Saving Ourselves: Ch. 2: Journey


Loren Howard

Noyo held the reins and a steady scowl as the horse clopped along behind Dira’s carriage up ahead, guiding them to the crystal site for them to harvest for energy and bring home. At least they weren’t returning empty-handed that way and Loren could be less ashamed of her fumble. Once in a while, a piece of whatever Dira was whistling reached them but not enough to recognize. He was calm for someone obviously being watched after just escaping Union capture. Until they reached their destination, Loren was under strict orders to watch him closely and tell Noyo if she found anything suspicious or even curious. According to them, there was nothing too small to notice.

Loren would never tell them this, but no one who made it out the collapse of Garres City was ever quite right again. All the survivors had this intangible sort of haze that separated them from others. As if the world they lived in now was no more real to them than children’s tales and might dissolve at any moment. Some were jumpy and others resigned themselves. Noyo was prepared. They did not fear the world falling apart, only not being ready for it. They focused on the path ahead of the horse, waiting for Loren or maybe fate to reveal some key flaw in Dira that exposed him as an awful omen.

And maybe he was. But Loren didn’t believe that was so simple. This disaster brought out the best or worst in people, and how that fell depended on how they were received. If you treated someone like a threat, it only made sense that they would feel threatened. The right way forward was somewhere between Noyo and Loren, as her fathers told her countless times. Why else would the two of them do so well as a team? When Loren listened and didn’t get captured, standing around uselessly while a stranger pulled more weight than she did.

Frowning, she offered up her first discovery. “His aura’s too small.”

If Dira was a runner too, his protective aura against the smog should have been about half the size of their own. But she could barely make it out in the smoke that only thickened as they went towards the harvest site and beyond that, Brook Mills. With how dense the fog was, maybe it was better that they ended up doubling back after all. It felt less like an excuse for messing up than it probably should have.

“It is,” Noyo agreed. “He must have just the mask.”

“You think he doesn’t have sigil tattoos?” She turned, her voice rising in disbelief. Leaving the barriers surrounding a city-state with only a mask and no back-up if anything happened wasn’t brave, it was crazy.

“Reckless,” they agreed again, resting back as the horses climbed a hill turning out of the woods and into the open plains characteristic of the area surrounding their home. Loren looked back ahead at the compact glowing sphere surrounding where Dira sat on his own carriage. She squinted and tried to come up with any reason at all not to have both defenses in place, thinking of just one.

“Maybe he thought it was too painful.”

“And the leader of his city-state agreed to that?” Noyo shook their head once and with conviction. With the old government sealed on the safe side of the barrier, the people here made do with whoever took charge in all the chaos four years ago. For Brook Mills, that was Fekhi, and she’d never agree to a runner going on an energy harvest without sigils inked into their skin and charged up. It was unlikely anyone else would feel differently. Even the most annoyingly unfazed person had a use, after all. “He can’t just walk up and get charged tattoos from the Union when he’s an unsanctioned mage, but he can send someone else to restore the mask sigils.”

Loren twisted her expression one more time, confused from start to finish. What did the Union care if someone practiced magic outside of their ranks? His casting wasn’t orderly, but it was effective. Was it really worth denying someone warding sigils or else… What could they do? Looking back at the attempted kidnapping, or maybe worse if they didn’t get away, how far were the people in the Union willing to go? Stephen was a mage, but he’d never mentioned what happened if he left the Union. And Loren never asked.

“Why do that? Wouldn’t it be safer not to go out?”

“Excellent questions,” Noyo praised her honestly, offering a small one-sided smirk. A short-lived one as the topic went back to the stranger up ahead. “If he’s not an official runner for any city-state, there’s no reason to risk travel unless it’s personal, or he’s a liar.”


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Holmes Academy WIP story preview

“Your unkind words will not dishearten me today.” He drew himself up and held a finger up with purpose, too triumphant to be discouraged from whatever speech he settled on. “I’ve paid you a visit because it’s the last weekend before summer, so Min and I will depart for our homes soon. As the top three students of this esteemed academy founded in the name of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes—”

“I will jump out this window,” she promised, nodding to the arched window frame between them. Undaunted, Everitt beamed and brought his ramble to a surprisingly early close.

“It’s only proper that we have a farewell party.”

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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 1: Together


Loren Howard

25th of Rebirth in Year 4: Shrouded Era

She was a forest elf, even if she had only lived in mountains before Brook Mills. The smell of rich soil and heavy fog through her mask was a comfort. An inherited instinct, maybe. Through the haze of her grogginess, that came as a touching thought. A light chill draped on Loren like a blanket and the prickling urge to get up and movewere smothered under it. The small square of light from the barred window in the cart hadn’t moved, she thought. Only an echoing ache in the back of her head kept Loren awake.

The door at the back creaked open, the sound and light cutting into her space. A healing spell came right behind it and pushed out the pain in her head.

“Loren,” Noyo said and knelt over her while the glow of the restorative magic still faded from their hand. With their dark grey skin, they looked as if they were carved out of the light from outside. Explaining their fluid identity to others in Brook Mills had been difficult, but Noyo always commanded respect effortlessly. It wouldn’t have been hard to believe they’d cut through the sun itself to get to Loren. “Stand up.”

They held their hand out and Loren took it, steadying herself as she got to her feet. Truth was, Loren saw Noyo fighting so often with close-quarters lightning or flames that it was easy to forget those hands could heal too. Blood stained the front of their cloak even then. The sigils glowed on their mask, standing out from the late afternoon sunlight behind them.

“What—where—”

“There isn’t time.” Noyo insisted over their shoulder, leaving the cart through the open back gate and jumping down.

“Fresh out, as it stands,” said a man past where she could see, casting a spell from the sound of it. A sharp crackle that made her hair stand on end gave it away as an ice spell. The scream that followed said it hit its mark.

The fight for their freedom from whoever these people were had started without her already, not that she had a weapon anymore. Loren dropped down from the end of the cart, landing behind Noyo. Almost inaudibly, they snapped a flame to the tip of their pointer finger and flicked it towards the people coming for them. The forest was shrouded in the rolling smog, nowhere near as thick as it’d been back in Brook Mills, but more than on the beaten path. How people survived out here to attack others, she didn’t know. There wouldn’t be a chance to ask, either, knowing Noyo. They weren’t vicious, but they never left a job unfinished.

And right now, there was one person trying to pull themselves free of the ice jutting out from the forest floor and through their calf while the other fended off fireballs with a singed wooden shield. It didn’t look good for them.

“Sword,” Loren asked, hoping to get a weapon of her own before anyone reached them. If anyone reached them, between the two mages with her.

“Stay with us,” Noyo answered indirectly, holding out the sword and calling on another fire spell in the other hand. “No shield.”

“I can make do.” Settling the sword in her hand and still feeling a little off-balance without her shield, Loren readied herself for anyone that might come.

“Ah, no need.” The man, whoever he was, didn’t have spellcasting as crisp and neat as Noyo’s. Not many did. The spells did what they had to, though. Rumors about chiali mages were that they were naturally stronger than any others, and not because they had four arms to cast more. That didn’t hurt his odds. But the chiali people were supposedly the original discoverers of magic who only taught it to those they deemed deserving back then. Maybe that history was enough that he didn’t have to worry about form.

Wrapping his long tail loosely around his legs, he pointed to the sky with all four of his hands. Her hair raised this time from the energy itself. His own untamed black curls were unaffected, probably a magical trait her brother would’ve understood. Noyo kept up her barrage to hold the shield-bearing fighter back, sparing a quick glance to the stranger.

All Loren could do was wait like she was told. That was the sound thing to do.

And when his hands came down, four bolts arced to strike the two people. The shield shattered at last, petrified before it hit the ground, and both of them shook from the magic lightning running through them. The one on the ice went still first, then their ally. Loren finally noticed the third person motionless on the ground by another wooden cart, an empty sheath hanging from their belt. It was all finished.

She lowered her sword, letting out a breath. It was done.

“Good luck on your travels,” Noyo said flatly, nodding for Loren to go to the front of the cart she was just in. There, a horse would wait for her.

Loren wouldn’t be dismissed from the action again. She stood right where she was, and the man with them just shrugged.

“That’s it, is it?” The smirk behind his mask made its way into his voice. Freckles that were a lighter blue than his skin peeked around the worn fabric, making his face look almost like dappled water.

“It is.” She knew Noyo was talking to her. That harsh edge to it was directed at Loren staying there, the second time she brushed off instructions from her teacher that day alone.

Neither of them paid any attention to that tone. The more Loren looked at him, the more she realized was different. His tail and arms were obvious, but the black tufts from the tips of his ears and tail were easy to miss during a fight. His eyes were hazel at a glance, only noticeable as more golden than she expected with more time. The upturned almond shape to them was unusual to her, even if some humans had similar eyes. Loren did guess right thinking that chiali would be taller. As the tallest person she knew, Noyo still only stood just a bit over him.

“Never seen a chiali before, I take it?”

He smiled anyway, or it looked like he did because of his eyes, and he walked off to the nearest body to check the pockets. It wasn’t anything like Loren pictured doing as a runner for her city-state, but she couldn’t ignore that it was a waste to leave supplies with the fallen.

“I—No.” She looked down to her scuffed leather boots first, cursing herself for staring. Life in the far-off mountain city-state before the smog and then the farming town of Brook Mills when the smoke appeared… She didn’t see many kinds of people. Loren never went to the capital like her brother. Stephen saw all sorts of people in those streets, worked with them in the Union to make new equipment like the mask she wore, and he was there when the smog first showed up in Garres City. That was why he was gone and Loren was here. Everything had good with the bad.

Everything.

Looking back up to Noyo, she changed the subject. No reason to dwell on things she couldn’t change. “Aren’t we all going back to the road?”

“We never should have left it.” Noyo reminded her, those yellow eyes giving a final warning to Loren in their narrowed stare.

“But since you did,” the man offered, pulling some parchment from the chest pocket of one of the fallen people as his tail swished over the flattened grass, “maybe we should stick together. These folks are Union mages, so they’ll be looking into what happened here.”

Noyo held their hand out for the parchment, taking two measured steps towards where he stood up. “Show me.”

“I’m Dira, by the way.” He held it out, and they took it without answering. Dira didn’t show it if that bothered him at all.

While Noyo unfolded the paper, Loren caught a short glimpse of the symbol from the Union outpost’s flag back home and in the mountains of Crescent Ridge too. Their attackers had Union orders, then, but it didn’t mean this was part of those orders. Stephen told her the Union hired spare hands from time to time. Even people without much magical ability like Loren. When it came to identifying mages operating outside the Union, harvesting known magical herbs, or hunting down creatures to get mystical ingredients, anyone could be useful.

But not this.

Pretending to need help in order to lure in runners to kidnap, what could they get from that? It’s not as if they couldn’t just ask for volunteers to help clear this smog and reconnect them to outside regions. No one wanted to be sealed off here until the smoke wiped out everyone living inside the barrier keeping them and the infectious fog in.

“What does it say?” Leaning over Noyo’s shoulder, Loren saw for herself the page was empty.

“It’s blank.”

“Hm?” Dira raised his eyebrows, his two lower arms crossed and the other hands barely clasped. “Enchanted, I guess.” Looking down at the body he took it from, he continued. “I bet they knew the magic words to show what it says.”

“Not as though they gave us a chance,” Loren thought aloud, frowning. She knew that killing was necessary in life as it was, but she never wanted it to be the first on the list. The smog rolled through the trees, indifferent to people wherever it went. Her mask filtered it out, glowing with magic sigils that protected her with its charged wards. Even that wasn’t forever. Not like the fog.

“They’d never have told us.” Tucking the note into the inner pocket of their cloak, Noyo took the time to reassure her those lives had to be sacrificed. It was the three of them or their enemies, and it could be just that simple. They told Loren that often enough that she probably should have known it in her dreams.

“Well?” He implied asking his suggestion again.

“Good luck,” Noyo repeated.

“Noyo, can’t we—”

“I told you not to chase these people,” they brought up her first warning, ignored and forgotten, and pointed to the bodies. “You didn’t listen, and now we’re separated from the others.”

Her fathers among them. This was an assignment to transport one group of the Brook Mills residents out to Tolston, a larger city-state that could support them. The rules were simple: everyone had to stay together, and Loren went off at the first cry for help from the woods. She winced, clenching her fists and biting back the mean words ready to force their way out. Noyo was only looking out for her. They always did. More often than not, they talked about how you’re on your own out in the wild, but they never turned their back on Loren. No matter how often she didn’t listen and stuck with her gut instinct instead. They deserved some respect from her for all of that.

“We can’t join them. We have to go back to Brook Mills and re-charge. Please, listen this time.”

In a quieter voice, Loren gave it one last try. She knew she was right about this. Being wrong before didn’t change how it was now. “We have a better chance with three of us.”

Closing their eyes, Noyo held two fingers to their temple and waited.

“Look, I don’t want to cause a fight,” Dira stepped in, almost literally as he walked closer to the two of them. He held his upper hands out, rolling into a gesture to explain. “But going to Brook Mills leads into the thicker smog. I’ve seen that pass by in a few days, but it’s not likely to leave much behind.”

“You have a plan,” they observed more than anything else. They didn’t do much besides open their eyes to look his way. Noyo made their stance clear, almost making demands even when asking questions.

Dira nodded. “There’s a crystal site not too far from here. You come home with capsules of power for the Union’s ward generators, and it could save some lives.”

Loren turned to Noyo immediately, watching for their approval.

“How do you know about it?”

“Oh, I saw it with our companions here,” Dira gestured to the Union members using his lower set of arms, and Loren had the impression he was too used to the dead. He seemed closer to Noyo’s age than Loren’s—he must have been a runner in the smog since it all began.

“Out those windows?” Noyo nodded to the barred square opening in the side of the cart, only just big enough to see out of for someone who was tall enough to reach.

“Heard it might be more accurate. You know that faint hum it has? That.” Dira nodded again, referencing a noise Loren had heard much less often than the other two had. She knew it anyway: a ringing echo like the few seconds after the bell called people in from the farms of Brook Mills. Everyone had to be inside the barriers before the dark settled in with the smog. The creatures of the fog were drawn to crystals, not the blackness of night, but there was still the risk of having trouble seeing clearly in both.

“You remember where it is?”

“Perfectly, thank you for asking.” Dira held his arms out to no applause or even praise. He was beyond discouragement, and it brought on a mix of pity and being impressed at how little anything bothered him.

“Then let’s go,” Loren inserted herself. Just because the people with her had more experience didn’t mean her opinion should be left out. “You said it,” she spoke to Noyo, “We don’t have time.”

Noyo glanced from Loren to Dira, exhaling curtly. “Fine.”

Dira walked backwards to the other horse in front of the farther cart. Lucky for them, these were warhorses unafraid of combat. An odd choice for carriages, maybe, but very lucky for them. Few city-states could boast about having trained warhorses.

“Who’s going with me?”

“No one,” Noyo insisted, a hand on Loren’s back to guide her to the mottled grey horse hooked up to the carriage where she was rescued. “Keep the cart attached.”


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Saving Ourselves: Story Trailer

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Seeing Red: Transistor Fanfiction

Word count: 1400 (3 to 11 minutes) | Rating: T | Note: Transistor Spoilers | Characters: Red and Boxer


He was heading to Junction Jan’s when they met.

Aside from her, that day was like any other. Normal days or not, the city always had some kind of energy to it. You could just sit on a bench, take in the sights, smells, and chatter, and really feel it resonating in your chest. Like a full orchestra playing.

It was the dives and local joints that really made up the place. The spots you knew about only because you lived there. Whatever the polls decided about the sky or the city layout, those tried-and-true restaurants and bars were his constants. He could tell the time with just a glance at some of them. And even without checking his watch that night, he knew he was out too late on the streets of Cloudbank.

Looking for a worthy cause to fight for, mostly. Bad things could happen at night. It helped if someone was there to keep an eye out before things got out of hand. Even if that someone smelled like stale sweat from odd jobs and was still figuring his life out. And things never got out of hand in Cloudbank. Not for years.

He sensed her before he spotted her, if he was being honest. She was like that. Always was. Red was made for the stage, and there was some kind of spotlight centered on her even when there wasn’t. Like the universe just knew she was special.

It was fitting that he saw her hair first. Spiraled wisps of red embraced her delicate features, and then he caught her eye. Of course her eyes were somewhere between blue and green, like the water in the Canals District, right where it met the painted sky. Dressed in her stage outfit still, she glowed in the crowd.

She was fearless. The alleyway shortcut to the gondolas might as well have been her living room for how she walked right into it. High heels announced her every step, but it didn’t stop her. He’d learn later that it took way more than that to make Red call it quits.

That night, he was willing to leave their one-sided meeting there. A mystical encounter he could recount later and wonder if he imagined her. But when another person followed her down that dark walkway, he had to do the same. In that way, he reasoned that he was following that person, not her.

It didn’t sound believable to him then either.

“—irst fight like that in four years,” the man hissed. He was taller than Red and scarily skinny, with pale blonde hair fluffed around his ears. Almost to bring more attention to how upset he was like the finger he jabbed in Red’s face.

It didn’t make a difference to her. Those bright, watchful eyes stayed on him and if he didn’t feel small, he had to be too dense for anything worthwhile. Red kept her voice steady, just like her expression.

“I didn’t write that song to provoke anyone.”

“Yeah, well, he’s been banned from the hall!” He added in a wild gesture back toward the street and him as a coincidence. Stepping around a cluster of flowers forcing their way up through the cracks, he kept walking over. This little chat wouldn’t wind itself down, something told him.

“I never intended for that to happen.”

“Your music speaks for itself, that’s what you said.” The man took two steps closer; he took four. One fight in four years was plenty. No need to make it two. Especially not with her. “What it causes, you caused.”

“That’s enough,” he interrupted, entering the soft yellow light of the streetlamp over them both. It felt staged. For a second, he thought it might be a sort of destiny that they met like this. The other strange man to follow her that night didn’t feel the same way. He sneered, looking him over without bothering to hide his disgust. That kind of reaction never bothered him anyway.

“What’s it to you?”

“Just the right thing to do.”

“There you are,” Red said, confusing everyone but her. She brushed past the other guy like he was nothing more than a sheet hung to dry. The way her hand lingered on his arm was a world apart. He could feel slight calloused spots on her fingertips on his arm, and even that touch was so warm.

He could never forget if they’d met before. So what was she doing?

“I told you to meet me at the restaurant.” That gentle squeeze on his forearm urged him to go along with whatever her plan was. It wasn’t like he had one. Not like he could do much thinking with a bit more light in her gaze directed at him.

“Looks like it’s good I didn’t listen.”

She smiled, and he forgot what brought him to her in the first place for a moment. “You never do.” She took her hand back, turning with a muted click of her heel on the stone walk to face their only company. “I’m taking what happened seriously, but I can’t change it. I’m moving forward. You should too.”

She passed by him next, walking back to the street and leaving them both. After a beat, he followed. He never did find out what became of the stranger they left alone in the light of the alleyway.

———-

For the first stretch of their walk, she only looked back for a second or two. Eventually, she nodded him over to walk with her. He joined her in a few long strides and was greeted with a sideways glance.

“Why did you follow me?”

“Well,” he stalled, shoving his hands in his pockets. The crowds thinned out even more during their short detour. “The alleys by the Bay can be dangerous.”

“Obviously I wasn’t alone.”

He ducked his head, burying a laugh that way. He nodded before turning back to her and seeing that smirk holding up. She raised her eyebrows, half teasing in her sympathy. And here he thought he’d been watching over her. Over time, he realized they were both looking after one another. That’s how it was. “You knew I was here?”

“No,” she admitted, brief and weightless. The waves of her hair moved with the quick shake of her head. “But it seems like you need reassurance.”

They turned a corner to the shops and restaurants by the Bay, and he realized how they must have looked. A woman dressed in a fine gown next to a guy who looked like he was wearing the same shirt from yesterday. It wasn’t, of course. And hey, he didn’t mind. She asked for him to be there. What did it matter how it looked?

“I saw him following you, and I thought—” Taking one hand from his pocket, she made a vague gesture. “Anyway, I thought it’d be smart for me to go too.”

“Good instincts.” Red stopped by a crossroads. One path went further into downtown, and the other, towards transport back to Highrise. He never really liked it up there. But he thought she might have had business in that section of Cloudbank. His opinion changed when he found out she lived there on his first invitation. “Even though I know how to handle myself.”

She swayed a bit, maybe to a tune only she could hear. She had songs, the guy said. He was embarrassed afterwards to admit that he’d never been one for the arts before her. And after her? Well, he couldn’t listen to anyone else.

“Would you be alright if—” He sighed, looking to the fork in the road that went to Highrise. He had nothing to lose by asking. “Can I walk you to where you were going? Just in case.”

“Junction Jan’s.” She waited for him to catch on. Red was good like that.

“Hm?”

“That’s where I was going.”

He looked to the opposite walkway, clear in the other direction from where he found her in the Bay area. It took too long for him to piece together that she was asking him out to dinner. But when it mattered, Red was patient. Persistent might’ve been the better word.

“Funny.” He chuckled, looking back to her. “Me too.”

“Then I say we go together.”

She went on ahead, and she didn’t even need to ask that time. He was right beside her.


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