The guard called out. A family of three approached him, all dressed in dirty clothing. He sighed.
He put on his best neutral face, and spoke out.
“The price is four silver per person to enter Laxis.”
“Four silver?!” the father exclaimed. “But that’ll be a gold coin for all of us! We can’t pay that!”
“Too bad. Blame all the other refugees trying to cross the border for the price hike. Either pay up, or get out of the way.”
“Please,” the mother pleaded. “Our city was sacked by an army of escaped slaves. We lost everything!”
“I’m sorry, Miss. But if we let everyone in for free, our country would be overrun by refugees in days.”
The border guard had no problems with telling adults to leave. But he was not cruel. He was just doing his job. And his job became extremely hard when there were children.
“Mommy, what’s going on? Are we not going?”
A little girl tugged at the woman’s sleeves. The woman bent over her daughter and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry, honey. I don’t think we can.”
“Because…” The mother began to explain to her daughter.
The guard tried to ignore that. He focused on the man as he tried to beg him to grant them entry.
“Can’t you let us in. We’ll pay you when we get the money! Please.”
“I can’t. You have to pay upfront to enter. No exceptions for anyone.”
“I’ll pay for them.”
A voice interrupted them. The guard narrowed his eyes, as a girl approached them from behind.
She had long black hair that went down her shoulders. Her eyes were silver. Like a mirror. He almost thought he could see himself in her gaze.
She walked with a long wooden stick by her side. A hiking staff? It was too big for her, but she held it anyway.
Unlike the refugees coming into the country, she was not dirty. Her clothes looked recently washed. And her face was clean. Not a mark to be seen on it.
But make no mistake, she was a girl.
Perhaps only a few years older than the daughter of the family if the guard had to guess. And yet, she still smiled kindly at them.
“I’m sorry, little Miss. I don’t think you can—”
“It’s one gold coin for them, right?” The girl reached into a pouch, and pulled something out. “Here’s two gold. For them, and for me.”
“It’s real. You can check, if you want. I’m willing to wait. I don’t mind if it takes five minutes or five days. Just as long as you can let us through.”
“But…” The border guard hesitated. He peered at the coins, resting on the palm of the girl’s hands. It was probably real.
He had seen enough counterfeit coins to discern what was clearly fake from what was real. He took the coins from her hand, felt its weight, and thought of the hassle that came with checking the legitimacy of the coins.
Then finally he decided that it was real.
“Fine. You may enter.”
He waved them through. He grabbed for some silver, but the silver eyed girl stopped him.
“Keep the change,” she said. Then she added. “Or maybe, use it for the next people who can’t afford to enter. It’s up to you whether you want to be kind or not. I can't force you to do either one.”
The border guard slowly pocketed the gold, as the family began thanking the girl.
“You saved us!” The father clasped the girl’s hand tightly. Then he asked, “But why would you do this? We’re strangers.”
“It’s not a problem,” she answered. “I just know what it’s like wanting to leave the Free Lands. That’s all.”
The mother bowed deeply. “Could we know your name?”
“Melas,” the father repeated it. “What a beautiful name for a child with a beautiful soul such as you.”
The mother nodded beside him. “Thank you, Melas. You are truly a blessing from the Goddess herself!”
And although the daughter was still sniffing. She was the only one who noticed how the girl flinched at hearing the Goddess.
Free at last.
I was finally free. No longer was I in the Free Lands. Now, I was away from the Free Cities. A free American finding their freedom!
Ok, maybe that was too much.
But I was happy. More than I had been in so long. I felt like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders as I crossed the checkpoint into Laxis.
The landscape looked no different; the people looked the same; yet make no mistake, this was another country.
And while borders were arbitrarily drawn by people. While there was no real distinction between the Free Lands and Laxis. I still saw some kind of a difference between the two.
Was it something that was tangible, or was it a purely psychological thing? I did not know.
But now, everything that happened in the Free Lands was all behind me; my time as a slave was long gone.
My fingers twitched, as I instinctively wanted to reach for my face. But there was nothing there. Not since the night I killed Victor.
My slave mark was gone.
It had been a few months since then; I did not know what magic that was. I thought it could have been a miracle, but it became something else. All I knew was that it healed me completely, and it made me stronger.
It was some kind of physical enhancement spell. Like in Shamanism. But those kinds of magic should not have been so quick to cast. Regardless, I now felt stronger than I’d ever been— even in my past life. I was as strong as any regular adult. That was how I had been surviving.
Plus, I had been using all the gold Victor had on him to pay for all my expenses. I felt for the pouch on my belt, as I looked up at the wagon driver.
“How much longer?" I asked.
“We’ll be reaching the nearest town soon,” he said. “You sure you want to just stop there? I could bring you further into Laxis, if you’d like.”
“I’m fine." I waved a hand reassuringly; I sat up, and spoke softly. “I’m just taking things at a slow, relaxed pace.”
I had bid the family farewell once we crossed the border, and proceeded to hitch a ride on a passing wagon. It was not far to the closest border town, but it was still a few hours walk. And just over an hour by wagon.
So I had lain back down, next to some grain sacks, and stared at the rolling, tall hills stretching across the horizon.
This was the Incen Mountain Range which also made the border between Rem and the Free Lands; it cut across the continent covering thousands of miles. And while the peaks here were far shorter than the ones I had seen back in Villamcreek, they still rose high up into the sky. Far above the clouds.
It made me feel small. Tiny, in a sense. But that put me at ease too.
All my struggles— all that I had been through that put me through so much pain seemed so… minor, relative to everything else that was going on in the world. Like if I was compared to a mountain, my problems were trivial.
That was not to say, what happened was insignificant. It was important to me. It mattered specifically because it happened to me.
What Victor did was wrong. I had hoped he could have changed, but he did not. So I killed him. Even though I thought he was a good guy.
And retrospectively speaking, he never was one; I did not realize it then because I was starved of any affection after my mom's death and becoming a slave, but he was narcissistic, manipulative, and a pathological liar. All the signs were there and I even knew what they were supposed to be, but I failed to see it in the moment.
I did not believe for one second that he adhered to the restrictions the Infernalis set for him. He was a terrible person. So I killed him, even though he saved my life.
I did not regret my actions— what I did— but I was still sad that things did not work out in the end.
However, I did not dwell on it now.
“We’re here, little Miss," the wagon driver called back. He turned around, and raised an eyebrow at me. “You sure you don’t wanna go any further? I could take you to—“
“Thank you,” I said as I smiled politely. I grabbed a few coins, and handed it to him. “I appreciate your help. But I’m stopping here.”
The man blinked at the coins as they glimmered in his hand. His eyes widened, and he tried to protest. “Little Miss, I can’t take this from you. These are silver coins!”
But I just waved back at him.
I hefted my bag around my shoulders, and clasped the wooden staff on one hand. Victor’s staff. I held it to my side, as I walked into the town alongside numerous other travelers.
Maybe I was being too liberal in my spending today. I barely had 25 gold left. It would probably only last me another two months if I continued spending it like I had for the last few hours. What I had left was probably what the average household in the Rem Republic made in a year.
But I did not come from an average household; I was from some rural village with only my mom working to make money. This was a lot more gold than I’d ever seen back then. So I was definitely not good at being economical with it currently.
Not like it mattered to me right now. To me, this was like a vacation; it was a holiday where I no longer had to worry about being kidnapped into slavery while I was asleep, or get attacked by the ground number of criminals in the Free Lands.
Since I had no job, money was going to be a problem in the future. And since I was only going to spend it like a moron for today, I could stave off my worries about the lack of gold until it started to become an issue half a year from now.
I took a deep breath, and cast my gaze heavenward.
The air was clean. It was fresh and good to breathe, even if it was thinner up in this altitude. The sun was still high up in the sky. There was not a cloud to be seen. A breeze brushed past my face, as I finally exhaled.
It was not too cold. I found it to be slightly chilly, but nothing remotely uncomfortable.
The town was by the face of a cliff. A small waterfall ran down its side, and cut through the houses and roads. I crossed a bridge over the splashing currents, and stopped to admire the view for a moment.
The crashing of the water filled the background, but not overwhelmingly so. It was like a nice, peaceful sound a person from my world would listen to as they went to sleep. It was like a white noise that only added to the serenity of the moment. Light chatter came from all directions, but faded into the ambience of this town.
It was... relaxing.
Like a piece of art they came to life. My lips curled to a smile, as I took it all in. It was nothing like the Free Lands. Even if the towns and cities were exactly the same— which they weren't— I could never find a moment of peace while I was back there. I could never relax like this.
I slowly continued down the road, searching for an inn or some place to stay. I stopped a few people, asking them for directions. They always gave me an odd look when I thanked them and went on my way, but I was used to it by now. In fact, I could understand what they were thinking: a kid should not be traveling alone like I was. So I paid it no mind.
Eventually, I found an inn and wandered in. The innkeeper— a middle aged man with a beard— raised a brow as I approached him.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
“I was looking for a room to stay,” I said, as I produced a few silver coins and placed it on the counter. “Just for a few days. Then I’ll be gone.”
“Well, that’ll be more than enough for a few days. Lucky you, we just so happened to have one room left available,” the innkeeper said with a smile.
No questions asked, huh? Not that I mind it.
“Been crowded lately?” I made small talk.
“Indeed. Many people have been fleeing the Free Lands in the past few months. Although the number has been dwindling as of late. We still have a full house for most weeks.”
He counted the silver coins, and dragged it over to his side of the wooden table. He pulled out a key, before adding.
“By the way, it’s two silver per night. I know it’s a bit pricey, but we’ve had to jack up the cost due to all the people coming in looking for a room. Don’t worry, it comes with a complimentary breakfast and dinner. And since you’re still a child, I’ll make it one silver.”
“Thank you, Sir—”
I was gratefully accepting the room key and the discount, when a voice interrupted me.
“Huh? I come here every day and you don’t give me anything for free. But to people like her— these refugees bringing their disease into our country— you’re offering a discount?!”
A man staggered over to us from a table; I frowned as I caught a whiff of alcohol when he spoke.
“Disease? What are you talking about?” I asked, more confused than anything.
The man wobbled, and then jabbed a finger in my direction. “Y-you heard me! People like you are bringing the Noxeus in from your poor and dirty countries!” he said, slurring every other word.
I was about to tell him that I was not actually from the Free Lands, when the innkeeper spoke over my shoulder.
“Go home, John. You’re drunk.”
“Drunk? I’m not drunk. You’re drunk!”
The innkeeper sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re disturbing a child. And you spent the whole morning drinking every wine, beer, and whiskey I have in stock. You are drunk.”
“A child?” The man leaned over to me and squinted. “That’s not a child.”
“Yes she is.”
“Yes I am.”
The innkeeper and I both remarked at the same time.
The drunk man scowled, and took a step back. “Whatever,” he said. Then he turned around and stormed off.
I watched him trip over himself and mutter curses under his breath as he left the inn. The innkeeper apologized from my behind.
“I’m sorry about him. He lost his wife a month ago due to the plague. He blames the refugees coming in for it, since many of them, unfortunately, bring the Noxeus with them. And while it is partially true, his anger is still misguided.”
“I see,” I said, feeling pity for the man.
The Noxeus was a terrible plague; its causes weren’t exactly known, although it was exacerbated in places with poor living conditions. But that did not mean you were immune if you lived in a rich clean city. Anyone could catch it.
And with all the chaos caused by the Abominations, slave revolts, and the Dark Crusaders— the latter two simply capitalizing on the first— it was no wonder that the Noxeus had been spreading in the Free Lands.
I saw many people who had it as I journeyed to Laxis through the Free Lands. And I saw more who had it that were already dead. My stomach twisted just remembering the sight.
I wanted to help these people, but I could not.
There was no cure to it; at least, not any that I had heard of. There were Alchemists in the Holy Xan Empire looking into the plague, trying to create some kind of potion to somehow heal it. But all they have managed to do was lessen the symptoms.
It was incurable.
So I tossed these worries aside.
I took the key to my room from the countertop, as the innkeeper guided me to my room; it was on the second floor, third room to the right. I entered it, thanking the innkeeper again as I did.
The door closed behind me as I inspected the room. It was not big, fancy, or anything of the like; it barely even had a bed and a desk fit inside of it.
Slowly, I put down my bag, and rested my staff against the wall. I was content with this room. Plus, I was finally alone. I took a deep breath—
And I jumped on the bed and rolled around on it.
“I’m so tired! Traveling and camping out sucks! [Thank God for beds!]”
I said the last part in English because that was how relieved I felt at that moment. I exhaled, and grabbed a pillow to hug.
“I never want to walk anywhere ever again! My feet hurt so much!” I complained to nobody but myself. Then I heard a thumping on the walls.
“Hey! Keep it down in there!”
I sat up. Face burning red with embarrassment.
I called back. Thin walls. Should’ve expected that.
I sighed, and relaxed. I took a moment longer to settle in, before I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye.
Peeking out of the top of my bag, was the tip of a book. I glanced at the leather cover, just waiting for me. Then I walked over to it.
I opened the bag; there were a dozen different books of different sizes in it. It reminded me a bit of a school bag with all these books in it.
But unlike those textbooks, these were books on magic. Grimoires filled with knowledge how to cast spells; some of them only had history and religious theory. But it was all very informative nonetheless.
I received these books when I was with the Dark Crusaders. With Karna, Gessitt, Ihsan, and even Victor. Back then, I studied nearly every day for over a month.
But I had not been studying as much since I left them. That was not to say I have not been practicing magic at all; I read the books and tried casting some spells whenever I was alone and had the time. But there was a certain level of secrecy that came with doing magic.
I might as well as have gone around holding up a sign saying ‘I’m a heretic’ rather than read one of these books in public. At least for the first scenario, I might not get arrested if people thought it was a practical joke.
Now however, I had some privacy. I could become even more powerful. Be able to defend myself from all threats. It was not highest up in my priority list, but it was important.
So my arm jerked. I reached for my backpack, hand hovering over the books.
Then I took out my coin purse, and placed it inside the bag. I fished out half of my coins, before closing it all shut.
I turned around, and danced out of the door. I was in a good mood. I was out of the Free Lands, or because I had a good and proper place to sleep. This was like a vacation. It was a holiday to me. And during holidays, there was one thing I always looked forward to the most—
I’m going to go shopping!
Maybe I was being a tiny bit hyperbolic. But I had always enjoyed shopping. There was something fun to me about trying on new clothes and different styles. Especially if I went out with friends.
However, I did not have many friends in this world. Which sucked. But at least there were no designer brands here for me to waste my money on.
Of course, I ended up not buying too much. But I did go to a few shops and settled on a new outfit for me to wear from now on.
I was getting a bit tired of the hooded leather clothes that were given to me by the Dark Crusaders; I wanted something new. And I ended up getting a set I really liked.
But all in all, it was completely uneventful.
It was shopping. There was nothing to say about it. Most people who accompanied someone shopping would just sit on a chair, waiting while bored out of their mind. The same concept applied here.
The most notable thing to happen was when I stopped to have my lunch. I received a lot of side eyes for eating much more than I should have for someone my size.
I did not understand the judgment: food was good, and I liked food.
After that, I stopped by one last shop. A young woman looked up as I entered the door.
“Welcome, little girl. Did you need something?” She leaned over the countertop, peering at me. “Are you lost? Do you need help finding your parents?”
“I’m not lost,” I said as I shook my head. I raised a finger, and pointed at something hanging off the wall. “I’m looking to buy that, but in a different color.”
“Oh, that?” She turned to face it. “Sure. But depending on the dye, it’ll cost more. And do you want a newly made one, or that exact one?”
She was rather chatty. And she spoke informally. Overall, she seemed friendly.
I probably would have been friends with someone like her in my previous life. But my current life was different. I had to stay cautious. I could not befriend everyone I met.
I had to survive.
So I simply answered her question.
“I’d prefer it if it were brand new.”
“I see, I see.” She nodded. “It’ll take a few days. But it’ll be ready by this week. And you’ll have to pay half now. Is that ok?” she asked.
I told her what color I wanted it in, and started pulling out coins. The young woman continued speaking as I did.
“You know, I never really understood the appeal of those. I hear it got popular in the Rem Republic, but it never really took off here. Why do you want one?”
I glanced at it, then back at her. “Are you asking why I would want to wear that?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. She began to explain herself. “To me, the wide brim and the long pointy end looks a bit silly. Well, I guess the traveller’s hat does have a wide brim. And pointed caps aren’t too uncommon. But still… y’know…”
“I know. It does look a bit weird if you think about it. But I have to wear those.”
The milliner blinked.
“Because,” I started, turning around to leave.
A small smile spread across my face, as I answered her question.
“I’m a [Witch], after all.”