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Grendel’s clawed hand slid through the banner's fabric. “Vaix is currently spearheading some campaign. They visit villages all over Glast, stay there for a couple of days or weeks, and then march off.”

“Why are they doing this?” Altera put her hand on Ragna’s shoulders. Ragna’s features relaxed, and the glare disappeared.

Grendel shrugged. “No idea. Could be anything.”

What a shame, Grendel thought.

Altera inhibited Ragna. Instead of bottling her emotions up, Ragna should cultivate them. It would drive her to continue further and prevail in this world. Her eyes screamed out the loss and pain of her loved ones. O how similar these eyes were to his. But in him raged a fire, while Ragna inside was a toxin: primordial greed waiting to lay waste.

“I’ve heard Vaix is visiting historical sites like ruins or places of faith,” said Grendel. “Doing archaeology stuff. They never caused much trouble.”

“If these ruins are anything like the one in the Rising Forest...” Ragna's face grew alarmed.

Vaix could unleash a calamity. Most of these beings, humans called gods, were neither good nor evil. His mother used to say when he had been a child that this made them dangerous.

“If even the slightest possibility exists,” Altera said. “Then, we should at least check it out to ensure that no one gets harmed.”

“That's a bad idea.” Eric folded his arms. “What if they recognize you two? You're trending, remember? We've no clue how many soldiers they have here. Knowing our luck, we might encounter a Paladin. And then we're fucked. Let’s just move on. Utgard’s only a few hours away. What about you?” Eric looked at him and Puck. “You want to reach Heorot, right?”

Shouldn't Eric be excited to explore ruins? Was he afraid?

“A little detour never hurt,” Grendel said, and Puck shrugged.

Yeah, all Puck cared about was the missing prince. To him, the cold war looked like two children trying to deceive the adults. Though even Puck should fear whatever these ruins could potentially unleash.

“If Grendel’s words are true, then the soldiers have been here long before the assassination attempt.” Altera started to pull her hair up to a bun. “These backwater villages have neither internet nor electricity. No one would know what we look like.”

Once she had done her hair, Altera opened her bag and pulled out a black wig and a small case. She put the wig over her bun and opened the case, revealing a pair of blue contact lenses. A few seconds later, Altera’s hair had become black and her eyes blue. No one would bat an eye if she claimed to be Ragna's sister.

“Why the disguise?” Ragna asked

“These places are backwards-thinking. They discriminate against anyone different.” For a second, all joy disappeared from Altera’s face. “The people of this village would drown me as a changeling the moment they see the white hair and the red eyes.

֎

After a ten-minute march, they had reached a wooden road post that told them the place was called Tintagel and had a population of 263. As Altera had predicted, there was no internet available, let alone electricity.

If the world had stagnated since the Great War a thousand years ago, this village’s stasis had lasted for two thousand years.

A watermill at a river that ran nearby and the local inn were the most prominent features. The houses were still made of wood. The well in the village's center and the church – presumably worshiping Twice – were the only stone buildings. No inhabitants were outside. Here, the people had to get up early to get a meal at the end of the day, either working at the mill, plowing the fields, hunting, or protecting the village from local threats.

If he remembered correctly, these parts of Glast were home to many Felinceroces. When it came to local predators, they could have it worse. At least there were no Vice Rabbits around.

“I was wondering.” Altera's eyes observed her surroundings, searching for enemy signs and analyzing the village's structures. “How does this system function? As far as I can see, there is no way to communicate with the capital city. Are the villagers living as autonomous collectives? Like are they living in an anarcho-syndicalist commune where they take turns to act as the executive officer? Those had to be ratified by regular meetings, then.”

“I know some of these words,” said Grendel. She had asked about Avalon's government system. He understood that much. “Usually, it is up to the villagers. Most of the time, the guy with the most power or charisma takes over and becomes mayor. Local circles switch to keep the head from abusing their power. Sometimes they let anarchy waltz. Or they get creative. I once heard of a village promoting this weird system. They call it democracy. That one’s cuckoo, I tell ya.”

“And Avalon’s okay with it?” Altera asked.

“Avalon’s technically not in charge here. The kingdom's way too large for the government to check everything. So, they delegate. In each county, there is a count who owns the land. The villages must pay them to rent a portion of it. The count oversees everything, provides protection and work, and reports back to the central government.”

“And what keeps the count from abusing their power?”

Grendel sneered, and no one said a word. They got what he implied. Some counts acted benevolently towards the villages. But many basked in the light of absolutism. Here, their word was reality. They were time and gravity. Trying to rebel was ignoring the laws of physics. Even if the people got rid of the occasional tyrant, a new one would replace them soon. Either they were already one, or power corrupted a once benevolent being. What they needed was a bringer of justice unleashing the waves of a revolution over the entire continent. And a keeper to rebuild.

“And what now?” Ragna asked.

“Best if we get to the inn. If there is information, we will find it there,” Grendel said.

֎

As the inn was only one in town, the owner hadn’t bothered with a name and painted the word 'Inn' on its façade.

When they entered the building, the wood creaked under their heels, and the aroma of fresh, self-made porter wafted into their noses. Grendel gulped. Saliva was building in his mouth.

Some venison and a good porter would be fantastic.

The room was large enough to host half the village. Beyond that and the surprising cleanliness, there was nothing noteworthy about the inn. Stairs led to a second room, presumably housing beds for travelers, though none were present in the beer hall.

Behind the bar, a burly man, well into his sixties, with a gray lion’s mane of a beard polished mugs. He likely was the inn's owner and had it for generations in his family.

At one of the tables, a group of six Vaixian soldiers played cards and chugged their mugs. They splashed the cards on the table, slammed their drinks, and screamed whenever they thought they had won the round. Looking at their red faces didn’t leave any uncertainty. They had been at the inn for a while.

Though that didn't mean much: According to rumors, Vaix’ss training included performing well even after consuming a six-pack of beer or a bottle of vodka.

The group sat at a table that was near the soldiers. As most villagers were working, the inn was empty.

From the kitchen entered a young woman. Appearance-wise, she was barely an adult.

Maybe? Living with his parents hadn't fostered his sense of people’s ages. The tavern wench had a pretty face. Green eyes, summer freckles, and dirty blond hair she had braided. She was probably the owner’s daughter and the “object” of desire of all the single men in the village who were asking the father for her hand every night. Of course, he refused so that the men would come to the inn the next night to try again and spend their money on drinks. Her low-cut dress only increased that incentive. That’s how it always was in these villages.

With every step, she swung her hip, and her breast started to jiggle. She didn't pronounce it too much so that onlookers could believe that she was unaware of her body.

For some reason, purity seemed something men wanted women to have. But in all likelihood, it was all calculated.

“May I take your order?” she asked in a tone that suggested she had practiced finding the right voice to maintain an aura of seductive innocence.

“What do you suggest?” Grendel smiled.

The girl returned the gesture and opened her mouth. She was about to speak when she started to inspect them further.

“Ehm, if I may ask, are you from the big city?”

That was quite common as well. For the villagers, Avalon had to be a mystical far-away land. As such, stories from the modern city always fascinated the village people. Though it seldom happened that they forwent an opportunity to earn money to learn more.

“I’m from Avalon.”

The girl made big eyes. “Is it true that you have this other world you can go to? You use these computer thingies to go there.”

“You mean the internet?” Ragna asked.

“That’s the name.” The girl tapped her palm with her fist.

“How do you know about computers?” Grendel asked.

The woman raised her head and spoke with all the pride she had. “I ask adventurers from the big city whenever they come here and listen to their stories. I know what computers are and how smartphones, cars, and electricity work. And I think the internet works by connecting these computers and allowing them to transfer these data thingies. That makes some kind of net. Is that right?”

They all nodded in silence.

Was that right? It sounded right. It was better if he didn't say anything. Yeah, that was embarrassing. He was a modern adult. He should know how the internet works. Still, that this girl could get all this stuff, even though she had never left this dumpster. If he were in her place, all he would know was how to play with poo.

“Is it also true that in the big cities, women can marry women?”

They nodded again. Except for Kemet-Raa, all kingdoms allowed gay marriage.

The face of the girl started to glow. Either she believed in equal love for all, or she was queer.

For her happiness, hopefully, it was the former. It wasn’t just the technology that had stagnated in these villages. The city of Avalon counted as the most liberal and open-minded city in Aes, but that changed outside the city borders. Here, they would hang her if she was queer. Now, she was free. But once her old man was about to retire, he would have to accept a suitor. If she was lucky, he would choose someone nice. Letting her choose herself, a miracle. Anything beyond that? Fantasy. A delusion.

“Patricia, the guests are hungry,” the bartender shouted.

Patricia puffed her cheeks. "What do you want to order?”

“What can you recommend?” Altera asked.

“I always recommend the Doomduck breast."

“Then, five of that. Please.”

“And five porters please,” said Grendel.

Patricia nodded and left.

---------------------------------

Vice rabbits - Dangerous cross-breeds between a piranha and a bunny that are native to the forests and plains surrounding the city of Avalon. They possess razor sharp teeth that can tear through metal and are highly agressive. It is unknown how this species came to be. Some believe state that a wizard with too much time and too little sense of self-preservation created them, and once he lost control of them, the rabbits did as rabbits do. Others believe them to be the result of natural evolution in a Mana rich environment. In legends, one particular vice rabbit distinguished itself as a persistent foe of King Arthur and his quests to become ruler of Camelot. Desipte the danger these beasts pose, they are surprisingly weak against hand grenades dunked in water blessed by Twice.

Felinceros - Feline beasts with rough skin and ivory horns on their nose. Despite their agressive behavior and the resulting danger, the people of Glast are hunting them for profit. Heavyily enforced regulations from the kingdom of Avalon have prevented an overhunt.

Doomducks - A species of duck that is know to grow up to 2,5 meters. Despite their ferocious behavior, the people of Glast hunt and breed them for their delicious meat. It's recommanded to serve them with a sweet-sour sauce.

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