Hello, faithful readers. As promised, I have a chapter to give to you today. Isn’t it nice? After so long going without. You’ll still be getting all the bonus stuff I promised soon too.
Chronicles of Koeleth
“Oh, that?” Theo answered. “Well, pay close attention, folks. Only Tom knows this.” He blinked and his eyes dilated and started reflecting the light of the fire. His smile took on a more sinister appearance as his canines became sharp and fanglike. “I’m a freak of nature just like the rest of you. It’s just a little harder to notice. Wonder why they call me ‘Nightprowler?’ It’s because these bad boys can see in the dark.”
Suren nervously played with her hair.
“He is right,” Gabriel said weakly, still recovering from his earlier incapacitation. “It assuaged some of my mistrust to see that he was an abomination. I also—hesitantly—have placed my complete trust in Mr. Riversedge.”
“Well, that’s refreshing to here,” Tom said.
“By the way, Tom,” Theo said. “You never told me why they called you the ‘Demon in the Mist’ after that one mission.”
“And I probably never will. It’s…a dark chapter of my life that I care not to relive.”
“Fair enough. I have a couple of those myself.”
“Let’s change topic, though. How about the Twirling Blades?”
“Only if we get to talk about the Golden Wall!”
“That only seems fair!”
The two comrades dove into their stories, painting a world for their captive audience to see. As they approached the end of a particularly relevant story, something most unpleasant happened.
“And then, the poor buffoon looked at me and said, ‘You’re a monster!’” Theo guffawed. “I looked him right in the eye—with my own peculiar eyes, of course—and said, ‘Hell yeah! A monster who just beat you!’”
Suren could not hold it in anymore. She had been hearing Theo describe himself all night as a monster, a freak, a demon and all other manner of vile and detestable names, laughing them off as if they meant nothing. She felt the sting of each word personally, each one having been said to her in the past. She couldn’t keep it in anymore and, in anger and frustration, she shouted, “You’re not a monster! We’re not monsters! We’re not demons or freaks or beasts or…or…abominations! Everyone says that! Everyone calls us that! We call ourselves that! Why!? Why are we so hated? Why are we so reviled? Why do ‘normal’ people fear us? Why do we fear ourselves…? You sit here, and you laugh! But what makes it so funny!? How—how—can you do that?”
“Suren, I didn’t—” Theo began, but it was too late to calm Suren down.
“No! They attack us! They run us out of our homes! There is a whole organization dedicated to our extermination! And you sit here and laugh? Why are you here? How can you possibly help us? You don’t know what it’s like! Even when your power is active, you look normal! People don’t see you and run! And your ‘friend’ here! I bet he only likes you because you look like him! Because you aren’t all that different! Close enough to pass as human!”
“Hey! You can get angry at me, but leave Tom out of this!” Theo responded furiously. “He came here out of the goodness of his heart. HE brought ME! I didn’t tell him to do this!”
“Suren,” Grace pleaded. “Calm down! I’m sure if we can just talk this out..”
“No,” Tom interrupted. “Let her speak. It’s been a long day—for all of us. It’s been stressful, and she was attacked. Clearly she just needs to voice her thoughts. However, it might be beneficial if we had some help. Collin?”
Suren was baffled by this support from the very person she was berating.
“I understand,” Collin replied. A quick wave of his staff and everyone felt a bit more calm.”
“I…I’m sorry,” Suren finally said when she had calmed down. “It’s just so…painful…when people talk about us like we’re less than human. I’m sorry, Theo. Please forgive me.”
“Of course,” Theo said, enchanted by the woman’s adorable, tear-stained face.
“I also ask your forgiveness, Mr. Riversedge. I did not mean to offend you, and I am grateful for your willingness to help us.”
Tom smiled gently, but morosely, in response. In a somber tone, he replied, “it’s okay. The world has been working against you for so long, that I imagine it comes as quite a shock that people like myself and Amelia exist. You’ve done me no harm. I will forgive you on one condition: take good care of Theo, okay?”
“Absolutely, whatever you—wait, what?” Suren blubbered.
“Y-yeah, Tom, w-what are you talking about?” Theo interjected.
“Oh, come on! You two are as transparent as a glass window! You’ve had the hots for each other ever since you rescued her! We all know it,” Tom gleefully mocked.
The gathering all shook their heads and cheered in response.
“Oh…uh…well,” Suren sheepishly muttered.
“Eh heh heh,” Theo embarrassedly laughed.
The night carried on without any further incidents, and everyone went to bed that night much relieved at the positive end to the uncomfortable conversation. Tom and the others who had been residing within the town walls eventually returned, so as not to waste the rooms they had paid for and so they could retrieve their belongings.
Tom awoke in his inn room late in the morning, only to find that his roommate was not in the other bed. A quick check revealed that the only other person from his company that was still there was Aaron, who was passing the time by sleeping. Tom woke up the insouciant thief and the two of them left to rejoin their comrades. Upon arriving, they found that the camp was already preparing for travel and the others were busy at work helping them. Theo was helping Suren and the camp’s tailor pack up their supplies. The soldiers were busy guarding the borders, as usual. Amelia and Collin were busy helping out some of the other abominations with their travel preparations. Grace, Dennis and Gabriel were already discussing the travel arrangements for the days ahead, so Tom joined them while Aaron nestled himself into a tree to sleep. Rydia was contentedly playing by herself when she saw Tom, and she immediately got up and ran over to him in wolf form. A quick pat on the head from the warrior, and she returned to her previous task.
“Good morning, Mr. Riversedge,” Gabriel said, sounding much more polite than he intended. “We have been discussing the plan, and given that there has been an…upset in the plan, we thought it would be best if we redirected our course. Seeing as our previous course has been compromised, and since you seem like a capable traveler, we would like your opinion on the matter.”
“Alright, well, if that’s the case, I have a few suggestions. First of all, we were lucky no one was seriously harmed in this conflict. We won’t be so lucky next time. We need to train some of your people to actually fight. Darren and Owen definitely show some skill and some of the others’ powers lend themselves really well to combat. It’ll reduce the risk of harm if they can fight for themselves. They won’t be on the same level as Theo or myself, but they will do. For that, we need a place to camp for a day or two. Secondly, if you’re going to have a fighting force, you’re going to need weapons. I couldn’t help but notice that only a couple of your people, Darren and Owen, bother to carry weapons. Wealthy merchants at one time, I imagine? Regardless, if you encounter a magic-cancelling ability, your fighters need a back-up plan. You don’t seem to have a blacksmith, and I wouldn’t risk staying in town for too long, so I will need to spend a couple days at the forge. The weapons won’t be fantastic, but they only need to last for a month or so, until you get to this Cryptid Oasis that we’re headed for. Third and final, we need to camp in a safe place, if we adhere to the previous two points. Now, based on what I have heard, a couple centuries ago a civilization lived in an underground city not far from here, two days at the most. I’ve never been there myself, but it is by all accounts abandoned, and no one would go there without a very good reason. We’ll be hidden, protected, and safe for at least three days. Beyond that, we risk discovery and coming under siege. If you want to go there, let me get together with Amelia and Collin. Amelia is the best wilderness guide I’ve ever met, and Collin is a scholar of ancient architecture.”
Confronted with all this information, there was little more that the abominations had to discuss, so they agreed to Tom’s plan. “You seem to know what you are doing, Mr. Riversedge. We have no reason to suspect you of using this against us, so I have no choice but to trust you in this. We agree to your plan.” It was reassuring to Tom that Gabriel had decided to trust him.
“Great. Let me go talk to Amelia and Collin. Once we have a strategy, we will get back to you.”
“In the meantime,” Grace added, “we’ll tell the others.”
Tom and the triad parted ways to tend to their respective duties. Over in another area, Theo and Suren were discussing a few things and getting to know one another better.
“No, I’ve never had a serious girlfriend before. A couple of flirtatious encounters, but nothing worth noting. You?” Theo responded to Suren.
“Well, no. I’ve never had any sort of boyfriend. Not even any of those ‘flirtatious encounters’ you mentioned. How…how serious were those, by the way?”
“They weren’t. I swear on my life, it stopped at flirting.”
“W-well, that’s good.”
“So,” Theo inquired as he lifted a barrel into the tailor’s wagon. “What exactly is your power? You’ve seen mine, so it’s only fair I get to see yours.”
“Ugh! How rude! You never ask a lady that,” Suren glibly replied.
“You make it sound like I was suggesting something crude.”
“Well,” Suren blushed in response. “It’s embarrassing!”
“How bad could it really be?” Theo jested.
“Fine, if you must know,” Suren sullenly replied. She raised her arms in the air, revealing two obscure holes in the sides of her otherwise modest dress. One quick and seamless motion later, and she had two new arms sticking out of those holes. “There. Happy now?” she muttered, her face a new shade of red.
“Wow! That’s awesome. Why are you so embarrassed about having an extra pair of arms? Think of all the uses!” Theo marveled.
“Hey!” Suren shouted in response, slapping Theo on the shoulder with one of her right arms.
“I wasn’t thinking anything dirty, honest! Jeez, ever since Tom told that one story, you just assume everything I say is perverse. I swear I’m not like that!”
“W-well, good! A-anyways, these extra arms aren’t as useful as you think. If I were a physically strong person, I could do quite a bit with them, but I’m actually pretty weak. They’re convenient when I need to hold several things at once, but that’s usually the most useful they are.”
“I see…Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think it’s an awesome power. And…” Theo began, blushing himself now, “I think you look just as cute with them as you do without.”
“W-w-well, t-t-t-thank y-you,” Suren bashfully stuttered.
For a few moments, there was only silence, save for the tailor chuckling under his breath, and Theo and Suren simply continued working without making eye contact. Then, the silence was broken.
“Wow! I’ve never seen Theo fumble over his words before! Way to go, Suren! You really hooked him!” Tom joked. “Theo, you’ve always been so smooth when you’ve flirted with the ladies in the past, but this one’s thrown you for a loop, hasn’t she?”
“Sh-shut up, Tom!” Theo retorted, his face practically on fire now. “At least I don’t have a trail of broken hearts in my wake!”
“If that’s the best you’ve got, you’ve lost your edge! Anyways, I just came by to see if I could get Theo’s help, but it seems as if you two were caught up in a romantic moment, so I’ll come back later.” As he said he would, Tom left the two to their own devices.
“The nerve of that guy. It’s a wonder I consider him my best friend,” Theo muttered in frustration. “Anyways, where were we?”
“I believe you were complimenting me,” Suren said, simultaneously hopeful and embarrassed.
“Ah, right. I’ll get back to it, then. Shouldn’t be hard when you’re so beautiful.” Theo laid it on thick, and before long the two of them had completely forgotten about the task at hand and were instead awkwardly flirting with one another.
Tom had rejoined Collin and Amelia, and after a couple of hours they had settled on a course of action. In order to get to the underground city of Earthgift, they would leave the road completely and follow an old trail through a nearby forest of dead trees. It was aptly and unoriginally called the Dead Forest, and it had been dead for as many centuries as Darwin’s Expanse had been a dry wasteland. The forest itself was not conducive to hiding from hunters, due to its leafless and withered denizens. However, its lack of resources and habited settlements meant that few, if any, travelled the single road that still wound through its rotting husk. The lack of traffic meant that the camp could travel the road without fear of being found by their pursuers. The trip would take two days, as Tom predicted, but they would be able to camp there for four days when they arrived. Collin was aware of the structure of the city and would guide the camp to a living area and Tom to a forge. Their plan would add an extra three days to the overall journey, but that was not much in the grand scheme of things. They brought their plan to Dennis, Grace and Gabriel, who, seeing no other options, agreed to it. Since the camp was already packed, it did not take long for the camp to hit the road. After two dreary days of travel, they had reached their destination. With Amelia at the lead, they ran into no trouble at all.
“So this is Earthgift, eh?” Theo announced, his voice echoing down a wide underground corridor.
“Well, this is just an entrance corridor,” Collin responded from his perch on his cart. “It was designed for traders and merchants from the overworld. It allowed them to go in and out without having to traverse the labyrinthine tunnels of Earthgift. An underground ecosystem sustained them, but they still needed certain provisions from the surface. Do not ask me what. Trade is not my specialty. The end of this civilization came about from civil war, not from exterior forces. Most of them died in the feuding. Some of them fled to the surface and integrated with society. Those that were left simply faded from history. The gardens, without the tender care of human hands, withered away to nothing. The livestock followed much the same path, either dying without human care or becoming feral creatures.”
“You know quite a bit about this place,” Amelia said, with some degree of shock.
“Studying the architecture of a place tells you something about the people, usually. I have always wanted to come here.”
“So, where do we need to go?” Tom asked.
“We need a forge, right? The market district is the first place we will find, as it runs right along the road. There should be a smithy or forge somewhere in the area. If you get to work right away, I can lead the camp further in towards the civilian district. There we can live in proper homes while we are here.”
Just as Collin finished his brief explanation the dark, torch lit tunnel opened up into a vast cavernous structure. A hole in the ground above lit the grand shaft, revealing several layers of city, reaching down to the bottom. The grandeur of the scene was dampened by the eeriness of the lifeless buildings, the shadow of a dead world. Two paths branched off from the trade road, headed into the city itself.
“This area should form one giant circle. If you follow it, you should eventually reach a forge. The rest of us have to go down three levels to get to the residential district. There is a stairway to the next floor that leads to the main body of the city. It will be difficult to navigate, but I am confident that I know the way.”
“Alright, thanks, Collin,” Tom said. “Theo, keep ‘em safe.”
“You’re talking like we’ll never see each other again. I’ll be back up as soon as everybody’s settled. Hopefully with a contingent of potential soldiers.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just make sure nothing nasty gets to ‘em.”
“I will. Keep your pants on.”
“H-hey, hold up!” A young boy ran up to Tom.
“What’s up, kid? Need something?”
“W-well, I heard you were gonna be forging some swords for us, and I can help. T-that is, if you want help.”
“How can you help? Are you planning on running errands for me?” Tom did not mean to sound rude, but he was sincerely curious as to how this teenager could help him.
“Uh, n-no, not exactly. Y-you see, I am actually the son of a blacksmith. Before Dad p-passed, he taught me a little bit of the trade. And, s-swords are something I can do, sorta.”
“Well, I suppose things would go a bit quicker with some help. Let’s see what you can do. What’s your name, kid?”
“Oh, I’m T-thomas.”
“Wow, talk about a coincidence. I’m Tom, too, and my dad is also a blacksmith. Let’s get going.”
The two of them headed off to find a forge, while Collin took the others to get settled in the homes below. After some time, Theo returned to the road, with a group of abominations in tow. He was waiting there for a few minutes when the younger Thomas came running towards them.
“T-tom says he’s ready. F-follow me.” The lad guided Theo and his company through the streets of the merchant district until they reached a small smithy hidden away at the back of the town. Upon hearing the sound of footsteps, a shirtless and soot-covered Tom emerged from the shop.
“Hey, Theo. Didn’t think you’d be here so quickly.”
“So I see. Cleaning out the chimney?”
“Something like that. I’ve been scavenging around for supplies. Despite its age, this old shop seems to still retain a higher degree of warmth than the buildings around it. Hence the lack of shirt.”
Among the company of fifteen or so people, there were a few women, and they were not altogether displeased by the sight before them. Several scars ornamented his otherwise unmarred skin, and his musculature was almost as impressive as Theo’s. It was simply hung on a smaller frame. The universal awe of the women made a couple of the men jealous, but it did not last long, as soon enough Tom had his shirt back on. He refrained from completely suiting up, so his armor, travel cloak, and outer shirt were still sitting in a corner of the smithy, away from sight.
“So, what’s the plan, Tom? How are we going to train here?”
“Ah ha ha! We aren’t! Check this out!” Tom the warrior led the company through the smithy into a tiny backroom.
“This is even worse.”
“Eat your words!”
Tom pushed in a stone that was sticking out of the wall. The wall opened into a large room that looked like it was custom made for training soldiers.
“A gift from our predecessors,” Tom laughed.
“Wow. This must have been made during that civil war that Collin mentioned.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Let’s get to work.”
Tom and Theo assumed a position at the front of the room.
“Alright,” Theo announced. “You know why you’re here. You’re the most skilled fighters that the camp has. That’s sadly not saying very much. But we’ll fix you up! It won’t be easy. You’ll come out with more than a few cuts and bruises and broken limbs. But you’ll need it to be able to survive the next few weeks! So let’s get started, ladies and gentlemen! After all, we don’t want anyone swooping in on us again!”
“Yeeesss, swooping is…baaaad,” Gerald said.
“Right!” Tom continued. “First thing’s first! You all rely too much on your powers! This is a common problem for mercenaries and soldiers everywhere, magic or otherwise! They rely too much on their weapons and forget that if they are disarmed, they can’t use that power. The same is true of magic: it can be cancelled. And what are you going to do if that happens? If your answer is ‘die’, then you are wrong! Your body is just as effective, if you know how to use it!”
There was some giggling from the women, and a few crude guffaws from the men. Tom and Theo put down their weapons and cloaks and positioned themselves to face each other.
“We’re going to demonstrate what you can do with your own hands. We are both accomplished hand-to-hand combatants, and, when we fight, neither of us will hold back.”
The two warriors assumed different fighting postures. They locked eyes, and Tom began. A high kick to the head was blocked by Theo’s left arm, and Theo’s right arm swung towards the obvious weak point. Using the momentum from his blocked kick, Tom lifted his body into the air, hooking his legs around Theo’s neck and bringing him to the floor. As Tom was getting up, Theo kicked his legs out from under him, bringing him back to the floor. Theo then jumped to his feet, narrowly avoiding Tom’s own leg sweep. Tom did not let him rest, though. Pushing off the ground with his arms, Tom shot his feet straight towards Theo’s jaw. Theo deftly dodged, grabbed Tom’s feet, and slammed him to the ground. Tom rolled back to his feet, hitting Theo squarely in the chest with a powerful punch, pushing him back. Theo responded by blitzing Tom with a flurry of palm strikes. Despite shielding himself with his arms, Tom was disoriented by the assault, giving Theo enough time box Tom’s ears, further dizzying him. Theo grabbed Tom and tried to knee him in the chest, but Tom used Theo’s grapple against him, rolling backwards and tossing Theo on his back. Before Theo had a chance to recover, Tom had him in a headlock. Theo broke the headlock, and continued to spar with Tom, the two of them carried on for a few more minutes until Theo found himself pinned to the ground. Theo slammed the stone with his hand as a sign of his surrender. Tom released his grip and the two of them returned to their feet.
“Now,” Tom said, not even winded by the fight, “you see the value of unarmed combat.”
“Geez, I never could beat you. One of these days, though,” Theo laughed.
“In your dreams! Anyways, we won’t be able to train you up to too high a level, but we will be able to teach you something. A few dirty tricks and cheap shots to keep you alive, and a few devastating hits to take down your opponents. Some defense, too.”
“And, if you’re lucky, you might actually be able to knock a few skulls. But remember, we’re doing this without our powers.”
“To keep things appropriate, men vs. men and women vs. women to start with,” Tom said, scolding his audience. “If you play nice, we may change that ruling later.”
Tom and Theo began showing their students several techniques and skills for unarmed combat. The lessons continued for several hours, Tom and Theo displaying the techniques, then having the soldiers emulate them. Before long, night had fallen and Tom had everyone but the younger Thomas return to camp. While Tom the warrior was training, he had the younger Thomas gather any supplies and materials he could find.
“Alright, they can’t keep calling us both Tom and Thomas. How about I call you Tom 2 and you call me Tom 1?” Tom asked.
“T-that could work,” his younger counterpart replied.
“Have you found anything?”
“O-other than the materials we found earlier, n-no.”
“Alright, we’ll look again some other time. For now, let’s get to work.”
Tom spent the rest of the night showing his protégé the ropes. By the middle of the night, Tom 2 was forging blades