We are staying the night at the Wooden Boot, an old inn that smells a little like mothballs and spilled grog and travel-worn leather, but it is nice enough. It was a miracle we could find a place to stay at all; that's what we get for traveling through the small nowhere-lands sandwiched between the newly fallen Faerieland and a distant Brightvale. There's not too much out here save for a few scattered towns and grasslands thick with magically-contorted beasts. But of course, those are to be expected. After all, the Haunted Woods aren't too far away, just a horizon of darkness to the west, and with the current turmoil set over Neopia, I'm just happy we haven't run into anything we couldn't beat.
But who knows when our luck will finally run out?
Right now I am sitting in the tavern in the lower half of the inn. The innkeeper's wife prepared me some watery tea, set in a thick mug in front of me. She is a kind woman, a short and stout Elephante with a pleasant smile, but I could see the hint of worry in her black eyes. It's a look Kero and I have seen all too much the past few days, reflected in the gazes of the occasional traveler with a bit of news.
Kero is currently upstairs. The blue Scorchio told me that he had gone to "double check" my tripwire spells, but I don't believe him. I may not be the greatest magician around, but Kero is infinitely worse. It is more likely he is polishing his sword or darting around the room and slashing at air wildly, imaginary enemies closing in on him. Getting ready for tomorrow, I suppose. Though hopefully tomorrow won't be as perilous as the past week has been.
I sip my tea and frown. It's only been a week, I realize. One week since I left home. One week since I embarked on a journey to try to stop a war that never should have started.
One week since I met Kero.
* * *
My house was quiet save for the sloshing of rain sliding up and down the siding. No thunder or lightning, just a decent downpour that I listened to as I finished my chores, sweeping the kitchen with an old yellow broom. My mother was out—she had gone to town to buy some new glassware. We grew all of the herbs for our homemade healing brews either in the backyard or in little pots scattered throughout the house, but we always seemed to need more vials and bottles.
Suddenly--THUD. The sound, heavy and dull, came from the front door. I stopped sweeping and turned towards the window, eyes flicking through the clear pane to catch a glimpse of the world outside. Darkness. It was late, but Mother wasn't due back for an hour. Was there someone outside?
I waited for the sound to repeat, but it didn't. Not follow-up knock or even the soft sound of impatient pacing. I was about to ignore it, continue with my housework, but I was too curious.
I propped the broom against the wall and rubbed my fingers together, channeling the little bit of the magic I could into my hands, just in case whoever was at the door was looking for trouble. Healing was my strong suit, but I could cast a blasting charm if provoked. I wasn't a helpless little green Acara.
I swung open the door and poked my head out, glancing around. At first I saw nothing but blackness and smelled nothing but the sweet nighttime rain. But then I saw him: a blue Scorchio, slouched in a heap on the welcome mat. He was dressed in a plain white tunic, but the fabric was shredded, tinged with red. There were scratches on his arms and face as well, fresh, and the air smelled of sulfur and oranges: battle magic. And at his side, discarded on the ground like a useless stick, was a brilliant silver sword.
My instincts kicked in. I dropped down to his level and grabbed his wrists, closing my eyes and channeling my healing magic into his body. I forced my power into his veins, murmuring chants I had memorized long ago, extending my magic through networks of capillaries, restoring cells, knitting skin, renewing bone.
I had never done an entire healing by myself. My mother had always been there to help, to guide me in the right direction, to tell me when to stop. But those times the injuries had been small. This boy was hurt badly, and I refused to let him down. Maybe it was because he was my first solo healing, or maybe it was something else, but I knew he was special. I knew I needed to save him...
With a start, I let go of his wrists, breathing hard. My hands prickled with pins and needles, my forehead beaded with sweat. I had almost given him too much power, almost drained myself dry. I had gotten carried away. And yet I was afraid to look down at the boy, afraid to see what I had done to him. Afraid to see if he had survived.
But then I heard a low groan, and suddenly a pair of dark eyes, like the blackest of skies, was looking up at me, followed by a weak smile. And then there was a stream of gibberish. But in the midst of the sounds, caught among the half-incoherent, half-whispered gurgles, I was almost positive that I heard something that sounded like, "Thank you."
* * *
I stir my tea with a touch of magic, forcing the spoon in little circles with just a zip of power, watching the little whirlpool I created in the clear liquid. The fireplace in the tavern is warm, the flames' heat dancing, prickling my back.
That was how I met Kero. Slumped on my doormat, unconscious, with slashes on every bit of exposed skin. Back then he had been an unnamed blue Scorchio with a sword, another Neopian who had wound up in my doorway and needed some healing.
It was only when he was tightly cocooned in a blanket and stationed in front of the fireplace in my living room that I learned who he really was. He was on a quest to find a cure to stop a great war between the fallen Faerieland and Darigan Citadel, but he couldn't do it on his own. He needed to assemble a team first. Unfortunately for him, he had run into a pack of beasts at the edge of the woods that neared my house. He had slain them all with a mixture of his fighting skill and just a hint of battle magic, but had been injured badly. That was how he had ended up on my doorstep. And was how I eventually joined his party as his go-to healer.
I shake my head and sip my tea, letting the bitter taste flood my mouth. What was I thinking?
Of course, I remember very well what I had been thinking. I had been thinking about the prospects of an adventure. I had been thinking of the excitement of being out on my own in the world. I had been thinking about finally having the chance to prove myself as a healer, to be a part of something bigger than me.
It all had such a beautiful ring to it a week ago.
* * *
Surprisingly, my mother didn't try to stop me. Once she returned from the market, vials in hand and soaked from the rain, her green eyes immediately fell to Kero near the fireplace. Right then and there she seemed to know. And although I saw the sadness in her eyes and the tear stains on her cheeks as we hugged and I departed with Kero two days later, she didn't once try to dissuade me.
Kero was very formal in those first 24 hours on the road. He was all knight, all business. It was as if he had forgotten that I was there with him. He kept one hand on his sword at all times and his eyes glued to the horizon as we traveled north.
It was all extremely awkward for me. I had packed light: some herbs and bandages, vials and potions, and my compact spell book I had gotten on my 11th birthday. No sword for me. I had been recruited as a healer, and as we walked that first day in near silence, I wondered if that was all I was to be on this trip. Not a companion or a friend. Just a green Acara to stand at his side. I didn't like the thought of that. And so I spent that first day playing a mental game of tennis, debating whether or not I should just turn around and head back to the world I had known for so long.
But the next day all the awkwardness dissipated. I don't know exactly how it happened, but it was right before we set off for the morning, clearing up our bedrolls and sweeping away the protection runes I had scrawled in the dirt. Kero passed me some bread—our breakfast—and somehow we fell into a conversation that ran half of the day. I don't remember what it was about, but from then on, we moved away from awkward travel companions to something that could have almost passed as being friends.
* * *
"Friends," I murmur, setting down my tea with a shake of my head. My stomach is churning. I glance around the tavern, observing the others in the room: just two Neopians, drinking some grog, reading out-of-date issues of The Neopian Times.
Tomorrow Kero and I are going into to the village to recruit someone else to join our brigade—a magician or a warrior, Kero said. He also wants to recruit some other people—an engineer perhaps, or a lavamancer—but he said we'll probably have to wait until we reach Moltara for those.
I rub my fingers together, feeling the feeble crackle of magic. It would be nice to add a magician to the group; I want to learn more about magic, and I'm sure whoever we add will know plenty of stuff. They could teach me. Not to mention having a fully capable magician would mean less of a burden on Kero and I in battle.
But then it won't be just Kero and me.
I shake my head to dispel the thought. I'm being selfish. Expanding the group was the goal from the start. And adding a magician or a fighter is the only way we'll have a chance of completing this quest. In fact, the fact that neither of us has died is a miracle.
And yet things will be different tomorrow. Everything will be different.
* * *
The twisted beasts were upon us, dark and radiating black smoke, their eyes golden disks set into contorted skulls. Long nails flashed, jagged teeth glinted in the pink light of sunset, gnarled skin twisted over their joints scattered with patches of coarse fur.
Kero was slashing at them with his sword, the silver metal flashing with every thrust and parry. I was firing spell after spell, rudimentary battle hexes that I had never cast in such quick succession before. One of the beasts dodged my spell, lunging at Kero and leaving a long scratch in the blue Scorchio's arm before he beat it off with a thrust of his sword. I called out a harsh string of syllable, firing a few more spells, forcing another beast back. I was keeping an eye on Kero as I fought, wondering if I should chance a healing spell, something quick to help him, or if I should just keep going with my attacks...
"They're gone," Kero said. It could have been seconds later or an hour. He was breathing heavily, his dark eyes wide from exhaustion.
I was breathing hard too. I had no physical injuries, but my hands were coated with soot: battle magic residue. I had used a lot of power, and my mouth tasted dry, like oranges and sulfur. But I dutifully moved towards Kero, placing a hand on his arm, ready to heal him.
He shrugged me off. "You're exhausted. Don't heal me."
"It's my job," I said. "It's why you brought me along."
"You were just firing off round after round of battle magic," Kero said, shaking his head firmly. "No magic healing."
I sighed, and reluctantly took off my backpack, digging inside for some sort of salve. "You're being stubborn."
He laughed and shook his head. "I may be stubborn, but you're the crazy one."
"Crazy?" My voice came out as an indignant squeak.
"For coming along with me on this quest in the first place."
I shook my head, pulling a small jar of healing balm out of my bag. "That doesn't make me crazy. There's a war going on. It seemed like the right thing to do."
"Which is why," Kero said, "I think I got lucky."
"Lucky?" I repeated, passing him the small container. I didn't know where he was going with this.
He took the jar and shrugged, flipping open the lid. "Of all the places I could have wound up when I was injured, I ended up on your front porch. The chances of me ending up at the home of a healer were slim enough as it was. The fact that I ended up at your house was even slimmer." He started to rub the salve on his arm. "I think I won the save-the-world-companion lottery."
"Stop trying to flatter me," I said shortly.
He shook his head. "It's not flattery. It's the truth." He screwed the lid shut and tossed the salve to me. He glanced around and squinted into the distance. "I think I can see the edges of a village in the distance. I heard there's a small inn there, the Wooden Boot, where we can spend the night. We should get going if we want to make it there before nightfall. Maybe we'll get to eat something besides bread."
I nodded and slung my backpack on. I was only slightly surprised that he wanted to continue on after such a recent battle. "Oh, the exciting life of Kero the Hero."
He laughed again, shaking his head like I was being silly. "It's your life too, not just mine. The exciting life of Melinda the..." He paused suddenly, a look of concern on his face. "Errr... healer?" he finished lamely.
I couldn't help it. I started laughing.
He shook his head and grinned, white teeth flashing as he shifted his sword to his left hand. "Doesn't have as nice of a ring as Kero the Hero, now does it?" And with that we set off.
* * *
I glance up. Kero is hovering over me, a mug in his hand. He must have ordered something from the bar—tea, if I'm not mistaking the smell—and wisps of white steam are curling from the lip of the mug.
"Done checking my protection spells?" I ask.
His blush is enough to answer my question. "Er... yeah. All safe and secure."
I shake my head. "Sure, Kero. Suuuure."
The blue Scorchio pulls out a chair and sits down next to me, glancing at the door that leads out of the inn. Out into the world. He's strangely quiet. It's like we're back to day one.
"Tomorrow will be interesting," I finally say, trying to draw him into a conversation. "Hopefully no battles."
He turns to me, eyebrow raised. "Do you really think that'll happen?"
"Neither do I." He takes a sip of the tea and winces at the taste. I stifle a laugh. I've never met someone who hates bitter-tasting stuff so much. Too bad for him that about ninety percent of the healing potions I packed for the journey taste absolutely horrible.
He sets the mug down and drums his fingers on the table. "You know," he says after a moment, "it's been a week since I showed up at your house."
"Oh, I guess you're right." I try to play it off as if I hadn't just been thinking the same thing. I take a sip of my tea for good measure.
"Do you... do you hate it?"
I nearly spit everything out of my mouth. Instead, I force the bitter liquid down and shake my head furiously. "No! Why? Do you hate it?"
"No not at all!" he says, but he looks nervous. "I was just concerned, because, you know, I basically recruited you on the spot for this really dangerous journey and you're away from home and you barely know me..." He's rambling, words spilling out of his mouth like a gush of water. "...and I'd hate to think that you can't stand me and rather be home--"
"Kero, that is as far from the truth as possible."
He pauses, and takes a good hard look at me. "Really?"
He looks at me oddly, head tilted, not entirely convinced.
I glance at the door and think back, back on everything that has happened. Of the adventure I just started a week ago, and the adventure that continues on tomorrow.
"You know Kero," I said, "I don't think I'd trade this week for anything in the world—except maybe an end to this war."
He smiles. "You're such an altruist, Melinda."
I shake my head. "I'm not Melinda the Altruist. I'm Melinda the Healer, remember?"
He grins. "Maybe tomorrow we'll meet someone whose name actually rhymes with their position. Like, Ordovician the Magician!"
"Is that even a real name?"
He shrugs. "Who knows?" And then he raises his mug. "To tomorrow and another day of adventure!"
I smile. "Here, here." I raise my mug and clink it against his before taking a swig.
Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow we will add someone new to our team and have to continue onwards on our quest, a party of three instead of two. But thinking back on the adventure I started a week ago, I can only imagine the excitement whoever we add to our group will have once they join us.
This adventure is far from over. Who knows what the future holds? But if it's as eventful as this past week has been, I'm sure we're in for an exciting ride.