47 – An Arrival at a Ghost Town
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A monstrous crow lulled me from sleep. Despite the harsh sound, it did not bother me as I sat up from the stony cave floor. I rubbed my eyes and smiled. My mood was high, though I had no idea of the cause. It felt like maybe I had a dream, but the memory of it was long gone as soon as my eyes opened. Try as I may, I could not recapture it.

“Good morning!” Azul chirped, interrupting my thoughts. If there was a chance to recall it, the opportunity slipped away.

“Hello,” I said while I stretched my arms, “how many hours was I asleep?”

“A day and then some.”

I blinked several times. Was he serious or joking? The dragon was hard to understand. I decided to let it go and peered outside the cave. The white suns of the world were rising—one, the apparent leader, led the pack over the horizon into the crimson sky.

Despite the whole scene having color, everything was dull and dead. The ground was a mix of browns and greys, the plants were a scorched black, and even the red sky was almost the shade of blood, which was more unnerving than anything. Still, it was better than the grey of where I had come.

“Where to?” I asked Azul, who had been polite enough to let me take in the scene.

“Away from the suns.” He replied.

It was the most sensible decision; I probably wouldn’t want to walk with the light blinding me. Given that a monster could come from anywhere, I needed to be sure my sight was at full capacity.

I checked my blades were firmly set at my sides and departing from the cave. The sky in front of me was still dark from the previous night and the wind brought an uncomfortable chill with it. I shivered and rubbed my arms. My black armor was decent for the weather, but an extra layer might have been ideal.

“Say, Azul,” I asked.

“What is it?”

“What do you suppose happened to this world?”

Azul was quiet for a moment as I began to trudge up a steep hill. It wasn’t until I reached the top that he chimed back in.

“Hard to say. I’ve been locked away for so long I could only guess.”

“Do you have any guesses?” I asked as I looked to my left. A river of hot lava was running down in the distance, and the heat was strong enough to reach me. Nice as the warmth felt, I changed course to get away.

“Oh, humans being humans.”

“What do you mean?”

“One monster created, or allowed in, then they couldn’t control it. So, they got bigger monsters to kill the first, and so on and so on. It’s a rather predictable story. Only humans would be willfully stupid enou– but of course, this is all speculation.”

I suppose his assessment was fair enough. If it was true or not was another case entirely, he was just guessing, after all—with a clear bias at that. Either way, I didn’t press further and continued to march along the dead ground of the world. Whatever caused it probably didn’t matter as much at the moment.

My hike eventually took me away from the mountainous path across a dead plain. Some grass still held on but had been yellowed by an evident lack of rain. Accompanied by the red-tinted sky, the scene was starting to take a toll. Maybe seeing a bunch of greys wasn’t so bad, or perhaps I had just gotten too used to it.

As I walked across the unnerving scene, I could see two monsters clashing in the distance. Keeping my pace steady, I turned away from the bloody brawl and focused on the empty plain ahead. If I ignored them, I could remain somewhat blissful, at least, I hoped.

My mind turned to the others who remained in the world between worlds. They must have recovered from the clash by now. I imagined they were happily continuing on with their lives. Perhaps the girl I had saved had become the new person they welcomed in; maybe she was a suitable replacement for me. She had undoubtedly been more emotional, but considering the trauma, I might have been the same.

Pythagoras probably was crying to her about his broken machine, Lerato would regale her with stories of the heroism in his world, Enas might scare her with his cold frown, Casey would do her best to not let her height be unnerving, and Orrin was likely still continuing on with his goofy smile and happy tone. I sighed.

Either way, it no longer mattered. Azul had a way to escape, and I could easily sneak into a more stable world. At the very least, I was confident in my stealth, and I no longer had the bright pink clothes that made me easy to spot. Perhaps this all was a benefit. I was free now to do what I wanted, but did I want anything?

“There’s a tree up ahead; you should stop and rest for a moment.” Azul broke me from my thoughts. As expected, I could only see a faint dot of the tree he saw. Noticing it was quiet, I turned and looked toward where the battle had ensued. One monster had vanished, save for a few inedible bones, and the other curled up to nap. A relatively confident display given the state of this whole world.

I didn’t bother looking again as I closed in on the tree. It was dead, but the branches were thick enough to offer a little shelter from the suns. I rubbed my legs as I sat down; it was only at this moment I realized just how much I walked. It was noon, or whatever was close to that in this world, going off the position of the suns over my head.

Some pangs in my stomach and dryness in my mouth reminded me of how long I had gone without anything to eat or drink. It was strange to think that I might die of starvation in a world where monsters constantly eat each other, but the reality was becoming possible. At the very least, I would have liked some water.

As if to answer my gripes, some black clouds began to drift in, black streaks underneath told me a heavy rainfall was occurring. I stood up and started to walk in that direction.

“Kiko, no,” Azul cautioned. “That is not water falling from those clouds.”

“What is it then?” I asked.

“Acid. It is mild, like vinegar, but still unpleasant for you none the same.”

I sighed and shook my head. Was everything in this world unpleasant? If I did not find something soon, I would become weak. Still, whatever kind of rain was there did not seem like a good option. I turned away and continued to walk across the dead plains.

The suns slowly drifted across the sky as I carried on. Azul kept me engaged with some banter about various topics, but the talk was meaningless, considering I didn’t understand half of it. Eventually, he pointed out a new location.

“Ah, Kiko, there is a town to your left!”

The prospects of possible civilization piqued my interest enough. I quickly changed course and headed in the direction Azul had indicated. My spirits quickly dropped as it came into view.

It was a town for sure, square buildings were neatly laid out along a road, and signs indicated all sorts of stores and services. But it was dead. The entire town was in ruins, and no sounds of life carried through the empty streets. I entered nonetheless and made my way to a familiar-looking store. It resembled the same place we had gone to in the world of metal giants, where there ought to be food.

The door didn’t slide open as I approached—it didn’t need to; the glass had been broken long ago. I carefully slid past the sharp edges. The building was lined with shelves, but unlike the one in the other world, this did not have any food or drink. I did my best not to show disappointment as I weaved up and down the rows of empty shelves. There were signs of a struggle, people fighting over food from a time that had long since passed. Shreds of a few plastic wrappers lay in the open as if to mock me with what was once there.

I didn’t spend much longer in the building and began exploring the empty streets. Cracked stones seemed to want to shout what had happened to a once busy place and a still wind invited me to speak over the silence.

“It would be best to find a bed,” I said after a moment of walking. My voice hung low, weak, and depressed, even though I had not meant to let it.

“Agreed!” Azul replied. The blue dragon had not noticed my tone or ignored it.

My search for an intact bed ended quickly as a surprising noise snapped through the quiet town. They were reins like someone was riding a horse through. “Kiko,” Azul hissed in a tone to indicate we should be cautious. I nodded but moved closer to the sound.

It didn’t take long until footsteps, and creaky wheels filled the empty town. Someone was here in this dead world.

I would have liked to leap up to a rooftop and peer down from above, but my empty stomach disagreed with the idea. Instead, I slowly leaned around a corner, taking care that my long hair did not hang out further than I would have liked.

A wooden carriage stopped in front of the empty building I had just explored. I might have called it horse-drawn, but the creature pulling the cart was anything but. It stood on two legs and had a long snout with sharp fangs. A few feathers lined its arms and back, and the rest of the body was scaly. The reins I had heard linked the carriage to the monster. It looked around and scratched its stomach with short arms as I quietly moved closer. Azul warned we should stay back, but if they had food, I might be able to steal it. The beast at the front looked like a predator, but it didn’t seem like it would be all that clever. I expect it would be safe to approach if I was careful.

“Well, don’t be shy! Come on over here!” A man’s voice shouted out. I froze. His face popped out from the back, and he smiled at me. With one hand held on my dagger’s hilt, I moved closer to the stranger. He clearly saw my threatening posture but didn’t back down in the slightest. As if he knew I wasn’t going to stab him. He might have been right; I didn’t have the strength, or maybe the will, to try and attack. I would have to take a risk that he might be friendly, at least for a moment.

Maybe I was too weak to think clearly, but I took another step closer all the same.