Kamen Rider Page
The sound of metal clashing with metal rang out over a dreary grey moor, echoing off the reeds and the shallow pools of foul water. In the mists of the swamp, before a crumbling, ancient castle, a knight swung his blade at a gigantic, green orc chieftain, grazing the beast's belly with the very tip. The orc roared in pain, swinging his massive club in retaliation towards the knight, who threw up his shield to deflect the blow. The club collided with the warrior's shield, and the strength behind it sent the knight stumbling backwards, groaning in pain. As he knelt on the ground, the orc stood over him, chuckling as he raised his club once again.
Before he could smash his club down on the knight, however, the orc was struck in the face by a fireball, which exploded with the force of a grenade and sent the monster stumbling backwards, bellowing in pain. A female mage dressed in black robes held her staff before him, smirking at the orc, who furiously swiped at his singed skin, trying to reduce the pain. While the orc was still recovering, a slender girl wearing a black cloak jumped on the monster's back and drew her twin daggers across its throat. Black blood trickled down the orc's front, but incredibly, the monster remained standing. Scowling, the girl jumped off the monster's back, doing an elegant flip in the air before landing lightly on the soft peat.
The orc gazed back and forth, panting heavily as the damage began to take its toll. The knight picked himself up off the ground and once more dropped into a ready stance, holding his shield before him, his sword pointed behind it. With a scream, he charged the beast, thrusting his sword towards the orc's chest, the point aimed directly at its heart.
Unfortunately, the knight's strike missed as the orc shifted out of the way, and the knight over-extended himself as he rushed past the orc. A look of terror crossed his face as he looked up to see the orc raise its club again, bringing it down towards the knight's unprotected head. The club connected with his skull and-
"Wait, no, hang on," a disembodied voice echoed from the sky. The orc paused mid-strike, its club pressing lightly to the knight's cheek. Both combatants stared up at the sky in annoyance at the interruption, while the mage and the thief traded confused glances. "I forgot to add in my strength bonus. And doesn't the orc get a modifier for being wounded?"
"Eh… yeah, I'll allow that," another voice responded. "Alright, let's back that up a bit."
The knight and the orc took a few steps back, and the knight once more charged at the orc, yelling as he thrusted towards the beast's unprotected chest. The tip of his blade pierced the skin of the chieftain, who screamed in pain and rage, staggering backwards a few steps before collapsing heavily on the soft earth. From the battlements, a triumphant laugh could be heard, and the party turned to smile at the princess they had been sent to rescue. She beamed back at them, motioning for them to follow her up into the ruined keep.
"You meet the princess in the main hall of the ruined keep," explained the game master running the session of the roleplaying game. Seated around the long table were three others – a large, dark-skinned, balding man in his mid-forties, a pale young woman in her mid-twenties, and a scrawny boy of thirteen, who was impatiently jiggling his red twenty-sided die. "She tells you that she has been here for three days, and that the chieftain had tried to get the information about the third diamond out of her, but that she had refused to tell him. She now implores you to get her out of there, as she's starving and would like to return home immediately."
"Fine, let's get her out of here and get our reward then," the boy, Ryan, snapped impatiently.
"Wait, hang on," interrupted the older man, named Gary. "She said she's been here for three days, but she was captured a week ago?"
"The princess explains that they had to move her here, and that the journey took four days," the gamemaster replied simply.
"But it only took us two days to get here," Gary frowned.
"'It rained for two nights before, and the roads were muddy'," the gamemaster said in a high-pitched voice meant to represent the princess'. "Plus, you all were traveling by yourselves, and not in a caravan like the orcs were. It's much slower, traveling in a large group like that."
"And why aren't you chained in a dungeon somewhere?" asked Gwen, the young woman sitting opposite the gamemaster. "What, did the orc just get bored and let her out or something?"
"Look, who cares?" Ryan snapped. The others at the table paused, staring at him. He flinched and added in a softer voice, "You two are always picking at the smaller details, like you're asking the J.J. to throw more challenges at us. Stop giving him ideas!"
"No, please, keep giving me ideas," J.J. replied playfully, his grey eyes twinkling with mischief. "In any case, she turns to your knight, Ryan, and sidles up to him, rubbing her ample body against your arm. 'Come now, Sir Lawrence!' she purrs. 'We can leave those two behind. The reward is all yours when we get back to the castle, if they don't want to take part in it. Then you can take me to your chambers, just like when we first met when you won that tournament two months ago!'"
"…But the tournament was three months ago," Ryan said skeptically, narrowing his eyes.
J.J. grinned. "The princess glances back and forth furtively, stammering, 'Of… of course! It's just that… we've been together so long, yet it feels like hardly any time has passed!'"
"Yeah, I'm not buying it. I draw my sword and point it at her," Ryan hissed. Behind him, Gary and Gwen traded smug looks.
"The princess' eyes widen, and then she sighs and mutters, 'Damn the girl, giving me fake information like that.' Before your eyes, she transforms into a half-draconic monster, who breathes a spurt of fire at you before flying off before you can react. As she hovers in the sky, she shrieks, 'And here I thought I could buy more time, maybe even get into the castle while your guards were down! But at least you still don't have any leads as to where the princess is!'"
"While she's gloating, I shoot a lightning bolt at her," Gwen said lazily.
"Roll it," J.J. shrugged.
Gwen rolled her own twenty-sided die across the table, frowning at the number on it. "I don't suppose a six is good enough?"
"Not at that height. The bolt misses her, and the monster cackles and flies off, leaving you without a lead."
"I'll start tracking her," Gary said. "My thief's detection skill should be good enough."
"Well, you're free to try next session. We should wrap it up here," J.J. said, glancing up at the clock. "I need to get to work here soon." He began scooping the dice into a bag, as the other players groaned.
"You still have time!" Ryan protested. J.J. paused, looking down at the freckled, brown-haired boy with a concerned expression.
"You okay?" J.J. asked. "You've been a bit moody today. Something bothering you?"
"Kids at school," Ryan muttered. "Getting tired of this gang of boys stalking me on the way home. I don't suppose you can come with me?"
"I can't fight your battles for you, Ryan," J.J. said, a look of regret on his face at not being able to do more to help. "And if I were to walk with you, even if they left you alone while I was with you – which is unlikely in the first place – they'd come after you when you're alone and ask you if you hired a bodyguard. It'd be one more thing they could throw in your face." Noticing the hurt expression on the boy's face, he added, "I've been there. It sucks being bullied, doesn't it?"
"Don't act all sympathetic," Ryan snapped. "If you're not going to help me, don't bother pretending to feel bad for me." With that, the boy grabbed his dice and his figure, shoved them in his backpack, and stormed out the door.
"Don't worry about him," Gary said, standing up and walking over to J.J., putting a large hand on the younger man's slender shoulder. "You were right about not being able to fight his battles for him, at least. About all you can do is support him. In the meantime, that was a better session than last time. Your writing is getting better."
"Yeah, it was a decently executed twist, if a bit cliché," Gwen said with a grin. "So you're telling us that our princess is in another cast-"
"Yes, yes, we all know the joke," J.J. sighed, rubbing his eyes with his index finger and thumb. Gwen smirked at him, brushing her platinum blond hair out of her piercing blue eyes. She had been wearing her hair short for the past few months, which J.J. personally found rather appealing. However, though he did find her attractive, he never made a move on her, as she hadn't indicated that she was interested in him that way, and he was content to banter with her as friends. "Too bad the publishers don't think my writing's improved."
"Still having problems getting them to buy your stories?" Gary asked.
"Yeah. I could self-publish again, but the last two barely sold any copies," J.J. scowled, pulling his long blond hair out of its ponytail before re-tying it in a nervous gesture. "While there's no guarantee that having a publisher promote my next book will ensure it'll do any better, I'd rather take that chance that have another outright flop. But they're not biting."
"What's the problem?" Gwen asked.
"They say that the worlds are good, but the main characters are bland and the plots are… cliché, like you said," J.J. sighed. "Everything that I've put forward has been done before, and better, by other authors, so they're afraid it won't sell. Fantasy is a genre that's had very little innovation recently, after all. Everyone is borrowing from the classics, with only slight tweaks. If you want fantasy these days, go play a video game."
"Well, you're still free to start working here again, rather than trying to live off of royalties," Gary offered. J.J. smiled, taking a moment to look around at Gary's tavern. He had opened it three years ago as a gaming bar, and since then, it had been quite successful. It was designed to resemble a medieval tavern, and Gary had spared no expense on appropriate décor. Towards the back of the place was the main bar, where an array of colorful bottles sat on four stacked shelves. Along the walls were medieval decorations such as tapestries, shields, swords, and faux animal heads. The tables were hand-made from strong oak, with bark clinging to parts of them to give them a more rustic feel. Drinks were usually served in pewter tankards or glass goblets, depending on the type of drink. The shelves standing against the walls held a variety of board and card games, including classics like chess and checkers, strategy war games, and tabletop roleplaying games.
All in all, it was one of J.J.'s favorite places in the city, and where he liked to spend much of his down time. While he had been writing his last book, he had worked as a waiter for Gary, and his friend had even been nice enough to lend him the back room to sleep in when he couldn't even afford his rent. His last book had been successful enough to allow J.J. to move into his own place, but the royalties barely covered that, and he knew that if he didn't have some success soon, he might have to move back into the tavern. He didn't want to impose on Gary's charity any more than he had to, though, so he shook his head.
"No… I'll just have to make sure this next book is better than the last one," J.J. said with a strained smile. "Plus, I have my job at the library now, remember?" He gave a wry grin. "I'll be honest, it's been fun, since now I have books right there for me to check out and read when I'm on break. It's been giving me ideas on how to tweak my best ideas, and what to avoid. I don't have to reinvent the wheel, after all. I just have to come up with something I can sell to an audience."
"Is there any way we can help?" Gary asked, walking around behind the bar as J.J. began to pick up his books and shove them into his own backpack.
"If you want to read what I'm writing, I'd appreciate feedback," J.J. replied.
"Criticism?" Gwen asked with a grin.
"Feed. Back," J.J. scowled, before giving her a good-natured grin. "And with that, I've gotta get going, or Ms. Thatcher will kill me. I'm off!"
The pair waved to him as J.J. headed out the door and made his way down the street, his backpack slung over his shoulder and his breath misting in the mid-winter air. The library was only a few blocks from the tavern, which was one of the other major reasons he frequented the tavern before work. To him, working at the library was almost a dream job Even as a kid, he had loved fairy tales and stories about knights and wizards fighting to protect others. He'd never had any inclination to emulate them, but he did enjoy them enough that in college, he had purposely gone after History and English degrees, in the hopes that it would better improve his writing abilities. Of course, he had been told that the degrees were a waste of time, and three years after graduating, he was beginning to think that those that had scoffed at him were right. However, he mused, he couldn't just go back in time and start over. And at least he wasn't starving now.
The library loomed over him, an ancient structure that had been built hundreds of years before. It was originally a cathedral, but had been repurposed as a library at the turn of the twentieth century. Apparently, it had been built by the founders of the small city, the Marks family, when they first moved to the country shortly after the American Revolution. They had supposedly been nobility, and had brought their vast fortune with them, using it to found the town of Marville, which over the years had grown into a minor metropolis. The cathedral, though, had been designated a historic landmark, and remained untouched even during all the urban development.
J.J. jogged up the thirty steps leading into the library and stepped inside, taking a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light. The interior of the building was lavishly decorated. Chandeliers hung over plush red carpets, and rows of oaken bookshelves lined the walls, filled top-to-bottom with books. In the center of the old cathedral, a few pews had been refitted with plush cushions to serve as reading benches, while at the front of the church, the pulpit had been cleared away and replaced by a small study area, with computers set up around the back walls. The stained glass of the cathedral had never been replaced, and the setting sun made brilliant colors glow on the floor through the western windows. J.J. took a moment to inhale the musty, wooden scent of the building before moving out of the doorway.
He flashed a smile at the plump, middle-aged librarian sitting behind the desk near the entrance, who nodded to him and pointed to a pile of books that needed to be sorted. Immediately, J.J. went to the pile and began pawing through them. One book caught his attention, a new release that was about a thieves guild. He held this up to Mrs. Thatcher, who shrugged.
"On your break, yes, you can read it. And remember, you're closing tonight."
Over the next two hours, he spent his time organizing the books and picking out selections for anyone who asked him for help. About halfway through his shift, he walked to a nearby deli, where he spent fifteen minutes quickly eating a small dinner of a sandwich, some fries, and a soda, then opened the book and began pawing through it. To his delight, he found it to be a mildly interesting read. The book centered around a young thief who arrived in a big city and mistakenly tried to pickpocket a member of the existing thieves guild. This was a major crime, but the guildmaster was impressed by her brazen behavior, and initiated her into the guild. What followed was an action-adventure tale about taking from the rich and protecting the poor from a corrupt city guard. While the story was well-told, J.J. gave up about halfway through as he realized that the book was nothing more than another copy of the old Robin Hood story.
Mrs. Thatcher noticed the disappointment on his face as he walked back in and tossed the book back onto the cart, softly laughing as he passed by her. "Well, the papers seemed to like it," she commented as he took the book back to its shelf.
"Of course they do. It hit all the notes that the critics wanted," J.J. sighed. "But in the end, it's the same story that we've been told a thousand times."
"You don't have any room to talk, Mr. Wells," the librarian pointed out. "What was the subject of your last book, a knight saving a princess? You don't get a story more overdone than that."
"And that's the problem!" J.J. protested. "How come my writing is too cliché to get published, but this gets a pass? Or worse yet, gets praised?"
"That's just the way the dice fall sometimes," she shrugged. "Anyways, back to work."
J.J. reluctantly went back to his job, though he continued stewing over the success of the book for the rest of the night. Around nine o'clock, Mrs. Thatcher approached him as he was pushing a cart towards the back of the library.
"Put that cart up, bring up the stack of books on the red cart in the basement and sort them, and then you can go home. And thanks for your work," she added with a smile. "I'll admit, I had reservations about hiring extra help, but you've been a good addition to this library. Remember, you're off tomorrow, so take some time to enjoy yourself. You look like you need it."
"Thanks," J.J. said, briefly returning her smile before heading into the basement of the cathedral. He turned on a light, and made his way around the additional books that rested in boxes and on spare carts. Quickly spotting the cart she had mentioned, he made his way over to it, but tripped over a loose book and stumbled forward into a wall near the north end of the church. He caught himself, smacking the wall hard with his hands. Letting out a groan of pain, he slowly pushed himself away from the wall. Under his fingers, he felt a loose brick. Frowning, he pulled his hand away and realized that the brick had a small shield design on it, something he had never noticed before. Curious, he pulled the brick, and found it slid out of the wall easily. He tried to peer into the hole it had left, but couldn't see into the darkness. Pulling out his phone, he flashed the light inside, wondering if a mouse had made its home in the hole. All he saw inside, however, was a thin book.
Reaching inside, J.J. pulled out the book and blew the dust off of it, frowning as he turned it over in his hands. The cover was unmarked and made of leather, which was in surprisingly good condition. He couldn't imagine how long the book had been down here, hidden behind the false brick, or for what purpose, but he was intrigued.
He turned the book over to the back cover, which was likewise blank. He noticed it was surprisingly heavy, almost as if it was made of lead, though the cover under his fingers was clearly leather. The pages were also very old, and didn't seem to be made of paper. Perhaps they were parchment? Cautiously, he cracked the book open to the middle. To his disappointment, the pages were blank. Flipping through the pages briefly to the end, he saw that nothing had been written in the book. Sighing, he flipped to the front page instead, wondering if this was just an unfinished book. On the first page, though, there was handwriting. The script was faded and ancient, and he was unable to decipher it. What he could understand, though, from the text, was that this book was originally written in English, and was a diary or journal of some sort. He flipped through several pages of illegible text, until he finally reached an entry where the handwriting changed. He was reminded of the stylized print used by newspapers to display the company. However, it was written in recognizable English, and he held up his phone to read it more clearly.
April 21, 1786
This is the last vestige of the Knightly Order of the Shield, the last protectors of the Champion of Almencia. Upon completion of this cathedral, we laid the Champion to rest in this vault. While we have no proof of our suspicions, the Grandmaster fears that in this new, infant land that swears allegiance to no king, the powers that destroyed Almencia centuries ago may one day resurface here. Though we respect the wishes of the people to bow to no king, we still believe a protector is needed to shield them from follies of the past. Thus, we have chosen to respect the wishes of the Marks family, and to that end, we will record the events that led to the foundation of our order, and instructions on how to avert the disaster that is to come.
In the Year of Our Lord, 1019, the Kingdom of Almencia was home to a great king, who wished to grant his citizens the ability to pursue their dreams in any way they wished. To this end, he had his alchemist construct beings that could provide his citizens with the power to shape their own destinies. However, this power had unforeseen consequences, and the kingdom became embroiled in war. When all seemed lost, the King of Almencia summoned a champion to defeat the monsters that had been unleashed on the kingdom. The Champion was successful, and through his efforts, stripped the monsters of their power. However, the magic was only weakened, not broken, and the Alchemist who created these monsters swore that in one thousand years, his creations would rise again.
Thus, the Champion agreed to fall into a deep, enchanted slumber, and is to be re-awakened in one thousand years, the Year of Our Lord, 2019, to defeat the alchemist's creations once more. To any member of our order who finds this book, upon the start of the year 2019, follow the map provided and descend into the vault of this cathedral, awaken the Champion of Almencia, and bring salvation to humanity.
J.J. stared at the passage in disbelief. He had never heard of the Order of the Shield, and if it had ever even existed, he doubted anyone alive in Marville knew anything about it. Turning the page, he saw that the book indeed had a map of the cathedral's bottom level printed on it. Drawn on the map were arrows pointing out instructions to the reader on how to access an even lower level. J.J. hesitated, considering whether he should bother, but his curiosity got the better of him. He began following the instructions, first pushing in bricks indicated in the diary. Unlike the brick that the book had been hidden behind, these had no markings on them, and he quickly found that casually brushing against them wouldn't make them budge. He had to try to force them into the wall, until he heard a click. Furthermore, the diary indicated that they had to be pushed in a certain order, or the combination would reset itself. It was a rather effective password system, he mused, if one didn't know what they were looking for.
When he pushed in the last brick, he heard a loud metallic clanging sound, and he turned the diary to the next page, which indicated that he should pull down on a sconce that was still being used to hold an electric candle. He rolled his eyes, as this seemed like something out of a bad adventure movie, but pulled on the indicated sconce, then stepped back as the wall in front of him opened, revealing a passageway shrouded in darkness. Pulling out his phone, J.J. turned on the flashlight and began walking through the carved stone passageway.
While dust and earth coated the ground, there were no cobwebs, and no indication that animals had burrowed into the cave. The floor was dry, thankfully, and he progressed quickly down the corridor to a spiral staircase, which he followed down to another level, his curiosity mounting. At the bottom of the stairs, he found himself gazing at an enormous chamber, about half the size of the entire cathedral. The room was dimly lit by glowing white crystals hanging from the ceiling. Marble statues of knights in armor lined the walls, their blades lowered in deference towards the center of the room, where J.J. saw an enormous sarcophagus. He walked forward slowly, his footsteps echoing loudly on the marble floor, until he was standing beside the coffin. The lid had been carved in the image of a knight holding a massive shield without a device on it, which seemed odd to J.J. Usually a knight would have his own coat of arms, or would at least bear those of the lord he served. Was this some sort of knight-errant, or a black knight?
He put his hand on the sarcophagus, then jumped back, startled, as the lid began to open by itself. As he looked down, he saw a man in his mid-thirties, garbed in a blue tabard, lying in pristine condition behind a sheet of crystal. One thing that caught J.J.'s eye was the black leather belt the man wore around his middle, particularly the buckle, which was shaped like a golden shield with a smaller silver shield in the center. The man himself had curly black hair and a full beard, and his tan skin was worn and weathered, seeming almost leathery. Even asleep, he had an undeniably noble bearing and the kind of face that commanded respect.
J.J. once again opened the diary in the hopes that there was some sort of explanation about what he was supposed to do. The diary, however, offered no further clues. He figured that the only thing he could do at this point was touch the crystal pane, to see if that did something. In many fantasy books, after all, that was enough to cause something to happen. The one thing he was worried about, though, was that half the time when someone touched something with mystical origins, it ended badly for that person. Therefore, it was with a pounding heart and trembling fingers that he slowly reached out and touched the cool surface of the crystal.
Immediately, the clear rock began to crack like ice, splintering apart before shattering into thousands of fragments that disappeared into the air. J.J. leaned over the man as his eyes snapped open, and he sat up suddenly, looking around wildly, his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. J.J. stepped back quickly, then realized that he was shining the flashlight into the man's eyes, and immediately turned it to the ground.
"Are you alright?" J.J. asked. The man narrowed his eyes at J.J., before speaking in a booming voice.
"Indeed, I am. Hail, young knight. Or perhaps squire? No matter. I trust that you are a member of the Order of the Shield, aye? Pray tell, what year is it?"
"It's… the Year of Our Lord, 2019," J.J. replied slowly, imitating the line that he'd read in the book. "You speak English?"
"English? No, we are speaking Almencian," the knight replied, groaning as he rubbed the back of his neck. Before J.J. could protest, he continued, "So our foes have risen again? Tell me, young one, what news of the war with the enemies of Almencia?"
"There's no war," J.J. replied, frowning. "I mean, there's a few conflicts around the globe, sure, but by and large, the world is relatively peaceful. At least compared to past eras. I'm sorry, but can you tell me your name, sir?"
The knight seemed shocked, both by the news that there was no war, and his request for his name. "Have you not heard of me? The Champion of Almencia?" he asked, seeming a bit put-off. J.J. shook his head.
"This diary didn't mention-"
"Diary? Give me that," the knight said, reaching out and snatching the book out of J.J.'s hands. "Light," he added, and J.J. began to scowl as he held the cellphone over the man's shoulder. The knight began pawing through the pages, a look of sadness crossing his face.
"I see… so this is all that remains of Devon, is it? And it seems time has claimed his last words, rendering them unreadable. Truly, a pity," he sighed. Handing the book back to J.J., he replied, "Very well, since you profess ignorance, allow me to introduce myself. I am Sir Tristan Leon, the Champion of Almencia. And I would have your name as well, as well as your rank. Are you a knight? A squire, perhaps?"
"I… I suppose you could say I'm a page for the library, but-" J.J. began.
"A page? You are rather old for a page," Tristan scoffed. "But if a servant is what you are, a servant is what you are, and there is no shame in that, young man." The knight reached out and clapped J.J. on his shoulder. J.J. sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm his rising annoyance. He was willing to believe that this man was a knight from a thousand years ago, since he supposed anything was possible, and he didn't really have any evidence to the contrary. After all, the diary had led him to a hidden catacomb underneath the cathedral. Who was to say the rest of it wasn't true? The knight's arrogant attitude, however, was already starting to grate on him, but he forced himself to consider why the knight was acting so pompously. If he really was from the Middle Ages, he was probably used to a strict hierarchical structure, and as such, he was behaving as he had been raised. There was no point in getting upset, if he fell into that mindset. Forcing a smile, J.J. turned to him.
"How are you feeling? If it's been a thousand years, I imagine you're not in the best of shape."
"Your concern is noted, and appreciated, page," Tristan replied. "If you are inquiring as to hunger and thirst, you have nothing to fear, for I sated myself before my long rest, and I shall not require sustenance for some time. However, I do require lodging."
J.J. quickly racked his brain before settling on Gary's tavern. He figured that it wouldn't be too out-of-place for him to ask for the spare room, as his friend had offered before. And the medieval setting wouldn't be too jarring for- "Actually, sir, would you mind waiting her for one minute?" J.J. asked, suddenly realizing something.
"I suppose, certainly. I shall familiarize myself with this room in the meantime. It seems… different from when I was interred," Tristan said, his voice lowering with worry.
J.J. nodded and turned, running up the stairs and climbing back into the main library. He found the lights were off, and guessed that Mrs. Thatcher had closed up for the night, assuming he went home. J.J. hurried over to the history section and quickly began grabbing books off the shelves. Taking a moment to check them into the computer, he set them on one of the pews before running back downstairs, to where Tristan was still waiting patiently, gazing at the statues in the dim light.
"Alright, I think I've got a place for you to stay for now," J.J. said quickly. "However, things have changed quite a bit in the past thousand years. I'll answer any questions you have once we get somewhere where you can stay, but for the moment, may I ask that you hold your questions? Trust me, it'll take me all night to answer them, and we'll never reach the tavern."
"I… suppose," Tristan frowned, folding his arms over his chest. "Though I do have one question. Where are we, precisely? This is not the castle of the King of Almencia, is it?"
"I'm… afraid not, no," J.J. said slowly. "Like I said, I'll explain the background of where we are, but suffice it to say, you're probably quite a ways from your homeland. I don't know why you were moved, but I think your sarcophagus was relocated for some reason. At least, that's what this diary said," he added, holding it up.
"I see…." Tristan replied, his shoulders slumping. "Well… as a knight, I go wherever my battles take me, and if I am needed here, then here is where I shall stay, for now. Perhaps one day I'll find my way back home," he said with a bleak smile. "Until then… please, lead on."
J.J. felt a pang of sympathy for Tristan. Everything he had known was long gone, and he'd awoken in a completely alien world. All things considered, the man was taking this rather well, though he hadn't truly experienced the full blow of culture shock yet. There was no way J.J. could prepare him for the modern world. At least he could try and answer any questions Tristan had, once they had a minute.
"Right," J.J. said, motioning for Tristan to follow him. He led the knight up the steps and into the basement, glancing over his shoulder to watch the man's reactions. When he saw the books, a look of awe crossed his face. "There are quite a few volumes here," he commented, reaching for one. His eyes widened as he saw the photograph on the cover. "And the portraits are… breathtaking. These must have been painted by the greatest hand of your age. Surely the order spent a fortune procuring them!"
"As I said, I'll explain when I have time," J.J. said, unable to suppress a smile. "Come on." He grabbed Tristan's wrist and led him out of the basement and into the cathedral. It was fortunate that the first thing Tristan saw was a relatively familiar sight, as he knew cathedrals of this sort were around in the eleventh century. J.J. quickly picked up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder, before once more taking the knight's arm and leading him towards the door. J.J. noticed that while he was a head taller than the man, Tristan was far more solidly built. Of course, that was to be expected, considering the time period Tristan was supposedly from, as well as the fact that the man had pursued a martial profession his entire life, but feeling the corded arms beneath his fingers, J.J. couldn't help but marvel at the vast difference in strength between the two.
J.J. led him to the large double doors and pushed them open, bracing himself as he stepped through them with Tristan in tow. After a moment, he turned around and caught sight of exactly the expression he had expected – one of utter astonishment, wonder, and confusion. The hanging electric lights, the looming buildings, the cars on the street… he could practically see the wheels in Tristan's head grind to a halt as he struggled to process everything.
"What is-?" Tristan began, but J.J. cut him off with a quick gesture.
"Like I said, it'd take too long to explain. Just trust me, and hold your questions, please," J.J. insisted as he locked up the library with the key given to him by Mrs. Thatcher, before leading him down the road at a brisk walk. Tristan followed him with his mouth agape, trying to look around everywhere at once. For his part, Tristan was getting unusual looks due to his medieval clothing, but at least that could be shrugged off. It was strange, but not utterly beyond comprehension. Tristan was certainly getting the worst of it.
Ten minutes later, J.J. led him into Gary's tavern, which thankfully wasn't particularly busy that night, since it was only Thursday. Gary glanced up at J.J. and smiled as he walked in, but then frowned at Tristan.
"New friend of yours?" Gary asked hesitantly, looking Tristan up and down. "What's with the getup?"
"He's an ancient knight from a thousand years ago resurrected by magic to fulfill an ancient prophecy about some world-ending evil," J.J. replied with a completely deadpan look. When Gary stared at him, J.J. rolled his eyes and added, "He's a cosplayer, what do you think? I ran into him at the library. He's from overseas, and doesn't really have a place to stay. I was wondering if you'd mind setting him up in the back room for now?"
"I… suppose that's alright, sure," Gary replied slowly, eyeing J.J.'s companion warily. "What's your name?"
"Ah, forgive my rudeness, good tavernkeep," Tristan replied with a bow. "I am Sir Tristan Leon, of the Order of the Shield in the Kingdom of Almencia. You have my deepest gratitude for providing me with lodging this eve," he said with a charming smile.
"…He really gets into his role, doesn't he?" Gary asked with a cocked eyebrow. "Still not the weirdest guy that's walked through my door." J.J. noticed a couple of other patrons watching them, but with only mild interest. J.J. grinned to himself. If there was one place in the city where Tristan was the least likely to get judged, it was here. "Ah, what the hell, I'll set out the blankets," Gary shrugged "And what about you, J.J.?"
"Mind if I stay the night as well?" he asked. "At least until Tristan here gets settled."
"Sure, though spend some time tomorrow looking to put him up in a hotel," Gary said with a frown. "I can't just accept people off the street that I don't know, even with you vouching for them."
"Of course. Thanks, Gary!" J.J. said, leading Tristan away from the bar and into the small back room. There wasn't much besides a small single bed with a pillow and some blankets, as well as a chair and a desk. J.J. flicked on the bare bulb and crawled under the bed, pulling out a spare cot for him to sleep on as well, which he set up against the opposite wall. He then motioned for Tristan to take a seat on the bed. The knight sank into the mattress gratefully, but then hesitated and bounced on the mattress for a moment, surprised by its springy softness.
"Tis like a cloud!" he exclaimed, laughing merrily.
"And that's one of the cheapest beds you can have. The expensive ones are even better," J.J. grinned, sitting at the desk. He pulled out his backpack and dumped the history books on the wooden surface. "Alright. I'll make you a deal. I'll do my best to answer any questions you have about the modern world, and I'll give you a very basic rundown of what's happened in the last thousand years. In exchange, I'd like you to take a little time and answer some questions I have as well. Deal?"
"You have my word," Tristan replied, and then immediately launched into a barrage of questions as J.J. opened the first history book. For the next several hours, J.J. coached Tristan through the basics of history, starting with the Middle Ages and going through to the modern era. There was quite a bit he had to gloss over, but he managed to explain the societal shifts from the Renaissance onwards, the importance of the Industrial Revolution, the cultural shifts of the twentieth century, and a bit of general information about the present day. Obviously, there was far too much for him to delve into, particularly regarding the technological advances of the past two centuries, but he hoped that he at least gave Tristan a very basic framework to provide some stability when approaching this new world.
It was around three in the morning when Tristan asked, "You said this country has no king?"
"I'm afraid not," J.J. replied, sipping on some coffee he had brewed. He was already feeling fatigued, but the idea of getting to teach someone from another era about the modern world had him giddy. "Is that so strange? There were societies in your time that lacked kings. And you must know how Rome operated without one."
"That is true, aye," Tristan said, scratching the back of his head. "I admit, I paid little attention to my tutors, as I was always more interested in my martial training. But I notice that you've not touched on Almencia."
"That's because I've never heard of it," J.J. replied, setting down his mug. "What can you tell me about it? Where was it located?"
"Almencia is – was, I suppose – an island nation, I believe somewhat southwest of England, to the east of France and north of Castile," Tristan replied. "When I was champion, we were ruled by King Pedro II, the wisest and kindest king we had ever known. We were set to enter a golden age."
"So what happened?" J.J. asked.
Tristan's far-off look grew sour. "Our liege desired to provide everyone with the ability to shape their own lives, to provide them with the means to re-imagine themselves as they saw fit. To that end, he asked our court alchemist, Quintus, to design something that would allow people to remake themselves. He created beings that could produce crystals which would allow people to change the very essence of who they were. The weak could make themselves stronger. The crippled could walk. The disfigured were healed. What Quintus produced was nothing short of a miracle.
"However, there were… unforeseen consequences. Those that were changed by the crystals were slowly warped into monsters, and tore the land apart. The king demanded that Quintus undo his mistake, but Quintus insisted that nothing could be done. Instead, he created weapons to combat the monsters he had created. I do believe he was seeking to make amends, and though others vilify him, I do not begrudge him for attempting to rectify his failure."
"What were the weapons?" J.J. asked.
"There were three. A mighty blade was forged and given to our strongest warrior. Another was a magical book, which would allow the reader to understand the monsters, to know what they were capable of. In fact, that's the book you found," Tristan said with a smile.
"The diary?" J.J. asked. "How does it-?"
"I'm uncertain," Tristan said, waving off his question. "I was not its wielder, and not privy to its secrets. I, on the other hand, was gifted a magical shield and a suit of armor, allowing me to resist the onslaught of the monsters and protect those that could not defend themselves. This was stored in this belt that I wear," Tristan added with a hint of pride. "Would you care to see?"
"Of course!" J.J. said, setting down his cup to give Tristan his full attention. If there was anything that would dispel any lingering doubts about his story, this might be it. Tristan stood and walked to the center of the room, grinning as he pulled the shield off his belt. He shifted it so that it was fitted into a slot, then pushed it down. A metallic clank filled the room, and Tristan held out his arms, as if expecting to be garbed in armor. However, nothing happened. Tristan noticed this after a couple of seconds of posing as J.J. struggled to hold back a laugh.
"I don't understand!" Tristan cried, pulling the shield up and sliding it back down.
"Maybe it's broken," J.J. suggested. "Things do tend to stop working after a thousand years."
"It's an ancient artifact constructed by our greatest alchemist!" Tristan cried. "How could it be broken?! And how would it even be fixed?! Do you know of another alchemist?!" he asked, growing a bit hysterical.
"Hey, calm down," J.J. said soothingly, holding up his hand.
"You are blissfully unaware of the danger we are in, page!" Tristan snapped. "If I cannot use my armor, the monsters from my time will be allowed to ravage your countryside unchecked!"
"Okay, that's it," J.J. snapped. "My name is J.J. Please call me that, not 'page.' Second… let me take a look at that?"
"Oh, is one of your skills alchemy?!" Tristan scoffed, but he withdrew the shield and handed it to J.J. Like he suspected, it was heavy, and as he shook it, he could hear the unmistakable rattling of mechanical parts.
"Don't do that!" Tristan cried.
"What? It's not like it'll get more broken," J.J. retorted. "Now, listen. I don't know an alchemist, but I do know a mechanic – someone who can repair devices similar to this. I'll admit, he's never seen anything like this, but he's a genius, and he can get anything to work. I don't have work tomorrow, so why don't we take the day to go see him? If nothing else, it's better than just letting a broken device remain broken."
"You… speak with wisdom," Tristan admitted reluctantly after a few moments of considering his request, before sighing and sitting on the bed, resting his face in his hands. "It would be a travesty if I were to come to this time and find I was unable to uphold my sworn duty."
"Well, you may not have to anyways," J.J. said. "It's not like we've had monsters roaming around the streets. Maybe there's nothing to worry about."
"More likely the storm has yet to arrive," Tristan growled. "But I suppose that if we have a peaceful lull, we may as well take advantage of it. Very well. In the morning, we shall depart to meet this… mechanic you've suggested. For now, though… I must rest, and I am sure you are tired as well."
J.J. was about to deny this, but then a wave of fatigue washed over him that the coffee couldn't stave off. "Ah… yeah," he grinned sheepishly. "Alright, sure, let's get some sleep."
"And… thank you for your help, pa-… J.J.," Tristan added as he rolled over on the mattress.
"Don't mention it." J.J. was about to say that there was nothing to worry about, but he'd read enough literature to know that saying that out loud would jinx them, so he simply rolled over on the cot and fell asleep within seconds.
At around nine in the morning, there was a knocking on the door, and Gary called out, "Alright, come on, both of you need to get up!" J.J. groaned and rolled over, then sat bolt upright as a boom like a cannon going off resounded through the room.
"You're going to go back to sleep, J.J.!" Gary snapped, sounding for all the world like an annoyed father trying to get his kid up for school. "Get up!"
"Right, right, I'm up!" J.J. called out reluctantly, groaning as he sat up. Tristan did the same, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"I was unaware of how exhausted I would be. I'm ashamed," he commented. "Time once was I could go two days and nights without feeling fatigue."
"A thousand years of sleep can drain the body more than you expected, I suppose," J.J. yawned. "C'mon. Let's get some food and then we'll go see Susumu."
The pair made their way out to the bar, where Gary was generously finishing cooking for them. J.J. immediately reached into his jeans and pulled out his wallet, but Gary responded by smacking him upside the head.
"You know better than to pay me for something like this," he said with a snarl, nudging J.J. to take a seat as he set down a plate of eggs and hash browns, before doing the same for Tristan, who bowed gratefully. Gary glanced at Tristan and added, "I have some clothes that should fit you, if you didn't bring any with you. I didn't see a bag on you."
"Your generosity is deeply appreciated, tavernkeep," Tristan said gratefully, before taking a bit of the food. His eyes widened, and he added, "Matched only by your culinary skill. Though I am surprised you did not have a maid to do this for you. Why-"
"He doesn't have the money to hire extra help," J.J. interjected quickly, trying to head off that conversation. "And yeah, Gary's right, you should let him lend you some clothes. You might be attached to your tabard, but wearing modern clothing will let you blend in a bit more easily."
"But if I do not display my heritage-" Tristan protested.
"And if you stand out, it'll make it that much harder for you to track whatever monsters you're hunting," J.J. added.
"Ah. There is wisdom in what you say, young page," Tristan agreed. J.J. grit his teeth. "Very well, I shall impose upon your charity once more, good sir," he said with another bow to Gary.
"You're really committed to that role, huh?" Gary asked. Before Tristan could reply, shouting outside caught their attention. Gary frowned, walking over to the window, and then his eyes widened. "What is that kid… J.J., come over here and look at this!"
J.J. set down his fork and walked over to the window, peering through it. He frowned as he saw a quartet of boys running down the street, yelling as they were pursued by another figure. As the figure came into view, he realized that it was Ryan, running after them and pelting them with rocks the size of softballs.
"What in the… okay, we need to put a stop to that," J.J. said, moving to step outside, but Gary grabbed his arm and shook his head.
"You're the one who told him to stand up for himself," he pointed out.
"No, I told him I couldn't fight his battles for him. I never said he should start throwing… come to think of it, aren't those rocks rather large?" he added. "Did Ryan ever have a good throwing arm?"
"Now that you mention it, no. He's skinnier than you are," Gary agreed, a look of confusion mixed with worry on his face.
"I'm gonna go talk to him. Just talk to him," J.J. added, noting the scowl on Gary's face. He walked outside as Ryan finished chasing the boys around the corner.
"I'll end you if you ever come after me again!" Ryan screamed after them, before turning to see J.J. walking towards him. "And what do you want?" the boy growled.
"Just to see what's going on. Relax, Ryan," J.J. said, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. "Were those the boys that were bothering you?"
"Yeah. And they learned that if they push too hard, I might eventually push back," he said with a bloodthirsty smirk.
"I… guess that's one way to handle it," J.J. said slowly. "What, did you start playing baseball or something? Where'd you learn to throw rocks that heavy?"
"I don't have to tell you," Ryan snapped. J.J. narrowed his eyes.
"No, you don't, but you also don't have to give me an attitude," J.J. replied, narrowing his eyes.
"Whatever," Ryan said, bumping past J.J. As he did, J.J. felt as though he'd been pushed aside by a linebacker. He stumbled backwards about ten feet before catching himself on the wall, staring at Ryan. The smaller boy smirked at him over his shoulder before continuing on his way.
"That was… weird," J.J. commented, walking back inside. Gary looked at him curiously, while he saw Tristan staring intently from his seat. "Ryan managed to chase off his bullies, which is… good, I suppose? But he's copping an attitude with me, and I don't recall him being able to knock me off-balance like that just walking past me."
"Hm," Tristan commented from his seat, his expression growing serious. "This bears investigating. It may be one of the first signs of-"
"What? No, we've got to get that trinket of yours looked at first," J.J. said, brushing off Tristan's concerns. "And I need to finish eating. Gary, mind lending him some clothes while I clean up here?"
Gary led Tristan to his own room while J.J. cleaned his plate, and when the knight reappeared, he was dressed in modern clothing – jeans, a button-down shirt, and a medium-weight blue jacket.
"These garments are quite comfortable," Tristan commented, sounding surprised.
"Glad you like them. Come on, Susumu's place isn't far," J.J. said. "Thanks again, Gary!"
"Like I said, make getting him a hotel room one of your errands, J.J.!" Gary called out after him. J.J. tossed a wave of acknowledgement over his shoulder before walking down the street with Tristan in tow.
Susumu's garage was about five blocks from the tavern, and along the way, J.J. entertained Tristan's questions about modern society and technology as they walked. He couldn't answer technical questions, but he could give vague replies. Like the night before, J.J. found himself enjoying educating the knight, so much so that the trip to Susumu's shop seemed to take half the time it normally did. When they arrived, J.J. grinned as he saw the mechanic's garage was open, and the man was busy at his workbench, tinkering with some engine part.
As the two approached, the mechanic seemed to sense their presence and turned to face them. Susumu Takumi had moved to the Marville over half a year ago, and in that time, he had made an immediate impact as a mechanical genius. He had a reputation for being able to fix almost anything, which J.J. had discovered the first time he had brought Susumu a laptop he was certain had been destroyed. Recognizing J.J., a bright grin spread over his features, and he brushed his fingers through his spiked black hair before grabbing his cane. Though he was only in his late twenties, he had always walked with a limp, though J.J. had never pried about the nature of his injury. He slowly made his way over to the pair approaching him, extending his hand out to J.J., who beamed as he took it. Something about the man's friendly attitude had always been infectious.
"Been a while, J.J.," Susumu said by way of greeting, stepping back and straightening up. "I take it you haven't had any problems with that computer?"
"Works better than ever, thanks. Though I've got a slightly different problem this time around. Susumu, this is Tristan, a newcomer to the town. He has a device that I was hoping you could take a look at, since I can't make heads or tails of it."
"That right?" Susumu said, extending his hand out to Tristan, who stared at the man curiously for a moment before realizing that he was expected to repeat the gesture J.J. had demonstrated. Tristan shook his hand, then nodded and slowly pulled the shield from his belt.
"J.J. has said that you are an alchemist of some renown. Pray, would you know how to repair this?"
"An alchemist?" Susumu laughed, taking the belt buckle with his free hand. "That's a new one. So, what am I looking at, exactly?"
"That is a construct devised by the great alchemist Quintus of Almencia. Its purpose is to garb the wielder in armor, yet it seems to function no longer."
Susumu's grin dropped, and he raised an eyebrow at J.J., who shrugged.
"Don't look at me, I just met him yesterday. I couldn't tell you what it's supposed to do."
"I guess you couldn't, no," Susumu agreed. "Alright, sure, let's see what we've got. I'm no alchemist, but maybe I can figure it out. Do you mind if I take this apart, see what I can find?"
Tristan looked hesitant, but reluctantly replied, "You… may proceed as you see fit."
Susumu nodded. "I'll be gentle with it, don't worry." He limped back over to his desk and sat down, opening his toolbox. For the next hour, J.J. loitered around, watching Susumu's small TV, while Tristan hovered nervously as Susumu dissected the shield. From time to time, J.J. glanced over, noticing that the interior was indeed mechanical, but of a clockwork nature, almost like something pulled out of a steampunk novel. He also saw Susumu occasionally pull out a crystal an examine it curiously. Finally, he reassembled the device exactly as he found it, and handed it back to Tristan with a shake of his head.
"Remarkable. I've never seen anything close to that sort of technology," Susumu said in a reverent tone. "To my untrained eye, though, everything looks like should work. The only thing I can suggest is maybe it needs a new power source."
"What, like a battery?" J.J. asked, swinging around on the stool he was sitting on.
"Exactly. But I'm not even sure what sort of power source a device like that would take. Where did you get that?"
"It was-" J.J. began, but Susumu pinned him with a look.
"The truth, please," Susumu added. "I remember you trying to tell me you'd just dropped the laptop when you brought it in, and I didn't buy that either. You have a smooth tongue, J.J., but you're not going to explain your way around this one. So fess up, what actually happened?"
J.J. opened his mouth, then closed it. He shrugged, pre-empting himself by saying, "You're not going to believe me." He then explained everything that had happened up to that point, from finding the book in the library to discovering Tristan in the bottom levels of the cathedral. Susumu listened quietly while Tristan hovered behind him, standing with his hands behind his back. When J.J. finished his story, Susumu nodded.
"Okay then," he replied nonchalantly. J.J. raised an eyebrow.
"What, just like that? You just accept it?" he asked skeptically.
"Why not? You seem to be accepting it," Susumu pointed out. "Why are you taking all this information in stride?"
"Because it's hard to refute evidence before your eyes. But you haven't had the same experiences I have. You're just taking this at face value."
"Sometimes you need to do that. Not to mention that I have evidence as well," Susumu replied, holding up Tristan's belt buckle. "This is technology unlike anything that I've ever seen before. It'd take me weeks to understand how it works, and I've spent my entire life studying engineering. Therefore, I'm willing to accept an outlandish explanation. If you'd said Tristan here is an alien and this is extraterrestrial technology, I'd be willing to consider that explanation as well.
"You're… a weird one, Susumu," J.J. said slowly. Susumu grinned at him.
"Tristan, you mentioned that the book is another artifact from your kingdom, right?" Susumu asked.
"It is, yes," Tristan replied. "It was meant to provide another with abilities similar to my own. However, it was meant more for observation than combat."
"Was it also made by your alchemist?" Susumu asked. "If so, I'd like to take a look at it."
"Certainly," Tristan said. He nodded to J.J., who handed over the book. Tristan gently picked at the leather on the cover, pulling it back to reveal a spiderweb of metal wires and crystal, which explained the weight, J.J. mused. As he peeled back the cover, a metal quill fell out of the spine, clattering onto the table. Susumu watched as J.J. picked it up, twirling it in his fingers. In the meantime, Susumu took his time examining the inner workings of the book before shaking his head.
"Same problem as the shield," he said. "Seems to have had all its power drained. Tristan, do you know what used to power these items?"
"I do not, no," Tristan replied. "They simply worked, and if they sustained damage, we simply gave the to Quintus to fix."
"That's a shame," Susumu sighed, replacing the leather cover. "In that case, I'm afraid there's nothing I can do."
"That is not acceptable," Tristan frowned. "I must be able to fight."
"Sorry, but without a new power source, your trinket isn't going to work. A modern battery is incompatible, and I don't want to risk damaging something that I don't fully understand," Susumu said.
J.J. had been half-listening, watching the TV instead, as a news report had come on. "Hey guys?" he said, his eyes widening at the screen. "You may want to take a look at this."
Tristan and Susumu stepped forward, Tristan's eyes widening. "What strange picture-box-"
"It's a television. I explained it to you last night, remember?" J.J. said. "Anyways, that's not important right now. Look at this."
The news report was describing an incident in downtown Marville, where something was causing damage to a school. The reporter on scene was trying to explain what was going on.
"-crashing sound was heard by concerned neighbors who lived in the area. Officials were worried about a potential bomb threat," the man was saying. "However, when they arrived on the scene, what they found was what could only be described as an escaped animal of some sort, potentially a gorilla or a bear. We've just-"
The report was cut off as a roar filled the air, and the reporter turned around to see a massive green creature with a pig-like face yelling and throwing a tree towards a group of kids, who scampered off, screaming in fear. J.J.'s eyes widened in shock at the creature.
"That's impossible," he whispered. "Is that an… orc?!"
"That's… that's one of the creatures that attacked Almencia!" Tristan cried. "I must go there and stop it!"
"You already said that you can't fight it without your armor, right?" Susumu pointed out. "So, let's do this. You and I will stay here, and we'll see if we can get this working. Give me enough time to study this, and maybe I can work something out. Some of this doesn't look that different from modern computer chips, truth be told. In the meantime, J.J., will you head over to the school?"
"…What?" J.J. asked as two pairs of eyes turned on him. He took a step back, holding up his hands. "You… you expect me to fight that thing?!"
"Of course not, no," Susumu said in a reassuring voice. "But we should have someone who has a basic idea of what's going on observing and taking notes, just so we know what we're up against."
"Aye. And you have Devon's book," Tristan added. "The book was made for that very purpose. Whilst I fought, Devon would observe and record the monsters I fought, to better understand our foes."
"But you both said the book doesn't work!" J.J. protested. "So what am I going to do, go over there and take pictures of it on my phone?!"
"J.J., listen to me," Susumu said, pinning him under his gaze as he put his hand on J.J.'s shoulder. "You're the only one who can do this. I need to stay here and work on Tristan's belt, and Tristan has no idea how to operate in the modern world. You know where the school is, and you're one of three people right now with even a vague idea about what that orc is doing here, if it's one of Tristan's monsters. I'm not asking you to fight it. Stay as far out of danger as you can. But please, observe it, take notes about what it's doing, and come back here. That's all I'm asking you to do, so that when Tristan can fight again, he knows exactly what we're up against. Is that an unreasonable request?"
"Yes!" J.J. protested. "You expect me to put my life on the line for this?!"
"Would you let others die for your cowardice?" Tristan asked coldly. J.J. stared at him, then slowly, reluctantly, sighed and pulled out his phone, pulling up his GPS.
"The school's about a mile and a half from here," he said, his heart hammering in his chest at the thought of what he was about to do. "It'll take me a while to get there."
"Not necessarily," Susumu said, pushing himself up and grabbing his cane. "I have something that can get you there faster."
Susumu led the other two men to the back of his garage, where he approached an object covered in a green vehicle tarp. He removed the tarp, and J.J. gaped at the machine he revealed. Leaning on its kickstand was a beautiful new motorcycle. The bike had a sleek copper frame built in the shape of a galloping horse, under which was the chrome of the machinery required to make it work. The front of the bike was stylized with a polished copper horse head, snorting and baring its teeth.
"This is something I've been playing with in my free time," Susumu explained with a grin. "I call her the Bay-cycle. See, it's like the coat color, and it's-"
"A pun on bicycle, yes, very clever," J.J. sighed, glowering at Susumu, who grinned at him unrepentantly. "Is she fast?"
"Fast and agile, yep. I showed you how to ride a motorcycle a few months ago, right? Still feel confident enough to take her for a ride?" he asked, handing J.J. a brown leather jacket to wear.
"More or less," J.J. said, pulling on the jacket before climbing onto the seat and grabbing the brown helmet hanging off the handlebars. "Just take a few notes on the orc and come back, right?" he added. "Anything in particular you want me to mark down?"
"Anything you notice about its strength, speed, and special characteristics would be greatly appreciated," Tristan said, walking over to J.J. and holding out the leather book to him. J.J. slid it into his front pocket as he started up the motorcycle. "And thank you for your assistance, page. You are indeed brave."
"I'm really not," J.J. said over the engine starting up. "But like you said, I'm one of the few people who has any idea what's going on. So I'll take the notes and come back as soon as I'm done. Don't expect me to help beyond that," he warned them.
"That's more than enough. Now get going!" Susumu said.
Shaking his head, J.J. revved up the engine, and drove out of the garage and onto the main street. His phone was positioned in a slot between the handlebars, serving as a GPS for him as he sped down the street. Fortunately, there was little traffic, and he was able to make it through every green light. He found himself enjoying the ride, especially since it kept him from thinking too hard about what he was about to do. Over the past two days, his life had turned into a fantasy novel. Between coming to terms with the fact that magic existed, that fact that he was acquaintances with a knight from a thousand years ago from a kingdom he'd never heard of, and that now orcs were attacking his hometown? What else was going to challenge his worldview, he wondered. And more importantly, if everything Tristan said was true, how much danger were they all in? That last question caused a pit to form in his stomach. In every story, there were heroes with abilities on par with or exceeding the monsters they fought. Tristan claimed he had fought monsters before, but if he couldn't now, where did that leave them?
That thought lingered in J.J.'s mind as he pulled into the parking lot of the middle school. Already, he could see teachers herding the students away from the back of the building. He parked the bike and pulled off his helmet, trying to flag down one of the teachers, who gave him a wild-eyed look of panic.
"Get out of here! Run!" she shrieked. "It's coming!"
"Wait, wait, what's going on?" J.J. asked as calmly as he could.
"This… thing is destroying the school!" she shouted. "It's been attacking everything in sight!"
"Has anyone been hurt?" he asked.
"Thankfully, not yet, but we need to get out of here! Let the police deal with this!" she said, continuing to direct the crowd of students away from the school.
If only Susumu and Tristan thought the same, J.J. thought as he stepped away from his bike and began wading through the crowd of students, against their flow, towards the back of the school. As he did, he pulled out the book and an ink pen he always carried with him, in case he had a thought for his book while he was out.
As he rounded the corner of the building, he saw the orc standing on one of the basketball courts, roaring in rage as it tore down a fence like it was made of bubble wrap. J.J. huddled near one corner of the school and opened the diary to a blank page, before turning his attention to the beast. It stood over eight feet tall, and was covered in thick green skin, under which bulging muscles rippled as it continued to tear apart the fence. Shaggy black hair trailed from its head down its back, while a pair of tusks protruded from its lower lip. Its nose reminded J.J. of a pig, while its eyes were a burning, bright yellow. The only cloth the orc wore was a rough loincloth made of some sort of khaki leather, covering its lower body.
J.J. watched as it finished tearing apart the fence, then grabbed one of the basketball hoops and grunted as it tried to lift it out of the ground. His jaw slowly fell open as the pole was ripped from the concrete, and the beast began to bend it like taffy. His fingers fumbled as he quickly scribbled down this note in the diary. Its strength was undeniable, and he was willing to bet that its hide was extremely thick as well, since orcs were known for their endurance. Susumu had asked him to look for weaknesses, but he was unwilling to put down that the orc was slow. As large and as muscular as it was, combined with its unnaturally long arms, J.J. was willing to bet that it could probably run like a gorilla, charging at speeds a human couldn't outrun, which he also put down. But then… how was Tristan supposed to fight this thing, he wondered.
The orc threw the pole towards the treeline behind the courts, and a scream pierced the air. J.J. stared in horror, following the orc's gaze as it slowly turned towards the woods. A girl was hiding behind a tree, and the twisted metal pole had landed five feet from her. J.J. looked back at the orc and saw its mouth curl into a savage sneer. It began lumbering towards the girl, menacingly approaching her like a bear stalking its prey. J.J. glanced between the two, his heart racing, as he considered what to do. Finally, realizing that the only way to save the girl was to do something both very brave and very stupid, he stepped out from behind the school.
"Run!" he shouted to the girl, before whistling sharply to distract the orc. The lumbering monster turned towards him as the girl watched him intently. Glancing over at her, he yelled, "Get moving, now!" He then knelt down, grabbing a rock, and he threw it at the orc, which bounced off of its shoulder. "Come on, then! Come after some real prey!"
The orc briefly considered him, then turned back to the girl and resumed walking towards her. The girl refused to move, and J.J. swore under his breath. Turning, he sprinted towards the girl, outrunning the orc's almost casual pace, and he grabbed her arm. "Come on, we have to run!" he yelled at her, pulling her. The girl gripped the tree with her other arm, but her grip slowly loosened as J.J. pried her away from it. The orc, however, was nearly upon them, and J.J. felt his heart catch in his throat as it loomed over them. Finally, the girl took off, just as the orc reared back its arm. J.J. sprang forward, jumping up and grabbing the orc's arm, distracting it long enough for the girl to run behind it and out of danger. However, the force of the swing caught J.J., and threw him into the air. Because he had caught the orc's arm before the blow, he was only pushed, but he flew forty feet through the air into the woods, landing against a tree with a dull thud. He felt something crack, and the wind was knocked out of him, before he fell face-down onto the ground, unable to move.
Slowly, he raised his head, his vision swimming as he saw the orc watch the girl run off, but apparently the beast had lost interest in her, and it slowly walked back to the basketball courts, apparently intent on continuing to destroy them. Then he saw a bright light in front of him.
So, this is how I die, he thought bitterly. Just take notes, don't get involved. Once they join up with me in the afterlife again, I'm gonna kill Tristan and Susumu.
However, as he watched, the light coalesced into a figure. The being before him was garbed in flowing white robes, and six feathery wings were attached to its back. Its face was obscured by a silver mask. Angel, J.J. thought, as the figure floated towards him, and the light dissipated. It then knelt down in front of him, and a melodious laugh filled the air.
"I thought that I had sensed my brother's handiwork," came an echoing feminine voice. "But I did not expect to see an artifact of Almencia here as well. You bear an ancient heirloom, yet you are not of Almencian blood. This is curious. Perhaps you're a neutral party in what is to come, a wild card if you will. This could be interesting."
"Who… are you?" J.J. gasped, then coughed. Pain shot through his body, and he could hear how wet the cough was.
"Who I am is not important," the figure replied. "What matters now is what you choose to do. If you stay like this, you will die. I can offer you a second chance at life, and the power to defeat that orc. I have no love of my brother's pets, after all, and you may yet prove useful. What I must ask of you though, is this: If you had one thing about yourself you would change, what would it be?"
"What?" J.J. asked. "That's not… what does that matter?"
"Answer the question," the being insisted.
J.J. considered the question, fighting off the pain shooting through his body, before he managed a wry chuckle. "Aside from not being in so much pain? Nothing. I like who I am. More importantly, is that girl alright?"
The angel stared at him for a long time, before shaking their head. "Unusual. Few respond that way, and fewer think of others before themselves like that. You are more intriguing than I first suspected. Very well." Reaching out, the figure put their hands on his back, and J.J. gasped as he seemed to feel her hands phase through his body, though there was little pain; it was as though she was reaching through him, like he was made of air. When she pulled her hands back, the pain was gone, and she was holding a small piece of parchment and what looked like a translucent brown twenty-sided die, both of which she handed to him.
"Put this page in that book and push the crystal into the slot on the front cover," she told him.
"What slot?" J.J. asked, picking up the book. As he turned it over, he saw a slot had appeared in the center of the front cover, perfectly carved out to fit the crystal. Looking back up at the angel, he asked, "What is this?"
"That is how you will defeat my brother's creation. You seem bright; you will learn how to use this gift swiftly, I imagine. But a warning: Never forget why you wished for this gift in the first place. Good luck," she said cryptically, and before he could ask more questions, she turned and disappeared in another flash of light.
J.J. stared after her, then looked down at everything in his hands. He hesitated for several moments, completely unsure how to proceed in the wake of what had just happened, his mind racing. What had she done?
Before he could question anything further, the orc roared again, interrupting his thoughts. Looking up, he saw the orc was staring at him, watching him warily, as though disbelieving that he had gotten back up. A low growl erupted from its throat, and it began lumbering towards him again, clearly intent on crushing him for good this time. J.J. swallowed. The angel had told him that he had the power to beat the orc now, if he followed her instructions. With nothing to lose, he may as well try it.
He re-opened the diary to the page after his notes and slid the paper she had given him inside. To his amazement, the page attached itself to the bindings, as if by magic. He then turned the crystal over in his hand, putting it in the new slot on the front cover, and pushing down until he heard it click. When it did, he felt something tighten around his waist, and he looked down to see that a brown leather belt with a large steel buckle had wrapped around his waist. Looking down, he saw that the belt buckle was hollow. From his perspective, he saw that the "front" of the buckle was a thin sheet of metal, while behind that was a much thicker sheet that rested against his stomach.
He turned the book over in his hands for a moment before sliding it into the slot, with the front cover hanging out over the front of the buckle while the remainder slid into the back. He once more heard a click as it was fitted in place, but still nothing happened. The orc let out another roar and began charging towards him. In a panic, J.J. swatted at the front of the belt buckle, smacking it like TV to get it to work, and he felt the crystal on the front of the buckle push in like a button. Just as the orc was about to strike him, he was surrounded by a translucent amber crystal formation that seemed holographic. It began spinning rapidly, and as the orc brought its fist down, it bounced off of the crystal-shaped light and was thrown backwards, landing hard on its back. As it did, he heard a booming voice shout, "Adventure, begin!" This was immediately followed by the sound of a trumpet playing. J.J. then realized his body was paralyzed, trapped in the winds spinning around him.
J.J. closed his eyes, and when he reopened them, he found that the spinning light had stopped, and he was able to move again. However, his body felt heavier, like he had put on an extra set of heavy clothing, and he had slight tunnel vision. Looking down, he gasped as he realized that he was wearing a completely new outfit.
His torso was covered in a brown leather jerkin inlaid with a diamond pattern, similar padded leather armor, complete with four bronze clasps running down the center of his chest and stomach. His arms were covered in the same brown material, but they lacked the diamond pattern of the jerkin, instead being completely smooth. His hands were protected by black gloves, and as he flexed his fingers, he noted that the material felt different from regular leather. Rapping his knuckles on the jerkin, he realized that while the material of both the jerkin and the gloves looked like leather, it was far tougher, yet more flexible.
The jerkin extended a bit past his waist, under which he wore black pants made of the same material as the gloves. Calf-high brown riding boots completed the ensemble. Around his waist and over the jerkin, he still wore the belt, the book resting in the central slot with the crystal adorning the center like a jewel. At his left hip was a clip, which held the pommel of a short sword about thirty inches long. The blade was unusual, as it was shaped like a quill, giving the cutting edge a slight, elegant curve like a saber, which tapered to a sharp point, allowing it to be used for either thrusting or cutting. The hilt was smooth, and the base formed a sharp diamond-shaped pommel that reminded J.J. of a fountain pen.
J.J. slowly drew the sword, turning it over in his hand gently as the orc grunted and slowly began to pick himself up from the ground. Looking down at the beast, J.J. suddenly stepped forward and pointed the blade at the orc's throat. The orc stopped moving, looking up at him with burning yellow eyes.
"I don't want to have to hurt you," J.J. said slowly. "But I can't have you destroying parts of this city. I'm going to ask you once: Will you stop rampaging?"
The orc responded by roaring and swinging at J.J., who jumped backwards. To his surprise, he found himself flying through the air. He landed lightly on the grass fifteen feet behind him, and he paused to look down at himself in shock. He'd just meant to dodge, not to fling himself back like that. A roar caught his attention, and before he could react, the orc was charging at him. The beast's fist caught him square in the stomach, and he let out a grunt as the wind was knocked out of him and he was sent flying again. He tumbled onto the grass, rolling a few times before coming to a stop. He coughed and slowly picked himself up, but was surprised to find that other than having the wind knocked out of him, he was more or less okay. Taking a deep breath, he stood and gripped his sword a bit more tightly.
As the orc charged at him again, he realized that its movements seemed slower than before. When the orc swung at him again, he ducked, and the orc's blow missed him entirely. With the orc's belly exposed to him, he stepped forward and slashed horizontally with his sword. The blade bit into the orc's hide, leaving a shallow gash. The orc roared and once again punched at J.J., this time with an uppercut that he was unable to dodge. It caught him in the ribs, but again the armor cushioned the blow. He flew through the air and landed heavily on his feet, but was able to keep his balance.
Exhaling again, he gripped the sword and ran forward towards the orc, surprising the beast with his sudden attack. The orc jabbed at him, but J.J. leaned to the left, and as he did, he slashed downwards with the sword, leaving another shallow gash in the orc's arm. This time, though, as the orc tried a follow-up blow, he stepped back, avoiding the hard right hook. The force of the orc's attack once again sent it into a spin, and J.J. realized that it was overestimating the force it would need to attack him. It was like a kid fighting on the playground, using nothing but strength with no control. Keep calm, he told himself, and patiently wear it down. Let it tire itself out.
The orc began punching wildly at him, swinging desperately, but J.J. kept dancing out of its range, watching it intently as the orc began to wear itself down. When it swung with a haymaker, he dodged the blow, stepped in, and cut its arm again, before jumping back. By this time, the orc was panting, exhausted, while J.J. felt like he was getting the hang of his enhanced strength and reflexes.
J.J. shifted his stance, trying to emulate fencers he had watched on TV, holding the sword out in front of him and angling his body so that as little of it was exposed as possible. The orc seemed startled by this sudden posture, and as he began to approach the orc, it suddenly turned and began running from him. J.J. was surprised by this sudden retreat, but then horror gripped him as he realized the orc was running towards the crowd of people. However, before he could react, glowing red lines began spreading across the orc's green body, expanding like fracturing glass, until the orc's form disappeared in a flash of bright red light. J.J. shielded his eyes, and as he lowered his hand, he saw that the orc was gone, and Ryan was running away from him. J.J. held out his hand, and was about to call out to the boy, but the kid managed to scamper around the side of the building, disappearing into the crowd of children. J.J. lowered his hand, realizing that he couldn't exactly dive into the crowd after Ryan, and had to let him go for now.
J.J. slowly clipped his sword to his belt again, then jogged to one of the unbroken windows of the school to get a look at himself. When he did, he was amazed by what he saw. Aside from his armor, he saw that he was also wearing a brown helmet, the front of which opened to a black shield-shaped faceplate, making him look like he was wearing a leather coif. On this face plate were two vertical amber rhombuses joined back-to-back to create a shape reminiscent of an open book. The rhombuses were bisected vertically by a gleaming silver sword with a triangle-shaped crossguard and a smaller triangle-shaped pommel. All in all, he looked vaguely like a medieval squire or adventurer dressed in leather armor. He couldn't help but wonder if this was the same armor that Tristan had mentioned wearing a thousand years ago.
Still reeling, he looked himself over, trying to figure out how to remove the armor. He was struck with an idea when his eyes fell on the book resting in the belt buckle. He pushed down on the crystal again, and it popped out into his hand, while the armor disappeared in a flash of light, as did the belt. J.J. caught the book as it dropped and slid it into his front pocket, along with the crystal. As he did, people began to come around the side of the building to where he was. The teacher that he had seen before stared at him, her eyes lighting up in recognition.
"You! You're that guy from earlier!" she exclaimed. "What happened? Where's that monster? Did you beat it?!"
"Yeah, I just fought off something that was tearing apart concrete with its bare hands. Walked up and punched it right in the face," J.J. replied sarcastically, his stomach dropping as he realized how easy it was to lie to her. "No, that thing got bored and ran off into the woods when it got done with the basketball course. I dunno where it went."
"Oh. Are you… alright?" she asked, approaching his cautiously.
"I'm fine. It basically ignored me. But if you don't mind, I need to head out," he said.
"Ah, but the police…!"
"Aren't going to want to interview some random guy who doesn't even have a kid at this school," J.J. pointed out. Before she could protest, he was already walking to the parking lot and made his way over to the motorcycle.
As he climbed astride it, he saw Ryan watching him from the crowd. J.J. hesitated, considering going after him, but he decided to hold off for the moment. He had questions for the kid, but more importantly, he had to get answers about what was going on from Tristan first. He strapped on his helmet, turned over the ignition, and took off towards Susumu's garage, letting the thrill of the ride distract him from the thousands of questions racing through his mind.