Chapter 2 is up!
It's me again
This is fanfiction as I borrow the Maple World to serve as a universe. I do break rules very often here, however, so do take it with a grain of salt. Treat it as if I just can't be bothered to create a map.
Inspired by the thought that memories can be skewed, altered and even forgotten. No idea if what I've written still keeps up with that thought, but there you go.
Currently writing Chapter 3.
In the depths of a forest, at the end of a path, a cottage lays, waiting. Overgrown, rotting, and falling into disrepair, it defiantly stands, braving the elements.
It had not seen a visitor in some time- the door creaks in protest as it opens- yet the contents of the cottage lay in disarray, as if time had destroyed the tranquility of the place.
In the depths of a timeless forest, at the end of a stone path, a hidden cottage lays, waiting. It had housed a young family of four, the joy and warmth of that time still in the peeling walls.
In the sitting room, a dusty bow lay above the mantelpiece, brittle from no use. The father, a Bowmaster in his prime, treasured the bow as if it were a member of the family.
During the summers, he would return victorious from his day's work. His wife would welcome him home with a kiss and a towel in the face. The night would fill with raucous laughter, the delightful sound of of music seeping into the warm air.
In the depths of a fading forest, at the end of a disappearing path, an abandoned cottage lays, waiting. Leaves rustle, filling the silence absent from childish laughter and music that filled it in earlier days.
In the dining room, a grand piano sits, with the lid up. Yellowed sheets of paper sit upon the stand, and many of the strings have snapped. The mother, a well-known Bishop from town, loved playing the piano in her spare time. She was at heart, a musician.
In the autumn afternoons, after the wind had gently scattered the leaves raked that morning, music could be heard from that room. Her children would enjoy it in silence, lulled to sleep by the peaceful melodies.
It filled their long days, where days often too hot for a coat and scarf yet too cold for a shirt meant that lengthy hours were spent inside, gazing outside at the falling leaves.
In the depths of a dark forest, at the end of a winding path, a lifeless cottage lays, waiting. Slathered with ice and covered in snow, it slowly rots in agonised silence.
In a little room with vibrant walls, a paint can lays on its side, the spilled paint long dry. The daughter longed for arts long gone, badgering her parents for paint and other utensils. She would never paint the forest, for she claimed that the forest followed her wherever she went.
The forest was never ending, timeless. Relentless. Unforgiving.
Instead, she was often seen painting the landscapes she had never known; the sea, the sky, the fields. Never the forest, for it was unyielding. It would always welcome her home, ever the same.
The last unfinished portrait still hanging on the wall, untouched, is of a rotting cottage in the woods. Having never finished painting over the sketchy lines of the forest, she remained true to herself even in her last days.
In the depths of an old forest, at the end of a cracked path, a dying cottage lays, drawing its last breath. It had lived a timely age, and was overgrown by the plants that have since claimed the land as its territory.
The crumbling cottage, once of life, tells a sombre story. A Bowmaster lived with a respected Bishop that had retired due to illness, instead passing her days in a small cottage in the middle of a forest outside of town.
Their peaceful days, punctuated only by laughter and music, were shattered when their youngest child, a young boy, went missing. Silence built up in the still air, cold and relentless. The bishop's illness grew worse.
Nobody in town heard from the family after that. Time moved on, and man forgot the small family of the cottage. Even so, a traveller will occasionally wander into the forest, never to be seen again.
In the depths of a forest, at the end of a path, a cottage lays. Drawn to dust by the living forest, the same, welcoming embrace draws you closer.
Chapter 1: secondslocation: Lith Harbour
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Time whittled itself away as I sat idly on the pier, imitating the sound of a clock. Nobody was around, but I found the solitude strangely refreshing.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Lith Harbour was quieter than usual today. The usual chatter by the docks was replaced with a quaint silence that I feared I would miss.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The waves still move, the birds still sing. Why did I think they were gone, at all?
Tick, tock... tock...
I checked my watch briefly. The entire purpose of it was redundant; I knew what time it was, anyway. 12:37- no, 36- with 4 seconds left.
I stood up, stretched and walked back down the pier, taking one last glance at the glittering ocean before turning to the forests surrounding the town.
"Tick, tock; stop the clock, why don't ya?" I said, laughing at my own joke. It never did anything, but I wondered whether Elaine had given me the wrong place again. Nobody was coming.
12:40 PM by the time of that world. A young man, around my age, would appear here. That's all I needed to know, and all I ever did know.
The trees had started to shift, the familiar shape of a mana sigil forming on the grass. Lucky guy; he didn't end up appearing in a tree. I'd never seen it myself, but I'd heard those horror stories that Betty was always spouting in the lounge.
"Three children!" She'd shriek. "They were all thrown into a river that formed the canyon they were playing in!", or she'd go off on another spiel about how she had once found a man appearing in a Balrog. Poor bloke.
Small particles of mana were starting to rise from the sigil, casting a sharp light into the forest. I looked away, waiting for the light to fade.
Not even a second later, I felt cold steel force itself into my abdomen, the sharp, distinctive pain racking my body. I stumbled back, still blinded by the light that refused to fade.
Slowly, my hand crept up to my stomach, my fingers soaked in the warm fluid. The sensation filled me with dread.
So this was how I would die. So this was how we died.
A lump formed in my throat and I swallowed it desperately, my voice croaking, "No, no, NO!" I was clawing at the clinging wet cloth, clawing in a vain attempt at keeping the blood from vacating me. I didn't want to die. I couldn't, not now- I had so much left undone, so much left unsaid...!
My movements were turning sluggish. I had fallen on my back, sprawled across the ground, like the exposed, wounded animal I was. "Not... not like this..."
A shadow of a figure was standing over me, their breath cool against my sweaty skin. Silence hung in the air as I wretched, curling away from the person, and from life.
I was meant to live out my life on a beach, surrounded by friends...!
12:40PM, by the time of that world. A young man did not appear. My demise did.
location: Eternal Forest outskirts
The forest was as serene as it had always been.
I slowly walked around, leaves and twigs snapping below my feet. It was a small, insignificant thing, yet I felt strangely happy about it. I was making my mark in this forest. It was proof that I had existed here, that I had walked this path...
I had been here many times before, trying to remember something. Anything. It took several years to find this place alone. At first, it was a mysterious place, but soon, it became dull and monotonous. Even then, a small pang of despair lingered in my mind. I would leave this place soon, much like the others, with nothing but disappointment and that strange, empty feeling in my stomach that wasn’t hunger.
Or maybe it was. Maybe it was a hunger for something else.
The band that was eloquently strapped around my wrist pulsed, and I let out a groan before I could stop myself. I left the message alone for a few seconds, then remembered that I would be dragged back anyway. Inevitable, as Rhys would describe it. The message floated in front of me, the forest around me fading out as if it were white noise.
"Return to headquarters immediately. Rhys will be there soon. -Operator"
Sure enough, light was illuminating the shadows of the forest as I let the message disappear. It grew brighter, the greens of the forest eventually fading to white.
"Hey, buddy!" Rhys' voice floated behind me, and I felt an arm wrap around my shoulder. "Still wandering around here? What year is this, anyway?"
"Wouldn't the Operator have told you?" I responded impatiently, carefully removing his limb from myself. "What do they want?"
"Beats me, you know!" he laughed and I opened my eyes again. The light was gone. I watched him carefully; he wasn't wearing the guild uniform, which was a start. So it wasn't a guild mission, after all. Then, what? Rhys interrupted my thoughts when he shouted, "OI, we need to head back!"
I felt myself jolt and I stared at him, wide-eyed. "Sorry?"
"I said that they were probably going to promote you, so we should head back early." a sly grin stretched across his face and I felt him slap me on the back. "But you know, at this rate maybe they won't do it!"
"Hey!" I followed him back to the spot where he had come from. The sigil flashed white, signalling that it was going to close soon. I looked at him hesitate and said, "Come on, then. Or do you want to be stuck here until an Operator finds us and chews us out?"
He turned to me, a sly grin on his face. That wasn't good. "Oh come on, I saw you the other day, you were getting real comfy with that prodigy chick, Elin, weren't you?" he said, looking at me with a shifty look. "I heard she was going to be tasked as an Operator, you know! Wouldn't it be great to have her cover you, huh?"
I sighed, knowing the suggestive tone in his voice. "She has no desire to be one." I said flatly, crinkling my nose at him. "And we were discussing Memoria usage from the new data released yesterday."
The man had completely ignored my previous remark. "Which is you-speak for 'let's hook up', obviously! C'mon! I know you, duh!"
"I'm not quite sure about that." I shook my head. "Look, besides the point. The portal's closing soon."
He looked at where I was pointing, and I heard colour for the umpteenth time that week. "Okay, okay, go in, then! You could totally take them on, you know!"
I laughed. He was clearly scared. "Alright, let's go."
We approached and stepped through the sigil together. For the countless time, I left that forest behind in favour of a white light.
location: Memoriam Guild Headquarters
"Here at Memoriam, we seek, we adapt and we conquer in many ways..."
The man that had handled initiations had hardly changed over the years. Every day, he would repeat the same words with the same enthusiasm as before. I smiled a little at the children, teenagers and adults that were huddled in the lobby, sitting on the lush carpet and on the comfy chairs wide eyed. They were from different places, and different times.
Indeed, Memoriam was the type of place that transcended culture. It was one that built and prided itself on one common factor; that we were all outsiders to the world itself, having been victim to the phenomenon of Memoriam.
The words hung with dread on my mind. How ironic, that we would be condemned to this place that was named after the very thing that took us here.
"There you are." I saw a glimpse of white and black and turned to face Kalon, donned in a suit. "Didn't Rhys retrieve you?"
"He did... sir." I answered before I had even thought to bow to him, hastily nodding my head when I remembered his position. "He left shortly after, sir."
"Oh, don't be so formal." he raised an arm to ruffle my hair. "I'm not that much older than you."
"But your position...?"
"I'm not in uniform now, am I?" he chuckled, amused at my perplexed expression. "Well, granted, I will be soon, but that's for the future."
"Er... Why was I called back in the first place?"
"It's a secret." he winked at me and I could hear a group of girls sigh dreamily nearby. If it were anyone else...! "But don't worry! It's a good thing, I promise."
"I'll take your word for it, then." I smiled back, a little reassured. So I wasn't in trouble. A new project, maybe? Who knew. I glanced around the lobby. The new group had already moved on, and a rather large group of girls had passed by, chattering noisily. I turned back to him. I had completely forgotten. "Where am I going, by the way...?"
"The conference room at the end of that hall on the third floor." I could see the twinkle in his eyes as he spoke. "The meeting will start in fifteen minutes."
My eyes felt as if they were trying to bulge out of their sockets. "Only fifteen minutes?" in that instant, I was immediately groping myself for keys; if Rhys had them, I may as well have been doomed to stroll into that room wearing nothing but a shower curtain. "I... I'll have to excuse myself, I don't have my assembly uniform on me, obviously..."
"We'll be waiting, then." he smiled, the faint glint of mischief in his eyes. "I'll see you later, Cael."
I nodded and hurried across the busy lobby floor towards the lodging portals. As I ran, I couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen at that conference. Maybe they were going to relocate me to another team... Rhys did say that I may be promoted, after all...
The residential establishments at Memoriam were incredibly luxurious, keeping in line with the general, refined air about the place. It had been several years since I had first stalked these halls, searching for my room as a kid, yet the walls never seemed any warmer to me. The cream walls seemed warm, but they did little to offset the cold, forboding feeling that emanated around me. It was bizarre. I had always been here, yet it felt as if I had never set foot in the place, day after day, night after night.
At last, I reached my room, slightly short of breath. I fished out my key from my left pocket. I had it, after all. The lock rattled open and I stepped inside.
The distinct scent of burning cheese was wafting out of the room, and I let the door close behind me, tentatively calling out, "... Rhys?"
"Oh, Cael. Welcome back." I spotted a familiar blond tuft of hair pop out from the counter, covered in cheese.
I gaped at him, completely ignoring the fact that I was very likely to be running late. He was standing there, nonchalantly wielding a spatula whilst liberally splattered with food. "... Thanks... What's going on?"
"I tried to make a lasagne." he pointed to the oven, which appeared to have chunks of metal and food splattered all over it. "It didn't work."
I couldn't help but laugh nervously. "How did you...?" I trailed off, bewildered. He was standing there, covered in cheese, and managed to hold a casual conversation. I shook my head, determined not to get off track. "Besides the point. I'm going to get changed."
"I added a secret ingredient. What was going on with Kalon, anyway?" Rhys had taken a chunk of lasagne that wasn't pierced by the pan and set it on a plate as I rushed into my room, fumbling for my uniform and taking off my shirt. "Want some before you go?"
"No thanks, I'm in a rush as it is." I decided to avoid mentioning that the lasagne was probably going to kill someone. It was for the best. The white coat was a little wrinkly from when I had forgotten to hang it up and the cuffs were getting a little dirty, but aside from that it looked good enough. I quickly switched shoes and checked that my scruffy hair wasn't trying anything funny before darting out. Wasn't the best, but given the short notice, I was content with the end result.
I stowed my room key safely in my pocket and ruffled my hair for good measure in front of a mirror before darting off. "I'm going now."
I managed to catch a glimpse of Rhys waving, lasagne still stuffed in his mouth. "Cya."
Several minutes later, the cream walls of the residential areas had changed to the deep maroon of the conference hall, plants and paintings lining the halls inconspicuously. It was always beyond my comprehension that there were still unexplored areas in this place. Having never been authorised to go beyond the first few corridors, it felt as if it were an adventure by merely traversing the twisting hallways.
At last, I reached the end of the hall and stopped in front of the sleek, dark doors. I tentatively held my hand out to knock, but the doors swung open as if they knew I was there in the first place.
I glanced back at the empty hallway, took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
Chapter 2: of kings and mortals
location: Memoriam Guild Headquarters, Conference Room 4
Light filtered through the tall windows to my left, bathing the conference room in a warm, welcoming glow. It seemed to brighten the deep, foreboding maroon walls that enclosed the space. And beyond that warm, seeping light, was the view.
Oh man, was it absolutely stunning. I stared out at the sea of trees scattered around the mountains, the trees forming a strange illusion of an emerald sea cascading into the distance. As I was admiring the view, I could hear a disapproving 'tut' from someone. With the knowledge that I was still in the conference room, my mind wandered back to the matter at hand. Begrudgingly, I peeled my eyes away, back to the board of very important-looking people.
The realisation dawned upon me a few decades too late and I bowed, muttering my apologies to the much less threatening carpet. But Cael! A small voice in my head would murmur. You haven’t got decades to spare!
A few seconds, a few decades. What’s the difference when you’re here, anyway? I would shoot back, realising mid hypothetical conversation that I was trying to argue with myself. I wasn't trying to reconcile with the carpet, either, and eventually glanced up to a number of amused looks and a few looking on in disapproval.
"State your name, title and rank." A woman clothed in a sharp-looking suit approached from what may as well have been shadows of Elin Forest or Sleepywood. She had escaped my notice in a bright room…! My mouth hung agape, awaiting a poor fly to wander into it. Seconds passed and eventually, I came to terms with her appearance. I was certain at that moment that she was a ninja and it would have taken substantial empirical evidence to prove me otherwise.
"C... Cael. Grand Knight. I mean, I am a Grand Knight, not the Grand Knight, but I guess that's kinda obvious already, haha..." I scratched my head nervously. I was already screwing up, and in front of an Operator, too, along with the entire board, and Kalon to boot... Not the best first impression, for sure. I cleared my throat in an attempt to start over. "Sorry." Swift and smooth, Cael! You had only been repeating it to yourself for the past dozen years! "Cael, Grand Knight, Fourth Guardian. In... In that order. Sorry, why are you here…?"
If she had been amused at my stammering, she didn't show it. "Acknowledged." I watched her raise her left arm briefly, revealing a smoothly polished gauntlet behind the black sleeve of her jacket. A large, carefully cut chunk of crystal was embedded into the steel, softly pulsing with light. The fact that she could send out orders in seconds with that thing mesmerised me. Her clipped and controlled voice relented for a moment when she remarked, “And I’m here because I have the authority to as your superior.” She turned away without another word, and in the blink of an eye, had disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared. I couldn’t help but concede in defeat at her words.
She did have a point- Operators were considered superior to us, matched only by elite Keepers and Kalon. In a way, anyone who had the capability of dragging us out of trouble in even the most dire of situations deserved their title.
"Cael." Kalon's clear voice rung throughout the room and I spun towards him with a salute.
"Yes, sir! Thank you for inviting me here, sir!"
The man at the end of the long table smiled kindly. "So kind, Cael. I think I'm blushing." With his laugh, the rest of the board chucked softly. He raised a hand dismissively. "At ease, Grand Knight."
I allowed myself to slack a little, and took a seat. "What can I do for Memoriam, sir?"
"No, Cael. The real question is, what can Memoriam do for you?" he was shuffling through a number of folders and loose sheets of paper, carefully examining each one before lazily casting it aside. "But first, the formalities, if you don't mind."
"Of course not, sir."
"Grand Knight Cael. You joined Memoriam's active service seven years, three months, twenty-two days, five hours and three minutes ago, correct?"
"I am inclined to believe that is correct, yes sir." The words hung awkwardly on my tongue as I spoke, yet they came out much more fluid and smoothly than I could ever hope them to be. The disparity was strange.
"And before that, you had lived in under Memoriam's care for how long?"
"For approximately eight years, sir."
"I see. And since then, you have been rising through the ranks amicably. Your units respect you, you seem to have no hostilities towards anyone; a true model to idolise, don't you think?"
"... I'm not sure how to respond to that, sir."
Hours may as well have passed in that small time frame before Kalon smiled again. "You should be very proud, you know. But keeping to the moment." He cleared his throat. "Do you know why you are here, Grand Knight?"
"I confess that I do not, sir."
"In that case," Kalon murmured, setting the folder down entirely, "do tell me. What do you value the most in a comrade?"
"... In a comrade...?" the question had caught me off guard, throwing me off completely. It was so tempting, so simple to just start stammering whatever came to mind. But this was important, even if I didn't quite know why... I took a few deep breaths, then looked Kalon straight in the eye. What did I value? Perfection? Efficiency? No, not quite... "I value... Honesty, and the capacity to reason, and to negotiate... And..."
My mind floated back to the dorm, the image of a grinning Rhys holding a spatula covered in food bringing a smile to my face. The silence drew itself out and I could feel their eyes peering into my entire being. "... And a sense of humour, sir."
"Is that so...?" the man murmured softly, his fingers lightly drumming the table as he peered at me. A moment later, he had stopped, instead addressing the men and women around him. "Well, then, ladies, and gentlemen. You've heard all you needed to know. Please make your decision now."
"... Now?" a woman asked, staring at Kalon wide eyed. "But we hardly-"
"I do appreciate your concern, but time is of the essence." he replied, his arms outstretched. "I am well aware of the situation, ladies and gentlemen; we have a situation and this could end very well, or it could end very badly. This is your choice, here. Your actions today-"
"We understand, Raven," a man spoke up. "Please give us a few minutes at the very least."
"Of course, my friends." Kalon's eyes betrayed nothing but concern that and he brought his hands together as if he were praying. That was him, so perfectly him, in a nutshell.
Kalon, the Raven. Unlike us, he was something unique. A master of all trades. People say he's the youngest leader of Memoriam in centuries, but I wouldn't really know. I'd only been here for fifteen.
His achievements were so well known that over time, they were skewed to proportions matched only by legends. Women would trail him wherever he appeared in the public areas of the guild. There would be whispers of who he was before he came to Memoriam, rumours that spread as quickly as they were quelled.
Then, there was me.
"The Board of Keepers have decided." Kalon's clear voice rung through the silent room, breaking me out of my thoughts. I looked at him. Decided what? He had stood up, and was striding towards me without a spring nor a slur in his step. He flipped his hair carelessly as he walked, radiating this mysterious air of confidence and grandeur that I could only dream of possessing. At last, he stopped in front of me, a smirk stretching across his face. "Congratulations, Cael. You're being promoted."
My eyes bulged from looking at him in disbelief. What was going on? Promoted? "...To what, exactly?"
Kalon snickered, and my face grew hot. It was a fair question, to be perfectly honest! A majority of members never quite knew the hierarchy that the guild was founded on; when people were promoted, they sometimes skipped a rank, or two. "To a Keeper, of course."
Was I dreaming? Tell me I wasn't dreaming! I reached to pinch myself but stopped at the last minute; it wouldn't do for a Keeper to pinch himself in front of the heads of Memoriam. But after a few seconds, his words seemed to settle upon me, reassuring me that I wasn’t about to be kicked out, or reprimanded.
My head felt dizzyingly light. After much hesitation, I replied, "... I am?"
At that, the board erupted in hearty laughter, and I couldn't help but chuckle myself. Maybe it had been the bursting bubble of tension that hung in the air, suffocating the room's occupants, or maybe I was just that hilarious. Maybe I should have been the Joker, or Entertainer, instead. I shook my head at the thought of me, dressed in a baggy costume with a ridiculously oversized hat on my head waving a flower that sprayed water at people.
"Why would you think otherwise?" he asked, smiling at my very serious question.
"I mean... Isn't there a limited number of Keepers? Why now?" It was a valid question, but from the heavy look that passed through that room, I knew why.
His tone confirmed the answer. "Richard Hayes, the Keeper whose position you now occupy, was killed in action a week ago."
My throat seemed to shrivel up in light of those words. "I... I'm sorry to hear that."
"Indeed. He was a great man, and comrade."
"... And his family? Friends? How are they?"
"Naturally, they were devastated." Kalon peered at me. "Were you close?"
"Er, no, not at all. I don't think I've seen the man in person. Ever." I looked at him, curious. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason in particular." A brief smile flitted across his face, the familiar, knowing smile sending chills down my spine. "We have your first assignment as a Keeper."
"Already?" This time, the surprise in my voice was valid. It was rare for a Keeper fresh out of the conference room to be getting an assignment this early, let alone getting it while they were being promoted. Assignments usually took weeks to plan, and propose; either it was an emergency, or this was foreseen to have occurred...
Besides that, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. What was the assignment going to be, anyway? A Keeper’s first mission was the first true test of their skill; I had seen too many people crash head first and fall back into a rank lower than they had been previously. If they made it back at all.
Kalon nodded, reaching his hand out and twirling his index finger in the air. A small ring of light formed itself on the desk, and one of the files dropped through into his hand neatly. He didn’t react, but I was very ready to do it for him. He had executed the spell perfectly- the indicated spot dead on, the soft blue ring of mana that was neither too bright nor too dim. I’d have considered myself lucky if my attempts didn’t give me a concussion. Kalon was truly a skilled perfectionist.
He flicked through the files, his dark, red eyes scanning the paper. He had clearly not read it in some time. "Root Abyss."
What? I stared at him, my mouth agape. It was not etiquette for me to be staring at him like this, but I couldn't help it. I needed to know the full story. "Wh... What do you mean, 'Root Abyss'...?"
"It's your first task." He made it sound so simple, yet... Root Abyss! Did that place even exist? And even if it did, wouldn't it be more prudent to let the others handle it?
I paused, trying to choose my words carefully. I didn't want to make it seem as if they had made a bad choice promoting me, yet... "Why choose me for something like this? Why not someone more experienced?"
"Cael, Cael." Kalon didn't seem to take offense, instead chuckling and patting me on the shoulder. "It seems that in the span of two minutes, you have completely forgotten of the seven or so years that you spent training. Much longer than most, yet you've risen in rank much faster than most. You're ready, Cael. Trust me."
"... With all due respect, sir, but Root Abyss is a legend, isn't it? Why would you be sending me out to a... a place that doesn't even exist?"
"It's not a legend." I could see a little twinkle in his eye as he looked at me. "And what's it to you? You're already legendary."
I bowed my head. "A great honour coming from The Raven himself." The words may have seemed very polite to the Board's ears, but Kalon and I shared a grin; he could sense the sarcasm in my words.
"By taking the rank of Keeper, you have been allocated the title of Lark, should you accept it." Kalon quickly flicked a page to the other side of the folder, glancing at me over the files.
"Of course." I responded, bowing again. "Thank you."
"That is all. You are dismissed."
"It has been an honour meeting with you." I raised my right hand in salute, then turned and left as quickly as I could, my breath held and my heart thumping into my ears.