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1744, 23rd day of the third month of the Cold Period. First day of the week.

I sit next to Mark who’s at the reigns. Our carriage advances on the ribbed walls that surround Aspwood. My excitement rises the closer we get. They have to be two hundred foot tall.

“How long are these walls?” I ask Mark.

“At least three hundred and fifty kilometers,” Mark answers. He spreads his hands a bit, “They’re at least four meters thick, too.”

You’re kidding? That would make them a feat beyond Earth’s pyramids. That had to take centuries to build.

“How long did they take to build?” I ask with my mouth agape.

“A few months, if memory serves,” Mark informs.

“What?!” I exclaim and wonder, “How is that possible?”

“They hired a talented cultivator at the Otherworldly realm. They had an earth affinity and pulled the rock from deep within the ground itself. Some of it, like the steel beams, were laid first and the rock was molded around them.

“I envy those with earth affinity,” Mark admits, “They say that’s where the money’s at.”

No doubt, a single person did all of that? In months?! You’d be able to name your price. They must have spent years preparing the reinforcements. I hold my tongue though, I don’t think I could handle another shock of how easy a cultivator can do something on such a large scale.

I start to ask why they would need such a strong defense but flash back to the wildebeest that startled Veronica. Those are common beasts that cultivate. They can kill mortals with ease. You’d almost need defenses like this to prevent a roaming beast from wreaking havoc on the populace.

70% of Anfang is made up of pure mortals.

We come to a stop in the line at the gate and our pace slows to a crawl. After two hours of creeping forward, we reach the guards that check our paperwork.

Veronica and Julian peek out and give their paperwork to the guard. Mark holds onto mine.

I get more than a few glances. My hair’s unusual color has drawn attention in the past. Some people think I’m a low-level demi-human.

I lean toward Mark and whisper, “Why are they staring at me.”

“Shh, later,” Mark gripes.

“Move along,” the head guard gestures our carriage.

Once we roll past the front gates Mark continues, “You know the broken church you and the kids used to meet at?”

I nod and question, “Yeah, what about it?”

“You look a lot like her,” Mark informs, “she’s fallen out of favor in Redwood, but in Aspwood she’s the lead of the prevailing pantheon: The Crafter’s Dominion.”

Huh, weird. Maybe the similarity is what made me feel safe next to the broken idol all those years ago.

“What’s her name?” I inquire.

“Nuwa,” Mark replies. He shakes his head, “Not much of a follower myself, but I’ve seen crafters under her blessing and they work wonders.”

“Blessings are real?” I ask.

Mark looks straight at me, “Are you kidding?” He brings the carriage to a careful stop in front of a place named The Nightly Stables. He helps me off of the carriage and knocks on the door.

Julian and Veronica emerge right as rain.

I see Julian button up his collar.

Veronica takes her usual place on his right arm. Her head rests against his arm.

These two. I suspect they’ll have a large family.

We walk to the Regal Eagle Inn, the glances we keep coming as we go. I’ve never been so embarrassed about my hair before.

“Should I wear a hood or something?” I ask.

“No, once people get their eye full they’ll get used to it,” Julian offers. He rests his left hand on my shoulder, “Besides, with your height and build you’d look like you were six again.”

I bat his hand away and growl at him.

This nets me a chuckle in response.

Aspwood is much different than Redwood. The architecture has a neo-Gothic vibe to it. Pointy arcs and complicated circular patterns in the windows. Very tall spires seem to prevail.

We reach a place called the Regal Eagle Inn, it’s a structure similar to those around it but built with black stone. It has an imposing air to it. I guess this is where we are staying. We walk in and are greeted with a large lobby a ribbed vaulted ceiling. This place has to be expensive.

Julian takes my letter and hands it to the receptionist. I’ve been a silent passenger on this trip. It’s weird, they haven’t told me who I’m to meet and in fairness I haven’t asked. I was too swept up in the thought of a road trip to worry about it. I suspect they do not know either.

A thought tickles my mind, I look back at the paper Sir Orris handed me on the address. I bring out the paper and it hits me: this is where the meeting is.

I suppose that makes sense. I can’t see us affording such a place even for a night. I’m sure it’s more than the paltry 12 gold I get per week for each night.

Veronica takes a seat to the side and I walk over to join her.

I take my seat next to her. I break the silence, “So, do you know who I’m meeting?”

Veronica shakes her head, “No, Sir Orris only said where to be and when. It’s strange, too. Most of the time when the kinship test is ran you are given a name and how closely related you are to them.”

“Let’s go,” Julian interrupts. He holds his hand out toward me.

I take his hand and he helps me to my feet.

Veronica stays seated and waves at me with a nod and her hand in her lap. Yalinda sits on the floor next to Veronica. She hasn’t spoken since we entered the Inn.

I look up to Julian and Mark.

“It’s just us, we’re going to room 842,” Julian says.

We go to the right of the receptionist and enter an elevator. There’s no standard engines on Anfang so I suspect it’s powered by essence, like everything else.

The elevator chimes on the eighth floor and we’re greeted with a short hallway. At the end is a single door labeled 842. So whoever it is, is loaded. The floor is dedicated to the room.

Julian knocks on the door. He stands next to the door and turns around.

Mark turns around and takes up the other side.

“Enter,” a man’s voice calls from the other side of the door.

I hesitate as I open the door. Who is this person? Is someone this influential the one who trashed me eight years ago? I shake my head. It doesn’t matter. If he is I’ll give him a piece of my mind.

I walk through the doorway. Saying the room is enormous wouldn’t do it justice. The ceiling is at least thirty foot high and bigger than the lobby. Okay big shot, you’re rich, big deal.

I see a middle-aged man sitting in a chair facing a fireplace. What I could only describe as a telephone sits on a small table between two chairs, one of which he’s sitting in.

The phone rings once and he picks it up. I see a teal light surround his form and a series of tight ‘v’s surround him. Once they encompass his entire body he speaks, “She’s here, this shouldn’t take long. Once I confirm who sent her I’ll be on my way.”

I hear a different voice of a woman. I suspect the person one on the other end. She replies, “Okay, just remember, if she truly is your niece don’t be too mean to her.”

My uncle? Interesting. So he may know my mom or dad.

He hangs up the phone and turns toward me. His face is stern and uncaring. Black and white stubble stretches across his face from ear to ear beyond his bushy goatee.

I walk up to the other chair and take a seat. I assume that was the intent of this arrangement.

We have ourselves a contest, to see who blinks first. His stone gaze wins in minutes and I break the silence.

“Hello…” I pause, and wonder if I should. I ask “uncle…?”

His pupils dilate and he squeezes the arm of the chair. He adjusts his posture until he’s leaning forward and glares with a greater intensity.

“So,” he begins, “either you heard me, or you guessed right.”

I break into a sweat. I don’t think this is someone I should lie to. Both Mark and Julian showed him deference and man the door outside, so he may well be their employer. I was sure Julian would report about my ability to hear through S-ROC enchantments.

“I heard you, clear as a bell,” I confess. I add, “and the woman on the other end, too.”

“Hmm,” The man’s voice deepens. “Do you know who I am?”

I shake my head no, “No clue, are you Julian’s boss?”

The man lets out a simple laugh, “Hmph.” He grins. “Something like that.

“How much do you know or remember about your family?”

I look down and my gut churns, “Nothing.” Nothing at all. Not her face, personality, voice or her touch.

“Your mother has been in an institution since you disappeared, almost eight years ago.”

My eyes shoot up to meet his. Institution? She’s crazy? That may explain some things, but not how I ended up in the Order of the Light’s hands.

“Could I see her?” I hope.

My uncle rubs the stubble on his chin and stands, “Are you sure?

“You may not like what you see,” my uncle reveals.

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Allen Clark Copeland, Jr.

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