Nisa and Oliver stood in front of the blue-skinned man in front of the lower-class tavern after explaining to him how they’d gotten the bounty hunter off his trail. “…so I told him that you were dead and to tell them your body is burned if they ask for proof. Whoever made the contract, anyway,” Nisa finished explaining.
The man, Kor’ok, if Nisa correctly remembered, swallowed deeply and stared at her with a softened gaze. “Th—thank you. No one’s ever been willing to help me before.”
Oliver nodded his head. “How come you couldn’t just find or buy a magical object to help you?”
“I’m a Jol.” The man grunted, standing aside as a white-haired man with silver streaks slipped passed him into the tavern. Nisa realized that man must have been a returning customer. “We can’t use magic—our bodies aren’t capable of it. And no one was willing to help an outsider like me, either.”
Nisa placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Kor’ok nodded and glanced inside as a muffled voice spoke to him. From her place on the street outside the tavern, Nisa couldn’t hear what the other voice said. After a minute or so, Kor’ok turned back to them. “My shift is over for the night. My room is just a few blocks from here. We can talk there.”
Oliver and Nisa nodded and stepped aside as Kor’ok walked back out onto the street. Instead of heading straight, back toward where the town crier finished up for the night, he turned down an alleyway and made a left and another right. Overhead, the sky had darkened but beautiful streaks of purple and green slivered across it. Nisa imagined this was how the northern lights looked and she found herself staring up at it in awe.
Oliver gripped her arm and yanked her forward.
Kor’ok ducked under a doorway and the two followed him inside. As soon as they stepped inside the room—literally, it just had a simple cotton bed in the corner with a chamber pot and fireplace in the opposite corner—Kor’ok shut the door behind them.
“Years ago, a man showed up at the tavern. He was looking for mercenaries who could protect him, but there were none here—I’m technically a Brute, which means I’m a guard for the tavern, but not a mercenary. He needed magical ingredients, so I offered to go with him to this dungeon to explore. He can protect himself, but wanted someone else, just in case. Ever since then, he shows up sometimes with a new dungeon or ruin, place to explore and asks me to tag along, so I do. Man’s become a good friend—my only friend, even.”
Nisa nodded, pursing her lips. “Can you explain to me more about how this all works? I thought the Sage was the only one who can use magic with his hands?”
Kor’ok sat down on the floor, stroking the black beard on his chin. “Yes, that’s true. My friend, named Vanmor, studied under an unorthodox school for magic-learning. People consider it unconventional and even think of them as odd or evil, but they’re really not. They just pursue magic and try to learn new spells, whereas the Sages all learn from each other, passing down the same magic spells throughout generations. Any magic the Sages don’t know, don’t count as magic, in their minds. They aren’t fond of Experimentalists, so if anyone caught us looking for them, they wouldn’t really punish us, per se, but they would put a stop to it.”
“Thank you for helping us, especially since it’s a risk.”
Kor’ok inclined his head. “You were willing to help me when no one else would. That bounty’s been on my head for years.”
Oliver crossed his arms. “Can I ask what you did?”
Kor’ok swallowed. “I fell in love with a noblemen’s daughter and she ran away to follow me. I—I swear I didn’t know she had followed me, but she was killed on the road and I failed to save her. Bandits got her, but her family would never believe a Jol like me could be innocent. Ever since then, her father’s been out for my head.”
Nisa’s eyes softened on his and she placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. Ko—Kor’ok, right?”
Kor’ok nodded. “Vanmor usually travels, but he came back into town a few days ago. He said he’d be leaving to go back to the place where he studies with other Experimentalists in four days’ time, which means he leaves tomorrow at dawn. If you want to ask for his help, we should go now.”
Nisa glanced out the window, which had no glass, she noted. “You don’t think he would mind, this late?”
Kor’ok shook his head. “He’s usually up all night, practicing magic. Come on.” With that, he stood—having to duck since his head touched the ceiling—and led them both back out onto the streets. At night, it was hard to see without any light, so Oliver and Nisa held hands as they followed closely behind Kor’ok. His dark blue skin made him even harder to see, but sometimes Nisa would get a flash of his tail swishing back and forth, which helped. After several right turns and left turns down quiet, empty streets void of people, Kor’ok stopped just in front of a tall building without a sign in front of it.
Kor’ok slammed his fist against the door and it swung open to reveal a slender woman with white hair and pink strips—from what Nisa could see from the candle light inside, anyway. “Vanmor here?” he asked.
She nodded and frowned at him. “Wait outside. I’ll get him.” She disappeared and Nisa’s body fluttered with butterflies in nervous anticipation. After a few minutes, the woman returned and opened the door wider. “He said you could come on in to see him. His room is upstairs on the first right.”
Kor’ok slipped passed her, so Oliver and Nisa followed suit. A staircase on the left side of the room took them upstairs to a narrow hall. Kor’ok opened the first door on the right and Oliver and Nisa went on inside. He followed behind them and then shut the door after they were all in the room.
Vanmor stood in the center of the room, skin glowing bright golden. His eyes snapped up to Oliver and Nisa with a frown. “Who are you? Thought she said—oh, there you are, Kor’ok. What brings you here?”
Kor’ok sat down on a chair on the right side of the room. “Vanmor, this is Oliver and his friend, Nisa. They need your help. Magical help.”
Vanmor brought his hands down and the glowing dissipated.
Nisa’s eyes widened, still having trouble coping with the idea that magic was real and that people—actual people—could use it.
“I can’t guarantee that I can help, but I’ll do what I can. What seems to be the problem? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable with the Sage?” Vanmor frowned.
Nisa shook her head. “The Sage can’t help us. Not really. This may sound… insane, but… my friends and I are from another world.” Once the words started pouring from her mouth, they wouldn’t stop. “We were studying ruins when we learned languages and chemicals not known to our world before. It mentioned Eight Curses and all kinds of stuff. We somehow got transported here, to ruins the locals called Cursed Ground. We made our way here and now the Sage tells us the only way for us to go home is to cast the Eighth Curse on one of us so that we can break all the Curses. We—obviously want to try to avoid that, but the Sage is pretty insistent that he has no portals or any other way to get us home.”
Vanmor’s eyes widened and he stared at Nisa and Oliver in shock. “All this time, the history of the Curses and world-traveling… I never thought I would live to see it. The Sage is right. According to legend, once the Eight Curses have been cast and broken, the portal between worlds should open back up. The first Cursed was able to, at least according to stories, but some stories say he wasn’t ever able to return. Others say there were supposed eye-witness accounts that saw him return. If those latter accounts are true, that means he found a way back from the other world.”
Nisa gasped. “Do you think it’s possible then?”
Vanmor smiled at her. “It’s likely. There is one place in all of Glacea that is filled with more magic than anywhere in the world. It’s called The Tower…” His voice trailed off and he bent down and reached into a bag sitting near his bed. He pulled out a piece of paper, laid it on a table, and gestured for them to stand beside him.
Oliver and Nisa looked at the map over his shoulders and Nisa followed where his fingers went.
“This is where we are. Sorpa.” His finger pointed to a spot on the far western side of the map. “This is where The Tower is…” His finger slid across the map toward the far east side. “Quite a distance. But if anything other than the Eight Curses can transport you home, it’ll be there. I’ve always wanted to go myself, but no one’s ever returned before. Plus, I’ve never had a reason to.”
Kor’ok chuckled. “Vanmor doesn’t go anywhere unless he has a reason.”
“But the Eight Curses. I’ve tried to find the Cursed before, you see, with no luck, obviously. But if you have some history and connection with them, then… Not to mention you’re from another world, which I would love to hear about and study. I’m a bit of a historian. Well, magical historian.” Vanmor’s eyes lit up with the same emotion Nisa always felt when she learned something new about history back home.
Nisa’s lips pulled up into a huge grin. “We are too. Well, Ollie’s our bodyguard, like Kor’ok here, but my three other friends and I, we’re historians of Earth. We study the past and that’s how we stumbled into a pyramid where we think the first Cursed man stayed for a while.” Doubt creeped into the back of her mind. The sarcophagus had been locked and they had all been certain he’d been buried there. If he was, it meant he never did find a way to return. Then again, they had gotten here somehow, so what did it all mean? Nisa hated when there were more questions than answers, which always seemed to be the case when it came to the Eight Curses.
“If we’re going to leave, we need to find a way to purchase supplies,” Oliver murmured.
Nisa nodded, gnawing on her lower lip. “Not to mention this is our last night at Urraka’a’s.”
Vanmor’s eyes filled with joy and excitement. “If you’d allow me to accompany you, I’d pay for all the supplies we’ll need.”
Nisa exchanged a look with Oliver, who nodded. “Having a local who knows the land would definitely be helpful,” he said.
Vanmor glanced at Kor’ok, who had been quietly watching them from his seat in the chair in the corner. “What do you say, old friend?”
Kor’ok nodded. “I owe them my life, anyway.”
Nisa had never had someone feel that way before, and she wasn’t sure how to respond—it felt like too much.
Vanmor’s eyebrows furrowed. “Kor, did you have some sort of trouble and didn’t tell me about it?”
Kor’ok waved him off. “Nothing bad, Van. I promise.”
Vanmor shrugged. “We’ll set off in the morning, after buying supplies. How does that sound?”
Oliver and Nisa nodded and she squeezed his hand. After so many questions and so much chaos and confusion…
They might have just found a way home.
Nisa just hoped that The Tower had the magic they needed.