- Word count: 1400 (3 to 10 minutes) | Rating: T | Story: Saving Ourselves
- Read chapter 4
- Read character introductions: Noyo | Loren | Dira
- Available on Patreon and Wattpad with extra content on Tumblr
- Note: Post-apocalyptic setting, fantasy races (common and original), magic.
- ©2021 Jam Blute.
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 clawing 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 his head 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. There was no leaving it behind if they wanted to help the Brook Mills survivors, and she wasn’t up with Noyo or obviously in the back with him either. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see by squinting into the inky black-violet seeming 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 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.