0.5 – New Beginnings 1

 

 

Petrichor hung heavily in the air. Heavy boots sank into wet soil, soddened by rain earlier that morning, as he walked past the tents. The air was damp, the ground even more so, which didn’t help when winter was just around the corner. But the cold was the least of Aenir’s problems.

“What’cha lookin’ at, boy?” said one of the two gnarly man with a scowl on his face.

“Gale,” Aenir replied, then looked at the other man, “Retch, evening to you too.”

“I said, what’re ye lookin’ at?”

Aenir felt like rolling his eyes. A year of partnership, and still they hated his guts. He didn’t blame them, of course. Petty minds do not take well when juniors overtake them. “I have business with the Lord. May I come through?”

Gale grinded his teeth. He was a burly man, heavy on the top. His forearms were riddled with muscles where the sleeves were rolled up, while the folding of his arms advertised the ones you couldn’t see—intentional, probably. Aenir had heard rumors about this man, about how he’d choked a nirhound to death with his bare hands, or how the numerous marks on his left forearm indicated the number of people he’d killed. Cliché, but that didn’t make it any less true, or him any less dangerous. Meanwhile, on the other side was Retch. He was less beefy than Gale, but taller. The dark skin was a telltale southerner which explained why he was wearing even thicker clothing than the others. Other than that, he was a ghost. No stories, no rumors, not even about why he’d picked such an unflattering name.

“Let ye through, or what? Ye gonna swing that toy sword of yers?” Gale provoked.

Toy? A part of Aenir’s face twitched. Toy?

It was a greatsword on his back, as long as he was tall. He could drop the strap down his arm and pull out the blade in one move, too slow in a fight, but just quick enough with the element of surprise. Gale was the biggest threat—a swing at the throat, quick and hard as to cut the jugular. By the time Retch had a weapon out, Aenir’s own sword would have already changed its target. Even if the man tried to parry, the measly saber would snap in two and Aenir’s blade would easily split the skull in–

No. This wasn’t him. He was the calm one. Aenir smiled. “Of course not, Gale. But the Lord doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

They stared each other down for a good moment before Gale nodded his head towards the tent’s entrance, granting passage. Aenir walked past them and into the tent. He didn’t miss the southern curse Retch whispered into his ears.

Inside the tent was the Lord’s temporary residence, cluttered with many things you wouldn’t normally bring into a long travel such as this. The wooden desk was one, probably pulled from a high-quality furniture set, along with the posh chair the man sat on. There was a faint smell which Aenir tracked to a fancy scent tablet, fixed onto a harness attached to the lantern hanging in the middle, imbuing the inside of the tent with a fruity smell to cover the stench of manure. The Lord was in the middle of writing. On the desk to his side was a photograph of him and his family; a younger wife and a daughter in her teens. He seemed so loving in the picture, wrapping his arms around both women into a tight huddle, full of smiles.

If only they knew.

The Lord either didn’t notice the man walking in or was intentionally ignoring him. Aenir coughed to get his attention. He looked up from his letters, “Ah, Aenir.”

“You called for me?”

“Yes, most certainly I did.” The Lord stood up. He was a middle-aged man with a penchant for, apparently, horrendously mismatched fashion. He wore bright orange-colored robes with patterned embroideries faring from the south, which would do nothing against the cold and contrasted the dull, practical, insulated gloves and boots. The southern robe alone must’ve cost more than what he paid the two doormen outside combined. He probably chose to wear it for the high collar, which did little to hide the dreaded double chin, nor did his pathetic excuse of a beard that, Aenir knew, he’d been trying to grow for a while.

“Do you need something from me?” Aenir asked as the Lord rounded the table to approach him.

“Yes, I do. We have a problem.”

A problem. His heart sank. He kept his composure when he clarified, “A problem?”

“Yes. It’s your gally.

“Oh.”

“He’s being rambunctious. I’m hoping you could do something about it,” the Lord said, emphasizing on a particular word as if to boast his range of vocabulary.

Aenir sighed. To the Lord, it might’ve been seen as an exasperated sigh, but really it was relief. “Fannas,” he said. “She tends to get noisy when the weather gets cold. I’ll look into it.”

“I know you would.” The Lord made a smile that accentuated the fat attached to his jaw.

Aenir turned to leave.

“Oh, and, Addy?”

Addy? He stopped in his tracks. He could pull out his sword, make a cut at the lower abdomen—paralyzing pain but not vital, giving him a chance to pull out the Lord’s tongue, which could be vital. It would be so easy, and all his problems would go away–

No, no, no. This wasn’t him. Addy rhymed with ‘laddy’, which was the only reason why the Lord chose to call him that. He knew that there was nothing more to it. Slowly, Aenir turned around. He was smiling.

“Someone’s been messing with my possessions. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, do you?” The Lord asked.

“What do you mean?” Aenir widened his eyes, faking a decent ‘I-have-never-heard-of-this’ face. Not that he needed to fake it.

“Missing things,” The Lord narrowed his eyes, his fingers molesting a pitiful beard, “things I would very much like to have back.”

“No, I wouldn’t know.” Aenir averted his gaze at the exit. Then quickly he added, “Gale or Retch would know better, wouldn’t you think?”

“Hmm. Pardon me, I must’ve displaced them is all, this old me,” the Lord said, still combing the beard. “Off you go, then. Don’t let me keep you from your bird.”

Does he know? Aenir gave a curt nod. “Have a good evening, my lord, and good luck finding your belongings.”

When he finally made it out of the tent, neither Gale nor Retch stopped him, but he could hear them snickering behind him as he walked away. Do they know?

The cold breeze of the north washing over his face was the only thing distracting him from this possibly immediate problem. His life could be at risk and the rational part of him was telling him to back off, cut his losses and wash his hands from the muck. The other part, however, was telling him something completely different. He was too close to getting what he wanted. Too far in to get back out.

Aenir made his way to the other side of the camp, past the mercenaries huddling or drinking or chatting by the fires. Some called out, he gave them a small wave. Some of them he knew by name. He’d tried not to get attached, but after nearly one whole year surrounded by the same people, sleeping and breaking bread every night, it was becoming harder than it was worth. He scanned the forest surrounding the camp, specifically where the mounts were held.

He saw his gally, Fannas, with her harness tied around a tree. All those puffy feathers and still she hated winter more than her owner did. Her feathers were coated in the color of chestnut, darker on her back and lighter from below her beak down to the abdomen. Her wings were a mismatch of colors, a mix of dark and light, messy and random and, like any other Gallupteryx, too freaking small to fly with. Compared to the rest of her body, which had a mass similar to a horse, her wings and legs seemed too small to carry her weight.

She was silent. Her attention was on something Aenir couldn’t see, probably an insect jumping around. Her black bead-like eyes snapped at him when he approached. “Quack,” she said.

“Being rambunctious, are you, Fanny?” He scratched Fannas below her beak and she reacted by wriggling her tail feathers.

Unbeknownst to himself, Aenir was tapping his boot restlessly against the ground as he looked towards the camp with a distant gaze. To the left, settling in the clearing, was the camp where five slavers—six including himself— and thirty-something mercenaries were starting fires in preparation for the cold night. They all wore overcoats meant to protect against the wintry air, complete with gloves and headwear and some even with fur scarves. Some of the older ones were drinking already, either laughing or yelling at the younger lads. Meanwhile, to the right were the wagons, away from the warm fire and closer to the darkness of the forest. Some of the wagons were chained to nearby trees and rocks; some specific wagons, carrying the shipment.

The shipment, as the Lord had called them. Cages. Cages with wooden bars and metal padlocks. They were either two-by-two, or three-by-three feet in their widths, five feet in height. Too large for pets, too small for circus animals. Except these cages weren’t meant for animals. They were meant for people.

Most of the cages were occupied by a single person while the larger ones had two people clumped together in a narrow space. They were ranging in age and appearance, but they all share two common features. First, all of them were of the Luphaen race. Second, all of them were, one way or another, attractive females. Not prisoners, just women that caught their eye, picked them off the roads or raided their houses if they lived somewhere detached enough.

“I’m sorry,” Aenir whispered to no one in particular.

“Quack?”

He counted nine girls in the cages. Nine more lives he had aided in shattering, and even more would be arriving.

 

 

Sometime later, while feeding his gally, Aenir saw someone approaching from the corner of his eye. It was one of the mercenaries; a blond-haired man with a piece of cloth covering the lower part of his face. He wore a waistcoat over a white long-sleeved shirt that fit his lean build. A big percussion pistol, donning two high-caliber barrels, hung on his front utilizing the pouch sewn into the strap slung across his shoulder. Additionally, a saber hung at the hip, though it was arguably less intimidating than the cannon-pistol.

“Is there something you need, Lui?” Aenir greeted without looking up from Fannas.

The man named Lui raised a ring of waterskins into view. His voice was slightly muffled by the kerchief as he spoke, “Some of the guys ran out of water. The old fools must’ve mistaken it for alcohol.”

Aenir raised a brow. “And?”

“I’m running errands, basically. They said to bring you because you know where the water is.”

Aenir gave him a nod. “Follow me,” he said, leading Lui out of the clearing and into the woods.

“Hi, and bye, Fanny,” Lui said.

“Quack,” she said.

As soon as they were out of earshot of others at the camp, Lui spoke up, “So, I noticed you were staring earlier.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were staring at the slaves. Makes me wonder what a man was thinking.”

Aenir’s expression darkened at the word ‘slave’. “They’re not slaves yet, not until they’re sold.”

“Sounds hypocritical for someone who’s been putting people in cages for years,” Lui replied.

Aenir’s hands tightened at his sides as he held down the itch to punch the fucking guy. “One year,” he said, “and what do you think those cages are for?”

Lui swallowed back his response.

It was moons ago, but Aenir still remembered that day like it was yesterday. That day, when one of the captives, a young luphaen, gnawed through the ropes with nothing but her fangs. She ran on hours’ end before the mercenaries ran her down with horses, beat her, and brought her back. By then, her body had suffered numerous injuries and bruises, mostly superficial, but it was enough to make the boss furious. The Lord, in his arrogance, had declared her ‘unfit for sale’, just because she had a couple of cuts on her face. Of course, they couldn’t just let her go. She’d seen their faces. She was a loose thread, so instead the Lord gave her to the mercenaries—a gift for hard work and loyalty, he’d said, even though they were the ones who’d hurt her in the first place.

She’d died in the morning. No one even knew what her name was. The only thing that remained of her was an unmarked grave somewhere along the Redrye river. That very day, with dirt and mud still under his nails, Aenir came to the Lord with a suggestion. ‘We must use cages to protect our merchandise’, he’d said. Aenir himself had taken away their chances of escaping, if there had been any, but he liked to think it was for their own good.

But was it really? Perhaps death was mercy in place of what came next.

The sound of water—they’d arrived at the stream. Small, merely a few feet wide. Some moons ago, the slavers had used this exact same route. Aenir was the ‘drudger’ back then, running errands for the slavers. Now Lui was one, except it was for the mercenaries.

Diligent on his duties, Lui kneeled by the stream and pulled a waterskin off the metal ring. He drowned it under the stream, filling it up for a good minute before he decided it was full and stuck it back to the ring, then pulled off another. There was maybe a dozen he had to fill.

Aenir waited for Lui to speak first as the blond filled them up one by one. When the third container was brimmed and fatted, Aenir gave up. He looked around to check if there were any eavesdroppers before he spoke up, “Okay, what’s going on? Why did you bring me here?”

With back towards Aenir, Lui told him, “I’ve got news. The cavalry will be here in two days. They’ve just reached the Dread.”

“Good. That’s good,” Aenir repeated, as if to convince himself.

Lui glanced at him, then at the endless tapping of his foot. “You’re restless.”

He stopped his tapping. “Of course, as anyone would be in a situation like this.”

“Not you. You’d have more reason than that.”

Aenir took special effort to not show anything more through his body language. He could never let his guard down around this guy.

“So? What is it? Tell me,” Lui pushed on.

“It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“I highly doubt that. Tell me, please.”

Aenir sighed, long and hard. “The Lord,” he finally said. “I think he suspects something.”

“Benefit of the job, I would think. He’s always suspicious.”

“Yes,” Aenir crossed his arms, “especially if someone stole one of his ledgers.”

Lui looked over his shoulders. “Was that what he summoned you for?”

“Did you do it?”

“No. Well, yes, but I made sure to return everything to where he left it. Unauthorized borrowing, not stealing.”

“Borrowing or stealing, the Lord is very observant. If even one document is misplaced, he’ll know.”

“It’s worth the risk for acquiring his contacts.”

“Contacts? I thought I already gave you that.”

Lui gave him a nod. “The ones he’d shared with you, yes.”

“I’ve seen faces. Poles and lieutenants. He trusts me enough.”

“Then why would he question you like that?”

Aenir’s palm flew to his forehead to massage it. It made it even more frustrating that Lui actually had a point. “Fine, point taken. I just wish you’d given me a heads up. You could’ve blown this whole mission.”

“This is the mission, Aenir.”

“No, that’s your mission.”

Lui dropped, maybe slightly threw a waterskin into the ground with a fervor that told of annoyance. “How would you have done it?” he said, voice slightly raised. “Because if I remember correctly, you were planning to kill the Lord before I came around.”

“I still am.”

“Right. Fine,” he threw his arms up in the air. “Kill the Lord, you replace him, and then what? How would you be any different?”

“I wouldn’t be doing it for profit.”

“But you’d still be doing it.”

“Not for long I would.”

“On what guarantee? How can I be sure you won’t end up as one of our enemies?”

“And?” Aenir said. “What would you do if I become one?”

Lui stood up and faced his accomplice. “Do you intend to?”

“I intend to stay for as long as I need to get what I want.”

“Then your intent is irrelevant. Our, my mission is to identify the core of the filth and root them out, then break them into a state they can’t recover from, no matter who they are.”

“Break them into a state they can’t recover from,” Aenir echoed, his voice eerily without emotion.

For just that one second, Lui froze. Cold sweat dripped as his instincts whispered at him to arm and defend himself. He answered Aenir’s gaze, carefully picked his words and spoke, slowly and softly, “It’s what needed to be done, for the good of many.”

Aenir smiled. His hand grazed the tip of his scabbard, surreptitiously positioning it for an easy pull.

“Don’t do that,” Lui said, stepping back.

“Do what?”

That. You rarely ever smile and when you do, it feels wrong.”

“My smile is?”

Lui’s hand settled on the handle of his saber. “Keep your sword in, Aenir.”

“No. We’re not alone.”

“I know. Just, don’t make any sudden moves.” Lui turned his head slightly and kept one eye on the trees across the stream.

The creature stepped out of the woods, its lupine eyes glaring at them. It was roughly the size of a wolf, except slightly bigger, with shorter fur and thick grey hide, shorter snout, and four stout legs that were bending in a position to strike. Its wide maw was slightly open in a growl, giving them full view of all eight fangs, more than capable of tearing through flesh in a single bite.

Lui made a point to stay still as he talked in a low voice, “Nirhound. Class D threat, C if it’s with a pack.” With one swift move, he spun his body and answered the beast’s glare with his own. “I’ve got this one, but there might be others.”

Aenir was relieved, relieved that he now had an actual enemy to scratch his itches—a receptacle for his mounting impulses. He placed himself so he and Lui were back to back and eyed the surroundings on their side of the stream. It only took him a second to see the unnatural rustling of shrubbery. He cocked the gun at his hip. “One more here. Maybe two.”

Lui clicked his tongue. “Strays. Must be out hunting. Bad for us.”

“Bad?”

“Aye.” He pulled out his saber. “It means we’ll have to kill all of them.”

Great. Just what we need. Aenir pulled his wheel gun out. Just what I need.

He took a quick glance behind him. The first nirhound had taken a step into the water, still locked in a staring contest with Lui.

“You’re the drifter here, Lui. What’s the plan?”

“Grab a rock.”

Aenir did so, promptly grabbing a loose rock the size of his palm from the bank of the stream. He hurled it towards a bush he saw moved. Apparently the throw either met its target or got close enough to provoke it—they moved underneath the birches and pines, moving the grass and bushes in two opposite directions.

“I got two mutts on my side,” he said, pointing his gun at the one approaching him.

“Shoot when ready.”

Aenir used one hand to aim, the other ready on the scabbard of his sword. Just in case.

The beast leaped out. He pulled the trigger.

Behind him, a second shot rang, louder than the first.

The bullet dug into the earth, launching leaves swirling into the air as his intended target skipped to the side and ran back towards the trees. He shot again, missed and hit the trunk of a tree. Two missed shots. Already the smell of gunpowder was filling the area.

Lui joined his side, one hand holding the saber, the other the double-barreled pistol. “How many left?”

“Still two,” Aenir said bitterly.

“These hounds aren’t mere pups. They must have experience hunting the hunters. Don’t waste your bullets.”

Aenir gave Lui a curt nod but kept his finger on the trigger anyway. He didn’t see any other way of handling the beasts.

Shadows moved underneath the shades of trees. Many shadows, skulking as if to surround them. They met eyes. “Trees,” Lui said. Aenir nodded in response.

In the same instant, they turned around and ran for a nearby cedar tree. Lui was faster, easily jumping up to reach a low branch then pulling up the rest of his body. Aenir did the same but was a second too late—something caught the scabbard on his back, pulling him down.

“Aenir, your sword!” his partner shouted.

Fuck that. Aenir reached for his gun, but gravity shifted for him as his hand let go of the branch.

The air in his lungs was knocked out of him as he fell, but he didn’t have the time to breathe. Quickly he scrambled away before whatever dragged him down could get to him, but the beast had latched onto his trousers, gnawing the fabric. The creature met his eyes, or identified it, rather, because now it was going for his head. He reached for his holster and found nothing.

My gun. It fell when he fell. Aenir took his scabbard off his back and placed it in front of him, sword still in, catching it between the beast’s fangs. The maw closed in, only a hair’s breadth from chewing his nose as he pushed back against the two-hundred-pound beast. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about the dog spittle dripping onto his face, nor was there anything he could do with the four-legged footsteps nearing in, growling and craving for a piece of the meat.

A gunshot blew off while he was struggling. Lui.

The hound wasn’t as distracted as Aenir was. It pulled on the scabbard and he, with the leather strap still around his shoulder, was flung away like a toy, several feet away. He landed rolling on his side and eased onto his knees, his sword-sheath in front of him, expecting a follow-up charge that was never coming.

The nirhound that had thrown him was still as a statue. A narrow blade stuck into its skull from above, a blade held by Lui on the other end. Behind him was another hound, limp and bloody from numerous pellet wounds.

“That’s three,” the blond said, pulling his sabre free to let the body fall. He wasn’t even out of breath. “Get on your feet. There’s a fourth.”

And a fifth. Aenir cursed under his breath. He watched the movement of the bushes, jumping between trees, hidden from view. Maybe more.

“Aenir!” Lui shouted.

Aenir looked up just in time to catch his gun, Promptly, he cocked and aimed at a hound charging out of the thickets. It was notably smaller than the previous ones.

A pup? He hesitated for a second. That second was enough time for two more hounds to come out running towards his friend. He pulled the trigger, and the nascent hound didn’t even make any effort to dodge. It tumbled on its face, unmoving. Dead.

Two more beasts were surrounding Lui. He’d used the shot of both barrels, meaning he only had his saber left. He pointed the frail-looking blade alternatingly between the hounds. For a brief moment, his eyes met Aenir’s and he blinked. A half-blink, with both eyes. A signal.

Without waiting for any confirmation, Lui lunged towards one of the hounds, leaving his back open to the other.

Aenir knew what he saw. He pulled the trigger with his elbow in a right angle, one hand on the grip and the other to fan the hammer. Two bullets flew in succession. One of them hit the hind parts of the beast just as it was going for Lui’s back.

The other one, meanwhile, evaded Lui’s thrust, but the man didn’t stop there. He stepped in with another thrust, which missed, and then a swing, which did not. A spatter of blood flew as the blade cut through the hound’s left foreleg, deep enough to render it useless. He used that moment of victory to take a better position against the beasts. One of them had a leg messed up, the other had lead up its ass. Aenir ran to Lui’s side, sword in hand, still in its sheath. The hounds glared at them, growling, legs poised to strike.

Aenir was just about to pull his greatsword out of its sheath when something interrupted him; a flash of light, originating from deeper into the woods. It appeared suddenly, blanketing the forest in white, not so bright that they had to cover their eyes, but bright nonetheless. It sustained for one whole second before dying out, as quick as it had appeared. The nirhounds turned tails and ran in the aftermath. They were gone before either of the humans could do anything about it. Aenir and Lui exchanged befuddled glances.

“What on earth…”

“You good, Aenir?”

“Yeah, fine. You?”

“Aye.” Lui sheathed his sword and moved first, walking back to the stream to collect the waterskins.

Aenir followed, his steps long and quick. “What the hell just happened? You said it wasn’t a pack.”

Lui shrugged with one shoulder. “They weren’t acting like one, more like a bunch of strays wanting to get a piece of the meat. Their attack strategy was off, splintered and uncoordinated. If it was a family, they would’ve retreated after I killed that first one, but they were ready to fight to the death, weren’t they?“

“Until they were scared off.”

“Aye,” Lui nodded, “but the question is, by what?”

“We could investigate that light, for starters.”

He gave Aenir a funny look. “What light?”

“You’re fucking with me right now.”

“I’m flattered, but no thanks.”

Aenir groaned. “You know what, I’ll go by myself. You go ahead back to the camp. They’ll be looking for us if someone heard the gunshots.”

“And where are you going?”

“To investigate that light. If it intimidated the nirhounds, maybe we should be as well. I’ll just make sure it won’t get in the way of our mission,” Aenir said as he walked the way where the light came from.

Lui followed behind. “Seriously, what light are you talking about? I didn’t see anything.”

“All the more reason to check it out,” Aenir told him. Most likely that flash of light was magic-related, a phenomenon visible only to those who had exposed themselves to the world of mana.

“You do realize we have bigger problems, right?”

Yes I do. The Lord being suspicious, potentially ruining their plan and one year of infiltrative work. Aenir shook his head. “This is a potential disruption.”

“Okay, got it, but whatever it is, you’d need back up.”

“No, I don’t.” Aenir moved away.

“Yes, you do.” Lui grabbed Aenir by the arm, then raised two fingers pointing skywards near his ear and said, “Hear that?”

“Hear what–,“ only then Aenir noticed the silence of the forest. Only a little while ago, ot was filled by sounds of birds and insects. Now there was nothing but the sound of the stream.

And then there was the ringing. The ringing, soft and constant, staying in the background. He wouldn’t have noticed if it didn’t sound oddly familiar.

“It could be the guns that chased them away,” Aenir surmised, deciding not to say anything about the ringing. His partner would just mock him and say something about ruptured eardrums.

Lui shrugged. “Maybe it’s the gunshots, or there’s something out there scaring the all wildlife away. It could be a bigger beast, and in my professional opinion, anything above a class C could easily hinder our mission.”

That’s what I was thinking. Aenir made what looked like a nod of agreement but stopped mid-bob. “I thought you didn’t see anything.”

“I didn’t,” Lui said. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

“Huh. Right, just don’t come complaining if we turned up with nothing.”

“No promises there,” he replied with what could’ve been a toothy grin had he not a kerchief covering his mouth.

 

 

Aenir led the way in a faster pace afterward. He mentally noted the darkening skies overhead; they were still an hour away from sunset, yet the chilling air had already settled. The moon of Grimyas was nearing, meaning the days were getting shorter, the nights longer and, considering their location, much, much colder as well. He preferred to have a fire nearby by sundown if he could help it.

There was no way to really pinpoint the source of the light and it was all he could do to walk in its general direction and hope something turned up. He also kept an ear out for critters, maybe the chirp of a bird or the hop of a rabbit, but ultimately found none. The silence was mildly disturbing in such a forest, and the mysterious ringing didn’t help either. Speaking on the matter, it really did sound familiar, particularly in how it didn’t sound like it was coming from anywhere.

“How far do you think is it?” Lui asked.

“Um, not that far,” Aenir told him after a pause.

In truth, he wasn’t sure. The light he saw earlier was bright which indicated that the source was nearby, but then again, he’d seen cases with electromagnetic waves doing things they weren’t supposed to do, and most likely, this was one of those cases. He was reminded of a paper theorizing on wavelengths and how certain magi could have a broader visible spectrum. He was skeptical back then, but thinking again, the light he saw had a color he couldn’t recognize.

“You know, I kind of expected it, but you handled yourself quite well in that fight earlier,” Lui said, rather casually.

Aenir made a grimace, but quickly hid it away. He tried to figure out whether the compliment was meant to be sardonic. “Says the man who eats nirhounds for supper,” came the snarky reply.

“So did you.”

“I killed one.” And it was a pup, but he didn’t elaborate on that. Lui basically tossed them around while he was being tossed around.

“I’m a professional, remember? My job description includes beast subjugations.”

Aenir made a squint with one eye. “You’re not even a real drifter, are you? I bet ‘Lui’ isn’t even your real name.”

Lui shrugged. His mouth was covered, making his facial cues that much harder to discern. “I took the tests, the proper trainings, climbed my way up the classes the proper way. I’m as real as a drifter can be.”

“Oh,” Aenir said boorishly.

“I’m just saying, for someone without beast training, you fought well.”

“Right.”

“And it’s Luise, by the way.”

Aenir looked to his companion, a flash of confusion in his eyes.

“My real name is Luise,” ‘Lui’ said, pulling down the kerchief to reveal a well-defined face that Aenir could imagine pulling gazes and tee-hees from town girls.

“Is this the part where I laugh?”

“I don’t know, is there something you found funny?”

“Perhaps it’s the fact that you literally truncated your name and call it an alias, or maybe because I have no way to know if your ‘real’ name is, indeed, your real name.”

“Well,” ‘Luise’ grinned, “I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“And that’s the problem with you, isn’t it? Everything that comes out of your mouth, they just…” Aenir paused.

“Just what?”

…The ringing. Aenir knew what it was. He’d heard it before, a long time ago—a ringing that came from within the hearer’s own skulls. He started walking again, but towards a different direction.

“Hey.” Luise followed behind. “Are you going to finish that sentence?”

“It’s a mana field.”

“A what?”

This was big. No, this was huge. Sites like these could be counted with one hand in the whole continent, and he’d found one that hadn’t been documented yet. Could it really be what I think it is?

“Wait up. You said it’s a mana field. You can sense mana?” Luise asked.

“I dabble, yes.”

“Can you–“

“No,” Aenir said, knowing what he was about to ask. “Not in any way that’s useful.”

Luise fell silent after that. It could be that he noticed the dismissal in Aenir’s tone, building a fence around the subject.

After a moment’s walk, the land started declining and the soil turned more and more soft under their feet. Finally, the trees parted, and in front of them was a still body of water.

“A swamp,” Luise said as they stopped by the edge. “You took us to a swamp.”

“Apparently.”

It was a small swamp, except calling it that would be inaccurate, considering the lack of the tepid smell or the rest of the biological processes that would otherwise occur. The swamp, the pond, was almost sterile. The water was clear enough that they could see the bottom, maybe about ankle-deep at the edges, though it did get slightly deeper towards the center of the…

The center. There was something there. A structure, cubic-shaped, around seven feet in dimensions. It stood on a small body of land at the center of the water. The two men briefly exchanged looks before waddling their way towards the object. Aenir had to pull the sword off his shoulder and carried it over his head before wetting his legs up to below the knee.

It was like a miniature island on a miniature lake. The little rays that broke through the forest’s barriers hit the cube’s greyish, unnaturally smooth surface and reflected them like light on modern concrete. It wasn’t made of bricks because then they’d see the lines, so it could be concrete. Either way, there was no sign of degeneration despite having been there for who knew how long. The entire structure seemed pristine, no discoloration nor any blemish or moss growth. Luise knocked on the cube’s surface with his knuckle, and the sound it made was something you would expect when knocking on glass.

Aenir circled the object. Whatever it was, the cube could be connected to the mana field and possibly the mysterious light from earlier as well. He had hoped to find an entrance to some kind of dungeon or ruin on the other side, but there was nothing. All of its sides were identical. It was, all oddness apart, a plain cube.

Then he stepped on something that wasn’t grass. He looked down. There was a girl.

 

 

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