The Pulver Chronicles – 4. This Ain’t No Place For No Hero


The horse was called Shaggy. He had gray hair, with a dark, messy mane, and in spite of having been cleaned and brushed recently, emitted a rather strong odor. Jackson could tell he was old: both his teeth and his very calm temper reflected that. A young stable boy, probably in his early teens, saddled the beast and prepared his luggage. Shaggy barely flinched under the combined weight of the firearms and their ammo. Jackson had carefully hid both of those under the rest of his equipment. In total, he had packed two pairs of binoculars, three disassembled assault rifles, three handguns, and about twenty boxes of ammunition for both.

He originally had more than that, but the total weight would have been simply too much, even for a horse; Byron suggested to put the rest in a backpack and to hide it quickly in a hollowed-out stump, while the guide was looking away. Jackson had made sure to carve his initials in the stump, just in case. Byron assured him he would remember the location, as it was close to the castle’s ruins. 

The young stable boy fed the horse a carrot, and patted his head.

“Shaggy’s a good lad,” he said, his pubescent voice cracking. “Do you know how to ride, sire?”

Jackson placed his left foot in the stirrup.

“This ain’t my first rodeo,” he said. “Literally.”

The stable boy stared at him in confusion as he sat on the saddle.

“How are you going to follow us?” he asked Byron. “It’d be weird to ask for a horse for you.”

When no answer came, he looked around him. The lieutenant was nowhere to be seen.

“Byron?”

“Yes?”

Jackson almost fell from his horse when Byron appeared right in front of it.

“Jesus! Did they teach you some ninja tricks, in your secret special forces unit?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were gone! It was like you disappeared or something.”

“I was?”

He pushed his bent index finger against his chin. “Huh.”

Then, just as suddenly, he disappeared again, only to reappear on Jackson’s right side.

“This is interesting,” he said.

“More like freaky!” Jackson said.

He soon left camp on horseback, preceded by his guide -whose name he still didn’t know. The ride was not as comfortable as the ones he had when he lived on that farm in Wyoming. The saddle’s leather was rougher, for one thing, and the road was… Well, there was no road to speak of, actually. What they were following was more of a desire path, crossing through the woods, barely visible most of the time. Jackson didn’t see any landmarks around, aside from a mountain range to the northwest, but the guide seemed to know exactly where she was going. He did his best to stick close to her.

They had started their journey shortly before noon -or at least before the zenith. As Jackson’s stomach started to grumble, he expected the guide to make a halt for lunch. Instead, she wordlessly pointed to a pouch fixated to his saddle. It contained a few hardtacks of some kind, not unlike the ones Jackson ate in the army. Jackson sniffed one with some suspicion, then took a bite out of it. It didn’t have much taste, and was very hard to chew. He resolved to let his bite soak in his saliva before he could eat it properly. The biscuits had one thing for them: they filled Jackson’s stomach very quickly. In fact, despite initially feeling famished, he couldn’t finish his first, and let Shaggy have the last bite.

As the day went on, the air grew hotter. To Jackson, it was starting to feel like one of those afternoons at his foster family’s farm in Idaho, where he would lie in the hay fields to soak in the sun instead of doing his chores. He shut his eyes, tilted his head slightly back, and started reminiscing about those days. With a bit of effort, he could smell the dirt heated up by the sunrays, hear the cows mooing in the distance, and even feel the soft ground against the back of his head. He even heard that laughter… That carefree, teenage laughter that came from the neighbor’s farm. And there she was…

Jackson shook his head with a groan, and some sweat fell from his brow onto his horse. Let’s have that trip down Memory Lane another time. Or better yet, never. He tried to focus on his surroundings to keep his mind busy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in sight, except trees, plants, and more trees. He occasionally heard the chirping of birds, and at one point caught a glimpse of some four-legged furred animal that could have been a wild boar.

For lack of a more creative description, the journey was boring. Jackson repeatedly tried to initiate a conversation with his guide, but she barely ever said more than one word at a time, and more often than not answered with grunts, nods, or shrugs. Painstakingly, he managed to gather that her name was Tacey (or Tessy, or Tessi), that she had been serving the Inquisition for “some time”, that she didn’t come for someplace near here, and that she didn’t like or dislike her job (assuming Jackson had interpreted her shrug correctly). All inquiries about her hobbies, her favorite food, and her family were simply ignored.

“Well, I come from a different world,” Jackson said, frustrated. “What d’you think about that?”

At first, he thought she had scoffed, but then realized that, in fact, her horse had sneezed.

“Yeah, a different world,” he continued. “No idea how I even got here. Craziest shit ever, I tell ya.”

No response came from Tacey; Jackson started to wonder if that was actually a nickname, short for “taciturn”.

“Oh man, if you saw my homeworld, you’d go nuts. We have it all: cars, phones, TVs, Chinese takeout…” He clicked his tongue in frustration. “Damn, I guess I’m never gonna have Chinese food ever again. You don’t have a China in your world, do you?”

His only answer was a strange animal noise, coming out of a bush and sounding like a door that badly needed oil.

“Wow, you really don’t talk, do you? Okay, that’s cool, let’s just ride.”

After another long while, he asked: “Do you mind if I sing?”

 

It was probably the middle of the afternoon when the forest turned into plains, covered in fields. The tall plants cultivated there looked a bit like wheat, but with darker, shorter sprouts. Given their growth, Jackson estimated it would soon be time for the harvest. If they have cereal, they probably have bread in this world, Jackson thought. They had meat and veggies, in the Middle Ages, right? Sure hope they have bacon, too. As he peered down at the hardtacks left in the pouch, he hoped his next meal would be a lot better. He tapped the purse the inquisitor had given him; he wasn’t sure what two hundred gold oxen were really worth, but there was surely enough for some decent food.

The fields of wheat -or whatever it was- were replaced by fields of different crops, some of which looked familiar to Jackson, some of which didn’t. Among the second category were four-feet tall plants on which grew vegetables that closely resembled potatoes, but with a blue-green color. Eventually, he saw a few peasants working these fields with hoes and scythes, their backs and their foreheads shiny with sweat. Most of them wore a large hat or a piece of clear-colored cloth over their heads, likely to protect them against the sun. A few stopped their work to look at Jackson as he rode past them, staring at his military clothing with curiosity and -for some- hilarity. Jackson made a mental note to buy something more “local color” as soon as possible.

A small zephyr started blowing from the west, carrying a faint smell of iodine. The coast was near. The temperature became a bit more tolerable as they got closer to the sea, much to Jackson’s relief, as he was now sweating profusely. Large, clear gray birds flew over his head; they looked like seagulls, although their chirping was lower-pitch and their tails were longer. The terrain started getting hilly, and the small trail they had picked up after they left the forest became a real road.

That road became larger, and soon Jackson and her guide met other travelers, most of whom were going in the same direction. Finally, as they passed the ridge of a hill, the coastline appeared. The road continued alongside it, heading north. The coast seemed to be one long series of cliffs made out of dark stones, against which waves came crashing with a noise Jackson found relaxing. Beyond them, the ocean was rippled, and a strong wind blew regularly from it.

The sky had started turning orange when Jackson caught sight of a city. It had been built at the mouth of a river, in a location where the dark cliffs finally gave way to sandy beaches. Surrounded by a high wall of polished black stones, it had a port that looked to be half as big as the city itself. Jackson counted at least twenty boats of various sizes and designs moored there, plus half-a-dozen more in the offing; there were also some smaller ships sailing up and down the river. From what little Jackson could see of the buildings beyond the wall, they seem to be made out of stone, wood, and whatever the medieval equivalent of cement was.

There was a large gatehouse on the southern wall, with a raised portcullis, as well as a few soldiers posted on top of it. However, the guide passed by it without a word, and led Jackson around the city. Less than a mile east of the wall was a small building, looking like a flatter and larger castle, enclosed by a wooden palisade. Floating on top of it and on its walls was, clearly recognizable, the Inquisition flag.

Tecy stopped her horse near the palisade’s gate, then called out:

“Courier from Inquisitor Keziah!”

Jackson heard footsteps beyond the wooden walls, then a series of knocking and cracking sounds. The gate opened, revealing two tall men clad in heavy armor. Tecy jumped off her horse, then took his reins to lead him inside. Jackson followed suit. The small castle -the inquisitor had called it a commandery- was surrounded by a small courtyard. There was a stable next to it. An old, dirty-looking woman with long, graying hair trotted up to Jackson and Tecy, gaiting slightly, and took the horses off their hands. Jackson quickly recovered his belongings.

“Message for the High Inquisitor,” the guide told a soldier.

The man nodded, then they took off walking towards the main building. The other went back to his post near the gate. Jackson was left alone.

“So… Can I just go, then?” he asked.

No one answered, or even looked at him. Jackson shrugged, then simply left. Despite his heavy backpack, he quickly covered the distance between the commandery and the city. The eastern gatehouse was opened just like the southern one. A few people came and went through it, most of them on foot, a few of them on a horse or a cart. A handful of guards were stationed there, controlling the influx of visitors. They shot Jackson that look of curiosity and amusement he was starting to get used to, but didn’t make a move to stop him.

Jackson followed a large street until he arrived in what was clearly a market district, and the core of the city. The place was bustling with activity. Many traders had their stalls there, and a dense crowd of customers was buzzing around them. The air resonated with calls, cries, offers, counter-offers, laughs, as well as swears and songs. But what really struck Jackson was the smell. Smells, actually. The perfume of various spices were mixed with that of fresh produce, fish, meat… and dung. There was far less of it than Jackson would have thought -he essentially expected everyone to be covered in cow poop-, but still enough of it to be noticed by his nostrils. Not nearly enough to bother a former farmboy, however.

He took advantage of the crowd to remain beneath notice as he cruised through the town, looking for some place where he could buy new clothes. This also allowed him to observe the local population and the way they dressed, so as to get an idea of what to wear. The people in this town seemed to be a very diverse lot. The majority were Humans of all colors, from the starkest white to a very dark black, but there were also an abundance of other kinds of Humanoids. Some Jackson recognized from his world (Lizardfolk, Satyrs, Orcs, and Elves), but a few he couldn’t place. There was a species that looked like the crossing of a Humanoid and a plant, another one that seemed to be made out of minerals, and another species with unusual skin color, a pair of dark horns, and entirely black eyes. That last one seemed to be the most common species in town after the Humans.

“Demons,” Byron said.

“Ah, there you are,” Jackson said. “You were gone for a while.”

“I needed to rest a little. And to think.”

“About what?”

Byron let out a mirthless laugh.

“Where to start?” he simply said.

“You said those are Demons? Like in the Bible?”

“Not exactly. You’ve never seen one before?”

Jackson shook his head, his gaze fixated on one particular Demon who was standing not so far from him, haggling with a vendor over a bottle of what had to be some kind of alcohol. He was very tall, perhaps six feet five, with bulky arms and legs. His skin was a nearly red shade of pink, and it seemed that all of it with the exception of his face was covered in tattoos. Jackson’s observation was interrupted when the Demon walked away in a huff, his umpteenth offer having been rejected by the vendor.

The young man eventually found what he was looking for. Well, it wasn’t exactly a clothing shop: it was a tailor. But so long as it sold something Jackson could wear, it was good enough. The place seemed to deal in upper quality goods, a lot of which were exposed around on tables. It was owned by an old couple, both Humans. The man was almost completely bald, the woman balding, and both of their faces were very wrinkled. Didn’t people die young in the Middle Ages? Jackson thought. Maybe they use magic to live longer. As he thought that, he heard Byron sigh with annoyance.

“What?” Jackson said.

“People didn’t die young in the Middle Ages,” he said. “Where did you learn that?”

“In school. They told me the life expectancy was…”

“Life expectancy is an average,” Byron said, rolling his eyes. “Averages give you an idea, but often the wrong one.”

“Okay?” Jackson shrugged.

“Child mortality was very high in that era, thus lowering the average life expectancy,” he explained with a mixture of patience and condescension.

“How do you know that?”

“I studied history.”

“What, in college?”

“At West Point.”

Jackson stretched his lips. West Point? Seriously? Before he could ask any more questions, he heard:

“Welcome to Baellien’s Boutique, sir! May I help you?”

During his mental conversation with Byron, Jackson had been looking at some clothing on a table nearby, without actually seeing them. Noticing this apparent interest, the old tailor had approached him. He was almost two feet smaller than Jackson, and his back was arched and leaning slightly to the right.

“Oh, uh, yeah. I need to buy some clothes.”

“Certainly, sir,” he said with a suave and affable voice. “What manner of clothing would you be interested in? A travel outfit, I suppose?”

“Umm… Sure. Something light that can keep the rain out and shield from the wind, that’d be great.”

“I had you pegged for a traveler,” the old man said, slowly nodding his head. “You have this air of curiosity about you. Is this your first time in Atvello?”

“Yeah. Just got into town.”

“It’s a fine city, to be sure,” the man said as he pulled some kind of measuring tape from his pants’ pocket. “Taxes are a bit high, but we are very safe. And there’s no better place for trading.”

“Is that so?” Jackson said.

The man instructed him to extend his arms to his side, then began taking measures.

“Your clothes are rather interesting, if you don’t mind me saying so. It is not everyday I admit that, but I have never seen anything quite like it! Is it wool or silk?”

“I’m… not sure, actually,” Jackson said.

“Very unique pattern, as well,” the tailor said, observing every part of his fatigues with keen interest. “Are you perhaps from the Vertrisian woods? No, you don’t appear to have any Elven heritage. The Lhar jungle, maybe? You are quite pale of skin, though…”

“No, I’m from… some place far away. You wouldn’t know it.”

“I see. We indeed have travelers from all three continents, here in Atvello, as you’d expect in a free city. You’re bound to meet with not only Narrians, Hastadish, and Leylen, but also Rogajii, Trenians, and even some of that strange folk from the Belnian Isles. And that’s just the Humans. There are also many Demons -exiles from the Hexacracy for the most part-, Elves, Orcs, Goblins… And if you happen to still be in town for the Days of Gold and Azure, you’ll see an even more varied crowd. Even people from the Hexacracy come here for the festivities. Rumor has it one of the Archdemons will visit this year -though I’ll grant you that’s probably just silly gossip.”

He put away his tape. Jackson noticed he had taken no notes, having apparently memorized all that he had measured.

“Will you require a complete outfit, sir?” he asked. “A tunic, a pair of pants, gloves, a cape, a hood?”

“Yeah. Is that doable?”

“It most certainly is, sir. As for the materials, do you have any preference?”

“Err…”

Jackson didn’t really know much about that. Understanding, the old owner invited him to look at and touch his goods to see what he would like. He browsed around for a little while, and found some pieces of clothing he found both light and comfortable to wear. Then, something caught his gaze. It was an ensemble consisting of a grayish black hooded cape, a dark brown vest with several pockets, a shirt of a lighter brown color, a large belt with several pouches, and a pair of black gloves. They were placed on a wooden mannequin of crude design. Jackson took a closer look, and ran his fingers along the cape. He couldn’t identify the material; some kind of leather, maybe?

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the owner said with a proud smile. “And yes, it is made of cured dryadelle. Light, but strong. A bit expensive, but of indisputable quality.”

“How much?” Jackson said.

“Ninety five gold oxen, sir. It may seem like a hefty price, but I assure you it will be money well spent. Provided you take good care of it, such fine pieces will last you a long time.”

“It looks a bit small.”

“You are a rather tall fellow, but not to worry: it will adjust. As I said, it is cured dryadelle.”

“What’s that?” Jackson said.

The old man was taken aback by the question, but immediately put his salesman mask back on. “You must come from very far indeed! Dryadelle is known almost the world over. It is a very noble material, quite resistant, supple, and versatile. Made by the dryads in the secrecy of their groves, you see, thus its rarity -and its price.”

“Is it magic?” Jackson said, fearing he had asked another stupid question.

“Who can say, sir? Not even I, Batisten Baellien, the most talented tailor in Atvello, am privy to the mysteries of dryadelle. The most I can tell you is that it is made from the bark of their precious trees. As to how they can turn it into textile, I can’t begin to imagine.”

Jackson had to admit, the old man -Baellien- knew how to make a sales pitch. It certainly didn’t hurt that the outfit was in pristine condition, and well oiled. The sunlight reflected well on the cape, and Jackson couldn’t help but picture himself wearing these clothes.

He wanted it. He wanted that outfit. For the first time in a long while, he had money. And not just a couple of bucks: actual money. And he was going to use it. This would be the most expensive thing he had ever bought in his life, but that didn’t discourage him -the opposite, actually.

“I’ll take it,” he said with a large smile.

“Excellent choice, sir!” the old man opined. “May I suggest you also buy a pair of pants, and boots? I can have something made in two days that will complement it quite well. Shall we say a hundred and ten gold oxen for everything?”

“Right, sure.”

“Very well. I’ll simply ask for a downpayment of fifteen gold oxen, so as to be able to start the work immediately.”

The young man agreed, opened his purse, and perused its contents. With the patience that befits a salesman about to make a good profit, Baellien helped him make sense of the unfamiliar currency. There were different kinds of coins, with different sizes and shapes depending on their value: one, two, and five. Eventually, Jackson placed a few coins in the old man’s hand, who bowed deeply, then traded the money for a slip of paper -a receipt of some kind, evidently.

“Come back the day after tomorrow before noon, sir. Everything will be ready. Ocean’s blessings to you!”

“Uh, you too,” Jackson said, assuming this was the local way to say goodbye.

After leaving the boutique, Jackson decided to take a walk around the city. The market was located near the center. To its west was a smaller district consisting mainly of warehouses. It was crossed by a large avenue that led to the port.

A wave of nostalgia washed over Jackson as he arrived at the docks. The combined smells of fish, iodine and humidity almost immediately took him back to his days living in Westport, Washington, when he was a preteen. He sighed as he remembered how much he enjoyed running on the pontoons, climbing the crates, jumping on the boats. He definitely remembered the multiple yellings he received, and the couple of times he fell into the water. Despite that, he had been… Well, no, he hadn’t been happy. But he could have been. He could have been…

“Are you going to stand there all day?”

Jackson blinked. He was standing on the edge of a pier, looking at a large wooden ship that was being unloaded by a crew made up mostly of aquatic Humanoids -Jackson couldn’t see them very well from afar, but some looked like frogs and others like newts. Byron was standing on his right, one hand on his hip.

“Well, it’s not like I have anything better to do,” Jackson said.

“How about making sure you have some place to sleep tonight?”

“There’s gotta be a hotel in this city,” he shrugged. “Or an inn, or whatever they call it.”

“You know you already commited over half of your money. Do you have a plan for when you run out?”

“Plan? I don’t do plans. I’ll figure something out. I always have.”

“Like what?”

“Like… That inquisitor chick said something about mercenaries. I can do that.”

“Really?” Byron said, not bothering to hide his skepticism. “You?”

“Sure, why not? I’m already a soldier. Or used to be, I guess.”

“In a completely different world. You know nothing of this one. You don’t know the local politics, you don’t know who to fight for…”

“Well, either that or bounty hunter, like with the necromant. One of my foster dads was a bounty hunter; he took me on some of his hunts -it was cheaper than getting a babysitter. I know how it’s done. I figure it’s not any different, here.”

“You figure,” Byron said with disdain. “Whatever. While we have some time, there’s something I wanted to try.”

“What?”

“Stay here.”

Without saying anything else, Byron turned away and started walking straight ahead. Every ten feet or so, he would look above his shoulder, seemingly to ascertain his distance to Jackson. Before the nonplussed young man could ask him what he was doing, Byron suddenly clutched his chest and fell on one knee. Jackson rubbed his eyes; unless he was hallucinating, he thought for a moment he could see through Byron. He ran to him.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

Byron let out a raspy groan. “Jesus Christ…”

“What happened?” Jackson said again. “What were you trying to do?”

“Well, since I’m apparently linked to you somehow, I wanted to test the limits of that link. It seems I can’t be more than forty feet away from you without… Agh…”

“Seriously, what was that? It’s like you turned transparent!”

“I don’t know. I felt like something was grabbing my internal organs and pulling towards you.”

He stood up.

“Well, that’s that,” he said. “There was something else I wanted to try.”

“Are you sure you’re gonna survive another experiment?”

“I’m already dead, aren’t I? But this one shouldn’t be any dangerous. Now…”

He took a cursory look around, then spotted a beggar, seated against a large shipment of furs. It was an old Orc; his green skin was covered in dirt, and the tusks protruding from his bottom lip showed clear signs of decay. He was dressed with an old torn-up shirt and a loincloth, both of which looked dirtier than the floor he was seating on.

“He’ll do,” Byron said, walking to him.

“Woah, woah,” Jackson said. “He’ll do what, exactly?”

“We won’t do anything to him, don’t worry.”

Charity for an unfrocked priest?” the beggar said, his voice hoarse and slightly slurred. “I no longer have the favors of the Divine, but They may favor you, for a coin or some food.”

“Tell him you’ll give him a coin if he does a small thing for you,” Byron said.

“What small thing?” Jackson said.

“Just do it. It won’t take long.”

“Fine,” he muttered.

Jackson showed the beggar one of his gold oxen, and promised it to him in exchange for a service. The Orc’s face lightened up, which made Jackson feel horrible: it was obvious the poor man would have done anything for that kind of money.

“Tell him to stand up,” Byron said.

The beggar did so.

“Tell him to put one of his hands behind his back and hold up a few fingers, but not to tell you how many.”

The Orc raised an eyebrow, but did as Jackson told him. Byron leaned and peaked behind his back.

“He’s holding up three fingers: the thumb, the index finger, and the middle finger. Tell him that.”

Jackson relayed the information, and the beggar looked stupefied. He showed his hand, which was indeed holding up those three fingers.

“You have the outersight, sire!” the beggar said, amazed. “But you do not look like an Inquisitor. Are you one of the Blue Seers from beyond the Strait?”

Byron had Jackson repeat the same trick four more times. Finally satisfied, he said:

“Okay, that’s it. Give him his coin and let’s go.”

Weirded out by the whole thing, Jackson paid the beggar, who sputtered multiple blessings and nearly started crying. Jackson quickly moved away from him; such a display of misery was bringing another set of memories back to his mind -and those particular memories did not carry the pleasant filter of nostalgia.

“So what was the point of that?” he asked Byron.

“I wanted to confirm that my perceptions were independent from yours. I already suspected as much, given that I remained conscious when you passed out in the forest.”

“You mean you don’t just see what I see?”

“Exactly. And I’ll bet the same goes for my hearing. But as for the touch…”

He shot a grisly look at his hand.

“Same goes for the taste, I suppose,” Jackson said. “What about the smell?”

Byron flared his nostrils. “It’s… faint, like I’m smelling from a distance.”

He pursed his lips.

“I’m sorry,” Jackson said. “That must be… I can’t even imagine.”

“Let’s just get out of here. The sun will be coming down soon; you need to find a roof for the night.”

“And my dinner,” he said, rubbing his stomach.

Jackson went back to the market district -he overheard people call it the Whitewood borough, or just Whitewood. Even as the sun went down beneath the city walls, people still came and went in droves through the streets. Most merchants had started packing their wares, but some continued their activities. One of them, a woman dressed in an ostentatious robe covered in intricate symbols, called out to Jackson as he passed her by:

“Hey, you, the forestman! Have you brought any protective icons against the spirits of nature before you go back? I’ll bet you forgot! For only ten steeds, I can make one for you. Ten steeds to be protected from the anger of the spirits, ten measly steeds to gain their favor. Can’t say any fairer than that! No? So be it. The spirits have a good memory, you know!…”

“I can’t wait to be rid of these,” Jackson mentally said to Byron, pulling on his fatigues’ collar. “And of this,” he added, pointing to his backpack.

“You’re not going to abandon the weapons, are you?” Byron said.

“Hell no! But it’s not like I’m going to use them all at once. I just need to find a safe place to keep them. Like… Do they have banks around here? With vaults?”

“Banks, probably. Vaults, I don’t know. Either way, I doubt you’ll find that service for free.”

As Jackson expected, there were quite a few inns around the market. Some were cheap pensions, offering little more than a pile of straw on the floor, occasionally with a sheet, in a large hall with many other patrons. This reminded Jackson too much of his old dorm, and he decided to go for a more upscale place -again, he had money. He expected Byron to tut at the expense, but, surprisingly, the lieutenant agreed with his choice.

“You’re less likely to be robbed in a better hotel,” he said, “especially if you have your own room.”

The Unstrung Duke was, at the very first glance, a fancy place. The painted, wooden exterior had a golden finish, the clientele definitely looked like they had money to spend -and the will to spend it-, and there were a few guards at the entry tasked with making sure that the common rabble stayed clear. Jackson was actually stopped by one of them -a male Minotaur, as large as he was tall-, until he showed the color of his coins, at which point he became more affable and let him through.

He had barely made it through the door before he was approached by a female Goblin, wearing a green livery that went well with her yellow skin. She was a little under four feet four inches; her ears were much shorter than was usual for her species, and decorated with rings made out of copper or bronze.

“Good evening, sir. Would you like to dine?”

“Yeah. Also, I’d like a room for the night.”

“Very well. It’ll be six steeds for the meal, and thirty-two for the room.”

“I’m guessing steeds are a subdivision of gold oxen,” Byron said. “At least, I hope so. The alternative is that steeds are a different form of currency, which we don’t have.”

Uncertain, Jackson showed the Goblin another of his golden coins. The innkeeper -or whatever her job title was- nodded, gave him back his change in the form of silver coins, then said:

“Would you require a bath as well, sir?”

“Oh, is that possible?” Jackson said without thinking. “Um, sure, yeah. It’s a warm bath, right?”

He worried for a moment that question would come off as ignorant, or downright insulting, but the Goblin simply nodded again and answered in the affirmative.

“The bath will be ready after your meal. It will cost you an additional two steeds.”

“Okay, yes. That’d be great.”

“Please follow me to your table, sir…”

There were about three dozen patrons in the restaurant, which looked like it could accommodate about twenty more. The decoration was rich, with wall hangings and gold plated candlesticks. The tablecloths were embroidered and of high quality; Jackson was a bit surprised to see people use them to wipe their fingers and their mouths. At his request, he was given a table near the back.

The menu was the same for everyone. The entree was a bowl of diced vegetables in a stew. Jackson didn’t recognize any of the ingredients, although the taste of some of them was familiar. One of them in particular was a tuber with a rather savory taste that reminded Jackson of potatoes, although it was light blue in color. He wondered whether it was the same vegetable he saw growing in the fields, on the way to the city. The cutlery was also similar to what Jackson was used to: a fork with two prongs, a spoon, and a knife; he noticed, however, that many patrons simply use their hands instead. He ate with pleasure; the vegetables all but melted in his mouth. Their taste had been degraded when they were boiled, but the cook had compensated by adding several light spices and a good measure of fat to the broth.

Byron gazed intently at Jackson as he ate, no doubt regretting not being able to partake. Although he made no comment, Jackson couldn’t help but feel bad for him. He simply couldn’t imagine not being able to enjoy eating, not to mention relishing the smells of a hot meal.

The main course was served alongside a loaf of bread. Said course was a plate of meat, apparently a variety of cuts from the same kind of animal. The texture and the toughness initially reminded Jackson of beef, but the taste was completely different -more gamy. Curious, he called the innkeeper to ask what it was.

“It is vertrisian elk, from the forests near the Vertrisian Mountains,” she explained patiently. “Is it to your liking?”

Jackson opined, his mouth full; the innkeeper smiled, and went on her way. As the young man finished the portion that looked like a ribeye, and began with the filet, Byron suddenly said:

“Describe the taste to me.”

Jackson frowned and mumbled:

“Huh… Well, it’s… pretty juicy and… meaty? It’s not on par with the ribeye with garlic butter from Harrington’s, but it’s nice.”

Byron seemed underwhelmed by that description, but Jackson didn’t know how to better express what he was experiencing. He made short work of the filet, then turned his attention to the slices of meat laid in the last corner of his plate. They were slathered in a brown sticky sauce, and had been dipped in some kind of flour before being put on a grill. The taste was rich, although the meat was rather chewy. It left a strong aftertaste that Jackson felt would linger on his breath for a while. Finally, the bread was dark, and its insides were of a grayish color that Jackson found unappealing; it was rather bland to the taste, so he ended up only using a small portion of it to clean his plate.

Jackson didn’t think he had room for dessert, but when he saw it, he suddenly changed his mind. It was a round, frosted cake, filled with a cream made out of a fruit of some kind, and topped with a thick yellowish sauce. And it wasn’t just a slice: it was an entire cake, big enough for two people. The outside was crunchy, and the filling soft. The whole thing was unsurprisingly very sweet, and Jackson went through it quickly, although he was half-certain his stomach would later make him regret that.

The meal expedited, the Goblin reappeared with a curtsy, and led Jackson out of the restaurant part of the building and into a hallway. She retrieved a key from her pocket, and opened a wooden door, revealing a small room, at the center of which was a large bathtub made out of beige stone. It was filled with steaming hot water, with a bit of foam at the surface. Several colored glass vials were placed on a small table nearby.

“Enjoy your bath, sir,” the waitress said. Before she left, she hesitated a bit, then added: “If you desire it, sir, I can arrange for some… company. For thirty additional steeds.”

Jackson was momentarily taken aback by the offer. Ah, yeah. They have that kind of service in this world too. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

“No, I’m good. Thanks.”

“As you prefer. There is a small bell on the table, should you require anything.”

After she left, Jackson tested the water with the tip of his finger. He swore and groaned in pain, as it turned out to be just a few degrees shy of boiling hot. He sucked on his finger, then slowly took off his clothes, and threw them in a ball on the floor. As he waited for the bath’s temperature to drop to a tolerable level, he turned his attention to the vials. Picking one up, he opened it and put his nose on it. It smelled flowery, and contained a semi-thick liquid with a creamy texture. The soap, I guess.

Jackson waited around for a few minutes before he could finally enter the water. The bathtub was large enough for two or three people, and deep enough that Jackson could submerge himself entirely. He did so for a little while, closing his eyes and holding his breath, letting the hot water assuage every part of his tired body. He had always loved doing that, putting his head under the water, and letting it drown his senses. It felt peaceful, more so than anything he had ever experienced.

He emerged and took a deep breath. As he grabbed one of the vials of soap, he noticed Byron leaning against a wall near the door.

“Wanna jump in?” Jackson joked.

“Very funny,” Byron said. “Look, we seriously need to talk about what we’re going to do.”

“I told you: no plans. I’m gonna take it one day at a time. Try the mercenary thing, or maybe work on the docks, or…” He put up his feet on the tub’s rims. “Yeah, maybe I could find a mage and see if I got some powers too. Maybe he can teach me. Or she. I always wanted to try the whole “hot for teacher” thing.”

“This is why I said “seriously”,” Byron sighed. “You realize you are in a completely different world, right? A stranger in a strange land. Here, you have no home where to hide, no cultural landmark to get your bearings, no friends to fall back on…”

“I have Dave.”

“Assuming you’re right and he is still alive,” Byron said, clearly refraining from rolling his eyes, “how do you even plan on finding him?”

“I dunno,” Jackson shrugged. “He probably did the same thing I did and went back to civilization. If I stay around in Aretto long enough, maybe I’ll run into him, or hear about him.”

“It’s called Atvello. And that seems like a long shot, at best.”

“Yeah? Like traveling to a parallel universe is a long shot? Like people with magic powers? Like talking to dead people?”

“That’s different.”

“Sure it is,” Jackson said. His face suddenly lightened up, and he snapped his fingers. “Hey, I could find some magic guy and ask him to find Dave! If they can raise the dead and whatnot, they can probably do that.”

Byron let out an annoyed grunt.

“Well, even if they can’t,” Jackson said, “they can probably tell us more about… you know, you. And your whole thing. That could help us.”

The lieutenant was about to retort something, then pondered the argument, and ultimately remained silent. Jackson assumed it was Byron’s way of admitting he had a point.

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