“Hit me,” says Vilena, holding her hands out and gesturing for her opposite to do so. “Come on. Right in the face,” explains the sorceress, turning her cheek toward Staub.
“…What?” asks the dark-elf, looking at the human woman, who has finished peeling like a lizard coming out of the sunlight it had been in for too long, now that her burns have begun rescinding and her exterior returns to a state of wholeness — very slowly. Her eyebrows are only just starting to regrow, causing her to really only have a few black prickles above her eyes rather than full brows or lashes. The same can be said of the hair on her head, which is completely scorched away. Only red stubble has begun sprouting out of her scalp. “Why would I do that?”
The two of them are outside by the lake, washing themselves. Vilena nudges her face forward and sideways a little closer, tapping her own jaw. “Right here. Come on.”
“Did you fry your brain too?” asks Staub. “I’m not going to hit you. Again, why?”
Vilena shakes her head. “I’m just working through some stuff, Dusty,” replies the sorceress. “Don’t worry about it.”
Staub sighs. “I know that you’re sick in the head, Vilena,” starts the dark-elf, ringing out a fabric cloth that she had been scrubbing herself with. “But sometimes even I question the depths of the illness.”
Vilena frowns, holding her arms out to her side. “…Is it so wrong for a friend to want another friend to punch them in the face?” she asks. “I just… come on. Please?” she asks, tapping her face again.
— A wet washcloth flops directly into it before the fabric square flops down into the water a moment later.
“One day, I’ll begin to understand your problems,” sighs Staub, lowering herself down into the water and sitting there in it up to her neck. She cranes her head back, closing her eyes. “I live in fear of that day.”
There is splashing as someone trudges through the water from her side. A moment later, the sunlight she was absorbing was obscured.
Staub opens her eyes, looking up at Vilena, who is standing there in front of her with her hands on her hips, her unusually glossy features and half-mended body causing her to look essentially like a red tree snake that gracelessly fell down into a puddle. “You’re blocking my sunshine,” says the dark-elf in a tired voice, looking at the woman.
Vilena holds a finger to her cheek, striking a pose. “I thought I was your sunshine?” asks the sorceress, her other hand reaching out and playing with the tip of one of Staub’s long ears.
The dark-elf grabs Vilena’s wrist, pulling her hand off of her ear. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to work?” asks the woman, fielding a very skeptical expression. “Pilot left you in charge of babysitting,” she says, turning her head away to look to the side to change her view. “Which is a horrific mistake, but it is what it is.”
“It’s taken care of,” replies Vilena, shuffling through the water to stand where Staub had turned her head. The elf turns her head the other way. Water splashes as Vilena follows, moving there instead. “I sent them all into the mine today.”
“…You did what?!” asks Staub, jumping up to her feet, water rushing down her body.
“Got you!” yells Vilena, grabbing Staub’s stomach on both sides.
“We have to go!” protests Staub. “The mines are dangerous! You idiot!” she shouts. “There’s all sorts of toxic gas and dangerous drops! It’s dark!” she explains, sloshing back out of the water.
— A second later, she flies as Vilena tightens her grip on her, wrapping her arms fully around her stomach from behind as she dives backwards, throwing both of them down beneath the surface of the lake.
Staub flounders, splashing around and kicking to free herself as they float around for a second, rolling beneath the water. She elbows Vilena, trying to get her to let her go. The two of them flop back up to the surface, the dark-elf gasping for air and spitting out water as Vilena’s shrill, witchy laugh rings in her ears.
“Vilena!” barks Staub, turning her head to look at her.
“I was just kidding!” says the sorceress. “Joking. It was a joke,” she reassures, resting her head on Staub’s shoulder. “I just wanted you to hit me,” she explains, rubbing the sore spot on her stomach where Staub’s elbow had hit her.
“Gods…” mutters the dark-elf, wiping the water out of her face and eyes for a moment. “You’re a twisted shadow of a person, Vilena,” sighs Staub, the woman laughing shrilly in her ear. “What made you this way?”
“I’m glad that you asked! It all started back when I was a girl,” begins the witchy woman before getting cut off by Staub, who lifts a hand and pulls herself free. “You see. I grew up in a small house with my -”
“- Never mind,” says Staub, interrupting her. “I need to go make sure you didn’t actually send the children to the mine shafts,” she sighs, walking to the shore toward her pile of clothes, which is stacked on top of her shield.
“I didn’t!” calls Vilena after her as Staub dries off and gets dressed.
“…Really?” asks Staub, looking back toward her incredulously as Vilena gets out of the water. “Vilena.”
“Cross my pure heart!” replies the burned woman, lifting a hand as she swears it. “I did not send any children to the mine shafts.” She shrugs. “I just kind of dumped them in the settlement and told them to make teams and draw maps of it together,” explains Vilena, tapping the side of her head. “Keeps them busy and my hands free.”
The dark-elf sighs in relief, her head dropping and her shoulders falling slack. “Good,” she replies, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry. But you know that I can never tell with you,” she explains. “Is your stomach okay?”
“It’s fine. Wanna do it again?” asks Vilena, turning herself and pressing out her side toward Staub, who just looks at her while taking in a deep breath and shaking her head. After a moment of that, the dark-elf turns around and just walks away, ignoring Vilena’s calls after her.
“Hey! Hey! Wait!” calls the sorceress, water splashing as she runs after her. Only after a few seconds does Vilena remember to turn around and run back to grab her things, before running back after her again while trying to put everything back on at the same time, not having bothered to dry off properly first. “We should eat some world tree honey together, Dusty,” suggests the sorceress. “I heard it can get wild.”
“Please leave me alone,” says Staub as Vilena walks after her, lightly pulling on the tips of her long ears from behind.
“Can I burn your skin a little?” asks Vilena. “We can have friendship scars!”
“No,” replies Staub firmly, not even sure what kind of question that is. She swipes Vilena’s hands off of her as her fingers start to become hot to the touch.
The scope of the survival rifle sways as she watches the horizon through its magnifying scope. The girl sits nested in a tall, knotted tree at the edge of the forest, positioned into an odd half-ball position of sorts so that she rests between the odd branches of the large tree with the rifle over her knee.
Through the scope, she watches a yellow-feathered harpy swooping through the sky and down into the river. She sways with the gun, keeping the wild monster in the crosshairs as it dives down with remarkable speed before plunging back out a moment later with a beast of a fish grasped in its talons.
— There’s an empty clicking sound as Luisa pulls the trigger, the sights positioned directly over the creature’s heart, with a small adjustment for distance, speed, and wind, like Pilot had taught her.
There is no magazine inserted and no bullet in the chamber. But if there was, she thinks it would have been a hit, and in her imagination, the harpy spirals out of the sky and splashes down into the water.
In reality, the yellow feathered monster flies off toward the world tree, carrying its bounty in its talons.
The survival rifle isn’t as powerful as some of the other guns, so its smaller caliber bullets don’t fly as far, which means additional corrections must be considered when aiming this weapon over any others.
She looks out of the scope and then across the lake before readjusting the rifle again and aiming the empty gun at the silhouette wandering on the other side of the water — a large bear. Holding her finger steady, she lifts the rifle, aiming well above the target instead of directly at it. It’s quite the distance. A few kilometers? She doesn’t know.
Pilot told her to keep an eye on everything from a distance while he’s gone to make sure nothing is creeping or crawling around the forest. She’s going to do her best to do just that. He’s counting on her.
The girl’s belt is strapped with magazines for the rifle, explosive potions, and vials of chlorine gas. She’s ready.
More movement comes from the other side of the lake, from some large stones. She turns the rifle, aiming there instead, and looks at two people from the settlement. A man and a priestess are there together, kissing one another quite feverishly.
Luisa stares, watching them through the scope of the gun.
Are priestesses allowed to do that?
Luisa lowers the rifle, looking around herself for a second, making sure nobody is around or sees her, before lifting the scope again and watching the two of them, never giggling, even though she has a strong, innate desire to do so.
Pilot wouldn’t giggle. So she’s not going to either.
The two strangers go at it for a minute before quickly grabbing each other’s hands and hiding behind the rock formation together as a large procession of children comes down from the mines, heading back toward the settlement. Their faces are covered in dust and soot, as if they had been deep inside it at work like the many miners there who come and go day and night.
By the time they pass, she isn’t able to find the two of them anymore and assumes they have retreated deeper into the forest.
Luisa sways the gun around in a different direction, trying to find something else to observe.
Observing is what she’s good at. She’s good at watching things and learning by seeing. She doesn’t need talks, plans, and classes. Every life skill she has, she learned by watching someone else do something. That’s how she survived the invasions before the northern city; that’s how she made it this far by herself. Nobody saved her, nobody helped her, and nobody offered her anything when she was alone and running for her life, blending in with one crowd after the next, one migration after the next.
She watched and she learned.
Luisa adjusts the sight of the rifle, like she had seen Pilot do, as she finds a new target.
Schtill sits there at her desk, going through the catalogue of plundered books that have been brought to her by the salvage teams who had dug deep into the archives, libraries, and universities — or what remained of and around them — in order to find as many texts and scrolls as possible. The elf’s eyes wander the page in something akin to joy, like looking at the visage of a forlorn lover and reminiscing of the younger days of the entwined emotions of body and passion — not that she knows much about such things other than what she’s read, which is a lot — but the concept is there. Books on cooking, books on the abstract arts of crafting and exotic raw materials, and books on warfare that span from ancient to modern times. Religious texts and schoolbooks — even the odd few novelia — have been spared, which brings her some joy, as she has a whole shelf full of them now.
She has crates and crates of books that she has to catalogue and dig through, to archive and store and keep and research. This is months worth of work, years maybe, of her doing nothing except sitting here alone in this quiet room and going over papers and dusty covers to make lists full of titles and categories.
— The elf can’t help but make a strange noise, like an excited child, as she tenses together and lightly swings her fists around in excitement below her desk.
Looking over to a catalogue that the salvage team had brought back, she runs down the page with a finger to the next article and then stops, tilting her head. The ink is smeared and the title of the book can’t really be read. “Article number… four hundred forty-four,” reads Schtill. Rolling her eyes, she tsks and rises to her feet to walk over to the crate. “‘Cookbook, question mark’,” reads the elf aloud, finishing the note the savager left for her in their documentation. “- Water damage.”
Something splashes. “What the…?” mutters Schtill, lifting her bare foot that has stepped into a puddle of water that seeps into the hardwood of her new office. “Ah, what the hell?!” she vexes, hopping over on one leg to the crate and shaking off her foot as she follows the trail of water that comes right to this crate. “Those idiots,” sighs Schtill, digging through the box and putting aside one stack of books after the other as she works her way through the box, fussing and muttering louder and louder the more she digs. Given her smaller frame, her feet leave the floor, dangling in the air, as her gut presses into the wooden edge of the crate until she reaches the bottom. Her fingers touch soggy paper and she lets out a series of utterances that any person of the faith would faint at hearing. Dropping back down to the ground, the scarred elf with torn and cut ears looks at the wet book in her hands, to which is stuck a piece of paper – equally soaked through — numbering it as article four hundred forty-four.
“Water damage, huh?” she mutters almost sarcastically, looking at the book that looks like it has been absolutely submerged in a river. And those trogdolytes out there just packed it in the crate with the rest of them? Idiots. This is why she has to work alone. Everyone else except for her is just useless. Calling this water damaged is like calling her deep scars and mutliations ‘light touches’ — it’s not quite all the way there.
Sighing, Schtill walks with her arms held out at length as she carries the damp book out ahead of herself, water dripping down it toward the floor. She brings it over to a rack to let it dry out, in the hopes that the paper and the contents aren’t too damaged. However, the few pages that she does look at fill her with perplexion.
The ink continues to run, not as waterlogged paper would have it do, but as if it had been freshly written only seconds ago. No matter the page she flips to, the ink runs and drips, and the writings and pictures inside of it smeared and blurred beyond legibility. From what she can gather from its exterior, its binding, and its old-fashioned design — this isn't a cookbook. It’s some kind of old grimoire. She can’t explain why the ink acts the way it does. For a book this old, the ink shouldn’t do anything except maybe eat through the paper because of its acidity. Maybe it’s some exotic blend that reacts uniquely when made wet? It’s hard to say. A damn shame; it looks like it’s an interesting read!
Perhaps when it dries out in a few days, she’ll be able to decipher something.
What an interesting puzzle.
Somehow, despite resting on the rack for hours, water continues to drip out of it, never seeming to stop. She leaves it there overnight.
When she arrives again to work in the morning, the door to her office has been broken and the book stolen. Nothing else was touched.