Illusionistquest Chapter 16: Nature vs. Nurture


Chapter 81

With that laughter at your expense, the group of you check out with high spirits and head toward the station. You’re able to buy a ticket to Tilluhn, though the teller gives you a strange look as you do. When you ask about it, they just hand you your tickets, not saying anything. While ominous, the leyway appears soon enough and you board up without much concern, getting situated in the rather small transportation.

Well, that’s not correct, it’s actually a very LARGE leyway, but the majority of it is taken up by platforms, bare to the world and apparently prepared and ready to take up cargo, perhaps logs? It would make sense as the only other people on the leyway are a few businessmen and some laborers, who immediately appear in the dining car as soon as the leyway departs into the setting night.

Clint and Ginelle find themselves there as well, again, and you begin to start thinking those two are hanging out a little too much. After situating yourself in your room, you sit down next to Saya and say, “I’m starting to think that Clint and Ginelle are hanging out a little too much.”

Saya shrugs. “I dunno, maybe they’re fucking?”

You stare at Saya and she crosses her arms, chuckling. “Oh Gods, that’s the same face that Blake would give dad when he made a stupid suggestion.” She shakes her head. “Seriously though, I mean, he clearly likes her, maybe she just figured it out?”

“Oh. Yeah,” you say, frowning. Saya looks at you for a moment before a wide smile comes across her face and she slides up next to you on the bed, leans her head on your shoulder, and looks up into your eyes with a shit-eating grin.

“Ohhhhh? Is someone jealllloouuussss?”

“What? Why? She deserves to be happy.”

Saya snickers and pokes your chest. “You’re just not happy that she’s finally giving you up for someone else. You’re jeaaaaaalllooouuussss.”

You grunt and look to the side. “Come on Saya, it’s not funny…”

“Oh yes it is~” she says, drawing a little circle on your chest. “It’s funny you’re getting so mad over something like this. Honestly, you keep acting like that and I’m going to feel cheated on.”

“Saya, you know I wouldn’t do that, I love you,” you say, taking her hand in yours. She looks up at you again before sighing and leaning forward to kiss you softly on the lips.

“I know, I’m just being an ass.”

“How could I pass up someone with such an amazing feature?”

She slaps your chest before huffing, but you put your arm around her, pulling her in close to you. You gently kiss her on top of the head and say, “That was a double entendre by the way.”

“Who do you think my parents are?” she whispers back before giggling. “Though I thank you for the compliment both ways.”

“Ughhhhh, you two need to get a room,” Akela says from her bed, frowning at the two of you. “You’re going to make me sick.”

“Oh, honey, you’ll understand someday,” Saya says, but Akela rolls her eyes. You feel something wiggling against your jacket, and you pull it back to see Abigail flutter out and groan.

“Seriously, it’s so mushy here, I might just turn into oatmeal.” In her hands are the colored wax sticks, and she flutters over to Akela before sitting on her head and dropping the implements onto the bed. “Now then, go away, little Akela needs space to CREATE.”

“Eh… I was hoping that maybe we could do something together, as a family or something…”

“Dad, please? I have some good ideas here and I was hoping to get them down.” Akela says, drawing on some paper Abigail brought her. “Besides, I want it to be a surprise.”

You and Saya both look at each other and she raises an eyebrow before smirking. Your heart begins to beat rapidly and the two of you drift your fingers together, but you stop, remembering who is in the room. Both of you cough into your hands and smile, making sure that Abigail doesn’t let Akela eat junk food and such. Good parent things and all that, though as soon as the door closes behind you, the two of you skedaddle over to the farthest room down the hall that isn’t occupied.

The door closes behind you and Saya immediately attacks your face, kissing you deeply, pushing you into the window where you slide against the bench, Saya pushing herself onto you as she continues her kiss. You once again have to gently force her lips from yours as you take in hasty breaths, savoring the taste of her.

She looks into your eyes, panting heavily. Consequences be damned, you make to take off your shirt, but she stops you, shaking her head and saying, “No… no let’s just take it a little slower this time.” As she says this, she moves to your pants and pulls them down, exposing your half-stiff rod to the air. She chuckles and plays with the tip with one finger, sending ripples of pleasure through your groin. You feel the blood rush further at her touch and you begin to grow to full mast.

“That’s better,” Saya says, wrapping her hand against your shaft. “I always kind of wanted to do this. Does that make me a bad person?”

“Maybe. But it makes you a great Monster.”

She harrumphs, though she begins stroking your cock with her soft hand, the firm pressure making you grow harder under her touch. As her fingers glide over your head, your manhood feels like it wants to move in time with her motions, your muscles clenching up before pulsing down, sending shivers of pleasure into your hips. She giggles and begins to increase the speed of her hand job, magnifying the pleasure.

“Mmm, you’re quite big, you know,” she says, licking her lips.

“You’re just saying that.”

“Well. Yeah, I mean, I guess, I don’t have terribly many reference points beyond the memories of all those people I ate.” She pauses and goes still for a moment. “Is that a turn off?”

“I just killed someone by making their brain think they were stabbed by a sword of light. So. Not really.”

“Oh, okay. That’s kind of hot though.”

“Now you’re making it weird,” you say as you reach out to pat her head. “Don’t be so nervous, we’ve already had sex, what’s a little blowjob, right?” You pause. “You were ah…?”

“Oh!” she says, tittering. “Yeah, blowjob, right.” You hear her mutter, “Mom said it was like this… right?” Before you can say anything about that odd tidbit, she brings her head down to your cock and places it inside her mouth.

You feel a curious wetness, which is altogether different from her pussy, but not at all unpleasant. The feeling lasts for a moment before her lips come down onto your head, placing a gentle pressure upon your member, and you take in an instinctive breath from the pleasure. She sits there for a moment, one hand on your shaft, her mouth over your head, and you feel her tongue glide delicately over it, feeling every contour. Your eye twitches as the currents of sensation pulse through, but she looks up at you for confirmation, and you nod your head softly, to which a determined look enters her eyes and she continues forward with her task.

It occurs to you that the door isn’t locked and anyone could walk in at any moment and find the two of you in such a lewd act. You really, really don’t care about that though, because your entire world is focused upon Saya and what’s doing to you. She’s clumsy at first, but it doesn’t take her long to find a good rhythm to match her strokes with her sucking, and she begins to become adventurous, taking more of your rod into her mouth, her whole being focused upon the task. You begin to wonder if she’s making this some sort of game to see if she can make you cum, and you’re afraid to say that she’s probably going to win soon.

She removes her hand from your shaft and places it against your leg, positioning herself in such a way that she can glide her mouth over your manhood, driving herself further and further each time with increasing rapidity. You feel the contours of her mouth and soon enough the strange texture of her throat as she forces you slowly deeper within, the walls pressing down upon you. You begin to wonder how she can do this so ferociously, but then it occurs to you that Saya has zero need for a gag reflex. As that thought hits you, she pushes herself forward the full distance, contacting her mouth to your hips.

Your knees buckle slightly as the warm pressure in the vacuum of her throat pulls at you, the soft tickling of her tongue against the underside of your cock making you squirm. The built-up pleasure of her earlier ministrations begin to bear fruit and you feel yourself start to twitch violently as you prepare to unleash your load. She seems to sense this and pulls back before looking you in the eyes and then rapidly moving her head, grabbing the base of your shaft for leverage, trying to pull the semen from you, which you oblige, your balls unleashing your load into her mouth.

The torrent of your lewd fluids splash against the back of her throat, coating it as it pulses backward, threatening to spill out, but she tightens her lips down and sucks every spurt, her eyes closing in concentration and pleasure as your warm jizz pulses from you in waves of delight. When the last aftershock is over, she slowly releases your member, her cheeks full, and she sloshes around the liquid before tipping her head back and swallowing, a look of pure bliss on her face. She hugs herself and shivers, looking for all the world like she just ate a four-star cuisine from a master chef. You must be brewing some damn good stuff in there.

Feeling elated, and a little drained, you let out a long breath and look down at Saya, who lets out a sigh of her own, eyes almost glassy in pleasure. You chuckle and ask, “That good huh?”

“And to think I wanted to pleasure you…”

“Oh, you did, that was amazing,” you say, smiling broadly. “Maybe next time we can use your breasts…”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” she says, sniffing, though the effect is ruined by a smirk on her lips. “Though maybe…”

“Well, what should we do now?” you say, smiling, and she returns the smile before leaning in and kissing you on the lips.

You pull back and cough, rubbing at your mouth, “Oh, that’s just gross!”

“Hahaha,” she chuckles, before wiping her chin. “I’m just messing with you. Besides, I think if we’re gone too long, the others will get too suspicious. And I’d like to practice… holding my form before we go any further again, alright?”

You sigh before nodding your head, remembering the pain from before. “Right… right, you’re right.”

“Like always,” she says, helping you up. The two of you exit the room together and return to find Akela finishing her drawing: a picture of Abigail and Akela ruling over the sands to the east. You are beginning to think that Abigail may be a bad influence on her, but you’re a little too giddy to bother with that. Of course, when she sniffs the air again, frowning at the two of you, you both do your best to act clueless, and she buys it. Thank the Gods for the innocence of youth, right? Well, you pray that Akela is that innocent, at least.

The rest of the leyway ride is uneventful as you get no messages from anyone on your ley-mail that evening, nor that morning, and you begin to wonder if the Grand Wizard is coming to kill you for doing lewd things to his daughter. Of course, he could probably really help with this whole Fiora thing, so maybe that would be nice. Oh, and you could clear up the autograph thing with having him sign your book instead. Then you could die happy.

After giving a report to Anderson, you know, because why not, you settle back for some nap time and a little meditation before the keyway pulls into the station that next afternoon. While you napped you had some strange visions of a large, scantily clad man with an axe running around and getting into trouble with a bear. For some reason you felt a certain kinship with him, strange indeed.

As soon as the leyway comes to a stop you exit, walking out into a simple, rustic station. Where Indin was a small platform for loading grains into the leyway, Tilluhn’s station is far, far more specialized, with cranes and other devices being used to quickly and efficiently load large amounts of logs and lumber for transportation. You’re cleared out by a surly looking Troll with amazing hair before you can gawk too much, however, and are sent out into the logging operation.

The place is full of industry, with people moving around carrying various axes and other implements as massive work constructs walk by, saw blades powered down and covered in sawdust. You hear the sound of trees being felled in the distance and overall the place has a feel of men, and some Monsters, doing hard, honest work. You’d think people here would be happy and jovial at all of this, but you quickly find it’s not the case. In fact, everyone is dead silent.

You don’t realize it at first, because of the various sounds in the area, but the people here have downcast expressions, looks of nervousness, and even some full out depression as they work, always looking up at the sky with fear. When you try to ask someone what’s wrong, they just go past you, too busy with their work, or just not wanting to speak with you. Either way, the story is the same for the next few people you speak with, and eventually you resign yourself to merely going into the town and looking for lodging for the evening.

The town, if you can call it that, is a collection of wooden structures built on site mainly to harbor the workers, but there are other, more specialized structures, such as the saloon and the mills. In the center of town resides the overseeing office of the company which is running the operation, the “Tilluhn Forester” company, which apparently is where the town gets its name. On the ride here you learned that the place grew up into what it is now over the past few years and, as the need for workers has increased, so has the amount of families in town, so slowly non-barrack style housing and other industries have appeared. All under the company’s banner, of course.

You find the lone inn, for traveling merchants and other businessmen, and settle inside to find it rather empty, which you find a little odd. Many workers should be getting off soon and those that already were off should be here or the saloon, ready to spend their hard-earned pay on booze. Instead, only a few, confused looking businesspeople sit about tables, drinking their wine and ale, making quiet conversation while looking about, just as surprised as you.

A whistle goes off in the distance and a flurry of activity happens as people outside drop everything they’re carrying and scatter in all directions. The female innkeeper dashes to the front and slams a wooden bar over the door before shuttering the windows as barmaids light lanterns, illuminating the whole place with the soft glow of lamplight. As this finishes, the innkeeper sighs and looks at you, asking in a tired voice, “You looking for a room?”

“Uh… yeah,” you say, scratching your chin. “What was that all about?”

“Nothing you need worry yourself about,” she says, shaking her head. “Just take my advice and don’t go outside at night while you stay here.”

“Yeah, but why?” you ask, a little more intensely, and the innkeeper turns a pale.

“I’ll go get your rooms ready…” she says, heading upstairs, pointedly ignoring the question. You watch as she leaves before turning to the others and shrugging.

“Well… that was weird.”

 

Chapter 82

“Probably related to the Illusionist, don’t you think?” Ophelia says while looking about the inn, noticing the people staring at you with odd expressions before going back to their drinks or work. It doesn’t escape your attention that one particular Cat Girl barmaid lingers about before returning back to her work, while the nearby businessmen chat in conspiratorial voices.

“What do we do now?” Ginelle asks, thumbing to the door. “Door’s locked and I don’t think they’d appreciate us opening it.”

You look about the room again before nodding your head. “Alright, first things first, we need to get our rooms settled, next, how about Ginelle and Clint treat some of the other guests here to some friendly drinking?”

The two look between themselves before nodding. You make to hand him some coins, but he shakes his head and taps his own coin pouch, smirking at you. “Come now, lesser noble, I think I can afford this.”

“Rude, if true. Anyway, maybe the rest of us can retire to our rooms? I have a feeling that poor little Akela is all tuckered out from the trip.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty tired,” she says, yawning. You wink at her and she looks at you with a blank expression for a few moments before replying, “I’m serious, I kind of want a nap.”

“Oh uh.” You scratch you chin, looking a little surprised. “Well, then uh, good. We’ll get you to bed then, princess.”

“What about us?” Ophelia asks, tapping her luggage. “Might want to put this away first, but I don’t think you want uh…” She looks to Clarissa, then to the drinks. “Well, maybe we should just chat with some other people then.”

“What? Nooooo,” you say, walking over to Clarissa and putting your arm around her shoulder. “I’m afraid our poor friend Clarissa is all tuckered out from the trip also. She gets so very motion sick, you know.”

“Who are you talking to?” Clarissa asks, back stooped under your weight.

“That Cat Girl is listening to us,” you whisper, looking out the corner of your eye toward the maid, whose brown ears and tail twitch slightly. “I don’t know her game, but it’s best to act casual, alright?” She nods and you stand up straight, chuckling, “Silly Clarissa, getting so very tired.”

“Wings, you know? They don’t flap well with the leyways.” She shakes her head with mirth. “Harpy humor, I’m sure you featherless wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m really confused right now,” Saya says, scratching her cheek. “So… wait what?” She’s cut off from saying more as Ginelle puts her arm around Saya’s shoulder and smiles broadly.

“WE are having some drinks, and YOU and going upstairs to look after your girl like an old maid.” The Badger Girl smiles broadly as she says this and Saya gives her a dark expression before raising her nose up and sniffing.

“Mmm, well maybe I’ll just have to put my darling little girl to bed and then snuggle up against the warm, firm body of my man.” She flashes Ginelle a predatory smile at this, and Ginelle stiffens before harrumphing.

“Oh, well maybe I’ll have to do the same!”

Everyone goes quiet and looks at Ginelle with a surprised expression. She blinks a few times before looking about and blushing heavily. “Oh Hells, sorry I got into the banter and…” She turns about and raises her paws to the air, walking toward the bar and shouting, “Drinks on me!”

Clint watches her go before turning to you with a sympathetic expression, shaking his head and following after her, explaining that it’s HIS coin, and that they would be on HIM. Ginelle pointedly continues to laugh, her ears burning red. It’s kind of cute seeing her embarrassed like that, but the way she stands close to Clint there… maybe you are just a little jealous. Or crazy! Maybe both…

Ophelia rolls her eyes and picks up her luggage as the innkeeper arrives, keys in her hands. She appraises your group before sighing and asking, “You want two rooms or three?”

“Two will be fine,” you reply, though Ophelia seems pleading for a third for some reason. You ignore her and take the two keys, heading upstairs in unison. As you pass by the innkeeper, she says in a low voice,

“Don’t open the shutters to the windows until morning. It’s for your own good.”

With that, she walks by to go write in some ledgers and you merely watch for a moment before shaking your head and heading up the stairs. Out of the corner of your eye, you see that Cat Girl again, but decide not to do anything about her, for the moment anyway. You have other plans to take care of as it stands and she can wait, strange as she is.

Everyone gets situated in their rooms and Saya puts little Akela down for a nap before the others convene, the four of you standing around in the other room, which does not have a table this time, sad to say, but is cozy enough for you to all fit. Saya leans against the wall and stretches, asking, “So, how are we doing this? Rope ladder out from the second floor and sneaking around to get some information about the place? We can split into two teams and-”

“It’s just me and Clarissa this time,” you say with authority, causing to Saya freeze in place, blinking a few times in surprise.

You wave a hand. “It’s not that I’d not want you to come with me, but I think a smaller group would work better this time, and honestly, I’d want you here to protect everyone. Clarissa’s airborne skills will be invaluable in helping us evade detection and we can get back here faster in a pinch. I’d rather not start a fight tonight, but if I have to, I will.”

Ophelia and Saya both look to each other before turning to Clarissa, who looks startled as the Hells before puffing out her modest chest and saying, “I accept this honor! Thank you very much!” The other two Monster’s lips twitch and they both snicker a few times before busting out into full-blown laughter, leading to Clarissa puffing out her cheeks and huffing, crossing her wings together. You roll your eyes at the sight and clap your hands.

“Alright, alright you’ve had your fun. Now then, we’ll stay in communication, but I’ll have the device off until I need to use it, alright?” Ophelia nods her head, wiping a tear from her eye.

“O-okay boss. Pffff…” She rummages at her luggage and pulls out one of the communication devices before tossing it to you. “Here you go. Sure you’ll be alright?”

“Yeah, no problem,” you say, tipping your head to her and looking to Clarissa. “You ready to go?”

Clarissa looks at the other two suspiciously for a few more seconds before sighing and nodding her head. “Yeah, yeah let’s get this started.” She walks over to the window and opens the shutters, revealing the lack of glass there, and opening the world to the soft moonlight of early evening.

It’s tranquil, serene even, to look out over the forest nearby. Despite the logging there’s still far more trees than you can possibly count in the distance and, if not for the stumps and the logging equipment everywhere, you’d think that this place was just any other town out in the wilderness. But that’s not the world anymore, is it? For all the good the magitek revolution brought, it had to be paid for somehow, and the price of progress is the quaintness of the wilderness. If it continues at this rate, perhaps someday everything will be like Sanctifrond.

Despite the relative calm, it’s still unnerving to see the stillness in the town. As far as you can see, windows are shuttered up and no one is out in the streets. Where the quiet bustle of people coming home from work, or heading to the bars would be heard, there’s just… nothing. You’d expect maybe to see some light from the other buildings, perhaps the sounds of laughter and music, but no, not a damn thing.

“Well… that’s unfortunate,” you say. “At least the moonlight should be enough to let us fly by, right?”

“Uhh. Yeah,” Clarissa says, looking a little skeptical. “Did I mention that Crow Girls don’t have the best night vision? I mean like two days ago, I could see you, but not terribly well, and it’s not like I needed to navigate anything or-”

“Clarissa, you’ll be fine,” you say, gripping her shoulder. “Come on, let’s head out.”

She gives you a sidelong look before nodding her head and turning to the window, which isn’t terribly large. “Hrm… we can’t go together so…” She leaps out the window and flies into the air, her wings giving her power to stay aloft, the gentle sound of her hovering filling the night air. She smiles, face obscured by shadow, and says,

“Jump!”

You look at her, then down to the ground, then back up at her. It’s only two stories, but that would hurt like the Hells if you fell! You’ve never been afraid of heights, but this is… come on now! Coughing into your hand, you say, “Maybe I’ll just climb down real quick and-”

“Aww, come on Tobias, don’t you trust me?”

You look into her eyes, seeing the pleading expression she has there, and you groan before gripping the windowsill and mounting it. Taking a deep breath, you hold it for a moment before exhaling slowly, looking up, and then toward Clarissa. Without thinking on it further, you leap from the window and suddenly the feeling of having nothing beneath you hits as your legs begin to flail wildly in the air, your stomach sinking. Oh Gods, she isn’t going to catch you in time, you’re going to hit the damn ground!

Despite your Gods-given boons you panic, limbs flailing as you look down at the oncoming ground with horror, but before you can hit you hear a whooshing sound followed by the pressure of talons digging into your shoulders, and then you’re aloft, being jerked away from the ground at speed.

Confused, you look up at Clarissa, who smiles at you in the dimness of the night. “Told you I’d catch you,” she says, before beating her wings up and taking the two of you high into the sky. You look back over at the inn to see Saya shake her head and close the shutters, but soon enough you’re able to gaze out over the entire town, the only things in the air being you, Clarissa, and the moon, glimmering far above.

She beats her wings in place, not seeming horribly tired by your weight, and you look up at her, smiling. “Hells Clarissa, I shouldn’t have doubted you there. But after that time you dropped me into that river, I sort of… well, you know.”

“Hey! That was yeeeaaarsss ago!” she says, huffing. “Honestly, everyone is being so rude to me tonight, it’s like they’re treating me like a kid!”

“Aww come on Clarissa, it’s not that bad,” you say, scanning over the town. “Honestly, it just means they like you.”

“I don’t know, I feel like Ginelle and Saya have this fun little friendly rivalry going on while Ophelia is all prim and aloof. Where do I fit in? What role do I play?”

“Is this really the time to be asking that? Come on Clarissa, you’re plenty invaluable with your scouting abilities and transportation. We’ve been over this.”

“I guess,” she sighs. “See anything?”

“Nah, not really,” you say, sighing yourself. “Let’s fly a little over to the lumberyards, see if we can’t find anything there.” Clarissa nods and the two of you head off in that direction, gliding effortlessly through the night air to where the lumber sits, ready to be offloaded down the river or to the leyway. This area as well is quiet, with no signs of life around, just tools all over the ground, dropped in a hurry as everyone went inside.

“I don’t like this. Why is everyone so afraid of the night? There’s nothing happening!” You look down and point toward a suitable landing site. “Let’s head over there for a second, don’t need to be flying all the time I’d think. She nods in agreement and sets you down near the lumberyard, where you feel some small comfort in ground under your feet. Clarissa lands next to you a moment later, and you take a look around, inspecting the area.

It’s about what you’d expect to see here, uncut logs, processed lumber, sawdust everywhere, the works. What was the Illusionist’s game here anyway? Ah right, what was his name again… “Lorgar Tiro?” The others are likely asking after the man as well, but seeing as no one is around to talk about the subject, you’re not entirely certain what to-

You pause as you hear something in the distance. Is that the sound of something heavy being dragged on the ground? It sounds as if it’s getting closer. Both you and Clarissa exchange looks before frowning and listening harder. You can now hear footsteps and you open your senses, feeling to make sure it isn’t an illusion coming to your mind, but as far as you can tell, it isn’t. Nodding to Clarissa, the two of you dash behind a pile of logs, looking out into the open area you landed.

The footsteps come closer and closer until they resolve into the form of a large man, his body hidden somewhat in the darkness of the night. In one hand he drags a large, heavy looking axe that buries itself deep into the earth, making furrows as he drags it, until he stops in the middle of the clearing and looks about.

You frown, staring at him. Something about his face doesn’t look quite right… but the details become obscured a cloud passes over the moon, cutting out your light. The man turns about the area, cocking his head a few times, then he pauses and turns directly toward where the two of you are hiding. Clarissa gasps and your eyes go wide as you feel illusory power from the man and the clouds part to reveal that his face is covered by a metal mask which encloses his entire head, the only sign of life being red, glowing eyes.

Hurriedly, you drag Clarissa out of the way as the man charges forward, far faster than he should be able to with that axe, and slams it into the ground where you were once standing, sending up chunks of earth to spray everywhere. Your eyes widen in surprise as he turns about and swings the axe in an arc. Only because of your <Battle Focus> are you able to stay calm enough to dodge the blow and send back a wave of <Morbid Allure> at the man.

He pauses in his next swing, allowing you time to back out of the way, but before you get far, he moans pitifully and rushes you, catching you off guard. The axe is about an inch from your face when you feel Clarissa’s talons on your shoulders pull you backward, and you give a cry of alarm, being dragged into the air, out of the man’s reach.

“Thanks for the save!” you shout, forcing your ill-gotten power onto the man. He cries out in distress again and you can see that his mask, nay, his whole form, begins to shimmer, but it quickly condenses back into solid shape as he steps back and stares up at you. Gritting your teeth, you shout down at him, “Lorgar! Is that you? Stop this madness right now!”

“No!” he shouts, thumping a hand to his chest. “I will not stop until this travesty is ended! I am Lor, and I and my axe speak for the trees, who have no voice of their own!” He points the weapon effortlessly toward you before turning tail and fleeing from you, running quickly off toward the darkness of the tree line.

“What do we do?!” Clarissa asks, beating her wings furiously to keep you aloft. “I can’t chase him into those trees, not at night!”

You watch the man run and consider throwing out an illusion, something maybe like having him chase himself into the trees? No… no that’s stupid. Funny, hilarious even, but stupid. You need to conserve your energy, and what would you really gain from it? Heading into the trees at this time of night, especially with Clarissa’s inability to fly in there right now would basically be suicide.

With a sigh, you shake your head and say, “Let’s return to the inn, there’s nothing more we can do tonight.”

“Right then!” Clarissa says before flying you to the inn, making it back in less than a minute, the speedy little bird. She flaps next to the window and you rap on it a few times, waiting until you hear soft footsteps followed by the shutters being opened. You look at the form of Saya standing in the window, a frown on her face, and Clarissa says, a little too cheerfully, “Special delivery!”

“Get in here,” Saya hisses, looking down at the ground floor, as if someone is going to burst in, and Clarissa flies you to the windowsill where Saya helps you up into the room. You roll you neck and make way as Clarissa climbs in after you, shaking her feathers and taking a deep breath after carrying you so far. You smile and wave to Saya, but she isn’t smiling back. She merely nods over to the corner, where a candle illuminates a surprising figure.

Ophelia sits upon the bed, holding a wrench as she stares down at the bound form of the Cat Girl barmaid who was spying on you. Surprised, you look to Saya, who grunts, “Found her skulking outside before you left, listening in on our conversation. She’s been acting weird this whole time, so I figured we might as well question her.”

“Gods Saya, what did you plan to do after that?” You rub your temples and point to Ophelia, saying, “Take off her mouth gag, for the God’s sakes.”

“Aww, but I feel intimidating,” Ophelia says, huffing. She performs to the task though, asking, “You didn’t call in, we were wondering if you were fine, but you got back so quick, it was almost a moot point. I trust you found something?” She finishes untying the Cat Girl’s gag and the cloth falls out to the sound of the girl coughing and making disgusted noises.

“Ugh! Those panties were USED, weren’t they?” The Cat Girl says, glowering at Ophelia, who merely shrugs. The feline Monster grumbles a few times, her short, brown hair falling in her face, making her flip it out of the way. She glares at you with green, feline eyes and says, “I knew you didn’t look like the normal kind of travelers through here, you’re all part of some organization to take down the company, aren’t you?”

The three of you look between each other, then back to the woman. You lick your lips before asking, “Uh… I’m sorry, what was that?”

“You heard me, I know who you are. Well, let me tell you that once they find me missing, they’ll know exactly who did it, and they’ll have all of you faster than even the Night Stalker would!” She blinks a few times before asking, “Speaking of which, how DID you survive the Night Stalker? You DID go outside, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes,” you say, sitting down on the bed. “We did, and we ran into this man with an axe, but-”

“AH-HA!” the Cat Girl shouts, and you feel that she really wants to point an accusatory finger at you. She moves her tail to snap toward you instead, but it’s just not the same. “I knew it, you’re the one who brought that scourge upon us, aren’t you? Oh ho, when they hear this, everyone’s going to get you goooood.”

“You’re not really in the position to get anyone good,” Saya says.

Cat Girl narrows her eyes and says, “Don’t you have some little kid to dote on?”

Saya grabs the girl’s ears in both hands, her face twisted in a snarl. “You know, I could always use a new set of cat bones, I have quite the collection going, you see.”

The Cat Girl pales, her face going almost ashen as Saya grips her, and you see tears form in her eyes before you wave your hand. “Saya, let her go. How is Akela anyway?”

Saya turns back to you and looks in your eyes before dropping the Cat Girl, who shuffles back to the side of the wall in fear as Saya walks over to you. “She’s fine, I checked on her. Abigail slipped away and is looking after her, still asleep thankfully.”

“You brought a child into this…” the Cat Girl whispers. “Despicable…”

“Oh give it a rest,” Clarissa says, picking a loose feather from her wing. “Honestly, even I’m getting tired of this.” She turns to you, feather held in hand, a wicked smile coming upon her face. “Shall I ah… torture the captive?”

You look between Clarissa’s feather, then the Cat Girl, and the same smile spreads on your lips. “Oh yes, yes, let’s.” You lean closer to the captive and say in a low, even voice, “I’d answer my questions, or my associate may not be very… merciful.”

“Y-you wouldn’t,” she says, eyes going to the feather. “You can’t be that heartless to… to do something like that?”

“Oh, but I can be! You insulted my daughter you see.” You lick your lips. “Now then… what is your name?”

“I… I’m not telling you!” she says, and you sigh, waving to Clarissa, who walks up and gently places the soft, downy feather against the woman’s cheek. The Cat Girl’s eye twitches but she stays firm. You shake your head and wave to the Crow, who gently moves the feather up and down. The effect is immediate, and the Cat Girl bursts out into laughter as Clarissa tickles her, the poor girl doing her best to stop the giggles, but… well, Clarissa may just happen to be the tickle master of the world. Well, it’s not a real title, but you shiver, knowing exactly what she’s capable of.

“S-stop! Stop!” the Cat Girl says, huffing for breath. “Stop, please! Alright… you… you bastards want to know? It’s Khloe Pareek, I’m a member of the internal affairs division of the Tilluhn company, alright?” She sniffs, tears in her eyes.

“See, that’s not so hard?” you say, waving Clarissa away. “Now then, Khloe, tell me why you were skulking about, and what you know about this ‘Night Stalker.'”

“You should know…” she says, sniffing indignantly, though when Clarissa brings the feather back, she stiffens. “I… I was merely checking on you, to see if you had anything to do with the Night Stalker or any rival interests!” She bites her lip, which is rather cute with her little fanged teeth. “He’s been driving down productivity and it’s starting to become a problem since if we go out at night he… he…” She shivers and you sigh, tapping your chin.

“Come now, what does he do?”

She whispers softly, “He nails you to a tree upside down, your organs split open to fall on the ground.”

Everyone freezes at that as this suddenly gets really, really fucking dark. You share a look with Ophelia and Saya before licking your lips and asking, “Are… are you sure about this?”

“Of course I am!” she says, shaking her head, tears flying out. “He even claimed my friend, Lorgar, first of all. We saw him get dragged into the woods a few weeks ago, and then things started to get bad… really bad.” She shivers a few times, and Clarissa raises the feather, but you merely shake your head, waiting for her to continue.

“At first, people got angry, you know, a bunch of lumberjacks, right? Well, when the second killing happened, they began to hunt the streets, but when they found him, they found they couldn’t react, found themselves locked in horror. He didn’t kill anyone then, but all he said was to leave the trees alone before leaving. The next night though, another man who was out at night was killed.”

“We’ve stayed inside since. The company has sorcerers in their employ, but none of them could figure out who he was, or where he went. It was as if their minds became clouded when they tried to face him, and he just… well… the company doesn’t have sorcerers here anymore.”

She sighs, “At least he doesn’t show up during the day, a small mercy, but for how long?”

You frown before asking, “You said your friend, the first one to be dragged off, his name was… Lorgar, right?” She nods her head, and you grit your teeth. “Did he happen to be speaking to a woman with long, brown hair before this all happened?”

Khloe cocks her head, thinking for a moment. “Well… yeah, now that you mention it, he was. He was a deep forester you see, spent most of his time out in the woods marking trees for clearing. One day that woman came into town and started speaking with him and then shortly after he started talking about how we should reconsider all of this. He began to be more sullen and withdrawn, and then… it happened.” She shudders, tears falling from her eyes. “Can we… not talk about him?”

“Yeah… yeah sure,” you say, sighing. “Khloe, I’m sorry about this, but trust me, we’re not here to hurt the company. In fact, we’re here to help under orders of the Crown to remove this Night Stalker.”

She looks up at you, wary hope in her eyes. “Y-you mean it? Wait, wait, where’s the proof?”

You flash her an illusory badge of office and her eyes go wide as saucers. “Woaaaaaaah, you really are official!” Her tail swishes behind her and she almost bounces in her restraints. “You’re going to help us, right? Right?”

“That’s the plan. Now, if we release you, you won’t cause trouble, right?”

“No sir!” she says, and you nod to Ophelia, who unties the bonds and lets the Monster free. She immediately bounces up and places her hands on her hips. “Ho-ho! Ah, I can’t wait to tell the others we have help!” She makes to go, but you grab her tail and she yelps, turning back to you with burning cheeks. “W-why are you touching there? P-pervert!”

“Oh, sorry,” you say, releasing her tail, which she cradles in her arms, whispering softly to it. “Look, don’t tell anyone we’re here. It’s supposed to be a secret, alright? You can keep secrets in internal affairs, right?”

She blinks a few times before puffing out her chest and saying, “Hells yes I can! Ah… but I should get back to work, or the slave driver… I mean, innkeeper will get me.” She waves to all of you before vanishing into the hallway, her padded feet making minimal noise in the hall.

As she fades away, you sigh and rub your forehead. “Informative, but trying.”

“Cat Girls…” Ophelia says, shaking her head. “Can’t live with em’, but they’re everywhere.”

“My mother is a Cat Girl, you know,” Saya says, poking the Rabbit Girl, who rolls her eyes.

“Oh, she’s different. She has a whole bunch of tails and can level cities.” Ophelia turns back to you and says, “Anyway, so that’s ominous as-” She pauses as the door opens, admitting Clint and Ginelle, who both look a little tipsy.

“Howdy!” Ginelle says, leaning on Clint’s shoulder, the man chuckling.

“Don’t know where she picked that up from.”

“From you, silly goose.” She boops Clint’s nose before snickering. “Have you heard of this drink they have here? Ish called V…B…Bodka, and ish real gud.” She staggers, though Clint helps settle her onto the bed, where she collapses and begins to row her arms like she’s swimming.

“The girl can drink like a leyway, but Gods above, that stuff hit her hard, probably because she didn’t understand how powerful it is.” He chuckles, “She did drink one of the men under the table though, had to stop her from drinking the other down too.”

“I’m a boat!” Ginelle says, giggling, and everyone looks at her before turning back to Clint.

“Anyway…” you mutter, shaking your head. “Learn anything?”

“Aye, seems like there’s this terror out there called the ‘Night Stalker’ keeping everyone inside at night. Seems no one’s able to catch him, and these men are investors who are here to see if it’s worth keeping the operation open. So far as they can tell, no, it isn’t.” He takes off his hat and combs a hand through his hair. “What about you? Find anything interesting?”

“Hehehahahaha!” Ginelle guffaws as Clarissa begins to tickle her with a feather. She hands one to Ophelia too, and they both go to town on the poor, defenseless Badger Girl. You notice Saya fidgeting as she stares at the mess, before looking at you with pleading eyes. You sigh and wave to her. She makes a pleased sound before taking a feather from Clarissa and joining in the fun. Monsters, right?

You recount your adventures with Lor and Khloe, to which Clint sighs, drink heavy on his breath. “Hells, guess that’s our guy. Seems a little dangerous, but he also may be open to discussion? Sounds like his plan is working if he wants to shut down this operation.”

“Aye, but I want to know WHY he’s doing it,” you say, brow furrowing. “I think we should make an expedition into the woods tomorrow, see what’s going on in there.”

“AHAHAHAHAHA…Ha…hahaha! NYYGGGGAAAAHHH!” You turn about as Ginelle flips over and roars, throwing the Monsters off her, who shriek in surprise, the badger swinging out with her claws once before falling back onto the bed, passed out. Everyone looks a little stunned for a moment, except for Clint, who coughs into his hand and goes to help her.

“We’ll talk more in the morning. I think she’s a little tuckered out, you know?” You nod your assent and leave with Saya to your own room, where thankfully Akela is still asleep. Soon enough, you too feel the call of the night and drift away until morning.

 

Chapter 83

“Ugh, it sounds like someone is cutting logs,” Ginelle says over breakfast downstairs.

“That’s because they are. They started logging at dawn,” Ophelia says, buttering some toast. “Maybe you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.” Ginelle waves her hand dismissively before groaning and taking a bite of honeyed eggs.

“I think our plan from before still stands,” Clint says, and you nod in agreement.

“Aye. Well, I think most of us can go, though someone needs to look after Akela.” You nod to the little Anubis who rolls her eyes.

“Can’t Auntie Abigail stay?”

“No, I need an adult to look after you.” You feel something stab at your chest, but you ignore it, though the tear in your eye threatens to roll down and betray you.

“Alright, alright, I’ll do it,” Ophelia sighs.

“Actually, I was thinking about bringing you along.” The whole table looks at you in surprise, even Ophelia, and you shrug. “Her hearing is top notch and, in a forest, that could be a boon.”

“Oh well, that means me then,” Clarissa says, shrugging. “That’s fine, we can play together Akela.”

“Actually… I was hoping to have you along too…” You shake your head and look to Saya with a wan smile. “Honey, could I ask you to stay here and look after Akela?”

“What? Oh come on, what about the uh…” She looks to Ginelle, who grumbles and rubs her forehead, before sighing. “Oh… right. Fine, but you owe me.”

Ginelle’s eyebrows raise and lower a few times, but you ignore her. “Thanks. Alright, next thing we need to do is find a guide for the woods. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?” You wave to the innkeeper and ask the question, to which she rubs at her chin and replies,

“Guide to the woods eh? Most of the lads are busy working, and they can’t really spare anyone, but I think I have someone who knows these woods pretty well. Lived around here before it was an operation, you know?” She whistles and shouts, “Oi! Khloe! Get yer mangy ass out here!”

You blink in confusion as Khloe waltzes up and looks to the innkeeper with a frown. Her boss says, “These folks want a guide to the woods, think you can help em out? You’re the best I know beyond poor Lorgar.”

“Ugh, do I have to?” she says, grumbling before noticing you, her tail and ears suddenly standing up as a smile comes over her face. “I mean, yes, of course! I would LOVE to be their guide.”

“Oh,” Clarissa says, looking down at her breakfast. “Good.”

Khloe chortles before looking down at her dress. “Oh heavens, let me change clothes to something more suitable.” You raise a hand to tell her to wait, but she vanishes, leaving all of you to look about with worried expressions until she reappears mere moments later, wearing a green and brown forester’s outfit, complete with backpack and other accoutrements.

“Ready to go!”

“Alright then…” you say, finishing your food and getting up, followed by the others going with you, whom Khloe looks over, nodding her head in satisfaction.

“Ready? Great, we’re burning daylight, and we have to be back by night, right?” She leans in, eyebrows raising and lowering in implication. You really don’t know how to feel right now, but you and your group get a move-on, heading out with the girl as she chats all about these woods and what they used to be.

“So, as I was saying, there used to be a ton of Dryads out here, many, many, many years ago, but they all up and left, which is well and good because we’re clearing it all out!”

“Up and left?” Ophelia asks, cocking her head. “How did they do that?”

“Duh, Monster Magic,” Khloe says, as if it’s obvious.

“They… all were Monster Witches?” you ask, but she rolls her eyes.

“No, are you silly? They used, bah…” She shakes her head and looks at a nearby tree, feeling the bark. “Mmm, guess this one will be due to taken down in the near future. Make some good, solid furniture I should think.”

“Don’t you feel sad about it?” Clarissa asks. “Didn’t you used to live here?”

“Bah, that was then, this is now. This is way of progress!” Khloe says, though you aren’t fully convinced. “There will always be forests…” Her voice trails off, but she perks up a moment later. “So! What are we looking for anyway?”

“Signs of the Night Stalker. I doubt anyone else has come in here since last night, right?”

“Maybe a few other rangers, though I doubt it,” she says, rubbing her chin. “I normally wouldn’t come here, but you’re an agent of the Crown, so clearly, we’ll be okay.” She looks about and points toward a direction in the northwest. “This way, there’s some changes in the foliage there, someone may have come through recently.”

“Alright, but if we find him, don’t get close, let us handle this,” you say, squeezing her shoulder. She blinks a few times before nodding her head, a feline grin coming over her face.

“You got it, officer!” She snaps a salute and heads forward through the trees, the rest of you following in suit.

The trek is hot, sticky, and boring most of the time, though you notice Ophelia’s ears twitching every so often, her little bunny tail waggling back and forth from her workshop gear, which is much easier to move about in. A flyby from Clarissa reveals little either.

It is quite beautiful though, the nature all around you in the falling days of summer, the sun overhead shining through the leaves, and the warm wind make you stop and admire the scenery. You’re constantly amazed at the things you get to see having gone on this journey. Is this how the Grand Wizard felt when he saw all these new, fantastic places on his own adventure? You’ll have to ask him someday… if he doesn’t kill you for that ley-mail you sent.

Around midday, Khloe stops near a small stream and puts her fingers to the ground, frowning. “This is weird… tracks suddenly appear, along with something heavy being dropped into the dirt and dragged, like someone was covering their tracks and then just… stopped caring. Looking at these, I wonder if they’re nearby.”

All of you go into a heightened state of alert, looking all about you. Ophelia’s ears suddenly shoot up and she turns to a tree, pointing up as a bird gently lands, cocks its little blue head at you, and opens its beak to say,

“Turn back.”

Before you can feel properly horrified, another lands on a different tree and says the same thing, then another, and another, and another, until finally the whole area is littered with birds speaking in discordant voices,

“Turn back!”

You put a hand to your head and growl, “It’s an illusion! Everyone, calm down and look through it, birds don’t talk!”

“I can talk!” Clarissa retorts before cursing and saying, “Sorry, sorry… ugghhhh, these illusions suuuccckkk!”

Furrowing your brow, you push through the illusion, bringing the truth to bear as you find the trees empty of birds, save one, who looks well, like a normal bird. Shaking your head, you turn about and step back in surprise as you see the form of Lor standing not twenty feet away, axe at his side.

You prepare to fight, but he makes no notion to do so himself, merely standing there and staring at you, his mask shown in the full light of day. It seems to be a skull made of brass, covering his full head and shoulders, though the red glow from before is gone, replaced by shaded sockets, so you find yourself unable to see his eyes.

“O-oh shit,” Khloe says, flipping about and taking a step back. “Aha… ha… oh Gods, uhm. Hello there Mr. Night Stalker! You don’t want to hurt us! It’s daytime! And you’re a Night… Stalk…er.” She gulps and shivers.

The man looks at her for a long time before saying in a low, grating voice, “Turn away from this place and go no further. There will be retribution if you continue to sully this land.” He points the axe at Khloe specifically. “This is your only warning. I can see you in these trees, I speak with her and know their secrets, for I am Lor.” He drops the axe again before turning about and walking away, vanishing into the tree line.

“Well, that’s terrifying, hey, let’s go, shall we?” Khloe says, giggling a little too maniacally.

“Where is he headed?” you ask in a commanding voice, to which Khloe’s back stiffens.

“W-what? Going? Uh, maybe the Sacred Grove, though there’s nothing sacred there anymore, not since all those Dryads left anyway! Haha… ha…” Her ears flatten against her skull and she whispers, “Please, I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Clint pats his rifle, which he had in his hands this whole time. “Boss?”

“We go after him,” you say, nodding your head to Clint. You turn sharply to Khloe, making the poor cat jump in surprise and fear. “Khloe, we need you to help us through the woods here. You’re familiar with the area toward this ‘Sacred Grove,’ right?”

“Uh… uh, yes?” She blinks a few times before putting her hands to her breast, “You… you’re not seriously going to go after him, are you? H-he’ll kill us! Did you see that axe?”

“I’ve seen bigger,” you say, trying to reassure her as you think things over. You have not actually seen a larger axe, but best to make her think you’re in charge. Giving her one of your million-gold smiles, you say, “Listen, Khloe, you’re the only one who can do this for us, the only one to help us stop this man, to save the company, and… to put your friend’s spirit to rest.”

Khloe bites her lip, the poor thing trembling, but she nods her head slowly. “O-okay. Y-you’ll take care of him, right?”

“In a manner of speaking,” you say, turning to the others.

“Alright, here’s the plan: He’s probably going to try and divide and conquer here, so we can’t let him do that. I’m betting those illusions of his are going to try and distract us, make us lose concentration or get lost in the woods. We cannot let that happen.”

“I-illusions?” Khloe asks, cocking her head. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Hopefully, you won’t have to see. Just, if anything looks weird in the forest, immediately let us know, alright? Such as the paths changing, or that we’re not where we should be, etc.”

“I don’t…” Khloe begins before shaking her head. “Well… the Crown sent you for a reason I suppose. Besides, I’m an internal affairs officer!” She thumps her chest, though she winces and rubs her poor breast from doing it too hard. “Oww… oww…”

“Alright, Khloe will be in the lead, followed by Clint, Ophelia, myself, Clarissa, and then Ginelle in the rear, got it?” Everyone nods their head and you point to Clarissa. “First sign of danger, I want you to take Clint into a better firing position. DO NOT leave him, no matter what you see, alright?”

“Sure you don’t want me protecting the poor, defenseless rifleman?” Ginelle asks, smirking, but you wipe the smirk off her face with a curt gesture.

“No, I need you down here to keep those ears and nose open. You’re probably best suited for the territory, and I need you as rear guard. You can get close to Clint later.” This is said offhandedly, but the two look at each other with surprised expressions. You pointedly ignore it and turn to Ophelia. “Keep those ears of yours forward, we need to be alerted if he makes noise, alright?”

Ophelia twitches her ears to make a little salute, which would be adorable in any other situation, but here you just acknowledge it with a nod. “We make for this grove, because I have a feeling there’s still something a little sacred about it to him.”

“I don’t know why,” Khloe says, shrugging. “Seriously, there’s a bunch of really, really old trees, but nothing much else there, I don’t understand.” She shakes her head. “But that’s why he’s a madman, right?”

You share a glance with Ophelia. “Yes… that’s it.”

Khloe takes in a deep breath before exhaling out and nodding her head. “Okay! Let’s go!” She starts forward, the rest of you following her in the order you laid out.

At first you don’t really run into anything… at all. Ophelia’s ears twitch about at every sound, but she continues to have a straight expression, so you assume it’s fine. No one makes any noise beyond what is necessary as you move through the trees, crossing over small streams or moving through deer trails at Khloe’s insistence.

The fact that nothing has come to you is what makes you more nervous than anything, and a glance back to Ginelle reveals that she too has smelled nothing out of the ordinary, which is… unfortunate. Either the man is clearing his scent, or an illusion is being placed on you, but what would you gain by removing the illusion from you specifically? As a human, you can’t track someone by scent. No, you instead focus yourself senses as best you can as you continue through the trails behind the others.

It isn’t until Khloe slows down and looks at a tree with a curious gaze that you start to get nervous. Your <Battle Focus> kicks in and you find yourself growing calm again as you point to Ophelia, whose ears twitch almost violently about until freezing in a particular direction. She swears slightly under her breath and you nod to Clarissa, who flaps into the air right as Khloe says,

“This tree… I’ve never seen it before…”

The ground beneath you begins to rumble and a flurry of roots appears beneath you, throwing you violently into Ginelle, the two of you being tossed to the side as the roots separate your group, but thankfully not hurting anyone so far as you can tell. You shout out orders to Clarissa, who soars into the sky before swooping back around and opening her talons to grab Clint’s outstretched arm, the man holding his rifle in the other as he prepares to fire from the hip.

The ground rumbles again though Ophelia’s ears twitch and she dodges the roots gracefully, but somehow manages to run into the shell-shocked Khloe, the two collapsing to the ground. Ginelle growls and makes to bound forward, but you put a hand out, staying her. She looks at you in surprise before surveying the area and growling as she realizes what happened.

The roots are gone, as well as any sign of them ever being there. You figured it was an illusion, but the real game wasn’t to hurt anyone, it was to split up your group, exactly as you feared it might. The tricked worked, because as you clear your vision of the man’s illusions, you find the area you were standing in before has changed and Ophelia, as well as Khloe, are gone.

“Shit,” Clint calls as Clarissa flies him to the ground again. “Did you see where they went?”

“No, but they can’t be far,” you say, frowning. Lorgar… Lor, whatever he wanted to be called now, knew exactly what he needed to do to take away two of your greatest advantages. If there was any doubt that he knows who Khloe is, or her strengths, then it’s gone now. He clearly is lucid enough to know how to mess with you and, if you act rashly, you’re going to fall right into his trap.

“He knows where we are, but if Ophelia remembered anything I told her, she is trying to calmly filter out noises and find the truth through the illusions. It has to be taxing to use his powers so spread out, so Ginelle, I need you to call her name, make those giant ears useful for something.”

Ginelle nods and begins shouting Ophelia’s name. You turn to Clint and Clarissa while digging in your [Rucksack]. “I wish I could have you scout, but that’s exactly what he wants. We need to press forward in the direction that Khloe was taking us and we may run back into them.” You take out the [Magesight Goggles] and toss them to Clint, who puts them on while you get out the [Chameleon Cloak].

“Eh? What’s that for?” he asks as you drape yourself in the cloth.

“I’m sorry to say, but you’re the bait right now. The man can’t hide from you beyond mundane means now, so I would STRONGLY recommend shooting to kill, alright?” You make to move away, but pause and say, “I would also not use that ‘special’ barrel of yours here.”

“Oh I hear you loud and clear,” Clint says, the barrel having been removed ages ago. You make sure the cloak is fully in place before fading away from the group, hoping that Lor doesn’t notice of the sounds of you moving, though those [Soundstopper Soles] should at least muffle your footsteps. You could probably [Project] the illusions like he’s doing, but you balk some at the potential blow to your mind and decide not to.

Clint leads the new, smaller group with Clarissa behind him and Ginelle in the rear as you hide to the side. Wearing the goggles allows him to keep a straight path, even when you see an obstruction that doesn’t make sense. Clint reassures the others and walks right through it, allowing everyone to dispel the illusions. Thank the Gods such things exist.

After about the third strange obstacle, you hear Lor’s voice ring out through the forest, “Why do you continue to defy me? Do you wish to share the fates of your companions?”

“I doubt you’ve killed them,” Clint replies. “Ophelia isn’t that weak, and would you really kill your friend?”

There’s a long pause before Lor says, “Friends… I no longer have friends beyond the trees, and they cry out for you and yours to leave this place, alive or dead.”

“Nice pause there,” Ginelle chuckles. “Honestly, if you want us dead, you might as well stop hiding behind all these silly little illusions and come out to face us man to man. Also man to Monster.” She sniffs and waits for an answer, but receives none.

Annoyed, she rolls her eyes and walks over to a tree before stretching her hand, placing her long nails against the bark, and scraping it off.

 

Chapter 84

In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the smartest idea.

There’s a sudden burst of activity as a huge, hulking shape flies from the nearby trees and collides into Ginelle, sending her flying back as Lor rounds on her, axe held high in the air. Before the weapon can be brought down, a crack rumbles through the forest and he staggers as a metallic ring echoes, a massive dent appearing in the metal mask around his face. So, it’s not an illusion after all…

Lor stumbles, putting a hand to his head, and Ginelle uses the opportunity to lift herself by her arms and leverage the full weight of her legs into the man’s chest, throwing him into the air, causing him to hit the ground a few feet away. He does not stay down however, and instead picks up his axe, holding in a guard position, those shaded eye sockets staring blankly at all of you.

Clint raises his rifle as the weapon cycles and he places another shot at the man’s center-mass but, with blinding speed, he raises his axe, deflecting the energy bolt. The force sends the man backward, but not enough to knock him over, and he reaches down to grab a rock to hurl at Clint. The gunslinger curses and leaps backward, raising his arm into the air to be grasped by a swooping Clarissa, the two flying up into the trees.

Lor roars and charges toward them, but Ginelle leaps in his way and he quickly makes a cut with his axe that she ducks under, rolling to the side and leaping backward, her well-developed legs allowing her to stay out of his reach as he chooses to go after her instead. Another report fills the air and the man cries out as a chunk of his right leg vanishes in a spray of red mist. You clench your fist in excitement, knowing that this should bring him down, but instead, he merely stands up, wound cauterized by the energy of the blast, and he shouts in pain and anger.

You feel your bones shake at the roar the man releases and you have to wonder if he’s part bear or something, the way his voice carries and makes your legs shiver. Steeling yourself, you filter it out, realizing it’s just an illusion, but the others clearly aren’t so lucky. Ginelle staggers while Clint and Clarissa both let out cries and tumble from their vantage point, the man managing to catch the bird before they hit the ground, his back absorbing the fall for her.

“Aww fuck,” you mutter under your breath as you dash toward the Lor, still hidden by your cloak, but you’re too late to stop him from charging at Ginelle again. Your eyes go wide and you prepare to throw out an illusion, anything that will help, when a voice shouts through the trees,

“HEY UGLY!”

He turns his head just in time to see a shape leap from behind him to land upon his back, a wrench in their hands. You blink in surprise as you see Ophelia riding the man, slamming her wrench down upon his head, filling the clearing with metallic rings as she bangs back and forth, causing him to trash about, his trajectory ruined. This allows Ginelle to move out of the way as he collides into a tree, throwing Ophelia free while he falls to the ground, dropping his axe.

“Now!” you shout, and Ginelle dives forward, grabbing the axe and throwing it aside, though it seems to take a LOT of effort for even her to do. In that moment, you slide up with your knife and slash at the tendon in his left leg, causing the man to drop to the earth with a gurgled cry, sinking to ground on the injured foot. Before you can cut the other, he throws an arm out toward you and you have to leap backward. True to form though, Ginelle reappears and throws a fist into the man’s face, causing more damage to her than him, but he topples over, and she pins him down, using her strength and superior position to keep him there.

You recover your breath and walk up to the struggling man as the Clint and the others pick themselves up, though painfully. Looking down at him, for the first time, you can see into his eyes. Green orbs stare at you, disturbingly human, and you see a mixture of fear, hatred, and resignation there. He lets out a long sigh before stopping his resistance, though Ginelle doesn’t let him go. He merely continues to stare into your eyes and says, his voice losing the rough quality and instead seeming tired, “So, this is how this forest dies. I’m sorry, Enochia, I tried to save it…”

“Enochia?” you ask. “Who is Enochia?”

He goes silent, eyes looking down in dejection, and you sigh, turning your knife in your hand and stepping forward to end him when Khloe steps out of the tree line and asks, “What’s under the mask?”

You pause as Lor turns to look at her, sadness in those eyes. “You don’t wish to know.”

Khloe takes a shuddering breath and says, with more resolve, “What will happen if I remove the mask?”

“It will be very painful,” he says, yet Khloe keeps quiet, an implication on her expression. He sighs out and says, “For you, anyway.”

She closes her eyes and walks forward to release the seals on the shoulders, and it falls off to reveal the face of a man in his mid-twenties. He is not overly handsome, but he has a rugged nature and long, black hair that gives him a wild appearance. Khloe gasps and puts her hands to her mouth, saying, “Lorgar?”

“I told you it would be painful. I didn’t want you to be part of this, but you took them in here, and I had to… it was necessary.”

“You loved the company! You agreed with the plans! Why did you fake your death and start killing people?” She waves her arm to the side and shouts, eyes watering, “And what are these illusions? Lorgar, what happened to you?”

He grits his teeth, obviously in pain seeing Khloe like this. “She told me about the powers within me, that woman, remember? Chalan, I think her name was.” He looks up, a little wistfully. “I didn’t believe her, at first, but then I started to make sense of the strange things I was able to do, and I realized that I had such POWER. It was shortly after then that I returned to the grove and found… Enochia.”

“And what would be…?” you ask, rolling your hand. He gives you a disdainful look before sighing.

“A Dryad. The last one in these woods, one who had been asleep for ages until the destruction here drew her out. Her pain and suffering were so strong, so pure, that I knew I had to protect her and this place at any cost.” He takes a shuddering breath, “Gods… what a cost.”

“W-we can explain this all to everyone, get them to speak with this Enochia, right?” Khloe says, looking at you with hopeful eyes. “We can take him back with us, maybe lock him up or something? Everything will be alright, right?”

“No, it won’t,” you say, eyes still locked with Lorgar’s. “I’m afraid that there is no Dryad. Khloe, I didn’t want you see this, but we didn’t have much of a choice. He’s insane, and the best option is to kill him.”

Her eyes go wide in shock, while Lorgar’s go flat as he says, “Insane you say? You believe that my cause is not righteous and correct? That I killed those people for something FAKE?” He begins to grow agitated, and Ginelle redoubles her efforts in holding him as he snarls, “Don’t you DARE insult Enochia like that! The poor girl has been scared and terrified this whole damn time and YOU call me CRAZY?”

“Uh, Tobias?” Ginelle says, struggling to keep him in her grasp. “You might want to do something about him, I think…” She cuts off as the ground begins to rumble again, and you stand still, frowning as you dispel his pathetic attempt to make the roots appear, but only too late do you realize that they are, in fact, quite real.

You cry out as you’re thrown back and Ginelle loses her grip, the man bursting free. Even on his bum legs, he’s able to pick the badger up and throw her into a tree before clearing a space around him with his fists. Clint levels his rifle in moments, but a wall of roots appears before him and he steps back, cursing. You steady yourself and prepare your illusions, but before you can, a soft voice fills the forest, as if coming from everywhere.

“Lor, run!”

You stare in shock as the axe is flung into the air by roots and the man catches it easily, giving you one last look before hobbling off into the woods, another wall of roots filling your vision before falling down, showing the man to have fled.

“Fucking Hells,” you say, snapping to the others, “We need to go, hurry.” Clint runs over to help Ginelle up, the poor girl grunting in pain, but is fortunately okay. You don’t fail to notice the way Clint winces as he helps her up either. Man must have gotten hurt worse than you thought from that fall…

“Khloe, take us to the Sacred Grove,” you say, getting everyone in order. When you hear no reply, you turn to her and snap your fingers. “Khloe, snap out of it!”

She looks up at you with decidedly dejected eyes and says, “Why? So you can kill him?”

“Khloe, damnit, he’s going to keep killing others and ruin this whole place if you don’t help us!”

“No…” she whispers, and you grab her shoulders, shaking her.

“Where is the damn grove?!” you shout, growing frustrated. You feel a hand on your shoulder and you turn about to see Ophelia there, shaking her head. Relenting, you sigh, and back to the others. “Fine, let’s follow him the way he ran off, same formation.”

The others nod in agreement and you take off, leaving Khloe behind. Thankfully the path is straightforward and you reach a clearing where three, very large trees sit in the center. They have a similar feeling to Ulala’s tree in Loveura and you feel a pang of regret upon seeing them, but you steel yourself for what you have to do. As you walk up, you hear soft words speaking in a hushed, reassuring voice.

“Shhh, Lor it’s fine, you did your best, shhhh. Phallia, but they hurt you, oh no…”

You look to the others, and they take deep breaths as you walk into the grove, the voice going quiet. When you reach the center of the clearing you shout, “Lor! Come out! We know you’re hiding there!”

Silence is all that greets you for a long while until the middle tree shifts somewhat as the bark melts and morphs, resolving into the form of a young woman with green hair and eyes that sparkle like morning grass. Only her torso appears from the tree, but she stares out at all of you with a look of fear, though she tries to stay strong.

“G-go away all of you! D-don’t make me hurt you!”

 

Chapter 85

The ground rumbles slightly underfoot, but you narrow your eyes before raising up your hands. The Dryad, Enochia you’d assume, blinks a few times, giving you a curious expression before asking, “Y-you! What’s your game?”

“I think, for now anyway, we should just talk.” Sheathing your knife, you look to Clint, who shakes his head. So she’s real, huh? “I think there’s a few things we need to settle before this goes any further.”

“O-okay,” she says, still wary. “Don’t come any closer though! You hurt Lor again and I’ll be mad!”

“Fair enough.”

You nod your head gently to the others and Clint lowers his rifle while Ophelia puts her wrench away. They don’t look best pleased about it, but you see the bunny and the bird helping Ginelle and Clint sit down on the grass, looking over their aches and pains, which only now are they showing.

Enochia still looks wary of you, and for good reason you susppose, but you merely place your hands before you and say, in a calm, collected voice, “First, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Tobias Shady, and I am an Illusionist. These are my companions, Ginelle, Clint, Ophelia, and Clarissa. I apologize for our intrusion, but I am afraid that we have come with good cause.”

“W-what cause is that? To kill poor Lor?” Enochia says, pulling back slightly.

You nod your head slowly. “Yes, though I would ask you hear me out as for my reasons why.”

“There’s no good reason for that!” she shouts, and the ground rumbles again. Everyone else looks nervous, but you stand straight, looking into her eyes, and she falters, afraid at your calm demeanor. “W-what?”

“Can we speak in civil tones now? Yes, my words aren’t going to be nice, they aren’t going to be pretty, but they have to be said.” You sigh before continuing. “Are you aware of what Lorgar has been doing to the people outside the forest at night?”

“Lor…gar? Oh, I suppose that is his full name, isn’t it?” She looks a little confused for a moment. “I… can’t see outside the boundaries of the tree line, which is growing smaller every day. I do not know what Lor is doing, but he promised he’d stop them!”

“Don’t you tell her,” Lorgar says, pulling himself from behind Enochia’s tree. The man looks tired now, though his wounds are covered by various leaves and sap. “By the Gods, you keep your mouth shu-”

“Enochia, he’s been killing people. He plans to get them to stop logging by killing people.”

The Dryad’s eyes go wide and she shifts about the trunk of her tree as if it was a liquid rather than moving her head, before looking down at Lorgar. The man balls his hands into fists and glares daggers at you. “I told you not to do this…”

“It has to be done, because clearly you don’t understand your own situation either,” you say. “Now that this is all out in the open, we can begin to speak about everyone’s circumstances, yes?”

“You could probably have done that with a little more tact,” Ophelia sighs, but you merely continue looking forward.

Lorgar looks up into Enochia’s eyes and the two share a glance before he hangs his head. The Dryad bites her lip and then turns to you before nodding. “Very well… tell us what you have to say. I will judge the merit of your words.”

“Thank you,” you say, nodding to her. “As I have said before, I am an Illusionist, and it is my duty as given to me by Jackor himself to remove Illusionists who have been pushed by their powers to insanity, whether by their own fault or not.”

“What does that have to do with Lor…” Enochia begins before her eyes go large. “His magic? That’s what kind of sorcerer he is? I… I thought it strange he could use magic without a mana source, but I’ve never heard of Illusionists, though I have been asleep for quite some time. Only recently have I awoken due to the destruction of this forest. That’s how I met Lor, you see.”

“Illusionists, like Wizards, have powers directly from their God. For us, it is Jackor, for them, Solos.” You shrug and make a simple item, an hourglass, appear in your hand before the Dryad, having it float over your outstretched hand. “Clearly, this is not real, but it appears that way, yes?”

Lorgar frowns. “I don’t see anything.”

“Because I don’t want you to. But tell me, have you ever envisioned something, made people see things that aren’t there? I bet you’ve done it recently, even if you haven’t realized it.”

“Aye, I have felt myself stronger, more powerful recently. I could use my strength and the night to intimidate people, which allowed me to do… my work.” He looks down for a moment. “But you imply I am insane, though clearly I am not. Why would I take up such a noble goal?”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone about Enochia instead of just killing people?” you reply, to which he goes silent, looking down at the ground with a scared and confused expression. You continue, “I do not blame you for this though. I believe the fault lies in a woman you may have met, named Chalan.”

“Chalan… the naturalist?” he asks, frowning. “She came here some time ago and wanted a guide, specifically came to search me out, told me some things and I started to feel that power and…” He frowns. “It was shortly thereafter that I met Enochia and knew I had to protect her.” He puts a hand to his head and shakes it. “She… did this to me?”

“Yes, and no. She accelerated a process that was already happening, the more you used your powers, the more it would have caused you to go insane. It is the curse we all share.”

Enochia looks deeply troubled. “B-but if you’re one of these Illusionists, aren’t you going to go insane?”

You grow quiet for a moment, the rest of your group looking at you with somber expressions.

“Yes.”

“Then what right do you have to come here and tell me that Lor needs to die?” the Dryad says, getting worked up. “Sure, he may not be thinking clearly, but he means well! He’ll stop killing people, and we’ll do this right! He doesn’t have to die!”

You feel a stirring in your chest and Abigail pops her head out, growling and flying out of your jacket. She flutters in the air, and you look at her with astonishment. “Abigail? I thought you were staying with Akela?”

“Uh, no, not when you’re going to do something stupid. Besides, I’m more amazed you never notice me hiding in your clothing.” She shakes her head before turning to Enochia and flying toward her, fluttering mere inches before the stunned Dryad’s face.

“Listen here, treetits, do you know what I am? That’s right, of course you do, all Dryads know, and you know that if I’M HERE, then clearly, this is related to Jackor.”

“M-my Lady?” Enochia says, startled. “But your kind left for the forests of the east even before I went to my slumber. How are you come here, and why one of your stature?”

“My uh… what?” Abigail asks, cocking her head. “Uh, never mind. Anyway, look, I’m going to vouch that this idiot is an idiot, but he’s not insane, not yet. Listen to what he says, because though he’s an idiot, he has good, idiotic head on his shoulders.” She flies back over to you and gives you a thumbs up.

“Thank you… for that…” you say to the annoying little creature fluttering before you, who dives back into your jacket. “Right then, I take it you understand?”

“I do,” Enochia says, looking downcast. “Fairies, while creatures of Jackor, have a bond with the forests, and their nobility…” She closes her eyes. “Oh, forgive me, Phallia.”

“Phallia,” you say, frowning. “Most Monsters, even Plant Monsters, worship Dollora. Why do you keep invoking her name?”

“Because she made the forests, made what were once before. Though Dollora may have given us sentience, it was Phallia who continues to nourish the land and make green things grow.” She smiles wanly. “When I was awake before, she was a calm, gentle presence in the land, a stability we could rest upon. Now, as I have awoken, I feel her more upon this world, a stronger presence than before. I choose to believe it’s because she’s struggling against the destruction of the greenery in this world, as Lor has told me.”

“Maybe she’s just stroking her big cock…” Ginelle mutters, and Enochia cocks her head, apparently having heard.

“Cock? L-like a penis? No, she’s a Goddess, she does not have such a thing! Why would you say that?” the Dryad asks, her cheeks heating up fiercely. Lor shakes his head.

“It’s because Phallia sounds like Phallus.”

“Oh!” Enochia says, her greenish cheeks turning red. “That’s lewd! No! She does not have a penis!”

“Of course not, now let’s get back on track, shall we?” you say, frowning at Ginelle, who sniffs and then winces. “Lorgar, I did wish to know, how are you able to handle that axe, being so large? Ginelle is powerful, but that thing is a monster in its own right.”

“I don’t see why I should answer you,” Lorgar says, but Enochia puts a hand on his shoulder, and he responds begrudgingly. “Fine. I do not rightly know myself. I was always strong, but this…” He pulls off his leaf wrappings and you see the wounds to be looking much, much better already. “After I had begun speaking with Chalan, I felt myself stronger than that, but it wasn’t until I met Enochia that I could truly do things like use that axe, an old Minotaur weapon from over twenty years ago.”

Enochia nods. “I thought him odd too. When I awoke, I felt the presence of my Goddess in a being, and before me was Lor. I thought he was touched by her, blessed in a way, and thus I… I nurtured that within him. It seems to have made him much more…” She waves her hand, though her cheeks have grown very heated by this point.

You cock your head. “Is something wrong?”

“N…no, I uhm… Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this.”

“I’d like to know,” you press, and Lor grumbles,

“Don’t push her, it’s embarrassing. She just gave me some of her sap, that’s all.”

“That’s all? Ahhhhhh!” Enochia says, retreating into her tree while putting her hands over her face. “It’s too embarrassing!”

You hear from your jacket a small whisper, “Dryad sap comes from their tits you know. It’s very nourishing and quite delicious. You should ask for some, straight from the tap, ehehe.” You slap your chest, and Abigail yelps, a sufficient punishment.

“So, you’re saying that he had some of Phallia’s blessing upon him and when you fed him your uh… sap… he grew strong like this?” This troubles you greatly as it reminds you of the fate of Franz Jakovitch from the book. “Say… was this localized to his head?”

Enochia’s tree stirs and she slides out, frowning. “Well… yes, actually. It felt like a seed was in there, if you understand the comparison. I felt compelled to nurture it, guide it. And Lor decided to help and protect me, though he said that this Chalan wanted to return someday as well?”

“Aye. She said she’d like to see me after awhile, see how I’ve ‘grown’ or something. Are you suggesting she did something to my head?”

“She certainly did. I fear she may have actually put something in there,” you say, feeling almost sick. “It would explain how she can accelerate the process but she didn’t expect a Dryad to keep it from sending you into complete insanity.”

Your eyes go wide and say, “Gods, if that’s the case…!”

“T-then he doesn’t have to die?” Enochia says, pulling farther out of the tree until her full torso is showing. She blushes a moment later, hiding her hips and repeating, “I can help him?”

“I don’t know,” you say, shaking your head. “The damage is likely already done, and I’m afraid if he chooses to hurt people again, how can we stop him? The reason I’m here is because insane Illusionists rarely know they are insane. Even if they do, they can’t regulate their power appropriately.”

“But he knows now! He’ll stop!”

“You didn’t know before. And what happens if Chalan returns for him? Takes him away from you to further her goals? I know you don’t want to hear this, but she is going to start a war and I bet you that she’ll drive him so insane he’ll kill hundreds of people.” Enochia’s eyes begin to do that Dryad sap-like crying thing, and you prepare to throw a finishing punch of words when Lorgar gently places his hand on her again.

“Enochia… calm yourself. He’s right. I don’t like it, but he’s right.” She looks at him utterly aghast, and he grits his teeth. “I was killing people, slaughtering them in cruel ways, and I didn’t think twice about it. I still think what I was doing right, but that’s just… just insane! What will happen next time I leave the forest? How many people will I kill? Will I enter their houses now and slaughter everyone?”

He shudders once and whispers, “I have to die.”

“No, not necessarily,” you say, taking a step forward. Both of them look at you with surprised expressions as you continue. “I cannot allow you to roam free, but there is another option.” You point to Enochia and say,

“Take him into yourself.”

“W-what?” Enochia says, looking utterly flabbergasted. “B-but he’d be stuck in a stasis! A…and we only do that with men we… we really uh…uhm…” She puts her fingers together. “I mean, Lor is really nice and he’s maybe… and we might have uhm, but that’s a little too far, don’t you think?”

“What other option do you have?” you say, crossing your arms. “I cannot keep him in any other kind of dungeon, but I have made such a deal in the past with a Dryad named Ulala.”

“I… I see,” she says, looking over to Lor, cheeks red. “I-I suppose if this is the best way. Then we can merge together if… if you’ll have me?” She smiles in a rather cute little way, and Lor lowers his head before holding out his hand to hers.

“WAAAAAIIITTTT!”

Everyone turns about as a shrill voice cries out through the forest and, a moment later, a blur of motion appears as Khloe flies past you and runs into Lorgar, nearly throwing him down to the ground, through he manages to catch the Cat Girl in his arms, only mildly grunting in pain. He blinks a few times before saying, “Damnit Khloe, I thought you were going to stay away.”

“And let you be killed? Or…or go into some TREE forever?” She sniffs as tears flow from her eyes. “Lorgar, you’re my best friend! I… I can’t forgive you for what you did but… but I don’t want to lose you!” She buries her face into his chest and cries out,

“I love you!”

Enochia bites her lip, watching the scene with a hurt expression while Lorgar merely looks at the crying Cat Girl before sighing and stroking her hair. “Khloe… you have to understand. I will hurt you if I stay the way I am now. I hate this, but I know it’s true.”

“You’re hurting me by leaving! Why did this have to happen? Why can’t things go back to the way they were?”

“Because there’s a war starting, and sadly Lorgar is a casualty,” you say in a soft voice. “But there is a way to keep him safe, a way that perhaps we can find a way to help him later. Let him go into Enochia.”

“B-But…” she stammers but is silenced as Lorgar makes a gentle shushing noise.

“Khloe, I know it is hard, it is difficult for me to process also, but I will return someday. Perhaps I will not be cured, but at least there is hope, yes?” He smiles wanly. “If you want to remember me, to do what you can to help, then tell people my story. Tell the company what they are doing, what the forest means. Bring them here and let Enochia tell her tale, let them see what I have seen.” He looks down and whispers,

“This is the only thing I would ask of you.”

She looks up into his eyes before closing hers shut and squeezing his chest a long moment. She nods her head slowly at first, and then violently before saying, “Don’t you dare go getting crazy on me in there! You’re coming back and we’re going to have adventures again, you’ll see!”

“I’d like that,” he says before hugging her back, then gently pushing her away to stand and face Enochia. He looks into her eyes for a long time before saying, “I’m ready.”

“Alright,” Enochia says before closing her eyes and sinking back into the tree. While the tree is far different from Ulala’s, the process is quite similar. From the center of the trunk, the bark twists, cracking open slowly to reveal a widening maw. Lor looks at it with some trepidation, but before he can do anything, gentle roots wrap around his arms and legs, pulling him in, and he accepts it soon enough, being pulled inside the tree, which closes around him, sealing the man inside.

Nothing happens for a long time until Enochia’s face appears from the tree, her eyes looking a little glazed over, cheeks flushed. She turns to you and says, “It is done… I need to rest for now, but… he shall be safe.” She turns her head to Khloe and says, “I know exactly what you are feeling. When he returns to this world, I hope you are still here to see it.”

Khloe swallows hard before nodding curtly. “Yes. Of course. I’ll do all I can to protect him… and you.” She sniffs and pats the bark. “I’ll come visit both of you as much as I can.”

Enochia smiles, sinking back into her tree. “I’d like that…” As the last words leave her lips, she vanishes, and the tree is once again whole.

Khloe stands there for a long time before sighing and walking over to you, wiping at her eyes.

You put a hand on her shoulder and ask, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah… well, no. I’m a wreck but… we can take our time getting home. Is that okay?”

You smile and nod to the others, who get themselves ready to go, all quiet beyond Clarissa, who moves to comfort the Cat Girl, her expression sympathetic. She wipes her eyes one more time before leading all of you back out of the sunlit grove and off to the logging operation once again.

You make it back to town a little before dark, Khloe’s pace being understandably slow. Clarissa delivers a message to Saya for you ahead of time, and Saya seems to take your story fairly well when you return, the tension leaving her shoulders as you explain the events of the day and what you may have learned. Apparently she’s just happy you’re back, and gives you a good ribbing/one Hells of a kiss before chastising you for leaving her alone. She’ll get over it, she’s a nice girl.

Khloe takes an earful from the innkeeper, but she just takes it on the nose before turning in as the town locks itself up overnight. Not seeing terribly much to do that evening, you just accept it and turn in for bed as well. In the morning, Khloe leaves to speak with the Tilluhn company higher-ups here, thanking you before she goes. For your part, a leyway heading west comes later that afternoon, though the decision between heading to the detour north or staying straight west needs to be decided.

Which is where you are now, sitting about a table in the common room of the inn, looking at the map with frustration.

“Abigail, are you sure this is right?” you say to your jacket, and Abigail responds to the affirmative.

“Yep, person is out there, I can tell you that for certain, though those other two near Helmscrag are a little more erratic for some reason.”

“Hells… the place is out of the way, but… what, should be about a day and a half by leyway?”

“Aye,” Clint says, nodding his head. “I really don’t know what we’ll find but fields and some feral Monsters, so I’m a little concerned at what Emily is…” He trails off before shaking his head. “Look it’s not my choice, I’ll go with the flow. Though for what it’s worth, you made the right choice today.”

Clarissa nods her head as well, though Ginelle shrugs. “I would have been fine either way. Fighting a tree might have been fun.” When Ophelia gives her a stern look, she rolls her eyes and says, “Alright, alright, fine. It was sickeningly sweet and whatever. I just hope things turn out fine for him and for- ah, Hells, sorry Tobias.”

You close your eyes before shaking your head. “No, that’s fine Ginelle. It’s good to remember him.”

“Well, we have some time before the leyway gets here,” Clint says, leaning back though it causes him to grunt. “Why don’t you tell us about him? I think myself, Akela, and that Fairy are the ones who didn’t know him, though I hope we might in the future.”

Everyone looks at you, and you look down at the map. You should be planning your next move carefully, focused on the future, not the past. Fingers gliding over your next destination, you pause before rolling up the map. No, there will be fine for this later. For now, with a nod of your head, you smile, memories of Richard flowing into you.

“Sure.”

 

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