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 dull, rusted 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?
Sean swung his axe at one of the smaller trees at the edge of the Chomikai Commons. Even though it was a "small" tree, it was only small in the sense that all the other trees were almost as tall the already gargantuan wall surrounding the city behind him. Eventually, Sean finally cut to the center of the tree, and with just a little more patience and effort, the wood giant finally fell.
Sean hyperventilated a little and wiped his sweaty forehead with his towel as the ardent sun beated up on him. After taking a sip from his water bottle, Sean put his towel and bottle back in his pockets and then started removing the branches with his axe. Afterward, he did a few stretches to relax his lower back, and then cut the trunk into smaller logs so he could split them into lumber more easily.
Once he finished cutting down the wood, he put as much freshly cut lumber in a large basket as it could hold. He then strapped the basket onto his back like a backpack, grabbed his axe, and then headed back to the city itself. He plodded on the Ascarlin Bridge over the Motamo River, accompanied by countless travelers, many of which were also transporting wares of their own on their back, and then crossed the heavily guarded Victory Gate and entered Negav City.
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.
Before long, Sean entered one of the shops in the Lower Tier. Inside said shop, a few large-bore rifles were lined on the walls, along with shotguns with an unusually large barrel, not unlike a blunderbuss. Huge hollow-point cartridges and shotgun shells filled with tons of tiny pellets were also on display on shelves. At the counter, a man talked to a short man, holding one of the big rifles in his hands.
"Are you sure about this?" asked the customer.
"Absolutely!" answered Lester. "If ya plan to go out in the jungle and you get cornered by a giant monster, you want one of these." He grabbed one of the large hollow bullets from behind the counter and showed the inside to the customer. "See that tiny shard inside? Once it impacts its target... BOOM! The bullet expands, moreso than normal expanding bullets, guaranteed to make those giant monsters bleed and give you a chance to slip away while they're crying in pain."
"Just be careful of a few things: First, it's really noisy. Second, it's got nasty recoil. Third, it's single-shot."
"Okay. How much is it?"
"Oh, about 7000 skevols and about 40 per cartridge."
"Making these beauties take a while and I guarantee you people would kill to get something that could very possibly save them from being eaten alive."
"But still... Ugh, fine... Better be worth it."
While that was going on, Sean entered the workshop in the back. There, a woman with long orange hair hammered a red-hot piece of steel at the anvil then to the forge, slowly shaping it into a rifle barrel. Sean put down his basket, then stretched a little bit like he did earlier and then put the lumber in a barrel near the workbench.
"I got your lumber."
Rachilin continued to work on the rifle barrel without even so much as throwing him a glance. "I'm starting to run low on charcoal. Go make some."
Sean wiped the sweat off his face and took another 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 another trip to the commons anyway.
After several hours, the end of the day then came at last. Sean began doing the inventory, while Lester leaned back on his chair behind the counter with his nose in a book. Sean turned to his little brother and gave him an annoyed look.
"Hey, give me a hand, will ya?"
"Hold on, I'm almost at the best part."
Sean walked up to Lester and snatched the book from his hands. "You can read later. It's time to work."
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.
Rachilin looked at Lester. "Hey. How much did we sell today?"
"Not a whole lot, quiet day like usual. Sold a Fairy Duster, one or two shotguns, and Giant Buster. Oh yeah, we also got a shipment of ores comin' up soon."
Sean sighed. "Of course Dagg has to be in recovery when that happens."
Rachilin glanced at him. "You're gonna go visit Dagg again, aren't you?"
A smirk spread all over Lester's lips. "What else do you think big brother's gonna do? It's not everyday he has an excuse to go to the hospital."
Rachilin chuckled. "Oh yeah, that's a good point."
Sean glowered. "You two can just stuff it!"
After a while, the inventory was finally completed. Sean wrapped a long red scarf around his neck and then the brothers walked to the exit.
"When you 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.
"Might wanna hurry Sean. Visiting hours are gonna end soon."
"You don't have to tell me." He then turned to his little brother. "By the way, I'm surprised you put the rent money next to the coffee. I'd expect you to put it in her drawers."
"Heh, I could've, but that would have been tasteless and I like living a bit too much than checking Rach's drawers."
Sean smiled. "I'm proud of you, Lester. You developed common sense at the age of 18. Keep it up and maybe you'll stop hitting every woman you see when you're 50."
"Thank you. I'll do my best not to disappoint you, big brother!" The two then remained quiet for a little bit. "So, you gonna ask her out this time?"
Lester patted him in the back. "You're not going anywhere at this rate. Really, what's stopping you from just asking her on a date?"
Sean looked down. "... Nervousness... When I try to ask her, I choke and have to change subject."
Lester sighed and shook his head. "Sean, Sean, Sean, if you weren't my brother, I'd call you really pathetic."
Sean leered at him. "Gee, thanks a lot."
"You're welcome. Stop beating around the bush and just ask her out. Honestly, it's starting to get sad."
Sean sighed. "Fine, I'll give it a try."
Lester shrugged and shook his head. "I can already tell this isn't gonna end well."
After a hefty walk, the brothers reached the hospital Dagg was residing at. They were welcomed by the lobby's radiant white walls and freshly cleaned floor. A few coffee tables and chairs lay by the sides of the entrance, but none were presently occupied. Sean and Lester 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 Room 4 of orthopedics. A patient recently entered with a severe trochanteric fracture."
Sean jumped the moment he heard the woman's voice. "M-M-Marina?"
The nurse turned to him upon hearing her name. "Sean?" She gave him a warm smile as the other nurse left to deliver the message. "Sean! Nice to see you."
Sean's cheeks spontaneously turned red like wafelberries as he walked to the desk. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
"I'm working at the reception today." She then turned to Lester. "Hey there, Lester."
Lester raised his hand. "Hey, Mari."
"Oh, I-I see." Sean cleared his throat as he tried to recollect his thoughts. "Um, I-I'm here to visit Dagg."
Marina giggled. "I thought so. Go ahead, you know where Dagg's room is."
"Thanks." Sean scratched the back of his head as his eyes darted in every direction. His heart pounded in his chest as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. "So um... how have you been, Marina?"
Lester couldn't help chuckling. "I've been doing fine, thank you."
"G-great! Uhh, I've been doing alright too. I-I've been following the exercises you recommended Dagg since he got his surgery. It's great! I've been doing them all the time at work and the soreness is gone in no time."
"Visiting hours are going to end soon."
"Oh! S-sorry. W-well... I-I'll get going then. S-see you later, Marina."
Marina waved to him as he walked to the nearby flight of stairs. "See you later, Sean."
Sean looked down and loudly sighed once Marina was out of sight. Lester walked up to him and patted him in the back. "Pretty smooth talking, bro."
Sean glared at him. "Sh-shut up!"
The brothers went up to the second floor and headed straight for room 8 down the hall. 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 infused with granulated minerals from the soil, which in addition to refreshing the patient, greatly supplemented the patient with nutrients, helped in the production of new red blood cells, and increased tolerance for pain, more so than ordinary tap water.
"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. "Nice! At least she didn't change. 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. You still haven't asked her out yet, haven't you?"
Sean sighed. "No..."
"You're really sad, Sean."
"I know you're really here to see Marina, and if you weren't my friend and colleague, I'd punch your teeth out."
"That's very reassuring."
"And because of that, it's high time to ask her out. I go back home tomorrow, so it's now or never. That's the least you can do for taking advantage of my time here."
"That's what I've been telling him too."
A nurse then walked into the room. "Visiting hours are about to end."
"Well, guess that's it for today." Lester said.
"Yup. Thanks for coming, even if it barely was for a minute."
"No prob, Dagg. We'll see you at home soon enough."
"I'll tell Rachilin you'll be out of here tomorrow. 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, being told her what she'll have to do for the late hour shift. Once done, she walked to Sean and Lester.
"Hey guys. How was Dagg?"
"Oh, he was doing just great."
"Really? That's good to hear."
"Yeah." Sean scratched the back of his head. "Uh, Marina, I was wondering..." his heart already began jogging. "I-I was wondering... w-would you mind if... well..."
His face became bright red, almost luminescent, and his heartbeat accelerated to an all-out sprint. "If you're free... would you... would you..." Torrents of sweat trickled down his forehead as his throat turned into sandpaper. "...would you like me to accompany you home?"
Lester promptly facepalmed. "Sean..."
"Oh, I'd love to."
"Great! Let's go then."
Sean went back on the streets, with Marina by his side, while Lester hung out in the back. Even though he didn't look at him, Sean could clearly see him scowling at his back. He couldn't help staring 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 could keep his eyes fixated on that image forever. Marina then turned to him, making him jump.
"I'm glad you've been following the exercises I've given to Dagg. I'm happy just knowing I've helped someone."
Sean's cheeks flared up in an instant. He quickly averted his gaze and scratched the back of his head. "Oh... you know, I just don't really want to go through what Dagg had to."
Marina giggled. "You don't have to hide it. I know you did it because you knew that would make me happy. Why else would you need to tell me?"
Sean laughed sheepishly. "Ah... well... I guess you found me out." He then threw her a passing glance. "So... um... anything new happened here?" His blush vanished the moment her smile melted. "Marina?"
"A patient died today of an irregular heartbeat. Despite the healers' best efforts, he passed away in his sleep."
"Oh." Sean looked away. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up."
Marina shook her head. "No, I'm the one who should have thought of something else." She tilted her head and pressed her index finger on her cheek. "Let me see, what else... Ah yes! A few days ago, I was assigned at pediatrics and the kids were drawing pictures. I was surprised quite a few of them drew pictures of me."
"That's... very sweet of them."
Marina giggled, her sunny smile came back to her lips. "Isn't it?"
Sean then looked back at Lester. Lester gave him a thumbs up with a beaming grin. Sean nodded and turned back to Marina. His face turned red and his throat dried up in an instant. "Um... Marina... would you..."
"Ah, we're here."
Sean immediately looked ahead of him. Marina's house was right before them. All he could do was look blankly at the residence. It was like he lived in a dream for a moment and was only now brought back to reality. Marina walked to the front door and turned to her friends.
"Thanks for accompanying me, I really appreciate it."
"No problem, Nurse."
"Yeah, no problem..." Sean scratched the back of his head. There probably was still time. "Hey, Marina... how about-"
"Ah, you're home." A woman with short brown hair walked by the entrance. "Welcome home, dear."
Marina turned to the woman. "Ah, hello mom."
Lester waved at her. "Hey ma'am."
Sean took a deep breath and turned to Marina's mother. "Hello, Miss Sannon."
"Hello Sean, hello Lester, how have you two been?"
"Oh, we've been doing alright. Still manning up the store, still getting a couple customers every once in a while, and big bro here still being bored most of the time."
Sean looked at his brother from the corner of his eyes. "She really needed to know that last one?"
Miss Sannon chuckled. "I'm glad you've been doing well."
Sean turned back to Marina's mother. "How have you been, Miss Sannon?"
"I've been fine, thank you. Say, since you two are here, would you like to stay for dinner?"
"Sorry, but we don't have time today."
"Um, Sean, we-" Before Lester could continue, Sean put his hand over his mouth.
"Oh, that's too bad. Anyway, I hope you two have a nice evening."
"You too, Miss Sannon." He then looked at Marina. "See you later, Marina."
"See you later, guys."
Marina headed inside with her mom and closed the door behind. Sean put his hand down, let out a loud sigh, and then headed back home. Lester gave him a dirty look.
"What the hell was that for? You could have asked her if you stayed."
"Lester, do me a favor and leave me alone, alright?"
Lester sighed and looked away. "Fine, be that way, ya sad bastard."
Some time after returning home, Sean lay down on his bed, his eyes riveted on the ceiling. He spoke no words, he only put his mind on a myriad of thoughts. Several minutes had passed since then, although they seemed like a mere few seconds to him. Just then, the door to his room opened and Lester walked in.
"Hey Sean, I'm sorry for earlier. I thought about it for a sec, and yeah, it woulda been dumb to ask Marina out at her place. I was just mad that you cut me like that." However, his brother neither responded, nor looked at him. "So... it's my turn to make dinner tonight, right? How 'bout some spicy rice curry? Sounds good?"
"Alright, I'll call ya when it's ready."
Lester left, shutting the door behind him. Sean turned over and looked at a framed picture on top of the nightstand. He took the frame and held it close to him. The picture was that of a man in metal armor resting a battle axe over his shoulder, and at his side, a woman wearing a kevlar vest and carrying a rifle. The man sported brown hair, just like him and Lester, along with a nicely groomed goatee. In fact, his hair stood on end a little the same way Lester's did. The woman had long blonde hair reaching halfway down her back and bright beautiful green eyes, the exact same eye color he and his brother sported.
How long has it been since mom and dad died? Was it three years? Five years? More? It seemed so long since they never returned from that job outside of the city, and yet so recent as well. Sean looked at a small wood sword leaning against the nightstand. He put the picture down, then stood up and gripped the training weapon. His hands were so big now, he could only hold the handle with one hand and a finger or two. The sword itself was no longer than a shortsword to him. Sean lifted the wooden blade over his head and then swung it downward. He performed another downward strike, then he performed another one, then another one, and another one. For a moment, he was ten years younger. His father was beside him, doing the same overhead slashes in synch with him.
Sean held the sword over his head for several seconds before lowering it. It truly didn't seem like a long time had passed, and yet it flew by in the blink of an eye. He put the wood sword and the framed picture back in their place and headed to the dining room. On the table were two plates of rice covered in a thick, dark red sauce full of cooked meat and vegetables. Lester sat down the moment his brother arrived.
"There you are, 'bout time you arrived."
Sean sat down and slowly ate his dish, not saying anything. Lester looked at him for a little bit. "Is there something wrong? You haven't said much since we arrived. Ain't spicy rice curry your favorite?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I've been thinking about stuff."
"Well, a little. No, I've mostly been thinking about mom and dad." Sean let out a sigh. "How do you think our lives would have been if they didn't die and returned from their job."
Lester scratched his head. "Good question. I'm guessing we woulda been mercenaries like 'em. We did look up to them when we were kids, always saying how cool they were and how we'd be just like 'em when we'd grow up."
A smile then came to Sean. "I remember dad would say, 'In that case, let's get started, boys.' And before we knew it, he taught us how to fight."
Lester smiled as well. "Yeah, good times." Silence then set between the two for a few moments. "So why'd you start thinking about mom and dad? Suddenly missing them a lot."
"That and I really need a change of pace right now. Things have been so slow lately, I just... I just can't stop wondering where we would be if things didn't turn out like they did." Sean let out another sigh. "Anyway, sorry for feeling down like this lately."
"Hey, don't feel sorry for yourself, bro. You gotta work for two, luck just hates you today, and I agree we could use a little excitement lately. You got plenty of reasons for feeling down."
"No prob. Now eat your damn supper."
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.
"Hey there, where you going?"
"I'm going to the Motamo Docks. I desperately need a change of scenery."
"Oh, a trip to the settlement with all the big bad hybrids, huh? Think you'll find some good stuff there, bro?"
"I'm not going into the commons, I'm not bored enough to be suicidal."
"Heh, nice to know."
"Hey Sean! Hey Lester!"
Sean jumped and blushed upon noticing Marina coming their way. "Marina?"
Lester grinned and raised his hand. "Hey Mari."
"I didn't expect to see you two here. Where are you going?"
"Oh, nowhere far, just going to the Motamo Docks."
"I needed a change of scenery. I'm tired of seeing buildings and pedestrians for now."
"Oh. I was going to go shopping today, but visiting the docks sounds fun. I'll go with you."
Sean jumped upon hearing that. "Wh-what? Marina, you know the docks aren't entirely safe, don't you? Some of the hybrids may attack you one way or another for being a Negavian"
"I know, but," Marina stared right into his eyes and smiled radiantly, "I know I'll be safe as long I'm with you."
Sean's face turned completely bright red and he froze for a couple moments. He thawed out soon afterward and resumed his march to the city's entrance. "L-l-let's get going..."
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. A guard by entrance turned to the tree Negavians and walked up to them.
"Hold it, what business do you have here? It's dangerous for civilians to leave the city."
"It's cool, we're just going to the Motamo Docks, taking a breather from the city for a little bit." Lester said.
"... Alright. Have a good day."
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. How lucky could he be to have Marina go with him? If this was a sign, he had to take make the most of this turn of events.
Marina looked at him. "Yes?"
His heart began pumping like crazy. He had to look away. "I-I was wondering, would you... would you..." All of a sudden, a white noise filled his ears. He looked at his surroundings, but nothing out of the ordinary was in sight. "Guys, did you hear that?"
Marina nodded. "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.