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“What, you thought I was a child?! I’m a ‘little person’!”, the young man, who couldn’t be much older than me got back on his feet with some difficulty; he was still quite wounded, covered in bruises, but his spirit was back and he kept a half smile on his face. “We better get out of here before we get into more trouble. Please, come with me!”, he awkwardly hurried out of the alleyway, and I followed.
We kept to the shadows, and moved as silently as possible for some time, before we ended up in a brighter side of the city, with many warm-looking wooden buildings with open doors, and people seated around bonfires outside, sharing food and looking to the stars above, or the Bear Mountain.
There, in the light, I could finally take a good look at the little person: he only reached my waist in height, had long dark braids, and would have quite a usual complexion, if not for the tasteless myriad of piercings, rings, earrings, colorful straps, precious stones, and oversize fancy clothes he wore, as if he had just unearthed an old treasure chest and covered himself in mismatching ornaments.
“Are you hungry? I’m hungry as heck!”, the little man said, entering one of the long wooden buildings, in which there was a line of bonfires along its center, each fire managed by a cook preparing something different. “Two meals, please”, he took a jade stone from his pocket and offered it to one of the cooks, and we walked to the edge of the building with two bowls of soup, away from the other customers.
“Wow, thank you!”, I said, tasting the delicious soup. “I have only eaten one piece of bread since midday”.
“Nah, I’m the one who should be saying it: thank you”, he said, completely serious for the first time. After I nodded in recognition, the half smile returned to his face, and he finally asked: “So, what’s your name?”
“…Skyblue, Of The Coyote Clan”, I replied, feeling a tiny sting in my heart, remembering my clan mates.
“Spruce, Of The Giant Stag Beetle Clan”, the little person hit his chest with his thumb, proud.
“Nice to meet you”, I smiled.
“Yeah, yeah, anyway, what you did back in that alleyway was amazing!”
“Was it…?”, Feeling my cheeks getting hotter, I scratched my fluffy ear, embarrassed.
“Come on, man, no need to be humble! You beat the s*** out of those guys effortlessly”, winking, he added: “of course, I could have done that too, but, you know, I was afraid of killing the idiots. Check this out.”
Spruce, about to display his might, opened his hand, and I could feel magic being stirred around. I swallowed my own saliva, curious and terrified of what I was about to see. The little person’s veins swelled up, pulsing visible, his face and eyes went red, and blood started to drip from his nose. Then, the climax, power beyond imagination:
“Pling!”, a tiny green bud with two leaves appeared on his open palm.
Was that some kind of ultra-poisonous plant?
“Shiiiiu!”, Spruce exhaled, covered in sweat and shaking. “That’s right: a sunflower bud”, he spoke, proud. “What do you think?”
“…P- Pretty cool, I think?”, I did not think that. Before that guy tried to make another magic trick and ended up with a brain aneurysm, I asked: “So, why were those guys attacking you?”
“Because they are fools who couldn’t recognize a great man when there was one right in front of their eyes!”, after cleaning his nosebleed, he threw his hand up, exasperated. “I knew that that side of the city is infamous for gathering some shady people, and heard some whispers about a new group of equally shady mages which was growing up quickly in there…”, Spruce explained, frowning. Then, half smiling at me, he continued: “So I tried to enter the group.”
“So I tried to enter the group.”
“I heard the first time, I want to know why would you do that?!”
“Yeah, yeah, come on, man, you know it: shadowy organizations are the quickest way to get more power!”, Spruce, finishing his soup, pointed both his index fingers at me. And I stood there, mouth open, not sure how to talk with that guy. “But I totally lost my interest, those guys are definitely fools who won’t last another week around”, he shrugged confidently. “You can tell just by the way they negotiated with me: I gave them a magic item to enter their gang, as they required, but then they refused to let me in, and proceeded to beat- I mean, to annoy me when I asked for my item back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that…?”
“Hu, I knew it: the strong understand one another”, Spruce winked at me. “And what about you? What were you doing there?”
I explained my failed attempt at trying to get into The School, and proceeding wanderings around the city, with no real plan.
“Oh, I see”, he nodded, half smiling. “Yeah, actually I’ll enter The School too, so I know about The Selection festival and all”, his eyes suddenly going wide, Spruce whispered to himself (and failed in doing so): “wait, if I help him, I’ll get this guy in debt with me, which means: more power!”, After a long second of silence, he turned back to me, rested one hand on my shoulder and raised the thumb of his other hand. “I’ll get you an offering, Coyote!”, he promised me, half smiling.
“Are you sure this will work?”, I asked, uncertain, staring at the heavily guarded, double walled half-rotten wooden and wattle and daub fortress.
“Yeah, yeah. Come one, now”, the little person strode ahead, confidently ignoring the guards. And, to my surprise, they ignored him too.
Last night, not only Spruce had paid me dinner, but also for a nice place to sleep, and I was quite aware that he wanted to get on my good side, so I didn’t think that that was a trap of some kind, but… we had met because his plans did not always work, let’s say, therefore I kept my guard up in that place. I just hoped I wouldn’t need to fight anyone there.
Bypassing the outside guards, and an angry green-haired girl that stomped away, I took in the interior of the fortress: there were half a dozen big wooden houses, all turned to the central square, and though they may have been glorious one day, then they smelled of piss and decomposing matter, and I even saw a man removing parts of one of the houses to make an arrow, without caring about the state of the building.
There was something still in pristine condition, however: right in the middle of the square, a shiny line of skulls of different kinds of beasts was well kept. In fact, one of them was being kept by a smiling tall man seating on a stool at that exact moment.
He was polishing a fish skull, and wore a cape of blue feathers, the man being taller than anyone I’ve seen before, surely taller than 2 meters, and with a body clearly built for battle only. Our target.
“Yoh, Arapaima!”, Spruce waved at the man casually.
Were they, actually, friends?
“…Who?”, the man stopped polishing the fish skull, and threw an annoyed look at the little person.
Of course, they were not friends…
“Yeah, yeah, anyway: this guy here is hella strong, but, could you believe it? He doesn’t have an offering to get in The School!”, Spruce explained my situation confidently.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see one of the warriors approaching, annoyed. We’d definitely get thrown out. The tense atmosphere suddenly changed when Spruce took out of his pocket, a golden ring.
“So, I remembered you, man! Could you get him a proper offering?”
The tall man frown turned back into a smile, as he gestured to one of his underlings to bring him the ring.
“…Gluh gluh gluh”, he laughed. “Tomorrow, right after sunrise, we meet beneath the thunder-stricken tree. No weapons. We won’t wait for you”, Arapaime said. And we hurried away from his decrepit village.
“Is that fine?”, I asked Spruce once we were far away enough from the random fortress on the infamous side of town.
“Yeah, yeah, I still have some more things to trade left with me.”
“That’s not what I mean… Like, isn’t the offering supposed to be special? It seems as if I were… cheating to get it.”
“Coyote, you’re surprisingly naive, aren’t you?”, the little man raised an eyebrow at my words. “Look, man, power is everything, and the easiest way to get power, is through underworld connections. And you, better than anyone, should know it. I mean, after me, you must be the strongest guy around!”
“No, no, I’m not that strong!”
Sighing disappointed, Spruce concluded:
“Well, in any case: see you in The School, after the Selection Festival. Now, I’ll go obtain more power! Eat, sleep, power!”, raising both his fists up, he walked away, to the setting sun, leaving me before the thunder-split tree Arapaima mentioned. I hoped he wouldn’t get himself in any more trouble.
Resting against the tree, I observed the city, not too so further away. Up to that point, it had been a complicated experience. But I was certain things would get better soon enough, and I’d start to love being there.
With a smile on my face, I went to sleep beneath the tree. I couldn’t keep taking advantage of Spruce’s kindness, after all.
“Oh, one more thing”, Spruce called. He looked unnervingly serious, like when he thanked me for saving him. “That part where Arapaima told you to not bring any weapons? Ignore it.”
“Spruce…”, I answered in the same chilling tone, equally taciturn. “You saw me fighting last night, you know I don’t use any weapons.”
Half smiling, the little person walked away, taking a cigarette from his pocket, and trying very hard to conjure a flame to ignite it. Failing, he tucked away his hands in his pockets, and vanished into the city with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.