Illusionistquest Chapter 18: Mental Breather

Although you want to get back to town as soon as possible, it frankly isn’t going to happen. Clint’s head looks like an orange, Ophelia is way too laid up in bed, and Ginelle, well, when you tried to wake her up, she rolled over and grabbed you like a stuffed animal. It took Saya, Akela, and Clarissa to pry you out of her grasp before she rolled back over and went promptly back to sleep.

So, a day of resting it is. You worried a little that some forces from the Camp nearby would go out and find you, but clearly without a leader they’re not able to stay cohesive. You hope this doesn’t lead to infighting, as this could be bad in its own right, but at the same time, they aren’t killing Monsters who choose not to integrate anymore.

“Refusal to integrate, huh?” You say before shaking your head. That’s too simple to sum it all up, but in the end that’s what it is. Things have changed so fast in Deleor that some people and Monsters still refuse to get onboard. It will always be a source of conflict, hells it’s part the reason there’s such tension with Galmathoria. The Magitek revolution brought so much wonder and change into everyone’s lives that they forgot some people who fell through the cracks.

It makes you think about what you’ll do when this is all over. If you’re sane enough, could you settle down some? Maybe start off right with Saya, build a family or something. It’s strange to think that way, when all you wanted was adventure before, to follow in the Wizard’s footsteps. Now you’re just tired, and have seen too much. Somehow you feel you understand Selene a little more in this way, hells, you understand everyone better.

Maybe that’s why you were able to get a read on Heather. You recall Richard’s words from so long ago, reminding you to read your opponents and play into what you can perceive, but you honestly thought you were bullshitting. It seemed so natural, the things you were saying, and yet the way the reacted was so raw and real, that clearly it must have been true.

You sigh and lean back in the grass again, the sun streaming through the trees feeling good upon your face. What drives someone, undead Monster or not, to have such feelings of inadequacy? Since you have no siblings, you can’t understand it completely, but that drive to make your family proud… well, you felt it before, long ago. Now, of course, you don’t have any intention of doing such things, but there was a time you would have done your best to make your father proud. Maybe you do understand, somewhat.

That understanding brings a little bit of guilt to your conscience. Yes, Heather tried to kill you, almost killed one of your friends, and frankly tried to damn the world, but could she deserve a second chance? Delilah seemed like that before, right? Saya spoke of her a few times, and what you read in [Wizardquest] seemed to corroborate that they aren’t bad, they’re just… from a different world. Like the Monsters who won’t integrate.

“Ahhh fucking hells.” You say, groaning as you sit up and stretch. You just got way too deep here, but a part of you yearns for something you can’t quite name. You think about it for abit and it comes to you:

You have to go back.

{I told you so.} Bearsy says, and you jump, startled some.

“The fuck? I thought you went silent or something.”

{The magic, it slowly returns, and with it, my voice.}

“You’re strange and I’m crazy.” You say, sighing. “This isn’t what you had in mind when you’ve said this all this time, right?”

{No, but it would have been poetic.} Bearsy says, voice getting faint. {Eventually though, you will have to go back…}

“Go back where you damn bear?!” You say, holding the little bear before you. You pause and turn to see Saya standing thee, giving you a worried expression and you sigh, tucking the bear into your pocket. “Sorry, he’s being an asshole.”

“The tiny… wooden bear?”

“His name is Bearsy and he’s been speaking to me for awhile now.”

“You know that’s not comforting in the slightest, right?”

“Uhhhhh.”

She sighs and says, “What’s my name?”

“Saya, my darling lover.”

“Alright, you’re not insane enough to get that wrong.” She shakes her head before putting a hand on her hip and saying, “What were you talking about, ‘going back’?”
“Oh.” You say, frowning. “I just… wondered if we should look around the battle last night, maybe find…”

“Heather’s head?” Saya says, and she smirks when you give her an incredulous look. “Oh, I’ve thought of it too. I just wonder if… you know, like Delilah we can… change her.”

“Maybe.” You say, a little noncommittally. You look around the camp to see everyone dozing peacefully and then up at the sky. Early afternoon, if you head out now you can probably be back by evening…

“Ah, just go.” Akela says, looking up from a coloring she’s doing. You jump a little, startled at her sudden words and she rolls her eyes before twitching her ears. “You need to stop being surprised… or actually, keep being surprised, it’s letting me hear some neat stuff mister ‘talks to bears.'”

Both you and Saya give Akela a worried look and she sighs. “Look, you just need to not get any crazier than you already, right?” You happen to notice the drawing is shaking a little as she says this. “You just need to stay the way you are, so we can be a family.”

“Oh Akela…” Saya says, but you put a hand on her arm and smile softly before turning to Akela.

“You’re exactly right sweetie. Being perfectly normal would be boring, right?”

The little Anubis looks up and gives you a flat expression before looking down with a light smile and saying, “Yeah… I guess so.”

“We’ll be back later. You’re in charge.” You say before nodding to Saya. “If you need us, get Auntie Clarissa to find us since the communications devices are still on the fritz.” Akela nods and the two of you turn and leave the camp.

The walk is fairly straightforward and the two of you are quiet most of the time, keeping a lookout for other Monsters. You have the [Chameleon Cloak] on hand at all times, just in case, but you don’t run into anyone, friend or foe. Well, you ran into a puddle of mud where a frog jumped on your face and made Saya laugh for a full five minutes, damn her and her every changing lungs, but otherwise you don’t run into any issues.

As you exit the small copse of trees, you look out into the plains, seeing the gently rolling fields of grass leading far off to the pillars in the distance. The battle site is fairly nearby, though not in view, and the two of you move quietly through the grass, figuring someone is likely to have investigated the site. You may be too late as it stands, but… well, there’s always the hope, right? As you approach though, you find that your fears are confirmed, and you see a humanoid shape standing in the middle of the crater, their back turned to you as stand there.

“Hells.” You mutter, trying to get a good look at the person. They’re a fairly average height with long, blond hair in a braid flowing behind them, and based on the profile you believe it’s a woman. You study more to find that they’re wearing a simple, yet sturdy plate armor, but carry no weapon and you have to wonder why someone like that is out here. Was this an Order Hero out investigating? Seems a little odd to you.

You turn to Saya to see her frowning deeply, but before you can say anything she gasps and puts a hand to her mouth. You turn back to see that the woman has turned about and you see the lines of an angular, yet beautiful face with an expression of quiet melancholy. You get the feeling something is off about this person’s eyes, like they’re some kind of… wait a second.

Saya stands up from where you’re hiding and shouts, “DELILAH!”

Delilah snaps her head to where Saya is standing and her black sclera’d eyes stare at her with a look of incomprehension. Saya moves through the grass, making toward the Dullahan, an arm outstretched. “Delilah! We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

You groan and rise yourself, walking at a slower pace behind Saya, who almost runs to greet the Dullahan, who still stands there, stunned. As you approach, you see Saya hug the woman, who looks a little off put by this and gingerly returns the hug, saying, “Little Saya, it’s… good to see you again.”

“Y…you never said goodbye!” Saya says, pressing her face into the woman’s armor. “We all thought you’d just left us and then… then we never found you, but we looked! Dad and I looked all over for you!” Saya looks up, tears in her eyes, “Why did you go?”

Delilah looks very uncomfortable as she says, “Saya… I’m not like all of you were, things were too… it was never my place to stay there. My father, my sisters all needed me and it was your glory to be had.” She gently puts a hand on Saya’s head, “I was just a passenger, grateful to be along for the ride.”

“B…but you could have at least contacted us!” Saya says, snuffling. “We’ve all missed you. I missed you.”

Delilah closes her eyes and sighs out slowly. “Saya, you’ve grown up much since we last met. In truth I believe we both have, but you have to understand that we Dullahan were never meant to interact so much with the living beyond when it is time for us to do our duty. By the end of our adventure, I had grown… familiar with all of you, but… it wasn’t meant to be.”

“Still… I have regretted from time to time… not saying proper farewells.”

“Well now you don’t have to!” Saya says, firmly, a resolute look on her face. “You’re not going to just vanish on me this time! Not while I have you here!”

“Ahem.” You say, taking a step forward. “I’m sorry to interrupt this tearful scene but… might I ask why you’re here?”

Delilah gives you a cold, appraising look before looking back to Saya. “You could have done better than this.”

“W…what? Oh come on, he’s not that bad…”

“What would your father say?”

“He hasn’t met him yet, and besides, Tobias is an Illusionist so I think they’d get along alright.”

Delilah frowns and turns to you. “Illusionist, huh?” She gently releases Saya’s grip on her before crossing her arms, almost seeming to loom over you. “My sister spoke of an Illusionist give her trouble, complaining about the tricks of one of your kind last night as she spoke with Nerg.”

Delilah narrows her eyes, “Heather never came back last night.”

You stand up straight and say, “She tried to kill me, my friends, and even Saya. If you knew her, then you knew what she was trying to do. I did the only thing I could, I stopped her.”

Delilah closes her eyes and says, “Then why are you back here?”

“I…” You say, trailing off. “I just…” You felt full of conviction before, a drive to come here, find Heather and what… make friends? Now that you’re faced with someone actually questioning you, it all seems so odd.

“We wanted to see if she was here, if maybe, you know.” Saya says before sighing. “Make her see things like you did.”

Delilah closes her eyes and turns away from both of you before reaching down onto the blasted earth where the [Mana Bomb] went off. She picks up some dirt and it gently crumbles from her fingers and flies into the wind. She stands there a long time in silence before speaking in a soft voice. “Heather is dead.”

“She’s a Dullahan…” You say, a little confused. “You’re all technically dead.”

“Not that in that way. She is dead in the truest sense.” Delilah looks up into the sky before saying, “When that pulse went off, she was returned and was confined to this plane. When a mortal dies, their soul is brought to Nerg, where he judges them and sends to them one of the Hells. When one of our kind has our mortal form destroyed, we employ the death scream to rend our way back to the Hells to be reformed in time.”

“Heather was unable to do this. I do not know the reason why, but looking at this explosion, I doubt her head survived intact. Even if it did, she couldn’t have returned to the Hells, and so her soul…” Delilah pauses, and you see her shaking a little. “She is well and truly dead. There is nothing for her.”

Both you and Saya stand there, stock still as you take in the implications of those words. All humans and Monster, big and small had the comfort of knowing that when they died, their souls would live on in the hells, judged and ruled by Nerg, who was at heart a kind God. Death is terrible, it is the ending of all one knows, but that tiny comfort lets people live their lives without the knowledge of existential dread, that there is something left for them. To be rendered into nothing though…

Saya puts a hand to her mouth. “Oh my Gods… what have we done?”

You feel a sense of revulsion in your own stomach, but you push it down to say, “We did what we had to do… she couldn’t have been allowed to do what we planned, Saya we couldn’t have known.”

“But her… Oh Gods…” You walk over to Saya and comfort he gently as Delilah still stands away from you, back turned. You gently stroke Saya’s hair, grateful for her being there as she surely is for your strength.

“Yes, I do believe what she planned to do was overly ambitious, I felt she would be stopped somehow, and honestly I wanted it to happen.” Delilah says, turning back to you. “She was one of the youngest Dullahans, and despite her mannerisms, quite brash. She always longed to do something grand, to prove herself to Nerg.”

Delilah shakes her head, “I fear that I am partly to blame for her being this way. I feel she looked up to me, or at least, saw me as a rival to best. After our adventure, she became distant, feeling almost hurt at the way I’d changed, and her actions become more cruel, calculating. With the turmoil in this world causing ripples in the Hells, she saw this as an opportunity I believe.”

“Opportunity for what?” You say, frowning.

“Recognition, I believe. Truth be told, I should have stopped her, I was GOING to stop her, or at least temper her actions, but Nerg… he was intrigued, wanted to see her prove herself. Neither us of knew this was to happen though, it’s only happened twice before.” Delilah sighs, “They were equally as sad, yet deserved. It is never good to watch Father cry.”

A God crying… somehow that doesn’t fill you with anything but overwhelming sadness. Still, you take in a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Delilah smiles at you softly before saying, “You shouldn’t be, but that you are is comforting in its own right.”

Saya rubs at her eyes and says, “What happens now?”

“Mmm, I suppose I return home.” Delilah says, feeling the air. “The magic dampening is weak enough that I can probably make it back to the Hells alright. We have a funeral to plan.”

“A funeral for the undead in the land of death.” You say, shaking your head, “What will they think of next?”

Delilah smirks and nods to Saya, “Maybe he isn’t so bad after all.”

“So you’re just going to leave again.” Saya asks, expression hurt. “Just gone from our lives for another twenty years?”

“You’ll all eventually see me again.” Delilah shrugs before looking thoughtful. “Though…I never really knew all of you felt that way. I don’t want to make promises but… maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to come for a scare every now and then.”

Saya blinks once before a wide smile appears on her face. “You better not be lying.”

“I’m a Dullahan.” Delilah says, removing her and giving a bow. “In the end, everyone meets death.” She smiles broadly herself and walks between the two of you, her form in your shadows. “But for now, I say farewell, I shall not forget this time.” With that, she fades into the minimal dark of the shade and out of this world.

Saya grasps where Delilah stood, as if thinking she might still be there before sighing and leaning into you. You gently put an arm around her and stay like that for some time before turning back and heading to camp.

———————————————————–

You leave early the next day, and though your progress is slow, you’re able to make it to the town by the next day, stopping for the night again. You make damn sure no Lamia appear this time, and you get back pretty much unmolested on either side. Nothing really seems to have changed in the town, and frankly you don’t think anyone noticed anything that had happened. Sure, there is some talk about strange green lights seen a few days ago, but nothing major.

It seems the pulse didn’t reach the town after all, and you thank the Gods that stopping the ritual early seemed to just vent the stored up power in a small radius instead of much farther, and that its effects were minimal. You can already feel your power gaining again, though damn if you don’t feel that itch again from… oh, right, insanity.

Gathering your things from the inn where you stored them, Clint gets his rifle in working order, and Ophelia tinkers slowly with the comms devices fixing elements that fried out with the pulse. She only brought one [Mana bomb] with her, and she seemed a little amazed at your description of the weapon and the explosion, as the other bombs looked much more dull than the other.

“Maybe the mana crystals absorbed the discharge of magical power? Like, the ruins somehow transferred the magic from those who could use it back into the earth or something?” It seemed tenuous, but you weren’t going to argue.

You didn’t see any signs of that blonde Kitsune again, thankfully, and you decided with the others that time is of the essence, and that you can rest on the Leyway, so you get tickets for the next Leyway further west, spending your time at a cafe near the station. There everyone eats their fill of honest, delicious hot food, Ophelia sighing in delight at, “being back in civilization.”

You sort of agree, and as you go to take a piece of your sandwich, someone else grabs it from you, and you turn to see that damn Kitsune from before standing there, giving you a smug look before taking a bite of your food. She chews thoughtfully for a moment before saying, “I thought I told you not to go out there.”

“That’s my food.” You say, and she rolls her eyes before offering it back to you. You wave it away and she smirks before taking another bite, chewing and then swallowing. You roll your eyes too and say, “We’re leaving as it stands, so you don’t have any business with us.”

“Are you certain?” She says, pulling up a chair and sitting down next to you. “Things have taken a strange turn here. Rumors say that the Queen of the West is dead, people are starting to get agitated.” She leans in close and whispers, “I wonder what would happen if they found out who did it?”

You look at the woman, then to the Leyway, then back to the woman, and finally to your sandwich, or what was left of it. Frankly, you’re done with this shitty side trip and have better things to do.

You sigh out very loudly, almost exaggeratedly so, and lean on the table on your elbows. The Kitsune gives you a confused look at you do so, and you roll your eyes again before saying, “Fiiiiinnnneeeeee. What do you want?”

She blinks a few times before looking incredibly offended. “You’re not taking this seriously you little shit.”

“Frankly, no, not really, but I don’t really take the leader of a ragtag group like the Black Tails all that seriously either.”

She stiffens and then looks about with a concerned expression before leaning in close to you and hissing out, “How did you know that?”

Your expression becomes serious and you look to Saya, then to the rest of your group. They give you serious expressions as well (except for Ginelle who looks about in confusion). You nod slowly to all of them and then sit up straight as you say, “Can’t tell you that.”

The Kitsune grits her teeth and balls her hands into fists. “We’re not playing around here anymore. Things have changed rapidly here due to SOMEONE’s intervention, and I need to know how you figured this out. You’re not in a position to deny this request, or so help me, the full force of the Black Tails will rain down upon you.”

You stare into her eyes for a long while before you look to the side and curse. Taking a deep breath you wave to her slowly and say, “Come closer.”

She frowns deeply but grumbles to herself and leans in close. You take in another deep breath in preparation to speak and her large, fox ears twitch in readiness. You speak, and as you do your hand shoots out, grabbing the nearest of her fluffy tails in your firm grip.

“Idiot.”

She looks utterly startled and tries to pull back, but you pull on her tail, which is almost mind-numbingly soft, and she lets out a rather embarrassing gasp, cheeks going red. The surprise only lasts a moment before she snarls and makes to slash at you, but you pull into close to her, your face mere inches from hers, eyes locked onto each other’s. She stares at you in abject horror, and you think very, very strongly about using your [Eye of Fear]. It would be so, so very sweet to do so, but you restrain yourself and instead inflict [Morbid Allure] upon her as you speak.

“Listen here you fluffy-tailed little shit. We have NO interest in messing with whatever plans you have, and we didn’t have any interest in your little retaliation to begin with until you sent your goons to attack us. Maybe if you’d be more forthwith we wouldn’t be in this situation, but you damn Kitsune never know when you speak plainly, do you?”

You squeeze on her tail again and she lets out a choked gasp as tears form at the corners of her eyes. “Yes, the Queen is dead, no thanks to you, and frankly her ragtag little army is very, very unstable at the moment. If you had any brains in your head, you’d stop acting like you’ve made a cult and instead work with the people and Monsters here to form something better than this tribal bullshit. You can cry wolf, or fox, or whatever all you want but who is going to believe that some random outsiders took down the fucking Queen of the West? What would it matter anyway, because it’s YOUR fucking head they’ll go after.”

She’s crying now, and you almost feel bad for doing this to her, but she’s acting like a child, and frankly you can’t have her messing with you any longer. You’re humoring her little delusions enough as it is. Going for the final push, you take your other hand and with both you begin to stroke that tail, which Gods damn is it fluffy. Selene has nothing on this, sorry to say. Keeping your mind on topic you speak once more.

“So, don’t think that it won’t end poorly for you if you keep this up. Stop acting like a child and lead these people gathered around you for better lives for ALL of you here.” You let go off her tail and she practically collapses, shuddering slightly as she lets out gasps of breath, face completely flushed, tears streaming from her eyes. You look down upon her imperiously and say,

“Oh, and as for how I knew it was you? It’s obvious when you name your organization Black TAILS. Kitsune, come on, you’re more clever than that.”

Shaking your head, you leave money for the meal and gather everyone to go, leaving the flustered Kitsune where she is, still trying to recover from your… well, it’s sort of like you mind and physically raped her in a way. That thought in mind, you look to Saya who gives you an odd expression before rolling her eyes. Good, you’re safe this time.

“So, how did that tail feel?” She asks, a wicked smirk on her face.

Fuck.

———————————–

You board the Leyway headed out to Helmscrag a little later, and due to your connections, you get some prime seating in the rather more… utilitarian Leyway. While it has areas for passengers, much like the other Leyways you’ve been on recently, this one is clearly designed with cargo in mind. It comes as no surprise though, seeing how Helmscrag is a border town with a strong military presence, as most people do not want to go out there without good reason.

Ophelia, weak as she was, tried to ask what the cargo being taken there was, but the conductor was fairly tight-lipped about it, even when she introduced herself as a member of the Illoma family. The Deleorian soldier who stepped in and escorted her to her room didn’t really help the situation either. Still, you have pretty decent accommodations, getting the first class car to yourselves, and no sooner than Ophelia is taken to her room does she pass out. Her wounds are healed, but it took so much out of her that you frankly want her to sleep as her whole reason for coming lays in Helmscrag.

The Blitzers… Part of you wonders why Fiora hasn’t activated them yet, while the other part is just glad that she hasn’t. True, she was hoping for more, but she’s had plenty of time to get to Helmscrag and activate her plan, so why hasn’t she? Unless she’s been waiting for Chalan, but even then, with your detours, she’s been there for days! Something about all of this stinks, and frankly you don’t think it’s just that you haven’t bathed in awhile.

As the Leyway trundles down the tracks in the late afternoon, the rest of your party sleeping and recovering again, you pull out your [Port-o-Glass] and fire it up, scanning through your Leymail. More spam, Gods damnit, but there’s actually a few surprises there. The first is a reply from Patricia, which you decide to open later, as well as a report from Anderson, as well as a reply from Selene. You tap your knee a few times, thinking over what to do first when another message from Anderson appears.

“REPORT. NOW.”
You sigh and open up the one he sent you, and read through the contents. It seems they’ve retrieved the body of THE CROW and have done some tests on it, even bringing in a Hospitalier and a Biomancer, though apparently the one they’d like to have brought in is busy on an expedition near the Black Forest. Dreadful place you’ve heard, but hey more power to him you suppose.

While going through the body, they found the puncture wounds into the cranium as well as others which had scarred over remarkably quickly considering how they penetrated into the brain itself. While digging, the Biomancer found trace elements of plant material in the brain, degraded after the host died. As they dissected the brain they found more and of the material invading every aspect of it, eventually finding a seed planted into one section in the forebrain. No one is quite certain why it was there, but the space it occupied seems significant for some reason.

Anderson makes a little offhanded mention about the applications of this autopsy to advancing science, but you dismiss it. You didn’t really need to know the how, but the why. So these… seeds, are being planted into the minds of illusionists, changing their behavior and driving them insane. You briefly touch your own head and frown. She didn’t… plant anything there, right? No, no you were saved in time from having that happen. Clearly you’re over thinking this…

Troubled, you write a report of the current events to Anderson, going into detail the ruins, the involvement with Heather, and the current state of politics in this region. You make DAMN certain that Anderson knows that you pretty much saved the entire fucking country here as well as almost losing a very dear friend and you expect some really, really major compensation for this. With a flourish, you smash that fucking send rune and go on to read Patricia’s Leymail.

“Tobias.

Holy Hells, this is not good. So you’re little story about the seeds in the brains? I got a report of that Anderson creep, hello sir how are you, and it’s scary. See, I don’t know too much about brains and all that, but I do know that getting something like that in the head will make someone very, very susceptible to suggestion and insanity. This isn’t some magical twisting going on here, but instead a very physical response. Frankly, this isn’t something a human can do, and with the way you described this Chalan putting her arm back together, it’s confirmed that she is NOT human.”

“That being said, she is not a known type of Monster. No plant Monster is mobile, not without some other extenuating circumstances, and most certainly not without being noticed. So this makes me think that she was not born, but CREATED. Anderson sent some other reports he’s found and I believe that Chalan’s involvement and appearing near the Cradle are not coincidence. We found out who she was before, a Biomancer of decent skill who spent a LOT of time with these Monsters.”

“I’ll be blunt, I think the Queen Alarune did something to her, made her the way she is now. Tobias, this Monster known as Chalan is not the instigator, but another pawn. Using these seeds, she’s locating the Illusionists and driving them insane. The chaos they create in their delusions is but a side effect of the true intention, I feel. The real reason she is doing this is to make them insane enough to find no other route but to accept Phallia’s blessing, to become Mindflayers. This is what I believe Beardlington meant by ripening, though I’m not certain how it would apply to the men.”

“Imagine an force of Mindflayers, able to control the minds of others through Illusions? Remember how a Monster Invasion was delayed, and nearly ended by an Illusionist? Imagine one without the restraints of this and with a purpose under a GODDESS.”

“I’m scared Tobias, and you should be too. If she is able to create even another Mindflayer, and then an Avatar… This war is not supposed to go well for Galmathoria, not with the military might of Deleor after Saya’s Dad’s actions. But with saboteurs the level of a Mindflayer? It would be a slaughter. With both sides weakened then by the conflict… Well, these are all just grandstanding theories honestly. I’ve spoken with my Father directly and he is certainly concerned. Mother still just wants me to find a good boy with a nice dick and… bah, never mind.”

“He’s busy preparing for the worst case scenario. He want to send some heroes out there, but he can’t, not soon enough, sorry to say. However, he did let me know, hello Mr. Anderson, that there is at least one Hero there who knows of the situation, but is advised to keep a low profile and not to act until she rendezvous with you.”

“That’s all for now. I don’t have any way to help with these seeds, but I’ll look into it further. Might get me out of the library I suppose… Anyway, stay safe and tell Saya she’s a dunce.

-Patricia.”

Well then. You look over the message again before groaning. You may have had some idea that this was all occurring but… to see someone else lay it out so plainly, it puts it into perspective. This really is much, much bigger than you thought. But again, who but you was going to do this? It changes nothing, just the scope should you fail.

You notice a message arriving from Anderson and read it over.

“Tobias.

We know of the ruins, they had been previously deemed not a threat and kept our people away so no one would bother with them. Seeing as a Dullahan would go and do something so reckless skipped our gaze, but that the threat of this magical dampening pulse and the destabilizing force of this Illusionist is now gone, you will be rewarded accordingly. Please give my condolences too Ms. Illoma, though I’m afraid her work is about to begin. I have spoken with Ms. Boudreaux about her involvement and suspicions and I have to agree. Military forces in Helmscrag have been put on alert, but any overt actions by them can trigger these attacks. Currently we are doing covert searches for the Construct weapons, but as of yet have been unable to find them, due to Illusions I fear, though [Magesight Goggles] are giving us little help either. They may not be present in the town though I feel that they are based on shipping records.”

“Keep me advised of your progress, and when you see the Hero, Alice Nurem, please work with her. I trust you will not fail in this.

-Anderson.”

“For fuck’s sake…” You mumble to yourself. “Thought he’d be a bit more appreciative.”

“Who would?” Saya says, entering your room as you say this. You wave to her and she walks over to read Anderson’s message before rolling her eyes. “Great, what a stand up guy. Alice, huh? Haven’t heard of her before, but if Blake recommends her, then so be it.”

“I suppose.” You say before opening up the message from Selene. “You have mail, by the way.”

Saya frowns and reads over the missive before cocking her head. “I don’t get it. Mom says that the Plant Monsters have left Sanctifrond, that they’re returning to the Cradle, but nothing was accomplished. None of their demands were met and no treaty was made, they just got up and… left.” She shakes her head, “I don’t like that at all, it reeks of them stalling things.”

“Does that mean your Mother can come here and just… fix everything?” You ask hopefully, and Saya shrugs.

“No, she said she had to attend to Dad. He’s apparently found something out East that seems to be way more important than potentially the destruction of the world as we know it.”

“That is… genuinely terrifying.” You say, shuddering. A notification sound chimes and you look over at the glass and freeze in place, eyes going wide.

Saya lifts an eyebrow and tries to take a look for herself, but you quickly turn the [Port-o-Glass] away and smile. “Aha, it’s nothing. Just Anderson being a jerk! I better get on this. Could you see if Akela is doing alright?”
Saya gives you a searching look before rolling her eyes and walking over to where Akela is sleeping, gently running her fingers through the little girl’s hair. You watch her for a moment before turning back to the device. With trembling fingers, you open the message from the Grand Wizard himself entitled, “We need to talk.”

“Dear Tobias,

I have heard of your exploits and adventures from my wife and frankly I am glad to have such a devoted fan. While it was not my intention to become popular in such a way, that people are inspired to follow in my footsteps and go on life changing adventures warms my heart. I am currently on another fantastic adventure, probably saving the world, though I can’t really talk about it at the moment. Wizard things, you know?”

“Oh, but I’m glad to hear you’re such good friends with my eldest daughter whom I love more than anything in the world and would kill mercilessly anyone who dared hurt her in any way or would allow harm to come to her. The thought of such a thing happening, or gosh, someone taking advantage of her, well, that just fills me with rage! I’m glad you were just joking around like men do, having a good time, because clearly you wouldn’t be such a fucking idiot to send that to me over Leymail, would you? I mean, wow, that would just be the worst thing a Father could read, even if it was for good intentions!”

“Now, since you clearly are NOT doing these things and are just concerned with Saya’s health, I’d like to hear what specific concerns you have. I’ll entertain a few other questions, but I warn you that I’m a busy man and I can’t always check my Leymail.”

“I’ve given you a golden ticket, boy.”

You’re sweating. Not like, because you’re hot or anything, in fact you don’t even notice it until a bead of sweat falls upon your hand and you look down with shaky hands. You just managed to make THE Grand Wizard himself angry because of your stupid leymail. You couldn’t have just made it easy on yourself and not sent the message, nah, you had to send that insecure scrap of letters to him.

And yet, the way his words are crafted, the arrogance in them stirs something in your chest. You expected him to be angry, or disapproving regardless, that’s what father’s do, right? Shit, if some little shithead walked up and said he banged Akela, well that would be wrong because she’s a little girl, but if she was an adult, you’d want to bash his brains in. You understand exactly what he’s feeling here, don’t you? For some reason that gives you strength, and you sit up straighter, reading over the message again.

This, “Golden Ticket” you’ve been given, he probably doesn’t expect you to use it, does it? He expects you to be cowed by him, and frankly you almost were. You look up to see Saya singing a soft lullaby to Akela and your heart swells, as if a fire is stoked within. Grand Wizard or not, you’re not going to be pushed around here, because while you really, really want his signature, you have something WAY more important.

You crack your knuckles and wince at the throbbing there momentarily before weaving the runes for replying. Taking a moment to compose yourself, you lift your hands to the runes and begin weaving.

“Grand Wizard,

Good afternoon, thank you for your reply, but let us not stand on ceremony, Mr. Wizard. I have read your reply, the anger within it, and I understand. You’re a big guy, but I wonder if being caught in your words was part of your plan? Of course it was, you must understand that though my words were disconnected, they spoke of the truth.

Saya, your daughter, she makes the fire in my heart rise. I am not merely her friend, but it does not matter who I am, for what matters is my plan. The plan in which I hold and protect your daughter, to take the years of pain which has kept her down with the fear of loving someone and give something greater to her… your daughter. Do you feel in charge? Your legacy gives you power, but do you think it gives you power over me?

I reached out to you because I thought you could help, but you don’t have power over me. You want happiness for your daughter? Then look to me, for I am the necessary component to her joy. You may wonder if you will break me, in spirit or body, but I assure you that this will not be so. I love your daughter, and if you cannot accept this and help with her happiness, then you can just go crash a boat… with no survivors!”

You pause for a moment there, realizing you’re trembling a little. It’s not very long, but you feel something magical about what you’ve written here, and in the sparkly, feel good sense, not the actual mind bending magic sense. You read over the words one more time and wonder if you’ve gone too far with the whole, “crashing a boat” thing. Eh, you just nod your head and going forward with the message anyway.

“So, I leave it to you. What is your answer? Will you help or has peace cost you your strength? Work with me and we can all be happy.

I do not take back my words, for I have made love with your daughter and it was wonderful. Would you like the details? No? Very well then.

But onto other topics: I know your knowledge of biomancy has only increased over the years and that part of it because you seek to look further into your daughter’s condition, to bring her closer to where she can find happiness. I have another question related to that, for in our journey we have met a woman infused with plant material, perhaps even Monsterized and with her powers she inserts seeds into the minds of my own variety of sorcerers, driving them insane. I wish to know your thoughts on this subject.

Truthfully I don’t need much else. I can take your signature or leave it, I have something more precious now. But there is one thing I will ask though, something I fear that has been weighing on my soul quite heavily. I…

Want your Mountain Elixir recipe.

With love,
Tobias Shady.”

You read this over again and shrug, hitting the send rune. It flies away through magic and mystery and far off to some nexus point of magic where the Wizard will see it. You wonder momentarily if because these travel upon the Leylines, can Solos see your messages? Eh… probably not, you sort of doubt even he has control over these things any longer.

“You alright, dear?” Saya says and you look up, blinking a few times at her.

“Oh, uh, yeah, just got heated with Anderson, you know.” You look back to the [Port-o-Glass] for a reply, but see nothing yet. Not everyone is Anderson after all. Shaking your head, you power off the device and put it down before patting your lap and smiling.

Saya smirks and walks over to sit on your lap, getting cozy up next to you as you wrap your arm around her waist. She sighs out gently and leans her face over to yours, where the two of you share a brief kiss before she rests her head against your shoulder and the two of you rest there until fatigue takes both of you to sleep.

——————————————-
It isn’t until the next day that you receive the reply. In fact, you’re actually kind of shocked you got one at all, but you make certain you’re alone, both Saya and Akela off to eat pancakes, before you read it. Firing up the [Port-o-Glass], you log into your account and discard the spam before getting in the zone and reading.

“Tobias.

For fuck’s sake, I should have known my daughter would be stupid enough to find a man like her damn father. I kept telling her she’d find a good guy some day, but noooo, she had to find someone with a shitty sense of humor like her Dad. Gods kids, you’re making it really, really hard to be the angry father right now.

I’ll be frank with you, I happy for her, I really am, but I was afraid something like this would happen. Yes, she’s a Monster and my wife prepared me for… that happening to her someday, but that her fears she would hurt her love coming true must have hurt her terribly. I’m glad you two made it through it though, because to my eternal shame, I don’t have an answer for you.

You’ve read my book, you know that her birth, while wonderful, was beyond anything anyone could imagine. I don’t even know where to classify her, nor does my wife, and it scares me. Can she ever truly control her own nature? Can she have children of her own? I know it keeps her up at night, but sometimes I do too. I have some theories on magic that may help, but I wouldn’t do that to her.

Ah, but forgive the ramblings of an old man. I’ve heard of some of your adventures, don’t ask how, just trust that I’m connected. I also received the same request about this “Chalan” from Blake, or the Lord Commander, or whatever you want to call him. If I was in Sanctifrond, maybe I could help with that, but as of yet, I don’t have a good idea on how to remove these seeds, not without severely harming the host. From what I’ve heard of this Chalan though, it seems like something of the same thing, but in a more concentrated form. If one can take control of the plants while separating out the human components, it might work, but I fear only a plagamancer AND biomancer could do this right. Pretty much only a Wizard.

You’ve done much kid, and I know that you’re taking care of my daughter. I know she can look after herself, but keep her safe for me? She and her sisters are my world and my heart wrenches every time she goes off on one of my wife’s crazy missions. To know that there’s someone next to her, a b…ooooyyyyyfriend, guh, well, it makes me feel a little better. I

Of course, once again, if you’re lying to me and you hurt her, I’ll kill you in ways that can only be described as ‘deeply pornographic.’

Sincerely,
The Grand Wizard

P.S.: Mountain Elixir is made of water, caffeine, lemons, limes, sugar, and to put it all inside a jug with a raw mana crystal inside of it. You may or may not cause mild explosions the first few times.”

You read over it once, twice, three times, before you smile and turn off the [Port-o-Glass] once again. You really didn’t think that it would go this way, but as you wrote your reply to him, you knew it was right. This reply seemed to confirm what you’d always figured, that the Wizard really is just a shitweaver who loves his family too much. Somehow it makes him seem much more human to you.

“Wait a second.” You mutter, rubbing your chin. “He didn’t say he was going to sign my damn book!”

—————————————–

The Leyway slows down as it approaches the station, the last stop on the tracks. It takes a few moments of the metal cars to sink down to the ground, the magic dispersing about them, and with a gentle thud, it settles in place. Outside the windows, the shuffling of footsteps is heard and the doors open up, admitting a group of armed soldiers who enter into your car.

You’d been warned about this beforehand, that due to the nature of the place, there would be checks made of all passengers before allowing people into Helmscrag itself. You stand with your luggage ready as the soldiers in their gleaming breastplates walk down the aisle, looking through belongings and questioning your party.

“Name?” A gruff soldier asks and you stand up straighter.

“Tobias Shady.”

“Mmm, you’re on the registry.” He says, nodding at a sheet. “Business?”

“Investigation via the Crown. I imagine Agent Anderson has sent you information?” You raise an eyebrow and the man turns to another soldier who nods his head. The gruff soldier grunts and makes a check on his paper.

“Very well then, we have you here. We’ll have to check all your luggage for contraband though.”

“Very well.” You say, handing over your rucksack. The men look over everyone’s assembled luggage, paying particular attention to Clint’s rifle, though it seems Anderson put in a good word for you and they expected it, but still decided to look over it. When the man looking at your items gets to your [Pocket Sand] he opens it up and dips his hand in. Your heart starts beating furiously. Oh shit, what if he pulls out some crazy fucking sand and blows everyone up and-

“Why do you have a pouch full of red sand?”

“Uhhhh.” You say, a little startled. “I like to dry my ink with red sand because it’s prettier.”

The man gives you a stare so cold, you think you’re about to freeze into oblivion. He eventually hands you back your items and they finish with everything, deeming your strange collection of items as satisfactory. They wave you forward and you exit the Leyway, holding Akela’s hand as you mind the gap and enter into Helmscrag.

The station, open to the outside, is fairly utilitarian. Multiple soldiers stand about but the periphery, helping to unload crates from the Leyway while other, less uniformed people mill about quietly, as if afraid to get in the way of the soldiers as they way for their turn onto the Leyway. You spend little time in that unfortunate place and head out to the town itself to find it… equally unfortunate.

Helmscrag used to be a mining town before the borders suddenly shifted. The reason this town in particular became a military base was not because of its proximity to the border necessarily, nor was it because of the ore it mined here. The reason this place was chosen was because of the terrain here, and the town itself showed this.

The majority of the town is built into the walls of a canyon, with multiple buildings carved out of the rock face itself thanks to powerful geomancers, while wooden buildings that connect to natural hollows in the rocks dot the area every so often as well. Due to the multiple tunnels running through here, it was easy to set up a hive-like fort that overlooked the canyon while having easy access to the town. Galmathoria may have many Monsters, but after the Grand Wizard’s work, they don’t have the insane strength anymore to subvert the fort and enter the town, and even if they did, the soldiers could pour out from anywhere. Generally speaking, it’s thought that BECAUSE of this Helmscrag to the south and the Cradle to the southeast, that Galmathoria hasn’t tried anything beyond a few, scattered raids.

This, of course, makes it all the more imperative that you find out what they plan on doing here, as well as those other two Illusionists. Abigail says they’re both here still, so perhaps you’re not too late, though saving the world in other places has certainly cost you time. Of course, it’s not like the people here seem to think anything is wrong at all.

You figured there might have been an increased military presence here, what with all the concerns, but if there was, it didn’t seem all that noticeable. It seems that Anderson was true to his word, he doesn’t want to tip them off, but seeing as you’re here now, things are about to get chaotic anyway. Well, nothing much for it but to continue on and get set up as always in an inn and-

“Tobias Shady?” A feminine voice says from behind you.

You turn about to see who has addressed you when a mailed fist flies toward your face, and in your surprise, you fall ass first to the ground, blinking in shock. Everyone in your group immediately springs into action as the woman who tried to punch you gently retracts her arm and runs her hand through her long, black hair. The woman is all, perhaps even as tall as you are, and has a very attractive face, which makes it all the more frustrating. She’s armored in very functional armor, or at least it was until she clearly decided to aftermarket gild it at points, making it look far more fancy than it should.

She flexes her gauntleted hand and smiles wickedly before saying, “I expected better of you when the Lord Commander himself told me to work with you. Clearly, he hasn’t met you or he’d be severely disappointed.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Ginelle says, cracking her knuckles and NOT hurting herself you notice.

The woman smiles and taps the elaborate sword at her waist. A wicked glint appears in her eyes, something that screams for bloodlust as she looks to Ginelle. “Hmm? You look like you’re ready for a fight Badgerbrains, you want to go right now? I promise you that you can’t take me, Alice Nurem!”

“Oh.” Saya says, sighing. “Wait, I have heard of her.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter who she is.” Clint says, interposing himself between the two women. “The only thing that matters is that we work together.”

“Oooo, such handsome words from such a rugged man.” Alice says, shivering. “A shame you reek of badger. I guess you like the gamey scent, huh? Well, no matter then.” She shrugs and takes her hand off her sword. “So, you’re here to find some outlaws, huh? Well, welcome to the grandest shithole there is for that.”

“Can we put our stuff away in an inn?” Clarissa asks, but Alice points at her.

“Quiet, birdbrain. Anyway, so! This place, gosh is there a lot here. We have the town itself with all those tunnels, which I’ve searched thank you very much, the mines, which I also searched, and the fort, which they won’t let me search.”

She sniffs and crosses her arms. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s anyone here doing anything out of the ordinary, but when that hunk of a Lord Commander tells you to do something you better do it!” Her eyes shine and she sidles up to Clint. “I call dibs on working with this guy.”
You think Ginelle is about to blow her top here, but you also kind of want to get started searching too. Still, letting this woman take control of your investigation clearly isn’t going to go well, but she does know the town. Not even here five minutes and you’re already in for some shit.

Well, what else is new?

“Right then, Alice, was it?” You say, stepping up to the woman.

Alice gives you a cursory look, her eyes seemingly practiced at hitting particular points of your body, mainly your muscles, though you’re pretty sure her gaze lingers on your crotch for a moment before she sighs. “Oh well, not bad I guess…”

“Excuse me?” You say, frowning. She holds up a hand and then shakes her head.

“Ah, never mind. So you’re in charge of this rag-tag little band of ne’er-do-wells, eh?” She looks over the group again before rolling her eyes. “This is going to be… something.”

You think really hard about just slamming her ass to the ground HARD and laying down the law. It would have felt good to do this, but you aren’t really in a position to cause a scene at the moment, and as far as you know, you NEED this woman. Still, you can’t just let her walk all over you or you won’t get anything accomplished as she gets her head ripped off by Ginelle for trying to suck Clint’s cock.

“Yes, I am in charge.” You say, throwing in a little [Battle Voice]. “I think that we should find an inn first like Clarissa suggested, so we can plan things out better and store our luggage.”

She doesn’t seem fazed at all and merely groans. “Ugghhh, but that’s such a waste of time.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion.” You say with a little more venom, and that seems to stick. She blinks at you a few times before running her eyes over you in re-evaluation. She rubs her jaw and seems to contemplate for a moment before smirking.
“Mmm, well you wear that suit well… Alright then boss, how about we ah… go to the inn for awhile?” She turns about on her heels, which thankfully are not actual high heels, just normal jackboots, and struts away, making damn certain you get a look at her rather… shapely ass. Alright well, she has the goods to back up that swagger at least, so she has that going for her.

You hear Saya and Ginelle both clear their throats and you find Clint and yourself turning to your respective ladyfriends to find them frowning. The two of you give each other a brief look and a small, almost imperceptible nod of the head, the universal sign of solidarity between men. That passed you return to your glaring girlfriends.

“See something you like?” Saya says, huffing.

“Why yes, you.” You say, smiling broadly. She wipes the smile off your face by grabbing your cheeks and pinching firmly. “Ahhhch! Shtap! Shtap!”

She releases your cheeks and sighs. “Damnit Tobias, you have to be so blatant about it?”

“No, but I mean, come on you know it means nothing.” You say, rubbing your cheeks. Owww that actually hurt! At least you got off better than Clint who had his ear in between Ginelle’s taloned fingers. Poor guy. “You know I love you.”

“I know.” She says, rolling her eyes. “It’s just THAT woman. The name was familiar, but seeing her in person, I’m reminded of why they call her the Succubus of Sword.”

“Aren’t there like… normal Succubi who use swords?”

“Many, they’re actually lieutenants in the Monster Hordes when they were called before, but that’s beside the point.” She holds up a finger and then points it at the woman who seems to be purposefully walking in slow motion. “See, there’s a reason she got turfed to this backwater, and it’s because she ROYALLY pissed off Veronica. Apparently the woman used to be part of the Chantry while it was alive because of her hatred for Monsters, but it soon became apparent that her actual reason for joining the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood was to be close to so many shirtless, sweaty men.”

“After the fifth or so infraction of fraternizing, she was posted here on the border where she could fill a token role while harassing the soldiers instead.”

“Why didn’t they just… expel her?” You ask, cocking your head.

“She’s not called the Succubus of the Sword without reason. I heard from the grapevine of course, but it’s rumored that she could fight Blake to a standstill in a duel.”

Your eyes go wide, “Not even the Wanderer could do that!”

“Yeah, that she could potentially be stronger than Tabitha is… disturbing.” Saya says before shaking her head. “She’s a cunt, but I’m glad she’s on our side.” She pauses for a moment before asking, “She is on our side, right?”

“Uhhhh.” You say before looking into your jacket. “Hey Abigail, she is on our side, right?”

You hear a slight stirring before Abigail pokes her head out of your jacket and yawns, rubbing at her eyes. “Oh, sure, wake up the injured little fairy and then not even ask, ‘Oh Abigail, doth you feel better this fine day?’ Nah, go straight with the other questions, that’s fine, sure.”

“Abigail…” You say, and she sniffs in response. You roll your eyes before asking sweetly, “Dearest Abigail, how fare you this radiant afternoon?”

“Quite well good shrew, quite well.” She nods her head in satisfaction before looking over to Alice, who seems not to have noticed that you’re… not following her. “She’s clean. I think the two we’re looking for are named Rachel and Sadie Bullnarn.” She cocks her head for a moment, thinking before saying, “Huh, I guess they’re related now that you mention it.”

“Sister Illusionists?” You say, looking incredulous. “I can’t believe we didn’t hear of this, rarely does more than one person in family ever be born an illusionist. Two in the same generation is practically unheard of.”

“I don’t make the rules.” The fairy says before shrugging. “Though I really wish I did…” She dives back into your jacket and starts snoozing again.

“OI!” You hear, and all of your party looks up to see Alice standing a good, oh, fifty feet away, her arms crossed as she taps her feet. “I’m getting sick of waiting for you lazy jerks!”

You and Saya trade dirty looks before making to catch up with your latest addition to the group.

——————————————

“I can’t believe I tripped five times on the way here.” Alice groans, rubbing her well formed behind as she gingerly sits down in your room. “Honestly, all these rocks out on these dirt roads, nothing at all like the pristine streets of Sanctifrond!”

“Gosh, that’s terrible.” You say, helping Akella get settled. “I mean, none of us tripped, maybe you’re just unlucky.”

“Unlucky, bah, no it clearly has nothing to do with me.” Alice says, waving her hand in dismissal. “Anyway, are you about done yet?”

“We just got here.” Clarissa says, walking past, a water bucket held in her wings. “Give us time to-woah!” She trips herself and spills water, landing all over the Hero. The woman’s eyes go wide as her armor is drenched in the cold water, and she shakes her hands in shock as her mouth goes wide.

“Ohhhhhhh!” She squeals before rounding on the bird. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU DAMN BIRDBRAIN.”

“Oh, I sorry.” Clarissa says, sticking her tongue out and rapping her head. “I not so smart, cause I birb.”

“Woah, hey hey.” Saya says, walking up and grabbing something to dry the woman off. She goes to polishing the armor saying, “Gosh, I’m sorry about that. She’s not the only clumsy one around here…”

“I can do it mysel- gah!” Alice begins before being cut off as Saya starts drying off her face with clumsy motions. “Stop! Stop!”

“Oh, sorry, was it doing it wrong?” Saya says, offering the cloth which the Hero swipes and begins drying her face off again.

“Damnit, I expected better from a human…” She grumbles while wiping herself free of water. As she does so, Saya and Clarissa both give you covert looks and you nod slowly. They hide their smirks before going back to their tasks.

It’s not like you really had anything against the woman, she’s just a piece of shit. Her tripping maaaaay not have been entirely natural either. Not saying it was you, but SOMEONE may have used magical powers to make her trip. Could have been anyone really, hard to say.

Clint, Ginelle, and Ophelia arrive for the planning session but at a glance from you they hold back on their own form of bullying. After your first little incident where she tripped and fell into a pile of horse shit, they got the idea reaaaaaal fast. Even Ginelle, who usually can’t pick up on cues got it. You do happen to notice that she’s holding something in her hand that’s making it squirm a little. Maybe…maybe you should talk to her about how this works.
“Ah good, the stooges and the hunk appear.” Alice says, finishing drying off. “Now then, back to business.” She points outside the window which overlooks the canyon. This inn was built for travelers and gave a great view of the whole town as it was built high up on the canyon, and parts of it stood out of it. You’d asked for this room specifically to boost the signal of Ophelia’s communications device, and Alice grudgingly obliged.

“So yeah, the rabbit and the adorable child are staying here, right?” She continues and you nod.

“Yes, OPHELIA and AKELA are staying here while we explore. However, when we find what we’re looking for, we’ll likely have someone come back for Akela while Ophelia is escorted in as her Magitek knowledge is invaluable.”

Ophelia swells with pride at this statement, but Alice just looks shocked. “Whaaaaaat? Rabbits who are good for something other than breeding? Man, you guys have come a long way.”

Ginelle raises her paw, about ready to shove the squirming whatever down the woman’s throat, but Clint stops her and she grumbles settling back. You notice that Alice’s hand drifts calmly away from her sword and you have to wonder when she put it there. This woman is far more dangerous than you thought apparently.

“Yes, that is the case.” You say, nodding. “Now then, as for where we should explore first-“

“Right, here’s the plan.” Alice says, pointing to people. “So Birdbrain and Badgertits will head off to the mines and explore around there, the lady here and Tobias will check out the fort while I and Mr. tall, dark, and handsome explore the caverns again.”

“Objection.” Saya says, raising her hand, and the Hero rolls her eyes.

“Fiiiiine. So you can explore the fort yourself while I go with both of the men, you know, to keep them safe.”

“I’ll eat your flesh and wear your bones before casting them into a fire and using the ashes to grow a sunflower which I’ll crush into paste.” Saya whispers under her breath and the Hero cocks her head.

“Eh?”

“Nothing.” You say, giving Saya stern look. She grumbles and stands down as you turn to the woman. You give her your most serious stare and say in your sternest voice, “Look at me. I am the Captain now. You will take your orders from me or so help me I’ll get an Agent of the Crown to come here and personally slap you for insubordination.”

She looks stunned for a moment at your words before a glint of something you don’t like appears in her eyes. She smiles wickedly and holds her hands up in submission. “Oh my… so very forceful. Please, I’d never think to step out of bounds, though if I did, would you… punish me?”

“Let me eat her, we can share her entrails together, it will be romantic.” Saya whispers into your ear and you shudder. That was probably the creepiest thing you’ve ever heard her say, and frankly the most Monstrous. You…”ignore” her and reply to Alice.

“Just follow my orders and we’ll never have to find out. You say that you’ve explored the mines and the town’s caverns, tell me what you found.”

Alice sighs and rolls her eyes. “So I was looking for suspicious figures and some constructs. I mean, in the mines I found TONS of constructs, but they’re all large mining units designed to break and haul rocks, nothing special. In the town I found some petty criminals, which was fairly boring to be honest, but no one who would fit the other descriptions of being suspicious or the others sent to me by the Lord Hunk, I mean Commander.” She pulls out a list from her breastplate, apparently having hidden it in her cleavage, and she frowns as it’s covered in water before glaring at Clarissa.

“Anyway… Chalan and Fiora huh? Stupid names if you ask me.”

“I didn’t. You said they didn’t allow you into the Fort, right?”

“Nah.” She says, lounging back. “Captain there doesn’t let me in anymore, he’s afraid I’ll show his men a good time for once in their miserable lives.” She waves a hand to the rest of your group. “I think you’re prudes enough to be let in though. I will say that the guy is a jerk, but he knows how to run this operation. I highly doubt ANYTHING has escaped his notice here.”

“Strange.” You say, looking at the others. “Are you certain that there’s no odd behaviors here? No new phenomena going on, people missing, things heard/seen in the night?”

“Mmmm, I don’t think so.” Alice says, thinking. “I mean, I hear some of the miners always whispering about Monsters living in the deeper areas of the caverns in town, but they’re always afraid of things living in there, it’s why we have doors.” She shrugs, “I suppose people are complaining about a pair of ‘ghosts’ appearing in town, scaring them away from certain caverns and one of the deeper shafts of the mines, though I checked through there and I saw nothing at all.”

She sighs wistfully, “I really wanted to try cutting a ghost with Energieschwert here…” She pats her blade and says, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.”

“Clearly not.” You say, running though this in your mind. This woman and her sword, which she named, because of course she would, had done a lot of ground work, but she clearly has never messed with Illusionists. Ophelia raises her hand, catching everyone’s attention and breaking your concentration.

“What kind of units are in the mines?” She asks, looking a little smug, as if about to get the woman in a gotcha.

“Eh? Oh, Aegis III’s and a few Powerlifter Turbo’s though these are pretty rare because of the availability of aethetic lubricant in these parts despite the Leyway.”

Ophelia stares at her in shock, as if utterly unprepared for her to know a damn thing about Magitek. If this woman wasn’t a total ass, she might even be pretty cool, which makes this all so much more terrible. You rub your temples before taking in a deep breath and saying, “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do. Ginelle, Clint, you’re together, Saya and I are together and Clarissa, you’re with Alice.”

“Objection.” Alice says, raising a hand.

“Overruled.” You say, not missing a beat. “If you don’t want to be with her, you can go alone while Clarissa runs over watch.” You nod to Ophelia. “You’re on comms duty again until we need you here, alright?”

The rabbit nods her head and you nod back before thinking things over and nodding your head. “Those are the final groups, now then as to how we’re going to tackle this…” Well, you kind of need to figure out who goes where, but thankfully you have plenty of time to-

“Nah, that’s still really, really gay.” Alice says flatly. “I mean, I like an assertive man, don’t get me wrong, but I think that plan sucks.”

You rub your forehead for a moment before sighing and holding out your hand to Alice. “Alright then, if you’re so insistent, then what do YOU suggest?”

“Well, first things first. Ghosts are real and they hunger for cock. You don’t want a man in those parties or things get… weird.” Alice says, holding a finger up. Saya nods in agreement. Right, right she’d been abducted by ghosts before, hadn’t she? You don’t remember them being all that horny though, but the way they possessed Hala and Tabitha before, maybe they were?

“Second thing’s second. You need someone with the ability to actually HURT the ghosts, which means magic. None of you seem particularly magical, so I ASSUME you have magical weaponry like this guy’s rifle, or one of you is a sorcerer.” Her gaze goes straight to you and you shrug.

“Good guess, though we’ll leave what kind as a mystery for now.”

She sniffs before shaking her head. “Well, in that case it means that I will have to be the one to go.” She pauses then and the room goes awkwardly silent as everyone stares at her. Eventually she throws up her hands and says, “Gods damnit, why is no one asking the question?”

“Uhhh.” Ophelia says, rubbing her head. “Alright, why does it have to be you.”

“I’m glad you asked bun-bun.” Alice says, nodding her head. “It’s because Energieschwert here is magical.”

“Uh… yeah, we figured.” Clint says, coughing into his hand.

“Oh.” Alice says, deflating some. “Well… fine then. Look, you don’t want to get caught unprepared by them, alright? That’s why I should go to the caverns.”

You pinch the bridge of your nose. She’s right, as much as you hate to admit it. You wanted the teams to work out your way, but she just HAD to use reason here. Sighing, you throw a hand up in the air. “Yeah, alright, you got me. Okay, change of plans, we’ll have Ginelle and…” You look about the room to have your eyes fall onto Saya. “Saya. You two scour the mines, going to as many tunnels as you dare.”

Saya cocks and eyebrow, but you hold up a hand. “Clint and I will head into the fort. I believe together we’ll have enough clout to get in and take a look about.” She rolls her eyes but nods her head, apparently thinking you can’t get into TOO much trouble with Clint watching you.

“Wait.” Alice says, holding up a hand. “Waaait, wait, wait. This means that I’m stuck with the..the…”

“Yes, you’re stuck with the burd.” Clarissa says, sighing. “Tobiaaaaaaaaassss.”

“Sorry Clarissa. Besides, I have some other tasks for you to complete today.” Alice groans but you just stand and hand a large amount of coins to Clarissa as well as the [Chamelon Cloak] and the [Magesight goggles]. “I need you to scour the market here to find any health potions. We had a close call last time and I…” You cut off, looking back at Ophelia, whose ears twitch slightly.

“Ah, I see.” Clarissa sighs before stuffing the items into her messenger bag. “Fine, I’ll do it, but only because you asked.”

You smile at her and pat her head, to which she blushes furiously and then pouts. “Damnit Tobias…”

“Thanks Clarissa.” You say to her before turning about. “Alright, anything anyone else wants to bring up?” No one says anything, so you nod your head. “Alright then, let’s get this show on the road.”

“Oh, don’t forget these!” Ophelia says, wincing as she moves a little too quickly to hand over the communications devices. She holds out the two she has and frowns as she looks over the groups. “Well shit.”

“Ah, it’s fine, we don’t need one.” You say, waving your hand. “I think we’ll be fine, we’re just going into a fort filled with trained soldiers, nothing special.”

Everyone gives you horrified looks, as if you just announced your own death. You roll your eyes and huff, “Gods be good, look, we’ll be FINE. Besides, Clint’s got my back, right?”

“Mmm now I’d pay to see that…” Alice says. Clarissa makes to ruffle her with her feathers, but the woman catches the Crow’s wing without looking at it, and Clarissa grunts as she squeezes down. “Well, let’s get this farce over with then.” She stands and lets go of Clarissa, walking out the door with that exaggerated swagger. Clarissa gives you a pleading look before groaning and following her.

“Tobias, what has our life become.” Saya says, watching them leave.

“A comedy of errors.” You sigh out. “And we’re the troupe of bumbling fools. She’s right though, let’s just… get out there. I want everyone to stay safe, take no chances and report to Ophelia as soon as you can, alright? Report often if you need to, I won’t tolerate anyone else getting hurt.”

They nod toward you and you sigh out in relief. “Good. This is our last challenge. We will find Fiora and Chalan and END their threat before it can even begin. We aren’t Heroes, but damnit if we aren’t the only ones this place has.” You nod to each of them in turn as you begin again, speaking from the heart.

“We’ve been through a lot, each and every one of us. We’ve formed bonds between us that could only be forged through adversity.” Clint and Ginelle look at each other, before smiling and turning aside, their hands twitching toward each other but pausing before they could commit that sin. You smirk and continue, “But we aren’t fighting for ourselves, though maybe in the start we had separate goals, they’re all converged upon the same, or why else would you have stayed? Can any of you say that you don’t believe in your heart that this is the right thing to do?”

No one disagrees, and they each nod their head in turn. You take a deep breath before speaking again. “I won’t lie to you, this is going to be very dangerous. Clint, Ophelia, you don’t know how terrifying Fiora is. She will make you see and feel things you can’t imagine. If you get the chance to kill her, then you take it. Same goes for Chalan, I don’t want any heroics, remember? We’re here to save the day, not to shine brightly or anything.”

You stare up at the ceiling and smirk. “Gods… To think that I of all people would say that.” You shake your head and smile again. “So, if you doubt what you see, what you feel, remember something solid within you, something firm that will keep you rooted in reality. Think of what you fight for, whom you love. Those won’t change, no matter how much an Illusionist messes with you.”

You close your eyes and nod your head. “Well, that’s enough of that for now. We have work to do.”

There’s a long silence, and you fear that your words may have been a little overly dramatic when you hear the soft sound of padded feet on the ground before a pair of soft, furry paws wrap around your waist. You open your eyes in surprise and look down at Akela, who has her face buried in your stomach, rubbing it back and forth. You slowly raise a hand and then gently place it upon her head, rubbing her soft, black hair.

“Girl’s got the right idea Tobias.” Clint says as the three other Monsters in the room get up and go to give you a hug. You cry out a little in surprise as the arms wrap around you. The firm strength of Ginelle, the delicate softness of Ophelia, and the tender embrace of Saya all envelop you and you have to work hard not to be overwhelmed by the emotion you feel.

They let go of you, one by one, and you blink a few times before shaking your head. Before you can speak, Clint claps your shoulder. You turn to him and he gives you that nod that only men can understand once again, this time with a little more respect mixed in. You smirk at him and return the nod before looking back down to Akela.

“You’re going to be a brave girl, right?”

“You’re going to come back, right?”
You pause there, mouth open but no words coming out. What are you supposed to say to that? For a girl who lost everything before, how do you tell her it will be alright when not even you know if you’ll survive the next day? You tighten your fist into a ball before relaxing. No… it wouldn’t do to lie to her, she deserved that much at least.

“I will do everything in my power to do so.” You say, ruffling her hair again. “You can count on it.”

She closes her eyes and sighs, stepping back before sitting down the bed. “Acceptable, I suppose. Go on then, go save the country, or the world, or what have you.” She reaches over and pulls out the colored wax sticks and paper. “When you get back, I’ll have a present for you.”

“That’s my girl.” You say. You look to Saya who smirks and then lightly kisses you on the cheek.

“That’s my boy.” She mutters, and then glides away to push Ginelle forward. “Alright, time to go you lummox.”

“Hey, hey!” Ginelle says, growling and stopping in place. “I got something to do before we go too!”

“Well then go ahead and-” Saya cuts off as Ginelle takes two steps over to Clint and places her paws on the side of his face before drawing him in for a long, passionate kiss. The man doesn’t even struggle at first, instead putting his arms around her and pulling her in close, reciprocating the gesture.

You, Saya, and Ophelia watch in silence for a discomfortingly long time until Akela asks, “Hey, why don’t you and Mom ever kiss like that?” The two of you trade uncomfortable glances as Ginelle and Clint pull away from each other, a string of saliva connecting their lips as they both pant for breath.

“That’s revenge for the Leyway ride, you asshole.” She says, grinning.

“I guess I’ll have to do that sort of thing again.” Clint replies, beaming his own smile.

“Oh my Gods, it’s like flashbacks to Hala and Blake.” Saya says, seemingly horrified. “It’s cute but terrifying to behold.”

“Yeah, and it’s making me irrationally angry.” Ophelia grumbles, her cheeks flushed. “Get out of here before I blast feedback over this stupid thing.” She points to the comms device and you all wince.

“Fine.” Ginelle says, grumbling and pushing Saya out the door. “See you later.”

“Guess that’s out cue.” Clint chuckles, clapping you on the shoulder. “Can’t let our lovely ladies down, can we?”

You blink a few times, watching Ginelle laughing in Saya’s ear as they walk down the hallway together. They look like any old pair of friends, just having a good time. Something about the scene stirs your heart and you nod back to Clint.

“No, no we cannot.”

—————————————–

“Milords, it is a pleasure to have you in our fort, however I can’t help but wonder… why?”

You sigh as the Commander of the Fort, a one Captain Tuskalanie, stands before you. You easily were able to produce credentials to back up Clint’s story of being sent out here to inspect his family’s investments into the defense of the nation, though all he but had to do was drop his House name and everyone was on their toes. Apparently, House Fullvora actually DOES finance parts of the standing army and they’re well liked by the soldering type. It was easy enough to get in based on that, but now that you stand before the Captain, you’re starting to run into problems.

“Well, I’m glad you asked.” Clint says, standing up straight. He’s wearing his roughs instead of any formal clothing, though it’s always been known that the eldest son of the family was a little… eccentric. “I trust you’ve heard of the confusion in Sanctifrond? Well, with that unfortunate event, my Father felt it prudent for me to check on our investments and make certain that faith in our House was still solid.”

“Of course it is.” The Captain says dryly, looking the two of you over. “The money still comes in, and your subsidiary houses still send their recruits here every so often.”

“Excellent, excellent.” You say, nodding your head while you rub your hands. “Tell me though, have you had any strange occurrences recently? Seen people or Monsters that should not be around?”

The Captain eyes you warily before giving Clint a questioning glance. The man sighs and shakes his head. “My Father asked him to come along to watch the progress of this adventure. He wanted to make certain I didn’t miss anything. The man is quite… through, and I would appreciate it as a gesture to the House if you would work with him.”

“Ah.” Tuskalanie says. “Well, no, nothing too out of the ordinary beyond the people talking about Ghosts and the local Hero getting frisky. He pauses before rolling his eyes, “More frisky, I suppose.”

“I see, I see.” You say nodding your head like an asshole. You hated this role, but it worked pretty well for the situation. “What of shipments into the town? Anything strange or unusual come in recently?”

“Not really. My men have been checking over the items that come in and beyond an increased shipment of mining constructs from the Manufactorum, nothing too odd.” He cocks his head then, thinking for a moment. “Well, I suppose we did have to detain some magitek fuel that came in. Wasn’t on any order and no one was quite certain where it was supposed to go. Figured it would be best to lock it up here instead of letting it loose out there.”

“The… Manufactorum.” You say with hesitation. “You’re certain they were mining constructs, yes?”

“That’s what the woman who came to pick them up said. Strange girl, not terribly old, but she had these damn piercing eyes.” He shudders. “Well, I looked them over and they match the specs for Aegis III’s. Gods knows they need more of those now that shaft 1’s gone dry, although they haven’t activated them yet.”

“Shaft 1? Wasn’t that a shaft with mana veins? I know they mined iron from there, but it was always a chore because they had to be careful not to strike the lines or risk a cave-in.” Clint says, frowning

“You know the place well!” The Captain says, nodding his head. “Yes, but as of recently the miners have been reluctant to go there, and those that do are finding little of value without traveling deeper in and…well…” He pauses, seemingly reluctant to speak.

“And?” Clint prompts, making the man blanch.

“They’re talking about Ghosts. Silly, I know, we haven’t had ghosts here in fifty years since that cave in, but we cleaned them out with the help of the Order, such as it was at the time.” He shakes his head and sighs. “I’ve been trying to keep calm, but they’ve noticed reports of a ghost in the caverns too, and frankly I have no idea what that Hero is doing when she should be fighting them.”

“Maybe they aren’t Ghosts?” You suggest, and the man gives you a look of solidarity.

“Yes, I suppose. It’s possible but… ah, I shouldn’t bore you with this any longer.” He shakes his head and stands up straighter. “What else can I do for you?”

“I suppose you can take us to see your contraband.” Clint says. “I’d quite like to see what we’ve been gathering and to make certain that it gets disposed of appropriately.”

“Odd request but… should be fine.” Tuskalaine says. “Well, if you’ll follow me…”

He leads you down further into the fort, a square structure built of stone that stood overlooking the canyon. It was one hell of a climb to get up there, traversing through multiple checkpoints along a stone-cut walkway laden with traps and easily defensible positions. The inside of the fort was no joke either, with multiple anti-air platforms where flying Monsters could be shot down by archers or constructs. Even if they got inside, the place was built like a maze, able to stymie any attackers able to subvert the defenses with magic or other Monster abilities.

Unlike other forts, it lacked a defensive barrier built into the stonework, but with Selene as the Monster Lady, no living Monsters really had the magic to level an entire fort in a single strike. Hells, the only thing the place lacked was an access port to the Leyway station, and it would be able to hold out for quite some time!

Soldiers salute as you pass through, though you survey every one, looking for any abnormalities. There isn’t anything really out of the ordinary that you can see thankfully, but Fiora could be hiding anywhere, watching you. It made your skin crawl with the feeling, though you begin to wonder if that’s true paranoia, or something caused by your insanity. The thought actually makes you more nervous, and you have to shake your head to stay focused.

“Here we are.” The Captain says, taking out a key and opening a heavy-set iron door. He nods to the soldiers standing guard and asks, “Anyone down there?”

“Yes sir. Inspection officer, she had all the right paperwork, sir.”

Tuskalaine frowns deeply. “There wasn’t supposed to be an inspection officer here today, when did she arrive?”

“She just got here sir, she had your seal sir. Don’t you remember? She doesn’t like to be disturbed, so if you could just wait and-“

“Shit.” The Captain says, throwing the door open. “Damnit, call the alarm, there’s an intruder in the fort!”

“S…sir, yes sir!” The soldier says as the Captain turns to you.

“Stay put, I’ll sort this out. Don’t you get yourselves into any trouble, you hear?!” He dashes down the stairs before you can reply and you blink in shock as the door slams shut.

You turn to the guard who was standing there to find them gone, no trace of the person present and you look around wildly to see where he ran off to. He couldn’t have been that fast, not even scared shitless could someone run like that without making a sound. The only way he could have just vanished is…

“Oh shit.” You say, gulping as Clint unslings his rifle. “I think we may have picked the most dangerous option after all.”

A gentle, yet unfamiliar laugh echoes around you, pervading your mind as it reverberates in your skull. “Aww, a shame that someone had to come here right when I was about to get away. Couldn’t you have waited a little longer? Oh well, it’s not like it matters anyway. I’ll take care of you and then grab the goods for the mistress.”

A figure seems to coalesce from nothing into the wispy form of a woman that shimmers in the dim light of the fort. She smiles before vanishing again. “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“Clint, was that a ghost?” You ask, taking a step back.

“Maybe, it’s not like I’ve ever seen one before.” He says, readying his rifle while scanning about.

“Oh, I thought you’d know.” You say, frowning. “I mean, it LOOKED like a ghost.”

“Well, like I said, I’ve never seen one before, but wouldn’t it be weird for one to be here?”

“Why’s that?”

“Well Ghosts are typically locked into place where they died as lingering spirits of regret and-” He cuts off as something grabs his leg and pulls him violently, the man spinning slightly in the air before hitting the ground with a crash. He groans as feminine laughter echoes through the halls.

“Maybe I’ll just toy with you first. It IS kind of fun to see cute boys panic.”

“Maaaaaaan.” You say, shaking your head. “Why is everyone in this town a turbo-slut.”

“Heeeey!” The Ghosts says, appearing suddenly before you face. “That’s really, really rude to say, hey!”

She cuts off as you swing with your fist, aiming for her face, but your hand just sails on through like there was nothing there. You both look down at your hand, then back up to each other’s eyes. “Hum.” You say. “I really don’t know what I was expecting. Do you Clint?”

The ghost turns her head to Clint before cursing and vanishing from view right as his rifle cracks and aetheric energy shoots right where the ghost was floating but moments before. He grunts and stands up before frowning at you. “Really Tobias? She was a sitting duck and you had to tell her I was there?”

“I thought it would be funny.” You say, shaking your head. “I mean, it’s probably not a-” You wheeze as the ghostly fist appears pressing hard into your gut. Backing away, you cough violently as you try to get air back in your lungs. Unfortunately, another blow hits your chin and you fall backward on your ass, dazed.

Another crack of energy is heard and the assault on your stops long enough for you to shake your head and get your bearings. Fucking hells, this ghost knows how to throw a punch! Which is horribly ironic given everything, but at the same time the way your gut hurts you really can’t think of much else. You groan as Clint slides up next to you, searching around as more laughter comes.

“Damnit, you’d think there’d be guards here by now.” He growls, sighting about the room.

“I locked the dooooors!~” The ghost chimes

“Of course she did.” You grunt, getting to your knees.”Of course, she probably isn’t a ghost either.”

“You’re just saying that because you got your ass kicked by one.”

“Not the time, nor the place, Clint.” You say before shaking your head. “Again, this doesn’t make sense, but what does make sense is that there’s an Illusionist here making trouble. This doesn’t fit Fiora’s bill, who would be far more direct, so it’s probably one of the two in town.”

“Heeeeeey~.” The Ghost says, reappearing behind the two of you. “Whatcha talking about?”

You both whirl about, Clint aiming the rifle at her before the ghost vanishes while you take the time to study it, break it down. The more you look at the absurdity of the Ghost, the more it makes sense that there should be no Ghost here. The pain you feel suddenly is less pronounced than before, though your body seems to want to believe you got your ass kicked, that damn traitor. Still, when the Ghost reappears, fist held high, you lower Clint’s gun and stand as the Ghost makes contact with your face…

And flies through it. You turn about slowly as the Ghost looks down at her fist, then up at you with confusion. “Uhhh. That’s not supposed to happen.”

“It took me some time to figure it all out.” You say, looking at the Ghost with satisfaction. “I’ve identified your spectral analysis. I know what makes you tick.” You tap your forehead before chuckling. “I am no longer afraid of you.”

“Why’s that?” The Ghost asks, drifting before you while making certain that Clint’s rifle wasn’t in her face. “Everyone’s afraid of ghosts.”

“True… all people are afraid of ghosts.” You say, taking a deep breath before readying your magic. “But I’m no person…” You reach to your face and pull it off.

The Ghost’s eyes go wide and she screams, floating back toward the northwest, near an intersection. You focus your powers toward this section and feel it taking purchase a little more firmly as you continue your little charade, ripping and tearing your own skin until all that remains is a pile of flesh and clothes while your true form stands before the Ghost.

No, it is not a bear like your heart cries out for, but instead that which is trapped within us all. A skeleton, a spooky, scary skeleton. You slowly turn your skeletal gaze to the Ghost and smile without any effort at all, for you are a skeleton and smiling is what you do. She visibly trembles as you slowly raise a hand toward her and scream.

Fact: Skeleton screams are powerful enough to wake the dead. They’re also powerful enough to make comfy illusionists break their illusions of invisibility as well. The Ghost vanishes before you while a young woman, perhaps in her late teens, appears out of nowhere near that intersection, putting her hands over her ears. You point to Clint who immediately snaps to attention and then hesitates to fire.

“Clint, what are you doing?” You shout as the man’s momentary hesitation passes. He stiffens and fires, but the moment had passed. The magitek round merely clips the woman, drawing a spray of blood and causing her to scream, but she manages to escape. You curse and run after her, but by the time the blood trail ends, there’s no sight of her.

You grunt and then stalk back over to Clint, putting your hands to your forehead. “For fuck’s sake Clint, what was that?”

He looks down, ashamed. “There’s no excuse for my hesitation. I thought she looked like… never mind. I screwed up and you have every right to berate me.”

“Ugh, now I can’t because you’re so humble about it.” You say, sighing before holding out a hand to the man to help him up. “This is going to bite us in the ass later, you know that, right?”

He nods his head slowly. “I know.” He looks off to where she ran and sighs. “Well, we stopped her from getting whatever she wanted at least. Let’s go check on the Captain and get those guards back in here on high alert.”

>Your Madness Level is now 38%

——————————————————–

“So you’re telling me that there’s some kind of sorcerer who can manipulate what we see and feel who was trying to get at the contraband?”

“Pretty much.” You say, shrugging. “Clint… I mean, Lord Fullvora managed to clip her with his weapon but she escaped.”

“Great…” The Captain groans. “At least you managed to stop her and the contraband is still in place. When I got there I realized I’d been tricked and came back as soon as I could. That the doors were locked and my men couldn’t arrive… I feel like a fool.”

“Honestly, these sorcerers are tricksters and liars.” Clint says, nodding his head. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed for what happened. You managed to get the fort on alert and everyone is safe.”

“I suppose. I have people out in the town searching for her based on this description of a young woman with long, black hair, wearing a white dress, and has a wound on her right arm.”

“I’m still amazed Cl…Lord Fullvora was able to get that much detail so quickly.” Clint shrugs and you feel sort of annoyed. You were good at remembering things, but clearly he had a mind like a steel trap. How aggravating.

“Still, I find it odd though.” The Captain says, rubbing his chin. “How was a girl like that going to carry out what she was looking for? Nothing there has much value beyond the magitek fuel and that stuff is heavy. Without some servos, she wasn’t going to get them out.”

You look to Clint and he shrugs. Apparently he didn’t see whether or not she was wearing servos and couldn’t comment. You sigh and look down at the rest of the list of items cataloged down there. Honestly nothing much stands out beyond a shitton of Red Leaf, which makes you think that people here really want to get fucked up if they’re trying to smuggle in that much of the illegal substance. Not inherently dangerous but it can cause hallucinations if you smoke too much so it’s been illegal for ages. Not exactly something you’d expect one of Fiora’s lackeys to be looking for.

“You said that the Fort was on high-alert?” Clint says, frowning. “That there are increased guard presences out in the town?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Tuskalanie says. “If we have thieves like this about, then we need to make them know that they aren’t welcome.”

You look to Clint with an odd expression before your eyes go wide. “Oh hells, we were supposed to avoid having that happen.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Clint grunts.”Captain, how are the people reacting?”

“I’m not overly certain, but they have to think something is wrong. There’s probably a mild undercurrent of fear going on, and mixed with the reports of Ghosts…” He trails off before cursing. “Damnit, you think this is some kind of ploy to get people riled up? For what purpose?”

“I don’t know.” Clint sighs. “But we’d best move carefully. Make certain that your men are being careful and diligent. We deal with tricksters who will accelerate their plans if they feel they’re being cornered, though I feel we’ve just started a countdown as it is.”

“Aye.” You say, nodding your head. “We had better be going then.”

“Thank you for your assistance.” The Captain says before saluting. Not to you, of course, but to Clint. The jerk.

The two of you rise and shake hands with the Captain before exiting the fort and going through the long and laborious process of heading through the checkpoints, which are far more garrisoned than before. By the time you reach the bottom, you’re both tired and annoyed.

“Stupid… fort and… stupid illusion ghosts.” You grumble, shoulders slumped.

“It wasn’t that bad.” Clint says, chuckling. “What did you show her to make her so scared anyway?”

“I tore my flesh off and showed my true form.”

“Skeleton?” Clint asks and you blink at him in surprise. He chuckles, “Well that would scare me.”

“Yes, a spooky skeleton.” You say, looking down at your hand. “Thank you Mr. Bojangles.”

“You… named your skeleton Bojangles?”

“Well, yes. What did you name your skeleton?”

“I only named one bone.” He says, smirk on his face. You walk next to him in silence for a long while before you get it and throw up your hands.

“That’s not even a bone!” You say before crossing your arms and grumbling at yourself. He chuckles as you approach the inn where the rest of your group is staying. He holds the door open for you and lets you in like a delicate lady and you grumble at yourself, entering the quiet atmosphere of the early afternoon.

You look about for the innkeeper but find no sign of him. The smell of cooked meat, though a little burnt, likely signifies that he’s in the kitchen and you really don’t need him for anything. Looking at the flight of stairs before you, you groan and start up them, walking the laborious steps up to the your room near the top. Clint continues to rib you the whole way, and you’re about to tell him off when you place your hand on your door and find it unlocked.

Weird… Why would it be unlocked? Maybe Ophelia needed to go to the chamber pot or something. You shrug and open the door to find the scene of a battlefield. The bed sheets were spread everywhere, as well as clothing, your luggage, pieces of magitek bits Ophelia must have been working on, and multiple papers.

Your heart starts to beat furiously as you enter the room and look about. Oh no, oh Gods no, where is Akela? You feel something slide under your feet and you look down to see a piece of paper. With trembling hands you reach down and pick it up to see a half-finished drawing of you, Saya, and Akela all at a nice house out in a verdant field.

“Akela?” You ask, turning about. “AKELA?!” You shout then, looking under the bed to see nothing. Clint curses and goes out to check the other room while you dig into your jacket to pull out Akela, who looks at you in bewilderment. “Where is she?”

“I have no idea!” Abigail says as you shake the little fairy.”Stop that tough!” She shakes free of your grasp and grunts. “I was with you the whole time, remember? Calm the fuck down and we’ll figure this out.”
“She’s gone, and so is Ophelia…” You say, putting your hand to your head. “They didn’t just leave, not with a struggle like this, so what happened?”

“I dunno, but that speaker device thing isn’t here.” Abigail says after flying about the room. “Must have been taken as well, though everything else looks to be in place.”

You hear footsteps and Clint returns, shaking his head. “Sorry Tobias, no sign of anyone being in the other room. I checked about as well, and no maids or anything. No one’s around to have seen anything.”

You sit down on the bed and shake your head, thoughts running amok in your mind. You’d told her you’d come back and now she’s gone… Gods, and Ophelia too, your one shot at breaking the constructs if they were activated.

Once again you hear footsteps, this time much louder than before, and you look up as Alice charges into the room, blade drawn. The weapon, which is indeed magical, hums with a faint blue light that reflects off her armor and puts a serious cast on her furious expression. “Come out here and fight you damned-!” She cuts off as she sees you on the bed, and a moment later, Clarissa charges in behind her, the Crowgirl squawking.

“Don’t you dare lay a hand on my frieeeeendddss!” She runs toward you, but Clint catches the Crow mid-charge and hold her in place until she blinks and looks about. “T…Tobias?”

You sigh out in relief. “At least you’re alright. Have you heard anything from Ophelia?”

Alice shakes her head and taps the comms device on her hip. “No, we haven’t. Down in the tunnels, this thing didn’t get good reception, and it’s been a little over an hour since we heard anything from the Rabbit. When we exited the tunnels for a breather, we tried contacting, but all we heard was static.” She holds up the device and punches the button, but all you hear is cracking static sounds. She sighs and changes the frequency back to Ophelia’s.

“We rushed back here, but clearly we were too late.”

“Have you heard anything from Saya?” You ask, but the woman shakes her head. “Haven’t tried.” She changes the frequency and pushes the button, saying, “You there girl? This is Alice, you better reply.” You wait for her to say over, but clearly she doesn’t know the etiquette and instead waits as more static comes over the line. You begin to worry more when after a few minutes you get no reply at all.

“Maybe they’re deep down in the mines too?” Clarissa says, trying to give a little hope. “Maybe they’ll contact us soon so we can… go and…” She trails off before digging in her back. “Oh, but look! We found two [Health Potions]! Hard to find but if anyone gets hurt we can…”

You squeeze your eyes shut as she says “hurt” and you feel someone put their hand on your shoulder. You look up and are surprised to see Alice there, firmly gripping your shoulder. She gives you a resolute look and says, “You’re supposed to be the leader of this merry band. I don’t give two shits, but look at the others eh? You’re making the hot guy look worried.”

You blink away something in your eyes, clearly not tears, and then shake your head before looking over to Clint and Clarissa who look a little worried. You curse inwardly before taking in a deep breath and nodding your head. “Right… right then, okay. We need a game plan, so here’s what we’re going to do-“

“Bzzzzzzt….Hello? Heeellloooo? Is this thing on?” A voice says over the line. You frown at the familiarity of it. You feel like you really should know this voice, yet due to the static, it’s so hard to tell exactly who it is…

“I know you’re listening my sweet little Tobias. You surely haven’t forgotten about little ol’ me, have you?”

You feel a chill go down your spine at those words. It… it can’t be. You slowly take the device from Alice’s hands and push the button. You hesitate before saying, “Fiora?”

“Oh how wonderful! I thought we might not get to speak with each other! How are you doing? Apparently not as insane as when I last left you, so you MUST be doing well!”

“Where are they Fiora?”

“I say, if you’re doing so well, then how is my darling Richard? I wanted to spare him from all of this, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him again.”

“Where ARE THEY Fiora?”

The line is quite for a few moments before Fiora sighs. “Oh bother, you’re no fun, you know that? The cute little bunny and this adorable daughter of yours are right here and quite safe.” The line crackles and pops for a few moments before she comes back, voice carrying more of an edge.”You’re becoming a thorn in my side though, so if you don’t want any trouble, I’d just leave now and not interfere. On that end, call off your little goo Monster and the badger and we’ll call it even, hmm? They’re meddling is quite annoying.”

Her voice grows absolutely poisonous as she says, “You don’t want anything to happen to them… do you?”

The line cuts off and you hurriedly push the button again shouting, “FIORA! DAMN YOU FIORA IF YOU TOUCH A HAIR ON EITHER OF THEIR HEADS, I’LL KILL YOU!”

You get no reply and you consider throwing the device to the ground in rage. Taking a few moments to fume, you look up at the others, anger in your voice.

“She wants to make this personal? Fine then, she’s made it personal. Here’s what we’re going to do: We find her, and we kill her.”

“Yes, but… how?” Clarissa asks.

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