Chapter 2:

Gates

The Ringworld Hero


After a day’s walk in total silence, we eventually set up camp on the edge of a forest, atop a small hill. We sat on opposite sides of a crackling fire. I didn’t try to make conversation for the whole day, due to nervousness and the after-effects of hangovers. Was not pleased when I figured out that it came with me. Looking down at my leg, the foam mass on it was significantly smaller than it was originally. It seems to have shed as we walked throughout the afternoon. Taking off my shoes and socks, I found my heels had rubbed raw against the back of my shoes. A small flap of plastic had folded down and started poking out from years of being too lazy to bother the laces. I took a deep breath (turned away from my feet, I’m not an idiot) and held my hand in front of my left foot.
Nothing.
I began to focus on it. Willing that healing foam to come out.
Still nothing.
With a microscopic sigh, I relaxed somewhat…
Only for a gel to shoot out of my hand and cover my feet, startling Leena. She lowered the little booklet that she’d been reading when I woke up and looked at me again, flicking back through pages as if she were looking for something.
“So, you’re trying to master the healing abilities first? Not a bad choice, but healing alone won’t get you through what lies ahead, Arbiter.”
“Tell me, what lies ahead?” I asked with more than a dollop of sarcasm in my voice.
“Lots of hardship. You’ll face many challenges. No arbiter has ever been supported by all the people. We were lucky that you showed up in our territory.”
I cocked my head in the confusion? “Our territory?”
“The Alephi kingdom. You know, the predictions for the next Arbiter’s appearance were in six separate locations, three of which would have meant your death.”
I looked at her in shock. I could see her skin had turned slightly red. Her cheeks were flushed, and the tips of her ears were slightly red, almost as if she were embarrassed. Yes, I know it was the fire, but I could picture her being flustered and looking exactly like that. One fact still bugged me, so I decided to interject.
“Wait, you said that there were six locations, right?”
“Yes, what about it?” She answered, seemingly slightly annoyed but outwardly polite and curious.
“You said three would kill me, but there’s only one core. How would I have survived at the other two sites?”
A moment of confusion flashed across her face, before she realised what I was asking about.
“Oh right, I understand. Two other search parties were sent out to the other spots that were likely with machines that could keep you alive just long enough to get the core to you before you actually died.” She continued on. “I was lucky to find you in one piece. If we couldn’t implant the core or keep you stable when you arrived, we’d have missed our shot. You wouldn’t have been the first stillborn Arbiter.”
I looked at her in confusion as I had been doing all day. “Stillborn? I’m not a baby.”
“You were being brought into this world with a great risk. I’d say the term fits.” She sighed. “You wouldn’t be the first one stillborn, nor would you be the last.”
I pondered this for a moment, thinking about the poor sods who died in agony on this ring, their families not knowing what happened to them. What do my family think happened to me?
“Do we leave a body behind in our own world?”
“Who really were the gods?” She replied, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. “These things are some of many we will never know.” Took me a moment, but her esoteric response made sense in it’s own way.
I looked at my hands, down to my calf and back to my hands. It seemed pretty accurate to me that my world had been shattered and rebuilt in the past day. I went from being an average university student to becoming the destined saviour of an entire world. It was impossible for me to tell if my life was significantly better or worse. I simply sat staring at my hands before a soft mass hit me in the head. I picked it up off my face and looked at it.
It was a sleeping bag. Made of sturdy leather and lined with furs. I stuck my hand in it and felt around. The fur itself was grey with slight brown and light grey patches throughout. I stuck my nose into it, and it smelled like apples.
“I’m not heartless, I brought two sleeping bags.”
I looked at Leena and nodded. “Thank you. I thought I’d have to sleep on the dirt tonight. Also, why the hell does it smell like apples?”
She looked puzzled for a moment before a look of realization shot across her face.
“It’s an old leather curing trick that’s been an elven specialty for hundreds of years. The pelts meant for clothing and furs are cured in a mixture of salt and alcohol. Seeing as cider is the cheapest and easiest to get, it’s the most commonly used. It was brought over from an arbiter about six-hundred years ago.”
‘Of course it was’, I thought to myself. ‘Arbiters seem to bring everything that I recognize.’
She continued on regardless.
“He had a small knowledge of lots of crafting and came up with the method. He named it the Spiced Wolf and it’s been an Alephi specialty ever since.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘Alephi’? It sounds fucking weird.”
Leena looked at me with a disapproving frown before shaking it off.
“Old word for elf. It’s only used in reference to the kingdom anyways.”
I climbed into the sleeping bag, still enjoying the pleasant smell of apples as I fell asleep.Bookmark here

-
We’d been walking for the better part of the morning. Breakfast was dried fruit and some crusty bread. I’m not complaining, but It wasn’t what I expected my first meal after that night to be. We were heading along the dusty forest path. The trees made a nice bit of shade, but through them could be seen open plains and rolling hills. I heard a soft squelch coming from an upcoming patch of trees. I dropped into a combat crouch and held out my hand in a threatening way (I know I can’t hurt anybody with it, but it’s worth a try).
“Stop being an idiot,” Leena told me, before a lump of slime the size of a pram landed on her.
It had a greenish, gelatinous body with some sort of device in the centre of it. I dove my hand in and yanked it out as she struggled. Reaching back in, I grabbed her out of the now inert goo.
“Not such an idiot now, am I?”
All she did was grab her weapon and pistol whip me.
“OW FUCK THAT HURT!”
“Smartarse.”
The device in my hand was a simple one. Similar in design to the core within my chest, but round and glowed with dim, blue lights. It shone brightly for a second before going completely dim. In my other hand, a ball of slime began to manifest on my palm, flashing a hundred or so different character sets, some of which I knew from earth, before settling into English. It simply displayed three words.
‘Slime Manipulation Obtained’
I dropped the slime’s core and the ball of slime in my other hand simply fell into my palm, losing its shape and becoming inert. I focused on it for a second, and sure enough, it turned into a ball and began floating on my hand.
“Wow, so it’s true,” Leena remarked. “The data replication of the core is incredible. If only it’s wielder was as such…”
I focused again and tried to aim the ball of slime in my hand, throwing it like a gooey dart,
Right into her cleavage.
Leena yelped as the goo hit her exposed chest, dripping down between her breasts.
It was met with a swift slap in the face.
“YOU PERVERT! What the hell was that for?”
I snickered, holding my cheek with one hand.
“That was for two things. To test my new ability and pay you back for shooting me in the fucking leg.” I replied in a calm tone that belied my anger. I was still fucking limping from that wound and the foam on my leg, though smaller, still stuck to my jeans. It wasn’t that it hurt, because it didn’t, it’s more she did it out of fucking nowhere as well as ruin my jeans. I don’t usually care about how I look, but I liked those jeans. But if my status is anything she and the book were claiming, I’d probably get some new clothes soon. I could use a new set, because the ones I had were still covered in blood from the accident.
Was it an accident?
What actually happened to me?
My memory was hazy as to what happened, probably on account of me dying in the process.Bookmark here

-Bookmark here

I spent hours absorbed in my own thoughts, being led only by the glimpses of her hair and boots. It seemed like not long after the slime attack, we were within sight of a city. It was massive, with walls that stretched out for kilometers in both directions from where the road led, seemingly encircling a large castle that sat at the rear-section of the city, raised up above the rest. It’s foundations were visible even from here. Catching up, I pointed out the big castle to Leena.
“Is that where we’re going?”
She nodded. “Yes. That’s the place. We’ll be meeting the king and maybe his sister. I just hope that mother isn’t worried.”
“Already taking me to meet your mother? Going a bit fast, aren't ya?”
She didn’t punch me over this joke, merely rolling her eyes. Progress!
“The king sent out six parties to find where you would show up. Mother insisted that I go out to one of these sites, and he could never say no to mother, they’ve always been very close. Luckily, there was one site close by, so he gave me the core so it’d be close to the city and sent me on my way. He made sure I didn’t go to one of the more dangerous places. Uncle has always been a bit protective.”
“Wait, uncle?”
“Shit.” Hearing her swear seemed completely out-of-place to me. Not even when the slime attacked did she swear. It was jarring.
“Well, the cat’s out of the bag now. No point hiding it anymore. I’m taking you to meet my uncle and my mother. The king and the princess respectively.”
“And why didn’t you casually mention any of this in the past day and a half?” I asked, slightly miffed at this little detail going unaddressed. Well, slightly more than miffed, I was fucking livid, because I wouldn’t have been as much of a dickhead if I’d known there was princess ass on the table.
“I didn’t want to overload you” She replied nonchalantly “And I didn’t want you to kiss my arse too much. Enough for saving your life, but not enough for you to be sycophantic about it.”
“Well then, let me ease your concerns, your highness. I don’t give a fuck if you’re god-emperor of the universe or a regular person, I will respect you if you can respect me back.”
I could see her eyes just glaze over at that comment, but I paid it no mind.
“That clears that up then.”Bookmark here

A few minutes later, we arrived at the city gates proper. Two men in leather armour with steel breastplates and helmets stood guard. Their uniforms were adorned with a crest of unknown design inside three concentric circles. It seemed almost out-of-place, but I paid it no mind. Weirder symbols have cropped up in history, maybe the circles meant something. I made a note to ask about it later.One of the guards, this one wearing a slightly different helmet, came forward to speak.“Your highness, I see you’ve returned. I assume that your outing was a success?”Instead of responding with sarcasm, like I would do, Leena just nodded.“Yes. He is here,” She gestured to me “Show him.” I looked at her in confusion for a second, before realising. “Oh, right.” I pulled down the neck of my bloodied T-shirt to expose the node embedded in my collarbone. The guard seemed almost shocked at this, even though it seems he should’ve expected it. “I don’t believe it,” He muttered under his breath before turning toward what I assume was one of his subordinates.
“Send word ahead, he is here.”
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