Prologue

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“…Let it all end. True death”, then, I cast my vote. And a whole reality was no more.

.

.

.

I felt so tight, so weak I couldn’t even move. Let me sleep some more…

.

.

.

Sensations… rushing through me again. Consciousness. Wind?

Above, there were the wide, wide blue skies. Was I falling?

Still, I couldn’t keep myself awake for much longer.

“BOOM!”

As I opened my eyes, and sensitivity returned to me, I was graced by the wavering, comforting yellow light of a bonfire, and its soothing heat. Trying to move my body, I felt myself so heavy and slow, so weak and numb, that the hand I tried to use to support my weight ended up slipping, and I came down once again.

“There! Slow down, now.”

I heard a tranquilizing advice, and not much later, a friendly old man showed up by my side, helping me to seat against a tree trunk: his skin was tanned and wrinkled by many hours under the sun, wind, and rain, and many scars of varying size and shape crisscrossed him all over, but his blue eyes were kind, I could tell even though they were half-hidden under the shadow of a large cone-shaped hat adapted with holes for his coyote ears, whose fur turned gray with age.

“You had a tough morning, that’s for sure. You may want to rest for a little”, he offered me a simple bowl of water.

“T- Thank you”, I replied, weakly, and start to sip the water.

“So, how’s your name, son?”, the old man asked, going back to his own seat. “Thank you, darling”, he smiled as a young girl brought him a skewer; only then I noticed her presence there.

She also had blue eyes, but hers felt cold somehow, and her fluffy coyote ears and tail still shone with vivid brownish orange and black, and her skin still looked smooth, unlike the old man.

“N- Name?”, I knew instinctively what the concept was. Actually, I had total control over the language we were speaking. And this was strange, after all: “I don’t remember? I can’t remember a thing from before I woke up?”, I brought my hand to my head, and scratched my hair… noticing long, fluffy ears?

Looking down at my bowl of water, I saw myself for what felt like the first time: wearing the same kind of light leather clothes for traveling as the other two by that campfire, I must have been around 18 years old, like the coyote-girl, had brown and fluffy coyote tail and ears, and a continuous, long tattoo of a hundred links of a chain all around my left hand, shoulder, around my neck, and ending right beneath my left eye.

“You don’t know your name, and now what? It even seems you’re seeing yourself for the first time!”, the coyote-girl pointed. “Grandpa, this boy must be slow in the head, we should just let him go, and let him fulfill his own destiny”, she turned to the old man and suggested.

“And what would that ‘destiny’ be, my darling?”, the old man asked back, sighing.

“To be eaten by the strong, of course!”

“I- I’m not ‘slow in the head’, though?”

“Then, why are you stuttering? You only spoke thrice until now, and every time you started with a stutter”, she approached me, standing up just a few centimeters away, her shadow covering me completely. That close, I could see that she must have been the one that obtained the meat in that skew that she gave her grandfather, dry blood splashes dotting her leather clothes here and there.

“Haha…”, I tried to laugh it off, but she asked- no! She ordered, coldly, without blinking:

“Answer me.”

F***. Minutes awake, and I was already messing things up.

“There, there… Please forgive my granddaughter, she’s been trying to prove herself way too hard, since she hasn’t got enough approval for her career choice from her parents!”, the old man explained, smiling.

“Grandpa!”, the coyote-girl complained.

“You have to always be kind, darling.”

“Being kind only puts you in danger”, she mumbled and stomped away, cheeks all red, back to her own seat, on the other side of the bonfire. Even if blushing wildly, she still stared daggers at me from there.

“Well, you may not remember your name, but that is not much of a surprise. Still, we do remember ours, and it would be disrespectful to not present ourselves. I am ‘Sunburned, Of The Coyote Clan’, and this is my granddaughter, ‘Cloudless, Of The Coyote Clan’. Pleased to meet you.”

“Equally”, I bowed slightly, and quickly asked: “Why it isn’t a surprise that I don’t remember my name?”

Sunburned turned very seriously for a split second, before shrugging and answering me:

“You had a fall! I saw it with my own eyes, and tried to help you out. Fortunately, you don’t seem to have broken anything, but you must have hit your head, and got amnesia”, pointing away, to a canyon just outside the forest, he concluded: “It happened there. You must have been running away from something, and ended up falling down from one of the rock formations…”

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Sighing, Cloudless talked with herself:

“Here it comes. Again.

“It must have been that foul beast, ‘Sumixam’!”

“Sumixam?”, I repeated after the old man.

“There, interested, eh?”, Sunburned perked up, and tossed another skewer to me.

I immediately started to eat the deliciously juicy meat whose fat was dripping, melted, and paid close attention to the story:

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“You see, son? I’ve been traveling these lands for all my life at this point, carrying supplies and messages around since I became able to walk, taught by dad! And he learned the profession with granddad, and so on, and so forth! But I tell you, son, no amount of generational knowledge was enough to save me from that foul beast without a couple of new scratches.”

A few bites and sips of water latter, the story continued:

“For it was smart. Four and a half meters tall, fourteen meters long! It was a… Tyrant King!”

“Tyrant King?” listening about things that I didn’t know was exciting!

“Yes, the kings of the Terrible Lizards, who rule with tiny iron fists. Though they are more intelligent than most of their kind, it’s in their nature to spill blood-”

“It is in their nature to be strong”, Cloudless interrupted, smug.

Sunburned continued without paying attention to his granddaughter:

“And this one in particular, Sumixam, the one who rules over this area since they are so territorial, I’ve seen him with my own eyes once… Ha! I’ve seen it way too close, even! It set a trap near a body of water once, by destroying all the other water supplies around, and waiting hidden next to the last one it left available!”

“Wow!”, I sighed, impressed by the creature. “What happened next?”

“Well, oblivious to the situation, I went to investigate the strange last water supply from which no one came back as a favor to some villagers… When I fell right into its trap! The furtive foul beast jumped from behind the trees, and tried to eat me! I had to run for my life while employing every trick I knew, just to not be instantly gobbled up, or crushed beneath its paws, and when I thought I had finally misled it, Sumixam would sniff me back right away. I ended up inside a tiny cave, where it couldn’t reach me; it tried to, but it couldn’t, Sumixam was only able to bite a stalagmite, which ended up permanently stuck in its mouth… The problem was: the Tyrant King didn’t leave the entrance! It stood there for days without end, waiting until I surrendered and chose a quick death by its jaws, rather than starving to death in the tiny cave. Of course, I didn’t give up, however! I stood still there for two full weeks! One week waiting until the beast decided to finally go hunt something else, and one more just to be sure”, the old man concluded, right as we finished our skewers: “It wouldn’t surprise me if this same foul beast has pushed you to jump off one of the cliffs, for I know for sure it still walks this region.”

“Why is it named ‘Sumixam’?”, I asked.

“Because I named it like that!”, Sunburned smiled.

“Now that you finally finished your daily routine of telling this same old story, will you ask about his tattoos? I’ve never seen any clan or magical tattoo with that symbol”, Cloudless pointed at my chain marks with her chin.

“There, it’s time to sleep now”, the old man brushed the question away, smiling kindly, and started to prepare his own weaved mat to sleep.

Cloudless reached for meat and dived into the forest, mumbling, complaining about how they didn’t learn a thing about me, other than the “fact” I was “slow in the head”, but I was too weak to pay attention, and as soon as Sunburned’s story ended, I fell asleep.

“Are you sure?”, I asked Sunburned.

“Why, do you have a place to go? Did you remember something?”, the old man asked back. When I shook my head in negation, he added: “Well, then, come with us! The wilderness is dangerous, and we’re traveling to the next most nearby settlement.”

“Thank you, mister!”, I run after the old man, who already started to walk away.

“You seriously will take Slow-In-The-Head just to the next settlement, right?”, Cloudless pressed her grandfather.

“There, yes, of course”, he laughed. “…If he remembers anything until we get there, of course! Otherwise, It’d be cruel to just leave the boy in the city, without a clue, right?”

His granddaughter sighed.

Could this mean… I’d be able to travel with Sunburned and Cloudless until I remember my past? Somehow, that was hopeful! I could already envision the adventures and scenarios I’d see traveling with them!

And, just like in my delusions, for the next few minutes, we walked in silence, and I took my time to appreciate the natural beauty around: the trees grew tall and strong, offering appreciated shade from the sun during the travel, and there were birds everywhere, singing (unfortunately out of reach, impossible to pet). I breathed in and out the refreshingly cold air of the forest, felt the gentle tingle of grass and bushes on the palms of my hand, and even stepped into a stream, in which lived many tiny fishes and crustaceans that avoided my feet.

“Come on, mister crayfish, I’m not gonna hurt you~”, I whispered to the creature. “Ow, ow, ow!”, it pinched my hand.

But patiently, I endured the pain and freed myself without hurting the animal. Lesson learned: even if wild animals are within range, do not try to pet them.

“SPLASH!”

“Wah!”, I was scared by the sudden impact against the water. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Cloudless smiling as she stunned a bunch of fishes by throwing a heavy rock into the water. She collected the frozen scared animals and put them inside a bag.

Collecting food, perhaps?

“What are you looking at?!”

“N- Nothing” I walked back to the side of Sunburned. “So… Where are we going?”

“The famous Bear Mountain school of magic… I call just ‘The School’, however.”

“What is ‘magic’?”

“Already a hard question, hu?”, the old man seemed troubled. “I can’t explain it to you really well, but it’s basically ‘power’. To do anything.”

“Are you two mages?”

“Haha! No, we’re not. And I surely have zero interest in turning into one! Mages have to deal with their own share of problems, like politics, like ugly wounds… like war”, the mention of war made me utterly uncomfortable, but, thankfully Sunburned changed topics quickly enough: “we’re deliverymen. My family has carried the duty of transporting stuff to and from The School for generations! And, soon enough, it will be my granddaughter’s duty too”, Sunburned sighed. “This is my last job. I’m getting too old for this kind of work. Can’t see far enough, or listen close enough to stay out of problems, and can’t run away as fast from them anymore either. Fortunately, I’ll be able to see The Admission of The School event one more time.”

“But… Then, why your granddaughter? Why not your son or daughter?”

And, again, for a split second only, Sunburned lost his friendly grandfather aura, and gave me a deep, analytical stare. I thought he wouldn’t answer that question, but once his eyes noticed the wound from the crayfish on my hand, he finally said:

“Remember that Sumixam beast? Well, I wasn’t alone back then. My two sons were with me. I knew that could be a dangerous task, but I wanted to help the villagers anyway. And now, only Cloudless’ father is around, and he really doesn’t want her following the family profession.”

“Oh… I’m sorry”, I decided to not touch that topic anymore.

However, feeling some more empathy for the coyote-girl, I turned around to look at her, when I saw her throwing the many fish she collected away and into the air, and then smiling in my direction.

Were those fish bad? It didn’t seem so. Actually, they looked and smelled delicious…

Not wanting to let food go to waste, I jumped after the fish, scattering the fallen leaves and dust on the ground, and reaching the flying gift 5 meters in the air and 3 meters away from me, catching them all in my mouth, and swallowing at once. Once I came back from the quick snack, I saw only a gaping, wide-eyed coyote-girl, and a slightly less impressed, but quite more serious old man.

“Di- Did I do something wrong?”, I asked, ears and tail turning down.

“How did you jump so far…?”, I heard Cloudless whispering to herself. Then, shaking her surprise away, she replied to me: “And you still ask?! Why did you eat my fish?!”

“Be- Because coyotes are omnivores”, I answered, showing my tail.

“I KNOW THAT! I’m one too, you idiot!”

“I mean… You threw them away?”

“I didn’t throw them away! And I certainly did not give them to you!”, noticing my confusion, her angered face turned into a smug one, as she crossed her arms, and raised her nose. “I was feeding the weak to the strong. The lives of these weak fish have only one purpose, and it is to feed the strong predators of this forest, the same way that a hare’s purpose in life is only to feed us… I ask myself, what is your purpose, Slow-In-The-Head?”

“That’s mean…”, I replied weakly, averting her gaze.

Cloudless approached me with heavy stomps, holding my jaw, and aggressively forcing me to look her in the eyes.

“This is a world of prey and predator. Hare and men, fish and bear… weak will and strong will. What part of this logic is wrong?”, she questioned, holding tight the strap of one of the many bags full of supplies hanging from her.

“…I don’t want to kill anything.”

“The weak deserve anything that the strong impose on them. Wouldn’t you kill an animal for your own benefit?”

“Even if it was an animal…”, just the thought of killing anything, or hurting a sapient being, made my hands start to shake, and get drenched in sweat.

“…I see. Then you are weak too”, Cloudless finally concluded, and pushed me away, when I fell on my own butt. Without sparing me a glance, she walked away.

“No more bickering around, kids. You’re disappointing grandpa”, Sunburned looked shaken, somehow, anxious even, but simply cleaned the drops of sweat that sprouted from his forehead, and got back to walking.

The rest of the journey went on in relative silence, with the exception of some seeds and stones that Cloudless threw on me from time to time. Still, after a couple more nights, and some re-tellings of Sunburnd’s Sumixam story, the beautiful cold forest that protected us from the heat of the sun came to an end, and we stopped at its very edge.

“Is there something wrong?”, I asked the old man.

“…No”, he replied after a long pause, very attentively taking in the image of the grass plain beyond. “Let’s go”, Sunburned took the lead, and walked away.

The scenery had changed considerably, with no trees, or rocks, or any distinguished landmark in sight no matter where I looked, only knee-high green grass everywhere. But it wasn’t any worse for the eyes: the wind and grass moved in synchrony, as if dancing to the ever-wide blue skies overhead, then always visible, not anymore hidden behind canopies, and there was just as much life in the plains as in the forest, if you looked close enough; from great distinguished shadows of massive herds of thousands of buffaloes in the horizon following the orange setting sun, to tiny ladybugs resting on top of the green light blades of gr-

“Crash!”, a smiling coyote-girl crushed the pretty insect I was looking at.

“Ah.”

“Got any problem?”, she frowned.

Sighing, I walked away from Cloudless. The traveling adventures I imagined myself in didn’t include bullying…

“Oh, right on time. Help me to set up camp.”

“Already?”, I asked back, helping to unpack the camping materials.

“Tonight will be cloudy. Possibly a thunderstorm”, he explained, looking up, and at heavy clouds that showed up near the horizon. “Night will fall earlier, and we won’t be able to see a thing when it does.”

“I see.”

“No, you won’t! Haha!”, The old man played, and I laughed along.

The night went as usual after that, Sunburned told the story about the “foul beast” for the 10th time since we met, Cloudless praised the creature, the old man resented it, and I found something else to learn, and ask about. Then, it was time to sleep, and my turn to be the first on guard.

“Is there something wrong?”, I asked Sunburned. He had that look on his face, the same one he showed when we first entered that grass plain.

“No, son. Just the discomfort that comes from the understanding I can’t listen to the night as well as I could when younger. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight”, I assumed my position by the fire, and listened attentively to the environment, since it was so dark already that just a little away from the campfire, my vision was useless.

Not that there was much to await for. I mean, if there was something bad out there, we’d see it still during the day, approaching from faaaaar away.

“Thruuun…!”

“Ah, there they are. The thunders.”

“Thruuun…! THRUUN…!”, it echoed again.

“…Echoed?”, I felt something wrong.

There was something coming. Something capable of following us from far away, perhaps with an excellent sense of smell, something furtive enough to wait to the fall of the night, and intelligent enough to hide its approaching steps in the thunder.

“SUMIXAM!”, I warned my companions, and the old man jumped out of his tent, already holding a hand ax.

“Run!”

“What about the camp? And the supplies?” Cloudless, also awaken by the commotion, asked, suddenly nervous.

“Leave them! If we lose any more time, it’ll catch us!”, Sunburned screamed, and caught a piece of wood from the fire, holding it like a torch. “Come! COME!”

And so we did. Cloudless and I ran after the old man through the night, fueled by fear, and suddenly the pretty grass became a sharp annoyance, that hit us all around, putting tinny cuts on our skin. And the darkness: it was so dark, just two meters away from the improvised torch, we couldn’t see a thing!

Then:

“Kyah!”, the coyote-girl tripped on some roots and fell down.

“Cloudless!”, the old man shouted, coming back to his granddaughter.

“THRUUUN”, lightning fell nearby, igniting some of the grass, and revealing, right on top of the coyote-girl, an enormous head covered in red feathers, with a big stalagmite impaled right through the nose, looking like a single stone horn.

“Sumixam…” the old man whispered, frozen in place, pale.

It started to rain.

“RUN!”, my voice pierced the endless silence, as I dashed towards the fallen coyote-girl, surprising even the beast that stood above her, and taking advantage of such unexpectedness to grab Cloudless by the leg, and throw her some 6 meters away from immediate danger, right on the arms of the old man.

But the old man hesitated.

“…Run”, I repeated myself, quieter, as the beast I’ve heard so much about in those last few days responded to my movements with one of its own; in a fraction of a second, Sumixam had its huge mouth gaping right above me, so many teeth, and all of them so big they could easily pierce me and come out in the other side.

Finally, Sunburned got back to fleeing with his granddaughter. I had no time to go after them, not even to take away my eyes from Sumixam. That close, I could finally see how massive the creature actually was; numbers and descriptions of size were not enough to communicate the horror, the imposing presence of the beast covered in red feathers right above me, infinitely tall, and heavy, and hungry.

Before I could even blink, my shoulder, chest, and belly were in the creature’s mouth.

My flesh pierced, and bones turned into dust, I tried to shout, as my mind was consumed by nothing but pain, but nothing but blood came out of my mouth; had my lungs been pierced?

The world started to shake, and my skin, muscle, and tendons were stretched to their limit, as the creature that had bitten me swung its head from one side to another wildly, until my body couldn’t take the pressure anymore, and was torn apart: with a gap coming from my left shoulder to my last left rib, that side of my body was still connected to the rest of me only by few thin strips of meat, and a couple of surprisingly reliant veins. I was sent flying away from the mouth of the huge predator.

From up there, still falling down to the ground bellow, gushing blood everywhere, entrails slipping out of my body through the huge tear on my side, my brain was being consumed by agony, as if the teeth of the beast had bitten right into the gray matter.

The splashing noise I made when I finally touched the grass and dirt below didn’t come just from the mud and water puddles, I knew, but from spilled content that should have never left my insides. I was still trying to scream, to cry, but no words came from my broken body, unable to even externalize a level of torment that shouldn’t exist.

My eyes were turning to the inside of my skull, as I craved the gentle release of death. But right when my vision was almost completely dark, a bright orange wavering light hit my eyes. Sunburned improvised torch. Following it with my eyes, I found Cloudless, crying desperately, crouched down, trying her best to cover her ears, and Sunburned pointing the improvised torch to the tall stone-horned red beast as if it was a spear. Almost as if laughing, Sumixam killed the burning light wheezing from its disfigured impaled nose.

This time, I was very awake, staring attentively, eyes wide. When another light made itself visible… coming right from one of the chain links in my almost-torn off tattooed left arm. Then, said link vanished in black smoke.

*

I was falling. There were a couple of campers a few kilometers from where I calculated I’d hit the ground, but only one of them noticed me, the oldest one, a man with coyote ears and tail.

Was that… a memory from when I was about to hit the ground and lose my memory? If so, wait. There was something wrong with that, no? I wasn’t falling from a random cliff, and surely there was no beast pursuing me…

I was falling from the skies themselves, as if a droplet of the wide blue itself.

*

When I came back to my then-present self, I was standing up, totally healed from Sumixam’s bite, only vestiges of black smoke coming from where there should be a gaping wound, and all of my hair had turned completely white. The light of the burning grass allowed me to see Sunburned, Cloudless, and even the beast staring at me from ahead, eyes wide in surprise.

“Oh, yeah… the beast”, I whispered to myself. And, raising my right hand, instinctively, I shot a blast of explosive energy against Sumixam:

“BOOM!”, flames momentarily engulfed the size of the Tyrant King, evaporating one of its tiny arms completely, the sudden impact taking it off balance.

The shock wave also hurt my companions, who stood close to the creature, sending Sunburned and Cloudless meters away, clouds of smoke coming from both of them. Still, it didn’t mater, for…

“…I have a beast to kill.”

Slowly walking towards the creature, right palm open, I continued to shoot blasts against Sumixam, and after every magic projectile, the technique came to me more naturally, the explosions became more powerful; the fire hotter, the impact harder.

“RAAAAGH!”, counterattacking even though half of its body was already burning, the beast swept its long tail, which ended in a wide fan of feathers, on a semi-circle, throwing a wave of dirt and grass over me.

Silently, I brushed away the curtain of earth with a movement of my hand and a conjured explosion. Only to reveal the stone-horned beast right before me, ready to stomp my person under its heavy paw.

“VUSH!”, Sumixam brought down its foot on top of me. And I stopped it above my head, putting a shinny semi-transparent magical blue shield between us with my left hand. Then, pointing a single index finger towards the head of the gaping creature above, I concentrated all of that explosive energy into a single dot, and shot it:

“BUUZ!”, there was a flash of orange light; a thin shining trail that came from the top of my index finger, passed through the head of Sumixam, and reached even a few meters beyond.

Before the first drop of blood from the dead creature fell down, the bright orange dot I shot expanded, releasing all of the energy contained inside:

“BOOOOM!”, a rapidly growing sphere of fire engulfed, burned, and shredded the entirety of the massive body of the rock-horned red beast, and still continued to expand; while I protected myself with the blue shield, the explosion dug up a deep crater all around me, and raised a huge cloud of evaporated rain.

As I released the shield, finally certain that the threat had been dealt with, as there was not a single fraction of its body bigger than fist-sized carbonized clumps of meat, I searched for Sunburned and Cloudless. The Coyote girl was the first one I encountered, as I saw her staring back at me, gaping, eyes wide. She seemed to have broken her ankle, as it was sickly red and swollen, and her hands had been partially burned from when she was hurled away by my first attack. Whatever, they were not wounds that would permanently impede her in any way.

I jumped closer to Cloudless, but when I shortened the distance between us in an instant, she seemed startled.

“I killed it”, I told, staring right at the coyote-girl. And, screaming, she turned away from me, and crawled away with her hands. Following the direction she was moving to, I found Sunburned, also staring at me, distressed, face and arms covered in scratches, and lightly burned.

Then, slowly, my hair re-gained its natural brown color, with the exception of a single white lock of hair.

Not so subtle, was the invincible tiredness that hit me out of nowhere: I passed out.

As the coyote-girl shrunk away, scared when I offered her my shoulder, I knew: another fail.

So what that Cloudless broke her ankle because of a bad shot of mine? I saved her life, and it wasn’t permanent damage she suffered! Sure, it was a butchered, failed “saving” that even a blind, deaf, quadriplegic old demented grandma could do better, but still…

Well, actually, she may have been right in hating me even more then.

Sighing, the old man pointed:

“It’s fine, you don’t need to do that”, he slowly brushed me away. Looking divided, he added, forcing a smile to his granddaughter: “what good would be a grandpa, if he could not carry his darling for just a little more? If I give my best, we may get these deliveries right on time!”, getting up from the log in which he stopped to rest, and lending his granddaughter a shoulder, he concluded: “There, darling. Everything’s fine now, grandpa will take you to the city.”

As I carried all of the surviving baggage of those two, I reflected on what happened just the other day: then, I understood that even before breaking that first chain link I had above-average physical abilities, and possibly even magical potential, but once that tattoo vanished, my power had increased a hundredfold. I felt a sudden surge of power, and magical knowledge, and… memories.

I knew that, before breaking that link, I was simply incapable of killing even an animal, much less hurting a sapient being. And yet, at the present moment… I couldn’t even tell why? Even if I had power before breaking the first link of the chain, and knew how to use it, I doubt I’d have killed the beast, but probably only try to scare it.

And these thoughts bothered me.

Did that mean that, if I broke another link somehow, I’d get even more apathetic? Could the memories, the personality contained within the chain links, even be considered mine when we differ so much? Would I start to be able to inflict wounds that would never heal in people? Would I start to use my powers to my own advantage? Would I start to kill people?

…Would I die myself, substituted by another being, if I broke enough links?

“See? We’ll make it in time!”, Sunburned commemorated, as we started to see the end of the grass plain ending by a large lake, and a very large hill of some kind? No, that was- “The School! The Bear Mountain!”

I still couldn’t see the city that was supposed to surround it from my position, but The School was impressive enough by itself, for it was, actually, the enormous carcass of a gigantic bear; just old bones and leather stretched over it, some kind of grisly tent as tall as a mountain. The vertebrae that pierced through the leather had been carved, each individual bone, in a different tower, magical symbols had been painted in blue all around the empty eye sockets, fire burned in the nose hole as a beacon, and the teeth had been fashioned into gates.

“What is that?”, I had to ask.

“There! I knew you’d be surprised, haha!”, the old man laughed. “Right, darling?”, his granddaughter didn’t answer, but kept her eyes fixed on the ground. Sighing, he continued: “I’m not really a storyteller, so I can’t tell you in details, or in a pretty or very accurate way, but basically, that bear is old… From when my great great grandpa was still just a boy like you. From when the Gods commonly walked among men, and guided us. Gods were not the only things that emerged from the Primordial Waters, however, and a terrible dragon fought and killed this bear…”, the old man scratched his nose, as I waited for the end of the story. “And that’s it, now it’s very magical or something?”

“…Or something?”, I was disappointed with the anticlimactic explanation.

“Told you, not a storyteller”, Sunburned shrugged. Seemingly noticing that a myriad of roofs started to become visible to us, he stopped in his tracks, and I also. The old man turned pained, then serious, and said: “That’s it.”

“What?”

“We have to go to the back entrance of The School, the hinder left leg works as a deposit. The city, however, only encircles the face of The School.”

“Oh”, I got it. “We’re parting ways” I tried to stay calm, to look calm, but my first-ever dream came crashing down. And it hurt. “Thank you for taking me here”, I nodded smiling. I had to be thankful that those two decided to take me there in the first place, even after I hurt them.

“There, always kind”, the old man seemed divided, like before. “…Have you remembered anything from your past already?”, was he concerned with me?

“Yes, a little bit”, I lied, for I only remembered that I fell from the sky.

“Then, what’s your name?”

“Uh…”

“…I knew it”, Sunburned took off his large hat, and scratched his balding head. “You know, you remember me of my deceased son. And I don’t talk only about your appearance, since you’re coincidentally also a coyote-person, but your personality too. When I saw that crayfish wound in your hand, old sweet memories flooded my mind… Maybe this was the reason that I told you so much about us?”, he sighed, truly tired, and for the first time since we met, I could see him as the fragile elderly he claimed to be; his thin skin, curved spine, falling teeth, quickly fading strength. Then, suddenly re-inflating his chest and turning back to his adventurer self, Sunburned told me seriously: “We owe you our lives. And a simple ‘thank you’ isn’t enough to pay you back. Still, I will not put my family at unnecessary risk anymore. I can’t take you with us any longer. And so, as I believe that we’ve been united by fate, by the gods, the spirits of the world, or however higher power, I, as the eldest member my clan, offer you the name ‘Skyblue’, and my clan name, ‘Coyote’. You may need it to enter The School.”

“Enter The School?”

“I can’t think why your path would take you all this way, if not to find something in there. Whatever it may be. And you will probably need a name to get in there. I’d tell you more about how to become an apprentice in The School, but I don’t know the details either. Still, you have a few days before the Selection Festival, which is when the Apprentices get accepted or rejected.”

Happiness and recognition, and embarrassment and guilty fought for dominance over me at that moment, but before I started to cry my eyes out, I laid down the packages I was carrying for them on the ground, and walked away, forcing an excited smile, and covering the old man in thanks:

“Thank you, Sunburned… Cloudless. I’m sorry for all the trouble.”

I turned away, and silently took a deep breath, readying myself to part ways with those two. Forever.

Then, I slapped my own cheeks:

“Plat! Plat!”

 And so, I set m eyes on my next objective: the famous school of magic, Bear Mountain. And, once again, I could already envision the adventures I’d have there! I was hopeful!

*

As I stared at the back of Skyblue, I remembered when I first saw… it.

As if the sky itself was falling, the wide blue upwards bent, formed a droplet, and ejected a tiny piece of itself. It happened too quickly, and I knew that if I didn’t run after such a droplet, whatever it was, I’d lose it in between the labyrinthine canyon. And so I did it, leaving my granddaughter behind to set up camp, I followed my curiosity.

What I found in the tiny crater that the droplet dug was quite literally indescribable.

Its “color” and “shape” were simply out of this world, something that hurt my eyes and brain simply by looking at it, a nameless mirage. And, as the shining died down, what was left behind was but a mass of ever-changing elements, a pile of earth in one moment, a ball of fire in another. Until it seemed to notice my presence.

The mass stopped all of its changes as a boulder, and a single hole opened in its middle, leading to a dark, dark space, and a giant sphere of fire inside of it, bathing me in its burning hot light; its “eye”, I knew.

I was forced to close my eyes because of the light, and when I opened them again, there it was: a boy the age of my granddaughter, wearing clothes almost identical to mine, and looking eerily similar to my deceased son, but with a bizarre tattoo marking his body.

“Did I do the right thing?”, I asked myself.

I couldn’t bring myself to simply leave the boy behind, and not only because he looked similar to my deceased son. But the apprehension I felt whenever my granddaughter bickered with him was finally confirmed when it destroyed, completely and utterly, the foul beast that haunted me for so long. It fought with such cold eyes, emotionless even as its attacks broke my granddaughter’s ankle, and burned the two of us in the process, that I couldn’t tell if Skyblue killed Sumixam to protect us, or simply because he found the beast to be an annoyance? Was the gentleness Skyblue showed during our travel a simple act? Was it a devil in disguise? Or…

Doubts and guilt divided me, but thinking about Sumixan, and the boy who looked so much like my lost child, I remembered when I brought my children to that lake. When one of my sons tried to pet a crayfish, and got pinched by it. When Sumixam showed up right after this and gobbled the poor child.

“What?”, Cloudless asked as she tested an improvised cane, bringing me back to reality.

“No, nothing”, I shook my head.

And, looking at her, I was sure of my decision: I had taken the boy to safety, and named him, I showed kindness enough, and didn’t need to put Cloudless at risk anymore, to make her walk alongside something that could lose its patience and blow her up at any moment.

Bearing the weight of the entire cargo for the last few steps of the road, I finally turned my back to the one I named, and we definitively parted ways.

“There, let’s deliver these things already”, I wanted to think about something else. “Then? Still want to be a deliveryman?”, I asked as we passed by a small stream of water, clear enough to see the tiny fish swimming inside.

Cloudless approached the body of water, crouched beside a heavy rock, grabbed it with the strong deliverymen arm she had free, and… frowning, dropped it back into the ground. Instead, she reached for some cornbread crumbles in her backpack, and fed the fish.

“…Yeah. Yeah, I still want to be a deliveryman”, blushing intensively, she admitted, tightening her hand into a fist.

I patted my darling’s head. And wished Skyblue, Of The Coyote Clan, the best of luck.


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