Wizardquest 2: Chapter 14- Erosion

{Is she snuggling his arm?}

{Oh my Gods, I think she is.}

{I kind of want to leave them like this, it seems so… so strange.}

{But it’s adorable too! Oh, I kind of wish I could do that though.}

{Sylphie, please he’s- Oh shit, I think he can hear us!}

{What? Erwin damnit you said this was secure!}

{Well I thought it was but- fuck, he’s waking up.}

Your eyes flutter open at the sudden noise in your head. It sounded like Sylphie and Erwin arguing about something but… eh it must have just been a dream you guess. Blinking your eyes again, you make to sit up when you notice something wrapped around your arm. Looking down, it takes you a few moments to realize what it is.

Laying down beside you on the little excuse for a bed is Tabitha, her arm hugging yours close to her chest. She stirs as you move and her own eyes flutter open. A little drool coming from the corner of her mouth, she looks up at you in surprise and blinks twice before her eyes go wide. She inhales sharply and pulls away from you, sitting up on the bed and looking at you with shock.

A snicker comes from over near the door and both of you turn your heads to see Sylphie standing in the doorway with Erwin next to her, snickering. As soon as she catches your gaze she stands up straight and says, “Ah! Good morning!”

“W-What are you two doing in here?” Tabitha stutters, doing her best to get control of herself. It’s… actually kind of cute to see her flustered like this.

It’s Sylphie’s turn to look surprised and she hesitates before shaking her head and saying, “You know, this was my room first.”

“That doesn’t- ughh.” Tabitha shakes her head and takes a deep breath before her usual, stern demeanor comes over her face. “Is it morning then?”

“Well, I just said that, but yes, it is.” Sylphie raises a hand and then makes a face before inhaling. “Ugh, stupid… boats… stupid… stomach.”

Nodding your head at Erwin’s sending, you say to Tabitha, doing your best not to act… well, shocked at the situation you’re in. “Erwin says it is morning, the crew is getting ready to shove off.”

“Yes, that.” Sylphie sighs. “Sophie made breakfast, figured you two would want some after ah…?”

“Please, you’re a Cat o’Ninetails, use your nose.” Tabitha hisses.

Sylphie mock winces, “Okay, okay! Sorry, sorry.” She gives an apologetic smile to Tabitha who frowns at her. “W-Well anyway, the Hippogirls are awake and the Captain is getting the men in order. Looks like we’ll be in shape to head to the capital.” She sighs, “A shame about those kids though, at least we know where they are.”

“A shame huh.” You say, expression darkening. Tabitha regards you with a serious expression and asks,

“Rommel, you’re not thinking about…?”

“I am thinking about it.” You say, nodding your head. “But nothing is decided, let’s get breakfast first.”

“Fair enough.” Tabitha says, rising from the bed before looking down at herself and her light clothing. She sniffs and makes to get fully dressed while mussing with her hair. As she does so, Sylphie walks over and asks,

“Hey, what DID you two do last night to make her so peppy?”

“You could just ask mentally.” You whisper. “And nothing, she just… opened up to me is all.”

“Wow, my nose must be broken because-“

You wave her away with your staff and she giggles before wincing and rubbing her shoulder. “Fine, fine, I get it.” The Cat o’Ninetails says. Tabitha gives her an odd look and she waves to the Lizardman before walking out of the room. Erwin stays however and looks between the two of you before giving his fox grin.

{Beat it furball.} You send.

{Yeah, yeah.} He sends back, heading out the door. He pauses at the threshold and sends, {You should talk with the bird, she’s a little… out of it after last night.} With that he leaves the two of you alone.

Rubbing at the side of your head, you sigh and say, “Sorry about that, it seems their minds are overactive. I didn’t mean to put you in such an odd position.”

“I’m the one in the odd position?” She asks, quirking an eyebrow at you before cocking her head and then smiling, “Ah, I suppose it wasn’t what either of us are expected to do. Sorry about that I-“

“No, no it’s nothing.” You say, holding up a hand. “Besides, it’s good to see you back to your old self.”

Tabitha pauses and looks down at herself before blinking in surprise. “Huh I… didn’t realize I was…” She shakes her head and sighs, “I guess maybe I did just need a good night’s sleep.” Looking up at you she smiles, “And I guess getting that weight off my chest…. Thanks.”

“You’re over your fear then?”

“Oh Gods no, it’s taking all my will not to just curl into a ball again but…but I think I’ll be alright. At least until we can reach dry land.” She gives you a shaky smile, “Don’t tell anyone about this though. I have an image to keep up.”

“Well, I won’t but Erwin is a notorious gossip.”

Both of you chuckle at that, although you know damn well that he has Sylphie as a mouthpiece anyway. It is what it is you suppose.

The two of you finish getting prepared and head to the galley to find it empty again save for Sophie and a surly looking man standing behind her with a lump the size of an orange on his head. The former hums while stirring a pot and sprinkling a little something into it while the latter mutters to himself. At your entry, Sophie looks up and appraises the two of you in a split second before smiling and waving.

“Well good morning you too. I see you’re feeling better Tabitha?”

“Marginally.” She says. “Is this the chef?”

“Oh, aye, I was.” The man says in reasonable Deleorian. “But the girl here is taking mah job. No one wants mah cooking anymore.”

“Oh hush now, they like it well enough, you just need to add some salt every now and then.”

“But nowan’s ever given me a flowa and complimented mah cooking.”

“Well, maybe you should grow a pair of tits and a spine if you want to be fawned over so much.” Sophie says in her normal cadenence before humming again, leaving the man blinking in surprise. She looks back up at the two of you and says, “Breakfast?”

“Uh… yeah.” You say, the two of you receiving what appears to be a porridge and some eggs. Eating the meal, Sophie tells you about the situation with the crew and the Hippogirls. Apparently they’re awake now and they were certainly hungry. Some of the sailors who were late to breakfast complained that they were petetioning the captain to take them to the brigand’s hideout, but he was having none of it.

“Yes, it’s all quite sad, but what are we to do?” Sophie sighs. “The Captain has made up his mind on this, and as our dear chef says-“

[My ship is my woman and I’ll steer her how I please.] The chef says in Ectrian. You frown at him while Sophie and Tabitha shrug, not understanding. Very well then, you guess you’ll have a word with the Captain.

Finishing your meal, you ask Sophie and Tabitha to meet you on deck in abit. Tabitha reaches for your arm on reflex as you pass, but stops and shakes her head, taking a deep breath and nodding without immediately following. You feel a little bad leaving her alone to finish up, but she has Sophie and you really need to get moving before you miss your chance. Heading upstairs, you wince at the sudden sunlight.

Putting your hand down from shading the bright sun, you look about and see weary men going about their work, and notice that the boat is once again moving. Looking at the side of the craft, you notice as well that the brigand’s ship is lashed to the one you’re on, the smaller vessel moving down the river without any problems as the larger vessel sails.

As you look at the smaller ship you pause as you notice Ebe sitting on the railing, kicking her feet over the side while humming to herself. Though you can’t tell from behind, it feels a little… melancholic. Turning your gaze to the Captain, who is giving orders to his crew near the foredeck while the Hippogirls try to talk with him, you figure you have some time to speak with her.

Ebe turns as you get near, your footsteps betraying your presence. She gives a wan smile and says, “Oh, morning Rommel. Did you sleep well?”

“Well enough I suppose.” You say. “Yourself?”

“Aha, well… not so much. I tried but I was a little on edge after everything.”

Nodding your head you look out at the banks of the river and sigh. “This is about what I did to those bandits, isn’t it?”

“Huh? Oh! No! No it… it isn’t…” Ebe says before trailing off. Drawing her lips into a line, she looks off to the side and says, “I know why you did it, it just seems so… cruel, in a way.”

“You remember what Nane did to us, how forgiveness could have gotten us killed more than once.”

“Yes! I know, I know! I just! Agggh!” Ebe says, throwing up a wing. “I know why we fight, hells I know why I FOUGHT. Because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do, but it doesn’t make it RIGHT!” Lowering her wing, she sighs and looks at you, “Does it?”

You’re not certain how to answer that question. Or more precisely, you know exactly how to answer that question, but not how she WANTS you to answer that question. Mulling it about for a moment you decide to answer straight and true. “Ebe, they needed to die, for our safety and the safety of those they may have hurt in the future. Slavers don’t deserve a second chance Ebe, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve been doing, hurting others for their own gain until someone stops them.”

Gritting your teeth, you hiss out, “They’ll even stoop so low as to abduct children for their ends.”

Ebe looks at you with a sad expression. “Rommel…”

“We’ll do what we can when we can do it.” You say, looking down at her. “I’m sorry you had to see that, but such vile behavior cannot be tolerated any longer. I won’t see anyone else I care about get hurt because of people like that.”

Her eyes go wide and she looks down again before nodding her head and saying, “I don’t know if I agree completely but… I understand.” Looking back up, she smiles with a more genuine look, “Thanks Rommel.”

“I’m not really certain what I did.” You say, smirking.

“Well, for one you’ve proven you’re not some kind of psychopath.” She chuckles. “Probably.”

“Probably.” You chuckle in reply, though you do feel a little worried about doing so for some reason. Taking a steadying breath you say to her, “Come on, I need to speak with the Captain and I’d like everyone present.”

“For what?” She asks, cocking her head.

“You’ll see.”

As you approach the Captain, he and the Hippogirls turn to meet you, all of them nodding their heads… at Ebe

[Thank you for helping us, fair Ghandharva.] He says to her, bowing.

Ebe blushes and waves a wing, [Oh, you are too kind.]

[What do we owe this pleasure?]

[Rommel… this Wizard here has a request.]

The Captain stands straight and regards you before nodding his head. [I am told you aided us as well? Rid us of the brigands too.]

Ebe nods at you and she translates for you. “Yes, but not before they told us where their hideout is, and where they are keeping the children.”

[Our babies!] The lead Hippogirl says, wincing and putting a hand to her chest where her wound was. [We must go to those liars and kill them all!]

“In time.” You say, holding up a hand. “Captain, I must ask, would you be willing to take this vessel toward their hideout?”

[Of course not! We are already behind and I will not lose any men to such a venture!] He says, looking outraged.

“What if it wasn’t your men? What if it was my group and these Hippogirls?”

[No! If I did not deliver you, then Kuhalik would have my balls in his jar!]

“In his… jar? Ah, nevermind.” You say shaking your head. “Captain, one of the men mentioned as well that their friends might coming looking for them and attack this vessel.”

He frowns and sniffs, [Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. We will have to defend this ship if they do.]

“Your crew is in no shape for that and you know it. A preemptive strike would leave you with little in the way of loss and if Kuhalik asks, we went off on our own.” Leaning forward you say, “I just need you to get us to where we can reach the hideout and wait a day at most. If we’re not back by then you can assume us dead and leave. If we return, then we’ll hand over the treasure they’re sure to have.”

Ebe blinks and looks at you with surprise as she finishes translating while the Captain rubs his chin. Pursing his lips he then looks at you with a critical eye and says, [I will not get my ship down that small tributary. However… if you could crew that smaller vessel then we can wait for you to return. I suppose we could make up the time somehow…]

Nodding your head, you turn as the Hippogirls look at you with surprise and thanks. One of them even looks a little surprised! Before saying anything more, the rest of your group arrives and stands around you as you address them and explain what you plan to do.

“So, you want to go to this Brigand’s hideout and rescue the Hippogirl children?” Sophie asks, giving you a quizzical expression. “And this will set us how far behind?”

“I’m not certain. Hopefully it will be quick.” You say, being honest.

She sighs and shakes her head, “Rommel, we’ve had too many distractions as it is! We can’t afford this!”

Tabitha steps forward. “While I agree on one hand, on the other hand, the possibility of being attacked is a heavy one. We may not get so lucky the next time so I vote for going after them instead.”

Sylphie looks down and says, “I… agree with Sophie. I feel bad for those children but Rommel, we’re so behind as it is and if we miss this boat again we’re in trouble. Mom and Dad…”

With two votes for and two against, everyone looks to Ebe. The native Ectrian looks at the two Cat o’Ninetails and gulps before looking to you. She looks into your eyes for a long moment before taking in a deep breath and standing up straight. “I understand the worry about time, however these people are a blight upon Ectria. If we can stop them here, then I vote we save those children.”

The twins look at each other with surprise before looking back to Ebe. They give her appraising looks and when she turns her cool expression on them they both stand a little straighter themselves. Sophie sighs and shakes her head.”Alright… alright, if you feel that way about it… I guess its settled.”

Ebe nods and tells this to the Captain. The man groans and then gives some orders to the men present. As he does so the lead Hippogirl walks up and presses you into her chest as she hugs with enough force to crack your spine. Thankfully she doesn’t and you’re able to pull yourself away from her soft, yet firm, embrace with only mild shooting pain. She smiles and says, [Thank you. We are so sorry for before, we were so scared and blind in anger.]

[It’s fine just… think things through.] You reply in grunts.

[Yes! Ah, by the way, my name is Huma.] She introduces the others as well and they also give apologies though you allow no hugs from them, even the one who tried to rape you. Okay, especially not her, though she does look very apologetic.

With that settled, your group goes to make preparations. As it turns out, no one knows how to operate a boat, not even the Hippogirls, who offered to push you anyway. A few of the crew, despite their captain’s look of disapproval, offer to help you, feeling bad for the Hippogirls despite the attack as well as a thank you for Sophie’s cooking. Although the way you see some of them looking at the Monsters, you begin to wonder if that’s their only motive…

It’s about mid afternoon by the time you reach the tributary and everyone is loaded onto the smaller vessel. It’s maybe a quarter of the size of the large cargo ship, but it seats everyone comfortably and has a secondary deck, though it’s only got a small cargo room underneath which is bare of anything of value beyond rope and nets.

The Captain warns all of you to be back on time before the sailors cast your group off, fighting the current to get into the smaller river. They manage it with skill born of years of sailing this river (and the Hippogirls pushing some as they swim alongside) and you’re off.

The landscape around this smaller set of water is about the same as with the original river: grasses and small shrubs lining the nearby areas of the river while farther out the desert begins to creep back in. The difference here is that in the distance you can see a series of hills or rocky outcroppings where the smaller river is heading toward. Your money is that this hideout is in there somewhere…

You have to fight against the current in some places, making the journey toward the hideout slower than you’d like. Again, the Hippogirls are a great help, their strength and water skills allowing you to push forward despite some hardships, but it’s already getting dark by the time the hills get closer in view. One of the Hippogirls who ranged forward returns and tells you to anchor the vessel.

Confused, the crew does so and the Hippo boards with surprising skill, informing you what she’s seen ahead. Apparently, the river begins to split into smaller offshoots which go to various places between the rocks. Some of them dead end into little pools while others head into caves. While swimming, she noticed a man sitting near one of the caves, a bored expression on his face as he hid in the near darkness, watching for anyone coming. While avoiding attention, she swam forward and into the cave he was protecting to find a surprisingly large lake where two small vessels, and one larger river boat about double the size of your current vessel, were moored.

From what she could see, there were maybe twenty brigands- male, female, and Monster around the boats, with various tunnels heading further into the caves. When pressed, she mentioned ancient ectrian pillars around the makeshift dock as well as other carvings which marked it as an old ruin turned hideout for these thieves.

Many of the tunnels she saw ran in various directions all around the docks, though most were near the larger, and likely “flagship” vessel she mentioned, where most of the brigands were present. Some of the smaller tunnels didn’t even appear lit either. To her dismay, she was unable to see the children, but was forced to leave as she sensed that something else was in the water with her, though she didn’t stick around to find out what.

As night begins to close around you, you’re a good half hour away by foot. You could get closer and risk the sentry as well, but then comes the issue of getting into the well-lit cave and then further into the complex. And what exactly did this Boss of theirs hold in store for you as well? From all you know, she too is a Lamia though if she possesses magic that’s something you’d have to prepare for. At least when asked, the Hippogirl didn’t see anything resembling a magitek rifle, though you’d still want to be careful.

Conferring with your cautious group and the eager Hippogirls, you formulate a plan on how to get in and get the girls without- or perhaps with- ending the brigands who haunt these waters.

—————————

The game plan is simple. You go in via tunneling magic into the complex and send out <Vox Caster> golems to project sound from Ebe to put everyone to sleep. Once that’s done, you get in and grab the children and leave before anyone is the wiser. Get back to the boat and no one should get hurt with this course of action.

Easy enough, and should be minimal casualties on your side. However this may lead to minimal casualities for the bandits but… perhaps that’s for the best. If you should have to cut some down, then that’s not the end of the world, though that thought does give you some pause with how nonchalant you are about it.

Though you’d rather leave them for such a mission, the Hippogirls would not be denied coming with you. Infact, they threatened to finish the job if you wouldn’t take them. The only compromise they would make is to have the one who tried to rape you (who is unmarried, you’ve come to find out) would stay on the boat and make sure the men don’t leave you. They don’t seem particularly offended about this though, seeming to acknowledge that they’re smugglers and have a low trust threshold.

You also would have liked to leave Sylphie behind, but her arguments about needing her magic were just too strong. Maybe if Mr. Ed was present you could get her to stay, but sadly the horse just wasn’t going to fit on this boat, much to his annoyance. His snort as you passed by him while leaving made it damn clear that she wasn’t allowed to be hurt again, EVER.

With the part set as Sylphie, of course Sophie, Tabitha, Ebe, Erwin, the Hippogirls, and yourself, the boat seems almost necessary. But it was decided as well to leave it- the attention would be unwarranted and whatever was in the water there may make it impossible to get out without an issue. So on foot is it, with the Hippogirls swimming ahead.

Walking through the grasses in the nighttime desert, your group is oddly silent. The only noise heard is the clinking of metal, the rustle of clothing, and the shifting of grass. Occasionally you hear a critter dash about as well, but generally speaking you move with stealth, guided by the two Cat o’Ninetails and their acute night vision. It’s one of the surprising common times you’re glad Alice isn’t present- could she have kept quiet?

Well, it’s a shame to think that way. She was too tired from her wound to come with you, which would explain why she wasn’t present for your vote. Not that you think she would have voted against Tabitha anyway, but you wonder how helpful her blade would have been in this situation. Given the tight corridors your might be facing it’s actually doubtful that another sword would have been useful as it stands. Best that she gathers her strength and isn’t just trying to have an orgy with all the sailors.

Shaking your head, you dispel the though. Slut she may be, but she seemed genuine about thinking about her future… besides not even she could satisfy that many men in her condition… right? Shuddering at this thought, you don’t notice Sophie stop and raise a hand until Tabitha drags you down into the tall grass.

“Sentries.” She hisses, and points ahead.

Blinking, you look through the grass to see the vague form of something sitting on the rocks in the distance. It’s likely the man described by the Hippogirls. Sitting out, alone, in the middle of the open is a strange place for a sentry, especially as he has no light. How was he supposed to see anyone coming or report in time to let anyone know about it? Is it just to spook people from coming too close? Anyone who really wanted in though would find a way you assume so… why is he there?

“Should we shoot him?” You ask in a low voice.

Tabitha cocks her head and then shakes it. “No, it’s too far in the dark. If you had multiple shots you could make it, but even with Sylphie’s guidance you might not hit. Best to get close.”

“What is Sylphie makes the shot?” You ask, looking to the Cat o’Ninetails.

Sylphie’s ear twitches and she turns to you before wincing. “I don’t think I could… I’m sorry.”

Grunting at your forgetfulness, you nod your head and say, “Of course. Sorry.”

“Well, what should we do then?” She asks.

You think to answer her when Sophie hisses, “So that’s how they’re doing it…”

Everyone looks to her and she nods forward. Turning your gaze to the blurry sentry you see something else in the darkness next to him. You’re unable to get a clearer picture though of what it is though due only possessing human eyesight. The way that both Sophie and Sylphie get agitated though certainly makes you on edge until Sylphie hisses, “It’s another Catgirl. The man is a decoy.”

“Eh?” You say, blinking in surprise. “Another desert Catgirl?”

“Shhh!” She hisses. Ears twitching back and forth she waits before sighing, “Yes, hiding in the bushes. May be more than one.”

“How do we stop her?”

Sophie looks at you and then asks, “Permission to use my tails, sir?”

Blinking, you nod to her and say, “You are authorized to use your tails to take out the sentries.” Smirking then, you add, “Any objections, lady?”

Sophie rolls her eyes and sheds her robes, revealing the tight fighting outfit underneath the color of night. Of course, the usefulness of such a thing is limited as it still shows off her midriff and thighs, but hey, let her do what she wants. Tails springing to life behind her, she crouches low into the grass and hisses before moving silently through.

Sidling up to Sylphie, you watch her move her hear, ears twitching madly as she tries to follow her sister. You’re unable to see or hear anything in that darkness and it once again reminds you just how different humans and Monsters can be. Thinking on this it reminds you of the Monsters in the water and you cock your head to regard the river. What are the Hippogirls doing anyway?

Sylphie tenses and you regard her strangely until you notice the source of her tension. The figure in the distance is standing up, pointing at the water and shouting something. The river ripples and from it emerges an angry Hippogirl who charges at the man. He cries out but is unable to stop her and she cuts off his screams quickly as her strength bowls him over.

“Shit, this isn’t quiet anymore.” Tabitha growls, hand on her sword. “We have to get the other sentry before she warns them.”

Nodding, you rush out toward the grass where the other sentry is hiding, trying to sense her movements with [Survey], but you’re unable to reach out far enough. Which means she’s gotten away from you or-

The grass some distance ahead of you shakes violently as something dashes through it. Glinting in the moonlight you see blades in the darkness as Sophie dashes through the low brush. Her quarry appears dashing from foliage ahead to vanish again while Sophie appears a moment later. As the rest of you close in a violent tussle happens in the bushes followed by almost feral cat levels of screeching before… nothing.

Tabitha reaches them first, her legs carrying her forward with blinding speed now that she doesn’t need to use stealth and she stops, allowing the rest of you to catch up without issue. Sighing out in relief, you see Sophie emerge from the brush a moment later, grin on her face(though she sports a few scratches) as she says, “Got her.”

Looking down you see a the Desert Catgirl restrained with her tails, the brigand squirming with some panic as she looks up at her captor. Sophie gives her a wicked grin and puts a finger to her lips, though this is moot as one tail is in her mouth and another is pointed at her throat. Her captive wimpers and looks down.

Heavy footsteps sound behind you and you see the Hippogirls behind you. Huma grunts in annoyance, [There was another one, huh?] Nodding to one of the others, she walks up to Sophie and grabs the Catgirl, forcing Sophie to let her go, lest she lose a tail. The Catgirl tries to shout but a hand clamps over her mouth and she squirms unsuccessfully as the Hippo leaps into the water with her before you can stop her.

“Holy hells!” You utter in shock. “What are you doing?”

The lead Hippogirl blinks at you, not understanding Deleorian, of course, and returns to the water, the others following her. You stand there in shock for a moment before Sophie stands up, takes her robe from Sylphie, folds it up, and puts it away. She then sighs and continues onward to the hideout. The rest of you look between each other but come to the conclusion that there isn’t much else you can do about it. These Hippogirls are going to be the death of you.

It’s a little while before you see the cave network appear before you. The opening of the cave through which the water flows is smaller than expected, and you can’t see any light coming through it, making you wonder how long the waterway is before reaching the hideout… and how much solid stone you’ll have to tunnel through.

The Hippogirls rejoin you (sans Catgirl, whom you’d rather not think about), afraid to go further in the water. When asked what it is in there, they refuse to answer, though you suspect they don’t know themselves. Seeing as you’re not going to go in through the front, they don’t want to fuck with that thing. As it stands, you won’t be able send in scouts until the tunnel is finished.

Moving forward, you listen for sounds coming from the cave but don’t hear anything. Making sure no one else is present with a [Survey], you and Sylphie make it to the rock and begin to get a feel for what you’re looking at. As you feared, it’s solid rock, thick and dense. Tunneling through this is going to take some time, even with Sylphie’s help.

Turning to her, you ask, “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Rommel, please. I was just shot, it’s not that big a deal.” She flashes you a smirk before wincing and rubbing her shoulder.

Sighing, you begin to [Trench] and she follows suit, carving a large enough hole in the stone to let you through. And thus begins the process of tunneling. And tunneling. And more tunneling.

“Did I mention I hate this?” Sylphie sighs, reinforcing the rocks again.

“Yes, my dear sister, but it’s at least above ground.” Sophie says, shaking her head. “Honestly, why even pick up the magic if you’re going to complain.”

“Oh hah hah, you complain when your make-up isn’t right.” Sylphie counters, to which Sophie frowns and is about to say something when Tabitha interjects in a cool voice.

“Girls. You’re both annoying.”

“Yes Tabitha…” They say in unison.

Rolling your eyes, you [Survey] again to find that, after what seems to be an eternity, you reach the actual tunnels. Unable to feel anything further out, you take what info you can get and relay it to Sylphie who nods with renewed vigor. Tunneling forward, you stop just feet shy of the opening to one of the other tunnels. Using your magic, you find no one present in the admittedly small corridor. The Cat o’Ninetails forms a small hole for you and you put your golems through as well as Erwin to scout things out. If only you could see through the Golems… but oh well, Erwin can direct things well enough.

Following his signature, the Golems, Babyface and Greg who you rigged up with an [Arc Node] fairly quickly, keep pace with the fox. The rest of you just sit and wait as the golems scout through. You ping the area with [Survey] every now and then, getting a good sense of the place for later reference, but Erwin is a better guide. He sends for you to stop every now and then, sniffing ahead and going forward.

So far no one is present in these small tunnels and in places they’re collapsed in from year of disuse. You begin to fear that you may never find anything when Erwin sends, {Wait… what’s that sound?}

Frowning, you send your mind to see through Erwin’s eyes and hear what he’s talking about. Shouting, a lot of shouting and… is that metal clashing? You make to pull away when Erwin’s urgency forces you to the back of his mind. You hear the sound of feet dashing on the floor and you watch as a group of brigands run past on alert, weapons drawn.

Confused, you pull back to yourself and send, {What’s going on?}

{Sounds like a battle to me. But who is attacking them?}

{I have no idea.} You send, looking over at the Hippogirls. Unless more of them appeared from somewhere, you don’t know who would be attacking although…

{The Royal Guard?!} You send back, worried.

{Maybe?} Erwin sends, worried. {But if they’re here, then we may have a shot at going through and getting those kids without any trouble afterall. I doubt they’d keep guards on them when they need to fight!}

Thinking this over, you relay the information to the others. Tabitha grits her teeth, “How long were we tunneling? Must have been for quite some time for another group to come in behind and attack them.”

“We did take out the sentries, poor though they were.” Sophie says, holding up a finger.

[What is everyone saying?] Huma says, agitated. [Why are we waiting still?]

Ignoring her, you return to Erwin and send, {Go, scout it out and see what the commotion is.}

He moves out and you wait a tense few minutes until Erwin sends, {It’s… not the Royal Guard. It’s… Rommel, I think those are cultists!}

Cultists? Violet Sands cultists, here? But… wait a second. That man mentioned that the Violet Sands were causing trouble for these bandits. But why? Why would they attack them and how unlucky are you that they’re attacking now?

{They came in via some small boats. I can see men, women, and Monsters fighting them but it’s a standstill. No sign of the boss I don’t think and-} He cuts off for a moment before continuing. {Rommel, that thing in the water. It’s a monster.}

{Huh? Like what kind.}

{No, not the kind with breasts, the ancient kind. I saw a man fall into the water and large jaws grabbed him and pulled him down. Holy hells, these things DO exist still.}

{Alright, we’re going to sing and stop all of this, give us a second to get this ready.} Casting an, [Amplify] as well as a [Privacy Barrier], you get Babyface in place as Ebe readies to sing. Once again you watch as her silent words play through the barrier, shielding you from her [Lullaby]. Erwin feeds you information on how it’s working, you having put a barrier on him as well to keep him from hearing the dread effects.

{I think it’s working!} He sends. {They’re getting sloppy and confused, though some of them look afraid for some reason. Maybe they’ve figured out what’s going on, although for the life of me I can’t tell why the ground is shaking.}

Ground… shaking? Oh hells. You quickly shut off your amplify and shake Ebe, breaking her out of her song. She looks at you with a dazed expression and you turn your attention back to the Golems, feeling everything around with [Survey].

“Oh hells.” You whisper to yourself. You made the [Amplify] too powerful, and the Audiomancy mixed with the natural acoustics rocked the ancient cave with sound that shook the very foundations. Unfortunately these foundations in some places are beginning to collapse.

{GET OUT OF THERE} You send to Erwin with panic. The emotions of the little fox race as he and your golems run back down the tunnel. Your survey shows the rock breaking around you and you’re not able to form a strong enough connection through the [Arc Node] in order to stem the tide with your magic. The tunnel collapses around you and Babyfaceis crushed ironically by granite, severing your connection, while Greg and Erwin make it to where the cave-in stops.

{I’m fine, I’m… fine.} Erwin sends, his mental tone tired. {Gods, what the hells. I didn’t expect that to happen!}

{I should have. Damnit. Just get into a side tunnel and stay safe, okay?}

{Right… right…} Erwin sends. He doesn’t feel hurt over the connection but he has to be scared.

Relaying the information to the others, the Hippogirls become very, very irate. Huma shouts, [WHAT? IS MY BABY HURT?!]. She grabs you by the lapels in the small tunnel and shakes you as she shouts, [LET US OUT NOW OR I BREAK YOUR SPINE!]

Well shit. If you let her out, she’s going to rampage down the tunnels, destroying any further chance at stealth. If you don’t, she’s going to kill you unless you do something about it. This is not according to plan at all. You were supposed to have located the children by now damnit! Even sending Erwin out now, you’re not going to get info in time before the Hippogirls have to be dealt with and then there’s the matter of what’s going on with the Cultists vs. the Brigands along with all the questions that come with the cultists even being here.

You’re getting a little tired of being shaken like a sack of potatoes giving the stink eye. Sighing with frustration you channel some of your magic into the ground to throw Huma off balance and then use one of the techniques that Tabitha taught you (more like smacking her with your staff) to get her to drop you. Shaking your head, you hold the staff out at her and growl, “That’s enough. We’re not going to fight each other.”

Stepping back with your party inside the small tunnel, the Hippogirls begin to bray, their voices echoing in the small chamber. Pulling a little father back you say to Ebe, “Sing the sad song.”

“Huh? What?” She says before gulping and fumbling with her ghitar. As she begins you cast [Privacy Barrier] to shield your group. The Hippogirls grow quieter before looking between each other and then to the floor, anguish on their faces. One of them even puts their hands up to their face and begins to cry.

Braving the sorrow, you tap Ebe on the shoulder and she stops, allowing you to drop your barrier. She nods and looks to the Hippogirls who look absolutely grief stricken. With a sigh you say, [There, you calm down?]

[N-No!] Huma says, sniffling. [Our daughters might be dead and we can’t do anything! It’s too hot in here and it’s cramped and we’re useless! I just want to punch something!]

You don’t catch all of that but Ebe whispers it to you, her tone sad. She gives you an uncomfortable look and you rub at your head in response. Sighing again you say, [Come. We fight. Get daughter.]

Huma sniffles and rubs at her eyes. She nods her head with resolve and you shake yours before turning around and addressing the rest of the group.

“Alright, we’re going in. Let’s stay away from the main area where the battle is and do not engage the cultists whatever you do.” Thinking about it, you say, “Ebe, relay this to the Hippos.” She does so and you turn to the wall before you. Using your magic you [Trench] the rest out, revealing an entry into the tunnel before you. Holding out a hand, the Hippogirls shuffle past you in the hallway and take deep breaths before nodding and hurrying down the way you point, away from the main chamber.

The one thing you forgot about was how fast they could run. Before you can recall them they bolt down the tunnels, feet crashing all about as they do so. Any chance at stealth is basically ruined now, though you doubt many people are still in the tunnels. Looking between the rest of your group you shrug and chase after them, Tabitha and you in the front while the others trail behind.

As you run through the path created by the Hippogirls, you send out pulses of [Survey], feeling the aftereffects of Ebe’s singing. Something tells you that granite should NOT have done that, even with sufficiently loud sound, which either meant that this place was being held together with glue and dreams, or it wasn’t your fault. You really doubt you’d get so lucky as to not have it be your fault, but that battle seemed fairly fierce…

Which is exactly why you’re not going toward it. You’d rather not piss off the Violet Sands at the moment, and not getting involved in this fight seems like a perfect way to do that. In fact you don’t see anything really in the tunnels, save for some distant echoes of shouting, for quite some time. Of course, it was only a matter of time until ahead of you a scream is heard before being cut off. Soon enough you find the source- a man dressed in motley of a brigand, his body smashed and trampled against the walls, leaving bloody streaks.

The gruesome sight is quickly left behind as you race past. Trying not to think about it, you send out a [Survey] to find that the Hippogirls are out of range of your pulses. Great… although you do feel something else and-

A spear head thrusts from a tunnel ahead of you. You choke out a cry and have your staff ready, but Tabitha seems to predict the attack. He sword flashes from her sheath faster than you can track it, the blade slicing off the spear head. She wheels upon the side tunnel, you stumbling but doing the same as three men dressed as bandits appear, two with swords and one with the broken spear. They take one look at your group, then their weapons before dropping them and bolting, screaming in panic.

“Shit.” Sophie says, crouching down, her tails whipping. “I should chase them down.”

“Not worth the risk and we don’t have time.” Sylphie says, acting the voice of reason for once. Her sister grunts but doesn’t defy it, heading with the rest of you through the tunnels as the men’s voices fade into the tunnels before becoming inaudible. Or well, you think it’s inaudible until Sophie hisses,

“Damnit, their screams changed and cut off. Something killed them.”

“Cultists?” Ebe says, holding not her normal ghitar, but Sveth’s guitar. It’s still amazing to you how such a large and unwieldy instrument is held so easily in her wings…. actually wait, is she holding it single winged?

“Probably.” The Cat o’Ninetails sighs. “Nothing we can do about it for now. Let’s keep going before we meet.”

It goes unsaid that everyone expect that you will meet in the tunnels. Thankfully you don’t meet anymore living brigands, though you do find a few unfortunate souls pasted against the walls, testament to the freight leyway advance of the Hippogirls. You begin to wonder what would happen if a Hippogirl met a Wurm. On second thought, let’s not think about that…

With your [Survey] you’re able to pick paths forward through the tunnels while the Monsters in your group listen for signs of trouble. Fearing the Hippogirls would run into dead-ends in the almost non-existent light of the tunnels, you find that fear a little less than realistic as you find at least one thin wall punched clean through, the rocks still crumbling. Feeling a larger chamber ahead, you stop and have Sylphie cast [Trick of the Light], hiding your group.

While a few torches were placed at larger sections of the tunnels, you ended up relying on your staff more than anything. Because of this, the light in this chamber is almost blinding when you enter. Shielding yourself at the change, you look around before widening your eyes in surprise.

Littered around the room are various pieces of loot, from Ectrian coinage to more material supplies and artifacts. Adjusting your vision you begin to pick out more than just this treasure vault as the forms of surprised guards fighting the Hippogirls appear. The Monsters go toe to toe with the rather more well equipped Monsters, their momentum slowed down by their skill at arms. Still, they all press toward a certain corner of the room where a large, converted throne stands.

And at the feet sit the forms of four young Hippogirls.

The oldest couldn’t have been more than ten years of age. She sniffles as she tries to keep the others in line but at the sight of their mothers they wail out. Unfortunately the guards standing next to them hold blades out, looking nervously between the fight and the form upon the throne. It’s only then that you notice the creature reclining there, her muted brown scales fading into the stonework.

Sitting on the throne is a Lamia of fairly average size, with dull, brown scales. Her human-like half is well toned however with rather ample breasts and pretty face, something she amplifies with the framing of her long, black hair. She wears an outfit akin to that of a dancer, though far more ostentatious, a golden tiara with inlaid emerald shining on her forehead. To top it all off, in both hands she holds knives that glisten with something sickly green.

Though she doesn’t seem all that physically intimidating, what disconcerts you about her is the fact that despite her sanctum being breached by a group of Cultists and Hippogirls, she seems utterly at ease. In fact, a smug grin sits on her face as she looks over her nails while holding her blades. Her eyes fall upon you as you enter and she rolls her eyes as if annoyed.

Which is exactly why you put a pebble between them.

Or, well, you tried to. As if expecting something like this, the Lamia cocks her head to the side, the pebble exploding into dust as it hits the far wall. Sighing, she rises up from her throne and says, voice audible even from a distance due to the acoustics of the cavern, [That’s far enough of that.]

Snapping her fingers, her subordinates fighting pull away from the Hippogirls, forming a wall of steel. This normally wouldn’t normally be disconcerting for the Hippogirls who would barrel right through despite their wounds, but the Lamia holds up a small girl, perhaps five years old and puts a blade to her throat. The girl cries for her mother but the Lamia presses the blade closer and she whimpers, going quiet.

Licking her lips with her long tongue, the Lamia watches as the Hippogirls slow down, their faces panic stricken.[That’s better. So that stupid niece of mine is dead if you’re here? Of course she is.] Sighing, the Lamia leader continues, [I bet she lost my ship too. I suppose this saves me the trouble of going looking for her…]

She turns her head to you and cocks it before speaking in perfect Deleorian. “And what are you doing here? You don’t look like anything much, though the one with the nine tails who is trying to sneak behind me is quite interesting. Are you of the Violet Sands?”

Shocked, Sylphie drops the spell before wincing and holding her shoulder, clearly strained some by the spell. The Lamia smirks at your expression before waving a knife to the side of the room. Following her gaze you notice Sophie hiding in the recesses of the shadows near a large pool of deep water, crouched low with her tails behind her. Cursing, she stands up straight and looks at the Monster with an annoyed expression.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. You can’t get the drop on me. The moment you entered my domain I knew you were here.” She chuckles, “Of course, I didn’t know that the Cultists behind you were coming until they reached my little port. Now, say hello.”

Surprised again, you turn to see a group of men, women, and an Anubis wearing various clothing and various weapons storm into the room, spattered in blood. The one thing they share in common is the Violet Sands sigil worn around their necks on chains. The Anubis snarls as she steps in, [Tarula, the Slippery! You will pay for your crimes today and return the Eye of Ant’anha to us!]

To this Tarula merely laughs and says in Deleorian, “Welcome! I’ve been expecting you!”

[Release our children!] Huma shouts. [If you dare harm a hair on their heads, I swear-]

[Oh, you’ll what? Break my spine? Please, if you so much as try this girl is dead.] She chuckles again and drops the girl who is handled roughly by the guards next to her. Looking out over the crowd of intruders she sniffs and speaks in Deleorian.

“This works in my favor. I will rid myself of some pests while taking favorable slaves. And as for those I lost, well…” She waves at the Hippogirls, “I have good replacements.” Smirking she switches to Ectrian, [You will work for me, unless you want to see your children hurt, yes?]

Huma growls but looks down, distressed. You can tell she’s thinking it over- it’s not like she owes you any loyalty for anything. Feeling that this might get out of hand quick, you begin to speak but are cut off by the Anubis again,

[I don’t care about this rabble, whoever they are. None of you will stop us from ending you! The stolen gifts of the Apophis will be returned to us!]

Not quite catching all of that, Ebe hurriedly gives you a translation as Tarula laughs whole heartedly. [You think you can beat me? This gaudy tiara of yours gives me precognition! I know everything you’re about to do!]

“Uh… what?” You say in response to this declaration. Ebe translates though that’s not what you meant. What the hells? Precognition? How the hells did she get a talent like that?

[It’s not for you to use! The power is only for those chosen by the Apophis!] The Anubis shouts, eyes flaring with rage.

[I’m a Lamia you idiot! I AM chosen of the Apophis!] Laughing out loud she shakes her head. [This has been the greatest gift I could have stolen. Seriously, thank you for not guarding it well, I never would have built this little group up without it.]

The Anubis looks down with an agonized expression. Clearly she had a part to play in this becoming a problem. Thinking through everything you say send messages to Erwin to relay to Ebe via Sylphie as you speak out to Tarula to buy time.

“Precognition? Why sit here in these caves with a power like that? You could become the Pharaoh if you wanted to!”

“Mmm, tempting.” Tarula says, tapping her chin. “Too much effort though, I just want to build a little pirate empire and live the good life. Of course you wrecking my home is throwing that all out of place.” Squinting her eyes at you she flicks out her tongue. “Why are you here anyway? Who are you?”

“Travelers, here to help these Hippogirls and…” Digging into your pack, you pull out the [Aliph’s Sigil] and hold it up. “We are also allies of the Violet Sands.”

The Cultists murmur amongst themselves, recognizing the sigil. The Anubis nods her head, not going to argue against a potential ally in this fight. Tarula narrows her eyes and flicks out her tongue before hissing, “How touching, now then you-” She cuts off sharply as the emerald on her tiara shimmers and she looks at Ebe as the Ghandharva pulls out her ghitar and begins to sing. Before you can cast [Privacy Barrier] the Lamia whistles, the shrill sound echoing through the cavern.

Ebe, looking confused, stops playing and looks about as the cavern shudders. A loud, terrifying roar echoes from nearby and you snap your head to the pool of water next to Sophie. The Cat o’Ninetails leaps to the side as from it emerges the maw of a massive creature. It lands upon the edge of the pool with stubbly legs and roars again as it tries to snap at Sophie. Unable to do so, it drags itself further from the waters to show its full mass.

In the light of the torches you appreciate the bulk of the creature, an utterly massive crocodile with jaws large enough to swallow a man whole. Its leathery hide is pock marked with old scars and imbedded weapons and its left eye is missing, a gaping hole present where it should be. Swinging its tail like a club, the beast slaps aside some loot making Tarula shout at it.

[No! Bad! That is MY loot!]

As if somehow understanding the words the creature stops its trashing and opens its disgusting jaws, swinging its head so its right eye is facing you. You’ve seen Monsters, but this thing is something else, something that even Dollora forgot. Remembering what Ebe said about her father, you’re reminded that such creatures do exist in Ectria. How old was this thing and why was it obeying someone like Tarula? This all just doesn’t add up…

But no time for that. Now instead of just a hostage situation with a precognizant Lamia, you have to deal with primordial predator and potentially turncoat Hippogirls. All in all this entire venture is not going in your favor. The exit sits open behind you, seeming very tempting to run where that thing can’t chase you. But doing so will damn the children and the Cultists who really want that tiara back, though having such a power also seems like a bad idea. How does one lose something that makes you precognizant anyway?

The Mega Croc bellows at you and charges at the same time as Huma and the Hippogirls. The cavern thunders with their footfalls, making the ground itself shudder around you. Their sheer bulk crashes toward your position and you’re getting some major déjà vu to the Wurms. You weren’t entirely keen on being crushed by them either.

A quick glance behind you shows that Sylphie’s eyes are wide with surprise while the Violet Sands cultists freeze in place, their faces masks of fear. Cursing to yourself, you grab Sylphie’s arm, the hurt one unfortunately, and yank her out of the path of the Mega Croc while swiftcasting [Trench] before the Hippogirls.

You barely get to the left side of the behemoth before it crashes through into the wall behind you. Sylphie cries out as you drop her off and spin, noticing Ebe in the air, Guitar held in her talons. Tabitha lands on the creature’s back, sword drawn, magitek legs keeping her stable as the beast’s bulk brings down boulders to block the exit. She grunts and flips off the creature, sword in hand as she hits the floor before you.

Unfortunately the creature blocks your view to both the Hippogirls and the cultists. Sending a quick [Survey], you feel the area you dug out and curse as you find it’s too shallow. Yes, the Hippogirls fell in, but you know that they’re not down for the count. Still, they’re out of the equation for a few moments, which you use to hurriedly pick Sylphie up.

“Are you okay?” You ask, keeping an eye on the beast as it pulls itself away from the wall.

“No I’m not okay you fucking piece of shit! That HURT LIKE THE FUCKING HELLS!” Sylphie shouts, tears in her eyes. She looks at you with hurt and anger before blinking and realizing what she said. Rubbing at her face she mutters, “Sorry…”

“It’s fine, sorry.” You say quickly, sparing no time to comfort her, though you’d like to. The Mega Croc roars and turns its head directly toward the Cultists. Your eyes go wide as you remember the thing is blind in one eye- why would it go after you?

Of course, this also means as that as it turns the tail slides toward you. Crying out, you cast [Build the Wall] before the tail. A granite wall appears in front of you, slowing its momentum enough to save you despite shattering the wall into an explosion of rock. The tail slaps down before you, throwing up a cascade of pebbles and dust, the larger of them you capture with your magic about you for later you.

“Can you move?” You ask Sylphie, who nods her head. Smirking at her for reassurance you raise her unwounded arm into the air, hold it in place, and gesture for Erwin to cling onto her before saying, “Great. EBE!”

Sylphie cocks her head as Ebe swoops down, one talon extended. The Cat o’Ninetails balks before she’s grasped by the Ghandharva and whisked away. Though Ebe isn’t able to maintain the same altitude or play an instrument, she is able to get Sylphie and Erwin out of the way, which is the important part.

For your part however you shout to Tabitha to get clear before creating a board of granite. Using <Rock Slide> to move quickly around the ponderous creature. Getting near the tail, you create a ramp-like wall to propel you forward over the tail and you give you a good view of the room as you get some air.

The Cultists break in disarray before the Mega Croc, all save for the Anubis who holds her ground. Some yards before them, the Hippogirls crawl out of the hole, features enraged while from behind the Brigands keep up their wall of steel. Surprisingly Tarula has gotten off her throne, though it takes you a moment to notice one hand waving and the other devoid of a knife.

Your eyes go wide as you realize what she’s done and you hurriedly tap your magic to catch the knife you know is hurtling toward you. Unable to find it with your eyes you push your Metallurgy all around you, creating a bubble to repel steel, which you hope the knife is made of.

>You learn [Deflect]

>Pushing your magic around you, you can cause metals in a localized area around you to deviate away.

Something in the corner of your eye flips backward and clatters to the ground as you arc downward. Before you reach the ground you throw out your free hand and shout, throwing up a wall between the Lamia and the children. In the moment you were distracted with the knife, you see that she’s dragging something back with her, something you can’t separate from her unfortunately. 

The world comes crashing back as your board hits the floor. Normally this would have you hitting harder than a sack of bricks and shattering just the same, but you manipulate the rock to flow under you and catch you, making it only mildly jarring . Continuing forward on your board, you look out past the Brigands and find them turned around, confused while the guards try to handle the Monster children, now cut off from their boss.

The Mega Croc roars behind you, but sparing a glance behind you it doesn’t appear to be after you. With the pebbles caught earlier still held before you, you cast them at the Brigands with your Aeromancy. Some of them fell the enemies while others bounce off what little armor they have. While not the most effective, it brings enough confusion that they are unable to see Sophie until she falls upon them, tails outstretched like claws. Her initial pounce slams three men down with multiple stab wounds as she lands atop them, pulling out the slick blades to whirl about her.

Seeing the satisfactory devastation you turn about and have just enough time cry out as you collide straight into Huma. The sheer impact jars your bones and you spiral off your board to crash and roll onto the ground multiple times before coming to a rest in a pile of coins. Feeling faint and a little sick, you cough violently and look up as the Hippogirl charges you. Grunting, you cast another [Trench] but the Hippogirl leaps over it with little trouble, the others faltering before the chasm however.

Huma rounds upon you and grabs you again, this time by the neck, and says, [I’m sorry I had to do this.]

[Look. Behind!] You shout, feeling her hand closing on your throat.

Huma narrows her eyes and turns behind to see Sophie expertly driving her tails into the neck of a man trying to kill one of the children. The Hippogirl’s eyes widen and she drops you, seeing that she doesn’t have to fight. Coughing more you turn to her and say, [No fight. Children safe.]

[But Kohala…] She says, looking scared. [Where is Kohala?]

It pains you to do this, it really does, but you have no choice. Before she can reply to anything you tap her leg with your staff, freezing it in place before making to move toward the Mega Croc. Well, you want to anyway, but the way you stagger as you try to run, that doesn’t work so well.

Sinking to a knee, you pant and look over at the Mega Croc to find it making short work of the cultists. An unlucky cultist gets smashed by its head while another becomes crushed by its forearm. It bellows out a roar as it makes to bite the intruders but then pulls back and lets lose another, far more pained roar. Your eyes spy atop the head the form of Tabitha driving her blade into the head of the creature, pushing with all her might. Perhaps Alice’s blade could have penetrated the thing’s skull, but Tabitha’s wasn’t up to the task. Though it went through the leathery hide, it’s not enough and she’s forced to leap off the back again in the face of the violent thrashing the creature is doing, creating more and more collateral damage.

There’s no way anything short of killing this creature is going to stop it. Over this din of combat it’s unlikely that it can ever hear a damn thing that anyone would order it to do, so forcing Tarula to call it off would be very unlikely to work, even if you could get her to do such a thing without being eaten. Best not to worry about her at the moment.

A cultist flies past you, thrown bodily by the Mega Croc. Forcing your attention back on it, you do your best to remember what exactly a Crocodile is weak to. It’s not like you’re a Biomancer and know this shit or anything, but something… something… ah, cold blooded! Yes! Reptiles are cold blooded!

Feeling somewhat better, you make another board, which hurts your abs to ride on, but is really nice for not having to move your legs. Keeping the pain in, you zoom toward the behemoth again and cast [Cold Prison]. A sheet of ice encases its leg and it roars before tearing free with little effort.

Alright so that won’t work. You watch as it snaps its jaws shut and then slowly opens them again, going to eat a Cultist. When it crunches down on the man you throw out another [Cold Prison], this time to seal the jaws shut.

The man’s screams die away as your spell locks the creature’s jaw. This time things work much better than expected and it flails while trying to open its jaws against the rapidly spreading ice. Sliding up before the Cultists, you shout to the Anubis,

 “Get away from here!”

Nodding to you, the Anubis shouts at her crew which seem more than willing to chase after her toward the Brigands who are fighting Sophie. With them out of the way you turn your attention back to the Mega Croc. As you do, Tabitha leaps over to you, standing before you with sword in hand.

“What’s the plan?” Tabitha asks, sword ready. “I stab its eye out while you go for the underbelly?”

“The what? Why?” You say, looking a little confused. Tabtiha shakes her head and says in a curt voice,

“The belly, it’s the weak point of all reptiles, though I suspect under the jaw on this beast would work as well.”

You want to retort something about reptiles and bellies to her, but keep it yourself. It’s big, that’s for sure, so you’ll need something to break that abdomen wide open. Something hard and strong, like a rock!

Oh wait, you’re in a cave, there’s rocks everywhere. Also you’re pretty good at Geomancy.

Summoning the energy inside you, you slam the ground with the butt of your staff and channel your magic. The ground rumbles as the beast turns its head to you and prepares to charge, but before it can a massive spike of rock juts out from the ground and impales the beast through the belly, jutting out the other side of its back at a disgusting angle.

Ichor sprays into the air and the beast lets out muted cries, smashing its muzzle into the ground and shattering the ice allowing it to scream louder than even an amplified Ebe. The chamber rocks and shudders and you stabilize yourself as pieces fall from the ceiling in its death throes.

Pushing yourself toward Tabitha, you hold out your arms and use your magic to protect both of you, though in truth they aren’t large enough to cause any lasting harm. Tabitha squeezes your shoulder and points to the battle near the children, which has gotten to a rocky stop with the shaking from the Mega Croc, though as it bleeds further its protests begin to die down.

The Brigands had managed to corner Sophie as she protects the children. The shaking from the beast allowed her some breathing room, which she sorely needs as she pants and sweats heavily, though this is well earned by the bodies lying around her. Still, the Brigands near her begin to close in again from different angles, more wary than before and making it difficult for her to attack them all at once. A Lizardman points at her and leads a charge along with three other men at once, looking over to overwhelm her when something lands before them from the sky.

Sylphie stands hard as Ebe drops her down, casting forth her staff while holding her shoulder in pain. Nothing immediately happens until Ebe hits the ground a moment later, Sveth blessed guitar in her wings. She plays a single chord and screams something so loud it makes your soul rumble. For the ground before her, on the other hand, it tears it asunder in a cone, throwing the men and Monster violently backward into their friends, allowing the cultists to move in and attack with impunity.

With the children secured, you snap your attention over to the wall you made and lower it, preparing to strike at Tarula only to find her sitting upon her makeshift throne again, a smug smile on her face. She gestures with her knife to something before her and you stop in place as you realize that she has one of the Hippogirl children before her! She places the knife back to the throat of the child as Huma breaks free of your ice and shouts,

[KOHALA!]

The child, one of the younger children, squeals for her mother but goes quiet as Tarula pushes the sickly blade a little closer to her throat. Shaking her head, the Lamia gives you an annoyed look and shouts over the din of the battle, [That’s enough of that!]

The Brigands pull away from the cultists, who try to pursue them, but are pulled back themselves by the Hippogirls, who rush in to keep from making things worse. Sylphie tries to tend to her sister, though she ends up getting tended to instead, while Ebe holds out her Guitar before them, looking nervous despite that she just did.

Walking off your board you hold up your hand and say, “Give it up Tarula, you can’t win.”

“Oh please.” She says, not moving. As long as I have this child, the Hippogirls are in my power. At a word they’ll break the necks of those cultists who won’t hesitate to kill them. Either way I win in the end.” She waves a dismissive hand as the emerald glows atop the tiara. Watching that glow, you know that the only way to end this would be to stop that power of hers or make it useless, but how… wait.

“Tabitha.” You say in a low voice. “I’m going to try something a little reckless here. Whatever you do, we need to keep her occupied and not kill the child.”

“Rommel, I’m going to be honest, if she kills the child, she has no power here, it’s terrible to say but-“

“That will NOT happen.” You snap at her, to which she stiffens before nodding her head, a stern expression on her face.

“Right. Of course.”

Feeling a little bad for hurting another of your comrades, you spare at glance to the dying Mega Croc behind you. It turns its good eye slowly toward you  and looks at you with utter malevolance, though it appears that it is unable to do anything about its own doon. Shaking your head, you take a deep breath and begin to walk toward the Lamia. She cocks her head at you, seeming a little confused as she senses no danger from you. Why should she? The only thing you’re doing is looking at her. Of course, you’re looking at her with your [Magesight].

“Stop right there.” Tarula says, rolling her eyes. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not afraid of you.” You say, narrowing your eyes but continuing to walk. “I can just drop the ceiling of this place, cause so much rock to fall that you’ll never dodge it. Precognition or no, you’ll die just the same as all of us.”

“Oh please.” Tarula chuckles, “See, the problem with making threats like that is that you have no intention of following through with them.” She taps the tiara, “Precognition, asshole.”

Oh. Right, she’ll know if you’re bluffing for something like that. Still, you use the opportunity to move forward, scanning her with your sight and getting a better signature. Still, you need to be closer for your plan to work…

“Maybe I’ll just have my friends move behind you and come at you from every angle at once. Or just have Tabitha attack you, I promise you that even with that little trick of yours, you can’t beat her in a duel.”

“Once again, you forget the child!”

“Maybe I don’t care about the-“

“Bullshit you don’t!” She laughs. “I didn’t get where I am just because of this power. Everything you’ve done is to protect these brats!”

“Then why don’t you just leave?” You ask, walking closer still. Yes, things are starting to take shape, you think you’re getting a better picture… “Take the child as a hostage and exit the cavern?”

“Tempting. Of course, I’d be entirely under your element, wouldn’t I?”

She smiles at you as if she’s playing a game, still utterly in charge here. You frown at her, wondering exactly what she’s doing. What could she hope to gain? Her greatest weapon is dead and if things come down to it, you’ll be able to incapacitate the hippogirls/ take out her Brigands so why is she so smug? You don’t understand it until she flicks her eyes behind you for a half a second.

Pausing in confusion, you turn a little too late as the Mega-Croc lets out a deafening bellow and tears itself out from the spike, rolling over onto its side and leaking sprays of viscous fluids that splash upon you and Tabitha. Momentairly blinded by the blood, you throw up your hands in panic, [Magesight] cut off as you try to clear your vision. Something throws you to the ground and you hear a woosh of air as a massive object clears where you were just standing.

All around you screaming is heard as the Brigands move in to attack the scattered cultists, the Hippogirls behind them resuming their assault at the orders of Tarula. You manage to clear your vision and look up to see Tabitha over you, having pulled you to the ground. Looking at where she’s staring you see the form of the Mega-Croc looming above you, turning back around as its tail swipe missed you.

This thing is not stupid, you realize. Having lived however long it’s been here, it’s probably seen a lot of things and something as simple as a spike through its abdomen is not going to be enough to kill it. Although given the amount of ichor it’s dripping, it very well may be dying, but too stubborn to just go. A lot like another certain lizard you know.

The Mega-Croc lets out another roar and makes to clamp down upon you. Tabitha grabs you and leaps out of the way as it smashes into the ground before chasing after you, not even caring as it destroys more of the chamber. One of the Hippogirls squeals as she’s hit by the tail, along with some of the cultists, throwing them off to the side in a heap.

Ebe and the twins move away from the devastation, keeping the kids safe. Unfortunately you don’t have to the time to keep track of them or Tarula as a massive beast is bearing down upon you. Thrusting out for magic, you try to cast another spike into its belly, but the creature lunges at you, forcing you to drop the cast to avoid being eaten.

Tabtiha dashes forward under its maw with her blade and slides underneath, the momentum allowing her to bury her blade into the soft flesh and drag it forward using her weight. It’s probable that there’s a function on her legs that allows her to slide for the whole length of the jaw, but you don’t care since it makes the beast recoil in pain.

Using the opportunity, you gather the energy to cast the spell to end the beast when you hear shouting behind you. Concentration broken, you turn about to see a group of Brigands enter the room, weapons and bodies splattered with blood and lead but a vicious looking Crocgril. She roars at you and points her curved sword, the reinforcements charging your position.

Groaning, you realize this is what Tarula was waiting for. With the Mega Croc doing its best to destroy you and more reinforcements, you’re being pressed on the back foot, not to mention you have no idea where Tarula herself is-

{Rommel, she’s coming for us!}

Listening to Erwin’s frantic cries, you try to cast your gaze over to your friends but you’re unable to do so as the Crocgirl pushes in with the others to attack you. Blocking her blow with your staff, you push her away and pull the [Ectrian Sword] from your pocket and wield it with one hand while using your staff as a kind of shield. You’re not the best at this, but you’re able to keep yourself alive until Tabitha comes running up and drives a metallic knee into the jaw of the Crocgil, throwing her backward.

The other Brigands scatter and you turn to see the Mega Croc looming over you again, roaring  as it makes to chomp on you. In reaction you throw up a wall, which it breaks apart with almost no effort, throwing a rain of stone to pepper your skin. It lifts up its mouth and makes to come crashing down, reach to just crush you and be done with you. Holding up your arm to quick cast, you feel a pain shoot through you and you go into violent coughs, chest burning.

As the beats crashes down, Tabitha drops her sword and her legs begin to hum violently as the magitek engines inside begin to go into overdrive. Leaping up to meet the beast’s blow she shouts and flips about with all the power in her legs to deliver a devastating kick.

The strike is strong enough to send out a shockwave and the beast recoils backward in pain, groaning as its head rolls to the side. It only stays dazed for a moment however, before it turns back toward you, still wobbling. Tabitha lands next to you and collapses, her legs releasing steam as she takes deep breaths. Despite all this, she grabs her sword from the ground and turns her head to you to say,

“Fucking. Kill. This. Thing.”

Seeing Tabitha give her all mixed with the absurdity of this situation fills you with rage. Fuck all this shit, you don’t have the time to be in pain! Pushing down your coughs, you gather up your magic within you until its reaches a crescendo and slam it onto the ground, releasing the magic.

The Mega Croc turns its full bulk toward you and opens its mouth wide, preparing to devour its seemingly helpless prey. You can feel the hot, sickly breath upon you as it drives forward, teeth dripping with blood and saliva. Moments before it devours you the ground rumbles in response to your magic and spike larger than the one before drives straight forward through the mouth and out the other side of the head.

The creature’s momentum is massive, but you shout as you channel more and more energy into the ground, stopping it and then pushing it back as the spike drives it up and up and up. The creature trashes even more wildly than before until the spike becomes too weak to hold it and it falls, crashing to the floor and throwing up a storm of debris. It lets out one last gasp and, glaring at you with all the anger it can muster, the life fades from its eyes.

Panting heavily, you sink down your staff and drop your sword, feeling the pain return. With a gulp, you turn to Tabitha to see her nodding at you and giving a weak smile, despite her legs not being functional. She turns her head over to the side though and growls, “Go, stop that damn snake, I’ll hold them off.”

“But- But Tabitha, you ain’t got no legs…” You mutter stupidly, still getting your bearings back.

“Oh, like I haven’t heard that shit before.” She says, rolling her eyes. “It’s fine, I got this.”

Looking over at the Brigands getting up on their feet, you throw up a small wall to slow them down and nod to Tabitha. “Alright, but if you get hurt I’m telling everyone about how you cried on my shoulder.”

“Don’t you fucking dare.” She says, blushing with embarrassment.

Needing that chuckle, you pick yourself up and stagger toward the battle raging on elsewhere. The remaining Hippogirls clash with the cultists and the Brigands, the whole affair becoming a bloody melee. The large Monsters sport many wounds, but they still attack with fury while the cultists do their best to respond in kind. Wishing you could help, you force yourself to turn your attention to your friends.

Sophie stands before Sylphie, blocking blows sent at her by the Lamia. You can tell that Tarula’s skill isn’t anything special from her attacks, but the substance on her blade gives the Cat o’Ninetails pause enough to try and dodge the blows instead of attacking. Sylphie casts various spells, but Tarula predicts all of them, moving out of the way in time to avoid them all even with something coiled in her tail. With a start, you realize it’s the Hippogirl!

Ebe begins to sing something, but Tarula pulls back and places the blade again at the throat of the child, forcing Ebe to cut off, afraid that she might just go ahead with it. Chuckling, the Lamia pulls a small throwing knife from a pouch at her pocket and tosses it at Ebe, forcing Sophie to intercept the blow with a tail and open her up to assault.

That damn poison blade… Sophie probably wouldn’t mind taking a little flesh wound, but poison is too much. Reaching out with your hand, you pull upon the blade using your Metallurgy… or well, you would, except Tarula anticipates this and pulls her body in such a way that by pulling on the blade toward you, you’d kill the child. Cutting it off before you can do any damage, you do manage to do a little something to the blade before letting go.

“TARULA!” You shout before coughing. She spares you a glance and chuckles,

“You don’t know when to die, do you? Oh well, it’s only a matter of time!”

Bending under a rock shot by Sylphie, she pulls out another knife from her pocket and throws it, the blade intercepted by Sophie’s tails once again. She laughs and presses forward again, clearly not caring about you or anything you’ll cast. At this point you want to drop her into a hole and cover her up like that Anubis, but… Gods damnit you can’t hurt the child!

It’s very fortunate then that before the Mega Croc returned to attack you, you managed to see a little something rather important. Opening your [Magesight] again you shout one final warning to her.

“This is your last chance!”

“Shut the fuck up! Y- WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

You didn’t have to be precognizant to anticipate her response here. She looks at you with utter horror as you lock onto the frequency of the magic resonating from the Eye of Ant’anha and cast [Reverse Polarity].

There’s nothing she can do to stop your spell at this point. Screaming, she tries to block it in a futile gesture with a hand over the emerald, but it shorts out anyway, going dim. In a panic, she makes to use the knife to kill the child but before she can Sophe is on her, tearing the blade from her hand with one tail and using the others to pin her down. Well, almost all the others. One she keeps free and floating over the Lamia’s face.

“Hey.” Sophie says, panting. “Do you know what I’m going to do with this tail?”

“L-Let me go?” Tarula says in a feeble voice.

“Huh. I guess you really can’t see the future anymore.” And with that, Sophie drives her tail into the neck of the Lamia, ending her miserable life in a rather… painful way.

As her body hits the ground Ebe shouts to Sylphie, who casts an [Amplify]. The Ghandharva says, her voice echoing through the cavern, [Tarula is dead! The children are safe! Lay down your arms!]

Ebe’s voice reaches everyone’s ears. The first to hear the call are the Hippogirls who pull away from the battle and stare in wonderment, dashing over to the children. Next come of the Brigands who look at their fallen leader and drop their weapons, finding themselves suddenly bereft of both precognizant leader and behemoth. The cultists quickly round them up and subdue them.

Huma pries her child from the corpse of the Lamia and hugs her as the other Hippogirls do the same with their other children. One child, the eldest of those present, looks around with teary eyes and wails, dashing from the group toward her mother, the Hippogirl who was hit by the MegaCroc. She drops to her knees in front of the still form of her parent, shaking her violently but getting no response.

Feeling a stab of pain in your heart you look down and take a shuddering breath before turning to Tabitha to see her sitting amongst three dead Brigands, the rest having laid down their weapons. She looks no worse for wear and merely shrugs before turning back to her captives.

“Ahaha!”

Turning your head back again to the slain Tarula, you watch as the Anubis takes the tiara from her head and holds it up. It glows faintly in her paws as the magic returns, you having stopped channeling your spell. She holds up before the cultists and says, [It is returned to us! Praise the Apophis, the artifact is returned!]

The Cultists cheer and begin to tie the Brigands up with renewed vigor, some even getting the ones near Tabitha. Shaking your head, you walk toward the cultist leader and say, [There are more of them.]

[Yes, probably, we will flush them out later.] She says, holding the tiara reverently, but not donning it. [You have been a great help. We could never have done this without you.]

[Why not use?] You ask, to which the Anubis chuckles,

[It is not for us. It is for our leader, who shall use this power to become an Apophis.]

[Aliph did not become Apophis.] You say, frowning. [Why this work?]

The Anubis chuckles, [Aliph thought small. This plus the San’ha Urn will assure there will be no failure!]

A cold sweat goes down your back as the Anubis continues, addressing their cultists. [I have informed the cell! We will leave soon, with as much treasure as we can take and prepare for the ritual!]

She turns to you once more and places a meaty paw on your shoulder. Giving you a wolfish grin she says, [Thank you. You have done more for us than you know. A new dawn is coming to Ectria.] Walking away from you to round up operations, you’re left there, stunned as everything comes crashing down on you.

Sinking to your knees, you let the pains wash over you. Ebe, Erwin, and the Twins walk up to you, the Ghandharva looking a little pale. She licks her lips and says carefully, “Did we… do the right thing?”

Looking at the artifact you almost wish you’d crushed it yourself, or that the battle would have destroyed it. If you did it though, the cultists would turn on you and your partnership would be over. As it stands they’re probably talking you up as heroes of the cult. Feeling a knot of worry in your stomach, you look over toward the Hippogirl mothers hugging their children, the living ones anyway, and close your eyes.

You did the best you could. Your friends are alive and this Brigand’s reign is over. Though there are some less than desirable outcomes, you’ll have to live with them. For the moment though, you need to figure out with your group what you’re going to do to get back to the ship. You have about half a day before you need to return to the ship so you have some time to recover before heading back to the smaller boat. Time enough to recover from your battle, take stock of the situation with everyone, and time to wonder what the implications of this cell having this artifact will be. Especially because, as it seems, it is the same cell your sister is a part of.

————————-

Clean-up is the first order of business.

The cultists break apart to go and tend for their wounded, or round up the brigands. Their numbers are almost half of what they started with and the process of collecting the dead is left for last. Supposedly more cultists may be in the tunnels so the Anubis and a small retinue of cultists take up their weapons to purge the tunnels. She asks for your help, but you really don’t want anything to do with it. Hells, you entertain the thought of killing her so that damn tiara won’t make it back to their cell. Torch and lantern light sparkles off the emerald as she enters the open tunnel, the emerald mocking you as she fades out of sight. Shaking your head, you turn to your friends and see to their wounds.

Sophie fusses over Sylphie as she sits on the ground, tails out around her. With everyone having seen it all, there’s no reason to hide them any longer after all. Using your staff for support, you leave over her and say, “How are you feeling?”

“I feel-” Sylphie begins, frowning at you. “That I just had my arm yanked out of its socket by SOMEONE I THOUGHT was my friend, oww…”

Sophie sighs and gives you a sympathetic look. “She doesn’t mean it, it’s just understandable, she’s frustrated.”

“I’m not frustrated! I’m in pain!”

“You’re also sitting with your legs splayed out in a very unlady-like fashion.”

“I ain’t no fucking lady!”

Scratching your chin you say, “Well, technically you are.”

Sylphie pouts and begins to say something when Ebe walks up and puts her wings atop the heads of the two, making them rustle about in confusion. The Ghandharva sighs, “Honestly, do I need to sing to you two?”

The twins look at each other and then to Ebe before cocking their heads in confusion. Sylphie asks, “Are you feeling alright Ebe?”

Ebe blushes and looks down. “W-Well, I was trying to act all cool and such after the battle but uhm… Oh, I can’t do it!” She puts her wings up to her face to hide the blushing, to which you chuckle, though it hurts a little.

“Well, I’d have to say that you did really well Ebe. That technique with Sylphie you did was quite interesting.”

“Well, it was mostly her idea I guess…”

Sylphie coughs into her good hand before smirking, “Well, I just noted what her voice did to the cavern and thought about some Audiomancy techniques and figured they could be synergized in order to produce a weapon if someone gets close to her.”

Her twin blinks in surprise. “Dear sister, did you just say something thoughtful and refined?”

“Har, har.” The other Cat o’Ninetails sighs. “Anyway, it worked out well, good job Ebe.”

“T-Thanks.” The Ghandharva says, blushing. She looks over to you and says, “So we did good, right?”

Sighing, you run a hand through your hair and then nod. “Yeah, of course you did. All of you.” The three girls look at each other and you see their tails (even Ebe’s tailfeathers) begin to wag. Watching all of them you sigh again. “You three want headpats, don’t you?”

>Story continue

Clean-up is the first order of business.

The cultists break apart to go and tend for their wounded, or round up the brigands. Their numbers are almost half of what they started with and the process of collecting the dead is left for last. Supposedly more cultists may be in the tunnels so the Anubis and a small retinue of cultists take up their weapons to purge the tunnels. She asks for your help, but you really don’t want anything to do with it. Hells, you entertain the thought of killing her so that damn tiara won’t make it back to their cell. Torch and lantern light sparkles off the emerald as she enters the open tunnel, the emerald mocking you as she fades out of sight. Shaking your head, you turn to your friends and see to their wounds.

Sophie fusses over Sylphie as she sits on the ground, tails out around her. With everyone having seen it all, there’s no reason to hide them any longer after all. Using your staff for support, you leave over her and say, “How are you feeling?”

“I feel-” Sylphie begins, frowning at you. “That I just had my arm yanked out of its socket by SOMEONE I THOUGHT was my friend, oww…”

Sophie sighs and gives you a sympathetic look. “She doesn’t mean it, it’s just understandable, she’s frustrated.”

“I’m not frustrated! I’m in pain!”

“You’re also sitting with your legs splayed out in a very unlady-like fashion.”

“I ain’t no fucking lady!”

Scratching your chin you say, “Well, technically you are.”

Sylphie pouts and begins to say something when Ebe walks up and puts her wings atop the heads of the two, making them rustle about in confusion. The Ghandharva sighs, “Honestly, do I need to sing to you two?”

The twins look at each other and then to Ebe before cocking their heads in confusion. Sylphie asks, “Are you feeling alright Ebe?”

Ebe blushes and looks down. “W-Well, I was trying to act all cool and such after the battle but uhm… Oh, I can’t do it!” She puts her wings up to her face to hide the blushing, to which you chuckle, though it hurts a little.

“Well, I’d have to say that you did really well Ebe. That technique with Sylphie you did was quite interesting.”

“Well, it was mostly her idea I guess…”

Sylphie coughs into her good hand before smirking, “Well, I just noted what her voice did to the cavern and thought about some Audiomancy techniques and figured they could be synergized in order to produce a weapon if someone gets close to her.”

Her twin blinks in surprise. “Dear sister, did you just say something thoughtful and refined?”

“Har, har.” The other Cat o’Ninetails sighs. “Anyway, it worked out well, good job Ebe.”

“T-Thanks.” The Ghandharva says, blushing. She looks over to you and says, “So we did good, right?”

Sighing, you run a hand through your hair and then nod. “Yeah, of course you did. All of you.” The three girls look at each other and you see their tails (even Ebe’s tailfeathers) begin to wag. Watching all of them you sigh again. “You three want headpats, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m glad you don’t.” As you say this you furrow your brow, continuing to pat. “I’m very glad that all of you don’t.”

Ebe and Sylphie look at each other with uncomfortable looks. Sophie sighs and pulls your hand away with her tail. Blinking in surprise, you make to ask why but she merely shakes her head. “That’s enough, it’s what I’ve earned. Besides, we can’t stay here getting pat all day, can we?”

“Uhm…” Ebe begins. She yelps when Sophie gives her an annoyed expression and the Ghandharva waves her hands. “Ah, yes, she’s right!”

Nodding your head you look down as Erwin plops between Sylphie’s legs and looks up at you. {Oh Rommel, is it my turn for my rubs?} As soon as he says this, Sylphie places a finger next to his ear and a gust of wind blows, to which he yelps and scampers away, much to your amusement and Sylphie’s annoyance.

“Anyway.” The Cat o’Ninetails says. “We’ll get all situated here, maybe look around. You should go check on Tabitha.”

“Oh, right.” You say, remembering her condition. Nodding your head, you walk away from them over to Tabitha. She sits with legs splayed out, polishing her sword as the last of the brigands get taken away. As you approach she looks up at you and raises an eyebrow.

“Oh, you’re back. Enjoy yourself there.”

“Oh please, I-” You cut off with a violent fit of coughing, putting a hand to your chest as you breath heavy. Tabitha looks at you with alarm,though you hold up your hand a moment later and take one more breath before wheezing out, “I’m fine…”

“And to think, I’m in the oldest in the group.” Tabitha says. “I’d help you out but… well.” She waves a hand over her legs.

“It’s fine.” You say, feeling some of the burning go away. “Besides, this is nothing compared to you’re going through.”

“It’s fine, they just need to cool off.” Tabitha says, knocking the hunks of metal that serve as her legs. “And no, casting ice spells won’t make it work faster, it will only make my sleepy.”

“Ah, darn. How long will it take?”

“Maybe an hour or two, I haven’t done this in awhile for obvious reasons.” Shaking her head she says, “I’m rather familiar with this state of being though.”

“Uh huh.” You say, nodding your head. “Want me to carry you?”

“Good luck, these legs weigh too much.” She knocks them again and they make a dull sound, indicating their density. “Sweet though, but maybe making a sled is better.”

“Right…” You say, making such a thing under her from the granite. She nods as she’s in place and you use your magic to push her along the ground toward the others. As you pass the corpse of the Mega-Croc, Tabitha holds up a hand.

“Stop for a moment and bring me closer.”

“Want to hit it with your sword?”

“A little.” She says, smirking at you. When you reach the creature, Tabitha runs a scaled hand over its hide and sighs. Not looking at you, she says, “This creature was clearly ancient, possibly older than Monsters as they are now. I almost feel shame that it had to die but it made its choices.” Growing quiet, she continues, “It’s almost hard to believe that we used to look like this, that our bodies were changed at the whims of a Goddess.”

“Tabitha…” You say, feeling a little awkward still with her being so frank with you. Feeling a little bit profound, you think to say something about how such a creature was living history and how she isn’t bound by such a past and etc. Of course, the moment was ruined when she takes out her sword and plunges it into the side of the beast, tearing off a hunk of meat and scales. Plunging her hand into the flesh, she looks it over and nods.

“This is going to be good meat. Could I use your pockets?”

“Huh?!” You say, blinking as she holds up the bloody hunk.

“You have bags of holding in your pockets, right? Speaking of which, you should grab that sword.”

“Sure I’ll do that and- Gah, Tabitha come on.” You throw up a hand. “It’s disrespectful to such a creature to do this!”

“It’s disrespectful to waste the meat. Come now, this creature wouldn’t hesitate to each us, so we should make sure its legacy isn’t wasted.” She holds up the meat again.

Sighing, you take it and place it in your pocket, wishing you could wrap it up somehow. At least you haven’t used the your pocket which regulates temperatures before so it’s clean enough. She hands you a little more and then a large section of scale, which she says would be quite useful later on.

>You gain [Mega Meat]

>It’s Crocodile meat from an ancient mega crocodile.

>No, it’s not your penis.

>You gain [Mega Croc Scale]

>A large section of scale perhaps the size of a small shield. Very firm, though not stronger than metal.

>No, it’s not a venereal disease

With Tabitha talking about how best to cook up this meat, you meet up with the others who are rooting through various treasures. Ebe holds up a pile of Ectrian coins, the glittering currency slipping through her wings and into a small pouch she holds up. Sophie does the same, though she holds up various pieces of clothing that she finds, stuffing a few silks into her own bag of holding. For Sylphie’s part, she digs around books, frowning at the titles as if she can’t read them (She can’t), before putting them down.

{Nothing of interest yet.} Erwin sends, walking up to you with something in his mouth. {Except for this anyway.}

Taking the bottle from Erwin, you look over the green liquid inside and then your eyes go wide. {This is poison!}

{Probably, smells like what’s on her blades.}

Looking over the liquid again you frown. As underhanded as it is, perhaps a poison will be useful… alright them, you suppose you’ll take it. Thanking Erwin, you put it into your pocket.

>You gain [Scorpionweed poison]

>A dangerous poison that debilitates, then kills foes. You wouldn’t know what this is without the label on the bottle.

{She had only this as a supply left, I checked. Still, might be useful.}

{Aye.} You send back to Erwin. {Thanks.}

{No problem, they’re digging. Lots of treasure here, but it’s fairly mundane. Maybe you should look after the Hippogirls?}

Turning your head over to the Hippogirls, you find them over near the corpse of their fallen friend. Nodding your head, you get up and walk over to them. The girl whose mother died is still crying, wiping with futility at her eyes while Huma pats her shoulder.

[I’m sorry. She gave her life to save you.]

[I don’t care! I want my Momma!] The little girl sniffles, rubbing at her eyes.

Huma sighs and looks up at you before looking down. [I am sorry. I betrayed you.]

[Not good. But… fine.] You say, struggling with the words. Huma cocks her head as you continue. [Bad thing done. But children safe. Good.]

Huma parses this before nodding her head and hugging her own daughter. [Yes, of course. We deeply apologize.] As she says this, the remaining Hippogirls bow to you, including the daughters sans the weeping one. [How may we repay you?]

Rubbing your chin, you say, [Do you know how get Capital?]

Huma blinks, looking confused. [No… we don’t. We have not been so far through the river.]

[I see.] You say, frowning. Well, not like you’d get anywhere without the Captain’s say-so anyway. [What do now?]

[We go home.] Huma says, nodding her head. [If need, please find us. All folk of the river know where we live.]

[Ah… alright.] You say, not much else to say/ information known. They return to caring for their children and the dead and you return to the task of looking through the loot.

While expansive, most of it is mundane luxuries. Sophie finds some curious spices while Sylphie finds a few scrolls which she doesn’t seem to want to show you, blushing as she hides them. Ebe, on the other hand, takes a fair amount of loot. Infact, beyond coinage for yourself and some loot for the captain (Mainly in the form of gemstones), you don’t find anything much else until Erwin walks up again carrying some blank paper and ink.

{In case you want to write something.} He sends, nodding.

{I don’t see why I’d want this to…} You trail off, thinking about your sister all of a sudden. These cultists here, the urn being mentioned, their setback near the Chasm of Regret… they’re clearly going to try this ritual and soon. You’d rather your sister not be involved in that.

A twinge of pain goes through your heart at that thought. Your sister… Gods, you still can’t believe that she might be here, so close to you and yet involved in such a sinister game. You want to reach out to her, to at least spend a few moments speaking without the pretense of politics or trying to kill each other. A heart to heart of sorts, though you don’t hold much hope she’ll suddenly give this all up and you can go back to being some kind of family… whatever that means anymore.

Erwin frowns at your pause though you shake your head before he can send anything. Clearing your throat, you reach down for the parchment and ink and send, {Sorry, actually I might have a use for it.}

{Uh… huh.} Erwin sends, giving you a suspicious look. {Anyway, I think that Anubis is back.}

Looking over your shoulder, you see the Anubis return with more cultists than before, a pack of tied up brigands with them. She raises an arm, fur covered in blood and the cultists cry out in joy. She laughs and has the brigands rounded together before walking over to the group procuring the treasure. As she does so, you walk over to her, having Ebe come with you.

[Hmm? You are still here then?] The Anubis says, rubbing her chin and smearing blood.

[Yes, we are. We’re recovering and searching through for any treasure worth taking.] Ebe translates for you, words escaping you.

[I see.] The Anubis says, looking curiously at Ebe before nodding her head. [Take what you wish, there is too much here to take with us in one trip anyway, and we owe you.] She pauses and then says, [Ah yes, I forgot to give you my name, it is Palona.]

[Indeed.] You say, rubbing your chin. Asking Ebe to translate again, you ask, [Where are you going when you leave here?]

[To a smaller cell nearby before heading to the main group. I trust you don’t mind if I don’t tell you where that is.]

[Of course not.] You have Ebe say, though you do kind of mind. Still, didn’t hurt to ask. [How did you arrive here anyway?]

[By boats. We were prepared to be noticed, but we seemed to have surprised them. It seems that corpse in the water was one of their sentries, though I wonder how they could have gotten there…?] Palona raises an eyebrow at you as she says this, though she continues otherwise. [We did happen to find another craft on the way in, though the crew said they’re not part of the brigands. We have them tied up on their boat for now.]

[Ah, that would be our ride.] You say, holding up a hand. [If possible, could you bring us to them? We need them to get to our destination.]

[The capital, yes?] Palona says, smiling. [Of course, of course.]

Narrowing your eyes at this, you just brush it off. Well, it is what it is. Thinking on this you say to her, [Oh, and about your prisoners…]

[They will either join or be made into slaves, as such things are.] The Anubis says, shrugging.

[Perhaps making them just prisoners would be better?] Ebe winces as she translates this.

[Why? They’re a waste of resources otherwise.] Palona says, shrugging.

[I… see.] You say, looking down with disgust. [At least do not allow any of them to speak of the two Cat o’Ninetails.]

[Of course. We understand the need for such secrecy. Rest assured, this is already known to the Cult, but we will say nothing to anyone else about it.]

Shaking your head you continue to make travel arrangements with Ebe until the groups are done searching for treasure. Cultists with packs of glittering gold (and some Monsters with hunks of gator meat) walk with you and yours, Tabitha being dragged on her sled and looking quite annoyed the whole way. As you navigate the tunnels you stop at one point to recover Babyface, something everyone finds confusing as he blends in with all of the other granite. Still, having your poor, beaten soldier back in your pocket makes you feel complete again. No soldier left behind.

>You recover [Granite]

Returning to the main chamber you see multiple cultists going over the functional vessels, getting them ready to shove off. The other cultists begin loading the decks with their loot while you look about the devastation.

Sections of the cavern are caved in, with piles of rocks from the ceiling having crushed cultists and brigands without discrimination. All around corpses and drying blood lay, though some areas you see the ancient stone crumbled away as something large tore at it- You assume the Mega Croc before leaving. Since people aren’t on edge, you think there was only one anyway…

Despite the damage, multiple ancient pillars stay in place and you take out the [Oculus of Henhotep] to look about. From what you’re reading, these caverns were once a hideout for an ancient cult of Crocodile worshippers, who eventually left after the Great Transformation. There are multiple instances of the Mega Croc being mentioned, confirming its age… or at least the age of its progenitors. Either way, these events today wiped out all that was left of this cult- history being ended before your eyes.

Somehow this makes you sad, but the beast made its choices, just as all of you do. How it avoided becoming a Monster, you don’t know, but your mind drifts to an earlier conversation and you just have such difficulty imagining something like that becoming the Croc-girls you saw before. Of course, that train of thought makes you wonder what an ancient Ghandharva or Cat o’ Ninetails looked like, though Sophie gives you confused look when she finds you staring at them…

Loading up on a boat with Palona, you shove off down the river. Thankfully the current is more on your side this time and moving is much swifter than you’d think. The Hippogirls refrained from coming with you, deciding to have little to do with people (save for you, of course) after this point on, except perhaps for the single Hippogirl who attacked you taking a brigand as a husband. You suppose that’s a far better fate than becoming a slave at least. They give you one last farewell and send you off.

Reaching your vessel, you have the men freed before saying your farewells to the cultists. During your wait to load onto the ship and the short journey to your vessel, you took the time to pen a letter which you dry with sand (another wonderful use for Geomancy). As Palona makes to leave you again, you hand her the rolled up letter, which she looks at with surprise.

[Please give to Helene.] You say, making sure Ebe has no part in this.

Palona takes the letter gingerly and nods her head, [I see. I will deliver it. I am certain we’ll be seeing each other soon enough.]

Though that seems a little ominous, you return to your ship as they leave and do your best to comfort the sailors. They seem rather less than amused, but when Ebe hands them some coins, they seem rather cheery and shove off.

The return trip takes until the morning, but you’re glad to see that the ship is still present. The men cheer at your return, even more so when you present the gems to the Captain. Alice welcomes you back aboard as well, complaining about how the only person she could talk to was the cook and how boring he was.

“Honestly, I really thought about just letting their dicks do the talking, but I practiced some restraint!”

Giving Alice a pity pat, you continue belowdeck, have Ebe massage your back, and then go to sleep. When you wake up, it’s around noon and you feel a world better. After getting some food (and dropping off the [Mega Meat] to Sophie, who returned to the kitchen by popular demand), you head updeck to get some fresh air.

As the warm wind off the river rushes past, you’re reminded of your beating yesterday and how you haven’t had time to train your body. Taking it slow to begin, you practice the maneuvers of Geoflexing again, even though there isn’t any ground to manipulate. Going through the motions though feels good on your body and eventually you build up a sweat, your muscles aching in a good way.

“Here, catch.”

Turning about, you grab a towel as it’s about to hit you and you look down at it before up to who threw it. Tabitha, her legs having returned to working again before you reached the ship, walks up to you, sword at her side. She smirks and says, “You’re a hot mess.”

“Harr harr.” You say, wiping off the sweat with the cool towel. “I’m surprised to see you up here again.”

“See, this is why I’m glad I have stabilizers in my legs, or else they might be a little shaking.” She says, looking a little embarrassed, which is kind of cute. Taking a deep breath she nods her head and says, “But I figure I took some steps yesterday and… I should eventually face this.”

“But you really want to just go back down and huddle into a ball, right?”

“If you tell Alice, I’ll cut you up.”

Chuckling you reach for your staff and grab a nearby deckbroom, tossing it to Tabitha. She catches it with natural reflexes and looks at it with confusion for a moment before clacking her tongue. She closes her eyes and chuckles before saying, “So that’s how it’s going to be.”

“It’s just some practice.” You say, holding up your staff. “Come at me!”

———————————————–

Lying with your back on the deck, feeling pain in your legs, you turn your head over to Tabitha and say, “It was just practice you know.”

“Lizardmen don’t pull punches.”

“We have at least another day before we reach the Capital.” You say, looking up at the sky.

“Well, assuming we don’t get attacked, I suppose we’ll just have to spend the time recovering and preparing.”

Nodding your head you say, “Well, beyond that, you care to train more during that time?”

“In between training with Alice. At least when swinging a sword I don’t feel nearly as bad as when I’m not.”

“Lizardmen, all you think about is duels.”

“That’s not all we think about.” She says. Looking over at her, she looks off with a soft smile before saying, “Just most of the time.”

The two of you chuckle as the boat continues down the river, and the next two days repeat as the last, training, recovering, and preparing for entry into the capital.

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