2. Invitation to Danger

Chapter 2

Invitation to Danger

            I enviously stared over at the table where Leilos was sitting. For a town that was on a food shortage, they managed to gather up quite a lot to feed the deadbeat hunter. For some reason Satel had gone ‘missing’ and the hunter was claiming that he scared him off. Most of the town was in the saloon to celebrate their first night of peace. Almost all of the women my age or younger were flocking around him in hopes to get his attention. The saloon had a rather ordinate golden chandelier they decided to light for the occasion and it cast the room in a warm glow. Everyone seemed more energetic and happier under the light.

The festivities and the girls seemed to be enough to distract him, so I didn’t have to worry about being noticed. The girls were dressed in their best fitted skirts and fanciest blouses. Some were even wearing expensive lip colors and had their hair curled into tight ringlets. These were the kind of women I couldn’t compare with in terms of beauty- not that I particularly cared. I didn’t want to put on that slop on my face anyway- I honestly didn’t need it.

Despite my age, I still had slightly rounded cheeks from lingering baby fat and a light dusting of freckles on the top area of my cheeks. Most would consider it cute, but it made me seem young- annoyingly so. My skin was a light tan but I used to be darker back in the days I used to live on the sea. One of the few compliments I get from other girls was my hair when I had it loose. It was a light brown with a few golden strands and it came down to my waist. Many lament the fact that I stubbornly tie it back into a braid, but it was the most practical style for traveling and fighting. Plus- I had other reasons for styling it that way that involved hiding certain features.

I wasn’t a very social person- my experience with humans in Port Sibest wasn’t all that pleasant and mingling with the landlubbers inland was test of endurance. It didn’t matter if one was a pirate, fisherman, or even a native port town dweller- those who were raised by the sea were considered ignorant and uneducated. It was an unfair stereotype and it wasn’t even remotely true.

I attempted to change myself by trying to lose my seafarer accent and hide my face and ears behind the bangs of my hair so that my storm grey eyes wouldn’t be noticeable from afar. Grey eyes were common among seafarers, but mine were light enough to be perceived as pale blue from a distance, giving me a slight advantage when dealing with the earth dwellers.

I also had to hide my ears so that no one would see the platinum ear hugger on my right ear. It was a trinket of my early days and a symbol of status on a pirate ship. I could take it off, but a lingering sentimentality stopped me every time I tried to. It was just something I couldn’t let go of. People this far from the coast wouldn’t understand the meaning, but seafarers did and I didn’t want to be judged for a past that I was no longer a part of.

In truth, I really wanted to hide and change so I could escape seafarers and the cruelty they had shown me. I actually did all those things before I left the coast with Cegil so that I could try to start over, but once I started traveling away from the costal regions, I realized that the landlubbers were no kinder or better than seafarers. They were just as, if not more, ignorant than what they believed seafarers to be.

All they worried about was what others thought about them and went as far to condition themselves to appear ‘perfect’. Humans liked perfect and shunned different. It was so petty and bizarre that even Cegil didn’t understand it. And worst of all- their worries have bled into their actions, thoughts, and beliefs. They have to talk like others and agree with others- if anyone said anything different, they would be alienated. Sometimes I wondered who was the one setting those trends they followed. Was it the Oracles? Or maybe the wealthy?

Perhaps this was simply culture shock (as seafarers cared more about the community than themselves), but I was disgusted with their way of living. The last thing I would ever do was throw away my dignity to impress some man or allow one to sweet talk me into some kind of relationship. And I wasn’t about to make friends with people who would want me to act like them. It was human nature to desire companionship, but that forced people to pretend to be someone else. Since that seemed to be the only way to make friends, I chose to be alone.

Of course, nothing compared to the sickening realization that I ended up just like them- I changed so I that would be accepted. I felt so foolish and angry at myself for even trying. After that point, I truly hated all humanity and I didn’t want to be human anymore…but it’s not like I had much of a choice. I continued to talk without an accent for Cegil’s benefit, since he sometimes had a difficult time understanding some of the common seafarer words. I also continued to obscure my face- more to hide my earring rather than to cover my seafarer features. I was more worried about being identified as a pirate and being framed for crimes I didn’t commit.

I glared down at the same selection of food that I was given earlier that day. It was enough to sustain me, but I was still going to feel hungry later. I was tempted to demand the bartender to give me more- or at least let me have a drink, but I decided against it. Any sudden noise might remind Leilos of my existence and I was in no mood for a headache.

Unfortunately, my luck wasn’t as good as I thought. Somehow he singled me out and kindly asked the other ladies to back away so he could walk over to me. I continued to lean over the counter and tried my best to ignore him. I only had one cheese chunk and slice of dried meat left. The moment I finished that, I was going to get out of there. An inner voice scolded me for being so cautious- usually I would welcome the attention so I could knock sense into men like him, but I didn’t want to get in trouble tonight. I didn’t know if they still had any lawmen and I was within a territory that a falucite claimed.

If Satel liked to torment humans, then it wasn’t my place to stir up trouble without his permission. I’d probably be taking away one of his favorite pastimes.

“Lovely goddess, why do you sit alone? Come join me. This is a great day for I have saved this town without having to lift my finger. Come, you can share in this feast with me,” he offered kindly. He did have a lot of food, but I still had my pride.

“No, go bother the other women. They actually like you,” I replied in a subdued tone. I still didn’t understand why he wanted to talk to me when there were other, much prettier women flocking around. I refused to glance back to see his expression and chose to tear off half the meat and stuff it in my mouth.

“Oh I see,” he commented in a sly tone, “There’s no need to be jealous. My eyes are on you alone.”

I almost choked on my food. He thought I was jealous? Please! What in five hells did he want me for anyway? …Though I have heard rumors that some men liked girls who seemed hard to get. It was a sign that they are probably still virgin. Apparently my apathy is the sexiest thing about me.

“Go away…” I muttered after I swallowed the meat.

“I cannot do that,” he announced in a deeper tone as he stepped closer to me. I tensed when his arms came into view. His large hands rested on the countertop on either side of me and his torso was leaning over me, but he wasn’t touching me- not yet.

My lips drew into a frown. No one ever had the audacity to breech my personal space- at least not when I was being that cold and unapproachable. Either I wasn’t making myself clear, or he thought he could seduce me. I couldn’t help but feel there was something wrong with this situation. It was too bizarre- I didn’t bring things like this upon myself because I never gave any indication that I wanted it. I was always clear with people.

It was at that point that I began to consider that Leilos might’ve been smarter than he let on. Maybe he did know that I was with a falucite and was feigning interest to trap me to use as bait. It was a clever plan, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. I was fairly good with the sword- and I wasn’t above killing others in order to survive. …Though I would like to try to get out of the situation, rather than having to resort that far.

“You have three seconds to back away from me,” I warned, my accent trying to surface. I couldn’t control my dialect when angry. I was livid more than anything- I wasn’t about to let some human capture me and treat me like some object for his pleasure.

But I was proven wrong when he managed to turn my stool around so that I was facing him. He then backed away and knelt down at my feet. Somehow I had completely misread his intentions…

“I know this is sudden, but I see a kindred spirit in you. We both like to travel and we’re both alone. It had to have been decided by the Fates that we would meet here,” Leilos blubbered dramatically as he wildly gestured with his hands to entertain the crowd. I grabbed the last piece of meat and slowly chewed while he made an ass of himself.

My mood soured instantly upon hearing about the Fates. The Fates decided the course of world and of the future of the inhabitants. All Oracles were ‘children’ of the Fates and relayed their will to others through their soothsaying. The Fates were supposedly the ones who decided that I would be mated to a monster (though I would still argue that that Oracle was a phony). But I didn’t believe any of that crap. I was here because I wanted to be here- no mystical immortal planned it.

Leilos was finishing up his grand speech as I swallowed again. “Goddess, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

I stared down at him incredulously as he waggled his thick eyebrows, thinking it would appeal to me. When did it turn into a proposal? Why did he think it was a good idea to marry some stranger he didn’t even know? But then, I shouldn’t be so surprised- he was probably led to believe that it was his destiny to marry someone like me. The other people in the saloon were happy to hear this and began chanting ‘say yes’ in hopes that I would oblige them. Marriages were the ultimate happy occasion to humans- even if the bride and groom didn’t love each other.

“Elit, no,” I responded decisively, speaking the name of the god of sea to further show my conviction. A chorus of disappointed ‘aww’s filled the room as the hunter’s face became confused. I was positive that he only asked because he believed what the Oracles told him.

“Have I not proven myself to you? Why would you spurn me so?” he wondered in a hurt tone.

“I don’t know you, you don’t know me, my name isn’t ‘goddess’, and you probably think that I’m seventeen and that I’m easily persuaded,” I sneered before I reached for my last piece of food and tossed it in my mouth. With my dinner gone, I had no reason to stay. I jumped down from my stool and tried to leave, but the moron didn’t want to give up so easily.

He quickly stood up and grabbed one of my hands, but I pulled away and glared at him. That still didn’t deter him. “I know we do not know each other very well, but we will soon. What is important is that I am a man and you are a woman and we are clearly made for each other.”

Now that was an insult to my character. Did I really appear like some attention-hogging cretin who lied to get people to like me? Or perhaps he mistakenly viewed me as the ‘perfect’ woman in his eyes to think that I was the one for him? I must admit that I never came across someone that stupid before. Men generally got the hint after the first rejection.

And his ‘man and woman’ crap really pissed me off. What if I liked women? True- I hated everyone equally, but he didn’t know that- he didn’t know anything. But- why was this bothering me so much? I knew this man had to be an idiot and that all I had to do was beat him up and leave. Why was I letting his thoughtless words get to me? I relied more on action than thinking.

With that thought, my hand was at the hilt of my sword. I prepared to draw it and show him what kind of person I was. …But I paused when I realized how eerily silent it had gotten.

“There you are, sweetheart,” a soothing, yet evil voice said before I felt an arm slung across my shoulders. My head quickly whipped to the side and found Satel staring at Leilos with a serene smile and a darkened gleam to his eyes. When did he get here? I must’ve been too disgusted with Leilos to notice him arrive.

Almost instantly, everyone reacted to his appearance. They screamed and plastered themselves against the walls before Leilos came to his senses and unsheathed one of his swords.

“So you are the monster terrorizing this town,” he stated as he held the end of his blade toward the falucite. “Let the lady go. She has done nothing against you.”

“Oh but she has! And she will pay for it,” Satel purred in delight as his hand gripped my shoulder, “But fear not, I don’t intend to harm her. After all, she is only a toy I’m borrowing from my brother.”

“I prefer ‘pet’. Even a dog like me can get away with biting you and taking a piss on your shoes,” I replied flippantly as I causally pushed his arm off me. I was a little flattered when he laughed at that and acted as if it was the funniest joke he had heard in a while. He then readjusted his über hat before he pushed me towards the hunter. Leilos tried to catch me, but I managed to regain my footing on my own and quickly turned back towards the falucite.

“Well, as long as you know your place.” Satel grinned before he and everything else began fading away into a black void.

I could hear screams all around me as phantasmal creatures began to appear and chase everyone around. The hunter drew another sword and tried to push me behind him protectively. His muscles were tense and he trained his senses for the slightest movement in the unpredictable environment. I had to give the man some credit- he seemed to be a warrior, so he was probably not lying about that. Though I still doubted most accomplishments he dared bragged about, since they had sounded like lies. Hell, in one of his stories, he had had the audacity to claim he knows Cegil, and that he even owes the hunter a debt!

I was unconcerned with the whole thing since I knew there was no real danger around me. The giant, furry, winged creatures may look, sound, and even smell real, but they were only illusions. Cegil told me that most falucite could create illusions to trick humans. This was only a game Satel was playing to mess with my head- and perhaps to scare the townspeople silly. Unbeknownst to the armed moron, one of the creatures tried to attack me, but I simply held up my hand and caught it by the face.

I didn’t feel anything against my hand as it squealed and thrashed about to get away from me. I clenched my hand into a fist and the illusion vanished in a vapor of mist. Leilos had already run off, apparently ordering me to stay close to him before he did so. I just stared after him as he engaged battle with some hulky brown beast. Since the hunter was being cautious, he couldn’t get a real hit on the illusion and ended up taking a lot time before defeating it. Another beast was soon glad to challenge him.

I let out a tired sigh as I gazed around the dark surroundings. I could hear voices, but I couldn’t see the others. Another monster came charging after me. I just poked it between the eyes and forced it to disappear. I cautiously walked forward with my hands held out before me so that I could make my way back to the counter. While it appeared we were in a dark void, we were still actually within the saloon.

When I bumped into what seemed to be the bar, I leaned against it and simply ignored the monsters that came up to bother me. They hissed and screeched at me for a while before giving up and going after another hapless human. But it wasn’t long before a persistent creature tried to get in my face, seemingly determined to get a reaction out of me. I only jumped when Satel’s annoyed features appeared in the monster’s place.

“You’re not afraid? That’s no fun,” he pouted with a glare.

“Sorry…” I muttered, not really feeling sorry at all. “Once you’ve seen a man beheaded right before your eyes, it’s hard to be scared of the small things.”

I wasn’t sure what possessed me to tell him that much, but that was what caused me to be the ‘brave’ girl today. What was the point in being scared over silly illusions when humans did so much more heinous things to one another? There was almost a pout on his face before he waved a hand before my eyes, breaking the illusion.

I was then back in the saloon, leaning against the bar while everyone else was still trapped in the world that Satel created for them. Leilos was wildly swinging his swords around while the others cowered and cried in corners of the room. Thankfully, the hunter was carefully separated from the rest so he wouldn’t accidentally harm them with his fighting. It seemed no one else figured out that it was all fake and I had to wonder if there was anyone bright enough to tell the difference.

Satel sighed dramatically, acting as if my lack of fear was something to be very disappointed about, before he leaned against the counter next to me and reached for the mug of ale he procured for himself. I glanced back at the barkeep and noted that he was hunkered under the bar, possibly trapped under the same illusion. I considered sneaking back there to get some ale for myself, but then figured it would be a waste of time. Since I had to get up early in the morning, I needed to get to sleep soon.

My gaze traveled back to the frantic hunter as I tried to think of some way to make Satel forget about me so I could leave unnoticed. “Why don’t you kill him already? The man came all this way to slay you- the least you could do is give him a good fight.”

Even though I personally didn’t like to kill unless I had to, I honestly didn’t care if others did it so long as I didn’t see it. Every mortal had to die someday.

The platinum blonde falucite gave a dark grin as he pulled the mug away from his lips. “I don’t waste my time with insignificant humans. I only slaughter high profile ones- preferably ones that think they’re above all others. What I’m doing here is merely for my own amusement.”

…So he wasn’t completely evil- or rather, he was one of the typical falucite that played with humans like they were toys. It was a human misconception that falucite were evil and bloodthirsty since I had yet to meet one matching the description of those told in horror stories. I was somewhat glad to know that the stories were just made up rumors, as I wasn’t fond of witnessing bloodbaths- seeing others die just made me sick to my stomach.

“Pity…” I muttered after a while, feigning disappointment. “If I wasn’t in your territory, I would’ve decked him already. He really is annoying.”

Of course, never mind the fact that I was on the verge of fighting Leilos anyway, had he not shown up…

At my words, Satel perked up and stared at me questioningly. I wasn’t sure why he was so surprised…unless he didn’t expect me to know falucite rules.

“I know I’m not a falucite, but I still didn’t want to impose on your domain. Besides, you’re mad at me enough as it is.” I muttered the last part under my breath, but he still heard me clearly. Satel raised an eyebrow before he turned back to the fiasco before us.

“Who said I was mad at you? I only wanted to play,” he purred out, deliberately forgetting the fact that he did admit to a grudge with me earlier. “But now I see you’re more of a player than a game piece. I must admit that Cegil has done a fine job with you- I didn’t know there was such a thing as a human with manners.”

I supposed that meant that I had gained his respect. His words could be considered an insult, but it was one that only applied if I had some pride in my humanity.

I agreed with him wholeheartedly- ‘humans with manners’ (as he had put it) were rare. But at the same time it was unfair to say such things since falucite and human cultures were radically different. Humans had a certain degree of respect and politeness toward others, but falucite were much more strict about it in theirs. It was frowned upon to openly disrespect a fellow falucite unless they brought the behavior upon themselves.

“So does that mean I have your permission to torment others?” I asked just to clarify. I wasn’t sure exactly how the territory thing worked since some could have ‘territories’ large enough to cover several cities or have multiple ones dotting the continent. There was a chance I would be crossing another one of his territories and I wanted his word that I was free to do what I wanted in them. The last thing I needed was to attract his ire again.

Suddenly my face felt very heated when he took off one of his gloves and grabbed my hand. In that instant, the fire light of the chandelier caught in his eyes and made the red tint in his rust colored eyes stand out even more. I was rooted in place as he slowly pulled my hand up and pressed his lips against the back of it. Both his hand and lips were very warm.

“My dear, you have my permission to wreck havoc as much as you want- just don’t attack my targets.”

“O-Okay,” I stuttered as my eyes remained focused on his mouth. He had thin lips and they were very light pink in color- only a few shades darker than his fair skin.

He held my hand and stared at me for a rather long time before he finally decided to let me go. I pulled my hand back as if I had been burned and held it against my chest. What in the five hells just happened? My heart was pounding even though I hadn’t done anything strenuous. The smirk never left his face as he pulled his glove back on and faced Leilos once again.

“I suppose this has gone on long enough. I should chase this joker out of my town. Care to stay and watch?” he offered with a playful side-glance. My response was rather slow since it took a while for his question to register in my mind.

“Oh- uh…” I had to recover my senses first before I replied, “I’d like to, but I need to get some sleep. I have to rise early tomorrow.”

“Shame. I suppose we can play together another day,” he responded in a rather uncaring tone. “Sweet dreams, Dantia.”

I wasn’t sure why he stressed my name in that husky tone, but for some reason I felt rather weak-kneed at hearing it. It was strange that I reacted that way since he wasn’t using a seductive tone- it was more like he was forcing himself to say my name. It was as if he didn’t like my name or perhaps he was against the idea of me bearing a falucite moniker.

Satel quickly rushed off to attack Leilos with his sword drawn while I tried to recover from whatever strange ailment that suddenly plagued me. I figured that I had to be ill- nothing else made sense to me.

Before I left, I spied the mug of ale that was left on the bar. I grabbed it and found that it was half-full. After making sure the falucite was truly distracted, I drank the rest of it to help clear my head. I was certain he wouldn’t mind- it wasn’t as if he had paid for it.

********************

Usually around this time, I would be in the middle of an inquisition from a sheriff or some other lawman. But since there was a falucite on a rampage (and because I promised Cegil that I would try to stay out of trouble for the next few nights…), I wasn’t going to spend the night in prison. I managed to make it back to the room in one piece and was surprised that Cegil had actually stayed up waiting for me.

He had never stayed up for me before. He knew I was capable of taking care of myself when around other humans. But since Satel was around, I suppose that was enough to worry about. I was a good swordsman, but I was limited because I was only human. I had no chance in hell in competing against someone as powerful as him. However, I did take advantage of the fact that I knew Cegil’s hearing was sensitive and he would rescue me from any danger. Perhaps that was another reason I was so allegedly brave.

“Did he bother you?” the giant falucite wondered, his expression showing only a small trace of concern.

“Not really,” I replied as I headed over to my bed, “He thought I would fall for his illusions, but he gave up after a while and went after this hunter that was hired to slay him. I think he likes me now- he’s given me permission to do whatever I want in his territory.”

I witnessed a rare sight of his eyes widening in surprise and his eyebrows shooting up so high that I almost swore it hit his hairline. But it only lasted for a split second before his face returned to his usual calm and collected appearance. It was so fast that I thought I imagined it.

“Really?” he inquired in a mutter. I had to guess if he meant that to be in disbelief or if it were a confirmation to make sure he heard me right. Normally I could tell what he was trying to convey without him expressing anything, but this time I was a little stumped. Given that display of shock he gave me, I decided that it had to be disbelief and wondered if Satel might’ve lied to me earlier.

“…Yeah, that’s what he said. Does he lie to trick others?” I queried since I figured Cegil would know his own brother. It wouldn’t have been that much of a shock to discover if Satel would say anything just to make me look like a fool.

“No. He is always honest. I am just stunned that he would give you such respect. When I had last seen him he held no compassion for humans. He must have changed.”

I remembered Satel mentioning that he hadn’t seen his brother in fifty years. For a human, that was a long time, but to a falucite, it was nothing. I suppose I could see why Cegil thought it was strange he was nice to me despite the fact that I was his charge. If the last thing he remembered was Satel being cruel, then him ‘changing’ in fifty years would be a radical difference to Cegil.

I had to inquire how Cegil was so sure that his brother never lied- only to hear an answer that sounded about right despite the fact that I didn’t know the man for that long. Satel liked how the truth could hurt others and that was why he was always honest. Now I was really curious as to why he was so nice to me. Somehow everything he did that night was to lower my guard. That had to be it. The falucite was far from done with me and he was only seeking to trick me for his own amusement.

I let out a silent sigh as I untied my belt and unbuttoned my dress. Cegil turned to give me privacy before he sat down on his bed and settled in to sleep. I was still in my camisole and trousers when I pulled on my nightgown. I then removed the rest of my clothing underneath to preserve my modesty. Even though we considered each other family, it was still viewed indecent for an unwed woman to expose herself to a man, regardless of race.

I lay down on my bed and tried counting backwards to help myself sleep. It was much too early for me to retire, but if I didn’t rest now, I would be exhausted come morning. By the time I did manage to drift off, my thoughts were centered on the falucite with an über hat.

********************

I awakened with a groan at Cegil’s prodding. Even despite the fact that I tried sleeping early, I was still too groggy. I had to force myself to move, knowing that my guardian wouldn’t quit until I was up. Our mornings were fairly routine already- he would leave the room once I was awake so that I could get dressed and prepare for the day.

I stretched some after my feet touched the floor before I gathered my clothes and put them on. Once I was decent, I knocked on the door to let Cegil know that he could come back in. The giant falucite wandered over to the window to look out at the town in the predawn light. I sat down on my bed to brush my long hair and then pulled it back to its usual braid. I was about to head to the bathroom to clean my teeth when my guardian stopped me.

“Dantia… Did Satel happen to tell you anything pertaining to our next destination?” he wondered, not looking away from the window. I thought back on last night. Aside from his weird games, we didn’t discuss anything that seemed important.

“No, he didn’t mention anything, but he did act as if we would meet again. Maybe he’s going to stalk us?” I guessed, earning a light grunt from him.

“I would not be surprised. Unlike you, he loves putting his nose where it does not belong,” he muttered quietly. I could almost pick up a trace of fondness from his tone, but I wasn’t too sure. I was too tired to pay that close attention to him. Why was I being compared to Satel, anyway?

Once I was done with my morning hygiene, we packed up and left the inn. The air was pleasant- not unbearably hot, nor chilly. The heat and humidity carried over the night to warm what would usually be a cool morning in other parts of the world. The lone street was still empty and quiet, just like it was when we had first arrived, but since it was still a little early, that was normal. The only other person out happened to be waiting for us near the exit. Satel was perched on some barrel while he balanced the tip of a dagger on his covered finger. I couldn’t say for sure, but I had a suspicion the dagger was probably liberated from the falucite hunter.

“Leaving?” the blonde inquired idly, his eyes focused on the blade that almost seem to magically stay upright. Actually, that probably was it- magick.

“Dantia cannot travel in the heat. We have to move while it is still cool.”

I flinched a little at Cegil’s reply. I kind of knew that was the reason we had that annoying schedule, but it still made be feel bad that I was being a burden to him. This was our sixth day since entering the Wastelands- he could’ve been out by now if I wasn’t holding him back. Satel let out a huff before he let the dagger fall to the ground.

“Pity you lost the ability to teleport. That would easily take care of the problem, wouldn’t it? But you’re not in that much of a hurry, are you?” he commented casually before he jumped down from the barrel and walked over to us. “By the time you reach the homestead, it’ll all be over. There’s no point in using the human as an excuse.”

“I never said that I was going to help. I am merely here to find out what is happening,” Cegil replied, sounding a little tense. I was feeling a little tense myself- the whole conversation was downright uncomfortable. I didn’t know Cegil had lost his abilities. I had always thought he shunned them for some reason. I could see why he wouldn’t say anything out loud. There was no point in announcing weaknesses- it would play into an enemy’s favor.

“So are you coming home or aren’t you?” Satel wondered as he stared up at his brother. “Our elders want to see you again- so does the Daedeleth clan.”

He said that clan name in a dark tone, giving me the impression that Cegil had bad blood with them. The larger falucite was silent for a long while before he turned his head away from Satel. “I am not sure at this point. I want nothing to do with the elders and I certainly do not want anything to with them.”

“I thought you’d say that,” Satel responded with a shrug as he sidestepped around Cegil and slowly paced over to me. “Since you obviously have time to kill, why not take a slight detour over to Osel? Just head north from here and you’ll find it. If you leave now, you might just make before the heat becomes unbearable.”

He was now staring down at me with his usual grin. I was far too tired to give an expression as I glanced back at him. But he did manage to stun me yet again when his gloved hand came up to gently cradle my chin. “I wouldn’t worry, though. I bet this one is tough enough to survive a little heat.”

I didn’t have time to react before he bent down to kiss my cheek. It was a traditional farewell gesture between males and females, but somehow it didn’t feel all that natural coming from him. His lips lingered longer than it should have, but I had a feeling that he wasn’t aware of what he was doing. His eyes had a far off look when he pulled away, as if he were thinking heavily about something.

“But if you decide to ignore me- fine,” Satel added after a while. He chose to keep his back to Cegil. I watched as his eyes glanced to the side in his brother’s direction. “Someone is trying to pull you into this on purpose and it’s happening for a reason. Straying from the path might help you find out who- or would you rather be played as a puppet?”

He vanished before Cegil could turn and glare at him. I jumped a little too when I realized that he was gone. I was perfectly content with staying out of Cegil’s issues, but it seemed that I was being dragged into it. Hearing Satel openly mention what was going on made me admittedly curious, but I was afraid to ask for more information. I didn’t want to pry into Cegil’s past since my attempts when I first traveled with him often led to a cold shoulder.

“The destination does not seem to matter- I will be led by the mysterious informer or by my brother either way,” he muttered in distain before he faced me fully. “Which way would you choose?”

I blinked a few times. It wasn’t often I would get to choose the destination. Usually I would only get to choose which bounty we would go after so we could replenish our crijok.

“Well…” I began as I thought it over, “I would rather deal with Satel than face someone who could be itching for a fight with you.”

I didn’t like the sound of the Daedeleth clan and I didn’t want Cegil to face someone he didn’t want to deal with. This was actually the first time I ever heard about a ‘mysterious informer’ and I knew almost nothing about him. I didn’t even know who Cegil visited while we were separated. Satel seemed like the safer choice- though I wished it didn’t feel like we were being lured into a prank. That man is so shady…

“Hmm… I suppose that is the better choice. But Osel is farther than what he is making it out to be,” he warned, concerned for my health.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay,” I reassured him. I wasn’t some weak little girl- I could survive a little heat.

He considered it for a moment before he took a deep breath. Something in his demeanor told me that he didn’t really want to go, but his mind seemed to be made up. “Very well. Is your canteen full? You will need to conserve as much water as possible. And inform me if you should feel faint.”

Jeez! I said I would be okay! I grumbled in my thoughts. I gave my guardian a deadpan stare as I held up my water canteen to prove that I had it. He was being awfully overprotective of me as of late and I couldn’t figure out why. When he was satisfied that I was prepared for the journey, we set off, heading north.

Little did I know, I was walking into a trap that Satel had set for me. I had sealed my fate from the moment I chose our destination.

********************

I now understood why Cegil was so concerned about going to Osel. Everything was fine until we passed the noon hour. I had to miss lunch because we didn’t bring anything with us (as Ranosia was in a ‘food shortage’) and it was getting hotter outside. What made things worse was the fact that the further north we traveled, the more hills we had to climb up. In the northernmost reaches of the Wastelands were elevated rock structures and canyons.

The sky was blue and clear as usual and the uneven horizon before us was wavy from the evaporation of ground water. If I bothered to glance to the side or behind me, I would find only cracked earth meeting a shimmering line that connected to the sky. I almost felt like I was trapped in one of those souvenir glass globes. Endless sky, endless earth- and yet I knew I was only a tiny dot moving in what was actually a small area contained in the center of a continent.

I shook my head to focus on the matter at hand. I was never exposed to heat like this before and I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I had to sacrifice my modesty by unbuttoning some of my dress to expose my neck and roll up my trousers some. I had scheduled water breaks to keep me hydrated, but it wasn’t enough to cool me down.

I was feeling a little lightheaded and I started to stagger after a while, but I was determined to keep walking. I refused to be a burden to Cegil. Every fiber of my being wanted to ask ‘are we there yet?’ and pray that we were close, but I swore to him that I would handle this trip. I kept my lips closed and my complaints locked in my mind.

“Are you well, Dantia?” Cegil inquired without glancing back at me. He would usually prefer to remain silent while traveling, but he decided to be the talkative one this time. He had to- he needed to make sure I was still alive.

“I’m fine,” I muttered as I focused on keeping my feet moving.

“You may take another sip of water,” he told me. I did so without hesitation. I let the cool liquid linger in my dry mouth before letting it slide down my throat. Like with all my water breaks, it was briefly refreshing.

“Just tell me if-”

“I’m fine,” I insisted, cutting him off. I knew he was about to offer another chance to rest, but I didn’t want to stop now. The sooner we were in town, the better. All I could think about was getting into a nice cold bath and wash away the sweat and grime that accumulated in the hellhole I was walking in. I tried hard not to reflect on the fact that he still looked cool despite being overdressed in fancy clothing. I couldn’t even see a bead of sweat on him- so unfair…

“We should be there soon. Just a little farther,” he reassured me. I glanced at the back of his head and grinned a little.

“Are you really that worried about me?” I inquired after attempting a dry laugh.

“This is not a test of endurance. Men more experienced and better prepared than you have fallen in conditions such as these. …Since I am unable to spare you from this burden, I must take it upon myself to ensure that you survive.”

Since my mind was muddled from the heat, it took me a while to figure out what his real problem was. He must’ve been feeling guilty that he couldn’t teleport me to the town and he was probably concerned over the fact that I now knew why. Satel exposed a lot of things Cegil never bothered to tell me and that should have been cause for me to start doubting my guardian. But- I didn’t really care.

Maybe he wanted to protect me from his past or perhaps he thought I would think badly of him if I knew the truth, but that wasn’t important to me. I knew the Cegil who saved me from Port Sibest and had raised me for seven years. So what if he lost his powers or if he was possibly some terrible falucite in the past? I wanted to stay by his side and help him if he needed it. I didn’t need to know the other stuff.

“I’ll survive. I’m a daughter of the sea and we’re known to be tough,” I replied, ignoring the fact that it was fisherman’s wives who were famous for being tough. Didn’t matter- I’ve been on a ship before and did more work than some owned woman. “Besides, I chose to come out here with you. You didn’t force me to say ‘let’s go to Osel’.”

This time he glanced back at me for a moment. I could see his eyes past the strands of lavender hair. They were slightly softened from their usual cold appearance and he seemed a little more relaxed. “That is true. My apologies if I have insulted your character.”

That was the closest thing to a joke I could get out of him. He dabbled in dry humor on occasions and it was usually him quoting or patronizing me. Still, it meant that he was feeling less guilty and I felt happy that I was able to cheer him up.

“You’d think you’d know me by now…” I sneered at him mockingly before giving a weak smile. It wasn’t easy keeping up with the humor when I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly. My words were too breathy and I found myself inhaling deeper breaths to compensate. Cegil didn’t think it was any cause for alarm so I ignored it. This was probably normal behavior to those exposed to this level of heat.

Suddenly my eyes caught sight of something in the far off mist vapors. I couldn’t make it out properly, but they did appear to be structures of some kind. “Am I seeing one of those mirages, or is that Osel?”

“It is Osel. We’re almost there, little falcie. Try to endure for just a bit longer.”

“Right,” I confirmed as I tried to stagger less. We were almost there, finally. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I was certain Cegil would find the answers he needed there. And if not…well I suppose we would just have to move on. Though I have a feeling that something will happen. Satel wouldn’t have invited us if he didn’t have something planned.

To the Next Chapter

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