Chapter 41: Surprises
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The path that parted the market had led us straight to the inn, on the other side of the main square. With three stories it was one of the larger buildings around and would house many of the market visitors and merchants while they were in town. The noises quieted down considerably once we entered the inn and closed the door behind us.

We found ourselves in a simple reception room with very little decoration. The interior was mostly made from plain, unpainted wood, just like the houses. Close to the wall on the other side of the room stood a counter with a grumpy looking old man behind it. I was a little surprised when we stepped closer and he didn’t show any kind of reaction to our unusual group, unlike the guards and many of the people we had passed.

“G‘afternoon,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“Hello, we’d like a room with two beds for the night.”

“Hm,” he grunted and turned around to take a key from a board, which he then slammed onto the counter in front of me. “Fifty Kira.”

The price seemed reasonable enough, and we were really looking forward to sleeping in a bed again for once. After the horrendous entrance fee and the cost for the room, we would still have over four hundred fifty Kira left, which would buy us ninety blue stones if we got nothing else, although I was looking to buy some water skins to reduce our stone usage. While I was going over our finances in my head, the man behind the counter appeared to get impatient. “You gonna pay or not, boy?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said and took the money from my bag. “Here you go.”

He quickly counted it and then motioned at the staircase to the right of the counter. “Second floor, room 23. Have a good one,” he said and turned away to write something into a notebook.

I was a little confused by the man’s manners. Shouldn’t he be happy about customers? His words were mostly friendly in theory, but his tone sounded like he’d rather be anywhere else right now. This was the total opposite of the few merchants I had met in Alarna’s market district, who would always be nice and courteous. I glanced at Berla with a questioning look, but she only shrugged. 

After taking the key from the counter, we climbed the stairs to the second floor and quickly found our room. It wasn’t very big, just enough to move around comfortably between the two beds and a dresser, but it was cozy.

Riala immediately jumped on one of the beds and buried herself in the blanket. “Good night!” she said with glee.

I had barely even stored away our things and sat down on the other bed when she seemed to already be on the verge of sleeping.

“That was quick,” I whispered to Berla with a smile, while I watched Riala drift away.

Personally I slept relatively well in the Wildlands, but I knew that Riala was regularly waking up at night and then ended up talking to Miles. She had probably not gotten as much sleep as she should have over the past week.

“So, about what you said earlier. There are beasts that are stronger than category five?” I asked Berla.

“That’s an understatement. The most powerful ones I’ve ever heard about were category ten, but the strongest I’ve seen myself was a seven, and even that took an entire platoon to take down. Beasts above that... are living disasters.”

“But why have I never heard about them?”

“Because the Alarna authorities don’t want their citizens to fear the beasts even more. It’s unknown why, but almost no high category beasts ever appear around town. That’s what’s so great about Alarna,” she said with a sad expression. “You’ve been to the temple, right? What the priests always say, that we’re blessed by the gods, is not just idle talk. The price for living anywhere else is having to live in fear every single day. Not just because a category three might get into town, but because walls barely even make a difference to category sevens and above...”

It was hard to imagine that the beasts around Alarna weren’t the worst of them. The ones that killed my father and my mother had supposedly been weak when compared to true threats. We might never encounter such beasts if we stayed close to Alarna, but if we were to venture elsewhere... However, if living in other regions was so dangerous...

“How can people live anywhere else then? Wouldn’t they all get killed by beasts?”

“I’m not sure you’re ready to hear this... but there is a solution to that problem. Higher category beasts are very territorial, and if they claim an area for themselves, they won’t let others roam around their lands. The towns within these areas are then safe... as long as they give sacrifices to the beasts regularly.”

“Sacrifices...?” I said and gulped. “Like... people?”

“Yes. As far as I know most towns choose them randomly. Others have the beasts choose them. As long as the towns’ citizens don’t resist, these high category beasts can be reasoned with somehow.”

I was stunned silent. When Berla had asked me about our plans, she had already known this. We could hardly stay in this area for very long, because they might come for us, but going anywhere else would be very dangerous. That is, if these beasts were actually a threat to us.

“I should’ve told you sooner,” she continued. “At first I thought you would probably leave me behind at some point. Then I figured we wouldn’t make it all the way here on our own anyway, and I didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily. But now that we’re here... you need to know what you’re getting into.”

“You were trying to protect me? Yet you accused my mother of coddling me...” I said with a sad smile.

“I guess you have something about you,” she said with a chuckle.

Apparently she had realized that, at least to some degree, we would be able to handle ourselves, which convinced her that coming with us would actually be viable. However, these stronger beasts were kind of an unknown variable.

“Do you think they are a threat to us?”

“Your ability is remarkable, but if you can’t surprise your enemy, you could die in the blink of an eye. The fight the other day proved that. We need to do something about that.”

“What would we do?” I said in confusion.

“Train.”

***

Sharing a body with someone was sometimes irritating. One moment you would be happily experimenting with a script, and the next you lost control and would have to take the backseat again for a while. Or you might want to say something to someone, and you have to tell your buddy to do it for you. Though all of that I was getting somewhat used to. When Berla had Tomar do crunches, situps, and pushups for an hour in our room, however, I was stuck with a sore body for the night, that I somehow felt very vividly, even though I wasn’t in full control. If I feel like this, Tomar must be way more miserable, I thought.

“You could’ve waited until morning,” I said grumpily.

“Why wait?” she said with a giggle. “If he’s to get into shape he’ll have to work hard. You’ll survive it, old man.”

Now that we were in Cerus, it was like a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She was making plans for the future, all the somberness she would sometimes show was nowhere to be seen, and she looked genuinely happy. I felt like she had expected something to happen before we got here, but evidently it hadn’t. Not wanting to put a damper on her good mood, I didn’t question her.

The blanket on the bed Berla was sitting on started to move and a sleepy looking young girl crawled out from under it. She rubbed her eyes and looked at me. “Hi, Miles,” she said.

“How do you do that, Ria?” I asked her.

She tilted her head in confusion. “Do what?”

“How do you know I’m not Tomar right now?”

“Hm...” she said in contemplation. “Dunno. You’re you.”

I looked over at Berla with a blank expression.

“Don’t ask me, I don’t see a difference,” she said.

I shook my head. It was late into the evening and only the dim moonlight illuminated our room, making it difficult to experiment with scripts. Somehow we had forgotten to get some candles while we were at the market, but at least Tomar had refilled our blue stone reserves before his training session.

I finished a new test script and executed it with a stone. A stream of water appeared from my palm, but instead of just shooting away, it streamed out slowly and gathered in a rotating ball of water a few centimeters above my hand.

“Wow... I didn’t expect that to actually work. Especially not on the first try,” I said with a big grin. Holding a ball of water in my hand, I actually felt kind of like a mage for the first time. I aimed at a wooden bucket in the corner of the room and after a few seconds the water ball shot into it. “Heh, nice.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Riala look at me expectantly and I showed her the script, after which she eagerly tested this new trick as well. It was certainly fun to use. Instead of simply shooting water, I used a series of chained scripts to keep the water in one place and give it a little spin to create a ball. After a certain amount of time, it then flew forwards. However, there was little reason to use “water magic” this way. Shooting water jets didn’t feel very magical, granted, but it was way more practical than this. Faster, easier, and less error prone.

With a splash, Riala hit the bucket as well. “Yay!”

“Since we’re all awake, how about we go for a little walk?” Berla said. “I want to show you something, Miles.”

“You mean outside? Don’t they have a curfew here?”

She shook her head. “They don’t.”

“Well then... sure, why not.”

I didn’t know what she could want to show me in an unfamiliar town, but the three of us left our room and walked down the stairs. When we arrived at the reception room, the grumpy man was sitting at a table behind the counter, resting his head on his elbow, sleeping.

Maybe he was in a bad mood because he had to work too much during the market, I thought. All-nighters suck.

We quietly left the inn and made our way north, walking past dozens of empty stalls that were still set up, waiting for the next day to come. Past the main square lay a road that we walked down, until we eventually took a turn east.

Even though I had looked forward to being inside again for once as well, it had felt a little tight. Being outside was more natural by this point. How the times change, I was never one to go outside much...

After about fifteen minutes we arrived at an empty square and Berla came to a stop. It looked kind of like the water source squares in Alarna, just without such a cube. I looked around in confusion at what she had wanted to show me, until I noticed a circular platform rising out of the ground by just a few millimeters in the center of the square. I couldn’t make out the details from this distance yet, but I saw something painted on it and immediately realized what it was.

“A ritual platform...” I said in a daze.

“It’s not locked off here. Surprise,” Berla said with a smile.

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