Chapter One: Tella

I’ve never believed in expectations.

The way I see it, expectations only guarantee the promise of disappointment.

I approached Rigkon with absolutely zero expectations, yet somehow still managed to be disappointed.

Rigkon was a new town. A bunch of them were springing up all over Ankou as more displaced refugees needed homes. The Xathi had done more damage than I initially realized. Rigkon was near where Fraga used to be.

There were plans in the works to rebuild Fraga, but it wasn’t a priority at the moment. The capital city, Nyheim, was still in the process of rebuilding. Progress was moving quickly, but it was a big city.

Small, currently useless cities, like Fraga, would have to wait.

Rigkon had an identity crisis. It wanted to be an outpost for construction crews when the time came to start rebuilding Fraga. It also wanted to be part of Fraga when the time came.

There was a handful of squat bungalows where the twenty or so permanent residents lived, a sad market with three half-empty stalls, and a long squat building that looked suspiciously like a bar.

I didn’t get my hopes up. I couldn’t live with the disappointment if it turned out to be something else.

If I hadn’t decided to cram this gig in before starting my lab job, I’d never have known this place was here.

Before the Xathi invasion, this area was nothing but thick forest occasionally punctuated by a picturesque clearing that could’ve been lovely for picnics if it weren’t for the aggressive flora. The Xathi had ravaged the landscape as they tore from human settlement to human settlement.

Rigkon’s developers barely had to clear out any trees to make the faint dirt trail that served as the only road, not that anyone here had need of a road. I guessed it was an attempt to make the little outpost look more official.

For all of its faults, Rigkon had one thing going for it.

It was a botanist’s heaven.

That’s what had brought me here in the first place. I saw an ad for a small job and took it on a whim. I needed the extra cash.

I still didn’t have quite enough for my own place, even though I was due to start a stable job soon. It would be my first one since before the Xathi invasion. Since I’d be in the area, I’d promised an old contact a consult on a different project once I got to town.

But that wasn’t until…

Wait, shit.

I checked the date reader strapped around my wrist. It was frozen, like it had been for two days. Rigkon didn’t have any transmission signal.

It wasn’t part of the shuttle system, either. I wish I’d known that before taking the job. I’d been walking along old roads and hitching rides for a day and a half now.

I was supposed to start my new job at the lab today.

Before I came out here, I sent a message to the lab where I’d recently been hired. I mentioned that I’d be coming out to Rigkon on a one-time gig, but should be back in time to start on the agreed date. Now I had no chance of getting a message through out here. And I hadn’t thought to message my contact about the other project.

I couldn’t resist this gig. It was one of the few opportunities offering fieldwork. I lived for fieldwork.

I wasn’t meant to be cooped up in a lab squinting into vials, monitors, and datasheets. It was a pity fieldwork didn’t pay as well as lab jobs.

I could at least be gathering hazard pay.

I pulled out my datapad and checked the info I’d been sent when I accepted the job in Rigkon. It didn’t say much other than I was supposed to meet a man called Gille in a place called Crooked Swiggen.

I squinted against the sunlight, looking for anything that bore such an odd name. Sure enough, that squat little building had a faded C above the doorway. Since I didn’t see anything else that could be the Crooked Swiggen, I made my way over.

The door didn’t fill the doorway. There was about a foot of space between the top of the doorway and the top of the door. There was a similar gap at the base of the door, as well. There wasn’t a doorknob or a handle. I bumped the door with my knee, letting it swing into the darkened interior of the Crooked Swiggen.  

I’d never seen a sorrier-looking bar.

A slab of wood lined with mismatched barstools took up the wall to my left. Whoever owned this place had built shelves big enough to hold an impressive amount of spirits, however, there were less than ten bottles on display. Over half of them were empty.

A few mismatched chairs and tables dotted the dirty floor. Only one table was occupied. Two men with skin as dark and wrinkled as tree bark hunched over matching mugs of something or other. They didn’t look up when I entered, leaving me to assume that the lone man sitting at the bar was Gille.

His pants were so dusty, I couldn’t tell what color they had once been. His work boots were splattered with thick mud. He’d obviously been out in the forest recently. Gille’s skin was dark from many hours spent under the sun. His chin was covered with dark stubble speckled with flecks of silver.

Gille had a disappointing face. Nothing remarkable whatsoever. If I saw him in a crowd, I wouldn’t be able to pick him out.

“Are you lost?” he asked blandly when I approached.

“Unfortunately, I’m not.” I placed my bag on the bar and hopped up onto one of the stools. It felt like it was going to fall apart under my weight. “You Gille?”

“Yeah.” He looked confused, yet still managed to give me a once over.

I rolled my eyes. I wanted to order a drink, but Gille likely wanted me to start working right away. I didn’t want to have anything in my system when I went out in the forest.

“I’m Tella Briar, your botanist,” I clarified.

Gille had the audacity to scoff.

I glared at him. “What?”

“I wasn’t expecting a woman, that’s all. Not a lot of female botanists work outside of labs these days.” At least he was honest.

“Yeah, I’m a real treasure,” I quipped. “Tell me more about the job. Your ad was pretty sparse.”

“I didn’t want to scare off prospective takers,” Gilles replied. He took a long swig of whatever foul-smelling drink he had.

“That’s not a good sign.” I couldn’t help but feel excited. This was exactly what I was looking for. “Tell me the details.”

“We’ve had some unusual encounters with kodanos,” Gilles explained. “They’ve been making life hard for us. One destroyed a food shipment last week. We had to live off potatoes and beet stew until the next one came. There’s a particular kodanos out there that’s terrorizing unarmed shipments.”

“That doesn’t seem very unusual,” I frowned.

“It’s hard to explain. They seem angry or something, but this one kodanos has just gone crazy. This guy is terrorizing anything and everything that moves.” Gille muttered into the bar. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m not giving you the job. It’s too dangerous for a little thing like you to go up against it.”

Without thinking about it, I reached for the hilt of my hunting knife and gripped it hard. I wasn’t going to stab him or anything, but I wouldn’t mind him knowing I could.

“Have you had many replies for your ad?” I asked. Gille didn’t answer, which was answer enough for me.

“Okay,” I shrugged. “Hope you like potato and beet stew.”

“Wait,” Gille said quickly. “If you really think you can handle that kodanos, I’ll hire you. If you get hurt, it’s not my problem.”

“Pay me half now and half when I get back.” I took my datapad out of my bag and dropped it in front of him. He looked at me to see if I was joking. I lifted one brow.

“Fine.” He transferred half of the payment into my account and slid the datapad back to me.

“Thanks.” I smiled brightly and tucked the datapad away. “Any place where I can get some supplies?”

“Market’s in the lot next to this place. There’s a store on the other side of the market.” Gille spoke without looking at me. I knew I’d been dismissed. I left the bar feeling excited. I didn’t know Rigkon had a shop.

This would be easy money. Kodanos were a walk in the park for me. I’d handled dozens, maybe even hundreds.

The supply store was just as grimy and dark as the Crooked Swiggen. Bunches of dried plants hung from the ceiling. Chipped and broken knickknacks lined the crooked shelves. I didn’t see a shopkeeper.

I moved farther into the store, looking for anything that might be useful.

A dented canteen caught my eye. I’d lost mine moving around after the invasion, so I snagged it. I could probably fill it at the Crooked Swiggen. After another loop around the shop, I didn’t find anything besides the canteen. Still, there was no shopkeeper to be seen. I stepped up to the register, thinking there might be a bell or something. There wasn’t.

“Hello?” I called out, though I knew I wouldn’t get an answer. There wasn’t a backroom in this shop. After waiting a few more minutes, I left the shop with the canteen in hand.

The three stalls at the market were occupied. I walked up to the first one, manned by a large woman with a wide, friendly face.

“Excuse me, do you know who runs the shop?” I asked. “I want to buy this.”

“Oh, I run it, dear!” she said brightly. “I saw you go in. I figured you’d come looking for me. I have a good sense about people.”

“Right.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “How much?”

The woman’s smile never faded as she rung me up. I wondered if she consciously forced herself to keep her smile on or if she genuinely was that happy.

“Thanks.” I nodded and walked away.

As I passed the last stall, something caught my eye. Amidst the sparse piece of useless junk was a silver dart. The base of the dart was filled with deep red liquid.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Toxins from the glands of Narrisiri,” the stall keeper said. My eyes lit up.

“I’ll take it!” I didn’t care how much it cost.

Narrisiri toxin was hard to come by. I tucked the dart into a safe place in my utility bag. After stopping back into the Crooked Swiggen for some water, I marched into the thick forest, eager to be in my element once again. 

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