Saving Ourselves: Ch. 5: Honesty


Dira Bae

At the edge of his consciousness, Dira felt a motion like a carriage rocking. The paths surrounding the forest were all beaten down by people instead of paving, after all. He shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when they hit a ditch and he slammed his against the wooden wall. He groaned and reached up to rub at the sore spot only to find both hands came up. Because they were tied together at the wrist. The same went for the second set of arms, and the only reason his feet were free was probably because they ran out of rope.

“You deserved that.” Noyo’s voice came from a sliver at the top of the carriage near where the driver sat. At least this driver talked to him, not like the last time he was kidnapped. Earlier that same day. Did it count for something that it seemed personal with his current captor? Dira doubted that.

Distrust was a survival tool for Noyo, no different than a magic staff or armor. He never even got the opportunity to fumble and break that trust himself before he was written off. But he could see there was more to it than he caught at first glance. Most people were like picture books without words. Enough guessing, and you could figure the rough outline of their story.

To start with, Noyo probably went by ‘they’ from that ambiguous elven haircut, woman’s shirt, and man’s coat. He wasn’t in a good spot to ask. Dark elf culture held the identity of the spirit above the limits of a physical vessel, so it would have been plenty acceptable for them to identify that way. All the exact beliefs around that concept differed from dark elves to the chiali like Dira, but they were the same at heart. Noyo also had to be one of the few and damaged Garres City survivors with a shrewd mentality like theirs. It was honest fact that anyone could be cunning, no catalyst of a world-altering disaster needed. You did lose that one-of-a-kind shared trauma if you were naturally sharp, though. The two of them might have found other tragedies to bond over if Noyo didn’t commit to suspecting him of anything they could get to stick.

He was prepared to gripe about that. Ignoring the ache spreading across his head, Dira slid along the cart’s floor to be closer to the window slot. It wasn’t that far from him on account of his height. He could see the braid meeting in a thin ponytail at the back of Noyo’s head and some of the thick smoke past their protective ward.

“Because you don’t like me? Seems harsh.”

“You knew you’d react like that to the harvest,” they presented a point, although not an especially good one.

“If I knew I’d fall on poor Loren and then some ferns, I wouldn’t have stayed,” Dira explained and threw his hands up in exasperation, knowing it was wasted. They couldn’t see him but could possibly hear his frustration. Maybe that was enough to rile them up? Even he didn’t believe that. Tapping his knuckles on the cart’s back wall, he tried for it anyway. “That was your doing, while we’re on about this.”

“You knew Loren’s brother, Stefan.” Noyo’s continued argument was as blunt as ever. They weren’t taking any of the reasons he gave to dislike him, just the ones that weren’t on offer. Dira clicked his tongue and sighed. If only Noyo would let themselves be distracted from his… unique condition.

He felt a pitch in the cart floor that suggested a western turn deeper into the dense smog and towards Brook Mills at the heart of it. So the plan was unchanged since he passed out, and that gave Dira something to work with. They had to find who or what still existed from their home city-state in order to be rescued and rescue them right back. The ward sigils for Loren and Noyo wouldn’t have lasted the distance to any other city-state.

“Ah, that’s a restrainable offense.”

“We shall see once I have the truth about both.”

Dira nodded to himself in the cart, familiar with this stunt of implying he wouldn’t be released until he gave them what they wanted. It happened from time to time. But it was hard to buy when there was a sweet sapling like Loren in tow. He couldn’t imagine her being so mad that she’d agree to using force or anything too messy to get answers. Could be that Noyo meant to wait him out and see if he tried to escape, giving them a reason to break out those darker tactics.

Better for Noyo not to know he could untie himself in that case. His tail was dexterous enough that he could manage, even if it took a while thanks to the hair along it, the dark, and the pitted road. If he did get the ropes loose right then, there was nowhere to go. The narrow windows in the cart walls showed only heavy smog on all sides. With his smaller aura of safety, some of it got into the carriage to claw at the glowing border of it. Dira had less of plan than they did.

He learned from hitting his head before and stopped himself from resting against the wall before turning to the sliver where Noyo sat.

“I didn’t know they were related, Noyo. Promise.”

The glare over their shoulder was immediate, and he wondered for a moment if they were watching the road ahead. Then he remembered there wasn’t much to see in the shroud.

“How did you know my name?”

“Loren used it after we killed those Union mages.” If there was one pattern Dira had memorized, it was that giving honest answers whenever you could made it easier to slip lies through like contraband nestled in with daily essentials.

“And she gave you hers.” He wasn’t being asked. Noyo was barely speaking to him, facing forward again with a frown in their tone. Dira waited for some kind of sign that they realized their mistake in making that assumption and when he got none, he held to his idea of being truthful.

“You did.” Silence as a response for his trouble came as less of a shock. He stood on shaky feet, moving to one thin slot on the side and tried to look for another barrier in the swirling smoke. Loren had to steer the other cart with him tied up in the back of this one. There was no leaving it behind if they wanted to help the Brook Mills survivors, and she wasn’t up with Noyo. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see by squinting into the inky black-violet abyss outside that seemed to move with intent. Dira braced against the rocking of the carriage and looked to Noyo before asking what he had on his mind. “Is she upset?”

“Don’t.” That harsh edge marked the single word as a firm warning. Sometimes, he could press those. Now wasn’t one of those chances. Dira sat down and moved to the center with legs crossed to wait instead. “You got what you were after. We’re stuck with you for now.”

He had to scoff and shrug in real disbelief at that. Noyo was direly overestimating how much time he spent scheming against two people he’d never met before. “You think I, what, planned this?”

“The alternative is that you met us by coincidence.” Noyo was quiet for a beat while the cart tilted at an angle. They were on a hill leading down into the valley where the city-state would be. If they found the barrier generators quickly, with villagers huddled up by it or not, they were saved. If not… Maybe Noyo was paying attention when Union mages recharged sigils and could use their abandoned tools. A Union outpost was easier to find in a city-state than a dead generator. Perhaps they wouldn’t die out there. “That answer it for you?”

The plan had changed slightly in that sense. Dira would stay tied up while they did what they had to at Brook Mills and took anyone they could to safety with the newly charged generators. Ideally. The next stop had to be finding refuge in Genoa Falls, since there weren’t many other city-states in range of what they harvested into the tank. When something did go wrong between Brook Mills and Genoa, all four of his hands were literally tied.

“Lovely.”


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 4: Harvest


Loren Howard

With the carts and horses left near the edge of the woods, all of them were forced to slow down in the forested terrain. Sound rarely startled creatures out in the smog, but the same couldn’t be said of motion. The trees were neither tall nor thick and not effective at hiding runners after the guarded crystal.

Thick curls of purple-black smoke wisped away from the gleaming edges of her barrier, and she could make out the outlines of Noyo’s warded sphere to the left easily. To see Dira on her right required her to focus. For now, she needed her attention on the path ahead. Some ferns persisted growing through the darkness, but nothing she had to worry about getting caught on. No, her concern was for any beast of the smoke she encountered. It would need to be defeated promptly before alerting any others. Rolling her steps from heel to toe over formerly cleared paths, Loren scanned through the dense darkness for their distorted figures.

The empty tank on her back remained steady through every fallen branch and careful step. The Union designed it to be compact enough not to be jostled when nearly anyone carried it. Had it been full, they’d have been saved the time and the detour… But griping to herself about it wouldn’t make either of those attainable. Keeping pace with the outline of Noyo’s barrier, Loren pushed on to the crystal site Dira reported ahead. Not too deep in the forest—or so he claimed. She’d yet to even sense it.

Instead, a dampening feeling rolled in from her left, recognized shortly as Noyo’s cloaking spell, and tipped Loren off to a creature’s approach. These beasts weren’t entirely consistent beyond their unsettling appearances, with discolored skin that glimmered unnaturally if any light managed to shine on them. She couldn’t see it fully between the trees and smoke, but a flat clawed foot did appear through swirls of darkness. The equivalent of its knee must have been eye level for her. Angling her shield upward, Loren pulled her sword closer to the edge and advanced. This creature would have incredible reach but being a smaller target would give her mobility.

A low hiss followed, and another foot slammed down on her shield. Before claws could curl around the edge and fling either her or the shield away, Loren swept her shortsword in an inward arc towards its limb. It was impossible to tell how deeply she cut it when it yanked that foot back, yet the surreal groan and wet slop of its blood gave enough away. Two bolts of lightning from above the beast made it drop and lay still in the heavy smog.

Had to be Dira.

“Look at us go,” he confirmed his involvement, not that it was necessary. He might be able to cast two spells at once with four arms but Noyo had no such ability.

Mages could coordinate easier with their practiced sensitivity to magic, or so the Union said, and Loren was glad that worked here. It may very well be the only way Noyo and Dira would cooperate smoothly.

Turning around a left corner through a narrow clearing in the forest, the faint thrum of the crystal that Dira mentioned finally reached Loren. He must have been incredibly attuned to such things, to have felt it only by passing near the woods before. Its soft tone didn’t prepare her how it resonated in her chest as if the vibration displaced everything else. To the crystal, her torso was a cavern waiting only to hold its echo. The feeling was jarring, and no amount of description would do it justice. Loren took a steady breath and another step even so. Being nothing but a sound, it still weighed on the air and seemed to resist her proceeding down the path.

“I hear it up ahead,” she shared in a loud whisper. The crystal’s guardians weren’t often reactive enough to hear speech, but there no sense in risking it.

“Good,” Noyo said in the smoke. “Trust your senses.”

Dira was oddly silent.

“Dira?”

Another crackle of lightning broke through the smog, but it was dim. He was cloaking his own fight, then… Loren had only taken two steps in his direction when Noyo stopped her.

“He’ll handle it.”

Of course they could foresee her initial thoughts to go and help. And Noyo was right to stop Loren. He was a runner himself and plenty capable of fighting alone. An odd trait, since all runners she ever knew were on teams. Noyo’s theory that he wasn’t one at all seemed more plausible than ever. It still meant he didn’t need her to rescue him.

She would wait regardless. Loren scanned the smoke for the smaller outline of his barrier, waiting for his cloaking spell to drop and show he was alright. They only lasted for so long. That time had to be even shorter with his magic divided. It was a tense wait that let her imagination create scenarios for what might be happening where he was. So she smiled behind her mask when that barrier did return, faint but glittering in the dense, dark fog.

“What’s the hold up?”

“Oh, I’m waiting on a teammate.” Loren teased, glancing to Noyo moving ahead of them. They did prefer to scout ahead and report back if needed. Noyo made thinking ahead look effortless.

“Heh.” Dira started walking, his barrier moving ahead and arching in toward the crystal and their meeting point. She kept pace with him, just in case. “Aren’t you sweet?”

They arrived at the clearing holding the crystal together. It loomed over Noyo and Dira both, and here, the thrumming had all but vanished. She did wonder why the crystals themselves, buried in the earth and standing taller than a shed, were the source of repellant energy while not warding off smoke effectively themselves. It was thinner, that much she had to admit, but shouldn’t it have been pushed back to some extent? Why did filtering it through sigils and barrier generators make it so much more powerful? All answers her brother would know, if she could have asked him. Loren got the feeling the Union would not be willing to explain it to a non-mage on the grounds of curiosity. Especially not since they apparently had factions within that were kidnapping runners that strayed from their team.

“Loren,” Noyo ordered, hands outstretched for the tank on her back.

“Yes,” she answered and slipped her shoulders from the straps. She’d only just passed it to Noyo when Dira took a few steps back towards the smoke and the woods. His tail flicked back and forth, swirling the fog in its wake.

“I’ll keep watch for—”

“You stay.”

True to form, Noyo didn’t wait for an answer. They twisted the valve on the tank that would automatically draw energy from the crystal into the tank.

“Guess I’m staying, then.” Dira glanced from Loren to the woods beyond, perhaps considering going out anyway. When he turned back to her with a nod, she was honestly relieved. He would be hard to find in the heavy smoke with his reduced barrier. Noyo might be comfortable leaving him to fend for himself but Loren wasn’t. Better that he stayed with them as long as they were in the wall of smog that had descended on Brook Mills and prompted the evacuation to other city-states in the first place.

Despite being magical, the tank was designed not to call on magical spells to function—in case the worst came to pass and the mage on a team of runners didn’t survive a run for supplies. As threads of light slowly flowed from the crystal and illuminated the meter on the tank to show its progress, Dira looked over his shoulder again.

“We’re safer together.”

“Hm?” He tensed when she spoke, his lower set of arms crossed tight. “Ah, right you are. Only habit, I guess.”

“Is there trouble?” Noyo stood by the crystal’s base, cast in its fading purple light. It looked more lilac as it was drained into the tank by their feet. For Loren, it made them look ominous with that critical gaze and waning glow. There was a distinct difference between Noyo’s disappointment and their distrust, and now Loren unfortunately knew it by appearance.

“None at all.” Dira forced that out and didn’t seem to notice their skepticism in the slightest. He looked quite preoccupied for someone standing still. His skin lost its color as they waited and he let out a shuddering breath through his nose, his mouth set in a thin line. The cloudy blue-grey tone of skin drained from his face to a pale grey. His freckles stood out unnervingly and as the tank reached three-quarters full, he wavered on his feet.

“Dira?” Loren walked over to stand in front of him, holding a bracing hand up for him to hold onto. He staggered forward instead, forcing her to clumsily catch him more than anything. “Noyo! I can’t—”

“’M fine,” he breathed, his head falling forward while she struggled to support him. He was too tall for this and with his tail and second set of arms too, Loren couldn’t quite figure out how best to keep him from falling over.

“Almost there,” Noyo promised, their hand resting on the valve. There was no point in sacrificing the crystal energy for Dira. Harvesting it would have to continue again later, and it would lead to this happening all over again. Whatever this even was. No mage was so attuned to crystals that they matched its state of being. He wasn’t dying, that was all she could tell. Although he was weakened and barely able to stand on his feet, his heart only beat faster.

“Out,” Dira muttered, “run, Stephen.”

Her brother’s name was not rare, exactly, but Loren lost her chance to ask what he meant when Dira slipped from her grip. He collapsed the rest of the way to the forest floor as the tank finished storing the crystalline energy.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 3: Pursuit


Mari

All the old streets leading into the capital held up better than she guessed they would. Back when the first wave of smog rolled out of Garres City, people scrambling to outrun it, Mari figured they were done for. Then the Union broke out all kinds of new devices in a blink, and people held on. They farmed with small magic sunlight lamps. Worked around the beasts hiding out in the smoke. Everyone moved on.

No one found a way to maintain the roads like they used to, though. So the brick and stone had moss growing in places, and sometimes they were chipped, but a carriage could usually go over them. New paths cropped up over the years, wearing away barely living grass and leaving dirt roads behind. You could take either if you had to keep to pathways.

Mari liked it more her way. Standing on a wide branch in some stubborn, leafless tree let her see farther out without being seen herself. Watching and learning was a good chunk of her work as a Union scout. The enchanted map back at the Kagtan base was always updating with information from every scout in the field, and it really showed in your recon area if you didn’t measure up. The goggles in recon masks could filter out some of the smog, but that only helped if Mari traveled away from the spots where everyone already looked.

Anywhere far from people had more creatures—a few wandered around below her tree as she scoped out the hilly terrain near the Genoa Falls city-state—but Mari would take them over people any day. Beasts, she got. They attacked people on sight and didn’t give up easy. Simple. She knew where she stood and what the stakes were. But people? Figuring out what they had in mind was beyond her most of the time. With some people, that was a blessing as far as she cared.

Just like that, the sigil burned into the leather of her shoulder holster pulsed instead of its steady purple glow. Both in the way it lit up and how it thrummed against her chest like a frantic bird. Couldn’t miss a message from the Union if she tried. Pressing three fingers to the emblem, Mari took a seat on the branch and answered like she’d been taught. “Mari, Genoa.”

“Congratulations, you’re on a new assignment.” The butter upon bacon sort, mages in the Union didn’t have to introduce themselves to most people. Anyway, the less any random scout knew, the better. “The Mills-Falls carriages are off course, headed right for a shroud. Their assigned harvesters are gone. Investigate and report.”

Mari shook her head at the thin, waving branches. Gone. That didn’t give her much of an idea of what she was walking into. “They dead?”

“Focus.” It wasn’t a request. Scouting would have to wait, and she’d go into the latest task as blind as a dwarven bird.

Did answer her question about going to look for them, though. They were on their own if they were alive at all. Anyone working with the Union was used to it, especially after these four years waiting for the Union to clear the smoke. Each New Year Festival passed quietly and the people out doing the work mattered less and less each time. Hard to tell if they were getting close or getting desperate.

Not that it was Mari’s job to find out which was which.

“Where’re they?” She had her map in a hidden pocket, but she didn’t want to pull it out when she knew whoever this was had to be staring right at it in Kagtan. Maybe if she was lucky, this conversation would drain her two-way sigil and give her some peace. It’s not like she could use it to call for help, obviously. She was on her own as much as the others.

“Towards the valley city-state, Brook Mills.”

“That’s in the thick of the shroud now. Why go there?”

All artisans and farmers lived out there, typically trading with Genoa. That meant some must’ve moved there before it got too bad. But who would be mad enough to go into a shroud? As far away as Mari was, she could still make out the denser, darker purple-black gloom over their city-state. Mountains to the north of Brook Mills only made it harder for smoke to spread out and spare anyone caught up in it. Even with a horse-drawn carriage, there wasn’t enough crystal energy to make a round trip.

“You’re the scout. Investigate and report.”

The pulsing light dimmed again to a flat glow. End of conversation, then. Mari tightened her bun and started her climb down from the tree.


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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? At least 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. That felt less like an excuse for her 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 translucent 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.”


Read chapter 3


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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 one of 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.

But 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 along his 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. Searching bodies 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 at him. Between growing up in the far-off mountain city-state and then living in the farming town of Brook Mills… 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 that sealed 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 always 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.”


Read chapter 2


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