Illusionistquest Chapter 12: Mazes


Chapter 61

Filled with delicious grain and grain accessories, you retire to your room to chat over your next course of action. Akela sits upon the bed she’ll be sharing with Saya, while you sit at the table along with the other adults. You lean back in your chair, though there aren’t exactly enough for everyone, and stretch as you speak.

“Well that’s lucky enough. We know that our quarry is a farmer and is spooky.”

“That really narrows it down,” Clint says. “Though I suppose if he’s known, he’d be easier to find, huh?”

“Sounds about right,” Ophelia says, rubbing her chin. “I don’t know terribly much about country places like this though. How would you go about finding such a place?”

Ginelle chuckles. “Same way you go about finding any other place. You search around for awhile and eventually bumble into it.”

“Or, you know, we could ask someone,” Saya says, rolling her eyes. Ginelle gives her a side-long glance, her eyes sparkling with mischief, and Saya huffs. “Oh don’t you give me that. This is serious, it sounds like people are vanishing around this place.”

“Could be isolated incidents?” you say, shrugging, but the look that Saya gives you says otherwise. “It was worth a try, but you’re right. Guy’s probably grinding their bones to bake bread or something.”

Clint looks down at piece of bread he smuggled out from downstairs. He stares at it long and hard before taking a bite and chewing, though Ophelia gives him a horrified look.

“What? They taste delicious.”

“Even I find that odd,” Ginelle says, frowning too. Clint raises a hand in defeat.

“Fine, fine. I really doubt this is made from people’s bones or anything, seeing how he can’t have been doing this long enough to bring in a harvest or anything.”

“That’s not the-” Ginelle pauses, sighs, and rolls her eyes.

“Uhm, so, back on track I guess?” Clarissa says, raising a wing. “How do you plan to uh… you know.” She looks over to Akela, who yawns and waves a dismissive hand.

“I know what you’re doing, keep talking.”

Clarissa looks a little sick, however she just nods her head and swallows before continuing. “Uhm, right then. So…?”

You look about the group before shrugging. “First things first, we need to find the guy, then I suppose we’ll look into how to deal with him.”

Clint raises a finger. “If he’s out with his crops all day, I could, you know, put a shot into his head. Or chest, honestly anywhere would probably work pretty well.”

Saya nods her head. “That sounds like a solid plan. I doubt people around here have any idea what a weapon like that sounds like, let alone what it looks like. Would be easiest with the least chance of collateral damage and we can leave before anything really serious comes of it.”

She shrugs. “Worst case scenario, I can just dispose of the corpse easily enough, though I really don’t like the taste of men.”

Ginelle looks troubled, having seen what Saya can do to a corpse, or even a still living body, though Clint shoots you a shit-eating grin. You flip him the Harpy and he shakes his head before looking serious again and speaking.

“Way I see it, Tobias is right, we don’t know enough about this guy. Tomorrow we’ll get some recon and see if we can’t do this. I’ll set up once we find him and wait for a good shot.” He smirks and looks about. “Well, I could use a good pair of eyes to help me out also. Helps with the boredom too. Any volunteers?”

Ophelia looks at his rifle and makes to raise her hand slowly, but Ginelle beats her too it. The Rabbit Girl shoots her hand down and blushes as Ginelle says, “Fine, I’ll watch your back.”

Everyone looks at her with surprised expressions. “What? It makes sense, right? Tobias and Saya can do the groundwork while Clint and I cover the two of you.”

“Yeah that does makes sense,” you say, nodding your head. “I am curious about those outer farms and the disappearances though. Clarissa, do you think you could look into that after scouting out the Tucker farm?”

She puts a wing to her head in a salute. “You got it! Should be easy enough, seeing as I brought my uniform and all.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out the outfit with the crown on the back. “I think I can convince people to spill some information. You’d be surprised what people will tell the mail carriers.”

“Speaking of which, has anyone, you know… propositioned you while on a delivery?” Ginelle asks, to a groan from Saya.

Clarissa nods her head like it was a matter of course. “Oh yes, all the time honestly. I used to be really embarrassed by at first but… eh. Unless they take a package wearing no clothes, it doesn’t bother me… much.” She ruffles a few feathers before coughing into her wing. “Yeah, anyway, I can do that.”

“Alright, that’s the game plan for now,” you say, nodding your head. “I think the next order of business is-”

“Uh, what am I going to do?” Ophelia asks, frowning.

You look at her a little startled before rubbing at the back of your head. “Ah, sorry. Uhm, could you, you know, look after Akela for us while we’re out?”

You note Akela in your peripheral vision shaking her head in the negative, but you ignore it as Ophelia sighs. “Alright, that’s fine. I probably shouldn’t feel upset at being left out of murder, but oh well.” She stretches before clapping her hands together and saying, “Alright, time for sleep then! A long day ahead of us, huh sweetie?”

“We’re going to learn, aren’t we?” Akela asks, her face a neutral mask.

“Yes. Yes, we are,” Ophelia says, smiling broadly. “Do you know what a phase relay is?”

“No.”

“Well you’re going to!” Ophelia bounces off to her room with Clint, Ginelle, and Clarissa, who all wave good night, leaving the three of you alone. As soon as the room is quiet, you walk over to the bed and sit down next to Akela, smiling as she lets out a little yawn before saying, “And I thought the orphanage was terrible.”

“Come on, Ophelia isn’t that bad.”

“No, it’s just tedious.” She hugs at her little doll before mumbling, “Thank you…”

“Hmm?” you say, leaning in closer. “What was that?”

“I said thank you…” Akela mumbles again. “For the party and… well.” She trails off, but you just smile broadly and give her a big hug, which takes her off guard for a moment until she sighs. “You two are going to spoil me.”

“And you have too much self-awareness for a child,” Saya says, touching Akela’s nose with a finger. “I know this is a serious situation we’re in, but we don’t want any harm to come to you and we want you to be happy. Things might be difficult at times but we’ll do anything we can for you. I mean, we’re family now, right?”

Akela looks between you and Saya before sighing and looking down, a small smile on her lips. “Oh alright… now get to bed, we all have a long day ahead of us.”

“Sometimes, I can’t tell who the adult is here,” Saya says.

“It’s certainly not Tobi- I mean, dad,” Akela says, to which you huff.

“Told off by my own daughter. Kids these days!”

Akela giggles at that, and you rub her head before nodding to Saya. “Alright, night you two.” You make to move to your own bed when Saya grabs you hand, gently applying pressure on it as she gives you a hug from behind. You both sit like that for a moment before she lets your fingers go and you smile at her, heading to your bed for a good night’s sleep.

Morning comes and, after breakfast, everyone heads off to find where the Hells Carl Tucker’s farm is, prepared to spend all day doing if it needs be. As it turns out, it only takes about five minutes since everyone knows everyone in this town. It seems like he lives a few miles out north of town on a wheat farm, so you all head out there to recon.

Clarissa takes flight ahead of your group and by the time she returns you’re barely out of town, the summer sun starting to beat down on all of you. Honestly, you really shouldn’t be wearing your suit, but you’re starting to get used to the sensation and damn do you look good in it. Maybe it’s just heat stroke coming on?

Ginelle seems fine, dressed in her old, torn up clothing, while Saya wears her black outfit, seeming a little hot herself. Everyone shoots Clint dirty looks, because he doesn’t appear to care in the slightest about the temperature. Whenever he takes off his hat to wipe sweat from his brow, you swear all the girls in the group stare…

Clarissa lands in front of you and salutes, a gesture you find endearing, if a little off putting. Damn, are you really that commanding now? She walks up and gives her report.

“Farm is where they said it would be, and I saw the man standing out there, cutting wheat with his scythe. I felt a certain sense of… I dunno, foreboding when I went over there, like if I landed I’d just curl up in a ball and cry.” She shivers for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, there’s a small ridge overlooking the wheat fields that can see the farmhouse and barn. Should be perfect for you Clint.”

Clint tips his hat and nods to Ginelle, who nods back. You take a breath and say, “Alright, sounds simple enough. Go try to get some more information from the outlying farms as we go ahead and make our way there. We won’t start until you return.”

“Roger that!” she says, leaping into the air and heading back to town. Damn do you envy her flight sometimes.

“Right then,” Clint taps the [Magesight Goggles] he took from Ophelia earlier. “These should come in handy too. Always feels a little odd using them, but I’m sure I can cut through anything he throws at us.”

With Clarissa having taken wing again, the rest of you head to the farm, reaching it about an hour later, the sun still rising in the morning sky. The ridge is where Clarissa described it, so all of you crawl up to the edge through the brush and look out over the fields. Most of the wheat is already harvested, though there’s a lot more than you’d expect. Wasn’t the harvest already supposed to be concluded? In the back sits the farmhouse made of solid wood, with a simple red and white painted, wooden barn behind it.

You look over the fields for signs of the farmer and see… nothing. Frowning, you motion to Clint, who sights through his rifle and the [Magesight Goggles]. He shakes his head though, whispering, “There’s some faint magical energies from the barn, but… is that a scarecrow?”

All of you look toward the field to see a shape hidden in the wheat. Why it would be hidden, you have no idea, since that defeats the purpose, but you can’t tell much more about it other than it gives you the creeps. You grunt before looking to Saya, who frowns and shakes her head. “No, let’s wait for Clarissa and see what she has to say before heading out there.”

“Fine. Clint, don’t make any moves until we return,” you say, nodding to the others and slipping away with Saya, crawling far enough away to wait until Clarissa arrives, dropping down to meet you, her brow coated with a thin trickle of sweat.

“Did you get him?” she asks, chuckling darkly, though you just shake your head. She sighs and nods. “Well, from what I can tell asking after some of the missing people, there are three unaccounted for, apparently they just got up and left one day, saying they were going to help mister Tucker with his crops after his wife died about two months ago. The townsfolk are worried, but whenever someone tried to go and ask him about where the people went, they somehow got lost and decided not to bother, though they seem perplexed at why they thought that.”

“Three people missing around here is a big deal.”

“Well, four people, actually. One of the farms I visited said that one of the sons went out yesterday, but hasn’t been seen since.”

You and Saya trade looks before nodding in unison. “Alright, thanks Clarissa, I think we can handle it from here.”

“Oh, oh one more thing!” she says, hopping forward and leaning in. “Apparently his wife was a Sheep Girl and was pretty beloved by people around here. He took it really, really hard when she died, didn’t even have a proper funeral for her, though people tried to get him to.”

“That’s… disturbing,” Saya says, looking worried. “You don’t think he has her body still?”

Clarissa shudders. “Gods I hope not. But that’s all I could really find out before people started asking questions.” She rummages in her bag and pulls out a loaf of bread. “They did give me this though. Very nice folks around here.”

When you frown at the loaf, she sighs and looks over towards the farm. “This is going to be something bad, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” you say, nodding your head. “Alright, I guess we’ll have to head out and-”

*CRACK*

All three of you go rigid as the sound echoes through the air. It rings through the open sky loud and clear and, though you’ve only heard it once before, you know exactly what the sound was. Both you and Saya break into a sprint toward Clint on the ridge, finding him looking down the barrel of his rifle, cursing like a damn sailor.

“Mark showed his head, so I took a shot. He dropped, but Ginelle went out there to confirm the kill. She hit the wheat fields and now…” He waves out toward the field. “I can’t see her shape distinctly, there’s a lot of magical noise though, which makes me think he’s not dead.”

Clint grits his teeth. “I know I put the shot into his chest, these goggles don’t lie. So why did Ginelle vanish?”

Looking out at the field, you notice two things. One, you can’t see Ginelle either and two, you can’t find that scarecrow anymore. What the fuck happened to make Clint fail to kill the man, and where did Ginelle go? Better yet, where the fuck did the man drop if Clint hit him at all? And most of all, why did he disobey you and take the shot early?

You feel your hands knot unconsciously into fists as you round upon Clint, not even thinking as you do. Before anyone can stop you, your fist flies toward Clint’s face, yet mere inches before it collides with him, you stop yourself, shaking with barely restrained anger. Saya pulls you back into the cover before you can make a complete fool of yourself, though you’re not certain anyone is watching anyway.

Everyone stares at you with shocked expressions, except for Clint himself, who just looks at you with a stony gaze. He merely pulls his rifle back and lifts the goggles from his eyes to frown at you.

“Well, why didn’t you do it?”

Anger still flowing through you, it takes effort to calm yourself and think your answer through. “Because it would have been a mistake. Because I should have known you’d take the shot before everyone was ready. Because I’m a fool who let my emotions get the better of me and I lost my cool.”

Clint studies you for a little longer before sighing and looking back over the wheat field. “Fine. Good to see you have a working head on your shoulders. I hope you know that I’m with you because I believe in what you’re doing, nothing more.” As he says this, his eyes scan over the wheat field anxiously, his fingers tapping his rifle.

“Of course,” Saya says, still looking at you with concern. “There’s obviously something… here, but I think we can leave that for later, for now, we need to find Ginelle.”

Both you and Clint look to each other before nodding at her and grunting. Clarissa rolls her eyes and says, “Boys…” as you turn to the wheat field and grit your teeth. Looking out over it, it seems peaceful, as if nothing is wrong, but with that scarecrow gone and Ginelle silent…

“Damnit,” you mutter. “Come on Saya, we’re going into that wheat field.”

“W-what? You’re going in?” Clarissa says, worried.

“Yes, unless you’re going with us,” Saya says. Clarissa looks out to the field and shudders violently.

“No… no I can’t. It’s… I can’t explain it, but something is screaming at me not to go there.”

All three of you look between each other before Clint says what you’re all thinking.

“Scarecrow.”

Clarissa’s eyes widen in indignation and she stomps a talon, huffing. “I-I’m not afraid of any s-scarecrow.”

“It’s literally in the name. But never mind, if you don’t want to go in, will you act as a spotter for me?”

Clarissa looks at him a little confused before thinking about it and nodding her head, moving off the ridge and leaping into the air, circling over the farm in lazy arcs. Clint peers up at her with the goggles down before looking back at the field, his rifle readied. “Go, I’ll cover you.”

Saya nods her head and makes to go, but you put a hand on his shoulder. Before you can speak he says,

“You’re not actually sorry, I know, but this isn’t the time for your drama. Get out there and save Ginelle!” He shrugs you off and looks back over the forest of wheat, his jaw clenched as he searches. You watch him for a moment more before saying,

“It’s not your fault.”

“What did I fucking just say?”

You take the hint and leave with Saya, the two of you crawling down the hill before walking up to the edge of the wheat. Both of you stare up at the stalks and feel… a sense of unease. The magic is thick in the air here, and it’s not entirely illusionary, which leaves you surprised and confused. Saya has to shake your arm to break you out of your stupor, giving you a concerned look.

Shaking your head, you let her know you’re okay and she takes your hand in hers, the other holding her knife, and the two of you take the first steps into the wheat field.

 

Chapter 62

Your foot enters an open space and you stumble as everything seems… different. You’re still in a wheat field, that’s for certain, but they seem taller than before, much taller, and you see a large, open passageway which has multiple other paths coming off it. You and Saya both look to each other before taking in deep breaths and turning about to see that the exit-

There is none. Just a wall of densely packed wheat that you can’t dig through no matter how hard you try. Frowning, you close your eyes and concentrate on breaking the illusion, yet when you open your eyes, the walls seem less… distinct, but still present, and a moment later your hesitation makes them snap back into place without trouble. This, of course, is very troubling.

“Well shit,” Saya says, looking about. “We got caught.”

“It’s just part of the plan…” you growl, walking through what is obviously a maze. “This isn’t just an illusion, I can promise you that.”

“What does that mean?” Saya asks, walking forward to catch up with you. “How can it not just be an illusion, Wizards can’t use illusions, so this man can only use one form of magic… right?”

You nod your head and grunt. “Yes, as far as I know, no Illusionist could wield any other magic, which means he has outside help. How he made these work together, I don’t know, I just don’t know.”

Saya frowns and slaps the wheat with her hand, which becomes black as pitch. As soon as she makes contact, the wheat melts under her touch. She frowns and makes to melt a larger hole, but as she does, the wheat grows over her arm and she’s forced to pull back or melt away her clothing. Not exactly the worst outcome, you’d have to admit, but maybe you should save those thoughts for later.

As it stands, Saya growls and kicks the wheat before throwing her hands into the air. “Fuck it, guy wants us in a maze, we’ll do this fucking maze.”

“See, that’s why we’re dating,” you say, smiling at her.

“Oh? My sailor’s mouth?”

“It’s one part of your mouth I enjoy, yes.”

She quirks an eyebrow, but you’re busy staring off down the corridor, looking toward something. Saya begins to speak, but you put up a hand as you hear a shuffling sound. You take a step forward and something dashes through the wheat in front of you, limbs flailing faster than you can identify before vanishing through the other side.

Saya noticed too, so both of you break into a run to chase after whatever it was, turning sharply to the right and seeing two more paths ahead. You close your eyes and listen, nodding to the left as you think you’ve heard something. Saya doesn’t argue and you run down this new walkway of wheat, making two more turns and yet not finding anything. You make to turn another corner when something slams into you from the side and you fly into the wheat, yelping as the prickly plants rough your skin.

Before you can react, you feel wood scraping against your flesh while something less dense, something akin to straw, digs abrasions across your face. You flail about as whatever it is attacks you like a Monkey Girl and, with effort, you push it off you, panting as blood trickles down your face. Saya runs up behind your assailant as you rise and both of you stare in surprise at what you see.

The thing standing before you is not a man nor a Monster, and indeed it shouldn’t be alive at all. It stands there before you, shivering and shaking in odd, jerking motions, bits of straw falling off it as it does. It makes no noise as it rounds on you and buttons sewn onto a burlap sack bore into you. There’s no emotion present in those inanimate eyes, yet there’s enough of a spark of life to make you step back in reflexive terror from the thing which is most certainly a scarecrow.

It takes the opportunity to leap at you again, and you duck down, rolling past it as it flies into the wheat, vanishing out of sight without any apparent effort. You blink and step back when it charges forward again, straw filled legs and wooden frame reaching for you. Before it can grab you, however, Saya darts forward, slashing her knife at the thing, causing it to stagger off balance enough for you to get out of the way as it careens past.

You look over to see it turning about and shuddering violently, straw falling from the rent in its belly. Reaching your mind out to the thing, you try and dispel the illusion, if only a little, yet your power slides over it which means….

Your eyes snap open and you shout, “It’s real! This damn thing is real!”

The Scarecrow whips its head back to you and it charges again, but Saya tackles the thing, her hand melting its right arm clean off. It wobbles back and looks at you, then to its arm. It shudders and twitches before turning and running off into the wheat, its soft footfalls becoming lost in the maze.

Saya makes to go after it, but you put a hand on her shoulder and shake your head, instead nodding over to a pathway in the general direction it had fled. Should you continue this way, you’ll surely run into it again, one way or another. Without another word, the two of you run forward, moving as best as you can figure down the same path it ran ahead. It’s disorienting, however, since the wheat all looks the same. Unbidden, you remember the corn maze that you had to run through once in Kasin. You had said never again, but here you fucking are.

Ahead of you, you can hear sounds of movement, and you turn a corner with care before pulling backward, just barely missing getting hit in the face with a scythe, the instrument slicing through the air where you stood with an audible whooshing sound, becoming impaled in the ground before being torn back out. You bring the thing fully into view to find, with shock, that it is not the same scarecrow that assaulted you beforehand, but indeed an entirely different one. Its clothing and button eyes are very different than the first and this one still has both hands, which it uses to make another sweep with the scythe.

Thankfully, scythes are horrifically bad weapons, and you dodge it easily enough to place hands on the shaft, trying to wrench it free from the grasp of the scarecrow. As you do, you hear Saya shout something, and you turn about in time to jump backward as a sickle hooks in the air where you stood, moving in strange, jittering motions.

Unfortunately your dodge forces you to leave the weapon behind and now two scarecrows stand before you, both armed. A moment later, a third appears from the wheat, floating in like a ghost, a pitchfork in its strange hands. All three stare at you, their erratic jittering making your eyes hurt and your stomach queasy. The lead one with the sickle points it at you and the others charge forward when a loud cry comes up and, from around a bend, charges in Ginelle, her heavy feet churning up earth as she barrels into the three scarecrows, heedless of the danger, snapping wood as her powerful form crashes into them.

They fall in a tangled heap and Saya wastes no time leaping forward and hacking at them with her knife, something you stay out of as not to get in the way of the Monster’s ferocity. You watch as straw is thrown into the air like blood, the jittering motions of the scarecrows growing frantic and, with a sickening crack, Ginelle pries the head off the one with the pitchfork, causing the thing to fall still.

Ginelle shouts in triumph, but not before the scythe wielding scarecrow she’s straddling slides from underneath her powerful thighs and rights itself hurriedly, shaking and jittering, its weapon left on the ground. The one with the sickle tries to extricate itself, but Saya takes the hint and destroys its head. It too goes still.

All eyes turn on the remaining scarecrow and it seems to know it’s outmatched. Twitching and jittering, it shudders violently and runs through the pathways, not even bothering to crash through the wheat like it did before. Eyes going wide with hope, you chase after it, Ginelle and Saya following after you in hot pursuit. Your eyes never leave the thing and, after a final left turn, you break into a clearing where the scarecrow flails out toward two forms in the center.

The one-armed scarecrow from before stands, shivering and shuddering over the form of a prone man, who looks as if he’s in his late thirties, his hairline receding in time with his gut increasing. The man lays gasping for breath, his arms shaking, eyes wild as he clutches at a hole in his chest. You realize with a start that this is the man that Clint shot, and you can feel the illusion magic pouring from him. He looks at you with those fearful eyes before coughing something at the scarecrows.

They shuffle, jerk, and, with a sickening clap, they slam together and then begin to shift. The burlap from the damaged one splits and the straw pours into the other, swelling its size as it cannibalizes the other, making a macabre, swollen horror that shambles forward, its arms flailing.

You prepare to fight when the man, Carl Tucker, coughs again, a fountain of blood coming out, and he slumps to the side, obviously dead.

In an instant, the wheat shimmers and then seems to snap, at once becoming normal height. With a disorienting feeling, you find yourself suddenly on the ground, hidden by the tall stalks, your friends laying nearby. Unfortunately, the Scareogre is not fazed by this and it continues to charge at you. As you lay there, you take a moment to wonder if you can be crushed by straw when you hear a terrifying shriek of panic from high above and a moment later a bolt of purple energy slams into the head of the thing, snapping it backward and sending it reeling as a second shot hits in close to the first, passing through to cause a rent in the ground. The thing shudders and then falls to the earth, exploding into a cloud of straw.

You look up in confusion at the slowly falling straw, like flakes of snow, and you shake your head as it gets in your hair. There’s no time get your bearings before Ginelle tackles you and you feel your bones hurt as she smashes her cheek into yours, gibbering, “Oh Gods, Tobias, I thought I’d never get out of there and I’d never see you again and I’d have to subsist on wheat with scarecrows around and-!”

She’s cut off as wind picks up and the straw is thrown about, Clarissa touching down on the ground to look at you with relief. She stares at the corpses of the scarecrows and shudders before coming to hug you also. “Oh my Gods, when you entered that wheat you just vanished! Clint couldn’t even see you with the [Magesight goggles]!”

“I think that was less the goggles fault and more the height of the wheat. It was a shared illusion, though all of us were on the ground I guess. Explains why he couldn’t see us, though how Tucker got us to sit on the ground, I have no idea. Frankly, I’m pissed.”

“Yeah well, I’m feeling amazing!” cries Abigail as she appears from your jacket pocket, looking a little worse for the wear, though she shines with that bright light. You try to shy away from her, but she zooms into your face, hers suddenly becoming the size of a human child’s. Though you flinch as she pushes her lips to yours, there’s no stopping the warmth of power flooding into you again.

>You gain, <Cupid>

>The power of love and lust taken from Dollora, channeled through the moderation and gentleness of Fillios, you can alter the feelings of others more readily to have romantic feelings for each other.

You frown deeply as Abigail, large as she is, pulls back, her eyes looking a little dreamy until they snap back into focus, and she reappears in her normal size. The others stare in a mix of fury and horror as Abigail flits back into your pocket before Saya can rip her little head off. Not deterred, Saya makes a good effort to tear off your jacket and get to the Fairy, but cuts off as you hear a whistling and turn to the rise to see Clint waving at something behind you. You look about to see the barn door swing open slowly, and from within a dark form emerges, armored feet clanking against the earth.

The creature places a wicked looking scythe against the sleek, yet entirely functional black armor, its red trim shining bright in the daylight. The one wearing it is obviously a woman and, despite the large full helm that she wears, it’s clear that her vision is trained to the dead man on the ground.

She grunts, “Well this is a fine mess you damn kids,” the sound echoing in her helm as she holds out the scythe toward you. Before she can say anything further, another cracking sound is heard and shot slams into her helmet, tossing it off land in the dirt. Instead of falling over however, the woman stands there, scythe still outstretched. The only odd thing though that her head is no longer there, and there’s no blood.

You notice with horror that the helmet nearby shifts and rumbles, and it slowly dawns on you what you’re looking at as Saya says,

“Oh Hells, it’s a Dullahan.”

 

Chapter 63

Everyone’s breath catches as a thick, black mist gently drifts up from the neck of the Dullahan, the body still standing there, scythe outstretched. An uneasy quiet fills the sunny wheat field and you feel yourself begin to sweat as the anticipation builds. The stare down, such as it is, lasts for quite some time before the headless body slowly retracts the scythe and then turns about, walking over to the rolling helmet to pick it up in one hand and set it firmly on the shoulders, twisting it about before turning to you, a massive dent visible on the cranium. She messes with it few more times before just tearing the helm off and long, blonde hair spills out around a beautiful, human looking face.

The Dullahan looks out toward all of you, her red eyes narrowing, the black sclera standing sharp contrast to her pale skin. She opens her mouth and says, in an annoyed tone, “That was rather unnecessary, don’t you think? Not very honorable at all.”

Your party goes rigid with fear, even Ginelle, though your <Battle Focus> allows you to stay calm enough in the situation. You hold up a hand and shout, “Clint! Stand down!” Though you’re not looking at the man all the way back on the ridge, you’re sure he’s stopped what he was doing. The Dullahan looks at you with a curious expression before nodding her head and relaxing her weapon a little more.

“Well, at least we can be civil about this. You have made quite a mess of things though.”

“I’m sorry, what do you mean, made a mess of things? Who are you anyway?”

She sniffs. “Hmph. It’s quite rude to ask that of a lady without introducing yourself.” She shrugs and rolls her eyes. “I thought you kept better company, Saya.”

Saya blinks in shocked surprise, breaking from her stupor to blurt out, “Delilah?!”

“The one and the same. It has been some time, hasn’t it?”

“Where… where have you? Dad he… we, have been searching for you for years! How come you haven’t tried to contact us even once?”

Delilah gives a wan smile, “While our little adventure was fun, to a degree, I am but a servant of Nerg, and I go to do his bidding.” Her smile vanishes. “However, as said before, you’ve made a mess of that.”

“I… apologize?” you say, not certain of how to proceed. “Ah, but my name is Tobias Shady, and we had no idea that there was anything here involved with Nerg. We were merely here to deal with that man there, an Illusionist who had gone insane. It was under the orders of Jackor, or are we to get into a feud of the Gods?”

Delilah narrows her eyes. “Jackor? He has agents of his own beyond those damn Fairy troublemakers? Hmph, I didn’t know he employed assassins, but certainly I approve, except in this instance.” She nods to the corpse of Carl Tucker.

“The man hadn’t been doing well for some time, as such things go with Illusionists, but the death of his wife pushed him over the edge. Then some woman from out of town apparently convinced him that he could use his magic to raise her from the dead. Of course, he was failing miserably, and only going more and more insane each time he tried.

“These attempts did not escape the notice of Nerg, however, and he sent me out here to teach him a few rituals to amplifying his little maze trick and put souls temporarily into the scarecrows- which you ruined by the way.” She gives you an annoyed look before sighing.

“Well, had he succeeded in the true ritual, he would have raised the corpse of his wife into a Carrion Lord and caused a blight to spread over this fertile land to create quite the spectacle of disease. Unfortunately, the man was, as stated before, quite insane. Whatever this woman did to him, it really messed him up. A shame though it would have made Papa Nerg very happy. ”

She nods her head at this, as if imagining the death spread by infecting such a place.

All of you look sick, especially Clarissa, who puts her wings over her mouth in shock. Saya says, her face distraught, “Delilah, you wouldn’t-“

“Yes, I would, or do you not recall how your father and I met?” Delilah says sharply, glaring at Saya. “Honestly, for a daughter of Nerg I assumed you’d be on board with this.”

“I’m not a daughter of… Nerg…” Saya says, eyes cast down, as if ashamed.

“Whatever you say, dear, but I might as well have been your mother, or at least midwife.”

Saya grows pale at this for some reason, so you step in front of her and glare at the Dullahan. “That’s enough of that. Tucker is dead and your plot is ruined. Let’s not bring this to blows since there’s nothing left to fight over.”

Delilah blinks in surprise, as if caught unaware by your commanding presence. She appraises you critically before turning her gaze up to Clint over on the ridge and frowning. “Unfortunately, you are correct. I may be able to salvage this mess, but I also do not relish being carted around as nothing more than a head and forced to kiss Ghosts again.”

She shudders and licks her lips, though you’re not certain if her expression is disgusted. A moment later her eyes return to you and she smiles, though the gesture makes your skin crawl.

“You’ve seen much death, even at this age, haven’t you? Are you certain you wish to serve that bastard God, Jackor? All of you would do well serving Nerg.”

“Though I’m afraid my work will cause more souls to enter his domain, I’m afraid I will have to decline.”

“A pity, though in the end you do serve him, one way or another,” she says, shrugging. “Well, since you made this into a mess, I’ll leave it for you to clean up. Oh and please play in the blood a little, it’s absolutely filthy and a touch of plague would do you good, I think.”

“Ah…” Saya asks, hands to her chest, her expression troubled. Delilah cocks her head and Say searches for her words before looking up and saying, “Will we ever… see you again?”

The Dullahan closes her eyes and looks down at the ground, as if to the Hells themselves, that wan smile on her face. “Nerg calls me forth, as there is always death waiting for the reaper to claim. But perhaps… someday I’ll… call in sick?”

Saya blinks in surprise, clearly not able to process that Delilah just told a pretty good joke, all things considered. You put a hand on her shoulder and nod your head before turning back to the Dullahan and calling out, “Before you go, can you answer me one question?”

“Hmm?” Delilah muses, looking amused. “Whatever could the son of Jackor wish to know from a daughter of Nerg?”

“Will you sign my copy of [Wizardquest]?”

Delilah looks at you with utter bewilderment, a sentiment shared by everyone else present. You can hear Saya fumbling for words while Clarissa seems a little faint. Yet you hold your ground, staring down an avatar of death itself, your conviction never wavering.

The Dullahan merely hangs her head and chuckles before throwing said head back (and almost causing it to tumble off her shoulders), giving a full-throated laugh, the sound rich and harmonious, despite her macabre appearance.

“You chose well, Saya! May the two of you bring the blessings of Nerg to this land!” With that, she waves her hand and vanishes into pocket of shadow, presumably returning to the Hells and her father, Nerg.

You blink a few times as she goes, the tension disappearing and leaving you feeling utterly exhausted. Sighing, you turn to see Clarissa slumped down and hugging Ginelle, who actually looks afraid for once. The Crow Girl is crying while Ginelle moves her mouth wordlessly, and you have to give a short command in order to get them to snap out of it long enough to listen to reason.

“Are you alright?” you say, holding out a hand to both of them. Clarissa, eyes filled with tears looks at your hand before slowly taking it, her legs shaking with fear.

“S-she was so s-scary, I… when she looked at me I just felt myself go numb and couldn’t think of anything.”

“I… I’ve never truly been afraid of… but how did you?” Ginelle mutters, allowing you to help her up. You sigh as Clint charges into view and hugs Ginelle, the startled Badger almost getting bowled over the by man. He hugs for perhaps a little longer than is necessary before letting go and releasing a deep breath.

“Gods, I thought she was going to kill you! I almost took a shot right then and there and-” He blink and looks about to see yours and Saya’s startled expressions before taking a step back and coughing into his hand. “Right then… sorry about that. Glad to see you’re okay though.”

Ginelle looks at him blankly before her eyes shift to you. You nod toward him and she looks confused before she turns to Clint says, “I… thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah I… well, I’m glad everyone is alright,” he says hastily before looking over at Clarissa, who is still shaking. “I’m glad it didn’t come to blows. I don’t think I could have hit the broadside of that barn, my hands were shaking so much. Gods, we should return to the inn and get something to help calm everyone’s nerves.”

He pulls out a hip flask to get a head start on this and Clarissa swipes it with the skill and grace only a Crow Girl, born with such innate talent, could manage. She unscrews the cap somehow and drinks deep of the draught, coughing as the bitter taste burns her throat. She hands it back to Clint, who gives her a surprised look before taking a swing himself and nodding.

“Alright then.”

“You go ahead,” you say to Clint before waving at the others. “I need to deal with something.” Your gaze drifts to the barn as a sick expression plays over your features. Ginelle walks up and puts a shaking hand on your arm.

“Tobias, we can go-”

“I’d… rather you don’t,” you say, looking uneasy. “I don’t think anything good will come of this and I don’t want you to have to suffer any more today.” Ginelle gives you hurt expression before nodding her head solemnly.

“I understand. Just be careful.”

“Oh, he will,” Saya says, her gaze turning away from where Delilah faded away. “I’ll be there to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”

“Oh, me too!” Abigail says, poking her head out before quickly darting it back in as Saya reaches for her, only succeeding in fumbling at your jacket pocket, which is still surprisingly intact. Gods, this was a wonderful investment, how was that Lizardman only selling in the street markets? They play a game of cat and mouse for a few moments before you wave both of them off and huff. Saya glares at your chest before sniffing as you wave away the others on their trip back to town.

The three of you walk to the barn with its open doors. A deep sense of… wrongness pervades and you notice then that a fetid stench is coming from inside. Taking a breath, you look inside, though you wish you hadn’t.

Inside, illuminated by small windows in the barn exterior, you see what appears to be a shrine with multiple cold candles around it. In the center sits the bloated form of a Sheep Girl, her head lolling to the side as her sickly skin shines with various oils and unguents. Doing your best to keep your breakfast in you, you look about the rest of the barn to see scarecrows on the walls, though these aren’t moving. A few racks appear to be empty though, with the bodies of humans sitting before them, their heads slumped to the side. You steel yourself and head to one, holding your nose as the horrible stench of decay tries to suffocate you, and you turn the man over to find him dehydrated and a little thin, but alive. Snapping your fingers a few times before him, his eyes flutter open before closing shut again as he collapses.

Saya, not perturbed by the smell (Seeing as she removed her nose) frowns at the man and says, in a strange voice. “Their souls must have been returned after the scarecrows were destroyed.”

You make to open your mouth to reply, but feel yourself about to retch as you do, and instead close your eyes and nod your head. Saya puts a hand on your shoulder and you both take the three men and one woman, all in various stages of malnourishment, outside before returning to look at the altar once more. Upon a corner sits a notebook, which turns out to be a diary filled with script that gradually grows more and more incomprehensible.

“My wife is dead, but this Chalan, she said I could bring her back. I had the gift, the power, it only needed to be nurtured, like a seed germinating. But with every passing day, I knew in my heart that her words were poison in my mind. She said she would come back for me, but I know she lied. It was only when the pale lady came did I learn the true way to use my gift. Oh, my dear, dear sweet Tellenarre, I will do whatever it takes to have you once more in my arms…”

You drop the book on the ground and turn to Saya. Neither of you have to say anything as you both enter the house, clean up the scratches on your face, and find some lantern oil, dousing the barn with as much as you can before setting it aflame. You watch it for awhile before agreeing to leave, knowing the smoke will attract people who can help the captives you found without too many questions. Well, you hope they’ll be okay, but you don’t want to be wrapped up in this any further, instead making your way to the inn as fast as possible.

 

Chapter 64

The scene you find in your room is at once as hilarious as it is depressing. Clarissa is laying on the floor, her wings spread up in the air as she giggles, stinking of drink, while Ginelle and Clint pass a bottle, Ophelia pinching the bridge of her nose as Akela watches with an impassive expression. As soon as you enter, she looks to both you and Saya before asking, “Can you do something about all of this?”

You rub your head and sigh as Clarissa rolls under a bed, and Clint offers you a bottle. Saya groans and slumps her shoulders, the two of you feeling utterly drained before having to come back to… this. Clint looks at both of you and cocks his head before waving you over, which you do with tired steps. He hands over the bottle to Ginelle and breathes out, breath filled with the smell of whisky, before saying, “Sorry Tobias, they just sort of… well, it was a strange day, you know? Can’t fault the poor girls for wanting to have a little something to ease their minds.”

“You’re doing this in front of a child.”

“Child? Hells, I bet she’s the most mature one here.” He nods to Ophelia. “I think your little girl was lecturing the bunny on something when we came in, the poor girl looked utterly mortified.” You look over at Akela, who pats Ophelia’s back a few times with that same, impassive expression, and Clint continues, “Honestly, I think I know what was in that barn. Why don’t the two of you go have the night out or something? We’ll look after everyone.”

Ginelle, leaning on the table, wobbles and slips, catching herself before starting and shaking her head. Clint watches before sighing, “Well, maybe I’ll look after everyone then.”

You look over at Akela, and an interesting thought comes to your head. You smirk and call over your daughter, who comes without much prodding, looking up until you kneel down.

“Hey there sweetie, how was your day?”

“Long and boring until these clowns appeared.”

“That’s… kind of rude.”

“I say it with love.” She pauses, as if expecting you to laugh at a joke, but when you don’t she shrugs, a hint of a smirk on her face before it vanishes. “Anyway, it wasn’t so bad, though I still find mana venting systems highly inefficient.” She looks at Ophelia. “She spent awhile trying to tell me otherwise, but what do I know? I’m a child.”

“You’re too smart for your own good,” you say, chuckling as you rub her head, which makes her smile some. “Ah, there we go. Now then, I’m sorry to ask this, but would you terribly mind looking after these, ah… clowns? Your m-mother and I were going to go out for a bit.”

Akela cocks her head. “Don’t you have that backward?”

You smile at her and her eyes widen as a wicked little smile appears on her face before vanishing into impassiveness. “Very well then, I’ll have them in bed by nine.”

“Be gentle with them, alright?” you say, wondering if you made a mistake, but Akela flips about, putting her hands on her hips, looking strange in that commanding pose while wearing that cute little dress of hers. She waves you away and you sigh, walking over to Saya, who gives you a curious look.

“What was that about?” she asks, her lips quirking.

You merely smile and say, “Go grab a dress and change in the other room. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She frowns but rolls her eyes and does as you bid while you head downstairs to quickly hit up the innkeeper, who gives you an odd look as you ask for the most romantic place for food in town. He frowns deeply and rubs his chin, thinking for a moment before directing you to the lone, dedicated restaurant in the town, most other places serving food being taverns. You thank him with a copper that he takes readily before turning to see Saya descending the stairs, wearing the red and black dress you had repaired in Sanctifrond. Smiling, you offer her your arm and she takes it, the two of you walking out into the early evening.

“So… want to tell me what this is about?” she asks, curious.

“Well, after today and… everything, I was thinking maybe we should do something, just the two of us.”

“Well, we did burn down a barn together today.”

“I meant something more… you know, romantic?”

She chuckles, leaning into you and shaking her head. “I was kidding! But what brought all this on?”

“Well… I mean, I was, you know.” You rub the back of your head before getting your courage in you and you say, “I was hoping to show you that you mean a lot as, well, a woman, and not just a Monster.” You lean into her and say, “Not that I don’t like that part also.”

She looks down for a moment before smiling up at you and punching your shoulder. “I’m going to be mad if I find out you’re just charming me with some illusion and you’re just some ham.”

“I assure you, I don’t need an illusion to show that I’m a ham.”

She punches your arm again before you both laugh and end up at the restaurant, a shabby little place with paint that tries to make it look like it belongs in Sanctifrond, yet fails miserably. Still, you enter with a good nature and sit down to a hilariously dressed girl in a maid outfit, who you find is a Monster the moment she opens her mouth, her long tongue falling out as she speaks. While strange, both of you are unfazed and she takes your order amiably. You both busy yourself with light conversation over wine before the main course comes out.

Of course, the best part of the food is the bread and other wheat products, filled with the same flavor as before. You revel in the glorious flavors, though the meats are a little underwhelming. At one point Saya picks up a piece of beef and holds it out to you, saying, “Open wide!” You do so, savoring the morsel more because she gave it to you in such a sweet manner rather than the actual flavor. When you try to reciprocate the gesture with a piece of your braised lamb, the meat falls off the fork and into her lap, and she looks at you with shock before laughing, though it isn’t malicious.

You finish the meal on high spirits, splitting a rather delicious cake before bidding farewell and walking out into the night. Saya sighs and leans on your arm as you do and says, “Ah… that was nice, much better than I anticipated.”

“I know, right? I thought she might have licked the food at one point though, but it’s fine, I bet she cleans the plates with that tongue anyway.”

Saya punches your arm in jest and you both laugh before she sighs and shakes her head, “I suppose we should get back to Akela and the others.”

You look at your [Pocket Timepiece] to see it’s only 8:00pm and you clap it closed before looking at the edge of town and smiling. “Nah, I have a better idea.” Saya gives you another odd look before shrugging.

The two of you walk outside the perimeter of the town, turning down a small path overlooking fields of freshly cut wheat. It’s an odd reminder of earlier that day, but the way the starry sky looks down upon you, the lights so much more noticeable in the country rather than the cities, you both feel a certain sense of wonder in the atmosphere.

It is not at all a shock then when both of you turn past the farmland to find a field of wildflowers, sparkling with lightning bugs that had begun to appear as the night grew darker. Both of you stare in wonderment and Saya leans in close to you, her oddly cold body feeling nice still against yours.

“I don’t know if I’ve really said it before Tobias but… I’m glad I didn’t kill you.”

“I uh… am too?”

She chuckles. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I meant to say though, that I’m glad that we found each other, that you could see past… what I am and just…” She sniffles and looks up at you, eyes misty. “Does it scare you, what Delilah said today?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Oh…” she says, looking down.

“I mean, she didn’t sign my book either! Am I ever going to get this thing filled out?”

Saya stares at you with confusion before blinking and, ever so slowly, beginning to chuckle. She breaks out into a full on laugh before slapping your arm and saying, “Tobias, you’re a Gods damned idiot, you know that?”

“Yes, but that’s hardly relevant at the moment,” you say before taking her hand and saying, “But I know what you’re asking and I don’t care what you are, because I love you for who you are.”

She sniffs, rubbing at her hands with the back of her hand. “I never really considered anything like this happening to me, no matter what bravado I gave to Patricia.”

“Saya, you don’t have to try so hard, you can be yourself with me.” You hold her close to you as you say gently, “I know it must be difficult. But I’m here for you.”

You look down at her face as she looks up at yours, and the familiar sensation of attraction pulses through both of you again. You move in close for a kiss when you feel a stirring in your breast pocket, but before anything can happen, Saya slams a hand into your chest where the stirring is occurring, the other going around the back of your head.

Under the starry sky, overlooking a field of wildflowers, and surrounded by the muffled sounds of a screaming Fairy, Saya kisses you. And you return the gesture wholeheartedly.

“So you’re telling me that she not only whipped everyone into shape, but she had them all in bed by 9pm, on the dot?”

Clint nods his head as he stands outside the door to the second room, chuckling softly. “You got yourself a slave driver there. I bet you if she had a whip, she’d know how to use it. Must come with the territory of being an Anubis, huh?”

“Honestly,” Saya sighs. “I kind of wanted to see that. Poor Ophelia though, she didn’t deserve any of this.”

“Nah, I think it’s revenge for her lessons today. I cheered her up by letting her look over my rifle though.” He pats the rifle in his arms. “Though only when I’m present. She keeps muttering something about augmentations, and I’m quite afraid of what she might do.”

“She’s mostly harmless,” you say, waving a hand. “Thanks for helping out Clint, especially after… well.” You rub the back of your head and he shrugs.

“Nah, don’t be like that. Just some friction in the chain of command. I’m so used to being on top that when I saw the shot, I went for it.” He shakes his head. “I’m not sorry about it either, but I do understand now that going off on your own can be trouble. I can’t promise we’ll always see eye to eye but… I would hate to see any of these ladies get hurt.”

You nod your head and he does the same, a man’s understanding reached, though Saya doesn’t really follow. Cause she’s a girl. But anyway, he smirks at you and says, “Had a good time I take it? Rather bold of you though.”

Blinking, you look down to see that both you and Saya are holding hands, and you quickly pull apart, flushing. Clint chuckles and takes a swig of his whiskey before sighing. “Ah that’s good… but we should get some sleep, leyway comes in tomorrow to this little Podunk.” He shakes his head. “You’re pretty amazing, you know? Being able to stare down a Dullahan like that? This wasn’t on the itinerary at all, yet you didn’t even sweat. How did you do it?”

“I had a little Gods-given help, and something important to protect,” you say before nodding to him. He studies your expression before smirking and then turning to enter his room, leaving you two to retreat to your own. A small lantern burns on the table, illuminating the form of Akela sitting in a chair, her head lolled to the side in sleep. You snicker a little as you imagine her waiting up for you, trying to act like an adult, but still drifting to sleep. Gently, you pick her up and place her in bed, tucking her as she makes running motions with her hands like a puppy. Both you and Saya look over her with fond expressions before you turn to each other and kiss, looking into each other’s eyes and feeling a certain longing that you break off as Akela stirs.

Saya looks down, her face flushed before crawling into bed with Akela, you taking the other bed. As you prepare yourself for sleep by removing your jacket, you find an annoyed looking Abigail there, who flies away and makes rude gestures at you. You’ll have to scold her later, but for now you better get some sleep.

You notice your [Wizardquest] copies as you do, and you pull one out, the old copy, before looking to Akela and smiling, thinking of a great father-daughter bonding moment. Also it would embarrass Saya to no end, but you put it aside for the moment, regretting that Delilah didn’t sign you book. Well, there’s always the future, right?

With that happy thought, you turn off the lantern, get in bed, and fall asleep, thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow.

The leyway heading to Oppenheim boards in the early afternoon and though the talk in the town is all about the freak lantern accident in the Tucker barn, the fact that the missing people were found certainly keeps suspicions away from you, especially after the captive woman professed that Tucker had kidnapped them and hid them in his barn. Tucker seems to be written off as a madman, and the townsfolk seem glad no one was seriously harmed, save for Tucker himself.

“All’s well that ends well, right?” Clint says, smiling, though he clearly doesn’t mean it. The tired expressions on Ginelle and Clarissa’s faces, as well as their hangovers, make it an attempt at small talk that failed. Yes, things did end well, but it was a harbinger of what is to come, all of you feel it, and with that unhappy thought, you enter the leyway, leaving while the sun is still up.

Ginelle and Clarissa immediately go to bed again, the poor Crow Girl seeming incredibly out of sorts. Ophelia decides to look after them, feeling a sort of melancholy herself, which makes you a little concerned, but you have to see to getting Saya and Akela set up first in your own room, the smallest so far.

Saya sits back against her bed, frowning as she crosses her arms. As you set your [Rucksack] down she asks, “Tobias, have you noticed how the others are acting?”

“Yep,” you say, digging through your belongings for your copy of [Wizardquest]. “They just saw some fairly heavy things and Clarissa isn’t used to this treatment. I don’t blame her for being out of sorts.”

“Still, I feel it’s something more than that, something deeper,” she mumbles before huffing. “And what is up with Ophelia?”

“She feels left out,” Akela says, looking at her doll. “I understand the sentiment in some way, but I also think I don’t want to see what you did yesterday.” Her nose wrinkles. “You smelled awful when you got back.”

You look up at the girl, blinking in confusion. “You could smell that? Ginelle didn’t make any fuss.”

“She was drunk off her ass.” She pauses, cocking her head before saying, “I mean, the Badger lady was acting funny, daddy.” Her flat, monotone ruins the effect of this, however.

“If I wasn’t such a smartass myself, I’d likely have to scold you.”

“Don’t curse in front of your daughter,” Saya says, looking to the side, a smirk on her face. “It’s undignified and sets a bad example.”

Akela nods her head. “My little mind is corrupted now, you’ve failed as a…” Her words falter in her mouth as she says them, her expression looking downcast as she turns to look at her doll. “Sorry.”

You exhale before finishing pulling out your old book, pausing as you see the small form of [Bearsy]. Staring into his little bear eyes, you hear the whispers of some forgotten language, coalescing into the thoughts, “You have to go back…” It passes soon enough and you shrug, picking up the little bear and turning to Akela, putting a hand on hers.

“Hey, now don’t get yourself down. Come on, how about we do something together, hmm?” She cocks her head as you sit down before her and take a deep breath, looking her in the eyes. You rub your chin before looking down at the book and then remembering what Akela said about feeling left out. Slowly, you put the book down and nod, expression becoming serious. “Akela, let’s talk about illusions.”

“It’s magic that allows you to affect the senses of someone affected by it,” she says as if reciting from one of Richard’s texts. Normally this would take you aback, but you’re not surprised by her as much anymore. She’s just so smart and it makes you feel wonderful and man you struck out with this little girl.

“Correct. In most cases, there’s no trouble with an Illusionist getting into someone’s head and influencing them, as most people are wont to believe what we instill into them.” You wave a hand toward the little girl. “The children at the orphanage, for instance. They wanted the comforts Miss Harriet was giving them, and thus they bought into the illusions without any trouble.”

“I’d like to have bought into those illusions as well,” Akela sighs. “Sometimes I thought I could see what the others were seeing, but… I don’t know. It seemed nonsensical.”

“That’s because you’re a little special.” She cocks her head as you hold up a finger. “I noticed it when we first met, there’s something about you that just… well, refuses to accept the illusions.” You hold out a hand to her and ask,

“If you would… I’d like to look into something. That is, if you’d allow me to.”

Akela looks at you a little dubiously, a sense of apprehension in her expression before she takes in a slow, shuddering breath and says, “Alright… but if you do anything funny, you have permission to slap him.” This is obviously meant for Saya, and the Monster nods her head before slipping to the side of the bed and holding out a hand to Akela, who takes it gratefully. They both nod to you as you take a deep breath before placing your hands to the side of her head and focusing your power.

You go for a simple thing, probing her mind to slip in an illusion of a scent, perhaps roast beast, something that could be found on the leyway without much trouble. It takes a little effort, potentially due to this “Blessing of the Sands,” but you power through and an illusion of the scent flows into her mind. For a brief moment, you see her nostrils flare slightly before she blinks in confusion and you feel a sudden shift within her and the illusion is locked out like a gate crashing down in front of a castle.

Taking a shuddering breath, you pull back and put your hands together, thinking. “Akela, you… are you alright?”

She cocks her head, expression still neutral. “I don’t see myself as all that much different. I thought I smelled something roasting for a moment, but it went away soon enough.” She thinks for a moment. “It would be weird to suddenly smell that, considering how far away the dining car is.”

You frown and nod your head before looking to Saya, who gives you a worried expression, but you shake your head and make a gesture for, “later.” Akela raises an eyebrow at this, but you just say, “Well done honey, you managed to see through my illusion very well.”

“Certainly, but how?”

You tap her head and smirk. “Because you’re so smart.”

She gives you the look of disgust that a banker would give a peasant who asked for a loan to buy a new magitek engine. Chuckling, you shake your head and say, “I didn’t mean it as a joke. I meant it seriously, you did resist because you’re innately anchored in reality, in reason. I don’t know if it’s an Anubis thing, or if it’s because of your own personality, but something within you refuses to be allowed to fall into flights of fancy.”

She still looks dubious. “Sorry but that’s the answer I have, it’s quite true! I think out of everyone here, you’re the best at resisting the illusions. I think if you’re ever in danger of illusions, remember what’s true, what’s real. Use that incredible mind of yours and piece away the fiction from the reality.” You tap your head and say, “I’ll be trying to trick you every now and again, alright? Ah, if you weren’t so cute, I might send you into the field with us!”

Saya gives you an astonished look, but Akela looks down and seems to search for something before closing her eyes and nodding her head, smirking. “Sending your own daughter on a mission to murder people, my aren’t you a caring father?” She giggles some as you give her a small noogie that turns into a headpat.

“Honestly, joking about something like that, you’re both terrible.”

Both of you look to Saya before you hold up [Wizardquest] and say, “Hey there, have you read this book yet?” When Akela shakes her head in the negative, you smile even wider and say, “Well then! Let me tell you about the best story every written! Even better, it has stories about a certain someone.” Your eyes drift to Saya and Akela is keenly interested, her ears perking up as her tail starts wagging behind her.

Saya rolls her eyes and sighs, “Oh come on, you really don’t have to tell her about that…”

“So you see princess, your mother here used to fight as a child, and even was a bad guy for awhile!”

“I was NOT a ‘bad guy’! I was just confused and scared and….and…” She throws up her hands and sinks back on the bed, scowling. “Bah, you’re going to read her the tale anyway.”

Both you and Akela giggle and you open the book. You clear your throat and begin,

“Your hands move with precision along your rune inscribed bones…”

 

Chapter 65

You gently tuck Akela into bed, her eyes having drifted asleep during your tales, despite her obvious interest. Certainly, it’s not the best story for a child, but she asked questions about the various people and was very interested in the man, “Franz Jakovitch” for some reason. When prodded, she merely thought he was ridiculous, though she overall found the whole “copromancy” thing far more foolish.

Saya sat there the whole time, looking more and more embarrassed by her father’s antics and, at a particular part with certain “ghosts,” she went crimson and had to leave the room for a while. That being said, by the time you finished the flight from Feldergrod, Akela’s eyes were growing heavy and her little frame sagged with sleep. So, you tucked her into bed for a nap before dinner, exiting to the hallway to find Saya.

The hallway is quiet with no signs of people wandering about, which makes sense seeing as it’s a rather small leyway, so you decide to check in on the others, walking the short way down the hall to rap on the door. A moment later, the door opens and Ophelia sticks her head out, or well, sticks her ears out, before her face appears and she looks at you, blinking. “Oh, hello there Tobias. They’re both asleep and I think Clint is still at the dining car.” She looks at you hopefully, “Do you need something?”

“Ah, well, Akela is taking a nap and I thought I’d just check in.”

“Oh,” Ophelia says, her ears drooping. “Well, it’s fine here, just a little quiet.”

You watch her expression drop and you look to the side, rubbing at the back of your head. Maaaaan, that expression really kills you, and you start to feel for her. What are you to do though? Thinking this over a moment, a thought comes to you and you ask, “Hey… did Clint ever let you look at his rifle?”

She pouts now, looking miserable. “Not as much as I’d like… he left with it even though I asked.” She sniffs, though you think it’s for show… mostly.

“Well… I was thinking… his rifle is really powerful stuff, but what if there could be different firing modes… you know, like uh, fire magic or something?”

Ophelia waves a dismissive hand with little enthusiasm. “No… no that would never do. The weapon uses a mana cylinders which fuel an inlaid spell within the weaponry and fire the bolts of power. To change the elemental affinity of what’s fired, you’d have to go and fundamentally change the runic sigils within the spell lines and that could very well make the weapon useless if done improperly.”

“You’ve… thought about this, huh?”

“Maybe a little.” She sighs then and slumps. “Well, back to looking over my tools again. If we find some oil, I could use it.” She goes to close the door when you put a hand on it, desperate to do something to cheer her up.

“Ophelia, look, wait, I mean…” You rub at the back of your head, desperate for anything. “Uhhhh, like, what if you… I don’t know, added a new spell form to the uh… the barrel?”

Ophelia looks at you with a very similar expression to the one that Akela gave you earlier, and you have to wonder if one taught the other. She continues this for a looooong while before she narrows her eyes and says, “You’re serious.”

“Uhm. Sorry?”

“No, no, I mean, it’s astounding really. But such a suggestion is just so ludicrous, I mean, adding in a spell form onto ammunition would be meaningless beyond changing the mana signature itself, while adding something to the barrel could…” She pauses, calculations running through her mind as she furrows her brow. You try to say something, but she holds up a furred hand, thinking furiously until a smile appears on her face and she says, “Oh, ho, ho, maybe that isn’t so foolish after all! If the mana in those chambers is unaspected then it can be changed post shot and…”

She begins mumbling to herself and you go to say something further, but she hurriedly shuts the door and you hear the sound of metal being moved about, likely as Ophelia digs through her belongings to find a notepad or something. Or like, a blowtorch, you’re really not certain. You are happy that Ophelia seems perked up though, and if she can craft something to improve Clint’s weapon, he’ll likely be all ears. You’re not certain on this point either.

Feeling a little better, you head to the dining car to find Clint in his normal position, chatting with Saya, the two chuckling over drinks. You feel a moment of jealously for some reason as you see the sight, but when you approach, Saya smiles and waves for you to sit down next to them. You nod to Clint and give Saya a light kiss, saying, “Akela’s taking a nap for now.”

“Oh, did she get bored of my father’s antics?”

“Nah, she just got so excited that she tired herself out.”

Saya groans, but Clint chuckles and raises his glass. “Now then, it’s rude to be talking to a lady like that.”

You stick your tongue out at him and he chuckles again as Saya sighs. “Whatever… So, you really think she’s safe from these illusions?”

Leaning back, you take a moment to form your answer. “Honestly no one is really safe, but apart from myself, and maybe Abigail, she’s got the best defenses, though I’m not overly happy about it.” Saya grumbles about the mention of the Fairy but looks at you inquisitively about little Akela.

With a sigh, you say, “Despite this whole ‘Blessing of the Sands’ thing Anubis are supposed to have, I think she’s reacting instinctively to intrusions into her mind. I hate to say it, but she was abused by someone very badly and it affects her on a deep level.”

You put a hand to your face and pinch between your eyes. “I wonder if she can really trust anyone, given that.”

Both of them go quiet at this, and Saya grips her hands together. “So that stuff about her being locked in reality…?”

“True, although a little over the top. She’s had to grow up very fast and she doesn’t easily trust anything around her. It’s like I said before, we have to be able to separate reality from fiction to resist illusions correctly and she does this almost instinctually, her inquisitive and serious nature forcing out these flights of fancy.”

You shrug. “I was quite surprised she liked the book, to be honest.”

Clint swirls his glass before taking a drink and exhaling. “Well, I don’t think you have too much to worry about. She’s a strong kid, and I think she’ll be fine with two good parents looking after her. What that girl needs now more than anything is support to regain that trust she’s lost.” He thinks for a moment before grunting. “I’d probably not ask her about her experiences though, might just set you back further.”

Saya nods her head in thanks. “Sound advice Clint. You sound like a parent yourself.”

He waves a hand and chuckles with a little more mirth. “Oh Gods no, not yet anyway!” Despite this, he taps his chin thoughtfully. “Well there was Emily out in Frontierstown…”

“Oh, don’t let Ginelle hear that!” Saya says, laughing, and the man seems a little embarrassed, pulling his hat down.

“Now that’s just not right to be sayin to a guy. Messin’ with him like that.”

His words and expression manage to take both you and Saya back and you both look at each other before pressing in close to Clint, lecherous grins on your faces. Saya asks, voice stretching out, “Oh Cliiiiiiint, does someone have a thing for our little badger friend?”

The man looks uncomfortable before sighing and tugging once more at his hat. “She’s nice, I’ll say that. Beautiful too, though she don’t know it. Maybe I feel a little protective of her after Sanctifrond, maybe I’m just a fool, but it don’t have to mean anything. I see the way she looks at you, I think I’d just cause trouble.”

You shake your head. “Yeah, there’s something lingering here with me, but she’ll get over it, she’s a big girl and I trust her deeply.” You punch the guy lightly on the shoulder. “You’re an insufferable ass of a noble at times with a smile that shines too bright for your own good, but you’re alright. Besides, I think she does like you.”

Both of you look into each other’s eyes before giving a man’s nod, the universal sign of respect between men, and you know the contract is complete. Saya merely watches with a sense of confusion and boredom before shrugging, clearly not going to hear what the whole thing meant, nor does she particularly care.

“Oh,” you say, almost as an afterthought. “I think Ophelia has some ideas to improve upon your rifle.”

Clint immediately throws a hand to the rifle case, his expression wary as he says, “Hey there… don’t you dare go and say something so utterly offensive after that beautiful little moment we just had there.”

You raise a hand in placation. “Look, she’s figuring something out, and I assure you, she would be an utter wreck if she managed to cause harm to your weapon. So… just work with her, please?” You look at him pleadingly and he frowns before sighing and relenting.

“Fine… but I’ll supervise all of it. If she so much as puts a scratch on her…” He rubs the case delicately, like a fine woman, before hugging it, like a… fine… woman. He really loves that weapon, doesn’t he?

After this pleasant little exchange, you talk about small things, wondering what the future in Oppenheim holds, and have a good time until dinner, where you eat decent enough fare, then make for bed. The rest of trip proceeds in a similar fashion, though Akela now wants you to read to her every night before bed, something you agree to do with relish. In fact, as the leyway pulls into the station early the next evening, you can barely wait to crack open the ol’ tome.

Getting out at the little station, the first thing you notice is that the town is… non-existent. Honestly, you thought Indin was small, but this place is basically four buildings and multiple storage barns, and that’s about it. You look around in disbelief until you find your eyes drawn to the fields out around the town. Out past the late day sky, darkening with clouds, you see miles and miles of flat ground with nothing but cattle and white picket fences. It isn’t until Clint whistles in amazement that you notice the other inhabitants of the town.

Walking through the pastures as if nothing is amiss, you see a Holstaur stop and look up to the sky. Only then do you see the others, blending in with the cattle as they stand among them, and you realize with a start that there are dozens of the Monsters! Each of them is slim with massive breasts, bloated with milk, their black and white spotted hair a perfect match for the cows all around. They weren’t kidding when they said this place was filled with Monsters.

You feel something tap your arm and you shake your head to see Saya and the other girls giving both you and Clint annoyed looks. Both of you look to each other before blushing and nodding in apology to the women. Honestly, you weren’t staring at the field of tits… much, but come on, they’re right in front of you! Sighing, you make to go to the inn, which shouldn’t be hard to find, when you remember something and you tap at your chest.

“Hey, Abigail, what’s the name of our hit here anyway?”

No reply comes from your jacket, and you frown, looking inside to find she isn’t there. A more thorough search of your jacket, and even trousers, turns up nothing either. You would be very worried, but she’s kind of bound to you in a way, so you’re sure she’ll turn up. Besides, it’s not like you’re going to go and find the mark tonight anyway.

As you make to go to the inn, you hear someone hail you and your party stops, turning to see a man walk up, flanked on both sides by very busty Holstaurs, the two looking like twins for all you can tell. They look at him with adoring eyes, their long, luscious hair flowing down over their many curves, and you acutely feel aware of Saya’s stare again. Coughing into your hand, you address the man.

“Ah, hello there sir, can we help you?”

The man, about six feet tall with rather plain features and a close cut, black beard smirks at you, pressing the Holstaur twins closer to him, their breasts bouncing playfully against his rather average chest. “Just came by to say hello there! We don’t often get visitors around these parts, even with the leyway, and I just wanted to say a few things to you, get you up to speed you know.”

You frown and make for him to continue, which he does with gusto. “My name is Robert Beardlington, a resident of Oppenheim. No doubt you’ve heard of our world-famous beef and milk from lovely ladies such as these two…” He emphasizes this by fondling their breasts quite shamefully, to which they giggle and moan slightly, making your pants a little… tight. He looks at them with a lecherous gaze before turning back to you and saying, smile on his face, “As you can see, we have only the best here, however…”

His expression suddenly grows dark as he says, almost growling, “If I see you touch any of the Holstaur in town, know that you’re touching MY property, and you WILL suffer the consequences.” He lets this hang in the air for a moment before smiling again, all malice gone from his expression.

“So! Enjoy your stay in town! Hey, I know, would you like a sample of milk here? Fresh from the tit, I assure you!” He goes to lift the shirt off one of the Holstaurs, but you hold up a hand quickly.

“No, please, keep their shirts on!”

He pauses then and lowers the shirt, looking mildly mollified. You cough into your hand and smile pleasantly. “Well then, thank you for the offer, but I think we’ll be fine.”

“Of course, of course…” the man says, looking at you oddly before shrugging and leaving, slapping the ass of one of the Holstaurs as he leaves, making sure you see his hand clenching her nigh on gelatinous ass. You stare perhaps a bit too long and Saya slaps the back of your head, forcing you to stop spacing out and head to the inn, wondering what kind of strange town you just arrived in and where in the Hells Abigail got off to.

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