I got slammed to the ground, but forced my way back up. The boy in front of me had a falcon on his back, and a sneer across his lips. His next jab came from the left, I noted the fact that it wasn’t his hands moving, it was the air around him. I tried to dodge, but it moved fluidly, some dust getting kicked up in its wake. Again, I was slammed to the ground.
“It seems I got chosen by an Entity,” He smiled triumphantly, “That means beating you up is gonna be ten times easier,”
He was talking about the Familiar on his shoulder, the thing giving him magic.
My legs bent underneath me, as I ran for the other side of the alley as hard as I could. I wasn’t exactly one for pride, at least not when I knew there was nothing I could do. Yet, just as soon as I got to the edge, a border of dust and wind slammed into me. My body collapsed onto the ground, as the boy looked over me.
One swift kick,
Then a third.
The world started to turn into stars, when a man appeared at the end I had been running towards. He looked towards the both of us, before waving the kid away. The boy sneered before running off to the other end of the alley. I almost had a mind to pick myself up and go running after him, but I knew that wouldn’t result in anything good.
“Ugh,” It came out of my mouth before I could shove down the groan of pain.
“Are you alright?” It almost seemed a bit useless, that question.
I rolled around in the dirt, and picked myself up, clutching at one of my knees. When I looked down, I saw the red blooming under the jeans, looking more like a dark stain, steadily spreading downwards.
“I think that would be a no,” I replied resoundingly, “I-I’m just gonna go home,”
“What were ya up to anyway?” The man asked, “Not that it’s any of my business, mind, just a bit curious,”
Stealing an apple from a stall.
“Just...Walking,” I forced the words through gritted teeth.
“Ah, as most youth do, just, walk around with no particular purpose,”
The man was dressed semi-well, or at least he wasn’t wearing the rags I did. He had a staff garnished out of wood, and his hair stood up in clean, untangled locks. I could judge from it that he was at least middle-class, give or take a few extra dollars in his pocket. Yet, with the pain I was in, I doubted I could swipe any of it from him. That, and even if I managed to, that boy would probably come running back for his ‘cut’ of everything that I managed to get.
“Yeah….I’m gonna, get going now,” I managed to get out, limping past the man.
“Oh, well let me help you!” The man said with a smile that I didn’t like the look of.
I gave the man a one-over, thinking hard for a couple of seconds. There were two likely possibilities. The first, was that he had just come from the market, and the second, was that he wanted something else, a thing I was very keen on not giving.
“No,” I said harshly, balancing myself against the wall, “I don’t need help,”
The man’s smile disappeared, and for a moment, I thought he would insist. When the next second left, he gave me a small shrug, and then walked past like nothing had happened. After a moment more of steadying myself, I began the walk back home.
When I made it back, it was dark. The light in the house from the lamps was already out, meaning my parents had likely gone to bed. That, or they had never come home. I walked through the door, to the empty shell of a house. There were three beds in the corner of the main room, one for each of my brother’s; at least one of them had an honest job, though I couldn’t remember which.
The house reeked of the drugs that they sold in the alleys that I used to walk through, and I found my father sleeping on top of the table. My mother at the present moment, was nowhere to be found. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or not.
I collapsed into the thin sheeting of a ‘bed’, that I had in the corner, and curled myself up, hoping desperately that my broken leg would heal itself up, knowing internally that it wouldn’t.
Just before I could close my eyes, I thought I saw something. A shadow gently moved against the wall farthest from me. I stared at it for a long moment, a strange thought passing against my head as it gently emptied.
It looked like a man with flayed arms.
Eventually, my eyes had to open. Eventually, my leg moved just the smallest fraction. A dulling pain forced its way down the back of my throat, and I swallowed. It would cost half of the money I had saved, if I wanted to get a proper healer. Half of the money I had spent three years hiding from my parents. Steadily, carefully, I shifted my weight, and pulled open the floorboard beside my mattress. Neither of my parents could be seen, and the youngest of my brothers was still asleep. One of the other two was brushing his teeth, letting the water drop onto the floorboards below him.
He looked over curiously, as I drew out the bag.
“That time, is it?” He asked.
I shook my head, voice resigned, “I’m probably not gonna get a Book, or a Familiar anyways. No, some bastard broke my leg, and now I have to use half of my money to get a decent Healer to fix it,”
“Damn,” He said, with only the barest hint of sympathy.
He had probably known from the outset that I wouldn’t make it anyways. He hadn’t gotten a familiar, and when Daniel had gotten his, our parents had killed, tried forcing its magic away from him, so that they could make it contract with someone else. As it turned out, overpowering a Familiar with your own, got pretty ugly. Now most of the family didn’t have magic, and Dad’s familiar had ended up fucked after he started taking drugs, its magic somehow ended up corrupting with his mind.
“Do you have a stick or some shit I can use?” I asked, as I tried to stand myself up.
“Sure,” He replied, tossing something across the room.
It was an old poker, used to stoke the flames, back when we had a working fire place. I practiced steadying myself with it for a moment, before I walked towards the door, forcing the sack into one of my pockets.
“Thanks for never telling mom or dad about the money,” I replied, before walking out.
“Wouldn’t have gotten anything out of it anyways,” He shrugged.
I poked my head out onto the street, limping as best as I could towards the nearest Healer I figured to be around. It was a long walk, but, I knew I’d be able to manage if I put my head into it.
When I got there, I handed the man my gold, and sat down against a chair. It was rusty, and had creaked when he’d slammed it against the ground, but it didn’t break underneath my weight. The man in question swivelled around, and placed a hand rudely against my knee. I nearly screamed a curse at the man, but he wasn’t paying attention to that.
I felt the magic physically, as it cracked through my body, tearing open ligaments as it reassorted them. Slowly and painfully, the man put my body back together. When he was done fitting the last piece of bone back into place, I sighed with relief. It seemed that his form of healing magic wasn’t exactly the ‘wash of warm water’ kind of healing magic.
“Thanks,” I said, as I stood up, testing my weight on the newly-healed injury.
The man grunted in response, as he turned back to whatever he’d been doing before. I walked out of the building and onto the street. I was now light half of the money I would need to get into the Archandium.
I blinked away the tears that threatened to roll into my eyes, and walked down the street as fast as I could. Maybe, if I could get to the watchtower in time, I could sign up for a position on the Guard, I heard they were hiring new cadets this season, and the entry fee was notoriously low. It would get me away from the house, and if I was lucky, I would be assigned to the barracks, and wouldn’t ever have to go home.
It was in a daze that I walked through the city, dodging through the morning traffic, and jumping past the stalls (stealing an apple or two on the way), when I finally arrived at the scene. There were ten men in a circle, each with a long line of people behind them. Some of them were mercenaries for hire, trying to sell their services to the Guards, others were Rangers, applying for positions with the archers, some were noblemen and women, with enough money to buy there way in. Fewer, it seemed, were like me, with rags clung against their chest, and matted greasy hair. I studied the lines, trying to see which was the shortest.
The line with the Knights was the shortest, but that wasn’t surprising. The Knights rarely lived for more than a year, with the work that they had to do. They lived most of their lives on the frontlines, forced to fight the battles of the King and Queen, and never truly given any rest. There was also the line, already piled up today, for the Archandium. People were gathered over there, handing over entire sacks of gold to the man and woman. They sat in clothing entirely unlike the others at their stands. The woman held herself in a roble of gold and blue, shining, and interchanging between each color as long as the eyes looked at it, and the man wore a cloak with a thousand pockets, of which he would bring out different objects to bespectacle his steadily growing audience.
I forced myself to look away, and walked over to the stand where the Knight stood. He had a paper with a few names on it, and a steady look upon his face.
If I joined the Knights immediately, I’d never get a place at the Barracks. I’d be sent to the Training Grounds, some far way away from this sector of the city. It meant I’d be stuck there for five months, forced to learn how to use a sword, shoot an arrow from a bow, and thousands of other weapons in a short amount of time. Then, like every other Knight, I’d be forced into the War, left with nothing but a shield and a sword to defend myself. But it was the only thing I could afford, and I didn’t think I’d be able to stand myself if I stayed at home for a moment longer. There was nothing for me here.
“No familiar, eh?” The man said, jarring me from my thoughts.
“What? Oh..No,” I replied.
“You’d be more useful to the effort if you had one,” The Knight replied.
“Y-yeah, I know,”
Users were so often sought for on the battlefield. If one was powerful enough, they could turn the entire tide of the war effort in their hands. A very rare mage ever chose to fight in the war. They were often seen fighting different battles, or learning the complexities of what they were capable of doing.
I gave the man his pay in gold, and signed my name upon the papers, along with my address. Some of the Knights would come to collect me at some point in the coming days. I sighed as I left my signature against the paper, and walked away. The last of the men to sign came after me, as I made my way back towards home.
I didn’t make it home until later that night, as was my current tradition. Slowly, I opened the door, making sure that each of the parents were either gone, or asleep, before making it over to my bed. Once there, I sat myself down, and placed my head against the wall behind my ‘bed’.
A steady gurgling sound emitted from the floor beneath me.
With a start, I opened my eyes, and looked towards the sound. What I found threw my mind into shock. My mouth opened to say something of my fright, and yet, it was as if every bone in my body locked itself up.
I stared towards a steadily expanding pit, with my bed slowly lopping down into it. Before it could fall, however, something began to lift itself up, ripping the floorboards below it into pieces as it did.
The being before me had several amassments of eyes, each staring in different directions, with only one looking at me. Again, I tried to say something, and again I found I couldn’t. The thing, the...The Entity, I corrected myself, shook dead boils off of its body, and then stared towards me, almost, hungrily.
“I,” The single vowel managed to travel out of my mouth.
“Hello,” It gurgled, as its body slowly began melting into a different frame.
When it was done changing, or whatever it had just done, its body resembled that of a Knight, or perhaps a wizened Warlord.
“H-h….” But I couldn’t even bring myself to say anything, fright taking over my entire being.
“I can feel that you are frightened,” It pointed out, as it slowly descended onto the ground, sitting where there had been no ground a moment earlier, “I have taken an intrigue into your existence,” It said, as if that was just something Entities did.
“W-what?” I managed to force the question out this time.
“I have taken an intrigue into your existence, and as such, I propose we play a Game,”
My mind began to process what I had just heard. A Game, with a capital G. If an Entity ever proposed one to play a Game, it meant that if the person won, they were looking at quite a lot of Magic. Meaning, if I managed to win the Game, I could end up a User. But why me?
“Ah, I can see your curiosity. Might I set the rules?”
“W-what is your proposal?” What is the Game?
“It’s simple. If you survive the coming days, I will give you Magic and a Book. If you fail, I get to have your soul in my Plane,”
Well if that wasn’t ominous...No, this entire encounter was ominous.
“C-can I ask why I might not survive?” I begged.
“Ah, but what would be the fun in that?”