Sean and Lester dashed through the jungle. Their lungs struggled to draw in air to keep their legs moving as they swerved around and climbed over the walls of vines and roots in their path. They glanced behind them to see if that thing was following them. Just then, an eyeless, bulky reptilian creature as big as they were leaped down from the canopy. Lester pointed his rust-ridden handgun at the beast, repeatedly pulling the trigger as fast as he could. The shots missed their mark, the constant motion throwing off his aim. The reptile moved like a blur toward the fresh meat ahead. Lester kept shooting, but then the slide didn't close all the way.
"Shit! Not now!"
The reptile closed the distance within seconds and pounced on the small human, pinning him down under its weight. Lester yelled aloud as the monster's hooked claws dug into his arms, staining them with his blood.
Sean immediately turned around and tossed his lantern at the beast. It struck its target dead in the side of the head just as it was about to take a bite of his brother. The reptilian creature hissed and got off Lester in its daze. Sean quickly interposed himself between him and the monster. All that separated him from his adversary was the rusted, broken sword in his hands.
The reptile shook its head and faced the larger human. It crept in circles around Sean, globs of saliva dripped down its long, pointed teeth. Lester looked beside him and tried reaching for his pistol, but a sharp jolt of pain surged through his arm the moment he stretched it. He let out a groan and looked at his brother. All he could do was watch Sean follow the hissing beast's movements, adamantly keeping himself between them.
Sean's heart raced in his chest. Torrents of sweat trickled down his forehead, mingling with blood and dirt. Why did it happen? How could what started as an ordinary day come to this?
The city of Negav is widely seen as the human capital in Felarya. With its massive walls and its miracle gem, the Isolon Eye, it is an oasis for travelers seeking fame and/or fortune in Felarya. From thugs, to vagabonds, to tomb raiders, to warriors, to merchant, there was little the city couldn't offer. With its dimensional gate, Negav became a center of commerce and a magnet for interdimensional adventurers. If one needed to find something, Negav probably had it. The congested and busy streets were literally swarming with life, full of noises, shouts, and buzzing with thousands of conversations occurring all at once.
A mustachioed man somewhere around his thirties walked down one of the many shopping district of the Lower Tier. He came across a store with a sign that read, "Kinory & Orrick Gun Shop". The man checked the sign and then entered the store. He walked up to the counter where short, young man was leaning back on his chair, his feet resting on the counter, and taking a nap. The young man opened his eyes and stood up as the bell above the door chimed open sliding.
"Hey, welcome to Kinory & Orrick. What can I do for ya?"
"I'm looking for a rifle. We're planning to explore this temple up in the north and I need a weapon to protect us against all the monsters out there."
"Yeah, I getcha, and I got the gun just for you!" Lester put his chair against the shelf behind, then stepped on it and grabbed a large caliber, lever action rifle. "This is our K&O Model 450L repeating rifle. Got a nice, long 30" barrel, and is chambered for our .50 caliber rounds." He then reached under the counter and pulled out dummy a few dummy cartridges, which he then began loading in the tubular magazine underneath. "This thing's so easy to load, you could load it in the dark, or even blindfolded! Holds seven rounds, more than enough to kill anything that moves out there, or at least put some serious hurt on 'em." Lester then rapidly pushed the lever, ejecting the dummy cartridges. "There you have it. What's it gonna be?"
The customer nodded. "It looks reliable, yeah. How much is it?"
"Well, you know, lead and gunpowder's hard to get here. You could go for a Model 150, the single-shot model, if you got a serious money crunch, but I ain't recommending it if you're serious 'bout dungeon crawling. If you wanna go hunting on some other world, sure, but out in the jungle, you don't want to have to reload after every shot, cause you're guaranteed to get jumped mid-reload."
The customer cringed. "Ugh, yeah, don't want to have that happen. Alright, I'll buy it."
"Alright!" Lester took the money the man gave him and put it in the cash register. He then pulled out a long cardboard box from under the counter, put the rifle two boxes of rifle ammo inside and then handed it over to the customer. "Here you go! If you need more, you know where to go."
Lester leaned back on his chair like he did earlier and went back to taking his nap. Meanwhile, in the workshop in the back, Rachilin and Sean finished putting the finishing touches on the rifle. "Alright, should be good. I'm starting to run low on charcoal, so go make some."
Sean wiped the sweat off his face and took a sip of water, and then headed to the kiln behind the store. Fortunately, they had stockpiled plenty of wood so he wouldn't have to make another trip to the commons. Unfortunately, once he arrived at the kiln, he saw how the pile of wood we no longer as big as he remembered. Sean let out a sigh. Guess he was making a trip to the commons tomorrow anyway.
A few hours, Sean began doing the inventory before closing, while Lester was leaning back on his chair and taking a snooze. Sean turned to his little brother and gave him an annoyed look. "Hey, give me a hand, will ya?" But he didn't wake up. Sean walked up to him and shook until he woke up. "You can take a nap later. It's time for the inventory."
Lester grumbled, then got off his chair and helped his big brother do the inventory. Eventually, Rachilin walked out of the workshop and in the store proper.
"Hey Rach." Lester said.
"Hey. How much did we sell today?"
"Not a whole lot." answered Sean. "We sold a Fairy Duster... two Model 12 shotguns... and a Model 450 rifle."
"Quiet as usual. Anyway, let's go home for today." Rachilin said.
Sean grabbed a long red scarf sitting behind the counter and wrapped it around his neck. The two brothers then each grabbed a bouquet of flowers that had also been sitting behind the counter, and then exited the store with Rach, who locked the door behind.
"Right, I'll see you two later." Rach started walking away, but then stopped and turned around. "Oh, and if you go see Dagg, tell him to get better already. I swear he's trying to stay at the hospital for as long as he possibly can."
"Sure thing! Later Rach!"
With that, the brothers set off on the streets. This being the Lower Tier, dark-skinned ladies in full metal gear, young men wearing cloaks and daggers, and other such people walked in and out of inns and taverns around every corners. The streets were perpetually congested with myriads of humans, nekos and even the occasional elves.
After a long walk, the two crossed the bridge leading outside of Negav and headed east of the city. Eventually, they arrived at a white structure carved into a massive rock boulder at the edge of the Isolon Eye's average influence. Its entrance was ornate with beautiful bas-reliefs engraved around it. Sean and Lester walked around the boulder until they found two names, Hollan and Seony.
"Hey Mom, hey Dad." said Lester as he put his bouquet on the ground.
"How long has it been? Twelve years?" Sean wondered out loud as he put his bouquet on the ground.
They closed their eyes and stayed quiet for several minutes. They remembered that fateful day, all those years ago. They remembered it like it was still yesterday. They were so young, they would have never thought things to end that way. After paying their respect, the two stood back up and then headed back to the city.
"So, what should we do now?" asked Lester.
"Let's go pay Dagg a visit."
Lester smirked. "You mean pay Marina a visit?"
Sean frowned a little. "Yes, that's exactly what I said."
Lester chuckled. "Better hurry, or you won't be able to a-"
"Just shut up and hurry before visiting hour ends."
After a hefty walk, the brothers reached the hospital. Sean and Lester entered walked to the reception where a young red-haired lady was talking to an older man. She wore a simple, short-sleeved white robe reaching a little past her knees, and a white folded cap to keep her hair neatly in place. The man wore a similar robe, but the hemline was much shorter, included a pair of matching pants, and omitted the cap.
"Dr. Asimus is requested in the orthopedic ward. A patient recently entered with a severe trochanteric fracture." The young woman then turned to the Orrick brothers as the nurse left. "Hiya Sean! Hiya Lester!"
"H-hi..." Sean meekly said
"Hey Mary! Lookin' lovely as always." replied Lester.
Marina giggled. "Thank you! You're here to visit Dagg, right?"
"Uhh, yeah. Is it still visiting hours?" Sean asked.
"Mhm! But they're going to end soon, so you better hurry."
The brothers went up to the second floor and headed straight to the ward Dagg was resting at. They entered a vast room with a long row of beds and only an open curtain separating each. A portly, bearded man wearing a patient gown was doing stretching exercises while a nurse stood next to him.
Dagg turned to Lester and grinned. "Lester, buddy! How's it going?" He then turned to Sean. "Hey Sean."
"You guys will have to wait for a bit, I'll be done with my exercises soon."
"No prob, take all the time you need. We're not going anywhere, ain't that right Sean?"
"No, we're not."
After a while, the nurse left the room. Dagg sat down on his bed and reached for a glass of water sitting on the table beside him. The mattress was filled with Felarya's soil, allowing its wondrous healing energy to radiate directly to the patient, revitalizing it and substantially hastening the mending of injuries. The water was also infused with granulated minerals from the soil to further promote recovery.
"So how's Rachilin doing?"
"She's been doing alright. She told me to tell you something."
"Get better already. I'm pretty sure she's gonna kill you if you stay here for too long."
Dagg laughed out loud. "Yeah, I figured she'd say that. Tell her I'll be out by tomorrow. How was work today?"
"It was quiet. We didn't get that many customers like usual."
"Nice." He then turned to Sean. "How's your back?"
"It's fine. I've been following Marina's exercises since you got here, so I can tough it out better."
Dagg drank his glass of water. "Heh, figures."
A nurse then walked into the ward. "Visiting hours are about to end."
"Well, guess that's it for today." Lester said.
"Yup. Thanks for coming, even if it wasn't even a minute."
"No prob, Dagg. We'll see you at home soon enough."
"I'll tell Rachilin you'll be out of here tomorrow." said Sean. "Take care until then."
Dagg turned to Sean as they two turned to the exit. "Oh, Sean." Sean turned back to him. "Good luck, you'll need it."
He nodded and smiled. "Thanks."
The two made their way back to the lobby. Another nurse was with Marina, discussing what to do for the late hour shift. Once done, she walked to Sean and Lester. "How was Dagg?"
"Doin' just great." answered Lester.
"Really? That's good to hear."
Marina turned to Sean. "Yes?"
"Do you mind if... do you mind if we walk with you for a while?"
Marina shook her head. "Not at all!"
"Great! So, um, let's go then."
Sean went back on the streets with Marina by his side, while Lester hung out in the back. He couldn't help gazing intently at Marina throughout their entire walk. He couldn't help gazing at her beautiful face. Her amber eyes were glistening almost like gold. Her smile was as bright and warm as a sun. Her fiery red hair was smooth like silk and it matched his scarf almost perfectly too. Her nurse robe and cap looked splendid on her. He then scratched the back of his neck.
"Say... a-are you free next week?"
Marina nodded. "Yes, I am."
"I-in that case... do you... do you want to go out tomorrow evening?"
Marina smiled brightly. "I would love to! Where are you taking me?"
Sean's face became all flushed. "Uhh... err... I-I didn't think about it yet."
"Oh, I know where we can go!"
Suddenly, Marina put her hands on Sean's shoulders and stepped closer to him until their chests were touching each other. She gazed deeply into his pretty green eyes, gently caressing his cheek. "...Let's go to the Street of the Red Flower. Just you and me."
Sean turned completely bright red, his eyes wide open and his jaw on the floor. "Muh-muh-muh Marina...?"
Marina let go of him and started laughing. "Oh my gods, your face! It's priceless!"
Sean clutched his chest and let out a sigh. "I should have figured."
Marina giggled some more. "I was just kidding, we should have a nice dinner at a restaurant instead. Still, just the two of us at the Street of the Red Flower would be nice." Sean just gave her an exasperated look. "Okay, I'll stop. Anyway, see you tomorrow!"
With that, Marina left to her home on her own. Lester patted Sean on the back, still chuckling. "Smooth, bro!"
Sean sighed again. "Yeah, about as smooth as jagged rocks."
The two brothers headed back to their apartment in the Lower Tier. There, Rachilin was sitting down on the couch, reading a newspaper. She lowered her paper and looked at the two brothers as they entered. "So, you went to see Dagg, huh?"
"Yup!" answered Lester. "Was fun. Didn't stay long, but we got a few laughs regardless."
Rach put her paper down, then stood up and headed for the kitchen. "Anyway, now that you're here, Sean, make us supper."
"I had no idea I had become a servant boy."
"Cut the sass and just start making something, I'm hungry."
Shortly afterward, Sean began preparing supper, a simple mild spicy curry rice dish. Rachilin's usual grouchy frown was replaced by a bright smile as the entire room became filled by the sweet aroma of the spices. Sean served Rach, his brother, and then then sat down with his own plate. Rachilin's cheeks turned red as she took her first bite.
"Hmm... Sean, if for whatever reason you decide to stop working at the shop, please become a chef at a restaurant. I will go eat there every day!"
"I can already hear your wallet scream in agony." Sean replied. "Anyway, Dagg said he'll be out of the hospital tomorrow."
"About time! Figures they'd wait until the end of the weak."
"Oh yeah, guess who finally asked the pretty redhead nurse on a date?" asked Lester.
Rachilin looked at Sean. "Oh, so you finally grew a pair?"
"Something like that." he answered.
Rach turned to Sean. "Oh, really? And where are you taking her?"
"To some restaurant in the Middle Tier. Nothing too fancy."
She rolled her eyes. "Wow, talk about boring."
"I'll also make sure to have the Hydromancers' Guild on standby that day."
Rachilin stood up slamming her hands on the table, sending her chair skidding backwards, a ferocious glare fixed on him. "WHY YOU!"
The following day was a day off. Sean tied up his scarf and walked out of the house. Lester ran up to him mere moments after stepping on the streets. The two headed to the Middle Tier, looking for a particularly good, but not too expensive restaurant, when suddenly...
"Hiya Sean! Hiya Lester!"
Sean noticed Marina coming their way. "Marina?"
Lester grinned and waved at her. "Hey Mary! Fancy meeting you here. Lookin' for a good place for your date, too?"
Marina giggled. "No, not really. I was on my way to the Commons for a little walk."
"Need a change of scenery?"
"A little, yes. Oh, I know! How about we all go together?"
"Huh? I-I'd like to, but I should really look to make a reservation." Sean answered.
"Relax, bro, you got all week to worry about that. You can look for a nice place tomorrow." his brother responded.
"Good idea, I'll wait until the last minute when all places are completely booked."
"It won't take long, I promise." said Marina. "After that, I can help you look for a nice place."
Sean looked at Marina and blushed slightly. "...Alright, I'll go with you."
"Thank you!" Marina smiled brightly. "Come on, let's go!"
After a fairly long walk, the three arrived at one of Negav's many entrances. This part of the Lower Tier was always filled with the sound of footsteps from its innumerable newcomers. From humans to other species such as nekos or inus traveling on foot, to the enormous noghdongs carrying massive loads on their powerful shells, to horses pulling carts and wagons.
The three headed down the bridge over the Motamo River and then headed along the eastern path. The jungle beyond the clearing was as close the citizens could get of exploring the Felaryan wilderness in relative safety, or it would be if many bandits and brigands hadn't settled there. As they trekked, Sean couldn't help passing glances at Marina.
"Say, did you guys hear what's happening at the Arena?" asked Marina.
"Oh, you mean about the renovations?" Lester replied.
"Yes, that! They plan to add ways to alter the terrain to make matches more interesting."
"Oh yeah, I heard about it. I saw one of those new cage matches recently." said Sean. "It's a nice change of pace from the usual one-on-one fights on flat terrain."
"What do you think those changes are gonna be?" Marina asked.
"They'll probably just simulate different environments." answered Sean. "Still, why are you telling us that, Marina? I thought you weren't a big fan of the arena."
"I thought it might interest you since you were-"
"Shh!" All of a sudden, a white noise filled Sean's ears. He looked at his surroundings, but nothing out of the ordinary was in sight. "Guys, did you hear that?"
Marina nodded. "Y-yes, I did."
The white noise steadily made itself louder. The three kept their eyes peeled for whatever was to come. Marina then turned around and pointed to the Commons.
"It's coming from there."
Sean and Lester turned to where Marina indicated. At that very moment, a swirling vortex-like aperture appeared ahead of them. Marina gasped as soon as it appeared.
Not even seconds after materializing, a powerful wind pulled the trio toward the vortex like a vacuum. The three turned tail and pushed against the effects of the storm. But then, Marina lost her footing and fell, tumbling toward the black hole.
"Marina!" Sean leaped toward her and quickly grabbed her hand. The two kept heading toward the vortex, but Sean then grasped a dead tree root sticking out of the ground a mere dozen feet away from it. "Marina, hold on!"
"S-Sean..." Unfortunately, their hands quickly became moist. Before they knew it, Marina slipped out of his grip and was sucked into the black hole. "SEEEEEAAAAAN!"
At the same time, Lester fell down and tumbled toward the vortex as well. He rolled into his brother, making him lose his grip on the root. They vanished into the black hole as it closed behind them.