Chapter 16: Flame’s Fest
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“Something’s changed.”

“What?” I ask.

We’ve only been on the road for an hour or two, all the crimson hints of dawn evaporated from the horizon.

“Actually, I know exactly what’s changed,” Noli signs. “I just couldn’t tell in the dark, and I thought I was seeing things when it was still early. But now there’s enough sun that I can definitely tell it’s not a trick of the light.”

“What is it?” I press, knowing full well she will continue to ramble unless railroaded into an answer.

“Your ink,” she signs. “There’s more of it. A lot more.”

“What?” That’s weird. I hadn’t noticed that last night when I was looking at my reflection. Then again, my glass made for a rather poor mirror, and the brightness of my soul had overpowered everything else.

It was also the middle of the night, I guess.

Regardless, why would the ink in me increase? How? That doesn’t make any sense.

“I mean, it might not be a bad thing,” Noli signs, nearly guaranteeing it is. “Like, I thought you had more ink before, but then it went down. And now it’s up again. So maybe it just does that?”

Maybe, but I know better than to believe in coincidences. What’s the cause, though?

Echo, give me a Check.

[Name: Kanin]

[Species: N/A]

[Class: Wizard]

[Level: 3]

[HP: 10/10]

[Bonus HP: 24]

[Mana: 23/23]

[Void: 93%]

[Role: Homunculus]

Woah, woah, woah, woah. What’s up with the Void stat? When did that skyrocket? I am not a fan of this development—whatever that development may be. Echo said it was a tracker for “The rate at which I access the void,” (super helpful, thanks for that,) but a rate would be more of a number than a percent, right?

And what happens when I hit 100?

“I’m fine,” I tell Noli, feeling anything but. The uncertainty of that stat unnerves me. But without understanding what causes it, there’s nothing I can do. No sense in making Noli worry over me, at least.

With little else to do, we continue to walk, with me occasionally—okay, obsessively—re-checking my stats. Nothing changes, however. At least, not while I’m watching. It feels like one of those videos where the cat keeps getting closer and closer to the camera each time the filmer ducks out of view. Never moving when you’re watching, but creeping up on you nevertheless.

Early on, the travelers pass us once more, and this time we let them go quietly by. It feels like we’re missing our opportunity by hiding and just letting them stroll past, but I’m not eager to get into any more fights, even if it does come with the bonus of a Level Up. Which of course is only another reminder that we’ll likely be facing more of the same treatment even when we do make it to a town.

It’s noon when our road crests a small hill, trees spilling away on either side, to reveal the valley beneath us. I instinctively stop, as if walking and taking in the breathtaking view are too much to coordinate at once, and Noli likewise pauses beside me.

Clustered like facets of a geode in the basin beneath us are the red-tiled roofs of a town. The blue ribbon of a river winds lazily around the village, while smoke curls up from buildings in dozens of miniature clouds. It’s still too far to make out the people who live there, but it’s civilization, nevertheless.

Relief washes over me. We did it. We made it. We’re not stuck somewhere isolated, so remote that our spells will expire before we can do anything to stop them. The travelers were a glimmer of hope, but this is the first breath of air after fear of drowning: Help is within reach.

“We’re so close,” Noli signs, echoing my thoughts as we start moving once more. “Without any more trouble, we should make it to the edge of town by nightfall. Then it’ll just be a matter of seeing if this town has a telepad—though it seems pretty small, so I doubt it. But! We could always write Rezira a letter, telling her where we are. Although I’ll have to convince someone to hand over a quill and paper. And they’ll need to open the ink bottle for me. That went disastrous before. And then I’ll need to convince the wyvern master to let me send it. And I suppose for that I’ll need some money. And if we want money, we’ll probably need to get a job. What do you suppose we could do, this size?”

Well from first-hand experience I’m fairly sure we could at least sweep the floor and do some dishes—assuming people will give us the opportunity to explain our circumstances before we get to experience an encore of last night’s performance. But I’m stuck on something else Noli just said.

“Wait,” I interrupt Noli as she’s in the middle of talking through employment options (including, but not limited to, chimney sweeps and rat extermination). “Paper. Writing.”

“The letter to Rezira?” Noli asks. “Yeah I was thinking—”

“No, stop,” I sign before she can get going again. I mean, sending a letter is a good idea, depending on if we can convince someone to do that, and if Rezira can get here quickly. But Noli’s getting ahead of herself.

“Can you write for us?” I wish I’d had the vocabulary to ask this back in Trenevalt’s cabin, but better late than never.

“Of course I can write,” Noli signs, completely misunderstanding my question. “Who can’t—oh, right, you can’t. Sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude. That’s probably a sore spot. I mean, it would be for me.”

“Can you write for us,” I emphasize. “To talk to…” I gesture at the town.

“Oh, I see,” Noli signs. “You want me to write things down for the people in town? That’s how we’ll communicate? Doesn’t seem as efficient as Sign Language, but it looks like not many people understand that around these parts.” She considers. “Alright, it’s worth a shot!”

More than worth a shot, it should stop us from being mistaken as wild animals again. What sort of spider waves a piece of paper around that says, “Don’t squish me! I’m sentient!”?

Then again, this world contains elves and magic and teleportation pads, so I suppose anything is possible. We’ll just have to count on a bit of empathy to get us through this.

“So have you got any paper and ink in… wherever it is you make things magically appear from?” Noli asks.

Erm. “No,” I admit. At least, not apart from the spell books, but I’d rather not go tearing pages out of them until it’s a last resort. And no ink to speak of… apart from what’s inside my vial, I suppose. Without any apparent opening, however, that seems as unlikely as it is undesirable.

I gesture back to the town. “Paper there?”

“We could definitely buy some,” Noli signs. “Oh, but we still won’t have any money! That’s brought us back around to the beginning, hasn’t it?”

I’m not particularly planning on paying for anything, if I’m being honest. With my inventory at my disposal, any crime—or petty theft—would be entirely without evidence.

Look, desperate times, alright?

We pass another traveler late that afternoon, this one heading away from the city. Noli and I hide behind some trees as they pass, half dozing on their giant armadillo-pulled cart. They have pointed teeth and ash-gray skin, dark eyes unfocused on the road ahead. Echo identifies them as a dhampyr—yet another new kind of person for me to keep track of.

I find myself tensing up as the day grows longer and the town gets closer. I’m not even sure what I’m worried about, exactly. Not getting stepped on or slapped with a fly-swatter would be a great start. Overcoming the language barrier. Dealing with unfamiliar creatures in an unfamiliar town—you’d think I’d be over this by now. Hell, this whole world is unfamiliar. I guess it’s just been in bite-sized pieces up until this point. I’ve had time to process each new curveball as it’s been thrown at me. But a whole city to deal with all at once, where nothing will be recognizable, where I won’t be able to navigate—literally—or even ask for directions… Honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to make it out the other side. I suppose I’ll have to rely on Noli’s blind confidence to carry us through. But the idea of having to lean on her completely, going into this situation blind myself, makes me just as uncomfortable.

We don’t make it to the city by dark. Dusk has come and gone, and still we’re on the trail. I ask about nightbanes, but Noli waves it off.

“We’re nearly there,” she signs, movements barely visible in the moonlight. “And the city should have some protections. We can’t stop now!”

A distant murmur of noise—clanging of metal, occasional yells and calls—signals the town’s close. But close for a human and close for a couple of pint-sized objects are two very different things.

Even so, we press on. A warm glow dimly twinkles between the trees. We pass branches in the main road, twisting into the forest or leading up to remote houses. Occasional stretches of cobblestones are set into the trail, vanishing and reemerging from the dirt at random. Gradually, the signs of civilization become more frequent.

And then the forest ends.

A stone wall runs around the village, carved with dozens of faintly glowing runes that shimmer like stones beneath the surface of a pond. There’s an opening in the wall where the trail leads in, and Noli and I edge up to the corner to peek around.

The town blooms before us, glowing orange and red in all the firelight. Lanterns are strung across roads and flicker above doors. Food carts clutter the paths, full of skewered meats and colorful, strange foods, gusting steam into the night sky. Fat hisses as it drips onto coals, laughter and yelling permeate the air, drums and faint music leak through the crowd. And the people—there’s so many people.

They’re every shape, size, and color I could imagine—not just white and black and brown, but some are covered in blue scales, or green bursts of plumage, or yellow manes. Children run around in leafy masks the color of autumn, waving ribbons about as their parents stand around chatting. Some of them are those dragon-looking people—dracids, apparently. And the cat-like felis, and orcs, and humans, and elves, and dwarves—and—and—

I shake myself out of my awe. I could stand here all night discovering new species of people, I bet. It’s like this town walked right off the set of Cryptid Hunter. And if I’d come to this world in the body I’d left behind, maybe I could have strolled in here with all the swagger and confidence of Jack Stone. As it is, however, I’m eyeing the blissfully unconcerned footfalls of children with mounting dread.

“Oh!” Noli gleefully exclaims, demonstrating once again how her enthusiasm knows no bounds. “It’s Flame’s Fest! I didn’t realize the holiday was so soon. I mean, we don’t celebrate it back home, but I always thought it sounded charming. They say the roasted fire flowers are to die for.”

Something that may be in our literal and immediate future if we don’t figure out how to navigate this place.

“How long?” I ask Noli. Please tell me we won’t be dealing with a trampling crowd for the next two weeks.

“Oh, it’s only one night,” Noli signs. “All night, that is. I imagine things’ll be pretty silent in the morning, all the kids sleeping in and all their parents nursing a hangover. Do you think that’ll affect our ability to find a wyvern master? Darn, if only we’d gotten here a day before.”

Actually, a bunch of drunk shop owners sounds perfectly ideal for Operation Steal Some Writing Supplies.

If we survive the next twelve hours, that is.

It shouldn’t be too bad, though. All we have to do is hang out in the woods until dawn. Not that I’m keen on waiting with the ticking clock hanging over our heads, but this seems like one instance where—

Hey! Noli! Where the hell—

But it’s too late. She’s already skittering away from the wall, making a beeline for the nearest food cart. I contemplate remaining where I am, safe in my obscurity and sufficiently removed from any misplaced and deadly boots. But if I lose her in this crowd, there’s a nontrivial chance it’ll be weeks before I find her again. With an immaterial sigh, I take off after her.

“Why?!” I demand as I catch up with her, tucked around the edge of the stall. She’s peeking around the corner, watching the crowd, as food crackles on a grill overhead. A puff of smoke is snatched up by a breeze and blown over us. I instinctively try to take in a breath, and there’s a moment of disorienting absence—like reaching for my phone only to find my pocket’s empty. Because there’s no way for me to smell, of course. I guess I’ll just have to use my imagination.

Noli ducks back toward me. “Some of those paper masks have fallen on the ground. I think we can use them for cover.”

Not to mention, paper. If she’s right, that’s less stealing we need to do. Instead of looking around the corner, I crouch toward the ground. I’m low enough to look out under the stall, even if my vision is more distorted at this angle. It’s enough to catch sight of what caught Noli’s attention, though. Several of the children’s decorations have been lost or cast aside, providing us with an opportunity to blend in.

“Alright,” I reluctantly agree. It’s not the worst idea. “But one: plan.”

“But first we need a plan,” Noli corrects me.

Is now the time for proper grammar?

“Why we go paper now?” I ask.

“Why do we need to get the paper now?” she corrects me.

Noli, I swear to god.

She answers anyway. “For a disguise.”

Yes. Yes, I get that. “But then what?”

“Well, we’ll need a disguise if we want to search the town,” Noli signs. “There’s the telepad to look for, the wyvern master, someone to sell us some paper and ink—oh, and we have to get a job, of course.”

I literally can’t believe she still thinks that’s an option. But figuring out the layout of the town now isn’t the worst idea. An animated toy and walking inkwell might be a bit more obvious tomorrow when the streets are deserted. If we use the current chaos to distract from our scuttling, we can map out the area tonight. Then, tomorrow morning, we’ll know where to go and what to get.

I guess it’s as good a plan as any. “Okay.”

“I can sneak out and grab some of the masks,” Noli offers.

“Wait!” No sense in risking a repeat spider incident. “I get it.” Hopefully.

Echo, I ask, what’s the range of my Attuned glass now? Did it increase with the level up?

[Affirmative,] Echo says. [Attuned objects may now be manipulated within a twelve-inch radius.]

Okay, well, that isn’t great, but it’s at least an improvement. And a foot of range might get me what I need.

[Additionally,] Echo continues, [Attuned items now have the ability for select senses to be turned on or off. Senses include: touch, sound, sight.]

Uh. Okay. You mean like, I could feel and hear and see through my glass? I ask. Don’t I already do that?

[Affirmative,] Echo says. [Sensory abilities now extend to Attuned glass as well. Currently Active Senses: touch. Inactive senses: sound, sight.]

Oh. So I’ve been able to feel through my Attuned glass already by default, but I could only see and hear from my vial. So this would be like adding ears and eyes to my Attuned glass? Might be handy to have a second set of eyes trying to navigate this village. Maybe it would even save our asses.

Sure, I tell Echo. Turn on sight.

[Designate an Attuned target,] Echo says.

I mentally shrug. I don’t know. All of them I guess?

[Affirmative. Sight on all pieces of currently summoned Attuned glass has been activated.]

It turns out, this was a mistake.

The vision snaps on in every piece of Attuned glass I have—and I am seeing everywhere at once. Above, below, to every side, but the worst thing is that I’m seeing the same images from dozens of different perspectives. My vision swims. My head is in a vice. I can’t process all this—I feel nauseous, disoriented, woozy—I stagger to the side, nearly falling over.

Turn it off! I cry. Turn them all off!

[Sight deactivated,] Echo says.

Reality collapses back into just my one source of vision. Suddenly, the fish-eyed sight from my vial doesn’t seem so bad after all.

“Are you okay?” Noli asks.

I wave her off, somewhat embarrassed. “Fine.”

Well. Never doing that again.

Before Noli could press the matter further and force me to reveal just how stupid I’d been, I lower myself to the ground and roll out of my glass legs. Just small enough to squeeze under the cart, I call a few of my signing shards after me as I hastily roll away.

At the other end of the cart, I come to a stop. The masks are about a foot away. Hopefully my range will be enough. I slip my glass out from under the cart, wincing as a foot slams into the ground mere inches away. The boot lifts and vanishes. I push my glass out further.

[Range limit,] Echo warns.

Shit, I know. I roll forward half a rotation more, barely sticking out from the cart. My glass snags the corner of the paper mask. I slowly reel it in, watching the forest of limbs that stretch far, far above me for any indication that someone’s noticed. It’s an ocean of movement, impossible to track every face at once, and the more I try, the more paranoid I get that I’m missing the one that’s actually picked me out. Too jittery and impatient for any more of this, I snatch the paper back toward me with one quick (and unsubtle) movement.

Echo, add this to my inventory!

The mask vanishes as it touches my vial.

I wait a beat for someone to gasp or point. But the swells of people continue on, caught up in their celebrations.

Whew.

The second mask is a little further than the first, but I’m able to roll a few inches out from the cart and grab it without any fanfare. Relieved, I return to Noli with my spoils.

“Nice job,” she signs as I remove the masks from my inventory and hand one over. She maneuvers it over her head, draping the paper around her like a cloak. “Kind of pretty, aren’t they?”

The outside part of the mask is fashioned like a cluster of red and orange leaves, which I suppose is nice—it’s the underside, blank and white, however, that catches my attention. I skewer several shards of glass through it as I fashion my tent as well. If we can’t find ink, maybe I can go back to slashing markings in the material, like I’d tried to do originally with Trenevalt.

Even thinking about him makes my mood dip. I wish things could have ended differently in that cabin. I wish I’d had any power to do anything while I was there. Maybe if I’d tried harder to communicate…

Noli bumps into me as she passes, concealed beneath her mask, which shakes me out of the spiraling thoughts. There’s no point in dwelling in the what-could-have-beens. All that matters now is moving forward—and trying to avoid a similar fate. There’s been no sign of the predator since we left the cabin—and that worries me almost as much as the time limit on our spells.

But at least the latter is something we might have some control over. First, tools to communicate. Then, help. Then… well…

I follow after Noli, taking that first vertigo-inducing step into the flood of people.

One step at a time.

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