Wizardquest 2: Chapter 8- Home Turf

“So.” Ebe says, stretching. “It’s off to Hatset, right?”

“Hmm? What makes you think that?” You reply, watching where the Khepri left.

“Uhm. Because it seems to be the majority opinion and heads directly toward our end goal?”

“Mmm.” You muse. “I had considered that, but you know, I think we might want to stop by your hometown.”

The Gandharva looks at you with shock. “W-what? When did you- why did you?”

“I suppose it make sense to head to Hatset.” Sophie says, nodding her head. “But… wouldn’t it be nice to see home again?”

“I-I mean.” Ebe says, looking overwhelmed. “But…but…”

A sigh comes from behind and she turns to see Alice scratching her head. “I mean, we can always head back south, right? It’s not like it sounds like anything crazy is going to happen if we don’t go now, right? Maybe we can see the chasm!”

“That’s days to the north!” Ebe cries, rubbing at her head. “Gaaaah, when did all of you decide this?”

“Just now.” You say, patting Ebe’s head. She squrims under your touch before pouting.

“Ohhhhh, fine!” She blushes deep and looks to Sylphie. “Are you okay with this?”

“I seem to have been outvoted.” The Cat o’Ninetails sighs. When Ebe frowns, Sylphie sighs again and shakes her head. “Ah come on, I know you want to see your parents again too. I’d be a hypocrite if I said not to.”

“Thanks…” Ebe says, giving her a hug. Sylphie rolls her eyes and then smirks before hugging back. And with that, it’s settled.

Packing up to leave doesn’t take long, as you had most of your stuff packed and ready for a quick flight as it stood. Sending a few more pulses of [Survey] through the ground, you are unable to find any sign of Khepri or anything else living under the sands. With your safety guaranteed (for now anyway), you turn with the sun and head to the north-east.

The sun bears down upon you, as it has before. The turban on your head is a Gods send from Ebe and you thank her multiple times, to which she always mumbles humble praises. As is usual of desert travel, nothing of much value seems to occur as you travel beyond the sweat trickling down your face and the sand that always threatens to get everywhere. At least it’s easy to remove with your magic/ put into other people’s shoes, like Alice’s!

Maybe you should do something nice for her at some point to make up for it.

“So Ebe.” You ask as you trudge past a mile marker thrust into the sand. It’s not really for miles but for some strange distance known as “kilometers.” You’ve heard the term before, but frankly it’s kind of silly. Miles just make sense, you know?

The Gandharva blinks and looks over at you. “Hmm?”

“Tell me a little more about the Apophis. Why were they so bad before?”

“Oh.” She says, frowning. “Well, you have to understand, it was a long, long time ago that any Apophis lived. They were a race of lamia with purple skin and scales and they would entice people to follow under them, often treating them like slaves.”

“I don’t see much difference between them and the way the Pharaoh treats people?”

Ebe sighs. “I suppose you wouldn’t. The Pharaohs may allow such acts, but they don’t usually encourage it in the same way as the Apophis did, so I am told.”

“So they what, were trying to make their own dominion?” Sophie asks, walking up to the rest of the group. Ebe taps her chin and contemplates.

“No, more like, their own army, if I recall? It was said that he Apophis would go to villages and make them worship them, becoming their thralls if they kissed someone. They were often quite free with bestowing blessings to women who served them well.”

“Kiss?” You say, cocking your head. “I’m sure you mean, bite.”

“I… I suppose.” Ebe shrugs. “I’d heard somewhere that their venom had a major effect on people, but it’s all just legend. Regardless, as far as blessings go-“

“Monsterization, I’d suspect.” Sophie says, a grim expression on her face.

Everyone goes quiet at that, thinking over the implications of it. Monsterization is the process where a human woman is turned into a Monster. Someone would say the process merely changes their body, but after the events of twenty years ago and the nation of Galmathoria, that was proved utterly wrong. When a woman is changed in body, her senses heightened, her sexual drive empowered… are they truly the same person any longer?

Even the Monsters in your group look disturbed by the thought. Some do not care about such things, but it makes you wonder just how different at times people and Monsters are when such things hit them the same way. That particular thought gives you pause and you shake your head, trying to remember that while there are many things you have in common, there are many others that you do not. Monsters are NOT human, and you need to remember that.

“Well… uhm.” The Gandharva mutters, getting herself back in order. “I don’t know much beyond that, and that they were said to want to overthrow the Pharaohs.”

“That is rather important information.” Tabitha interjects, breaking her silence. “I could understand why the Pharaoh would want to stop this cult from rising up again.”

“Might be a good thing though.” Alice says. “If she’s busy putting out fires, she can’t go to mess with Deleor.”

“Which would suggest she might still have a use for the Wizard and Selene…” Tabitha muses. When Sylphie gives her a shocked look, she rolls her eyes. “You know this is serious and we have to think seriously. I want to see them again as well, and we have to think rationally about this. Why wouldn’t she just kill them?”

“Either because she needs them for something or wishes to use them as political capital. Should the Monster Lady be shown to be a captive it would sow discord as the Monster Nation tries to piece itself together while the Grand Wizard would be a blow to the people of Deleor who see him as a hero.”

Your response is a grunt of annoyance. Hero, right. Sophie gives you a frown and you wave your hand to say, “So her plan was what, to show them off and show discord before a full invasion?”

“Maybe.” Tabitha says. “Or something else. Those two are a nigh unlimited source of magic, perhaps she intends to use them in a ritual or something.”

“H-hey!” Sylphie says, bristling before looking aside. “I know you said it’s serious but… don’t joke about that.”

“We’ll get more information later, perhaps this Ammon will know more.” Sophie says, reassuring her sister. Sylphie nods her head and continues forward, the hot sun beating down on all of you.

A break for lunch comes a few hours later, where you’re all sweaty and tired. Unfortunately there’s really no shade to be had, so you have to create a little alcove of sand with your magic, enough to keep the worst of the sun off you. The others lounge about, munching on some travel food that Sophie prepares or drinking some water while you flip through your [Clay in a Sculptor’s Hand: Golem Creation and Theory]. You began to read some of it while walking and you’ve started a better understanding of how the golems work.

Midas, your chunk of [Gold ore], floats about you in a lazy arc as you get a better hang of the basics of things. You’re fairly certain you can create golems from the minerals you’re familiar with and maybe have three at most? Nothing too fancy with them yet, but it’s a start.

>You learn [Imbue Golem]

>You can control up to three golems of mineral basis. They can follow simple orders.

“Finish your meal?” Sophie asks, walking up to you.

Looking up from your book, you nod at her and close the tome. “Yeah, it was good, like always.”

“Oh dearest me, you’ll make me blush.”

“Hardy har har.” You reply. “What do you need?”

“Not much, just checking on people and- AH WHAT THE FUCK!”

Sophie jumps back, tails spreading out as she sees the form of Midas behind her, the little golem poking her back. The Cat o’Ninetails looks at it with incredulity before turning to you and frowning with enough force to make a lesser man flinch. Of course, you are more than a lesser man.

“Hmm? Oh sorry, Midas likes to touch people.” You say, waving at the others who immediately go on alert.

“Don’t give me that.” She sniffs, crossing her arms. “You can’t be careless like that.”

“I could say the same to you.” You say, nodding at her. She frowns as you even deeper, if that is possible. “Sit down for a second, would you?”

“What, so you can touch me again?”

“No, and you damn well know I would never do that, now sit down.”

Sophie blinks in surprise at the sudden shift in your tone and she hesitates before sitting down next to you. You look about at the others and they all turn away, not wanting to be part of this, though you damn well know those nosy womenfolk are listening in. Infact the only party member who isn’t listening in is Mr. Ed and that’s because he can’t be assed to wake up from his nap.

“Sophie, we need to talk.” You begin and she narrows her eyes.

“About what?”

“Don’t take that attitude with me.” You say and she goes quiet, looking a little sullen, as if rebuked by… well, she did just get rebuked, didn’t she? Rubbing your forehead you continue, “Those Khepri knew who you were and if we didn’t buy their silence, you know exactly who they would tell.” She begins to speak but you hold up a finger.

“You can’t be so careless with your identity. Anonymity is our greatest strength here, that which will keep us able to find your parents. With our identities unknown we can go anywhere and be free of much trouble. You can rest assurred that bandits and slavers from all over will look for us, and that’s not to mention the royal guard.”

“I was reacting to a danger!” She says stubbornly.

“And the initiative was good, but you then left your tails out in plain view. Sophie, you are very gifted in fighting, speech, and trade, but you need to think a little more ahead sometimes. I need you two to stay safe, alright?”

Sophie looks nothing more like a sullen child as she pulls her knees up to herself and sighs. “I… I understand, it’s just… I’ve never had to really hide who I was before. It’s difficult to keep such a part of me underwraps when I know it could be useful for us.”

“You know this journey would be hard when you set out, right? You knew it would fall to you to protect your sister, right?” She nods her head. “Well think of keeping your identity secret as a means to protect her. A weapon in its own right, one that should only be drawn when you intend to kill someone.”

“Can you do that?”

Sophie looks into your eyes and nods her head. “Yeah, I guess Fa-” She shudders and takes a deep breath, a look of consertnation on her face as she breathes out, “Rommel.”

“Uh huh. Well, as long as you learn your lesson. Do it again and you might find sand in your shoes.”

“I don’t wear shoes.”

“Sand in other, less than savory places. “

She smirks and slaps your arm. “Pervert.” You brush her off and stand up as the others, who clearly weren’t listening at all, get up as well, gathering their things. Once you’re all set to go, you drop the sand awn and continue forward toward Ebe’s village. The others pass you by but Tabitha hangs back some and whispers in your ear,

“Good job handling that. Very father-like.”

“Tch.” Is your only reply, though Erwin laughs in your ear as he rides on your shoulder. What a little jerk.

You continue walking until the sun begins to hang low in the sky and the redness of sunset fills the horizon. Ebe says that her village shouldn’t be THAT much farther away, though she only ever left this far out the one time and frankly she doesn’t much know anything beyond that. You find this rather unfortunate as you could be going about aimlessly for all you know, but at least you have plenty of supplies… for now.

Sophie creates a nice meal around the campfire and your group has another bonding time. Alice wonders why there is always so much sand in her damn boots and you don’t have the heart to tell her, mainly because she might take your heart if you’re not careful. Over the campfire Sophie asks Ebe to talk about her village and the Gandharva obliges.

“Gahn is a small village of maybe forty people. My family is one of three Monster familes present, the others being a Desert Catgirl and a distantly related Anubis. Oh how they would fight at times. Still, we do our best and live off the land as there is a small oasis nearby and some arable land to which we can grow crops.”

“It’s a hard living at times, but the men and the Monsters bring back fresh beasts for food and we even have some livestock every now and then. Trade to the village is scarce, but occasionally a hunter will find a relic or something and we could rest a little easier for a time.”

“How did the Monster families not just breed out all the humans?” You ask, something which earns you a shocked look from Sophie and an approving nod from Alice.

“Uhm… well, people come and go from the nomadic tribes out in the deserts. It’s a small village but sometimes people leave to venture out and sometimes people come in. It depends. The Anubis had been there a long time and had a few children, but they left to go to the capital and the Catgirl was new, a wandering tribeswoman who fell in love and settled down.”

“And your family?” Sylphie asks. Ebe consider and then says,

“My Father died when I was young, killed by a greater Sandgorger, a lizard-like beast which prowls the deserts. And yes, I know what you are about to ask, but not all monsters became Monstergirls, especially not here in Ectria.”

You look at her with surprise as she continues. “Uhm, yes, well, my Mother spoke little of him except that he was a kind soul who still knew when to fight. He was quite the warrior she said, but that eventually he decided to settle down. She did not speak much of when she was little but I always figured she must have come from one of the cities as her bearing was just so… regal, you know?”

Sophie and Sylphie nod as Ebe continues. “Her music is loved by everyone in the village and she taught me how to play and sing and dance.” She chuckles, “The boys in the village were so sad when I left, you should have seen their faces! Of course, I suppose you soon will.”

“Sounds like you miss it.” Sylphie says.

“We all miss home, don’t we?” Everyone nods their head, even you, though for different reasons. Erwin sends a pulse through your mind, worried about you, but you assure him that you’re fine. The past is the past and you can’t change it. You haven’t had a true home to return to for quite some time.

“Well, let’s get to bed then.” Tabitha says, stretching. “We have a long road ahead of us tomorrow and we should be rested to greet the Khepri again and the village. Hopefully the royal guard will have left already by now.”

Everyone nods and makes for sleep. You get lucky and get to sleep the whole night, wow! After some practice with your staff and the geoflexing, it’s off to bed tired. It’s a good thing.

——————————————-

Morning comes and it’s back to the road for another boring day of walking. You read through more of your book on golems and manage to make them appear in some semblance of humanoid form. Everyone gives you odd looks beyond Sylphie as you have tiny rock golems following behind you in a procession, but you refrain of calling them by name for now, because you don’t think they’d understand it.

It isn’t until about midday when you find a post in the sand, well worn with age, that declares that Gahn is merely a few kilometers away. Mile posts should be for miles, damnit! Well, it’s good news all the same, and Ebe can’t help but take flight and return, ecstatic that her village is nearby. With renewed vigor, you head toward the village, reaching the outskirts a few hours later in the afternoon.

Small buildings of rough, square stone sit near each other, their glasses windows shuttered with old, rough beaten wood to keep the worst of the sand out. Off in the distance, you see a small pool of water with some trees around it and a few animals penned up. You can’t see anyone nearby until you get closer, but the overall vibe you get from the little village is that of “sleepy.”

“Something’s wrong.” Ebe says, despite the distance, and she flying hops into the air, landing at the perimeter of the village as the rest of you catch up. As you arrive you find Ebe talking with someone, a frantic look on her face. The villager looks up at you, looking a little pale and the nods curtly to Ebe before turning about and walking away briskly.

“What’s that about?” Sylphie asks, but Ebe just watches him walk away, not making a sound. The Cat o’Ninetails begins to look concerned and touches Ebe’s shoulder, asking, “Ebe? What’s going on?”

“T-The royal guards they… they took people.” Ebe whispers. “On suspicion of being cultists and… and…”

“And one of them was your Mother, aye.” An older, female voice says. Your party stiffens as from a nearby house an Anubis walks out, an older Monster with hard lines from years in the sun and raising children.

“Jibade!” Ebe cries, turning to the Anubis. “What happened? Why did they take her?”

The Anubis sighs and shakes her head. “They came in about three days ago and began to speak with the villagers, making all sorts of accusations. Your Mother wouldn’t allow them to bully people, and one of the men decided she was obviously a cultist trying to protect the others and they took her.”

“When did they leave?” You ask, frowning.

The Anubis looks you over before shaking her head, “They left yesterday, though I can’t say for certain where they were headed. Took four people from us, claiming them to be Violent Sands cultists.” She shakes her head, “Just because of our proximity to the Chasm…”

“Oh no…” Ebe whispers, holding her wings to her breast. She turns to you, tears in her eyes, “Rommel..”

A hush falls over your group as Ebe’s tears flow. Tabitha grits her teeth while Alice frowns down at the ground. Mr. Ed neighs softly and the twins both look stricken, their pain evident on their faces. No one is immune to the pain of this, Ebe is too much of a friend. That some here also know of a similar pain makes it hurt even more.

Taking a deep breath, you steady yourself and say, “Ebe… calm down.”

“H-How am I supposed to stay calm? They came and… and called my Mother a cultist and took her away and… and…”

“Ebe, We’re going to get her back, but I need you to calm down.” You hold out a tentative hand before placing it on her shoulder and looking into her eyes. “This isn’t the first time something bad has happened, but we’ve always gotten through, right?”

She looks into your eyes, hers growing red and puffy from crying. Making to nod her head, she breaks into tears again before giving you a full bodied hug. To your credit, you don’t push her away, and pat her gently on the back, though you have to school yourself to keep your face impassive. At least, you tell yourself that this is all a force of will, at least.

“Y-You’re right. I just… I just lost track of myself and I didn’t mean to.” She takes a deep breath herself and says, “Right then. Sorry about that.”

“Don’t apologize for feeling that way about your family.” You say a little sharper than expected and both you and she blink in surprise before you continue. “Anyway, we first need to find more information, and then we’re going to get your Mother back.”

“You’re planning on tracking down and fighting the royal guard?” The older Anubis says, shaking her head. You’d almost forgotten she was there for a moment to be honest. She gives you a sad look and says, “I’m sure you’re quite proficient in whatever it is you do, however the royal guard are no slouches. They also came on horseback, though they did have one of those slaver wagons so…”

“So they couldn’t have gotten that far away.” Tabitha says. “However, are you certain it was the royal guard and not a band of slavers masquerading as them?”

The Anubis barks a laugh.”Ha! Not even my foolish daughter would be stupid enough to pretend to be a Royal Guard. Slavers have to be somewhat smart to survive their job you know?” She shakes with mirth, “Hopefully she’ll realize slaving isn’t all it’s cracked up to be someday.”

Something about that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, but you don’t comment on it. There’s more important things to do. Nodding your head to the Anubis, you say, “How many men were there, and what direction did they go?”

“I told you before, I don’t quite know where they went, but there was maybe five men and an Anubis like myself.”

“O-One of the handmaidens?” Ebe croaks out.

“Oh goodness no. A handmaiden all the way out here? Ha! That takes me back.” The Anubis smirks before shaking her head. “No, of course not child. Just a warden.”

“What is a warden?” Alice asks, cocking her head. “Some kind of jailor?”

“Not quite. We Anubis have an innate blessing of the Twins upon us, for we were created to be the guardians of the Pharaohs. While it has been watered down through the years, we are still quite magically resistant.”

“Wardens are the name of non-noble Anubis who serve in the military against spellcasters. They’re quite excellent soldiers themselves, of course! Having one in a group is standard practice, which is quite fine for them as they have their pick of rather… virile men.”

“I thought magic wasn’t used very often out here because of the lack of mana crystals?” Sylphie asks, being drawn into the conversation. The Anubis turns to her and smirks,

“Well, trade DOES exist of course. And due to our proximity to the eastern nations who are drowning in mana crystals, the rich can afford to practice their magics. For the others, well… there are other methods.”

“Ritual magic.” Sylphie mutters to herself. You frown at this and then return to the Anubis.

“When did they leave yesterday? And do you think any of the others might have more information in town?”

“Mmm, I think they left in the afternoon after their business was concluded and they’d whipped us into submission. Poor little Ultep got her lip split open trying to be a hero.” She shakes her head. “Well… I think that’s all the information I have on this subject, I am afraid.”

“Alright, thank you very much.” You say, bowing to her. She chuckles and shakes her head.

“We take after our own. Look after them like family! Haha, ugh.” A grunt escapes her lips as her back spasms. Grumbling, she walks away, leaving you to yourselves.

“So, it’s a small group with a wagon and horses. Couldn’t have gotten terribly far.” Alice says, shrugging.

“Far enough to outpace us if we walk.” Tabitha says. “Of course, we don’t know even where they went.”

“Someone in the village has to know where they’ve gone, right?” Sophie says, patting Ebe’s shoulder, the Gandharva sniffing. “Come on, let’s check around.”

Everyone nods in agreement and spreads out through the town, speaking with people about the Royal Guard.

Unfortunately most people aren’t as forthcoming as the Anubis was, and even Ebe’s group seems to get little from the people but averted gazes and half-whipsered apologies. About half an hour later, you find yourself before the small market in town, where a peddler of various wares sits talking with someone. Apparently trade doesn’t stop in the wake of a tragedy…

 

“I am so sorry about your loss, but we have this excellent locket for purchase.” A familiar voice says. Frowning, you walk forward to see who the source is and find a familiar, black shelled Khepri standing before the villager. She waves the locket you sold before the woman and says, “Look! Remarkable, isn’t it? You can even put a picture inside it!”

“Qi?” You ask as you approach. The Khepri freezes in place and turns slowly to you, a smile appearing forced on her face.

“Why if it isn’t Rommel and friends! W-What brings you here?”

“Decided to drop in when we heard about the Royal Guards.”

“Oh, yes, dreadful. Came in, roughed people up, then took some of them north toward the Chasm.” Qi says, shaking her head. “Terrible, but what can you do?”

“You know where they went?”

“Certainly, information is something the Khepri sell as w-” She pauses in her speech and then curses to herself. “Damnit.”

“Qi.” You say, walking up before her and looking down into her eyes. “We don’t have time for games, we need to find those guards before anything bad happens to those villagers.”

Qi’s eyes narrow at you, searching your expression. “Those people were declared cultists. Causing trouble with the Royal Guard will brand you as criminals, insurgents even if they decide you’re part of the Violet Sands.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

Once again her eyes search your expression and the barest hint of a smile comes to her lips. “Is that so? You’d get in bed with the thrice damned snake lovers, hmm?” She shakes her head. “Well, that could make for something interesting in its own right.”

“Eh?” Alice says, looking annoyed. “Look, you said they’re going to the north, right? Great, thanks. Now keep your mouth shut and we’ll have a good time, alright?”

You feel like Alice is an important member of the team right about now. Qi blanches some before nodding her head slowly. “R-Right. Of course. I think I’m done here anyway.” She turns to the trader and then nods her head before walking away from the group, opening her wings, and flying off into the sky.

“Ugh, I thought she wouldn’t leave.” The villager says, shaking her head. “Honestly, those Khepri are live savers sometimes, but they’ve overstayed their welcome. We don’t have much else to trade for!”

You look over what the woman has, finding various cloth goods, seems she’s a village tailor of sorts. A red ribbon catches your eye and you remember saying you’d do something nice for Alice some of these days. Shrugging, you pull out a few silvers and say, “Is this enough for that ribbon?”

The woman blinks her eyes and looks over your coins before biting one and shrugging. “Silver is silver I suppose! Maybe those damn Khepri will take it off my hands. Sure, it’s yours.”

Nodding, you pick up the cloth and then hand it to Alice. “Here, for your hair or whatever.”

She blinks in surprise, taking the cloth from you and looking at it without comprehension. “I… what? Why?”

“You’re a valuable member of the team?”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Maybe I haven’t treated you nice enough?”

“But we haven’t had sex. Why are you giving me a gift? Do you want to have sex?” She looks at you with eager eyes. “Is that it? Well let me get this sand out of my boot and we’ll go out and poison the watering hole.”

The villager gasps and you hastily chuckle and grab Alice’s shoulder, pulling her away. “No you sex-crazed idiot, it’s a nice gesture. No sex involved, just accept it as a gift.”

Alice looks down at the ribbon and then a blush comes to her cheeks. It’s utterly foreign to you based on what you knew of her so far and it makes her seem demure, almost cute. She coughs into her hand before tying her hair up with the ribbon in a ponytail so it doesn’t get in the way. A little quirk appears at her lips and she says, “Well, this is embarrassing.”

“Yeah… You say, feeling embarrassed for her. It suits you though.”

“Oh gosh, you’re making me blush even more!” She says, punching your arm. “Are you sure you’re not trying to get into my pants? They’re open for just about any cock as it is.”

“That is disgusting. How are you not a walking plague?”

“Magic.”

She says nothing further and you throw up your hands, unable to win with this woman. The soft smile on her face though shows at least you did something right. Well, that will have to do as you regroup with the others, finding them near a small, square house.

“Find anything?” Sophie asks you, and you tell them about meeting Qi and what she said.

“The north?” Ebe asks, looking skeptical. “No one would say anything else but… that would be toward the Chasm.”

“Isn’t that where the Apophis used to be? Would make sense for them to head out there and investigate things.” Sylphie chimes in.

“And they may have sent more than one band out there. Clearly the Pharaoh doesn’t think it enough of a threat to send a full army after them.”

“Or, she doesn’t want to incite a major panic in the people. Just keeping it small scale.” Alice chimes in. Tabitha nods her head at this, satisfied.

“Still, they’ve gone by wagons and horses… I could catch them by flying, and Sylphie could ride Mr. Ed but… we wouldn’t be in much of a position to fight them.”

“I won’t lie, it will have to be bloody also.” You add, giving a pointed look to Sylphie. “Would you be able to commit to killing every last guard? We can’t have any witnesses.”

“Uhm…” Ebe says, looking about. “Maybe we should come inside to discuss this.” She opens the door to the little house and waves for you to enter. Frowning, you follow the others inside to find a small, well kept room. A table sits surrounded by a few carpets with a cooking pot over in the corner. A bed of a few blankets and a pillow sits nearby with only one other room where a larger bed is. Almost a hovel in a sort, but cozy.

“Well, home sweet home.” Ebe chuckles, looking down. “S-Sorry it’s not much.”

“I think it’s charming.” Sophie says, sitting down about the low table. “You and your Mother live here?”

“Yes, that’s her room there, that’s my space there, and this is the… everything else.” She blushes again. “Why am I so embarrassed at a time like this?”

“It’s fine.” You say, waving for her to sit. This room is not meant for so many people, but you manage somehow. When everyone is gathered, you say, “So, unless we pushed on through the night, reaching them by foot won’t work. That leaves a few options as I haven’t seen any horses around.”

Mr. Ed nickers and you wave your hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time. Anyway, what that leaves is a small group that could go with Mr. Ed or…” You pat the ground. “We sand surf.”

“What.” Sophie says, blinking in confusion.

“Oh, you missed it two days ago.” Sylphie says. “Rommel and I can glide on the sand using rocks.”

“Is that why you shoved those rocks into your bag of holding?”

“M-Maybe.” Sylphie says, touching her fingertips together. “A-Anyway. That could work! It’s super fast and you can go for abit over the sand, right?”

“Yeah, I should be fine doing that.” You agree, nodding your head. “It will take some time soon, but I think we can find them, sure.”

“Still limits who can go.” Alice says. “I doubt you’ll be fine with just yourselves.”

“Why don’t you come along then? I think I could bring one other person.”

Alice looks a little perplexed before thinking it over. “Hmm. Would be useful to have me along I suppose. Why not bring Tabitha though?”

“Frankly, I think I need a bloodthirsty monster for this.”

The swordswoman nods her head, as if understanding perfectly and taking zero offense. “Killing men isn’t all that much fun, but the Anubis… ehehe, yeah that might work.”

“We could follow behind you and catch up later?” Sophie adds in, but Tabitha shakes her head.

“Makes more sense to sit here. We can’t reach them in time for anything much to matter.” Looking over to Sylphie, she frowns and says, “And you’re staying here.”

“What? Why?!” The Cat o’Ninetails says, bristling. “I can fight too!”

“But can you fight without revealing yourself?”

“I… I mean.” Sylphie stammers, frowning. “I mean, I’d be an asset too…”

Sighing, you pat her head. “I think Tabitha maybe right. We might need you here anyway. We’ll be fine, and if I need anything, I’ll let Erwin know.”

{Oh come on.} Erwin sends, sighing. {Leaving me behind again? Are our bonds of friendship so shallow?}

“Don’t be like that.” Sylphie says, rubbing the fox’s head. Both you and Erwin give her an annoyed look and she blinks before blushing. “Ah, sorry, sorry.”

“Ebe.” You say, turning to the Gandharva. “I would like you to come along with us though.”

“Huh? M-me?”

“Yes. You can keep up by flying, and frankly I’d like your eyes in the sky. Besides, it is your Mother, right?” As you say this, you smile to her.

Ebe blushes some and nods her head. “R-Right.” Stammering, she takes a deep breath and gives a firm nod. “Right!”

“Ooooo kay then.” Alice says, punching her hand. “Let’s get our shit together and get off to kill- I mean, saving people!”

Everyone rolls their eyes and discusses supplies, and in no time you’re prepared to get out onto the sand. Putting your sandstone “board” on the ground, you mount it and gesture for Alice to get behind you and wrap her arms around your waist. A few lewd comments later, she puts her arms securely around your waist and you’re ready to go, one of the twin’s bag’s of holding at your waist. You’ll need extra provisions for the prisoners when you rescue them.

Ebe flies high into the sky and you cast [Rockslide], gliding across the sand at good speed. The day wears on like this, making excellent time while Alice shouts in joy at the speed/ whispers lewd things in your ears. You’re fairly certain she grinds her hips against you at one point, that that may be just to piss you off. Regardless, you have to stop as night approaches due to getting super tired/ it’s dangerous to ride at night. Alice keeps watch and you wake up the next day to do the same thing.

About a full day after leaving Gahn, Ebe flies close and signals you to stop. Sliding to a halt, she lands next to you and says, “I see them, not too far ahead. I don’t think they saw me, or if they didn’t they can’t have thought much of a lone harpy in the sky.”

“Probably not, though there isn’t much out here…” You say, thinking it over. “Can you tell me more?”

“They’re arrayed around the wagon, with the Anubis on the cart while the men ride horses around it. Looks like the men on horses might have swords and spears. They seem pretty intent on going to Chasm based on their heading.”

“Hmm. We can probably overtake them soon if we push.” Alice muses. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m not going to lie, I’m a little tired.” You say, wiping your forehead of sweat. “But I can keep going, I’ll have enough steam for this.”

“We could do this tomorrow if we need to, or hit them at night?” Alice suggests. You frown and think it over. You honestly are drained more than you’re letting on, but is it worth delaying this further? Ebe says it can’t be more than a few days to the Chasm, and the longer you’re out here, the more delayed you are otherwise.

“We can’t tell how far away they’ll get later, nor if they’ll have any reinforcements soon, but I do not relish the thought of attacking them over open terrain during the day.”

Alice clacks her tongue as you say this. “I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t make a whole lot of tactical sense, especially since they have horses.” She points at you. “You can move around them fairly freely with that spell, but I doubt we’d be very successful using it as a kind of chariot.”

“So… what does that mean then?” Ebe asks, looking worried. “We just… wait?”

“Unfortunately.” You say. “We have a better shot of taking them by surprise if we attack at night. How could they expect us to come? Who would be out here but bandits?”

“Or cultists.” Alice says, shrugging. “Of course, what do we do if we’re rescuing ACTUAL cultists anyway?”

“My Mother is NOT a cultist!” Ebe says, a touch of uncharacteristic anger in her voice. Both you and Alice look at her with surprise and she as well blinks in confusion before blushing and putting a wind to her mouth. “Oh… oh Twins, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine Ebe, we understand.” You say, patting Ebe’s shoulder. She continues to blush but nods her head before sighing.

“W-Well, in that case, I suppose we’ll keep tracking them then. Should I continue flying?”

“No, we’re getting too close in that case. I believe we can conserve some energy and move slower.” You hop off your board and feel your legs wobble a little with exhaustion. While you can keep this up far, far longer than you ever could before, it’s still draining. You look up at the sky and frown at the sun full in the sky.

“I think we should take a rest, and when things get darker we can follow them further.”

Ebe and Alice both nod and stretch as you make another sand hovel. Your group shares a small meal and, at the urgings of both of them, you take a nap. It’s not like you protest terribly much against it however, and they are quite persuasive. Despite the heat, or perhaps, because of the heat, you find it easy to drift off into a light sleep.

You awaken what feels shortly to see the open blue sky turning a shade of red as nightfall approaches. Groaning, you make to get up when you feel something stroking your head. With a frown, you look up to see Alice looking down at you, her hand stroking your head. She smiles and says, “All rested?”

“What are you doing?”

“Stroking your head while giving you a lap pillow, of course.”

“Who are you and where did Alice go?”

She smirks and raises her hands, feigning nonchalance. “Well, you see, I wanted to take you out of those hot clothes and sidle up close to you, but the bird-brain wouldn’t let me!”

You look over to find Ebe tuning her ghitar and she looks at the two of you with a frown. “For once, she’s actually lying. She decided to put your head on her lap without going after your penis.”

Raising an eyebrow, you look back up at Alice who blushes. “Bah, she’s just jealous that I monopolized you and uh…” Her words drift away in the face of your expression and she sighs. “Alright fine, I thought I’d do something nice since you got me this damn ribbon, okay? You already said I couldn’t tickle your pickle so I had to do something else.”

“I mean… I guess that’s…” You struggle to find words before sighing and settling with, “Thanks. It’s nice.”

Alice closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Ugh, I am not used to this short of shit.” Stretching, she continues, “Alright get your ass up, we have some soldiers to kill.”

The swordswoman shoos you off her, leaving you to pick yourself up from her decidedly warm lap to stretch and get back in swing. Pulling out your board again, you gesture to Alice, to which she gets on behind you and holds tight. With her in place, you then turn to Ebe and speak.

“Alright, it’ll take some time to catch up I suspect. Ebe, if they’re stopping soon, they might be making a campfire, see if you can spot it and let us know. Once we have their location, I’ll need to know where downwind is.”

“Why would you- Oh.” She cuts off as it hits her. “The Anubis, right.”

“Right indeed.” You say, nodding your head. “Once we know where they are, Alice and I will attack. I’ll need you to stay back, however.”

“What!” She exclaims. “No, I’m going in there also.”

“Think about it rationally.” Alice says, her voice cool and serious. “If they can silence your Mother, what’s to say they don’t have something in place to make your songs ineffective too? I doubt they will have the intended effect on a warded Anubis. In that case then…”

“I’ll just be a burden…” Ebe sighs. “I understand.”

“We all have our places.” Alice continues. “Don’t be discouraged. We’d be in a worse position had we not your wings, disgusting and abominable as they are.”

Ebe blinks in confusion. “I… thank you?”

“No problem feather butt.”

“Alright, alright, that’s enough of that.” You say, getting their attention. “Let’s move out. We don’t have all night.”

“Actually-” Alice begins, but before she can speak further, you push forward with <Rock Slide>. She yelps and you inwardly smirk as the evening sands fly by you as you skim over them. Above you, Ebe flies forward, searching for your quarry. Until she returns, well… it’s back onto the track it seems.

Night begins to fall about you and the once vibrant sands become shadows in the darkness. The hot wind turns cool and somehow the sting of the sand isn’t as bad as you recall. It’s harder to see, to be sure, but by feeling the ground around you as you push it along, you can make sure you don’t run into the worst of it.

“Hey Rommel.” Alice says, intruding into your concentration. You grunt in reply and she continues, “How does a Wizard like you get involved with so many Monsters anyway? I don’t get it.”

“I told you the story when we met, it’s not that hard. There’s a common goal we share, that’s it.”

“Is that so? It’s just, I’d heard growing up that Wizards used to be warriors against Monsters, that they were chaste and powerful. But of course, when people started seeing Wizards again, it really wasn’t the case, was it?”

“Wizards are powerful, and we have to be chaste to even come into our power.”

“Yes, but what does it mean when you can have all that power, but none of the responsibilities?”

You go quiet at that, focusing your mind back on the path ahead. It’s a tough question to ponder, and you have a lot to focus on already, so you refrain from doing so. At least, that’s what you tell yourself, because you’re afraid to admit that you don’t WANT to think about it.

An awkward silence persists as Alice hugs you tight, her head resting on your back. Unable to bear it any longer, you say, “You’re pretty chummy yourself with Ebe today, and always with Tabitha. I thought you were part of the chantry?”

“The chantry is in name only these days.” The former Hero says. “And I suppose you’re right, my actions haven’t fit my words recently.” She goes quiet for a few moments before continuing,

“It’s hard sometimes, to remember that they aren’t human. That underneath it all is an encroaching darkness from a Goddess who rebelled against the heavens. Maybe the daughters shouldn’t inherit the sins of their Mother, but thousands of years of death, enslavement, a push toward extinction… twenty years isn’t enough time to just forgive and forget.”

“Alice I…” You begin to say before going quiet again. How do you respond to that? In the interim, she continues,

“My family had a long record of service in the Deleorian military. Shocking, considering how many men are always either killed or dragged off to birth more Monsters. In the years of “peace” between the twelfth Monster Invasion and the failed thirteenth, we grew lax, thinking there was little to fear.” She chuckles, “Of course, war doesn’t mean there is actually peace.”

Your silence is answer for her to continue. “Raids by Monsters near the borders continued. Some of the stories I was told of women being butchered and men thrown down and raped right before their daughter’s eyes…” She takes a deep breath. “When you hear these stories, these atrocities, it makes you angry. Makes your blood boil. People can do some shitty things too, but this is just beastial lust. Something a common dog does when in heat.”

“That’s why you hate them?” You say in a quiet voice.

“That’s why I shouldn’t trust them, at least.” Her voice comes out as almost a whisper. “Do you trust them?”

Your answer is faster than you expect and leaves you a little stunned afterward, “Yes, I do.”

Alice chuckles softly, “Aye, me too. Isn’t that the fucking shit? Maybe the invasion actually succeeded after all.”

“Maybe.” You admit, feeling still yet more uncomfortable. “Where did this come from anyway?”

She chuckles, “When you’re pressed up against a sturdy man and you can’t even masturbate, the mind has to wander somewhere, besides, I’m more than just a killer on the battlefield and in the bedroom. Heroes have to be intelligent too.”

“Is that so.” You say, shaking your head in reply. Though you wish to say more, Alice perks up behind you and says,

“There! In the sky, it’s the feather-head.”

Wondering how many terms she has for harpies, you slow down as Ebe circles about you, landing nearby with a few hops in the sand. She continues forward and says, “Over that dune, they’ve made camp. Not much in the way of shelter, but they’re making do it seems. Campfire and the wagon in the center with tents around it. I couldn’t see much else though, sorry.”

“That’s fine.” You say, nodding in appreciation. “What direction should we attack from?”

“Uhm.” Ebe thinks about it before pointing off to the east. “Come around from there, should be out of sight and downwind.”

“Should?” Alice says, a hint of mocking in her voice. Ebe pales some but nods her head with resolve.

“Right, we’re off. Keep an eye on us from a distance, we’ll meet up when we’re through.” The two nod their heads in agreement and you mount up again, moving quickly to the east. You’re certain if you’d attacked earlier in the day, you’d be way worse off than doing this now. Such a strain to even move… but it’s fine. You’re fine now.

Coming from the eastern dune, you get a look at the camp for the first time. Just as Ebe described, from the center of the camp comes light from a small fire, the embers illuminating the shape of a wagon laden with metallic crates, similar to the ones you’ve seen before. Backlit by the fire you can see the shapes of two men in uniforms though you can’t make out the details, patrolling around the camp. Disciplined… well, you didn’t expect much different.

“I don’t see the Anubis, do you?” Alice asks, to which you shake your head.

“No, I don’t. I wanted to take her out first.”

“Must be in one of those tents then.” She says, pointing toward the tents. “Plan of action?”

“I don’t think I can make a shot from here, not with much accuracy.” You mumble.”However, if I use [Tremor], I can put them off balance enough to make an opening for you.

“No way we’re doing this 100% quiet.” Alice mutters before stretching. “Alright, let’s move in hard and fast. You get them off guard, I’ll cut down the closest guard, then we attack them in their tents.”

“Works for me.” You say, shrugging. She punches your arm and you roll your eyes, making ready to move. Pushing off silently, you make toward the camp.

It begins with a faint tremor in the sand. The guards look about in confusion before they cry out as the sand shifts beneath them, swallowing their legs and throwing them off balance. The nearest one doesn’t even have time to scream before Alice’s blade slices through his body, the power of the sword mixed with her position on the speeding rock enough to slice through like cheese.

With one guard down, the camp explodes into confusion. You turn to a sliding stop on your stone, sending a shower of sand into the face of the other guard, making him cry out in pain before you fire a piece of Ronnie through his skull, retrieving the iron before looking about the camp. The three remaining men are crawling from their tents, weapons ready, and Alice goes to meet with one, cutting him down before he has time to position his spear.

Still outnumbered, you find yourself in a much better position than before however and you turn about to look for the Warden. It’s damn good that you do, because had you not, you might have missed the spear coming straight for your head.

Crying out, you throw up your staff, taking only a glancing blow on the wood and throwing you backward. As you move, you throw up a wall of sand to get a little more time, but as before, the Anubis crashes through as if it wasn’t there, her eyes filled with annoyance. You parry another blow, but find yourself unable to find an opening to attack yourself. Tabitha allowed you opening to get the feel for it, but this Anubis was having none of that. Her eyes reflect the firelight and give off the visage of a guard dog roused to fight off an intruder. In a sense, that’s exactly what this is.

“I could use some help here!” You shout, quick firing some pieces of Ronnie at the Anubis. Your aim isn’t the best in this situation, but it’s enough to make her move out of the way after the first shot misses. She positions her spear before her in a defensive gesture, watching the sands and your hands for any trickery.

You’re able to get a better look at your opponent now, noticing that she’s tall for an Anubis, and wearing a derivation of what the other guards are wearing, just much more… revealing. The majority of the outfit is white and made of an almost sheer cloth that attaches to a bronze necklace and covers the majority of her ample breasts before attaching to a bronze belt upon which blue, divided skirts dangle. While lacking in defense, it would be terribly distracting for most men and offer her plenty of mobility.

Thankfully, you aren’t overly interested in her toned, sun-kissed feminine form. You’re more interested in the spear she’s thrusting at you, keeping you from doing much more than evading. Maybe this wasn’t such a good plan after all…

“Huna li’iinqadh ‘asdaqayik althuqafiiyna?” She shouts at you. You can’t understand most of it, but you think she’s saying something about here to… friends? Ah fuck, they think you’re a cultist. Well, how else would this look, you suppose?

The horses in a make-shift pen neigh loudly as the battle continues. Gritting your teeth, you shout back in broken Ectrian {I am not friend!}

{I know that!} The Anubis cries, something you’re able to understand with your limited Ectrian. She makes to strike with her staff but as you go to block, she instead twirls and delivers a devastating kick to your head, throwing you to the ground and making your vision grow black. Utterly disoriented, you lash out with your magic, throwing a cloud of sand up in a [Flurry], unable to think of anything else. The unfortunate effect is that you’re not paying attention when you cast it, so some of the sand gets in your eyes and you cry out, eyes watering in pain.

Thankfully you don’t feel a spear in your gut, so you back away, dissipating the sand and rubbing at your eyes, blinking in confusion to see the Anubis jumping backward, spear held before her. With bleary vision, you see Alice, her sword glowing faintly in the night air, smile on her face.

“Heeeeey puppy, how’s it going? Sorry you had to play with that toy for abit, but I’m here to give you all the attention you could ever want.”

{What?} The Anubis shouts, clearly not understanding Deleorian. Alice’s face turns into a frown when she realizes this and she pouts, raising her sword.

“Oh, fine then. I’ll just do to you what I did to the others.” With that, she dashes in, getting low under the guard of the Anubis and striking up with the intention to break the spear with her sword. Energieschwert flashes through the night air and contacts the haft of the spear and-

Knocks it out of the paw of the Anubis, the weapon still intact.

Alice looks in confusion at the unexpected outcome, and it’s enough time for the Anubis to deliver a savage punch to Alice’s beautiful face, sending the woman staggering backward. The Anubis drives forward with a series of punches and kicks that drives Alice back, the Hero having no time to recover. Before the Anubis can deal a savage two handed spike, you fire out of a piece of Ronnie, clipping the Anubis in the arm.

{FUCKING HELLS!} The Anubis screams, pulling back and drawing the sword at her hip as she dives for cover behind a tent, more pieces of rock flying at her. You growl as she goes out of sight, but use the time to shout to Alice, who recovers herself, though her face has a bleeding cut on it.

Casting, [Build the Wall], you thrust the tent into the air before removing the wall, forcing the sleeping structure to hit the ground, in a heap, denying the Anubis her cover. Assuming she is still there, of course, which she isn’t. Looking on in confusion, you see a dash of movement from another tent, and you repeat the same spell, this time too late however. The Anubis charges, curved sword held at the ready as she moves into attacking Alice.

“She’s projecting her ward to her weapon!” You cry. “Your sword’s power won’t be as strong!”

“Oh gee, I never would have figured it out!” Alice says, prepared this time. She parries the charging blow and delivers a kick to the Anubis, who ducks out of the way and swings again. Alice blocks this blow and the two face off, blades sliding past each other as they duel.

You grit your teeth. With the two so close together, getting involved will be a detriment to Alice. In this case, your best situation is to free the prisoners and wait for an opening to attack if needed. Now that Alice is treating this like an actual duel, she is coming into her element, though you can tell she’s a little winded after the beating she took. At last the Anubis is wounded too, so she has some edge, though unfortunately it’s her off hand.

Leaping up to the wagon, you hear people calling out at you in Ectrian, what you can easily determine to be cries of help. The steel make-up of the locks is easy enough to break with your magic and you open the tops of the crates, helping people out. They watch the fight with some alarm as Alice and the Warden  fight. If nothing changes, it’s clear that Alice has the upper hand, her dueling prowess much stronger than that of the Anubis. Feeling a little more relieved, you open up the last crate to find the sleeping form of a mature Gandharva, Ebe’s Mother.

“Wake up!” You shout, shaking the Monster. She shuffles under your ministrations and opens her eyes slowly before jumping backward in a flurry of feathers, not she can really move because of the confines.

{Who are you?!} She cries in instinctive Ectrian.

{I am… help.} You say back. She blinks a few times, looking you over before speaking again, this time in Deleorian.

“You… you’re here to save us?”

“Yes, your daughter is waiting for us to finish this up. Come on, I need you out here.”

“My daughter? Ebe is here?” The Monster says, looking alarmed. “She’ll be hurt! She can’t be here and-“

“Ma’am, I need you to cooperate, alright?” You hold out a hand to her and she looks at it before biting her lip and taking it with a wing, allowing herself to be pulled out of the crate. As you do so, you see Alice delivers a flurry of blows to the Anubis, cutting the desert Monster multiple times with small gashes and tearing her clothes to shreds.

Almost naked and bleeding, the Anubis looks at you and the captives and growls fiercer than before. She hangs back her head and lets loose a howl that shakes your bones and you curse, hoping no one else heard it. You find you have little time to worry about that though as soon enough you notice that the Anubis is now glowing faintly, her unclothed skin radiating in red tattoos, her eyes glowing deep red as well.

“Oh no.” Ebe’s Mother says, “The blood ward.”

“The what now?” You say, looking confused.

“It’s something that sets Wardens apart from Handmaidens, they can turn their magical wards inward and unleash a hidden strength. Their innate magical immunity is gone, but they’re stronger, faster, and do not feel pain!”

You look at the Monster in disbelief. “How… wait, how do you know that?”

“Never mind! Look to your friend!”

Attention snaps back to Alice as you see the Hero grit her teeth and hold her sword up in a defensive posture. The Warden snarls a bestial snarl, her all semblance of woman-hood gone and replaced with that of a rampaging beast. She leaps toward Alice faster than you could believe and delivers a savage slice with her sword.

The swordswoman parries the blow, Energieschwert slicing the steel in two now that the magic is gone, but part of the plan. The Anubis grabs Alice with her wounded arm, all pain gone, and throws her to the ground with such force that the magical blade flies from her grasp. Alice bounces on the sand and twirls before coming to a stop, forcing her to push herself up, staggering some as her balance is utterly out of synch.

The Anubis leaps through the air with a howl and lands upon Alice, her paws seeming like claws in the wan moonlight. Knowing what’s to happen, you have no choice but to gather your energy and [Pebble gun] into the Warden.

She jerks as the pieces of iron slam into her back, making ragged holes, but she doesn’t stop, hands raised to tear at Alice. Letting loose a cry, she begins to slam at Alice’s back, the woman’s armor absorbing most of the blows, but driving her onto the same. It’s only a matter of time before she decides to just rip out Alice’s throat.

You fire a few more shots, but they don’t work, only annoying the creature. You need something stronger, something heavier, something…

The Anubis never sees it coming with the board of sandstone flies at her, sending the Monster soaring through the air before rolling in the ground herself. Alice gives a panting cry, pushing herself up and rubbing sand from her face before dashing for her sword. You look to the Anubis then, ready to put a shot into her head, but you pause as you see the Monster’s red glow fading, her eyes turning back to their normal shade.

She whimpers in pain, her back at an odd angle. The sandstone is shattered from the blow, broken upon hitting such a sturdy target, but so is the Anubis. She looks at you with fear and contempt before gasping, her eyes rolling back into her head, and then going still.

A quiet fills the camp in the wake of this, the only sound the panicking horses and the crackling fire. It isn’t until one of the man grabs your shoulder than you snap back to it, and you see a smiling face of a younger man, perhaps not even twenty years.

“You did it!” He says in Ectrian. “Praise the Apophis, you have been sent to save us!”

“W-what?” You say, looking a little stunned. “You’re actually cultists?”

The men, all three of them, look confused. The first one says, “Yes, of course. We had thought we were hidden well, but the dogs of the Pharaoh sniffed us out. And I thought we had a friend with those damn Khepri…”

“Wait wait wait…” You say, looking over to Ebe’s Mother. “You can’t be…”

The Gandharva looks to the side and says, “No, but I understand why they do what they do.”

You place a hand on your head and shake your head. “Ugh, well at least this group is done for. No one should know what’s going on here, so we’ll get you back to your village and-“

Alice shouts and you turn to see a streak in the night sky as something flies high and then explodes in a burst of red sparks. The swordswoman dashes out of sight and you heard a strangled cry before she returns, panting. “Damnit, one of them was still alive. He just set off some kind of firework!”

You hear flapping wings and a moment later, Ebe hits the ground next to you, looking alarmed. “Did you see that? Is everything alright?”

“Ebe!” Her Mother cries, and the younger Gandharva looks in surprise and delight as her Mother leaps from the wagon bed and embraces her daughter. “Oh… how good it is to see you again! Why are you here?”

“I- Mother, let’s save that for later, we need to leave.”

“She’s right.” Alice says, walking up with a mild limp. “That was obviously a signal for help. We can’t stay here or we’ll be caught by more of those bastards or worse, bandits.”

“Then lets get going back to the village. I’ll let Erwin know and-“

“Excuse me.” One of the men says, this one a little older. “I know of a place near here, I believe. A cave where the Violet Sands has a small cell.” He looks to the others who nod.

“I can take you there.”

You look between the rest of your group to see a scared Ebe, a wounded Alice, and you without your board. Gritting your teeth, your mind rushes through possibilities.

“I think we’d do best to head back to the village.”

Your answer gives the man some pause as he tries to scan the darkness for your expression. Thankfully he can’t see much and you’ve also done your best to keep your apprehension out of your voice and face. You hope, anyway.

The villager… cultist, you suppose, shakes his head. “I see. You might be right, we might accidently lead them to the group and we don’t want to get Chike here in further trouble.”

Confused, you look over at Ebe who nods to her Mother. “Ah yes, sorry. Uhm, this is my Mother, Chike.”

The older Gandharva nods her head. “Yes, that is the case, a pleasure, despite the circumstances.”

Alice coughs into her hand before cursing. “Yeah, okay, I think we should save this for later. We don’t want to be here when the others appear, as they almost certainly have someone coming.”

“She’s right.” Chike says. She stands up and stretches her wings, giving you a good view of her mature body with wide hips, yet still toned and in shape. Toils of a villager you suppose. Ebe catches you gaze and pouts, though you roll your eyes as her Mother flaps a few times.

“Goodness, keeping me cramped up in there has made my wings a little sore.” She smiles to Ebe however. “I believe I can still beat you flying, my hubibi.”

Ebe flushes furiously and stammers, “M-Mom!” As she does so, her Mother’s eyes shine.

“Oh? What’s this?”

“Less bullying, more getting the fuck out of here!” Alice says, groaning. She takes a few steps toward where you came from and then staggers. “Ah for fuck’s sake, I haven’t gotten my ass beaten this hard since that gangbang in Sanctifrond.”

The men’s eyes perk up at this and they immediately jump out of the cart to help her up. She gives them conciliatory smiles and allows them to help her up. They’re a little too…handsy about it, not that she seems to care. The pace is slower than you’d expect however, and you frown, looking over at your board.

There’s no way that you’re repairing that in any good form and you can’t transport these cultists back as it stands. Worrying a little, you hear from the side the horses neighing again and you clack your tongue. Of course, why not use what’s right here before you?

“Alice! The horses! We can take the horses!”

“Eh?” Alice says, frowning and looking over at the beasts. “I suppose. Going to hurt like a bitch though.” She looks up at the men and says, “Do you gentlemen know how to saddle a horse?”

The nod their heads and run off to do so, allowing Alice to sigh and lean against the cart. “Fucking hells…”

“Hmmm.” Chike says, watching Alice. “You could learn from her, Ebe, she knows how to use her beauty to her advantage, though I do not think those bruises will do her favors here soon.”

“MOM!” Ebe shouts. “Ugghh.”

You roll your eyes at the display and watch as the men get the horses settled down. Cultists they may be and nothing to do with them you may want, but you need them at the moment. Having them captured would be a pain in the ass also, as they would easily figure out you’re about and could go back to cause havok in the village. No, best just to bring them along and then have nothing to do with this cultist bullshit.

Looking about the ruined camp, you notice the blood on the sands, the ruined tents. When the reinforcements get there, they’ll know something is up unless you steal all the supplies, something bandits would do, and even then you doubt bandits are good about covering their tracks. You’re best off doing what you did with the last Anubis you encountered: Bury them.

You gather your magic and make to drag it all into the sand before pausing. It’s probably best to check around, see if they have any missives or anything before destroying it all. Maybe there’s something good about too? Speaking your intentions to Ebe and Chike, you get up and go over to the camp to look about the contents.

The men which Alice killed lay about in heaps, the one who fired the flare having fallen unconcious into the sands. Gritting your teeth, you make certain they’re all dead, retrieving your friends as you did before once the deed is done. In their pockets there’s nothing of much interest, and you’re only able to find one servicable spear and some short, curved swords, which seem rather less than useful for now. Still, you place one of them on your belt and carry the spear with you, putting you staff back into the bag.

>You gain [Ectrian spear]

>A spear with a steel tip, well crafted and maintained, unlike its previous owner.

>You gain [Ectrian sword]

>A well crafted steel scimitar, its curved blade is weird to you, but you’re not good with swords yet anyway.

The few remaining tents yield more results, and you’re able to get a few satchels of Ectrian copper and silver coins. Instead of the circular coins you’re used to, these coins are octagonal and have the face of a regal woman stamped on them. You assume it’s a Pharoah, but you can’t be certain. The final tent, a larger one which you had damaged in the fighting, has a satchel inside which has a little sheath of thin paper made of something other than wood pulp. Papyrus, you think?

>You gain [Ectrian orders]

>You can’t read it, but it looks pretty official

You’re unable to read it, however, but it looks official. Finishing your work, you head over to the two Gandharva to see the men return with the saddled horses. They hand one off to everyone but the Harpies. The men help Alice into her saddle and she nods her head in thanks, letting her hand linger on one of theirs a little longer than it should have. Maybe she really is smarter than she looks, because she already has these men in the palm of her hand, Gods damn.

“Back away from the camp!” You shout. Everyone spurs their horses into motion, the mounts moving with some unease, but still willing to acquiesce instead of staying put, their training kicking in. Unfortunately you’re not so great on the horse as it stands, but you’re able to keep still, for now. Thank the Gods someone was able to saddle these horses, because while you don’t plan to use your balls, you’d rather not have them bust.

When everyone is clear, you summon your magic and cast [Trench]. Because of the loose nature of the sand, it basically falls inward, creating a sinkhole which in which the corpses, the tents, the wagon, and everything else falls in. The sands rumble softly as it occurs and with a release of magic, it all fills in again, leaving nothing at all.

The men shout in joy at the sight, but you merely shake your head and turn your horse around, holding yourself in the saddle as you start riding back toward the town, guided by Ebe and her Mother while you cast gust to keep your tracks hidden. You’re fairly certain that you’re in the clear, and when the morning sun comes to show that you still haven’t run into any trouble, this is confirmed.

Shortly after sunrise, you pause to let the horses and yourselves rest. Alice certainly needs the time to rest, as despite her normal demeanor, she’s breathing a little heavy and looking woozy. You’re no healer, but you can tell she shouldn’t be riding much more. The men offer to help comfort her, and when she agrees and starts to take her armor off, Chike firmly puts a wing on her shoulder and asks you to put up a wall of sand after seeing your work on the small shelter. You do so, much to the chagrin of the cultists.

While Alice protests and makes moaning sounds on the other side of the wall, you see the men have indecent thoughts on their minds, to which you snap your fingers to get their attention. “Alright, stop gawking. If you play your cards right she’ll probably whore herself out or something.”

“Is she some kind of Monster?” One asks.

“No, just a slut.” You sigh. “Anyway, how did you know where we were back there?”

The men look about with uneasy glances until the man who brought it up holds up a small trinket, a little sigil of a snake wrought of copper. He grimaces and says, “You know enough as it is, there is no point in hiding it. We all have these, which serves to show our loyalty and helps us find another in the sands.” He whispers something in Ectrian and the little snake glows softly before pointing toward the northwest.

“That seems like dangerous information to tell an outsider.”

“It only works for those who have pledged, so I do not worry that anyone could do anything more than they would without torture as it stands.” He says, shrugging.

“Hmph.” You say, rubbing your eyes. “How do people like you get involved in this crazy cult anyway? What’s the point is all the Apophis are dead?”

“They are not dead!” One of the younger men shouts, while another puts a hand on his chest to keep him calm. The man with the trinket puts it away and shakes his head.

“Forgive him, he is overcome with emotion. While the Apophis are dead, their spirit of overthrowing the corruption of the Kingdom lives on.” He speaks in a formal tone and you feel a chill down your spine, like he’s reciting something to you in order to hide his emotions.

“Life in our village is fine, but with the taxes imposed on us despite the lack of bandit and beast control makes things harder than they should. All over this country the Prophet keeps the people out of her precious cities down. We scrape by and she keeps everything, bringing it about for her ‘divine’ purpose.”

“So, you’re revolutionaries?”

He smirks, “In a sense. If you would like, when we return to the village, I can arrange for a meeting with one of the older members, though given that business moving toward the Chasm…” He drifts off and shakes his head. “Nothing we could have done about it. Thank you for saving us.”

You shrug, “To be honest, I mostly did it because I didn’t want to see my companion cry.” Pointing a thumb over to Ebe, the Gandharva jumps and looks away, embarrassed.

The younger man chuckles and leans in close, “You have a good eye, sorcerer. Everyone in the village has always wanted to be with Ebe, but while she always smiled and danced, she never really opened up to people. But she seems to have a liking to you, unlucky us.” He shrugs, smirking. “But the other beauties you’ve brought…”

“Ah yes, go after them if you wish, but that’s a great way to lose a hand, or your head.” You say with a little more vitriol than intended. The man blinks at you in surprise before gulping and nodding his head. Cocking your head at him, you think over your tone and wonder why it sounded so defensive. Hmm.

After eating some food and resting, you saddle up and hit the sands again. Alice is not wearing her armor anymore, Chike forcing her to keep it off, but she does at least wear her robe which covers her body, again to the disappointment of the men traveling with you. You contact Erwin once you get started and appraise him of the situation. Though the connection is very weak, he sends a muffled reply. Once you get closer you get a better “signal” and have more of a proper conversation.

{You should have seen Sylphie’s face, the sigh she let out was almost like she was holding her breath the whole time you were gone!}

Rolling your eyes, you send back to Erwin, {I don’t doubt she was worried, but you’re overexaggerating.}

{Can’t blame the kid, the only other male figure in her life is currently in a dungeon in an unknown fate. Think she wouldn’t take it hard when you’re gone?}

{Fine, fine.} You send. {Tell her we’ll be back in a few hours, shouldn’t be much trouble.}

{Yeah yeah. Looks like she can’t hear us directly when we’re seperated such long distances because she keeps squeezing me tight to her chest. Did you know it’s fairly ample?}

{Erwin…}

{Haha. If it makes you feel better, I was worried too.}

{I know buddy, I know.}

The return to the village is thus uneventful and quiet, your [Audio Tap] not finding anything. As such, when you ride into view, a crowd of people gather, pointing in surprise. Ebe and her Mother land in town before you, much to the relief of the people there and as you dismount, you’re almost bowled over as Sylphie runs up and gives you a hug. Staggering back and forth, you manage to get your footing and pat her head through her hood, to which she hugs tighter.

“I wasn’t gone that long.”

“Shut up.”

Rolling your eyes, you look over to see the rest of the villagers doing the same with Chike, but looking askance at the other men in your group. When Sylphie eventually lets you go, you make to see what the deal is, but find your way blocked by Sophie. Cocking your head, you ask, “Yes?”

“I see Alice was injured, yourself?”

“Maybe a scrape or here, she did most of the fighting.”

“I see.” She sighs as well, clearly only willing to hear it from your lips. “So, are they actually cultists?”

“Yes.” You say, nodding to the group.

The village elder is standing before them, saying something to their bowed heads. Walking down to them, you hear the elder say, “I figured you brats were up to no good, but that damn cult? What were you thinking!”

“We were thinking about the future of the village.” The man with the trinket says.

“We’re doing well enough without having our young men taken away to be killed. You better drop all this nonsense and get a grip! You could have gotten poor Chike hurt because she tried to stand up for you!”

The men bow their heads and retreat to their respective homes. The elder shakes his head and looks up to you, smiling softly. “Ah, the heroes. Thank you for helping them, but did you-?”

“There wasn’t much else we could have done. I suggest you feign ignorance of the whole event.” You say, to which the man nods his head slowly.

“Yes… there might be questions.” He mumbles and shakes his head again. “Well, thank you. We’ll see this isn’t an issue again.” A smile comes to his face then and he says, “Come then! Spend the night with us, as a token of thanks. We can tend to your wounded friend and you have can a good night sleep before heading to your destination, unless you meant to stay here?”

“Unfortunately not, sir.”

He laughs and walks away, having two women practically drag Alice away, Tabitha in tow to make sure the woman doesn’t cause mischief. As they pass, Tabitha touches your arm and nods her head before continuing onward. Well, guess she’s glad you’re back too, or however you want to think that over.

“Guess we’re staying the night, huh?” Ebe says, walking up to you with her Mother.

“Only the night? A shame, I had hoped you’d had your fill of Deleor and had come back home.” Chike says, shaking her head.

“Mom! It hasn’t been that long! I’m not done… exploring, you know?”

“I thought you wanted to return home because Deleor wasn’t what you thought it was?” Sylphie says. The Gandharva blushes as her Mother raises an eyebrow.

“I- I mean, maybe that was true but like, there’s more going on and… and…” She rubs her head and groans. “Ugghhh, I’m so bird-brained!”

“Dear, don’t use that insult.” Her Mother says, shaking her head before smiling at the rest of you. “Come now, won’t you stay for dinner?”

“Well, I don’t think they’ll let Alice go until tomorrow.” Sophie says, shrugging. “I guess we can stay.”

Following the Gandharva into their home, you take seats around the table as Ebe goes to fetch water so her Mother can make tea. As Chike works at the small little cooking area, she calls out, “My dear little Ebe seems quite close to your group, Mr. Rommel.”

“She’s a good friend, been through a lot with us.”

“Hah, well maybe getting out of this little village was a good idea for her after all.”

“Uhm.” Sylphie asks, a little hesitant. “Do you mind if I ask a personal question?”

“Go ahead dear.”

“Well…” Sylphie looks at her sister, who nods her head. “How does a Gandharva end up in such a small place like this? From what Ebe had told us, most of your race lives near the cities and in luxury as beautiful singers.” She rubs the back of her head. “So… how?…”

Chike sighs and looks outside before continuing. “I haven’t told Ebe this, but perhaps it’s time soon. I have a feeling this may be the last time I see her for awhile. I’ll tell you now, but let me tell her later tonight.”

The three (four, Erwin is here of course) nod your heads as she begins. “I was born as the second daughter of a court Gandharva. My Mother sang for the nobility, and while she could bring anyone to tears or lust, she was not free. She was married to one of the higher nobles by deep bonds and though she did not truly love him, she did love us dearly.”

“She did her best to convince our Father to raise us as well as any noble child, instilling in us knowledge of the court, ancient Ectrian, letters, etc. When we weren’t being taught with books, our Mother taught us the traditions of the Gandharva, and I had fully expected to live life within the court.”

Chike sighs, looking tired despite her original vigor. “When I was fifteen, our Father died and my Mother was sold to another man, one far less nice. He immediately sold my sister off to another noble before she could do anything, but she had enough money left over to buy me my freedom, though she could have had her own.”

A wan smile comes to her face. “I wanted to free my sister, and tried my best to earn money to buy hers and my Mother’s freedom but despite my talents, I couldn’t do it. I even did a few things I wasn’t proud of, which led me to finding myself in an unsavory circumstance to which I was forced to flee. I would have been caught, and potentially pressed back into service, but I ran into a peasant who allowed me to hide in his cart. When everything was clear, I asked him to take me from the city, hoping that the kindness in his eyes extended to his heart.”

She spreads her wings out. “That man eventually became my husband, and though I was used to the fineries of the city, I found living here to be enjoyable in its own right. When I…when I lost my husband all I had left was Ebe. I never told her about this because maybe I was afraid she’d see my differently but…”

Her voice begins to crack some and you notice tears in her eyes. Sylphie stands up and walks over to the woman, giving her a hug while whispering kind words until she calms down and pats Sylphie’s shoulder. “Thank you dear, your parents clearly raised you well.”

The Cat o’Ninetails nod their heads, smiling softly. Ebe walks in a moment later, water held in a bucket she holds in her wing-arms. She looks about the room and cocks her head, confused.

“Uhm. Hi?”

—————————————————-

Dinner is a lovely affair, and you’re even joined by Tabitha and Alice, the latter with a few bandages. She lifts her robe up at one point to show you the one applied around her chest and you groan at the sight, much to the laughter of the others present. Some of the other villagers come over too, giving small offerings of food, which you share about, making it a lovely little party.

Ebe’s Mother tells embarassing stories about her childhood, especially her first time dancing, something that makes Ebe blush furiously, hiding her face in her wings. You tell stories about Deleor and the night wears on until Tabitha suggests it’s time for sleep. Despite the close confines of the little house, everyone is able to be comfortable, the twins sleeping on the bed with Ebe while Alice and Tabitha sleep with Chike. Alice says there’s room for one more, but Tabitha shoots her down while Chike merely chuckles into her wing.

Erwin, as he wont to do, leaps into the cuddle puddle of younger Monsters while you sleep away from them in your bedroll, looking up at the ceiling and feeling at peace. What an odd feeling that is, but even with six beautiful women sleeping mere feet away from you, you don’t feel at all troubled. Maybe that should be troubling in and of itself…

————————————————

Morning comes early, but you feel well rested as your group prepares for travel. Ebe’s Mother makes a breakfast for all of you and you sit about, munching on the food when a knocking comes from the nearby stone. Cocking your head, you turn about to see the curtain in the entranceway open, showing the form of Qi, who smiles at you.

“Oh my! You are still here! I had heard that people had returned, but it was already nightfall and I had to wait until the morning.”

“Uhh.” You say, looking at the Khepri. “Well, we’re here. We’re about to leave too, did you need something?”

Qi looks over the people in the room, her wings buzzing a little. “Could I speak with you outside?”

You frown and look at the others before standing and walking outside a little way away from the house, but within hearing of the twins. She seems to know this and walks you further away, to where you’re not certain they can hear, in which case you keep Erwin alert. Once she stops, she turns to you and says,

“There’s interested parties in your little group, you know?”

Your face goes stone and you growl out, “Did you go back on your word?”

Qi holds up a chitinous hand, “No, no, of course not. However knowledge of a group of Royal Guard taking cultists and then them returning WITHOUT the Royal guard is very interesting. Some would say that there are powerful allies of the cultists, those who bring danger to the court.”

“You sold us out.” The words come from your mouth in a hiss.

“No, I didn’t.” She says, her voice cold. “But I figured I should let you know that both of the Violet Sands AND the Royal Guard will be on high alert, searching for strong warriors.” She shakes her head, “That’s all I’ll say for free.”

“Tch, you sound like a Danuki.” You grumble, rubbing at your head. “Thanks, I guess.”

“Aha, it’s fine. Oh, and one more thing.” She says, leaning forward, “That Anubis in town was not best pleased to see that locket. There was a picture in there originally? Well, I don’t want to know, but I’d be careful about it.”

She walks away, telling you to come and trade with her again sometime and that she’ll be in the village a little longer if you need her. You find yourself annoyed, returning back to the house and telling them what Qi told you. Understandably, everyone is visibly agitated and a discussion comes of your next move. 

Ugh, whatever. Qi is an annoying enigma, but she did give you something nice for free. Part of you wonders how such a trader would just give away something like that but maybe she’s just nice. Frankly you don’t really want to bother much with it at the moment, you’re about to leave her far behind, so it’s not that big of a deal. You’ll just need to watch your back is all, nothing too much to it.

Although what she said about that Anubis finding her daughter’s locket troubles you. Part of you wishes to tell her about what happened, to try and justify yourself somehow, but you know that if you do, it’s not going to end well. At best you’ll get one hells of an earful, at worst you might be identified by the Royal Guard.

You could buy the locket from whoever Qi sold it to, make it all go away, but that has its own problems. Ugh, no matter how you look at this, there’s no real winning this situation. With a heavy heart, you decide not to tell anyone about, hope the Khepri haven’t implicated you, and return to Ebe’s house. As you part the curtain, you look about in confusion to find everyone gone. Frowning, you look about outside to Mr. Ed who snorts and nods his head over to the direction behind the house.

Frowning, you begin to walk behind the little structure to hear the women laughing. Frowning, you turn the corner to see a small, rectangular structure made of sandstone walls. Water sloshes from the top and you realize it’s a makeshift bathtub. All around it you see the women of your group, chatting while Sylphie holds her hand into the water, heating up.

“There we go, that should be good.” She says, nodding her head.

“Oh hells yeah, washing off the sand is going to feel great!” Alice says, beginning to strip off her top. Before you can do anything, she has her shirt off, the bandages the only thing covering her bosom. Next to her, Sophie has begun to do the same but at a gasp from Sylphie, they all turn about to look at you.

No one moves, no screams, no anger, nothing. Tabitha locks eyes with you and she says in a slow voice, “Ah, we thought you might be gone longer.”

“She didn’t have much to say.” You reply, tone neutral.

“We thought we might take a bath.” She says, shrugging. “Sylphie asked for it, and thought it would be a good treat for Ebe’s Mother.”

Chike looks about between the group and cocks her head. “Is this normal? Are you all his harem?”

“No, they aren’t.” You say, shaking your head. “But it wouldn’t do to get overly upset. I’ll be over here with…” You pause and look about for Erwin. “Where is my familiar?”

The water ripples and Erwin surfaces, shaking his little furry face. He smirks that fox smirk and sends, {Hey there! Care to join us!}

“Oh please.” Sylphie says, and then purses her lips. “I meant that sarcastically.”

“I don’t have the strength to tell you not to eavesdrop.” You sigh out, eyes flicking back to Alice. “You could have a little shame you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re not going to want to join us and sit in a lovely tub with some beautiful women, so just go hang out with the horse.” She waves her hand to you and you narrow your eyes.

“You know what, I’m going to make my own tub, and it’s going to be better than yours.”

“Oh yeah?” Alice says, planting her hands on her hips.

“Yeah!” You say, feeling fired up for some reason. Looking about, you point at the ground and cast [Build the Wall], making a partition. Sniffing, you walk to the other side and form a tub yourself, except yours is circular, like a proper tub. With that done, you make a few intricate little designs and then nod your head. Fancy!

The girls begin to giggle again on the other side of your wall and you roll your eyes. Atop the wall you spy Alice’s robes land, clearly meant to make you angry. Well fine, she can leave it there. You snap your fingers and the wall raises a good ten inches. Serves her right!

Looking back to the tub, you think of how to full it. You didn’t really think that far ahead, did you? Well let’s see, your hydromancy is pretty bad and there isn’t much moisture in the air so… cryomancy it is? Looking at the tub, you cast [Ice] and fill the tub with ice which is a little draining in the desert but nothing you can’t handle at all. Once that’s done, you apply a stream of [Fireball].

Sadly, your control isn’t the best and your fire flares into the water, creating a geyser of steam as the ice rapidly melts and you wave it out of your face until you’re able to control it. The girls laugh hard and you hear, “Having trouble there, oh mighty Wizard?”

You grit your teeth and finish your spell, finding it not as well filled as you would wish, but it’s good enough and it’s warm. Looking over at the wall, you strip down and then slide into the tub, sighing at the warm water lapping around you. With the heat above and below, it feels amazing and you almost want to just drift off to sleep again.

“Pfff, he actually did it.”

“Alice! Stop looking!”

“What? He saw me naked once, it’s fine.”

“WHAT! Alice what are you talking about!”

Eyes snapping open, you look at the wall to see a section of it removed with the face of Alice looking out at you. She smiles broadly as she notices you and you frown, sliding the wall shut. Growling, you shout, “Sylphie! I know that was you!”

Silence answers you for a moment before Sylphie says in a voice you can barely hear, “Uhm. No it wasn’t!” Mr. Ed, who had come around to hang out with you, snorts and Sylphie lets out a little yelp. “S-Sorry, she bullied me into it!”

“What? It wasn’t my idea, it was the old lady’s!”

“Hey, don’t talk to my Mother like that!”

Groaning, you put your hands to your head. Why did it have to be a group of Monster? Why couldn’t it have been a group of professional, trained soldiers without the sexual curiosity of repressed children? At least you’re fairly certain they didn’t see anything beyond your chest, which you freely showed as it stood, so whatever.

“Finish up girls.” You shout. “We still need to be going here soon!”

They all respond in the affirmative and you return to bathing yourself and enjoying the water until it gets cool. Making sure to get out before the girls, you drain the water off you with your hydromancy and replace it into the tub, getting dressed quickly. Good thing you did, because almost as soon as you finish, Chike pokes her head out the side of the wall and asks, “All done, dear?”

“Yes, I believe so.” You say, watching her expression. Her mouth quirks as if disappointed and you roll your eyes. Monsters will be Monsters, though you suppose you should be flattered, if you cared about any of these things.

“Excellent, we’re almost done here, so just wait for a moment, will you?” You nod to her as she pulls away and the women start to chatter, water sloshing. During that time, you polish your friends, despite being just ore you make them nice and pretty, and by the time Sylphie brings down the wall, you friends are sparkling.

“Now that was refreshing.” Sophie says, hood back on. She looks at you and smirks, “You should really comb your hair.”

“I could say the same to you.” You say, to which Sophie smirks and flicks her wet hair at you, making you blink.

“We’re going inside to do that and then we’re on our way, alright?” You wave them off and notice Chike walking toward you, shaking her head.

“You are a brave man, traveling with all these Monsters.”

“One of them is a human.”

“Oh, she is?” The Gandharva says, chuckling, “I couldn’t tell. Well, I just wanted to thank you for taking good care of my daughter again and looking after her. She has a good set of friends now.”

Nodding your head, you say, “Thank you. They’re all good people.”

“And they all look up to you, except maybe that Lizardman with the metal legs. I was surprised she went into the tub with them!”

Blinking, you remember that indeed, Tabitha has metallic legs. Well, they have to be quite waterproof you suspect, especially if the Grand Wizard built them. Shaking your head, you become a little more serious as you ask, “If you don’t mind me asking a person question… if you’re so learned, why didn’t you teach your daughter how to read?”

Chike grimaces, clearly a sore spot for her. “This little town as no literature and trade was better spend on other items. Besides I… I didn’t want her to suspect anything, I wanted her to have a quiet, happy life.”

“She took it well last night, I trust?”

“Well enough.” Chike sighs. “I told her after you went to bed, but it seems she already suspected, my smart girl.”

“I’m sure she could pick it up easily if she had a good teacher.”

“Ha!” Chike chuckles. “Maybe I should become a teacher for this town, I’m starting to get on in the years and my beauty is starting to fade.”

“I don’t believe that for a second. You are no less beautiful than your daughter.”

Chike blushes and giggles, “Oh my, I feel like a fledgling again. Are you in the market?”

“No, thank you.” You say, shaking your head, to her continued laughter. “I would ask however… you said you could read Ancient Ectrian?”

“Yes, though it has been years since I have had the occasion to do so.”

Nodding, you rummage in your bag and pull out the [Scroll of Ectrian Geoflexing] and the [Runic Rubbings]. You look at the [Ectrian Orders] and hesitate, placing them back in the bag instead of offering them to be read. Asking her to read them, she looks at the scroll first and nods her head.

“Geoflexing? Goodness, this is a rare art. Very few people in the capital still practice this as mana manipulation outside of Monsters can be difficult.” She looks over the scroll and chuckles, “This scroll doesn’t talk about how someone may convert the energy of the land, the residual mana, into usable power, however.”

“Residual mana?” You ask, cocking your head. “I know areas with mana crystal deposits often are steeped in mana, but the wastes don’t have them?”

“Well, I’m no magical theorist, but I recall and instructor saying that all things beyond the Chasm have mana, and that by drawing it within yourself using various techniques, you can manipulate it in the same way as one would be mana crystals.”

“Interesting…” You mutter to yourself as she reads through the scroll.

“These positions tell you how to put mana into yourself from your core to manipulate the earth.” She points to various parts of the scrolls and explains their names. “Have you practiced these yet?”

“The one with the fists.”

“I see. It says here that to focus into your legs, you must imagine yourself rooted to the earth, it being a part of you. By drawing mana into the soles of your feet, you become one with the earth itself, and are able to move it as you would your own legs.”

Pointing at your chest with her wing, she continues, “But to have full control, you must pool your power into your heart. Channeling the mana from the four points of your limbs, you bring it back to where it came from and from a link, which allows you to pull from the earth and move with fluidity all things.”

“I… see.” You say, shaking your head and looking over the scroll. Now that you knew their names, and some of the purposes, you figure you have a better understanding of the way these are meant to be done. Punch, punch, stomp, stomp, draw it in and release. Well, there’s more to it than that, but this certainly is a way to go!

“Thank you.” You say, putting the scroll away and handing her the rubbings. “This is… a little more intense.”

She frowns and looks at the runes, focusing on the ancient Ectrian. Her eyes widen before narrowing and she hisses, “Where did you get this?”

“From a tomb, made by Wizards, Dwarves, and Ectrians.”

“I don’t understand the significance of these all together, but the runes seem to speak of binding, prison, locking away. They have a pattern which makes me think them magical, but I cannot say for certain.” Nodding at the paper, she says in a darker tone, “However there is a name mentioned, ‘Hent-ateh.'”

She goes quiet and you ask in a soft voice, “Does the name mean anything?”

Chike licks her lips before speaking. “Legends speak of the final days of the Apophis, when the last few of their species were being eradicated by the Pharaoh. In their desperation, they formed a pact with a creature from beyond our realm, this Hent-ateh, and brought it forth, binding it to them with a covenant to slay their enemies.”

“Stories vary on the severity, but we know it was a brutal thing of pure darkness which slaughtered left and right, but was controlled by the Apophis until it was defeated by the Pharaoh, supposedly banished back to where it came from but clearly they couldn’t.” She shakes her head and says, “This thing isn’t…?”

“I don’t know.” You admit, looking down at the paper. “But thank you for the information.”

She nods and hands over the paper, but as you take it, she places her other wing on your hand and you look up at her. Her brilliant green eyes search yours and she asks, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, and I’m not certain I want to know but this is happiest I’ve seen my little girl in such a long time.” Chike takes a deep breath and says,

“Please keep her safe.”

You nod your head and say, “I will. You have my word.”

Chike smiles and gives you a hug, which lasts maybe a little too long, before pulling off you and laughing, taking you back inside to find the girls finishing up with their preparations. Once everyone is settled, you say your farewell to Ebe’s Mother and leave the little town behind, hopefully not for the last time

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