Umbra, Chapter 37

Aaron stood scratching his head for a moment, unsure of exactly where he was. An undulating sea of pasta noodles slithered around his feet, and the bright blue sky appeared to be filled with giant shrimp nearly double the size of blue whales. Although they were peeled, they swam around the air and silently vomited waterfalls of tomato sauce.

For a reason he couldn’t comprehend, he didn’t question this. He didn’t even question why the next second he was suddenly and instantly stripped naked, relaxing in a bronze pot filled with a lukewarm stew. He simply laid back and let his tensed muscles unwind in the steaming broth, halfheartedly observing a chunk of meat float by.

A sudden and aching hunger overtook him, so he reached out and scooped up the chunk. It fit nicely in his palm, and he knew it would do nicely at filling the void in his belly. Taking a large bite, he thoughtfully chewed and let the flavor burst across his taste buds.

“Meh.” he groaned, suddenly feeling much less hungry now that the mediocre taste had actually hit his tongue. It was deer meat, simmered with wild herbs and dried vegetables, as per the usual in the past few months of his travels.

He threw the venison skywards, watching it disobey gravity. Not only did it refuse to go down, it only increased in speed until it hit one of those grand shrimp in the sky. It bounced off the creature with an inaudible plop, but still sent the beast reeling, then caused it to spontaneously implode. The massive burst blew away the clouds, leaving a rain of chunky red sauce and bits of moist, succulent shrimp.

Aaron looked down, seeing that those massive chunks of crustacean and undulating noodles had drastically shrunk and changed shape. Now, a delectable pasta bowl chocked full of plump shrimp and garlic tomato sauce waited for him at the side of the bronze pot.

His hunger returned with a vengeance, and he looked down to watch his tummy ripple and groan. Rubbing it down, he licked away the moisture gathering at his lips and reached for the pasta.

But before his fingers reached the rim of the bowl, a paw covered in ebony fur shot out and seized his wrist. Being pulled back into the stew, Aaron found his monstrous friends skinny-dipping with him.

They were all crowded around him, breasts mere inches away from his face and dripping with brown broth. But finding himself without any sort of libido, he glanced from their predatory smiles and back towards the pasta.

“I’m real hungry, girls and this stew ain’t cuttin’ it. Can I just-”

“No.” Kiera spat bluntly and sharply, seizing his cheeks and making his lips pop out like a fish.

“You have to eat your stew, Aaron~” Nariko sang out in that sweet accent of hers. She used both hands to scoop up a handful of stew, and blue sparks danced in the thick liquid.

“N-no! I want pasta!” Aaron argued, kicking his legs out like a child having a tantrum. Ignoring his protests, Kiera held down both his arms and Val dipped further into the soup. With only her wagging tail and butt sticking out, she pinned down his feet.

“Eat up…” Nariko sang, her pretty face twisting up into a sadistic sneer as she brought the stew closer to his mouth.


As Aaron found himself staring the tanned ceiling of his tent, he realized that he had suffered through nothing but a dream. Not quite a nightmare, but far from a pleasant one. His nightmares had been getting more and more vivid and disturbing, but far less frequent as of late.

He supposed he had the three monsters tangled around him to thank for that.


Kiera was hugging his right arm, shoving his forearm between her generous bust. She tucked her head into his shoulder, cascading it with white and brown hair. Nariko did something similar to the left, hugging it in a way that her legs and knees were up against his shoulder and his hand was up to her mouth. She had several of his fingers jammed between her lips, and he felt her tongue run along his digits every so often.

But that was far from the lewdest position he was put in.

Valerie lay between his thighs, her cheek pressed up against his crotch. She lay near motionless in her slumber, her ears twitching ever so slightly with each breath.

“Damn.” he sighed, struggling to free himself. There was no way he could escape without waking at least one of them.

But in his lack of care, he had awoken both Kiera and Nariko. Val, being the heavy sleeper she was, simply plopped against their shared sleeping mat without his thighs to lay on. With her cheek to the ground and ass in the air, the hellhound continued to snore like a hibernating bear.

“Morning…” Kiera softly mewled as he pulled away.

“Yeah. Mornin’.” Aaron yawned in return, looking to his left to see a disappointed Nariko.

“Can’t we snuggle for just a bit longer, sweetie…?” she begged, extending both arms and offering herself to him. She wiggled her bust around, blue thunder crackling around her.

“Nah. I gotta pee.” he lied, wanting to at least stretch his legs before being smothered by a trio of dozy monsters.

“Eww. I’m not into that kinda stuff.” the raiju spat, her tongue sticking out in disgust.

“What? Hey, what’d you mean by ‘snuggling’…?”

“C-can you at least pat my head?” the raiju quickly interjected.

Aaron breathed out through his nose, planting a hand atop her noggin, “Why not…?”

Going to work, Aaron watched the raiju squirm and shiver as he gently dug his fingertips in and gently massaged her scalp. Just like the last time he did it, he could still feel that electric tingle send goosebumps across his skin.

“Mmm… you’re technique… it’s getting better…”  she mewled, nudging her head further in his direction.

“Thanks.” Aaron yawned, still half-asleep.

When Nariko’s desire for pats was at last slated, the princess rolled over and went back to sleep, her static electricity causing her azure hair to frizz up.

But as Aaron turned to leave the tent, he ran right into a patch of snowy white amidst a sea of chocolate brown.

“Hair…” he realized just a moment after he noticed Kiera was sprawled across his lap.

“No fair… I… I want some, too…” she mumbled with her sharp and steely eyes shut, still out of it without her morning coffee.

Exhaling a deep breath out his nose, Aaron lifted a hand to lay atop the griffon’s head. But Valerie blindsided him at the last moment, and sent them all crumbling into a pile.

“I want paaaaaats~”

After somewhat begrudgingly dishing out the morning pats, Aaron escaped the confines of his tent and was finally free to stretch out his legs. Quickly slapping on his clothing and rubbing the crust from his baggy eyes, his vision was cleared enough to spot Giolla.

The maid was spreading out a large picnic cloth, setting everyone’s breakfast of salted cuts of meat and a mix of dried berries and nuts.

“Ah! Good morning, Mr. Axenus. Did you sleep well?”

“Bit of an… odd dream, I guess.” Aaron answered, popping his sore neck, “I’m getting real tired of deer, I guess. I’ve always been more of a seafood guy… surprising, right? My brother always made this really awesome spicy shrimp pasta, and my sister-in-law…”

Aaron caught himself before he went any further.

“…nevermind. Point is, I’m getting real sick of our usual lunches and dinners.”

“I think I understand your plight, Mr. Axenus. Otha fed me nothing but that awful paste for the four months she held me prisoner… but not to fear! I’ll do my very best with the sparse ingredients I have.”

The iron-haired man nodded to the kikimora as he plopped down on the blanket. Picking up his jerky, he absentmindedly chewed it up with the assortment of nuts. After his first few bites, Kiera was the second to emerge from the tent.

“Sorry… I usually don’t sleep in that late.”

“Yeah. You and Giolla stayed late to finish that ‘top secret project’, right?”

Giolla smiled up at Kiera, grabbing a steaming kettle of coffee from beside the blanket. Pouring Kiera a cup, the groggy griffon gratefully accepted and took a long, careful sip.

“This… this is amazing!” Kiera cheered, her lazy yellow eyes springing back to their usual sharpness and clarity, “Leagues better than the usual stuff I’ve had to settle for on the road. What’s your secret?”

With a skip in her step, the bright maid bounced around the blanket and merrily explained, “Oh, you know. I couldn’t use milk, but I got by. I just used a pinch of cinnamon, just the right amount of sugar, and plenty of-”

Crashing thunder akin to a raging storm engulfed the camp. Stomping out from the tent, Nariko rushed out bursting with an aura of overpowering azure lightning.

“Which one of you street whores…” she hissed, bolts sparking off her jittering body, “Stole my honey?!”

A few hours after he managed to calm down the raging Nariko and finished their meager breakfast. Aaron found himself with his back against a tree. Pressing his claymore against the ground and resting his weight against it to hold himself up.

Valerie, emerging from the brush after a short bathroom break, plopped by his feet and stared blankly at the young pine tree a few yards ahead of her.

“Why are we just sitting here again? Shouldn’t we be hitting the road by now?”

“Kiera said she had a plan to get us across the border quick like… apparently. She’s gone to put the finishing touches on her plan with Giolla before explaining it to us.”

“Oh… and where’s Nariko?”

“Looking for more honey…” Aaron grumbled, “I really, really hope she isn’t allergic to bee stings… I mean… they have bees in Zinpangu, don’t they?”

Valerie responded only with a short shrug of shoulders. The boredom was quick to set in, and she released a gentle grumble and snuggled up against his legs. Aaron breathed out through his nose, enjoying the feeling of radiant warmth shooting up past his knees and engulfing his entire body. Even with intense summer sun blazing overhead, he appreciated the shared toasty feeling under the cool shade of the tree.

It barely even registered with them when Nariko waltzed into the twisting shadow of the branches, plopping onto her bum and licking a sticky amber goo off her fingers.

Glancing over to her, Aaron was shocked to find her covered in bee-stings, burn marks, mongrel bites and sporting a nasty shiner.

“What the fuck happened to you, Nariko?!”

“Well, the bee stings should be obvious. I got what I was looking for, but then the bears smelled my honey… then I failed to realize that shooting lightning in the middle of the forest is a fire hazard… then the wolves smelled the cooking meat… oh, and I tripped down a hill… everything after that was kind of a blur…”

Val was quick to scramble to the supply packs set behind the tree, “D-don’t worry, Nariko! I’ll fix you right up!”

The easterner responded with an exaggerated roll of her eyes, “I know mutt saliva can kill germs, but I think I’ve had enough dogs slobbering all over me for one today, thanks.”

“No, you weirdo! I meant this!”

Hopping back to her feet, Val brandished a vial of a viscous purple liquid. It seemed to glow with a faint red light as it sloshed around in rhythm with the hellhound’s every excited breath.

“That’s not the potion Reese gave us…” Nariko sourly noted.

“Yeah. That’s the one Beatrice made.” Aaron bitterly added, shivering as he pictured what must’ve been his perverted, unhinged grin while under the substance.

The hellhound’s tail went rigid, and her crimson pupils shrunk back into the dark void of her sclera. Valerie scrambled to put the vial brew back in its place, nearly dropping it in her haste.

“Aha! Here it is.” Val chuckled, biting off the cork of the next vial and spitting it into the palm of her paw. Skipping over to Nariko, she tilted the raiju’s head back and shook the vial around.

“Open up~”

“Don’t waste all of it on me. It was my own damned fault it happened. Guess I deserve it for being such a bitch to Giolla…” Nariko grumbled indignantly.

“Ah, don’t worry about it, Nariko. She said she forgave you. Now, open up!”

The raiju held her tongue open and let Valerie pour the green elixir into her mouth, taking the potion like a child would take her medicine.

“Well, we could still use that… er… special potion, if you’re willing to be tied to a tree until you calm down…”

“It wouldn’t work…” Aaron interjected, “Beatrice said it only worked on humans… but she also didn’t tell us about it turns you into a horny nutjob either. So I’ll take everything she says with a few grains of salt. Still, we shouldn’t waste it. I don’t exactly like going berserk like that, but I’ll take it over dying.”

Nariko tilted her head back and downed the potion. As her bruises began to shrink and her gashes and cuts sealed themselves up, she grinned up at Aaron, “Don’t worry, sweetie. If it comes to that, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of~”

Val quickly bonked Nariko atop her head as punishment for her lewd remark.

“Ow, ow! Hey, I’m still injured here!”

“I took a crossbolt to the lung and fell off a mountain, you don’t know what injured means!”

“Jeez, mutt! You were acting real sweet just a second ago!”

“That was before you were-”

With a nervous glance to the side, Aaron tuned out the bickering girls. He peered off at two foraging squirrels in the distance, trying to remove himself from the quickly ensuing argument.

Fortunately, before it escalated any further and he was forced to intervene, Kiera and Giolla emerged from the wilderness and settled in front of them.

“Good to see you’re done. So, what’s this master plan of yours?” Aaron asked, propping his claymore in front of him and leaning forward on it.

A proud grin made its way to the griffon’s face. She marched over to a wilting tree, Giolla merrily following behind like a loyal pet. As the maid handed Kiera a large roll of paper, Kiera just as quickly unfurled it and pinned it to the tree.

Glancing over the drawing, Aaron gathered that it was a map. The upper half portrayed Jalam, as Kiera’s flowing cursive handwriting pointed out. Between that and the lower half representing Var was a squiggly blue line, running off between the two from the right of the paper.

She didn’t mark it, but Aaron quickly deduced that the massive blob of cyan taking up the entire right of the map was the pontus sea separating the continents of Coelum and Terra.

“As some of you might not know…” Kiera tapped her finger against the blue borderline between Var and Jalam, eyeing Val and Nariko as she did, “The border we must cross is a natural barrier that takes the form of a river flowing from an underground reservoir and into the sea. The current would only take us straight into that sea to die. Problem is, the nearest place with ships that can make it across the pontus sea are docked in Var… the port city of Paxton, to be precise. In other words, across that river.”

“So, what’s your plan to make it across the river, oh wise one?” Nariko boredly asked. As more and more of her wounds healed, the raiju found the strength to bring out the jar full of the honey that had cost her so dearly.

“I was getting to that…” Kiera grumbled, “Well, look here. See?”

That’s when Aaron noticed it. Branching off from the river flowing between Var and Jalam, another blue line, far thinner than the one between Var and Jalam, ran upwards in their direction. It was a smaller river that fed into the one across the border, and Aaron realized there was only one river that could’ve been.

“No…” Aaron grumbled, shaking his head to both sides, “Are you kidding me, Kiera? You really want us to ride down the carvarous river!?”

Val’s ears perked up, “What’s so bad about it, babe?”

“Aside from the fact it’s filled with fuckin’ alligators? Nothin’, I guess. It’s called ‘carvarous’ for a reason, ya know. Not many people come back out when they go take a dip.”

Kiera sat unblinking through Aaron’s rant. At the very end, another smile graced her lips. Placing one hand on her breasts and waving the other towards him like a flashy showman, the griffon let out several hearty chuckles.

“The alligators are what I’m hoping for, my dear partner~”

“Alright, Kiera, I don’t know if you fell and hit your head on a tree again, but alligators ain’t too friendly.”

“I could zap ‘em all.” Nariko offered with a comically evil smirk, popping a honey-covered finger between her curled lips.

“No, Nariko. That won’t be necessary. In fact, it would only slow us down. Those alligators will be our chauffeurs.”

Aaron let his claymore tip over. Blinking a few times, he angled his head down and rubbed his temples, “Alright, enough with the theatrics. What the fuck are you talking about?”

Kiera didn’t respond with words. Instead, she motioned towards Giolla. The kikimora took the limelight, removing an unassuming wooden flute from her dress.

“And that’ll help how…?” Nariko mumbled through a mouthful of honey.

“This is the sacred flute of Audrey the Gentle, one of the Seven Saints of the Way of the Red Camellia. It’s a relic that’s been passed down my family line for generations, starting from- oh, well you get the point. I’ll not bore you with the finer details. Instead, I’ll speak with my song…”

The kikimora inhaled a deep whiff of the fresh summer winds. While her chest was still puffed out, she held the flute to her lips and began to play.

Aaron, Valerie, and Nariko intently listened. The melody and rhythm was the very definition of average. Not grating to the ears, but also not exceptional in any sense of the word.

But even playing that mediocre song, the soft sunlight filtered through the trees and gentle wind blowing around her chestnut hair made her look like a stunning princess from a fairytale.

That image was only reinforced by the denizens of the forest. To the confusion of the human, hellhound, and raiju, a group of butterflies flew in and danced around her, blanketing her dull maid’s outfit in a rainbow of colors.

Next, the chittering squirrels dove from the trees, rushing up to her feet and presenting her with the nuts and berries they had so dutifully collected. A family of deer sprang from the thicket, all gathering around her and sitting at her feet.

“What the fuck…?” Nariko gasped in utter astonishment.

“Holy hell…” was Aaron only response.

Valerie said nothing, but the saliva gathering at her lips and the glint of hunger in her eyes were an obvious show of her intentions for the woodland creatures.

To top of the performance, Giolla played a final, long note and let one hand fall from the flute. Lifting a finger of that hand into the air, she allowed a chirping bluejay to dive down from the air and land on her finger. Tucking away the instrument, the kikimora gently ran a finger along the bird’s chest.

“Thank you for answering my call, my friends. You can go back to your frolicing~”

Upon her dismissal, the animals departed. The butterflies and bluejay returned to the air, and the deer and squirrels scampered back into the shade of the woods.

“W-what in the world was that?” Nariko marveled, unable to take her eyes off the kikimora.

“Like I said, its a relic. Most of them are somewhat mechanical in design, but this one was unassuming enough for me to pass it off as a humble flute. Its a good thing, too. It would’ve been disastrous for an item of so much power and esteem to land in Otha’s hands.”

Kiera grinned as all the pieces of her plan began to fall into place. She stepped up to Giolla’s side, proudly patting a paw on the kikimora’s shoulder, “Audrey the Gentle’s Flute… you’ve just seen it’s power. Any wild animals that hear its melody fall under the musician’s control.”

“So let me get this straight… we’re going to use it to summon a bunch of gators and ride on their backs till we get to Jalam?” the incredulous Aaron asked.

“Not exactly, partner. Come, follow me!”

Kiera dramatically tossed her wings back, diving into the thicket of the woods. Giolla let out a little sigh, slightly lifting up her dress and hustling after the griffon.

Aaron slowly exhaled, unsure of what to think.

“Damn. She acts all level-headed, but when she gets excited…” Aaron trailed off with a small grumble, looking towards the two monster at his feet for their input.

“Meh. I suppose it’s a worth a try.” Nariko mouthed through a mouthful of sticky amber honey.

Valerie said nothing, as she had scooped up one of the squirrel’s and was currently mashing into a paste with her impressive fangs.

Shrugging his shoulders, Aaron slung his claymore on his back and dove into the thicket, Nariko and Valerie quickly downing their snacks and following behind him.

Kiera and Giolla led them further into the woods, the trees and roots becoming more thin and gnarled as they went. The black soil grew more unstable and wet as they tread further and dove deeper into the wilderness. Soon, the chirping of birds was drowned out by the croaking of toads.

“Urgh. This is disgusting… it’s going to take hours to get this out of my fur.” Nariko whined, more mud tangling into the hair around her legs and feet with each step.

“Yeah…” Aaron grumbled, slapping a mosquito buzzing around his neck, “I don’t see how all those hermits ya hear about can live in shitholes like this. It’s fuckin’ hell.”

A cool breeze was blowing that day, but it was sweltering in the swamp. The thin branches of the trees did little to block the sun’s cruel rays. It didn’t take long for the whole group to start dripping with sweat.

All save for Valerie, who seemed to be having an absolute blast diving into the mud and hunting down snakes.

A quick melody from Giolla’s flute was enough to keep the mosquitos and leeches at bay when the pests became a nuisance. The mosquitos swarmed far away from them, and every once in awhile Aaron could see the mud wriggling as Giolla commanded the parasites hiding underneath to keep their distance.

“Don’t worry, everyone. Our ticket to Jalam is dead ahead.” Kiera let them know, wading through the marsh ahead. Dipping off in a curve, the muddy terrain sank into a vast, murky river.

Hustling to a small bank nearby, Kiera and Giolla grabbed hold of a blanket of moss resting over something floating in the water. Tossing it off, they revealed the fruits of their labour- a large canoe.

Carved from the surrounding wood, it contained three rows of seats, and would easily be able to fit all five of them and their baggage. All that was missing was a set of oars.

Valerie, gnashing on a black bull snake, looked up from her snack and marveled at the little boat, “Oh! Neat! Nice work, Kiera!”

“Thank you, Valerie. I learned how to make canoes back during my time with the Ravens. But I never would’ve finished it so quickly without Giolla here.”

The maid blushed like a tomato and deflected the praise with a wave of her hand, “Oh, my… thank you, Kiera. But it was you who did most of the work.”

“Yeah, yeah… don’t try to kiss each other’s asses too hard.” Nariko grumbled. She wiped the sweat from her brow as she squatted before the canoe, studying it from top to bottom.

“I know it’s a bit rough on the woodwork, but it’s the best we could do in our short timeframe.”

The raiju looked back to the griffon with a cocked eyebrow, “You certain this thing won’t sink on us?”

“Positive. Now hop in, everyone.”

Aaron was still debating whether or not it was a good idea, but he supposed Kiera was a more calculated risk-taker than he. Resigning to her plan, he plopped into the back and set down his pack and sword under his seat.

Valerie and Nariko were next to pile in, Val merrily stepping inside the rocking vessel while the hesitant raiju took a long, winding tip-toe right behind the hellhound. But both were equally quick to try and shove the other out of the way for the privilege of sitting next to Aaron.

“H-hey! I got on first!” Valerie argued, gripping her half-eaten snake in one hand and using the other to push the raiju back.

“So what?! I’m the royalty here, so I-”

Aaron, hanging back from the fight, was forced to grip onto the edges of the canoe as the two monsters began shaking it to and fro in the murky water. A storm of fire from Val’s eyes and lighting from Nariko’s whole body popped through the humid swamp air.

“Hey! We need to evenly distribute the weight, you two!” Kiera scolded them, “You’re going to tip over the canoe!”

Val and Nariko gave each other one more furious glare before breaking apart and staring daggers in the opposite direction.

“Seriously!” Aaron huffed, his heart racing, “If you don’t stop fighting like that, I’ll… I’ll…”

Both Valerie and Nariko’s breath hitched, fearing what he was going to say next. Aaron’s cheeks flushed as realized he had only a single proverbial carrot to dangle before the both of them.

While it humiliated him to say it, he managed to force it out anyway.

“I won’t fuck either of you for a whole month!”

Aaron almost felt like he was deflating as the words left his lips. Never before had he felt so emasculated in his life, having to dredge up the old threat he had heard from every single one of his human girlfriends when he misbehaved.

He’d never deny he was rather vulgar and crude, but even he had his limits.

Lifting his hung head, he looked towards Kiera, who awkwardly stared off into the distant marsh with an eagle claw slapped over her mouth.

“T-t-t-thats hardly appropriate, Mr. Axenus…” the strawberry-red Giolla mouthed.

Huffing in frustration, the two sat in the row in front of Aaron. The raiju tried to scoot as far away from the hellhound as possible as she angrily chomped down on the snake in her hands.

It was Giolla who took the helm, already preparing to play a few notes on her flute.

With everyone’s gear packed and settled into the rough wooden seats, Kiera hopped into the bank, sinking her lion paws into the muck below. Gritting her teeth, the griffon pushed the canoe forward, quickly freeing herself and launching into the air with a single flap of her wide wings.

Spinning before the blistering sun, Kiera made a perfect landing right next to Aaron, sending the canoe shaking and ripples rolling across the murky river water.

“Hey! How come you get to sit next to him?!” Val swiveled back and demanded through a mouthful of stringy snake meat.

“Because I made the boat.” Kiera fired back, “Don’t worry, I’m not like you two dimwits. I’m not going to try anything lewd with him in front of a married woman.”

A wicked smile sparked across Nariko’s lips, “Oh, so if Giolla wasn’t here-”

Kiera’s tanned skin flushed cherry-red, “I-I still wouldn’t! Unlike you two, I have class! I’d wait until we had a private moment to ourselves, and then-”

The griffon slapped her claws over her mouth, stopping herself from going any further. Nariko and Val were laughing the griffon’s slip a bit too hard, the hellhound nearly choking on her snake and the raiju almost tipping over into the water and frying the local aquatic life. Even Giolla cracked a small smile.

Right as Aaron was about to console Kiera, a loud and rumbling growl caught the group’s attention and silenced their snickering. A splash had them turning their heads. Several splashes later, and they suddenly found gators swimming towards them from all angles.

“S-shit! Quick, play the song, Giolla!” Aaron urged, watching the closet one lock in on his side of the boat and slice through the murky drink. Steam shot from it’s nostrils, and with each swish of its massive tail, it came closer and closer to ramming the canoe.

“O-on it!” the nervous Giolla cried, fumbling with the flute for a few precious seconds before finally getting it up to her lips.

The tune she played was frantic and ugly compared to the gentle one she used to woo the forest creatures, but it was a melody that matched the gators quite well. The encroaching circle of the ferocious lizards slowed to a crawl.

The one aiming right for Aaron veered off course, circling around to the head of the boat and swiveling it’s slanted eyes right up at Giolla. He waited patiently as he bobbed in the water, almost like a grizzled soldier awaiting orders.

“G-g-g-g-good, boy…” Giolla stuttered, hesitantly reaching down to stroke the gator’s snout.

The overgrown lizard lightly snorted at the kiki’s touch, seeming pleased at her soft fingers on his thick scales.

“C-can you and your friends take us down the river? Please….? T-t-that way?” Giolla miserably asked, raising a shaking finger and aiming it south.

Upon her request, the gators sank under the murky water, disappearing from view. Just as Aaron thought of peeking over the side to see where they had gone, a sudden thump jolted him in place.

Valerie had dropped her snake in the water after the bump. She had also hopped over and clung to Nariko on reaction, smushing one of her blood covered cheeks against the repulsed raiju’s.

“Gross, gross, gross!” Nariko squealed, sending a quick zap coursing through Valerie to repel her. Nariko was wiping the gore from her face before the twitching hellhound had even collapsed to the floor.

Blinking once or twice to catch his bearings, Aaron suddenly realized something warm and coarse had slipped over his hand. Looking down, he was somewhat surprised to find Kiera’s claw blanketing his fingers.

He swiveled his gaze up, finding the griffon staring off in the opposite direction. A breeze carrying the swampy marsh’s foul stench rolled by and jostled the cascade of brown and white atop her head.

The vagabond leaned over and whispered to her, “Kiera, I thought you said-”

The griffon silenced him by slipping her fingers under his palm, gently squeezing his hand. Aaron didn’t enjoy staking money on games of chance, but he’d put down a coin or two that Kiera let out a small little mewl as she did so.

And he would’ve put down even more that he saw the blush on her face spread.

Clearing the throat as if it would erase the awkward air, Aaron faced the opposite direction in return, propping his elbow against the side of the vessel and staring into the brown drink.

What he found was a cluster of gators, all slipped under the boat. Settling into position, they reared back their tails and stared dead ahead, ready to take off. If they were able to cock their brows, Aaron was sure they would be sporting determined squints.

“That’s pretty cool…” he had to admit, returning his focus to the river stretching off to the horizon and the expansive marshlands encompassing it.

“L-lets go!” Giolla cried, propping one of her heel-like talons on the mast of the canoe and aiming her flute homeward. Starting and remaining at a brisk pace, the gators carried the vessel down the muddy river.

Ignoring the humid heat and stinking air surrounded him, Aaron wrapped his own fingers around Kiera’s claw and propped up his chin with the other arm. Shutting his baggy eyes, he drifted off into a light slumber, hoping he could get at least one bite of his brother’s shrimp pasta.

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