The Eighth Rune Ch5

Edgard lay in bed, not moving. He dreaded opening his eyes and being forced to face the painful reality of his endless deaths yet again. Each previous day, he had felt hope. It hadn’t been the great, welling hope of a man who was certain his future would be bright; nonetheless, he had managed to hold onto a goal and the belief he could achieve it. Today, however, that was gone. Mae was gone, Derian was a backstabber, and death for anyone but him felt as certain as the sun setting in the evening.

I almost lived. We could have lived. We were there. We were outside of town. He tried to reassure himself of the possibility of survival, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. Everything felt so inconsequential to him now, like the die was already cast on his miserable existence. Now the only thing opening his eyes would do was force him to start a day that would lead to an inevitable encounter with Mae and Derian, the two great friends, traitors, in his life.

Edgard was all but ready to just lay in bed with his eyes closed, ignoring the world, until he remembered Hilda’s painting. Her beautiful face, the real and drawn one, summoned just enough willpower in him to take that first step out of bed and then every step after until he was finally standing at her door again. He had grabbed his apple and changed his clothes, but he hadn’t bothered with any of the other chores that often made up his morning routine. The rude neighbor across the street looked extra angry when he saw Edgard emerge from his house sans basket, completely ignoring his responsibility to maintain the cleanliness of the village, but that extra irritation only made Edgard smile a little.

When he finally reached Hilda’s place, he felt at peace again as if serenity had washed over him and cleaned off the hatred, regret and guilt he had been mired in all morning. Once more, it was him and the girl. It was hard to tell sometimes if the girl was meant to be an angel, or if the spirits clearing her path were.

“Edgard?” Hilda popped out of her house. “Is that you? What are you doing here?” she asked, nothing having changed by him showing up earlier than on the previous two days.

“I needed someone to talk to,” he said. He knew that was the truth, but hadn’t really thought it until after the words escaped his mouth.

“About . . . umm . . . I mean, what did you want to talk about?” Hilda hesitated, stumbling across her words before regaining her composure.

Edgard might have just thought it was cute, but now he knew why she faltered. She didn’t know what to say, not because she didn’t have a ton of fun things to talk about, but because her brother had gone to talk to the cheating girlfriend, failed to come home, and then the boyfriend shows up at her door. Surprise? Edgard had to stop himself from laughing at how awkward it must have felt for poor Hilda. She was such a great person, but to be caught in this situation must be hell. She thinks I know. Well, I do now, but I didn’t then. He studied her face, trying to see what else she was thinking. When this first happened, I had no idea at all. I must have looked like an idiot, and . . . that’s why she didn’t come in to meet Derian either time. She thought that drama would be waiting inside, and she didn’t want to deal with it.

“Mae?” Edgard tried to keep his tone light. He wanted to immediately go off on a rant about how angry he was with Mae, and somewhat with Derian too, but that wasn’t what Hilda deserved. It’d just ruin her day too, so he did his best to control his resentment and not take it out on her.

“Oh . . . so . . .” As much as Edgard was studying Hilda, Hilda was studying him. It was obvious from the way her eyes were darting around his face, the way they looked at him half-squinted almost, that she was trying to figure out if he actually knew. Those eyes were wondering, ‘What has he actually figured out?’

“Yeah, I know. About her and other guys and about her and Derian.” He figured there was no reason to not just stab the truth in and get it over with. Delaying the awkward part of the conversation would only be worse for both of them.

“I’m sorry,” Hilda said, her eyes almost tearing up. “I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you. We wanted to tell you for so long. We just . . .”

“Didn’t think I’d believe you? I might not have.” Edgard shrugged. For some reason, as angry as he was about the whole thing, as much as he wanted to vent, he suddenly wanted the conversation to end right there, for everything to come to a close and the tension between him and Hilda–the last girl he liked talking to–to vanish.

“Yeah, something like that.” Hilda’s frown deepened and then she attacked him, not with a punch or a kick, but with a kind of running hug-tackle as she leapt up onto his chest and wrapped her arms around him. Her feet barely touched the ground as her weight shifted into Edgard and pushed him to the point that he was struggling to keep his balance.

“Um . . .” This time Edgard was lost for words.

“I really wanted to tell you. I’m so sorry I didn’t. Derian said he would figure it out, but I’m so sorry.” She just kept repeating the words ‘I’m sorry’ into his chest as she hugged him.

“It’s okay?” Edgard awkwardly patted her head and tried to comfort the woman crying into his shoulder. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who is supposed to be upset, he thought, trying his best to handle the strange turn of events. Why is she so out of sorts about this? His brain still tried to make sense of it, but the rest of him just enjoyed the sensation of her pressed against him. He was extra aware of every part of their body that was touching as he did his job to comfort her as she was comforting him.

Finally, she leaned back down and onto her feet. She stared up at him. “I’m sorry,” she said one more time, wiping a little bit of snot from her nose and cleaning up her face with her blue sleeve.

“It’s fine. I’m okay,” Edgard said, doing his best to reassure her. “Look, I just wanted someone to talk to. Do you have some time?”

“Of course.” She sniffled again and then wiped her nose once more. “I’ll umm . . . Maybe I can skip work today?” she suggested with a frown.

Today? More like you probably won’t be working again, he thought, cringing. The idea of Hilda dying was much worse than the thought of Mae with Derian. “So if you’re taking today off, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” Hilda responded and shrugged. “We could go for a picnic? A bit of fresh air might get your head off of everything that’s happened,” she suggested, laying out without prompting the very strategy he had considered using to get her out of town. He was almost tempted to take that opportunity right there, but he knew it wouldn’t work. As soon as she spotted the fire, she’d come back and die while trying to save Derian.

“Unless we went hiking up some mountain.” The words escaped his lips as soon as he remembered Hilda’s suggestion. After all, if they were hiking up a hill, then they’d be too far away to see the fire when it happened. We could just run away together, and she’d never have to know about what happens to the rest of the town. He struggled with the sinking guilt the thought left in him. Just run away from it all . . . He didn’t know why those words pained his conscience as they rattled across his head.

“Really?” Hilda’s face lit up, doing a complete 180 from her previous teary-eyed expression. “You, you want to just go hike up a random mountain?”

“Why not?” he shrugged. “Maybe not today, but it sounds fun. Haven’t you always wondered what the mountains of the world are like?”

“Haven’t I?!” She hugged him, this time without all the crying. “Let’s do it! That’ll be a great way to get your mind off Mae, but . . . um . . .” her sudden exuberance left as quickly as it came. “How will we?”

“You mean get permission to leave the town without it being for a business trip?” Edgard put a hand up to his chin as if he were thinking, then just said the best conclusion they had reached last time. “Maybe we could . . . pretend like it’s part of our jobs. You’re searching for new animals to domesticate, and I’m investigating my rune. Can you really imagine the Father putting up a fight if it means getting rid of me for a while?”

“That’s . . . that’s not a bad idea!” Hilda’s beaming, beautiful smile seemed prettier to Edgard than any mountain he could climb with her. “My rune actually should require me to do that eventually.”

“Your rune?” Edgard suddenly realized that he didn’t know which rune Hilda was born with.

“Mhmm.” Hilda pulled up her sleeve to show Edgard. “The Rune of Entrapment. Do you know its story?”

“Not really,” Edgard lied as he stared at the brand drawn across her pale skin. Of course Edgard knew its story. He had copied it once for every one of the countless books he had produced. He knew it so well he could recite it by memory along with each of the four sermons the Father had often associated with it.

“Really?” Hilda gave him a look that seemed to say, ‘I know you’re pulling my leg.’ “Are you really going to try that with me? We both know that you not only know my rune’s story, but you could draw it with your eyes closed. Derian tells me all the time about how you are the only Brother in the order who has written out an entire book without using a copy for reference once.”

“Okay, so maybe I do?” Edgard felt a bit embarrassed about being caught. “I just was hoping you’d tell me the story.”

“Nah, I kind of think it’s the most boring rune history.” She turned to look at the painting in front of her house. “What about the tracker’s story? Do you know that one?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t?” Edgard was starting to feel like he had already walked over a verbal trap rune she had set.

“Nope!” She shoved his arm playfully. “In fact, I think as punishment for telling a fib, you should have to recite the whole story.”

“Right now?”

“Why not? A sermon from you would still count as a sermon, and I could use that to get out of having to go to Church in three days on my weekly holy day.”

“So you’re just using me to get out of having to listen to your brother make up a sermon on the spot?”

“That’s a mean way to look at it. After all, I just like the story.” She turned around and started walking towards the Hunters Guild. “Come on, you can tell me on the way.”

Why would she want to hear a story about that rune? He couldn’t make sense of half the things Hilda did or said. In fact, every time he talked to her, no matter how many times he was able to repeat the day, he was left more baffled than before.

“Okay, I’ll tell you the story if you go first,” he said, following after her.

“If I go first?”

“Yeah, if you can tell me about that painting on the wall. What is behind that?” he wondered, knowing it wasn’t part of any of the usual religious rune stories.

“Oh, that was just a silly dream of mine I had a few days ago. My brother thought it was pretty neat and he insisted we paint it.”

“Wait, so it was about a dream?” Edgard looked at her, mentally picturing the image of the angel on the wall overlapping hers as he thought about it.

“Yeah, it’s kind of silly though.” Hilda blushed a little, lifting her hand up to cover part of her face. “I mean, I . . . You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“Nothing that could inspire that work of art could ever be stupid,” Edgard insisted. He felt like he almost had to know what the dream was about after staring at her house every morning for five days in a row.

“Umm . . .” Hilda turned to Edgard as they walked, “well, I kind of dreamed that I was going through this terrible forest of wicked things. That at every corner there was something reaching out to kill me, but over a dozen brave angels saved me. The funny thing was they all had the same face.”

“They did?” Edgard had no idea what an angel would look like. Angels, or rather servants of the Lord, were often said to be nothing more than common men who appeared to help God’s people in times of need, so a story like hers did fit in with the lore. However, even with that being the case, it was rare for their faces to be the same. Most of what the holy text suggested of them was that no more than one angel would come at a given time, and everything from the color of their skin and hair to the size of their features would vary. Even their accents and language of preference changed with each visit, such that no two had ever been the same.

“Yeah, I was a bit shocked too, and, now that I think about it”–Hilda paused and then moved her head around, doing an overly-exaggerated examination of Edgard–“the angel kind of looked like . . .” she let her sentence trail off.

“Kind of looked like?” Edgard wondered if she would say ‘you.’ Why was she looking at him so intently after all, if the angel didn’t resemble him?

“A nice, handsome guy. So you could tell from that alone that he wasn’t from around here,” she joked, grinning and lightly pushing on his shoulder while they walked.

“Hey!” He shot a forced glare playfully back at her. “There are too handsome guys from this town!”

“Really?” Hilda’s eyebrow raised a little. “Like who?”

“Well”–he was going to say himself, but that didn’t feel right. No, it has to be something joking–“what about those guys from the Flame Guild?”

“What? No! Ewww!” Her face twisted up as she made a gagging gesture. “No way, never.”

“Are you sure?” He couldn’t stop laughing. “I hear you have a huge crush on one of them. Your brother said as much.”

“My brother apparently is a dead man.” She kept shaking her head, the look of disgust not vanishing. “A very, very dead man.”

“Awww, don’t shoot him. He’s just the messenger. All he did was tell me about your crush. He wasn’t the one who actually got you to like him.” Edgard found himself enjoying the fact that he was on the other side of the teasing for once. He almost felt guilty about it until he saw how cute she was when flustered. Nope, this is totally worth it. Why did I ever think she was plain looking? She is way better looking than Mae.

“You, sir, are going to be a dead man too if you keep this up.” Hilda lightly punched Edgard’s arm and then chortled at his reactionary ‘ow.’

Edgard was a bit embarrassed to admit that it actually kind of hurt. Given how much he had been hit, tortured, burned and killed recently, a small punch from an even smaller girl shouldn’t have hurt that much, but he had been completely caught off guard by the fact that her little fist actually had some force behind it. “What was that for?”

“You know very well what that was for,” she answered, continuing to chortle as Edgard rubbed the injury on his arm.

He wasn’t really rubbing it to assuage any pain. It was now more or less just an exaggerated attempt to get sympathy, or at the very least ebb some guilt, out of Hilda. “So cold, so mean . . .” He did his best to put on a pitiful expression as he continued to hold his arm like she had broken it.

“Oh, give it a rest.”

He looked down at his arm. “I was just trying to support you in your love,” he said and then quickly dodged another half-hearted attack from Hilda.

“Edgard!” Hilda snapped as she swung. It was nice to hear that from her, his name. For however long he had been hanging out with Derian, Mae and Cedric, they rarely ever actually used it. Cedric seemed to like to allude to him as different types of failed vegetation, and Mae and Derian would just make fun of his inability to cast. So the fact that Hilda used his actual name, unprompted by any desire for a favor, was something pleasant to his ears.

After the amusement died down, they walked quietly towards the Hunters hall in silence. Then Hilda stopped and tugged Edgard’s sleeve until he had stopped and turned around as well. “Hmm?” Edgard looked at her.

“You still owe me a story about a rune, the tracker one” she demanded. “I always liked that one, but Derian never gives me any of the stories. I don’t know if it’s that he thinks of it as work that he doesn’t want to do at home, or if he doesn’t actually know it well enough to recite it.”

“You actually like the story?” Edgard was surprised. Given that he, like Derian, had to hear the stories and write them out in the books over and over again every day of his life, Edgard absolutely understood Derian thinking that they were more of a chore than a pastime. That’s why it was slightly difficult to see what someone would like about them. “Why don’t you just ask the Father or Brother in charge of your sermons to tell you that specific one?”

“Because he is terrible at telling stories. He just gets up there and goes, ‘This is the rune. It is useful for this. That’s why God gave it to us. Moving on!’” she mocked. “He takes all the joy out of storytelling. Storytelling is supposed to be something amazing. It’s supposed to carry you out of your boring existence and take you to a world filled with fantasy and magic.”

“But we are surrounded by magic, aren’t we? Why would you need to fantasize about it?” Edgard looked at her curiously. There were so many amazing things in reality. He couldn’t imagine her needing to escape from it. Then again, her brother was the same way. They both appeared rather unsatisfied with what they seemed to believe to be their tedious lots in life.

“Well, it’s not always about what isn’t or what should be. Sometimes it’s about what could be. Sometime’s it’s about what might have been,” she said, looking up at the sky. “It’s why I love that story.”

“That one in particular?” he started playing the story over in his head. “Okay, fine, I’ll tell you the story again.”

“Good,” she chirped with a smile and then rubbed the part of his arm she had hit earlier. “I would hate to have to beat it out of you.”

“Hey!” Edgard protested for a moment, pulling his arm back. “I already agreed!”

“Well then?” she said, putting him on the spot to start the story.

“Alright, but it’s not really a story about the hunter . . .” Edgard sighed and scratched the back of his head. He may have always wanted to give a lecture, but being pushed on the spot just left him feeling awkward like all the blood in his body was rushing to his face and head. “It’s more of a lesson about people. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like each event happened just to teach those of us down the line a lesson. That they are all blessings not just to the people, but guiding lights to the readers and listeners of the events. You say it’s fantasy. I think it’s more of education, and that’s why they are so fundamental to our lives. I mean, can you imagine if all the stories you read had terrible people that weren’t worth emulating?”

“Still not hearing a story.” Hilda twisted her lips into a sort of half-frown, half-fish-face sort of expression. “You do actually know it, don’t you, Mr. Edgard?”

“Mr. Edgard?” He repeated his name, intentionally stalling as he tried to figure out how to start. He could just recite the story verbatim as it was written in the holy text, but the other Brothers usually paraphrased the stories in their sermons for brevity and to make the lofty language of the text more accessible to the listeners. Giving a sermon was a skill in it’s own right, and Edgard had observed it in practice many times, but had never attempted it before. “Okay, fine, so, the story starts with one of the children of God waking up with amnesia. He had no idea what he was doing, who he was or where he was going. For the first few days, he stayed put, eating the berries of the forest and drinking the dew that accumulated on the leaves just for him across the forest. However, over time, he grew bored and unhappy with his lot in life.”

“See, that’s why I like this story, you know?” Hilda interrupted him. They had both started walking again with Edgard in tow as soon as he actually began telling the tale.

“Hmm?” Edgard didn’t see. Is it because he was bored? “Because he was alone?” he asked, taking a stab at that reason instead. Almost every other one of the rune origins started with one of the children of God living in a town, finding purpose and then leaving to join the promised land of God’s people. This particular one was the only one Edgard could recall at the moment where one of the original rune holders had began his journey alone.

“No, not that. It’s because he knew, without being told, that there was something better out there. I mean, look at what we have today. Every single morning we wake up and our clothes are freshly laid out for us. We have a simple job to do, and, as long as we do it, everything is provided for us–our food, our clothes, our home–and, if you happen to be part of one of the stricter families, even your spouse. Day in and day out, the greatest problem or opportunity for choice we will face is whether we want to have a tart or pie for dessert with dinner. Can you imagine if we weren’t one of God’s people?”

“What do you mean?” Edgard actually couldn’t. He had no real way of knowing what life would look like outside of town.

“Well, I mean, what if you lived somewhere where they didn’t have food? In the story of the rune of the golden seed, the man first gifted with it was starving. He was living in . . . What was it? A slum? Some weird part of town where people crouched together on the street, lacking jobs, food and shelter and prayed for money. If God hadn’t shown him a better world, if he hadn’t ripped him out of that terrible forsaken land and given him purpose and place among his chosen children, then that poor man would have never known a better life.”

“So is that why you’re having me tell this story? To dissuade me from my hiking idea?” Edgard chuckled at the thought. It had been her idea in the first place to go on some adventure out of the town, so he found it odd that she seemed to be making the case for just the opposite. “Trying to tell me that we have it made here, and we shouldn’t risk adventuring out of town since it could be way worse?”

“Nuh-uh.” Hilda shook her head strongly enough to cause her hair to lightly slap her face in the process. “That’s just it. What if it’s the other way around. What if we’re like the people living in the town that has nothing, that we don’t know what life is and that, somewhere out in the real world, there is a majestic land so amazing and awe-inspiringly beautiful that this place looks like a boring hamlet lacking any form of fun or entertainment? That’s why I like this particular story most.”

“Ah, so you like that he didn’t have to be prompted, pushed into finding a better life?” Edgard began to see her point. It wasn’t one he necessarily agreed with. In fact, his conclusion would be on the other side of the spectrum completely, but he didn’t see a point in arguing. She thought that there could always be something better, but, with that logic, one could never be happy. They’d chase dreams and illusions of more purple pasture, never being content with the gifts the Lord had already provided.

“Exactly! He had everything he could ever want, but he still knew there was more, that somewhere out there there was something better and that he had to risk losing everything to get it!” She clapped the her hands together in excitement as she explained it.

“So really you are having me tell this story so you can teach me to find something better?” Edgard raised an eyebrow at her. Are you that something better? He hoped she was trying to say. You are definitely better than Mae, but for me, wouldn’t I have been happier if I never went chasing the other pasteur and stayed with what I first knew, you?

“Maybe”–Her eyes shot to the sky as she pursed her lips into a thin line–“or maybe I just like the story.”

“A story you haven’t let me tell,” Edgard pointed out. “You did kind of interrupt me a few words into it . . .”

“You’re right! Carry on, Father Edgard!”

Thank God Wynchell didn’t hear that. He’d have me scrubbing floors again for a week if he heard someone mistake me as being the Father of this town. “Alright, so, yeah . . .” Edgard did his best to quickly push himself back into the sermon-spinning frame of mind. “The man, bored with his own existence began to wander away from his perfect little habitat in the forest. Lacking any trail, sign post or even hint of life to guide him he just aimlessly put one foot in front of the other day after day until, almost a month later, he ended up back at the exact same place he had started. This process carried on month after month, his desperate attempts to escape his perfect-yet-secluded enclosure failing time and time again.”

“How does that even happen?” Hilda inserted herself once more into the narrative at the same time her shoulder bumped into his while they were walking down the road. “I mean, how unlucky do you have to be to keep coming back to the same spot in the forest no matter how far you walk?”

“I don’t know. Maybe God was having a go at him, twisting his arm and pulling a prank on him at first?” Edgard laughed. If he is all powerful like the Lord is supposed to be, why wouldn’t he mess with people from time to time? After all, man, who is supposedly the child of God, would take after his father, right? And what man doesn’t occasionally pull jokes on or mess with people from time to time in good humor? That very well could be an inherited quality from the great father who made us all.”

“Are you really a Brother?” Hilda, now less than an inch away from him to begin with, drove her shoulder into his, knocking him a step or two to the side. “You can’t go talking like that!”

“Why not? I mean, he did have a good enough sense of humor to give me a faulty rune as a joke,” Edgard said and  shrugged. Well, that’s not entirely true. I am positive it does something, and it is the only reason I’m still alive to talk to you. Guilt welled up over his accusation of his god. Maybe God actually blessed me above everyone else, the only one enabled to leave the town . . . but, no, the Lord is supposed to protect all that is his. He wouldn’t pick just one person to save, would he? I mean, I’m not exactly a better person than the others here . . . He was certain of that. Cedric was a much kinder man than he was.

“And if he didn’t give you that faulty rune, you might have ended up worse off than you are now. You could have ended up as a jerk in the Flame Guild.” Her lips pressed against each other again until there was barely a line of them visible. “Stupid Flame Guild.”

“What? If I was born with their rune, then you might have a crush on me too.” Edgard said. Taking advantage of the fact they weren’t inches apart anymore, he quickly gave himself an arm’s length from Hilda so she couldn’t land another, probably harder, punch on his shoulder.

Hilda just glared at him, her eyes squinting to match her lips. “Not funny, Mr. Edgard.”

“Okay, I’ll stop.” Edgard slowly and carefully stepped back into striking range, careful to make sure her anger didn’t physically manifest itself as he moved within punching distance. “Won’t say it again.”

“Good . . . hmmpf.” She crossed her arms. “Now carry on with the story, or I’ll have to tell Derian that you were bullying his sister all morning.”

“I said I’d stop!” Edgard pleaded, actually concerned she might do it. Derian was, for all of his faults, incredibly protective of ‘his cute, little Hilda.’ “Okay, okay, so, as months of futile attempts stretched into years, his persistence finally paid off in that, one morning, after a particularly-long journey before arriving back to square one, he woke to find a rune on his shoulder. The more and more he thought of the new development, the more and more the path of the woods began to make sense to him. This time when he journeyed out, he found that he could sense the trails he had taken before. The roads he had traveled over and over again, that looked identical on every previous venture, glowed red with the after image of his past journeys, and, for once, he was able to change. Knowing the steps of his past, he was able to finally find the promised road he had been searching for, the road untaken, the road that would lead him somewhere new. And, after about a month, that’s exactly where he ended up. By letting himself follow the untaken road he was able to discover the very town that we now live in as his steps carried him from a green forest to a purple-treed land of safety where he was given the one thing his life in the woods never afforded him, the most important thing: purpose.”

“Mhmm.” Hilda nodded, her grin almost contagious as Edgard turned to see it. “And if he took another journey, would he find something once again that he didn’t even know he was missing?” She tried to reinforce her point.

“No, he’d just lose the purpose he had found.” Edgard scratched his head. What could she possibly think he would find if he took another untaken road?

“Maybe, but now we’ll never know. After all, his tale ends there, doesn’t it?” Hilda practically stuck out her tongue as she drove home her point.

“I think you’re missing the big idea behind the lecture,” Edgard had to argue back. He didn’t like disagreeing with people, conflict was never comfortable, but she was walking away with such a gross misinterpretation that part of him just couldn’t abide it. “The point is that, before the rune helped him, he was just trying to escape. He was trying to run away, throwing his gifts to the wayside as he tried to flee from boredom. After the rune, he wasn’t just trying to escape, he was willfully picking a new path. He was exploring. His escape turned into exploration. His boredom morphed into purpose and, little by little, he found his place in the world.”

“Hmmm . . .” Hilda touched her chin again. “That’s kind of what the Father said when he gave the sermon. I didn’t think you’d both be wrong,” she snickered.

“I give up.” Edgard’s shoulders slumped, and he dejectedly hung his head a bit in defeat. If she can’t understand it by now, then no amount of convincing will help.

“So easily? It’s a good thing the tracker didn’t give up after only a few attempts to find a new place, or we’d never have a hunter worth his salt at finding things.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Edgard was about to shrug again as he often did when a point was too bothersome to debate, but then he realized exactly how correct she actually was. If he had given up after just a few attempts to escape, then nothing good would have ever come out of anything for him, he started equating it immediately to his own situation. If I give up on escaping after just a few deaths, then wouldn’t it be the same for me? But what if I’m right too? What if I’m going about it wrong? What if I’m failing because, like him, I’m missing the point? Edgard couldn’t help but start replaying the events of every failed day over again in his head.

“Of course I’m right,” Hilda boasted. Sometimes, the way she praised herself when she was in good spirits was too similar to Derian for Edgard’s liking, but at least she was a much cuter when she did it.

Edgard looked over at her for a moment and then did his best to make sure that he never overlapped an image of Derian on her face again. So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong. I’ve been aimlessly, selfishly trying to just run away like the tracker attempting to escape his boredom. But if running away isn’t the answer . . . then what is? He felt his heart swell a bit, but also deflate somewhat. Getting out of town is already proving impossible. Finding the road not taken, won’t that be even more difficult?

“Still thinking about Mae?” Hilda wrongly guessed.

“No, not really . . .” Edgard replied. He frowned. He hadn’t been thinking of her, but now he kind of was. She was also the path he had already taken.

“It’s not about undoing the failed attempts at finding happiness . . . It’s, um . . .” Hilda’s wall of modesty started creeping back up as she once more found herself with the same loss for words that she had when he was first waiting outside her place. “It’s about looking for what was wrong with the first path. This time, look at what you did wrong last time, and try something completely different.”

“Did you just sermonize me with my own sermon?” Edgard teased. It was exactly what she had done, and she knew it.

“Maybe, but if I didn’t distract you with a fancy sermon, I never would have gotten you out here,” Hilda stopped.

“Out here?” He looked around. They weren’t anywhere near the Hunters Guild or even the edge of town. They were standing in front of a house that was decorated in the most unique fashion he had ever seen before a blessing day. Every other house was covered with the paints and dyes of the flowers and foliage, but this one wasn’t. In fact, the actual wall was untouched. Instead, the artist had chosen to stretch a canopy out over the road in front of the house and cut a myriad of small and big lines through it so that it let sun strike the front wall. The holes added just enough light so that the shadows didn’t look like blotches of absent sunlight, but like pictures in their own right as well.

“If I didn’t keep you busy, it wouldn’t have been a surprise,” Hilda said with a smile. She went up to one shadow image, touching it in the same fashion he had touched hers. “It’s so neat, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Edgard agreed. “It’s a picture of lights.” He tried to make out what the story was telling, but it wasn’t one he recognized immediately.

“Yeah, and it changes as the sun moves and the day goes by. If you come near sunset, with the orange and yellow light striking, it feels like an entirely different image altogether.

“Hmm,” he finally started to see what it was. It was the start of the Traveler’s rune of the wind. “Amazing,” he mouthed more than spoke.

“Alright, we should probably be heading back. I kind of eventually need to make it to work.”

“Okay,” Edgard was still staring at the wall for a few moments even after Hilda had started walking back.

The two of them walked quietly back toward Hilda’s house. Edgard had been so caught up in his own thoughts, and in enjoying the wonderful serenity brought about by the pleasant walk and Hilda’s company, that he hadn’t really formulated a way to get out of town that day. I guess I really just wanted to spend time with her, Edgard admitted to himself. After the previous day, he hadn’t really been up to an escape anyway. Nothing had made sense when he had set out that morning, and he had been desperately looking for an escape from that confusion more than from death.

Arriving again at the painting in front of her house, Edgard took another long gander at the woman who looked just like the one beside him and the angels who watched over her. Edgard wished it were that simple. He wished there were band of angels watching over Hilda. In all the previous iterations, though he had never seen it happen, he was sure that she had died along with everyone else in town. He was also sure that she was going to die today too. Edgard knew he couldn’t stop that. It would happen as it always did. The bitter realization cast a sudden gloom over the peace he had enjoyed on his walk with her. This was a better day than I have had in a very long time, but where does it leave me now? Why do they have to show up and ruin things now?

As if on cue, Hilda grabbed Edgard’s arm and said, “Edgard, look!”

Edgard followed her gaze until he saw the two men she was looking at. They were a pair of the killers that would soon lay waste to the town and yet again bring everything in Edgard’s world to a bloody, horrific end. Aside from the sight of such strangely-clad outsiders strolling down her street, what had doubtlessly caused Hilda’s alarm was their weapons, which they twirled about and fiddled with as if itching to use them on whomever they found. They must be picking up stragglers on the way to the food hall. Edgard thought of hiding, but it was too late. He and Hilda had already been spotted.

“Who are those men? And what are those tools they have?” she asked. “They look like the knives we use to kill–”

“That’s what they are here to do as well,” Edgard blurted out, “kill us.”

“What?!”

“Hilda, run!,” Edgard said, turning to face Hilda, who stood on the opposite side of him as the approaching men. She looked at him incredulously at first, but, seeing the desperate look in his eyes, she took one look back at the strangers, and, keeping her firm grip on Edgard’s arm, pulled him along after her as she broke into a run.

A fireball narrowly missed Edgard’s back and struck a nearby tree as Hilda sent the two of them veering to the right just in time to avoid the incoming flaming missile. He had heard the fireball approach in the brief moment before it shot past him, the roaring of the flame giving off enough warning to any victim that death was at hand, but Hilda had somehow avoided it. Did she just dodge that blast knowingly? Edgard marvelled at the possibility as he ran, trailing behind Hilda. Are her reflexes really that good?

Another fireball shot past them, this time grazing Hilda’s arm and setting her blue shirt sleeve on fire. She tumbled to the ground, Edgard following her, and quickly put out the fire on her garment by rubbing her sleeve into the dirt of the yard they were presently running through. Hilda sprang up ready to run again, but, by this time, Edgard knew that he was only going to hold her back. “Run! Forget me and run!” he shouted. She ignored his command and tried to pull him to his feet, but he pushed her away.

“Run, Hilda. I can’t keep up with you.”

“Edgard, they’re catching up to us. Get up or–” Suddenly, a blast of wind hurled Hilda away from Edgard and sent her tumbling along the stone pavers of the street about ten paces ahead of him. Edgard only heard a muffled cry of pain and a series of thuds as she landed and rolled across the ground.

“No,” Edgard cried, his head sinking to the ground as he lay on his belly in the grass. “Every time it’s the same. No matter what I do, no matter what path I take, this day always bring me right back to this–anyone I care about dying and me crawling on the ground waiting for it to happen all over again,” he seethed.

“Looks like we got ourselves a pair of piggies,” one of the men, both of whom now stood over Edgard, said with a chuckle that made Edgard’s blood boil. “That one over there on the street . . .–Iit’s a shame about a fine, young bit of fun like that, ain’t it?”

That’ is it. I am sick of all this–

“Get up,” the other man barked at Edgard, grabbing the collar of his shirt and yanking him to his feet. At that moment, more out of instinct and anger than sound thinking, Edgard flailed around, turning himself toward his captor and landing a haymaker on the man’s jaw. The man’s head was knocked to the side, but other than that, nothing happened.

“Oh-ho,” the other man exclaimed with a hearty laugh at Edgard’s expense. “This scrawny little weasel thinks he’s a scrapper! Go on and give him another try. Maybe he’ll leave a mark this time. Hah!”

“You uppity swine, that actually kinda hurt, but only just enough to make me really enjoy showing you how pathetic you are,” the one who had received the punch growled into Edgard’s face before he slammed him onto the ground. “You can’t overpower us, you piece of dirt. We stomp on you people like ants,” he said, driving the heel of his boot into the back of Edgard’s head.

Edgard was able to think over the pain after a couple seconds. Edgard remembered Hilda and their morning together. The painting, the playful punches, the feeling of calm, the story of the first tracker’s new path, the rune on the lovely arm of the trapper who had finally caught his attention–it all washed over Edgard in his last moments and gave birth to something new, the first inklings of a plan and the will to carry it out. You’re right, he mentally answered his attacker. I can’t fight you. I can’t even escape you. He rolled over in time to see with dulled senses the same heel coming down at him in the form of a black blur. He smiled. But I will see you tomorrow.


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