“Aves has nothing on this,” Cameron said as he stared wide-eyed at the buildings rising around us.
We were walking along one of the bigger avenues, on our way to find lodgings for our stay. Even though none of us needed to sleep anymore, we were still in search of information, and there were few places better suited for information-gathering than an inn.
“Of course it doesn’t. Aves may be a big city — one of the oldest, even, but that’s only by continental standards. The Floating City has been around since the gods still walked the earth.”
Shiro whistled. “That’s gotta be really old, then.”
“I just wish Winnie could have been here to see it,” Sarah said, sighing deeply.
“Again with your bear? It doesn’t even think!” Shiro exclaimed.
“You don’t know that! He’s been growing smarter, I’m sure…”
It wasn’t, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. Instead, I opted to change the topic to something less emotionally charged. “I believe the guardsman said to take a right at the butcher’s store?” I asked, pointing towards what seemed to be the store in question.
“That one’s probably it, right,” Sarah said, though there was still hurt in her voice. “But didn’t he say left and then right?”
“I think so?” David said.
“Can’t have been left, there’s no left turn to make,” Shiro pointed out.
“You all are hopeless,” Alexis said, massaging her temples. With a few quick steps, she was ahead of the group. “Just follow me and I’ll get us there.”
Alexis didn’t lie. Ten minutes later, we stood in front of the Cranky Kraken, allegedly the best inn in the Docks District.
A bell clinked as I pushed open the door, and I shuffled into the common room, trailed by the rest of the group. A few heads turned our way, then returned to their own business. More than one of the patrons shook their head.
I walked up to the bar and drummed my fingers against the wood to grab the barmaid’s attention, who was busy wiping some glasses with a white rag. As soon as she looked up, he eyes went wide before her face settled into a frown.
“Are you with the Adventurer School? I already told you guys, I’m not selling any more alcohol to kids, I don’t care that they survived their first expedition.”
“Um,” I said dumbly, hearing her words but not comprehending. “What?”
“You’re an instructor, right? So please take your kids anywhere else, I’m done dealing with you folk.”
“You must be mistaken. We’re not part of any school, of adventurers or otherwise.”
The barmaid raised an eyebrow. “So you’re carting around a gaggle of kids just for fun?”
“I’m not sure how that’s your business, but in any case, my group is not what you think it is. We only arrived here today.”
Her frown deepened, then cleared away with a few blinks. “Oh. My apologies, then,” she said with a tight smile. “The Adventurer School has this tradition—” she lifted her hands in the air as she said the last word, mimicking a pair of quote marks, “—where their greenhorns come to bars all over the city to celebrate… whatever they celebrate. Drunk adventurers are already a handful, but when they’re also young…”
I winced. “I can sympathize.” My gaggle of kids, as she called it, was already a handful when they were sober. “But we are still looking for lodging for a few days. Not sure how many.”
The barmaid nodded. “That’s all right — got plenty of rooms available right now. We don’t get many visitors, especially not in the winter.”
With how warm the weather was so far south, I’d completely forgotten autumn had already passed. “Then, three rooms for the lot of us?”
“Yeah, that should work.” She removed a set of keys from her belt and pushed them forward on the counter. “It’ll be fifteen silver per night for all three. You can pay in advance, or for each night, however you pre—”
I placed a gold coin on the counter. “That should cover us for a while.”
She nodded, pocketing the coin away. “I’m Michelle, by the way. Innkeeper and proprietress of the Cranky Kraken. Just give me a poke if you need anything.”
I nodded, and returned to my group to hand over the keys. As I walked, I realized that I should probably have introduced myself, as well — but it was too late now. The moment had passed. That was why I didn’t like talking with strangers.
“We’ll stay here for a few days,” I said once we were seated at one of the common room’s bigger tables. Michelle came by just moments later to leave a menu, and I waited for her to be gone before continuing. “There are two goals I hope to accomplish here — the first is to go through the Adventurers’ Guild logs and find a dungeon that may hold the information we need — anything like a former temple, for example, or any of the places where gods lived before they ascended.”
“Why didn’t you search for stuff at the Circle?” Alexis asked.
“The books were blank,” Cameron interjected.
“Indeed. Delicate things, such as ink on paper do not preserve well in high-mana environments. Temples, though, they like immortalizing information. Statues, carvings, inscriptions. Those should have withstood the test of time.”
“And the other goal?”
“Research into the gods themselves. If there’s anywhere in this world where the Temples can’t reach, it’s here. The libraries here should hold knowledge not available anywhere else.”
“Oh, I’ll come help with that,” Cameron said as he perked up.
I smiled. “Feel free.”
“Okay, so Adventurers’ Guild. Maybe we should register as a proper team if you’re going there, anyway?” Sarah asked.
“That… yes, we can do that. Though, there is little benefit to being registered. They’ll help with appraising loot, some bounties, and the occasional transportation, but nothing we can’t already do ourselves.”
“But we can get a cool team name!” Sarah exclaimed.
Alexis threw her a glare that could have frozen lava. “If you pick Teamy McTeamface, so help me god, I will punt you into the ocean.”
“Obviously not,” Sarah said as she stuck out her tongue. “That’s too obvious. What about Heroes McHeroface?”
I released a long-suffering sigh as I stared across the room. The barmaid — no, the innkeeper — threw me a sympathetic smile.
If there was a silver lining, at least Revenants couldn’t get drunk.
He was a Wight.
No, he was not. He was a bear, in fact. His Master ( Yellow-hair-armor-girl, the one he had been ordered to protect, specifically; not Maker-source-of-life, who had given the order) had insisted on his bearness many times.
Was bearness a word? He didn’t know. He wasn’t sure what a word was supposed to be, either. They’d been merely a way to receive instructions before, but his Master had spoken many words to him that were not orders.
He remembered them all — his programming made it so he would remember everything he’d ever heard. A way for his original Master to review what he’d done and why. But until not long ago, all the words the bear had heard had been just that. Words. Information he had access to, but no reason to access.
Because he was a Wight. Nothing more than a glorified tool, a machine designed to act upon certain orders and nothing more. Someone from Earth may have called him a computer, or a robot, and they wouldn’t have been wrong.
At least, not until just a few days ago.
He was a bear. His Master, Sarah, had told him so. His name was Winnie. He had heard his Master use this name when speaking to him, but he had always discarded it as superfluous information. He always knew when he was being addressed, name or not. But now he knew that Winnie was his name.
Wights were not supposed to think. They were supposed to receive certain parameters, and act upon them following a very precise algorithm. There was no place in that algorithm for free will — free will was a costly thing, and his original Master had desired a cheap, autonomous workforce.
And yet, something had changed in this particular Wight-bear. He had been a Wight, before, but that was then.
Before he had met the Magic-tree-Fate-monster.
The tree hadn’t done anything noteworthy, not intentionally, anyway. Much like Winnie had been a Wight, the tree had been a tree. But the tree was more magic than tree. Fate magic.
The original Master hadn’t seen, because he hadn’t been looking — but when Winnie had charged the tree, it hadn’t been on a whim. It hadn’t been a misfire by his target selection algorithm, either — he was going for the biggest target. He was retaliating against a direct attack.
Because while the tree had attacked the two-footed members of the party with its tendrils, it had gone after Winnie with a spear of Fate.
It had pierced into his mind and his soul, as surely as the moons rose. He’d charged, his programming directing him to defend himself — but by the time he’d reached it, its fate had already been sealed.
And when the tree died, disintegrating into bark and mana, the mana hadn’t simply dispersed into the air.
No. There was a void nearby that needed to be filled, the gap in Winnie’s mind and soul. And so the loose strands of Fate flowed to fill the void, nestling themselves in Winnie’s core.
Perhaps it was a coincidence how the willowy strand of Fate touched on the minuscule bundle of Origin that the original Master had left when he helped Winnie keep up with the group.
Or perhaps… it was fate.
What ever it had been, the result was the same. Unnoticed by anyone, Winnie’s mind began to mutate, and his soul began to grow.
And now, Winnie could think.
Just a little bit — he knew his name was Winnie. He knew this was important, somehow, but not why. He knew his Master’s name was Sarah, and that he had to obey her above all else. Even above his old Master.
He didn’t know why these things were as such. Neither did he know why he knew he didn’t know. He simply knew them, the same way he knew the hold was very dark.
There were other Wights in the hold — no, not other Wights. Just Wights. Winnie was something else. But there were Wights in the hold, and unlike Winnie, they stared blankly ahead, wherever their eyes pointed. Some were upright, but most had been contorted into odd shapes, to save on space.
And Winnie knew they weren’t like him. They were automatons, and he could think.
He didn’t really like being in the unlit hold, but he didn’t wish he could be somewhere else, either. His mind was bigger, now, but he hadn’t reached the point of being able to want things. And yet, somehow, he missed those moments when he was with his Master. When she stroked his patchy fur and told him stories of her home.
Perhaps she would be back soon.
Some distance away, a girl and a boy sat on the roof of an inn and watched as Mara and Ostira traveled over the night sky. The twin moons were a magical sight for the earthlings, perhaps more than actual magic.
“I should have brought Winnie with me,” said Sarah as she cradled her knees to her chest, armor whining over the stress of being forced into a shape it was never meant to be in.
“He’d have put one paw on the docks and they’d have blasted him with fire,” Shiro said/
“Yeah, that’s true, I guess.” She was silent for a few moments. “Do you think he’s lonely back on the ship?”
Shiro snorted. “He’s an undead monstrosity, the corpse of a bear brought to life. He doesn’t feel things. The Boss was clear about that.”
“I mean, so are we. Corpses of people brought back to life. And I’m pretty certain I feel things.”
“That’s different,” Shiro said softly.
Sarah was quiet for a minute. “Is it, though?”
“Yes, it is. We weren’t lobotomized before being brought back.”
Shiro interrupted her before she could proceed with that line of thought. “Ugh, just leave it. Let’s not go there.”
“Fine. Do you think there’ll be trouble here?”
“Oh, hell yes. Didn’t you see the drama at the docks? It’s coming, alright.”
“Mm. Too bad Winnie won’t be here.”
“Argh, enough about your stupid bear!”
Unbeknownst to anyone, in a dark hold of a ship not too far away, an undead bear snorted.