Everything after I returned to the safehouse was a blur. I passed out soon after Lisa tended to me with a healing potion, and found myself fading in and out of consciousness multiple times. I barely recalled what happened— it was almost like I was a kid again, sleeping in the car ride home after a long road trip.
The only difference was, instead of coming back from a vacation well-rested and content, I had just barely escaped with my life from an evil Saintess.
I vaguely remembered Braz coming to the safehouse to escort me and Lisa out of the city. They both stopped to look over me for a moment, exchanging a few muffled words that I couldn’t make out. Then I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, we were entering the cove of the hideout. Kai was with us now, alongside the remaining pirates that came with us, and he was in the middle of a conversation with Lisa.
“…if we’d known this, we wouldn’t have let her—”
“…but how why did the— “
“…we’ll deal with that later.”
I could only understand bits and pieces of their discussion, but it sounded important; I tried to force myself up— say something to them. All that came out, however, was an odd grouse.
The large figure of Braz loomed over me as he gently whispered. “Don’t strain yourself. You’re still tired. Go back to sleep.”
Every ounce of my being didn’t want to listen to him, yet my body simply complied with that order and everything went dark again.
The third time I found myself waking up, I was lying in the bed of a small room. Gennady was seated next to me, a worried look on his face. When he saw me move, he quickly rushed over to my side.
“Lass, I’m sorry for not being with you. I’m supposed to be your bodyguard, but I’ve left you alone ever since we came here. Listen, if you want me to return your coin or do anything else for you, just let me know—”
He was jabbering on about serious things— things I didn’t want to bother thinking about at the moment. So instead of listening to him, I decided to close my eyes and go back to sleep.
And finally, some time after that, I groggily opened my eyes and sat up in bed. My body didn’t ache with each movement; whatever healing potion I had been treated did its job well— only the shadow of the pains from the day before remained. And yet, I was still tired.
It was a mix of mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion, and another kind of exhaustion that came from using magic. I wanted to climb out of the bed but my body didn’t allow me to; instead, I just waited there for a moment.
The room was empty. Everyone who had been hovering over me must have left some time ago. Was it night? I didn’t think so. I highly doubted I had been passed out for a full day.
After just sitting there for another minute or two, I mustered up the strength to finally get up and out of the bed. I paused as I saw what had been laid face down on the side table— it was my mask.
My broken mask.
I sighed as I realized I wasn’t even wearing my hood up. That meant everyone now knew what I looked like. And with what happened with Lilith… I had some explaining to do, which I was not looking forward to.
Still, I forced myself to move: I exited the room, looking around the hideout. I was met with the familiar scene of the cove with its rock walls and rock ceiling, as well as the sandy beach. But something was different.
It was… emptier.
That was not to say it was completely deserted and I had been abandoned; I recognized most of the faces that were meandering around, but there were significantly less people about. In fact, one of the ships— the bigger ones— was gone from its usual place. It had been anchored in the same spot for the entirety of the time I had been here, but now it and dozens of people were missing.
I knew what that meant, of course. It was obvious.
Not all of the pirates were gone; in fact half of them were still here. But the ones that were most vulnerable— the elderly, the mothers, and the children— had been brought to another place for their safety. Not all the noncombatants went. I spotted Sevin as he was passing by and I called out to him.
The young man stopped when he saw me. He hesitated for a moment, before approaching me with an apprehension he did not have before. “Melas, you’re awake,” he said. “I’m glad. When you came back yesterday and they told us what happened, I was so worried.”
He sounded worried. But the way he eyed me told me he was uncomfortable— still processing the fact that I was a kid and not some Half Goblin like I had led him to believe.
“I’m fine now.” I turned and gestured past him, deciding that this was something I could discuss with him later. “Where’s Ginah? Kai?’
“They’re over at their meeting room. The usual place.”
I bowed my head slightly and hurried in the direction of the meeting room. I was about to enter it, but stopped as I saw the man standing guard in front of it. Braz glanced down at me and nodded.
“You’re up,” he said simply.
Unlike Sevin, he did not seem too put off by me now that he knew I was a kid. He shot me a casual grin and jerked a thumb behind him. “Come on in. Your Dwarf friend has been anxious and getting louder by the minute.”
“Gennady?” I cocked a brow and peered into the room. I wasn’t able to make out any of the conversation inside but there clearly was one going on, and it was getting tense. “What’s going on?”
“They’re discussing you. So you might want to get in there and back yourself up.”
I had thought that was the case. Sighing, I went in followed by Braz.
“…and I’m telling you, you can’t just do that.”
“We know. But it’s too much of a—”
Ginah cut herself off as she saw me enter the room. Gennady’s face snapped in my direction and he quickly rushed over to my side.
“Melas, Goddess grace us— you’re awake!” The broad chested man wrapped his arms around me and I struggled to break free. “You’re fine!”
I squirmed in his arms. “I won’t be if you keep hugging me so tightly.”
“Right, sorry.” He quickly released me and stepped back. The Dwarf looked at me once over, placing both hands on my shoulder. “I’m glad you’re ok.”
“I’m glad too,” I said. “I was already worried about my own life when fighting Bahr. But when Saintess Lilith showed up, I thought I was dead. I—”
I paused and glanced over at Ginah and Kai standing off to the side. Jack and Lisa were in the room too; they did not look too enthused to see me— well, Jack was his usual dour self, while Lisa was more on edge than she had been around me before.
I realized the context of the conversation even before I heard what was being said; there was only one thing to be discussed now that Bahr was dead, and the fact that there even was a discussion going on indicated that it was probably not a good thing for me.
I took a deep breath, ready to explain myself, but before I could speak the pirate Captain opened her mouth first.
“We had no idea you were a child,” Ginah said. “If we did, we wouldn’t have made you fight for us. We’re sorry.”
I gave her a blank look. That was not what I had expected her to say. “Why are you apologizing?” I asked, confused.
She gave me an odd look. “I just explained why.”
“Right.” I shook my head, still not fully cognizant just yet. “You don’t have to apologize,” I said. “I decided to help you out of my own volition. It was my choice and I knew what I was getting myself into. If I didn’t think I was capable of fending for myself, I wouldn’t have agreed to our deal.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter. You’re still a child.”
There was nothing to say to that; the point being made was clear— making a kid take part in life-or-death situations was not the most moral thing to do. That much was obvious.
I still wasn’t prepared to face whatever decision they had come to regarding my deal with them just yet. So I skirted around the issue, choosing to focus on other, pressing topics first.
“What has happened in the city since I passed out?” I asked, turning to Kai.
“Hey, why aren’t you asking me that?” Ginah sputtered. “I’m the Captain here!”
I rolled my eyes. “Because he’s the one who’s actually in charge. That’s what Quartermasters do.”
“Well, only somewhat,” she huffed. “I’ll concede that point, though.”
Kai sighed, rubbing his temples; he faced me as he began to explain.
“The portion of the docks we were fighting in was completely burned down. Most of the ships there belonged to the Elise, and considering that their leader is dead, the organization is pretty much just a name at this point. Their fate is something that has yet to become official, but I’m sure we’ll be hearing about the fracturing of what’s left into minor groups soon enough.”
My eyes flickered as I picked up on what he tried to glaze over— everything there had been burned down. While it was a good thing the Elise was pretty much inoperative now, it was still a good portion of the port of Luke. That was not something insignificant. And I played a part in causing it.
He must have noticed the look on my face as he took on a softer tone of voice.
“I know you’re worried about the… damages. But from the reports we’ve heard, no innocent civilian died. The area around the docks were mostly for storing equipment and most of the ships there were disused anyhow. So it’s not like too many people will be losing their jobs over this. We did good, Melas.”
“I hope so,” I muttered under my breath.
Bahr was dead and the Elise could no longer diffuse their drugs in this country. That was good, right?
And yet, I remembered the Half Elf as he tried to recruit me as his ally; he truly believed what he was doing was the right thing. How could he ignore all the suffering his actions caused? He was not like Victor who took pleasure in his atrocious actions— Bahr seemed to almost ignore it entirely.
Was he just ignorant of the consequences of his own actions? Or did he treat it as a means that was justified by the end result? Or rather, should I have even tried to kill him?
As Kai pointed out, with the Elise gone, there would be chaos in the underground of Luke. With dozens of different factions grasping for power, would it even be better than how it was before?
I was still tired. I wasn’t sure why I felt a sense of regret at Bahr’s death— perhaps it was because he tried to ally himself with me; being hunted down by literally everyone had skewed my worldview in the past to accept the help of anyone who wasn’t out to get me. And I almost forgot the important lesson I learned to choose my allies carefully because if I did not, I might find myself amongst monsters.
Bahr was a monster. I was certain he was. A monster that wanted to help me, but a monster nonetheless.
And it was not like I hadn’t already considered the consequences of bringing down the Elise. I turned back to Ginah and looked at her questioningly.
“So, now that the Elise is gone, what are you guys going to do next?”
A flash of uncertainty crossed through Ginah’s face. Perhaps others wouldn’t have noticed it— but I picked up on it a while back. That look went away quickly enough and she gave me an easy grin.
“Didn’t we tell you? We’ll clean up the mess that’s left behind. The Elise had gangs and pirate crews under their control— they’re going to be a bit of trouble, but they already know our reputation. It’s not going to be too hard to rein them in.”
“Right,” I nodded, but still looking at her curiously. “I just wanted to make sure.”
“Yeah,” she said, before taking on a more hesitant tone of voice. “That is not an issue. The problem is…” she trailed off, averting her gaze from me.
Sighing, I simply folded my arms. It was time to address the elephant in the room; the reason why Gennady was upset and arguing with them, and the thing I had been most afraid of all this time.
“Just say it already.”
The pirate Captain took a deep breath; she met my gaze and held it, opening her mouth to speak. “Listen,” she started, “we don’t have anything against you. But this whole business with the Church. We can’t really… get involved.”
I had thought I steeled myself for those words but I still found my shoulders slumping upon hearing them. I couldn’t even find the energy within myself to be angry at them for this.
“I’m sorry, Melas.” She didn’t once turn away; she clearly didn’t want to say it, but she was forcing herself to. “Perhaps if it were just some Priest from the Church threatening us, we’d brush it off. Or if they even sent a team of Inquisitors. But this is a Saintess we’re talking about. It’s just not…”
“Worth it?” I helpfully put in and she nodded defeatedly.
I wanted to just leave. I was tired. I didn’t want to argue with her. And yet, I wasn’t sure what I could even do.
“But we made a deal,” I protested, though I knew my heart wasn’t fully into it. “You can’t just back out now.”
“Saintess Lilith is after you. You do realize that, right?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head somberly. “Of course I know that.”
“Did you know she was after you before that night?” Ginah prodded me.
She narrowed her eyes, looking deep inside of me; she wanted to trust me, I could tell. And she should have— I was telling the truth.
“I didn’t know Saintess Lilith would come for me, Ginah. I didn’t even know the Church was hunting for me.” I hesitated, realizing that that was a part lie. I quickly corrected myself. “I mean, I was aware that they probably didn’t want me alive since I escaped. But I had no idea they were actively coming after me.”
“Escape?” Ginah cocked her head. “What did you escape from? Who are you, Melas? Why is a Saintess hunting you down?”
“I…” Should I tell them? I glanced over at Gennady. He was standing by my side with his arms folded. I had told him who my mother was completely by accident; it was good fortune that he didn’t care too much about it, but would Ginah react the same way?
I looked over at Lisa standing over in the corner. She had already been thrown off by the fact that I was a spellcaster. If she found out I was the daughter of this infamous Fiend, would she demand I be handed over to the Church?
I couldn’t tell them. But I wanted to. I had to. And yet, when I opened my mouth, nothing came out.
“It seems it has been decided,” Ginah finally said, realizing I had nothing else to add.
“No it isn’t.” Gennady stepped forward. “How can you possibly leave this girl to die? Aren’t you lot supposed to be some group of noble pirates? To have principles?”
The pirate Captain hesitated, chewing her lower lip and glancing over at me one last time, before looking back at the Dwarf. She shook her head.
“We’re not leaving anyone to die. I— the Dark Crusaders will surely take her in. She’s an enemy of the Church and a spellcaster. They can protect you.”
“She can’t turn to the Dark Crusaders.”
“I don’t know,” the Dwarf said, grimacing. “But she can’t.”
Everyone in the room turned to look at me expectantly. I wanted to explain myself— but again, I could not. If they knew I was wanted by the Dark Crusaders, they would want to cast me aside even more.
“Well?” Ginah raised an eyebrow.
“Ginah,” Braz said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I think that’s enough questions for now.”
“No.” Shaking her head, she turned to her crewmate. “I’m sorry, Braz. And I don’t like doing this either. But I have to know. For the safety of our crew.”
Her actions made sense; I could tell everyone was uncomfortable with how hard she was pressing me, a ‘kid’. But I could see the logic behind it.
And yet, I didn’t want to speak; I had just barely escaped captivity once again, and now had to deal with all my plans— everything I had strove to avoid— come tumbling down. It was not that I couldn’t go to the Taw Kingdom anymore, but traversing through land would have delayed it by months.
I could wait. I was always willing to wait. However, when you thought you were killing two birds with one stone by working to your own ends while doing something good, and it turned out all the good you did was worth nothing, it weighed you down a little bit.
So instead of giving them an answer, I simply turned around and just left.
I heard them call after me. Gennady tried to stop me, but I ignored him. Braz said something, but I ignored him. Even Kai tried asking me to wait, but I ignored him.
I returned to my room and began packing my stuff. It took me a couple of minutes to get everything ready, but when I was done, I took a deep breath and sprawled onto the bed. There was nothing to be done. I was probably going to be captured once again— have my freedom taken from me again. Lose the autonomy and agency I had worked so hard to create and maintain.
I lay there for a moment, staring only at the ceiling; I did not know how much time passed— how many minutes went by— eventually, however, loud footsteps approached the doorway and I glanced up.
“What do you want, Gennady?” I asked, sitting up.
The Dwarf was standing by the doorway
“Lass, I know I’m supposed to be your bodyguard, but I can’t protect you from a Saintess alone. I think you should at least try to get them to change their minds. There’s no way we’ll reach the Taw Kingdom on foot with someone like Lilith coming after us. Sacred piss, I don’t even think we’d be fully safe if we went by sea.”
“If you’re coming with me, then let’s go,” I said, ignoring him. I grabbed my back from the floor and hefted it up next to me onto the bed. “Get your things and prepare to leave by nightfall.”
“But I think you should at least consider—”
“No.” I closed my eyes, resolving myself. “It doesn’t matter. People only care about their own interests. And it goes against Ginah and her crew’s interest to help me. Truth be told, I should have known something would’ve gone wrong. At least I can leave this place knowing I did some good and my time here wasn’t pointless, even if I didn’t get what I wanted.”
He furrowed his brows. “You don’t mean that, do you?”
“I do,” I said simply. “What else can I do here?”
“You’ve fought alongside everyone here, lassie. You’ve helped them achieve their goal. You can’t just let them abandon you now that you’re the one in trouble.”
“And why can’t I do that?” I asked. “It’s not like I can even convince them to help me anyway. I’m just saving time.”
Gennady hesitated. He looked like he still had something to say; he opened his mouth, but was cut off before he could even speak.
“Why can’t you do that?” Lisa said, stepping into the room. She nodded at Gennady, smiling as she did. “Can I come in?”
“Oh, of course.” He moved aside, letting her walk past him.
The young woman turned to face me as I raised an eyebrow.
“I just wanted to tell you something since you decided to leave. Give you a heads up.”
“What is it?” I frowned.
Lisa strode on over to my side and took a seat; she placed both her arms on the bed, using them to support her as she leaned back slightly. “I went to Luke this morning to see if I could dig up any information on Lilith. How long she has been here, and what groups she has managed to get under her control.
“Apparently, she has been in the city for over a month. Roughly as long as you have, maybe a few days to a week later. She has been searching for you for a while— well, not you you.”
“Aria,” I said, remembering what Lilith had called me. “She’s looking for an ‘Aria’.”
“She is. And while that is a pretty common name, she wasn’t always looking for one.” Lisa stood up, finally turning to face me as she explained. “When Lilith first came to Luke, she was looking for someone that simply fits the description of you. She had no idea what your name was or anything like that. She was simply looking for a ‘little girl with black hair and silver eyes’. She already had contacts in the city and they led her to some people who have seen someone that exactly fit this description.”
“The Lightbringers Vessel.”
“Their crew, yes.” She nodded. “And at this point, I just met you— the companion of the Dwarf who was seen with this exact same girl.”
I paused, looking up at Lisa wide eyed. “You sold me out?”
“No—” She raised her hand up placatingly. “I didn’t do anything with this information. I was in desperate need of money and you were definitely a curious client, but I wouldn’t have sold your information to anyone as it would compromise my contract with you… at least, until our job with you was finished, of course.”
“Wait, but The Lightbringers Vessel was…” I trailed off, frowning. They were following us, of course; at the time, I had thought it was the Elise looking to force Lisa and Jack onto their side. But if Lilith had already gotten control of the ship at that point, it would not make sense for them to do that.
And since they were after me, that meant Lisa and Jack’s own crew were after me too. Which meant—
“Your crew sold me out?”
“Our men did,” Lisa corrected me. “And they were probably going to betray Jack and myself too, tired of our stubbornness, I guess. That’s why they didn’t tell us of their plan.
“They’re sailors, so they must’ve heard somehow that someone in charge of The Lightbringers Vessel was searching for a little girl accompanying a Dwarf. And when I told them you two were our new clients, they must’ve decided that all the years they spent working with us was worth less than the gold Lilith and the Church was willing to pay them.”
“I… see.” I had a hand on my chin, tightly gripping it as I considered this information. “And you’re trying to say that people would be on the lookout for not just me, but Gennady too, right?”
“Yes and no,” she said, sighing. “I wasn’t finished just yet.” She turned to Gennady and stuck a hand out. “Can I have a drink please? This next part is hard.”
“Ugh fine.” The young woman rubbed at her temples before looking back at me; her brows arched darkly over her forehead as she began, “Well, the thing is, they aren’t just on the lookout for you anymore. Someone— he had been happily taken care of by Jack, don’t worry— told Lilith that I was working with Ginah’s Crew and you, and they were trying to bribe and threaten me into revealing where you were hiding.”
I froze as the smuggler— former smuggler?— quickly continued.
“Of course, I don’t plan on selling you out. I don’t think it’d be very good on my conscience to be responsible for the death of a child like you. But if I’m placed under the blade and forced to talk, I can’t promise I won’t leak anything.”
I stood there for a moment, unable to speak and staring at her. Finally, I regained my sense and snapped at her. “How could you do that?”
Lisa backed up quickly, putting both her hands up. “I haven’t done anything! I was just saying—”
“That you’ll just betray me later! That you’ll be fine leaving me for dead!”
I was angry. I didn’t know why I was angry— didn’t I expect this? That Lisa was actually a traitor for the Elise?
“No!” she quickly said. “That is not what I said! I didn’t say I’ll be fine with it—”
“But you’ll still do it!” I pointed accusingly at her.
“And that’s why I came here, Melas. Because I don’t want to do that. I don’t want it to come to that.”
I wanted to say something; I almost couldn’t resist the urge to reject whatever she came to tell me without even hearing it. But I knew I was just frustrated. I would simply be laying my grievances with the situation on her, and that was not right. So I bit my tongue, choosing to listen instead.
“It doesn’t have to come to that,” she said. “Saintess Lilith will continue pursuing you, yes. She will try to take you in for whatever reason you refuse to disclose with us. However, you don’t have to fight her alone.
“You don’t have to convince all of us to help you, Melas. Because most of us already want to help you. After you left— Braz, Kai, and even Jack tried to convince Ginah to help you. You’ve aided us all when we needed your help. It only makes sense that we’d want to offer you our help back.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, drawing my lips into a thin line. “As long as Ginah doesn’t want to help me, it won’t make a difference. I still won’t get to the Taw Kingdom.”
Lisa titled her head to the side, eyeing me with scrutiny. “You don’t realize it, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ginah wants to help you,” she said, smiling.
“What?” I narrowed my eyes, staring at the satisfied look plastered on Lisa’s face. “No she doesn’t. She turned me down.”
“Well, you’re wrong about that. She didn’t turn you down. She wanted you to give her something to convince her to help you. A reason to get involved.”
“I…” I trailed off. Was that really what Ginah was trying to get out of me? I was so certain she would just leave me for dead— that was the logical choice, after all.
But people were not rational creatures; I was aware that I didn’t always act in my utmost best interests, yet I did not consider others were the same as me. For one to only make the right decision, they would have to be some sort of… god.
My eyes flickered as I remembered the jerk god who killed me and put me in this world for his own reasons— who was responsible for the Abominations that had brought too many deaths to count. No, I thought. Either gods aren’t perfect either, or he was no god at all.
I looked back up at Lisa and saw her eyes were twinkling; she knew I was still keeping something from her, just like when we first met. I had secrets, and while many of them were revealed, I still held some out of stubbornness. One which I didn’t need anymore.
“So, what can you give Ginah?” she asked. “What can you give us to get us to help you?”
I closed my eyes and exhaled deeply. I knew Ginah— the pirate Captain who was in charge of the life of so many. Who held it to herself to protect those that sought her out. To save a city and possibly a country from something that could bring it to ruins. But there was a different Ginah. One that was tired. One I knew that wanted something else.
“I might just be able to do that,” I said.
Lisa nodded, then offered me a hand to stand up. “Well then, what are you waiting for? Let’s go speak with Ginah.”
I eyed the hand for just a second before taking it. I stood up, lowering my bag back down to the floor. I paused as she gestured for us to go. “What’s wrong?”
“Why?” I asked, looking up at Lisa. “Why would you want to help me?”
“Because,” she said, snorting, “I’m not a terrible person.”
“Is that really it?”
“Well, no. I also kind of like you, Melas. You’re… odd. And slightly scary at times when you threaten me.” I grimaced but she just grinned.
“Don’t be.” Lisa raised her shoulders in a shrug. “I had known you were eccentric when we first met, and as I said, I was curious about you then too. But now that I’ve gotten to know you more, I can’t just let you die to some Saintess, can I?”
I hesitated, looking up at the young woman. Could I trust her? I had been torn over that for the entirety of the time I had known her. I thought money could buy her loyalty— and perhaps it did at first.
But that was not something that could be held forever. Trust was something you had to give others. No one would ever trust someone who didn’t trust them back. So I had to trust her— to trust them. That this plan I had hatched in my head would work. That they would not betray me and leave me for dead.
So I spoke slowly, mustering up a smile. “Thank you.”
She just smiled back. “You know, you aren’t so intimidating when you’re not wearing that mask.”
I scowled, but Lisa just started laughing. As if she told some sort of funny joke even though she didn’t. And yet, I slowly felt my face relaxing as I laughed with her too.
Then from behind her, Gennady snorted. “She really does, doesn’t she?”
The two of us paused, turning to stare at the Dwarf who had been standing at the doorway the entire time. He furrowed his brows.
Lisa just sighed and I pinched the bridge of my nose.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“Wait, did you two forget I was here?”
“Come on, Melas. Let’s talk to Ginah.”
“C’mon, I didn’t mean to ruin your moment! It’s not my fault you lot forgot about me!”
He ran after us as we left the room and headed back to speak with Ginah. And when I spoke to her— convinced her to help me— all I could do at that point was trust that this plan of ours would work.
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