Return To Sender
Part 1 -
Aspen was ushered out of the office and left in the hands of the black caped man, much to his disappointment. The man, not taking too kindly to constantly being called ‘mate’ by a child twice his junior, strongly insisted on being called by his given name: Pierre. Aspen, as any typical rebellious teenager born in his generation, didn’t quite like being told what to say or do, especially by an aristocratic Frenchman in a cosplay-worthy black cape. But any reservations about calling him anything other than his given name or ‘sir’ was quickly snuffed out by the especially sharp and glossy looking épée that was tucked inside the scabbard on his waist.
The two briskly walked along the main road, appropriately named ‘Graham Road’ on behalf of the man himself, towards the also appropriately named Stonehenge District. Pierre explained to him that the town (which didn’t quite have an awe inspiring name aside from ‘Base Camp’) was divided into districts depending on the industry it specialised in. Stonehenge specialised in magical energy knowledge and storage of ‘runes’ which apparently was humanity's way of sticking processed magic in a can, for portability reasons, of course.
He also entertained more of Aspen’s never ending questions about the new world that they were stuck in, which he replied to the best of his ability, in his noticeable French accent.
“So Pierre, you fell through a drain in Paris, right?” asked Aspen, still wide eyed at his unfamiliar surroundings.
“So how are you, and other foreigners speaking English? Like I get it if most people speak a little bit of English but surely there was one or two people who fell down here without any knowledge right?”
“I’m speaking French, and you are speaking English. That is the magic translating our words.”
“Hmm,” he thought. This seemed a bit far-fetched to him. How could magic be so convenient in almost every single aspect?
“I don’t know.” the tall man replied, tugging at his belt.
“There’s literally no reason why magic would translate languages.”
“Yes, there is no reason.”
“Then why do you speak English?”
“I said I don’t know.”
“Magic doesn’t work like this man, this is just plot convenience. Why do I understand you?”
“I don’t know. Shut up,”
“Why do you have an accent? Why did you just say ‘oui’?”
“For the fourth time, I don’t know. If you ask again, I’m happy to send you straight to God to ask him yourself,” replied Pierre, his growing irritation growing more and more evident. There was a flash of annoyance in his eye that was evident for a second, before it quickly vanished.
They walked the rest of the way there in silence, not that Aspen minded in the absolute slightest. He hid a smile behind his hand, knowing that he had mentally bested what initially appeared to be an intimidating and scary figure. It was reassuring to him that no matter where he went, surface or Subterrane, magic or no magic, people were the same: prone to irritability and anger given enough pushing and prodding.
They finally arrived at their destination, a large storage house like structure encased in glass. There were people in magenta armbands all over the storehouse, tending to what Aspen guessed were the aforementioned runes. Using what he had learnt from Graham, he correctly surmised that their magenta armbands signified their specialty in magic reasearch. There were also a handful of guards wearing a green cloak with an insignia sewed on it: a dove carrying a rose in its mouth. It went without saying that the place appeared to be of great importance, given the amount of armed guards and personnel guarding the area.
“Hey mate, how are you goin? Sorry about the extra security today but I’m gonna need you to stand like this… that’s right arms out. Just a quick search.”
Aspen held his arms out awkwardly, like a worn out scarecrow, while he got patted down by the guard.
“This is Aspen. I believe, he too is from Australia.”
The man had a wide grin on his face.
“Shit, nice mate! I’m Joel, pleased to meet ya!”
He held out his hand for a handshake, which Aspen happily took up and shook. It was nice knowing that there was someone who had come from the same place as him. He felt slightly more at home. Aspen instantly took a liking to Joel, since there appeared to be nothing malicious about his cheerful, upright nature. He seemed like a man that he could get along well with, unlike Lee, who looked like he would tear his teeth out at any given second or Pierre who reminded him of his uptight homeroom teacher back in highschool.
“Out of interest, why the extra security?” Aspen asked, trying to ignore the rigorous and thorough pat down that Joel was giving him.
“Good question mate, a girl your age- ‘scuse me mate scooch a bit over here, yeah that’s good- nicked one of our runes.”
“What? She stole one?” he asked, with growing curiosity in his voice.
“Yeah mate, a few weeks ago. Stole a beautiful one, real nice one if I might add, nice teal-blue tinge in the centre. Smells like a fresh oceans breeze, not that you can really smell anythin’, it’s all a metaphorical thi-”
Pierre cleared his throat loudly, giving Joel a mean glare and an impatient scowl.
“Alright mate, sorry mate. Don’t get your knickers in a knot now.”
Pierre scoffed and turned his back on the two, likely to go roll his eyes or mutter about talkative people or whatever other stereotypical reactions that French people had to two talkative young men.
“Alright, stand straight mate, this won’t hurt.”
Joel stood up and backed away from Aspen. His eyebrows furrowed and he held his palm out towards Aspen. He waved his palm at him in a sweeping motion. Aspen felt a buzz throughout his entire body.
Joel gave him a knowing wink.
“Cool right? It’s like carrying one of those airport x-rays on you all the time. No ones gonna be smuggling anything in or out anytime soon.”
“Do you have to chant a spell or incantation or anything?”
Joel let out a small chuckle.
“Nah, nothing of the sort. It’s much simpler than that - more of a think and point thing.”
Aspen responded with a bemused ‘huh’ as Joel did a final search on him. The rules of magic seemed to get more and more muddier and random by the second.
“Alright mate, you’re good to go. Sorry again, but these runes are precious. Can’t be having you nick one and run off on your own like the little miss did, eh?” Joel joked, giving him a slight nudge.
Aspen nervously laughed along with him. He entertained the thought of stealing one of runes himself, and making a break for it like the girl Joel was talking about had. It had previously been mere wishful thinking, but now the possibility seemed more real than ever before. But it would be tough, especially with the Guards on high alert. How would he even escape the Police Corps? Where even IS the exit to the city? These were all questions that ran through Aspen’s mind as he began to formulate his escape plan.
Joel gave him a thumbs up and friendly smile as Pierre escorted him through the door, eager to prevent the amicable guard from taking up any more time.
But despite cursing out the predicament that he was in, there was a single solitary thought fixated in his mind. Someone had gotten out. Sure, the circumstances were different now, and much harder but the old saying stands true, whether it be above ground or below: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Aspen definitely had the will. Now, he was searching for a way.
Part 2 -
Pierre and Aspen walked past all the runes that were on display near the front, much to Aspen’s disappointment. He likened the sumptuous coloured rocks to brand new smartphones that one saw when entering an Apple store. And so, there was a certain element of irony when he overheard one of the workers calling the storehouse iRunes.
They walked into the back rooms, tucked away from public view, resembling less of the fanciful jewellery atmosphere, and more of an Ikea storehouse, with all sorts of goods being stacked away to fill up space and collect dust for the rest of its lifespan.
“I’m Julian, nice to meet you.”
The short, skinny man gave Aspen a casual wave, which he returned. It was a nice change, meeting relatively amicable people as opposed to the grumpy, menacing company that had been hanging onto his coattails ever since he first fell down.
Julian was not physically imposing by any means, but had the rather stereotypical craggy brown hair, and round glasses that indicated his speciality to research and study instead of the rugged, battle hardened faces of Joel and Pierre, who had spent countless hours fighting to defend Base Camp from threats, both internal and external. His whole demeanour spoke of eccentricity, from his sudden, spasmodic actions to his unusual choice of dress, choosing to wear his purple armband around his forehead like a headband instead of around the arm like the other researchers did.
“Just take a seat here, young boy.”
He grasped thin air and pulled a chair out of it, to Aspen’s amusement. He wasn’t so surprised by the fact that the man had materialised furniture out of nothing (he was beginning to get used to irregularities and random intricacies of magic) but more so that the man had dedicated his entire career to magic, only to summon furniture out of thin air to show for it.
As Aspen took a seat on the chair, Julian pulled a chair for himself, as well as a clipboard and pen, to which Pierre rolled his eyes, seemingly sharing Aspen’s sentiment.
“Alright, just a few questions. We want to find the perfect rune for you, so it’s important that we do this process correctly.”
Aspen gave a sardonic thumbs up, which he promptly ignored.
“Country of origin?”
“Date of birth?”
“February 19, 2003.”
“Prior occupation before arrival?”
“College student, part-time barrister.”
“Hm, interesting,” mused Julian, as he quickly jotted down his response.”
“Do you speak any languages other than English?”
“Are you carrying any prohibited or restricted goods, such as firearms, medicines or illicit drugs?”
“Are you carrying more than 1 L of alcohol and/or 25g of tobacco products?”
“Are you carrying $10,000 USD or any equivalent on your person?”
“Are you carrying fresh vegetables or poultry meats or the like?”
“Of course n- what the fuck are these questions?? Is this an airport? Have YOU been carrying or smoking around any prohibited or illicit drugs??”
Julian took no notice of Aspen’s outburst and continued writing down his answers, stopping every so often to scratch his goatee, as if he was undergoing an extremely intricate and important deliberation process.
“Last question,” he began.
“Do you prefer taking it or giving it?”
“Enough of these fatherless behaviours.”
Julian nodded his head knowingly, as if that answer had told him everything that he wanted to know, much to the exasperation of the young teen.
“Alright, I reckon I know just the right one for you. Survival Magic seems like a good fit for you.”
Julian beckoned to him to come over, and pulled out a new page from the clipboard.
“I believe Graham or someone would’ve told you this, but the range and potency of your magic is very much dependent on which role or occupation, which is determined by your rune, that you choose.” Julian sketched a hexagonal ring in the middle of the page, labelling each of the corners with a name.
“Depending on which type of magic is assigned to you, certain types of magic will be much easier for you to learn and more potent.”
Aspen nodded, gesturing to him to continue.
“Like look here,’ he pointed to the top right corner of the page, with ‘Survival’ inscribed on it.
“You’ll find it easy to pick up skills from the Applied Magic category or Miscellaneous Magic, but you won’t be able to pick up Creation Magic.”
He pointed his finger to the opposite end of the hexagon, with the words ‘Creation’, written furthest away from Survival.
“And of course, you’ll only be able to learn the most complex of magic from the Survival category, your own calling, alongside relatively advanced magic from the paths that are closer to you. Although you’ll only get maximum potency out of your own field of magic.”
Aspen now understood the gist of the previously somewhat random magic system. It also fit in with Graham’s analogy of your magic being heavily related to your job or occupation. Joel’s calling would most likely be Applied Magic, due to its combat capabilities that would coincide with his job to fight and keep order.
A young woman came over to Julian and handed him a box.
“Ah, thank you. Right on time. Here you are, Aspen.”
He opened the box, revealing a glowing, dark green rune that looked like an emerald had been infused into it. He inspected it, taking great care not to touch it before closing it up and handing it to Aspen.
“Here you are. Feel free to pick it up.”
Aspen cautiously opened up the box, as if something might jump out and bite at him at any second, despite having seen Julian open up the interior just previously. The dark, mysterious tinge of the rune emitted a glow that seemed to goad him to pick it up.
“Can I touch it?” he asked tentatively.
“Go for your life, pull it out of the box.”
He reached into the box and grasped the edges of the rune on the tips of his finger and pulled it out from the paper it was nestled in. The green tinge began to glow brighter and brighter until its light filled the entire room. Aspen shut his eyes and turned his head away, protecting himself from the blinding glare of the rune.
When he opened his eyes again, the blinding light was gone, as was the rune in his hand. It had vanished into thin air, leaving behind a silver chain with a dog tag attached to it.
“Oh shit! It’s gone! Did I do something wrong?”
Julian shook his head and pointed at the chain that was dangling off of Aspen’s hand.
“That’s your Reagent: a rune that has synthesised your body. Basically, your sensitivity to magical energy has been heightened. Although I do have to say, that’s the quickest I’ve ever seen a rune accept its host; you must really fit with the Hunter-Ranger branch after all.”
“Huh,” Aspen said, still half in awe over what had just happened.
“You might want to wear that, or put it in a zipped up pocket or something. If that gets lost or destroyed, half your soul dies.”
“Say what now?”
“That dog tag is the physical manifestation of your Reagent. Protect it at all costs. Each person has a different Reagent, depending on the personality of the host. Look, mines a pen.”
He pulled out the pen clipped to his pocket and held it in the air for Aspen to see. Aspen instinctively reached for his own Reagent, hit with a sudden urge to protect it, as if someone might snatch it away from him any second. He donned the necklace and tucked the tag underneath his shirt, away from visibility.
“And that’s it for today! If you have any questions then-”
Joel burst through the door, his breathing ragged and completely out of breath. He clutched what looked like a spatha in his right hand, its blade stained with a glistening, crimson red. His clothing was battered and stained with blood, his previously sleek hair all jumbled and drenched with sweat.
“Yo Pierre, you wanna come out here?”
Pierre instinctively reached for his épée on his waist. Trouble was in the air, leaving a tense, edgy sort of atmosphere as if someone or something would jump out at any second to attack them. Pierre muttered a quick apology as he stepped out swiftly and disappeared through the door. There was something about the situation that was abnormal, despite most of the citizens in the camp being armed to the teeth and prepared to go into combat.
“This is normal, it’s fine. Just sit tight.”
Aspen could sense that he was lying through his teeth. It didn’t take a genius to realise that something was wrong. His words were shaky, as if in fear of the unknown that had fallen before them.
A man appeared in the doorway, his face slashed and gently bleeding.
“Julian! All hands on deck! The gates are broken! All of them!”
He let out a small gasp and sprang to his feet, grasping for a non existent weapon on his hip. He turned to Aspen, grabbing him by the shoulders.
“Aspen. Listen to me very closely. All the gates have been broken, which means that we’re being attacked by an unprecedented horde of… something. I need you to run to the back door and run west, that’s the left turn onto the street. Run far away from the gates and keep yourself safe. Do you hear me?”
Aspen nodded his acknowledgment. Julian’s grip loosened and let go of his shoulders. He too sprinted out of the door without another word. Aspen turned tail and ran in the opposite direction.
He ran across all the stacked shelves, full of boxes and equipment until he reached the end of the storehouse. There was a small rear exit door, leading out to one of the smaller streets that appeared to have significantly less foot traffic than the one that he had traversed with Pierre previously.
He peeked out of the small window, and saw no one. There looked to be a cup of steaming coffee that indicated that there were guards previously at the post, but the scattered deck of cards on a crate seemed to indicate that they too had hurriedly left to respond to whatever predicament that had ensued absolute panic and chaos into the camp.
He ran out of the door and surveyed his surroundings. The sound of clashing metal and gunshots and fighting came from his right, which he instinctively reeled away from. He turned to the left and started sprinting away from all the mayhem and action
Hang on a second…
A thought came across his mind. There was no better chance than now to escape the confines of the camp. If he ran away and hid, there would be no more opportunities to turn tail and flee from the walls of the camp. He would be stuck, slaving away at his magic until he turned nearly 30, before he would be allowed to embark on the journey back to the surface.
Screw that, he thought to himself.
He looked at the distance, in the direction of the fighting. One of the houses had caught on fire, and smoke was beginning to fill the air. The shouting of soldiers and clashing of metal seemed louder than before, as if the fighting had only intensified. That was what he wanted to throw himself into. He wanted to sneak under the cover of chaos and dig his own path to freedom.
He turned the other way, the words of Julian ringing inside his head. “Run far away from the gates, keep yourself safe.”
Sorry Jules, he thought to himself.
I’d rather die on my feet than live here on my knees.
Aspen dashed towards the direction of the fighting, leaving behind any promise of shelter and safety behind him.
Part 3 -
Acting instinctively and making rash decisions fuelled purely by his emotions in the spur of the moment have always been key cornerstones in Aspen’s personality. He had once challenged a man older than him to a fight, in order to impress Astrid after the man had boasted about how he had turned professional in the field of boxing recently . However, he failed to take into the account the very crucial fact that… well… the man was a professional boxer. And he was not. And thus, to say Aspen got humiliated would be quite the understatement. To say that he got his shit fucked up would be a tad more accurate.
And so it was no surprise to Aspen when he found himself the victim of yet another poor and thoughtless decision, as he dove for cover as one of the soldiers who were fighting, blasted a fireball at a goblin, resulting in burning embers being sent flying through the air, hurtling towards a very much startled Aspen.
Adrenaline ran through his veins, as his senses seemed to jump into overdrive. He could hear every chaotic sound in the air, from the screaming of a soldier getting stabbed to the grinding of steel blades against each other to the growl of the goblin behind him, brandishing a knife.
Hang on a second…
Aspen turned around to face the foe behind him. It was a small, humanoid figure with greenish skin. It was twirling a knife in its hand, baring a nasty grin that exposed its yellow teeth. It had a mean glare that seemingly declared its intention to run through Aspen with its blade, despite not saying a single word. Not that Aspen would’ve understood what it was saying anyways.
He searched around for a weapon that he could use to fight his assailant, but was unable to come up with anything remotely useful, other than burnt wood that was too hot to touch or a limp, torn sack on the corpse of one of the slain fighters.
Aspen steeled himself, ready to fight his attacker with his bare fists. Despite getting manhandled by the professional boxer, he had taken classes in self defence and had actually put up a decent fight, considering he was two weight classes lower and severely out of his depth. He recalled the words of his sensei, curling his fists up into a ball and raising his guard. He prepared to engage the monster.
And using the number one technique that his respected master, Sensei Li had taught him, he did the most honourable thing that he could have in his given situation. He picked up a nearby rock, piffed it as hard as he could at the goblin and fucking dipped as fast as humanly possible.
Fighting a human opponent was one thing, but fighting an armed monster who had every intention to kill him was another thing. In retrospect, it was quite the respectable and rational decision, considering his temperament would’ve usually led him to charge straight in without any thought whatsoever.
Unfortunately for him, his throwing skills left quite a lot to be desired, as the goblin was dazed for only a brief instant, before it let out an angry war cry and chased after Aspen.
Aspen’s running skills were marginally better than his fighting skills, which allowed him to maintain his distance between the goblin. However, with all the fighting that was occurring around him, his options in where to run was limited, and was left to the mercy of chance. Aspen wasn’t particularly a very religious person, but he offered his prayers to all five gods of the five major religions in the hopes that one of them would answer him and guide him away from any dead ends.
We don’t know which one of them answered his prayers, or if any of them did at all, but Aspen miraculously found his way to the broken gate, where the fighting was the most intense.
Freedom was in sight for Aspen, but the problem of the ever so persistent goblin who had chased him all the way from Stonehenge District to the gate still remained. He turned around, facing his pursuer, and mentally prepared himself to fight him for real this time.
He aimed a swift kick at the goblins arm, which caught the puffed out monster by surprise. The goblin’s knife flew out of its hand, rendering the deviant without a weapon. Aspen felt his confidence rising. He was hesitant to take on an armed foe but fighting an opponent half his size in hand to hand combat was greatly in his favour.
He had a wide grin on his face, as if proclaiming that he had the upper hand in their contest. However, the grin on his face was wiped off quicker than the Japanese shore by a tsunami when the goblin pulled out another knife from the back of his belt.
The goblin returned the favour, throwing the knife at Aspen without giving Aspen a moment to process what was happening. Aspen was frozen in place, jerking his body to the right only at the last second by his innate will to live. He was unscathed, aside from a slight grace on his neck where the centre of his throat was, just a split second ago.
Aspen let out a loud sigh of relief. But his heart very nearly skipped a beat when the goblin pulled open the inside of its fur vest, revealing another dozen knives attached to the inside of the vest.
Are you fucking kidding me? This is the most pure form of bullshit I have ever witnessed on this earth.
Aspen prepared himself to take a leaf out of the matrix, but was saved at the very last second by a rampaging Joel who stabbed the goblin from behind with his blade. He looked even worse than he had previously. He had half a dozen visible cuts on his torso and was bleeding profusely from his cheek. Somehow, he still had the same cheery smile as if he was on his coffee break, chatting to his old friend.
“G’day mate, fancy seeing you out here!”
Aspen held back a laugh. Words could not express his pure joy at seeing the ragtag Australian. He had never felt more proud to share a culture as the man who stood before him than ever before.
“Hey Joel… right on time... “ he said in between gasps of air.
The swashbuckling guard scratched the back of his head.
“I would tell ya to run for safety, but that’s not what you're here for are ya?”
Aspen gave him a puzzled look.
“In all due credit, it’s a good plan. Make a run for it while we guards are busy eh?”
Aspen’s heart sunk to the ground. His intentions had been discovered. His escape plan was over.
“Nah, nah I was curious. I came to hel-”
“Spare me the shit mate,” he cut off Aspen. Aspen looked at his feet guiltily. There was no fooling Joel.
The man let out a loud sigh and muttered a few profanities under his breath, some which were too quiet to hear, and some which were audible but were too inappropriate to write here.
“I can’t force you to go back without leaving the battlefield,” he began, his eyes darting around for any monsters nearby.
“I can’t leave the gates with one less man. We’re already stretched to the limit.” He grabbed Aspen by the soldier, looking into his eyes. He had a kind, warm pleading stare.
“I get it mate, it’s hard staying here for a week, let alone 10, 11 years. But it’s harder staying out there,” he gestured to the area beyond the gates. “If I can still convince you, please don’t run. You’re a good kid, I don’t want you to die.”
He let out another disappointed sigh.
“But if you’re THAT insistent…” He wiped the blade of his sword on his shirt, and pointed the sword towards Aspen. He flipped the sword and offered the handle to him.
“Take good care of my Jabulani won’t you? She’s been with me through thick and thin. She’ll serve you well.”
Aspen accepted the sword graciously, lowering his head in respect to the man he admired in front of him.
“Well, that’s that I guess. Seeya around kid… one day,” he added wistfully to the end. There was a twinge of sadness that ran through Aspen’s mind. He had managed to find one decent person that he got along with in the strange, new world and he had to part ways with him already. Joel sprinted away, throwing up his left hand as to wave goodbye one final time. He drew another sword out of thin air as he charged back into the heat of battle.
He turned his back on Joel and walked towards the gate. The fighting had moved on behind him, and there was no trace of life in front of him, human or monster. He noticed that his legs were wobbly and his hands were shaking.
This was it. The moment of truth. Did he dare to cross the bridge into the great unknown? He turned back one last time, catching a glimpse of the fighting. Joel was leaping around acrobatically, slashing and stabbing with his sword. He saw Lee shooting a gun in one hand, and wielding a sword in the other. He saw Pierre pirouetting with his épée, stabbing monsters in the most graceful and artistic way possible, as Reece stood on the side firing orbs of magic every few seconds. Graham was shouting orders from the back, wielding a bloody spear of his own, as Julian hid behind his overbearing presence.
Aspen turned his back on everyone he had come to know in the short time he was there and took a step forward into the unknown, and a step forward to freedom.
Author's Note: Congratulations on making it this far! I realised the magic system that Julian explained is kind of half-assed so I attached a photo of the chart that he drew to explain everything. See you (hopefully) next week!
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