“My dea’ day, that weapon iz ta big fa him.” The boy looked up and between his parents. His blonde fair mother with those bright emerald eyes, and his father whose features were like burnt coal.
“My darling night,” his mother replied flatly, “he’ll grow into it. Size helps with mana control. Lacking proper materials to make better device.”
Lady Lydia Larkin knelt down by the boy and ruffled his short hair. “Are you really able to hold that all on your own?” The boy nodded. “Such a precious little bird. Stay near me and shout if there’s trouble.”
His sister, Caitlin, shook her head. “He doesn’t talk much. Last time he did, the stove blew up with a big kapow because of the mana overload and scared him to half to death.”
“Staff will control spells fits. No further need to replace necessary home furnishings,” replied their mother in a reassuring manner.
Lydia gave it some thought. “Have you ever heard a chickadee sing?” The boy shook his head. She pursed her lips and made a two-note whistle, sounding a little like a “fee-bee.” “If you sense any trouble, make that noise. We’ll come running.”
His father went to the weapons rack so he could select what he would be using for this job. The weapon of choice this time was a set of sleeves that covered up the entirety of his arms. A blade went past his elbow, using his forearm for support, and long claws extended past his knuckles. Dodo Tuma preferred the use of his axe, but it wasn’t something easily swung about within the core.
“They zay it folla’ ta cave ‘atz up through the tunnelz. Maybe the’e be dozenz more,” he muttered with a frown.
“We have golems stationed in all the caverns that lead to the core. They’ve only reported the one sighting.” Lydia smiled. “I haven’t gone on a monster hunt since my school years. It’s an absolute pleasure to do so with a bounty hunter such as yourself, Sir Tuma.”
A hardy laugh came out of Dodo. “Ai’m ha’dly a knight o’ hunta. Juzt a zimple man wantin’ ta zu’vive an’ zupo’t hiz family... Let’z go an kill ta beazt and be home by suppa, eh?”
They left the cavern home behind and made their way through the tunnels. It was only the three of them, Chickadee, his father, and Lydia, who had newly returned from the war. She hummed to herself softly as a spider golem the size of a large dog lead them through. It lit up the cave and left behind a glowing web trail so they could easily find their way back.
Their goal was to locate a particularly large tusked snake that had been seen in the caves. Mist cats were fine, as they stayed near the outer parts, but the snakes would settle in and feast on the large rats. They were large enough to take down a child and thus were hunted down whenever one was spotted. Though the size of this had rumors going that there was a tainted beast running about through the core, which meant that the outlanders had asked for the Hero of the Southern War to take care of it personally.
The stones began to sing for the boy, who was asked to come along because his father thought him strong enough to earn his keep. He could always hear them calling to him whenever he entered the deeper sections of the core. They muttered softly as life moved within them. To him, it wasn’t scary or frightening, it was simply a different type of voice which he had always known.
His staff was heavy. He maybe had lied a little when he said it was fine, but he didn’t want to appear weak in front of his parents. It began to drag against the stone, and he used two hands to pull it along. As he fell behind, he attempted to let out the whistle Lydia had taught him, but he just blew hot air into the scarf in front of his face.
Separated, and blinded by the dark, he still wasn’t worried. He’d rely on the stones to tell him where the others were. Whispering softly to the cavern around him, a segment of stone peeled off the wall, and he sat down upon it. It lifted him up in the air and carried him to a different area, keeping connected with the cavern wall as it did so.
Glowing crystals, which naturally formed within the stones here, started to appear out of the walls, dimly lighting up the place. The stone lifted him to a high point as the sounds of screaming began to echo louder and louder against the walls. He looked over the edge just in time to a shock of blue hair run by. This was followed shortly by the tusked snake that Miss Lydia and his father were supposed to be hunting.
“... Please follow them,” he whispered as he ran his hand along the surface of the stone. It obeyed willingly. The cliffside slid along the top side of the cavern, and he watched as the girl run as fast as she could. Something about the sound of her footsteps was off, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Save her,” he whispered again. A crevice opened up below her, and two separate screams slipped out as she fell inside.
The boy stayed up on his roost, eyes studying the snake as it attempted to burrow in after them. “Stop it.” Pillars of stone burst out from the ground, curling around the snake. They grew tighter and tighter till the creature was unable to move. It hissed and snarled at the boy as the rocks carried him to the ground.
He shook his head, turning away from it. “... Still safe?”
The ground rumbled beneath him, and two girls popped out of the ground. He blinked, not having noticed the second one at all until this moment. They were clutching to each other and with large tears streaming down their cheeks. He gave them a wave, which appeared to calm them down a bit.
“W-who are you?” The blue haired one hiccuped while clinging to a girl in dark clothing.
The boy didn’t know what to say. Instead, he whistled, succeeding in making a “fee-bee” sort of sound. Exactly how Lydia taught him. He felt a bit a pride in being able to succeed. The girls responded by staring in a confused manner.
“Oh! Mama told me about this!” The other girl with the dark hair stated. “Mama said that there used to be gnome spirits that lived deep in the caves and they would help out people who got lost here. They protected them and taught them how to live here safely!”
“I get it!” The blue haired one nodded. “Thank you, Mister gnome! Someday, I promise I’ll save you too! Deal?”
The boy blushed and turned his head away. He heard the whispers again and knew his father and Lydia were approaching. The stones carried him up again so he could watch the scene unfold below. Mostly it was the girls getting scolded by Lydia while his father prepped the still writhing snake for blood iron withdrawal.
“Aww… That’s really cute.” Chickadee’s eyes snapped open and he was suddenly somewhere completely different. His hand felt warm, and he looked over to see that it was still entangled with Zaniyah’s. Above them both stood Alton, who was enjoying the scene. “You’re like little kids.”
Chickadee quickly pulled his hand away, sat up and backed against the wall. It didn’t seem to wake up Zaniyah when he did so. “Animals?” He asked as he looked up at Alton.
“They’re packed and have their hoof shoes on.” He held up a leather pouch. “We also got paid some extra for bringing in business. There’s enough that we shouldn’t have to worry about finding work in Herring if we choose to stay there for a week. We also have time to pick up extra supplies before leaving, but they’ll be cheaper if we wait for a town further down the road.”
Was there even need to stay in Herring for awhile? Chickadee wondered about that. He was told that some of Bardsen’s descendants continued to run the forge he established there. What he was hoping for was to get any writings that could improve his own blacksmithing, and then leave. This was more of an investigative mission rather than setting out to settle a dead man’s wish. With the knife being at the Refuge for over two hundred years, it was unlikely that there was even an opportunity to grant it.
They woke Zaniyah up and cleaned out the room, choosing to eat food they found in the morning market rather than inside the tavern. There was too much of a chance of either Zaniyah or Alton getting distracted by the other guests. Being coerced into performing again would delay their ability to leave by at least another day.
Splitting up to do some last minute shopping at Zaniyah’s insistence, they met again after an hour. Alton had some lipstick on the collar of his shirt, and Zaniyah was sporting a new necklace. It was a simple pendant made out of the rainbow insides of a seashell with “runes” carved into it. The writing was more rubbish than runes, at least from what Chickadee could see.
“I’m told it’s a good luck charm for luring in mystic creatures,” she said as she beamed. “I’m going to wear it and see if I can catch the sight of something awesome while we’re in Herring. Maybe a dragon. Think I could catch me a dragon?”
“That seems like a waste of money.” Alton narrowed his eyes. Luckily Zaniyah had her own earnings from the tavern and didn’t waste any of the squad’s supply.
Zaniyah turned her nose up at him. “It won’t seem like a waste at all when I’m flying around the world on a dragon and you’re stuck on a horse.” She patted Squash on the neck. “Not you, of course. You’re a fine mule, madam, but what I meant to say that a dragon has some uses that a mule lacks.”
“Like eating people,” muttered Alton as he helped Chickadee on his mule. “Your leg is fine, right? We’ll be riding for a few days. Tell us if you need a break.”
“I’m fine,” he replied, eager to be on their way.
Alton climbed up on Bibi and started to travel down the road. Zaniyah rode beside them, as incautious as ever. She preferred to look around and talk about the sights rather than what was ahead of her. Luckily, her mule was clever enough to follow Bibi’s lead over Zaniyah’s.
As always, and invisible to all but Alton, Lydia floated along with them. She had a smirk on her face. Occasionally she’d glance over at Alton and laugh to herself. He flashed her a stern look. Her being silent was fine, but staring wasn’t.
“You make funniest faces whenever your plans don’t go your way.” She stated with a grin. Once again, he glanced over. This time raising an eyebrow at her. “Zyris. I’m surprised he finally gave in. Sybil would follow him around like a little ghost all the time. He got rather good at figuring out when she was watching.”
“Like a ghost, huh?” Alton muttered under his breath. “No idea what that’s like.”
Chickadee looked over at Alton, who shook his head as a response. He found Alton to be a strange guy. At moments he was cold, and others he was friendly. Sometimes he would say something in a conversation that didn’t make much sense and appear distracted when asked for clarification.
There were other times where he would wander off and whisper to himself. It was possible that everyone that went to Starsons all had some sort of off problem about them. At least, that was the conclusion that Chickadee had come up after dealing with a few of them. Mila was nocturnal, Vincent had a leadership complex, and Alton was Alton. Not to mention there was that Starsons boy that Zaniyah had a crush on… If he did exist, everything that Zaniyah had said about him made him seem like a jerk.
They continued to ride until dusk, this time not camping by any bodies of water. That was on Alton’s insistence. Perhaps he was still feeling guilty over Chickadee getting injured. Chickadee didn’t hold issue against it. It wasn’t the first time he had gotten seriously injured. He was just as much to blame for not defending himself properly.
Water was a weakness of his. He didn’t particularly look forward to going to the ocean, but that’s where they needed to head. Water didn’t whisper to him. Water didn’t make sure to protect him. The stones did. They always did what he asked of them, and he appreciated them in return.
“Hey, Alton?” Zaniyah sat up on her bedroll and looked over. To Chickadee, the best part about camping was everyone having their own personal space again. He made sure he had plenty of room about himself before he settled down. “What is the ocean like?”
Alton mulled over it and looked up at the stars from his seat next to the campfire. “It’s a large body of water.”
“... I mean, there has to be more to it than that, right?” Zaniyah asked. Chickadee rolled over to face Alton. He was also curious.
“It’s very, very large.” He looked over, only to see both of them staring at him. Alton let out an annoyed sigh. “It smells of salt, and it looks like a living green beast. The skin of it is always moving, growing tufts of white fur that twist and vanish into itself. It’s always crying out in low, rhythmic roars, and it’s endless. As far as you look, there is always more of it, farther than any land or any horizon.”
“Poetic.” Chickadee murmured.
“It can’t really be endless, can it?” Zaniyah’s eyes widened. “I mean, there’s gotta be something on the other side.”
“There is an end.” Alton nodded. “It’s a cliff. The ocean slips off of it and is lost in a void of stars and space.” Zaniyah’s eyes widened further as she gasped at the idea. “You idiot. There’s just more land or something. Another kingdom, or whatever the Others call their lands, I don’t know. You know humans can’t survive the miasma.”
“Chi’s dad is human, and he came from a land past the miasma.”
“And there’s probably a good reason why he came here. Probably because being out there was terrible,” spat back Alton. Chickadee had never been told to much about his father’s past, but of what he did know, it certainly did seem terrible.
Zaniyah sunk back into her bedroll, making a disappointed whine as she did so. Chickadee rolled over and watched her sulk for a moment. She would want to travel to a new land someday, but he didn’t know if that was ever a possibility for them. Humans weren’t looked at fondly outside of Lustro, nor could they survive the miasma floods that plagued the world outside of this country. That’s what his father always told him.
“Your dragon.” Chickadee said in an effort to cheer her up.
“That’s right! I’ll get a dragon! It’s going to grow up super huge and it will fly me off to the other side of the ocean. Way above the miasma! Then I’ll be the one who mocks you for being an idiot.” Zaniyah stuck her tongue out at Alton, falling back into the bedroll and almost immediately into a deep sleep.
Alton raised an eyebrow at the odd girl. “I probably shouldn’t tell her, but dragons are extinct. There’s no way she’s going to find one.” Chickadee glared at him. “It’s the truth. Brayton killed the last one centuries ago, and she should know that considering where we’re going to be spending the next three years… Get some sleep. If we make good time tomorrow, we can reach the next town by nightfall. I’ll take first watch.”
Chickadee didn’t take long to fall into a deep sleep as well. Riding hurt his back because he was always leaning forward in an effort to not fall off, and he needed as long of a rest as he could in order to feel better. He ended up dreaming of Zaniyah again. This time she was riding on the back of a large tusked snake, but it had wings for some odd reason. They were flying together in the air while she was giggling.
To be honest, he found the sight to be absolutely terrifying.