Chapter 18: Atlas Emporium
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The shop is surprisingly clean and modern—not at all the medieval setting I was expecting—and for a moment it feels like I’m back on Earth, having walked into some kind of antique bookshop. Bookshelves line the walls, stuffed with scrolls and loose papers of every shape imaginable. There are some maps framed on open spaces of wall, and even a glass case in the middle of the room containing some wares I can’t make out from my angle. To my left is a counter, beneath which appear to be ledgers and something approximating an abacus, while to my right is some sort of work desk where a lamp is burning and rolls of unfurled paper are scattered over the surface. The front of the store is mostly windows, where dawn light has begun to filter in.

The floor shakes with approaching footsteps, and I dart to the left, out of the meager firelight. The owner steps back into the room, depositing more materials and tools onto their workbench with a sigh. As they organize the tabletop, I hoist myself up into the area beneath the front counter and out of sight.

Whew. Close call. Maybe I can follow them back into the storeroom next time they return for more supplies—assuming they’ll be heading back there again. I’ll just have to hope so if I want to get Noli out of there.

In the meantime, I’m pretty much stuck here. Looking around my surroundings, I find that there’s two shelves beneath the countertop, of which I’m on the lower one. The upper shelf has the math-looking tools I’d seen before and what appear to be some stacks of coins. Down here it’s mostly papers.

I look over the open-faced book I’m currently standing on. Some kind of sales docket, maybe. There’s a list of sold items, payments, receiving parties. I quickly lose interest, cautiously (and quietly) picking my way along the shelf.

Over here’s a stack of opened letters, unsurprisingly addressed to Attiru’s Atlas Emporium. I wonder if there’s any kind of mail carrier service similar to Earth, or if these all travel by those dragon-pigeons Noli pointed out. Can Noli and I just ship ourselves to the nearest city? Think we’re light enough to be carried by wyvern? I mentally chuckle at the idea of adding a “Fragile Cargo” stamp to the box.

I’m about to leave the letters behind when I happen to glance at who it’s addressed to. But not just who. Where.

Attiru’s Atlas Emporium

Peakshadow

Valenia North

I flip through the next couple of letters just to be sure, and they’re all addressed the same. That’s it! Peakshadow must be this town’s name. Or, maybe Valenia North. Either way, I’ve finally got a name for where we’re at, so I’m declaring this a win!

Despite its exceptionally dry content, I return to the sales docket. Now some of the lines are making a bit more sense. There are delivery addresses that just contain names of individuals or companies, while others seem to have an address and city attached. Peakshadow is notably absent from the list. Maybe they don’t add the city name to deliveries that are already in town. So these other places—Harrowood, Crimpool, River Cross—must be nearby cities. At least, I’m hoping they’re near. Harrowood comes up quite a bit, so presumably it does more business than the others, and hopefully that means it’s also bigger. A bigger city means more opportunities to find a wizard who can help us.

I skim the list of recipients and what they purchased. Most of it’s what you’d expect: regional and topographical maps. But there’s some more unique entries as well, like “Griffin Migration Patterns” or “Hydra Territories.” One in particular catches my eye: a “Magical Ruins of North Valenia” map, sold to a business called Cloud’s Arcane Artifacts. Arcane! That sounds wizardy.

Out of curiosity, I turn the page. The paper crinkles slightly as it flips over, and I cringe at the slight sound, freezing as I wait for the owner to react. No alarms are raised, however. Not willing to poke my head out and see if they’re looking my way, I cautiously keep reading.

This Cloud shop keeps coming up, and all their purchases seem magic related. Even if the owner isn’t a wizard, they clearly have some serious interest in the subject. It’s probably a leap, hoping they can remove our spells, but at least maybe they’ll understand something about it. Maybe, if we make it to Harrowood, they’ll be able to help.

Well, it’s as good a lead as any. As soon as I can figure out where Harrowood even is.

Now I just need a map.

One would think this would be easy, given I’m trapped in a map shop, but the presence of Attiru—I confirm my new friend is in fact Attiru with a quick Check—complicates this venture somewhat. After finishing a search of the underside of the counter, I conclude all the maps are on the walls and in display cases. I’m out of options here. With nothing else to do, I carefully check up on the shopkeep.

Attiru is still hard at work. Glasses pushed up their nose and quill in hand, their tongue barely pokes out the corner of their mouth as they squint at something on their desk. The very picture of an enrapt scholar—if typical scholars had red skin, horns curling out of their hair, and glowing yellow eyes. Perhaps they’re working on another map. While they’re here, however, there’ll be no way for me to get close enough to find out.

Unless… I could try out my cheat sheet. Maybe they’ll listen to me if I start with “HELP! DON’T KILL ME!” Of course, if they don’t, this room doesn’t leave a lot of options for tactical retreats.

A loud crash shudders from the backroom. Attiru jumps, spinning around to face the door.

“Who’s there?” they call, holding their quill before them like a dagger. After a moment of silence, they grit their teeth, then jump from their chair and plunge through the door.

Now’s my chance. I clamber down from the back counter and head toward the front of the shop. I’m nearly in front of Attiru’s work desk—and hopefully out of their line of sight when they get back—when something darts out of the back room. I flinch, raising my glass in what little protection it can provide, but—

“Noli,” I sign with relief.

Noli spares no signs back as she hurries over to me, her letter to Rezira flapping behind her like a cape as she dives behind the desk as well. “Thought we could use a distraction. Didn’t mean to knock a whole shelf over, but—”

A muffled “Fuck!” drifts from the backroom.

“It’s probably fine,” Noli signs. “Probably not too much is actually broken. It was mostly just papers and binding supplies anyway. And I can reimburse them when all this nonsense gets sorted out.”

‘Nonsense’ is such a Noli way to phrase our predicament. But at least she’s on the same page about “Flee now, seek reparations later.”

“I know the name. Town name,” I sign, looking for cover as loud thumping noises and muting cursing rings from the back room.

“Really? That’s awesome! Great job,” Noli signs. We tuck ourselves beneath Attiru’s work desk, and Noli sneaks her letter between a bookshelf and the wall to be a little less obvious. “So what’s it called?”

I pause, realizing a moment too late I don’t actually know how to sign the town’s name.

“I can’t spell,” I admit, faintly embarrassed.

“Oh right,” Noli signs. “We still need to work on your letters. But a lot of towns have unique signs anyway, like with names, so—never mind, I can go over some later. But you can read the name, right?”

“Yes,” I sign.

Noli shakes her head. “One of these days you’re going to need to explain to me how you can read but not write or talk.” That’s fair. “Anyway, can you point it out on a map?”

“Yes!” Great idea. And it kills two birds with one stone; hopefully we’ll be able to figure out if those other towns that this shop delivers to are nearby.

“Okay, be right back,” Noli signs.

“Wait!” I sign after her. Attiru could show up any minute. But Noli’s already gone, skittering up the chair like an insect.

No wonder those people thought she was a spider.

Noli disappears over the top of the desk, and I shift nervously from foot to foot, straining to catch sight of her. Hurry, hurry, hurry! We’d managed to shake our pursuers last time in the forest, but we don’t exactly have bushes and trees to hide behind in this book shop.

Noli reappears at the edge of the desk, looking down at me. “Find cover!” she signs.

“What?” But she’s already vanished again. Why?

My question is immediately answered in a cascade of falling scrolls. I scramble back underneath the desk as they bounce to the ground around me with hollow thumping sounds, thankfully quieter than I would have expected. I roll a couple of them over, trying to see what had made her pick these ones out. There are some initials at the edge of the rolled up papers: GV, VN, VS, VW, and VE, but they don’t mean anything to me.

Noli’s back on the ground next to me half a minute later. “Looks like they’re transcribing some regional maps up there, which is lucky for us. These should be a good place to start.”

I’m all for cracking them open and taking a look, but now and here seems hardly the time or place. “Hide first,” I suggest. But Noli’s already struggling to untie the twine around one of them.

“Just a sec,” she signs. It’s the roll that’s labeled VE. “I just want to see…”

There’s still clattering and banging going on in the back room. Alright fine, just this one, then we really need to skedaddle. I push Noli’s fingerless limbs away from the knot, and slip one of my glass shards beneath the twine instead, snipping it open.

“Ah, thanks!” Noli begins to unfurl the map. I plant myself on one end as she kicks the unrolling map ahead of her, stretching it out.

Stabbing a couple pieces of glass in each corner—[Range limit,] Echo warns—I’m able to reorient myself for a better look.

Valenia East, the map is labeled. On the surface, it seems like your standard map. Mountains run along the northern edge, while forests take up a majority of the land, and the land turns to sea along the right border. Cities are sprinkled throughout, although…

Everything is moving. Just the slightest amount, in the subtlest of ways. Trees sway in an unseen wind. The water sparkles as it catches the sunlight. Even the mountains have tiny dots circling the peaks here and there, and roads draw themselves between the cities even as I watch.

“Here,” Noli signs, pointing out a coastal city to the east. “Miasmere. This is where I was headed to. And here…” She taps on another town, this one toward the south end of the map, in a forest. “...here is Bluevine. It’s not much, but it’s home.”

The town lights up as Noli touches it, and the map abruptly zooms in, a layout of Bluevine filling the whole sheet. She’s right, it doesn’t seem like much: more of a rural farming community than a real city. Not exactly where I would have expected an elf to live, if I’m being honest, but what do I know about this world.

“Oops!” Noli dismisses it, and the map zooms back out to a full view of Valenia East. “I don’t suppose you live anywhere around here, either?”

“No,” I sign, making the understatement of a century. I haven’t even had a chance to tell her about Earth yet, and how the hell I’m going to break that news, I can’t even imagine.

“Ah well,” Noli signs. “What about what town we’re in?”

That one, I can say something about. Taking a stab at the naming conventions, I tap the scroll with VN on it.

“Really?” she asks. “Interesting. Alright, then we’ll be needing that one, too.” She points to the GV roll. “Let’s get these things rolled out.”

Once again Noli struggles with the ties, but I hesitate before snipping open these two. I already feel like we’re pressing our luck.

I tap Noli to get her attention. “Let’s go first. Not safe here.”

Noli hesitates. “I wouldn’t want to steal anything.”

That’s rich coming from someone who just destroyed the back room. But I’d at least rather do this somewhere Attiru won’t see us upon stepping back into the room.

“Okay. There.” I gesture toward the front of the shop. At least let’s get a display case between us.

Noli begins rolling the map labeled VN over to where I’d pointed, and I quickly add GV to my inventory before following her. I leave the other maps behind: If Attiru comes back into the room and stops to look at them first, maybe it’ll buy us a few extra seconds to hide.

We get VN unrolled first. Valenia North. The top half of the region is mostly mountains, with the range curving down the right coast as well. There are cities sprinkled along the less mountainous region, though there are one or two other remote towns in the north as well. There’s Harrowood, about in the middle, just an inch out of the craggy peaks. And right along the border…

Map of Valenia North

There! I tap excitedly on Peakshadow. “Us.”

“Are you sure?” Noli asks. “That’s really where we are?”

I mean, sure is a strong word, but it’s about all we’ve got to work with. “Yes. Us.”

“Peakshadow,” Noli considers. But she doesn’t seem as excited as I would have expected. “Help me roll out the regional map next.”

Assuming she means GV, I summon the map from my inventory and get it rolled out as well, revealing a large, twisting continent. This one is titled Greater Valenia, and it takes me a moment to mentally resize and fit the other two maps I’d seen over the top of this one.

Oh. I see why Noli’s so subdued.

She taps the top of the map, where Peakshadow should be, though it doesn’t show up on this one. Then she traces a limb all the way down the east coast until it reaches another unmarked spot. Where Bluevine would be.

They’re half a continent away from each other.

World Map

“Of course,” Noli weakly signs, “There’s always the telepads. It’s not really so far.”

But it’s far enough that help won’t be coming for us anytime soon. If Noli sends her letter, how long will it take for one of those lizard birds to get there? Not to mention, how long will it take for Rezira to get here?

I rest a piece of glass on her arm in what I hope is a reassuring gesture. There’s still hope. We still have options. I shuffle back over to the Valenia North map and gesture for Noli to follow. I tap on Harrowood.

“What about it?” Noli asks. “That’s not where we are, right?”

“No,” I agree. But it’s the next place we should go. I stick a piece of glass each in Harrowood and Peakshadow. “How far?”

Noli finds a scale at the edge of the map. “Between Harrowood and Peakshadow? Looks like… maybe 25 leagues.”

That means literally nothing to me. “How long?” I try again.

Noli draws some nonsensical shapes in the air with one of her limbs, maybe doing some mental math. “It would take about two days on foot, assuming the roads are good,” she signs. “But for our size…”

More like two weeks, which will take up the rest of our timer. Maybe we can make it in time, but I don’t like the idea of cutting it so close.

“Why?” Noli asks. “You think we should go there next?”

“Maybe,” I sign. “Help with spell.”

Noli examines the map. “I haven’t heard of Harrowood before. Although to be fair I’m not familiar with most of the northern cities. It does look a bit bigger on this map.” She moves back to the continental map. “And it shows up here when Bluevine and Peakshadow are too small.” Her signs perk up a little. “I suppose it’s worth a shot. Yeah. Actually, it seems like it’s the nearest town to where we are now, and it’s probably big enough to have a telepad. You’re right. This might be our best bet.”

Finally, a plan. I don’t know how I’ll tell her about Cloud’s Arcane Artifacts, which may or may not have a wizard who can help, but they might be irrelevant to our plan anyway. Once we find a big city, someone there will have to be able to help us. And hey, maybe we won’t have to walk the whole way. There’s got to be some merchants heading out in that direction. If we play our cards right, we might be able to hitch a ride.

Something like excitement—no, that’s too strong a word—something like relief ebbs through me. We have a destination, we have a way to communicate, and we have a plan. That’s the most we’ve had yet.

The door to the back room swings open, and Attiru stomps in with a string of curses. Noli jumps, pressing herself against the display case. We’re out of sight from the shop owner for now, but all it will take is two steps toward the front of the store for us to be discovered. Better hide the evidence.

I lean down to touch my vial to the paper. Echo, add these two maps to my inventory.

[Affirmative,] Echo says. [Adding maps to—]

If Echo finished her sentence, I can’t say, because for a moment everything vanishes behind a flash of lightning that sears straight through my soul. I stumble into the display case and lean heavily against it, trying to gather my wits against the surprise and stabbing, ethereal pain.

“Who’s there?” Attiru calls.

“Kanin?” Noli signs, clearly concerned. “Kanin, what’s wrong?”

The ache is only getting worse. It’s like a splitting headache. Like a building pressure, trying to crack me open. In fact, as I struggle to push myself back to my feet, I realize there is a crack. A white jagged line runs across the top of my vision. And even as I watch, a bead of ink drips out of me.

And it falls to the ceiling.

Something beneath the veneer of reality begins to stretch. An eerily familiar sensation of brokenness, of timelessness, of absolute dark, seeps into the world, and I am incapacitated with complete, all-consuming fear.

More drops of black seep from the crack and fall against gravity, joining the first on the ceiling. The slow stream of raindrops feed more steadily into an inverted pool of black.

“Oh, oh Kanin.” Noli takes a hesitant step back. “Your ink…”

Echo? I call, pushing through my mounting horror. Echo, what’s happening?

[Check,] she replies, nonplussed as she begins reading out my stats.

[Name: Kanin]

[Species: N/A]

[Class: Wizard]

[Level: 3]

[HP: 5/10]

[Bonus HP: 21]

[Mana: 23/23]

With every line, the dread in me grows deeper. By the time she approaches the end, I already know what she’s going to say.

[Void: 100%]

And the room is filled with hunger.

 

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