January 25, 2019, 11:05 am.

Hunting, Beth says.

At this moment, I'm reminded of Beth's lack of hesitation when we saw that first deer. It took her less than a second to decide to end its life. I feel the same primal aura emanating from her now.

Then it's gone, Beth spinning on her heel as she leads us towards the tower.

"First priority is getting Roberts on his feet. But we'll check this healing centre too. If we can get a second healer, that will help immensely," Beth decides over her shoulder as we all run at full speed towards the tower. Beth and Tipan are both quicker than I am in a straight-up run but I'm able to make up for it by teleporting to keep pace. Now that we're moving unburdened, we're moving almost as fast as when we're flying which allows us to reach the tower just a minute later. Even as we move, Smoulder sleeps quietly in my pocket.

The intertwined pink and white coral that forms the entrance to the tower is guarded by another K'tharn. She's reading what reminds me of a newspaper as we pass into her domain, stepping out of the sun. It's weird, even though this is supposed to be a Lords of the Deep stronghold, I haven't seen a single Lord so far. Just K'tharn and Herv. The guard only glances at us for a second, a tingling sensation passing over me when her eyes inspect me. As a shiver runs down my back, she waves us through, pointing at a sign before returning to her reading without a word.

Shrugging when I glance at the others, we inspect the wooden sign. Each letter is carved in tight looping cursive which reads:

"In tribute to our ancestors, the Glimmering Tower strives to provide an authentic interface-free experience. Please refrain from any active use of your interface while in public areas. Guests who repeatedly disregard this rule may be asked to leave.

Welcome to Glimmering Tower.

Your Lord Thansome."

I can't help but smile a little as Beth leads us inside. It's basically like a no cell phone sign back on earth. My smile lasts right until my jaw drops when we step through the beaded curtain that separates the outside from within.

I'm not sure what I was expecting but after how normal everything else in Glimmering Sands has been, to say I'm a little surprised at the interior is an understatement.

Herv mentioned that his friend was in the workplaces north of the open space on the seventh level. What he neglected to mention is that the majority of the tower is open. The size reminds me of a stadium. Except with several levels of stores along the edge instead of seats. And instead of a field, there's a huge inlet filled with lapping water, wooden walkways and small boats all surrounding a huge central pillar. The pillar consists of large tubes that spiral up out of the water several metres below, wrapped around a substantial central tower. Each tube is reminiscent of an aquarium. Except the fish are swiftly swimming as though being propelled along. Half of the tubes push the fish inside up out of sight while the other half plummet down just as rapidly. As I watch I notice a K'tharn rush past emerging in a shallow pool not far from a set of stairs that lead up. Next to the shallow pool is a sign that simply states "Waterbreathing required. Glimmering Sands is not liable for any damage."

While the tubes are the main feature of the central opening, other than the branches that lead to the pools scattered along the edges they barely take up any room compared to the vast expanse. It's strange that there's no flying allowed because there are no rails along the edge I'm looking over. As the thought crosses my mind, I see a pair of K'tharn fly from one level to another.

"I thought there was no flying here," I complain to Tipan while pointing to the K'tharn.

"I suspect they have the proper permissions," Tipan offers, shrugging while stroking her chin.

"We should find out what the requirements for that are. Could be useful. But first, I think our first shop is over here," Beth states, leading us towards a simple stall set back into the first ring of stores. Yep. Definitely rings.

As we approach, I can't help but notice how plain this store is compared to its neighbours. The store to its left has stalls out front full of what appear to be towels, hand-crafted umbrellas and even hammocks, each more colourful than the last. The stall on the other side offers a dizzying display of candied meats, with colourful signs with bold claims about the flavours.

But the stall Beth has chosen only has a plain wooden sign saying Kili's Brews. The inside of the store itself is simple and unadorned, several sturdy shelves full of small bottles set behind a K'tharn who seems as plain as her store. All of the bottles are kept out of reach. No casual browsing of products here.

Beth spends some time talking with the K'tharn while I go back out to inspect the umbrellas. It's strange to see them here. Looking up at the twisting tubes of flowing water full of speeding fish, I glance back at the umbrellas.

Yeah, definitely weird.

And then I feel it again. That slight twist in my stomach and vague dizziness that practically screams, "You're on another world!"

It's easy to forget at times that this is really happening. Sometimes, if I close my eyes for a minute, I imagine I'll open my eyes and wake up on my bed. If I'm honest, the thought terrifies me. There's so much more for me here than there is at home. With an impending apocalypse, we need to get back, sure. Not only are there a lot of people I care about on Earth, but there's a lot of innocent people in danger.

But if there was no apocalypse, I'd want to stay here. I mean, Rufka, magic, Smoulder, exploring spaceships and completely 'authentic' pre-system resorts.

Watching another K'tharn emerge from the nearby pool with a slight stagger, I smile. Stepping away from the umbrella stall, I look up into the twisting water. But this time I match it with my own, the water flowing in a quad-helix, running up two strands then down the others. If I could breathe underwater, I'd be able to use the moving sidewalk. I almost feel disappointed at the thought. But then I see the water circulating in response to my commands and my disappointment fades away.

Even after more than a week of wielding mana it still feels amazing. And I realize I've been so hung up on not being allowed to fly, I've been neglecting any other way I can use my magic to move. So, after redirecting my gathered water to my feet, I glide myself back to the stall on a small wave, giggling to myself as I bump into Tipan who's emerging from the store.

Beth follows behind her a second later. She only spares me a quick glance, before leading the way to the next name on the list. Which reminds me why we're here, my brief moment of joy is crushed by the reminder that Josh is a wooden doll and Roberts is unconscious. I bet it wouldn't have happened if Rufka'd been here.

The next half hour passes quickly as we rush from shop to shop. In this time Beth collects a number of consumables that should all restore health. There are potions that can be poured down Roberts's throat, specialized bandages that automatically bind open wounds and a dehydrated powder that can be swallowed whole for an immediate burst or prepared as part of a stew which, if made with fresh mana-borne meat, not only restores health but mana as well. Tipan's explaining that there are innumerable substances that can act as an empowering ingredient if one is willing to take the time to prepare them properly.

While I "Ohh" and "Ah" at all our fancy new items, we approach 'The End of The Line'. It's the most severe shop we've seen here, sharp steel cladding running along the storefront with none of the usual windows displaying wares. Only its name in blocky black lettering lets us know we're at the correct place. The door itself reminds me of a mechanical vault, with one of those large turning wheels like you might see on an old nautical vessel.

Beth takes the handle in hand, and the wheel turns easily, almost as if it's frictionless. As the wheel spins, the door slowly creaks open towards us. It's hard to make out what's inside, the only light coming from the open doorway.

"Well. This really brings me back," Beth comments before stepping inside the poorly lit building. I apply a layer of twilight over my eyes before following, which helps me avoid stepping on the miscellaneous …. Body parts?

No, they're prosthetics. I think.

There's no smell of blood, and they're made out of wood and metal. I really hope they're prosthetics.

"Hello?" Beth calls into the darkness while Tipan holds the door open behind us. Not that it's dark to me. In the back at an uncluttered workbench is what must be the first elderly K'tharn I've seen within the system. I'm only able to place her as elderly due to Uthica's early memories of those within her tribe, her matted fur and slumped posture the most immediate signs. But it's the way her eyes crinkle as she places her strange set of pliers to the side then stares at Beth that really give her age away. A younger K'tharn's fur doesn't crinkle like that.

"What do you want?" she snaps out, not bothering to step forward or raise the amount of light.

Beth isn't startled, and she doesn't appear upset that the shopkeeper doesn't step forwards. She does turn in the direction of her voice before responding though. "We were told there might be someone here who offered healing training. If we were misinformed, then we'll leave immediately."

I watch the elderly K'tharn narrow her eyes at Beth. Once she's done her inspection of Beth, she looks at Tipan then me. When her eyes meet mine, all her eyes go wide for half a second before she restrains herself, looking back to Beth. "Plenty of people want to learn how to heal. Very few can. What makes you think you're special?"

"I'm not. Well, at least not when it comes to healing. The kid is the one we want you to teach," Beth answers, pointing at me with her thumb over her shoulder.

"Really? And this child is prepared for the commitment? If I'm to teach her, it will be many years before she will be finished."

"Years?" Beth asks, half a second before I echo her. "Can't you just show her a couple spells so she can restore health?"

"Pah. That's not healing. That's just restoring system energy. Any idiot can do that. You don't need a rune, just an appropriate conversion skill."

"What? I've never heard of such a skill," Tipan exclaims stepping forward for a second until the lack of light reminds her that she needs to hold the door.

"Would it be possible to learn that skill? We have a friend who's a skilled healer but we need to restore his health," Beth requests, her hand rubbing at her belt where she has Josh stored away.

"I could teach it to you. But what would you give me in exchange?" the old K'tharn asks, arms crossed as she regards Beth.

"Well, we have a fair amount of essence. Though from what I've learned today it's not as much as I'd originally hoped," Beth offers uncertainly.

"Essence is of no use to me. But there is something. Child, come here," the old K'tharn gestures from where she's hiding in the darkness. Even as she speaks, the darkness rolls back, revealing her hunched and twisted form to the others. Tipan lets out a small gasp but Beth doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

Looking to Beth for guidance, her emerald eyes catch mine, holding me in place until she shrugs.

Okay. Well, at least they can see the old K'tharn now. Maybe I should figure out a way to share my night vision with the others. It's got to be easier than mass teleport.

Not sure what else to do, I step over the piles of wooden and metal limbs. Then I notice torsos and heads mixed in. Each is highly detailed, as though they had the actual muscles and bones lying beneath their surface.

"Good. Good. Now let me see your control. Start with lightning child," she commands, twirling her hand in a 'get on with it' gesture when I'm finally standing in tight space just in front of her.

"I'm not a child. I'm eighteen," I counter even as I draw forth a leaping arc of lightning, shaping it into a copy of the tubes outside, central pillar and all.

"Eighteen she says. Practically a baby. Yet control is decent," she concedes while poking her hand into the electrical structure in front of us. She directs me through earth and water next, then each other element in turn until the only thing left is twilight.

"Now, I've seen that you've started on your understanding of dynamic conjoinment. Let us see what you're able to do with it," she commands, her hidden arms coming from beneath her upper arms, drawing shapes in the air using twilight.

Watching carefully, I start copying her movements. At first, I only use the dusky yellow that I prefer, but then I start incorporating deep shadow and brilliant rainbow structure. She continues leading me through the motions for another half a minute when Beth interrupts.

"It's very pretty, but we're in a hurry," Beth states, staring at the K'tharn who appears younger under the illumination of our twilight magics.

It's the smile on her face I realize, a smile that disappears when she acknowledges Beth. "Hmm. I suppose I've seen enough. Very well, I could teach you the basics, child. And I know what my price will be."

"Finally. What can we offer you?" Beth asks.

The old K'tharn isn't looking at Beth as she answers instead, staring at me. "The child will serve as my apprentice for three years, learning all she can of the healing arts."

Beth snorts as I protest, "Three years! I don't have that sort of time."

"Hmm. Perhaps not. But I have no use for essence. I do have need of a skilled apprentice, however. One who isn't tied to the Aetherium," she glances at Tipan at the last, who flinches under her gaze.

"Hey! Tipan's a great person. Don't judge her like that just because she has white fur!" I find myself objecting to the old K'tharn's dismissal of Tipan, standing between them before I realize it.

"Oh ho. Those of white fur are often Aetherium, this is true, but it's not her fur that marks her. Only Aetherium Aeromancers wield staffs such as hers," the old K'tharn laughs while pointing.

Glancing at her staff, the head is a plain diamond shape with swirling grooves carved into its surface. I didn't realize it was distinctive. Tipan's fur is laying down in embarrassment. I'm fairly sure my face is as red as her fur is flat.

"Oh," I meekly reply.

Before I can apologize for my mistake, Beth's taken control of the conversation again. "Thank you for the offer, but we don't have that sort of time. We're kind of up against a deadline."

"I understand. Should you change your mind the offer shall remain open," as she finishes her sentence, she summons shadows with a snap of her fingers. Not only does the darkness reappear, she also goes invisible. Shrugging, I copy her, fading while Beth leads the way out.

I can't help but think about what she said regarding conversion as Beth impatiently leads us towards our final few stops, jostling a pair of K'tharn who don't step aside fast enough for her. Beth is moving faster than she has since we arrived but I almost don't notice as I race to keep up with her. The K'tharn implied conversion was simple, yet this is the first time Tipan's heard of it. Another thing kept from her by her teachers? Or something else?

Even as I follow Beth, I start experimenting, trying to push at my mana to convert it to health. But I've honestly got no idea where to start.

We're climbing the stairs to the seventh level, (no elevators unless you can breathe underwater,) when Tipan exclaims, "I've got it!"

"What?" Beth asks over her shoulder, not stopping or turning.

"I can convert energy. I think I can heal Roberts," Tipan proclaims, looking at me with a giant grin.

"That's amazing," I state, giving Tipan a giant hug.

"It is amazing," Beth agrees, giving Tipan a small smile before pulling us further up the stairs. "Since we're here, let's talk to Lifi-whatever then we'll head straight back."

Nodding our agreement, we follow Beth out onto the balcony that surrounds the pit, heading straight towards Lifithent's workshop. We're only a few steps away when a large shape obscures the light, casting us in darkness for the second time in the last fifteen minutes.

This time when we turn towards the source of the darkness however, we don't find an old K'tharn searching for an apprentice. Instead, we're face to face with a giant squid, tentacles as thick as my couch pulling it up through the tower.

Before I'm fully able to process what's happening, the large creature has already moved past us.

There was no rumbling, squishing or squeaking to announce its passage. If not for the fact it literally blocked out the light, I may not have noticed it.

"Well, that's creepy," Beth remarks as the last tentacle disappears.

"That's a Lord of the Deep," Tipan supplies, her voice quivering.

As a faint smell of squid hits me, I have a sudden craving for calamari.

A note from Draith

Chapter 2/2

I'm personally allergic to calamari. Found that out the fun way. Getting fluid in your lungs because your throat has closed itself off isn't the most painful thing I've ever experienced but it's a solid 6/10. Do not recommend.

Author's blurb 0.03

Spoiler: Spoiler

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About the author


Bio: I'm a new author doing the best I can. Comments, criticism and feedback are all appreciated.
While I see myself as more of an orc with a veneer of civility, I humbly accept the interpretation that I am, in fact, a pickle cowboy. But I ain't no caterpillar.

It doesn't take a life-changing moment to change your life. © 2020 Draith F Kirtzinger.

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