There is a book in the forest just outside of town. It’s an old legend, the kind that kids would spread around as they played in the fields, one having heard it from their grandmother and quickly infecting the rest. Each child’s parents would shake their heads at the nonsense; magic may certainly be real, but such ancient tomes are reserved for the libraries of court mages and royal academies rather. If there really were a text rotting away in the woods, known to all the residents of the village, someone ought to have collected it by now and filed it away somewhere far more important than here.
Far too old for childish rumors, Cecilia hasn’t even heard the story since she was the age of the children lined up on the top of the fence, sitting with their legs dangling above the summer grass as they gossiped. “Just grow up,” she mumbles to herself, charging past the group.
For those youths, the sight of a depressing twenty-something blowing past them with a hood over her eyes and an aura of gloom spilling from her small and frail body into her surroundings was nothing of real note. Even her comments would go in one ear and out the other, her type was in no short supply these days.
How long has it been since a resident of this little village has done anything of note? A decade? Two? Half a century? Yet, the elders still cling onto hope that someone will soon put this place back on the map. The local lord humors them without ever really investing in their words, even without grand tales the place is doing alright in his eyes. The farms still produce, exports never lulled, shops still keep full stock, and the taxes are short but no more so than any other town of his domain. It is, for better or worse, a completely forgettable locale.
Every generation has its knights and magicians, those who leave to somewhere more extravagant and make a name for themselves among the ranks of a hundred other names. Their documents may say they hail from Altbirk, but all simply claim the whole of the Fruchthügel domain as their home.
Recently, many are growing sick of the dreams. If all is fine, then what does it matter? If there’s food on the table, then who cares if people three days’ travel away know? However, some can’t help the feeling, it’s very human to want to mean something to the world. Affairs may be in order today, but tomorrow is unpredictable and foreign. This sort of pressure is clear to those whose lives are not as idyllic as those of the more outspoken residents seem to be.
Cecilia is in that sort of position. Being unmarried, she still lives in her parents’ house where she is now heading after half a day of yard work for her grandfather. Her father was one of those who had left, the village’s champion of swords, now a wounded ex-soldier in a glorified shed.
“I’m home,” she grumbles while kicking her work boots off at the door, careful to keep her feet off the exposed ground that comprised the entryway all the while.
Her mother looks up from the large pot she’s been stirring over the fire pit in the middle of the house’s one room. One could easily mistake the two women here as twins, sharing the same dark brown hair and tired brown eyes set in equally pale skin. “Welcome back,” she says, pausing while looking directly at Cecilia. The look on her face is filled with some sort of expectation, as if Cecilia is supposed to know what to do next. Then, giving up on waiting for a response, she continues: “how did the work go?”
“Alright,” Cecilia states in monotone, dragging out the vowels of the lone word while walking over to the chipped wooden table by the door. She sets two small copper coins down, their chipped and bent forms causing them to rattle for a moment despite how lightly they were placed. Her mother, named Celia to further confuse anyone attempting to distinguish her from Cecilia, continued her nearly blank stare at her daughter. With a roll of her eyes, Cecilia slaps a third coin atop the previous two, shaking the whole table with the force.
Celia’s eyes show a glint of pride, as if to say it’s a mother’s intuition when a child is keeping secrets. Of course, that would be a lie, she knew how much the day’s pay would be from the start. “Okay,” she speaks meekly despite her internal contempt, returning to stirring what looks like a stew of only water if not for a few small rough cubes of potato bobbing in the waves.
Dragging her feet and letting out an obvious sigh, Cecilia continues into the home, followed by the creaking of floorboards as she makes way to one of the two beds against the back wall. A lump of patches called a blanket, maybe a quilt if not for its lack of filling, stirs in the other bed as she approaches.
“That you, Cecilia?” a voice barely winning against the breeze asks.
“Hi, father,” the surprisingly chipper, even to its owner, voice of Cecilia responds. She clears her throat a bit before continuing, “wake me up when dinner’s ready, okay?”
Short exchanges like this are the norm in this family nowadays. Cecilia, tired from the little work she did in the day, flops onto her straw mattress and the conversations are over. She rolls into a ball while pulling her blanket over, achieving the closest semblance of privacy she can have here. Before settling down for the nap she implied she would be taking, she first addresses the something that now bothers her from the preceding interactions.
Reaching back into the pocket of her jacket, she pulls out the last of the four coppers she’d been paid, glancing only briefly at it before abruptly shoving it back into its hidden home. The labor was certainly not worth four whole coins, even the three agreed upon when Celia asked the old man to give her daughter some work was a stretch. Nonetheless, Rick was willing to dig deeper into his retirement funds to support his granddaughter, knowing the life Cecilia is living now.
At one point, she was one of those slated for greatness, someone who would leave for greater places and grace her family with the riches she earned beyond the fields here. Her father had been a knight, despite only having a daughter, he wanted to pass on his skills and had Cecilia trained in the ways of the sword from a young age.
Skills seemed to come naturally to her, easily beating out the sons of the town guard to claim the title of the upcoming champion. Magic, too, was a breeze for her. As a party of adventurers had come through town to handle a quest in the nearby woods, their mage had sparked Cecilia’s interest. That mage taught her the basics of controlling magic and a few spells to get her started. It was clear to any onlooker, but the young girl was oblivious to the assumptions the man had made about her interests. She only saw him as a teacher, not a lover, but the misunderstanding lasted for that whole summer as she followed him around to observe his skills and nothing more. The way the sparkle in her eyes died when that man’s offer was not to take her as an apprentice, not to recommend her to a school of magic, but to have her as his bride; the green of her eyes turned to gray that day. After all, her first love had already come and gone by then. She was in no place to see a man, one so many years her senior at that, in such a light.
Watching the person she thought to be her teacher turn so miserable just as he departed from her life forever stained the world a bit darker. His party members held him up as they walked down the road out of town, the sun set behind them, and the golden light of the world was replaced with darkness. The teenage Cecilia could barely cry that night, her emotions confused and brain scattered. Her path forward was lost.
“…Lia!” A voice breaks into her dreams, shouting a familiar nickname from a familiar voice. “Cecilia, dinner’s ready!” Her mother’s voice becomes clearer, it isn’t the voice she had just heard, but familiar nonetheless.
“Alright, alright, I hear you,” she grumbles while pushing her mother away from the edge of her bed. Celia lowers her arm as she steps away to wake up her husband as well. Was she about to hit me? Cecilia asks herself, not convinced she was sleeping deeply enough to warrant such extreme measures. It’s been quite a few years since she could sleep that well.
The three of them sit at the table near the entrance, each with a bowl of watery potatoes. There seems to be an attempt at some seasoning, at least, some sort of garden weed sprinkled liberally into the soup. They sip from wooden spoons in silence, until Celia makes a start at conversation:
“So, do you have any plans for working tomorrow?” She looks toward Cecilia.
“Well, that was the last of the work Rick had for you…” she trails off as she turns towards her husband.
“Oh, uh, well it was nice of my father to hire you, since I can’t really work anymore…” he, too, trails off, unsure of what he’s expected to add to the talk. “Maybe you could talk to Elizabeth’s family? You two always seemed so close and with her out of town they might need someone to help run the shop. That might be a bit more stable for—”
“I can’t,” Cecilia cuts him off abruptly. She dumps the rest of the lukewarm food liquid down her throat and stands up with a slam of the bowl. “Thanks for the food.” She hurries out of the house, barely slipping her boots onto her feet as she swings the door open.
Why did he have to bring her up? She marches down the road with an even heavier gloom than earlier, kicking at scattered rocks with a sigh. Why now? In truth, Cecilia had spoken to Elizabeth’s family recently, it’s hard not to around here when they run the general store. They had told her about a letter they’d received, a letter about their daughter returning home to celebrate her recent engagement. Oblivious to how inconsiderate it may be, they had even invited her to the party.
Her father was right, the two of them were close at one point. Both were girls around the same age; in a small town like Altbirk, it’s natural for them to have been childhood friends. They’d always be together and do everything together, inseparable playmates. That’s how they were for nearly a decade, until Cecilia pushed the relationship too far and Elizabeth pulled away as far as she could.
Just thinking of it in so little detail is enough to make Cecilia want to curl up and scream at herself, settling for pulling her hood down lower. Her footing loses some stability, but she continues on. Everyone was so happy when Elizabeth set off to study magic in the city, conveniently less than a week after Cecilia had let it slip she wanted to be something more than friends. When did she lose the ability to fake a smile like she did that day? A smile so convincing that everyone thinks they’re still friends. She’s not since seen nor heard from the girl she once affectionately called “Liz.” The thought of hearing a man speak that name in front of her, of trying to maintain her composure in front of half the village, sends a violent shiver down her spine.
Yet, here she is, standing in front of the general store, Elizabeth’s house. It really is unavoidable.
“Have fun! And don’t go too far,” a voice calls out in the distance. It’s now that Cecilia notices a group of boys, none could be older than 10, heading out with kitchen knives and arrows for bows fashioned from sticks and string, one of them holding a shovel and a bucket. Skipping along, chatting and laughing among themselves, cheerfully asking each other things like “what are you going to wish for when we find the magic book?” A lofty goal for a group of small children setting off to play at being adventurers in the twilight. Cecilia paid them no mind. She knows the stories of the book, she doesn’t know or particularly care what kind of magic was contained in the book, or if it could grant wishes. She has nothing left to wish for. Then, she opens the door to the shop.
“Good evening,” the shopkeeper welcomes her in a soft voice. A short man with graying hair and a beige apron stands at a wooden counter. “The usual?”
“The usual,” Cecilia replies quietly.
The man pulls a small tin off the shelves behind him. “Can you pay?” he asks as he hands over the tin.
“I have a copper.” She places the coin on the counter, giving the man a regretful look.
“Just the one?” He chuckles a bit, but stops as he looks at her face. “Well, we’re settled as far as I’m concerned. You should take some bread while you’re here,” he nods toward a basket holding a few buns at the end of the counter.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t…”
“Well, I was just about to close up shop, so if you don’t take them they’ll just go to waste. You’d be doing me a favor, so please just take them off my hands.”
“Okay, alright, I’ll take them.” She grabs a couple of the buns, trying to hold them both in one hand before hesitantly deciding to shove them in her pocket and grabbing a third. “Thanks, Tod.”
“Anytime, Lia.” He responds with something she really doesn’t need to hear right now. Fuck, I want to die. She swallows any start at a verbal response and simply nods as she ducks back out of the building.
The pale gray of the gravel road is bathed in the red light of the low sun, the shadows of the buildings long enough to cover one another. Cecilia keeps walking toward the sun, away from the dreary house she can’t even bear to call home anymore. Before long, she’s at the edge of town, nothing but fields and forest beyond this point.
The road ends here, a low stone wall blocking off a field of golden wheat. Just a bit off the road along this wall, there’s a lone tree growing right up against the stones, a spot where Cecilia comes to get away from everyone quite often. It’s there that she hops atop the wall to gaze out into the sea of grain waving in the breeze. As she catches the last glimpse of the evening sun filtering through the trees in the distance, a single thought echoes through her mind: I need to get out of here.
She chuckles at what must be the most optimistic phrase to have occurred to her in a while, pulling a single cigarette out of the case she just bought. Magic, apparently unable to save her from a tragic life in this hellhole, can at least be useful at times like this. A small flame pops out of her finger with a snap, it flickers in the wind until she shields it with her other hand. A magic flame wouldn’t be put out by a small breeze, it’s just a habit of hers to treat it as she would a match, right down to the wrist shake to put it out.
I need to stop coming here. She reminisces a bit about what this spot used to mean. The privacy it now lends exclusively to her sulking had once been shared with Liz, the two of them sitting here together and talking about who knows what for hours on end. I’m such an idiot.
Slouching against the trunk behind her, she lets the smoke of her cigarette lead her gaze up to the stars now fading into view between the sparse clouds. It’s fall already, huh? Reading the stars was a hobby of hers, something she picked up in her magical studies. Of course, the red leaves of the tree above her were a more obvious sign, at least until the grayness of the night swallowed them. It’s going to get cold. Her parents’ house is definitely not built for winter, but maybe the demand for firewood can earn her some amount of money. Without really investing herself in the thought of the oncoming season change, she drifts off to sleep again.
“Aren’t you cold?” Again, her sleep is interrupted.
“Huh?” Still half asleep, she can barely make out the figure of the man standing behind her as she tilts her head in his direction. Shit. The moment her eyes clear up, she realizes that she knows this blonde pretty-boy. “Oh.”
“‘Oh?’ We haven’t seen each other in years and that’s all? Haha.” Jean was once a member of Cecilia’s party, back when she had one. He’s 6’4” and more muscle than brain, but a charismatic leader nonetheless. From the looks of the group a bit further behind him, his charisma was enough to keep the party together to this day. Shit, fuck, of course they’re all here.
“Cut me some slack, I just woke up. So… what’re you doing all the way out here?” Try as she might, Cecilia can’t fake a smile. Not sounding adversarial is about all she can manage nowadays.
She begins sitting up, patting all the morning dew off of her jacket as Jean responds: “We took a quest a couple towns south of here, a few ogres terrorizing the locals and all that. Figured we’d spend the night here and rest up on the way.”
“Ah, yeah, a quest, of course. That makes sense.” Now fully awake, Cecilia hops off the wall to stand in front of Jean. His height makes her look all the shorter with her mere 5’2” stature.
“You passing through as well?”
The question makes her pause, realizing just how little her former comrades really knew about her. “Something like that, yeah.” God, this is awkward.
“Aha, I see!” Does he really? “We were just going to get some breakfast before heading out if you want to join us and catch up, my treat!”
Free food is quite tempting, but this offer is going to have to be one that Cecilia turns down. Her attention turns to one of the adventurers in the distance waiting on Jean to finish his conversation: a beautiful woman clinging onto her mage staff as keeps her gaze focused on the ground. That girl that had once called Cecilia “a terrible wizard and a worse girlfriend.” Cecilia, always needing to have the last word, had responded “actually, I’m a spellsword.” That was the last they’d spoken, before Cecilia bailed on everyone with some half thought out excuse. “Adelaide…” Why did I say that out loud!?
Jean turns to look towards his companions. “Oh yeah, Addy’s here! I’m sure she’d love to hear about how your solo adventures have been go—”
“I can’t!” Cecilia interjects with a voice forceful enough to grab the attention of everyone around. Her eyes meet with Adelaide’s for a moment, causing a pained expression to flash across both of their faces. Cecilia’s face said “I can’t be here!” Adelaide’s face said “you can’t be here!” With consensus inferred between them, Cecilia continues: “I’m, uh, staying with some folks here, I should probably eat with them. Yeah, haha, I have to go… I’ll talk to you later, maybe.”
“Oh, okay, I’ll see you later…” Jean’s voice trails off as he watches his former friend rush off, brushing past Adelaide as she slips onto the road and continues off into the distance.
Her heart is beating out of her chest, all the color has left her face, today’s another one of the bad days. I need to get out of here. She thinks it again, the thought just hasn’t been able to leave her mind. I don’t even care where. I need to get out.
Still early morning, with the soft blue of the sky tinting the world around her, Cecilia continues at a quick pace back to her house. She opens the door, praying her parents are still asleep. Thank god. They are both packed into one of the small beds, wrapped in the one blanket they have between them.
Taking the chance to leave unhindered, she steps lightly into the home to grab the satchel she keeps at the end of her bed. She reaches over her bed to start rolling up her blanket, careful not to put any weight on the frame to cause unwanted creaks. There are a few close calls, but nothing loud enough to stir her parents. With the blanket strapped to her bag and her sword, previously stashed and forgotten in the corner, she heads back outside.
She pauses for a moment in the doorway, thinking that maybe she shouldn’t leave without a word like this. Something like that would only cause unneeded worry, the thought of her parents running around town to bother everyone she’s ever known for no reason crosses her mind. However, rummaging through her bag to find some parchment, a quill, and the ink would be quite a bother; so, she settles with carving a simple note onto the door with the knife she keeps in her jacket.
“I’m leaving. –Cecilia”
And so, a new journey begins. Refreshed, like a weight lifted off her shoulders, she sets off. Travels don’t need a destination, but a direction at least helps when leaving town. She thinks of the road to the south where she’s guaranteed to run into her former party, and her ex-girlfriend with them. She thinks of the road to the east, toward the city, where a thousand bittersweet memories are waiting to be reawakened. Neither of those would do, the occasion calls for a fresh start. Perhaps the road to the north would do, one so rarely traveled ought to have some new opportunity… but then, she recalls the story of the book in the woods.
The forest west of town was a monster den, far too dangerous to approach for average men. Until a group of high level adventurers had been commissioned by the local lord to clear it, people weren’t even willing to till the land near it. What was once a single field at the edge of town now spans the whole distance from the settlement to the trees. The fields now count four or five depending on the path you took. So maybe, just maybe, in that forest there still lies a book.
With a simple “might as well,” Cecilia treks onward through town, sticking to the side roads to avoid any more awkward situations. The ripe fields, once past the wall and standing among them, are breathtaking in the pale light of the morning sun. The unavoidable temptation to run her hands along the fresh grains takes hold of Cecilia, reminding her of a more joyful time in her life. This is good. This was the right thing to do.
Now at the border of the farms and the forest, the real scope of this self appointed quest finally sets on Cecilia. It has been a while since she’s partaken in much exercise aside from a few chores here and there, whereas this is a place that undoubtedly requires sure footing at the least. Not to mention the monsters, there ought to be at least a few here, though not as many as there were a decade ago. Grasping the handle of her sword, Cecilia prepares herself for whatever trials await her.
Hunting trails are sparse here, mostly following animal migration paths. The more popular spots are the groves of the north, less expansive but definitely safer. Autumn leaves cover the ground, accented by low foliage and boulders. It’s eerily quiet, the rattle of dead leaves in the wind dominating the soundscape.
Weighing the ominous atmosphere against her life as it has been, Cecilia chooses to push forward. A number of the tracks to and from the edge appear to converge into a path. Route like this tend to lead somewhere of note, be it simply the other side, a den, or a watering hole. It’s a start.
“Oh, right,” she fumbles around a bit trying to open her satchel while walking, “I should have some notes on detection spells here somewhere.” Among the things she had stashed in her bag, Cecilia kept a few notebooks for scribbling down observations and spells she picked up in school or from mages she’d come across while traveling. She flips through one such book, its pages nearly black from all the ink scratched into them. An expression of embarrassment fills her face as she realizes which book she had picked out. Cover to cover, it is filled with ramblings of self hatred, a diary of a girl who regrets every word she’s ever spoken. “Nope, not this one, haha.” She slams it shut with the hand holding it and shoves it back into her pack.
The next book she pulls out is much more organized. Skimming through the notes within it, there are a great variety of spells: conjuring ice, repelling insects, removing pebbles stuck in shoes, daily skincare, illusions of a target’s lost family, decreasing a sword’s weight… and detecting nearby fauna. There it is!
“Shit, I forgot this one is blood magic.”
Blood magic is, as the name suggests, any sort of magic which requires blood. Some choose to split the category further depending on if the blood is from the caster or a “sacrifice.” For better or worse, detection magic would fall into the former group. With a quick prick of her knife, Cecilia draws some blood from the tip of her thumb, rubbing it behind both of her ears. She mumbles an incantation in some ancient language and immediately perks up as the spell activates. So there are some monsters around here, huh. From the reaction she’s getting, they don’t seem to be anything she can’t handle on her own. One-on-one, at least, she can hold her own against even an orc.
Making sure to keep track of anything that her detection picks up, she returns to her previous pace. If I keep going this way I’ll run into one, maybe two, of them. What a pain. Just about every magician in the current era agrees that detection magic is terrible. At higher levels, one can sense a sort of “magic signature” with the spell, but for the average practitioner it’s limited to size and approximate location of magic. It doesn’t take long for an overconfident student to learn that magic isn’t everything. Monsters don’t always have massive magical energy radiation from there core, they don’t need much to crush someone tying their tongue trying to spit out an incantation. Whether the creatures Cecilia detects are hostile beasts or rabbits eating enchanted herbs is solely up to her experience… and she’s very much out of practice with this.
Approaching the first potential monster, Cecilia prepares for the worst. She draws her sword and adopts a combat stance, proud of how well she’s retained her reflexes. All the spells she used on dangerous missions in the past run through her head. Whatever lies ahead is releasing enough energy that she, with all her training, wouldn’t even need detection magic to notice. She chose to fight when she kept walking toward it. There’s no backing out as she steps into the clearing ahead of her.
“Now that’s unexpected.”
Once her eyes adjust to the sunbeams filtering into the clearing, she relaxes her stance. The creature before her is anything but hostile: a deer blessed by the forest spirits. Its antlers glow faintly, as do the spots in its fur. Cecilia can’t help letting out a relieved sigh as she sheathes her sword.
“An offering,” she announces with a bow of her head.
The buck bows in return, and Cecilia reaches for one of the buns stuffed into her jacket. She approaches cautiously, extending her hand while looking directly into the eyes of the animal. It takes the bread from her with a gentle bite. The two exchange another bow before the deer prances off into the trees.
Being on good terms with the forest spirits is something of a rule for magicians. There’s no telling how their favor can help, just as there is no telling how their scorn can hurt. Some traditions of magic even rely solely on spirits, not that Cecilia follows any of them.
Noting the luck of her first encounter, the spellsword returns to the path on the opposite side of the clearing. The shimmering lights of a few spirits now playfully circle around her. Somewhere in her heart, Cecilia had hoped they would simply guide her to her destination, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. This happens pretty often, and arrangements like this aren’t without their uses. So-called spirit arts users often argue that the flight patterns of local spirits are far better than any detection spell, indicating not just power but also hostility. Though, hostility here is defined in terms of the spirits’ favor, which itself is controversial.
A few yards away Cecilia sees a dead rabbit pinned to a tree by a crudely fashioned arrow, it seems to have been stuck there for at least a day, so it wouldn’t do any good as food now. She pities the rabbit a bit, but most of her pity is reserved for the poor fool who decided to kill a forest creature with no purpose and no consideration for the potential consequences of such an action.
The second peak in magic along the path is nearby within a dozen or so minutes. The terrain turns rockier, more stone than brush here. Not a second passes after Cecilia steps out of the trees onto the pebbled land before the spirits all scatter. Stay calm… stay calm… it’s probably just the end of their territory. Indeed, the sound of running water can be heard. Water and forest spirits are generally friendly toward one another, but they wouldn’t casually enter each other’s territory like this. That’s probably all this is. A long forgotten regret for never delving deeper into spirit studies returns to Cecilia’s mind.
Nearing what seems to be the source of all the noise, the larger stones become more scattered. More a stream than a river, the running water is only knee deep and crystal clear. Good signs all around. Not much of a chance for sneak attacks from water beasts in a place like this.
Still, there’s nothing here that matches what she had seen with her spell. That could be troublesome. Cecilia shuts her eyes in an attempt to focus purely on her detection. Something is certainly nearby, but the exact spot is harder to pinpoint at this range. Downstream, maybe? She follows the rocky shore of the river, stopping only briefly to scoop some of the freshwater up to her mouth.
Along the river Cecilia notices an abandoned shovel and the splintered remains of what was once an amateur bow. Alongside this is a rather large stain of dried blood. She does her best to pay this no mind, as picking apart whatever could have led to this sort of scene is the kind of pain she chooses to avoid. At least, that’s what she tells herself to explain why she feels nothing at the sight.
The boulders begin to break the surface of the water, chopping the stream up into rapids as the river continues. The whitewater noise echoes in the empty space, while treetops in the distance appear level with the rocks. There must be a waterfall ahead, she notes. And so there is. The ground drops twenty feet or so to where the river continues. The water collects into a small pool at the bottom, full of rocks like everything else.
“So that’s why my detection wasn’t working right on this…” she mutters as she peers down below. Rather than a singular creature, there is a swarm of water spirits. They form a dense cloud like bees in a hive. An extraordinarily rare sight such as this requires some investigation. And so Cecilia searches for a route to the bottom of the cliff.
This, too, only takes a brief scan of the environment to conclude. The drop is a result of erosion by this stream, only extending a handful of yards in either direction. Beyond it, the terrain slopes again, steep but still manageable with the flora rooted to it. She’s almost tempted to try sliding along the dirt and dead leaves, her better judgment saying otherwise. Still, she makes quick work of the descent with modest sliding from the trunk of one tree to another.
Here, at the edge of the pool, she steps toward the mass of spirits. “Excuse me,” she addresses them, only to be met with a frenzied wave passing through the group. Thinking that she might have better luck with less distance, she steps forward again. Another wave. Each step she takes garners the same reaction, until her front foot splashes into the head of the stream where the spirits gathered. All at once, the spirits scatter off in every direction as if a bubble had popped. “Okay then…” Cecilia is a bit taken aback by this response, watching a few of the sparkling lights fade into the distance.
Yet, even with the spirits dispersed, Cecilia still senses a palpable mass of magic. Returning her attention to the rock that had held their attention, she realizes why: a single book laid upon it.
“Could it really be?” She’s stunned with disbelief. That book, the one of legend, of children’s gossip, truly exists.
Having found the book, a new question must be asked: what does she intend to do with it? The task of finding it was surprisingly simple, perhaps she’s simply the first to bother. It feels magical, so it must have some value. Given her current situation, selling it might be the best move. Then, where could she do that? A memory of her time in school comes to mind, the libraries in the capital would certainly be interested in a rare tome; however, the thought of returning to the academy doesn’t give her a good feeling. Well, I’ll just head east and figure it out from there, she decides.
She wades a bit further into the river to reach the book when she notices the rather peculiar title etched into its cover: “How To Be Broken and Never Get Better.” Odd, but not so odd in the context of other magic texts she’s come across. Pushing the contents of her satchel to one side to make way for the book, being about half the size of her entire bag, she stows it away.
Now to leave the forest, skirt around town, and hit the road. Or so her plan goes, but the title of the book continues to nag at her. It’s weird, right? She barely manages to climb back up the hill before deciding that she ought to give it a look. After all, it could be completely worthless, just a book with a little magic ink or bound with healing herbs, something mundane.
Perching on one of the larger boulders, a round one about up to her waist, she retrieves the stored book and opens it up. The first page greets her like so:
How To Be Broken and Never Get Better
The Life and Magic of Cecilia of Altbirk
Cecilia is quite taken aback by this introduction. For a magic book to tailor its own contents to suit the reader isn’t too outlandish, maybe the book really will fetch a nice price after all. Yet, with her curiosity still not quenched, she decides to read further.
As the subtitle suggests, the book outlines the events of her life and, when it comes up, the magic she learned. In fact, the sections that pertain to the magic she had encountered throughout her life were filled with great detail, as if the tome had been designed to acts as a repository for spells. Perhaps the creator viewed this creation as a mistake, intending to use the book to record magic they came across but failing to keep it to just that.
Every remotely notable event of her childhood is layed out within the pages, including her relationship with the girl who left town just to avoid her. Then onto the traveling mage who got the wrong idea about the extent of their relationship, as if turning the tables on Cecilia. All the spells the man had taught her are explained in great detail, but surrounded by anecdotes about the time she had spent with him.
Then it continues into the time she finally ventured away from home. It details her studies in school with more depth than her own notes and her awkwardness around her classmates with more depth than her own memories. The names of all the girls she tried wooing while enrolled are listed out in full, their given and family names, their titles and ranks. Until finally reaching the formation of her party at her graduation. The norm in this country is for students of swords and magic to work in groups throughout their studies, but only officially registering the group as a party once they’d concluded their program.
The spells noted throughout the following sections are more sparse but, in some ways, more practical. The skills Cecilia picked up on her travels, however, are soon overshadowed by the book’s narration of her relationship with Adelaide. Unbeknownst to the rest of their party, as romance is often forbidden between members, the two had dated for nearly two years before going their separate ways. Every date they had gone on, every bout of intercourse, and every heated argument are all here in excruciating detail. Finally finishing her reading of this section is perhaps the first time Cecilia has ever been glad to be done with her time with Adelaide.
From then on, the only spells ever noted in the book are some particular sorts of sex magic. The description of her downward spiral after the breakup are like a train wreck of her own making that Cecilia cannot divert her gaze from. Blowing through all the gold in her travel funds on whatever brothel would have her before wasting all her silver on booze, before eventually waking up on the banks of a river somewhere outside the capitol, it’s not a story she enjoys seeing written out.
Reading paragraph after paragraph about her own mistakes like this, like the climax of her story was that disgraceful stumble across the countryside to make her way back to her hometown, serves well to remind Cecilia that this latest journey can only be described as running away. The remainder of the pages only containing a few passages about small jobs she took on for mere coppers, it was as if it was already over
The last page contains a summary of the present, a single line that Cecilia can barely force herself to read before slamming the book shut, closing it for the rest of eternity:
“And so, Cecilia knew, her only remaining chance at happiness was to die.”