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Ava saw the lights of the higher town of Siebtel slowly growing closer, the warm welcoming hue of their combined luminescence, a beacon of sanctuary in the night. The great stone pillars on which the different sections of the town were constructed on top of, fading down into the rocky outcrop of the abyss, from which they jutted out from. The steady trot of the ren following the familiar path rang out with every stride the creature took through the dark. With a constant pace they rose up and around the spiral path, until they reached the end, where the road broke off into nothingness, stopping abruptly before the chasm. The large stone bridge extending out to the side.


Slowing its pace further now the ren came to a steady walking rhythm before stopping completely after crossing the first few meters of the bridge. The two guardsmen approached, their heavy shields held at their sides as they walked forward with measured steps. The smaller of the two, a woman with short red hair, looked at the woman climbing off of the ren, which had lowered itself down to the ground.


“Hello. What is your business in Siebtel?”


Ava looked to the guardswoman as she stepped down onto the stone of the bridge. She had prepared for this moment. “Hello, I’m just passing through on my way up to Viertel to visit my nephew,” she said to the woman with a smile and a nod.


The guardswoman looked her up and down suspiciously before sparing a glance over to her partner. “Those are strange clothes to be traveling in. Especially on a young ren. I wasn’t aware house servants earned that well.” Ava froze for a split second, she couldn’t stop here. If she told them the truth they would detain her until it could be checked out and even then, who knew.


Ava curtsied, grabbing the sides of her servants' dress with a slight bow. “Ah, the ren belongs to my lord Magistrate Brennen. He has most generously allowed me to take leave, to visit my nephew before he is sent up to enroll in the Erstel academy.” Ava made the best happy expression she could manage on the fly. The large ren still sitting on the ground behind them all, made several twitching movements with its head, turning from one eye to the other, to observe the scene unfolding before it.


The two guards looked at each other once more “That is very kind of him,” said the other guard.


“Yes. He is a kind man.”


“I see,” answered the man.


The guardswoman interrupted “What happened to your eye?”


The servant girl froze “My eye? Oh this?” she pointed to the large black ring around it. “On the way here I struck my face against a low hanging branch on the path” she laughed, waving it off. The heavy shield made a loud ‘clank’ as it smashed against the stone bridge. Ava lurched forward, as the woman grabbed her arm.


“It’s best you come with us.”


“Huh?!” spouted out Ava.


“What do you mean, Linda?” asked the other guardsman, wiping a streak of blond hair from his forehead.


“Are you stupid Botulf? This bruise is clearly several days old.”


Ava stammered. “T-the road to Siebtel is long.”


“It isn’t on a ren,” snapped the woman back to her. The sentence pierced through Ava like an arrow as she heard it, realizing her foolish mistake.


“Botulf, get the Ren, we’re taking them to the tower.”


The man sighed in annoyance hoisting his heavy shield back up. “Yes ma’am.”


“Wait! This is a misunderstanding!” protested the servant girl trying to pull her arm back from the woman's ironclad grasp.
“Then we can sort it out inside. Come on. Don’t make me have to use force.”


A pounding ran through Ava’s chest, her heart beating faster and faster; striking harder with every successive beat as the woman pulled her along the bridge into the direction of the town.


Botulf stood in front of the ren. “Hey there fella, how are you?” It looked at the friendly man with some curiosity, snapping its head up and around to closely observe him. “We have to go into town to figure some stuff out. Will you come with me please?” asked the man with a genuine smile, as he looked at the large bird before him releasing a series of excited and curious clicks and hisses from its large beak.


The ren rose to its feet slowly looking to the man and then back to Ava who was being led away. Ava’s mind was racing, if she was trapped here, she would die if the dead came. She did seal the path and she knew that it had slowed the dead the last time this had happened. But the facts that it had happened again, or that the sights of the fires and mutilation were still playing out behind her eyes, brought little ease to her screaming mind. It wasn’t safe here. The dead would come. If she was here, she would die. She knew it.


Time slowed for a moment as Ava looked back to the ren staring at her questioningly. The blond haired guardsman feeling her glance in his direction, staring back her way. As Ava reached into her apron pocket with her free hand he lurched forward, shouting out some vague warning to his colleague, who turned too slowly to stop her. With an arc of her arm, Ava swung the little bell through the air, ringing it several times in that single motion. Botulf only had a split second to turn around and feel the massive force of the animal's powerful leg press against his chest with a violent kick. A loud strike of a gong, as the foot struck his blue metal breastplate. He felt his feet leave the ground, as he soared to the side, plummeting off of the bridge, into the waiting maw of the abyss below. As he fell, all he could think of was how light his heavy shield felt all of the sudden.


“BOTUL-!” screamed the guardswoman, throwing Ava to the side as she began her motions to run forward. The ren sprinted at full speed towards them, slamming into the guardswoman with its side, sending her flying down the bridge, tumbling several times over her armor and shield, her limbs cracking in unnatural directions from the sheer brute force of the momentum and the armor locking her joints. Lowering itself down in a sweeping motion, the ren released a series of excited clicks and hisses, bobbing its head from side to side in seconds, as it looked at the servant girl. Not needing any further hints, Ava swung herself over the creature's body and planted herself on its back, sliding her legs beneath its short wings.


She barely had a chance to hold on, as it sprinted down the rest of the bridge, past the crippled guardswoman still laying in an awkward angle against a short stone wall and further past the now screaming and panicking crowd of people who had been watching the scene unfold. Unhindered by them, it bobbed and weaved its way through the streets that it already knew in a flash, continuing with lightning speed up the road and towards the next bridge, leading up to the way out. In under a minute all of this had transpired. Ava’s thoughts raced in a frenzy. She wasn’t going to die down here.

 


 

Deryk looked over to the girl, as the evening's work began to slowly die out. “Good work today.”


“Thank you!” beamed Esper back to the strange floating man, always happy to be praised. “There was a lot today, but it went by quickly!”


“Hmm, yes. I suppose it did.” The man floated around the kitchen, slowly starting to put everything back where it belonged.


“How come you put the stuff back?”


“Hmm?”


“You’re going to use that all tomorrow, so why don’t you just leave it out?”


“It’s important to have a clean room.”


“Haah?”


“Well-” started the man, shrugging, the shoulders of his dark purple robe rising, “- it’s important.”


Esper cocked her head, turning away from the basin now behind her. “I don’t get it.”


Deryk continued floating around, restocking the shelves with the spices and ingredients he hadn’t used up that day. “You have to bury the dead.”


“Haah?” her eyes go wide.


“If people die, they rot right?”


Esper interjected. “Or they turn into night-people.”


Deryk looked at her somewhat uneasily. “Yes, they did at one point turn into the risen.” Esper chose not to correct his past tense, wanting the man to continue his explanation.


“Anyways-,” he went on still moving about “-If you don’t bury the dead. Their corpses will become a problem for us. It is of course also a matter of respect. In the same manner, if you don’t keep your environment clean it will begin to rot and mold, and then take a form of its own.” He floated over, placing his bloody cleaver in the water next to her. “A person is far more influenced by the place they find themselves inside of, day in and day out, than many would like to admit. A wretched home breeds wretched souls.”


Bending downward sideways once more in an unnaturally straight angle, with only his upper body, his head doing so as well to meet the girl’s gaze he went on just before her face. “So take care of where you live. Because it is the mold that will shape who you are.”


Esper looked at him, not quite sure she understood, but responded with a simple “Okay.”


Satisfied with the answer, the ghostly man straightened himself upright and returned to his work. Esper turned back to the sink and looked down into the water. A thin, wispy string of red blood mixing in the wat was still running down the drain from the cleaver. Spinning in an ever shrinking crimson spiral as it sank deeper and deeper into the abyss.


The voices from outside the window were steadily growing fewer and fewer. One face after the other began to slowly head out, taking their laughter and merriment with them into the night, leaving the day-glow warm atmosphere of a happy tavern behind, as if their laughter and smiles had somehow added themselves into the room; making the orange hue of the dancing flames seem to grow ever so slightly brighter. The thought made Esper smile and she realized that she thought she understood the explanation after all.


Keeping that smile, she reached into the water and rinsed off the cleaver carefully, before setting it on the side and watching as it seemingly moved on its own, down the stone counter and around to the right. Looking to the window, she checked if there were any more dishes coming, but they seemed to have reached their end. The sound of bottles clinking and shifting wood came from through the window where Aline was cleaning up the bar. Seeing that Esper was finished, Deryk came over and deactivated the sigil.


“Would you like to eat something?”


“Yes please!” smiled the girl back to him. Happy with the answer, Deryk returned back to the pots and began pouring out more of the stew into a freshly washed bowl as he had the day before. “Aline says you will be staying the rest of the month?”


“Mm! Washing dishes takes a lot longer than burying the dead. But it goes by fast. And I like the food a lot!”
“Is that so?” chuckled the floating man, stirring the large pot. Esper went towards the stone table, limping as she went.
“You really should rest your leg, it won’t heal properly if you don’t keep off of it.”


“Haah? But it doesn’t hurt that much anymore and I want to see more places and people in the town.”


“A month is a long time. If you take a few days of bed rest, still working in the evening of course, you should be better quickly enough.” Esper fidgeted uncomfortably, not too thrilled by the suggestion, as she sat down on a wooden stool near the table. Deryk came back and set the bowl down in front of her, together with a small rough metal spoon, before returning to prepare the other two meals.


Esper looked down at the steaming food before her, the rich savory smells of the thick brown stew filled with vegetables and roots, wafting up to meet her, rekindling the hunger in her body as it entered her nose. Picking up the spoon she began to eat the hot dinner before her, her body relishing getting such a decedent meal again and so soon. These past few days she had eaten so much more than she had had the opportunity to do before back in her old home. There were so many new flavors and textures and smells to experience and the excitement of that filled her with joy. Her good mood and her pace of eating was not even slowed by the painful burning on her tongue from the stew that was much too hot.


Aline came in around the corner, her hair somewhat unkempt and her expression tired. Deryk turned to her. “Good work today.”


“Yeah,” grumbled Aline, waving him off before sitting down at the table. She folded her arms on its surface and sank her head down into them, burying her face down on top of them.


“Hou looch khired,” said Esper, her mouth too full to enunciate properly. Aline didn’t respond, simply raising one of her hands into the air, her elbow not leaving the table, before letting it fall back down into place, her hand slapping the stone beneath her in a gesture of exhaustion.


Deryk came back, placing one of the bowls down before the woman. “Were they that rowdy today?” he asked curiously.


Aline just answered with a groaning “Uuugh.”


Deryk looked over to Esper, holding her almost half empty bowl. “If you eat too fast, you’ll get sick.”


“Mm!” said Esper shoveling another spoonful into her mouth, her eyes glistening with every bite. The man smiled, the expression seemingly out of place on his hollow ghostly face, his dark skin pulling taut. Esper thought he was a strange looking man with strange clothes who strangely floated about everywhere. But he was nice and he made good food so that was all that mattered really.


“How come you float?” she asks.


“It beats walking,” he said repeating his joke from the day before, returning to fetch his own dinner now.


“Haah?”


“Wouldn’t you do it if you could?”


“I want to fly.”


“Hmm, you would like it in the eastern lands then.”


“Huh? Why?”


“Well, there are a lot of touched of the air god there, in the desert. I’ve heard some of them can fly.”


Esper's eyes exploded in wide amazement at this revelation “Really?!” she said, almost spitting the bit of stew in her mouth out everywhere.


Aline waved her hand around again, her head still down on the table. “That’s a load of nonsense from a load of old drunks. Don’t listen to him.”


Esper lowered herself back down onto the stool, somewhat disappointed “Oh.”


“Never underestimate drunken wisdom,” said Deryk, returning back to sit down now on the table. Looking over to Aline he went on. “Eat, you’ll feel better.”


“Uuugh. My head is killing me. I swear I’ll vomit if I smell another drop of liquor.”


“The stew isn’t made with alcohol, Aline.” She pushed herself up, grunting as she did so. “You look unwell. Perhaps you should rest after you eat.”


Aline groaned, picking up the spoon and stirring her stew. “I still need to clean the tables.” She slouched forward as she took a first bite of her stew, her expression changing to one of distaste as she chewed on the first bite. An icy touch of metal against her skin sent a tingle through Esper’s body. Busy now, scraping her own bowl empty, she looked at the woman, her face was pale and she had dark bags under her eyes.


“I can do it,” said Esper aloud. Aline looked at her curiously, Esper went on “You fixed my bag, so I’ll do the tables for you.”


Aline nodded with a weak, grateful smile “Thanks, that would be a big help,” before forcing another spoon of the stew into her mouth with a grim expression. “Does this taste a little mealy today?”


Deryk looked to her in offense. “You must really be getting sick. Your mind is clearly warping.”


Aline weakly rolled her eyes. Esper got up, looking at her. Aline said “Behind the bar are some rags, just wipe down the tables and get rid of any spots. Then push the chairs in neatly.” Esper nodded to the woman who had returned to her focus to the food she was eating with great difficulty. In contrast, Deryk next to her was eating at a steady pace, shooting the occasional annoyed glance over to Aline every time she struggled to swallow his cooking.


Feeling an odd excitement to get out there and an odd tinge on the nape of her neck, Esper ran out past the two, through the open door and out into the bar. Looking down into the shelves where she examined the many bottles, they all came in many colors and sizes. Curious, she picked up a small, bright green flask about the size of a large cup. Interested now, she pried the small wooden top off of it and held it below her nose, flinching away as the powerful smell of dark herbs came out, causing her eyes to water. Sealing the lid tightly back on, she placed it back on the shelf and looked for the rags, trying to get the smell out of her nose as she went along.


Near the end, in a small pile, she found some and took one from the top before heading out through the half door to the bar and out into the large room with the many tables. Looking around, she realized that she really liked it here. It was cozy and had a rich, happy atmosphere. Like back at her old home when mama and papa still lived with her. The room absorbing more than the smells of alcohol and foods, but also the happy emotions of the people who filled this place every day, seemed to leave a residue of its own in the air much like the spores of a mushroom. Invisible to the eye, but ever present and burrowing into everything, sprouting deep invisible roots.


With a smile, she began going over the tables one by one, scrubbing them with the rag before pushing the chairs and benches in neatly, as she had seen them this morning. Slowly as she worked, a hum began to grow in her voice and she quietly let it come out as she worked, taking a moment to look over her shoulder through the small window to see that the others were still in the kitchen area. Maybe she would take a day tomorrow to just sit around. For almost a week now she had done nothing but walk, run, work and explore.


Her body and soul coursed with energy and curiosity to see more, but were slowed by the man's warning words. Deryk was smart, she should probably listen to him she thought, as she finished the next table. Reaching the third now, close to the stairs, she continued her work. An eruption of sound, metal striking stone and wood tumbling over erupted from the kitchen. Esper shot up and turned her head to the source. Shouting came now. A man’s. Deryk’s. Esper began to run towards the kitchen to see what had happened to her host. Two steps in however, she stopped in her tracks as the sting of an icy needle touched her skin. As the acrid, sour smell of the night-people came and befouled the sanctity of the hallowed tavern. Burning her nose and eyes as it rose.


She felt it in her again. Fear. The fear she had felt so often, deep down in the abyss. Esper knew Deryk needed her help, she knew that the kind man was in mortal danger, as she was when the night-people had come for her. The scuffle continued in the kitchen. The night-people had come. Her breath came faster and harder, her chest pounding as her heart began to race in an instant. Breathing in more and more of the rank odor caused more and more of the recent memories to return. The weight of the broken bed crushing her body, the thin spider’s thread that had held her above the abyss, the hollow, rotting eyes that reached for her.


The girl looked around for someone, anyone to help. She knew the room was empty but she looked anyway, it was just the first thing that came to her to do. Her leg went a step back, as a wet scream came from the kitchen, her mind and heart dying another death, as the sound pierced her. She knew whatever had happened in the kitchen was over. The night-people had gotten Deryk. It was her fault. The night-people wanted her. Punishment. This was punishment. Another step back.


Esper turned and ran up the stairs, the greasy rag still clutched in her hand. Taking the pouch off of her belt as quickly as she could, she opened it and jammed her hand inside, wincing, as she scraped it against the old stone knife still in there a second time now. A touch of rough metal beneath her fingers, the key. Pulling it out, she shoved it into the door and ripped it open, slamming it quickly behind her and locking it again, still taking the key back out though in her frenzy. What would she do? What would she do? They were coming. The night-people were coming for her, they always have been.


Tearing through the small room, she grabbed the still too large robe bag, shoving the little key back into the pouch and the pouch back beneath the cord around her waist. Punishment. The wind had told her to go. To rise higher. She didn’t listen and now she was being punished. Her new friends were taken by the night-people, it was her fault. They were coming. Looking back to the door she knew she couldn’t go back down, her head shot to the window. The gentle hues of orange shining out through it.


More screams came from downstairs. Voices she didn’t recognize. Had someone heard the shouts and came to see? She didn’t know, but she had to leave. They were coming. Climbing onto the little wooden table, she looked out down the window to see if there was a safe way down from here. She had to hurry. She had to leave. She had to go higher. This was punishment. Several men and women now ran down the way, the occasional guard mixing in, lugging their giant shields down the street alongside two of the strangely dressed people she had seen leaving the tower earlier that day as they all went to check out the commotion.


Swinging a leg out of the window, tossing the bag out below herself, she looked back into the warm, once safe room one final time, before dropping herself down out of it.

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*~+---SPECIAL THANKS---+~*

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About the author

Razzmatazz

Bio: Socially awkward witches, sad hugs, dramatic adventures, spooky stuff, and comfy dungeons: My name is D.M. Rhodes, but I love to write about those things under the moniker 'Razzmatazz'. (Hopefully full-time, one day soon!) I’m a hobby occultist and, more boringly, I’m an XR expert, as well as a government-trained media and information specialist.

The main genres that I write in are litRPG-fantasy, action, adventure, romance, tragedy, horror, and slice-of-life. I seriously vibe with religious and occult overtones mixed in with super obscure story concepts. °( ~ )°

Thanks for taking an interest! Because of supportive readers like yourself, I can keep following my socially unacceptable dream! (I'm going to become the wizard-king.)

– Always open for feedback!

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