Tag: In The Nest

The Game of Chance

Entry 04

The Game of Chance (Please Don’t Let Me Win)

Clark Resse

 

J considers for a minute. Maybe he should stay in Mt. Ryvi. Myranna is a slave driver, but she’s probably better than going back to the Nest and facing whatever V is complaining to the Magician.

(more…)

Advertisements

The Gray Door

ENTRY 03

The Gray Door

Clark Resse

 

It’s at the top of the stairs on the first level of the Magician’s store. A locked door, by far the simplest out of all the extravagant looking doors in the store, he’s never entered.

And they’re back at it. (more…)

The Insignificant Girl

Entry 02

The Insignificant Girl

Clark Resse

It’s not the oddest thing to wake up in a place he doesn’t know. J woke up in worst conditions.

It’s one of those tricks the Magician does to irk J. He likes to make him angry. In any and every way possible.

So, J didn’t even think of cursing him. That’s what the Magician wants. Another person to think about him. Thinking about him, in any way, adds years to his life. And J’s goal is to outlive him. Well, the second most important goal.

He blinked blankly at the ceiling until all his feelings dissipates.

The room was empty. His clothes were neatly folded at the edge of the bed. His short sword, polished and displayed on the bedside table, anchors the request note. The floors were old with a thick layer of dust. He can taste the age as he inhaled.

The Magician popped him in an inn. He stares out the window. It’s a small village that he can see everything from his room. There’s snowcapped mountains far into the horizon. High skies, clean and blue. There’s a field pass the hill below. Mint trees surrounds the village. The Magician’s store is bigger than this place. Then again, the store is bigger than most countries.

“So, you are awake!” A girl wearing a red scarf barged inside. Her leg extends forward as if she kicked the door open. “As you should be three hours ago, Spawler.”

“Apologies, Miss…”

“Myranna,” she kept up with her defensive stance. Although, she relaxed after she glanced up and down his body. Her lip turns up and cheeks beam pink. “Get ready…I need you to…I’ll see you downstairs.” She hung her head, trying to stop herself from looking at him.

Before she shut the door, she scanned him again. And then went ahead, hurrying him.

He unrolls the request under the dagger.

Do as she says.

…was all the request said.

It’s simple and difficult. He never received this kind of request before. He changed into his clothes, strapped the short sword to his back—although, he doubts he’ll use it here—then followed her out.

The inn hadn’t been used in a long time. Dust coats every surface. Webs climbs up the walls and crowns the corners. Not a sign of anyone living here. Except for the trail of footprints, probably belonging to Myranna, going in and out the door.

“You’re covered,” she sounds disappointed. “Guess that’ll do.”

“What do you want me to do?”

She ticks and tocks like a clock, pointing at items separated within seven inches, which he assumed to be his chores. She didn’t need to elaborate on what to do. She looked at him and knew he can do whatever she wanted. She had a secret grin, thinking of all things she can have done.

It’s been decades since he’s done farmer’s chores. It’s different from the ones he did when he was a boy, but all the same; sweating throughout the day, get everything before the birds and don’t get bitten by the animals.

It’s different here. A better different. It’s not the same fruits and animals from where he grew up. It’s colder here. The scenery far opposite. The people much paler. For the briefest moments, he wanted to be home. He never thought of home in…when was the last time?

However, when he imagined walking the path to his house, he can’t picture it clearly. He can’t see who’d be waiting. He doesn’t remember if it’d be his mother or father at the door. If he even had them waiting for him. Thinking thoroughly, he wasn’t sure if this place was different from his old home. The only one that made sense was ‘J’. He remembers what it meant. The one thing that Magician can’t take from him.

After he finished a day’s work in half a day, he sat on the steps outside the inn. He read the request repeatedly. Nothing changes.

He’d done what she wanted. He should be able to go back. But…he can’t feel the heat that should be coming from the Magician’s store, pointing him to the right way back.

With a simple message like this, the request can go on. He can’t go back unless he finishes it. And as many times as he read the request, it doesn’t change at the second, third or the many times he reads it. The Magician usually hides something between the words. Or written in invisible ink.

Nothing.

Three young boys, in umbrella-like shirts with puffy white shorts, run in front of him. They passed him casually until one of them track back in his steps.

He wore white with a smile etched on his face. He leans over the request note with big shining eyes. “I’ve never seen these characters before,” he traced a finger on the words. “I’ve seen many characters. Not any of them like this. Are you weird, mister?”

His two friends come back too, examining J like he’s the oddest man they’ve seen.

“Aliviss! We need to go.” The older boy bellowed. He wore black with irk on his face. “If we’re late the—”

“Bjorg! He has weird letters on his paper,” he tries to pry the note off J’s hands. “Have you seen letters like this, Egil? It’s funny and weird. Why are you out here? You’re not from here. Are you the man who Myranna has been spying on? From under the mountains?”

The youngest fidgets. He has dark brown hair and fear on his tanned skin. “You shouldn’t talk about Myranna like that. Myra might hear us,” he whispered, eying J and everything around them.

“She’s not here.” Alviss sets down next to him. “Can you read what it says? I want to know what it says. Can you read?”

“Shouldn’t you be going…wherever it is kids are supposed to go.”

“Are you going to read it?”

“We need to go,” Bjorg reminded the younger boys. “Meister Hakon is waiting for us.”

Egil sat down and leaned over J. “The letters are old. Is it a version of the New Word? From the western Publics?”

“What are you three doing?” Myranna crossed her arms over her chest. It’s never a good thing when a woman guards against you. “Shouldn’t you be at the monastery? Why are you still here? And you,” she glared at J. The most terrifying set of eyes he’s seen. More terrifying than a Harbinger’s broken eyes. “Who told you to rest? You’ve got chores to finish before sundown.”

At the sound of her voice, nerves burn up their spine. The boys, heads down and shrinking into themselves, crept away. They act like they’re still lurking out of Myranna’s gaze.

She cleared her throat, instructing them to stand in front of her.

“Myra!” Alviss held his hands high, praising her. Was it possible for his eyes to be even brighter? “We were worried that we weren’t going to see you before we go.”

“Alviss got distracted.” Bjorg saves himself.

Egil sunk his head and apologized.

“Don’t get angry at me,” J cocked his head. “I finished my chores. They’re the ones that are bothering me.”

“You,” Myranna stepped intimidatingly close. “You finished two-days of chores in less than a day?”

“Yes”

“Did you clean the barn?”

“Done”

“Did you catch the pests in the fields?”

“I caught 169.”

“The—”

“Just let me end it and say, I’ve done everything you pointed at.”

Her lips twitch, hiding her anger. She’s irritated that she’s sweating through her clothes while he barely glistened. She thinks on it for a long minute. She’s about to let him go but she saw the three boys inching away from them. She pointed at them.

J follows her hand. “What do you want me to do with them? I don’t know how to cook.”

“You don’t want to eat me,” Alviss squeaked. “You’ll only get fatter, Myra. Look at you!”

She flicked the back of his ear. “It’s the clothes! I’m wearing three layers.” Her cheeks burned, until she realized J was not looking.

He still cannot get over the lack of detail in the request. When was he supposed to leave? What is his job here exactly? He can’t stay here much longer. They’re getting familiar with him. They’re going to remember his face. Of all things, people remembering him is forbidden.

“Hey! Spawler!” she snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Walk these three to the monastery. Make sure they enter and lock them inside. I’m going around to check if you really did all your chores. And you three, I don’t want you to leave the monastery until your hands are glassy and you’re glossy in sweat and tears.”

“Like you in the morning when you realize you’re still unmarried. By the way, the boy under the mountain thinks you’re fat and bitter.” Alviss said. “You should change that if you want to get married.”

When Myranna’s brown eyes loom over him, J thinks back to the moments his heart pounded faster than he can think. He slayed monsters, travelled the perilous roads and met terrifying conquerors, and this was the first moment he felt death linger on his back.

Alviss to pulls him up and toward the road. “You heard our leader. Lead us to the mountain, Weird Mister.”

Egil and Bjorg stayed for a while. They brace for Myranna’s wrath, but then left as she waves them away.

Statues guide the path up to the monastery. The guardian markers, half buried in dirt and moss, held open their palms with melted wax between its broken fingers. Thin lines of age grip the stone that the form of the Five Chapelets is barely recognizable. Figures, up to the thigh, were the major prayers: the World, the Empress & Emperor, the Hierophant, the Wheel and the Judge. While the slightly shorter ones were the thousands of minor prayers. J recognized the Saint’s Mercy, Heaven’s Luck and even the dark prayers of Black Death.

“I know. They scare me too. Meister Hakon told me to never look them in the eye.” Alviss said. “But I want to know what happens if I do.”

“You’re looking at Black Death,” Egil clasped his hands, fidgeting. “The person you’re thinking about will die a horrible death.”

“Really?” A serious look glooms over his face aging the young boy.

“Stop playing around,” Bjorg moaned. “We’re already late. If you three keep dawdling we’re—”

“Three?” J picked him up by his collar. “Are you including me, boy smaller than I am?”

“I am, Spawler.” Hands on his hips, he didn’t flinch away from J. “If you don’t let go, Spawler. We’re going to waste more time. And the—”

He and the other boys didn’t need J to shush them into silence. They heard it too. The roar in the breeze that shook the ground and boil the blood beneath their skin. The leaves burn from its edges into the stem, the branches and trunks until fire engulfs the trees entirely. Then, as he felt it before, something was coming after them.

“Resaghji,” Alviss hissed under his breath. “Isn’t it a little early in the day for it to—”

J swooped the boys up under his arms and moved out of the way as the Resaghji serpent crashed into their way. Twenty-tall long, scaled with a sandy feathery cover on its half line, it wasn’t the type of monster that can be found here. And yet, it moved smoothly and sinuously across the way. It destroyed the Five Chapelets statues under its weight.

He puts the boys down. “Stay where I put you! Don’t get its attention!”

The serpent swiveled around them, waiting for the moment J’s back faces it. Suddenly, it dove into the ground.

J flocked the boys behind him. He unsheathes the dagger from his back, pointing it at the ground. He waits for the moment it shoots up. He breathes deep, steadying his heartbeat. Muffling the sounds of the three boys and listening to the whistle of the wind, he waits eagerly.

As the serpent dives deeper, the ground is silenced.

He brushes the leaves and soil out of the way until he presses his hand on cold stone. He feels a growl like an even hum. It grumbles higher and wider. And then, he tossed the boys out of the way and took a step back, just half a distance. He angles the dagger, letting the soft afternoon gleam against it.

His expression is suddenly uncertain. Seconds passed and the serpent should already have—

It sprouts up behind him. While its tail surfaces behind the boys. The rest of its silky body rose around, caging the three boys.

He turns around, just in time before it can swipe at one of the boys. He plants the blade on its back, then sliced left to right.

It releases an ear shattering shriek, shaking leaves off the branches. However, it paid no attention to J. It squeezes his body into the boys. But as J climbed on its back, planting the blade higher and higher, it twists and swashed around. It nearly hits the boys if J hadn’t turned the blade, steering it away. It curls his head back, trying to get him.

Then turning to its belly and in one swift motion, J cuts the head of the serpent. The blade breaks at the last inch of skin. The headless serpent falls in front of the boys. The color of blood and feathers falling on either side was beautiful like fresh night snow.

“Why didn’t any of you move?” J jumped down, almost slipping at the pooling of mud and blood.

“You said,” Bjorg growled, “to stay where you put us.”

He sighed. He never thought they can be thick. “Okay. Time to get you—”

The ground gave way. They fall deep into the earth. The dirt was soft but retained the jagged edge of stone in the edges, cutting into their clothes and skin effortlessly. Beneath the land, it smells cold and wrecked.

J sheathes the broken blade to his back. “Where are we?”

“Why are you keeping that?” Alviss eyed the tatty leather handle. “You should throw that away and buy a new one. There’s a smith at the bottom of the mountain. He’s expensive…”

“Where are we?” J asked Bjorg.

“We’re not supposed to say,” he answered, crossing his arms on his chest and pointing his chin up. “This place isn’t for outsiders.”

“Isn’t he Myranna’s slave?” Alviss pointed out. “That makes him one of us.”

“What?” There was nothing about that in the request. Nothing was in the request but to follow what Myranna says! Does that include… He would check again if the note hadn’t been shredded in the fight with the serpent. The Magician wouldn’t sell him. Even just to tease him. Then again… He reached in his pocket but all that’s left is a piece of the note with ‘she’ on it.

“We’re in the Ryvi Mines,” Egil answered J while Bjorg and Alviss were debating whether to answer him or not. “This is the green channel. There’s an exit over”—He tries to find the right way—“I think this way. It’ll lead to an exit just outside the monastery.”

“You know the way?”

“Egil knows all the maps,” Alviss said as if it was his own accomplishment. “He can find a way anywhere.”

“At least one of you is less useless.”

“I’m useful!”

“Let’s go.” J fully intended to leave Alviss while he was too deep into himself. However, he felt chains across his limbs. He even heard a cling. And then ‘Do as she says’ appeared in the walls, written in green gems. At least, he thinks it did. Anyway, he stopped. Myranna’s request was clear; take the boys to the monastery and make sure the doors lock behind them. “We’re going to leave you behind.”

“Wait!” he races next to J. “So, where you from? What did you do before you became Myranna’s slave?”

“I’m not anyone’s slave,” he said as calmly as he can.

“We’re all Myranna’s slaves,” Bjorg whimpered into himself. “We follow her rules.”

“What is she to you?”

“The chief,” he answered flatly.

“Our overlord?” Alviss rubbed his chin. “Chain holder. Master. A goddess?”

“She raised us,” Egil said. “So, headmother?”

“What about you?” Alviss stepped in front of J, skipping in front of him. “What is she to you?”

“Someone I have to obey.”

“Overlord then.”

They reach the end in no time. It’s almost sundown. The air was cooler now, prickling at his skin. When light touch his skin, as he emerged from the cover of cliffs and trees, he held out a rock that’s been jabbing his lower back.

It was one of the green gems inside the mine walls. It probably fell in his clothes during the fall. It’s unrecognizable because of the shapelessness and dark color into it. But looking in it closely, it’s the bead used in the Five Chapelet. The Hierophant’s prayer.

As they climbed the hill and the roofs of the monastery rise, Myranna dashes toward them. Her eyes are red, puffy and heavy. She sobbed through words as she wrapped the boys into a constricting embrace.

“The World watches,” she blew her nose into Bjorg’s collar. “I heard the roar and thought of the worse. What happened? Where were you?”

“We fell into a hole,” J answered, when the boys couldn’t pull away from Myranna’s embrace.

“You fell into the mines!” As if the ground was going to disappear, she pulled them tighter. “Who is hurt? Please tell me none of you are hurt. Empress & Emperor, bless these boys. Oh, Saint’s Mercy, cleanse their bodies. World, continue to watch over them. Ouch—Which of you bit me? Alviss?”

“You were smothering us,” he shouts back. “You’re more dangerous than the Resaghji serpent.”

“Didn’t we lure the monster away?” An older man with dusty gray hair joined them. He acknowledges J with a curt nod then checked on the boys. “It seems like none of you are hurt badly. Thank you for protecting my proteges.”

“Meister Hakon take the boys inside and make sure that they’re fine.”

It took a while for Meister Hakon to pry the boys from Myranna’s grip. When he did, she couldn’t help but grab them again and kiss their cheeks. She inspected them once more with tear-filled eyes. This time, she cussed at them for not leaving home earlier and if they had they wouldn’t have been attacked.

The boys couldn’t move fast enough. Before the doors closed, J saw Alviss got to his knees and kissed the ground.

“First of all,” Myranna wipes her face, still looking at the monastery doors. “Thank you for protecting my boys. There’s not a scratch on them but you…”

“I’m fine. Most poisons don’t affect me.” he answered rashly when she moved in to examine him. “Make sure to treat the tiniest scratch. Resaghji poisons work after sundown when the temperature drops.”

“What about you?” She pulls up his arm, scrutinizing the rips in his clothes. “How are you not affected by poison?”

He steps away. “How come there’s a desert serpent here?”

“It just appeared out of nowhere three nights ago.” She looked over to where the village is. “It doesn’t usually come out this early. That’s why we insisted a curfew at sundown. Now that it’s out—”

“I took care of it. So, you don’t have to worry.”

“You killed it?”

“You’ll have to dispose it carefully. Especially the feathers.”

“You took care of it?”

“I killed it. You clean it.”

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“Back to my room. I’m tired. And I’ve done more than I should.”

“Wait! Are you sure? I can—” she trips over her feet.

He looked at her, pressing a gash, from knee to mid-thigh, then moved on. It wasn’t bleeding much. Also, he wasn’t a healer. He wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

Light had gone. It’s completely replaced with darkness by the time he stepped into the inn.

He took the last climb up the steps and suddenly, warm wind blew the door open. From the inside. It wasn’t the bare and dusty room he woke up this morning. The gray and brown room transformed into a vivid, shining room that can blind anyone who lived in monotone. Trinkets and junk fill the shelves from floor to ceiling. It took a while for J to get used to it.

“Welcome home, my J.” The Magician greets from his place behind the counter. “Did you like Mt. Ryvi?”

“Were you the one who sent the serpent to that place?”

“Oh my,” he touched his chest as if offended. “How did you know?”

It was the first time he accidentally let loose a monster. Besides a feat such as bringing desert monsters to the mountains was something only the Magician can do. “Why there?”

“The girl.”

“Who was she anyway?”

“No one important,” he answered with a sigh.

“You made me go through all those chores for an insignificant girl? Who made the request?” If it’s not the girl, then it must be the sponsor.

He spun a finger in the air, landing on J.

“Do you want me to bite it off?”

He leans over the counter, resting his head on propped arms. “What does J mean?”

He straightens up, as if a door unlocked and he’s about to greet the most important person. When you trade your name to the Magician, most of your former life disappears. J traded all of his name. But he remembers. The ‘J’ doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to his sister.

“Jeanya,” he answered. His request was revenge on the people who killed his parents and everyone in his village, find the person that took his sister, and bring her home. And for some reason, the request, as simple as it sounds, is taking all of his time. “What does Myranna have to do with my sister?”

“You have to gather positive light into your life,” he said. “Let the World bless you. Do good and good returns.”

He clenched his hand into a fist.

“Think of it this way,” he placed a stone on the counter, “she might kick a stone, it rolls into the river that goes into a dam and help raise the water. It overflows, water breaks out destroys the village. They move to a new spot and blah, blah, blah, until one day you walk down the road and see your sister on the other side, waving at you.”

He wasn’t convincing, but J smiled a bit. Any possibility of getting back what he gave for, no matter how dubious it is, he won’t question if it’s in his favor. He’ll let thousands die, as long as the one survives. If he keeps the insignificant girl happy to get his sister back, then fine.

And more than his face scrunching up when he’s mad, the Magician enjoys his smile. It’s rare and more difficult to procure.

“I will add,” the Magician said, “this is not the last time you’ll go back to Mt. Ryvi.”

“How so?”

“You drove an invader away once. They’ll come again and again.” He taps on the glass. “Every knock on your door, you’ll go back there. Aren’t I nice? You get to meet Myranna.”

And he smiled again.

Entry # 52

Entry 01

Entry 52

Clark Resse

It was one of his favorite nights. It’s always night in the Nest but he can tell tonight is his favorite. Quiet, no one in but him. He can talk to himself and no one would think he’s crazy.  Also, there’s something in the air. Not the grilling of elk meat that he’s been craving for the last month. Just a sensation that says something is going to happen. So, he brushes the dust off his top hat and tug into smoothness his purple suit. The Magician was feeling like he can conquer the world.

Then he walked in. He’s young. Thirteen or fourteen, but the Magician can see the age behind his brilliant eyes and the silver of his hair. He should have stuck to his real age—the seven-hundreds are the best. He wore a blue and gold cloak over a white and gray suit that he seemed to have worn since he was thirteen or fourteen.

But first impressions don’t matter. He found the store, so there’s something the Magician can get from him.

“Regulus Tunadualane Percy Arktone,” the customer greets with a low bow. “I’d like the meet—”

“My favorite?”

Regulus smiled. “Is he available?”

Oh… He wouldn’t like this. “How many letters of your name would you trade to meet my hunter?” But if he’s willing to pay, he can’t deny him.

*******

He soared through the gray skies and leaped over the glass roofs of the City of Poppin. J looked like any common thief in the artisan city. Whereas citizens dress in pastel and adorned with jewels, he’s the only one in black. Even worse since his target is decorated richly. If officers catch them, they’ll believe his target rather than him.

The request from the mayor was easy. Capture Gaski the murderer. Notice ‘capture’ not kill. The mayor is fond of his bastard half-brother. He’s already killed fifty-two women, men and children—five as he was searching for him—while using their blood to make glass vases. Not for money. Although many of his works would price very high in the markets. But for the sake of art.

It’s an easy job. But not completely. Not because he’s difficult to find. Nor because of the five that’s already died while he’s searching for him. More of J not having to kill anyone in the last two days.

They’re almost at the center of the city. If he drops into the crowd, he wouldn’t mind dragging a few more bodies. But this wasn’t much of a problem. J was fast. If there were records and contests, he’d be listed as the fastest man in the Sixteen Publics.

Gaski drops into a low building. He broke his leg, slipping on the gray glass roof. Then slid on one side and is now dangling on a pipe.

He followed into the jump. The top of his shoe touched the glass.

But then everything around him swirls in colors and the cold wind turns hot. The ground disappears. He drops farther than he expected.

If he’s going to fall back into the Nest, he might as well cause as much destruction as possible.

A distortion appears on the ceiling, endless and cold. J drops from it. And with his fall, he brought down the clear crystal balls with the protection fairies inside. He lands on the top shelf—where the Magician’s most beloved collection of trinkets are displayed—breaking it in half, then going down the next shelf, and the next and the next until he fell face forward on the glass counter.

Unfortunately, his face couldn’t break the glass. He would have enjoyed it more if he broke the damn things inside. The more precious ones are inside the unbreakable counter.

“Welcome back, J” The Magician greets, smiling his white shining teeth. “Did you catch the vasemaker?”

“No,” he groaned, sitting up. “I was about to before you brought me back here.”

He frowned. “That’s too bad. But I have someone here who wants to meet you.”

J hadn’t even notice the boy, with a glowing grin, standing in the center of the room. With his bright clothes, he blended into the walls. He shuffles on spot. He doesn’t know whether to approach J or not. He decides to stay and admire his star in a distance.

“Re Ark,” he bowed. “I must say, you look plainer than I heard. I mean you’re you and yet you look like this.”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

He grabbed a note from under his coat. “Is it true pirates raised you? That your father is Captain Buckbeard the Pillager? Were you the youngest of sixteen children? Or the first born? Or the seventh? Is it true that each of your father’s children are born from one of the Publics? Each mother is some noble or high authority in the Public? Are those your natural eyes? I heard you cut those eyes out from a Mernianise merchant. And that you took them because those eyes can see evil in a soul? And…” At every question, he’s coming closer, scribbling into his note.

“Slowly, Sir Re Ark.” The Magician grabbed him by the collar and pulled him away.

Any closer and J was about to cut him into pieces. He already has his hand on the hilt on a short sword strapped to his back. “You pulled me away for him?”

“He’s very interesting.” He went around to his counter, checking every inch of the glass. “He’s writing a book.”

“And you want me to cut the wood for his paper?”

“I could never ask the hunter to do that!” He’s back into J’s range again. Breathing what he exhales like it’s the breath of youth. “I just want to talk. Experience you as well.”

“No,” he answered flatly. “I don’t do those services. No matter how much you trade with him.”

“Oh,” the Magician pressed a finger against his lips, adoring J’s glare. “I would never ask you to do that. Besides, I’d take all of his name if he asked for that.”

“Even if he gives you all the letters of his name—”

“My name?” Re Ark blinked blankly at them.

After any trade with the Magician, no one remembers what they give. Although, he usually asks for the most valuable of the person—no matter how large or small the wish is. It’s included in his set deal. No regrets. Just a wish granted.

The Magician waved a finger at him. “I got him here so, state your request.”

“May I observe you for the day?” Re Ark made himself small and innocent. “Just a day. I want you to be an entry for my book.”

“Your book?” J doubted he’d be so interesting to be a book.

“Just a chapter,” he assured, noting the disbelief in his eyes. “I’m traveling the Sixteen Publics. Gathering entries for—”

“What made me qualify?”

He cleared his throat. “Ninety-Nine Heroes.”

He eyed him. “And?”

“You’re a hero!” he stated as if it was the most obvious answer. “Why wouldn’t I want you as Entry 52?”

J understands, more than anyone, he isn’t a hero. He has half a mind to send him off. Deny his request. But he knew he can’t do that. He’s already traded his name. And anything associating to the name—he’ll soon forget his family and anyone who used to call him by his name. He’ll live a new life with vague ideas of his past but never the complete picture. The price of a name has always been the costliest. However, Re Ark didn’t know what he was doing.

“J” the Magician urged. “You’re—”

“I know.” As long as his own request isn’t fulfilled, he’s bound body and soul to the Magician. “So what should I do?”

“For something like this,” the Magician searched his records of unanswered requests, “it needs something special. Don’t you agree?”

Re Ark nodded.

“A request that shows why he is why he is.”

“It has to show his entire essence, skills and perfection.”

“Yes,” his voice low and heavy. He smiles as he spots the perfect request. He laid it in front of him. “Slay the monster. Save the damsel.”

The request was in the East of Seventh Public in the Desert of Bakseo. It’s been recorded to have the hottest days and nights.

After changing into clothes fitting for a desert investigation, the Magician led them to the seventh door in the store. The store was a stump of the former World Tree. The roots connect to all Sixteen Publics. It’s in a timeless and inexact part of the world not considered in any of the Publics. Just consider it as everywhere but unnoticed unless you have a wish and willing to trade half your life for it.

He opens the door and instantly, the wind burns J’s skin and sand poured out. He took off his cloak then tossed it to the side. He folded the sleeves of his iris shirt up to his shoulders, showing the finely molded thick arms. He retightens the black belt, slinging his Pentofulan short sword at his back. Then made sure the laces of his boots were tied. He would have worn sandals, but it’d be hard to walk on those.

He’s everything Re Ark expected of someone who should be in Ninety-Nine Heroes. He notes down every detail about him, from the purposely tousled dark hair to the shade of lapis in his eyes. He measured the scar on his neck, it’s as thick as his fountain pen and goes to either side of his neck.

“What are you doing?” J eyes him as he’s too close.

His breath on his collar. “Where did you get that scar?”

He slapped his hand on it instantly. “Do I have to answer all his questions?” he glanced at the Magician.

“All you have to do is be yourself,” he said. “Go on the request. Save the girl, look like a hero, then bring Sir Re Ark back without a scratch. Other than that, is completely up to you.”

Then without another word, he stepped into the harsh night. Around him, colors mix until the vivid background of the Magician’s store change into the monochromatic hue of the desert. He feels weightless. The ground forms under his feet and then he’s twice as heavy.

Re Ark drops next to him. From under his cloak, several notes, pens and three ink bottles, spill from his pockets. He tried to rise but he feels harder. He stayed on all fours, trying to catch his breath and sweating through his clothes.

“Welcome to the desert country, Bakseo,” J shifts his weight from one foot to the other, still trying to get his body used to the excess pressure. “The Seventh Public is close to the center of the world. Tigrav minerals are mined near the border so you’ll feel a bit heavier.”

“I know about the Tigrav ore,” he huffed, spit spilling from the side of his lips. “I didn’t think it’d be this intense though.”

“Take a breath as you rise.”

He did, but halfway up on his knees, he’s frozen. Then a swish and thud close to his ear and he’s back on the ground. The pressure on his back forced him an inch deep into the sand. “Wha—What’s…”

“Don’t move.” Not surprising that J is still on his feet. But slowly falling into the pressure. “They won’t kill you as long as you don’t move.”

More arrows with the Tigrav tip fly around them. The pressure on his muscles increasing until the strain of it cut into the skin. Re Ark was buried, face first, three inches into the sand, while J was on one knee.

The captain of the guards, with the black and brown Halsek—a Bakseo region—uniform and a feathered hat, approached them outside the circle of arrows. His mustache curls up to his nose, tickling as he breathes. His chestnut skin covered in scars from the ridge of his missing toe to collarbone. His eyes dark like the night.

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Bakseo’s Halsek,” his voice gravelly and unwelcoming. “May I ask who’re entering the during its lockdown?”

“We’re here on the request of Halsek’s Sheik Kalbeh Moarank,” he announced, grinding his teeth. “If you search my pocket, you’ll find his written request to the Magician. He sent me here to find his missing daughter, Malahara Moarank.”

Before looking for the request from his pocket, the guards took his short sword and the small daggers he keeps in him. They also took Re Ark’s notes, pens and a pouch filled with trinkets from the other Publics he travelled to.

“I’d like all those returned untouched, please” he mumbled, sucking sand in between his teeth. “Some of those can curse if anyone other than the owner touches it. Especially the red amulet—ouch…ouch” he moaned as one of the guards stepped lightly on his back, checking for weapons.

“Who’re you?”

“He’s my Boswell.” J answered. “He’s not much of a threat unless you consider words to be dangerous.”

The captain of the guards cleared his throat. “I’ve verified the note. It is the Sheik’s. Let them stand.”

The surrounding guards remove the arrows holding them down. J rose to his feet while Re Ark remained on the ground, still taking in sand.

“You can get up now,” J told him.

“This sand,” he scooped up a handful, examining each grain. “It tastes different. Almost nutty and spicy. Does it have to do with the spice and nuts you import? Or is it because—” J pulled him up by the scruff.

“Save the questions for later,” he tells him. “I have a job to do.”

The guards took them to the backway of the city that directly leads to an entrance of the castle. Re Ark, disappointed that he couldn’t walk through the city, mumbled his complaints the entire way. The guards cover their ears otherwise, they’d be dragging the writer’s bloody body through the hall. And J can’t allow one scratch on him. Even if his voice was getting on his nerves.

The castle, like any of the common homes, had rounded tops like smooth sand mounds. It’s made of a red gold stone. Perhaps because it had only been an hour since sundown, the walls emit the heat absorbed during the day. The hallways and ceilings were wide and high. With tall and intricately arched windows bringing in a steamy breeze. The walls were punctured with small holes from the centuries of sandstorms havocking the castle walls.

They enter the great hall with the murals of all the Sheik Moaranks, since the century after the Third Apocalypse, glistening in beautiful stone. The last was of the current Sheik. He had the dark skin of Bakseonin, the highlighted golden eyes that everyone in the Seventh Public is known for and the red palms of an Halseknin. He wears a thread of bronze turban with jewels drooping on either side of his head and ash-colored banyan.

The real Sheik Kalbeh Moarank looked as he did in the mural, obscenely large, breathing through his mouth and glistening in sweat. The only change of the Sheik was his eyes. It’s paler compared to the portrait. Then again, the portrait can be deceitful. J knew the eleventh successor, Sheik Tonkal Moarank. He was scrawny and wimpy. Cried a lot too. Although in his mural, he’s depicted with muscles and blood.

The Moaranks is one of the oldest families in all of the Sixteen Publics. Even the royals of the Fifth Public, the De Blanche, doesn’t have the same vivid history as the Moaranks. But as J and Re Ark are witnessing now, the family is slowly degrading. The Magician recorded they’ll soon die out in a generation.

“Sheik Moarank,” the captain of the guards called his attention away from the plum pudding resting on his palms. “I bring J of the Nest and his companion, Re Ark.”

“Never heard of them,” he grumbled through his tight throat.

Instantly, the guards drew their curved blades at them.

Re Ark jolts then hid behind J. While J remained his composure, but kept a hand lightly on a blade the guards hadn’t found—hidden just under his arm.

“Wait, wait,” he raised his hand covered in jam. “I remember now. You’re here to find my little blue girl.”

“And when did you first notice she was missing?” J got straight to the point.

It irritated most of the guards when he showed little respect for the lord. The dagger inflicting looks didn’t bother him though. He probably would have looked the same if he’d been thrown into a pit of vipers. His expression was bored too. Like he would walk out at any moment if something displeased him. And currently, the Sheik’s attention was more on the towers of food next to his throne, rather than on J.

“At the turn of the moon,” he answered. “I want her back before the next turn.”

“You’ll have to return her in three days,” the healer adds. “Sheik Moarank needs her blood.”

“What for?” Re Ark’s eyes were aglow. “Is she mystical?”

“The Sheik is blood poisoned,” the healer said. “Every moon’s turn, he needs to be drained. Malahara shares the same blood as the Sheik. So before the turn, she transfuses blood into the Sheik. If he doesn’t get the blood in three days, he’ll slowly die.”

“And I don’t want to die!” he crushed the pudding in his hands but it doesn’t stop him from licking the jam running down his arm. “Find my little blue girl. If you can’t find her before my three days are up, I’ll have you hanged.”

“You don’t have the right,” J opposed.

At his word, guards draw their blades at them. “Do you understand your insolence toward Sheik Moarank?” the captain stepped forward.

“What about his insolence toward me?” He tried not to move. “Well, as much as you don’t want me here, I feel more. Bring me to the girl’s quarters. I’ll find her before sunrise.”

“Ha!” the Sheik turned in his throne and almost fell off. “I don’t hate this confidence.” He leaned forward, trying to stand but gave up and just leaned. His eyes set on Re Ark instead of J. “Find my little blue girl and kill the ones that took her before sunrise and I’ll pay more than I intended. If you fail, I’ll bake you on my roof.”

“How hot does the roof get?” Re Ark whispered in J’s ear.

“Apologies, but you won’t find out.” J said, matter-of-factly.

It excited Re Ark. His cheeks blushing. Eyes beaming in wonder like he’d found the perfect entry. His favorite entry. After feeling the brilliance of J, he grabbed the guard, holding his notes hostage, then scribbled. The guard tried to take it back but the captain stops him.

“I’ll accompany you throughout your investigation,” the captain said. “The tiny one,” he referred to Re Ark, who wasn’t listening and instead mumbles to himself, “can have his things back but we’ll keep yours until the end.” He signals to the second in command, a young lad with dark skin and pale hair.

The room was in the far corner from the main residence. But more than her room, it seemed like a library with a bed in the corner. From what Captain Garlah said about her, she’s a quiet girl. She’s not allowed to leave the residence and prefers to not be involved with her father’s court. However, she wasn’t always like that. It only began five years ago after the Sheik’s wives and concubines along with their children were murdered during the Sheik’s tenth anniversary on the throne. The Tenth’s Thirty and Hundred—referring to the five wives, ten concubines and the fifteen children, and also the hundred citizens—were killed by the enemy across the borders. Whom, they’re assuming caused the blood poison. Malahara survived because Garlah came to her rescue.

Malahara has two attendants. An elderly woman wearing a simple gray thobe with loose yellow belt around her hips. The younger servant also wore a gray thobe but it’s two sizes large for her small frame. The white niqab exposed tear stained red eyes.

“It’d been an hour since the last bed check before I realized she was gone,” the elderly attendant, Naralah told them. “Such a delicate girl. I can’t imagine what’ll happen to her if she’s out alone.”

“Did you hear anything that night?”

She shook her head. “She was already asleep.”

J looked out the window. It’s high but not high enough that it’d be difficult to climb up or down. However, when he touched the wall, it’s still too hot. It probably stays the same temperature throughout the night. Gloves made of any fabric might singe or melt into the stone.

The room was organized from the books to the clothes neatly folded in the chest. Even the bed was made.

“Did you notice anything gone after she left? Did you touch anything in the room?”

“We were prohibited to enter the room after she disappeared,” the Naralah answered.

“Nothing was missing too,” Captain Garlah adds. “As soon as we noticed she was gone, the city was locked down, the guards increased at every exit in the castle, and we searched each home. We found nothing leading to her.”

“Anyone particular that came into the town that day?”

“A few merchants,” he shrugged. “Others too, but left at the day’s end. No one I can note as dangerous.”

J studies the room. He can’t see anything odd about the room. The fastest way out of here is the backway, from where he entered, and the distance is about an hour and a half.  If they run, it’d still take an hour. And even there, guards would notice Malahara with them.

“What does she look like?” Re Ark asked Captain Garlah.

“She’s seventeen. Taller than you,” he notes. “Dark hair. Dark eyes. Her skin lighter.”

“Why does the Sheik call her blue girl?”

“It’s the blue robe she wears.”

“Like the blue you wear?” J nods toward blue sash around the captain’s hips.

“More livelier,” he answered, gritting his teeth. “I was her mother’s guard. The third wife. Before I became captain, I was her guard. That little girl is precious to me. She’s very important to everyone in the household. And not because she’s the Sheik daughter and heir.”

“We just want her to be okay,” Naralah looked toward her partner.

The young girl was worried and bites her lip as she’s close to tears.

“Don’t worry, little one,” Re Ark said to the girl older than him. “Our J here will find her.”

“Please do,” her voice squeaked. She turned away, hiding the tears.

“It doesn’t even seem like he’s trying!” Garlah yelled. “You said you’ll find her before sunrise! The nights in the Seventh are shorter that what you’re probably used to. You only have five hours left.”

“We don’t have nights in the Nest. Also, she’s not far,” J said, confidently.

Except for Re Ark, the rest were surprised.

“What makes you sure?” Garlah is unconvinced. He even seems itching for a fight.

“She’s lived here her entire life, with you at her service?” she looked toward Naralah.

“I help raise the girl, yes.”

“Do you think she can take care of herself in the desert?”

“Of course not! That’s why you need to find her. It’s almost been a moon’s turn. I—I—” she starts crying again.

J rolled his eyes at her. “Has she eaten that night? Did she act odd in the recent hours before she—”

“Why are you still asking pointless questions!” Garlah barked. “You should be riding to the border, find the villains that took her, but even if you ride out tonight, you’ll miss your promise of sunrise.”

“What makes you think,” Re Ark asked, gingerly, “they took Malahara?”

“They’re our only enemies,” he puffed out his chest. “They caused the blood poison on our Sheik.”

“They didn’t cause the blood poison,” J checked on the books. He brush his finger on the shelf. Clean. “The eleventh sheik, Sheik Tonkal Moarank, had the same blood disease. It’s a bloodline sickness.”

“How would you know about him?” Garlah eyed him curiously and bloodthirsty. “That’s not even in the records.”

“Of course, that wouldn’t be in the records!” He checked the level of sand on the floor. From where everyone was gathered it was clean, around the bed too and along the shelves. “You’d want your records flawless. Also, just because something bad happens to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your enemies are too blame for it.” He sucked in a breath. “She’s still in the castle.”

“How can you tell?” Re Ark stares at the things J examined. “Are her takers still lurking in the castle? Hidden somewhere?”

“No one took her. If she was, there would have at least been one witness. No one is that good.” Except for him. “If she ran away, she would have taken clothes or any of the books. Girl with a collection of books, there should at least be one she’s not willing to leave behind. Also, the sand in the room leaves a path rather than pool everywhere.”

The younger attendant ran. Before she can get pass the door, J caught her by the hem of the uniform. He tried to lock her in his arms but Garlah put a blade to his back.

“Get your hand off her or I’ll cut you and beat you with it.”

“Ah…J?” Re Ark froze as the Naralah puts a blade under his throat. “What should I do?”

“Move a muscle and I’ll open your throat,” her crying replaced with an unwavering fight. “Garlah, we should kill them.”

“Not here,” he hissed. “If they find a dead body here, they’ll find out the ones that took Malahara are—”

“No more killing,” the young attendant whimpered. “Garlah you promised.”

“But Malahara they—”

“That’s the Sheik’s daughter?” Re Ark blurted. “Why is she—Ouch!

Naralah grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his head back.

Malahara removed his niqab, then looked pleadingly at J. “Please don’t take me back to my father.”

J kept his hand on her. “Why should I? The Sheik requested you home.”

“She is at home… ah. ah. ah.” The blade shaves up and down Re Ark’s neck. “But why not let your father know?”

“I was going to leave that night.”

“She would have gotten away too but I didn’t know she was escaping,” Garlah adds. “I locked down the city thinking someone might have taken her. When I found her out and told me she wants to leave, I have to help her.”

“You don’t serve her. You serve the Sheik,” he spun and flipped Garlah over his shoulder. He turns him over so his arm pokes up awkwardly as J held him down.

Even with a blade to his throat, Re Ark smiled and took notes. “J shouldn’t you listen. The poor girl seems scared.”

“Please,” Malahara pleads. “Don’t take me back to him.”

“He’s your father, little one,” said Re Ark, the tinier one. “He’s sick. He’ll die without your blood.”

“If he continues to live he’ll—”

J draws a dagger then stabs Garlah’s neck. Someone screams. While Naralah was occupied with the stream of blood, he tossed a dagger, hitting her hand against Re Ark’s neck. Then with the blade on Garlah’s waist, he spears it at her chest.

Re Ark, too dumbfounded with the speed of everything, didn’t dare to breathe. And with the blood on J’s cheek, his admiration fades. “What did you do?”

Malahara fell to her knees. She sobs through the Judge’s prayer as Garlah’s blood drenched her clothes. She dipped a finger into his blood, then marks the floor. “The World continues to watch you.”

“I fulfilled the request,” he replied to Re Ark. He pulls Malahara back to her feet after the prayer. “Find the Sheik’s daughter. Kill the ones that took her.”

He marched up to him. “You’re supposed to be a hero,” he accused. “She needed help. She’s scared of her father. Why would you bring her back to a man like that? You shouldn’t! You couldn’t! You’re you! You haven’t even heard her side.”

“I am who I am,” he states. “You’re the one who put the idea of what I should be. And why should I listen to a spoiled bratty girl? Do you think running away is the answer?”

“Better than living here,” she spat back, tears still streaming from her eyes. She grabbed the blade out of Garlah’s neck and about to plunge it into her chest.

J breaks her right hand. “I don’t like feeling sorry for people. I’ve lost all feelings for others. I won’t feel like that for anyone I’ve known my entire life, nor would I feel it for someone like you.”

“You’re supposed to be a hero,” Re Ark’s heart is broken. “All the stories I hear about you.”

“Are me trying to fulfill request.”

He dragged Malahara, as she struggles, with a broken hand, to slip away from J, back into the throne room. Re Ark walked a distance behind them, his shoulders hunched forward, gripping his notes, and a look like he’d been killed. He mumbles to himself, in denial, and probably half expecting a turn in J’s attitude.

J remained as he is, unbroken and steady.

He tossed Malahara at the Sheik’s feet. “I’ve found your daughter.” He also told them about Naralah and Garlah, which doesn’t surprise most of the guards, but left the Sheik not eating for a few seconds.

“At least I have my little blue girl!” he opened his arms, but not for an embrace. He snapped his fingers, calling his cooks into attention. “Let there be a feast tonight!”

“We won’t be staying,” J said. “I need your payment and my sword back.”

The second in command, now the captain of the guards, hands him the sword regretfully. “How much do you ask?”

He pulled out a card, then from it rose an hour glass with the sand at top close to empty. He approached the Sheik. “Hold out your hand.”

The Sheik put his hand at the top. Then sand poured into the glass, adding less than a quarter into it. Now, the man before them is nameless.

They return to the Magician’s Nest. He’s beaming from behind the counter as J placed the hourglass in front of him.

“More than I expected,” he praised J. “As expected of my favorite.”

J stomped up the stairs, then shut the door to his room.

“What did you think of my favorite, Sir Re Ark?”

“I’m beginning to like the name Re Ark,” he grinned but then frowned. “Your favorite, however, he’s different than I expected.”

“He’s a hero though,” the Magician said. “He found the girl.”

“Yes, but she was terrified,” he argued.

“So?”

“She didn’t want to go back!”

“And so?”

“She should be rescued! That what a hero should do.”

“He wasn’t her hero,” she showed Re Ark the request again. “He was supposed to be a hero that brings back the lost heir.”

“But—”

“Who said all little girls needs saving,” he scoffed. “The un-rescued girls become heroes of their own. Sometimes, they destroy one of the oldest families.”

The Nest exists within a timeless place. So history and the future is irrelevant. And in one of the books, that the Magician had ready on the counter, The Start and End of the Family in Halsek states; …In the 106th generation of the old family, the remaining daughter, survivor of Tenth’s Thirty and Hundred, Shaykhah Malahara Moarank, destroyed the city and went to conquer three other kingdoms…

“You see, Sir Re Ark,” he likes the name too. “He might not be that girl’s hero. She might even consider him an enemy. But he was the start. The first anger to boil her awake. And every time, she thinks of him, she’ll remind herself why she mustn’t lose her strength. He taught her to be the woman she is now.”

“Well, there are dubious entries in my book,” he admits. “They’re a hero one side. After murdering thousands on the other.”

“I hope you got everything you need to write him in.”

He’s still doubtful but he nods. “What’s his real name? You took it as well? For what?”

“That’s not your story to tell.”

NEXT STORY: “The Insignificant Girl”