I slept pretty much the whole day, though not deeply - we kept taking breaks, or I would start to slip off Snuffy's back, or I'd need to sneak off to relieve myself. At some point I remembered that I'd been stabbed and had Hugh take a look at my injury - he said if I was going to die from some horrible internal injury I'd probably already be in bad shape, and he also said that the healing goop I'd used was cheap garbage that always left nasty scars regardless of how minor the original injury was. That felt like a fair trade to not bleed out on the side of a mountain.
I also showed Hugh the loot I'd taken from the soul tracker in the hopes he would tell me they were ridiculously powerful magic items, but he said he wasn't sure. It seemed his particular magical skills were useless in identifying that sort of thing. "There is a limit to how many items you can use at once, yes? Your personal pool of mana grows with time and use, like muscles. Even if these are magical I doubt you will have the strength to activate them."
"So wait, am I using mana to power the translator?"
"Maybe a trickle. Even those that are powered in other ways require a certain internal strength, however. Think of it like... if someone had a shirt that was too large, they might need to train and build muscles before it would fit, yes? But that does not mean they are using their muscles to hold the shirt up once they are wearing it."
He also implied he was already all loaded up with magic items, though he wouldn't say what. I kept staring at the gold ring in his nose and wondering, but if it was magic I couldn't tell.
What Hugh did know more about was mushrooms. When we finally got to the point where everything wasn't covered in snow he made frequent trips into the woods to search for any disgusting fungus he could find. He tried to teach me the difference between Bloody Death mushrooms and Wine Drop mushrooms, but even with both right in front of me I couldn't tell what he was talking about. I guess they're both delicious but you can only eat Bloody Death mushrooms once.
He found three other edible types and a few more poisonous ones he wanted to show me - it seemed mushrooms were a pretty common treat in the woods. I hate mushrooms. Still, I'd already had a scare where I thought I was going to be out in the wilderness all by myself with no food and we weren't to civilization yet so I tried to pay attention just in case. When he cooked them up for dinner I tried them and they were better than I had expected although that wasn't exactly saying much - even good mushrooms taste pretty much like the ground to me. I finished off the last of the sausage and more of the bread - we'd peeled open some of the packed meals for lunch and they were okay but seemed like they would keep longer than some of the other food so they were being saved for last.
Snuffy's food was more of a concern since his special bales of feed had been strapped to the side of the wagon when it went over the cliff, but late in the day we came across a field of some sort of squash-like stuff that he absolutely devastated. Hugh was skeptical that they were edible for humans, but seemed to trust that Snuffy would know his own limits.
We camped for the night in a little field at the edge of a drop off, and once the sun was down Hugh pointed out lights in the distance.
"That is Yallowsben. We will reach it tomorrow, and will sell the pack animal for something more suited to the plains. Do you have riding experience?"
"Yeah, I've spent time riding horses." It was part of some foster care outreach thing, therapeutic horse riding or whatever. I never went through a horse phase like a lot of girls, but it was still pretty cool.
"Horses? Are you royalty, that we can spend all of our money on fragile creatures like horses? No. We will be buying moskar."
"That didn't translate. What is a moskar?"
"Moskar are riding mounts. Two legs? Tail? Feathered lizards."
"I don't know that word."
"Oh my god if we're riding dinosaurs I'm going to be so excited."
"You are a very strange woman, Calliope Smith."
I went to bed excited, but when I woke up in the morning I almost immediately started bawling.
The thought process went something like this:
1. Oh man, Snuffy's tongue is hanging out in his sleep. It's purple! He's really cute laying like that, like some big dog. Maybe I should have named him after the dog muppet instead.
2. I'm going to miss him. I can't believe we're selling him today.
3. I've only known him for two days. I know he saved my life but I still shouldn't be feeling so weepy just because...
4. Ah. High empathy day. Man, I hope I don't have to kill anyone today.
5. Jesus Christ. I killed people. Oh, fuck. Fuck. I murdered people the day before yesterday and acted like that was normal.
6. I'm a monster. My mom was right. I stabbed a man to death and shoved someone off a cliff!
And it was just a big ugly spiral from there. I burbled out an explanation when Hugh heard me sobbing, and he patted me on the shoulder and tried to tell me it was fine and that everyone feels a little off after murdering their first few people. Unfortunately as far as I could tell he was repeating a time-honored speech for new military recruits so the focus was less on "you didn't have a choice and they were bad people" and more on "it'll get easier, soon you'll be able to kill people and laugh about it over dinner" which was not remotely reassuring.
When I was still crying into Snuffy's fur at lunch time and refused to eat, he tried a different tactic and told me that there were people that could manipulate memories and emotions and could either remove the offending memories entirely or at least detach them from the emotional part of my brain so that I could think about them without feeling upset. He hadn't gone to one himself, but from his description it sounded like it was mainly used on people with PTSD. I wasn't crazy about the idea of having someone mess around in my head but magical trauma-removal therapy was pretty intriguing.
Imagining a magic user poking around in my brain made me think of Bill for some reason - probably because if he had been given the opportunity to use magic he almost certainly would have used it to do something like therapy or feeding the homeless or whatever. I wasn't as good a person as him, but it did seem like maybe using magic to kill people was a bad idea. If I wasn't going to use magic to harm, and wasn't going to turn into a better person, that seemed like it left two big options: fun and profit. I considered asking Hugh more about how magic worked, but I still felt sad and awkward and tired and so I kept quiet the rest of the way to Yallowsben.
There were farms around the city, kind of. They didn't have fields, just huge towers made of some kind of scaffolding overgrown with plants. Each tower had ten-foot walls around them, though it wasn't clear if that was to keep out people or animals. I asked Hugh what was growing on them but he just laughed and said he wasn't a farmer.
Yallowsben itself was also surrounded by walls, mostly made from huge logs although some sections were stone. It was a patchwork, and looked like they'd expanded the city multiple times in random directions using whatever materials were handy. The architectural style wasn't quite like anything I'd seen but also wasn't particularly alien - multiple levels of roofs that stuck way out reminded me of Japanese buildings a little, but the style of the windows and doors and the general shapes of the buildings didn't mesh with that.
There was a gate, with very bored-looking guards - they weren't in uniform but they had matching polearms and helmets. The helmets were basically metal bowls, but the polearms were more like really fancy-looking axes and nearly eight feet tall. I couldn't picture swinging something that long around in any useful way, it seemed like it would be super awkward. They both stared at me as we walked past but didn't say anything. I had to assume I looked a little strange to them in the same way everyone here looked a little strange to me - the various ethnicities that I was familiar with didn't exist here, and vice versa.
"Do they have a Duminere here?" I knew Hugh had said it wasn't as easy as just walking in and getting magical powers, but I still wanted to see where it happened and - if I was being honest with myself - I imagined that I would somehow find a way to slip inside.
"No, no. There are thought to be only thirty-six of them in the whole world, and we only know of the locations of twenty-nine of them. This place would be a hundred times larger if there were a Duminere. Theramas - the city we are headed towards - has one, although it is located underneath a fortress."
"Okay. Well then is there... a magic item shop, or something?"
"There may be some magic items for sale in the city. Most likely some simple ones, maybe heating devices for those traveling up the mountain. But first, Calliope Smith, you will get a bath. You are covered in dirt and a significant amount of your own blood."
Right, that also might have had something to do with why the guards stared at me.
When we arrived at the inn, I created a bit of a stir and earned a funny look from Hugh because I nearly fell over laughing and couldn't explain why. It wasn't actually funny - maybe 'funny' in the 'odd' meaning of the word, but certainly not in a way that should leave me giggling and barely hanging on to Snuffy's harness as I lean against his side. I may have just been a little punchy from everything.
"Why is the name of the inn amusing to you?"
"It's not... the name isn't funny, not the actual name part." I said while trying to compose myself.
"But I'm sure I heard you mutter 'the name' between bouts of laughter, yes?"
"It's not the specific name, it's... the whole thing. The look of it, and the sign, and - yeah, the name, 'the Hawk and Hen' is just... oh, and look through the window at the bar and that... that inkeeper right out of central casting."
"That last phrase didn't translate well, I think."
"It's just that this is such a total stereotypical inn. It's exactly like all the ones in the games and stories where I'm from."
"Inns are the same everywhere."
"Sure, I guess, but to have this one thing match so exactly on a whole different planet is just so bizarre!"
And then I realized what I'd said. Hugh raised an eyebrow, and began stroking his moustache.
"... metaphorically, I mean?"
He shook his head.
"I... was told not to tell anyone that." I looked around and it didn't seem like anyone was watching - the attention my laughing fit had drawn was fleeting and the street wasn't particularly busy. Hugh glanced around as well, and then leaned closer.
"I wondered. The language, the strange mix of knowledge, the odd clothing. When you say another planet, you don't just mean another plane - an actual different world like this one?"
"Wait, other planes? Is that a thing? There's another plane of existence you can go to?"
"There are thirty-six of them, but you will not change the subject."
"I... okay, we are coming back to that though. Seriously. That's... okay, wow. Anyway yes, another planet. No magic, at all, no air or anything on the moon, but like... mechanical inventions that would blow your mind and that you would assume were magic items. I have one thing here, actually, but it runs on electricity and I don't know how to charge it up here."
He took my phone, and turned it over in his hands. "I can tell this is not from here even without whatever it does with electricity. That means... hmm. Someone with knowledge of fabrics may be able to do the same with your clothing. I am used to seeing strange foreign outfits on visiting dignitaries, and I already knew there was something odd about you. But..." he looked at the phone again before handing it back, "I was going to take you to buy new clothes, and now I think they cannot see the ones you are wearing. So I will leave you here and get you something simple and cheap, and you can wear that to get something better, yes?"
Hugh paid for a room, and headed off to get me some clothes and sell Snuffy - I was still more on the emotional side of the pendulum so I delayed him by hugging Snuffy's leg until he told me that he'd requested a bath be drawn for me and it was getting cold. That got me to go inside immediately. There were two copper tubs in the room, one round and small and one huge oval one that someone was still pouring hot water into when I arrived - they offered to stay and bathe me which creeped me right the fuck out, but they didn't seem surprised or offended when I declined.
I pulled a folding privacy panel thing across in front of the tub in case Hugh returned, and then peeled off my frankly disgusting clothes and used a pitcher to pour some water over myself while standing in the smaller, empty tub. I wasn't sure this was the right procedure but whatever. I scrubbed a little and got about thirty pounds of dirt, blood, and Snuffy sweat off of me before deciding I couldn't wait any longer and stepping into the big bathtub.
I was glad I'd gotten a few layers off before the soaking part, because I didn't want to spend time in a disgusting soup of my own filth. The clean - well, relatively clean - water was almost painfully hot and absolutely amazing, and I could feel knots unwinding from deep in my back. I hadn't bathed properly for at least a week, maybe longer, and I wanted to just lay there and never get out. There was also a strange sensation, as if taking a bath here was somehow washing away my last connection to Earth. I found myself staring at the back of my hand where that stock number had been, though of course it was more symbolic than just losing a scribbled number.
I wasn't in some isolated mountain retreat, the danger of being followed and attacked was past, and I had reached a real city with real hot water. I was going to get new clothes, and I was going to begin to blend in the the people here. I was going to become one of them. This bath, more than anything else so far, was where I felt like a new part of my life was beginning. No, not a new part. A new life entirely.
I fell asleep there in the tub, and had a dream. I'd just gotten out of the bath, or maybe it had been a shower in the dream, and I was wrapped in a fluffy towel. I was younger, I think sixteen, and I was filled with the same cautious optimism that waking me had felt about starting a new life. This dream life involved a nice little bedroom with yellow walls and an old television on the dresser. I was reading Jake Ross and the Sword of Destiny, the nice hardcover one from the boxed set Bill once gave me - now lost somewhere, at a group home I couldn't even remember the name of.
The perspective changed, and I was watching myself through the window. Or, no. Not myself. The person on the bed wrapped in a towel was wearing a mask of my face. It didn't even have proper eye holes, so I wasn't sure how she was reading the book. I pulled out a knife, and began to wedge it under the window to pop it open. How dare she? How dare she take my face?
I woke up gasping and flailing, and splashed a few gallons of water onto the floor. I hadn't been ready for the strange but pleasant dream to turn so suddenly hostile. The water had gotten cool and wasn't so soothing anymore, so I gave everything one last scrub and even fiddled with the latch on my bracelet until I figured out how to remove it and clean underneath. I wrapped myself in the towel - far scratchier than I was used to - and stepped out from around the privacy divider to find some clothes, some odd coins, and a note:
"Be careful. Don't get lost. Don't insult anyone. Be back by second bell" I wasn't sure what second bell was, but I was confident I'd figure it out. I felt just the slightest bit nervous but I'd explored several different cities in my day and as foreign as this place was I was sure I could walk around a little without getting into trouble.