[b Chapter One [i “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” – William Shakespeare]]
Walking was beginning to grow tiresome, running even more so. It had been some time since Krista had seen a town; whether it had been three days or a week was in the air. It was a moot point regardless; she just knew she was beginning to feel dirty, worn-down, and hungry. The young priestess would settle for a campsite with Dwarves if it got her off her feet, though she hadn’t even stumbled upon one of those.
Krista had been quite lucky, regardless of how she felt. Her white top, black skirt, and navy-blue cloak – while growing rather filthy – had remained in good repair. Her moccasins, however, had not met the same fate. The leather had begun growing thin two towns ago and was now beginning to tear. The shoes themselves had been soaked and were caked in dry mud, making them stiff and uncomfortable to walk in. She would have to purchase new ones when she was in a safe place.
The moonlight shining through the thick tree cover and her dimly-lit lantern were the only sources of light in the forest – The Forest of Silva, if she remembered correctly. Tetsu, an old monk she’d chatted with in Viribus, had warned her against traveling through the wooded area on her own. “Silva’s Forest is a natural-grown maze!” he’d said. Krista hadn’t listened. She hadn’t the time.
She had to avoid being found by him. She couldn’t go back.
It was unlikely that her pursuer would look this far for her; the Kingdom of Vitae was two weeks’ travel from Viribus, and Krista was not known for her fighting skills. It was likely that he would assume the elements, or a creature, would get to her before she’d escape Vitae’s mountainous peaks, which were already dangerous. He never believed her spells or her prayers would be of any benefit to her.
Luckily, neither the Moon Goddess, nor her blossoming magical abilities, had failed her to this point. Though she was still learning, she was surviving. She’d prove herself worthy. She’d show him who she was one day.
With the wind at a standstill, the forest was eerily silent. She stilled her footsteps and listened to the creatures of the night. The gentle chirping of crickets and woodland frogs was followed by the distant howling of wolves – and likely werewolves – that resided in the mountainous regions of Vitae and the surrounding areas. She had seen a herd of behemoth a few miles back, though they tended to travel during the day and were docile unless threatened. Other than that, she was surrounded by miles of trees.
What had the old monk worried himself for? She was doing just fine.
The sharp crack of a branch brought Krista to attention, her brown eyes sharp and alert. She raised the lantern but said nothing, instead focusing nervously on the trees in front of her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Relax, Krista. You’re doing fine. She opened her eyes and stared out into the forest again. Who would dare to venture out into the forest this late?
Doing her best to keep silent, she stepped forward slowly, trying not to alert whatever was lurking in the tree line. She just needed to make it to the next town and she’d be-
“I’m actually over here, ma’am.”
Surprised by the suddenness of the voice, Krista whipped around, casting a wind spell on the flames in her lantern. The flames then projected out of the small, glassless box like a flamethrower in the direction of the voice. In response, with surprisingly nimble reflexes, they quickly rolled out of the way. “Who are you?” Her heavily accented words were laced with fear and anxiety.
“Woah, hey. Settle down, I’m not going to hurt you” He raised his arms in surrender. “Don’t fry me and leave me for the wolves.” Though their face looked steady, their voice – male, by the sound – was quivering. “That was quite the impressive reflexive attack, ma’am. Almost had me.”
“Well if you’d not [i snuck up behind me] in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t have tried to kill you!” Krista felt her anxiety be replaced with annoyance.
He laughed. “Maybe not, but most folks you meet ‘round here don’t instantly try to set fire to someone when they’ve been startled.” He then shrugged. “What’re you running from?”
“What makes you assume I’m running from anything?”
Krista froze. He wasn’t wrong, and yet… Was she so easy to read? She couldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What business is it of yours, anyway? You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.”
“Right, of course. How rude of me, my Lady.” He bowed – she was surprised the gesture lacked a feeling of sarcasm. “The name is Simon. Simon Jacquard. I’m just a small-town alchemist, nothing more. I’m on the hunt for supplies – its easier to find what I’m looking for at night when the day-dwelling creatures are at rest.”
“Simon Jacquard.” The name rolled off her tongue easily. It suited him – it was a simple name, a mask for the complex person she could sense that Simon truly was. He had immaculately-kept brunet hair and a short-cut, curly beard. His eyes were a sparkling hazelnut color that were shrouded in mystery. A forest-dweller, then.
He wore a brown cloak – it was slightly worn out, giving her the impression that it was a favorite – and simple commoner’s drags beneath it. The confident, mysterious aura that he gave off intrigued her. Though she was loathe to trust him immediately, she felt oddly safe around him. She was compelled to learn more about him.
The brunet waved a hand in front of her face, startling her. “Hello? Ma’am? Are you still in there?”
She shook her head, using her empty hand to swat his arm away. “Sorry, I was thinking. And stop calling me ‘ma’am’.”
“Well sorry, I don’t quite know what else to call you. Did I scare your name away while we were talking?”
“Oh come off it!” She spat. Simon laughed at her retaliation. “My name is Krista. I’m sorry – that’s all I feel comfortable telling you right now.”
Simon simply nodded. “Of course. I’m assuming it has something to do with what you’re running from?”
“It might, if I were running from something.” She rolled her eyes. “Look, Simon… There’s a lot about my situation to go over… and if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to spill any of it to a stranger who prances the forest at the rise of the moon.”
“Wait, I wasn’t prancing.”
Krista bit her lip. “I promise you this, however… if I stay around long enough for my history to become relevant, I will explain everything to you. I’d just rather not get into it right now, if that’s okay.”
“Of course. You can tell me whenever you’re ready.” Simon smiled. “So, Krista, huh? Has anyone ever called you Kris?”
“Can’t say they have.”
“Can I be the first?”
Krista began to feel more lost than before as she followed the forest-dweller, though she was sure the fatigue was starting to catch up to her. “Simon,” she said between breaths. “Where exactly are we going?”
“Back to my home!” His eyes shone with delight. “I live on my own, so you won’t bother anyone. You look like you could use a bath and some clean clothes. I could loan you some old clothes of one while you wash and dry yours, if you want.”
She screeched to a halt, glaring defensively at Simon. “Why are you doing this for me? I’ve done nothing to make you trust me.”
“Well, maybe you haven’t.” Simon shrugged. “You’ve also done nothing to hurt me on purpose, and you’ve proven you’re fully capable of doing so under the right circumstances. Isn’t that enough?”
“Not really. I’m a terrible fighter.”
“Kris.” Simon glared back at her, a look of disdain on his face. “First of all, that spell was rather advanced for being a terrible fighter. Second, stop being stubborn. I don’t know what has you so terrified, but I promise, if anyone even asks about you, I’ll pretend I’ve never heard of you. I can even help you blend in, if you want.”
The priestess frowned. “I told you not to call me Kris.”
“And I told you to stop being stubborn, but we’re stuck at a crossroads, aren’t we?”
The blonde female wanted to scream; she’d never met someone who could argue back with her this long – was Simon a blessing or a curse? She couldn’t help but admit – albeit silently – that his persistence was admirable. He seemed as if he genuinely wanted to help her. He didn’t seem like the type that would turn on her. “Where are you from?”
“Silva, the forests’ namesake.” He smiled softly, the tension leaving his shoulders. “It’s a small forest town on the outskirts of the forest, and all the forest-dwellers that live there are friendly. I keep to myself often, but they’re always willing to greet me like we’re best of friends. It’s a nice place.”
Krista nodded. “Fine. I will trust you – for now – and go with you.” She silenced herself as the alchemist skipped forward, following slowly behind.
The walk was comfortably silent as the mouth of the forest transitioned slowly into a grassy plain. The plains were surrounded by tall, thick oak trees, acting as a protective barriers. The trees kept strong winds out of the area and made it hard to approach without warning.
“Is Silva’s stronghold down that way?” She asked, stepping along a neat cobblestone path. The middle of the path lead to a small congregation of homes and shops, lined with street lamps that were lit for nighttime.
“It is. Like I said before, it’s quiet and small, but the townsfolk are rather smart and competently skilled. They can’t call us ‘backwater boonies’ out here.” Simon glanced ahead. There were sections of wall as they drew closer to town; Krista guessed they were a secondary defense or a boundary measure.
Krista could hear a few folk still moseying about as they neared the town center – she drew her hood up to keep herself concealed. The few townsfolk she’d seen – Simon included – had dark red, light brown, or dark brown hair – typical of forest-dwellers. Her blonde hair would stick out easily.
“Kris? Are you all right?”
Once again, Simon’s voice brought her back to the present. “Oh. Yes, I’m sorry. I was just lost in my thoughts.”
Simon frowned, clearly in disbelief, but chose to remain silent for now. “Anyway, my home is just ahead.” He pointed toward a neat dirt path that led toward a small, neatly built stone house. The roof had a wood lining, and there was a small, unlit lantern on the wall next to the door. It didn’t look like anything she’d seen in Vitae, but it was beautiful.
“It’s such a cute little house!” Krista said with a smile.
“I know it’s not much to look at, but she’s sturdy and keeps me warm in the winter.” The alchemist lead her down the remainder of the path and stopped at the front door, unlocking it and stepping out of the way. “Please, ladies first.”
Though she felt strange about entering someone else’s home first, she wouldn’t deny him his kind gesture and stepped into the small house. Moving aside so she wouldn’t block Simon’s path, she looked around the main room. The walls on the inside were lined with oak wood – likely to help keep heat in – and had a glossy finish. There were three small windows in the downstairs area; one in the kitchen, and two in the main living area.
The kitchen consisted of a cast-iron wood stove, a stone sink basin with a wooden bucket inside of it, a storage shelf that stretched to reach the ceiling, and two barrels that sat in the corner. There was a small table with two chairs that sat in between the living area and the kitchen area – she guessed that Simon didn’t keep much company.
The living area had a blue, worn-down two-seater sofa and a brown armchair that adorned a green patch on the left arm. The wooden floor that spanned across both rooms was worn-looking but weak-kept and sturdy. She could see a small, steep flight of stairs on the right hand side, which she assumed lead to his sleeping quarters and the washroom. Though the space was unlike any she’d ever seen, it made her feel warm and safe.
“Your home is lovely, Simon.”
Simon huffed, looking at the floor. His ears held a light shade of red. “It’s a little embarrassing, don’t lie. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to tidy up first. It’s a bit-”
“Nonsense. It really is nice.” She smiled. “My home was far too… cold in comparison. Too many things and not enough love. Your walls tell a story; one I’d love to learn when we have the time.”
“You must’ve been upper-middle class by the sounds of it.” He smirked. “I don’t envy the coldness you speak of, but at least you didn’t have to fetch your own water.” Simon rolled his shoulders. “It’s fine in the warmer months, but once a blizzard hits…” He shuddered. “Thank the Gods I get a few days with my water barrels.”
“Goodness. I hope you don’t travel far.”
“Not anymore, thank goodness. I have a well in the field behind the house. I was finally able to dig one out last summer. Before that, I used one of the shared wells in the town square.” Simon looked tired just thinking about it. “It isn’t terribly far, but as I’ve said, winters can be cruel.”
Krista knew all too well how true Simon’s words were – she was just lucky enough to have never dealt with them firsthand. “They sure can be.”
There was a brief silence before Simon stretched, placing his cloak on the coatrack by the door. “I’m heading upstairs to draw you a hot bath. I won’t be long – make yourself comfortable until I get back.”
“Surely you’d like some help?” She offered. “Surely it’ll be a hassle to bring the heated water upstairs several times?”
He waved her off as he ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. “I’ve got a small fireplace upstairs and a few water barrels as well. I’ll be fine. Just relax – I’ll come and get you when its ready.”
Krista simply bowed. “Very well. Thank you.”
“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to shout!” Simon yelled, his voice muffled by the thin wooden door. “I laid a set of clothes out for you on the drying rack. I’ll just be downstairs should you need me.”
“Thank you!” The priestess sighed happily as she sank into the tub of heated water, the warmth relaxing her sore, tired muscles near instantaneously. Krista hadn’t been able to fully relax – or at all, really – since she’d fled Vitae. She cracked her honey-golden orbs open and relaxed her face, looking at the patterns on the old wooden ceiling. The light from the single iron-caged lantern hanging on the wall cast a faint shadow, showing the simple floral design that had been hand-painted onto the lantern’s protective glass.
[i It’s so beautiful…] Krista lifted her arm out of the water and traced the shadow of the flower’s vines with her finger. Water from her hand dripped off, landing back in the tub with quiet, soothing noises.
[i Drip. Drop. Drip]. It was nearly hypnotizing.
The water felt like a snug security blanket that had been thrown around her shoulders, capable of covering her entire body. She relaxed even further, the water now touching the bottom of her chin.
The haze from the heated water hung gently around the room and wafted around her, as if urging her to let her guard down. It reminded her of a time long forgotten a; time when her pain could be soothed…
[i “Time to wash, Krissy.”
“Could you tell me a story, mam?”
The red-haired woman nodded, her honey-golden eyes warm. “Of course, my little dandelion. Which one?”
The child smiled in delight. “The one where the Star Queen saves the Starbelt from the Poachers!”]
Her mother, her native language, and a story nearly lost to time. Three things Krista did not expect to remember. Her mother, an elf/human halfling and forest-dweller who was not supposed to be her mother, was a sweet woman who was said to be lost to the elements of the Vitaean mountains. The Elven language, something long forgotten to her now, but a fond, distant memory. The only remnants of her Elven heritage were slightly-pointed ears, if one cared to notice. The story of the Star Poachers, a Vitaean children’s favorite. She hadn’t heard it in many years, and yet… she could remember each word as if her mother was whispering it to her.
[i Oh, sweet Mam…]
Krista’s mind did not register that she was beginning to feel fatigued, and thus did not realize her head was slowly submerging under the water’s surface. As her body went to inhale, expecting air and receiving water, a sharp tingling sensation was sent down her nasal passages, though it went unnoticed. The liquid started to make its way to her lungs, her thoughts sluggish and muted. She could sense a signal being sent to her brain, but the voice was too muted. She could not hear the cries of danger.
Once she fully inhaled the water, her eyes flung upon in a panic.
Taking another sharp breath out of sheer anxiety, Krista felt a pang of pain and dizziness, and saw black spots began to invade her vision. She could hear blood rushing to her ears, and her heart was pounding wildly. She attempted to flail, to escape, but her body was too warn down to grab anything.
Her left arm was trying desperately to push her body upward, but her body was shaking too hard to keep her steady. Though she tried, her arm continued to buckle and she slipped over and over again, and her head ducked under the surface continually. Krista tried once more to reach the side of the tub, feeling the last of her energy fleeing her, and panicked when her fingers slipped just out of reach. She then gave in, realizing she wasn’t going to make it, and allowed her body to sink.
Just before her hand sunk under the surface, another hand wrapped around hers, pulling her out of the tub.
Krista could do nothing but gasp for air and try to cough the water out of her lungs. The blood pumping through her ears was still loud and deafening, though she could hear a faint voice in the background. She felt firm pats on her back as she coughed, the water in her throat rising. After the fourth ‘thump’, she felt a violent wave of nausea and vomited harshly, the tub water expelled on the floor. Krista barely got a breath in before she vomited once more, coughing as the last bit of water was removed from her system.
She could hear the voice again, but still could not not make out what it was saying. Her legs buckled as her body gave into fatigue, and her body was moved from the floor to a soft surface. Forcing herself to open her eyes, she saw a very blurry-looking Simon leaning over her. He must’ve helped her.
“Si-simon?” She started.
“Yeah, its me.” His voice was gentle. “You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. Just relax, everything is all right.”
Krista wanted to say something, anything, even thank him, but she felt heavy and weak. Her eyes slipped closed as she gave in to her fatigue completely, Simon’s voice fading into the background until it was silenced.
[b Chapter Two] [b [i "What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. - Jane Goodall]]
Simon had only left Krista upstairs five minutes ago when he got a strange feeling in his gut. It felt like something was wrong, but he couldn't identify what.
The house was silent, but he didn't expect much else. He was reading on the sofa and Krista was taking a bath for the Gods' sake. Still, the nagging feeling didn't go away. Simon finally decided to knock on the washroom door and ask Krista if she was all right. When she inevitably answered, they could have a laugh about it and chalk it up to misplaced paranoia.
He could hear a faint splash as he climbed the stairs, and his heartbeat picked up. He walked faster. Could she-? "Krista?" he called out as he reached the door, jiggling the locked doorknob and knocking on the door. "Kris, can you hear me?" The splashing stopped for a moment, and Simon thought perhaps she was fine, until it started again. With a new urgency, he slammed on the door. "Krista, answer me!"
When he did not get an answer for the third time, he gave in to his instincts and slammed his body into the wooden door, busting the locking mechanism and sending the door swinging open. Simon stared briefly in shock as he saw Krista attempting to get upright in the tub before running over to her in an attempt to help her.
He saw her reach for the edge of the tub and heard her nails scraping against the porcelain. He quickly grabbed her hand and pulled her up and over the edge. Modesty be damned - Krista needed his help. As she coughed and gasped, he did all he could think of to do and gave her firm, but gentle, pats on the back.
Simon's relief was immediate when he saw her vomit twice. He was sure she felt like utter shit, but she would probably live. "You're okay, Kris. You're okay." When her body gave into the fatigue he was sure it was feeling, he caught her before she hit the ground and laid her on a soft bearskin blanket. "I've got you."
When her eyes opened, he tried to crack a smile. "There you are."
"Simon…" Krista took another breath before falling unconscious. Out-cold, but breathing. She was alive.
The alchemist wrapped the blanket around her exposed form, picking her up bridal-style and carrying her out of the room. "Come on. Let's rest a while."
Why is my throat sore? Was Krista's first thought upon re-entering consciousness. Her eyelids felt heavy, as if they were glued shut. Eventually, she forced them half-open so she could scan her surroundings. What happened?
She last recalled being in the bathtub. The ceiling was slanted to the left, as it was on the left-hand side of the loft. This part of the ceiling was slanted to the right. She was no longer in warm water, but on a rather comfortable bed. Why had she been moved?
Krista felt an unpleasant burning sensation in her sinuses, causing the memory to come rushing back to her. Becoming weak in the bathtub. Lungs filling with water. Nearly drowning.
"Kris? Krista, it's okay, you're okay."
She hadn't realized she'd been panicking until she heard Simon's voice. She suddenly felt her too-fast heartbeat and heard her hitching breath. She was okay. Simon had saved her.
"Simon." Her voice was raspy from the vomiting and the coughing. "Thank you."
"Don't worry about thanking me; I wasn't going to let you drown." Simon looked frightened. "What the Gods' names happened, Kris?"
Krista looked away, cursing her weakness. "I… fainted."
"Dammit, Krista. What caused you to faint?" Simon's voice was filled with irritation, but Krista knew it wasn't directed at her. He was worried. "You almost drowned."
"Simon. I'm sorry…" She buried her face in the blanket she was wrapped in. "I'm dangerously sensitive to heat. Baths don't usually bother me; it must've been too hot and I didn't notice… I should've told you."
He frowned. "No, I'm sorry. I should've asked. I could've killed you."
"Simon, please. It's not your fault. You didn't know. Let's just forget it." Krista sat up slowly, drawing the blanket around her shoulders. "I'm okay, thanks to you."
Simon only looked like he felt marginally better. “All right. Hold on and I’ll grab your clothes from the washroom.”
Krista was only alone for a moment, but she felt her brain begin to close in on itself. How irresponsible to not tell her host about something as stupid as a heat sensitivity. It was her embarrassment of the ailment that had kept her silent, and she knew this. She could have died. Simon would’ve had a lot more to deal with than embarrassment if he’d come upstairs to find her corpse.
She was such an idiot.
“Knock it off,” Simon grumbled as he walked back into the bedroom.
“Knock what off?” Krista challenged.
He ‘tsked’ at her and set the borrowed clothing on the edge of the bed. “You’re self-loathing. Don’t ask how I know; I just do. You said yourself to just forget it; why are you so reluctant to take your own advice?”
“I’m not reluctant. I feel stupid for not telling you because a heat sensitivity is embarrassing.”
“And? None of us are perfect, Kris.”
She crossed her arms, the blanket slipping off her shoulders. “I’m supposed to be…” she muttered.
Simon raised an eyebrow, but chose to ignore her comment. “I stay in the forest because I can’t swim for shit. As long as the water is wading level, I’m fine. Any deeper, I’m a goner. Do you view me any differently now than you did before?”
“What? Of course not. The difference is, you can learn how to swim. I can’t learn my way out of a medical ailment.”
He laughed. “I’ve been trying to learn for nearly twenty-six years, Kris. I don’t think I’m going to anytime soon.”
“How do you just let it go?”
Krista looked up at him curiously.
“I just accept that I keep trying, even if I keep failing.” Simon shrugged. “Sure, it’s frustrating. It’d be more frustrating if I didn’t try though. For you, it’s a bit different, but I think you’d handle it better if you just let yourself admit it.”
“I don’t have that luxury.” She sighed. “Or, at least I never did. Perhaps it will be something I can ease myself into.”
The alchemist nodded. “It’s never too late to learn.” He turned towards the door, his hand gently touching the handle. “I’ll be downstairs. Get dressed and come join me.”
Krista waited for Simon to disappear beyond the door before glancing at the pile of clothing left out for her. Simon was taller than her, so his clothes would be loose on her frame. Hopefully her clothing wouldn’t be long.
He loaned her a slightly-worn white dress shirt and a pair of light brown slacks. Though she was right and they were loose on her, they fit comfortably. She rolled up the cuffs of the slacks and the shirt so that she would not ruin them by dragging them on the ground. Satisfied that she looked somewhat presentable, she made her way downstairs.
The stairs were well-built and did not creak. Krista spotted a drying-rack in the corner of the sitting room that had not been there previously, her clothing and her cloak hanging on it. Had she been out long enough for Simon to do the washing on his own? “You didn’t have to wash my clothes for me, Simon.”
“Nonsense.” Simon didn’t look up from his current task; he sat at the table in the kitchen, a book and several potions in front of him. “You’re my guest, after all.”
“How long was I out?”
“Only an hour. You were breathing just fine, so other than some worry for your condition, I knew you would be all right.”
Krista nodded. “I am sorry I worried you. I do hope I’m not keeping you from anything important.”
“Not really. I’d normally take these to the shop to examine, but I keep the shop closed on Sundays. Plus, I’d rather you rest a bit before I drag you all over town.” Simon grinned. “Silva is small, but there’s a lot to take in. Kick back and relax. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”
Krista hadn't remembered falling asleep.
In fact, it took her several moments to remember where she was and how she got there. She was in the Town of Silva with Simon Jacquard. She had nearly drowned in a bath and he saved her. They had chatted downstairs and Krista had laid down on the sofa as she continued to talk with Simon.
I must've fallen asleep not realizing it, she decided. She was laying on her back, the sofa rather comfortable for how worn it looked. The bearskin blanket from the evening was draped over her, much drier than before. There was sunlight peeking through the parchment paper blinds; dark orange and just barely warm. It was early.
With a yawn, she rose, casting the blanket gently aside. Doing a slow, gentle scan of the sitting room and the kitchen, she determined that he was not in either room. Either he was outside or still asleep. With Krista in his home, she wasn't too sure Simon would just leave.
Krista stood, her bare feet connecting forcefully with the cool wooden floor. It was pleasant to the touch; any colder would have been bothersome. She chuckled as she heard a faint - yet audible - snore from upstairs. Simon was asleep, then. She had some time to kill.
She suddenly had an idea. Krista quietly opened the door and stepped outside, glancing at a freshly-dug garden plot in Simon's yard. She had said she needed to fit in with the forest-dwellers. She hadn't, really; she just needed to not look like herself. Kneeling next to a patch of the softened, moist dirt, she took a handful and placed the handful on her hair. "Brunneis color mixtio." With a bright, shining light, a shining bit of light magic fused the color of the dirt with her shining blonde hair. As the light faded, the blonde did as well. By the time the spell was complete, Krista's hair was a dark oak brown.
She would be safe for a while, now.
"That was-" A yawn interrupted the voice. "-sorry. That was quite the unusual spell."
"Good morning, Simon." Had she not been slightly winded from the strength of the spell, she would have been more surprised. "I hope I didn't wake you." He shook his head. He was in the clothing he wore the day before. Irresponsible, Krista thought. He'll ruin his clothing that way.
"I was up to have a piss and noticed you were gone. I thought you'd left until I saw your clothes still on the drying rack." Simon looked… relieved by that statement. Why was that? "I wouldn't recognize you if I didn't already know you."
"Really? I look like a forest-dweller, then?"
He nodded. "You could've stayed as a plains-dweller if you wanted, but if you insist, you look a bit more like a forest-dweller like this anyway."
"I'm an air-dweller, actually." Krista looked away.
"Really? Then why are your-" Simon cut himself off, waving his hand dismissively. "Never mind, forget I asked. None of my business. You succeeded at your mission, in any case."
She glanced up at him quizzically. He didn't continue to pry like most had before. She didn't look the same as other air-dwellers, and was often questioned about it. No one usually ceased questioning. "Why?"
He looked over to her, brown eyes wide with curiosity. "What do you mean, Kris?"
"I mean, why." Krista stood up, brushing the dirt from her hair. "You stopped asking your questions. Why?"
"It's none of my business."
"As if that's ever bloody stopped anyone before!" Her voice was now a low hiss. "What is it you're really after from me? There is no logical reason for you to be this kind to me!"
"The only logical reason I need to be nice is because I want to be!" Simon met her gaze firmly, yet warmly. He did not want her to think he was angry. "Maybe I genuinely enjoy your company and think you deserve some kindness. I don't want anything in return except your friendship, or at least your happiness."
Immediately, her anger melted into a warm sensation. She still didn't understand why he would truly show her kindness. Did she have to, though? Was it necessary?
"So please, Kris." He smiled, holding out his hand. "Let me help you. With whatever it is you're trying to do."
Krista felt herself start to smile, and then turned bright red. What was she doing? She likely looked a fool right now. With a curt nod, she turned her back on him as she regained her senses. "Very well, Simon."
Simon laughed. "Let's get ready, now that we're up. You can tell me more about what you're set out to do while we run errands in town."
Simon glanced through different bundles of wet and dry Belladonna, a frown on his face. "You left home nearly a month ago?"
Krista nodded. "I spent more time than I wanted to going through the mountains from my area of Skyplains. I haven't travelled much."
"I could tell. You don't wear moccasins in the mountains for travelling." He rolled his eyes.
"Well I'm sorry I didn't know any better." Her accent dragged out the last l slightly. "I'm happy I was able to spare some gold for a pair of leather boots, however."
He gasped happily when he saw a plump bunch. "How much for this one?" He asked the merchant.
The merchant, a rather homely female, was plain-looking and stick thin. Her hair was a chestnut brown, and her eyes the same. Probably only married to carry a family line, nothing more. "Two gold for that one, Sir Jacquard."
"Please, I've mentioned before, it's just Mr. Jacquard now."
Krista raised an eyebrow, promising a later inquiry. "I have the gold if you want it. I would like to repay you for your kindness."
"No, it's fine." The alchemist thumbed two gold coins onto the merchant's table, grabbing his prized Belladonna. "I didn't do anything I need repayment for. The only thing I would ask of you is for you to treat yourself better. Your traumas don't define who you are."
"It's hard to believe that when you've been told the opposite your whole life." Krista sighed, walking down the stone path with Simon. "I don't want to tell you my entire history, but it wasn't a pleasant one. My mother was my saving grace, but she has been gone for several years now. I was rather young when I was told of her passing."
Simon frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"My father was never really a great person, but he grew more sour when my mother died. I resisted him and the life he wanted for me more; he pushed it harder and harder. I just couldn't take it any longer and I left. I can't let him find me because I don't want to live his legacy."
"Surely he's not that important. And if he is, he can go to Hell." His brown eyes turned dark. "Him and that damned Lord Silika. The Kingdom of Vitae has been nothing but a curse since his rule."
Krista swallowed, but kept a straight face. She had to be careful what she said, then. "I understand your pain."
"I'm sure you do. The Kingdom has been a blister to everyone but their own damn selves." He scoffed a moment longer before taking a deep breath. "Apologies. I don't often grow angry like that."
"Don't worry about it. It's justified." She looked away from him, pulling her cloak hood over her head. It shielded her from seeing Simon - it wasn't as if he was wrong. It just didn't feel right coming from him. She knew how awful the Kingdom was. It shouldn't hurt to hear it.
So why did it hurt when he said it?
Simon glanced at her in worry. "Kris? Have I upset you somehow?"
"Uh, no, sorry." She lowered her hood and offered him an offhanded smile. "All the talk of the Kingdom, is all. There's just been so much involving Vitae in recent months."
"You can say that again." He clenched his fists, careful not to crush his herbs. "One day, Lord Silika will get what's coming to him."
"You're getting worked up, Simon. Let's stop this conversation for now." Krista didn't add that the topic was making her feel weary; she didn’t know where to stand. She placed a hand on his shoulders. "I'm sorry I brought it up."
Simon took a deep, shaky breath. "No, it was my own fault. I apologize if I worried you." He took the Belladonna and put it in a pouch he held in his satchel. "We have to go a small ways into the forest for the yarrow I need - it has to be wild yarrow. Are you comfortable coming along?"
"I don't see why not. I know a few spells to defend myself if need be."
The two walked down a slightly altered path from the one they took into town the day before; this one lead into the Western side of the forest. There was a large gap opening on this side of the forest, peaking Krista's curiosity. Was there a legitimate trail in the Forest of Silva?
"It's the trade route," Simon said suddenly, as if reading Krista's mind. "It leads to the Village of Iso in the neighboring plain. Is that where you came from?"
"No, from the City of Ekerberin on the Northern side plain."
He widened his eyes. "No wonder you were on that side of the forest. I'm surprised you weren't more lost. There's not a trail for miles from the Ekerberin entrance."
"So I've noticed. A 'natural maze', I've been told."
Simon snorted, leading her through the open mouth of the forest. "Hardly a maze. More like a bit of a windup. Anyone with a brain could find a way out. It just might not be the fastest way."
Krista fell silent as the natural dimness of the forest surrounded her. The sun-speckled forest floor, speckled with dew from the evening's chill, gave the surroundings a relaxing vibe. The grass that set off to the side of the natural dirt path was a light green, signaling that the winter months were on the way.
She stopped walking as a few humans came into her line of sight. "Simon, hold up."
"Hm?" The brunet looked up. "Who the hell are they?"
"Shh, they're talking."
"-Dragonborn out in Anterrum," one of the men said. He was tall and pale, but well-built.
"Really? How much gold for its head?" the other, a burly-looking male, asked.
"Two thousand. And five hundred extra for any unharmed scales we can bring back."
"Let's get to it, then. To Anterrum!" The last in the group, thin but not weak-looking, lead the group through the trees and out of their line of sight.
Simon frowned. "There's a Dragonborn in Anterrum?"
"There are some caves beyond the city. Poor thing probably lives there to try and get some peace." Krista bit her lip. "The Dragonborn are such a rare species. Why are they hunting it?"
"Human greed, no doubt."
"We're going to Anterrum Caves." The female's honey-brown eyes were solid with determination. "We need to help it."
"What?" Simon nearly fell over in shock. "Kris, I'm not a fighter, and neither are you. What are we going to do?"
Krista glared at her companion. "Something, at the very least. I may have been useless at home, Simon, but I won't be useless out here." Before Simon could respond, she marched off in the direction the three hunters took off in.
"Kris!" He shouted. She did not turn around or answer him. He groaned in agitation and ran after her. "Krista, at least wait for me!"
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