A/N: Here we go, chapter 5. I’ve probably written more news posts about this than I have any chapter prior to this. That’s what you get when you are struggling with a chapter, I suppose.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier news posts, this chapter started off difficult to write, but got easier as I progressed. One thing that continues to impress me is the strength of the characters, and their ability to carry a scene, and in this chapter specifically, with its utter lack of action, that is exactly what happens here.
I will warn you that I’m posting this early primarily because after my initial read through, I just couldn’t find much to complain about and correct, though I’m sure you folks will be more than helpful on that score, and I’ll no doubt want to go back and rewrite it.
But that brings me to something that I find interesting about writing this story and is a big departure from the stuff I wrote on MNFF. I’m ultimately HAPPIER writing this stuff. After five chapters, I’ve yet to produce a chapter where I finish it, go over it with a fine tooth comb, and think “God this is garbage, but I have to post it anyway.” I haven’t hit there yet. Yes, some parts feel more challenging to write than others, but I still end up being ultimately happier with the results.
And I haven’t even gotten close to the good bits yet. Oh the good bits I intend to be great fun!
One other thing. From now on when we get below the fold, I’m going to be doing something new–a “the story thus far,” feature. The reason for this is that I intend on eventually performing this story in an audio format, and I’m hoping to be able to publish on Podiobooks.com, and little breeze throughs of what’s happened to date is pretty much standard operating procedure. Plus, I’m hoping this will help if it’s been a while since you have read the previous chapters.
After this chapter, I will only cover the previous chapter in this little feature, but in this addition, I’m going to do a brief overview of the entire story thus far. Also, fear not, if you’re just coming to this story, you can also check out the Table of Contents page here so you can start off at the beginning.
The Story Thus Far: Despite being opposites, Lindsey and Sara were exceptionally close sisters. This was true until Lindsey got to high school, where her alienation had stirred up a slew of insecurities.
This was made worse by how much confidence Sara seemed to possess, and Lindsey felt at the breaking point on the night before her sophomore year until she noticed a blue light under her bedroom door.
When she went to investigate it, she discovered that half of her entire house had been changed, transformed into a restaurant complete with a three piece band and a waiter that served her coffee. And a host who introduced himself as Mr. M.
Mr. M offered Lindsey a place where she fit in, unlike the much hated high school she was expected to return to in the morning. But just as Lindsey was beginning to warm up to the idea, she realized that she was being tricked into accepting M’s offer. At the last minute, she broke the spell being cast over her, and turned down M’s proposal.
As she went back to her room to go back to bed, she discovered that her sister had been taken.
She went back out into the restaurant that was once her living room and kitchen to find that everyone had gone, but an exit sign illuminated a door that was never there before. Eager to find her sister she went through it and found herself inside a large room full of pipes and machines.
The largest of the machines was operated by an old man, “Custy.” Custy explained that this room was the Someone Else Room, a place where people became “someone else” before entering Journey’s End–their final destination.
Lindsey was prosessed by the giant machine and “became” a wizard, and received a wizard’s book only to find that it was completely empty. With book in hand, Custy gave Lindsey a map of Journey’s End, and showed her the way to this new strange place.
Journey’s End, or at least the beginning bit of it, was beautiful–a rolling countryside the likes of which Lindsey had never seen before. Taking Custy’s advice, she made her way towards Everywhere Town.
But on the way there she came across a giant hill, with a path cut deep inside like a tunnel with no ceiling. And in that tunnel she came across an opening, and in that opening was an old dead tree.
At least, Lindsey thought it was dead until it used its branches to keep her from proceeding. The old tree introduced itself as “Lignus” and said that Lindsey could be on her way after they’d had a short chat… a short chat that would last at least a week.
With no food or water, Lindsey knew she couldn’t last a week, but the tree insisted on chatting anyway. In her boredom, Lindsey decided to play with the vegetation that hung over the opening’s walls, and discovered that when she pulled it down, sun came through and allowed leaves to sprout on Lignus’ branches.
This inspired her to take down all the overhanging grass and thus allow all of Lignus’ branches to sprout leaves. The old tree was infuriated by this, and began to attack her with its branches.
In the commotion, Lindsey stumbled upon her book and found that where nothing was written before, there was now words:
“Lignus-Just as death must follow life, life must follow death.”
She read the first word aloud, and water instantly began to spray from the book. She directed the torent upon the tree, and in minutes, Lignus had been brought fully back to life, and was once again nothing more than a docile tree.
Lindsey continued to Everywhere Town where she was threatened at spear point by an excitable guard at the South Gate.
When a more experienced guard let’s Lindsey pass, she finds her way to the Gut Rot; the busiest and best restaurant in Everywhere Town. There she finally gets some dinner, and when Bill, the owner of the place, announces that Lindsey put an end to Lignus, she becomes something of a hero.
This is also when she realizes that ALL of the inhabitants, at least of Everywhere Town, are just children.
She tries to eat her meal in peace, but the crowd of well-wishers won’t let her. At least not until she meets a boy named Trevor who offers to keep them at bay while she eats. She finds him easy to talk to, and generous, and when she is done, and too fatigued to carry on, he offers a guest room to her which she gratefully accepts, though not before explaining that she won’t be staying in Everywhere Town for long.
She’s on a mission to find and save her sister.
And now Chapter 5 of Journey’s End: An Interesting Proposal
Chapter 5: An Interesting Proposal
She did not know for how long she slept. All Lindsey knew was that when she opened her eyes the sun was pouring in through her bedroom window.
She stretched luxuriously and marveled at the fact that she couldn’t quite remember when she had slept so well. Indeed, she felt incredible; cool, fresh air slipping easily into and out of her lungs, the bed below her nice and soft, and her once aching limbs completely relaxed.
The only thing that would make this better, she thought, would be a nice big breakfast.
Eventually, though it was hard, Lindsey coaxed her body to leave the comfort of the bed and padded her way out of her bedroom door and down the long hall. Normally she hated cold floors, especially upon first waking up, but somehow the cool boards that ran underneath her feet seemed to gently nudge her more awake until, when she finally reached the front room, she felt fully energized, and ready to start the day.
At least, she was ready to start the day after she had completely devoured the food she could smell wafting in from the kitchen.
“Good morning,” she said, following her nose into a small and sunny breakfast nook, but she found no one to say good morning to. Instead what she found was a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon on the breakfast bar with a handwritten note and a small leather bag lying next to it.
Perching herself on a stool, Lindsey began forking the eggs into her mouth as she read the note:
Hope you slept well. I’m guessing you did. I could hear your snoring from the front room. Hopefully your breakfast is still warm when you get up.
Please don’t leave yet. I have some things to take care of this morning, and when I’m done I hope you’ll meet me at the Gut Rot. We can meet sometime around noon if you like. Until then, I’ve left some money for you so you can buy yourself some real clothes.
Seriously. Take the money. I’m going to make you spend it no matter what, so you might as well spend it now. Trust me, this is how we do things around here.
Hope you like your breakfast. See you in a little bit.
PS. Spend the money, I’m serious.
Lindsey scoffed. She didn’t snore. At least, she didn’t think she snored. Sara never complained.
Shrugging, she inspected the little leather bag and found it full of small silver coins. Despite Trevor’s multiple insistences that she spend it, she didn’t feel right doing so and spent much the rest of her breakfast mulling the idea over.
He did write that he was going to make her spend it one way or another. On the other hand, he had shown her far too much kindness already. Any more and she would feel like she was taking advantage of him. And what was this meeting at lunch all about anyway?
A curious thought struck her. Did he like her? That kind of like? The kind of like that Sara usually got to talk about? No, Lindsey decided, there was simply no way; they had just met. He was just, as he kept telling her, helping a newcomer get on her feet.
By the time Lindsey had finished eating, she had still not made up her mind as to whether or not to spend the money. She did decide to meet Trevor for lunch, and she did decide to see a little more of Everywhere Town, especially considering that she wouldn’t be there much longer.
And in the end she took the leather purse full of silver coins along with her book with the map folded up inside it. Just in case.
Walking was much nicer with something on one’s feet. This was a truth that Lindsey had come to quite easily considering that she found a pair of sturdy leather boots in the closet by the front door, and decided to borrow them for the morning.
They were far too big for her and she could feel the boot rattle all about her slender legs with each step, but such an annoyance was far better than trying to walk over the numerous rocks embedded in the dirt roads that crisscrossed all over Everywhere Town.
Lindsey imagined that she must look quite comical plodding along the paths of this rustic little town with her boots and pajamas more than a few sizes too large like a little girl that had raided her father’s closet instead of her mother’s. She didn’t, though, feel too terribly embarrassed by this considering that however bad she might look now, it was far better than she looked last night.
Nor did any of Everywhere Town’s inhabitants seem to mind or even take notice. As she explored the town with a vague goal of finding whatever shops it had to offer, she was greeted by all sorts of people, all of them smiling, all of them waving, some of them welcoming her to Journey’s End, and none of them condemning her for her current fashion status.
It was nice. It was comfortable and something of a relief. Lindsey had always dressed conservatively because she worried what people might think of her if she had experimented a little. Would they whisper behind her back that she couldn’t pull off the outfit she was wearing? Would they laugh about her in the restroom because she was far from cool enough to be sporting those shoes?
Every time she even considered deviating from her typical dresses, such thoughts came with a thousand insecurities; her legs were too skinny, she was too short, she was too pale, and on and on until she resigned herself to another day in another bland dress. No, she didn’t win any fashion awards in them, but if people were going to talk about her at least she could reasonably guess what they would say.
But this was different. Here she was, looking like a complete goof, and nobody seemed to mind.
The effect was such that by the time she had stumbled across what appeared to be where most of Everywhere Town’s shops were, she walked straighter than she could remember walking, and was more unconcerned with what people might think of her than ever. They had all been through the same thing, and had all probably spent a day or two in some stranger’s pajamas after all.
The first order of business, she decided, were some shoes that fit. Trevor’s pajamas may have been too big, but they covered the essentials. The boots, on the other hand, would put blisters on her feet before she even left and that wouldn’t help much in speeding her along the way to Dark Iron Castle.
There was only one problem. Lindsey didn’t see one single shoe shop. This struck her as curious—how do you get on without a shoe shop? Not that Lindsey was the type of girl to spend her weekends stocking up on the latest shoe fads, but she did figure having something strapped on one’s feet was something of a necessity.
Convinced that people had to get their shoes from somewhere, Lindsey ducked into a shop on the pretense of asking where she might find some.
It was dark and musty, and animal pelts hung from the walls in curious shapes, none of which she recognized. There were strange skins with blue stripes, and some with yellow spots, and one that was as black as night but shaped like a deer.
Lindsey was pretty sure that deer weren’t black, but there it was, the skin from one, hanging unceremoniously on the wall. She reached out and stroked the fur, shocked a little at just how soft it was.
“Ah, the great black deer. I paid a pretty penny to a merchant from Underoot to snag that.”
Lindsey jumped at the sound of the voice and spun around on her heel, the oversized boots on her feet shifting and sending her collapsing to the ground. Only at the last second did a pair of arms reach out and save her from what was likely to be a rather hard and painful collision with the floor.
“Careful there,” the voice said. Lindsey looked up at its owner and saw a thin boy with blonde hair and thick spectacles looking down at her. “Loaners on the feet, eh? Good thing you came in, I can fix you up right away.”
“This is the shoe shop?”
“What? No. Didn’t you read the sign? Leo’s Leather. We don’t do just shoes. But if you’re looking for something to put on your feet I can help you out. Actually, I’ve been working on a new design that you might just like, come on.”
He barely waited for her to regain her balance before pushing his way through a pair of squeaky batwing doors. Lindsey mumbled an embarrassed thanks before following.
Only after she had followed the boy she assumed was Leo through the doors did she realize that the room she just left was not the shop at all but merely a foyer. The real shop was splayed out before her in a forest of wooden stands and displays that sported a wide variety of bags, purses, jackets, pants, shoes, boots, and belts, all of them in different colors, and all of them with that soothing warm smell of leather.
“Over here,” the boy piped up and Lindsey threaded her way through a few racks of winter coats to see him seated at a work bench. “Yes, there you are. Over here, come see.”
He was proudly holding up a shoe. “It’s a sandal,” Lindsey remarked in confusion.
“Ah, yes it is. But it’s a high heel sandal. Oh, the girls around town have been begging me for ages to come up with something that has heels on it, and so I finally did. What do you think? Sure to be all the rage around Everywhere Town.”
Lindsey smiled. “It’s nice. Very nice. It’s just not what I’m looking for.”
The boy’s face fell.
“No,” Lindsey said, eager to not hurt the boy’s feelings. “It’s a very pretty shoe, I just need something a little more rugged. Like these boots, only in my size.”
The boy looked like he was holding back a sneer. “Whatcha want boots for?”
“I plan on doing a lot of walking is all. If I were going to be staying, I would love a pair of your sandals, but I…” She contemplated for a brief moment telling the whole story about Sara again, but then thought better of it. She still had quite a bit of shopping to do, and not a whole lot of time to do it in, and if she got in the habit of telling everyone about Sara now, it would be nightfall before she was finished. “I was just planning on doing a little bit of traveling before I settled down anywhere.”
The boy shrugged. “Fair enough. Everywhere Town’s not for everybody, I suppose. It can get a bit dull. Boots in your size, eh? Let me go see if I have any.”
He wasn’t gone long before he returned holding a pair of boots that looked exactly like the ones she was already wearing only smaller. “Try these on,” he said, pushing the boots toward her.
Lindsey slipped off Trevor’s boots and slid her feet into the new pair. They fit like a dream. “Wow! That’s perfect. How did you know my shoe size…”
“Without measuring? Easy. When you’ve been selling shoes and jackets for as long as I have, there’s not much guess work in figuring people’s sizes.”
Lindsey wiggled her toes and grinned.
“So, will you be needing anything else?”
She looked around the shop pensively. There were jackets, but Journey’s End seemed hardly cold enough to warrant them. Likewise, what use would she have for a purse? “I’d like a backpack, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
Leo grinned. “Nope, not at all. Let’s see, you’ll be traveling, so you’ll want something big…” With that, Leo headed over to where dozens of backpacks hung from hooks, each a different size. He mumbled to himself as he removed seemingly random bags from the wall, testing their weight, peeking inside them, sometimes nodding tentatively, but more frequently shaking his head and tossing the bag aside.
Finally, his face split into a grin and he bounded over towards Lindsey with a modest sized bag dangling from his hand. “If you’re traveling, this’ll be the one for you. Take a look inside. You see that? Compartments. You can keep your clothes in this big one here, and anything else you’ll be taking with you should fit here. That big old book of yours could slide into this compartment, and over here on the side is a special compartment specifically for food.”
Lindsey cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’s so special about the food compartment?”
“It’s lined with… Never mind what it’s lined with; just know that should whatever you keep in here start to leak or go bad, it won’t seep into the other compartments of the bag and ruin the rest of your stuff.”
Leo nodded. “Hunters like this kind of bag—it’s real handy if you’re going to be on the road for a spell. Not a big seller to anyone else in Everywhere Town, but for the Hunters on their way to the Golden Woods, and those who finally get that feeling like they need to see the rest of Journey’s End, this is the bag.”
Lindsey nodded and took the bag from Leo, going over what looked to be the same kind of checks he did. She tested its weight, and checked inside. She smelled the lining of the food compartment, and was relieved to find that it at least smelled like leather. She then shoved Trevor’s boots in the large compartment for clothes, and crammed her book in the compartment Leo pointed out for it.
It was a snug fit, but it worked. “I’ll take it,” she said. “How much?”
“Let’s see,” the boy said as he hopped back behind the workbench and started flipping through the notebook. A stubby pencil appeared out of nowhere and he used it to scan the pages, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he did so. He mumbled to himself as he checked up on his figures and scratched out some quick math on a clean page. Finally, he looked up and said, “Three silver, if you’ll be so kind.”
“That’s it?” Lindsey asked, shocked. She looked in the little purse that Trevor had left for her and found far more than three silver in it.
“I told ya last night I would give you a discount, didn’t I?”
And then Lindsey looked at the boy a little closer. Now that he mentioned the discount, he did look familiar, and as her hand picked out three small coins, she realized that she did recognize him. He was the well-wisher that offered her fifty percent off. “OH!” she exclaimed as she handed over the money. “It’s you! I… I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you right away but…”
Leo waved her off. “Don’t worry about it. First night in’s always a bit confusing. I wasn’t planning on holding it against you.”
“Well, maybe I can pay full price…”
“Are you kidding? The three silver I’m losing now will be made up later on this afternoon.”
Here Leo pushed his spectacles high up on his nose and he cracked a decidedly malicious grin. “When I go buy a loaf of bread from Bernice, I’m going to tell her to shove her high prices.”
Lindsey laughed. It wasn’t so much what Leo had said that she thought funny, but instead how positively pleased with himself he seemed. “Yes,” Lindsey nodded. “Trevor mentioned something about how some of the merchants used Lignus as an excuse to overcharge.”
“Too right he was!” Leo guffawed. “Oh, but not now. And let me tell you, I hear they’re already panicked over the whole thing. Mind you, this is great for us, but you may want to avoid the valley merchants for a bit. I’ve heard they had a meeting this morning, and the only thing to come out of it was that you were not on their favorite persons list.”
“That’s not good.”
Leo shrugged. “It just means you need to avoid the bakery, the florist, the grocer, the grain peddler, the… Okay, so you’re limited to Ms. Stitch and the Hunter’s Guild. And even the Hunter’s Guild I wouldn’t…” He hesitated as he gave Lindsey an awkward smile.
With a deep breath, Leo explained. “Well, if you’re leaving so soon, you probably don’t have much say in the matter. Now, Ms. Stitch won’t be bad. She’ll have you in clothes that fit in a jiff. But the Hunters… You’ll be needing food, and them’s probably the only ones that aren’t plottin’ a vendetta against ya. The only problem is that they like to give newcomers a tough time. Tell them scary stories about the Golden Forest and whatnot. It’s really the only thing we have in Everywhere Town that borders on a bad element, and they’re not too bad once you get to know them, but…” Leo shrugged helplessly.
“So I want to go to them for food?”
“Yup. And don’t let them scare ya neither. I don’t think they do it because they like scaring people so much as they like their image. They’re the tough kids in town, and they want to make sure the label sticks, I guess. Just hold your ground. If you let them intimidate you, they’ll just keep on keepin’ on.”
Lindsey nodded stoically. “Right. Don’t let them intimidate me.”
Leo gave Lindsey a thumbs up and a smile. “That’s right. Oh, and you might want to see Ms. Stitch first. They’re likely to go at least a little bit easier on you if you’re wearing clothes that fit.”
Ms. Stitch was just across the road from Leo’s, and when Lindsey ducked in, she was taken with just how cramped the place was. It was filled from floor to ceiling with rolls of fabric, empty looms, tailor’s dummies with half-sewn shirts and dresses hanging off of them, and hordes of lumbering wooden equipment she couldn’t even begin to name.
It was from behind one of these that a little girl materialized, her hair a jumble of blond curls pinned haphazardly in place, and a measuring tape draped over her shoulder. “Good morning. How can I help… Oh… Oh… Oh it’s you!”
“Um, yes. I’m Lindsey.”
The little girl grinned from ear to ear as she reached out to shake Lindsey’s hand. “I had heard we got a newcomer last night, but no one told me she was this pretty. Look at you!”
Lindsey blushed and shook her head modestly.
“No, look at you. Oh my. Come, come right away… Oh, I’m going to take care of you properly, what was your name? Oh, yes, Lindsey.”
Bemused, Lindsey allowed herself to be tugged along by Ms. Stitch into a back room filled with mirrors where the little girl instantly began measuring every inch of her body. “I have to say, I’ve been waiting for someone like you for a long time.”
The girl nodded. “Yes, I have.”
For as young as the girl was, her hands worked expertly, taking every inch of measurement, and yet not being intrusive as she worked. Lindsey had only ever been to a seamstress once before; that was for her aunt’s wedding, and the girl who had measured her then made Lindsey feel a little uncomfortable.
“A while back we had some merchants come in from the West, and one of them was selling crystal spider silk.”
Lindsey shivered. She hated spiders, but Ms. Stitch seemed so excited that Lindsey at least attempted to not appear repulsed. “Is it good?”
“Is it good?” Ms. Stitch scoffed. “Is it good? It’s only the finest fabric in Journey’s End. Spun by the crystal spiders of the west, it is light enough and thin enough to keep you cool in the summer, but warm enough to stave off the cold at night. It takes a lot to tear, but is as loose and comfortable as air. Is it good?”
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.”
“Ha!” the girl spat. “I’ll show ya.”
She disappeared behind a cluttered heap of broken sewing machines with a cacophony of bangs and thumps only to reappear with a modest roll of shimmering blue fabric. “There you go, go on, feel it,” she insisted, thrusting it at Lindsey.
Lindsey did as she was told, letting her fingers run over the iridescent material. It slid beneath her fingertips gently, cool and smooth and soft, feeling less like cloth and more like a sleeping baby was breathing over her hand. It was strange and luxurious and it forced an odd sort of smile on Lindsey’s face that made Ms. Stitch cackle happily.
“There it is. See? Now watch!”
The little seamstress set immediately to work, her scissors squeaking purposefully as she cut length after length from the roll. Her hands were like machines, each movement perfectly efficient as it leapt from scissor to thread and needle, occasionally darting to the measuring tape to double check a length before diving back into the plumes of glossy blue fabric.
Lindsey remain fixated, mesmerized by the sight of the dress taking form slowly piece by piece. It was incredible, like watching a flower blossom in those nature shows she always liked so that what normally took hours to do looked like it happened in only a minute.
And when Ms. Stitch was done, after she had run it through a hulking sewing machine that had to be peddled into action by foot, and after she had run her careful eyes over the garment, she handed to Lindsey with no shortage of gravity the most beautiful dress she had ever seen.
“There you go,” Ms. Stitch nodded at her. “You can change into it just behind there if you like.”
Nodding, Lindsey followed Stitch’s finger around a rack filled with spools of various fabrics and into a little room with a single flickering lamp. She shed Trevor’s pajamas, and pulled the dress down over her.
It poured over her effortlessly, sliding around her every curve and coming to rest at her shoulders. Only then did it feel as though the dress began to envelope her, to hug her gently in all the right places. It was snug, but not tight, and amazingly light and comfortable.
If it looked half as good as it felt…
Lindsey emerged from the dressing room to see an anxious Ms. Stitch waiting for her. The moment the seamstress laid eyes on Lindsey, though, her eyebrows shot straight up and her hands went to her mouth.
“What?” Lindsey said defensively, scanning her body all over, partially worried she might have grown a tail or something. “Is something wrong?”
The little girl grabbed Lindsey’s hand and led her back to the mirrored enclosure so that Lindsey could see for the first time how she looked in the dress. She was speechless.
“Now do you see why I was waiting?” Ms. Stitch whispered. “It’d look good enough on anybody, but you…”
Lindsey had never been overly impressed with how she looked. She would have killed for Sara’s effortless tan, and she had always thought her eyes were too dark. In fact, if given enough time, Lindsey could have filled a book with all the things about her appearance she would have liked to have changed. But not in that moment, as she stared at the mesmerizing blue dress that wrapped itself around her form.
“It is,” Stitch nodded. “But it’s getting a little help too.” Then the little girl sighed,
“Is something wrong?”
The little girl perched on a stool and sighed again. “No. It’s just a pity. It’s beautiful, but the only ones who’ll see this dress any time soon will be the girls around here. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but none of them are particularly obsessed with fashion. Oh, I can make better dresses than what you see around town, but no one asks.”
With a frown, Lindsey asked, “Why not?”
The girl shrugged. “Now, don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t suppose you could be convinced to leave town a bit? Show the dress off some. If nothing else, it’d be nice to teach those snobby seamstresses up in Port Town a thing or two in any case. What? What are you smiling about?”
“I am going to be traveling, a lot I expect.”
Ms. Stitch’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
“You’re not staying?”
“No. I like this place, but I have… I have something I have to do which I suppose will take me quite a few places…”
“It’s yours. Free of charge.”
“No, I couldn’t…”
“Yes you can. You just make sure you tell every girl you see giving you that jealous look where you got that dress from and we’ll call it even, alright?”
Before leaving Ms. Stitch’s shop, Lindsey had also bought a couple of pairs of pants, a few rugged looking shirts, and some much needed undergarments. This despite the seamstress’s assurances that the dress was more than rugged enough for Lindsey to take on the road.
In truth, Lindsey had bought the pants and shirts only partly because she needed them. She also wanted an excuse to pay the girl for something.
After forcing a few silver coins on Ms. Stitch, Lindsey had looked at a tall grandfather clock in the clothing shop, and noted that she had less than a half hour before she was to meet up with Trevor. Thus, Lindsey struck back out onto the streets of Everywhere Town with a backpack that was starting to get rather full, and a stomach that was starting to rumble a little bit.
By now the dirt roads were congested with kids of all ages ducking into and out of various shops. The older boys would glance at Lindsey and then do a double take, and she couldn’t help but be at least a little pleased by this.
And some were actually quite cute, too. But then thinking about them for some strange reason got Lindsey to thinking about the boy who would be waiting for her at the Gut Rot.
Trevor. He had been extremely nice to her, but that wasn’t just it. He was funny, and easy to talk to, and yes very attractive—the more she dwelled on it, the more she came to admit this to herself. And now he wanted to have lunch with her.
What was that all about, really? Did he just want to see her off? Maybe. Or, more likely, he was going to try and convince her to stay. Lindsey remembered Leo’s reaction when she said she would be leaving soon. It wasn’t as though it was frowned upon, exactly, but between Trevor and Leo, Lindsey was already getting the impression that once you showed up at Everywhere Town, you were expected to stay for a bit.
Whatever the case, Lindsey was beginning to form some hazy imaginings as to what she hoped the lunch meeting would be. Nothing concrete, mind you, nothing certain, but she could all too easily imagine Trevor asking her…
“You want some meat?” a gruff voice called after her, interrupting her thoughts.
“MEAT!” the voice repeated. “I asked if you wanted some meat!”
Lindsey forced her eyes to focus and pick out the source of the voice. All things considered it didn’t take long.
The owner of the voice was sitting on the sill of a large glassless window cut into a store front with a broad awning hanging over it that cast the entire place into shadow. To be sure, the shop itself wasn’t remarkable, but the boy addressing her was.
He was one of the older ones, a teenager at least Lindsey guessed by his size, and the definition of his muscles, most of which were on full display for the world to see. That was because he wore hardly anything except a pair of tattered old leather shorts that went down to mid thigh.
The rest of him was all skin—a collection of sinewy limbs and taut, wiry muscles. He was almost feral in appearance, wild, the effect heightened by a head full of thick and matted sandy hair that jutted out in all angles and hung down in front of his eyes in rugged spikes.
He sported bronze skin and grim facial features, and he was holding a raw steak.
There was something disturbing, almost edgy about the boy, something that didn’t exactly frighten Lindsey, but kept her on her guard all the same. She smiled politely and replied, “Um, not right now, thanks… Maybe later.”
“No better time than now,” the wild boy insisted. “We have to get this stuff salted and cured so today’s the last day you can buy fresh.”
He gave Lindsey what he probably thought was a winning smile, a salesman’s smile, but the expression only made him look wilder, more predator-like.
Lindsey took a step forward and inspected the steak. It was thick and red and she had to admit it did look good, but what would she possibly do with a raw steak? Okay, stupid question, perhaps, but she would hardly be able to cook it, especially once she started making her way out of town.
“I’m sorry, I…”
“Look at her bag,” another voice called from the shadows within the shop, and the boy on the sill turned to look at the girl who walked up to him. She looked nearly as wild as the boy, with the similarly meager clothes made from the hide of some dead animal, and skin that was similarly bronzed.
“What about it?” the boy asked before turning and looking for himself. “Oh…”
“Oh, what?” Lindsey asked.
“You’re one of them.”
“That doesn’t help me any.”
“He means,” the girl explained impatiently, “you’re one of those that shows up from the Someone Else Room and leaves almost immediately. That’s why you have a bag like that, isn’t it? A traveling bag? You’re not planning on enjoying our little town very long, are you?”
Lindsey puffed her chest out a bit. “And how do you know I’m new? How do you know I haven’t come down here from Port Town?”
The boy and the girl laughed long and hard, and it was a few moments before either of them. “Please!” the boy guffawed. “I’ve spent more than a few nights in Port Town, I know a Port Towner when I see one, and you ain’t it.”
“Besides,” the girl chimed in. “We heard the big news—new girl comes in and kills Lignus.”
“Technically I brought her back to life…”
“It don’t matter,” the boy said. “Lignus is nothin’. All the valley merchants like to complain about her, but she’s a softie, and if I were you I wouldn’t be getting these ideas about how great you are over it.”
“Good,” the boy nodded. “’Cuz there’s real horrors here in Journey’s End, and you aren’t ready for them. If you want to go traveling, that’s up to you, but you mark my words, there are places you don’t want to go. Places like the Golden Woods…”
Lindsey smirked. “Really? Sounds like a nice place to visit; kind of like a retirement home.”
The boy snorted. “See, you don’t know nothin’. Listen to us, we’re hunters. We know. There’s things in the Golden Woods that’ll give you nightmares for the rest of your life… if you’re lucky enough to get out of there with your life.”
Remembering what Leo had told her, Lindsey folded her arms over her chest and challenged the boy. “Like what?”
“Like the razor back badger,” the girl replied.
“Or the whistler,” the boy added.
“What’s a whistler?”
“Only the most deadliest snake in these parts. Big hulking yellow serpent with three inch fangs sharp enough to cut glass. It’s called the whistler because it whistles when it hunts its prey, does it to disorient its dinner before…”
POP! The boy clapped his hands together loudly, a satisfied looking grin on his face.
“A snake and a badger? That’s it?”
The boy shook his head. “Then you got the creep…”
“The creep?” Lindsey asked incredulously. “Now you’re just making stuff up.”
“He’s not,” came a new voice.
Both the boy and the girl were older, at least in their teens as Lindsey had earlier noticed. But if the newcomer was older than ten, Lindsey was thirty. Despite his stunted height and scrawny looking limbs, though, he carried with him an air of age and experience. He walked heavily, confidently, and even his footfalls sounded as though they came from someone much larger.
And he had only one eye.
That or he was simply fond of the eye patch he wore.
He crawled over the sill and looked straight up into Lindsey’s face. He pointed at the eye patch and said, “Razor back badger got it. I was sleeping where I shouldn’t have been sleeping, when I shouldn’t have been sleeping. Not a pleasant way to wake up, I can tell you.”
His finger then moved over to a patch of shiny pink flesh on his shoulder, “That was the same badger actually. Oh, and this one here, too. That was a very bad morning.” He grinned at this like it was an inside joke and Lindsey was supposed to somehow know the punch-line already. “And this over here, this was from a whistler; I was delirious for three days after. These patches on my neck are from the giant red spitting frog, and this scar on my knee,” he said, lifting up his leg and showing her an x-shaped scar, “is from the crab-mouth iguana.”
“My point is that there is a lot of scary stuff in the Golden Woods. Stuff that can hurt you, or even kill you if you aren’t careful. But none of it is half as scary as the creep.”
“So what is the creep?”
The boy shrugged. “Don’t know. No one does. I’ve actually seen it and I still couldn’t tell you what it is. All I know is that it rolls in like the fog—if you aren’t watchful, that’s exactly what it looks like; fog. But the difference is that it’s pitch black. Worse, it can sense you. It knows where you are, and once it’s got its mind made up that it wants you, it’ll chase you. It’ll spread out and surround you, and…”
He paused and then backed up towards the window’s sill. He waved a hand at the older boy who hopped off without a word and then the younger looking boy sat there himself.
“It was long before these two even showed up. I was just a rookie hunter back then and we went out on party. It was my first party, and I was training under Chunga. Chunga was good. One of the fiercest hunters ever known. But he was stupid and cocky.
“On our third day out on party, Chunga looks at me and says, ‘Let’s go do a little explorin’.’ It was a bad season, and we had only pulled in about a third of what we should have at that point, so we was both eager to see if we couldn’t find better hunting elsewhere.
“We burned a day heading up to the Northeast, and we walked long into the night. It must have been in the early hours of the morning when we finally decided to stop for the night and pitch camp. Like I said, it was a bad season, and all we had were some red berries to roast on the fire, so we did, and as I’m toastin’ my berry I see somethin’ strange coming from the North.
“I point it out to Chunga, and let me tell you, he looked like someone poured flour or somethin’ over him. I’m sayin’ it that way because you need to understand; Chunga wasn’t afraid of nothin’. NOTHIN’! Anyways, he takes a hard swallow and yells, ‘RUN!’ I was fool enough to ask why but he was already poundin’ feet when he shouted back, ‘It’s the creep you idiot, RUN!’
“So we ran. Chunga was big, and powerful, and he was plenty quick enough when it came down to it. But he wasn’t the fastest runner out there. Soon he was behind me, and I didn’t even look back when I heard him scream. I don’t know how I got away, but I’ll tell you this, I didn’t stop running until the sun was full in the sky. And even then I kept running until I saw the rest of the party.
“We burned another three days lookin’ for him. None of us would go out at night, but by day we sent our fastest, and our best trackers. We had hunters back then that could track a gnat in a blizzard, but there was no more trace of Chunga.
The boy took a deep breath, hoisted himself off of the sill, and stalked towards Lindsey. When he was less than a foot from her, he croaked, “The creep’s real, don’t you mock it. In fact, if I was you, I’d stay out of the Golden Woods completely ‘cuz if the creep comes and it catches you, you’re done.”
He turned and made his way back to the shop. “Stay out of the Golden Woods unless you have to go in. If you have to go in, you enter by the path, you stay on the path, and you leave by the path!”
It was five after noon when Lindsey pushed her way into the Gut Rot. She had, she believed, everything she would need to head out on her journey. Except food. She had completely and totally forgot to buy food after listening to the hunter’s tales of the creep.
She was shaken, she had to admit. What was worse, or at the very least, what she wasn’t exactly sure about was the hopes that Trevor could make it better. Lindsey hadn’t known him for a full twenty-four hours, and here she was wishing he could drive out the images that were now lodged in her head.
A blackness rolling in like the fog, one from which there was no escape.
Shaking the image from the forefront of her thoughts, Lindsey scanned the pub. It was bustling, but not filled to capacity like the night before. Further, it seemed smaller, cooler, and a little more mundane now with the sunlight pouring through the open windows.
The wooden tables reflected pale blue, and the patrons seemed overly dark, squinting whenever they had to turn to face the light. The Gut Rot felt tired; as though it was up far too late partying the night before.
Trevor sat at the same table, even in the same chair, as he did when Lindsey first met him. Something about watching him eat a sandwich in the noon day sun comforted her—it didn’t erase tales of whistlers and razor back badgers, but it dulled them, and in her head Lindsey could feel the rolling blackness creep back into the furthest corners of her thoughts.
As easy and natural as anything a smile played on Lindsey’s lips as she lugged her backpack with her through the lumbering crowd and plopped herself down across from Trevor.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“No problem…” Trevor began with his mouth full, but when he looked up to see her, he stopped cold.
“What is it?”
Recovering, Trevor gulped down the bit of sandwich he was chewing and, attempting to look very cool and failing, said, “Nice dress.”
Lindsey shrugged. “This old thing?” She had always wanted to say that.
Trevor snorted. “Right, been hanging in your closet for years, yeah? Only just found it and figured you’d throw it on before the moths got to it did you?”
“How did you guess?”
“It’s obviously something you wouldn’t normally want to be seen in, right?”
They both laughed. “Here let me get you something,” Trevor said when he had gotten himself reasonably under control. “Tristan!”
“No, it’s al…” Lindsey began to say, but was interrupted by the rodent faced boy she remembered seeing last night. His eyes were red and he looked like he would have preferred to have been anywhere other than where he currently was.
“Trevor,” he practically yawned.
Trevor clapped him on the arm and chortled, “Ah! Partied a little late last night, didn’t you?”
The boy scowled in reply.
“Ease up, seriously. Just wanted to know if you could bring my friend here a sandwich.”
“Sure,” he grunted and plodded off.
“He’s not a people person is he?” Lindsey asked.
Trevor shook his head. “He came out of the Someone Else Room as a farmer, but he ended up hating it with a passion. He doesn’t really seem to like much of anything. At any rate, Bill’s the only one who’ll give him a job anymore—he’s been fired from about ten others.”
“You’re telling me? I got backed up a week because I took him on. I really don’t see how Bill puts up with him.” Trevor took a bite out of his sandwich and then looked at Lindsey. “So, how was your morning? I see you spent the money like I told you to.”
She nodded. “Not all of it, though. It felt like I had to force people to take the money.”
“You don’t have to force too hard, you know.”
“You were the one that told me to spend it.”
“That I did. So what did you get? You know, aside from an old beat up dress.”
Lindsey pouted at him until he relented and admitted that he really did like the dress, and only then did she begin to recount her morning. Before she had gotten to the bit about the hunters, though, her sandwich had come, and in the course of eating she lost track.
Her morning didn’t matter, though. She had questions of her own.
“What’s going on? Why the lunch?”
“Oh, right. Well, I was thinking.”
“Hush,” he snapped playfully at her before scooting his plate aside and unfolding a map similar to but noticeably older than her own. “You need to get to Dark Iron, right?”
“Well, I was looking over the map last night after you went to bed and I was thinking, the fastest way is to head straight north, and through the Golden Woods…”
And that’s when Lindsey told Trevor all about what the hunters had told her. By the end of it, Trevor was smiling.
“It’s not funny.”
“Yeah it is. You were even warned, weren’t you? You said Leo had warned you about them, and you still let them get your goat.”
“So there’s no such thing as the creep?”
“Oh there is, but nowhere near where we’re talking. The only reported sightings of the creep are up here, and up here,” he said, motioning to the map with his hand.
There was the Roaring Sea, shaped sort of like a foot without any toes. Surrounding it on all sides was the Golden Woods, and Trevor’s fingernail carved out two circles in it, one directly east of the sea, and one directly west of the sea.
“What I’m suggesting,” he said, tracing out the path with his fingernail, “Is coming up straight through here to Port Town.”
“What’s in Port town?”
“I’m thinking a ship that can take us across the Roaring Sea.”
Trevor looked hesitant—a little boy who broke his mother’s favorite vase and was trying to find a way of telling the truth without getting spanked for his efforts. “Yeah, us. I want to come with you.”
“Really, no, you’ve already been too kind…”
And then he was assertive again, Trevor again. “Maybe I have, but that’s not the point. You’re brand new in Journey’s End. You don’t know the currency,”
“It’s not hard to figure out.”
“You don’t know the culture…”
“How often have you left Everywhere Town?”
“So I wouldn’t call you an expert either.”
Trevor clenched his jaw. It wasn’t exactly an angry expression so much as a frustrated one. Just looking at him, Lindsey could tell he had planned on this conversation going much smoother. “Look, okay, so maybe outside this town I don’t have that much experience on you, but still… You want to travel all the way across Eastern Journey’s End alone. There’s going to be a time when you’re going to need help, or something. I don’t know. I just know that if you go alone, what’s going to happen that one time when you yell for someone and nobody comes?”
“No, listen to me. I thought this out, and it’s not just about you either.” He sighed. “Yes, you’re going to need help, but… I’ve wanted to see the rest of Journey’s End almost from the day I got here. My problem was that things kept coming up. First they wanted me to stay on and build houses. Then I had this business I needed to take care of, then once the houses were all built, I started working on the running water. I had taken on assistants that needed training, and then more assistants when those didn’t cut it, and then I realized something.”
“I was making excuses not to leave.”
“But why? I mean, if you wanted to go abroad, why not just go abroad?”
Trevor looked down at his hands now folded over the map and shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe because I was scared a little? I really don’t understand it all that well. All I really know is that if I were to leave this town, I would need an excuse to do it.”
“And protecting the poor little helpless girl as she goes to save her sister is your excuse?”
“I wouldn’t call you helpless… You did handle Lignus when none of us could. But aside from that, yeah. Like I said, you’re going to need some help. You know that right?”
Lindsey leaned back, folded her arms over her chest, and narrowed her eyes. “What were you doing all morning?”
“I went shopping, picked up some supplies. The rest of the morning was spent talking to Matt…”
“My assistant. See? That’s what I’m talking about. I finally have an assistant I feel comfortable taking over the business. So I went to him, made sure he was up on the day to day, then I went to the bank, pulled out enough to keep us comfortable on our way, shoved some into the company account so Matt can keep things running, and froze the rest until we got back.”
“I see,” Lindsey remarked with a stony face. “So you were assuming I would say yes?”
Trevor shook his head. “No! Just… Just hoping.”
“Trevor, I…” Why was she fighting it? She couldn’t rightfully explain it to herself. She liked him. Given time, she thought she might even like him. Who was she kidding? After not even a full day she wasn’t sure if she didn’t like him already. So why wasn’t she just agreeing to have him along already? “I just don’t know…”
“Well, how about we put it a different way?” There was a hint of desperation creeping into his voice, one that actually started nudging Lindsey over to his side. “I’m planning on leaving Everywhere Town. I need a nice long vacation. You’re leaving Everywhere Town because you need to find your sister. I don’t see what’s wrong with two people who are planning on leaving at the same time traveling together to make the going a little easier, do you?”
Lindsey cocked an eyebrow at him and then looked down at the map. “So which way were you planning on going?”
Trevor’s eyes lit up, but Lindsey gave him a look that made it clear she wasn’t sold yet. “Okay, so we head north through the Golden Woods. Just on the other side is Port Town. I’m guessing we should be able to catch a ship that’ll take us up through the Roaring Sea. I don’t know how fast it is, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say three weeks, tops. That’ll drop us off in Torrington, up here, and from there it’s only a week tops from there to Dark Iron.”
Lindsey smirked at him. “So your long overdue vacation takes you to Dark Iron?”
Trevor shrugged. “Sounds like an interesting place to me.”
There was a pause. She knew Trevor was trying his best to hold back, but she could still detect an eagerness about him. Finally, as calm as she could muster, she asked, “When do we leave?”
“As soon as you finish your sandwich, if you like.”
Lindsey ate quickly.