The road from Rashind further north was a calm one. The majority of travel and commerce was located on the west side of the Feral Wildlands and although the eastern part of the country was still under control of the kingdom, it was definitely less extravagant. Cities were few and far from each other and most people here lived off of what the land provided. Travelers were also sparse and although they’ve come across a few, it was mostly an empty road until they finally reached the next small village. This village was so small it didn’t even have a name. People just called it their village and there weren’t enough merchants and travelers to make this a problem. After their two day journey they now found themselves sitting in the local inn. Cobal had booked a room for the night. This would be their last village before they’d reach the edge of the Liriath forest. Waiting for their food to be ready, Cobal struck up a conversation with the innkeeper.
“We came here all the way from Ravadier but we saw very few people, not to mention no merchants at all. Any reason why that is?”
The innkeeper, who was keeping an eye on the food, looked up at them. He was a short, elderly man with small spectacles on his nose. His back was hunched and his face was pockmarked. “Well, this area is never particularly crowded since there’s not much profit to be had in tiny villages. That’s how we get forgotten about. There’s also been some bandits around lately, and some threats coming out of the wildlands. It’s just not been safe.” He let out a deep sigh. “Not only that, but now there’s something strange happening on the beach as well. It’s making it very difficult to run a business here, I wish the army did something about it.”
Mana gave Cobal a look that didn’t go unnoticed.
“What’s been happening on the beach lately that’s strange?” Cassandra asked.
The man looked at her. “There’s a monument to the previous hero there, but folks say it’s haunted now. There’s been strange music and lights coming from it lately.”
“Did people get attacked or anything?”
The man shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“What kind of monument is this?” Mana asked.
“It’s a strange looking gate. The hero said it reminded him of home. He said he liked those buildings.”
Mana looked at Cobal. “I want to see it now, if it’s something from my world that would be really nice to see.”
Cobal nodded. “Could you tell me exactly where to go to see this monument? We’d love to see it, and we might as well see if we can find out what’s been happening near it.”
The innkeeper gave some directions. “It’s hard to miss.”
The food was finally ready and the innkeeper came over to deliver it.
“Is this a one-man show?” Mana asked.
The innkeeper nodded. “I used to have an employee, but he went off to the big city about a year ago. I considered finding someone new, but with how few people come by here it’s easy enough for me to run this place alone.”
Cobal nodded. “That sounds fair enough, thank you for the food.”
Very well then,” Cobal paid the man and they went upstairs.
“Not a lot of room,” Cassandra remarked.
“It’ll only be for one or two nights, it’s better than sleeping in that cheap tent.” Cobal said.
Cassandra looked at Cobal. “You’re a prince right? Are you really fine sleeping in roadside tents and inns like this?”
Cobal laughed. “Not really, it’s kind of depressing to be honest. But it’s what we got, and complaining about it isn’t going to change the situation.”
Cassandra nodded. “Fair enough.” She looked at Mana. “And you?”
Mana smiled. “I’m not really comfortable in general, so I’ll just have to do with what we have, regardless of what I really want.”
“What do you want then?”
“To go home,” Mana responded, seemingly annoyed by the question.
“Unfortunately that is not possible anymore. We’re all in the same boat now. The quicker we manage to figure out Mana’s talents and see them grow, the quicker we can all get back to more comfortable lives.” Cobal offered.
“After I risk my life to save a kingdom I have no ties to, for people I don’t know in a world I wasn’t born in,” Mana added.
Neither Cassandra or Cobal knew how to properly respond to that. They each retreated to their own corner of the small room until it was time to get something to eat downstairs.
“The food here is definitely a bit bland,” Cassandra said.
Mana nodded. “Spices aren’t exactly lacking in your world, but they seem to be much more of a luxury than in mine from what I’ve seen.”
“They’re hard to come by and some of them only grow in areas that are dangerous, so it takes a lot of money and effort to get hold of them.” Cobal said.
They were eating some meat that tasted a bit stale with some potatoes that looked like they were on the edge of spoiling. All things considered it wasn’t good. As soon as the sun started setting they made their way towards the beach. It was a short walk and since the weather had cleared up significantly compared to the recent few days it was a pleasant walk. They initially wanted to go in the morning, but decided to go later in the day so that they could see what might be haunting the monument. Mana said she didn’t believe in ghosts so she wasn’t too worried until Cobal suggested there were many things in their world that could be mistaken for ghosts, but could still be there for some reason. Now she looked a lot more worried. She’d been on edge for a while now, and Cobal was getting worried about it. It was his task to convince her to be a hero, after all.
“That was the worst meal I’ve ever had in this world.” Mana said.
Cobal agreed. “I might be spoiled in what I’m used to, but I haven’t felt the need to complain about food so far. This was offensive to the point of being an insult.”
Cassandra laughed. “That’s what you get when the kingdom isn’t being kept safe by the people in charge.”
Cobal gave her a look.
“What? I’m not wrong. I mean no offense, but it’s very known that the eastern side of the kingdom is less cared for. The capital is up in the northwest with a literal unconquerable jungle blocking it from the east, and most of the king’s power doesn’t reach this far. Ravadier is right on the edge and since it’s a vacation spot for many nobles it gets taken care of, but once you start heading northeast on the main road you can see the dangers increasing. Most small towns don’t even have a single royal guard stationed.”
Cobal seemed taken aback by this. “I didn’t realize it was that bad.” He scratched his chin. “I mean, it’s no secret that the capital and its surroundings are the richer parts of the country, that’s been the case for as long as I’ve been alive, but I always assumed there was reasonable protection in the east.”
Cassandra shook her head. “If half the towns were taken over by bandits tomorrow your capital soldiers wouldn’t learn about it for months.”
“That’s not that surprising,” Mana interjected, “It’s hard for troops to travel that far and since there’s no direct path through the wildlands it’s almost impossible to get any amount of army presence here without big financial investments. And money is something that nobles do not like to part with.”
“How do you think we should fix this then?”
A scared look appeared on Mana’s face and Cobal regretted asking the question, even though he didn’t quite know why it invoked such a negative reaction from Mana.
“I don’t think the hero should have an opinion on those kinds of things.”
Cobal nodded. “I understand, I’m sorry for asking.”
Mana shook her head. “No need to apologize, it was just a normal question.” She paused. “It’s just a bit of a complicated thing for me to answer. I’m not from this world and back in my world I wasn’t involved in politics by any means.” She let out a forced chuckle. “Hell, I don’t even know what kind of ruling class you have over here. I know there’s a king and some ministers but I know nothing about the process. It would be unwise for me to come up with ideas to fix this problem without knowing the full scope of the issue. I mean.” She suddenly stopped.
Cobal looked ahead, now noticing that they arrived at their destination.
In the water, maybe a hundred meters from where they were standing, stood a tall red looking gate. It seemed to be made out of wood, with some seaweed vines crawling up on the structure.
Blue firefly looking lights lit up the sight as they swarmed slowly around the entire thing.
“I know those, they’re called torii gates.” Mana said, a look of wonder and excitement watching over her face. The anxiety from a moment before seemed to vanish for a short moment and Cobal was taken aback.
“They’re what?” Cobal asked.
“They’re beautiful, that’s for sure,” Cassandra said.
“They’re supposed to be a gateway separating the mundane from the sacred. They’re from a country in my old world. I’ve never seen one in person, but I’ve seen them in videos.”
Cassandra and Cobal both looked at her. “What’s a video?”
Mana thought. “How do I explain this?” She held out her hands and made a square with her fingers. “Imagine if you had a screen. For lack of a better comparison, it’s like a piece of paper but different. Now look through the square you’ve made with your fingers.”
They both followed her instructions and looked through their fingers. “It’s like a window,” Cobal said.
Mana nodded. “That’s actually a good way of looking at it. Imagine if you’re looking through a window, but instead of looking outside your house, you can see something that’s not there. It’s like someone captured a moment they saw, and then showed it to you later.”
Cobal nodded. “I’m not sure I understand how that would work, but I think I know what you mean.”
Cassandra was thinking. “So you’ve seen a moving drawing of that thing?”
Mana nodded. “That’s right.”
“That sounds like magic to me. How does it work?”
Mana laughed heartily. “Even though I used screens to watch videos almost every day, I can’t think of a way to even begin to explain how they work. It took years for smart people to create things that helped others create new things and to keep going like that until they arrived at the videos I know. All I know is that it works and I miss having access to them.” She chuckled. “I remember someone saying that we basically tricked a rock into thinking.”
“Sounds amazing, maybe one day I can learn how to make one of those videos.”
Mana laughed. “I wish you the best of luck, that’s for sure.” They all returned their gaze towards the strange gate, called torii gate according to Mana.
“Why do you think that Might had one built here?” Cobal asked.
Mana shrugged. “Maybe he’s from the country they were in and it was for religious reasons. Maybe it’s just one of many things he had built from his home world to help remind him of the place he came from. Maybe he just thought they looked cool. We have no way of really knowing what went on in his head. Perhaps he was worried about his demise and he wanted to leave something behind.” She gave Cobal an almost inquisitive look.
Cobal fidgeted with his hands a little bit, not knowing how to respond to that. He felt as if Mana was somehow blaming him for this.
“Well, whatever the reason, I’m happy he did have it built, because it looks gorgeous.” Cassandra motioned. “Let’s go have a closer look,” as she took off her shoes and started walking through the slow moving water and closer to the lit up gate.
Both Cassandra and Cobal went ahead as Mana stared at it a little bit longer. Cobal had to admit it looked impressive for sure, especially with all the lights surrounding it.