Caleb, Rainbow, Sara and Flower were sitting on the front bench of the pony wagon, riding it through the Northern Border District to, well, the border. This was the most direct way to get to the Blackscale Empire; from there, they would begin their trip northwest to the Coldrock Prison Mine System (named after the mountain range where it is located) where they would find Lydia. The wagon also contained many old, valuable books that Roger had acquired in his 400+ years of life. The plan was to sell them in the city of Auria to help the group maintain a good cover story and provide funds for their journey. Roger was clear on this, even providing a price list based on his research written in his usual high-quality penmanship. “Lydia is priceless to me,” Roger had told them, “I don’t care if I never see any of these books again.”
As the group got closer to the border, Rainbow got up and said he’d go inside the wagon.
“Will you need to be hidden the entire time?” Caleb asked.
“A lot of it,” the rablin replied, “but don’t worry, I brought reading material.”
The boy looked at the contents of the wagon; besides supplies for the trip, it was medical books as far as the eye could see. “You’re going to learn medicine?” he asked.
Rainbow rolled his eyes at Caleb. “No, no, no - magic. See, after you all left the chambers a few days ago, Mason and I got to talking.”
“The lanky red-haired guy. Anyway, Mason said there’s no way I should’ve known that spell. Super advanced and blah blah blah. It makes sense, but whatever. He then asks how I was feeling because he used my mana to save Byures; I was fine, but didn’t think much of it. Apparently I have more mana than anyone he’s ever met, because that should’ve drained me or something.”
At this, Sara arched her eyebrows; Mason was famous across Thorn for his magical abilities, especially for someone so young. He was not the sort of man to say that in jest. She didn’t say anything though and let the rablin continue his story.
“Anyway, red hair guy tells me to ‘hone my gift’ and I asked how to do that. Long story short, after we made sure Byures was safe - he says hi by the way - we went to Mason’s place and he gave me a book on magic. Supposedly if I practice enough, I’ll be able to-”
At that point, Sara had to interrupt. “We’re at the border,” she said. Rainbow took that as the obvious cue it was and hid within Roger’s books. Being a tiny creature made that easier than it would be for someone like Caleb, plus if worst came to worst he could use an invisibility illusion to make himself undetectable.
Using the reins to “control” Edward, Sara stopped by the border guard in full Blackscale uniform when he held up his right hand to make a stop signal. This was the one way to get directly to the Empire from Thorn City, and as such it was heavily armed. Failing to do even the slightest thing correctly could potentially ruin their chances at saving Lydia before they even began.
“What are your names?” the human man asked.
“I’m Sally Smith, and this is my grandson Calvin. We’re from Thorn.” Just like she had told them last night, they would use fake names to minimize any risk.
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
“I sell antiques for a living. I got a great deal on these rare books and we’re going to sell them up in Auria.” Saying this, Sara showed the guard the copyright page of a hardcover book, The Complete Compendium of Medicine, which was apparently published in 1225.
The guard’s eyebrows rose. “Not bad,” he said, “and how long do you intend to be in the Empire?”
“About three weeks.”
“And do you-”
Just then, the guard was interrupted by a loud, ringing bell. “One moment please, stay there.” Staying this, he pulled his sword from his sheath on his belt and looked around. Sara thought for a moment he might have been suspicious of her as he looked under the cart, but he only spent a moment there, turning his attention to the direction of Blackscale and away from Thorn.
Suddenly, he saw what he was looking for; a goblin man had somehow managed to sneak past the other guards; he was middle-aged and looked like he had been through a tough battle of some kind very recently as there was a large bruise where one of his eyes should’ve been.
“Oh no you don’t,” the guard said, throwing the sword at the goblin. It hit him sharp-side first, causing him to fall backwards onto the ground. He walked towards the body as another guard ran up to him. “Good job Jensen,” the new man said, “is it alive?”
Jensen felt the man’s pulse. “Nah, it’s dead,” he responded as if he was talking about the weather as he pulled the sword from the being’s corpse, “that’s what they get for trying to run though. Good slaves should know better.”
“I’ll fill out the damaged property form,” the other guard said as he picked up the corpse. “Man, I hate paperwork.”
“Tell me about it. I’ll have to clean my sword after-oh, right, I’ve kept some people waiting,” Jensen realized, “excuse me.”
At the wagon, Caleb was trying his best to hide his seething rage and desire to jump into action. Those men made killing sound so trivial and it infuriated him. As the guards talked about the dead man as if he was livestock, Sara was afraid the child would do something they’d regret and wrapped one of her arms around the boy, hugging him. “I know, dear,” she whispered, “I know.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am” Jensen said as he returned to where Sara was like nothing had happened. “Any slaves to register?”
“No, sir” Sara responded.
“Alright then, welcome to the Blackscale Empire! Have a great day” he cheerily responded.
“You too,” Sara replied with a fake smile.
As soon as they rode out of distance of anyone, Caleb asked a simple question: “why? How can people act like that?”
“I wish there was an easy answer, child,” Sara sadly replied, “but there isn’t. The world can be a cruel place, and I don’t know that it will ever not be that way; but if you surround yourself with good people that you love and do the best you can to be good yourself, it becomes a much brighter place. Are you okay?”
“I think so, yeah.” Caleb said a little sadly.
“Will you be okay with worse? Because it will get worse before we can save Lydia.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” This time, whether through willpower or time, the sadness in the child’s voice was gone. He would do whatever it took to save Lydia from a fate like the orc’s: it was the knightly thing to do and he had given his word anyway. And in the back of his mind, Caleb felt that Roger was right when he spoke to him at Captain John’s memorial ceremony; he felt like he was one of the Nieves, or at least he did when he was with Sara. “We’ll save her, I know it.”
Sara smiled at the boy’s bravery; moving forward while scared was the definition of courage. This child had sailed across the ocean, fought against cultists, saved a city, and was now helping her save her granddaughter for no reason other than to help people who needed it. None of this had to have been or would be easy, and there was no doubt about it; Caleb was a kind child and special to her. Sara hugged him now with both arms, mentally vowing to herself that she would do whatever it took to keep him safe.