It was morning when I woke up.
I pushed the nice, thick blanket off of me, as I rolled comfortably off of the queen sized bed. I glanced out the silk drapes, out into the quiet street as people went about their day. I rubbed at my eyes—
Waitaminute, this is not my bed! This is not my room! Where am I?!
I frantically searched myself for all my belongings, and found that I still had everything on me. Just then, the door to the room creaked opened.
“Damned Humans, always trying to rip— oh, you’re awake.”
A stout man with a broad chest stepped in, carrying something on his hand. It was Gennady, and he walked up to me.
“I just bought these from—” he started, but was cut off by me.
“W-w-why am I in your room?” I asked, aghast.
“Oh come off it, lass. We’re not in the Puer Kingdom. I just brought you here to rest after you passed out yesterday,” Gennady said, snorting.
“After I passed out?” I blinked away my tiredness, trying to remember what happened the day before.
My legs were still sore from walking for so long, and my arms felt slightly heavier than normal but I felt a different kind of exhaustion; an inexplicable emptiness inside of me. It was not like I was drained of energy— it felt more like I was too tired to even access the energy.
Then I remembered the events that transpired: walking dozens of miles, and hiking up parts of a mountain; fighting a Horned Viper and six Crawlers; entering a cave, full of Abominations…
And killing them all.
My eyes widened as the image of the Atrocity looking up at me reappeared in my head. I had to have been casting spells down the pit nonstop for over an hour. There were thousands of Abominations, and they did not attack me; not after the Atrocity saw me.
I almost felt bad about killing them; they were a danger to everyone in the area, yet they ignored me. The Atrocity allowed me to kill them, stopping its ‘friends’ (for the lack of a better term) from attacking me. Especially since it was the Abominations that technically helped save me from slavery back in Bys. I knew the reason had something to do with that jerk god who killed me and brought me to this world, but I did not know why he needed, or wanted, me alive.
My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the smell of food. I felt my mouth watering as Gennady placed a small plate of fried potatoes in front of me. It almost looked like french fries, but those did not exist in this world since neither the French nor did Belgians exist in this world; it was similar— like a fusion of potato wedges and fries, except shaped more like a block. In the plate was also a mixture of some dried vegetables along with small bits of meat.
“Here, you go,” the Dwarf said, handing me my eating utensils. “You haven’t eaten in at least a day. Maybe more depending on when your last meal was.”
I drew my lips up into a smile as I thanked him. I immediately dug in, consuming everything I could with a ravenous hunger. I continued to chow down on my meal for another five minutes, before slowing down enough to speak with Gennady.
“So,” I started, still chewing on a piece of meat, “how long was I out?”
“You passed out before noon, and now it’s a few hours to noon the day after. How long do you think you slept?”
“Almost 24 hours? That’s… a long time,” I whistled, before biting a down on a large chunk of fried potatoes.
“It is,” he said in agreement. “But it makes sense, given how tired you must’ve been.”
“Mhm,” I mumbled a sound in agreement. “Got anything to drink?” I asked.
“Here” Gennady passed me a metal flask.
I opened the lid, gulping down a strange liquid. It tasted almost sweet, but with a slight hint of fruit and earth. I lowered the flask and handed it back to the Dwarf. “This is alcohol,” I said, frowning. It was strong.
“Yeah, one of the best ones. In fact, it’s probably the best one you can find around here. How do ya like it?” The Dwarf gave me a grin under his bushy beard.
“I was hoping to hydrate myself with something like water, not to get drunk in the morning,” I said, voice flat.
“Gah, fine.” Gennady sighed, walking to his backpack laying on the corner of a room. He pulled out a bottle of water as he murmured to himself. “I don’t understand you Humans. You don’t let your children drink a good beer until they’re 16. What fun are you supposed to have until then? Y’know, the Taw Kingdom lets Dwarven kids as young as 10 drink alcohol— like 13 in Human years. Once you start growing into an adult, you should be allowed to start drinking too.”
I shrugged. “Different cultures, different countries. I don’t think the Free Lands had any legal drinking age. I doubt all Dwarven countries have the same laws too. Same thing with us Humans…” I trailed off, feeling something was off.
Then it hit me like a truck traveling at 50mph.
How does he know I’m Human? Don’t I have a… mask? Where’s my mask?!
I stood up, touching my face. My fingers found skin, and not the cold hard surface of a mask. I realized that I had been eating the entire time, face exposed to the Dwarf.
Gennady snorted in response to what I said, seemingly not noticing me staring at him in shock.
“You know, I knew you weren’t just your average Aria, but to think you were actually a Human girl the entire time? I was—”
“You took off my mask while I was sleeping?” I yelled, pointing a trembling finger at him. “That’s… that’s… a violation of my privacy! Why would you do that?!”
Gennady took a step back, surprised at my sudden outburst. “Now calm down—”
“How can I be calm? What did you do to me last night? How would I know if…” I hesitated, and drew my dagger. “What else did you do?”
“I told you, Aria, I did nothing,” the Dwarf backed further away from me, warily eyeing the black blade in my hand. “Listen to me: you fell unconscious after you destroyed all the Abominations, right?”
I nodded slowly, still with my weapon out, and watching out for any sudden movements.
“Then, I had to check if you were fine— if you were breathing. I had to know whether you suffocated from the smoke and whether you were still alive. So I removed your mask and checked your pulse, before running out of the cave with you on my back. After that, I drove you to my inn, and you’ve been sleeping here since. That’s all that happened, I swear it on my beard!”
I raised an eyebrow at that. It was not a skeptical look I gave him, but more of a confused one. “You… swear it on your beard?”
“Yes, m’beard,” he said his Dwarvish accent. “If I’m lying, I’ll shave it all off. The size of a Dwarf’s beard makes him more attractive, see? Women love it big!”
I sighed, lowering my weapon and rolling my eyes simultaneously. “That’s inappropriate.”
“It was not an innuendo,” Gennady said, relaxing his shoulders as I sheathed my dagger.
“I guess I’ll believe you for now. At the very least, you haven’t tried killing me, so there’s that.”
The Dwarf took a seat, clutching a hand on his chest. “Sacred piss, girl, this is the second time you tried to kill me in two days. Let’s not make it a habit, shall we?”
“Only if you don’t tell anyone what you saw,” I said, reaching for my mask which I found inside of a drawer. I caught myself, realizing that I had no reason to wear it now and that I did not actually enjoy wearing it because of how uncomfortable it felt, then went back to my food to continue eating.
“And you’re not going to threaten me with that thing again to do that, are ya? Make me promise to stay quiet, else you’d kill me.”
“No,” I said, finishing up my meal. “I won’t threaten you again. I think I’ve done that enough.” Gennady snorted, as I took a sip of water. “However,” I continued, “I will have to figure out how I’m going to keep your mouth shut. So if you can tell me why exactly I should trust you won’t go telling the Church that the daughter of the Fiend is in Locke, then maybe it might prevent me from doing other unsavory things I don’t like.”
I was trying to be threatening with my words, rather than just overt violence; it might seem harsh— actually, it was very harsh. I immediately regretted saying it, but kept it from showing on my face. Next time, I’ll try being a good cop rather than a bad cop.
My guilt only doubled as the Dwarf’s eyes bulged like an insect, as I finished speaking. Was I that menacing? Perhaps saying it while cutting a piece of meat with a knife like in movies really worked. Gennady opened his mouth to speak—
“Wait, you’re the daughter of the Fiend?!”
I fell out of the bed.
“What? You mean you didn’t know that?!” I exclaimed. “You mean I just revealed that myself by accident?”
I’m an idiot! Idiot! Stupid! Idiot!
I smacked my head on the floor a few times, before picking myself up and walking towards a desk to slam my forehead into.
Gennady quickly leaned forward, bringing a finger to his mouth. “What are you doing, keep it down. Stop making so much noise!”
I paused, cocking my head at his reaction.
The Dwarf came close to me, speaking so softly I could barely hear him. “Is that really true? You’re talking about the Fiend, right? Valeria of the Shadow’s Evangelium?”
I bit my lower lip, mentally cursing at myself.
There was no use hiding it, since I literally just revealed it. Gennady walked over to a chair, rubbing at his forehead. “Goddess grace us. That would explain how you were so good with magic. With all those spells you were throwing around, I’d have thought you were at least B Rank like me. Possibly even higher!
“You’re lucky the walls in this inn are thick, lass. If anyone heard you, and if they believed you, you’d have Inquisitors coming down on you in an instant. There’s no way you’d survive the year. Even if you can fight off Inquisitors, they could even send a Saint or a Saintess. And I estimate their average strength to be at S Rank. They’re dangerous. And you should know that.”
“I do,” I said, realizing that he knew what happened to my mom. And of course he would. Apparently, when the Holy Xan Empire announced it a few months back, they made sure to keep it on the news for over a week. Anyone who had access to a television would know that Saint Theron slew my mom in battle, aided by a group of Inquisitors— conveniently leaving out the fact that they attacked her while she was unprepared and not looking for a fight.
Gennady slumped over in his chair. “Lass, you do realize that these are the things you have to be tight lipped about, right? I didn’t think about it when I saw you at first, but now that you mention it, I can see the resemblance. You should be more careful!”
“I know,” I sighed, “but I just thought that you knew. I don’t know why, but I just assumed…”
Every individual of note I had met so far who was unbothered by my magic somehow seemed to easily draw the connection between me and my mom; I mistakenly assumed Gennady would be the same, and let it slip. I need to work on being more covert. I’m too new to this! I resolved myself for the future.
For now, I turned to Gennady who was still looking stressed in his seat.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked, studying any visible changes in how he seemed to regard me.
The Dwarf glanced back at me, and I did not notice any fear; he was unnerved, but by something else other than me.
“I already told you, Aria— wait, that’s not even your real name, is it?”
I did not respond, but he shook his head.
“Doesn’t matter,” Gennady said, continuing from where he left off. “I’m not going to tell anyone. I, myself, don’t hold anything against the Fiend. The Shadow’s Evangelium caused more trouble over at Soli than here in Vitae, unlike the Dark Crusaders. What I’m worried about is you, lass.”
“Me?” I cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes, you.” Gennady stood up, and began pacing back and forth the room. “What are you going to do now? Your mother was one of the most wanted people in the entire world. She was regarded as a danger to any single Saint. If a group of Inquisitors were to have somehow run into her, their orders were to avoid engaging and to simply report on her location. The Mercenaries Guild had a bounty starting at a hundred gold just on getting any verifiable information on her. A thousand gold for her location. And 10,000 gold for her head.
“And that was just the Mercenaries Guild. In Vitae alone, the various countries would have equaled at least that much. And the Holy Xan Empire itself had a hundred thousand gold bounty for the person who would kill the Fiend.”
I felt a breath get caught in my throat. A hundred thousand gold? For my mom? “B-but why?” I managed to ask the question.
“For her crimes,” Gennady said softly, and cut me off before I could protest. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t want to hear this, but your mother committed many terrible deeds. Perhaps not always personally, but she was one of the core leaders of the Shadow’s Evangelium. They once destroyed an entire city— Xantioch— razing it to the ground and slaughtering all of its inhabitants. From what I’ve heard, there were no survivors.”
I wanted to deny it; I wanted to tell the Dwarf that he was wrong. Yet I remembered how my mom avoided talking of her past— how she spoke little of the Shadow’s Evangelium, and pushed me against learning magic. It… made sense.
Even if my mom did not directly participate in such acts, she must have been responsible somehow. Why else would she hide it from me? Why else would she have gone into hiding? I stayed quiet, and Gennady noticed this.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sure your mother was not like this when you knew her, Aria. And there are some other things which made the bounty on her head jump even higher than it should be— inconsequential things like violating Holy Law and trespassing on Holy Lands— but it is true the Shadow’s Evangelium committed grave sins. I don’t know how exaggerated they are since most of it happened when I was still a young lad, however there is some truth to it. And from that truth, you should know you are in danger. The Church will come for you, it is only a matter of time.”
My brows arched darkly over my eyes. I felt a sense of dread, trepidation of what was to come. It was a warning, but it almost felt like a prophecy. I knew the Holy Xan Empire would eventually come after me— they would not be satisfied with just killing my mom once they found out I could do magic. Even a Saint— one of their righteous heroes of justice— watched idly by as his friend struck out to kill me for casting a single spell.
“I know you say you’re not with the Dark Crusaders, and maybe it’s for the same reason why your mother went into hiding instead of joining the group, but I have to recommend that practicality should hold priority over any moral obligation you feel you might have in this situation. If you want, I know a few members I could introduce you to.”
“Not happening,” I said, sighing. I looked up at the ceiling as Gennady tilted his head to the side.
“I already tried joining them, Gennady. It didn’t work out.” I clenched my fists into a ball for a moment, then loosed my grip. “It never works out,” I whispered, feeling a sense of depression I had not felt since my time as a slave.
I was not sure if Gennady heard the second part of what I said, but he quieted for a while; neither of us spoke, as the clock on the wall ticked a minute away.
“Aria,” the Dwarf said, finally breaking the silence. “I only just met you, but I can tell, you’re a good lass. Maybe a bit paranoid, however I know it must be for good reason. I don’t believe I can, in good faith, allow you to just die. So I have a suggestion.”
“I told you I’m from the Taw Kingdom, right? Well I’m actually not just an ordinary Dwarf from there, although I probably implied as much. I am an inventor, and I used to be their head Scientist. Until I got replaced by that damned fool from the Holy Xan Empire.”
I jerked, head snapping to look at him. “You are— uh, I mean, you were?”
“Yes I was. Is that so surprising?” Gennady asked, folding his arms.
“No! I mean, you said you’re good at Tinkering and I believed you. It’s just that…” I trailed off.
“Just what?” The Dwarf’s eyes bore into me, compelling me to explain myself.
“I thought you might’ve been some kind of exiled Dwarf, you know? Like kicked out from your country because of some disagreement with the King?”
“Hah,” he snorted. “Good one! But the King begged me not to go. Adilet gave me another position— he said it would pay well. I left anyway. I did not want to deal with that Human.”
“Bertrand?” I asked, remembering him mention that name before.
Gennady shook his head. “It does not matter. What matters now is that my Kingdom would take you in. We may be… allied with the Holy Xan Empire. And we are plagued by the Dark Crusaders constantly whisking away our Goblin population and turning them into thieves and thugs for their own use. But I believe that the Taw Kingdom would be willing to accept you if I spoke to the right people.”
“I… heard,” I said, glad that Felix was not lying to me and luring me into a trap. “You guys provide asylum to the enemies of the Holy Xan Empire, right?”
“To most of them. The ones that we think would piss ‘em off. Y’know, we even had a division of spellcasters once. Heretics that either practiced magic for their own benefit or were part of the Dark Crusaders whom we arrested, and were given the chance to earn their freedom. The Church threw such a hissy fit, it was hilarious. Too bad it didn’t work out.”
“Why didn’t it work out?” I asked. “Did you guys cede to the Holy Xan Empire’s demands?”
“No. They all died during an incident. A disaster.” Gennady’s tone became significantly more somber. “And everyone’s been too scared to join it ever since. They’d rather spend a few years rotting in the dungeon before being set free, than risk their lives.”
I decided not to press the issue, since it did not look like he was going to talk more about it anyways; I asked another question instead.
“Why do this for me? We only just met, Gennady. How do you know I’m ‘good’, as you said?”
“Other than the fact that you went out of your way to wipe out an entire horde of Abominations when you could have very easily have not done anything about it, and avoided getting discovered for your magic?” The Dwarf placed a hand on my shoulder, and smiled. “You also saved my life. When that Amalgam came up at me and I froze up, you protected me. So I owe you one.”
“But I nearly killed you,” I said, cringing at the thought.
“Hm, you did try. And you would have succeeded very easily, if you did not give me that entire monologue telling me how much you did not want to do it. Tell me now: do you really think you would have gone through with it?” Gennady asked, staring into my eyes, and I into his.
This was the first time I noticed, but Gennady had a kindly way of looking at people. He might have been loud, and slightly too intimate with people he just met, but he was a good man. His hazel green eyes had a glint to it which spoke of his intelligence, yet one would assume from his personality that he was nothing more than a rough brute; there was a depth to him, just like there was a depth to everyone else, which I found piquing my curiosity.
Clearly he thought I would have changed my mind in the last second even if he did not show me he could cast magic— that was the answer he already had in his head. Yet, I found myself doubting that; perhaps I was cynical, or perhaps I did not know myself as well as I thought I did, but I did not have as much faith in myself as he seemed to have.
Gennady, however, seemed to take my lack of a response as a confirmation. “Exactly,” he said, stepping away from me.
“Are you really going to be bringing me to Taw?” I asked, gesturing at a book on the table. “Don’t you have to complete your bestiary or something? I don’t want to trouble you, Gennady. I’ll accept maybe just a written letter of recommendation? Or a list of people I could speak with.”
I did not know why I tried to reject his help; this was a chance— an opportunity that most others would never get. I just felt… uncertain. I did not know why I did, but something unsettled me. Not the man himself— as said, I thought he was interesting.
But Gennady just waved his hand dismissively.
“I don’t know how far a simple letter could take you, Aria. And you don’t have to be concerned about me. I was planning to return soon, since most of my bestiary is complete. Plus, I’m sure the King would like to hear how I’d rank the Abominations. The Holy Xan Empire only provided descriptions, but never what their abilities would be. And from what I’ve seen so far, it seems they either gave us bad information, or outdated information. There should not have been an Atrocity here. Oh, and speaking of…”
The Dwarf pulled out a small pouch full of gold coins, and gave it to me.
“This is for you. The reward for the extermination of the Abominations.”
“This?” I rapidly closed and opened my eyes. “This is a lot of gold!”
“I told the Hunters Guild that there were a lot more Abominations than they estimated, and about the Atrocity. So that they’ll be on higher alert throughout the continent. This can’t just be an isolated incident.”
“Wait, how did you explain how you wiped them all out?” I asked, still staring at the heavy pouch of gold sitting on the palm of my hands. Is it glittering? I’m pretty sure it’s glittering!
“I just told them I used this,” Gennady said, pointing at the bazooka-cannon looking weapon he showed me yesterday. “They don’t know that it doesn’t work, but they know about my background, so they just assumed I was telling the truth. They’re sending people to confirm that the Abominations are gone, but this is the initial payment. If they find that we’re telling the truth, they’ll probably pay us a lot more gold in the future, and we can collect it in any of the big Hunters Guild branches if we can’t just wait here for them to check.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but Gennady just shot me a wink.
“Don’t worry, I already took my cut.”
It looked up at the Dwarf, then back down to the gold coins. It really was a lot of gold. Almost a hundred. More than I had held in my entire life.
Slowly, I brought my hands forward, whilst bowing my head, offering half the gold to Gennady. The man just blinked.
“What are you doing, lass. I told you—”
“This is a bribe,” I said, looking back up. “For you to keep my secret and bring me to Taw.”
“What are you even saying?” the Dwarf asked, perplexed at my sudden offer.
“You told me yesterday, didn’t you? Most people would accept bribes and stay quiet. Well half of this is for you to stay quiet, and the other is payment for you to escort me to Taw. You’re a Hunter, right? There are Monsters along the way, and I can’t protect myself,” I said, pushing the pouch to the man’s chest. “That’s our contract. An official one— we’ll get it signed under the guild.”
“Can’t protect—” Gennady sputtered. “Lass, are you even listening to yourself? You’re a Hunter! Of course you—”
“I’m not a Hunter,” I said, cutting him off. “Aria is a Hunter, but not me. I’m just a regular little girl. Someone who needs protection. So will you accept my offer? Do you think the terms of the agreement are fair?”
Gennady furrowed his brow, not out of irritation, but more out of bewilderment. “Personally, I think this contract is skewed in my favor quite significantly. But if you’re trying to give me free money, then I guess I’ll take it. Could probably buy a few Superior mana crystals with this.”
I smiled. “Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling better about myself.
“Hah, no worries, lass. Or, do I call you ‘little Missus’ now?”
I paused, not sure of what to say. After a moment’s deliberation, I decided to say it anyways.
“My name is Melas, not ‘little Missus’. I’d prefer it if you call me by my appropriate name,” I said, emphasizing the last part to distinguish between myself and ‘Aria’. Although we really were just the same person.
“Alright then, Melas,” Gennady said, slapping me on the back. I glared at him, rubbing at my back as he pointed a thumb at himself and grinned. “I’ll be bringing you to the Taw Kingdom safe and sound, don’t you worry about it!”
And unlike before, I was less worried now. I was not sure why he was helping me, but I knew for sure that he had a reason to keep his promise now. I was still uncomfortable, but more reassured.
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