Cold water lapped at her toes while warm sand cradled her back. Although her body was lax, her keen eyes read the stars in the night sky.
Every family had their traditions. Hers was an oral story passed from one generation to the next.
Once a century, a gateway appeared which allowed land dwellers to join an annual bazaar under the sea. For generations, her family had traded at this obscure event, exchanging common items that can only be found on land for rare treasures that were in abundance underwater. Through this centenary transaction, they accumulated the wealth that built up their family.
But of her generation, she was the only one left who believed the gateway was true.
Dismissing the bazaar as a fable, none of her cousins even bothered to turn up. It was just her and her immediate family at the empty beach, and they only came to keep her company.
Even if she was wrong, all she would lose was just one night. But if she was right, she wouldn’t need to work for the rest of her life. She was more than happy to take that chance.
Among the ocean of stars, she found three purple sparks, lined in an arc over the horizon. Their mirror image in the sea completed the circle.
It was the gateway.
She jumped to her feet. Just like in the stories, she stretched her right hand out towards the circle, fingers curved as if she was digging her tips into a sponge wall. She turned her hand clockwise, using her fingers like a key to open a passageway into the heart of the sea.
She turned back to her stunned family, teeth flashing in the dark as she smiled.
Everything came with a price. Immortality was no exception, even if he never asked for it.
In fact, his immortality was an accident. To the woman who forced immortality on him, he was just another body to pay the price for her.
Because the price of immortality was to turn into a monster. Some faster than others, but inevitable all the same.
“You’re sturdier than I thought,” the woman said as he clutched his clawed hand. “You can turn into a monster, or turn others into monsters to stay human. Which do you choose?”
He didn’t choose immortality, but turning into a monster would be like dying, and above all he wanted to live.
“I want to stay human,” he said.
She nodded. “I’ll teach you how.”
It was a beautiful prison.
Soft grass carpeted the ground, watered by a cool river that sparkled under the clear blue sky.
But it was still a prison.
The endless horizon was only an illusion. If any of them strayed too close to the invisible boundary, the air twisted into an insidious maze that invariably spit them back where they started.
In the beginning, they were determined to break out. But as the skinny stream grew into a wide river, the fierce fire in their hearts wore down to dying embers and then cold ash, leaving him as the last spark.
It didn’t matter if everyone else was happy with their pretty prison.What he wanted was out there. Even if he was the only one left, even though his shoes frayed and his feet swelled from all the walking, he kept looking.
The day he finally found the exit, he was alone. He stood there for a long time, knowing that he had found what he was looking for, but not remembering why.
Should he return to the familiar comfort behind him, or should he press on towards a goal he had already forgotten?
He thought about the idyllic space behind him, the crisp river that wound around the vibrant trees that shaded them from the warm sun. If even that hadn’t stopped him from his goal, then his goal must have been important.
He turned his back to the space he knew and stepped into the unknown.
~From a Small Connection~
As a solo adventurer, he was used to going hours, sometimes days without talking to anyone.
[MintBreeze: Got everything on the list for Prana Plains]
[MinBreeze: LopADop has a request. Do you have <<Sirasira Cores>>?]
[MintBreeze: There’s someone at Mikly Mountain asking for <<Slime-kissed Syrup>>. Do you have any?]
He was not used to all this chatter.
MintBreeze might just be a beginner adventurer, but there was nothing beginner about her network. Only she contacted him, but it felt like a whole island of people spilled through her words.
“I’m an adventurer, not a broker!” he said to his house sitter Orion one evening after returning from his trip.
“This sounds like a good thing. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that.” Orion’s eyes wandered over to the extra rooms in the house. “And you have a lot of ‘other people’s treasures’ behind these doors.”
He wanted to reply with “So you’re saying I have a lot of trash?”, but he wouldn’t like the reply, so the words never left his lips.
“I’m an adventurer because I don’t want to deal with people,” he said instead, only to belatedly remember that Orion was one of those ‘people’. “No offence.”
His house sitter didn’t bother to hide his amused smile.
“None taken. It’s the reason I can have this job.” Orion reached over and clapped his shoulder. “You do you. Leave people to me.”
He left MintBreeze to Orion and set off for his next trip. When he returned, his house had turned into an office.
Pushing past the people gathered in his living room, he found the man he was looking for.
“What happened to my house?”
In the three days he was away, Orion and MintBreeze had expended the casual network of requests into a public platform. For a small fee, anyone could post their request, for anyone who was willing and able to fulfil it.
“Well, we say ‘anyone’, but it’s only within the circle of people we know,” Orion said.
“‘We’ as in?”
“MintBreeze and I.”
“… So half the region knows about this.”
Within a year, their humble platform would plant branches all over the region, connecting adventurers with residents through mutually beneficial quests.
But that was later. Right now, he had a more pressing concern.
“If you’re using my house as an office, where do I go?”
Orion pointed up towards the ceiling. “There’s still the second floor.”
He just came back, but he was itching to leave already.
Follows after Even the Small Things.
~For the Small Requests~
It wasn’t unusual for him to receive requests before he left the neighbourhood for another trip. Many rare and expensive items in the marketplace were common ‘junk items’ for adventurers like him. It was a simple thing for him to pick up some extra items on the way.
The difficult requests, actually, were the ones were they asked for something that could only be found in areas that were ‘too easy’ for him.
Some wildlands were more dangerous than others, depending on the power of the creatures that populated it. The life of an adventurer was a constant push towards more and more challenging areas to grow stronger.
For him, who now fought one-on-one against creatures that towered as tall as mountains with bodies thicker than rivers, going back to hunt the little ones that he could wipe out with just a flick of a finger made him feel like a bully.
Still, here he was, a high level adventurer, standing in the peaceful grassy plains that was home to the fluffy quacklings that were even smaller than his sword.
He wasn’t doing this for himself. He came all the way here, to a place he hadn’t visited since he was just a fledgling adventurer, as a favour for his neighbour.
He swept his sword in the familiar arc of his first multi-target attack <<Sword Gust>>.
The quacklings could only quack in shock as their bodies shattered, leaving behind handfuls of coins were they stood, along with other random bits and bobs.
Not a single <<Quackling Feather>>.
He selected a new direction to unleash his attack.
Another adventurer watched him with wide eyes, completely forgetting the quackling before her until it headbutted her off her feet.
Unlike him, whose one attack wiped out multiple quacklings, this adventurer needed multiple attacks before she finally defeated the one quackling.
“Wow, you’re really strong,” she said. Then her head tilted quizzically. “Why are you hunting quacklings?”
“I’m looking for <<Quackling Feathers>>.
Her face brightened. “How many?”
“I have twenty. Trade?”
Well, it would save him time, and it’ll be beneficial for this beginner too. A quackling would typically drop around 15~23 gold upon defeat.
“I’ll take it for 20 gold each.”
Gold and feathers exchanged owners.
“Do you have anything else on this list?” He pulled up his lists of requests to fulfill.
She did, in fact. Hoarding was common among beginners, so she’d held on to everything she collected even when she had no idea what to do with them. He was more than happy to take them off her hands.
[MintBreeze has sent you a friend request.]
“If there’s anything else you’re looking for, shoot me a message,” she said.
That wasn’t a bad idea. He raised his hand to make his selection.
[New friend added.]
No matter how far he travelled, he always knew he was home when he heard their calls.
“What did you get?”
The children in the neighbourhood left their waiting place and swarmed around him. He slowed his pace, dodging around the nudging through the little bodies with careful strength.
“That depends. Did you finish your chores today?” he teased.
Excited eyes looked out from naive faces, completely lacking the fear and distrust he usually saw from the other cities. To them, he wasn’t a monstrous adventurer. He was just a ‘big brother who travelled a lot and gave interesting goodies’.
“Let me drop off some items and we’ll see what’s left,” he said.
As an adventurer, he travelled further than anyone else, risking his life and more on the journey, but also encountered more breathtaking treasures than most people would ever see in their lifetime. Many adventurers only kept what was valuable, preferring to discard the more common items dropped by the creatures they defeated. He would never do that, not while he could still remember the awe faces of his neighbours at even the ‘junk items’ his fellow adventurers scoffed at.
If asked, his most important equipment wasn’t his weapons that cut down his obstacles, or the armour that protected his life, but the adventurer’s pack strapped on his back. Even though it had the shape and weight of a typical backpack, he could fit enough things to fill a whole room in it. Its capacity wasn’t limitless, but it was at least enough for him to bring some souvenirs home.
Like quacklings, the children followed him around the neighbourhood, peering curiously over his arms as he reached into his pack, again and again. Ten <<Brobat Wing Tips>> for the artist, twenty <<Lalafly Venom Sacs>> for the potion master, five <<Thabear Fur Coats>> for the tailor…
Finally, he delivered everything his neighbours had requested. He settled at the front porch of his house and reached into his pack once more.
<<Lumin Shard>>, <<Orina’s Teardrop>>, <<Orb of Micarin>>, <<Firia Tree Sap>>, <<Amber Of A Song>>.
He laid the shiny trinkets before the children.
“Take your pick.”
He smiled as the children deliberated their options. gauging the items not by functional or market value but how they fit into the children’s carefully curated collection.
On his adventures, he had seen creatures larger than their village square, rivers that spun in the air, trees that carried mountains and more. But it was only back home, watching his neighbours treasure even the small things, that he truly realise the value of the amazing sights he saw so frequently.
Truly, coming home was always worth the trip.
That her fever in the real world managed to seep into her dreamscape was just another sign of her continued deterioration. One day, she wouldn’t even be able to hide from the pain in her dreams.
Her lips pressed together at the beautiful but unwanted reminder. She shook the leafy tendrils off her limbs and stepped into the sky.
Her family was working on the antidote for the poison burning through her body. All she needed to do was endure.
She left familiar wings unfold from her back. Flame-blue, just like the flowers. She frowned. With just a thought, her wings shifted into amethyst-purple. Abandoning every reminder of the real world, she dove into the dream world.
This trip, she would like to find someone dreaming about a cold winter’s day.
Genre: fantasy, speculative fiction
I was born with one brown eye and one black one. The brown eye sees things as they are, and although the black one does not always see the things in front of me, it can see much more.
It sees the past.
My black eye comes in handy when I help out at the Missing Persons Unit. We usually ask for a photo of the missing person so I know who I’m looking for. Something the missing person touched recently can be helpful but isn’t necessary, which means that people almost always try to give us something, ranging from common items like shirts to bizarre artefacts like mouse traps.
This, a broken brass doorknob, falls squarely in the latter category. Even weirder, it’s the only clue I get. No photos, not even a profile pic on social media. Well, I get some verbal description, so that’s something to work with.
I’m definitely curious about the doorknob, but finding the missing person comes first.
I look at my brass clue.
The doorknob broke off the side door of a quaint family restaurant in the white-knuckled grip of the poor victim getting mercilessly smashed by a group of men. He crashed to the ground. The doorknob rolled out of his grasp as he scrambled and dragged himself away from the beating.
Dark wavy hair, darker eyes, two rings of even darker tattoos around his left wrist. The man matches the description to a T.
I look at him.
The man covered in the corner of a bedroom as an older woman lashed at him with a belt.
He curled around his backpack in a troubled sleep underneath a bridge.
Wide eyes watched from two identical faces, both young twins hiding behind their parents as the adults tentatively offered the man a plate of hearty lasagne from their restaurant.
The same family of four, again and again, always kind, always cautious, offering meals when he turned up.
He turned around the corner to see a group of men trying to break into the family restaurant and threw himself at them without hesitation.
Trapped in a dead end, the group of men kicked him until he fell limp.
The man’s dark rings stood out against the white hospital sheets, completely still except for the slow rise and fall of his chest. The phone of the patient beside him displayed the time, just half an hour ago.
From there, it only takes another quick look to find the hospital the missing man is in. It takes a little longer to backtrack to the men who attacked him. It’s tempting to track the men all the way to their homes, it wouldn’t even take that long, but just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should.
So all I do is create a quick note of the numbers and identifying features of the men. Just a little something to give the investigation team a head start.
Then I put the case aside and reach for the next one.
He looks up, eyes wide as he watches an iridescent butterfly alight on an equally vibrant flower. He makes no other movement. The sun shines down on the insect and the plant, marking them as ‘things out of his reach’.
He is content to watch from afar, but the butterfly has other plans. On delicate wings, it glides through the gaps in between the bars that lines the boundary of his small world, slipping out of the warm sun into his chilly shadow.
A younger him would have instinctively snatched the small being out of the air, likely shredding those flimsy wings in the process. Current him has centuries of imprisonment to learn to remain still.
So the butterfly flutters, uninterrupted as it explores his prison in lazy circles. It’s the most interesting thing he has seen for a long time, and for a few precious moments, he remembers that he lives, not just exists.
Then the butterfly flutters out, taking the colour and life out with it. He’s left with himself, in a quiet cage with only the cold as his companion.
Back in the sun, the butterfly skims the air down to the lake at the foot of the mountain. It presents its whole, undamaged wings to its master, a contrast to its predecessors, who had returned from their mission with torn wings, if they returned at all.
The master smiles in satisfaction.
“Looks like I’ll be able to free him after all.”
Takes place in the Defenders of the Wall verse.
A three-tier cake sat on a table in the middle of the wasteland.
Theo rubbed his eyes.
Nothing changed. It wasn’t his imagination.
“What’s that?” Thomas asked the question on their minds.
“Bait,” Vice Captain said.
Vice Captain raised an eyebrow at Thomas. “We’re outside the wall. What else can this bait be for?”
Theo cast his gaze around the monotonous landscape, its almost completely flat surface broken only by one mound of dirt that could almost be called a hill, if he was feeling generous. The cake had been left behind by another squad a week ago, but despite the monster tracks left in the dirt, there wasn’t a single bite in the creamy icing.
Undeterred, Vice Captain directed them to drag the cake up the hill and fan its sickly sweetness into the air. Having long learnt the lesson that no matter how strange, it was easier to indulge their vice captain’s whims than to argue with him, they obeyed.
Despite their best efforts, half a day passed and not a single monster took the bait. Which was strange, because they could see the monsters in the distance, yet instead of charging at them like they normally would, the monsters stayed away.
Vice Captain smiled in satisfaction.
“Next step, get rid of the cream on the cake,” Vice Captain said as he pulled out two disposable bags and a box of gloves.
Their confusion didn’t slow them down. They carried the cake back to flat ground for better access and got to work.
That was when they discovered that the cake was a lie.
Underneath all the cream was a box shaped like a cake. And inside the box, was…
Theo lurched back, an arm pressed over his face as he fought the urge to retch.
Raw meat sat in old blood, the heavy smell of decay coated his nose and slithered down the back of his throat, now that the cream no longer blocked it from their senses.
In the distance, the monsters stirred.
“Let’s go,” Vice Captain said.
Between the monsters and the smell, they were more than ready to go. Captain only lingered long enough to close the box before they sprinted away.
It was only after they returned safely behind the city wall that they finally learnt what their mission was. For the field test of the prototype for a monster deterrent, they were the second of three squads tasked with heading out to the wasteland to check on its performance. The squad before them left the cream-covered bait in place, they collected the cream, and a third squad would go a week later to collect what was left.
“You should thank me. I got you the best option,” Vice Captain said.
They immediately looked at their captain.
“The missions were decided with a lucky draw,” Captain said.
As one, their brows furrowed in suspicion. Vice Captain and lucky were two words that didn’t belong in the same sentence unless it also had the word ‘not’.
“… And who drew for us?”
“I did,” Captain said.
Wide smiles replaced their frowns.
“Thank you, Captain!”
Vice Captain grumbled. This too, was nothing unusual, and they ignored him with practised ease. The only concession was made by Eileen, who reached over to give him a comforting pat on the shoulder.
And so the mission ended, but it took much longer before Theo could eat cake without remembering the rancid smell from that day.
Alternate title: The Cake (Is A Lie)