Book II - Chapter 50

Chapter 50

 

[Snake Report]

 

Paper.

Not the two-ply kind, but the printed with words kind.

It brings up a great dilemma of mine: a deep problem I’d never anticipated.

I’m illiterate.

How did this happen, I wonder?

As someone who survived not only the first levels of education, but University as well- the workforce, even. I swear, I was a productive member of society.

I’m pretty sure.

Hard to remember… exactly

Weird.

Still, even after abandoning ship, [Voice of Gaia] has managed to swindle me one last time.

Words on paper mean nothing to me.

I am forever humbled.

Large bold looking script at the top… squiggles. Some finer script directly underneath that- smaller squiggles. Around the bottom of the page? One straight line-like squiggle, and several other repeating circular squiggles.

Logic says this to be a number.

Big number.

Eveth’s worth a heck of a lot of squiggles. Let me tell you.

I think we’re in deep shit.

BUT- there is a Brightside to all of this.

Eveth’s mugshot… mug doodle?

Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Real-life Eveth’s got a bookish sort of prettiness in real life. Nothing on Miss Paladin, but still. If I had to use a cliché, she has the stern librarian vibe. Couple that with the stubborn attitude, the dangerous career choices, and her ability to set people on fire…

Yeah.

But, as much as real-life Eveth isn’t a pushover, I’ll be real with you: bounty paper Eveth looks genuinely badass.

It’s awesome.

Obviously, whoever drew this was going off some sort of outside input. The resemblance is there, but she looks way too fierce.

Almost Bonnie, from Bonnie and Clyde sort of casual “Yeah, I could end your life” sort of expression.

If I were Eveth, maybe I’d hang that up somewhere. Get it framed.

I wonder if someone had to draw this out individually? Would that be a thing? If they had to do only one, maybe… but what if there were a bunch…

Maybe they use a magical printing press.

Is that real? I don’t even know if clocks are real.

Man… I am in over my head right now.

“What did the bounty say, Eveth?”

“We’ll deal with that later.”

“You’re not even going to tell me the number?”

“A lot.”

“That’s not a number. You rob a bank or something?”

“No, I didn't. I Just… let me know if you see anyone.”

Sss…

Must be bad. She clammed up after she looked it over.

We’re both a bit too exhausted to deal with another heavy fight.

Not after that [Earth Sculpting] materialized.

Lot of magic to be had: spitting out over a dozen [Leviathan Breath] and maintaining a low-dose [Heal] to communicate.

Still… Earth magic.

What a rush.

I feel like when I try to use it, I keep running into a wall. Or I just lose my grip on the… control. I guess that would be the word. It always cuts out.

But back there?

I could use it.

Not back to normal, but what I wanted went through. The magic responded.

Eveth hasn’t clarified how she made that work. I don’t really have the mana to be wasting on [Heal] to ask her, either, on the off chance we run into more trouble.

But, I could really use it.

We could use it.

Sss…

That’s the other reason I’d rather not use [Heal] to communicate.

Be quiet.

We could…

Shush.

As you command…

It’s retreating.

That… voice. The other voice, in my head. Our battle back there shook it up, shook me up.

I think… I think I lost control.

For a couple of seconds there, it's like I blacked out.

I don’t know if I was the one in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Almost couldn’t [Heal] Eveth like I wanted.

This is really starting to concern me.

I’m losing it.

Sss…

Tiny Snake God slithers in mysterious ways, but I might need another sign. Need to get myself back on track, soon.

Maybe Imra has seen one?

Yeah... she found the last one… I should ask her.

Imra would keep her eyes open for this sort of thing.

Which reminds me.

“Eveth, should I call for help?”

“Hiss as loud as you want, we’re hours away from the inn.”

“I don’t need to hiss.”

“Still no, we can’t draw attention right now. Besides: that’s not where we’re going.”

Hmm.

Eveth doesn’t get what I was asking.

Not that I really expected her to.

It’s a weird subject.

I was getting used to the feeling for a while, back when it was just me an Imra. The sensation of a “new normal” or something like that. Going with Eveth today… well, it’s tough to explain.

The feeling of leaving what I took for granted, getting used to not having whatever it was, and then going back to it… That sort of “contrast.”

It’s in my head.

We’ve been walking on the backstreets for a while now, and the sun is really starting to dip. Soon, it’s going to be completely behind the City walls.

Our pace is slow, but Eveth’s visibly tired. Her mana capacity was tested, and I guess it can have some harsh side-effects for humans, too.

So, we’re making progress, but it’s slow.

Seems like she’s trying to take us around the more populated area. All the streets look the same to me, but we’re travelling in a wide arc, heading in a general sense, in the same direction as the inn.

I know this for a fact.

The “contrast” is telling me.

Yeah… somewhere off in the distance, relative South West: Imra’s not particularly happy.

Pretty sure she’s pissed off. Still sitting in her chair, meditative posture… not meditating.

She’s faking that.

Yeah. Totally pretending.

Imra knows there was a battle, and she missed it. Oh… she’s mad.

My Elf buddy is super mad.

It’s weird I know this.

Only thing I can say.

Creepy?

No… it’s not creepy.

One step removed from creepy.

I’ve got some more pressing concerns, but Imra and I are eventually going to have to get to the bottom of what exactly is going on with… whatever it is. For now, though:

“There are voices up ahead, Eveth.”

“Damn.”

We’re turning, again. Wider arc, another street taking us closer and closer to the walls.

I don’t know exactly where she’s taking us, but I know we’re having serious trouble getting there.

This place is huge: City of the Emperor… City of the Tiny Snake God… whichever, I suppose. The thing about the layout that really gets me, is that it’s contained.

Walled in on all sides.

Foreign concept to someone like me, but no matter how far you go in this city, eventually you’re going to run into one. They wrap all the way around, to surround everything, towering over the shacks and rough looking slum houses.

There’s no sprawl into suburbia. Instead, there’s just walls, and then… dust, I guess? Dying fields and territory that’s in the process of experiencing desertification.

Up ahead, looming over us, I can see one side of the city walls approaching. If we reach them, there are no more turns to make, except back.

The prospect of turning around doesn’t appeal to me, much.

I should probably call Imra.

We’re close enough. I think it would work, but then again… if I called Imra, she’d have to take Dren. We can’t leave him alone, he’d be a sitting duck.

Hmm…

That could end with trouble, either way.

“Hey, Eveth. Can’t we just find somewhere we can lay low?”

“No, I need to find the others.”

“Are we close to wherever you think they are, at least?”

“Yes, we’re almost there.”

“How close?”

“Just keep a lookout.”

Well then.

Not going to waste my mana talking to a wall.

Ssss…

Eveth’s adjusted to this whole thing a little too well, I think.

Just because she’s been wearing me like a necklace and I spent a few hours asking her questions, doesn’t mean she’s free and clear to boss me around.

It irks the weird voice in my head, too.

Real bad.

Like, don’t do that.

Really would prefer that not act out a second time today. That would be the worst-case scenario.

It might, too.

I can hear it, again. Getting louder… stronger…

Sss…

I’m going crazy. Talking about unwanted voices in my head…

What a joke.

Ug.

Eveth’s pissed off, tired, exhausted on a spiritual level. I get that, mana drain isn’t fun once it gets close to the line, but we need to be rational about this. I need to call Imra to come help us, and we need to find a place to stop and lay low.

Problem is, where?

We’re in the outer region of the city now.

This is clearly the slums. Not exactly a place to let your guard down, and I haven’t seen a functional business for hours. Certainly not any operating inn or rooms for rent.

Eveth seems convinced we need to be here, but I’m starting to wonder if someone’s going to sense weakness and take a stab at us.

Now that it’s dark, I see them.

There are other people, watching.

Always watching.

It really reminds me of the Dungeon. Where predators weighing their options, considering the risk versus reward.

Eveth’s got some blood on her cloths, a bag loaded with all sorts of goodies, and she’s walking a bit sluggish. Prime target, softened up a bit already… but she’s also got the staff.

People look at Eveth, then they look at the staff. Then, they back off.

Like brightly colored animals, signaling danger: the weapon is a warning.

Even a few guys with swords, settled on the last corner. Thought for sure they were going to approach, but they saw that staff and made themselves scarce. They’re trailing behind us though, a couple blocks off, but they’re not doing anything.

Yet.

“Eveth.”

“I know, I see them.”

Alright.

We need Imra.

No choice, I just need to work out exactly how to call her.

I figured out how to talk with a low-dose of [Heal] but this type of communication isn’t the same. [Heal] is like a one-way line: I pass the message, maybe a bit extra, and Eveth talks back.

Sending only, responses come vocally.

Clearly, from the faint visual hallucination of Dren looking remarkably uncomfortable, across the table from Imra back at the inn, what Imra and I have is not a one-way line.

Whatever it happens to be, though, I just need to get it to cooperate.

No instructions, manuals or otherwise, doesn’t help.

I smell bread.

Not here, but over there. If I focus, I can actually smell the bread, on the table.

Okay…

Bread's not helping.

Enough of smells, shift…

No… don’t need sight either. Close, but not quite.

I feel… temperature? Okay, I think I can work with that. That’s closer to what I need. Now, I just have to somehow push some thoughts…

Concepts?

Help?

Imra, we need some help.

Did it work?

There.

Oh, she’s reacting. I feel her head… nodding. I’m nodding? No- no that’s her. She’s the one nodding. Dren’s looking up, he’s saying something-

“Snake.”

Wait.

What?

Eveth’s stopped walking.

“There are people up ahead of us. I thought you said you were looking out.”

Shit, I’m all turned around.

Okay, what’s ahead?

Three… four people.

Armed.

“I see them. They’ve got swords, but they’re not looking at us.”

“Damn it...”

Eveth sounds shaky. We need to stop somewhere, wait for Imra and Dren to reach us. This is getting dangerous.

“Behind us?”

“The other group is still behind us. I think they’re waiting for their chance.”

“So be it.”

Okay, she’s moving forward. I guess we’re going to either bluff our way by with the staff or fight this out.

Mana Reserves feel like… quarter tank. That’s probably enough for some fire, maybe I can scare them off. It just comes back so slow on the surface. Regenerating mana in Eveth’s study was so much faster.

Forward, those people ahead still haven’t noticed us. That’s good, good-

Hang on a second.

We’re moving… sideways.

Into an alley.

Through the alley… oh, I get it. For some reason, I’m getting a sense of déjà vu.

“Alem pulls this kind of thing all the time. I always end up lost.”

“You want to go into the canal?”

“I really don’t, but…”

“Footsteps, Eveth: they’re approaching the alley. What are we doing? Fighting? I can get some magic ready.”

“No, can't risk it. There might be more.”

Woah-

Not fighting.

We’re going down.

Ug.

Rough landing, but not terrible. Nothing broken. Smells awful though, hope none of this is getting back to Imra. Like… rat poop.

There’s definitely rat poop down here.

Eveth’s got us moving again. Heading straight, parallel to the road we were just on.

“Of course, there would be a tunnel.”

Ug.

She’s right.

Creepy hole in the foundation at twenty paces and closing fast.

Guess we’re doing this.

Dungeon vibes, for sure. Pitch black.

Still hear voices… they’re back there, following us.

Whoever it is, they haven’t given up yet.

Sss… it is dark in here. I thought I had decent night-vision, but this is a total absence of light. Can’t see more than ten feet.

Eveth’s feeling her way, hand along the wall.

“Can you see?”

“Barely. These used to have water, right?”

“Years ago, they did. Hey, is this big enough for me to fit?”

Is what… ah.

There’s a crack in the wall.

Looks like the foundation of the canal tunnel broke at some point, the stone is separated. Must be how the rats are getting in and out… maybe that's where the water went, too.

“No, you can't fit there, but I see another one. Just a couple more steps, same side.”

Tight fit, but still.

Voices are getting closer, they’re in the tunnel.

 “Are you sure it’s her? I thought they were supposed to be in a group.”

“Mercenary’s Guild is offering another two hundred gold. I’m sure.”

“I thought it was just the Merchants. Yesterday, it was.”

“Not just them anymore, heard it’s personal. Did we lose her?”

“Nah, she’s down here. Keep an eye out.”

 No point in telling Eveth this, I’m pretty sure she can hear them now too.

“My bag is stuck. Gods take it all, just fit…”

We’re slipping further in, there’s not much space. Looks like the bedrock here is completely cracked open though. Tight as it is, this doesn’t stop for a long way.

I can’t see to the end of it.

We’ve gone about as far as we can go. Eveth can’t fit any farther.

Quietly waiting in the dark.

Reminds me of hide and seek...

Sitting still, all but holding my breath. Breathing as silently as I can.

Waiting, watching, listening.

Footsteps.

"They're going to find us."

Eveth's voice is barely audible, a whisper of a whisper.

She’s right.

I know she's right.

I can hear them, creeping towards us. Just around the bend now.

There's a sound of steel, leaving leather. Of metal sliding, as swords leave scabbards.

It's dark, but I can see fingers, reaching slowly around the corner of our hiding place. Eyes, squinting in the dark… do they see us? Are we far enough back that-

CRACK

They’re gone. Someone's screaming.

Is it a fight? Among themselves?

Shouts.

CRACK

Another the clatter of weapons meeting.

The sound of bones breaking.

Cursing-

CRUNCH.

Begging.

CRACK

Silence.

I smell it.... taste it.

Blood.

Human blood.

They're dead.

All of them.

That fight was short, ruthless, and brutal as it comes.

… But there are still footsteps.

I can see it, now.

Another set of fingers, reaching around that corner.

Thick, callused… bloody.

“Eveth.”

It’s a deep voice.

“The hammer doesn’t fall tonight, Eveth. Come on out.”

Unlike me, Eveth is heaving a sigh of relief.

“Alem.”

Ah.

We’re saved.