As promised, here's a short story I wrote a writing contest. By "Short," I mean around 12,000 words. It's set in the Carmae Universe, which is the first novel I really completed. This story is part of that universe, but I feel that it stands alone really well, and I've very proud of it. Let me know what you think! It's broken up in parts, so don't feel that you have to read it all in one go.Book Battles
Ryoma Akure had been awake since the crack of dawn. Apparently, the rest of the noble elite of Kopia did not do the same.
He yawned, laying on his bed with his hands behind his head. A few strands of his long, red hair fell into his eyes. He blew it away, and stared at the ceiling. He was not used to sleeping with a roof over his head. Or in a bed. Or in a building with a number of other people in it.
He didn’t want to leave the room, not anymore, at least. When he had first woken up, he heard footsteps outside of his room. He had gone to the door, and poked his head outside to find a plump maid holding a bunch of clean towels in her arms.
“Excuse me,” he said, “do most people sleep—“
The maid turned to him, smile on her face. It lasted a full second before her face drew up in one of pure terror. She pointed at him, arm jiggling. “Demon! Oh, mercy! A demon in the Kastle! A demon in the Kastle! Oh lord! I feel, I think I—“ And she fainted.
Ryoma, taken by surprise, slammed his door shut so fast it nearly broke the doorframe. He didn’t dare open it again, and as far as he could tell, the maid was still out there, out cold on the floor.
The maid’s outburst was only half-true. Ryoma was half-demon, half-elf. But, unfortunately, much of his looks came from his demon father’s side, giving him the blood red hair and eyes normally associated with the demons, and forcing him to wear special clothes to keep his demonic abilities in check. He wore his hair long, and couldn’t do anything else about the clothes or eyes. He refused to hide who he was, or to be ashamed of it.
But that didn’t make it any less inconvenient. Outbursts, such as the maid’s were common around him. And he rarely got the chance to
speak to others.
Fortunately, that was about to change.
Ryoma had just taken a new job that would offer him a number of benefits that he never had before. The first was steady pay. Up until this job, he would do odd and dangerous jobs around the Guild, some legal, most not. He never had enough money to buy himself anything more than food and necessities, so he was never able to have a home. The second benefit was a roof over his head, something he wasn’t used to yet. And all he had to do was protect a princess.
Princess Carmae was hardly a damsel in distress. Her first meeting with Ryoma resulted in a swift kick in the chest that had him smashed against the wall. But, she was in a bad place, with numerous noblemen (and possibly her stepmother) wanting her head on a silver platter. She was a capable fighter, knew how to keep herself alive, but she also knew her limits. He needed help from an outside source. She picked Ryoma.
That was yesterday.
Today was to be his first official day on the job, and he was nervous. His dragon was spending the day hunting, so Ryoma would be on his own. He had done bodyguard missions in the past, but never for a royal princess. He knew he would be up for the physical aspects, but the politics of a kingdom were a completely unknown world for him. He hoped he was ready for it.
He spent the morning washing up, taking care to clean his hair, brush his teeth, and ensure that he was as presentable as possible. He certainly felt cleaner than he ever had before. And he didn’t smell, which was a good thing. Now, the only thing he had left to do was wait for the rest of the Kastle to come alive.Easier said than done.
He was starving.
His stomach made its protests known loud and clear as he paced around the room, hoping to take his mind off of food. He didn’t know when he would be allowed to go to the dining hall (of if there even was such a thing), but if the maid’s reaction was any indication, he wasn’t welcome here.
He wondered how the maid was doing. That incident had to have been an hour ago, at least. Surely she was awake by now. Deciding that it was better than walking around the room, he went to the door and pulled it open.
Standing just outside of the door was Princess Carmae herself. She looked just as surprised as he was to see her there. She held a parasol in her hand, a small one that would be no help in the rain, and spun it daintily. Her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she wore a plain blue dress, one that was barely a dress at all. It clung to her toned body loosely, and he knew it was designed for easy movement. She needed it to be; she had one of the strongest kicks Ryoma had ever felt.
She recovered from the surprise quickly, her plain face smiling at him. “Good morning, Ryoma!” she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. The maid was still lying where she had fallen. “That your doing?”
Ryoma rubbed the back of his neck, avoiding eye contact. “Kind of. I heard footsteps, opened the door and—“
“She fainted.” Carmae shook her head. “She’s a good maid, but she has a hilariously weak constitution. Don’t feel bad. She faints at least twice a week. Every time there’s a rat or a mouse or something. She’ll be up in a few minutes. Did you sleep well?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Liar,” she said, smirking. “I heard you tossing and turning.”
“Of course. You’re not the only one who sleeps lightly around here.”
Again, he rubbed the back of his neck. “H-heheh, yeah. I’m not used to sleeping in comfort.”
“First time I ever heard a complaint that the bed was too
“And it’ll be the last, Princess.”
“And that’ll be the last time you call me ‘Princess.’ ‘Carmae’ will do fine. You do not need to be so formal around me.”
“O-okay, Prin—Carmae,” Ryoma stuttered.
“Better.” She smiled. “You hungry? The dining hall is usually empty now. It’s a good time to go.”
His stomach growled again. “More than you imagine.”
“Good. Let’s get some food, then!”
Ryoma had never experienced tea before. He usually just stuck with water. But tea? Man, he had been missing out. It had a powerful kick to it, one that gave him a burst of energy. He drank the first cup quickly, and the second right after. He was finding it hard to sit still. Carmae cut him off with a laugh before he could have a third.
“Tea is how I get up in the morning,” she said. She was on her third cup now, but she was, in no way, jittery.
“Does it always give you this much energy?” Ryoma tapped the table with a finger.
“You get used to it.”
Ryoma had been surprised when she’d led him to the dining hall. It wasn’t the royal dining quarters, but instead a place where seemingly anyone could eat. Carmae had explained that this dining hall was open to peasants and nobles alike, something her father had instated during his reign. “He cares for the people, my father does,” Carmae had said. “He likes to make sure they have what they need. The Royal Dining Area, or whatever they call it, is far too stuffy and highbrow for my liking. I much prefer eating in this hall, with the common people.
“Plus,” she added with a grin, “the food’s better.”
As she had promised, the dining hall was mostly empty. Apparently, it would be standing room only within an hour or so. Those that were there were talking excitedly, until Carmae and Ryoma walked in. Conversation immediately died down, and some people actually left. Those that stayed made sure to give Carmae and Ryoma a wide berth. Carmae deliberately made this difficult for them because she chose to plop herself down at a table in the center of the hall.
“They’re going to have to get used to you, eventually,” she explained.
A man came out from the kitchens, not too tall and dressed in a plain suit, holding two menus in his hands. “Carmae, so good to see you up bright and early.”
“Beat the crowds, Adam, beat the crowds.”
Adam placed one menu down in front of Carmae, and only then did his eyes pass over Ryoma. He noticeably tensed, and avoided eye contact with the half-demon.
“Adam,” Carmae said, nonchalant. “You know my new bodyguard, Ryoma Akure. He’ll be joining me for breakfast today, and likely for many more to come.”
Adam, now flustered, nodded with a nervous bob of his head, taking out a small notepad. “O-oh, yes. Of course. He’s certainly a—ah—a colorful fellow, isn’t he?”
“I do like colors,” Carmae said sweetly, not bothering to open her menu.
“What will you be having?”
“Bacon, eggs, sausage, and toast?”
“You know me so well.”
Ryoma had his own menu open, looking at the text but not making sense of it. Instead, he was distracted by Carmae’s “usual.
” That was more variety in food than Ryoma had ever had. He was lucky to have a loaf of bread, never mind eggs and meat with it! His mouth was watering.
“And you, sir?” Adam asked, turning to Ryoma and making an effort to be civil. He was only somewhat successful.
“Uh…What she’s having.”
Adam nodded. “Excellent.” He scribbled something in his notepad, and practically sprinted back into the kitchen.
Ryoma was in heaven. He had never been waited on before. Never been offered this kind of food before. If there was any doubts left in his mind about his choice to be Carmae’s bodyguard, they quickly evaporated. The waiter even talked to him! This is great!
He rubbed his hands together, eager for food.
“How do you stand it?” Carmae asked, interrupting his salivating. Her tone was far more subdued than he expected.
It took his mind a moment to stop thinking about bacon and focus on what she said. “Stand what?”
“The looks.” She gestured toward the waiter. “The way everyone looks at you, or avoids you.”
“Oh,” he sighed, his body deflating. He hated this topic. “I got used to it, I guess?”
“I guess. But sheesh, that would drive me nuts.”
“People avoiding me?”
“The way they make sure to keep ten feet between themselves and you. Doesn’t it bother you?”
He shook his head, shrugging. “No, not really. I mean, sure, it used to. But I understand where they’re coming from. I’m half-a-demon. I’m considered dangerous. Demons haven’t done much to earn people’s trust. People fear what they don’t understand. I don’t blame them for it. I think I just got tired of being mad at them. It’s how they are, you know? I don’t see it much anymore.”
“Yeah. He never once made eye contact with you, yet it didn’t faze you at all.”
“I’m being waited on. This never happens to me!” He grinned.
Carmae didn’t smile back. “But still, he should still look you in the eye when he takes your order.”
“My eyes are
red, Carmae. It makes most people nervous.”
“That’s not fair though.”
“Nothing in life is.”
She rested her chin in her palm, elbow on the table. She was looking over his shoulder, her blue eyes unfocused. Ryoma fidgeted a little in his chair, unsure what to do.
“I think I kind of know where you’re coming from,” she began again in a low voice. “I get that kind of treatment from my stepmother and most of the nobles here. They look at me, but it’s rarely with kindness. I’m not well liked. They avoid me whenever they can. They have to talk to me because I’m a princess, but it’s always with thinly veiled antagonism.” She frowned, looking back at him. “Is that the right word?”
Ryoma shook his head. “I have no idea.”
She smiled a little. “Not very well read, are you?”
Ryoma gave a nervous laugh.
“Regardless, I kind of get it,” she continued. “It doesn’t bother me anymore that they don’t talk to me. I guess I also just… got used to it.”
He nodded. “Can’t fight it and can’t change it. So, just accept it, and move on.”
Carmae nodded too, looking thoughtful. “Accept and move on. Good advice, that.”
Ryoma inhaled his meal, and Carmae let him get seconds. He didn’t know he could eat so much, but everything was so good! The bacon was greasy and crisp, the sausage was thick and meaty, and eggs were an experience Ryoma never had before. But his favorite part of the meal was toast. Whoever thought taking bread and heating it up to a fine crisp was a genius. Bread was Ryoma’s favorite food, and he often made entire meals out of it. Carmae was more than happy to order him some extra toast slices, and he made short work of them.
He was certain he had never eaten so much food in his life. Certainly not in one sitting, at least. He held his stomach as Carmae led him out of the dining hall by his arm, just as a group of people walked in. When they saw Ryoma, they moved aside, faces in a mix of terror and anger.
Carmae smiled at them, sweetly, and waved to a woman among them. Carmae told her, loud enough for everyone to hear, that Ryoma was her new bodyguard and that she hoped that they would pay him no mind.
Judging by their stares, Ryoma didn’t have much faith.
She guided him through Kopia Kastle (Yes, with a ‘K’), the walls surprisingly well lit despite being made out of stone. There were plenty of windows and the sun was shining in bright and clear. “I thought we could take a walk around the main city,” Carmae announced as they approached a big wooden door. “You know the area well?”
“Not really,” Ryoma answered. “I’ve been here a lot, but never this close to the Kastle. I tend to stay on the outskirts of the city.”
“Really?” she said. “Well, then you’ll need a tour. Fortunately, I know this place like the back of my hand. Let me show you around.”
She pushed at the big door, struggling a bit with the weight, but she managed to get it open before Ryoma could step in and help her. Carmae led him outside of the main Kastle gates, draping the parasol delicately over her shoulder.
“You concerned about getting sunburned?” Ryoma asked, nodding at the parasol.
“No,” she said, and shook her head. “I just like it. Something to keep my hands busy.” She spun it left and right on her shoulder. “I like getting dressed up, and playing the part of a noble lady. The problem is that those clothes can be so impractical for actual movement. I need to be able to move.” She indicated her loose dress. “Hence, these clothes.”
She led him down the great steps and into the main city area. The streets were alive with people bustling to and fro. Shops were just starting to open, shopkeepers swinging open doors and putting signs up. Animals ran through the streets, and the closer they got to it, the louder the noise became. “Get your chickens here!” “Need your armor repaired?” “We got the best apples in the land!”
“The streets were designed in a circular fashion around the Kastle Keep, and the rings get wider the further you get from the center,” Carmae explained over her shoulder, practically shouting to be heard over the crowd. “It’s kind of like a tree, only these circles are perfectly round. They’re designed to become a maze should any attackers try to breach the city gates. The townsfolk know how to make this into an almost impenetrable maze of narrow streets, dead ends, and tight corners. Only takes a few quick modifications.” She grinned, and twirled her parasol. “It’s a good defensive strategy, and it’s kept Kopia Kingdom safe for many years.
“Only, since this is a standard shopping day, many of the barriers are down,” she said as they dodged people hopping around and trying to snag good deals.
He noticed that the crowds, as soon as they saw his hair or his clothes, would move away. They wouldn’t say much, of course, since the well-recognized Princess Carmae was right there with him, but they made sure to give him plenty of space.
Carmae didn’t seem to notice. She pointed to a small building with a sign hanging out front. “See that, over there? That’s the best quilter in town. A little old woman runs it; she’s made the quilts for the entire Kastle. Warm, soft, absolutely stunning. Worth the high price, certainly. Mine has ducks on it. I’ve had it since I was a child. I refuse to give it up.”
She spun to her right, using her parasol to point. “And that’s the blacksmith. Smith is his last name too, can you believe it?” She turned again. “Oh, and that’s the site of the horrible fire from a few years back. Those apartments right there burned clean to the ground. Disaster, truly. Oh! And that’s Rickman’s tavern. The site of a bar brawl at least once a week. I would know; I’ve participated in a few!”
Ryoma didn’t have to feign surprise. “You did?”
Carmae scoffed. “Of course! No better way to practice fighting than to actually get yourself into a fight! Bar brawls are crazed, but fairly manageable if you know how to handle yourself. And-“ she gave her parasol a spin, grinning, “I do.”
She continued walking, pointing out various landmarks. Eventually, she turned her attention to the scattering people passing around them.
“Goodness, these streets are easy to walk today!” she said, laughing. “I should bring you with me more often. The crowds just seem to melt away.”
Ryoma knew she was making a joke, but it did sting a little more than he wanted to let her think it did. “No one can empty a room faster than me.”
Carmae scoffed again. “You obviously have not met the Friar Plobbins on a rough day. You can smell him for literal miles, and he can clear a room much faster than you can. He never knows why, either. Always asks the last person there, ‘Where is everyone?’ but no one has the heart to tell him it’s because he doesn’t bathe as often as he should.”
“How often is that?” Ryoma asked, rubbing the back of his neck.
“However long it takes not to smell.” She met his eyes, reading the question in them. “Don’t worry. You’re fine. Believe me, I’d tell you if you smelled. Though, if you did, the streets might be even clearer! Haha!”
He returned the laugh halfheartedly, and decided to change the subject. He pointed at a shop close by. “What’s that one?”
She followed his gaze. “Oh, that’s Kylion’s Books. Says so on the sign.” She pointed up toward the sign hanging over the door. “Can’t you see it?”
Ryoma squinted, but the characters on the sign made no sense to him. “Uh, sorry. I must’ve missed it.”
“Ah, don’t worry.” She smiled softly. “There’s a lot to take in. I understand. But yeah, he has a huge book selection. Far better than the royal library. Granted, we probably have more books overall, but his are better.” She continued walking, going right past it. “Do you have a favorite book, Ryoma?”
“I have several!” she said, not letting him finish. The parasol began to twirl faster over her shoulder. “I’m a pretty avid reader, or I used to be. Nowadays, there isn’t much time for it. But back when I was younger, my nanny had to peel me away from the bookshelves!” She laughed. “There was this one book about a farmer who owned a pig. The pig was the farmer’s son’s favorite, but it was always misbehaving. It would knock things over, agitate the other animals, and even sneak into the farmer’s bed at night! Oh my, it was so funny!”
Ryoma gave a short chuckle. Doesn’t sound that great to me.
“I’ve dabbled in all types: romance, adventure, comedy, history, everything!” She turned to him. “Surely you have a few books that you enjoy.”
“Uh…” Ryoma said again, once more rubbing the back of his neck. He looked away from her for a long time, only to glance back and see that she was still looking at him, eager-eyed. “Uh…”
“Oh, c’mon, don’t be shy! I’m curious! What kinds of books have you read?” She stopped mid-stride to give an overdramatic gasp, feigning an equally overdramatic burst of understanding. “Wait, are you a poetry lover?”
Ryoma jumped back a step. “What? No! Er, I don’t think so.” What’s poetry?
“There’s no harm in loving poetry. It’s not my thing, but I can understand where some would—“
“No, I don’t think I like poetry.”
Her eyebrows knitted. “You don’t think
you like poetry?”Dammit.
He was caught now. Come on, think of some way out of this…
“I’ve never really read much poetry.”
“Ah, yes. How about a book then? A story?”
He smiled sheepishly.
Her eyebrows rose. “Anything?” she pressed.
His eyes darted around, looking everywhere but her. “No…?”
She put her hands on her hips, parasol closed and at her side, a deep frown on her face. “You’ve never read anything? Newspapers? Guild flyers?”
He was trapped, and he knew it. “No. I, uh, I can’t read.” That was it. He was done. She would fire him on the spot. What kind of bodyguard couldn’t read? “I’m, uh, I’m not proud of this, but it was something I just, kinda, learned to work around. I mean, I’ve tried to learn before, but something more important always came up.” He fiddled with his fingers in front of his chest.
Carmae’s face was set in disbelief. Her hands stayed firmly on her hips, and her tone was sharp. “Really. You can’t read. Not even a word?”
“No…” He didn’t meet her gaze. He dug his foot into the dirt.
“How did you manage to fill out the application for this position then?”
He dug his toe deeper. “My dragon helped me,” he mumbled, like a child caught breaking the vase.
Carmae lifted an eyebrow. “Your dragon can read?”
“Where is he now?”
“Ah,” she nodded. After a second, she dropped her hands from her hips and stared at him, decisiveness in her eyes. “Well, we can’t let your dragon stay ahead of you for long, can we? I’ll teach you to read. Not only is it a valuable skill, but it’s also fun! You’ve never experienced the thrill of a good story, then?”
“I’ve listened to a few.”
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction.” She turned 180 degrees on her heel and started marching back toward the bookstore that they had just passed. “Come along then. We need to get you some books.”
Ryoma fumbled in his steps.“W-what?”
“Books. You need some. Can’t very well learn to read if you don’t have reading material.”
He practically had to run to keep up with her brisk pace. “As in, like, buy
“I, uh, I don’t have the money yet.” Until he received his first week’s pay for his bodyguard duties, he didn’t have a coin to his name.
“Can’t we use the libra-“
“Of course you can—in fact, you will— but every person must have a few books they own themselves. It’s only natural. Not only that, but you cannot make notes in the books from the library. With your own, you’ll be able to make notes in the margins and help yourself out.”
She got to the front door of the bookshop in record time, and pushed it open. It swung inward, and hit the wall with a loud SLAM
. “Good morning, Kylion!” she announced, marching inside. Ryoma followed behind her, trying to hide behind her body.
The bookstore was huge. There was a big, open, circular area in the center, with three levels rising up to the ceiling. Each level could be clearly seen. In the middle of this open space sat a number of desks and comfortable looking chairs, spread haphazardly about. A few were occupied. Looking up, Ryoma could see that each floor was filled with books. Shelves and shelves lined each of the floors, the walls, and were used to form aisles. And every book on the shelf was situated neatly, and organized with obsessive attention to detail. As his gaze went higher, he saw that in the ceiling was a big, round, glass window, letting as much light as possible into the store. It made the place feel warm and inviting, despite the naturally dark atmosphere that went along with wood paneling.
It was, in a word, beautiful.
While attempting to make himself as small as possible, Ryoma couldn’t help but take in this sight. He didn’t know books could look so…well, impressive. He never thought much of books. He knew that they were generally nice looking and people liked them, but he didn’t know that there were so many in existence, or that they came in so many different shapes and colors.
“So many …” Ryoma mumbled.
“And Kylion’s read them all.”
Ryoma’s jaw threatened to hit the floor. “That’s impossible.”
“You’ll understand when you see him. Rest assured, it is far from impossible.” She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Kylion!” she yelled. “It’s Princess Carmae!”
She got some looks from the other shoppers, but like so many things, she didn’t seem to notice. And, unsurprisingly, she got a response.
“Ah, Princess Carmae! Welcome! I must not have heard you come in. These ears aren’t what they used to be.” A strong voice called from behind one of the shelves.
The voice didn’t match the man it belonged to. Kylion was a feeble man with thick glasses and a tuft of white hair on his head. Somehow, he managed to carry a stack of three books, each as thick as Ryoma’s arm, and hobbled over to them. His eyes swept over Carmae. “You sure know how to make an entrance. Yelling in a bookstore. What manners.” He was smiling, despite his words. Then his gaze leveled on Ryoma.
The books slammed to the floor.
Carmae hurried over to help him. “Silly old man, you know that’s–.”
“P-P-P-P-Princess!” The old man was shaking. “T-t-t-there’s a d-d—“
“Oh!” Carmae exclaimed, turning around as if she had forgotten. Ryoma knew she had not. She spoke loud enough for the whole store to hear. “This is my bodyguard, Ryoma Akure. He’s new! And very nice. We’re actually here for him, today. You see, he can’t read, and has never owned a book before. I’m going to change that.”
“So you brought him h-here?”
“He goes with me everywhere, and should get the same treatment I do. He deserves nothing less. And besides, this is the best bookshop in the Kingdom. I figure we can find him at least a few things to read here.”
She lifted up one of the thick books, and gave it to Ryoma. It was very heavy. She put the second on top of that. And then the third. He was ready to fall over. How did the old man carry these?
Kylion’s face was as white as a piece of paper. Carmae put a hand on his shoulder and guided him toward his desk in one of the corners. She indicated Ryoma should follow. “It won’t be a problem, will it?”
“N-no, Princess,” Kylion said, taking a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiping the sweat off his forehead. “Just a surprise is all. I was not expecting you to have such a…unique bodyguard.”
“I positively refuse to conform to the norms of society,” Carmae said, beaming. She patted a spot on his desk before stepping to the side. Ryoma dropped the books down, as delicately as he could. He avoided slamming them, which he considered to be quite a feat.
She helped the old man around to his chair, and he didn’t refuse the help. Once he was seated, she went around to the front of the desk. “I told Ryoma here that you have read every book in this shop.”
Kylion nodded, his face still heavy with shock. “Yes, that much is true.” he answered, speaking to Carmae.
“What would you recommend for someone who never learned to read?”
The old man’s eyes, magnified through his glasses, flicked to Ryoma. “He seriously cannot read?”
“Not a word,” Ryoma said, speaking for the first time, and before Carmae could speak for him. “I’ve never had a chance to learn.”
Kylion looked back at Carmae. “Can he pay?”
Ryoma opened his mouth, but this time, Carmae beat him to it. “I’m covering that. Don’t worry,” she said, waving a hand.
Kylion seemed to relax a little. He settled down into his chair, keeping his eyes on Carmae. “There are plenty of books on the third floor, designed to be easy to read. For children, you know. Big text, pictures, and the like. There are not a ton of books, but that’s a good place to start.” His eyes flicked to Ryoma, eyeing him dubiously, then returned to Carmae’s. “He can probably find something up there. As you go on, there will be books with chapters, and then more adult books the further you go.” He turned in his chair, and pointed up toward the back corner of the third floor. “Up there is a good place to start.”
“Thanks!” Carmae said cheerfully, taking Ryoma by the hand. “We’ll be back!”
“I’m sure you will,” From the tone of his voice, Ryoma guessed that this was something he’d said often to the Princess over the years.
She dragged Ryoma by his arm toward the back of the store and down one of the shelves of books. There were signs along the shelves, but Ryoma couldn’t make any sense of them. Not only that, but Carmae was moving so quickly it was all he could do to keep up and prevent her from pulling his arm out of its socket. She dragged him up a staircase that she found at the end of the hall. When they emerged on the third floor, they found the aisles to be completely devoid of other people. Anyone that was in that area had apparently cleared out.
Carmae clapped her hands together. “Oh, good! No need to fight for room over here!” She beamed at Ryoma. “You come in handy!”
He laughed nervously, and scratched the back of his neck. She was already running down one of the aisles. “Why are you paying for my books?” he called after her as he hurried to catch up.
Carmae was sticking her head into the aisles as she passed them, looking intently at the books. “Because you need them.”
She shrugged and ducked into an aisle she seemed to like.“Can’t be a bodyguard if you don’t read,” she said, dropping to a shelf low to the floor. “Oooh! Here’s a nice one! Do you like pirates?” She held up a thin book with a colorful drawing of a boat at sea.
He pushed the book down, unsmiling. “Seriously, you don’t have to pay for this.”
Carmae sighed, her mouth tight, and pushed herself back into a standing position. “Just consider it a necessary expense in order to help you better fulfill your duties. Does that make you feel better?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
He sighed, throwing his hands up in defeat. “Fine, whatever.”
“Good. Now that that’s
settled, do you like pirates?”
Before he had realized it, a whole hour had passed. There were just so many books on so many different topics and a great many of them were of things he didn’t know existed. It made him feel unintelligent. Whenever Carmae showed him a book about something he didn’t know about, he would tell her so, and she would put the book back. As the time passed, her face grew more pinched as she grew increasingly annoyed, until finally she just asked, “So what kind of stories do you like?”
“Uh…” Ryoma felt that he had been saying that word a lot lately. “I don’t know.”
Carmae gave him a long nod, putting back the book she was holding. “Well, what was one of the stories that you were told when you were younger?”
Ryoma thought about it. It had been so long ago. Despite that, he found that the memory was there, just hidden. It came back to him through the tone of the storyteller, the way the words just seemed to flow together and melt in a hypnotic sound that held the story’s meaning even if he didn’t know all the words. The more he thought, the clearer the story became in his memory.
“It was about a prince and a princess. They were very much in love. But, the princess got herself captured by a dragon—a big, evil dragon. The prince sent knights and such after the beast, but the dragon made short work of them. So, bravely, the prince had to go himself. After a lengthy battle, he defeated the beast, got the princess back, and lived happily ever.” Ryoma made a face at the thought.
“I didn’t like that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t like what?”
“The happy ending.”
He pressed his lips together, trying to think of the best way to explain it. “It’s not how real life is, you know? You don’t just face one problem, overcome it, and then everything ends well. Life is a series of problems, some that overlap, others that never get resolved. Things don’t end with everything wrapped up with a bow. Life doesn’t do that.” He reached over and picked at a peeling tag on one of the books on the shelf.
Carmae lowered her eyes, watching him as he played with the curling paper. “Sometimes it does,” she said, slowly. She turned to look at the book in front of her, eyes unfocused. “I think we like happy endings. We as people, I mean. We like to think that if we just overcome one problem, one trial, things will all work out. We all want our own happily ever after.”
Ryoma sighed out of his nose. “Yeah, well.” He leaned against on one of the shelves. “Real life doesn’t work that way. At least not for me.”
She looked up at him and smiled a little. “Then we’ll do our best to find you some books that don’t end happily. I don’t think giving you a tragedy is a good idea, but I’ll try to avoid the fairy tales, at least. Okay?”
Ryoma met her gaze, returning her smile. “Okay.”
They turned back to the shelves, and between the two of them, they managed to find him a number of books that he thought would be entertaining. Two picture books, the pirate one and another about a birthday, and some more mature chapter books. Primarily about normal people. Ryoma didn’t want to read about people who were abnormal like him. He wanted stories about those who weren’t.
Time passed, and he found himself standing in one of the aisles, looking over a chapter book with a few pictures scattered throughout. It seemed like an interesting story, judging by the pictures. There was a man with a bow and arrow, fighting someone. That was when he felt a tug on his leg.
He looked down to find a small boy, about three or four, pulling on one of the black straps that wrapped around the half-demon’s legs. A wide grin spread over his face. “You’we stwaps awe so cool!” He pulled harder on the material.
“Careful.” Ryoma tugged his leg back, out of the kid’s grasp. He didn’t feel like explaining that they would all be in serious danger if the strap came loose. Instead, he bent down on one knee, getting more less on eye level with the child. “Those straps are for me. You don’t want-“
“Tomas!” A shrill, female voice cut over to them from behind one of the shelves. “Tomas! Where—“ A middle-aged, somewhat overweight woman rounded the corner. Her eyes settled on Tomas, and relaxed but only for a moment. When she looked behind him, she saw that her little boy was talking to, of all things, a demon. Her eyes went as wide as saucepans and her jaw hung loose. It took her two tries to find her voice. “T-Tomas! What are you doing?!”
Tomas barely noticed his mother’s fear. He turned to her with a bright smile and pointed to Ryoma, arm outstretched. “Mommy, look! This guy is so cool! His hair is wed and his eyes are wed and his clothes are silver and black and he’s covewed in all kinds of—“ His mother scooped him up in one hand, and clamped the other over his mouth, silencing him instantly. She stared her boy in the eye.
“Tomas.” Her voice was serious. “That man is a demon. Do you understand? A demon. Dangerous.” She turned to face Ryoma, her face twisting. “And should not be allowed in such public places. We’re going home.” He turned and gasped, pulling her hand away from Tomas’s mouth as he bit her. “Ow! Young man—“
“But he’s holding my favowite book! With Kanky Waider and evewything!”
His mother made a sound that was a cross between a sigh, a growl, and a groan, and dashed down the hallway, clutching Tomas to her chest. “The manager will hear about this.”
The entire time, Ryoma hadn’t moved. He just stayed there, on one knee, watching. As much as he refused to admit it, the way the woman spoken about him (and to him) had hurt. A lot. He didn’t mean the boy any harm. In fact, he had been happy someone acknowledged him. He wasn’t entirely sure what he would’ve said to the kid, but he wasn’t going to do anything bad. He knew it was just fear on his mother’s part, causing her to speak harshly, but that didn’t stop it from cutting deeper than he thought it would, and certainly more than he would’ve liked.
He felt Carmae’s presence come up behind him. He didn’t look up. “Wanna get out of here?” she asked.
“Okay. Let’s pay for these, and then we can leave.”
Ryoma got up, just as all sound in the bookstore stopped. It didn’t just go quiet, every sound just ceased. The crowds outside were silenced, the voices in the store were silenced, even Tomas’s mother was silenced. It felt unnatural, and Ryoma immediately went on edge. His hand went to the hilt of his blade. He glanced at Carmae, and saw that one of her hands balled up into a fist. She sensed it too.
“Hey, old fart!” A young, definitely male voice called. “Where do you keep the ancient spell books, huh? The really, really old ones.”
Ryoma and Carmae exchanged looks as Kylion’s voice answered back. It sounded strong. “There’s no need for such rou—Ahhghgh!”
The first speaker’s voice seemed to smile. “You like that? That’s the work of our mage here, Ralks. He’s sucking the air right out of your lungs. Hurts, don’t it?”
Kylion made another gagging sound. Carmae’s mouth dropped open, infuriated, but as she made a move to walk over and look down the railing, Ryoma shook his head and held a finger to his lips. If they got noticed or caught, they’d have no way to help Kylion, or anyone else in the store. She understood.
The first speaker continued. “Now, I know you know what books I mean. The Forbidden
You have quite a collection of them, don’tcha?” There was another gasping sound, and this time, the first speaker spoke through his teeth. “Where are they?”
Ryoma pressed himself up against the nearby bookcase. He had to get closer, to better see what was happening. Carmae went to the bookcase opposite him, also pressing herself against it. Together, they moved on silent feet, getting close enough to see into the middle.
There were five men in the store, only four of them with swords at their hips, but they were all dressed in black clothes, face masks, thick jackets and heavy gloves designed to make them seem larger and more intimidating than they were. Ryoma recognized their outfits as those of one of the gangs who took as many jobs as possible from the Guilds: the Lokak. From what little he knew, they were a group of highly trained and specialized warriors, known to be discrete, competent, and deadly. They had rounded up a number of customers in the store, and had them at sword point.
The fifth member seemed to be the largest of them all. Ryoma took him to be the mage the first speaker was talking about—Ralks. His right hand was raised, a swirling ball of green hovered above his palm. Must be how he’s sucking the air from Kylion.
Without disturbing his right hand, Ralks waved his left, and the big door at the entrance shook, knocking the wooden plank over and locking it into place. All the windows shook as well, the shades falling and closing.
“Magic seals,” Carmae mumbled, as a gray darkness fell over the bookshop. “He’s locking us in. And locking the outside out.”
Behind his desk, looking as feeble as ever, Kylion sat clutching at his throat. He was making a gagging noise, the color drained from his
The first speaker, the leader, took a threatening step forward. “Are you going to talk to us, now?”
The old man managed a nod, and Ralks lowered his hand. The energy dissipated, and Kylion was left gasping for breath. He was, at least, alive.
“So,” the leader said. “Where are the Forbidden
“Lock…locked up,” Kylion wheeze, chest heaving. “Locked up in a safe…Only I know the combi….combination.”
“Good.” The leader turned toward the other three, who were standing around the hostages. “You two, check the other floors and make sure no one else is in the store. You,” He pointed to them in turn, carefully avoiding using names. Ryoma doubted that the mage was really named Ralks. ”--make sure none of these hostages move. I have no problem taking lives today, but it will be quicker if I don’t have to.”
The three nodded and smacked their chests in unison. Two of them took off towards the staircase, and the last one drew his blade, watching the small crowd. There were four people there already, but Ryoma didn’t recognize any of them.
Shortly, screams broke out as the two who searched made their move. More people were gathered up from the shadows, some bloodied.
“What do we do?” Carmae asked. Ryoma could see the spots of her eyes shining out in the dim lighting.
“We avoid getting caught,” Ryoma answered, in undertones. “Split up.”
He went right and she went left. He wasn’t sure if that was the best idea, but he knew the element of surprise was incredibly important here. If the Lokak knew there was a demon in the store, much less a princess, things could go very bad for everyone involved. They needed to remain hidden.
He crept along the aisles, keeping as quiet as he could. Ryoma had done a few stealth missions in his lifetime, but he was never very good at them. He was cursed with two left feet, both of which were too big to move silently.
“Got two more! A kid and his mommy!” one of the men called, and Ryoma recognized the scream of Tomas’s mom after the voice called out.
“Thewe’s a demon hewe too!” Tomas was yelling. Ryoma felt the blood freeze in his veins. “He’ll cut you all to pieces, he will!”
“Shut the brat up.”
There was a slapping sound, and Tomas went quiet, but Ryoma heard the boy’s mother whispering to him. It sounded like she was crying, too.
That was when he heard the floor creak behind him. He whipped his head around just in time to see one of the men approach, sword raised. It was coming down in a wide arc, moving too quickly! There was no time to dodge, block, or--
Carmae’s fist smashed the guy in the back of the head. Ryoma swore he heard the man’s skull crack. He fell forward. Reaching out fast, Ryoma caught him, punched him in the head a second time to make sure he was knocked out, and lowered him down gently to avoid making a loud sound. Were the punches heard?
Judging by the voices downstairs, they were not. He looked to Carmae, and smiled a silent thank you. She grinned back.
“The safe is in the back. Very far in the back,” Kylion was explaining. “I’ll need to get you there. There’s doors with locks and-“
“Fine,” the leader said. “Me and Ralks are coming with you.” There was a pause, and then he was speaking to someone else. “How’s the round up going?”
A voice answered from the second floor. “Still checking the shelves. There’s a lot of space to cover.”
“Right. When you gather them all up, make sure they behave. If any one of them steps out of line, kill the woman and the boy.”
Ryoma and Carmae froze. There were shocked gasps from the group below, but they were quickly stifled.
“Good.” The leader’s voice seemed to be smirking. “Well, old man, let’s go.” Three sets of footsteps began, and then all faded off.
Carmae whispered to Ryoma, “They’ll notice our guy’s missing before long.”
“Right,” he nodded. “We need to move quickly, and get down there. Can we jump over the side?”
Carmae quirked an eyebrow. “That’s a big drop.”
“The stairs, then.”
Carmae nodded. “This way.” She led Ryoma around the maze of shelves toward the staircase they had taken earlier. Their footsteps were slow and quiet. Neither of them wanted to see anyone die.
When they got to the first floor, they hid behind a bookshelf, finding themselves behind the growing crowd of people. Tomas and his sobbing mother were in the back clustered among some older men and women, a few young scholars, and some teenagers who looked like they never left the bookstore. Their eyes mirrored one another’s, full of apprehension and avoided each others’ gazes.
Except for Tomas. He was looking over his mother’s shoulder into the shadows at the back of the store. Ryoma peeked his head out, and made eye contact with the young boy. Tomas grinned and opened his mouth, but Ryoma brought a finger to his lips in the universal “Shhh” motion. Tomas, despite his grinning and fidgeting, nodded and understood.
The second Lokak walked over to the first. “Any sign of Jolnes?”
The first shook his head. “No. He was on the third floor, right?”
“Yeah,” the second said, nodding. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Jolnes! Where are you?”
Carmae made hand motions, indicating that they needed to go and rush the guards and rush them right away. Ryoma nodded, and chanced one last look.
His eyes made contact with one of the two Lokak. Crap.
“There! Right there! A demon!”
Feeling a heat rise in his chest, Ryoma burst around the corner, drawing his blade. He sprinted down the aisle, feet pounding the floor. He closed the distance and swung his blade at the nearest Lokak.
The blow was effortlessly parried and jarred up his arms.
He struck again, this time high, and again the Lokak blocked him. The Lokak swung low, almost lazy in his movements, and Ryoma jumped out of the way. This man was clearly well trained, and very powerful. And very relaxed.
Ryoma swung hard, missed, and was forced to follow through. While it looked like a mistake, it managed to get him between the guard and the hostages, who were now yelling and screaming.
The Lokak didn’t seem bothered by this. He swung again, pushing forward, and while Ryoma was agile, this man had power. Ryoma kept getting forced into the line of defense.
He whirled to his right. Carmae had gotten a slash up her arm, and was bleeding, dripping to the floor. Her face was contorted in both pain and anger.
Just as he looked away, pain flared up in his shoulder. His opponent had taken the opening, and got Ryoma in the shoulder, over a scar that was just starting to heal. by Sully's mustache, that hurts!
Injured, and now angry, Ryoma swung wildly at his opponent, a wide swing that managed to get the Lokak across the stomach.
“Go, wed-haiwed guy!” Tomas’s voice called out from the crowd.
Ryoma put on a burst of speed, swinging at the man’s head. The Lokak leaned back, ducking below the blow. Ryoma brought a leg up and kicked him right in the belly wound. The Lokak cried out, falling backwards on his rear. His blade clanged to the side.
Ryoma went in for the kill. His blade was raised, ready to stab the Lokak through the heart. He wanted to. Wanted to cut him down. Wanted to kill him for kidnapping these people.
“You can do it!” Tomas yelled. And Ryoma couldn’t.
Tomas’s voice cut through Ryoma’s adrenaline, snapping back to reality. Tomas was there, watching him—rooting for him. He was so young, so innocent. Ryoma had seen death when he was about Tomas’s age. It had left scars that he was certain would never heal. Scars that still haunted him at night. Ryoma didn’t want Tomas to have a similar fate. No one should have to see death so young.
He twisted the blade around, and slammed the hilt of it on the man’s head, knocking him out. The man crumbled to the ground.
Carmae let out another yell, this one of triumph. She punched her fist in the man’s chin with enough force to knock him to his toes. She followed up with two fast strikes in the stomach, before slamming one more in his face. Her Lokak fell to the ground in a heap, also knocked out.
“Whew!” she yelled, grinning, reveling in her triumph. “They weren’t so tough, once you figured them out.” She wasn’t even winded. She tore at part of her dress, and wrapped up the cut on her arm.
“Will she be okay?” one of the men in the crowd asked.
Suddenly, a cacophony of voices rose up. “Is that Princess Carmae?”“Is she working with a demon?” “Did that demon just save us?” “What’s going on?”
Carmae tugged on the makeshift bandage, already stained a bit red, and stood up. She ignored the people for the moment and turned to the half-demon. “Ryoma, go on ahead. Make sure the bandits don’t get what they’re looking for. Some of Kylion’s books are very, very dangerous. I’ll take care of things here.”
“I knew you could do it!” Tomas yelled. “I knew you would save us! You’we so cool!”
Ryoma smiled sheepishly at the boy. Tomas’s smile was genuine, but his mother looked like she was in shock, as did most of the others. Childhood innocence at its finest. Tomas believed in Ryoma. And, he realized, Carmae believed in him too.
Maybe that was enough.
“Right,” Ryoma said. “Which way did they go?”
One of the young scholars pointed to an aisle behind him. “In the back.”
“Thanks,” Ryoma said, and ran in that direction. There was still work to be done.
Ryoma went down the halls to the back, hoping to find some kind of clue as to where the men took Kylion. The problem was that most of the store looked the same, and was arranged in a circular fashion. What counted as “the back”?
Where would they have gone?
The answer practically announced itself. One of the shelves that lined the far wall had swung open and inside he found a long, dark hallway, stretching as far as he could see. Ryoma thought that he could hear some voices echoing up the hallway, and one of them sounded suspiciously like the leader of the Lokak group.
If there was ever a place to hide a forbidden book, it was here.
He made a mental note to thank Kylion for managing to leave the door open. Otherwise, he never would’ve been able to find it. The hallway itself had little to no light to guide him. He wished he had brought a candle, but there was no time to think of that now.
Using the wall (made of wood, he could feel) as his guide, he crept down the hall. About twenty paces down, his foot thundered onto a lower piece of ground. He froze up, waiting and listening. Fortunately, the sound didn’t reach the ears of the Lokak. When he got his bearings back, he found that he was standing at the top of a long staircase. He checked the wall, but there were no handrails or any other indication that the step was there. Taking it slower, and more carefully, he went down, making sure to find the next step before putting his weight on it.
He lost count somewhere after thirty steps, and they just kept going. Down and down. What was so dangerous about these spell books that they had to be hidden deep underground?
As he walked, his mind cycled back to Tomas and his mother. After the fight, the mother’s eyes had been wide in shock, but the boy’s eyes had been filled with genuine excitement. Leave it to a child to see someone like Ryoma and immediately accept him.And he thought I was cool.
Smiling a little, Ryoma continued his trek downward.
“The door won’t open!”
“Did you try the windows?”
“They won’t break either! I tried hitting it with everything I had!”
Carmae put a hand on her forehead. They were trapped. That mage-guy, Ralks, was powerful. More powerful than Carmae thought civilian mages could get. He was able to seal every door and window to the point where they were completely unbreakable. They had tried everything, and nothing budged. This trap is good.
She looked over her shoulder, and saw the two bodies lying on the floor. She didn’t know how long they would be out. An older man who introduced himself as Pual stood near them, holding a thick book in his hands. If they stirred, he was to hit them again, square on the head. His hands were shaking.
“We’re trapped!” Tomas’s mother wailed, sitting in a heap at one of the corners. Tomas was in her arms, squirming. “Oh, god! We’re trapped in here! What do we do?! ”
Carmae could’ve smacked her across the face. Instead, she took a deep breath, and put on the same face she wore when dealing with the queen, one of irritating calmness. “Now, now. We’re not done yet.“
The woman looked about ready to begin pulling on her face. “Yes, we are! We’re stuck here, there’s a demon running about, those bandits are looking for some book and—“
“Ryoma will take care—“
The woman’s face turned sour. She pointed an accusing finger at the Princess. “Your demon friend is a demon! Evil! We can’t trust him with—“
Carmae slapped her. Not as hard as she probably deserved, but it was enough. Tomas looked frightened and it silenced all the other murmuring voices in the room. All eyes were on her. “Now, you listen to me. We are stuck here, yes. But we are not defeated.”
Despite the slap, the woman’s face still twisted. “You trust that–that demon
she spat the word.
Carmae took a breath through her nose, loud enough to sound like a bull. Give me strength.
“Firstly, he’s only a half demon. Secondly, he’s my bodyguard. So yes, I definitely trust him.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “How can you though? How long have you known him?”
Carmae shook her head and turned away. “Long enough.”
“How long?” the woman asked again, louder.
Carmae was all too aware that every eye in the store was watching her. She was used to attention, but usually not like this. Usually she was trying to weasel out of something, or argue with some member of the royal family. She never had to try to keep morale up, never mind defending what she was quickly finding to be unpopular decision. “A day.”
“Oh god!” Tomas’s mother gave her boy a squeeze, and started to sob in his shirt.
“Yes, a day,” Carmae said, rising. She looked around, and addressed them all. “But a day is long enough for me. If he was against us, he would’ve killed us all by now. He certainly would not have run down there, after those men, if he was only out for himself.”
“What if he wants the book?” Pual asked.
“He can’t use magic,” Carmae answered, shaking her head. “Right now, he’s the only one attempting to save us all and trying to fight back against against those men. He is not hiding, he is not trying to hurt us, and he certainly is not
lying on the floor sobbing. If I didn’t trust him yesterday, I certainly do now. His whole priority has been protecting us and making sure we all make it out safely. And I, for one, am going to go down there and help him. Anyone coming with me?”
She knew it wasn’t the best speech, but when the woman pressed her, she realized that she didn’t have any concrete reason as to why she trusted Ryoma so completely. The most she could say was that she had a good hunch about him. And so far, he has certainly lived up to her expectations. Actions spoke louder than words. He didn’t ask anything in return, just the chance to walk down the street without hiding his face.
That was something worth fighting for.
Apparently, the rest of the crowd didn’t feel the same. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but it wasn’t a group of downcast people, staring at their feet.
She lifted her arms at the crowd before letting them drop back to her sides. “Anyone coming with me?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
No one raised their hand, or made any kind of movement. No one except Tomas. “You go get him back, Pwincess Caw-May!” he cheered, pumping his little fist into the air.
Carmae flashed him a small smile. “All right then. I’ll be back.” She turned on her heel, and ran toward the secret passage.
Ryoma had lost track of time, but finally, up ahead, something broke the darkness. It was the orange glow of a flame. Its light illuminated the tunnel just enough for Ryoma to see. And it showed the room up ahead, with three figures inside. Ryoma didn’t have to guess who they were.
“Open the damn safe!” the leader yelled.
“H-H-Hang on, these old hands aren’t what they used to b-be you know—“
“Just open it!”
Ryoma pressed himself against the wall, looking straight ahead. The three stood in what appeared to be an open, circular room with a high ceiling. The torchlight was able to reach the far back wall. The three men were focused on something against the far wall, a metal box with a large dial on the front. Kylion’s stooped form hunched in front of it as he turn the dial. The other two were behind him, watching.
It wasn’t long before Ryoma heard the safe swing open, and saw what was inside. There were lots of very old, very battered, books. His acute sense of sight allowed him to see that the books had fancy designs on many of the edges and that the print long since faded or rubbed off. But there was a hum of energy about them, a feel of power coming from the safe that even Ryoma, at his distance, could feel.
These were incredibly powerful spell books.
As Ryoma inched his way inside the room, they continued talking. He quietly drew his blade, hoping to catch them off guard.
“There you go,” Kylion said with a sigh. “Every Forbidden
spell book in my collection. King Rawlon had my grandfather bury them deep down here for safekeeping. My family has kept an eye on them since.” He gestured towards them with his hand.
Ralks moved eagerly toward the books and the leader leaned in, using the torch to see better. “Is it here? Is the one the guy wants in there?”
Ralks nodded. “Right here.” He stepped back, holding a tome as thick as Ryoma’s arm. He opened it one-handed with some difficulty, and started to flip through the pages.
Ryoma noticed that Kylion’s breathing had gotten heavier as he stared at the book Ralks had chosen. “Th-that’s one of the books of summons. It was forbidden long ago, by—“
“Shut it.” The leader waved his torch in the man’s face, forcing Kylion back a step. His tone shifted into thoughtful malevolence. “You know, we really don’t need him anymore.”
Ralks shook his head, not looking up from the book. “No.”
The leader took a step closer to Kylion, holding the torch like the weapon it was. Through his mask, his eyes were bright with malice. “I always wanted to see a human burn up. Watch their flesh melt off, their skin peel away.”
The shopkeeper’s face got paler. “N-N-N-No…” Kylion stepped backwards, tripping over his feet. He landed, hard, on his rear. “D-Don’t!” he cried, throwing his hands up to block the flames.
The leader kept waving the torch around, the light in the room moving with it. It passed over Kylion’s terrified face.
Ryoma made his move.
He ran across the room, making no attempt at hiding himself now. He came up behind the leader, who was too occupied to notice. Ryoma jammed his sword into the man’s back, right between the rubs and straight through the heart. The leader didn’t know what hit him. He coughed once, blood dibbling out around the wound, before falling limp. Ryoma dug his foot in the man’s back, pushing him off the blade. His body fell with a squelch.
Kylion’s eyes were even wider, his mouth quivering.
“Get out of here,” Ryoma said, just before the air was sucked from his lungs.
He managed to spin, gasping for breath, and saw Ralks. The mage held the spell book in one hand, and the other held the same green ball of energy that he had used earlier on Kylion.
Ryoma clutched at his neck, struggling to breathe. It was like he was drowning, but there was plenty of air around him. He just couldn’t get it into his lungs.
It hurt like hell!
Ralks was mumbling something now, a low chant that echoed off the walls. A spell? Had to be. What did Kylion say the book was called? What kind of spell was it?
The half-demon raised his foot, only to let it fall when his strength faded. His vision was going blurry–he needed air. Ryoma fumbled for his blade, but his hands weren’t obeying the way they should. He couldn’t find his blade, couldn’t see.
Ralk’s voice was getting louder, filling the room. He raised the book over his head, his voice rising to a loud roar. It was a language Ryoma had never heard before.I have to stop him! Have…to…
“Iksa la dois jius ka
!” Ralks thundered, and a burst of energy ripped through the room. Ryoma was knocked back, smacking the the wall behind him. The little breath he had was knocked from his lungs.
Only then could he breathe.
Ryoma blinked his eyes, attempting to gain focus. He saw Ralks lying across the room from him, having also slammed into a wall. But that wasn’t what drew Ryoma’s attention. Some kind of fire-red circle was in the air, made of swirling designs and an ancient characters. From it came a roar, louder than any sound Ryoma had ever heard, and the circle ripped itself open.
A monster, the same fire-red color as the circle, crawled through. On its dragon-like head was a bone mask through which it glared with bright eyes. Long, curling horns stuck out from either side of its face. The monster reached out a clawed hand, slammed it into the dirt, and pulled itself out of the circle with another roar.
It rose up, six, eight, ten, twelve feet tall with its head brushing the ceiling. The monster’s cracked exoskeleton was as thick around as a house, which a ribcage that wrapped a semi-solid middle. Where muscle and flesh should’ve been, there was only a hot, almost magma-like substance. The temperature in the room jumped at least forty degrees.
“Who has summoned me here? Who has summoned Iksa?!” the monster demanded. Its voice, like nails digging through gravel, was loud enough to shake the floor. Ryoma felt his whole body tremble from the sound. “Who was the one who opened the door?”
“I was!” Ralks yelled, from behind the monster. Ryoma saw him rise up, legs shaking. He was obviously trying to remain in control. “I brought you into this world, oh great Ik-“
The creature turned, whipping a hand out into Ralk’s body. The Lokak slammed into the wall again, the crunch of his bones echoing around the room. His body fell to the floor, utterly broken.
“I am free!” Iksa roared again, triumphant. “I have defeated my master! Humans are so weak!” Iksa seemed to be speaking to himself. “He didn’t even prepare a proper containment circle! Fool!”
Ryoma couldn’t help but agree. Ralks was a fool.But now I have to clean up his mess.
He picked himself off the ground, holding his blade in his hand with unsteady fingers. Sweat poured from his body, soaking his clothes. “You’re not free yet!” he called, with more bravado than he felt.
speak to me that way?!” Iksa whipped his head left and right, searching for the voice. His fiery gaze looked down and settled on Ryoma. “You? Do you know who I am?”
“No,” Ryoma admitted, his voice surprisingly steady. “And I don’t care, either. I just know you need to be killed before you cause more trouble.”
“Demon!” Kylion’s voice called out. He was huddled in a corner, gasping for breath in the hot air. “You can’t kill him! He’s a god of pure fire energy!”
“Silence!” The monster turned to Kylion. “An old human? No, older than that. Very old. You’re about ready to break as it is. Are you with this—“ He turned back to Ryoma. “Half-demon?”
Kylion paled. “No! W-well, I—“
The half-demon’s heart sank to his stomach. That was Carmae’s voice. “What’s—“
Iksa turned towards the entrance, eyes flashing. “Another human!?”
Ryoma raised his voice, loud enough to carry. “Carmae! Take Kylion and get out of here! I’ll handle this!” Ryoma didn’t take his eyes off the monster, but he heard quick footsteps from his right, where Kylion’s voice had come from.
Iksa laughed, a sound more grating than his regular speaking voice. “Fools! I’ll burn you all!” He swung his arm towards Carmae and Kylion.
Carmae was faster. She jumped out of the way, dragging Kylion with her.
Ryoma knew he needed to draw the monster’s attention elsewhere. “Hey, Boney!” he called out. “Over here!”
The monster roared again, swinging its head away from Carmae. That was good. And focused its gaze on Ryoma.
That was bad.
Iksa swung a hand out, the sharp bones mixing with the swirling fire and aiming right for Ryoma’s face. The half-demon ducked and although his hair got singed, the strike missed by inches. It smashed into the wall, cutting through and knocking dirt, wood and rock to the ground.
Ryoma rolled to the left, keeping his blade in his hands. He jumped to his feet, and slashed at the monster. It twisted, dodging the blow, and opened its mouth. Fire, hotter than dragon’s breath, and far more concentrated, flew at Ryoma.
He dove out of the way, felt the fire pass over his body, and burn his back.
“Ryoma!” Carmae yelled.
He gasped and pushed himself into a crouch, eyes on Iksa. “Carmae! Get out of here!”
“I want to help!”
“What can do you?!” he asked, his voice cracking with the question. It was true. Carmae was a hand-to-hand fighter. What could she could against something like Iksa?
Iksa turned on her, and unleashed another fireball. She rolled out of the way, the fire cutting through the wall behind her, knocking more debris to the ground.
“I can help!”
And, as much as Ryoma hated to admit it, Carmae was helping. She knew enough to keep her distance from Ryoma and ensured that the monster could not attack either of them at the same time. It kept swinging its head left and right, aiming a fireball, or striking out with one of its claws, but it was never able to hit either of them.
While it was focused on Carmae, Ryoma swung at one of its exposed arms. It whirled quickly around, the hot flame washed towards Ryoma’s face. He fell flat on his back, the fireball skimming just over his head.Damn.
“Ryoma!” Carmae called.
“I’m fine,” he grunted, picking himself off the ground.
“No, I know that. I think you can attack the skeleton!”
The creature roared, drowning out her next words. Ryoma ran to his right, seeing Carmae move in the same direction. She was fast, but her dress was soaked with sweat and he could tell she was getting tired.
Ryoma wiped his own sweat out of his eyes, taking a breath of hot air. Carmae said something about the skeleton right? She said he could attack it. Sudden realization swept through him! Every time he swung his sword, the monster made an effort to get out of the way before the strike could connect. If he was all powerful, he would let the demon get in close and burn him up. The skeleton must be some kind of weak spot. Finally, an opportunity!
The creature let out another roar, shaking the walls and knocking more debris down. Dirt fell on Ryoma’s head and stuck there. He wiped his eyes, and saw the monster lunging at Carmae, with more speed than before. Its eyes seemed to grow wider.
“You! Irritating girl!” it cried, swinging its arms at her.
“Carmae!” Ryoma yelled.
She slid under one of the hands, getting it to collide with the wall. Another rain of dirt and rock.
Ryoma used that opportunity to close the distance. He got up behind the monster so that the spine was right in front of him. He slashed at the bone, and when the creature moved out of the way, his sword cut one of the ribs.
The bone fell to the ground. Carmae’s right!
He saw Carmae watch the bone fall as she picked herself. She grinned. “I knew it!”
They kept up this strategy from either side of the creature, but it wasn’t long before Iksa became aware that only one of them was armed. Once he’d realized that, he focused primarily on Ryoma so that he couldn’t land another slash. Instead, he was forced to defend himself.
He slid under another claw strike, this one too close for comfort. But fortunately, Iksa’s hand got stuck in the hard rock behind the wall. The monster tugged on his arm, but it wouldn’t move.
That was when Carmae ran straight toward Ryoma.
“What are you doing?!” he asked, wide-eyed. She was breaking the plan!
She stopped in front of him, bent her back, and cupped her hands together. “Giving you a boost! Come on!”
Not sure where this would go, he ran toward her. When he got close, she hunched low, her hands pressed tight together. “Give me your foot!”
He put his foot into her hands. She lifted, grunting with effort and hefted him up into the air. “Go for the head!”
She had managed to give him enough air to land on the creature’s wide spine. Ryoma climbed up it, feeling the monster’s fire lapping at the soles of his feet. He used his free hand to propel himself forward, as Iksa pulled on its arm. Ryoma nearly fell when Iksa finally got its arm out of the wall, letting out an ear-shattering roar. It twisted around.
By then, it was too late.
Holding his blade in two hands, Ryoma leapt toward Iksa’s head. He could see the monster’s eyes widen in fear. He swung the blade down, right into Iksa’s skull. The bone split and splintered under the blade, blasting out with a force of heat, launching Ryoma backward.
He hit the ground, just as the creature raised its head in the loudest howl yet, one that released a column of impossibly bright fire into the ceiling. It was insanely hot! He picked himself off the ground, grunting with the effort, and ran towards the back.
He felt a hand on his side, and managed to see Carmae’s dirt stained face looking back at him. She opened her mouth, but he couldn’t hear her over the sounds of the creature yelling, rock crumbling, and fire burning.
He forced his eyes to stay open and looked back. The monster’s bones were literally melting into itself, the magma-like substance pouring out in an ooze onto the floor. The safe melted with it. The rock underneath crumbled and Iksa shot more flame into the ceiling.
“We have to get out of here!”
Carmae spun him toward the exit, and together they raced for the door together. Rock from the walls crumbled, kicking up a dirt cloud so thick he could barely see. His legs hit the crowd, he was coughing, and couldn’t get any air that wasn’t full of dirt. He forced his legs to keep pumping, Carmae right by his side.
They didn’t stop until the roars ceased.
He and Carmae found Kylion on their way. The old man had spent the fight making his way back through the tunnel, climbing the seemingly endless amount of stairs. Ryoma wanted to help him walk, but the old man went to Carmae instead and no one argued. Soundlessly, they made the trek back up to the bookstore.
Ryoma was exhausted. He wanted to sit down, right there on the steps, and sleep. But he knew that if he stopped moving, he’d never actually make it back to the store. He glanced at Carmae and saw her face screwed up in determination. They just kept moving, one step at a time.
After what felt like an eternity, they finally made it back to the bookstore. Bruised, battered and dirty, but not defeated.
Tomas was the first to greet them. “You’we back! And you’we covewed in diwt! What happened?” he asked in his bright voice. Behind him, the other patrons didn’t look nearly so enthusiastic.
Ryoma forced a smile. “Fought a fire monster. We won.”
Tomas’s eyes widened, and he bounced left and right. “Weally? A monster made of fiwe?! And you won!?”
“Tomas!” called his mother. “What are you—Oh, thank heavens. They’re back.”
Everyone turned to face the three of them and got to work. Pual brought over Kyliona’s chair, and he and Carmae helped the old man sit down. Once he’d been seated, she sat on the ground, then fell onto her back.
Ryoma did the same, letting out a sigh of relief.
Tomas copied him.
Carmae turned to Ryoma. “We did it.”
He sighed, raising his eyebrows as he considered the feat. “Yeah, we did.” He laughed.
Carmae joined his laughter and for a moment or two, everything seemed okay. They had fought some monster-thing, and survived. “I knew we could count on you,” she said, proudly.
Carmae shook her head. “You did the work.”
“Heh,” Ryoma smiled. “I guess I did.”
“You weally fought a fiwe monster?” Tomas asked, looking at Ryoma with stars in his eyes.
“Yeah,” Ryoma nodded. “A big, dangerous one that shot fire from its mouth, hotter than dragon’s fire.”
Ryoma lay there with his eyes open but he wasn’t seeing anything. He felt so tired, too tired to even sleep. He just stared through the wide skylight on the ceiling, watching the clouds. Someone announced that the doors were unlocked now, which only made sense, since Ralks was dead, and it reminded Ryoma how disgusted he was with the Lokak. Ralks truly was a fool, summoning that kind of creature. Whatever it was, it could’ve done some serious damage to the Kingdom.
Carmae asked for water and Pual brought some over. He skirted around Ryoma to bring it to her, but at Carmae’s insistence, he helped the half-demon to drink. The water was heavenly, helping to wash away the ash that was in Ryoma’s mouth.
The crowd had started to leave the store by this time, Carmae giving swift instructions to call in some knights to take care of the Lokak. Sound came back to the store, as people moved about, helping wherever they could. Ryoma just stayed on the floor, Tomas by his side.
“What’s your name?” Tomas asked.
“Ryoma Akure,” Ryoma answered, yawning.
It was then that Tomas’s mother realized where her son was. She hurried over and scooped him up in his arms, glaring at Ryoma the whole time. Ryoma just shook his head and looked back to the ceiling.
Tomas squirmed in his mother’s grasp. “He fought a fiwe monster! He did!”
His mother sighed. “Tomas, please.”
“Wyoma fought a big evil fire monster! He told me! He’s so cool!”
His mother slapped him across the face, the crack loud enough to silence the entire book store. All eyes turned to her. She looked right into Tomas’s tear-filled eyes. “Look at me, Tomas.” Tomas looked away. “No, look! That man, there,” she pointed to Ryoma. “That’s a demon. An evil monster. And a liar. Don’t you ever talk to him, or anyone that looks like him, again. Do you hear me!?”
Tomas’s eyes spilled over with tears. Ryoma had a number of things he wanted to say to her, but he bit back his tongue. It would only make matters worse.
He, however, didn’t count on Carmae. She had risen while he watching Tomas and his mother, and strode over to them. Her brow was furrowed and her lips were pursued. He’d never seen her looking so mad. It was frightening.
listen to me
.” She stared Tomas’s mother in the face. “This demon you’re talking about? This guy, right here?” She pointed. “He just saved your lives. And probably a ton of other people too, assuming whatever we just fought down there escaped. He didn’t have to do that. He could’ve just run away. He didn’t. He risked his life and fought. And won. He fought by himself, while the rest of you stayed up here and cowered in corners. He’s more of a man than any of you!” Her fists were clenched, and shaking. Ryoma saw a lot of people lower their heads as Carmae continued.
“Don’t you ever call him a liar. Don’t you ever call him a monster. Or, let me tell you, I will make your life a living hell. I am a princess. I have the means.” She turned to the rest of the store. “Now, the least, and I mean, the absolute very least
you can do, all of you, is look him in the eye and say ‘thank you.’ He deserves your respect. He was braver than all of you, combined. He—“
“Carmae,” Ryoma said, still lying down. “Please stop.”
She turned on him, tears in her eyes. “No, Ryoma. I won’t. As long as you under my care, I will make sure you get the treatment you deserve. I—“
Kylion cleared his throat pointedly. All eyes turned on him. Even Ryoma turned his head. Kylion looked down at the demon from his chair, and made eye contact with him. “Thank you, Ryoma,” he said in a tired voice. “The books you want to buy today, and any other future purchases, are covered.”
It was the only ‘thank you’ he received. Everyone else, in silence, walked out of the door, one by one. A few looked back, but not at Ryoma. Tomas’s mother was last, and the little boy struggled in her arms the whole time.
“Wyoma! I believe you! I-“ Before he could finish, his mother clamped her hand over his mouth, and carried him out of the door.
Carmae fell to her knees, tears in her eyes. She was doing her best to keep them in check, but a few rolled down her face, cutting streaks through the dirt and grime. “I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Why…?”
Ryoma pushed himself up, and walked over to her. He didn’t feel much of anything right now, outside of exhaustion. “People don’t change overnight,” he said. “One speech can’t change years and years of resentment. That kind of turnaround is for fairy tales. Real life doesn’t have happy endings.”
He reached a hand to her, and she grasped it, letting him help her to her feet. “But,” he continued, looking back at Kylion. “It can have little victories, and those are enough.”
The old man nodded. “You are always welcome here, Ryoma. I am truly sorry for everything.”
Ryoma shook his head. “I’m sorry I destroyed your safe room and—“
The old man held up a hand. “Probably for the best. Those books were for archival purposes, but perhaps they are better off destroyed. Their power was too great. Now,” he yawned widely. “I’m going to sleep the rest of the day away here, in my chair. Please lock the door on your way out, and take any books you want.”
Ryoma approached the old man, and extended his hand. The old man shook it.
Then, he and Carmae walked out.
Inside the Kastle, Ryoma stood with Carmae outside of her room. He wanted nothing more than to wash away the dirt and grime plastered to his face and then pass out on his bed. One glance at Carmae told him that she was thinking the same thing.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling at her.
She returned it. “It was nothing.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“It didn’t accomplish anything.”
“But, it was the first time someone actually stood up for me,” he said. “No one’s ever cared enough about me to do that. But you do. You looked me right in the eye the first time you saw me.”
Carmae rolled her eyes. “After I kicked you.”
“Into a wall, yes,” he laughed at the memory. “But Carmae, those little things you do that you’re not even aware you do mean a lot. At least to me. So, for that, thanks.”
She sniffled once, and wiped her nose. No more tears though. She playfully punched him on the shoulder. “Clean yourself up. You smell like a burnt chicken.”
“You’re not much better.”
Carmae flipped her hair back, raising her nose and closing her eyes. “I am a lady. It is physically impossible for me to smell worse than a man.”
“That’s not true.”
She winked one eye open. “I could have you killed for that remark.”
“But you won’t.”
She smiled. “You’re right. I won’t.” She waved her hand. “Go get cleaned up. I’ll see you for dinner?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
She nodded, swinging open the door, and disappearing inside.
He turned to his own room. It looked much the same as he left it: plain, with no decorations. But, he had a shelf in one corner.
And finally some books to put on it.