Illusionistquest Chapter 18: Mental Breather


Chapter 94

Jurenburg, likely by way of Harpy, already knows what happened out in the fields. Thankfully, they don’t know of your involvement, which suits you just fine. The people and Monsters seem rightfully worried about what they’ve heard, and rumors have begun to circulate through the town about what just happened out there. This “Queen of Tails,” or whatever she styles herself as, at least had the forethought to reveal that Emily was, in fact, a human, which causes some of her supporters to become disillusioned.

Reconciliation is going to be hard to come by, given all the tensions out here, but if what she told you is true, you think things will be okay. Regardless, it’s no longer your business and, while Saya is acutely interested in the political fallout of this, you have bigger fish to fry.

With the leyway coming the next day, you spend the evening and much of the morning in blessed civilization, spending as much time as you can in your nice, warm, soft, bed while the inn common room beneath you roils with people celebrating or commiserating the outcome of this battle. Everyone in your party feels the same, taking the opportunity to retrieve and repair their gear and rest as best they can before the morning. Saya even fixes the tear in your shirt, though her hands jiggle a little as she tries to keep them functional.

While everyone isn’t in peak condition, at least Saya looks mostly human and Ophelia is able to walk… somewhat. The healers did their best, but she still winces if she strains too much and you’re certain her back is scarred. Ginelle assures her that men find scars attractive, and she pointedly looks to Clint, who agrees. Ophelia doesn’t find this overly convincing, but you do catch her flexing (and wincing) once.

Thankfully no one from either faction tries to contact you and you make off to the leyway station without fanfare. The magitek engine comes in the late afternoon and, due to your connections, you get some prime seating in the rather “utilitarian” leyway. While it has rooms for passengers, much like the other leyways you’ve been on recently, this one is clearly designed with cargo in mind. It comes as no surprise though, seeing how Helmscrag is a border town with a strong military presence. Luxury cars aren’t exactly in demand in such situations, but at least the extra guards mean you can travel through the night.

Most of your party takes to resting again, except for Clint and Ginelle, who take their customary seats in the dining car. Clarissa looks after Ophelia, the rabbit having difficulty even getting into the leyway and passing out almost as soon as she reaches her bed. Saya and Akela go to nap, leaving you alone, as far as you know, as you haven’t seen Abigail since that last kiss. That thought makes it rather difficult to sit still, so you take the opportunity to fire up your [Port-o-Glass]. Might as well see what’s in your ley-mail…

Surprisingly, you have a lot of important communiques to go through. The first is a reply from Patricia, which you decide to open later, as well as a report from Anderson, and a reply from Selene. You tap your knee a few times, thinking over what to do first when another message from Anderson appears.

“REPORT. NOW.”

You pointedly ignore this, and instead read through the contents of the older ley-mail. It seems they’ve retrieved the body of “The Crow” and have done some tests on it, even bringing in a Hospitalier and a Biomancer.

While going through the body they found puncture wounds into the cranium as well as others which had scarred over remarkably quickly considering how they penetrated into the brain itself. The Biomancer also found trace elements of plant material in the brain, degraded after the host died. As they dissected it, they found more and of the material invading every aspect, eventually finding a seed planted into one section in the forebrain. No one is quite certain why it was there, but the space it occupied seems significant for some reason.

Anderson makes an offhanded mention about the applications of this autopsy to advancing science, but you dismiss it. You don’t really need to know the how, but the why. It corresponds with everything you learned from Lor’s case and with that you saw happen to Emily. Wait, if the seeds came to fruition in a male, what would even happen? Something like Franz Jakovitch or… erm…

Unbidden, you briefly touch your own head and frown. She didn’t… plant anything there, right? No, no you were saved in time from having that happen. Clearly you’re over thinking this… right?

Troubled, you write a report of the current events to Anderson, going into detail about the ruins and the current state of politics in this region. You make damn certain that Anderson knows that you pretty much saved the entire fucking country here as well as almost losing a very dear friend and you expect some really, really major compensation for this. With a flourish, you smash that fucking send rune and go on to read Patricia’s ley-mail.

 

“Tobias.

 

“Holy Hells, this is not good. So your little story about the seeds in the brains? I got a report from that Anderson creep, hello sir how are you, and it’s scary. See, I don’t know too much about brains and all that, but I do know that getting something like that in the head will make someone very, very susceptible to suggestion and insanity. This isn’t some magical twisting going on here, but instead a very physical response. Frankly, this isn’t something a human can do, and with the way you described this Chalan putting her arm back together, it’s confirmed that she is not human.

“That being said, she is not a known type of Monster. No Plant Monster is mobile, not without some other extenuating circumstances, and most certainly not without being noticed. So this makes me think that she was not born, but created. Anderson sent some other reports he’s found and I believe that Chalan’s involvement and appearance near the Cradle are not coincidence. We found out who she was before, a Biomancer of decent skill who spent a LOT of time with these Monsters.

“I’ll be blunt, I think the Queen Alraune did something to her, made her the way she is now. Tobias, this creature known as Chalan is not the instigator, but another pawn. Using these seeds, she’s locating the Illusionists and driving them insane. The chaos they create in their delusions is but a side effect of the true intention, I feel. The real reason she is doing this is to make them insane enough to find no other route but to accept Phallia’s blessing, to become Mindflayers. This is what I believe Beardlington meant by ripening, though I’m not certain how it would apply to the men.

“Imagine a force of Mindflayers, able to control the minds of others through illusions? Remember how a Monster Invasion was delayed, and nearly ended by a sinlge Illusionist? Imagine one without the restraints of this and with a purpose under a Goddess.

“I’m scared Tobias, and you should be too. If she is able to create even another Mindflayer, and then an Avatar… This war is not supposed to go well for Galmathoria, not with the military might of Deleor after Saya’s dad’s actions. But with saboteurs the level of a Mindflayer? It would be a slaughter. With both sides weakened then by the conflict… Well, these are all just grandstanding theories honestly. I’ve spoken with my father directly and he is certainly concerned. Mother still just wants me to find a good boy with a nice dick and… bah, never mind.

“He’s busy preparing for the worst case scenario. He wants to send some Heroes out there, but he can’t, not soon enough, sorry to say. However, he did let me know, hello Mr. Anderson, that there is at least one Hero there who knows of the situation, but is advised to keep a low profile and not to act until she rendezvous with you.”

“That’s all for now. I don’t have any way to help with these seeds, but I’ll look into it further. Might get me out of the library I suppose… Anyway, stay safe and tell Saya she’s a dunce.

 

-Patricia.”

Well then. You look over the message again before groaning. So, the dumb brainy smarty figured it all out, huh? Gods, had this message been sent any sooner and you could have avoided so much trouble, or at least been prepared for what happened. Well, that’s what you’d like to think anyway. Finding no cause to withhold information, you update her on your adventures in Jurenburg and what you encountered in the stoneworks. Maybe she’ll find it interesting or something. You hear smart girls like interesting things.

A new message appears as you weave this, from Anderson of course. Without anything else better to do, you open it.

 

“Tobias.

 

“That such ruins are being identified for possible use as ritual sites is troubling, and I will have to speak with the Court Wizard about it. Please give my condolences to Ms. Illoma, though I’m afraid her work is only now about to begin, as it will for all of you, especially if it is true that they have obtained a mana cycler. I have spoken with Ms. Boudreaux about her involvement and suspicions, and I have to agree. Military forces in Helmscrag have been put on alert, but we cannot risk any overt shows of force. Currently small teams are searching covertly, but I fear they’ve turned up little to nothing as of yet.

“Keep me advised of your progress, and when you see the Hero, Alice Nurem, please work with her. I trust you will not fail in this.

-Anderson.”

 

“For fuck’s sake…” you mumble to yourself. “Thought he’d be a bit more appreciative.”

“Who would?” Saya says, sitting down next to you. You didn’t even notice her wake up, but you were a little busy reading Anderson’s BS. She reads his message as well before rolling her eyes. “Great, what a stand-up guy. Alice, huh? I don’t think I’ve heard of her before, but if Blake recommends her, then so be it.”

“I suppose,” you say before opening up the message from Selene. “You have mail, by the way.”

Saya frowns and reads over the missive before cocking her head. “I don’t get it. Mom says that the Plant Monsters have left Sanctifrond, that they’re returning to the Cradle, but nothing was accomplished. None of their demands were met and no treaty was made, they just got up and left. Well, with help of course, they aren’t exactly mobile.” She shakes her head. “I don’t like that at all, it reeks of them stalling things.”

“Does that mean your mother can come here and just… fix everything?” you ask hopefully, and Saya shrugs.

“No, she said she had to attend to dad. He’s apparently found something out East that seems to be way more important than potentially the destruction of the world as we know it.”

“That is… genuinely terrifying,” you say, shuddering. A notification sound chimes and you look over at the glass only to freeze in place, eyes going wide.

Saya lifts an eyebrow and tries to take a look for herself, but you quickly turn the [Port-o-Glass] away and smile. “Aha, it’s nothing. Just Anderson being a jerk! I better get on this. Could you see if Akela is doing alright?”

She gives you a searching look before rolling her eyes and walking over to where Akela is sleeping, gently running her fingers through the little girl’s hair. You watch her for a moment before turning back to the device. With trembling fingers, you open the message from the Grand Wizard himself entitled, “We need to talk.”

 

“Dear Tobias,

 

“I have heard of your exploits and adventures from my wife, and frankly I am glad to have such a devoted fan. While it was not my intention to become popular in such a way, that people are inspired to follow in my footsteps and go on life-changing adventures warms my heart. I am currently on another fantastic adventure, probably saving the world, though I can’t really talk about it at the moment. Wizard things, you know?

“Oh, but I’m glad to hear you’re such good friends with my eldest daughter whom I love more than anything in the world and would kill mercilessly anyone who dared hurt her in any way or would allow harm to come to her. The thought of such a thing happening, or gosh, someone taking advantage of her, well, that just fills me with rage! I’m glad you were just joking around like men do, having a good time, because clearly you wouldn’t be such a fucking idiot to send that to me over ley-mail, would you? I mean, wow, that would just be the worst thing a father could read, even if it was for good intentions!

“Now, since you clearly are NOT doing these things and are just concerned with Saya’s health, I’d like to hear what specific concerns you have. I’ll entertain a few other questions, but I warn you that I’m a busy man and I can’t always check my ley-mail.

“I’ve given you a golden ticket, boy.”

 

You’re sweating. Not like, because you’re hot or anything, in fact you don’t even notice it until a bead of sweat falls upon your shaking hands. You just managed to make THE Grand Wizard himself angry because of your stupid ley-mail. You couldn’t have just made it easy on yourself and not sent the message, but nah, you had to send it, didn’t you?

And yet, the way his words are crafted, the arrogance in them, stirs something in your chest. You expected him to be angry, or at least disapproving, because that’s what fathers do, right? Shit, if some little shithead walked up and said he banged Akela, well that would be wrong because she’s a little girl, but if she was an adult, you’d want to bash his brains in. You understand exactly what he’s feeling here, don’t you? For some reason that gives you strength, and you sit up straighter, reading over the message again.

This, “Golden Ticket,” you’ve been given, he probably doesn’t expect you to use it, does he? He expects you to be cowed by him, and frankly you almost were. You look up to see Saya singing a soft lullaby to Akela and your heart swells, as if a fire is stoked within. Grand Wizard or not, you’re not going to be pushed around here, because while you really, really want his signature, you have something way more important.

You crack your knuckles and wince as they throb momentarily. Taking a moment to compose yourself, you lift your hands to the runes and begin weaving.

 

“Grand Wizard,

 

“Good afternoon, thank you for your reply, but let us not stand on ceremony, Mr. Wizard. I have read your reply, the anger within it, and I understand. You’re a big guy, but I wonder if being caught in your words was part of your plan? Of course it was, you must understand that though my own words were disconnected, they spoke the truth.

“Saya, your daughter, she makes the fire in my heart rise. I am not merely her friend, but it does not matter who I am, for what matters is my plan. The plan in which I hold and protect your daughter, to take the years of pain which has kept her down with the fear of loving someone and give something greater to her… your daughter. Do you feel in charge? Your legacy gives you power, but do you think it gives you power over me?

“I reached out to you because I thought you could help, but you don’t have power over me. You want happiness for your daughter? Then look to me, for I am the necessary component to her joy. You may wonder if you will break me, in spirit or body, but I assure you that this will not be so. I love your daughter, and if you cannot accept this and help with her happiness, then you can just go crash a boat… with no survivors!”

 

You pause for a moment there, realizing you’re trembling a little. It’s not very long, but you feel something magical about what you’ve written here. In the sparkly, feel good sense, not the actual mind bending magic sense, of course. You read over the words one more time and wonder if you’ve gone too far with the whole, “crashing a boat” thing. Eh, you just nod your head and going forward with the message anyway.

 

“So, I leave it to you. What is your answer? Will you help? Or has peace cost you your strength? Work with me and we can all be happy.

“I do not take back my words, for I have made love with your daughter and it was wonderful. Would you like the details? No? Very well then.

“But onto other topics: I know your knowledge of Biomancy has only increased over the years and that part of it is because you seek to look further into your daughter’s condition, to bring her closer to where she can find happiness. I have another question related to that, for in our journey we have met a woman infused with plant material, perhaps even Monsterized. With her powers she inserts seeds into the minds of my own variety of sorcerer, driving them insane. I wish to know your thoughts on this subject.

“Truthfully I don’t need much else. I can take your signature or leave it. I have something more precious now. But there is one thing I will ask though, something I fear that has been weighing on my soul quite heavily. I…

“Want your Mountain Elixir recipe.

 

“With love,
Tobias Shady.”

 

You read this over again and shrug, hitting the send rune. It flies away through magic and mystery to some far-off nexus point of magic where The grand Wizard will see it.

“You alright, dear?” Saya says and you look up, blinking a few times at her.

“Oh, uh, yeah, just got heated with Anderson, you know.” You look back to the [Port-o-Glass] for a reply, but see nothing yet. Not everyone is Anderson after all.

“Hmm,” she hums, clearly choosing not to push the issue and instead sits next to you and snuggles in close. She sighs as she leans her head against your chest and whispers, “I was worried about you, you know?”

“Huh?” you ask, surprised at the situation.

“I mean, first I was angry, how could you make me sit back? Like I was the one who needed protection, hmph.”

“Saya what are you talking-“

“And then I get myself blown up. Honestly my tits might as well be sacks of grapes. Those bones I used to replace the broken ones are making it hard to keep up my good looks as they do not match at all. But I’ll figure it out.”

You just stay quiet as she continues talking, realizing she needs to speak her peace before you say anything. With that in mind, you watch as she traces a finger lazily across your chest, her voice a whisper.

“What if I had lost you? I kept thinking. When I saw the Black Tails moving in, I knew I had to leave Akela and go to you, but it broke my heart. I abandoned her, but if I didn’t, who knows what would have happened?”

She grasps your shirt with her fingers, trembling. “I know I said those words on the wagon, to motivate everyone, but I’m scared Tobias. I can’t bear leaving your side again, not when another Monster like that is waiting for us. Please don’t ever send me away again.”

You take a deep breath and exhale slowly before taking her hand in yours. “Saya… I thought I was protecting you and Akela by doing what I did, but I knew it was a mistake from the moment we entered that camp. I knew it was a mistake the first time I did it too, but I thought… I thought…” You grit your teeth. “No more. We started this adventure together and we’re going to finish it together. Can you forgive me?”

Saya looks into your eyes and a smile quirks on her lips. “I honestly don’t know whether to hit you or kiss you right now.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“No,” she says, before punching your chest, then pulling you in for a kiss.

It isn’t until the next day that you receive the reply. In fact, you’re actually kind of shocked you got one at all, but you make certain you’re alone, both Saya and Akela off to eat pancakes, before you read it. Firing up the [Port-o-Glass], you log into your account and discard the trash before getting in the zone and reading.

 

“Tobias.

 

“For fuck’s sake, I should have known my daughter would be stupid enough to find a man like her damn father. I kept telling her she’d find a good guy someday, but noooo, she had to find someone with a shitty sense of humor like her dad. Gods kid, you’re making it really, really hard to be the angry father right now.

“I’ll be frank with you, I’m happy for her, I really am, but I was afraid something like this would happen. Yes, she’s a Monster and my wife prepared me for… that happening to her someday, but that her fears she would hurt her love coming true must have hurt her terribly. I’m glad you two made it through it though, because to my eternal shame, I don’t have an answer for you.

“You’ve read my book, you know that her birth, while wonderful, was beyond anything anyone could imagine. I don’t even know where to classify her, nor does my wife, and it scares me. Can she ever truly control her own nature? Can she have children of her own? I know it keeps her up at night, but me too sometimes.

“Ah, but forgive the ramblings of an old man. I’ve heard of some of your adventures, don’t ask how, just trust that I’m connected. I also received the same request about this “Chalan” from Blake, or the Lord Commander, or whatever you want to call him. If I was in Sanctifrond, maybe I could help with that, but as of yet, I don’t have a good idea on how to remove these seeds, not without severely harming the host. They might be better off dead.

“You’ve done much kid, and I know that you’re taking care of my daughter. I know she can look after herself, but keep her safe for me? She and her sisters are my world and my heart wrenches every time she goes off on one of my wife’s crazy missions. To know that there’s someone next to her, a b…ooooyyyyyfriend, guh, well, it makes me feel a little better. I guess.

“Of course, once again, if you’re lying to me and you hurt her, I’ll kill you in ways that can only be described as ‘deeply pornographic.’

 

“Sincerely,
The Grand Wizard

 

“P.S.: Mountain Elixir is made of water, caffeine, lemons, limes, sugar, and to put it all inside a jug with a raw mana crystal inside of it. You may or may not cause mild explosions the first few times.”

 

You read over it once, twice, three times, before you smile and turn off the [Port-o-Glass] once again. Honestly, you really didn’t think that it would go this way, but as you wrote your reply to him, you knew it was right. This reply seemed to confirm what you’d always figured, that the Wizard really is just a shitweaver who loves his family too much. Somehow it makes him seem much more human to you.

“Wait a second,” you mutter, rubbing your chin as you remember something important. “He didn’t say he was going to sign my damn book!”

 

Chapter 95

The leyway slows down as it approaches the station, the last stop on the track. It takes a few moments for the metal cars to sink down to the ground, the magic dispersing about them, and, with a gentle thud, they settle in place. Outside the windows, the shuffling of footsteps is heard and the doors open up, admitting a group of armed soldiers who enter into your car.

You’d been warned about this beforehand. Due to the nature of the place there would be checks made of all passengers before allowing entrance into Helmscrag itself. You stand with your luggage ready as the soldiers in their gleaming breastplates walk down the aisle, looking through belongings and questioning your party.

“Name?” a gruff soldier asks as you stand up straight.

“Tobias Shady.”

“Mmm, you’re on the registry,” he says, nodding at a sheet. “Business?”

“Investigation via the Crown. I imagine Agent Anderson has sent you information?” You raise an eyebrow and the man turns to another soldier who nods his head. The gruff soldier grunts and makes a check on his paper.

“Very well then, we have you here. We’ll have to check all your luggage for contraband though.”

“Of course,” you say, handing over your [Rucksack]. The men look over everyone’s assembled luggage, paying particular attention to Clint’s rifle, though it seems Anderson put in a good word for you so they let it go without much fuss. Ophelia’s luggage takes a while to search, but her standing of the Illoma family gets her much of a pass, even for her things like her magitek bombs. When the man looking at your items gets to your [Pocket Sand] he opens it up and dips his hand in. Your heart starts beating furiously. Oh shit, what if he pulls out some crazy fucking sand and blows everyone up and-

“Why do you have a pouch full of red sand?”

“Uhhhh,” you say, a little startled. “I like to dry my ink with red sand because it’s prettier.”

The man gives you a stare so cold you think you’re about to freeze into oblivion. He eventually hands back your items and they deem your strange collection as satisfactory. They wave you forward and you exit the leyway, holding Akela’s hand as you mind the gap and enter into Helmscrag.

The station, open to the outside, is fairly utilitarian. Multiple soldiers stand about the periphery, helping to unload crates from the leyway while other, less uniformed people mill about quietly, as if afraid to get in the way of the soldiers as they wait for their turn onto the leyway. You spend little time in this unfortunate place and head out to the town itself to find it… equally unfortunate.

Helmscrag used to be a mining town before the borders suddenly shifted. The reason this town in particular became a military base was not because of its proximity to the border necessarily, nor was it because of the ore it mined here. No, it was because of the terrain, which even you find extremely evident.

The majority of the town is built into the walls of a canyon with multiple buildings carved out of the rock face itself, thanks to powerful Geomancers, while wooden buildings that connect to natural hollows in the rocks dot the area every so often as well. Due to the multiple tunnels running through the walls, it was easy to set up a hive-like fort that overlooks the canyon while having access to the town. Galmathoria may have many Monsters, but after the Grand Wizard’s work they don’t have the insane strength anymore to subvert the fort and enter the town directly. Even if they did, the soldiers could pour out from anywhere to strike them. This advantage, combined with the neutral territory of The Cradle to the Southeast, would make it difficult for Galmathorian forces to even attempt any major offenses to the south, something which must frustrate them to no end.

This, of course, makes it all the more imperative that you find out what they plan on doing here, as well as those other two Illusionists. Abigail says they’re both here still, so perhaps you’re not too late, though saving the world in other places has certainly cost you time.

Of course, it’s not like the people here seem to think anything is wrong at all.

You figured there might have been an increased military presence but it seems that Anderson was true to his word, he didn’t want to tip them off, and thus it seems rather… normal. As normal as a fort town gets, but seeing as you’re here now things are about to get chaotic anyway.

Welp, nothing much for it but to get situated at your lodgings and-

“Tobias Shady?” a feminine voice says from behind you.

You turn about to see who has addressed you when a mailed fist flies toward your face and, in your surprise, you fall ass-first to the ground, blinking in shock. Everyone in your group immediately springs into action as the woman who tried to punch you gently retracts her arm and runs her hand through her long, black hair. The woman is tall, perhaps even as tall as you are, and has a very attractive face, which makes it all the more frustrating. She’s armored in very functional armor, or at least it was until she clearly decided to aftermarket modify it, making it look far fancier than it should.

She flexes her gauntleted hand and smiles wickedly before saying, “I expected better of the man the Lord Commander himself ordered me to work with. Clearly, he hasn’t met you or he’d be severely disappointed.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Ginelle says, cracking her knuckles.

The woman smiles and taps the elaborate sword at her waist. A wicked glint appears in her eyes, something that screams for bloodlust as she looks to Ginelle. “Hmm? You look like you’re ready for a fight badgerbrains, you want to go right now? I promise you that you can’t take me, Alice Nurem!”

“Oh,” Saya sighs. “Wait, I have heard of her.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter who she is,” Clint says, interposing himself between the two women. “The only thing that matters is that we work together.”

“Oooo, such handsome words from such a rugged man,” Alice says, shivering. “A shame you reek of badger. I guess you like the gamey scent, huh? Well, no matter then.” She shrugs and takes her hand off her sword. “So, you’re here to find some outlaws, huh? Well, welcome to the grandest shithole there is for that.”

“Can we put our stuff away in an inn?” Clarissa asks, but Alice points at her.

“Quiet, birdbrain. Anyway, so! This place, gosh is there a lot here. We have the town itself with all those tunnels, which I’ve searched thank you very much, the mines, which I also searched, and the fort, which they won’t let me search.”

She sniffs and crosses her arms. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s anyone here doing anything out of the ordinary, but when that hunk of a Lord Commander tells you to do something you better do it!” Her eyes shine and she sidles up to Clint. “I call dibs on working with this guy.”

You think Ginelle is about to blow her top here, but you kind of want to get started searching too. Still, letting this woman take control of your investigation clearly isn’t going to go well, even if she does know the town. Not even here five minutes and you’re already in for some shit.

Well, what else is new?

“Right then, Alice, was it?” you say, stepping up to the woman.

Alice gives you a cursory look, her eyes seemingly practiced at hitting particular points of your body, mainly your muscles, though you’re pretty sure her gaze lingers on your crotch for a moment before she sighs. “Oh well, not bad I guess…”

“Excuse me?” you say, frowning. She holds up a hand and then shakes her head.

“Ah, never mind. So you’re in charge of this rag-tag little band of ne’er-do-wells, eh?” She looks over the group again before rolling her eyes. “This is going to be… something.”

You think really hard about just slamming her ass to the ground and laying down the law. It would feel good to do this, but you aren’t really in a position to cause a scene at the moment and, as far as you know, you need this woman. Still, you can’t just let her walk all over you or you won’t get anything accomplished as she gets her head ripped off by Ginelle for trying to suck Clint’s cock.

“Yes, I am in charge,” you say, throwing in a little <Battle Voice>. “I think that we should find an inn first like Clarissa suggested, so we can plan things out better and store our luggage.”

She doesn’t seem fazed at all and merely groans. “Ugghhh, but that’s such a waste of time.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion,” you say with a little more venom, and that seems to stick. She blinks at you a few times before running her eyes over you in re-evaluation, eventually ending with a smirk and a chuckle.

“Mmm, well you wear that suit well… Alright then boss, how about we ah… go to the inn for awhile?” She turns about on her heels and struts away, making damn certain you get a look at her rather… shapely ass. Alright well, she has the goods to back up that swagger at least, so she has that going for her.

You hear Saya and Ginelle both clear their throats and both you and Clint turn to your respective ladyfriends to find them frowning. The two of you give each other a brief look and a small, almost imperceptible nod of the head, the universal sign of solidarity between men. That passed, you return to your glaring girlfriends.

“See something you like?” Saya says, huffing.

“Why yes, you,” you say, smiling broadly. She wipes the smile off your face by grabbing your cheeks and pinching firmly. “Ahhhch! Shtap! Shtap!”

She releases your cheeks and sighs. “Damnit Tobias, do you have to be so blatant about it?”

“No, but I mean come on, you know it means nothing,” you say, rubbing your cheeks. Owww that actually hurt! At least you got off better than Clint, who had his ear in between Ginelle’s clawed fingers. Poor guy. “You know I love you.”

“I know,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s just THAT woman. The name was familiar, but seeing her in person, I’m reminded of why they call her the Succubus of the Sword.”

“Aren’t there like… normal Succubi who use swords?”

“Many, they were commonly lieutenants in the Monster Hordes of old, but that’s beside the point.” She holds up a finger and then points it at the woman, who seems to be purposefully walking in slow motion. “See, there’s a reason she got turfed to this backwater, and it’s because she ROYALLY pissed off Veronica. Apparently the woman used to be part of the Chantry while it was alive because of her hatred for Monsters, but it soon became apparent that her actual reason for joining the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood was to be close to so many shirtless, sweaty men.

“After the fifth or so infraction of fraternizing, she was posted here on the border where she could fill a token role while harassing the soldiers instead.”

“Why didn’t they just… expel her?” you ask, cocking your head.

“She’s not called the Succubus of the Sword without reason. I heard from the grapevine of course, but it’s rumored that she could fight Blake to a standstill in a duel.”

Your eyes go wide. “Not even the Wanderer could do that!”

“Yeah, that she could potentially be stronger than Tabitha is… disturbing,” Saya says before shaking her head. “She’s a cunt, but I’m glad she’s on our side.” She pauses for a moment before asking, “She is on our side, right?”

“Uhhhh,” you say before looking into your jacket. “Hey Abigail, she is on our side, right?”

You hear a slight stirring before Abigail pokes her head out of your jacket and yawns, rubbing at her eyes. “Oh, sure, wake up the little Fairy and then not even ask, ‘Oh Abigail, doth you feel better this fine day?’ Nah, go straight with the other questions, that’s fine, sure.”

“Abigail…” you say, and she sniffs in response. You roll your eyes before asking sweetly, “Dearest Abigail, how fare you this radiant afternoon?”

“Quite well good shrew, quite well.” She nods her head in satisfaction before looking over to Alice, who seems not to have noticed that you’re… not following her. “She’s clean. I think the two we’re looking for are named Rachel and Sadie Bullnarn.” She cocks her head for a moment. “Huh, I guess they’re related now that you mention it.”

“Sister Illusionists?” you say, looking incredulous. “I can’t believe we didn’t hear of this, rarely does more than one person in family ever be born an Illusionist. Two in the same generation is practically unheard of.”

“I don’t make the rules,” the Fairy says before shrugging. “Though I really wish I did…” She dives back into your jacket and starts snoozing again.

“OI!” you hear. Your party looks up to see Alice standing a good, oh, fifty feet away, her arms crossed as she taps her feet. “I’m getting sick of waiting for you lazy jerks!”

You and Saya trade dirty looks before making to catch up with your latest addition to the group.

 

Chapter 96

“I can’t believe I tripped five times on the way here.” Alice groans, rubbing her well-formed behind as she gingerly sits down in your room. “Honestly, all these rocks out on these dirt roads, nothing at all like the pristine streets of Sanctifrond!”

“Gosh, that’s terrible,” you say, helping Akela get settled. “I mean, none of us tripped, maybe you’re just unlucky.”

“Unlucky, bah, no it clearly has nothing to do with me,” Alice says, waving her hand in dismissal. “Anyway, are you about done yet?”

“We just got here,” Clarissa says, walking past, a water bucket held in her wings. “Give us time to-woah!” She trips herself and spills the water all over the Hero. The woman’s eyes go wide as her armor becomes drenched in the cold liquid.

“Ohhhhhhh!” she squeals before rounding on the bird. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU DAMN BIRDBRAIN?”

“Oh, I sorry,” Clarissa says, sticking her tongue out and rapping her head. “I not so smart, cause I birb.”

“Woah, hey, hey,” Saya says, walking up and grabbing a cloth to dry the woman off. She goes to polishing the armor saying, “Gosh, I’m sorry about that. She’s not the only clumsy one around here…”

“I can do it mysel- gah!” Alice begins before being cut off as Saya starts drying off her face with clumsy motions. “Stop! Stop!”

“Oh, sorry, was it doing it wrong?” Saya says, offering the cloth, which the Hero swipes and begins drying her face off again.

“Damnit, I expected better from a human…” She grumbles while wiping herself free of water. As she does so, Saya and Clarissa both give you covert looks and you nod slowly. They hide their smirks before going back to their tasks.

It’s not like you really have anything against the woman, she’s just a piece of shit. Her tripping maaaaay not have been entirely natural either. Not saying it was you, but someone may have used magical powers to make her trip. Could have been anyone really, hard to say.

Clint, Ginelle, and Ophelia arrive after setting up in their own room, the latter being helped in by Clint, though Ginelle carried her luggage from the platform. They settle down in the room for the planning session but, at a glance from you, they hold back on their own form of bullying. After your first little incident where she tripped and fell into a pile of horse shit, they got the idea reaaaaaal fast. Even Ginelle, who usually can’t pick up on cues, got it. You do happen to notice that she’s holding something in her hand which is… squirming, however.

“Ah good, the stooges and the hunk appear,” Alice says, finishing drying off. “Now then, back to business. The rabbit and the adorable child are staying here, right?”

“Yes, OPHELIA and AKELA are staying here while we explore. However, when we find what we’re looking for, we’ll likely have someone come back for Akela while Ophelia is escorted in as her magitek knowledge is invaluable.”

Ophelia swells with pride at this statement, but Alice just looks shocked. “Whaaaaaat? Rabbits who are good for something other than breeding? Man, you guys have come a long way.”

Ginelle raises her hand, about ready to shove the squirming whatever down the woman’s throat, but Clint gently places a hand on her shoulder. The Badger Girl grumbles and begrudgingly stands down. You can’t help but notice that Alice’s hand drifts calmly away from her sword at this, though you didn’t even notice her hand moving to it. This woman is far more dangerous than you thought, apparently.

“Yes, that is the case,” you say. “Now then, as for where we should explore first-”

“Right, here’s the plan,” Alice says, pointing at the party. “So birdbrain and badgertits will head off to the mines and explore around there, the lady here and Tobias will check out the fort, while I and Mr. tall, dark, and handsome explore the caverns again.”

“Objection,” Saya says, raising her hand, to which the Hero rolls her eyes.

“Fiiiiine. So, you can explore the fort yourself while I go with both of the men, you know, to keep them safe.”

“I’ll eat your flesh and wear your bones before casting them into a fire and using the ashes to grow a sunflower which I’ll crush into paste,” Saya whispers under her breath.

“Eh?”

“Nothing!” you say, giving Saya stern look. She grumbles and stands down as you turn to the woman. You give her your most serious stare and say in your sternest voice, “Look at me. I am the commander. You will take your orders from me or so help me I’ll get an agent of the Crown to come here and personally slap you for insubordination.”

She looks stunned at your words before a glint of something you don’t like appears in her eyes. A wicked smile plays across her face and she holds her hands up in submission. “Oh my… so very forceful. Please, I’d never think to step out of bounds, though if I did, would you… punish me?”

“Let me eat her, we can share her entrails together, it will be romantic,” Saya whispers into your ear as you shudder. That was probably the creepiest thing you’ve ever heard her say, and frankly the most Monstrous. You…”ignore” her and reply to Alice.

“Just follow my orders and we’ll never have to find out. You say that you’ve explored the mines and the town’s caverns, tell me what you found.”

Alice sighs and rolls her eyes. “So I was looking for suspicious figures and some constructs. I mean, in the mines I found TONS of constructs, but they’re all large mining units designed to break and haul rocks, nothing special. In the town I found some petty criminals, which was fairly boring to be honest, but no one who would fit what I was asked to look for by Lord Hunk, I mean Commander.” She pulls out a list from her breastplate, apparently having hidden it in her cleavage, but she grunts and glares at Clarissa as she finds it’s been waterlogged.

“Anyway… Chalan and Fiora huh? Stupid names if you ask me.”

“I didn’t. You said they didn’t allow you into the fort, right?”

“Nah,” she says, lounging back. “Captain there doesn’t let me in anymore, he’s afraid I’ll show his men a good time for once in their miserable lives.” She waves a hand to the rest of your group. “I think you’re prudes enough to be let in though. I will say that the guy is a jerk, but he knows how to run this operation. I highly doubt anything has escaped his notice here.”

“Strange,” you say, looking at the others. “Are you certain that there’s no odd behaviors here? No new phenomena going on, people missing, things heard/seen in the night?”

“Mmmm, I don’t think so,” Alice says, thinking. “I mean, I hear some of the miners always whispering about Monsters living in the deeper areas of the caverns in town, but they’re always afraid of things living in there, it’s why we have doors.” She shrugs. “I suppose people are complaining about a pair of ‘Ghosts’ appearing in town, scaring them away from certain caverns and one of the deeper shafts of the mines, though I checked through there and I saw nothing at all.”

She sighs wistfully. “I really wanted to try cutting a Ghost with Energieschwert here…” Patting her blade, she says, “I ain’t afraid of no Ghost.”

“Clearly not,” you say, running though this in your mind. This woman and her sword, which she named, because of course she would, have done a lot of groundwork, but she clearly has never messed with Illusionists. Ophelia coughs into her hand, catching everyone’s attention and breaking your concentration.

“What kind of units are in the mines?” she asks, looking a little smug, as if about to get the woman in a gotcha.

“Eh? Oh, Aegis III’s and a few Powerlifter Turbo’s though these are pretty rare because of the availability of aetheric lubricant in these parts, despite the leyway.”

Ophelia stares at her in shock, as if utterly unprepared for her to know a damn thing about magitek. If this woman wasn’t a total ass, she might even be pretty cool, which makes this all so much more terrible. You rub your temples before taking in a deep breath and saying, “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do. Ginelle, Clint, you’re together, Saya and I are together and Clarissa, you’re with Alice.”

“Objection,” Alice says, raising a hand.

“Overruled,” you say, not missing a beat. “If you don’t want to be with her, you can go alone while Clarissa runs overwatch.” You nod to Ophelia. “You’re on comms duty again until we need you here, alright?”

The Rabbit Girl raises her arm to salute and winces, settling for a nod through grit teeth. You continue, “Those are the final groups. Now then as to how we’re going to tackle this-”

“Nah, that’s still really, really gay,” Alice says flatly. “I mean, I like an assertive man, don’t get me wrong, but I think that plan sucks.”

You rub your forehead for a moment before sighing and holding out your hand to Alice. “Alright then, if you’re so insistent, then what do YOU suggest?”

“Well, first things first. Ghosts are real and they hunger for cock. You don’t want a man in those parties or things get… weird,” Alice says, holding a finger up. Saya nods in agreement. Right, right she’d been abducted by Ghosts before, hadn’t she? You don’t remember them being all that horny though, but the way they possessed members of the Wizard’s party in the story… maybe they are.

“Second thing’s second. You need someone with the ability to actually hurt the Ghosts, which means magic. None of you seem particularly magical, so I assume you have magical weaponry like this guy’s rifle, or one of you is a sorcerer.” Her gaze goes straight to you, and you shrug.

“Good guess, though we’ll leave what kind as a mystery for now.”

She sniffs. “Well, in that case it means that I will have to be the one to go.” She pauses and the room goes awkwardly silent as everyone stares at her. Eventually she throws up her hands and says, “Gods damnit, why is no one asking the question?”

“Uhhh,” Ophelia says, rubbing her back. “Alright, why does it have to be you?”

“I’m glad you asked bun-bun,” Alice says, nodding her head. “It’s because Energieschwert here is magical.”

“Uh… yeah, we figured,” Clint says, coughing into his hand.

“Oh,” Alice says, deflating some. “Well… fine then. Look, you don’t want to get caught unprepared by them, alright? That’s why I should go to the caverns.”

You pinch the bridge of your nose. She’s right, as much as you hate to admit it. You wanted the teams to work out your way, but she just HAD to use reason here. Sighing, you throw a hand up in the air. “Yeah, alright, you got me. Okay, change of plans, we’ll have Ginelle and…” You look about the room to have your eyes fall onto your girlfriend. “Saya. You two scour the mines, going to as many tunnels as you dare.”

Saya cocks and eyebrow, but you hold up a hand. “Clint and I will head into the fort. I believe together we’ll have enough clout to get in and take a look about.” She rolls her eyes but nods her head, apparently thinking you can’t get into TOO much trouble with Clint watching you.

“Wait,” Alice says, holding up a hand. “Waaait, wait, wait. This means that I’m stuck with the… the…”

“Yes, you’re stuck with the burd,” Clarissa sighs before turning to you, looking pitiful. “Tobiaaaaaaaaassss.”

“Sorry Clarissa. Besides, I have some other tasks for you to complete today.” Alice groans but you just hand a large amount of coins to Clarissa. “I need you to scour the market here to find any [Health Potions]. We had a close call last time and I…” You cut off, looking back at Ophelia, whose ears twitch slightly.

“Ah, I see,” Clarissa sighs before stuffing the items into her messenger bag. “Fine, I’ll do it, but only because you asked.”

You smile at her and pat her head, to which she blushes furiously and then pouts. “Damnit Tobias…”

“Thanks Clarissa,” you say to her before turning about. “Alright, anything anyone else wants to bring up?” No one speaks, so you nod your head. “Alright then, let’s get this show on the road.”

“Oh, don’t forget these!” Ophelia says, wincing as she moves a little too quickly to hand over the communications devices. She holds out the two she has and frowns as she looks over the groups.

“Well shit.”

“Ah, it’s fine, we don’t need one,” you say, waving your hand. “I think we’ll be fine, we’re just going into a fort filled with trained soldiers, nothing special.”

Everyone gives you horrified looks, as if you just announced your own death. You roll your eyes and huff, “Gods be good, look, we’ll be FINE. Besides, Clint’s got my back, right?”

“Mmm now I’d pay to see that…” Alice says. Clarissa makes to ruffle her with her feathers, but the woman catches the Crow’s wing without looking at it, and Clarissa grunts as she squeezes. “Well, let’s get this farce over with then.” She stands and lets go of the wing, walking out the door with that exaggerated swagger. Clarissa gives you a pleading look before groaning and following her.

“Tobias, what has our life become?” Saya asks, watching them leave.

“A comedy of errors,” you sigh out. “And we’re the troupe of bumbling fools. She’s right though, let’s just… get out there. I want everyone to stay safe, take no chances and report to Ophelia as soon as you can, alright? Report often if you need to, I won’t tolerate anyone else getting hurt.”

They nod toward and you sigh out in relief. “Good. This is our last challenge. We will find Fiora and Chalan and end their threat before it can even begin. We aren’t Heroes, but damnit if we aren’t the only ones this place has.” Their expressions shift, standing straighter as they regard you, perhaps looking for some more words of encouragement. Despite yourself, you take a deep breath and keep speaking.

“We’ve been through a lot, each and every one of us. We’ve formed bonds between us that could only be forged through adversity.” Clint and Ginelle look at each other, before smiling and turning aside, their hands twitching toward each other but pausing before they could commit that sin. “But we aren’t fighting for ourselves. Maybe at the start we had separate goals, but they’ve all converged upon the same, or why else would you have stayed? Can any of you say that you don’t believe in your heart that this is the right thing to do?”

No one disagrees, and they each nod their head in turn. “I won’t lie to you, this is going to be very dangerous. Clint, Ophelia, you don’t know how terrifying Fiora is. Emily was just a taste of what we’re up against. If you get the chance to kill her, then you take it. Same goes for Chalan, I don’t want any heroics, remember? We’re here to save the day, not to shine brightly or anything.”

You stare up at the ceiling and smirk. “Gods… To think that I of all people would say that… So, if you doubt what you see, what you feel, remember something solid within you, something firm that will keep you rooted in reality. Think of what you fight for, whom you love. Those won’t change, no matter how much an Illusionist messes with you.”

You close your eyes. “Well, that’s enough of that for now. We have work to do.”

There’s a long silence and you fear that your words may have been a little overly dramatic when you hear the soft sound of padded feet on the ground before a pair of soft, furry arms wrap around your waist. You open your eyes in surprise and look down at Akela, who has her face buried in your stomach, rubbing it back and forth. You slowly raise a hand and then gently place it upon her head, rubbing her soft, black hair.

“Girl’s got the right idea Tobias,” Clint says as the three other Monsters in the room get up and go to give you a hug. The firm strength of Ginelle, the delicate softness of Ophelia, and the tender embrace of Saya all envelop you and you have to work hard not to be overwhelmed by the emotion you feel.

They let go of you, one by one, and you blink a few times before shaking your head. Before you can speak, Clint claps your shoulder. You turn to him and he gives you that nod that only men can understand once again, this time with a little more respect mixed in. You smirk at him and return the nod before looking back down to Akela.

“You’re going to be a brave girl, right?”

“You’re going to come back, right?”

You pause, mouth open but no words coming out. What are you supposed to say to that? For a girl who lost everything before, how do you tell her it will be alright when not even you know if you’ll survive the next day? You tighten your fist into a ball before relaxing. No… it wouldn’t do to lie to her, she deserves that much at least.

“I will do everything in my power to do so,” you say, ruffling her hair again. “You can count on it.”

She closes her eyes and sighs, stepping back before sitting down the bed. “Acceptable, I suppose. Go on then, go save the country, or the world, or what have you.” She reaches over and pulls out the colored wax sticks and paper. “When you get back, I’ll have a present for you.”

“That’s my girl.” You look to Saya who smirks and then lightly kisses you on the cheek.

“That’s my boy,” she mutters, and then glides away to push Ginelle forward. “Alright, time to go you lummox.”

“Hey, hey!” Ginelle says, growling and stopping in place. “I got something to do before we go too!”

“Well then go ahead and-” Saya cuts off as Ginelle takes two steps over to Clint and places her hands on the side of his face before drawing him in for a long, passionate kiss. The man doesn’t miss a beat and puts his arms around her, pulling her in close to reciprocate the gesture.

You, Saya, and Ophelia watch in silence for a discomfortingly long time until Akela asks, “Hey, why don’t you and mom ever kiss like that?” The two of you trade uncomfortable glances as Ginelle and Clint pull away from each other, a string of saliva connecting their lips as they both pant for breath.

“That’s revenge for the leyway ride, you asshole,” she says, grinning.

“I guess I’ll have to do that sort of thing again,” Clint replies, beaming his own smile.

“Oh my Gods, it’s like flashbacks to Hala and Blake,” Saya says, seemingly horrified. “It’s cute, but terrifying to behold.”

“Yeah, and it’s making me irrationally angry and my wounds ache,” Ophelia grumbles, her cheeks flushed. “Get out of here before I blast feedback over this stupid thing.” She points to the comms device and you all wince.

“Fine,” Ginelle grumbles before pushing Saya out the door. “See you later.”

“Guess that’s our cue,” Clint chuckles, clapping you on the shoulder. “Can’t let our lovely ladies down, can we?”

You blink a few times, watching Ginelle laughing in Saya’s ear as they walk down the hallway together. They look like any old pair of friends, just having a good time. Something about the scene stirs your heart and you nod back to Clint.

“No, no we cannot.”

 

Chapter 97

“Milords, it is a pleasure to have you in our fort, however I can’t help but wonder… why?”

You sigh as the commander of the fort, a one Captain Tuskalanie, stands before you. You’re easily able to illusion up credentials to back up Clint’s story of being sent out here to inspect his family’s investments into the defense of the nation, though in truth all he had to do was drop his family name and everyone immediately was on their toes. Apparently, House Fullvora finances parts of the standing army and they’re well-liked by the soldering types. It was easy enough to get in based on that, but now that you stand before the captain, you’re starting to run into problems.

“Well, I’m glad you asked,” Clint says, standing up straight, though you notice him wince. He’s wearing his roughs instead of any formal clothing, though it’s always been known that the eldest son of the family is a little… eccentric. “I trust you’ve heard of the confusion in Sanctifrond? Well, with that unfortunate event, my father felt it prudent for me to check on our investments and make certain that faith in our House is still solid.”

“Of course it is,” the captain says dryly, looking the two of you over. “The money still comes in, and your subsidiary houses still send their recruits here as contracted.”

“Excellent, excellent,” you say, nodding your head while you rub your hands. “Tell me though, have you had any strange occurrences recently? Seen people or Monsters that should not be around?”

The captain eyes you warily before giving Clint a questioning glance. The man sighs and shakes his head. “My father asked him to come along to watch the progress of this adventure. He wanted to make certain I didn’t miss anything. The man is quite… thorough, and I would appreciate it as a gesture to the House if you would work with him.”

“Ah,” Tuskalanie says. “Well, no, nothing too out of the ordinary beyond the people talking about Ghosts and the local Hero getting frisky. He pauses before rolling his eyes. “More frisky, I suppose.”

“I see, I see,” you say nodding your head like an asshole. You hate this role, but it works pretty well for the situation. “What of shipments into the town? Anything strange or unusual come in recently? A mana cycler perhaps?”

“A mana cycler? Hmm, now that you mention it, one did come in from Saydinhold recently, but it passed inspection. Beyond that, not really. My men have been checking over the items that come in and beyond an increased shipment items and mining constructs from the Manufactorum, nothing too out of the ordinary for a mining operation.” He cocks his head then, thinking for a moment. “Well, I suppose we did have to detain a very large supply of magitek fuel that came in from Loveura. Wasn’t on any order and no one was quite certain where it was supposed to go. Figured it would be best to lock it up here instead of letting it loose out there.”

“The… Manufactorum,” you say with hesitation. “You’re certain they were mining constructs, yes? Ah, and the mana cycler…?”

“That’s what the woman who came to pick them up said. Now that you mention it, it was the same person, a strange girl, not terribly old, but she had these damn piercing eyes.” He shudders. “I thought it was odd, but the paperwork checked out and well, I looked them over and they match the specs for Aegis III’s. Gods knows they need more of those now that Shaft One’s gone dry, although they haven’t activated them yet.”

“Shaft One? Wasn’t that a shaft with mana veins? I know they mined iron from there, but it was always a chore because they had to be careful not to strike the lines or risk a cave-in.” Clint says, frowning.

“You know the place well!” the captain says, nodding his head. “Yes, and there were plans to expand the shaft to try and find more possible use for it, but recently all work was called off due to… well…” He pauses, seemingly reluctant to speak.

“And?” Clint prompts, making the man blanch.

“They’re talking about Ghosts. Silly, I know, we haven’t had Ghosts since that cave-in fifty years ago, but we cleaned them out with the help of the Order, such as it was at the time.”

He shakes his head. “I’ve been trying to keep the calm, but they’ve noticed reports of a Ghost in the caverns too, along with some very strange sounds around town. Frankly I have no idea what that Hero is doing when she should be fighting them.”

“Maybe they aren’t Ghosts?” you suggest, and the man gives you a look of solidarity.

“Yes, I suppose. It’s possible but… ah, I shouldn’t bore you with this any longer.” He shakes his head and stands up straighter. “What else can I do for you?”

“I suppose you can take us to see your contraband,” Clint says. “I’d quite like to see what we’ve been gathering and to make certain that it gets disposed of appropriately.”

“Odd request but… should be fine,” Tuskalaine says. “Well, if you’ll follow me…”

He leads you down further into the fort, a square structure built of stone that overlooks the canyon. It was a Hells of a climb to get up there, traversing through multiple checkpoints along a stone-cut walkway laden with traps and easily defensible positions. The inside of the fort is no joke either, with multiple anti-air platforms where flying Monsters could be shot down by archers or constructs. Even if they got inside, the place is built like a maze, able to stymie any attackers able to subvert the defenses with magic or other Monstrous abilities.

Unlike many other Deleorian forts, it lacks a defensive barrier built into the stonework but, save for Selene, no living Monsters have the magic to level an entire fort in a single strike. Hells, the only thing the place lacks is an access port to the leyway station. With that, this place would be able to hold out for any siege!

Soldiers salute as you pass through, though you survey every one, looking for any abnormalities. There isn’t anything out of the ordinary that you can see thankfully, but Fiora could be hiding anywhere, watching you. It makes your skin crawl, though you can’t be certain if it’s your nerves or one of your little insane quirks. That thought isn’t comforting either, so you turn your attention elsewhere, like wondering why there are cows mooing in a fort.

“Here we are,” the captain says, taking out a key and opening a heavy-set iron door. He nods to the soldiers standing guard and asks, “Anyone down there?”

“Yes sir. Inspection officer, she had all the right paperwork, sir.”

Tuskalaine frowns. “There wasn’t supposed to be an inspection officer here today, when did she arrive?”

“She just got here sir, she had your seal, sir. Don’t you remember? She doesn’t like to be disturbed, so if you could just wait and-”

“Shit,” the captain says, throwing the door open. “Damnit, call the alarm, there’s an intruder in the fort!”

“S-sir, yes sir!” the soldier says as the captain turns to you.

“Stay put, I’ll sort this out. Don’t you get yourselves into any trouble, you hear?!” He dashes down the stairs before you can reply, the door slamming shut behind him.

You turn to the guard who was standing there to find them gone, with no trace of them to be seen. He couldn’t have been that fast, not even scared shitless could someone run like that without making a sound. The only way he could have just vanished is…

“Oh shit,” you say, gulping as Clint unslings his rifle. “I think we may have picked the most dangerous option after all.”

A gentle, yet unfamiliar laugh echoes around you, pervading your mind as it reverberates in your skull. “Aww, a shame that someone had to come here right when I was about to get away. Couldn’t you have waited a little longer? Oh well, it’s not like it matters anyway, everything’s in place.”

A figure coalesces from nothing into the wispy form of a woman that shimmers in the dim light of the fort. She smiles before vanishing again. “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a Ghost!”

“Clint, was that a Ghost?” you ask, taking a step back.

“Maybe, it’s not like I’ve ever seen one before,” he says, readying his rifle while scanning about.

“Oh, I thought you’d know,” you say, frowning. “I mean, it LOOKED like a Ghost.”

“Well, like I said, I’ve never seen one before, but wouldn’t it be weird for one to be here?”

“Why’s that?”

“Well Ghosts are typically locked into place where they died as lingering spirits of regret and-” He cuts off as something grabs his leg and pulls him violently, the man spinning slightly in the air before hitting the ground with a crash. He groans as feminine laughter echoes through the halls.

“Maybe I’ll just toy with you first. It IS kind of fun to see cute boys panic.”

Maaaaaaan. Why is everyone in this town a turbo-slut?”

“Heeeey!” the Ghosts says, appearing suddenly before you face. “That’s really, really rude to say- hey!”

She cuts off as you swing with your fist, aiming for her face, but your hand just sails on through like there was nothing there. You both look down at your hand, then back up to each other’s eyes.

“Hum,” you say. “I really don’t know what I was expecting. Do you Clint?”

The Ghost turns her head to Clint before cursing and vanishing from view right as his rifle cracks and aetheric energy sails through where the Ghost was floating but moments before. He grunts and stands up before frowning at you. “Really Tobias? She was a sitting duck and you had to tell her I was there?”

“I thought it would be funny,” you say, shaking your head. “I mean, it’s probably not a-” You wheeze as the ghostly fist appears pressing hard into your gut. Backing away, you cough violently as you try to get air back in your lungs. Unfortunately, another blow hits your chin and you fall backward on your ass, dazed.

Another crack of energy is heard and the assault stops long enough for you to shake your head and get your bearings. Fucking Hells, this Ghost knows how to throw a punch! Which is horribly ironic given everything, but at the same time the way your gut hurts you really can’t think of much else. You groan as Clint slides up next to you, searching around as more laughter comes.

“Damnit, you’d think there’d be guards here by now,” he growls, sighting about the room.

“I locked the dooooors!~” the Ghost chimes.

“Of course she did,” you grunt, getting to your knees. “Of course, she probably isn’t a Ghost either.”

“You’re just saying that because you got your ass kicked by one.”

“Not the time, nor the place, Clint,” you say before shaking your head. “Again, this doesn’t make sense, but what does make sense is that there’s an Illusionist here making trouble. This doesn’t fit Fiora’s bill, who would be far more direct, so it’s probably one of the two in town.”

“Heeeeeey~” the Ghost says, reappearing behind the two of you. “Whatcha talking about?”

You both whirl about, Clint aiming the rifle at her before the Ghost vanishes while you take the time to study it, break it down. The more you look at the absurdity of the Ghost, the more it makes sense that there should be no Ghost here. The pain you feel grows less pronounced than before, though your body seems to want to believe you got your ass kicked, that damn traitor. Still, when the Ghost reappears, fist held high, you lower Clint’s rifle and stand as the Ghost makes contact with your face…

And flies through it. You turn about slowly as the Ghost looks down at her fist, then up at you with confusion. “Uhhh. That’s not supposed to happen.”

“It took me some time to figure it all out,” you say, looking at the Ghost with satisfaction. “I’ve identified your spectral analysis. I know what makes you tick.” You tap your forehead before chuckling.

“I am no longer afraid of you.”

“Why’s that?” the Ghost asks, drifting before you while making certain that Clint’s rifle isn’t in her face. “Everyone’s afraid of Ghosts.”

“True… all people are afraid of Ghosts,” you say, taking a deep breath before readying your magic. “But I’m no person…” You reach to your face and pull it off.

The Ghost’s eyes go wide and she screams, floating away from you. You focus your powers and feel it taking purchase a little more firmly as you continue your little charade, ripping and tearing your own skin until all that remains is a pile of flesh and clothes while your true form stands before the Ghost.

No, it is not a bear like your heart cries out for, but instead that which is trapped within us all. A skeleton, a spooky, scary skeleton, very much like the one you used to scare that poor Mosquito Girl so long ago. You slowly turn your skeletal gaze to the Ghost and smile without any effort at all, for you are a skeleton and smiling is what you do. She visibly trembles as you slowly raise a hand toward her and scream.

Fact: Skeleton screams are powerful enough to wake the dead. They’re also powerful enough to make comfy Illusionists break their illusions of invisibility as well. The Ghost vanishes before you while a young woman, perhaps in her late teens, appears out of nowhere before you, putting her hands over her ears. You point to Clint, who immediately snaps his rifle to attention but lets out a gasp and his aim wavers.

“Clint, what are you doing?” you shout as the man’s momentary hesitation passes. He stiffens and fires, but the moment is gone. The aetheric bolt merely clips the woman, drawing a spray of blood and causing her to scream, but she manages to escape. You curse and run after her, but by the time the blood trail ends, there’s no sign of her.

You grunt and then stalk back over to Clint, putting your hands to your forehead. “For fuck’s sake Clint, what was that?”

He looks down, ashamed. “I’m sorry, I… hesitated. It won’t happen again.”

“Ugh, now I can’t because you’re so humble about it,” you say, sighing before holding out a hand to the man to help him up. “This is going to bite us in the ass later, you know that, right?”

Clint nods his head slowly. “I know.” He looks off to where she ran and sighs. “Well, we stopped her from getting whatever she wanted at least. Let’s go check on the captain and get those guards back in here, on high alert.”

 

Chapter 98

“So you’re telling me that there’s some kind of sorcerer who can manipulate what we see and feel who was trying to get at the contraband?”

“Pretty much,” you say, shrugging. “Clint… I mean, Lord Fullvora managed to clip her with his weapon, but she escaped.”

“Great…” the captain groans. “At least you managed to stop her, and the contraband is still in place. When I realized I’d been tricked, I came back as soon as I could. That the doors were locked and my men couldn’t arrive… I feel like a fool.”

“Honestly, these sorcerers are tricksters and liars,” Clint says, nodding his head. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed for what happened. You managed to get the fort on alert and everyone is safe.”

“I suppose. I have people out in the town searching for her based on this description of a young woman with long, black hair, wearing a white dress, and has a wound on her right arm.”

“I’m still amazed Cl… Lord Fullvora was able to get that much detail so quickly,” you mutter. Clint shrugs and you feel sort of annoyed. You’re good at remembering things, but clearly he has a mind like a steel trap. How aggravating.

“Still, I find it odd though,” the captain says, rubbing his chin. “How was a girl like that going to carry out what she was looking for? Nothing there has much value beyond the magitek fuel, and that stuff is heavy. Without some servos, she wasn’t going to get them out.”

You look to Clint and he shrugs. Apparently he didn’t see whether or not she was wearing servos and couldn’t comment. You sigh and look down at the rest of the list of items cataloged down there. Honestly nothing much stands out beyond a shit ton of Red Leaf, which makes you think that people here really want to get fucked up if they’re trying to smuggle in that much of the illegal substance. While not inherently dangerous, it can cause hallucinations if you smoke too much, so it’s been illegal for ages. Not exactly something you’d expect one of Fiora’s lackeys to be looking for.

“You said that the fort was on high-alert?” Clint says, frowning. “That there are increased guard presences out in the town?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Tuskalanie says. “If we have thieves like this about, then we need to make them know that they aren’t welcome.”

You look to Clint with an odd expression before your eyes go wide. “Oh Hells, we were supposed to avoid that.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Clint grunts. “Captain, how are the people reacting?”

“I’m not overly certain, but they have to think something is wrong. There’s probably a mild undercurrent of fear going on, and mixed with the reports of Ghosts…” He trails off before cursing. “Damnit, you think this is some kind of ploy to get people riled up? For what purpose?”

“I don’t know,” Clint sighs. “But we’d best move carefully. Make certain that your men are being careful and diligent. We deal with tricksters who will accelerate their plans if they feel they’re being cornered, though I feel we’ve just started a countdown as it is.”

“Aye,” you say, nodding your head. “We had better be going then.”

“Thank you for your assistance,” the captain says before saluting. Not to you, of course, but to Clint. The jerk.

The two of you rise and shake hands with the captain before exiting the fort and going through the long and laborious process of heading through the checkpoints, which are far more garrisoned than before. By the time you reach the bottom, you’re both tired and annoyed. Well, Clint is more tired and you’re more annoyed than anything.

“Stupid… fort and… stupid illusion Ghosts,” you grumble, shoulders slumped.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Clint says, chuckling. “What did you show her to make her so scared anyway?”

“I tore my flesh off and showed my true form.”

“Skeleton?” Clint asks and you blink at him in surprise. He chuckles, “Well that would scare me.”

“Yes, a spooky skeleton,” you say, looking down at your hand. “Thank you, Mr. Bojangles.”

“You… named your skeleton Bojangles?”

“Well, yes. What did you name your skeleton?”

“I only named one bone,” he says, smirk on his face. You walk next to him in silence for a long while before you get it and throw up your hands.

“That’s not even a bone!” you say, crossing your arms and grumbling at yourself. He chuckles as you approach the inn, but before you can open the door, he grabs it and holds it open for you, bowing like you’re delicate lady. You just grumble even louder, entering the quiet atmosphere of the early afternoon.

The place is empty, as is to be expected at this time of day and during this security increase. You look about for the innkeeper but find no sign of him. The smell of cooked meat, though a little burnt, likely signifies that he’s in the kitchen, though you are not looking forward to dinner now. Looking at the flight of stairs before you, you groan and start up them, walking the laborious steps up to your room near the top. Clint continues to rib you the whole way, and you’re about to tell him off when you place your hand on your door and find it unlocked.

Weird… Why would it be unlocked? Maybe Ophelia needed to go to the chamber pot or something. You shrug and open the door to find the scene of a battlefield. The bed sheets are spread and torn everywhere, as well as clothing, your luggage, pieces of magitek bits Ophelia must have been working on, and multiple papers.

Your heart starts to beat furiously as you enter the room and look about. Oh no, oh Gods no, where is Akela? You feel something slide under your feet and you look down to see a piece of paper. With trembling hands you reach down and pick it up to see a half-finished drawing of you, Saya, and Akela all at a nice house out in a verdant field.

“Akela?” you ask, turning about before shouting, “AKELA?!” Dropping to the floor, you look under the bed to see nothing. Clint curses and goes out to check the other room while you dig into your jacket to pull out Abigail, who looks at you in bewilderment. “Where is she?”

“I have no idea!” Abigail says as you shake the little Fairy. “Stop that!” She breaks free of your grasp and grunts. “I was with you the whole time, remember? Calm the fuck down and we’ll figure this out.”

“She’s gone, and so is Ophelia…” you say, putting your hand to your head. “They didn’t just leave, not with a struggle like this, so what happened?”

“I dunno, but that device thing isn’t here,” Abigail says after flying about the room. “Must have been taken as well, though everything else looks to be in place.”

You hear footsteps and Clint returns, shaking his head. “Sorry Tobias, no sign of anyone being in the other room. I checked about as well- no maids or other guests. No one’s around to have seen anything.”

Sitting down on the bed, you shake your head, thoughts running amok in your mind. You told her you’d come back and now she’s gone… Gods, and Ophelia too, your one shot at shutting down the constructs if they were activated.

Once again you hear footsteps, this time much louder than before, and you look up as Alice charges into the room, blade drawn. The weapon, which is indeed magical, hums with a faint blue light that reflects off her armor and puts a serious cast to her furious expression.

“Come out here and fight you damned-!” She cuts off as she sees you on the bed, and a moment later, Clarissa charges in behind her, the Crow Girl squawking.

“Don’t you dare lay a hand on my frieeeeendddss!” She runs toward you, but Clint catches the Crow mid-charge and hold her in place until she blinks and looks about.

“T-Tobias?”

You sigh out in relief. “At least you’re alright. Have you heard anything from Ophelia?”

Alice shakes her head and taps the comms device on her hip. “No, we haven’t. Down in the tunnels, this thing didn’t get good reception, and it’s been a little over an hour since we heard anything from the bunny. When we exited for a breather, we tried contacting, but all we heard was static.” She holds up the device and punches the button, but all you hear is the aforementioned crackling sounds.

“We rushed back here, but clearly we were too late.”

“Have you heard anything from Saya?” you ask, but the woman shakes her head. “Haven’t tried.” She changes the frequency and pushes the button, saying, “You there girl? This is Alice, you better reply.” More static comes over the line. You begin to worry more when after a few minutes you get no reply at all.

“Maybe they’re deep down in the mines too?” Clarissa says, trying to give a little hope. “Maybe they’ll contact us soon so we can… go and…” She trails off before digging in her pack. “Oh, but look! We found two [Health Potions]! Hard to find, but if anyone gets hurt we can…”

You squeeze your eyes shut as she says “hurt” and you feel someone put their hand on your shoulder. When you look up, you’re surprised to see Alice there, firmly gripping you. She gives you a resolute look and says, “You’re supposed to be the leader of this merry band. I don’t give two shits, but look at the others eh? You’re making the hot guy look worried.”

Blinking away something in your eyes, clearly not tears, you shake your head before turning to Clint and Clarissa, who do look a little worried as they look on. You curse inwardly before taking in a deep breath and exhaling. “Right… right then, okay. We need a game plan, so here’s what we’re going to do-”

“Bzzzzzzt….Hello? Heeellloooo? Is this thing on?” a voice says over the line. You feel like you really should know this voice, yet due to the static, it’s so hard to tell exactly who it is…

“I know you’re listening my sweet Tobias. You surely haven’t forgotten about little ol’ me, have you?”

You feel a chill go down your spine at those words. It… it can’t be. Slowly, you take the device from Alice’s hands and push the button. With hesitation, you ask,

“Fiora?”

“Oh how wonderful! I thought we might not get to speak with each other! How are you doing? Apparently not as insane as when I last left you, so you MUST be doing well!”

“Where are they Fiora?”

“I say, if you’re doing so well, then how is my darling Richard? I wanted to spare him from all of this, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him again.”

“Where ARE THEY Fiora?”

The line is quiet for a few moments before Fiora sighs, “Oh bother, you’re no fun, you know that? The cute little bunny and this adorable daughter of yours are right here and quite safe.” The line crackles and pops for a few moments before she comes back, voice carrying more of an edge. “You’re becoming a thorn in my side though, so if you don’t want any trouble, I’d just leave now and not interfere. On that end, call off your little Goo Monster and the badger and we’ll call it even, hmm? Their meddling is quite annoying.”

Her voice grows absolutely poisonous as she says, “You don’t want anything to happen to them… do you?”

The line cuts off and you hurriedly push the button again shouting, “FIORA! DAMN YOU FIORA, IF YOU TOUCH A HAIR ON EITHER OF THEIR HEADS, I’LL KILL YOU!”

You get no reply and you consider throwing the device to the ground in rage. Taking a few moments to fume, you look up at the others, anger in your voice.

“She wants to make this personal? Fine then, she’s made it personal. Here’s what we’re going to do: We find her, and we kill her.”

The other three look between themselves, then back to you. Clarissa shuffles, rubbing her wing before asking,

“Yes, but… how?”

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