A Disaster of Dragons (working title) is a long fiction I’ve (weirdly) been trying to write for the last 6 years. It’s a mess of loose ideas I’ve not edited in any real way, filtered over years and years of trying to write a longer work, and to be honest, it’s not really written for anyone other than me (for the moment). I’ll be releasing it more or less weekly (depending on chapter length) and we’ll see if I can ever end up finishing it.
Synopsis: A Disaster of Dragons is about Yun, an adventurer who, only a short few years ago, went on a journey to defeat the Demon Lord and succeeded. In the aftermath of the battle, she was thought to have killed the Hero Nari Han and fled to protect herself, being branded as a criminal and hunted down by the Adventurer’s Guild. Though it’s been six years since the journey ended, Yun still wants to know the truth of what happened that day, and so, she reaches out to a former member of her party in hopes it might lead her there.
Formatting this is going to be something of a nightmare I don’t want to tangle with today, so I’ll link pages with the individual chapters below and also paste the entire up to date thing on this page in case you want to read the whole thing.
(Not required, but one of my writing samples is also a prequel that takes place during the initial journey)
“…Do you know what they call a grouping of dragons?”
The remnants of a half-forgotten conversation floated around in time with the clicking of metal tracks underneath, bumping a gentle rhythm into the quiet whistling of wind. Yun blinked, her eyelids dragging heavily along the burning friction of early waking. She couldn’t remember what it was that had her dreaming so soundly, but she wanted desperately to return to it. She closed her eyes again only to find the cloying heat of summer sticking to her skin.
Giving up, she climbed down from the bed and sat by the window, letting the wind cool her face. Her hair, cut haphazardly below her ears, was clearly reflected in the window, and she noticed how much she’d have rather it have been left an inch or two longer and not hastily dyed black. Not like she had much of a choice in that regard. Outside, she could make out the lights of New Moon Port in the distance, breathing like fireflies against the darkness. A lantern rocked in time with the movements of the train, hanging off the end of a worn wooden staff. Yun snapped, a dim light flickered inside the lantern then spilled out, casting the cabin in shades of shifting orange.
She pulled the journal out of her bag, flipping through its tattered pages once more. Though not more than a couple years since she last wrote in it, she couldn’t escape the feeling that its contents were written by someone else. Its entries were sparse enough as is, spaced strangely and consisting mostly of resupply lists or notes about restaurants, but even now she felt there was something missing here and there, in the edges of her perception. Still, it was the only record that remained of her journey, so she couldn’t help but fret over its pages.
More vexed than when she awoke, Yun sighed, shutting the book and replacing it in her bag. With a snap, the lantern went out once more, inviting faraway lights to reappear in her vision. Though there were certainly better places to get a view, the darkness of the water surrounding the tracks provided a stunning mirror of the spilling purples and pinks of the Star Sea above. For a moment, the rapid movement of the train over the reflected stars evoked the feeling of riding further and further into the infinite depths of the galaxy.
Yun arrived two hours before sunrise, in the transient hour before the promise of dawn brings coffee stands and fishermen hustling past each other in the lamplit streets; the lanterns holding as steady as the nighttime sun. She came upon the last noodle shop hanging up its equipment and couldn’t help but stare longingly at the empty stockpots being thrown into the sink. Even if she hadn’t arrived just as it was closing, the dwindling pouch of coins in her pocket might not have stretched over dinner and an inn stay anyhow.
There was certainly an urgency to her travels, one that would have been much easier to address had her coin purse not sprung a leak that left her trailing gold for hours. At the point she noticed, it was much too late to salvage any of the fallen gold and she decided to cut her losses then and there. It wasn’t ideal to have to pick up jobs between stops in order to continue on, but it reminded her fondly of the day to day living of adventuring. She sighed, setting to find an inn for the night, walking along the cascading streets, taking note of the streetlamps reflected in the inky-black water below.
The smell of breakfast, or more precisely lunch, was enticing and Yun found herself unable to resist getting up only a couple hours after going to sleep. She draped herself in her traveling robes and walked down the solid wooden stairs, the warmth of the dining hall seeping into her bones. A melody of scents hung in the air accompanied by the sizzling of frying eggs. Charcoal grilled fish, the heavy aroma of garlic and onions being sauteed, and, most importantly, the smell of fresh bread being broken.
She sat down, ordered, then closed her eyes to listen to the ambient sound of people going about their day. She could make out conversations about work, home, romance, and more. Little snippets, enough to pique one’s interest. Then she began to see the threads open up before her closed eyes. Golden ropes woven across the room, some taut and some loose. Some intertwined and knotted, and others just beginning to fray.
The man sitting two tables over was having family troubles due to the uncharacteristically poor weather ruining his crop yield. His thread was taut and shining, though, and Yun guessed he would encounter some good fortune soon enough.
The woman sitting in the corner sounded like she was bragging about her inheritance, but her thread, while thick, was wound with the kind of tension that could snap at any moment.
The sound of a plate being set down cleared the visions away, causing Yun to open her eyes, a sparking golden tinge in them fading quickly to a dark brown.
“Oh. Thank you.” Yun bowed her head slightly.
“No problem, dearie. You enjoy now,” the server grinned.
She tucked into her food, taking care to rip open the bread. The aroma that burst out was of warm nights spent gently milling grain. If not for the abundance of people around, she might have wanted to just press her face directly into the bread and go to sleep. Instead, she dipped the bread into her soup and began to eat, letting the rich, fatty broth ease her thoughts away for just a moment. It had a deep, savory flavor that coated her tongue, permeating the soft, airy bread with resounding satisfaction.
She picked at the charcoal grilled fish next, letting the beautifully charred, crispy skin melt in her mouth, followed by beautifully juicy, tender flesh. It was hot enough that she had to intersperse each bite with a moment or two of intaking sharp breaths. Chasing it all down with a cup of bright coffee was exactly the kind of thing she woke up in the morning for.
After successfully wolfing down her breakfast, Yun gathered her belongings and checked out, leisurely strolling the streets. There was some time until she needed to be anywhere so she decided to look around. New Moon Port was the kind of place she liked: lively, full of diverse sights and sounds, and, most importantly, home to many, many different kinds of food. Though it was much larger than the coastal town she came from, it instilled in her the kind of nostalgic attachment that attracted her to all trading cities.
Of course, there were just as many things to find off-putting about such large places. Like the people on the street corners evangelizing about how such and some will cause the destruction of all civilization. It was always a little different everywhere she went. Yun listened for a second or two, but couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. She sighed, and walked to her destination.
Tucked between two larger shops was a small building constructed primarily of wood. Despite there being plenty of business in the surrounding area, the shop staring Yun down had no indication it was even open. Were it not for the smoke coming out of the chimney, it was possible to think no one was inside at all. It was that sort of place, after all. She slid the door open and was greeted by a wave of heat and incense that mingled oddly with the warming summer air. The inside was dimly lit and the sunlight refused to penetrate into the back of the shop, giving the impression of walking into a dark cave.
Sitting near the back of the room, near a fire pit dug into the ground, was a slender woman wrapped in an excessive amount of layers. Sheer white hair cascading down the entirety of her back and highlighting the sickly pale tone of her skin. A deep, dark blue cloth draped over her left eye matched the tone of her jacket, embroidered in subtle constellations of golden thread. She looked up, holding a long metal pipe with perfect precision, a steady tendril of smoke curling and undulating out of it like a living creature. When Yun got closer she could smell tobacco mingling with the incense.
Yun looked at, tried not to look at, Tsukimi’s thread. It was well-braided, shining ominously red, and coiled all around her body, tightly. It pressed against her clothes to accentuate her curves. It always felt invasive, but it was even harder to not see it considering the power that ran through those threads. Tsukimi was courteous enough not to mention the rapidly increasing blood flow rushing to her cheeks.
“Ruinbringer.” A low, deliberate voice cut through the air, caressing Yun’s ears. Her eye twitched as a reflex.
“Tsukimi.” Yun responded, staring at the composed smile that never quite reached her eye.
“You wish to know the whereabouts of the man formerly known as the Demon Lord, yes?” Her speech was always meticulously paced and listening to it had an effect unsettlingly not unlike claustrophobia. It paced around her, closing surely but ever so slowly.
Yun didn’t really know how to respond, wondering how, exactly, she projected that air of clairvoyance.
“For what other reason would the Ruinbringer send a letter to one of her former companions after so long? Certainly not to make small talk, I would imagine.”
“Perhaps not with you.”
“Certainly not with the others.”
Of all her former companions, Tsukimi was the only one who seemed to find her company even tolerable, owing likely to her own status as an outsider, even though she was well considered one of the heroes. A mechant wasn’t exactly the easiest role to fit into an expedition party; it was seemingly a miracle she made it out alive at all.
“I have prepared what you have asked for. As promised I will ask no questions. However, I will simply ponder out loud that perhaps your situation is a little desperate.” Tsukimi said, taking out a small, lacquered box.
“You could say that.” Yun said, tucking it into her bag.
”You are searching for answers.”
“How did you-?”
“You did not slay Nari Han.”
“You would believe the words of an outlaw?”
“I believe in my own judgement.”
“Nonetheless. You seek the Valley of Khine, to the northeast. I take it you know the way.”
“Surely. You will be needing companions, yes?”
Yun shook her head, Tsukimi twitched her eyebrows ever so slightly.
“Done with companions?”
“You and I both know-“
“That would be a shame. I have a knight looking to head to Khine as well. I imagine a good child like her could use the experience of a seasoned adventurer to get there safely.”
She sat still as death, slowly breathing in the last wisp of smoke from her pipe. She exhaled.
“Consider it a job, then. Since you cannot take them from the Guild.”
Yun stared, trying to read anything that belied her motivations. Even with her strained relationship with the other heroes, Tsukimi was the greatest mystery of the bunch. Utterly unreadable, nary an explanation, she couldn’t even be sure about what her gift was. She sighed.
“Fine. It won’t be cheap, though.”
“I will send only the finest.”
“Tomorrow morning. Earliest train out of here.” She felt her spine tingle in anticipation of a proper drink.
As she walked back to her inn, the closing of the daytime was signalled by the lighting of lanterns. Their flames kept the streets lit against the darkness, long throughout the night, and contributed to the epithet “The City of Starlight.” Strings of lanterns were dangled high above each street in dense lattices, suggesting the faraway lights lost when in the city’s midst.
It was at moments like this when Yun felt the most taken with the movement of people. The sounds of people heading home mingling with the smell of meat grilled over charcoal nourished her in a way she always cherished. Even ostracized as she was, the passing connection she felt to all those around her, as the gentle threads of fate brushed against her skin, reminded her always of why she went on the journey.
Yun stood on the endless plane. The sky was a piercing, painful blue that stretched her heart further than she could bear. Below her was the mirror-still water on which she stood. The smell of spent rain clouds hung in the air like static, more divine than earthly. She walked.
She walked for a long time before she found the first gate. It was tall and ancient, long since disrepaired, the vague impressions of color fading into a blanket of moss. For a moment, she could see a figure on the other side, though perhaps it was just her reflection. She stepped through the gate and fell into the abyss.
Straight through the surface and into the crushing depths. Her breath steadily ran hotter and hotter as she sank.
She couldn’t see, but knew a hand was being held out to her. She reached for it, stretching her arm until it felt like her joint would pop out and her muscles fray. She felt the soft brush of fingertips against hers.
Yun awoke, face-down in her pillow, and sat up to breathe the clear morning air.
Even before the sun had risen, the humidity of the air carried a pleasant and nostalgic warmth. Yun stood at the counter of a coffee stand, bags huddled in a pile below. In front of her was a small ceramic cup filled with coffee that she held precariously by its one-finger handle, taking small, careful sips until it cooled enough to drink properly.
She could hear the approaching of someone clad in armor behind her and turned to see a simple metal breastplate, worn and scratched but clearly taken care of. The woman wearing it was fairly tall, not older than her early twenties, only a couple years younger than herself, and her hair cut a neat, angled line halfway down her neck, the back retreating up, sharp enough to make Yun reconsider her own shoddy cut. Her skin was fair, but the color of her hair was even fairer, wavering between a sheer, snowy white and a hazy sky blue. There was something to her more than her straightforward appearance betrayed, but Yun couldn’t quite place it.
“My name is Adelaide. You’re the witch recommended by Miss Tsukimi, yes?” She stuck an armored hand out, which Yun shook, finding her grip to be altogether too enthusiastic for how early it was in the morning.
“I’m Yun.” She looked at her thread, noting how it seemed well-coiled and sufficiently taught, wrapped around her waist like a belt, but oddly knotted and seemingly snaking far out of view. She couldn’t make heads or tails of what that meant. While it wasn’t unusual for her to be unable to see the entirety of a person’s thread, she couldn’t help but feel that many were disappearing out of sight a little sooner than anticipated. An ill-omen, certainly.
“I suppose we have the train ride ahead, but I’ve also brought this,” she pulled out a pleasantly rounded bottle holding an amber liquor. Yun’s eyes perked up immediately. “Miss Tsukimi asked me to give it to you.”
She took it, nodding contentedly.
The whistle-pop-lock of tracks signaled the arrival of the train, followed shortly by a gust of wind.
The train was, as always, a welcome enough sight. The weathered cabins were clean, but bore the marks of traveling families, carved insignias from bored children and sanded grooves where luggage was held. Yun remarked at how long it had been since she’d shared a cabin with anyone to which Adelaide simply extended her enthusiasm for the idea.
”Miss Tsukimi was a friend of my older sister.”
“I wasn’t aware she had friends.”
“Lots of people say that.” Adelaide smiled. “She doesn’t seem too personable at first glance, right?”
“Second, third, fourth either.”
Adelaide laughed, clearly and loudly.
“My sister isn’t much for mincing words either.”
“Perhaps that’s why.”
“And how long have you known Miss Tsukimi?”
“Longer than I’d have liked to.”
A silence hung in the air as the train began to move, taking the two over the water, now in the light of day. The salt-sea air of the clear blue skies carried an inexplicable melancholy, a heart-wrenching freedom both beautiful and suffocating.
Adelaide’s gift was easy to understand, a rallying cry that could inspire others to draw out hidden strength. The kind of skill that would make for an impressive expedition leader. She was personable, too, making no less than six separate attempts to get to know Yun. Even there she was gentle, careful not to use her curiosity to pry, but to let her speak on her own terms. Were she born a few years earlier, she could have easily made a name for herself.
“My gift is one of Sight. I can see the threads of fate.”
“It’s a lot like fortune telling, if I’m going to be honest.”
“Can you affect this fate, then?”
“Barely. I can move the strings, adjust the flows, even rebalance or restring.”
Adelaide looked confused.
“I can manipulate luck.”
“Oh! That sounds useful.”
“Maybe. If you believe in it, that is.”
“Do you not?”
“Some prefer to forge their own destinies.”
“Is that possible?”
“It’s more common than you’d think.” Yun paused. “And more reliable.”
This job was going to be dangerous, for very little benefit to Adelaide. Yun had to admit she felt bad about that. About lying to her. She was sure Tsukimi had properly warned her, but it was one thing to assume a journey was going to be dangerous and another entirely to be hunted down by the Heroes who slew the Demon Lord.
“So the job is just to clean up some skeletons that have taken over a graveyard?”
“Someone didn’t do their due diligence with the burial rites.”
“Say, Miss Yun, do you know where skeletons come from?”
Yun wanted so desperately to say ‘from inside a person’s body.’
“… An unrited corpse may be infused with stray necromantic energy and simply get up.”
“Is stray necromantic energy that common?”
“Less than it used to be.” Yun sighed, polishing the lantern on her staff. “Mostly stemming from one incident. A long time ago.”
Adelaide whistled a dropping note as she watched the skeletons wandering aimlessly around the graveyard. When undisturbed, they almost looked natural, like it was just right for a walking skeleton to be a feature of a graveyard.
“Isn’t this usually a job for beginner adventurers?”
“I can’t take on much harder than this, personally. Sorry if that’s disappointing.” She was half telling the truth. This was the kind of job to fall through the cracks, seeing as it wasn’t administered through the guild. Plus, not everybody liked seeing human remains being puppeteered by stray spirits. Zombies were worse, though; the smell stayed with you for days.
Yun pulled a dagger out of a belt attached to her hip and gave it a small flourish.
“I was under the impression you were a caster,” Adelaide looked confused.
“It’s complicated. Just follow my lead.”
Yun took a moment to breathe, closing her eyes and letting the weave of corrupted fate appear before her, frayed and tattered lines glowing with malice and sorrow, binding poor souls in an ensnaring web. The ends of the strings, predictably, pulled deep into the earth, likely from where they had risen.
Waiting, like a spider sensing the vibrations on the web, Yun pounced suddenly, stabbing her dagger straight through a passing skeleton’s spinal column, from where it suddenly collapsed into an unmoving pile. Some runes engraved into the blade emitted a soft and gentle light. Adelaide gave a small whistle of appreciation.
The cleaning proceeded like this, until only a handful of skeletons remained, idly standing around a large tomb, likely belonging to some noble family. Still, there was something that wasn’t quite right. The skeletons had been severed from fate, releasing them from their control, but the errant strings remained, tangling ominously like a nest of snakes. Adelaide shivered, as a chill ran down her spine.
“Good intuition.” Yun said, taking out her staff and setting it down. Despite having twists and curves, it stood perfectly balanced, without a moment of hesitation. She snapped and a fire sprang to life inside the lantern, a soft golden line drawing a perfect circle on the ground with the staff at its center.
“This is my effective area. Stay inside it when possible.” She continued.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Something that shouldn’t be here.”
The remaining skeletons snapped to attention, a new intent burning in their eyesockets. More skeletons began climbing out of the ground, far outnumbering the previously shambling mob.
Yun looked over Adelaide. Skeletons on their own posed little threat to someone wearing decent armor. None of them were armed, either, which meant she had the range advantage as well. However the greatest danger now was whatever was directing the skeletons.
“Lock down the movement of the skeletons you can see. Hopefully we can draw the controller out.” Adelaide nodded as Yun readied her dagger once more and the two sprang into action.
Even when the scattering blow of bones crashed against her, Adelaide found that they hit glancingly, leaving her with minimal harm. Even if skeletons were considered creatures for newer adventurers to deal with, a swarm this big would be enough to overwhelm even a well-experienced party.
Nevertheless, the scene played out far more like a dance than a battle, with Yun ensuring they were never separated by more than two body lengths. If a skeleton came between them, it was quickly dispatched. Despite not having fought together before, Adelaide caught on quickly and Yun had enough experience to adjust her own movements accordingly. Even sword swings felt like they were connecting properly.
“I thought you said you weren’t good in a fight?”
“I’d be dead if you weren’t pulling your weight.”
While she did feel some truth in that statement, Adelaide found herself wondering once more what exactly the nature of her traveling companion’s history was.
Yun felt the pull of exhaustion weighing down on her. While she never had nearly the stamina of her companions, it had also been a couple years since she was at the height of her ability. Taking odd jobs here and there doesn’t exactly compare to the rigor of the Final Journey.
Luckily, the end was in sight. The corrupted strings began to move as something unearthed itself from the dirt. Her heart dropped upon seeing it.
“What is that?” Adelaide asked.
“Just my luck.”
The creature pulled itself out of the dirt, appearing as a bouquet of skulls supported by a twisted amalgamation of miscellaneous skeletal remains. The hollow laughter echoed out, backed by the chattering of teeth hitting teeth.
Adelaide immediately reinforced her stance, watching for any openings, but the creature simply turned and began to swing its many arms at Yun. While it was distracted, she attempted to strike a blow with her sword, shattering a segment of bone, only for some to fly off the ground to hastily replace them.
“What’s going on?!”
“It’s prioritizing threats.” Yun explained, putting all her focus in dodging the erratic movements of the creature. “It knows you can’t hurt it.”
“What do we do?”
“Catch.” The dagger flew through the air in a perfect arc, landing perfectly in Adelaide’s hand before she could even register it had been thrown.
“Miss Yun! That was extremely dangerous!”
“I had faith.” She said, right before being hit by a large swing that sent her flying.
Well shit, Yun thought, her vision reeling from the hit she just sustained. She could hear Adelaide shouting after her, clearly concerned. There were other things that were more important here, given that she had now painted a target on her companion’s back.
She went down the list, diagnosing her own status. Nothing broken, too seriously at any rate. Her mana had taken the brunt of the hit, she had always been good at this kind of magic, and only this kind. The creature was strong though. She hadn’t expected to use this much energy this quickly.
Yun sighed, closing her eyes to watch the strings. Adelaide was pressed, she was clearly outmatched. Still, she had taken minimal damage until now, allowing her to continue fighting at near full capacity. Good.
Adelaide raised the dagger forward, bolstering her own position and preparing for the next hit. The unmistakable rush of reserved energy flooded into her veins.
And into Yun’s as well. Perfect. With one motion, Yun tugged at Adelaide’s string, playing a soft melody audible only to her.
Something clicked and Adelaide rushed forward, ducking under the wide sweeps to press both blades deep into the spine of the skeletal abomination. A bright flash of light rang out, like the ringing in one’s ears after an explosion. A ghastly wail pierced their ears. And then it was all over. No more moving skeletons.
“Miss Yun, we did it!”
“Ugh.” Yun was bleeding from her mouth and her nose. Which led to the unpleasant feeling of tasting, smelling, and swallowing blood at the same time. Like a two lane road of blood coming up and down. She hated nosebleeds.
“Are you okay?”
“Mostly. Just drained.”
“What was all that about?”
“Stray necromantic energy.”
“It’s a little more complicated, but that’s the short version. I think.” She shakily rose from the ground.
“And the long version?”
“We don’t have a lot of great ways of knowing.” Yun stepped over to the remains of the skeleton creature. “Unless.”
“What are you looking for?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“You don’t give a lot of great answers.”
“Hm. Fair- AHA!” Yun pulled out a perfectly smooth, purple orb. “I knew I could trust you.”
Adelaide just stared.
“If you’re lucky, a creature like this may drop some remnant of their power.” She paused. “I am not lucky.”
“Doesn’t work on me.”
Yun polished the orb and gave it a shake like one might jostle a children’s toy they were particularly upset with.
“HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY. STOP THAT.” A voice like a disturbed animal waking from hibernation rang out.
Adelaide’s eyes widened.
“Hello there. You have a name?”
“MAYBE. FOR ME. NOT FOR YOU.”
Yun looked unamused and started shaking again.
“OKAY OKAY. YOU’RE GONNA SEPARATE MY SOUL AT THIS RATE. SHEESH LADY.”
“YOU SPEAK TO SYKORA, KING OF THE UNDEAD, LOYAL GENERAL OF DEMON LORD CARR.” Laughter rang out across the now-quiet graveyard.
“Long time ago, huh.” Yun started counting backwards the number of years that must have passed.
“Wait, there were multiple Demon Kings?”
“It’s a title. Like any other, it’s passed down. The procession is what makes it unique-”
“TELL ME LITTLE GIRL. HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE THE TIME OF LORD CARR.” Sykora was clearly interested, hearing the distance and the years in Yun’s voice.
“I SEE. SO LONG IT HAS TAKEN TO REGAIN MY POWER. I AM TOO LATE FOR YOU MY LORD…”
“AND WHO IS THE CURRENT DEMON KING?”
“The throne stands empty. Demon Lord Gou was felled six years ago.”
“AND SO THE DEMONS SLEEP ONCE MORE.”
“The Rift is still open, though.”
The shock implied a jaw being dropped, though no such apparatus existed for the orb.
“We can speak more later, Sykora. For now I’d like to leave this graveyard.”
“I AM FASCINATED BY THE PROGRESS THIS WORLD HAS EXPERIENCED SINCE MY DAY.” The whistle of the train went off outside, steam billowing into the darkening navy of the evening time.
Yun poured herself an amber liquid that clung to the sides of the glass in transparent ribbons. The taste was exquisitely complex, evolving from a soft, earthy bite to a blossoming flower of smells and tastes. It tasted of the land the grain was grown on and the surrounding environment; quietly swaying trees and bountiful pitted fruits.
“Do you not have trains in the Demon World?”
“IN MY ERA, THIS WORLD DID NOT AS WELL. THE FASTEST VEHICLE WAS THE DREADMARE CARRIAGE.”
“Demons spend most of the time hibernating to generate magical energy.” Yun looked up from her drink.
“THE LIGHT OF THE SUN MARKS THE AWAKENING. IT IS BROUGHT BY THE OPENING OF THE RIFT THAT CONNECTS THE TWO WORLDS.”
“Wait, how long have humans and demons been at war?”
“Longer than either of us can remember. Though, I suppose a demon could tell you.”
Adelaide looked at Sykora’s orb.
“DO NOT ASK ME. I AM NOT A DEMON.”
“Didn’t you say you were-“
“A GENERAL UNDER THE DEMON KING YES.”
“Sykora was human once.”
“How could you tell?”
“Most demons don’t have strings connecting them to Fate. They don’t believe in luck, so it doesn’t exist for them.”
“MOST FASCINATING, YOUNG ONE. HAD YOU LIVED IN MY ERA, I MIGHT HAVE LIKED TO RECRUIT YOU.”
“You’d have come to regret that.” Yun took another sip.
“Miss Yun, you really are unflappable.” Adelaide said, incredulous.
The three continued to speak, catching up on the current era, as well as learning about Sykora’s own time. A brutal history of inter-kingdom war, perpetually blazing through the land. In fact, Sykora had chosen to defect to the Demon World to escape the conflicts of the human world.
“Oh, I just realized. I have no idea how I should be addressing you uh…” Adelaide trailed off.
“IN MY HUMAN YEARS I WAS A WOMAN. ONCE I WAS REBORN I DECIDED TO BE A MAN. I MUCH THINK I’D LIKE TO BE NEITHER THIS TIME AROUND.”
“Mx. Sykora, then?”
“YES I BELIEVE THAT WILL DO.” The orb harrumphed, proudly.
“Miss Yun, you sure do buy a lot of food.” Adelaide looked at her traveling companion, stacked boxes of steaming hot food being held aloft in disposable bags. The two had some time to kill as the train they were taking had to make a pit stop here in Roselake for maintenance.
“Guilty as charged. Hope you’re hungry.” She sat down in the park, opening up the first box. A layer of rice was topped with savory, saucy ground pork. Each bite was a joy, tender meat coating individual grains of perfectly plump rice, a sweet, incredibly inviting sauce binding everything together.
The rest of the boxes were opened up one by one and the smell had even invited Adelaide to sit down and start eating. Steamed dumplings with paper-thin skin and filled to the bursting with clear, invigorating soup. Chicken fried in a deep vat of oil until crisp, coated in a sweet, garlicky sauce. Dry noodles coated with an incredibly fortifying black bean sauce.
“I-… I don’t remember the last time I ate that well.” Adelaide burped.
“Leave it to me if you want a recommendation for anywhere from here to the Forgotten Valley.” Yun said, puffing out her chest.
Adelaide laughed. “I’ll leave it up to you, then.” It was only when she was talking about food that Miss Yun appeared to open up, otherwise she was almost frustratingly obtuse. It was clear that she had a lot of traveling experience, but nothing else about her personal history had become clear in the now week they had been journeying together. She had noticed her flipping through a very-well-worn journal from time to time, but was polite enough not to pry about the matter. She had the distinct feeling it was complicated, well beyond her depth.
“How much was the food, Miss Yun?”
She shook her head. “Consider it thanks for entertaining my hobby.”
“Well… alright. If you let me buy you a drink later.”
Yun’s ears perked right up. She had wanted to preserve some sense of seniority as an adventurer, at least enough to show Adelaide the ropes, but she supposed such things were archaic in the first place. It was just…
“Certainly.” Yun said.
“ROSELAKE. WHAT A SIGHT TO SEE IT STILL STANDING.” Sykora said.
“What was it like in your time?” Adelaide asked.
“BEAUTIFUL. A CAPITAL CITY THAT WOULD TRULY MAKE ANY AND ALL JEALOUS TO SEE IT. THE HEART OF THE KNIGHT KINGDOM OF FOLVALE.”
The city was still beautiful, bearing the remnants of hundreds of years of architecture, much of it still in tact. The city itself sat upon a massive lake, meaning canals ran everywhere as transit for cargo and passengers. It’s waterlocked position made it especially strong against enemy invasions, a fact that was still clear from the two primary entrances being large moat-gates.
Even this park was littered with statues of heroic knights past, the most recently erected ones being of the expedition party that ended the last cycle of demonic invasion, for good this time. Seven figures standing gallantly, preserved for the rest of time. Yun had to admit she felt wistful looking at them; the glory didn’t matter to her, but she missed the adventure itself, even if it was full of hardships. Even if it was full of things no one should ever have to see. They were able to stay standing because of each other. So how did it end up like this?
“HERO NARI HAN WAS IT?” Sykora spoke up. “CURIOUS. IT SAYS SHE WAS A CASTER, BUT SHE IS CLEARLY DEPICTED IN A WARRIOR’S STANCE.”
“She was skilled in both. They called her the Unerring Blade.”
“HO. AND WHERE IS THIS HERO NOW?”
“Dead. She was killed in the battle against Demon Lord Gou.”
“HM HM. I SEE.” Yun felt Sykora nodding, if that were possible for a spirit contained in an orb.
Yun and Adelaide sat in a dimly lit hall, drinking from tall, wooden mugs. On the table in front of them, haphazardly arranged were the proper fixings of a night out: heaping plates of grilled, fried, and fermented foods. Crispy potatoes seasoned with a secret blend, the salted innards of a sea creature so ugly even a well-traveled adventurer might hesitate to eat it, and piping hot steam coming off skewers of grilled poultry alternated with aromatic vegetables. All accompanied by beer kept freezing cold by concerningly well-engineered kegs engraved with alchemical symbols. It’s said that beer predates civilization itself, and that humankind is just a winding path towards perfecting it.
“I must admit, I didn’t exactly take you for the type to enjoy this kind of place, Miss Yun.”
“You just seem so… prestigious. In temperament.”
Yun wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or not.
“Are you calling me stuffy?” She puffed her cheeks out.
“No, no, of course not. You just have the aura of an important person, I think.”
“Really? I’m no one important, Adelaide. I can say that much with certainty.” Yun took a big drink from her mug, letting the cold, bitter beer wash away her worries, leaving only the malty aftertaste behind. She considered that for a second before going for another.
“Kuuuuuuuuhhh that’s good.” Yun let out a sharp sigh of relief.
“Miss Yun,” Adelaide laughed, “you sound like such an old man when you do that.”
“I already have a leg in the crypt anyway.”
“You’re not that old.”
“I feel that old.”
“Sometimes you do talk like you’re that old.”
“I’m sure I do.” She smiled.
Adelaide held up her mug in a toasting gesture, quickly clinked close by Yun. The two drank and ate their fill, whittling away the cold hours of the night in company, something neither of them had had for a long, long time.
The bright lights of the train car almost felt too vibrant after wandering around in the lamplight of the streets of Roselake. Adelaide eased Yun off her shoulder and onto the bed, where she burbled happily.
“HOW WAS YOUR NIGHT OUT, YOUNG ONES?” Sykora spoke up from their place on the table.
“It was lovely, Mx. Sykora,” Adelaide responded. “Miss Yun is quite sweet when she opens up.”
“No youuuu,” Yun said, her tone wavering like the lilt of a happy song played on a well-worn stringed instrument.
“I SEE THE THREADBEARER HAS ENJOYED A DRINK OR TWO.”
“Try six. I don’t know where it all goes.” She paused. “Threadbearer?”
“THAT IS WHAT WE CALLED THOSE OF HER TALENTS IN OUR TIME.”
A faint snoring came from the bed as both Sykora and Adelaide looked over.
“I’d never heard of it before meeting MIss Yun. I suppose the world is quite big.”
“IT WAS AN OBSCURE ABILITY THEN. IT SEEMS TO STILL BE SO.”
“Is there a reason?”
“FRANKLY, IT IS NOT BROADLY USEFUL.”
“LUCK IS A FICKLE THING. ONLY VIABLE WHEN SEEKING RARE MATERIALS OR WHEN ALL ELSE HAS ALREADY FAILED.”
“Like entrusting your survival to fate.” She furrowed her brow.
“INDEED. IT IS PREFERABLE TO NEVER REACH THAT POINT IN THE FIRST PLACE. IF YOU ARE SMART.”
“Even a plea of faith seems more reliable.”
“OF COURSE. EVEN THE GODS ANSWER CRIES FOR HELP. LUCK IS A COLD AND HEARTLESS CONCEPT, DERIVED FROM THE CHAOS OF THE WORLD ITSELF. MANY DESPISE IT, CURSE IT FROM THE BOTTOM OF THEIR HEARTS.”
Adelaide looked over her sleeping companion, noticing for the first time how slight her shoulders were, how unprepared to carry the burdens of others she seemed.
“I’m never drinking again,” Yun groaned, attempting to block out the sunlight shining in through the window. The bright morning lights and the constant motion of the train made a thoroughly unpleasant headache even worse.
“Miss Yun, I told you to drink some more water,” Adelaide said, already up and polishing her armor.
“Guh. I’m definitely not in my school years anymore. This sucks.” Yun reached over the side of her bed, moving in a way that could only be described as just barely short of falling. She grabbed a bottle and rattled it around, fishing out a small capsule and swallowing it down with some help from her waterskin.
“Field-grade painkillers,” Adelaide noted.
“They’re not exactly meant to be used like this. Not that that stops people.” It would take a minute or two to kick in, before she could finally start thinking again. She let the weight of her head push her face deeper and deeper into the pillow, waiting for the relief to come.
“I didn’t take you to be such a drinker, Miss Yun.”
“I’m not, usually.”
“I’m not sure if I believe that.” Adelaide smiled teasingly.
“Where are we now?”
Adelaide looked out the window, watching the scenery blur past, vast stretches of farmland, bookended by forests, cradled by mountains. Though the train moved quickly, the environment stretched out large enough to paint a clear picture.
“I believe we’re currently passing through the Gallusian countryside.”
“Just a couple more days on the train, then. We should clear the Northern Ward by tonight.”
“I’ve always wanted to visit the Northern Ward. I hear lots of dragons get raised there.”
“Hahaha… They sure do.” Yun’s eyes glazed over, her eyes staring at something far in the distance, straight through one of the train car walls into infinity.
“Miss Yun? Hello?” Adelaide waved her hand in front of Yun’s face. “Did you have a bad experience or something?”
“Dragons hate me.”
“I’m sure it’s not that ba-“
“Dragons HATE me.”
Adelaide looked out the window. “Don’t most dragontamers come from the Northern Ward?”
“I’d love to meet one.”
“I’m sure you’ll get the chance.”
Adelaide walked through the halls of the train humming, drying her hair with a towel wrapped around her neck. It was awfully convenient that the train had a shower system, sparse though it may be. She was excited for the northern countries, though; they were home to supposedly the most beautiful hot springs in the world. She wanted to take Yun there, though it was possible she had already been.
Adelaide opened the door to her room, immediately seeing Yun holding a hand of cards, another hand placed gingerly in front of the orb. Both seemed to be concentrating very hard. After a tense moment, Yun starting putting down card after card, reciting a complicated string of nonsense that Adelaide couldn’t even remotely begin to parse.
“CURSES. I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THAT IS LEGAL.”
“Read the effect on that one.” She held one up.
“WHAT? HOW COULD THEY HAVE EVEN PRINTED THAT.”
“Times have changed, cryptwalker.” The smugness in her grin was palpable.
Adelaide walked over and picked up the opened box, reading the title ‘HOLLOW MYTHRIL.’
“I’m sorry, Miss Yun, Mx. Sykora, are you playing… a card game made for children?”
“Hey hey hey. HOLLOW MYTH is an incredible tool for the study of the arcane!” Yun protested.
Adelaide picked up a card with a drawing of a skeleton wielding a scythe on it, some numbers and irredeemably complicated sentences scrawled on the bottom. “Right.”
“I TOO LOVED HOLLOW MYTH AS A YOUTH. AH HOW IT BRINGS ME BACK.”
“I’ll teach you the new set sometime,” Yun said, cleaning up the cards.
The lights went out on the train. A heavy clunk, like the sound of a stiff switch being forcefully flipped accompanied each car going out.
“That’s odd. Lights out shouldn’t be for another hour.” Yun snapped, flooding the room with light, spilling out into the hallway. She picked up her staff and went to investigate outside.
The lights were back on, illuminating Terry’s cabin. Well that was odd, she thought, her hand distinctly on the handle of her carrying case. She didn’t quite remember reaching for it, but it could just as easily have been instinct. On her hand were the clean lines of alchemical symbols, tattooed on in simple black font. She held her hands in position, counting a steady two minutes staring at the door. Then she relaxed.
Though she couldn’t rule out the possibility of an incident, the outage was far too short to discount as just an accident. Terry slid the deadbolt to the locked position and sat back down.
Elsewhere, the lights flickered on, bouncing off the heavy haze of smoke layering the cabin. A lone man sat sprawled out, undisturbed, a sweet smoke coming off the bundle held in his lips. A large pole arm lay diagonally across the entire cabin, nearly touching opposite corners, nestled safely in the crook of his arm.
“Man. Where the hell am I?” He said, his voice low, not deep like rolling thunder, but rough like a saw through wood.
“I don’t like this,” Yun said. She had taken one step outside before the lights had come back on, without warning. Almost as if they were never off in the first place. It instilled her the same feeling that gnawed at her whenever she was checking her journal. Whenever she thought about the end of the journey.
“That was certainly odd,” Adelaide said, looking around, as if to make sure the lights had gone off at all.
“WHAT WAS THAT?” Sykora’s orb had been placed on a wrapped scarf on the table in the cabin, giving the impression of a twisted fortune teller’s ball.
“Unsure. Nothing good, I can tell you that.”
“HOLD. THERE IS AN UNSAVORY MAGICAL PRESENCE IN THE CARGO HOLD. STAINED SOULS CORRUPTED BY FORBIDDEN MAGICS.”
“Just my luck.” Yun groaned.
The train was awash with the sounds of confused passengers, discussing the small gaps in their memory, almost drowning out the sound of the movements of the train itself. Crowding into the halls, flagging down attendants, conversing with other passengers. Yun slipped through the crowd towards the cargo car hooked onto the back of the train. Adelaide did her best to follow, while holding Sykora, having to push a little to get people to move out of her way. A string of ‘excuse me’s and ‘pardon me’s trailed behind her.
Yun knew her journey wasn’t going to be peaceful, but upon opening the door to the cargo train, she wondered if the divine creator really did have it out for her. Before her were two familiar sights, a dragon with a very recognizable scale pattern and a woman holding a bow, standing over some unconscious masked figures. They locked eyes, the recognition in the woman’s eyes burning the second they did.
“Watch it!” Yun said, sidestepping the second an arrow was loosed.
Adelaide, having caught up, registered the words just quickly enough, catching the arrowhead on her sword. It generated sparks before being redirected into the ground, still managing to pierce the floorboards enough to stick perfectly.
“Ruinbringer.” The woman said.
“Olivia.” Yun replied, rapidly assessing her surroundings. “Not much for talking, are we?”
“Not with you.”
“Is Grisly with you?” Yun looked over at the dragon eyeing her.”
“It’s a coincidence. You know how he is.”
“And these guys?”
“None of your business.” Olivia drew another arrow, shooting it at Yun’s feet, a blue light enveloping it. Knowing what she had up her sleeve, Yun threw down a slip of paper. The arrow caught it, the blue light fading out harmlessly.
“I’ve always hated you.” Olivia said, nocking another arrow.
“I know.” Yun looked back at Adelaide and Sykora, smiled, then jumped off the train into the darkness of the outside.
Olivia shot an arrow into the darkness, cursing as Yun’s body quickly left her vision. Faster than a blink, another shot, trailing a brilliant light, disappearing into the water below. All that remained was the whistling of the night wind, and the deep reverberations of the train hitting tracks on solid ground once more.
The recognition struck Adelaide quickly. The magical sharpshooter Olivia Wren, an elf, one of the most recent Heroes to etch her name into history. She used arrows imbued with arcane power, but the most frightening part of her was her gift of focused sight, giving her the title of Deadeye. She was the personal favorite of many who found her versatile combat style inspiring. And, indeed, her accolades extended far beyond just the slaying of the Demon Lord; Olivia was by far the most active adventurer of the heroes. But then, why did she seem to know Miss Yun, and worse, why was it that they seemed to be at odds with one another. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, one that proceeded to backflip through a hoop when Olivia whipped around to stare at her.
“I take it you didn’t know who that was,” she growled. “For your sake, I hope you didn’t know you were accompanying a wanted murderer.”
It wasn’t often that Adelaide had felt such bloodlust directed at her, a crushing pressure that locked her in place, squeezing down on her very essence. This was no empty threat.
“I-I’m sorry. I don’t know anything about her. We were only acquainted for a job.” Adelaide swallowed hard.
Olivia looked straight through her, piercing green eyes unwaveringly searching for the truth. One second passed. Two. Three. She relented, easing her posture with a deep sigh.
“One can only hope that fall did her in. For her sake, too.”
“May I ask… what that was about?” Adelaide was still tense, unsure whether that bow would be drawn in her direction.
“It’s better if you don’t.” She looked almost bored now, checking her bow for scratches. “…Though I guess you do have a right to know. Seeing as I scared off your witch.”
“She’s wanted for the murder of the Hero Nari Han. Though that information is normally only known to the upper echelons of the Guild.”
The information hit Adelaide like a slap across the face and a punch to the gut. That wasn’t possible. At the very least, the Yun she knew wouldn’t have murdered someone, especially not someone like the Hero. Actually, the very notion was absurd on its head; while she certainly displayed a great amount of experience and adventuring acumen, it was hard to believe Yun had either the intent or ability to kill someone at all. Maybe that was a bit harsh.
She was about to raise her voice in opposition when she got the sudden and sharp feeling like it would be better to leave it all alone. At least for the moment.
“Well. Sorry for the commotion. There are plenty better members you could have in your party anyway. In fact, where are you headed? Oh, sorry, my name’s Olivia.” She reached out her hand.
Adelaide took it, noting both how spryly she shook and how strong her grip was, how calloused her fingertips. She carried herself with the kind of self-assured confidence that only comes from overwhelming power. She would be a frightening adversary indeed.
“Adelaide. Adelaide Pryce. I’m looking for my sister who disappeared in Khine.”
“Well that’s a nice coincidence. I just wasted my last Hoarfrost arrow and need some materials from the northern regions. How about I accompany you? In fact, I know someone else on board who could serve as our vanguard.” Olivia smiled, as if nothing in the world was wrong. “Although, you seem like a vanguard-y type too. I’m sure Grisly can adapt to that.”
Adelaide was stunned. She nodded.
Yun hit the water hard. The train had been passing over a bridge built over a big lake. It was bracingly cold and the dizzying impact left her without a lot of breath in her lungs. Every fiber of her being screamed to take in oxygen. Her reason clawing desperately over her instincts, she managed to swim up to the surface before taking a huge breath, accompanied by a number of violent coughs. She ditched her increasingly heavy cloak and paddled in a direction until she could touch the ground.
When she reached the shore, Yun noticed three distinct things: her staff was still on the train, her luggage, booze included, was still on the train, and her box of alchemical charms had been pierced with an arrow, flooding the contents and rendering them useless. She groaned and flopped onto the pebbles making up the beach, attempting to reassess her current situation. Nothing broken, no food, no staff, no train, still a ways to go to Caern. It was looking pretty dire.
She sighed, rolling one flip at a time to at least get off the shore. She could think about resting once she wasn’t in danger of getting hypothermia. When she felt the cool touch of grass under her back, she stopped thinking and decided to go to sleep. This was a problem for tomorrow Yun.
Yun awoke to the gentle, fading light of the late afternoon, washing the room in a deep amber, casting long shadows across the countless shelves of books. Outside, the vague sounds of people in concerted movement, shouts, achievement. Sleepily, she brushed some hair out of her face, letting the softly setting sun ease her into opening her eyes.
Blurry at first, the library came into focus, the smell of paper hitting her sharply. It was quiet, save for the sounds coming from outside; very few people stayed in the library after class, and only ever to study independently. Yun looked down at the sprawl of books she was reading before she had fallen asleep. Botanical Wonders of the North Barrens, Foundations of Alchemy, Everyday Arcana. She sighed, closing each one of the books and bringing them back to the sorting desk.
As she was mulling over what topic to pursue next, she turned slightly to the left, feeling a magnetic pull from the doorway. A tall girl sporting a short, disheveled cut walked by. But what had caught Yun’s eye was the beautiful, golden light of her thread, spreading out in all directions, trailing an almost physical shower of golden dust as she walked. She knew it then, this girl would do something grand.
The girl stopped walking, suddenly, pivoting around on one foot to catch Yun’s gaze directly. Self-conscious, Yun’s concentration broke, her eyes fading from a light gold back to their normal dull brown. She scrambled to look anywhere appropriate, but couldn’t muster up the courage to look her back in the eyes; her cloak was understated and her clothes practical—she wasn’t a student here—and she wore a sword at her hip that matched her calloused hands. Yun couldn’t believe it. Someone who looked to be her age, already in the field.
“Hey, I’m Nari. Nari Han.” She held her hand out, a comfortable, toothy grin inviting her in.
“Oh… My name is-”
Yun awoke to a warm, gentle feeling, sliding across her face. She opened her eyes, staring deeply into the long-lashed face of a yak. She was still splayed out on the ground from the night before and her back ached from sleeping on uneven ground.
“Hey! Hey! What did I tell you about- oh! You’re alive!” A young voice called from out of sight, from on top of the yak, before a child with short cropped hair popped over into Yun’s sight. “Well ain’t that a sight. A real adventurer in the flesh!”
“You got a name?”
“Sounds familiar. You famous or something?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“I’m Artyem. You wanna come with back to our village?”
Yun thought about that for a moment.
“Sweet. That means you can deal with the hornants!”
There was always a catch. Nasty creatures. Pests the size of dogs. Hornants were particularly devastating to rural communities that relied on farming, setting up sprawling nests that made working the soil impossible. They’re often attracted to the concentrations of tubers in areas like this. This area was also quite a distance from the nearest Guild Outpost, so it was likely they weren’t able to get outside help.
“Very well,” Yun said, scooping her sore body upright.
Artyem’s thread was just developing from the tangled mass of golden lines characteristic of children. His gift would be manifesting soon. Yun had a good feeling about it. She could instantly tell he had the talent nurturable into a fine adventurer, if he so chose.
“You look like a witch, miss, but you’re telling me you can’t use magic?”
“You an alchemist, then?”
“Not exactly. I can do alchemy, though.”
“Could you teach me?”
“I’ll think about it.” She said, as the village came into view. Stone buildings with tiled roofs, sitting where the plains met the mountains. As picturesque as it was, it was clear there was a great deal of tension in the air. Much of the fields looked untended, rotting produce sitting around mounds of upturned dirt; the telltale signs of a hornant infestation.
The villagers looked shocked to see someone else riding on the back of Artyem’s yak, but quickly switched gears to welcome her wholeheartedly. What little they had left, they were eager to offer up, not that Yun would take it.
“Oh how long it has been since a capable adventurer has passed by. It must be the blessings of the divine creator hearing our prayers,” an older man said, looking all the part of a village elder, perhaps even a mayor.
Hold on. On second inspection, it was pretty clear she had seen this man before. She had been here before, years ago on her journey. Yun stretched her throat, getting ready to deepen her voice into anonymity.
“Just show me where the biggest entrance is and I’ll get to it,” Yun said.
“Oh dear adventurer, there is time for that later. Rest for tonight and we shall show you to it tomorrow.”
It tired Yun how generous and hospitable townsfolk tended to be. Obviously, it endeared her to them, but it also felt constricting to accept such treatment, especially when she felt like she hadn’t done anything to earn it.
“May we have your name?”
“Welcome Lady Yun. Would you care for some cider during our welcome feast?”
She mulled it over in her mind for exactly two seconds before nodding. She couldn’t resist the call of local product. She would relent, this once.
Yun spent the next couple of hours entertaining the local children and gathering supplies. Sturdy ropes, planks of wood, and chalk.
“So what ya gonna do with all that?” Artyem asked, now dressed up wearing a bandana and holding a large stick.
“Can’t ya do alchemy anywhere drawing those cool symbols?”
“Alchemy depends on precision. If you’re sloppy, your results are sloppy.” Alchemists were all about preparation and precision. Even combat alchemists who were more adept at drawing sigils on the fly carried plenty of prepared items. Yun never could get the hang of alchemizing under pressure, but with enough time, even she could perform adequately in matters of simple transmutation.
“Alchemy seems kinda boring,’ Artyem said, lounging.
“It IS kind of boring,” Yun replied, nailing boards together. “It’s like if you turned magic into math.”
“I hate math,” one of the other kids piped up.
“Me too. Trust me,” Yun said, drawing and redrawing a circle numerous times before deciding to take Artyem’s stick and tie chalk to it, using it to draw a circle centered around her by spinning in a circle.
“Too bad I can’t fill in the rest of it yet.”
“Why not?” He asked
“I don’t know the composition of the end-product.”
Artyem looked completely lost.
“I’ll explain it later.”
Yun was surrounded by enthusiastic villagers, each asking for stories, giving gifts of food and potentially useful objects from their homes. She received their gifts, in turn, enjoying charcoal-grilled goat, freshly baked bread, pastries and desserts, meat-filled pies, and more, until even Yun could eat no more. The cider was delicious, tart and refreshing, but retaining the bright characteristic of the local apples. She could taste wild berries as well, all sweetened with honey that tasted of the winds.
The merriment was cut short when the earth began to tremble, as a hornant the size of a horse emerged from the ground, right underneath the banquet table. Its mustard yellow exoskeleton was covered in bumps and hairs, giving the impression of a particularly nasty booger that had somehow become sentient and huge. A large horn protruded from its forehead, waving in the air, the light catching on its edge.
“Just my luck,” Yun cursed. “Get out of here! If you’re strong and able-bodied, stay behind to help!”
The panic began to set in as people began to run in all directions. Luckily, it seems like it was just a single scout for the moment, sent to investigate the activity on the surface. In fact, the opportunity was perfect; Yun wouldn’t even have to lure one into a trap if it walked willingly into her grasp. Still, it was concerning just how big this hornant was. Normally they only got to the size of a large dog, but this scout easily cleared that size. An ill portent.
Yun ran around, pelting rocks at the hornant to keep its attention. Her body still hurt from falling off the train, but it honestly felt a little good to get moving again. Or, it would have if she weren’t filled to the brim with food. She ran laps around the premise of the banquet area, giving directions to the few who stayed, mostly young farmers with strong arms and sturdy backs.
The hornant would charge occasionally, forcing Yun to roll deftly out of the way. If she were impaled with that horn, it would be difficult to generate enough mana to ward off the injury entirely. All the while Yun swapped rapidly between looking at the strings of fate and manipulating them, one by one. She cursed again. This was so much easier when she had her staff to establish her domain.
“NOW!” Yun shouted, rolling to the side as the hornant charged. The farmers on either side of the rope pulled hard, biting down hard as the massive insect launched into the tangle that sprang up, squirming violently as the ropes were steadily brought around. Yun sprang forward, brandishing a carving knife she had nicked off the table and jabbing it deep at the connecting point between the head and the thorax. That was where the exoskeleton was the thinnest, the most pliable. It provided some resistance but eventually buckled to being pierced, like hard cartilage. It squirmed suddenly, throwing her off. Yun hit the table hard, feeling dizzy from the impact.
“Keep holding it down!” She shouted, looking for anything with an edge. She scrambled over to the first thing that fit the bill: an old shovel, well-worn and covered in dirt. She lifted it, feeling its heft and hauling it over to the tied-down hornant. Moving the point of the shovel next to the knife, she gave a shout before kicking hard, then another time, then another. It took a good couple shoves before it found purchase, the creature’s head being forcefully gouged off. Though its body kept twitching, she knew that was just the remnants of reflex, haunting the now emptied husk.
“Does anyone have a sharp butchering knife?” Yun said, her eyes drawing up to the horn.
Yun woke up sore. Again. She really hadn’t had a great day of rest in a little while and was really hoping she could take it easy soon. But the hornant nest wouldn’t wait for her to be rested. Ugh. She got up with a groan, feeling her aching body click back into its proper form.
In the barn of the house she was staying in was the head of the hornant, sitting ominously like a sacrificial offering. In the hazy-gray morning, it seemed to take on an almost supernatural characteristic. Like she would be spirited away at any moment.
A hand grabbed at her shoulder, ready to drag her to hell. Yun screamed, only to turn around and recognize the familiar form of Artyem. The surprise and fear rapidly turned into annoyance.
“What are you doing here, Artyem.” That wasn’t a question.
“You said you’d teach me alchemy.”
“Didn’t you say alchemy was boring?”
“Still wanna learn it.”
“Fine. Sit down. I’ll try to explain.” Yun got to work explaining the diagram she was drawing to identify the components of the hornant’s pheromones. She started lecturing about the field of alchemy and all its intricacies, how it draws energy from the user, but at a rate far less intensive than using magic, the major breakthroughs that have led to its current efficiency. Yun eventually wrapped around, remembering that she was teaching a child no more than 12.
When she looked at his eyes, they weren’t those of a bored child avoiding a lecture, but those of a hungry, curious scholar.
“Did you… get that all?”
Artyem nodded. There was a spark there. The spark of understanding. She checked her sight, witnessing the braiding of his thread in real time. Now reassured, Yun continued, walking through the process of identifying the material components of the hornant.
At the end of the day, Yun had scrawled diagrams all over, many on boards she’d laid out, but many spilling over onto the wooden floors and up the walls. Though she hadn’t moved much, and the stiffness was beginning to take its toll, the greater fatigue came from the amount of mana she had expended. Though alchemy was far more efficient than arcana, utilizing it all day still took its toll on the body. It was complex work, but it wasn’t particularly hard, just time-consuming.
“Shit. I’m going to need a notebook.” Yun chewed her lip in frustration. All her supplies were left on the train.
“I got one for my last birthday. I’ll let you have it if you teach me some more.”
Yun snapped, waiting a second before being sorely reminded she didn’t have her staff with her. It was getting too dark to make out the notes she’d scribbled everywhere.
“We’re starting bright and early tomorrow.”
Over the next week, the village began to settle into a new routine. Yun would spend her days analyzing, drawing, planning, and, now, teaching. Intermittently, hornant scouts would surface, unaware that the previous envoys had been dealt with. The village had no shortage of food now, learning that with proper processing, hornant was perfectly edible, even reminiscent of shellfish, if a little funkier. Still, it was important to clear the nest soon, lest it catch wind of their scouts going missing and send a battalion.
Artyem grew quickly, learning the broad mechanics of alchemy quickly, but also memorizing the specific sigils much quicker than Yun ever had. Though his line work was still sloppy, it was clear he had the aptitude to perfect it with time.
“I thought you found this boring,” Yun remarked.
“That was before I started getting it.”
“Plus, I need to get stronger.”
“So I can help people.”
“Do you want to be an adventurer?”
He nodded again.
“Well, you have plenty of time. I wouldn’t rush into anything.”
“My parents say the heroes came here, a long time ago.”
“They fought a big demon here and saved the village. If I was born earlier, I could have helped.”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to be born in times of peace.”
Yun had assembled a large amount of materials outside the entrance to the hornant nest. A raft of wood nailed together and etched with chalk, large amounts of base materials and buckets of water. The whole village gathered around, watching with bated breath. Yun breathed in and out, focusing her mana into the alchemical circle and watching as it began to glow. The materials slowly disappeared, seemingly into nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, Yun got back up and clapped the dust off her hands.
“Your problem should be solved.”
“What did you do?” The village elder asked.
“I figured out the compositions of the hornants’ pheromones and flooded the nest with a mix of aggression, danger, panic, and nest collapse. It should turn the ants against each other and prevent the queen from producing more eggs.”
“And that will work?”
“We can only wait and see.”
It only took a handful of minutes to feel the ground start to shake, ever so slightly, indications of a disturbance deep in the ground. The tremors continued for a good while, an hour or so before they settled down. Yun exhaled, feeling as though she’d been tense for the better part of the entire week. There was never a guarantee something like this would work. She once watched Alexis pour lava into a hornant nest, clearing the entire thing and blocking up all the tunnels. But obviously she couldn’t do something like that.
The villagers started to clap, slowly building into a crescendo. It was only then that Yun felt a sudden sense of dread. Something was definitely wrong, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“Clear the area. NOW!” She yelled.
The villagers were confused, but did as she said, clearing the area moments before a massive tremor rolled through the area.
“Well that-“ Yun said, interrupted by the emergence of the largest hornant she had ever seen, covered in the viscera of its nest mates, chewing on the lifeless head of a queen. It easily cleared the size of a bear and had four massive wings. It had sustained some injuries, the puncture marks lining its body seemed to originate from the mandibles of other hornants, but it had certainly come out on top.
“-couldn’t possibly be any worse. RUN!” She tried to capture its attention while it was getting its bearings, multi-sectioned eyes bristling under the first rays of sunlight it had ever encountered.
“Everyone! Go!” She shooed away even the hardy crew that had wrangled the scouts up till now. Even just the vibration of its wings would be enough to damage the hearing of anyone too close, so she had to make sure everyone was evacuated. Not that she had the faintest idea how to fight something like this.
“Just my luck.” Yun clicked her tongue, looking around for anything that might be useful. She flipped rapidly between that and adjusting the threads of the nearby inhabitants, pulling frantically to keep them balanced. The rhythm was off, like the discordant playing of a child.
Yun managed to evacuate most of the inhabitants while dodging the hornant emperor’s strafes, each pass sending shockwaves bouncing through her entire body from the sheer power of the vibrations. If it weren’t for her now quickly dwindling mana supply, her body would have succumbed to the shock and died minutes ago.
Ugh. She hated endurance battles, but it seemed like the only way through this. It had already sustained some injuries and surely would require a massive amount of energy to keep flying around. She would wait for it to land and… Right. She had no way of following through.
Yun clenched her fist until her nails dug into her palm, drawing blood. She wanted desperately to reach into her own chest and rip out her heart, scream at it to quiet down, scream at herself to be better, to be worth something. Clever solutions, studying, alchemy, it all boiled down to her never being enough; she just couldn’t follow through. She was there when the Demon Lord was defeated, but here she would die to a big insect, unable to protect even a small village.
She could feel the emotions welling up past her, moving before she could even think about it. The involuntary convulsions of her chest, the irregularity of breath, the tears welling at her cheeks. Her ears rang and her head pounded with dull pain. She was tired. Would it have been so bad if this was as far as she went? Even a cursory glance at her own thread showed the same tangled web of half-frayed threads, each so delicate as to possibly snap at any moment, but nonetheless holding her aloft.
But, then, the villagers had treated her so nicely. They were convinced she could solve their problems. They were counting on her. Those wishes couldn’t fix her. They couldn’t give her the ability to wield a bow nor turn her into an arcanist. But they could get her moving again. Those expectations could get her to move her broken body, gather it up and puppeteer it once more.
“Ms. Yun!” A voice cried out, forcing her eyes open. It was Artyem.
“What are you doing here?! I thought I told you to leave!”
“I wanna help.”
“You can’t. Just being here is too dangerous.”
“You promised you would teach me alchemy.”
“You cheeky little-“
Artyem turned and held his hands out and Yun watched as his thread came together, golden and shining, almost as visceral as Nari’s own. Alchemical sigils began to draw themselves in the air in glowing lines, hanging like objects.
“You’re kidding me.” Yun’s eyes widened.
The Sage’s Sign was a special gift, one that Yun had only seen once before, in the genius alchemist of her party. To have a second event happen so close together was, historically, unprecedented, but cemented the fact that Artyem had all the makings of a legendary adventurer.
The air around the hornant emperor’s wings grew hazy, then froze completely solid, bringing the creature crashing to the ground with a thunderous impact. Unbelievable.
Very well then. Yun focused, drawing all the fortune from her own thread and channeling it into Artyem’s, a resonant glow resounding with a clear, pure tone.
“Follow my lead,” Yun said, starting to run. The aggravated creature plowed through the field after her, slowing down due to the extreme weight increase caused by the ice. It chased after her with feverish determination. She kicked down the door to one of the homes, paying a silent apology while rooting around the stove. Aha! She found the striker used to ignite the fire just as the emperor tore the roof off the building. Yun bolted, trying to draw it to an empty clearing. The next course of action was crystal clear; a trick so well known it was one of the textbook examples of alchemy.
”The air! Break down the air!”
Artyem responded in kind, drawing the circle to force the air around the hornant emperor to decompose into its composite elements, the circle growing larger and larger as more air was broken down.
“DUCK!” She shouted, bringing the striker down and creating sparks that caught on the volatile, flammable gases floating around, following a path directly to the hornant emperor. The force of the explosion knocked Yun back, sending her skipping along the ground like a stone through water. The blaze caught on the creature as it flailed, eventually succumbing to its fatigue and ceasing all movement. The crackling of the flames were nearly silent following the life or death scramble.
Artyem walked gingerly over to the motionless Yun, concerned. He started reaching down when she coughed violently, turning into laughter.
“Are you broken?”
”Probably. Never mind that. Artyem, your gift is incredible!” Yun beamed, perhaps partially from the high of surviving and partially from the familiar feeling of overcoming impossible odds. He seemed like he wanted to puff his chest out in pride, but instead just looked a little tired. She recognized something in his eyes.
He looked over.
“That was scary, wasn’t it?”
“I know. I was scared, too.”
“Is being an adventurer always like that?”
“Not always. But a lot of the time, yeah.” She let that hang in the air for a second before continuing. “You don’t have to be one to help people, though.”
“No one’s asking you to be a hero. Your gift could be used for all kinds of things. If you wanted to continue pursuing alchemy, that is.”
“Alright.” Yun slowly dragged herself up and tossed Artyem his journal. “You can have that back. It might take some time, but I’ll send someone to teach you.”
“Are you leaving?”
“Yeah. I have some things I need to take care of.” Yun smiled, ruffling his hair. He hugged her tightly, burying his face in her abdomen.
“Don’t die,” he said.
Yun wrapped up all the traveling food given to her by the villagers, cheese, cured meats, dried fruits, and bread. They were nice enough to give her a satchel to at least carry some things. She had taken a day to recover before setting out, using it to prepare some items, namely alchemical charms made from pages ripped out of Artyem’s journal. She also took some time to fashion a dagger from the tip of the hornant emperor’s horn; a simple affair that involved punching some holes in the exoskeleton and tying a handle on. It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but it would hold up to some rough work. The hornant exoskeleton was tough enough to ward off steel weapons, so she had no doubts about its durability.
She would have to travel to the nearest station and snag a ticket to Seventh City. There, she could finally restock some of her equipment, though that staff was going to be tough to replace. Equipment made for weavers was already niche, but at the very least anything should be an upgrade from having nothing at all.
Yun wasn’t quite sure how many days had passed, but she could tell time was passing by the growing length of her hair, now long enough to be tied back. It was a strange feeling, familiar enough, but far enough gone to feel strange all over again, like walking into a childhood home as an adult. She had taken quite a lot of it off the last time she cut it.
She had found the train tracks some days ago and had just been following them, hoping she would be conscious when one passed by instead of what usually happened, which was an extremely loud vessel passing by at extreme speeds in the unspeakable hours of the morning. Though, even if one had been passing by and she was prepared for it, she wasn’t entirely confident that she could just jump onto a moving train like that. Well, bandits seemed to do it all the time, but she supposed they were probably desperate enough that that was the best option. Actually, in that case, she was probably also desperate enough to do that.
The opportunity came a day later. While walking along the tracks, she heard the distinct rumbling of an engine in the distance. Perfect. She immediately started scaling the closest tree, preparing herself about the tracks. All she would have to do is jump at just the right moment, maybe jam her knife into the roof for stability. She very well couldn’t go around breaking windows at any rate.
Any moment now.
Yun leapt, catching for a couple of seconds on the air while the train rushed, car after car passing rapidly underneath. Her instincts were honed enough that she managed to jab the dagger down, piercing the roof of the car. Unfortunately, the whole maneuver came out far less gracefully than she had hoped. The speed of the train took her along with it and she felt like her arm going to pop out of its socket as she slammed down hard on the metal roof. The wind was knocked out of her and it wasn’t easy to inhale while acclimating to the sheer force of moving at speeds no human was made for. She managed to grip with both hands, pulling herself along long enough to join the mass of the train, feeling the wind begin to slide over her instead of attempting to peel her off.
She stayed still for a couple seconds to gather herself and allow a moment to breathe, then she scrambled down to the safety of the car itself, a cargo car containing plenty of crates. She could hide herself here until the train docked. Or shortly before, ideally. Though it would be hard to tell with no windows. She nestled herself between a couple of sacks of grain, feeling the journey of the last couple days catch up to her as she fell fast asleep.
Yun ran across the endless plane, the perfect mirror of the water’s surface ringing out with the sound of splashing water until it became impossible to see through. She looked down at the hands breaking through the tranquil surface, trying desperately to grab her. Each step filled her body with lead, every step sinking deeper into the water.
She ran and ran, redoubling her efforts each time the hands brushed her ankles, until only her head was above the water. She took one more deep breath before her head went under.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying in a field, looking up at the stars. Yun sprang forward, looking at the field of flowers swaying in the gentle breeze. In her hands was a small bowl filled with water, reflecting the stars themselves. At her side, lying down asleep, was Nari.
Yun breathed a small sigh of relief, taking a drink of the water to ease her parched throat, but no relief came. The water slid down her throat, cool and refreshing, but still her throat burned and burned. The bowl seemed endless, filling her deeply, and yet doing nothing to fill her up, feeling as though it was flowing back out of her body, directly into the center of the earth.
She blinked, finding herself sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the water, the distant sound of seagulls filling her ears. The sky was wide and painfully, painfully blue, melting into the dancing waves stretching farther than her imagination could reach. Before her was Nari, a pair of sunglasses haphazardly hanging above her eyebrows. She was dressed casually, something she wasn’t quite used to. A flowing white top and pants that outlined her figure, but were clearly still practical should she need to move.
“Sorry,” Yun responded. “A little out of it.”
“Take your time,” she said, stretching with a satisfied exhale. “I love the sea breeze. Thanks for taking me here. You’ve always been good at keeping promises.”
She shifted gears.
“Say, do you know what they call a grouping of dragons?”
‘Disaster’ was the first thought in Yun’s mind when she awoke. Her throat felt raspy from breathing in the dusty air of the train car, but before any of that, she was staring down the business end of a staff.
“Hello, little miss stowaway,” a teasing voice came from the wielder of the staff.
“‘my luck,’ right?” Alexis interrupted her. Of all the people to meet on this train, they had to be one of the worst. The peerless arcanist, Alexis Marley, the powerhouse of the heroes’ party. They came from a noble background, born with immeasurable talent, and pursued it as far as it would go.
“You’re breaking my heart here. I thought we were friends,” they said. In the dimness of the car, she could make out Alexis’s form, sharp dress hiding sharper eyes. A tailored suit complete with cloak and hat, simple golden accents and clean stitching made for an imposing form. This was the type of stuff Alexis liked, nothing garish, just perfect craftsmanship in low key fashion.
“You going to try to kill me or what?”
“There’s time for that later, I haven’t seen you in, like, forever—love your new hair, by the way. Obviously there’s the whole matter of you murdering our dear leader—I didn’t take you for the type, but all evidence points to you, I’m afraid.”
Yun furrowed her eyebrows, looking for an out. It was easy to maneuver around Olivia—she was always very straightforward. Alexis was hard to read and nearly every part of their being was dangerous.
“No more words for little old me? I wanted to believe you, you know. After all, we work so well together.” Alexis’s gift was luck reversal, the very kind of thing that made them a devastating partner to Yun’s particular expertise. Looking upon them for the first time in years, they were still as imposing as ever. They were less like threads and more like wrapped steel wires, seemingly impossible to break no matter how tense they got.
“Actually, I could still choose to believe you. I could even offer you protection from the other heroes, should you so decide to-“
“Now, now, let’s not be so hasty- wait did you just say yes?” Alexis widened their eyes slightly, whatever passed for surprise with them. Yeesh. Alexi and Tsukimi truly were two of a kind in that regard.
“Huh. I thought this would be harder for some reason. Well, no matter. I had no intention of killing you at this time anyway.” They flipped the staff back and tucked it under their arm, reaching out a hand to the still prone Yun. She took it, pulling herself upright and brushing the stray chaff off her clothes.
“You know, you were always so reluctant to join me after the journey. I’m not some unsavory character, you know,” Alexis said, opening the door to their cabin.
“Listen I know I can- hold on, did you just agree with me? What’s going on with you today?”
“You’re not a bad person, Alexis.”
“Alright. Who are you and what have you done with my cute little Ye-eun.”
“Joke in bad taste? I concede. What do you want, anyway? I can’t imagine it being easy to reconcile with one of your former comrades.”
“Not after the way our journey ended.”
“There’s the rub, though, isn’t it? Do you remember exactly what happened at the end there?”
“It’s a little hazy. It was a couple years ago and-“
“No. I mean, doesn’t it feel like there’s something missing?”
Yun instinctively reached for her journal, only to remember it wasn’t on her person.
“You can feel it, too. We all assumed you killed Nari because of what we saw, what we remember.”
Yun remembered that particular scene all too well. In the aftermath of the battle with the Demon Lord, she stood over Nari’s body, blood pooling underneath her. In the back, the rift to the Demon Realm blazed ominously. All around, the foundation of the castle was coming down. She looked down at her hand to see the sparkling silver of Nari’s blade, covered in her blood.
“I do not believe you would kill Nari Han,” Alexis said, folding their staff up and tucking it behind their back. They pulled out a notebook from their pocket, casually flipping through. “There’s something we’re all missing.”
“Have you ever felt like your notes don’t line up?” Yun asked.
“Precisely. Like there’s holes in the course of our journey that, try as we might, we cannot seem to remember. Which brings me to my proposal: Help me find out what really happened that night, and what’s really going on in this country as we speak.”
“Even if it makes the world your enemy?”
“You know I love a good challenge,” they said, the twinkling in their eyes betraying a dangerous excitement.
“I was afraid you would say that.”
“You know me too well. Now, returning to the matter of your request for me. This is an equal relationship, after all.”
“There’s a boy in a village to the southwest of the entrance to the Northern Ward. I want you to teach him.”
“You want me to teach him what, exactly?”
“Alchemy, Arcana, whatever you know. His gift is the Sage’s Sign.”
This caught Alexis’s attention.
“You really surprise me at times,” they sighed. “I’m not nearly the alchemist dear Hyacinth is, but I suppose I’ll attend to it after this matter is settled.”
“Don’t worry your little head over it. We still have to get you equipped. What did you say happened to you again?”
“Is this really necessary?” Yun asked, sitting in a chair as a hairdresser went and fixed up the parts she had haphazardly cut.
”It would be rather more convenient for us if you weren’t so easily recognizable. Olivia has already seen you like you were.”
”Fine,” she relented, the snipping of scissors already putting her at ease. There was something about letting others handle her hair that always felt comforting, and the deft fingers of the stylist felt
“Well, I have some work to do. Meet me here after you’re done, ‘Kay?” Alexis said, handing Yun a slip of paper before twirling out of the building.
The cut took some time, but it was the dying that took the longest. Careful hands applying solvent that would remove the hasty black dye from her hair, then applications of freezing cold goop that smelled oddly nice, followed by cycles of waiting, rinsing, and drying. To be honest, she had just been sitting there while people were working, but Yun was already exhausted.
At the end of the process, her hair had been tidied up significantly, not cut sharply, but just patching up the particularly messy strands she had left before. The color of her hair had taken a soft silver hue. There was something she couldn’t quite place about how to feel about it, but she didn’t hate it.
“How much?” Yun asked.
“Don’t worry. Mx. Marley has already covered the costs,” the stylist responded.
“Could you tell me the- actually nevermind,” Yun reconsidered, then started gathering her things. She checked the slip of paper, seeing the address of a clothing shop. Of course.
She started walking towards the appointed address passing through the streets of Seventh City. It was a city with a long history, densely packed buildings built and rebuilt and rebuilt until the architecture no longer made any sense when taken as a whole. Despite the general lack of fertile farmland, the city was built upon a rich vein of magical ore, allowing for the construction of massive greenhouses that remained seeded throughout the city, bubbles of green and red amidst a city of tall, earth-colored buildings.
Lights were everywhere, not the softly glowing, strung lanterns of New Moon Port, but metal poles that radiated a certain hum to which the whole city marched. Seeing the lanterns reminded her, again, of her lost staff. She sighed, unconsciously following the flow of the threads that began to spring up around her. It was easier for her to lose herself in this kind of place. To not have to manipulate the flow of luck, but simply to immerse herself in it, to let it guide her. She floated comfortably in the drift, closing her eyes and letting the sounds carry her.
She ended up in front of the clothing store, a brightly lit establishment with plenty of windows. The sign read ‘Black Cat’ in plain lettering, an accompanying logo of a cat’s silhouette beside it. The door had one of those bells attached to it that rang to announce her arrival.
Already standing there was Alexis, chatting with a woman who must have been the owner of the shop. She was dressed in an understated way—warm, autumnal colors and simple geometry complementing her natural, earthly beauty. Striking, to say the least. Yun snapped back to attention when she heard Alexis snapping.
“Oi. Stop ogling and introduce yourself.”
“Sorry. I’m Yun.”
”Annette. A pleasure.”
They shook hands and Yun noted how Annette’s were solid, well-maintained, but nevertheless hardened by years of work. She supposed hers were much the same, though not nearly as well maintenanced.
“I’m told you’re an old friend of Lexi’s. That means you’re a friend of mine. Oh gods, isn’t that a tired old line,” she laughed. “Anyway. We have some clothes for you to look through. I hope you like them.”
Annette snapped and a procession of outfits modeled on mannequins were wheeled out. There were adventuring outfits, casualwear, formal wear, all clearly enchanted. Alexis looked over the selection with great interest. They whistled, impressed.
“Enchanted clothes’ve come a long way in the last couple years,” they mused.
”Har har. Very funny,” Lexi said, undoing the clasps and buttons to free one of the outfits.
“Too egotistical to admire my own work?”
“Too bad your fashion sense is stuck a century ago.”
“I suggest this one,” she said, gesturing to an outfit that seemed just right for Yun’s sense of style. High-waisted pants, turtleneck undershirt, comfortable shirt and vest, suspenders. It seemed easy to move in, encouraged blood and mana flow, and, according to Annette, it could even repair tears and constrict to apply pressure to open wounds. Gruesome, but handy.
“No objections,” Yun said. It honestly seemed distressingly well-suited to her, no doubt due to some influence on Alexis’s part.
“Perfect. I’ll have it wrapped for you. Oh, and be sure to allow some time for it to settle once you put it on.”
“What does that mean?”
”The special manafibers this is woven with can defend you from blows, like a mana barrier.”
“Right.” Just like older classifications of enchanted armor.
“Except this material is special and can absorb a LOT of mana. I’d say you might want some food and rest after the first time you put it on.”
“Oh. Put this one on first,” Alexis said, pointing to a dress.
“For dinner, of course. You gonna show up dressed like that?” Alexis gestured at Yun’s battered clothes.
“Is this going to drain my mana, too?”
“No. This is just a dress,” Annette said.
“Holy shit, that’s like the first shower I’ve had in weeks,” Yun said, sitting down at the table across from Alexis. She wasn’t quite so comfortable in these more formal clothes, but it was surprisingly fun to dress up nonetheless. Far less fun was having a gaggle of maids attend to her after the ordeal she’d already been through today. No matter what, Yun thought, she would never get used to just how much money Alexis could throw around.
“Glad to hear you’re comfortable,” Alexis said, wearing a dress that seemed perfectly suited to their style. Simple and to the point, and devastatingly well made. Clean, organic lines, gold accents, all leading down to pointed heels that looked knife-edge balanced. Golden triangle earring dangling off one ear. She had to admit it was the most striking they’d ever looked. To her, at least.
“Clothes, a haircut, a nice dinner. If I didn’t know you any better, I’d think you were trying to court me,” Yun said.
They laughed the same laugh she’d heard a thousand times, sheer amusement made manifest. Like there was nothing funnier in the world.
“Oh please. I know I’m not your type. And we both know there’s no room in your heart for me,” they said.
“Geez, I can’t even tell if you’re kidding or not. I thought you were ace.”
“Both, yes.” Alexis smiled and, for the first time, Yun felt like she really felt it reach their eyes. “But perhaps I could make an exception for you?”
That was a joke, of course.
”Ew,” Yun said, smiling the edge off her words.
The food began to arrive and it captivated Yun instantly. Even the aroma coming off the plates indulged her senses and immersed her into the world to come. Clear soup so hearty and savory she would gladly drown in it. A steamed egg so soft she was afraid it would be obliterated if she bit down too hard. A picturesque cut of meat with grill marks so perfect they seemed fake. It was crunchy, tender, juicy, smokey, and everything that was right with the world. Potatoes swimming in cheese and cream, gods, even the vegetables were vibrant and refreshing. Yun was floating.
This wasn’t the kind of meal she got to enjoy regularly, wouldn’t even really know what to do with it if she could, honestly. But for this one, singular moment, everything seemed right.
“You always seem so happy when you’re eating,” Alexis noted, sliding their fork down to cut a clean segment of a pristinely standing chocolate dessert. It wasn’t too sweet at all, in fact more bracingly bitter in a way that set the stomach at ease—almost medicinal.
“Food is good.”
“So it is.”
“Consider today my apology.”
“You? Apologizing? Is the world going to end tomorrow?” Yun asked, fork halfway to her mouth.
“Hey, you never know. We saved the world once, who’s to say it won’t need saving again.”
“Are you implying you’ll carry that weight again?”
“Are you implying you won’t?”
It was easy for them to say. Alexis was one of those people for whom any endeavor they set out to accomplish, they would succeed—the exact opposite of her.
“Listen Alexis, I wasn’t meant to be there.”
“But you were there.”
“Killed Nari? You and I both know that’s not true.” Alexis swirled the wine in their glass, staring into its reflective surface. They brought the glass up to their lips and took a long drink, returning an empty glass to the table.
“Look. I’m sorry. About everything that’s happened,” they said.
“Oh, and those couple times I tried to kill you. You know how it is.”
“I promise I’m on your side this time.”
“That means a lot, really,” Yun said. “But seriously. Dressing me nicely and taking me out to a fancy dinner. You just hold all the keys to my heart, don’t you.”
“Isn’t it a little more fun when I get your heart pounding? Besides, the only person easier to woo than you is Olivia.”
“You’re a menace to society.”
“Now we’re talking!” They cheered, pouring another glass of wine.
“These dreams are getting out of hand,” Nari said, sword driven through her heart. Her blood ran scalding hot over Yun’s hands, her knuckles bare-bone white from gripping the sword handle.
Nari looked up towards the ceiling, watching the rubble fall.
“You don’t remember what happened, so your brain is filling in the gaps. Your insecurities compound, you take the blame upon yourself, it becomes your reality.”
“You know,” Nari continued, “you’ve got a lot to work through, if this is the kind of stuff you’re still dreaming about.”
She stepped closer, until her chest was perpendicular to the hilt of the sword, wrapping her arms around Yun.
“I hope you can forgive yourself one day.”
“You’ve got a lot to answer for,” Yun said, the tears welling in her eyes.
“I suppose I do as well.”
“Say, I keep trying to tell you this, but do you remember what a grouping of dragons is called?”
Wisteria sat in her inn room, going over every part of her rifle. It had been dismantled and taken in for maintenance, and though it had been serviced, she always preferred to put it back together herself. The spring had completely worn through, so she had to get a new one, inspecting it for any flaws. Perfect, as always. The barrel had been cleared of any accumulated wear and debris, the bolt slid well, the polish on the wood even brought back some of the shine that had worn away recently.
There was something about the craftsmen of the Northern Ward that paid such close attention to detail in their work. Perhaps it was the weather. Nevertheless, she slotted each piece back where it belonged, a process she could do, and had done, blindfolded. She folded the whole ensemble, placing it carefully into its carrying case.
Satisfied, she decided to head outside and grab some food. The bracing air of the Northern Ward was refreshing, especially having just come from the south. Even though it had only just entered fall-time, it was already scarf-weather up here, and, soon enough, it would become time to don heavy winter jackets that turned everyone into indistinguishable piles of fur and wool.
A local stand was selling cups of hot broth with fish cakes floating aimlessly throughout. She tossed a coin their way, sipping the hot broth, delightfully light and savory, a not-unpleasant fishy-aftertaste lingering on the tongue.
She carried her soup in a cup to the nearest guild outpost, scanning the board for any interesting jobs. Her eyes glazed over as they passed through job after job, most ill-suited, most ill-paying. It was, she was told, always like this following a heroic journey. Plenty of people needed help, but very few had the resources to request it. Naturally, there were always people willing to take those jobs, a circle of desperate people helping desperate people. It was beautiful, in a way, just a shame it was the promise of coin exchange that facilitated it.
“Miss Fay!” A voice called from one of the kiosks.
“Lai, darling, what is it?” She wandered over. Lai was one of the desk workers who helped to process jobs and rewards, and the one Wisteria had had the most contact with over the past couple days. Her attention pulled, Wisteria talked over to the kiosk.
“Congratulations on your promotion! It’s rare to get talent like yours here at the guild. Why, soon, you might be at the top. You’ll remember me when you’re famous, right?”
”Of course I will. You’ve been ever so sweet to me.”
“I’ve been told by the higher-ups to give you this,” she said, handing over what looked like a bounty. Bounties were a nasty affair, and despite the fact that she carried a rifle like this, she made it a point not to turn it on other people unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps there was hypocrisy in carrying a weapon like this and not wanting to use it against others, but it was one she carried always.
“Sorry, hun, I don’t take bounties.”
“It’s a top-secret job that only those with clearance should know about. At the very least, you need to know about it.”
“Very well,” she sighed, taking a look at the paper before tucking it into her pocket. “Heroslayer Ye-Eun, hm? What’s the story here?”
Lai waved her closer so she could whisper.
“No one knows who she is or where she came from, but it’s said she went on the hero’s journey and betrayed the hero Nari Han after the Demon Lord’s defeat.”
“Well, isn’t that quite something? Hasn’t it been some time since then?”
”6 years and they still haven’t caught her. She must be some kind of criminal mastermind, versed in the ugly underbelly of society.”
“Oh dear. I’ll keep an eye out.”