TOSotG: Chapter Ten
  

X - The Amazing Butterfields

The Wayfarer’s Inn had been eerily calm all afternoon. Even the local barflies who practically lived there were missing. It was a peculiar lull in the bar’s activity that was the result of being directly in between the two biggest events of the year there: New Year’s Eve, and the Bugbears’ last concert of the season.

The inn’s common room had been packed to the rafters the previous night, for the New Year celebration that was, in Greetingsport, the greatest night for drinking and revelry of the year. Partygoers were drinking and dancing and enjoying themselves all through the night and into the late hours of the morning. It was nearly noon before the last of the revelers had gone home to sleep off their long night of carousing. 

Most of those who had stayed last night would be too hung over and exhausted to attend the last concert of The Bugbear Band in Greetingsport for many months. Still, the concert was expected to bring a couple hundred townsfolk in that evening, and the inn would be jam-packed once again.

Easily the most popular troubadour act in the town, The Bugbears were getting ready to move on to other Realms to perform. And since they were going to be helping their newest member on his forward-quest to boot, it would likely be quite some time before they returned. 

Artimus Rauche, the inn’s proprietor, was dreading the loss of the popular band for a year or longer, as he was sure that business would drop off while they were gone. Despite The Wayfarer’s popularity, he had incurred a number of expenses from the previous year. There had been damages from several “scamp raids”, like the one Daniel had fallen victim to, shortly after arriving. A particularly nasty brawl between rival trading guilds back in July had nearly destroyed the common room, and it took weeks for renovations to be completed. Before the Bugbears arrived in the fall, another troubadour act who had been performing there had been secretly stealing provisions and inn property during their stay, and most tragically, Artimus’ niece had fallen ill early in the previous year, and despite the several thousand ingots he’d given to help in her treatment, she died.

The two-month stay of The Bugbear Band had given Artimus a much-needed boost in revenue, but while the strong winter business had helped to pay off his debts, it seemed unlikely he could survive if another bad financial year reoccurred this time around. Tonight’s concert would be the last chance he would have for a long time to bring in a big crowd.

Because of all this, Artimus was busily making preparations for the night’s big event, cleaning up from the extended New Year’s Eve celebrations from the night and early morning, and also organizing the common room to hold the big crowd expected. 

He had been up all night tending bar and hosting the New Year’s party, and had not gotten a wink of sleep. He’d sent his staff home to rest up for the concert, and thus was left alone to make preparations on his own. 

As Daniel stepped inside The Wayfarer’s, he could sense the deceptiveness of the eerie calm inside, like the eye of a hurricane. He saw a pair of travelers over by the reading area that he didn’t recognize, and about a dozen or so loyal Bugbear fans milling about near the stage, having come very early to secure the prime position up front. Sitting at the bar was Hagan O’Dowd, the recently homeless ex-fruit merchant who had taken up temporary residence at The Wayfarer’s Inn, and who had spent most of the past week drowning his sorrows in round after round of germ ale while draining the last of his financial reserves in the process. 

Still caked in mud, but now carrying a bouquet of bright, pretty flowers, Daniel went over to Artimus, who was busy removing the chairs from all the tables so that there would be more room for patrons tonight. Despite his weariness, Artimus looked up at him with surprise as he approached.

“Blazes, Daniel! What happened to you?”

Daniel looked down at himself self-consciously, suddenly realizing that he was tracking mud on the stone floor as we walked. 

“Yeah, sorry about the mud – long story. Would it be possible to get a quick bath so that I can clean up before tonight?”

“Sure. But I thought you weren’t coming. Eleanor was here earlier, and she said-“

“I was kind of a jerk to her.” Daniel admitted. “That’s what these are for.”

He held up the bouquet, which Artimus inspected quizzically. “I didn’t know Eleanor was in to gardening.”

Daniel shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t want to bother you, is it okay if I just pay you for the bath now and go in on my own? I don’t need hot water. I just want to clean up.”

Artimus sighed wearily and nodded. “Sure, sure. The bath room key is just behind the bar there. Just leave the ingots under there, if you would.”

Daniel smiled and nodded. “Thanks, Artimus. Once I go apologize to Eleanor, I’ll come back and help you get ready.”

Artimus grinned with a look of relief. “Nah, don’t worry about that. I’m nearly done here. You just be sure to get make it down here tonight. Everybody’s been asking about you.”

Returning to his preparations, Artimus nodded at him, and Daniel quickly made his way over to the bar, trying his best not to track more mud on the floor as he went. Making his way behind the counter, he fished the bath house key out from underneath the bar. He then fished three ingots from his pouch and slipped it underneath the key peg. Looking up, he saw Hagan in front of him, staring blankly off into space.

“Hagan, I’m glad I caught you here. I have some good news for you.”

“There’s no good news for me, ever again.” He moaned in a soggy voice.

“You’ve got a new job, if you want it.” Daniel offered.

Hagan looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “Phsst! I can’t be a courier. Look at me, I have a sensitive system.”

“I think you underestimate yourself when it comes to physical labor.” Daniel told him. “But luckily, that’s not what I’m talking about. I just spoke with Ms. Hammond across the street at the flower shop. She’s willing to take you on as an apprentice.”

“Flower shop?” Hagan grumbled disapprovingly. “I don’t know anything about flowers.”

“That’s why you’d be an apprentice.” Daniel replied patiently.

Unconvinced, Hagan took a heavy swig from his mug of ale, and groaned loudly. “So what, I guess she just wants to take on another hopeless case who’ll end up killing themselves, is that right? Well she can keep her pity, and so can you.”

Daniel’s face darkened. “Well if you want to do that, fine. I know how much you love playing the victim, Hagan, and if you’re pissed off at Lara for stealing your thunder, well, that’s something you’ll have to deal with on your own – when you’re sober.”

“What do you care? Huh?” He pouted mournfully as he plopped his face sideways on the bar top. 

“You got a bad break.” Daniel told him. “But you have to admit, part of it is your own fault. I just think that maybe, just maybe, if you can pull yourself out of your own well of self-pity, you’ll find a way to deserve this second chance you’re getting. If you can pull yourself together, right now, you’ve got a shot to reclaim your own life.”

“I’m out on the street the day after tomorrow.” Hagan complained. “I’m flat broke. How am I supposed to work when I don’t even have a roof over my head at night?”

“You can stay with me.” Daniel replied. “You can sleep on the floor of my room over at Midtrade Hostel until you’ve made enough at the flower shop to take out your own room.”

Hagan’s eyes widened as he looked up at him. “You’d let me live with you?”
 “Only if you’re working at the flower shop.” Daniel told him sternly. “And only until you’ve saved up enough to pay for your own lodging. And while you’re living with me, there’ll be none of this-”

Daniel pulled the mug of germ ale from his inebriated grip, and slipped it underneath the bar. 

“You’ve had your last drink until you’re back on your feet again. I’m telling Artimus not to serve you anymore. And if I catch you drinking, or if you skip out on working at the shop, or really if you do anything to piss me off, Hagan . . . you’re out on the street, and I’ll have nothing more to do with you. Understand?”

Hagan sat there, blinking heavily as he mulled over Daniel’s proposal. Finally, he looked up at him with a glimmer of hope.

“Ms. Hammond – she’s not married, is she?”

Daniel glanced at him skeptically. “I don’t think so.”

Hagan straightened up on his stool, ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it out, and let out a sharp belch.

“Maybe I should go meet my new boss now then.”

Daniel eyed him warily. “I’d wait until you’ve sobered up first. You want to make a good first impression, right?”

Hagan nodded emphatically. “Right! I’ll go get my things so I can move in with you tonight!”

Daniel smiled weakly and nodded. As Hagan eagerly went upstairs to take his few remaining possessions out of his room, Daniel dug up an empty mug from underneath the bar counter, and stuck the flowers in it while he went off to the bath room to clean himself up.

A couple of hours later, Daniel was cleaned up and headed for the Krunk house without his poncho. It took so long just to get cleaned up and to get the mud scraped off of his trousers that he didn’t have time to clean the poncho effectively, so he decided to stash it in the back of The Wayfarer’s storeroom, and go without it tonight.

That did, however, leave him without much in the way of protection against the elements. The rain had returned to a bitter drizzle again as the afternoon waned, but it was still cold and damp out. Daniel was determined to brave the cold, but Artimus let him borrow a pipe hat in order to keep from getting soaked.

Pipe hats are wide-brimmed, conical hats made of leather that looked like a cross between a witch’s hat and the kind of headgear one visualizes for a Vietnamese peasant working in a rice paddy. Daniel couldn’t help feeling ridiculous wearing the pipe hat, but it was very effective at keeping him dry as he made his way across town.

By the time he had reached the bug catcher’s house, he was still feeling achy from the tussle he’d had with Anna a few hours before. There was also the late afternoon chill of the January air which cut through his shirt far more than he’d expected. It seemed that the poncho was more effective at keeping him warm and comfortable than he realized.

Luckily though, the pipe hat seemed to work just as well as an umbrella. He and the flower bouquet were relatively dry when he arrived, and after knocking on the front door, he carefully adjusted the array of soft-pedaled flowers for an ideal presentation.

Answering the door was Eleanor’s father, Mr. Krunk. He looked upon Daniel in surprise, but seemed quite happy to see him.

“Ah, Daniel! Good to see you. I’m glad you’ve come.”

Mr. Krunk welcomed him inside, and Daniel was eager to take off the silly-looking pipe hat as soon as he was safely within the shelter of the house. The stove in the kitchen was going, which seemed to heat the whole house effectively. The warmth of the house’s interior made Daniel shiver involuntarily.

“Goodness, you look cold.” Mr. Krunk surmised as he took his hat to hang it on one of the wall pegs near the door. “I was just making some tea, won’t you join me?”

Daniel nodded gratefully. “Thank you, sir. Is Eleanor around?” 

“She stepped out to help Mr. Gray with his fever.” Mr. Krunk told him, shuffling into the kitchen. “She should be back soon, though.”

“She’s probably mad at me.” Daniel admitted as he sat down in his chair. “I was kind of a jerk to her earlier.”

“Oh?” Mr. Krunk called out from the kitchen. “She didn’t mention anything to me. But she has been acting a bit down lately. She’s really fond of you, you know.”

Daniel looked down at the bouquet, but didn’t answer. He could hear the clattering of pans in the kitchen, as Mr. Krunk was rummaging through the cupboards looking for an extra cup. When he returned to the sitting room, he brought with him a tin cup with steaming hot brown liquid in it, and handed it to Daniel. After he’d accepted the tea, Mr. Krunk went back into the kitchen to retrieve his own cup.

“I was speaking to Carlyle, the clay mason over on Drudge Street.” He told Daniel after returning with his own mug. “He says that he might know a few youngsters willing to take another try at forming a part-time baseball league again.”

“That’s good to hear.” Daniel responded, blowing on his tea.

“He’s one of the fans from the old league we had here back in the day. If he can recruit enough of his workers to join up, we might be able to form four or five teams this spring. Isn’t that great?”

Daniel smiled and nodded as he carefully sipped his tea. It was still much too hot, and whatever Mr. Krunk used to brew it was very bitter, but the crispness of the water seemed to cut it enough to make it drinkable.

Just then, the door swung open and a draft of cold air swept through the room. Eleanor, wearing a dirty brown cloak, quickly stepped inside and closed the door firmly behind her. She had a white tin lunchbox-shaped container under his arm which Daniel recognized as the first-aid kit, which she’d worked hard to stock with whatever medical supplies she could scrounge.

While most townsfolk relied on the town healer to cure their ills and injuries, there were a few who, from observation or experience, distrusted the professional’s suspect methods. Some of those who recognized Eleanor’s gift for holistic care and problem solving would request her help whenever the need came about. Daniel had noticed over the past month how she would often be summoned by an elderly spinster with a cold or young cousin who had twisted an ankle and how she would eagerly collect her little kit and rush off to help. Her father mentioned to him once that she didn’t make these house calls nearly as often before Daniel had arrived in Greetingsport.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Daddy.” She called out as she hung her cloak on the peg. “I can start supper-“

As she turned around, she spotted Daniel for the first time as he quickly rose to his feet, spilling the hot tea on his hand. He bit his lower lip to keep from yelping, and gingerly placed the tin cup on the nearby end table.

“Daniel!” She exclaimed in surprise. “I- I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Yeah, I know.” He replied sheepishly. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he offered the bouquet of flowers to her.

Eleanor looked down at the flowers quizzically. “What are these?”

“Stemrope blossoms, from the Fourth Realm.” Daniel replied. “I got them from the flower shop - they kind of look like daises. That’s why I picked them.”

Eleanor accepted them cautiously. “I don’t understand.”

Daniel furrowed his brow and began to stutter. “Well, I- I just thought … I mean, back in the Otherworld, boys would occasionally give … you know, girls … flowers sometimes. In order to make apologies … for being a jerk. You know, it’s like a tradition, or something.”

“Oh. Okay.” She replied reluctantly. “I guess I’m sorry then.”

“What for?” Daniel asked her.

“For being a jerk?” She offered.

“Oh!” Daniel said, in a much higher pitch than he intended. “No! You’re not the jerk, I am. I’m trying to apologize to you, not the other way around.”

Hit with a sudden realization, Eleanor’s face lit up. “Oh! I see. Thank you. But you don’t have to apologize to me.”

“Yes I do. I was acting like a jackass, and you were only trying to help. I was mad at myself, and I ended up taking it out on you. I’m sorry.”

“Oh …” She smiled warmly, blinking back tears. “It’s a lovely gesture, Daniel. Thank you.”

She hugged him with her free arm, and Daniel awkwardly reciprocated. Behind them, Mr. Krunk chuckled at the spectacle, but a sharp look by Eleanor told him to leave them alone. He silently nodded his compliance, taking his tea back into the kitchen.

“Are you still up for going to The Wayfarer’s tonight?” Daniel asked her.

She nodded eagerly. “Yes, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to go.”

“As long as I can go with you.”

The sound of Mr. Krunk sighing in the next room indicated to both of them that their privacy wasn’t easily had there, so Eleanor motioned with her head that they should head out now.

As he reluctantly put his pipe hat back on and she reached to pull her cloak off of the peg, she paused for a moment, unsure of what to do with the bouquet.

“Traditionally, what does a girl do with the plants her boy gives her?”

Daniel shrugged. “Beats me. I think she puts it in a vase with water.”

“I can handle that!” Mr. Krunk exclaimed, stepping back in to take the bouquet from Eleanor. “You kids go off and a good time!”

Both of them blushed, and Eleanor quickly put her cloak back on, and in an instant, they were out and on their way back to The Wayfarer’s Inn.

The sun was just going down on the year’s first day by the time they got to the inn. They arrived to find the common room packed with patrons, and the din of the several dozen people conversing loudly with one another could be heard from a block away. The Wayfarer’s was a crowded as Daniel had ever seen it, and he wondered to himself if they would even be able to find a spot inside to watch the performance. 

Standing just inside the inn’s entrance, Daniel and Eleanor looked about for an open area where they could perch themselves. The stage-side of the room was completely packed with onlookers, all the way to the back wall. The opposite side of the room, between the stage and the bar, was less crowded but offered an obstructed view. There appeared to be a clear spot on the far end however, near the common room’s reading area. However, it likely offered the worst perspective in relation to the impending concert.

“You guys! You guys!” The familiar piping voice of Rocky squealed, as he squeezed his way through the crowd towards them. As he emerged from the mass of spectators, he dashed towards them with high enthusiasm, even for him.

Eleanor called out to him in surprise. “Rocky! I thought you weren’t allowed to stay out after sundown anymore.”

Rocky shrugged his shoulders in a non-committal manner, as though trying to avoid admitting that he’d snuck out in defiance of his parents’ curfew. After that, he suddenly remembered that he was angry at Daniel, and his expression registered first a moment of recollection, and then of stoic distain for Eleanor’s companion.

“I’m glad you came.” He said, making it clear he was exclusively addressing Eleanor.

Eleanor sighed and answered him. “Rocky, Daniel has something he wants to say to you.”

“I do?” Daniel asked sheepishly. Eleanor shot him a glance that spoke volumes. 

He was still feeling testy towards Rocky’s constant irritation the last several days, and while he felt bad about their argument earlier, he wasn’t sure he wanted to seek penitence from his young friend tonight. However, it was clear from Eleanor’s body language that she was strongly in favor of him settling his differences with Rocky sooner rather than later, and given how quickly she’d let him off of the hook, he reluctantly obeyed her.

“Yeah, okay. Listen Rock, I said some stupid things earlier. Really dumb things.”

Rocky crossed his arms defiantly, trying to ignore Daniel by looking off into nothingness.

“I just want you to know, what I said wasn’t true. I just said it because you kept bugging me and-“

Another sharp glance by Eleanor caused him to quickly amend himself. “I said it out of anger. But it isn’t true. Nobody talks about you like that behind your back. Not to me, anyway.”

He was doing well until that last part, as Rocky’s defiant expression had been softening, but with ‘Not to me’, he looked up at Daniel in a flash of anger.

Again, Daniel tried to walk back his apology a little bit. “What I mean is … look, nobody says you’re a hanger-on. Nobody thinks that, including me.”

“It’s true, Rocky.” Eleanor interjected diplomatically. “None of your friends has ever said that about you. And if they did, they’d have Daniel to answer to.”

Daniel looked down as she defended him. In fact, there had been an instance when Yan was making playful jabs at Rocky while he wasn’t around, calling him ‘Me Too’ Marino. Eleanor wasn’t there at the time – it had been at the courier office between runs – but Daniel could remember chuckling at her send-up of his friend, and now he felt ashamed that he hadn’t defended him.

Eleanor’s unfounded endorsement seemed to soften Rocky up again, and she looked back to Daniel in hopes he could finish up the apology so that they could all move on. Still feeling acutely miserable that he wasn’t as good a friend as she thought he was, Daniel summoned an earnestness that made his apology much more sincere than it had been when it began.

“I’m truly sorry, Rocky. I let you down. I promise it won’t happen again.”

He offered his hand to the boy, and Rocky’s frown began to give away to a wide grin that he simply couldn’t hold back. He took Daniel’s hand and shook it vigorously.

“Okay, no hard feelings, right?” He announced, then returning to his original excitement. “Hey you guys! Listen, you’ll never guess who’s here tonight.”

The Bugbears.” Daniel answered.

Rocky shook his head vigorously. “No, in the crowd, by the fireplace!”

He pointed enthusiastically towards the mostly-clear reading area. When it became clear that neither of his friends were going to venture a guess, Rocky started to shout his answer, but then stopped himself and did so in a more secretive tone.

“It’s the Butterfields.”

Daniel had no idea who that was, but this wasn’t surprising to him. Despite having been in The Realms for nearly two months now, he was constantly picking up names and stories that other Realmsborn seemed to take as common knowledge. He looked over, however, to find that Eleanor too was drawing a puzzled expression as well.

Gawking at the two of them expectantly, Rocky finally squealed in protest. “Come on! The Amazing Butterfields! You had to have heard of them, right?”

Daniel looked again to Eleanor, who was searching her recollection to no avail. Daniel had to admit to himself that it felt kind of good to be not the only one completely in the dark on one of these things.

Frustrated, Rocky grabbed both of their arms and started leading them towards the reading area through the dense crowd. When they emerged from the mass of elbows and salty breath, they found that the reading area was indeed a poor place to view the impending concert. However, it was the only place in the common room at the moment where one had the opportunity to sit down. All of the tables were full, however, and few who were left standing were willing to mill about in this area when there were much better positions elsewhere.

In the furthest corner nearest to the fireplace was a couple who looked to be in their early 30’s, sitting together at a small table. Urging his two friends towards them, Rocky beamed proudly and waved at the strangers, who smiled and waved back.

The man was a somewhat gawky-looking fellow with shaggy, unkempt light brown hair, sparkling blue eyes and a fairly large nose. He wore hardy-looking traveling clothes, which appeared to be in several layers, each a different color. He wore a dark blue topcoat while underneath was a silvery-grey jacket over a red and white checkered waistcoat and under that was a faded yellow shirt. As they got closer, Daniel could see that he was also wearing a white undershirt beneath that, which was sticking out around the collar.

As unkempt and scruffy as he looked, his companion appeared to have a very clean, immaculate appearance. She was a Japanese woman with a very slender build and a warm complexion. Her long, black hair was neatly trimmed with not a single strand out of place. She wore a pristine white vest, precisely tailored to her petite frame, and a long flowing skirt which had almost an ethereal flow to it, even while she was seated. 

On the bench next to each of them were identical brown backpacks, which appeared to be jam-packed with supplies, and holding a bedroll on top. As they stood up to greet their new visitors, Daniel could see that the man was wearing some kind of sword on his belt as well.

Rocky proudly made the introductions. “Mr. and Mrs. Butterfield, these are my friends, Eleanor Krunk and Daniel Weaver.”

Mr. Butterfield smiled and shook their hands. “Nice to meet you both. Rocky’s been telling us all about you.”

Daniel was taken aback. “I … uh, I just wish he’d told us about you, Mr. Butterfield.”

“Please, call me Harvey. And this is Kumiko.” He completed the introductions, and offered for them to sit down with them. 

Daniel, Eleanor and Rocky took the empty bench across the table from them. Rocky was clearly excited about the meeting, and both of the Butterfields seemed genuinely pleased to have the chance to talk to the three youngsters. Daniel felt a little embarrassed, as though he ought to know in advance more about the pair of travelers, and he suspected that Eleanor felt the same way.

“So, uh … where are you from?” Daniel asked.

Harvey looked at Kumiko and responded. “Actually, we’re both newcomers. We both arrived here from Earth on the same day, a little over fifteen years ago. Rocky tells us you’re a newcomer too, Daniel.”

Daniel glanced confusedly over at Rocky and nodded. “That’s right, back in November.”

“This is probably all still very confusing for you.” Kumiko said sympathetically, speaking for the first time.

“It’s been a process.” Daniel admitted. “But I’m getting along, with the help of my friends.”

The Butterfields smiled and looked at each other knowingly. Daniel couldn’t help but feel like he wasn’t in on something.

“So … what’s your deal anyway?” He asked the two travelers.

They looked puzzled at the question, so Daniel attempted to elaborate. “I mean, Rocky implied earlier that you two were pretty famous, but I’m afraid I don’t know why.”

“These are the Amazing Butterfields!” Rocky insisted again, as though this was the only explanation needed.

Eleanor suddenly lit up with an expression of realization. “Oh! Are these the adventurers who saved Cliffwatch?”

Kumiko blushed while Harvey grinned and nodded. “That was a long time ago. We really had no idea that those stories had made it all the way back to the First Realm.”

“Who is Cliffwatch?” Daniel asked helplessly.

“Cliffwatch isn’t a person, it’s a town.” Rocky corrected. “It’s in the Seventh Realm, and sky serpents from the coast were attacking it.”

“Sky serpents and dragons are an occasional problem for the towns in the Seventh Realm.” Harvey told them. “But the one attacking Cliffwatch when we were there happened to be infected with a kind of plague.”

“And these guys saved them!” Rocky said triumphantly.

Eleanor was deeply impressed. “How did you do it? I would have though only a Master would have been able to cure a plague.”

Kumiko looked down sadly. “We didn’t actually cure it, you see. We were able to discover the source of the disease, which ended up being the infected blood from a wounded sky serpent hiding in one of the grain silos. It had tainted the food supply with the disease.”

Harvey continued somberly. “Once we’d discovered the serpent, all the poisoned grain was destroyed, and the remaining victims were isolated from the rest of the town. Unfortunately, almost all of those already infected by the plague died, but the rest of the town survived.”

“Wow!” Rocky exclaimed, though he’d probably heard variations of this story several times before from other travelers.

“It must have felt good, though, to be able to save the others in the town.” Daniel suggested.

Harvey nodded brightly. “Oh yes. It was a great relief. Though in retrospect, it really wasn’t all that heroic. It was just some remedial detective work to find the source, and then, of course, slaying the sick dragon.”

“Sky serpent.” Kumiko quietly corrected. It seemed that recalling this tale was not a pleasant experience for her, as she seemed far more regretful for those victims of the plague that they were unable to save. It was something Daniel felt he could identify with.

“Anyhow, we haven’t been back in Greetingsport since we both went out on our forward-quests together, and we were feeling nostalgic about our point of origin. That’s why we made our way back.”

“You haven’t been back to Greetingsport for fifteen years?” Daniel asked, noticing Eleanor shoot an uncomfortable glance towards him.

“Nope. We were on our forward-quests for a little over two years, actually. By the time we finally reached the Eleventh Realm, we’d been through so much getting there, we weren’t too keen on going all the way back, at least not right away. I think we were both curious about what lay beyond the Eleventh Realm, and so we explored further. That led to other … entangling situations.”

“Almost every traveler has at least heard of the Amazing Butterfields.” Rocky estimated. “They’ve been on so many adventures, I’ll bet they could write a whole bunch of books about them, huh?”

Kumiko smiled and looked at her husband. “Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to settle down somewhere and do just that.”

In the meantime,” Harvey interjected hurriedly. “We’ve got a whole bunch of things we’ve yet to do. We can still make that book a little bit longer, right?”

He looked hopefully back at Kumiko, who kept smiling, but said nothing. There was a moment of quietness between the two of them, as though the ghost of a recurring conversation had found them again. 

“Tell us another story!” Rocky requested excitedly. But before Harvey could respond, an imposing figure emerged from the crowd, standing sternly over the table.

Rocky Marino Jr.!” bellowed the huge woman standing directly under the startled young lad. “Your father and I have been worried sick. You know full well that you were forbidden to come here tonight, and yet you disobeyed my wishes, didn’t you?”

“Yes Mom. Sorry Mom.” Rocky answered sheepishly. He was deeply embarrassed to be lectured in front of his celebrity guests, but was unable to help from hunching over in a submissive ball as Mrs. Marino pulled him up by his arm and escorted him roughly away from the table, leaving the remaining four to watch the spectacle in silence. Once the mother and child were out of sight, none of them could help but giggle at the amusing intrusion of Rocky’s mother.

“We should leave you in peace now.” Eleanor suggested, starting to rise from her seat. But Kumiko touched her arm gently in protest.

“No, please. Harvey and I actually were hoping for a chance to talk to the two of you.”

“Yes, please stay.” Harvey insisted cheerfully. “We were talking to young Rocky before about you and-“

Kumiko glanced at him worriedly, and he abruptly stopped. Daniel couldn’t help but feel like there was some kind of hidden motive with their meeting, but just staying to talk didn’t seem like it would hurt any. Eleanor too was confused by the adventurers’ interest in them, but she agreed to stay as well.

Harvey smiled and asked “So Daniel, tell us what’s new back on Earth?”

Daniel looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, we’ve been away for fifteen years now, and the only news of what’s going on comes from the newcomers who’ve arrived since. We may not be able to go back, but we like to keep up on what’s happening in the Otherworld. You were there just a few months ago, right?”

“I’m not sure if I have anything to report.” Daniel admitted. “It’s not like I watched a lot of news.”

“A few years back, we heard from a newcomer that there was a terrorist attack in New York. Pretty serious one, in fact.”

Daniel nodded plaintively. “That was a while ago. I have only a vague recollection of watching it on television at the time, but people still talk about it.”

Eleanor too listened intently, as this was never a story he had mentioned before from his past. “What happened?”

Daniel glanced over at her, and then back to Harvey apprehensively. “I’m sure the other newcomers were able to tell you all there was to know about it. If you’re asking if there’s been another world-shattering event since that one, the answer is no.”

Harvey eyed him curiously. “Is something wrong? Most newcomers we meet can’t wait to talk about home.”

Just then, a burst of cheering from the crowd marked the entrance of The Bugbear Band on the obstructed stage from their table. Daniel, far more interested in talking to two veteran travelers than singers in bear costumes, leaned in closer to respond.

“I just don’t think I make a very good storyteller, at least when it comes to talking about current events. I’ve always been less aware of those types of things than most, I guess.”

Kumiko looked at him sympathetically. She seemed to sense the real reason for his reluctance. Daniel hadn’t thought very much about home lately. It wasn’t like he’d had much of a life back on Earth to speak of, and he was so busy situating himself in this new world, he felt like waxing nostalgia about where he’d come from was a waste of time.

But after Lara’s death, home had been creeping back into his thoughts more and more. Lara had killed herself because she missed her home so much. The notion of never being able to return was too painful for her to bear. Her suicide had caused Daniel to rethink his own ambivalence towards the life he left behind. More and more, he began to miss the meaningless and unimportant complexities of life in Hershey, Pennsylvania. 

Seeing that he wasn’t likely to get much out of him, Harvey smirked and leaned back in his chair. “I tell you, Daniel - the longer you’re here, the more you wonder how much the world has changed since you left it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was to find out that Fine Young Cannibals aren’t cutting albums anymore.”

Kumiko rolled her eyes and smiled, as Harvey laughed gregariously. “But you’ve probably never heard of them, have you? God, I wonder if 80’s and 90’s music is now considered to be ‘Oldies’? What are movies and TV like in 21st century Earth? How different would it be for Kumiko and me if we just popped up there today?”

Daniel shrugged and shook his head. “I can’t even begin to know how to answer those questions.”

Harvey nodded in acceptance. “I know. You probably weren’t even born yet into the world we left, how could you know what kind of changes there have been? I just thought I’d ask, you know?”

“Sure, I understand.” He nodded politely.

“Enough about the Otherworld.” Harvey announced, waving his hand about as though brushing away an invisible fly. “Let’s talk about you two. You’re planning on going on your forward-quests, I take it?”

Realizing that he was talking about both he and Eleanor, Daniel sat up and shook his head vigorously. “No, just me. And it’s not really the forward-quest I’m interested in exactly.”

Harvey’s eyes moved from him to Eleanor, and then back again. “Oh?  What then?”

“Daniel wants to find out the meaning of life.” Eleanor told them.

Harvey was taken aback by this, but Kumiko smiled slightly at her explanation. Then, Daniel tried to elaborate on his true intentions.

“What I’m really looking for is to find the real purpose why any of us are here. It doesn’t make sense to me that some unseen force, whether it’s God, or … whoever – has brought people here without any kind of reason.”

“You want to know why you were brought here?” Kumiko summarized.

Daniel nodded. “Yeah. Me, you, him …” He motioned towards Harvey, and then looked over at Eleanor. “… and everyone who’s come before and left descendants. I think Eleanor and every other realmsborn is also here for some reason too, at least I hope so.”

“But what if we’re all here just to inhabit these lands?” Kumiko offered. “So that there’s somebody here to … experience this world?”

“You’re forgetting the Reamsmen.” Harvey interjected. “Newcomers and Realmsborn alike can all trace their origins back to Earth, but to be sure, the realmsmen are definitely not human.”

“Who are the realmsmen?” Daniel asked.

“There aren’t a whole lot of them.” Harvey admitted. “There’s a tribe in the Third Realm, and the occasional village or two in other realms as well. And the realmkeepers are most commonly realmsmen too, but they’ve been here every bit as long as the earliest humans, and probably longer.”

“But they can’t travel through the gates.” Kumiko told him. “And their numbers are so small – you think it’s not possible that God wanted to populate The Realms with people who showed a greater sense of –“

“I’m not saying it isn’t possible.” Harvey corrected his wife, and the two of them began to argue quietly with each other. With the piping music coming from the stage, and the boisterous crowd who was cheering so loudly as to nearly drown out the music they were supposed to be listening to, Daniel and Eleanor felt suddenly detached from the two travelers’ conversation. So, Daniel took the opportunity to have his own aside with her.

“So let me get this straight. There are ‘realmsborn’, who are humans born in The Realms. Then there are ‘realmsmen’, who are not human at all, but are still born in The Realms.”

Eleanor nodded. “I’ve never met a realmsman before, though. I don’t even know what they look like.”

Daniel nodded and continued. “And then, there are ‘realmkeepers’, who … do what exactly?”

“Every realm has a Realmkeeper!” Exclaimed Harvey who was suddenly back into the larger conversation. “There’s not too much to say about most realmsmen. They generally keep to themselves, and very few of them show any aptitude for magic. But the realmkeeper in each of the sixteen realms is, with one or two exceptions, a realmsman. But realmsman or human, they seem to have very long life spans, as some realmkeepers have been known to have held their position for hundreds of years before being replaced by a different realmsman.”

Kumiko chimed in. “In fact, the Realmkeeper of the First Realm has, as far as anybody knows, been the same realmsman ever since humans started arriving in Cherry Landing.”

“There’s a realmkeeper here in Cherry Landing?” Daniel asked. “Where?”

Harvey smiled. “Funny you should ask.”

“He lives in a stone tower, perched high up in the mountains near Threshold Gate.” Kumiko explained. “One of the reasons we’ve returned to Cherry Landing is to make a pilgrimage.”

“See, back when we were just starting out, it was kind of a tradition for newcomers about to set out on their forward-quests to brave the journey up the mountain to the Realmkeeper’s Tower.” Harvey explained. “But Kumiko and I never got around to going before we went through the gate because … well, we got sidetracked, I guess.”

He smiled knowingly at Kumiko who blushed and looked away. “The nostalgia of coming back to the old Wayfarer’s Inn and seeing the well and the water clock and all that was great and all, but what we really came back to the First Realm to do was go on that first pilgrimage that we missed the first time around.”

“So you’re going to meet the Realmkeeper?” Eleanor asked excitedly.

Kumiko shook her head. “No, he never comes out of his tower, unless things have changed since last we were here, have they?”

Eleanor shook her head sadly. “I’ve never heard about him coming out.”

“The Realmkeeper of the First Realm sees nobody.” Harvey said dismissively. “Most of the others are more sociable, but I’ve never heard of anybody, not even Masters, being able to gain an audience with the one in this Realm.”

Daniel crossed his arms skeptically. “If nobody ever sees him, how do you know it’s the same guy for all these hundreds of years? How do you know he’s even alive? Maybe there are just the bones of an old, dead hermit up in that tower now.”
 Harvey laughed jovially, but Kumiko cast a sharp glance at his inappropriate laughter. Then, he told him, “The Protectors keep an eye on the tower as part of their duties. They have one of their own keep a constant watch on the tower through a telescope at their camp near Threshold Gate. According to them, they can see the Realmkeeper through the windows atop the tower, and he keeps a very rigid schedule. They say they know exactly what time of day the Realmkeeper eats his lunch, drinks his afternoon tea, and takes his mid-afternoon bowel movement, and they watch the whole thing every day. Not a job I’d apply for.”

Harvey laughed again, rubbing the stubble on his chin as he leaned back precariously in his chair. Kumiko sighed and shook her head at her husband’s coarse sense of humor. She then she leaned, as though she were about to make a very important request.

“We’re going to be heading out to the Realmkeeper’s Tower tomorrow. It’s not too difficult a journey, and with our preparations should be quite safe. Harvey and I would like it very much if the two of you would be able to join us.”

Daniel and Eleanor were both stunned at the request. They looked in shock first at each other, and then at the Butterfields. Finally, Eleanor asked the question both of them were struggling to comprehend.

“Why?”

“It depends on which of us you ask.” Harvey answered in a casual manner. “If you ask me, I’d tell you we’re repaying a very old favor. But if you asked Kumiko here, I’m sure she’d say we were fulfilling a prophecy.”

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