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A note from Faenon

Party for this chapter:

Ryn, Nuthea, Sagar, Elrann

“So where are you from, Elrann?”

They were hiking east through the woods outside of Ast. The plan was to make their way to Sirra, the capital of Imfis, and board a train that would take them to Manolia.

Sagar and Elrann both still had some gold pieces about their persons, so they weren’t in need of coin, and they had found a clear brook a few hours back which they had been able to drink from. But Ryn’s stomach was a tight ball of hunger and his head was light. They needed to find some food soon. He spoke to Elrann to try to take his mind off the hunger. And the intrusive memories. They were worse when he was tired and hungry. Mother, father, hometown.

The purple-haired engineer looked askance at him, as if she was surprised that he had broken his silence and had forgotten that he was there at all.

“Me? I’m from Zerlan, in the Alma Mountains east of Imfis. We’re heading in their general direction, actually.”

Nuthea and Sagar walked about ten paces ahead of them, chatting and bantering about…..something. Ryn couldn’t hear what. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He had fallen behind in his hunger and exhaustion and given up trying to eavesdrop. Another thing he wanted to take his mind off.

“Why’d you leave, then?” Ryn asked Elrann.

“Not much goes on in Zerlan. The Zerlanese’re a peaceful people. They mainly get by with high-altitude farming, and don’t have much care for machinery--except for farming equipment, that is.”

From her smile she seemed to appreciate the conversation--she had clearly been shaken up by the attack on Ast--although Ryn had rarely seen her not smiling.

“How did you learn engineering then, in a place like that?” he asked.

Ahead of them Nuthea laughed at something Sagar said, throwing back her head so that her golden hair glittered for a moment in the sunlight that fell through the leaves, and Ryn tried to ignore the knot of jealousy that formed in his gut.

“Ah, well, I’ve always been into machines,” said Elrann. “At first it was just the farming equipment. I’d tinker with it, open it up to figure out how it worked. Got good at fixing it, too--till I was so good that people would call on me to repair it for them, even though I wasn’t even old enough to work on their farm. Then, one day…” She raised her eyes to Ryn again, like she was deciding whether to keep telling her story or not.

“Go on,” Ryn encouraged.

“Well...one day, when I was twelve, I was out in the rice fields and an Imfisi airship flew over. It was big and beautiful, and it flew so close to the mountain that I could almost touch its underbelly. I saw a skypirate in its viewing bubble, looking out at me, and for a second our eyes even met. Then it was gone. That...that was when I knew I had to take one of those apart to see how it worked. That was when I knew I wanted to be an airship engineer.”

Her eyes had gone distant as she gazed into the memory.

“So what did you do next?”

Elrann blinked as she came back to the present. “What d’ya think? Left Zerland and traveled to Sirra, where we’re trying to get to now, and apprenticed myself to the first airship engineer I could find.” She laughed. “Had to pretend to be a boy at first, so I cut my hair short and wore these baggy overalls. But once they saw what I could do with machines, they usually didn’t have a problem when they found out that I was a girl. Usually.” Her eyes twinkled.

Ryn wondered how someone could leave their homeland behind so easily. I’ve done that, sure, but not by choice. “What did your Mum and Dad have to say about you leaving?”

“Just my Mum at home. We never really got on, so I think she was glad to see the back of me. I reckon she knew whenever I started tinkering with farming machinery that I wasn’t going to stay in Zerlan my whole life. I never knew my Dad, so he didn’t have anything to say about it.”

Her normally ever-present smile dropped again, just for a second, and Ryn figured he should ask about something else.

“So you trained as an engineer in Sirra? Then what did you do?”

“I’ll tell you what I did. I got so good with airship engines I started getting regular work on ‘em. Even got myself a few on-board-engineer contracts on some Imfisi privateer vessels. I’ve been on a few sky voyages in my time, I can tell you.” She took her pistol out from inside her overall as she walked. “That’s how I picked up this beauty. Got her in Farr.”

Her gaze had gone away again--but then it returned to Ryn and she stashed the pistol away. “I needed a little break from the pirating, though, and the word was that good engineers were needed down in Ast, so I traveled down and set up shop there for a while. Made an arrangement with an airfield owner, Roldo, where he would send me work when it was needed. Then all...this happened.” She waved her hand at the world in general, and coughed. “Anyways, we’ve been talking about me a lot. What about you, ‘pup’?” She slapped Ryn hard on the back, and he coughed too. She was much stronger than he had expected. “Does everyone call you that?”

“No, just Sagar…” said Ryn, and ground his teeth. Up ahead, Nuthea and the pirate captain were laughing again. Nuthea put her hand on Sagar’s arm to steady herself as she laughed. “Just ‘Ryn’ is fine.”

“Well what about you then, Ryn? Princess-girl told me your village was hiding this ‘fire ruby’ thing when it got attacked.” She stopped walking for a moment, and her smile dropped again. “Ah. Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” said Ryn. It was true, after all. That was what had happened. And it wasn’t like she had brought it to mind insensitively. It never really left his mind at all--waking or sleeping--anyway. Mother, father, hometown.

Elrann resumed walking and put her smile back on. “How did your town end up with it, then?”

“Er…” said Ryn. “I don’t...I don’t actually know…”

“Ah.” Elrann raised a purple eyebrow. Either she dyed them it she had a very unusual natural hair colour. “But you touched it, right? That’s how you could do that crazy fire trick you did last night in the Traveller’s Rest...?

“Yeah, that’s right.” Ryn rubbed his arm.

“That was pretty impressive.”

“...thanks.”

Ryn’s gaze fell on the form of Nuthea walking in front of them again. Her hair was a golden waterfall that cascaded down her back. Ryn wondered if she had found it ‘impressive’.

Probably not, he thought. After all, she and Sagar have elemental projection powers themselves. And they’re more skilled at them than me.

A black figure ran into Nuthea and drew something across her stomach. She cried out and buckled at the knees.

Ryn’s spine went cold and he stared open-mouthed at her prone body.

The black figure sliced its blade across Sagar, who dropped too.

It sprinted towards Ryn and Elrann.

The black figure was running towards him, a sword flashing in its hand, Ryn found he could not move. He was just watching it happen, like he was in a dream.

A small bang sounded next to Ryn. Elrann had fired her pistol.

But the figure jumped out of the way of the shot, leaping impossibly high, above their heads, twisted and span through the air before landing in a crouch next to Elrann.

The figure swept its leg around in a circle along the ground, knocking Elrann’s legs out from underneath her. She hit the ground on her back with a grunt, and the figure kicked the pistol out of her hand as it stood up, sending the weapon spinning away into the forest, then put one of its feet on Elrann’s neck and began to lean its weight onto her.

Ryn watched all of this happen with barely a moment to take it all in, let alone react.

He had frozen completely, utterly still, in shock.

Mother. Father. Hometown. Nuthea. Sagar. Elrann. It was happening again. Again.

The figure was dressed all in black. Most likely a man, from the shape of him, he had black shoes that turned up a little at the toes, black pantaloons, a black doublet, black gloves, a black hood, and a black head-scarf that hid most of his face. The only visible parts of his face were his eyes, the dark brown skin that surrounded them, and the top of the bridge of his nose that showed through a horizontal gap in his head-covering. The man’s eyes were grey and from the inward bend of his eyebrows he was scowling.

“Who are you?” said the man in black, in what was definitely a man’s deep, sarcastic voice. “You weren’t on the poster either. Do I get a bounty for collecting you too?”

Elrann sputtered and flailed her hands around from underneath the man’s foot, pawing at his leg and trying to pull it from off her neck, but he didn’t budge an inch. She was choking.

Finally Ryn’s spine thawed and he remembered what he could do.

“Aaargh!” he shouted, and thrust out his hand, propelling a ball of fire through the air towards the man.

The man’s eyes stretched wide and he ducked in time for the fireball to pass over his head. He sprang away from Elrann and ran off into the undergrowth. He was so fast!

Elrann clutched her throat and rolled over to cough violently on the ground. But at least she was breathing. At least she was alive.

“Nuthea!” Ryn cried out involuntarily.

He pelted forwards to where she lay.

“Oh sure, check the princess is safe,” said Sagar, clutching his arm, which was bleeding heavily down the sleeve of his jacket. “I’m fine, by the way.”

“Shut up, Sagar!” Ryn knelt next to Nuthea. She was flat on her back and her eyes were shut. “She’s unconscious!” Blood leaked from her abdomen, staining her white dress a deep crimson, puddling around her on the grass. She couldn’t be dead. Mother. Father. Hometown. “Help! What do we do?!”

You shut up, pup!” yelled Sagar. “What we do is ready ourselves in case that bastard bounty hunter comes back around for another try at us! We’re no use to the princess if we’re dead! Get up!”

Sagar grabbed him by the arm and wrenched him up roughly. Then he drew one of his swords and shoved the hilt into Ryn’s hand.

“Wh-what’s this for?” Ryn didn’t want to take his attention away from Nuthea, but the moment demanded it.

“What do you think it’s for?” Sagar growled, stepping away and scanning the trees, his own remaining weapon up and ready.

“But I can’t fight!”

“Learn. Fast.” The pirate’s eyes darted over to Ryn, then doubled in size as the glint of a blade reflected in them. “Look out!”

Ryn dived to one side on reflex as a black shape moved past him. Steel rang against steel--once, twice, thrice, in quick succession--as the shape and Sagar traded parries, and then the man in black was away into the forest again.

“Damn him,” Sagar panted, “he’s quick! Too quick! Get back to back with me, pup!”

Ryn maneuvered himself so he stood with Sagar’s back to his and held his sword up again, trying not to tremble. Somewhere off to the side Elrann was still coughing. Nuthea was still not moving.

“This way we can look out for him in all directions,” said Sagar pressed up behind him. Was Sagar shaking too? “Shout if you see him!”

A twig snapped. But not on the ground.

Ryn jerked his head up.

“Above!” he shouted.

The man in black fell from the canopy above. Ryn got his sword up just in time to avoid being cleaved in two, but the vibration that rippled through his arms as he blocked the blow made them quiver with pain and he nearly dropped his blade. As the man landed his elbow snapped out and caught Ryn a swift strike to the stomach, knocking him winded to the ground.

Ryn got his head up to see the man whirl on Sagar and lock blades, then twist their weapons around in a circle of sliding steel before he flicked his arm out in a sudden, vicious motion and sent Sagar’s sword spinning away through the air. It hit a tree with a clang and then landed uselessly on the ground.

The man held his swordpoint to Sagar’s throat, who held up his good arm and inhaled deeply, eyeing the blade.

“There’s a bigger bounty for bringing you in alive,” came the man’s lilting, oddly quiet tones. “But I am happy to settle for dead. Or maimed.”

Sagar gulped.

BLAM!

The man in black hit the forest floor.

Ryn turned to see what had happened.

Elrann was up again, wheezing, her jaw set in a look of cold fury, smoke twisting up from the barrel of her pistol.

“Stupid kufer,” Elrann swore. “Should have finished me off while he had the chance.”

“Give me that!” said Sagar, running over to Ryn and holding out his hand. Ryn handed over his sword.

“Aargh!” cried the man in black.

He lay on the grass gripping his shoulder, which had become a mess of red at the tip. Elrann’s shot had only grazed it, but that had been enough to incapacitate him.

Sagar stood over him and raised his sword, point down, ready to impale. “Filthy bounty-hunter scum,” he said.

The man in black opened his eyes and looked at Ryn again. For a moment the world slowed. His eyes were indeed grey, but there were many shades in them. There was darkness there, to be sure, but also some light. They stretched wide and bright, and Ryn fancied he could see tears pooling at the bottom of them too. It was a look of terror and desperation and regret all at once that shone through though the man’s eyes. And there was...there was fire in it too. In that instant Ryn knew this man had seen things that he had never wanted to see too. They shared something in common.

Wait!” Ryn cried.

Sagar stopped, sword still held in the air, and snapped his head round.

“What is it, pup?”

“Don’t kill him,” said Ryn, not entirely sure why he was saying it. “He… he might be able to give us information. He might be able to tell us why there’s a reward for finding us.”

“What’s come over you, pup?” said Sagar, his face twisting up in confusion. “We know why we’re being hunted. This piece of scum just tried to kill us, and he nearly did a good job of it too.”

“Boy’s got a point though,” said Elrann. “I didn’t shoot to kill him after all. Otherwise he’d be dead already. We could get some useful information from this bounty hunter.”

Sagar looked dumbstruck at her, but his expression said “You too?!”

“I’ve got some rope in my kit bag,” said Elrann. “I can tie him up.”

Sagar put down his sword and rubbed his temples, shaking his head like he was witnessing the words of a pair of imbeciles.

The engineer ran over to the writhing man in black and set about tying his arms behind his back.

“Stop wriggling!” Elrann had to say after a moment, and punched the man in black in the face. He called out in pain again but complied more easily after that.

Sagar sighed and went over to help tie him up.

The threat to their lives taken care of, Ryn suddenly had the sense that there was something important from which he had temporarily been distracted...

What was I...

“Nuthea!” he shouted and rushed back to her side.

He knelt next to her on the grass again and put his ear to her mouth. He heard a little rush of air, and his ear got slightly colder.

“She’s still breathing!” he called to the world in general. “She’s bleeding heavily, but she’s still breathing!”

Sagar came over. “Bandage her up and get pressure on the cut!” he barked at Ryn. “Haven’t you ever had to treat a battle wound before?”

“No!”

“Right. Of course you haven’t. Bloody farm boy.”

Following Sagar’s instructions with trembling hands, Ryn helped the pirate tear off a strip from the hem of Nuthea’s dress, wrap it around her abdomen and pull it into a tight knot. The strip had been clean, save for some mud and dirt from their escape from Ast, but it quickly turned red.

“She needs help!” said Ryn desperately. “She needs to see a healer!”

“You think I don’t see that, pup?” Sagar sounded almost as distressed as Ryn felt. “Rrr. You’re right, godsdammit. We’ve got to get her help, and soon.”

The pirate strode back over to the man in black, who now lay on the grass with his hands tied behind his back and his eyes scrunched up, whimpering intermittently. Elrann had done a good job of securing him.

“You!” Sagar shouted down at him. “Scum-sucking bounty hunter! Where can we find the nearest healer? Where’s the nearest settlement? Tell me!

Sagar kicked the man hard in the ribs, eliciting a grunt.

The man opened his eyes and glared up at the pirate. He looked to be snarling, though Ryn couldn’t completely tell because of the face covering.

“Why should I tell you, you Imfisi freeloader?”

Sagar kicked him again, even harder, and the man doubled up and went over on his side.

“Tell me! Tell me or I’ll kick your stomach out your backside!”

The pirate reached down and flipped the man onto his back again, then pulled the man’s face covering off in both directions, revealing his mouth and forehead. His skin was dark, but around his mouth it had been stained properly black. Jet black. In blotches. Like he had been eating lots of some kind of soft, black fruit.

“Tell me or I kill you!” yelled Sagar. “And I won’t let my clients talk me out of it this time!

The man hacked up, then spat in Sagar’s face. Ryn remembered Nuthea doing the same thing not so long ago on Sagar’s ship. I’ve got to save her. Mother. Father. Hometown.

Sagar wiped the saliva from his cheeks, which in turn had turned the colour of beetroot. Ryn could tell he was angry, but for once he didn’t growl or curse.

“Ah, so I see you’re a poppy addict,” Sagar said slowly, sadistically. “I know the way to your heart.” He grinned wolfishly. “Tell us where the nearest healer is to be found, you sack of shit, and I will buy you some poppy.”

The man said nothing at first, his stained mouth a tight line, but then the line wobbled, and then it split. “W...will you?” he said, almost like a pleading child.

“It’s the best chance of a hit you’ve got right now,” said Sagar. Ryn didn’t know what they were talking about but he intuited it had something to do with the black colouring around the man’s mouth.

“N-Nonts,” said the man, lips trembling. “Nonts. That’s the nearest town. You want to go to Nonts to find a healer. Now about this poppy-seed…”

“Nonts.” Sagar licked his lips. “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Alright, you’ll take us to Nonts.”

“About this poppy seed…” said the man. “How much will you give me? How much will you be able to buy?”

“Oh, about a pound’s worth,” said Sagar, and the man shivered where he lay with what seemed to be excitement. “Now tell me quickly, how do we get to Nonts? Which way? Tell me!”

“You were heading that direction anyway,” said the man. “It’s just an hour or so’s walk South-East through the forest and then over the Pescari fields. I can show you the way if you want. You can buy me the poppy there.”

“And they have a healer?”

“Yes, I believe so. Why do you want to know? They also have a poppy-dealer if you know where to look. I can tell you wh--”

“Pup, help me with the princess!” Sagar cut him off. “Girl, you get scumsucker here up and walk behind to make sure he doesn’t run off.”

“Hey I don’t take orders from anyone,” Elrann said, “especially if they keep calling me ‘girl’.” But she moved to do what Sagar said all the same, hoisting the man up onto his feet as she grabbed him by the arm. “You’re so insecure you’ve gotta have a nickname for everyone, don’t ya? Well, I’ve got my own nickname for you…”

Sagar either didn’t hear or, more likely, ignored her. Ryn and he picked Nuthea up under Sagar’s direction, Ryn holding her around the ankles, one in each hand, and Sagar with one hand hooked under each of her arms, walking backwards. She was surprisingly heavy. Maybe it was the gold she wore. Maybe she carried more gold about her person. They began to move like that, making slow progress, with Elrann walking a little behind with her pistol held to the back of the man in black, who told them which way to go.

They walked through the forest painfully slowly. Ryn looked down at Nuthea and his throat tightened. Her skin had turned white as milk. The makeshift bandage they had made for her stomach was soaked through now, and blood had began to drip onto the grass.

“Is there any way we can do this faster?” Ryn said.

“You’ll never get her there in time like this,” said the man in black maliciously. “I gave her a good deep cut--not deep enough to kill her at once, but she’ll bleed out in an hour or two. My blade is also coated in ajanga--poison--so you really need to get her to a healer as soon as you can, and you better hope they’re a good one. If you want to get to Nonts to buy me my poppy-seed faster, you’d be better off taking my chocobo.”

“WHAT?!” Sagar shouted, and almost dropped Nuthea. He lowered her to the ground with Ryn, than strode over to the man and smacked him round the head.

“Ouch! That was for what?”

“You had a chocobo the whole time and you didn’t tell us?! Where is it?!”

The man nodded in a completely different direction to the one they were walking in. “She’s tied up a few hundred paces that way. I rode her till I found your trail, then dismounted and crept up on you.”

Sagar roared with irritation, then ran off in the direction the man had indicated.

Poison? thought Ryn, looking at Nuthea’s pale face again. I’ve got to help her. Hold on, Nuthea! Please don’t die!

Sagar returned a few moments later seated atop a large, yellow bird that walked on two feet and had an intelligent head at the end of a long neck, a bit like a cross between an ostrich and canary--a chocobo. Ryn knew them from his home farm on Cleasor. He had spent many a happy seventhday riding and racing them with his friends in the land round his town. But that was a very distant memory now.

“Help me get her on its back, pup,” Sagar snapped as he jumped down. Together they lifted Nuthea’s unconscious body as carefully as they could and laid it across the back of the chocobo, which cawed and lowered its head obligingly. They were tame, friendly creatures, mercifully.

Once she was on, Sagar swung himself back up and mounted the animal, sitting behind Nuthea and clasping the reins that ran to its beak. It didn’t have a saddle--chocobos didn’t need them.

“Which way to Nonts, scumsucker?” Sagar demanded of the man in black. “Tell me now and you’ll get your poppy-seed quicker.”

At the mention of poppy-seed, the bounty hunter’s hand shot out and pointed in a particular direction through the trees.

“That way. A short ride.”

Sagar wheeled the chocobo around to address Ryn and Elrann. “Make your way to Nonts by foot. Bring the scumsucker if you must. I’ll get the princess to a healer and meet up with you there. Got it?”

Ryn looked up at the skypirate. He cut quite a figure atop his golden mount, proud and erect, his piratical ponytail flicking out behind him, his exposed eye shining, and with Nuthea draped in front of him like some distressed damsel he was heroically rescuing.

There was just one thing wrong with the picture.

“Hang on,” Ryn said, “this ‘bounty hunter’ was clearly after you and Nuthea, but he didn’t know who I was. If people are hunting for you in Nonts, it’s clearly safer if I take Nuthea to the healer.” He was surprised at his own boldness. But Nuthea’s plight demanded it of him.

“Be quiet, pup,” Sagar said like Ryn was an irritating child. “I’ll steal in quickly and go straight to the healer’s house. Nobody else will even know I’m there. I’ll see you in Nonts.”

He turned the chocobo to leave, but Ryn wasn’t convinced. Without thinking about it any further, he rushed forwards, grabbed Sagar’s boot, and yanked him as hard he could off of the chocobo.

“Hey!” Sagar was taken completely unawares and slid from his seat in a single movement, crashing to the ground on his backside.

He shouted other things, vile and obscene things, but Ryn was barely listening. He was pulling himself up next to Nuthea on the chocobo.

And then he was riding as fast as he could in the direction that the bounty hunter had pointed, to try to find her a healer and save her life.

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About the author

Faenon

Bio: Hi, I’m Faenon, from Oxford, UK.

I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve even been lucky enough to complete a paid creative writing course and get some short stories published (PM me if you are interested in reading them as it involves telling you my real name).

I’ve written four novels so far but haven’t been able to get any of them house-published--though I came close to getting an agent with one.

So although I’m going to keep trying, I’m also getting fed up with the traditional publishing industry.

That’s where the internet comes in!

I’m going to be posting my novels online one by one, anonymously, in the order I wrote them. And then I'll start posting my latest project as I write it.

If you enjoy my novels, please support me on patreon to get chapters ahead of time and access to early drafts, and then I can devote more time to writing!

(I have a wife, a kid, and a non-writing job.)

One more note. I've studied Theology and Philosophy to postgraduate level, and you may see these things turning up in my stories sometimes. You have been warned.

To support my writing and get access to early chapters go to https://www.patreon.com/faenon

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