Nova took a deep breath and then slowly let it out. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the anger go away. It stayed under her skin resting at a slow simmer.
Mathius ran a hand through his hair. “Sort of. Not exactly a dome. It’s basically a wall that surrounds the entirety of Hayeln. It stretches far up in the sky. The Academy states that it keeps going up, never stopping. The same goes for under.”
Nova closed her eyes. She felt the simmer turning into a rolling boil. “So, we’re trapped?”
Mathius shook his head. “It might seem that way but we’re not. I know what Helena said and it’s true. Everyone has tried to get out and nothing works. But I have a source that tells me we can get out of here.”
“A source?” Nova asked, looking doubtful.
Nova narrowed her eyes. “I swear, Mathius, don’t you dare get all secretive on me. I think I deserve to know what you pulled me into.”
“You do,” Mathius said quickly. “Sorry. It’s just I’m used to having to hide from everyone. I’m not used to someone like you.”
Nova’s eyebrow rose.
“I mean someone who I don’t have to hide who I am,” Mathius said, rubbing at the back of his neck awkwardly.
Nova relaxed a bit at that and for the moment her anger settled. “Alright, then tell me.”
Mathis shifted in his chair. “I was practicing summoning. I was hoping to connect with one of the older spirits that might have knowledge on how I could break the wall and get out of Hayeln. Eventually, I found someone. She told me about the explorer’s guild and how if I could reactive it, I could escape Hayeln, but I would need a Soul Traveler to help me.”
Nova rubbed her forehead. “Mathius, do you understand just how shady that sounds?”
“Shady?” Mathius asked, confused.
Nova threw her hands in the air. “Suspicious. It’s super suspicious.”
Mathius scowled. “So, you don’t believe me either.”
“I believe you. I’m just not sure we can trust whatever being you encountered. Did she explain exactly how using the Explorer’s Guild would get you past the wall?”
Mathius looked away. “Not exactly, just that you would find a way.”
Nova rolled her eyes. “Of course. Typical vague bullshit.”
“In lore, Soul Travelers can change the world,” Mathius said.
Nova rolled her eyes. “This again. Look Mathius, I want to make it very clear here that I am just a normal girl. Yes, I’m a Soul Traveler but I don’t even know what that means. You know what I do know. It doesn’t mean I’m immune to death and it certainly hasn’t given me a manual to tear down century-old magic walls.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Right now, I’m just as stuck in this place as you are.”
Mathius leaned forward. “But we don’t have to be. If we can just start the Explorer’s Guild.”
A coldness went over Nova as she realized what Mathius was implying. “Wait, you want us to go back down there?”
“It’s the only way-“
Nova shot up from her feet. “No fucking way. I almost died. You almost died. I’m not going back down there.”
Mathius stood up, approaching her cautiously. “We were unprepared but now that we know what we’re up against-“
“No, Mathius. I’m only alive now because you summoned a demon to catch my soul. Do you know how insane this all is?” As she spoke, Nova felt her heart beating faster and faster. “No, just no.”
“You’re the Soul Traveler. You have magic.”
“I’m an Artifactor! Not some epic wizard or knight. On top of that, I’m not even a good artifactor. The whole blowing up thing? Yeah, it’s because I suck. Those are just my failed work literally blowing up in my face.”
Mathius blinked and looked at her dazed. “You’re an Artifactor.”
Nova crossed her arms and nodded.
“Oh,” Mathius said and there was a flicker of disappointment that passed his eyes before he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We can use it. I don’t know much about Artifactors but maybe Tinle could help.”
Nova could practically see the gears turning in Mathius’s head and she decided to firmly put a stop to it.
“Mathius, you’re not listening. I am not a fighter. I can’t go down there and fight monsters.”
“We have to,” Mathius said.
She shook her head.
“You have to,” Mathius said and this time his tone was firm.
Nova frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
Mathius raised his wrist. “We have a deal.”
Nova took a step forward, growling. “Are you forcing me?”
Mathius crossed his arms. “I don’t want to but this is too important.”
Mathius kept talking but at this point, Nova had tuned him out. That was how things were between them in the end. She was just an ends to a means. This wasn’t a partnership like Mathius claimed. Knowing what she had gone through, how she had nearly died, he was willing to force her through it all over again to get what he wanted.
“Fuck you, Mathius,” she said, cutting him off. “Just fuck right off.” She went into her room and scooped up Briney and then turned around and went back into the living room.
Mathius watched her with a worried look on his face. “Nova, please, you have to understand.”
“I understand completely,” Nova said coldly. “I’ll keep my end of the bargain because I’m pretty sure whatever magical contract between us is going to make me. Just make sure you keep your end of the bargain, too.”
She started walking to the door.
She heard Mathius get up behind her. “Where are you going?”
“Being your prisoner wasn’t part of the deal,” Nova said. “Don’t follow me, Mathius.”
“Nova, wait, please,” Mathius said.
She ignored him and marched out of the door, slamming it behind her.
“Sounds like you had a fight.”
Nova jumped and whirled around to see Helena standing outside. “What? Why are you still here?”
Helena shrugged. “I was around.”
Nova stared at the woman. “Were you eavesdropping?” She felt a chill at that. If the guard had heard what they said.
“Trying to but looks like Mathius has some sort of wind ward to distort voices. He’s getting slyer.”
Relief flooded Nova before she pushed it away and started walking. To her surprise, Helena started walking with her. Nova immediately stiffened. She really didn’t have the energy to deal with trying to avoid the guard’s interrogation.
“Where are you going?” Helena asked.
“I don’t know,” Nova said, speeding up. She could stay in the underground tunnel from before. The thought of being so close to the ruins scared her but she shoved the feeling down. She slept down there before and she could sleep there again. Maybe she could see about renting a room for a while once she got paid by Tinle. The hint of a plan began to form.
“Are you sure you want to go wandering around the city in that?” Helena asked.
“What?” Nova said and looked down at herself. She was in a shift and socks. She had been so angry she hadn’t even noticed she wasn’t wearing shoes. She frowned and looked back at the door. She shook her head.
“I’ll figure something out.” She kept walking.
At this point, Briney had woken up and was peering around curiously. The kraken let out an excited squawk when he saw Helena and waved his tentacles at her.
Helena grinned and scratched under the kraken’s beak. “I’m happy to see you too, little guy.”
“Traitor,” Nova mumbled before stopping to look at the guard. “Look. I understand you’re trying to weasel some information out of me but I’ve been through a long day and I’m probably going to have an even longer night. So, I would appreciate being left alone right now.”
Helena nodded. “I definitely can see that but it seems like you don’t have a place to go and you’re walking around in only a shift. Maybe I can help with that?”
Nova narrowed her eyes. “How?”
“I’m thinking shoes and maybe a cloak to start with,” Helena said with a wry smile.
“Why?” Nova said flatly.
“Honestly, because you look like you need help,” she said. “Not to say I’m not going to weasel information out of you as you said, but I figure a conversation with me is a fair trade.”
Nova hesitated. She looked down at her socked feet. All she had was a dark underground tunnel to look forward to and nightmares about flesh sethers. She sighed and then nodded. “Fine but don’t think I’ll answer all your questions.”
“Answer what you like. I won’t force you,” Helena said easily and then took the lead. “Just follow me.”
Nova was completely sure this was a bad idea but she figured if she was careful she would get some clothes without having to go back to Mathius’s place. She didn’t want to see him. She followed Helena through the caverns until they reached an area where people waved and smiled at the woman. Everyone greeted her warmly and stopped to chat and laugh with her. A few people gave Nova weird looks but seemed to dismiss the strangeness of the situation pretty easily.
Even though she had experienced the same thing with Mathius when she first arrived at the Caverns, this was different. The people were friendlier with Helena, their smiles warmer. She suddenly understood what Mathius had meant before. A moment of sympathy went through Nova but she quickly stomped it out. No matter what was going on with Mathius it didn’t change what he had done.
“Here we are. This is my place,” Helena said proudly and pushed open a door to the cavern house.
The place was simple, just like Mathius’s place, but there was a homey feel to it. It was a bit messy and there were decorations on the wall. A few toys were spread on the floor.
“You have children,” Nova asked and then immediately wondered if she should have. This wasn’t a social visit after all.
If Helena cared she didn’t say anything. “None yet. These are from my brother and sisters. They brought them over the last time they visited. I haven’t had time to return it. I don’t get down here as much as I want. Spend most of my time up in the guard barracks.”
“Oh,” Nova said, taking in the rest of the place.
“All right, give me a second and I’ll grab you something to wear.”
Helena disappeared behind one of the drapes and then she was back with shoes, a shirt, and some of the work pants. She gave Nova a worried look. “Sorry. I don’t really have any extra dresses.”
“These are fine.” Nova took the clothes. “Thank you. Where’s your bathroom?”
Helena pointed and Nova scurried into the bathroom and changed. As soon as she stepped out of the bathroom, Nova knew this wasn’t going to work. When Helena saw her, she immediately started laughing.
“You look like a child trying to wear her parent’s clothes.”
Nova glared. Helena was much taller than her and so the clothes were ridiculously big on her. Helena grinned at her and waved.
“All right, give me a second. I think I can fix this.” She disappeared into her room and when she came out she had several pins and a rope. She immediately began folding up the hem of Nova’s pants, pinning it in place.
Nova watched her quietly. “Why are you doing all this for me? I’m a stranger.”
“You’re Mathius’s friend,” Helena said simply, her brow furrowed in concentration. “Besides, you look like you need the help.”
“Mathius and I aren’t friends,” Nova said bitterly. “We’re just business partners.”
Helena paused at that and then shrugged. “Then it seems like you are especially in need of a friend right now.”
Nova bit her lips, not really sure what to make of that. She shook her head. “You think I’m a criminal.”
“No, I don’t,” Helena said, looking at her in surprise. She frowned and then returned to pinning. Once she was done, she pulled back and handed her the rope. “Use this and just tuck your shirt in. It won’t look the best but it’ll keep for now.”
Nova nodded and did as she was told.
“I don’t think you’re a criminal. Honestly, I don’t think Mathius is either,” Helena said. “He’s just…troubled. He’s gone through a lot and now he’s alone. I just want to make sure he doesn’t get into something he can’t get himself out of.”
“You really care about him,” Nova said.
She snorted. “Tell him that.” Her words were almost bitter. “You ready?”
Nova blinked. “I thought you wanted to talk with me.”
“I do,” Helena said and then handed her a cloak. “But not here. Come on.”
Nervous but curious, Nova followed the woman. They ended up leaving the caverns and moving further through the city. The walk wasn’t easy because the boots Helena lent her were a bit too big and a few times she slipped out of them.
Eventually, they arrived at their destination. It was a huge lake that seemed to go on forever. As soon as Briney saw it, he leaped into the water without a second thought.
“Briney!” Nova called only to have the kraken completely ignore her.
Helena waved her hand. “Let him be. He should be pretty safe at this time of night and there aren’t many predators that I think he has to worry about.”
Nova nodded but she kept an eye on him as Helena led them to a small nook near the dock. They sat down and for a moment they both looked out at the water.
“I often used to come here as a child and stare out there and wonder, ‘What’s on the other side of the lake?’ I always thought I would go and find out one day.” She laughed. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized that for me there was no other side of the lake. It was only what was here.”
Nova didn’t say anything.
“Whatever you and Mathius are doing. Give up on it. I know he’s probably filled your head with crazy dreams but there’s nothing there but disappointment.”
Nova gave Helena a quizzical look. “You sound like someone who had first-hand experience.”
Helena nodded, never taking her eyes off the lake. “Once, I thought maybe it was possible but then I grew up. But Mathius never did. Stubborn idiot.”
For a moment, silence hung between them.
Nova sighed. “I want to but I can’t.”
Helena looked at her, her eyes brimming with worry. “Why?”
Nova opened her mouth and then closed it. She looked away.
Helena shook her head. “Whatever you two are doing is dangerous. My Captain is taking notice that something’s going on with Mathius and with his family history it won’t be long before he hauls him in.”
Nova frowned. “I get what you’re saying but it’s not my choice.” Bitterness rested on her tongue. “Mathius is the one pushing for this.”
“That fool,” Helena said and her shoulders sagged. “Why does he always have to be so stubborn?”
For a moment silence fell between them. Nova looked at the water as it flowed across the lake. “How does it work? If the other side of the lake is across the barrier, then shouldn’t there be water issues.”
Helena shook her head. “No. Water, air, mana. All those things can slide right through. It’s just us that can’t pass.”
“That’s strangely convenient,” Nova said.
Helena shrugged. “That’s how the old Monarch set it up.” She stood up. “I said my piece. We should get going.”
Nova nodded and stood up. She was a little surprised Helena didn’t ask more questions. But it seemed that the woman was only trying to protect her friend. She wondered if Mathius even knew how much the woman cared for him.
It took them a while to get Briney out of the lake but once they did, they began heading back.
“Are you going back to Mathius’s?”
Nova’s expression hardened and she shook her head. “No.”
Helena looked at her in surprise and then whistled. “That must have been one big fight.”
Helena smiled. “I get it. There have been times I wanted to strangle Mathius. Why don’t you stay at my place?”
Nova blinked. “What?”
“You don’t have a place to stay, right? I’ve got room,” Helena said.
Nova was surprised. She almost declined but then she thought about sleeping in the underground passage. “Only if you’re sure.”
“I wouldn’t have offered otherwise,” Helena said easily and they were walking again.
Nova watched the woman, still unsure what to make of her. Did she have an ulterior motive? She didn’t think she could completely trust her and even if she was just a good person it didn’t change that she was a guard.
The whole way to Helena’s place in the Caverns, Nova struggled with what to do. They finally reached Helena’s home and she opened the door. Nova stopped at the doorway, unsure.
“You coming in?” Helena asked.
Nova hesitated and then nodded, walking in.
At the end of the day, Nova realized she really could use a friend.
I hope you’re enjoying my fantasy LitRPG webnovel. Check out my patreon to read ahead.