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Unfamiliar Territory

“Wake up.”

Sam jolted upright when he felt pain lance through his leg like lightning and pushed himself off of the car seat and peered up at Cyarocya as she frowned in the doorway. Instead of saying anything, she just frowned and turned away with her heels clicking as she walked away. It took all his strength to not fall back into the still warm leather and go back to sleep but Sam peered outside, yawning with a painful wince as his nose twitched in pain. At first, Sam expected to be outside of a hospital; his bruised and swollen limbs still needed medical attention, and only felt his annoyance grow at the sight of a wooden cottage nestled amongst a tidy garden.

The cottage looked too inviting with a fresh coat of paint that let the dark, natural rosewood glisten in the sun. There was a winding cobblestone path lined with stones of every color and flowers of every hue swaying in the breeze. Patches of fauna looked familiar to Sam but there was an abundance of monstrously sized plants in all manners of colors that looked like they could swallow him whole. No doubt they had magical properties… Or they were indeed just there to devour any intruders. The sight of them made Sam gulp, even if they were shaking harmlessly in the wind now.

“Where are we?” He groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Your new home,” Lilli replied, holding out her hands to him, smiling gently, “Cyarocya demanded we come here immediately so I will tend to your wounds before we begin your training.”

Training… It almost seemed like a sugar coating for torture. Sam reached out and took the blond woman’s hands in his own and grunted with effort as he stood. It was quite a surprise when he felt Lilli pulling him upright. Looks were more deceiving than he initially thought, “What kind of training?” Sam asked, stepping toward the path with another sear of pain shooting up his leg that caused him to stumble.

“You are worse than I thought,” Lilli started, catching him quickly and wrapping one of her arms around his waist while forcing his own arm over her shoulder with a nod, “Though for you, it won’t be anything strenuous. To be honest, Cy and I hardly go out on missions. She tends to be picky with her choice of work -- mainly because more than half of the jobs we’re offered can be done by any other defense force in the Underground…”

“So, what, you’re bounty hunters?”

Lilli hummed in through as she led him up the path, “Not in the traditional sense. We just have a very specialized practice.”

Sam clicked his tongue, more grateful than he was saying for Lilli’s support, and tried to imagine the sort of work the two of them were involved in. His mind drifted to his own ‘charges’ and he frowned internally. Smuggling, illegal magic – there was probably a mile long list of the sorts of things Cyarocya dealt with and all of the dangerous. He shivered, quickly praying he wouldn’t have to throw away his life for the smallest of sakes, “Sounds … dangerous, I guess.”

“It can be. But that’s what Cyarocya has been doing practically her whole life. It’s why I signed on to be her assistant and in time you won’t think it to be dangerous. In fact, I’m sure in six months you won’t even bat an eye at some of our requests. It’ll just be another Tuesday.” Lilli went on, helping him up a small set of wooden stairs and carrying him to the front door. Sam wheezed when he laughed, clutching his chest where his lungs hurt. He would need more than a just a day to recover from this pain.

As Lilli carried him inside, Sam was surprised to see the small cottage exceeded his expectations on the inside. Sprawling hardwood and fluffy white carpet decorated the hall as it opened up into an array of rooms on either side. On the right, what appeared to be a study with bookshelves that reached the ceiling and on the left a sprawling gourmet kitchen where Cyarocya was already standing, putting a kettle on the stove. Another hall stretched in front of them and Sam barely made out a table and assumed it was a dining area. In the middle of the hall, a spiral staircase stretched above them leading not only to a second story, but a third as well and Sam’s eyes widened at the sight.

“It looks so small on the outside…” he breathed quietly, taking it all in.

“A little courtesy of the Board. A mansion would look a little strange in the middle of nowhere so we hide it behind the illusion of the cottage. That way no one bothers us too much…”

“Magic is really incredible.” Sam blurted out, suddenly aware of his own awe. His chest fluttered with his excitement and his eyes lit up as he looked toward the study. All those books… He could only hope he’d get his hands on them later.

“You haven’t even seen the best part Sam.” Lilli sang, leading him to the stairs and taking him up them one at a time, “Cy! When you’ve prepared the tea, please bring Sam and I some cups!”

Cyarocya’s reply was a grunt, but from the way Lilli was grinning, Sam could only assume that was a yes and felt Lilli guide him off the landing and down the hall. The upstairs was not as sprawling as the first floor, but there were a variety of doors of different shapes and shades of wood. He made a mental note to open them at least once before Cyarocya’s assistant opened a heavy looking auburn door. The room before them was a neat bedroom with barely anything inside, besides the amenities. A queen bed was tucked in the corner, already made and a dresser sat across from that. Beside the bed, a small nightstand and a lamp that looked like it would be good for reading sat with a thin layer of dust on them. The more Sam looked around, the more he realized it wasn’t just the nightstand that had dust on it; the curtains, the mirror hanging on the left wall and even the handle of the closet, all of it was covered in dust.

“This can be your room. We don’t really have guests over but we’ll clean everything up eventually. Let’s get you healed up before the tea is ready first.” Lilli chimed, sitting Sam on the edge of the bed.

“Here I thought I would be in a closet.”

Lilli chuckled, snapping her fingers as a warm light encased her hand, “If Cyarocya had her way about everything, which normally she does, you would. But that’s why Grandfather allowed me to work and stay here.” She explained, waving her lit hand in front of his face. Sam felt the pain in his nose dull and reached up to touch it and let out a sigh of relief to find despite its tenderness that it was no longer stinging and swollen.

“You’re like her polar opposite.”

“Not necessarily,” Lilli mused, trailing her hand down his torso and Sam felt relief as the ache in his chest disappeared, “We have the same opinion on many things. I just haven’t developed her cynicism yet.”

“Her attitude is beyond cynical. ..more like evil.” Sam added as Lilli swept a hand over each of his legs and he sighed as his muscles relaxed.

“You say evil. But Cyarocya is practically a hero in the Underground. You have only just arrived, but you’ll do well to watch what you say.” She explained, standing up and waving her hand, the light disappearing, “Feel better?”

“Hero or not, it doesn’t give her the right to treat people the way she does,” Sam retorted and rolled his shoulder for a moment before falling back on the bed with a nod, “I just want to sleep more at this point.”

Lilli watched him, quietly at first before turning to the door with a shrug, “You’ll have plenty of time to rest after we eat. I’ll bring you some tea.” Sam nodded and stared up the ceiling as he heard the door close before her. He didn’t bring it up, but she had completely ignored his comment about Cyarocya.

Falling back onto the bed, Sam’s mind felt numb and his head was cloudy as he tried to process everything he had experienced. From bookstore attendant to criminal to prisoner and finally ending up as some sort of assistant. He wasn’t sure where his life was heading now, but as Sam pulled himself further up onto the bed, he couldn’t help but think that things were never going to be easy. There was no more normality; no more hiding behind others and hoping he wouldn’t get called on or pushed into the spotlight.

Sam was playing by a new set of rules – ones he didn’t even have the slightest clue about.

Before he knew it, Sam was opening his eyes to darkness. Groaning, he reached across the bed, groping for the light next to his bed and only found air. Then he realized he wasn’t in his own room, at least the room he was used to. Rolling onto his other side, Sam nearly knocked the lamp over as a cloud of dust floated toward him before he finally found the switch. Warm golden light filled half the room as Sam looked around cautiously as he remembered where he was. Trying to still wrap his head around his living situation, Sam pushed himself off the bed and looked around the room. What was once partially bare had been accommodated with a number of suitcases, all of them familiar. Sam knelt beside them and opened one with a faint smile as the sight of his own clothes warmed his heart. Standing up, Sam opened the luggage and began unpacking things into his new dresser. Lucky for him, he had a fairly small wardrobe and the armoire wasn’t even half full by the time he was finished.

“Now that that’s done…” Sam muttered to himself, moving to the window where he pulled the curtains back slightly.

It wasn’t a surprise to see that night had fallen. He was surprised to see just how inky black it was outside though. The house sat in an open field, no other buildings around them. He could see lights in the distance and he wondered for a moment just where they were. It reminded him of home to an uncomfortable level. Closing the curtains, Sam took another look around the room. He felt like a stranger in someone else’s home rather than his own room.

“Sam? Are you awake?” Sam turned, nearly tripping himself over the nightstand at the sound of Lilli’s voice and stumbled to the door.

“Y-yeah! Sorry, I just woke up.” He muttered, opening the door with a small grunt to see the other in front of him.

“You look better than before.” She commented, pushing some of her hair over her ear before walking inside with a small squeak of happiness, “And you found your luggage! Brilliant! I was worried for a moment. I pulled a couple strings and had one of our friends fish it out amongst all the other things from your apartment.”

“The – what? My apartment? Where did they take all of our things?” Sam asked with a deep frown.

“Oh .. well, it’s gone to be confiscated and investigated and then probably sold to the highest bidder… That’s how these things work.” Lilli mentioned, kneeling beside the empty suitcases before rummaging through them.

Sam groaned and rubbed his forehead. All of his things, all of the things his father had collected over the years were just gone. It was too sad of a fate to even think about, “Don’t be too upset. All of the things from your room we were able to get back, for the most part.” Lilli mentioned, “Which is why I am here. It’s too late to do anything now but I figured you’d enjoy little pieces of home here.” The blond chatted happily as she moved back to the door and grabbed a smaller bag, handing it to Sam with a smile. Peeking inside, Sam felt his chest tighten as he pulled out a number of framed pictures, books and other items he had kept in his room.

“I was just thinking this place didn’t feel like my room…” Sam whispered, laying everything out on the bed. An old snow globe that had cracked, pictures of him and his father, pictures of him and Gina… Shit, Gina. She’s probably worried right now. Sam thought, taking out a stack of books that still had their pages marked.

“A girlfriend?” Lilli asked, pointing at one of the pictures and Sam cleared his throat, covering them with his hands.

“N-no. Childhood friend. She’s like a sister to me, really. ..I’m gonna miss her.” Sam trailed off, picking up the pictures again to place them around the room.

“You must hate us for moving you into this place.” Lilli commented quietly, watching Sam move around the room.

“I do,” He admitted, looking back at Lilli, “But I hate whoever set my dad up more. So I’m gonna do all I can to stop them.”

Lilli blinked at him before sitting down at the edge of the bed, “Even if you die? ..or lose your humanity?”

Sam stopped and narrowed his gaze at the girl. Her words were heavy, but she wore no expression. Lilli merely watched him, waiting for his answer. Wetting his lips, Sam turned away and set down a picture of his father on the windowsill and furrowed his brow in determination. The man in the photo would never smile, or laugh or cry ever again. Someone, somewhere in the Underground, made that happen. Sam felt his anger burning his chest, his throat tightening with his determination. Looking toward Lilli again, he needed, “I don’t care what it takes. I’ll get revenge for my father.”

At his words, Lilli finally smiled and reached into the pocket of her dress, holding out a pair of glasses for him and nodded, “You’ll need these for your training tomorrow. Go back to bed. You’ll need as much rest as you can,” she said, standing up and dusting off her skirt, “You’ll need your mind to be sharp.”

“What kind of training are we talking about anyway?”

Lilli paused as she marched toward the door and hummed quietly, “Well, since you know nothing about the Underground, we’ll have to teach you, well, everything. Laws, factions, sectors, markets, the Board, the Pillars, the Guardians – well, everything. I hope you enjoy reading!” Before Sam could answer, Lilli waved and walked out with a heavy thud from the door. Running his hands through his hair, Sam quietly thanked his dad for making sure he was book smart.

“Sounds like…fun, I guess.” Sam told himself, looking at the glasses he had been given. Putting them on, he squinted as his eyes adjusted. They were perfect. Heh…thanks Lilli. He thought, sitting back down on the bed. Picking up one of the books from his stack, Sam leaned back, knowing that for the time being, he wouldn’t get back to sleep so easily. Opening the book up to his saved place, he threw the covers over his legs and by the warm light of his lamp, Sam laid down until his eyes felt heavy once more and the words on the page began to swim into nothing but blurs.

By the time Sam awoke from his slumber, the warm smell of breakfast had wafted up to his room. His last meal seemed like a lifetime ago, so as soon as he smelled bacon he was up and dressed and walking down the staircase with a wide yawn. Walking into the kitchen, Sam felt floored with surprise when he saw Cyarocya manning the stove in casual attire while Lilli sat reading a newspaper, teacup in hand. The blond looked up from her reading and smiled with a wave.

"Well, good morning! You look well rested. And the color has returned to your face. Oh, but my manners… Sit, sit! Breakfast will be finished soon, right Cy?" Lilli babbled excitedly, looking over at the silver haired woman.

"For you, perhaps…" Cyarocya muttered, turning to the table to set down a platter of eggs, not even glancing at Sam.

Sam watched her and then sighed heavily. As much as he wanted to say something, he stayed silent and directed his attention to the plates as he sat down. The mountain of toast looked too tempting and he grabbed a couple slices and a jar of what appeared to be jam and grinned, "Man, I am so hungry! All of this looks amazing."

"Well, eat up. We have a busy day ahead of us." Lilli added, taking a slice of toast for herself, holding out a hand for the jam.

"Right, right. My 'training'..." Sam muttered to himself, nearly spearing his toast with his butter knife before handing the jar to the other.

"I'm sure this education will be more beneficial to you than your meager community college classes." Cyarocya mused from the stove as something sizzled in front of her.

"How do you know …"

"I checked your records last night. Quite average. I wanted to know just who I was letting into my home and business." The demon continued, turning back to the table while dropping a plater of meats; sausage, glazed ham, bacon .. it was all there. Sam couldn't help the envy he felt at the sight of a full table.

"I would have told you. I'm not hiding anything."

The demon scoffed and took her seat at the table, pouring herself a cup of coffee before picking up a newspaper herself. Sam took a hesitant bite of his toast, and wondered for a moment if the burst of sour he tasted was from Cyarocya's palpable aura or if it was the jam, "S-so..Lilli.. where are we going to start? When do I get to learn some magic."

Another quite scoff, this time silenced by a stern look from Lilli, "Actually," she started, directed her attention back to Sam, "I have some errands to run in the Banshee market today. You can come with me, if you'd like. It would be a good first-hand look at how .. our society looks in comparison to yours. I can teach you as we shop. That sounds better than studying from a dusty old tome, doesn't it?"

Sam swallowed his bite of food, serving himself a helping of eggs and sasuage with a thoughtful hum. Not only did her offer sound better than reading a history, even if he did want to, it also sounded more sutiable than sitting in the same building with Cyarocya. He wanted to keep his head for more than a week…

"Sounds like a plan Lilli!"

Lilli smiled and finished her tea and toast, folding her newspaper neatly, "Wonderful! I may have you doing some heavy lifting. And while we're out, did you want me to visit that little bakery and pick you up something Cy?" As Lilli looked at Cyarocya, the demon shrugged and gave a noncommital grunt to which Lilli smiled and nodded, "Perfect. I'll call ahead." Lilli pushed herself back from the table and reached into the pocket of her skirt, taking out a cell phone and walked off with a hum. Sam stopped mid.bite to watch her go, half in shock and half confusion.

"You..she had a cell phone."

"Are you so poor you couldn't afford one?" Cyarocya said with a snort of amusement, looking over the top of her paper.

"I just," Sam trailed off, trying to find the words to express his surprise, "I guess I wasn't expecting it. ..Cars, I get. It's just when you read about magic, you never think technlogy. ..Wouldn't it just be cooler to use magic to communicate?"

Cyarocya rolled her exposed eye, tapping her eye patch before setting the paper down, grabbing a slice of bacon, "Humans are all the same... We use magic just as you use technology. We aren't so arcahic that we don't know technology. The Underground has invented as much, if not more, of your technological advances than humans have."

"…amazing…" Sam breathed excitedly. A whole magical society intergrated with technology? It seemed like a dream come true, "I can't believe I get to live here now. I'm either really luck or .. "

"Do not consider your circumstances luck," Cyarocya said, standing from the table,"You're not lucky. You were brought here by Fate. For some reason They want you alive.That is why you sit here today. You're not lucky. You're not even favored. Your branded." The demon snapped with an icy edge to her words and anger burning in her emerald gaze. Before Sam could reply, she turned and walked toward a door at the other end of the kitchen and disappeared behind it with a small click to follow after her.

Sam looked down at his plate, feeling the familar sensation of a million questions circling his mind. Branded… That definatly made his circumstances seem more like a punishment than a reward. And here I thought just having a roof over my head was good enough… Pushing himself away from the table, Sam stood up and cleared away the half empty dishes while his hunger melted away. Soon he'd be away from Cyarocya for the day…that would make everything better.

"Alright Sam! I've got our order set and that's when we will stop for lunch. Are you ready to see some real magic?" Lilli called from the other room and Sam felt excitement surge through him. Magic!! Just the thought reenergized him enough to forget about Cyarocya's cryptic message. Shoveling food into his mouth, Sam finished eating and jogged into the other room, beaming toward Lilli.

"Ready to go!"

"Perfect. I've just prepping a little bit for the trip; for you. It's never easy traveling using magic for the first time. You're bound to get sick." Lilli explained, handing Sam a small bag, "Old fashioned remedies for your head and stomach. And there’s an amulet to give you protection. You'd stand out in a crowd as a human so this will give you a weak enough aura that you'll practically go unnoticed." As she spoke, Sam opened the bag and sifted through it. The herbs smelled musky and looked delicate enough to eat. At the woman's nod, he chewed and swallowed them with a grimace and then took out a smell pendant from the bottom of the satchel.

It was nothing immaculate; merely a blue cyrtsal on the end of a thick black cord. In his palm, it felt warm though and Sam put it on, letting it rest against his throat. Then, all at once, the warmth that had lingered on his palm spread over him like a veil. Lilli hummed and nodded, hands on her hips, "Good, good. It responded well to you. It looks like you're at least cut out for minor arcane magics. Perhaps you're not so hopeless…"

"H-hey.. That's a little uncalled for…"

"I'm just kidding!" Lilli chimed, patting him on the shoulder, "You'll learn in time, just not today. For now…" she trailed off, turning away from Sam to face a bare wall.

Holding out her palm, Lilli closed her eyes and began mouthing to herself. In the subtle quietness, Sam could hear her whispering words he couldn't understand while a quiet hum buzzed around him. The air felt chilled suddenly, despite the still thin layer of warmth that protected his arms. The humming got louder as a light suddenly pulsed in Lilli's palm, a glowing following suit in the center of the wall. After a moment, the wall opened, turning into a black void and Lilli dropped her hand, nodding. Sam stood quietly, his chest tightening in excitement. Magic! Real life magic…!

"Okay Sam, I'll go in first. Wait just a moment before jumping. And, for the love of Fate, just relax. You'll only hurt yourself on the landing." Lilli explained in a lighthearted tone. Without any other hesitation, the blond magic-user walked into the portal and disappeared with a soft groan of wind leaving Sam alone in the living room.

Gulping, Sam took a step toward the portal, eyeing the darkness of the wall. Relax, she says... He thought, shuffling toward the portal still until he could feel it pulling him toward the center. Rolling his shoulders, Sam inhaled deeply, trying to find the confidence to take the plunge. He couldn't imagine Lilli trying to kill him…yet. Taking one last glance at the portal, Sam finally held his breath and stepped into the portal only to feel the ground get swept out from under him and he tumbled into darkness head first.

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