Chapter 49 | Intermission 2
When Alisha arrived back at the Alton manor the following afternoon, it was chaos. Her battle with Alan drained her of mana and so her proxy body in Yuli’s arms melted into slime in her sleep. Guide only responded to Yuli’s calls after about three minutes but by that time, she ran downstairs to her father in a fright, worried that something might’ve happened.
Lord Benas knew that the operation to capture the traffickers had begun ahead of schedule and was awake to coordinate his men. By the time dawn broke, everyone knew Alisha was attacked. The family surrounded Alisha immediately after she entered the manor and sat her in reception.
“What happened?! I heard from Guide that you were attacked!” Yuli shouted while in tears.
“Are you alright? Are you not hurt anywhere?” Sophia held Alisha and looked over her body for injuries.
“Was it that idiot?” Reinold asked.
He was right on the money and that stung Alisha so hard that she shrunk in her seat. This coach was very comfortable and soft. This was the very situation that Yuli wanted to avoid. Alisha spoke with difficulty, “…Yes, Alan attacked me but it’s okay now.”
“Alisha…” Yuli said, sadly. When Alisha heard that tone from her, it tore through her heart. It was the same tone people gave her when they were disappointed in her. It was hard to hear, especially from her friends and family. If she refused to speak now, Yuli would surely misunderstand!
Tears formed in her eyes and Alisha sobbed out some words, “…I’m sorry…You said I should tell Alan about me and I ignored you…I was just afraid…No matter how much I pushed myself, I just couldn’t do it!”
The room was silent. Sophia spoke up, “Alisha, you know that we love you no matter what you are. You don’t have to be afraid around us. But I think you’re missing the point. Yuli is upset because you didn’t trust us as much as we trusted you…”
Lord Benas chimed in, “It’s a plan that we all agreed upon together but, Alisha, you didn’t give us, Alan, or Lycus, a chance.”
Alisha refuted them, “…I don’t understand why you are all fixated on this. You guys are my family and I love you. Isn’t this like food preferences and how some people don’t like to eat green peppers? I have aversions I rather avoid…”
Reinold corrected her, “We’re just concerned for you. You had no reason not to trust us about Alan and Lycus. Imagine what would happen if something like this comes up again, it’s going to end with a lot of unnecessary heartaches.”
“I know, Reinold. But I try!”
“No, Alisha. You don’t.”
“…” Alisha couldn’t say anything. He was right. If she valued the trust placed on her, she should’ve made an effort to let Alan and Lycus more.
“We can’t help you unless you can trust our suggestions.”
“…I know…I’m sorry…It’s just that it’s been a long time since I really trusted someone. I am still wary. I want to feel in control of my life. After being treated the way I did, I have trouble letting go sometimes.”
“You’ll get over what happened. What do you think we’re here for, idiot?” Reinold said the words that she wanted to hear. Not only that, but they also didn’t get angry at her harmful indecisiveness. She thought of Aunt Elise’s words from the other day. Less analytical and more faith in those she trusted. Alisha didn’t know when but Yuli hugged her followed by Sophia, Julie, and Benas.
Life at Riverside was calming a week after the meteorite blast, horde attack, and refugee kidnapping incidents. Those astronomical events happening so quickly and suddenly had everyone spooked. A tense peace had fallen the town but peace nonetheless. Everyone was back outside on their routines but no one was partying.
The few who fled the town returned to find the Imperial garrison patrolling the streets. Strict controls on the market were enforced by the Empire. The Seutarian Pent was no longer legal tender in the town and business trades were closely monitored. The border had remained closed for everything except for trade.
A royal decree closed the border with the elves and placed Riverside under the direct rule of the Emperor. Commander Dustin now had effective control of the town. The mayor had been ousted and put in chains and the militia was relegated to perimeter watch.
It was to Jeromy’s dismay that many of the regular townsfolk had just accepted this change without much protest. After such cataclysmic events have befallen the town, people were looking more toward security than freedoms. People were still rebuilding both literally and figuratively. However, the people who depended on the policies of the Association for business were less corporative. Whether the citizens of Riverside were ready to accept this or not, Imperial rule was slowly choking the town.
The situation hasn’t devolved into open conflict yet but the assurances by Merchant Lord Banes and Sir Jeromy was the only thing keeping the town from openly defying Commander Dustin. This wasn’t the time for protests or any kind of visible dissent. Dustin would sooner have a townsman thrown in jail. In fact, that has already happened when a clerk got frustrated by an Imperial soldier and bashed his head with a broom.
Things were worse at the Imperial Capital. Dustin’s report into the manner of the traffickers convinced in the Emperor’s eyes at Riverside’s guilt of negligent complacency and Grethenia’s involvement. The likely reason for human trafficking through Riverside was a route around the dangerous Elven Forest to Gillesport. The town had the only bridge for miles and the Sohao River was heavily patrolled for monsters. Riverside was the obvious choice for illicit activity to cross the border.
The fact that such a large criminal organization to have an active base near Riverside was all the proof needed for the Emperor to seize control of the town. They imposed random searches of buildings and goods, especially towards the elven residents which the Imperials suspected to be collaborators to the traffickers.
So far, the townspeople of Riverside had kept their mouths shut for their Merchant Lord and the Association. The winds of wars were blowing ever closer.
Jeromy knew this would happen and quickly prepared, assembling his allies. Today was the first and last meeting of the Association forces in their bid to take back the town from Imperial control. And they’d do this by force.
In a small undisclosed basement on the edge of town, leaders of Riverside gathered around sitting on wooden boxes to discuss the future. Present in this meeting were the Merchant Lord of Riverside—Benas Alton, his son—Reinold, and his butler—Hans, the Captain of the Association mercenaries and Hero of Viennera—Jeromy Powle—and his lieutenant—Selina, the representative of the Phoenix—Jack Boson, the Captain of the Riverside Militia—Louis Glenn, the leader of the Maquis Rebellion—Annabelle Everhart, and the Devil Slime and leader of Anaga—Alisha.
This group of nine powerful people of Riverside now formed a shadow council. As the people filtered in, Alisha got the feeling that everyone here knew what this was about. Well, except for Captain Louis who was shocked to see Alisha.
“Catherine?” He questioned, not believing what was in front of his eyes.
Alisha’s heart was riddled with guilt when she heard him call her name. She spoke with sympathy, “No, you’re mistaken. My name is Alisha.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You just look familiar.”
“No, I’m the one who should apologize. I’m the one who killed her.”
“Alisha…” Captain Louis connected the dots and looked around the room. It seemed like everyone here knew except for him. He pulled the pieces together. “Did she suffer?”
“…No, it was…quick.”
No one else said a word and Captain Louis sat down with a difficult expression and was holding in his anger until it exploded, “Can someone tell me what the hell is this?!”
“This young lady did what she could to survive,” Lord Benas explained. “I’ve taken responsibility for her staying here.”
Now that Benas had voiced in her defense, there was nothing Captain Louis could do to object. Louis had too much respect for the man to go against what he thought was right. Benas elaborated on Alisha’s situation and that was the end of it. Louis nodded in agreement and said no more. Alisha felt bad that her relationship with Captain Louis soured almost immediately. They were going to be working together but not as friends.
Jeromy formally began the meeting under the dim basement light, “I thank you all for coming here today. I’m sure that everyone has become acquainted so I’ll begin. The decisions we come to in this meeting will affect the fate of the entire continent. And if we fail, each of your respective peoples could suffer dearly. If you or any of your men are of half minds on their convictions, I want you to walk away right now.”
No one spoke up or moved from their seats.
“Good. Annabelle, we could begin with your situation. How many men can you contribute and when can we expect them?”
“We can expect around four-hundred men, fifty of them mages,” Annabelle explained simply. When Louis heard those numbers, he almost lost his balance and tipped over. He didn’t know the Maquis was so strong. “They will be here in three weeks.”
“Three weeks? Isn’t that a little late?” Lord Benas questioned.
“The resettlement of my people is my priority right now. Three weeks.”
“I understand,” Jeromy defused the pressure from Lord Benas and accepted that the attack wouldn’t occur for at least three weeks. He turned to Louis. “Louis, can you tell us about your situation.”
Louis responded, “Yes, sir. I have one hundred and twelve. Only five are mages. And unfortunately, the Imperials have already confiscated much of our weapons and munitions on the grounds of civil defense.”
“We might be able to resupply you,” Benas said. “But there’s a question on how to get the weapons and spell gems to the militia without alerting the Imperials.”
Jeromy put forward his own suggestion, “We only need them to be supplied for the attack. When we signal for the operation, you can get those munitions to your people when we rendezvous. I’m sure Benas will arrange for that.” Benas and Louis both agreed.
“I have around twenty freelancers and mercenaries I can trust who have agreed to participate,” explained Lord Benas.
“Are you sure you can trust these men with this? Commissions for money is one thing, but we’re talking about committing treason against the Empire.”
“Don’t worry. Hans has been very thorough and discrete in his selections.”
“I would assume those freelancers are all mages?”
“Okay then. I hope that we can begin preparations today.”
The conspiracy brewing in this basement was the accumulation of oppression by the Imperials against the Association towns. If the Empire had their way, all the elves would be expelled and all guilds would be nationalized. The people who depend on trade with Grethenia would be left in ruins. Most importantly, the freedoms of non-humans experienced now would be extinguished. Yuli would be in danger with no place left in the world for her to be safe.
By attacking Riverside, the Association would be declaring war against the Empire. The ramifications would be felt worldwide, the war for the independence of Seutaria.
After the meeting, Alisha had something she wanted to discuss privately with Benas, Jeromy, and Jack. She pulled them aside.
“I’m worried about the children we discovered in the dungeon. There were nine children who had lived their entire lives underground. I checked up on them at the orphanage and they don’t seem to be adjusting well. They’re terrified and entirely non-verbal. There’s no chance for them to live normal lives.”
“It’s an unfortunate situation but there’s nothing we can do to change the past. We can only do what we can so they won’t suffer any further and maybe someday find happiness.”
“What if there is a way that they could live normal lives? I have an idea.”
Alisha explained her idea in great detail. As a Dungeon Master, she had the powers of a spiritualist and could manipulate souls. She could remove the tragedy that had befallen the children through no fault of their own. All she needed to do was to remove their memories and place their souls back into their bodies. She could even make it so that they return as infants so they could live real lives.
Alisha thought about this carefully and fully expected the three to be on board. However, Benas’ and Jeromy’s expression soured during her explanation and Jack looked disgusted. The more she explained her idea, the more uncomfortable she became of their glares.
“What’s wrong?” Alisha wanted to hear what they had to say.
“Well, everything,” Benas said. “I know you care for these children but you cannot intervene in something that is so sacred as the soul. The soul is everything a person is, no one can impose their will on another.”
“I’m of the same mind,” Jack added. “In my previous life, I was taught the core tenants of being a Reaper. Interfering in a person’s soul is strictly forbidden even in extenuating circumstances such as this. Memories are precious to everyone and what makes our sense-of-self. As a Reaper, I cannot allow this. It is the same reason why I’m against the Guardians.”
Alisha didn’t think of that and said, “The Guardians…”
“Yes, they interfere in the memories and personality of everyone in Theia. I cannot condone such actions even if well-intended.”
“Okay! I get it! I won’t do it,” Alisha said, giving up.
“Alisha,” Jeromy said plainly. “Just so you know, I’m also ordering you as your superior not to do it.”
“I get it! It was just an idea and I appreciate your inputs.”
Alisha understood why her idea was shot down and buried. It was unethical. This was the same reason why scientific research, in both worlds, has banned human experimentation and adopted guidelines for physicians to do no harm. In the same vain, she couldn’t use an unproven method to treat such a sensitive area like memories of a soul. Her idea was completely unethical but she suggested it anyway.
She recognized her own selfishness today and projected it onto others. She wanted to save them the fate of such a miserable childhood. Those children had no voice to speak for themselves but, in Alisha’s mind, there was no possible way that they wouldn’t regret having a relatively normal upbringing.
On this bright and sunny day, Alisha was in her wolf form and on a small rowboat with Mr. Schefter and Yuli. Alisha had been visiting Mr. and Mrs. Schefter’s shop more frequently. She observed in their shop while attaching customers and they would teach her a thing or two about alchemy. It wasn’t like they knew she could actually understand what they were saying but they did a good job humoring her seeming curiosity.
Today, Mr. Schefter was teaching them how to fish and pointing out the different species. Besides bringing fish for dinner, the fish from the Sohao River was high in different levels of magical compounds. These compounds collected in the muscle, liver, and kidneys of the various fish.
At the shore, he brought out a cutting board and a knife so they could have a taste of fresh sushi. Yuli and Alisha were amazed at the taste and recognized the flavor. It had a strong umami and sweet compliment. It tasted a bit like how her own slime.
Mr. Schefter smiled, “I can see you both enjoyed it. How about you take a few for your family, girls?”
“Really? If that’s okay with you, then we accept your generous offer,” Yuli said with a smile as bright as the sun. Recently, everyone wanted to share in what they did with Yuli. As the daughter of the Merchant Lord, they wanted her to have adequate experience in business. They seemed to be reluctant to ask Yuli when she was recovering injuries from two attacks. Also, her infectious smile was what the town needed.
At her dungeon, the people have settled in the habitat. The atrium was enlarged greatly to a mile radius and houses were built by the pool. The houses had similar architecture as Riverside. Crystals refracted light from the sun through the ‘skylight’ and other small sources. Natural light was good for their health so Alisha was glad for the change. Humans needed a natural environment to thrive even if underground. This space was in contrast to other parts of the central hub that featured only practicality.
The few, especially the children, who needed more guidance for skilled jobs were being taught by Guide on the basics of mathematics, reading, and writing. He unintentionally started a small school. Alisha laughed inwardly at the idea as she was the one teaching him only a few weeks ago on these elementary subjects.
Guide seemed to have become very human. He could hold down a conversation with humans and took good care of them. When Alisha asked what changed his opinion, Guide responded,
“Humans are quite easy to understand as you’ve said Madam. Once I understood their motivations, it was a simple matter to put them to work.”
Alisha took a stroll around the small village in her dungeon and she was greeted warmly. Jun was being treated well and it was good to see him having fun with the children. She felt bad about not letting him out of the dungeon often enough because she was busy most of the day.
The villagers were settling into a routine. The women were all doing shores and gardening while the men were used for heavy labor. The houses were all coming together and there was no scarcity of food. Because of her slime, Alisha only needed to know what they needed. However, the adults insisted on farming themselves.
Alisha was thinking more about the big picture for her people. She wanted to provide them opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise. That was, what she believed to be, one of the main reasons for them following her. Most of the villagers had been in areas where industrialization hadn’t reached them.
Likewise, most of the villagers hadn’t experienced plumbing before so when they start throwing their waste everywhere, Alisha insisted everyone have a water and sewage pipe installed. They didn’t argue with her and just did it even though the work was long.
It reminded her of how she treated the Altons and it made her cringe.
Anyway, leading them into more specialized industrial work could give them more options in the future. Perhaps they could even help her in her research projects.
“My Lady,” someone called out to her from the small group. It was the woman she saved from the dungeon, named Kalyani. “I am grateful for your presence here.”
She bowed deeply and Alisha became embarrassed by the scene, “Please raise your head. Bowing is unnecessary. It really is. How are the children doing?”
“They’re eating and playing more but I think they’ll take more time to feel comfortable. Priya is fine but I’m worried about Arthur. He’s a bit older than the rest and the only boy here. He’s having a particularly tough time at school.”
“Do you wish for me to speak with him?”
“If you can, it’d be great.”
“Okay, I will do what I can. Everyone, I hope we can do our best today as well!”
“Yes, My Lady!” Everyone shouted at the same time. They said so very enthusiastically and it made her head flush hearing it. She turned her head away and headed to the school.
Alisha arrived and knocked on the door. She was let inside by a skeleton. Guide was inside teaching the students. The classroom was almost an exact replica of Yuli’s school. Guide wasn’t the most creative person in the world. He directed her to Arthur who was sitting in the corner of the class.
The children and Jun surrounded her. Alisha said nervously, “Hello children, how are your studies going? Is Guide being good to you all?”
“Yeah! He’s a very good teacher,” said one.
“He is very adequate, thank you for this opportunity,” said a half-elven student.
“I’m going to talk to Arthur for a bit. So, can everyone behave and return to your seats. I’ll make sure the adults make some candy for you all tomorrow. Guide?” The children cheered. Alisha didn’t have a lot of experience handling children but she understood them because she was once one herself. If she didn’t want to talk to them, give them something they liked.
“I will inform the chef, Madam,” Guide replied and everyone went back to their seats and continued the lesson.
Alisha went over to Arthur who was still huddled in the corner. She crouched down to his level and spoke, “Hello, Arthur.”
He didn’t respond but acknowledged her presence by looking at her.
“I know that you’re a bit scared and uneasy,” said Alisha. She was told a bit about the situation by Kalyani and Guide. “It’ll take some time to adjust but you will. If the other children are picking at you, please tell me. I can help you.”
Arthur then looked at Alisha again but with more meaning in his eyes. She wanted to look gentle but determined at the same time, someone this child could rely on as she herself relied on Yuli.
“If you want, you can help Ms. Kalyani and the others with some chores. How does that sound?”
He accepted with a nod and she led Arthur outside and to Kalyani.
“My Lady, is there something I can assist you with?”
“Yes, please give this young man something to do. In fact, I’m leaving you in charge of operations in this village.”
“It’s only natural for the humans here to be led by one of their own.”
“This is a big responsibility you’re placing onto me but if you believe I can do it, I’ll do it to the best of my abilities.”
“That’s all I ask. Plus, people here are already comfortable in taking orders from you. I might as well make it official.”
“Thank you, my Lady,” Kalyani said. As they parted, Kalyani felt the need to say something. “My Lady?”
“You’re just as human as any of us.”
Alisha returned her smile and walked away. The adults were adapting quickly. The children were traumatized for life. They were all extremely grateful for the rescue and healing. Some of them were down in the dungeon for years. However, the hope exhibited by Alisha’s and the Phoenix’s efforts overcame their despair and they now sought a new lasting hope with her.
The village of Anaga was taking shape.
Today’s fishing date with Mr. Schefter was under the backdrop of a somber anniversary. The Imperials’ xenophobic actions has begun to raise terror for the elves in Riverside and such a time was repeated five years ago to this date. Alisha heard the details from Elise and Julie about the death of Yuli’s mother. This incident was largely forgotten in the midst of the chaos of the period.
Emelia Sune was a worker at the brothel ran by a small commerce guild along with her sister. After immigrating to the small farming village of Riverside, the four elves worked to support each other. They made good money and witnessed how Riverside was transformed into a thriving center for trade. There were good years of prosperity because of the openness of the Association.
However, the influx of elven migrants upset the native population and a divide formed in the town between humans and elves. The elves quickly found themselves harassed and restricted to live in the emerging slums of the New District. This resulted in a riot and Emelia was lynched in the town square along with three others who were all unrelated to each other.
Details were muddled and suppressed by Lord Alton to protect his own reputation from the incident. He worked together with the mayor to prevent other such incidents in the future. Alisha found it very strange that Riverside used to be so hostile towards elves. Now, you couldn’t go one block without seeing one.
There was another reason why Benas wanted to cover up the incident: Yuli. The townsfolk learned that Emelia recently gave birth to a half-elven child. It was illegal in the Empire and the people didn’t care much for the parents or children.
Should the mob have found Yuli, they would’ve lynched her along with her mother. The child was never found but rumors had surfaced years after the incident that Yuli was Lord Alton’s bastard daughter and wasn’t legitimate. As the years progressed, the town’s view on elves changed as more commerce across the border fueled a better understanding between the races. Although not official, Yuli’s true identity became an open secret and kept away from the Imperials.
The grave site for Emelia was in the town cemetery marked by an inconspicuous tomb stone. The four Sunes and Alisha entered the cemetery at dusk and found Sophia Alton at the grave. She looked sad and gave the approaching group no mind until they walked up to her. She placed some hand-picked flowers on the grave.
Elise noticed flowers on her sister’s grave every year and didn’t want to believe it was Sophia. Of all people it could be, it had to be her.
“What are you doing here?” Elise said in a restrained anger. Yuli and Julie both looked uncomfortable. Selina simply looked away.
“I’ve come here to pray,” Sophia replied with a difficult expression.
“Why? You have no right.”
She took a low bow and begged, “I know I don’t. But I will, if you will have me.”
“I hate you. You took away my sister. I can still vividly remember when the mob broke into our home and took my sister away. I had to escape through the second-floor window to the adjacent building with the children. But please, pray with us,” Elise said with great sarcasm.
Elise glared at Sophia for a while but she didn’t move. It wasn’t wise to forcibly remove the wife of the Merchant Lord or do it in front of her family. Elise simply ignored Sophia and the others took their place beside the grave to pray. Yuli released Alisha from her grasp as they all prayed together with their eyes closed, heads down, and hands clasped in front of them. After a silent prayer and a few words to the tombstone, they were preparing to leave.
“Alisha?” Yuli called out to her friend who was frozen in place with her head down. Everyone else turned and looked concerned for her. Alisha didn’t say anything in response and simply stood there. Yuli crouched down to pick her up when she spoke up,
“I’m sorry! Can you leave without me? I want to stay here for a bit.”
Yuli could tell something was wrong. Almost every instinct told her to pick Alisha up and hug her but she could also sense a…danger. That instant of uneasiness ran up the spines of the elves present. They knew to stop here but Sophia wasn’t as sensitive to aura as they were.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Sophia asked. “There’s nothing we can sort out here that we can’t at home.”
“Please leave. I want to be alone…” Alisha repeated.
“ALONE!” Alisha release a burst of mana at that moment and created a small gust which blew outward. Even Sophia felt that one. The group then silently left.
How did she come to care about these fake people like she did?
What went wrong?
There were people who really depended on her now. Could she continue being the leader of Anaga?
“Madam? What is the matter?” Guide came out of his crystal and asked.
He was answered by someone neither of them expected. “She knows the truth,” Black answered.
Guide could see and hear the projection of Black as if she was actually present.
“The people of Riverside…the people of this world are fake. The proof in underneath our feet in this cemetery. Ah. I forget your Monster Sight is impaired while in your orb. I’ll let Alisha explain.”
“The grave is empty,” Alisha said.
Guide didn’t want to believe what he was hearing and refuted Black, “Perhaps the grave was robbed or the body was missing. Yuli’s mother was a victim of a community lynching. I’m surprised she has a grave site at all.”
“No. Not just hers,” Alisha continued. “Every grave in this cemetery which was set here prior to five years ago is empty.”
“How could this be?”
“We know the answer,” Black said candidly. “They were never buried here to begin with. In fact, those graves were never dug up, telling from the composition of the soil.”
“The cemetery could’ve been moved,” Guide said.
“Unlikely. We have the documents from the Association Guild House and Mayor’s office. There is no record of such a move. Even if it did happen, they would simply rebury the remains.”
“The cemetery didn’t exist five years ago.”
Alisha was driven to tears, “Did Riverside even exist five years ago?”
“Finally, you realize,” Black asserted her truth. “This world’s people are not people at all. This world is not a natural world. From the air we breathe to the ground we stand on, and to the so-called people we talked to. The Guardians manufactured this world, its people, its history, and its truth to suit their needs. We knew this all along and we just went with it!”
Black started to laugh manically as Guide watched helplessly and Alisha was curled up and in distress. Black was running out of breath while laughing.
“Were we so lonely that we were willing to talk to anything~?” Black was laughing out of control, “I’m sorry~! This is just so ridiculous~!”
She continued to laugh as Alisha trembled on the ground. Black was right? Why couldn’t she see what she saw? How could she allow herself to be so involved with Yuli and the Altons to be fooled in this manner? As a Dungeon Master with sentience, she could see the souls of people of Theia.
They had no souls of their own.
After a while, the irises of the small wolf in Riverside’s cemetery turned as white as its fur and was to never be filled with color again.