The morning had been uneventful.
Imra awoke from her trance and listened as the humans gathered their gear with mumbled complaints. In silence, she had waited as they ate, soon after. Between the poor quality of their rations, or the scent of metal, Imra wasn’t certain how they stomached it, but when they finally readied themselves to leave, she ended her meditation as the Great One commanded and followed them.
In this way, Imra was almost surprised.
For all their talk of troubles, concerns, and dangers: out they went, onto the street. One by one, they filed past the broken door of false-wood, just as the Great One had predicted they would.
Only the quiet one had chosen to stay behind, instead choosing to wait within the silent room, which smelled of death.
An unwise decision, Imra thought. Especially so, when compared with the real chance for combat and glory among the supposed dangers outside.
It seemed more understandable after the next few hours began to pass.
Walking… and more walking. Nothing else. Just careful navigation, on narrow streets, where nothing of interest seemed to lurk.
Imra was furious.
For all the talk of threats and danger… for all the hushed whispered of concern: there was nothing! Were these humans daft? If Imra were to press herself to define the morning as anything, she might even call it boring!
To make matters worse, though, was the silence.
In the forest she’d been born, silence was a rare thing. Like a secret, it could only be found when one was alone. Something hidden beneath the roots, or high up in the canopy. There was almost always noise. Of wind singing out, or branches creaking.
Contrast to her memories of home, though, the human city was much like a tomb.
There were no songs in the wind, beyond the same stale call of drought and cinder. Animals were scarce and game appeared to be almost nonexistent. The only creatures running free as they explored the strange jungle of earth and stone, seemed to be those monstrous rats. Nothing Imra felt interested in trying to hunt. The sky, too, seemed distinctly lacking occupants. Not a bird or cloud, in sight: only a dry expanse of blue. Dry and silent, to the point where the only song she could hear, was that of stone beneath her feet.
Compared to the expected excitement she’d been hoping for, Imra was greatly unimpressed. Nothing of interest had occurred, and neither did she believe it seem likely. For all the perceived danger they’d spoken of, the humans were worried over nothing.
Still, the Great One thought otherwise.
“Today is going to be stressful.” The God said, within Imra’s mind. “Very stressful.”
On lack of experience, Imra felt she couldn’t weigh in on how difficult human “shopping” typically was. The Great One seemed to possess a great wealth of knowledge on human activities, so, by default, she felt inclined to always agree with the God’s opinion on such subjects.
For example: there.
Up ahead, something was moving: a human construction. The Great One had already seen this, of course. They had spotted it long ago, deeming it was harmless.
That was called a “wagon.” The Great One confirmed as much, providing her with images and designs skimmed along, almost too quick for Imra to perceive. Different shapes and sizes- from wood, to some completely alien, made of polished glass, before the thoughts faded away.
Wagons didn’t interest Imra.
If they were made by Gods, perhaps that would be a different story, but that clearly wasn’t the case here. With a single human rider, seated on a strange throne made of false wood and enslaved creatures: this collection was all but cobbled together by bits of twisted earth and rope, creaked along the road. Imra watched as their group moved to the side, and allowed it to pass by.
She’d seen several now, since coming to this city. Some large and grand, others, like the most recent example, all but completely broken: but the creatures which pulled these devices were another matter, entirely.
No matter how Imra pondered the concept, she couldn’t imagine how beasts so powerful forgotten their ancient roots.
They were massive beasts: with strength far superior to the humans that commanded them. One look and Imra knew the beasts quietly accepting the whip as they carried their enslaver’s possessions along without complaint, could easily destroy their restraints.
Lineage such as theirs, domesticated?
Only those of cursed blood could make such a tragic reality.
“Stay close.” Ahead of Imra, the large human known as Alem spoke quietly as he adjusted his hood. “We’ll be there soon.”
Beneath the heavy clothing, Imra could barely discern his weapon: a large hammer covered by a wool cloak. Only the handle seemed to show, leather slings on the man’s back holding the heavy piece firmly in place.
“Remember, keep your faces hidden.” Beside the warrior, Imra watched as the woman, Eveth kept pace. Unlike Alem, she made no effort to hide her weapon: a wooden staff affixed with stolen power. “Especially you, Imra. Those ears will draw attention.”
Imra hummed an informal reply, not bothering with words. Far as she was concerned, a proper response wasn’t necessary. The human seemed as arrogant and foolish as ever, presuming Imra would be the one who gave them away.
It was almost as ridiculous as the animals pulling carts.
Stepping along silently, she trailed behind as their group moved along, following closer to the youngest of their number. Slightly ahead, Dren walked at a steady gait with his own hood drawn, hand habitually checking for the mace at his belt. Imra watched his hand settle on it briefly, before once again leaving it be. Imra thought that it was almost as if the boy thought the weapon might disappear, all on its own.
She was tempted to try and take it from him, without him noticing- of course, if only to see the reaction. That would be much more interesting. Of course, she wouldn’t.
Not with the Great One watching.
Aside from the passing wagon, though, it was once again back to the silence.
Here and there, Imra could see a few of the residents moving about. Walking in pairs or alone, those she spotted avoided the group, but some were simply hunched or sprawled out upon the filth of the dirt paths between buildings. The stench of urine and alcohol seemed ever-present, and alive or dead, Imra didn’t think there was much difference. This was what it looked like, when living things were to weak-willed to die.
She tried to contain her disgust, lest the Great One be forced to suffer for it.
“Nothing on the rooftops. Nothing on the side streets. Nothing behind…” Murmurs of thought trailed on distantly, unconcerned.
So far, it seemed, she’d been successful in this. The Great One was still distracted by more important thoughts. No matter how calm, they were watching for danger.
Ahead, the narrow streets were giving way to cleaner stone and structures with fresher paint. Her ears could catch the sounds, what could only be crowds of people from a distance. Shouts and smells rallied by the step, noise like a constant hum of overlapping language.
The thoughts of the Great One shifted, perhaps listening as well. They were approaching a human market. One that had been chosen with great care, if Imra understood correctly.
“Everyone, remember the plan.” Alem stopped, raising a hand. “Don’t attract attention, stay close, and let me do the talking.”
“If that doesn’t work, do we even have something to fall back on?” Ahead, Eveth answered, shouldering her staff. “What then?”
“We meet back in the Slums, with Tuth.” Alem replied gruffly. Imra saw him turn and cast a sweeping glance over the group, fixing his hood one final time. “Remember, everyone: don’t attract attention. Eveth and I will get what we need, and then we’re leaving. Understood?”
Imra shrugged, Dren nodded.
Alem nodded, apparently satisfied with the lack of response, before leading them towards the market.
“Stefano, how are you?”
Imra watched as, in front of Alem, a human in colorful clothing let out a load gasp.
“Alem?” The lanky human asked, swishing his sleeves to lean forward with ever-widening eyes. Their jaw seemed to slacken, dropping open further by the passing second. “Gods mercy, is that really you? In the flesh?”
“It is indeed.”
“Good light, I thought you were dead!” Excitedly, the man reached out as far as they could stretch to grab the warrior’s shoulders, paying no regard to the basket of fruit overturned in the process. “I saw the posters! That number is preposterous- what in all the late Emperor’s beard did you do?”
“We didn’t do anything.” Beside Alem, Eveth growled. “That’s the problem.”
“My word- and is that Eveth as well?” The man turned on the Mage immediately. “Might I say you’re as beautiful as ever.”
“I’m flattered.” Imra saw the Eveth’s staff reposition, ever so slightly, as they took a small step back. “Great to see you as well.”
“Indeed.” The man replied. “Ever so great.”
“Yes.” Eveth didn’t seem interested in speaking further.
Language nuances aside, Imra noticed her least favorite of the group had taken a posture similar like a wary forest creature, eying a baited trap. In the back of Imra’s mind, she could hear the Great One laugh at this quietly: a brief interruption to their constant search for threats.
Imra smiled, as the understanding passed along to her.
She made sure Eveth saw this.
“Can we take this conversation inside, Stefano? Is there space in your shop?” Alem carefully freed himself from the man’s grip, setting the colorful figure back down on the opposing side of the market stall. “I think we might be better off if we were away from street.” He whispered.
“Inside? Inside…” Thumbing at his temples, the man named Stefano lifted his hands and glanced towards the building behind him. “There’s not much room I’m afraid. The stand here has been turning into a necessity.”
Imra watched the open door, peering into the shade. It was very dark, ever for her eyes.
“Quite so. I’ve been trying to hold onto as much inventory as I can to ride out the low, but let me tell you: that Merchant’s Guild has been relentless. They send people every other day. Predatory types, I’m sure you know their like.”
“I’ve heard of that. Buying everyone out.”
“Forcing everyone is more like it.”
“Well, if there’s a will, there’s a way.” Stefano turned. “Howard? Can you move a few of the crates to the back? Just enough for some space, we’ve got visitors.”
“Yes sir.” The booming voice answered. Emerging from the darkness of the doorway, a huge frame appeared, ducking low to avoid hitting their head. “Shall I prepare tea?” They bowed more formally.
“Oh, if you would. Much appreciated.”
“It is my pleasure.” The man bowed again, disappearing as quickly as he’d emerged.
“You’ve found a… large one.” Alem said, hand rubbing at the back of his hood, stopped short of reaching for the hammer slung inches away from it. “Is he new?”
“Oh, yes. Howard is from one of the Wandering Tribes, to the Western coasts… or, he was. I don’t pry. Still, he’s quite something with a broadsword. Very convenient for making troublesome Merchants, or their representatives... think twice.” Stefano clapped his hands, abruptly moving them along. “Now, now, inside you two- inside. We’ll make do, somehow.”
“The rest of us?” Alem asked, gesturing.
“Ah… I’m sorry. I’m no clergy, I can’t do miracles. This may be a tight enough fit as it is.”
In the back of her mind, Imra caught another whisper from the Great One. It was a recommendation, this time.
“We will stay here and keep watch.” Imra stated the intention. “This is not a problem.”
From behind the stall, she watched as eyes narrowed.
The colorful human stopped short, to peer at her, ever so carefully. For some unknown reason, Imra felt the hair on her neck rise, as Eveth turned with a smile of her own.
“Why, that’s quite the accent…” The colorful man grinned, head tilting. “Tell me, where are you from, miss?”
“Far away.” Imra replied.
“Ah, but which direction?”
“Far.” Imra repeated.
She watched as the grin wavered, ever-so-slightly.
“Later, Stefano. Later.” Alem cut in as he took the man by the shoulder, turning him about towards the doorway. “Tell me now, you don’t happen to have a spare wagon do you?”
Imra watched as they merged into the dark and Eveth followed- briefly turning to point at her hood and then point at Imra, then Dren, with a harsh expression. The woman mouthed something Imra couldn’t quite make out.
Imra mouthed something of her own back, earning a responsive sneer.
Then, Eveth too was gone.
“Don’t you dare.” Dren muttered. “Of course, she’d say that.”
“A threat?” Imra asked.
“More like a stern warning.” The boy replied. “It’s almost Festival. She doesn’t want me wandering off.”
“Festival.” Imra repeated the word. That was a new one.
Around her neck, the Great One stirred slightly, and sounds- smells, images swirled briefly in her mind’s eye. Lights in the sky, food and scents in the air. Games and impossible things spinning into the sky- carrying people with them. A massive wheel that lifted to unfathomable heights…
“I think I understand.” Imra lied.
Humans certainly lived in strange ways.
“It’s a shame.” Dren leaned against the stall, propping his elbows onto the counter as he fussed once more with the mace looped onto his belt. “Do your people have nobles, Imra?”
Ah, there was something she did know. The Great One had spoken on this particular concept to her, at least once before.
“We had Elders and Chieftains, but we did not have nobles, as you call them. My people believed in honor and strength, not wealth.”
“Well, humans have them.” Dren replied, sullenly. “I used to be one.”
“Now you are not?”
“Well... no. I have my name, still, and I suppose my family might have me back if they were desperate. If only as insurance should my older brothers die. They could marry me off, somewhere.” He let go of the loop again, sighing. “But I’m not really a noble. Nobles have money, and land, and servants and all sorts of things.”
“That is… interesting.” Imra replied. “It can be taken away so easily.”
“Well, it was partly my fault, running off and becoming an Adventurer.” The boy stared ahead, looking at the store front across the street. “I don’t regret it, usually.”
Imra squinted, looking at the strange scribbles above thick colored windows. The scripts there meant little to her, even with the Great One’s own knowledge. All she could discern was the image of a human holding some sort of… food, perhaps? The image was painted on, freshly, if Imra were to guess.
“What is it you want?”
“Nothing.” Dren replied, sullenly.
Imra listened, as the God whispered.
“Money.” She repeated.
Dren looked up, surprised.
“You want to buy something you can’t afford.” She stated. “In that shop?”
“Not that shop, specifically.” Dren stared at her, eyes narrowing. “Am I really that obvious?”
He didn’t seem satisfied with her shrug of a response.
“When I was younger, I would get a candied appal during Festival. My father always told me it was beneath our namesake to eat such peasant rubbish, but my mother would always find a way to get one for me anyways.” Dren slumped against the stall. “Not quite for peasants any longer, though. No appal trees, no appals, and certainly no candied ones. If there are any left, I have to imagine they’re expensive.”
Money, coins, currency… Imra thought about these things recently, if only because the Great One was considering them as well. They were very human concepts. Fitting, she supposed: the end result of trading things, for other things. Her own tribe had never bothered with this past the most basic of bartering. Fruits exchanged for meats, glass for cloth, baskets for material: if they needed something, the Forest would provide it. Not quite so, in this city. Maybe, in some odd way, Imra could agree it was slightly sensible.
Not enough for Imra to concern herself. Such human ways were beneath a warrior of the Luthra.
Imra eyed the downcast expression of the boy, with a frown of her own.
“Is it so difficult to obtain?” She asked.
“Coin? Yes, it’s very hard recently.” Dren replied. “I’d probably have to kill five wagons of rats, and that still might not be enough.”
“What of your healing?”
“Would people not pay to be healed?” Imra gestured towards the street, prompting several people passing by to look in her direction, before continuing past. “It is simple.”
Dren was staring at her once again, only this time it was as if he were horrified.”
“Healing for money is illegal to do without church permission.” He dropped his voice down to a panicked whisper. “The only reason I’m allowed to use my magic at all is because the Guild has a License. Otherwise, I’d need to go back to a chapel and convince them to write me a personal paper.”
“Heavens above, no.”
“Who are they to command you? It is beyond foolish.”
“No, not foolish! Do you even know what the Church do to people who break their rules?”
“If they come, simply tell them you are under protection from a different God now, and you can do as you please.”
“They would have our heads, Imra!”
“No, little human. I would cut out their hearts and make them choke on their own blood.” Imra let her spear drop, stopping point down, just barely before the dirt. The metal point at its end gleamed in the sunlight. “It would be a fitting use, for this twisted earth.”
Imra glanced back, as Dren’s expression worsened: perhaps she had four heads now?
There was no way to be sure.
“Imra.” Dren rubbed at his eyes. “Alem told us not to attract attention.” With no small effort, the boy forced his words out. “Killing members of the clergy would do a heck of a lot more than just attract attention.”
The God whispered again.
“What if they don’t have to pay?” Imra asked. “Is that illegal?”
“Don’t have to- how would that work?” Dren’s elbows slipped from the counter. “You mean help people for free?”
“How would that make money?”
“They would give it to you as a gift. Not all, just some.”
“You mean, as a donation?”
“Maybe.” Imra waited, then nodded with the confirmation. “Yes.”
“That’s not… not technically against the rules.” Dren rubbed at his chin. “Sometimes new enrolled members from the church are sent out to do that as a part of their training. They heal small ailments, like aches and pains, or light sickness.”
“So, it is not that unusual.”
“And would not attract much attention?”
“Probably not, depending on how many people stop…”
“Then, let us go.”
“What? You mean now?”
“Healing! No cost!” Imra shouted, as she began to walk away from the stall and into the street. “Healing!”
Dren scrambled after her.
“H-Healing!” He shouted, “Imra, wait- Healing! Imra, would you hold on!”