The sun set, and the wind swept its frigid tendrils over Amelia’s fleshy, glove-less left hand.
Fleettwixt was a place with many wonders. The cityscape was massive, the colleges were renowned throughout the world, the streets were free of snow. It was very near to the sort of utopia one might read about in a speculative novel. But one thing that the Gods among glossals could not control was the temperature outdoors. As the sun’s path of radiance sent it past the horizon of the seas to the west, so too did the cold creep into every crevice of the city.
Amelia put her hood over her head, stuck her hands into her pockets, and entered the street crowd. Partly this was to keep from the cold. She still felt the same sensations as any real human would; this was a benefit in a multitude of ways, both in love and in combat, but it also meant she had pain, discomfort, and all the things that mortals were supposed to feel in their blip-sized lives, but that golems were supposed to be blissfully free of.
The better reason for her slumped-over style was, of course, the fact she had just murdered five people about an hour earlier. The more anonymity on the streets, the better chance she had that nobody was tracking her, if indeed Fourland or anyone else had even discovered her just yet. She was sure they had dozens of soul mules entering the city on any given day, and one employee and his goons going missing was not a big deal just yet. Still, it was better to keep safe, especially with her easily spotted face.
Even as the air grew colder, the Highden district and all its gleaming towers still bustled with the energy of a hundred thousand people every city block. Helped keep her profile low. She walked casually down city blocks, just soaking in this brand-new urban life.
A few golems stood sturdily in the streets beside the doors to unmarked buildings. Silent monoliths acting on specific directives, made of clay and rock and whatever other materials their golemancers cobbled together. It always hurt her to see beings so close to herself being used as mere bodyguards, and yet there was nothing yet she could do but pass them by.
Never in Amelia’s exceedingly short life did she ever suspect just how little chatter she would hear on the streets of the biggest city in Sunwell. There were murmurs and occasional conversations, but nothing more. Most people passed through with lowered heads and silent frowns.
Was life here truly so bad that it was better to be lonely than to interact with any of the hundreds around them? Never in any of the villages or towns that Amelia lived in had she experienced so much negative energy swirling around.
And yet she found herself enjoying the obscurity she faced. Just one of many, just a random hooded person who declined to say a single word. Just taking in the mana that rose up from the grounds, that spewed out from the distant factories, that exuded in small waves from the endless beings around her. Her soul gem recharged passively just by existing here. What an amazing way to live, that she could extend her life just by being in a crowd.
Though it was advisable for her to find refuge soon. With her higher-level systems still likely malfunctioning, she knew she could not turn on her Combat Module again without at least going into power saving mode—or sleep, as glossal beings might call it. It was best not to find any further fighting for now, then, and staying in this heavily populated area was far more risk than she wanted.
If Theo and his thugs were any indication, betraying the Fourland Growth Corporation would very soon deliver her some negative consequences—the “hit squad with rifles” sort of consequences. If they had any level of competence, they would go after her with the maximum level of force with absolute immediacy. She needed to be well-rested and maintenanced before dealing with any of that. Or as best as she could do on her own.
Luckily, transportation around Fleettwixt was unparalleled. It had, in addition to the trains going in and out of the city, three train lines encompassing nearly every important district and neighborhood across forty stations—the Ethel Line, the Nyx Line, and the Pomonok Line. All of them converged on Highden Station as a central hub and moved outwards from there. One could travel almost the entire city without even setting foot on the ground.
She circled back to Highden Station, made sure she wasn’t being followed, and boarded a rickety train up on tracks three stories in the air, on the Pomonok Line. Not too many were on. Amelia found an empty seat without much issue.
“Now leaving Highden Station,” a train announcement said over the speakers.
An advertisement for a flashy casino in the dungeon’s first floor played, first in Common, then again in Imduin. After that, a Community Wellness Manager from North Sunwell spoke for thirty seconds about the importance of reporting any suspicious individuals who might be unauthorized residents.
Unlike the mana-levitated ride she took coming into Fleettwixt, the Pomonok Line was bumpy, loud, and extremely convenient as well. It looped around the entire city, mirroring the city walls and almost perfectly matching the outline of the Manadhmeth Dungeon. The sun elves who built this town took pride in circles, in orbits, and the city’s rounded design was something of a sacred mark for those long-ago architects forgotten by time. That this train followed suit was only a natural extension of what came before.
The train went north, passing under the thin, unremarkable Loeb River and finally to the northernmost station in the whole city, not too far from the city walls—Beechhurst Station.
If the eastern city entrance of Highden Station was the skyscraper-filled, sparkling gem of Fleettwixt, then the northern edge, across the river and accessible only by train or by bridge, was the place furthest from it. A time capsule to when Fleettwixt was a humble fishing village, not the capital of commerce and arts and industry for a massive colonial corporation. A perfect place for Amelia to hide out while the heat built up on her.
So when she stepped off the train and exited Beechhurst Station, she was greeted not with the same glimmering, overwhelmingly vivid sights she experienced when she first arrived in the city. Instead, across the street she saw a run-down weapons reseller with a rusty sign that read “Last Call at Lobe’s,” and next to it a closed-down shop with graffiti carved into the front.
Amelia took a leisurely stroll down the sidewalk, searching for lodging with the map on her HUD, but unfortunately when it came to Beechhurst it proved almost entirely inaccurate. None of the busildings around matched, or when they did the business had already closed. All of the major inns were long-ago boarded up.
She could go another day or two without entering power-saving mode, but she certainly did not want to risk it if she were able. Nothing came, though. A few residential homes with gardens or tiny farm plots, and a few assorted businesses. There were tall buildings, yes, but they were drab, gray; many of them looked abandoned. This was the main road coming from the station, right? Where had Fleettwixt gone?
A few more weapons shops, none of them particularly compelling. A tiny restaurant serving noodles with standing-only tables. Two elderly women staring in her direction from a front porch rocking bench.
The further Amelia walked, the more she came to see that Beechhurst was an idyllic, rustic, worn-down neighborhood long forgotten by the massive development everywhere else. She had only been here for a short while, but she already knew she had found a new home. Just as long as they would accept her.
The further she walked away from Beechhurst Station, the worse the district looked, the fewer people roamed around. She wondered what could have happened here to cause all this. It seemed like the neighborhood used to have plenty of businesses, plenty of livelihood. But now, here as Amelia walked it, it was like the life had been sucked into some giant soul gem and taken far away from here. There were more broken windows than people out, other than at the local pub, which seemed far more active than anywhere else.
One thing Amelia noticed quickly was that the diversity had completely disappeared since she came to northern Fleettwixt. What was once a jumbled mix of goblins and elves, orcs and myxos, had become, well, only elves. Sun elves, to be specific, the multicolored native race of the continent of Sunwell. She saw in a small park a group of old ladies chatting about nothing in particular. Next to them stood a climbing structure and a slide. A small park for children, covered in enough rust to show that it had gone unused for years, maybe decades.
That anonymity Amelia had loved about Highden was gone in Beechhurst. Her scarred, stone-covered face was even more obvious when she was the only human (“human”) in the vicinity.
Ah, well. No point in pretending she was someone she was not. Amelia removed her hood, straightened her posture, and let everyone around her know that, yes, she was a human, and one with only one ear to boot. A few people gave her looks, including a patrolling police officer who gripped the handle of her baton, but no more than any other town she had been in. It wasn’t as dramatic as she expected.
Finally, Amelia found a two-story building wedged in between a liquor store and a place titled only “Lisya’s Gift.” This three-story building would be unremarkable in any other circumstance except for a tiny sign by the front door that read: “Check-in: 16:00-22:00.”
Upon closer inspection, the building actually had a sign or the remains of it—at one point, the place read “Beechhurst International Co-Lodging House,” but the letters had since been removed, and only their outlines in the off-colored brick still remained.
Was it open? Was this some relic of an earlier time?
She put her gloved hand on the door, tugged on it, and sure enough it was unlocked. She slid it open and—
Lights on, jukebox playing a quiet tune, and a pink-haired elf at the bar.
The door hit some jingling chimes as she stepped through the threshold.
A few worn-down sofas, a low table with some scattered books on it. A single small desk put up against a random wall. An empty table with seven chairs pushed in. Loud clattering in a kitchen through a door in the back. The musty, mana-filled smell of a room with poor ventilation. A portrait painting of a lightly armored elven woman with a knightly smile hanging above the unmanned service counter.
And... a creature standing on all fours in front of her. The size of a small bear cub, but hairless, with gray skin and no eyes. It growled at Amelia like she threatened the safety of the entire building.
The woman at the bar, book in hand and hair in a bun, perked her ears up at the sound of a new guest and jerked her head towards the entrance.
“Otto!” she shouted, causing the beast to scurry away from the door. “Stop being mean to Hummer. Go lay down and—”
She interrupted herself with silence. Her pink, very pink eyes opened wide at the sight of this new guest.
Whether or not the woman’s surprise was good or bad was not yet clear. But her staring struck Amelia as a different sort than the many people she usually encountered. For whatever reason, she did not seem to take one bit of notice of Amelia’s face.
“You...” That was all the elf said before she closed her mouth again.
“I’d like a room,” Amelia said.
She did not answer for some time, just continued staring.
“I’d, um, like a room,” she repeated. “If you have one,” she added.
“You, you, you,” the girl finally managed to stutter out. “A new guest! Wow!”
The elf stood up from her desk and put her book down, spine-up. She was short, thin, kind of cute with her patchwork dress filled with pockets, but cute in the way that most people would forget about the moment she left their eyesight. “Please, make yourself at home. I’ll go pour some tea.”
“No need,” Amelia said. “I don’t drink tea.” Or anything, for that matter.
“Oh, okay, that’s fine.” The woman took a closer look at Amelia—finally paying attention to her less standard features. “Wait, you’re an adventurer, aren’t you?” She literally clasped her hands together in excitement.
“Ah, no. I’m just a traveler—”
“It’s been so long since we’ve had an adventurer here!” the girl exclaimed. “Usually everyone just stays at that place by the station. But I promise you, the best service is right here at the Beechhurst International Co-Lodging House! BICLH for short.”
“Uh-huh.” What Amelia didn’t say is that if she realized there was a place by the station, she probably would have gone there first. Especially over a place with an acronym like... that.
“Anyway, I’m Mino Maelion,” she said. “I’ll be your host, Miss...”
“Amelia Bluewood... What a lovely name.”
“Thank you. I chose it myself.”
“Aw.” Immediately, Mino switched into business mode and scurried over to the service desk. She ruffled through some papers as she spoke: “Room and board is thirteen silver a night. We have breakfast from five to eight every morning, and dinner from eighteen to twenty, but not on weekends, sorry; I’m busy at the night markets then. If you need any maps, or restaurant recommendations, or any of that, just ask. And I can arrange dungeon tours if you’re a newcomer. I’m certified for the first three floors, you know!”
Otto, the eyeless creature, walked over to the service counter and began to sniff Amelia’s feet. But when she shifted her legs to avoid it, it freaked out and ran off to another room in a haste.
“Dungeon tours...” This woman was already throwing stuff out far beyond her minimal understanding about this city. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know about any of that. I’d just like a room, and a post box if you have one.”
“We do! Each bed gets a box, but it’s an extra two silver a night, and if you lose the key, that’s forty-five. Sorry, but it’s expensive to replace those.”
“Okay. How long will this get me?” Amelia asked.
She pulled her change purse out of her rucksack and slammed the whole thing on the counter with a bright chattering of coins.
Inside, as the elf soon learned, were about a hundred gold coins, plus a few silvers and coppers scattered about. Whatever Amelia had gotten from the necromancer in Berryward and from the many odd jobs she worked on her way across the continent. She never kept track, because she always had enough.
Once again, the girl was floored. “Y-you want all of this on your... your account?”
“Sure thing. I have some more for spending.” All she really needed to survive was clothes, souls, and water. Souls were the tricky part, but as far as she knew, they were perfectly available somewhere in Fleettwixt, legal or otherwise.
“Not much. But I don’t need much else.”
“Well, um, if I’m doing my math right...” Mino leaned down over her desk and scribbled some numbers on a spare piece of paper as she double-checked the coins. “I don’t know, nine months? Depends if you want to pitch in for the spring festival float or if you’ll be purchasing any of the bonus amenities like the river tour or... Let’s just say nine months now, and I’ll work out the details later. Sorry I can’t give you an exact date. This is, uh, a lot more than anyone’s ever paid me before. A lot more gold coins than I’ve ever seen all in one purse, honestly.”
“That’s fine,” Amelia said. It was not as if she expected to be here more than a month or two at the most. In a best-case scenario, she would be out of here in a week and reunited with her girlfriend for good. Everything else was little more than a donation. She only hoped it was worth it, as this place seemed, well, homely, to put it politely. She had been in muddy fishing villages with nicer lodging than this.
“Great! Then I’ll be your host. Probably your only one unless Milca gets back from that trip overseas. Ask me anything, and I can help you out. I’m really good at this, not to brag or anything.”
“It’s so exciting having an adventurer in the hostel again. You know, Beechhurst is a great place, I promise you that. We’ve fallen on some hard times since that hero came through Fleettwixt, but we’ve got a real opportunity to expand, and—”
“I’m sorry. Where’s my room?”
“Oh, yes.” Mino rummaged through a drawer and brought out a key. “This is to your locker. You can put all your... uh, belongings in it. If you buy any.” She looked at Amelia’s near-empty rucksack with more than a little confusion. “You’re in room 2, and you can choose bunk 2A, 2B, or 2D. Do you like top bunk or bottom?”
“Bunk beds... Do I have roommates?”
“Yeah,” she said, “I try to keep the rooms to a minimum. I’m the only one working, so cleaning gets hard when there’s lots of rooms taken. But only one roommate, just Aeo. She’s in and out a lot but she stays here most nights. Nice gal. My best friend forever, honestly. She’s cooking in the kitchen right now, actually. Want me to call—”
“No thank you,” Amelia said. “How many people are here, in total?”
“Well there’s you, and Aeo. There’s Gruzut, but she’s already asleep because she works dusk shift at the docks in Portside...” Mino looked up in concentration, as if it took her a real effort to remember her own guests. “And Phelia. She’s a kobold, if you can believe it, and a real go-getter too. Hummer’s here but she checks out in a week or two, though that’s what she’s been saying for months. Uh... There was that guy Philip here, but I think he left. Pretty sure he left. Yeah, after that thing with him and Phelia. So awkward. Oh, and me. So that’s...” She began counting on her hands, and at this point Amelia regretted ever asking. “Six people, soon to be five.”
This was a three-story building. There were probably ten or twelve bedrooms, each with several bunks, but only six guests, in presumably just two rooms. Beechhurst really was falling on hard times, after all.
“Thank you,” Amelia said. “And good night.”
She started upstairs for the room, but Mino asked, “Wait, dinner’s almost ready. You can eat with us. Aeo and I’d love to get to know you.”
“You don’t want to meet me,” she said, turning her head away from the elf just as she saw her ears droop. “Stay out of my way, and we’ll be just fine.”
“Well, uh, the baths are open if you... Well, they’re always open if you need it.”
She did not respond. She simply went to her room, set her rucksack up on a coat rack, and dropped her body directly on the soft mattress of the bottom bunk.
It had been eight days since she last slept—or, entered power-saving mode, that is. A nice rest might finally help her fix some oncoming errors before they ended up killing her.
Maybe she was rude to Mino. But Amelia did not want such a nice girl hurt by what she was about to do. A lot of bad people were going to die in these coming days and weeks. Amelia needed no friends—or, more accurately, potential targets. All she needed was Ed back in her arms, and this would all have been worth it.
She imagined it right here and now. Her girlfriends’s head resting on her shoulder, their hands held together as they watched the frigid sunrise. A little glimmer in Amelia’s eye as she gave a quiet, tear-free sob. Happiness so poignant it made her cry.
Here in this bed, alone but closer to Ed than she’d been in so long, she sobbed a little too. But eventually she allowed herself that special vulnerability and passed into rest.