How I managed to escape that cave eludes me. The number of paths doubled, tripled, and quadrupled every five steps, and the weight of Ali only increased until I found myself drenched in sweat. I wound up lulled into a daze, no longer caring if I found a way out at all, yet pushed forward by some strange gut feeling that refused to let me give in. A feeling that, miraculously, lead to a tunnel where I caught a whiff of fresh air. I breathed a sigh of relief. At the end of this cavern corridor: sunlight.
It blinded me as I stepped into it, and while blinded, I bumped into a structure; cool, metallic, the sensation of something man-made brought out a feeling of comfort. I'd collided with a gate.
I used my diminishing strength to reach blindly for a handle, and after nearly an entire day underground, I hobbled out into the sunlight of Itallis. I let Ali fall from my back as I knelt to the ground, held myself up with my hands, and kept my head down, feeling the sun on my neck. My eyes adjusted as I turned to look up.
I was kneeling in the center of a town. Below white clouds and yellow sky: a homely settlement of worn townsfolk pushing rickety wheelbarrows and stuttering apple carts—tattered straw hats and dusty clothing—patchwork wooden buildings decorated by evening burned bouquets, petals scattered across pathways. A modest fountain was immediately in front of me. One that hardly let out a drip of water, more dust than liquid—a half-hearted tribute to some ruler that didn't seem related to the town—a fountain nobody cared for; it collected moss and grass like a grimy bouquet of its own. We'd wandered into a sleepy country town.
By the time I'd risen to my feet I'd become a spectacle: "the black suited killer that rose from the caverns with a dead man on his back". These weren't curious stares, but the sort you give the walking dead, evil spirits, or ghosts: cold wide-eyed fear, jaws lowered in disbelief, shoulders hunched, unsure if one should run or remain silent.
If only these stares counted as medical attention. Instead of being approached by anyone halfway concerned with Ali, five officers surrounded me before I could even find the strength to come to my feet. Five barrels of five guns, black uniforms and farmer hats: cops of the countryside. Their uniforms read: 'Medea Branch - Central City Enforcing Service'. Country thought mixed with the Central City doctrine: I wouldn't have any sort of reasoning or bargaining on my side; nearly every assassin from Ill needed two hands to count the number of Central City aristocrats they had killed.
"It seems we've made it to a town called Medea, Ali, and we're being welcomed as heroes for our treasure hunting adventures. I might be leaving you behind to collect all the glory, though. I think you deserve it," I said, casually looking into the barrel of the gun pointed between my eyes.
I'd duck to the ground and pop a shot at the officer in front of me; with their current alignment, they'd all shoot each other if they fired, or maybe a few innocent civilians—not something they would do, despite their inexperience. I was tired, but I'd only need so much energy to dart out the circle after I ducked. I'd snatch a woman or child that had stumbled a bit too close—since I was an assassin, and I didn't care about their lives. That'd give me a nice, dramatic, screaming and/or shocked captive to cover my escape to the edge of this tiny town. That's the point where you release the hostage (or at least let them think they've escaped) as you depart into the wilderness—assuming wilderness surrounded this place. Either way, the trauma of the escapee would keep the enforcers preoccupied while I figured out my next step. And most importantly: I would be leaving Ali Alhaven behind. Everybody wins.
"Name and purpose, assassin," said the eldest officer, the captain who actually stood directly behind me, to demonstrate his bravery.
But the people who were once watching our confrontation with intent trepidation were now murmuring and looking beyond the circle. Their attention had been pulled away. Following them, my antagonizing officers were now looking in the same direction, their guns no longer aimed, if not halfway to the ground.
The thin crowd was parting for a massive man, and all watched him step directly to our circle. I found myself staring as well, this huge human so chiseled you could easily pass him off in legend as a giant of stone. I imagined the fur he draped himself in belonged to animals he'd crushed with his bare hands—I imagined he'd painted his face with their blood. He also held a staff similar to the one that Ali would tote around in his backpack, though it came to little more than a toothpick compared to his size. His steps, though, were light and gentle, thoughtful and considerate despite their booming sound. I could feel the ground tremble as the circle of enforcers parted to allow him passage. He stepped directly past me to Ali.
"Ali Alhaven, my silly child," he said with a sigh, kneeling down before the ridiculous treasure hunter. He placed his giant hand across all of Ali's chest. "Thank the Goddess again, he's still breathing."
The huge man lifted Ali off the ground with only four fingers and rose to his feet, eclipsing the sun. He looked down to me, eyes aglow with the daylight, a look as far reaching and as excited as Ali's, but with a calmed wisdom of experience. I returned the stare from the shadow of his silhouette.
"Lower your guns, my enforcers. This man is our friend, assassin or not," he said.
This man's manner of speech struck me awkwardly eloquent. Our tongue clearly wasn't his first, but he commanded it like any official should, all of that mixed in with the sort of deep and projected voice that finds home in a mountain like him and you've got quite a spectacle, even for a day like this.
He approached me with a single step, and when he extended his hand, it crossed what felt like a great distance between the two of us. Somehow, my next look at his complexion: the sagging circles where I expected to see chiseled rock let me know this old man stood past his prime, likely crushing no more than the pens he signed off treaties with, as opposed to boulders on top of mountains.
"My name is Hise. I am the appointed Mayor of this town," he said. "May I have your name, assassin?"
I nodded to him. "Vinny," I said, and I shook his hand—as much of it as I could manage—his palm eclipsed mine.
"The quest to keep our rambunctious Ali alive is never ending," he said. "Any help is always appreciated."
The story So Far will continue next week!
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Ali So Far: The Goddess PrisonFantasy
Vinny is an assassin hunted by his own guild. Ali is a treasure hunter after the greatest treasure in the entire world. Lise is one of the most powerful mages on the planet. All three of them are headed the same direction: to the Goddess Prison, to...