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A note from Thundamoo

Strap in, this one's a bit of a long one!

“Alright!” Adgito said with a smile, “We’re off to get you some deals! What kind of stuff are you guys looking for, exactly? Won’t really affect our first stop, but it’d be good to know.”

He was strutting as he walked, overjoyed at this unexpected turn of events. The poor guy had been sitting alone in a fountain all morning, waiting for someone to walk by and arrest him. How could Shara not walk up and give him a helping hand? It would be good for Darron to actually spend some time around a nonhuman, too. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was uncomfortable around them. To top it all off, they even got a city guide within the first few minutes of entering Terranburg! If her brother wasn’t such a grumpy party-pooper, everything would be pretty much perfect.

“Our first priority is travel food,” Shara answered. “We have enough meals to last a while, and we can collect food as we go, but we want some light emergency rations that won’t spoil for a month or two in case worst comes to worst.”

“Oh, okay. So you guys are planning to leave the city soon, huh?” Adgito asked.

Aw, he was sad about that! How cute.

“We’re headed for Hydronia!” Shara explained. “My big bro’s a bio-mage, and he’s goin’ to college!”

“Got no idea what a bio-mage is,” Adgito declared, “but it sounds terrifying. Is he gonna release some huge plague upon the citizens that will turn their skin to boils and pus?” He glanced over at Darron. “Er, no offense.”

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” Shara joked. “He could probably do that.”

“Wait, what? Really?” Adgito said, taking a wide step away from Darron.

“My magic primarily focuses on healing,” Darron grumbled. “I’m a medical doctor. Or at least I will be, officially, once I get the proper certifications in Hydronia. Turning people’s skin to boils and pus is reserved for family members.”

He was, of course, glaring at Shara as he said that, and in the process of planning such a spell for later. Oh goodie, more “barrier training.”

“Wow, you guys sure get along famously!” Adgito commented sarcastically, taking a sharp turn down an alley so small Shara probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. “I personally would have assumed that family members would be first on the list to stay boil-and-pus exempt, but hey. What do I know? Don’t have any.”

The alleyway streamed into a larger road which Adgito briefly traversed before ducking back into another thin side-street. From what Shara could gather from Adgito’s mind, these side-streets weren’t the most efficient way to wherever they were going; Adgito was avoiding more populated roads because he didn’t like them. Totally understandable. The main streets were packed with bodies, a condensed shuffle of mass trying to go in hundreds of different directions. To her extra senses, this many people in one place formed a near-unintelligible blast of emotions, flinging feelings at her head from all directions. She could barely tell where any given emotion was coming from unless its source was right next to her. The result was just a dull, uncomfortable roar, like she was caught in a sandstorm.

She quickly found the best way to cope with the noise was to get her extra sense to focus on something else: namely, doing a deep dive into one mind at a time. She’d taken shelter in this way before to avoid sharing particularly negative emotions. Whenever there was a funeral back in the village, for example, she’d hide inside the mind of someone who didn’t know the deceased very well in order to dull the onslaught of sadness and regret from the many people that did. Even if she had no personal reason to feel sad, funerals could still drive her to an unintelligible mess of blubbering despair.

She sheltered herself in Darron’s head first, since she knew he wouldn’t care. Immediately, she was pleased to find that Adgito’s words earlier had guilted him into giving up on the pus-boil spell. Having that guy as a guide was already paying off! Instead, Darron was taking in the sights, noting any shops they passed that looked useful, and memorizing the twisted route Adgito was taking them on in case they needed to get back on their own. Man, his devotion to practicality was kind of boring sometimes.

“So, Adgito, this shop you’re leading us too… It seems kind of far away.” Shara commented. “We’ve already passed dozens of shops.”

“Yeah, but I don’t know anything about any of them,” Adgito responded. “Homeless, broke, have been forever. Never shopped in my life.”

Oh. That was... unexpected. Adgito had been supremely confident that he could help out, otherwise Shara would never have asked him to be their guide. They needed to buy things. Where was he taking them, if not to a store?

“Heh, oh man,” Adgito laughed, looking back at them. “You should see the looks on your faces. White as a sheet. Hey, calm down, okay? May not know what you guys need, but I know someone who does. Mrs. Garnersworth will get your stuff, I’m sure of it.”

Shara confirmed that he was, in fact, sure of it. In retrospect, she supposed it made sense that a person too poor to buy himself clothing probably wouldn’t be personally acquainted with many shops. This Mrs. Garnersworth person seemed like a reasonable enough first stop. Darron was all grumpy about it, but he probably just needed a nap or something.

As the walk continued, Shara felt around experimentally with her extra sense. Something had been feeling off; not particularly bad, but off. It was like a fuzzy bag of water rolling over her brain, unlike anything she had ever felt before. More curiously, the strange feeling persisted throughout the city as she traveled. She peered outward, taking in as much as she could from the rolling mess of emotional energy before retreating back into a friendly brain, but she couldn’t pinpoint the source of whatever it was.

“We’re here,” Adgito declared as the three of them approached a large, open building, bustling with customers. Unlike most of the shops in the area that were just set up as booths or stalls in the street, this shop was a full ground-story floor, well over a thousand square feet. There was no door, for in fact the building had no front wall- the entire street-side section of the shop was open to the outdoors. Countless shelves and racks made a maze of goods and bodies indoors, carrying nearly every nonperishable item you could need for day-to-day life. Clothing, lumber, furniture, toys… this shop was packed.

Adgito lead them through the store towards the back, where they saw a short, plump, middle-aged woman restocking one of the clothing racks. She hummed a jaunty tune as she lifted each shirt, quickly spun it left and right to inspect for damages, and expertly hung it on the rack. Shara was impressed; you had to be pretty darn wealthy to get fat in the southern plains.

“Hello, Mrs. Garnersworth!” Adgito said with a wave. The woman turned to look at him, and her face immediately erupted into a jovial smile as she dropped the shirt she was holding and rushed over to greet him, her brown curls bobbing as she waddled over.

“Adgito dear!” she exclaimed outstretching her arms, “I haven’t seen you for days! Come here and give me a hug!” Adgito held up a hand to decline.

“Sorry Mrs. Garnersworth, I’m gonna have to take a raincheck on that.” He indicated his bare chest. “I’m on form-change watch. Had to avoid touching any lovely ladies the entire way over here. Barely escaped an indecent exposure charge once today, no need to try my luck.”

Mrs. Garnersworth put her hands on her impressive hips and pouted.

“Ohh, you should know better than to drop by here without being prepared for a welcome hug. Hold right there, I just got a long-sleeved shirt that’ll look adorable on you. Just let me…”

The woman wandered off, leaving the three of them to stand around awkwardly until she returned.

“Well, you two seem to be on good terms,” Darron commented.

“Yeah man, Mrs. Garnersworth’s about the closest thing I have to a mom,” Adgito responded. “She’s gotten me through some rough times. Wouldn’t be here if not for her.”

“Where would you be?” Shara asked absentmindedly, and immediately regretted it. Adgito sheepishly scratched his cheek.

“Uh, probably’d still be trying to find a way to kill myself, t’be honest,” he mumbled. “Or just be uselessly wandering around the desert. Things got, uh, a little rough back when I first got these wonky powers.”

Whatever had happened, Adgito was feeling way guiltier about it than Shara was currently willing to pry into; there were more than enough negative emotions vying for her attention in this city anyway. She went for the first conversation segue she could think of.

“So, wait, you weren’t always like this?”

“Naw man,” Adgito explained, “I was a normal dude most a’ my life. Didn’t become a freak until I was fourteen.”

“When was that?” Shara pressed, “How old are you now?” Adgito shrugged.

“Who knows? Don’t keep track. Not like I have any family to celebrate my birthday with.”

Despite herself, Shara had to smile at his attempt to fish for sympathy.

“Aww!” she said, as if talking to a puppy, “That’s so cute!”

“How is any of that cute?” Adgito asked, naturally taken aback.

“Because you’re lying,” Shara explained. “You know exactly how old you are, don’t you? You just want us to fawn over you a little.”

“I-it’s not a lie!” Adgito stammered, blushing. “I don’t know my exact birthday, but… I did choose a day when I was a kid, so… yeah. Pretty certain I’m twenty-one now.” He slumped over. “Geez… how do you know all this stuff? You’re scary insightful.”

“Adgito, dear...” Mrs. Garnersworth butted in, returning with a stack of outfits overflowing from her arms, “You’ve always been a terrible liar. It’s hardly a surprise someone caught onto you so quickly. Now put this on” –she tossed a black, long-sleeved shirt at Adgito, which smacked into his face as he missed the catch– “while you introduce me to your new friends here!”

Shara could tell Darron was tempted to assert that he and Adgito were not friends, and Adgito was busy untangling himself from a set of clothing, so Shara simply took the liberty of introducing everyone herself.

“I’m Shara, and this is my brother Darron!” Shara cheerfully explained. “We’re passing through from out of town.”

“Oh, how nice!” Mrs. Garnersworth fawned, putting down the rest of the outfits she’d brought and moving to greet Shara up close. “Well, I hope you enjoy your stay here. I must say, dearie, you just have the most beautiful eyes. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

“Oh, well thank you!” Shara said. It wasn’t often she got a lot of compliments on her looks; most people found her crimson eye color a little off-putting. The plump little woman certainly seemed like a nice lady, though Shara hadn’t yet bothered to make sure. Most of her mental focus was spent trying to sense the source of that strange feeling that’d been around since she got here and making sure Darron wasn’t about to say anything rude to ruin their first impression.

In the meantime, Adgito finally managed to wrestle his head through the collar of his new shirt. It did look pretty good on him, ignoring the mismatched and undersized pants, though Shara couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to wear a dark-colored, long-sleeved shirt in the desert. He must not be bothered by the heat.

“Wow, thanks Mrs. G!” Adgito exclaimed, patting around himself and tugging on various parts of the shirt. “Loose in the front, nice and soft… you sure know how to pick ‘em!” Mrs. Garnersworth beamed.

“I don’t know why I bring a selection to fit on you. You always just take the first one.”

“The first one you pick is always the best!” Adgito responded smoothly. Mrs. Garnersworth chuckled.

“Alright you charmer, now come here,” she said, “The retail price for that shirt is One Big Hug, and you’ve still gotta pay!”

Adgito grimaced, and braced for impact as the woman moved toward him, arms outstretched. Seems like he wasn’t a very huggy person.

“Put it on my tab!” Shara exclaimed, and moved to intercept. Interposing herself between Adgito and Mrs. Garnersworth at the last second, she embraced woman in a friendly bear hug.

Instinctively, her focus turned to Mrs. Garnersworth’s mind, checking for threats. Not that she expected any foul play from a plump shopkeeper who helped clothe homeless people directly from her stock, but it was just a habit to do so whenever she placed herself in a vulnerable position. Though what she found in Mrs. Garnersworth’s mind… she couldn’t explain.

She felt nothing. Not strictly nothing: Shara could still tell that a mind was present, and it was working. Mrs. Garnersworth’s thoughts, however, were an unintelligible buzz: loud and constant, like she was sticking her head in a beehive. Emotions were present, but she couldn’t understand them. Thoughts existed, but she couldn’t read them. Shara had never encountered anything like this in her life. Instinctively, she wanted to leap away and draw her weapon, though logically she knew she wasn’t in danger. Mrs. Garnersworth wasn’t doing anything other than giving her a hug.

With her expert poker face on, Shara tactfully withdrew from the embrace to meet Mrs. Garnersworth’s warm, smiling face.

“Well, aren’t you just an absolute sweetheart?” The woman warmly chuckled. “I suppose I’ll let Adgito off the hook this time. I must say, I’m surprised he’s brought back such upstanding folks like yourselves. I assume you’re not just here so he can show you off to me?”

“Yeah,” Shara confirmed, “We’re here to stock up for a journey. We have a list of things we need to buy, and Adgito said you’d know the best places to get them.”

Darron rummaged through his pack and handed Mrs. Garnersworth a written list, while Shara returned her focus to the real problem at hand: she couldn’t read Mrs. Garnersworth’s mind. Why not? A person’s barrier wouldn’t normally protect them from Shara’s mind-reading abilities, because they were unobtrusive. The energy generated by a person’s thoughts was detectable without having to send anything inside a person’s skull; it radiated outward naturally, beyond the reach of a normal protective barrier.

“Hmm. This is quite a list,” Mrs. Garnersworth ruminated. “You seem to be stocking up for quite the long journey. Where exactly are you traveling to?”

Shara supposed it was possible for someone to have an abnormally shaped barrier, or a barrier that for whatever reason prevented brainwaves from escaping its area. Every person’s barrier was shaped by their inherent magical aura, which was different for everyone. It was these same differences that caused people to have natural magic.

“We’re headed to Hydronia,” Darron said.

No, it seemed unlikely for a person to have such a weirdly specific defense, especially since Shara was fairly sure only her clan had telepathic abilities. Why would a person be born with an anti-telepathy barrier hundreds of miles from the nearest (and only) telepaths on the continent? Maybe it’s just random? Do lots of people have natural magic they never know about because their magic is specific to a situation they will never encounter? She really didn’t know how natural magic worked.

“Ah, that explains the galoshes,” Mrs. Garnersworth responded. “Those will be hard to find out here, but I think I know some places you can check. Why are two nice kids like yourselves attempting the trek to Hydronia?”

The only other possibility Shara could think of was some kind of magic enchantment. Darron had repeatedly tried and failed to make a spell that would block Shara’s mind reading abilities, but it’s not out of the question that someone else succeeded. The feeling Shara got when she tried to read Mrs. Garnersworth’s mind felt kind of like a jamming attempt, drowning out whatever real thoughts she was thinking with meaningless loud noise. Darron had attempted a few such spells to no avail, but perhaps someone else found the correct… frequency, or something?

“I somehow managed to acquire a collegiate scholarship,” Darron explained, “so I’m heading that way to become a doctor.”

Still, that just raised the question: why Mrs. Garnersworth? If the secret to mind-reading immunity was some kind of enchanted item or unique spell, why did this philanthropic shopkeeper have access to it? Suddenly, Shara remembered: she’d been feeling something strange with her extra sense long before Mrs. Garnersworth was anywhere close to in range of her abilities. Shara turned around and started a quick deep dive into the mind of each other person in the room in sequence. Hmm, I like the fabric, but the color blue really– Nope, normal. Oh wow, this one is so cute! If only I– Normal. I wonder if– Normal. Woah, that girl’s eyes are– Normal. Hey, this one– Normal. Geez, I’m hungry. Maybe I should– Normal. Heh, I bet– Normal. Kshhhhhhhhhhh.

One of the men browsing a pants rack had a mind that felt just like Mrs. Garnersworth. He was moderately well-dressed, but otherwise mostly unremarkable. He simply seemed to be minding his own business, and his business involved buying a pair of pants.

Shara kept going, her eyes flicking around the room. There were thirty-three people in the shop, not counting Shara’s own group, and of them Shara found one additional person whose mind she couldn’t read. A young woman was shopping in the toy section with her husband. Shara could read the husband’s mind perfectly fine: the two of them were looking for presents for their son’s seventh birthday. It seemed they were a fairly affluent couple, as the man was looking forward to rewarding his son for doing well with his private tutor. The man didn’t seem to hold his own intelligence in very high esteem (and Shara could confirm by the sluggishness of his thoughts that he was a bit of a lightweight in the brainpower department), but that only made him more proud that his son was doing so well. He was also enjoying the time he got to spend alone with his wife, even if it was just shopping. Overall, a very nice and totally normal man.

His wife also seemed nice and normal, but Shara couldn’t tell for sure because her mind was the same noisy enigma as Mrs. Garnersworth’s and the pants man’s. Three totally unrelated people. Perhaps it was just a random thing some people had after all? Up until now, across the entire span of her nineteen-year life, Shara had met less than four hundred people. It was certainly possible that people with psychic resistance were there the whole time, and she just hadn’t run into any until now.

Suddenly, Darron nudged Shara in the ribs with his elbow.

“Quit spacing out. You look like a total weirdo,” he said. “Mrs. Garnersworth asked you a question.”

“O-oh, I’m sorry!” Shara stammered. “I was just looking around. I’ve never seen a shop this big before!” All technically true statements. Mrs. Garnersworth beamed with pride and let out a hearty laugh.

“Yes, I suppose you wouldn’t have! It’s a pretty impressive establishment even by Terranburg standards, you know.” She winked. “But I was wondering what would lead a beautiful young woman like yourself to risk her life on a journey to Hydronia. A dreadful trip. I won’t in good conscience help you throw your life away.”

“Oh, well, preventing thrown lives is basically why I’m going!” Shara explained. “Someone’s gotta stop my brother from getting eaten. The two of us can take anything the trip throws at us, don’t you worry.” Shara patted the sword sheathed at her waist. “We’ve been killing monsters since we were kids.”

“Oh, have you now?” Mrs. Garnersworth sighed heavily. “Sometimes I forget how tough it is to live outside of Terranburg, but… forcing children to fight those beasts is just too cruel. You’re far too much of a sweetheart to be a monster slayer.” Shara laughed, though she took slight offense to the implication that she wasn’t a fighter. It seemed like Mrs. Garnersworth intended the statement as a compliment, but Shara couldn’t be sure. It was beyond frustrating. Shara wanted to end this conversation as quickly as possible and bolt out of shop before anyone could say anything else, but she managed to push that instinct away into her gut.

“Well, I guess I’m just a girl of many talents,” Shara joked. “But we really do need those supplies. Whether you help us or not, we’ll be heading on our way soon, so…”

“All right, all right,” Mrs. Garnersworth conceded. “Come with me to my desk, I’ll write you up a list of places to check. Adgito should know where most of them are.”

Mrs. Garnersworth lead the three of them to the back of the shop where a simple door lead them to a small hallway. Oh, great. The mind-read-immune person was leading them to a private area. She could have anything set up back here, and Shara would have no way to know about it. Shara’s eyes flicked around, checking for suspicious activity, memorizing escape routes, and generally trying to appease her unwarranted paranoia. If anything, the knowledge that this lady had absolutely no reason to hurt anyone only made Shara’s stress worse.

Sure enough, the hall simply lead to a small office, packed neatly with shelves of papers. Mrs. Garnersworth nestled herself into a desk at the back of the room, dipped a quill pen in an inkwell, and started writing. Other than the desk, the entire room seemed to be a storage space for paperwork.

A cursory glance at the top of a nearby stack showed them to be finance records from last month. This woman made more money in a day than Shara had ever seen in her life. Darron seemed interested in the same ledger, so Shara piggybacked his brain for a bit. Kid could read like lightning.

Mrs. Garnersworth had a pretty large section for “charitable donations” in her expenses column. Most of them were non-profit groups Shara had never heard of, but their names had some keywords to indicate their function. Mostly orphanages and homeless shelters, but there were also some donations to local government projects and the town guard.

Other than that, the document wasn’t very interesting. Mrs. Garnersworth sold thousands of items a day, and kept a list of each one. The handwriting changed every few hundred items or so, presumably when her cashiers switched shifts. Her employees must write the records as each item got bought, then take all the finished paperwork to Mrs. Garnersworth at the end of the day. It was neat, orderly, well-kept, and one-hundred percent boring.

“Well, that should about finish it up,” Mrs. Garnersworth said, penning the last letter on her list and handing it to Adgito. “I’ve ordered the list based on what item you can expect to find where, but I’ve also added notes on whose shops are closest to whose so you don’t spend all day wandering around town.” She stood up, neatly sliding her pen back in its holder. “Is there anything else I can help you out with?”

Darron stepped forward and grabbed the list out of Adgito’s hands, giving it a quick scan. Mrs. Garnersworth’s handwriting was tiny but neat enough to make a penmanship tutor swoon. She managed to stack a lot of information into a very small space.

“No, this is plenty,” Darron said, impressed. “We should be able to take care of the rest. Thank you, this is a lot more help than I ever anticipated.” Mrs. Garnersworth gave a warm smile.

“It’s the least I can do to repay you for helping out my little Adgito here,” she said. Titans, she seemed so genuine. Adgito had known this woman for years and clearly loved the lady like a mother. Even Darron was finding himself impressed by her kindness. Yet to Shara, it was as if this woman was invisible, but no one else cared because they had been blind their whole lives. Shara couldn’t help but be on guard, and that made her feel terrible. This woman was going out of her way to help her, and Shara couldn’t think of anything but what she would do if the lady suddenly pulled out a weapon. It was stupid.

Sucking up her doubts, Shara stepped forward and clasped one of Mrs. Garnersworth’s hands in both of her own.

“Thank you,” she said, “This means a lot to us. You’ve been a huge help.” The hand was soft; she probably wasn’t used to doing much work more difficult than writing, and she certainly hadn’t spent much time holding a sword. Mrs. Garnersworth gave a warm laugh.

“It’s no trouble at all. You be sure to come back anytime you need something, sweetheart.” She pulled Shara in for another hug, and Shara once again had to resist the instinct to jump back and draw her sword.

“Well,” Shara said once Mrs. Garnersworth released her from the terrifying embrace, “I think we had better get going. Thank you again!”

“Oh? Are you sure you don’t want to browse my stock before heading out?”

“Heh, I, uh… think we’ll check out the other places on your list before making a return trip.” Shara responded. “Save the best for last, you know?”

With a smile and a wave, Shara hurried out of the room, through the hallway, past the aisles of products, and into the street, Darron and Adgito following diligently behind her. Quickly, she scanned the heads of everyone in her range. Out of the forty-nine people commuting on the road at the time, five of them had completely impenetrable thoughts, just like Mrs. Garnersworth. What the heck was going on here?

“Well, she seemed nice,” Darron commented. He could tell something was bothering her, though. “What did you think?”

“That’s… the problem,” Shara said, choosing her words carefully. “I couldn’t tell. At all.” Darron raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“What do you mean you ‘couldn’t tell?’”

“My… usual method wasn’t working. At all. I felt nothing, good or bad. In fact, it feels like about one in every ten people around here are immune.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Adgito asked. “What usual method?”

“How? Why?” Darron asked, ignoring Adgito entirely.

“I don’t know!” Shara hissed, “I can’t figure it out at all! There doesn’t even seem to be any relation between immune people, it’s just random!”

“Shara, I’ve been trying to figure out how to fool you for over ten years, and you’re saying this whole time some people just… randomly have it?”

“Maybe???”

“Seriously, what are you dudes talking about?” Adgito pressed. Darron turned towards him.

“Shara normally has a pretty good grasp on people, but something was interfering with her... usual method,” he said. “It sounds like a natural aura thing, probably. We’re just trying to figure it out.”

“Oh, like a magic lie detector?” Adgito asked. He shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s cool.”

“Anyway, I doubt we’ll find the answers just standing around here,” Darron continued. “Let’s head for the closest shop. The list we got has a lot of options for each item, so if you can’t get a good read on a shopkeeper we’ll just move onto the next one. We’re still relying on you to get us good prices, after all.”

The three of them set off, Adgito leading the way. As they walked, Shara tested the minds of people around her, trying to guess beforehand whether or not they’d be resistant to her powers. Darron would point people out, Shara would let him know if they were resistant or not, and he’d crunch the information in that unique way of his before pointing out someone else. Yet even together, they couldn’t find a connection between the immunized people. Some of them looked like tourists from Elpis, many of them were native to Terranburg. Some were men, some were women, some were children or babies, some were adults. There was one interesting piece of information: most of the children that were immune had at least one parent that was also immune. Even that wasn’t one hundred percent consistent, though.

To the team’s disappointment, the first shopkeeper on Mrs. Garnersworth’s list was also immune to Shara’s abilities. They gave a cursory glance at his wares and promptly set off. The second shopkeeper, thankfully, was not immune, and Shara let off no small amount of stress haggling him down to a tiny fraction of his initial price.

The rest of the shopping trip progressed similarly. Many of the people on Mrs. Garnersworth’s list ended up having the same mental resistance as she did, but fortunately they managed to find at least one shopkeeper they could power-haggle for every essential item they were looking for, galoshes included. At the end of the day, both Shara and Darron’s backpacks were full to bursting.

“Well, now that that’s done,” Shara smirked, “I believe you owe me a festival, Darron!” Darron groaned.

“No, you owe me a pair of pants, and I don’t owe you a darn thing,” he said. “But since you’re going to be insufferable if we don’t go, I suppose I don’t have a choice.”

“That’s the spirit!” Shara exclaimed. While she felt a little bad for dragging Darron somewhere he didn’t want to go, they had gotten all their shopping done way early thanks to Adgito, so it wasn’t really a big deal. The sun wouldn’t even go down for another few hours. Besides, Shara was in desperate need of some relaxing fun.

“Adgito, you know that festival-parade thing that’s happening today? Can you get us a good spot?” she asked.

“The Elpis parade?” Adgito asked, scratching his cheek. “Yeah, I can probably find a good vantage spot. I know the route they reserved for it. You sure you wanna head into all that hustle and bustle?”

“Yeah, it sounds fun,” Shara responded. “You really don’t seem to like crowds, do you Adgito? What’s up with that?”

Adgito stared at her for a while, thinking about if he’d rather show her or tell her. He decided on the most direct route.

“Here, this is why,” he said, reaching out and poking Shara in the forehead.

With incredible speed, Adgito’s body changed. The undersized pants he was wearing strained as his hips widened and body curved. He stumbled to catch himself as his center of gravity dropped nearly six inches. His chest ballooned outward to impressive feminine proportions as Shara suddenly understood why Mrs. Garnersworth gave him a thick, dark-colored shirt. His hair grew with such quickness that the length increased from the base faster than the tips could fall, giving the impression he had been blasted by an updraft of wind. In less than a second, the Adgito standing before Shara looked like a completely different person. On one hand, it was incredibly cool, but at the same time Shara had a difficult time comprehending everything that had just happened. Adgito cleared her throat.

“So you’ve sort of already seen this once before,” she said, speaking in the same feminine voice she’d had back when they first met, “although I was a little more blue and scaley at the time, I guess.”

It was jarring to think of the woman in front of Shara as Adgito. They looked different, they sounded different… according to the usual logic, they were clearly different people. If she wasn’t reading Adgito’s mind, or if she hadn’t already seen it once before, it would be hard to believe that this person was still the same one as before.

“So the, uh, important thing to realize about this,” Adgito continued, “Is that I didn’t really do that on purpose. My powers go off on a hair trigger. I’m more likely to change the longer I’ve gone without changing, but pretty much any time I touch anybody I run the risk of getting all my organs shuffled around. It’s frankly not very pleasant. Sometimes, I don’t even have to touch stuff. Just having enough of the same kind of thing in one place is enough to trigger a change, and it’s not just limited to swappin’ out my jiggly bits. It changes all kinds of crap, like when I grow gills or turn into a mass of living fire or whatever. And don’t even get me started on what happens if I touch non-humans!”

“What happens if you touch non-humans?” Shara asked.

“Gahh, don’t even get me started on what happens if I touch non-humans!” Adgito roared. “Sometimes, instead of real general ideas like “male” or “on fire” my body acquires specific physical characteristics of a person and I become like this Adgito-esque copy of them, and this happens like all the time when I touch somebody that isn’t human. I guess I don’t have “generic” forms for them? Anyway, it’s horrible. Do you have any idea how weird it is to grow tentacles or wings or what-have-you? You’d think, or at least I’d think you’d think, that people might eventually get used to having a buncha tentacles or whatever if they live like that all the time. But I don’t get the chance! It’s just like ‘whup, you got six arms now, have fun dealin’ with that for a few hours before they’re all replaced with eyeballs or fungal growths or poisonous gas sacs.’ Honestly, a big reason I settled here in Terranburg is just because, up until Elpis barged in, the place had been racist as hell and just about every other non-human got more or less forced to move out. It sucked at first, but eventually everyone realized they couldn’t kill me and just left me alone. People with natural magic give me the willies as well, because sometimes I’ll take that from ‘em too.”

“O...oh, is that so?” Shara asked sheepishly. Could Adgito have possibly gotten mind reading abilities? The now-woman wasn’t acting like she suddenly had a sixth sense. “In that case,” Shara said, “you might want to find a different girl to poke if you’re feeling the feminine urge. I have the odd bit of natural magic myself.”

Adgito chuckled to herself.

“If you’re afraid I’ve stolen your lie detector, don’t sweat it,” Adgito reassured. She grabbed a tuft of her long hair and pulled it in front of her face where she could see it. “Yeah, still brown, see? If I had acquired your natural magic stuff it’d have changed me to look like a real tall version of you. I’d be all blonde and red-eyed and things. Thanks for the heads-up, though. Now, we should head to that parade before all the good spots get taken.”

If not for the greatly worrying issue of mind-read immunity, Shara would have probably been paying attention to nothing but Adgito this whole trek. As they walked, Shara did her best to ignore the nagging hole in her mental senses and focused on a more inviting psychic issue: her newly feminine companion. His-or-her whole situation was exactly the kind of absurd that Shara found to be deeply interesting. She hadn’t noticed it the first time Adgito changed form, but when Adgito’s body changed there was actually a tiny but distinct change in her mind as well. It probably wasn’t enough to make a significant impact on Adgito’s personality, but whatever it was, it was there. That alone was nothing like anyone else Shara had encountered before, but even without it Adgito was a very interesting mental case. Shara wished she could have more time to hang around and get to know her, but unfortunately they couldn’t afford to dally in Terranburg any longer than she was already planning to.

Speaking of planned dalliances, Shara could not wait for this sweet parade. The giant mass of grumpy, impatient people she’d been trapped in so far had been a pretty nasty experience, but a giant mass of excited, joyful, celebrating people would basically be a nonstop mental onslaught of magnificence. Given how crowded the streets were normally, Shara could only imagine how packed a special event like this would make them.

The main thing hampering her excitement was the unfortunate fact that neither Adgito nor Darron wanted anything to do with this parade. It made her feel a little bad for dragging them along, but Darron at least she knew would probably end up finding a way to enjoy himself a bit. Adgito… she didn’t know. If people kept bumping into Adgito the whole time, would she just keep transforming over and over? Adgito had accidentally brushed up against a few people on their way to Mrs. Garnersworth’s without changing forms, so it couldn’t happen every time.

Speaking of things that were bothering Adgito, Shara could tell there had been something causing her discomfort since they started walking again. Glancing over at Mount Woman, Shara immediately found the obvious culprit at eye-level.

“Hey, uh, Adgito…” Shara carefully began, “we still have a little bit of money left over. Do you want me to buy you a bra?”

Adgito looked down at her, confused.

“What? Why?” she asked. “My shirt’s plenty thick enough, isn’t it?”

“I don’t mean to cover up,” Shara explained. “You just seem to be having... recoil issues? It looks very uncomfortable.”

“Oh,” Adgito said flatly. She was definitely embarrassed talking about this, but more strikingly, bringing it up had actually made her original discomfort worse, as if she had been ignoring it up until now. In retrospect, Shara supposed Adgito had to be pretty skilled at ignoring that kind of thing; she had been wearing pants fitted for someone nearly a foot shorter than her without underwear for an entire day, and hadn’t so much as thought about complaining. Perhaps one of her powers was chafe immunity?

Still, with a figure like Adgito’s, there was no way she moved around without proper support and didn’t get sore. With all the running, jumping, spinning and flipping Shara ended up doing on a daily basis, she kept her own chest bound up as much as she could comfortably manage to prevent any unwanted movement.

Adgito was a whole different animal. Adgito looked like she’d get back pain from taking too many deep breaths, let alone actual exercise. Her chest flopped around like the ears of a sprinting basset hound, leaving Shara to only wonder what cruel force originally cursed a fourteen-year-old kid with a body like this back when Adgito first got… whatever this was. Sure, Shara had seen bigger, and proportional to Adgito’s height her breasts weren’t unreasonably sized, but there was still no way they stayed comfortable for long on their own. So naturally, Shara was flabbergasted when Adgito declined her offer.

“Eh, no thanks,” she said, waving Shara off. “If I put on women’s underwear I’d just end up in drag a couple hours later. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” Shara asked. “It’d just be a quick stop.”

Staring down at Shara, Adgito gave a big sigh.

“You’re really nice,” she eventually said. “I dunno why you care about all this stuff. But it’s fine, okay? I’m used to it. If they get sore it’ll stop the next time I transform. Now can we stop talkin’ about my boobs?”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Shara said, grinning. She put her hands on her hips in mock offense. “You can cheat your way out of the pain with your powers, huh? What a gyp! I just wanted to do something nice for you!”

Adgito turned around to face Darron. He was walking behind the two of them, absentmindedly gazing at the various street stalls.

“Is she always like this?” Adgito asked.

“No,” Darron said without looking up, “she’s usually much worse.”

“Well ex-cuuuse me for trying to have thirty seconds of girl talk!” Shara teased. “I haven’t had the chance to talk to any female creature less than ten years away from my own age since I started living with Darron!”

“Gerald’s daughter was only eight years younger than you,” Darron corrected.

“Oh, well complaint retracted!” Shara groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Wait, what do ya mean ‘started living?’” Adgito asked. “I thought you were siblings.”

“We are,” Darron said.

“Darron’s family took me in after my birth parents died,” Shara explained. “But that was a long time ago. So now Darron’s family is my family.”

“Oh, that’s pretty cool,” Adgito said. “You’re really lucky. I don’t even remember my parents.”

“Oh, is that so?” Shara smirked. “Well then you can count yourself lucky, because I guarantee you it’s more pleasant than vividly recalling the moment your parents were slaughtered.”

Darron groaned.

“Are you two seriously competing over who had the most tragic past? Weigh your broody angst someplace else.”

“Aww!” Shara whined playfully, “But I was winning!”

“Uh-huh, you keep telling yourself that,” Adgito chuckled. “Man, you two could be a street show. I’d pay to watch, if I had any money.”

“That’s because you’re desperate for social attention,” Darron grumbled. “Most people have better things to do with their time.”

“Hey, you’re the guys that asked the hobo freak to show you the city, not the other way around.” Adgito retorted.

Shara stopped dead in her tracks, nearly causing Darron to bump into her. Self-depreciative humor was all in good fun, but Adgito meant what she had said a little bit too much, and Shara couldn’t just let that slide. Adgito might have a bad habit of fishing for sympathy, but this time, she really needed it.

“You’re not a freak,” Shara said, staring directly into Adgito’s eyes. “Your abilities might not always be convenient for you, but they’re incredible. If I’ve got you figured right, you can adapt to anything. Anything. If someone shoots a fireball at you, you just become made of fire? That’s amazing! And I get that swapping forms all the time isn’t very comfortable, but all of the ones I’ve seen so far are super good-looking, and really cool. You’re a handsome man, a beautiful woman, and your powers are awesome.”

As expected, Adgito was stunned speechless. If that didn’t pump her ego full of some much-needed air, nothing would. Satisfied with her work, Shara added:

“Now let’s go get a spot for that parade!”

After crossing through some more alleyways, the three of them eventually came across the intersection of two enormous roads. A row of town guards parallelled one of the roads, blocking traffic so the parade could run unimpeded. They were dressed mostly like Fraser and his boss had been, but they held nightsticks instead of heavy crossbows. Most of them were lulling around or chatting heartily with the nearby people, all gathered for the upcoming parade. The excitement in the air filled Shara to bursting.

There was no way she was getting a front-row seat, though. Apparently, some people had been camping the parade route since daybreak. So much for Shara’s claim that Adgito was the only one with nothing better to do today. Still, there were a few spots with a good view left unclaimed.

“So, here’s my thoughts,” Shara said to Adgito as she scoped out possible parade-viewing spots, “You don’t wanna be brushing up against a bunch of people because it you might transform, right? But I bet you can’t transform into a woman if you already are a woman, right? That wouldn’t make any sense. Ah-ha!”

She pointed to a nearby open spot, surrounded by large groups of girls that had come to see the parade together.

“We stand there. If the crowd gets too scrunched up, you’ll have nothing touching you but beautiful women. It’s a win for you and Darron!”

Darron grunted in annoyance, while Adgito laughed.

“You might be onto something, but what if one of those girls has like, a natural magic talent for causing people’s eyeballs to explode, and I acquire that on accident?”

“Then everyone’s barriers will completely prevent it functioning on them,” Darron butted in, “unless you spend a lot of conscious effort pumping strength into that power. And since I’m fairly sure you don’t have that kind of psychosis, I suspect everyone’s eyeballs will continue being able to enjoy the parade even if such a situation occurs. Besides, if you did acquire a deadly natural magic talent, the odds of you stumbling across the verbal or somatic components on accident are extremely small.”

Adgito shook her head.

“Not all kinds of natural magic have a physical trigger like that,” she said. “Your sister doesn’t wave her arms around or speak some command word to use her lie detector thing, does she?”

“Shara’s ability uses so little power it doesn’t even attempt to prod the barrier,” Darron explained. “Verbal and somatic spell components guide magic into denser and more complex forms. You won’t be able to use anything complicated enough to be a threat that doesn’t require raw power or an activation ritual.”

Adgito shrugged, unconvinced.

“Look, I dunno man,” she said, “You seem really smart and you’ve probably researched this a lot and know what you’re talking about and all, but… I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff. I’m not sure magic is the simple, rule-following academic construct you’re making it out to be. But cool, whatever, let’s go watch a parade.”

“Magic is a lot less complicated than people seem to think it is,” Darron grumbled as the three of them shuffled their way into the open spot on the street, “In fact, it does exactly what it’s told to do, and nothing else. There are just a lot of things magical power interprets as viable commands, including its own current shape, that we’re still figuring out.”

“And that doesn’t strike you as complicated?” Adgito scoffed.

Shara wasn’t paying much attention to her companions’ bickering. She bounced uncontrollably up and down, heart racing, as the excitement flooded through her. It built, higher and higher, to the point where she could tell where the front of the parade was by feeling waves of new people rise to feverish levels of jubilation when they first spotted it.

She could hear the parade, now. At first, the only sound was the roar of cheers from the townsfolk, but over their din she could now make out the music. The head of the parade apparently contained a marching band, blasting a romping, powerful, upbeat melody from horns and other instruments Shara had never heard in her life. The moment they rounded the street corner and came into view, Shara was hit so hard by the roars of exhilaration she nearly collapsed.

With overwhelming volume, the band drowned out the cheers and celebrations of the townsfolk, leaving only music. The tune was pure, throbbing victory: a primal, gratifying joy. It was so uplifting, not even Darron could manage to stay grumpy. Prodding outwards, the collective consciousness of the crowd informed Shara that this was the Elpis national anthem.

Elpis was so cool. Hydronia had a stuffy, formal-sounding anthem, and Sentonis’ was downright somber. That kind of nonsense wouldn’t do for the heroic nation of Elpis; hearing their song should be the embodiment of the kindness and strength they professed to represent.

This was so cool. The next section of the parade was about to come into view. Shara couldn’t wait to see what was in store.

The parade rounded the corner, and all the excitement Shara was feeling dropped straight off a cliff, crashing and dying as it hit rock bottom. The blood drained from her face. She stopped jumping, stopped moving, as the massive press of positive emotions tapped in vain against the shell of confusion, terror, and rage inside her. The Elpis National Army had just come into view, marching in formation to the beat of the music and performing synchronized sword tricks. Their polished armor gleamed in the afternoon sun, just as it had gleamed off the glow from the fire as Shara’s hometown had burned to the ground. Shara remembered the massive ring of soldiers, encircling her parents in their final moments, throwing themselves at her family to buy time for their commander. These people, the Elpis National Army, had exactly the same uniforms.

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A note from Thundamoo

Thanks for reading!

I regret to inform you all that sometime in the near future, my updates will start to slow down.  I've been keeping a steady daily schedule so far, but it's catching up on my buffer too fast.  

However, I promise to update no less than once a week, ideally a little more often than that.  Once I get into a rhythm, I'll get scheduled updates going so you can know when a chapter will be coming out in advance.  

Fear not, I have absolutely zero intentions of dropping this before it's done.  Thanks again for reading, and look forward to more!


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Thundamoo

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