Wizardquest 3 Part 13: The Wisdom of the Ancients


Chapter 35

>Tobias Shady

                “Ginelle, Clint, if you would be so kind.”

                At your order, the two make for the ancient doorway. Clint stands to one side, magitek rifle at the ready while Ginelle grabs one of the doors from the other side. Clint counts to three and Ginelle pulls fiercely at the door, tearing apart the vines growing on it and sliding it open a little further. Clint turns toward the opening, weapon pointed inside, his body shielded partially by the door. He waits a long, tense minute before holding up a hand to signal you forward.

                You nod to Finn, who readies a torch. There’s a stack of about six in your supplies that you made on your way here, lacking a good Magitek lantern. If Ophelia was feeling better, perhaps she could have made one out of her other gadgets but you’re just glad she’s alive.

                The man draws his sword with one hand as he enters the door cautiously, Clint providing overwatch. You hear his feet echo as his greaves clank against stone, getting further way. Eventually he stops and turns back, waving for everyone to gather.

                “Looks like we’re clear for the moment. There’s a few areas of light that permeate the building ahead but it’s mostly pitch dark. We’ll have to be careful about our formation.”

                “Alright.” You say, turning to Alice. “Finn will be on point, you’re rear guard.”

                “Oh, is it because he’s a man?”

                “Yes, he’s bigger and wears heavier armor than you.”

                She scoffs. “I could wear his armor too.”

                “No Alice, I’m not going to strip for you, please take this seriously.” Finn says, giving her a steady look.

                “What, you’d get to ogle me too.” She says, fluttering her eyes a moment before sighing and tossing back her hair. “Oh fine, I’ll cover the rear.”

                “Patricia, you’ll be with me, Ginelle, and Clint in the middle.”

                They nod at you in the affirmative. You turn to Clarissa and Ophelia before sighing. “You two sure you want to come along?”

                “I mean, what if one of those dragons comes out here looking for a snack? I’d rather be by your side if at all possible.” Clarissa says.

                “Same, while guarding our wagon would be smart I’m not in a position for that either. I think I can duck and cower well enough if it comes to that.” Ophelia replies.

                “Great, well let’s get this going then.” You say, nodding to Finn. Both of you look down as you hear a coughing from nearby.

                “Forgetting someone?” Rayleigh says, tapping her foot.

                Finn looks a little uncomfortable while you merely sigh. “Not that all. You have an important task, after all.” At this, you hold out your torch and smile.

                She narrows her eyes before sighing and lighting the torch with a simple gesture. You chuckle and say, “I’m kidding, though that is helpful. You’re also on point.”

                “Huh?” She asks, looking at Finn a little uncomfortably. “Are you… sure?”

                You crouch down beside her and say, “Listen I’d rather fire be in front of me than behind me.”

                “Ah.”

                She shakes her head, then walks over to Finn and lights his torch. Alice draws her sword, which glows a faint green in the sunlight. With your sources of light met, Ophelia completes it with her [Mage Sight Goggles]. At a nod to Finn, your group enters the ruins of the observatory.

                The light of the torches illuminates ancient, unadorned stone. As far as the torchlight shows, you’re within a large hallway, leading down into darkness. While small breaks in the stone from the ravages of time or plant life allow in breaks of light, it is minor and fleeting. It too reveals nothing but stone and dirt.

                “Fascinating.” Patricia whispers.

                You look over to her as she walks, somehow writing in a notebook while looking about. “The architectural design of the exterior and the hallway are actually different than that of Carthos. This would imply that it was a separate sect who worshiped Hevensferth all the way out here instead. Was it because they weren’t accepted by the others for their beliefs, or was it due to the location?”

                “Patricia, please we have to be quiet-“

                “Oh!” She cuts you off and wanders toward the wall. Ginelle blinks in surprise as Patricia pushes past and your party grinds to a halt a moment later.

                “Tobias, bring the light over here.” She asks, waving you over furiously. Sighing, you do so, illuminating a depression in the wall where a crystal sits.

                “Amazing… Ophelia, can you detect any magic from this?”

                “Oh, uhm, no it seems inert, though it’s not a crystal I’ve ever seen before.” The Rabbit Girl says, looking through her goggles. “What’s it doing in there then?”

                “Hmm, I had assumed it might be a crystal which would produce light, but it would be too much of a hope to believe something like this would still work after so long.” She shrugs and plucks the crystal from its casing, however.

                “Hey, hey!” You say, grabbing her hand. “You can’t just touch things willy-nilly like that!”

                “Why, it’s inert and a fascinating relic. Clearly designed by hand due to these cuts, but there’s plenty of imperfections which gives more of an understanding of the tools available-“

                “Patricia, please.” Ophelia sighs. “We can’t spend all day talking about a single crystal.”

                “Single?” Patricia huffs. “There’s bound to be more.”

                She’s right, of course. As you continue you begin to see more of the crystals lining the hallway, giving some credence to her theory. Ginelle has to keep her from wandering off to inspect all of them, however, though Ophelia confirms they’re inert.

                Thankfully nothing else appears in the torchlight until it casts off the end of the hallway. As you approach, the light reveals an opening into what you assume is a large room. Its size is big enough that the light of your torches don’t illuminate all of the room, but you can get a vague impression of the vastness.

                “Woah…” Patricia says, walking out of formation to look around the room. It makes you feel tense, but as of yet there’s been no danger? Even still, Ginelle instinctively follows her, sniffing about.

                “The roof, can you see it? It’s reflecting the light a little, I think it’s made of crystal material as well. Could it have provided light to this entire room as well? Amazing, the artisans here must have been much more advanced than they should have been at the time. Of course, given that some ancient civilizations had the help of the Gods, perhaps it’s no wonder that-“

                As she rambles on, you turn to Finn, who is scanning the room the best he can for danger. “Well, what do you think?”

                “Room seems secure, but I don’t like it. A place like this is a haven for Monsters who don’t want to associate much with the outside world.”

                “Agreed. But this doesn’t look like the place we’re looking for, unless one can observe the stars through that crystal above us.”

                “No, of course not.” Patricia says, scoffing as she walks up to you. “I’d imagine they’d have a device for it, something at least with enchantments, though a telescope could be possible as well.”

                “So you think we need to press onward then?”

                “Well, sure.” She says, pointing at each cardinal direction of the room. “I think from the smell of the air and the faint light that there’s three other exits on this floor.”

                “This floor?”

                “Well yes, don’t you see the stairs?”

                Sure enough, in the glow of Alice’s sword at the western side of the room is an old stone staircase. As you look up, you see a walkway above you, which Clarissa, who takes a torch, confirms is both useable and has two more exits on the west and east of the room.

                “Five directions to go… we could be here for awhile if we all go together.” Rayleigh says, snapping small sparks of fire as she looks about, nervous.

                “We would cover more ground.” Clarissa concedes. “But what if we run into danger?”

                “We can use the communication devices.” Ophelia says. “It seems like this place is empty though. Maybe we’re in the clear, assuming we’re in the right place.”

                “I wonder…” Ginelle says, sniffing. “I can’t say for certain but it feels like from the west there’s… I can’t place it, but a scent of something. It might be what we’re looking for.”

                “Oh, you as well?” Patricia asks. “I thought it was a trick, but… well regardless, it would seem most likely that the hall to the north would be where we’re going. Straight lines and all.”

                “That reasoning is strange, isn’t it?” Alice says. “Shouldn’t a telescope be at the highest point, so above us, right?”

                Finn just shakes his head and keeps vigil, watching as everyone squabbles. Clint, on the other hand, turns to you.

                “Well then, fearless leader.” Clint says, rubbing his chin. “How do you think we should handle this?”

                “HMMMMM”

                “Oh no, he’s thinking again.” Ophelia says, worried. “Whenever he starts thinking hard I usually end up hurt.”

                “Oh please, you just got slammed into a wall.” Ginelle says, rolling her shoulder. “Don’t be such a baby.”

                Ophelia huffs at Ginelle as you make a show about thinking this over. To be honest, you’ve been conflicted, not really having an easy time thinking about what to do. The idea of splitting up seems to sit with you the longest but at the last moment you snap your fingers and say,

                “We forge on to the north.”

                Patricia looks smug while the others look between each other, then shrug. Clint tips his hat and asks, “Sure you don’t want to split up and explore?”

                “Honestly, every time we split up, someone ends up getting hurt. We’re moving together to explore this place or not at all.”

                Finn nods his head at this and you think you see the ghost of a smirk on his expression. The man lifts up his torch and says, “Alright, let’s fall in formation then and move out.”

                “Oh very well.” Alice sighs, holding out her sword. “But don’t blame me if it was up there this entire time.”

                Your footsteps echo through the large hall as you walk through the darkness. In the torchlight, another entryway appears, shaped much like the one you just came from. Finn leads this way in, his light illuminating the dark passageway.

                In the wall you see similar crystals to the one that Patricia picked up earlier, themselves inert like all the others. Ophelia confirms no magic to be felt and you don’t feel anything either. As you walk, you begin to wonder if this is just another passageway outside again when Finn stops as his torch illuminates a side passageway.

                His hand goes to his sword and he takes a ready position as Rayleigh closes her eyes, magic channeling through her. She holds out her hands and from them a small cloud of glowing embers appears. Once formed, she blows them outward and they float toward the door, casting pinpricks of light which coalesce into a rather impressive illumination. Unfortunately, they don’t show much more then an old, wooden door further back into the passageway.

                “So they used wood also…” Patricia mutters, walking over to the doorway. Clint tries to stop her but she turns about and bares her teeth in a rather savage way, surprise causing the man to step backward, blinking in surprise. She turns about around as if nothing happened and examines the door in front of her.

                “Hmmm. Positively ancient. What’s surprising is the hinges aren’t as rusted as I would have expected. Perhaps their metallurgy is good? Or perhaps…” She leans forward to inspect the door further when her ears perk up, her eyes go wide, and her tail bristles.

                The humans of the party immediately go on alert while Ophelia’s ears pop up, searching for sound. Ginelle crouches down and slinks forward, sniffing as well while Clarissa and Rayleigh look about in confusion. The scene lasts a tense few moments before Patricia turns about, teeth bared, “Do you smell that?”

                “Yes.” Ginelle says.

                “This place isn’t exactly abandoned, is it?” Ophelia whispers.

                “What’s in there?” You ask, voice quiet.

                “Birds.” Patricia says. “I think it’s birds.”

                “Uhm.” You say, confused. “Birds, or like, BIRDS.”

                “BIRDS.” Ophelia says. “I think I can hear them breathing.”

                “Wait I don’t get it.” Clarissa says. “I assume you mean some kind of Monster, right?”

                “Yes.” Ginelle says, taking Patricia away from the door. “We have to tread carefully. The smell is similar to what I smelled in the western chamber.” She shakes her head, “At least I think they might be asleep.”

                “It’s the afternoon though.” Ophelia says, pulling out a watch. “Why are they asleep?”

                “They could be Owl Girls.” Clarissa says. “I knew a few in the past, they were really sleepy during the day.”

                You shake your head and turn to Finn. The man slowly nods his head in return, to which you groan. “Come on then. We’ll just have to be careful not to wake anyone up.”

                The Monsters look between each other before falling back in line. Though the hallway is still the same as it was before, you feel a tension now that wasn’t present beforehand. How many of these Monsters are in here? Are they hostile or not? Should you engage them?

                No… best to keep on your current course. It doesn’t do to doubt yourself, but you do worry that the farther in you go, the harder it will be to get out.

                Your worries are put on hold as Finn stops again to check another doorway. In this one, the tunnel behind the door has collapsed, perhaps from the strain of the ages. Two more doors in the hallway also turn up, but you can’t find anything amiss beyond them being locked. You decide to keep walking instead of exploring them, for now.

                Eventually the torchlight reveals the end of the passageway. A large, wrought-iron door stands before you with two, massive rings set into it. As you get closer, you can see faded into the metal pictures of stars and constellations along with multiple sets of the inert crystals you’d seen beforehand.

                “Hmph.” Patricia says, walking up to the door and sniffing. “I told you this was the way.”

                “We don’t even know what’s behind that door.” Alice says, sniffing as well. “Could be the toilets for all we know.”

                “Please, I doubt a civilization like this would have functional plumbing despite their otherwise impressive architectural skills.”

                Alice looks dumbfounded as Patricia walks around the door. She feels it and places her ear to the door, trying to listen before coming away, seeming lost in thought.

                “Something wrong?” You ask as she walks up to one of the rings. Without answering, she picks it up and pulls, only for nothing to happen. She tries again, even tries pushing, but ends up sighing and lowering it.          

                “Apparently I’m weak.”

                Ophelia and Clarissa suppress giggles as Ginelle walks up to the door and tries to open it as well. After straining a few times she eventually relents and shakes her head. “It’s not a weakness thing, this door is just locked tight.”

                “How?” Clint asks, looking over the door alongside Ophelia.

                “Hmm.” The Rabbitgirl says, placing her ear to the door and listening as well. She too comes away dissatisfied before pausing and looking down. Slowly, she lowers the [Mage-Sight Goggles] over her eyes as she peers at something before her ears stand up.

                “It’s magically locked!”

                “Huh?” Rayleigh asks, walking over and examining the door. She squints her eyes before scratching her head. “I’m not exactly good at this sort of thing, even if I could see the spellforms appropriately.”

                “Well shit.” You say, crossing your arms. “Any way we can just blow the door?”

                “Not without killing ourselves and even then I don’t think it would budge much.” Ophelia says, shaking her head. “I think we’re kind of screwed unless we can call in the Monster Lady or something to level it.”

                “I don’t think that will be necessary.” Patricia says, looking over the door again. Everyone turns to her as she wipes away some dust from a section of the constellations on the door. She smiles and points at an indentation in the door that was hard to see beforehand. It looks as if it was meant to hold something spherical. “I think this might be where the key sits.”

                “Uhm.” Ginelle says as she wipes away dust too. “I think there’s more than one.”

                You’re unable to find more than the two, however, which is both good and distressing. Could what is behind this door really be so important as to have such a strange locking mechanism? Even worse, are the keys still in existence?

                “We don’t have much of a choice then.” Patricia says. “I guess we’ll just have to search this whole place!”

                Rayleigh narrows her eyes, “You seem a little too excited about this. Did you forget those Owl Girls?”

                “Not at all.” Patricia says. “We just have to be quick and quiet.” She waves to Finn, “Lead the way sir, let’s return to the main hall and make our decision.”

                Finding no fault with this, you do so, being careful as you pass by the doorway they smelled the Owl Girls or… whatever is behind that door. When you return to the main hall, according to Patricia, Ophelia informs you that sundown should be in about 2 hours. You’re not certain how you spent so much time in here but it’s beginning to worry you.

                “Hmmm.”

                “He’s doing it again.” Ophelia hisses to Ginelle.

                “Stop being so melodramatic.” You say, waving your hand. “We’re going upstairs.”

                “Hehe.” Alice says. “I win this time.”

                “We went straight the first time.” Patricia sighs. “So I think I won?”

                “Girls, you’re both pretty.” Clint says walking toward the stairs. Ginelle puffs out her cheeks while chuckles and Patricia stutters, the three falling in line behind the man.

                “Up, huh?” Finn asks.

                “As good a place as any to start.”

                “And if these keys aren’t here?”

                “Then I guess we’ll have to get some bigger explosives.”

                The man looks at you, surprised, before shaking his head and walking to take lead in front of the other group. You just roll your eyes and hold up your torch, ready to follow after them.

                “There’s nothing here…”

                You whirl about, heart hammering at the voice. In front of you is Rayleigh, a ball of fire held in her hand. She blinks at you, surprised. “W-what?”

                “Did… did you just say something?”

                “Uhm. No? Are you okay?”

                “I… yeah.” You say, shaking your head. “Guess I’m hearing things.”

                “Ah, right, you’re a little insane.” She nods her head and pats your lower back. “Just try not to go too crazy in the dark.”

                “Harr, harr.” You mutter, getting in formation with the others.

                This time, you have Ginelle in front, sniffing things out while Finn provides light. The burning pitch of the torches doesn’t help, but it’s something at least. Patricia helps as well, keeping an eye, and a nose, out for anything that might ambush you. Despite making the decision to take the western path upstairs, they don’t get a fresh scent of anything living, though it seems as if these whatever these Bird Monsters are, they have been in here recently.

                The passageway is short and small this time, forcing you to bunch up and walk two by two until you reach a door set into the stone. Finn nods and puts a hand on the ancient ring before slowly pushing it open. It creaks abominably as it swings open, revealing a deceptively large room. One that makes Patricia gasp as soon as she sees what’s in the torchlight.

                “By the Gods it… it…”

                “It’s a… library?” Ophelia says. Patricia huffs as the Rabbit Girl walks into the room and looks about, ears twitching.

                In the light of your torch you see a large room filled with shelves upon shelves of scrolls and books. The texts have letters you don’t know, but many seem faded with age or positively crumbling while other seem hale and whole. Some bookcases are messy and cluttered while others are packed to the gills and spotless. Here and there you see tables with books and scrolls haphazardly laying around, some of the ancient books laying in the floor, torn.

                Patricia let’s out a pained cry at seeing a book on the ground which had some torn pages, and she runs to scoop it up. She gets about two steps before Finn grabs her collar and yanks her backward. “Keep quiet!”

                Ophelia’s ears twitch, trying to discern sounds while Ginelle sniffs about. The two eventually nod to each other and the Rabbit Girl says, “I think this room is empty.”

                Finn makes to nod before pausing to turning to you. Of course, you nod as well but you appreciate the thought, and the group begins to split off, exploring the room around the sources of light.

                As seen before, you can’t read any of this language but you can tell that a lot of information is stored here. It doesn’t surprise you that there’s a library in a place which may have had access to Hevensferth, but you’re just surprised to see it all still here. Unfortunately you don’t find much more than books though, but you pick one up to look at it all the same.

                “You wasted time and almost got your friends killed, again.”

                “Who?” You say, looking up from the book, worried.

                Clint pokes his head out from behind a shelf near you. “You trying to be an Owl Girl?”

                “No, I don’t have the breasts for that.” You mutter before shaking your head. “Though I suppose I could always make you think that I do.”

                “Heh.” The man chuckles. It doesn’t miss your gaze that he’s looking at you a little funny. Of all the places for your little insanity problem to crop up, it would have to be here, huh? His expression changes a moment later to concern as he holds up a book to you.

                “I haven’t found this key sphere or whatever we’re looking for here, but I did notice something a little strange.”

                “Oh?” You ask, taking the book and looking it over. Despite being incomprehensible it’s just a book. A rather… clean book.

                “Oh.”

                “Yeah, I think our Owl friends have been messing with the books here. Probably why the floors are littered with them. I wonder if they even know how to read?”

                “Maybe not. But it does make you wonder why they’re even here. If our bird friends didn’t write all of these, then someone else did. Question is, why would they leave them all here?”

                Clint thinking on it for a moment. “Maybe they were run off and had to leave it all?”

                “But they locked the door behind them?”

                He pauses at that before considering. Eventually he shakes his head and replaces the book he took on the shelf. “Well, there’s nothing here, let’s see if anyone else found anything.”

                Alice and friends didn’t find anything, but when you find Patricia sitting at a desk, she has stacks of books in front of her, notepad in her hand as she furiously writes down notes. Finn gives you an apologetic look as he ways to the Wolf Girl, his torch having been appropriated and shoved into a makeshift holder to illuminate her work.

                “Dear Gods, this language is similar to Ancient Deleorian but in the purest sense. Is it possible that this is the origin of the Deleorian language as we know it? If I’m reading this correctly, this is before the current method of measuring years was made, and the descriptions here seem to indicate pre-transformation Monsters…”

                “Patricia…”

                “If that’s the case then this civilization is insanely ancient. So much knowledge, ah but where to begin?”

                “Patricia.”

                “Hmmm, if I start with the books on Hevensferth, which there appear to be a lot of, maybe I can get deeper insight into-“

                “Patricia!”

                She jumps as you slam the table, the Wolf Girl spinning around and growling at you before she realizes who you are. Her cheeks immediately flush and she looks down, Clarissa and Rayleigh snickering at the sight. For your part, you just sigh and say, “We can come back later, we have need to continue searching.”

                “B-But.” She says, looking worried. “What if we’re attacked and the whole place collapses and all of this is lost!”

                “That is unlikely to happen.” Alice says. When Ophelia gives her a flat look, she rephrases, “It’s less likely than other things but still entirely possible.”

                Clint sighs and holds out a hand, “If there isn’t information on where to find these keys, I don’t think we linger here.”

                “We already wasted over an hour.” Ophelia says, looking at her watch. “Sundown won’t be too far in coming.”

                Patricia gives you puppy dog eyes, but you just cross your arms and stare her down. “Did you forget what species my adoptive daughter is?”

                “Phah.” The Wolf Girl says before looking at her stack. She selects a book and puts it in her bag. Then another. And another. It takes Alice dragging her away before she stops, the Wolf Girl making pitiful noises as you leave the library and head back out to the main chamber.

                Darkness continues to greet you outside, but there’s still no sign of anyone else. It’s honestly starting to wear on you some, the oppressive darkness and the quiet. Had you been alone or in a smaller party, maybe you would have felt a little more nervous but being surrounded by your friends gives a small amount of assurance.

                “Until you get them killed.”

                “Ugh.” You groan. Ophelia gives you a worried look, but you wave her off as you approach the other passageway. Once again, you search for danger but find nothing. And so, Finn opens the door to the next chamber to reveal another unexpected room.

                This one is much smaller than the other one, but it’s still quite large. The first thing you notice are the rows of benches, some of them cracked and splintered, but many quite hale and strong. Around the sides of the room inset into the walls are more of the crystal from before, but this time cut into shapes that you think might be pictures of some kind. In the far back, however, is what really gets your attention.

                A marble statue of a tall man wearing flowing robes stands before an altar. Though he is crumbling in some places, you can see that one hand holds the sun while the other, the moon. Some of his facial features are missing, but he seems slim, yet fit, and has an attractive face that does not exude the raw masculinity of the depictions of Solos you’ve seen.

                “By the Gods…” Patricia says, stumbling forward. “This is a shrine to Hevensferth.”

                “Is that so impressive?” Rayleigh asks, cocking her head. Ginelle shrugs beside her.

                “Yes, of course. There are those who worship the God but not in the same way as Solos or even Dollora. There does not exist a temple dedicated solely to the God, but here we find evidence that there was in the past.” She takes in a deep breath. “This changes everything about how we’d view the history of the world, I’d imagine.”

                “That’s… actually very interesting, but I’m afraid we don’t have the time to think this over.” You say, waving your hand. “Let’s search this room also.”

                The group agrees, setting about to look over everything they can. Unfortunately, nothing turns up after your search, leading you to feel a certain sense of despair. The others begin to mutter to themselves about what to do as you walk over to Patricia, who looks up at the statue, staring.

                “Unless that statue has something to say about where these keys are, we’re in trouble.”

                “Hmm?” She says, turning to you. “Oh, sorry I was just… thinking. What did you want?”

                “I said we can’t find that key sphere here. We need to check elsewhere though I begin to doubt it’s even here.”

                Patricia frowns and turns back to the statue. “I have a feeling they are here. These people were very smart, but I don’t think they wanted to take certain things with them when they left for whatever reason. Perhaps they assumed they may never be able to return and wanted to make sure others who were worthy could access their legacy in the future, or perhaps they were just overconfident. Either way, if I were them, I’d hide them here.”

                “Okay… So where is it?”

                Slowly, the Wolf Girl turns to the statue and begins to feel it up, perhaps spending a little too much time around the chiseled (literally) abs. She slides her furred fingers up the back of the statue before gasping, and then letting loose a little chuckle. Something pops and a moment later, she holds out a sphere made of crystal that sits in the palm of her hand.

                “Just have to think outside the box.” She says. “Hevensferth rewards those-“

                “Who feel him up.” You finish, to which she pouts and sets it down before pulling out a book from her bag.

                “Anyway, when I had a chance to skim this book here, I noticed something. There’s a small entry about the place we’re currently in. I didn’t get the connection until I saw the shrine but…” She pauses and flips the page before showing it to you. Drawn there is a map of the facility, marking what you can assume is the shrine you’re in and the library beforehand.

                “So…” You say, unable to read it. “What are these other large rooms downstairs?”

                “I think it’s the living quarters and something called… Lunar Garden?”

                “Great… gardens.” You mutter. “It’s always about gardens these days.”

                “It might be where they grew crops, in all fairness. I think we’d have better luck finding the second one in the living quarters to the west though if those Owl Girls are there…” She says, looking over the book. Her brow furrows as she looks at it closer. “Huh, I think there’s something here about ‘the place comes alive when the sun goes down. Then our work begins.’”

                She looks up at you. “What does that mean?”

                Before you can answer, the key sphere next to her begins to glow a soft blue. Infact, all around the room, the crystal on the walls begin to glow, casting the room in a plethora of colors that reveal patterns of stars made in a similar fashion to stained glass. Above you, crystal shines down a soft blue that gives the entire room the cast of being illuminated by moonlight.

                “What the-“ You begin when Ophelia groans.

                “Guys, it’s sundown.” She says, holding up the watch before her ears perk up and she turns to the door, concerned.

                A sound comes to you, though you can’t be certain it’s not your brain playing a trick. It seems as if you hear… hooting?

 

Chapter 36

                Soft, gentle hooting comes to you, the sounds muffled distance as you stand in the shrine, listening. Your animal-eared companions hear things quite clearly however, their expressions becoming grave.

                “How many.” You whisper.

                “Not sure.” Ophelia says. “But clearly more than one.”

                “Are they coming this way?”

                “No. I don’t think so.”

                “This isn’t good.” Patricia says. “If we have to go to the living quarters, we’ll have to pass by those Monsters. I don’t think we’ll get so lucky as to hide in the shadows either.”

                “Because the lights are on, huh?” Alice says, looking to the glowing crystals.

                “That, and because they can see well in the dark.”

                The Hero looks like she wants to say something witty but instead closes her mouth and crosses her arms, thinking. Rayleigh shrugs and produces a small amount of flame.

                “Well, we can fight them, can’t we?”

                “I’d rather that as a last resort.” You say, rubbing your chin. “Maybe we can just wait for them to go back to bed?”

                “It’s unlikely that these key spheres will work in the daytime.” Patricia says, holding up the softly glowing crystal. “We’d have to wait a long time.”

                “Time we don’t have.” Clarissa sighs.

                “Well, we can’t stay here.” You say, walking toward the door.

                “Huh? What are you going to do?” Clint asks, rifle held at the ready.

                “What I’m good at. Being a smart-ass and magic. Wait here for now.”

                You open the door slowly, doing your best to avoid the creaking from before. It’s marginally successful, only creating a small amount of noise. After pausing a long moment, you creep outside and pause as you look down the hallway.

                In the wall mounts where the crystals were once inert, they now shine with that same, blue light that allows you perfect clarity of the hallway, if somewhat muted. Unfortunately, it means there’s very little place for you to hide. Gulping and wishing for your [Invisibility cloak] right about now, you creep forward toward the edge of the hallway and look out at the walkway around the main hall.

                The crystalline roof glows in the moonlight, casting down soft brilliance that illuminates the once dark chamber. You’re surprised to see statues and sculptures on some of the walls which you didn’t notice before, as if the coming of the moon somehow transformed this place into something entirely different. That isn’t the only thing you notice, however, no something more important catches your eye.

                Owl Girls, about ten of them, occupy the room. Many of the stand in the hall, chatting and hooting to each other while two fly in lazy circles in the air, stretching their wings after their slumber. You’re a little too far away to hear things appropriately, however. If only you had a way to get close and get some information, you could figure out a way to get into those living quarters without causing a big scene.

                Your thoughts are distracted as you hear a wooshing sound, followed by a “thump.” Clicking noises of nails on tile draw your attention and you look up to see in front of you one of the Owl Girls flying around a moment beforehand. Her attention shifts toward you before quickly sliding away, as if she didn’t notice your presence.

                A sigh of relief escapes your lips as your illusion takes root. You’ve learned an important lesson in that they can be affected by illusions, but also that you need to pay more attention. Still, now that you have the chance, you get a good look at the Monster before you.

                She’s short, perhaps a little under average height, though some of the other Owl Girls you notice appear much taller. Like most Harpy type Monsters, in place of arms she has large wings with hand-like dexterity at the joint and feathered legs terminating into bird-like taloned feet. What makes this kind of Harpy special, however, are just how deep and fluffy those feathers are. It almost feels like she’s pulling you in just by standing there, making you want to fluff that brown, deep, downy mass of feathers. If you were pulled in, however, you’d be face first into her naked, rather well-endowed chest.

                You can’t stop yourself from letting out a tremulous breath as she turns around and walks toward the library. The moment you do, she turns her head 180 degrees around and stares at you with almost unnaturally wide eyes. Startled, you hold your breath and consider falling back as she stalks toward you, her body twisting about while her eyes stay in place, locked to your position.

                “Who…?” She begins in a rather soft, demure voice.

                “Who? It is I!”

                The Owl Girl pauses and stands up straight.  Her head turns to the side though her body doesn’t quite follow it. A second Owl Girl walks up toward her and lifts a wing in greeting. “Hello!”

                “Oh, Priscilla.” The original Owl Girl says. She looks to the Owl Girl, who was downstairs beforehand.

                “What are you doing?”

                “I thought I heard something.” She points toward you. “I was going to investigate. What if it’s a rat?”

                The newcomer looks down the hall. “I don’t see a rat.”

                “Hmm. A shame, I was hungry. Perhaps I’ll go for a little hunt outside.”

                “That sounds wonderful. Do you think the others would like to join?”

                “Of course. We hunt every evening. Except for Wilamina and Farlyn, of course. I assume the latter is in the nest while the former is in that other room with the strange objects.” She shakes her head and looks at her friend critically. “Have you forgotten? Are you well?”

                “I have never been better!” She walks over to the edge and hops up. “I’m going to get started on the hunt, farewell!” She hops over the edge and flies down before flying out the southern entrance.

                “Hmm.” The Owl Girl says. “Is that so…” She looks back toward where you’re sitting before shaking her head and leaping down as well. The other Owl Girls surround her and they leave outside a few moments later, leaving the room empty once again.

                You sit back and breath a sigh of relief as you drop your illusion. Both of your illusions, to be precise. Damnit, you didn’t expect to have to do that but you almost got caught. The way she looked back at you worries you but… if they’re outside hunting or whatever, maybe this is your chance to get downstairs! Though what did she mean by nest?

                Hurrying back to the shrine, you tell the others what happened, though by their expressions, they already figured some of it out by listening. Everyone gathers their things and quickly head downstairs, doing their best not to make noise. None of the Owl Girls show themselves as you progress, so you find yourself at the western entrance, the one that leads to the living quarters, or so you guess.

                Ophelia and Patricia nod their heads when they hear nothing, giving the signal for your group to head down the hallway. Though you can’t help the echo that the armored boots Finn and Alice wear give off, you just have to hope that there isn’t enough of them left to cause you much trouble as you quickly move in and try to get this key sphere. As you reach the end of the hallway, more of the soft, blue light permeates from the end until you enter the space of the living quarters and…

                “Crap.”

                The room is huge. Much larger than the library, or even the main hall, these living quarters spread out farther than you’d expect. There are four levels rising up along the sides of the room in a circle, each with multiple doors leading to what you assume were rooms for the people who once lived there. Some of the doors are open but many remain shut, perhaps not opened for millennia. In the center of it all, however, is a large tree, basking under the light from another crystal roof.

                “Hmm?” A sleepy voice calls out as the branches of the tree rustle. A moment later a head pokes down from the branches, upside down in fact, it turns in a circle as she says, “You’re back already? What did you catch? Perhaps a man this time? Haha, but seriously I’m hung-“ Her head finally reaches your party and she stops, large eyes only growing wider.

                “W-who?” She stutters before shaking herself and pulling back into the tree. A moment later she drops down in a rush of leaves and feathers before drawing herself up to her full height.

                She’s tall, perhaps as tall as Finn and has the muscle to back it up, which shows quite clearly as she’s not wearing any clothing over her abdomen or chest. The tall Owl Girl looks upon all of you and says in a threatening voice, “Who dares tread upon this sacred ground?”

                Clint raises his rifle, but you slap it down, shaking your head. He gives you a worried look before nodding and stepping back, though you’re certain he could take her head off in an instant, should you ask for it. Clearing your throat, you begin to think of what to say when Clarissa stands up straight and walks in front of you, modest chest puffed out.

                “We are heroes seeking to save this world!”

                The room goes silent. You blink in surprise at what she says while the Owl Girl looks down at her, also seemingly stunned. She looks between Clarissa and your party before puffing our her own chest and saying, “What foolishness is this?”

                “I speak the truth. We are here to save the world.”

                “From what? How? You give such a bold declaration but do not back it up with anything.” She waves a wing at Clarissa. “You speak without any semblance of logic, girl!”

                “Girl! I’ll have you know that I’m an adult so I will not be talked down to. And I don’t need to explain myself to you, I just need you to give me the little glowy orb so we can open that big door.” She looks up at the tree and points at something faintly glowing. “Hey is that it?”

                “You- you wish to WHAT?”

                “Tobias, why is she acting like that?” Rayleigh asks, to which you can only groan.

                “I forgot that Clarissa likes to assert dominance over other Harpy Monsters. I don’t think she even realizes she’s doing it sometimes.”

                “Is this going to be a problem?”

                “Entirely possible.”

                The Owl Girl’s feathers puff up. “You barge in here, demand that I, one of the ancient keepers of this land, give you one of the relics of the forebearers, and then you wish to open the forbidden door?!” She looks scandalized. “Are you insane?”

                “Forbidden what now?” Clarissa asks. “We just want to go in and take a look around, is that so much to ask?”

                “The forebearers sealed that chamber for good reason! I shall not allow you to enter!” She spreads out her wings and you feel something… something like an aetheric current rising in the room. Wait a second, she can’t be a-

                “Get down, she’s a witch!”

                At Rayleigh’s cry you and some of the others drop to the floor as a violent gust of wind comes crashing through. Clint’s rifle is knocked from his hands as he tumbles across the floor while Finn staggers, but stays upright. Ginelle plants her feet and gives stability to Ophelia, who crouches down to weather the storm.

                “We don’t want to fight you!” You shout.

                “If you want to enter that chamber, then you do!” She says back, preparing more magic.

                “Fucking hells.” You say, ready to mess with her mind before she can. It’s not like you want to do this, but you don’t exactly have a choice. You have to get that key sphere before-

                “I knew that wasn’t you Priscilla. It appears I made the correct deduction, though it was an entirely different kind of rat.”

                You flip about to see the other Owl Girls enter into the room, headed by the shortest of them, the one who almost discovered you beforehand. She narrows her eyes and says, “We cannot allow them to sully this place further, nor to open the forbidden door.” Her eyes turn mischievous then, “At least this tragedy will bring us men, which we have not had for too long.”

                The wind kicks up around you, sending debris in waves to buffet you and your allies. They hold firm against the tide of magic, but with the other Owl Girls coming in, you have to make a move quickly. Staggering to your feet, you use a simple illusion to make it seem like your voice is magnified.

                “Stop this! Let’s talk this over! You’re making a mistake attacking us!”

                “A mistake?” Priscilla says, flying into the air, above the swirling wings. “There is no mistake! You came into our home and want to open the forbidden door!”

                “We come on behest of the Monster Lady! We’re in search of a valuable relic to avert a war! If anything should happen to us-“

                “Then we will defeat them too!” Priscilla shouts back.

                “I don’t think they’re willing to listen at the moment!” Ophelia shouts as she hunkers down behind Ginelle.

                “Ah hells.” You say, kneeling down as well. Looking up as you dig through your bag, you shout, “Defensive formation!”

                Ginelle, Alice, and Finn form up together around you, Patricia, and Ophelia. The man draws his bow while you dig through your bag to pull out the crossbows. Why didn’t you have these ready earlier? As you toss them to Ophelia and Patricia, you hear a cry and look up to see one of the Owl Girls diving through the tempest at you. Before she can reach, however, Clarissa leaps up and headbutts her straight in the gut. The attacking Monster gasps and falls from the sky, falling into the swirling winds before being thrown out onto the ground, unmoving.

                Well, if diplomacy was an option, it’s not anymore. You look to the others as Finn pulls back on his bow and fires it at the witch, whom you assume is Farlyn. The arrow flies true before a gust of wind throws it off track, the arrow hitting the tree and bouncing off. Patricia tries to line up a shot as well, but with the wind she teeters and hunkers down, unable to fire the shot. Ophelia… she doesn’t even bother, the poor girl too weak to fire the weapon.

                More of the Owl Girls fly in. Clarissa gets into a fight with one while the other slips past and rides the wind before bowling into Alice, who isn’t able to react in time. The force of the Owl Girl’s strike sends her crashing to the ground, the Owl buffeting Alice as her arm is pinned under a talon, unable to swing with Energieschwert. She throws a punch and connects with the Owl Girl, forcing the Owl girl off her while another one runs into Ginelle, though the Badger Girl barely budges.

                Clarissa sends out a warning cry and you snap your head up to see Priscilla diving for you, the shortstack Owl Girl’s talons poised to grab you.

                “Rayleigh!”

                At your cry, the Pyromancer raises her hands and releases a torrent of flame toward the Owl Girl. In the whipping winds it becomes unfocused, but somehow it’s more dangerous. Priscilla’s eyes widen and she dodges  away as a whirlwind of fire appears around you, making the room hot and rather dangerous.

                “Keep it up!” You shout to Rayleigh. She looks at you with shock before smirking and creating more fire, trying to modulate it better to keep it from getting out of control. It buys you some breathing room, where you wave to Clint. The man gets the message and makes a run for his rifle, which had slid from his grasp.

                The wind suddenly stops, dissipating as if it was never there. While it gives you better footing, it also throws Rayleigh completely off, her control focused on the fire in the swirling winds. Now that it’s gone, the swirling flames instead shoot off toward the side of room, scorching the walls. She cuts off, confused, just as the wind returns, this time in the opposite direction.

                The Squirrel Girl shouts in panic as she’s swept from her feet while Clint drops to the ground as his rifle slides further away from him before coming to rest in front of an errant piece of stone. Before he can get moving again, the Owl Girls strike, coming to swoop down at your line. Ginelle holds her own again, grabbing one by the leg and throwing her to the ground while a large Monster hits Finn full on. His legs give out and cries in pain as he’s thrown to the ground, knocking down Patricia as well.

                Alice makes to help him but she’s forced to swing at another Owl Girl coming at her. Ophelia is busy trying to keep herself small while Rayleigh is doing her best impersonation of a rodent trying to avoid an owl. Which is basically what is happening at the moment.

                One of the Owl Girls takes notice of Clint and dives at him, her talons poised at this back. Cursing, you grab the crossbow from Ophelia and fire it at the Monster, hitting her in the leg. She screams and flies off, dripping blood. Clint thanks you but more of the Monsters begin to swoop in on the exposed man.

                With everyone sorely pressed by the Owls and an inability to reach the witch via normal means, your best bet is Clint. Unfortunately, it won’t take much to put the man out of action and he needs his rifle. Which means he needs a little bit of a distraction.

                “This isn’t going to work.” A soft, yet extremely clear voice says.

                “Yeah, yeah, whatever you say crazy voice in my head.”

                Despite the winds, you push through and load the crossbow, firing another bolt toward the Owls. It misses, horribly, but that’s not what one of them thinks. She cries out and falls from the sky as she believes one of her wings has been hit. The others look at her in confusion, their attentions turned upon you. You smirk at them and make to load the crossbow again when something hits you in the back, hard.

                Your face hurts abominably as it skids across the floor. When you come to a stop, you groan and turn your head to see a taloned foot clamp down on your neck. Priscilla grins as she looks down at you. “Oh, you’re going to be mine.”

                “CRACK!”

                The Owl Girl looks up sharp as a loud crack splits the air followed by a cry of pain. The winds around the room suddenly stop again as Farlyn sinks down to a knee, cradling her wing, a smoking hole in it.

                “What in the- how did you have the ability-?” She lets out a cry of panic and leaps back as another bolt of energy flies at her from seemingly nowhere. It narrowly misses her wing and causes her to slip backward, panic in her expression.

                “W-where? How?”

                Clint appears from out of nowhere to her eyes, the man’s weapon cooling down as he aims it at the Owl Girls. One swoops down at him, but without missing a beat he fires his rifle, the weapon clipping her leg and sending her spinning to crash down into the ground, hard. The cooldown whirrs again, but he doesn’t seem particularly concerned. A crossbow bolt flies at another Owl behind him, Patricia finally able to use her weapon.

The rest of your party begins to stand, the Owl Girls around them groaning in pain on the ground. Finn pants, the man clearly injured, but he holds the bow as steady as he can, aimed right for Priscilla. She looks at it with fear, slowly dropping her wings. A coughing sound draws her attention down, where you push yourself up and rub at your face.

“Well then, let’s have that chat, shall we?”

————————————————————————————————————————-

                The wounded Owl Girls gather around the large tree, the unwounded ones seeing to their wounds. They seem to have limited knowledge of wound care though, clearly never having been in a fight like this. A few glares come your way, but you’re not in the mood to be merciful at the moment.

                Priscila mutters to herself as she rubs her wing before saying at you with acid in her voice, “Well, you beat us. You clearly want something if you haven’t killed us yet.”

                Sighing, you cross your arms and shake your head. “You seem to be rather bright, so why did you insist on attacking us? We could have avoided all of this violence.”

                “This our home! You invaded us! Of course we’d fight back!”

                Ginelle gives you a flat look, to which you roll your eyes. “Yes, I know, I’m sorry about that but we have a very important reason to come here.”

                “This relic?”

                “Yes, in a way.” You hold up a hand. “What we need is the key spheres to open that ‘forbidden door.’”

                “It’s called forbidden for a reason, you buffoon.” Priscilla groans. Ginelle snickers a little at that before growing serious again.

                “Why?”

                The Owl Girl blinks, as if never considering the question before. “Why… is it…?” She looks down before turning to the other Owl Girls, who shrug. Seems they don’t know either.

                “Either way!” She says. “We’re not letting you get in!”

                “Rayleigh.” You say, pointing at the tree. The Squirrel Girl runs up it with ease, rustling through the branches before leaping down, a shining orb in her hand.

                “They didn’t hide that very hard, did they?”

                “No…” Farlyn says. She tries to lift her wings and summon her magic but she lets out a grunt of pain instead and sinks down to the ground.

                “Listen.” You say, taking the key sphere from Rayleigh. “Unless someone can tell me why we shouldn’t enter that room, then we’re going in.”

                “It’s the sleeping guardian, of course.”

                You whirl about as an Owl Girl enters the room from behind you. She doesn’t fly in, instead she walks, her taloned feet clicking on the stones softly and without a care.

                Ophelia and Patricia look surprised as well before ashamed. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, but if this Owl Girl wanted to get the drop on you, she easily could have.

                As she approaches you notice the lines on her face which make her look mature rather than aged. She’s also quite tall, much taller than the other Owl Girls and with a striking plumage that has turned a soft shade of grey. Of course, she’s naked as well, but under one wing she carries a book though you can’t see anything else on her person. You merely watch as she approaches, the Owl Girl coming in front of you before bowing.

                “My name is Wilamina, eldest of this parliament.”

                “It’s… a pleasure to meet you.” You say, off balance for a moment before bowing to her in return.

                “My, it’s been so long since I’ve seen a man with manners. Or a man at all. Not since Priscilla’s father died…”

                “M-Mother.” Priscilla says, looking perturbed. “He’s an outsider, don’t tell him anything!”

                “I think they’ve earned the right to know. Besides, perhaps it’s time the door opened.”

                The other Owl Girls whisper between each other, a mix of fear and anticipation as the old Owl Girl nods her head. “If you would believe it, I am rather old. Old enough to be from a time when I did not have a form like this and my mind was more… animal than it is now.”

                Patricia gasps at this. “You… you can’t mean you’re older than the Great Transformation?”

                “Oh yes, I am, though how much older I cannot say.” She chuckles. “Some of us are quite long lived, after all.” A sigh passes from her lips.

                “But I suppose that’s not important at the moment. You wish to open the forbidden door, yes? It leads to the most important chamber to the people who once lived here, so important that they made a pact with a guardian until they one day return.”

                “Wait…” You say, confused. “But they locked the door on this guardian. Is it some kind of construct?”

                She chuckles, “A what? No, I assure you the guardian is something far more powerful. Something which can slumber for millennia and still be as powerful as she was when she last awoke.”

                Holding up the book in her hand, she flips to a picture of a large, winged lizard.

                “They contracted the services a Dragon, of course.”

Patricia cocks her head. “A… Dragon?”

                She looks around to the rest of you, finding similar confusion. Wilamina chuckles and shakes her head. “A little hard to believe, isn’t it?”

                “Well, yes.” Alice says, holding out a hand. “How would a Dragon survive that long locked in a room without presumably any food or dick? I’d imagine she would have gone crazy centuries ago and just busted the whole place up.”

                Patrica holds up a furred finger. “Dragons have been known to hibernate for very long periods of time. In the time of the sixth Monster Invasion, the Monster Lady awoke one of the ancient Dragons who had been sleeping for centuries to use as a weapon in her assault on Deleor. Unfortunately the Dragon was almost killed by a Hero, but he ended up sparing her life and they then…” She trails off and cocks her head. “Actually this is how a lot of stories in the Monster Invasions end. But to finish the story, the previous Monster Lady was a direct descendent of that Dragon.”

                “Thanks for the… story.” Rayleigh says, looking a little bored.

                “Get comfortable.” Clint says. “I think we’re in for some more stories.”

                “Right you are, because we need information.” You say, nodding to the man. The Squirrel Girl sighs and makes to sit back when you hold up a finger. “If you’re so bored, why don’t you tend to the wounds of the Owl Girls.”

                The wounded Monsters look up, confused. Priscilla’s mouth becomes a pencil-thin line. “You just injured us, why would you want to help us?”

                “Because, I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t want to fight.” As you say this you pull out a [Health Potion]. You have an adequate stock of them, but best not be too helpful. “Ration this appropriately.”

                Rayleigh takes the potion and leaves with Clint to help patch up the Monsters. They seem rather interested in Rayleigh, though probably because she reminds them of dinner, and VERY interested in Clint because he’s a pretty boy. Ginelle does not find the situation amusing and her light growls seem to keep them bay.

                “So generous. Men in the old days were much the same. It is good to see little has changed.”

                “There’s been much more change than you think.” You chuckle. “But I feel time is short and I’d like to do what we came here to do.”

                “And thus you need information, hmm?”

                “Yes.” You look at the book in her hands. “Can you read that?”

                “Oh, no I’m afraid not.” She chuckles. “Despite having ample time, there really wasn’t anyone to teach me. I just like looking at them, to remember.”

                Her wing caresses the cover the book, though if it had a title, it had faded away years ago. You give her a few moments before asking, “You said you were from before the Great Transformation?”

                “Yes. While my memories are understandably hazy, I recall being raised by the people here. They took care of me well, and I recall hunting rodents. Time spent with them was enjoyable, I think.” She chuckles. “Do you know what it is to go from an abstract construct of the self, of the world around you, to suddenly understanding things? To question them?”

                “I… I’ve been clinically insane before. So, maybe?”

                She cocks her head in a rather distressing direction before chuckling. “Ahaha I miss the humor of humans. It is refreshing.”

                “I do my best.” You say, letting that slide. “But why did you stay here all this time?”

                “I didn’t. How could I? You’re in the company of Monsters and I have a hard time believing they can keep their sex drives in check.”

                Clarissa, Patricia, and Ophelia look to the side and mutter unintelligible words while Alice beams bright and Rayleigh sniffs smugly. Ginelle is busy keeping an eye on Clint, however.

                “Alright, fair enough.” You say. “But what made the people here leave? How do you know they sealed a Dragon behind that door?”

                Wilamina nods her head. “I was one of the later Monsters to transform. It wasn’t an all at once phenomenon, you understand. But I recall the people growing more and more agitated. I didn’t know or care much beyond feeling a sense of unease myself, at least until it happened.”

                She looks down, a forced smile on her face. “None of us really knew what to make of the situation. I was confused, still driven by instinct. When I tried to assault one of my caretakers and rape him, I was driven off, forced to hide in the area. As I grew more and more aware of my situation I began to feel a certain sense of guilt, but I couldn’t leave them.”

                “You loved them then?” Clarissa asks, to which the Owl Girl nods.

                “In a sense. I think now that’s the word I’d use. Back then I didn’t know what that even was. But I believe my change pushed them over the edge. They sought answers to why the world suddenly changed, but their God refused to speak with them. They believed if they left, they could find their answer, and someday return.”

                “That explains why they left the keys here, but why lock a Dragon in there?”

                “In these mountains lived a Dragon who was already incredibly old. Even before the transformation, they were quite wise and would accept offerings from the people here. When the transformation took hold, they weren’t exactly pleased with their situation, but they didn’t try to gain mates, like many other Monsters, though this may also be because she was uhm…” She waves at you before coughing.

“Regardless, they became secluded, not wishing to interact with anyone. This made her the perfect choice when searching for a guardian, especially because the people here knew how long a Dragon can slumber. The terms were good, all she would have to do is guard the chamber until they returned and she would have peace.”

Finn looks over from where he’s sitting. “And you think she’s been asleep all this time?”

“We can’t know until the door is opened.” She says, spreading her wings. “I’d imagine she won’t be asleep for long, however.”

“So we have to slay a Dragon.” Rayleigh says, shrugging as she works. “Big deal, we have a ton of [Fire Resist Potions].”

“We also want to avoid burning the place down to the ground.” Ophelia says to the Squirrel Girl, who blanches a little.

“Hold on a moment.” Patricia says, holding up a furred hand. “I don’t think violence is our only option. These people clearly made that pact with the intention to return, but never did. Dragons, for the most part, are nothing if not sticklers for their contracts. There has to be a way to solve this peacefully.”

You think. “I mean… if she’s waiting for them to return then she’ll be disappointed. As far as I know, only Wizards could live that long.”

“But what if she’ll accept one of their descendants?”

Wilamina chuckles, “That is the logic I’d expect of the peoples here. Unfortunately, my husband was not of the people here. I had met him outside and returned here with my child when he died. We do not share that blood.”

“But.” Patricia says, smirking. “It stands to reason that the people here were some of the descendants of modern Deleorians. While diluted, there’s a possibility any one of us could carry their blood.”

Finn chuckles. “What are the chances she’ll accept that? And how could she tell? That’s a lot of eggs in that basket.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

The man shrugs, “Well, if I were feeling better I might consider taking on a Dragon. Of course, it’s unlikely anyone but Alice could harm one anyway thanks to how tough their hide is.”

Alice beams and caresses her sword. Patricia merely rolls her eyes. “Well, we can always check the library for more answers, I suppose. Worse comes to worse…” She trails off.

“Well I’ll just have to smooth talk her then.” You say, cracking your knuckles, much to Clarissa’s amusement. “But I’m not opposed to checking out the library either. Do you think there’s anything else in that Lunar Garden?”

“Just some slightly edible plants and a rather prickly Alarune.” Wilamina says, shrugging. “Not much else.”

“Well, glad we didn’t go there.” Ophelia sighs and pulls out her watch. “We have most of the night left, are we going to do this?”

You look over to Rayleigh and Clint, the two nodding at you to say they’re ready. You could search the building more, see if there’s any information in those books, or you could enter the chamber now, but with that kind of plan? Finn is still a little tired so his combat effectiveness might be lacking if it comes to that…

Ah well, there’s no rush.

That’s what you tell yourself anyway. Maybe you just don’t want to fight a Dragon yet, or maybe you’re feeling unsure of yourself and your ability to lead? There certainly have been more than enough issues that have cropped up with you in charge to make you really doubt yourself and-

Wait a second.

“This isn’t me being a coward, it’s that Gods damned voice in my head making me doubt myself!”

“Uhhh.” Ophelia says next to you. “Tobias are you going insane again?”

“Did I say that out loud?”

“Yep.”

You sigh and plant your hands on your hips. “Well, no matter. I’m still sane enough to get us past a Dragon, at least.”

Ophelia blinks twice before looking down, then to the side and letting out a sigh. “Damn, I’m really glad mother’s scheme to get me to marry you failed.”

You hold up a finger, then pause before shaking your head. There really isn’t much you can say against that, in truth. Perhaps Saya was the only person crazy enough to get with you, but you really wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My mental health notwithstanding, I think we should explore this place a little more before we decide to fight a Dragon. That’s how these things work.”

“I don’t think that happened in Wizardquest.” Patricia says, rubbing the back of her head.

“Listen, Wizardquest, while fantastic, is not the only book I’ve read.”

Patricia’s look of incredible doubt makes you feel another pang of pain in your heart. Damn, is this really what everyone thinks of you? You’d hoped getting married and having two kids would change their outlook on you but damn, that hurts.

She sighs and relents. “But I’d agree. There’s likely more information we can use if we search. That is…” Her gaze turns to Wilamina. “If that is agreeable?”

The mature Owl Girl cocks her head in that distressing fashion of the Owl Girls. She taps her chin before shrugging. “I suppose you could have just killed us and done whatever you wished as it stands. I don’t see much of a reason to say no to you, however.” She spreads her wing out. “I will assist you, if you’d like.”

“Mother…” Priscilla says, her mouth twisting. “Are you certain abou-gah!” She cuts off as Rayleigh tightens a bandage on her wing. The Squirrel gives her a smirk while the Owl scowls.

“Now, now, I expect you to help them.” Wilamina says. “Though I don’t suppose this means you’ll be doing your little adventure tonight. Would you like to stay for supper?”

“We’ll be fine.” You say, nodding to Ophelia. “We’ll split up and cover more ground.”

“Are you certain that’s a wise idea?” Finn asks as Ophelia digs out her comms units. “What if there are other dangers here?”

“Beyond the errant rodent, as long as you stay out of the garden, you should be fine.” Wilamine says, waving a wing-hand. “Might I ask, what are those devices you have?”

“They allow us to communicate at distances.” Clarissa says, crossing her wings and looking smug. “Jealous?”

Ginelle gently thumps the Monster, who winces because Ginelle doesn’t know how to do anything gently. “Stop that.”

Clarissa pouts as Ophelia hands out the devices. You check yours to make sure the frequency is correct before nodding to Finn. “We’re going to check out the library and the living quarters here. See if they left anything behind. I want you in charge of one of the teams.”

The man looks at the device he’s handed by Ophelia before nodding. He stretches and turns to Ginelle. “I’ll search this area. I’d like you, Rayleigh, Clarissa, and Alice here.”

The Badger Girl frowns. “What about Clint?”

“I think it would be best for the people with the best literacy to go to the library.”

“…I can’t argue with that.”

“Then it’s settled.” You say, waving to Clint, who finishes patching up one of the Owl Girls. She blushes heavily as he leaves, but Ginelle gives her the stink eye until she looks away, abashed. With your group in place, you nod to Wilamina and say, “Alright you’re coming too.”

“Oh?” She says, fluttering her eyes. “Are you coming on to me? I’m a little rusty, but I promise you everything still works down there.”

“Thank you, but I’m happily married.” You say, walking toward the exit of the Living Quarters. She chuckles as she and your party of Clint, Patricia, Ophelia, and yourself depart.

Entering the main chamber again, you really take in how beautiful it is. Under the light of the moon, these crystals really shine and give off an almost otherworldly light. What must it have been like to live here? In such beautiful darkness? You can barely imagine it.

The ascent up the staircase takes you to the library again, which is now lit by the same crystals. This allows you to fully appreciate the scope of the library and even notice there’s an upper level with a few more bookcases and nooks. These people truly were scholars, weren’t they? To think, such civilizations existed long before-

Your leyway of thought gets derailed as you notice something whacking your leg. Coughing, you say, “Ahem.”

Patricia blinks and looks down, noticing her tail hitting your leg. She blinks in surprise when you say, “You’re drooling, you know.”

A furious blush comes to her face and she wipes her chin before stuttering, “I-I’m just a little excited okay? I can’t help it sometimes, I’m a Wolf Girl.”

“Alright, time’s a wasting.” Ophelia says, putting her watch back into her bag. “Let’s go and uhh…” She turns to Patricia. “Can you actually read any of this stuff?”

“A little.” She huffs and stalks over to the stack she made earlier. Looking up and down the spines, she sighs and says, “I think we should find books on Dragons.”

“How should we know what those are?” Ophelia sighs.

“Oh, I think I might know.” Wilamina says, walking over to a book case. She searches for a moment before pulling out a book with a very faded picture of a Dragon on the cover. “Is this one?”

“Yes!” Patricia says, reverently opening the book and looking through it. She points to a set of what you can only assume are letters and says, “Find books with this phrase on or in them.”

The relatively illiterate members of your group spread out to do so. It kind of irks you to have all of this knowledge available, but no way to access any of it. This must be how it feels to be Ginelle, you suppose, or most of Deleor to be honest. Well, at least you’re glad Akela knows how to read, or else you’d make damn sure she isn’t in the same boat.

Your group begins to find books and bring them back to Patricia, who seems to read through them faster and faster each time. Her skills at speed reading were impressive beforehand, but she’s picking up the language faster the more she reads also. Sure, she’s not reading the whole book, but she’s able to find what she needs and mark relevant tomes in rather impressive time. Before you know it, however, three hours have passed.

“Is that so…” Patricia says, nodding as you bring another book.

“Is what so?” You ask, stretching. Digging through a library is kind of tiring work, all things considered.

“There’s a lot of books on pre-transformation Dragon biology. For instance, did you know that a Dragon’s mouth, eyes, and cloaca are their only weak-points in normal cases? But, the scales of a Dragon determine a sort of elemental variance! So if you plan correctly you can slay a dragon with the correct application of magic-“

“We have a pyromancer and an illusionist.” You say flatly.

“Ah… right.” She says, coughing into her hand. “Well that won’t work too well considering I think I found our Dragon.” She picks up another book and taps a well-done drawing of a Blue Dragon.

“Oh, I think that’s the one, though it has been quite some time.”

“Right.” Patricia says, reading further. “This Dragon’s name was something like Simon’ula, if I’m understanding this correctly. He…” She coughs into her hand. “Uhm, well the Dragon was known for being quite wise, and this writer mentions his encounters with the Dragon. They would often talk about the night sky together, though to be fair, most of the people here had something to say about the night sky.”

“Okay, but how does that help us?”

“Well, it seems to suggest that this Dragon was fairly intelligent. But…” She taps the book again. “Actually quite lonely, if this is to be believed. I’m not certain what transformation into a Monster had as an effect on them but I think they really formed a bond with the peoples here. That would explain why they would agree to wait for them to return, to guard their secrets.”

“I understand that sentiment.” Wilamina says, hugging her book close to her chest.

You sigh. “I know I sound like an asshole here, but how does that help us?”

“It means we can talk this out. If we make a convincing enough argument that we understand the people here, it might allow us to break through their icy heart or whatever.” She waves a hand. “Oh and being a blue Dragon means an aetheric attunement to water. Oddly enough, still breaths fire.”

“Well, glad we have those potions then.” You mutter. “Ah well, we’ll have to make do. It’s something, at least.”

“Oh right.” Patricia says, pulling out another book. “The room behind the door? It’s called the Altar of the Heavens. I guess they thought they could talk to Hevensferth better in there than that shrine. Anyway, take a look at this picture.”

She shows a drawing of a large, circular room from the perspective of someone viewing it. Around the sides of the room are various sketches of instruments of worship to Hevensferth as well as various books, but the drawing takes you to something else entirely. In the center is an utterly massive telescope, something you didn’t think was possible. Guess the old texts weren’t kidding about this place. It seems like the roof opens somehow from the drawing, but it’s probably closed now, though if that thing is still in one piece it must be breathtaking to behold.

“And it’s large enough to fit a Dragon inside of it, huh?” You ask, to which Patricia shrugs and says,

“Really puts it all in perspective, huh? I don’t even know how big a Dragon really is, I can only go off what my mother has told me about the last Monster Lady.

“Well, it gives us more information about the terrain, though hopefully we don’t have to fight.” The man tips his hat. “At least we have humans in the group and can maybe convince them we’re their descendants. How’s she going to know?” Clint says, walking up with another book. “Is she going to taste our blood?”

“You say that like Dragons don’t have immaculate senses of taste and smell.” Patricia says, waving for him to set the book down next a book Ophelia lays down. “That could certainly be a test.”

As the two bicker, you look over to Wilamina, who hugs her book close to her chest again. You frown at the thing and ask, “You’ve kept that book with you all this time, but you can’t read. Why’s it so important to you?”

She blinks and looks down at it before blushing. “It… belonged to the one who raised me here. I saw him writing in it often and I keep it around for… sentimental reasons.”

“Hand it here.” Patricia says, waving for her to hand over the book. She looks at the Wolf Girl with suspicion before slowly relinquishing the book. She lets out a sigh of relief as the Wolf Girl carefully handles the book with reverent care, delicately opening the pages and reading.

“My name is Jantanius D’oreal. This is a diary of my days here under the… gaze? Of Hevensferth. His wisdom… suffuses? Lights? I can’t read this, anyway, it talks about his daily life here in this place, and how his favorite thing is…” She trails off and looks up at Wilamina, a soft smile on her face. “He says his favorite thing was being able to take care of the, and I think I’m reading this right, ‘Dire Owls.’ He especially cared for one of them, one he named, ‘Wilamina.’”

Tears begin to trickle down Wilamina’s cheeks at this. She turns around, trying to hide them from view but everyone gives the Owl Girl her some space for a moment. What must it be like to hear something like that? Maybe it’s the same as when you finally met the Grand Wizard? No, not even you would compare that to something like this.

“D’oreal…” Clint mutters, looking at the book. “Why is that name familiar?”

“I’m not certain why it would be.” Patricia says, turning away from the crying Monster while Ophelia goes to comfort her. “This is an ancient person and this was long before Wizards existed.”

“Yes, but something is…” He trails off and spins about to you. “What is Finn’s last name?”

“Doreal, why?”

Patricia groans, “You can’t seriously be suggestion that after thousands of years, multiple changes in political and social structures, and a many wars, that Finn might be related to these people?”

“How long has Deleor been a nation?” Clint asks, intent on Patricia.

Patricia narrows her eyes and sighs, “Thousands of years…”

“Since it was founded, has it ever been conquered or changed radically?”

“Well, if you count some of the changes in the western part of the country and the areas around the Monster Nation changing hands every now and then-“ She pauses at Clint’s intensity before relenting. “No…”

The man nods his head. “Then that’s always a possibility. We may have lucked out here.”

“I really don’t see that happening.” Patricia groans. “But fine, I’ll concede it’s a possibility.”

“Hey, I don’t mean to burst your bubble.” Ophelia says, pointing to her watch. “But we should really get going if we plan to do this tonight. Speaking of which, can I sit this one out?”

“Good point.” You say, taking the out. “And maybe. We’ll have to see how things play out.”

The Rabbit Girl sighs but prepares to move out, contacting the others while Clint and Patricia does the same. You look back to Wilamina, the Owl Girl wiping her eyes. She nods to you before you can say anything and walks past, heading toward the exit with the others. Frowning, you follow after her.

You regroup with the others in the Living Quarters. They sit along with the other Owl Girls around a pile of what appears to be junk. At your arrival, Finn nods to you and says, “Well, we scoured most of these rooms and found these trinkets.”

“Nothing seems that valuable.” Ginelle says, picking up what appears to be a set of metal rings. You think it’s a kind of puzzle though you can’t be certain. Among other things in the pile are wooden sculptures or vases, really nothing of much value.

“I trust you found something more valuable?” Finn asks, to which you relay your findings in the library, and Clint’s revelation.

“Well… that’s something.” The man says, seeming troubled. “My family is like most others in the Kingdom, our history doesn’t extend much past a few generations as no one remembers these things. I’m not sure I’d put much stock in that sort of thing.”

“Yeah, that would be a little strange.” Rayleigh says, holding up a wooden doll, though if it had anything else on it, it eroded ages ago. “So we’re going in and killing a Dragon, right?”

“Rayleigh! We can reason with this Monster!” Patricia says, aghast.

“It would be easier to get Alice in to stab it!”

“I’m not opposed to this.” Alice says, raising her hand, though she’s quickly ignored.

As your group bickers, you find yourself in the unenviable position of figuring out your battle plan. Though you’re not entirely convinced, you think you know what to do. Or at least… you’ll figure it out on the way to the room.

Chapter 37

The door looms large in front of you. Before it was a dark, imposing structure that you could barely comprehend, but now it glows softly with the inlaid crystal, displaying the constellations you’d seen before by torchlight in stark relief. It’s beautiful, it really is, but you’re far more interested in what is behind the door.

“Are we ready?” You ask. In your hand is one of the faintly glowing key spheres.

“I think so.” Patricia says, holding the other sphere.

You turn to look at the rest of the group to see their expressions. They nod at you solemnly. They all know the plan, such as it is. Everyone is present, save for Ophelia, who rests with the Owl Girls, her communication device ready at a moment’s notice. Wilamina nods as well, though she seems more excited than nervous, her nails tapping against the stone beneath her as she waits for you to open the gate.

In turn you look to your assembled group, their weapons not draw, but easily within reach. When your eyes come to Finn’s, you pause and ask, “Are you sure about this?”

“I am loathe to admit it, but I believe it might be the best option.” His eyes search yours. “Are you prepared for the consequences should it not work?”

“Are you prepared if it should?”

He narrows his eyes before letting out a snort and shaking his head. Next to him, Rayleigh lets out a low mutter, something only Ginelle can hear, though she doesn’t outwardly show notice of it. You don’t make a show of it either, instead nodding and turning back around to Patricia.

“Well then, shall we?”

As one, you walk up to the slots in the door and insert the spheres. They slide in easily and after a moment you hear a “click.” Nothing appears to happen for a long while until loud, rumbling noise sounds from the door. The hallway trembles ever so slightly, loose chunks of dirt and stone dropping around you from the ceiling. Before you though, the door grinds open, sliding to the side to reveal the room within.

Crystalline light bathes the room with its soft glow, revealing much the same as what you saw in the drawing. Though the roof is closed, it too is covered with the glowing crystals, casting down the ethereal light to reveal the massive telescope, which looks like it hasn’t aged a day. Though you wish to linger upon such a device, your eyes drift downward, until they rest upon something far, far more important

In the center of the room, resting before the great device is figure of a Monster, more specifically, a Dragon.

As the door grinds fully open, the Dragon’s eyes blink open. She pushes herself up slowly, yawning as her long, blue-scaled tail drags languidly along the floor. She is not tall, infact she’s only a little taller than Rayleigh, but she has a well-developed chest that is covered by nothing more than her scales that glitter under the blue light.

Talon-tipped claws reach up to her mouth as she yawns, revealing large, sharp teeth. She shakes her head tussle a length of raven black hair before she turns her eyes upon you. The yellow-slitted orbs take you in, pupils dilating before constricting again as she realizes your presence. Behind her, large, blue wings unfurl outward as she growls. She opens her mouth and speaks surprisingly high-pitched voice, yet you hear the words directly in your mind, easily able to understand them.

{You are not the pactmakers. Prepare yourselves then, for this is your doom.}

>What do you-

Actually, you know exactly what you’re doing. There’s no need to deliberate, the plan is set, all that needs be done is to follow through. Steeling yourself, you step forward and hold out your hands in a non-threatening gesture before kneeling before the Dragon.

“Great Simon’ula, we do not wish for conflict.”

The Dragon looks to you, her expression unwavering. Patricia stands up, preparing to translate something when the words enter your mind again,

{Then you have made a mistake by entering this place. By the pact I have made with the keepers of this land, I shall yield this room to no one save they.}

“I humbly beg your forgiveness, but among us exists one who is their descendant. Millenia have past since you were interred in your slumber, and I am afraid to inform you that all of those who once dwelled here have long since perished.”

She looks down, sadness tinging her expression. You’re glad she’s able to understand you, you’d really worried she might speak a long-forgotten language, but it would appear that a Dragon’s ability to speak to the minds of other’s extends both ways, of a sort. Thank the Gods you remembered that part in Wizardquest or you’d have been roasted. At least all of you drank [Fire Resist Potions], just in case.

That being said, smoke begins to drift out from her mouth. She speaks, her surprisingly high-pitched voice coming again. {I had suspected as much. But that does not change this fact. What proof do you have for this assertion?}

You nod your head and hold out a hand toward Finn. Rayleigh grows agitated as you, sparks of magic barely being kept under control as you speak. “I present to you the bearer of their line. A true descendant whose spirit is the same as those you once respected. Taste of them, that you may realize the sincerity of our words.”

As you say this, you back up, placing yourself behind the taller man. He looks to you, then to the Dragon before closing his eyes, then slowly kneeling. The rest of your group does the same until the only standing is Patricia. She looks to Finn, who nods to her for encouragement. Taking a deep breath, she takes a step forward and curtsies.

“I am Patricia Boudreaux, scholar of the University of Sanctifrond and devoted of Hevensferth.”

Simon’ula’s eyes grow wide. She bares her teeth and you swear they grow larger before your very eyes. In fact, you don’t even have to swear by it soon as she physically grows larger and larger. Your own eyes grow wide as you keep yourself from backing away at the sight of the Dragon returning to her true form.

“This is just like my Deleorian literature…” You whisper as a shadow falls over you.

Where once the short Dragon stood, now a massive, imposing dragon sits. Her four limbs dig sharp nails into the stone while her leathery wings spread out, creating an impressive gust in the room that disturbs various papers on the side desks. She bends down her head, opening a mouth that smells of sulfur which washes you in heat.

{How DARE you make a mockery of me! This is a Monster, a pathetic wolf at that! I shall devour each and every one of you after cooking your bones upon my fire.}

Rayleigh stands up, fire sparking to life around her, but Patricia holds out a hand, forestalling her. The Squirrel Girl looks on in surprise as the normally fearful Wolf Girl takes a step toward the head of the beast, her eyes locked onto the monstrous visage. Though she may project an air of confidence, you can see her legs trembling, her ears folding down, and her tail tucking. She’s afraid, but can you blame her?

“Your pact was with the peoples of this place, was it not? To protect it until they returned?!”

{You are not they!}

“Perhaps not by blood, perhaps not by looks, perhaps not by species. But I am one with them, one with their scholarly pursuits, one with their devotion to their God. What separates them from one such as I?”

The dragon pauses, saying nothing as she looks over the Wolf Girl. Her mouth closes slightly, but it still reeks of a barely contained volcano, ready to cook Patricia, perhaps despite even her potion. The Wolf Girl takes this as a sign to continue, and nods her head.

“It is unclear as to the pact you have made, of this I am most curious. To what terms did they set? Are you certain it was for themselves to return? Or was it for those who had discovered their reason for leaving? And why would you accept this, when you must have known it would bring both isolation and sadness?”

{You speak like them…} Simon’ula mutters mentally. {And I can smell about you a lingering sense of ink, and paper. Though something familiar as well…}

Wilamina stands up and bows before offering her book. “This belonged to Jantanius. Do you remember him?”

{Yes, I recall.} She closes her eyes before swinging her head to the Owl Girl. {You remind me of a beast they kept. Yet you share the same curse as I. Did you not make the same pact as I did? How can you be in the company of these?}

“I believe their words and their dedication. I believe that perhaps it is best to remove the lingering bonds to this place. I believe it is time to free you from your burdens.”

{Burdens!} The dragon roars. {I am burdened only by my sleep being interrupted! I sought this isolation to rid myself of the distractions of the outside world.}

“Is that really true?” Patricia says, holding out a hand. “You could have easily sought refuge in the mountains, and the other Monsters would have left you alone out of fear. Yet you took the pact offered you by the peoples here, as far as I know, without hesitation.” She points to the dragon and declares,

“I posit that you accepted this because you cared for these people. They shared the same moonlit skies as you, the same talks of wisdom, the same spirit. You wanted to protect what was important to them.”

Her hand goes to her breast and she lowers her head, “But at the same time, you were afraid to become close, perhaps because you did not know how. I too know that feeling.”

Simon’ula pulls her head back. Her large, draconian eyes stare down at Patricia, sizing her up. She says, her voice penetrating all of your minds, “You who claim to know inherit their wisdom. Did you find the answer to their question?”

Your party collectively hold their breath as Patricia lowers her head and goes silent. The dragon before her narrows her eyes, her wings spreading as smoke begins to billow from her mouth. As her jaws begin to open, Patricia’s ears stand up straight. She looks the Dragon dead in the eyes and says,

“Yes.”

The fire goes out as quickly as it came. Simon’ula lowers her head and begins to shrink again, returning to her Monster form. When she opens her eyes again, gone is her hatred, replaced only by curiosity.

{Tell me then, tell me your wisdom and finish this pact.}

————————————————————————————————————-

                Your party sits back, listening as Patricia tells a tale you hadn’t heard yourself. A tale that takes the ancient history of Deleor and pieces it together with what you’ve learned from this place. She inserts her knowledge of the Gods, of the Great Transformation, and of the schism in the heavens. Some of it is conjecture, but much of it is solid. Simon’ula listens on with rapt interest, interjecting questions every now and then, which Patricia gleefully answers.

                “How long are they going to take?” Ginelle yawns to Clint, who merely shakes his head.

                “I’d rather them have a nice discussion rather than being burnt to a crisp.” He pulls out a flask and drinks some of the liquid before passing it to Ginelle, who downs the whole thing in one gulp. He sighs and replaces it for another one, smart boy.

                “Well…” Finn says, listening in. “I’m glad we chose this plan and not the other one. It appears that could have gotten messy.”

                “I suppose it ended well enough.” Rayleigh says, trying to be flippant. You can see her relief in her expression, however. Was she that tense this whole time?

                A crackling sounds from your belt and you hurriedly pull out the communication device, lowering the volume as Ophelia comes in,

                “This is Big Bun, do you copy? What’s the situation? Over.”

                The Dragon’s head turns to you sharply, her wings spreading as she looks your way. You cough and click the button. “Uh, we’re fine here. Not burned to a crisp, talk to you later. Over.”

                “H-hey wai-!”

                You cut off the device and smile to the Dragon, waving your hand. “Sorry, just a little bunny who wanted to say hello.”

                {The voice said, “Big Bun,” did it not? Where did it come from?}

                “Ah, there are many advances society has made, that device is one of them.” Patricia says, holding her hand toward you.

                {Device. Like the one I was guarding?} She turns to the telescope in the room, which still lays dormant.

                “Yes. In fact, that is the main reason we came here. To use such a device in an attempt to speak with Hevensferth.”

                Wilamina raises an eyebrow. “That is certainly a lofty goal. The peoples here had, at times, spoken with him, but he stopped replying after a time. What makes you think you can do better?”

                Patricia gives a wolfish grin, “I am the inheritor of their wisdom, after all.”

                Simon’ula crosses her arms atop her breasts before pausing, then putting them underneath. {I shall never understand these things.}

                “Men find them attractive.” Alice says. “Jiggle them around and they’ll be all over you.”

                {Men. Hmph, though it appears lower Monsters go into heat at the sight of them, I do not share such a… fancy.}

                A grin begins to split Alice’s face, but you slap a hand over her mouth before she can start spewing her sluttery. You merely smile and say, “Perhaps someday you’ll be comfortable with your body. It’s all a part of… growing up, eh?”

                Alice sighs and rolls her eyes as Patricia coughs into her hand. “Yes, putting all of that aside, I would wish to ask your leave to use this device.”

                The Dragon looks to the telescope before nodding her head slowly. The Wolf Girl’s tail begins to wag excitedly and she bounds over to it, sitting in a rather decrepit chair attached to the device. It creaks under her weight, but she still leans forward, looking over the lens before wiping off the dust.

                “Well?” You ask, leaving Alice to be a good girl before walking over to her. “Think you can work it?”

                “It’s a telescope, you look into it. It’s pretty straightforward.”

                “Alright then, get to it.”

                “…”

                “…”

                “I-“ She looks at the device, then back to you. “I don’t know how to…” She waves at the ceiling.

                You suppress your snicker, mainly because you really need this to work. It’s still really funny though. Instead, you turn to Wilamina and ask, “Do you know how to open the roof?”

                “Hmm.” The Owl Girl says, walking over to the device. She looks about before turning to the wall and hoping over to a lever inset there. Despite pulling on it, it doesn’t budge an inch. After a few tries she sighs and looks over to you for help.

                Cracking your knuckles, you walk over to the lever and prepare to pull it when Ginelle walks over, grabs it with both hands, and yanks the thing down with a horrific, grinding noise.

                Above you a section of the roof opens in a shower of dust and dirt from the outside. It covers Ginelle, who stands there and takes. As the final bits of dirt fall down around her, she sighs and holds up her hand. A moment later, a flask flies through the air and she catches it, quickly downing the liquid before walking away, trailing dust.

                “Uh, thanks.” You say, wiping off stray particles from your suit. Turning back to Patricia, you ask, “Alright, this work now?”

                She nods and moves to another lever, pulling hard on it to loosen it up. The thing creaks before giving away, allowing her to use a crank which wheels the telescope to the side a little, then another which extends it. She does this a few times before nodding and really fine tuning it. You’re impressed to see how quickly she gets the hang of it, and eventually she pauses and lets out a sigh of appreciation.

                “The moon… it looks so beautiful like this.”

                A little bit of anxiety begins to creep into your voice as you ask, “But can you contact Hevensferth?”

                “I don’t really know what I’m looking for exactly, to be honest.”

                “Patricia, you said you could do this.” The anxiety builds, “Please tell me we didn’t go through all of this for nothing.”

                Something touches your shoulder and you tense up. You turn your head to see Finn standing there. The man nods to you and says, “You’re the leader, Tobias. You have to learn to trust your subordinates as they trust you.”

                He gives you a stern look. “Do you trust her?”

                Despite the pit of your stomach sinking further and voices in your head rising, you say the truth.

                “Yes, of course.”

                Patricia gives you a look of gratitude before returning to the device. She focuses it further upon a point in the heavens before pulling back and saying, “Wait a second… there’s nothing here.”

                Finn blinks in surprise. “I’m sorry, what?”

                “Yeah, this telescope, it’s just a telescope.” She turns to face you. “There’s nothing special or magical about it at all. It’s just a really nice telescope.”

                Simon’ula walks forward, confusion on her face. “But then why would they have me guard it so fiercely? What was the purpose of my pact?”

                Wilamina looks at the telescope, then to the book in her hands. Her eyes widen before she lets out a soft chuckle. “I think I understand. It’s not about the telescope, is it?”

                “No.” Patricia says, turning around and bowing her head. “It’s about reaching it. It’s about solving the puzzle to get here, getting past the guardian, and then realizing the truth.”

                “The truth?” The Dragon asks, confused.

                “Of your pact. You were to safeguard this place for their descendants. Those who came looking for wisdom and had the minds to grab it with their own hands.”

                She bows her head and says, “Hevensferth, hear my prayer. We have come far to this land which is bathed in the light of the moon, which is steeped in knowledge, which strives to learn all there is. We have come in the stead of those you once visited in order to speak with you of grave tidings in relation to your sisters. We wish for this one boon, that we may avert disaster.”

                Nothing happens for a long while as Patricia’s words hang in the air. Your collective breaths are caught as you wait, looking for something, anything to happen. Then, from behind, you hear the sound of clapping. You turn about quickly and catch your breath at the sight.

                Standing before you is a radiant example of a man. Tall and slender, he looks much like the statue you saw, though he wears a robe that accentuates his bare shoulders. He looks down at you with piercing blue eyes that are framed by long, blonde hair which falls around his face.

                Soft moonlight seems to emanate from him, making him both pleasing and difficult to look at. You have to squint your eyes some, but you cannot look away as he claps slow and steady.

                “Well done, child of Dollora.” Hevensferth says, his voice neither strong, nor deep, yet it seems to echo as if each word carried its own weight. “Roundabout, perhaps, but it is enough. Tell me your dire words that I may judge if they hold the same wisdom.”

                Patricia looks to you, as if wondering what to say now that the moment is here. You can see she’s trembling, unsure of herself. But you said you trusted her before. You’ll keep those words.

                “Speak to him, Patricia.”

                Hevensferth looks to you and frowns. “Ah, the thief of Jackor. Were my power not returned, I would have had words with you. But I keep my father’s law absolute. I shall not interfere in the world of mortals.”

                “And yet, we beg of you to do so.” Patricia says, holding out her furred hands. “Listen to our tale, one which involves your sisters, and this very world. Listen, that we may entreat your aid.”

                She tells him of Phallia’s betrayal, of her actions upon the world. He listens without betraying an ounce of emotion, merely considering Patricia’s story. When she finishes, he closes his eyes and says, “Though I find your words fantastical, I do not doubt the wisdom and the sincerity in them. You believe this to be truth, even if it might be falsity.”

                “Then you’ll help us?”

                “No.”

                Your party gasps at his words. It… it was always a possibility that he would say no, but you never thought it might come true! If either of the others failed then… then Phallia will-

                “I will not interfere until I have discerned my own truth. Should my siblings give similar cause, then more weight will be put into your words. I am loathe to fracture my family again, but I will not let a falsehood stand.”

                “Then-?” Patricia asks, hope in her voice.

                Hevensferth extends his hand and something shines bright in Patricia’s bag. She blinks and reaches into it, pulling out the piece of crystal she took from earlier. It shines with a light far brighter than before, and you can feel something… spiritual about it. Something on the same spectrum of Hevensferth.

                “I will be watching you now. If all is as you say, then I will lend my voice to sway my father. But though you are one with a mind I am proud to call my follower, I pray your reasoning is wrong.”

                With that, he fades from view.

                A silence descends upon the room again as the presence of the God vanishes. Everyone looks down, contemplating what they just saw, but all you feel is tired. You did it, you got this far and got Hevensferth’s cooperation… or did you? All you can really do at this point is hope, huh?

                “Well.” Ginelle says, stretching. “I don’t know about all of you, but I’m starting to get sick of dealing with Gods.”

                Ain’t that the truth?

Chapter 38

                With relief, comes exhaustion, as is often the case.

                Shoulders slumping, you can see as your party begins to feel the weariness of the tension and long hours. The battle from before certainly plays on them as well, especially Finn. He does his best not to fall over, but you can see him wobbling.

                Unable to stifle your yawn, you shake your head and rub at your eyes. Simon’ula notices this and cocks her head. {Are you tired?}

                “Well, typically someone yawns when they’re tired.”

                She gives you a flat look before crossing her arms. {I believe that the wolf is the true inheritor. It would not be outside of my rights or power to devour you.}

                “Sorry, I’m married.”

                She blinks her eyes and opens her mouth before snorting. {Ah, I remember such remarks from the scholars. Too much intelligence leads to acting in such a manner.}

                “In this case, I’m just tired. I don’t mean much by it.”

                She sniffs and turns about to look at the night sky through the open ceiling.

                Clarissa walks up and crosses her wing-arms, looking over at Wilamina. “Well, I guess all’s well that ends well in this case. Can we leave now?”

                “Can you be this confident all the time?” You mutter, rubbing at your eyes and yawning. When she gives you a curious look, you chuckle and say, “I’m joking. But unfortunately I think I’m right about to pass out.” Thumbing at Finn, you say, “And he’s unconscious.”

                “Not yet I’m not.” Finn growls, standing a little straighter. “But sleep would be prudent.”

                “Do we have time for that?” Clint asks. “We’re already late to our deadline.”

                “Do you want to be traveling outside in the Monster Nation at night, while tired?”

                The man pauses before shaking his head. “I really don’t want to see Ginelle ripping out any entrails of thirsty Monsters.”

                “I’ll do it too.” The Badger Girl mutters.

                “Very well then!” Wilamina says. “I’m afraid I don’t have much in the way of amenities for sleeping, but if you would like a fluffy bedwarmer, there are plenty of us here for that role.”

                Rayleigh narrows her eyes and steps near Finn, though the man casually takes a step forward as she does, raising a hand and shaking his head. “I believe we’ll be fine. If we can retrieve our camping equipment, we’ll be fine here.”

                Wilamina sighs, actually disappointed. You begin to think she might have believed someone would take her up on her offer. “Oh very well then. I wish I could offer you something to eat, but I’m afraid we only hunt enough for ourselves and the Lunar Garden is not somewhere we enjoy going into.”

                “Oh right, the Alarune.” You say, frowning. “Well, I’d rather not deal with her, so we’ll just ignore that place.”

                “I could burn it all down?” Rayleigh says, a little hope in her voice. When you give her a flat stare she sighs and nods her head. “Just asking, boss.”

                Patricia watches the scene with curiosity before nodding. “Well then, I’m going to visit the library, if you’ll excuse me- urk!”

                “Right then, let’s get those supplies.” Alice says, dragging away Patricia as she tries to leave, the poor Wolf Girl looking miserable the whole while. Clint, Ginelle, and Rayleigh follow after to help gather those supplies. Finn makes to leave but at her look he too relents and sags his shoulders as the door grinds closed behind them.

                “I’m getting too old for this.”

                {There is no such thing as too old.} Simon’ula sends. {As long as you have the will, it does not matter what you body says in protest.}

                “Hmph, if only that were true.” He says, popping something before groaning. The man nods to you, “Well, while the others get our supplies, maybe we should talk what we’re going to do in the morning.”

                “Aren’t we leaving?” Clarissa asks, sitting down beside you. When you give her a questioning look, she just cocks her head. “What? I have wing-arms, I’m not great at carrying camping supplies, I can barely get my damn clothes on sometimes.”

                “I do wonder how you get such tight leathers on sometimes.” Wilamina asks.

                “Bite me, owl-brain.”

                “You really… don’t like other Harpies, huh?” You ask, to which Clarissa looks a little embarrassed. Wilamina merely shakes her head and flies off through the open roof as the Crow Girl coughs into her hand.

                “Listen, the world of Harpy delivery service is competitive, and to be the best you have to… well anyway, it’s a hard habit to break.”

                {Ah, to fly through the sky again.} Simon’ula snorts. {I remember being faster than even the terror hawks that used to populate the skies here. It was a joy to test my wings against theirs.}

                “I know, right?” Clarissa says, smiling toward the Dragon, who looks at her curiously before nodding. “I haven’t been in the skies much past Carthos but…”

                You turn away as Clarissa chats with the Dragon. Surprising, really. You briefly wondered if she’d hate the Dragon too, but clearly that isn’t the case. Well, with her occupied, you turn back to Finn. “So, what do you think.”

                “I think we’re behind schedule.”

                “I believe we are.” You sigh. “That business in Carthos set us back, but there’s not much we can really do at this point but head on back.”

                “Will we go through Carthos again?”

                “I think we kind of have to in order to get safe passage. We can probably send Clarissa ahead of the group to tell Sophie I suppose.”

                “Makes sense. Once we reach Fort Carlsbad it’s simple to get back to Cair. We’ll be a little late, but we can also send Clarissa as a messenger ahead of us.”

                “I suppose that is a task she is familiar with. I suppose we’ll have to do that and hope we don’t run into trouble along the way. I’m a little worried about this Rose character though.”

                Finn rubs the back of his head. “Yes, I suppose that is a problem but we shouldn’t get bogged down by it. We don’t know what she’ll do so it’s best to just continue on our path and be wary. We have to get to Sanctifrond in an expedient time, right?”

                A snort escapes you. “Sure. But the horses only go so fast. It’s not like we can all be like Clarissa and… fly…”

                Finn gives you an odd look as you turn to look at the Dragon nearby. Her large, blue scaled wings stand out sharp to you. Wings… fly… like Clarissa…

                “Well fuck me.”

                “Excuse me?” Clarissa says, turning to you a little too quickly. Simon’ula appraises you as well, cocking her head.

                {Was that a proposal? How curious, I was lead to believe it was the female who initiated.}

                “What? No. Clarissa, please.” The Crow Girl shrugs, clearly not serious, though the Dragon looks confused. Waving it away, you say to the Dragon, “You can turn into your original form, right?”

                {For the most part. There are of course, certain changes which I am unable to change.}

                “R-right.” You say, coughing into your hand. “Anyway, I can’t help but overhear how much you liked flying.”

                “Oh yeah, Simone was telling about the wind patterns thousands of years ago.”

                “Simone?”

                “I mean, she’s a girl so she should have a girl name and this is easier to pronounce.”

                The Dragon cocks her head and then shrugs. {I suppose it is fitting, though I do not know what it means. Call me by this name, if it would please you.}

                “O…kay then, Simone, you liked testing your speed, right?”

                {Is this going somewhere?} She asks, narrowing her eyes. {You would not be asking such questions were you not wanting something.}

                “Hey, hey, hear me out here.” You say, holding out your hands in placation. “Clarissa is the fastest Harpy in the West. Also the North, south, and central, though tests haven’t been done in the East.”

                She shrugs, unable to deny this.

                “Wouldn’t flying against her be a grand challenge?”

                The Dragon furrows her brow. {I suppose. I am no longer bound to this place and am… interested to see how the world has changed. Of course, I am not aware of how best to fly in this new form. For one, these sacks of fat on my chest are in the way.}

                “Sorry, I don’t have undergarments that large.” Clarissa sighs. “Maybe Ginelle… no, I doubt she wears any. Well, cloth will work.”

                “Sure, but maybe it would be best to fly in your original form. How long can you keep that up?”

                {I am not certain, but I suspect the majority of the day followed by rest.} She sends.

                “So… how about a race against Clarissa, hmm?”

                The Crow Girl cocks her head. “Uh, why are we racing? And to where?”

                “To Sanctifrond of course!”

                Finn clacks his tongue and shakes his head as you say this, your ruse coming quite clear. Clarissa is a little slower at getting it while Simone clearly as no idea what you’re talking about. At her look, you clarify.

                “It’s the capital of the human nation of Deleor. Patricia suspects the Kingdom was founded partly by the people who lived here and migrated.”

                {Is that so?} She asks, eyes widening. {Perhaps it would be… good, to see it then.}

                “Right? Now then, it might not be a little fair for you to fly unencumbered, however. How will you prove yourself better than-“

                You cut off as Clarissa elbows you in the gut, harder than expected. Grunting, you kneel over and pant a few times before finally coughing out, “Okay, fine.”

                They wait for you to recover yourself enough to speak again. “Well, I was trying to be coy, but I should outright just ask. We could really use your help, if you’re able to transport us through the air. If you couldn’t tell by talking with the Gods, we have a very important mission we need to see to and we’re behind schedule. We could really use your help.”

                Simone stares at you for a long while, making no move save to stretch her wings and swish her tail ever so slightly. Eventually, he closes her eyes and says, voice entering your head, {What do I get if I beat her?}

                “Huh?”

                {I asked, what do I get if I beat her in this so called, ‘race’ of yours? It is a contest, is it not? Then a prize should be rendered should I win.}

                You look between Finn and Clarissa, the two a little bewildered by the situation also. Coughing into your hand, you say, “That uhm. I’ll have to think on it, but I’m sure I can get you a prize you’d like.”

                She turns to Clarissa and asks, {What generally is the most important thing to a Monster, in this day and age?}

                “Uhm, a husband, I guess?”

                Simone nods her head. {Very well, then the winner of our race shall be provided a husband. Those are my terms.}

                “W-wait, wait, wait!” Clarissa says, holding up a wing-hand. “You can’t just say something like that! A husband is someone you come to cherish and want to be with and uhm… do other things with like… hold hands and stuff.”

                Clarissa squirms, looking very red and uncomfortable. The Dragon watches her as she does this before turning back to you. {Are the terms acceptable?}

                “Uh…” You look to Finn, who shrugs. “Suuurrreeee…” Whatever gets you back to Sanctifrond. Clint probably has bachelor friends who’d want to bang ancient Dragon pussy, right? Well, you kind of feel bad saying that, but oh well.

                She snorts again before turning back to the open sky. {Sleep for now. We shall discuss this in the morning. The descendant and the others are coming.}

                The door to the room opens with that grinding noise, revealing Alice’s smiling face, along with an overburdened and tired group following her, including Ophelia. The woman looks around the room and says, “Tobias did something stupid again, didn’t he?”

———————————————————————————————————

                After explaining to Alice that, in fact, you did not do anything stupid and in fact did something ingenious, your party settles down for sleep in the room. Despite the relative safety, Ginelle takes watch, exchanging with Finn, despite his exhaustion. Rayleigh offers but… no one seems keen on that. Simone stays in the room as well, though she stays by herself, watching you all evening. Perhaps you’d find it disconcerting if you weren’t so tired. As it stands, you fall asleep very quickly.

                Morning, as most do on your little adventures, comes too soon. Light shines down from the open roof, filling the room with its yellow hues. For some reason it seems unnatural in this place, as if it was never meant to see the light of day. You suppose that Hevensferth is associated with all the heavenly bodies anyway, but it still seems wrong.

                After eating a nice breakfast, you confer with the others about your plan. Though there are a few misgivings, they all agree it is in your best interests. In fact, the only one who seems a little off about the plan is Clarissa. She looks uncomfortable, yet somehow excited by the prospect. As you’re preparing to set off back to the wagon, she tugs on your shirt and asks,

                “If I win… you’ll find me a husband?”

                “Huh?”

                “Nevermind.” She says, skipping ahead of the group. Oh Solos, what has that Dragon gotten you into?

                On your way outside, lit by the light of your torches, you find a figure standing in the central hall. Wilamina greets you, though she seems terribly tired. Yawning, she waves a wing to your group.

                “Ah, I wondered when you’d wake up. It’s terribly late you know, but I’ll never understand you diurnals.”

                “Oh great, she’s seeing us o-“ Clarissa is cut off by Ophelia elbowing her in the chest, dropping the Crow to the ground, gasping.

                The Owl Girl seems unfazed and continues. “I would thank you for reminding us of the outside world. While this place is my home, my children and the others have… questioned their role here. Perhaps they will leave? I should hope so, to have more of a life.”

                “But you’ll be here alone?” Patricia asks, to which Wilamina nods. The Wolf Girl chuckles, “Well, don’t you worry. I’ll be back to read every book in that library, and teach you how to read also.”

                Wilamina smiles, “I’d like that.”

                Waving goodbye to her, you make your way through the ancient hallways, back to the outside. You have to shield your eyes at being in the direct sunlight at first, but it feels good to be out in the warmth again. There’s just something unsettling about the darkness for that long. Maybe it reminds you of those tunnels underneath Helmscrag. Also, you keep hearing things in there.

                “Eh, you’ll hear it out here too.” A small voice says.

                Damnit.

                {Hmm.} Simone says, looking over your wagon. {I shall transport this? I do not believe I can carry the creatures attached to it, however.}

                “We’ll just have to release them.” You say, cutting off Ginelle who holds up a finger. Yes, you know exactly what she’s going to ask for, and you’re not eating the horses.

                When the horses are unhitched, they stand around, confused. It isn’t until Simone transforms into her original form that they panic and bolt out into the countryside. Thank the Gods you didn’t name them or else that would be sad.

                Everyone loads up into the wagon, save for Clarissa. Then, Simone grabs the wagon with her forearms. The whole transport shudders and then rises into the air as her massive wings begin to flap. Slowly, you gain altitude until you’re high over the ground, unable to see the details of the building you were just in.

                {Hmph. This is nothing.} She sends, despite the distance between you. {Well? What direction do we fly in?}

                “Yeah Tobias.” Clarissa says, flying in close to the wagon and hovering. “Explain the rules of this contest.”

                Hmm. You probably should have though this through beforehand. In the rush to see if you COULD get an ancient Dragon and your competitive bird friend to race, you never stopped to think if you SHOULD do it. Well, you’re here so you might as well figure something out. Don’t want to get dropped out of the sky, right?

                “Well, way I figure it, this isn’t exactly something that can be done in one trip. Besides, the easiest way to Sanctifrond is dangerously populated by things like, I don’t know, Deleorian soldiers. Which means…” You wave to Finn and ask him to pull out a map of Deleor. Despite the wind whipping up around you, you’re able to make some waypoints.

                {Well?} Simone sends.

                “Sorry! I got it now!” You shout before turning to Clarissa. “Alright, we’re going to meet on the outskirts of Carthos first. I’ll go over the rules once we reach there. This isn’t part of the contest, but we’ll start there. Ah, and can you get Sophie for us? Ask her to bring [Featherfall Potions] too.”

                “Okay? I guess.” She says, turning about and nodding to the Dragon in the air before explaining things to her. The wagon lurches a moment later, tossing everyone about as it gets into motion. The whole experience is jarring, but when you dare to look outside the wagon, you gasp at the sight.

                Now, you’ve ridden quite a few leyways since your adventure. They’re fast, but you only get the view from nearby. This, however, is something else entirely.

                The others look outside the coverings of the wagon with amazement too, wind rustling in their faces as they watch behold the world rushing beneath them. Miles of land seem to be passed in an instant as the Dragon flies, turning mighty forests into barely recognizable tracts of green. Here and there specks on the ground stop and stare as your shadow reaches over them, but they too are lost soon enough. It frankly boggles the mind.

                “Is this what Clarissa sees every day?” You ask as you settle down to comb your hair back into place. The effort is mostly wasted, unfortunately.

                “No wonder her head is always up in the clouds…” Ophelia says, donning her goggles. She smiles at you, though it slowly fades as you look at her curiously. She looks down and then back outside.

                Actually, the joke was pretty funny, you’re just upset you didn’t say it first.

                After a few hours of travel, Ophelia lowers a small telescope and says, “I think I see Carthos in the distance.”

                You take the device from her and look through it to see, in the far distance, structures which look vaguely like Carthos. Given the surrounding fields, you really don’t have any doubt that this is the case.

                Leaning out the wagon, you shout, “Where’s Clarissa?!”

                {She went on ahead to speak with someone. I was told to land and await her in a nearby clearing. This settlement… I believe I have seen it before, though it does not seem much changed from so long ago.}

                “You’d have to walk the streets to see how different it is!”

                {Perhaps.} She sends nothing further as she continues flying. You’re pretty sure you see a few Harpies in the sky off in the distance, but they keep far away from you. It’s not every day that an honest to goodness pre-transformation Dragon is seen in the skies, after all. There was realistically no way you’d be able to hide from the Monsters, best just make this quick and head back to Deleor. Hells, you might even be early!

                Simone sets down the wagon in a clearing within a nearby forest outside of town. It’s far enough away that most of the citizens, and authorities, of Carthos will leave you be, but not too far for Sophie to reach you. From what you’ve been told, she can be quite fast.

                Simone takes a few, lumbering steps in her draconic form before rapidly shrinking and returning to her short, well endowed Monster form. She sniffs and then stretches before turning to your group and nodding. {Hmph, barely got my blood pumpi- hey!}

                She growls as Ophelia hurriedly throws a handful of cloth at her. The Rabbit Girl yelps and retreats backward until the Dragon straightens her back and sighs. {I do not understand why I must don such garments}

                “Uhm, because I don’t need the three idiots with dicks ogling you.” She thumbs at Clint, Finn, and yourself.

                “Now Ophelia, just because she has good assets does not mean she holds a candle to my Ginelle.”

                “Yeah, I’m married. Besides, Saya can have whatever breast size she wants, which let me tell you has been quite interesting at times-“

                “Why are you including me in this?”

                The women in the party sigh, save for Alice, who cackles like a madwoman, at the three of you trying to worm your ways out of this. Simone observes all of this before looking down at the garment and then back up to Ophelia.

                {How do I wear this?}

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

                It’s a few hours later in the early after noon when Ophelia’s ears detect rustling through the trees. Your group goes on alert, as this is not the first such intruder you’ve had the pleasure of greeting since you’ve been resting. The first was a rather confused pack of Wolf Girls who paused immediately after seeing Simone, then ran away with their tails between their legs- literally.

                When the figures emerge you’re relieved to see Clarissa and Sophie enter. Both are carrying large packs on their backs, and they set them down as soon as they reach you, each making a rather interesting clinking sound of glass on glass.

                “My dear brother! It has been too long since we last saw each other.” Sophie says, giving you a warm smile.

                “Ah, dearest sister! It warms my heart to see your face!” You say, holding out your hands to embrace her. She baps your head with one of her tails instead. Pretending to stagger, you say, “Oh! Such a cruel way to greet your sibling by marriage.”

                The two of you snicker at that before composing yourselves. Sophie bows to your party before turning to Simone and bowing to her. “Ancient Dragon, it is my honor to welcome you after your long slumber. I am Sophie, daughter of the Monster Lady and I understand you are helping our guests with their urgent business.”

                {This is correct.} She says, sizing up Sophie. {Cat o’Nine Tails, is it? To think such a small, innocuous creature could become a Monster.}

                Sophie keeps her cordial smile. “My, that sounds like an interesting story. I’m certain my mother and I would adore listening to it when you return to the Monster Nation. But alas, I also understand time is of the essence.”

                “In a matter of speaking.” You say, holding up your hand. “I see you brought what we asked for.”

                “Indeed.” She says, opening the pack to reveal vials of a rather viscous, white liquid. “Featherfall potions and a few vials of mana potion for your witch. Or a light snack.”

                “Uhm… uh… she’s kidding about that last one. We have some extra food in here too, though I think at this rate we might not need it.” Clarissa says, looking worried at Sophie’s remarks. “There’s also… some news.”

                You turn your attention to Sophie as she runs a hand through her hair, her tails swishing behind her. “Not quite news, rumor, perhaps. There’s been talk via Harpy of instability forming in Deleor and that the north might not be protected. This is riling up the rabble rousers again, but due to the knowledge of Galmathorian involvement, most of the citizens are keeping themselves in check. I do worry, however, that there may actually be something happening.”

                “I see. I’d rather know what we’re facing, but without the communion matrix we’re in a bind for reliable information. Unfortunately we need to head back as soon as possible to Sanctifrond.”

                “Yes, yes, I am quite aware.” She sighs. The Cat o’Nine Tails puts a hand on your shoulder. “I wish I could be there to help, but I need to support mother. When you return, say hello to father for me.”

                “Well of course I’m going to talk to him, I barely had any chance beforehand to go over the finer points of Wizardquest and-“

                “Tobias…” Clint sighs.

                You chuckle and pull away from Sophie. “Anyway, things are in good hands. We’ll make sure there’s a world still standing this time next year.”

                “You better!” She says as you load up into the wagon again. The two fliers walk up, planting hands and, well, wings, and on their hips.

                “Well?” Clarissa asks. “You think of how we’re doing this then?”

                “Of course.” You say, holding out the map you were working on. “We’re going to test who can fly the fastest to certain destination landmarks as pointed out on this map. Whoever wins the most legs of the journey will be the winner.”

                The two study the map before looking to each other. Clarissa seems troubled as she asks, “Uhm… what if one of us wins the early legs of the race? What’s the reason to keep pushing ahead and-“

                {If you are only able to keep ahead at the start, you’re not as good as expected.} Simone says. {Perhaps the final leg is worth more than the others. It will be more difficult to keep from being seen as we go forward, yes?}

                “Excellent idea.” You say, wrapping up the map. “Don’t you agree, Sophie?”

                “Hmm? Oh yes, capital and all of that.” She nudges Clarissa and smirks. “It doesn’t matter what happens, you’re going to win, right?”

                “O-Of course!” The Crow Girl says, puffing out her chest, such as it is.

                Simone bows her head and you think you see a hint of a smirk there. Wonder what that’s about. Well, no matter, you turn about as Simone hands over her clothing to Ophelia before transforming again. She takes hold of your wagon and begins to fly up into the air.

                “If I can, I’ll come to help!” Sophie shouts, her voice growing distant.

                “I know!” You shout back. When you’re sufficiently high enough in the air, you turn to Clarissa, who is hovering next to Simone. Extending your hand outward, you count to three, two, one-

                “GO!”

                The Crow Harpy dashes forward on the wind current. You hang on tight as the wagon rocks violently, then you too are off. It feels much more… energetic than last time. This is not necessarily a good thing due to the way the wood creaks in your wagon. You-you’re sure this will end fine though. Right?

                The two soar over the Monster Nation on their way to the first checkpoint. It’s still within the boundaries of the Monster Nation, given that the sun is already on the downswing, but your suspicions about how fast they can fly is correct, it won’t be much longer until you’re home.

———————————————————————————————————————————

                The winner of the first leg is Clarissa. Though she fought well, Simone was unable to keep up with the Dragon, who landed shortly after the Crow Girl. You make camp in the landmark you’d noted, a hillside with good cover, a decent distance away from the mountain range separating the two nations.

Clarissa seems chipper about her win, but you can still see her nerves. She really wants to win, huh? Well, you suppose she doesn’t like to lose, but she is going to make it convincing for Simone, right? It’s not like she really wants you find her a husband, right? Nah, Clarissa is going to help out Simone. You’re convinced of it.

“You don’t seem very convinced.” The negative voice in your head says. Honestly, it’s just far more coherent these days than you remember. At least the itching isn’t as bad…

                The next days sees your next leg of the journey. The two fliers race ahead, over the boundary of between the nations. Part of you wishes you could smug at the keeper of that damn gate, but you’d rather just be past it.

And past it you go, flying all the way to an outlying farm between Fort Carlsbad and Cair. You’d notice it during your flight from the bandits so long ago, and figured it would be a good place to hide out. Skirting the fort took some effort, but Clarissa is easily able to beat Simone again.

The next day, you make off into more civilized areas of Deleor. You do your best to use the cloud cover in the overcast day to skirt Cair, though you do miss the chance to get back to the leyway. Ah well, what are you going to do? Nothing good happens in Cair anyway, something everyone in your party agrees with, except Rayleigh, though given she’s from there it’s a little different.

What’s surprising about this day, however, is that Simone beat Clarissa. Perhaps the Crow was taking her lead for granted, but when she began to slacken, the Dragon raced out ahead of her and made it to the landing zone. Simone’s expression was neither smug nor jubilant, she merely gave Clarissa and nod and rested before the next stretch, leaving the Crow Girl simmering.

The journey making better headway than expected, you find yourself somewhere near the eastern Yangrove river, the massive river that goes through the country. Your goal is to come through some of the more sparsely populated areas of the northeast and land before buying some horses. Which means you’ll need one more leg of the journey.

“This is the final stretch.” You say, your eyes turning up to the sky above. It’s afternoon, and will likely be dark by the time you reach your destination. But damn if these two don’t fly fast. And they’re able to stay fairly well hidden, keeping you from settlements, though that means you can’t see them either. A shame, but a necessary one.

“Like I said before, this one will be worth more than the others.”

“How many more?” Clarissa asks, nervous.

“Three.”

Simone chuckles, {Which means if I win here, it will put me past you.}

Clarissa looks to the side, worried. This… is an act, right? She lost the last leg on purpose, right?

“Tobias! We should get going before it gets too dark!” Finn shouts. You concur and turn to the two fliers.

“Well? Care to see who will get a uh… a husband?”

They look to each other before nodding, resolve on their expressions. Soon after, you’re in the air and soaring.

The skies are rather clear today, which isn’t a good thing. You have to keep fairly low to avoid being easy to spot, which means the fliers need to keep track of the villages marked on the map. While you want to get close to a small one named Kipper, you should avoid worrying the populace- and the military. For that purpose, this race gets much more interesting.

Wagon shuddering underneath you, the entire party watches on with keep interest as Simone dashes through the skies. Clarissa, with her smaller frame, is able to skirt villages easier and take more risks, but Simone’s great wings allows her impressive speed and she keeps up well with the Crow Girl. At periods, they even seem neck and neck.

As the sky grows dark, the two begin to near their destination. A forest nearby the town is a good place to set down, and you make sure to describe the location well to your Dragon, though somehow she understands it perfectly. Sometimes you wonder if she can read your mind… nah she can’t do that, right?

“I think that’s this landmark.” Finn says, looking between the map and outside. Seems we’re getting close.

                “Ohhh and they’re neck and neck!” Rayleigh says, her bushy tail swishing and getting in Alice’s face. “I wonder who is going to win? Ohhh exciting!”

                The location gets closer and closer, the two moving fast through the skies. Simone pulls ahead, leaving Clarissa behind as she makes her way to victory. Just as she’s past Clarissa however, the wagon lurches and all of you cry out in panic.

                “Featherfall potions!” You cry, downing the liquid. The others do the same and you feel yourself become a little more weightless as you await the wagon to drop further.

                It doesn’t however.

                Confused, you look outside to see Simone stabilizing the wagon, though her momentum suffers from it. Clarissa dashes out ahead of her and reaches the landing zone, almost running into a try and she tries to slow herself from her rapid landing. She does collapse to the ground and groan as Simone sets you down, your party bailing out with relief.

                “Hey! What was that?!” Rayleigh asks, furious. “You almost dropped us!”

                {It appears I cannot maintain this form as long as I suspected. I lost my grip somewhat.}

                The Dragon reverts to her Monster form and shrugs. {These things happen. A shame I lost, but such is the way of things with a handicap.}

                Alice retrieves Clarissa, who she walks back to the wagon, her feet unsteady. She looks at the assembled group and asks, “Did I win?”

                “You sure did.” You say, not knowing what else to say. “I guess that means we owe you a uh… husband.”

                “Cool.” She says before promptly passing out.

                Alice helps the Monster over to her bedroll. For your part, you turn to look at Simone, who seems unperturbed by the results. You narrow your eyes, to which the Dragon merely says, {It was a fair contest. I lost.}

                “Hmm. Better luck next time, I suppose.” Shaking your head, you hold out a hand and ask, “What will you do now?”

                {I do not know. Perhaps I will explore these lands in this form. Maybe I will grow more comfortable with it and even find this… husband.} She shrugs. {Though I suppose I would need a degree of femininity. How strange this transformation is.}

                “You could come with us.”

                She shakes her head. {I understand your struggle, but it is not mine. Whether this Goddess wins or loses does not concern me. Besides, I do not belong here, even if the descendants of those I knew inhabit this place. Perhaps I shall take that silly cat up on her offer.}

                Her scaled tail wagging, she makes to go but pauses and looks over her shoulder. {You find her what she desires, you understand? I will know if you do not.}

                “Uhh… yeah, yeah I will.” You say, nodding your head. “You be safe.”

                She chuckles, {Hmph, I’m a Dragon.}

                With that, she rises into the air on her smaller wings and flies off. You watch her go for a moment before Patricia runs up, looking distraught.

                “What the fuck Tobias, you let her go without saying a word?”!

                “Huh? Oh shit, sorry about that.” You say, genuinely surprised. “I thought it was a poetic moment!”

                “Life isn’t a damn book Tobias!” She growls before groaning. “Such a source of information… lost forever.”

                “Eh, she said she might turn up at Carthos at some point.”

                “Well I’m going on a damn expedition once this Phallia business is taken care of.”

                You smirk at her. “Seems this lit a fire under you to get outside, hmm?”

                The Wolf Girl pinches the bridge of her nose. “Sometimes Tobias, sometimes…” She shakes her head. “Sometimes I want to punch you, but then I remember that without you and all of this, I wouldn’t be out here. I’d never have been in mortal danger, nor seen what I’ve seen. I think I understand my mother and Saya a little more, truth be told.”

                A furred finger rises before your face a moment later. “Don’t think I’m still not mad though!”

                “Haha, well you can tell me all about it in Sanctifrond later. We’ll hopefully be there tomorrow if getting horses goes well.”

                She relents, somewhat, and the rest of the evening passes without fanfare. When the morning comes, you and Clint head to Kipper to find the town subdued somewhat. A stable on the outskirts of town seems to have many horses in the pasture, so the two of you stop in to buy some.

                “Eh? You two came from outside?” The stablemaster, an older gentleman asks. “Sure, I can sell horses to you, but do you happen to know anything about why this Communion Matrix thing isn’t working? My kids are upset about it.”

                “What do you mean, not working?” You ask, worried.

                “Well, I’m not sure. But seems a few people in town with those Communion Glasses or whatever can’t get them to work. Says they don’t see anything. Magic, you know? I think the old ways are better, but I guess things are being replaced.” He pats a nearby gelding. “Can’t replace horses though! Not even that Leyway thing. I hear it stopped working too! Is that true?”

                “We… can’t say. We were camping little to the east and haven’t been in touch with the world.”

                “Eh… two men camping alone huh…” The man narrows his eyes at the two of you before shaking his head. “Well, you can do whatever you’d like I guess. This world is changing in more ways than one. A shame though, a shame…”

                You return to the group with your new horses and the news the man gave. A general sense of foreboding settles upon the group at this, which spurs urgency. If the Communion Matrix is down and the leyways are possibly down, then has Phallia made a move?

                Pushing your new horses as best you can, you reach the walls of Sanctifrond by sundown. You’re relieved to see the sentries on duty looking normal, but a sense of agitation goes through the crowds waiting to enter into the city. You’re let in without trouble, thankfully not being recognized, and enter into the outer city without trouble. When you Clint leads your horses toward the next gate so you can get back to the Hero’s Hall, a familiar figure greets you, flanked two by other humans wearing black suits and shaded spectacles, despite the time of day.

                As you look upon the man in the center, your heart sinks. You really wanted to get back to the Hero’s Hall, but things aren’t going to be that simple, are they?

                “Hello there, Mr. Shady. I’m glad you could join us here. There’s been some incidents that involve you and your companions. I would appreciate it if you could come with us so we can discuss them.”

                “Who’s this clown?” Rayleigh asks, to which Finn groans.

                “Why Rayleigh, this is Agent Anderson of the Deleorian Secret Service.” The smile you give the man doesn’t quite reach your ears. “He’s technically my boss.”

                “That is correct, miss Asternak.”

                Rayleigh blinks in surprise at the use of her last name by a stranger. You merely sigh, knowing full well that Anderson knows everyone in your party. It’s kind of his job.

                “Agent Anderson, I know there’s a lot to talk about, and there’s clearly something going on, but we need to get to the Hero’s Hall to meet with the Lord Commander.”

                “Yes, the quest you were sent on. I understand you made your way through Cair and then into the Monster Nation where you caused quite the stir in the ruins of Carthos. After that, however, I’m afraid I will need more of an explanation.” He shakes his head, “Considering what’s happened, it would be very important if you were to cooperate immediately.”

                “How did you even know where to find me?”

                “Information travels fast, Mr. Shady. You also showed your badge to the gate guards and I promise you that a well motivated guard moves faster than a horse drawn carriage through the city gate traffic.”

                “That… is fair.” You concede.

                “Tobias, we really can’t spare time for this.” Patricia says, looking at the man with worry as she clutches her chest. The stone imbued by Hevensferth sits on a string there, between her breasts you’d imagine. It’s very important, but now Anderson knows it’s very important.

                “I should like to ask you some questions as well, miss Boudreaux.” He says. “Welcome, by the way.”

                “Now, now, let’s just keep things civil here.” Clint says, tipping his hat to the man. “We do need to be in a hurry, but if you really need to speak with Tobias, how about you just let us on our way while he does the talking for us. He is the most eloquent of us.”

                Anderson raises an eyebrow. “What a hilarious attempt at humility, Lord Fullvora.” He lets that go as he sighs and shakes his head. “Very well then, I see you will not be dissuaded. You are not the only interesting group that has come through the gates recently and I would not wish to upset the Lord Commander, especially during the current circumstances.”

                Finn and Alice ask at the same time, “What do you mean?”

                Anderson raises a hand to dismiss them. “You’ll see soon enough when you enter the Hero’s Hall. I suspect maybe even Mr. Doreal will be reinstated to the front lines. Miss Asternak however…” He trails off, giving her a suspicious look. Her tail puffs up, but Ophelia places a hand on her shoulder and shakes her head.

                You leap down off the wagon and dust yourself off before turning to Clint. “I’ll meet the rest of you later then.” They look uneasy, but your party pulls away soon after, leaving you with Anderson and the other agents.

                “If you would, Mr. Shady.” Anderson says, leading you away.

                He’s unusually quiet as you walk through the outer districts of Sanctifrond. While not nearly as rich as the inner part of the city, the outer sections have thrived with the magitek revolution also. There’s still signs of the old shanty housing from before, and inequality still exists, but many of the people still lead rich, fulfilling lives.

                Or at least… they should be.

                “What do you see, Mr. Shady?”

                “The people look… uneasy. Like they’re away something isn’t right, but can’t quite bring themselves to say it.”

                “Exactly.” Anderson says, nodding his head as he looks straight forward. His serious demeanor is a stark contrast to the people around him. They walk with either their heads bowed or looked about nervously. Some people check portable communion glasses before sighing and putting them away while others chatter with each other in low voices. The entire scene makes your skin crawl.

                “The leylines aren’t working, are they?”

                “Perceptive as ever. Yes, by the King’s order, there’s been an upgrade of the aetheric flow in the nexus points which has taken more time than expected. As such, the communion matrix is unable to be used and the leyways are being outfitted to match the new resonance frequency.”

                “Nothing about that statement makes any sense at all.”

                “Indeed. It doesn’t make sense to anyone, least of which those who can understand it.”

                “I…” You trail off as you look to the people around you. These citizens might have a basic understanding of how the leylines work but they’re not practitioners, they never studied this stuff, nor do they have the knowledge you do. To them, magic and magitek exists, but they can’t hope to understand any of it. You can tell them anything and they’ll nod their head and smile while inwardly thinking you must be smart for using big words.

                “I have never felt so much like a noble than I do now.”

                “Knowledge is power, Mr. Shady. Ah, but here we are.” He stops before a nondescript building and waves you toward the door. One of the other agents opens it for you and you enter to find a rather quaint living room, kitchen in the back, etc. Stairs lead upward but you’re certain that it’s unimportant.

                “Basement?” You ask. The agent nods and leads you over to a trap door under the carpet with a set of stairs below. He hands you a magitek torch and you descend the stairs, the device providing illumination until you reach the bottom, the others joining you moments later. Once they activate a series of magitek lights, you find yourself in more of a location you’d expect to see.

                A large meeting table sits between walls filled with maps and charts, detailing various operatives and networks. It’s not as grand as what you’ve seen before in the DSS headquarters in the inner district, but it’s still impressive.

                “Why out here and not at headquarters?”

                “It’s more convenient and I like working with less eyes.”

                “Because four people in suits entering a building together in the outer district isn’t conspicuous.”

                “Come now Tobias.” Agent Anderson says as he sits down. “You know very well that the best place to hide sometimes is in plain sight.”

                One of the other agents brings you a cup of tea, which you nod and accept before drinking. The man is crafty, but Anderson won’t drug you. The real question is how they had hot water already prepared. After taking a sip, you ask, “Alright, what’s really going on.”

                “I’m certain you could give more answers than I can, but as we all know how this charade will go, I’ll be forward about it: Three days ago the leyways suddenly stopped working. Leymail became corrupted and the entire communion matrix became unusable. We advised the King to head off the panic with a proclamation, one which he was surprisingly adroit at.”

                “Well, the man can’t swing a sword but I understand he has a great grasp of magitek.”

                “Indeed he does. This has placated the masses, for now, however as their unease rises it won’t be long before panic sets in. Especially when more Harpy mail comes in delivering the same messages. Or perhaps when one of them gets through with this message.”

                He slaps a letter down on the table that you scan through before clenching your teeth.

                “When did this arrive?”

                “Not much earlier than you. This will cause many problems, especially since our main means of communication has been cut.”

                You stare down at the letter to see a hastily written missive by the mayor of Cair requesting support from the Kingdom. Bombings have occurred the in the city and he’s afraid more are coming. Damn, the cells didn’t get rooted it after you left it seems.

                “We don’t know much more than that. We’re intercepting mail from the north to screen for messages like this, but I assume more than we can handle will come in soon enough. Something will slip through, or more likely, someone.”

                “If we’d gone by land perhaps we could have…” You shake your head. No, you would have been extremely late. Without Simone still present, you can’t exactly go back either. You just hope the garrisons nearby can-

                “Wait, but if the garrisons nearby are-?”

                “Precisely. We fear this is somehow a ploy by the Galmathorians to cause strife behind our lines before making more of a push. We’re slower to react than we should be because of it and the Order fears the northern fortresses may come under pressure because of it.”

                You frown, “That’s certainly one way to look at it.”

                “It’s merely a theory, Mr. Shady. Merely a theory.” He folds his hands together under his chin. “Now then, tell me more about what errand you were running in the Monster Nation that caused you to burn down an embassy?”

                Without missing a beat you say, “Unfortunately that’s information that only the Grand Wizard and the Lord Commander are privy too. You’ll have to ask them.”

                “Haha… is that so.” He says, shaking his head before leaning inward and lowering his glasses, revealing a serious expression in his eyes. “Tobias. This is the fate of Deleor we’re talking about. I need to know what you know about all of this. You, the Grand Wizard, and this Rommel character have all been doing some rather strange things. You’re all characters of interest and I doubt you’d all be in Sanctifrond at the same time without reason.”

                You look him straight in the eye, never flinching. “Ask. The Lord. Commander.”

                Anderson sits back and readjusts his glasses. He doesn’t say anything for a long time, merely staring… at least, you think. Eventually lets out a sigh and says, “I hope neither of us regrets your decision, Tobias.”

                A knock comes from the trapdoor. Anderson nods to the other agent in the room. You hadn’t even noticed that the second one left, but you can hear their voice as the first agent opens the trapdoor and talks with them before delivering a letter to Anderson. The man reads it before sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose.

                “What?” You ask, worried.

                “There’s been an incident.”

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