“I wanna spar, Uncle! You’re gonna let me spar, right?”
In front of me stood a young girl, energetically waving two wooden daggers at the man she faced.
“Now now,” the man replied, shaking his head. “You were sparring with the mercenaries for all of yesterday. Don’t you think it’s time you took a break?”
“...I don’t wanna,” the girl grumbled, her long blonde hair swinging back and forth as she shook her head.
“Karla… I know you’re impatient.” The man reached out, ruffling his hands through the girl’s hair. “But there’s only so much your body can take.”
She hung her head dejectedly, her arms drooping as she gripped the wooden daggers. “I know, but—”
“No buts, okay? I’ll take you to watch how some of the other mercenaries train, okay? But you’re not allowed to spar today.” The man wrapped his arm around her shoulder, leading her further into the campsite.
He called her Karla… was this the same Karla that I knew? I glanced around, looking at the surrounding village.
This had to be a dream.
The village was identical to where I lived currently… almost. The only differences were that the fencing around the fields seemed a little bit looser, and the practice weapon storage shack — the one that the boys usually hung around — was still being constructed.
The fences surrounding the fields had been rebuilt when I was young, which meant that… Was this dream from the village in the past? Did that mean… this was the same Karla that I knew, only younger?
I hurried off to follow her as she was led further into the camp.
“You know I’m responsible for you, don’t you?” the man was saying as I caught up to the two of them. “The viscount would have my hide if I let you get hurt.”
“I know,” the young Karla said resolutely. “I’m not as fragile as you think I am.”
She deftly slipped the two practice daggers into her belt, the same way she always did while we were training. This was the same Karla, then… from some previous time that the mercenaries visited the village.
But she looked so young. Why had she been with the mercenaries from such a young age?
That was when I realised… I barely knew anything about Karla. As I followed her, and her… caretaker, through the mercenary camp, I thought back to the conversations we’d had. In all of them, she had barely ever talked about herself and her background.
And she called this man her uncle. I hadn’t seen him among the mercenaries in the times they’d visited — or at least, the times they’d visited when I wasn’t hiding in my room — so was he only there to take care of Karla?
He’d mentioned a… viscount. Did Karla or her uncle have a connection to the nobility somewhere?
To us living in the village, nobles were a far distant concept. Powerful people that showed up in stories clad in golden cloaks, or vague ramblings of discontent that the merchants brought along from other cities.
“Oi, old man.” One of the mercenaries jogged up to the two of them, out of breath. “You got a moment?”
“Don’t call me an old man.”
“Whatever. Anyway,” the mercenary paused, gesturing behind himself with his thumb as he spoke, “One of the guys got into the stash of alcohol, and started fighting the other mercs.”
“Not again…” Karla’s uncle rolled his eyes. “The same guy as usual?”
“Same guy as usual.”
He turned to Karla, kneeling down to look her in the eye. “I need to go and deal with this. Stay here, okay?”
“Got it!” Karla exclaimed, throwing a salute in her uncle’s direction.
“Oh, and… don’t get into trouble, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be good.”
As Karla’s uncle stood back up and started following the other mercenary, he glanced back around at her once more as if to check if she was still there. She smiled and waved. Apparently satisfied, he then hurried off towards where the man had gone.
“I’ll just be good little Karla,” she grumbled as soon as they were out of earshot. “The studious little girl you raised me to be, who has never and will never pick up a blade in her life.”
She spun around on her feet, strolling through the camp in the opposite direction.
“Gimme a break…”
* * * * *
Even at this young age, Karla seemed quite amicable with the rest of the mercenaries. As she wandered around the village, they’d often stop their work to say hello, sometimes asking about ‘the old man’ in a teasing tone, sometimes just showing off as they sharpened their swords or swung them around. Occasionally, the mercenaries would pick up their practice weapons as she passed by, making a casual and easy-to-block swipe at her.
And Karla always had a huge smile on her face as she drew her two practice daggers, blocking their attack.
It still felt weird, being inside this dream. After not having dreamt these past few nights, I had forgotten just how vivid my dreams felt when I slept near the flask of black liquid.
If it wasn’t for everyone’s eyes passing right over me, I wouldn’t have thought this was a dream at all.
Karla and I soon arrived at a large tent… or a somewhat tent-like structure, situated in the centre of the mercenary camp. It had five fabric walls that stretched taller than either of us, walls held up by poles stuck into the ground. And unlike the other tents, it didn’t have a roof.
Karla warily glanced around, before silently slipping through the gap between two of the walls.
Inside the enclosure were piles and piles of wooden boxes, stacked almost as high as the fabric walls surrounding them. Was this the storage area for the mercenaries? Karla tiptoed to a long wooden box on one of the piles, nervously lifting the lid.
Inside the crate were two ornate swords, carefully resting on layers of soft fabric. The jewels embedded in the golden handle caught the light of the sun, making them shine.
Those swords were… very different from the swords that I’d seen the mercenaries brandish when showing off their skills to the villagers. Their swords all looked much more basic, with a simple metallic handle wrapped in leather. But in comparison, these…
They looked much more decorative than practical. And with the shining jewel embedded in the golden handle… they looked extremely valuable. How had they gotten these? It didn’t make sense for them to have swords like this, did it? Had they received them as payment for something they’d done? Or had they stolen them?
Karla didn’t seem interested in them, though, and she gently closed the box, backing away again.
Her attention soon turned towards a much larger box, one situated in the centre of the enclosure. Something was sticking out of it, a strange shape covered by a thick layer of dusty fabric.
Hesitantly approaching the box, Karla picked up the edge of the fabric, peeking underneath it.
The fabric slid off as she lifted it, revealing a very strange-looking machine. Set on a wide, cylindrical metal base was a large, clear glass sphere. Within that sphere was an array of thin, winding tubes, all spiralling within it as they weaved their way up from the contraption’s base.
A few of the tubes protruded out of the sides of the sphere, curling around to the other side. And in the centre of the contraption was a small brass button.
What… was this? I had never seen anything like it, not even in the crypt.
Karla’s eyes seemed to sparkle as she leaned in closer to the machine, her hand reaching for the button. She grunted as she pushed it, wincing slightly at the quiet metallic scraping noise that rang out. After a few moments of excruciating silence — long enough that I thought the contraption might not even do anything — it whirred into life.
The base of the machine began to shake and wobble, rattling against the wooden box it sat on top of. Light began to shine from within the glass sphere, first from the ends of the tubes, then pooling at the bottom of the ball.
Out of each tube, different colours began to glow, all pouring into the mixture that formed within the construction. The level slowly rose within it, the light growing brighter and brighter. As it reached the top of the sphere, the shaking grew more violent, and the rattling sound from within the machine grew louder still.
Suddenly, the light burst out from the top of the sphere, travelling upwards in a fast-moving beam into the sky. As it got higher and higher, sections of the beam spread out around us, forming what looked like glowing flower petals amongst the clouds.
Karla gasped, stumbling away from the machine and falling onto her rear.
“Woah, what happened?” a voice suddenly cried from outside the enclosure. “Who set off the machine?”
Karla quickly scrambled upright, scanning back and forth around the storage area. She dove for one of the larger boxes, diving inside and pulling the lid over her head.
Not even a moment after she had hidden herself, a gruff-looking man slipped through the gap in the walls of the storage area. His hand rested on the sword sheathed inside the scabbard at his waist. He glanced around the storage area.
“What happened here?” Another mercenary peeked his head inside the enclosure.
“I dunno,” the gruff man replied, scratching his bald head. “The machine went off, so I thought someone pressed the button.”
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s here though.” The second mercenary sidled into the storage area, leaning forward to inspect the machine. “This thing’s pretty old, though. Maybe it needs a service or somethin’.”
“That sucks though, honestly,” the bald man said, watching the second mercenary fiddle with the metal surrounding the button. “We’ve barely been here longer than a day, and we’ve already gotta leave soon.”
“Not much y’can do, though. It’s not like we can stop the fog now.”
...The fog? What did the fog have to do with this? Was it somehow connected to this machine?
The scene in front of me began to fade as the second mercenary started hitting the machine with his hand. Even as my vision grew more and more blurry, and the sky above us grew darker and darker, he rhythmically hammered away, tilting and jostling the machine.
“Who is it?” a voice called out, and the hammering… or rather, the knocking soon stopped.
Was that Colette? Slowly opening my eyes, I rolled over on the couch, stretching my arms out. That’s right… I was at Colette’s place, sleeping on her couch. The old, familiar tingling had returned, the same sensation I’d always felt after my other vivid dreams. I closed my eyes again, breathing out.
So my theory was right, then. It really was the flask that had caused my dreams. The first night I’d managed to get it back, and I’d had another dream of the past, just as vivid as the rest. The fog... the mercenaries... that machine...
Wait, who was knocking on Colette’s door?
My eyes snapped open and I rolled into a sitting position. I really hoped that it wasn’t Alvin or Karla. After what I’d overheard yesterday, I had no idea how I was going to face either of them. Alvin was… leaving. He was leaving me behind, alone in the village. We’d always been together, and he had always protected me from the other village guys… from their jeers and teasing. And now—
“It’s Elias,” I heard my father say, his voice somewhat distant and muffled.
…Why was he here?
I quickly scanned the furniture and floor around the couch, looking for my cloak. That way I’d be able to hide, but... it wouldn’t be enough. He’d already seen me in this form, under the cloak, yesterday. I had to hope that Colette didn’t let my father inside. There wasn’t time for anything more, though, so I had to make do.
There it was, crumpled up on the floor just next to the flask of monster liquid. I quickly reached for it, resigned to hiding under it and maybe the blankets as well, but before I could do so much as touch it, a slight dizziness washed over me.
As much as I didn’t want to be in my old form, this transformation back was probably for the best. After making sure that my tail had really gone, I lifted up the cloak, gingerly wrapping it around the flask and sitting them on the couch. It’d be hidden enough there, right? As long as no one picked up my cloak…
I slowly stood upright, wandering to the front door to investigate what was going on.
“What’s the occasion?” Colette was asking my father as I arrived in the front corridor. “It’s not like you to be out and about so early.”
“I…” my father began, pausing as he spotted me. He stared at me for a few moments, with a look of what almost seemed like… recognition in his eyes. I hadn’t transformed right in front of him… had I?
I felt behind myself, making sure that my tail really had disappeared.
“Last night,” my father finally continued, his eyes going back to Colette. “Alvin told me that he was plannin’ on leavin’ the village.”
So it was true, then.
“Leaving?” Colette replied. “Alvin is?”
“Yeah.” My father sighed, his shoulders drooping a little as he talked. “He said he had a deal with the mercenaries. If he beat one of ‘em in a fight, they’d take him with them when they left.”
Karla. With what I overheard him saying yesterday, he must’ve been training in order to beat Karla in a spar. That was why Alvin was always so obsessed with training, always driven to get better and better at fighting. He would’ve always been working towards his goal… of leaving us behind.
“...Will you be okay?” Colette asked in a soft voice.
My father turned away, a bitter expression on his face. “...My whole family’s falling apart,” he grumbled.
“I-I don’t want him to go either,” I said quietly. Colette turned towards me, a concerned frown on her face as she patted my shoulder.
My father glanced at me, his brow furrowing deep. “‘Course you don’t… You two ‘ave always been close.”
“Elias…” Colette warned.
“You don’t get it, do ya’ Matty?”
I flinched as my father said my… old name, looking away and gripping my upper arm — the same place he used to grab me when I was young.
“How it feels to ‘ave your whole family turn their backs on ya, one at a time,” he continued, a strong bitterness pervading through his voice. “How it feels to be this… alone.”
“Elias, calm down.” Colette stepped between us.
“We were supposed to be happy… The four of us.” My father let out another sigh. “I tried, y’know? I really tried, and… it didn’t matter.”
…Was that really how he saw the times he always dragged me outside, shouting about how he’d turn me into a “fine young man?” Was that really him trying to make us… our whole family, happy?
It was thanks to him that I always felt so alone. It was thanks to him that I always hid in my room, trying to avoid seeing him as much as possible.
And he… felt just as alone as I always did. Well... he’d done it to us both, then.
In the awkward, tense silence that followed from my father’s words, a few shouts suddenly echoed out from the village’s centre, followed by the knocking sounds of wooden swords clashing.
Colette cleared her throat, stepping aside in the doorway. “You know, all the young’uns are doing that whole sparring tournament. I know you’ve stayed away from the mercenaries so far, but… why don’t you go and watch?”
“I guess,” my father grumbled, turning away from the door. He hesitated for a few moments, then took a glance back at Colette and I... before striding off, his boots making heavy clomping sounds against the dirt.
Colette stared at his retreating back, muttering under her breath. “Your kids are all grown up now. You can’t keep hold of them forever.”
She closed the door, walking further back into the house.
* * * * *
…What was I supposed to do today?
Lifting the bowl of water up, I splashed it over my face. If the mercenaries were holding their tournament, Karla and Alvin would most likely be there, wherever it was being held. Because of that, training wasn’t really an option.
Should I have gone to watch the tournament?
After my father had left, I’d gone back inside to eat breakfast and wash up. I had thought that it was still early in the morning, since I still felt fairly tired, but the sun was high in the sky.
And despite waiting for a while, I still hadn’t transformed. My tail was still conspicuously missing.
I rubbed a towel on my face, wiping off the water I had splashed all over me. By now, it honestly felt a bit… weird to be in this form, without my ears and tail and... other things. I had gotten so used to them that it felt like something was missing.
I draped the towel over the rack to the side of the bathroom, trying not to worry too much about my normal form. I would transform back, after all. I always had.
Reaching the main room of Colette’s house, I stared at the bundled up cloak sitting on the couch. What was I going to do with this? I… If I was being honest, I was a little curious about the tournament. I definitely wasn’t too keen on participating, but it was a chance to see Karla and Alvin in action.
And potentially the last chance I had to talk to the two of them before they left the village.
I had to face them at some point. Alvin would be fulfilling his dream of leaving the village, and exploring the world. I had to… congratulate him.
As bad as it felt to be left behind.
If I was going to be watching the tournament, however, I needed to take the cloak, just in case. I wasn’t sure when I would end up transforming, and… it would be very bad if I transformed in the middle of the crowd and couldn’t hide myself in it.
I unwrapped the bundle, laying the flask out next to the journal. The issue was that I needed somewhere to hide these. Colette was still in the kitchen, and… I didn’t want her seeing the flask, just in case she knew what it was. I didn’t want it to be confiscated.
Overnight, I’d kept it hidden by wrapping it up in the cloak, which lay next to me as I slept. But now…
I scanned around the room, my gaze catching on the box of Fenne’s old clothes. That box was still laying around, half-full of clothes that I hadn’t taken. And as long as Colette didn’t put it away somewhere I couldn’t find, it presented the perfect hiding place.
I hurriedly buried the flask underneath the clothes, doing the same to the journal after I’d brushed more dust off the cover.
They would be safe there.
Then I wrapped the cloak around myself, leaning into the kitchen to wave goodbye to Colette before I left.
From the sounds of cheering echoing out from the village centre, an exciting match seemed to be happening. The semi-regular clashing of wooden swords filtered into my ears as I stepped outside and began to make my way towards the mercenary camp, a clearing in the centre of the village.
As I walked, my eyes drifted up to the mountains, and I saw the fog again. It was closer now... a white haze that tangled down the cliffs and ridges and hills. Pink tendrils here and there snaked through it, and their movements raised the hair on the back of my neck and triggered a sinking feeling in my gut.
Something was... off about that fog. The mercenaries were the reason it existed, right? Or the reason that it had come to the village... Why? What was it? And why did it send chills down my spine?
Whether or not I wanted them, I didn’t have the answers to those questions. The dreams I’d had of the past were never clear enough to do much more than make me nervous to eventually learn the whole truth.
And I was at the clearing now anyway, so my train of thought would have to wait.
A small crowd had formed, there in the centre of the mercenary camp. Mercenaries and villagers alike mingled with each other, loudly cheering for or jeering at whoever was in the arena. A few of the braver village guys had climbed on top of the weapon storage shack, sitting on the edge and dangling their legs as they watched the spars.
Were Alvin and Karla participating in the tournament? I ducked my way through the crowd, wrapping my cloak tighter around myself as I tried to find somewhere I could see.
My questions were soon answered as a voice called out to me from the edge of the crowd.
Karla? I turned towards the sound of her voice, seeing her jog towards me.
“That’s right, you’re the one who’s got my cloak,” she said, slowing to a halt just next to me. “I was looking for that all morning. Did you come to watch the tournament?”
“I… yeah…” I looked away, slightly overwhelmed by her energy. She… called me ‘Triss,’ even though I wasn’t in my normal form. “Do you… want the cloak back?”
“Nah, you can keep it,” Karla replied. “You need it more than—”
She paused, reaching out and flipping my hood up. The sounds of the crowd had suddenly gotten… a lot sharper, and I pulled the hood tight against my head in an attempt to muffle it.
“See, you need it more than I do,” she laughed.
That was… close. Much closer than I was anticipating. Maybe I should’ve worn the hood of the cloak up from the start, just to preempt my transformation.
“Anyway,” Karla continued, just as energetic as before. “Now that you’re in this form… you should participate in the tournament!”
“Wait, what?” I exclaimed as she grabbed my hand, pulling me to the side.
“Come and spar! You’ll do great, I promise!”