Theora wanted to pick up and open the coffer really badly. She let go off the wagon and wrapped the cold metal box in her hands, attempting to lift it, but… Oh, was it heavy. It was extraordinarily heavy to the point of being almost impossible to pick up.
That didn’t really stop her, though, so after trying her best, she eventually fetched the chest, and with that, a lot of its weight disappeared. The coffer had four little tiny curved metal legs, and the same aesthetic asymmetry of lines between the grids on all of its four sides. Its lid was slightly curved and had a thin crescent moon handle, though Theora hadn’t used that to lift it.
By now, all calls resounding from the item had ceased. She’d probably need to ask Lostina about that later.
It did say the chest was free for the taking, right there on the walls, and the chest had called out to her, so after struggling back and forth for a while, she eventually stored it away in her cloak.
Still, she wanted to leave some compensation according to what she had discussed with Fiantanne, so she rummaged around in her cloak for about half an hour, fetching as many high grade magical items as she could find in that time, and placing them on the shelves around. She also eventually decided to write down a few notes for each, describing what the item was able to do, in case the people this treasury belonged to didn’t have access to [Identify] type Skills, or in case those Skills didn’t work on her artefacts, considering they came from another world.
That said, Theora was really bad at remembering the specifics. She did remember the names mostly, had an idea what they did too, in some cases, but the exact specifications, she’d long-since forgotten.
Finally, there were some framed paintings in the treasury, but Theora couldn’t be sure if any of them were the right item. At least she’d seen what was inside the treasury; the rest, she’d have to figure out later.
Theora had the urge to go catch up with Fiantanne, but she obviously couldn’t do that while so many people were still in a vulnerable position inside the castle. Fiantanne had said her concoction was safe, but she could be lying, even if she didn’t seem like the type.
But the girl was only fifteen years old. Either the author in Theora’s world, or the author in Lostina’s world had thought her all up, and put her in this position, given her the means to go totally overboard, and then engineered the state of mind and lack of proper social environment she’d needed to actually go through with it.
The moment Theora moved back into the yard and caught a glimpse of the clear sky, a voice rang out to her.
Head in the Clouds. Careful, my dear.
Theora blinked. What? What’s wrong?
Head in the Clouds. Not sure. Just a bad feeling.
She tried asking a few more times, but her Skill refused to elaborate. Or, to put it more graciously, maybe it was unable to.
With a sigh, Theora made her way back into the hall, and heard someone make sleepy moans up on the balcony.
“Hello?” she called out, but didn’t hear a response. A few drops of the gravity-dismissing tincture later, she floated up, and found the princess’ maid groggy and sleepy, in the process of waking up. Everyone else still seemed soundly asleep.
“Are you alright?” Theora asked, and the woman nodded slowly.
“Yeah,” she murmured. “What the hell? Was that Fia’s sleeping potion?”
“Knocked out everyone in the hall, so she could run away,” Theora said.
“Oh, no.” She blinked a few times, and forced herself up. “Guess you woke up first?”
“I never fell asleep. But my companions did.”
“Ahh…” The maid yawned. “Princess tested the tincture on me so many times, I must be a bit more resistant than most.”
She got up, and stretched, and did a few movements to get herself awake. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be up to speed. There is a communication’s line in one of her chambers, I’ll use that to call for help.”
“You can call for help,” Theora echoed. “Will things be alright?”
“I would assume so,” the maid said. “For us, that is. I wish she’d run away in summer. The nights will be cold.”
“You don’t seem surprised at how she acted.”
“My brain is being slow right now. But, I can’t say I didn’t see this coming.”
Theora nodded. “If it’s alright with you, I will wait until you called for help. Then, I will see if I can catch up with Fiantanne.”
The maid rubbed her eyes, and cracked her neck. “Don’t bring her back here. She might do something even more excessive next time.” Then, she left through the door in the balcony.
As soon as help was on the way, Theora fetched the cart and pulled it down the hill.
The path was wide, but led into a dense forest on both sides, with heavy rock terrain that was rather hard to traverse. It would take an hour to get to the next settlement, and that time would run out soon. Still, if Theora hurried, there was a chance she’d catch up.
That was assuming Fiantanne actually stayed on that path.
If she had another flask of gravity defiance, she might actually choose to veer off the main path, and hide somewhere else. The chances of that happening rose further if Fiantanne wanted to avoid being recognised on the way, or if she wanted to avoid entering the town at all.
But, it was getting dark. She couldn’t possibly try to sleep outside, right? Was she prepared for such a thing? Her luggage had been a large, unwieldy coffer. Lostina, who had come from a highly industrialised world, only had superficial knowledge of travelling long distances through nature by foot. What would it look like for a fifteen-year old-sheltered princess?
In the original story, Fiantanne had not been alone. She’d been with Lostina, who was at least an adult, albeit not a very reasonable one at all times.
I’m worried about her, Theora thought, glancing at the first few stars of the night.
Head in the Clouds. Listen closely.
Theora stopped. The squeaking of the cart died down.
The leaves shuffled, Dema snored lightly, and Lostina gave the occasional tired hum. Swallows chatted with each other in the forest, a crow sailed overhead.
Ah, there it was. The soft vibration, the vague thumping of what Theora could only assume to be Skulduggery’s feet.
Skuld’s plan had been to meet back up with them after searching the valley, so the timing lined up, if she’d been fast. However, the sound didn’t come from ahead or behind; it came from the right side of the path, deep in the mountainous forest. How was Skuld making her way through the thicket?
Trusting the instinct of Head in the Clouds, Theora poured a generous amount of gravity defying liquid over herself and the cart, and then made a very high jump.
Oh, that was maybe a little too high. Gripping tightly onto the cart, she soared up and up, worried she’d actually end up hitting the clouds, but she used the time to survey the surroundings. A giant rhino would not be hard to find, and maybe she could even catch a glimpse of Fiantanne ahead on the path, before it got too dark.
The castle, small, on its hill. The path connecting it to the town on the horizon, she could see it all. Autumn coloured leaves stretching beneath, other settlements in the distance, scattering the glow of hundreds of street lamps.
Ahead on the path, two figures were making their way up toward the castle. Judging from their position, they must have already been on their way before the maid had called for help. Theora recognised one of the two, and wasn’t surprised at the sight, for Dema and Lostina had both mentioned the possibility.
Oh, this was too much. How was Theora supposed to juggle so many things all at once? She scowled at Dema, who was sleeping innocently, the winds making her hair flutter wildly. To make sure, Theora gently touched her cheek, then Lostina’s, and was relieved to find them both warm.
“You should have stayed awake with me,” she pouted, and turned her gaze back down.
Fiantanne couldn’t be seen anywhere on the path.
But there, in the direction Theora had felt the vibrations earlier, was Skuld. She was thumping along another path of some kind. It looked weird at first. A small, seemingly artificial elevation through the forest with little vegetation, and some kind of long ladder glued to the ground.
And, next to Skulduggery, was a little figure. Hard to make out, but it could be Fiantanne. Had the two somehow met?
In any case, Theora decided to go back down. She was still weightless, but the wind’s resistance had stopped them from soaring further up, and now, they were being carried with the current. Theora started rummaging through her coat to find some heavy object, and eventually pulled out a log she’d saved as firewood.
She launched it away from herself in such a way that it would propel her towards Skuld. Of course, a single piece wasn’t enough, but it brought her a bit closer to her destination. She’d just have to shoot off items until she reached it.
However, before she continued, she looked for the log in the sky.
The log turned into what looked like water, and broke away into the wind’s current.
Alright, that worked. That way, the objects she used to navigate through the sky couldn’t hit and hurt someone far away.
Thus, Theora made her way through the night, propelling herself and the cart with whatever she could find, and then destroying it afterwards before it could cause harm. This was rather fun. Maybe Fiantanne could create more of that potion?
Eventually, with a few careful tosses of items against the ground, she softly landed right in front of Skuld’s path.
“Hello,” Theora said.
“What!” Fiantanne yelled out, and sprinted ahead of the rhino to meet her. “How’d you do that?”
Theora tilted her head. “Your potion. Very useful.”
Fia frowned, but then decided to drop the topic, pointing back at Skulduggery. “Look what I found! A Giant Rhinoceros! I thought they were extinct!”
“Not this one,” Skulduggery grumbled.
“Welcome back,” Theora said, and earned an almost imperceptible nod of acknowledgement from the large creature.
“You know each other? Wow, this is amazing.” Fiantanne carefully stepped up, keeping the rhino in her gaze. “I found it on the main road, and it’s been nice to me. Said it would help me run away. So, I used the last bit of hovering potion I had left in my luggage, and we jumped onto the train tracks here, since people won’t be walking along this path.”
Skuld offered a huff, although Theora wasn’t sure what that meant. Probably affirmation.
“But,” Fia continued, “It wouldn’t tell me its name.”
“Can’t pronounce,” the rhino puffed out.
“She’s called Skulduggery,” Theora supplied, and Fiantanne chuckled.
“Skulduggery! So what were you doing out here? Can’t say these lands are particularly well-accustomed to Giant Rhinos.”
“Find family,” Skulduggery murmured.
“Family?” Fiantanne sent a short questioning look at Theora, then looked back at Skuld. “You mean, other Giant Rhinos who haven’t gone extinct yet?”
To that, she received no response, but that didn’t keep her from asking another question. “They say Giant Rhinos are able to turn into a human-like shape,” she went. “Is that true?”
Fiantanne smiled excitedly. “Will you show me?”
Skulduggery turned her head. “No.”
Then, she proceeded to slowly trample ahead on the trail.
Fiantanne kept walking next to her, asking more questions and receiving huffs and puffs in response. Meanwhile, Theora trailed after, making sure to drag the wagon across the ladder as gently as possible, while trying to wrap her head around the idea that Skulduggery could turn into a person.
“What now?” that same Skulduggery eventually asked.
At that, the princess blinked. “What do you mean?”
“You,” the rhino explained. “What now?”
“Oh! What I’ll do now…?”
“Well… the thing is… My situation isn’t unique, is it? I suppose there must be a lot of rulers who feel like me — who were imposed the role, and act on it begrudgingly. So, my aim is to make things right. I shall liberate the class of nobility from its burden of rule.”
Ah… was that how she’d end up a villainess in the original story? Because she would go on to try and get rid of kings and dukes?
“How?” Skuld asked.
Fia shrugged. “I synthesised a mind-altering potion based on my own brain-chemistry that makes people unwilling to be rulers. I plan on sharing that with revolutionary organisations.”
“You have some serious ideas, princess,” Laticula grumbled.
“Oh, shush.” Fia shook her head in annoyance. “Just because you can talk around others for once, doesn’t mean you have to treat me like this.”
Did that mean the main character of the original story would uncover her plot of poisoning of some aristocrat, and bring her to justice?
“Maybe you should consider not doing it,” Theora suggested. “Perhaps people would be unhappy with you.”
Fiantanne shrugged. “You got a better idea? People are dying because of their greed.”
Theora didn’t know enough about this world to argue it; all she did know was that she’d been executed for admitting to not being a good person, and she really did not want this to happen to Fiantanne too. Before Theora could do any more to attempt to veer the princess off from her path, she heard faint muted voices from the thicket to the left.
“People,” Skulduggery murmured.
Fiantanne herself stopped walking at Skulduggery’s warning, and then, the rhino stopped as well. Theora kept going until she saw what was coming.
A person was flying over the woods, carrying another by holding onto the back of their jacket with a single hand. Then, they both landed, gently.
The one who’d been carried held a little gaslamp. He was young, with a full but well-kempt beard, and a shaved head. His attire was expensive looking but practical; he had several small instruments at his large belt, many of which were made of glass. He wore a monocle on one eye, and an eye-patch over the other. Overall, his face seemed grim, serious, and he had a vertical and thick scar on his forehead.
Theora had never seen him before. On the other hand, she knew his companion. A stone-cold gaze, not a single hint of a reaction on her face upon recognising Theora, or the people she kept in her wagon, or Skulduggery, for that matter, even though her gaze flicked over them all. Then, her eyes landed on Fiantanne, and she raised her eyebrows just the tiniest amount, before losing interest. Her hair was a mess now, no longer shaved at the side of her head, but still much shorter there. She had rings under her eyes, as if she never slept.
“So we meet again,” she said, in a deep and monotone voice.
It was Gonell.