The Eighth Rune Ch4

Edgard snapped awake. Again, I’m back again, he thought, holding his head. It didn’t actually hurt. In fact, it felt better than ever. The pain was just imagined, not real, but the awful sensation of burning still lingered.

Edgard didn’t even notice his neighbor’s taunts as he mechanically went about the same morning tasks he had done the previous three iterations of the day, letting his body carry him from chore to chore without his mind providing much oversight. He even managed to make it through half of his morning before he remembered the rune on his chest. Wait, has it changed? he suddenly wondered as he bit into his apple. Is a fourth set of lines red? he thought, opening up his shirt to check the nine sets that made up his rune’s pattern. Just as he thought, a fourth set had indeed changed color. That one, plus the others, seemed to be an even brighter red than before as well. To Edgard, the new intensity of color made the previous hue seem like it had been tainted by a touch of black ink.

Is the red part of the rune getting stronger? Are there two sides of the same rune? He poked the red lines on his chest. Is it going to get this way with every death? he wondered, frowning a bit. What happens when all nine of the lines turn red? He found himself almost consumed with thoughts of what unpleasant consequences might befall him if he died enough to fill out the entire tattoo with crimson.

In fact, by the time he had begun moving off that line of thought, he found that his feet had once again carried him all the way to Derian’s house and his eyes were once more glued to the girl on the wall. She’s just so beautiful, he felt, his heart at ease for the first time since he had started talking to Derian the day before. Wait, was that yesterday? I mean, to me it was the day before, but, to Derian, it was today. So was it since I last talked to him yesterday, or today? He laughed to himself at the silliness of the question.

Whether it was in truth today or yesterday didn’t really matter. He would never be able to effectively talk about the amusing, little quandary with anyone. Nevertheless, he still found it funny that what day it was mattered to him, and thinking about it caused him to laugh out loud just a little. Huh, he thought to himself, that is the first time I’ve laughed since . . . since I was with Hilda yesterday joking around about the poor boy trapped in the outhouse. He decided that, for the sake of his internal monologue, he would just use the term ‘yesterday’ to describe the events of the previously-repeated day.

Or maybe, he pondered, his eyes still fixated on the angel in front of him. Maybe I should start naming the days by numbers. Today isn’t today. It’s day four perhaps? That way, if this keeps happening over and over again, at least I’ll know how much time has passed–how long I’ve been stuck suffering the atrocities of this day over and over again.

“Edgard?” Hilda’s voice broke his thoughts, and he shifted his gaze to her. The funny thing was that it felt like he hadn’t moved his focus at all. It felt like he was still stuck staring at the beautiful angel on the wall. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, me, I’m . . .” he started off the same as he had on day three, but then decided to change things up, to be slightly more assertive about what he was actually thinking. “I’m here to look at this.” He pointed to the painting. “Did you draw it, or did Derian? It’s a masterpiece. It’s magnificent, marvelous, miraculous, majestic . . . ”

“Couldn’t think of another ‘M’ word?” Hilda asked, cheekily. They both got a chuckle at his expense. “No really, what are you doing here?” she continued. “I drew that, but it hasn’t been up long enough for you to know it was there ahead of time. Are you looking for Derian? Last night, he . . . ” Hilda froze. “He, um . . .” She didn’t go any further. In fact, she stopped like she had just tried to swallow food down the wrong pipe.

“Well, would you find it weird if I said I was actually here to see you?” Edgard decided to dismiss the idea he was there for Derian even more firmly. He didn’t know why, but, for some reason, he didn’t want Hilda to think he had only stopped by to see her brother and didn’t care about running into her too.

“I’d ask if Derian put you up to it. I mentioned he’s been trying for months to talk me into . . .” she said, trailing off again.

To talk you into . . . what? What did you mention that made him try to talk you into something, and what was it he was trying to talk you into?! Edgard screamed internally with frustration. Everything she left half said just made him even more curious than he already was. It felt a bit like she was cutting herself off on purpose, and her coy smile combined with the way she sheepishly bit her lip at the end of half the things she had said left Edgard even more befuddled as well as slightly vexed at his inability to guess what she was hiding.

“But, if you really were here to see me, umm . . . What did you want?” she said after an awkward minute of silence brought upon them by a tongue-tied Edgard.

“Oh . . .” Edgard gave up on trying to figure her out. “I wanted to know if you’d like to accompany me for a while. I’m going to fetch Derian, and hopefully we’re going to . . .” Could I talk Derian into leaving without trying to be dramatic? “We’re going to go on a picnic.”

“A picnic?” Hilda’s face lit up excitedly as if she were a child who had been told she could spend the whole day playing with toys she just got from her parents on the day of the blessing. “You’re going to put together a picnic?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Then I don’t have to convince anyone of anything. They’ll just come out of the town nicely and without argument. This will work. Edgard smiled, mentally patting himself on the back as he nodded to Hilda. “Yeah, I thought that the three of us”–and Mae, he thought, but left unsaid–“could have a nice time. Maybe even bring Cedric and a few others too. It’s not everyday we have a reason to celebrate after all.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true.” Hilda fiddled with some of the hair for a moment. “You could just ask me out for a picnic whenever. I can always find something to celebrate.”

Is she saying that I could have just come by and asked her to lunch whenever I wanted, and she would have said yes? Edgard blinked. The two of them, Edgard and Hilda, had been very close for a long time. Edgard had often suspected that if Mae hadn’t come along and started flirting with him while he was younger, he might even have asked Hilda out one day, but he had never guessed that she might have said yes. No, you’re thinking too far into what she’s saying, Edgard, he chided himself. Remember, you have Mae. Even after the self-scolding, he still couldn’t stop himself from grinning though. “That’s good to know,” he finally replied. “So you want to head out now?”

“You mean you don’t want to wait until lunch?” Hilda looked back at the door, “I mean, I don’t have work or anything, but, umm . . . doesn’t Derian have work this morning?”

“Oh, he will be finished by the time we get there if we go slowly.” Edgard chuckled to himself. Does she actually think Derian does his job dutifully? He had to work hard to prevent his face from betraying his amusement more than his chuckle already had. Oh, gosh, she actually thinks her brother is a hard worker who is already busy this early in the morning. Edgard struggled hard against letting out another chuckle, which his sense of humor was practically forcing upon him. Has no-one ever told her? Of course not. Who hangs out enough with him to visit the sister while the guy’s still friends with the runeless.

“Are you sure? With the ceremony coming up, I thought he’d be busier,” she pressed her doubts. “I mean, I don’t want to get him in trouble, not that I don’t want to go. Because I definitely want to go.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he won’t get in any more trouble than usual if we leave for a nice picnic,” Edgard replied with a grin, half of which was at the idea of Derian ever working diligently enough to be expected to do so, and the other half of which was at the growing certainty that his new picnic tactic would succeed. This plan will definitely work way better than the last one. We can get out of town and be headed in the other direction much quicker. When they see the pillars of smoke from the fire, I won’t have to work hard at all to convince them not to rush back to the town.

“So”–Hilda smiled sheepishly–“can you give me just a minute to grab my things before we leave?”

“Oh, sure. Can you get a blanket or something to sit on too? If you have an extra one around your house, that is,” Edgard asked, remembering that he hadn’t actually planned the whole outing properly. “We can stop by the food hall for the rest of the supplies. They usually have a good bit of extra food left over after the breakfast crowd,” he thought out loud. “I don’t think they’ll mind us taking that.”

“Yeah, sure thing. Just give me a minute to find one that’s big enough for four.” Hilda disappeared behind the door.

Edgard went back to looking at the painting of the girl as soon as Hilda left to go inside. When she finally emerged, after a good deal longer than he expected, he couldn’t help but notice that her hair was combed down, and her clothes were missing the one or two wrinkles they had just moments ago. “You look nice,” he blurted out as soon as she came into view.

“Uh . . .” her face turned a bright red, contrasting well with her blue outfit and the two green blankets she had brought from inside. “Thank you.”

“Want me to hold those?” He pointed at the blankets.

“No, it’s okay. You can hold them after we get some grub from the food hall.”

“Okay, shall we?” he extended his arm out in a ladies-first gesture, trying to act gentlemanly for a reason that he himself wasn’t entirely aware of.

“Why, thank you, kind sir,” she said with a giggle as she started walking in front of him. “It’s just a shame that a man like you . . .”

“A man like me what?” he asked as she started picking up her pace a bit.

“That a man like you can’t keep up with me,” she said, laughing, and then took off into a full sprint.

This again? He started dashing after her. Was it her or me that suggested a race the first time around? “I can too!” he boasted, but, after only a few minutes, the lie would have been apparent to anyone watching. “Wait! Wait! I give up!” he called out as she kept pressing on into the distance.

This time, she didn’t keep running. She stopped and turned around to show that she was a bit winded too. “Better than I expected for a desk boy,” she laughed between breaths. “Sitting down all day, I half expected you to give up a lot sooner.”

Edgard, who was now holding both of his knees as he tried to catch his breath, leaned up and looked around. Wait, am I further than I was yesterday? he thought as he saw the tail end of the first guild hall. I am, not by much, but by enough to be noticeable. He touched his rune. Does it have something to do with this? Or maybe I’m just overthinking it. Maybe it was just the fact that I tried harder this time, and she was carrying blankets.

“Oh, don’t tell me your chest is hurting from a little running,” Hilda poked fun at him.

“No, it’s just I thought I felt something on my rune,” he admitted. Hilda already knew about the odd symbol on his chest, so he didn’t mind talking about it in front of her

“Really? You think that maybe your magic is finally going to start working?” she asked, beaming enthusiastically.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, let’s get some food, and I’ll let you know if anything else happens regarding the rune.” Edgard didn’t feel like talking about what was going on with his symbol, but not because he didn’t want to share the information with Hilda. The reason was that his plan was going well so far, and he didn’t want to ruin it by sounding crazy.

Throughout the rest of the walk to the food hall and then the church after, their conversation was very similar to the one he had shared with her on day three. She told him the same funny story about the kid trapped in the bathroom, forced to endure the awful, poopish smell for almost an entire day out of embarrassment. However, this time, since they had further to walk, the story became more detailed. Listening to the cute, almost angelic-looking, innocent Hilda make fart noises with her mouth as she described the torture the boy must have gone through was too much for Edgard. He found himself out of breath from laughing too hard.

On top of that, she also opened up about an issue she was having with a friend. Apparently, to the best of Edgard’s ability to understand what was going on, she was caught between two friends, one of whom was doing something to betray the other, and she didn’t know how or when to tell the one who was being stabbed in the back. When Edgard pressed her about the whole thing, she just said that the betrayal was the usual ‘girl problems,’ so Edgard figured the issue had to do with gossip. Maybe her friend is spreading bad rumors behind the other friend’s back? he guessed before shrugging off his own speculation. It doesn’t matter, he figured.

Then, when they finally got to the church, Hilda hesitated at the door again. “So, yeah, we’re here,” Edgard said, not wanting to walk in himself either. “I suppose we should go get Derian.”

“Do you want to do it? I think I’ll just wait out here,” Hilda said, making an awkward pouty face as she looked at the door.

“Fine.” Edgard handed her the two blankets, now stuffed with food for the picnic. “But you have to hold these. And don’t go running off! Cedric will kill me if he thinks I tried to sneak more food just so I didn’t have to eat with him at the food hall,” he added, not seriously believing she would scamper off, but just suggesting it in an attempt to be funny. When she didn’t laugh though, he felt kind of silly. I hope she didn’t actually think I was suspecting that she’d leave.

“I’ll still, umm . . . be right here. Don’t worry.” Smiling at Edgard, she raised the blankets full of food like they were a cup of mead she was toasting with.

“Okay, be back soon!” Edgard dashed into the church and found Derian’s lecture hall as quickly as possible. He wasn’t actually in a rush; he just didn’t want to leave Hilda outside waiting too long.

“Edgard?” Derian sat up, surprised as he burst through the door. “Edgard, why are you barging in here? You never burst in without knocking.”

“Oh! I just . . . I knew there wasn’t anyone in here, so I thought you wouldn’t mind.” Edgard looked around the empty room.

“Did you? Or are you just saying that now?” Derian’s eyes followed Edgard gaze as it swept across the lecture hall. “Anyway, what’s up?”

We’re all going to die, and I’m trying to save your life, but I am almost positive you’re going to be a stubborn jerk about it. That’s what’s up, Edgard felt like saying, but bit his tongue. Stick to the picnic. “I wanted to invite you out. I’ll pick up your work tomorrow. Just come have lunch with me and Hilda.”

“You and Hilda? Not Mae?” Derian’s eyebrow rose.

“Well, I hope she comes too, but, at the moment, the only person I’ve asked and know for sure about is Hilda.” Edgard wanted to laugh at Derian’s deflated look as he mentioned he was going to invite Mae too. You want me to hook up with your sister that badly? What kind of brother are you? Hhe wished he could ask, but that subject would run contrary to his plans. If I tease him about it, the chances of him coming might drop, and I don’t want to risk him getting hurt in this attack.

“Okay, well, if Mae says no, are you still going to go?” Derian asked, his eyes so focused they appeared to be reading Edgard for any reaction.

“Haven’t even considered it. Why wouldn’t Mae say yes to skipping a lecture to go have fun outside?” Edgard shrugged. There is no way she will say no, right?

“But would you?” Derian was still keenly focused on Edgard.

What reaction do you want? “Yes, yes, I will still have my picnic,” Edgard answered, humoring him. He wasn’t actually sure he would. Without Mae, what would be the point? I couldn’t just leave my girl behind to die . . . but I could at least get these two out before I try to come back for her, right?

“Alright then, I’m in. But don’t count on Mae coming,” Derian said, letting out a sigh. “And if she doesn’t, I probably won’t stay long either. I might just have to come back to work early and let you and Hilda catch up.” He winked at Edgard.

You are such a bad brother. Edgard stifled a chortle. “You’re not going to let that go, are you? The whole thing where you want me to give up on Mae, I mean.”

“Probably not,” Derian admitted. “Besides, there is a really creepy guy from the Fire Guild who has been courting Hilda far too aggressively for my liking.”

“How so?” Edgard knew that Derian didn’t like this guy hitting on Hilda, but he didn’t actually know why. He just assumed that, if he was from the Fire Guild, he was probably a jerk.

“Oh, he is acting like he owns her already. He’s treating her as if her dating him is a privilege she’s just lucky enough to be granted. I don’t want that for my sis. She’s the crown jewel of the town, and the man she’s with better worship her like she was God himself made man.” Derian held his head high, beaming with pride.

“And you think I would do that?” Edgard turned around while chuckling, heading back to the lecture hall’s door with Derian following.

“Well, if how you treat Mae is any indication . . .” Derian trailed off. “Speaking of which, do you want to be the one to try to catch her after the lecture or me?”

“Oh, actually, Hilda is already waiting on us. I was hoping we could sneak Mae out now and start early,” Edgard said, walking towards the Father’s lecture room.

“You want to do a picnic when most of the town just finished breakfast?” Derian’s hearty, bellowing laugh echoed off the walls. “Wait till I tell Cedric that you actually organized a picnic brunch. He’ll never believe me.”

“Well, you could wait until we run into him, or we could hunt him down and bring him along too?” Edgard shrugged. It’s part of the plan to bring him along anyway. “After all, have you ever known Cedric to turn down a meal?”

“No, I don’t think I have. But, are you sure you want to add an extra man to the mix?” Derian and Edgard both stood paused at the door to the Father’s lecture room.

“I don’t need to remind you that one of those girls is your sister, and the other is my girlfriend, do I?” Edgard facepalmed. Who is he going to hit on in this hypothetical situation?

“Well, Mae would be single if you ended up with my sister instead . . .” Derian hinted and then whistled innocently.

“Whatever.” Edgard didn’t want to deal with the topic any longer. He was already second guessing himself after spending two mornings in a row with Hilda. He didn’t need Derian to see even a shred of doubt. The stubborn man would never let it go. “Look, if I burst in and ask Mae away, the Father will accuse me of shenanigans given our relationship. If you go in there and ask for her, you can probably pull it off. I’m trusting you, Derian. Don’t let Mae say no. I’m going to go wait with Hilda outside so she doesn’t get bored.”

“You didn’t bring me along just so I’d bust your so-called ‘girlfriend’ out of her lecture hall, did you?” Derian’s face twisted into a judgemental frown. “I’m not just here as a prop, am I?”

“Nope! But I do need to make sure Hilda doesn’t leave with the food, so I’ll meet you and Mae outside in five. Make it quick!” Edgard smacked Derian’s back with the best Cedric impression he could muster. “You can’t be skipping your meals, weed.”

As Edgard made it down the corridor towards the exit, he heard Derian loudly say, “Hmm, maybe I should just leave you and Hilda out there a long while, let the two of you spend some quality time together before coming out with Mae.”

Edgard was about to shoot back an angry look and tell Derian that he wouldn’t dare, but then he realized that would probably just keep the conversation going longer. There was no way Derian would truly stall things if he thought there was a chance to get fresh air and avoid work. As he finished the last stretch towards the exit, he couldn’t help but wonder, He’s not really hoping I’ll leave Mae for Hilda so that he can hit on her himself, is he? Nah. He decided not to entertain the notion that Derian would ever do that to him.

“I didn’t take too long, did I?” Edgard asked, opening the door to leave the church and finding Hilda still standing exactly where he left her.

“No, but weren’t Derian and the others supposed to be with you?” Hilda queried, looking over Edgard’s shoulder as if she expected to see her brother or Mae behind him.

“They’re coming. Well, I think they’re coming. Derian should be fetching Mae right now,” Edgard said with a smile. Yep, so far, so smooth, he thought, mentally praising himself for his efforts. If everything continued as it had been, then they were sure to all live through the horrific attack to hit the town later on.

“Derian is the one fetching Mae?” Hilda squinted at Edgard and then sighed. “Nevermind. Anyway, this should be fun,” she said, but the expression on her face and her general demeanor suggested to Edgard that she was less excited than when they arrived.

“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. We just have one more stop to make, and then it’s nothing but sunshine, good food and a nice day in the open,” Edgard said with a nod. A nice day where I don’t have to watch people die brutally before being slaughtered like the fat beast at a party.

“I am surprised.” Hilda’s grin returned. “I never expected you to be the outdoor type.”

“I guess . . . I’m not usually,” Edgard admitted. “I truthfully never found much point in spending your whole day running around like children, but children do have fun . . . Sso why not give it a try?”

“That’s a good attitude.” Hilda popped up on to her tip toes. “We can try everything till we find something that’s fun to do!”

Try everything . . . Edgard struggled to contain his lecherous mind after hearing that comment and seeing Hilda’s extra bounce. Nope, no, no, no, don’t think that. You have Mae. He mentally slapped himself a few times. Dirty thoughts be gone! he tried and failed again to get his head clear of the images. “Yeah, everything. . .” he said as he turned towards the church door where he expected Mae and Derian to emerge.

“Maybe next time, instead of a picnic, we could all go hike up a mountain. I’ve always wanted to hike a mountain,” Hilda suggested.

“Are there any around?” Edgard couldn’t think of how they would do that. “I’ve only read about most mountains in books.”

“Same here, but I think if we left the town for a while, we’d be able to find one.” Hilda’s youthful excitement was interesting to Edgard.

“But wouldn’t that take longer than a day? Would they even let us stop working for that long?” Edgard was skeptical of the idea. He did kind of want to try something like that, to just go out and explore the world. The thought of seeing the multitude of different beasts and races that occupied the world as described in the Church’s history books was always exciting, but it was also off limits. Only those gifted with the runes of the Traveler’s Guild could work and adventure at the same time, and, if you weren’t working, you weren’t fulfilling God’s purpose. So, naturally, no-one ever left the town for more than a day trip unless they were part of the Traveler’s Guild.

“Maybe? But, you know, a hunter like me needs to search for new animals to domesticate, and maybe you need to investigate your rune so you can better serve God?” Hilda came up with rather lame excuses, but, given how few people wanted Edgard around to begin with, they might just be the excuses the higher ups would need to send him off.

The Father does hate me being around. As long as I make it sound like the process won’t be fun, he should agree. Edgard was already trying to figure out how to make the escape venture work. Wait, the town won’t even be around later. Why does it matter if they let me or not? “Sure, umm . . . let’s do that one day,” he just agreed. If they couldn’t put something together, it wouldn’t matter whether or not he took her up on the offer.

“I’ll have to work on getting a map”–Hilda put the index finger of her free hand against her lip in contemplation–“and . . . hmm. We’ll also need a way to bring food plus things for sleeping. Maybe a blanket stuffed with food?” She then lifted up one of the blankets. “Like this one, maybe?”

“Are you suggesting we just go do it right now? Leave the others behind and head off?” Edgard was almost taken back by how forward Hilda was being.

“Well, it’s just . . . umm . . .” she bit her lip and stared at the church door. “Maybe the two of us running off would be better than the four of us having a picnic.”

“Five, you mean?” Is she failing to count Cedric or Mae?

“Yeah, five. I just thought maybe it’d be funner than what’s probably going to happen on this picnic.” She kicked the ground slowly, almost dragging the dirt more than kicking it.

“Don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine,” Edgard told himself as well as Hilda. “We’re all going to go have a nice, fun picnic and enjoy ourselves.” Though, maybe we should bring extra food and blankets, he thought, starting to second guess his preparations. He had just planned on escaping the city first, not considering what would happen afterwards. The idea of rations, sleeping arrangements–none of it had actually crossed his mind. Am I an idiot? He almost wanted to hit himself as he realized how grossly underprepared he was. If we actually do make it out, we might as well be dead afterwards anyway.

“Edgard?” Hilda looked worried. “Are you okay?”

“Huh? Why wouldn’t I be?” Edgard looked down. Do I look okay?

“Yeah, you just seem to be slipping into a daze a lot today. Like you’re in the conversation for a minute, and then . . . um . . .  you’re not,” Hilda explained.

“Oh.” It was probably true. Edgard had been pretty consumed by his thoughts about escaping, and he hadn’t realized that his constant distraction was creating pauses in the conversation. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s not a problem, but what are you thi–”

“Hey there, honey!” Mae popped out of the door as Mae was mid-sentence and did a sort of tackle- hug right into him. “Let’s get this picnic going!”

“I was worried for a minute that you might not come,” Edgard said, returning the hug awkwardly.

“What? And miss the first time my little rune-challenged boy does something spontaneous?” Mae laughed and started marching off towards the Growers Guild, unprompted by anything Edgard had said. Edgard and the two siblings watched her for a moment in silence before she turned around and asked, “Well, we have to pick up Cedric, don’t we? So we need to leave early, right? Let’s get a move on, boys. Don’t keep a girl waiting!”

“Uh . . . sure,” Edgard said, following quickly behind with Derian and Hilda tailing.

When they came upon the farm Cedric always worked at, he was easily the first figure anyone could see. The towering man somehow stood out above everyone else like he was the only adult working with a gaggle of children. As he came into view, Cedric immediately stopped what he was working on, clasped both his hands around his mouth in a funnel shape and called out to them. “Weed! You came to visit!”

“Yeah, we’re going on a picnic!” Edgard returned the call. “Do you want to come?”

“You’ve got a stiff what?” Cedric look confused.

“I said we’re going on a picnic,” Edgard tried again, this time louder as he made his way to Cedric.

“Oh, picnic. I was wondering for a minute why you would come all the way here to complain about a–” he replied, cutting himself off as he noticed Mae and Hilda. “And we’ve got the whole gang here! That’s great!”

“I have that effect on a gathering,” Mae boasted with a wide grin. “Everytime I’m around, it’s always great.”

“Yeah, it really is,” Edgard agreed.

“Mae? Is that you?” A group of girls from the Irrigators Guild that Cedric was working with started walking over too. The first one who spoke up, a loud-mouthed. brown-haired girl with a height that made her almost resemble a female Cedric called out, “And is that the same guy we saw you hooking up with in the bar last night? Der-something?”

“Derian was his name, right?” one of her friends, the only blonde, in the group of five girls asked. “And yeah, it’s the same one. I can’t believe you brought him all the way out here to introduce us, Mae. You usually can’t wait to get rid of the guys you sleep with.”

Edgard stood frozen in time as he listened to the exchange. With each new word pointing to Mae’s infidelity–and with his friend Derian, no less–he felt his heart start sinking further into his stomach. A coldness ran through his chest, and his throat tightened to the point that he felt like he couldn’t breath as he tried to piece together a new understanding of reality as fast as his old one was crumbling. Mae, my Mae . . . and Derian?

“Then again, she doesn’t usually do it in a public place like the bar either. Maybe it’s actually serious this time?” the tall one answered back. “That’s why she brought him all the way down here to meet us!”

“Nah, that red-faced runt is just here for Cedric. She probably didn’t even know we were working this field. Schedule wasn’t even laid out till this morning.”

“Edgard, it’s . . . it’s not what it sounds like,” Mae said imploringly, doing her best to hide her own shock. Started to extend a hand toward Edgard, but he unconsciously stepped back, his body reacting in revolt even while his brain still tried to process what was happening.

“Edgard? Wait, isn’t he the chump you always say–” the blonde asked, but Mae’s loud yell stilled her.

“SHUT UP!” Mae screamed back at them. “Just, just stop talking!”

The chump? That’s all I was? Is that all that happened? That must be it. I’m just some chump. I’m some loser who was being taken for a spin by the first girl that showed any interest, Edgard thought, gulping. His eyes starting to sting as his mind tried to get his head around the whole thing. It didn’t make sense. It couldn’t be real. His reality was so small, but so perfectly simple. He had Mae for a girl and Derian for a friend. But . . . but if Derian was with Mae, then maybe they were both laughing at me? Everytime he tried to talk me into not being with Mae, it’s because he already knew she was messing around on me. After all, he was the one doing it!

“Edgard, I’m so sorry.” Hilda was the next to speak, putting a soft and gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m so so sorry.”

“Look, Edgard, it’s not what you think. They’re totally mistaken I would neve–”

“They didn’t lie. We did it last night on Edgard’s writing desk after some drinks,” Derian interrupted, shrugging at Edgard like it was the most matter of fact thing in the world, like it didn’t matter. “Oh, and let’s not forget the time we–”

“What the heck, Derian?!” Mae snapped. “Why are you saying–”

“The truth? Because it’s about time he knew. It’ll make his life easier. You’re dating him, and he’s the only single guy I know in town who hasn’t done you. I was already going to tell him, but I figure this is the perfect opportunity . . . so to speak.”

Edgard listened to them bicker back and forth a little longer, but, after a while, the words were lost. He stood in his own reality, separated from them all. How could he do that to me, his friend? How could she? he kept asking himself over and over again.

“Is he going to cry?” a chunky, short brunette asked, pointing at Edgard and snapping him out of his reverie. “Look at him. He’s going to cry.”

No, I’m not going to cry. This is their fault, and I’m not going to give them the satisfaction. No, I’m going to . . . I’m going to . . . Edgard turned around and punched Derian’s jaw with every ounce of strength he could muster. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to send the man to the ground.

Derian, now laid out on his back and rubbing his jaw, looked up at Edgard with calm eyes like the blow was expected. “Come on then, let me have it,” he baited Edgard as he stood up, and Edgard obliged.

Edgard hit him again, knocking him back down, and then kicked him in the stomach as he tried once more to stand up. He was about to kick Derian again when Cedric wrapped his arms around Edgard in a tight bear hug. “Little weed, you do not want to feed your roots with this anger. This one knows he did wrong. Let him find the voice to ask for forgiveness.”

Forgiveness? Forgiveness?! Edgard wanted to yell, but his voice was still choked up from when he first found out. He was with my woman, and I should just forgive him? he struggled in futility against Cedric’s impenetrable vice-grip hug.

“I’m not letting you go until you calm down,” Cedric said, squeezing Edgard to the point where breathing felt impossible. “Just calm down.”

“Calm down? Calm down!? I am going through all of this for them! I could have already left! I could have gotten out of here before the sun rose!” Edgard did his best to yell despite his shrinking lung capacity as he squirmed, legs dangling, in air.

“Edgard, mead. That’s what you need, mead,” Cedric said. Still holding Edgard, he turned and just started walking to the food hall. “Let’s get you a good cup of mead and let you vent.”

“Edgard, I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Hilda repeated again, still at his side.

“It’s not what it seems like,” Mae tried again, “They’re lying. I didn–” She was cut off mid-sentence as Hilda’s hand struck her hard enough to silence everyone.

“You lying harlot!” Hilda yelled at Mae and then slapped her again with the other hand.

The girls from the Irrigators Guild, who at this point were mostly staring silently in shock, began to whisper to each other softly enough that Edgard, in his tightly-clasped and squirming state, couldn’t make out what they were saying, but could still see their gasps and shocked expressions. Even Edgard was shocked to see Mae, now holding both cheeks of her face, stunned mute. He wasn’t sure what was more surprising, the fact that Mae could be knocked silent, or the fact that Hilda did it.

“What th–” Mae started talking again after a minute of silence, only to be slapped once more by an angry Hilda as soon as her mouth opened.

“I told you to shut your mouth! You think this hurts? Do you have any idea what you’ve done to him?” She pointed over to Edgard. “That is the nicest, most caring, down-to-earth guy you’ll ever meet, and you treated him like the welcome mat at a town hall!”

“Hilda? Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” Derian said as he stood up.

“I should be asking you the very same thing!” Hilda glared at him.

“I’m sorry, I just . . . I was drunk, and . . .” Derian started his apology to Hilda, but Hilda, still red faced and flushed with anger just silently pointed to Edgard. “Don’t apologize to me.”

Cedric shook his head back and forth hard enough for the effect to shake Edgard’s legs like he was a limp rag doll. This is not helping, Edgard grumbled, but he knew it kind of was. He was already less mad at Mae and Derian, and more upset that he was trapped like a prisoner. He also, after the smacking, had an even deeper respect for Hilda.

That stupid, cheating, pro-bono whore, Edgard thought to himself. Before he could dwell linger much longer on what had just happened and relish the smacking sound of Mae getting a bit of comeuppance, Cedric turned around and started heading towards the town. “Hilda, he needs mead and meal. He’s had a rough morning. Come too,” Cedric said. Edgard was somewhat thankful his captor didn’t turn his head while he spoke and swing Edgard back the other way again.

Food? Why do I need food? I’ve already had enough of that tart to last a lifetime, Edgard grumbled internally.

“Umm . . .” Hilda hesitated, but for less than a second. “I mean of course. Yeah, let’s go. But . . . I already have food. And I got some mead too already . . .”

“Oh, then we’re having a three-person picnic,” Cedric concluded, turning Edgard around and heading out of town again, towards the open fields that surrounded the farms. “Some fresh air will do him good, and I doubt this weed wants others to see him like this. They might just pick him from the garden before he gets to grow.”

“That’s just rude. He’s not a weed!” Hilda protested Cedric’s nickname for Edgard.

“Nonsense, a weed is a weed,” Cedric laughed, his expanding chest pushing the air out of Edgard’s lungs with each breath. “He grows in defiance of the whole garden and yet still has his place even if the farmer doesn’t want him.”

“I promise not to struggle. Can you please let me down,” Edgard barely gasped out.

“No running?” Cedric questioned, squeezing Edgard for effect.

“No running.” Edgard nodded vigorously, desperately wanting freedom.

“Fine.” Cedric let go, and Edgard plopped onto the ground.

“Edgard, look,” Derian, who was now standing where Edgard had knocked him down, pants still dirty from the fall, began calling out. “I’m sorry abo–”

“Little man,” Cedric cut him off, “You leave now.”

“I was just trying to–” Derian tried to explain himself again.

“Leave,” Cedric insisted, his deep, stern voice freezing not only Derian but the gossiping girls and Mae in their places. “All of you!” he pointed towards the town. “If I have to turn around and say it again, I will . . .” Cedric paused, the group still frozen in shock. “I will forcibly harvest the rotten produce of the this field.”

Everyone started backing away slowly, then turned around and left. Only Hilda, Edgard and Cedric remained. After they were gone, and Cedric’s expression returned from angry to satisfied, Hilda looked over at the big man.

“I have to ask: Harvest rotten produce?” she said.

Cedric shrugged. “Beats me. It just sounded menacing enough to make them leave.”

Edgard and Hilda both found themselves chuckling at the confession. Some of it was because of the humor, but most of it was because it was the first moment of levity in what had turned out to be an incredibly tense and stressful journey into the fields. “You gonna be okay?” Hilda put a hand on Edgard’s shoulder.

“Probably not,” he said, obviously moping. “I don’t get it. What did I do wrong? I gave her everything she wanted . . .” he said, trying to make sense of the cheating. After the anger, the denial and the hate left with her as she scurried away at Cedric’s threat, but Edgard was still left with an empty feeling, a tight chest, and a one-word question: Why?

“Hmmmm,” Cedric scratched his chin a moment, “I think people are like vines. We give them the structure; they take the shape. You gave her everything and expected nothing. She took that shape. Maybe it was your fault?”

“No, it wasn’t!” Hilda again demanded. “Edgard was just a gentleman. She’s the weed.”

“If you say so.” Cedric just shrugged and started walking. “Let’s go. Food and mead. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Okay,” Edgard said with a sigh and followed. Cedric’s probably right. This is my fault. I enabled her behavior. He couldn’t help but agreeing with the large man. There was no way he bore no responsibility for her actions. If he had forced a commitment, if he hadn’t let her just keep pushing the date, if he hadn’t been okay with her constantly shifting the target from one condition to the next every time he did what she wanted, this wouldn’t have happened. They would have settled down a long time ago. And then I’d be stuck with her, he also realized. No, she wouldn’t have settled down with me. She never planned on being unfaithful because she never even planned on a real relationship. He sniffled, wiping his nose and eyes with the long, blue sleeves of his outfit.

They managed to make it all the way to a nice open field, filled with soft, blooming flowers to sit on. Hilda laid out the green towel across the short-stemmed, long-petaled, red and blue flowers that ran across the valley. The blue flowers, the ones often used to dye clothes in the village, had little to no smell, but the red ones graced Edgard’s nose with a beautiful aroma that smelled like a mix of orchids and morning dew covered in sugar and pine. The red flower, commonly known as the winter’s harvest flower, used to be Edgard’s favorite, but now it was hard to breath in. After all, it was the flower that Mae often dabbed across her neck to ‘feel pretty’ as she would often say.It was hard not to feel even worse as visions of her shot through his mind with every sniff of the fragrance.

“Edgard?” Hilda broke him from the memories as she laid out the blankets with the food still in the middle and sat down on one of the corners. “You want to start with fruits or meats?”

“Umm, maybe meat?” hHe took a seat next to Hilda and looked at the poor selection of food offerings. He almost wished he had brought Cedric to the food hall with them. He always managed to get prime cuts of meat and a great selection of dishes.

“Maybe meat? You mean maybe mead. How much did you get?” Cedric opened up the other blanket to reveal pouches filled with mead. It would have normally been enough for five people, but, as Cedric probably saw it, it was enough for one. “Is this all?”

“Well, the purpose of the picnic wasn’t really to just drink . . .” Hilda answered back and chuckled at Cedric’s depressed face. She then looked at Edgard. “Though maybe that might not be a bad idea for some of us.”

“It’ll have to do. Here.” Cedric tossed one of the mead pouches at Edgard hard enough for it to sting as it thumped off his chest. “You first. Down the whole thing in one go. Like a man.”

Edgard didn’t need Cedric to tell him to do it this time as he emptied the pouch in one long swig. Between the stress of dying multiple times, having to repeat the day over and over again and having to deal with Derian and Mae’s betrayal, he would have happily downed ten of the pouches to just avoid having to think for a while. Every five minutes seemed to be filled with more reasons for his hair to gray than most people dealt with in a decade.

“Here. You can have mine too.” Hilda passed him another one.

As Edgard took the pouch, a question rolled off his tongue. Hilda had been acting funny, she had known her brother hadn’t come home and she hadn’t said anything. “Did you know?” he asked.

“Edgard,” Cedric’s face wrinkled up, “don’t do that to yourself. Hilda has been nothing but helpful.”

“I did.” Hilda slowly shook her head at Edgard and bit her lip as she answered. “I knew that Mae was probably sleeping around on you, but I didn’t have any evidence. I couldn’t prove anything. I heard from Derian, He told me he knew about her and that he was going to confront her last night, and I just–”

“Confront her? He went to talk to her about it and just, what? Tripped, fell, landed on top of her and figured he’d have a go too?” Edgard couldn’t believe that story. How does going to confront someone end up like that? he balked at the idea. How does that even make sense?

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I am just saying what–”

“Saying that you knew, that everyone knew, and that no-one told me?” Edgard grabbed a third pouch and chugged it before looking at Cedric. “Did you know too? Did you also watch while I went about town like a fool, a dagger in my back?”

Cedric didn’t respond. He just stared at Edgard with the same wrinkled face he had been wearing since Edgard had asked Hilda.

“I’m sorry, Edgard. I just didn’t think you’d believe me if I told you that–”

“That my girlfriend was the town cart? That I was the faithful, diligent boy while she was everyone else’s favorite ride?” Edgard fumed, the anger he had managed to keep down since Cedric grabbed him once again exploding out.

He reached for the fourth of the five pouches of mead when Cedric grabbed his hand and stopped him. “Don’t. Don’t keep down this road. If she had come to you and told you everything, would you have believed her? Or hated her until you found out she was right and then hated her more for not being able to convince you?”

“I would have . . .” Edgard didn’t actually know. “I would have . . .” he tried to answer again, but his mouth was simply repeating the same words he had been asked, void of reason to answer truly answer the question, so he never got past the opening words.

“You would have hated her, and you would have hated yourself even more. You might not like Derian for what he did, but he screwed her for all to see so you would be free. I’m not saying his actions were right, but your chains are broken. Don’t be angry at the one who opened your prison door. Be angry at the one who put you there in the first place.” Cedric’s grip made Edgard wince as his oversized fingers pressed into his friend’s hand. “We farmers must constantly cut twigs and snip the leaves off a plant for its own good, no matter how much it might seem to hurt the plant. If we don’t, the thing will grow erratically and never be able to weather the heavy winds of winter. It needs us to trim it so that it grows in the best way. Derian’s actions hurt like two knives clipping through your heart, but you’ll be a healthier little weed now.”

“I . . .” I don’t want to admit that you’re probably right, Edgard thought with a gulp. He didn’t know what Derian’s intentions actually were, but Cedric was right about Hilda at least, no matter what was said about Derian. “I’m sorry,” he said to Hilda, a little embarrassed he was acting so childish. She had known, or at least suspected, but she had also clearly gone out of her way today for him. She had even done what Edgard only wished he had been able to do: slapped Mae. “It wasn’t your fault. I didn’t mean to lash out.”

“There you go, little weed.” Cedric gave a hearty chuckle. “Even you can growo straight sometimes.”

“And you could stop calling me weed for one day.” Edgard gave Cedric a glare.

“Never.” Cedric’s laugh only grew a little louder.

“You know, a lot of people in the Hunters Guild talk about that mountain to the east of town”–Hilda looked behind them, away from the city and towards the forest filled with large twisting trees that looked as if the trunks were snakes crawling up a fence post–“but I’ve never seen past the purple leaves of the rune woods.”

“Rune woods . . .” Edgard looked at the thirty- and forty-foot tall trees. “Why do you think we call them rune woods? Do you think the trees were even born with runes?”

“I don’t know about runes, but they are definitely not your average trees. I think it’s part of the reason why their leaves are purple,” Cedric offered. “The rest of the trees in town only have green leaves that change to brown and orange as the days grow cold. Those leaves, they’re always purple. They never fall, and the trees never age.”

“Maybe God blessed them? Since they surround our city, perhaps God made them special so that they would always stand in our defense.” Hilda tossed a grape directly at Edgard’s forehead while he was contemplating why the trees were purple.

“Hey!” Edgard rubbed a drop of juice the grape had left off his forehead.

“Sorry.” Hilda gave Edgard a pleading face, but then, the second he went to look back at the trees, a grape struck his forehead again.

“What the heck?!” Edgard cried out with a laugh.

“She’s just–” Cedric paused and then stood up. “Smoking!”

“She’s smoking?” Edgard looked up at Cedric. “And that requires standing up?”

“No! Ssmoke!” Cedric pointed towards the town

Oh, God, no. It’s already happening! The walk out here and the conflict with Mae and Derian must have taken longer than I thought. I must have lost track of time. It’s already happening. “Crap, it’s happening. We have to run!” He started packing up the green blanket that they weren’t sitting on and tying the foodstuffs inside the quickly-assembled, makeshift satchel.

“What’s happening?” Hilda said as she and Cedric both started putting the remaining items into the other blanket. “Why are we panicking?”

“The town! Everyone is going to die. We have to get out of here. It’s being attacked!”

“How could you know that?” Cedric stopped packing up the second satchel.

“Because God told me. It’s my rune’s power.” Edgard dropped the satchel gently onto the ground, careful not to break apart the food any more than it already was, and unbuttoned his shirt as quickly as he could. “My rune is finally active,” he asserted again, showing them the three red lines that now made up a third of his rune’s pattern.

“Edgard . . . ” Hilda dropped the satchel and stared at him. “Edgard, is that why you put together a picnic?”

“Yeah, I needed to get you all out of town.” Edgard didn’t see any point in denying the truth. “If we go back now, then we’ll all die too. Right now, that fire is the food hall, but, if we don’t get out of here, it might be us next. We have to escape before they start combing the sides of the city.”

“Edgard, I can’t leave without Derian!” Hilda started running towards the city as quickly as she could.

Edgard dashed after Hilda as fast as he could, “Hilda!” he yelled at her back. “Hilda don’t go! You’ll die if you go!”

“I’m not leaving without Derian!” Hilda pressed on. “If there is a chance, I have to take it! We have to get him out of here!”

Part of Edgard almost rejoiced at the fact that she didn’t question his rune power at all, that she trusted him–the guy who had mostly been ignoring her for a year or two because of that slimy wench Mae. She didn’t second guess him at all. However, the other part of him felt upset that this would probably spell the end of him again, that he’d be getting his fourth line soon, and he’d been waking up in his bed, forced to repeat the same day all over again. No, no, this can’t happen. I can’t repeat it again, he cursed, enraged at the whole situation. If it kept going on like this, nothing would ever change.

Edgard pushed himself to his feet and took off running after Hilda, leaving everything behind him scattered on the ground.  The last thing to do was charge back into the town, into a band of murderous thugs, but there was no way he was going to let her go off on her on.  He already had witnessed more death and destruction in the past few days than any man ever should, and he knew better than anyone what these people were capable of.  I can’t believe we actually made it out of town this time, and now we’re having to go back.  On top of everything else that’s happened, I’m actually going to have to live through this again.

He was beyond frustrated with the entire situation, and the irony in it wasn’t lost on him.  He had thought that he as being clever, trying to trick his friends into leaving the village before the attack, and now he was willfully charging back in after them—even after everything that had happened.  Or one of them . . . Or . . .  The same people he called friends, that he had thought were his friends, were the only reason he hadn’t just picked up altogether and left the town alone to its fate.  Two of the people that he had cared about most, the girl he thought he loved and his best friend, had been cheating on him behind his back all this time.  Did they ever really care about me at all?  Cedric may have been right when he said that knowing the truth had removed the chains that bound him, but there was no way he could have known exactly how true his statement really was.  Are they even worth saving?  Do I really want to save them anymore?  Even if I die today, will I try again tomorrow?

He shook his head as he ran, trying to clear it, but the same dark thoughts kept repeating themselves over and over in his mind even as his feet carried him back towards the town.  No matter how he acted, or what he tried, it seemed that it just wasn’t in the cards for him to ever escape this fate.  The last thing he wanted was to be forced to live out this day again, especially knowing everything that he did now, but he didn’t see any way out of it.  He just couldn’t shake the feeling that ever step brought him closer to his own death.  Maybe all those people were right.  Maybe I really cursed by God.  How long will I have to live this out?  And in how many different ways? 

“Hilda! Wait up!”  he shouted again.  She may have slowed down her pace a bit after he had called out earlier, but she was by far the more experienced runner.  He knew from prior experience that there was no way he could match either her speed or endurance when it came to a footrace.  All those days she spent practicing in the fields had left her in far better shape than him, and there was simply no way he was ever going to catch her at this rate.  It certainly didn’t help the situation that he had a good bit of wine sloshing around his gut at the moment either.

Much to his surprise, Hilda actually slowed down this time.  They had passed through the outskirts of town, the areas reserved for farms, orchards, and storehouses, and a few more minutes of running would have put them on the streets and well into the heart of the town.  Overall, the village was fairly small in comparison to some of the ones he had heard of in stories from the traveler’s guild, but it was still big enough in size that it would still take over half a day to navigate from one side to the other.  Even though new structures had been built up over time, the layout was extremely similar to what had originally been created when it was established.  By leaving the farmlands, the agricultural sections the comprised a large portion of the area leading up to the rune woods, they were on the cusp of what Edgard mentally thought of as the actual town.  Most of this area was comprised of actual homes that had been set aside for couples that had married and decided to raise a family.  Unlike the housing complexes closer to the center of the city, like the one Edgard lived in, these were generally stand-alone structures, and some even had small yards.  If they continued along the road they were following, it would take them straight past various businesses, the food hall, and straight into the town’s center square where the guild halls and the church were located.  The church acted as a focal point, the center of life and commerce for the village, and was at the heart of it everything.  Edgard also knew from experience that it was quite possibly the most dangerous place to be at the moment.

By the time he caught up with her, Edgard was barely moving at a speed faster than a slow jog.  His feet felt heavy, like he was shuffling them more than picking them up and running, and there was a sharp stitch side letting him know exactly how out of shape he really was.  His forehead had broken out in a light sweat, and he was sucking down huge mouthfuls of air trying to catch his breath.  If she had kept up her pace, Edgard knew that there was no way he ever would have caught up with her.

“Hilda . . . hold on a minute.” Edgard gasped out the words as he moved up beside her, reaching out to grab ahold of her elbow in order to keep her from immediately running off again.  He learned over forward, propping himself up with is free hand on his knee.  I’ve seriously got to figure out a way to get more exercise in the future.  If there ever is a future . . .

“Edgard, we have to hurry.  Derian could be anywhere, and there’s no way I can live knowing something might have happened to him when I could have prevented it.”

“Just . . . hold on a minute.  Just wait.”  Edgard was fighting for more than just his breath now; he was also working to keep all the wine he had drank from coming back up.

“Are you . . . alright, Edgard?” she asked, moving around to stand in front of him.  Her voice was edgy, filled with panic and excitement, but there was also a genuine note of real concern there as well.  “You should try and stand up straight and raise your arms above your head.  That’s how we’re taught to catch our breath after a long run.”

Edgard did his best to mimic her instructions, forcing himself to stand upright and not lean on his knee for support.  He was forced to release his grasp on her as he did so, which he lamented somewhere in the back of his head, but after a moment, he found that his breath was actually coming a bit easier.  For some reason, he was actually surprised that she had been right.  Who would have known that simply changing posture would mean being able to breathe easier?  Of course she would know, he corrected himself, this is what she does every day. 

“Look, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time for this.  I know you want to help, but there’s no way you can keep going the way you are.  You look like you’re already starting to turn green.”

Green?  Edgard was suddenly acutely aware of the alcohol as it tried to force its way out of his stomach again.  He suddenly realized that he was standing face to face with Hilda, and his breath must smell awful.  Edgard groaned at the thought, then caught himself.  Wait a minute, why am I worried about my breath at a time like this?

She must have heard the noise he made and misinterpreted it.  She took a step back from him, pointed towards some bushes in one of the nearby yards, and said. “Edgard . . . if you’re going to throw up . . . just . . . Do it over there, ok?”   

“No . . . No, that’s not it.  I’m fine.”  He lied.  He wasn’t fine.  In fact, he was anything and everything but fine at the moment.  Everything and everyone he had known his entire life was about to go up in flames—if they didn’t meet with another gruesome end first.  He had failed to get his friends away from town before the massacre began, and he had found out that his best friend and his girlfriend had been cheating on him behind his back for some time; and, to make matters worse, everyone except he had known about it.  Whether he ever chose to forgive them for it not, it was a massive stroke of irony that he was now racing back into the village, into almost certain death, in order to try and save one of them.  He was far from fine at the moment.

Edgard shook his head again and tried to push those dark thoughts out of the way for a second time.  If he was going to make it out of today alive, and not be forced to repeat it for a fifth time, he was going to have to focus on what was going on around him.  Dwelling on everything that had gone wrong and obsessing over it wasn’t going to do him any good or help him survive.  Hilda was set on going back for Derian, and Edgard was determined to try and help her no matter what.

“We need a plan,” he finally said.  “If we just charge in, we aren’t going to accomplish anything but getting ourselves killed.”

“A plan?”  Hilda’s face scrunched up at the idea as she quickly mulled it over.  “What do you mean? What kind of plan?”

“Well . . .” Edgard took gulped down a huge breath of air.  It was as much to try and help settle his stomach as it was buy him time to think.  “Where is Derian right now?  Where is he most likely to be?”

“I don’t know,” Hilda answered, shaking her head.  “I haven’t seen him since . . .”

“Yeah, exactly,” Edgard said, obviously skipping over what she had left unsaid. “These guys . . . This group attacking the village . . . They are going to be all over the place.  From what I’ve seen they are working their way from the outside in, burning everything and killing everyone as they go.”

“What you’ve seen?”  Hilda asked, the tone of her voice making it obvious she was already skeptical at the idea.  “Did your rune show you this?  What is happening here?”

“Yeah, something like that.”  Edgard nodded eagerly, happy that she wasn’t entirely dismissing him outright as some lunatic.

“You said that your rune told you these people were here to attack everyone?  To kill us?  It actually showed you all this happening?”  Hilda’s face twisted and scrunched up again, her eyebrows furrowing together as she tried to piece together exactly what Edgard was telling her.  “Edgard, what aren’t you telling me?  How do you know that this . . . warning . . . isn’t something you interpreted wrong?  How can you be so certain?”

Edgard studied the younger girl’s features for a moment, trying to decide exactly how much he should tell her about how his rune really worked.  For some strange reason, he felt like he could trust her.  It wasn’t just the fact that he had known her his entire life, or that she had grown up with him, but there was something else about her that gave him confidence.  She had never shunned him like the rest of the village, and as far as he knew, she had always been honest with him. She had even been the one to stand up for him against Mae and the other gaggle of girls only a short time ago.

“Hilda,” Edgard said, resting his hand on her shoulder, “I need you just believe me right now.  I don’t have time to explain everything, but I promise I will when this is all over and we’ve escaped with Derian.”  If we manage to escape at all.

Hilda bit her lower lip as she stared up at him in silence.  He wasn’t giving her much information, and her expression made it obvious that she was uncertain about exactly how she was supposed to react.  It was clear that she wanted more answers to her questions, to know everything that was going on, and that she couldn’t decide whether or not she should blindly follow along.  After a tense moment, her face finally relaxed, and she said, “Alright, I trust you.  So what do we do?  How do we rescue Derian?”

Easier said than done. Edgard actually sighed at the thought of what he was getting himself into.  Okay.  What do I know for certain?  His mind traced back over the last couple of days and everything he knew, everything he had experienced, as he tried to figure out what the best plan was going to be.  If they were going to be successful, he had to figure out a way of both locating Derian and then making it out of town again without being caught while doing it.  He knew that it was absolutely imperative that they stay away from the center of town.  He had already been caught in the food hall twice and knew that was one of the first places they would hit.  If he had learned anything, it was that these people seemed to want to use it as a hub for their operations throughout the city.  And, if the smoke that they had already seen was any indication, it was probably already too late for him to do anything there anyway.  If Derian had headed straight to the food hall after leaving them, he was probably dead already.  That’s a lot of ‘if’s.’  How are we even supposed to do this?

“We need to figure out where Derian is most likely to be and head there first.  I hate to say it, but we aren’t going to have a lot of time to search the town.  If we hurry, there might still be a chance of saving him. The longer we take, however, the less likely it’s going to be that we’ll be able to get him out—or ourselves for that matter.  Once these guys get control of the town, they’re going to kill everyone.”

“So you said . . .” She didn’t react in shock this time, like she had before, but it was clear that she was still uncomfortable with the idea.

“So, where are we most likely to find Derian?”

“I already told you, I haven’t seen him since–”

Edgard held shook his head and held up his hand to stop her short.  They were going in circles with the conversation, and it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.   Neither of them had any idea as to where Derian might be, and talking about how they didn’t know wasn’t getting them any closer to actually finding them.  The only thing that it was accomplishing was wasting precious time that they didn’t have to lose.

Edgard ran his hand through his hair, took a few steps around Hilda, and then stared off down the street as if looking at the buildings would somehow give him the answer that they were looking for.  Where is he now?  Where would Derian go in a situation like this?  Wait, where was he yesterday?  Yesterday, he . . . Yesterday, he died.  He was killed while running from the attackers with me.  We were trying to escape and . . .  Whatever bit of anger Edgard was still holding out against Derian momentarily fled him as he recalled what had happened the day before.   He may not have seen it happen, but he could still recall the sound of Derian pleading for his life just before he was killed.  The sound of his body being hacked apart and cut to bits. . .

Edgard turned and glanced back over his shoulder at Hilda.  She was standing there watching him expectantly, waiting for him to come up with some brilliant scheme that was going to save them all.  Derian doesn’t deserve someone like her for a sister.  That damn drunk doesn’t even appreciate her.  That . . . Then it hit him.

“He’s at the bar,” Edgard said.  “Derian is at the bar.”

“What?  There’s no way.  Why would–”

Edgard scowled.  He didn’t like the line of reasoning behind it, but he was sure that his logic was sound.  “He just told me, his best friend, that he has been sleeping with Mae, my girlfriend.  Trust me, I know Derian.  He’s doing everything he can at this point to avoid owning up to the reality of his situation . . .  to what he’s done”

“So we have to go to the bar?”

“Yeah, I think that’s the best idea we’re going to come up with.  We really don’t have many other options.  Think about it:  How many places does Derian ever really visit?  The only places I ever seen him or hear him talk about are home, work, and the bar.  There’s no way he was going back to work today.  Derian just isn’t the type to try and forget his troubles by working them away.   I guess he could have gone home, but I get the suspicion that he’s also going to try and avoid you for a bit.  He’s probably afraid he’ll get the same treatment from you that Mae did . . .” Edgard grinned as he remembered the vibrant slap.

“And he deserves more,” Hilda replied, “but that will have to wait until we make it out of here.”

“Alright.  Well, if we’re going to make it to the bar, we’re going to have to be really careful.  I don’t know exactly how many people are moving through the town at the moment, but I do know that they are extremely experienced fighters.  Do you remember listening to those stories the people from the traveler’s guild tell after they’ve had a few?  About how people actually kill one another using weapons?  Well, they’re true.  These guys are mean, they’re experience, and there’s no telling what will happen to you if one of them manages to catch you.”

Hilda clenched her teeth together and a look of determination crossed her face.  “There’s no way that’s going to happen.”

Edgard took a deep breath.  “Stay close to me.  We’ve got to make it almost all the way to the other side of town.  We should stay on the side streets as much as possible, but there’s no helping the fact that we have to cross over Church Street at some point.  We need to stay as far away from the town square as possible.”

Hilda didn’t say anything, but after she nodded her agreement, Edgard turned and started moving towards the center of town again in a slow jog.  Every instinct in his body told him to turn and run to safety in the opposite direction as fast as he could, but he forced his legs to carry him forward at a steady pace.  He knew that their odds of success were fairly slim, but for some reason, he also felt like he had to try.  Despite everything that Derian had done to hurt him, to abuse their friendship, he still felt like owed it to Hilda to at least try and save her brother.

They passed by a few more of the small homes, spaced out as they were to provide open space for their open yards, before crossing into one of the small business districts.  The town wasn’t very large by any stretch of the imagination, but it still managed to have several different craftsmen spring up throughout the town.  There were several different housing clusters surrounding the central square where the church and guild halls were located, and, at some point in the past, hopeful shop owners had learned to cluster their businesses around them.

A majority of the townsfolk spent their days working, dutifully toiling away in their God-given profession or laboring for their guild, but there always others who were unable to do so.  Edgard, for example, had been set to work as a scribe at an early age, and he probably would have been able to continue copying the runes for the rest of his life.  For others, however, there would come a time when they were no longer able to do the same job they had their entire life.  As people aged, they were simply no longer capable of the same efforts as when they were younger.  It was impossible to avoid the fact that working in the fields and tending to crops took a toll on a person’s body over the years.  As a result, when someone was simply no longer capable of continuing their profession, they could take a retirement and either go to work directly for their guild’s offices or move into one of the small crafts shops throughout the town.  They could use their experience to help train the younger generation, and it provided them the opportunity to continue doing a useful service for God and help the town without having to feel useless due to old age.

Edgard slowed down after a passing by a few of these shops.  He needed a chance to catch his breath, but he also wanted to take a minute to figure out the best way to circumvent the center of town.  There was no avoiding the fact that they were going to have to cross over the main street, but when and where was going to be of vital importance.  If he remembered correctly, and those horrifying images were burned into his brain, everything between the food hall and the church was go into be extremely dangerous.  It didn’t take long for Edgard to make a decision.  Rather than continuing on in the direction they were heading, he turned down one of the side streets that ran parallel to the main thoroughfare and circled around the town square to the other side of town.  It would take longer to get to their destination this way, but he hoped that it would be safer as well.

It wasn’t long before they were able to begin catching glimpses of what must be happing towards the center of town.  Even following the street as they were, with homes and workshops lining each side of the road, they were able to see the dark clouds of smoke billowing up and into the afternoon sky.  They filtered up into the air, occasionally down dark bits of ash as they wafted high into the atmosphere.  As they further around, and subsequently closer to the church, they were also able to hear the echoing sounds of voice screaming.  Some of them sounded angry, and some were clearly in pain, but most were simply outright terrified.

Edgard had long since lost his sense of time for the day, but when he thought about it, he was struck with the eerie feeling that he had managed to stay alive now longer than he had on any other day before.  How do I know?  How can I be certain of anything at this point?  I died yesterday almost as soon as it began.  The day before, I died after they dragged me to . . . Edgard fought off the urge to sink into his memories of previous days.  He could spend forever reliving those horrifying moments, but it wasn’t going to do him any good in the here and now.  Stay focused, he urged himself.  If you don’t stay sharp, you’ll get yourself killed again. If my sense of time is correct, it means that everyone should be corralled near the church by now. . .

Edgard slowed to a walk after only a few blocks.  He said, “I think we should take it easy from here on out.  I know that we’re in a hurt, and the longer we wait. . .”  He had turned to face Hilda as he spoke to her, but when he looked back she was nowhere to be found.  No way.  Edgard panicked, his mind immediately racing through a hundred possibilities as to what could have happened to her.  When did I lose her?  Did she leave me?  There’s no way I could have out ran her . . . I could have sworn that she was with me just a minute ago. . .

His thoughts were interrupted as he quickly received an answer to his questions.  He heard two things at once: a loud thud, that he instantly recognized as a ball of fire exploding, and a high-pitched scream that cut through the air.  He instantly jerked his head around towards the source of the two sounds and took off in a dead sprint.  He had absolutely no idea what was going on, but he was sure of the fact that Hilda was somehow involved with both.   He had been running for what felt like half of a day, though in truth it had been much shorter, but it only took seconds for him to forget all his former fatigue.  He pushed his legs to the maximum as his feet pounded against the stone pavers that lined the street.

Edgard was only vaguely aware of the rush of blood pounding in his ears as he b-lined across the street towards the source of the sounds.  If he was correct, they had come from one of the smaller, adjacent alleyways that wound their way back towards the center of town.  He rounded the corner of one of the workshops at full speed and on tilt without even bothering to slow down.  He was moving so quickly, however, that he was unable to either catch himself or regain his sense of balance as he came around the turn.  He careened off the wall of a workshop on and far side and bounced back towards the middle, his momentum carrying him forward the entire time.  Everything whipped past him in a blur and he heard, as much as he felt, a loud cracking sound followed by a thud as he crashed into something before he could ever make out what it was.  Edgard finally came to a dead stop as he slammed down hard into the ground.

“Edgard!”

The world swam in his vision, the earth tilting on its axis at unnatural angles, as he tried to regain his bearings.  Dark, blurry patches floated across his eyes making it hard to focus on anything other than the fact that he was laboring to suck in massive, ragged gulps of breath.  What—Edgard stared at long, brown objects as they tilted first right and then back to left as they tried to decide which direction they wanted to settle in.  It took several moments before the floating black orbs began to disappear, and he realized he was looking at the wooden planks making up the side a building.

“Edgard!”

Edgard moaned as he reached up to crandle his head.  He felt a sharp tug of pain from his ribs as he moved, and it forced him to involuntarily begin curling up into a ball.  What just happened? What in the world did I run into?  Even as he tried to sort himself, he felt a small pair of hands urgently tugging his arm away from his head.  They weren’t strong enough to pull him to his feet, but they were more than capable of pulling him over onto his back.  He stared up into a young girls face and tried to figure out who she was.

“Edgard!”

Hey, she knows my name and, she’s kinda cute.  Since when do cute girls talk to me?  Maybe she has me confused with someone else named Edgard. 

“Edgard!  Come on, we have to leave here!” The girl’s voice was pleading, almost insistent, as she tugged on his arm again.

Hmm.  She looks like . . . Hilda.  Edgard’s vision suddenly snapped back into place, and clarity rang through his head like a dinner bell going off.

“What happened?” he croaked out.  His voice was raspy, and he realized that the back of his throat was incredibly dry.  It actually hurt to talk, and he had to force the words out.

“Edgard, come on,” she pressed.  “We have to get away.”

Reluctantly, Edgard let himself be dragged to his feet.  He may have regained enough of his wits so that he could tell the difference between up and down, but it didn’t do much to stop the ringing in his ears or the sinking feeling in his stomach as he stood up.  His knees felt shaky, and he had a hard time balancing without swaying from side to side.  Hilda slipped her small form under his arm to help prop him up and began leading him back away out of the alleyway.  It was hard at first, like his legs didn’t want to cooperate with what he was telling them do, but it wasn’t long before he was able to mostly support himself.

“Here, come this way,” Hilda said, and began leading across the street they had moved along only moments ago.

They moved into another alley, this time one leading further away from the epicenter of chaos that was the town square, before she stopped in front of a small wooden bench and indicated for him to sit down.  It took some effort, and a little help from her part, but after a moment Edgard was able to safely sink down until he was seated.

“Just wait here a minute,” Hilda said as she turned away.  She took off in a run and quickly disappeared up the alley and out of sight.  It was only seconds, however, before Edgard could see her moving back towards him. She was moving much more slowly on her return trip, and she appeared to be doing her best to balance whatever it was she was carrying with her need to move quickly.  Once she was a little closer, Edgard realized that she simultaneously attempting to both carry a ladle while moving at a brisk pace and not lose its contents at the same time.  She stopped before him and carefully held out so that he could take it from her.

“Just take this and sip on it a bit,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend trying to drink too quickly.”

Edgard took the ladle of water, leaned forward, and did as she instructed.  He still felt like he was slightly off-balance, and his vision threatened to start swimming around in circles again as he attempted to take a sip.  She must have noticed the trouble he was having because she said, “Wait . . . Let me.”  Hilda took the ladle from him and gently pushed against his shoulder indicating for him to lean back against the bench.  Once Edgard was in a more-upright position, she held the ladle of water to his lips and let him drink from it.

The water was cool and refreshing, but it still stung as it glided down his parched throat.  I must have been pushing myself harder than I realized, Edgard thought.  I can’t ever remember feeling like this before.  I know I’m out of shape, and that I don’t get enough exercise, but this is ridiculous.  He took another long drink from the ladle, emptying of it of its contents, before he realized exactly what was happening.  Hilda was, more or less, helping him drink water.  Edgard felt a wave of shock wash over him as he grasped what was happening.  He had absolutely no idea what he had done to warrant such tender treatment, but he wasn’t going to start putting up a fuss about it now.  In truth, he was stunned to the point he wasn’t even sure of how he was supposed to react.  He knew that Hilda could often rambunctious and playful, but he couldn’t ever recall seeing her act quite like this before.  What caused this sudden change in her?  She couldn’t wait to run off and fight the world to save Derian a little while ago, but now she’s acting like I’m too delicate to take care of myself. 

“Edgard, are you ok?” she asked, sitting down beside him.

Edgard looked at her quizzically.  He wasn’t even sure of exactly what she was asking, much less how he was supposed to answer it.  After a moment of silence, he finally said, “I guess?  I mean, I’m a little shook up and I’m still kind of disoriented, but everything feels fine.”  He could tell by watching her expression that he wasn’t giving her the answer that she was looking for, so he quickly changed tactics.  “Is something wrong with me?  I know I took a pretty bad spill back there, but I swear that I feel fine.”

Hilda frowned, scrunching up her face as if she were in deep thought.  She adverted her eyes from his face and suddenly became extremely interested in something on the ground.   “Edgard, what happened back there . . .”

“I just lost control, it’s no big deal.  Everything’s fine, I promise.”

Hilda suddenly jerked her head around and stared at him as if he were a stranger she was meeting for the first time.  Her eyes grew wide, and she leaned away from him slightly.  It was like she was studying him, trying to size him up.

“How . . . How can you say that?  How can you say that everything is alright?  After . . .”

Edgard was growing more and more confused by the second.  Every word she spoke left him with a new unanswered question without ever providing him a clue as what she was talking about.  He talking began slowly, trying to watch her face for any reaction as he recounted what happened.  He said, “I turned around to talk to you, but you weren’t there.  Then I heard you scream, so I took off running as fast as I could.  I was . . . I was afraid that something had happened to you.  I’m not as good a runner as you are, but I did the best I could.  When I came around the corner, I just couldn’t stop myself.”

“But that girl . . .”

“Huh?”  What girl?

“That young woman back there . . .”

“What . . .” What is she talking about? 

“Edgard . . .” She paused for a second as if she were trying to find the right words, like she couldn’t figure out exactly how to say what she was thinking.  She clasped her hands in her lap and began fidgeting with the ladle that she had used to bring him water.  “Edgard, I think she’s dead.”

“What?” What!?  Despite the fact that he was sitting down, it felt like the floor fell out from underneath him.  He couldn’t take it any longer.  “Hilda, what are you talking about?  Who?  What woman?”

Hilda glanced up at him before quickly averting he gaze back down again.  “She . . . I thought I could get a look at what was going on in the town square.  I could hear all those people screaming as we ran past, and I couldn’t stand it.  I had to know what was happening to everyone.  I know you said that it was dangerous, but I thought that I could just get a quick look before anyone saw me and then make it back and catch up with you.  I was careful, I swear!  I snuck down the alley and was almost at the end when she just . . . appeared behind me.  I don’t know how I managed to miss seeing her . . . I guess I was just so focused that I never saw her . . .”

Hilda trailed off and grew quiet, lost in the memory of exactly what had happened.  She may have been looking down at her lap, but Edgard was still able to see her eyes flickering back and forth as if she were watching it happen again.

“I don’t know,” Hilda said, obviously unable to puzzle out exactly how it had happened.  “She made some remark how little, lost sheep shouldn’t wander off and told me to get back to the town square.  I was . . . There was no way I was going to do that . . . to let that happen . . . When I didn’t move, she . . . She threw some kind of . . . fireball, Edgard.  She threw a ball of fire at me.”  Hilda finally looked up at Edgard, her confusion and uncertainty written all over her face.  “How is that even possible?”

“And that’s when you screamed,” Edgard finished for her, ignoring her question entirely.  “That’s when I heard you scream and took off running after you.  I think must have heard the sound of the explosion as well.”

Hilda nodded her confirmation.  “I think she was about to do it again when you came barreling around the corner at break-neck speed.  You crashed into her right as she pulled her hand up to attack me.  There was a giant flash of light and an explosion.  She was thrown back away from you, and the next thing I knew, you were both on the ground.  You looked like you were barely conscious, but she . . .”

“Are you certain?” Edgard asked.  I kill someone?  Just by running into them?  Is that even possible?  He suddenly felt himself filled with a myriad of different emotions, and he didn’t have a clue how to begin sorting them out.  The only way to describe it was: confusion.  He couldn’t imagine that there was any color left in his face at this point, but he was certain it would have been gone if there were.  Edgard knew firsthand how terrible and violent these people could be.  As far as he was concerned, they were cut-throat killers that were only interested in themselves.  He hadn’t exactly figured out why they were here, why they were destroying the town and killing everyone, but he had heard enough snippets of conversation of the past few days to be left with the vague idea that it had something to do with the runes.

Hilda gave a small, almost-imperceptible nod.  “I think you ran into her right at the moment she was going to try and kill me.  You must have made her spell backfire or something.”

Despite the fact that these people were undoubtedly evil, however, Edgard felt torn.  He suddenly found himself plagued with questions of morality and ethics as they flashed through his mind at a terrifying pace.  Am I supposed to rejoice over taking one out?  Is it rightful vengeance and a fitting payback for all atrocities they’ve committed time and time again over the last few days?  Or do those not count since they technically never happened?  Or did they?  The Father says that all life is sacred and must be cherished.  Does this mean I am damned now?  That there is no hope for me after this?  He sat back on the small bench and stared off into space, overwhelmed by trying to process everything all at once.

“Edgard . . .” Hilda’s voice was soft and barely more than a whisper when she spoke.  It was clear from her actions now that she had shared the same thoughts as Edgard.

Edgard came halfway out of his daze and turn to look at her.  Seeing her as she was now, Edgard never would have recognized her earlier.   She looked like she was on the verge of crying, and for some reason, it was one of the most heartbreaking things he could ever remember seeing.  For all her usual bounce and bravado, she looked like she was ready to wilt over at any moment.  She . . . She’s worried.  For me.  The realization struck Edgard like a jolt of lightning in dark sky.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone worry about me or be concerned for me since my mother left . . . Everyone is usually just happy if I keep quiet and manage stay out of the way without making too much of a nuisance of myself.  She’s genuinely concerned about me.  She shouldn’t have to carry the burden of my sins. 

Despite the heavy feeling hanging between them, he actually managed to put on a small smile.  He took a deep breath sighed, letting it out slowly.  “We need to keep going,” he finally said, standing up.  His whole body suddenly felt like it weighed as much as a barrel of wine, but his head was clear and he wasn’t wobbly on his feet anymore.  “I . . . I don’t think that this is either the time or place to deal with this.  We still have to save Derian.  The longer we waste time here, but less likely we are to ever find him.”  He tried to push his nagging concerns aside, and to put as much confidence into his voice as he could muster, but it sounded weak even to him.

Hilda finally looked up from her lap and studied him a moment through wide eyes.  She still looked like she was on the verge of tears, but at the mention of her brother, Edgard saw a flicker of the old Hilda return.  She came to her feet beside him and stood still for a quick moment before giving him a nod.  Whatever went thoughts went through her head in that small time must have been enough, because when she spoke, she sounded like she was almost back to her old self.

She made a small sniff and said, “Alright.  Let’s go.  And I promise not to run off again.”

The duo silently started off again.  Rather than taking the same route as before, however, Edgard led them farther away from the center of town and towards another of the small side streets that would arc around to where they wanted.  It would take longer traveling this way, but he hoped that it would remove the temptation for Hilda to sneak off again.  He wasn’t really worried about it, since she had given him her word, but he would rather be safe than sorry.  Truth be told, Edgard was also a bit worried about someone finding them at this point.  They had lost a lot of time with everything that had just happened, and it was far enough into the day at this point that he wasn’t sure of what was going to happen any longer.  His memories told him that they would have corralled everyone near the church, but he had no clue what was going to happen after that or how to track their movements.  He was also grappling with the the fact that the assailants would now be missing one of their people.  He couldn’t be sure how large the group actually was, but he was confident of the fact that one of them missing wouldn’t go unnoticed.  Eventually, someone was bound to come looking for the downed woman.

Nagging thoughts of life, morality, and ethics threatened to resurface as he recalled the dead girl, but Edgard quickly pushed them out of his head.  There wasn’t time to dwell on the topics now, and he didn’t want to chase them.  He had the distinct feeling that they were only going to lead into a dark abyss, and he wasn’t sure that he would be able to pull himself out of it any time soon.  If they were going to be successful, he had to stay alert.  That’s what happened last time, isn’t it? a voice whispered.  You lost control, and you killed someone.  You were so worried about what might have happened to Hilda that you never stopped to think of what might happen to someone else . . . or to you. . . STOP IT.  His mental command rang through his head as Edgard forcibly slammed a mental barrier in place.

Edgard slowed down to a walk as the two of the approached the largest of the intersections they would have to cross.  It was inevitable that they had to cross over Church Street if they were ever going to reach Derian, and Edgard was growing increasingly worried over what they would find as they drew closer.  He crept up to the corner of the street as silently as he could, crouching down, and hugging a building as close as he dared.  He had never been part of many games as a child, always being shunned, but he had spent enough time watching the other children play to know that this was his best bet at not being seen.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he reached the corner of the intersection and ducked his head around the corner of the building.  A quick glance in both directions told him the street was clear.  He also realized that they were far enough away from whatever mayhem was ensuing closer to the church that they were no longer able to hear the sounds of townsfolk as they were slaughtered.  Or they’re already all dead, a voice whispered.  Edgard shook his head to dispel the voice again and glanced up.  He could see pillars of smoke rising above the rooftops in that same direction, but everything remained still and silent otherwise.

He turned behind him to Hilda, who was thankfully right behind him, and whispered, “I’ll cross first.  After you see me make it across you can follow me.  Just make sure you do it as quickly and quietly as possible.”  Hilda gave him a nod and a sly smile in return, as as if she were amused by the fact that Edgard was cautioning her to move as quickly as possible.

Edgard took one more deep breath and launched himself into the street.  He tried to brace himself and shove off with one foot like he had seen some of the sprinters do in the village when they raced, but all he succeeded in was coming close to losing his balance.  After a few missed steps, he was able to get his feet underneath him and scurry across the road, ducking behind the corner of another building on the far side.  He crouched down again and looked back for Hilda, easily spotting where she was still hidden.  Even at this distance, it was obvious that she had found his lack of athletic ability amusing: she was grinning from ear to ear and doing little to hide the fact that she was laughing.

Edgard just rolled his eyes and motioned for her to hurry up and cross.  However entertaining it may have been, the last thing they needed was to waste more time.  They didn’t even know for certain that Derian was at the bar, and the longer they took, the less likely it was that they would ever find him alive.  After what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, Hilda comprised herself and crossed the roadway.  Unlike Edgard, she was quick, graceful, and she made it look effortless.  Despite the nervous tension running through him, he couldn’t help but admire her beautiful form as she bounced across.  When did she grow up?

Now that they had successfully made it across, Edgard was in a hurry to finally reach the bar.  He set out at a higher pace than before but was careful to always peek around each intersection just in case.  He hadn’t had any previous experience with this side of town, and he had absolutely no idea what might be waiting around every corner.  Or who, the voice whispered.  One down!  I wonder how many are left?  Edgard scowled as the thoughts resurfaced, and he pushed them away again.

A few minutes later, Edgard trotted to a stop just outside the town’s only tavern.  It wasn’t a place that he had frequented on more than a handful of occasions, typically when he was trying to stop Derian from drinking himself into a complete stupor, but he knew it’s interior layout well enough.  The entire building consisted of just two rooms with a cellar dug underneath that was used for storage.  The main common room, by far the larger of the two, occupied most of the floorplan that was above ground.  Large wooden tables, similar to those on the lower levels of the food hall but without the ornate decoration, lined the room in a sporadic pattern, and there was a long wooden bar across the back wall from where the barkeep served drinks.  The smaller of the two rooms was designed to be a little more private, a little quieter, and a little cozier.  From what Edgard knew, it was generally used by couples seeking some place a little more private.  Thankfully, he had never had to pull Derian out of that room.  If you had, you might have caught him with Mae.  You would have found out sooner than you did, the voice cooed.

Edgard ignored the voice and turned to Hilda.  In a low voice, he said, “It looks like everything’s clear . . . It’s certainly quiet enough.  I haven’t even seen any signs since we left the center of town that anyone’s been through here.”

Hilda nodded and replied, “It’s weird, isn’t it?  There isn’t a single person out anywhere in town.  Everything is usually so busy . . . so full of life this time of day. . .”

Edgard wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, so he just shrugged and remained silent.  Normally, around this time, he would have been buried up to his elbows in scrolls trying to finish his assignments for the day.

“Do you really think he’s inside?  What do we do if he isn’t?  Where do we . . .”  Her voice contained a strange mixture of both hope and worry, but there was also a tinge resignation.  It almost sounded like she was preparing herself for the worst possible outcome.

“It’s the best guess we have.  If he’s not . . . Just . . . Stay behind me.  I’ll go in first.”

Edgard crouched down crept up to the building as silently as he could.  They had to follow the length of the building’s exterior wall and pass directly in front of two glass-paned windows in the process, and he was growing more and more nervous with every step.  If anyone was inside and watching, they were sure to be spotted long before they managed to reach the tavern’s only entrance.  Edgard hated to admit it, but he was already trying to plan for the eventuality that Derian wasn’t here.  What am I going to do if he’s not here?  Can I take Hilda and escape with just her?  Will I be able to convince her to leave with me?  We’ve already wasted so much time, there’s no telling what will happen if we try to stay longer and keep looking for him . . .

Edgard drew in a deep breath and held it as they passed in front of the windows, and before he realized what was happening, they had reached the door.  Well, no sense in delaying . . . Edgard nudged the door open just a crack.  Hopefully, if there was anyone on the other side who heard it, they would assume it had swung open a bit of its own accord.  After he didn’t immediately hear sounds, he pushed his head to the crack and peered inside.  His vantage point was bad, being so low to the ground, and all he could see were the legs of empty tables and chairs.  Growing bolder, he took one last glance up and down the street to make sure that it was clear before standing up and stepping inside.

“Derian!” he gasped.  He couldn’t believe it.  Derian was sitting on a barstool on the far side of the room.  He was slouched over and propped up against the wall, apparently passed out, but he was actually there.  Maybe they were finally going to have some good luck after all.

“Derian!?”  Hilda suddenly burst around him and sped across the large room towards her brother.  “Derian!” Her voice was practically brimming with excitement and relief as she reached him.   “Derian, wake up!  We have to get out of here,” she said as he reached out and shook his shoulder.  When he didn’t respond, she pulled back against his shoulder, trying to sit him upright.  Derian fell over backwards off the barstool and landed on the hard floor with a heavy thud.  Then Hilda screamed.

Edgard leapt forward, but he only had to make it halfway across the room before he could see why.  Derian was dead.  His throat had been slit open and his arm was missing below his shoulder.  The only thing that remained was a ragged stump showing where it had been hacked away.  It only took Edgard a glance at the body to know what had happened.  He had already seen it all before, and it was seared into his memory.

“Hilda,” he said, crossing over to her as quickly as he could while being careful to step around the body.  “Hilda, listen to me.”  The poor girl was frantic at the sight of her dead and mutilated brother.  She was already sobbing, tears streaming down her face, and she was clutching her arms to her chest like she was trying to hold herself together.  “Hilda,” he said more urgently, “we can’t stay here.  We have to go right now.  Someone might have heard–”

“What do we have here?” a deep voice asked from behind them.

Edgard immediately jerked his entire body around to face the source of the noise and instinctively positioned himself in front of Hilda.  A large man stood in the doorway that led to the smaller of the two rooms.  It looked like he was adjusting his pants and fastening his belt, and he wore a huge grin across his beaded face.  A series of images ran through Edgard’s head, memories of people he had seen over the past few days, but this wasn’t someone he had run into before.

“Well?” the man asked, reaching over his shoulder to adjust the heavy cloak he wore.  “Decide the world had gone to shit and you needed a stiff drink?  Perhaps a little afternoon pick-me-up and some liquid courage?”  The man tilted his head to the side and looked past Edgard and Hilda.  “Or just a little quick fun before meeting your maker?”

“Who are you?  Why are you here?” Edgard demanded.

The man actually managed to look offended by the questions.  “Who am I?  Don’t they teach you children any manners?  Demanding to know who I am without even introducing yourself first?”

Edgard stared at the foreigner in silence.  They were trapped inside a building with someone he knew would kill him in an instant and never bat an eye.  He had to figure out a way to get him and Hilda out.

“Well, I suppose it can’t be helped,” the man said, his grin returning.  “Can’t expected a bunch of uncultured heathens to know how to act around their better or observe proprieties.”

“E-Edgard . . .” A girl’s quiet voice called out from inside the small room adjoining room.

Edgard’s eyes immediately flickered past the man blocking the doorway and tried to see past him.  “Who is that?  Who’s in there?”

A smaller figure stepped out of the rooms interior, but the voice’s owner was still hidden by the man’s large frame.  “Edgard!  Save me!” she pleaded and tried to force her way past them man blocking her inside.  She managed to slip past him for just a moment, but his hand quickly shot out and grabbed a fistful of her long hair.  The man immediately jerked his arm back and the young woman fell to the floor on her knees, unable to escape.

Edgard’s eyes widened then quickly narrowed as he realized who it was.  The woman’s face was cut up and bruised, almost to the point of being beyond recognition, and her clothes were disheveled and tattered, but there was no mistaking her.  “What are you doing here, Mae?”

“Edgard, please, get me—achhh–” Mae’s plea was cut off as the man jerked her head upwards, cutting off her ability to speak.

“Didn’t I tell you what would happen if you tried to escape again?” the man asked.  “Such a shame.  You were a good one too.”

Edgard never saw where the blade came from, but all it took was one smooth movement as the man reached forward and drew his hand back across Mae’s upturned throat.  The man didn’t even appear to be in a hurry as he did it.  It was almost as if he was completely ignorant of the fact that he was killing a young woman.  It wasn’t until that moment that it truly dawned on Edgard exactly how senseless these people were—how little cared about the lives of the villagers.  It was almost as if they were simply going through the motions on any other day at work.  If the lack emotion he had seen out of them was any clue, they could have been a group from the hunter’s guild butchering livestock instead of people.  Images from a previous day flashed through his head of people being herded into a pen.  Here piggy, piggy, piggy, a voice cackled.  Mae’s body collapsed forward onto the floor right next to Derian’s with a soft thunk and blood started pooling around her body.

There was a moment of silence and then Hilda shrieked.  It was a high-pitched scream that was filled with terror, and Edgard could have sworn that it was going to go until she ran out of breath.  “Oh my God,” she muttered, almost incoherently, as she finished.  He heard the sound of her feet on the floorboards as she turned and ran, and the sound of the heavy tavern door slamming shut behind her, leaving Edgard alone in the room with the murderer.

“Women, huh?” the man said, shrugging and showing his toothy grin again.  “What’re ya gonna do?  I’ll sure give you this: You guys know how to grow them around here . . . Wild . . . wild and sweet.”

“You know nothing about the people who live here,” Edgard said flatly.  “The only things you’re interested in are death and murder.”

“Hmm . . . She would have disagreed with you,” he said, kicking Mae’s body with the toe of his boot.  “I wonder if that other girl will agree as well?”

What is he . . . Hilda . . . Edgard’s eyes narrowed at the thinly-veiled threat.  This whole day has been a disaster, and it keeps getting worse.  I can’t–

The stranger suddenly leapt forward, gracefully bounding over both of the dead bodies that were strewn out on the floor, and stopped just short of Edgard.  He paused for a second as he landed, then delivered leaned forward and landed a punch directly into Edgard’s stomach.  Edgard felt the air leave his lungs in a rush as he doubled over in pain.  The next thing he noticed was the man’s knee as it came crashing upwards into his face.  He felt a jarring pain as his head snapped backwards and his nose cracked, followed by the warm flow of blood as it gushed out.   He immediately crumpled to the ground and curled up into a small ball as he tried to simultaneously hold both his stomach and his broken, bloody nose at the same time.

“Well, it’s been fun, but I think I’ll take my leave now,” he said as he stepped around Edgard.  “Maybe your little friend will be more entertaining.”

Edgard heard the sound of a knife being drawn as the man pulled it from his belt, and he squeezed his eyes closed as tightly as he could.  He had lived through this part before, and he knew what was coming next.  Despite knowing that he was most likely going to wake up in his bed, it didn’t make it any easier.   He felt an intense jolt of pain as the blade entered his temple, saw a brilliant flash of color, and everything went black.


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