#1 – A Night In Malba Tower

A loud shriek stole Rina’s attention away from the rolling hills of Neirun. She shot up from her train seat as a human-like figure of dull white bolted down the train aisle. Red dripped from the place its face would have been. Instead of a face, it had a blank flat surface with a two black holes instead of eyes. It clutched a bloodstained club in its right hand and a necklace with purple and white jewels in the other. Blood covered its legs and pieces of brain and viscera clung from the bottoms of its pants.

Rina recognized it as an “Inisto” – a Clan-class demon common to Neirun. If she could defeat it and obtain its soul, she could turn it in for a good amount of money and she needed the money. Maybe she could even negotiate another train ticket from the conductor for saving his train. Most importantly, she trained at The Exterminator Academy for years after learning she was born with special abilities to fight demons and protect ordinary people and she couldn’t let that training and education go to waste.

As the inisto ran past, she hooked her arms around its neck and demanded, “You have one chance – drop the necklace and surrender.”

It tried to smash its club into her arm, but kept missing as she kicked the back of its legs. She punched the back of its head. It fell backwards, slamming her into the floor as hard as it could. Pain shot through her spine. She let go. It scrambled to its feet and ran into another car.

Rina shook her head, lifted herself up, and pursued the demon.

It ran through a dining car. Passengers screamed as it grabbed the plates from their tables and flung the objects at Rina. She dodged the plates, but some of the food hit her eyes. She wiped the thick molasses off and saw a knife hurdling toward her face. A small fireball came from her hand and pushed the knife to the side, embedding it into the side of the train car. Rina hated using her powers – each fireball she shot aged her. The small fireball she shot was probably worth only a minute of life, but those fireballs could add up and she couldn’t die anytime soon.

The inisto burst through the door and climbed up the side of the next car. Rina had to follow to the top. She finally drew her weapons, two bolo (machetes, as the Labans called them) – she didn’t have to worry about innocent bystanders getting sliced.

The demon charged at her as it raised its mace. She blocked with her left bolo and swung with her right. It dodged. She kicked its legs, knocking it off balance. Then she bashed its wrist with the pommel of her weapon. It dropped the mace and the weapon flew off the side of the car.

“Hand. . . over. . . the necklace!” she demanded again, screaming over the wind and between tired breaths.

It ran again. She still chased after it, the wind lapping against her face. She was happy she kept her brown hair short, despite Laban beauty standards that dictated long, yellow hair for everyone – even foreigners like herself.

The inisto stopped on top of the animal train – the last train. It threw another knife, but she saw it fly through the wind and she easily batted it away with the weapon in her right hand. She watched it clamor off the train. However, she didn’t see the third one, which sliced into her left cheek. She already had two deep scars on her cheeks, so the sensation of pierced face flesh was familiar to her. She touched the tip with her tongue and she tasted cold steel and copper blood. Then, she yanked the knife from her face. Blood poured down her jaw. She looked at the demon with fire in her eyes. She heated her hand with her abilities and cauterized the wound. It wasn’t the first time she had done that – there was a large scar from thigh to ankle on her right leg – but it wasn’t something she enjoyed. The sensation brought renewed determination.

A friendly howl she knew well echoed from the train. The other animals whinnied and rocked the caboose. The demon fell off the side, but held onto the car window. Rina ran along the roof and then jumped into its back, sending the both of them tumbling into the animal car.

A horse-sized, blue wolf with yellow fangs dripping with saliva growled at the demon. It pounced, sinking its teeth into the demon’s neck. The inisto twitched then, a few moments later, the demon stopped and disintegrated into white wisps, leaving behind a small, gray marble and a necklace with purple and white jewels. Rina sheathed her weapons.

The wolf’s licked Rina’s face, morphing from attack mode to friendly. She laughed and rubbed the dog’s head. She looked into the dog’s big, black eyes and said, “My reliable partner, Saby-Baby! Such a good girl. When we get to Frazier, I’m going to buy you a big piece of fish.”

She picked up the marble and the necklace and strolled into the next car, her head held high. She was greeted by the conductor and a woman who lacked laugh lines. She held out the necklace in one hand and showed off the marble with the other. She expected the conductor to thank her. He did not.

The woman howled, “She’s bleeding all over my necklace! My necklace! Tarnished by foreign blood!”

Rina looked at her hands. There wasn’t that much blood – certainly not enough to scream over. The conductor snatched the necklace and the marble.

“Hey!” she snapped. “That demon soul is mine!”

The conductor, the epitome of Laban upbringing with his ivory skin, bright yellow hair, and a thick mustache, waved his finger in her face. “It is not yours! Any demon souls that were not previously with a passenger when they entered the train are the property of the Laban Foreign Transport Company. Did you have that demon soul when you entered the train?”

“When I stepped out of the stable car and into this car I had the soul,” Rina answered sheepishly.

“Clever,” the conductor flatly said. “We will give you an extra drink of tea for dealing with the demon, thank you very much.”

“An extra drink? Oh, my dreams have come true. Can I choose the flavor and everything?”

“You may choose from whatever is left. Now, I have a mess to clean up. Good day.”

“A mess? That’s what you call a dead person!?” she exclaimed. She muttered under her breath, “Maybe he was brown like me.”

She plopped down by a nearby window, curled up on her seat, and stared out across the verdant hills. Her instructors warned her about life as a Cross Border Exterminator. They told her about how Cross Border Exterminators had a reputation for being exiled from their native countries and that’s why they chose to wander to other countries. They told her about how they were perceived to be vagrants and that the countries closest to Laban were the worst. Those countries believed they could be free of demons, like Laban, if they were as dedicated to the Eternal God as the Laban Empire. When they saw an exterminator, it meant that they were still under threat of demon attacks.

Maybe it was time to throw her hands into the air and give up on helping others. She could hunt demons by day, and search for the Crystals of Xiyuba by night. The money wouldn’t be as good, but it was better than dealing with ungrateful, pale-skinned aristocrats. Just until she found the Neirun crystal and could move onto the next country.

“A moment please,” a strong voice broke her seething.

A poised adolescent covered in sapphire and amethyst garments stood in the aisle beside her. Before she could speak, the teenager said, “I apologize for my insolent mother.”

“It’s fine, I’m used to it,” Rina mumbled.

“But you shouldn’t be. It was my necklace you retrieved and I would like to formally thank you.” The young woman bowed. “With my father’s passing, I am now the Lord of Willelmus. Mother is just annoyed that he left the position to me. If you ever find yourself in South Laban, I will hold a gala in your honor.” She bowed once more, handed Rina a small card with the official seal of Willelmus, South Laban, turned on her heel, and left as quickly and quietly as she arrived.

Maybe Rina would still protect those around her – after all, it was the best way to earn a living.

The train stopped in Frazier – a small farming town in the middle of Neirun’s most fertile land. Rina heard people peddling their fresh produce the moment she stepped onto the platform. She ambled toward the back of the train along the platform as she glanced at the food stands. She got to the animal caboose and noticed a butcher with meat on ice. She purchased a whole fish and some jerky. The butcher offered to filet and clean the fish. She declined – that would be extra money that she just didn’t own – especially after she a transportation conglomerate subsidized by the Laban government seized her demon soul. She didn’t even want to buy the fish, but a Rina promised Saby.

When it was Saby’s turn to leave the stable car, the conductor lead the horse-sized blue dog by a leash, checked Rina’s ticket, and then handed the reins to her. Saby licked Rina. She unhooked the reins and gave them back to the conductor and then gave the dog the fish.

Rina sat down on a bench and Saby curled up at her feet. They ate as the train boarded for its next stop. Some kids smiled and pointed at Saby. Rina waved and smiled back. The children’s’ parents yanked their arms in an attempt to divert their attention. Tatlo canines intimidated the Labans, who were accustomed to their horses. In fact, Tatlo canines were more domesticated than horses; canines responded to their owners with loyalty and respect, whereas horses were stubborn and fickle. Still, the Labans just saw the fangs and colors they deemed unnatural and dangerous.

Of course, every Tatlo canine had their own personality and Saby was no exception. Rina met Saby when the dog was just a puppy and Rina was thirteen. She had just finished primary school and was entering the apprentice phase of her education. Most Islanders apprentice in several different areas, spending a few months teaching younger children how to read, then another few months learning to cook a full lunch service in a restaurant, and then another few months taking notes for officials in government. Rina knew she wanted to make boats and never thought about any other career. On her first day, the boatmaker’s Tatlo canine gave birth to a litter of puppies. Rina was smitten with the last one born – the runt. As soon as the dog was weaned, he gave it to Rina as a gift for enthusiastic apprenticeship. The boatmaker didn’t think the dog would make it a month, but the dog made it past a year and even came to the Extermination Academy with Rina. Years later, she ate fish at Rina’s feet and was an accomplished demon hunter in her own right.

“You the Exterminator?” Rina heard as she took the last bite of her jerky and swallowed.

She saw a yellow-haired man heading toward her. He was clearly from Laban, or his parents were Labans and he was born in Neirun. Either way, he had some proud lineage he bragged about at parties and the traditional features to prove it. He had sparkling blue eyes, a strong jaw, and toned muscles that bulged under his shirt. His gauntlets were made of pure metal and engraved with intricate symbols and patterns.

Rina stood up and said, “Dragon.”

He replied, “Horse.” He grinned as if he expected an award.

Rina nodded. Lightning manipulation. “Name?”

“Geoffrey. Geoffrey Frazier. Yes, that Frazier. My family established this community seven generations ago.” He offered that with no prompting. He saw Saby. “Is this your, um, steed? Must she accompany us?”

“She must,” Rina mocked. “We’re a package deal. If you don’t want my help, then I can get on the next train,” she trailed off, remembering how much money she had left. “I can walk right out of town.”

He looked away and muttered under his breath. Then, he turned back to her and said, “Fine. But your steed must stay in the stables.”

“As long as she is treated well and as if she were a horse,” Rina demanded.

He acquiesced.

They reached the hitching post and he mounted a brown horse covered in fine, orange robes and a saddle made of supple leather. He led Rina and Saby as he updated her on their mission. Langley Malba was the mayor of Frazier, who was a friend who married into the Frazier family through Geoffrey’s mother’s sister, and owner of a mansion just outside the city. Every new moon, a demon has attacked him, demanding him to offer the village people as sacrifices. He has refused each time, instead of allowing the demon to steal blood from his body. He has become sickly and will not survive another night. Every Exterminator who has wrestled with the demon has been killed. Now they were desperate enough to contact outside Exterminators. Rina wasn’t the first, but Geoffrey hoped she would be the last. Rina wasn’t sure if his desire for her success was due to genuine concern for his uncle’s health, or he just didn’t want to deal with foreigners anymore. She suspected it was a combination of both.

Geoffrey said, “Even though he has a debilitating disease, he still sacrifices himself for his people. He is truly wonderful.”

“What kind of demon is it?” Rina asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What species? Humanoid or beast? Clan-class or Named?”

“If it were just a clan-class demon, I wouldn’t have called a Cross Border Exterminator,” he said with disdain.

Rina brushed off the comment. There was no point in starting an argument that would inevitably end with neither party gaining anything except animosity. The rest of the ride was welcome silence. It was the first time Geoffrey stopped talking long enough for Rina to appreciate the perfect rows of farms that surrounded the road. It reminded Rina of the rice farms carved into the mountains of Tatlo. For a moment, she longed to go home, but she immediately remembered the amalgam of anger, sadness, fear, and blood that drove her away. She couldn’t go home until she completed her mission.

Langley Malba’s chateau swallowed the hill it was on as Rina rode toward it. A massive rock wall surrounded the building and the white building reflected the sun’s rays like a beacon. Rina and Geoffrey came to a wrought-iron gate and a door man. He let them in when he saw Geoffrey.

Just inside the walls, a lush garden with a cobblestone path lead to a door that was at least two stories tall and carved out of a thick wood. A row of identically dressed servants stood expressionless. When they saw Saby, a few grimaced. The door opened and three people stepped out.

The first was a young woman in the latest Neirun fashion – a blue dress with black lace that draped around her to elongate her legs and poof out the back side. She had a small valise at her side that was emblazoned with a circle within a square within a triangle within another circle – a symbol Rina saw in an alchemical text in a class she took years before. When Rina got a closer look at her, she suspected she wasn’t from Neirun or Laban, but from a western country – Chaegseom, Yamasora, or Taoshing. The young woman’s eyes lit up when she saw Saby and she clasped her hands together and smiled at Rina, who smiled back in surprise.

The other person was obviously Langley Malba. He wore a golden outfit with a silk brocade, fur lined cape. His hands were covered in gauntlets that were identical to Geoffrey’s. He held a scepter with an egg shaped hunk of ruby at the top. A servant, who was dressed like the others, trailed behind him, holding the bottom of the cape up from the ground. Rina locked eyes with the waif of a woman for a moment before the woman frowned and looked down again. Rina learned later that her name was Alice and she was the executive assistant to Malba.

Geoffrey hopped off his horse and embraced the portly man. “It’s been too long, uncle!”

“My wonderful nephew!” Malba replied. “Everyone! Greet my nephew! Isn’t my nephew great! The best nephew.” He didn’t seem sick to Rina.

The servants kept their heads bowed slightly. Malba glanced at Rina, who hadn’t moved from her canine.

“Is this the Exterminator?” he asked Geoffrey.

“It is,” he answered.

“I am,” Rina added in case Malba thought she was a figment of his imagination.

“A foreigner!” Malba exclaimed. “I’m so good to my foreigners. I give them jobs. Like I’m giving you a job.” He looked at Saby. “Lovely pet. Very big. Very blue. I have the best stables. Your dog will love my stables. I’ll even treat it just like a horse. Get off and let one of my people lead your horse. We’ll have a feast! I have this great feast prepared. Really great. A tremendous feast. The best feast.”

Rina stepped off Saby as his mouth flapped. When he was finished, she said, “I would prefer to see the stables before I settle in.”

“My people are great, I assure you. Your dog will be treated greatly.”

“I’m not doubting your people but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to see the living space.”

The western woman, the one whose eyes lit up when she saw Saby, stepped forward. “Master Malba, I would be happy to show her the stables.”

“No, you must change for the feast,” he replied. He turned to the lady behind him and called, “Alice! Show her the stables. Then her room.”

The woman who carried his robe said, “If I do that, I can’t carry Master’s cape. And it will get dirty.”

Langley smiled, “See this? This is loyalty. She cares about me so much that she cares about my clothes, too. See? I’m great to my people. Tremendous people. You should get some nice clothes, too.” He motioned toward Rina.

“My clothes are fine,” Rina replied.

“But you’ve been wearing those for so long. Seems like you have. They are rags! I have the best tailors, they can find you the best clothes! Even with your interesting body type. Cover up those scars. And makeup. The best makeup people. They could probably do something with those scars on your face. You might have a great face under there if we can cover up those scars. You want to cover up those things on your cheeks, don’t you?”

It was going to be a long night.

“I really don’t mind, Master,” the impeccably dressed western woman offered. “I would like to show her the stables.”

“You know what?” he said to no one in particular. “Sure! You can do it. See how good I am to my people. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve taken an interest in our new guest. My people are great. They work for me. They do great things for me. And I pay them. And well. I pay them well. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Rina hopped down from Saby as the rest of the staff went inside. The woman took Geoffrey’s horse by the reigns.

The woman said, “I’m Sung-” she stopped abruptly, laughed nervously, and then tried again. “I’m Yu Jie Sung. And your name is?”

“Rina Castro.”

“And who is your companion?” she asked as she held out her hand for the dog to sniff.

“This is Saby.”

Yu Jie stroked Saby’s fur. Saby panted and licked Yu Jie’s hand. To Rina’s surprise, Yu Jie giggled and didn’t scream in disgust.

“Have you seen a Tatlo canine before?”

“No,” Yu Jie answered. “But I’ve read about them in books. I’ve always wanted to meet one. It’s not the same, you know. Some books say they’re mean and ferocious. The other books – the ones written by actual Islanders – praise their loyalty and intelligence and strength and personality. They’re probably only mean to people who are mean to them. I can’t blame them if that’s the case. It must be nice to have a companion that always has your back.”

Rina smiled.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to take you through the bird pond. It’s exquisite. And you can see it from your bedroom window. I have to feed the birds and they let me have some of their plumage. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

“You’re the first person to smile at me today. I’ll follow wherever you go.”

Yu Jie called it a pond, but it was bigger than a pond. Swans, ducks, and geese floated on the water and congregated on an island in the middle. The shore birds had plumage that showed a spectrum of brilliant colors. Yellows as bright as the sun, blues that matched the crystal water, and purples that were resplendent in the light despite their darkness.

“These birds can’t swim, so they stay here,” she said as she bent down. She opened her pack with the alchemical symbol. “They’re called ‘estas.’ I like to feed them. Just these ones. The ones on the island are jerks.” She pulled out a clear mason jar with some seeds inside. “They’ll eat anything, really, but if I give them some szakall seeds, they’ll drop their feathers.” She pointed up with her other hand to a window. “That’s your room. If you have extra food, would you just throw it down here? The more they eat, the more brilliant their feathers get. The more brilliant their feathers get, the more potent the ingredients.”

The bird shivered and shook off a few feathers that fell to the ground. Yu Jie threw out more feed as the estas ate, shivered, and dropped feathers. Then, she took the mason jar that once held the feed, dumped the rest of the contents, and stuffed the feathers inside. Then she opened her bag again, took out three more jars, each with different colored fluids.

“You’re the first exterminator to speak to me,” she admitted as she mixed the fluids, her hands a blur with speed and precision. “The other ones ignore me. The first ones I spoke to, after I came here, they were all from Neirun. Then they started coming from other places. But they didn’t say much either. Also, they all die eventually.” She paused for a moment, then said, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t die since you’re the first one who has spoken to me. And you have a canine. I don’t want to deal with a Tatlo canine whose owner has died. I read that it is unpleasant. Maybe you should just turn around and leave.”

“Leave? What about the demon?” Rina thought about her pay.

“I shouldn’t say anything. Master Malba has given me a job and a purpose. But something is wrong.”

That was Rina’s opening, an opportunity for information. “Just because someone gives you a job doesn’t mean you have to be loyal no matter what. And I might be able to help if someone would talk to me.”

Yu Jie stood up. She clutched the jar of swirling colors. “The birds are attention grabbers and their feathers make an attention grabbing potion. It’ll direct your notice toward important things, like if the demon makes an appearance. It doesn’t last long, though. Only a few hours, but it might be good for tonight. That’s why I need their feathers. I sometimes use this potion while I’m studying. I spend most of my time studying.” She placed the potion in Rina’s hand. “Come, we have to drop off your canine.”

They walked along the path toward the back of the mansion.

Yu Jie started. “I don’t think there is a demon, but Master Malba isn’t well. I think he’s ill. He hired me to find a cure.”

“An illness? Psychological or physical? Geoffrey mentioned an illness, but he said it was due to the demon.”

Yu Jie looked away for a moment and then said, “It could be. He hired me to find a cure for aging. I’ve heard the staff whisper that he might be losing his mind in his old age, forgetting things, making irrational decisions, calling staff by other names. He brings me jar after jar of baby animal blood from the stables. He is convinced that is the key for his illness is blood. But I haven’t found any proof of that theory in any of the alchemy books – and the alchemy books here are abundant. So I don’t know where he got the idea that blood is the key to longevity. It must come from his insanity.” Yu Jie pointed to the distance. “Look, the stables. They’re quite nice. You know, they were erected just a few years ago…” She trailed off. Rina got the hint and didn’t ask her about the demon or Malba anymore.

Once again, Rina knew that it was going to be a long night, but she could sleep better knowing that Saby’s accommodations were next to the stables and were as clean and beautiful as the rest of the grounds.

The silver tray that contained Rina’s dinner sat undisturbed by the door. Rina chose to eat in her room, instead of the dining hall. She didn’t want to wear the garish garments that Malba provided and she certainly didn’t want to eat meat after she thought about jars of baby animal blood that Yu Jie must have in her quarters. Instead, she opened her window and threw the food out to the brilliant birds in the yard. She wondered if she could see Yu Jie’s window if she stuck her head out and looked up.

She closed her window and thought about what she should do before patrolling. She sharpened her weapons, did some stretches, and consulted her demonic almanac. Then, she splayed out on the bed and stretched her arms and legs as far as they could go. She never expected good days, but that day had been especially trying, except for her time with Yu Jie. After she dropped off Saby, she tried to speak with the other servants. Most of them brushed past her instead of stopping. A few said they had to get back to work. Alice even said, “I have more important things to do than to speak with a foreigner.”

She pulled herself from the bed and drank the potion. She planned to go on patrol, but the bed felt inviting beneath her. The full bed had proper stuffing and a lush, fur blanket. The pillow formed around her ears, creating soft, inviting silence. She was accustomed to small train benches or camping with Saby. She loved Saby – the dog had the fluffiest fur and constant warmth – but she missed a bed with a mattress that contoured to her back.

She fell asleep so suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She saw a crystal blue ocean and smelled the salt. She felt the warm sand between her fingers as the wind blew through her hair. Her brother and sister bolted from behind her, across the sand, and into the ocean. They waved at her and she waved back. She tried to stand, but her inchoate legs kept her grounded. A pair of strong arms scooped her up. Her father nuzzled her cheek. Her mother came up behind him and pressed her lips to the back of Rina’s head.

Her siblings froze and slowed, grinned wide as the red crept up behind them. Rina tried to scream, but couldn’t. She turned to her father. Red dripped from his eyes. He dropped Rina. The sand morphed into cutting rocks. The red absorbed her father. Her mother’s face contorted into a silent scream as the red covered her legs. She clawed at the rocks, but her hands scraped against the jagged edges, shredding her hands until the red finally took her. It ate her family. It was eating the beach. It was going to eat her. She tried to run, but her legs refused to move. She dragged herself and the red nipped at her feet, swallowing her body like a whirlpool in the middle of a putrid ocean of blood and bile.

Before it could consume her face, Rina jolted awake and saw Alice hovering above her with a knife in her hand. The knife came down, but Rina jumped out of the way. In a quick set of moves, she kicked the knife from Alice’s hand, grabbed her wrist, and spun her around. Then, she pinned her would-be assassin to the wall.

“You were supposed to be drugged!” Alice cried.

“You drugged me?” Rina asked as she ripped a silver cord that dangled from the canopy over the bed. “Good thing I wasn’t hungry.” She tied Alice’s hands behind her back.

“I won’t talk,” Alice insisted. “Anything you do to me won’t be as bad as what the Master will do.”

Rina spun her around. “Well, I was thinking that only you hated me, but bringing up Malba makes me think he has something to do with this. Would you still like to talk?”

Alice kept her mouth shut.

“That’s what I thought. Let’s go pay your ‘Master’ a visit.”

Rina strapped her weapons to her back and pulled Alice by the rope. Alice followed compliantly. Rina was thankful for that – she didn’t want to drag her. She knew how it felt to be dragged and she didn’t want to inflict that feeling on another person. She didn’t even want to bring the frail woman, but she couldn’t risk Alice escaping her binds and attacking Rina again.

At the top floor, a golden hallway with matching statues led to a set of double doors with a gaudy carving of soldiers conquering a giant dragon. Rina kicked the doors open. Malba and Geoffrey’s heads popped up from under the silk sheets of an orange bed with a roof. They scrambled when they saw her, grabbing robes and fabrics from the bed.

“You’re supposed to be dead!” Malba exclaimed.

“I don’t have to ask questions!” Rina scoffed. “Everyone just says stuff.”

Geoffrey didn’t any anything. He rushed Rina. She sidestepped him. He cocked his arm back as his temporary clothing fell. Rina looked down, distracted. He punched her left shoulder. Pain shot through her arm. He was serious. He kept attacking and Rina kept blocking. He had a clear strength advantage.

Rina had to use her abilities or draw her weapon.

Geoffrey’s hand sparked and crackled with his lightning abilities. Rina responded in kind – red flames engulfed her hands. He sent lightning at her. She dodged and threw fire. He yelped as his chest hair singed and he patted the flames down. A small taste of Rina’s abilities.

He grabbed the rope still tied around Alice’s hands and yanked her in front of him. A human shield.

“Seriously?” Rina cried as she raised a wall of flame as he shot lightning at her.

“Alice would gladly die for her Master!” Malba said.

The doors burst open. Yu Jie rode Saby into the middle of the room. Rina and Yu Jie locked eyes. Rina covered her ears. Yu Jie copied her. Saby howled, piercing the ears of Geoffrey, Malba, and Alice. They tumbled to the ground. Saby bit Geoffrey’s arm and flung him across the room. He crashed into a table and didn’t get up.

Alice made a break for the door. Yu Jie jumped off Saby and threw a vial at Alice. It trapped her in an invisible box. The maid pounded at the air like a mime.

Rina turned her attention to Malba. “Talk,” she demanded, her outstretched hand engulfed in flames.

“I have nothing to say to a disgusting foreign bitch,” he replied. He crossed his arms like a petulant child.

“Fine. Don’t talk. I don’t think you’re the mastermind anyway. This was clearly the work of,” Rina paused dramatically and pointed at Yu Jie. “The Tao Alchemist Yu Jie! The true mastermind behind this whole situation! How else would she know to come here?”

Rina winked at Yu Jie.

The alchemist caught on. “Yes! Twas I the whole time! Malba is too stupid to orchestrate such a long running conspiracy!”

Rina mouthed “twas” in confusion. Yu Jie nervously shrugged. Malba didn’t see the exchange.

“That westerner isn’t smart enough to even find a cure for aging!” Malba raged. “How could she possibly plan anything? I contacted the academy each time. I specifically requested foreign exterminators. I consorted with the demon who told me the key to eternal youth was your blood!” He pointed at Rina.

“My blood? Or exterminator blood?”

“I thought it was animal blood?” Yue Jie cried.

“I lied!” Malba said. “I wanted you to do what I say so I lied. It was easier that way. Say it was baby animal’s blood. Every jar I gave you was the drained blood of the exterminators I had killed!”

“That’s reprehensible!” Yu Jie cried.

“Why should they have eternal youth?” Malba pointed at Rina.

“They don’t have eternal youth!” Yu Jie replied. “They sacrifice their youth every time they use their powers.”

“You don’t use your abilities, you don’t age. Only for a few individuals born with it? I don’t want to age. I want to live forever. I deserve it. I provided jobs to these people. I pay for their food. I pay for their livelihood. I deserve to shoot fire from my hands and live forever.”

“You pay for our food?” Yu Jie asked.

“I give you a paycheck, which pays for your food. I do it for all my employees. I pay for their livelihood. For their food. For their comfort. Me. Me. Me. I do. Not directly. But I still do. I deserve to live forever. I’m a job creator. I’m smart enough to make money! I’m a businessman! This world needs me forever! Who else is going to create jobs? Only I can create jobs. I deserve eternal youth! They shouldn’t have something that I can’t have!”

Rina rubbed her temples to alleviate her headache. “You have been luring foreign exterminators here under the false pretense of a demon. Then you have your maid kill them and drain their blood. Then you pretend the blood is from animals and give it to Yu Jie to research anti-aging based on a rumor you heard from a demon. All because you think you deserve to live forever because you pay your employees for their work?”

“Yes! I’m a really smart person! I am the greatest servant for Laban and I deserve the best.”

“You’re a crazy person,” Rina said as she walked toward the door with Saby at her side. “I’m leaving and I’m telling the Academy not to send any more exterminators here. Find another way to get your blood.”

“I will find another way!” Malba growled. “I have infinite resources.”

Yu Jie stepped in the doorway. “He should be in prison for murder! Incarceration.”

Rina looked at Alice, who was still trapped in a box. “How long will she be in there?”

“A few hours. Why?”

“You have more of those?”

Yu Jie handed three vials to Rina, who only two took two. She threw one at Malba, trapping him in his bed. Then she threw the other one at Geoffrey, who was showing signs of awakening.

“That’s their prison,” Rina said as she shut the door behind her.

“We need to alert the authorities!” Yu Jie said.

“We need to get you out of here, first. Can you pack fast?”

“He can’t get away with this. He just can’t.”

Rina stopped and gripped Yu Jie’s shoulders. “He is going to get away with this. He isn’t going to jail.”

“People go to prison for murder. That’s why we have prisons.”

“Poor people go to prison for murder. Rich people don’t go to prison for any reason, no matter how heinous their crime is or how stupid they are. But we can do something. We can live. We can survive.” Rina let go of Yu Ji. The alchemist stood there, mouth agape. Then, Rina added, “We can survive if only to spite them.”

Yu Jie watched Rina’s back until the Exterminator and her steed shrunk into a tiny speck, following the road beside the train tracks toward the next city in Neirun – the old capital city of Danoub. Yu Jie waited for the train that was traveling in the opposite direction – back toward the west, back toward her family, and back toward the people who rejected her.

Her valise was packed with her favorite book, “Plants and Their Properties” by Zelma Pear, which was the consummate manual on Tryona’s flora, a few empty bottles, some healing potions, some offensive potions, two sets of clothes, her papers, her money, and as many herbs as she could carry. She had to leave the rest of her books, her beautiful clothes, and her other tools. She was never going to see those items again.

She knew what she was doing when she decided to help Rina, but she didn’t think she’d feel as alone as she did among the strangers on the train platform, waiting for the first train of the morning as the sun rose.

Earlier that night, she opened her window to feed the estas, but found the birds collapsed on the ground. She put a few Temporary Box potions in her pockets, in case she had to fight whatever killed the estas she enjoyed observing every day. She ran outside and found pieces of chicken. She glanced at Rina’s window. She saw the shadow of someone and then she heard the struggle. Yu Jie assumed it was the demon.

She bolted to the stables to find Rina’s giant dog companion.

Rina was the first person Yu Jie liked since leaving Taoshing. She treated her like a human. She treated her like the talented lady alchemist that Yu Jie always wanted to be since she learned about alchemy from her favorite tutor.

Rina was from another country and she was able to survive on the road. Maybe Yu Jie could also.

She found the dog on the ground like the estas. She thought the demon had drugged the dog like the estas, but the canine perked up when she got close.

“I want to help Rina. I think she’s in danger.”

The dog bent forward and allowed Yu Jie to ride her while she sniffed for her owner. The dog brought her to Malba’s master suite. Yu Jie burst through the golden doors.

The train arrived. Yu Jie watched the white faces pile off the train and brush past her. She stepped toward the platform, ready to hand her ticket to the conductor. He eyed her up and down.

“On or off.”

Yu Jie looked west and then east. Her future didn’t lie with the people she abandoned. Her future was on foot toward the old capital, even if it was for one trip.

She replied, “Off.” She ripped her ticket and stepped backward.

When the train departed, she hopped off the platform and ran eastward. Rina was somewhere ahead of her and Yu Jie hoped she could catch up. She ran until her legs burned and she was out of breath. She slowed down to a brisk pace along the path. Then a slow, but steady pace. The sun set behind her and still no sign of Rina. Her legs ached with each uneven step. She left a long trail of dragged footsteps in the path. No sign of Rina or Saby. Yu Jie hopped off the path, found a clearing in the woods, and rested her head on her valise.

The stars shined and twinkled. Yu Jie had lived in Taoshing all her life, always under the vigilant eye of her parents and their guards and the walls around them. She briefly escaped to Chaegseom, where she took the Alchemist’s Exam and learned that bodyguards could be eluded. She ran away with Malba and lived behind his walls. Now, she lay on the dirt with no walls and no protection against rodent demons or bandits.

She was still happy. She feared those demons and bandits, but that’s why she had potions. The Temporary Box potion had defensive uses; she erected the box around herself while she slept.

The morning came and Yu Jie woke up without a clear box of protection, but unmolested by passersby, bandits, demons, and wild animals. The sun warmed her. The forest smelled like pine and dew. Beside her, she saw the distinct blue of the Earie flower. The flower normally looks like a rock, but for thirty minutes each day, it blooms into a brilliant flower with a small pea in the middle surrounded by azure petals that shimmer.

Yu Jie pulled the pea out, careful not to damage the rest of the flower, and slipped it into her pack. She took it as a good sign. The flower’s mundane appearance and small window of bloom time made the flower rare and the pea could be used in a future transformation spell.

She stood up and continued her trek on the path beside the train tracks. She wasn’t able to catch up to Rina yet, and she wasn’t sure if she ever would, but she had the whole world in front of her. For the first time since reading about that potion in the Royal Library of Taoshing, she had the opportunity to track down it’s components – the first ingredient was that elusive Earie pod.