Shoes tapped upon the stone floor of Gaelan’s small weapon and tool shop. If one were to listen closely, he or she would notice a noticeable rhythm. Unsurprisingly, the one tapping his foot was Ian. For the first couple hours of watching the shop, he occupied himself by admiring different weapons. Unfortunately, he ran out of things to marvel at and ended up sitting on the plain wooden stool behind the display counter, all the while humming a catchy tune his friend used to play over and over. His foot subconsciously tapped to the rhythm.
He itched to go through the doorway right behind him and help in the forge. However, the wound just above his left hip would likely reopen if he were to do any blacksmithing. Being confined to the shop area bored him to no end despite agreeing to it. Due to the nature of Gaelan’s smithing, as well as his location, customers were few and far between. In short, no customers visited the shop yet even though morning had already gone and passed.
For a while, Ian sat on the stool with chin in his hands, impatiently eyeing the shop entrance for people as the seconds ticked by. All of this reminded him why he had avoided customer service jobs after high school.
Then, around noon, the door swung open, and a small party entered. The small brass entrance bell tinkled above their heads. The party consisted of four members, two men and two women.
The man who entered first held the door for the others. He looked about thirty years old or so and had a fairly tall and sturdy build. His appearance was plain save for his noticeably large and pointy nose. Also, his clothes were fairly common for one of humble birth in Conncinnanta, consisting of a simple woolen shirt and loose-fitting leather trousers. Before closing the door behind his party, he greeted Ian with a friendly wave. Although the man looked confused by Ian’s presence, he quickly moved on to look at some armor.
The second man was the shortest in the group, yet his lean build indicated a high level of dexterity. He donned a sleek appearance and walked with a smooth, decisive stride. Well-kept clothes added to the man’s sleek impression. His short black hair was slicked back with some sort of hair product and his eyes exuded intelligence. He only acknowledged Ian with a slight nod.
Behind the men, the women observed all of the displayed equipment with inquisitive gazes. Based on their curiosity, this was likely their first visit. One of them was rather tall and blocked Ian’s view from the redhead behind her. Ian surmised that the taller woman was likely only a few centimeters shorter than himself. Adding to her stature, chiseled muscles bulged underneath her comparatively large clothing. Silky black hair parted around her face, barely tickling her shoulders. In a way, her smooth facial features belied her toned body. A quick glance in Ian’s direction revealed piercing brown eyes which glowed like purified amber. Also, it was Ian’s first time seeing a woman that wore pants in this world, although they were certainly baggy enough to adhere to the societal norms of modesty.
Behind the taller woman, Ian noticed the second woman picking up a rapier from a display rack. She examined the blade with her back turned to him. As soon as the first woman moved enough out of the way for Ian to see the second woman, he was surprised to see her long, fiery red hair which reached straight down her back with only a hint of curliness. Ian couldn’t recall seeing a single redhead during his time in Concinnata. For a few seconds, he hoped the woman would turn so that he could see her face. It was just plain curiosity… really…
“Excuse me,” the first man said from the right side of the room.
“Did you need help with something?” Ian asked with his best customer service smile. Maybe one day he would be able to be as real with customers as Gaelan, but that day was not today.
“Sort of,” The sturdy-looking man answered. “I was just wondering if you were helping out here or something since I never saw you here before. Of course, I’ve only been here a handful of times, so please forgive my curiosity.”
“Oh, I see,” Ian said, nodding. Inwardly, he did his best to memorize the face of this customer just in case he happened to be a regular or something. Continuing, he said, “Yes, Gaelan took me on as an apprentice about a month ago.”
“Apprentice?” The man looked confused. “I always thought he did not take apprentices… I must have been mistaken.”
“Well, I got lucky, I suppose,” Ian replied. In order to not seem rude, he asked, “I take it you come here often enough to notice such a thing, then?”
“I guess…” The man answered with a heavy nod. Then, he gestured at the sleek-looking man and said, “My friend Kane and I have come here from time to time over the last few years. My name is Rodger.”
“My name is Ian. Nice to meet you,” Ian introduced himself in return.
When Ian gave his name, the redheaded woman who had been looking at the rapier jumped slightly and quickly spun on her toes to face him, catching his attention. He locked eyes with her. Bright eyes that were of the same green as a grassy plain stared back at him in shock. Her tender lips barely opened as she hesitantly asked, “Ian?”
For a few moments, he stared blankly at the young woman that looked strangely familiar. Then, it hit him. “Sarah?” he asked.
“It really is…” The red-haired woman’s eyes suddenly displayed anxiousness, and she began to tremble ever so slightly. Her small hands tightened upon the handle of the rapier until her knuckles turned white. “No… no, no, no…” she whispered while shaking her head back and forth. Then, before Ian could say anything, she turned and bolted out the door… with the rapier in hand.
“Hey, kid!” The sturdy-looking woman called out, glaring at Ian with accusative undertones. “Did you do something to Sarah?”
The fact that she called him a kid irritated the fire out of him. However, he was in a far more confused state than the three customers. Why did she run? He asked himself, trying to wrap his mind around the situation. His heart leapt into his throat. They were friends, weren’t they? Even before that, wasn’t she dead?
Ian stared blankly at the open doorway, not knowing what to do. Surprisingly, a warm sensation budded within his heart. Emotions that once felt distant drew close. As he continued to stare at the doorway, he felt a growing necessity to chase after Sarah. Seeing her again so unexpectedly threw him for a loop, but he believed that if he did nothing right now, he might never see her again. Recalling the moment three years prior when he heard about her disappearance, he determined to chase her down. He did not want to lose the sole person who had been his friend amidst the hardest time in his life for a second time. His heart boiled with the desire to confront his friend; to find out why she had run away; to find out what happened to her almost three years ago.
Filled with motivation, he abruptly stood, startling the three that had arrived with Sarah. “I’ll be back shortly. Let me grab Gaelan,” He said. With that, he opened the door to the smithy and yelled, “Hey, Gaelan, I need to go do something, but there are people here! Switch out with me!”
Before Gaelan could mouth a single word to his foolhardy apprentice, the door slammed shut.
“What’s gotten into him?” Gaelan asked himself, scratching his beard in contemplation.
The three who came to the shop with Sarah were even more confused. The woman nearly followed Ian out the door, but the tall man, Rodger, stopped her in her tracks by grasping her shoulder from behind.
“Let them be, Valerrie” He said.
“What are you saying? Didn’t you see how upset Sarah was?”
“That guy obviously has a longer history with her than we do.”
“And that is what I’m worried about.”
The sleek-looking man, Kane, mentioned, “She also ran off with one of the shop’s items.”
“Ah… that is true…” Valerrie muttered. Then, she clenched her fists in frustration and complained, “That girl is always causing me heaps of trouble.”
“And yet you help her anyway,” Rodger commented.
“And yet I help her anyway…”
Suddenly interrupting their banter, Gaelan swung open the smithy door while saying, “Sorry about my apprentice, folks. Hope you’re willing to settle for an old geezer like myself helping you out.”
“The fault is our own, sir,” Rodger replied, bowing his head ever so slightly. “Our party member accidentally walked off with one of your wares, so your… apprentice… ran to get her.”
Gaelan raised a brow. What kind of fool would ever think to steal from him?
“Well, it seems like they already had some history together,” Valerrie added. “She acted rather out of character. If you could forgive her, we would appreciate it.”
Gaelan’s eyes widened upon hearing that Ian knew this little thief. It would seem that an interesting evening awaited him. Setting aside his thoughts on the subject for the time being, he smirked and replied, “Mercy shouldn’t be too difficult in this situation. Now, could I interest you in some new weapons or armor?”
* * * * *
Within seconds of exiting Gaelan’s little store, Ian sprinted through the lawn’s front gate, barely avoiding the little sign which said Marlow Smithy while speeding past. Ignoring the near collision, he dashed into the middle of the street and searched in every direction until he spotted Sarah’s distinctly red hair in the distance to the North. Without further ado, he broke out into a dead sprint again, drawing the attention of a few bystanders with his sudden burst of speed.
The wind bristled against the front of his body as he darted past every other pedestrian. He focused his attention on Sarah’s distant figure. Several minutes passed. He continued to chase after her, and his surroundings gradually became unfamiliar. He had never traveled this far north in Conncinnanta before, but he ignored the unsettling thought.
Further and further he chased her, gradually closing the distance. In spite of the plain dress Sarah was wearing, he found it difficult catching up to her. Even with tennis shoes instead of boots he was not quite fast enough.
Although he did not realize it, a cheesy grin was plastered on his face. For some reason, this chase was making him excited. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. He sprinted faster than he ever had before. The experience excited him enough that he did not notice the air burning in his lungs or the sweat staining his gray shirt and khaki colored cargo pants.
Minute by minute, he closed the distance, but Sarah was still a good ways ahead. Then, she slowed down and looked back. Even though she was still more than a block away, Ian could clearly tell that she was extremely startled upon seeing him chase after her. Almost instantly, she took off with renewed vigor at an even quicker pace than before.
Within seconds, he knew she would outrun him. What kind of Physical Affinity did she have to do that while wearing a dress?
Without thinking too much about it, Ian tried something similar to what he had seen Gaelan use against the black bear almost a month before. He quickly halted and planted his right foot onto the ground. The now familiar cool sensation of Dark Matter particles coursed through his veins into the ground, connecting his consciousness to it as though creating an extra body part out of it.
Sighing in relief that he actually succeeded, Ian stepped toward Sarah, but his head immediately began to throb and blood trickled from his left nostril.
Nearby, someone said, “Ah, he must only have Medium Earth Affinity and overexerted himself just now.” Other spectators seemed to agree. For a moment, Ian glanced at them and wondered how they could guess his level so easily, but refocused on his goal. Due to the sudden headache, Ian cooled down enough to realize that Dark Matter had put him into an almost drunken state just now. Normally, he would not have been so brazen as to use such a large amount of Earth Affinity just to stop someone from running away.
“Well, I guess it turned out alright…” he muttered while using the hem of his shirt to wipe away some of the blood from his nose. Just as he was about to walk over to Sarah, he realized that the gash in his side was throbbing. Luckily, it was not bleeding, so he ignored it.
With that, Ian trotted over to Sarah who was now lying on the ground holding her nose… which also happened to be bleeding.
“Looks like we are bloody nose buddies, eh?” Ian jested.
Rather than say anything, Sarah looked up at him with a blank stare. Her face contorted with unease.
“So,” Ian spoke with a straight face, “why did you run away just now?”
For a few moments, she said nothing. A silent awkwardness filled the area. Onlookers curiously observed the strange duo. As the silence continued, Sarah nervously eyed the people around them, which caught Ian’s attention.
“Ah, I forgot. You aren’t a fan of people…” Ian muttered, drawing Sarah’s attention back up to him. “Do you want to go somewhere else to talk for a bit?” Ian asked. A few ripples in the ground beneath his foot signaled that he was not going to let her run again, bloody nose or not.
Surprisingly unperturbed by the rippling cobblestone, Sarah nodded.
Smiling, Ian reached out his hand to help her up. Briefly, he thought she might not grab it since she hesitated. However, she did reach up to grab it after wiping the blood off of her hand. While reaching out, she hesitated again, but eventually grabbed Ian’s outstretched hand. He then pulled her to her feet. Once on her feet, Sarah wiped the dirt off of her long dress.
When Ian looked at her small nose, he saw that her blood was… frozen? It was strange, but he ignored it for the time being.
“Uh, now that I think about it, I have no idea where we are…” Ian said, shyly scratching his head. “Would you be able to find somewhere to talk?”
“Yeah,” Sarah quietly answered. All sorts of emotions flitted across her face. She glanced at Ian for a moment before turning away again. Inside, she felt embarrassed. She did not know what to say. She was scared. She was nervous. Something as unexpected as seeing Ian again had never crossed her mind as a possibility before, and she ran away from him without thinking. Well, he chased her down, which frightened her yet made her feel thankful at the same time.
“One second. I need to fix the road real quick.” Ian said, breaking Sarah from her contemplation.
Ian stepped over to the spire and reached out toward it with his right hand. Black particles swirled around his arm as he willed the dirt and stone to sink back to its original position, or at least as close to its original position as he could get it with his lack of experience. By now, his head was pounding, which made him realize how much he overexerted himself. Thinking such, he sighed.
While Ian set about returning the street to its original state, three men dressed in well-kempt black and gold uniforms approached them. Silver bear insignias were pinned to simple caps atop each of their heads. Gold strips of woolen material were sewn to their shoulders. Two of the men only had one stripe while the man in front had three. Ian assumed it signified rank.
Over his shoulder, he heard Sarah breathe out an exasperated sigh. He couldn’t tell if it was directed at the three men or himself.
The man with three gold stripes stepped directly beside Ian and asked, “Is there a problem, sir?”
“Uh, not really. Just trying to fix this real quick.”
The man glanced up at Sarah and raised a brow. Then he furrowed them. “You look familiar…”
“It’s probably your imagination,” she instantly replied, despite one of the other officers pointing at her with a stunned expression.
“Well, then…” The lead officers said, “What transpired here?”
“We had a personal dispute,” Ian answered, voice strained due to the exertion of using magic with low fortitude.
The officer raised a brow again. “And the circumstances?”
“She accidentally left… my store with one of my products. I had to chase her down,” Ian explained. He nearly mentioned that it was actually Gaelan’s shop she stole from, but, for some reason, his subconscious convinced him to refrain from doing so.
“Oh, I see. Understandable. It does seem that you avoided involving anyone else, so thanks for that. Would have been annoying for us if you didn’t.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“We’ll leave you to it, then. I’d help, but no one in my patrol can use Earth Affinity. Sorry.”
“It’s… fine,” Ian replied, wincing in between words due to a sharp throb near his temple. “Only right that I clean up my own mess.”
“If only more people had that attitude…” The officer mumbled. He sighed. Then, he turned to his men and said, “Come on, you greenhorns. We’ve got to get you to your assignment.”
“Yes, sir!” The two younger officers acknowledged.
With that, their patrol left Ian and Sarah to their business. After “fixing” the road, Ian stood. A wave of pain shot through his hip. Gritting his teeth, he examined his wound again. Pus leaked through onto his shirt.
“Are you alright?” Sarah asked, eyes glued to the steadily growing stain on his hip.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Then, with a sly grin which belied his bloody nose and pale face, he asked, “So, where are we going, miss self-proclaimed Queen Weeb?”
“Kek…” Sarah winced at his comment.