1 ~ The Wandering Gourmet

The woods outside the town of Lumburg lie in perfect slumber as the mid-morning sun slants down through the tops of the pine trees. Butterflies dance around the beds of flowers and chipmunks dart by the dandelions growing on the forest floor.

A young girl with a basket hums a childhood melody as she traipses down the main path into the woods. She doesn't notice a shadow flitter by the otherwise bright woods behind her.

"The blackberries look so delicious this year!" sings the girl, bending over to pick some. "Granny will love them."

Another shadow and a rustle of leaves.

"Hm?" The girl stands straight up, looking through the groves of trees around her. There is nothing there.

"Must have been my imagination…."

But it is not. A high-pitched shriek sounds from nearby, causing the girl to drop her basket. The blackberries spill onto the ground. Except for the horrible shrieking, the forest has fallen completely silent.

Another shriek echoes nearby, causing the girl to shrink away with fear. Her pupils contract as a massive, sinewy black shape emerges from out of the forest.

Before she can run, the girl's blood spills into the air.

~PH~

Lumburg is a tiny fortified town tucked between two mountains. There is only one paved road through town, and the woodsy community is surrounded on all four sides by a manmade wall of stone. Two makeshift wooden towers stand on either end of town, a symbol of the town's importance as an imperial outpost.

Inside the only inn in town, a female guard sits down in front of the bar. She wears the standard uniform of the Imperial Guard, a light chainmail shirt underneath a leather jacket and a cloth skirt. The guard taps her finger to gain the attention of the innkeeper. "Can I have a cider please? Thanks."

She places a few silver coins in front of her.

This girl has long, shoulder-length brown hair. Her round, hazel eyes give her pale face a gentle look.

After taking a gulp of her drink, the guard sighs. "Of all the places to get my first assignment… I get put out here in the boondocks?"

"Of all the places in the world… is this where I finally get to sample the jam of the gods?!"

The inn door slams shut behind a boy who looks around the same age as the imperial guard. His brown hair is messy, and his bright green eyes are filled with an eager look. Though only in his late teens, he has the look of a well-traveled man. He wears a battered sword by his side, and is dressed in a set of leather armor underneath a thin black cloak. He is clearly an outsider.

A couple of the men in the building turn their heads to look at the boy before returning to their business. Undaunted, he gallops further into the room. He approaches the innkeeper. "Yo! I heard Lumburg is home of the best blackberry jam in the province. Where can I find some?"

The innkeeper looks up from polishing a mug with a dirty rag. "If that's what you're here for, you might want to check with the Braun family. They live in that little cottage outside the walls, can't miss it. Ask for Granny Braun."

Saluting the innkeeper, the boy turns to go. Before he does so, however, he notices the girl sitting alone with her tankard of cider. He whistles. "I didn't know they made them this pretty in Lumburg." His eyes scan the imperial gear she is wearing.

"Bad idea to mess with Miss Alicia there, bub," says the innkeeper.

"Alicia, eh? That's a nice name. I'm Leif—"

The boy falls silent as a steel sword comes dangerously close to his face. "I'm not in the mood," says Alicia, glaring daggers at Leif.

"That's a shame," replies Leif, pushing Alicia's sword away with his bare hand. The girl's face falls at this brash move. "I was in the market for a cute local guide."

"Well, you'll simply have to look somewhere else."

"Guess so."

With that, Leif strides out of the inn.

Sitting back down in a huff, Alicia takes another sip from her tankard of cider. "Jeez. What was up with that guy, anyway? So rude…. Did he even realize who I was? I'm—"

Alicia searches her immediate surroundings. She checks her pockets and then pats her chest. "That bastard… he… he stole my badge!"

~PH~

Outside, Leif saunters past a massive sawmill. The enterprise is powered by a water wheel that sits in the middle of a merry little stream running through the town. A surly-looking man with a beard glares at Leif from the mill as he works.

"Such an idyllic little town," mutters Leif, walking with his hands in the pockets of his cloak. A light breeze ruffles his brown hair. "Nothing like—"

"YOU!"

"Oho, the heroine arrives."

Alicia catches up to Leif within moments. She places a firm hand on his shoulder. "You thief, give me back my badge!"

"Dunno what you're talking about."

"Do you know who I am? Give it back to me or I'll have you arrested!"

Leif holds out a tiny silver pin featuring a sword imposed over a shield. "You're talking about this? Miss New Recruit? You must be what, one week, two weeks at most into the job? I'm quivering in my boots."

"Wh-what does that matter? I'm an imperial guard all the same. I could have you thrown in prison lickety-split. And you don't want that. I've heard the prison guards in these parts have this weird punishment called the Rabbit Hole where they stick you in a pit of rabbits and—"

The sound of Leif's footsteps stop. Alicia unfolds her arms and pauses in her tracks as well. After a moment, she realizes what has caught Leif's attention. A serious look overtakes her smooth features.

In front of them, the door of the Braun cottage has been knocked down. Ripped from its hinges, rather, by what appears to be some sort of creature with massive claws. The interior of the cozy home is in complete disarray, and droplets of blood cover the entrance.

Leif and Alicia exchange a look. It is at this moment that Leif notices something strange about his companion's appearance. "Your right eye… you have… two pupils."

Before Alicia can say a word, however, a piercing screech rents the air.


A/N: Tuesdays are boring. Spice them up with a new fantasy flick from Y. S. Wong, the creator of ORCHID. Tentative update schedule is new chapters every Tuesday.