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[Other FULL] Guilds of Atria: Phoenix Nest [T] [IC]


  • 957

    Truth or Dare: Simulation and Suffering Thursday July 19th, X784

    "Join the fun, Lina! Truth or dare?" Eli kept a friendly arm around Prim's shoulders, proud of his handiwork.

    "Hmm… Truth!" she answered.

    "Okay. Truth…" Eli took a moment to think it over. "So… I know we're all like a family here, but you know how some animals form bonded pairs, and stick together for life? Is there anyone you really like, and want to bond with?"

    Ephraim and Ith'Drell shared a quick look of baffled amusement.

    Lina stared at him with wide eyes as she tried to parse the question in her mind. She stifled a laugh before finally answering. "If you mean like a crush then not right now, no. If you mean like actually wanting someone to be my uh, life partner, I don't think I've ever felt that about someone."

    "Oh, okay. I bet it'd be easy to find someone, though. Lots of people probably have a crush on you, since you're so nice, and smart, and pretty..." Eli noticed the looks he was getting, turning a little red. "What? T-the book said to t-talk about stuff like this! It's your turn, Lina!" And he hid himself inside his wings.

    Lina chuckled at the boy's poor attempt to hide his feelings and turned her attention at someone who was a little better at that. "Alright Faye, truth or dare?"

    Faye folded her arms and thought a little. It was Lina, probably the safest person to give her a dare of a question. "Hm…. Truth." She went with eventually.

    "Okay, tell me one thing you've fantasized about," Lina asked.

    Faye was quiet for a bit. You could visualize her jaw drop except that it didn't actually happen but it was a question she didn't expect nonetheless. "Uh… can I still go for dare?" She asked with a straight face. However, that's not how the game worked and she knew that.

    Faye sighed and answered, ultimately deciding that it could be something small as well. There was no way she could bring up one of the heavier topics. "... Finding the cutest pillows and sheets for my room. Preferably in pastel colors."

    "Pastel colours, ey?" Prim commented wryly.

    "Didn't take you for a home decorator," Lina said with a smile. "Or at least not one devoted enough to fantasize about it. You'll have to show me your room some time. But for now, you're next!"

    "Oh… right." Faye replied, shying a little bit away from Lina's excitement. "Uh… Pat. Truth or dare."

    "I've got nothing to hide anyway, so truth is boring. Dare!" Pat challenged.

    Faye nodded and thought for a little but it was actually hard to come with an innocent dare but she eventually thought of something that could be hilarious to watch due to the completely different view he has on this person. "Pretend to be Rowan for 2 rounds."

    Without any hesitation Pat put on his best playful smirk and sharpened his gaze. "If that is your wish, my dear, but try not to swoon too hard~ Can't have you falling out of the train~" As Pat finished a rose appeared in his hand from under his cloak as if out of thin air, and his hair reddened to match it. Faye could only raise an eyebrow at this unexpected development.

    Lina giggled at this smaller replica of their guildmate. "He's a little too good at this, don't you think?"

    "It's bizarre," Prim agreed.

    "It's… I think I regret this." Faye replied.

    Ith'Drell finally let out a colossal snort of laughter, having held it in valiantly for several seconds. "I can't-" she exhaled. "The rose- the rose, just- the more I kept looking, it's just too good- guys, please, blast through these next two so I don't die, thanks."

    Faye shook her head and turned towards monstrosity she created. "Pat, it's your turn."

    "Hmmmm." the younger of the Hoskels practically purred, eyeing up first Faye then Lina. "So many ideas come to mind, all sorts of fun. Buuuuuuuuuuuut Drell!" He tossed the rose right to the Duke herself. "Truth or dare?"

    Faye was very visually facepalming.

    "Man, me again? I'mma get a million turns," said the reptile, making no effort to catch the flower that bounced softly off her snout and fell comfortably atop her chestplate. "Uh, let's go dare, dude. I'm ready."

    "I dare you to give us a demonstration of what you losing a fight would look like, and make it good." He said, keeping up the smirk and looking as friendly as possible despite it.

    "Uh, right," Drell nodded, scrunching up her face in thought. She heaved herself up and shuffled over to the end of the bed, leaving the rose on the pillow. "I'll, uh, try it as best I can with the limited room we got."

    Once the big lizard had got off the bed, picked up her blade and got her guildmates to give her enough room, she immediately dropped her weapon and fell to one arm and one knee with a heavy clunk.

    "No!" She lamented, "Not like this! I can't… I can't go on, it's too much for me. Pat…" She looked up at the young Hoskel's eyes, a silly grin battling simulated sorrow for control over her features. "I know I've never lost a fight before, but… when you said those words to me; 'lose the fight, or you're dumb', it... it broke my resolve. I'm defeated." Drell bowed her head, either in shame or to hide a dopey smile. "You win, Patileer. I'm beaten."

    Prim applauded.

    "So tragic…" Lina pretended to shed a tear.

    "So cool…" Even Elidyr was impressed, peering out from behind his wings.

    Pat crossed his arms and seemed to grow a bit taller, almost to Rowan's height and began to laugh like a supervillain while his cape came alive and waved behind him in an imaginary wind. "Bwahaha, and so the Duke falls! No match for I, the invincible King of Lions! From now on, you shall serve me and together we will take the world! Nothing will stop our combined might!"

    "Uh, sure," shrugged Drell.

    Faye threw one of the candy packages near her towards Pat to hopefully calm him down. "Annnnndddd… Continue." She said facing Drell.

    "Faye, darling you don't need sweets to woo me. My heart is already yours!" Pat gave an exaggerated swoon and tossed a new rose over his shoulder at his candy-weaponizing guildmate.

    "I don't think I like this anymore," Lina said, despite her smile.

    Faye could only show a somewhat disgusted expression. "I… regret this. Give us Pat back…" She almost whined.

    "My adorable little brother may be the cutest boy in the whole wide world." Pat declared in a fatherly tone, hugging himself as he said it. "But you sent him away for two whole rounds so I'm afraid you're stuck with me~"

    Faye facepalmed.

    "Aaight, Faye, you want Pat back?" Drell shot her a grin. "Truth or dare?"

    "Ugh… Dare." She reluctantly replied.

    The big lizard shot her a pair of finger guns and said, "Dare ya to mess with Prim's hair- I'm kidding-, be as expressive as possible for the next two rounds!" Then she put her sword back at the foot of her bed and climbed back into the bunk, exclaiming, "My work here is done."

    Faye's eye twitched for a moment. "... As expressive… As possible…?" She repeated quietly. "I'm not sure if my face can do that but uh… I'll try." the white haired girl looked honestly exhausted but took a deep breath nonetheless. What would be most expressive? is what she thought. The moment she let out a deep sigh was the moment a new Faye stood before them. She decided to become a combination of Lina and… Prim?

    "How about this?" She said with a big smile all across her face and her hands clasped together.

    "Having fun?" Prim asked.

    Faye's big smile twitched and the longer she held it up, the faker it became.

    "Woah, whaaaat?" Ith'Drell hollered, back in place in her bunk and resting her head on one arm. "Where'd Faye go?"

    "How long should I keep this up my dear friend, Drell?" Faye made a peace sign with her hand and held it next to her head like those girls she saw in the city earlier acting all cutesy. The embarrassment overtaking her.

    Drell snorted, "Oh my g-" She composed herself, a single finger gun accompanying her answer. "Two rounds, dude. You got this, I believe."

    Pat's facade fell to pieces at the same time he did, rolling on the floor, holding his sides in pain and cackle-gasping harder than he ever had. His hair and eyes rapidly changed color the whole time, treating the Phoenixes to an Aurora Patealis

    Prim leaned in closer to get a look at visible strain Faye was experiencing. "I'm a little weirded out by this, but I have to admit it's worth it to see your face turn this colour. Who knew Faye could be this adorable?"

    "She's always been adorable." The Rowan voice came back for a split second before laughter overtook Pat again.

    "Maybe," Prim commented, now also succumbing to laughter.

    Faye's smile turned meaner with the moment. Adapt and overcome she kept repeating to herself. She took back her composure and now held her hands against her cheeks, imitating another cute expression she saw the girls in the city do. "Aren't you all having fun? Can we please continue?" She asked as nicely as she could.

    Lina put her hand on Faye's shoulder. "T-this whole thing was my idea, and I'm sorry it's come to this. Stay strong." She held her other hand over her mouth, hiding an expression that would surely betray her words.

    "PRIM! Truth or dare." The white haired Phoenix pointed at Prim holding her hand in front of her mouth and winked.

    "That wink, what are you trying to do to us?" Prim teased, "Dare, of course. I'm not missing out on that."

    Faye suddenly had a mischievous smile spreading across her soft pink lips, something that was very unlike her. "Do you know what homicide is?" She asked. "Well, it's not that. You're going to have to act like a turkey!~" Faye spoke, clapping her hands and smiling.

    "But we already had a Rowan impression," Prim quipped, "Sure, why not?"

    "Ooooooooh," Drell laughed.

    "She meant the dumb kind of turkey not the delicious kind." Pat said, still catching his breath.

    Faye felt her eye twitch again.

    Lina raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure that came across how you meant it to."

    Prim cleared her throat, tucked her arms into her sleeves so they more resembled a turkey's wings and proceeded to start strutting up and down the available space unabashedly. She made a point of leaning forward slightly and very deliberately picking her feet up higher than necessary before placing them back on the ground. Occasionally she would mimic ruffling her feathers or would let out a not entirely inaccurate turkey noise impression.

    "Still not the most embarrassing impression performed tonight," she commented happily.

    "Are you sure, though? It seems pretty embarrassing to me." Faye commented.

    "Honestly," Drell chuckled. "I'm almost too impressed to laugh."

    For some reason Pat only mildly chuckled and the first person to look in his direction saw him stuffing something in his cloak.



  • 957

    Truth or Dare: A Warm Nest Thursday July 19th, X784

    "So, Ephraim's not done anything in a while," Prim said with a smirk, "You know the drill, truth or dare?"

    "Mmmm, I did a dare last time, so truth," Ephraim replied, semi-distracted by an unruly Bart pulling a stray thread from his pant leg.

    "How'd you end up partnered with the Barts?" Prim asked, genuinely curious.

    Ephraim's eyes lit up immediately and the Barts began to move to his hands. "Okay, so." With semi-theatrical flair, Ephraim and the Barts pulled a large tapestry out of Ephraim's bag, undoing some of the pockets within in the process. The Barts on Ephraim's hands, semi-guided by Ephraim's fingers, folded and unfolded the tapestry until only one row of it showed, with colorful, vibrant threads showing Ephraim, in several scenes, standing over a blade of grass, picking up a spider, and taking it home to show to his parents. The Barts began to run over and tap excitedly over every part of tapestry with them on it. "I actually only met one Bart at first, and I had no idea what I was in for. When I first found Bartholomew he was just one small little spider-- or, well, I'd only found one of his spiders. I definitely felt like he was my partner-- I knew that I wanted to bond with Bart, I guess-- but just the one Bart didn't visibly do much magic, and was more just a regular ol' spider. I'd brought him home and showed my parents and they weren't very excited either. At that time, I guess I had a feeling that there was more to it.

    "But then," Ephriam continued, unfolding more of the tapestry, "more spiders started to show up at my house. They didn't really do much either, but it was quickly becoming a problem, and it was really confusing for me because I'd already named the one, but as more and more came in I realized they were all part of the same creature. Eventually I lost count of how many spiders I had in my house in Valbestia. I actually found most of the Barts in woods and mountains when I was moving with my parents to Atria, and that's when their magical abilities became much clearer. Until then, the best we'd managed was to make maybe two very small hats in a day." Ephraim grinned. "But I guess the best answer is 'it's really hard to say,' because, I swear. It feels like every time I look around there's more of them. It was uh… definitely a process."

    Faye, still in the middle or her act, clapped excitedly. Although she was visibly getting tired.

    "Probably a good thing none of you are arachnophobes, huh?" Prim remarked. Faye immediately shot a glare in her direction.

    Lina sat at the edge of her bed with wide eyes. "That's so cool. How does it feel, suddenly getting access to another being's mind and magic? Though I guess there's no obligation to answer if you don't want to, not being my turn and all."

    "No, no, it's okay!" Ephraim hesitated. "It was... overwhelming. It's almost like... suddenly having a piece of someone else's mind in yours, I think that's a good way to put it. I got used to it, but for the first few moments it was a bit messy to distinguish whether or not I was thinking something or if it was the Bart's feelings intruding instead, though I was probably overthinking it! Getting a hold of Bartholomew's magic and learning to work with it was just awesome though, because like, I was suddenly aware of this huge store of extra power and could begin to use it to move the world around me, and… well, I could spend all day describing how all of it feels now."

    "Wow…" was all Lina could say, her mouth agape.

    "I… think that would be nice." Eli spoke up, slowly spreading his wings so he doesn't accidentally hit someone or something with them. "My magic lets me change my body parts, and even grow new ones. But it doesn't tell me how to use them, so I… just have to figure it out. Wings aren't really shields, but… I don't know how else to use them…"

    "Have you tried, you know, flying?" Prim asked a touch incredulously.

    Faye got a little quiet. The whole time she thought she was the only one struggling to take control of her magic while her whole guild was filled with people trying to learn exactly that.

    "Brushing against the thoughts and feelings of another is a strange process." Pat thought out loud. "It can be symbiotic, parasitic, or even a brutal invasion, all depending on context and consent or lack thereof." He was staring at the floor in contemplation of something far off for a bit before moving on to the other topic. "Prim, it's not as simple as trying to fly. You combined, body and soul with a bird. Ellie can only take the body, you inherited the feeling of flying, the instincts to fly, and scientifically speaking, flight is very complicated. The three of us should actually get together, I think I might have an idea for how we could help Elly give flying a shot."

    After he finished speaking everyone was left with a strange feeling, and after a moment they realized that Pat's voice no longer sounded similar to Rowan's, in that last speech what they heard was Rowan's voice exactly.

    "I… I'd like that… I bet Prim would be a really good teacher. Because I have tried, but it didn't really work that well…" Eli retracted his wings back, offering Pat a small grin. "And you're really good at impressions, Pat."

    "Creepily good," Prim added, "And sure, I can help you out some time."

    "Impressions?" Pat's voice cracked all at once, everything about him returning to normal and he collapsed backwards onto his bed. A moment later he sprang back up and looked around. "Aww man, did I fall asleep? I didn't miss any cool dares, did I?!" Then he gasped and covered his mouth. "Oh no, I stopped my impression!" Pat's hair turned a duller shade of blue and he slumped over with matching, sad eyes. "When did I stop? Has it been two rounds yet? Did I fail the dare? Aww, I should just jump out the window right now."

    Faye raised an eyebrow. Something about what happened just now was very very odd.

    "Um… anyone?" Prim asked, looking about, confused. Faye raised a hand, her face even more red than it was just now thinking of a certain possibility. Ith'Drell shrugged, confused but more amused than perturbed.

    "Magic really is amazing, isn't it?" Lina said softly. She got up and picked up a box of what Elidyr had dubbed the "fail juice" from the snack pile, tossing it over to Pat. "Oh, and I'm glad to see you back to normal again Pat. No jumping out the window though, please?"

    "Ooookaaaayyyy." Pat acquiesced, still sounding depressed.

    "Yes, please, otherwise you'll miss the rest of the game! After all, it's my turn to choose, and therefore, Lina's turn to do something. Lina," Ephraim said, raising his arms and corralling the Barts around him into a frenzy, "truth or dare?" Pat immediately perked up at Ephraim's choice of target.

    "I did truth last time, so dare!" she answered.

    "Okay," Ephraim said, "I dare you to... well, just hold on just a moment." The Barts quickly began to pull discarded Phoenix Nest™ hats out of Ephraim's bag and create new ones, until there was a small assortment of beanies, sagging top hats, and half-decent baseball caps. "I'll be honest, I haven't figured out how to give them the sort of… structural integrity that you'd expect. But I dare you to balance all of these on your head until the end of the game! And if you fail," Ephraim continued, watching the Barts spin some of the scratchiest threads they'd yet managed with the utmost glee, "you have to wear this itchy wool sweater for the rest of the night!"

    "Hey I said I like hats, but not that much," she joked, already reaching for one of the hats. "Am I limited on what I can wear under the sweater? I'd rather be hot than itchy."

    "Mmmmm." Ephraim mulled it over for a few seconds. "Well, at least have your arms exposed to the sweater for like, an hour. Otherwise it wouldn't be much of a dare. There wouldn't be stakes!"

    "Fine, fine." She began by solemnly taking off her own hat. She set it on her bed and gave it a pat before facing her adversaries. She decided to put on all the beanies first. They fit snugly on her head, each one easily wrapping around the next. By the time she finished they'd begun pushing outward, making Lina's head look like a mushroom.

    Next, she tried putting on a baseball cap, only to find that it didn't fit very well over the stack of beanies. She got down on her knees so she wouldn't have to bend down when she picked up subsequent hats. The baseball caps piled on, and as long as she didn't move too much she found she could keep them in place easily enough.

    But next came the top hats. "How the hell am I supposed to stack these?" she cried. But she continued her endeavor. Up went the first one without too much trouble. Her stack wobbled dangerously with the second. And by the third, she found herself unable to even reach the top of her stack.

    "...Am I allowed to have someone else put this on for me?" Lina asked with a strained voice. "T-the dare was just to balance them, right?"

    Ephraim laughed. "I mean I'm tempted to say no because you asked, but sure."

    "I'll do it! Me, me, meeeeee!" Pat volunteered, frantically waving one arm like a student all too eager to answer a question up on the board.

    "This is amazing," Prim said, turning to Ephraim, "I approve."

    "Well, you know, I have good ideas sometimes." Ephraim couldn't help but relish in the spectacle he had brought on, and grabbed another pastry as a decent popcorn substitute.

    "Too bad Myeloch's not here to see how smart his daughter's got," Drell chuckled. "Look at the size of that noggin'! He'd be so proud."

    "Sure, Pat, do it! Quickly! But also gently! But also hurry!" Lina chose to ignore her other guildmates, keeping still the best she could.

    Pat nodded vigorously, his hair turning a bright, foxy orange and clambered to the bunk above his with an arm full of tophats. He began to gently place them one at a time, carefully leaning off of the bed and trying to have them as centered as possible. "I'm not sure how many of these we can even do before they hit the ceiling, this train's not all that tall."

    "Just jam as many on as you can," Prim said.

    "It's no use trying to stack more. It's not like we can go through the roof." Faye commented as well. Her cutesy girl facade was slowly fading but she tried her best to keep smiling and taking on ridiculous poses.

    The stack reached as high as it could, very nearly hitting the ceiling. Lina was perfectly still, knelt down with her arms out at her sides for balance. "... Let's finish this up please. This is good enough, right? It's my turn now, right?"

    "Just keep it steady…" Eli watched, careful not to move too much, lest he disturb Lina's balance. "Who are you going to pick?"

    "Pat, truth or dare!" she called.

    Her words reached him just as he finished setting the last hat and the instant it was in place Pat jumped at the question and lost his balance with a "Wha?!", falling into the tower of headwear and, ultimately, its foundation Lina. Hats rained throughout the Phoenix car, donning all bare heads and blinding any unlucky enough to look up at the wrong moment.

    "Careful, Pat!" Eli cried out, but it was too late. He tried to leap into action, but a top hat landed on his face, blinding him and causing him to trip.

    Lina rolled Pat off of her with a groan, then looked pleadingly at Ephraim. "That wasn't my fault so it doesn't count…right?"

    "I say it's a win because we all had fun!" Drell exclaimed, muffled. She had reached out of the bed a bit to provide something of a buffer to her falling guildmates, and now her snout was buried under a little mound of hats.

    Prim shook off the hats that had landed on top of her. "Good enough for me."

    Faye in the meanwhile only slow-clapped. "There was an attempt."

    Pat spit out a tiny hat he didn't remember being in the tower and stared at the ceiling. "Why would you call on someone in the middle of something like that."

    "Yeah, yeah... I'll take the stupid sweater," Lina said. "So what's it gonna be, Pat?"

    "Truth." He responded, sitting up properly and brushing a hat off his shoulder.

    "I'm a little disappointed we haven't had more romance talk despite it apparently being key to the experience. So Pat, describe your ideal partner."

    Pat opened his mouth and froze, eyes darting around the room before finally locking themselves on the floor at his feet. "S-s-someone nice….and-and really pretty…" as his face reddened his hair started to rapidly shift colors like a roiling sea with rainbow waves. "Someone who's strong of heart and mind. Someone who always pushes towards what matters to them and fights any odds they have to to get it." His eyes began to change colors too, melding in a slow, confused muddle like oil pouring into water. "S-someone like-like-" He began to feel dizzy, he couldn't believe Lina of all people was the one to ask him this question and when he looked at her his face reddened more and forced him to look away..

    When Pat stood straight up and crossed his arms dramatically his eyes looked unfocused. "Someone voluptuous with charm that knows no bounds! Only the best for me! Bwahahaha!" He shouted and cackled, his vision swimming, then he began to sway and stumbled, now officially overheated in his attempts to divert.

    "I think you nearly killed him," Prim commented.

    "... And he's killing us with his emotions going about." Faye commented while trying to shake off the overabundance of warm feelings that were coming over them. "We won't press further, Pat. So please… uh… turn that off?"

    "It's kind of like when you've been in hot, steamy water too long," Prim agreed.

    "Pat!" Drell shouted from under the mound of hats she hadn't bothered to remove herself from. "It's okay, Pat, it's fine!"

    Lina stood up and put her hands on Pat's shoulders, trying to gently guide him to the nearest bed. "Geez, I was a little bitter about the hats so I just thought I'd tease you a bit. Take a seat and drink some juice. We should probably make this next one the last one before it gets a bit too crazy."

    At the contact literal steam billowed out of Pat's ears and he wriggled out of Lina's reach only to fall face-first on his bed and say no more.

    "Why would he drink the juice?" Cried Ith'Drell, still not removing herself from the hat-pile. "He won the- he did the truth! No juice!"

    "It doesn't have to be the juice, some other kind of juice works. And besides, he probably still has juice from the Rowan thing." She picked up a juice box for herself and began sipping. She gave Ephraim's wine bottle a glance, but looked away just as quickly.

    "Victory juice!" The great lizard announced, muffled.

    When he finally rolled over, colors back to normal and breathing slowed down, Pat grabbed one of Elidyr's juice boxes and drained it. After dropping the crumpled box from his mouth he let out a sigh that was accompanied by a puff of smoke. "Ellie, truth or dare." He asked meekly.

    "Oh, it's me? Uh…" Eli removed the hat from his face, looking around at the others. "I'm not good at impressions, and don't want to make more of a mess, so I'll go with Truth."

    Silence ensued for a solid minute while Pat thought without success. Finally he started to hum to himself and wriggle, then opened his eyes and gasped. "What was it like where you came from? And how much do you like being in the guild compared to it?"

    "Um… I moved around a lot back then, avoiding storms, going where the research was." Eli looked at the floor as he thought. "Back then it was just me and my mom, so it could get kinda lonely sometimes. Not like here." He glanced up, looking between Pat and Drell. "I don't know about a lot of things, but you guys are all really helpful, and I like having friends that don't just leave. It's like I have a family now."

    He laughed nervously, turning a little red. "I know it's silly, but I kinda like it! And the weather's nicer here, too!"

    Despite being the one who asked, Pat stared at Elidyr in awe. Suddenly his eyes filled tears and his hair turned cotton candy pink all at once as he jumped out of bed and wrapped his arms around the victim. "Oh, Ellie, you're so cute I never wanna let you go! I know exactly what that's like! Let's stay together forever and be the bestest most asskickening family-guild of all time." He swung the hug back and forth while cheer-crying, drowning the car in a deluge of doting on sweetness.

    Elidyr let himself get grabbed, too stunned to resist even as Pat swung him around a little. "I'm c-c-cute?" Pat's infectious emotions washed over Eli, along with the desire to just hug everyone in the room. His large wings popped back out, wrapping around both Pat and himself. "Okay! P-Phoenix Nest! The best family I could ask for!"

    "We are pretty great," Prim said.

    "The best!" Agreed the mountain of hats.

    A light chuckle could be heard from the white haired silent mouse with horns. Lina smiled at the scene, but said nothing. Ephraim felt quite overwhelmed by the emotions in the room, but he couldn't help but grin and say "yeah, the best."

    "Get over here!" Pat shouted happily, grabbing one of Elidyr's wings by the stem and sweeping it around the room to gather up his guildmates for a big hug.

    "Group hug!" Announced the pile of hats with plate legs coming out of it, materialising scaled arms from the depths and holding them out blindly and invitingly.

    Lina shrugged before going all in on the hug.

    "Sure, why not?" Prim shoved the nearest person toward Drell before hopping into the growing mass of people herself.

    "I-I think I'll skip." Faye, who was the one being pushed by the blue haired troublemaker, said while trying to escape.

    Eli opened his wings wide. With one arm around Pat and another around Prim, his oversized wings reached out to encompass everyone else. "This game is weird. But fun!"

    "Fun, and nice," Ephraim said as he came into the hug as well, navigating his way between Eli's wings until he felt comfortable. "Cozy, too." Groups of misguided Barts hopped onto the guildmates as well, quickly making themselves comfortable wherever they landed.

    "Aaaayy, it's the crew!" Cheered the muted voice beneath the hats.



  • 957

    Lautela, the City by the Wetlands Friday July 20th, X784

    Lautela, former center of the Lautela city-state, is the smallest of the empire's three great cities. But while it pales in comparison to Gildas or the capital, it is still an impressive place with much to see. As the train approached the city, the guild wizards were quick to feel the warm, humid air typical of the South but familiar to one of their team members that grew up here. They passed vast fields of crops, Lautela being a major producer of food in the empire with alchemy helping the crops be stronger and more nutritious than anywhere else.

    The first thing anyone visiting Lautela will notice is the great tree that stands at the center of the wetlands. Despite the wetlands being several miles away from the city, the gargantuan tree can be seen clearly from not only Lautela, but every town and village in the region. Several times taller than even Atria's Crystal Tower, this tree is the centerpiece of many Lautelan legends. It has been called many names like the "tree of life" or the "world tree", but the locals have taken to calling it the Spirit Greatwood. The rest of the country tends to call it the "great tree" or "that big tree in Lautela".

    Lautela's reverence of this tree is rooted in the fact that they hold tightly to their traditions. Traditions born in a time centuries past, before their conquest at the empire's hands. Even less traditional Lautelans will still show some respect for the Greatwood or the wetlands, and will participate in the city's Day of Remembrance.

    The train finally entered the city, soon to reach its stop at the station. Compared to the capital this city was quaint, its buildings smaller and more crowded. Tall buildings could be seen in the distance, but they didn't reach nearly as high as a skyscraper would. The streets were more narrow and winding, with fewer cars than in the capital. The level of influence alchemy had on the city could be seen in the places lining its streets. Breweries, pharmacies, restaurants, beauty stores, and of course potion shops were all greater in number and size than their counterparts; especially magitech stores, which were few and far in between.

    Finally, the train slowed to a stop having reached its destination. The passengers gathered their things and hurried off the train, including Phoenix Nest and their fellow guild wizards. The tension was palpable as the inter-guild group gathered outside the train's doors, passing glances and glares between each other. Hands gripped weapons or hovered close to them.

    But they would have to put up with it until the representative they were waiting for arrived to guide them to the client's home.

    "Nice weather," Prim chimed in sarcastically, taking in the scenery from her place among her guildmates.

    "It's been a while." Faye spoke quietly and rubbed her arm a bit. She felt a bit uncomfortable being back here.

    "You're from here?" Prim asked.

    "... I was born and raised here." Faye replied to her guildmate's question, conveniently leaving out details.

    "Well with this humidity, no wonder you left." Prim grinned, "Otherwise, it seems nice enough."

    The white haired girl shrugged. "You get used to it."

    Pat was excitedly flitting from wizard to wizard, greeting and introducing until he reached the Sirens, where he simply beamed and waved.

    He got a sense of each one's emotional state as he approached them. The Unicorn woman was bursting with barely-contained excitement, brightly reciprocating Pat's greeting. Silver Chimera Nilli, meanwhile, harbored a well-hidden fury raging beneath her poker face as she ignored the boy. Her metallic slime hid in her bag, but Pat could feel it staring curiously. Simon, Rhea, and Natalie all acted as expected, and Tiran was significantly less hostile to him than before.

    "I don't like this…" Elidyr quietly complained, sticking close to Lina and Drell. "The air feels wet, there's too many people, and I'm pretty sure everyone else here is older and stronger than me. I should have stayed at the Guild with Sarah…" Lina gave him a reassuring smile, though it was clear from her wandering eyes that her focus was on the other guild wizards.

    Ith'Drell gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Sounds to me like you've got a load of experienced friends to watch your back, dude. Not sure what to do 'bout the air, though. Knew it got hotter the further South you went, never really got 'humidity' or whatever it is, though."

    "Not surprised it's too complicated for one of you," a voice interjected, the Silver Spirit from earlier passing by the group and walking off to a nearby location to stand alone. Drell didn't seem to notice, and instead exchanged a few pleasantries with Simon.

    "Are you sure I can't punch him, just once?" Prim asked, turning to Faye. The two heard Tiran chuckle at the suggestion.

    "Not yet." The only one that seemed dressed to this humidity replied. Although Faye was obviously getting more annoyed with the guy.

    That very wizard was the last one Pat reached before returning to the group. "Why does someone who gets so flushed and excited every time he looks at a Valbestian try so hard to be mean to them?" He asked, all innocent curiosity. "Are you trying to cover up your fetish? It's nothing to be ashamed of, you should just be honest instead of mean."

    Faye seemed to be almost facepalming at the sight of Pat approaching the very man that she and Prim had deemed trouble last night. She watched the duo from a distance and was ready to intervene when needed, much like the situation at the train station in the City.

    "With brains like that you could be a Valbestian, kid," the Spirit snapped back. "They're repulsive savages who should stick to the crappy little tribes they come from. They should take the Touched with them too. Now run along back to your nest if you know what's good for you."

    He promptly turned away from Pat, making it clear that he had no intentions to further discuss the matter with him.

    Faye seemed almost furious and approached the duo, grabbed Pat by his hand and gently pulled him along with her back to the group. "Don't talk to him. He's trash."

    Pat didn't budge. "There's something else there mixed in…fear. Makes sense, most prejudice comes from fear but…man, fear and lust pointed at the same thing. You know, you should really see a therapist." He then let Faye start pulling him away. "I hope you get over your issues before it makes your guild think less of you than they already do, good luck!"

    As they walked, Faye seemed in a much better mood thanks to Pat. "You got him good." She praised him.

    "I wish I could take away that fear." Pat muttered, almost sadly. "That kind of fear makes monsters of cowards, it's just lucky he's a weakling."

    While that was being dealt with, Natalie approached Simon. She seemed to be asking him a few things before then turning her attention to Drell. Then, she pulled out her spellbook and pointed a finger at the armored Phoenix.

    "I was right, you're the one who's supposed to be really strong," Natalie shouted. "Fight me!"

    The big lizard frowned in confusion, then she laughed, "Oh, right, I remember you- uh, later, maybe. You know there's, like, a time and place for that sort of thing, right? Now and here ain't it."

    Natalie stared blankly at Drell. Then she began flipping through her spellbook, but she soon felt herself sliding back. Her feet lost contact with the ground and she flew through the air, until Rhea caught her. She found herself suspended above the ground by Rhea's grip on her head, a grip that was slowly tightening.

    Rhea shook her head. "Sorry about her. Again. Let's hope she'll learn with a bit more discipline." Natalie helplessly tried to pry herself from her guildmate's grasp, to no avail. "She does have a good sense for strength though, so you must really be something."

    Drell exhaled through her nose, welcoming the boost to her ego. "I mean I am, like, the strongest and most epic, so…"

    "You can't fight with everyone all the time, silly Natalie!" Pat called out to her. "Don't worry, you'll get your chance, I'm sure we're gonna fight a lot of other guildies. I'm sure my brother would fight you if you asked!" He radiated excitement at the idea, already playing things out in his head. "Though knowing him he'd probably try to fight Rhea first…"

    "I'm not sure fight is the word you're after…" Prim muttered.

    Ith'Drell snorted, "Prim, behave, jeez."

    "She's just jealous because nobody cares about fighting her." Pat countered with a smirk.

    Drell blinked, "Uh… Pat, behave, jeez?"

    Natalie's body went limp, and Rhea finally dropped her. After lying on the ground for a bit, she sprung to her feet and dusted herself off, acting as though nothing had happened. She picked up her book telekinetically, the others noticing from the glow on her rings that she was using lacrima to do so.

    "I'll hold you to that offer, kiddo," she told Pat. "And I don't see the issue with what I do, either. We're guild wizards after all, we need to be ready for anything on a job! And also I wouldn't have to do it like this if more people wanted to fight, but whatever."

    Rhea put her hand on her guildmate's head again, but much more gently this time. "She's desperate to get stronger and thinks experience is the best way. Considering her memory magic she might be right, but I don't want her to ruin our rep in the process either."

    "I like her," Prim said with a shrug.

    Faye stood next to Lina and Eli and watched the bunch from a distance. "Don't you want to get to know the others better, Lina?" She asked, wondering why she had been so quiet.

    "Huh?" Lina blinked. "Oh, sorry. I was just, uh, thinking about stuff. Still trying to take everything in, with the capital, the other guilds, and now being here. I might still need a bit but don't worry, I'll try to get some good info afterwards." She gave Faye a thumbs-up.

    Ith'Drell rubbed her brows, "Uh- Natalie, right? You know you can still fight other guild wizards without, like, goading 'em to fight you at the train station, right? It's not about guild wizards gettin' stronger and guild wizards being ready for whatever, it's about Joe Regularguy and Sammie Not-willing-to-get-caught-by-a-fireball and the fifty other bystanders who have to deal with there being a wizard fight in the middle of their day. And that ain't even counting property damage. Just ain't right, yeah? I'm sure plenty of guilds are up for scrims or somethin', just get it organised and away from people who don't want nothin' to do with it. I mean, that's the main reason it's bad- it's still just rude either way, but whatever."

    "That's a luxury you won't always get on a job," countered Natalie. "It's important for wizards to be able to fight and protect the people around them at the same time. What are you gonna do if there's an urgent mission and you're forced into that situation, like a dark wizard or a beast popping up in the middle of town?"

    "She's partly right, but she's mostly just making excuses to try and sway you," said Rhea. "Don't listen to her."

    "I volunteer." Prim grinned, "But yeah… safety for civilians… right."

    Natalie's eyes sparkled. "Really? If it's that big a deal I'm sure there's a slightly less civvie-filled place around where we can go." Rhea's grip tightened. "...But we should probably wait until after we accept the job, yeah, totally."

    "Thing is you ain't even really right, though…?" Drell chuckled. "The way to prepare for that situation isn't to create that situation, that's just dumb. I mean- look, the Phoenix Nest training hall is, like, super epic, and it can whip up a situation like that for sure - I'll speak to Myeloch after we come back from this and see if we can set up a scrim thingy." She paused, then blinked and held out a hand. "Oh, uh- I'm Doomkiller Duke Ith'Drell by the way, it's cool to meet- I mean, I guess I've had more awkward meetings, haha-"

    Natalie's expression soured, then lightened immediately after. "So you're saying you're down if we do it at your guildhall, right? I won't let you take that back." She shook Drell's hand.

    "It's a pleasure to meet you, Doomkiller," Rhea said. "They call me Colossus, Rhea Tavidell if you didn't already know. I'm sure you can guess where my epithet comes from, but I'd be interested to hear about yours."

    "She killed a Big Doom, obviously." Prim chuckled.

    "Boy was it big!" Doomkiller laughed. She looked up at Colossus and squinted for a moment. "Speakin' of that, how the-?" She used a hand to draw a quick line between the top of her head and Rhea and, sure enough, didn't manage to clear the latter's head by several inches, as was usually the case with other people. She readjusted herself, stood on her tiptoes as best she could and tilted her head up as far as possible. Then, she snapped her visor shut and quickly measured from the tip of her armoured snout instead, struggling not to giggle in the process. "Wait- ayy, there it is!"

    Rhea chuckled, while Natalie tried to stand on her tiptoes to compare herself to the giants before her. "I figured there was some doom killing involved," Rhea said, "But the fun of a story isn't what happens, it's how you tell it! We Sidians love a good heroic story, especially from the mouth of the hero in question. We should share stories. I don't want to be interrupted by work though so it'll have to be some other time."

    "Ah, yeah, I getcha," said Drell, stepping back and lifting her visor again. "All the more reason to set up that scrim thing, I guess!"

    Faye, who was listening in on the conversation, crossed her arms. A light chuckle could be heard from her mouth but her expressionless face made it less obvious that it was actually her.

    "You're gonna be surprised, really…" she said, looking away from everyone in the group. Drell's stories were always very over the top. It amazed her how many people still believed her regardless.

    "Drell is a great story teller!" Pat shouted with a happy hop. " She tells'em every night at dinner! And at breakfast! And lunch!...And between them...and, well all the time, kinda! Her stories are always super fun! Rowan used to tell good stories but...now I can never get him to tell any of his anymore. I bet he'd make an exception for Rhea and Natalie, though, he always says it's more fun telling them to pretty girls." Pat kicked the ground thoughtfully for a stint but continued before anyone else could interrupt. "Do all the other Starlight Sirens like to fight too? I feel kinda left out, I'd like to try my hand at someone...but maybe someone weaker than you two, you're real strong."

    "You can get anyone there to fight you if you pay them enough!" chimed Natalie.

    "Most of the Sirens are in it for fame and fortune so we're a bit of an exception," Rhea explained "But they're no less serious about what they do than any other wizard. They're out there fighting tooth and nail for their dreams, just like us, and even if we're after different goals I respect them. Well, except for one. Your brother is actually starting to sound like him, and I'm really hoping I'm misunderstanding…"

    "Is flirting all that bad? I don't think a lot of couples would ever happen if nobody spoke up and made a move." Pat said with a tilt of his head. "I think too many people just sit around and let everyone be just friends." He said, sounding distressingly adult in that moment to those who knew him well.

    Natalie frowned. "It'd be one thing if it stopped at flirting. Or if he stopped at all."

    Rhea sighed. "At least he knows what'll happen to him if he goes too far. And he's a talented wizard regardless, something our team for the Games unfortunately needs or I'd be less forgiving of that insufferable idiot. Let's talk about something else."

    "He sounds like a pain in the arse." Faye commented, finally coming closer. "Just like that brother of his." She pointed at Pat shortly before ruffling his hair and disregarding his pouty face while she did that. "But… I guess he can be nice. Sometimes." The last bit came out a bit more quiet but a warm feeling enveloped her, one Pat could probably feel.

    "I'm Faye. Shall we go meet the client? He or she must be waiting for us." The white haired girl asked the group.

    "Sounds good to me," Prim piped up, "Can't stand around talking forever."

    As if on cue, a man approached them in full formal dress, complete with a bow tie and a black tailcoat. He was an elderly man, but he stood tall with refined poise. His long gray hair was tied into a low ponytail, and he wore a leather eyepatch.

    He stopped in front of the group and bowed. "A thousand apologies for my tardiness. Good wizards of the nation's guilds, I am Zereus Lee, humble servant of your client Lord Quail. I ask that you follow me. My master awaits."

    "A butler with an eyepatch? Awesome!" Pat giggled appreciatively. "C'mon guys, I've gotta meet whoever would have a servant as cool as this guy!" his excitement showing but making his white haired friend facepalm at his words.

    "Yeah," Ith'Drell agreed. She spoke hushedly to the guild wizards next to her. "Damn, dude. You know, I've never been sure whether full plate counts as being overdressed or underdressed..."

    Pat rubbed his chin and looked up at the sky contemplatively. "Maybe it only counts in something where armor is relevant? Like if you're supposed to be a living practice dummy it's underdressed but if it's light sparring it's overdressed?"

    Drell hmmed, "Can a living practice dummy really get more dressed than full plate? Fully encased in metal, I guess?"

    "You wear so much armor that you can barely move! Then you look like a clumsy snowman with legs!" Pat sounded far too excited at the idea. "If you even tried to walk you'd just flop over but that's okay because dummies aren't supposed to move!"

    "I would pay good money to see Drell do that," Prim added.

    "How good's good money?" Smirked Drell.

    "Don't do it, Drell." Pat whispered. "She might record you with a lacrima and try to make it look like you losing a real fight."

    The big lizard scoffed, "Nobody'll believe it."

    "If you're all done, let's go." Faye sighed and walked up towards the butler with the eyepatch to follow him. The members of the other guilds following close behind.



  • 957

    The Pig Lord's Hall Friday July 20th, X784

    The guild wizards were led to a horse-drawn wagon large enough for all of them. They got on and began their journey through the city, able to take in the sights and sounds of the city up close. Just like in the capital, there was all sorts of commotion as they passed through. People cheered for their favorite GMG stars or whispered things to their nearby friends. There were also a number of people who greeted Zereus, who seemed well-known by the community.

    For the most part the city was more of what they'd seen coming in on the train. Stores aside, they also saw various stands selling things, with hand-written signs advertising their products. Further in they noticed several historical monuments, statues of Lautelan figures scattered around, and old preserved buildings. Lautela's flag was often seen hanging alongside the Atrian flag wherever it could be found.

    The wizards on the wagon kept quiet or otherwise did their own thing. Ralga had turned small once more and decided to nap on Tiran's lap. The Unicorn had her nose in a book about relics, while Natalie and Rhea discussed epithets. Rhea seemed to think Drell's would sound better as Doomslayer instead of Doomkiller, with Natalie asserting that it didn't matter, saying there was less value in a self-chosen epithet and thus it should not be purposely changed.

    Faye listened to the conversation but occasionally stared off into the distance when looking through the window, as if she was recalling previous events in the past. The fact that Prim had touched her horns the night before also was still lingering on her mind although the younger girl had not acted indifferent towards her.

    "Lost in thought?" Prim asked, sidling up next to Faye. "I wonder what could be on your mind. Maybe we should talk about it later."

    "Hmm…" Faye sighed, knowing full well she was going to have to explain things.

    "You always find things in the most unexpected of places." Prim chuckled before turning her attention to the sights around her while her white haired friend next to her felt a chill running down her spine.

    Eventually they reached Lautela's most popular locale; Memorial Park. Reaching nearly three miles across, this park at the city's center was where Lautela Castle once stood. Kept eternally vibrant and green through alchemy, it is always full of people. Ponds and creeks, trails and fields, and frequent city events are only some of the things keeping people busy. It is also the site of the city's yearly Day of Remembrance.

    Eli stared out the window, getting as close as possible to see every detail. "There's so much green… I've never seen so many plants in one place before!"

    "Then we should bring Ellie to a forest some time!" Pat said.

    Unfortunately there was no time for the guild wizards to go sightseeing, and thus Zereus continued toward their destination.

    Finally, they reached it. A garishly extravagant white-and-gold mansion near the edge of the city stood before them. They entered the property's glittering gold gates, passed a fountain in the courtyard featuring a statue of the mansion's portly owner, and stopped in front of the mansion's entrance.

    Zereus got off the wagon and handed the reins to another butler who'd come to meet him. He stepped up to the door and clapped his hands twice. A handful of maids rushed out to open the doors. The massive things roared as they slowly moved, but the maids didn't show a single sign of struggle. They held the great doors open for the wizards to enter, as gestured by Zereus.

    "If you would follow me, please," Zereus said. "Milord awaits us in his conference room."

    The wizards were led down a long corridor, with deep red carpet that was probably more expensive than the average person's house. Prim looked about as they followed the butler along it, unperturbed by the scale of the structure, being from a fairly wealthy family herself, but rather bothered by how garish it was. Ith'Drell's gaze wandered the place, astonished, either at the place itself or the sheer audacity of the architect who created it. Even the interior walls were a bright clinical white, decorated with gold wherever it would fit. Glittering chandeliers loomed above, the owner's face etched in semi-transparent gold on their underside shining like some kind of disturbing sun. Even more bizarre though, were the paintings.

    "Is it just me," Prim commented, a little too loudly, "Or are all of these paintings exactly the same and all of them the front of the house we are literally standing in? That's weird even by our standards. I've counted fifteen so far and they're still going."

    Drell seemed to be struggling to speak, but she let out, "Haha, yeah, I know that place."

    Faye on the other hand, seemed more bothered by the many statues of the owner himself. All made from seemingly expensive ores and some even decorated with expensive gems. "What a waste…" She murmured to herself, referring to the amount of jewels these extravagant items must have cost.

    "Is there even a point to making statues of yourself? Just buy a mirror." Prim agreed, catching what Faye had been looking at as they finally left the hall and stepped into a larger room. "Also, I counted forty-two of those paintings. How long was that hall?"

    "Too long." was the only answer that Faye thought was applicable to the situation.

    "Why is the carpet so dusty?" Elidyr paused to crouch down and get a closer look. "He has all those ladies to open a door, couldn't one of them… wait, this is gem dust. This carpet is literally covered in crushed ruby!"

    Pat had never seen such wasteful decadence in his life. It felt like every square inch of the house radiated pride and self importance, as if it were alive and had only those two feelings in its entirety, It was so intense he actually felt a bit queasy and remained silent while they walked the halls.

    The long hallway led to a lobby, filled with yet more garish oddities. A solid gold rocking horse, the underside studded with gemstones that prevent it from actually rocking. A transparent globe housing a suspended packet of potato chips. An entire wall covered in abstract clocks, none of which the group could use to accurately tell the time. A skateboarding tortoise with the name 'Craig' painted on its shell. A kangaroo animatronic. A statue depicting the same kangaroo animatronic. A small magical hologram depicting both the kangaroo animatronic and the statue of the kangaroo animatronic. As the group continued on their journey through room after hallway after room, the ridiculous extravagances only continued.

    "You see these kinds of places around in Gildas, but I didn't think anyone would actually live in one," said Natalie.

    "Only an Atrian could be so vain," muttered Nilli.

    After what felt like forever they reached the aforementioned conference room. In the center was a long table, solid gold and able to fit more people than anyone would reasonably need. And at the head of the table was the owner of the mansion, the self-proclaimed Lord Quail. Self-proclaimed as there was no such thing as lords and nobles in modern-day Atria.

    The wizards had already seen plenty of the round, mustachioed mogul from their walk through his manor. He wore a large, bejeweled crown and various other pieces of jewelry. But it was clear to the more experienced wizards in the room that they were set with not only gems, but with lacrima as well.

    Zereus instructed the wizards to take a seat wherever they'd like along the table and left them to take his place at Quail's right side. On Quail's left side was a tall woman with long cyan hair, a serious expression, and three swords on her hip. And behind him was a row of stone-faced maids, awaiting their next order.

    Quail stood and welcomed the wizards with open arms. "Guilds of Atria, I welcome you to my beautiful home. I hope you enjoyed the decor, I'm sure there are treasures on display you'll never see again in your entire lives! Ahohohohohoho! But you've come for business so let's get to business, shall we? As they say, time is money! Ahohohohoho!

    "You're here to retrieve a relic that's causing trouble in the wetlands. A lot of my businesses rely on things you can only gather from there, so if people can't get in that means I'm losing money. Me losing money is inconceivable. So I decided to make an investment in calling you all to get this fixed promptly, so I can get back to not losing money."

    "So how are you so sure it's a relic anyway?" asked the Unicorn woman.

    "I do as the council does, of course! Using various methods I've gotten my hands on one of their relic detection devices, and whatever's in the middle of the wetlands matches the aetheric signature of a relic. Though now that it's public there's a relic, it's extra important you get it to me quickly. The council rules that whoever finds a relic is allowed to keep it if they decide it's not too dangerous and I would very much like to add it to my collection. Did anyone else have questions before I continue?"

    "What does this relic do?" Faye asked out of wild curiosity.

    "Costs me money is what it does," Quail muttered, his face souring before returning to his jolly demeanor. "It's hard to say what any relic really does until it gets analyzed, but so far this one is making all the beasts in the wetlands very big and very angry."

    Elidyr stopped looking around the room at that, pushing forward to whisper at Pat and Prim, "You think it's like what happened with the Rock Drake?"

    "I don't know, but the drake seemed normal size to me," Prim replied, "Very kickable."

    "I hope not…" Pat deflated as he said it before bouncing back just as easily. "But either way we've gotta stop it! Animals have feelings too! And feelings always echo and imprint on other feelings! If this keeps up the whole ecosystem of the Wetlands will get thrown into disarray and it'll end up overflowing into societies too!" He had his arms up dramatically like wings, taking a deep breath as he finished. "And that'd suck major bigtime!"

    Quail's gaze lingered on the young Phoenix boys. "...Lee, what magic do those two use?"

    "My apologies sir, I do not know," answered the butler. "My knowledge on the Phoenix Nest guild is limited to their more prominent wizards."

    "Well it must be strong if they think they can fight S-Class wizards over this relic. I doubt the first Saint would be stupid enough to send them here without telling them what they'd be in for. Make a note of them." The assembled Phoenixes all shared a knowing glance.

    "Right away sir." Zereus pulled a small notebook from his jacket and began writing in it. Except that there was no physical act of writing at all, the words appearing on the page magically. The skritching sound of an unseen pencil was the only sign anything was being written at all.

    Drell put an armoured claw to her armoured chin and asked, "Any people been near this relic? Like, do we know it's just the beasts going crazy? 'Cause I don't want me and a good dozen powerhouse wizards goin' loopy dangerous, if ya know what I mean. Like, not even a little loopy."

    "That depends on your definition of 'near', I suppose," Quail answered. "Nobody's been close enough to actually see the thing, but the researchers and gatherers working in the wetlands were just fine after evacuating. The ones that made it back, at least. But you wizards are supposed to have ways to deal with these sorts of things, right?

    "The problem is getting worse, and if you won't do it I'll have to request the council find the time in their oh-so busy schedule to take care of it. Which will cost me time, money, and my chance at my relic. Not to mention their solution is usually to chuck Rune Knights at a problem or just make an S-Class do it anyway, or seal off the entire wetland for an investigation if they can't do that. THEN I WON'T BE MAKING ANY MONEY, NOT TO MENTION HALF THE PEOPLE IN THIS DAMNED CITY!"

    Quail's face had turned beet-red. Zereus handed him a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. After a bout of hyperventilation, the man gradually calmed back down.

    "Point being, I'd much rather risk you. It's nothing personal, and you're free to leave if you're not feeling up to it." Quail ordered one of his maids to bring him something to drink as he slumped in his chair.

    The big lizard glanced at the other wizards as she tried not to laugh. She managed a nondescript exhale. "Dude, it's fine, you can chill, jeez. I'm just, like, you know- getting info on the job? Like, seeing what the situation is so we can be prepared? You know, like-" She paused for a moment. "I dunno, every job I've ever done or seen or heard of?"

    "Yes, yes, of course you are," Quail said, clearly annoyed. "I'd just prefer you word it in a way that won't possibly scare away the others. Though I suppose with two S-Classes here I didn't need to worry about that."

    "I'm not feeling particularly frightened." Prim shrugged.

    "Probably because you're already a feral animal," the Silver Spirit from earlier remarked from the other side of the table. Prim felt the familiar urge to punch rising, but managed to keep her attention on Quail… just.

    "We'll be assigned a guide, right?" asked Rhea. She looked to Phoenix Nest. "If you've never done a job in the wetlands, Nymph Spire usually sends someone with you who knows their way around. They might know a bit more."

    "Yes, but we'll get to him later," Quail answered.

    Faye turned to Rhea. "I'm able to be a potential guide as well. I grew up here and I can't imagine a lot has changed since then." She said. It was also a sneer towards the people living here as she can't imagine they would have changed their ways of racism.

    "Okay, getting back on track... Where was I again?" Quail looked to Zereus for aid and completely ignored Faye's existence, much to her annoyance.

    "The contract, sir."

    "Yes! The contract." Quail cleared his throat before addressing the wizards once more. "I promised 200,000 J to anyone who came to accept the quest, but I can't have you just running off with it afterward without doing your job. Nor can I risk one of you trying to take my relic for yourselves. So I've prepared a legally-binding contract for you to sign. You'll get your advance payment when you do. Ladies?"

    Several of the maids pulled a scroll from their aprons to hand to a wizard. It was more or less what Quail had described, if in a far more dense and wordy format. ...Both parties are bound to the terms and agreements within this contract upon signing… The contract is rendered null and void only on an agreement by both parties… The employer promises to pay an advance fee in the amount of 200,000 J to the signee upon signing of the contract… Upon retrieval of the article, concerned parties are obligated to return it to the employer on pain of reprisal…

    Rhea and Natalie were quick to sign the contract, as were Lina and the Unicorn. Simon took the time to pore over the text a bit more. Tiran moved to sign his, but Nilli grabbed his hand to stop him.

    "There's magic in this contract," she stated with a glare in Quail's direction.

    "Yeah, you see it all the time for higher-end jobs," countered Tiran. "Wizards of that level can do all kinds of weird shit to these things, especially when they use script magic like the psycho Siren and eyepatch over there, so the clients protect them."

    "So you're just going to trust him?" Nilli's harsh gaze turned to Tiran.

    "I've done jobs for this guy before," assured Rhea. "He's a bit… eccentric… but he's always kept his word."

    "I can't find anything wrong with it either," said Simon. "He's bound by this too, so as long as we do the job properly then everything should be fine. We have enough influential witnesses here anyway if he tries to pull something."

    "He's not lying." Pat spoke up above the rest. "He's just concerned about his money and impatient for us to go. He hasn't done anything to it other than make sure we can't take the money and leave him high and dry, just like he said." He spoke matter-of-factly, then began to fiddle with his hair. Drell stopped reading the contract and turned to him before shrugging.

    "Damn, alright, good enough for me," she said, signing it.

    With Pat's seal of approval, and following Drell's example, Elidyr signed his name in precise calligraphy, then handed it back to the maid.

    Prim grinned, also gladly signed the contract. "A magic contract just keeps things interesting."

    Faye on the other hand was a bit hesitant. She had no ill intent but she didn't want to be bound by a contract, especially since she knew the very nature of the people living here. Upon seeing her comrades sign, she decided to sign as well.

    In spite of his words, Pat only signed his own contract after all of his guildmates signed theirs. Beaming at the maid he handed over the paper and gave her a finger-fanning wave.

    Quail clapped. "Wonderful! My maids will bring your advance right away. I suggest you use some of it to prepare if you haven't. What's-his-name should be able to tell you what you need. I look forward to working with you all!"

    The maids did as they were told and left to a room behind Quail, quickly coming back with small yellow envelopes to give each of the signees. Opening them revealed a stack of 10,000 J bills, that if counted would total 200,000 J.

    Then, Quail addressed Nilli. "It's a shame you've refused, and that you had to make that little show of it. I'd like to say the offer's still open if you change your mind, but with these wizards I don't imagine it'll take long to retrieve the relic. But you've come all this way so I'd feel bad if you left empty handed! I'll give you this, it should be enough for a soda. Ahohohohohoho!" Zereus flashed a 100 J coin and tossed it her way.

    Nilli swatted it aside, the coin making a metallic clink against her hand. "I don't need your charity." Light glinted off her hand, now a metallic silver to match her slime. It had grown in size, her fingers having transformed into wicked claw-like blades. Quail's swordswoman eyed her, but did nothing.

    With all eyes on either Nilli or Quail, few noticed the coin land on the carpet near Eli, or him crouching to retrieve it.

    "So who exactly is this what's-his-name we're supposed to ask?" Lina interrupted.

    "Right, him." Quail was unenthused. "As your guide, Master Melidor sent over the half-breed. His father was a Valbestian spy so I wouldn't trust him as far as I can throw him, but Melidor assures me he's at least good at his job. I told him to show up around this time and wait outside."

    "Of course you wouldn't trust anyone that's not your own kind." Faye sneered sarcastically, having had to keep her mouth from running far too long.

    Quail scoffed. "More slander. My companies employ all kinds of people, and you can look around to see who I've allowed into my home. As for the half-breed, did you not hear the spy bit? I take it you don't know how the Nymphs almost collapsed because of him either, do you? That boy is cursed. I could go on and on about the people he's ruined but I believe you have a job to get to."

    "The fact that you keep calling him a half-breed is insulting. He's a person, not some kind of animal. No matter what his father did." Faye commented right back, crossing her arms and basically glaring at the man she had just signed a contract with. She stood like that for a few seconds before she shook her head, sighed and turned around. "I'm done here. Let's go do this job guys. The sooner we find this thing the better."

    Quail looked Faye up and down as she turned her back on him. "Actually, if you get bored of guild work you can always come work for me as one of my maids. A fiery one like you would be a good way to spice up my collection. Ahohohohoho!" He praised her attitude, despite extending no such offer to the similarly outspoken Drell and Nilli.

    Ith'Drell snorted, "Think I'll take whatever a 'half-breed' is over full pedigree gross - let's get goin', guys."

    "Before one of us murder our employer, you mean?" Prim commented, too busy scowling at Quail to actually look at Drell.

    Pat, meanwhile, was, in fact, in the middle of kissing one of those very maids' hands while Quail was distracted. "You girls deserve so much better. I bet you could make great money in any guild without working for someone so...like he is." He made sure to keep his voice low, then finished with a wink and skipped by his guildmates, grabbing Faye and Prim's hands as he went to pull them along. "Come on guys, let's get going! If Rowan finishes his exams and gets home before us we'll never hear the end of it!"

    The other wizards in the room were quick to follow suit, leaving Quail behind and slightly offended.



  • 957

    The Edge of Greatness


    The examinees got an early start, most of them rushing for the site where their scores would be posted even before the sun rose. It was a huge board designed to display whatever was on the lacrima inserted within. They stood in front of it with weak knees and pounding hearts until one of the tower's staff approached it, a lacrima gently cradled in his hands.

    He replaced the lacrima in the back of the board with the one in his hand. The board's display changed from a recruitment ad for Rune Knights to a list of the examinees' scores. Immediately, there were countless sighs of relief or defeat. Cheers of joy and cries of despair. Many of them immediately began heading back to their rooms to pack their bags with heads hanging low.

    Rowan had scored highly, just as he expected. Zaline and Kubra had also scored highly, though not quite as well as Rowan had. And the top scoring wizard was another member of Gryphon Gale: Siren, one he'd never heard of before despite his research on his guild's greatest rivals. There was no other information about them and many other examinees reacted with confusion and conspiratorial muttering.

    But for those who passed, this was only the beginning. After a very brief congratulations, they were split into groups with each group being led to a different floor, Rowan finding himself separated from the examinees he'd come to know at the tower. They found themselves in front of a large and menacing door. In front of it stood a Rune Knight with a pitch-black weapon.

    The Rune Knight began his explanation. "You will enter this room one at a time for your practical exam, the people who scored best going in first. This phase will occur entirely within this room, and you'll know whether you passed or failed before exiting. Nothing else about the exam will be told to you before entering. Now, Rowan Hoskel, enter!"

    The examinee in question nodded and crossed the threshold, outwardly deadly serious for once.

    Through the door was nothing but blinding light. Rowan couldn't see, and soon he even lost track of the people behind him waiting for their turn. But when the light faded, he found himself somewhere familiar. He stood within the first floor of the Crystal Tower.

    A crowd of people went about their business just like the last time he was here. Waiting in lines at the reception desks, or zipping to and from the elevators… And despite what Myeloch had told him, everything about them seemed real. He could feel their touch and their warmth as they brushed past him, and most importantly, he could feel their emotions.

    One person's emotions called out to him louder than the others'. It was a young woman at the reception desk, her desk being at the edge and labeled "restricted". Accordingly, she had no line. She looked frantically throughout the crowd until she spotted Rowan, and gestured him toward her.

    He raised an eyebrow, but approached the woman, the hairs on his neck prickling the entire time.

    "Good, you're finally here," she said in a hurry. "The city guard won't be able to hold much longer. You already know Fort Alden is under attack, but we've identified the culprits as an alliance between the dark guild Ash Gargoyle. The commander is at their base, so just fend them off the best you can until backup arrives. They've tamed a number of wyverns, and their numbers are more than we initially thought. Is there anything else you needed to know?"

    "What kind of forces do we have at our disposal?" Rowan asked, knowing better than to acknowledge he was in an illusion.

    She hesitated. "...Priority has been given to the base assault. The vanguard defending Fort Alden will be you alone. It is a frontier town, after all…" She shook her head and regained her composure. "The city guard is a force of 500 men. I don't know how many remain, but a frontier town's guards are strong. If you can rally them, they'll be a valuable asset."

    "Any vehicles at the ready?" He queried as he began to plot the route in his head.

    "You'll be teleported to the city's outskirts. The most we can send with you is a horse and carriage."

    "No need, the outskirts is close enough. I'm ready to go."

    "Very well. I wish you luck." She inserted a lacrima into a slot on her desk, and pushed a button beside it. On the floor in front of the desk was a magic circle, inside of which Rowan was standing. With a flash of light, he was gone.

    He arrived at a horrific sight. The walled city of Fort Alden stood a short distance away, ablaze. Pillars of smoke billowed from all over, wyverns swooping down with flames spewing from their mouths to create ever more. Arrows soared up toward the wyverns to no avail, as the wizards mounted on top easily swatted them aside with magic.

    Debris fell from the massive watchtower in the center. Designed to see high past the city's walls, the burning structure now threatened to fall and crush those it was created to defend. The smell of smoke, ash, and foul burning flesh wafted along the wind.

    And even from here, Rowan could sense the terror radiating from the inhabitants, as they fled for their lives from the burning buildings or the bandits gleefully chasing them. The men were slaughtered where they stood, and the women and children were bound and thrown into wagons, their fates uncertain.
    Rowan looked on at the carnage for a moment, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. 'Find your center, do not let your own emotions be unsteadied by those of others… Be the driving force and guide the power that those emotions bring towards your own purpose.' What would you do if you were still here? The echoes of past horrors faded away and Rowan's eyes opened, firm and freshly steeled for the trial ahead. The green of those eyes cooled to an icy blue, the same blue that overtook his crimson hair. The sigh that left him was a frosty mist before he took one more breath and sprinted towards the fort.

    Once he was almost to Fort Alden's gate, Rowan's feet began to leave behind bits of frost and once he hit a satisfactory speed the ground beneath him was coated in pure ice and he began to skate. Faster and faster he went until he shot through the gate and into the fort leaping into the air and spinning as he soared, scattering sparkling frozen wind around him, putting out the flames on some nearby buildings. When he landed Rowan slid on more ice as if surfing, ducking under a thrust from one of the invaders' spears, then grabbing it and spinning it, knocking down his attacker and several others who had been putting away some prisoners. He quickly cut the bindings of the women and children and knelt down beside the most held together of the older women and offered her his softest smile.

    "I hope that's a bit more comfortable. Do you know of any good hiding spots where you and the others here might take shelter until things calm down?" Though he asked her, his attention was already on searching through the emotions and sounds around the Fort to try and figure out where to find some of the fort's guards to bring together for the fight.

    The woman wept at the sight of the guild mark emblazoned on Rowan's shirt. She clutched his arm. "Thank God, we're saved… T-they got the manor, th-the barracks, and the vault. M-maybe the church is still safe, I don't know."

    Rowan continued his search as she spoke. He could tell that many of the guards were probably just as afraid as the citizens and he had a hard time distinguishing the two, but he was able to spot a handful of more resolute souls scattered around. Most of them were closer to the town's center.

    His decision was quick, but not what anybody could call simple. Without any warning Rowan hugged the woman, putting what he'd thought up in his training with Lina to practice. He siphoned the terror and misery from the woman, using her as a focus to spread his influence further and do the same to all the nearby women and children, replacing the negative feelings with will to live and warmth for their friends and family. "Everything's gonna be okay. Wait about 40 seconds and then go down the same street I'm about to, okay?" He waited for her nod, then dashed off in the direction of the more scared guards he'd felt.

    He found a quintet of frightened fighters past a tight cluster of still-burning houses and sped up more and more, his hair alternating between a bright yellow and a mossy green. The closer he got to his targets the faster he ran until he sprang up above the fighting and yelled "Banish your fear!" And when he landed in the center of the group of guards he did just that, the impact sending out a shockwave that pushed the fear right out of the guards and transferred it into the men they were fighting. One by one the attackers faltered, then fled with an unnatural sense of horror, screaming as if about to be eaten by monsters.

    "Men of Fort Alden!" Rowan shouted over the heads of the guards, interrupting the cheering that had begun at their survival. "You've fought well for your families and your charges, but the fighting is not done yet and neither are their struggles! In a moment a group of women and children will arrive, accept no fear of defeat and get them to safety! Gather up any scattered warriors you find along the way and consolidate your strength. If you can get enough by the time the innocents are hidden away, leave them a few guards and send the rest to the center of the fort!" He figuratively and literally radiated confidence and fighting spirit, pouring his magical power into lighting a fire in their bellies. As soon as he finished speaking, he was off again, skating along a path of ice his own feet created as they went.

    "Sir, yes sir!" shouted one of the guards with a salute. The other guards were quick to follow suit. As Rowan dashed away he could hear them trying to rouse their spirits. They clanged their weapons on their shields and chanted in unison as more and more of the scattered men gathered into a unit.

    Wyverns are apex hunters within their environments, and so feral they can never truly be completely under control unless it's by a Valbestian, but I don't feel any around here. Wyverns are also excellent at zeroing in on fear in their prey...

    As he neared the heart of Fort Alden, Rowan picked up more hardened soldiers along the way, doing his best to inspire and embolden each one with his magic, and once he reached the center, he gathered them all around him. "Alright, men, now we begin to fight back! I want each of you in pairs, a veteran and somebody a little more wet behind the ears. Hide in some of the nearby wreckage and wait for my signal. When you hear me shout, it's time to collapse together back here and start moving through the rest of Alden, sticking close to one another and picking off what's left of the attackers. Their cohesion will be gone, I promise. And I'll support you once I set them to disarray."

    "You heard him, men!" shouted a grizzled older guard. He glanced at Rowan as he moved to rejoin his troops. "We're counting on you, S-Class."

    While the guards made the way to their positions, Rowan knelt down and closed his eyes. He summoned back all that fear and torment the women and children had felt, wincing as it coursed through him, then channeled it out of him and up into the air, filling the sky above the Fort with the fear of those on the edge of death, with little hope left in their hearts, all leading straight to him.

    The result was immediate. The wyverns overhead went berserk. Some of the smaller ones turned tail and ran, taking their riders with them. Others turned on their riders, and anything else they could get their fangs and claws on. The few wizards who could fly did so, fleeing for their lives, while yet more plummeted to the ground. Crashing down with a sickening thud, they struggled to drag their battered bodies away from him.

    In the midst of this chaos, Rowan was able to sense a few people who weren't as swayed by the surge of terror. Two of them weren't far, probably having been knocked off of their wyverns with the others. But the third was now the only one who remained mounted. Rowan saw them in the distance, and he could tell they were looking at him too, before they began to fly toward the far edge of town.

    Something was strange about their wyvern. It was as if there was a filter around its mind holding its emotions back. Rowan felt the same thing from one of the two people nearby. They felt almost numb, in stark contrast to the other person from whom Rowan sensed an odd combination of fear and glee in equal measure. He also sensed that they were gradually approaching him.

    The results had frankly been a bit more than Rowan bargained for. Am I finally really getting stronger? He looked at his hand for a moment, then heard a loud screech. A surge of bloodlust exploded above his head and warned him in time for his hair to turn bright orange and for him to limbo-lean under the talons that closed around where his head had just been, grabbing onto the ankle and being whisked into the air. Rowan hung on awkwardly to the wyvern as it bucked, flailed and screamed in frustration, almost losing his grip several times while he channeled every bit of calm warmth and welcome into its heart that he could. When the beast finally relaxed and he was able to clamber up its body Rowan was more than thankful the riders had saddles for their mounts.

    It wasn't anything compared to a Valbestian bond but Rowan's magic allowed him to ride the wyvern as if they'd been partners for years, so it was only moments before he landed back at the center of Fort Alden and let out a roar of victory in sync with his new friend. The guards heard him and charged from their places, booting any stragglers still stumbling away back to the ground and rounding them up. Rowan got with the grizzled veteran who'd relayed his orders earlier and placed a hand on his shoulder.

    "I don't have the authority to make this official obviously, but whatever you were before, you're the captain of the guard until this is over. Round up the enemies we have here and interrogate them. Don't be so thorough about it that you're vulnerable or the group is stalled too long. Finish off anyone who you can't get anything out of but could still be useful to the invaders if they were rescued and save yourself at least one prisoner. Keep up with the orders I outlined earlier and have your most charismatic or your most brutal subordinate keep questioning your last prisoner along the way, if those are the same person, all the better. I'm going to do what I can to make sure the enemy can't rally and make a comeback, once I've done that or undeniably failed, I'll link back up with you all and we'll finish this together."

    Seeing the pitiful state of their foes, the guard opted to divide his troops into three groups. He sent two to take care of the rest of the town, while his group finished taking care of things there in the town's center.

    Before the guards could be happened upon by whoever it was Rowan had gotten the attention of, the wyvern shot back into the sky and straight for the strange wizards he'd sensed. He kept letting out waves of challenging aggression the whole while, practically broadcasting his position to anyone with some magic or a hint of empathy.

    From up in the air, Rowan was finally able to get a view of the wizards. The one who remained mounted continued toward the edge of town, a hood keeping their face hidden. But the other two had already begun making their move.

    Rowan saw the second to be a muscular man with a twisted, ear-to-ear grin on his face. He charged through the town's center chasing after Rowan. As they ran their body changed, growing larger, hairier, and even more muscular. He sped up, now running on both his feet and knuckles, and standing at over twice his original size. The man-turned-giant-ape leapt, soaring through the air toward his target. Which was not Rowan, but one of the other wyverns still in the sky.

    The last who'd likely had their mind somehow manipulated walked into the town's center, also hiding their face under a hood. They spawned a spectral blade to float at their side, a weapon larger than even Drell's Big Whap. It began to spin like a power saw, and tore through the base of the already-damaged watchtower. The massive flaming structure that once stood so proud buckled, and finally came falling down over Alden in Rowan's direction.

    He tore through the air under and then past the tower, falling off the wyvern's back long enough to kick the tower towards the wyvern the ape was targeting, then dove straight towards the one who'd cut the tower down. The ape grabbed hold of the wyvern's neck, only to be swept up by the falling tower moments later. The tower hit the ground with a thunderous boom, kicking up a wave of dust and debris from itself and the buildings it crushed underneath.

    Rowan could feel the hearts of the guardsmen sink as they watched the destruction. But they were also quick to rile themselves up and press onward.

    Though already getting tired from the pace Rowan had been working it at, the wyvern managed to avoid each cut of the spectral blade that came its way until it was low enough down for Rowan to launch himself right at the man. It was no attack, however. Rowan simply skidded to a stop in front of the man and smirked at him, hair bright orange again and irises turned a sparkling gold.

    "Sup? Care for a dance?"

    Rowan's opponent said nothing. Their blade was still on its way back, but the dark wizard summoned six more of these swords around them. Each spun as quickly and dangerously as the first, before hurtling at Rowan. Two of the swords remained at their summoner's side to serve as defense.

    The phoenix deftly dodged strike after strike, each time by the skin of his teeth. He never avoided anything with more than the minimum necessary gap. This kept up for almost a solid minute with Rowan keeping his senses probing around him, knowing that tower couldn't have been enough to bring down the ape man. Finally when one attack from the emotionless man seemed like it might hit, there was a flash of light and the spectral sword went flying. A blade of Rowan's own had materialized in his hand. The longsword was mostly unadorned and rather plain aside from a gold crossguard with a green gem in the middle and a glowing Phoenix emblazoned on the sheathe but it worked just fine against the attacks coming his way.

    "Ah Lina, you never let me down." Rowan praised his benefactor, wishing he could give her a hug and embarrass her in front of their guildmates right then and there.

    Rowan's foe didn't react. They held out their hands and mumbled, "...Eternal Bladefall…" It was a woman's voice. Her seven swords each split into four smaller swords. Now twenty-eight, the weapons spun like before and surrounded Rowan, hurtling toward him at once. Even the ones that had been defending.

    The Phoenix twisted and contorted his body in ways that seemed beyond human flexibility as he continued to avoid each attack, throwing in a few parries with the sword, some of the dodges even left him in poses that looked out of a ballet. Each time the sword made contact with one of the spectral blades, its own blade as well as the gem glowed a tad brighter. The attacks came closer and closer, rips and tears showing themselves all over Rowan's clothes, some of which revealed small cuts in the flesh beneath.

    Rowan however now saw a vulnerability in the woman attacking him. He still didn't feel any emotion from her, at least not the way he normally did. But he felt a strange pang, an echo, if you will. He even felt as if he saw a small light on her...perhaps this really was mind control and whoever she used to be was still in there? He honed in on that feeling she gave off stronger and stronger, until the moment he felt his new weapon had gathered enough energy from her attacks.

    Finally after a particularly close call from one of the ghostly weapons slashing at where his neck had been a split second earlier, Rowan jumped forward, spiraling just over the next attack coming his way and swung the sword down towards the ground, creating a huge shockwave on contact that simultaneously knocked the woman's very sharp assistants away and propelled him at her. No grisly impaling or gruesome decapitation awaited his opponent, however. Rowan blasted past her defenses and simply poked his right index finger into the spot on her chest where he'd seen the glow, felt that strange echo and said a single word. "Shatterpoint" Then turned his finger like a key.

    A ray of light burst out from the woman's back, the beam a prismatic swirl of colors. Shining cracks stretched outward from the glowing point he had touched. The myriad blades fell to the ground and dissipated, and she followed suit. As she fell to her knees, her hood fell back and Rowan could see her closed eyes. They slowly opened and settled on Rowan, whom they looked at in wide-eyed terror.

    She dragged herself back to get away. "No no no this is all wrong! The dream wasn't supposed to end until the mission was over and we were safe! W-where's Nightmare? What did you do?"

    Her back hit the wall of a ruined building. With no escape, she summoned a blade in her hand and pointed it at her foe. The small, deformed weapon she held was pitiful compared to what she'd just now been unleashing against Rowan.

    Whatever Rowan was going to do with her, it would have to be quick. He didn't need his magic to hear the other dark wizard tearing his way through the fallen tower.

    Rowan slowly walked towards the woman, shaking his head sadly as he lazily dodged each desperate swing of her ethereal weapon. "I'm sorry, you'll feel better soon." He continued to walk until he reached her and avoided the sword one final time to hug her like the woman from earlier and siphon away all that terror. "Now sleep." And with no warning he slammed his fist into her solar plexus, then pinched a spot in her neck when all the oxygen was forced out of her, putting her lights out. He hid the woman in the corner of a destroyed building and stood out in the open, watching the fallen tower with his arms crossed.



  • 957

    Faris Fol, Sentinel of the Wetlands Friday July 20th, X784

    The group exited the mansion, finding a person waiting for them outside. They'd seen him before in the pages of the latest Sorcerer Weekly; the first Atria-born Valbestian, Faris Fol. He was sitting atop a lizardish toad creature that had a veritable forest of fungus on its back. There were all kinds, from large rock-like mushrooms to little glowing ones in various colors. The man himself was lightly-dressed as usual, with a pair of chakrams on his hips and a pair of rune-engraved gloves.

    "Glad to see you made it out of there with your sanity intact," Faris said with a chuckle. "I'm Faris by the way, and I'll be your wetland guide for today. I practically live there, so you're in good hands. Do any of you already have experience with the wetlands, or swamps and marshes in general?"

    "Sanity intact? Dunno, man," Ith'Drell laughed, rapping on the side of her helmet. "Think it might be slippin' after the fact, y'know? But yeah, I've done some swampy jobs before - up North, not down here. Uh, good to meet ya, by the way. I'm Duke Ith'Drell - uh, Doomkiller, also."

    Elidyr looked over the toad lizard, curious about the fungus, but was noticeably pale. "I was really hoping he kept saying 'wetlands' because the air's so wet… we're really going into a swamp? I don't know if I can handle a swamp…"

    "I've only been in a swamp once, and not for very long." Pat said thoughtfully. "But don't worry, Ellie! You can adapt to any environment, so you'll be super fine!"

    Faye stared at Faris from head to toe, trying not to be too noticeable in the act of doing so but wondering why he looked so familiar to her. The name too was something she definitely had heard before. She chose to remain silent, something she did best.

    "Can't say I've had much experience with swamps, not since I was a little kid anyway… I think," Prim answered. "Faye here says she's from around these parts though, so I'm sure she can show me around." Prim accentuated this by slipping from Pat's grasp to move to his other side and put an arm around the taller girl's shoulders.

    Faris looked at Faye. "Oh really now? Most of our homegrown wizards tend to stay here, Lautelan pride and all that. But things have been pretty rocky these past few years so I don't blame anyone for leaving." He turned his attention back to the group, but found himself doubling back to Faye who felt uneasy and rubbed her arm as she looked away from him.

    He realized he was staring and quickly got back to his explanation. "Anyway, having some experienced bodies makes things easier. It's a bit difficult guiding a group of people fighting each other to be the first one at a relic. Which I told Lord Lard-ass, but he wouldn't listen. Fortunately they've narrowed down where it'll be pretty well. I'll be guiding you as close to there as I can, then all I can do is stay in the area to make sure everyone's safe.

    "You'll need to be prepared if you're going into the wetlands. If you're walking, that means waterproof gear to keep both water and bacteria out. You'll find plenty of places here that sell alchemically-treated clothes for that. You'll want pants, boots, gloves, and a jacket. You'll also need a walking stick or some other way to check the ground ahead of you. Sometimes the water will suddenly get deep, or there'll be extra-soggy mud you can get stuck in. Take it slow.

    "Or you can do what I do and travel through the trees! It's faster, but some of the beasts up there can be territorial. If you don't have a way to spot them ahead of time or don't already know where they nest, be ready for a fight. I'd rather it not come to that, but at this point the relic is hurting the wetlands more than you guys probably will.

    "Besides that, make sure to take plenty of water, some food in case it takes longer than you expect, and some bug repellent. Like the clothes, they sell it everywhere here. But… while you can easily find these things at chain stores, I'd appreciate it if you found someplace local. I'm sure they'd appreciate it too."

    "We should have asked Myeloch for some sort of bug repelling, de-humidifying lacrima." Pat complained with a pout. "I bet if he doesn't have one he knows how to get one. I hate bugs! They mess with my magic!"

    "I don't think he just keeps those around but he easily could have made one," said Lina. "I'm actually surprised you guys haven't asked for more."

    "I actually have two tiny bug repellent lacrima's that my father sent me for me to test. Care to take one with you?" Faye asked both Lina and Pat as she guessed Pat would probably stick around Lina.

    Lina smiled. "If you're offering I'd be happy to take one!"

    "We'll meet up on the edge of town facing the wetlands in… let's say two hours," said Faris. "I'll have transport waiting. But there is one more thing you need to know."

    His smile faded. "We've narrowed down where the relic is, sure, but that place is actually the area around the Spirit Greatwood. If you end up going into the Greatwood itself, you may encounter certain beings that live there. Beings like nymphs and dryads that the council might classify as magical beasts, but that we Lautelans revere as spirits. If you do see one, get away. They can be mischievous, and hurting one will invoke the ire of the wetlands' guardian. I don't know if any of you can defeat the guardian, and I don't want to find out."

    Faris perked back up, not wanting to let the dour mood linger. "For now though, just worry about getting ready. I've got a few preparations of my own to make, so if you see me around and have a question feel free to ask! Or ask now, if you've already got something in mind."

    "Ya say they can be mischievous," Drell piped up. "You mean on a good day, right? Without some relic thing maybe messin' with 'em? Don't s'pose you've got better info than fuc- guh, uh, freakin', king of the spheres back there."

    Faris furrowed his brow. "Man, he really didn't tell you anything, did he? We got word this morning on the samples we took. The relic's doing something to the water, and through it all the life that relies on it. Their bodies change to become bigger and stronger at the cost of their minds. Why the ancients needed a relic like that is anyone's guess. I probably don't need to say this, but don't drink the swamp water or eat any plants and creatures that might be affected. As for the spirits, on a good day is right. Some will just play pranks while others might try and keep you as a pet or ornament. I can't be sure, but since spirits don't eat or drink they shouldn't be affected by the relic."

    Drell nodded and said, "Nice. That's a relief."

    "You said going through the trees is what you do?" Elidyr looked nervous to ask. "Is that an option for us, how do you do that?"

    Faris shrugged. "I jump through branches and swing across vines, mostly. It's usually dense enough in there that it's an option. We can make tall mushrooms grow from the ground or trees if I need some extra reach." He patted his beast's head. "Get creative with your magic and I"m sure you can figure it out!"

    "Not a problem." Prim grinned. Faye on the other hand shook her head. "Sometimes I wish I could just fly too." Faye commented.

    "Who wouldn't?" Prim laughed.

    "I could fly, I just don't wanna…" Ith'Drell mumbled. She shook her head and piped up as she began counting on her fingers. "Uh, right, so - bug repellent stuff, we have a lil but could get extra. Waterproof stuff - you guys should get it I guess but I think I'm good. Big pole - I got one, but we could get extra. Food and plenty of water - got some, should make sure we're topped up. Aaaand maybe some extra rope or a couple teleport lacrima or something, just in case. Are there any specifics that are important for the creatures around the Greatwood?"

    "The area around the Greatwood is where life is densest," Faris explained. "The creatures there are usually the crafty sorts. They'll try to stalk and ambush prey or lure them in with deceptive sights. Giant 'gators, will o' wisps, fisher spiders, carnivorous plants... Always stay alert. I feel like these types might be easier to handle if they're afflicted by the relic. Then you have the beasts with exceptional magic.

    "If you meet an illusion-making shifter cat, use wide-reaching attacks to get a hit on it and disrupt its magic before taking care of it with something stronger. If you find a swamp amalgam, know it won't die until its core is destroyed. And blight toads like my partner are capable of growing mushrooms that release poisonous or debilitating spores. I'm hoping afflicted ones won't have the sense to do that, but if they do you can clear them out using fire. Just stay clear of the spores when you do. There used to be dark wizards who would hide in the wetlands to conduct experiments, but while the wizards are gone I can't account for any missing experiments.

    "As for the Greatwood itself, If you keep your distance from the spirits they'll grow bored and leave you alone. Do your best not to harm the tree, as that can provoke the spirits. And you already know what can happen if you harm them so just run away if things go wrong. You might not be able to prevent damaging the tree if you have to fight there, but as long as there's no ill intent toward it they'll forgive some minor damage.

    "I don't expect you'll find anything hostile in there that hasn't been dealt with by the spirits in some way. I can't say the same for the water at its base, but if you've made it that far you'll be fine. And the top is where the guardian lives. I hope the relic isn't up there, but if it is I hope you have a pure heart or light feet."

    "Well, damn, nice- you know your stuff, dude. Well, if it's true, y'know- you seem like you know what's up, I trust it!" Ith'Drell chuckled. "Right, this mission seems like it might be pretty comfy after all. Are we gonna get lunch before we head out, or…?"

    "Are you buying?" Asked Lina jokingly. "I'll pass though. Gonna find something quick to eat so I can spend as much time as I can working on my new weapon. I'll need it considering I haven't actually tried it out with the lacrima it's supposed to have."

    "I could go for-" Pat started and then stopped abruptly just as he stopped staring out at the horizon to look at Drell. Then he turned towards Lina with a small frown and opened his mouth only to close it again without saying anything. He glared at the floor a while before ultimately rolling his shoulders and grinding his teeth. "I'm gonna take a look around town and try to...get a grasp on what I need to do." Frustration peeled off of Pat, more subtle than his usual emotions, as if it were hiding underneath a layer of other feelings, and he split from the group to roam Lautela without another word.

    "Um…" Elidyr scuffed at the floor with one foot. "I'm going to go to the store, pick up some supplies. Bug repellent and stuff. I'll be back, in… an hour? Shouldn't take too long, I suppose…"

    The guilds wizards went their separate ways. The two Chimeras left together, an argument brewing between them. The Sirens discussed a bit of sparring, and set off for a good spot to do so. And as for most of the others, they either left without a word or went to prepare for the job. Just as Faris explained, it would be two more hours until the relic hunt truly began.




  • 957

    The Darkest Depths Friday July 20th, X784

    His name was William Alexander, newly minted captain of the guards assigned to this expedition. As of just last night actually, when the former captain was dragged away by a horde of abominations. The wave of claws, maws, and tentacles had taken all of the other guards too. This was actually only William's first time as a bodyguard for a border expedition, so making captain was pretty impressive.

    Regardless, Will was adamant in his duties, only flinching when there was a thump against the barrier protecting them. Which was often, as the barrier was surrounded by monsters doing their best to break through. He continued to patrol the perimeter for cracks, giving the researchers a shaky smile every now and then to keep their spirits up. After all, the distress signal had been sent. It was only a matter of time before they were saved.

    A long-fanged troll bashed its face against the barrier next to Will. Yup, only a matter of time.

    Will reflected on his training. On all the methods he was taught for taking down these terrifying monsters with nothing but his sword, shield, and his wits. On how little it actually served him in his current situation. It was always on how to handle a horde of little guys or one big guy, so a horde of them both was a little beyond him.

    "How's the barrier holding up?" asked the head researcher, startling Will and causing him to trip on a rock. He sprung back to his feet and dusted himself off. "Thank the Emperor we had one of the nanocite prototype generators for this, but even that has its limits."

    Will gave a frantic salute. "The perimeter is holding, sir! Er, ma'am! Boss?"

    "Sir is fine," said the researcher. She did her best at a reassuring smile. "I'm sure that's what you're used to."

    "Sir, yes sir! The barrier remains intact, there's nothing to worry about! Actually, there's a lot of things to worry about, but the barrier isn't one of them. Sir!" His eyes wandered back to the monsters along the barrier. And the impenetrable darkness behind them, outside the reaches of their camp's lighting. He wondered how miners managed to be underground so long without going insane.

    The researcher patted him on the shoulder. "Keep up the good work, then. Don't worry, we'll make it out of here. The council won't abandon a research team on Emperor Arvis' watch." Will gave her another salute as she left, keeping inside how bad he felt having to be comforted by his charge.

    It had been nearly two days since the expedition was suddenly swallowed by the earth, trapping them all deep underground. It was a place unlike any they'd seen, filled with hideous abominations that Will hesitated to call mere beasts. His gaze drifted to the one-eyed creature that had climbed to the top of the dome-shaped barrier, trying to dig its claws into it. This barrier really was incredible, though he wished the council could provide them more than just one.

    He sighed. This was every Sidian boy's dream, the chance to be the heroic knight and bring his sword down on the legions of evil. That opportunity was the entire reason he took this job. But instead he was cowering behind a wall with those legions staring down at him mockingly. It was incredibly frustrating.

    He looked at the troll from before, still pressing its stupid face against the barrier. He stuck his tongue out at it, knowing it couldn't do anything about it. He chuckled. Then he drew his sword and pointed it at the troll.

    "What's wrong, hideous creature? Terrified of my power, no doubt. Run while you still can, it's clear you are no match for the mighty, noble, and incredibly dashing Sir William!" He struck a pose, putting a hand on his hip. The troll raised its fists and pounded on the barrier, to no effect. William laughed and put away his sword. His mood raised a bit, he continued his patrol.

    Or he would have, if he didn't hear the sound of cracking glass.

    He whipped his head back to see the same troll, joined by its fellows. Large, beaked monsters with bony hooks for hands. Countless kobolds. Tiny floating eyes things, vaguely-humanoid bear creatures, and other more indescribable horrors. All began to gather around the same spot, growing more and more aggressive. The one-eyed creature up above stared at him, with others crawling up beside it.

    Will couldn't speak, the words failing to lift past the lump in his throat. He raised his sword toward the widening crack in the barrier, his gauntlets growing damp with sweat. He grew dizzy, but did his best to hold a firm stance. The boy prepared not for battle, but for death.

    The beasts hollered and growled in their excitement, creating a chorus of impending doom. Will could no longer hear if the researchers were saying anything to him. He couldn't even hear his own thoughts. There was nothing except the swarm of monsters before him.

    An ear-splitting howl tore through the mayhem. Rather than a howl, it was closer to a scream of agony. The creatures turned to face the source, only for a whole crowd of them to be swatted aside by a great black mass. Finally, the new arrival stepped into view.

    It was a monster on all fours and over twice his height, its entire body a pitch-black even darker than the cavern around it. It had two great horns, a wolf-like maw, and six beady yellow eyes. Its back was covered in countless, writhing tendrils, and its hands ended in huge claws. In one of its hulking arms was what Will could vaguely describe as a sword; a mass of black even larger than the beast wielding it.

    The creature let out another shrill cry, and tore into its prey. The one-eyed creatures leapt toward the dark beast, only to be skewered by the tendrils on its back. The tendrils whipped around, stretching to impale or smack away anything that got close.

    One of the trolls was stabbed in the shoulder, but continued its charge against the beast. The beast's empty hand grew in size, enough to grab the troll like it were a toy. It howled as it smashed the troll into the dirt, dragging its face along the stone floor before tossing it aside.

    The beast swept its giant blade across the battlefield, knocking away another crowd of approaching monsters before turning its attention back to the troll. It raised its blade and slammed it down upon its victim over and over and over until it was nothing but a bloody mess on the ground.

    A kobold flew through the air at the beast, being grabbed and torn apart as soon as it got within range of its tendrils. A member of the horde took this opportunity to launch a fireball at it. There was a flood of light from the great explosion as the fireball detonated, stalactite falling with the rumbling of the cavern. The crack on the barrier grew.

    Will blinked, trying desperately to regain his sight after the sudden flash. He saw the dark creature, with half its face melted off. The darkness composing the rest of its face rose and swirled like a thick black smoke, and the damaged parts began to reform. It looked at the being that dared attack it and let out a roar.

    If the beast's other victims were any indication, the fireball-thrower was not long for this world. Will looked to see what manner of monster this soon-to-be corpse was.

    It was one of the guards that was taken last night.

    Will's body moved before he could think, stepping through the barrier and placing himself between the dark beast and his comrade. His armor rattled with his trembling body. He raised his unsteady shield, and stared the monster down.

    "R-r-run!" That single word was all he could manage between his panicked gasps. The beast took a step forward. His eyes stung from the sweat, his vision blurred. He heard the crackle of his comrade forming another fireball. His heart pounded against his chest, threatening to burst. The beast leapt straight at him.

    Everything went dark.

    Years of training were the first to kick in. The sounds of passing footsteps, voices, the crackling of a campfire, all being recorded in William's mind. He counted them, trying to figure out where he was. What was going on. His back was bare against the hard stone floor, with a thin blanket between it and him. He could tell he was back in the research camp. That he was safe.

    With his adrenaline faded, he could feel the pain in his legs, the churning in his stomach, and his spinning head. His eyes fluttered open, taking in the sight of the head researcher seated beside him. She was talking to someone, though his addled mind struggled to make out her words. His eyes drifted to his other side and saw a stranger. A stranger...?

    Will's sprung to a seated position.

    "Oh, looks like he's up!" said the head researcher in surprise.

    Will didn't say anything, and just stared at the stranger. He had long, shaggy black hair and unkempt stubble that suited his dispassionate glare. His bright golden eyes held a familiar eeriness to them. The man was dressed in all black. A black shirt, black pants, black coat, and lots and lots of odd, random belts. Also black. He looked back at the slack-jawed Will and held up his hand. On the back was a black guild mark of a bird.

    Tears welled up in William's eyes. "We're saved!" He leapt to embrace the wizard, their savior. The man didn't react, pretending like Will wasn't there, and continued talking with the head researcher.

    "Are you sure? We don't know what's down there," said the wizard, taking a sip from a coffee mug without taking his eyes off the researcher.

    She raised an eyebrow. "With all due respect, Mr. Pelara, I have a hard time imagining anything in there stands a chance against you. Not after a display like that. And between the possibility of the others being alive and the chance at a new discovery, I think it'd be a waste not to."

    "The others…" William muttered. "The others! The monsters, and Jesson, and, and, and that thing[/]! What happened?"

    Mr. Pelara put down his mug and finally pushed Will off of him. Will saw his shadow, flickering from the light of the campfire, as it shifted and creeped up the wizard's body. It shrouded his head and one of his arms, and they turned pitch-black. His face transformed, growing horns and a wolf-like maw. The arm swelled with muscle and his hand grew claws. It was smaller, but it was undoubtedly the beast from before.

    William stared in silence. "What? No! But that means… But Jesson…?"

    "I knocked him out," answered Mr. Pelara, letting his monstrous body parts fade away. "I would have knocked you out too, but I didn't need to. His mind's been altered by whatever is behind all this. The same being that's commanding all those other creatures."

    "Then…" Will looked to the head researcher.

    "The others might still be alive too," she said. "With a Saint, here, we might be able to save them all, and take out whatever's causing all this. There are magical beasts unlike any we've ever seen here. With the Mistland border being what it is, we might never be able to make it back here. So I want to make the most of it now."

    "And I think you're risking everyone's lives for nothing," countered Mr. Pelara. "There are forces in this world with power beyond our reckoning. Beings that tower over you or even I. We can't forget that, lest we become lost in their shadows."

    Will clutched the Saint's hand. "Please! I'm begging you, if there's a chance we can save everyone I want you to… to at least consider it. I'll do anything! Just… please…" He grit his teeth. He'd wanted nothing more than to leave this hellish pit, but now that he had the chance he didn't want to take it. He couldn't, not with the weight of his shame threatening to crush him. This could be the chance he needed to redeem himself.

    "Isn't there anything in that ginormous bag you brought that could help you?" Asked the researcher. "You said it was extra supplies for our trip back, but we're a small expedition team, not an entire village."

    Mr. Pelara scowled. "I meant what I said. And you, boy. Do you really think you can do much after what you saw back there?"

    William backed off, wanting to argue but wondering if he even had the right.

    The air hung heavy over the trio. Several times did William take a breath, ready to bring up a point only to relent at the sight of Boriel's piercing glare. Eventually, he did speak. "...Where's Jesson?"

    "In that tent over there," answered the researcher, pointing to the tent in question. "Boriel was pretty rough with him, don't know when he's going to wake up. It actually hasn't been that long since the whole barrier thing. And don't panic when you see him chained up. We still don't know what happened to him."

    William nodded, silently standing and walking over to it. He didn't make it far when the screaming began. Other researchers rushed out of the tent in terror, Jesson following after them. William rushed over to his companion in equal parts relief and concern.

    "Jesson, what's going on?" he asked, grabbing a hold of his arm.

    Jesson swatted Will's hand aside. "I don't have time for this, Will. I've got to get back!"

    "Back where? Talk to me, Jesson!"

    "Master's not safe, I need to protect him!" Jesson stormed past William and through the camp. He froze when he saw Boriel, who was slowly approaching him.

    "I should have known that wouldn't be enough to hold an expedition guard," said Boriel. From his back spawned a set of shadowy tendrils, just like the ones he used as the dark beast.

    "You," growled Jesson. "Master knew someone would be coming for his life. I won't let you get the chance." Sparks popped at his fingertips as he began to gather his magic.

    Boriel took another step forward and fell, sinking into his shadow like it was water. It darted along the ground, reaching Jesson in an instant. Black tendrils shot up from the ground. They wrapped themselves around Jesson's wrists and ankles, and one of them snaked its way around his throat.

    The Wizard Saint slowly rose up from the ground behind him. Jesson struggled to get loose. The sparks in his hands swelled into a pair of fireballs, only for Boriel's tendrils to tighten in the same moment. Jesson screamed in pain, and the fireballs withered into nothing. And soon, Jesson returned to unconsciousness.

    William was speechless. Boriel continued to wrap his tendrils around Jesson until his entire body was tightly bound. They split off from Boriel's body, dropping to the ground along with their captive. Then they began to twist and morph until they'd turned into chains. William looked up at Boriel with desperate eyes. Eyes searching for guidance, reassurance, something. Anything.

    Boriel sighed. "I've changed my mind. This being is intelligent. It's gathering strength and eliminating threats. There's no telling what will happen if I let it be. And if it was expecting me, I can't be confident we'll get away at all without a fight. We haven't seen your other comrades, so it still has forces to use."

    "Then…" William asked hopefully.

    Boriel held out his hand, curling his fingers like a claw. "It dies today."

  • 25,607
    Primilla Bellamy

    Somewhere in Lautela
    Prim found herself wandering Lautela, having realised a little too late that she had actually forgot to ask for directions to the sorts of places she needed to go. On the plus side though, this had provided her with an opportunity to see more of the city and really take it in.

    Lautela was like nowhere she had seen before. A full-fledged city that seemed to almost be being devoured by nature. The wood and brick townhouses that made up much of the architecture she had seen were packed close together, but huge swathes of greenery still managed to fill the space between them, poking out between structures. Everywhere Prim looked, she was seeing trees, shrubs and flowers. Lautela was unique and beautiful and enjoyable to look at.

    Unfortunately, the humidity counteracted it's charm rather heavily. The air was thick with moisture, the sky so grey and dense with clouds that it looked like they might solidify under the pressure of being pressed together and fall on the settlement below and the humid heat was becoming increasingly sticky and unpleasant.

    The narrow streets that jammed pedestrians and street peddlars together between buildings wasn't helping matters either. It seemed like every few seconds a hand clutching a bottle of water was thrust into Prim's face, evidently her discomfort was visible enough to make her seem like easy prey for sellers, much to her irritation. She was beginning to wonder if the intention of forcing people into such thin streets had been to maximise the impact of the humidity for some reason.

    "It's becoming clearer every second why Faye got the hell out of here." Prim grimaced, sidestepping another street vendor. The mention of her friend drew her thoughts back to the older girl.

    She knew what she had felt on the train ride, Faye clearly knew it too. That was a conversation that Prim was very eager to have, if only because her confusion was starting to become bewildering. She couldn't understand why Faye would have been hiding something like that. She struggled to empathise with the idea of people hiding their true selves in general as someone who was defiantly herself under all circumstances. This went a step further though, Prim couldn't understand why she would be hiding something like that from the guild. The same guild that contained not just her, but Drell of all people. It made no sense. It was so confusing that it was frustrating.

    She is definitely going to explain herself in the very near future because my head is going to explode if she doesn't.

    Unfortunately for Prim, she didn't have time to spend puzzling over the Faye situation. She was ill-prepared for a mission in the Lautelan swamps and only had so much time available to her to find what she needed. She briefly contemplated asking for help from the locals before immediately rejecting the notion and pressing on, eventually finding herself on a street that seemed to be lined with various stores and boutiques. Even in Lautela with plants growing everywhere, this was a comforting and homely location for Prim.

    Thankfully, clothes and other supplies suitable for a swamp expedition seemed to be in abundant supply. Although, unfortunately, there was not nearly enough white and blue present for Prim's tastes. Although, given her circumstances, she supposed she couldn't afford to be too picky.

    Steeling herself for imminent disappointment, Prim made a B-line for a store chosen at random. It was… different. She supposed that the appropriate term would be general store, but that wasn't quite right. It was almost like she had walked into an establishment that existed specifically for people in her situation. Most of the store was set up like a typical clothing store, but the entirety of the left wall was covered with supplies for surviving and exploring the nearby swamplands. Canvas backpacks, ponchos and raincoats, insect repellent, tents and sleeping bags - even a handful of small ration packs. It was too specific to be a general store. It was like someone had taken a wall of a fashion boutique out and replaced it with one lifted from a camping supply chain.

    "Okay Lautela, maybe you do get me after all," Prim commented, chuckling to herself. Fifteen minutes later, Prim was fully stocked for the upcoming mission. She slipped a pair of dark leggings purchased from the store on under her skirt and pulled a white and blue poncho over her head. She also doused herself in insect repellent before dumping about eight more spray bottles into her bag along with the additional rations. Lastly, she made a point of finally conceding to the various street vendors and adding several more bottles of water to her supplies.

    Alright, one problem sorted. Next thing on the list is Faye. Still no idea what the hell is going on with her. She shook her head as if to physically shake her confusion away and began heading back in the direction she hoped would quickest lead her to the meeting point for the mission.


    Sapphire Rose

    [I]Only thorns left on this rose.[/I]
  • 3,449

    Faye Aubrey

    Female | Wizard/Touched

    Old starts and new beginnings

    As Faris was done explaining the ins and outs of the mission, everyone went their own merry ways. Faye was among those leaving but with a very specific location in mind. Faris had just spoken about a lacrima store that was located within the town. The white haired Phoenix was wondering whether this store happened to be in the same building her father's store used to be and thus made her way towards that specific area.

    It was strange to walk the streets of Lautela once more. From the old houses that seemed to have had some maintenance over the years to the clothes shop with the same squeaky door whenever someone entered, it was all still there. Just when Faye turned around the corner of the street, she heard voices behind her. "What is she doing here…?!" She heard them say. One of them was a familiar face. A woman, somewhere in her forties with brown hair and some gray streaks that gave away her age. The touched girl remembered her because she used to be a friend of her mother. She never knew what happened between the two but the woman suddenly stopped visiting at some point. It was just before her mother left the town for good and left her and her father behind.

    As Faye walked the path towards her father's old store, she felt more eyes dropping on her. It felt embarrassing to be stared at, as if she was an animal at the Zoo. That embarrassment is a feeling that never changed over the years but Faye walked quickly to get rid of it and the people that had figured her out.

    After she passed a big brown building with a wolf statue on top, a smaller building was revealed. It had big windows and a wooden door in the center. The wooden store sign was still the same except that it had a different name on it now. She could faintly see where the F of "Fidelis" had been which was the old name of the store but other than that, it seemed to be a completely different store now even though it sold the same items as before. It's new name was now "Proditio", something Faye found funny because it meant "Betrayal" in the same language as Fidelis which meant "loyalty". "What a coincidence…" Faye sighed, feeling a bit uneasy about entering but gathering her courage to still do so. Even the inside of the store looked completely different. As if "Fidelis" had never existed at all except for the faded F on the sign.

    A tiny bell over the door rang as Faye stepped inside, alerting the shopkeeper to her presence. He greeted her, knowing nothing of her history with the place. But before she could look at his wares, she heard the bell ring again. Already tense from being here, she was quick to see who this new arrival was. It was Faris.

    "Faye, right?" he began. "Sorry about this whole, uh, following you thing, but I had something I wanted to ask you."

    "Go ahead." Faye replied shortly. Not exactly on edge anymore as soon as she saw the face of Faris but still very much curious to why he feels so familiar.

    He paused a moment, considering his words. "...It's a bit of a long shot, but there's this girl I knew who used to live here. She had a… mixed heritage. We weren't particularly close, but our struggles were fairly similar so I always felt a sort of connection with her. I was wondering if you knew her, and if you did, if she's happier out in the world. Away from here."

    Faye was quiet for a moment as the realization of who Faris was crossed her mind, or rather, she already knew but needed confirmation. The kind that he just gave. Faye glanced at the shopkeeper who was doing his own thing but occasionally shot a glance in their direction. The girl then turned back to Faris and signed with her eyes towards the door, meaning that they will talk outside. The tiny bell rang for a third time as the duo left the shop.

    "You're that guy, right?" Faye asked her spiky green haired companion. "I mean, I always saw you around getting into trouble with the town's people while you didn't do anything much." The girl rubbed the back of her head, being flustered with how rude she sounded.

    "Yup, that's me!" he laughed. He stepped into the shade of a nearby tree and sprinkled a dust-like substance from his fingers. His blight toad stepped out from behind the tree and let out a low, rumbling noise. A firm, rock-like mushroom burst from the ground Faris had marked to serve as his chair. "Glad to see you caught on. Before anything else, though, I wanted to apologize. I should have been there for you back then, done more to help. But in those days I only really cared about myself."

    Faye held her other arm and rubbed it while glancing at the floor. "Uh…" For a second she didn't know what to say. "I mean… In that case I should apologize as well. I was too absorbed with my own problems and even though I knew you were struggling as well, I guess I was afraid you'd judge me as well so instead I just watched from a distance…" Faye glanced up but realised the last part of her sentence sounded awfully like stalking and even though Faye usually had a stoic expression on her face, this time she seemed a bit more embarrassed. "Uh… Not in a weird way I mean." She sighed and regained her composure, occasionally glancing at the toad that Faris had brought along. His partner, probably.

    "To answer your question, I've been living in the city. No one knows who I am over there so… I've been doing well. Although I'm living in Shessalie now at the guildhouse of the Phoenix's Nest."

    "That's good to hear," said Faris. "I was worried when I stopped seeing you around. Try not to feel guilty on my behalf though. I've got Valbestian blood, so as long as Merry here's still kicking I'm never really alone. It felt like it was us against the world in those days, but it wasn't so bad with my best friend beside me. What's it like at Phoenix Nest? They treat you well? Have… have you told anyone about yourself?" He glanced at her arms, covered by her gloves.

    "They treat me well but they don't know of my heritage yet… Except for one guy. He accidentally found out when he barged into my room. He's… a weird one but he's kind. He promised not to tell anyone else. I don't want them to know for now." The corners of Faye's mouth curled up just enough to be able to be identified as a smile but there was some sort of sadness to be read from it as well. Maybe even regret. Faye honestly didn't know how she felt about all of it. "A-Actually… the blue haired girl you saw earlier also found out recently. I think she did at least... She's also touched but bad with secrets. I can only hope she'll keep it to herself." Faye rubbed the back of her head while being slightly worried. Prim was someone who the girl identified as "Won't spill the beans on purpose but will definitely accidentally spill it out."

    Faris smiled. "They seem like a good bunch. There's a sort of relief, isn't there? Meeting someone who knows what you are, who you are but accepts and appreciates you regardless. I've had my fair share of trouble in this city, but it's also where I met the woman I love. Someone who loves me as I am, including the Valbestian side that's a fundamental part of me instead of pretending it doesn't exist. I might not understand how you feel, hiding yourself like that, but I hope you can find someone like that too. Whenever you feel ready to tell them the truth, that is."

    Faye felt it sting when Faris mentioned pretending a part of yourself doesn't exist even though it's a fundamental part. She knew he was right, yet the fear of being cast out and abandoned once again was greater and not overcome easily. In a sense, she envied him. "Someone who knows what you are, who you are but accepts and appreciates you regardless…" Faye repeated his words quietly, all the while staring off into the distance. There was an image of a certain person coming to mind.

    "Seeing those cute little horns is gift enough for me~"

    Faye suddenly remembered the first words that she heard after that same person found her out. She felt warmth enveloping her and as she assumed it was just from the friendship this person had given her, somehow there was something else mixed into it. Something she couldn't recognize with her lack of understanding of her own emotions.

    Faye turned back to Faris with a warm smile spreading across her soft pink coloured lips. A rare sight for anyone who knew the girl with the poker face. "I hope I can find someone like that too."

    Faris couldn't help but stare. "That's a new one! Maybe you've already got someone in mind?" he teased. "T-That's not-" Faye tried crawling back on her actions. "It's not like that…" she tried to assure him but the more she thought about it, the more her cheeks were starting to turn red. Even more odd things for Faye.

    "I won't lie though, it's not easy. Both of us have gone through a lot because of it, especially living here. I used to catch myself thinking how much better off she'd be without me, and I had to remind myself that it wasn't my call to make. But it's been worth it. The world's not some fairy tale, but that doesn't mean there's no happily ever after. You just have to reach out and grab it for yourself."

    He chuckled. "Maybe it's too soon to be talking like that, but I'm pretty optimistic about this whole thing so I'll stand by my words."

    "Being optimistic is fine. I'd be worried if you weren't to be honest. You never stroke me as someone to go down easily without a fight." Faye replied. Although she started wondering…

    "How did the people in town react to you two getting together? I mean… Did they… Did they start casting her out as well? Were they mean to her knowing she was dating someone that didn't fit their standards?"

    "That's right. She says it just makes it easier to cut out the people who aren't worth it, but I can tell it hurts. But no matter what I say, she chooses to stay with me. So I do my best to support her, and to help this city in the hopes that they'll see me in a better light. Maybe if I keep at it I can make a difference. And the next time people like us come along they won't have to worry about any of this."

    It pained Faye to hear that Faris's girlfriend was also going through the struggle non-Atrians did. The discrimination and the abandoment… The white haired girl sighed. She knew it and yet here she was asking for confirmation about the obvious. She didn't even know why that mattered to her at all. Faye was quiet for a moment before she opened her mouth to speak again, however, no words would come out of it. Not until moments later. "I admire you." She suddenly said. "My dad and I chose to run away from it all while you're trying to change their minds. I admire that." She spoke. "I truly hope that you'll get there."

    Faris struggled to find his response. "...Man, I'm not usually one for heavy talks like this... I'll tell you what, though. We've both still gotta get ready for the job, so let's pick this up some other time. Zaline's off taking her S-class exam so she should be back in a few days. Zaline's my girlfriend if that wasn't clear. I'd like you to meet her, so if you have some free time we should do something with the three of us!" He said.

    Faye showed a tiny smirk. "Sure. I'd like that." The Phoenix thought it was quite coincidence since she knew Rowan was also taking the S-class exam right now.

    "Or maybe four if you've got someone you wanna bring by then," Faris teased again.

    Faye's smirk turned into a painful expression rather quickly before turning back to her usual emotionless expression. The one people were more familiar with. "Keep that up and I'll tell Zaline that you used to throw mud at people."

    Faris put his hands up defensively. "Okay okay, I'll stop. You know those people deserved it though." He stood up and walked over to his blight toad, Merry. With a snap of his fingers and a grumble from Merry, the mushroom he'd been seated on withered away into nothing. He pet his partner's head and climbed on its back.

    "I'm heading off, then," Faris said with a wave. "I'm glad I got to see you again though, and I hope it's not the last time I do."

    "It was good to see you too." Faye waved back at him. "Let's keep in touch? I'd like to know how your plan to quell the racism here is going from time to time…" Faye said just before he left. "Sure. That would be fun." Faris shot a last smile in her direction and then wandered off while Faye stayed behind and crossed her arms, feeling quite satisfied.

    It was weird but she felt awfully comfortable around him, as if they had been friends since forever but only just now confirmed their friendship. Even though they hardly talked back then… Was this the connection Faris was speaking of earlier?



    Magnificent Turnip
  • 693

    Finished That Cool New Weapon But Wait Someone Else Is Here With Also A Cool New Weapon Actually It's Old
    Featuring Lina, Drell and some Unicorn guild person - they're not a main character, do they get to be here? Fine, you can be here this time.

    The guild wizards had been given time to prepare, and Lina was going to use as much of it as she could on perfecting her spear. She already had a name in mind too, but she'd have to wait until she was sure it worked as intended before christening it. After a quick trip to one of the town's lacrima shops she emerged with a wind lacrima. A rather expensive one at that, costing nearly all her reward money that hadn't been spent on the spear itself. Everything that was left went to buying what few components she could find from a small magitech store, then she got to work. Ith'Drell, who came along to purchase utility lacrima for their trip into the wetlands, found that all responsible thoughts quickly vacated her brain the moment that chatter over a cool new weapon began.

    The two travelled to the peaceful Memorial Park, opting to use a picnic table as an impromptu workbench. With a flick of her wrist Lina summoned the incomplete weapon to hand and laid it on the table. The level of requip magic she possessed could only summon one weapon at a time, so she pulled the tools she'd need from her backpack. The spear was pretty much complete aside from the lacrima, so these would mostly be for adjustments in case anything was off.

    "Spears are great," Drell said for probably the fifteenth time. "Polearms in general are great. Ancient weapon, the spear. Persisted through time because it's just that good. Can't go wrong with pointy bit on a stick."

    "For sure," Lina agreed as she carefully installed the wind lacrima. "I mean, I've always been partial to swords, as you know, but spears- or, uh, polearms in general but particularly the cutty stabby ones- are a close second. There's just so many different kinds of each, all with their own specialty. It's like a dream for someone who uses requip!" She made sure to secure the lacrima in place then held the weapon up in awe, eager to test it.

    "Requip is a dream, dude," the big lizard beamed. She took a step back and eyed the newly finished spear appreciatively. "Kinda wasted on swords, if ya ask me, but I guess the style points are worth it."

    "Oh they're absolutely worth it," Lina said with a grin. "Still trying to figure out how I can use that lacrima I got from the mine in one, but right now it's all about this baby right here! Let's hope my calculations were right." She gripped her now-complete spear at the ready, fingers hovering over the buttons in anticipation.

    "Go!" She pushed a button and a blast of wind shot back from several holes in the spear, propelling her forward in an instant. She glided like an arrow for several yards crashing face-first into a nearby tree. A cat flew from a branch above and fled into a nearby house.

    "Lina! Oh my g- Lina!" Ith'Drell laughed, sprinting over. "You okay? You good?"

    Lina fell to the ground and burst out laughing. She tried to reassure Drell, but couldn't get any words out properly so she just gave a thumbs-up. Her face was red and a bit scraped from the impact, but she was otherwise fine.

    "I think I've mentioned by now that I'm pretty sturdy," Lina said after her fit finally died down. She picked up her spear and brought it back to the picnic table. "Looks like I overdid it on the draw, but all in all I'm pretty happy with the results! I probably killed the charge with that, but knowing it's even capable of blasting me across a room is such a relief."

    She opened up a hidden compartment just below where the lacrima was set and began prodding its insides with her tools. "I'm thinking of calling her 'wings of rebellion'. What do you think?"

    "Relief? Relieved you of the burden of standing on your own two feet I guess- heyoooo! Uh sorry, right- uh, wings of… rebellion? Dude, that's fuckin', uh… rad." The big lizard plopped down next to her guildmate. "Any other applications for that wind lacrima? I mean, epic dashes face first into trees are a pretty good starting point, but- oh! You could use it to suck the air out of people to make them winded! Then it's, like, easy pickings for the actual spear part- or! Or you could make a tornado. Put the spear- Wings, in the tornado - make a tornado of tornados…"

    "No sucking, unfortunately. This lacrima is designed to blow, and it blows real good. I could probably rig this to do like a wind blast attack, but I wouldn't really call that a tornado. I mean, I could totally use this lacrima to build a tornado maker thing, but it'd end up being a lot less spear and a lot more big functional box that does a thing."

    "Oh, just blow? That sucks," the reptile grinned. "But what if, you did a really powerful blow- and then, like, the blow is hard enough that it pushes the air away so it creates a vacuum, and then it, like, simulates suck?"

    Lina stopped working to think about the question. "... I... I think at that point it's probably easier to just buy a sucking lacrima."

    "I guess," Drell admitted. "But then you don't have the moment of 'ha, they can't suck! That's a blowing lacrima!' and then you just, like, do the blow anyway. That extra effort? That's the element of surprise paying dividends, dude. Icing on the cake. Cream of the crop, and whatever and all that stuff."

    "Okay, I'm curious now." Lina set aside her tools and instead pulled out her notebook, the poor thing nearly falling apart from use. She flipped to a page with various diagrams on it and held a pen to an empty spot in the corner.

    "Say I've got a lacrima that's capable of transmitting ether to a distant source," she explained. "Like, I've attuned this lacrima to a magitech lamp at home and by using this lacrima, I can turn that lamp off and on all the way from here. Which is, of course, what the one I got from the mine machine does. What would you do with it? I was thinking I could make like big battery pack with it to power something huge that needs a ton of ether, or with something small like knives that I can't fit a lot of energy lacrima into." Lina looked at Drell in anticipation.

    "Oh!" The elder Phoenix perked up immediately, and Lina could almost see the lightbulb that appeared over her guildmate's head. "Mess with enemy magitech. Mess 'em up."

    "Oh! Oh! I could have like a throwing knife with ether displacement or ether slowing magic! Throw it at someone and activate it remotely like a bomb so I don't mess my own stuff up, and it would work on wizards too! Sounds like it'd cost a fortune to find a lacrima like that, but that but I can get it easy if I win this relic hunt."

    "Oh oh oh- what if, hear me out: do an extra powerful ether transmission, like - you transmit it so fast that it pushes the regular ether out, over a guy- like, you create an ether-vacuum."

    "Does it work like that for ether too?"

    "Not sure but I wanna find out!"

    "If you get the prize and help me out, I'd totally build you an ether cannon."

    Drell's face scrunched up, considering the offer. "Ehhh, I dunno about the prize thing. I mean, I could just whoop everyone's ass and take the thing, but I feel like a team-up-split-the-reward kind of situation is the more sensible thing to do. As much as I want an ether cannon."

    Lina shrugged. "That's fair. Offer's still up if one day you happen upon a fat load of cash."

    "Or," the armoured lizard said with a sly grin. "Maybe we can bug Myeloch about getting a communal ether cannon. For the good of the guild!"

    "It might actually work. He doesn't usually tell me no when I ask for stuff."

    "Ooh, is that magitech?" asked an approaching voice. It was the scarlet-haired Unicorn who'd be joining them on their job. She looked a bit older than Sarah, and had quite the spring in her step. She held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Aja by the way. Aja Karisi of the brand new Crimson Unicorn guild!"

    "Hi, Duke Ith'Drell!" The big lizard introduced herself, able to shake the Unicorn's hand without standing up. "Doomkiller, nice to meet ya. Well, again, or whatever."

    Lina shook Aja's hand. "I'm Lina Latare of Phoenix Nest, and this is absolutely magitech! Are you a fan too?" She stepped aside to better display her spear.

    Aja tilted her head. "In a way. It's more like I'm fascinated by it. I love watching its advancement and how, despite that, it still doesn't compare to the relics that have been around for over a thousand years. Doesn't it make you wonder who could even make those? Where all that knowledge went? By the way, do let me know if you've got any juicy info on relics and the ancients and all that, I'd love to hear it." She held out the relic that had been resting on her hip like she'd been waiting to show it off. It looked like a sword hilt, but the blade itself was no bigger than a letter opener.

    Lina frowned. "Relics are cool, I guess. I just prefer being able to build, modify, and upgrade. You can't really do any of that with a relic."

    "Can't, or won't? Eh?" Drell snorted. "Or is that illegal talk? I'll shut up I guess."

    "If you know how to build a relic I'd be very excited to hear!" said Aja with genuine curiosity. "Though that might very well be illegal."

    "I guess modifying and upgrading might depend on what the relic is since there's all sorts of them," Lina said, "But what are you gonna do to something like a celestial spirit key? The wizard can already use its magic for themselves just fine to do whatever they need."

    Ith'Drell shrugged, "Dunno, never got my hands on one. Maybe use some, like, ether-siphoning magic and use it as a freaky battery? I guess maybe it's not such a huge thing, but authority's always been super antsy about anythin' relic related. Still, even if I felt like pissin' off the council, don't think I'd be making any relics - that's more my folks' area of expertise."

    "Your folks can make relics?" asked a wide-eyed Aja.

    "Come to think of it, I don't think you've told me much about your family," Lina mentioned.

    "It hasn't come up, I guess?" Drell pondered the statement with a claw to her chin. "Guess it's only fair I tell you 'bout my folks if I already met your dad, huh? They're pretty great - dunno if they actually made any relics, but if anyone could, they could definitely do it easy peasy. They've probably made like a thousand, or something - they run a shop up North dealin' in adventuring gear. My mum's a big ol' dragon - she does the forgin' and craftin' stuff. And my dad's a mighty bolt of lighting! He does the tippy-top enchanting and all the lacrima, and some funky alchemy stuff. I never learned any of the alchemy stuff - I think I tried to drink a potion or two a few too many times."

    Aja tilted her head again in doubt. "Dragons and relics, eh?" Drell nodded profusely.

    "I'm guessing they made your gear?" asked Lina. "What kind of neat enchantments do you have on it all? And I heard a lot of northern smiths use the parts of slain beasts, does that affect what you do with it? Come to think of it, I haven't really gotten to see you in action, huh?"

    "My gear?" Ith'Drell chuckled, unable to hide a grin. "Uh, mainly just the plate. I guess my lil' handaxe is mum's work too, but it's just, like, two seconds' work; ain't exactly one of those things you put effort into - still, er-" the big lizard slung her sword out from around her shoulder and onto her lap. "Big Whap's all me - flattering that ya can't tell the difference, I guess, but it's not near the same level. It gets the job done, I guess, but I'm, like, a passable smith. And I sure ain't no enchanter like m'dad."

    Lina looked Drell over with this new context. "We'll have to compare notes sometime! I made my weapons myself, but not without ol' Aldahan watching over my shoulder and pointing out when I mess up. And I'm sure smiths in the north have different techniques they use, especially when they're dragons." She chuckled.

    Aja watched the two discuss and pouted.

    "Oh, for sure," Drell chuckled with her guildmate. "I mean, when you don't care about fire and you're strong as heck, you can just, like, reach into the forge and bend the metal with your hands if you want, which looks really cool- that's kinda just the base of it though. Mum's got a load of neat techniques I probably would have learned if I stayed on at the shop instead of, uh, well… this." The Phoenix shrugged, then rapped on one of her gauntlets as she continued. "It all comes together in stuff like this. It's deliberately not too flashy, but when you get into it, pretty sure by anyone's metric this suit of plate is crazy. Best armour money can buy, I'd say, for sure-" she stopped for a moment, her eyes widened and she shook her head. "Actually, I don't even know if money can buy armour like this. Bespoke job for a specific build playing to its strengths, unusual materials, enchantments the likes of which you're probably not gonna get on any piece short of one being made specially for family-"

    The Doomkiller paused, as if at last noticing that Aja was there. She snorted. "Woah, hey dude- my bad, I was gettin' kinda a little too into it. 'Sup? Did you want to talk about the job, or something?"

    "No no, go on." Aja sounded offended. "Showing each other all your cool stuff but not asking about mine. It's fine." She turned away, watching them expectantly from the corner of her eye.

    "Right. Uh…" Lina looked at Drell with uncertainty. The big lizard let out an amused snort.

    "I mean, uh, you kinda just... waltzed on in h- I-" Ith'Drell shrugged and gestured exaggeratedly at Aja's person. "Whatever- woah, what about all of your cool stuff? Why don't you show it to us? That sounds like a cool idea I just came up with right now on my own!"

    Aja faced them with wide eyes and a wider smile. "Wow, I'm so glad you asked!" She held out her weapon once more. "This is my precious relic known as the Mimic Blade! It was discovered in the year X721, one of two known in the world."

    Aja continued her seemingly-prepared presentation with no regard for its length or her listeners' attention to it. "The blade's full form actually generates additional amounts of the copied substance, which implies that the magic within… and if we compare it to records of the X755 border expedition conducted by… which is odd when you consider how most weapon-form relics are under the council's watch, meaning…"

    Lina looked at Drell again, this time as if pleading for help.

    "Anyway, look!" In one swift motion, Aja slit her wrist with the blade. Blood poured from the wound, painting the ground below. But in moments, the bleeding stopped, despite the wound still being wide open. The blade, meanwhile, had grown in size and taken on the blood's crimson hue, its surface reflecting the sunlight like it was liquid. "Mimicking this normally wouldn't do much good, but it does wonders with my blood magic!"

    Showing off, Aja transformed the cruciform sword into a curved one, the blood weapon shifting into floating liquid then to firm solid. Then it became a morningstar, and then a whip, and then a scythe. She wiggled the scythe's shaft like a snake to further flaunt her magic.

    Drell put a claw to her chin. To her credit, she'd listened to most of it. "How sharp can you really make blood? How solid can you make blood? Apparently there's iron in it, but iron isn't top tier."

    "To be fair, Egan seems to be doing just fine," Lina commented.

    "Blood's just lukewarm though," the reptile hummed.

    "It'd be nice if I could use maker magic on that level, but the relic's actually doing most of the work." Aja changed the blade back into the cruciform shape. "It's got a… let's say a base toughness and sharpness. I'm not actually using much ether to keep it like this, so when I change it up it's mostly about maintaining the properties it's already got. I could mimic something else like a tougher metal and use my own blood for my magic, but I usually pass out when I do that and miss the fun."

    Ith'Drell laughed, "Haha, yeah, that sounds like-" She suddenly stopped, eyes wide and staring at nothing in particular. "Wait… couldn't you use it to, like… replicate high-quality lacrima… or other gems or something…?"

    She nodded. "Yes. Shame I don't have any. I could go for a lacrima that just starts gushing blood everywhere, that sounds super useful."

    The big Phoenix blinked twice, then shrugged, "Ya know… I'm glad I live in a world where people find a matter replication thingamabob and just use it to make a cool blood sword mace whip thing. I think. Maybe."

    "Aren't relics great!?" Aja asked in earnest.

    Drell shared a slightly perturbed glance with Lina and answered, "Yeah, sure."

    She clapped giddily. "I'm so glad you see it my way. I'm happy to go over all the other pieces in my collection too, though they aren't as exciting as my blade. I think a good place to start would be my brew-" She stopped her explanation abruptly to pull a mini comm lacrima from her pocket. "Yeah, master?"

    There was a brief conversation before she put her lacrima away. "Looks like I've gotta go, I promised my master I'd visit the Nymph hall while I was here. But come find me another time if you want to hear more about relics or the ancients or whatever. Bye!" And as soon as she'd come, she was gone.

    "Uh, bye, I guess!" Ith'Drell waved after her.

    "She's definitely, uh, passionate," said Lina. "Is that what we sound like when we talk weapons?"

    The big lizard thought about it, "You know, usually I'd be like 'oh, haha, yeah I guess' but in this case…? Nah, she's crazy, dude."

    Lina chuckled, but kept her mouth shut and got right back to work. The two settled into comfortable silence for a while before Drell broke it again.

    "Y'know, I said I already met your dad and everything, but I dunno if I- like, he's weirdly open and super secretive at the same time. I guess it's just 'busy'- I just realised I don't know what the guy really does besides council this, council that and sending illusory clones all over. And heck if I know what council this or that actually is."

    Lina answered without looking away from her work. "Magic research, I'd say for all counts. He's always been trying to discover new spells, new ways to improve existing spells, or find new things about magic as a whole. It sounds like that's what he did before I was born, and it's what he's been doing ever since… ever since I've been old enough to take care of myself, more or less. Can't say whether the council wants him for something in specific or just to advance general research, but he's not really in a position to say no."

    "That makes sense. I mean, how else would he figure out how to do all that crazy crap? I guess if he's devoting all that time to it- feels good, y'know? Put the time and effort in, get results, and all that."

    She smiled softly. "I remember before I got into swords I did a lot of research too. I wanted to help him with his work, you know? Of course, I never stumbled on any grand discoveries but it definitely helped me appreciate magic more. Like how hard people like the S-Class wizards and Saints had to work to get where they are."

    Ith'Drell nodded, "Yeah, I been there. It's cool to go into something like… different, but, I guess, with elements of what your folks do? It's like a different perspective… you know, come to think of it, I-" the elder Phoenix paused. "Actually, I don't think I've ever heard mentioned- uh, are you OK talking about your mum? I don't know if it's, like, a thing- it's fine if you don't wanna."

    "It's fine," Lina said, holding that smile. "She was a soldier, way up north because she deserted during the war and was in hiding. At least that's what dad tells me. I guess he met her when he was travelling up there and they hit it off. I don't actually remember much about her myself, that whole part of my life is a bit of a blur."

    "Soldier's interesting," Drell smiled back. "What for?"

    "Atrian vanguard against the Valbestian forces. Apparently she was good with a shield."

    "Shield, huh? That's a- oh!" The big lizard snapped her fingers. "You should see if you're good with 'em! By, uh, getting one. You should get a shield, is what I'm sayin' - only reason I don't have one is the plate."

    Lina shrugged. "I don't remember if I've mentioned but they're not really my style. So I say, but I basically use my greatsword as a glorified shield anyway. I want to modify it so I can adjust the feather lacrima's output more precisely. Maybe I can make it more shield-like while I'm at it."

    Drell shrugged back, "Oooor you could get a shield… might help to have a smaller one, too."

    "I guess… But I'd have to think of something neat to do with it."

    "Something neat to do with a shield… maybe- oh, sh- uh, shoot, we gotta get something to eat before we run out of time," The armoured Phoenix sat up and began gathering her things. "Let's get goin', think up cool shield stuff and try to not get it messed up with our food orders. Gonna ask for a sandwich with retractable blades."

    Lina hesitated. "Oh, uh, I was just gonna grab something small from a convenience store or something. Don't wanna be too stuffed for when the action starts."

    "Yeah, we should find somewhere to pick somethin' up and go," Drell agreed. The two set off in search of food, eager to fill their stomachs before their imminent trip into Lautela's wetlands.


    Believe in the you that believes in cheese
  • 1,319

    Frustrated Phoenixes


    "Thank you!" Pat almost shouted, beaming at the pretty lautelan shopkeeper, too happy at the deal she gave him to even be annoyed when she ruffled his hair. He made his way out of the store with a small personal bug repelling lacrima and, perhaps more importantly, a pair of little enchanted earplugs. They block out the obnoxious buzzing and some of the other annoying background noise one is prone to hearing in the swamps without making you miss anything that may actually be a threat. The boy strolled down the street humming happily for a minute, his bag of 'loot' hanging from his shoulder, then stopped suddenly, furrowed his brow and turned to the left.

    After a bit more walking Pat stood near a group of people and listened to them talk, then shook his head and left. Next he sat on a roof for nearly half an hour, watching the sky. Everywhere he'd been anybody he got too close to had watched him, feeling the frustration rolling off of him. He felt the same stares at his final destination: a big tree on the edge of town. Pat hung upside down by his knees from a tree branch, swinging a bit every once in a while to keep the blood from rushing to his head, but just like everything else it was no use in the end. Anyone who looked at the boy this time could all too easily see the wrinkles on his forehead and the occasional twitch of an eyebrow.

    "Are you alight?" A familiar voice spoke to him. A familiar voice that belonged to one of his comrades. One that was less inclined to speak than the others but had been opening up little by little lately. Forgetting to react, the voice rang in his head again. "Pat? Do I need to come up there?"

    Pat's eyes shot open at the voice and his legs slipped, dropping him unceremoniously straight to the ground. "Ow! Why would you go and mess with a man's concentration like that?!" He got up quick enough, rubbing a dirt-dusted red spot on his forehead, scowling petulantly as his eyes settled on Faye. "I bet I was almost there too, I'm sure I was about to become a master llama dude!" The frustration cleared from his face after a bit more grumbling and he looked at his guildmate more curiously. "So what's up?"

    "Er… sorry I guess." Faye apologized and tried to help the boy get back up on his feet. "People in town have been talking about a boy seemingly frustrated near the big tree. Since I was done shopping, I came to see what it was about." Faye rubbed the back of her head. "I came to see if you could use some help or something… why did you look so frustrated?"

    "No, I'm not - I was just….nnnnnng - argh!' Patileer scrambled his hands through his hair and growled, then shouted in exasperation. "Because of my stupid brother!" He angrily squeezed his temple. "He tells me I need to be more self-sufficient, and that all my strength won't mean anything if I can't get some sort of handle on it and *use* it instead of just being a vessel for it. But I can't just focus on anything like it's the entire world the way he does!" Next he threw up his arms. "I always get distracted by something, my feelings jump around like they have minds of their own and every little thing that happens to or around me changes my mood like it's nothing! Nobody else has to go through it and it makes using my magic so...so hard!"

    Faye was silent and blinked a few times. Crossing her arms in the meanwhile.

    Pat fell backwards and stared up at the sky, just breathing and making annoyed noises for a bit. "So I've been trying all the things I see him do to relax and 'find his center'. He spends a lot of time staring up at the sky… but I just ended up watching the clouds and thinking about what shapes they looked like. He slinks around and eavesdrops on people so I did that, but then I just got lost in their words and they noticed me and looked at me funny. He also likes to hang from places and relax in weird positions so I went all bat-boy on this tree but then I just kept feeling either hot or dizzy and having to move… and now you're here. No matter what I do I just can't focus and control my magic. If this keeps up I'm gonna be a burden on the guild!"

    Faye sighed. The words he spoke and the troubles he had with his magic were all too familiar for the white haired girl who had struggled with her own magic her entire life. She climbed up the tree Pat was in with much ease as she was very agile and sat down next to him on the branch. "I don't think your brother meant for you to copy his actions. See, you two are entirely different people with different personalities. You won't be able to control it by doing what Rowan does. Take it from someone who can't control her own magic as well." Faye said. She held out her hand in front of them and summoned a small black ball. Although it was supposed to be a round ball, it kept shifting in size and form. As if the ether was running rampant in a small container and tried to break free.

    "Do keep this secret though but it seems like I'm not able to use my magic because I don't know what I'm feeling. Or something is withholding me from doing so. I haven't really figured it out yet. When I'm angry I'm suddenly able to draw out much more power." Faye let the shadow ball she had made disappear and turned to the younger Hoskel brother. "I've seen Rowan cast his magic multiple times. He draws his magic from the emotions he's feeling and to me it feels like he's sometimes using someone else's emotions to empower his own. I'm pretty sure he eavesdrops on people for fun." Faye said, showing the same pokerface as always.

    "... or wakes them up really early every morning before he does his training for his own enjoyment." She added, slightly irritated.

    Pat finally smiled, then laughed at Faye's pouting. She always had something to complain about when Rowan was involved, it was part of what he liked about her. "You two really get along, don't you? I'm glad someone besides me understands fighting for control. It's still really frustrating though. Rowan and I have the same magic! The only real variable is our personalities and experiences, and it makes me feel like a failure." Pat's hair and eyes both turned a sad, envious green. "I can't use the same tricks he does to get control over my emotions, I have to find my own way...but Rowan had eight more years with our teachers than me and there's nobody around besides him who understands my magic! Even Myeloch hasn't been able to help me...not that he really has the time for it if he knew how."

    Faye blinked again with her hazel green coloured eyes and pointed at Pat. "You did the thing." She said a bit surprised. "You know, with the hair. It changed colours." Faye repositioned herself a little so that she could better face the younger guildmate. "Controlling your magic was never meant to be simple. Although I get how you're feeling. Why don't you try casting magic from the way you're feeling now?" The girl referred to his hair and eye colour. She had seen Rowan cast different kinds of magic whenever his hair colour changed.

    "I've tried that but it's not definite enough… I can't settle on a path to shape the feelings when there's this much and they're all slamming into each other. It just…" Pat furrowed his brow and little bubbles of magic actually came off of him like a boiling cauldron until finally one big bubble popped and it all stopped. "Fizzles out!" His hair next turned pink and his eyes mismatched with a harsh yellow as he sighed. "The only time I can ever really do much with my magic is when someone near me is in trouble, or I'm completely overtaken by a single emotion, like anger or something. Rowan said I can't just let the events around me dictate how I use my magic like that, and that always relying on other people for my power is a crutch. I just don't get it."

    "Sounds like you have problems with keeping your emotions in check." Faye commented. That too was an all too familiar problem. "I'm not sure if I can be of any help, I'm a mess inside after all." The girl sighed and shrugged. "However, what I've been told a lot is to hang on to the strongest emotion you're feeling and keep that emotion going. Don't be embarrassed and allow yourself to… feel." The girl scratched her chin. "Of course I don't understand yet what that fully means but… My father likes talking like he's in some mystery. I'm sure you can figure it out though. You're smart." The girl added but quickly had an idea that she thought could be of help. "Have you ever thought about thinking of certain situations during battle that can make you feel a certain way long enough to cast a spell?"

    Patileer blinked several times, stared at Faye for five seconds, then blinked several more times. "Emotions from memories?..." He closed his eyes and racked his brain, trying to think of a strong memory. He didn't remember much from back home…and not all that much happened until he met Boriel...then Myeloch and - suddenly his eyes shot open, glowing a rich pastel pink that quickly spread to his hair…and then the tree? Yes, the tree he'd been hanging from grew taller, fairer, its bark taking on an ethereal beauty like old stories of the spirit world - and its petals were the same pink as Pat's eyes and hair! The tree on the edge of Lautela had become a Fairy Blossom tree, lending an air of tranquility and happy warmth to the entire area around it, even the grass and flowers around it began to change, growing more colorful and vibrant until it looked like Faye and her guildmate were in the middle of some mystical glade.

    Faye clapped and whistled. "That's some magic you got there." She said. She was clueless to what could have caused this sort of reaction but judging from the color it looked like Pat might have some strong crush on someone. "Did you just think of a memory? Was I actually useful for once?" Faye asked rather surprised.

    "You're always useful, silly Faye!" Pat half laughed, half shouted, hugging his perplexed guildmate. His hair quickly returned to normal as the spell faded, but the changes it made to the foliage remained. "You're always trying to keep everyone around you happy and safe, even if you do it with cold words and frosty expressions. You're one of the nicest people I've ever met!" She could tell he was being completely serious, the warmth radiating off of him wasn't part of a spell, it was just his affection for her.

    Faye felt a bit embarrassed from the sudden hug but patted the head of the younger boy. "... You're kind." She said, being fully aware that her expressions weren't the nicest ones around but it was nothing she could do against. She was just thankful she had guildmates that understood.

    It was then that she had a sudden flare of a memory that reminded her of how Rowan said that she couldn't fool him either with those expressions and thought of her as a total sweetheart. It embarrassed her even more but what's more is that even her face was turning bright red. These two Hoskel brothers were such a handful.

    Faye took a deep breath regained her posture. "I think it's about time we return to the meeting spot. The mission will start soon."

    "I think," Pat began, letting go of Faye and sounding more contemplative. "If our magic really is similar in its emotional attachment maybe you should try the same ideas. Maybe if you can think of strong memories you can call on the emotions they contain. If you could analyze those memories and sort of label them ahead of time by how they make you feel, you could just pick whichever one fits what kind of spell you want best in the moment. Maybe it would work better for you than me, maker magic is always kinda vague and weird, at least that's what Rowan says. I don't read as many books as him, so I dunno about other makers."

    Faye showed a soft tiny smile at the younger Hoskel. "Unfortunately, it's not that simple for me." She said, resting a hand on his head. "But don't worry. I'll figure something out eventually." She assured him. She couldn't tell him that the reason she's a mess was mostly because she couldn't identify her own emotions yet. She knew the simple ones but she locked away the rest when her mother left her behind. "... Eventually." She sighed.

    Pat smiled back at her and completely blew off her doubts. "You'll get it! And if it's hard on your own, the guild will help you. That's what guilds are for! And we have Myeloch, the smartest wizard ever!"

    "... thank you." Faye said a little embarrassed. She then got up and jumped off the tree to make a perfect landing on the ground. "Shall we go meet up with the rest? Or do you want to stay here for a little while longer?" Faye asked the boy who was still sitting on the tree branch. He wasn't quite as graceful in the dismount, but he landed on his feet and didn't stumble.

    "I've got everything I need, I think!" Pat grabbed his bag from where it rested against the trunk of the tree and hoisted it over his shoulder. "Including my guildmates!" He finished with a smirk and a quick squeeze of Faye's hand before he started walking ahead, humming a happy tune.

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  • 957

    Of Suspicion and Salvation Outer Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    The sun in the sky shone fragmented rays down on the wizards, the light passing through narrow openings in the leaves above. It was peaceful at the edge of the wetlands, outside the influence of the relic. All around them were the sounds of buzzing bugs, of shifting waters and rustling plantlife from the beasts that called the place home. But the wizards passed unhindered as the teeming life around them kept to itself.

    They sat on a small-ish boat procured by Faris as they traversed the plentiful waters of the swamp. Its flat bottom and rounded front allowed it to glide over obstacles and even the shallowest water as the large fan in the back propelled it forward. His blight toad Merry swam alongside them as it kept watch in the water below, keeping pace remarkably well considering its slow walking speed.

    "Get comfy, we're still a ways away from the search area," said Faris, keeping his eyes forward.

    Like in the cart before, everyone did their own thing while seated on the boat. Tiran's face had turned much more serious than it had been, looking out at the swamp as he kept to himself. Ralga laid on the seat next to him, this time full-sized. Aja bounced in her seat unable to contain her excitement. Rhea and Natalie were calm, with Rhea trying to make sure the newbie Siren was ready as she reviewed various scenarios with her. Simon had his eyes closed in what looked like meditation, taking deep breaths. Veechar looked out over the swamp, seemingly making a point of not acknowledging that he was stuck in a boat with a bunch of Touched and Valbestians.

    Prim sat on the other side of the boat, nearby her fellows from Phoenix Nest. She was also taking in the sights around her. The lush greenery made for gorgeous scenery, although the swarms of bugs that hung around them made her think that seeing it from a postcard might have been preferable. "Faris wasn't kidding about the bugs. They seem barely put out by the repellent. It must really suck if you don't wear any."

    Simon shuddered, but took a deep breath and continued his meditation.

    Elidyr stayed as close to the center of the boat as possible, refusing to even look at the surrounding area. He busied himself with making sure his wraps, newly soaked in bug repellent, are secured and tight around his limbs and torso. Between that and the orange scales now covering his body, he didn't seem too concerned about the bugs. "Give me a desert any day. I'd prefer it to this place…"

    "I like deserts," chimed Aja. "Lots of neat things buried under the sand just waiting to be discovered!"

    "I don't," said Natalie. "I much prefer a cool sea breeze."

    "Most places have their own brand of charm," Ith'Drell mused, glancing at Simon momentarily. "Bugs don't bother me much, not 'til they start killin' themselves in my joints. I guess natural selection's gotta happen somehow, but it's still sad."

    Faye, who was sitting besides them and only stared before now looked at Drell with a "what…?" face.

    "I don't like bugs much but I spent some extra money so I wouldn't have to deal with them this trip!" Pat proclaimed proudly, pulling the collar of his shirt down a bit to show off a necklace with a small green lacrima on it, then plopping down nonchalantly in Drell's lap. "And if I sit here it will protect me and them at the same time, free from the tyranny of Drell's joints."

    They passed narrowly through a cluster of trees. One of them had a structure built into the side, above the water. It was like a building with windows and doors, with various antennae and other lacrima-housing apparatuses sticking out. It was surrounded by a faint field of pink light, likely a barrier.

    "That's one of the council's research outposts," Faris explained. "There's a few scattered throughout the wetlands. There's one at the edge of the search zone, too. They should have some emergency supplies at each if you happen to run out of your own, but try not to take too much. The barrier should help too if you end up pissing off something and regretting it." He chuckled.

    "Me? Piss something off? Never!" Prim said, unable to stop herself from laughing at her own mock outrage. She heard a scoff on the other side of the boat but managed to ignore it.

    Patileer watched the scenery go by, blinking slowly. "I wonder if there's actually anything in this swamp strong enough that we'd really not want to fight it."

    "Strong enough? We're probably fine there," Drell nodded. "Though I ain't in the business of killin' beasties in their own territory when they're not goin' anywhere." The big lizard perked up as a thought came to her, and she turned her attention to all of the boat's passengers. "Oh, speaking of not fighting, uh, and beasties- heh, and pissing things off- are we on the same page about what's-his-guy, uh, employer? Quail, that's him. Bad vibes, right? Somethin' not right about him?"

    "Oh no, he seemed charming," Prim said, oozing sarcasm, "So charming that I wanted to knock his teeth out."

    "I probably should have…" grumbled Tiran.

    Faye only gritted her teeth remembering how he humiliated her.

    "I dunno about 'off', he seemed like the typical rich weirdo you'd find anywhere in Gildas," said Natalie. "Or maybe not typical with that bodyguard he's got. She's definitely a strong one, and that butler too."

    "I mean it ain't just him specifically, but the way the job's set up, too…" Drell murmured, scanning the faces of the wizards present as the gears in her head turned.

    "Well yeah, it's pretty weird in general to have a bunch of capable guild wizards going after one object in general, especially being made to compete for the really significant pay." Pat muttered from Drell's lap. "If a job is significant enough to hire this many wizards it only makes sense to pay them to work together. Right now we're all basically incentivized to beat each other and harshly impact the overall odds of success for the patron."

    "It is weird, dude," the big lizard nodded, patting her guildmate's arm in approval. She looked up to address the non-Phoenixes present, showing Patileer off to them like he was the best thing since sliced bread. "Lil' dude's a genius. Got this thing figured out better'n me! The setup's totally weird, right? So I'm thinkin- proposition. Some kind of proposition thing- Quail. We all saw him. Not a fan - 'course, we got the contract and stuff, but past that I don't think I'd trust the guy as far as I can throw him. Uh- I mean, like, as far as a regular guy could throw him. And he's pretty big, so, like, shouldn't be far; I'm not counting rolling distance- I don't trust him. Doesn't add up, can't help but feel like there has to be some kind of weird ulterior motive going on here."

    Rhea leaned back in her seat. "It's definitely an unusual way of doing things, but some of us might not have come if it was a cooperative effort. Nat's definitely one of those. But I also doubt the reward would be as appealing if it had to be split so many ways. At the same time, though, he wouldn't need this many of us if it wasn't a competition. Tiran or I could probably handle it alone. But I kinda chalked it all up to being a publicity stunt, since this'll definitely be going in Sorcerer Weekly."

    "The beat-each-other-incentive is totally a thing, which is weird in and of itself, but like, is he even able to see us? Hard to be a publicity stunt without him having, like, one of his strong bodyguard guys tag along to take notes or record it." The armoured reptile steepled her fingers in thought. "Still doesn't add up. Is he, like, in the pocket of some other guild or something? Could he-? Oh! Maybe he's, like, part of some evil villain conspiracy thing and he knows his evil henchmen have no chance of beating us fair - so then he gets us to soften each other up and then pull out a blind-side move! Big Magic Game Time Thingy would be way too public for a move like that, but random swamp out here? And he hides robots under the swamp to burst out? That'd be cool- like a mine that explodes out an assassin robot…

    "Right, uh- so, even if there's not any of this, uh, secret evil stuff going on; Seems pretty clear the guy wants us to fight. But, uh, he's a dick, so - fu- uh, screw the guy, y'know? I say, team up, split the reward and have a chill easy time with the job, 'cause we've still gotta do the job but I don't wanna do the guy any more favours than I'm gettin' paid for. Then some time later we have a fight party or whatever at our guild house instead, or something. I dunno how short notice we can clear Myeloch on that thing. Doesn't have to be ours if your places are cool too, but y'know, I'm not gonna impose on that or anything."

    Tiran scowled. "I ain't splitting the reward with a Siren, much less a Gryphon. And you're fucking crazy if you think a Spirit would split jack shit with us."

    Drell spared the Silver Spirit in question a glance and snorted, "I dunno, if it's a choice between that and getting KO'd by everyone else at the starting line…"

    "Some of us would consider KOing him anyway," Prim added, glaring at the man who was still pointedly ignoring the rest of them. "Besides, we signed the contract. So that probably forces us to play by his rules and compete anyway."

    "When guild wizards are going on any job that's not for the council or the government, we're basically mercenaries, right?" Pat said, speaking out loud now that Drell had ruined his background status. "So then THIS many guild wizards getting sent on a job that is only guaranteed to pay KINDA well is a bit odd, isn't it? No matter how much the actual winner gets paid, the math doesn't add up. No matter how you look at it it's bad business either for us or him. Especially with S class wizards here. How much more practically-guaranteed money would your guilds be making right now if you were each on S-ranked jobs of your own as opposed to this job where - speaking strictly mathematically - your odds of getting paid anything at all besides the starting fee, is low? Then, considering that for the rest of us the starter fee is actually pretty good, what is Quail's incentive to throw so much money at making his odds of success worse? Forget about getting in each others' way, what if we destroyed the relic while fighting over it?"

    "Actually…" started Rhea.

    "I'm not here for the cash," interrupted Tiran. "I'm here for our guild's rep. Show off, kick some asses, make people remember who's gonna be number one after the Games are done."

    "And I'm mostly here because I heard Tiran was coming," Rhea finished. "No way I'm letting that punk manhandle my precious guildmate. Or at least, that was the idea. I'd like to say we won't damage the relic, but depending on what the relic actually ends up being I can't guarantee that. Relics tend to be pretty solid stuff though."

    "Of course we all have good reasons for being here, the job itself is what's weird. But fine, I'm done talking about it." Pat said, radiating disappointment as he began to mutter too quietly for anyone but Drell to hear. "So this is what Rowan was talking about…I hope becoming S class doesn't make him start acting like them."

    Simon finally opened his eyes, turning them toward Faris. "Do those outposts have communication lacrima? Can we call someone in case something goes wrong?"

    Faris mulled over the question a bit. "Yes, but our comms are on a different network than the big nationwide one. That one gets jumbled by all the active magic in the wetlands, so if anyone's got a mini comm on them might have issues with it. The outpost comms can access any of the other outposts as well as our guildhall and the comm at the Rune Knight station back in Lautela."

    "Ya know," Ith'Drell huffed under her breath, after seemingly having stewed for a little while. "Gettin' real fuckin' tired of 'games this, games that'. People gotta get their priorities straight."

    "They're the only way I can get this country to listen to me," said Tiran in a tired frustration. "That's the one place they can't look away from."

    "I dunno, I've heard the Emperor and Princess are pretty nice people." Pat thought out loud. "Maybe they'd be receptive if you ever sat and talked to them. An S class should be able to arrange that, right?"

    "From what I hear, the games ain't your friend," the big lizard hummed after a moment's hesitation, surprised that her huffings were heard. "Don't think that's gonna change any time soon, unless you just wanna terrify people into whatever."

    Tiran laughed. "We don't got the kinda power to just talk to the emperor. We can put in a request with his people or the council, or he can invite us himself. But I don't care if they hate me as long as they know that if they try to push us around, there's someone who'll push back. It ain't like it was 15 years ago when they had nobody to stand up for them. As long as I'm in the spotlight, I won't let people turn a blind eye to the shit we deal with. I'll-"

    He hesitated, pulling back and growing quiet. "...All you need to know is that you won't change the things that matter with smiles and fancy words. Smarter people than me have definitely fuckin' tried."

    "But you can't just change them with power either, can you?" Pat queried. "Way smarter and stronger people than any of us have tried that, too. My brother told me some pretty nice stories about you, Tiran. If there are people who like you now even with prejudice all around and you...not being super friendly, don't you think people would love you if you tried harder to let them?" He tilted his head, trying to measure his tone so Tiran wouldn't get the wrong idea like at the train station.

    Drell chuckled and patted her guildmate's head, "Bein' friendly ain't a fast lane to changing people, Pat. Beats intimidation, though, in the long run." Tiran stayed quiet and returned to looking at the scenery.

    "What about friendly intimidation? Sarah can be really scary, sometimes!" Pat said, waving his arms dramatically.

    "Well," the reptile snorted. "Maybe if Tiran made dinner for all of Atria every night, he could start trying it."

    Prim laughed at the comment. "As funny as that thought is, I would pay to see it, Tiran's got a point. I don't know about going around intimidating people or whatever, but playing nice all the time only gets you so far. I was nothing but nice to people growing up, it didn't make that much difference in the end. That only impacts the people who don't already hate you by default."

    She looked over at the irritable racist they were sharing the boat with and pointed at him over her shoulder. "Do you think being polite makes an ounce of difference to people like that?"

    Ith'Drell exhaled through her nose, "Yeah, sure, there are some people who gotta just go and suck toes, but intimidation doesn't get ya anywhere with those people either. Better to keep it cool for everyone else around." She paused for a moment. "Besides, how do you know it didn't make a difference if the other thing didn't happen? Don't wanna say it coulda been worse, but, uh-"

    "Short of lynching me in the streets, it couldn't have been much worse." Prim shrugged.

    "'M'sorry, Prim."

    "It is what it is. Some people just suck," Prim said, "Besides, no need for you to apologise. You didn't do anything and I'm sure you got your fair share."

    Drell shrugged, "Not as a kid. And I mean, yeah, I didn't do- people just say sorry, dude, I just mean that I feel you, you know? Lemme be upset for you, jeez."

    Pat's eyes were closed, temple twitching and he was making a face like someone having a nightmare and not being able to wake up.

    With a light scuffing sound, Elidyr scurried across the floor of the boat, putting a hand on Pat's knee. "Hey. You good, Pat? We're all here."

    The stinkface persisted as Pat hummed in aggravation, then tipped over and fell off of Drell's lap, taking Elidyr down with him into a floor hug. "Nooooooooo, Elly, I'm the one who should be saying that to yoooouuuuu. Sit over here with me and Drell, stop worrying about the boat or the other guilds, we're here with you." Although his words were those of comfort, his tone was one of suffering, as if he needed his guildmates to feel better for his own good. Judging by what his friends knew of his empathy, that might very well be the case.

    Eli pushed against the bottom of the boat just enough to get his wings out. Normally a defensive gesture, he wrapped them around Pat, trying to feel tough and protective like Drell, to ease Pat's discomfort. The big, tough, protective reptile gently picked up the ball of friends and gave it a soft pat.



  • 957

    Chapter 2, Part 2: Secrets in the Wetlands Friday July 20th, X784

    Faye who had been quietly listening to the conversations all around her the whole time shifted her gaze towards the guy that insulted Prim earlier. Something inside her was boiling but it was an unpleasant feeling, so she disregarded it and faced Faris. "Are we almost there?" She asked her new old friend. A bit anxious to get off the boat as soon as possible.

    Faris looked back at Faye apologetically. "Almost isn't the word I'd use. We're about halfway there, just about to enter Deepring Marsh actually. It's sort of like a border between the outer and inner wetlands."

    The trees around them grew thicker, but Faris expertly weaved the boat around them. They passed through the mass of trees and emerged to a vast, open area. The sun gleamed down on them, reflecting off patches of water in what otherwise looked like a field of tall grass. Without all the trees they had a clear view of the Spirit Greatwood. At this angle it was impossible to see the top. It was a gigantic wall of wood, stretching outward the higher it got. Another swamp surrounded the bottom of the tree, the tree itself still a significant distance from them.

    A breeze picked up as they entered the marsh. It was nothing unusual, but the group noticed Faris immediately tense up. "This isn't right," he warned them. "Whatever happens, don't attack. The guardian stirs."

    As the boat came closer to the inner swamp, where most of the afflicted beasts lay waiting, the wind became stronger and stronger. It pushed against them, as if trying to keep them from advancing. But Faris refused the wind's message and pressed onward.

    In response, a roar resounded from high above; from the Greatwood's peak. The wind had turned into a veritable gale, and for all its strength the boat could go no further. Faris stood at the front of the boat, facing forward with a firm expression that was betrayed by his trembling knees.

    In what seemed like an instant, a building-sized shadow descended from the Greatwood's boughs. And before them now was the guardian itself; a massive serpent with emerald scales and six, feathery wings along its body. It looked down at the group with cold, amber eyes.

    "Leave. Your kind has brought enough misery to these lands." A deep, rumbling voice echoed in the group's minds.

    Faris gulped in a vain effort to clear the lump in his throat. "O' noble guardian of the wetlands, I beseech thee. Grant us passage. We come not to harm these lands but to heal them, to remove the source of this blight!"

    The winds grew sharp, pressing against the wizards' skin as if it could pierce through at any moment. Like a knife to their throats. But no such thing happened. The guardian growled, the boat shaking in response. "And what reason do I have to trust your words, or that those with you wish the same?"

    Faris lowered his voice so that only the guild wizards could hear. That was the intention, at least. "Something– or someone– has angered the guardian. Someone besides us. I'll try and come up with a way to calm it down, but it will want to hear from you all regardless."

    Ith'Drell stared up at the giant serpent, agape, "Woah… the guardian looks awesome, dude…"

    "If we wanted to do damage, why would we just calmly boat through instead of burning stuff down?" Prim asked loudly. "Also, I'm with Drell on that one."

    "I'd never do something so mean, and nobody on this boat feels enough hate for the environment around them or joy at what's happening to it to be to blamed." Pat said with way too much cheer, raising his arm like he was answering a question in a class.

    "I don't care about anything here except for the relic," Aja said bluntly.

    "Yeah, I'm just trying to get the job done," agreed Natalie. "It's harder for me to make use of memories that aren't human or from man-made stuff so there's not a lot for me here."

    Rhea and Tiran were silent, watching the guardian carefully as if studying it.

    "Then you insist that you mean no harm. This, do you swear?" the guardian asked.

    Faye shrugged. "Not really. We're not savages."

    "Isn't that what we said?" Prim replied, shrugging.

    "I mean," Ith'Drell blinked and rubbed the back of her head, just about getting over the spectacle of the creature before her. "I'd reserve the right to defend myself and my friends to some degree, so we don't die and all that, but I respect that this is the territory of the things that live here and we kinda wanna just, like, keep harm and interaction in general with the stuff here to a minimum while we remove the problem relic. Do you, like, have an awesome magic sensor that can sense the magic contract we're under so you can see we're all just here to remove the relic?"

    The guardian spoke once more. "Your personal matters mean little to me, as do your lives. You will prove your words with your actions, tested by the land itself. If you speak true then I will trouble you no longer. If not, you will be punished. Farewell."

    "Farewell?" questioned Simon. "Hold on, tell us about these other invaders! What exactly did they do?"

    Faris looked back at the group. "Shit, everyone hold on to someone! Don't get separated!"

    Drell grimaced, "So, is that a no? Or-"

    The sharp wind pressing tightly against the wizards let go. But the wind around them grew greater in strength. Instead of feeling like the winds would slice them open, it felt like they would carry them away. The boat they were on slowly rose from the water. The storm around them became even harsher, lifting the inhabitants off the boat.

    Eli desperately grabbed at anything nearby. Drell, Pat, the seat of the boat, anything stable. "No no no no no no no!" You didn't have to be an empath to notice how panicked he was. His flailing brought an end to the Eli-Patileer ball, and Ith'Drell lost her grip on them both.

    They fell back to the water as Rhea used her magic upon the group, but even then the boat wavered as her magic struggled against the guardian's, whose storm continued to grow in its ferocity. Nothing around them could be seen through the water and plantlife being carried in the wind around them, not even the guardian.

    "I can't hold everyone down against something like that! If you're going to do something then do it quick!" Rhea cried.

    Faye, who didn't seem too bothered at all but in reality was panicking inside, held her hands down towards the water. She hoped to create tentacles with her shadow magic to hold everyone down but alas… her magic wasn't strong enough. Only measly small tentacles came out and they couldn't reach anyone. She quickly went for plan B. She looked around her and the only one closest to her was Prim. She made a shadowy string and lasso'd it around Prim's ankle, tying the other end around her waist in an attempt to not lose her out of sight. She tried to reach out to Lina who was a bit further away as well but was unable to reach her due to the strong winds.

    Prim attempted to call down to Faye, but as the winds continued to grow in strength, her words got lost in the maelstrom. Instead she settled for pulling her leg up hard, in turn flinging Faye up closer to her where she could catch her arm.

    "I can't move or reach anyone!" she yelled over the roaring tornado.

    "No need to panic!" Drell tried to reassure her friends, unsure if she should even try to reach them. "Just don't let me squish anyone!"

    "Very reassuring," Prim snipped back, unable to stop herself despite the situation.

    The wizards aboard the boat fought valiantly against the guardian's storm, or perhaps they let themselves be swept up without a fight. Either way, the result was the same. The gales cleared, releasing that which it had taken and scattering it all throughout the wetlands. In the middle of Deepring Marsh remained only Rhea and the boat, not even the guardian staying behind to admire its work.

    Inner Lautela Wetlands

    Guilds of Atria: Phoenix Nest [T] [IC]

    The guild wizards were scattered throughout the wetlands by its guardian, left to traverse the treacherous swamp alone or with any allies they managed to hold on to in the chaos. The inner wetlands is where the area's most dangerous creatures lurk, be they afflicted or otherwise. To survive they must keep their wits about them for the area's deceptive natives, and their magic at the ready for those who've forgotten the art of subtlety.

    Life teems in the water at their feet, the trees around them, and the canopy above. And they must be careful of the landscape itself as well, for the guardian is watching their every move. They feel a gentle breeze every now and then as a reminder. The residents of the wetlands are constantly battling for survival, but they don't dare harm the Greatwood nor the spirits that call the land home.

    Somewhere hidden near the Greatwood is the ancient relic responsible for harming the wetlands. In seeking the relic, the wizards may find the answers to other pressing questions. Perhaps about Quail and his motives, or about the affliction. Perhaps about the ancients, or the wetlands themselves. Or perhaps the wizards will find nothing but pain as their motivations clash.

    Mood music:



    Believe in the you that believes in cheese
  • 1,319



    Something burst out of the debris shooting straight at Rowan. It wasn't the wizard, but the body of the wyvern he'd been intent on catching. And Rowan could feel that the wizard was close behind.

    Instead of away, Rowan ran straight at the wyvern and crouched low in the same moment as his hair and eyes turned that cold blue again, sliding on a path of ice underneath the wyvern and towards the tower.

    Immediately after clearing the wyvern, Rowan was faced with a charging ape-man fast approaching. Only he wasn't an ape anymore, at least completely. His giant arms had grown scales and claws, he'd sprouted great leathery wings, and a barbed tail dripping with venom identical to a wyvern's. But most importantly for Rowan was the jet of flame erupting from his mouth, his arms wide and ready to catch any attempt at escaping it.

    Rowan's eyes widened and a surge of electricity ran through his hair, leaving it behind a shimmering, shifting rainbow. He stomped through the ice and rooted himself just before slamming his hands together, a massive CRACK accompanying the huge shockwave that pushed both combatants away from each other. Clouds conquered the sky and a rolling thunder overtook the sounds of crumbling rundle and ravenous flames, when the form-thief looked at Rowan his eyes were shifting the same way his hair was. "Bring it, beastie! I was hoping to save this but there's just no taming a Tempestuous Heart!" The spell's name brought forth a lightning strike just behind Rowan's opponent, urging him forward as it began to rain hard enough to put out a large part of the flames throughout the fort.

    The dark wizard laughed. "I told Nightmare his little Dreamers wouldn't be able to handle a real opponent. How's anyone supposed to fight without the thrill of putting your life on the line? His experiments are a waste of time, but if it means I get to come here and fight guys like you then I ain't gonna complain. Now come here!" He leapt high into the air with a beat of his wings, diving down toward Rowan like a missile.

    "Then let's see if you can put up a better fight!" Rowan shouted, spinning his arms like a tube in front of him as he slid to one side. The wind and rain between the two combatants swirled in an imitation of the phoenixes arms and the human bomb was suddenly yanked downward by the funnel, doubling his speed. "Vacuum Reversal!" Rowan's body became light as air just before the beastman crashed into the ground and he jumped, the resulting shockwave blasting him up into the air. The Phoenix flew straight up to the bottom of one of the clouds his spell had formed and electricity began to flow from the dark puffs and through his body.

    Rowan held Lina's sword up above him, pointed down at his enemy and channeled all the electricity in it, already feeling the pillar of air between the cloud and the ground ionizing. "Zeus' Starfall!" With those words the sword shot down towards the shapeshifter with the speed of a bolt from the heavens, pulling Rowan behind it.

    The man defended with a wing and an arm both. Rowan's blade tore straight through the wyvern wing, piercing flesh and bone both as it ripped through the arm as well. It cut all the way to the man's chest, but was unable to go very deep. Instead, the blade flooded the ape-man with all the electric fury held within, lighting him up like a Wintergrace tree. The stench of burning flesh filled both their nostrils.

    He let loose a held breath. "...If that's the best you've got, then I think Nightmare's home free." He flexed his muscles as feeling gradually returned to his body, his face grinning in anticipation for what was to come.

    "Big talk from someone like you." Rowan grunted before springboarding off of his opponent and straight into the still-burning rubble of a building. Seconds later a wheel of flames launched back out and rolled towards the ape man, leaving scorched gashes in its wake. The rolling fireball cut across the man once and veered off, the burning cuts it made steaming in the rain. The weaponized Rowan continued to circle around the man and dart in for glancing attacks, more and more steam and smoke coming off both his flames and any wounds he left on the man until it began to look like a hot fog was rolling onto their battlefield.

    The man stood still, watching Rowan's movements even as he cut into his body. He flicked his barbed tail, getting a feel for it before going in for an attack. The tail whipped at an incoming Rowan, and the ape-man kept a close eye on him in case he needed to make a follow-up attack.

    The wheel broke as if the tail had pierced it, allowing Rowan to grab onto the tail and use his spinning momentum to spiral down the tail, cutting a path around and across it with the sword as he went. Upon reaching the base of the tail Rowan let go on a down swing, dropping past the man's incoming fist and sliding between his legs to the other side, the cuts along the tail began to glow orange and smoke like the others. Rowan turned and looked to the man, expression cold in spite of the torrent of colors from different emotions fluctuating in his eyes and hair, as if he were looking at a bug. "I don't know if a man like you feels a thing like guilt on his own…"

    The Phoenix stabbed the sword between two stone bricks and allowed it to stand on its own for a moment, wishing he'd been able to bring some armor like Cliff's with him. But it never suited me, did it? You always said so and now that I have a style of my own… I know you were right… You always were right. "So I think maybe I should teach you a thing or two about regretting what you've done…about how you'd feel about what you'd done if you had some real empathy." Now Rowan was looking down on the man, not as if he was a bug but as a judge looking at a criminal. "In lieu of the proper trial Atria can't give you for your actions, I shall pass judgement upon you.

    That mad glint returned to the man's eyes and he smiled darkly at the confidence on display. "It's about time you bust out a real spell. Let's see what you're really made of!" As soon as the beastshifter moved a muscle Rowan rested both hands on the pommel of his sword and pain exploded through his enemy's body all along every spot he'd been cut, no matter how shallow, arresting his movement a few more seconds..

    "Look upon me, hear my name and know me as Quickbeam. I call upon the fires of vengeance for all those wronged to purge my enemy of their sins!" Rowan raised one hand from the hilt and put his thumb and forefinger together. " Fan the Flames of Penance: Purgatorio." and he snapped his fingers.

    The cuts littering the victim's body glowed an azure hue, and like-colored flame erupted from each and every one. Shapes formed in the shifting fires, shapes resembling faces in anguish and suffering. They roared in their escape from that bodily prison, a roar that sounded like countless people crying out in pain. They billowed upward with increasing size and intensity until they had engulfed their victim entirely.

    The flames began to fade, and the dark wizard yet stood even as his body continued to burn. His blackened arms hung limp at his sides, having taken the brunt of the damage, and his tail did the same. Steam billowed from him in the rain's futile attempts to quell the remaining fire. He grinned.

    "Now that's… more like it…" His voice was raspy and his breathing was ragged. He took a painfully slow step forward, but forward nonetheless. "But it's still not enough. Finish it with something big, something that'll really take my breath away! Ahahaha-" He coughed, a puff of flame escaping his reptilian maw. He took another step.

    Rowan could feel something changing in the direction of the dark wizard who fled before, one whose identity he was rather certain of now. A spike of fear and a hint of betrayal, with the glee that once came from the bandits nowhere to be found. And there was something else he struggled to describe. Something inhuman.

    The man in front of him tried to take a deep breath, but failed. The jet of flame he wanted to produce came out as sputtering wisps in Rowan's direction. He took another step toward him.

    "You really are just a beast, aren't you?" Rowan asked, his tone still dismissive and apathetic. "An attack dog wasting my time while your master runs with their tail between their legs. You can't even see that you've already lost." He held his hand up and released a small ball of green light into the air, calling the wyvern he'd befriended back to him without taking his eyes off of his opponent. I said I'd teach you what guilt really feels like, didn't I? Well you can't just power through guilt until it goes away. It doesn't go away. Ever. Just like the soul of a man who let down everyone he ever loved, everyone who believed in him, you will burn forevermore."

    The beastshifter's pain returned, this time accompanied by the very guilt Rowan was speaking of, flowing through his veins and filling him with the anguish of others as if it were his own. The flames came again, this time softly, not spurting freely from his wounds but lazily creeping out of them, spreading slowly across his body and coating him in a burning cloak. The wyvern landed and Rowan climbed onto it without sparing the man another glance. "Welcome to Purgatorio."

    The dark wizard tried to take another step, but fell to his knees. That burning lump of flesh and bone looked up at Rowan and laughed a louder and more gleeful laugh than any before, unhindered by the fits of coughing that punctuated it. The two left him to his fate.

    As Rowan took to the skies he took careful stock of the situation below. Around him, the town guards continued their efforts to suppress the invaders. It seemed like his blast of fear had faded as some of them were beginning to fight back, but with their numbers thinned as they were they stood little chance. Other guards were busy escorting survivors to a safe location, echoes of hope beginning to stir in their chests.

    But as Rowan continued to the town's edge in pursuit of the final dark wizard he found a different scene. Guards that had gone in that direction were fleeing, and alongside them were equally terrified bandits. One of the bandits tripped on a long-dead body and tumbled to the ground, where he was pounced on by a creature Rowan had never seen, one he could feel no emotion from. More followed behind it. A giant burning spider, a human-faced snake, a headless man with a scythe, a living doll… All rushing out from the same place.

    Not far from the nightmarish creatures was the one who undoubtedly created them. He busied himself tying a cart of slumbering captives to the wyvern he escaped on. But as soon as Rowan saw him, he looked up and saw Rowan as well. He beckoned Rowan toward him with a single finger.

    Nightmare, huh? More on the nose than I expected, but far be it from me to turn down an invitation. He spurred the wyvern onward and downward but it only took seconds for him to realize something was wrong. His head got fuzzy, his eyelids heavy, and he felt more and more sluggish the closer to the leader of this whole mess he got. Just when he felt himself begin to sway he drew a small knife and opened a thin stripe on each forearm, feeling himself jolt fully awake again and dived straight towards 'Nightmare'.

    "A common tactic," the hooded wizard said dryly. "Effective, if temporary. How long will you last, I wonder?" He tapped the head of a captive child, and a large black circle appeared over it. From this gate stepped a vaguely human cloud. Its dark body lit up from the inside as lightning crackled within. The wizard casually continued preparing his escape. "Fear does such fascinating things to people, wouldn't you agree?"

    The living storm raised its arms and clapped, creating a booming thunder that summoned lightning bolts from the sky to crash down on the area. They fell indiscriminately, even falling upon the hooded wizard himself. But the bolts bound for him and his captives dissolved before reaching their target, leaving him unharmed. The child from which this nightmare was drawn shuddered in her sleep. Despite the thunder, none of the restlessly-stirring captives woke up.

    "You're gonna learn real quick there's nothing common about me!" Rowan shouted, jumping off of the wyvern and smirking with all the grit he could muster as he was wracked with pain. He began to spin as he fell, faster and faster until familiar blue fire burst from the cuts he'd made on his arms, spewing out like a pair of flamethrowers. The examinee disappeared into an upside-down tornado of cerulean flames that accelerated, simply absorbing any lightning that struck it until it crashed to the ground. A pyroelectric wave dispersed the storm and rolled forward, washing harmlessly over the sleeping villagers and threatening to incinerate Nightmare while Rowan watched with his arms crossed.

    "Hmm…" Nightmare passed his hand over the heads of his victims like he was picking what spice he wanted to add to his dish next. He tapped a couple of heads and muttered, "Drowning. Falling. Common and reliable."

    Two more black circles appeared. The first spawned between Nightmare and Rowan's attack, expanding in size until it unleashed a tidal wave that rolled over the town to meet the wave of flame and electricity. Unlike Rowan's attack, this one did not discriminate between those in its way. On the contrary, it seemed almost alive as its edges stretched out like arms to drag in everyone it could.

    The second circle spawned underneath Rowan, expanding like the first and opening up a hole in the ground that began sucking in the things around it. Inside the hole was the sky, stretching down with no end.

    Nightmare moved to a third victim, a teenaged boy, and put his hand on the boy's head. Nothing happened immediately. "S-Class wizards truly are impressive," he said to Rowan, raising his voice as the raging magics around them threatened to drown him out. "But how much ether can you have left after facing my comrades? Perhaps I should stay so I can see what nightmares plague one such as you?"

    He was right. Rowan had been pushing through the exam and fighting opponent after opponent, expending power more liberally than he normally ever did… Even though it showed him how much stronger he'd become, that didn't mean he'd become some powerhouse like Egan. "More than enough to beat a lowly coward with no strength of his own! You'd better just run now so you at least don't have to see when I catch you and kick your ass!" Why?! Brains and pluck can't solve every problem...why do I have to be so weak?! I HATE- He froze, not even noticing the streak of black that had appeared in his hair. Hate?

    The beleaguered Phoenix stood in the middle of the street while the writhing mass of water surged towards him, eyes closed. The gaping hole in the world behind him pulled and he didn't resist as he began sliding towards it, trapped between two different dooms. His hair fell still and all the color drained from it like paint being washed away. Gradually blue crept into the tips of his hair and crawled towards its roots. This time there was more than color, the hair was translucent, glassy, and became stiff when the blue overtook it. The decisive pincer attack continued unabated in the face of this transformative meditation by its victim.

    With the simultaneously measured and shockingly-swift ferocity of an avalanche Rowan opened his eyes - which remained their usual green - and exhaled a cool breath into the water just before it swept over him, some of it beginning to flow into the hole and some of it spreading towards the rest of the fort. No sooner had the flood covered the hole then it slowed and flash-froze all at once. Nightmare had only time to blink once before All of the ice between him and Rowan shattered at once, sending a flurry of razored shards right at him. Unfortunately the third boy's nightmare was that of being trapped in an unbreakable prison, one that formed around the mysterious wizard and protected his smug countenance from any harm.

    Nightmare heard the shards shatter like so many broken hopes and dreams against his protection, followed by a soft thump that only widened his smile and sense of triumph. The sphere of unbreakable stone opened to show its summoner Rowan, now just in front of him at the end of a huge slope of ice, on his knees and panting.

    "Ready to give up yet?" He gasped, finding it hard to even lift his eyes above his heaving chest to look his opponent in the eye. He was well and truly spent, so short on energy now even his emotions were dulling and making it hard to so much as worry about what happened next. "If - huf - if you…give up now I won't even - hh - kill ya...You can just rot in prison forever."

    Nightmare spoke, his voice as cold and calm as ever as he looked at Rowan with shrouded eyes. "A prison would have interesting subjects, but not any prison the council would place me. I'll have to reject your offer." One by one he dispelled each of the nightmarish creatures he'd summoned, just like the lightning before. The weight of Rowan's eyelids, of his entire body, became greater and greater with each one that faded away. Eventually he collapsed to the ground, unable to lift even a finger.

    The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was the dark wizard disappearing as well, into a cloud of purple mist.

    The first thing Nightmare saw when his eyes opened was a young man with red hair running away from him. The boy ran down a road of stone bricks, each one a different color from all those around it. Screams surrounded them, echoing over so much rubble and so many bodies that the reality he'd just left seemed a tranquil garden by comparison. He followed the boy, all too eager to see what he was running from…and running to.

    Even a master of dreams such as Nightmare found it hard to concentrate in this one. Negative emotions flowed through the air around him and into him so palpably that it defied even the logic of being in someone's subconscious. Terror, anguish, surrender…hatred. He stepped out of one splash of color within the dream and to the next scene, finding himself amongst a group of men and women in various states of battle dress ranging anywhere from simple leather shirts to full plate. They chattered excitedly, muttering all sorts of unspeakable things while they circled and hemmed in the target of their pursuit.

    The boy lay before them, not alone this time but next to a man that was a silhouette all the way up until his head, which was quite a handsome one. A very fair yet masculine face with shining ruby red eyes and dazzling golden hair was all he could see, as if the memory were threatening to fade out of existence. "You won't touch him! Not if I have to slay every one of you with my bare hands!" He brandished some sort of weapon he couldn't see and the mob actually took a step back. It was only then that Nightmare became aware that the band of attackers was less than he'd originally thought and the ground was littered with like enough corpses. A stone door with strange runes stood stoic and indifferent behind the pair.

    The boy forced himself to his knees and crawled forward, wrapping an arm around the man's left leg and sobbing. "No, Cliff, stop! What's the point of getting away without you?! I won't go, we'll stop them together!"

    The warrior grit his teeth and responded with cold fury tinging his voice so thoroughly, Nightmare knew not whether it was aimed at the boy or his enemies. "You know exactly what the point is." The growl brooked no argument.

    But the boy tried his luck anyways. "You can't do this! You swore me an oath! We never give up, never turn our backs on each other, right? Live together, fight together, die together. I thought you always kept your word, no matter what?!"

    As one the ring of marauders closed a step to capitalize on the distraction, only for a flash of steel to sever three of their heads in a single stroke. The mob backed up once again and the man, Cliff, looked down at the boy, his gaze as stern and implacable as ever. "I made a much greater vow long before that one. A promise nothing will prevent me from keeping...Not even if you hate me for it. Goodbye, Rowan." Before the boy could even attempt a response the mysterious door flew open and Cliff shoved him into it. Shifting his stance, Cliff readied his weapon, his hair glowing with a gilt light that paled next to the determination in his eyes, as Rowan fell into darkness.

    If this was such a vivid point of suffering in his target's psyche, Nightmare didn't doubt his opponent would fall into a jibbering wreck at the sight of the mob tearing apart that guardian he cared for so much...but a power that utterly dwarfed anything he'd felt before caught his attention, pulling him away from the first solution he'd been presented. A hatred far deeper and darker than what hung in the air, much stronger than what Cliff felt for the people who'd threatened his best friend yawned in the distance like a bottomless chasm. It was like a singularity of rage and loathing, it's infinite gravity drawing him in.

    Nightmare all but leapt out of the fading light and into this new scene, only realizing upon entering it he was going earlier into the dream. No details of the room he stood in remained within the dreamscape aside from its massive size and its inhabitants. There was Rowan again, this time clutching onto something Nightmare couldn't see, staring in complete horror at the center of the room. Kneeling in the center of the room was a man on his last legs, once again showing nothing more than a head on a silhouette. This head was much like the adult Rowan's, except thicker, stronger, with a neatly trimmed nearly-full beard. His hair was a soft lavender kept in the same style as Rowan's, his eyes were rich amethyst and they glared up defiantly at the source of the unfathomable sense of hate that made Nightmare's head swim.

    The presence who dominated the room was the only person, really the only thing Nightmare had yet seen in this dream which was complete other than Rowan himself. The man's domineering height was easily the first thing of note, though that might just be him towering over his defeated adversary. His face was much like that of the man at his feet, barring a sharper jawline and his only facial hair being a short black goatee. The smouldering eyes that dismissively watched all before him held irises almost as dark as their pupils, only pinpoints of amber to shimmer within the void. His glossy, raven hair streamed down to the small of his back like a cascade of liquid ebony.

    It only took a moment for Nightmare to take in the man's appearance and in that same moment he stopped caring, transfixed not by how he looked, but how he felt. The man's power was...there was no other word for it but impossible. The terror of Rowan's dream must have made its central antagonist powerful beyond the realm of reality because simply being in the same room as him made even Nightmare tremble and waver with dizziness. Still, the man showed no signs of awareness of his presence, this was a dream of a memory playing out, not interacting with an outsider and allowing Nightmare to simply be an observer…until he chose to intervene.

    He stepped forward once. With that kind of power nothing would stop him. He wouldn't just defeat that S-class fool who thought he could stand in his way, he could draw that power out of the dream and take it for himself! Rowan was already paralyzed with fear, his subconscious could do nothing to stand in the way. Another step, he lost his balance for a moment as he drew closer to the incredible strength he would soon have possession of. "You really are the greatest fool I've ever known." Nightmare froze at those words, as well as the crushing spite in them, but the man's eyes were still locked on his target, not him.

    "Fitting that you should fall, bringing everything you care about with you, just like you always dragged me down." The man continued even as Nightmare came up behind him and put a hand on his back. An apparition of the past as powerful as this one couldn't simply be consumed, but it could be drained. He completely relished the look of divine suffering on Rowan's face as he began to funnel the memory's strength into himself, feeling now as if it were him that had inspired that deeply ingrained fear. It was hard not to laugh at the situation, he wanted to cackle at the top of his lungs at the thought of all he could do with this power and the irony of the man sent to stop him giving it to him on a silver platter.

    A ball of black and purple flames grew in Nightmare's other hand and his eyes lit up at the sight of it, knowing at a glance it could make a crater the size of the Fort with as little effort as swatting a fly. So much power poured into him that it was pure ecstasy, so strong he didn't even care if his old magic was overwritten by whatever the mysterious man had at his disposal. But there was something else there in the river of ether sating his gluttony. Hatred...of course! A small price to pay for - "Hrg- Blagh!" Nightmare coughed and spat out some sort of burning sludge the same hue as the fireball he'd made. He jerked his hand but it refused to move from the man's back. He was rooted in place, siphoning more and more power, until it filled him utterly and completely, dragging more and more of that murky hatred with it until the two forces were indecipherable from one another.

    Take it away! All of it! I don't want to see it anymore! This is what they deserve! But first...let them feel it. Let them truly feel the pain, the emptiness! Ruins and tombstones aren't enough! I don't want death! Destruction! The man was gone now. He wasn't speaking, the voice was inside of Nightmare's head - no, it was him speaking! "I...want…NOTHING!" Just enough control returned to Nightmare's body for him to crane his head towards Rowan and see that he was smiling directly at him. No. That isn't possible! He stretched out his arm to smite that cocky fool but the black and purple flames didn't burst from his hand, they enveloped it, crawled up his arm. The same happened on his other arm, and his legs. The power and hatred grew denser and denser until it was all Nightmare could feel, everything that he was, consuming him utterly and completely.

    Then, with nothing else to do…He opened his mouth and screamed.

    Rowan's eyelids fluttered open to find the hooded mastermind kneeling on the ground in front of him. His legs were trembling and he was gasping desperately for air. He kept looking at his arm as if to remind himself it was still there.

    The wizard was perceptive as ever and immediately noticed Rowan waking up. Rowan felt the familiar sensation of his magic, but it was a pale shadow of its former self. Rather than put Rowan to sleep, it did little more than numb the pain from his constant battles. Nightmare slowly stood and tried walking to his captives to continue his escape, only to fall partway through. He kept going, dragging his uncooperative legs as he crawled on his elbows.

    He didn't make it far before a foot stomped his back and pinned him to the ground. Rowan smiled down at him through his own fatigue. "Looks like you're under arrest in the name of the Magic Council of Atria. Sorry buddy, but your Nightmare has only just begun."

  • 25,607
    Primilla Bellamy and Faye Aubrey

    Inner Lautela Wetlands
    Prim grabbed the enormous crocodile by its tail and hurled it back across the swamp. Naturally, when she and Faye had crash landed courtesy of the Guardian, it had been in the middle of a bog full of the huge reptiles. Thankfully, after the first few had been unceremoniously launched back across the water the remaining crocodiles started to disperse, not wanting to bother the pair.

    "I'm just hoping that doesn't count as harming the swamp to the guardian," Prim sighed, turning to look at Faye, "So, it's just us then."

    The white haired member of Phoenix's nest brushed the dirt of her attire, the magic rope she had used to keep her and Prim together dispersed. "We have to find the others quickly." She said. "Or… at least try to find the relic before the other guilds."

    "Alight, we can get a move on then," Prim said, "Just two touched girls hunting for a relic, right?"

    She stopped for a moment, surprised that the words had just spilled out of her mouth. She'd had no intention of bringing up what she'd discovered on the train at that moment… but now that she had she was fully committed. "You have horns."

    Faye stood in the same spot, pale and frozen as the words "two touched girls" rang in her head followed by the mention of her horns. By the time colour was returning to her face she moved her hands to where her horns were and touched them. "... I do…" She said quietly and embarrassed. She felt naive for having forgotten Prim's findings for even just a second but at this point it would be better to just get the truth out.

    "I'm going to take a wild guess then," Prim continued, "You're not hiding burns under those gloves. I thought something didn't seem right about that story back then. So, let's see."

    Faye looked away from Prim. Like a child that had been hiding candy away from their mother she slowly took off her gloves. Creamy white scales were what was actually being hidden away by those gloves. "... Unfortunately there's more on my legs." She spilled.

    Prim walked up to Faye, grabbing her arm and lifting to her eyes to get a better look at the other girl's scales. She figured if they had been in a location with better weather she might have seen the sun glinting off of them a little.

    "Unfortunately?" Prim remarked, "Are you an idiot? These are really pretty. What the hell are you hiding them for?"

    "I have my reasons." Faye said, pulling her arms back. She rubbed the scales and stared at them. Pretty was not something they had been called before except by Rowan.

    "Which are?" Prim was not about to just let Faye brush this one off.

    Faye gritted her teeth, an emotional outing she didn't usually do. "It's a long story…" She persisted, trying to refuse having to explain it but seeing how Prim kept pushing on even when she said that, she had no choice. "This village is the reason. My mother left us here because of their judgemental opinions… Not long later they gave me the same solitude… We went to the city for a better life. I hid my features so that I'm not cast out again and my father can run his shop in peace and quiet. I easily pass for a human too so there's that…" She blurted out. "Touched people are hated and I don't want that kind of attention anymore…"

    Prim was dumbfounded for a moment, a rare moment where she wasn't entirely sure how to respond. Of course, she completely understood where Faye was coming from… but on the other hand, she couldn't fathom caving in to those people and letting them win. It made her blood boil and that was what helped her find some words.

    "You are human," Prim corrected Faye, unable to hide how infuriated she was becoming - it was surprisingly hard to keep from yelling, "and screw those people! You don't owe them anything. You don't have to conform to what they want and you shouldn't. You're better than they are and if you submit to them they win."

    "That might be so but this is how I choose to live." Faye got surprisingly worked up as well. "... for now." she added after. "No one in the guild and the town of Shessalie knows that I'm actually touched. I'd like to keep it that way until I find a way to deal with… things. Only Rowan knows as of now." Faye said, looking Prim in the eye to show how determined she was over this.

    "Choosing to live pretending to be another person doesn't make any sense!" Prim protested, "You have to fight that kind - did you just say Rowan knows?!

    Prim stopped for a minute, incredulous and, although she wouldn't admit it, hurt. She held up a hand, silencing Faye before she had a chance to say another word. "I don't agree with hiding who you are from anyone, but I understand why you wouldn't want to deal with how most people see people like us. But why the hell wouldn't you tell Drell? Or Ephraim? Or me? The people in the guild who actually understand what you go through and have experienced the same shit you have? Why would you keep that secret from me? But fucking Rowan can know?!"

    It occurred to Prim that she actually was yelling now, but she didn't much care. She had to close her eyes and take several deep breaths just to prevent herself from punching a hole in something and pissing off the Guardian.

    "I was scared, Prim! I am still terrified of the looks I'll be getting once I have to tell everyone!" Faye's voice got significantly louder and was probably the closest she has ever gotten to yelling. As soon as she noticed, she crawled back into her shell. "... I wouldn't have told Rowan if he hadn't barged into my room while I was dre-" Faye defended herself but quickly stopped herself from finishing that sentence. "I didn't plan on telling anyone at all. I didn't want anyone to know." Faye said a bit defeated.

    "I would tell eventually… when I was ready to do so… but everyone is finding out at a faster rate than I had predicted." Faye sighed. "Also, if I'm completely honest here… you blurt out everything you say so I didn't think of you as someone who can keep secrets."

    "It shouldn't have been a secret to begin with anyway!" Prim retorted, "What reason is there to hide it from us? Even if you were worried how the others would react if I blurted it out, you should have realised they'd treat you the same because they're fine with me and Drell."

    "... I-I..." Faye was at a lack of words. She knew Prim was right but her fear was greater than that. "Look, we're not going to agree on this. Hiding it was maybe not the right solution but it worked for me for a while. I could adjust and watch. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. Truly. The truth will come out eventually… can you please keep it secret until then?" The girl pleaded. While Rowan was super chill about the truth, Prim was the complete opposite. She was angry, understandably so but Faye did not know how to handle this reaction. "Please? I-It'll just be a little while longer…"

    Prim sighed, forcing herself to relax. "I didn't tell anyone on the train did I? I think you've got the wrong idea. I'm bothered you didn't tell me because it's something we have in common, because I know what it's like and because there was no reason for you not to trust us, but I'm not going to out you out of spite."

    Prim fell silent again for a moment before letting out a frustrated growl. "There's so much more I want to talk about now that I know, but I suck at these deep conversations. Sorry I yelled at you like that. I'm not really angry with you, it just really gets to me that someone as cool as you feels the need to hide who they are. I don't know how Drell manages to be so chill about the way things are."

    "C-Cool…? You think I'm cool?" Faye asked, a bit surprised and taken back by her words.

    "That's what I said," Prim said bluntly, "Who wouldn't? You're strong, smart and pretty and you manage to have a way calmer temperament than me without being boring. You should have more pride."

    A small blush appeared across Faye's cheek. She rubbed the back of her head before trying to shake off whatever she was feeling as she felt her face getting hot. She wasn't sure how to reply either.

    "Well, what a touching display between a freak and a savage," a voice spoke from between the trees, breaking the silence. The Silver Spirit from before emerged into the clearing, returning a silver key to his ring and withdrawing a gold one. "Fancy meeting you here."

    The gold key started to glow.



    Magnificent Turnip
  • 693

    Woah Swamp Ew Swamp It's Swamp Time Swamp Post
    Featuring Drell, Natalie, Simon and Tiran, and S w a m p (behold, it is the swamp)

    Ith'Drell lifted her snout from the marsh water, the slime and grime rolling off her plate armour with little complaint. Or rather, no complaint. It's water and dirt, it can't speak - Drell shook her head to banish the dizziness and checked the space immediately beneath her.

    "Sweet, didn't crush anyone," the reptile whispered, indulging in a mental fist-pump. She rose to a knee and then to her feet, taking stock of whatever the hell had happened in the aftermath of the Guardian's gale.

    The swamp around her was mostly undisturbed, save a few broken branches above her and the reeds and grass scattered around her that weren't quite the same as what surrounded them. They probably came with her all the way from Deepring. As for where she was now, she could see by the Spirit Greatwood's size that she'd been thrown deeper into the wetlands.

    More interesting than what she saw was what she heard; sounds of combat coming from somewhere nearby. Booms, thuds, and a lot of splashing. There were faint voices as well, a girl's and a younger boy's.

    "Ah, crap, they better not- uh-" Drell paused as she turned in the direction of the voices, spotting something she'd almost missed but definitely would have picked up on sooner or later. There was an odd shape amongst the canopy, not quite a branch and not quite the correct shade of brown. She cursed. That was Big Whap all right. She ran up beneath its position and cursed again - what was that the Guardian said? Insist you mean no harm?

    A dramatic flashback to the last time Drell attempted to jump haphazardly into a tree played back in her mind. Sorry, tree. At least the cat ended up fine. The Phoenix somehow didn't think the Guardian would be as easy to please as Mrs. B was. With one final expletive, Ith'Drell sprinted off in the direction of the voices.

    Drell came to a small clearing, where she saw Natalie and Simon locked in combat. Simon was riding atop a giant crow spirit, circling the air around Natalie. The frog-bat spirit from his fight with Prim was latched onto his leather sleeve, slowly inflating as he flew. Natalie stood in the middle of the clearing with a bow of magical energy in her hands and her spellbook floating beside her. She drew back the string and a trio of shining arrows appeared, nocked and ready to fire.

    Natalie let them loose, and they quickly curved to follow their target. Simon's crow had a head start, but the arrows were catching up quickly. The spirit and his summoner went up. Simon aimed the balloon-like Antlia down like a gun, and shot a blast of air at arrows and archer both. The arrows scattered and soon withered away, but by the time the blast reached Natalie it was little more than a gentle breeze. She readied another volley, telekinetically flipping through her spellbook for something more effective.

    And off to the side were Tiran and Ralga, calmly watching it all from a tree branch.

    Ith'Drell's hurried footsteps slowed, then stopped. She stared, and her arms went limp.

    "... What the fuck, guys? Hello?"

    Tiran leapt down beside her. "They were like this when I found 'em. Figured it was a good chance to learn how they fight, but I think I've seen enough. If you ain't gonna join 'em I think I'm gonna head off, eh?"

    "I- wh-" the reptile exhaled through her nose and lifted her visor. "Look, I- they're- you're just gonna…? Like, can I get some help wranglin' the kids? All the time gotta make sure nobody else is seriously messin' shit up and I just wanna chill- like, get 'em to stop before they get hurt or hurt the trees or something else I dunno. Daycare ain't my day job, I need help." She started stomping up to the wizards who were locked in combat, then paused for a moment.

    He shrugged. "If they're in a guild doing these jobs they should be able to make their own decisions. I'd say leave 'em be."

    As the words left Tiran's mouth, Natalie's bow disappeared. Her book settled on a new page and she pointed at her opponent. "Siege Fireball!" There was a whistling sound as if something large was approaching from above. She looked at Simon with an excited smirk.

    Tiran furrowed his brow. "Except that I'm not sure if one of us pissing off the big snake is bad for us all yet. One sec." With a shimmer, he shot into the sky in the form of lightning, with Ralga close behind him. A thundering boom could be heard from above, then just as quickly as he left he returned to Drell's side.

    Tiny cinders floated down from gaps in the canopy above. Natalie scowled at Tiran. "Oh come on."

    "I was thinkin' yeah, it would be," Drell offered to Tiran. She took a moment to lament the fact that she couldn't see the awesome magic explosion behind the trees before cupping her hands around her snout and yelling to the other two. "Yo! Do you guys mind waiting 'til the fight party for that, so we don't mess up the job by gettin' thrown out by the massive, awesome reptile?" She glanced down for a moment. "The other one! Not me!"

    "Sure, but he's not gonna be at that!" Natalie protested. Simon took the opportunity to ram her with his bird. The two skid back through the mud until they were stopped by a tree. Natalie pushed against the crow's head, her arms keeping its sharp beak from making contact.

    Simon drew his short sword from his hip. "Then you'd best get your fill now because you won't stand a chance the next time we meet!" Before Simon could do anything with his weapon, Natalie gripped the great crow's head and slammed it into the tree along with its rider.

    Drell blinked, muttered, "Who the fu-?" under her breath, then shut her visor and resumed stomping up to the two. "If you mess up the trees, the Guardian gets angry, then nobody ends up fighting and you sure as hell ain't gonna be invited to any kind of party - Simon didn't even say he wouldn't be there! He just didn't say! Why are y-? Hey, Simon, quit fighting! Put your friends back in the- uh, the key!"

    "We don't actually know how the whole Guardian bit works, though," said Tiran. "If it's about the trees then there's gotta be some leeway, since we ain't dead or gone already after some broken branches."

    "Not invited!?" cried Natalie. "Do that and I'll just break my way in!"

    Simon stood up from the mud and Natalie approached him once more. In a flash, Ralga was on top of her, pinning her down into the shallow water. Electricity surged from the tiger's body, shocking Natalie with its full force. Any that tried to arc through the water was pulled back in and focused into the target. Ralga stepped back, lifting a dazed Natalie by her jacket collar.

    "I uh…" Simon shuffled, his battle suddenly over. "I apologize. It was my fault for allowing myself to be provoked. My mind remains weak." He unsummoned his spirits and bowed his head.

    "Yikes, she-" Drell shook her head for what seemed like the fifth time this minute. "Uh, it's cool, Simon. You're gettin' better, you're good it's just- I mean, this one's a real, uh…" She gestured to the Starlight Siren in Ralga's grip. "Feels wrong to call someone a pushy asshole when they've just got creamed like that, but I can't think of anything softer, so, uh, sorry Nat. Let's try and keep it cool, yeah...? Uh… right, electro ti- honestly I'm sorry, dude, I forgot your name."

    It took a moment for Tiran to wipe the satisfied smirk off his face and acknowledge Drell's question. "Ralga. And she's fine with being called a tiger but she's a thunderlord."

    Ralga snorted, then held Natalie's body toward Drell like she was offering it. The big lizard was still in the middle of processing the awe she was feeling at the name 'thunderlord', so she just muttered a thanks as she took the offered Siren without really thinking about it.

    "If you don't need anything else we've got a relic to find," continued Tiran. "And I'd rather not be luggin' this psycho around. Have the Gryphon kid babysit her if you're not up to it, a Gryphon should at least be able to manage that."

    Simon crossed his arms and glared at Tiran, but kept quiet.

    "Oh, uh," Ith'Drell looked down, noticing that she was indeed now in possession of the alleged 'psycho'. "I, uh, I mean, I can carry her without too much trouble, just so long as she doesn't get rowdy again." She pointed a thumb behind her and asked, "Can we go grab my sword real quick? I left it in a tree, back there."

    Tiran nodded in the same direction, and Ralga shot forth. Tiran followed at a more casual pace. They got to the tree and saw Ralga struggling to lift Drell's sizeable weapon, embedded as it was in the tree.

    A spark of electricity shot between Tiran and Ralga, and Ralga began to grow larger. She grew until the branch she was on began to creak under her newfound weight, but at this size she was easily able to pluck Big Whap from its resting place. She zipped back down to the group, just as quickly as she could at her normal size, and lowered her head to return the weapon.

    Drell blinked, "That was quick. Thanks, Ralga, you're the best- lemme just-" She stopped to hoist the semiconscious Siren over her back to a more natural resting position before retrieving the Whap of large size and swinging it over her left shoulder where it belonged. She hesitated for a moment and looked between Ralga and Tiran before asking, "Uh, can you pet a thunderlord? Iunno-"

    "If they let you," Tiran shrugged. Despite his vague answer, Ralga shrank back down and offered her head to Drell. The armoured reptile's eyes widened and she gasped a gargantuan gasp, as if she had decided that she was going to get the relic on her own after all and she was going to stop the others from beating her to it by stealing all of their oxygen. Instead of running off on her own and making a beeline for the relic, though, she just started petting Ralga while trying not to die of excitement.

    "Hey you should just pull away whenever because we've got a job to do but I don't think I can stop so just pull away whenever you feel like it so that I'm actually forced to stop," Drell suggested.

    "Works for me," said Tiran. "Let's go, Ralga. And try not to die in here, Phoenix!" He started walking away. Ralga lingered a bit with her head under Drell's palm before joining him.

    "Wait, I thought- hold up," Ith'Drell held up her hands and shook her head. "You in, or out? I dunno what's with this, I don't get it."

    He stopped. "...You mean jank shit with the job?"

    "I mean the- look," Drell put a hand to her brow for a second. "Everyone got flung wherever everywhere. First priority is regroup. Dunno how much that means to you - only Chimera here and whatever - but I'll even make sure the snot-noze dumbass is okay if I have to. Thankfully everyone's got Relic on the brain, so that makes the most sense for a rally point, but- look, you helpin' here is great but you've confused me. Are you helping? Are you gonna just decide to stab someone in the back when the Relic gets involved, or what? Or- I dunno, if you're just scoutin' ahead then sorry I even said anythin' I'll shut my mouth."

    Tiran sighed. "You worry a lot, eh? I'm in this to win though, so I'm goin' for the relic and if someone else already has it I'll take from 'em. But if I pass by someone who's havin' some trouble and isn't a racist piece of shit then I'll help 'em out a bit. If that ain't good enough for you then too bad." Without another word, the two transformed into twin lightning bolts and zipped out of sight.

    "...We should get going too if we want any chance of catching up to them," Simon said. From the corner of his eye he kept a close watch on Natalie.

    "I w- aw, fucker…" Drell cursed. "You're right, Simon. Let's get moving, don't think I've gotta even tell you to say something if Nat starts stirring." She exhaled through her nose, "Jeez, I worry a lot? Seems good a time as- like, dunno what kind of world he's livin' in. Dude must literally be a lightning bolt, 'cause he's sure got his head in the clouds."

    Simon let out a smirk and a puff of air from his nose, but otherwise didn't comment on it. "I'll follow your lead, then," he said. His fingers combed through the keys on his bracelet. They settled on a silver one with a shield-like symbol at the top, but he seemed to tremble at the sight of it. He didn't summon it, just keeping it gripped and at the ready. The two settled into a rhythm of plodding through the marsh.

    "Ya know," said the Phoenix, eyeing his grip on the keys for a short moment. "I ain't gonna start anythin' even if you ain't keen, but… you up for the split, dude?"

    "Huh?" Simon's focus broke and he turned to Drell with blinking eyes. "Split? Oh right, the money. I'm not all that concerned with it. If I can grow stronger or achieve something to increase my chances of making our guild's team then that will be enough for me."

    "Guessing you don't got the same definition of growing stronger that ol' psycho here has," the big lizard laughed.

    Simon frowned. "I don't know her well enough to be sure, but I certainly hope not. Egan says there's many kinds of strength, so I simply have to find the ones to strive for that don't make me end up like… that."

    Drell shrugged, shoulders mostly unburdened by the weight of their passenger, "Sounds plenty good to me, dude."


    Sapphire Rose

    [I]Only thorns left on this rose.[/I]
  • 3,449

    Faye Aubrey

    Female | Wizard/Touched

    Sheep tricks

    "Open, Gate of the Ram," the Silver Spirit said with vicious glee. He thrust the glowing key forward and turned it, as though unlocking an invisible door. The light intensified, then faded, revealing a new figure in the swampy clearing: a male, satyr-like being with thick curled horns on either side of his head. "Last chance. If you beg me not to hurt you and go back home like good little animals, I'll send Aries home. All you have to do is get on your knees and say 'please let us go, Veechar.'"

    Prim sighed irritably, looking at Veechar and his spirit with contempt. "You must be joking."

    "Times up! Get them Aries!" Veechar snarled.

    "Certainly," Aries responded calmly, turning to face the Phoenix girls before charging forwards with surprising speed.

    Prim stepped forward, placing herself ahead of Faye, who was frozen in place upon her secret being revealed, and raised her left hand. Aries ran straight into it, finding himself surprised when his momentum was halted and he was unable to continue forward. Prim then delivered a hard punch to the satyr's torso, launching him into the forest beyond his master.

    "What the hell was that?" Veechar exclaimed, forgetting to be menacing for a moment in his shock.

    "So, Faye, as I was saying -" Prim started to say, turning away from Veechar and Aries. However, she was interrupted by the sound of rustling greenery as Aries exploded back onto the scene, his calm demeanor replaced by a howl of rage.

    Faye, whose frozen stance started to melt, started to scowl with anger herself. "Hold on, Prim, I'm afraid we'll have to let these two know it's rude to interrupt a conversation." She said. She raised her hand to summon her shadow haunt. A menacing shadow wolf appeared from the shadows cast on the ground. "Go play with my dog." She said, turning back to Prim as her loyal shadow haunt kept Aries busy, keeping an eye on what was happening in front of them.

    "Screw it," Prim said, returning her attention to their enemies as Aries ripped through Faye's shadow, "I think we'll have to deal with these idiots first."

    The celestial spirit charged again, lunging for the phoenixes. Prim once more intercepted him, slamming her fist into his face. To her surprise though, this time the Ram spirit didn't go hurtling off into the forest but was only knocked tumbling across the clearing.

    Prim and Faye both watched as Aries climbed back to his feet, his muscles bulging as the horns on either side of his head grew slightly larger.

    "Please, keep trying that." Across from them, Veechar had regained his composure and his arrogant smirk along with it.
    Aries leapt for them again, attempting to deliver an axe kick to the general area they stood in, forcing them to dive in opposite directions as his hoofed foot met the muddy ground, sending up an explosive spray of clay and sludge.

    "This is what you get for being arrogant…" The white haired Phoenix whispered to herself. Referring to her shadow haunt who was ripped apart with relative ease and her own attitude. The frustration she felt made it harder to keep her poker face going but she managed to dodge the explosion of dirt being sent at them with a wall she created from the shadows.

    Faye, in her turn, moved one hand towards where Veechar was standing and the other where Aries just landed. Tentacle like string appeared from the ground where Aries was standing to keep the man right at that spot. "Get him, Prim!" She shouted, turning her glance to Veechar. She summoned another one of her tentacles and let it distract him.

    The tendrils of shadow bound man and spirit both, holding them in place as Prim attacked. She leapt up, kicking Aries in the head. The impact smashed the satyr into the loam. She landed and made a B-line for Veechar next, only to find her movement suddenly restricted as a hand wrapped tightly around her ankle.

    She twisted back, watching as Aries tore through his bindings, simultaneously flinging Prim into the swamp water and leaping back to his feat. He then turned on Faye, swatting her aside with almost casual ease.

    "Pathetic," Veechar sneered, his own shadow binds fading as Faye was smacked aside. "I guess that's the best a Valbestian animal and touched disgrace can manage."

    Faye gritted her teeth, feeling something burn up inside her. As her expression changed to just slightly annoyed, the girl threw her hand to the swamp and fished Prim from it with a shadowy tentacle without even looking. Knowing full well she wasn't strong enough, she unseathed her daggers equipped with green lacrima.

    Prim wrung swamp water out of her clothes as best she could, which was not very. "You really need to shut up.

    Aries dashed forward again, attempting to clothesline Prim. She shifted to her bird form, easily avoiding the attack then instantly changed back to her usual self, delivering a kick to Aries' back, once again knocking him off his feet.

    Aries' horns began to grow again as he moved to get up, but he didn't get a chance to use them before Prim pressed her foot into the back of his head, shoving it back into the ground.

    "Aren't you meant to be Valbestian? How did you - " Veechar started, but Prim cut him off.

    "What part of shut up do you not understand? I'm touched too, that's how. Faye, hit him for me, would you?"

    "My pleasure," The other touched girl said before shooting off in Veechar's direction to slash him with one of her daggers. Veechar was only barely able to dodge the incoming attack. Faye kept slashing at him with her daggers all while dodging Veechar's own attacks.

    After sidestepping several more attempts to cut him open, Veechar darted forward, getting into Faye's space as he drew out the metal rod at his side. He shut his eyes, pointing the tip into Faye's face as it emitted a blinding flash, then took the chance to smack her hard in the side of the head with it.

    As this happened, Aries broke free of Prim's restraint and forced himself back up, knocking her off balance and jamming his hoof into her abdomen with a back kick. Prim shot back into Faye as they both fell into a heap in the mud. Aries' horns continued to slowly grow.

    "This sheep guy is getting stronger the longer he fights," Prim said, climbing off of her companion.

    Faye massaged her temple as the hit against her head gave her a massive headache. "Then we got to take him out before he's at his peak. He's already a…. Headache." the girl sighed, shaking her head to recollect herself. "I have… trouble keeping calm. My magic is no longer potent." Faye admitted to her younger guildmate, looking incredibly annoyed. "But if you take the sheep, I'll go try keep Veechar busy." With that, she jumped back into the fight with Veechar, using her own darkness magic to make katana's of her daggers. She summoned another shadow haunt, as this was the only other spell she could currently use along with her shadow katana's, to help her keep him distracted and having learned from her previous encounter, she kept an eye on his metal stick.

    With his master occupied, dodging and parrying the attacks of Faye and her haunt, Aries charged at Prim, intending to plough right through her and take Faye out with her. Prim sidestepped the charging satyr and grabbed his horns from behind, pulling him back and slamming him into the ground with enough strength to leave a deep muddy crater beneath him.

    "Go away already," she growled letting go of one of his horns and driving her fist into the back of his head. She felt the mud beneath her clenched hand and watched as Aries started dissolving into specks of light.

    Prim turned, letting the celestial spirit fade away back to his own dimension just in time to see Veechar counter-attack against Faye. He caught her haunt on the edge of his baton, triggering another luminous flash that dissipated the shadow creature. He then ducked under a swipe of Faye's blades and used his weapon to knock her feet out from under her. He finished up the maneuver by gripping the rod with both hands and slamming it down into her gut before backing away.
    "Will you miserable creatures just roll over and die already!"

    Faye, on her knees, panted. "Nah." she said, trying to summon a few of her tentacles but they dissolved as quickly as they appeared. Being frustrated with her own uselessness she got ready to get back up and fight, rubbing the filth from her cheek with the back of her hand. "Not until you stop your prejudices about people that look different than you."

    "Not planning on dying any time soon regardless, but you should still do that," Prim added.

    Veechar sneered at the phoenixes in response, withdrawing a second gold key from his ring, although there was a noticeable difference between this one and the gold keys Prim and Faye had seen he and Simon use previously. While the other keys had no adornments other than the insignia at their base, a black obsidian serpent was coiled around this one.

    "You don't have as much choice in the matter as you think," Veechar said.

  • 25,607
    Primilla Bellamy and Faye Aubrey

    Inner Lautela Wetlands
    The second key began to glow, but it was immediately clear that something was different. The light was violet not purple and the object seemed to radiate ominous energy, though no such thing could be seen.

    "Gate of the Snake Charmer, Ophiuchus." Veechar thrust the strange key forward and turned it as though unlocking something, just as he had before. The violet light intensified and a black smoke started rising from the ground, taking a serpentine shape as it coiled upwards and coalesced. The haze dispersed to reveal a new spirit: a woman in a tattered robe with green-tinted skin and, most alarmingly, a swarm of snakes in place of hair. "I'd ask for your last words, but I really don't care to hear them."

    "I'm not waiting to find out what this one does." Prim shot forward, leaping at the spirit and attempting to deliver a kick to her head. Ophiuchus' snakes shot out at Prim, wrapping themselves around her leg and sinking their fangs into her before whipping the other direction and tossing her aside. The throw wasn't anything near the strength Aries had been capable of, but the bites on her leg burned.

    Prim got to her feet, feeling strangely sluggish for having taken such a weak attack. "Wonderful. I think her hair is venomous."

    Faye seemed concerned about Prim and she really wanted to jump to her side and help out, except that the snake spirit woman that had just appeared stood in her way of getting to Prim. "Not so fast little girl." she spoke, irritating Faye with the smug look on her face.

    "I'm an adult…" Faye sneered.

    The spirit's eyes shortly glanced at Faye's chest and the non-existence of what one would call womanly assets. The uncomfortable look that appeared on Faye's face meant to her that she was uncomfortable by it, especially since the spirit's boats were very visible. "Not as far as I can see." She chuckled, grinning from ear to ear holding a hand in front of her mouth. Even her eyes made it clear she was mocking Faye.

    Faye's expressionless face that had already seemed more annoyed than usual started to take shape into one of a very pissed off Faye. Faye shot her hand in front of her and two tentacles appeared beneath the spirit, holding the woman in place. These two were much stronger than the ones she had shot moments ago at Aries and the Veechar. Gracefully she shot past the spirit who tried to break loose to get to Prim. One of the snakes tried to bite Faye in her leg as she jumped past the Spirit but the scales on her ankles made the snake regret it's choice. Broken teeth was all it gained from that.

    Faye stood in front of Prim to give her a moment to collect herself. "This one is stronger. Can you still keep going?" She asked the other Phoenix.

    "Of course," Prim replied, "Just who do you think you're talking to?"
    "You seem confident," Ophiucus said, smirking at her prey, "Excellent. That makes crushing you much more entertaining."

    "As much as I appreciate you playing with your food," Veechar interjected, "We have a job to do. I'd love to stay here and torture them for hours but we need to get a move on."

    "Fine." Ophiuchus sighed. She focused her piercing gaze on the phoenixes and they felt a strange force around them. Although nothing could be seen.

    Feeling an unusual sensation on her left arm, Prim glanced down and her eyes widened with shock. Her arm was being slowly encased in stone even as she felt another wave of dizziness from the bite on her leg.

    "You must be kidding me. Faye, she's turning us to stone, we need to get moving too!"

    Without another word, Prim forced herself to focus, dashing forward at Ophiuchus. The spirit's snakes lunged for her again, forcing Prim to shift to her bird form and weave between them. She changed back behind the gorgon and punched her from behind, sending her flying directly towards Faye.

    While Prim's arm was starting to turn into stone, so was Faye's foot. The white-haired Phoenix decided to use that to her advantage. Without wasting another moment, Faye gave the spirit that had insulted her a good kick in the face with the foot that was turning to stone, shooting her to the side and giving her space to potentially go after Veechar again.

    Ophiuchus hit that ground, rolling across the mud and tumbling to her feet. As Faye turned to Veechar, the gorgon's snakes lunged after her, biting into her back and shoulders.

    Veechar took that as his own chance, running forward to bash her with his baton. Prim intercepted him, and forced him to jump back as her punch left a sizable hole in the ground where he had been standing a moment earlier.

    She then turned to help Faye, only to be hit by an even stronger dizzy spell and nearly fell over as she turned. She had just enough time to recover and see even more of Faye's leg turning to stone before Veechar hit her in the head from behind with his rod. She retaliated with a sluggish back kick, catching him by surprise and catapulting him into a tree, putting a crater into the wood.

    Once more she turned to help Faye, but Ophiuchus pulled back to distance herself from the phoenixes as her poison started to take effect.

    Faye fell to her knees and grabbed her head. She already had a headache and now the dizziness came on top. Not to mention that the bites burned like crazy. Seeing as Prim and Faye were struggling and haven't been able to bring a single blow upon Veechar up until now, she started to understand. "I was wondering why they sent someone like him alone." She said to herself, looking a bit defeated while the anger and frustration grew inside her. Like a box that was slowly removing it's lid. How useless could she be?

    Faye got up, although not as easily as she usually does. She tried to summon some of our spells but none would come out anymore. "Pathetic…" the white haired girl called herself quietly. She clenched her fists. She knew full well they couldn't give up here. Veechar was willing to literally destroy them to prove his point and Faye refused to run from a fight that she started on the train when he insulted Prim.

    She took out her daggers again, determined to attack them with her own power without relying on magic. Her agility was the only thing she was confident in.

    "You're right," Prim replied, sounding oddly cheerful given the rage she had been displaying, "They are pretty pathetic."

    She ran for Ophiuchus again, the snakes on the spirit's head lashing on in defence. Prim dodged the first few strikes, then raised an arm in a block, using the stone on her left arm in the same way she had seen Faye inadvertently use her scales. The snake couldn't pierce the stone. She grabbed the serpent and heaved, using it to hurl its owner in the direction of her teammate again.

    As Faye readied to attack the incoming Gorgon though, a sudden splitting pain erupted on the back of her head, Veechar having launched his baton into the back of it like a spear. She dropped to one knee and Ophiuchus, still in Prim's grasp, sailed over her head.

    Prim immediately changed tactic, twisting her body and whipping Ophiuchus back in the other direction. She let go this time, and catapulted Veechar's spirit not into, but through one of the trees that surrounded them. There was a sharp cracking sound and an explosion of wood and bark as the towering tree was broken in two, tipping over and colliding into its neighbours and then the ground with a series of thunderous crashes.

    "Sorry Guardian, didn't have much choice," Prim said, "Besides, I'm already paying for it plenty." The stone had now crept up well past her elbow on her left arm and she could no longer move it. She was also pretty sure that she could feel it starting to encase other parts of her body too and while she felt that, she saw Faye's left horn that she previously hadn't noticed turn into stone. Meaning it was going to start encasing part of Faye's face. They didn't have much time left judging from that.

    Faye on the other hand used her encased foot to kick the incoming Veechar from behind, not kicking him as far away as Prim could do but at least having him wobble back a bit to give her enough time to get up. Holding her daggers in her hands, she used the back of the handle to punch Veechar in his face just before jumping away and covering Prim's back. Veechar rubbed his face, having not liked that at all.
    "You'll regret that you miserable touched bitch," Veechar growled, his words being ovecut by a loud vicious hissing as Ophiuchus sprinted back into battle, baring her own fangs and those of her snakes.

    Prim attempted a flying kick to the spirit's face, but was surprised when Ophiuchus slipped out the way, snakes lashing out behind her and biting down, slamming Prim into the mud as more of their venom pulsed into her body.

    Ophiuchus lunged for Faye, who found herself not able to dodge nearly as well as she'd been able to with the stone now having moved well up past her ankle. Ophiuchus tackled her, knocking her onto her back and, gripping her horns for leverage, sunk her own teeth into her neck even as her snakes started peppering her with quick bites.

    From behind the spirit, there was a familiar sound of wood cracking as Prim kicked through a chunk of the fallen tree. Ophiuchus pulled back from Faye to turn and face her, easily breaking off the stone horn from her victim's head as she did so and dropping it into the mud. Faye froze in place again just like when Veechar first appeared, watching the thing she had always hated being broken off so easily.

    That last slight took just enough time away from the gorgon that when she turned around, a sizable chunk of tree had launched through the air like a missile and slammed into her, carrying her back across the clearing to near her master as it shattered across her.

    "I'm going to have to ask you not to eat me friend," Prim commented flatly.

    Ophiuchus stood up and half-hissed, half-screamed with pure rage at the inferior beings who dared fight back against her. She glared daggers at the phoenixes as the unseen energy from before blasted harder into them, powerful enough now to be felt as a physical sensation that almost knocked them off their feet. Instantly, as the effect washed over them, they could feel stone had encased even more of their bodies. Prim's left arm was particularly bad, being petrified all the way to just below her shoulder, stone now visible on her other limbs as well. Faye's worse leg was stone to nearly her knee now and her other horn and parts of her face were following suit. Like Prim, smaller chunks of her other limbs were also starting to petrify.

    "You really need to stop doing that," Prim said, "It's starting to get annoying."

    "Just give up and die already," Veechar responded, "It's inevitable that you'll lose. You're not strong enough to beat us. Just be good little monstrosities. Lay down in the dirt and die so the world can be just that little bit better without two more of your kind in it. I might even be able to convince Ophiuchus to make it quick, although I'm not sure I want to."

    Upon hearing these words, having found her own horn and holding it in her hand and watching her dear friend get hurt like that, something inside Faye snapped. The closed box she held inside with the emotions she didn't want to feel had opened halfway.
    The touched girl brought up her leg and slammed it into her ground, almost making Veechar chuckle in glee of how stupid that was. Cracks started to show up on the girl's leg.

    Veechar couldn't contain the delight he felt from this. "I knew you touched were stupid but this is on an entirely new level," he said, though, shut up immediately as he figured something was off. Faye's leg wasn't breaking.

    It was the magic.


    Sapphire Rose

    [I]Only thorns left on this rose.[/I]
  • 3,449

    Faye Aubrey

    Female | Wizard/Touched

    The Darkest Hour feat. Prim

    Veechar was taken aback by the stone magic from his snake spirit breaking on Faye, that's something that shouldn't normally be possible. "How are you?!-" He stopped himself realising it would flatter this wretched girl. "No matter. I will end you!"

    "You know… I'm quite done with these games." Faye spoke, loud and clear. A dark aura enveloped her and when she finally lifted her face to face her opponent, her hazel eyes were glowing red. "I'm growing tired of your insolence." Faye, the girl showing no emotion on her face on normal days, looked angry. Furious even. Veechar tried to move but the moment he set as much as a step back, taking in what's happening in front of him, the girl summoned not one but two of her loyal haunts. These two looked quite different from the ones she had summoned previously. They were not small, they were huge like bears backing up their raging owner. Her pearly white horns were replaced with a transparent shadow, making them longer and sharper. "Playtime is over."

    "We'll see about that…!" Ophiuchus sneered from behind her master, getting back up and looking quite angry herself. "Shut up." Faye raised her hand, summoning two strong tentacles that whipped the snake woman away throughout the field, almost hitting Prim with it in the process. Veechar tried to launch an attack on Faye, facing her head on but Faye's haunts made sure he couldn't get close to her.

    "Woah, careful!" Prim quipped, sidestepping the projectile spirit before turning back to look at Faye. "Next time, why don't you lead with tha - Faye?"

    It was plain to see that something wasn't quite right with Faye at that moment. Her usually blank face displaying such open, visceral hatred was unusual in and of itself, but the nightmarish shadows around her only made her appearance more unnerving.

    Ophiuchus recollected herself and tried to attack Faye from behind, only to be met by sharp shadow spikes erupting from the ground. She was only barely able to dodge it and one of her snakes was pierced through. Veechar on the other hand was able to get rid of one of the shadow haunts having hit it from a blind spot several times and trapping it to run into the trees that Prim had broken. A destroyed tree trunk pierced through its chest causing it to disperse. Veechar felt good about himself only for a moment forgetting the other haunt still existed, it was able to catch him off guard. Veechar was swooped away by its claw.

    The snake woman in meanwhile turned to Prim and ran straight at her. "You will be my hostage!" She grinned menacly, holding her hands out to grab at her but was met with a tentacle that was still on the field that entrapped her.

    "LEAVE MY FRIENDS ALONE!!" Faye yelled, the aura that was surrounding her growing larger as Faye got more angry. Not unlike the horns of Aries that Veechar had summoned earlier. It was then that Faye felt a dizzy spell coming up, catching her off guard only just slightly and pushing her back to her knees. Ophiuchus and Veechar were able to escape the haunt and the tentacles because of that. They felt a little bit of hope at defeating them again.

    "I will make you pay!" Veechar shouted.

    "Haha…" a small laugh was heard from Faye, one that grew larger. "HAHAHAHAH!" She got back to her feet and grabbed her head.

    "I think we're going to have to have a conversation about this later," Prim said, eyeing Faye with concern. It was all kinds of wrong seeing Faye like that. She decided that the quickest way to deal with the new Faye problem was to end the fight as fast as possible.

    She darted toward Veechar and launched a flurry of blows in his direction. Hampered as she was by the venom pulsing through her veins though, the Silver Spirit was able to narrowly avoid her strikes even as they reigned down upon him.

    With Prim's attention on Veechar, Ophiuchus leapt over Faye. Her snakes shot towards Prim, who wheeled around just in time to change to her bird form and flitter back behind Veechar.

    Veechar tried to strike Prim's smaller, more fragile form with a backhand strike, but she switched back quickly, easily deflecting the attack and launching a counter punch that rocketed Veechar directly into Ophiuchus and sent them both tumbling towards Faye.

    The white haired girl seemingly going insane spread her arms, summoning not one, not two but 4 swords that levitated in the air around her. Veechar used his iron rod to fend the swords off, having seen them just in the nick of time before it could hit him with a final blow. His spirit was less lucky. While Ophiuchus's arm was now cut off after being slashing by one of the swords, her shoulder showed a piercingly white light as she began to disperse. Faye, however, showed no mercy and turned her right arm into a huge shadow claw. She grabbed her head and squeezed until the loud scream they heard vanished along with the snake spirit.

    Veechar gritted his teeth at the sight of his spirit being defeated. He reached for another key but Faye, as fast as she was, held her hand up and squeezed it into the air. She summoned another pair of spikes, this time imprisoning the Silver Spirit. The spikes held him up in the air and in place, making him unable for any of his limbs to move. Faye got closer and punched him with the arm she had turned into a huge claw. After the first punch Veechar already seemed to be about to faint, having no strength left in him.

    Prim watched as Faye dispatched the spirit and imprisoned Veechar, seeing the fight coming to an end. However, as her friend continued approaching the Silver Spirit, she got a sense of foreboding. It was plain to see that Faye wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't, stop at that.

    Prim rushed forward placing herself between the defeated Veechar and Faye, keeping an eye on the former as she raised a hand to the latter to try and keep her at bay somewhat. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but that's enough. We can't kill the CEO of racism even if we'd like to."

    "As if you cou-" Veechar started to respond, but Prim silenced him with a glare.

    "You are not in any position to be talking big. Now shut up while I keep your undeserving ass alive."

    Faye stared at Prim for only a moment but only because she was in between her and her target. The girl shifted the four shadow weapons levitating behind her to angle more aggressively towards Veechar and, by extension, Prim. She was readying herself to shoot those at them, piercing them in the process.

    Prim sighed deeply, turning away from Veechar to face Faye completely and walking towards her. The weapons shifted menacingly again, the threat clear, but she chose to ignore them and was pleased to find that she did not end up impaled in the process.

    She reached Faye, gripping her by the clothes and then unceremoniously slamming her into the mud, dropping to one knee next to her to maintain her grip. "Would you please snap out of it before I have to hurt you for the sake of this idiot?!"

    The red aura in Faye's eyes and the transparent shadow horns that were created dispersed, leaving behind black particles that shimmered in the sun. The weapons that the girl had created impaled the ground behind her and made the girl startle. She blinked and looked around the field before turning back to her friend that had returned her to her senses. "... What exactly happened here?" She asked, although looking at the colour and the shape of everything that was left behind on the field, it was clear to her whose fault this was. "... Did I do that?"

    "You did and it was badass," Prim commented, letting go of Faye now that she'd returned to normal. "Well, the tree was my fault so maybe watch out for angry reptiles in the near future."

    Prim shifted to get into a more comfortable position, looking at the still imprisoned Veechar. "Think you can let him go? He's going to very politely leave and not bother us again because he doesn't want me to turn him into a puddle of mush or let you at him again."

    Veechar snorted in response, but his posture deflated slightly. It was clear to both girls that he knew he was beat.

    Faye glared at the guy but ultimately sighed. She was exhausted and her body felt heavy. She blamed it on the side effects of the poison, but judging from the swords behind her and the spikes that held Veechar in place, she probably had drawn a lot more magic than she usually did. This was way more than she could usually do. It was hard to believe this was all her. "Don't let me see your face again."

    Faye balled her fist and both the spikes and the weapons behind her started to disperse as well, also leaving black particles behind. Veechar dropped to the ground with relative force.

    "You're going to suffer for this," Veechar snarled, but he didn't move to try and start the fight again. He turned and skulked off into the trees.

    Prim watched him go before looking back at Faye. "Could he get any more cliche? Actually, don't answer that. More importantly, are you okay? That was a lot."

    "I think I'm… fine?" Faye answered. "Are you okay? Let me get rid of that for you…" Faye approached the younger girl and reacher for her arm that was still encased in stone. With all her strength she drew out a little bit more of her magic to nullify the effects of the stone magic curse that was placed on Prim. "I'm afraid I can't nullify the poison since it's… poison. It's not magic."

    "Eh, a little venom couldn't keep me down anyway," Prim replied, "Although, it would be nice to not feel like I'm going to pass out at any moment. Shall we go find the others?"

    "Y-Yeah..." Faye said, staring at her broken horn that she held in her hand.

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  • 957

    Grappling with Gators Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    Simon and Drell trudged steadily through the shallow waters of the inner wetlands, Natalie slung over the Phoenix's back. Though the wildlife did pose something of an immediate threat, the two seemed less concerned about rowdy animals and more concerned at the prospect that soon Natalie could regain consciousness, and when she did they'd have to deal with whatever disaster arose as a result.

    Simon grimaced. "Should we tie her up or do you think taking her book is enough?" He held said spellbook tightly in hand, away from its owner.

    Ith'Drell glanced away from their surroundings to reply, "There's an idea. Not sure, dunno how much she'd value us putting trust in her - what exactly happened when you two found each other or landed together or whatever, anyway?"

    He hesitated. "I… she… she found me first. I avoided a crash thanks to Corvus but decided to keep low to avoid the territorial beasts in the trees Faris mentioned. She stopped me and demanded a battle. When I refused, she… questioned my merit as a Gryphon. She questioned why Egan and Master Avila do so much for me. I know now she just wanted to rile me up, and I fell for it."

    "After that whole conversation we-?" Drell huffed supremely. "I mean, I could just dunk'n'drown her in the bog water here but I guess that would be murder so I probably shouldn't." The Phoenix let out a chuckle and gave the Gryphon a small smile. "If you've got a good enough head to recognise you fell for it, ya probably won't again. Just takin' the book along is one thing but tying her up, on top of being kinda unnecessary, just seems a little on the nose, don't you think?"

    "Maybe…" He continued running his fingers along his keys. "Have you always been as composed as you are, or was there a path you had to walk? Something you had to do or learn?"

    "Uh," Ith'Drell thought for a moment before answering, subconsciously puffing out her chest. "I for sure walked a path. Dunno if I could tell ya if the composure comes from there or just from, uh, y'know, base stuff. Probably a bit of both. Experience generally definitely helps with being composed, I just maybe couldn't get any more composed than completely composed all the time forever!" She blinked. "Uh- yeah, you're a youngish guy, right? More stuff you see and get through, the more confident you get, if that's what you mean. You seem to learn pretty quick, I don't think you'll have too many problems for long."

    "The more stuff I see and get through…" He pursed his lips, letting Drell's words stew in his mind. He continued playing with his keys until he suddenly stopped. Gripped in his hand was the same shield-marked key from before. He closed his eyes and took a breath.

    "Open, gate of the shield. Scutum!" He held forth his key, summoning a spectral circle in the air. Upon turning it the circle split in half like a door and opened, making a ding-dong sound as it did. His summoning was entirely different from the clinical efficiency it had during his battle at the Phoenix guildhall.

    From the gate appeared a large beetle bigger than Simon's head, buzzing freely in the air around the two. It had a bright, metallic carapace and was shaped like a heater shield, true to its name. Simon froze at the sight of his insectoid spirit.

    "Oh it's been so long, master! I thought you would never summon me again!" cried the spirit in joy, every word accompanied by a hissing sound.

    "Scutum, quiet. Please…" Simon managed to say, sounding choked up. He held out his leather-armored arm. "You've spoken to Antlia, I'm sure. I'd like to do the same with you."

    "Oh happy days!" said Scutum, flying up to Simon. He started backing up as Scutum approached, but he stopped himself. He allowed Scutum to latch itself to his arm like Antlia had, it's shield-like back ready to protect its master. Simon, however, didn't seem ready for any kind of fighting between his cold sweat, his trembling body, and his gritted teeth.

    "I, uh," Drell rubbed the back of her helmet, looking away in a joint operation of checking surroundings and avoiding awkwardness. "Did you just call that guy 'scrotum'-? I mean- are you guys okay?"

    "Oh just dandy!" chirped Scutum.

    "Not 'scrotum', and not okay," Simon grumbled. "But Scutum will be a valuable ally if I can deal with a certain… personal issue. This is simply something I need to get through." He gripped his silk scarf tightly with his other hand. Scutum nuzzled Simon's arm, and the boy looked like he was about to have a heart attack.

    Realisation shone in the Phoenix's eyes, "Oh! The bug thing, right - yeah, uh, that's rough. But you already know it's not- well, you ain't gonna let it be the boss of you, yeah? You got this, dude. Uh, go easy on him, scr- scoot 'em?"

    "Aye aye," answered Scutum despite showing no indication of going easy. It clutched Simon's arm tighter. "I won't let master get hurt on my watch!"

    Simon, meanwhile, steeled himself and stepped forward into the swamp. Completely ignoring Faris' advice of checking the area in front of him in his distraction and plummeting into the water after a sudden increase in depth. The sound of swimming creatures could be heard from the underwater hole, and it would seem some of those creatures wanted Drell to join in the fun.

    A gigantic alligator burst from the water, maw wide and ready to drag Drell into the depths below. Without time to draw her sword, the big reptile in armour threw her free hand forward, lances of electricity snaking from her fingertips. A few tendrils reached the alligator en-route, and every muscle in the crocodilian's body tensed up; its limbs clenched and its jaw snapped shut just before it could reach the Phoenix's legs. Ith'Drell's electrified hand snapped down to grab the giant gator by its snout, hefting the protesting creature over one shoulder.

    "Okay," she said, "Nat is left, gator is right- Simon, you okay?"

    In response, another gator shot out from the water. Its jaw was held open, teeth wrapped around the edges of a silvery dome-shaped barrier between it and Simon. Scutum's wings shone, spread open as it held on to Simon's arm. The boy's face was a look of sheer panic, his eyes darting around desperately to get a grasp on his situation. He hadn't managed to succeed yet, and his would-be devourer was already plummeting back toward the water with him in tow. Drell hesitated for a moment, lamenting the fullness of her hands, before unceremoniously chucking the alligator in her hand as far away as she could manage in the direction with the fewest trees she could see.

    "Simon!" She called to the Gryphon, slinging her backpack off her free arm onto her leg and rummaging around for a moment at the top of the bag. She shouted, "Teleport lacrima!" and flung said object to the wizard's free hand.

    "Huh?" Simon snapped out of his stupor just in time for the crystal to bonk against his head. Fortunately he managed to catch it before it fell into the swamp. He gripped it in hand and teleported to the nearby shore beside Drell. He rubbed the spot where the crystal hit before taking a breath. "Thank you. Suddenly I'm not quite as worried about the b- the spirit on my arm."

    He drew his weapon and expanded it into its polearm form, holding Scutum at the ready. He still held the teleport crystal in his other hand. "...Also, do you have anything in that bag to wake up an unconscious, er, perhaps person's not the right word."

    She handed him her bag and said, "Potion case in the main compartment, right side."

    He nodded, putting the bag down quickly summoning another spirit. It was a bit clumsy with his hands full but this spirit didn't need much effort to call forth. "Open, gate of Canis Minor. Come, Nikola!" Out of a new gate stepped a small, white, carrot-nosed figure. It didn't even reach Simon's knees and trembled like the slightest breeze could topple it. He repeated Drell's directions to it with orders to revive Natalie and it responded with a blank smile and vague, high-pitched noises. "I'm counting on you, Kola."

    The moment Simon finished his instructions came another gator, and like before its jaws were unable to break through Scutum's barrier. He gripped the teleport crystal and disappeared in a flash, letting the reptile's jaws snap shut as he reappeared from above to plunge his spear into its back. "I don't need to worry Cancer with the likes of you."

    "Maybe don't stab 'em super hard," Ith'Drell suggested, awkwardly drawing her sword while maintaining her grip on Natalie. Another alligator jumped at the Phoenix, but an electrified poke from Big Whap and a swift foot on its snout left it even less of a danger than the previous crocodilian to leap at her. "Thing to note about croc'n'gator mouths," she noted to Simon. "Lots of bite force, but it doesn't translate to opening the mouth again. If ya can get a grip enough to clamp their mouths shut they're kinda harmless. This guy's just kinda wigglin'. A bit like crustacean claws, I think - pretty sure you got a crab."

    Simon held on as his opponent squirmed, the spear reluctant to come back out. "I'd like to make do without Cancer as much as I can. I don't know if I can afford to spend the ether for a gold gate so soon into the job, but I'll summon him if I must."

    Unable to shake him off that way, the alligator began to rapidly roll in place. Simon leapt from it's back, abandoning his weapon for now. Another gator took the chance to attack while he was in the air but saw as much success as its brethren in catching him. Scutum was able to point the shield behind Simon, reacting to the threat before even the boy could.

    "It's just like I said!" gloated the beetle spirit. "He won't be getting hurt!"

    Rather than teleport again, Simon pulled Scutum back, bringing the barrier with it. The gator's jaw snapped and he rushed back in to wrestle it shut. It took both arms to wrap around the beast's sizable maw but with some effort he managed it.

    "I didn't mean you should summon the crab, just meant you might know how crab claws work if you got a crab friend-" the Phoenix explained, catching another flying gator with an electrical prod and giving it a place beneath her other boot. When yet another big one came lunging out of the water, Drell grimaced and said, "Maybe the whole thing is better advice when there aren't a million of the freakin' things… whatever! Get on the pile!"

    The approaching alligator joined one of its peers under Drell's right boot. How many could she fit under there? Drell was hoping the horde would stop before she was forced to find out. With a momentary break in the alligator assault, she turned slightly to address Simon's carrot-nosed spirit.

    "You want the bottle marked Thirst Aid™," she said. Turning away from the spirit put her face-to-face with yet another huge gator - Drell quickly poked and stomped it like the other three, but with two writhing gators under each boot she was starting to wobble. Thankfully the influx of wild animals seemed to have died down. She hummed and tried to pretend that she was as steady as a rock. "Huh, seems like the gators have stopped coming. That's good."

    "Y-yeah…" Simon managed, still struggling with his foe. "How's it coming Kola?"

    The small spirit managed to find the potion, dragging it out of the bag and towards Natalie.

    Despite Drell's words, another gator could be seen slowly approaching, drifting along the surface. This one showed no aggression. And as it came closer, Drell could see it showed no life either. Noise picked up in the direction it had come from and several animals could be seen fleeing in their direction. And her keen nose smelled something off.