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As they flew, Aunt Julia peppered him with questions about the loop and his capabilities. Ian figured she was trying to gather as much information as possible so as to improve her Beginning auguries. Where much of what End practitioners saw could only be explained as beyond comprehension, Beginning practitioners were highly dependent on prior observations to make predictions about the future. This allowed them to have greater flexibility in their auguries, though the accuracy of their predictions was typically less than that of End practitioners.

Ian was largely thankful that he’d been forced to describe the loop to Germaine and Aunt Julia already, though explaining it for a third time was tedious.

Actually, it was his fourth time explaining it, right? The first time he’d explained it to Euryphel.

Since they flew above the water from the beginning, the trip went by quickly. After two hours of flying, Ian decided to take them down into the water like he originally planned. The SPU’s coastal defenses were likely nothing to sneeze at, and Ian didn’t want to risk being shot at from afar.

Aunt Julia and Mother, to their credit, didn’t complain as the wyrm delved into the murky, wavy fathoms, pulling them along like a swift current. Ian had the wyrm’s spine crest above the water every thirty-or-so seconds, giving them the chance to breathe, but that was just about the only comfort he allowed them. They proceeded like this for the final hour of the trip, the slow pace of the wyrm morally punishing. When they finally saw the first sign of land on the horizon, Mother almost choked on a mouthful of water in relief.

They made landfall on an empty stretch of rocky shore on the upper edge of the Ho’ostar peninsula, emerging like a trio of drowned rats from the cool water. Ian let the bone wyrm’s components sink into the water, though he collected and placed the soul gems around his wrist, stringing the two obsidian gems on a thread of Death energy. They walked along the sand to a grassy outcrop, their teeth chattering and their clothes weighing heavily on their backs.

“Who knew traveling by bone wyrm would be so exhausting,” Aunt Julia laughed. Her dark hair was sopping wet, coiling into messy ringlets. “Never thought I’d get the chance to ride one before today.”

Mother gave a low chuckle in response. She took off her sodden cardigan, gave it an appraising glance, then turned toward Ian. “I had a feeling this sweater wouldn’t survive the afternoon.” She tossed it to the side with a grunt. Her skirt was also ripped where it had snagged on the wyrm, a large slit extending from her knees to her thigh. She didn’t seem to care, and sashayed confidently onward, leading the group to a copse of trees.

“Where exactly are we?” Mother asked. “My glossY’s ruined, though I doubt we’d be serviced by the distributed network out here.” She sat down and placed her bare feet up on a rock, stretching out her calves. She looked toward Aunt Julia. “Can’t you conduct some kind of augury?”

Aunt Julia narrowed her eyes. “That’s not how it works, Iolana.” She cleared her throat. “Julian, do you know where we are?”

He shrugged. “More or less. If we’re facing the Bay of Ramsay, we need to follow the coast left until we reach the capital, Zukal’iss. From there, we’ll make our way to the Palace of Fortitude.”

“How far do you think we are from the capital now?” Aunt Julia asked.

“Probably at least three or four hundred miles. We should grab a hovergloss at the first town we reach.”

Mother and Aunt Julia shared a look. “Ignatius, none of our glossY’s survived gallivanting across the Bay of Ramsay. How are we supposed to pay for a hovergloss? For food?”

Ian paused. “Huh.”

Aunt Julia smirked, then placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t listen to Iolana: You haven’t changed as much as you think. Just leave it to us, we’ll think of something.”

The first order of business was to dry out. Ian walked off beyond the copse of trees to undress, leaving the women to themselves. He stripped off his clothes and tried fruitlessly to keep sand from sticking to his damp skin.

“How’s it going over there?” Mother called out. Ian heard what sounded like Aunt Julia stifling a laugh.

“Everything’s fine,” he called back. “Why?”

“Just checking in on you.”

“...”

“What were you planning to wear?” Mother asked.

Ian looked around for a source of inspiration. “Leaves,” he said, not missing a beat.

Aunt Julia’s laughter rang out.

Ian blushed. “What are you two planning to wear?” he asked, annoyed.

“I’d be willing to wear leaves,” Mother replied.

Ian rolled his eyes. I think I’ve had the desire to roll my eyes more today than in my entire life, he thought crossly.

“And before you offer to make us all leaf dresses–I can handle such things myself,” Aunt Julia interjected. Now it was Mother’s turn to chuckle.

“Fine, do Mother’s as well while you’re at it. Let me know when I can come over.”

Ian leaned against a tree, letting the wind blow over his skin and through his hair. The shore was peaceful: small insects, rodents, and birds were all he could detect nearby. A few seagulls creened over head.

“We’re done,” Aunt Julia called out.

Ian stretched his arms out in front of him, groaning, his muscles somewhat stiff from the cold. As he walked over, green leaves danced off the trees to cover his skin like a set of lizard scales. The leaves were packed closely together, fitting him snuggly over his legs. He left his torso bare.

As he rounded the copse of trees, he saw that Mother and Aunt Julia were garbed in leafy dresses that cascaded from their shoulders to just above their knees. Aunt Julia no longer looked so bedraggled, her gently-waving hair tied up in a band of cloth likely salvaged from their ruined garments. Mother’s tight bun was still miraculously intact, the aquiline severity of her features paired with the leafy dress gave her the air of a goddess of nature. Aunt Julia, too, looked like some avatar of nature with her tan skin and toned figure.

“Ready to head out?” Ian asked.

“Why don’t you put on a shirt,” Aunt Julia suggested, her lips curling up into a smile.

“Let the boy do what he wants,” Mother said dismissively.

Ian crossed his arms across his chest. “I didn’t expect two older women to be so uncomfortable by my dress, or lack thereof,” he said, deadpanning.

Mother shook her head and started walking leftward down the coast. “Look at you talking back. You’ve definitely changed.”

“This shirt is so scratchy,” Ian complained. After a few minutes of harsh sunlight, he had given in and fashioned himself a shirt of leaves to cover his torso.

“Then take it off,” Mother replied sharply.

The trio had been walking for the past two hours, but hadn’t found any signs of settlement. They carried their clothes with them, waiting for intact pieces to dry out enough to wear. Mother and Aunt Julia had spent the time trying to plan their next moves.

Though the region’s elevation was mostly constant, the landscape was filled with knobby hills, yellow-green grass, and untamed trees grasping at the sky. Ian used decemancy to lift them over a few particularly steep inclines, but most of the way was walkable as long as they watched where they stepped.

“I could just fly us,” Ian muttered, his limbs feeling like lead. He planned to address such physical weakness in the coming days: unlike in the loop, he wasn’t stuck with a body that would reset. Now, he could actually build and keep muscle.

“You could, and risk us all being spotted and detained. Most places like these are no-fly zones without a license,” Aunt Julia replied.

Flight licenses?

“How do you get a license?”

Aunt Julia snorted. “If you plan to serve the SPU, you’ll have one automatically. It just means you won’t set off any alarms if you’re airborne.”

Ian wondered how such a system of energy cross-referencing would work. It reminded him of back in the school loop layer, where a group of guardians was able to identify his energy signature at Sylvestri’s party.

“Fine, no flying.”

“I wouldn’t mind flying again, eventually,” Mother sighed. “How did you teach yourself to fly? The technique seems a bit unorthodox.”

“Rapid iteration,” Ian laughed.

Aunt Julia stepped around a half-buried rock, following behind Mother. “Sounds like something a glossprogger would say.”

“I guess.”

“You haven’t had time to contact your roommate, have you?” Mother posited.

“Not since I’ve woken up; I probably told Xander I was going to Pardin, so he should expect me to be gone.”

“You’re going to need to talk to him about what happened,” Aunt Julia sighed. “You aren’t entertaining any fantasies of completing the school year, are you?”

“No,” Ian snapped. “Obviously not. I can’t go back there like this; I bet I’m a wanted man in Selejo at this point for sending the Eldemari’s son into the bay.”

Aunt Julia recoiled slightly at his response. “Nephew...”

“Apparently, just a day ago, I didn’t even want to do this experiment; and now I’m dropping out of school and fleeing the country. It’s kind of a lot to process, given that this is my actual life: not a dream, not a simulation.”

Mother’s brow furrowed. “This is all nothing compared to what the future holds for you, Ignatius.”

He nodded his head listlessly. “It’s all very exciting, to be sure.”

“But you’re worried things won’t end well, aren’t you?” Aunt Julia stated.

Ian glanced her way as he stepped over an exposed tree root. “I’d imagine you’d both be worried as well, yet both of you seem as unflappable as ever.”

“Worrying is weakness,” Mother muttered. “Rather than worry, plan your next steps, analyze the paths ahead of you and make the choices that lead you where you want to go.”

“And where do I want to go, exactly? The paths you speak of seem innumerable and confounded. What I want isn’t as straightforward as taking down Vanderlich.”

“Quiet down,” Aunt Julia hushed. “I think we’re nearing a settlement.”

“How can you tell?” Ian wondered.

“The animals are acting differently, and some of the trees have been cut down.” Aunt Julia pointed to a cluster of stumps off in the far distance; Ian hadn’t noticed.

The group continued on forward, eventually encountering a dirt road leading over a hill. Upon following the path, they noticed the outline of a walled town in the distance.

“Y’jeni, an actual village,” Mother observed, tilting her head to the side. “Just look at those walls; it’s as though they’re expecting a siege.”

Aunt Julia groaned and stretched out her legs, bending to the side. “I’m positively parched; let’s get changed as best we can, then head down.”

The group separated once more, Ian heading behind several trees, while Aunt Julia surrounded herself and Mother in a curtain of leaves. After Ian and Aunt Julia let their leaves fall to the floor, everyone shimmied into their cold, damp vestments. Ian’s trousers had a hole in the thigh area, so he patched that up with a few brown leaves. Aside from that, his clothes were mostly intact. Aunt Julia and Mother’s garments were mostly fine, with the exception of Mother’s already-discarded cardigan.

Shuddering, they walked up to the town gates, Mother taking point.

“I can’t believe they actually have a guard at the entrance,” Mother murmured. “And the portcullis is lowered, absolutely incredible. It’s like something out of a historical reenactment.”

“It’s a provincial town; they probably don’t get many visitors.”

“Then why keep a guard at the entrance?” Aunt Julia questioned. “Perhaps this town gets more traffic than you think.”

As they reached the gate, Mother took the initiative to approach the guard.

“Hello, sir. What is the name of this settlement?”

Ian whispered, “Mother, they speak Swellish here.” While Selejan people spoke Luxish, the standard across the Ho’ostar peninsula was Swellish. Hailing from eastern Shattradan, Ian and Mother considered Swellish their first language. The three of them had been speaking it throughout the entire trip, so Ian hadn’t thought to remind his mother to speak it to the guard.

“Ah, my mistake. As you can probably tell, we’re travelers. What town is this?”

At this point, the man looked at Mother like she was some kind of exotic insect.

Mother narrowed her eyes. “Don’t you speak Swellish?”

“You’re from Shatterda’,” the man observed, pronouncing the name of our homeland in the local dialectic flavor. “This is Yivyiv, welcome. You three appear...lost, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”

Yivyiv? Ian thought to himself. Haven’t heard of it. He looked to Aunt Julia, wondering if she had anything to say, any questions to ask.

“Do you know if one can buy a glossY here?” Mother asked.

The man pointed behind and to the right past the town’s entrance. “There’s a gloss shop just down the street. You can go in.”

“Many thanks for the help.” She moved forward curtly, her ripped skirt flowing rakishly around her legs.

While the three of them wished for nothing more than to get a good drink of water and a filling meal, they first needed a means of purchasing food and drink. Therefore, their first stop was the gloss shop.

The town had rough cobbled streets and a mix of brick and stucco walls. Like the walled exterior, the town’s interior felt old, as though it had been around for several centuries. It certainly seemed to predate the SPU’s takeover less than a century ago.

Despite the town’s aged look, as the trio looked through windows, they noted that the insides of most buildings were completely modern. The gloss shop was no exception: from outside, they could see aisles of neatly-arrayed gloss products, ranging from glosscomp accessories to fabYs.

They walked into the store, looking every bit as rough as they felt. Mother approached the front desk, a confident smile plastered on her face. “Hello, I’d like to purchase a glossY.”

“What kind?” the woman behind the desk asked, her expression eager, if confused. Ian supposed it made sense: They were undoubtedly from out of town; moreover, they were dressed in uniformly damp, torn attire.

Ian held up a glossY from one of the displays. “This model’s fine.”

Mother gave him a nod, then turned back toward the associate. “I’ll also have to trouble you to transfer my current glossY’s storage.”

“Okay,” the woman replied, coming out from behind the desk.

Fifteen minutes later, Mother was swiping through her new glossY.

“Madam...” the woman said hesitantly, coming forward. “That will be two-hundred auris.”

Mother narrowed her eyes. Ian could tell that she was not pleased by the non-insignificant expense. “Very well.” She held the new glossY up for the woman to scan.

If the associate was surprised that Mother planned to pay for the glossY with said glossY, she didn’t give any such indication.

After leaving the shop, Mother passed the glossY over to Aunt Julia.

“Put in your payment information. It’s ridiculous to assume I’m paying for everything.”

Aunt Julia gave her a smug look, but took the glossY. “I’ll pay, but only if we get new clothes before hopping on a hovergloss.”

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A note from caerulex

Just a note: for anyone interested in becoming a patron today, Patreon will charge you for June and then again tomorrow, on July 1st. The June rate is not prorated. To avoid being double charged I recommend not signing up today! Apologies to anyone who has already become a patron close to the end of the month. The logical way to do things is for Patreon to start charging you monthly on the day that you sign up, but alas, they always charge on the first of the month...I will doubly appreciate people who still join today, though, heh.

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About the author

caerulex

  • USA
  • The Timeless

Bio: Originally from Chicago, I recently graduated from college with a degree in biomedical engineering, and am now working full-time as an AI/ML software engineer. While science/engineering/CS are great, my true loves are reading and writing.
Feel free to PM me in English, my native language; Chinese, or French (which are not my native languages, but I'm comfortable with them after years of study).

Things I love that you can probably reference in comments/PMs: wuxia/xianxia novels, anime, manga, popular MMOs, popular console/PC video games, popular English-language tv shows, kdramas, fantasy/science fiction novels

Fun fact is that I wrote chapters 1 through 101 of Apex Predator, my first web novel, in a text editor (Sublime). No spell checking for me, no sir! Also wrote the first half of The Menocht Loop in Sublime as well.

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