The deadline to submit to this contest has been extended to June 30, 2018. We want at least 10 submissions to give voters a variety of stories to choose from.

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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 3

      The wooden ceiling came into focus when Hudson's vision cleared. He was still beat from yesterday's workload of picking weeds around the cottage field. Today didn't seem any different, either. A new fence needed to be built, and those didn't make themselves.

      Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Hudson groaned at the idea of another monotonous day. He kicked at the air, whining like a child. This was his new normal: manual labor spent under the sun for hours until it retreated behind the Roheisia Mountains to the west. He wasn’t cut out for moving around from place to place. Not since his athletic school days, though that period was so far behind he was a different person.

      Three knocks at the door brought him to sit upright in his bed.

      “Good morning, Keir,” said an old woman on the other side. “Wake up dear. Lodam and I are waiting on you for breakfast. I made eggs, sausage, rice porridge, and bread.”

      A list of foods. At least there was something worth getting up for. Or perhaps the situation in his stomach was that good at negotiating. Hudson answered in a way to hide his drowsiness and not come across as a lazy good-for-nothing. “I’m getting dressed. Be there in a minute.” His face brightened to better emulate the mood.

      The woman excused herself, her shadow visible from the crack under the door. Hudson followed her footsteps as she walked down the hall until they were no longer audible. His lips twisted into a snarl, dropping the upbeat character. The room’s window had no curtain so natural light could stream in to illuminate the inside. Yet a layer of darkness still glossed the space because it had been built facing the west side where the sun wouldn't be until much later. Using his arms and bottom to rotate, Hudson got out of bed and straight-lined to the dresser. Five minutes later and he walked out the door dressed in a long, white sleeved shirt fitted at the waist, a beige vest that fell to his knees, dark pants and boots. His hair was shaggy and slicked back.

      When he entered the kitchen, the balanced mixture of sweet and salty breakfast foods hooked Hudson's nostrils instantly. Rice porridge, eggs, sausage, fluffy bread. If there was anything tying him down to this household, it was the food. The aroma hit him with an almost therapeutic touch, enticing him for a nap afterwards. Saliva ran in his mouth and he swallowed. At the kitchen table was a middle aged man dressed similar to Hudson. The woman from earlier sat across from him, aproned and grey hair in a bun. Plates of warm food were set in front of them, untouched. There was also a third seat with a full plate and cutlery neatly set to the side.

      The kitchen view with the old timey couple looked perfect for a kid’s coloring book or a cute picture worthy of being framed and hung on a wall. No matter how many times he saw this every day, Hudson couldn’t buy into it not being a dream. Pinching his arm any further and the skin would break.

      “Oh, Keir. Good morning my boy. Come. Have a seat.” The person addressing him wasn't the old woman, but her husband, Lodam. The man’s broad arms fanned out to welcome him as he bellowed in joy. “Idla and I were waiting on you to come down before picking at our plates. She made us a special breakfast today so we’ll have all the energy we need to put up the new fence.”

      The fence...

      Idla’s chin hammocked over her wrinkly hands in a whimsical manner. Her lips stretched ear to ear and cheeks flared with life.

      Hudson pulled the reins on his displeasure when the fence came into the conversation. This house wasn’t his and these people weren’t related to him in any way. But the fact they provided food and shelter for him and hospitality the likes he’d never been treated to forced Hudson to comply by a moral code. Behaving otherwise would be a huge sign of disrespect to the hosts, even though he detested to think of work.

      Setting that aside, Hudson apologized for the tardiness with an embarrassed smile and in long strides sauntered to the empty seat. When he sat down, the elderly couple picked up their silverware and started to eat. Their patience was so admirable it hurt to notice.

      Hudson picked up the fork and guided it to the eggs over easy. He could already imagine the smooth yolk pop and blanket his tongue with its rich, creamy flavor. A spark of electricity readied his taste buds.

      Then Idla removed his plate, befuddling Hudson.

      “Excuse me, Keir. Looks like I didn't serve you enough sausages. I’m so sorry, dear. I'll be right back with more.” She patted him on the shoulder and scuttled to the stove, slippered feet tapping the floor.

      At first, Hudson thought she removed the plate at that precise moment as a joke. That kind of dark humor didn't fit the image of a doting woman like her, so he felt dumb for entertaining the idea.

      “N-no problem,” he said, scratching his cheekbone.

      “Say, Keir.” Hudson glanced to the left where Lodam sat. Much like the wife, his cheeks were florid red like apples and an unseen jawline under a bush of a beard with an extra mustache below his oval nose. All he needed were glasses to resemble a certain famous icon that delivered presents to children once every year.

      “That thingy you always carry in your pocket. The flat brick, as Idla and I like to call it.” Lodam bit a chunk out of a sausage link and swallowed. “What’s so gripping about it that you never leave it behind? Even when you go for a bath? We’ve seen you a number of times so fixed on it that you seem taken under someone’s spell. Like your soul’s left your body.”

      Uh-oh. Hudson reflexed a hand to his left pocket where Lodam’s fork suggested. He felt the hard edges crease against the cotton cloth of his pants, alleviated to know it was within reach and on his person. Out of the six months he’d been here, why bring that up now? Hudson knew there were times Lodam had seen it out of his own carelessness, but why didn’t he ask the first time?

      “Umm… that is…” There was no ill undertone lurking in his question. Lodam looked interested as he nor Idla had ever seen something quite like it. Hudson couldn't blame them. If he were in their shoes, he'd also be curious of a pocket-sized brick capable of grabbing people's attention. A solid word came into mind and he improvised from there. “I… I unearthed it when hiking in the mountains. The day you found me. Remember?”

      “Found it in the mountains… Really?,” Lodam repeated the segment as if confirming what he’d heard.

      “Yeah. Near a boulder halfway up the trail. I... felt a flatness under my foot and it caught me by surprise when I brushed off the snow.” Hudson tore off a bit of bread and soaked it in his glass of milk. He then ate it.

      Idla came back with a stockier serving of sausages and slid the plate in front of Hudson. He lowered his head in gratitude.

      “What in Gods is it?”

      “A relic, perhaps?,” Idla threw in, glancing at her husband. He did the same. “It isn’t rare to come across traces of the past when hiking desolate areas. Our ancestors left their mark wherever they could.”

      “More like a mirror than a relic, you mean. That thing’s too sophisticated to have been left behind by barbaric tribes. It can shoot a light too. I’ve seen it when he uses it in the dark.”

      “Hmmm? Pretty observant for a man your age, my dear,” she said in defense of Hudson’s privacy while cutting a sausage link in half. In which case he’d have to be more careful. It was good to know Idla was on his side, at least. He had nothing to bite his nails over. Hudson scooped an over easy egg and let it melt in his mouth.

      “All I'm saying is, cultures based on war had too much going on to be making ‘fancy little mirrors’. You think a tribesman would be worried about looks when there's six others thirsting to lop his head off?”

      “My point exactly,” Idla pressed. “How do you explain the armor, weapons, and equipment they forged, hmmm? Warrior men wanted to die in beautiful armor.”

      Lodam crossed both arms as his chin soared, fork and knife in each to give off a mighty impression. “Swords and shields have priority over vanity.” He stuck the knife out at the air. “A man set out to conquer shall not be swayed by trivial matters. He leaves all but his ambitions at home where his family awaits him to return a champion for the homeland.”

      Idla rolled her eyes, holding in a laugh as she exchanged a joking look with Hudson. He found little to no humor in Lodam’s act, mainly because their tastes were like night and day if compared. He returned the gesture nonetheless, a fake one at that.

      “Your days of fighting are long gone now, my dear. I'm more enthralled at the fact that you remember such an old poem at your age.”

      “There you go again with the age. I've said it many a times. Age’s got nothing to do with how well I recall the past, you see? For me it's as clear as water. That's just how it goes.” Lodam pouted and stabbed a sausage, bringing it to his mouth.

      “Maybe it's because you only remember what you want to, no? Go on. Tell me again how you convinced my father when you asked him for my hand in marriage. I'd love to hear those passionate words again from the man I fell in love with.” Sipping on her mug, Idla eyeballed her husband from across the table in a pompous manner. She radiated a lethal energy that brought Lodam’s defense low. Hudson sighed of boredom internally.

      Scenes like these were common in the Foridani household. The husband would crack a joke or act out for a comedic moment when the timing was right, and the wife would play the straight man to set him straight of shenanigans. Every gag felt bland and lacked the necessary substance to pull off the desired reaction, though. They were old and grew up in a different era and Hudson was aware of it. At first he'd laugh out of courtesy just to accompany the role, even if the joke was dry.

      Hudson kept up the facade for some time but the laughing soon waned into giggles, which then devolved into a plain smirk. He had grown tired of their comedy skits rather quick, wondering if his change in reaction hadn't been clear. He took it upon himself to bear the barrage for however long it should be. The old couple should read his attitude in due time. He hoped those wishes to be answered, at least.

      He took the jokes for what they were and played along. Talk of the object in his pocket had left the old folks’s lips, so Hudson was grateful for the stream of gags this time. This served him as a warning. Probably more reason to venture out and look for a place of his own. But something told him that would prove difficult. Something he'd sensed since the day he got here.

      The back and forth continued for a short while as one idea jumped them to a different topic like all conversations tend to do. Everyone had seconds. Hudson wanted a third round but was won over by timidness. It had taken him leaps and bounds of shedding layers to get comfortable to ask for a second serving. Even after the old couple had opened up to him, hints of hesitancy still blocked him from progressing.

 

      Time passed and the sun was at its peak in the sky. A brilliant light in a blue backdrop over the town of Livony. Hudson could thank the heat and constant digging for the layer of sweat glazed on his forehead. Him and Lodam had dug around the property and set the fence posts. They were already underway on the railing with a third of it done, a diminishing, stack of wooden boards behind them. His job was to carry and help level the boards horizontally while Lodam hammered them to the posts.

      Hudson wiped his forehead with a sleeve, sweat sprung out again and a drop ran down his brow and to the grass. He wouldn’t be sweating this much if it were not for this damn fence, too. Lodam was much older than he and not a hint of displeasure roamed on his limp-skin face. Just what on earth was he made of? When he glanced over the old man who was on a knee, the Roheisia Mountains were the first marvel he took in. It was a mountain range no more than ten miles away from the outskirts of Livony where they lived. The massive peaks chaperoned the town like a deity. Its snowy caps breathed puffs of draft into the air, making it seem alive. What bliss to have some of that iciness blow down here for a change.

      He would welcome it with arms spread out like a bird’s wings in mid flight. Then turn around to not leave out his back. Hudson pictured it happening and almost laughed at the delusion for how juvenile it seemed. Even so, what he would do to get out of this brutal heat right now.

      “All righty. That looks mighty fine,” Lodam said. “Bring another while I nail this last one so we can move on.”

      “Yeah.” Licking his lips, Hudson let go of the railing and climbed over the fence to the stack of boards a few yards away. The grass made a brisk swishing sound as he shuffled through with long strides. He squatted and heaved a board over his shoulder. The four and a half foot boards were long for someone shorter, like Lodam. But they were a breeze to carry for Hudson who stood at six feet. When he thought about it like that, sympathy grabbed a hold of his gut suddenly for the old man. Being out in the sun was strenuous on its own, but carrying beams of wood to and fro was another thing when it involved the elderly. He shook off the mental image and straightened his legs, ready to continue work.

      “Youch! Aarrgh!!”

      Taken by surprise, Hudson dropped the board unintentionally and swiveled his attention to Lodam who was curled up in a ball and throbbing. He dashed to his side and fell on his knees to be at level. “W-what’s wrong? Did something happen?”

      Tears formed at the corners of Lodam’s eyes as his face glutted red. At his feet was the hammer, the nail on the fence post sharply bent. His hands were tucked into his belly and lips contorted in ways as if made of rubber, blood staining the shirt. The sight made Hudson forget about the heat.

      Lodam’s pain seemed to transfer to him. So much so his mind played tricks and he felt a blunt force ride up his arm from the thumb.

      Returning to the real problem, Hudson got Lodam to walk back to the house and let Idla treat him. Apparently she worked at a monastery thirty years ago treating the sick and injured. Lodam shouldn't be a problem.

      He waited in the kitchen in the meantime. Occasionally, Idla would come out and comb the bathroom or kitchen for some ingredient she needed. When Hudson asked if he could help out she turned him down politely with a smile and assured him the situation was under control. She never took longer than five seconds in one place, only when she needed to fill a bucket with water.

      Hudson leaned back on the chair he sat on. The kitchen smelled of herbs and so did the small living room attached to it on the left. It was big enough for a fireplace, two chairs and a stool, and a wool rug with a myriad of colorful shapes like those found on stained glass windows. Birds chirped outside without a care in the world, creating the only sound Hudson could hear besides the voices coming from Lodam and Idla’s bedroom.

      “Kinda reminds me of grandma and grandpa's house…” He murmured, placing a hand over his heart and curled it with the fabrics he wore.

      The door opened and Idla came out, prompting Hudson to his feet.

      “How does he look?,” he asked urgently.

      “Lodam’s fine, dear,” she gave a warm smile, voice calm and low as she walked over. “Don't worry yourself. He hit his thumb, is all. The bleeding stopped but it’ll be swollen for a while, I’m afraid.”

      A heavy sigh squeezed out of Hudson’s throat. The blood on Lodam’s shirt flashed back to him. The way his face contorted spoke volumes of discomfort he’d rather forget. Poor old man. The thought alone cramped his stomach. Hudson was never one to have a high tolerance for pain, that’s what he believed. In truth, it was the fear of getting hurt and seeing others go through physical pain that made him shrink away from anything capable of inflicting major pain. He was fine with minor cuts, bumps, and bruises, but when it came to fractured bones, headaches, or stubbing a toe on furniture, Hudson would be on the verge of tears. But in reality,  he was tougher than that, and he knew it. It just so happened he was a coward, a crybaby.

      “A-are you sure he’ll be okay with just that? He looked really bad to me…”

      Idla brightened up to see him worried about Lodam. “Of course he will be. We just need to give him time to rest and watch for any infections, though I doubt he’ll get any. Not when I'm that geezer’s wife,” she said patting him on the chest. “Then again… I think the fence will have to wait until he’s healed.”

      In that case, then praise the gods! Is what Hudson would’ve said if the circumstances were different. There was no way he’d spout anything close to that right now.

      “Let me take care of it.”

      “Hmm?”

      “Yeah. He’s been on and on about the fence for a while. The old one was already falling apart. Rotten, even. So I thought it’d be best for me to--”

      “Hold on now, Keir. Are you suggesting I let you do all that work by yourself?,” she asked in disbelief.

      “W-why not?,” he retorted. “I can get a lot done by the time he’s better. Wouldn’t that just make things faster instead of delaying them?” Hudson couldn’t believe what he was saying. He deliberately volunteered to continue the fence alone and in those sultry conditions no less. A far cry from his genuine feelings. He’d have to endure physical labor in its rawest form. No shade, no aide, no luxuries like cool air to slacken the sweat. Not even an icy cold drink to satiate his dry throat. He was going out on a limb, and conscious of it. Maybe his arm needed more pinching after all?

      Idla tilted her head and frowned slightly. “Even so, I can’t put you at risk, too. I’d be glad to help if my knee didn’t start to ache every time I squat. It’s hot out there as well. Working it alone is like asking for punishment.”

      She interrupted Hudson when he opened his mouth. “I’ve seen many people pass out from heat strokes in my days caring for the sick in the monastery. You go out there and collapse while carrying piles of wood on your shoulder… then what’ll I do? I know you're doing this out of your own good will, dear, but as it stands now my hands are full caring for Lodam. When that happens, I'll have double the load.”

      Everything she said was true. Hudson was out of shape already, and to be honest, preferred not to think about building a stupid fence anymore. Yet he felt a strange sense of responsibility nag his conscience about the accident. If only he'd been the one on the hammer…

      Frowning, Hudson gave up the argument.

      Idla fiddled her apron pocket, metals jangled about, and drew her fist out. She uncoiled her fingers to show dozens of silver Kroans. Kroan meant crown in Old Ponderose. But she did not have jeweled crowns on her hand, rather, coins named as such because on them were etched profiles of past monarchs of Ponderosa. She jabbed it at Hudson eagerly.

      “I don’t think I’ll be able to make dinner for us all today. He needs my attention right now, so go out and treat yourself, dear.”

      Hudson stepped back a bit, wide-eyed, shocked she would lend him that many.

      “Aren’t you being a little too... generous?”

 

      Nonsense. You take these and enjoy the rest of the day out on the town. You used to go so often when you first got here. Who knows, you might bump into a beautiful girl and want to buy her dinner.

      What Idla yakked echoed in the back of Hudson’s head like the teasing he got as a kid for being too tall. If only he could shovel it out somehow, he’d be less distracted and more focused on where to splurge the sixty Kroans. He counted them just to be sure.

      “There’s only one girl I wanna take out to dinner. But she’s not here.” The words left his mouth with melancholic substance. It hurt to admit. Every syllable and letter cut the insides of his cheeks and tongue as if he had ingested a thorny flower stem and taken it out. This is why he wanted to focus on lunch. Hudson used to frequent a popular tavern months ago where the ale was good and easy on his pockets. The same could be said for the food. It was a meat lover’s paradise where the majority of the menu resembled its patron’s appetites. Hudson usually paired any meaty dish with a side of vegetables or salad to balance it out. He wanted to live well into his late years without joint pain.

      The cons of this tavern were that more... “dangerous” patrons started to frequent it. Brawny men clad in armor bearing arms of all kinds. He once saw a man roll in fresh out of a street brawl, wisecrack the bar, and ask for the hardest liquor the house had to offer. So far no one had baited Hudson into a squeeze, thankfully. His height could’ve been a factor but a lot of others were the same or taller. To avoid such trouble he stopped going for four months but now ached for a sip of that addictive beer again. Thinking about it made him walk a little faster.

      Carriage wheels clattered on the main street and an array of people occupied the sidewalks with fanciful, granite buildings shoulder-to-shoulder. Livony had just taken city status as of last year. Crossing the threshold of twenty thousand, it had become the fifth largest city in the kingdom. Its growth came unexpected. People flocked from towns and other settlements looking for a place that offered more job opportunities. Livony was known for its artistry in perfume making and wood carving.

      Rare flowers known as Siren’s Call budded in the region. Its petals drooped like long sleeves on a gown a beautiful woman would wear to bed with white trims that turned purple at the center. Early settlers rumored the smell came from the spirit of love; that she had bestowed the flower with her essence to lure a potential lover. The mysticism surrounding it demanded harvest of its properties as a wearable fragrance. Mostly royalty and the wealthy could afford it, but the industry was lucrative with a variety of other fragrant plants.

      Wood carving covered a wide range of practices for those interested, and men were the most predominant in this industry.

      Other attractive features included the Apple Run Festival, Boulder Toss Competition, and local delicacy Pot Pie Appreciation Day. The most popular out of all had to be the pot pie. Chefs everywhere took to the city square to compile various decorated pot pies that varied in content to accommodate every palate.

      Lately, however, a guild house was erected in the middle of town and thus opened the gates for bounty hunters and adventurers alike. That could've been the reason why more tough guys were showing up at Hudson's favorite tavern. Perhaps there wouldn't be that many this early. He crossed his fingers.

      Hudson had ordered a plate of brisket with leafy greens and was on his fourth mug of beer. The tavern was at less than half capacity though it seemed fuller for all the chatter. Its wooden ceiling hung low in some parts and candles were set on shelf-like intrusions in the limestone walls. The bar was at front where he sat and to the left. A smoky texture blanketed the air, mingling with the aroma of spices and roots that clung from pocket-sized burlap sacks on overhangs. The smell of brewery permeated from barrels stockpiled at the bar’s corner like natural gas. Hudson took one of his elbows off the table and went for his left pocket. The shiny, black brick came into his hand. His deadpan face reflected on the smooth surface and stared back. A light shone when he pressed something at the side.

      “Two thirty, huh?,” he said unimpressed. He swiped the light surface dismissively with a finger, and a plethora of neatly aligned colored shapes slid from the left. He touched one and it revealed rows of squares portraying faces of smiling people. Hudson was in many of them. One end of his lips pulled upward as he browsed left and right.

      A boisterous laugh from the far left tore through the tavern. A man, shirtless and muscular, sat with a trio of gorgeous waitresses swooning over him as he recounted how he single handedly fought off a band of thieves under a moonless night in only his underwear and a stick. Dim light reflected off his bare chest. It casted a shadow down the sternum to his abs where they stuck out like the stones that paved the streets. The waitresses were too enthralled by the man’s macho poise to pick at the story’s legitimacy. One caressed his clefted chin as another poured her soul into his eyes while squeezing his thick quads. The third waitress sat on the table’s edge, legs crossed and flirty.

      Hunkered on the chair, it had evolved into a throne, and the girls vying for his attention were mere mistresses for his amusement.

      Chunks of brisket and salad inched up Hudson’s throat, stomach acid bubbling. He chugged them back down with cheekfulls of beer and pocketed the black brick.

      Wiping the residue off his lip, Hudson growled to himself, “You've got to be kidding me. Go rent a room or something, and roll around all you want in there.” He said that but seemed to be the only one irked. Everyone in the tavern went about their own lives.

      He clicked his tongue sharply. Whatever. It wasn't his business, anyway.

      Hudson left the tab on the table and headed out to the door in heavy steps. The sounds of laughter and talking followed him. Despite having had a delicious meal, a vile aftertaste lingered in his mouth. It might be worth to buy something sweet, like fruit, on the way home.

      Recycling those thoughts, Hudson’s right shoulder sideswiped against something metallic as he paid no heed to his surroundings. Already annoyed, he bad-mouthed the person under his breath.

      “The hell outta my way, prick.”

      Then he paused and realized the mistake he had just made, and where. The person stopped as well. Everything blurred and Hudson’s back met the limestone wall with a hard thud. The neckline of his shirt was pulled upwards so aggressively that he had to stand on tiptoes to not lose the ground. Blood rushed to his head, then drained as a nasty face neared close. A man, same height and age, blew hot air from his ring pierced nostrils like a bull as he stared down at Hudson to eat him alive. Carved down from the right cheek to his collarbone ran a line of ragged skin resembling a thunderbolt. Veins nearly popped out of his arms.

      There was a sharp glint in his dark eyes that revealed he had done worse before.

      “Say that again... I wanna hear what ya called me,” said the man, voice hoarse.

      Hudson wanted to speak but all that came out was a jumbled mess of letters. It was hard to acknowledge they were both the same age. This man could have made his first kill when Hudson was still learning how to multiply.

      “I-I-I-I-I’m s-sorry. I-I was talking to myself a-and…”

      “Ya one of them all talk, no bite kinda guys who think they can say whatever and git away with it? Well, lemme tell ya somethin’. Ya little sissies are all a familiar tune. Nothin’ but a handful of pansies talkin’ behind people’s backs one minute, and tail between yer legs the next when fists start flyin’.

      The man let one hand go and it disappeared behind his waist, eyes still anchored. The sound of cold metal scraping against the inside of a hollow bin reached Hudson’s ears. Sweat poured out from every pore on his body by the gallons. A primitive sense ordered him to flee. Another told him it would be futile. Which was right?

      What made him seem more imposing were the metal pauldrons and popped collar on his padded jacket. Though Hudson doubted he could win even in a one-on-one fist fight, they had roughly the same amount of body mass. The difference in their lifestyles was also a big factor. Hudson caught a glimmer of light from the left. Squinting, a tapered strip of metal emerged. Hilt, guard... a blade. Is this how things were going to end?

      “Hey, maggots!” The pub manager shouted in their direction from the bar. “Take your squabble somewhere else! If I wanted the walls of my store to be red, I woulda hired someone to do it for me with real paint and not some kid’s blood! Get outta here before I throw you out!” The manager’s voice dominated the tavern, almost taking a life of its own as if it had tangible presence. But the warning fell on deaf ears.

      “E-excuse me, sir.” A frail and sweet voice broke the quiet. It prompted the man’s attention, and he blushed when he saw the owner of that voice. A girl.

      “I heard this tavern had the best ales in town, but, you see, I’m a little low on cash at the moment and new in the area, so I was wondering…” She stood at five feet and five inches, brown hair cut short with square bangs at the front and voluminous in the back, facial features of a doll. Thin framed glasses over hazel eyes, she dressed in a tunic which showed off the divide of her ample bosom. Swaying leisurely at the torso, she tilted her head to the side while pressing a finger on her cute chin, squeezing her chest between her arms. “If someone could show me around to get better acquainted in this neck of the woods? That would save me a looot of trouble.” Her thin lashes fluttered so eagerly.

      The tightness on Hudson’s neckline withered down and he could feel the ground once more. He couldn’t tell if the girl on the other side was serious or had come to his rescue with a ditsy act to prevent a beatdown. The world blurred again and he placed a hand on the wall to regain balance. Stress left his body in the form of long, deep breaths. Either way, still able to breathe, Hudson counted his blessings for the day and those to come. There was no way he’d patron this tavern again. He promised to set that in stone.

      After a quick chit chat with the girl, the man dozed off into the rows of tables and was greeted by a waitress to take his order. The coquettish girl stayed put, expression steady as she perused Hudson top to bottom, buttoning her tunic. She became a different person at the snap of a finger. The first impression he got from her was no longer there.

      Not dwelling on it much, Hudson spoke up to convey his gratitude. “Forgive me,” said the girl apologetically. Hudson swallowed his thanks. “I know you are probably grateful for my intervention, but please, allow me to skip the formalities so that I may leave this establishment soon. I do not want to be under the same roof as that man.”

      “Uhh… o-okay, sure. Whatever,” he agreed averting his focus. She nodded.

      “Since you are a citizen of this city, I suppose you have heard the rumors of a star falling into the Roheisia Mountains. Might you know any specific information other than what the sightings say?”

      “A star... falling?”

      “Yes.” She nodded.

      Hudson lowered his head in deep thought, forehead wrinkling. “You mean like, a meteor? Shooting star?”

      “Yes.”

      “And it came from the sky to land in the mountains right behind the city?”

      “... yes. According to the rumors. Some time ago, the people of this city reported seeing a star plummet into the mountains. And when it crashed, there was a bright light.”

      Again, he rummaged through piles of memory in search of anything related to a shooting star. Not even the Roheisia Mountains, which were a specific detail, rung a bell in his mind to help the girl.

      “Hmmm… wouldn’t people’ve already gone and checked for themselves? For all I know, the mountain’s not that far.

      “Unfortunately, I do not know more than this,” she said dejected.

      Without further effort, Hudson gave up and sighed. “I'm very sorry. This is my first time hearing about this, so I can't really help.”

      “N-no. Not at all. I appreciate your patience, regardless.” Hudson knew she was in a hurry, but there was something about the rumor that peaked his interest. Though she didn't have a way of knowing, he apologized to her in his head and hoped his body language and tone could get the point across.

      “Sorry to keep you here longer… When did you say this happened?,” he asked hesitantly.

      “Hmmm? That's right. I forgot to mention. It should be six months and two weeks ago. A rather long time, I suppose. It is old news now. No wonder you have not heard of it.”

      Not quite. The whole story bugged him. The mountains and the star. He could dismiss it as a simple stellar phenomenon and be on his way out. But he felt a weird attachment just then, and it exploded. As if woken up by a bucket of ice water, Hudson sucked in a gasp through his nose and the fine hairs on his neck straightened. Hazy images of snow and trees came to him. A river of stars flowed endlessly in the night sky like a giant vein branching out to the horizon. Devoid of snow or grass, the ground around him sizzled in smoke, sending a long trail of it above as he lay supinated.

      Then, a woman smiled down at him, features from the nose up curtained by locks of raven hair. She vanished under the safeguard of the forest where no light penetrated its thick canopy.

      Overwhelmed by the surge of oddly familiar imagery, Hudson returned from the surreal experience unable to comprehend what occurred in that brief span. Lost for words, he stared into empty space devoid of vitality.

      The girl snapped him out, tugging on his vest.

      “Excuse me. Is everything alright?”

      “Huh? Uh, eh?…”

      “You blanked out for a while there. Have you fallen ill, perhaps?” The girl neared him with a concerned expression, the aromal smell of her hair approaching Hudson. Some external force pushed Hudson away and he grimaced with fear out of confusion.

      “Sorry! I-I-I gotta go.” He darted out the door, sweat rolling down his chin. When he set foot outside, two entering customers blocked the way and they bumped shoulders. Afraid he would trigger another incident, Hudson jumped straight to an apology but got stuck in their appearance, especially the long black haired one with pointed ears: an elf. She turned to him as her hood had come undone from their collision. The outline of her face was narrow and silky black hair hung over a shoulder in a braid. Whirls of amber and lemon tinged her irises to look like miniature suns spewing spirals of fire.

      The cloak she wore fell below the knees and she carried a long object wrapped in cloth strapped to her back. If Hudson had to guess her age, he'd calculate seventeen to twenty years. She walked with someone far taller with locked arms as if supporting them. Hudson couldn't make out the other person as they were also cloaked. The elf gave a wince and shrugged off the encounter.

      Hudson had no idea how to respond. Never in his life did he think to lay eyes on an elf in the flesh. Those humanoid creatures he’d only seen and heard about in stories. The closest he’d ever gotten was when people played the role for entertainment purposes.

      “Where the hell am I?” To think he would ask himself that question after six months. Delaying a fitting reaction for so long meant he missed the point by a wide margin.

 

      For it to be this late into the night and still not a hint of fatigue present meant today had left a noteworthy footprint. Moonlight entered from the window as dust motes floated in its misty galore. The bedroom was half bright, half clouded in crepuscular shades. Outside, an orchestra of musical insects provided their melodies for the nocturnal species roaming the open fields.

      Hudson sifted through the column of images in his black brick and held his view steady when he got to the end. He tapped on the last image and it expanded several times its size to take up the majority of the brick’s surface. It was the girl who saved him, accompanied by the elf and the other cloaked individual who’s complexion he didn’t get to see. After he had run into the elven girl, Hudson scoured the area for a spot to station himself and wait for her to exit the tavern. He was willing to risk staying put for a while if it meant preserving her likeness inside the brick. To his luck, he needn’t wait for hours as she left almost as soon as she had gone inside and to his shock, with the glasses girl he owed his life to.

      Judging by their openness, they seemed well acquainted. Friends, even. But the tall cloaked one always held a sense of somber. After the trio regrouped, they paraded the city and Hudson followed suit, making sure to keep a distance. He tracked their movements as they stopped to talk to people about who knows what. However, their body language drove Hudson to believe they were interviewing people about said falling star. Most seemed to recall the event but he couldn't read lips to be one hundred percent sure.

      Finishing their day out, he followed them to a three story inn and called it a day.

      Guilt roamed his conscience at the fact he had become a stalker. But he couldn't help it. The falling star and the glasses girl revived memories Hudson had forgotten. That and the six months and two weeks which --if he calculated correctly-- matched the time since Lodam found and brought him to the house.

      Something told him there was a connection. There had to be a connection. The only way to erase any doubts was to meet with them.

      Meet with them again and disclose everything he knew.

      Adrenaline seeped into Hudson. It pulsed his skin, muscles, blood, down to his bone marrow where he felt every individual cell vibrate with furor. For what was he excited? Even he couldn’t answer. The feeling came at random, on a whim from a source unknown. He fought  back a smile for the same reason, yet he embraced a piece of it. Hudson feared and equally trusted. Two opposing sides bumped heads like a sibling rivalry, not enemies. He clicked on the brick’s side and the light died out as if it caught a wink. He placed it on the drawer below the window, the glassy surface mirroring the moon.

      “Let’s see if I can find out how I got here.” With that last sentence, Hudson thought it best to try to sleep.

Discussion (2)

  1. The A.C.

    Another very well written chapter again, so once again mostly very small suggestions.
    First you never give any kind of explanation as to why they call Hudson “Keir.”
    When Hudson is leaving the tavern it says “heading out to the door”, this was a bit misleading because I thought he actually left and was outside until I read further on. I suggest taking away the word “out” so readers know without a doubt he is still inside.
    This sentence, “To his luck, he needn’t wait for hours as she left almost as soon as she had gone inside and to his shock, with the glasses girl he owed his life to.” seems weird when reading it. I reread it through a few times and the ends of it feels awkward, so just some kind of an adjustment to it would help.
    Another part at the end is also a bit weird, “He fought back a smile for the same reason, yet he embraced a piece of it. Hudson feared and equally trusted.”
    A small thing is there are times some added commas could help create a more natural breath and flow of some sentences.
    This is also a very small thing on the same lines, but there are times you start sentences with “But” when it could have very easily been conjoined with the previous sentence.

    That is all for the negative, now for the stuff I found amazing.
    The whole time I was wondering how this new character would become involved with the other, and you did a terrific job getting there at a good pace.
    Also, the description of the “brick” at the end was marvelous, if it actually creating the allusion of what I am thinking it is.
    Overall, good job! I am really looking forward to how your story keeps progressing.

    1. Luis Aleman Post author

      Nice to see you enjoyed this one too. I really thought this one wouldn’t go so well since the perspective changes to a different character but I hope others who read don’t get lost as well. I’ll keep polishing the chapters as time progresses. As for why they call him “Keir”, that will come in either the next chapter or the one after it. I won’t forget to include that bit. Thank you again for your feedback!

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