With each breath, each beat of my heart, my head swells with blood and aches like it never has before. Through gritted teeth, the sounds around me fail to register past blunt pangs of metal and cracks of stone.
I blink, fatigued but sense myself moving. A woman carries me, holding onto my underbelly like a sack of potatoes, she sweats profusely and her eyes dart about.
Her eyes bulge and she tosses me aside to bring her arm up as a man with a spear lands atop her, pushing against the transparent blue shield she's produced from around her arm.
She cries and tosses him off, morphing a spear- no, a javelin from the shield, and launching it into the man's shoulder. He doesn't flinch.
My eyes fall shut and open again and my head is bopping. My surroundings have changed but I'm still on the floor. Several sets of feet surround me, but I can only stare at the brown covering above my head, a cool breeze easing nausea.
Away from the brown covering, I glimpse the faces belonging to the feet. Two men by my right and two women by my left, including the woman from before. She's banged up, more so than before.
"Uh…I..." I try to speak, introduce myself and even thank her but it seems that is beyond me. She looks down at me and scowls, mouthing something very angry to the men on the left.
Disappointed, I blink again. This time I'm woken in pain as my shoulder slams into the ground, tossed out like garbage. Groaning my eyes squint up against the sun as I peer up at the two who'd tossed me. It's the two men from before, they huff a bit out of breath. Standing over me, the younger one by the left speaks and at last, I can hear what they're saying.
"We shouldn't leave him here." He complains to the one beside him. This is awfully familiar.
"Where do you want us to leave him then?" the other grunts, shaking his head at the young man.
"I mean, we can't take him with us but at least if we're leaving him by the street, we should help him out a bit."
"We saved his life, if we hadn't interfered when we did, he'd be part of the Cult of Phien by now."
"Just leave something." The young man insists, taking off his coat he tosses it over me. It's warm but stinks of copper, blood.
The older man grunts, crouching down beside me he pulls something out of a pocket and stuffs it in my hand. My fingers trace around it, a crude insignia, but recognizable enough with the nice sheen it has about it.
The older man grunts and nods at me, "I've gifted you one silver tokus. If we ever meet again, you'd better thank me for your life."
The two turn around and leave, my eye follows them until it lands on a sort of vehicle. A cart with a large bottom for goods and passengers, the two hop into the back and their rider whips the horse-like animal into action, pulling them away.
When I wake up the sun assaults my eyes. I pull myself up and squint around, I'm at the edge of a village, above my head is a signpost that reads 'Ioina Village'.
Another village then. With any luck, the people here aren't drones like the ones in Arak village. My head still hurt, the pain is familiar and reminds me that I hadn't walked here. I dropped here.
By who though? Those men, that woman, who were they? I shake my head but it only aggravates the ache so I stop and scrub out the gunk from my eyes instead. Begining to walk out I nearly trip on the coat pulling at my feet.
Right, I've received a few gifts. The coat from the young man and the silver from the old man...It's gone.
"Fuck!" I tap my pockets for the leather pouch from Arak village but that too is gone. "Just my fucking luck!" I kick at the post and instantly feel sorry for my toes.
Stifling the pain with more anger at the world, I pull the coat on and make my way into the village proper.
The village isn't unlike Arak, well, in many ways it is. For one there is a larger opening not inhabited by anything except grass and dirt, ahead is the actual village.
Walking through I find the differences glaring. Arak was far more organized with housing, there are buildings scattered across the space as I walk. Many of them may or may not be homes, others are businesses by the little wooden set up on the outside. Between the scattered buildings are even more displaced or misplace people, quite a few call out to me, urging I buy the wares displayed on their mat.
The alleyway markets struggle with their competitors right beside them however, the tension is clear even to a stranger.
The little markets aren't the alleyways only inhabitants though, there are many, many beggars. Some greet me and at first, I am repulsed by the audacity until I realize I look like them. Haven't bathed in weeks, a strong stench of dirt poor and looked the part as well with my thorn up clothes.
I need to get a bath, a meal and some actual clothes.
To do this my eyes dart in search of the kindest looking person in the market. It's a tough search as I have to consider the smiles that are marketing schemes and the smiles that are greetings. But I find someone that fits the bill, a middle-aged plump woman.
There's something odd about her but I can't put a pin on it. Still, I approach her at her stall, she's one of the few to afford a stand of sorts, the others sitting and selling on the floor.
I eye her fruits, there's a red, shiny apple sitting in a comfortable stack. My stomach growls and she lifts her eyes to me, but pulls them away a second after, leaving no doubt in me that she saw another beggar. Me.
I curse myself for not eating that sheep and moving on. Biting at my lip, frustrated but crippled. There's nothing else to do now but strive for what we can get now
"Excuse me, Ma'am?" I call out. She holds onto a thin cloth, ignoring me for its rather interesting shade of brown. "Ma'am, please could you spare me an apple?" It isn't all I need but hopefully, it's the least I can ask for.
"That'll be a single copper tokus, if you want the big ones that'll be two copper tokus."
She says all this without looking my way, like she didn't expect me to pull out even copper fillings from my pockets. Of course, she would be right.
"Ah, I'm new in town and I don't have any tokus on me." Tokus being the name of the accepted currency, "I would appreciate it if you help me."
"And I would appreciate it if you-!" The fury in her voice dies with a pause as she finally looks up at me, "Wait. You're new in the village?"
"Yes," I answer quickly. If it buys me any favours, I'd likely admit to anything. "I woke up at the front a few minutes ago, I'm coming from Arak village."
"Arak village…" she mouths, her eyes wide, then her shoulders droop and her awe replaced with relief as she recalls something, "Ah, yes. The Following finally burned down that cluster of evil. You must be a victim of the Cult. The Following saved you, yes?"
"The Following? You mean those men, the ones that gave me this coat?"
"Ah, they gifted you something." She looks a lot less disgusted by my presence now, "Yes, those men. They are the adjudicators of the law of Anera, they are our protectors and yours too. You are twice indebted to them, they've saved your soul and given you a gift. Such luck."
She takes on a dreamy almost envious look at me like she wishes she'd been the one to be saved. "I had two gifts actually. A coat and a silver coin but when I woke the coin, as well as all my valuables, were gone. If you could please…"
"Fine." She waves me away. "Take an apple and choose wisely, I offer only one. As for your belongings and the gift, many thieves roam our streets, your belongings will be long gone."
I thank her and pick a large apple worth two coppers and start off on my way. I know what I have to do next and how to get it done. If I was the victim of theft then I have a witness. Anselm.
However, I can't cast a spell out on the open street. Well, I can but I don't want to find out the hard way what the policy on magic is here, especially magic that flirts with the dead.
Ahead, past the end of the alley, there was an open field, with a river too. Perhaps the same river from Arak. I head there hoping it isn't filthy.
There are many suspects for petty crime, petty in a general sense but never when it happens to you. This is a grievous crime, and upon Anselm's accusing point I will harbour no remorse as I execute the offender with a touch of necromantic energy.
I'm itching for a chance to drain the life out of the fool who'd robbed me.
However, it would seem that casting Soul Drain will not make my to-do list today. My robber is only…
Anselm nods, he sits on the patch of grass next to a relatively clean river. Relatively clean because not twenty paces away a mother was bathing her child in it. The river washed away all dirt and gunk in the direction of Arak, but I am not enthused about drinking from it still.
"Are you sure it was a kid?" I ask again. Carrying out retribution on an adult is one thing but a kid? No.
"Yeah. I'm positive. He had this malnourished, about to be on the street's kind of look. You were unconscious for quite a bit so I thought I'd do some reconnaissance."
"And what did you find?"
"I found his home. His mother didn't look too happy about him 'stumbling on coin no one was using' but she's starved enough not to ask questions."
Great. My hard-earned money used to take care of some family.
"What do you want to do?" he asks, his feet hovering off the ground.
"I'm going to get my money back," I growl. He gives me a disapproving look like he expects me to say something different. "What would you have me do? Starve?"
"Of course not. But you haven't seen this family. They've been on the ropes for a very long time, ever since the kid's father died. They deserve a break."
"What did you stay for tea and cookies as well?" he gives me a confused look but I don't mind that, "They have a roof over their heads don't they? Neighbours that don't want to kill them and from the sounds of it they've got a ghost that's got their best interest in mind as well."
"Take me to them, I need a break."
I don't know where Anselm's sudden charitable attitude came from, he was the one who suggested I rob an entire village, pillage it and keep all the riches for myself and to an extent, that's what I did and I got away with my life by the skin of my teeth.
But all of a sudden, he wants me to give up the paltry finds I got away with? To a family that likely wouldn't regard me as a fellow human because I looked like a beggar?
I scoff. Coin that no one was using. What a brilliant way to condemn me to death and save your sorry ass. No, I am not going to have it.
This world has put me through too much for my big break to be snatched away like this. If I were a bit stronger, I would cast this village under my control, I would feast and drink on wine and clean fucking water like any civilized person.
Now more than ever, looking at the grinning merchants and store clerks making their fair bit of coin with whatever they have. It inspires me.
My talents are my magic, if this world gives you your piece based on whatever you're good at then I intend to take the biggest piece. Magic is worth it after all.
"You have a funny look on," Anselm complains.
I snort. "Anselm, I am going to be rich."
He looks at me in doubt. I suppose anyone would hearing such absurd proclamations from a man in rags. But I mean it. Suffering will be my friend no more.
It takes a while. Twisting and turning through the alleyways that bustle with business, but eventually, Anselm leads me to a house. If you can call it that.
It is unlike any of the others in the village proper, it looks more like a hut than a house, with rickety walls and set upon damp soil, ready to collapse at the slightest breeze.
I supposed he wasn't lying about them needing a break. Still, I don't falter and march on to the door.
Pounding out three knocks, not too heavy as I don't trust the door not to fall apart. "Hello! Anyone home?"
I hear a bit of shuffling on the other side like someone peeking through a hole at me. I tilt my head and look straight into it, meeting shaking blue orbs that pull back the moment they see me peering at them.
Next, I hear running. Fucking hell. "Anselm cut him off!"
Anselm sighs, still not excited about this but still, he flies off and phases into the house while I push the door open- finding it's not all that fragile. I'd call it sturdy if it weren't for the two shoves I heave at it that end up breaking it down.
The house bore nothing. There's a fur mat under my feet and ahead a square table with three chairs, to the side a pile of coal and wood surrounded by a large pot and three wooden bowls. It's humble.
I hear a squeal and follow the sound into the only other room. This one has enough space for two people to walk around in, although there isn't a lot to walk around.
There are two other mats and a cupboard that has clothes spilling out of it. In the centre of the room is Anselm, he holds the little scamp that stole my coin. The boy struggles, demanding to be let go else there would be hell to pay.
"Hello," I call out, announcing my presence to the child. His head snaps towards me and his eyes tell me all I need to know; he wasn't expecting me. "Surprised to see me, are you?"
"I... I was hungry. I still am, please mister." He begs. The child fits the description Anselm had given. About to be on the streets. He wore the look already, his shirt used to have sleeves, that much I can tell by the jagged tears at the seams and his puffy trousers used to have wool fillings for warmth in them, only now they're torn out and the hair on his head matched the dirt colour of his shirt so well it might have been planned.
"Did you stop to consider that I was hungry as well? Did the thought cross your mind while you were robbing an unconscious man of his only riches?"
"It did! I swear it did I jus-"
"What is happening here? Who are you, people!"
I turn and my eyes meet the blue of a woman, her braided hair tied up in a knot and she wears a black dress and an apron over it. A maid.
Not the maid of a royal or someone important enough to afford uniforms, just a maid. The type that didn't care for courtesy's and bows, the type that would lick the floor if it meant living a bit. A maid.
I can see why Anselm thought they needed a break. Still, no turning back now.
"Are you this thief's mother?"
Her eyes widen and her lips begin to tremble. She sets down a basket of fruit and flattens herself, prostrating before me. A beggar by all accounts.
"Please, forgive my son his transgressions against you kind si-"
"Do not impose kindness upon me. Your son robbed me blind while I slept, unconscious and injured from battle." Is battle a stretch? Perhaps. "He did not show me kindness."
"Take me then. I shall bear the brunt of whatever punishment you deem fit sir. I only ask you spare my son."
The boy's desperate screams, denial turns to pleas and pleas to angry welps.
I sigh, in my hands, I cradle a ball of green mana; Anselm was running out. But they don't know that.
The woman noticing the light even with her head bowed looks up and gasps. Now tears seem to well up in her eyes. "Great Mage please spare us." She prays, scrambling on her knees to hold onto my trousers, the first of the tears had fallen. "Spare my foolish son!"
"Relax. This isn't for you. It is for him." Anselm's time runs out and he dissipates, the boy in his grasps drops, tears streaming and eyes stricken with fear he scrambles to hold his mother. I release the spell, it hurtles through and stabs Anselm in the chest, filling him once more.
I turn to the crying woman and child, and beckon her to stand, she hesitates a bit but gets to it, the boys gripping her skirt, a foot in front of her. A man in the making.
"What is your name?"
"I am Elsa and this is my son, Sem, Great Mage."
"Well then Elsa, I only want my coin. No harm will come to you if you give me what is mine."
Her breath hitches and her eyes fall to the ground. I follow her look and land on something so innocent. The basket of fruit.
Anselm's hand falls on my shoulder and he whispers in my ear. "What are you going to do now, Asher?"