Sighing, I woke the horse from its deep slumber. Or, at least, I tried. After clapping my hands right next to its ears, shouting and cursing, I realized this animal had to be deaf. No wonder it didn’t budge with all the commotion in the cavern! I needed to shake and lightly kick it until it snorted with (obvious!) contempt and wearily arose. Finally! Maybe I should have renamed this horse to ‘Annoying Mule’ the way it reacted. What a personality.
After untying each girl, I used some magic to lift them onto the horse. Every time a girl landed on its back, it whickered, tilting its head left and right in disapproval. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore its attitude for now. By the time I finished, the sky had begun to brighten up a little. I grabbed the reigns and slowly directed the sulky horse down the mountain.
The first girl regained her consciousness as we reached the bottom of the mountain. With a high-pitched moan, she opened her eyes to look around her. She had an average face, with a sloping forehead, flat nose, and awkwardly protruding teeth. She kind of reminded me of a small shark. Hence I decided to name her ‘Baby Shark’. ‘Baby Shark’ was the daughter of the one who had given us the quest of retrieving his daughter. Therefore I had to treat her with special care. The girl wore bright pink robes with swirly brocade borders. A white sash and a few metal brooches kept the clothes in place.
“Where… where are we?” Ugh, what an unpleasant high-pitched cutesy voice she had.
“On our way back.” I didn’t bother to turn around to face her.
“How can I trust you not to abduct us instead?” Now really, young miss. It seems thinking isn’t your aptitude, eh? If I’d wanted to abduct you, wouldn’t I be tying you up?!
“Rest assured, neither of you is my type.”
She snorted audibly, offended by my words, waking the girl behind her up. This one had a pretty, but incredibly flat face, with lips constantly pursed and frowning. Her blue eyes pierced right through me, judgingly. Her simple white dress had become muddy from the rough trip. Alright, young miss number two! I shall name thee ‘Grumpy Kitty’! Who’s left is young miss number three who didn’t wake for a long time. At first glance, she seemed the prettiest of them all, but she had a rather menacing look in her face. Her blue robes were especially torn and muddy. Seems like she had put up the most resistance, compared to the others. This girl remained silent for now. However, she was hugging ‘Grumpy Kitty’ tightly – a bit too tight to be mere friends. I decided to call her ‘Overly Attached’.
“Who are you anyway?” Making up for her silent two companions, ‘Baby Shark’ decided to strike up a conversation.
“Just a mercenary.”
“How old are you? You seem too young to be hired.”
“Old enough to wield a blade.”
“Where do you come from?”
The “conversation” went on and on. ‘Baby Shark’ seemed relentless, not wanting to give up. To make matters kind of worse, Violet had joined me a while ago. However, she kept quite a distance from the group and me, remaining unnoticed by the girls. But I felt her emotions. It seems she was highly amused at my lacking enthusiasm. Haha, very funny. I occasionally stopped to glare in her direction, but apparently, she remained well hidden.
Violet’s distanced behavior had started only one or two years earlier. Whenever we entered a village or even a town, she would always remain in the shadows and let me handle everything by myself. I had tried to find an explanation for this change but never could filter a proper response. It might be that because we had been slowly walking northward and had encountered a few practitioners. Even I had developed a slight paranoia and tried to avoid standing out too much.
‘Baby Shark’s’ place was only a castle surrounded by a tiny settlement. While I had seen some practitioners there, they were not ever-present. I think they were actually quite reluctant to be there in the first place. After all, her family owned the castle, but they were so broke that they had delegated the mission of retrieving their daughter to some random boy instead of a practitioner – for one-tenth of the sum. It was still enough to make ends meet, mind you.
As the sun was almost at its highest point, we finally arrived at the castle. Word spread quickly, so by the time I had come to the castle gate, the guards were eagerly ushering us inside, to be welcomed by the rest of ‘Shark’ family. Okay. Just bear with me, yes?
The ‘Shark’ family was truly peculiar. You could instantly see they were related, for they all had the same type of sloping forehead and flat noses. What was bizarre was the choice of fabric they draped around their luxurious bodies. If pink seemed like a bold color, how about bright green paired with pastel purple? That was what ‘Mommy Shark’ was wearing. ‘Daddy Shark’, on the other hand, managed to mix so many different shades of blue, you could post him at a cloth store as a walking color sample. When they saw their little baby safely arrive, they were so happy they even hugged me. I have faced many a danger during my short life but never had it felt more suffocating than being buried deep between lumps of flesh and fat tissue. I kid you not.
After paying me the promised sum (which I obviously counted on the spot), they asked me if I wanted to stay for the celebration. I knew that Violet was waiting outside for me, so I kindly refused, bowing like a pretentious practitioner. Finally free and with a pouch of coins to spend, I turned around and headed to the main gate.
Suddenly, two practitioners, a man and a woman, stood in my path. They wore deep orange robes, their sleeves long enough to hide their hands. Since they didn’t carry any blade or other apparent weapons, I assumed they were pure magic-wielders. The color suggested they hailed from the Order of Geb. This order was known for possessing a high percentage of magic-focused practitioners. They were also known for their peace-loving attitude. These attributes alone were enough to catapult them to being the second most renowned Order after Nu.
Since they didn’t seem like they were going to attack me immediately, I remained wary of them. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the two practitioners were siblings, most likely even twins. They shared the same bun hairstyle. Looking at their youthful faces yet knowing gazes, I had guessed they were highly experienced people. If you meditated long enough and had the talent for it, you can almost bring the aging process to a halt.
“Hello, young man.” The man spoke. His brown eyes looked at me softly.
I nodded silently and wanted to pass, but they didn’t let me.
“We have come to pick you up.”
With a questioning look on my face, I glared at them.
“The gods have been watching you and your companion ever since you have appeared in the south of the duchy,” the woman continued. “Our benevolent god Geb has decided to question you personally.”
“Why would he?” I spoke for the first time, my hand slowly wandering to the hilt of my blade.
“There is nothing to fear if you do not seek the Path of Apophis.”
“What is that?”
Both practitioners looked at each other, almost sighing.
“If Geb sees there is nothing to fear, both you and Sekhmet can roam freely without needing to hide from any Order. Perhaps she will be allowed to form her own Order and settle down. After all, she had been in captivity for a very long time.”
Saying these words, Violet suddenly emerged from the shadows, looking interested. The practitioners immediately noticed her and greeted her by bowing deeply.
“Greatest Sekhmet. We have seen you, and your Vice Representative have been benevolent to the people here. It shall not go unrewarded.”
Violet threw at them a few condescending emotions, but, to my surprise, they didn’t understand her. They seemed to perceive that she was trying to converse with them. However, they looked at me, expecting me to interpret. I rolled my eyes.
“She … isn’t”, I quickly glanced at her, “… uninterested.” Ouch. My head. Violet was indeed not pleased. Just by looking at her body language, she was very eager to learn more. But the young me didn’t understand her motivation. Therefore, I believed my words were the right choice.
“Great! Then you will accompany us to Capilla?”
Now they got me. All these years I had been trying to get back home. Was this finally my chance?
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