Back to full strength.
Amelia felt fantastic for the first time in nearly a week, and just in time, too. Tomorrow was the big day: The hostel boarders were going to enter the Manadhmeth Dungeon together, and along the way Amelia was going to find Fourland’s drug labs and blow the whole operation to hell.
She almost wished she could enter power-saving mode now, then wake up right as it was time to head out. But today she, Phelia, and Aeo were shopping for supplies to stock up on before the trip.
The local weapons shop, “Beech’s,” was dilapidated and reeked of the odor of worn-out metal and sun-bleached paper. It sat only a few blocks from the nearest dungeon entrance, and yet it was in a sorry state of business.
Knowing this, it was a little less than surprising to know that Phelia worked here part-time to cover her rent at the hostel.
When the three women entered Beech’s, they were greeted by a cute goblin girl at the front, who waved wildly to Phelia and then ran up to hug her. The two were almost the same height, and it struck a chord in Amelia’s soul that she refused to acknowledge.
“Yik, meet Aeo and Amelia,” Phelia said. “They’re my friends, and we’re all going down into the dungeon tomorrow. It’s going to be great.”
“Ah, cool,” Yik, the goblin girl, said. “So that’s why I’m covering your shift then, huh?”
Yik circled back around to the big display of weapons and shields and laughed. “Don’t worry. I like earning money. Anyway, what’ll you have?”
“We need supplies and armor,” Phelia said. “Maybe weapons, too. Amelia, what are you looking for?”
“I don’t use weapons.”
That line seemed to spark something mischievous in Aeo’s spirit, as she immediately ran over to the weapons display and began fiddling with the various wares. She pulled out a mace and let its ball and chain swing like a pendulum.
“Sure you don’t want this?” she asked. “You’re a big girl.”
The devilish smirk on her face widened into a tooth-bearing grin. “C’mon, Amelia. You need something down there. Those melanoids are real scary, and you can’t just punch your way through them.” She pulled out a short sword next. “How about a blade?”
She shook her head, then flexed her right arm in all its rocky glory. If she still had [Slice] available, she would have activated it here.
Phelia shrugged. “You might could use something anyway,” she said. “Don’t you need good ranged weapons? Just in case?”
The goblin cashier Yik pulled out a clear case with six sharpened, oddly-shaped daggers. “You can get a set of combat knives. Good for force multiplication, as they say in the business. And when things get hairy, you can always toss them at enemies.”
She was growing disinterested in arguing with all three of them. “How much?”
Yik whispered a number into Phelia’s ear and Phelia giggled. “Oh, these are pretty nice, aren’t they?” she asked. Then she said to Amelia, “Uh, I have the employee discount, so it’s fine. Probably.”
“That wasn’t a price.”
“How’s, um, ten gold sound?” Phelia asked, relaying from her coworker.
Amelia did not bother to dignify that with a response.
“We’ll get in trouble, but what if I throw in a set of armor?” Yik asked.
“Custom fitted!” Phelia added.
Amelia shook her head again. “No armor. Slows me down too much.”
Then Aeo butted in and put her shoulder up against the cashier’s table. She leaned forward, close to Yik, still wearing that stupid grin. “Oh, fine, I’ll split the cost on the knives if you give me the armor, Amelia,” she said, keeping eye contact with the goblin next to her. “Can’t let this little cutie down, can we? I bet she makes a nice commission off these sales.”
Yik laughed nervously and bit her lip, drawing into herself and acting as if she had never been flirted with before. She was hardly ugly for a goblin, so the reaction was surprising. “No, we don’t make anything extra. I just like to impress the manager, that’s all.”
“How about I throw in a tip, then?” Aeo leaned in a little bit closer, and Amelia realized she was purchasing these throwing knives whether she liked it or not. Six knives were more than enough, but hopefully she would make use of at least some of them.
“Do you have the money?” Amelia asked.
“Uhh...” She stammered for a moment, then regained her resolve and pointed to the long rifle she carried on her back. “Of course I do. I could afford this baby, right?”
“You wasted all your money on a weapon. Now you want to do it again.”
“You’re completely, absolutely wrong,” Aeo said. “This ravishing goblin right here would never believe such a blatant lie.” Yik giggled.
Phelia cleared her throat and stopped the conversation short. “I’ve decided I’m going with this axe,” she said, holding a long single-bladed axe with a long handle. At full height, it was almost as tall as the kobold herself. “Doesn’t it look cool?”
“Can you wield that?” Amelia asked, having become the arbiter of good sense for the group.
“Probably!” she exclaimed. “We’ll see. I haven’t used an axe in a long time, but I want to mix it up. If we run into danger, it’ll be good practice.”
“I hope you’re good in a fight.”
“You betcha!” Phelia winked and gave a thumbs up that indicated that, no, she was not good in a fight.
“Is that everything, then?” Yik said, glancing every now and then at Aeo, who refused to budge from her personal space bubble bursting position. “One throwing knife set. One light armor set, human female. One light armor set, kobold female. Five adventurer packs, standard issue.”
“Oh, and Mino wanted two extra battery-lamps, if you have them.”
“We do indeed,” Yik said. “Beech’s has everything you need.”
Amelia could not even bring herself to roll her eyes.
The whole hostel enjoyed a jovial dinner together, with the fireplace crackling, jukebox jamming, and spirits high off friendship and beer. They attempted to stay quiet so as not to wake the early working Gruzut, but failed miserably at it. More than once on this night, Amelia heard a loud, gruff voice from upstairs shouting at everyone to shut up.
It was fun enough. Amelia never had much interest in the lively atmosphere of collective revelry that parties and taverns brought, but she also hardly had any interest in interacting with others to begin with, let alone a bunch of drunks. This party was fine, though. She felt a little bit less grumpy than she would have imagined here.
But of course, the revelry was quite intense. Even with just five or six in attendance, it still risked going overboard, with singing and shouting at a volume that threatened to escape outside. Hummer, in particular, laughed so loud it almost sounded like she was crying.
After watching Aeo dance around in a stagger with that goblin girl Yik she managed to bring over, she decided she had enough of tonight’s party. She needed somewhere quiet. The bedroom would not be a good place to meditate on things, as Gruzut already proved, so Amelia did the sensible thing and walked out into the frigid winter night.
But when she opened the back door of the hostel, she found Mino already there on the porch, staring up at the sky with a perfectly peaceful expression. She held a beer can in her hand, sipping on it with tiny little gulps every few moments. Every time she exhaled, a puff of smoky breath wisped away from her mouth. She looked far too peaceful for Amelia to disturb, so she simply stood and watched her.
The music was still audible through the thin walls of the hostel, but it was calmer, more of a dull hum that barely distracted from the chilly, quiet atmosphere out here. Mino seemed to be taking it all in stride. She was out here, alone, looking up at the sky, her pink-hued eyes twinkling.
Mino was far from the first ambitious young elf she had met in her travels. But something about her was different. The way she stared at the stars in calm wonderment gave off the firm impression that she really was going to achieve every single one of her dreams.
It took Mino a moment to notice Amelia was there beside her. “Oh, hi,” she said.
“Want to watch the stars with me?”
And that they did for some time. The revelry in the hostel just a faint background murmur. The soft wind blowing through the air the only sound outside—that and Mino’s breaths.
The sky was clear and the stars sparkled like stars were always known to do. The moons, too, glowed in their various phases. There might have been a constellation in view, or some other astrological phenomenon of note, but to Amelia, it looked the same as any other night. Interesting, but not quite beautiful enough to go out of her way to see.
Amelia and Ed were not ones to stay up late and let the night pass them by. Maybe at the beginning, in the research center, but for most of their years together, they much preferred the day.
Mino, though, clearly preferred it past dark. She basked in the scene, took it all in like this was some special moment worth remembering forever.
Then she looked at Amelia with the gaze of a storyteller. “Say, you know what always gets me?”
“The moons,” she said. “We just sort of accept that the biggest object in the sky is breaking apart slowly and one day it’s going to be a really big problem. Nobody seems that scared, even though a lot of us might be still alive when it happens.”
Amelia looked at the biggest moon, Celstus, and the giant crack that ran down its surface. Like an egg just before being dropped into the pan. She had never thought much of it herself.
“Every few decades it gets worse,” she said. “The crack will grow and grow and eventually the whole thing will break up into smaller pieces and probably crash down onto us. Kind of scary, huh?”
“I suppose. But if the world prepares, maybe it’ll be fine.”
Mino scrunched up her mouth. “Do you see anyone preparing? It might be two hundred years away, so nobody’s even got a clue what to do yet. The humans just hope their grandchildren will figure it out. The elves just hope they forget about it.” Then she sighed, as if to denote a shift in mood. “Still, it’s kind of beautiful, in a way.”
“In a way, yes.”
“You know the story they tell, right? About Moonshatter and all?”
“Of course,” Amelia said.
“I kind of like the story,” Mino said. “Some ancient villain from a thousand years ago went so mad she tried to blow up Celstus just to show off her power. I wonder what kind of weapon could do such a thing.”
“Not one that actually exists.”
“Oh, true. I know it’s all just fairy tales to teach little kids. But it’s such an interesting one. Don’t be like Moonshatter, or else you’ll lose yourself in the process. And almost destroy a whole moon.”
“She’s a popular character.”
“Yeah, it’s silly, but I kind of get it. I used to love all the Moonshatter stories as a kid. Or at least I think I did since I have a lot of children’s books about her.” She turned and gave that wistful blush of an elf unable to recall her past. “She did so many terrible things, but she never even got caught. Kind of like a badass anti-hero. Sometimes it’s fun to read about characters who aren’t so nice.”
If a mythological super-villain had become an idolized anti-hero, what did that say about Amelia in the present day? She decided not to dwell on that question.
Mino looked away from the night sky and changed the topic. “I know you don’t like to talk about it, but... You’ve had a tough life, haven’t you?”
Amelia gave a single nod. The first five years of her life were filled with hardship and challenges, but at least she endured it with Ed. The past year had been all of that compressed together, without a partner to help carry those burdens. All she said out loud, though, was, “In some ways, yes.”
“Well, I really hope the dungeon dive tomorrow really helps, then. I want us to take a really relaxing adventure, so maybe you can distract yourself from all the revenge and murder and stuff.”
Amelia’s mind swirled around with visions of uncovering the Fourland drug facility, with massacring scores of horrible people and getting that much closer to uncovering Ed’s current location. Not exactly relaxing at all.
But Mino was so genuinely enthusiastic about it all that she did not dare burst that bubble of a perfect trip she had formed in her mind.
So instead, she nodded along and hoped Mino would forgive her someday in the future.
They watched the stars for a few minutes longer before the cold caught up to them, and they went back inside to head to bed.
A soft moan.
Suppressed laughter, and a too-loud “Shh!”
Aeo had another guest over in her bunk tonight. This time Phelia’s coworker, that goblin girl Yik. In just a few hours, they went from complete strangers to bedmates, and ones who lacked the common decency to wait until Amelia was fast asleep.
She was annoyed and somewhat disgusted, but after a few weeks living here, she had unfortunately become used to Aeo’s cycle of one-night girlfriends and one-off boyfriends. Tonight only disturbed her as much as it did because this was the night before the big dungeon dive.
Amelia could hardly wait. The giddiness in her soul swirled around and kept her from fully entering power-saving mode. Even her system had come on to ask her if she was okay.
One day from now, her whole life would be different. The next time she slept in this bed, it would not be the same Fleettwixt as it was in this moment.
She was willing to put up with any amount of intimate activity in the other bunk, but if it distracted her from her primary mission, she would certainly neither forgive nor forget.
Fortunately, she managed to enter power-saving mode moments later, letting her mind enter into whatever random memory fragments it decided to show her tonight.
Like usual, the first memory of the night was Ed. Eating dinner off a metal tray in the facility, ears drooping as something important weighed on her mind.
She was skinnier back then. Still a kid. Cute ponytail. Amelia had been activated for three, maybe four weeks at most, while she sat quietly across the table from the girl who would someday become her one and only lover.
And then Amelia realized why this memory had come to her mind, as Ed began to rant.
“They never let me see the dungeon core fragments, you know,” she grumbled. “And now they say they destroyed the pieces. For safety or something. I’ve been down to Floor 8 twice, and they still didn’t trust me to take a look. I swear, that dungeon core is connected to golemancy somehow. I can’t prove it now, though. All I’ve got is y—”
The memory cut off and Ed’s figure, then hair, faded into flames, then the flame faded into smoke.
Amelia’s next memory was another usual one: Her village in ashes while she stood helplessly in the middle of it all. The distant, ethereal cries of people far too late to save.
All of it gone. Everything turned to dust.
“Tomorrow, the world changes,” she said to herself. Whether that was her mind or her memories, she did not know.