“Actually, it may have been a good thing that you ran away so suddenly,” said Runir.
“What do you mean?” asked Lily.
“Well, shortly after you decided to take a stroll in the forest, the Celeste came searching for you in Fohil,” he replied.
I frowned. Was this Solaron’s doing? She couldn’t find the hero nor the demon lord, but she could still sense me. Is she tracking our group through me? And if so, should I leave or at least confront her?
I glanced over at Kai whose lips had turned up a little, like he was holding back a smile.
“The Celeste? What’s that?” asked Lily, her eyebrows furrowed.
“You don’t know about the Celeste? Don’t tell me you don’t know about the Pandomin either? One of them just tried to take your life!” Runir said, incredulously.
Lily frowned. “Stop being such a bitch and answer the question.”
“The Celeste and the Pandomin are the elite military units of the holy union and the dusk alliance, respectively,” said Kai, joining the conversation. “A group of Celeste or Pandomins is said to be able to fight the hero and the demon lord on equal grounds. In fact, it’s rumored that they have fought heroes and demon lords, and won.”
No one spoke for a few moments.
The Celeste and the Pandomins shouldn’t be a problem for me and the demon lord can take care of himself. Kai... should be fine. The only one I need to be concerned about is the hero.
I glanced at Lily, who seemed lost in thought.
“And they’re both after me...” Lily said, breaking the silence.
Kai nodded and Runir smiled. I moved closer and embraced her, shocking her for a second before she pushed me away.
“You have to stop doing that. It hurts!” she said, gasping for breath.
“It will be okay. You have me,” I assured.
“I’m not scared of some assassins or whatever, but...” Her words trailed.
“But we’ll need to change the plan somewhat. We can’t stay in the Light kingdom anymore, so let’s take a detour,” said Runir.
“Right, we can pass through the Fire Kingdom. We’ll head West, cross the Vandrake mountains and stop over at Ashpoole city. From there we can either cross the desert to Beigo or hike across the mountains to the Shrine,” Kai said.
Runir raised an eyebrow. “Sounds good to me,” he said.
“I don’t know about those places at all so I’ll trust you on this,” for now. The unsaid words implied by her tone.
“It is a good plan but the Vandrake Mountains are incredibly perilous. Flocks of flying monsters roam the skies and roost on the mountaintops. Drakes, Wyverns, Dragons, there are many fearsome creatures in those lands,” I said.
Kai chuckled. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” he said, without elaboration.
After planning the route in more detail and discussing a few defensive formations, we packed up and embarked into the wilderness.
I stuck close to Lily but she was wary of me. I had yet to gain her trust. Although it was understandable, given the circumstances, it still hurt to be rebuked so openly. She was the first person I’d opened myself to in centuries, yet she flinched when I drew close.
She will come around eventually, I thought, resigning myself to the current situation. Instead, I cast my gaze in front of us, staring at the shadows that were beginning to emerge in the distance. Those shadows belonged to the hills that led up to the Vandrake mountains and eventually, to the Fire goddess’ shrine – to my shrine.
I felt a slight pain in my chest. I hadn’t seen these mountains in a long time. A little over nine-hundred years, in fact. I’d been avoiding them ever since Yunni died. I avoided both the mountains and the bitter memories that came with them. But that was all in the past. For now, I had to protect Lily.
However, I hit a significant snag in my mission to protect Lily. The place should have been full of ferocious beasts and vicious monsters who attacked anyone they saw. Those beasts didn’t care if you were stronger than them and would charge at you regardless. In fact, they even attacked me, a goddess!
Yet we hadn’t met a single monster at all – not one! The journey had been peaceful, almost boring.
Runir led us up a rocky path, casually jumping across crevasses and climbing ledges. We followed wordlessly. After planning the route a few days ago, we hadn’t talked much, creating a long silence that no one wanted to break.
But I was confused. Even though this mountain had been out of the way, Runir insisted on coming here. Kai had stared at him for a long time before agreeing. Lily didn’t care so I hadn’t rejected it either, but this would delay us by a day at least, and that would give Solaron more time to think of a plan.
She would want the hero back, or at least under her surveillance, but she couldn’t send the Celeste into the Vandrake mountains even if she could track us through her connection to me. Which meant that something would be waiting for us at Ashpoole or maybe outside the Shrine itself.
While I debated the possibility of an ambush and questioned the effectiveness of the longer route we had adopted, a small shape began to emerge on the mountain peak in front of us. Kai and Runir also seemed to have noticed it and Lily followed my gaze. Thin clouds streamed across the shape, shrouding it in their mists. Runir laughed as he saw it, a little relief detectable in his laughter.
Kai sighed as he looked at the shrouded shape in the distance but didn’t say anything. I, on the other hand, was shocked. After centuries of roaming around the world, I was sure that I had seen nearly everything on Erath but I had never expected something like this to be hidden right next to my own Shrine.
I’d never heard of anything being built so high up in the mountains and even if something could be built here, it would never be able to survive the inevitable aggression of the flying monsters in the region.
And yet here it was.
“What is that?” I murmured, unconsciously breaking the silence that had been lingering for several days.
“I don’t know,” Runir said cheerfully.
I frowned. “But isn’t that the reason we came all the way out here? I do not know about you but I would rather not waste time pursuing unknown shapes in the Vandrake Mountains, of all places.”
Runir thought for a moment. “Very well, I suppose I’ll have to tell you if we’re going to be working together from now on. But first, Kai, do you know why we’re going to the Fire Goddess’ shrine?”
“I suppose you intend to receive the Fire goddess’ blessing,” he said, smiling cryptically.
Runir’s face remained expressionless but his fists were clenched tight.
“That is partially correct. Lily will be able to receive the goddess’ blessing and become stronger, but our true objective is to search for a way back to our world.”
“Our world?” Kai said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Yes. I was also summoned to this world, even though I am not the Hero.”
“I see. Well, I’m just tagging along for the story so please don’t mind me,” he said, smiling.
Runir nodded and turned to me.
“Right, I suppose you already know, but my Ability is called ‘Perfect Strategy.’ It allows me to make plans and strategies to reach any objective or goal that I formally choose to pursue and it gives me hints and suggestions regarding what I should do to achieve them.” He gestured towards the blurry shape on the mountaintop. “Ever since I set reaching the Fire Goddess’ shrine as a sub-goal, I’ve been receiving strong hints to come up here for some reason and I’m sure that is what I’m looking for.”
Well, that was what his ability was called but...
I frowned as I stared at his status, but I wasn’t looking at the Perfect Strategist ability that seemed to be exactly as he had claimed. No, I was looking at his other ability.
Everyone born on Erath had only one ability, even the goddesses. But the hero and the demon lord had two. One was their innate ability, which was bestowed upon them by Fate, just like everyone else’ abilities. But they also had another ability, one that was unique to the hero and the other possessed only by the demon lord.
And Runir was no exception. In addition to his insanely useful natural ability, he also had the fearsome ability possessed by all demon lords. I grit my teeth and screamed inside my head because I couldn’t warn Lily about it.
“Do you know why your ability was telling you to come here?” asked Lily.
“I have a hunch. The Fire goddess’ shrine is built on top of a large, active volcano and there is no way to reach it without someone at the top activating the teleport circle. The only problem is, the goddess’ shrine has prerequisites for entry. First, only families are allowed. Second, that family must include a child under the legal age of adulthood in this world, which is 14 years old. As such, none of us would be able to enter the shrine conventionally and we can only hope for a more unconventional way in.”
“And this will help us find that unconventional entrance?” Lily asked, skeptically.
“Perhaps, perhaps not. All I know is we need to find a way to reach the Fire goddess’ shrine and this is our best bet.” He started hiking up the mountain again.
“I’m the hero, can’t I just flash my sacred sword and ask her to let me in?” Lily ran to catch up to him.
Runir shook his head. “Previous heroes have tried that but the Fire goddess is very strict with her requirements. She’s refused multiple heroes in the past.”
Lily frowned. “That’s a stupid rule. What about people who don’t have a family? Or don’t have kids. Don’t they deserve to go to their Goddess’ shrine?”
“Well actually, the Fire Goddess’ shrine is famous for being the easiest to get into. The requirements to enter the other shrines are far higher. Some of them are just plain closed off to the public.”
It was a natural response to years of incessant annoyances - of farmers with missing cows and lovers praying for a healthy marriage. A thousand years of this stuff was unbearable. I may have closed off my doors too if I had not left the shrine.
We walked closer to the shape and we could finally make out its features. First, we saw a fence. A broken, rotting, wooden fence. Then came the muddy field full of weeds. And finally, the chilly mists gave way to a dilapidated old shack.
This is the reason we came all the way here? I frowned and looked over at Runir.
Runir stared at the shack for a moment before muttering something under his breath and walking towards it. Kai hummed a tune as he followed him. Lily’s eyes darted in all directions as she presumably planned an escape route.
The door creaked as Runir opened it, and made splintering noises. The shack was dark, dusty, and very, very empty, which was quite anticlimactic.
“Something’s not right...” Runir said, walking inside the shack. “But they should be right around here!” He stopped over a seemingly random floorboard.
He reached for the board and pulled it off, revealing damp, brown soil underneath. Not hesitating at all, he began to dig with his hands.
“Runir, what are you doing?” asked Lily, giving him a weird look.
“Just a little further...” he said, his hands stopping. “There!”
He pulled out his muddy arm and gazed at his fist, his lips curled into a wide smile.
“Um, Runir, why are you staring at a bunch of dirt?” Lily asked, confused.
Runir looked at her with a deadpan expression. “This isn’t dirt. This is a-”
“Oi! Whacha doin ere? Get outta ma house!”
We turned around and stared at the person who’d called out so angrily. He was an old elf with wilting brown ears, a pudgy nose, and broken teeth. He wore dirty yellow clothes that probably hadn’t started out yellow and gave off a foul odor that reached all the way where we stood.
“Sorry, we didn’t know someone was living here,” Lily said, wrinkling her nose.
“Well now ya do. So scram!” The old elf grunted, spit flying out of his mouth.
“Actually, the real owner of this place sent us to get something that belonged to them. Just give us a minute and we’ll –” Runir said, walking out of the shack.
“Waddaya mean real owner? This is ma house! Been livin ere fer fifty years,” the old elf shouted angrily.
“But this house belonged to someone else before that, right? It’s obviously been around for more than fifty years,” Runir replied, calmly.
“Does that matter? No one was usin it so it’s mine! Now get out before I knock ya out.”
“Look just give us a minute and we’ll be gone. Besides, we still need to fix up –” He turned towards the inside of the shack, gesturing towards the hole in the floor.
But it wasn’t there.
I stared at the unbroken floorboards, stunned. The hole had been there moments ago, and now it was like it had never been there at all. Runir’s hands were clean, even though he’d never wiped them.
“Ah, kind sir. We were just about to leave. We apologize for disturbing you, thank you for your hospitality,” said Kai as he casually walked out of the shack.
Was he behind this?
Runir and Lily recovered soon after and began following Kai. I was sure we all had the same question, but none of us was willing to ask.
“Oi! Wait a minute!”
We turned around.
“It’s gettin late so ye can stick around fer the night. But don’t come ta me looking fer food! Hard enough ta feed myself these days,” said the old elf, turning his back on us and shutting the door to the shack.
We looked at Kai and he shrugged. We decided to stay the night on the mountaintop, mostly because Lily had wanted to see the sunset from up here. We made camp and sat down to watch the rays of light dance across the skies, bounce off the thin clouds and mists, and paint the already beautiful mountain scenery with brilliant hues of red and gold.
The grumpy old elf ended up joining us at night after he caught the scent of Kai’s cooking. Kai took out some wine from his storage, at which point the elf’s eyes started glittering and we all began drinking.
We ended up chatting with the elf for hours. He told us some of the stories from his younger days and we told him some of ours. He waved us goodbye and went inside the shack while we settled down for the night.
I glanced at Lily, whose head had rolled out of the sleeping bag while she slept. I felt a lot of things as I stared at her face. I wanted to protect her, to guard her, to keep her safe. Because for better or for worse, I cared about her. She already seemed like family to me. A little sister, just like... Yunni.
I looked over at Runir, who was curled up into a ball due to the cold, mountain air. My gaze drifted to Kai, who was lying on his back next to the campfire, just like he always did.
This time I felt confused because I’d felt something again. Despite Runir’s background and Kai’s ominous mystique, I’d felt the urge to protect them too.
Did I think of them as family? Were they like little brothers to me, the way Jeffi had been? I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions so I closed my eyes and lay down the way Kai always did.
It was surprisingly helpful.
- Nobody Knows Me
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