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The first thing I remembered was nothingness. Void, if you’d like. For all intents and purposes, outside of existence. No light, no sound, no me. No stimulation that my consciousness could react to, if there was any.

Things stayed that way, though I don’t know how long. A second? An eternity? Without a frame of reference, there was no way to tell if time was applicable in the first place.

Things stayed that way. And then things changed.

 

    Purging…

 

Who?

That was probably the first I was aware of myself. Suddenly time was a thing, and along with that, thoughts.

What came after were memories. Faces and images, flashing by before being swallowed by the void. Something had triggered my awareness and brought me into the realm of existing, and that same thing was siphoning my memories, robbing me of my identity the same moment I acquired one.

I fought back.

 

    Warning: conflicts detected

 

The invisible force resisted. I pulled harder, picturing myself in a tug of war, except the rope was my memories.

 

    Warning: data corruption detected

 

Something cracked, then shattered into smithereens. The rope had snapped.

 

    Warning: fatal error. Initiating secondary protocols. Storing data to cloud server…

    Finalizing Injection Protocol… successful.
    Initializing Post-Metem Overhaul…
    Ternary Fundamentals concordance rate: 98%
    Essential Σ⌠Δ□∞⌡ rate: 71%
    Genetic compatibility rate: 94%
    Σ⌠Δ□∞⌡ and ⌠n□□□Δ□⌡ correspondence rate: 45%
    WARNING: “Σ⌠Δ□∞⌡ and ⌠n□□□Δ□⌡ correspondence rate” is below sustainable levels. Factoring with overall results...
    Conclusion: no changes necessary.
    Initializing subject transfer; AST coordinates – Λ□χ□λ Γρ□□π, ΝΓΧ 221, Γρ□νγ□ν∍σ □ρμ, Μ□ρ□λ□□ Φ□ς□; Local frame – Π□ργ□τ□ρψ, Τη□ρδ Λ□ϖ□λ.

 

The mysterious force was still there, It changed its focus to me instead of the broken rope. It was swirling around, enveloping me like a cocoon before ferrying me away.

 

    Transferring…

 

Where are you taking me?

 

    Transfer successful.

    Welcome to Purgatory.

 

 

It happened so quick. When there was nothing, now there was grass, or moss, brushing against my skin. From that I knew I was lying down on my side.

‘Lying on my side’ – I had a side. A body. Air in my lungs, blood in my veins. I could even hear my heart as it pumped blood throughout my body.

I tried moving a few fingers. It felt awkward at first, like pulling the strings on a puppet. When I opened my eyes, they stayed open for as long as a blink lasted. I needed time to settle in and that left me open and vulnerable. I could only hope I was at a safe place.

 

Oy, brat.

Something prickled the back of my head. I held my breath and kept my eyes shut.

Wake up.

It was shuffling about, tiddling with my fingers, pulling on my clothes and hair.

Wake up.

It nibbled on my ear. It didn’t feel human.

The creature breathed near my face, I can peel off your eyelids, you know?

Eek! I jerked away.

Aha. I knew you were awake, said the bird.

…Said the bird, who perched taller on its talons than me on my bum.

You, y– you’re…

The bird’s beaks moved and clapped accordingly to the words, What? Speak up, brat.

No matter how many times I blinked, the bird with feathers of ebony was still standing in front of me. And it was talking to me.

But you’re… you’re a bird.

The oversized raven came towards me with a bunny hop. You got a problem with birds?

I raised my hand between me and the bird. The thin-looking fingers and slightly curved thumb, the palm lines drawn on a pale skin, and the knuckle joints that show when I make a fist, they all felt… alien to me. My own hand was a stranger. So were my feet, my hair, my… my everything.

Who… who am I?

The more I tried to remember, the more questions popped up; such as the white dress I was wearing, which I didn’t remember ever putting on, and the shoes, or the lack thereof. Whoever dressed me forgot shoes, and underwear apparently, as well as sleeves to cover everything below the shoulders and the knees. The cold, and how undraped I was in the face of it, was starting to bother me.

My garments, however, was the least of my worries.

Hey, are you ignoring me?

N– no. I mean, what is– where–

I couldn’t get the words out. Then I realized I couldn’t get the words out. I placed my hands over my throat and tried an ‘aah’ sound. Nothing came out, not even the slightest vibration.

Can’t talk? the bird said, tilting its head.

I don’t know why, but I tilted my head in the same direction. No, um, maybe?

That’s fine. I can hear you like this. Where did you come from, brat?

I closed my eyes. There were too many stuff happening and I needed one second to process it.

First, I wasn’t. And then I was. I remembered things, except I didn’t. And I couldn’t speak, apparently, yet somehow the giant talking bird could hear me. Telepathy? Mind-reading?

Hey. Answer me.

And now the same giant talking bird was pressing me for, damn, for answers? It was asking me?

Oy. I opened my eyes and saw it hopping dangerously close to me. Answer me, brat.

I– I don’t know.

Where did you come from?

I don’t know.

What’s your name?

I don’t know.

How did you–

Mister Bird, frankly, anything you ask I will answer with ‘I don’t know’, because I really don’t know anything. Where is this? What is this place? Why am I here? What–

I shut my mouth. The bird had fallen silent, thinking or formulating a response.

If you’re asking where we are, just look around, he said.

I did as the bird told and glanced around while still keeping one cautious eye on the creature.

It was dark. Dirt and moss cluttered the ground. Further away were the walls; the towering walls, surrounding us on all sides. Glowing vines grew on the lower parts, at around my eye-height.

No, not vines. Runes, chained together in a repeated pattern. They were the only source of light as far as I could tell.

There were gaps on the walls. Passages, four that I could see, leading outside the area. I traced my eyes up from the illuminated base of the walls and towards the upper section where the stone structure disappeared into a blanket of darkness above.

Is this… outside?

Does it look outside to you?

I had to consider it. There were no stars in the sky and it was dark beyond the extent of a cloudy night. It looked more like a ceiling than a sky.

But how would I know about that? Stars, sky, clouds and night, were things and concepts I could remember. There were other fundamental things too, like how a bird looked like, or how to even breathe. I knew about all those things because it was there, stored somewhere in my brain, yet when it came to my personal history or the history of all things for that matter, there was a blank space.

I turned my attention back to the bird and saw it looking at me with its neck leaned to one side.

Um… M– Mister Bird? Do you know why we’re here?

Mister Bird’. I’d assumed his gender to be male, based on the voice.

The tilt of his neck went back and forth. You mean you don’t know?

Um, no, I don’t remember. But maybe you…

Don’t know, he said. Don’t remember either.

Oh. You’re the same, then?

An irate croak rumbled from his beaks. Preposterous! Harebrained brat, don’t think me the same as you!

I– I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.

You didn’t mean to what?

To, um, to offend you?

Well I’m offended. I hope the beast finds you and eats you. Bye.

The bird turned to leave right after dropping the word ‘beast’.

Huh? No, wait! I grabbed hold onto his feathers.

Keep your dirty paws off me!

He poked my hand, hard and repeatedly. I held on to him, fear of abandon easily overpowering the pain.

Don’t go! Stay with me!

Are you telling me what to do? he stopped stabbing my hand and hopped close, to a distance he could easily pluck my eyes out. Are you telling me what to do?

I leaned back. Um, please? I– I don’t know anything. And you said there’s a beast and, and…

I trailed off. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Why don’t we play a game, then?

A game?

He spread his wings and puffed out his chest. Yes! A game! I’ll stick with you if you win. I’ll make it fair, so long as you don’t cheat.

What kind of game?

Riddles!

I shook my head. That’s not fair. I don’t know any riddles.

I’ll ask the questions, then. Get it right, you win. You guess wrong, you lose.

I thought about it. Three guesses. I get three guesses and we play.

Deal.

I thoughtlessly reached my hand out for a handshake. He snuggled his beak into my hand and shook it. A bird-shake? Beak-shake?

Wait, what if I lose? I asked. It was a question I should never have voiced.

He tilted his head back and forth. I could’ve sworn I saw it smile. I get to eat you.

 

 

▬ ▬ ▬

 

 

A wave of headache struck as soon as I woke up. It felt like someone was caving my skull in with a hammer.

I had been sleeping with a thick blanket wrapped around me, on top what looked like a small and stationary wagon, a different one from last time. Smaller, clean and empty, fully covered by a tarp held up with thin steel wires. The shadows of leaves projected on the covers told me it was day outside, as did the light coming in from the open back of the wagon where a person was staring–

Who?

I missed it on my first scan because he, or she, was so motionless. The person sat with one leg hanging off the back, silently staring at me with eyes hidden underneath a hood that only revealed the pale skin of their face. They wore a thick cloak that was both elegant and practical in design, sewn with golden embroideries around the wrists and down at the seams where it opened in the middle, but also fitted with pockets and weather paddings for winter travel.

They held in their off-hand what seemed like a long walking stick adorned with a gem at the head. It was a relief knowing it was no weapon, another kind of relief when I realized I wasn’t restrained. Kind of. I felt dizzy and vomitous.

I forced myself to answer that person’s stare. When I made an approach, they reacted by knocking down the staff, harshly, on the wooden surface.

Am I not allowed to go out?

They didn’t answer. Well, of course they didn’t. They just kept glaring with unseen eyes.

Why am I not tied up? Or in a cage?

They tilted their head curiously. I followed their gaze, down at my own body. My dress was gone and replaced by sleeveless tunic and trousers that felt several sizes too big. My hair felt nice, lighter and less grimy. I ran my fingers through them and it felt smoother than I remembered it ever being.

You cleaned me up? Am I about to be sold?

Our staring contest was interrupted by a distinct growl coming from my stomach.

“…Stay,” they said before stepping off the wagon and walking out of sight. The low, stern voice made me think it was a man. Probably a man.

I crept to the back of the wagon and peeked out after he left. A dozen or so horse-drawn vehicles were parked at the side of the trail, just by the forest’s edge. Across the road was a boundless prairie where hills and mounds could be seen in the distance, bordering with the blue skies. For some reason, the area around my wagon was deserted, even though there were people crowding just twenty feet away.

I saw a couple of guys walking about carrying crates. Food and supplies. My stomach growled harder. More people were standing around, chatting by the wagons whence those crates came from.

Off to the side, underneath hemlocks and pines, I saw guys sitting and conversing leisurely, swords and guns to their sides. Mercenaries on break. Among them, one individual caught my eyes – a large person covered in brown fur. It must’ve been around seven feet, if not taller. I wasn’t sure if it was even human.

Except for the large humanoid, which I left as indeterminate, all of them were men. There were no females, not even the girls from last night. Had they escaped?

I considered sneaking away but the head pains were demanding otherwise. Why was I not restrained? Or why am I still alive, for that matter? Thinking about those questions made it hurt even more.

I heard sounds from the front of the wagon. Horses. Perhaps I could steal one, then make my way to… to where? Could I even ride a horse in the first place?

“Quack,” the horse neighed.

Fuck it. I’ll figure it out along the way. I hopped off the vehicle. Regardless of the situation, I wasn’t about to lie down and let them do what they had in store for me.

I snuck up to the front where a little coach’s seat was installed. Wooden shafts connected the base of the seat to the harness of a creature I assumed was a horse.

“Quack,” the ‘horse’ turned its head and stared at me with its black, bead-like eyes. Its entire body was covered by puffy, yellow-brown feathers and it stood on two clawed legs that looked more chicken than equine. It had two wings, even, though it seemed vestigial of all things. Like chicken.

Are you a horse?

“Quack!”

Sounded like chicken. No, maybe a duck? There was a slight discrepancy with the information in my brain, but this was reality, and this thing was most certainly a horse. Probably.

Alright horse, I climbed up the seat, cooperate with me.

“Quack?”

I took hold of the reins and whipped it, Let’s go!

“Quack!” the horse replied and stood still.

“Oy, who’s that over there!” someone shouted.

Shit. I dropped down the other side and hid behind the wagon.

“Quack, quack quack!” The avian horse flapped its wings as it wildly jumped in place.

“Ssh, ssh!” Be quiet!

“It’s the white magus!” came a yell. I snapped my head to the source and saw a man pointing at me.

Several footsteps drew near, their view blocked by the rows of vehicles.

I ran down my options; I could run towards the open prairie, where they’d ride me down with horses, or into the forest where wild beasts might lurk. I didn’t have to think much about it – I ran into the woods, snaking between carts and wagons to make it harder for them to follow.

“There, the little magus! She’s running for the forest!” a man cried out just as I made it into the thickets. I slashed away at the bushes and made a path.

“Don’t lose the little magus!”

“Tiny magus, we mean no harm!”

Just who are you calling little? I looked up the trees and thought about climbing them. I opted not to. I could barely run without splitting my head open, let alone climb a tree–

Ow. Shit, ow. My headache started to get worse, probably from all the running.

I had to slow down, and it wasn’t a surprise when one of them caught up to me. “Down girl,” he said.

My vision was darkening. I couldn’t really see him, but I knew he was nearing me from the sound of boots crunching on dead leaves.

“I know you’re scared. I’m not going to hurt you,” he told me.

I didn’t like his tone. He sounded, I don’t know, condescending? Like an adult talking to a grumpy child, or an owner to a rabid pet.

When the black spots in my eyes went away, he’d progressed to nearly within an arm’s reach. His hand was raised with an open palm placed between us like a shield. I stepped back, then noted how the man seemed familiar. He had golden hair, a blue cloth strewn around his neck, and a big gun strapped to his torso.

Oh, crap. He was the one who knocked me out back then. Of all people, it had to be the monster who could detect magic.

“Don’t move around too much. You’re still–“

I charged into him, putting my whole weight as I rammed his midriff section.

He lost his footing and I fell along with him. Before he had a chance to do anything, I straddled him and started clawing at his eyes. No matter what kind of monster it was, eyes were almost always the weakness.

He raised both arms to protect his face while shouting, “Don’t! Stay back!”

It took me a second to realize he wasn’t speaking to me, but rather to the group of five who’d just surrounded us. The guy below me used that distraction to capture my wrists.

“Okay, that’s enough, little tigress,” he snickered, despite the numerous claw marks on his face.

I still have the aether, asshole. And now he had nowhere to dodge.

He frowned. As expected, he knew what was coming, even though it shouldn’t be possible. “Stop,” he growled, “Don’t make me hurt you again.”

I hissed, not at him, but because of the pain intensifying. The deeper I reached into the aether, the harder my brain got squeezed inside the skull.

He loosened the grip on my arms when he knew I couldn’t do anything. “You’re hurt and you’re malnourished. Bloody hell, you shouldn’t even be able to move around. We can take care of you, if you’d just get off of–“

“Whitey!” came a familiar high-pitched voice as a girl squirmed past the wall of men. She briefly paused, gasping because she was either out of breath or surprised seeing the position I was in. “Whitey, stop. They’re friends.”

I gave the blond man a glare. He released his grasp, “What she said.”

She moved to approach. One of the people surrounding us placed his arm in front of her. “Madame, stay back–“

The girl slapped that arm away. “Don’t touch me, please. I didn’t mean that kind of friends.”

No one else dared to interfere as she walked over. There was a black mark around her eye and she changed her clothes to more utilitarian ones, but it was still the same girl from last night.

“Whitey,” Latasha ordered.

I slid off the man. Not because I complied, but because the mere act of sitting there had become too much to bear. I closed my eyes as all my senses were overwhelmed by the discomfort centered on my head, to a point I couldn’t tell if the ground was beneath me.

I felt presences converging on me, but I couldn’t care enough to do anything about it. I’ve lost. They’ve caught me, and I just had to deal with whatever comes next. Maybe I didn’t need to, if Latasha’s words had any truth to them.

A hand was pressed against my forehead. “She has a fever,” said the man I’d just tried to kill.

“You said you’d take care of her, Luise,” Latasha addressed the blond-haired man.

“I can’t be around her thirty hours a day, Tasha,” he defended.

“You know what, you deserve those marks on your face.” She turned her attention to me and put a hand on my shoulder, “Can you walk?”

I wanted to nod, but I was afraid it would make the pain worse. I was starting to wish I could just faint right there. At least I wouldn’t have to put up with all this.

“Tasha, wait. We don’t know if she’s safe.”

“It’s madame for you, and she could’ve easily killed you if she wanted to.”

I peeked at the guy called Luise and our eyes met. Both of us knew I wouldn’t have been able to. He decided to keep quiet about it.

“Let’s go, Whitey. The wuss is a healer, she’ll fix you up.”

“We have proper healers too, you know.”

Latasha ignored Luise’s protest. She helped me up and slung my arm over her shoulder, and her arm around my waist. “Oh, and someone get a coat for her, preferably one with a hood.”

They didn’t try to stop us when she led me back to the road.

More people had gathered when we got out of the woods, no doubt drawn by the earlier commotion. They made way for us without saying anything, though the fact that not one of them offered to help did say something, I just didn’t know what. The power of Latasha’s authority, perhaps? Or just their brains unable to keep up with events, like mine was?

I noticed how they were dressed differently from the people who caged us. Some of them wore the same teal-colored cloaks for one, and they were neater-looking in general; less facial hair, loosely uniformed coats, and less bodily odor. Different people, then.

“What’s your name, Whitey?”

I could barely hear her as I was focused on my steps and the efforts to make the least bump possible each time my feet touched the ground.

“Are you really going to keep this up? After all I did for you?”

Keep what up?

“They could’ve left you, almost did, if I hadn’t implored otherwise. The only reason you’re not tied up now is because it wouldn’t do much anyway,” she paused, “They didn’t tie you up, did they?”

I shook my head.

“Seriously? Not even a simple ‘no’? Is your breath that smothering precious to waste on me?”

I shook my head again. That made me wince.

“Whatever, suit yourself. I’m fine with it because I don’t care, but you better show some appreciation when the wuss takes a look at you.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, but I was glad she didn’t push further.

Latasha took me to a spot near the road where a formation of rocks and birches made a little concave, creating a small shaded area. A large cloth had been spread on the ground so that they didn’t have to sit on wet dirt. There were familiar faces there—Ruddy, her red hair brilliant under the light, was the first to notice us approaching and gave us a wave. Beside her were Goldie, sitting cross-legged in a cultural manner, and the Wussy Girl, now with proper garbs instead of the rags I last saw her in.

“You found her!” said Ruddy.

“Told you it was her.” Latasha sat and joined them, then beckoned me to come into the circle as well. I hesitated.

Why did they bring me here? Ruddy may be thrilled at my company, but not so much for the others. Wussy Girl kept making nervous glances at me, and Goldie seemed disinterested in the matter, refusing to even meet my eyes.

“Sit,” Latasha said. It wasn’t a request.

I sat down at the edge of the blanket, as far away from the center of the group.

“Introduce yourself.”

With just those two words, I was suddenly put on a spot. They waited for an answer, and there’s none I could give them, but only I knew that. Even the girl with golden-hair who seemed unconcerned was listening in – I knew because her fuzzy ear was twitching.

“There you go,” Latasha said, “our heroine with no name, apparently.”

“Um, thank you,” Ruddy broke in.

For what?

“Wuss, what we talked about?” Latasha spoke to the brown-haired girl.

“S– sorry. Err, what’s wrong with her?” the girl replied.

“Some idiot smacked her in the head with a blunt object, knocked her out for two days.”

Two days. I didn’t know I was out for two days. Two days was a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

Wussy Girl addressed me, “Do you feel any pain? Um–“

I nodded.

“–headaches, di– dis– disorientation, nausea?”

I nodded again.

“You have a concussion, and, um…”

Latasha raised her arm between us. “Just the concussion. Anything you can do about?”

“N– no, sorry. She’ll be fine as long as she doesn’t strain herself, I think.”

Latasha then spoke to me, “Got anything to say, Whitey?”

I sighed. I knew she wanted me to thank Wussy Girl for that piece of minutiae, but how? And why? I never asked for any of this.

I looked at the ‘wuss’ and met her eyes. “Um, sorry,” she said, but I don’t know what she was apologizing for. Because she couldn’t do more? Even though, again, I didn’t ask for it?

“Hey,” Latasha tapped my shoulder, “I said, have you got anything to say?”

“She can’t speak,” Goldie spoke for the first time.

“Pardon?”

“She can’t speak.” She turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”

Yeah, I nodded, How did you–

“Oh, then why didn’t you just say so?” Latasha paused, then she nervously, awkwardly chuckled at must’ve been a thoughtless remark, passing it off as a joke that no one else laughed at.

“Um, that’s kind of rude, Latasha,” Ruddy said.

“It’s okay if she doesn’t mind.”

“And how would you know if she does?”

While that chatter happened in the background, I turned my attention to Goldie who was finally meeting my gaze. She had odd-colored irises—one blue and one the same amber as her hair—as well as vertical, cat-like slits for her pupils, slightly dilated in the shade.

Thank you, Goldie, I said with a little nod.

“It’s not Goldie. My name is Melory.” She gestured at Wussy Girl, “That’s Farica, a healer’s daughter,” then at Ruddy, “And the loud one is Kaelyn.”

Ruddy, or Kaelyn noticed we were looking at her and gave me a wave. Her darker olive-colored skin tone was in contrast with the bright red of her hair. “I’m Kaelyn!” she enthused, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you since that night. Um, thank you again.”

Again, for what?

“You saved us, remember? You broke us out of the cages,” Melory explained. I stared at her for a few long seconds before she responded in a whisper, “Yes, I can.”

I heard someone brazenly clicking her tongue. Latasha was hanging an irate expression over her face. I followed where her glare was pointed at and saw two people making an obvious headway for us. One of them was the hooded person I met back at the cart, the walking stick in his left hand and a bowl in his right. Accompanying him was the blonde man, still with the claw marks on his face where my nails had dug. On the corner of my eye, I saw Farica scurrying behind Latasha’s back.

They stopped and hovered right by our blanket. Latasha made a leer at them. “Why are you here, Luise?” she interrogated, as if he had no right to be there.

“A compromise,” the man answered. “We need to make sure she’s safe–“

“She’s safe.”

“According to you, sure, but whose lives are you risking if you’re wrong?”

“She’s safe.” Latasha glanced at me, as if it wasn’t obvious who they were talking about.

While they conversed, a bowl of warm liquid was shoved in front of me. “I told you to stay,” said the hooded man.

Uh… for me? I tentatively placed one hand on the porringer and looked up at him for confirmation. When he didn’t pull it back, I grabbed it from his hands and took a sip of the broth.

The warmth immediately spread from my throat down to the tips of my toes, filling my stomach and revitalizing the rest. There was a salty taste to it that electrocuted my taste buds to life.

Oh my gods.

“Look, they’re getting along,” said Luise.

“What’s he doing here?”

“Let me introduce you. He’s Sallis, a magus from Zest-Flamel we contracted for this mission. Right now, his directive is to keep an eye on her.”

“This creep? Are you serious? You want him to hang around us?”

Sallis didn’t at all seem to mind he was being talked about in that light. Rather, his focus was fixed on me. “Eat,” he said to me, and I gladly complied. I had another sip and swallowed what tasted like a chunk of soppy meat, having absorbed moisture after being boiled in the broth.

“Tasha, please, just bear with it for a while,” Luise said.

“It’s madame, and define ‘a while’, because I’m not about to have such an unscrupulous character like him around me.”

It’s me Sallis was supposed to watch, not her, but she worded it as if my being with her was a given. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Just until we know for sure she’s in control of both her actions and her magic.”

“Does she not get a say in this?”

Heads turned to me. They wanted my opinion on this, but there I was wondering what the big deal was.

To me, it seemed like the girl was just being stubborn to flaunt in front of her peers. She was asserting dominance, making sure the others knew she held sway even among the ‘men’. Luise, on the other hand, was simply dealing with the antics of an obstinate child.

“Well, Whitey? What’s your take on this?”

I, uhm…

My immediate priority: blend in, assimilate myself into their society.

I looked at Sallis. Everything Latasha said about him was true – he was silent, pale under the hood, and there’s no way to tell what he’s looking at unless you’re willing to get too close to his face. Latasha was clearly bothered by that, as if she expected me to be in the same place as her. Have I gained her trust, somehow, and would disagreeing with her mean betraying that trust?

On the other hand, I didn’t want to get on the bad side of whatever army this was. I didn’t like Luise, not at all, but when he had dozens of armed people on his back—people whose hands we ate from and whose carts we slept on—preference of character became irrelevant.

I shook my head. I don’t mind.

“See? She doesn’t like it,” Latasha said.

“She’s saying that she doesn’t mind,” Melory said.

“What the fuck, Goldie? Why are you on his side?”

I could see Melory’s ears droop.

“Tasha, it’s unbecoming for a lady to curse.”

“For the last time, it’s madame.” Latasha stood up, frowning, and moved her arm as if to point at the blond man, but then decided against such a grandiose gesture. “Fine then,” her hands settled on her hips, “leave your magus here, just don’t expect us to be courteous.”

Luise made a toothy grin. “Deal–“

He was interrupted by a squeak coming from behind Latasha.

“It’s okay, wuss. Just trust me, okay?” she said to Wussy Girl – to Farica. She turned back to Luise. “And you, you answer my question first.”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

“Seeing that you’re here, I’m assuming the drifter chief and the Larkish chief reached an agreement?”

“Oh, that. Apparently Aldwan and the chief constable went way back. There wasn’t much to disagree with. We were discussing about something else.”

“About what?”

“It’s nothing you girls should be worried about, really.”

It was an obvious bait. He wanted her to ask.

“I’ll decide that for myself, thank you. Now tell me,” Latasha demanded.

“If you must know, a couple of horses went missing last night. No biggie though. We have spare horses and a gally lent by a friend.”

“Missing mounts?”

“Like I said, nothing big, but pair that with other abnormalities…”

“You mean there’s more?”

“Kind of. That night you were rescued, I encountered a pack of nirhounds with abnormal behavior. Then there’s the rumors surrounding this place. I hear locals have a different name for–“

“Oh, I know that,” Kaelyn raised a hand, then realized she was interrupting and shrunk back. “Um, sorry.”

“It’s okay, go on.”

“My fa–, err, my folks, they call the cirque and its surroundings the Dread. Emmett the peddler said it’s because the place is haunted, but I don’t think anyone knows why exactly.”

“That’s just hooey,” Latasha said.

“Superstition aside,” Luise said, “the Drifter’s Guild have actual reports of missing livestock around the region.”

“Just livestock?”

Luise hesitated, “…There’s a few missing persons too. Traveling merchants, mostly.”

“Emmet the peddler,” Kaelyn said.

Latasha gave the girls a once-over in thought before sharing her statement, “It’s all hooey. People go missing all the time.”

Luise smiled. “That’s right. Even if there’s something dangerous, the reports are only particular to small groups, not big and armed like ours. Nothing to worry about, really, but just in case, take care not to wonder outside the perimeter.”

“Yeah, yeah, we got it,” Latasha dismissed him with a wave.

He gave a nod to Sallis before turning to the rest of us. “Ladies,” he gave us a wink. You could argue he directed that at me, but I really preferred to think it was not.

In his absence was a long and oppressive silence, interrupted only by the hooded man sitting on the blanket, just outside our circle. He was so close behind me I could almost feel his breath on my neck.

“It’s horsecrap,” Latasha broke the silence.

“I know. It’s just superstition, right?” Kaelyn said.

“No, I mean he’s lying when he said it’s nothing to worry about. Otherwise, why would he tell me?”

“But he said–“

“He didn’t want to worry you girls. My uncle used to say that coincidences stop being coincidences when too many are stacked on top of each other.”

“Coincidences, like the missing horses?”

“And, um, the rumors,” Farica contributed with a voice I could barely hear. She was persistently keeping herself outside of Sallis’ field of vision as well as mine, consequently.

“Yes,” Latasha said. “And that wilhound he mentioned, whatever that is–”

“Nirhound,” Kaelyn corrected.

“My point is,” Latasha continued, “we might not be out of the woods yet, get what I mean? Which is why I figured we could use a magus guardian.” She turned her head at the person behind me. “Sallis, is it?”

“…Correct,” a solemn voice came out of the hood.

“Does your contract with the drifters include our safety?”

“Yes. That is one of the goals.”

Latasha beamed proudly at herself. “There we go. Our own personal magus guardian. Magi, if we count Whitey.” She rubbed the head of the girl behind her.

“Really? You’ll protect us?” Kaelyn asked him.

“I am obligated to, as per our partnership agreement, so long as it doesn’t conflict with my current directive.” Sallis then spoke to me, and me only, “Do understand that this same directive gives me authority to end your life as I deem fit.”

 

 

 

 

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Derthian

Bio: Quack.

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