate. He was trained to ignore the deaths of comrades in battle and instead deliver a killing blow to the enemy while they were distracted. It was a honed instinct, one now telling him to stay his hand. This man had killed Oritz, was likely the killer of Hulf, and had displayed his skills before Grond’s eyes the previous night. Whatever magic or moves he used, they seemed to hold a style advantage over the Harajin.
“I’m up here, but you’ll have to convince me to come down.”
“Good, I’m glad you got my message.”
“Same time, same place. What do you want from me?”
“Bakudan. I want to know how it works. If you give me the information I want, I can make it worth your while.”
“You mean the antidote?”
On cue, Noah held up the stolen bottle. “With any luck, the knights haven’t used that other potion yet. Once they find out what’s inside, all of your good intentions will have been for nothing and they will never trust the Harajin again. However, if you go to them now, explain the situation, and give them this, then everything can be forgiven.”
“Why do you want to know about the spell?”
“Like Cyrilo, I have an interest in magic. Bakudan is a very curious spell and I want to study it. Nothing you tell me will ever be spoken of or written down. It’s a secret I’ll take with me to my grave.”
“And I assume this is something you already asked my comrades?”
“Just Hulf. He chose death over giving me what I wanted, a truly foolish decision. He did not die well, and it would be a shame if I had to repeat the process with you. I have what you and your friend want. If I didn’t, then why are you here?”
“You killed three Harajin. You think I can just hand over clan secrets to someone like you?”
“Of course you can. You’ve gone against the Harajin before, haven’t you? Disobeyed their laws for personal reasons? Just do it again. Explain the spell to me in all its details and this madness can be over with.”
Grond hesitated and jumped down from the rafters. “Tell me one thing: what do you know of the supposed peace accord Ortiz was carrying?”
“There is no peace accord and the sword he was carrying belonged to a knight whose death was unrelated to all this. However, what was a lie can be made true.” Noah revealed the sheathed knight sword and held it out to Grond. “I’ll give this to you as well. If you return this to the kingdom as an act of good faith, along with the antidote, then peace between Uther and the Harajin can be possible. Make up whatever story you want about how you killed me and retrieved the sword and bottle. Paint yourself as a hero while I take the role of the scapegoat.
I’m not an enemy to Uther or the Harajin, and without me, you wouldn’t have this chance to shape the future. Imagine what it could mean if this goes well. Cyrilo told me that you gave up your son so that he wouldn’t be raised to be a Harajin. You couldn’t erase your feelings, could you? You can see him again, be a part of his life without fear of the knights killing you on sight. We can all get what we want.”
Grond slowly reached out to take the sword, but stopped. “I can’t. I am loyal to the Harajin and lack the right to give up clan secrets. However… Klein is ranked higher than me and can make these kinds of decisions. Add this to the pile, and I’ll even back you up.” He held out the potion meant for Cyrilo. “This is what they came for, so he won’t simply overlook an offer to get it. I reclaimed it from Cyrilo, but my companions already know that it left my possession. I need them to find this on their own so the mission will be a success and no one will ask questions. You stole it from me and are selling it back.
The antidote, sword, and potion. I can’t imagine Klein refusing.”
Noah took the potion with a spark of surprise. “You stole it from Cyrilo?”
“She gave it back.”
“I imagine after tearing into you like a cornered mouse. It’s perfect. Have him meet me here at dusk.”
Noah departed, audaciously flashing his back to the assassin. He left the warehouse and began walking along the pier. Now that he had some free time, he was aching for a nap.
‘Should I look for some quiet place to bed down like the church, or go back to the Knight’s Sheath and earn some bedrest from Bella?’
His indecision lasted only briefly and wasn’t answered, as it was when he was passing by two dwarf ships run aground that he spotted something in the corner of his eye. It was low tide, and out on the beach below the pier, a body lay upon the sand. The drag marks leading from the water were the only reason to believe this washed ashore wretch was still alive. The distance failed to hinder Noah in recognizing Daniel.
“What the hell?”
He jumped down from the pier and ran over. It was Daniel, all right, breathing his last breath. Noah flipped him over onto his back and saw the large red stain on the side of his shirt. He drew a healing potion with steady hands and poured half on Daniel’s wound, the rest down his throat. Even with the potion applied, his life was dwindling, and it seemed like death would overtake him first. After a night spent being tossed by the ocean and then baking in the sun, his body was utterly exhausted, with everything from his skin to his organs ravaged. Add the stab wound, and his survival at beyond ‘lucky’ and just short of ‘miraculous’. Noah gave him his last two potions, bringing him at least to a stable condition, though he remained unconscious.
“Guess I’m going to the Knight’s Sheath.”
The dungeons of Colbrand, despite that title, was more than just a basement beneath the palace. It was originally a military fort, built of brick and stone and fenced in by walls that could resist both spells and catapults. It had been used to house thousanfs of prisoners of war in ages past, hence it was repurposed to hold the city’s criminals. But as it so happened, the man who ran the prison was himself a prisoner. Deep in the lowest levels, special living quarters had been constructed. It was deep below the city, but not so deep as to explain the stifling heat and thick steam.
It was being visited by Adwith Tarnas, walking the stone corridors without a torch, and instead using his own holy light to show him the way. He arrived at a heavy steel door, next to which a large suit of armor was hung up on a rack, and gave a hard knock. “Sven, it’s Adwith.”
Tarnas unlocked the door and clouds of steam poured out. Only once it settled did he enter. The room he entered was sensory deprivation chamber. It held pool of water with hundreds of pounds of salt mixed in to let Gradius float easily in the center. There was no light source, and the only sound was the flowing of fresh water and air out of pipes. This room was the only thing that could calm Gradius’s perpetual anger and served as both bed and prison cell. The water was boiling from the heat he was putting out, a common occurrence, but rarely did he reach temperatures like this. He was a large man, like Tarnas, and built like a bull. While his body was completely immune to heat, not even eyebrows could grow without the hairs turning to ash.
“I heard you attacked a fellow knight yesterday. Have you calmed down enough to understand why that’s a problem?”
“She got in my way.”
“I don’t care what she did, you do not attack your comrades. In what way has that rule ever been unclear?”
“She started it! She tried to save a criminal! She’s one of them! She should be the one locked up! Her head should be on a pike! I’m gonna—”
“Enough!” Tarnas released a powerful wave of mana, shaking the room and managing to silence Gradius. The two men were silent for a moment, each letting their tempers settle. “Do you remember why I got you this position? Why I advocated for you, of all people, to become the royal executioner?”
“The pursuit of justice. You said… you said I should focus on punishing evil and upholding the law. You said I could learn to control my fury if I had a reason to.”
“That’s right. You were just a mindless beast when I found you, a slave to your rage, and my orders were to kill you just like any other monster. But I saw potential in you, the chance to turn to that pure chaos into a force for good. I still believe in that potential. I believe you can help protect this nation, and it takes more than just killing to do that. Why do you think I want you here in the city instead of just rampaging on the battlefield? It’s because you need to learn how to live without anger, live without always looking for something to destroy. I wanted you to learn to see people as something other than enemies. Your job is to maintain peace, and to do that, you must know peace within yourself.”
Gradius released a deep huff. “I’ll try.”
“This isn’t the kind of thing you try. You either do it or you don’t. Tomorrow, if there is no steam in here and the water is calm, I’ll let you out for the festival. That’s a very fair offer. Do you understand?”
“Good, then think about what I’ve told you.”
Tarnas departed, leaving the lowest levels and going back up to the main dungeon, where a similarly tense conversation was happening in one of the jail cells.
“No, no, no, no, you cannot punch a man in the balls during a fight,” Roc groaned, sitting against the bars. Since waking up, he had barely moved. His whole body was aching to the point that he could barely stand.
“Hey, anyone who comes swinging at me better be prepared to take a punch, and where that punch lands is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Foley. He had found a small scrap of wood and was whittling it with a spoon to stave off boredom.
“Your parents really failed with you.”
“I don’t know what you’re so hung up over. If you’re fighting for your life, you can do whatever you want, and fuck anyone who has a problem with it. And let’s not forget the undeniable fact that it is the funniest thing ever conceived. You show me a guy getting struck by the gods of irony and I’ll laugh until I get hiccups.”
“Going for the balls is just cowardly. I’ll do sneak attacks, surprise attacks, go for the eyes and throat, but I ain’t hurling any low blows.”
“I’m a fucking dwarf. Low blows are pretty much all I can do.”
“Only a woman can hit a man in the balls and it’s acceptable. My sister said it’s how the gods evened the playing field.”
“Well then it’s the same for dwarves. We’re short and strong with a punch like a battering ram. Mine is a race devised to prevent too many tall assholes from breeding. You turn into an uppity shit and we’ll knock you back down the hard way. Men, elves, all the others, you all live in terror of us mighty dwarves taking you tall guys down a peg, one nutshot at a time, ending your bloodlines.”
“One day you’re going to end up fighting someone really tall with a codpiece like a tower shield, what then? I’ll tell you what, he’ll punt you into the ocean. You won’t even be able to chew on his ankle like a rat.”
“At that point, I’ll just climb up and headbutt him. We dwarves are thickheaded, and you’ll never find a skull thicker than mine. I could knock a charging bull on his ass.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Hey, I mean it.”
“Break this door open, then I’ll believe you.”
“Any other dungeon, I would have snuck off by now, but not with that lunatic executioner around.”
“Well I haven’t seen him in a while and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to be releasing us soon, so we might as well try to find a way out. It beats just sitting here.”
“And what might you have in mind?”
“Hey, can I get some help over here?”
Noah had arrived at the Knight’s Sheath with Daniel slung over his shoulder like a bag of dog food.
Seeing them, Lucius rushed over from behind the counter. “Shit, what happened?”
“It looks like he might have been mugged and left for dead. I found him washed up on the beach. Let’s get him to bed. Can you call Rita?”
Lucius helped carry him to the backroom and lay him out on the cot. Noah checked his neck, finding a weak but steady pulse. The problem was that he was dangerously cold. He had been lying out in the summer sun for hours, probably keeping hypothermia at bay, but his body was so exhausted that his metabolism had slowed near to the point of shutting down. Rita arrived with blankets and went to work.
“Can you save him?” Noah asked as she flooded Daniel’s body with holy energy.
“I honestly don’t know. I usually just tend to wounds left by abusive patrons, never something like this. It feels like much of my power is just splashing off him without doing anything, and he won’t wake up. I don’t understand.”
“I’ve seen it before,” said Lucius. “In battle, when trying to save my friends. If someone is close enough to death, potions and magic lose their effectiveness. Even if the soul hasn’t yet left the body, it’s like trying to heal a corpse.”
“The body has already accepted death and doesn’t realize it’s been saved,” Noah muttered. Like Lucius, he had experience, as both the one dying and the one trying to save them.
“It also depends on the will of the victim. It’s hard to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.” It was Cyrilo’s voice Noah heard, but when he turned to the doorway, she was not the woman he knew. No amount of makeup could wipe away the three decades she appeared to have lost. “Magic is fickle that way.”
“I’d say so,” he replied, maintaining a straight face but not looking away.
“I suggest we all leave Rita to her work. Hopefully, you and I can continue our conversation upstairs.”
Noah left Daniel and followed Cyrilo up to her room, where he once more sat across from her desk in her study. “If you’re still offering drinks, I’ll take you up on it.”
“I could use one myself.”
She revealed two glasses and filled them with spirits from an expensive-looking decanter. Noah sipped the sharp nectar and sighed. “So, would you care to explain this?”
She lit her long-stemmed pipe before answering and the smell of gonlief filled the room. “A curse. I believe you heard me mention it before.”
“It is one of the greatest dangers that we researchers face in pursuit of our studies. Most spells you see are used in combat and tend to be simple in concept and short-lasting, but there are many that have a continuous effect, and even stick to people, including the caster. A positive effect, like a boost to one’s strength, makes it a blessing, and a negative effect, or an unexpected cost, makes it a curse. Many adventurers have lost their lives by foolishly wielding enchanted items, not knowing they carried curses.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“Somewhat. Several years ago, I came into possession of a stone slab from a lost civilization with a curse inscribed, one that offered eternal life, but at great cost. Every dawn, the victim takes the form of a newborn baby, reaches middle-age by midday, and the twilight of their years at dusk, and then regress during the night to their infant form with the next sunrise. Eighty years compressed into one day, but those days continued on forever. I tried to rewrite it, to receive eternal life but alter the cost. It didn’t work. I didn’t undo, so much as reverse it, meaning I age backward until sunset. I’ve been searching for a way to undo the curse ever since. All I’ve managed to do so far is adjust the aging process, so I go through a single life cycle instead of two, but I spend my days as an old woman. That potion Grond was supposed to deliver would have been my 20th or so try.”
Noah felt his heart skip a beat as he looked at the expansive collection of books and scrolls. Twenty attempts to undo her curse, all failed, but perhaps they might be able to undo his. At the moment, his knowledge of magic was in its infancy, so he probably couldn’t even read Cyrilo’s notes if he tried. Hopefully the academy would change that. This room was his best lead in centuries. He just had to wait until he could properly utilize it. Patient, he needed to be patient.
“So, was it worth it? To get eternal life?”
“This is not the way I want to spend it.”
“But it’s why you learned shamanism, isn’t it? You use your cat form to conceal the effects.”
“I don’t usually bother concealing it. Everyone figures it out after a few days or a week at most. The curse is inactive when I take the form of a cat, letting me remain in one form and one age, something that I sorely miss. It helps me skip through the most inconvenient stages of the metamorphosis.”
A sudden laugh escaped Noah, but contrary to Cyrilo’s scowl, it was directed at himself. Smoke, makeup, and the changing screen. No wonder he never noticed.
“Is my suffering funny to you?”
“No. Like I said before, yours is a plight I can easily support.”
Noah thanked her for the drink and departed. It was the afternoon lull, but what should have been a peaceful period was flushed with activity. All of the beds were having their sheets and blankets changed, so the halls were filled with prostitutes and chambermaids carrying away stained bedspreads and applying clean ones. Down in the parlor, he found Bella sitting at the bar in a simple dress. “Oh my,” she said with a sultry voice when she saw him. “My favorite customer, my darling!” He sat at the bar and Bella immediately moved onto his lap. He didn’t show any visible reaction, simply put his arm around her with his hand sliding into her dress as if it was his own pocket.
“Just the girl I wanted to see.” As he spoke, he began playing with her tits, much to her enjoyment. An amusing discovery; her ears reacted to how he played with her nipples. A teasing pinch would erect them and make her shudder, while tracing around her areolas would make them slacken.
“I happened to be on my way to the bathhouse,” she said, “but you can have me anytime, anywhere.”
“Actually I was hoping you might let me borrow your room while you’re gone. I just need a place where I can close my eyes for a bit.”
“Of course, make yourself at home. But when I get back, you have to repay my kindness, and I don’t mean in money.”
‘Great, now I’M a prostitute.’ “Deal.”
She departed as the bartender appeared. “Lucius, how is Daniel doing?”
“Rita is still working on him, but at least he’s not dead.”
“Who knows, he might surprise us. A cup of tea, if you would.” As the beverage was prepared, Noah finally addressed Bella.
A cup of tea and four hours of drooling sleep later, and Noah was keeping his promise. He was holding Bella up against the wall of her room, her breasts heaving with every thrust he made. There was no weakness in how he held her, no flaws in his aim, no disruptions in his movements, no issue that Bella was aware of. It was perfection, born of experience, something she knew that the young man should not have had.
“Harder! Deeper!” she cried.
Noah altered his hold, lifting her legs up higher over his arms to bend her posture. The change in angle, albeit slight, let Noah press his cock harder against her front wall in a sustained grind. Her voice was audible to almost the entire brothel. Her pussy so greedily accepted him, slicker than melting ice, but hot with passion and ecstasy.
Noah set her on the bed and attacked her with full force. On her back, she was left grabbing the blankets while her breasts shook as if the earth was quaking. Her legs were spread, toes curling and stretching. The look on her face, overwhelmed and intoxicated, was one of euphoric subjection. As soon as he pulled out, she rolled onto her stomach and raised her ass as an invitation like he and she were beasts in the wild. Her fluffball tail twitched in anticipation and she was close to begging.
He took her from behind, attacking with a precise savagery that broke her, body and mind. Everyone had their own level of preferred intensity, a sexual resonance frequency, and Noah could isolate it like a master thief cracking a safe. He had been vigorous with Tin and casual with Beth, but Bella needed it hard. She put on the airs of a seasoned courtesan and had the skills to back it up, so to make her crumble, make her melt in his hands, he needed to prey on her without mercy. He slapped her ass, pulled her air, and pounded her slit, with her body welcoming him like a flower opening its petals to take in the sun.
She held onto the bed like she was lost at sea and clinging to whatever would keep her head above the smashing waves. Her whole body rippled as Noah slammed into her with twists and swirls to stir her up. Bella climaxed, and as she had learned, with Noah, it was not a matter of when or if, but a question of how many times. She went limp as they rolled through her, powerful enough to start a stopped heart. Noah moved onto the bed and hefted his cock next to her face. Trembling, she gathered her strength to finish the job.
She sucked him off with love and dedication, while Noah, his hand between her legs, was stroking her clit and playing with her plump lips. Like her nipples, the way he played with her clit would cause different reactions with her rabbit ears. She shuddered from his touch, strong as always, but giving her only pure pleasure. Now it was Noah’s turn to cum, and Bella put in her best efforts. She sucked the head voraciously while jacking him off. She saw it in him, the subtle twitches that not even Noah could hide. She opened her mouth and let Noah fill it like a specimen cup. She rolled his semen around in her mouth, showing it to him, wanting him to see her swallow it.
Noah didn’t praise her, at least, not with words. He stood up off the bed and pulled her over so her legs were hanging over the edge. Her clit, he left to his thumb, with his ring and middle finger probing her depths. There was no introduction, no build-up, he simply went straight for her G-spot in a continued assault that almost appeared painful. The noises she made, the look on her face, it was like an alien was about to burst out of her chest. He was so fast, so forceful, and it just became more and more intense. His other hand was around her throat, not choking her, simply keeping her from moving around.
The sound was unmistakable, the squelching and splashing his fingers were making inside her. Drops of liquid lust were starting to land on the floor. Bella was arching her entire body while she made half-hearted attempts to stop him. She was cumming harder than ever in her life, and it terrified her, feeling as though her sanity would be washed away by the clear liquid soaking the bed. She desperately grabbed onto him and bent her body like a demon was being exorcised, her voice drawing the attention of people outside while she squirted like a fountain.
Once the storm between her legs had run its course, Noah finally let her go, and Bella, jittery and spasming, slid off the bed and slumped to the floor, kneeling in a puddle of her own nectar. There was a hysterical smile on her face, though it was wet with tears, and the noises she was making were a mix of crying and laughter. Noah crouched down and lifted her chin. He didn’t say anything, but the look on his face, the glimmer in his eyes, they were all he needed to comfort her. He wiped the tears from her cheeks and she clung to his arm, as though afraid he’d leave.
“Can I have a hug, please?” she asked, barely able to speak.
He embraced her, with she likewise holding onto him until her fit ended and her body calmed. Noah lifted her up and set her once more on the bed so that she could rest. That last climax had robbed her of all her strength. He sat beside her, his hand caressing her cheek.
“I don’t know how I can keep doing this job after that,” she murmured. “I’ll always know what I’m missing out on without you here.”
“Well, I’ll be attending the academy, so I’ll be nearby. If I can get time off, I’ll come visit.”
“I don’t know if I can wait that long.”
“You can, you will, and someday, you’ll have forgotten all about me. You’ll retire, find a husband, and be happier than you ever thought possible. We’ll pass each other on the street and you won’t even recognize my face or remember my name.”
“Why would you say such a thing?”
“So that you’ll enjoy the present and look forward to the future. Life is too short for you to pine after me.”
He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, then got dressed and left. He had rested up, but after a light breakfast and no lunch, he was starving. He went back down to the parlor. “How’s Daniel?” he asked, approaching the bar.
“Rita said she’s done all she can do, so he’s out of the woods, but he still hasn’t woken up,” said Lucius.
Noah huffed. “I might know something that’ll snap him out of it.”
He stepped out into the streets, where the activity was winding down as the sun began to dip. Tomorrow was the festival, so there was a lot of excitement in the air, even as the late afternoon sun began closing shops. First things first, Noah perused all of the stalls and tents selling food and filled himself with an early dinner. He even stopped at a bakery where honey cakes were being sold to indulged his sweet tooth, as well as put some sugary fuel in the tank. Even now, his taste buds cried out for processed foods. He also stocked up on potions, in preparation for the night. His final stop: the familiar harp maker’s shop, just before closing.
“Ah, it’s you,” the old man said. “Your crazy friend came here yesterday, but I wasn’t sure I’d see you again.”
“Is it finished?”
“You bet, and I must say, I’m pretty proud of this beauty.” He slipped into his workshop and returned with the completed guitar in his hands, and even Noah was impressed. The woodwork was excellent and had been grafted perfectly to the carapace Noah had donated. Many of the key parts of Daniel’s old guitar had survived the transplant, and above the pic guard, a line of runes had been carved into the wood. “Depending on how well it works, I might start making more.”
“Something tells me it’ll work,” Noah said as he received it.
He himself was no stranger to playing the guitar, though it had been a while. Even while out of tune, the feeling and sound of the strings invoked a pleasant nostalgia. He was even tempted to keep it for himself. He handed the man a stack of silver coins. It was a pricey investment, but Noah was feeling hopeful. He returned to the Knight’s Sheath with the guitar and a bag of food, and Lucius stared with a raised eyebrow.
“Is that the “guitar” thing that Daniel kept yammering about?”
“That’s right. If this doesn’t wake him up, nothing will.”
He went into the back room, where Daniel lay like one of the dead. At least his wounds had all been mended. Noah pulled up a stool next to the cot and began tuning the guitar. He had learned and relearned how to play countless times, along with numerous other instruments, but hadn’t touched a guitar since his previous life, and eighteen years was long enough to leave him understandably rusty. It took him multiple tries to force his fingers to remember moves they had never done.
He started strumming with a coin serving as pick, laying out the opening to Stairway to Heaven. He mumbled the lyrics, having little attention he could divert from the strings. Daniel talked about memorizing songs, prided himself on nothing but his skills, and if that was true, then hopefully this song would have been burned into his mind. Daniel began to twitch and make small utterances, like a dog dreaming of chasing squirrels. Finally, he opened in his eyes.
“Your timing is off,” he said with a dry voice that was barely audible.
“Well truth be told, I’m better on piano, but that project will have to wait for another time. Here.” Noah passed him a waterskin. “Welcome back.” It took all of Daniel’s strength just to sit up and take it, and from the way he held it, his hands were clearly stiff. He drank nearly half of it in one huge gulp. “How do you feel?”
“I’m pretty sure there is more water than this up my ass.”
“You probably aren’t the first person to use that phrase in this building.” Noah held up his hand. “Follow my finger with your eyes. Again, probably a common phrase here.”
“What, they teach you this in health class?” Daniel asked while trying to keep his gaze steady.
“That’s right.” He gave Daniel a brief checkup and found no serious health concerns. He’d have to buy Rita a bouquet of flowers. “What happened?”
“I was on my way back from the harp guy. Remember that dude that Lucius threw out? He found me, beat the shit out of me, and tossed me into the sea. He had already given me a shiner earlier, but Rita fixed it.”
“Well you’re lucky to have survived. There is no telling if you’d just get sent to another world.”
“Whoop-de-fucking-doo.” Daniel laid back and covered his eyes with his arm. “I should be dead. I wish I was dead. I did what you said, trying to live clean, trying to change, but no matter what I do, I end up right back here, waking up after getting curb-stomped. No matter how many times I turn, I just walk into something painful. I don’t want another life and I don’t deserve it.”
“Since when do people ever get what they deserve?” Noah looked down at the guitar and continued playing. “Whatever you did, your sins can’t reach you here. Here, the past exists only in your mind.”
A few moments passed and Noah’s playing improved. “I didn’t actually die in a school shooting. It was suicide.”
Daniel was left stunned. “You’re shitting me. Why?”
“You know exactly why. You know why I did it, why others do it, why you want to do it. To spare you a long story, I simply didn’t have any connections in my own life. There was nothing I cared about. Where I lived, the members of my family, everything I would miss out on; they just didn’t matter to me at all. Life was just a game, and I was a player surrounded by NPCs. I didn’t even hesitate or leave a note. I’m probably the last person who should be giving you a pep talk or the ‘life is worth living’ speech. All I can say is that dying won’t help you.
I don’t know why or how we ended up here, but you and I did die. And what changed? Are you any happier than you were in your old life? Better? Worse? You’re lying here, the literal living proof that death can’t solve your problems. What reason do you have to believe that doing it again would work? Trust me, dying has yet to change me for the better. But this world has given me new possibilities, chances I didn’t have in my old life. I’m willing to hope that those new possibilities will lead me to the answers I seek, same for you.”
Daniel was struggling to hold back tears. “I don’t care about answers. I already know everything I gotta know… and I know… that I can’t live like this anymore. It’s just not worth it anymore.”
Noah stopped playing. How? How could he make him understand? This crying child? How could he make him, who had barely lived his life, feel the weight of what he wished to surrender? How could he get him to appreciate the time he had? Noah had experienced it all, the greatest joys and sorrows that life could give him, and he knew how much power a single second held. Within every second was the potential for a catastrophe or a miracle, changing lives and changing worlds. Despite being cursed with infinite life, he understood the value of time more than the mortals who had so little. He knew the power of a single moment, the possibility it brought. He knew how briefly human life flickered, a mere grain of sand in the hourglass of time, but it was filled with so much potential.
“You think yourself hopeless because you have no power to change your world or right your wrongs, but you have more power than you could ever imagine. To live or die is a choice you have the power to make, but whatever reason you come up with, that reason only exists because you believe it to. It is you that decides what affects your life. The power to find happiness is already within you.” He handed Daniel the guitar and a sack of food. “The only true meaning is the meaning we create for ourselves, so if you want a reason to live, create one.”
Noah got to his feet and left Daniel there. He had done all he could. Only time would tell whether he got through to him. Besides, night was falling.