Story: To the Valley (Happy New Year: Chapter 30!)

Discussion in 'Fan Works' started by Alkanthe, Jun 20, 2016.

  1. Risukage

    Risukage Giant Laser Beams

    She's off to see the Wizard,
    The wizard of Pelican Town
    He really, really, really, really
    Really likes to frown! :D

    (Also, I read "shrubbery" and had a Monty Python moment. The memes of old...)
      611, Gabaw and Alkanthe like this.
    • Alkanthe

      Alkanthe Supernova

      Chapter 14 is here! Including mentions of a character created by @sheetcakeghost !
        Gabaw and 611 like this.
      • Risukage

        Risukage Giant Laser Beams

        *Grabs a cup of coffee, awaits update.*
        • Alkanthe

          Alkanthe Supernova

          Oh look. What's here. It's an update! Woo!
            Gabaw likes this.
          • sheetcakeghost

            sheetcakeghost Weight of the Sky

            Why hasn't Robin moved that tree? It's a mystery. (x-files theme plays in the distance)

            By the way, if you wanna write Antoine you go on ahead. I'm not very protective of my characters. d:
              Gabaw, 611, Risukage and 1 other person like this.
            • Alkanthe

              Alkanthe Supernova

              It's been a while, but I'm back with a new chapter! All new chapters will be added onto this post now, as I've started a new part of the story.

              I reentered the Wizard's tower only two minutes past noon, but he still shook his head at me disapprovingly. "You're late."
              "Two minutes late," I countered.
              "Well, time is short. Here," and he ladled some sort of purplish liquid from his cauldron into a cup, "drink this. It ought to work, I made it extra-strength... used up nearly all of my shadow slime. I pray that my choice is worth it..." he muttered, obviously quite anxious.
              Shadow slime? I didn't much feel like trying the concoction now, but... I wanted to figure out what was going on in Stardew Valley, and this seemed like the best way to do it. So I tilted the cup up and took a huge gulp, nearly choking when the taste hit me. Is this what beer tastes like? I thought, only half-seriously. But somehow, I managed to drink it all.
              I was a little dizzy now. The drink seemed to be affecting me already, and not in a good way. My head ached, and dark spots blinked in and out of my vision. "What's going on?"
              The Wizard looked on, concerned. "What mean you by this?"
              "I need to..." I felt sick. I had to sit down on the floor. "Need to lie down." It felt like I'd gotten a shot. I'd be okay in... maybe a few minutes. Maybe a half hour.

              It was a lot longer than that before I felt I could get up. But after that, I felt pretty much fine, though a bit tired. In fact, nothing seemed different at all. But something had to have happened. I just wasn't sure what, yet.

              I spent several days after that becoming accustomed to my new line of work, which had turned out to be farming, and meeting the rest of the townspeople. The parsnips I'd sown were full-grown after only four days, which was highly unusual, I thought. The other crops, too, grew fast. But I didn't complain: Daniel Pierre paid nicely for what I sold him, and the rest became my meals (though not as filling as the Stardrop Saloon's pizza, these were a much less expensive choice).
              The townspeople, on the other hand, were decidedly harder to find. I guess I'd met the easiest ones first. The baker, whose name was Antoine, was not the only shopowner who'd been cut off from the town by the fallen tree. I'd asked Robin why she hadn't cleared that up, and all I had gotten was a blank look and a quite confused "What are you talking about?" But when I walked down to see where Emily had said the path had been... it was indeed there, fallen tree and all. This was something I could not understand. Surely Robin would know of these people if Antoine had indeed moved there within the last year. But she didn't.
              Most of the other townspeople I had already met. There were only a few I hadn't, and of those few, there were two who were most troublesome.
              The first was Alex Fairchild. He lived in the blue-trimmed house east of Pierre's, as it turned out, with Evelyn and George Mullner. But that was not where I met him. He was outside the house, in a large yard dotted with litter in place of grass. In front of him was a small, fenced-in area with a box inside, and I was fairly sure there was something in the box from its infrequent shuffles and snuffles.
              He had a very athletic appearance, and that was somewhat of a deterrent to me, but I remembered the resolution I'd made and approached him to say hi.
              "Hey, farmer," he greeted me casually. "Wanna play some gridball?" Then his expression changed suddenly. "No, wait. Never mind."
              I frowned, caught off guard both by his offer and its subsequent takeback. "Why not?"
              "Well, you're a girl. So, y'know..."
              "No, I don't know. Kindly explain."
              "Girls just don't play gridball... well, not like guys anyway. You don't play as well."
              That's just not true! I wanted to shout at him, but I didn't. Maybe some girls were good at gridball, but I couldn't play any kind of sports to save my life. I settled for glaring angrily at him and then stalking away. "Geez..." I heard him mutter behind my back. That only made me angrier, knowing he'd tell all his friends about me - his version of me, the dumb farmer girl who couldn't control her temper. And I'd had quite enough of that in the past.

              The second person was Shane. He came over to the Stardrop Saloon most evenings, and as far as I knew, stayed there until closing. The first time I met him was, of course, at the Saloon. I'd been talking to Emily, of course, which was the only reason I frequented the place. But our talk was interrupted by Shane's entrance.
              His boots fell heavily on the floor. He slammed the door. He towered over both me and Emily, who seemed rather unphased by his presence. I figured she was used to it. But I wasn't, and I can't pretend I wasn't at least a little scared. Emily must have noticed this, for she gave my hand a little, reassuring squeeze, before turning to serve Shane.
              Shane's hair was unkempt, and he'd obviously neglected to shave at all recently. His clothing was in a similar state, and I could see a few holes in his jacket. He ordered some kind of liquor (I didn't bother to remember what it was, but the smell was distinctive enough) and stumped off to a corner of the room.
              "Who's that?" I asked Emily, much preferring not to ask the man himself. Many people I could stand, but not, most decidedly not this kind of man.
              "Shane Detweiler," she replied. "He comes here about every day, sometimes early, but usually late."
              Of course he did. "Does he always drink?"
              Emily nodded. I could hardly look at Shane. I didn't really know what to think. What to say.
              "I think I gotta go meet Maru, she wants to show me something before dinner." It was a lie, but a believable one, I thought. I didn't want to stay here any longer. Not with Shane around.

              I walked along the path from town to the Howes'. I glanced out at the river to my right, and was reminded of how terrible I was at fishing. Perhaps I should try again? No, not without help. Then, in sudden curiosity, I looked over in the other direction. Toward the old building with the clock tower. My feet left the path, and I found myself wandering over toward the building.

              I stopped in my tracks.

              What had I seen?

              It was green. Small and green. Shaped like a large candle. But with what looked like arms and legs.

              And it had scampered right into the old building.

              Grandpa had told me about these creatures. The candle-like creatures. What had he called them? I couldn't remember. But I was all but certain they were magic. So, without stopping to consider if it was a good idea, I ran up to the door of the old building and flung it open. Or, well, tried to. The door was locked. I rattled the knob a couple times, but couldn't get the door open that way either. I didn't feel like breaking into a building, even if the owner likely wouldn't mind, so I left it at that and resumed my walk to Robin's house.
              "'Ey! You there!"
              That didn't sound like any of the villagers I knew. Startled, I looked around for the source of this rough voice.
              "Down 'ere, ya big lug!"
              I looked down to see... the black cat. "What the..."
              "Yeah, I'm a cat. So what? At least you can 'ear me now."
              Cats weren't supposed to talk. But, I reminded myself before I gave into panic, everything was weird around here. The cat might as well be talking! "What... how, though?"
              "''Ow, though,' she asks. 'Ow? Same as everything else in this bloody place. Ya think plants and the mines were the only things affected?"
              "I never really... thought about it yet."
              "You're gonna 'ave to if you're gonna call yerself a magic detective."
              "I guess I will." Then I recalled something. "Why have you been following me around, though?"
              "Whaddaya think? I've been waiting for you to figure out how to talk to me."
              "But I haven't got any affinity to magic. None of my family does. You could've been following me forever."
              "Your grandfather had affinity to magic."
              "You knew my grandfather?"
              Despite the usual lifespan of cats, it turned out, this particular cat had known my grandfather back when he'd lived on the farm. The cat had talked with him every so often, and from their talks had figured out Grandpa Kellsen's goal. Unfortunately, not long after they met, Grandpa became unable to continue his mission. Since then, the cat had been the sole inhabitant of the property, and had determined to keep it safe for someone who would finish the work that Grandpa started. When I came, the cat realized who I was and was overjoyed to hear my mission. "So," the cat concluded, "I'll swear myself into your service if you need me. All I want is to get to the bottom o' this magic deal, same as you."
              I was still processing it all, and all I could think to say was: "What's your name?"
              "Brandon Wood."
              That's an odd name for a cat, I thought. "You're a boy cat, right?"
              "Sort o'. I'm kinda both. Sometimes I'm a lad, and sometimes I'm a lass."
              "So then... what should I call you?"
              "Call me Brandon."

              I told Brandon I'd think over their offer, before once again resuming my walk to the Howes' house. I wondered if Robin knew anything about Brandon, or if she was as oblivious about them as she was about that one fallen tree. But I soon forgot about Brandon; Maru was home. As usual, she invited me into her room to see what progress she'd made on her latest project. Right now, it was a small weather station. Currently, Pelican Town didn't have one of its own; it got its weather forecasts from the nearby Zuzu City. Maru, however, thought that the strange happenings here might affect the weather, and wanted to compare the data she got to Zuzu City's. Plus, she said, more coverage just meant better weather forecasting in general. For my own part, I was simply amazed at her skill with mechanical engineering.

              Demetrius gave me a strange look when I came back into the dining room. I had no idea what it meant, at the time. That would come later. Now, my mission was to ask Robin about Brandon.
              "Brandon Wood? Yes, I knew Brandon. I thought he had left a long time ago... how do you know of him?"
              "Brandon's still here. I talked to them today, actually."
              "They've been around since Grandpa left."
              "Protecting my property for me."
              "His old farm? But I've been over there several times, and I haven't seen..."
              "Well, Brandon is quite good at hiding. They are a cat after all." I chuckled.
              "A cat?!"

              "What do you mean, Brandon's a cat?" Robin demanded. "He was a human. Always. Sure, he was a weird human, but a cat? Never."
              I shrugged, just as confused as her. "They're a cat, though. And I'm not hallucinating or anything, I know that." Then I had a thought. "Unless... unless this has something to do with that drink the Wizard gave me."
              "You what?!" Robin didn't seem to be able to process this - any of it. I regretted telling her, now that I saw how it had affected her.
              "I... It's all right, I swear." I attempted to calm her down, but to no avail.
              Demetrius, having heard his wife's outburst, now hurried into the room. "What's going on?"
              I looked from Robin, who took a few steps toward her husband, to said husband, who was watching me sternly. "Ah... ....magic?"

              Fortunately, we were all able to calm down, and I explained the situation as well as I could. Robin, it turned out, had been concerned I was getting into things I didn't understand, which was technically true, but I mean, who doesn't get into things they don't understand at some point in time? Anyways, she thought that perhaps my thinking had been affected, which it hadn't (thank goodness). After we got that out of the way, she told me what she knew of Brandon Wood.
              Brandon Wood had lived in Stardew Valley for as long as Robin could remember. He and his family were generally aloof, not interacting with the rest of the villagers. (They'd lived in the southern part of Cindersap Wood, and Robin thought their house might still be there.) Only one of their family ever really ventured out to the town, and she ended up marrying one of the general store owner's sons. But one day, Robin remembered, the entire family had just up and disappeared. Hardly anyone missed them, really. The first to notice was Cindel, who'd married the shopowner. But the dishes were still on the table, the fire still burning in the fireplace... they hadn't simply moved out. But nobody knew where they'd gone. Cindel seemed to take it in stride, as if it were a normal event. That was the strangest thing of all.
              "It's possible..." I proposed, thinking out loud. "It's possible that the Woods were simply turned into a family of cats, and therefore seemed to have disappeared. I have no idea why, but... it seems to be the best explanation we have."
              Robin shook her head. "It seems impossible, but I don't know how else this cat would know that name, and it would explain that sudden disappearance."
              "But then," I said, "why hasn't anyone seen this cat - or any other members of the Wood family - before?"
              "Maybe they didn't want to be seen," Demetrius offered. "Until now, for some reason." He didn't say it, but I could tell he was thinking - Maybe you are the reason. And maybe I was.

              I didn't get to talking about the candle-being during that visit. But as I walked back down the path to town, I caught a glimpse of it again, and wished I had. Still, I had a different mission to complete now: go down into the Cindersap Forest and see if I can find that house. I'd have to do it tomorrow, I realized as the sunset washed the sky in purples and oranges. Unless I wanted to hunt for the house in the dark.

              So as soon as I could the next day, I headed south for the forest. Straight south, which meant through the woods that had grown up in my grandfather's farmland. They were surprisingly thick for having been left alone only a few years, but as they were thin enough to walk through, I didn't really mind.
              I came to a clearing, crisscrossed with paths. To my left was a ranch (I could tell by the cows, and the smell). To the right was the path to the Wizard's tower. South was the way I needed to go, so I kept going straight. A river was in the way, but fortunately so was a wooden bridge that was only a little rickety.
              I could see the house as I approached. It seemed rather intact, which was interesting. I imagined it'd make a good home for something or someone without one, if it was in as good a condition as it seemed to be. Its front door was on the other side, though, which I thought was strange. Still, I walked around to that side, which was on a cliff overlooking the sea, and saw... Odd. The door was only half there. The top half had been replaced by a sort of counter, as if the house had been converted into a shop or something. There was plenty of wood in an attached woodshed, but it was covered in cobwebs and fallen leaves. Hadn't been used in a while.
              I heard a skittering noise, and knew something was there. "...Hello?" I ventured. Perhaps it was a Wood-cat... but that didn't sound like a cat.
              "'Oo's there?" came a distinctly high and almost squeaky voice. "Brandon, 'sthat you?"
              "Not Brandon... I'm Reb. Reb Kellsen," I added as an afterthought.
              "Kellsen? Wait a minute... not that one, are ya? Heavens, must be that one!" Whoever it was now talked very quickly, obviously excited. More skittering.
              "What one?" I asked, just as a little gray mouse leaped onto the counter.
              "Surely you know!" the mouse exclaimed. "The one as aims to save the Valley! That's you, ain't it?"
              "Me?!" I'd come here to investigate the Valley, not save it. Saving things wasn't something I'd ever done, let alone been chosen for. "Not me. You must have the wrong person."
              "But you're new... and you can talk to me. That counts for somethin', at least."
              "I can talk to you because how else would I do my investigating? That's why I came here, actually. This is the old Wood house, right? And you're one of the Woods?"
              "That's me." The mouse nodded. "Erin Wood, Esquire."

              "So you're Brandon's..."
              "Sibling, aye. We've been waiting for you." Erin had a tiny green hat on its head, I noticed, which it had to adjust every so often to keep it from sliding off.
              "I'm telling you, I'm not the one who's going to save the Valley. You..."
              "'Alf a moment." The mouse abruptly turned and ran back off the counter. I squinted into the darkness of the interior, trying to see where it had gone. After a minute, it piped up again. "Oh, you'd better come in. 'Ere, lemme get the door..."
              As the door opened, I stepped into the house and was immediately assailed by a tangle of cobwebs. I quickly backed out, took off my glasses, and tried to get the webs off of my face. "I'll get a stick," I said when I was done, though I still thought I felt cobwebs on my skin. Eugh. Anyways, now armed with a stick, I ventured into the house again. This time, I didn't get attacked by cobwebs.
              Erin called me over to a corner which was filled with scraps of cloth and... hats. "'Ere, try these on!" it squeaked.
              "Hats? But why?"
              The mouse looked up at me and I could swear it smiled. "To see if they fit you, of course!"
              Still doubtful, I picked out what appeared to be a simple, plain cap. I carefully brushed it out, not wishing to be surprised by anything except air when I put it on my head, and then... what do you know, it fit perfectly.
              "'Ow's it feel?"
              "Like it was made for me." I'm sure my surprise was evident in my voice.
              "That's the idea. 'Cause, you see, it was. More prop'ly, for the person as I was waiting for. And guess 'oo's 'ere, and guess what it fits?" Erin was dancing with excitement.
              "But how..."
              "Magic. It's 'ow it does. You might not think you can save the Valley, but it does, and it's gonna fix things for you to, you'll see."

              With Erin's foreboding words still echoing in my head, I exited the old house. I hadn't even really thought about it, but I started walking toward the Howes'. It wasn't until I passed the abandoned building with the clocktower that I snapped back into reality. The candle-things. Robin wouldn't know about them, but she'd know how to get into that building, right? There'd be cobwebs, again, which I wasn't really looking forward to, but I had to get in there. Why? ...I didn't know.
              "Mayor Lewis probably has the key," said Robin, so that was my next stop. His house was on the map, though I'd never been in it before nor had reason to be. In fact, I didn't think I'd talked to him since I'd moved in. But now I had to, so off I went.
              His house was large for a small town such as this, but I didn't think it was much bigger than my childhood home, an average-sized house in a suburban neighborhood. As with the Mullners' house, it had a small garden of flower boxes outside, but unlike theirs it was enclosed by a white fence. I wasn't sure whether I should knock on the gate or... what, but I decided on simply unlocking it and ringing the actual doorbell.
              Fortunately, Lewis was home. "Oh! Rebecca, come in."
              "You can call me Reb," I said, but I came in. The inside of the house was nothing exceptional, but the furniture had a certain classy look to it, in keeping with the old-fashioned theme Lewis seemed to follow. "So, Mayor..." I realized I still didn't know his last name.
              "Did I never...? Oh. My name is Lewis Boatright. What did you need to say?"
              "Can I call you Mr. Boatright, or would you prefer Mayor Boatright?"
              "Just call me Lewis." He chuckled.
              "Okay... Lewis, then. Um, you know that building north of here, the old one with the clock tower?"
              "The old community center? Gracious, it's been years since anyone used it. It's become rather an eyesore..."
              Something in his tone struck me. "Are you thinking of selling it?"
              "Well... yes, actually. Joja made me a very tempting offer, and it'll benefit the town to have some growth in it again."
              I couldn't let that happen. Not yet. There was magic in there, and I had to figure out what it was, not give it over to that corporation. "But you already have me moving in, and a farm to provide a new source of income."
              "It could still benefit our town."
              I sighed quietly. "Could you at least... May I at least look around in it some? I think keeping the building the way it is may be important, and I want to find out more."
              Lewis paused, seeming to consider. "I suppose so. Since you are Michael's granddaughter..."

              As soon as I could, I dashed off to the community center. I took a deep breath before sticking the key I'd gotten from Lewis in the lock. It turned slowly, but didn't jam. Full of anticipation, I turned the knob and pushed open the door.

              The inside of the Community Center was in a sad state of disrepair. To the left was a dusty pile of books, leaning against the wall, and in the far left corner was what appeared to be a small house - or kiln - made of brick. In the center of the room (which wasn't the only room in the building; dark openings to either side assured me of that) was a large empty fireplace, over which hung a plaque engraved with six stars. To the right of that was an old, disused fish tank which looked big enough to have belonged in a small aquarium. The floor was broken in spots, and others creaked when you stepped on them. Through some of the holes grew young plants, fed by the sunlight which filtered through the gaps in the roof.
              I took all this in without really seeing it. The candle creatures were my only concern, and despite having seen them near the place earlier, I couldn't see even one here. Perhaps they didn't live in this room, I thought. So I headed left, to see where that hallway led. It had apparently been the kitchen area. To my right was a room that looked to be a pantry, and ahead was the dining room (I could tell by the dusty table). To the left was a room with bookshelves, and a small table in the center. It seemed to be a crafts room. But I didn't much care what kind of room it had been, for in a corner of it lay a small, rectangular tablet, and the tablet glowed.
              On closer inspection, the tablet was engraved with symbols, in a similar manner to the plaque above the fireplace. The symbols were arranged in columns, not unlike letters in their appearance. They seemed alien, but as I stared at them, I began to understand what they meant.

              We, the - what was this word? It looked like Junimo. We, the Junimo, keepers of the valley, seek you who are one with the forest. (If you can read this, you are such.) We seek your aid in restoring the magic of the valley, and request that you deliver us these things to begin the process.
              One - a wild horseradish.
              Two - a daffodil.
              Three - a leek.
              Four - a dandelion.
              Please bring them here before the end of Spring.

              I thought I had an idea of what most of those items were, which was good. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure when I'd be able to get them. Well, Reb, I thought, Daniel Pierre can help you with growing a leek, probably. The horseradish has to be wild, though, which is unfortunate, as I have no idea what that looks like. Daffodils and dandelions should be pretty straightforward.
              My next move seemed clear enough. Pierre's was only a short walk south. I could ask Daniel for that seed catalog, then order what I needed from it. Go in search of a dandelion and a daffodil, and figure out what horseradish looks like.

              Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that simple. First of all, when I arrived at Pierre's, a man I'd never seen before was standing in the middle of the place, talking at everybody else.
              "...fifty percent off your purchase at JojaMart," he announced, and drew a stack of coupons from his pocket with a flourish before turning to see who'd interrupted his spiel.
              "Excuse me," I began, but the man stared at me over his spectacles in a way that rather discouraged me from continuing, and I realized who it was.
              "Rebecca Kellsen! Fancy meeting you here, after... that. I suppose I can't offer you an employee discount any more, can I? No, I didn't think so. Still, want a coupon? Fifty percent off any purchase, one time only."
              "No thanks." My voice was cold. Out of all the people I hoped I'd never meet again, Morris Lachlan was the one I would have put at the top of the list. "This isn't your store, you know. What are you doing trying to hand out coupons in it?"
              The patrons of the store, who'd started toward Morris to take advantage of the deal he was offering, hesitated. Jodi - the middle-aged mother of Sam - spoke up. "Well, a deal is a deal, and I'll be darned if I don't take this one while it's here." That seemed to settle the issue.
              After everyone had gone, Daniel called me up to the counter. "You know this man?" he asked, and I nodded in reply. "I feel sorry for you! He's tried to drive me out of business ever since he got here. I've never had to deal with this before, and frankly..." he paused, swallowing his pride. "I'm not sure what to do. Recently, he's been ratcheting up the competition, and I don't know how much more of this my business can handle."
              I recalled what the mayor had told me the very same day. Pierre's is doomed, I thought. Unless, somehow, Lewis refuses to sell the Community Center. Unless someone stops Morris. Unless...

              I could do something about this, I realized, though I wasn't yet quite sure how. And it wasn't in my job description, either. I'd come here to investigate magic, not weaponize it! But I knew it was right, and a verse from my childhood came to mind: "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act." Did Morris deserve this? No. He did not. Did Daniel? I didn't know. Still, I figured, he had more of a chance of it than the other guy. So I stood up straight (as tall as 5 foot 4 can get you), took a breath, and said, "I have an idea. I'll need to order some leek seeds."
              Daniel looked at me in complete confusion. "What... you... order leek seeds?"
              "You don't need to, Rebecca. They grow wild in the forest. It'd be worlds easier to simply go out there and pick them."
              "Oh." I felt pretty stupid. What kind of farmer am I? "Well..." It'd be much less embarrassing to look the horseradish up in an encyclopedia or something. Or I could just use my phone! "Ah, never mind. Thank you." I turned to leave.
              "Wait! What's your plan?"
              "I'm afraid it'd seem even stupider than asking for leek seeds."
              "I'd rather know than not."
              I sighed and turned back. "Well, it has to do with magic, and I'm not sure if it'll work. Or how much of it I can reveal."
              Daniel started to say something, then stopped. I took the opportunity to leave, before I could stick my foot in my mouth any more.

              The next day, new knowledge in hand, I ventured out to the Cindersap Forest. I knew what to look for; the only problem would be finding it. And that was a problem indeed. I couldn't find anything that looked like the pictures of horseradish or leeks, and no dandelions had bloomed. All I'd found was a lonely daffodil. So I took that to the Community Center and left it on the tablet, figuring that'd be better than leaving it to wilt or be trampled while I waited for the rest of the plants to appear.

              Waiting quickly became boring, as the only other thing I had to do besides search the forest was take care of my small farm each day. Robin was charging for her work now, and I simply didn't have enough money for any of that. So, one day, I found myself wandering over to the mines. There were monsters in there, I remembered, so I'd brought my hoe with me, though it wasn't much of a weapon.
              The entrance was flanked by lanterns outside, and there was a light inside. I hoped that meant someONE, not someTHING, was in there, but I kept my hoe ready. As I drew near, I saw a white-haired man inside, facing away from me, gazing into a darkened hole that must lead further in. "Hello?" I said.
              The man spun around. "Gil?" His right eye was covered by an eyepatch. He squinted with his left, surprised by the appearance of someone who was definitely not Gil. "Oh! You're... Mike?!"
              "Mike?" I echoed. "No, he was my grandfather, but..."
              "Mike's grandson?! Oh my stars and... you really... you came all this way? For this? What did you come here for?"
              I was not really a grandson, but I didn't say anything about that. If he thought I was a boy, then at least he wouldn't say I couldn't be Grandpa's heir. "I came here to... to investigate the magic. My name is Reb Kellsen. What's yours?"
              "Marlon Inker. You've come here at just the right time, young Reb. I'm too attuned to magic to go down there myself... anymore," and he touched his eyepatch meaningfully, "but that means I can sense it, and I can tell there's been a building up of magical power lately, heading for a crescendo, and that's not good magic, y'know, it's all in the hands of the monsters down there, who'd like nothing better than to come up here and destroy all of Yoba's green earth and her people." He paused. "That's why I'm here, y'see, I'm here to monitor the magic, the Woods are up by the Forest to monitor it but I'm down here and..." He stopped again, seeing my expression. "What is it, young man?"
              "I hate to break it to you, Marlon, but the Woods are... well, they've been affected by something, and Brandon and Erin Wood have been turned into animals."
              "Oh? Oh. Yeah, I knew that, Brandon comes to see me every so often, he's a real sneaky one, that cat." I felt rather stupid again. "But, uh... you came here to investigate the magic, didn't you, Reb? I could use an investigator 'round here. Why don't you go down into those mines, take a look around, maybe the first five floors or something, and report to me what you see?" He seemed to notice my hoe for the first time. "Oh Yoba, is that your best weapon? Here, follow me, I'll get you a real sword."

              Marlon led me out of the mine and to the left, into an old-looking but well-kept house with a front defined by two large columns. A sign by the door read:
              ADVENTURERS' GUILD
              M. INKER AND CO.
              It was rather a strange sign, even more so when I realized that the only other member of the guild, Gil, was a full-bearded man who seemed mainly to sit in a rocking chair, smoking his pipe. This gave the interior of the guild house a rather distinctive smell, as well as having turned the ceiling a shade of dark grey.
              But when Marlon entered, all I saw were the swords and other artifacts hanging on the walls, the helmets stacked in a corner, the map of Pelican Town with colored pins stuck in it that must have stood for magic things, though I had no idea what. I didn't see Gil until Marlon called to him. "Gil, you'll never guess who's here!"
              "Oh, won't I?" Gil muttered through his pipe stem. "Why, because I can't see 'em?"
              "It's Kellsen's kid, Gil! He's come to get a proper sword for adventuring down in the mines. I recruited him, y'know."
              "Judgin' by his steps, he's gonna need a pretty light blade."
              "I do think you're right. Just a minute, let me see what I have in the way of..."
              "Try Brandon's old sword. He favored a fencing blade."
              I was perfectly content to be left out of this conversation, as it meant I could admire the swords on the wall instead of having to answer questions. Gil's suggestion of a fencing sword was a good one, too, I thought. As long as I could remember, I'd admired that fighting style. Regardless of how well it'd do against monsters.
              Marlon returned with a rather rusty, thin sword, of simple, sturdy construction. It wasn't really a fencing sword, but neither was it a typical heavy one. It was somewhere in between. To me, it looked perfect.
              "I can clean it if you want," he began, but I'd already taken the sword in my hand. Stepping back, so as not to hit him accidentally, I tried a few practice swings.
              "Oh dear," Gil muttered. "Marlon, are you aware this boy likely hasn't swung a sword in his entire life?" Thoroughly embarrassed, I immediately stopped my attempts.
              "I am now," said Marlon, who'd been watching me in disbelief. "But then again, did I have any idea how to use a sword when I stole yours and ventured into the mine for a dare?"
              "No, but you nearly lost your arm in the attempt."
              "But I didn't!" Marlon declared proudly.
              "Er, Marlon?" I interrupted. I wasn't actually sure where to go after that. "So, can I keep the sword, or...?"
              "Wait a minute!" Gil exclaimed. "Marlon, who did you say this was?"
              "Reb Kellsen, Mike's grandson." Marlon seemed as confused as I was.
              "...That grandson's a girl."
              The room was silent. I felt guilty, like I'd been pretending to be someone else and had been exposed. Any second now, I expected reproach would fall on me, for letting Marlon and Gil think I was something I was not.
              Marlon finally spoke. "Reb... are you a girl?"
              "I don't know. I really don't know."
              "So then what should I call you? Young Kellsen with a taste for adventure?" Marlon grinned, his smile gap-toothed.
              I couldn't help laughing. "Sounds about right."

              Marlon and Gil kept my attention for quite a while. Perhaps they'd been a little starved for outside contact, because they just kept on talking, making jests at each other and at my apparent incompetence with a sword, which I didn't mind so much after I got used to it. Then I remembered something Marlon had mentioned earlier. "Marlon, you said you knew that the Woods had been turned into animals."
              "Yeah, they've been like that for a while."
              "How did that happen?"
              "Magic," Gil offered, rocking back in his chair with a smirk on his face.
              "If that's all you're going to say then hush and let me tell it!"
              "Fine, then you tell it."
              "All right." Gil took one last puff before setting his pipe down on the table beside him. "But it's true. We know how it happened but not who did it, even after all these years. It was magic, but not just any kind. Not nature magic, not teleportation magic, but a kind we'd never seen before or since. I guess you could call it shapeshifting magic, or animal magic - I'm still not certain which it is. Either could do that, theoretically, and we don't have anyone with either to test it on."
              Marlon added his own account. "It happened a long time ago, just after dinnertime, I believe. The first we knew of it was Brandon scratching on our door, meowing to be let in. Then we discovered it'd happened to all of them. Erin was a mouse, Alis a dove, and Patrick a snake. Only Cindel was spared, as she hadn't been in the house, so we knew it was localized and not genetic. But we had no idea why, and we still don't today."

              "What happened to Alis and Patrick?" was my first question. Brandon and Erin were still around, but nobody else had mentioned these other two. Were they quartered somewhere else, somewhere I hadn't yet been? Or...
              "Happened? Oh, no, no, nothing happened to them. They're stationed in different areas of the Valley, is all. See, while Erin watched over the Cindersap Forest, Brandon kept watch over your grandpa's farm. We keep an eye on the mines, Alis guards the Secret Woods, and Patrick... the Calico Desert," Marlon finished proudly.
              "Wait, the what?" I paused and tried to clarify. "The Secret Woods? The Calico Desert? What are those?"
              "The Secret Woods is a secret," Gil said.
              "More like," Marlon added, "it's a secret to normal people. Like you, for example. And we can't just go telling you about it... I think there are some people who wouldn't really like that." For the first time, the adventurer seemed perhaps a little fearful.
              Gil rocked back in his chair again. "However..."
              "Oh, yes. The Calico Desert is just over the mountains from here. There's a pass, but... I don't think the bus has been running, and unless you have a car..."
              I smiled. "I do, actually."
              "Huh. Really?" Marlon seemed to look at me in a new light. "You know what, I didn't expect that."
              "Why not?" I teased. "Because I can't swing a sword?"

              In the end, Marlon Inker agreed to teach me the basics. He said I didn't need to know anything too fancy, as I'd most likely hone my technique in combat if it was needed. "Still," he added, "you have to know the basics. And not just know 'em, but know 'em so instinctively that they're as easy as tying your shoe." At that, I looked down at my own boots, which were fastened with a zipper, and he amended his words. "Well, as easy as putting it on, at least."
              My first lesson went about as well as expected. It was mainly practicing form, which wasn't as strictly important as in fencing, but necessary if I wanted to waste as little energy as possible in my strikes. Eager to perfect the techniques, I practiced them nearly all day, earning an amused smile apiece from Robin and Maru. I didn't have quite as much zeal later, however, as the wear of farm work added to that of practice and made me a very sore Reb. But sooner than later I saw the day when Marlon clapped me on the back and said: "You know what, I think you're just about ready."
              Gil snorted from his usual place in the corner. "You perfectionist, you. They w're ready a long time ago."
              "Maybe." Marlon stared off into the distance for a moment. "But... I guess I just wanted to make sure."
              Gil grinned, showing his stained teeth. "If ya say so, Marl."

              As I stood in the entrance to the mines, Brandon's sword in my left hand, I thought I understood why Marlon had waited. I seemed so small compared to these walls. Behind any corner might lurk an enemy, and I felt a bit of trepidation at the idea of actually facing one. Marlon had told me to go down to level 5, I reminded myself. Level 5. And with that, I moved forward.
              The first level was actually rather empty. The only things it held were rocks, rocks, and more rocks. A slight trace of metal in the walls hinted at the reason the mines had been dug, but as expected, it was the only trace I could find.
              The second level was slightly more damp, being farther underground and likely feeding off of the river. It was mainly rocks, but as I approached a bend in the passageways, I heard a distinctive, sticky plop that I didn't think could come from plain water. Immediately, I was on alert. I adjusted my grip on the sword and backed against the wall, not wanting to be caught by surprise, though I couldn't imagine what kind of monster would make that noise. Slowly, I edged around the corner, trying to see as much of the room ahead as I could.
              I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Something, partially transparent it seemed, had been in that room for about a half second, before disappearing. I held my breath, not daring to move, but it did not reappear. So cautiously, I moved forward, and immediately regretted it. The thing suddenly came flying at me from where it had been waiting behind one of the walls.
              Instinctively, I brought my sword forward to defend myself, and I knew I'd aimed true - it would've stabbed right through the thing, whatever it was - but the thing landed right on it and bounced backward with only a scratch to show for it. I, for my part, nearly fell backwards, but I guess I'd learned enough balance not to. Seeing that I'd indeed hurt it, I recovered and pressed the advantage, refusing to allow the thing time to jump at me again. It had the consistency of jello, which made it harder to hurt, but you can cut jello with a fork if you press hard enough, and so it was with this thing. Its rubbery skin gave way, exposing the interior, which spilled out in a green, gooey mess. Interestingly, it had no smell.
              I stared at the remains of the thing, before inspecting my sword, which was still covered with some of the goop. "Eugh," I said to myself as I surveyed the mess. "Slime."

              Time passed quickly in the mines. I'd started in the early afternoon, but by the time I'd reached the fifth and final level it was late - very late, and I was tired. Tired of squishy, smelly slimes; the buzzing, overgrown bugs that had nearly made me drop my sword and run when I'd first seen them; and the burrowing mole- or worm-like creatures who liked to dig underneath me and make me lose my footing, or scratch at me when they were within reach. I climbed down the ladder carefully, thanking God for the fact that all the rungs could support my weight, and dropped to the ground, scanning the area for any living creatures. There were none in sight, only rocks, more rocks, and... an old, rusty metal set of double doors.

              The doors, despite my exhaustion, caught my attention, and I approached them, having found myself a second wind - or third, or fourth, I didn't know. I was so focused on the doors that I didn't even see the rock scuttling toward me until it was too late.

              I screamed like a little girl, completely caught off guard, and instinctively spun around, bringing my sword down toward the attacker. Said attacker, however, had been startled by my scream and scuttled backward, the rock it seemed to be made of thwarting my attack.

              It seemed to be glowing.

              I stared at it helplessly, totally out of ideas on what to do. Then it skittered forward again, and I caught a glimpse of thin, spidery legs underneath the rock. I lunged forward and down, my sword sliding into that thin space between creature and ground, and used that as a lever to flip the thing like a pancake. Its legs - not quite spidery, I realized, but crablike - flailed helplessly in the air, a band on one of them gleaming oddly in the light that seemed to come from within. It hissed frantically, in wheezing panic, and I thought I could make out words... Ssseeker... it seemed to say. Sseeker... ssspare me.
              I paused. My sword had been hovering over the creature, ready to strike a killing blow. But... it was different from the slimes and bugs I'd fought before. It could talk. Did it even want to fight? It hadn't really hurt me, except when it'd bumped into me at first. But then - why hadn't it just talked?

              "Why?" was the question I finally decided to ask.

              I have informassshion... you might want to know.

              I weighed my options. Information was good: I'd come here as an investigator, after all. But Marlon had made it very clear that the monsters down here only wanted destruction. Maybe I could keep this thing somewhere contained? But how would I get it out of the mines? Could I even carry it up the ladders? I didn't even have anywhere to put it. Besides, how could I know it wouldn't escape? I frowned, looking from the creature to the ladder and back again... and then the idea came.


              I was jolted from my reverie. "Yeah?"

              Are you not aware of the elevatorss?

              I most certainly was not. Why hadn't Marlon told me about those? How could I find-

              My eyes landed on the double doors. "Oh."

              The keypad, oddly enough, only had every fifth floor listed. I could understand why, I supposed, as the last one read 120. But... a mine with one hundred and twenty floors? It seemed impossible, especially as each floor was so small. My mind, as I pried the doors open, picked up the creature in my arms, and pressed the button for floor zero, went over the possibilities - anything that could give a reason for this absurdity. Assuming each floor was about this size, and directly underneath the one above it, they'd look almost like a hole straight down into the ground, separated only by thin crusts of earth. Maybe they were so small because there was something down there, that whoever dug the mine was searching for? I had no idea what that could be. The reason the mine was so unexposed, I figured, was probably to protect the appearance of its surroundings. Which would mean whoever did it cared about the earth. That they weren't, at least, monsters.

              I headed over to the Adventurers' Guild, as had been my plan. The lights were off and door locked when I arrived, but a few minutes of banging on the door roused Marlon, who came to the door with a dressing gown and a sword in his hand. He seemed surprised to see me at this hour. "Reb, what's..." His voice trailed off as he looked down and saw the creature, who'd made itself comfortable in my arms. "Drop it. Now."

              The creature hissed a desperate No! and started to turn itself back over, using me as leverage, while I, stunned, stepped backward and began formulating a protest. But I never even got to say a word as Marlon, seeing my hesitation, flung the door wide and thrust his sword into the middle of the creature. I just stared at him in shock as it writhed in pain for a moment, its hissing sounding almost like a thin scream, before going limp, the light fading from its body.

              "Marlon.." My voice was quavering, uncertain, but it soon steadied in anger. "Marlon, what the hell?"

              I refused to let go of the crab-creature, holding it close instinctively, protectively; but it already felt less substantial than it had when it was alive, and I looked down at it in time to see its body crumble into dust. All that remained was a shining golden band, which would have fallen to the ground had Marlon not caught it. He still hadn't responded to my outburst, and now he seemed to forget it entirely as he held up the ring to me. "Reb. Look at this."

              I looked, sufficiently distracted. "Marlon, what is it?"

              "It's a ring of light, if I remember right. Here." He reached out and took my hand, sliding the ring onto a finger - and suddenly, there seemed to be a glow about me, and I could see, even better than usual in the dark.

              "Whoa," I breathed, holding up my hand, which I could now see as clear as day. Marlon smiled at me, probably amused at the way I was reacting. I smiled back, forgetting what had just happened - for a moment.

              "Go home, now." Marlon's smile faded, and he gave me a gentle shove. "It's time for you to be in bed. After midnight... it's not safe to be outside. The ring will protect you some, but keep a sharp eye out."

              "...What?" If it wasn't safe to be outside, why hadn't I been told that before? I was lucky I hadn't stayed up late enough to be in danger!

              "Now that the monsters know you're here and fighting, they'll come after you whenever they can - including aboveground, at night. Specially after midnight. That's why you need to get home."

              I just stared at him, eyes wide. No... would my house even be safe? Would anywhere be safe? My grip on my sword tightened, and I was suddenly highly, fearfully aware of each noise in the darkness. Marlon noticed this, and sighed. "I can't escort you home, Reb... but you can do this yourself."

              "Ma- Marlon..." I couldn't believe this. Couldn't accept it. There had to be another way.

              Marlon came up and put his non-sword arm around me. "Reb Kellsen, I know you've prob'ly done and seen a lot today..." He paused, considering his words. "I think that's enough for today. Come on in; I'll make you up a bed."

              The Adventurers' Guild felt warm and safe, even with most of the lights off. It was reassuring to know Marlon and Gil were only three steps away if you needed them. For someone such as I, who'd never really been alone for too long, a house all to myself was something it'd take a while to get used to, if I ever did. I resolved I'd start asking around for a housemate - someone to perhaps keep me company.

              The next day, however, I woke up to the sound of rain on the roof. Gil was still asleep in his bunk, but Marlon's was empty. A bit of exploration led me to a tarp stretched out to form a makeshift porch, under which Marlon stood, making pancakes - literal pan-cakes - on a fold-up gas stove.

              "You... don't have a kitchen?" That was obvious. A stupid question, maybe, but I had to open the conversation somewhere.

              "This is our kitchen." Marlon flipped a pancake, then nodded at it approvingly.

              "Oh. ...You don't need one inside?" Robin had expressed an interest in expanding my house to include a proper kitchen; I had little doubt she'd do the same for Marlon and Gil, especially if they could pay.

              "Maybe," Marlon admitted. "But who doesn't like cooking a meal outdoors? Sure, it ain't as fancy as you can get in an indoor kitchen, but you can make enough of a variety out here that 'less you're a gourmet, it don't matter."

              I grinned, and nodded. "Hey, I could help with that." I'd cooked pancakes several times before, and some of those times had indeed been on a stove like this one.

              Marlon shrugged. "I've already set the table and gotten the syrup out. Not much to do."

              So I waited until the pancakes were done, at which point Marlon went inside to help lead Gil to the table. After we'd all sat down, Gil began humming a low, repetitive tune, one you hardly noticed at first. I thought nothing of it, until Marlon began to sing.

              "Thank you Yoba for the plenty you provide..." The tune was simple, chant-like almost, solemn.
              "Thank you for the land you've given us to mind...
              "We offer up our thanks for your protection too,
              "Abide with us, and guiding us in all we are to do." Marlon had sung well, never going off-key as far as I could tell. The tune was obviously very familiar to him - it reminded me of a prayer one might say before eating.

              I'd kept my eyes closed while he sang, out of respect. Now I opened them, to see Gil turn his head toward me. "You heard that before?"

              "No, I haven't. It's very... very melodic, though." That wasn't the word I was looking for, but I took it.

              Gil grinned. "You hummed a fine harmony." And I realized I had been quietly humming my own harmony to the tune. My cheeks grew a little hot, and I smiled back with a "thank you", effectively ending that conversation, as we all began digging into the pancakes Marlon had made.

              Gil was especially proud of the syrup, which, he said, he and Marlon had tapped themselves. "Fact is," he boasted, "Marl and I sell this stuff to the whole town. It's how we make our living when we ain't venturing into the mines." And he had reason to be proud. The syrup was delicious, as were the pancakes.

              Of course, then I had to say so. "Hey, Marlon?"

              "More pancakes?"

              I grinned. There was something endearing about these two. Something that made you feel better just being around them. "No, actually, but they were amazing. Thanks for breakfast, as well as for letting me stay the night."

              Gil snorted at that, and elbowed Marlon. "What'd you do, sleep on your cot again? I'll have you know my bed's always open."

              Marlon flashed a grin back at him, looking suddenly younger. "Maybe some other time when I haven't just been killing a rockcrab."

              "I know you're grinning at me Marl!" Gil teased, but I didn't really hear the rest of that conversation. Marlon had killed a rockcrab... the rockcrab. The rockcrab who'd only wanted to get out. He'd killed it in my arms. Was he right to do that? The crab had seemed harmless, and I liked to think I was a fair judge of character, but on the other hand Marlon had taken me in so gladly, and taught me how to fight...
              On the other hand, he hadn't warned me about the monster attacks until after I'd already triggered them. Why not? Had he simply forgotten? Obviously he wanted me to fight them. But how was I to know this was the right thing to do? They weren't attacking anybody else. They would only come after me because I'd killed - no, Marlon killed - that rockcrab, and maybe because I'd killed the slimes and other creatures. They weren't even venturing outside. I'd gone into their home and started killing them.

              "...kay there?" Marlon's voice drifted into my thoughts, and I blinked, shaking my head. "What?"

              "You okay there, Reb?"

              "Marlon?" I paused, drawing the attention of both him and Gil. "I'm not going to do this anymore." Marlon raised a hand, starting to protest. "I'm... I'm not killing any more creatures until I have a very good reason to do so."

              Both Marlon and Gil were taken aback. Marlon opened his mouth, then closed it again, unsure of what to say, but Gil was not so hindered. "Their magic is growing stronger. I'm afraid they ain't gonna stop just because some young Kellsen refuses to fight. Specially with you wearing the ring of the rockcrab." Marlon must have told him what happened last night.

              "I... They haven't attacked anyone who hasn't hurt them first."

              "And you've hurt 'em Reb. You can't go back on this now."

              "I can try!" I stood up, surprising even myself with my determination. "I'm not going to fight 'em, Gil..." What was Gil's last name? "Not unless I absolutely have to. I'm not gonna go back in those mines for you - they belong to them. I'm not going to invade their territory any more."

              "...So be it," said Marlon slowly. His brows were furrowed in... concern? Frustration?

              Whatever it was, that was that. I took my sword and left the Guild, heading back to my house, the mountain way. I was not really as scared of Linus as I had been before. After all, I did have a sword now, and had proven I knew how to use it. Still, I was startled when his voice came to me as I passed his tent. "Reb?"

              "Huh?" I was very eloquent that morning.

              "...You're here early." This was true. Usually I'd be coming the other direction about this time.

              "Yeah, I guess I am."

              "Something's not right." He walked out of his tent, seemingly uncaring about the rain. His eyes, as he approached me, seemed unfocused, unseeing, and I realized he too was blind.

              "...Tell me about it."

              "Aside from coming from the wrong direction, your steps are heavy, and I heard disturbances in the forest last night. Not... saying they're related, but you were likely wise not to come back this way last night."

              "Thanks." The words were still catching in my throat. I couldn't say I was completely at ease here. Especially not after what had just happened with Marlon and Gil. "Are... you sure you're okay out here?" The tent wouldn't offer protection against the creatures if they did decide to attack... but Linus didn't seem the type to fight. Still, he might well get caught in the crossfire...

              Linus smiled. "I assure you I'll be fine. Strange that you're so concerned about a wild man, though. Most would..."

              "Why shouldn't I be? You haven't done anything to me."

              "True... and even though it was said anyone loves those who love him, in some cases not even that is true anymore."

              That was a reference I recognized - another verse from my childhood. "Anyone can love those who love them, but not everyone can love those who hate them."

              Linus's eyebrows flew up. "Yes, exactly! You know that verse?"

              "I don't remember the reference, but yes!" We were both excited now. "We could look it up, if you have a Bible..."

              "...Unfortunately, not one I can read."

              "If you have one, I could read it to you. But inside, of course."

              "Of course. Come in." And he led me into his tent, which was furnished simply, with a sleeping bag and a small camping stove.

              He produced an old, worn Bible from a bag, and we spent a good part of the morning going over verses we'd both half forgotten - I read them to Linus, and we both, I think, appreciated the reminders of our past. Finally, I got up and said goodbye, heading out toward the Howes' to say hello to Robin and Maru.

              I didn't make it to the Howes'.

              I was only halfway to their house when a small, black blur accosted me - it took me a second to realize that it was Brandon.

              "Reb!" Brandon exclaimed, padding up beside me on their cat paws. "Where 'ave you been? I've been lookin' all over for ya!"

              "I've been with Marlon and Gil - then Linus. I slept over at their house... I heard there were monsters near here."

              "That- aye, that's exactly why I 's so worried! Thought ya'd been intercepted on yer way back... thank Yoba yer safe." Brandon sneezed. They were a cat, I realized, who'd been outside in the rain.

              "Brandon? Let's get you inside... it's awfully wet out here."

              "You could say that again!" They sneezed again, twice more in quick succession, and with that we both hurried to the Howes'.

              Inside, Robin was sitting with her feet up, reading a book, and the door to Demetrius's lab was closed, with a sign that read "EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS" pasted on it. Robin waved at me, then looked... a bit strangely at Brandon. "Is that..."

              "Aye, it's me, Robbie!" Brandon loped toward her.

              But she only blinked, looking a bit disappointed, before reaching out to pat their head. "Oh."

              "She... can't 'ear me, Reb." Brandon turned his head back toward me, a bit sadly, I thought, before leaning toward Robin to accept the petting.

              "Oh," I said, and then, "Robin? This is Brandon... only, you can't hear them."

              She looked at me like I was crazy. "That's just a regular cat, Reb. See - he just wants some affection." And that was, indeed, what it looked like to me. Brandon was rubbing up against Robin's leg, starting to purr quietly. I could almost believe they were a regular cat - almost.

              "They... they're not. Here. Ask them a question, anything about Brandon."

              "All right..." Robin still looked skeptical, but she pondered for a moment, before saying: "How old are you?"

              "Sixty-seven," Brandon replied, and she looked at them blankly for a moment before turning to me.

              "They said sixty-seven," I repeated.

              Robin laughed. "That sounded very much like a meow to me. But... I think the cat is correct."

              "So I have to translate for you," I mused. "Unless, that is, Brandon can write..." Brandon shook their head. "Well then."

              "Reb?" The black cat sat up suddenly, turning to face me again. "Th' real reason I came to find ya was... I talked with Marlon an' Gil."

              Oh no. I could tell, in Brandon's tone, that they weren't happy. I frowned, anticipating a lecture.

              Robin had sensed the changing mood of the conversation, though she had no idea what Brandon had said, and got up. "Should I... leave you two alone for now?" Brandon nodded, and she blinked in surprise, her gaze lingering on them for a bit, before she turned and left.

              Brandon focused their attention fully on me now. "Reb Kellsen. Do you know why I'm 'ere?"

              "You're here to watch over my farm. Well... my grandpa's farm."

              "D'you know why it needs watchin' over?"

              "...No... not really."

              "It's good land, Reb. Y'know that?"

              "Yeah." I nodded, smiling. Even a layperson like me could see the soil on the farm was... different. Crops grew much faster than they should, for one. Demetrius would know better than me how exactly they were affected, but they were also better quality than they probably should've been for a farm just starting out. No bugs or animals seemed to have eaten from them, either...

              "It's magic land. Passed down through the Kellsen family f'r generations. The Kellsens were supposed ta keep the land... keep it safe. Only, your grandpa..." Brandon paused to lick a front paw. "'E couldn't convince 'is kids. So we... the whole darn thing near fell apart. Until you came, 'at is."

              "Keep it safe... from what?"

              "The mine-dwellers. Ones as are comm'nly called monsters."

              "Oh. But then... they hadn't been attacking until I came, and started killing them..."

              "...They stopped after you arrived. Now, Marlon thinks they were doin' it on purpose, an' sent the crab-thing up to try ta convince ya to help 'em before we got t'you." A paw brushed over their ear; they were grooming themself.

              "Oh, great." It sounded like I was a piece of land being fought over, having stepped straight into a war between two sides, neither of which I was sure was right. At least I understood the conflict between Joja and the Junimos. Damn. That made two wars going on, right here in this tiny town, and I in the middle of all of it.

              I couldn't do this alone. I couldn't fight in these wars all by myself. I needed some people to help me... people who could see the magic, unlike Robin; people who didn't have an agenda, unlike Marlon and Gil and Brandon. People around my age, maybe... such as, possibly, Emily Green? She was probably sensitive to magic, I figured, since she knew where Antoine had gone, and I doubted she'd taken any sides in the mine/farm conflict. As for the other one, well... I knew she was vocal against the urbanization of Pelican Town. In fact, she and Gus only shopped at Pierre's (which meant they were probably using some of my ingredients now).

              "Brandon?" I still wasn't sure what side to take in this battle. "What do you want with Grandpa's farm... and what do the mine-dwellers want with it?"

              "We want the farm ta be properly maintained an' flourish, bringing plenty to the town and utilizin' the magic in its best possible way. The mine-dwellers... well, they'd rather use the land ta be a nest for slimes or somethin'."

              "You don't know?" My tone was accusatory.

              "Well I 'aven't exactly been in the position to ask 'em."

              I stood up suddenly. "Then I will. Right now."

              "Reb Kellsen, no!" Brandon was panicking. Clearly, this was something I was not supposed to do. More than that, something they hadn't expected. I pressed the advantage, and hurried outside, leaving Brandon, and a concerned Demetrius who'd just come to investigate the cause of the yelling, in my wake.

              I knew where I had to go. Across the bridge, into the mine, down the elevator. I knew I had to do this. Brandon hadn't been straight with me. First of all, they'd let me believe they had no clue what had happened yesterday. What they'd said later only contradicted. Now, to bring the village plenty was a noble goal, and sounded better than raising slimes to me, but I couldn't be sure that was really what they wanted. And as for the mine-dwellers, even Brandon had admitted they didn't really know what their goal was. The best way to find out, I figured, was to ask them.

              Neither Marlon nor Gil noticed in time to stop me. I was on the elevator, wiping stray drops of water from the lenses of my glasses, when I started to doubt the wisdom of diving directly into the mines like this. If things went wrong, who would get me out? Probably Brandon, who'd alert Marlon and Gil, who... well. Marlon, despite his bravado, was half blind, and Gil was completely blind. They might have experience with fighting the mine-dwellers, but they shouldn't be sent down to rescue me. And even if I don't end up needing to be rescued, they'd probably come anyway.

              I sighed. Well, it's too late to turn back now. Not likely I could convince them not to follow me. Any delay now would ruin the plan.

              And then the elevator jerked to an unexpected stop.

              The doors didn't open. I wasn't to floor 5 yet. I'd been stopped partway down. Trapped.

              I pressed the button again, and again, the sense of urgency growing. Nothing happened, so I turned to the doors. My fingernails would be useless, but I had a sword, which I attempted to stick between the doors to pry them open. A minute or so of struggling, and I was able to slide the rusty doors apart, enough to see that I'd nearly made it to the fifth floor and that there was room enough for me to get through. So I did, sliding feet first through the gap I'd made, and landing on the rocky floor of the mine.

              No one was there.

              I took a deep breath, then called, "Hello?" Some skittering, like that of the rockcrab, answered me, and after a short while another, smaller rockcrab appeared, stopping across the room to appraise me cautiously.

              I waved at it. "Hey."

              Why do you come here? Its tone was accusatory, and slightly fearful. Evidently it'd heard of what I'd done down here last time.

              "...Sorry about the fighting. Killing," I corrected myself. I was fairly sure I'd killed several of the mine-dwellers, and I wasn't going to get anywhere by trying to soften that fact. "I..." What more could I possibly say?

              Sssorry does not bring them back.

              "I know. I... what can I do?" I bit my lip. This wasn't exactly what I'd planned to discuss, but it was just as important, and if I knew what sort of things they considered atonement, that could be a good hint to the rest.

              Join uss. Help uss.


              It clacked its claws for a little, thinking, then answered. Ssseeker, are you aware of the others which follow you?

              Of course I was. "Yeah." Marlon and Gil, probably.

              You should not trussst them. They only mean to usse you to destroy us.

              "I got that much, yeah. But why should I help you? What's your goal?"

              It was silent for a while before replying. Goal? Our only goal is to ssurvive. The otherss would destroy us, for no reason except that they sssee us as threats by our very existence.

              "...Are you? I mean... what do you need to survive?"

              Not much. Only thiss mine to ourselves... we would be appreciative if you'd sset aside a small corner of your farm for us to grow sssustenance, too. The mines are barren, and your farmland iss large and plentiful.

              I didn't see why not. I couldn't see myself using all the land my grandpa'd had in the future, even if I did expand. I nodded. "I think I can do that. But... I don't know that I'll be able to convince the others to leave you alone. They're pretty set in their ways, and I'm not really good at convincing people..."

              Jussst try for now. You've already done more for us than any other human hass. Thank you, Ssseeker.

              I smiled at the rockcrab. This decision felt right - not something I'd just chosen because it was the first choice I'd been given. I never really wanted to kill, and this way I could, perhaps, venture into the mines again without fear. ...Or could I? "Rockcrab?"

              My name iss Chrysoberyl.

              "Chrysoberyl? Can I come back into the mines? ...Could I take minerals from there, or will you need them?"

              For you, Ssseeker... anything.

              Marlon and Gil reached the top of the ladder to floor 4 at about the same time as I did. Marlon held his sword in both hands, and Gil held a lantern and a shield. Both of their faces, as I saw in the combined light of my ring and the lantern, were grim.

              Confrontation. Especially confrontation by parental figures. If there was one situation I unquestionably couldn't handle, this was it.

              "They're alive, at least," Marlon said, and Gil nodded in agreement. "I know." Then they turned to address me. "Reb... what did you do?"

              How was I supposed to explain this to them?

              I'd gone behind their backs. They'd yell at me.

              They wouldn't understand. Their minds were already made up, and I had no idea how to begin convincing them.

              I wanted to drop down into the mines and disappear.

              But I didn't. Instead, well... "I... I..." I stuttered. What could I possibly say? How could I convince them I was okay? That they didn't have to fight the mine-dwellers?

              I couldn't. They wouldn't understand. Their minds were already made up. So I shut up and started walking past them, toward the floor 3 ladder.

              Marlon hurried to catch up to me, his sword no longer in his hands (it was now in Gil's). He grabbed my arm, trying to look into my eyes. "Reb Kellsen, what happened down there?"

              I twisted my hand away - a surprisingly easy move if one knows the trick. My heart was pounding in my chest. I began running, and behind me I thought I could hear skittering, similar to that of the rockcrabs. "Reb!" came a cry, this one a call for help.

              I ran. If I turned back, I'd have to help, or see my new allies fight my old friends. Although I couldn't trust Marlon and Gil, I didn't hate them. I didn't want them dead. But then, neither did I want the mine-dwellers dead.

              Brandon found me the next day, outside my farm, while I was beginning to set out a piece of land for the mine-dwellers. "Reb." Their tone was serious.

              I turned around slowly, dread building in my chest, along with guilt, weighing it down. Surely Marlon and Gil hadn't died. That was a greater burden than I was prepared to carry.

              "Reb. You abandoned them. What 'as 'appened to you?"

              I swallowed, but said nothing.

              "You were trained ta fight!"

              I nodded.

              "...Do ya even know what yer getting yerself into?"

              "Tell me." I said, slowly.

              "Depends what you promised the mine-dwellers. But I'm guessing it's the farm, or part of it, yeah?"

              I nodded again.

              Brandon sighed. "Oh, Reb. I never told you the story, did I."

              "The story?" There was more than Brandon had told me? That didn't seem right. Why hadn't they told me this before? And, I recalled, Brandon had lied - misled me before, into believing they hadn't talked to Marlon and Gil when they really had. "You're lying."

              Brandon blinked slowly, looking up at me. "I'd meant to tell ya about the stories before, but you ran off, and I... y'know. Here. Follow me." And they turned and trotted off toward town.

              I hesitated only a bit before following them. Pelican Town would be safe, no matter who I was following. And it was, even when Brandon led me toward the edge of town, and to the library. They nudged against the door when they got there, and I opened it to let us in.

              It was empty. The front desk was dusty, devoid of any signs of life. The shelves were gap-toothed, clearly missing a good number of books. And further in, toward the back, was a collection of display stands that was completely empty.

              "What the..." Brandon began, trailing off as they rushed around behind the desk, then to the shelves, then back to the display stands. "Damn it. Damn him!"

              "Damn who?" I asked, walking over to join them.

              "Christie Lachlan. That bastard must 'ave made off with everything... everything we 'ad! Took our books... our minerals..." Brandon began pacing back and forth.

              "Did... you say Lachlan?" I knew someone with that last name. Someone I'd seen here, no less.

              "That was 'is name, cursed be it."

              "Any relation to Morris Lachlan?"

              "That was 'is son's name."

              "There's a Morris Lachlan here. Working for Joja Mart."

              "Joja Mart?"

              "The company that wants to destroy the Community Center, the home of the Junimos."

              "They what?"

              I explained all I knew about the Junimos. How the Wizard's potion had made me able to understand their writing. How they'd asked for a grocery list of items, most of which I'd obtained, with only the leek still evading me. How Mayor Lewis was planning to give the Community Center's land over to Joja Mart, so that they could, most likely, destroy it. When I finished, Brandon nodded thoughtfully. "So you've chosen the side of the Junimos?"

              "Yes," I replied, defensively. Were they about to attack that choice of mine, too?

              But "Follow me" was all they said, before padding over to one of the bookshelves. They nudged one of the books on the shelf - a thin, golden one - and then moved away so I could slide it out.

              The cover read, in large, gold letters, THE STORY OF YOBA AND THE SHADOWS.

              Brandon had curled up on my lap as I read. As I closed the book, they stretched, claws sticking out for a moment before they retracted again.

              "Reb? I 'ave one more question."

              I was still a bit lost in thought, but their voice brought me back. "Yeah?"

              "'Ave you been calling me a they?"

              "Yeah... why?"

              "That's not exactly accurate. I mean, no, I'm not always a lad... but I'm either that or a lass. Not neither."

              "Oh. So... could I just call you he, then?"

              "Sure. 'Less I'm feeling particularly girlish, in which case I'll let you know, kay?"

              "Okay. Thanks. ...Did I ever tell you I feel kinda the same way too, sometimes?"

              "Marl told me you were somewhat unsure about yourself."

              "Yeah... I... don't really like being called a girl, or a daughter, or... a granddaughter."

              "Well, there's plenty of other things you could be. Don't let this narrow world limit you." Brandon glanced back at the book. "Speaking of limiting... what d'you think of the mine-dwellers now?"

              The book had told of how Yoba created the world (another creation myth) and how the Shadows had corrupted themselves, poisoned themselves, once been human beings who'd turned to destruction, and now only sought to rot the world from the inside. They'd been sealed away underground, with the bravest protectors of the world, having become the Junimos (this was scribbled in the margin; the book didn't mention the Junimos by name), assigned to protect the weak areas in the crust through which the Shadows could potentially escape. If the Junimos were here, then of course this was a weak area. Probably because of the mines some humans had dug, for what I didn't know, but the Shadows and mine-dwellers had taken it over, and now were trying to get out and establish a feeding ground in the fertile land of my grandfather's farm, as a base for their corruption of the world.

              That is, assuming this was all true. Creation myths I've heard before, and I didn't put too much stock in them anymore.


              "Oh, sorry. I..." I paused. How could I know if this was true? Was there any way to know for sure? I'd dug deep into the mystery, and still I felt just as unsure as before. "I don't know."

              Brandon's claws came out, poking me in the legs, and I shifted, sliding him off my lap. "Are you serious?!" he yelped, and landed on the floor on all four feet. "Do you 'ave any idea 'ow long we've been fighting the Shadows, and now you come in and start doubting everything we've ever stood for?"

              "I have yet to see any proof these mine-dwellers are the same as the Shadows that have been infecting everything!"

              "By Yoba, Reb Kellsen, you really are thick! D'you think we'd teach you and 'elp you with all this if we weren't sure? Do you think we couldn't have found another, more gullible kid who's actually attuned to magic? Don't you trust your grandpa's judgment?!"

              "Grandpa never mentioned you! Only the Wizard."

              "We can go ask 'im if it's what you need. Just stop bloody stalling, Reb."

              "Fine." My last argument had really only been a token one - if I couldn't trust my grandfather's judgment, why was I here? My entire reason to be here was to continue his work. What the hell was I doing, waffling on that?

              Brandon was still glaring at me, eyes thin and hackles raised. "So. What's your move?"

              My first move was to visit Marlon and Gil. I needed to apologize, and Brandon had suspiciously avoided mentioning if they were okay. When I did ask him directly, he didn't meet my eyes. So I walked up to their door and knocked, once, twice.

              No answer.

              I swallowed, my throat starting to become dry, and knocked again.

              I thought I heard footsteps approaching the door, and then the knob turned, and Marlon met my gaze. He was stooped, leaning on a crutch, unlike before, and his ankle, I noticed, was bandaged.

              "You're okay!" I couldn't help smiling. I wanted to hug him, but his serious expression stopped me.

              "Reb Kellsen. Why did you abandon us in the mines?"

              I hesitated for a moment, glancing at Brandon... then began to tell them everything.

              We were all seated around the table - Brandon on my lap again, and Marlon and Gil, who seemed not to have been as injured, opposite me. I smiled nervously, having finished my story, and caught a glimpse of something shiny at Marlon's neck.

              Marlon raised an eyebrow. "And that's all?"

              I squinted at the object - it was a spiral shell, blue. "Yeah. ...Nice pendant, by the way."

              "Hmm?" He looked surprised for a moment, then looked down at it, picking it up to look at more closely. "Ah. ...Do you know what this pendant represents?" Gil was smiling slightly, anticipatory.

              "I... it's a shell. I don't know. The sea? Pelican Town?"

              Brandon snorted, an odd sound to come from a cat. Gil grinned, and Marlon smiled. "This is a Mermaid's Pendant, signifying a strong, intimate bond between partners, which can only be broken in death. Like marriage."

              I blinked in surprise. "Marriage? ...Who are you married-- bonded to?"

              Marlon didn't even have to say anything. The way he smiled at Gil told it all. The way Gil smiled back, bringing out his own, matching pendant. The way they brought the pendants together, looking into each other's eyes. Or, in Gil's case, appearing to do so. That, really, explained all there was to know about the matter.

                Last edited: Jan 1, 2017
              • 611

                611 Subatomic Cosmonaut

                Such a good story...
                  Alkanthe likes this.
                • Risukage

                  Risukage Giant Laser Beams

                  Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. Reb follows Junimos into the Community Center. Time for magical shenanigans! :)
                    611 and Alkanthe like this.
                  • Alkanthe

                    Alkanthe Supernova

                    Chapter 17 is here! I almost posted the wrong thing in there, though...

                    Speaking of which, would any of you be up for an SDV-themed game of Mafia?
                      Gabaw, 611 and Zebe like this.
                    • 611

                      611 Subatomic Cosmonaut

                      Of course.
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                      • CjBeats

                        CjBeats Weight of the Sky

                        Is that even a question? Yess
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                        • Alkanthe

                          Alkanthe Supernova

                          Chapter 18 is here! Exposition, and things that are actually starting to make sense in context.
                            ApertureGaming011, Gabaw and Zebe like this.
                          • Alkanthe

                            Alkanthe Supernova

                            Chapter 19! Surprise, surprise!
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                            • Risukage

                              Risukage Giant Laser Beams

                              And she opens the door into Narnia! "The Cat, the Junimos, and the Community Center." :p
                                Gabaw, Alkanthe and ApertureGaming011 like this.
                              • Alkanthe

                                Alkanthe Supernova

                                Chapter 20!!!
                                  Zebe and Gabaw like this.
                                • Risukage

                                  Risukage Giant Laser Beams

                                  The Eleventh Doctor made bow ties cool again, and here comes Morris making them so very uncool. You're a jerkface, Morris. *Blows raspberry.* Git 'im, Reb. :3
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                                  • Alkanthe

                                    Alkanthe Supernova

                                    I feel like chapter 21 isn't as good as it could be, but here it is.
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                                    • Risukage

                                      Risukage Giant Laser Beams

                                      Time to start getting skill points in Foraging and Fighting. Kick ass, Reb, show Marlon how it's done!
                                        Alkanthe likes this.
                                      • 611

                                        611 Subatomic Cosmonaut

                                        Poketh the monsters with the sharp stick!
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                                        • Alkanthe

                                          Alkanthe Supernova

                                          I wrote this as a "quick" chapter, not focusing too much on the details and just writing what came to me. Despite getting distracted a bit, I finished chapter 22!
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