11 ~ Romance over Ratatouille

The light inside the inn reflects ominously on Elliot's fork scar. His face clouds over as he murmurs, "The Mystery of the Ratatouille."

"A mystery? About what, exactly?" asks Alicia.

"Someone's been leaving a bowl of the stuff in the back o' the inn every night," the innkeeper answers as he wipes a tankard. "No one ever sees who leaves it. It's like a ghost."

Wendy places her hands on her hips. "That's weird. Who would do such a thing?"

"There's a legend around these parts," says Elliot. "It goes that two ancient heroes—lovers, were they—named Eoland and Reliah fought side by side near this area battling a scourge of Paradoxes. Because there was not much livestock in these parts, they survived by eating ratatouille every night, a local invention. But one dark night, they were killed by a powerful Paradox massive as the evening sky. On quiet evenings, it's said that their ghosts can still be seen, walking hand in hand…."

Leif glances at Alicia, who has unconsciously gripped his elbow, before turning to Elliot. "That's just a myth, isn't it? A legend. But speaking of ratatouille, it is indeed this town's specialty, isn't it?! I'll have some, please."

"Me too!" cries Wendy, punching the air with her fist.

Alicia slaps her palm to her face. "That really is the only thing on your mind."

"Well, if you want some, there's some waiting for ya at the back," replies the innkeeper.

A grimace crosses Leif's face. "What am I, a wandering tramp? Well, there's a first time for everything, I guess…"

The back door of the inn opens as Leif steps through it. He looks left and right, and then notices a bowl of ratatouille sitting on the doorstep. He picks it up, examining it.

Footsteps sound from behind. Looking round, Leif raises the bowl high over his head. "Mine!"

"Like hell I would steal your precious food," says Alicia, panting slightly.

Leif arches an eyebrow at her. "You look flustered."

"O-of course!" shouts Alicia, puffing herself up. "With all this talk about ghosts and mysterious bowls of food and not, I thought you could be in danger or something! And it's certainly not going to be on my watch that I'm going to let some idiot wander off to his death."

"Don't tell me you actually believe in ghosts?"

Alicia stomps her foot. "Of course! I—wait, what?"

Her companion only flashes her a grin and digs a fork into his bowl of ratatouille. He places it in his mouth, taking several moments to contemplate the taste. "Hmm. The tomatoes add a certain sort of zesty sweetness, but the onions throw in a nice counterbalance with their crunchy texture. Whoever made this clearly knew what he or she was doing, and added everything in the perfect proportions."

He smiles again as Alicia taps her foot impatiently. Leif swallows the ratatouille. "Don't be silly. Ghosts don't exist. I'm sure it's probably just one of the neighbors leaving the food out."

"But why would a neighbor just leave food out like this? For what purpose?"

Before Leif can answer, a crash sounds from their left. Both Leif and Alicia jump and reach for their swords. The moonlight bounces off their silver blades, lighting up the night. A wooden barrel full of cabbages has been knocked over. From the corner of his eyes, Leif spots a bright blue figure dart around the corner of the inn and out of sight.

"Who's there?!" asks Leif.

Only silence answers him. He looks over at Alicia, who is gripping his arm tightly again. "This is suspicious… that looked almost like—"

"A ghost?" Alicia says, quivering slightly.

Leading Alicia forward, Leif turns the corner of the inn and looks around. There is not a soul in sight. "This is very strange indeed. I'm positive I saw someone just now."

"It was a ghost!" says Alicia. "I know it! He was bright blue and glowing!"

Leif grits his teeth and scratches his head. "Look, ghosts don't exist. And—why are you so afraid of ghosts, anyway? You're an imperial guard, I'm sure you've seen worse!"

"Ghosts are scary! They're pale and transparent and dead and vengeful!"

Alicia looks up with wide eyes as Leif bursts into a fit of laughter. He wipes a tear from his eye. "You really are cute sometimes, Alicia. But like I said, ghosts don't exist. And even if they do, I swear upon my honor as the Wandering Gourmet that I shall protect all of you guys no matter what!"

"Really?" Alicia says, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow.

"Yes. It's not my style to let my friends down."

More pairs of footsteps sound from behind them as Elliot and then Wendy run towards the backdoor. Elliot swivels his head left and right before turning to Leif. "Yo, Leif! I heard a huge commotion back here. Everything all right?"

"Yeah," replies Leif. He looks around as well. The area is deserted. "We thought we might have seen a ghost, but whoever—or whatever—it was, it's gone now."

"Wait, a ghost?" Elliot says blankly. "You mean like a dead person? See-through and pale and all that?"

"No, like a dead giraffe with yellow and pink polka dots," says Alicia.

"Giraffe?!" Wendy repeats. Stars seemingly light up in her eyes. "I wonder what giraffe tastes like! I bet I could fix up a pretty impressive stew with that!" A spark of flames lights up in her hand.

With a sigh, Leif rubs the back of his neck. "Well, at any rate, let's just head back inside and—"

The four of them look up as a shrill whistle fills their ears. As the seconds pass, the shrieking grows louder and clearer. Several clouds in the sky part, and the resulting moonlight is momentarily fragmented by a massive, flying black shadow.

-PARADOX HUNTER 11-