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Stratagem Reborn
In Novels
Gummy
Jul 01, 2022
Chapter 2: A Fateful Meat-ing I was clearly fluent in the native language… albeit only when speaking. It wasn't until I tried to read the first sign I saw at the village's gates that I realized I'm completely illiterate. I scratched some dandruff off my hair with my free right hand as I let out an audible groan. "I can't believe this! How am I supposed to find a place to eat now?" A young soldier, spear in hand, walked by me in the opposite direction and made a point to avoid making eye contact with me as soon as I flashed a nervous smile his way. I called out to him. "Excuse me, sir, can you be so kind as to—" "Please don't bother me," he said, cutting me off. "I don't have any spare change with me." Without waiting for me to respond, he sped up his walking pace and practically jogged up the hill to the castle. "That's right," I told myself. Heaving a disappointed sigh, I looked down at my ragged undershirt. "Nobody's going to take me seriously if I look like this. I should probably find a tailor or something. There has to be a way to buy clothes in town, right?" I reached into my pocket and gripped the purse Daphne had entrusted me with tightly. "I have to take special care of this," I told myself. "She did tell me I should use this money to look for a place to stay, but…" As if on cue, my stomach began rumbling audibly. "...I think I have other priorities right now." The streets of the castle town looked oddly barren. I had expected the biggest spot in the kingdom would at least be somewhat bustling regularly. The signs on every building were lined with the same gibberish text everywhere I went. “Can’t any of these places have signs that read in regular English?” I asked nobody in particular. Right then and there, I felt a chill crawling up my spine. I couldn’t really put it into words that someone without magic power can explain, but it felt like a supernatural instinct warning me of potential danger before anything happens. I swiveled my head to face an alleyway in between two unidentifiable buildings, only to find the silhouette of a shady figure slinking behind one of the establishments. Accepting the innate urge in my body to become a hero and fight shady villains, I gave chase to the figure. “Hey, come back here!” I called for it, but it didn't respond, instead choosing to silently round the corner and leave my field of view. I dashed as fast as my weakened legs can carry me--and in this weakened state, that’s not much to boast about--but by the time I’d done the same, the figure and any trace of it ever existing were nowhere to be found. “Huh,” I told myself, scratching my head. “Must have been my imagination.” Even though I could still feel the figure’s presence nearby, I soon found myself forced to give into the merciless beckoning of my aching stomach. “Time to blindly look for the first thing resembling a restaurant I can find, I guess.” Soon after I’d stopped giving chase to the shady figure, the sense of danger started to fade until I could no longer feel it anymore. I let out a sigh of relief, knowing that’s one less thing I’ll have to worry about. I gently opened the door to the first establishment I can find, and the first thing that caught my eye after peeking through the tiny crack was the thickest ham leg I’d ever seen, hanging from a high shelf on the wall opposite to the door. My stomach practically roared in approval, so I opened up the door the rest of the way. “Hi, I’m guessing you’re the butcher?” I asked the gruff man behind the counter. In return, he squinted at me and motioned towards the array of meats behind him. “You’re not from around these parts, are you, boy? I don’t remember ever seeing you around.” “You could say that, yes…” I chuckled weakly while scratching an itch on my chin. “I can’t even read the sign on the door, but I suppose it should have been an obvious assumption, judging by the wide array of meats you have hanging back there.” “That’s weird,” said the butcher, rubbing the stubble on his chin. I stopped to consider a moment if he was subconsciously imitating me, and I forced myself to contain a chuckle. He didn’t seem to notice, thankfully, as he’d seemingly lost himself in his own train of thought. “I could have sworn Whitebloomers write in the same language we use, plus you sound like you speak our language fluently. Perhaps you’re just illiterate.” “Yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “Listen, I am starving. I could almost literally eat a horse if you let me.” “I see,” said the butcher. “You looking for anything in particular? I saw you eyeing that leg of ham earlier.” “Yeah!” I exclaimed. “I have a purse full of money, but I’m not sure how much I could buy with it. I also need to budget so I can stay a couple of days at the nearest inn, too.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the purse that Daphne had gifted me earlier. After opening it up, I spilled its contents onto the counter, which the butcher proceeded to meticulously count. After a few tense seconds of seeing the muscular man sort the coins by the material they’re apparently made from and count the total one by one, he looked up at me and smirked. “Best I could do for you is a slice of ham,” he says. I’m not sure which one sank deeper after hearing this, my stomach or my heart. “Are you sure?” I asked him, practically groaning in agony at this point. “I can’t go on with just a slice…” “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll settle for two slices of ham for the price of everything on here. The whole thing is barely worth one, but I’m feeling generous today, so--” The butcher was caught off by the sound of a knife being plunged into the wooden counter. “What the!?” he exclaimed. “Knock it off, Butch. The boy’s coming with me, and I know for a fact one of those four platinum coins could buy your entire stock every day for the rest of the week.” The person speaking had seemingly materialized from out of nowhere, but it took me an instant to recognise her. Did she use some kind of strange magic to turn herself invisible? If so, how much time had she spent just sitting in the corner completely unnoticed? She--and I say she because I can now tell her body type and frame was clearly that of a slender woman--removed her hood, revealing a head of eye-catching flowing pink hair. She looked at the butcher with a piercing glare that could make even her pink eyes look menacing, and said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, and you should know better than to pick a fight with me, right?” The butcher clicked his tongue. “Fine, you can take the damned leg, for free even. But you’d better make it worth my while, Cecilia.” Having said this, he stomped his way into the back room, grumbling the entire way and not even bothering to pull down the ham from the shelf. I looked up at the strange woman. “Thank you very much, miss,” I tell her. “Is there anything I can do for you in return?” The lady smiled at me. “That’s awfully generous of you. I’ll take you up on that offer. You said you were saving up to reserve a room at the inn, right?” she asked me. I nodded. “That’s right. I don’t know where it is, though. I’m really sorry to ask for a favor from you after the great deed you’ve done for me, but--” “That’s okay,” she answered. “I was about to say I’ll lead you there anyway. I’m staying at that inn myself, so if you can, please stop by my room as soon as you’re done checking in.” “Right, miss! You can count on me!” I sure didn’t look like it, but I was sure she could tell I was nervous as all hell. This tall, mysterious, and beautiful lady had just asked me to come to her private room by myself? I didn’t know if I could handle this much embarrassment… “Come on, we’d better get moving,” she said, hopping over the counter and effortlessly cutting the leg of ham off the shelf with her dagger. “Time is of the essence,” she added as she handed me the chunk of meat.
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Stratagem Reborn
In Novels
Gummy
Jun 25, 2022
Chapter 1: Garden of Beginnings I didn’t remember. How I ended up under this tree, or what I was doing before waking, is all beyond the point of my memory. I look to either side of me, both to find out my current condition and to look for answers. “Where in the world…?” I muttered to myself as I examined the beautiful, flower-filled landscape. The smell of morning dew on crisp, green grass tickled my nose, while the trickling sound of running water entertained my ears. “Is this a garden?” Trying to stand up from my awkward position awoke a splitting pain that ravaged my lower back. “That wasn’t the best position to lie down in, wasn’t it?” I groaned. It wasn’t until I’d reluctantly reincorporated myself that I noticed that splotches of brown and gray mired the white undershirt I’d fallen asleep in. I brushed off as much as I could from it, all the while looking around to see if anybody was watching. This is when I first saw Daphne. The moment our eyes met, the young lady in a blue, jewel-encrusted dress dashed towards me, her heels clacking loudly against the cobblestone floor with every step she took. “It’s you!” she cried out. “You’re really here!” The next moment, she'd ensnared my throat between her arms and "embraced" me a little more tightly than I originally expected her to. Regardless of whether she’d been genuinely ignorant of my wheezing, she said, “I can’t believe you actually showed up!” As she squealed in delight, my nose wrinkled and shrunk. I wasn’t sure if it was her perfume or her breath, but if her supernatural chokehold wasn’t enough to choke the air out of my throat, whatever noxious fumes she emitted poisoned whatever’s left. “I do not know how, miss, but sure enough, it appears I showed up…” I choked, prompting the young lady to release me from her vice grip. My knees immediately gave way and I almost fell flat on my purple-tinted face while gasping and coughing violently like a dying carp. After what felt like forever, but once I finally felt my breathing pattern settling down, I craned my quivering neck up to meet this strange woman’s sapphire eyes before addressing her. “Where exactly did I show up… and who in the world are you?” I asked her. Albeit not fading away completely, her smile mellowed down a bit. She tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear and stood up, saying, “I’m sure you have many questions in your mind, but everything will be perfectly clear in a moment. For the moment, just know that I’m Daphne, and this is my home: Castle Blackthorn!” She finished by making an extravagant gesture, raising both of her arms to the azure morning sky above us. "That's great and all," I told her. "But can you at least tell me how--" Daphne cut me off. “Come on, friend!" she exclaimed. "Father will definitely be ecstatic when he sees that you finally showed up!” If she heard me groan at the mention of me "showing up" under the tree, she paid it no mind. Daphne offered me her outstretched arm and smiled, as if expecting me to lock onto it like some sort of gentleman. Despite having no idea if I had the necessary credentials, I took her up on the offer. I could feel my pulse racing as I walked arm-in-arm with Daphne through the castle halls. We ran into many knights on our stroll, each much taller than me and clad in a full suit of armor. Daphne’s presence didn’t seem to bother them at all—in fact, many of them stopped in their tracks to greet her. Immediately after she’s done bowing at each of them, I would always feel a chill creep up my spine, as if I could tell someone was glaring at me. “Am I doing something wrong?” I asked Daphne. “All these knights are looking at me funny.” She giggled and leaned over to whisper something into my ear. “They’ve never seen me walk hand-in-hand with a boy my age before,” she said. “Since most of them have been around since before I was born, it’s probably a big deal to them.” I looked down at my muddy boots in a vain attempt to hide my embarrassment, much to Daphne's visible delight. Daphne led me up a staircase wide enough to fit fifteen fully armored knights side-by-side, and we stopped at the very top. Before us stood a set of intimidatingly large double doors, tall enough to fit fifteen fully armored knights standing on top of each other’s shoulders. Two guards in thicker, more ornate suits of armor, one on each side, stood watch in front of the double doors. I shivered, realizing these knights were of a higher ranking than the ones that were already glaring daggers at me in the hallway. Regardless, Daphne walked towards them and greeted them with the same curtsy bow that she’d offered to everyone else earlier. Without saying a word, the knights stepped aside and even opened the door for Daphne, who hurried in and motioned for me to follow. “Hurry!” she exclaimed. “Father is waiting at the end of this room!” I recoiled. “What do you mean when you say he’s ‘waiting at the end of this room’!?” I asked. “Just what kind of man is your father…?” “Oh, didn’t I tell you?” a mischievous smile crept its way up her cheeks as she spun on her heel. “I am the Crown Princess of the Empire of Blackthorn. My father, whom you’re about to meet, is the Emperor! Wouldn’t it make sense to see him most often in a throne room?” “You say that like it’s some sort of fun fact,” I told her. “I never expected to meet an emperor today, much less wearing this hideous attire. I could actually lose my head for showing up with a dirty shirt!” It wasn't as if I expected Daphne to care when I said this, but receiving a giggle and a coy smile as my only response from her was far from reassuring. That being said, I didn't hesitate to try to slip through behind her as she stepped into the throne room. Before I could even register any movement at all, I'd been knocked face-up on the floor and I had the tips of two silver spears pressing against my throat. “No unauthorized entry!” yelled the two knights. “No, no, wait! He’s with me!” Daphne cried out, calling back her metaphorical dogs. The two flustered sentries huffed and removed their weapons from my arteries. I heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Daphne...” I told her. “I really needed that.” Not a moment after, I felt a wave of dizziness take me over and my right knee soon gave way. “Hey, are you alright?” she asks me, a look of concern washing over her face as she knelt down to aid me. “Those sentries didn’t hurt you, did they?” “I’m not sure,” I answered. “I felt something race through my body when I felt those blades pressing against my neck. It’s probably the chills.” The look of worry on Daphne’s face faded away, and a gentle smile soon replaced it. She offered me my hand, and in one jerky motion, I felt my body shoot upward into a standing position. “Great to hear,” she told me. The loudest throat-clearing noise I could imagine echoed from the other end of the room. “Daughter,” said the gruff older man sitting in the far end of the room. Turning to Daphne, he asks, “Who is this dirty beggar you’ve dragged into my throne room?” “So this is the emperor,” I muttered to myself. I made a mental note that the way his face curled in on itself when he angered made him look like a total grouch, but the way his obsidian suit of armor almost glowed on its own left me quivering in my muddy beggar’s boots. Daphne chuckled nervously, tucking a lock of blonde hair behind her ear in a rather obvious attempt to wipe away the drop of sweat rolling down the side of her head. “This isn’t a dirty beggar, Father,” she told him. Making a half-hearted motion towards me, she explained herself, saying, “This is the hero of the prophecy! You know, the one you asked me to summon?” “Pardon?” I asked. “I didn’t receive the memo.” With a frustrated grunt, the emperor’s face grew bright red and his face scrunched up. I could have sworn I felt the room shake at this point. “Do you take me for a fool, Daphne!?” he yelled. “I’ve squires with less muscle than this sorry excuse of a summon!” The harshness of the emperor’s comment drained any vibrant sparkle remaining in Daphne’s sapphire irises. In place of said sparkles, tears began fading in and puffing up her eyes. Without waiting for his daughter to respond, the emperor dismissed her. “Go back to your quarters, Daphne. You are to perform another summoning ritual under my supervision once I’m done with this failed byproduct.” Turning his attention towards the door at the other end of the room, he yelled for someone from the outside to step in. “Guards!” “Jeez, you didn’t have to yell like that, Your Majesty,” I said, cleaning the inside of my ear with my grimy index finger. The two sentries from outside the throne room stumbled in, their hands wrapped tight around their silver spear shafts. Without asking, they rushed over to me and latched onto my arms, one for each, with enough force to strain the tendons holding my arms together. Daphne hung her head and mumbled something to herself. I could barely make out her words. “Failed byproduct, you say…?” She clenched her fists tightly, and I could see a small trickle of blood trailing down her knuckles from where she’d been digging her nails into her palms. She sniffled and pursed her lips before turning back to her father, mirroring his fury in her swollen, watery eyes. “I can prove you wrong!” she screeched. “Excuse me, young lady!?” exclaimed the emperor, smashing the side of his fist against the armrest of his throne. “This man is the hero of the prophecy,” she told him. “I know. I had my doubts too, until just a moment ago, when he said he felt something running through his body.” “Something running through his body…” muttered the emperor. “Is this true, boy?” I nodded. “I’m still not sure what it was, but I think this body has felt fear before, and what I felt back there was not it.” The emperor’s scowl of disgust turned into a wry smile. “Is that so? Can you show me?” “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I don’t think I can really feel that way on command.” The disappointed glare that the emperor hadn’t lost for a minute returned to him as he grumbled, “If that’s the case, we’ll just have to replicate the conditions.” “Excuse me?” I asked. “Father, no!” I heard Daphne wail as she stretched her arm in my direction. “What are you waiting for, you two nincompoops!?” the emperor roared at his two guards. “Drive a spear through his skull!” In response, the obedient guards shoved me to the ground and left me barely enough time to turn around and look up at them. Once again, I'd been dropped face-up on the red carpet, with the pair of silver spears pressed ever so slightly against my neck, just like earlier. The two sentries turned to each other, and I took the moment to notice the apprehension in their quivering grip. Did they really want to kill me? Before I could voice my concern, however, I noticed both of them taking a deep breath and raising their spears to deliver the killing blow. In response, I thrust out my bare palms towards my two “opponents” and yelled out in apprehension. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold it, you two!” My intentions were to get them to talk this out peacefully, but… … by thrusting my palms towards the two guards like that, I repelled their charge with a powerful shock wave of energy… a superhuman maneuver that I obviously did not know I could perform beforehand. Both of the men who were after my life rocketed halfway across the throne room, all the while flailing like ragdolls and rolling for a moment or two before skidding against the carpeted floor, much to the shock of every other person in the vicinity. “I’m terribly sorry, Your Majesty!” I exclaimed, wailing nervously. “I can explain!” Like hell I can! The emperor glared at me with a look of sheer enmity before turning to the two guards. They'd already assumed fighting stances once more, but something about their demeanor had drastically changed, judging by their quivering, buckled knees. They glanced apprehensively at their sovereign ruler, as if asking him, “Do you really want us to go at it again?" The emperor motioned towards them by tilting the right side of his head upwards a bit. “Go on,” His Majesty’s body language implied. The two knights looked at each other in a display of disbelief. One of them, the shorter of the two, shrugged at the other, while his taller companion nodded in agreement with whatever proposition he was just offered. The two returned to their fighting position, an action which prompted me to raise my voice once again. “Hey, time out!" I exclaimed. "Don’t I get a say in this!? Didn’t I just prove my strength to you by knocking out those guys once already!?” Without even honoring me with a response, the two knights lunged at me, and by the time I can register them moving, both Dumb and Dumber have closed the gap between us over halfway. I gasped for air, fully aware that I had no time to think of how I'm going to dodge this next attack. The only thought racing through my mind at this point was practically screaming and reminding me that I had to dodge this attack or else I was going to get skewered— Oh, wait, I stepped away somehow. Another buff from being summoned, I guess? Both knights collapsed in a heap on the carpeted floor. I turned around to face them and loomed over them for a second. If I could say something to them, I totally would, but my breath had somehow become as ragged as theirs and a cramping pain had rushed up my leg. I think I pulled something as I dodged that attack, but it wasn’t like I had any intention of letting them or the emperor know anytime soon. It wasn’t until I'd confirmed that the two sentries were in stable condition and still breathing that I let out a sigh and focused on the real issue at hand. “What… what in the world did I just do?” I asked myself. I knew I’d lost my entire memories up to about an hour ago, but my muscle memory and my injured leg made it clear as crystal that I was not supposed to pull off what I just performed. A slow clap rang throughout the room. That macabre smile from earlier had just snuck its way back into the heart of the emperor. “I… I don’t get it.” I mumbled. “Weren’t you gritting your teeth at me just a moment ago?” “Daphne,” he turned to his astonished daughter. “I apologize for underestimating your abilities. You have done a fine job of summoning this talented young man.” “You were testing me, weren’t you?” I barked at him. “You knew far too well that she’d summoned the right guy.” “I have no intention of revealing my intentions to anyone, much less an uncouth, rebellious stain on society like you.” “Quit making me mad.” I snarled. “I don’t want to add regicide to my criminal record.” “Speaking of your crimes, boy,” he announced, stepping up from his throne for the first time. “I will pardon each of them and provide you with a noble title if you can prove your loyalty to me.” “Humor me, Your Majesty. I’m interested.” My intention to lie could not have been more obvious, but that didn’t seem to stop Daphne’s breath from growing dryer and faster in the background. “Your task is simple,” the king began. “If you wish to prove your loyalty to me, you will pick one of the two knights you have just bested… and slice off his head.” “Father!” exclaimed Daphne. “Are you really ordering this boy to strike down a member of your royal guard while in a defenseless state!?” “Yeah, that’s exactly what he just said.” As I spoke, I tried to keep my voice as neutral as I could, such that neither the king nor Daphne could tell my intentions. The emperor unsheathed a silver sword from his waist and handed it to me, saying, “Whenever you’re ready, child.” He released his grip from the sword, and as soon as I noticed I had full control over it, I felt an interesting idea sparking inside my head. I swung the sword up and down, side to side, testing its weight and durability. Sure enough, it felt like putty in my hands; like I was swinging a stick around instead of a heavy slice of precious metal. “It’s almost like I’m destined to wield this sword,” I joked. Turning my face back towards the emperor, I answered his sinister squint with a mischievous smirk of my own. “Like hell I’m staining my hands with blood in your name.” I turned around and swung my blade such that the tip pointed at the emperor. “Listen up!” I yelled at him. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you’ve given me no reason to trust you or to believe any of this prophecy crap. This talk of heroes and nobility sounds fun, but it’s your problem, not mine.” “So after all that, you still intend to point your blade at me?” asked the emperor. “Don’t tell me you intend to kill me.” “Honestly?” I ask. I looked down at my injured leg, then to Daphne. She turned back to me, so I nodded at her before turning back to the emperor and voicing my decision. “I wish I had the guts. I’d be no better than you if I did, anyway.” The emperor lowered his head and smiled. “You put up a good fight, Hero, but your hands are just too clean. It would be a waste to crush you right now, so you can leave this castle and explore to your heart’s content.” “Do you mean it, Father?” asked Daphne. “Coming from you, this is an unnatural act of mercy you’re showing to this man.” The emperor shook his head. “Do not mistake my pardoning of his crimes for mercy.” Glaring at me, he said, “Regardless of what path you take, the next time we meet, the fate of the entire world will be at stake. Do not disappoint me.” “Sure, Your Majesty. Good luck getting there.” “Daphne, could you please escort the boy to the gates?” asked the emperor. “I don’t want him wandering around where he shouldn’t be.” Daphne wiped her tears with the sides of her bloody hands and bowed. “Of course, Father. We’ll be taking our leave now.” ... “So, do you have any idea what you’re going to do now that you’re free?” asked Daphne once we’d safely arrived at the far end of the castle’s drawbridge. “No, unfortunately,” I told her. “I don’t really have a goal or a purpose for life that I can remember. I’m definitely not going to follow that prophecy, though. Blazing my own trail and becoming a hero on my own terms sounds much more fulfilling.” Daphne giggled. “You were very brave and heroic in the throne room, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that.” She reached into the pocket of her dress and fished out a small purse. “I’m really sorry, but this is all I could sneak out on the way. It should be enough to get you some decent lodging at the castle town’s inn.” “Thanks so much!” I exclaimed, taking the purple purse in the palm of my right hand. A small pang of pain shot up my wrist as it tried holding up the weight of what I thought was going to be a rather light handful of money. “Hey, this is heavier than I thought… You sure you want to give me all this?” Daphne smiled. “Don’t let Father hear me say this, but I think you remind him of how he behaved when he was your age. So brash and confident, screaming out demands that he’s not sure if he can fulfill himself… If there’s anyone who can save him from himself, it’s you.” She then leaned in close enough so I could smell that noxious perfume of hers one last time and dropped a sloppy kiss on my cheek. “Godspeed, Hero. May our paths cross again for the better someday.” As Daphne stepped into the castle, the drawbridge raised and the gates closed behind her, leaving me stranded on top of a hill in the blazing midday sun. As I looked down at the bustling castle town, a sickening pool of both nervousness and dread swirled in the pit of my stomach. Speaking of my stomach… “Yeah, I should probably get a bite to eat first.”
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