Wizardquest 2: Chapter 12- Broken Rock

Spinning around faster than a Jackrabbit girl in the middle of summer, you say to Alice, “Phallia’s been taken, I need your help.”

Alice blinks slowly once, twice, three times, before she stretches and says, “What?”

“I’m not joking around, Phallia was attacked by something out there and my connection to her is gone.”

“You uh… were connected to a Goddess? Must have been a quiet one in the sack, I would have figured her for a screamer.”

You pause, giving her a look of utter confusion. “What are you talking about? Phallia is a rock, limonite.”

Alice clacks her tongue before shaking her head and walking over to you. She gently places a hand on your shoulder and leans forward to touch her forehead to yours. “Hmmm.” She hums, face before yours. “You don’t feel feverish. Are you tired Rommel? Do you want to me to hold you while you sleep?”

“Damnit Alice, not now, this is serious!” You say, pushing her off you. She scoffs as you stand and gather your things. “Something out there told some riddle and then my connection to her went away. I need to find her before-” You cut off as you remember Stan, out there in the desert by himself. Locking onto his signature, you have him race back toward you as far as his little rock legs can take him.

“Rommel, your obession with rocks is kind of scary, you know that? Just find some new rocks, okay?”

“Find some new?-” You begin before stopping yourself and taking a deep breath. Once you feel a little less angry, you say in no uncertain terms, “Alice, this is a desert. Where am I going to find more Limonite, hmm? Besides, this was a gift to Erwin, I can’t let some desert dweller take what he entrusted to me away!”

Looking very uncomfortable, Alice cranes her neck over to the end where everyone is sleeping and says, “I… don’t think that Erwin will be all that heartbroken.”

“Fine.” You say with an air of finality. “I’ll go by myself, you take over watch here and I’ll send a message to Erwin if anything happens.”

“Ahhh, wait, wait.” Alice says, holding up her hand. She sighs and shakes her head, “Damnit Rommel, look you can’t go out there on your own, it’s suicide. You’re going to get taken by some Monster and then I won’t be able to take you.” She pauses, “Also I guess the others would be sad or something.”

“So what, you coming with me?”

“I mean.” She begins before hanging her head. “Yeah, I guess. Can’t have you getting yourself hurt or anything.” Frowning, she looks back to the tent and says, “We should wake the others up.”

“No, there’s no reason to get them involved in this.” You say, pulling the [Ectrian Spear] from storage, giving you a staff in one hand and the spear in the other. Nodding, you say to her, “We’ll be fine on our own.”

“You just don’t want them getting upset when we find this is fucking nothing, do you?”

“That may be so.” You say, looking northwest where you last felt Phallia. “But uh… I don’t have anything else to go with that.”

“You are trouble, aren’t you?” She sighs. “Well, I’m going to wake Sylphie at least, she’s next on watch and I’d rather her not find us missing.”

“Sylphie?… I guess she’d understand.” You mutter to yourself, much to Alice’s eye rolling. She enters the tent and a few moments later Sylphie comes out, yawning in her night clothes, which are surprisingly revealing. She stops before you and rubs at her eyes, blinking a few times before muttering,

“Oh hey Rommel…”

She stands there a few moments, oblivious to everything before her eyes snap open and a look of shock comes over her face. In the dull light of the fire, she turns visibly red and stammers, “R-R-Rommel!” before Alice puts a hand over her mouth and motions for her to be quiet. Fidgeting awkwardly, the Cat o’Ninetails uses her tails to cover herself from view as she says, “W-What’s going on? Alice said it’s my watch.”

“Sylphie, I need you to take watch early.”

“W-Why?”

“Because, something out there took Phallia and I need to get her back.”

“Phallia? You uh… you mean one of your golems?”

“Yes, exactly.” You say, smiling. “See, you understand.”

“Rommel, it’s just a rock…” Sylphie says, looking at you with concern. “You shouldn’t go out into the desert to Gods knows what for a rock!”

Alice nods her head in thanks but you sigh out, tired, “Sylphie please, this is more important than you understand. Do you remember what Dollora said to me.”

“Oh oh.” Alice says, putting a hand to her mouth. “He’s going insane, not another one!”

“Nrgh, look, she said protect that which is dear to me. What if this has to do with that she said?” Hanging your head, you say, “Can I at least have this?”

The two women look to each other before sighing, beaten. Alice pats the sword at her hip and says, “Let me get my armor. It’s nice and cool out here anyway.”

Sylphie shakes her head and looks over at Mr. Ed, who seems to know she’s awake. “Well… gives me some time to read I suppose. Are you taking Erwin?”

“Hmm? Well, I didn’t want him to know about the Limonite being gone, you see so…”

“Ah hells.” She says, waving over to the horse. He gives her a tired look before walking over to you and placing his head level with yours. He looks you in the eyes and then snorts before swishing his tail and walking to the edge of camp, disabling the wards with a well placed tap of his hoof.

“You… are going to send him with us?”

“Yeah, I guess. He’s being a grump but he’s actually fine with it. He doesn’t want Erwin’s feelings hurt either and you need someone to act in communication.”

“Ah, thanks Sylphie.” You say nodding your head. “It means a lot.”

“I suppose…” She mumbles, rubbing her head. As she does so she looks down at her exposed skin and blushes again, turning about and covering herself with her tails. “Get out of here though before the others get up!”

“Alright, alright.” You say, looking to Alice as she arrives, armor strapped on and sword at her side. She nods to you and you summon your piece of sandstone to use as a board, mounting up as you did before. Around this time you notice Stand return to camp and set him to sitting next to Sylphie, who seems embarrassed by the Golem. Nodding to Mr. Ed, you push yourself with your magic, zooming to the northwest, the gelding at your side.

Thankfully the area you lost track of her isn’t very far away, all things considered. You cast [Survey] along the ground during the ride, finding similar results as to when you were arcing the spell through Phallia. Mr. Ed rides beside you, looking utterly unfazed by the speed. He actually gives you a side-long glance, as if urging you to go faster, which you end up doing, much to his approval.

Despite having some hope that your [Survey] would pick up traces of the attacker or of Phallia, you find neither of these things. As you approach the area, Alice says, “Hey Rommel, maybe we should have asked Ebe about what this thing could be?”

You don’t have a good response to that, to be honest. A part of you wanted to ask her, but the louder voices were too embarrassed to awaken anyone else. With a sigh, you say back, “Sorry, but we’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“Uh huh.” She says, not convinced. “Well, if it’s a Monster, I’ll just cut her into pieces and we’ll be done with it.”

You don’t find a good reason to respond to that, and so instead you continue surfing the sand until you reach the spot where Phallia went missing. Sending out another survey, you stop and get off your sandstone board, looking around warily. Mr. Ed next to you snorts as he sniffs the air for any signs of danger, but by his bearing he doesn’t find anything. Still, he seems on enough edge to give you pause, and you’re quite willing not to muck around with him on this.

Looking around the area, you find little but sand all around you, though a pulse of [Survey] shows you that cavern again. Frowning, you park your board by sinking it into the sand and then motioning toward the entrance. Alice nods and puts her hand on her sword, walking carefully through the sand toward it. In the darkness of the night, you’re unable to see terribly much beyond the small amount the moon allows you, and it takes you a few moments to find the cavern entrance.

“Rommel, I can’t see shit.” Alice hisses. “We’re going to need a light.”

“Right, right…” You say, activating your staff.  A faint, aetheric glow highlights the entrance to a series of steps leading down into the sands. While there is an abundance of sand around the entrance, the steps themselves are not inundated with it, making it seem like someone- or something, is living in there. Steeling her resolve, Alice nods and heads down into the tunnel, you close behind her and Mr. Ed taking the rear. Though it’s a little cramped for him, he’s able to go down the large set of stairs, clearly designed for something wide in the past, though what you cannot tell.

The steps are not terribly long and when you reach the bottom you’re greeted to a long hallway of pillars supporting the roof above you. Some pillars are broken with age, but most are well intact, if shifting with some sand every now and then. Your light illuminates ancient Ectrian script along the walls and while it looks interesting, it has little bearing on your current predicament. Maybe you’ll inform Ebe about it later.

Sending out more [Survey] pulses, you find that the place is, of course, built of sandstone with pieces of marble- this was not a poor place it seems. As you reach the bottom, your footsteps echo through the hallway and Alice grips her sword tighter. Nothing appears to attack you however, but you cast a [Privacy Barrier] anyway, muffling the sounds of your footsteps as you continue down the hallway.

Walking through the corridor at a cautious pace, you notice that it branches off into side passages. Your light illuminates the first as you pass by and within you see a curious mix of items which appear ancient and others which seem to be more modern. Finding no foes, you continue onward, ever vigilant.

It isn’t until you reach the second of these passageways that you hear something strange. What you hear is… your footsteps echoing? Alice notices it first and draws her sword, the steel ringing through the hallway. Mr. Ed snorts and stomps his hoof while you look about in confusion. What happened to your [Privacy Barrier?] How did it just disappear like that?

A chuckle echoes down the hallway, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. Whirling about, you find yourself unable to find the course of the girlish chuckle and you begin to feel your spine tingle with a little spike of fear. Was this a trap? Did you get lured in here and set up by whatever this Monster, and by the voice you’re pretty sure it’s a Monster, has set up for you?

“After three days both fish and these begin to smell. Can you guess what?”

“Huh?” You say, confused by the sudden riddle. The laughter issues again, but this time Alice takes a step forward and replies,

“Guests. The answer is guests.”

The laughter abruptly cuts off. Silence pervades the area for an uncomfortable moment before it says, “So right you are, guests of mine. Why do you enter these caverns thine?”

“I’m here for my friend.” You say, still looking for the voice.

“Friend? Ah, you speak of what lives but doesn’t breathe, what walks but doesn’t think?”

“I… what?” You say, annoyed.

“She means the Golem.” Alice says, her sword in her hand. “Just give us the Golem and this won’t have to get messy, though I won’t complain if it has to, Energieschwert hasn’t cut through anything in awhile anyway.”

“A fine blade, but something is missing, what could it be?”

“Missing?” Alice says, looking angered. “Nothing is missing from my sword, she’s per-” Alice cuts off suddenly as her eyes go wide, looking at her sword. The blade before her which once hummed with green energy is now dull metal.

The swordswoman shouts, true anger in her voice, “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO TO MY SWORD?”

“A piece of the heavens, granted to some, great power gifted yet used so dumb. Gone from this land, but still in play, what do I speak of?”

“I AM GOING TO BREAK YOUR FUCKING SPINE IF YOU HAVE ONE, WHICH SINCE YOU HAVE A PUSSY I ASSUME YOU DO!” Alice shrieks.

“Piece of the heavens…” You mutter to yourself, trying to figure out the riddle. “Do you mean magic?”

The laughter starts again as the voice says, “Yes, yes! Magic! The blade had some, and I took it away. Much like the dogs who sit at the throne, I have something similar, to throw you a bone.”

“Riddles and rhymes, how glorious.” Alice says, her eye twitching. “I want to murder this Monster, Rommel, just cause an earthquake to break everything okay?”

“Look, we don’t want any trouble.” You say. “I just want my Golem back and we can go away.

“Won’t answer the riddle? You won’t play my game? If you don’t try, you only have yourself to blame.”

“The fuck is she talking about-” Alice cuts off as she drops to the floor, clutching at her chest. She begins to pant, eyes going wide as she tries to catch her breath.

Both you and Mr. Ed panic at the sight and you drop down to help her, reaching out with your magic and finding nothing there. Fucking hells, is this thing canceling out your magic? But how? Unless she has a nullstone or something, there should be any way she could do this!

“Those who don’t speak find they have nothing to say, the only way to return her breath is to play, play, play.” The voice calls back.

“Play? Play your fucking riddle game? Is this some kind of joke?!” You shout back, scrambling to help Alice. She begins to turn purple in the face, her hands clucthing at both her throat and her chest. Oh fuck, oh fucking hells, you have to think. The game right? The riddles? Ahh, what did she say, ahh dogs at the throne… taking away the magic and-“

“Anubis! You’re like the Anubis!” You shout, voice echoing in the halls.

A chuckle answers you followed by Alice gasping for breath as her lungs expand. She coughs violently into her hand and you stabilize her, patting her back as you look around for signs of danger. Nothing greets you however, though this makes you even more worried. What the fuck is this thing planning?

“Yes, the Anubis, chosen of the Goddess, protected by wards in their blood. But they aren’t the only ones who have such blessings. What sleeps all day and stalks at night, sometimes runs and sometimes fights, likes to be high up but always lands on its paws, has good hearing and wicked sharp claws?”

“F-Fuck you bitch.” Alice spits, getting her voice back. She staggers to her feet but the voice laughs again,

“Wrong again, but it’s not you who will pay, answer the riddle or he’ll be forced to stay.”

Blinking, you point at yourself and say, “Huh?” A force seems to grab hold of you a moment later and you shout as you’re dragged forcefully to the other side of the hallway, your feet dragging painfully across the floor until you collide with a pillar. Groaning, you make to push yourself off it, but find you’re unable to do so. It feels as if chains are binding you, but you see nothing there at all, making the experience rather less than sane.

“W-What the hells is-” You cut off as something appears in your mouth, gagging you. It feels like cloth, but when you look down, you see nothing. Forced to squirm in pain, you look to Alice who staggers to her feet, sword in hand.

“Show yourself!” Alice shouts. “Face me like a real woman!”

“Answer the riddle and you have nothing to fear, but answer it wrong and he will stay here.”

Alice grits her teeth and looks over at you. A look of annoyance mixed with fear covers her face and you see her slowing down as you did, thinking things over carefully. She licks her lips and says, “paws… claws… always lands on… ah.” The swordswoman grits her teeth and calls out, “A cat! You’re a type of Catgirl!”

The pressure around you vanishes and you find you’re able to talk again, your mouth no longer full. Rubbing your jaw, you look up and say, “Alice, we should just go.”

“What? Oh hells no.” She stalks toward, looking around every corner, “I’m not leaving until this bitch… tch, this Queen has been properly disciplined.” She smiles at you, though it seems a little insane, “Besides, we need to get your fucking rocks back, yeah?”

“You know what I am, and what I can do, but the greatest question of all, is who are you?”

Looking to Alice, the two of you blink in surprise and say your names, to which the voice chuckles back. “That was a trick, but know that I know your names, it makes it easier to play my games.” Another laugh comes followed by, “Rommel, do you fancy a girl?”

You feel a weight building upon you as the question sinks in. She can’t really know the answer to this question, can she? You can just lie and it will be fine, right? Looking up, you say, “No, I don’t.”

The weight redoubles upon you and you find yourself plastered to the ground, as if someone had tackled you. Grunting, you try to rise but find it impossible to do so. The voice calls back, “Oh my, you lie! Or perhaps you don’t tell the whole truth. Could it be me you fancy, I have quite the youth!”

H-Huh? It’s not the truth? But you don’t fancy anyone… right? Feeling uncertain of yourself, you search your thoughts, her little game playing well into your mind. She… she can’t be… but if you don’t answer, you’re going to end up being crushed by whatever this magic of hers is and-

“W-Woah h-ahhhhh!”

Looking up you watch as Mr. Ed walks to a pillar, turns around, and kicks it. The ancient sandstone shakes violently and cracks, collapsing on itself. The voice you heard before shrieks and you see something humanoid fall down from the ceiling. It tumbles on its back and then flips mid-air to land on all fours, tail in the air though it staggers a moment later.

The weight on you seems to vanish and you rise up, rushing over the Monster with your spear ready as you observe her. True to her word, it is a Monster, and one of the Catgirl variety. Her skin is the Ectrian bronze and she had a lithe, dimunitive body, though the curves she has speaks of her being older than a child. Where normal hands and feet would be, she has feline paws, larger than what the twins have, and far more distinct in the feline fashion.

Her hair is long and black, tied into a loose ponytail that drapes down her back, while a golden tiara sits above her golden, feline eyes. A loose fitting two piece outfit covers her breasts while another section covers her privates while exposing her soft midriff and her lithe legs. She staggers in place for a moment as the three of you crowd around her and Alice looks at her sword in surprise as it glows again. Grinning, the swordswoman sheathes the sword and cracks her knuckles instead.

The Cat Monster looks at you with dazed eyes. Mr. Ed snorts and whinnies, his voice echoing through the halls. She blinks at him and then looks at you to ask, “W-What?”

“I believe.” You say, channeling magic. “He asked, what is better than a cat?”

“I… n-nothing?”

“Wrong answer. It’s a horse.” You say, casting [Ice].

The desert Catgirl squeals as ice forms around her feet, freezing her in place. She flails about, hissing in panic, but you cause it to rise higher and higher, reaching up to her thighs before stopping. Shivering, her teeth begin to chatter and she looks utter miserable. But not miserable enough. With a little bit of care, you apply a thin coat of ice over her breasts as well, making her gasp, eyes going wide. Alice and Mr. Ed don’t complain.

“Now then.” Alice says, walking up to her. “Not so high and mighty now, are we?”

“N-No.” The Catgirl says, tears forming in her eyes. “I’m s-sorry!”

“Sorry doesn’t cut fucking with us like that.” Alice says, shaking her head. “I should kill you for that.”

“P-Please don’t! I-I’ll give you the doll back, please!”

“Doll?” You say, cocking your head.

“Yes! The one made of the pretty rocks!”

Perking up, you ask, “So you really did take Phallia. Why?”

“I-I thought it looked nice so I wanted to add it to my collection!” She whimpers.

“Why did you attack us though?” You ask, frowning.

“I just… just wanted to have some fun. I’m a Sphinx, we ask riddles to people but no one has been around here in awhile and…”

“And you could have killed me!” Alice says, anger in her voice. “What possessed you to do that?!”

“I wasn’t going to kill you!” She shrieks, crying. “I just meant to scare you, to make you answer the riddles. I never… I never really learned how to control my power is all.”

“Are you the only one here?” You ask, to which she nods her head. “How are you living out here?”

“I scavenge m-mostly. Eating bugs and things.” She fidgets. “C-Could you unfreeze my breasts, it’s… it’s very uncomfortable.”

Looking to Alice, she shakes her head and so you shrug. “Sorry, answer is no.” She whimper again and you ask, “What’s your name anyway?”

“F-Farya.” She says. “Please don’t kill me, I just wanted to have some fun and collect things. I collect things you know, things left around the desert.”

Mr. Ed snorts. Nodding your head to him, you get the meaning. “How do you speak Deleorian anyway?”

“W-We Sphinx are imbued by the Gods to tell riddles. We can understand the language of those around us to make it easier to do so, and if we succeed we can… can use a magic of our own.”

“How, if you’ve been around here without men to drink semen of, how are you able to cast spells?” Alice asks, annoyed.

“I… I have a stockpile from what I’ve found in the desert. Half-finished vials, y-you know.” She gulps and looks at you before looking down. “I was kind of hoping you actually didn’t like anyone so maybe…” She trails off and whimpers again.

“Ah… uh…” You say, scratching your chin. Alice quirks an eyebrow and looks at you. To your dismay, Mr. Ed does the same and you gulp, changing the subject. “Where is Phallia?”

“W-what? Oh… the golem. O-over in my bed chamber.” She gulps as you frown at her. “I-I’ll lead you to it! N-No tricks this time, I swear! I… I’ll even show you around the rest of my collection!” She looks at you with pitiful eyes as she says this.

Turning to Alice you ask, “Well, what do we do with her?”

“I say we give her a little more punishment.” Alice gives a dark chuckle. “Maybe ask her some riddles of my own, and take a piece of clothing away when she answers wrong.”

“Eh…” You say, watching as Farya squeals. “I don’t know.” Looking around the hallway, you notice the end leads to a larger room while there are a few more of the side rooms on each side. Not as large as you thought it would be, huh?

Alice sighs, crosses her arms, and says, “Well, we can’t be here forever, you better decide, but I don’t trust her not to try some stunt again. Better know what you’re doing here.”

“P-Please don’t kill me.” Farya squeeks, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “I-I didn’t mean it.”

“Gods.” Alice says, her expression awkward. “Kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?”

Stroking your chin, you lean down and hum to yourself. “Hmm, could be a ploy.”

“Ah, my thoughts exactly.” Alice says, though you can’t tell if she’s being serious or not. “We should end her before she causes more trouble.”

“NOOOO!” Farya shouts, crying in earnest.

Mr. Ed gives you an annoyed look and you sigh, shaking your head before putting a hand on her head and saying, “Hey, hey we were just joking about the killing you thing.”

Farya blinks in shock, staring at you for a few moments before turning to Alice. The swordswoman shrugs and says, “I mean… I guess?”

The Sphinx gulps and says, “F-For real?”

“Well.” You say, withdrawing your hand. “Only if you cooperate.” She begins to speak but you cut her off with a quick gesture. “By cooperate, I have a few caveats. First and foremost, you are not to speak unless spoken to, and you are only to give yes or no answers unless asked otherwise?” A dark look comes to your eyes,

“Or things will get very cold for you.”

She gulps and nods her head. You shrug and continue, “Now then, you’ll also promise not to cause us any more trouble. I’m willing to forgive you as long as you give me back Phallia, but at the sign of any mischief, I’ll let Alice have her psychopathic ways with you.”

“Please, she doesn’t have a penis.” Alice huffs. She blinks once, cocks her head, and then reaches down to stroke the Sphinx’s crotch. Farya lets out a yelp, her cheeks flushing while Alice nods her head. “Yeah, no penis, no reason for me to have my way with her and- Ohhhh you mean KILL her!” She chuckles at your flat expression. “Hah, yeah, I’ll do that. Sorry.”

Farya whimpers at this, which of course is the intended effect. Looking miserable, she shudders again against your bonds and you feel just a little bad for her. She looks nothing more than a stray kitten, despite the fact that she’s clearly around twenty years old, such as it is for Monsters anyway. Rubbing your chin, you look to Alice and ask, “Do you have any Rope?”

“Rommel.” She says, giving you a flat look, “I’m barely wearing undergarments, why would I bring rope?”

“Mr. Ed?” You ask the horse who gestures to his back with his head. No saddlebags.

“Well.” You say, looking to Farya. “Do you happen to have any rope?”

“W-Why-” She begins before you cut her off by making her bonds grow in size.

“Ah, ah, ah.” You say, wagging a finger. “Remember the agreement?” She nods her head quickly and says,

“O-Over in this room. There’s some old rope.”

“Okay then. We’ll escort you while you get it.” With a gesture, you melt the ice and she sighs in relief, rubbing her wrists which are red from the cold. Shaking herself like a cat doused in water, she stretches her tail and ears before walking over to the side room. Alice follows close behind her, sword at the ready while you and Mr. Ed follow behind. She makes no moves thankfully to do anything and you soon find yourself in one of the side chambers filled with various trinkets.

All around you on shelves are artifacts of Ectrian design, ranging from urns and other pottery to stone tablets and books with ancient pages. Jewelry of different metals inlaid with gems of all shapes and sizes sit stacked together while worn tools divide them into sections. In between these artifacts there are pieces of more modern design, discarded bottles, books with torn covers and pages, various rocks and ore of easy to find purposes. A mixture of trash and treasure, all in one place.

The Sphinx walks over to a crate and pulls out some rope, handing it to Alice who deftly ties to the desert Catgirl up, perhaps using a little more restraint than needed. Seriously, why did she tie her breasts up like that, and why is Farya looking so embarrassed? Well, it immobilizes her arms, so it works out well in the end you suppose…

“Are all these rooms like this?” You ask, to which Farya squeaks and then nods her head. Whistling, you continue to look around, going to touch a necklace. The Sphinx shouts,

“Don’t touch tha-!” before cutting off and looking down, a look of concern on her face.

Frowning, you look at her and ask, “Why not?”

“B-Because… she mutters. It’s part of my collection.”

“Huh?” You ask, cocking your head. “It’s not trapped or mystic or dangerous, it’s just… part of your collection?”

She bites her lip and nods her head. “I… It’s mine. No one else was here and I just… it’s all I have.”

Ah hells, that’s sad as fuck. Rubbing your head, you sigh and say, “Well, you said you’d show us your collection then. I’d like to know more about it.” She looks up at you with surprise, however you raise a finger and say, “No riddles though! You attempt to ask a riddle and it’s lights out.”

“Yeah.” Alice says, pulling on the ropes. “One of these cross ropes if place somewhere that if I pull on just the right way, well…” She gives a lecherous grin to which the Sphinx’s ears flatten.

“O-Okay.” Farya says, looking miserable. She looks over at the necklace and says, “There were carvings explaining that piece. It belonged to Yaeli, one of the handmaidens of the Sultanas of Ectria before the Pharaohs. What’s gold and blue and-” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and continues, “Anyway. I like it, it sits well next to the-“

“Wait wait.” You say, holding up a hand. “The carvings here, in ancient Ectrian, you can read them?”

“Well, yes.” She says, looking surprised. “I can read any language I look at. Well, assuming I’ve heard a speech similar to it I suppose. Though it’s been awhile since I’ve really talked to… anyone.” Her ears flatten some and she sighs.

“How long have you been here?” You ask, concerned.

“I don’t really know.” She says, looking sad. “Maybe ten years?”

“You’ve been scavenging out here for ten years?”

She nods her head. “You’d be surprised what gets dropped out in the desert, and what’s edible. It’s quiet, and I have my collection to talk to and organize.” She blushes, “I was going to add your golem to my rocks collection in my room but… well.”

“Rommel, help.” Alice says, her face conflicted. “I feel a strange emotion within me. It’s like pity but a little more gentle. I think she’s using her magic on me.”

“I…” You begin before shaking your head. “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or you’re just an idiot.”

“Can it be both?”

Farya looks to Mr. Ed who shakes his head, grabs the rope from Alice, and has the Sphinx lead him to where Phallia is. Entering the bed chamber, you find that it’s a similar room to the others, just a little smaller and with a mixture of pieces of silks and pillows of various states of wear and tear in a pile in the center. All around the room you see similar effects to what you saw before, even one of the Ushabti from the crypt you were in before, however this one has some major damage to its head and doesn’t appear to want to kill you. Maybe.

Sitting on a shelf next to a pile of other rocks, you see Phallia, down to her composite pieces, and you run over to her, picking up the Limonite carefully. Weaving your magic into the rocks, they from together into the shape of the golem, which gently raises a hand to your face and looks at you with an expressionless face as you tear up.

“Are you actually crying?” Alice says, shaking her head. “Is he actually crying?”

“It’s a beautiful moment.” Farya says, nodding her head. “I’m sorry that I took something so precious away from you.”

“Thank you.” You say to her, placing the golem on the ground. “Despite your dangerous actions, I feel that you understand and appreciate rocks for what they are.”

Farya nods her head, to which Mr. Ed and Alice trade blank expressions before sighing, which sounds really weird coming from a horse. Both you and the Sphinx give them annoyed looks before you sigh and say, “Look, tell you what. You appreciate rocks, and thus I think you can’t be that bad a person. I’m taking Phallia here back but pick one of those rocks, I’ll make them into a Golem for you.”

Farya’s eyes go wide, “Really?” She gasps and grows pale, to which you chuckle,

“It’s a yes or no question, so the answer is yes.”

An expression of joy comes over her face and her eyes twinkle in delight as her ears stand up and her tail begins to swish. Looking at the rocks, she nods to one, her hands being tied up, and you walk over to a fairly simple rock with some aspects of quartz in it. Looking the rock over you cock your head and say, “This is… Rhyolite?”

“I don’t know.” She says, shrugging. “I just think it’s neat.”

Nodding your head, you take the rhyolite in your hands. Farya lets out a little gasp as you do so, but keeps herself controlled as you get a feel for the rock and it’s aetheric signature before molding it with your hands, smoothing out the pieces as you form it into a golem. When finished, you place the piece down before the Sphinx and hold a hand out.

Though the Golem doesn’t move, as you aren’t imbuing it, the Golem stands in a neutral pose at about six inches tall with feline ears and a tail. Farya’s eyes go wide as she beholds the little rock cat before her and she starts crying, rubbing at her eyes. Even Alice isn’t able to keep her rough attitude up and looks a little embarrassed at the show. This continues on for a little bit until Farya sniffles and says, “T-Thank you. Sh-She’s beautiful.”

“Well.” You say, feeling a little embarrassed yourself. “I mean, I’m no sculptor or anything..”

“I can’t just let a gift like this, the first one I’ve received in such a long time go unrewarded!” She bites her lip, takes a deep breath, and then says, “T-Take something from the collection. J-Just one thing okay!”

Alice raises an eyebrow, “You know, we could loot this whole place and you can’t stop us. This stuff is all very valuable, why don’t you just go and sell some of it and live somewhere not in the middle of the desert?”

“B-Because.” The Sphinx says, looking uncomfortable. “It’s… it’s my home. If I left it, no one would take care of everything here and… and…” She shudders, “I’m afraid I’d hurt people…”

“Well, you did almost kill us.” Alice says, shrugging as Farya winces.

“Yes… that’s why we Sphinxes are often alone, or in small groups. We used to be guardians of treasures for the Pharaohs and others, but time changed things and there’s fewer of us now. Still, our magic is too potent, and I’d rather just live here with my collection and hope some nice man stumbles on me.” She gives a wan smile as she says this. “Besides, now I have a little friend to keep me company.”

“Well… glad you like it then.” You say, feeling a little good inside. Maybe she’s a nice girl after all. Of course, you also thought Qi was a nice girl. That thought sobers you a little and your thoughts turn back to practicality. “Farya, do you know how to control your magic? Is it something I could learn to nullify magicks?”

“Huh? Oh, uhm…” Farya says, thinking. “I’m not really sure myself. It’s just something that I do! I’d show you but… ah…” She nods to Alice.

“Hrm.” You say, debating. On one hand, she hasn’t tried to betray you now, on the other hand, losing your magic might be an issue. Grumbling to yourself, you sigh and say, “Fine, but you make one bit of trouble and Alice takes your head.”

“G-Got it.” She says, taking a deep breath. “Ready?”

“One second.” You close your eyes and activate your [Magesight] before opening them again. A bright dazzle of colors appear around the Sphinx and you blink in surprise as you realize just how magically attuned she is. Throughout the room as well, multiple objects give off glows of magic weaved into them, hinting that this place might not just hold trinkets, but actual items of great value!

Shaking your head, you hold out your hand and conjure a [Fireball], which rests over your palm. Looking to Farya, she looks at the magic and you see a surge go through her which seems to snap at the same frequency as your magic and short it out. Feeling your connection cut to your magic, the [Magesight] begins to fade, a gradual process as opposed to the normal off and on like properties.

Clacking your tongue, you look at her and say, “How did you do that?”

“I just think of it as a game and it happens.” She shrugs, “I don’t fully understand it.”

“Gods.” Alice says, shaking her head. “Sounds like some Jackor-tier shit to me.”

“Jackor? Don’t be silly, he wouldn’t have anything to do with this.” Farya says, amused.

“I don’t know…” You say, thinking about everything she does. The riddles, the games. It… could be Jackor related. That always spells trouble. Still, you sort of understand what happened, by resonating magic similar to the aetheric properties of the other caster, you can cause a mild short out? Maybe you can try it on Sylphie later.

>You learn [Mana Burst]?

>You can maybe sort of, kind of perhaps cancel out magic from a single source? You don’t fully understand how at the moment.

“Interesting.” You say, rubbing your chin. “Thank you for showing me.”

“Thanks for trusting me.” She says.

“Yeah, yeah, touchy moments, but we need to get back.” Alice says, shaking her head. “Sylphie probably going to be worried and I’m tired, alright?”

Mr. Ed neighs in agreement and you sigh. “Very well then. I suppose we’ll depart here soon, however.. some of these items in here seem to be magical artifacts.”

“Oh! Probably.” Farya says, looking around. “They all have interesting history tied to them. Though I don’t know some of them, I’m afraid.”

“Do you have anything related to the Pharaohs, or the Apophis?”

“The Apophis? No, it was built before the Apophis were here, though there are other items that might be of interest…”

Farya leads you through her collection, describing various items to you. Considering the size of her collection, you find something very interesting, but decide to hold onto it until you return to camp to look it over.

>You receive [Ancient Ectrian artifact]

>Please pick an artifact and an ability it would have. I’m going to regret this somehow.

Securing the item, you take the urgings from the others and do your best to head outside. Before you leave, you fix some of the broken pillars, much to Farya’s delight and remove the bindings from her, much to her even greater delight.

As you exit her home out into the cool desert evening, you turn to face her at the entrance to the stairs. She looks a little hesitant, her tail swishing back and forth slowly. Her eyes dart toward you and even in the wan light of your staff, you see her look conflicted. Opening her mouth to say something, she pauses and then asks, “Might you… come back to visit someday?”

You feel something press upon you, a faint magic familiar to the magic you felt before. It doesn’t feel malicious, more like something trying to bind you to his place. Still, it’s a simple enough question, and you answer truthfully,

“If I can. I’d like to hear more about the history of your collection.”

The magic vanishes and Farya smiles before turning tail into her home. Trading expressions with the others, you hop onto your board and make your way back to the camp under the faint Ectrian moon.

———————————————————-

“Gods Rommel, you look dead tired.” Sophie says over breakfast. You let out a yawn and shake your head, blinking bleary eyes at her.

“Huh? Oh, just… didn’t sleep too good.”

“Is that so.” Tabitha says looking to Alice who also yawns. “Seems Alice didn’t get much sleep either.”

Ebe and Sophie both sit up straight and look at each other before looking at you with scrutiny. Groaning, you say, “Look, it’s nothing alright, Alice and I just had something to do last night.” Immediately regretting the word choice, they both look scandalized until Sylphie sighs,

“Gods, look they just went to recover one of Rommel’s rocks from a Sphinx.”

“A SPHINX?!” Ebe says, her face ashen. “And you survived?!”

“Uh, yeah, she was quite nice.” You say, scratching your cheek.

“You should have woken me up! Sphinxes are incredibly dangerous, even more than Anubis or Griffons! Did she put you in a trap with her Riddles? Are you enthralled?”

Alice snorts, “No, but they did talk about rocks a lot.”

Ebe sighs and sits back, “Twins… a Sphinx out here. You better count yourselves lucky.”

“Come now, you should meet her someday. She has a nice collection of ancient Ectrian artifacts” You say, shrugging. “I said I might come back and take a look.”

“Oh Twins, you made her a promise.” Ebe says, groaning. “She now can follow you wherever she wants if she feels like it.”

“Oh.” You say, blinking. “Well… I guess if that happens, we’ll just have to deal with it?”

Both Ebe and Sophie sigh in exasperation while you finish breakfast. Soon enough it’s time to pack up and head back on the road, such as it is being that it’s a desert.

Walking through the desert while tired is worse than walking when rested and the constant sand storms you run into don’t help either. Thankfully you don’t run into any dangerous storms, according to Ebe, but it’s enough to be a bother and hind your progress. Because of a particularly bad storm, you’re forced to spend the night sheltered by some rocky outcroppings early, getting some weapons practice in under a little enclosure you make while also practicing some [Mana Burst] with Sylphie.

Neither of you quite get it right, but at least you feel a fluctuation at one point in Sylphie’s magic, making her at least hesitate at one point. It’s not perfect, but some practice will make it quite useful in the future you think.

The next day is much the same as the others, but at least it’s clearer and soon enough you find yourself coming along smaller dunes of sand and even find a waymaker of stone with sand piled up around it. The faded Ectrian letters read, “Jahardin” with a distance that Ebe feels you can make today. With renewed effort, you push forward and as she says, by the late afternoon you find the city in sight.

While not as large as Hatset, Jahardin is still populous. The first thing you notice about the city is the large river running through it. Small boats go up and down the river while greenery spreads all along the banks, even leading to some small trees making the area seem like a nigh-on paradise in the sands. Inside the city you see what appear to be gardens, as well as little manors on the outskirts, surrounded by their own walls.

Carts with various people and animals travel into the city through the main road which you avoided, going into the main gate where guards look over their wares. From the river, a small dock with guards present keep the various riff raff out, through from the distance you can’t tell if there are any royal guard present. Overall it’s a nice looking city and somewhere in it is your contact, Kuhalik.

Of course, the biggest issue is, how are you going to get inside the city? Chances are that the guards won’t recognize you, but do you want to take that risk? Or will you find some other way into town?

Under the afternoon sun, the discussion begins on how best to tackle this current problem. Entering through the front gates seems a little too dangerous for most of your party, however the other access routes, while having a higher chance of success, are unlikely for ah… “different” reasons.

“No.” Tabitha says, stomping her adamantium foot on the ground. She crosses her arms and gives you a stern look. “We’re not swimming or riding a boat into the city.”

“Uhm… but it’s our best chance in.” Ebe says, looking a little distressed. “I can enter the city through the gates probably but you aren’t exactly ah… you know.”

“Inconspicious, yes.” Alice sighs. She looks over at Tabitha and smirks, “Your fancy, duel cheating legs are going to get you caught if you just walk right on in.”

Cocking your head, you look to the twins, the two of them grimacing before Sophie sighs and says, “Tabitha, isn’t it about time you… you know-” She cuts off as Tabitha gives you a withering glare, to which Sylphie shudders,

“I think it’s best not to force her into anything she doesn’t want to do. She’s older than all of us and is very wise and knowledgeable.”

A very disappointed neigh comes from Mr. Ed, at which Sylphie turns about, blushing. You have a feeling you should stay out of that for now and instead concentrate on the task at hand. Looking over to Ebe, you ask, “What about flying into the city?”

“There’s always people on the walls, Rommel.” Ebe says, shaking her head. “Too many winged Monsters, they’ll shoot us down before we get close.”

{Means we aren’t making a hole in the walls either.} Erwin cuts in, narrowing his eyes at the city. He turns back to you and says, {We’re either going to have to tunnel in or get some outside help.}

“What kind of outside help?” Sylphie says, a little too quickly. Mr. Ed narrows his eyes but merely shakes his head before snorting at her dodging of the question.

Giving her a flat look, Erwin rolls his eyes and sends, {I bet you one of those manors has a Violet Sands member in there, or someone who knows Ammon.}

“Hmmm.” The Cat o’Ninetails muses. “Makes sense actually, it’s a lot better than sailing in and dealing with the guards that way.”

“What if their answer is to smuggle us onto a boat?” Sophie says, voice flat. Her sister winces before looking down and mumbling to herself.

“That either leaves smuggling in through the main gate or tunneling.” You sigh. “Personally, I don’t trust cashing in on the Violet Sands so soon, I think the more we rely on them, the more leverage they have on us.” Turning to Tabitha you ask, “Still… why are you against the boat traffic?”

Tabitha grits her teeth and hisses, “You read Wizardquest.”

Blinking, you cock your head and think it over. Hmmm… What could be mean by- Ah. Snapping your fingers, you say, “The boat right out of Sanctifrond, where you encountered the Sahaguin.”

She closes her eyes and sighs, “Yes, that part…”

“I don’t-” You begin before Sophie puts a hand on your shoulder and leans in to whisper,

“Drop it for now. It’s a sore subject for her, okay?”

You look between her and Tabitha before clenching your jaw and nodding your head. “Well…” You begin, “I don’t relish staying out this close to the city overnight, since we’d be prime targets for bandits where I doubt the guards will do anything until morning.”

“Hmm.” Sophie hums while looking out over the road into the city. “Traffic is dying down too. Smuggling into the city probably won’t work terribly well, even if the guards are tired.” Sighing, she looks down at her clothes and says,

“Guess we’re tunneling… again.”

Ebe groans while the others nod their heads. Taking a deep breath, you nod as well and say, “I suppose it’s the best course of action. We’ll wait until nightfall then.”

——————————————————

“Whatcha doin’?”

Blinking in surprise, you look up to see Sylphie standing over you, arms behind her back. The sun is still on its way down past the horizon so you still need to sit back and wait until you can tunnel into the city. With the time, you’ve taken out the [Ectrian Orders] and have them unrolled in front of you, the text still foreign to you.

“Ah, well.” You say, rummaging in your pockets for something. “That trip last night with the Sphinx wasn’t all wasted time. We got a little gift for our troubles.”

“Oh?” Sylphie says, watching as you pull out a small glass eyepiece in a copper set. “Looks pretty old, but… what is it?”

“Well.” You say, wiping some sand off the lens. “From what Farya said, this is the [Oculus of Henhotep], one of the ancient rulers of Ectria before the Pharaohs.”

“Eh?” Sylphie says, looking down at it. “That’s pretty cool, but… you can’t read Ectrian, so what’s it supposed to do, just look cool?”

“Not quite.” You say, rolling the device in your hands. “See, magic was fairly new in the land after the Great Transformation, but there was always a drought of it in Ectria until the Monster Witches became more accepted, as early as that was. Crafting items like this was next to impossible for all but the richest in Ectria who could trade for mana crystals. When an item like this was made, it needed to be for a good purpose.”

“Like what.” Sylphie says, obviously curious.

“Like uniting the disparate tribes of Ectria.” You say. “See, when Monsters began to change they went from predators who killed occasional people to raiding for mates. It made things rather… difficult, especially when much of Ectria did not share a common language, especially when written.” Patting the device, you say, “Which is why Henhotep created this. It translates text views through it into a readable format for the user.”

“How does it do that?” Sylphie says, looking it over. “I can understand changing light that goes through it, but how does it know to change it to your language?”

“I don’t know.” You say, shrugging. “Farya didn’t know how it worked, merely that it did work. Apparently one of the carvings on the walls explained it.”

“Wow, we better not tell Zoras about that place, she’ll have a heart attack.” Sylphie says.

“Tell me about what?” Zoras’s voice calls from behind you.

Both of you jump and turn about to see Sophie standing behind you, a shit eating grin on her face. “Got you.”

“Gods damnit.” Sylphie says, putting a hand to her chest. “I thought you were Zoras, I forgot your impressions were so good.”

“I have plenty of voice training practice.” Sophie says. “All the better to speak with dignity and grace.”

“Uh huh.” Sylphie says, not buying it for a second. “What do you want anyway?”

“To see what you’re talking about.” She nods at the papers, “Those seem important, what are they?”

“Orders to the Royal Guard, I couldn’t read them before now, but I might as well to test this out.” You say, looking at the device before holding it up to your eye and then looking at the paper. What was once incomprehensible gook now became clear as day. Under the gaze of the Oculus, the Ectrian becomes Deleorian and you pour over the document reading the details:

“By the Decree of The Prophet of the Twins,

Your orders are to assemble at the Chasm of Regret. You will be one of four teams under Handmaiden Yu’hekt heading to the Chasm to stop this Cult of the Violet sands at their source. You will enter any town or village along the way and root out signs of sedition, killing or capturing those you deem traitors. Priority will be put to capture for judgment before Prophet.

Once arriving at the Chasm, destroy all signs of the Cult present and retrieve any and all artifacts for purification. If the leader, Liala is present, she is to be captured at all costs. The magicks of the Apophis will drive them to be reckless, fearless even. They will attempt vile rituals to undermine the rule of the Pharaoh. This cannot be tolerated. When success of your mission reaches the capital, we will commence a purge of the remainder of these traitors.

You understand what fate awaits all of us if you do not perform your duty.

-Handmaiden Bustefa”

Passing around the Oculus to the twins, they in turn read the orders and grimace. Much of this was made known to you by Lady Aliph, but seeing it written out like this confirms it.

“What do you think they mean by that last part?” Sylphie says, frowning.

“The part of what awaits us all?” Sophie asks.

“No, no the part about purging the remainder of the traitors. How are they going to do that? If they could purge them all, wouldn’t they have done so already?”

“Yes, unless…” You grow a little cold, “She’s talking about that artifact that Lady Aliph mentioned. Do you think it would give them that kind of ability?”

“I don’t know.” Sophie sighs, “But I do wonder if it’s our problem.”

“Well, I assume we have some time at the moment anyway.” You say, wondering the same thing.

“Not much of it.” Tabitha says, walking up to you. “Sun’s starting to come down, let’s make plans to move out.”

“Alright.” You say, stretching and making to stand. She holds out a hand for you and you blink before accepting it and standing with her help. Nodding to you, she looks out over the city and you follow her gaze.

“There.” She says, pointing to a corner in the city that was already dark in the shade of other buildings. “That looks like a good place to emerge.”

“Hrm…” You say, rubbing your chin. “It’ll be tough to make it there directly, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Ahem.”

Turning about you both raise eyebrows as Sylphie puts hands on her hips. “You mean, what WE can do.”

——————————————-

“You know Rommel.” Sylphie says, sweating. “Tunneling kind of sucks.”

“Just put it out of your mind and keep casting.” You say, sweating as well.

Despite being night outside, by necessity you needed to start the digging far away from the city in order not to be spotted by the guards. While not the longest tunnel you’ve had to do, this one is the most taxing as you were basically widening the tunnel made by the Wurm back at Blackfire Reach. Keeping this tunnel straight as well is also taxing as any deviation could lead you way off track and you could emerge inside a building!

“But I want to complain.” She grumbles.

“P-Please don’t complain.” Ebe says, breathing a little heavy. “You might lose concentration and bring the tunnels down.”

“Ahhh, damnit Ebe.” The Cat o’Ninetails groans. “Sorry, I forgot.” She sighs and continues going, popping another [Mana Potion] and downing it before grimacing.

“How far are we away?” Tabitha asks you.

“Not far.” You grunt. “Just a little longer if my helper would stop complaining.”

“Meeeeh.” Is all you get as a reply from Sylphie.

Working with renewed effort, you send out another [Survey] and find yourself passing under the walls. So far so good. With a little more digging and a lot more sweat, both you and Sylphie stop, surveying the ground above you.

“Mmm, feels pretty quiet to me.” Sylphie whispers. “You?”

“I think… we’re good.” You say, hoping that’s the case. The Cat o’Ninetails nods her head and together you create a way out, your magicks quickly digging out a hole that lets in the light of the moon.

Erwin is the first to pop out of the ground, looking around for any trouble. He sends, {Coast is clear, looks like you were on target. All I see and smell is garbage.}

“Yes!” Sylphie exclaims before clapping a hand over her mouth and gulping. She points to the tunnel overhead and widens it, allowing your group to exit into a back alley shaded mostly by darkness.

Once outside you notice the twins grimace and pinch their noses while Tabitha narrows her eyes. Both you and Alice blink before sniffing and then making disgusted faces, smelling the garbage everyone else is smelling. Refuse and filth sit all over the alleyway, and you wonder if anyone EVER cleans this place. Still… means you’re unlikely to be caught.

“Alright.” You grunt, “Let’s get going before we choke on this shit.”

Something rustles behind you and you turn to see a man wearing tattered rags and covered in filth standing near a pile of debris, where he must have been sleeping. He eyes your group with a terrified and bolts down the mouth of the alleyway before you can catch him, though Alice and Tabitha chase after him, stopping as they reach the edge.

“Hells.” Alice spits. “We should get out of here.”

“He looked like a vagrant.” Sophie says, “Will anyone believe him if he talks?”

“No sense in finding out.” You say, turning to Sylphie, “Help me collapse the tunnel and let’s go, we need to find somewhere to find our contact.”

She doesn’t question it and you hide the tunnel entrance with your magicks before leaving out and hurriedly moving out. In this section of town, it seems very similar to Hatset, making you wonder if the architectural style will be the same in the capital too. The major difference is the landscaping, which allows for trees and grasses inside the city since water isn’t a terribly large concern. Even illuminated by only a few torches along the streets here and there, you get a good feel for how the people here must enjoy seeing something other than sand.

Alice gets your attention as you pass by a place with a sign that Ebe translates as, “The Angry Wurm.” Figuring this to be an inn, or at last a tavern, you enter sand Mr. Ed who walks behind the place to find a stable.

As you enter the usual smells of alcohol and overcooked meat waft over you, though this time you smell a lot of something else, a smoke that’s… pleasant? Looking around in confusion, you notice in the corner that men, women, and a few Monsters are sitting about large glass devices with pipes coming out of them, taking in turn to suck on them before blowing out a ring of smoke, delight on their faces.

“Eh, you hear to Gawk, or are you going to buy something?”

Turning your gaze to the one addressing you, you’re forced to look down at a short, angry looking man at the counter who glares at you. “What’s that look for you, you want to fight?”

“Uh, no sir, of course not.” Alice says, putting a hand on your shoulder and pushing you back. She looks him up and down before lowering her hood and running a hand through her hair. She flutters her eyes and says, “He was just in awe of how rugged you are.”

“O-Oh.” The man says, smiling like an idiot. “Well then! Welcome to the Angry Wurm. Seems I’m right to speak Deleorian to you.”

“We thank you for the kindness of speaking to our homeland.” She sighs, “It’s such a long way away, and I get so cold at night thinking about it.”

“For the love of the Gods…” Sylphie mutters next to you, but Sophie elbows her to shut her up.

Alice continues, “For now though, we would like nothing more than to have something to quench our thirst, some warm food to fill our stomachs, and some wonderful conversation.”

“Aha, well, you won’t get much of that from these louts here, but I’ll be sure to ah, aha, keep you company.”

The swordswoman blushes, “Oh? You are… too kind.”

The man quickly shows you to a table and you all sit around as a busty desert Catgirl walks by to take your orders, quickly delivering drinks to all of you. She sniffs and walks away, to which the twins look at each other oddly while Alice chuckles darkly.

“You bastards better thank me, I might be sleeping with a manlet tonight.”

Tabitha sighs, “Alice, why do I put up with you.”

“Oh, like you’re going to spread your robo-legs any time soon.”

The two begin to bicker between each other while you shake your head and look out over the crowd. A few patrons avert their gazes as you look at them while most just enjoy their smoking devices called “hookahs” as Ebe explains it. Flavored smoke, what a weird place Ectria is.

“Any likely suspects to ask about Kuhalik?” Ebe asks to which you shrug.

“I don’t know, I can’t really get a read on these people.”

“You lookin for Kuhalik, eh?”

All of your group turns to regard the table next to you, where an Ectrian man sits, arms crossed. A half-finished ale is before him while another occupant, a tall Monster with scales and sharp, jagged teeth and a powerful tail sits, watching you with unblinking eyes.

Looking between yourselves you ask, “You speak Deleorian then?”

“Anyone doing proper business needs to, at some point.” The man says, waving a hand.

“Very well then…” You say, feeling a little suspicious. “What do you know of Kuhalik.”

“I should ask you the same question.” The man says. When you don’t say anything at first he shrugs and makes to turn around.

“Ah, wait, wait.” You say, holding out a hand. “All we know is he’s a man who can… get people places without trouble.”

The man smiles and picks up his drink. “Indeed he can. Of course, he doesn’t always do such a thing for everyone.”

“We have… an introduction to give him.”

The man’s eyes glint. “Is that so? May I see it?”

“Who are you first.” Sophie asks, eyes narrowed. He regards her for a moment before looking to his companion who merely grunts. He shrugs and says,

“My name is Humadin, I am… an associate of Kuhalik’s. If you wish to see him, I can make that happen.”

A smile comes over his face as he says this, one that makes you shudder a little. This man… can you trust him? He’s your only lead in on Kuhalik, so you might not have a choice. Turning to your allies, you look to them to see their reactions on how to handle this situation. Maybe Alice can get information through the innkeeper…somehow, or perhaps you can search the city yourself for him? Choices, choices…

“I don’t trust this guy.” Alice whispers, narrowing her eyes. “It’s a little too convenient, don’t you think?”

“My thoughts exactly.” Tabitha concurs, keeping an eye on them as your party convenes. “We might be better off searching on our own.”

“Do we have the time for that?” Sylphie adds in, biting her lip. “Based on what Rommel found out, we might be racing the clock even faster than before.”

Her sister nods her head, “True, if there’s a possibility that he could help us reach our goal in a more timely manner, then we should take the chance.”

Ebe frowns and says, “I… kind of agree with the those two. It sounds fishy but… we don’t have the luxury of choice, do we?”

Everyone looks back to you and you sigh, rubbing your cheek. The points given are good ones, and while you also get the distinct feeling that this is some kind of trap, you also know that waiting the evening just advances the clock. Looking over at the man and the Monster, you see a glint of something in their eyes. Well… if it ends up being some kind of trap, so be it, you doubt they’ve had time to prepare anything that could stop you.

Taking in a deep breath you turn back to the man and nod your head. “Very well then, we would be quite gracious for you to take us to see Kuhalik.”

Humadin smiles, “Ah, good to hear. But first…” He nods his head to his companion, “You will show us your… ‘introduction letter.'”

You dig into your pockets and pull out one of the {Ammon’s Marks], holding it between a few fingers for the man to look at. His eyes go wide at seeing it and he turns back to the Monster who also looks surprised. They both quickly hide it and turn back to you, nodding in unison as you put the Mark in one of your front pockets without thinking.

“Ahhh, that is quite the introduction letter indeed. I suppose there is little left to be said.” Humadin stands up and places a few coins on the table. He smiles and says, “For your drinks as well. Come, we will be going.”

Tabitha and Sophie nod, standing up from the table while Sylphie looks down at her mug with a look of panic before downing the whole thing in one gulp before belching and covering her mouth with a look of utter embarrassment. Ebe blushes as well and holds up a wing before her face as the other patrons look over at the scene.

The two Monsters join the rest of the group and you follow after them, stopping when you reach the entrance due to Alice’s arm on your shoulder. She looks at you with a serious expression , putting a hand on her hip as she says in a low voice,

“I’m staying here to see what I can find in case this ends up as a dud. Will give us a place to stay too.”

A flat expression comes to your face, “Are you sure you don’t just want to get laid?”

“With a manlet? I have fucking standards too you know.” She shakes her head, looking utterly annoyed,. “Anyway, just be careful, alright?”

Looking down at Erwin, the fox shrugs and sends, {The horse will be here.}

“Call out to Mr. Ed if you need help.” You say. “He’ll contact Sylphie.”

“Oh gee, yelling at a horse, I won’t look like a crazy woman again will-” She cuts off mid sentence and puts on a blank expressions before saying in a flat tone, “Go on, they’re waiting for you.”

You feel the incredible urge to ask her what she meant by that, but instead you just shake your head and follow after the others. Behind you, you hear the innkeeper say, “So… how about we share a hookah, I have some… purple herb.”

You meet the rest of the group outside, Humadin nodding at you as you join the rest. He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Where is the woman?”

“Her vagina was itchy.”

He blinks a few times before smirking. “Very well then. Come, Kuhalik awaits.”

With that, he waves for you to follow him, the Lizardman Monster walking near him, but hanging a little back to watch you. He doesn’t say anything as you walk, heading back past where you actually entered the city toward the river. The business and residential buildings start to change more into warehouses. While this river is a major source of traffic for the region, the town isn’t structured the same as the river cities in Deleor, which are far more like port cities due to the massive amount of traffic that comes through them, even after Leyways were made.

Thinking of such, you wonder how this place would be with the mana that pervades Deleor. How would things change with magitek in their daily lives? If Leyways could connect all the disparate places of Ectria, would things be better here or would it just allow the Pharaohs more control over the people? The socio-political implications go through your mind as you walk through the darkening streets of the city.

“Rommel.” Sophie whispers to you, breaking you from your concentration. “Do you notice what the Crocgirl is doing?”

“Huh?” You say, confused. Looking over at her, you notice the Crocodilian (which you have to admit she probably is a Crocodile) Monster thumping her meaty tail against buildings as you walk down the alleyways. The way she does it appears to be timed rather than random wagging and you’re forced to admit something is going on here. Not looking at Sophie you whisper back, “What should we do?”

“I think she’s sending out a signal, warning people ahead of us.”

Well… this could be them readying Kuhalik for you, or it could be them readying an ambush. Either way, the only thing for it is to ask, “Where exactly are we going?”

The Monster’s tail stops moving and she looks back at you as Humadin stops and turns to you. “Kuhalik operates out of the docks. He smuggles things very often through river traffic you see, so he needs a base of operations in the warehouses here.”

“I see.” You say, nodding your head. “How far away are we from this warehouse?”

“Oh, very close, very close indeed.” The man says, smiling a little too wide. “Come, we need to be quiet though, he does not enjoy people causing a disturbance for him.”

You and Sophie trade glances before following after them. True to his word, you soon stop before a large, sandstone building without any real defining features. Windows high up on the walls allow in some light during the day but you’re unable to hear anything from them or see any light. Feeling nervous, you wait as Humadin knocks on a metal door. A slat opens and someone on the other side looks at him and then your group before it shuts closed and the door swings open, allowing you inside.

Humadin steps back and holds an arm out for you to enter. Your group look between each other before Tabitha nods her head and walks in first, the twins, Ebe, and then yourself and Erwin following after. Taking a few steps inside the building, you find the room illuminated by a few lanterns, showing various metal crates and a few wooden ones that you assume are filled with products ready for river travel. It looks very much like the warehouse that Ammon had, except without any of the people-

Oh.

The lights snuff out all around you and you hear the sound of predatory growling, something guttural and reptilian. Feeling a shiver down your spine, you turn to the door and it swings shut behind you, forcing you to grit your teeth as you’re plunged into near absolute darkness. Through the small slits of moonlight from the top of the building, you see flashes of shapes moving toward you. Most people would be terrified of this situation, would find it an utterly untenable position. Unfortunately for them, you’re not most people.

“Sylphie, if you’d please.”

“Yeah, I guess.” The Cat o’Ninetails says, blinking before holding up her staff. “Honestly, humans need better night vision.”

Light shoots out of the tip of her staff as she casts [Daylight], drowning the room in light with the intensity of the sun. Before you, men with clubs and some more of the Crocodilian Monsters put hands over their eyes, crying out in pain at the sudden light. With the light present, Tabitha and Sophie dash forward, the former using the sheath of her sword to smash into the faces of the Monsters, dropping them to the ground while the latter takes down the men without using her tails.

One of the Monsters lashes out as they fall and grab Tabitha, dragging her down to the ground and rolling with her, trying to bite the Lizardman despite being unable to see terribly well. Using her adamantium legs, Tabitha is able to push the Monster off her, though she does headbutt her first. Rolling off of the Monster, she drops the last of them before turning to you and shouting,

“Behind you!”

Sylphie lets out a gasp as a man tackles her to the ground, another comes from behind Ebe, putting his hands behind her wings and restraining her as she panics and tries to escape. Erwin warns you to the danger of someone behind you and you twirl about with your staff, cracking it across the man’s skull and dropping him to the ground in a heap.

“Sylphie!” You shout, casting [Ice] as the man raises a fist to smash it down onto her face. His hand freezes and he shouts in alarm before Sylphie thrusts her hand into his face and casts [Lightning Bolt]. The surge of power causes the man to scream and convulse as his face begins to char. She quickly cuts the magic off and pushes him away from her as she backs away from him, the man thrashing on the floor.

“HELP!” Ebe shouts. Turning back to her, you raise your staff and hesitate as the man has an arm around her neck, the other holding onto her wing. He looks at you with frightened eyes, clearly not expecting things to go this badly.

“You should just drop her and leave.” You say in a low, threatening voice. Electricity cackles around your hand in a way to intimidate the man, which seems to work very well. He falters then, letting loose his grip enough for Ebe to bite down on his arm.

The man gasps and lets go of Ebe, shaking his hand while looking out over your group as everyone else assembles from the far side of the room. Gritting his teeth, he takes the low road and runs past while shouting, colliding into you as he tries to push past before running to the door and hitting a lock, thrusting it open before running away.

Tabitha runs over to the door and looks outside, grunting before shaking her head and closing the door. Sylphie’s magic fades so you both light the room with your staves before helping the man Sylphie electrocuted and gathering up the others, binding them with ropes and chains found in the room. Ebe is fine, if shaken, though she spits blood out of her mouth with a distasteful look, saying that it’s yucky and gross.

With the ambushers all taken care of you shake your head and say to Tabitha, “Well… you were right, we got played. This didn’t lead us any closer to Kuhalik.”

“At least we didn’t suffer any major injuries.” She looks at you and says, “That man didn’t hurt you when he ran into you, yes?”

“Nah, I’m fine.” You say, waving a hand. “We did get lucky that they didn’t know who we were, or else they would have tried something else. This seems fairly slapshod.”

“I guess we just looked like an easy mark.” Sophie says, wiping sand from her sister’s clothing. “However now this Humadin and whoever he works for knows who we are, or will know soon, and he’ll be more prepared.”

“All the more reason to find Kuhalik now-what’s wrong?” You look at the two Cat o’Ninetails and Erwin, their ears twitching as they look to the door, which you didn’t lock again. Before you can do anything, the door swings open to show a man in pieces of light armor and a curved sword at his side looking into the room and spotting you, his eyes going wide.

“What the-” He looks at the tied up ambushers and whistles, “Well, well, well, so this is what the commotion in the Quicksand’s warehouse was about.”

“Who are you?” Tabitha asks, drawing some of her sword, the steel gleaming in the fey light.

The man holds up a hand and says, “Peace, I’m not with the guard or these ruffians. I work for a man named Kuhalik.”

He blinks in surprise at the flat looks you give him. “I see you’ve heard that one before then. I will prove myself then.” He turns his head outside the warehouse and whistles. A moment later two more men in armor appear followed by a tall, slightly rotund, yet very powerfully built man. He looks over your group with hard eyes and says,

“I am Kuhalik. Who are you to be in my presence.”

Looking between yourselves you step forward and ask, “We’ve had some difficulties this evening with identity. How do we know you’re Kuhalik?”

“It doesn’t matter if you believe I am who I am. Your actions here have benefited my organization but all this means if that I have no reason not to harm you. Tell me why I shouldn’t have all of you leave right now.”

Sophie cocks her head and says, “I think… this guy is Kuhalik.”

“How can you tell?”

“He seems pretty genuine I’d say.” She waves to you, “Show him.”

Sighing, you reach into your pocket to take the [Ammon’s Mark] and freeze, feeling nothing there. You pat yourself down, searching around for where it could have gone before beginning to sweat. The man who ran into you… he couldn’t have stolen it, could he? You have everything else, but the damn Mark is gone!

“Well?” Kuhalik growls, “If you’re just going to waste my time then get out of here now, I’m a busy man.”

Looking about, you find the other [Ammon’s Mark] where you stored it and you pull it out, turning it over in your fingers. If you traded this one in you can get what you need, but then you’re in trouble once you reach the Capital. That’s something you can deal with when you get there, or you can find another way into the Capital.

As far as the other Mark though… if you could find the man who stole it, you wouldn’t need to worry. But who knows how long that will take, and what, if any leads you might have with it? You might not have suffered any physical wounds, but this might be worse in a way. As Kuhalik’s patience thins, you think over your options.

The Mark in your hand feels like it’s burning hot as you way your decision. Giving away this Mark means you’ll be able to make it into the Capital, if he’s as good as Ammon says, but once there you’re stuck. If you don’t pay it though, you’re in for some shit trying to get there. All in all, it’s not a great situation for you. Still, given the circumstances there is only one correct option for you to take.

But first…

“I’m going to need you to prove you’re Kuhalik.” You say, giving the man a stern look.

He looks into your eyes with the annoyance that a foreman gives to an incompetent worker. “I’m going to need you to get the fuck out of here then.”

“Look, I have business with you, but I need your identity proven. I have limited resources here and I do not wish to scrounge them on false premises. Besides…” You wave a hand toward the groaning ambushers. “Did I do not ‘benefit your organization?'”

His eyes go so flat you’d think they were one dimensional. His voice too sounds like it’s been normalized to the point of no emotion as he says, “How exactly am I supposed to prove that.”

“I…” You begin, rubbing your chin. Sophie shakes her head and puts a hand to her face. You can almost hear the cringing she’s doing right now. Looking to her for some help, she gives you an equally flat look before taking the [Ammon’s Mark] from your hand and holding it up.

“Here, does this show that we’re not just idiots?”

Kuhalik’s expression does a 180. He holds out his hand as Sophie places the Mark there. Kuhalik rolls the Mark around before whistling and then smiling at you. “Well, well, well, that old bastard Ammon is still roping me into his horseshit, huh?”

Blinking in surprise at his change in demeanor, you hear Sylphie say, “He didn’t look that old to me…”

Kuhalik turns his gaze to Sylphie before smirking.”It’s a matter of phrase miss, he’s just got his fingers in every pie, if you get my drift.” Rolling the Mark around in his hand again he continues, “These Marks basically put him in our debt, assuming we do what the bearer wanted us to do. Of course, he doesn’t much care if the job gets done, all he needs to see is that we have a Mark.”

Tabitha and Sophie stand to attention, their spines going rigid, scaled hand on sword and ears standing up under hood. The Lizardman growls, “So, you’re going to try and kill us and reap the rewards, hmm?”

“Ha! Noooo!” Kuhalik chuckles, “If I did that too many times, Ammon would find out and life would get rather difficult!”

Sophie mutters, “Too many times, huh…?”

“Ah, don’t you worry.” Kuhalik chuckles before nodding to his guards. “Go and round up those Quicksands, see what we can get from here before they scrap this place.” The men nod their heads and go to do so. Turning back to you, the man asks, “Well, what can I do for you?”

“Uh.” You say, still taken aback. “We need to get into the Capital without being found out and to find someone named Polah.”

“Polah…” Kuhalik mutters to himself, giving you a critical eye. “What exactly are you planning to do in the capital that requires that bird-brained hag?”

“I think the less you know the better off you’ll be.” You say with an icy air.

The man blinks and pulls back, regarding you with some more respect. Nodding his head he says, “Well, that can be arranged easily enough. Is it just you or do you have any… cargo?”

“It’s us, another woman, and a horse.”

“Ah that’s easy… wait, a horse?” He groans and shakes his head, “Getting a horse in by boat is going to be a pain, especially being able to meet up with it once you get inside but-“

“BY BOAT?!”

Kuhalik blinks in surprise as both Sylphie and Tabitha shout in unison. They look at each other with uneasy looks before Sylphie looks down and Tabitha grits her teeth. The smuggler looks at you and you shrug. He licks his lips and says, “Sorry, but that’s how it has to be. Smuggling by land has too many risks and my connections are by the river.”

“Is… that a problem?”

Sylphie opens her mouth but before she can speak Sophie throws a hand before her mouth. She gives her sister a glare and before smiling to Kuhalik. “None at all, they just get a little seasick is all.”

“Ah, well that’s going to be unfortunate.” He says, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose I have some preparations to make, but you’re in luck, I had a shipment meant to leave tomorrow at noon, I can get you on it if it will work?”

Looking between the rest of your group, you nod and say, “Yes that will work.”

“Very well then.” He pockets the Mark and ends the conversation, speaking with his guards.

Turning to everyone else, they look at you with mixed expressions. Waving to Sophie, the Monster walks over to you and leans forward. Whispering low enough that she can hear you say, “I lost the other Mark.”

“WHAT?” She hisses, turning about to Kuhalik before turning back to you. “HOW?”

“Well, first off…” You say before dropping to your knees and feeling about on the floor. She gapes at you as you do so until you stand up, wipe off your robes, and say, “Ahem, well I didn’t drop it, so it must have been stolen.”

“By whom?” She sighs. “Humadin?”

“Doubtful, he never got that close and…” You grit your teeth. “Ah hells, it must have been that guy who ran into me.”

“We needed that for Polah, right?” Shaking her head, she says, “What are we going to do?”

“Well…” You look at the others and then say to her, “Sounds like we have some time to find them. I think Erwin can track the scent and find him, so we can get the Mark back.”

“What if he’s met up with his friends?”

“Well…” You say, looking at the men you tied up. “We should get going after him then.”

Sophie nods her head. “Alright, I’ll go with Erwin and find the Mark-“

“No.” You say, shaking your head. She blinks at you and then frowns until you continue, “Look, I need you here. You’re better with getting information and talking with people than I am. Besides, you’re not going to be able to use your strongest asset against them.”

“Well I never.” Sophie sniffs, “I could show off my ass if I wanted too, I’m damn certain they’d bow down to me if I did so?”

“Eh? You think your ass is your greatest asset?” You say without thinking. She raises an eyebrow,

“Oh? What do you think is my greatest asset? I mean, my breasts are quite ample I suppose, but I do wonder if they look off at times and.”

“Stop. Stop.” You say, holding up a hand. “I meant your tails. Your tails.”

“Ah, so you are an assman after all.” She chuckles before turning to the others who watch with amusement. “Well then, that leaves Sylphie, Ebe, and Tabitha.”

Tabitha cocks her head, to which Sylphie tells her the deal. She nods her head and says, “Fine, I’ll go and hunt him down myself.”

“Actually,” You begin, raising your hand. “I had a different plan in mind…”

—————————————–

{I have the scent} Erwin sends.

{Alright, let me know when you’re getting close.}

Returning Erwin’s sending, you turn back to Tabitha who sighs and gives you a flat look.

“I should have gone with Sylphie. Sending her alone is only going to cause problems.”

“It’s fine, she’s a big girl and she’s learned from her mistakes.” You say, waving your hand. When she isn’t swayed, you say, “Look, I need someone like you present in case Kuhalik tries anything and if I need some muscle to get answers out of these guys.”

You nod your head at the last group you tied up, including the man whose hand you froze. He groans as he begins to awaken, eyes fluttering. Turning back to Tabitha, you say, “Besides, she’s going to find Alice.”

“If Alice isn’t filled to the hilt by that man and his s-smoke.” She shudders to which you cock your head. Shaking hers, she brushes it off and says, “Well, I’ll trust you on this, but Erwin better keep us appraised.”

“It’s fine, if anything happens Mr. Ed will save her.” Waving it away, you kneel down next to the man as he awakens.

“Ungh… huh?” He mutters, looking about at you before gasping and shouting in Ectrian. [W-What? What is this?]

“This is an interrogation.” You say in Deleorian. He seems scared and confused, so Ebe walks forward and translates, “Answer correctly or I’m going to freeze off more than your arm.”

“Aww fuck, I didn’t sign up for this, shit.” The man whines, to which Ebe translates, though you mostly get the meaning.

“What did you sign up for?” Tabitha asks, her voice cold as ice, which Ebe tries to mimic.

“Fuck me, and Lizardman… look, I can’t say anything okay? They’ll kill me!”

“I’ll kill you.” Tabitha says, drawing her sword to which the man squeals.

“Ah Twins damnit! Come on, you guys were supposed to be easy marks!”

“Humadin warned you ahead of time?” You ask, narrowing your eyes. “Or was it the Monster she was with?”

He bites his lip, “Fuck man, yes, told us ahead of time we were going to jump you okay? Used that tail of hers, okay?” He shudders, “Is that it? I’m sorry, it’s just my job!”

“Who are the Quicksands?” Sophie says, getting in on the conversation. She nods to Ebe who pulls out her Ghitar, looking a little nervous. She doesn’t play it though, but merely watches, which makes the man more nervous.

“I didn’t know you were working for Kuhalik, okay? We’re just a gang okay, just sell some things to people who can’t get these things normally, okay? Just because we encroach on Kuhalik’s territory a little… come on it’s a big country!”

Getting all that from Ebe, Sophie nods her head and asks, “So you’re part of a rival gang. Is this your headquarters?”

“What? No, of course n-” He shuts up quickly, looking incredibly nervous. At Ebe’s strumming of the Ghitar and Sophie’s smile he squeals again and says, “Okay, okay! No, it’s not! I don’t know where it is, trust me, I just work the warehouse but I know that Countess Crocula runs the group okay!”

“Eh?” Tabitha asks, cocking her head. “Countess Crocula?”

The man shudders, “Look, I’ve just seen her once. She’s the leader of the Crocodile girls of this river, doesn’t like Kuhalik much. Scary Monster, and she has magic!” Hanging his head he mutters, “She had us all masturbate into buckets for her…”

Looking at each other you grimace while the Monsters shrug, seeming unfazed by the admission, though Ebe does look a little embarrassed. Taking a turn to speak, you ask, “Alright, is she strong? What would she do if she had the ear of Ammon?”

“Ammon? Twins above, if we had the favor of Ammon, we could gain an upper hand over Kuhalik! Perhaps even have the Royal Guard pay him a visit and…” He pales and whispers, “Oh twins…”

Nodding your head you stand up and say, “I think we found out what we need to know.” Hearing Erwin in your mind, you say, “Alright, seems Sylphie has met up with Mr. Ed. It looks like Alice isn’t with them though.” Grimacing you turn back to Tabitha.

“You were right about her, she’s not going to be much use to us unless we pry her off him.”

“Why couldn’t I have had someone like you as an apprentice.” She grumbles. “Someone with some damn sense.”

Feeling a little happy about that proclamation, you turn back to Kuhalik and his group as they go through the boxes, pulling out various goods. Walking over to Kuhalik, one of the guards intercepts you, though when he notices he shakes his head and the man backs away.

“Ah, I’m a little busy, do you need something?”

“No, we’re leaving. Where should we meet tomorrow?”

He rubs his chin, “Easier if you arrive in the late morning at dock twelve. Don’t call much attention to yourselves, but someone will be on the lookout for you.”

“I see, I understand.” Making to turn away, you stop and say, “Oh yes, these men didn’t provide any challenge. I doubt you would either if you choose to betray or mislead us.”

Kuhalik gives a predatory smirk, “Oh. I think I know what Ammon sees in you.”

He walks off after this and you meet with your own group, heading back into the cool evening. Night air plays over you and you realize how warm and stuffy it was in there. Searching out for Erwin, you find that he’s found the scent of the man and that it ends at a larger building inside the business section of the city as opposed to the docks. Relaying through him, you find that Sylphie is on her way to him.

{I have to say, I don’t see anyone around here, is anyone actually guarding this place?}

{Be careful, don’t get in close, okay? We’ll be there soon.}

{Yeah, yeah.} He sends back. A moment later he sends, {Awful lot of guards around here though.}

{What do you mean?} You send back, mentally frowning.

{Well… they don’t seem like they’re looking for anything in particular, but some are heading over to where we came in and… How well did you hide that hole?}

{Why do you ask?…}

{Because that bum we saw in the alleyway is with some of them, and I think he’s ranting about horses from the ground or… something. Ectrian is weird.}

{Shit. We hid the hole well, but if they find out about it we’re in a bad situation.}

{Better hurry then!}

Nodding your head, you relay this to the others and head toward Erwin’s location, doing your best not to attract attention, yet making good time. Unable to know how long it will be before the guards get there and if anything will even happen over it makes you nervous, but all that means is you need to get in there quickly and get the Mark. Great, pressure, how wonderful.

Reaching Erwin a block away from the building, you reach him around the time Sylphie does, walking Mr.Ed instead of riding him. From her grim expression, you can tell that she’s been appraised by Erwin.

“I didn’t see any other guards heading that direction from where I was.” She says. “Erwin says, he saw may four or five heading that way, all humans I think.”

{Ayep.} Erwin sends, nodding his head. He turns to the three story building where the Quicksands leader, and your [Ammon’s Mark], is supposedly hiding. {I scouted around, there’s two doors in, the front one and one in the back. No guards present, however I bet they’re locked.} He looks up and continues, {There’s some windows up top, but I don’t know if you’re going to be able to get in from there without being seen.}

Nodding your head, you cast [Survey]. Feeling the stone that makes the building, you feel through it to the first level and find its larger than expected and formed into multiple rooms from the partitions. The clatter of multiple pairs of heavy feet reverberate on the ground, though it does sound a little like there isn’t as much vibrations in the back of the building.

“Damnit, there’s a lot in there, I don’t know how fast, or how quiet this is going to be.” You say to the others.

“Well we could find a way to stealth inside, see if we can’t steal it back.” Sophie says, rubbing her chin. “But that might take too long, and if the guards mobilize then we might not be able to find somewhere to lay low for the evening.”

“If we take them by surprise, we could end this quick, I doubt any of them pose much of a challenge for us.” Tabitha says, dead serious.

“Only the Countress Crocula, she’s supposed to be a Monster Witch of some kind.” Sylphie says, looking concerned. “I don’t think we’re getting the drop on her, not before we cause trouble with the rest of the group.”

“Uhm, what should I do?” Ebe says, holding her ghitar.

“What do any of us do…” You mutter to yourself. With time running out, you find yourself at an impasse. You need to figure out how to get that Mark back, and quick.

“We need to go quickly.” You say, looking at the building.

“So what, we storm in there, beat everyone up, take the Mark and go home before the Guards come knocking?” Sophie asks, raising an eyebrow.

Nodding your head you say, “Yes actually.” Hmmm, the walls of the building are thick, but with the right spell, you can probably get sounds inside, at least to a certain point…

“Simple, but they won’t be caught on their home turf so easily, especially not if they expect a counter attack.” Tabitha says, watching the building as well. “Besides, their leader could be trouble.”

“If she was so much trouble, why is Kuhalik alive?” Sylphie asks, shrugging. When everyone looks at her, she shrugs again, “I mean, come on. If I was a ruthless criminal and wanted to corner the market, wouldn’t I go and just use my magic to kill the opposition?”

Tabitha opens her mouth to make an objection before frowning and then nodding her head. She smirks a moment later in admiration at Sylphie’s line of reasoning, though you’re barely aware of it as the plan comes together.

“Alright, I think I know how we’re going to do this.” You say, picking some stones up from the ground and smoothing them out with your magic. Ebe cocks her head and asks,

“We’re going to go in and… shoot everyone?”

“Well, not everyone.”

The Ghandharva frowns, “I don’t understand.”

“Well.” You turn to her and nod your head, “You’re going to put most of them asleep.”

Blinking, Ebe raises a wing and then stops, blinks a few times and then nodding her head, getting her Ghitar ready. “Ah, I see.”

“Sylphie.” Turning to the Cat o’Ninetails, you address her. “Can you cast a [Privacy barrier] so Ebe’s sound won’t get out?”

“Sure.” She says, rolling her shoulders. “You want an [Amplify] too?”

Sophie giggles, “Dear me sis, it’s like you’re a married couple.”

“Hey!” Sylphie says

“What?!” You stammer

“Not funny.” Tabitha says, deadpan.

All three of you look at each other while Sophie does her damndest not to break into laughter. She even succeeds mostly! Shaking your heads, Sylphie turns about, beet red, and casts her spells before nodding to Ebe. The Ghandharva takes in a deep breath and steps into the barrier.

“So she sings and then…?” Sophie asks, raising an eyebrow.

The stones clink together in your hand and you smirk, “I show them a little bit of what happens when you make me angry.”

“Oh, okay.” Sophie says, seeming to take it all in stride as Ebe opens her mouth and begins to sing.

You can’t hear her, but watching the way she moves her body and her voice almost makes you feel a little at ease, a little sleepy even. Turning your head, you shake yourself not to be pulled in, through doing so has you looking at Sophie. The Cat o’Ninetails gives you a shit-eating grin to which you narrow your eyes and cast [Survey].

While not a very precise way of doing things, you feel for changes in vibrations in ground inside the building. As Ebe sings, you feel heavy thuds and the moving of feet on the ground as panic and sleep sets in. Nodding your head, you turn to Mr. Ed and say, “Alright, I need you keep a look out, can you do that.”

He gives you a look that makes you feel small for some reason before sighing and shaking his head. He steps back into an alleyway, melding into the shadows as he looks at you, and everything. Truly, Mr. Ed is the strongest member of your entire group.

“She’s done.” Tabitha says, nudging your shoulder.

As she says, Ebe stops moving and lowers her Ghitar, eyes half lidded as she sighs and stands motionless for a moment, looking pensive. She turns back to you and nods her head, waving for everyone to enter. Looking to the others, you enter the barrier and stand before the door. Making to turn and kick it in, you stop, look at Tabitha’s legs and then up to her. She gives you a long stare before sighing, turning,

And kicking off the hinges and into the face of a half- sleeping guard.

The doors fly across the room, man attached, before crashing into and breaking a wooden desk. Likely the man as well, but you don’t have time to consider that. Striding into the room before Tabitha, you hold your pebbles at the ready and scan the first floor.

Open around you is a receiving area where various desks are arranged while a large room to the side leads to a back loading dock. In the back of the room sits the staircase with sleeping and half-asleep men and Crocodile girls. All around the room you see guards sleeping peacefully, papers and parchment all strewn over the floor, weapons on the ground.

However, not everyone is asleep. A bestial cry catches your attention and you have to quickly parry a blow from a club wielded by a man with cotton in his ears. Pushing him away from you, you fire a pebble into his chest, dropping him to the ground with a shocked cry.

More Quicksands, their ears hurriedly stuffed with cotton or anything they can find, charge at you. Alice steps forward and blocks a blow from a sword wielded by a crocodile girl with her own, though she is unable to push the stronger Monster backward. Two more men, one with a club, the other with a sword charge at both you and Sophie.

The Cat o’Ninetails drops to the ground and thrusts a blow into the chest of the man with the club with her arm, which is stronger than you’d expect. Air rushes from his lungs which allows her to grab his leg, twist it, and drop him to the ground before stomping on his throat, her teeth bared.

Unable to appreciate all of this, you’re a little busy with your own attacker. Using the skills Tabitha taught you, you dodge the first swipe of the sword before blocking the other with your staff, stepping to the side and firing another rock. Unfortunately it ricochets off the man’s belt buckle and embeds itself into the leg of another Crocodile girl bearing down on Sylphie. The Monster drops to the ground, allowing Sylphie to point her staff at her face and fire a fist of concentrated air to drop her opponent unconscious.

Your attacker and you both look at the scene, then to each other. The man gulps and you ready another rock, growling, “Where’s the Mark?”

[I can’t understand what you’re saying!] The man says, stepping backward, holding his sword up in shaking hands.

[WHERE’S THE MARK!] Ebe shouts in Ectria, stepping out from behind you. The man looks at her with a mix of shock and surprise before Sophie steps out from behind him and hits him over the back of the head with a club from the fallen guard. The man’s eyes roll into the back of his head and he drops to the floor in a heap.

You hear a crash from behind you and look to see Tabitha flick dark blood off her sword, her opponent dropping to the ground, groaning. She scans the room before looking at the rest of you. Nodding her head, she says, “I’m going to check the other rooms.”

“I’ll go with you.” Sylphie says, holding up her staff to shed some more light. They walk to the back of the room and you walk with Sophie, checking over the people on the ground. None of them are Humadin or the man who stole the Mark from you. Looking over at the stairs, you don’t hear anyone moving, but you know damn well that they know you’re here.

Taking a deep breath, you cast [Amplify] and say, “Come down, bring me my Mark, and no one else needs to get hurt.”

No answer comes to you. Gritting your teeth, you shout again, “Don’t make me come up there, I will do so, and you won’t like it.”

Nothing again. Sighing, you turn as Tabitha and Sylphie return, nodding their heads. The other rooms are clear also it seems. Sylphie looks at the stairs and asks, “Any response?”

“No. Guess we’re going up then.”

“I suppose.” You say, taking in a deep breath and walking over to the stairs. You have to push a few people out of your way as you climb them, holding your staff before you as you prepare for an ambush at the top. Feeling through the stairs to the upper level, you feel something moving and a moment later a medium height, lithe Crocodile girl appears at the top of the stairs.

“My, my, what filthy guests you are.” The Monster shifts her round hips, Ectrian garb similar to Ebe’s jingling as she does so. “I think I’ll just need to wash you all away.”

She raises a hand and from a jug at her side red liquid draws forth. She thrusts it out before you and as you feel the magic being channeled, it fires at you down the stairs.

With almost no time to react, you cast [Build the Wall], driving the stone stairs up into a wall to block the flow of liquid. It splashes against the stone and you prepare for a counter-attack when it flows around the edge and strikes at you. Unable to react in time, it slams into your face, filling your mouth and nose with pressurized liquid, trying to drown you.

Abruptly, it’s pulled away and you cough at the disgusting taste, spitting up the liquid before wiping at your eyes. Sylphie holds out her hand, sweat forming on her face as she tries to hold the liquid off you, using her magic to fight against the other Witch’s hold. Gritting her teeth, she hisses, “Drop the wall!”

Blinking, you slide back into focus and drop the wall, allowing Tabitha to charge forward up the stairs toward the Monster. Hissing, the Crocodile girl pulls away from Sylphie and redirects the flow into Tabitha who activates her blade, which roars into life with fire, turning the liquid into steam.

“Damn you!” The Witch shouts, stepping backward and Tabitha continues to charge. A rough, scaled hand grabs her arm and throws her backward before the Crocodile girl from the Angry Wurm appears, sword drawn.

“Countess, behind me!”

She holds firm as Tabitha plows into her, stepping backward and allowing the rest of you entrance up the stairs. Sophie helps you up and then looks at the red liquid on her hand, “Is this… blood?”

“I don’t know!” Sylphie says, shaking herself. “I’m not used to working with it, but the Hydromancy works!”

“It’s not blood.” You spit, the taste in your mouth still. “I think it’s water with a dye in it.”

“Tch.” Sylphie says, “That’s a gimmick I suppose. Alright, I’ll protect you then.”

“Alright.” You say, moving up the stairs. “But don’t drop that barrier, we can’t afford the Guards to come in. Also Ebe, stay back though Erwin…” You say, preparing yourself, “See if you can sneak in without being seen.” The fox nods as you move forward.

Rocks in your hands, you push into the gap that Tabitha made and find the Countess with more of the colored water in her hands. She snarls at you with those jagged teeth of her species. “I will drown you in blood and then join yours to my stockpile!”

“Please.” Sylphie growls, “You’re just using water!”

The Witch narrows her eyes before hissing again. Holding up your staff, you growl, “You can stop now, don’t make me kill you.”

“Ha! That Mark is worth the battle. Besides, you are worth quite a lot to the Royal Guard. Currying some favor with the authorities and this Mark? I’ll finally get the better of Kuhalik.”

“Why don’t you just drown him or something in your blood?” You ask, waving to Sophie to head over to help Tabitha.

The Countess, or whatever she is, watches Sophie move but makes no moves of her own, the sounds of battle between Tabitha and the Crocodile girl going on too long for your own comfort. She must be fairly skilled not to be dead already. Looking back to you, she smirks and says, “Bastard is careful and crafty. Besides, it wouldn’t do to just kill him, I want to make him suffer.”

“Gods, you could just ask him out on a date.” Sylphie sighs, rolling her eyes.

Crocula fumes, “T-That is not what’s going on here!”

“Yeah, okay.” Sylphie shrugs. “Why haven’t you attacked us yet anyway?”

Erwin’s voice stirs in your mind, {Oh hells, look out!}

From behind the wall abutting the stairs, Humadin steps forward, holding something to his shoulder. A long, metallic barrel points directly at you. Your eyes go wide as you realize what it is he’s pointing at you. A magitek rifle, military grade from Deleor. The power source charges and the man grins as he pulls the trigger.

A bright flash of light appears before your eyes and you feel things grow sluggish around you. Searching for your magic you find you can’t seem to pull it up. How weird, you should do something about this, you’re going to die if you don’t. A wall? Yes, a wall would be good to summon. Too slow though, it’s going to be too slow…

Something pushes your shoulder and you hear distantly Sylphie shout, “ROMMEL!” before she cries out in pain.

Everything snaps back to normal speed as Sylphie spins about, crashing to the floor in a heap. You stare at her in dazed confusion before looking over at the Countess. She grins with her wicked Crocodile teeth and thrusts the red water at you, driving it down into your throat. The warm, disgusting liquid forces its way into your lungs trying to worm its way into your body with a force that wracks you in pain. Red tears dribble down your eyes as you cast one last spell,

{Erwin…}

A cry of pure, bestial rage comes from behind Crocula and Humadin. The Witch turns about, dropping her control of her magic and screams as something large and furred leaps upon her. She trashes with her reptilian teeth and claws but is unable to do anything to her attacker. The creature opens its large jaws and tears out the throat of the Monster, her blood mingling with the red water leaking out of her jugs.

“W-What the hells!” Humadin shouts, holding the rifle up. His hands behind to shake as the creature turns red eyes upon him, fresh blood dripping from its mouth. He thrusts the rifle forward and shouts, “S-Stay away! Stay away or I’ll shoot!”

The beast snarls and Humadin screams, firing another shot. It anticipates the shot and dodges it, clearing the distance between the two in a second. Powerful jaws clamp down upon the weapon, breaking it apart with little effort before spitting it out and biting the man’s arm. He screams before being thrown across the room, colliding into the wall with a sickening crack, sliding down and leaving a trail of blood.

Your vision swims as you find it difficult to breathe. Your vision begins to swim and you collapse to the side, watching the beast turn to you. It lopes over on black paws, the orange fur splattered with red as it turns you over to your side. Looking down at you with eyes that see too much, you hear in your mind,

{Guess you can’t hold your drink. What would you do without me?}

At that, Erwin pushes on your chest and you cough up the red, disgusting water. Painful though it is, you’re unable to stop as you wrack your body to expel the fluid. Feeling utterly sick, you groan in agony. Behind you, a cry of alarm comes and the Crocodile girl comes flying backward. She hits the ground next to you and makes to get up when both Sophie and Erwin slam paws into her, forcing her unconscious.

“Oh gods, Sylphie!”

Ebe runs up the stairs, dropping next to Sylphie and holding her wings out. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

You shift your body, painful as it is, to look at the Cat o’Ninetails. Sylphie breathes out ragged breaths, crying in pain as Ebe rolls her over. A ragged, bloody hole shows at her left shoulder right under the clavicle. Thankfully the magic shot cauterized some of wound, but it still leaks some bloody fluid.

“Sylphie!” Sophie cries, dropping next to her sister, hands above her wound, unsure of what to do. “Oh Gods, oh Gods.” She turns to you and cries, “Rommel! D-Do something!”

You try to say something but just cough up more fluid, slamming the ground as you’re still too weak to stand. Sophie looks at you with a terror you haven’t seen before, something that makes you feel like you’ve failed. She turns to Tabitha, who stalks back into the room, sheathing her sword before kneeling down to the groaning Cat o’Ninetails.

“The shot was fairly shallow somehow, she got lucky.” Looking over to a piece of shattered rock, she nods her head, “Seems she blocked most of the blow somehow. Alright, we need to bandage this up and apply pressure before-” Tabitha cuts off and puts a hand on her sword.

A squeal of alarm comes from a man with a bandaged hand, the same one who stole the Mark from you. Sweat beads down his face as he holds up the [Ammon’s Mark] with a shaking hand. “J-Just take it!”

Erwin snarls at him, but you send, unable to speak normally, {Don’t, just get the Mark}.

Erwin growls and walks over the man who drops the Mark and runs. Erwin looks at the Mark, then back to you, and you sigh, lowering the spell. Erwin seems to sigh as he shrinks back to his normal size. Shaking his body, he picks up the Mark and heads back to you, dropping it next to you as they bandage up Sylphie.

>You retrieve [Ammon’s Mark]

“Alright, she’s bandaged up.” Tabitha says, “We need to get going though, the barrier is probably down and someone might have heard us.”

“I-Is…” Sylphie begins, gasping in pain. “Is Rommel… okay?”

Sophie’s eyes go wide and she looks at you with an unreadable expression before turning back to her sister, “Yeah, he’s fine, you protected him.”

“Ah… good. Mr. Ed is going to be… mad at me.” She sighs and passes out.

Her twin gasps, but sees Sylphie breathing and sighs herself before picking her sister up over her shoulder, nodding to Ebe who also helps carry her down the stairs.

Tabitha turns over to you and helps you up, your chest burning as she does so. Sniffing, she says, “You’re not as bad off as the girl, don’t pretend you are.”

Grunting, you take the message and stagger to your legs, taking a ragged breath yourself. Throat feeling hoarse, you say, “You’re right.”

“Good, come on then.” Tabitha puts an arm around you and helps you down the stairs, Erwin at your side. The little fox, blood stained around his muzzle looks at you with worry, though by the time you reach the bottom of the stairs, you’re able to walk on your own, if with shaky legs.

Pushing outside, you see Mr. Ed standing at the door, a look of pure agitation on his face. He bears down on Sylphie and nuzzles her almost violently before turning about and neighing for Sophie to put her on his back. Doing so, he shifts her into a better position and then snorts, looking at you. Looking into his eyes, eyes which seem filled with accusations, you can see that he has a question of where to go.

“T-The Angry Wurm.” You wheeze. The horse nods and begins to move, making certain that she doesn’t fall, but not waiting for the rest of you.

As you move through the city, a tension fills you. While few people walk the streets, they give you a wide berth, at least until you reach the side of town the Inn is located at. Sounds of Guards shouting to each other sound around you as you reach the Inn. Moving around to the back, you enter through the back door, much to the surprise of a few barmaids and an annoyed looking cook.

[Hey! You can’t-]

[We’re friends with the person fucking the innkeeper] Ebe says, to the surprise of the staff. Walking up to the stairs, Tabitha carrying Sylphie, you make your way up until you find an open room where you can put Sylphie down. Still feeling a little woozy yourself, you ask Erwin to find Alice. He does so and a shortly after Alice walks into your room, naked except for a bed-sheet over her body. Pulling a drag from a pipe after Tabitha explains the situation, she blows out a ring of smoke and looks over your group.

“Damn, getting into trouble without me?”

“We didn’t expect to -” Cutting off, you shake your head and ask, “Why are you dressed like that?”

“Awaiting round seven. The little guy’s little man is taller than he is and he knows how to use it.” She frowns at Sylphie. “Damn, I’ll see if he can find a healer. Don’t worry, I already secured rooms, this one and one next to it actually. I’m sure another round or two and he’ll lie about you being here.”

“Thanks.” You say, feeling awkward about this. “Spreading your legs… seems to pay off every now and then.”

“Mmm.” She says, somehow refraining from inviting you into her legs. “We all do our parts. I’ll be back, hang in there.”

The door closes and you’re able to breathe a collective sigh. While on the way in, you gave Sylphie a [Health Potion], which managed to stop the bleeding, but the majority of the wound is still present, a vibrant reminder of the wound. Her breathing has stabilized though, and she sleeps with easier breaths as her sister sits over her.

Looking at Sylphie, you go to reach a hand out to her when Sophie swats it away with one of her tails, giving you a glare and a feline hiss. Blinking in surprise, you step back as Sophie looks down and growls, “Go to your own room Rommel.”

Looking between her and Ebe, you look down and nod your head, walking away numbly to your room. Before you make it out, Tabitha puts a hand on your shoulder and whispers, “She’s just upset at the moment. Sylphie made the choice herself. She did it to protect you. If you need to talk about it, just… let me know.”

Feeling something in your chest, you put a hand to your heart and close your eyes, taking in a shuddering breath. It still hurts a little to breath, but you’re able to wheeze out, “Yeah… thanks.”

She pats you on the shoulder and you leave into your own room. Sitting down on the bed, Erwin jumps up next to you and sits down, the blood washed from his muzzle. He doesn’t say anything, but just sits there as you look down, feeling a mix of emotions at the events of the evening.

{She could have died.} You send.

{She could have.} Erwin replies. Short and simple.

Hanging your head, you think over the emotions you’re feeling, some familiar, some new. Thoughts spiral through your mind and you know you’ll have difficulty getting to sleep that night. Erwin slides up close to you, resting his head on your chest as you scratch behind his ears. Perhaps there’s something else you can do tonight, or perhaps its best to wait until tomorrow.

Regardless of what you do though, the time to leave to the capital is noon.

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