A little after noon, Ian realized that Sarah had led him to a small park. A few families were sharing picnics together near a bubbling stream which flowed as far as the eye could see to either direction of the park. Several oaks, maples, flowers, and bushes swayed gently in the breeze throughout the area. All of the vegetation were planted in well-organized rectangular blocks.
Sarah led him across a small wooden bridge to the other side of the stream. The planks creaked under their weight but held firm. A thicker set of oak trees stood above the rest of the park in the middle of the park. They beelined straight toward a clearing among the trees. In the center of the clearing was a large boulder with countless names carved into it. Numerous bundles of flowers were piled around it in a respectful manner. From what he could tell, this boulder, which was at least twice as tall as him, was a monument. The solemn atmosphere made him wonder why Sarah brought him here but, before he said anything, she sat cross-legged on the grass in front of it and Ian followed suit.
Leaning his cheek on an uplifted palm, Ian asked, “So, why did you run away from me after not seeing me for three years?”
“Right to the point, already?” She asked. However, she did not seem particularly surprised. A minute of silence passed while Ian waited for her to answer. Eventually, she soberly muttered, “I’m probably not the same person you remember…”
“Haaah… such a cliché statement…” Ian sulkily remarked.
“That’s… uh, I guess…” Sarah was taken aback. Although she was not sure what to expect, she was certainly not expecting him to say that.
Staring at the monument with a very serious expression, Ian said, “People change no matter where they are.”
“Are you referring to your parents?” Sarah inquired.
“Well, sort of,” Ian answered while furrowing his brows. “I was referring to when my mother said I had changed and despised me for it.”
“Oh, that,” Sarah replied before going silent.
“So,” Ian continued, “what I’m trying to say is: I don’t care if you’ve changed.”
Once again, silence fell between the two of them. Far away, the sounds of children’s laughter echoed faintly over the rustling leaves.
Desiring to reconnect with his friend, Ian said, “I was pretty bummed when you disappeared three years ago. Gave you up for dead.”
Sarah looked like she was hesitating to reply. Eventually, she said, “I didn’t really want to see you again…”
Ouch… Ian thought as he winced on the outside. Sarah’s response hurt, and he had no idea how to take it.
“Uh, I guess I actually have mixed feelings about it…” Sarah continued, scratching her head.
Ian was curious now. He wanted answers. Although he was tempted to pepper her with questions, he refrained in order to let Sarah speak.
“I’ve… been through a lot of-” she briefly scanned the surroundings with a sharp glance, “-s*** since coming here…” Sarah muttered.
Been a while since I heard a woman swear… Ian thought.
Focusing her gaze on the monument, Sarah maintained a solemn expression as she said, “The anime I used to force you to watch… is full of lies. There was no happiness here in this new world; no brand new life for me. Just getting by is a struggle now, especially since-” She abruptly stopped mid-sentence. “Uh, nevermind…”
Come on…you have to finish sentences like that, Ian thought, frowning. Once again, silence fell. Ian was going to have to add this to his list of top ten most awkward conversations. Another minute or two passed before he broke the silence by asking, “If you could go back, would you?”
“To Earth? I don’t know…” Sarah answered. “It’s not even worth thinking about at this point.”
“Even if I said you could?” Ian asked.
This time, Sarah gave him a strange look. “Don’t tell me you have a way to get back…”
In response, Ian smirked and said, “May~be…”
“Oh my God… you have a way back to Earth. You’re like a damned protagonist…” Sarah said in astonishment. “If I had had that… no, nevermind…” When her sentence cut off again, her expression soured.
Seriously, stop doing that, Ian thought. By now, he knew there was something she was trying to hide, but it would do him no good to prod. The times when his mother had done the same to him pounded that lesson into him.
“When did you arrive here?” Sarah asked.
“A little over a month ago, I guess,” Ian answered.
“A month and you can use Earth Affinity like that already? You need a nerf…”
“A what?” Ian asked. He was sure he had heard those terms before, but could not recall what they meant.
“Wait… you said you are Gaelan’s apprentice, right?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah, why?” Ian replied.
“You do know how famous he is, right?”
“Sort of,” Ian hesitantly answered. In all honesty, he did not get out much. Even when he did, finding out about Gaelan’s reputation was not a priority at all. Therefore, the best he could do was conjecture on the subject.
“My god… you have so much protagonist syndrome that I feel like I’m going to be sick… Don’t tell me your Innate Gifts are OP as well,” Sarah said with furrowed brows.
“Maybe. I don’t really know. Gaelan said I have High Fire Affinity, High Fire Resistance, Medium Earth Affinity, High Physical Affinity, and a couple extraneous ones,” Ian clarified. He left out the question mark section, considering he had no idea what they actually were, and the Medium Curse/Charm Resistance since it was practically useless.
“Oh! My! God!” Sarah exclaimed as she rolled onto the ground face down. Like a child, she clobbered the grass with her fists, pounding holes into the dirt. Apparently, her Physical Affinity was not half bad either. Of course, her running speed earlier clued Ian in on the fact that she was faster than him, too. Still, he chuckled at her tantrum. For some reason, he felt like bragging a bit.
Eventually, Sarah calmed down. With her face still planted in the grass, she muttered with a muffled voice, “Well, I guess there are people with better Gifts than you, but still… you have it good. Like, seriously. I only have High Ice Affinity, Medium Ice Resistance, and Medium Physical Affinity, yet people thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
“Your Gifts aren’t too bad,” Ian pointed out despite only having Gaelan, Edmund, and himself as comparisons.
“I know. That’s why you are OP,” Sarah complained. “Oh, your fortitude sucks ass, though, doesn’t it?”
“That’s what Gaelan told me,” Ian admitted. The speckles of dried blood below his nose were too much of an indicator to deny it.
“I guess you aren’t too OP, then. You’re probably super limited when you use it,” Sarah said. For a moment, she fell silent again, but then said, “Man, it’s strange talking to you again, especially about magic. It kinda feels like a dream.”
“Hmm, I think I know what you mean,” Ian replied. “I never expected to run into someone I know, let alone someone I thought was dead.”
“Yeah,” Sarah pursed her lips. “You think other people from Earth are here?”
“Possibly,” Ian answered. “I’ve heard of at least one so far.”
Rolling her head in the dirt in order to look at Ian, she asked, “Really?”
Ian tried his hardest not to laugh at her dirty appearance. After stifling a chuckle, he said, “The guy was Gaelan’s friend.”
“Nope, and Gaelan has even gone to Earth with me a couple times,” Ian said.
“So you do have a way back. I want to stab you right now,” Sarah said. She was joking, right?
“Speaking of stabbing,” Ian said, pointing at the rapier sitting on the grass next to her, “you stole that.”
Sarah sat up and looked at the rapier as though she had not even remembered bringing it this whole way. “Uh… I guess I should return it, shouldn’t I?”
“Yep, so show me the way back,” Ian said, giving her a threatening smirk.
“Okay… uh… does that mean we’re done here?”
“We still have plenty of time for interrogation along the way back,” Ian answered, maintaining his smirk. “I still need to ask what you’ve been up to for the past few years.”
Ian stood and patted dirt off his pants. Then, he extended a hand to Sarah. Unlike the previous time, she grabbed it without hesitating, though an exasperated sigh escaped her lips.
As soon as they set off side-by-side toward the road, Ian asked, “So, seriously, what have you been doing in Concinnata?”
“I joined the Adventurer Guild. What else would I be doing?” She replied.
“Wanted to follow in the footsteps of your favorite anime characters?” Ian asked with a knowing grin.
“Kek… no… of course not,” Sarah answered, averting her eyes. Then, she looked back at Ian and asked, “Why didn’t you join the Adventurer or Mercenary Guilds? You probably could have become famous.”
“Didn’t want to,” Ian answered. “Went to the Visitor Center to look for other options instead.”
“Visitor Center? They have something like that here?” Sarah looked befuddled when she asked that.
Ian halted, shook his head, and muttered, “Yeah, they do.”
From there, they ended up reminiscing about stupid stuff she used to force him to do for her online videos and even heartwarming experiences like the time Ian dragged her from her den to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. That one was an awkward experience for all of them except Alayna. Despite all of the fond memories, Ian never once heard Sarah’s unique laughter. The most he got from her was a pained nostalgic smile that fell short of reaching her eyes.
Around the time the surroundings became familiar to Ian again, Sarah surprised him by asking, “How are my parents?”
“Ah,” Ian paused and rubbed a hand over his beard.
“Are they out of jail yet?”
“Yeah, that was a while ago, but,” he paused again, scratched the back of his neck, breathed deeply through his nose, and hesitantly explained, “They passed away in a car accident a few months back.”
Sarah did not look surprised, or even upset. Honestly, Ian expected as much.
“Was it their fault?” She asked.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
“Were they drinking?”
“Did they take others with them?”
Ian hesitated. Thinking back on it, he recalled hearing that a mother and her young child were in the vehicle Sarah’s parents had crashed headlong into. Sighing, he answered, “Yes.”
Sarah groaned and kicked a loose stone. It hurtled through the air at a ridiculous speed until out of sight. Gaze downcast, she mumbled, “Dammit. They should have died alone.”
Ian did not know how to continue the conversation from such a statement. In the end, they traveled the rest of the way to the Marlow’s home in silence.
Later in the evening, they arrived at the front gate. Since the sun was setting, the air began to cool and now carried with it the chill of an early Autumn breeze.
“Uh, do you think Master Gaelan will be angry? From what I have heard, he is a bit standoffish,” Sarah asked, face shrouded with anxiousness.
“Nah, he’ll probably be cool with it,” Ian answered, shaking his head. “Not sure why people would think of him like that. He is actually really friendly. Well, I suppose his humor is a bit dry and is usually made at the expense of others, so it could make sense to see him that way.”
“Oh, I see,” Sarah muttered. She still seemed hesitant to walk back in after running off with the rapier earlier.
“Come on. I bet Gaelan will want to talk with you, anyway,” Ian said as he stepped through the gate. Not wanting to be left behind, Sarah trotted after him.
While walking toward the smithy with hands in his pockets, Ian noticed that smoke was no longer rising from the smokestack. Either Gaelan was done smithing for the day, or he had stopped in order to entertain the three members of Sarah’s party. Thinking about it now, running off on them like that was rather rude despite the necessity of such an action. It ended up coming down to which choice he would regret least, and the Dark Matter helped him make the choice to chase Sarah down. Looking back, he regretted nothing.
When Ian opened the door to the shop, no one was there. Considering the possibility that Gaelan might still be in the smithy itself, he led Sarah to the back room. Once again, there was no one there. The fire died hours earlier by the looks of it. Since entering a smithy was an unusual experience for Sarah, she looked around out of curiosity.
“You can just leave the rapier on the table over there for now,” Ian said, pointing at a wooden table in the corner of the room.
“Okay,” Sarah replied, immediately following Ian’s instruction. She looked stiff. Perhaps anxiousness still clung to her.
Most likely, Gaelan was already inside the house, so Ian led Sarah to the back door. Before he could open it, she asked, “Is it actually okay for me to go in?”
“Absolutely. I live here. That makes you a guest,” Ian answered without hesitation.
“What? You live here?” Sarah asked, taken aback.
“Is that strange?” Ian asked in return.
“Yes, it’s strange,” Sarah answered. She bit her lip in frustration before saying, “I had to work my ass off just to rent some space, and you get free living quarters. It’s not fair, not fair at all.”
“Oh, I see…” Ian muttered. Since he was not sure how to respond to that, he simply opened the door.
Upon entering, Ian was immediately greeted by Gaelan with, “Oh, if it isn’t my rude apprentice who ran off on his customers earlier.”
There was a humorous grin on his face, which was a good sign. By happenstance, the aforementioned customers were sitting on the couch drinking… coffee. Seeing that, Ian’s eyebrow twitched.
“Yeah, I’m back,” Ian replied in monotone. We are almost out of coffee. What is Gaelan doing sharing it? he thought. Well, on the bright side, more people would be willing to buy it when I have enough to sell.
“Hoh~ I see you even brought the Ice Queen back with you,” Gaelan added when Sarah cautiously stepped inside behind Ian.
“The what?” Ian asked. Realizing that Gaelan was talking about Sarah, he faced her, raised his brow, and grinned mockingly.
“Don’t say anything,” Sarah snapped, sending a sharp glare that could pierce stone in his direction.
“It’s not like I was going to mention anything about how you still have a weeby title or anything,” Ian said while smirking and struggling to stifle a chuckle.
“Ugh… I said don’t say anything. It hurts to be reminded of that,” Sarah muttered. Her brows furrowed in frustration.
“I’ve never seen Sarah so expressive,” The woman from earlier muttered. She was sitting on the rocking chair by the fireplace elegantly sipping her coffee with a pleasant expression.
As soon as the woman spoke, Sarah’s glare turned in her direction. “Got a problem with that, Valerrie?” She asked.
“No. It’s just interesting,” The woman named Valerrie answered nonchalantly with a wave of her hand. Her calm demeanor threw Ian off, considering he only saw anger from her earlier.
“Good to see you are okay, though. You had us worried,” the bigger guy from Sarah’s party said. If Ian remembered correctly, his name was Rodger. It would seem that he was rather soft-spoken for a man of his size. Upon hearing Rodger’s words, the sleek looking guy, Kane, nodded.
“You didn’t have to worry. I was fine,” Sarah firmly replied.
“Ha! Sure you were,” Valerrie said. “Your reaction when you saw Master Gaelan’s apprentice made me think he hurt you before.”
“Ian wouldn’t do something like that!” Sarah exclaimed, vehemently shaking her head. The sudden outburst startled everyone, including the man in question. Ian was completely dumbstruck by his friend’s behavior.
“Hoh~ it seems like my apprentice has a good friend,” Gaelan said, dissolving the awkward silence that nearly swallowed everyone in the living room.
“Eh? Uh… sorry. It was rude to yell like that all of a sudden…” Sarah apologized to Gaelan as her face flushed with embarrassment. To Ian’s amusement, she bowed like a Japanese person would when apologizing.
“Anyway, you three know she is fine now, right?” Gaelan asked Sarah’s party members.
In response, the two men nodded and Valerrie said, “Yes, sir.”
“In that case, we should get going,” Rodger said, which Kane and Valerrie agreed to.
“Are you staying here for a while, Sarah?” Valerrie asked.
“Uh, for a minute,” Sarah answered.
“Master Gaelan said you two were probably from the same homeland, so I assume you have some catching up to do. You know where to find me if you need me,” Valerrie said with a gentle smile.
Rodger, Kane, and Valerrie set their cups down on the coffee table and stood together. “Tood-a-loo~” Valerrie said. With that, the three members of Sarah’s party left after brief farewell waves, leaving Gaelan, Sarah, and Ian in the living room.
“That’s a good friend you have there,” Ian mentioned, almost quoting what Gaelan said a minute ago about Sarah.
“Uh-huh. I was lucky I met her, or I might have ended up on the streets,” Sarah replied. Her face alternated between a downcast gaze full of sadness and a one of fond nostalgia.
“That rough, huh?” Ian muttered.
“Uh… yeah,” Sarah replied. A silence followed for a few moments.
“So, Miss Ice Queen, would you care for some coffee?” Gaelan asked.
“Coffee?!” Sarah perked up at the thought of drinking something she had not tasted in three years.
“Hahaha! Look at that face!” Gaelan exclaimed, pointing at Sarah.
“You actually have coffee?” Sarah asked while looking back and forth between Ian and Gaelan.
“Yeah, we do,” Ian answered. Turning his head toward his mentor, Ian asked, “I assume you have some questions, Gaelan?”
“Not really,” Gaelan answered with a shrug. “I do find it interesting that the famed Ice Queen is actually someone from Earth, though. Come, sit.” With a wave of his right hand, Gaelan gestured toward the couch before taking the rocking chair by the fireplace.
Since this place felt like his own home now, Ian waltzed over to the couch and plopped down. In contrast, Sarah looked like an awkwardly constructed robot while she shuffled over to the couch.
“Bianca~!” Gaelan called out with a hand cupped around his mouth. A few moments later, his daughter peeked into the living room. Upon entering, she noticed that the previous guests had left in lieu of Ian and a pretty, red-headed stranger wearing a dirty day dress. The stranger looked back at Bianca out of curiosity, but ended up glaring at Bianca’s chest instead. Of course, this was not the first time another woman gave her that look, and she did not even have to look inside their head to know what it meant.
“Um… did you need me, Dad?” She asked, turning her attention to her father.
“Would you please clear these cups and get two new ones for Ian and his friend?” Gaelan gently requested.
“Friend? Oh, um, okay,” Bianca replied with a slight nod, causing her curly golden hair to bob slightly. Doing as her father requested, she grabbed the empty cups and returned to the kitchen to grab new ones.
“So, uh, Master Gaelan?” Sarah cautiously probed. She nervously folded her hands in her lap.
“Gaelan is fine,” he replied.
“Oh, uh, okay. So you know about Earth or something?” Sarah asked. Of course, she had heard about the man from Ian, but she needed to experience it to calm her nerves.
“Yes,” Gaelan muttered. “Before that, your name is Sarah, correct?”
Sarah nodded as though a master of one way conversations.
“Sarah, then.” Gaelan nodded. “I suppose you knew Ian back on Earth.”
“We were neighbors, and I kept her from starving to death,” Ian chimed in.
“I would have eaten even if you didn’t come over,” Sarah pouted.
“What would you have eaten? Ramen?” Ian asked, doubtfully raising a brow.
“Tch… Ramen is a staple food group,” Sarah retorted.
“Hoh~ You are very different from what I imagined,” Gaelan remarked. As usual, he was rubbing his beard between his forefinger and thumb.
“Right back at you,” Sarah said.
“So, do you want to go to Earth with us during our next trip?” Gaelan asked.
“Eh? Back to Earth? Ian asked me if I would want to go, but it still feels a bit surreal,” Sarah said, casting her gaze toward the wooden floor.
“You plan on coming this time, old man?” Ian asked.
“You plan on getting another beating?” Gaelan retorted with a raised brow.
“Didn’t get enough scars during the last trip.”
“That’s some grim humor…”
Meanwhile, Sarah looked back and forth between Ian and Gaelan with avid curiosity. In her eyes, it was like observing a relationship between a father and son who pretended not to be close in front of others.
“Um… Don’t worry, this happens all the time.”
“Guaah!” Sarah exclaimed, startled by the unexpected voice. When she looked up, she saw Bianca standing behind the couch with a small tray topped with four steaming cups of coffee in one hand and a dining chair in the other.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Bianca apologized. Even though her hands were full, she gave Sarah a polite half-curtsy.
“Uh, no problem?” Sarah muttered. “It’s not like I was scared or anything.”
“Heh, sure you weren’t,” Ian said, chuckling at his friend’s awkward behavior. At the same time, Bianca gave Sarah a blank stare that almost seemed to be asking: ‘Why are you lying?’
While Sarah was unwittingly drawing attention to herself, Bianca set the tray on the coffee table. Of course, the first one to snatch a cup was Ian.
Then, Bianca set the wooden chair down right up next to the left side of the couch. By happenstance, Ian was sitting on that side. Surely, it was just a coincidence.
When Sarah grabbed a cup, she looked at it for a solid minute before taking a sip. Just one sip was enough to bring back all sorts of memories from Earth. She recalled even more about her parents, Ian, and the few friends she had had in spite of being a shut-in.
“Are you crying?” Ian asked. His voice held a hint of concern.
“No, I’m not. The steam got in my eye,” Sarah said, even as she wiped a tear away.
“Um… you are from the same place as Mr. Ian?” Bianca asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Sarah answered, still wiping away tears with a frilled sleeve.
“So, are you coming with us to Earth, Sarah?” Gaelan asked, pulling the conversation back on track. Unfortunately for Sarah, it also ended up with, at least in her view, intense gazes sent her way.
“Uh, I guess I could,” Sarah answered. Then, recalling what Ian and Gaelan mentioned during their bickering, she looked at Ian and asked, “You said you got hurt. Was that on the way back to Earth?”
“Oh, yeah. Check it out,” Ian said, proudly lifting his shirt to reveal the pus-stained bandage wrapped around his waist.
“Don’t show me something like that! That’s disgusting,” Sarah said, placing her hand over her mouth as though she was going to puke. Realizing that he wasn’t going to get sympathy or impress anyone, Ian pulled his shirt back down.
Sarah gave in to curiosity and asked, “What is it from?”
“A stray hobgoblin.” Ian answered.
“Ah. Uh… was that yesterday?” Sarah asked with a stunned look on her face.
“Oh, one got away,” she muttered just loud enough for the others to hear.
“Hoh~?” Gaelan piped in. “So that was your doing?”
“It was a raid.” Sarah answered. Although she said it like it was a matter-of-fact, Ian had no idea what she meant by ‘raid’.
“And Ian here just so happened to run into a stray? My apprentice has bad luck for sure. First that werewolf and now a stray hobgoblin. What’s next? Exiled Dragons?”
“That’s a bit too much,” Sarah mumbled.
“Um, can I go with you next time?” Bianca asked, changing the subject.
“What?” Gaelan asked, startled by his daughter’s request. “Let me think about it.”
“But, dad, you said that last time, too…”
“There isn’t really a problem, is there?” Ian asked, following up his question with a sip of his coffee.
“I guess not,” Gaelan muttered. However, his face blatantly displayed hesitancy through furrowed brows.
“Think my wound will be healed enough to go tomorrow?” Ian asked. His voice was laced with excitement. After all, he still needed to sell his first products, not to mention the need to stock up on coffee and other supplies.
“Maybe since the Ice Queen and I will be with you,” Gaelan absently answered. Then, he muttered, “What am I thinking allowing my sweet daughter to go to that crazy place?”
“Awesome, I’ll go get my stuff ready,” Ian said while standing. “You need to bring anything, Sarah?”
“No, not really… I just have something I need to take care of before I can go anywhere,” Sarah answered with a thoughtful look in her emerald-colored eyes.
“Oh, I see,” Sarah muttered.
“Meet us at the Southern Gate at sunrise, then,” Gaelan instructed.
“Okay, I’ll be there,” Sarah said, nodding. Since that was settled, she chugged the rest of her coffee before walking over to the door. “Oh, Ian?”
Another pained smile spread across Sarah’s lips as she said, “It was good to see you again.”