“Now that I’m looking carefully, your bones are not actually touching one another. It’s surreal how you’re moving all your joints without muscles, tendons or ligaments.”
“C-could you please hurry it up, Lili? I feel incredibly exposed here.”
“Almost done, Enbos. Hm, well that’s troubling. What do you suppose is the size of your waist?”
“There’s no need to be exact! Just take the width of my pelvis and multiply it by pi.”
“Oh, you mean Sphinx’s number. I suppose that would do. Now, time for your head.”
“Wait, aren’t you doing this for my breastplate? Why are you measuring my skull?”
“It’s for something else, so may you please look down a bit?”
“A-alright, but you better not be buying me a helmet. I don’t plan on changing my class to skeleton knight anytime- Hey!”
“Good lord, how are you able to see? Truly, necromancy is an ominous thing.”
“Can you please stop reaching into my eye socket already? It feels creepy being touched on the inside of your skull…”
In a small back alley, hidden behind an illusionary wall and a soundproof barrier, I’m currently having my measurements taken by Lili. At first, she was enchanting my clothes with a colour changing illusion. However, she decided to take the opportunity to measure my sizes and I dearly wish I had put on my clothes first. It’s uncomfortable being fully exposed, especially when she’s examining my bones and looking at me with morbidly curiosity.
“I hope you don’t do this to all dead bodies.”
“Of course not, but it’s not every day that you get to examine an undead without it strangling the life out of you.”
“I guess. By the way, aren’t you done yet?”
“Hmmm… Not yet.”
Like hell you aren’t. In that case…
Cradling my detached skull, Lili falls onto her backside with a yelp. She looks at me in equal parts embarrassment and annoyance as I chuckle with my headless body.
“Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Here, let help you- Huh?”
With my skull still in her lap, Lili pulls out a ball of glass while chanting some magical words. However, my confusion quickly turns to shock as she proceeds to stuff said glassware into my nasal cavity.
“Hey, what are you-!”
“A bit of string here, some enchantments there, and… done. Here Enbos, catch.”
“Oh sh- Be careful with that! And why in the world did you give me a glass nose!?”
“By all that is holy, c-can you please hurry up and put it back on? It looks as if you’re carrying a disembodied head.”
“Did you just cast an illusion over my skull? Wait, don’t tell me… Y-you want me to walk around the market using this?”
“Indeed. Changing the colour of your attire is one thing, but constructing a face with so many specific details is mana intensive, which is why I had to use a magic core.”
“So that’s why… Is this mine to keep?”
“I know what you’re thinking Enbos, but sadly, the enchantment is only temporary. Moreover, due to your lack of lips, I need to be around to fine tune your expressions. Believe me when I say I would have made one for you if I could.”
“I see,” I say as I affix my skull and cover myself up. However…
“What are you doing?”
“Eh? I’m only putting on my mask.”
“I enchanted the orb to specifically convert the perception of bone to that of flesh, so you’ll have to take off your mask.”
“What!? But that’s- C-can’t you just enchant my mask instead?”
“I suppose, but I won’t.”
“Re-enchanting the orb would take far too long. Don’t worry, Enbos. The spell is no less powerful than that which I had cast on Maximillian and Agnes.”
“… *Sigh* Fine. But if anybody so much as points, we’re bailing.”
She seems pretty excited by the festival. God knows if it’s worth going through with this, but I’ll entertain her whim just this once. I owe her that much for shielding me from Maximillian and for pulling me back from the brink of madness.
“Thank you. Now then…”
Unravelling her ponytail, Lili flicks back her hair and does a twirl on her toes before looking back at me proudly. However, all I do is tilt my head in confusion.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Erm… You look fine, I guess?”
“Ah, that’s right. You’re completely immune to my magic…”
“No need to look so dejected. I’m sure your transformation sequence was spectacular. Anyway, how long will this spell last?”
“Around five hours, I’d wager, so let us not dally. The memory of a lifetime awaits.”
“Yeah, in one way or another. Right this way, milady…”
… I regret everything.
Leaving the dank, dark alleyways, we emerge into a world of lights, sounds and indulgent splendours. Rows of cheerful vendors are lining the streets. Parents holding excited children with exasperated grace. Town guards secretly ditching work to enjoy a quick snack. So many carefree souls enjoying the festival; so many potential observers who could start screaming at the drop of a coin. As countless people brush pass my unnatural body, I look about with all the likeness of a jittery meerkat. I give a start whenever somebody’s eyes meet with mine, only for them to look on with unnerving indifference. However, in stark contrast to my bottomless anxiety…
“Look at the clock tower, “Hansel”! They managed to decorate the entire structure with rainbow lights…
… Did they import this straight from the Theocracy? I haven’t seen this since I left my homeland…
… That act was breathtaking! Did he really perform that without magic? I even checked with <Magic Perception>…
… Oh! Look over there…”
(F-for heaven’s sake, “Gretel”, please restrain yourself. I don’t want to draw any more attention than we have to.)
(Or so you say, but you’re clearly the more conspicuous between us. Can you please stop pulling your hood over your face?)
(C-can you blame me!? My life is at stake here! If somebody notices anything amiss with my head-)
(Oh please, I’ve been doing this ever since I was I child. Moreover, <Phantasm Magic> controls visual recognition, not perception. No matter how hard they look, their own minds will fabricate the details.)
(Was that supposed to be a joke? Anyway, let me get that thing… off right…)
I try to stop her, but ever conscious of making a scene, it ends up being a futile effort as she pulls down my hood. I look about frantically, but all I find are a few raised eyebrows. It feels as if my exposed skull is reverberating from all the excitement in the air, and little by little, I acclimatise to the brightness.
“Dear me, you’re acting like a carriage horse who suddenly lost their blinders.”
(Your magic is incredible… and incredibly horrifying.)
(*Giggle* I’ll take that as a compliment. That being said, please remember to move your jaw while you speak.)
“So Hansel, are you ready to see what the Primera Carro truly has to offer?”
“Can’t say. What do you have in mind, Gretel?”
“Well, I heard there is a trade exhibit tonight where they will present the latest inventions from every corner of the Velvet Road! Supposably, they will be showing the newest golem from the Graland Academy and the largest telescope yet from the Lysium Theocracy. Rumour has it that Reinsol Kingdom is also unveiling a prototype for – fancy this – a ship that can sail the mana streams! Truly, it’s a wonderous time to live in.”
“You’re really looking forward to it, aren’t you?”
“Oh, you can tell?”
“Judging by the way you flutter your ears…”
“C-can you please n-not mention that!? I never knew I expressed myself in such a way until now.”
“Heh, I guess there was nobody who could point it out. By the way, do you know where the exhibit is being held?”
“I do. I heard it’s at the plaza outside Penn Tower. The only problem is it’s quite a walk away.”
“No need, Gretel. Let’s just catch a mana carriage instead.”
“I don’t think we can. Look, Hansel.”
Sure enough, I turn towards the pickup lane to find all the mana carriages have been replaced with traditional horse-drawn ones. Moreover, there is a lengthy queue of excited tourists eager to use the service.
“Did the increased visitor numbers lead to the need for a backup fleet?”
“Perhaps. The price has probably been raised too,” adds Lili, “and judging by the style of the carriages, it looks like they’re offering tours more so than transportation.”
“In that case, it might be worth the wait and cost. What do you say, Gretel?”
“I don’t mind, but it seems those lining up are mostly couples.”
“Ah, you’re right… Oh well, time to exercise our legs! It will do wonders for your digestion.”
“Y-you know Hansel, you didn’t have to sound so blithe about it. I feel rather hurt.”
“Nah, I just don’t want to deny any one of these lovebirds their special night. It would be too cruel.”
“I suppose. Still, I’m a bit miffed to be so soundly rejected by my little brother…”
“Wait, I’m the younger sibling!?”
As we continue to trade words like a game of Uno, we weave our way through the crowd towards the distant clock tower. Along the way, we pass several pieces of impressive 3D chalk art of a fire-breathing dragon, a perilous cliff and a storm-tossed ship. It’s a shame that cameras aren’t a thing in this world, although we still posed in a few.
Further down the street, we happen upon a public dance square, with dozens of partners performing a foreign folk dance to a rustic tune. Lili invites me to join her, but I tell her I have two-left feet. We leave after the second song, with Lili staring intently at my heels.
Eventually, we wander into a smoky food court and indulge in a plethora of overcharged nibbles. Well, Lili is. I’m using to <Perception Link> to taste what she’s eating. Still worried that I’m being left out, she’s entrusted the choice of meals entirely in my hands. As a result…
“*Cough, cough* T-this one as well? Everything you’ve picked thus far has been sour, bitter or positively foul. Are you doing this on purpose, Hansel?”
“I-I swear to god it’s not intentional. I’m going through the same sensations, remember? I’m really trying my best not to torture us.”
“Or so you say, but you still pick the most obscure things. Honestly, I cannot fathom why you would choose squid-on-a-stick over succulent fried slime when the former is clearly being sold for the novelty.”
“Eh, but you liked that one, didn’t you?”
“I-I suppose the taste was fine, but the chewiness and the feeling of tentacles running along my gums were off-putting.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you tried my sweet chilli stir fry. Still, would you like to clean your palate with a honeyed apple or something?”
“I’m sorry, Hansel, but I can’t take another bite. It seems we’ll have to end our culinary experience on a sour note, quite literally.”
“No, no. If anything, I think I appreciate it more. With my friend’s tempered tongue, I hardly taste anything of the like. It’s rather refreshing to be honest.”
“I see. Thank heavens…”
“By the way Gretel… are we lost?”
“D-don’t be ridiculous. We can still see Penn Tower over the rooftops, yes?”
“Yeah, and I can also see that we’re not getting any closer. At this rate, the exhibit will already be over by the time we even get there.”
“Perhaps if you didn’t insist on avoiding the crowds…”
“Fair enough. Anyway, let’s ask for directions.”
“Oh, there’s someone. Excuse us, mister!”
Why the hell are you asking a city guard!?
No, c-calm down Enbos. It’s actually the most reasonable thing to do. Although my head is bare, Lili’s magic is as good as – if not better than – any mask. Just don’t do anything to stand out…
“Hello, how may I help you two?”
“You see, we’re trying to get to Penn Tower to see the trade exhibit, so we were hoping if you could some direction?”
“Of course, miss! I suppose with all the stalls and barriers up, it’s harder to get around the city. Just follow this road to the end and go left along the main street. You should see a sizable bridge arching over the path, and if you follow that bridge, it will lead straight to Penn Tower.”
“Oh, I see. Thank you very much.”
“Anytime, miss. By the way, is this perhaps your first time in Catorrem?”
“Indeed. We heard much about the Primera Carro, and I must say, I am delighted! May you recommend any other sights?”
Why are you dragging the conversation!? We already have the directions, so let’s go!
“Well then, if you haven’t heard already, the opening parade is a must-see at every Primera Carro. It should be coming down the main street soon so you’ll be sure to see it on your way to the exhibit.”
“Oh my, how fortuitus. Thank you so much, mister…”
“Oh, where are my manners. Officer Hank, at your service.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hank. My name is Gretel and this is…”
“Greetings. Hm? Now that I take a closer look…”
Damn it, he’s noticed something! Was there a flaw in Lili’s magic after all? He’s not scampering back in fear but I can’t take the chance. Should I knock him out and carry him away like a drunk? Yes, let’s go with-
“… are you two siblings?”
“W-why, yes, of course. How did you ever guess?” I reply.
“Haha, I thought so! Although your looks are rather stark from one another, you both have the same nose and eyes.”
“I-I guess,” I say as Lili and I turn to look at one another. She seems to be stifling a laugh considering my “nose” is currently a glass ball.
“You must be pretty close, but let me guess: did your sister drag you along with her?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Of course. I have an older sister of my own, you see, and if I wasn’t working a shift, she’d be pulling my ear as well.”
“Yeah, and then she’d mull over every purchase and constantly ask for your opinion.”
“Then disregard everything you’ve said and drag you to the next stall.”
“*Chuckle* How true.”
“Why, that’s funny Hansel, because I seem to remember you dragging me around every food stall, ignoring good sense to buy things like grilled squid.”
“Wait, you eat squid?”
“I do, although it seems I’m the only one who enjoys it…”
“Of course not! Heck, now that I know there’s a stall around, I can’t help but drool.”
“Oh, you’re a fan well?”
“Indeed. It’s such an underappreciated delicacy, especially with a mug of light beer.”
“True, true, although the vendor here doesn’t do it justice. Makes me want to grill it myself.”
“Shame. Still, it’s not every day that I get to eat it in the city. Anyway, I best not keep you from your sibling bonding any longer. Farewell, and I hope you both enjoy the rest of the festival!”
We bid Hank goodbye as he eagerly heads towards the food court. Honestly, that conversation went far better than I expected, and I have no doubt in my mind that Lili was regulating my facial expressions the entire time. I return my attention to Lili to thank her, and…
“… Why are you grinning from ear-to-pointy-ear?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Tell me, Hansel: did you really have an older sister?”
“No, but I did have an older cousin. My skin would crawl every time she asked for a favour, but… it was fun.”
“I see … Anyway, let us make haste, my dear little brother. I think I can hear the parade coming soon.”
Sure enough, by the time we reach the end of the street, we arrive just in time for the main event. Saying it’s crowded would be an understatement. There are hundreds of people lining the sides, with observers standing on every stair and elevated surface. Of course, the bridge is no exception as its currently inundated with eager tourists. However, I quickly forget my frustration as the sound of horns and drums draw near, and I immediately realise why it’s such a popular attraction.
With bright lights and creative flair, a procession of mana carriages rolls down the enclosed street, carrying dazzling floats that dance and sing. Despite some of the displays being obvious product placements (buy a magical brush!), the artistry and charm on show are truly, well, magical. The crowd react with greater excitement as fathers carry their children on their shoulders, elders look on with sentimental smiles, and lovers huddle close to personalise the moment. A bittersweet taste fills my mouth as an acrobatic troupe dressed as fairies passes by…
“Fun- erm, festival?”
“Yes, festival… are fun. Alth… haven’t… to one myself…”
“… Are you smiling, Hansel?”
“Who knows? It could be anything, really…”
“True. Oh well, I’ll just conjure one anyway.”
“*Giggle* I was only joking, although you do seem genuinely happy.”
“Yeah, and honestly I was thinking that it would be nice to visit again. And you?”
“It’s everything I had hoped for.”
“Is that so… Oh, look. There’s some Church propaganda as well.”
“Dear me, what are you trying to-”
All of sudden, Lili’s expression changes from cheery excitement to wide-eyed shock, before settling into a sombre frown. Confused, I re-examine the float but find nothing worthy of note. It’s just a couple of guys posing as knights and zombies, while a magical orb bellows out a story in song about some place called Aegror.
(… haven’t changed at all…)
“Ah, I’m sorry En- Hansel. I-it’s nothing serious. Look, Hansel! That man is swallowing an entire rapier! My lord, it’s even been enchanted with light magic so you can see it through his throat.”
“Y-yeah, he is…”
Lili is clearly reluctant to talk about that particular float. Looking around, a few watchers are also making uncomfortable expressions, although the rest are completely oblivious. As intrigued as I am, I feel guilty enough as is. I have no intent of raining on her parade, or ruining the relative peace I’m feeling after such a stressful day.
… *Sigh* Now that I’m thinking about it, I may as well check up on that lingering ghost. The Primera Carro has been an effective distraction, but there’s no helping the curiosity of this dead cat.
Hmm, I can’t sense it among the crowd. How about… Ah, there it is. That accursed “ghost” is staring down from the rooftops like a distorted-
Huh, wait a second. It shouldn’t have a physical…
“Oh, I freaking knew it!”
“Hm, is something the matter, Hansel? What were you-”
“It’s nothing, Gretel. I just noticed something was in my hair,” I say while making four secretive hand signs:
Quiet. Danger. Behind. Up.
Lili’s eyes widen for instant, but she quickly plasters a fake smile. Cunningly, she secretly slips a small mirror into my hand and I carefully direct the reflection towards the mass of “invisible” air on the roof behind me.
Although I can’t sense any mana or spiritual energy, the shifting contours of every passing cloud reveals a subtle spherical shape, like a frameless television screen projecting the scenery behind it. After some squinting, Lili silently nods, confirming it’s not my delusion. However, I shake my head when she makes the hand sign for “monster” (i.e. cultist). If it were Tascus, he would send one of his face-snatching infiltrators… which means it’s one of Maximillian’s men.
Damn it, I was too lax. Do they know it’s me beneath Lili’s illusion? No, the distortion is pacing back and forth along the rooftop, almost like they’re scoping the busy crowd. Still, that begs the question of how they got so close in the first place. I doubt Maximillian has the manpower to search this vast city, and yet they couldn’t have followed me since I left my cell. It’s almost like he stuck a-
(O~h, I see now. Gretel, do you mind lending me your ear?)
Where? Where in the crowd is he? God, deliver me from this tedium…
It has been an hour since we received the signal and I’m currently tracking the wayward Enbos. I thought it would be more interesting than guarding some artefact, but I was sorely mistaken. You would think a guy as conspicuous as him would be easy to spot, but I have been unable to find even a trace. It feels as if I’m looking for a mite in an open field, and for the umpteenth time, I examine my scrying orb and lament the fact it can’t provide an exact bearing.
Adding to my frustrations, my emblem suddenly lights up as my frivolous boss decides to check in.
“Brother Michael, report,” buzzes his firm voice through my emblem. It seems he’s taking the matter seriously tonight.
“I’m near Mann Bridge along the main street. The situation is unchanged, Brother Maximillian. I still can’t discern him from the crowd.”
“No masked, solitary figures? No coincidental figures?”
“None, brother. Due to this festival, the crowd moves like a current through the city.”
“*Sigh* I see. Continue your good work, Mich-”
“I-If I’m allowed to ask, may you describe his true face? I suspect he’s removed his mask and changed his attire to avoid us.”
“He wouldn’t do such a thing. Not with a face like that. Still, I won’t discount the possibility he’s prepared a flesh mask, which would be sufficient grounds to imprison him.”
“Then, should I immediately apprehend him if that is so?”
“No, if you do spot him wearing a different face, continue to exercise prudence. A guy like him wouldn’t care for the Primera Carro. He is bound to be plotting some devious scheme or meeting some unscrupulous character, and I’d rather remove the weed at the root.”
“I understand, brother.”
“By the way, what is that commotion I hear in the background?”
“It’s the parade of the first day of the Primera Carro.”
“I see… *Sigh*”
“No, it’s nothing. May God be with you.”
“Ah, Nessa! Why don’t you and I patrol main street toge-”
The connection abruptly cuts and I’m left shaking my head at our priory’s antics. Granted, he’s one of the most powerful and dedicated followers of the Path, but sometimes I secretly wonder how he ever became our prior. It’s nothing like I expected when I first joined the Cleansing Swords, although that may have been for the best…
I gaze down upon the crowded street and spy a float with two “holy knights” posing triumphantly over some vanquished “ghouls”: the Cleansing of Aegror. Like an elbow to an old wound, the sight quickly dejects my mood as the tribute passes the oblivious crowd. Although I wasn’t there, I’ve heard the stories from Brother Morris, and they still haunt him to this day. In that respect, I’m glad Maximillian is leading the priory back into the light, although he would be displeased with the city bishop if he knew about this float. Some of the pedestrians seem to have realised that it’s-
Hm? That’s strange. The middle-aged man in the dark cloak is looking elsewhere besides the parade. Actually, he’s staring up at the rooftop I’m currently-
Our eyes met! H-how did he see through my <Mirage Wall>? Could it all be a coincidence? No, he’s trying to run into an alley! It has to be Enbos!
Discarding all pretence of stealth, I leap across the rooves and drop into the alley, appearing directly in front of the bewildered suspect. I immediately cast <Consecrated Cage> upon landing, trapping “Enbos” in a circle of solid light. He falls onto his back and starts begging for his life.
“P-please, what do you want with me?”
“You can drop the charade Enbos the Black! By the power invested in, I place you under-”
“N-no, I’m not him! I’m just a shoemaker, I swear! I don’t even know who he is.”
“Then why did you start running, and how were you able to see me!”
“A-a guy in a wooden mask paid me 2 fablars to look at the roof and-!”
Curses, so he really was here! Could he be lying? No, the scrying orb isn’t reacting to his presence. As a matter of fact, the already-faint signal is moving further way. It’s pointing towards- no, over the rooftops!
With a powerful kick, I propel myself over the main street and onto the opposing building. I then dash towards the source, hoping to find some darkly dressed figure prancing across the rooftops. However, as I draw nearer, I realise that the signal is no longer moving.
Ten paces later… I find Enbos’ sheathed sword lying in plain sight.
“Damn it! Brother Maximillian, come in! This is Brother Michael. I’ve lost track of Enbos!”