Wizardquest 2: Chapter 15- Still as Stone

After getting up from getting your ass handed to you by Tabitha, you take some time to recover. Tabitha gives you a wry smile, as close to smug as you think is possible for her, but doesn’t pursue anything as Alice comes to deck. Seeing weapon in hand, Alice grabs a deck broom of her own and challenges the Lizardman to a duel.

Staying to watch for only a moment, you see Alice hold her own far better than you, despite her own healing injuries. Sailors stop in their work to watch the two attractive women fighting until the Captain comes along and gets them back to something important. This does not stop HIM from watching though. Ah the privileges of power…

A shiver of pain goes through your back and you wince, deciding to head downstairs again. Tabitha is clearly occupied for now and all you could really do is cheer her on, though you’re not certain for what purpose you would. She clearly can beat Alice, she doesn’t need anyone cheering her on. Of course, she did say she felt more comfortable on the boat with you present, so if you leave then would she start to cry again? That wouldn’t do at all and-

Pausing on the stairs you cock your head as you go over these thoughts. Why should you care so much? She’s killed things you can barely imagine and been all over the world. She’s had her spine broken and legs reforged. She should be fine up there- Hells, she even said she felt more comfortable when dueling anyway. You’re fine to go and do as you please.

Less conflicted, you enter into the little room you were sleeping in to find Sylphie and Ebe chatting amongst themselves. They both pause as you enter, giving you surprised looks before looking to each other. You cock your head in question and Ebe coughs into her wing,

“Just a little girl talk is all.”

“She was also massaging my arm and shoulder.” Sylphie says, cheeks a little red.

“Uh huh.” You say. “Sorry for interrupting, I’ll go to the other room then.” Turning about, you feel the spike of pain again and wince, rubbing at your back.

“Oh by the Twins.” Ebe sighs out. “Come on over here, I’ll give you a massage.”

“That’s alright Ebe, I don’t want to-“

Sylphie shrugs, “She’s been awfully defiant recently, I’d just accept it.”

“Healer’s orders!” Ebe sniffs, crossing her wings and trying to look dignified. Given how she looks normally, this looks more cute than it does refined. Reaching out and patting the little excuse for a bed, she says, “Come on over here.”

Sighing, you set your staff down and head over the bed. Sylphie rises and makes for the door, though you give her a questioning look as she passes. She chuckles and says, “I’ll go check up on Mr. Ed. Poor guy is rather lonely on deck with only Erwin and that Shoebill that’s taken to standing on his back for company”

“A uh… what?” You ask.

“A large bird that lives around the river and has a bill shaped sort of like a shoe.” Ebe says. “There’s actually a few Shoebill Harpies around I’ve heard, though I’ve never seen one before.”

“Yeah, Ed says it just stares at him all day, but hasn’t left and YOUR familiar just finds it amusing so he doesn’t do anything about it.” Sylphie sighs before giggling. “I actually find it kind of funny too, to be honest. Anyway…” She waves at the two of you and heads out of the room, closing it behind her.

Shaking her head, Ebe sighs and says, “Alright, strip.”

“You really have become forceful, haven’t you?” You say, a quirk in your lip. She doesn’t really want you to strip naked, right?

“Well. I didn’t mean like- I mean, that’s not what-” She exhales and catches her breath before pouting. “Rommel, don’t be mean like that. I just meant your shirt.”

[I know.] You say to her in Ectrian as you take your [Trenchcoat] and undershirt off. She stares at your fairly muscular chest for a moment before coughing into her wing and replying in Ectrian,

[Lay face-down then.]

[Okay.]

Laying facedown you hear Ebe walk up behind you followed by the ticklish feeling of her feathers upon your back. Stifling a chuckle, you feel as her wings glide down with precision along your back, making you shudder with the soft, gentle motions.

[Tense.] She says, clacking her tongue. [It hurts here, doesn’t it?]

Ebe presses on a section with her wing-hand and you feel a sharp pain surge through your muscle. At your cry of pain she clacks her tongue again. [I see, alright then…]

“Ebe, what the Hells, that- gah…” You say in Deleorian, wincing in pain.

[No, no! We are speaking in Ectrian!] She says, pressing on the spot again. [Do you understand me?]

[Y-Yes.] You reply, to which she begins the slow, gentle motions again.

[You wish to become more proficent, right? Then we shall have a lesson as we work.]

[I understand… some of words.]

Ebe giggles and you feel a pressure on the bed next to you. A moment later the cold, sharp feeling of the Ghandharva’s talons press upon your back.

[This is going to be an intensive session.] She says, a smile in her voice.

[Please gentle.]

She chuckles again as her foot presses down.

———————————————————–

[Feeling better?] Ebe asks, kneeling down to look you in the eyes.

Still laying on your back, head turned to the side, you groan [A little sore, but alright.]

Eb claps her wings together, [Oh! That was very good. You’ve picked up this language quite quickly, haven’t you?]

[I’d cheer with you, but it feels like a bird just danced on my back.]

[I hate to tell you this, but that’s exactly what happened.] Ebe says, a smirk on her face. She sighs and walks out of your field of view before saying, [Really though, there’s no normal way you should have been able to learn this so quickly. Is it a trait of Wizards?]

[I…] You pause, thinking that over. Is it? You actually have no idea if that’s the case or not. As far as you know, Wizards don’t have that kind of talent, but there is still so much people don’t know about Wizards of the past and, when it comes down to it, the only language spoken in Deleor is Deleorian! True, there were some early Monster languages, but even the Monster Nation adopted Deleorian and now only few rare instances of other languages exist in some Monster societies- why would a Wizard know those?

Still, you feel far more confident in your Ectrian now. Smirking, you say to Ebe, [Thank you for the lessons. You have been a great help.]

Ebe pauses before replying, [O-Oh? It is no trouble. I’m glad you’ve taken such an interest in my language.]

[I mean it Ebe, you’ve been a great help for everyone. I really appreciate you being here.]

[Rommel… please.] Ebe says, voice growing quiet. [That’s enough praise.]

Frowning, you make to turn yourself over, but Ebe puts a gentle wing on your back, stopping you in place. Turning your head to look at her with confusion, you see the Ghandharva looking off to the side, a pained expression on her face. Feeling some concern, you ask, “Are you alright?”

“Dropping the Ectrian already?” She chuckles. “Ah, but yes, I’m fine, just… embarrassed.”

Embarrassed? That’s not really the look of embarrassment. “Ebe, really, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, can’t a girl just be embarrassed?”

“Ebe, come on. We’ve been in life and death situations together, you can tell me what’s wrong.”

Lowering her head, Ebe takes a shuddering breath and says slowly, “Do you remember what I said to you in the inn back in that small town before Jahardin? Back when I was half naked in bed with you? I know I said I would drop it and not talk about it again but… the feelings are still there.”

When was… oh, right. That did occur didn’t it? You were so preoccupied with the whole “cultists trying to kill you” thing that you forgot all about it. Honestly, you don’t remember what she said at all, you’re not even certain you heard any of it. Apparently your pause is enough for an answer for her and she chuckles again,

“Right… I suppose it wasn’t very appropriate, but it was how I felt. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it though, especially as I’ve seen the way you’ve been closer to Tabitha recently.”

“Wait, wait, what?” You say, pushing yourself up despite her wing, which she removes from your back easily. “Ebe, what are you talking about? I’m sorry, but I didn’t even hear you that evening, I was listening to the what Lady Aliph was saying through my magic.”

Ebe blinks at you with a surprised look before color comes to her cheeks. “Y-you mean this whole time you haven’t been-?” She turns an even darker shade of crimson. [Oh Twins, I thought that- oh, why did I say anything!?]

“Ebe, EBE!” You shout, putting your hands on her shoulders. “Calm down!”

The Ghandharva’s mouth works furiously for a moment but produces no sound. Sighing, you ask, “Ebe, if you don’t mind… could you tell me what you said that evening?”

She stiffens. “It’s a little embarrassing to say now! I poured my heart out back there and you didn’t even know what was going on! I still wonder that I have to even spell it out for you!” The Ghandharva closes her eyes and winces.

Thinking back on the conversation, you try to remember all of it. Let’s see, that next morning she said she wouldn’t try anything like that again? You assumed she meant provocative measures, but did she mean something more? Oh Gods, putting it all into place, she meant to make you feel better by having sex with you!

“Oh.” You say, voice growing quiet. “Oh Ebe… you weren’t trying to-“

“I said you’d made it abundantly clear, didn’t I? I understand that, but my heart didn’t- still doesn’t.” She puts a wing to her chest and winces. “I love you Rommel, that’s what I was trying to say back there.”

Your eyes grow wide at this and you fumble for a response. Before you can say anything, she places a wingtip to your lips and shakes her head. “Shhh. You don’t need to work yourself up, though it is cute.” Sighing, she says, “I do love you still, but perhaps that’s the love of a foolish girl around someone she respects, someone who things physical love is the same as real love. When you shot me down back there I was scared things would change between us, terrified even.”

Tears form in the corners of her eyes as she smiles, “Of course, it’s almost funny now that you didn’t understand the full meaning of what was happening back then. In a way though, it was good for me, made me think things through a little. Perhaps helped me grow some.” Shaking her head she says,

“Of course, such feelings don’t just go away over night. Not for me, not for Sylphie, and not for you.”

“Ebe, I don’t understand. Not for me?”

She smirks, “Oh Rommel. I thought I was the child here, but I suppose you are a Wizard, aren’t you?” Chuckling, she leans forward and kisses you on the cheek before rubbing at her own cheeks. “Well, that’s not what I expected to do today. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to do some flying. See you at dinner time.”

“Ebe wait-” You say, holding out your hand, but she dashes out of the room before you can stop her.

“Welp.” You say, holding up your hands. “That was thoroughly awkward.” Laying back down on the bed, you stare up at the ceiling of the room and frown as you think this all over. You of course had suspected something to this effect but when it’s laid out so forcefully you don’t quite know how to respond. Scratching your chin, you figure things may be a little awkward between the two of you, but does it really have to be? Ah, when she returns you’ll see how she acts you suppose, nothing much else to do for it.

What really bothers you is what she meant about feelings not going away. Did she mean feelings for her? Searching your heart, you like the girl and all, but romantically? No, while there’s some niggling voices in your head about what could be, they aren’t very loud. So what could she be talking about?

An image of Tabitha pops into your mind unbidden and you frown. This again eh? She’s fine, or else you’d see her huddling down here again, probably looking to cry on your shoulder. Of course, you’d be fine with that but- Oh.

Nah, couldn’t be. You don’t- Like, you can’t- That’s just silly. How could you have feelings for Tabitha? Sure, you said you respected her and she’s strong and independent and, despite your own feelings on the matter, attractive, but that doesn’t mean anything. You’re a Wizard for Solos’s sake! You believe in Wizards acting like Wizards, not fraternizing with Monsters willy-nilly!

And yet… you just had a heart to heart with a Ghandharva, had a Lizardman cry on your shoulder, and comforted two Cat o’Ninetails. Thinking hard about it, you don’t find anything wrong with those actions, and yet… yet it’s so antithetical to what you’re supposed to be- to why you decided to become a Wizard in the first place. When did you go seeing them as women instead of Monsters? Why, try as you might, can you not see them as separate beasts any longer? Why do you have trouble saying to yourself that you hate them?

And why, why do you have trouble with saying you could leave them without regret?

Feeling a quiet discomfort in your breast you rise from the bed, dress, and make your way to the mess hall to find it empty. Confused at why they’d leave it empty instead of preparing for the night’s meal, you turn about and head up to the deck to find Sophie and the Cook standing at the side of the deck with a large, flat sheet of metal atop an empty metal crate. Inside of the crate, a fire rages as Sylphie manipulates it with her pyromancy.

Sophie slathers some oil on the iron, which flashes into flame and then lets off steam, much to the alarm of the sailors until the cook brings out sliced pieces of the [Mega Meat] and slaps them on the makeshift cooking device, sending out succulent smells. The men’s alarm turns to mouth watering and they crowd around, again being forced back to work by the Captain who is growing visibly annoyed with the distractions. Of course, the ruby he thumbs in his hand makes this a rather moot point though…

Looking up to the sky, you see Ebe flying lazy circles over the ship- best just let her do her thing. Walking over to the railing, you look out over the deck and sigh, practicing some magic to clear your mind. First up is Aeromancy, which you practice on some of the plants at the river bank, though it is a little far away.

[Razor Wind] Cuts through bushes, scattering small animals, while your [Gust] blows away the leavings. Focusing on each, your aim improves remarkably with the Razor Wind and, when no one is looking, you carve your name into the side of a wooden crate while pretending not to be looking, only moving your finger in slow arcs to cut bits and pieces into the wood.

For [Gust], you practice focused blasts, hitting specific rocks or mudcrabs- the worst kind of crab- on the banks while not disturbing any of the other inhabitants. You actually improve your aim remarkably, feeling far more confident with both of the spells. Feeling a little better, you decide to do something fun and cast [Gust] to spin the winds in a lazy arc, going faster and faster.

Above the water the turbulent wind spins and spins and spins faster and faster, making the river underneath spin itself from the turbulence. Getting more and more into it, the localized twister forms, throwing up sprays of water all over the area. Broad smile on your face you focus upon Hydromancy, one of your least used disciplines and draw the water into the [Twister].

The water flows up into the [Twister] and forms a [Water Spout]. Sailors begin to grow alarmed and point at the disturbance, which grows and grows in size, fish and other small debris being dragged into the water. Laughing to yourself, you watch as the [Water Spout] grows and grows. The men nearby speak prayers in Ectrian and you move the spout close to a rock near the shore. It resists for a moment before breaking and then flying into the spout itself.

Cutting off your Hydromancy, some of the water drops down, but the process is still in motion, drawing more and more water into the spout. Frowning, you cut off your [Twister] as well, but while some of the intensity dies down, the spiral still continues. Eyes growing wide, you cast [Gust] to try and push it down, but the [Twister] has grown out of your control.

“Honestly, you should consult me before doing stupid things like this.”

Turning your head, you see Sylphie walk up next to you and hold her staff out. A pulse of magic flows through it and the Twister begins to slow down before the winds nearly violently disperse, sending up a wave that rocks the vessels slightly. Shaking her head, the Cat o’Ninetails (who is shorter than you) looks at you as a master to a student who messed up.

>You learn [Twister]

>Create a localized area of turbulent air which sucks in nearby objects. Once initiated, may be difficult to control.

>You learn [Water Spout]

>Can improve the [Twister] when over a body of sufficient water, increasing its danger. How effective this will be in a desert is… debatable.

“Uh, thanks.” You say to Sylphie, rubbing your head. “I thought I had it under control.”

“Clearly not!” She sighs and shakes her head.”Well, it’s fine that nothing happened. Should have asked me if you wanted to learn some Aeromancy.”

“Well, I got better with [Gust] and [Razor Wind].”

“Really? Show me.”

Feeling a little embarrassed at being scolded this way by Sylphie of all people, you show her what you practiced and she nods in approval. Smirking at you, she says, “Not bad, not bad. But that thing you did before, well… to be honest I did the same thing when I was little.” Giggling, she puts a hand to her mouth and says, “Well, he stopped me the same way before I took off the roof, which Mom would have been so mad about. At least I hadn’t tried to infuse it with fire like I was planning on doing…”

“Glad to see I’m not the only one who had some trouble.” You say, smirking. “Of course, if we go back to geomancy, I’m the teacher.”

“Sure, sure.” Sylphie says, smirking. “Of course, you can’t do this with Aeromancy, can you?” Before you can say anything she thrusts out her staff and the wind suddenly and violently explodes at the bank. A wall perhaps fifteen feet across of extremely violent wind indiscriminately tears appear the bank, throwing up water, mud, grass, and a few mudcrabs. Smirking, she turns to you and says,

“That’s my [Galeforce], pretty cool, huh?”

“I… uh. Hmm.” You say, looking at the devastation. Damn that’s impressive, did Sylphie always know these kinds of spells? Turning back to her, you see her eye twitching despite her smiling. Narrowing your eyes you say, “Sylphie… did you hurt yourself casting that?”

“No, why would you think that.” She says through clenched teeth. As you frown at her she sighs and winces, going to rub her shoulder. “Okay fine, yes, it seems when I cast too much my arm hurts.” Shaking her head she says, “Damnit, I knew this would cause problems but I didn’t think that-I mean you never really imagine what it’s like to be injured and then- well then it happens.”

“Sylphie-“

“Nah, nah, nah.” She says, holding up her good hand. “We’ve been over this. Anyway, I need to go back to the food, the sailors are nervous about a flame on deck.” Walking away she gives you a smug expression. “You try not to cause any more problems, though I trust you got a good look at that spell?”

“I-Yeah, I did.” You say, nodding your head. Refraining from casting said spell, you think you can replicate it later- or at least ask for more training from Sylphie.

>You learn [Galeforce]

>Create indiscriminate violent winds in a widespread area.

{You causing trouble?} Erwin sends. Turning about you see the fox walk up to you and hop onto the railing before smiling, {Breaking hearts and the land. What a rough and tumble customer.}

{Erwin, please.} You send, shaking your head. {Wait, what do you mean by breaking hearts?}

{Oh come on, I saw Ebe’s face. Ah well, it was a long time in coming I suppose.}

{Uh… huh.} Feeling a little flutter of worry in your chest, you push it down and send, {I heard you were with Mr. Ed and some… shoebill?}

{YES!} Erwin sends, shuddering. {She just keeps staring at both of us, don’t respond to anything we ask!}

{You speak bird?}

{You don’t?} He sends, looking at you with a confused expression. Narrowing your eyes he chuckles, {Okay, okay, that’s fine. It’s hard to conjugate anyway. But yeah, won’t leave but won’t say anything either.}

{So… what does it matter?} You say, feeling a little annoyed.

{I think it’s nefarious, that Shoebill is plotting our demise.}

{Erwin, please.}

{Look, this is more interesting to me than your little crisis on whether or not you want to snuggle Tabitha, okay?}

{What? I don’t want to snuggle Tabitha-}

{Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that, not like she doesn’t want to do the same.}

{I- What? How would you know that?}

{Gods.} Erwin mentally sighs. {You bipeds are so dense sometimes.}

Rubbing your face you throw up your hands and say, {Okay! So! Shoebill!}

Erwin smiles again and hops down, gesturing for you to follow him. You do so grudingly, muttering to yourself the whole time until you reach Mr. Ed. The horse munches on some hay and looks at you before gesturing his head to his back. Standing there is a huge bird with grey feathers and a large, shoe-shaped bill. She, as Erwin identified her, turns her head to you and the way her eyebrows are positioned looks like she’s glaring at you. Feeling a shiver down your spine, you send to Erwin,

{Holy hells, she’s creepy.}

{Yeah, I know, right? Mr. Ed has tried to move her but she won’t budge. Honestly it’s just easier to keep her here.}

Rubbing your chin, you walk up to the large bird, the creature towering over you on Mr. Ed’s back. The horse snorts and lays down, putting the bird on eye level with you. You cock your head and she follows the movement, following all your movements actually. Frowning you put a hand on you hip and she does a similar gesture.

A sneaking suspicion begins to fill your head and you send to Erwin, {Erwin… did Sylphie feel anything off about this bird?}

{No, but she also didn’t try to talk with her much.}

{Hrm…} Looking back and at the Shoebill you lean forward. As you do so the bird leans back her head and then headbutts you, making you cry out and pull backward, rubbing at your head. Wincing you glare at the bird who turns her head and gives an almost wry smile. Growling, you make to swat the bird away when it holds up a wing and you hear a feminine voice in your head,

{Fun as this is, I suppose I should get down to business.}

All three of you look at the Shoebill in surprise, the bird cocking head head. {What, did you believe a normal bird would sit here this long? How quaint. Listen, I am but a familiar here to deliever a message from my Master: You are to head to the Tajir district once entering the capital. Your presence will be made known to my Master.}

“How… how did you break into our familiar link?” You ask, looking alarmed. The bird rolls her eyes,

{Please, it’s quite shoddy. You should spend more time with your familiar, my Master is far more trained in such skills, making this child’s play.}

“Who is your master?”

{Polah, of course.} The Shoebill says, spreading out her wings. {Anyway, my message is delivered, she will be awaiting you. Oh, and you better bring her Ammon’s Mark, he said you’d have one for her.}

Before you can say anything else the bird leaps into the air and flies away, leaving the three of you stunned. Turning to Erwin both of you look utterly surprised while Mr. Ed recovers quickly and snorts in disdain before going back to eating.

{Well, that was… something.} Erwin sends. {Guess they know about us then, huh?}

{Seems to be the case.} You sigh as yet another thing to take care of in the future. Rubbing at your chin you think of the Shoebill’s words and say to Erwin, “Hey, want to get some of that Crocodile meat while I rub your ears?”

{Nah, that sounds kind of gay.} You look at him with surprise until he chuckles and leaps onto your shoulder. {Joking, joking. Mostly.}

Chatting with your familiar about this and that, you walk up to Sophie as she finishes cooking the first batch of the [Mega Meat]. Taking a nibble of it, she chews thoughtfully before nodding her head and holding up a piece, “I declare this meat… EDIBLE!”

The men around cheer and clap their hands while the Cook shakes his head. Alice laughs and grabs a piece while Tabitha sighs, but takes one too. Sophie turns to you as you approach and thrusts out a piece of the cooked meat. “Try it, I do believe I have outdone myself!”

Looking at the piping hot meat, you take it from her and juggle it about, breaking a piece off for Erwin to munch on as well. The two of you chew on the rich meat and find it to not be lacking in flavor as you feared it might. Gentle herbs and spices make to enrich the flavor instead of masking it and you find yourself finishing the meat before you know it. A smug Sophie holds up a plate with more on it and says, “Oh, help yourself. There’s quite a bit. I even made some Jerky.”

“You’re going to make some man very happy one day.” You say, digging into the meat. Sophie chuckles,

“Oh my dear Rommel, don’t you think I already know that?”

The rest of the afternoon is spent enjoying the meal and chatting amongst yourselves, you and Erwin having some heart to hearts and him ribbing you about Tabitha. Eventually even Ebe comes down and even sits next to you like nothing happened, eating happily as the Ectrian sun hangs overhead.

The Captain says it will be another day before you reach the Capital at this rate anyway, delayed as you were by your side adventure. You have another training session with Tabitha, this time modifying your staff with [Ronnie] and manipulating his shape on your staff to your advantage as you fight. Of course, this means you do marginally better in the fight, at least until Tabitha sweeps your legs from under you and plants her foot on your back- gently at least.

The evening is quiet as well, with no signs of further distress and you chat amiably with your group sans Sylphie, who becomes seasick again, over a bowl of Mega-croc stew. Telling stories from each other’s pasts, you decide to take the evening easy- something everyone enjoys. Even Tabitha gets into it, sitting next to you of all things, her expression much calmer as she goes over her adventure in infiltrating Baron Muscrake’s manor out near Hudson.

As she finishes the last part of the story- a rather funny incident involving a magitek bomb in the pudding ruining her dress, the vessel rocks a little hard and you catch her as she slides into you. Her hand squeezes tight onto yours and she gives you a soft smile before returning to the story telling. You feel a little flutter in your heart at this and look away, questions once again running through your head. You don’t… think that…

Do you?

Going to bed at a reasonable hour, you room with Sophie who falls asleep nigh-instantly and snores a little, which you find amusing and relieving. Sophie is a good girl who, you’re fairly certain, you don’t have anything to worry about. Once you plug your ears, you get a good night’s sleep and awake fresh in the morning to ah… more Crocodile meat. Oh well, it’s still good, even for breakfast.

That day is spent in preparation for port, going over where to hide and when to get off via the captain. With your own group you relay what the Shoebill told you. Tabitha and Alice have some concerns about trusting the creature, but it’s a lead- something you were lacking before. Practicing some more Geoflexing, you feelconfident in your ability to perform [Fists of Earth] and [Shattering stomp]- Another technique on the scroll- despite there being no ground to practice it on. You practice your weaponplay alone though, as Alice monopolizes Tabitha, much to your chagrin. Or well, you don’t care actually. This is fine.

Damnit Erwin.

That afternoon you gather up your things and are herded into your designated crate to awaiting entering into port. Once again it’s warm, smelly, and dark, but there’s not much you can really do about it. You sit snuggled up with your friends and varieties of fruit for what seems like hours until the vessel begins to slow and you hear the sound of voices all around you. Ectrian voices sound all around, though you can’t understand it due to distance and being in a crate. The voices grow loud at one point and then silent and you fear something may have happened until the vessel begins to move again.

Ambient voices sound around you and eventually the ship stops again. You wait a long while until your crate is lifted from the boat and taken quite some distance. The light around you changes as you enter into a building and you’re set down. Waiting as instructed, you continue to sit until a rapping sound comes at the top of your crate. Metal clinks and the top opens, revealing the face of one of the sailors.

[We are here. Your horse is in the warehouse too, so get out of here before anyone sees you.]

The man ushers all of you out, replaces the displaced fruit, and closes the crate before dashing off and leaving you alone. Mr. Ed appears a few moments and snorts as he nuzzle Sylphie. With your group assembled, you look around the warehouse to find it… similar to most other warehouses. Donning your turban and everyone else in their robes except for Ebe, you head toward a door and exit into the city proper. Light blinds you as you exit the dim warehouse and it takes you a moment to adjust and take in the sights.

You’re surprised by what you see. The easiest way to describe the capital of the Kingdom of Setet is ostentation. Even in the warehouse district of the city you see buildings of all different shapes and sizes, bizarre architecture, and gilded signs. While there are some buildings that are more like what you’ve seen before, the special ones stand out and draw your eye.

If the buildings weren’t enough then the people certainly keep up the same theme. Wearing robes of various silks, fat merchants with turbans walk past with porters carrying all sorts of goods while ladies and Monsters flaunt sheer clothing that make Ebe’s garb look conservative. All around the people in this city appear to be either wealthy or well off- a stark contrast to the other cities you’ve been to.

{Maybe the Cult is onto something…} You send to Erwin, shaking your head as you travel through the streets. Making your way out of the docks, you look down a busy street to see it lined with ancient arches with statues of Anubis carved into the sides. Looking through them you see off in the distance a massive palace with domed towers.

“So that’s where Father and Mother are…” Sophie says, siding up next to you. She grips her hand tight. “She’ll pay if she’s hurt them.”

Putting a hand on her shoulder you nod your head to reassure her. “We’ll get them back, don’t you worry.”

Nodding back she puts on a determined face as your group heads to speak with a shopkeeper, passing them some coins for a map of the city. It’s not a professional thing, but crudely drawn by the man who seems pleased to make money for something so simple.

Looking at the map, you find the city similar to Sanctifrond in a way. In the center is the Palace and through the city on the west side runs the river. Around the Palace is the Alnabil, or noble district and them the surrounding districts are split into various other areas. Where you are now is the Mina, or port district at the southwest while on the East side of town is the Mushtarak, or common district- where most of the inhabitants live. Northwest is the Masrah, or Theatre district where performers live and work and right next to it is the Shaqiq, or brothel district.

Finally, off to the southeast is the Tajir, or Merchant district. The city is cut up by various avenues and no canals, unlike major cities in Deleor, and with the massive appearance of the place it will take some time to walk to one section or another. A porter with a small cart called a Rickshaw walks past, people sitting on it while another group carrying an important person on a palanquin pass. Horses aren’t uncommon either, nor are centaurs, and you figure that there are plenty of ways to get where you want to go in the city.

With inns in every district, it’s almost dizzying to see where to go. You could head directly to the Tajir district to meet Polah or scope around the city. Or… really anything you can think of! You’re in the capital, so close to your destination, yet by the Anubis guard who walk down the streets you’re reminded of yet how far away you are.

Leading your party over off to a side street, you have Sophie, Sylphie, and Erwin listen and look for anyone following you. So far you don’t see anything and they report the all clear. Alice sighs and lowers the cloth over her mouth and asks,

“Why don’t you use that magic of yours to survey around or anything.”

Both you and Sylphie sigh at the same time and you look at each other before you shrug and hold a hand out to her. The Cat o’Ninetails nods her head and says, “First off, there’s so many people walking around that identifying anything is next to impossible, and second off, there’s probably wards all over this city to look for magic being cast.”

Alice draws her lips into a line and Sylphie sniffs, much to the amusement of her sister. The Swordswoman rolls her eyes and says, “Oh, look at me, I can use magic and I’m a prissy-pants.”

“I’m not even wearing pants!” Sylphie says, sticking out her tongue. When her twin begins to snicker, the Cat o’Ninetails groans and says, “Oh shut up.”

“That’s lovely girls, but can we focus?” Tabitha says, giving all three of them a sidelong glance. They stiffen up and look to you, which you blink in surprise. Oh right, you’re the one in charge, aren’t you?

“Right then…” You say, thinking things over. “Way I see it, two things we need to do now is recon the city and find Polah.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous to do in such a large group?” Sophie asks, cocking her head. “We don’t exactly blend in with our current clothing and traveling in such a large group is going to attract notice.”

“I think she’s right.” Ebe says, nodding her head. “I think I’m okay, but we draw eyes exactly because we don’t draw eyes.” She gives Sophie a pitious look. “I wish you could wear your outfits here.”

“Me too.” Sophie sighs, shaking her head. She looks devastated actually. “And I was so looking forward to getting my dear sister to wear something nice for a change too.”

“What’s wrong with my robes?” Sylphie asks, looking insulted.

“Oh sister, do you really have to ask?” Her twin says, patting her on the cheek. Tapping her chin, Sophie says, “Well… we could always make some rather elaborate veils and have long skirts to hide our tails while exposing our chests… though then we run into the trouble of our skin color- sister, let’s get tans, hmm?”

“U-uh?” Sylphie says, looking to you for help. “W-We don’t have time for that, right Rommel?”

With a roll of the eyes you concede, “No, we really don’t.” Sylphie sticks her tongue out at her sister until you continue,  “You can both sunbathe once we’ve found an area to lie low.”Sophie smirks while Sylphie looks at you, betrayed. Her ears go flat and she sighs as her sister pats her head gently.

“At the moment we’ll be fine if we keep moving.” Tabitha says, nodding her head. “I suggest that we split up, however.”

“Two teams?” You ask, to which she nods her head. Rubbing your chin, you look out over the groups and say, “Alright, for communication purposes, let’s have Ebe, Erwin, Sylphie and…” Pausing, you look over at Tabitha and remember what you felt back on the boat. “…and Tabitha together.”

Ebe blinks in surprise at this list while Tabitha merely nods her head sharply. Coughing into your hand you turn to the others, “That means Sophie, Mr. Ed, and Alice, you’re with me.”

The horse wickers softly while Alice and Sophie shrug. Addressing everyone again you say, “Our group will move to find Polah while the rest of you get a lay of the land.”

“Be easier if we had a better map.” Sylphie sighs, to which Ebe shrugs,

“We could always ask for directions.”

Tabitha shakes her head, “We want to limit discussion as much as possible, keep moving and don’t act suspicious.”

“Aye, listen to Tabitha, alright?” You say to Ebe and Sylphie who both nod their heads like children being told to be good girls. It’s okay though because they are good girls! Monsters…. Monster…girls… Frowning at yourself, you rub your head much to the confusion of those around you. Seeing the looks you hold up a hand and say, “Alright let’s get moving, we’re going against the clock here.”

Your companions nod their heads and you split into your two parties. From your location, reaching the Tajir district doesn’t sound like it will be that hard. Looking over the simple map drawn for you, you hand it over to Sylphie who will need it more- you know where you’re going. Heading out again into the busy street, they quickly fade from sight.

For your part, you keep your turban up, goggles on, and watch your surroundings carefully. Already instructing Alice not to say anything in Deleorian, you pre-empt  that issue having no one question why you’re here. It’s been so long since you were at the border, but vaguely you remember the man telling you that Deleorians weren’t allowed in beyond certain merchants. Perhaps it’s your now tanned face or the fact that anyone you’ve spoken to doesn’t care or wants to kill you, but you haven’t had issue yet. Here though, in the capital, you see very few people or Monsters who could have been Deleorian beyond slaves.

Oh yes, there are slaves.

A troupe of young women in scandalous clothing walk about a corpulent man who laughs and pinches or fondles them as they travel down the road. They smile and laugh but their eyes look hollow, and the collars around their necks are testament to their lot in life.

Mr. Ed snorts at you and you realize that you’re pulling on his lead rope too tight. Unclenching your hand, you take a deep breath and nod to the horse, who snorts and continues on down the streets, deigning to allow you to hold his tack. Sophie squeezes your shoulder as she passes by while Alice shakes her head and keeps her hand on her sword, looking about for any danger.

As you pass through the Mina district to the Tajir district, the buildings begin to change, along with the people. Where the Mina district had warehouses and some various sellers of wares, the majority of the people there were workers or merchants looking after their interests. In the Tajir district, however, the buildings are more ostentatious, with fantastical wares from all over the world displayed in store fronts. Merchants of all shapes and sizes from humans to common Desert Catgirls to even a strange weasel like Monster with blue hair dressed in Eastern garb.

You have to snap your fingers to keep Sophie from drooling all over the place as she stares at the wares. Silks and garments from Ectria, Deleor, and the Eastern countries all in abundance and you have to pull her away as she stops in front of one store showing off an eastern dress with a revealing bust and an excellent space for multiple tails while not compromising on showing off one’s posterior. She makes a miserable face but sighs and keeps moving with you, dejected.

“Maybe later.” You whisper to her, to which you feel her shake some, but don’t see any other visible reaction.

Horses and other carts aren’t uncommon here, however a few merchants give you curious looks as you pass by. Thankfully they’re more disappointed when you don’t stop and purchase their wares, but every time someone eyes you a jolt of panic goes through you. If you should be caught in this city by the enemy it’s game over for you. Fighting head on won’t work in your favor in the slightest and you can’t rely on any support unless you get the Grand Wizard and the Monster Lady free- a decidedly difficult prospect as it is.

Which means the first thing you have to do is find Polah, whoever she is. All you really know at the moment is that she’s some kind of practioner to have a familiar, and one who is quite well versed in working with familiars you suppose. Perhaps that’s how she works in this city? Of course that bird of hers isn’t exactly inconspicious…

Alice grabs your shoulder, breaking you out of your thoughts and you look around in panic as she holds you and nods to the side. A pack of three Anubis walk by, one of them wearing an elaborate garb with various golden bangles and wielding a heavy halberd. Tattoos of rather runic design cover the exposed portions of her body and you hear people back away in deference, muttering, [Handmaiden…]

Doing your best not to look like you’re staring, you turn your head aside as they pass. The Handmaiden turns her head to regard your group but her eyes flick forward again in the next moment as she continues onward. The two other Anubis walk with her and the crowd quickly returns to what it was doing, leaving you and yours with hearts racing.

{Everything alright there?} Erwin sends, making you jump a little again. A group of people give you an odd look and you cough, starting to move again.

{Yeah just saw one of the Handmaidens I guess.}

{Those are… the right hand guards of the Pharaoh, right?}

{Pretty sure.} You send, walking forward. You feel some pressure on the rope and look over to see Mr. Ed looking down at something.

A rat looks up at you, standing on two legs to sniff at the air. Curious that a rat would pause in front of a horse like this and not look afraid, but maybe city rats are like that? You’ve heard they can get pretty big and be mean as the Hells in the Deleorian cities, why should it be different out here?

{Something wrong? You paused.}

{Sorry, just some rat looking at us.}

An unfamiliar male voice sends in your mind, {OI?! WHO YOUSE CALLIN A ‘SOME RAT?’}

Looking down at the rat again you see a glint of intelligence in those eyes. Staring wide-eyed, the rat sniffs and sends, {Here I am, to collect you lot and you’re here to insult me! Hurts me heart it does.}

{How-? Polah?} You send, to which the rat nods.

{Yeh, Miss Polah’s me masta alright. Now then, get off the streets like some bumpkins, yer gettin looks and I don’t want to be embarrassed.}

Looking to the rest of your little party you nod at them and then inform Erwin of what’s going on. He seems a little miffed that another familiar is in your mental link, but what are you going to do? Telling him that you’ll get them more information later, you follow the rat as he scampers through the crowds. You’d probably lose the little guy without Mr. Ed being present, but he somehow is able to track him through until you reach an intersection where he guides you off the beaten path down a side road.

Merchants here are less ostentatious, but still fairly well off, and you start to see a few inns and taverns as well- likely for merchants or those parched after their day purchasing wares. The rat doesn’t take you to any of these and instead leads you further to the east, closer to the Mushtarak district than you’d expect. Just before you think to ask him about anything he scampers down an alleyway and you look at your group before following him again.

The shade feels good as you walk down the alleyway between buildings and you’re surprised to see that it leads to a side street hidden behind the hustle and bustle. No one is present down the little street, though there are plenty of doors to various buildings, a few of them with signs that you thing are for artisans more than anything. Alice still has her hand on her sword, looking all about for signs of danger while Sophie’s ears twitch back and forth.

The rat scampers down the alleyway and stops before a nondescript door. He stands on his hindlimbs again and then gently knocks, the sound essentially silent. You’re about to say something when the door swings inward, allowing you entry. The rat turns to you and squeaks before heading inside.

“This looks ominous.” Alice says, rubbing her chin. “Think we’re going to get mugged?”

“Hmm.” Sophie muses. “Father always said to be wary of rats opening doors.” When you give her a confused look she says, “Bubs liked to play pranks.”

“Ah.” You say, turning to the door again. Well… here you are, might as well go for it. Opening your [Mage Sight], you don’t see any magical traps, etc. Feeling confident that only a mundane trap would be awaiting you, you take a deep breath, ready your staff, and walk into the building.

The first thing that you notice is the smell. A mix of heavy incense fills the room to the point it almost makes you gag, but you realize moments later that it’s trying to mask the scent of something else. Something like… heavy animal odor?

Looking around, you find yourself in a large, open foyer leading to three doors on the sides. Furniture is spartan in this room, however the place itself is not empty- far from it in fact as you’re quick to discover. It becomes apparent quite quickly that the reason for the smell is that the room is filled with animals of various species!

The shoebill from before waves a wing at you as you enter while the rat scampers to join a group nibbling on some bread. A large dog sleeps with two cats on its back while a goat chews on a vibrant orange fruit in the corner. All of them look to you when you enter but quickly go back to what they were doing, leaving you to gawk at them in confusion for awhile until the door opposite from yours opens.

{You’re here.} A cold, female voice says in your mind. Blinking in confusion, you look to the now open door to see a Monster walk out and stand before you.

You’re a fairly tall man, but this Monster is TALL. She stands a good head over you and has a strong, muscular physique accentuated by minimalist clothing so common in Ectria. She has a hard, serious face with piercing grey eyes and long, rather unkempt silver-blonde hair. This, like so many Monsters, is where the humanity ends.

From her shoulders her arms are covered in feathers that end in large, bird-like talons still shaped like hands. Her waist to her legs on the other hand are covered in rich, brown fur that end in lion-like paws while on her back a pair of massive bird wings sit. Overall she brings a rather oppressive feeling to the room and you find yourself backing up in reaction. She narrows her eyes as you do so and sends, {Something wrong?}

“I… no, nothing’s wrong I… can you talk without sending?” You ask, recovering.

She blinks at you in surprise and cocks her head as the Shoebill from before walks up and puts a wing on her shoulder. The Monster furrows her brow and then nods her head slowly before speaking in a surprisingly soft voice,

“U-uhm. Sorry about that I’m… Polah. Do you have the Mark?”

This surprises you far more than anything else you’ve seen and you fumble in your pocket for the mark, all the while watching the Monster as she follows your motions. Her eyes don’t miss a single motion and when you produce the [Ammon’s Mark] she grabs it from you and looks the piece over before biting it with sharp teeth and then nodding, handing it to the Shoebill who wanders off.

An awkward silence pervades the room then as Polah looks at you and then off to the side, rubbing at her arm despite her physique. When it becomes unbearable any longer Sophie says, “Miss Polah, I take it?”

The Monster looks up and studies Sophie before nodding her head. “Yes that’s… me.”

Sophie looks to you before continuing. “Yes, well… it is a pleasure to meet you. I am ashamed to say I have not seen a Monster of your variety before.”

“Oh. I’m a… a Griffon.” She looks to the side and sends to you, {Do I have to continue to do this?}

{I suppose not.} You send back, confused. {I’ll just vocalize for you.}

Tension visibly is released from her at this and she stands straighter, nods her head, and sends to you. {Alright then, so you’re here. Good. I’ve been told you were coming and an idea of what you wish to accomplish here. I’ll be blunt, this is some bullshit you want me to do and it’s likely to get any of us killed or worse.}

“I understand, but you still decided to see us?”

{Because you have that fucker Ammon’s Mark. If you didn’t have that then I’d feed you to Jain over there.} She thumbs over to the dog who opens an eye before going back to sleep. {I’m still considering it, Mark or no.}

Sighing, you dig into your pocket and pull out, [Kuhalik’s Kind Words]. The Griffon looks at the envelope with interest, and when you hand it over to her she breaks the seal with ease. Scanning over the paper a snarl comes to her mouth and she quickly crumples it up before throwing it at the goat who quickly eats the paper.

{Bullshit. You got that old bull to write that load of crap for you?}

“Uh… what did it say?” You ask, cocking your head.

{It says you’re trustworthy and have a good cause and I should help you and if I don’t he’ll cut off my supply and Twins damnit.} She rubs her head and sighs. {Fine. FINE, I’ll do it!}

“Uhm… thank you?”

Alice cocks her head, “This is worse than her speaking Ectrian, because at last I can tell she’s speaking.”  Sophie nods her head in agreement.

“So we have a deal then?” You say, to which Polah mentally sighs and nods her head. Sighing out in relief you ask, “By the way… how do you have so many familiars?”

Polah nods her head, {Animal empathetic is my affinity for magic. I can’t cast spells, but I am quite proficient in forming familiar bonds and having other animals work with me.}

Huh. Interesting. You saw the book Sylphie had before, wonder how much of that is relevant to this. Nodding your head you ask, “Interesting, ah but how did you know we were coming?”

{A little bird told me.} She says, waving a clawed hand. When you look over at the Shoebill she shakes her head. {No, not her. More like- Ah wait, here she is}

Sophie’s ears perk up and she turns her head to the door on the left which opens a moment later. A familiar voice says, “What’s all this bloody racket, is someone else he- Well I’ll be.”

Turning to the newcomer your eyes go wide as you see a pair of massive red pincers proceed the form of Zoras. The Girtablilu smirks at you as she enters and waves a hand. “Well bloody Hells, is it isn’t my favorite Wizard. See, I told you he’d be coming.”

Polah nods her head while you look at Zoras with a stunned expression. “How… why?”

“Well, to be honest Ammon is rather curious as to what’s going to happen here, but my cover is that I’m here on a business venture, which I suppose I am.”

“Wait, wait.” Sophie says, holding up a hand. “How did you get here so quickly and weren’t you hurt?”

Zoras rubs her cheek. “Well, yes. But Ammon has some good healers and I can run rather quickly you know. I also might have rode part of a caravan too.” Shrugging she continues, “Regardless, bloody good to see you again.”

“Well this day just gets more and more interesting.” Alice sighs. “Well, we’ve found you, what next?”

Polah nods. {Tell her that I will need some time to look over the layouts and current security to get you into the dungeons. I can only get you in and perhaps get you out the same way, though there is no guarantee. Once inside, that is up to you.} You begin to relay this information when she looks up and sends, {Oh and your horse may enter. There is enough room for him}

Looking behind you at the closed door, you notice Mr. Ed isn’t here. Having him enter he snorts and then sits down next to the goat who gives him a critical eye before pulling the fruit toward itself and away from the horse.

Shaking your head, you tell Polah’s words to those assembled. Sophie asks, “How long is ‘some time.'”

Polah cocks her head. {Two days, perhaps?}

“Two days is… quite a long time.” You say feeling worried. “We’re racing against a clock here you know. Things will get difficult once the Royal Guard returns from its venture in near the Chasm of Regret.”

The Griffon nods her head. {I have heard they were close to returning, though who knows how long they plan to dwaddle. Could be tomorrow, could be next week for all I know at this point.}

Feeling a sense of dread at this, you gulp and nod your head. “Okay then… well, what should we do for lodging?”

“Oh, you can stay here.” Zoras says, much to Polah’s annoyance. “Plenty of space if you can stand the smell.”

Sophie wrinkles her nose but doesn’t say anything and Alice shrugs. Nodding back you say, “Alright, we’ll inform the others of how to get here. What should we do in the meantime?”

{Whatever you want, just don’t cause trouble for my familiars and don’t lead any of the Guard here. Otherwise, you’re free to act. I have… preparations to perform.} Nodding to you, she walks back into her room and shuts the door, leaving you with a smiling Zoras and a confused Sophie and Alice.

Relaying the information to Sylphie is fairly straightforward and they plan to head to your location as soon as they can. Apparently they decided to wander into the Masrah district and found nothing much of interest to be occurring at this time of day anyway. Making sure they know to look out for a rat to guide them, you make sure they contact you if anything goes awry. With that settled, you shake your head and look to the others, not certain of what to do.

“Bloody Hells, two days.” Zoras says, rubbing her chin. “What are you going to do with all that time?”

“Figure out a plan, prepare.” You say, waving a hand. “For now I guess we’re waiting.”

“Well that’s no fun.” She sighs, to which Alice nods. The swordswoman ruffles her hair and taps her sword.

“I don’t have much better to do, might as well practice some motions.”

“Oh, maybe we can practice sometime.” You say to her as she walks to an empty section of the foyer. She pauses and cocks her head.

“Why?”

“Uh… to get better with combat?”

She thinks on this for a moment before snickering. “Oh, is that it, huh? Well sure, if you say so.” Chuckling to herself, she pulls out her sword, the blade glowing faintly in the room. With a few swings of the sword, she begins her practice motions, attracting the attention of the nearby animals.

“Why does everyone keep saying that…” You mutter to yourself before turning back to Zoras and Sophie. The latter has taken off her cloak and is brushing her tails, humming to herself as she gets dirt and dust out of her hair. Shaking your head, you move to the only one really listening to you. “Well Zoras, how have you been?”

“Well, since I saved Ebe from certain doom? Not too great.” She stretches and you hear a popping sound. “Ack… well it is what it is…” Sighing, she continues. “But not too bloody bad overall. Ammon knows some top tier healers and I’m good enough to bloody well go tomb raiding if I have to.”

“Is that so.” You say, rubbing your chin. “You said before that Ammon wanted you to watch how this plays out but do you intend to…?”

“What, infiltrate the oldest structure in Ectria filled with magical artifacts that one could scarcely believe exists?” She smiles, “Of course I bloody well plan to do that!”

“This isn’t a game though Zoras, you could get killed or-” You cut off as Zoras leans forward and gives you a flat look.

“Oh, now you bloody well care if I get hurt, hmm?” When you flounder to explain she chuckles, “Ah, never you mind, you’re too cute to get mad at.” Tapping her chin, she leans back and says, “I’m not exactly wanted like you lot, not in the same way, but having this on my record isn’t so bad. I do it right and Ammon’s got my back to keep me safe.”

“Well, if you say so.” You say, frowning. “What else have you been doing?”

“Not much, just practicing with my knives, resting.” She rolls her hand. “Oh, but I do wish to hear about your stories.”

Figuring you don’t have much else to do at the moment, you shrug and begin to tell Zoras about your adventures since you last met. The Girtablilu kneels down on her legs and rests her elbows upon her claws, listening to you as you sit down and tell your tale. Purposefully leaving out the adventure with Farya, you tell her most everything else. When you reach the battle in Jahardin, she leans forward, eyes sparkling and you can’t help but think she’s a little adorable there, like a child. Despite yourself, you hand reaches out and plants upon the top of her head.

Zoras blinks at you in surprise as you continue to speak, seemingly unknowing of what vile acts you’re about to perform. Before you can stop yourself, it’s too late- your hand begins to sink into her warm, black hair. The Girtablilu’s eyes go wide as you begin to massage her scalp and you realize in horror that you’ve done it again. These hands of yours are weapons! Unable to stop, you continue to pat her head, to which Zoras’s human half slumps, her eyes closing, mouth opening wide as you pat.

Continuing to tell your story, she leans in closer to you, pushing her head into your hand as if she was a cat. Subconciously you notice both Sophie and Alice watching you, but you can’t stop, locked in your motions. You reach the point in your story when Sylphie gets shot and you stop then, emotion filling you. When your hand finishes moving, Zoras’s eyes flutter open and she looks up at you, drool at the corner of her mouth. She blinks twice before pulling back, cheeks flushing.

“W-What the bloody hells was that?” Zoras asks, looking horrifically embarrassed.

“Rommel has the [Hands of Solos] apparently.” Sophie says, blushing a little. “It’s ah… well you saw.”

“T-That’s dangerous.” The Girtablilu says, blushing. “Bloody hells… how haven’t any of you jumped him by now?”

“Because we have incredible self control.” Alice says, sitting down next to you. Looking at her, she drips with sweat, body almost visibly steaming from exertion. How long as she training? How long were you speaking?!

Zoras turns away, “Sure, like you bloody well could avoid that.”

“Pshaw, I’ve had my head pat by Rommel before, it’s not what everyone says it- ahhhn!”

Alice lets out a whimper as you hand instinctively seeks out her head and begins to pat. Though her hair is streaked with sweat, it only allows your hand to glide easier through the strands of her raven black hair. Her eye twitches in defiance before she shudders and hugs herself, eyes closing as she stutters, “W-what the fuck man? T-this is almost better than sex, ha…haha…”

At this your fingers work even harder, patting with a power you dare not imagine. Sophie and Zoras look on with wide eyes, cheeks flushed as Alice’s exterior collapses under your patting. Feeling a crescendo building up, your hand twitches and then makes a flourish, throwing up a spray of sweat as Alice throws her head back, letting out a cry of joy. She collapses forward, breathing heavily, goofy smile on her face.

Blinking in confusion, you look to the other Monsters who avert their gazes from you, blushing furiously. The door opens behind you and you turn around to see Polah standing there, claw on the doorknob. She looks between you and the collapsed Alice before staring at your wet hand. A blush appears on her face and she slowly closes the door, returning to her room.

An awkward silence pervades. Wiping your hand on your [Trenchcoat], you then cough into your hand and say, “Well. So, where were we?”

“I think… I’m going to ah… go into the other room here and ah… oh goshes my back is acting up!” Zoras says, wincing. “Oh goshes, so bad.” Standing up far quicker than an injured person should, she wanders into the room she came from, leaving you alone with Sophie and Alice who is giggling like an idiot. The Cat o’Ninetails picks up her brush again and asks,

“Was it good for you too?”

“Sophie, I respect you a lot, but shut up.” You say, rubbing between your eyes.

“Fair enough.” She says, smirking with good humor.

With your talking partner gone and your sparring partner sleeping with afterglow next to you, you’re left with either talking with Mr. Ed or practicing magic. Seeing as Mr. Ed now has a dog and a cat sleeping on his back while a goat stares him down, you’re pretty certain he’s occupied.

So that leaves… magic. But what to practice? Thinking it over, you pull out some friends you haven’t messed with in awhile- Stan and Barry. Stan you have messed with recently, and you’re able to shift his features into a golem with little effort. Barry on the other hand… Barry is a little more difficult. Sighing to yourself and asking Erwin where he is- lost somehow in the city?- you focus on the lead. Thanks to your work with so many other pieces of metal, you’re able to fashion the lead into something approximating a fat child, little dimples on his face. Chuckling to yourself, you make him jiggle by manipulating the small amount of ore you have.

With another sigh you pull out the [Ectrian Sword] and look to Alice. The woman is snoring next to you, smile on her face. Shaking your head, you make the weapon float over you, finding that your work with iron has made your work with steel quite easy. Hells, if you had more of these you bet you could have like, an army of swords? Well, maybe not that many. Something singular would perhaps be better. Like a chain! Actually that could be interesting.

Rubbing your chin as the sword floats around you, you think over this and plan to purchase a chain when you notice Alice’s sword. What kind of metal is that made of anyway? Can you control it? Seeing as she’s asleep, maybe you can just have a little-

Alice’s hand grabs yours before you can touch the hilt. Sweating, you look at her to find her still asleep, but her grip crushes your hand until you pull away. Rubbing your hand you gulp. Well that’s not going to happen anytime soon… or ever.

>Your [Lead manipulation] has improved to Adept

>You can pull raw lead from the earth and shape it well. You have limited control over refined lead but… that’s not common.

>Your [Tin manipulation] has improved to Proficent

>You can pull raw lead from the earth and shape it well. You have good control over purified tin

>Your [Iron manipulation] has improved to Expert

>You can easily locate and pull raw iron from the earth. You can freely manipulate iron and are able to control steel with ease, but have more difficulty shaping it.

Applying some [Ice] to your wrist, you feel a little better after Alice’s vice-grip. Shuddering as you think about what she does to poor men’s dicks with that, you focus back to the Cryomancy. Yes, you should probably work on that skill more, especially given how well it works in the desert.

Tapping your chin and wishing you had more books from Sylphie, you think about what you know. [Ice], [Cold Prison]… you really don’t know that much, do you? Forming balls of ice in your hand you think things over. A thought occurs to you then- is it safe to use magic here? Looking over at the familiars, you pause and figure that if anyone was tracking magic use, then they’d clearly find the familiars without much effort. They’d also find Tabitha’s magitek legs with ease, so either you’re fucked or you’re fine. Might as well continue to cast magic, but… hmm.

What other use do you have with this type of magic than to freeze things? It’s pretty effective! Sure, you can do the whole <Cold Blooded> thing with some more work, but so can Sylphie and so can her father. You need something different, something you haven’t thought of before…

“Sophie?” You ask before you can stop yourself.

“I thought you told me to shut up?”

“Sophie, come on.” You sigh. She chuckles and waves her hand for you to continue. “What do you know about freezing temperatures and how I could use cryomancy?”

“Not too much, Father liked the magic, but nowhere near as much as Fulgromancy.” She finishes brushing her tails and says, “But did you know that if you heat something and then freeze, it becomes very brittle?”

Rubbing your chin you say, “Huh, is that so?” Looking down, you pull out a piece of Ronnie and hold it up, expanding the metal. Focusing your Pyromancy on the metal it begins to glow red hot. Before it can cool naturally you concentrate your Cryomancy on that point and it freezes in seconds. Holding your hand out, you flick the piece of metal and it shatters.

Sophie claps her hands together and says, “Ah, very well done.”

Scooping up the pieces of Ronnie, you add them back to the whole and nod. Yes, this could be useful, especially with the localized freezing so quickly. You think you might name it something cool, like [Rapid Cooldown] or [Cold Time Quick.] Realizing both of these are really, really, really fucking stupid, you go with the obvious.

>You learn [Flash Freeze]

>Rapid cooldown and freezing of a section of metal or other substance. Area of affect limited and pinpoint however, will likely cause frostbite on biological targets

>You learn <Shatter>

>By rapidly heating and then cooling a substance, you can make it extremely brittle.

Smirking at yourself, you look up as the door opens and Tabitha pokes her head in. The rat from before scurries inside and glares at her, though she doesn’t seem to notice him, her eyes locking onto you. Nodding, she ushers the others in and they pile inside. A moment later the door to Polah’s room opens and she looks at the newcomers before wrinkling her nose.

{Oh, a Ghandharva… great.} She pauses and then looks at you, a blush coming over her cheeks. {You heard nothing.}

{If you say so.} You say, shrugging. What did she mean by that? {Anyway, this is the rest of our party, so I suppose we’re now waiting to see what to do.}

{I have sources probing the Palace now and watching for openings. I will get you in, however it takes… concentration to organize this. Be patient.}

{Fine, if you say so.} You send, shaking your head. {Oh, before you go though, your Shoebill said that my bond with my familiar was weak. What did she mean by that?}

Polah cocks her head and sends, {There’s more to a Familiar bond than just trust. The horse and the cat know this, but it’s something I can’t really teach you, you have to…} She shakes her head, {I don’t have time for this.} Turning about she enters her room again and closes the door.

Tabitha frowns. “Was that our host?”

“Yes.” You say, frowning yourself. “Yes it was.”

“She seems nice.” Sylphie says, looking about. “Good taste in décor, huh Ed?” The horse snorts and she smirks. “Well, what’s the plan then?”

“We wait.” You say, holding up your hands and explaining the situation. Sylphie looks a little disappointed.

“Oh… I see. I guess I thought we’d, you know, go in and cause havok the same day like we always do.” Sighing, she sits down and says, “Well, I guess getting some sleep would be nice.”

“Oh yes, sister, Ebe.” Sophie says. “Zoras is here.”

“WHAT?” Both Sylphie and Ebe say in unison, looking about. Sophie points to the door where Zoras is but when Ebe moves to open it she says, “Eh, you may want to wait on that. She’s a little… preoccupied.”

“Huh?” You say, looking to the Cat o’Ninetails. She gives you a smug look and you grumble something under your breath.

“Uhm…”Sylphie says, nudging Alice with her paw. “The capital is fairly busy. I never really know how popular Ghandharva were here, but Ebe had multiple people proposition me for very… interesting engagements.”

“Sylphie!” Ebe says, blushing. “Oh Twins, look, we’re known for good singers and there’s some shows who would love Ghandharva and okay so maybe a few people asked for lewd things but… but…”

“Ebe, Ebe, it’s fine.” You say, holding up a hand. “Your cute, so no wonder they’d ask that.”

Ebe’s golden complexion turns beet red as she turns about and says, “C-Cute?”

Tabitha shakes her head. “Anyway, so we’re waiting for now. I feel that it would be useful however if we got more information on the city, see more of it ourselves.”

Sophie sits up, eyes twinkling. “Why yes Tabitha, that sounds wonderful. Maybe I should go around the merchant’s district and-“

“No.” You say, holding up a hand. The Cat o’Ninetails looks at you with puppy dog eyes. Or perhaps kitty cat eyes? Anyway you shake your head, “Sorry Sophie, but it’s too dangerous. We need people who can speak Ectrian there and won’t raise too much alarm.”

“So it is quite alright to send Ebe, whom everyone wants to bone, but I can’t go?”

“Someone sounds jealous.” Sylphie says, looking at her nails. Her sister glares at her and she gives a smug expression back.

“Yes, because she stands out but she isn’t that uncommon here. Nor would be Zoras.” Sophie pouts and you sigh. “Look, we need to purchase some different clothing to blend in better anyway… so we’ll get you something if-“

Sophie pulls out a piece of parchment and hands it to you. Looking down at it you cock your head. “Why does this have everyone’s name and three numbers next to them?”

All the Monsters save Sophie look up at the same time and snap their heads to the Cat o’Ninetails. Tabitha growls, “Now hold on, you never said that’s what you were going to use those measurements for.”

“R-Rommel knows my- Oh… ohhhhh!” Ebe cries.

“Gods damnit Sophie, you can’t just give that kind of information to HIM.”

Sophie blinks and says, “Why not? He’ll be purchasing clothing and needs these measurements since I won’t be around.”

Ebe walks up and snatches the parchment from you. “Rommel, what are my sizes?”

“Uhhh… I don’t… remember?”

“GOOD!” She says, blushing. “It’s one thing for them to be seen but to know the exact measurements is… too embarrassing.” Coughing into her wing, she says, “I’ll handle this. Now then, it’s getting dark outside soon, if we want to do this now we should be going.”

Looking to you, Ebe says, “Could you get Zoras?”

“Huh? Oh, sure.” You say, standing up. Walking over the door where Zoras is, you open it up and walk inside to say, “Zoras, we’re heading out to town, do you want to come?”

“R-Rommel!” Zoras says, face a little red. She’s fully clothed and sitting on a cushion in the sparsely furnished room. A backpack sits open before her a few jars of various solutions open. She looks down and blushes, “It’s not what it looks like.”

“I’m not certain what it’s supposed to look like.” You say, closing the door behind you. She blushes and mutters,

“Bloody hells, you and your bloody hand scrambled my bloody brain! Can’t think straight.” She rubs at her head and sighs, “Well you’ve seen it. It’s some venom of… of mine.”

“Huh.” You say, thinking about what the venom did to Ebe. “Pretty potent stuff, right?”

“It can be, when used in the right circumstances.” She nods her head. “Does different things to men versus women and Monsters however… well it varies on my control.”

“I didn’t know you could produce this much outside of stinging people.” You say, walking up and looking at the jars of liquid. “What happens if you coat something with it?”

“Define… something.”

“A dart, a dagger, etc.”

“Oh!” She shakes her head. “Well, it would have a similar, if lesser effect if applied that way since it’s not as fresh.”

“I wonder… would it be possible to get more of this, so I could use it. Might be very useful.”

Zoras looks at you with a surprised expression. “Rommel, bloody Hells, it’s not like I can just produce it on a whim, you have to milk it out and that’s… well it’s not that… you see.”

“Do you need help milking? I can milk you if that’s what it takes.”

Zoras’s eyes go wide and her mouth opens. Her cheeks heat up and she puts her claws together as she looks down, skittering side to side. “R-Rommel, y-you don’t mean that, right?”

“Is… there something wrong with that?”

“You want… to milk me?” She gulps, hesitancy in her voice. “I mean, you’re not under the effects of that curse anymore, right?”

“Ehm.” You say, feeling something not quite right here. “Maybe… maybe we better not after all.”

Zoras licks her lips, “Oh no, come now, you did offer.”

“Gee Zoras, the others are in the other room and we really should be going-“

“We’ll just have to be quiet then.” She grins and rounds on you, using her claws to hold down your arms. With one of her hands she covers your mouth and begins to breathe a little heavy. “Rommel, that headpat… now you want to milk me…? My you have become more forceful…”

Eyes going wide, you prepare your magic when her tail appears over your chest. She drags the tip along your [Trenchcoat] and it leaves a thin trail of sticky venom as it makes its way down to your crotch. Looking up at her she gives a little manic chuckle, “Bloody Hells, I can’t stop myself haha. How about we milk each other, hmm?”

The door opens up and Ebe sticks her head into the room. “Uhm, what’s taking so lo-” She stops as she looks at the scene, eyes going wide.

Zoras blinks and says, “Oh. Hello there Ebe.”

“Zoras.” Ebe says, coughing into a wing. “Are you about to rape Rommel?”

“He asked to milk me!”

“Zoras…”

The Girtablilu whines, “Oh fine!” Pulling herself away from you, she lowers her head and says, “I- Sorry.”

Feeling a little shaken, you gulp and say, “Zoras, what the hells was that about?”

She scratches her cheek. “Look, Milking in Girtablilu society is often a term for pumping your lover with venom and then… well then you milk them for semen.” Shaking her head, she sighs, “Come on, you turned me on with that bloody headpat and now this! I’m only a Monster!”

Ebe gives her a sympathetic look. “I understand completely.”

“For fuck’s sake…” You say, shaking your head. The more you see things change, the more they stay the same… Groaning, you say, “Look, let’s just go and shop, okay?” Holding up a finger to Zoras, you add, “And keep your hormones in check.”

“Bloody Hells, fine, fine!” She sighs and mutters, “Maybe stop smelling so damn nice then.”

Walking out of the room a little later, you find both Sophie and Sylphie looking at you with blank expressions. Their eyes follow you as you awkwardly walk past, saying nothing as you move to the door. Tabitha rolls her eyes and says, “Stay safe and inform Erwin about anything that comes up.”

{Hurry back then, I want to take a nap.} Erwin sends, yawning.

Nodding to them, you done your turban, goggles, and head out into the late afternoon markets, ready to scope things out and do some shopping…

>To be continued

 

>Story continue

Despite the sun hanging low in the sky the energy in the market is still high. With people running to and fro, making as many purchases as during the day there doesn’t seem to be much of a change at all beyond the ambiance of the lighting. A few more people seem to be headed to the food sellers area of the market near the south and west to get last minute items for the evening meals, but even in the less necessary shops plenty of people travel.

Turing out from the side street where Polah’s place hides, you see people immediately take notice of Zoras before going about their way. A few eye Ebe with a mix of awe and lecherous looks, but they too leave as soon as they notice you nearby. They must get the impression that a Ghandharva hanging around a man makes her either her master or her lover- either way it suits your needs as long as no one gets too close.

[Are you certain you do not wish to pretend to be… uhm…]

Looking over at Ebe, you see the Ghandharva fidget. Sighing, you pull down the turban covering your mouth and whisper a reply in Ectrian, [Ebe, we went over this, no one is going to believe we’re married.]

She sighs and says, [Well, I think they do just looking at us but-]

[But what if they start asking questions? I’m not supposed to be here and my Ectrian slips.]

[Actually it’s quite good for someone who started so recently. I’m impressed.] She sighs, [Still, it would be obvious to tell you’re a foriegner. We’d be unlikely to do any better than how we did back at the border.]

[So, let’s make this shopping trip quick so people don’t raise too many questions, alright?]

[Oh, very well.] She says, pouting. [Although the streets are crowded, I may need to stick close you so we don’t lose sight of each other…]

[Ebe.]

She sticks out her tongue at you and then looks over her shoulder to Zoras who coughs into her hand. [Are you two quite finished?]

[Yes, we are.] You say, noticing the blush on Zoras’s cheeks. She looks away from you as soon as she notices your gaze and you shake your head. For the love of Solos, this is going to be super awkward isn’t it? After that little ah, “milking” episode you’re not exactly in the mood to be around her and you’re pretty sure her undergarments are still soaking. Assuming she… wears any.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out, you wave on for Zoras to lead the way, her large body making some good headway through the crowd. Although the people don’t linger looking at Zoras, you still haven’t seen any other Girtablilus since arriving and well, she has rather large claws and a stinger- she kind of intimidates people.

Following in her wake, she heads you towards a section of the market not quite at the Great Bazaar, the largest and busiest section of the Tajir district. The majority of Mushtarak district inhabitants go there for shopping while many low rent and a few exotic tents and tables are erected. Zoras explains she’s been here before, though a lot of knowledge is hearsay through her job with Ammon. Because of this, she passes by a few stores which sell what you may be looking for, but she refuses to go in, saying something nebulous about “bad business partners” or “You don’t want any part of that.”

Keeping talk to a minimum, you walk contentedly at a comfortable distance to Ebe while Zoras leads. With your face covered by your goggles and turban, no one gives you a second glance but you always feel like someone is watching you. The few guards- human, Monster, or Anubis, give you little attention beyond scanning Ebe and Zoras and you’re kind of thankful for the more exotic Monsters being present; you basically fade into the background!

Checking your mental list one more time as you push through the throngs of people, you go over what you need on this trip. First and foremost, clothing. For the majority of your group, getting a fresh change of clothes would help them blend in better while for some it would just raise their mood. Sophie is still going to be disappointed when she finds that she can’t go revealing her skin everywhere but we all make compromises. Besides, she’s too young to be flaunting herself to every man in this city, what if someone thought to rape-

Gods, what are you, her Father? What a terrifying thought, besides her real Dad is within this very city. If he wants to punish her for dressing that way, that’s his prerogative. And also, it’s usually the Monsters who rape people, not the other way around!

Grumbling to yourself, you continue with your list. Beyond finding some clothing, you should really take a moment to look through some of the potions in town. While you still don’t relish the thought of drinking magically imbued semen, you at least know from Sylphie that it starts to grow on you after awhile. Actually, that’s disgusting in its own right, so you still really want nothing to do with it and will only drink the direst of emergencies. Or if the potion does something really cool you suppose. Other than that, you need to look for a chain. When relaying this to Zoras, she gave you a very strange look but given how most chains are purchased for slaves, it kind of makes sense. 

After what seems quite a long time of walking, Zoras stops before a larger shop and says, [Ah, here we go.]

Looking over at the place, it’s built into a larger building, likely the bottom floor of where the shopkeeper lives, and is filled with various items of clothing. You expect to see more tailor equipment around, perhaps bolts of cloth, but you see nothing of the sort present. Still, there are plenty of pieces of clothing from all sorts of styles which means that this place buys and then sells the clothes without making it themselves? That’s… impressive. You can’t even think of a place in Deleor like that, though to be fair you haven’t much been to Sanctifrond in awhile. Perhaps this is the way of the future?

A Desert Kitsune waves as your group enters, you unable to stand outside without attracting too much attention. Thankfully centuries of living with Monsters has allowed this place to be large enough for Zoras to enter, and she and the shopkeeper begin to converse amiably. She points at you and shakes her head saying, [Men, right?] The shopkeeper merely laughs and looks over the list of measurements that Sophie took, nodding her head as they talk over the finer points of clothing.

Leaning back out of the way, you don’t notice a man stand next to you and ask, [So, which one is your wife?]

Heart beating quickly in surprise, you almost respond with speech but remember your position and merely wave your hands and shake your head. The man looks at you oddly and then smirks, [Oh ho, I see how it is. They are both your wives? A Ghandharva is one thing, but Girtablilu’s are quite exotic. I have had some of their venom before and while it tastes vile, I was stiffer than a the tips of the Palace towers!] He laughs and slaps your back, giving you a knowing smile.

[Tell me, to shop here you must be well off, what house are you from?]

Under your turban your mouth works furiously, trying to figure out a response while keeping back from saying anything. The man looks concerned and asks, [Is there something wrong? You appear to be quite distressed, perhaps I should call a guard-]

[Julzar! Come to the fitting room!] A woman’s voice calls from the back of the store. A tired looking apprentice stands holding various pieces of clothing while a rather rotund Ectrian woman leans her head past a screen.

The man, Julzar wrinkles his nose. [Damn hag, she will be the death of me though I love her.] Standing up he pats your shoulder and says, [Enjoy the fruits of youth while you can.] Chuckling, he walks away from you and past Ebe who walks up to you with a worried expression.

[What happened?]

[Nothing, are you finished?]

[Yes, we got something for Tabitha and Sylphie, though I assure Zoras that Sophie will not wear anything in here.]

[Great, let’s go.] You say, standing and leaving. The shopkeeper waves as you leave and you return to the crowds feeling, ironically, less claustrophobic than before. Not wanting to speak, you wave on for Zoras to move forward, looking over your shoulder into the store to see the man cocking his head at you before turning back to his wife.

Your next two stops are less nerve wracking, with Zoras and Ebe making purchases while you stay behind, out of people’s notice. One shopkeeper insisted on you commenting as she held up rather scandalous clothing to Ebe, one which was basically a set of golden links and chains with a few scraps of sheer silk to cover her shame while the other was the opposite, the metallic pieces covering up those parts while cloth accented it. Unwilling to make a scene, you chose the first one without really thinking about it. As you leave the shop with an outfit for Sophie you notice a familiar glint of metal and color of ruby silk underneath the clothing Ebe is carrying, however…

With your clothing shopping finished, you find that the sky outside as already begun to turn dark. As the sun begins its descent downward, men arrive to light lanterns. They cast a warm glow over the crowds of people which begin to thin out due to the time of day. Feeling a little down about not getting to shop for everything you want, you bring this up to Ebe who casually asks Zoras about returning. Without attracting attention, Ebe returns to you and says, [Apparently the Bazaar is still open!]

Surprised, you have Zoras lead you into the Great Bazaar since you’re nearby anyway and find it to be… well, more than just good. You can barely see from one side of the tents and booths to the other, especially through the still present crowds. You can’t even imagine what this place looks like during the full might of the day! Steeling yourself, you walk into the area and look around.

Shopkeeps hawk their wares while people haggle and others talk amongst themselves, creating a cacophony of sound which drones all around you. Walking through it all, you see some shops already closing up for the day while others brim with business. The ones selling clothing for instance seem quite content to close up while others hawking foodstuffs try to sell to hungry passersby.

People murmur as you three walk into the press and you find your progress impeded by the narrow corridors between the stalls. Even though Zoras carves a path, you have to stick close to Ebe, doing your best not to seem overly friendly, but also not losing sight of them. Besides, if you see something you’d like to purchase, you’d need one of them to get it for you. This is exactly what happens when you pass by a stall selling potions.

The shopkeeper, a Lamia-like Monster with a long, green tail and little horns atop her head, shows off her wares. Her Ectrian is flecked with a little bit of an accent, and you notice that her face and skin are that of a foreigner- she’s clearly from the eastern countries. This shows as you notice her potions have names you’ve never heard of before such as [Grace of the Wind] or [Strength of the Mountain]. Nudging Ebe, she asks what they do.

[Oh, you are not familiar with eastern potions. The [Grace of the Wind] improves reaction time at the cost of increased senstivity; quite useful with a skilled sexual partner. [Strength of the Mountain] makes one more durable and have greater endurance, though admittedly it does make you a little sluggish. Perfect for if you wish to mate with an Ushi-Oni and keep your pelvis intact!]

Pointing at another one, the shopkeeper looks at you and then smirks before saying, [Ah, you have noticed this one, yes?] She holds up a vial of a thick, beige liquid. [This is [The Threefold Path]. It is a potion which brings one closer to the Gods and improves magical power. Spellcasters who drink this are able to channel mana far greater than normally for a short period of time.]

[That sounds too good to be true.] You blurt out, much to the surprise of Zoras, Ebe, and yourself. The shopkeeper merely laughs,

[Yes, it does have the effect of placing the user in a trance-like state as they cast spells and often they are left disoriented for a time after casting. It is often used as well by priestesses in your lands because of this trance-like state.]

[We’ll take one of each, some mana potions, and a health potion.] Zoras says, seeming worried. Looking about, no one seems to have taken much notice of you, but you did speak and anyone could tell you’re not from here. Working with another foreigner makes it less likely she’ll tell anyone anything but…

After paying what, in hindsight, seems like a small fortune from your coinage, you begin to see why there weren’t too many people around her stall. Still, if these potions do what is advertised… that’s quite the boon!

>You gain [Strength of the Mountains]

>An Eastern potion which imparts a resistance to pain and a stronger endurance, however it makes the reaction times and thinking of the user sluggish.

>You gain [Grace of the Wind]

>An Eastern potion which imparts increased reaction time but enhances all the user’s senses- including pain

>You gain [The Threefold Path]

>An Eastern potion which places the user in a trance-like state and allows them to cast magic at a far more efficient and powerful way. The trance often ends in disorientation as the soul realigns with the body. Or so the label says anyway.

Heading away in what you try not to show as a hurry. You soon find yourself on the other side of the Bazaar, away from where you last were. Again, no one pays you much mind and Zoras begins to look a little less tense, though she doesn’t address you. Feeling a mix of annoyed and undestanding of the precaution, you look away from Zoras to notice a stand closing up for the day selling various trinkets. Most of the items appear to be little charms and bracelets and such, while one object catches your attention.

Nudging Ebe and pointing at it, she heads over to the shopkeeper and returns soon after, blushing for some reason. Thanking her, you take the object and smile, placing it safely into your pocket before heading on to follow Zoras.

Though this is mostly your little side adventure, at one point Zoras and Ebe stop at a jewelry seller, having you hang back nearby where people are standing and smoking pipes with various herbs. As the two Monsters shop, you hear some of the nearby men speaking with casual tones and can’t help but listen in.

[Have you heard anything of the Violet Sands recently?] The taller of the two asks, to which his friend blows a ring of smoke.

[Yes, more and more frequent their attacks grow. Despicable creatures they are, pecking at the heels of the Pharaoh, blessed be her grace.]

[Indeed! I have heard though that the Royal Guard have been sent to bring them to justice, however.]

[Yes, I have heard this as well. I’ve also heard that they’re close to returning to the city with captives! My business partner had an order from the Palace to prepare for a celebration on short notice.]

[They are close to returning then?]

[One would assume. Between you and me, I have also heard from another partner who works with Harpy couriers that along the Royal Road they have seen a caravan bearing the Royal sigil. I believe we may hear of this celebration tomorrow.]

[Hrm, interesting news. I need to make preparations to corner the market if such a thing happens tomorrow.]

[Ha! Do not wrestle away all of my customers with that!]

[If they Royal Guard have subdued many of those cultists then there will be plenty of customers! Of course, one does worry that the cultists in the city will retaliate…]

The other man waves his wipe. [Bah, there are not cultists in the city, that is a rumor.]

[Oh? And you can explain the strange occurrences in the Mushtarak district then?]

[Merely commoners being commoners, nothing more, nothing less.]

[If you say so… ah.] The tall man looks down at his pipe and frowns before looking at you. [Sir, might you happen to have any [Green Leaf]?]

Shaking your head, the man furrows his brow. [You do not appear to be smoking. Is something the matter?]

Holding up your hands, you shake your head. The man frowns before clacking his tongue. [Ah, I see. You have forgotten your pipe! Well then, I shall show you to a wonderful pipe seller. Come friend, I need more leaf anyway.]

He and his friend sidle up beside you and almost forcefully push you toward another staff nearby, unfortunately away from Ebe and Zoras. You want to fight back and get away, but you can’t say anything and if you fight them you’ll cause a scene. Looking back over your shoulder at the two women, you feel a sense of fear at what will happen when they realize you’re gone… Gods you need to make this quick then.

The two lead you before a makeshift stall where a strange Alarune-type Monster sits without any shade from a stall cover. Her skin is a dark green and she has slender spines protruding from her back and at various parts of her body while atop her head a red flower grows. All around her are multiple men looking at various pipes, buying herbs, and trying to hit on her. As you approach, she looks at you with tired eyes and says, [Welcome valued customers. How may I help you?]

[Looking beautiful as always, Levit.] The tall man says, waving to you. [Our new friend here needs a new pipe!]

[Oh, I see.] The strange, cactus-like Alarune says. She squints at you and asks, [May I see your mouth?]

Eyes going wide at the request, you begin to shake your head when the men smirk and egg you on. Not wanting to cause a scene, you gulp and lean in close to the Monster, pulling down your turban just enough that she can see your lips. As you do so, however, she leans forward and kisses you. Your eyes going wide as her soft tongue slips into your mouth.

Pulling back from her, the men around you laugh and make jokes to themselves as you hurriedly cover up your mouth and look at her in horror. The Cactus Alarune licks her lips and seems to think about something for a moment before nodding and reaching over to show off a pipe. [Simple, but durable and able to handle any situation. For a little spice, it is made of Rosewood from Deleor. A perfect fit for your mouth, I believe.]

[Levit is never wrong on these things, take the pipe!] The shorter man says, beaming.

You really don’t want this [Pipe], but you’ve been forced into this situation and you pay what seems to be highway robbery for the [Pipe]. All things considered, it’s a really nice one, though you’ve never had much of an interest in smoking at all. Still, if it will make you fit in and look cool, then peer pressure is what you have to do…

>You gain [Pipe]

>You don’t even smoke, but it’s a really good pipe you guess.

>You gain [Green Herb]

>A simple herb cultivated for smoking. Mildly addictive

[Ah, before you leave.] Levit says, holding up a hand. [I have recently grown more of my [Turquoise Herb] and [Magenta Herb]. Would you care to purchase some?]

[Oh ho!] The tall man says, [Well now, I can’t pass up Turquoise. The last time I smoked that I’m certain I had a chat with Phallia about horticulture.]

[Ah, Magenta herb.] The short man says. [A little too aggressive for me. My wife was not amused last time I smoked it- certainly it got me in the mood but I believe I broke her favorite vase.]

The men begin chatting to themselves about these strange herbs and as they do, you slip back away from them and into the crowd. Shoving the [Pipe] and [Green Herb] into your pocket, you head over to your companions to find them finishing up their business, paying for some necklaces, bracelets, etc. Thank the Gods women can get lost in shopping for extended periods of time, right? When you return they don’t even notice you were gone!

Ushering them to leave the area, they do so, though you notice something clanking attached in a coil to Zoras’s back. A length of steel [Chain] which she picked up from somewhere, though you honestly didn’t expect her to take your little list you rambled off seriously. In doing so she saved you the effort and the danger of being there any further, allowing the three of you to head to the edge of the Bazaar.

As you make ready to leave you smell something delightful in the air and notice a food stall with a fairly short line. The man working the booth slices meat off a spit and places it into a piece of flatbread, applying vegetables and some sauce before handing it to the customer, the whole thing smelling delightful. Your stomach rumbles some and Ebe seems to feel the same, moving to ask Zoras about getting some. Thankfully they do so fairly quickly and come back with one of each of you and a bag filled with more of them for the others. Tucking this away in your pocket (which you wish was still heated), you head back toward Polah’s place as the night drags on and the streets begin to thin out.

The food, which Ebe calls a kebap, tastes amazing. A little bit of garlic in the sauce mixed with the roasted lamb and beef makes the entire thing melt in your mouth and you find it’s gone before you even know it. Wishing for another one, you walk behind the other two quietly until you return to Polah’s place, making certain you aren’t followed. When you return they seem to expect you, and you figure that one of the familiars was watching your progress.

Handing out the clothing and the food, everyone seems pleasantly happy with the purchases. Sophie critically eyes the clothing and finds it to be “well enough for the circumstances” while Sylphie is more interested in eating and looking at the potions you found. Taking the chain from Zoras, you place in into one of your pockets, finding it takes a little too much space up. You’ll need to store part of your rock collection in your bag to keep it with you unfortunately.

>Pick five rocks to carry with you. The rest will be stored in the [Backpack].

>You gain [Chain]

>A simple length of steel chain.

As you do so, you wave Erwin over and give him the trinket you had Ebe buy. His eyes go wide as you present the object, a pair of goggles designed for dolls but which will easily fit on Erwin. He delights as you fit them on his head, showing off your matching set. He happily shows off to the other familars, the cats in particular trying, and failing, to hide their jealousy.

Smirking, you pat that pocket and blink, pulling out the object you forgot was in there. Looking at the [Pipe] you look up to find Tabitha standing next to you, eyes wide in surprise. Looking down at the pipe and then up to her, your cheeks color and you say, “It’s not what it- look, I had to buy it and-” Shaking your head you stuff it back into your pocket and say, “Sorry.”

Tabitha clears her throat, getting her complexion back in order. “Of course, of course.” She coughs and asks, “Did you hear anything while you were out there?”

“Oh, right.” Telling the others about what you heard the men say in regard to the Violet Sands and the Royal Guard, it leaves everyone a little anxious.

“If there’s a cult cell in the city itself, then it might be worth interacting with them.” Sophie says, thinking it over.

“Would attract a lot of attention if we’re not careful.” Alice adds. “I’m more concerned with the slaves the Royal Guard are bringing. If they return and bolster their numbers soon then our plans may go awry.”

“They won’t arrive so soon, will they?” Sylphie asks, though no one has a good answer for her. “P-Polah said how long until she’s ready?”

“Two days.” You say, shaking your head and looking at the door to Polah’s chambers. “Two days…”

“Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t know much of what we can get accomplished this bloody evening.” Zoras says, standing up. She stretches and yawns, “I don’t know about you lot, but I bloody well figure we should sleep and see what’s what in the morning.”

Tabitha nods her head. “Agreed, we can decide how to proceed then.”

The third room in the building leads to another bedroom, though it’s empty save for some beds for the animals. Splitting up the groups, Ebe, Zoras, and Alice share one room while Sophie, Sylphie, and Tabitha share the other. You’re left in the foyer with Erwin and most of the other animals, preparing your bed roll anyway on the floor. While not a bed, it’s a roof over your head and a quiet night’s sleep. Getting under the covers, you sigh and look up at the ceiling, pondering about what to do tomorrow.

Polah is unlikely to get you into the Palace tomorrow so you have time on your hands. But if what those men speculate is true then you’re in trouble. The words of the [Ectrian Orders] ring in your mind as you recall the pages saying, “The purge of the remainder of these traitors.”

Feeling deeply unsettled, your mind drifts to your sister and her cell. They said they were near the capital, but they wouldn’t do anything foolish, right?

Right?

———————————–

The morning comes and for once in what feels like eternity, you feel well rested. Stretching, you notice no one else is awake when you’re up beyond Erwin. Shrugging, you get up and decide to do some stretches, practicing your Geoflexing.

As you move through the various forms, you move the earth in small amounts, getting a better feeling again for the actions. May not be as great as your normal magic, but it’s rhythmic, and you almost go into a trance-like state as you do so.

“Morning Rommel.” Alice says as you go through your motions, eyes closed.

“Morning Alice.” You murmur, not really hearing the words.

“Oh, morning stretches, that sounds like a good idea, mind if I join you?”

“Not at all.” You say, continuing.

Alice’s presence appears beside you and you hear her breathing as she moves. Keeping your eyes closed, you follow-through the motions, feeling the power of the earth in your core. Your legs feel solid with the ground, your heart beats with the rumbling of the earth, and your hands move as steady as stone. Feeling steady and one with the earth, you continue on, knowing that should you wish it, the earth will follow.

“Rommel?” Sophie yawns.

“Yes Sophie?” You respond, oneness in your heart.

“Why are you swaying like a buffoon while Alice is half-naked next to you?”

Furrowing your brow, you open your eyes for the first time to see Alice standing next to you, clothed only in her smallclothes. She follows your motions with some derivations of her own, her breathing making her chest rise and fall with rhythmic motions. Her toned physique is odd to behold with her tanned face and white body, seeming almost comical.

Turning your head slowly forward and bringing Alice out of your peripheral vision, you close your eyes again and continue to stretch. You say nothing, returning to your zen as you forget that Alice has no personal boundaries. Instead, you are thankfully that she deigned to wear any clothing at all. Yes, today truly shall be a good day.

You hear the door open again and Sylphie say, “What the fuck is this.” A moment later Ebe and Zoras enter from the other room, the Girtablilu snickering while the Ghandharva gasps.

“It appears.” Alice says. “That they do not appreciate stretching.”

“Alice.” You say, keeping your calm. “Put your clothes on.”

“Fair enough.”

And that like, she stops and returns to her room to dress. Taking a deep breath, you return to a neutral position and look out at the stunned Monsters all around you and realize that you’ve worked up a light sweat. Wiping your forehead you ask, “Something interesting?”

“Well…” Zoras says, tapping her chin, but Ebe elbows her, making her quiet down.

“It’s just different, is all.” Ebe says, looking a little worried. “Didn’t expect to see you so calm when… you know.”

“Maybe he’s growing some.” Tabitha says, wearing only her tight fitting undershirt and shorts (as if she had any legs to really cover). Nodding her head, she says, “Good form. Interesting style still.”

“Thanks I-” You begin, but cut off as the door to Polah’s room opens. She walks out, yawning and scratching her head before pausing as she notices you. Eyes going wide, she looks down at herself and finds that she’s not wearing a scrap of clothing. Slowly, she covers herself with her wings and sends to you,

{What are you looking at?}

“Ehm. Nothing?” You say, wincing.

Polah’s cheeks darken and she glares at you. {I had forgotten you were here.}

“We just… got here yesterday.” You say, to the confusion of your party, who was not privy the conversation.

{Bah. Well then, you’ll be happy to know I’ve had my familiars find a way into the dungeons. However I have no discernible  method which would be safe for larger creatures to enter.} Frowning, you rub your chin and begin to speak when Polah holds up a claw. {Just wait. I will have the information for you soon enough.}

“I see.” You say, nodding your head slowly. Feeling a little unsure, you ask, “Have you heard anything about the Royal Guard?”

{There is a rumor a contingent is returning from some escapade, that is all I can tell. Is there something else you know?} After you tell her about what you heard yesterday she nods her head and sends, {One moment.} Furrowing her brow, she thinks on something before nodding her head. {It is asked. Should there be a swifter return, we shall be aware.}

“What happens if they return and decide to go on a sweep for the Violet Sands, entering every building?”

Polah is silent on this for a long while before saying, {That is your problem. Not mine. I merely was contracted to get you into the Palace. Should they find you here, it is your concern. Besides, they will easily find the Violet Sands in the Mushtarak district anyway. They do not hide well enough from me.}

Blinking in surprise, you make to ask her more but she walks into her room again and closes the door, leaving the room in silence. Turning to the others, you see Alice walk back out of her little room and ask, “Oh, she was doing the freaky mind thing again, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, Alice.” Sylphie sighs. “The freaky mind thing.”

“Ah, well is what it is.” Alice sits down on the ground, pulls out her sword, and begins to polish it. “So, what’s the plan? Is the today the day that we save your parents?”

“Not quite.” Sophie says, giving you a questionable look. “That is what I assume, yes?”

“Yes.” You sigh. “That is correct. It appears that Polah found a way in, but that it isn’t the best for us since we’re too big. Apparently.”

Erwin snickers and you glare at him before he shakes his head and prances about. Grumbling at him, you turn as Sylphie asks, “So what, we’re just sitting here again?”

“Seems that way.” You sigh. “I believe that we don’t have many other options, all things considered.”

“Could always go back out into the city?” Ebe asks, cocking her head. “Find a little more information, get a better lay of the land?”

Though this thought had occurred to you, it still seems a far too risky and dangerous to get involved with. Better just still until Polah has a better idea for you. No sense risking anything if you don’t have to. Besides, you have Zoras to help you! Turning to the Girtablilu, you ask more about the city- especially about the violet sands.

Zoras leans back, crosses her claws, and says, “Bloody cultists… yes, as far as I know, the Violet Sands are said to be hiding within the Mushtarak district, though of course I don’t know where. I’ve been out of the loop on most of the happenings here, but I’ve been told there’s been the occasional theft, murder, etc that looks far out of place, even for the capital, as well as people moving about at strange times of night.”

She shrugs. “Pretty bloody non-specific if you ask me.”

“Still.” You sigh. “It sounds more like cultist behavior. No smoke without fire they say.”

The Girtablilu rubs her chin, “True enough, if I’ve learned anything from Ammon or treasure hunting. Might not be what you’re looking for, but it bloody well beats nothing. Still…” She shakes her head. “Sounds a little dangerous to go asking around about the Cult if you ask me. On one hand, you might find them. On the other hand, you might find a bloody spear in your chest.”

“Uhm.” Ebe says, raising a wing. “I change my vote.”

“Yeah.” You say, rubbing at your head. “Probably for the best to stay put.”

The room grows quiet as everyone looks about with awkward gazes, not certain what to do next. It’s been awhile since you’ve really had nothing at all to do. Even the boat adventure you still had something to look forward to, or were recovering from injuries, etc, etc. The anticipation on top of all of this of finally reaching your destination makes it all the harder too.

It’s Tabitha who breaks the silence by clapping her hands together. “Right then, we have time on our hands so we best prepare and train.” Looking over everyone she continues, “Everyone here has something to practice so we’re in top form for when we enter the Palace. Right?”

The party looks at each other and then to Tabitha before nodding their heads. You find yourself getting into it too, smirking at her rousing speech. Nodding herself, she puts her hands on her hips and says, “First things first, we need breakfast.”

Sophie cocks her head, “I’ve been wondering, but does this place even have a kitchen? Wasn’t an issue last night, but today…” She trails off as a rat squeaks at Mr. Ed. The horse snorts and Sylphie cocks her head before translating.

“Nope. Apparently they just bring whatever food Polah and they need into the place and dispose of it later. Polah doesn’t even know how to cook it seems.”

Her twin sighs. “Well, we have some rations which will work uncooked I suppose, though I’d rather be able to make a fire.”

“Ehhh, really?” Sylphie blurts out, looking down at one of the cats. “Apparently it’s fine to just go ahead and do whatever we want in here. We can make a campfire as long as we don’t burn everything to the ground.”

“What do we do about the smoke?” Sophie asks, raising an eyebrow. “And what tinder would we use?”

Sylphie smirks. “He says, and I quote, ‘Shit, aren’t you fuckers mages or something? Figure it out yourselves, fuck.'”

Sophie hisses at the cat who hisses back, though his hiss carries a distinct smugness to it. The Cat o’Ninetails pulls back and blinks in surprise, as if she was slapped across the face. Blushing, she turns her head to the side and huffs before saying, “Sylphie, be a dear and make a fire for me once I get things set up here.”

“Pfff, okay sis.” The other Cat o’Ninetails continues to snicker as her sister gets food ready and soon enough the place smells of good cooking. All the familiars save the goat line the little cooking set up, staring in wonder at the smells. When Sophie does eventually serve out the meal of simple cooked lamb, eggs, and bread, she hands some to them- all save for the cat whom she smirks at until he bows down and apologizes. The only other person not to partake is Polah, who stays in her room the whole time.

Once that’s accomplished, everyone moves out to their own task. Alice and Tabitha clear a space where they can practice their swordsmanship while Sophie sits nearby, watching with her tails performing various tasks seemingly without her notice. Ebe tunes her guitars and hums a new melody, shaking her head at intervals when she apparently doesn’t enjoy it.

For you and Sylphie, it’s magic practice time. Clearing away a big area of anything flammable, you confide in her that we want to practice more Pyromancy before entering the Palace.

“You know, not certain how much more useful that’s going to be than your Cryomancy.” Sylphie says, shrugging. “Pyromancy is similar to Luxmancy, so I’m pretty good at it, though of course I am my Father’s daughter and Fulgromancy is my speciality.”

“Wasn’t the Monster Lady particularly good at Pyromancy?”

Sylphie’s lip twitches. “A little bit. She’s basically good at everything to be honest, but I digress.” Tapping her head for a moment, she snaps her fingers. “[Flame Lance].”

“That sounds… suitably strong.”

“Oh yeah, it’s pretty wicked.” Sylphie chuckles. “I haven’t cast it in awhile, but now’s as good as ever.” Looking off to the corner where there’s no flooring save dirt, she points at it and asks you to pull up a wall. After doing so, she takes up her staff and closes her eyes, channeling mana. After a few seconds she thrusts out her arm and a searing hot beam of fire erupts from her staff. It flies in a straight line faster than you can track and bores into the rock, melting a hole into it before dissipating.

“Haaaa, ouch.” Sylphie says, rubbing at her shoulder. “Tch, can I just not do dramatic flair anymore? Maybe I should ask Dad for a magitek arm or something.”

“Don’t joke about that.” You say in a stern voice. Her ears go up at this before flatting down.

“R-Right. Sorry.” Sylphie looks like a sad kitten for a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Anyway… that skill will bore through most enemies without much issue, great at melting through armor, but it’s so concentrated that any deviation and it loses it’s power.”

Nodding your head, you practice with Sylphie until you get the hang of it, at once increasing your [Fireball] proficiency and learning how to better manipulate the raging powers of Pyromancy.

>You learn [Flame Lance]

>By focusing the powers of fire into a singular point, you create a lance of flame with extreme penetrating power.

Feeling pretty good about it, you decide to lower your target when you notice the molten rock and sand on the floor. It glows faintly red before cooling, making you cock your head to look at it. It’s been awhile since you’ve seen similar down in Blackfire Reach, though thankfully the volcano wasn’t active. However this molten rock, this lava still invokes a certain form of fear within people for how devastating it is. Thinking on it you try to control it with your Geomancy but find it cools down, while controlling the flames with Pyromancy will make it heat up, but won’t move.

“Oh,I see what you’re trying to do here.” Sylphie says, pointing at the recently heated rock. “I think you’re going to have to combine the two disciplines like with [Pebble Gun].  She concentrates and holds out her good hand. The molten rock shifts and then slides across the ground, leaving a steaming trail behind it. She spreads it out before pulling it back and cooling it off, sighing.

“That certainly takes a lot out of you.”

“Hrm.” You say, trying it yourself. Keeping the two disciplines in check is rather difficult, especially since you want to focus one on moving and the other on heating. Difficult to do in the din of battle you’d assume. If you could only focus on one thing then-

Both you and Sylphie snap your fingers at the same time and say, “Combo.”

“I can move the rock.” You say.

“I can supply the heat.” She replies. Digging in her pocket for a mana potion, she downs it straight, not even commenting on the taste and licking her lips before holding out her staff. “Ready?”

“Ready.” You say. First off, Sylphie focuses concentrated blasts of heat onto the rock, making it melt. Using your magic you manipulate the rock to make it flow and melt easier until it’s similar to lava. Moving to the side, the lava flows like a liquid while Sylphie continues a consistent heat upon the lava, following you in turn. Swirling the lava upward, you stop it in an arch and Sylphie abruptily removes all the heat, cooling the rock down quickly.

It stays in the shape of the arch, cracking and dripping errant pieces of stone. The two of you smile and high-five, to which Sylphie winces and rubs at her other shoulder from the shock of it. Apologizing, you look back at the work and say, “I think this could be very useful, especially on a large scale.”

“Soooo, I did good?” Sylphie says, leaning her head toward you, ears twitching. Her tails wag behind her and it’s obvious what she wants. Sighing, you place your hand atop her head and let the dark magicks take effect.

“Awww yeah, that’s the stuff.” She moans softly while you look over the handiwork of your spell before returning Polah’s floor to how it started.

>You learn [Lava Flow]

>Rapid melting of rock leads to molten lava, allowing manipulation of this deadly substance. Limited control if moving both yourself, very good control if you only do one part.

Sylphie sighs as you finish your headpat. Her ears flip up and she has a goofy smile on her face as you wave her away. Nodding her head, she wanders over to Ebe and sits down, staring off into space as the Ghandharva works, seemingly oblivious to her.

Shaking your head, you turn back to ponder the uses of this when Erwin walks up. {Neat stuff you got there. Surprised you didn’t burn the whole place down.}

{We had it under control.} You say, waving your hand. To be fair, you PROBABLY did anyway.

The rat from last evening cuts into your conversation. {Sure you did, wanted to cook us alive ya did.}

Erwin glares at the rat before huffing. {Honestly, I’m getting sick of others listening in to us, how do we fix that?}

{Strengthen our bond, I guess.} You say, shrugging.

{What does that even mean? How do we do that?} Erwin sends, exasperated. He walks over to you as you look through [Familiarity with your Familiar], finding nothing of much value here. Closing the book you shake your head.

{I don’t know, I mean, we got the trust issues over with, right?}

{I mean, I thought so.} He says, cocking his head. {We’ve done the transformation thing, so like… what’s left?}

Distantly the rat snickers and you hear Erwin growl at him before you put a hand on his head. Instinctively you begin to rub his head and he cools down before rolling onto his belly, turning it into a belly-rub. {Damnit this is frustrating.}

{I hear you.} You mentally sigh. Looking over at the door to Polah’s room, you furrow your brow. Sylphie knows a lot about familiars but Polah… this is the only magic she can cast. With so many familiars of such strong bonds, she clearly has far more experience than the young witch.

Standing up slowly, you walk toward the door and raise your hand to knock. Before you can, however, it opens inward and the Shoebill stands before you, the incredibly tall bird looking at you with that piercing gaze.

{May I help you?}

“Uh… I wanted to ask Polah a question.”

{After you almost burned her home down?}

“We didn’t… agh, look it’s about familiar links, alright?”

The Shoebill looks lost in thought for a moment, although that’s difficult to tell to be honest. Eventually she sighs and sends, {Very well then. Polah will allow it.}

She opens the door further for you and the two of you enter into a dark chamber. It’s larger than the other rooms and is just as sparsely decorated. Against one wall is a neatly made bed while on the opposite wall a bookshelf has a few, meager books. A chest sits at the foot of the best but otherwise the only other accessories to the room is a pile of cushions upon which Polah lays, naked save for cushions over her chest and nether regions.

Wings spread out in an arc behind her, she creates an imposing figue. Not even looking up as you enter, she sends, {Better make this quick, I’m coordinating.}

“Ah… sorry.” You say before coughing into your hand and not looking directly at her. “Erwin and I wanted to as-“

{About your familiar bond. Why it’s so shoddy, right?}

{Yeah, that’s a harsh way to put it, I guess.} Erwin sends, frowning. {Any ideas?}

Polah sighs before mentally doing the same. {This isn’t exactly advice you can really give to someone. The magic for animal empathetics is difficult and you have to be one, heart to heart with your familiar to truly create a good bond.}

“I’d say we trust each other well.” You say, nodding your head. “We can successfully perform [Metamorphosis.]”

{Child’s play.} Polah sends. She raises a clawed hand and snaps her fingers. The Shoebill next to you suddenly and explosively grows in size, towering over the two of you. her eyes glow a deep red with the malice of a thousand suns and she breaths upon both of you before shrinking down to her normal state and preening her feathers.

Polah mentally chuckles, {Anyone can do that with little work. The true way to develop a familiar bond is yes, through trust, however not a simple trust.}

When you’re about to ask what she means, the shoebill says, {What happens when a familiar dies?}

Pausing, you look to Erwin before saying, “The… one they are bonded to takes a severe mental and emotional shock, sometimes leading to death if it’s a violent death.”

{Indeed. And what happens to the familiar with their practitioner dies?}

Erwin answers, {Oftentimes death as well, however some can survive and will end up losing their imbued consciousness.}

The Shoebill nods her head. {Indeed. Does this scare you?}

“Well, of course.” You say, shrugging. “The thought of such a thing happening… that’s terrible.”

{Yeah, how can you ask that? Going back to the way I was… erm…}

Polah mentally sighs. {And there’s your issue. You two trust each other in battle, however when it comes down to it, you’re afraid of what will happen when the other dies. You’re not actually afraid for what it means to lose the other.}

“I don’t…” You begin before your eyes go wide. “Oh.”

Erwin looks down and sends, {Oh.}

The Shoebill shakes her head. {Do you get it now? A bond is more than just convenient, it’s a bond greater than even marriage. You two share one life now, what will happen if one part of that life is gone?}

“I… I’d imagine I’d feel hollow.” You say, feeling a little dazed as you think over so simple an explanation.

{And that.} Polah sends. {Is the essence of why the mental trauma is so bad when a familiar dies. It’s like ripping a part of your heart asunder violently. For most people who don’t have time to prepare, it’s too much to bear, however…} Pointing her claw at you, she sends,

{Until you can accept that, your bond will be weak.}

Looking down at Erwin, you catch eyes with the fox. He looks down for a moment before looking back up to you and saying, {You know, I always thought every time you did something stupid that I didn’t want you to die because I was scared for myself. Yet now that I think about it, I’m afraid of what life would be like without you man.}

Sighing, you rub your head as you think it over. Though before you’d spoken about trust in battle and trust this, trust that, you never really thought over the implications of it. You never really thought much into if Erwin died to be honest. Sure, you were afraid that Erwin would die but you never really thought that he actually would. So the implications of that is… if he actually did die though…

Taking a deep breath, you rub the back of your head and look at Erwin. “I guess I never thought you’d die, that you’d be around forever. Even before the bond you were such a big part of my life and now with you gone… Gods what would that even be like? Missing a part of my soul? I don’t even want to imagine it but…” Feeling a tightness in your chest, you gulp. “Fuck.”

A chuckle comes from the room as Polah audibly laughs. “Can you hear me?”

Cocking your head, you look at her and say, “Uh… yes?”

“No, not… like that.”

Eyes going wide, you realize she means mentally. Smirking, you look down at Erwin who realizes it as well. Holding out your hands, the little guy jumps into your arms and nuzzles your cheek before standing on your shoulders. Smirking, you walk over to Polah and lean down to say, “Thank you.”

“It’s… nothing.” She murmurs, wings folding up around her.

Reaching a hand out toward her head as repayment, she suddenly sits up, wings splaying out to smack you across the face. Sprawling backward, you hit the ground and blink before pushing yourself up and looking at her.

Polah sits there, top entirely exposed as she focuses on something. She turns her gaze to you and, despite what she just said, sends {The Royal Guard are due to enter the city within the hour. The people are scrambling to get ready for the parade, the normal guard are going on high alert, and…} Polah looks you in the eyes,

{The Violet Sands are falling back somewhere, gathering together. Something big is about to happen… what trouble have you brought me?}

Holding up your hands, you say, “Hold on now. What are you talking about?”

{The Royal Guard are back and the people are holding a parade, as you said.} Polah says, not even caring that she’s exposing her bare chest. She looks at the Shoebill who snaps to attention and walks outside the room before turning back to you. {My other familiars have seen people moving, and I have confirmed that the Royal Guard are headed into the city.}

“Well shit.” You say, rubbing the back of your head. “Wait, how are you communicating like this again if-?”

{Because you’re still a child compared to me on this.} Polah snaps, glare in her eyes. Rubbing at her head with a claw she sighs and looks down at her chest before blinking, looking up to you, and then slowly wrapping her wings around herself. {You could have at least told me.}

“I thought you didn’t care.”

{Of course I care if a man looks at me and- nevermind, we don’t have time for this.} Sighing, she concentrates on something before sending again. {The normal guard have begun to secure the parade route, but they are also entering nearby homes and buisnesses. One would assume they’re looking for something.}

Her gaze shifts to you and you shake your head. “They can’t know we’re in the city. It’s likely the Violet Sands. Their orders said to purge them once they returned.”

{Great.} Polah sends. {Just great.} She unfurls a wing, uses an arm to cover her chest, and points at you with the other claw. {I told you before. I will not cover for you should the Guard come here to ask questions.}

“Fine.” You sigh. “But if they find us, they will also question you.”

She sniffs, {I have my ways in and out. It is little concern to me what happens to you and yours, however.} Shaking her head she continues, {However, Ammon has paid me for my service and I will continue to work at it, although such a thing is going to be more difficult now.}

“We can’t just go now?” You ask, cocking your head. She rolls her eyes.

{I found the way for you to enter the palace, however you are not going to be able to get in easily, nor do I know the guard Patrols there. Good luck getting there at the moment anyway.}

“Won’t the guards be very… concentrated around the parade, can’t we use that as a distraction to get in?”

Polah looks at you the way a champion runner would look at an obese man who called him slow. Shaking her head she sends {Yes and no. The Guards around the Palace are going to be intent on guarding their charge the same as always. However if what you say is true, there will be a noose spread around the Mushtarak district.}

“That’s where the Violet Sands are, right?” You ask, furrowing your brow. “Do you know where?”

{Of course, I have a familiar mixed in with them.}

“You… wouldn’t happen to know if a member named Helene is there, would you?”

A silence fills the room as Polah focuses for a moment before shaking her head. {No, I don’t know any of the individual cultists, merely where they are headed. I don’t really care that much either, so long as they don’t interfere with my business.}

“Seems tracking them is part of your business.”

{Smart-ass.} Glaring at you, she continues. {Look, they’re probably hearing the same news via different channels and are reacting. They’re probably all going to get slaughtered, so what do I care? I just need to find you a way into the dungeon. That’s it.}

She sends this last part with an air of finality. Looking at Erwin, the fox frowns and then shakes his head, making to leave the room. Sighing, you decide to do the same. Once you reach the door, however you hear one last sending.

{If the guards are coming, I’ll let you know at least.}

Hand on the door, you send back, {Thanks.}

Walking back into the room, you see your party standing around looking confused. Alice’s head cocks to look behind you, but you close the door before she can say anything. Looking between everyone, you sigh and inform them of the situation.

Alice groans while Tabitha curses. The twins and Ebe look at each other with worried expressions. The first to ask anything is the Lizardman who asks, “Well, what do we do then?”

>What do you-

No wait, you already did that. Besides, while there’s a few thing you can do, but you’ve already made up your mind on what to do. No point in going back and waiting for your mind to make things up now.

“Look.” You say, rubbing the back of your head. “While I don’t like just sitting here, we need to stay put until Polah has our way in.”

The others look at each other with confused glances. “Are you… sure about that?” Sophie asks, looking confused.

“Yeah, what about the Violet Sands?” Ebe asks, looking worried.

“What about them?” You ask, feeling a little tired.

“Well… uhm… your… you know…”

Sylphie breaks up the awkwardness by coughing into her hand. “Ahem. I’m sure what she’s trying to say is that if the cult is taken out, we may have little to cover a retreat.”

“Nah, I think she was about to bring up his sister.” Alice says, much to Sylphie’s annoyance. The Swordswoman gives her a critical eye before saying, “What? Now’s not the time to coddle anything. We need to know if Rommel is going to do anything about this.”

Eyes turn back to you and you pinch the bridge of your nose. Sighing out, you say, “No. We are staying put, getting into the Palace, and getting your parents, alright?”

Sylphie nods her head slowly while Sophie sniffs. Tabitha shrugs. “Very well then, what do we do if the Guard comes knocking?”

“We’ll have advance warning from Polah, but I figure we’ll be hiding ourselves.” Looking down, you say, “First things first, we hide our presence here.”

{Easy.} Erwin sends, nodding over to the other familiars. The goat stands up, walks over to where the others were sitting before, and rolls around, getting hair everywhere. The fox turns to Sylphie and waits for something. The Cat o’Ninetails cocks her head and then frowns.

“Uhm… yes Erwin?”

{Oh hells, that’s right, we leveled up or something.} Erwin sends, looking surprised. {Think we can dial her in on this?}

{Do we really want to?}

{I mean. Maybe when we want her to?} The fox thinks about it. {Wait, can we do that?}

Asking this of Sylphie, she blinks and says it’s possible. “Still.” She adds, “The fact that you two got that close… that’s adorable. But damn I can’t spy on- I mean uh, well it will just mean we’ll be more diligent.”

Both of you frown at her and she teaches you how to let her in and out of communications. Basically, it’s the same as before, just she can’t hear anything until you speak back. Same as how it works with her and Mr. Ed, though really, you want to know what’s going on in his mind…

“Ahem.” Sophie coughs, interrupting this fun little lesson. “I think what he was trying to convey before we had this fun little lesson-“

“That you interrupted.” Sylphie says, interrupting in her own right.

“Yes, quite. Anyway,” Sophie begins again. “I believe what he was trying to convey is that the goat has masked all trace of our scent. There’s too many animals in here to smell out us, even with those stupid dog noses.”

“Oh!” Sylphie says, sniffing around. “You’re right. All I can smell is goat ass.” She blushes and says, “No offense.”

The little goat sniffs and walks back to her spot, plopping down to eat more of those odd fruits. Shaking your head, you say, “Now that that’s taken care of, we need to clean up and hold out in one of the side rooms.”

“Can’t they just… search the rooms?” Ebe asks, looking skeptical.

“Yes, but we can use magic.” You say, holding up your staff. Ebe clacks her tongue but doesn’t say anything else. Pointing to the room where Zoras was staying, you say, “Alright, we’re going to make a small side room in there and then use [Trick of the Light] to conceal further if we need to.”

“Bleh.” Sylphie says. “But fine, it’s only for a short time.”

“Right then, the parade will be through the major promenade going from the main gate to the Palace I would expect so this district won’t be hit just yet, especially where we are and where the Mushtarak district is.” Zoras says, nodding her head. “Of course, we’ll need to prepare quite the large around I suspect to hide. I’m not very small and no one wants an accidental sting.”

“It’s fine, we’ll take care of it. For now, pack up your things, we have some time I think.” The others nod and get to it, a process which takes far less time than you’d expect, probably from all the camping. The next step is to cover up all your training, again a process that’s easily done. With some magic and rolling a goat over everything, it’s done.

Preparing the area to hide takes a little more effort, moving away flooring and covering it so it doesn’t look too weird before crafting a wall to look like the other walls to hide behind. Once satisfied, you and the others store your things there and get to waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Polah gives none of you any information and you consider sending Erwin out to scout the place for abit, but decide against it. Surely, surely they’d try to come after you at some point, right? Without windows, it’s hard to tell what time it is, but it seems as if it’s slipping to afternoon before you know it with none of the tension leaving the room. Too afraid to do any training and too worked up to study, all of you sit, just… waiting.

“So… what, are they going to wait until we’re dead or something?” Alice growls, standing up. “I’m asking the bird-cat what’s the deal.”

“Alice..” You say, holding out a hand, but you also want to know so you can’t quite bring yourself to stop her. She walks over to Polah’s door and knocks on it once before shrugging, opening it, and walking inside. All of you watch in suspsense for a moment before Alice walks out again, walks over to you, and sits down.

“Uhm.” Ebe asks. “What… did she say?”

“Nothing, she just stared at me. Probably tried her freaky mind shit, one of you go do it.”

Sighing, you get up and walk into Polah’s room to find her laying under the cushions again. {Polah.} You send, knowing she’ll get it. {What are the guard doing?}

{The parade ended an hour ago. Most people are headed home while the guard spreads around, “escorting” people to the Mushtarak district.}

“Are they searching the other districts?” You ask, switching to Deleorian. “Seriously, are they going to come here?”

{I don’t know. At the moment, No, they aren’t. I’m busy, alright?}

“Look, I want to know if we need to be so worried or not. It’s wearing on people. How much longer until you have a plan for us anyway?”

Polah glares at you again. {Tomorrow morning I’ll likely have something. You’re here for my help, alright? I could literally rat you out.}

Gritting your teeth, you take a deep breath and calm down before nodding your head. “Fine. Fine.”

{Tch. Look, just go back there and don’t be so worried, I am watching everything.} Polah closes her eyes. {Also, the Violet Sands have closed off from my sight. I know where they are, but not what they are doing. As of yet, there has been no major disturbance, just a few people taken in as suspects for… really nothing.}

“So…”

{Either this is nothing or they’re waiting for something else to happen.}

Well shit, what a waste of time. Rubbing the back of your head you apologize to Polah. Before you can stop yourself you ask, “Is there anything we can do for you for all the help?”

{Help? I basically told you to go fuck yourself.}

“Yeah but… I don’t know. Somehting simple? Do you like headpats?”

{What… like rubbing my head? Why would you do that?}

“Because it… feels good?”

Polah opens one eye to follow your expression before sighing. {Deleorians are strange. In Ectria it’s usually Monsters who initiate with the men.}

“What? No, look, I’m not saying we should- Gods, it’s just a simple headpat, here.” Stepping forward before she can say anything, you reach down and place your hand atop her head.

Polah’s eyes both open wide as your [Hands of Solos] begin their work. She first looks scared, but then begins to let out small moans, clutching cushions close to her naked body and shuddering.

“W-What are you doing?” Polah asks in a breathy tone. “S-Stop!”

“Fine.” You say, pulling your hand away. She looks at it with longing before looking down, cheeks growing red. You notice her tail is swishing the cushions below her and she has to conciously stop it before her cheeks begin to burn hot.

“G-Get out.” Polah mutters.

“Right, just let us know when you have more.”

“Fine…” She murmurs as you walk away, entering into the other room. Once again you’re greeted by curious eyes  that search over your actions.

“Did ya pat her good.” Sylphie asks, smirking.

“What? No, what?” You say, trying to play it off.

Sylphie snaps her fingers and Erwin trots up, sniffs your hand, and nod his head. {Griffon head, no doubt about it.}

“For the love of- Look, I pat her head. That’s not the important part here.” Pulling your hand away from Erwin, you once again relay the information.

“For fuck’s sake.” Alice groans, leaning back. “So what, we just… rest then? Morning we may have our plan? Boooorrriinnngg.”

Tabitha nods, “But it’s not conflict, which is fine.”

“Yes, but what are the cultists doing? Escaping?” Sophie asks, looking deep in concentration. “I’m concerned it’s something more nefarious.”

“You don’t think they’re going to do some kind of ritual here, in the capital, do you?” Ebe asks, looking afraid.

“I don’t know.” You say, thinking about your sister, unbidden. “But I hope they aren’t stupid enough to do anything rash.”

“Well, if they do, it’s a bloody diversion for us, I suppose.” Zoras says. Stretching, she looks around and asks, “So, how about lunch?”

—————————————

The rest of the day passes uneventfully, with both you and Sylphie focusing on your magic while the others train. With practice, you can bolt easily and cover your tracks, so you’re not as concerned, though you don’t cook in here again, instead eating travel rations. The Shoebill returns later in the evening with some food and brings it to Polah, though you have no idea how it escapes notice being so large.

Your practice was mostly on Gold manipulation, working on that until you become proficent with it, able to skirt a coin about without much effort as well as working on some golems to have easy access to, mainly with Ronnie, Acillis, Babyface, and Phallia. The other friends you store in your [Backpack] as you work with the chain, feeling a little more confident with it.

>You learn <Gold Manipulation: Proficent>

>You can pull raw gold from the earth and shape it well. You have good control over purified gold.

Well, if you ever run out of money, you can easily go prospecting now, so that’s nice. When asked why you worked on this, the explanation was, “We’ll be in a palace.” This is good enough apparently.

Without sight of the Guard, you keep a watch at night for signs of trouble and all sleep in your false room, preparing for tomorrow. You get the first watch and nothing much occurs as the night continues, so when it’s time to head to sleep, you prepare to wake Tabitha, the next watch. As you make to do so, Polah bursts into the room and sends,

{Get up, now. Those cultists have ruined everything!}

Rousing the others, Polah angrily rubs at her head, growling while sending, {They scurried out of their hiding hole with something that began to slaughter the guards in the area with dark magics. The cultists themselves are attacking too, a frenzied look in their eyes. They’re capturing the guards where they can and dragging them back into their base too.}

Relaying this to your group, Polah shakes her head, {There’s no more time for subtlety, you need to get out of here and get into that Palace.}

“But the plan-“

{Damn the plan, there’s no way it will work correctly now. Listen, one of my familiars will travel with you and tell you how to get to the proper location. You’re going to enter through an old service chamber that’s been filled in years ago, but still reaches the dungeons.}

“How-?”

{Your damn magic shows have been watched, you can dig a tunnel you idiot, it’s not that deep.} Shaking her head, she says, {Once in, that’s up to you. I’ll have a familiar watching for you, but again, my job is to get you in.}

“Question.” Zoras asks. “This thing you said that’s breaking things… does it look like a construct with some black tentacles coming from it?”

{Sort of?} Polah sends through you. At this your party grows very, very worried.

“Hent-ateh…” You say, gritting your teeth. That means that Helene is here… damnit.

{Sure, that’s fine.} Polah says, looking at all of you. {The streets here won’t be as patrolled, however you need to go now if you want to enter the Palace and you need to follow my commands via my familiars. Otherwise you may not make it to your destination.}

“Nighttime rescue might be best.” Sophie says after you explain it. “Might need to fight some guards but… well it’s our best shot.”

“Hent-ateh…” Ebe mutters, shuddering. “That thing is here… killing Ectrians…”

“And what are the cultists so worked up about? Did they just go insane?” Sylphie asks, looking confused.

“I don’t know, but we should get going.” Alice says, patting her sword. “As much as I want to kill that thing for good, we should use the distraction.”

“Hopefully there’s a city left to come back to when we get out.” Tabitha says, nodding her head.

“Bloody hells, what is all this madness.” Zoras chuckles. “I just got healed and here we are. Did bloody Ammon predict all of this?”

Everyone looks again to you, for your piece on this. The time has come, whether you wanted it or not. The way to the Palace is open, even if it’s being paid for in blood, perhaps your sister’s blood. But your goal is in sight, the way lead before you. Are you ready?

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One thought on “Wizardquest 2: Chapter 15- Still as Stone”

  1. I saw that picture of Polah a while back. I’m just glad she’s not eating those rats.

    …Although I skipped down to post after seeing that pic. Please don’t prove me wrong.

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