The Black Cat and the Ashen Girl
A black cat was running. Not only was it running, it was running at an unbelievably fast speed. It winded through the narrowest alleys, jumped over the highest walls, and hopped gracefully between the tops of roadside stalls.
This area, known as the Market Medlei, was originally set up to host a special marketplace held once a month. Over time, due to a series of unplanned constructions and building expansions, it transformed into an enormous labyrinth, daunting enough to distress any newcomers walking through.
Through this gargantuan maze, the black cat sprinted at full speed. Why was the cat running, you ask? It was attempting to escape. Escape from what, you ask? His pursuer, of course.
“Waaaait uppp!!” the pursuer cried, trying desperately to keep up with the speedy little demon. The young girl just barely squeezed her way through the narrowest alleys, clumsily rolled over the highest walls, and fell down loudly from the tops of roadside stalls (while getting yelled at by the shop owners). Despite the struggle, she kept her blue eyes focused straight ahead, intent on catching the black cat.
The girl wore a rather plain outfit: a gray hat, worn low so as to almost cover her eyes, and a coat of the same color. Judging by that combination, she probably wanted to stand out as little as possible, but her screaming at the cat and running like a madman undid whatever effect her clothing choices had.
“I said… wait… up….” The hem of her coat flapping up and down, the girl continued her pursuit, kicking up dust clouds and scattering empty paint cans across the floor as she went. Dashing through the streets at such a terrifying speed, the girl drew stares from various people: an Orc selling miscellaneous goods, the scaly Reptrace owner of a carpet shop, a group of wolf-like Lucantrobos passing by.
Then, suddenly, the black cat stopped cold in its tracks.
“Gotcha!” The girl took a big leap forward, not wanting to miss this unexpected opportunity. As she drew closer, almost within reach, the black cat turned around, revealing a shining silver object next to its mouth. The girl spread out her arms and embraced her long sought after quarry.
Before she got a chance to celebrate, however, an unnatural floating sensation engulfed her entire body. Then, she noticed: there was nothing under her feet.
Her view of Market Medlei whirled and spun in a confused blur of color. The girl realized a few moments too late that, blinded by the sight of her prey so close, she failed to notice that the path she was running along had exited onto the roof of an apartment complex.
The great blue sky, dotted with a few white clouds, filled her field of vision. Still hugging the black cat, the young girl flew through the air. Directly below, she saw the Western 7th Briki Shopping District, whose stalls specialized mostly in hard metal pots and very sharp kitchen knives. Adjusting for the height of the buildings, she estimated about a four story distance until touchdown.
The girl gathered her strength and managed to produce a faint glow surrounding her body. Those with the ability to see Spell Veins would have seen the Venom inside her body desperately trying to ignite. But no matter what she planned to do with that Venom, it was already too late.
‘Venom’ is a flame like substance. A small spark of it can’t accomplish much, but a blazing inferno can hold tremendous power. To get a flame up to that level, though, takes a hefty amount of time and energy. In other words, Venom doesn’t have much use for responding to sudden, on the fly situations like the girl’s.
The two bodies, one human and one cat, continued their descent. The faint light radiating from the girl futilely danced about in the air before disappearing. She didn’t even have time to scream. The stone pavement, which had seemed so far away a moment ago, grew closer at an alarming rate. She inadvertently tightened her grip on the cat, which let out a shriek. Helpless against the pull of gravity, the girl closed her eyes and braced for impact.
A girl fell out of the sky. Judging from her figure, she was probably in her early teens, and also falling pretty fast. At that rate, she would soon have a violent collision with the stone covered streets, leaving a gruesome scene unfit for a peaceful early afternoon.
That sight was the first thing that flew into Willem’s view when he casually tilted his head upward. Before his brain got a chance to fully process the image, his legs had already set into motion, as if acting all by themselves. He sprinted directly under the girl’s trajectory and spread out his arms, ready for the catch.
Willem soon found out, however, that he had severely underestimated the momentum with which the girl fell. His useless arms unable to withstand the tremendous force of the impact, Willem collapsed underneath the girl’s body, letting out a shriek similar to a crushed frog’s.
“Ouch…” he groaned with what little air he could gather.
The girl, who finally seemed to have grasped the situation, jumped up and started to panic.
“Are you hurt!? Are you alive!? Are any organs crushed!? A–”
The flustered girl managed to completely forget about the black cat still sitting in her arms, who took this opportunity to make a run for it. The girl reflexively shot out her hand, but by then all she could grab was air; the cat only needed a moment’s delay to disappear into the bustling crowd surrounding them.
A scream erupted from the girl’s mouth, half out of frustration from losing the animal that started the whole mess, and half out of surprise when she realized what happened to her appearance. Somewhere along the way, either during her madman dash or her freefall, the hat she had been wearing low over her eyes fell off. Her sky blue hair, previously hidden, flowed down past her shoulders.
Hey, look at her.
She heard whispers from all around; the pedestrians and shopkeepers of the Western 7th Briki Shopping District all paused their business to stare at the girl’s face and hair.
In this group of floating islands, collectively known as Regul Aire, live various races, all distantly related to the Visitors. Of course, with this variety of races comes a variety of appearances. Some have horns sticking out of their heads, some have fangs protruding from their mouths, some have scales covering their entire body, and some have faces that look like a random mish-mash of different wild animals’.
Within that assortment, very few races have no horns, fangs, scales, or other beast-like parts at all, but they do still exist. Those races without any special feature, or ‘mark’, from which their identity can be easily discerned, are commonly known as ‘markless’.
Why is she here?
Damn, this’ll bring me bad luck.
Generally, the ‘markless’ are shunned by the other races. According to an old legend, the race known as humans, or Emnetwyte, wreaked havoc upon the vast land below and drove all the other races up into the sky. Since the Emnetwyte closely resembled the markless races, and it only makes sense that those who look similar must act similar, the markless were branded as sinister and impure. While persecutions due to race rarely happened, being publicly exposed as a markless naturally made the girl feel ashamed.
There was also another thing, completely out of the girl’s control, which unfortunately made the situation even worse for her. The previous mayor of this town, a perfect example of a corrupt politician, accepted bribes, hired assassins to eliminate political opponents, and in general just brought every aspect of the town under his strict control. Eventually, the Central Congress banished him from the island and everyone lived happily ever after…. But that mayor just so happened to be an Imp. Imps, a subset of Ogres, used to hide amongst the Emnetwyte and lure them into depravity. As a result, they developed an appearance very similar to humans and the other markless races. Now whenever the people of this town see a markless, they can’t help but remember their anger and hatred towards the previous mayor.
While no one outright verbally or physically attacked her, the girl felt the judging looks of the townspeople piercing like thorns into her face.
“A-Alright, I’ll go away soon, so don’t worry…”
The girl stood up and attempted to flee from the stares, but found that she couldn’t move an inch. Willem, still lying on the ground, had latched onto the girl’s wrist.
“You forgot something.” He held out his other hand and dropped a small brooch into the girl’s palm.
“That black cat dropped it. You were chasing after this, weren’t you?”
The girl slowly nodded. “Th-thanks.” Still slightly bewildered at the whole situation, she carefully wrapped the brooch in both hands and accepted it.
“You new to this area?”
The girl nodded again.
“I see… well then I guess it can’t be helped,” Willem said with a sigh. He quickly stood up, took off his cloak, and put it over the girl’s head, leaving her no time to object. His hood now gone, Willem’s own appearance was revealed to the surrounding townspeople. Again, a wave of commotion rippled through the crowd, but this time the stares were directed at Willem.
“Eh….” The girl let out a surprised gasp.
While Willem could not look at his own face, he obviously knew very well what he looked like. So he understood what the crowd of pedestrians and the girl standing dumbfounded in front of him had just seen. Disheveled black hair. No horns. No Fangs. No scales.
He grabbed the girl’s hand and set out down the road with long strides. The girl, wildly confused, followed after him in a half run. They quickly left the streets and found a nearby hat shop, where Willem bought something to cover the girl’s head with.
“That should be good enough.”
Although it might have been a few sizes too large, the hat looked surprisingly good on her. Willem gave a nod of satisfaction and took back his cloak.
“Umm… what is this…?” the girl asked timidly, finally managing to gather her wits.
“So other people can’t tell you’re a markless, of course.”
While the markless, like Willem and the young girl, were generally shunned by the public, they weren’t exactly hated. As long as you avoided doing anything too conspicuous, people usually left you alone. Nevertheless, it was always better to go undetected.
“I don’t know which Floating Island you came from, but this place isn’t too friendly to markless. Do whatever you need to do quickly and get out of here. The harbor’s over that way,” Willem said, pointing across the road. “If you don’t feel safe, I can lead the way.”
“Ah… no… it’s not that…” the girl mumbled.
Willem had a hard time reading the girl’s expression. In addition to the sizable height difference, the oversized hat covering her face, which made for a great disguise, somewhat obstructed their communication abilities.
“Are you… a markless?”
“That’s right… you saw my face a couple minutes ago,” Willem confirmed, giving a slight nod underneath his hood.
“Why are you here then? This island is the most hostile to markless in all of southwestern Regul Aire, isn’t it?”
“You can get used to living anywhere, I guess. It’s true that various inconveniences pop up often, but if you get used to it, this place can be pretty comfy,” he replied. “If you knew about that, why’d you come here?”
“Well… that’s because…”
The girl clearly didn’t feel like answering. Willem almost felt sorry for asking the question. He sighed and starting walking, gesturing for the girl to follow. She didn’t budge.
“Now what? Don’t want to get left behind, do you?”
“U-Umm… thanks a lot… for everything,” the girl said in a frantic voice, her face half hidden underneath that giant hat. “And for any trouble that I caused… sorry. Also… um… I’m in no position to be saying this… but… ah…”
Willem scratched his head. “Somewhere you want to go? What is it?” The girl’s expression suddenly brightened at those words — probably. He could only see the lower half of her face, so he couldn’t really tell.
As the girl had discovered earlier, the roads around Market Medlei are a bit hard to navigate. Even if you can see exactly where you want to go, you may very well end up lost after a series of unforeseen detours.
The pair stood on top of Garakuta Tower, the highest point on the island, after a rather long and eventful journey through the maze of streets. Despite Willem being a local, they ended up having to ask one of the public golems, automated guards set up in the streets by the government, for directions. Junctions that Willem remembered having three roads ended up diverging into five different paths. They accidentally stumbled upon a Frogger taking a bath, got chased around by a rampaging cow, successfully escaped from said cow only to fall into a chicken coop, and ran for their lives while profusely apologizing to the angry Ballman owner of those chickens.
In short, getting anywhere in this town is a struggle. On the bright side, Willem noticed that the girl loosened up a bit during their adventures through the streets. She would laugh and make playful comments after each disastrous incident or narrow escape. Willem couldn’t tell if that was her true personality or if she was just affected by the ridiculousness of their various predicaments, but either way he preferred it to the extreme reticence from before.
The girl leaned over the flimsy railing at the edge of the tower and let out a sigh of admiration. When viewed from this height, the bustling town below looked like a beautiful, minutely detailed painting. The winding complex of roads stretching across the canvas seemed to expand freely on its own, as if it were alive and not simply laid out by construction workers years ago.
Raising her line of sight a little brought the harbor into view. Situated at the outermost edge of the island, it acted as an entranceway, providing the necessary facilities for airships to land and take off. Beyond the metal covered harbor lay the vast blue sky, spreading in all directions as far as the girl could see.
This sky, where over a hundred giant slabs of rock, called ‘Floating Islands’, wander in the wind, provides the only sanctuary where people can live. The land where life originated now sits far below, forevermore out of reach.
“Something wrong?” the girl asked, turning around to look at Willem.
“Oh nothing, just admiring the view.” He shook his head and replied with his usual warm smile.
The girl laughed softly, then, after confirming no one else was around, took off her hat. Her hair, which shared the same blue as the sky surrounding them, broke free, as if flowing in the wind.
“Is this why you wanted to come here? For the view?”
“Yes. I’ve seen islands from places higher up or farther away than this before, but I’ve never gotten a chance to look down upon a city from right in the middle of it until now.”
She must live on an island near the border, Willem thought.
“I thought it would be nice to try it once.” The girl paused for a moment, returning her gaze to that endless blue sky, then continued, “Hmm… my dream’s come true, and I’ve made good memories. I don’t think I have any more regrets to leave behind.”
She says some pretty ominous things…
“Thanks for today. I mean it,” the girl went on. “I got to see a lot of wonderful things, all because of you.”
“I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” Willem scratched his head. To him, the day’s events felt a bit like finding a strange kitten by the side of the road and taking it for a walk. He just happened to have some free time, so he did something different for a change. It felt a little awkward to be thanked just for that. “So… is that your escort?”
Willem nodded in the direction behind the girl. She turned around and let out a little yelp, her face a mixture of surprise and confusion. There stood a large-framed, menacing Reptrace, until now unnoticed by the girl.
Compared to other races, the scale covered Reptrace are known to have a large variety of body types. While the average Reptrace might be about the same size as most other races, occasionally there’ll be ones that only grow to the size of a small child, and on the other end of the spectrum there’ll be ones so giant it’s almost comical.
The Reptrace standing before them obviously belonged to the latter group. Just standing there, wrapped in a military uniform, he gave off an intense air of intimidation.
“– I guess so. I had a good time… it was almost like a dream. But I have to wake up now,” the girl said in a bittersweet tone. She turned around and, before running to the Reptrace’s side, said one last thing to Willem: “There’s just one more thing I want to ask of you… please forget about me.”
What? Willem stood there, unable to find the right words to respond with. He knew that the girl obviously had some special circumstances. But from what he could gather, those circumstances didn’t particularly seem to involve any kind of suffering. In that case, there was no need for Willem to get involved. If the kitten’s original owner appears, there’s no more need to accompany it on its walk.
The young girl turned around one last time and lowered her head in a gesture of thanks, then disappeared below alongside the Reptrace.
“When they walk side by side… the height difference really stands out,” muttered Willem as he watched them go.
Ringing far away in the harbor, the chimes of a carillon signaled the start of the evening hours.
“Hmph… already this late, huh?”
Pretty soon, he had an appointment with someone. Willem gazed one last time at the picturesque streets below and the encompassing blue sky, then set out for the bustling town once again.
Five hundred and twenty six years have passed since the Emnetwyte went extinct. No reliable records of what occurred upon that land remain. History books contain various accounts, all claiming to be true, but no one knows for sure whether any of them contain even an iota of truth; they could all just be the wild speculation of historians not even alive during the events that unfolded. However, there are a few points consistent across many books.
First of all, the Emnetwyte, or humans, led rough lives. For many years they prospered, growing wildly in number and spreading across the land. But eventually that would be their downfall, as their wide range left them exposed to attacks from other races. They faced constant threats from the Monstrous, a collective name for various dangerous wild creatures. The Demons and their Devil King tried to lure the humans down the path of corruption. Skirmishes with the Orcs and Elves often erupted out of territory disputes. Threats came from within too: groups of humans became cursed and transformed into Ogres, who then turned on their old kin. Very rarely, humans also faced attacks from their strongest enemies, the Visitors.
On top of all that, the Emnetwyte were one of the weakest races. They had no scales, fangs, claws, or wings, and they couldn’t wield powerful magic. Even their ability to breed quickly, one of their stronger points, paled in comparison to the Orcs’. Despite this, humans still ruled over much of the land somehow.
According to one theory, a large part of their military strength came from a group of volunteer soldiers called the Adventurers and the Alliance, an organization that coordinated and supported the Adventurers’ activities. They improved their group battle efficiency by dividing soldiers into different Classes and labeled various Talents to better manage training. They even managed to seal magical abilities, extremely rare amongst humans, into special charms called Talismans for mass replication. With these various methods of improvement, the Adventurers became a formidable fighting force compared to other regular humans.
A different theory proposes the existence of another group of soldiers called the Braves, separate from the Adventurers. These Braves supposedly turned the karma and fate residing in their souls into enormous, almost limitless power. The only problem was that only a very select few ‘chosen’ ones could become Braves.
Yet another theory supposes that the Emnetwyte relied on a special type of sword called a Kaliyon. These weapons contained dozens of Talismans, whose various powers caused a complex mutual interference effect, resulting in unparalleled destructive capabilities.
Of course, all of these theories sound completely absurd, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who actually believed any of them. However, the fact remains that the untalented Emnetwyte had some kind of method to defeat the strong enemies they faced. Taking this into consideration, at least a few truths might be mixed into the mess of theories floating around.
Five hundred and twenty seven years ago, in the royal castle of the Holy Empire, the central point of the humans’ territory, they appeared. Regarding what they were, or rather what they are, the history books again spout various theories. For example, they were the materialization of a curse originating among humans. Or that a secret weapon of mass destruction under development went wild. Or that, for some reason, an entranceway to hell opened up and its contents spilled out into the world. Or that a self purification mechanism, which lay dormant at the bottom of the abyss since the creation of the world, suddenly awoke.
After their appearance, many people threw out their own wild ideas, half in jest, but few worked to actually determine which theories had any validity. In their mind, the world was about to end, and no theory would change that. Even if the ‘a lone tomato in a field of potatoes couldn’t bear the loneliness and underwent super evolution’ theory proved to be correct, it wouldn’t have any effect on their few remaining days.
All that mattered was that they were invaders. They were murderers. They symbolized the very essence of irrationality and injustice. Taking the form of seventeen different species of beasts, they began to devour the world at a frightening speed. The Emnetwyte could do nothing to resist against this new menace. In just a few days, two whole countries disappeared from the map. By the next week, five countries, four islands, and two oceans ceased to exist. After another week, a map no longer held any meaning. It is said that not even a year passed between their appearance and the extinction of humans.
The beasts did not slow down after destroying the Emnetwyte. The Elves fought to protect their vast forests, and died. The Moleians fought to protect their sacred mountains, and died. The Dragons fought to protect their dignity as the supreme living beings of the land, and died.
Everything on the surface of the earth simply disappeared, as if in some cruel joke. Soon, the races still living realized: there was no future for them there. If they wished to live, they would have to escape to a far away land. To a place where the savage fangs of the beasts would no longer reach them. To the sky.