“I’m going to be the first person to find Aurensall.”
Saphine looked up from her book, black eyebrows furrowing. The orc on the floor continued polishing his axe, completely unphased. The dark elf maneuvered her way off the bed to face her friend, red eyes narrowing. “Forlux, what did you just say?”
“I said that I’m going to find Aurensall. What, those shadow-spell-book-thingies getting to your hearing too?”
“No,” she muttered, going back to her book, lazily scanning its contents. “I just think you’re crazy for saying that you’re going to find a city that doesn’t exist.”
Forlux groaned aloud, his weapon clattering on the ground. “Yes, it does. Gramps told me the story of his,” he counted his claws. “Five-times great grandpa who used to live there! Or… well okay he only saw it but…”
Aurensall: a city of gold, wisdom, and mystery. It was rumored to have technology beyond its time, and answers to anyone’s questions. Conversations about its existence were kept hushed. Many adventurers over the last millennia had gone looking for it, though most returned with nothing.
“Yes, it’s a long shot, but I need you to trust me. I know it’s out there” His voice was uncharacteristically small. She looked over at him and scanned his features for any hint of unease. His woody brown eyes met hers in confidence, and she resigned to huffing a sigh.
“Do what you want, but don’t you dare drag me into your wild goose chase.” She could practically hear his eyes lighting up. He jumped up, nearly hitting his head on her ceiling.
“Can I at least tell you about my plans?!”
“I’m not getting out of this am I?”
The adventure began as a question to Headmaster Holloway. Each student was required, by the end of their final year, to have completed an end-of-the-year project. Saphine, studying dark arts and shadow magic, was creating a potion to trap any shadow at will. Forlux, who studied adventures and questing, was originally going to do what all of his peers did: “invent the ultimate weapon”. It almost always got a passing grade, however, when he brought this up to his grandfather, the old man was fiercely against it.
“All you youngsters always try and find the easy way out! How is a young, strong orc like you supposed to show off all his skills? Do what I did when I was your age and go on a quest!”
Forlux liked the sound of that much more. He hadn’t gotten to go on many solo journeys simply because all needs or requests for adventurers were filled. This led to him being stuck in his dorm, drafting plans for what he would do if he could go out and explore. He figured that maybe the world had one too many people trying to find gold or attain glory. Not that he necessarily wanted either of those things; all Forlux wanted was to see the world. This could be his chance to see something he hadn’t before.
Saphine looked at him in shock, her book completely forgotten on the floor.
“You’re using this as your semester project?! What if you get killed? What if you don’t come back with anything? Does searching for something that probably doesn’t exist count as a quest?” Her questions flew off of her tongue, and Forlux laughed loudly at all of them.
“Probably real is better than not real at all. I’ll take my chances - both at finding it and not dying.”
“Well good luck with that but there’s no way Holloway is going to-”
“He already did.”
The young elf’s hands were growing hot from her anger. Inky black shadows melted off of her fingertips and painted the floor in splotches. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Why don’t you trust me? I am at the top of my class for questing-”
“-And ranked lowest for intelligence. You are not doing this alone.”
“What about “not dragging you into my wild goose chase?” He was grinning widely, ignoring the sting of her words. She glared at him, but the softening of her heart for her friend was revealed through her shadows dissolving into the carpet.
“Just tell me where we’re starting.”
Forlux pulled out notebooks and maps of caves and dungeons once thought to lead to Aurensall. He went through all of the known information from the last century, which admittedly, wasn’t much. Saphine sighed, running her hands over her face. She scolded him for being underprepared and practically dragged him to the library, having him haul thick, dusty books from the shelves. There wasn’t much on “how to search for towns that didn’t exist”, but enough to keep them occupied for a few hours.
Their eyes practically fell out of their skulls once they finished. While they could now tell you all of the practical information on the city, they were no closer than when they started.
“Why don’t we try-” Forlux began, but his friend shushed him.
“I already know what to do.”
Saphine whispered a spell that sent a shadow through the library aisles to search for anything they may have missed. Disappointingly, it buried itself in a book they already had. Forlux flipped to the page, and the black creature disappeared into the darkness of the room.
“We read this page already,” Saphine whined, hitting her head on the table. She glanced over to her friend, who was silently going over the contents again. His eyes widened when he noticed something they had glossed over. Erased in the margins of the old parchment, was an address. He excitedly showed his friend, and they wrote it down just as they were kicked out of the building for being too noisy. They grinned cheekily at each other, racing to go visit their first clue.
The address took them to a small cottage outside of town, where a young boy lived with his mother. The three adults talked, and the middle-aged woman recalled that her ancestors used to travel to Aurensall long ago.
“So it’s real…” Saphine whispered. The woman’s ancestors were builders, and while she didn’t know much, she handed them an old metal box; a relic from the past.
“My family built this for someone they worked for. I don’t know who, but I hope it will aid you in your journey; if you can get it open.”
The two students thanked her profusely before returning to their dorms to open it.
“I wonder how this works…” The gears in Forlux’s mind were turning. Saphine yawned and sent a shadow to slip through any cracks and unlock it; with Lady Luck on her side, it opened with a rhythmic whir. The intricate detailing inside the box depicted scenes from the builder’s life, and inside were small tokens with the same symbol on them. A treasure box. They took one of them - maybe it was money - and went to the town’s record-keeper to match the symbol with anything recognizable. The keeper could not match the golden token with anything; one side depicted a serpent with flowers blooming out of its mouth, and the other had engraved lines. The two students left, initially feeling like they had gone back to square one. Then Saphine’s eyes lit up.
“Wait a minute! I know someone who used to slay serpents! She’s a friend of my dad’s - I’ll go talk to her and get more clues!”
“Wait, what should I do?”
“Try and use one of the maps you have of the caves to find anything left behind! We’ll meet back up here at the end of the week!” She shouted, running off to find the retired slayer. Forlux sighed and heaved his heavy axe to go cave raiding.
The following weekend, Saphine wouldn’t let her friend get a word in. She rambled off nearly two hours' worth of information from the slayer and friends of hers. Suddenly, the small daggers and extra tokens he found buried beneath dust and sand didn’t seem so significant. A large map was unrolled in front of them, and Saphine excitedly pointed to different regions.
“So these serpents used to live in this region here, but the flowers on this token come from an island all the way over here! Which leads me to think that maybe there’s some uncharted place in between that would have both, and,” she noticed her friend staring outside. She furrowed her brow, snapping her fingers at him. “Hey, I have some really useful stuff. I’ll let you share in a second I’m almost done-”
“This is my project, you know.” She stared at him incredulously. “I didn’t ask you to help me, you volunteered yourself because you don’t trust me.”
“Well, you have the brawn and I have the brain. It makes sense that we’d do this together, plus you’re my best friend and-”
“And it sounds like you’re faring just fine without me. This quest was for me, and you’re making it all about you, again, Saphine. Like you always do.”
Her grey skin flushed and she stuttered a response. “I-I do not make everything about me!”
“Need I remind you about when I needed to build the perfect group for a randomly assigned quest and you took it over? Saying my ideas weren’t balanced enough?”
“You had three assassins!”
“It was about infiltration! Or what about the time I brought you on the ship I was learning to sail, and you became best friends with the quartermaster and practically took my training right from under me?”
“My point is you always do this! You never think that I’m enough on my own! But I’m going to prove to you that I don’t need your help this time.”
Saphine felt angry tears prick her eyes. “Fine then, but I’m not just going to quit. I have too much information to stop now.”
“Do whatever you want.” Forlux stood to leave her room. “May the best adventurer win.”
The two spent months avoiding each other, presenting findings of different kinds to their headmaster. Saphine had no idea adventuring was so difficult, and her spells and potions could only get her so far. She had notebooks and scrolls full of people to talk to and places to visit, but getting there was a different story. The tall walls that bordered the Iron City intimidated her, and the guards would not let anyone in. The people of Blooming Island - the one with the flowers from the token - were no kinder. They slammed doors in her face and spat at her feet. Her cold personality did not help in maintaining friendly relations either; the people she could get word from would keep their stories inconsistent to confuse her. One evening, she climbed to the top of a mountain that was supposed to have a clue, according to a grumpy lizard man she spoke to the day prior. Her legs were sore from the hike, and she mentally kicked herself for not learning enough healing magic. Saphine searched the paths of rock until she called it quits at sunset, collapsing in the dirt.
“This is stupid!” She screamed into the orange hues that painted the sky. The sun could do nothing to ease her worries. The old man had lied to her. She drew lines in the sand, crossing out names she knew didn’t work out. Saphine knew Forlux would know what to do when it came to scary towns or grumpy old people. He was always so good at talking to anyone he met with his excitable personality and kind demeanor. She assumed he was having a better experience than she was, considering she was stuck making another map in the dirt of people she couldn’t speak to.
Forlux was not having a much better time. While he was skilled in getting into places he shouldn’t, and his friendly attitude brought him good fortune with townsfolk, he didn’t trust himself to make the right conclusions about the information he received. His room became full of old artifacts all with the same seal from the tokens. Forlux was able to make it to Blooming Island, an island full of exotic flora and fauna. The people there were kind to him as he asked them about their island home; they invited him in and shared stories about the flora that grew, attracting both tourists and pests.
“There was an elf girl here recently, but she didn’t want to know anything about us! Just barged in, shoving a coin in our faces.” Sounded exactly like Saphine. He laughed silently despite feeling his heart hurt in missing his friend. Forlux finished his meal with the family he was with, and they gifted him a preserved photograph of the largest building in Aurensall. He took it gratefully and added it to his ever-growing collection of things once he returned home. Saphine’s cruel words echoed in his mind. He huffed, collected what he considered important, and went to see his grandfather.
He told Gramps about everything that had happened, and how he was stuck on what to do next. His grandfather chuckled quietly, and Forlux groaned.
“Gramps, I’m serious! Help me, the deadline is coming up soon.”
“Have you ever considered that maybe, you actually know what you’re doing? And that finding something even as big as Aurensall isn’t worth losing your friend over? Have you asked her how she’s doing?”
“I didn’t lose her Gramps, we’re just… having a friendly competition. Besides, she doesn’t believe in me anyway.”
“Don’t be so sure about that, trust your friendship. Anyway, toss me your bag of tokens.” Forlux did as told and watched his grandfather rifle through it, pulling out a coin after inspecting it, and lining it up into a square on the table.
“What are you doing?”
“Helping you in the name of competition. I want my grandson to win.” He pointed to the arranged coins. “On the other side, there’s a different pattern imprinted on nine separate coins. Do you see it?” Forlux stared at the gold before him, clueless. He had seen it before, but they all just looked like lines to him. “Use your eyes.” He squinted and the realization hit him.
“It’s a map.”
“A map to Aurensall. So in case you get lost, you always know how to get back and spend your money.” His grandfather winked. “My grandfather told me about that trick, whose grandfather told him, and so on.”
“Thank you, Gramps! I gotta go, wish me luck!” He transcribed the map and headed out immediately - the lost city was within his reach. Saphine wandered into Gramps’ home not even an hour later, the realization hitting her that she should ask him for advice on how to apologize. He informed her of what occurred with Forlux and she went out to find her friend once and for all.
Forlux arrived at the island at dawn, setting foot on the white sand. He took two steps forward when he heard his name from behind him. Saphine ran to him, tears in her eyes.
“Leave me alone.”
“Forlux! Wait! I’m here to apologize!” Apologize? “I’m sorry! For always hijacking your plans and not believing in you when I should have! You’re an incredible adventurer and there’s no way I would have been able to get here without you!”
“I got here without you,” he muttered, bitterness lacing his words.
“I know you did. And I’m so proud of you. You deserve to be here, you’ve worked so hard for it. You won”
“I know.” Realization settled in his mind. “I won.”
“And Forlux, I should have trusted you, and I’m so sorry that I didn’t. I miss you, and I hope you can forgive me for how I treated you. I’ve needed you this whole time.”
The orc looked down at his elf friend, ready to berate her, when his grandfather’s words entered his mind. Use your eyes. Have you asked her how she’s doing? He saw the bags under Saphine’s eyes, how her normally perfectly kept hair was untamed and messy. His heart softened for his friend. “You look tired. Are you okay?”
She stood there, mildly stunned. She didn’t expect him to ask about her. “No, I’m not okay, but I will be once I know that you are.”
“I’m alright. It’s good to see you, Saphine. Thank you for your apology. It’s going to take me some time, but we’ll be alright. So long as you let me figure things out; trust that I’m not a total screw-up.” He punched her arm. She laughed a wet laugh, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“Of course, you got here, didn’t you?” The two embraced briefly before she pushed him off, waving her hands in the direction of the center of the island. “Now go, have your big moment! You found the city that didn’t exist!” He held his hand out to her.
“Are you coming with me, or what? Wouldn’t feel right to not have you with me now.”
“A-are you sure?”
“Yes!! Now let’s go I’m dying to see what this place looks like!”
He took a deep breath, knowing where to go. She followed humbly and gratefully trusted his lead. The two raced to the center of the island, but when they arrived, they were met with ruins. Once tall, gold and silver buildings now sat in rubble and dust. Robotic husks and skeletons lined the streets. Tattered stalls from a once bustling market lay still. Saphine whipped her head around to face her friend, who was in awe.
“Forlux, I’m so sorry.”
“For what? This is perfect. We found Aurensall, the city of gold.” He picked up a piece of dark red, silky cloth. “This is all I need. Now let’s go home, I have a report to write.”