I had to stop a couple of times to ask directions to the place Reff was staying, the originally named Everwood Hotel. The Everwood Hotel was way across the city near the Western Gate and its position did make me wonder how he had ended up in the square where they had met, given it was so far out of the way.
It took a couple of hours to cross the city and I stopped to buy some food – I no longer needed it, which was still strange to me – but it smelled and tasted too good to simply go cold turkey. Savouring the strange – but pleasant – flavour as I walked through the strange city I now called home, I took in the sights, taking in the Experience as I moved amongst people of every variation – other than unattractive. There were more and less affluent sections of the city, of that there was no doubt, but nobody had actually seemed poor so far, which was something I was only recently used to seeing that back on Earth. It seemed weird to me that a world that looked almost medieval on the surface could match my original home in so many ways.
Having taken my time with my meal, I finished eating just as, what I assumed to be the hotel, came into view. I looked around for a bin to dispose of my bowl in, but seeing none I slipped it inside a ring to dispose of later.
The hotel itself was a five-story building, and one of the few I had seen made from stone rather than wood. The stone itself was a dark grey that sparkled in the sunlight, reminding me a little of Lucas’s absurdly over-the-top palace, though on a smaller scale – despite being a hotel. The doors led into a small entry way with drains in the slightly angled floor, I assume to allow rain to run off, though I had yet to see it rain here. A second set of doors led into a polished interior, the stone floor inside almost mirror-bright. A person – the receptionist I assumed - stood staring down at me, from behind an elevated counter carved from a rich dark-brown wood. A wide smile sat on their face, below friendly – if watchful – eyes. They wore a subdued green suit that draped strangely at the cuffs and I could see chains of a matching colour wrapped around their forearms, under the sleeves.
“Welcome to the Everwood Hotel. What can I do for you?”
The man’s voice was polite and friendly, and I bowed fractionally.
“I’m looking for Reff... Stonesomething. Sorry, he did tell me, but a lot was going on. You can’t miss him though, he’s huge.”
I was a little embarrassed that I was unable to remember my friend’s last name, but a lot had happened on that day, so I gave myself a pass.
“I will send somebody to speak to Master Stonebinder; whom should I say is calling?”
“My name is Hunter. Ugh, Alex Hunter.”
“Thank you.” The receptionist reached below the counter and rang a bell – the sound seemed to carry much further than anything that could fit under there should have created, but I had seen enough by then to not really question it.
Within a few moments, a young girl in a similar suit to the man appeared from a side-door.
“Elwei, please inform Master Stonebinder that he has a visitor – Master Alex.”
“Hunter! Please tell him it’s Hunter!”
The young girl turned to me, and then back to the man, a questioning look on her face.
“Please inform Master Stonebinder that Hunter is here to see him.”
With a nod – and without a glance in my direction – the girl dashed back through the door.
The receptionist stood smiling down at me as I waited, and it was just becoming awkward when Reff barrelled through another door on the opposite side from the one Elwei had used.
“With gladness, Hunter! You have returned! This is most excellent!”
I grinned and walked over, slapping him on the thigh in greeting.
“Reff, it’s good to see you again. I’m glad that werelion guy didn’t get you.”
“In confusion, the werelion guy? Do you refer to the Foundation stage beast cultivator?”
“That does sound like what I mean, sure.”
“With understanding, I see. Come, we can speak further in my suite.”
Nodding, I followed Reff through the same doors he had entered through, waving awkwardly at the still staring receptionist.
As the doors closed, I spoke in a low voice so it would not carry, “That guy was creepy. Why was he staring? I don’t think he ever blinked.”.
“With appropriate secrecy, he is a guard. He likely has some sort of focus or medicine which precludes the need to blink.”
“People take their jobs really seriously here.”
“In agreement, of course. It is important to have a purpose.”
I just nodded, as we walked through the wide halls and up staircases. Where I came from – Earth – nobody had needed to work in a long time, and the transition – while great for some – had left many feeling purposeless. It has passed, eventually, but for a number of years, there had been a number of neo-Luddite groups causing trouble. They had eventually calmed down once it became evident that they could not turn back the clock, instead turning to complaining on the internet, which I always found ironic. I was glad that I had a purpose – in the tasks from Xiournal – even if I was not super-enthusiastic about the whole, ‘eternal servitude’, thing. At some point, I would need to renegotiate my contract, provided that was even a thing.
Reff and I came to a stop on the third floor and my companion pressed his massive hand against a metal plate on a door labelled, ‘The Carnelian Suite’. There was no click, but the door swung inwards revealing a room decorated in shades of red, going quite well with Reff’s clothing and eyes. It did really highlight his perfect white skin, since it was actually white, rather than just pale, the contrast ended up quite appealing.
Reff gestured for me to sit on a large chair besides a window which overlooked a courtyard, though I had no idea where that courtyard was. I climbed into the chair and sat – the suite had obviously been designed, or at least decorated with Reff’s people in mind. Reff sat opposite me, seeming comfortable in the huge chair.
“With heated irritation, the Foundation beast cultivator was very strong; I am fortunate that he wished to inflict suffering, rather than death.”
“Yeah, Sidona said something similar. He’s the asshole that tortured me, and Sidona and he fought while we were escaping. He really likes torture.”
“With regret, I was unable to exact justice on your behalf. I was able to prevent my own injury as he seemed hesitant to strike lava, however he was physically far superior to me.”
“It’s fine, Reff. I’m sure I’ll meet him again, sometime, and maybe I’ll be strong enough to kick his ass by them. How did he get away though? It couldn’t have taken Walker long to arrive after I, ugh, left?”
“With ambivalence, shortly after you vanished through the hole in the world, another hole opened and he was dragged through by black chains. It was as this hole closed that Walker entered the room.”
I shuddered at the thought that my torturer and the Shadow Faced Guy had been in the Black with me, along with the Devourers. I would not be going back there willingly – at least the parts below the canopy.
“I bet he wasn’t happy.”
“In confirmation, he was not happy. Walker informed me that you had somehow left our world, though at that time the phenomenon clouding his senses prevented him from finding you. I have heard tales of World Walking from my brother, though he has never provided specifics.”
“Well, I’ll ask him about it lat-oh shit, I did it again. Reff, I have the phoenix egg!” I pulled the egg free of the ring and its golden light flared out into the red room, as bright now as it had been after healing Aella.
Reff’s reaction was priceless – his mouth fell open, before forming into a grin as he slapped the nearby table, shattering it completely. He looked down at the table, his smile shifting to a frown, obviously filled with instant regret.
“With regret, I apologise for my excitable nature, Hunter. I have been warned of it before by my brother – as I have mentioned - but my control is still lacking. I offer you my most humble and sincere thanks for the service you have provided to my people.” The giant stood and bowed at the waist, only narrowly missing me with his head.
“Reff, you’re like the least excitable person I’ve ever met, I think you’re fine. And you’re welcome, honestly. I couldn’t just let people die. There is one thing, I sort of have to return it to its parents, so do you mind if I come with you? Back to your home, I mean?”
Reff rose from his bow, his brow twisting in confusion.
“With curiosity, you are required to return the egg?”
“Yeah, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when I tell Walker, if you don’t mind. He said he wanted to ask about it and I’d rather not go over it twice.”
“With surprise, the Apex of the Infinite Blades will be accompanying us?”
“Yeah... Aella too, if that’s okay? She really wants to visit your home, apparently.”
“In dismissal, I have no objection. Having the company will be of great benefit, as I am quite prone to becoming lost...”
“Then how did you make it here?”
“With diffidence, I purchased the assistance of a guide.”
“Well, nothing wrong with that. Hopefully Walker knows the way...”
“Great. Can we leave tomorrow? I need to buy some things. Again.”
“With confirmation, that is fine. We are still likely to arrive back at the Blacksand Citadel before my sister.”
I slipped the egg away again, looking up at my looming friend.
“Why, where’s your sister?”
“With reluctant admiration, my sister is very competitive; when she discovered my mission here, she insisted on being given her own mission. She was tasked with locating, and obtaining the assistance of Sonja Falling Ash, Apex of the Mending Flesh.”
“That title sounds like it has something to do with healing?”
“In confirmation, the Apex of the Mending Flesh is the most accomplished healer in existance.”
“So, you may not even need the egg?” For a moment I felt disappointment, before I dismissed it as stupid. I had been through a lot to get the thing, but regardless of whether everyone was cured when I arrived, I had needed it to save Aella, at the very least. And it may be important to try to save Reff’s people, even if it was proved ultimately unnecessary.
“In dismissal, the Apex of the Mending Flesh has not been seen in many years. It is thought possible that she may have Ascended. My sister is skilled and tenacious, but even so, it is unlikely.”
“Unlikely doesn’t seem quite so unlikely to me, anymore... ”
The two of us sat in silence for a few minutes after that, each of us got lost in our own thoughts. It was this state that brought me to a sudden realisation: I was locked out of the Steel Splinter – I had nowhere to sleep.
“Ugh, Reff... would it be possible for me to sleep here, tonight?”
The rest of the day was occupied by a trip to Ro’s to purchase as many of the water pills as I could – I bought two-hundred, which put a dent in my funds. As I was paying, I did remember the third purse I had looted and checked it, boosting my reserves back up to about 1000 growth coins. I chatted with Tang a little and we agreed to go for a drink when I - hopefully – made it back from the Blacksands.
My Next stop was back at the snooty tailor’s shop – the diminutive man nearly fainted when I showed him the state of my now ruined outfit. He did agree to supply me with a new one, however and an hour later I left wearing an exact copy of my partially eaten clothes. The tailor took the ruined set from me, I assume to hold some sort of funeral for them, given his reaction. My purse was also almost 600 coins lighter as well, putting me almost exactly where I had started, at about 400. I thought that perhaps in the future, I should perhaps consider cheaper clothing...
The little time before I needed to be back at the Hotel was spent taking in more of the city as I walked, doing my best to refine Praxis, as little difference as it seemed to make to my centre. I was really looking forward to asking Walker some questions.
I eventually made it back shortly after nightfall, and Reff and I played a number of games of something between chess and go – all of which I lost - before he retired to his bed, and I went to sleep on his truly massive couch.
I dreamed of being eaten.
The next morning, Reff and I stood outside of the Everwood Hotel in the predawn gloom, waiting for Walker and Aella to join us. We had only slept for a few hours, but I was discovering I needed less and less sleep, and I was starting to wonder what I would do with my time if the trend continued. I had always spent a great deal of time asleep – chronic depression really does a number on your get-up-and-go. Ten hours was about my minimum for most of my life.
We talked of small things while we waited – it turned out the lava I had seen on his hands could cover his entire body, like armour made from molten rock. It was similar to what I did with my lightning – punishing people for attacking me. I had asked him how he managed to avoid the burning, and apparently, he lava never touched him. Both the rock and the heat were held away from his body by some tiny distance, and he just willed the energy in the other direction. I was a little jealous of that, given the issues I had had with my own cultivation, but if I had to guess, I would think he did not create his Focus with lava literally running through him...
My mentor and teacher showed up just as the first light of dawn was cresting the horizon, and after a short greeting, the four of us made out way out of the city, heading west.
“Walker... do you know the way to the Blacksand Citadel? Reff is apparently really bad at directions.”
“Good! I was worried we’d be wondering the wilderness for a little while there.”
“We will most certainly wander the wilderness, as there are no roads between here and there.”
“What? No roads? Why?”
Walker raised one eyebrow above his blindfold, turning his head slightly in my direction. Before he could answer, however, Aella interrupted.
“Why do you think? The forest takes them back. Any attempt at a road through the first is overrun in a day.” I thought back to my first – third? - day, when I had walked into the city. There had been a road, I was sure.
“But I’ve seen a road. Walker and I passed it when we entered the city.”
“That’s not a road, that’s just somewhere for people to queue.”
“Aella is correct, Hunter. It is merely a level place for people to form a line to enter the city.”
“You mean... everyone just makes their way through the wilderness? That... just doesn’t seem efficient.”
“How would you propose it be done, Hunter? To build a permanent road would require the service of many people, working constantly to maintain it. Would you perhaps volunteer for such a duty?”
“Well, no. I guess the plants just... grow slower... where I’m from.”
“I have been meaning to ask you about that. You have mentioned several times that you are from a place unlike this place, and have also spoken of being sent here, as well as provided with tasks.
Nodding, I turned to make sure Reff was listening before I spilled the beans, having promised him the day before.
“Yeah... so, I’m not really from this world. Originally, I mean. I’m from what I guess you guys call the Origin of Souls?”
“Everyone is from the Origin, Hunter. It is the Origin.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, I remember being there. I was brought here, after I... died.”
“In confusion, you passed through the River of Souls and retained your memories?”
“The person that brought me here – her name is Xiournal – said she pulled me from the River.”
“Sounds like nonsense!”
I was half in agreement with my teacher – in her place I was not sure I would believe me.
“This is most strange, Hunter. Please continue.”
“There isn’t a lot more to it. She summoned me, said she needed me to do some things for some gods, and in return I’d get to be alive again, here.” I left out designing my own body, as even to me that still sounded weird.
“Ah, I see. Did she perhaps use the term, ‘Agent’, to describe you?”
My head whipped about to face Walker, my mouth hanging open. The way Walker has said the word, there was definitely something there – something dark and almost... concerned?
“You know about Agents?”
“You are not the first I have met. Though you are the sanest, so far.”
“I’m not? I am? Wait, when was this? She said it had been a long time since the last.”
“This person is very old, the oldest being still living on this world, to my knowledge.”
“How old? Where are they, can I meet them?”
“I am afraid you cannot. They are imprisoned in a place only reachable by an Apex, and have been for the last eleven-thousand years.”
“Eleven thousand years?!”
It was not just me who seemed shocked, both Reff and Aella had skipped a step at the time-frame mentioned.
“How is that possible?”
“He is the Apex of The Multiplicious Self, and the singular cause for the cataclysm which wiped out much of our world’s history. He is the only other Agent I have ever knowingly met. He is also completely insane.”