1. Within Reach
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Beside the endless sea, was a humble port town by the name of Sorshore. Beautiful wooden harbours with stationed vessels had their daily catch unloaded onto the docks. Homes and stores made from the limitless brown material scattered the town compactly. A large stone pathway bisected the town from the centre, towards the bustling harbour and the many fish markets across the boardwalk by the shore. Just north of the town was a vast, flower-filled plain and beyond, an emerald forest.

Here in this town, like any other place, contained a place where loud drunkards and well-equipped adventurers would gather.

It was an inn.

“Oh hey! Hop hop hey!” A flushed dwarf staggered in their dance, a large jug of the golden ale swung wildly in the centre of a small crowd.

North of the large interior of the wooden inn was the bar, where men and women alike sat in stools and downed large quantities of alcohol.

“Oi! Aren’t you one hell of a… oh shit.” An aged man clad in metallic gear swivelled in their seat for a moment before he released a loud burp.

“Your liver’s catching up with your age old man!” His contender beside taunted jokingly. “Another round here!”

The bartender raised her eyebrows in surprise “Sure? That’s gonna be the eighth jug.”

The fairly large, muscular man could only chuckle at the autumn-haired bartender.

“I’m making up for those guys over there.”

He swung his head briefly towards the other end of the bar, where a small group of people sat along a round timber table.

A female sat with a curious gaze, as her partner beside her intently started at the brown map lay out for them by the towering figure on the opposite side.

The barkeep’s sigh drowned in the sea of chatter and laughter.

“Rather, are you sure that’s all you guys want?” She scratched the back of her head and looked back over at the group.

The young man at the table sat with their right arm suspended on a white, cloth sling, which wrapped around his nape like a bib.

“She doesn’t look satisfied there, eh?” The old man weakly sipped from his jug. “Breakin’ an adventurer’s arm like that – you youngsters are far too lenient! Surely you’d want more than just beer!”

The man could only smile as another serving of the bitterly cold beverage was placed with a gentle thud before him.

On the table far away from the commotion, and just in sight of the group from the bar, a serious talk was being held by the innkeeper and the two seated adventurers.

The innkeeper, otherwise known as Mildly, held a slightly annoyed look at the man across her, shifting her gaze occasionally from his broken arm.

“Info like this ain’t enough to compensate for that arm of yours kid.” She briefly states, her arms becoming like a vast mountain range as they crossed firmly against her chest.

Mildly knew all too well how important the wellbeing of an adventurer was. After all, she too was an adventurer. Or, well, a retired one at that. The battle scars left on her arms formed permanent valleys which were proof of the many exhilarating battles she had as an adventurer.

“This is plenty enough.” The man across assured, taping the table with his working hand. “We at least now know where to head next.”

The girl beside him nodded and gave a brief thumbs up to her brother at the bar.

“They’re done already?” The barkeep hummed in slight surprise.

“Guess this is the last one.” The muscular man drowned his throat with the rest of the bitter beverage. “Ahhh! That’s some damn good beer!” A loud thud followed as it made contact with the timber bar.

“Hey, just cause we owe you doesn’t mean you can go breaking our stuff.”

“Sorry.”

“Ey, a glass or two won’t hurt. Not like your friends arm” The old man joked, which caused a number of others who overheard to lightly laugh.

The commotion went on for a little longer. The innkeeper and the other two had already returned to the front bar with light smiles.

“Thank you Mildly” The man with the broken arm expressed his appreciation with a warm smile.

This caused the red-haired innkeeper, who was now behind the counter, to firmly place her hands on her wide hips.

“Really now, we should be the ones thanking you three” Mildly’s voice seemed to be calmer than normal. “You’re lucky you only got out of it with a broken arm.”

Earlier, before the inn had begun to bustle, Mildly carried a few stacked crates filled with iron rods from the smithy just uphill of the town. On her way back, she tripped on a fallen rod and one of the crates flew down the steep staircase that lead from the blacksmith. Incidentally, Exrite, the barer of the full impact of the box, was down there.

He remembered that moment very vividly and shuddered. Things most definitely could have been worse. Had he not stretched his arm, that box definitely would’ve crushed his head instead.

“Don’t worry about it. You gave us everything we could have ever ask for.” The girl, Frosty, too was appreciative of the information Mildly had given them.

“Saves us from running in a full circle again” Exrite sounded somewhat bitter.

“Yeah. I wonder who suggested to go through the forest thinking it was a shortcut” Frosty was obviously making a jab at her brother, Khaos, who still was seated on the stool.

“H-hey.” Khaos’ face reddened. “I didn’t think you guys would believe me so easily.”

While Frosty wanted to send it back her brother’s way, she refrained and could only dig her nails into her palms. Scarily enough, her face held no traces of anger at all.

“You three remind me of the old days.” Mildly proudly stated with her deep, hardly feminine voice. “back when I was a newbie looking for boars and wild chameleons to slay.”

“Ah here we go. Innkeeper’s story time lads!” The old man seemingly snapped out of his drunken spell and wildly beaconed the others present in the inn to simmer down. “Stay for the while longer here. You’ll learn much from a high-ranking adventurer like Mildly!”

While others were quieting down, more seemed to grow louder as if this was their primary reason for visiting the inn.

“Ex adventurer.” Mildly recorrected, crossing her arms once more.

As much as they’d love to stay and listen to a veteran adventure’s stories, they weren’t exactly here for that reason. It was just the information on the map to get an idea of where they were and where to head next.

Mostly because of a certain someone’s ‘shortcut’.

“How ‘bout it? Care to stay a bit longer? We’ll even let you stay for free till your arm heals up.”

As promising and alluring the offer sounded, Exrite politely declined, “Sorry. We couldn’t burden you like that. What you gave us is more than enough.”

“Oi-!”

“Best be on your way then.” Mildly cuts off the old man and gave them a regrettably soft smile.

“It was nice talking to you, Mildly.” Frosty’s crimson eyes broaden for a moment.

“Likewise. And if you three don’t come back, then there’ll be a tombstone in the town’s graveyard for you. Especially you, Exrite.”

Exrite lightly laughed at the joke as they wave off each other and parted ways, Khaos trailing behind. However, before he could leave, Mildly handed him a small scroll.

“You sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. These maps are barely a copper each. Don’t look like any of you can use any other kind of magic as well.”

Khaos wondered about that for a moment before gladly accepting their farewell gift.

“R-right…”

“Oh, and also- “

Mildly briefly paused and pondered on whether to say what she had in mind or not. As she noticed that eyes were beginning to fall on her from all sides, she dismissed the thought.

“Nothing. Don’t die out there.”

“Right!”

As Khaos left through the red-painted door of the inn, she remembered the image of the box hitting Exrite. She could have sworn that it did also make contact with his head. Her eyes could not have been deceiving her, and if they were, then it was probably why she resigned from being an adventurer. But even so-

“Guess there won’t be a tombstone anytime soon” She muttered to no one in particular.

* * *

The stone pathway extended from the small harbour town of Sorshore up to the wall of trees to the north. Gentle flowers populated the plains, mostly being yellow daffodils the occasional sparkling star-shaped flower. The soft, salty breeze would pass and make the grass dance and sing their rustling melody. The smell of the sea seemed to be stronger in the light-hilled plains than the town.

The stone-bricked pathway reached meters across, allowing more than enough walk space for travellers and carriages to move both ways since Sorshore was one of the few ports and harbours in the Colight region.

“Still smells like the sea in here.” Frosty complained unenergetically as she stood a distance away from the other two, half-hidden behind the trunk of an old oak.

Within the shallows of the forest, the group decided to hold an important debrief. They were only a few ten odd meters away from the main road. Khaos leaned against the jagged bark of the oak and studied the map given by Mildly.

His eyes fluttered about the rough paper, but they consistently land in the same spot time and time again. Their current location, according to Mildly and the map, was just south of their destination.

Khaos broke into a gentle smile, knowing that their long journey would finally reach an end.

“So close…” He whispered, just audible enough for Exrite to pick up.

“Yeah. It feels like it was only yesterday since we broke out from Enthile.” Exrite added, patting the cloth around his arm. “Four months went by in no time.”

Enthile was a kingdom residing far, far away to the east. On the map, Enthile sat two regions away from Colight, the region they were currently in. The four months spent travelling away from the forsaken place was like a non-stop death march.

So many sleepless nights at the thought of their grim future and the threat of pursuers had taken a considerable toll on their body just days after escaping. However, as they travelled further and further, the despair slowly morphed into hope as their ultimate destination grew closer and closer. It felt like the straw they had so desperately grasped for was finally becoming the key to their salvation.

Or rather, to a certain individual’s salvation.

A deep unsettling image struck at the very core of Exrite’s being. He knew well of the risk their destination held, and how he’d be responsible for anything that would happen to them both. After all, he was the one who suggested this in the first place.

He believed in the words of the Children of Balance, a forsaken God, at the time of their escape.

Exrite’s gaze shifted between the siblings. His dark brown eyes could only move so discreetly before he was caught by Frosty.

“Something wrong?” She asked with a curious voice.

He looked up at the girl as another breeze passed by. The salty air brushed Frosty’s long, black ponytail to the side as Khaos leaned harder against the tree. A brief silence surrounded them as the wind continued to blow. The rustling of the vividly endless canopy seemingly entranced them for a moment.

Then, as the rustling subsided, Exrite spoke.

“Did they ever speak to you two at all?”

Khaos misheard what left his mouth, however Frosty caught it and knew exactly what he meant.

“No, not at all. Gods are like that, aren’t they? They love to toy with the lives of people without restraint” Frosty responded with absolute distain, not to Exrite, but to the Gods of their world. “You’re only spoken to if you’re useful. Blessed if you can become a puppet- “

“Sis. Enough.” The tree that Khaos leaned against wept shyly in strangled groans. His strength was beginning to overwhelm the old oak’s rooted posture.

“They can toy all they like, but is it like we have a choice at all here?” Exrite, as reluctant as he was, couldn’t find another answer.

They were cornered. Or rather, Exrite was cornered.

He pulled his supposedly broken arm from the cloth and held it out. The site where the bone had snapped and torn through the fair skin was empty – it was completely uncompromised. The bone didn’t hurt, nor was displaced. It was perfect.

Such a thing could not even be replicated at such a speed, even with high-tiered healing magic.

Even the corner of the fallen crate that had smashed through his skull left no noticeable mark, nor any known mental changes that he was aware of.

Another breeze passed. A heavier one, rich with the ocean’s salty scent. Frosty’s crimson eyes moisten as her lengthy, deep ocean-blue dress flowed with the air. Khaos kept his face hidden, the tree’s groans aimed to match the tone of the rustling leaves under the sheer strength he commanded.

“Immortality is quiet the curse” Exrite, reminded of several things in the past, could only show absolute resentment to the thing so many devoted mages strived for in secluded research. “Honestly, no good can come from being like this.”

A wry smile formed across his face at the thought of his current predicament, and the words that were spoken on that faithful night. It was like sickly-sweet honey to an insect – Its promise to remove the curse instilled hope when despair had begun to settle in the depths of his heart.

Khaos, while looking like he was fiercely studying the map, found himself relating to Exrite’s predicament – It wasn’t his, nor his sister’s fault that they were born a ‘Frostbitten’.

Like Exrite, they were subject to absolute envy. The power of the ‘Frostbitten’ were only reserved for the miniscule select few – a race that was deemed extinct for over millions of years.

In fact, they may as well be the only Frostbitten left in their world.

“Whatever. Sulking won’t change anything.” Exrite sighed as he pulled away the sling and tossed it to the side. “So, we’re heading north?”

He raised himself to his feet and brushed off any dirt from his leather-armoured attire.

Khaos shook his head violently for the briefest moment, escaping the horrifying trance that him strangled captive.

“Right. North. We’re heading for Farshard. Doesn’t seem too far ahead.” Khaos tried to speak composedly as the tree’s groans came to an abrupt end.

“You still remember the bargain, right?” Frosty still hadn’t shifted topics. She struck Exrite with a piercing gaze and a sternly cemented face.

Exrite tilted his head slightly and responds with a smile. “Of course. No matter the outcome, I’ll be following you two from then on. I just won’t be ‘party leader’ anymore.”

Her face melted into a warm, gentle smile to those words. It was rather reassuring. Whether Exrite failed to get rid of the curse or succeed, he’d still be by their side. He was like an important second brother to her.

“I doubt that. Without you, we’d be running around in circles all day.”

“That was funny the first time!”

A burst of laughter left Exrite as Frosty silently chuckled. Khaos could only look to his sides where his sister and best friend made fun of him.

Despite knowing the dangers lurking just ahead, the three simply wanted to cherish every moment they could before their arrival at the sleeping grounds of the Children of Balance.

For better or worse, these cherished moments may be their last.

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