Wizardquest 2: Chapter 7- Grains of Sand

With a great deal of puff and pomp, you say, “But sir, we are merchants!”

“Is that so?” The Guard says, looking dubious. His gaze drifts over to the hooded twins and then to the weapons at Tabitha and Alice’s belts. He frowns and says, “So you are slavers then?”

Both you and Tabitha look a little disgusted at this accusation and you speak before you can correct yourself, “No, I would never do such a-” You cut off as Alice jabs you in the ribs and you grunt before saying, “Ah, it is not a profession I have looked into, sayidi almuhtarm.”

His eyebrows raise for a moment at your decidedly shitty pronunciation, but you only just learned the damn word, so sue you, right? He mulls over it for a moment before sighing, “Present your wares then.”

“My wares.” You repeat, looking at him in confusion. “You want to see… my wares.” Honestly, you didn’t expect him to ask this of you and you have to flounder about for a moment before Ebe steps forward and says,

“hu ‘ahmaq mae eayan jayidat lilkham.” She looks up at you and gives a sweet smile before saying, “Would you show the kind guard your ore?”

“My… ore.” The words spill unbidden from your lips until it all snaps together and your eyes widen in realization. “Ah yes, my ore!”

Hands moving quickly, you dig into your coat and pull out your friends one by one, explaining what they are and how they function. The guard seems a little put off by how much you’re pulling from your pockets, but he doesn’t say anything until the end.

“A respectable collection, some of which are fit to sell.” He nods his head and holds out a hand. “May I see your papers, then?”

Ebe winces and you cock your head. “Papers?”

“Yes, the papers received when your goods are reported. You did receive papers while at the trading outpost, yes?”

“I… seem to have forgotten them.” You say, sweating a little. The guard narrows his eyes and you quickly sidle up next to Ebe. “Ah, but who needs that when I have my l…loving w…wife here? We got married and now I’m a citizen of Ectria so I should be able to-“

“I would appreciate if you did not waste my time.” The guard says, though there is no one else around. He shakes his head and waves you away, to which you begin to blurt something out and his hand goes down to his curved sword at his waste.

“Are you certain there’s nothing else I could do for you?” You say, winking at him. The guard’s eyes go even more flat and he hisses,

“Homosexuality is punished by death in this country, Deleorian. If you make such advances again, I will cut you down.”

“Wha-?” You say, looking startled. “No, I didn’t mean that at all.”

“Then you would whore out your… “wife?”

“No, not that either, I’m talking about- ugh, give me a moment.” You begin to dig into your coin pouch when Ebe’s wing touches your arm and she shakes her head.

“No, that will be enough.” She turns and bows her head to the guard, “shurkraan.”

“qad taeud, shaqiqatan.” He says, giving her a smile with an odd expression, a mix of pity and lechery. Ebe gives him a wry smile but says nothing before turning back to you.

“I suppose we just need to head back to the outpost and get our papers, yes?”

“Of course…” You mumble cursing yourself for a fool not thinking this over. You could just incapacitate all the guards and make your way into the town anyway, but people would see and notice all of this from the town, especially Nane, who will bolt the moment she knows what’s up. Of course, she’ll probably do this if you make your way into the town anyway.

Thoughts swirl in your mind enough that you don’t notice fully as Alice leads you away, the rest of your group entering the safety off the pass until you’re far enough away that the guards can’t see any longer. When you reach this point, Sophie lets down her hood and frowns back toward the end of the pass before sniffing.

“Well, that could have gone better. We’ll have to find something with which to sneak by the guards I suppose. Perhaps your invisibility spell, dear sister?”

“It’s not invisibility and I highly doubt it’s going to work all that well in all that direct sunlight. Besides, did you notice the Anubis nearby? She’d smell us easy.”

“I see.” Sophie says, putting a hand to her chin. We’ll need to find something, however…”

“I could kill them all?” Alice says, looking bright until Tabitha chops her head.

“No. No apprentice of mine will be killing innocents.”

“But they’re guards! They know the risks in their duty!”

“And they are only doing their duty, nothing more, nothing less.” Tabitha sighs out, shaking her head. “Honestly, every day if more of a struggle than the last. Why do you have to be so good with a sword?”

 

The two bicker with each other as you scratch your chin. Well shit, this is a fine pickle. Ebe can easily get past whether by flying or just walking across, but the rest of you are boned without some papers. Of course, you could go back to the outpost and demand papers be made, but with the current state of affairs, you’d rather not.

Besides, there’s the matter of Nane. There’s no choice for it now, you MUST kill the hedgehog. You have given her far too many chances to live and let live, and she’s ruined them all. It’s hard to remember ever being so vindictive as this but… she deserves it. You’ll make a beast out of yourself for this moment just so the pain of being a man fades as you fire the rock.

“So, we can’t walk in, I can’t fly you in… what option does that leave?” Ebe says, frowning. You give her an amused smile.

“I thought you were going home? It didn’t seem like the guard much wanted to keep you from entering, from the bits I gathered and his facial expression.”

“O-oh!” Ebe says, blushing. “W-well, you see uhm, it’s not that I don’t want to go home it’s just… uhm” She scratches the back of her head and sighs, “I meant to say this earlier but… you guys are the best thing that’s happened to me and in awhile and while I know it might be dangerous I…” She gulps and then chuckles the rest,

“I thought, maybe I could, haha, uhm, keep with you? I never really had many friends my own age and… and-“

Ebe jumps as a pair of furred arms wrap around her waist. She looks behind her to see the smiling face of Sylphie who looks up at her and says, “Of course we want you along, you silly bird. We’re friends, right?” Sylphie’s hug grows tighter as she speaks in a lower voice. “And anyone who would help us find our parents deserves at least that.”

The Gandharva’s eyes go wide and she looks down before returning the hug. “Of course!”

You watch the two hug and smile, feeling within you a gentle warmth at seeing something so pure. A presence at your shoulder reveals Sophie, who has the same look in her eyes as yours. She turns her gaze to you and says, “I guess that settles that. I was wondering when she’d get around to asking.”

“Did she think I was going to say no?”

“Come now Rommel, it’s no secret some of your prejudices.” She gestures over to Alice and Tabitha, who are still bickering back and forth, and then back to her sister and Ebe. “I’d like to think, however, that despite our differences, we can all get along.”

“You sound like the Monster Lady.” You say offhanded.

Sophie just smirks and watches as Sylphie and Ebe untangle themselves. Scratching your head, you look about the pass around you and see no one else coming down the path, which is good, very good. At worst you can camp out here, but you suspect that someone might be by tonight to warn Nane. Which means that you need to think quick in order to get into the town, upon doing so, you should be fine as they probably figure anyone there already went through the checkpoint.

“Can’t go air, land, and certainly not stream, so that leaves… Ah, of course.” You smack your forehead for forgetting such a thing and tap your staff on the ground, performing a [Survey]. Ah, so that’s how it is. Yes, this will do quite nicely.

“Hmm?” Sylphie says, looking at you after she lets go of her hug. You used some magic, right? What’s up?”

“There’s a Wurm tunnel under the ground here.” You say, pointing downward. “A good entrance we can use to get into the town.”

“Huh. Okay.” Sylphie says, sending her magic also into the ground. She nods her head and looks up at you with a smirk. “You saw me reading. I bet I know almost as much about geomancy as you do!”

“Child, please.” You say, giving her a deeper frown. “But you see my point, yes?”

“Yes, yes.” Sylphie says, turning to the others and explaining the plan. Ebe groans at having to go into the tunnels again, and you give her the option to fly to the town and wait for you.

“No, it would look weird if it was just me. Besides, I can… I can take it.”

“Very well then.” You say, nodding your head before turning to Erwin. “Do you think you can stay on the ground and guide our tunneling?”

{Eh. I suppose.} Erwin send. {Might do a little hunting. I hear there are desert foxes out here too. Maybe I’ll find a little cutie and-}

{Yeah, thanks.} You say, cutting him off and noticing Sylphie blushing as you do. Nodding your head, both you and Sylphie begin to cast [Trench].

——————————————————————

A rat shuffles in an alleyway, feeling something off. The rat does not smell anything out of the ordinary, however the ground feels wrong to the rat, as if something unstable. The rat feels it’s a good idea to leave, though it can’t say why exactly. Well, there’s plenty of trash elsewhere to eat. When the ground begins to rumble underneath it, the rat scurries faster away.

Rough dirt moves aside as a hole forms, revealing your face. A wash of cool, night air hits your sweat stained face like a hammer and you almost shiver in delight. Despite it being afternoon when you started to dig, it was still incredibly hot inside the tunnel with no airflow to keep you somewhat cool. Being out in open air again is like some kind of Gods send, and you struggle to pull yourself out before taking a swig of water and sighing in relief. The others pile out after you, doing the same, though Sylphie has to fill a little pot with water so Mr. Ed can drink.

“That was miserable.” Alice says, dragging herself out of the hole, panting. “How are you keeping your cool?”

Tabitha shrugs, being the last one out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, that felt rather nice, all things considered.” She sighs as a cold wind passes by. “Almost miss it.”

“Insane, you Monsters are insane.” The swordswoman mutters, taking a swig of her own water. You watch the two for a moment before shaking your head and calling out to Erwin. He appears from behind a pile of rubbish, a rat caught in his mouth.

{I see you made it in one piece.}

{I see you caught yourself dinner.}

{Could you get Sophie to cook it up for me?}

{No. We have other things to do.}

{Rats. He sends back, though you’re not certain in what context he means the word.

“Well, we’re here.” Sophie says, putting her hood back on. “What’s the next step.?”

“We get that hedgehog.” You say honestly. “I have no idea where she is though, do you have any idea, Ebe?”

The Gandharva thinks it over for a moment. “Well… this trading town has little organization. At the center of town is the market, which also houses the little town hall. All around there, however, are houses and a few inns.” She holds up a wing. “But… there is a section of town for the richer merchants. It caters to foreign merchants as well. If she’s anywhere, it’s probably there, yeah?”

Sophie nods. “Makes sense. She seems like the type who would rest in luxury if she could. There’s no way she could know we’d be coming in like this, so we probably have an air of surprise.”

“So, we find this hedgehog and execute her? Simple thing.” Alice says, shrugging.

“Uhm.” Ebe says, looking a little worried. “While technically m-murder out in the wastes is without punishment, inside settlements it will call down the wrath of the guard here.” She points her wing to a dark building off in the distance. “The soldiers here can be mobilized if needed.”

“Just like in Borne.” You groan. “Well… we’ll have to do this quietly and dispose of her otherwise.”

Sylphie shivers, “I don’t really like… talking about this so casually.”

“I’m afraid it has to be done.” Sophie says, touching her shoulder. “You can stay back, if you’d like? We would require lodging for the evening.”

“I think I’m not suited for quiet and subtlety.” Ebe says. “It would be best for us to find somewhere to rest I think. Would you like to come with me?”

Sylphie looks between you and Ebe and then nods her head, seeming a little grateful for the invitation. “I suppose too many people would be a burden as it stands. Yes, I’ll take you up on that offer.” Her gaze swings to Tabitha and Alice and she asks, “Either of you two wish to come?”

“Hells no!” Alice says, but Tabitha puts a hand on her shoulder and looks her dead in the eyes.

“You’re going to find a way to make a fool out of yourself. Go with those two and keep them safe. In return, we can have a duel tomorrow.”

Alice narrows her eyes before sighing and flipping her messy, yet still somehow captivating, hair. “Oh very well then. Perhaps I can introduce these two to a few men. Or are you prudes also?”

“No, thank you.” Sylphie says with a flat voice.

“Uhm. I uhm, I think I’ll pass!” Ebe says, cheeks red.

“By Solos, I have never met a group of such Gods damned virgin pussies in my life!” Alice groans, putting a hand to her forehead. “Ugghhh, Monsters, yeah, right. Come on then, I guess.” With a wave she, Mr. Ed, Ebe, and Sylphie leave.

{Mind going with them?} You send to Erwin.

{What, go to the nice and comforting inn where three rather buxom women with very soft skin and hands might pet me instead of going to murder a slaver? Goshes, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever done for me.}

{I mostly need a way to find all of you later, but okay that works.}

{Spoilsport.} He sends back before following after the others. Sylphie stops, cocks her head, and then scoops up the fox in her arms, carrying him like a baby. He flashes you a quick grin before they turn down the street.

“One of these days Erwin…” You mutter to yourself.

“Hmm?” Sophie asks. Turning to her, you shake your head and say,

“Nothing, let’s get going.” With your now smaller group of Tabitha, Sophie, and yourself, you head down toward this richer part of town.

The town, known as Heph-tun by those who bother to give it a name, is larger than expected and utterly different than any town you’ve ever seen before. While not nearly as large as Borne, the town is made up of many square buildings made of stone that stack upon each other to form neat rows that line hard packed earthen streets. A central marketplace dominates the town, but unlike Borne, it is quiet at night. In the distance, you see a garrison tower where torches burn in the night. It seems magitek is rare here, if present at all, the realization of which is a mild shock to your system.

Few people walk about the streets, meaning its later than you expected. You don’t even attempt to fire up the [Port-o-Glass], knowing that you would get no connection if you tried, making it hard to say exactly what time it is. Somehow you feel like all the time spent tunneling transported you to a completely different world, as if stepping back into the past. How could a nation so close to Deleor be so much less advanced? Was it the lack of natural leylines?

Sophie seems to have a similar opinion of the place as you walk about the cool night. Winds breeze bits of sand in the air and you feel that having some kind of head-gear would be rather appropriate, especially later on. The few people you do see on the streets have the darker skin of the Ectrian people, though do you see a few Monsters here and there and even a Deleorian or two. No one bothers to say much to you though, as anyone walking down the streets seems very busy to get somewhere. Merchant town means merchants present and coin stops for no man they say.

As you approach the “richer” area of the town, you hear a rattle of chains and step aside as two guards, dressed in chain-mail armor, walk out from a side street. They give you sneers as you press against the other side of the wall, and a moment later you see the source of the rattle. Four prisoners walk by, one man, a Deleorian Catgirl, and two little human girls. They all wear dingy clothing that barely provides protection and have bare feet which are chained together, causing them to shuffle if they wish to avoid chafing. Expressions cast down to the ground with a hollow look in their eyes, they walk past you without even noticing while two more guards hold up the rear.

“Rommel. Calm down.” Tabitha says in a calm, cool voice.

Her words roll through your ears and you have a blink a few times to realize she’s said anything. Your hand hurts for some reason, and you look over to see it gripping your staff so tight that you have to expend some extra effort to dislodge your fingers, noticing that you’re breathing a little heavy as you do.

“Openly walking about with slaves…” Sophie says, shaking her head. “I had heard such things… figured we’d see them but… Gods, how can they do this?”

“It is the law of their land.” Tabitha says, her voice calm, but you can feel a deadly undercurrent beneath the words. “We go to break one law tonight, it will not do us any good to break others just for the sake of four slaves who are already broken.”

“Four people.” You whisper, even including the Catgirl subconsciously. How many others in this very city were like this? What kind of lives did they lead before being clapped into chains? Did they have families who missed them? Did-

You shake your head. No, this line of thought will do nothing but upset you. Tabitha is right, there’s nothing to be done for it now. The only course ahead is to continue to ensure your safety here before heading out and rescuing the Grand Wizard. Perhaps later you can have the luxury of thinking about such things as the slaves… perhaps.

The three of you continue on, walking through the various structures in this area. While made in similar styles as the other buildings, these had fine carpets hung on the walls or before the buildings, and far more guards stationed before some of them, perhaps on the lookout for thieves. You spot maybe four or five inns, and would have a hells of a time finding where she is if not for the knowledge that she took her wagon with her when she left, the whole thing having been brought in by Hilda and her traders.

After searching the third inn, you spot the wagon and find your mark as the “Sultan’s Lap.” The guards give you a wary eye, but a flash of two silvers from Sophie sees you into the inn without much trouble. As you enter, you find a fairly lively scene of ornately dressed merchants from both Ectria and Deleor sitting about tables and drinking, eating, and chatting.

A musician plays a harp on stage. While not a Gandharva, this musician is still a Monster, a lamia wearing a scanty outfit of green silk and a veil, showing off much skin as she plays. Sophie appreciates the sight and you have to tap her head to get her to focus. The three of you look about the common room but find no sign of the hedgehog, which may be a blessing rather than a curse. If she’s up stairs then she’ll be easier to kill without attracting attention. Of course, finding her room would be quite difficult unless…

Sophie nods over to the bar and the three of you sit down to find a burly looking man cleaning glasses. He looks the three of you over and says in sluggish Deleorian, “You want drink?”

You fumble about for words that Ebe has taught you and you say clumsily, “Nem uh… min fadlik?”

The man blinks a few times before letting loose a laugh that shakes the glass around him. “Ahaha! I am sorry, that was… awful? Yes.”

“Sorry.” You say, feeling like an idiot, but the man shakes his head.

“No, no. Is fine. Is… refreshing to hear others try to speak language.” He pulls out three mugs and fills them with ale, passing one to each of you. “Go, drink.”

The three of you take a sip of your drinks, and you relish in the exotic flavor of it, putting it down in the counter before you and saying, “It is good.”

“Yes, best in town.” The man nods his head. “You are staying here?”

“No, we are not.” Sophie says, her hood still up. The man turns to her and tries to look into her hood.

“Oh, a shame you hide. Voice says you are quite pretty, yes? What business you have?”

“We are looking to make a deal with a particular trader.” She says. You look at her with surprise as she so casually speaks of such things. Your eyes flicker also to Tabitha, who says nothing but watches the scene and the room all around her with an unwavering gaze.

“Oh? I see.” The man’s expression grows a little more serious. “Much business here, much coin go past. Can not say who trades here or no.”

“But you remember coin?”

He smirks, “Yes. Memory is good with coin.”

Sophie digs into her pocket and pulls out a silver coin, placing it on the table and saying, “Have you seen a Hedgehog with a coin like this?”

He surreptitiously takes the coin, sliding it under the counter before rubbing his chin. “Hmm. Many Hedgehogs I have seen with many coins. It is hard to say from just one coin.”

Sophie grits her teeth and pulls out two more silvers, which also vanish in a similar manner. The man’s eyes sparkle as he sees her furred hands underneath, but he makes no comment on it. “Ah, yes, I do recall Hedgehog. There is one here yesterday, waiting for business partner. Are you they?”

“We have business with her.” You say, nodding your head. “But she did not tell us what room she might be in. She does so wish to keep business matters… confidential.”

You see a smile flash under Sophie’s hood and she nods her head slightly as the man considers. “Hmm. Yes, very important to keep things confidential. We do not wish to anyone to learn any secrets, do we? However, I cannot seem to recall where she might be-” Two more silver coins clink on the bar. “-Ah! Room 23.”

The three of you nod toward each other and drain your ales while the man chuckles and crosses his arms. “Buiness is good, yes! However, I must warn.” His expression goes a little dark, “If business turns sour, then a… intermediary may cancel the deal for both parties, yes?”

His warning sends a shiver down your spine and you nod your head. “Nem sayidi.”

The man’s laughter rings in your ears as the three of you turn toward each other. Sophie speaks first, saying, “Should we just get inside and do the job?”

“Might get messy.” Tabitha says. “And I feel that if we cause much trouble, this man will sell us out.”

“We could always ambush her in the morning?” Sophie suggests. “Though she’s a slippery one, I’m not certain how that will work…”

They both look to you for your opinion on the matter and you groan inwardly. This might not go well no matter how you play it, but it needs to be done.

Looking about the room, you notice a few eyes looking at you over cups, eyes which are used to searching out information from any and every nook and cranny. True to Ebe’s words, this place is a den of merchants and those who owe coin more loyalty than anything. To be honest, you look far different than most of the patrons here and thus there must be something about you that could potentially be… profitable.

With a mild cantrip, you invoke the [Privacy Barrier] and turn to face the other two. “We can talk freely.”

“Talk, yes, but otherwise…” Tabitha says, nodding toward the crowd. You see a few eyes drift back to their drinks, though you merely shrug.

“They’ll find it odd if we just leave so suddenly after noticing them too, yes?” Sophie says, eyes hidden under her hood.

Both you and Tabitha nod and turn back to speaking, pretending not to notice those looking at you, the best way to make certain they actually aren’t. Of course, you really want to, but you keep it within yourself and speak to the two Monsters.

“We agree that we can’t let her live. She’ll probably find some way to get at us again if we cross paths again, and if we don’t do this tonight, she’ll probably bolt. This is agreed, right?”

“Indeed.” Tabitha says. “I am not well versed in the ways of assassination though. Personally I’d just run her through in one of these privacy barriers and be done with it.”

“Unfortunately, if we make too much of a mess, we’d be suspects number one.” Sophie sighs. “The bartender clearly knows we’re up to no good, however if we keep it quiet and with another bribe, I doubt he’ll cause a fuss.”

“So we have to make it clean and dispose of the body easy enough.” You say, rubbing your head. “Which means we can’t break into the room or it will cause too much of a fuss later, and we can’t cause a bloody mess.”

“Oh, and you see over there.” Sophie says, pointing toward a Deleorian Kobold who laps at a white drink. You hope it’s milk. “She’ll smell it is there’s a lot of blood also. I think many of the Monsters here could smell these things.”

“Sometimes I’m glad I’m a Lizard.” Tabitha sighs.

“I thought Lizards could smell well?” You ask, cocking your head. “Don’t you do that whole… tongue thing- ow!”

You pull back as Tabitha flicks your forehead, which actually really hurts! Glowering at her, she rolls her eyes and says, “Lizardman, Lizardman! I don’t do that tongue thing.” She mutters, shaking her head.

“Children, please.” Sophie says, though you feel she’s smirking heavily under her hood. “We can fight later. For now we need to kill a Hedgehog.”

“Tch, I don’t like hearing you talk like that.” Tabitha says, and Sophie shrugs.

“We all have to grow up sometime.”

The Lizardman looks uncomfortable at this and you also feel a sort of regret. Yes, they needed to grow up but somehow hearing her say it makes it a little more real. Well, nothing for it but to continue on. With this in mind, you say, “Alright, so we need to get into the room without breaking down the door, take her out with little bloodshed, and then dispose of the body.”

“Sounds easy enough.” Tabitha says, looking at you with interest. When you smile at her, she frowns and asks, “What?”

“Actually… it might be easier than expected.”

———————————–

*Knock Knock*

“Hmmm? Who is it?”

The Hedgehog’s voice calls muffled through the door, though you can barely hear it from your position at the end of the hall. Sophie watches the stairs further down from you and you look to her, getting a signal of all clear as Tabitha begins to speak at the door.

“Mistress Nane? I’m here from the Pass.”

“The Pass? Took your damn time.”

“Apologies, the task too more effort than expected. Your quarry was… more difficult to subdue than we thought.”

Silence is the only response for a few moments, but eventually Nane replies, “Did you kill the Wizard?”

“Don’t trust us, huh?”

“No, but I assume since you’re alive, you did what needed to happen.” The door clicks and swings open and Nane pauses, looking at Tabitha with a look of concern on her face. “A Lizardman? The Danuki would never hire a- oh fuck.”

Nane makes to scream but in the blink of an eye, Tabitha thrusts forward the hilt of her sword, hitting the Hedgehog in the throat and cutting off her cry. Cursing, you move forward and cast a privacy barrier before the Hedgehog can recover, and both you and Tabitha enter the room, closing the door firmly behind you.

Shifting the barrier, you sigh out in relief, certain no one had seen you. Once this is done you look down at the Hedgehog who is on the ground, eyes wide with terror. Though you don’t want to admit it, you feel an ugly sense of smugness at her expression. She looks about the room for escape, but Tabitha pins her down with her foot and shakes her head.

“W-What?” Nane croaks out, her voice raw from the injury.

“I gave you a chance.” You say, walking over to the small window and feeling outside with [Survey]. There isn’t any glass over the window, just a wooden shutter which keeps most of the wind out. With a little effort, you’re about to pull a large amount of sand from the ground up the side of the building and into your hand. You doubt anyone who saw it would know what they were seeing anyway.

“W-we can cut a deal!” The Hedgehog croaks, trying to crawl away.

“I don’t have time for this.” You say, and force the sand into her open mouth. She doesn’t have the chance to scream as it fills her mouth and enters her lungs, to which she begins to suffocate in possibly the most horrific fashion possible. It’s disgusting to watch as she flails about, scratching at her own throat as the irritating particles deprive her of air.

Eventually her motions become sluggish, her eyes begin to bulge and then, with a final gasp, she collapses on the floor. Tabitha waits a moment longer before removing her foot, a look of disgust upon her face. She can’t bring herself to look at you as she lifts up the body and feels a pulse. Making an annoyed sound, she says, “Still alive, if barely.”

“She’ll be dead soon.” You say, shaking your head. “We can finish the job once we leave here.”

“Might as well take her belongings.” She says, nodding to the small pack in the corner of the room. “Make it look like she up and left at least.”

“Fair enough.” Grabbing the pack, you place it into the open pocket of your [Trenchcoat], the other being full of rocks and such. With the deed done, you open the window and look outside, seeing no one in the back alley behind the inn. Waving to Tabitha, you cast [Build the Wall] and raise a platform of sand up which the Lizardman gets upon.

Before getting on yourself, you send a small burst of sand under the door and wait a moment as Sophie enters the room, nodding her head. She looks at the form of Nane in Tabitha’s arms and then frowns before quickly getting onto the pillar as well. Using your magic, you ease the four of you down to the ground where no one is the wiser.

Tabitha nods further down the alley and you move into the darker shadows where no one is until you’re all but hidden in the darkness of the alleyway. Being so hidden, the Lizardman unceremoniously dumps the Hedgehog to the ground and says, “Finish her.”

“She’s not dead?” Sophie hisses, looking out from the shadows to make sure no one is watching. “I thought you said she’d be dead!”

“She’s about to be.” You say, drawing your knife. You place it to her throat when Tabitha grabs your hand.

“What are you doing? If we were going to do that, we’d have done it already.”

“What, are you going to break her neck then?” You hiss back. She frowns at you and then takes one foot, placing it on her neck and pauses, as if unable to act further. Gritting her teeth, she looks like she’s pushing against something and struggles before sighing and saying,

“I can’t. I can’t kill someone like this. It’s not right.”

She looks away from you and walks away from the Hedgehog, leaving you with the grisly task. Very well then, how should you go about this?… You could probably just bury her and be done with it, as she’s good as dead now anyway, but something in you says you need to make certain. A niggling little voice that will not allow you to leave her alive, something which demands that you have this slaver’s blood on your hands.

The voice wins out in your mind. If you think of her as a slaver and not a Monster… not a person at all, then it becomes quite easy to do what needs to be done. Pulling out Stan and Ronnie, you form them into solid balls and manipulate them on the sides of the hedgehog’s head. You have one moment of hesitation before you twist the two orbs, using enough pressure upon her head to violently jerk it to the side, snapping her neck with an eeirely silent popping noise.

And then it’s done. The life leaks out of the slaver and what was once a spine in your side is now a pile of meat. Closing your eyes, you whisper a silent prayer to Nerg before opening up a large gap in the earth and sand underneath the Hedgehog and burying her deep within, closing up the grave with nary a trace left.

Sighing, you look up and see that Tabitha is looking away from you, a hard look in her eyes while Sophie watches, her feline eyes glinting out from under her hood. That piercing gaze of hers studies you, as if appraising the entire scene that just happened before her. When she catches your look, she turns away from you and says, “We can be going now, right?”

“Right.” You mutter, standing up and pausing. You open up the pouch in your pocket and look inside her possessions. A ledger with some business dealings, a small sack of coins, some clothes, and a trinket which depicts two alluring women as mirror images, one angelic, the other beastly. Opening up the coin sack, you dump a few coins, mostly silvers and a gold or two, onto the dirt before pocketing four gold coins for yourself.

>You obtain [Nane’s ledger]

>A small book of facts, figures, and business notes from the Hedgehog Nane

>You obtain [Twin’s charm]

>A small, silver charm depicting Phallia and Dollora, the main deities of Ectria

“A bribe.” You say, and with that, your group heads out of the alleyway. Only a few souls are still walking about, and they take little notice of you as before. There’s no need to hurry or look at all suspicious, though you can tell that both of the Monsters have their own feelings about the situation. Tabtiha appears serious, not seeming to want to talk about the situation while Sophie seems pensive, a hand up to her chin as she walks without looking.

Hmm. Well, you got out without any witnesses and without calling an alarm. This could have been very bad if you messed up, but no one should know where you are and if you need to tunnel out of the town again well… so be it.

Speaking of which, you have no idea where you are either, but after conversing with Erwin you find the location of the inn you’re staying in. A mid-class inn of affordable station situated near the center of town, it fits your needs quite well. Entering inside, you find it to be quite similar to the inn you were just at, but with more relaxed folk and less opulence.

The common room is devoid of your friends, and after speaking with a worried looking innkeeper, he directs you upstairs to your friends, accepting a few coins in exchange for bringing meals up to your rooms. Your feet feel leaden as you walk up the stairs, physical and emotional exhaustion piling up on you. As you enter Sophie, Sylphie, and Ebe’s room however you have to pause at what you see before you.

“-and that is how you should proposition someone for underwater sex.” Alice says, her arms crosses under her breasts. She pauses as you enter, hand sliding toward her sword, though she cracks a smile as she sees its you. “Well, well, well, look who’s back.”

“O-oh!” Sylphie says, trying to hide her embarrassment by turning around. You see she’s furiously trying to hide a notebook while setting herself in order. Sophie gives her a wry smile before moving to tease her sister.

Looking about the room, you spy Ebe in the corner, sewing something with decided grace, though you still have no idea how she’s holding the needle or… whatever she’s doing. She looks up from her works and blushes, saying, “Ahhh, it’s not quite done! I hoped you’d be back later, though that would be bad too wouldn’t it? Oh…”

{She’s been working pretty hard on that for awhile actually.} Erwin sends. You track the sending and find him coiled in Alice’s lap, which is mostly bare as the woman is only wearing a tunic. The fox rubs his face against her alabaster thigh, though he moves with annoyance as Tabitha walks over to the woman and begins to chastise her, much to Alice’s amusement.

“Hmm?” You ask, walking over to Ebe as she puts down her materials and looks to the side. “What are you working on.”

“Oh, you know uhm… Just a little something for… for you.” She stammers. “I noticed you don’t have any head protection and that you really should and I was ah… making a turban. For you.”

“A turban?” You say, looking at the loose cloth before her. She blushes as you reach out to touch brown cloth. It appears fairly simple, lacking much of the ornate finery that some of the other turbans you’ve seen have. While not exactly your style, it would fit with your [Trenchcoat] without being too garish and would most certainly keep your head cool.

Feeling a little of your weariness vanish, you nod your head and say, “Thank you Ebe. I look forward to seeing it finished.”

“O-oh! Well it shouldn’t take much longer, it’s a fairly… fairly simple thing to make.” She seems positively radiant for some reason after that and you chuckle, turning to the rest of your party.

“Alright, see to it you get some sleep. We’ve all been up far too long and frankly my back hurts.”

“Back problems?” Alice says, standing up and walking over to you. Her tunic barely covers her upper thighs and if she walked too fast, you’re certain you could see her undergarments, which you’re fairly certain she doesn’t wear. You make to move away from her, but she dashes up behind you and, with a squeeze around your middle cracks your back.

“GAH!” You cry as you drop back to the floor, wobbling some. You turn back to the woman who chuckles and says,

“Well?”

“Well what you damn… damn…” The words fail you as you realize your back DOES feel a little better. This only makes you angrier and she chuckles in amusement before heading over and flopping down on the bed. You quickly avert your gaze as not to get a full view of her sculpted ass.

Sophie begins to bicker with the woman about how it’s their room and she needs to leave while Tabitha makes to polish her sword and Sylphie sits motified in the corner. Sweeping you eyes over the scene you feel a sense of ease at it all, something you feel you sorely need after what you did today. There’s nothing in all the hells that could make you regret what you did tonight, but it still doesn’t feel good. The day that you lack any emotion killing slavers, the day that you are unable to enjoy this company, Monsters though the mostly be, that will be the day when…

When what?

Well, perhaps you should hope that you’ll never have to find out.

—————————————————————–

Morning comes and no one has thus far tried to arrest you. Sharing a breakfast in the common room, Ebe presents to you your brand new turban and wraps it about your head, showing you exactly how to put it on yourself. Of course, the fact that she does so facing you with her breasts in your face makes it a little difficult to fully processes the message and you have to have her teach you again, just from… a different angle.

Once food is settled, you find a map of Ectria and look over it. To the north lies the Chasm of Regret within the Desolation of Duarte. Very little lives there and the people found in that area are nomadic, always trying to stay a step ahead of the Monsters who make the Wastes their home. To the east, likes the Kingdom of Setet, the capital city of Ectria. To the south, port Amun’ra. The area in between is… not well mapped.

“I’ve never been to the Capital.” Ebe confesses. She looks at the map and places the tip of her wing at a a path labeled on the map. “This is the royal trading road. Many merchants follow some derivation of this path, but there’s little in the way of guidance between here and there. Towns and villages supposedly line the way, but no one really bothers to label such things behind Hatset.”

Pointing at another spot about midway between you and the capital, she continues. “Hatset is a larger settlement renown for its horses and centaurs. They breed wonderful horses for the charioteers and the centaurs are proud warriors who fight for the crown.”

“And that’s… the only place worth mentioning?” Sophie asks, looking at the map with a frown.

“Well, it’s the only place I know of. I’m sure there’s other areas, and we may even find one of the Oasis within the desert! Oh, but just in case you were curious…” She points to another spot between where you are and the Desolation. “This is where my hometown is.” Blushing, she waves a wing, “But uhm, we don’t have to go there!”

“Heh.” You chuckle. “We’ll see Ebe. So it seems that at least heading for Hatset is the wisest course for now. I suppose along the way we’ll gather more information?”

“Perhaps some of the traders in town know more too?” Tabitha says, shrugging. “Might do to stock up on more provisions if we need them too.”

“It won’t do to be unprepared, however… being too prepared can invite bandits.” Ebe says, frowning. “Bandits are fairly common in Ectria sadly, some of whom are glorified slavers.”

[Well, we’ll deal with them if we see them.] You say in Ectrian, much to the delight of Ebe who then chides you for shitty grammar. Seems her lessons last night before bed are starting to pay off also! Now if only she could inform you of how to read Ectrian better, that would be lovely…

“No sense in sitting around here.” Alice says, stretching.

“Well, we’re in a marketplace.” Sophie says, eyes sparkling. “Since this is the last place people go before heading to Deleor, I bet you that there’s plenty of good items!”

“Not as good as Port Amun’ra.” Ebe says, chuckling. “Not that I would know, but I hear the Port has better items because it’s easier to transport via ship than go through the Pass.”

“Not exactly a long trip on through the Pass?” Chimes in Tabitha, who frowns. “Though I suppose that they can transport a lot more and have a larger market as Port Dorning is where the Eastern traders all come in anyway.”

“Correct!” Sophie says, nodding.

“We should stick together though.” Sylphie says, to which Ebe and Sophie frown before nodding. A light sigh of relief escapes from her lips and Sophie ruffles her hair under her hood which makes her wave her sister away with a furred hand.

“We shouldn’t be out for too terribly much longer.” Ebe says, cheering up. “Unless we intend to stay another evening?”

“No, we should get going. Still have something to be done, of course.” Everyone nods and you get up, gathering your items and heading off to the marketplace.

While smaller than Borne, the marketplace here is no less bustling. With the sun high in the head and little wind blowing, the stalls in the town made of light cloth and wood sit still as strong as stone buildings. People and Monsters of all different ages and races mill about, going to various stalls as merchants hawk their wares in Deleorian and Ectrian.

The majority of the people are, of course, Ectrian, however your group doesn’t make anyone bat and eye, even with the horse that trails behind you. Seems they’re pretty used to seeing a lot, though the guards do watch your sword wielding companions for abit, though if it is because of any danger or because they are ogling is up to interpretation.

The one thing you can say for certain about the marketplace is that with all the people and the sun overhead, you are hot. It becomes obvious quite soon that your [Trenchcoat] is not suited for this situation at all. You have to change into your [Wizard’s Robe] at one point, missing your pockets but loving the way it breathes.

“Hmmm.” Muses Ebe, looking at you after you’ve changed and then turning to Alice. The woman is sweating, waving her hand across her face and adjusting her collar, yet never removing her armor, much to the disappointment of many men in the area. The Gandharva says, “You look hot.”

“Oh thank you, you have a very sexy figure yourself but I don’t swing that way.” Alice says almost on reaction before pausing and then chuckling. “Sorry, not the first time I’ve heard that one, you know?”

“Uhm. No?”

“Huh, how odd, I had figured someone like you might have… Ah, nevermind.”

Ebe looks at Sophie for help, but the Cat o’Ninetails merely shakes her head. The Gandharva shakes her head and says, “I was just remarking that you’re sweating a lot. A robe would be quite useful, and it could hide your face with a hood.”

“Are you calling me ugly?”

“N-no!” Ebe says, looking helpless. “I just-I just don’t want to see you burned!”

“Oh! Well then.” Alice chuckles. “That’s different and very considerate of you. I suppose we can look for such a thing.” She walks up to the Gandharva and places her hands on her hips. “Well then, lead on!”

“Uhm… okay.” Ebe says, shaking her head before walking into the crowd toward some clothing merchants. The rest of you roll your eyes and follow her into the sweaty press of people. It smells like a dying rat, but honestly you’re not terribly unfamiliar with it. If only it weren’t so damn hot… though you’re afraid it’s going to just get hotter.

Tabitha shakes her head and walks closer to you as the press of people pushes you in. The twins, Ebe, and Alice all chat around Ebe, the Gandharva nervously laughing as Alice annoys her. Sighing, you realize its in stereo with Tabitha who turns to you and smirks at realizing it.

“It’s hard not to think of them as girls looking like that.”

“They are girls.”

“You know what I mean.”

You concede the point, nodding your head to her. “I’m not terribly much older than them.”

“I can’t see you giggling while shopping.”

{Tell her about your rock shopping trip.} Erwin sends, and you mentally frown at him.

“Perhaps not.” You say, walking up as Alice looks over some robes. “You know, I’ve been thinking that we’re going to have a fair amount of time while traveling the desert.”

“And?”

“And I think that one of my personal weaknesses is melee combat. I never much had a reason for it beforehand, but I figure as things get more dangerous, having a skill would be useful.”

Tabitha frowns and looks you up and down critically before nodding to your staff. “You want to learn how to fight with that?”

“I suppose. I don’t really need a sword on hand and having another weapon on hand beyond a knife would be cumbersome.”

“Could have a spear?”

“Not magically attuned. If I could figure out how to make this attuned well…” You say, digging into your [Backpack] and pulling the [Broken Staff] out of your bag. “It’s kind of broken.”

“Could have it repaired?” She says, nodding over to some smiths. “Seems an interesting design.”

Mulling it over, you say, “I wonder about that though. The Anubis I got it from she… seemed to have a family. Maybe walking around with it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Well, there’s always plenty of time later to get it fixed. I assume this large settlement would have someone who could do it.” The Lizardman nods as she says this. “But as far as your staff… I suppose I could teach you a few things. Staves aren’t as elegant as a sword but they’re useful in a pinch.”

“I could tie a knife to it and make a spear?”

“You Wizards and your spears, honestly.” She says, though her eyes twinkle with amusement before turning back to the younger Monsters. “Seems they found what they needed.”

“Sorry about that.” Sylphie says, frowning at her sister. “We found something for Alice but SOMEONE had to go and buy a few other things.”

“Hmph, I’m sorry that my sister doesn’t appreciate fashion.” Sophie sniffs, stuffing something into her bag of holding. She smirks though and says, “But she will~”

“I don’t… like that smirk.” The other twin says, looking nervous.

“Those two are a handful, I’d hate to be their parents.” Alice says, sniffing. Her armor is now covered by a robe of light, brown fabric that, while still loose on her, hangs a little more snug than it should. This woman and her insistence on showing off her body…

“We thought you should have one too.” Ebe says, holding a bundle of cloth out to Tabitha. “Since your clothes are a little revealing also.”

“Haha.” Tabitha chuckles, shaking her head. “No, I think I’m doing quite fine. Being a Lizardman means I love the sun and the heat. To be honest, I could bask in this for quite some time.”

“You don’t burn?” Ebe says, looking surprised. “Even Bahiti wore coverings.”

“Oddly enough, no. Of course, I don’t tan terribly well either.”

“A shame.” Sophie sighs. “You’d look wonderful with a bit more color.”

“Says the pale princess.”

“Hmph!” Sniffs the Sophie again.

“Well that’s that.” You interject, breaking up the conversation again. “We’re stocked on food, correct?” Sylphie and Ebe nod their heads. “Grain for Mr. Ed?” Similar nods. “Water?”

“Indeed.” Sophie replies, patting her bag of holding. You look at the bag for a moment and consider something, asking Ebe if anywhere here sells bags of holding. She looks about but is unable to find anything, which is a damn shame. You really wanted to tie them onto your robes to make a makeshift [Trenchcoat], but you feel that might not work anyway since compromising the integrity of a bag of holding can lead to… catastrophic issues.

“We should acquire another tent.” Tabitha chimes in. “It seems you only have one and I hear the desert climates are rough at night.”

“Two should fit all of us quite comfortably.” Sophie agrees and then pauses, looking to you. “You don’t mind getting warm and cozy with us supple ladies, do you?”

Mr. Ed snorts in what you can only assume is amusement and Alice snickers as well. Your frown deepens and you say, “No thank you, I’ll be fine.”

“A shame.” Alice sighs. “I hope we come across a few villages, my vag has an itch that hasn’t been scratched in awhile and I know YOU’RE not going to help me out, are you?”

“You could purchase an item which may simulate such a feeling.” Says Sophie, to which Alice rolls her eyes.

“Please dear girl, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Someday though, someday.” Once again the swordswoman sighs, to which Tabitha shakes her head.

“Anyway, let’s find some other suppliers.” Ebe leads the group again and you find someone that sells supplies for desert travel, to which you purchase another tent, lashing it up to Mr. Ed. As they go about look over canvas, etc, you happen to notice a merchant selling scrolls and books. Everything is written in Ectrian sadly, but it reminds you of the [Scroll of Ectrian Geoflexing.] Out of a mix of curiosity and boredom, you walk over the man at the booth and greet him in Ectrian.

The bookseller blinks a few times before cocking his head and saying, “Can I help you?”

“Oh, you speak uh… Deleorian.” You say, coughing into your hand. “Sorry, I was practicing my Ectrian.”

“Oh, you sound as if you learned it yesterday.”

“Right…” You mutter, feeling embarrassed. “Anyway, I have an interest in learning how to read Ectrian. I have an interesting scroll here I would like to read but… well, I can’t.”

“Hmm let me take a look.” The man says, and you hand him the scroll. He pours over it before chuckling. “Ah, Geoflexing. A Geomancer you are, yes? Quite a lovely school of magic.” He opens the scroll and points to the center.

“This is a model of the mana points within a person’s body. A chakra point, for Ectrian.” He points to a word that appears a few times. “Chakra, synonomous with mana. This scroll seems to say that you must gather chakra into your limbs and attune it with the earth around you. Only then will with the earth become an extension of yourself.”

“Huh.” You say, looking over the scroll again. The word, “chakra” appears multiple times pointing to parts of the sketches body, mainly in the hands, legs, and feet. It’s still mostly gibberish to you, but concentrating your mana and attuning it… it’s a start.

“It also details exercises for various techniques.” He points to a certain spot. “I believe this allows you to use the earth as an extension of your fists. How interesting!”

“Thank you very much.” You say, nodding to the man. “This is very useful information. The only other thing I could ask is if-“

The man chuckles and pulls out a small book with Deleorian words on it, “Basic Ectrian.” He holds it to you and you look at it, seeing it to be a dictionary of sorts. Frowning, you look back at the man and says, “You sell this a lot?”

“A fair amount.” He admits. “I assume you’ll buy it?”

You look at the book for a moment before saying, “I suppose…” He chuckles as you hand over the coin, and as you do Ebe pokes her head in and says, “What’s that?”

“A book to learn how to read Ectrian.” You say, tucking it away in your non-magical pocket.

>You gain, “Basic Ectrian.”

>It’s a book for Deleorians to learn Ectrian. What a boring title.

“I didn’t know they had those.” She muses, tapping her chin. “Well alright! Maybe I can learn to read too?”

“Aww isn’t that cute.” The man says. He turns to Ebe and asks, “Hal’ant mtazawj?”

Ebe blushes violently at this and you cock your head, only understanding, “Are you?” or something to that effect. She shakes her head and you ask her what he said which only makes her blush more and the man break into full laughter. He pats you on the arm and says, “Good luck sir. Hi jamilat jiddaan.”

“What?” You ask again, but the man turns to help another customer. Scratching your chin, you turn to Ebe to find her almost scarlet. “Are you alright?”

“Yes!” She squeaks out before turning her back to you. “We should be going!”

“Uhhh, alright.” You say, shrugging. With nothing left to buy, save some mana potions for Sylphie since you’re here, you make your way to the edge of town and look out into the distance past the gates. A wide stretch of low scrubland follows, moving off to sand dunes not terribly distance. You find yourself feeling small as you look out to all that sand and yet… a sort of adventure awaits.

“Safe travels.” The guard next to the gate says after reviewing with Ebe your destination. Seems they are a little more lax since you managed to get inside alright. “Be advised. There is a creature on the loose which killed three people two days ago and was seen leaving the town after we chased it out.”

“Creature?” You ask, confused. The man nods his head.

“Yes, something which may have been a Monster, though it was unlike any I have seen before. Parts of it seemed to blend into the darkness but…” He shakes his head. “Do not worry, there are more tangible dangers out in the wastes.”

“Thank you.” Ebe says, nodding her head. “Isde is the nearest village, yes?”

“Indeed. Directly to the east. You will find shade and water there.”

“Thank you.” She says, bowing to the man. He looks down her shirt for a moment and smirks before nodding and waving you on your way. And so, in the late morning, you’re off in the desert toward your fate.

—————————–

You honestly thought traveling in the forests and Mountain pass was boring, but this is a whole new level of boring. The scrubslands with the few, scraggly trees here and there gave some comfort, but as soon as you begin to reach the sand, things get rather… dull. You encounter maybe one or two caravans on the last leg of the journey to market, but as the day wears on, you begin to see not much of anything.

Ebe converses with you more in Ectrian as you walk while Sophie and Sylphie take the time to walk without hoods when they can, though Ebe’s chastisement has them put the hoods back on every so often, so they might not get burned under the scorching sun. You find you have a better grasp of some basic Ectrian as you walk, and while you’d love to read while walking, that’s not… going to work too well.

Stopping for a break a little after midday, Tabitha decides to start your training with the staff. The first thing she teaches you is how to properly hold the staff and then how to perform a few simple blocks. It’s easy work, though when you go to actually block a few of her blows with her sheathed sword, she manages to get through your guard and give you reminders that you’re the student. You can’t tell, but she might be smirking.

Ebe, Sophie, and Sylphie (with Rommel in her lap) talk while lounging on a nearby dune, sitting on a blanket purchased in town as not to get sand all over their asses. You notice Sophie is not wearing her robes and in fact is exposing much of her skin as she lays down, soaking in the sun. For some reason Ebe doesn’t chastise as she does so and you wonder why not any longer…

A few bruises later, your group packs up and continues on the path. Training in the grueling heat was rough but educational, and you’re glad you have plenty of water. How awful must this place be when it’s full on summer, you wonder? Curiously, you notice that Sophie stows away that bottle of white liquid, seeming a little less full than before, into her bag, but no one else seems to bat an eye. Well, can’t be anything too terrible, you suppose.

Mercifully, the sky begins to darken and Ebe decides it’s a good idea to call it a night. There’s nothing around you in all directions but sand, so setting up camp is basically setting up wherever you’re sitting. Sadly this makes for easy prey for bandits, but where else are you going to stay? Besides, any bandits that attack your group are in for the last surprise of their lives.

Sophie cooks up a wonderful meal, and you notice her skin seems a little more tan than before. You’re honestly surprised she hasn’t burned, but don’t make much mention of it as you set up wards around your encampment. The evening meal is spent with Ebe talking about her own journey to Deleor, and how she camped out with the slaver group, singing about the fires.

“You didn’t turn them into horny beasts with your singing?” Sylphie asks, and the Gandharva chuckles.

“Of course not! I can sing normal songs too.” She pulls out her Ectrian ghitar and strums it, singing a small song about an Ectrian tribesman who falls in love with a Griffon. He ends up following her to her lair and when she catches him as a thief, he accuses her of stealing his heart. Sappy, but it makes everyone around the fire smile except Tabitha who merely nods her head.

“What about a lullaby?” Sophie asks, curious.

“Hum, I know one but I’m afraid it might put people to sleep!”

“Is that so?” You say, perking up. “Think if you played it in combat, it might have that effect?”

“Well, no, not as it currently stands but… I suppose I could modify it? It’s an folk song, but… sure!” She brightens. That might be fun, and a change of pace from Sveth’s music. When you give her a strange look she says, “You know that… heavy music.”

“Ah, of course.” You shudder against a cool wind that blows and say, “I think we should be readying for bed. We have a long day of… sand ahead of us.”

“Yes, sadly it’s a few days until we reach Isde.”

“Nothing else closer?” Alice asks.

“I don’t think so. Maybe off the path to the north or south, but we’d have to detour for that if I find anything by flying.”

“Maybe we’ll find something buried in the sand.” Sylphie chuckles.

“Maybe.” Tabitha says, rising and clapping her hands. “Alright, get this cleaned up and I want Alice, myself, and Rommel on guard. The rest of you, get some sleep.”

Alice groans and you shrug while the others clean up. Tabitha walks over and says, “You’re on final watch, alright?” You nod in reply and she taps your staff. “Do some practice of those forms, but keep it quiet,alright?”

“Yes ma’am.” You say, rolling her eyes, though she frowns.

“I’m not that old.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Better.” She kicks Alice who grumbles and heads to bed in their tent while you make for your own. Sleep is quick in coming and, as usual, it’s quick in going when you’re awoken by a bored looking Alice.

“Your turn. If you want me to keep you company though…”

“Alice.”

“Fine, fine.” She shrugs and walks back into her tent, leaving you to your own devices.

The first thing you do is practice with the staff, getting a feel for the blocks Tabitha taught you. The forms come easier now and the effort feels good as you haven’t been working out as much as you should. Feeling a little warm despite the cool, you take your shirt off and practice until it feels right. When you put away your staff, you see the [Scroll of Ectrian Geoflexing] and study it next to the campfire. You still don’t understand it but… it makes a little more sense.

Feeling a little invigorated from your work out, you close your eyes and try concentrating mana into your extremities like is shown on the scroll. It’s strange, as you’re used to mana as a nebulous sort of concept, not a physical feeling, but if you think of it the same way you grab hold of a rock just focused in your hand…

A tingling sensation spreads across your hand and you frown down at it. The mana feels… there but not quite solid. Putting a little more effort into it, you feel it become more tangible, but it dissapates soon after. You frown deeper and continue at it until the sensation sticks. With some effort you look at the ground and push your hand forward but nothing happens.

“Attune to the Earth, huh?” Muttering to yourself, you spread out your power via a [Survey] and get a good idea how what the ground around you is (it’s sand) and then try to aethertically tune your hand to it. The tingling increases and you feel a weight upon you, as if anchored to the land. Looking down at your hand, you clench your fist and then push forward, to which a gust of sand moves and sinks back to the ground.

It’s… not impressive, but it’s something. Frankly it’s  something that’s taxing of energy as it stands and you stop, vowing to work on it more later. With daylight still not present, you spend the rest of the evening looking through [Speak Up! Audiomancy for the Astute Mind]. Most of the text is basic theory of sound on current knowledge and the first two lessons are for [Privacy barrier] and [Amplify], which you already know.

Skipping ahead, you find another spell, one that’s not a simple cantrip, and more focused on the art of audiomancy. [Audio tap] is the name of the spell, and its design seems to allow someone to listen to something from a long distance away.

“While most audiomancy is at a close distance, this spell manages to take sounds from far away, or out of the practioner’s view, and channels it with a small thread of mana to the caster so they can hear from the point. The basics of the spell are to create an anchor point of mana similar to the [amplify] and then thread a small amount of mana attuned to the initial spell over to the end point. This can be moved, and can be activated after the focal point is made. See diagram B-22 on the next page for the aetheric weaving needed to create the focal point.

When in place, sounds can be directly placed into the ear of the caster. While very useful, it is not to be used in illegal situations! A word of warning, this spell is difficult to shield and can be detected easily by another practioner. Please use with caution.”

You follow the diagram and with some difficulty make the spell work. Wondering how effective it is, you cast the spell within the girls’ tent and listen in. You hear their soft breathing as well as Sophie muttering, “delicious copper, ufufu…”

Feeling a little silly, you decide to pull away when you hear Sylphie whimper. A mix of fear at being discovered and disgust for doing this flows through you, and you make to move away but Sylphie speaks as she sleeps, “Daddy…”

Pausing, you hear her crying some and you feel a pang of pain in your heart for the girl. Honestly, she’s a good kid and you feel bad for her but… hells, you’re here for business with her Father too. Her world changed so suddenly, traveling across the world like this and things will only get harder. Still… it’s best not to listen further, and you remove your magic, turning instead to watching the light begin to play in the distant horizon.

>You learn [Audio Tap]

>By anchoring mana to a point, you can listen to far away conversations!

———————————————-

Morning comes and you pretend you heard nothing, everyone going about their business without any issue. Tabitha gives you a knowing look, though how she knows you have no idea. Actually, she probably doesn’t know shit, she just knows you know that she knows that you did something, you know? After a nice breakfast, you’re back on the path of… sand.

Another boring, hot morning occurs as you walk through the sand, Ebe taking wing at a few intervals, circling above like a vulture. She comes down at one point in the mid morning and notes that there’s something sticking out of the sand about a mile or two to the north.

“I don’t know what it is.” Ebe admits. “Sometimes you find little ruins in the sand here and there, but I’d be careful. They’re often points for bandits to rally around, and while I didn’t see anyone there…”

“We understand.” Tabitha says. “Honestly we should keep going. I don’t see what could be gained.”

“History, for one.” You say, rubbing your chin. “Rocks, for two.”

“Here we fucking go.” Sylphie mutters, rubbing her forehead. She sighs and says, “Okay Rommel, you’re in charge so-.”

“Well obviously we’re going to look at it.” Is your response. There is no other response worth giving, right?

“I suppose.” Sylphie sighs.

“Aww, it will be fun!” Ebe says, trying to console her. “I mean, we usually seem to run into bad things when we go off the beaten path, but I doubt that will happen this time.”

“Ha!” A bark of laughter comes from Tabitha.”This takes me back.”

“What else is there to do?” You say, shrugging. The others look to each other before shrugging in return. Sure, the Grand Wizard and the Monster Lady are being held captive and all, but you have time to look around at ancient ruins, right?

“There’s plenty to be learned and it won’t take very long.” You say, waving a finger. “Besides, if it makes you feel better, I’ll use a little trick I learned last night so I can hear from long distances to make sure nothing is present.”

“Can’t you just do that invisibility thing again, dear sister?” Asks Sophie, but to Sylphie’s annoyance.

“Dear Gods, sister, how many times so I have to tell you that it’s not invisibility? If you want invisibility, go ask Tobias.”

“Dear, you’re flushed from over-excitement.”

“No, I’m flushed because it’s hot and this is just some old ruins!” Sylphie says, stomping her foot on the ground. Everyone grows a little quiet at this and she sighs, shaking her head before taking a few calming breaths. “Sorry, I just don’t do well with the heat, okay?” She rubs at the back of her head, “Who knew a desert would be so… hot.”

You can see Sophie’s eye twitching at her need to respond to that, but she too takes a calming breath and says, “We’ll just go in close, take a look around, and leave, okay? We won’t take too long before returning to the path to Mother and Father, alright?”

“Fine.” Sylphie sighs. Mr. Ed walks up and nuzzles her cheek, to which she returns the gesture. “Alright, alright, sorry about that.”

“It won’t take very long.” You say, looking out in the distance where Ebe indicated. “It might be good to use that spell though. With the way the heat reflects off the sands, we’ll just look like some kind of mirage anyway.”

“I can’t hide our footprints though.” She says, shrugging.

“I can do a little low level aeromancy.” You suggest.

She thinks this over and then shrugs again. With that, you star heading toward the ruins indicated by Ebe. With the sands underneath you, it’s not a fun walk, but it’s not horrible either. The sand gets everywhere though, but you’re about used it to at this point. Tabitha stops your group when you can see the ruins off in the far distance down a dune, and she nods to Sylphie, who sighs and casts [Trick of the Light]. With that in hand, you continue forward, casting [Gust] to cover your tracks.

Perhaps 300 yards away, you stop the party and scan the distance. No sign of anyone around, just another forgotten ruin in a land of sand. Clacking your tongue, you remember what you learned last night and reach out, casting [Audio Tap], forming the matrix upon the ruin itself, a spire that sticks out of the sand about 20ft. high. You can’t really make out much about it except it seems to be made of a sand-like stone. Perhaps sandstone? Perhaps.

With the magic in place, you close your eyes and concentrate. Sounds come to you as the magic channels through a line to your ears. What you hear is… nothing. Nothing but the wind rushing through the sands. Dust blows and for a long minute you wait, trying to hear something, anything else. But nothing comes until-

A sound of something shifting comes.

Involuntarily you open your eyes and look over at the spire before frowning and closing your eyes again, listening. It comes again, a soft sound but it’s like the sand itself is shuddering as something… moves underneath it. Frowning deeper still, you open your eyes again and look back to the group.

“There’s something moving under the sand there… I think.”

“You think?” Alice says, looking off at the sand. “I don’t see anything.”

Tabitha merely sighs and pats Alice’s head. “So, you think a burrowing sort of Monster?”

Ebe’s face goes pale. “Oh Twins, how big is it?”

“I don’t know, the sound is faint though, so not very large.”

She sighs out in relief, putting a wing to her chest. “Oh thank the Twins, if it were larger we should run. We do NOT want to run into a Sandworm.” When she gets a curious look, she says, “Utterly massive Monster who can swallow a caravan whole. They’re extremely rare so close to civilization but… I don’t want to fight them!”

“Fair enough.” You say, nodding your head. “What else might be there?”

“Burrowing Monsters… sounds like maybe a Khepri? An insect-like Monster, though they aren’t often seen outside of their trading covens.”

“Dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than any other Monster. They’ll steal men if they can help it, but they’d much rather trade for slaves.”

“Great.” You say, mood darkening. “I was hoping to go a day without violence. Come on.” You wave to Sylphie and she sighs, moving your little group forward.

It’s not long until you see the spire closer and you get to appreciate the worn architecture. The sides of the spire were made flat ages ago, worn down bit by bit with age and abrasive sand. It tapers to a square prism at the top and along its sides are multiple runes written in what you can assume is ancient Ectrian, at least so says Sylphie who can see that far.

Listening still, the sounds of burrowing have stopped near the spire. Perhaps whatever it is decided to leave without anything much to gain from being around the ruins further. It hasn’t surfaced, so it can’t see you, but you have Sylphie keep up the shroud anyway until you’re about 50ft away from the spire. Stopping the group, you hold out your hand and cast [Survey], sending out your magic through the ground. You can feel sand, sand, and more sand, along with something… moving?

Oh hells, it’s moving toward you! You hurriedly make to shift the sand when whatever it is dashes under you and bursts from the sand in the middle of your group, showering you with sand that gets into the eyes of everyone nearby. Only you, Sophie, and Erwin are able to shield yourselves from it and you flip about, staff in hand to block a blow from-

A cute, female face looks up at you from where she stands before you, copper skin flecked with sand. She smiles and says, “Woah, that’s a cool staff!”

You falter, unsure of what to do when Sophie grabs the Monster with her tails, making her yelp as she’s pulled backward. The little Monster lets out a shriek as Sophie binds her and drops her to the sand, her tails keeping the pair of membranous wings hidden by a black shell from fully emerging. Chitinous arms and legs flail uselessly and the girl’s black hair sprays more sand about.

“STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!” Sophie says in a harsh voice, making the small Monster pause, eyes going wide in confusion and fear. The Cat o’Ninetails narrows her eyes and digs her tails in further, making certain the little Monster, who is clearly an adult now that you look at her, is completely bound.

“W-waaaah.” The beetle-like Monster says, tears forming in her eyes. “P-please don’t kill me! I’ll give you all my treasures but pleeeeassseee don’t killl meeee!”

A blade appears at her throat and Tabitha, her eyes red and tearing from the sand, growls, “And why the hells shouldn’t I?”

“C-Cause I’m scaarreed!” The Monster begins to bawl completely and everyone falters, finding this to be a little surprising. Where you expected to find a hardened murder machine, you instead find this cry-baby. It’s enough to make everyone but Tabitha lower their guards and look about in confusion.

“Oh, oh dear.” Ebe says, blinking the sand out of her eyes like she’s used to it. “A Khepri indeed. Oh, don’t cry, don’t cry.” She flaps her wings and sings a soft little song that makes the Monster stop cry and go to sniffing instead. Ebe smiles and says, “There, there, we aren’t going to kill you.”

“Y-You’re not?” The Khepri sniffs. “B-but she still has a sword!”

Tabitha narrows her eyes and then sighs, pulling away her blade. “You’re not a threat.”

“T-Thank you?” The Khepri sniffs again. “I’m so sorry, I heard someone walking on the sand and thought I’d say hi, cause who would be out here anyway?”

“Oh, mostly bandits.” Ebe says, giving a sad smile. “Mostly bandits.”

“Bandits move the sand differently.” She says, pouting. “But you’re not bandits… right?”

“We haven’t kill you yet, so probably not.” You sigh, waving a hand to your face. “You really scared us.”

“S-sorry.” She says, dropping to the ground as Sophie lets go of her bondage. “I was just searching around her for treasures, didn’t think anyone would be by.”

“We were just coming to look at the ruins.” You say, nodding to the spire. “Didn’t expect to find anyone here.”

“Well, of course not, there’s nothing here.” The beetle Monster sighs. “I should have listened to the matriarch, there’s nothing left here but sand and rock. All the treasure was taken ages ago.”

“I see.” You say, rubbing your chin. “What is your name anyway?”

“Oh, of course.” The Khepri says. “My name is Qi!”

“You have very good Deleorian, Qi.” Ebe says, smiling. “Did they teach you in your coven?”

“Yep, the Matriarch really wants us to learn to trade with the Deleorians, so we’re taught at an early age.”

“Is your coven nearby?”

“Yeah, it’s just up-” Qi freezes, as if she realized she just said something she wasn’t supposed to. “Up… somewhere.”

“I see.” Ebe says, nodding. “Well, we are just here to look at the ruins. Since you have found nothing, I suppose you’ll be on your way.”

“I suppose.” She says, seeming a little forelorn. “You don’t have anything to trade, do you?”

“Depends on what you would like to trade.” Sophie says, stepping forward, her eyes glittering. “Rommel, be a dear and look to the rocks while I talk with the girl.”

“Uh huh.” You say, turning to the spire and walking over to it, Rommel in tow. It looms over you as you approach, and you can feel that it extends deep down into a structure far larger than you would have expected. Infact, you can’t even send your magic far enough down to get a good idea of it all, and excavating all of this would take way more effort than it’s worth. You don’t doubt that Qi didn’t find any treasure though, she seems fairly earnest.

Running a hand over the structure, you find that it’s made of, as you guessed, a kind of sandstone which is firm to the touch. Tracing your fingers downward, you find that there’s additional runes carved into the stone, which you utterly can’t comprehend. You take out some paper again and rub it on the runes, adding to your [Runic Rubbings]. Walking around the spire, you find with surprise that there’s even a few pictograms present. You can’t understand the deeper meaning of it, but you try to figure out what’s being shown.

There’s a group of what you think are people standing under what you think is a sun. The sun shines down until the moon covers it, and a serpent appears. A serpent with… breasts? Oh Solos… Anyway, the people start to bow down to the serpent until a figure with the sun shining behind her comes forth, flanked by dogs with… breasts. Anubis, probably. This figure holds a staff that shines like the sun and the serpent vanishes, the sun replacing the moon and the people bowing down to the figure. There’s a myriad of other script about, but you can’t tell at all what it is.

{Huh, neat story. Just like your Eastern Theatre, huh?} Erwin sends, looking it over from your shoulder.

“Perhaps.” You muse, looking it over again. Seeing a recording of a history, or even just a folk story, makes you feel a little giddy inside. Writing down the basics of the story, you resolve to ask Ebe about it at the next opportunity. Feeling there’s nothing more to be gained from all of this, you make to walk away before pausing and looking back at the structure.

“I don’t have a friend like this…” You mutter to yourself and then send your magic out into the sand, finding a section of loose sandstone and dredging it up from the earth. It’s larger than expected, and flat. When you place it on the ground, you’re able to place both your feet on it. Far too large to carry, you’ll have to break it and… hang on.

You can totally ride on this.

Cocking your head, you send your magic into the sand and find it slides easily about. Which means you propel through it with far less effort that otherwise. Smirking, you use [Rock Slide] to slide the sandstone board forward and you glide almost effortlessly through the sand. Yes, it taxes some of your mana, but the speed with which you move is fantastic, and the wind it generates feels great! The sand in your eyes, not so much, however.

The others look at you in concern as you slide to a stop next to them, kicking up some sand, and you hop off your board and say, “I made a friend.”

“Did that man just ride a rock?” Qi says, pointing at you.

“He most certainly did.” Sylphie says, fanning herself as you rub the sand from your eyes. “Find anything of interest?”

“Some old runes and some carvings.” You read your interpretation off to Ebe who frowns.

“Sounds like an Apophis. They were sworn enemies of the Pharaohs, though no one is sure why. Probably was Pharoah Kissa, the one who purged the land of the Apophis though why this would be on a story spire all the way out here, I have no idea.”

“Interesting…” You muse, rubbing your chin. “So this place was an old city with a connection to the Apophis and-“

“This is quite interesting, but we were discussing trade.” Qi says, her manner utterly changed. She has a business like attitude as she stares at you with cold eyes before turning back to Sophie. “So, you’re interesting in seeing the wares I have?”

“I’m afraid there’s nothing of interesting you have here.” Sophie says, shaking her head. “I would require something more substantial.”

“I see, I see.” The Khepri says, musing. She looks over all of you and then smiles. “How about… information? You seem to be travelers and could use some knowledge of our lands. I’m sure the Gandharva here knows much but Khepri, we know much more.”

“Such as…?”

“Locations of villages, watering holes, survival in the desert, many things.”

You and Sophie trade looks before she asks, “What about news from Setet?”

Qi’s face falters for a moment. “S-Setet? The capital, yes…” She seems to fidget for a moment before sighing. “I do not venture that far and know little of the capital city. I am afraid I cannot trade that information, however…” She thinks it over before saying, “I can fetch someone from my coven who does!”

“You wish for us to wait here while you go back to your coven?” Tabitha says, her brow creasing. “Sounds like a trap to me.”

“N-no!” Qi says, shaking her head violently. “Not at all! It won’t take long! Maybe just until tomorrow, not so bad, yes?”

“What if we went to your coven to ask directly?” Sophie says, crossing her hands.

“Sounds like a trap to me.” Alice says, rolling her eyes.

Qi pales as she chews on her lip, thinking it over. She seems to be having a moral dilemma between bringing you to her coven and not making a trade. You wonder if she would be in trouble if she doesn’t bring anything back? When you voice this concern to her, she pales further, somehow.

“I-I…” Qi says, tearing up again. “Oh, darn it, yes!” She sighs and sits down on the sand. “If I have no other choice I… I’ll lead you to the Coven.”

Sophie looks to you and shrugs. “Could be useful, but it is a detour.”

Sylphie sighs and looks up at the sky as you think over your decision. On one hand, trading is good and information is better. On the other hand… it is a detour into the home of Monsters who work with slaver. A difficult choice, but you’re used to difficult choices. 

Qi looks hesitant as she waits for your answer. Part of you wonders why she is so interested in making a trade while part of you also wonders what kind of trap this may invite. Ebe didn’t sound particularly afraid of the Khepri, but anyone who works with slavers can’t be the best. Her change in demeanor too was troubling, though she did seem a little more serious before you told your story.

The information is too valuable out here not to have it, but you don’t know if going out to the coven is the best idea either. If it is a trap, then you’ll be in their home turf, and frankly you can do a lot of stuff with sand, but they can burrow and get the jump on you easily. No, it would make more sense for them to come to you, where you’re able to entrench yourself against a threat.

A quick glance to Sylphie shows she’s exasperated, her cheeks flushed. You can respect that she wants to hurry along to the capital, but without information you risk running into the same problem her parents did. Odd that you didn’t notice this beforehand, but she’s been a little irritable since yesterday, hasn’t she? Well… you might need to have her sister have a talk with her then. Not like you’re going to have a talk about patience, you’re not her damn father.

“Could you give us a moment?” You say to Qi. The Khepri nods her head, though she still looks nervous. You give her a brief smile before gathering up the others in a little huddle. Looking between them, you say, “Alright, I think we need to work with her here.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Alice says, in a shocking moment of seriousness. “Walking right into the home of Monsters who can easily get the drop on us, it makes little sense if we don’t have to.”

“Sitting ducks isn’t smart either.” Tabitha puts in.

“No, but it gives us a chance to fortify our position. They’ll know where we are if we stay here, but they can’t surprise us as easily if we’re ready for them.” Shrugging, you add, “Besides, I doubt they’ll bring the whole coven, and she doesn’t seem like much of a fighter.

“Uhm.” Ebe says, uncomfortable. “Their fingers are actually super sharp and, though you can’t really tell, their teeth are super sharp too.”

“Tch, overgrown bugs.” Alice sneers.

Sophie gives her a sidelong glance before shaking her head. “So we are going to wait for them here?”

“Indeed.” You say, nodding your head. “Besides, we can rest a little more and get attuned with the sand.

Sophie smiles a feline grin, “A tanned, you say?”

“No, I said attu-“

“Oh, I hear you loud and clear.” The Cat o’Ninetails continues, cutting you off. She stretches and says, “Well, let us send her on her way then.”

Sylphie, who has been silent the whole time closes her eyes and sighs. Tabitha looks at the girl and shakes her head before putting a hand on her sword and walking off. Following them for a moment, you turn your attention back to Qi who jumps as you address her.

“We are interested in your wares, however since you seem discomforted by our presence in your coven, we are willing to wait the day here for you to return.”

Qi blinks a few times before her eyes go wide and the wing cover on her back raises slightly. “Oh! Well then, that’s great!” She claps her insect-like hands together and then nods her head to you. “I will leave directly and bring back sister Gyasi.

“Ah, but one moment.” Sophie says, re-appearing next to you. “Just so we can have it handy, what kind of payment are we expecting?”

“That depends on what you wish to purchase.” The Khepri says. “We trade for a very good many things. The more exotic the item, the most sought after it is.”

“Danuki…” You mutter to yourself, though you keep quiet as Qi gives you an questioning look.

“We mostly have traveling fare, some books, coins, some ore-“

Qi’s eyes go wide. “Ore, you say?”

“Oh no.” You say, raising a finger. “We are not trading my friends.”

“Friends? While we would be quite excited to trade one of your number as slave, especially the nine-tailed cat here, we were speaking of ore…”

“Yes, my friends.”

The Khepri looks at you with the same expression one would give to a raving madman. Clearly, she does not appreciate rocks. “We… we’ll talk about ore later. Coins of Deleorian origin aren’t quite as useful to us as Ectrian coins however, since we can only really trade them in Borne.”

“Is that so?” Sophie says, to which Ebe confirms. “Well, we shall have to change them later. We have a few other odds and ends as well-“

“Ah, like this.” You say, showing the [Locket], [Broken Staff], [Twin’s charm]. You pause at [Nane’s Ledger] but decide not to show it without reading it for yourself. Wonder if there’s anything about the Khepri in there? Well, no time to find out now sadly. You instead pull out the [Mana crystals] and she nods her head.

“Some of these might be good, the mana crystals especially. A locket could sell, though a staff from an Anubis… no, such a thing is too much trouble to sell, you understand?”

“Of course.” You say, replacing the items.

“Are you certain you do not wish to sell any of the ore?…” She goads. You give her a flat look and she raises her hands. “Fair enough, again, we shall inquire later.”

“Right then…” You say, narrowing your eyes. She fidgets and then bows to you before turning about, her wings popping from her back. The thin, translucent membranes beat quickly and she leaps into the air, her wings propelling her forward as she soars through the air until she’s nothing but a pin prick in the cloudless sky.

“North by north-east…” Ebe mutters, watching her go. “That’s in the direction of my hometown. I wonder if they’re trading with them.”

“Khepri come by often?” You ask.

“No, not often.” She replies. “But they traded every so often, never a full coven though.”

“I see.” You say, shrugging. “Well then, I think we have a little break then. Let’s gather ourselves, put our preparations in order and- what the fuck are you doing?”

Sophie blinks at you, holding her cloak in one hand, removing her skirt in another hand. She cocks her head at you and then clacks her tongue. “Right, sorry, I forgot.”

“Did you?” You sigh, rubbing your forehead. “Why are you undressing?”

“To tan, of course.” She says, smiling. “I always wanted to get a nice tan, and I figured this would be a good opportunity.”

“Won’t you just burn?” Alice says, frowning. Sophie waves a hand and chuckles,

“I normally would, but while in Borne I found a little something…” She digs in her bag and pulls out the bottle of white liquid. She pours some of the thick substance on her skin and begins to rub it in, humming. You feel a little sick as she does so and she looks up at you with a smile. “Something wrong?”

“You’re rubbing semen directly onto your skin, what is wrong with you? What would your Father say?”

“Oh he’d call it disgusting, though I do believe mother would say it’s good for my complexion.” She chuckles, “This isn’t semen though, it’s not even based off semen, which is shocking for alchemy.” She tosses the bottle to you and you catch it, looking at the label that says, “Solos’s shade- tanning lotion.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t let her do this, but this stuff seems safe.” Ebe says, nodding her head. “Besides! She’s going to look wonderful in -mmmrph!”

Ebe cuts off as Sophie slaps a hand over her mouth, giving you a big smile. “Shhh, don’t worry about it! Ebe just appreciates fashion as well.”

“Whatever.” Sylphie says, rolling her eyes. She looks about for shade and walks over to the spire, a book in her hand. “Let me know when it’s lunch time.”

Sophie looks a little pained by her sister, but shakes her head and then looks back to you. “Well… I’m going to catch some rays over there. If you don’t want to see some young, supple skin, I wouldn’t go over there.” She points to a spot in the distance with good sun exposure and walks over, Ebe walking with her, the two chatting.

“Hmm.” You say, looking around the group. Mr. Ed kneels down with Sylphie, giving her some extra shade as she reads her book, which you think is the book on geomancy. Turning to Tabitha, you find her performing exercises with the sword, Alice taking off her robes and armor to do the same. Watching them fight, you decide that you should probably do some of the same. Training your body with the staff exercises felt good after not doing such things for awhile. Fortifying the ruins can wait, mostly for you to figure out how to do that.

You run through your stances, practicing the defense patterns that she taught you. Over and over again, until it begins to feel right. Sweat beads at your brow and you’re forced to take your [Wizard Robe] off at one point, exposing your chest again. You really don’t care much, though you know you’ll have to put the cloth back on soon so you don’t fully burn.

“Hey there~” You hear from behind you, and you turn about to see something hurtling at your head. Almost as a reflex, you hold up your staff, blocking a blow from Alice’s scabbard, the leather bouncing off your staff as she pulls back.

“Ha! Hey, you are doing better sexy.”

Frowning, you plant your staff and growl, “Alice…”

“What? I’m just stating the obvious.” She scoffs and then nods over to Sophie. “Or maybe you’d like me to strip like the mongrel over there.”

“Don’t call her that.” You snap, and she blinks a few times before chuckling.

“Oh~ someone’s a Monster-lover, hmm?”

“Shut up Alice.” Tabitha says, walking over to the two of you and bopping the swordwoman on the head. Well, it’s more of a bop, it’s actually smacking her hard enough on the head that the woman drops to her knees and wails in pain. You’re pretty sure it’s mostly an act, but Tabitha was really trying to hurt her.

“Form is looking good though.” Tabitha says. “You’re doing well. Perhaps a different exercise is in order.”

“What, like mud wrestling?” You say off hand. She frowns at you while Alice’s moans become snickers. Rolling your eyes you say, “Poor taste?”

“It’s not all that funny.” She says. “Wrestling is fine, it’s a good test of strength, however mud-wrestling is just a sport to see females covered in mud.”

“So what, you’d wrestle though?”

She thinks about it for a moment before shaking her head. “Seems counter-productive. I think we should focus on training your weapon-play and your physical strength before doing anything like that.”

Shrugging, you feel a sense of disappointment for some reason. She probably doesn’t think of you as much of a challenge at all. Well, maybe if you can bulk up some you might show her otherwise. Something feels a little wrong about that thought, but you put it out of your head as she comes at you with her sheathed sword.

Reacting again, you block her blow and find it to be much easier than before. Are you getting better? So quickly? Damn you’re a natural! Well that or she’s pulling her punches, and you quickly figure out that’s exactly what she’s doing, allowing you much more breathing room than before, on purpose. The only reason she would do something like that would be…

Finding an opening after you block a blow, you take a swing at her with your staff. She smirks and then deftly blocks the blow before turning he scabbard around and then slamming it directly into your chest. You cough before staggering backward and sinking to the ground, holding your chest. Tabitha walks before you and kneels down, holding out a reptilian hand to you.

“Ah, at least you understood. Clumsy, but you took initiative. Good thinking.”

“T-Thanks.” You groan, standing up and rubbing your chest. “Oww.”

“Crybaby. Alice scoffs, still rubbing her head. Tabitha gives her an annoyed look and the woman rolls her eyes before turning away to practice her sword motions again.

“Mmm, well anyway.” Tabitha says. “Let’s go over a few attack patterns, alright?” You nod in agreement as she helps you stand. She shows you a few stances and then proceeds for the next hour to knock you back to the ground.

Lying in the sand, breath coming in pants, you groan and rub at your chest. Tabitha chuckles where she sits beside you and pats your head. “Ah well, he wasn’t a champion at the start either.”

“Great.” You groan, picking yourself up to a sitting position, arms resting on your knees. “I should have mentioned I have a bad back.”

“Crybaby!” Alice shouts before drinking some more water. You flick your wrist and the bottle turns to ice, to which she blinks and then continues to drink, holding a thumbs up to you.

“Well, you did good. That’s about all I think you can take today, and you really should put your shirt back on.”

“Why, is it bothering you?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” She says, eyes going flat. “I don’t need you getting burned.”

“Yeah, yeah.” You say, taking her hand again as she helps you stand. “Guess I should look into building some defenses or something.”

“Mmm, perhaps.” She says, looking over to Sylphie. The younger Monster is sitting, back to Mr. Ed, her eyes open as she stares into the cloudless sky. Erwin sits in her lap, the fox sleeping curled up. Despite the peaceful scene, she looks somehow… forlorn.

“I think you should talk with her.”

“Why, I’m not her father, we’ve been over this.”

Tabitha gives you a sidelong glance. “Rommel, I know Wizards are inept at social situations, but you can’t be this dense. That girl doesn’t know if her parents are alive or not, and suddenly a Wizard arrives and gives them hope again? Someone who not only reminds her of her father, but has been able to see them through extremely dangerous situations.”

Her words become exasperated. “She looks up to you in a way that she doesn’t even to me.”

Frowning, you look back over to Sylphie and study her. What you thought was a strong Monster Witch is instead still just a scared girl who desperately wants to see her parents again. Looking at that, you feel something stir in your heart, a sort of kindred spirit and you sigh, rubbing your head in annoyance. “Alright, alright, I’ll go and talk to her.”

“That’s not so hard, is it?” Tabitha says, nodding her head. “Now then, I need to punish this idiot here with a duel. I really, really wish she wasn’t so damn good with a sword.” Grumbling, she walks over to Alice and draws her sword. You watch for a moment as they square off before shaking your head and walking over to Sylphie.

Mr. Ed raises his head as you approach and you wave a hand toward him. He snorts and then lowers his head, the sound alerting Sylphie. She turns her head to you and then closes her eyes before sighing. “Hey.”

“Room for another?” You ask, and she waves for you to sit. Nodding to Mr. Ed, you sit with your back to the horse who feels warm to the touch. Sighing, you put down your staff and say, “How’s it going?”

“Tired.” She sighs. “Just wish we were moving to the capital.”

“To your Mother and Father.”

“Yeah.” She says, shaking her head. “I just, you know, want to see them, alright? It’s like we’re so close, and yet so far away!”

“You know that going in without any information could be disastrous for us, right?”

“Yes, I know, I know!” The Cat o’Ninetails says, throwing up her hands. “I know it’s stupid and foolish and dangerous, but I almost don’t care anymore! What are we doing here, just sitting around?”

“We’re waiting.”

“And that’s different how?”

“Waiting means there’s a purpose to what we’re doing. Sitting around is just killing time, but waiting means we’re conserving our strength for a reason. With information from the capital, we can learn more about how to get into the city and possibly about your parents. None of us know anything, we’re going in blind.”

Sighing, you rub at your forehead, “I don’t want to see any of you hurt, okay?”

Sylphie blinks, looking at you. A smirk quirks on her lips as she says, “You’ve changed some, haven’t you?”

“I don’t see how. I have a larger rock collection I suppose.”

“Haha, alright, if you say so.” She giggles some before sighing. “I read more of that book.” Holding out her hand, she summons a [Flurry] of sand, creating a miniature whirlwind that dissipates soon after. She shrugs and then pulls up a wall of sand, the block holding form as she does so. “Looks good, huh?”

“Hmph.” You sniff, pulling up your own block of sand, larger than hers. She frowns at you but you chuckle, “Don’t mess with your elders.”

“Tch.” She sniffs before giggling again. “Damnit Rommel, you’re so insufferable sometimes, and then you do something like this.”

“Ah, well.” You say, not certain how to react. “Thanks?”

“Gods, you really are clueless.” She sighs, a smile on her face.

Erwin shakes his head at you from her lap and you frown before standing up and looking about. Alice and Tabitha are mid-duel, blades of power striking back and forth, sending up sparks as they duel. Over to the other side of the clearing you see Ebe chatting with the prone form of Sophie, who rolls over onto her chest, showing only her underclothes. Great…

Well what to do, what to do… You look down at the book on geomancy that Sylphie is reading and then to the sand dunes around you. Tapping your chin, you focus your magic on the ruins beneath you and pull up another slab of sand stone before summoning your own. Sylphie gives you an odd look as you get onto your board. Looking over at her, you smirk and say, “I have a spell I think you’ll enjoy.”

—————————————————-

“WOOOHOOO!” Sylphie says as she leaps from a sand dune, gaining some air on her sandstone board. She spins 360 degrees before landing and sending up a spray of sand all about her. A little unsteady on her feet, she wobbles on the board and then cries out, landing into the sand with a thud. She gets up on shaky feet as you slide in next to her, turning your board to the side and showering her with sand.

“Bhuwah! What was that for!” Sylphie says, spitting out sand. She glares daggers at you as you chuckle and offer a hand to help her up. Grumbling, she does so and wipes sand off her robes before she fumes at you. “That was uncalled for!”

“Maybe you should learn to stick your landings then.”

“BAH!” Sylphie says, throwing up a hand before giggling again. “Aww damnit, that was fun though.”

“It is kind of relaxing, even if it does drain some mana.” You agree, nodding your head. “I think it’s about to be lunch time though.”

“Already? Huh, I’d lost track of time.” She says, rubbing her chin. “I suppose we should tell Sophie and Ebe.”

“Hmmm.” You muse, looking over at the tanning Cat o’Ninetails. “Perhaps we could do one little prank first.”

Sylphie’s eyes light up. “A prank you say?”

“It will be educational.” The Monster’s smile lessens until you say, “I need you to teach me more about Luxmancy. I want to try to reflect some light away from Sophie.”

Wheels turn behind Sylphie’s eyes as she thinks this over before a large smile cracks her lips. “Oh, I can do that.” She cracks a knuckle and says, “Luxmancy is all about scattering your magical attunement through the light about you. Capture and harness it.”

“I don’t understand.” You say, frowning. “Light isn’t physical.”

“No, but it feels that way… or maybe sometimes it feels like a wave…” She thinks about it and then snaps her fingers. “Okay, think of it this way. You can make a light on your staff, right?” She continues as you nod your head. “Well, that mana you’re sending in to create the light. It’s catching light you can’t even see, or maybe it’s making it somehow. Either way, you harness that light that you create, or the light around you, and manipulate it.”

“Huh.”  You say, wishing you had your staff handy. You left it with Mr. Ed to go boarding, but it’s not important right now. Closing your eyes, you quest out with your magic and imagine the little light spell. Imagine how it feels and then spread that out, touching the particles near you and… ah. Opening your eyes again, you draw the captured light tigether and flare it, causing a burst of light before you.

>You learn [Daylight]

>Create a large burst of light to illuminate a wide area

“Woah.” You say as Sylphie claps.

“Good job!” She say, nodding her head. “Keep practicing and you can get [Dazzle] soon as well. [Trick of the Light] is much… much more difficult though.” She shakes her head. “I stopped learning much about Luxmancy early on though, but there’s a lot more you can learn!

“I see, I see.” You say, nodding your head. “Alright then. I don’t think I can mess with your sister though.”

“Oh I already did that.” Sylphie says. You look over to see Sophie the area around Sophie appear darker than before, as if the light was avoiding that area. Ebe looks incredulous, and Sophie gets up, blinking about in confusion before looking around for clouds.

“Aghhhh, please tell me my tan isn’t ruined!” She shouts, and both you and Sylphie snicker as Sophie grumbles and stands up, standing falling off her rather shapely body. She looks at to two of you and you both stand straight, whistling until you feign ignorance and say,

“Sophie! It’s lunch time, want to get dressed?”

The Cat o’Ninetails, who already looks more tan, glares at you and starts dressing before walking over with Ebe in tow so she can start working on lunch. After she passes, you and Sylphie snicker again, though when Sophie turns about, feline ears twitching, you both quiet down and look off to the side. She narrows her eyes and sniffs.

Lunch is made soon and afterward everyone takes little naps, a watch being kept. When everyone is rested and the afternoon sky sits overhead, you begin to construct your fort of sand with Sylphie’s help. It takes some time, but you make a solid rectangular structure in the old style of Deleorian castles. It makes you feel a lot more secure and even Tabitha approves, though all of you know that the damn Khepri can fly and burrow, it makes you feel cool.

The rest of the afternoon you spend time practicing the drills on the [Ectrian Scroll of Geoflexing] along with Tabitha, who seems very interested. While she is unable to make the sand move, you begin to get a better flow of it and with a punch, you send a blast of sand forward in a wave. Sure, [Flurry] may be more effective, but this certainly has much more flare! Imagine if you had more rocks around…

>You learn [Geoflexing: Fists of Earth]

>With a punch, you send rocks, sand, etc forward toward your foes with decent accuracy and power.

Night falls and your group feels exhausted. It’s a good kind of exhaustion and all of you have a good time as you tell stories and Ebe plays Ectrian songs. No one seems to regret the actions of today any longer, though all of you know it’s a day you could have spent traveling. Still, remembering your words from before, there is wisdom in waiting!

Sleep time comes soon and though you want to stay up, it’s decided by the watchmaster Tabitha that you’re going to bed. When you find you can’t stand to oppose her, you grudgingly agree and go to sleep, feeling the warm embrace of your blankets in the cool night sky. Today, all things considered, was a good day.

————————————-

It isn’t until mid-morning again that Qi returns, two other Khepri in tow. The three fly to your little encampment, hovering in the air and looking confused at you as you mount the wall and shout, “Who goes there?”

“Uh… it’s me! Qi! I’ve returned with two others to talk about uh… trade.” She looks a little confused. “How did you build that?”

“Are you the only three here?” You shout. She nods her head, looking astounded, and then point to the ground. “Please enter on foot.”

One of the other Khepri, a tall woman with brown hair and chitin clacks her tongue. “This better not be a waste of time, Qi.”

“N-no! It’s not!” She says, waving her arms. “It’s not, they have some good things!”

“If you say so.” The other Khepri says, a middle height woman with resplendent blonde hair and golden chitin. “We shall follow their orders, for now.” The golden Khepri lands on the ground and the other follow suit, walking up to your walls. You shout down at the others and a door of sand seems to open in the structure, admitting them in.

“Ehehe… heh… see, interesting, right?” Qi says, sweating. The other two look at her with annoyed looks before walking inside to find your group fully clothed and arrayed about them. No weapons are drawn, but they look ready for battle.

The golden Khepri walks up and says, “I am Gyasi, trader of the Khepri. I have come hearing you wish to trade for information?”

“Correct.” You say, walking down a set of sand stairs. “We wish to learn of the capital, news coming from there, especially in relation to any political prisoners the Pharaoh may have taken in the past few months.”

The Khepri look between each other with surprised looks and they say something to each other in Ectrian before the brown one says, “You are not… of the Violet Sands, are you?”

“Violet-?” Sophie puts a hand over your mouth, forestalling you from speaking.

“Do you wish to trade for that information?”

The Khepri look between each other and then shake their heads as Gyasi speaks again. “We have much information on these subjects as there have been many prisoners lately. To say that we know specifically of who you’re looking for though… that may cost more.”

“You know our wares, what do you wish?”

The brown Khepri nods her head and says, “I am Salihah, and we wish to trade for the mana crystals, the locket, and a look at the ore we are told you have.”

“Look, I’m not-” You begin to say when Gyasi cuts you off.

“We will, however, give you all the information you could ever want if you would trade one thing in your possession.” She points at finger forward and everyone follows the direction of where she’s pointing.

Sophie blinks and points at herself, looking about in bewilderment.

Gyashi nods her head and says, voice amiable. “We will trade anything you ask for her, the Cat o’Ninetails.”

“No.”

Your tone is as cold as ice and the three traders stand taller, their backs going stiff in defense. There is no ambiguity, no “potential” to bargain. This is a declaration of intent and they understand it perfectly well. All three look at each other, wing’s fluttering softly from their backs before Gyasi nods and says,

“Very well then.”

“How did you know she was of-” You cut off as you think it over, remembering yesterday when Qi appeared. The party’s eyes lock onto her and she gulps, taking a step back. Sighing, you shake your head and say, “It’s known already.”

“Indeed.” The golden Khepri says. “Very well, if she will not be sold, then your other wares.”

“That’s fine.” You say, nodding. “I doubt slavery will be very profitable in the long run anyway.”

“Mmm, perhaps.” She lets nothing else loose with that statement and waits as you pull out the [Locket], taking out the picture from it, and then getting out the mana crystals. Honestly, what are you going to use these for? With them in hand, you walk up to her and hand them to Qi who shows them to the older Khepri.

“Hmmm.” Salihah muses as she looks over the crystals. “Yes, we do not often see mana crystals here. Deleorian quality far exceeds that of the Eastern nations.”

“Good craftsmanship on this locket, human made I expect.” Gyasi says. “Yes, it’s made in the Ectrian style, so it’s a local trinket. I will not ask where you acquired it.”

“We thank you.” Sophie mutters, watching them carefully. They seem to take it in turn, not worried in the slightest it appears. Your party, however, is not quite as sanguine, and even you are sending pulses of [Survey] through the ground, watching for any burrowing attacks. As far as you can tell, however, there is none coming.

“Yes, these will do.” Salihah says. “Now then, your ore.”

You begin to say no when Sophie shakes her head and you sigh, taking pieces of ore out of your bag. The brown Khepri seems to disregard most of the ore, especially the common ones from Blackfire Reach, but her eyes flash with some delight as you show the chunk of [Rutile] as well as Valinthia the [Bauxite], and the [Pumice], oddly enough.

“Interesting… it is not a large amount, but some that may be used for jewlery. The scour rock is good for removing debris from our shells. Most people don’t bring it out to us, however.”

“I agreed to show them, not to sell them.” You say, putting the ore away, making certain no one can see Midas, the [Gold Ore]. The Khepri frown and look between each other, crossing their arms and looking generally annoyed.

“Unfortunate. We could have sold much more to you.” Gyasi sighs. “Very well, trade all of these and we have some information.”

“Very well.” You say, nodding your head. “Can we fill the rest with coin?”

“Possibly. Coin is useful at times.” She raises a finger. “However we cannot just melt down Deleorian coins, as reforging the purity to Ectrian coins is too difficult. The exchange rate will be different.”

“We well decide that as is needed.” Sophie says, frowning. “Are you ready to barter?”

“Yes!” Qi says, though at a look from the older Khepri, she shrinks back and bows her head. Gyasi sighs and waves a hand for you to continue.

“First thing I wish to ask is that you will not tell anyone about who we are, or what we are asking about.” You narrow your eyes as you say this, the implied threat in your voice. Salihah narrows her own eyes and hisses at you, but is stopped by Gyasi.

“The locket can fetch a decent price. Simple enough to keep silent, I suppose.”

“And you will not speak of this to anyone, even for a higher price?”

“Do we look like Danuki? No, you have our word.”

Sophie visibly releases tension as you hand over the locket and then shake your head. “Very well then. Next question, about political prisoners. Who has been taken in the past 6 months and what do you know them?”

“The load of crystals then.” Salihah says.

“Quarter of them.” Sophie interjects.

“That is quite the question you have to ask and you seem quite in need of the answer. You will give me all of them.”

“We already have your assurances you won’t attack us, and you came all the way out here. Do you really wish to go home empty handed? No, you get a quarter.”

“Three-quarters then.” The Khepri says, eyes shining. Does she enjoy this or something? How strange.

“Half.” Sophie declares, crossing her arms, a smirk on her face. Seems she too has gotten over her funk and is in the zone, how interesting.

“Tch.” The Khepri sighs. “Very well then.” She pushes Qi forward, the younger Khepri taking an armload of the crystals from you and placing them in a sack she has at her waist. Once complete, Salihah nods to Gyasi who speaks slowly.

“In the recent months the Pharoah has become more aggressive, that is true. Slaving parties are sent to Deleor, as I am sure you are aware, and she makes quite the fuss with her soldiers. However, unknown to most, a large group of her elite have been scouring the sands, taking in cultists of the Violent Sands.”

“The what?” You say, cocking your head and looking to Ebe. The Gandharva shakes her head, not knowing what exactly she’s talking about.

“Mmm, so you do not know. How easy one can gain information for free.” Gyashi chuckles. “But I will spoil you. No cultists of much influence have been taken, and they are sent to the dungeons for information. I assume most have died by now as they have little use.” She raises an insectoid finger. “You see, these cultists believe in the return of the Apophis.”

Ebe gasps, putting a wing to her mouth. The Khepri look at her and nod their heads in sympathy. “Indeed.” The golden Khepri says. “As far as other prisoners… some who have declared her actions to be too aggressive, whisked away into the night, as well as two Deleorians, a man and a Monster.”

“What do you know of them?” Sophie asks, sounding a little too eager. You put a hand before her and make a scolding face before shaking your head. She winces and backs down as the Khepri taps her chin.

“Mmm. That one is quite similar to you, dear child, and that the Pharaoh would be quite interested in more of your kind.”

Sophie’s back stiffens and weapons are drawn all around your little parlay. Qi yelps while Salihah’s wings flutter from her back, but Gyasi doesn’t move, her eyes locked on Sophie’s. A quiet smile comes to her lips in the face of such a thing and Sophie falters, backing down to the show of indifference. Gyashi nods her head and says, “We have already traded, have we not?”

“Can you tell me when they were taken and how?” You say, feeling far more aware of their circumstances. You might have to kill them after this, there might not be any other way out of it. Gods above, you really don’t want to have to kill anyone today but… but you’ll do what has to be done.

“The rest of the crystals then.” Salihah snaps, holding out her hand. “That is more information that a mere half would buy you.”

“You damn scammers!” Sophie says, showing her teeth to the insectgirl. “You barely gave us anything!”

“A quarter of what is left.” You say, cutting her off. Sophie glares at you, but Salihah shrugs and Qi takes more crystals. Instead of Gyasi speaking, however, the brown Khepri speaks up.

“No one knows for certain. Rumor has it they were caught trying to make their way into the Palace of the Twins and were captured there by the Pharaoh and her royal guard about three months ago.”

“There has to be more to it than that.” Sylphie growls walking up to speak, “There’s no way they’d just let themselves be caught like that! They’re too strong!”

“Hmmm.” Salihah muses. “I had heard there was quite the struggle, but, and these are just rumors you know, the Pharoah invoked the rites of Pah’sen. This is merely hearsay, of course, as such a thing has been forbidden since the age of Pharaoh Kissa.”

“The rites of Pah’sen… I’ve heard legends but… I didn’t think it was real!” Ebe says, looking dumbstruck. When you turn to her, she shakes her head. “I-it’s a story told to children to make them behave about how Pharaoh Kissa bound the power of the Apophis into her staff when she banished them and locked it with powerful ritual magic called the Pah’sen. It’s said that the power within the staff, if unleashed, would grant almost unlimited power to the user, but in doing so would unleash the power of the Apophis back into the sands.”

“Correct.” Gyasi says. “It is likely folly, as were such a thing to be true, the Pharaoh would not use such magic to stop two intruders, she is far too powerful for such a thing. And to risk bringing back the Apophis back into this world… no, it would be too much to imagine.”

Salihah nods her head and so does Qi, though the younger Khepri looks pale, as if sick to her stomach. Ebe also looks a little green, so perhaps such a story still resonates well within the younger ones. She turns away as Salihah shrugs and continues to speak,

“No one knows much more past that. Rumor has it they’re alive, mainly because the Pharaoh visits the dungeons every day. Guess she has something to talk to some prisoners about.”

“This Pah’sen, does she still command this overwhelming power?” You ask, cocking your head.

“If she does, she hasn’t done anything with it.” Gyasi says. “That is not for a price, for there is no answer. She is content to sit in her palace, we suppose.”

“That is all that will buy and more.” Salihah snaps. “Now then, if you do not wish to sell the ore, I have but a trivial amount of information you could buy for the rest of the crystals and that is it.”

“How would one go about getting into the palace dungeons, do you think?” You ask, rubbing your chin. Gyasi smiles in response, though Salihah frowns.

“I can give you a name, and that is it.” You nod and she continues, taking the rest of the crystals. “His name is Ammon, he dwells within Hatset, last I heard. He will know more of such things, I suppose.”

“Do you know anything else about him?” Sophie says, but the Khepri shrugs,

“Do you wish to pay anything extra?”

The Cat o’Ninetails frowns and says, “No, I suppose we do not.”

“Does that conclude our business then?” The golden Khepri asks, and you make to say yes when Ebe holds up a wing and asks,

“Uhm, I’m sorry, but I have a question.” Ebe asks, walking up to them. “How fares the village of Gahn? Are the villagers there doing well?”

“Last we checked, though we are camped near there.” Gyasi says. “We have last traded with them yesterday, though our group sent recently did not return before we left. As you know, we never bring the entire coven into a settlement.”

Ebe sighs and places a wing over her chest. “Thank you very much.”

“There… was a detachment of the royal guard present, I’m told.” Qi says, her voice slight. “When I returned last evening, I had been told that they came in the day before, looking for something.”

“Probably rooting out bandits in the region.” Salihah says. “It is of little concern, they will be gone and we will leave soon as well. As meager as this trade was, it is enough to be profitable, I suppose.”

Qi sighs in relief, tension leaving her shoulders. “T-thank the Twins.”

“I suppose we are done then.” Gyasi says, turning about, her back carapace opening to reveal her wings. “I hope we may trade again in the future.”

You briefly consider shooting rocks through their skulls and taking the skin from their bones with sand before burying them so deep no one could find them, but you decide against it. You… believe they will be true to their word, right? Ebe seems to think so and none of them seem very malicious, at all. You’re taking a big leap of faith here, but if you fail to kill them things will only get worse.

From you behind you, you notice Tabitha shift forward, as if anticipating a fight, but you shake your head and she pauses, sighing and sheathing her blade. You sigh yourself and say, “I believe business has concluded. Thank you.”

“If only you would have sold the ore.” Salihah says. “There was much and more you could have learned.”

“Now, now, that’s poor form.” Gyasi chides. Their wings burst forth from under their shells and they quickly take the air and buzz into the open blue sky, leaving your party in silence. You watch them go for a long time before shaking your head and turning to the rest of the group.

“Well, I’m not really certain what we learned there.”

“We learned that Mother and Father are present in the capital and that the Pharaoh clearly was able to overpower them.” Sophie says, rubbing her chin.

“We also learned the name of an informant who can get us into the citty!” Sylphie puts in, trying to help. “Also… also that they’re probably alive.” She holds her hands to her chest and closes her eyes shut tight as she says that. “Gods… they’re alive.”

Ebe places a wing around her shoulder and rests her head next to Sylphie’s. “There, there. We’ll see them again, right?”

“Y-Yeah.” Sylphie sniffs, trying to keep herself from crying. She fails pretty miserably however.

“We should probably learn more about this Pah’Sen thing.” Tabitha says, shaking her head. “I do not like the sound of it, as if we’re not careful we could fall under the same power, whatever it is.”

“Ugh, she said there might be grape variety snakes too.” Alice puts in, looking disgusted. “How annoying. Do you suppose the increased cultists and such have to do with this?”

“Perhaps, but not something we should worry about now.” You say, scratching your beard. “I suppose our next goal is to figure out where to go. The likely choice is to Hatset to see this Ammon? There will probably be villages along the way, I’d think.”

“Sounds like the best plan of action.” Tabitha says, though her eyes drift to Ebe who looks a little disheartened. She quickly looks down, blushing as Tabitha asks, “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“No! I don’t… not really.” Ebe mumbles, her voice quiet. Sighing, she says, “No, I don’t need to, but… you can’t help but think about it, right?”

“I understand.” The Lizardman says. “I think about home sometimes too. However we do have places to be, though no one is forcing you.”

Ebe smiles softly in response. It’s a simple gesture that says, “I’m fine.” Well, with that all in place, you suppose all that’s left is to pack up and get a move on. The day is still young and there’s plenty of sand you can cross. Hatset is off to the east and a little south, should take a few days to reach. Of course, Ebe’s reluctance gets to you some but you have a goal now and more information than before.

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4 thoughts on “Wizardquest 2: Chapter 7- Grains of Sand”

  1. I’m savoring the story, chapter by chapter. It’s refreshing to see some of the lesser Mamono given life, form, and individuality.
    Qi for instance, nervous yet still very much a Kephri.

    And yes, even the hottest desert gets bloody freezing in the middle of the night. Saudi especially so.

  2. Rommel thought about doing the old “magneto quarter through the head thing” lol with some rocks on the khepri, whew they got away lucky. Cant wait to see wht the gang gets into!

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