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


Magnificent Turnip
  • 693

    Wow There's A Crazy Thing Coming What Is Going To Happen? Find Out In This Post Where It Happens
    Featuring Drell, Simon and Natalie, also Nikola and Scutum and DID SOMEONE SAY OOZE!??!

    "Big one coming!" Ith'Drell called to Simon, hesitating for a second. "Uh- and I'm pretty sure it's not a gator, the gators have stopped, that thing that looks like a gator is something else!"

    The Phoenix went to prepare with haste, crouching to retain her balance upon the alligator-platforms and then figuring she should probably make it seem like she wasn't just trying to retain her balance. She stabbed Big Whap into the ground and then slid Natalie off her left shoulder to give Nikola access.

    The gator in Simon's arms became more frantic. The boy was still able to hold on, but he decided to let go. His hunch was proven right when it ran away from them instead of attacking. Or rather, away from the thing that was approaching.

    The one that had been floating to them bumped limply against the base of a nearby tree. Foam dripped out of its mouth and it had bloated, its eyes blank and glazed over. But it wasn't quite dead. Its limbs and tail would twitch every now and then. A substance was stuck to its body, some sort of muck.

    They could hear the water shifting now where the gator had come from. Something wading through the water at a gradual pace. It was a good bit taller than either of them and vaguely humanoid, with a dark-purple liquid coating its whole body. Its mouth was gaping, letting out a constant yet faint moan.

    Until it got louder and released a powerful stream of ooze at the group.

    Simon stepped back to flee but his eyes fell on Natalie and Nikola. "Scutum!" he called, instead rushing between them and the attack. He managed to defend them, but the attack kept coming. Ooze dripped dangerously from the top of Scutum's barrier. Drell, just to the side and a little too big to be defended anyway, turned her back on the flow of ooze so that it couldn't get into her eyes and hoped for the best. With any luck she could help cover the little spirit enough for it to get the potion down Natalie's throat.

    Nikola's mission was successful, and in moments Natalie's revival was signaled with a gasp for air. Drell sighed with relief and made to stand, but the wobbly surface and the pressure of liquid against her back had her leaning forward.

    "A little help?" asked Simon with clear bitterness in his voice.

    "Oh the baby-" her taunt was interrupted by a coughing fit. "Ugh. Baby gryphon needs a hand? Lemme show you a real shield!" She gripped her pendant like she had at the train station and chanted the same spell, creating a protective dome large enough to cover them all. It held strong against the creature's attack. And furthermore, the inside of the dome had a comforting, healing aura to it.

    Scutum scoffed. "Don't listen to her, master. I bet this thing would break against things I'd block no sweat!"

    Natalie smirked back, getting to her feet. "Sure thing little bug dude. So what the hell is going on here? What happened?"

    "Uh- woah-" Ith'Drell was about to answer before she tipped forward. She twisted and fell onto her back before realising that her feet were no longer holding the alligators down. With a cry of, "Ah! Uh- intentional!" she lunged for the dazed crocodilians before they realised they were free, slapping a splayed hand on both piles to hold them down and curling her fingers around the sides. With that situation momentarily under control, she turned to Natalie briefly.

    "I carried you for like an hour, then there were gators, now there's this thing," Drell explained. "We thought you might want a pick-me-up, and we're hopin' you prefer sludge-icide to homicide 'cause that's what's on the menu. Nice big shield."

    "Thanks!" Natalie's ring glowed, the telekinetic force reaching for her book that was still being kept by Simon. She raised an eyebrow at him and he reluctantly returned it. "Lucky you I'd rather us not all die. A bit tough to have a good fight with a corpse. So let's kill this thing and get back to the good stuff!"

    She flipped through the book to a page, Drell finally being able to see its contents from this close. The page had a picture of a worn arrow with handwritten text underneath, the picture looking astoundingly realistic. "Sidian Sniper's Shot!" with those words, both the page and her outstretched arm shone and the energy bow from earlier appeared in hand. She began firing a volley of arrows at the creature, each shot landing cleanly against its head.

    But her attacks did little to halt its advance. It groaned and the ooze covering its body began to bubble. The purple color changed to a sickly yellow and it fired another murky blast. This substance hissed against Natalie's barrier, as well as the mud below where it fell. That mud bubbled before disappearing in a plume of smoke.

    "Dude," Drell chided Natalie, haphazardly gripping two alligators in each hand as she stood. "It's ooze. Like, what?" She looked down at the writhing reptiles and eventually decided that they didn't deserve to be used as projectiles - projreptiles? - against the big ooze creature. Instead, she twisted and chucked them off to the water behind them where hopefully they'd turn tail like their peers had. Now unburdened, she rushed over to her bag (oh thank goodness, the tiny spirit hadn't tipped it over in the water) and took out a flask before slinging it over her shoulders again.

    "Right," the Phoenix said, adjusting the shoulder-strap of her sheath and removing Big Whap from the ground. "That looks like fuckin' acid, so I'm gonna try fire. Stay on your toes, don't touch the thing, use reach and all that. Large impacts might be good, we'll see. Is that a one-way shield, Nat? I know the arrows-" She cut herself off and held up the flask she was holding. "Can I throw this through?" Natalie answered with a thumbs-up. And so, the flask was thrown.

    Crash! The flask shattered, releasing liquid over the monster that burned where the air touched it.

    The response was immediate and visceral, the creature's entire body bursting into flames. It flailed and howled with pain, the ooze on its body bubbling violently underneath.

    "I guess that is better than arrows, huh?" said Natalie, staring at the burning mass.

    But the creature didn't flee. Its slow pace turned into a full charge with chunks of it falling off as it ran. It reached the dome with surprising speed, wrapping its arms around the bubble and pressing its face into the side. It had holes resembling eyes and a mouth, with empty blackness underneath.

    The barrier flickered where its body of heated acid pushed against it. The ooze monster continued to screech.

    Simon was quick to act, bringing up his own shield with Scutum and pushing back against the monster. True to Scutum's word, it held up better than Natalies against the attack. But Simon could only push so hard against its overbearing size. "Okay we've pissed it off, now what?" he asked.

    "Well, the good news is that fire seems to be a thing it doesn't like," Drell chuckled. She cast her mind back to the creatures Faris had described and tried to get an impression of whatever this goo-being was. "We've got plenty of space, so feel free to create some distance. If it's one of those swamp, uh, amalgam things, there should be a core we need to get rid of. Burn off the bulk of the ooze, expose the core, blammo… but 'course, I wanna hear what you guys can do! Or, uh, want to do. Or think we should do."

    "So we just wait for it to burn enough?" Simon grunted, trying to shout over the screams of the monster he was holding back. "I don't know if we've got that kind of time!"

    Natalie flipped through her book but seemed to come up empty. "I could totally take care of this thing but apparently you guys don't want me using my Siege Fireball. It would blast that ooze right off and the core with it. What about you, don't you have those air blasts on that frog thing? Blast off the ooze so we can get to the juicy center?"

    "His name is Antlia and I do, but it'll take time to gather enough air for that. Maybe if your shield didn't suck so much we wouldn't have to worry about that!" he shot.

    "Exactly!" chirped Scutum.

    "Oh, you want me to bring out the good stuff? If you're sure you can manage with a little time then sure, I'll buy you a little time." She smirked and put away her book. In one smooth motion she took off her jacket, fully exposing the Siren guild mark on her shoulder as well as the dagger at her belt. A dagger which she drew.

    Seeing that she wasn't going to wait, Simon dispelled Nikola and resummoned Antlia, who quickly realized the situation and began inflating. But his strength was waning and the monster was gaining ground.

    "Memoria: Sidian Knight's Stand!" The dagger shone brightly, shattering into tiny fragments of light that flew from it and stuck themselves to Natalie's body. They grew and changed until they had formed a full suit of translucent plate armor. It glowed with the same golden energy as her bow. Clad in this new protection she rushed through her own barrier to tackle the amalgam.

    Even so, she didn't see any more success than Simon had, at least until her next spell. "Memoria: Siren Spirit!" Next it was her guild mark's turn to shine, the glow coming from it enveloping her body and invigorating her. She began forcing the amalgam back as if her strength had grown twofold.

    Simon stared in awe before quickly snapping out of it and looking back at Drell. "Is she really that stupid? Do you think her armor can hold up against that? I don't know if Antlia can be ready before she gets herself killed!" Indeed, the creature had already begun wrapping itself around Natalie entirely now that it had been removed from her original barrier.

    "If it's air-tight, sure," Drell tried to reason. "But then I guess if it's air-tight she'll suffocate so-" The Phoenix began reluctantly moving forward, slowing down as she reached into her backpack for another kind of flask. She had been hoping the other two wizards could have dealt with this creature and she could hang back as the cool, invincible mentor-person who could theoretically have creamed the thing in an instant but held back for the sake of their growth. But no, instead their (or perhaps just Natalie's) apparent lack of field experience reared its ugly head and she had to step in and do a thing and maybe get hurt and hopefully make sure Natalie didn't get killed (oh jeez please can she not die? That would be great) and what even is she going to do here because she's really not in a better position than Natalie but she has to put herself in the same position to save her and-?

    "Literally one of the first things I said was don't touch the thing!" Was Ith'Drell's battle cry as she sprinted into the fray. She uncorked the flask with her thumb and splashed the regular ol' oil inside up at the creature, slashing with her blade at the travelling liquid. Sparks crept from her arm to her sword, then out to prod the oil and set it alight. "If the core's not dead in five seconds so help me I'm pulling you the fuck outta there!"

    Drell's attack blasted a bit more off the creature, keeping Natalie from being consumed entirely. "The Gryphon kid's really taking his time there, isn't he?" she teased through gasps for air.

    "Just a bit more!" Simon shouted, letting Antlia grip onto his arm near Scutum. "Scutum, go help them!"

    "Yes sir!" Scutum flew off of Simon's arm with its shield still out and tackled the beast with as much force as its body would allow. It addressed Drell as it pushed. "Feel free to use me in a more effective manner, miss knight. We Celestial Spirits are known for being team players after all."

    "This is-" the Phoenix cut herself off, sending more flaming oil at the creature to give her enough space to move in. "Ok, Scute, let's go!" Drell cried, half wondering if this was still a good idea but half reassured by the stalwart shield of this cool bug. She stepped in, pressed the back of her left wrist against Scutum's back, dug her heels into the mud and heaved forward. "Get behind the shield bug, Nat!"

    Natalie joined Drell and the two forced the amalgam further back. Between their combined strength and its diminishing size they likely had nothing to fear from it anymore. But it wasn't going to stop attacking.

    "Scutum, down," Simon ordered, coming up to the group. The spirit did as ordered, and a thunderous cannonade of air shot between Drell and Natalie. In an instant, the creature's top half was blasted off, the ooze comprising it launched far into the swamp. There was a part of it that wouldn't budge though. Left behind, now exposed as it held on to the amalgam's remaining body, was what was presumably the core.

    It looked like a swollen heart with a crystalline film around it, still beating. Without hesitation Natalie grabbed it, and with her enhanced strength she crushed it in hand. "Ta dah! Looks like a job well done to me!"

    "I- f-" Drell sputtered, hand outstretched. She put a hand to her visor and sighed, "... I was literally just about to say to maybe not kill it immediately because of the guardian thing…"

    Simon sighed and unsummoned his spirits. "I guess we just wait and see if we're punished. But if it was afflicted then maybe we did it a service. Also those alligators are all gone, aren't they...?"

    "I don't expect them to be coming back, but if they do I can do a lot more work without Princess Unconscious over one shoulder," Ith'Drell shrugged. "If this is the kinda stuff that's out here, we should probably get a move on. Got to regroup as soon as possible to see if we need to go lookin' for anyone."

    Simon sighed once again. "You're right. Let's go."

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  • 957

    Reaching Beyond the Gates


    Upon defeating Nightmare, the exam didn't end. Rowan continued to fight against the remaining bandits, rescuing townspeople and putting out fires along the way. Eventually, just as the receptionist had told him, reinforcements from the council arrived. Only when Rowan handed off the captive dark wizards and explained what had happened did the world around him fall away.

    All it took was a blink, and he was no longer within Fort Alden. He was in a large room of solid white, the distant walls etched with countless symbols. Sparkling lacrima were embedded in specific patterns around the walls, as well as the ceiling and floor. Behind him was a door, barely noticeable as it blended into the wall around it. Likely where he'd entered from. And ahead of him was another identical door.

    All the damage and fatigue he'd accumulated within the testing realm remained despite having returned home. But before he could think much on his pitiful state, he heard a voice echo throughout the room. An older woman's voice, but not one he'd heard before.

    "Go through the door in front of you. You'll find a restoration circle within to heal you, should you choose to use it."

    Without hesitation Rowan followed the instructions and, upon entering the next room and shutting the door behind him, squinted at the faintly glowing ring before him. He limped over the circle quickly and allowed it to restore some of his energy, nothing more. Once he was sure he was at least steady on his feet, he continued forward.

    He looked up at the room he'd found himself in. It was a smaller room, consisting of a chair, a long table, and a row of chairs on the other side of it occupied by stern-looking figures. Some of them wore Rune Knight uniforms, while others wore the badge of a Magic Council member. In the center of this group was Councilwoman Sena Cain herself.

    "Take a seat, please," said Cain. She gestured to the lone chair across the table. The other people on her row were looking at papers filled with hand-written notes.

    Without a word or so much as a sideways glance, Rowan took his seat and locked his eyes on the councilwoman. By all appearances he was cool as a cucumber, and that facade was almost fact… But he could never be completely comfortable when he couldn't read people, and until he truly mastered his magic at the level of a saint there would always be ways to block him out. The council of course had access to such methods, as well as wizards who were simply too powerful such as Milla, but he'd find a way to see through them all some day, that he silently vowed as he watched she who would be his judge.

    "You seem eager, so let's skip the pleasantries," she announced coldly. The other examiners stopped writing and sorted their papers. Their judgements came at a rapid pace, though their voices never overlapped.

    "Proper use of the pillars to ensure high spell efficiency."

    "Was able to dispatch key threats and control the situation until reinforcements arrived."

    "Able to read opponents and use that information to exploit weaknesses."

    "Able to maintain composure throughout, regardless of the situation."

    "Neutralized targets without needing lethal force, allowing for information to be gathered later."

    "Property damage and casualties at expected levels for the difficulty of the job."

    "Risky final gambit that left your physical body vulnerable for the duration."

    "Wasted too much time on lower priority targets. The higher priority target gained in power and caused high casualties as a result."

    They continued like that for several minutes, with some examiners elaborating more on points brought up previously. When it ended, Councilwoman Cain adjusted her glasses and looked Rowan in the eyes.

    "In conclusion, you pass. Congratulations on becoming an S-class wizard. I expect to see you at the ceremony tomorrow where you will formally receive your title and other essential items for your new position. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your evaluation, you will state them now."

    He'd listened to the evaluation with his eyes closed and even remained silent for a few moments after its completion. After a pause he opened one eye and simply said "I feel like that bit about wasting time was a missed opportunity to commend my patience and information gathering in an otherwise very thrown to the wolves with nothing scenario…But other than that I'd say it was a very good test and an equally good evaluation." He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath, then stood up and opened them. "That said, allow me to apologize for my rudeness in speaking in such a way and thank you all for your time and attention. I look forward to the ceremony and working with you in the future."

    "Regardless of your intent, the result was the same," explained Cain. "People died as a result of the time you took. Considering your magic, it may have been practical or even essential to take that time. In which case it's not a failure in decision making, but simply a reflection of your current ability. Even so, we've deemed that ability acceptable, and you wouldn't have passed if we didn't believe you'd continue to grow beyond that. The evaluation stands. We look forward to seeing you back tomorrow and many times after."

    He stood up and smiled. "You will, you can count on that. It's an honor to be recognized. Until tomorrow, then." He offered a quick wave to those assembled and left, frankly surprised at the councilwoman's manners with the way Myeloch always made them sound. He thought his display might push a button or two, but then again maybe he just wasn't consequential enough for her to care, being an S class wasn't such a big deal as to phase the council. I wonder if that receptionist from before is off the clock for the day yet... actually how long was I even in there?

    He exited the same way he'd come in, feeling a wave of magic pass over him as he did. Through the door was not the enchanted white room he'd come from but instead the lobby where he waited before beginning the exam. Judging by the number of people waiting, it looked like a few people had already gone while he was being evaluated. Odd, when he didn't feel like that took too long. Several of the examinees awaiting their turns looked to Rowan as if trying to glean something about the test from him.

    At the edge of the lobby were windows overlooking the city. It looked like it was late in the afternoon. Waiting by said window were Myeloch, still in his disguise, and Egan. They seemed to be talking about something, but Myeloch was quick to turn his attention to Rowan when he arrived.

    "Welcome back!" he greeted with a smile and a wave. "Hope they didn't give you too hard a time in there. Bet they really went all out with the fanfare, eh? Congratulations, by the way."

    Egan's expression remained unchanged, and he offered little more than a curt "Well done."

    "Oh you know the council, never lacking in hospitality!" Rowan said, spreading his arms dramatically. "Man, champ, your guildmaster's magic is really something else. Look at how much it beat me up! Boss has some pretty awesome tricks too, of course. I just haven't been on the receiving end of anything that hurts yet." He let out a sigh and stretched, his joints and knuckles making several loud cracks. "What were your exams like? I hope neither of you had to push it as far as I did. I really just don't have the batteries for too many real fights in a row yet."

    "If the rumors are to be believed, Myeloch doesn't have anything that hurts," Egan said. "But he doesn't need anything like that. As for my exam, it was a city being attacked by a gigantic beast and its minions. I lacked destructive power at the time, and had to perfect my Grand Nova spell during the exam to succeed."

    "The exam has always tried to test if one is capable of dealing with an S-class threat," Myeloch explained. "But as time passes, collective knowledge of magic increases too. Wizards grow stronger, and the bar for what an S-class threat is gets higher as well. So too does the test become stricter. Which is a lot of words to say that my exam wasn't very interesting compared to what's done these days. Essentially a scavenger hunt and some battles against Rune Knight proctors on an island."

    The exhausted examinee nodded his head sagely. "Yes, things were so much simpler in the ancient times when prehistoric wizards roamed the earth. Now they're just historic and the rest of us have to fight against their legacies for recognition." He blinked a few times, then looked at the floor. "You two didn't...see into my dream when Nightmare went in…did you?"

    Egan fidgeted, but his voice remained composed. "We did. A young boy, terrified in the midst of a crisis. Or so it seemed to your foe, who was walking into a trap. Proof of your powerful Spirit."

    "To go with her reality marbles, Master Avila has created ways to view what happens within them from the outside," Myeloch explained. "The most efficient of these are lacrima that automatically show the viewer whatever they'd find the most interesting at the moment, so it doesn't have to spend ether constantly accessing the entire reality. Those are what we were given, so some of the people watching might not have seen it at all. But regardless, I don't think it's anything you need to worry about. I get the feeling they'll forget about it before long."

    Rowan chuckled, but they both heard a pain deeper than could ever be consciously conveyed in both it and the words that followed. "Hehe, yeah...I think they will too." After a brief silence he continued and for the first time Myeloch could see him forcing the smile without even trying. "So, Egan, I'm sure you had your own reasons for it. Wanting to see another promising opponent or something...but still, good on ya for sponsoring Zaline. Did you watch her exam at all? Oh, unless she's not done yet...WAIT IS SHE STILL IN?!" He suddenly grew animated again and bounced in place. "Ifshe'snotdoneyetIhavetogowatchtherestrightnow!"

    Egan frowned. "Unfortunately you need to ask the council for approval before you're allowed to watch someone's exam. Not that it would have made a difference here considering she finished her exam already. You'll find her on the steps outside the tower's front gate if you're curious how it went."

    "I could show it to you," Myeloch said. "Though I'm sure she'd rather you didn't see her like that. I think she did a fine job, and you could easily see her skill as one on the cutting edge of alchemic magic."

    Rowan 180'd on a dime metaphorically and literally, spinning to put a hand on his chin in stoic contemplation. "Well, a woman's privacy should always be respected. I already know in my soul that she's amazing so that'll have to do. I should probably go see some of the other examinees though. This is a valuable opportunity for information. Thanks again, you two. Now that we're both on call with the council in a way that supersedes guild rivalries, maybe we'll end up working on a job together sometime, Egan. Better watch out though. If we do I'll learn every bit I can about you along the way and use it however I can next time we duke it out!"

    No sooner had Rowan finished his challenge than he was already off towards the bundle of examinees still hanging around, eager to look for Zaline or Kubra. He hurried to the front gates of the tower, speeding up even more when he sensed the sadness flowing out from where Zaline supposedly was.

    Just as Egan had said, she sat on the steps with her face buried in her knees. His heart twisted in a knot at the sight of her, then tighter at the feelings rolling off of her, but he persevered through the pain to sit beside her, stretching out his legs and letting out a sigh of relief. "Hey, what'cha doing down here?"

    She sniffled. Slowly, her head rose. She looked blankly ahead with her reddened eyes. "Oh, nothing," she answered with mock cheer. "Just processing the thought of my hopes and dreams crumbling to dust as my one chance to save them slips through my fingers…"

    "What hopes and dreams are those?" Rowan asked plainly, looking at her straight on.

    "Maybe I'm being a bit overdramatic," she said with a chuckle. Another tear rolled down her cheek. "I was hoping to make S-class and finally get the big, high-paying jobs so I could save my family's business. Monsen Mixes has been around for generations, after all. But people don't buy from shops like ours anymore when they can buy their basic pain relief meds and stuff at the big stores for cheaper; stuff they make by putting our transmutation spells into lacrima and shoving them into some magitech machine. And nobody needs the real strong stuff they can't mass produce, especially at the prices we need to put them. A couple guild wizards stopping by for them a few times a month ain't gonna keep us afloat.

    "We're far from the only ones. You hear it a lot when you live down in Lautela. Tons of local places are closing down. Some people are saying we don't need alchemy anymore at the rate lacrima research is going. When they figure out how to put healing spells into nanocite, why would anyone need healing potions at all? More than just saving our business, I wanted to save our culture, our way of life. I wanted to show the world how strong an alchemist can be. Guess it was dumb to think like that when I can't even afford the exam on my own, huh..."

    Rowan stared silently ahead for a while, still watching people in the distance when he began to speak. "Alchemy is ultimately more sustainable and cost efficient than lacrima. There will always be roles it can fill, things it can do that nothing else can. And who says you failed your shop or your people because you aren't S class yet? Before you even got here you did well enough at showing your stuff to get the champion of the Grand Magic Games himself to sponsor you. That means you've already got an investor that thinks you're worth it."

    Zaline heard a big sigh beside her just before Rowan leaned over and lightly bumped the side of his head into hers, just hard enough to hurt them both a little bit. "Don't go telling me you're going to sit and watch your culture die around you because you're not some big licensed hotshot. Your people are still alive. Lautela is still alive, you have Faris. The only thing that never changes is that nothing can stay the same forever. But change isn't death, it's life." He left his head resting against hers as if he didn't have the energy to lift it back up. "As long as you and your people are alive, things will keep changing…but you can guide that change, shape how it happens and what it becomes. Just keep fighting, you'll find a way. Defeat only comes when you admit it."

    Zaline pulled away and rubbed her head where Rowan had hit it. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a pretty hard head?" she said jokingly. "...You're right though, I can't stop here. Faris never stopped fighting either, no matter how bad things looked. My mind's a bit of a mess right now, but I'll find a way forward. I wouldn't have deserved S-class anyway if I couldn't."

    She wiped her tears away and put on a smile. "Man, sometimes I wish I hadn't fallen in love with alchemy like this. Maybe then I wouldn't be fighting so hard to preserve the traditions of a place that hates me." She slapped Rowan on the back, in part as revenge for the head bump. "Enough about me though, how'd your exam go?"

    "I passed." He said plainly, too fatigued in every sense of the word to put the proper enthusiasm into it or even react to the impact of Zaline's vengeance aside from slumping forward. "It wasn't easy...I had to go back to a place I never wanted to see again, but I did it...I may be a weakling, but I'll be damned if it's gonna stop me. You hear me, Cliff?" He added the last part weakly, looking up at nothing in particular. "You're not better than me anymore, you big handsome jerk." He got no answer of course. He never did…but it still felt good to say it and really mean it.

    "Wow, congrats!" she said with a smile. "I know firsthand how tough that test is. You know, I'd never seen someone die before, so it really got to me when I was doing mine even though I knew it wasn't real. You really are something special to have passed, and I'm sure Cliff is very proud of you too. Unless we don't like Cliff in which case I retract my statement."

    "He was my best friend." Rowan forced out. "We were - well, doesn't matter. He's gone now. He was just always stronger than me, maybe now I'd be able to look him in the eye." He allowed himself to lean back and rest his head. "Man, I hurt all over. Would've been nice to stay in that circle a little longer."

    "I think that's on you, buddy," she said.

    "Some scars should be left to heal in their own time." Came the quiet response.

    She fell silent after that, letting thoughts stew in her mind. A silence that was broken by the sound of clopping hooves approaching them. Rowan could tell who they belonged to immediately, as well as the person beside them.

    "I hear you passed, Hoskel," said Kubra, his normally-jolly voice sounding drained of energy. "Impressive, though I should have expected as much of one who declares himself a rival to Egan." Epludo snorted before laying on the ground nearby, apparently not in the mood for threatening displays.

    "You sure heard that quickly!" Rowan came back to life all at once, springing up to look Kubra in the eyes. "Then again, equine creatures tend to have big ears, maybe Epludo is a great eavesdropper?" He added the last part with a teasing smirk and clapped Epludo on the shoulder. The hair on that shoulder immediately spiked like an urchin. Rowan kept the pressure of his hand soft enough not to poke himself and ignored the reaction like a champ. "How about you? Do I need to be on the lookout for a new rival?"

    "Nothing of the sort," Kubra waved away the suggestion. "It seems holding up a falling skyscraper while fending off the beast tearing it down was too much for us. We failed, unfortunately. And what were your tasks?"

    "Dark wizards, pirates, and a sinking cruise ship," Zaline answered. "I probably had the skills for it, too, but I lost my composure and that was it..."

    Rowan's eyes showed his genuine surprise even before they felt it wriggle out of him through his magic. He was sure at least one of them would pass, but he recovered quickly. "Dark wizards on my end too. They were razing some old fort with a bunch of goons and wyverns. Honestly...The scope of it was too much for my measly strength. I ran out of juice and had to play some mind games with a dude who controls nightmares and make a pretty risky gamble to win. But of course I had to beat him, the goober actually calls himself Nightmare. Can you believe it?"

    Zaline giggled. "Well that's one way to make a name for yourself. Maybe it helps him with his Mind pillar like when we name our spells? Though there's gotta be a less embarrassing way to do that."

    Kubra's brow furrowed. "Perhaps the exams were specifically designed to be beyond our ability to complete through sheer force, and required something more from us to pass? A more comforting thought than that we were simply too weak, but still frustrating after the fact. Though a baseless assumption in the end."

    "Actually I think that's the only possibility, Kubra." Rowan agreed as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I've been told the tests get more complex and difficult over time as the scale of power for the average guild wizard goes up, and based on what I heard I assume that originally power was ultimately all you needed to pass if you had enough. Now, though? There's no way. There's too much to being an S class, magic is too messy, there are too many variables. You *can't* solve every problem with power, even with magic, the council would have to be total morons to let anybody become S class just by being 'strong enough'...Though that begs the question of how much they really know about us beforehand, and just how specifically tailored these jobs are."

    He put a hand to his chin and continued, finding himself actually quite interested in analyzing the whole process. "That Gryphon lady can manipulate reality itself to an extent, yeah? But no matter how good at that she is, they couldn't have possibly given her enough info on us, or convinced her to devote enough time and energy to handcraft those scenarios to us completely...So maybe she drew from experiences of her own in some way? Perhaps she has some pre-determined list of hypothetical S class missions she's created, and perhaps the written test is only half about actually evaluating our worth and the rest of its purpose is really to help gather more information about us to help pair us with our jobs for the final exam? Man, I really wish I could have watched some of the other examinees. There are so many factors here to consider, I feel like I missed a lot of learning opportunities." Truly he was lost in his own little world, talking as if he'd forgotten anyone else was there.

    Kubra put his hand to his chin, dwelling on this new information. "My mind turned to the council's surveillance network when you mentioned what they knew about us. I had not even considered the written exam being a factor. That is definitely something to think about… But you are correct that there are limits to our master's abilities. Even these exams were far beyond the scope of her usual training realms."

    "Now that you're S-class you can apply to watch the next exams," chimed Zaline. "If I can manage the money you'll definitely see me there! Winning the GMG would easily pay for it, but with the stiff competition this year I'm not super confident on that front."

    Rowan beamed at her like a child just invited to a big birthday party. "I wouldn't miss it for the world! That goes for you too, Kubra! You both better pass next time, I'll be watching. If you fail again I'll have to give you both some harsh training to teach you a lesson." A heaping helping of cheekiness charged the smirk he wore next. "You'll be successful and rich by then, I'm sure. As for the GMG…" He stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. "Try your best and please accept my apologies in advance for taking it all for myself~"

    "Ah, so I see the ego comes naturally when you become S-class," prodded Zaline with a smirk. "Actually, we still down for drinks? I could definitely use some right now. I invited some other people in my exam waiting room but all I got were 'no's and a 'maybe'. Kubra here was actually one of those 'no's."

    Kubra rubbed his chin. "Actually, I would like to change my answer. Assuming the offer is still up, of course. I thought I would either pass and immediately see what I can accomplish with my new status or fail and redouble my training. But in truth I am left with much to think about. It might be useful to have fellow examinees near with whom to bounce ideas."

    "A drink sounds nice right about now." Rowan agreed

    She pumped her fist. "Nice! That makes three of us for sure."



    Magnificent Turnip
  • 693

    Ooze Dead Hey Everyone Let's All Look At The Ooze
    Featuring Drell, Natalie and Simon

    Drell took two stomps forward before abruptly stopping, turning to face the guild wizard who wasn't following. In fact, Natalie hadn't made any move to leave at all; she was hunched over, oddly quiet - something the Phoenix couldn't quite identify as either good or bad news - and seemed to be examining what was left of the ooze creature the group had just dispatched.

    "Uh, dude?" Drell said with a sigh. "What's up? What are you doing? You see something, or something?"

    She turned around, holding in her hand the magic pen she'd attempted to use on Tiran at the train station. She'd already begun writing magical symbols in the air. "I'm gonna try and read its memories. There's not usually anything I can use on wild creatures, but sometimes I'll come across a particularly intelligent beast or one that's interacted a lot with humans. I don't expect this one to be either, but it's worth a shot. Shouldn't take long if it goes how I think it will, don't worry."

    Simon frowned. "Need I remind you we barely managed to make it out of that? And that there could possibly be more lurking around the corner?"

    "If you're so worried about it then go ahead," she countered. "I'll manage."

    The big lizard exhaled, "Damn, you are just- hey Nat, don't mean to be a distraction, or whatever, but have you, like- how many actual jobs like this have you been on?"

    Natalie shrugged. "I don't count but I've been on a few. Mostly local though, I'd say this one's the biggest I've gone on. I'm sure pouty-face is in the same boat since apparently we joined our guilds at a similar time." Simon huffed, but made no comment.

    "Not many team jobs either, huh?"

    "Not really, no."

    "Okay, that's-" Drell cut herself off, turning to Simon for half a second before turning back. "Right, keep doing your memory thing, because information would be great, but uh… yeah." She folded her arms. "Look, I don't want to be an ass or be harsh or anything, but I think it goes without saying that it's bad that I could suss that out. People tend to learn pretty quick that you don't get away with that kinda reckless shit for long, and the sooner they learn the better. You get me?"

    "Really?" she asked. "Seems to work out for Tiran and Rhea, and I figure someone like you could handle anything in here just fine if you wanted."

    The Phoenix frowned, "Dunno 'bout Rhea, but Tiran's etiquette is kinda lacking, if you ask me. 'Sides, people like Rhea and me ain't always going to be around to clean up after your mess. Even if we are here, it's still just fuckin' rude - like, if you're in a position where you can personally guarantee the safety of everyone workin' with you, then sure. Go crazy, for all I care. If you're not? Don't rely on someone else to pick up the ball you're droppin'. Kinda simple."

    "I guess I've just gotta get to that point then, huh?" she reasoned. There was a clang as Drell facepalmed. "And as for being rude, shockingly enough I don't really care about that. As long as I can get the job done and get stronger doing it, I'm satisfied."

    "We Gryphons are dedicated to getting stronger, but at least we try not to drag our proud reputation through the mud doing it," Simon scolded her. "Siren must be in quite a state to accept the likes of you."

    Natalie smirked. "Getting real heated there, huh kid? What, you wanna fight about it?"

    Simon managed to hold back. "Even if I did, now's not the time. Finish your thing."

    Drell decided not to, "Look, Natalie, fuckin' hate doing this 'cause I sound like a teacher or some shit - I know you're trying to be the cool strong real cool wizard who doesn't care about nobody else, but you gotta realise that outside of your guild house, when you're not just fightin' other guild wizards with medics round the corner, this ain't something you can face with bravado and dumb pride and being a dumbass. If you keep it up, someone's gonna die, and if you're lucky it'll be you so you won't have to deal with it. I ain't gonna tell you again."

    Natalie stared at Drell for a bit, then went back to her task with a sigh. "You know, Rhea would have already slugged me one by now. I joined Siren because I wanted to be like the wizards in the GMG, not realizing they do this sort of stuff too. Or, totally knowing they did but not realizing a lot of it was just super ugh. But I also wanna support Rhea, help her with her dream. And I guess getting people killed is pretty bad for that. On top of it being bad because people dying of course. So I'll uh, take it into consideration."

    "Dude, thank fuck…" Drell let out.

    Natalie fell quiet. Then she immediately piped up again. "...Hey, do you know where those goo dudes come from? 'Cause, uh, this one used to be human."

    "Uh-" Ith'Drell spluttered, taken aback. She tried her hardest to forget that, if that was true, Natalie had technically just killed whoever this used to be. "I, uh, I don't. I'm goin' off the stuff Faris said before, and previous experience with, uh, similar ooze creatures. My guess is this was what he called a swamp amalgam - maybe it just, uh, ate a human, or something? Consumed- like, absorbed into the amalgam, or something like that."

    "It's possible, but all these memories are about some guy." She erased the spectral letters in front of her with the wave of a hand, and wrote several new glyphs. Another short silence followed. "No, this was him. An alchemist, by the looks of it. He was messing with a weird bottle in a place I don't recognize and I guess it transformed him? I'll see if I can figure out more on who he was, but these earlier memories are getting really hazy for some reason."

    Drell shook her head, "Uh, right- uh, damn. Interesting, but we've still got priorities for now. Anything about any of the others we were with?"

    "People he's met, huh?" She erased the symbols again, repeating the process. "Doesn't look like he's seen any of them. Last people he met were a bunch of weirdos. Guy in a mask, some dude in an old military uniform, a few other thuggish types... Actually wait, I have a scrying spell I can totally use now that I'm not, you know, unconscious. Do you happen to have anything belonging to the others on you? Otherwise all I've got to work with is this goo."

    The Phoenix slung her backpack off her shoulders once more to look inside. "Yeah," she said. "I guess I'll have to bring out my collection. Got locks of hair and nail clippings from everyone in the guild."

    "Not my first choice, and not something I want to touch, but I'll take it," Natalie said. "Don't worry, I won't judge."

    Drell snorted, pulling an empty glass vial from the bag. "I was kidding, dude. Is that a real thing people do? Shiiit…" With a perplexed look, she also pulled from her bag a slightly squashed rose. She gazed into the middle distance in thought for a moment, then chuckled in recollection and rose to her feet. She made her way over to Natalie and said, "Uh, I think Pat conjured this back on the train for fun. There's a spot of luck- here," She handed both retrieved objects to the Siren. "There's that. And the vial's just for takin' a sample of the goo; might be useful to look at it later."

    Natalie took the objects, getting to work immediately. She tossed the vial to Simon, who nearly dropped it in surprise. "Get me some goo, would ya buddy?" she said, not even looking at him while she began drawing a magic circle in the air. Simon frowned, but did as he was told. At the same time, Natalie telekinetically opened her book to a page depicting a worn compass. The magic circle became more and more complex as she carefully added runes and lines to it.

    She raised the rose up, holding it in the center of the circle. The circle glowed brighter, strands of light grabbing onto it and holding it in place. "By the heart of the navigator I cast my sight along the lines connecting all, along the link between this offering and its rightful home. Memoria Tracer."

    The circle shimmered, becoming an image. Drell saw Pat leaping across tree branches, though the image was too close for her to see much else. Natalie must have noticed as she added a few markings to the circle that adjusted the view. Eli and Lina were close behind him, and soon they had additional company. A swarm of man-sized flying insects, each with sharp stingers at the end of their twin tails.

    Natalie made a few more adjustments until they were able to peek through the canopy and spot the Greatwood. It seemed like Drell's guildmates weren't as close to the tree as they were, judging by the distance. They couldn't hear what was going on, and the image would flicker and fade every so often. "Need to see anything else?" Natalie asked. "Though I can't guarantee the vision'll hold if I mess with it much more."

    "Lemme just try and get a gauge of the direction real quick," said the Phoenix, trotting around to compare the Greatwood in the vision with the Greatwood that loomed above them all. She put a gauntleted claw to her helmeted chin. "Right, sky colour's off that way, that lil' branch bit is over there… they should be, like, that way?" She pointed her arm off to the side and then adjusted it a bit toward the Greatwood. "So we can intercept around that way sorta."

    "You sure you can figure that out with just this? Hold on." Natalie tried adjusting the vision further, only for it to distort and disappear into static. The spell spat the rose out and the runes shimmered into nothingness. "Well, we'll have to work with what we've got I guess. We're not far from the tree though so it's kind of a shame to leave. That's where it'll get wild, I can feel it."

    "I'm pretty confident," Drell said with a shrug. "Ya don't get around adventuring for a good few years without picking up a decent sense of direction."

    Simon looked at the goo sample in his hand. "I also want to finish this job as soon as we can. I've got a bad feeling about it all, one I've had for a while. And what if that dark wizard's transformation had something to do with the relic? Quail said all the researchers were evacuated but they clearly weren't the only ones here, so for all we know that's what an afflicted wizard looks like. But at the same time, it wouldn't sit well with me to abandon our comrades..."

    "Yeah, you and me both, Simon," agreed the Phoenix, extending her hand to retrieve both the rose and the sample of goo. She stowed the items in her backpack before slinging the bag over both shoulders again. "But finishin' the job means bringing everyone back safe, so I'm gonna make sure we all get to regroup at the tree or before then." She began walking in the direction she pointed earlier. "If you guys want to head straight to the tree you should be golden, I won't stop ya. But you can head with me too, if you like - shouldn't be a much longer journey."

    "You sure?" asked Natalie. "If you're giving me the option I'll go to the tree, but it might be smart to give me something of yours if I need to find you again. Preferably something you care about more than that blue kid cared about that rose."

    Simon seemed less certain about his decision. "...I'm not sure I want to leave Natalie to her own devices. If she can find you though, I can summon Corvus and catch up to you quickly if I need to. Will you be alright on your own if I go with her?"

    "Tch, will I-? Of course I'll be alright, I'm, like, invincible. It's fine," Ith'Drell brushed off his concern with a wave of her hand. She paused, about to reach into her backpack for something. "You know, Nat, I don't really make a habit of carrying around useless stuff- uh- take my sheath, I guess?"

    Sword in hand, the big lizard rolled her weapon's sheath off her shoulder and tossed it to the Siren. "Better give it back to me at the tree or you're uninvited from Fight Day, yeah?"

    "You got it, chief," Natalie said nonchalantly. She slung the sheath over her own shoulder and promptly continued her journey to the Greatwood, seeing Drell off with a salute.

    Simon spared Drell a final glance before running ahead of Natalie, grabbing a stick along the way to properly check the depth ahead this time.

    "And don't try to kill each other while I'm not there, yeah?" The Phoenix called back to them. "I'm trusting you!"



  • 957

    Errant Exterminators Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    From the heavens descended a sphere of purple energy, hurtling through the sky until it collided with a tree. The sphere faded away, leaving the three young wizards inside to step out into the wetlands.

    "Wow, quick thinking from both of you there!" complimented Lina. With a flick of the wrist she summoned her polearm, already looking for a way to get down from the wooden spire. "To be honest, I wanted to see if I could slow my fall with this baby but it's probably best I don't waste all its charge so soon, eh? Especially on things I'm not sure will even work."

    Elidyr clings to the tree, in no big hurry to get down just yet. "Sorry I couldn't do more… I really need to get those flying lessons from Prim…"

    "Flying is just falling with style, so you're already on your way!" Pat cheered, already switched from fear to joy now that everyone was safe. Unfortunately, all his wiggling loosened his position and he tumbled to the ground moments later. "See? I'm practicing too." The heap that was Pat mumbled in annoyance.

    Eli yelped in despair as Pat fell, his anxiety hardly lessened by how short the fall was. If anything, it just made him grip the tree tighter, his hands turning into claws that dug into the bark. "I shouldn't have come! I don't know how to deal with storms, or falling, or any of this!"

    Lina chuckled. "Me neither, but I think we're doing a pretty good job handling it." She turned a dial on her polearm slightly, then turned her attention to her draconic companion, outstretching her hand and offering a smile. "Need a hand getting down?"

    "N-no, I just need a moment! I… yes, please…" Eli forced himself to stand, hesitantly taking Lina's hand.

    She pulled Eli close and wrapped her arm around him. "Down we go, then!" She jumped down to the next branch, using a blast of wind from her weapon to slow their descent the slightest bit. They continued like that one branch at a time until they reached the bottom, where she set Eli down next to Pat.

    "What about you, need any help getting out of the mud there?" she asked Pat, clearly poking fun but offering her hand anyway.

    A bubble started to form in the mud, violently popping seconds later and pushing Pat back onto his feet. Somehow all the mud flew everywhere except for onto his guildmates, even his face was clear… Well okay it was a little red. "No! I'm just fine!" He proclaimed.

    "You're probably lucky it's muddy… Probably softened your landing." Eli poked at the ground distrustfully. "Now what?"

    "Now we head to Greatwood, right?" Lina pointed through a gap in the canopy where the wetlands' wooden titan could be seen. "That's where the relic's supposed to be, and that's probably where we'll find the others."

    "Nowhere else to go then, I guess?" Pat adjusted his cloak and made sure it was protecting him from any further muck exposure. "Exploring the swamp sounds fun, but we've got a job...and I'm worried. Worried about Prim picking fights and worried about other people picking fights with Drell. And Faye is -" He blanched and swallowed what he was about to say. "This is part of her old home, seeing it in a sorry state might be hard on her."

    "I dunno, she didn't seem very fond of the place," said Lina. "Don't blame her either, but the swamp is essential adventuring so I'm excited. Onward! Slowly, but onward!" She began walking, using the bottom of her spear to check the ground ahead.

    Eli followed behind, still poking at the ground distrustfully. "M-maybe I should stick to the trees… I could scout ahead a bit, make sure there isn't any mud or water to fall into!"

    "That might be helpful, but are you sure you can handle it?" she asked.

    "I can handle a few trees." Eli nodded, his clawed hands allowing him to quickly climb up the nearest trunk.

    Lina looked back at her spear, then at Pat. "Then I know we just got down, but how about we go back up and take the express route?"

    Pat's forehead wrinkled profusely. "This swamp sucks. Stupid guardian, not just letting us go around on our boat." Without vocally agreeing, he flexed his legs and made a mammoth jump back up into the tree.

    "Okay, I know what to do…" Eli perched at the end of a branch, head bowed in concentration. "Wings of Gliding!" His wings sprouted from his back, but not the same wings as before. These were thicker, more rigid, and larger. He also grew a short tail, with a similar styled fin at the tip.

    Using the branch as a springboard, Elidyr launched himself forward like a spear, arms outstretched as he gently glided toward another tree. His claws dug into the trunk as he tucked in his legs and folded his wings, securing him to the tree. He let out a short laugh, relieved that he'd made it safely across.

    Lina took a moment to prepare herself before following suit, readjusting her weapon's dial and taking a deep breath. She leapt toward the tree and ran along the side, keeping her momentum with bursts of wind from her spear. The higher she went, the wider the grin on her face as she charged up the tree.

    The trio dashed along the treetops, leaping from branch to branch without a care in the world. Forgetting Faris' words about the territorial creatures that dwelled above. The deafening buzzing of a swarm was the signal of their mistake.

    Several man-sized insects approached from around them. They looked like something between a wasp and a dragonfly. Long stingers protruded from the end of two long, flexible tails. Stingers held ready to strike at the invading wizards, just as eagerly as their chittering mandibles.

    "Whoa! Bugs?" Dull orange scales layered themselves along Eli's skin as the insects drew closer. "Now these I know I can handle." His tail grew longer and thinner as it curled up to point at the bugs, the fin replaced with a sharp stinger of his own.

    Lina stopped and swapped her weapon to her curved sword. She pointed it and pushed a button, launching a bolt of lightning towards the swarm and frying several in the bolt's path. Then, in a quick motion, she ejected what looked like a cylinder from the base of her weapon and replaced it with another from her bag. She let out a cry of excitement. "I'm surprised I didn't think of making magazines for my energy lacrima sooner. It's always good when an upgrade goes well!"

    One of the insects swooped in toward Eli, but he ducked low, his tail lashing out and slicing through its wing. The hapless insect tumbled through the air to crash into the trees below. He jumped over another one, flapping his wings to give himself a boost, managing to smack it with his tail and knock it off course. "Cool, Lina! Do you have more of those?"

    Lina dodged an incoming bug, countering with a swipe of her sword as she finished reloading it. "I've got a couple! But I can't summon more than one at a time and I'm kinda using this one if that's why you were asking."

    Pat found himself in a tight circle of three different "Meter Skeeters" as he'd decided to call them, and was growing more and more agitated. His prep gear couldn't protect him from the noises when their perpetrators were so big and right in front of him, between that and trying to avoid their constant darting in and out of his personal space was driving up a wall. Even from a distance his guildmates felt his ire. Finally, one of the skeeters made a real attempt at draining him only for Pat's cloak to shoot a spike straight into one of the bugs and yank it right to him before dropping it into the water below.

    "Go away you stupid bugs! Bother the guardian spirit! We aren't here for you!"

    Their numbers seemed to only increase as the battle continued. Another group surrounded Lina, closing in quick. She raised her sword for another bolt before realizing it wouldn't stop enough of them. Instead, she requipped to her spear and leapt into the air, speeding with bursts of wind to another tree and creating some distance. She swapped back to her sword and fired from her newfound safety. "So, either of you have any ideas or wide-reaching spells? I don't think I've got enough energy lacrima to take them all like this."

    Eli blocked one bug with his wings, cut another in half with his tail, and dropped to a lower branch to avoid another three. "Uh… I have a fire spell! It could hit a lot of them, but I can't do it very much."

    "We can use the power of hugs again!" Pat shouted, landing on the same branch as Eli. "Use me as a battery, Elly!" Without waiting for a response, Pat hugged the form-thief, who felt warmth and energy flowing from him rapidly.

    "I...wha-?!" Eli was startled by Pat's hug, blushing slightly from the contact. But the bugs didn't let up, and kept coming, so he prepared his spell. With the heat inside of him and the heat from Pat, the fire came to him readily. He inhaled sharply, and belched out a blast of fire.

    Last time he'd used this spell, it was a relatively controlled line of fire. But this time, the flames spread as soon as he exhaled them, spreading the dragon fire out in a wide cone. The closest bugs were crispified instantly, with the ones behind them having their wings melt from the heat. Eli coughed out smoke, grateful to Pat for the support.

    Lina whistled in admiration at the display before immediately looking around in a panic, fearing that the attack might set the trees ablaze and probably piss off the guardian. But it seemed that it would take more than getting grazed like that to burn a wetland tree. She breathed a sigh of relief and watched the bugs plummet into the water below.

    Some insects managed to escape the blast, but they fled from the heat that lingered in its wake. But it wasn't over yet. There was a rustling from the leaves above that escalated drastically as a large figure swooped down. It landed high on the tree bearing Pat and Eli, crawling down toward them.

    It was like the bugs from before but far larger, almost the size of a house. Its dual stinger-bearing tails looked far more threatening now. It gripped the tree with four of its legs, its front two bearing scythes that its fellows lacked. And both scythes were raised for an attack as it leapt for its prey.

    "Ellie, fire again! On me this time!" Pat shouted, going further out on the current limb and standing in front of Elidyr, cloak poised between them. "Don't worry about me, just do it! I got an idea!"

    "What? ...okay, if you're sure…" Eli quickly took the required breaths, this time exhaling the focused stream of fire directly onto Pat.

    The flames spread quickly all over Pat's cloak, only seeming to grow hotter and more wrathful in coating the piece clothing. Once the cloak was completely subsumed, the same fire even seemed to replace Pat's hair, and he punched the tree in excitement. "Yeah! Take this, stupid gigabug!" And just like that, he leapt straight at the giant skeeter people-eater. No, wait, over the giant skeeter people-eater, and without even directly attacking it. Instead, the cloak seemed to stretch and contort to cover, and then constrict over the nasty beast, trapping it in a literal cloak of Elidyr's fire. "All you, Lina!" Pat cheered on his guildmate as he landed back down in the muck.

    "You've got it!" said Lina as she leapt from her perch. She soared through the air with her spear's help until she was over the great bug. The creature swung its scythes and tails wildly, managing to tear a hole in Pat's cloak. Just in time for it to see Lina swap to her greatsword above it. With the flick of a switch it regained all its weight, the hulking mass of metal plummeting down onto its head with a sickening crack.

    It's carapace was surprisingly tough as even that wasn't enough to kill it, but it left it dazed to the point of stumbling off the tree branch. Flames still licked at its body as it fell down and down to the mud below.

    Eli swooped in to catch Lina, flapping his wings in steady intervals to slow their fall. When they were close enough to the ground, he dropped her safely into the mud before angling himself onto the trunk of a nearby tree and latching on with his claw hands.

    "Oh, uh, thanks for the save!" Lina said before quickly turning her attention back to the fight.

    The bug pulled itself to its feet, still angry and ready for more despite its injuries. It set its sights on Pat as the now-closest target. It's diminutive wings buzzed as it prepared to leap again.

    Pat put his hand to his chin in thought as if he weren't in any danger. "Hmmm, if I remember right...Bugs have really flimsy, thin and practically hollow legs, right?" He watched the bug approach and once it drew close, shot forward in a very Rowan move and clotheslined his arm right through two of its legs, sending it skidding into the mud. "A big bug without wings isn't much, is it?"

    It took a second for Lina to snap out of her awe, at which point she rushed to the creature and summoned her curved sword. Keeping a bit of distance while lining up her shot, she pointed it forward and pressed the button. The bolt of lightning shot through the toppled creature's head, and it finally fell still.



  • 957

    Reunion Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    Any hopes that time would dull the effects of Ophiucus' venom had very quickly been dashed. Both Prim and Faye's symptoms were only getting worse the longer they trudged their way through the muddy green maze of Lautela's wetlands. At first it had been mild nausea, tiredness and the odd nasty dizzy spell. Now it was a constant feeling of sickness, exhaustion, a never-ending migraine and eternal dizziness.

    Still, Prim kept pressing on. She'd be damned if she was going to be the first one to pass out and die or something. She was determined to get through the swamp to the damned giant tree and regroup with the others and was fully prepared to crawl the entire way with Faye on her back if she had to. At least said gigantic tree made for an easy landmark to move towards.

    "How are you holding up?" Prim asked with something resembling her usual grin, attempting to conceal how awful she was feeling with pep and bravado.

    "Aside from being very low on Aether and this damned poison being terrible, I guess all things considered… Okay?" Faye held herself up against a tree. She tried to catch her breath but the dizziness was as horrible as it could get, still she tried to retrieve her composure and held a thumbs up against Prim. "What about you?"

    "You know me," Prim said, "I can tough out anything." This declaration lost some of its impact when Prim immediately swayed slightly and nearly lost her balance. She caught herself, flashing a grin at her friend and waving her off like nothing happened.

    Faye shook her head at the sight but it caused her dizziness to get worse, sweeping her off her feet. "We need to find someone with an antidote… and fast." Faye screeched at the piercing pain inside her head and tried to soothe it by holding her head.

    "Just think of it like a challenge," Prim replied, offering Faye a hand to help her back up. "Can we make it to the tree and meet up with everyone else before we die? No problems."

    Faye grabbed Prim's hand and pulled herself back up. "Heh… You're odd." said the girl that currently had a broken horn and was holding on to the broken part. "But I guess that makes two of us. Let's go."

    "Normal's boring," Prim retorted, leading the way deeper into the forest toward the tree.

    The two continued their journey, each step through the thick mud becoming more difficult than the last. The land echoed with sounds from every corner, inhabitants of which any could be a foe. But by now they were deaf to the noises, muddled as their minds were. But even in that state they could feel relief at the sight they reached.

    Before them was Faris Fol. He seemed to be paying his respects to a fallen foe, a giant bird covered in long cuts and foaming at the mouth. Its eyes were still open, the wild look within still clear through the glaze. Mushrooms of all kinds coated the ground and the trees around him. Beside him was his Blight Toad partner, keeping watch.

    "Faris…!" As if met by a safe sight of a friend and a spark of hope being lit, Faye felt herself losing consciousness. "Uh-oh…" she fell to her knees and collapsed, the effects of the poison and being low on aether being the cause of this. Her sight went hazy and the last view she saw was a very foggy Prim.

    "Faye?!" Prim exclaimed, crouching over her now unconscious guildmate. "A little help!"

    "Faye?" Faris snapped out of his trance immediately, rushing over to the girls. "Merry, the comfy one!" he commanded. His partner spawned a rather wide shroom on its back, hanging over it like an umbrella. Faris, meanwhile searched frantically through his satchel. He pulled out a pair of small potion bottles, the liquid housed in ornately decorated glass. He handed one to Prim and administered Faye's himself.

    With her head cradled upright in his arm, he let drops of the potion fall slowly into her mouth. "You're lucky I'm close with the second-best alchemist in the country. These vitality potions should restore your energy and take care of your smaller wounds. You can tell me what happened after we're on Merry's back. I'll help you up if you need it, there's no need to push yourself."

    Prim chugged her potion then climbed onto the enormous toad with no complaints. "You can pass her up to me."

    Prim helped Faris get Faye up onto Merry, explaining the situation as they did so. "We ran into Veechar a little while after we crash landed. Winning the fight wasn't too big a deal, but he's got a new gold spirit since I watched him in the GMG last year and it has this wonderful combination of abilities: gradually turning you to stone and venomous snakes for hair. Faye cancelled out the petrification stuff, but there wasn't really anything we could do about the snake bites. Also, if it gets cramped up here I can turn into a bird but I won't be able to talk then."

    Faris frowned. "Venom… That's bad news. Veechar went too far this time. The research outposts here are equipped so that an alchemist could analyze it and whip up an antidote, but I'm not an alchemist. Until we find a wizard that can cure you we'll have to rely on my potions. Honestly I think we should get you both out of here asap and forget the job, but I don't want to abandon the others either."

    As Faris passed Faye to her guildmate, something fell from her hand. He was quick to pick it up and his eyes went wide at the sight of it. He hid it away and looked to Prim as if she'd seen something she shouldn't." Do you… know what this is?"

    "Do you know what that is?" Prim responded, giving Faris the exact same look he was currently giving her.

    He sighed and relaxed his expression. "It's something important that really shouldn't be in my hand right now. Give it back to her when she wakes up, please." He handed the broken horn to Prim.

    "I get the feeling she wouldn't really want it, but I'll force it on her regardless." Prim relaxed herself, flashing her trademark grin at her fellow Valbestian. "So, I'm not about to ditch a mission, shall we head for the big tree?"

    He nodded and hopped on his beast. Merry growled gently, moving forward without further command. Before they went very far, however, Faris grimaced. "So, Veechar. I think he belongs in prison, but I don't want him dead. How uh, how did you leave him after the fight? Do we need to go pick him up before he gets eaten by something?"

    "Nah… I might've gone a bit overboard but he seemed well enough to move…" A very sleepy Faye woke up from her slumber and slowly but steadily sat up while rubbing her forehead. "...I think…" She viewed the area around her out of curiosity to what happened after she dropped, because that's all she could remember before hearing Faris's voice just now, but it seemed they were on the move now. Her body felt less heavy and her head less as if it was going to explode at any moment. "Sorry about that."

    "I don't think apologising for beating up that particular person is really necessary," Prim replied. She then showed Faye the broken horn she was now carrying, dangling it in front of her not dissimilarly to one showing their pets a treat. "Also, do you want this back? I rescued it from Faris. He said something about keeping a piece of you with him forever and I thought it was weird."

    He chuckled. "Oh is that how the conversation went? I must have forgotten. Ol' noggin isn't the same after all the spores, you know?" He looked at Faye and jokingly asked, "Are all your new friends like this or is she a special one?"

    "She's special." Faye immediately answered with a dead serious expression written on her face. She took the horn back from Prim and put it back in her pocket while glancing at her old friend. "I'm not interested in polygamy by the way." She teased Faris.

    "Awwww! You think I'm special?" Prim put a hand over her heart and gave Faye an over-the-top, comically sweet smile before immediately reverting back to her more typical shit-eating grin. "Correct!"

    He coughed, this time caught off guard. "Pol-... well, a specially bad influence by the looks of it. You wouldn't have made a swing like that in the old days, that's for sure." Against his words was a big smile on his face.

    Faye had slowly but surely a smile appearing on her face. One that eventually turned into a giggle, a rare sight indeed.

    "I'm so special I'm even making Faye laugh. Bask in my greatness!" Prim said, joining the laughter soon after.

    Merry carried them deeper into the wetlands. He swam much more slowly than he had when following the boat, his path winding but deliberate. Their journey was uninterrupted and rather peaceful. The three sat on Merry's mushroom and enjoyed each other's company until Faris abruptly stopped them.

    "I see more people over there," Faris said. He was right, there were people laying at the base of a tree up ahead. It was difficult to see any details from a distance, something that was remedied as they got closer. They weren't moving. "They might need help!"

    Faris leapt from Merry's back up to a branch. He quickly made his way to the people, leaping between branches and swinging between vines until he landed right in front of them. He quickly set about examining their wounded bodies.

    Merry had come close enough for Prim and Faye to see what these people looked like. A few of them were unremarkable, but their clothes were torn to shreds and their bodies covered in deep cuts, blood long since dried. They could see what looked like a guild mark peeking out from under the ruined clothing.

    But one figure caught their attention. Prim's, specifically. It was a worn, older man with streaks of grey running through frazzled brown hair, and a matching beard. He wore a dirty, old military uniform and an eyepatch. The trees around the group looked damaged from battle, with stone spikes sticking up from the ground in various places.

    "The hell?" Prim questioned, caught completely off-guard by the unexpected reappearance of the soldier from the cave. "That's the guy I fought in the mines with Pat and Eli."

    She switched to her bird form and flew after Faris, changing back when she reached him. "I know the guy in the uniform. I fought him when he was causing trouble in some mines. I think he's from a dark guild or something. Are they responsible for the animals losing their minds? He was mind controlling a drake before."

    "Well if they are responsible, it looks like the guardian's already taken care of them…" said Faris. His voice was mournful despite everything. "This is definitely the guardian's handiwork, and it would explain why it was so angry before. You said dark guild?"

    He pulled apart a torn section of the man's uniform, revealing the guild mark underneath. It was red and depicted a dragon. Faris narrowed his eyes. "I feel like I've seen this mark before. But there's no way. Not with how quickly the Rune Knights crush dark guilds bold enough to show their faces. And what's the connection between here and a Burgess mine? It doesn't make any sense."

    "You're asking the wrong person," Prim replied, "I just know he's a bad guy with really annoying magic. Faye'll probably have some ideas when your toad friend gets here. She's smart."

    The toad friend in question was already nearing with Faye on top, not having bothered to follow the two through the trees as she was still recovering. She jumped from Merry's back once they were close enough.

    "What happened here…?" Faye asked upon the sight of the lifeless bodies. She curled down towards one of the bodies. With her fingers she touched the skin. It was stone cold… "This happened at least 48 hours ago. Is this the result of angering the guardian…? She asked Faris.

    "Yes," Faris said. He went to pet his toad, to calm it or perhaps himself down. "The wetlands are strong and adaptable, so it takes a lot for the guardian to consider something a threat to them. But when it does, well…" He glanced over at the bodies again. "Short of attacking the guardian or the greatwood themselves, it really would take something like causing the affliction to anger the guardian this much.

    "But if they did do this, what role does the relic play? Why do this at all? And are there still more dark wizards here with us?" His eyes darted around the scene, desperate for more information before they landed back on his companions. "Sorry, it's just… I don't like the thought of something hurting the wetlands any more than the guardian. And as powerful as it is, it's far from all-knowing."

    "Well, can't say I'm going to miss soldier guy," Prim said, "But I'd take finding random corpses as a bad sign. Honestly, I don't think this really changes the plan. Get to the big tree and regroup as soon as possible, right?"

    "Indeed… And find the relic as fast as we can regardless of who wins." Faye agreed, crossing her arms and nodding. "Anyway, we shouldn't stay here. Shall we keep going?" The girl prompted, obviously feeling very uncomfortable being near dead bodies but not outrightly showing it.

    Faris took one final look at the bodies. "...Yeah, let's go."

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  • 957

    Hide and Seek Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    Lina breathed a sigh of relief. "...We don't have any more of these things lurking around the corner, do we?"

    The victorious empath turned to his guildmate and opened his mouth only to be interrupted by his own hair shooting up and turning orange. "No more bugs! Way better, in fact!" Without another word he ran off towards whatever he'd detected, leaving his friends in the proverbial dust.

    "Pat, where are you going?" Eli called after their errant guildmate. "Why does he always run off like this?" He scampered up to the lowest branch, flinging himself after Pat and using his wings to glide over the mud and water. Lina called her spear and followed suit, leaping between branches to stay close behind. The two kept up a little ways behind their guildmate, and before long they caught the sound of a familiar voice.

    "Heyy- I found you! Where's-? Oof," There was a clang signalling a collision between a metal surface and a Patileer Projectile. "Pat, where's the others?"

    As Eli and Lina cleared the next few branches, they saw her - Drell stood below amongst the swamp mud, holding an elated and wiggly Patileer at arm's length.

    "Drell!" Lina ran up to her missing guildmate. "Is anyone else with you? We're not far from where we landed but we haven't seen any of the others yet."

    The big lizard gave her a nod, "We're regrouping at the big tree. I went most of the way there with Simon and Natalie - thankfully managed to talk 'em down from killing each other. They should be at the tree by now, I left 'em home free. Tiran bolted a while ago but he's at least accounted for. Still gotta find everyone else, but we should make sure we can get to the tree first."

    When Pat's excited wiggling didn't seem to stop, she let out a sigh and gave him a hug. "I was try'na be business mode, Pat, but okay, you made your point. Glad you guys are in one piece."

    Elidyr perched on the lowest branch of the tree closest to Drell, relieved to find another friend, but not enough to touch the ground of the swamp below. "We've been taking the path through the trees. I think it's faster than walking."

    Pat squeezed Drell's ribs as tightly as he could and hummed happily. "Yeah, a lot of big mosquito type buggos tried to stop us but we mollywhomped them! I think I'm gonna call them Big Skeeter People-Eaters. At least, I'm pretty sure they wanted to eat us. Bugs don't do much besides eat and lay eggs, so eating us seems like the less scary option."

    "Yeah, Faris mentioned some territorial stuff," hummed the big reptile. "Probably would be faster to take the trees, but I think it's better to take the route with less fightin' in it, based on what the big snake said 'bout not doing any harm and all that. Shouldn't be too far to the greatwood, anyway. Did you guys see anything weird other than big bugs?"

    "Now that you mention it." Pat began, letting go of Drell and looking up at the sky. "Yeah." He lowered his voice and pulled all of his guildmates close so they would hopefully not be overheard. "I couldn't really tell when we were on the boat and so many people were so close to me but...ever since we got to this swamp there's been a weird...emptiness I've felt. Not in me, in the swamp around us. A blank spot on my radar, I guess you could call it."

    The Hoskel boy's hair grew to a lighter, icier blue while his eyes starkly contrasted with a shift to ruby. "Even wild, undeveloped creatures have at least something akin to emotion. To the point where I can feel pretty much anything that's actually alive and not microscopic, and this swamp is totally teeming with life in every square inch of it. But that blank spot has been there the whole time, and once we separated from the others I started to really notice it constantly. I can't think of all that many things that could cause a complete dead zone, and yet there is one, if small."

    "Man, that's…" Drell trailed off instead of letting out a swear.

    Lina frowned. "Can you tell where it's coming from? A direction?"

    "I think so. It's not as easy as zeroing in on something I can feel but it definitely sticks out." He pointed towards a particularly leafy trio of trees off in the mid distance from them. "Feels like over there, maybe in the trees."

    "Guess it's not just your radar bugging out if you can track it, huh," she said. "What do you guys think? Do we check it out?"

    "Well… we have a job to do…" Eli pondered as he clung to a tree. Despite Drell's sage advice, he wasn't going into the water and mud unless he absolutely had to. "But it doesn't feel right to just leave it behind. What if it's a test by the guardian? Or what if something there is hurt, or hurting the wetlands? If that's the case, I don't think I could live with myself if I just left it alone. I don't think I could handle the guilt…"

    "Have a feeling it might actually be the job," Ith'Drell offered. "If all the life here seems wacky and we've got a centre-point for the wackiness, kinda lines up with what we were sent here for. Doesn't mean we should head there right away, though." She gave the area Pat pointed to a glance, then turned back to address her guildmates. "We're not on a time limit, here; safety's always priority number one. First thing is to make sure everyone's accounted for - kinda why I'm here. We should keep note of it and backtrack later."

    "It moved." Pat blurted out with an air of confusion. When the others looked at him for a moment, they saw him looking even more perplexed than any of them. "It's gone." His brow furrowed deeply in frustration.

    Drell let out a nervous chortle, "Cool, problem solved."

    Lina readied her spear. "Think we could chase it?"

    "There it is again!" Pat gasped, pivoting on his heel and pointing at a big patch of growth about 60 degrees clockwise to the group from the trees he'd pointed out. Only a second later Pat squinted and the blue of his hair began to shift to green while his eyes remained red. "It's moving again! Grrrr…Don't mess with me you...empathy blocker, emotional-void jerk!"

    Ith'Drell asked, "Closer?" as she readied Big Whap.

    "No, same distance." Pat vocalized his annoyance. "Just a different direction."

    "W-where is it?" Elidyr looked around, his eyes becoming more reptilian as he did. "Point it out to me, I-I'll take it down!" He spread his wings, trying to look bigger and more intimidating.

    Pat's head swiveled back and forth for a bit before settling on a tree that was taller and thicker than all those around it, standing sentinel over that chunk of the swamp, as it were. "There. But I don't know wha -"

    "RRRAGH!" Eli literally roared as he threw himself toward the tree, claws out. Despite the distance, he'd rapidly become skilled with his new wings, and could easily glide over there - if there weren't a big reptilian hand grasping his tail.

    "Woah hey!" Ith'Drell cried out. "I- jeez! Eli! Don't just leap in like that!"

    Elidyr yelped in surprise as Drell practically snatched him out of the air. He dangled in her grip for a moment before scrambling for purchase on her arm and shoulder, visibly blushing even through his scales. "I… I-I-I… I'm sorry… I was trying to be tough…"

    "AY ey ey ey- it's fine, sorry I grabbed you like that-" The big Phoenix tried to comfort her guildmate, but while trying to remain on-guard too she didn't really get anywhere. "The thing could be anything, and if it ain't the relic it might be somethin' like what me and Nat and Simon fought earlier - bad news. Goopy stuff. Not ideal for bare-chargin'. I'm tough'n'all, y'know, but- look, it's real dangerous to go pickin' a fight with something if ya don't know what it is and what it does. Always observe first, yeah?"

    "What if we're the ones being observed?" Pat queried, a thought occurring to him.

    "You can observe and be observed."

    "Faris mentioned something about dark wizards, right?" Lina switched from her spear to her curved sword and pointed it at the mysterious void. "If one's following us then it's bad news. They probably tried to negate Pat's spell to hide and it backfired. You said not to charge in, but how about ranged attacks?"

    "Fine, fine. If the jig isn't up by now, it's not lasting much longer." A voice came from the direction Eli was about to charge in. The trees rustled, and from them dropped a hooded man with a cloth mask covering all but his eyes. The rest of his body was just as covered, but even so he made an immediate impression thanks to what he held. In his hand was a rugged, pitch black dagger; an antimagic dagger.

    He kept his distance as he spoke, one hand on his hip in a casual pose. Seemingly casual at least, since that hand sat close to another knife sheathed at his hip. "No need to worry about me though. Just pretend I'm not even here and get on with your job, okay? I promise I won't get in the way."

    Lina took a step back, her body tense at the sight of his weapon. "You don't look like a Rune Knight. What's someone like you doing with antimagic?"

    "Who says I'm not? Either way, it's nothing you need to worry about." He waved his hand like he was shooing them away. "Mystery's solved, now run along little wizards."

    Drell angled her head at Patileer and asked, hushed, "He still a void, Pat?"

    "Not entirely." Pat said, mirroring Lina's backstep. He was as taut as a stretched whip, practically bristling like a scared and angry cat. "But he's fuzzy, like static. I can't read him."

    "Huh," Drell shrugged off her disappointment, resting her longsword over one shoulder. She addressed the stranger, "Okay, dude, so- let's say I'm ignorin' you bein' the most conspicuous shifty guy I've ever seen - you know there's a load of messed up stuff 'round here, right? Not just angry beasts, full-on aberration things; it ain't safe to just be wandering about."

    The man shrugged. "Unfounded as it may be, I appreciate the concern. I'm rather good at hiding and running away, you see, and just as good at spotting threats. So no need to worry on my behalf."

    "I don't- I mean, I believe you," the big Phoenix said, snorting in genuine mirth. "That's just a funny thing to say when you've just been found."

    "S-so… what are you doing here?" Elidyr tried to sound tough, even dropping off of Drell. Wincing when his foot sank into mud probably ruined that, though. "We have a job here, and you're just… sneaking around? That's pretty suspicious."

    "So I'm taking this questioning to mean that you aren't willing to just let this go, is that right?" he asked.

    "I mean, if you could let out a single sentence that wasn't crazy suspicious, it would've helped," Ith'Drell shot back with a sigh.

    The man's attitude soured. "Look, whatever I say isn't going to change the fact that I'm going to keep following you. I could back off myself and stay out of sight, but the blue kid will just use whatever bullshit he's got to know that hey, that guy's still there! And we'd do this whole bit all over again.

    "So how about this. You do your job and get the relic. Be the big heroes and save the swamp. I do my job of making sure your job gets done. I don't touch you, I'll even help keep any other nasties like those bugs off your back now that you know I'm here. Then we all get to go home and live happily ever after. Sound good?"

    Elidyr turns his back to the man so he can't hear the conversation, even spreading his wings for added privacy. "I don't like him. I think he's shady, but he probably can't take us out, or he'd have done it already. I don't think we should trust him, but he'll probably stay back now."

    "He might have been a threat if we were totally blind to his presence." Pat said, smile widening. "But not only have we found him, I'm used to the weird void he leaves enough to recognize it easily. I think we can move on. Fighting him for no reason would be a waste of energy at this point, and if he keeps his word we'll be able to concentrate on the job much better!"

    Lina glanced back in his direction. "Yeah, whether or not we can trust him I think fighting him is a very bad idea."

    "Look, dude," Drell began, rubbing the forehead of her visor. She hadn't turned her back on the stranger for a moment. "I dunno what your deal is, but I know there's like fifty things you coulda said that'd be way less sketchy. And it's weird because you didn't, so I'm suspicious, but I also, like, appreciate the honesty? If that's really your objective then, like, fine - we ain't just gonna attack you out of nowhere if you're not threatenin' us. Why not just tag along with us if you're gonna follow us anyway? So long as you keep me between you and the others I ain't bothered."

    Pat stomped a foot in the muck and closed his eyes. "No way! Having him too close will mess up my mojo! Besides, we're trying not to fight with the other guilds, right? They'll only trust us even less if some suspicious guy is tagging along with us."

    "Okay, never mind, guess you gotta keep your distance," the big Phoenix shrugged. "Mojo, y'know?"

    "Finally, progress," the man said in relief. "With that, I bid you farewell. Let's all hope we don't have to say another word to each other." He turned and started walking away. Though they could tell by the grip on his knife and his measured steps that even with his back turned he wasn't letting his guard down.

    "Are we just leaving it at that for now?" Lina asked, unsure.

    Elidyr leaped onto the nearest tree, grimacing at the muck and wet that dripped from his boots. "What else can we do? Just keep moving, right?"

    "Dude's got somethin' to hide, for sure," Drell murmured. "But making sure everyone gets back safe comes first. Yeah, let's get moving."



  • 957

    Exchanging Information and Also Hating Veechar Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    The countless sounds of the wetlands began to fade, replaced by new ones as darkness fell over the swamp. But the guild wizards continued onward, having nearly reached the Spirit Greatwood. As they came closer, their path was illuminated by ethereal lights dancing around the trees.

    Magic radiated from every inch of the wetlands around them, especially from the trees themselves that Faris claimed were home to spirits.The plantlife was larger, more vibrant, and far more unique than any they'd seen before, spurred in its growth by the abundant ether. The wizards, too, felt this energy invigorating them the closer they got to the Greatwood.

    Led past watchful eyes and eager fangs, the two Phoenix groups navigated through the swamp until they were close enough to sense one another. The tree wasn't far, but with their comrades so close they would happily leave that for later. There was a reunion to be had.

    "Pretty place, huh?" Prim called out casually as her guildmates came into view, "I could almost forgive the humidity if things in here stopped trying to kill me for ten minutes."

    "Prim!" Drell called back, jogging up to her mounted comrades. "Faris, Faye! Uh… blight toad friend-! How're you all holding up? You good?"

    Merry grunted, returning the greeting.

    "Oh yeah, Veechar tried to murder us and we're both loaded up with snake venom, but that's no big deal," Prim replied with a casual shug and a wave of her hand that she refused to admit took as much effort as it did. "Found something weird too. You get up to anything fun?"

    "I- dude, what!? Who the fuck is Veechar?"

    "Veechar, Veechar…" Lina muttered, recalling her knowledge of GMG regulars. "That's Silver Spirit's celestial spirit wizard, right? I've heard he's a real jerk like the rest of his guild, but murder is going a bit- Did you say you were loaded up with venom?"

    "The pointy-nosed ass that was bothering everyone with his presence, yeah," Prim said, "Turns out he's got a new spirit with snakes for hair. No big deal."

    "Is he dead?" Queried Drell. "Where is he?"

    "He's alive and well enough to move," Faris said with a sigh. "Or so they say. Considering their situation and my limited resources for dealing with it, I couldn't really make sure he was okay. Let's just hope he has the sense to meet up at the Greatwood with everyone else."

    "He's okay. Barely…" Faye responded, coughing inside her hand and refusing to tell them she was the reason he was in such a bad shape anyway. If Prim wasn't there who would have known what would've happened?

    "Unfortunately," Prim added nonchalantly. Faye shrugged at that.

    "Hopefully not in any shape to be attempted-murdering anyone else, then," Drell said with a sigh of relief, one hand on her hip. She planted Big Whap in the ground and slung her backpack off her shoulders. "I've got some generic healing stuff if it'll help, but I dunno what funky stuff spirit venom has going for it. Is there anyone else unaccounted for? Tiran zipped by and Natalie and Simon should be at the tree by now. Anyone seen Rhea or Aja?"

    Faris shook his head. "I haven't seen them, I'm sorry. As for the venom, I've been able to hold off the effects with the potions I have on hand but the venom itself isn't going away. We need to find a way to cure them before I run out, or at least get them back to our guildhall."

    Pat stood silently beside his guildmates thinking, trying his best not to look at Faye or Prim. One thing everyone could feel was him seething with rage, only containing it by virtue of Veechar being far away and already beaten. Eventually, he spoke up with a shake of his head. "We didn't see any signs of them and I didn't feel them either, but I'm sure Rhea at least is totally fine. I doubt anything in this swamp can touch her."

    "So you mentioned something weird?" Lina mentioned, recomposing herself.

    "Yeah," Prim said, "You know how Pat, Eli and I fought that old soldier guy in the mines? Well we found him super dead just laying in the middle of the swamp with some random people."

    "The one who controlled that poor drake?" Elidyr spoke up from his nearby perch. "Good. ...I-I mean, that's terrible, he probably didn't deserve that…" He trailed off unconvincingly.

    "That's the guy," Prim confirmed. "Can't be a coincidence, right?"

    "Did the rest of you have any run-ins with dark wizards?" Faris asked. "I'm equipped for the wetlands but not for this. It's probably fine if it was just them since the guardian dealt with them, but if there's more we should find an outpost and contact the Council."

    "There's for sure some heavily fishy stuff going on," Ith'Drell grimaced, handing Faris a couple of Thirst Aid™ bottles. "Some hooded guy was following us at a distance a while back, tryin' to be all stealthy or whatever. And he was gonna keep doing it, apparently - we also dealt with some big goo monster that Nat seems to think used to be a wizard of some kind. Nothing in the ways of huge confirmation, but it reeks somethin' fierce, I'll tell ya that much. At this point I'd say fuck it 'n' go if it wasn't for the dumb contract. Top priority should be makin' sure these two," she gestured to Prim and Faye. "Make it out safe."

    "Yeah, nobody touches Prim or Faye!" Pat agreed. "If anyone tries, I'll make them WISH the Guardian found them first!"

    "You'd have to get to them before us." Prim grinned. "So, onwards to the tree?"

    "Let's get this done as quickly as we can," said Faris. "Would you tell me more about this hooded guy and the goo monster along the way? I want to hear every detail."



  • 957

    Tiran Enablocks the way forward Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    A crack of thunder near the Greatwood brought the group running to the source. The shadow of the Greatwood overhead coated the area in darkness, but between the swamp's dancing lights, plantlife glowing with magic, and the luminous mushrooms grown by Faris and Merry they were able to find their way without issue.

    Grand wooden arches loomed around them, the gigantic tree's roots raising above the water as they passed underneath. They were plentiful and made it easy for Eli to travel in his preferred method. Beside them was a wooden wall that stretched for what seemed like forever. The edge of the tree. Or perhaps wall was the wrong word as they could see holes and gaps where creatures resided, a fair amount of the tree's inside appearing to be hollow.

    These creatures kept their distance fearfully. Perhaps the reason was the bigger, more twisted creatures scattered around either unconscious or dead. Faye and Prim had seen a similar sight when they found Faris and he confirmed that they were indeed afflicted. He tried to pay his respects to each one they passed, but could offer little more than a solemn look in their hurry. Pat could clearly feel the frustration he was trying to hide.

    Pat could also feel a strange presence from the Greatwood. They felt like people but somewhat different, a whole lot of them swirling around in the tree itself. He felt an overwhelming curiosity from them as the group passed by, some accompanying it with excitement and others with wariness. Faris claimed they were the spirits that resided within, impressed that Pat could sense them.

    Drell noticed something else, the wounds on the fallen beasts being evident of electricity. These were likely Tiran's doing, and the thunder probably was too. Another thunderous boom. The source was close now. A bright light came from a rather large opening into the Greatwood. Inside they could see Simon, his spirit Kola, Natalie, and Aja sitting by the entrance playing cards, with a building-sized Ralga dozing in the entryway itself as if blocking it.

    Her body began to crackle and she let out a low, rumbling growl, but as the group approached she stopped. She looked at them with one eye open. The others turned to face them as well.

    "The signal worked!" exclaimed Aja, clapping her hands cheerily. Her clothes were singed and dirty, but otherwise she seemed fine. As did the other two who offered their own greetings to the group.

    "So we're good to go now, right?" asked Natalie.

    "Hold on, I think we're still missing a couple…?" Simon said. Kola continued to look at his cards, struggling to hold them in his tiny hands.

    "Hi Ralga!" Pat shouted, running happily up to the tiger as if nothing else were happening. His joy and affection for animals tried to warm and melt her icy demeanor. "Can I hug you? Or even just pet you? Please, you're so pretty." As forward as his speech was, Pat knew better than to try what he was asking without clear ascent and simply held his hand out in front of Tiran's partner, hoping he might gain her approval even though Tiran himself would likely sneer.

    In her current size it would be difficult for Pat to pet her properly, and Ralga herself didn't seem willing to adjust herself either. She lifted her paw and carefully pet Pat instead.

    Drell snorted, grinning as she lifted her visor before turning to Aja, Natalie and Simon with a more serious expression. "Good to see you three," she said. "Yeah, we're down Rhea, who I've seen no sign of, and Veechar, who is apparently an attempted murderer now. What's the situation here?"

    "Tiran's inside, no doubt looking for the relic," answered Simon, "He's having Ralga block the way in after him."

    "Aja and I tried to break through but we got our asses beat in an instant," Natalie added. "She didn't hurt us too bad though so we figured we'd just wait until you guys showed up."

    "She's quite gentle actually, won't even touch us if we don't act first," added Aja. "She even agreed to make some noise so you'd find us! We tried to get her to play cards with us but she isn't very good at it."

    "Right," Prim said, "So we have to go through Ralga to get inside? I uh… hate to pass the job on to someone else but that seems like a Drell job."

    "What, go through a thunderlord?" Ith'Drell laughed, toting supposed knowledge of the beast in front of her as if she hadn't just learned its proper name today. "Ralga deserves more manners than that, surely - come on, dude." She stepped up to the giant tiger and turned to address her, making no move to actually pass by. "Ey Ralga, did you or Tiran spot Rhea on your way over here? Seems off that she of all people couldn't make it here yet."

    Ralga shook her head, having seen neither.

    "If she was close she'd have heard the signal too, right?" asked Lina. "So either she's too far or something happened to keep her from coming…"

    "She's an S-class," Prim said, "I don't think we have much to worry about. Shouldn't we focus on getting the job done?"

    "Maybe we can reason with her?" suggested Faris. "The situation is bad so she might understand."

    "We can probably beat her with this many people," said Natalie. "Wouldn't mind some revenge."

    "I wonder if we can slip past somehow," said Aja. "Though my magic isn't the best for that sort of thing, haha."

    "Ya know, it's funny you're having this conversation right in front of her," Drell chuckled. She shuffled over to what little space existed between Ralga and the edge of the entryway. "I'd better go see if I can talk some sense into Tiran - Ralga, mind if I squeeze through a bit, bud?"

    "You probably have the best chance." Pat agreed. "He doesn't like Atrian humans, Prim's no negotiator and… he already can't stand me."

    Ralga stared at Drell as she approached, a low rumble growing in her throat. Her body hadn't moved but those who knew her knew she could spring to action in an instant. But at the same time, Pat could sense an expectant feeling from her. There was no desire for battle but it was clear it would take more for her to move.

    Ith'Drell hummed, "Mm, yeah, sorry- 'm just gonna-"

    As Drell attempted to squeeze past, Ralga decided to drop her huge paw on top of the Phoenix to pin her down. Electricity coursed through the appendage, shooting through Drell with enough power to knock a normal person out in seconds.

    "Ay!" The big lizard cried from the floor, mildly annoyed. "Yeah yeah, zap-zap to you too- oh!" There was an awkward clunking sound as she tried to smack herself in the face, only to find Ralga's paw in the way. "My bad! Didn't say please, I get it- didn't know thunderlords were sticklers for manners, but that's fair, that's on me."

    Prim watched this, failing to completely stifle her laughter.

    Faye stared at the group with a look of confusion on her face. No one batted an eye at Veechar being called an "attempted murderer" by Drell. As if no one was really surprised at the revelation. She sighed, shrugged and shook her head. The headache she had from the poison was slowly returning too. They'd better get moving again.

    Faris glanced at her with a frown. "Do you need another potion already or do you think you can keep going for now?" His hand was already in his bag, ready to grab another potion from his limited stock if he needed to.

    "Not yet. I'll be fine for a little while longer." Faye replied to Faris, holding herself strong for a little longer. The longer she could do without a potion, the less likely they were to run out of them before they got out of the forest.

    Pat hugged the sick girl's side and shared powerful good vibes. Faye patted his head.

    Ralga's claws extended and wrapped around Drell. She picked her up and plopped her on the ground nearby, away from the entrance, before returning to her position as she lazily guarded the way.

    "Oh, uh-" the biggest Phoenix glanced behind her for a moment. "Wrong side, buddy- it's fine. Put me on the other side, please and thank you-? Yeah, now that I think about it," She turned her attention to the others present as if nothing had happened to break up the conversation. "Tiran might actually be the best bet at getting you guys to medical attention quick-like, too."

    She stayed put, but Ralga's ears perked up.

    "Hold on a second." Pat blurted from his Faye hug. "Ralga!" He approached her again and tilted his head like he was the cat between them. "Can you ask Tiran to let Drell or any of us by? You can communicate with him, right?"

    "I mean, I could just zoom past her but that just seems rude," Drell murmured. Pat thumped a scolding hand on her hip.

    Faris stepped forward. "Please, Ralga. Tiran. There are lives at stake, we can't afford to waste time here. Tiran can have the relic and the reward for all I care. As long as we get it out of the wetlands and get home safely I'm satisfied."

    "I don't know," Prim said. Her head was starting to throb too, and the faintness was returning, but she didn't like the thought of giving up. "I want to finish the job. I don't really like the idea of just letting Tiran walk all over us. I don't like the idea of dying from venom either, but I think I'm fine for a while still."

    Ralga peered at Faris and the members of Phoenix Nest, paying careful attention to Faye and Prim. She observed them for a full minute before she sat up, leaving a small gap into the tree.

    "Sweet!" cheered Natalie. "Let's go!" Aja was close behind as they rushed to the gap. In that same moment, Ralga roared and rained lightning bolts around them. None of them hit, but their message was clear.

    "I'm guessing that's not for us, then…?" Aja asked dejectedly.

    "Fuck no." The voice came from behind Ralga, that alone making its owner clear. Tiran stepped into the gap, halberd in hand and a scowl on his face. "I'm talking to Faris and Phoenix. I have nothing to say to the rest of you, and I don't think I have to tell you what happens if you get cocky." Ralga growled at them for emphasis.

    He turned his attention back to Phoenix Nest, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. "So you wanted to talk? Talk fast. I don't want to give those Spirit shitheads the satisfaction of killing you."

    "Fuckin-" Ith'Drell exhaled through her nostrils, swallowing her irritation. "Guessin' you heard - can you and/or Ralga carry people and zoom at the same time?"

    "I can't, but Ralga can," Tiran said. "I'm guessing you wanna get those girls outta here? It's hard to do to other people. She'll need the bigger share of our ether which'll make me vulnerable. We're willing to do it, but you'll owe us later."

    "Uh, what?" Prim asked, "I don't recall agreeing to this. I have a relic to get."

    He raised an eyebrow, then looked at Drell. "If they don't wanna go I ain't takin' 'em."

    "Oh my fucking- Prim," the big Phoenix turned her back on Tiran to address her guildmate. "You serious with this right now? You're tellin' me you know what the poison or venom or whatever does? You immune or something? Sure doesn't look like it, dude, no offense."

    "It's less that I'm immune and more that I really hate quitting." Prim stood her ground, although the slight swaying in her stance she struggled against wasn't doing her any favours.

    "Priorities change," said Drell, unmoving. "You go back with Faye and make sure she gets better then, yeah? That a better way of presentin' it?"

    "That would've been a good plan… But I'm not going back either." Faye announced, crossing her arms.

    "Aw, for fuck's-"

    Tiran grumbled. "Well while you figure out what the hell you even want I'm goin' back in to get the job done."

    Aja stepped forward, mustering her best smile. "Wait, okay, I'm not allowed to go in and I'm not getting the reward. Fine. But can I at least see the relic when you do find it? Give it a closer look?"

    "Didn't I tell you all to fuck off?" Tiran snapped. "Go cry to Rhea or something."

    "B-but…" She stammered.

    "Fuck. Off."

    Aja fell silent, frozen in place. Her eye twitched and her breathing began to quicken. She grit her teeth beneath her smile. She spoke, her tone far from the usual cheer. "...I came all the way here to see a relic and I won't be letting some brute who won't show it a fraction of the respect it deserves stop me. Tell me, do you know anything about the ancients? About what sets a relic apart from your typical, garden variety magic item? Do you even care?"

    Tiran cocked his head toward her, the corners of his mouth raising into a smirk. "Maybe I don't. So what?" Ralga stood up and took her place behind him. Her body shrank until she was at her normal size, and at the same time Tiran's surged with electricity. His hair raised into its signature mohawk as he stared her down with glowing eyes.

    Aja drew her knife and dragged it against her flesh, opening a gash along the length of her arm. Her relic blade flared to life with the taste of her blood, creating a multi-tailed whip of crimson blood. The arm continued to bleed, painting the ground below.

    Tiran could have stopped her with a well-placed Lightning Spear, or a number of his other spells, but he only laughed. "Anyone else got somethin' to say?"

    Natalie drew her own dagger, which shattered into fragments of light that transformed into plates of armor. "Memoria: Sidian Knight's Stand. Not how I pictured things going down but I'm not saying no to this! How about it you guys? Simon? Prim, I think? I can tell you two love a good fight even if four-eyes won't admit it. And if you're in too, Drell, then we've got this in the bag, I mean you took an attack from Ralga like it was nothing! All of you come on, we just have to hold on until Rhea gets here."

    "I mean, I don't like the idea of ganging up on someone - S-class or not - but if this is happening I'm not going to say no." Prim shrugged. There was a clang as Drell closed her visor - not out of battle preparation, but to cover her face in an effortless transition to face-palm stance.

    "Really, guys?" The big Phoenix let out. "We were so close, we got so far- you're really all gonna pick now to start acting like fuckin' babies!? Uh- not you, Prim and Faye, though I guess Prim- I'm not talking about the poison thing that's like a different thing- it's- you guys really wanna smack down in the middle of a job when there's so much suspicious crap going on? You're supposed to be fuckin' professionals, get a grip. And stop being a bully Tiran, let her see the fuckin' relic. Man, shit, it's day-care all day today…"

    Pat, who had gone quiet when he began contemplating Tiran's offer, was now twitching and grunting with annoyance. The swirl of different emotions, all heightened by coming from wizards and scraping against his own growing frustrations were giving him a migraine. "Seriously… can you all just knock it off!?" Veins stood out from his forehead and his hair and eyes erratically cycled through every color and shade thinkable.

    "What's the point if we can't use our brains a little bit here? What if we damage the relic, or the environment that's already going crazy? This is no time to - ugh, I feel like I'm gonna explode!" Sure enough, the wizards gathered felt the air swelling with a confused, inconsistent pressure.

    "I give her the thing for a look and you think she's just gonna give it back?" Tiran asked Drell, keeping his eyes on Natalie and Aja. "And besides, I wanna to test 'em out. See what these newbies can do before the Games, and show 'em what they're up against while I'm at it.

    "As for you," he addressed Pat. "That's easy. Relic's down, deep into the tree. We ain't fighting near it. I'm kicking your asses here and picking it up after while you've got your faces in the dirt. Or you can back off and wait 'till I'm done in a sec if you don't like it. Your choice."

    "I don't want to fight," said Faris, keeping his voice low so only Phoenix Nest would hear. "If they really do this I'm going to slip by while Tiran's distracted. Like I told him, I'm here for the wetlands' sake. I'm not risking that for this nonsense."

    From the trees, Elidyr silently crept forward. He wasn't going to speak up and blow his cover, but he agreed with Faris's plan.

    Drell waved a hand in Patileer's direction. "Can someone give Pat a hug, please?" She pleaded, lumbering over to step between Tiran and the others. "Dude, Pat said relic or environment, nobody said you had to give her the relic for her to look at it, you can literally just hold the thing in front of her - can you get your head out of your ass, please? If you wanna personally guarantee you can ship back the relic, and get my guildmates an antidote, and find Rhea, and appease the guardian, and solve whatever weird shit is going on in this swamp in the next two fuckin' minutes, then great! Go right ahead. If not, you gotta sit back and realise now ain't the time to be neck-deep where the sun don't shine. Did that get through? Did'ja listen that time, huh?"

    "You know what?" Tiran raised his voice. "I'll get the relic. I'll save your guildmates. I'll find Rhea, deal with the guardian and figure out the swamp shit. If I'm gonna be the strongest fucking wizard in this fucking country then that's the least I should be able to do. The one who can do what needs to be done no matter who's stupid enough to get in my way! And I don't need any of you to do it. Either you're going home or you're going down."

    His and Ralga's bodies surged with power as they took a step forward. And in an instant, his face was crashing into the dirt below. The force continued to press down on him, cracking the ground as he struggled against it. Before he could stand back up he was swept off his feet, pulled through the air toward the cause of it all.

    Rhea Tavidell stood in the distance, one hand outstretched as it dragged Tiran toward it with the other pulled back, ready to hammer into him. He sped toward the Siren like a bullet, collision with her fist imminent. His body began to flicker as he came close and he transformed into a lightning bolt that arced around her body, re-forming behind her.

    Before he could strike back, gravity increased around the two again, far greater than what they'd seen at the train station in a focused area. He was able to escape it by zipping back in lightning form again, but it was clear that recklessness was not an option for him anymore.

    "Didn't I tell you not to touch my guildmates?" Rhea asked, looking down at him.

    He looked at the Colossus in front of him, then at all the other wizards gathered in front of him. He scoffed, and his hair fell back down. "Fuckin' Tavidell. Way to make me look stupid after all that. I ain't gonna forget this."

    She sighed and cracked her neck. "You're bullying a bunch of newbies. I'm not the one making you look stupid." She looked to the rest of the group. "That asshole manage to hurt any of you too bad? Do I need to teach him a lesson anyway?"



  • 957

    A United Front Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    Rhea didn't look injured, but something seemed off. Her tone was a bit softer than usual, more tired perhaps. But most notably was a strange black mark over the guild mark on her back. It didn't really look like anything, but was reminiscent of a magical rune like the ones Myeloch often drew.

    "...This is important," she said. "But did any of you happen to find anything strange in the wetlands? Even a little odd."

    "Do corpses count?" Prim asked.

    "We're being watched. With non-interference, too." Pat said. "And don't be too mad at Tiran. He didn't hurt anyone. He actually wanted to help us. He just doesn't plan to give up the relic in the process." Tiran huffed, looking away from the group.

    "Do be a li'l mad at him though," Drell weighed in before reluctantly making the switch back to serious conversation. "Yeah, this whole swamp's been fucked. Contract's the only thing stoppin' me from just saying put the whole damn thing on hold. What had you held up so long?"

    "Contract, huh?" Rhea muttered. "Funny that. I'll save Tiran's punishment for another time, then. As for me, I was being followed by a pair of dark wizards. I dealt with them and managed to wring some information out of them. But before I go more into that I want to hear more about these other things, since I get the feeling they're connected."

    "The dead guys are dark wizards too, at the very least one of them is," Prim replied, glad for the multiple distractions from her current situation, "Pat, Eli and I fought him before in the Burgess mines and he was doing something pretty similar to what's happening to the animals here to a drake there. I think Faris mentioned finding their guild mark familiar or something but nobody could place it."

    "It was a guild mark with a dragon," explained Faris. "Does that ring any bells?"

    Rhea and Aja's eyes both went wide.

    "Dragon like… this?" Aja asked. She'd already bandaged her bloodied arm, but she drew some of her blood that had seeped into the ground out to manipulate into shape. The top half of a dragon, wings spread and jaws wide, just like what they'd seen on the soldier.

    Simon looked at her little blood trick with discomfort, but avoided mentioning it. "Familiar you say? Sorry, I can't say I've ever seen it."

    Natalie shrugged. "It's kinda familiar, but what've we got to be afraid of anyway with a roster this stacked? We can kick some dark wizard ass no problem, no matter who they are."

    "Maybe not…" began Rhea. "That mark belonged to Drachen Scale, the strongest dark guild Atria has ever seen. Even the Council couldn't stamp them out until Milla Cavan took over the Rune Knights. But that's just it, they're supposed to be gone. The council tried to brush them under the rug after that, but even if you don't remember who they were you've at least heard the name.

    "It's been over 10 years but they were a big deal, especially in Gildas. If they somehow survived and are involved somehow, or even if they're copycats, then that means trouble. Especially when the dark wizards I fought were supposedly here on Quail's coin. They didn't have Drachen's mark, but that doesn't make this any less worrying.

    "I already broke the contract since I refuse to work for someone who'll hire a dark wizard. If there is a connection then I think I made the right choice. But as soon as I told those dark wizards where they could shove Quail's contract I felt a spell come over me that's been tiring me out ever since. Be careful if you decide to do the same."

    "I might wait to make any formal decisions until I'm less poisoned," Prim said, "I'm not really worried about the effects, but I don't want my ability to hit things diminished too much. Especially if there's dark wizards around that might need punching."

    Faye raised her hand.

    "Same here. I don't like the idea of dark wizards but I don't think I should be adding any more effects to my already not-so-stable physical being." Faye said very stoically and with a straight face.

    "Well," Drell inhaled, rubbing the top of her helmeted head. "I hate to say I told ya so, b- actually, that's not true I'd love that - but really, don't suppose anyone's feelin' a change of heart over the teamin' up idea?"

    "Yeah!" Pat agreed boisterously. "Let's just get the job done and be ready for whatever comes our way!"

    "I'm up for whatever, like I said." Prim shrugged again, trying to ignore the thumping in her head.

    "I agree, working together is the best option in this situation," Simon nodded. "As much as I may have wanted to test myself against an S-class…" he added quietly under his breath.

    Aja shrugged. "Promise me a good look at the relic and I'm in. Easy way to rope me into a lot of things, really."

    "Kinda hoping I get to punch some dark wizards today," Natalie said. "I'm way too fired up to take it easy now."

    Tiran opened his mouth to speak but stopped himself. He was calmer now, his face somewhat somber even. Ralga walked to his side and laid on the ground, relaxed as ever despite what had just occurred. He scrunched his face, avoiding eye contact with the group. "So we're a team, what now?"

    Faris put his hand to his chin. "Some of us need to go down and get the relic, obviously. But if Rhea's broken her contract then I can't imagine any dark wizards working for him will just leave her be. He has to know she'll report all this. Of course, I expect we all will but in our case he'll have the relic to show for it. By the sound of it, that man with the antimagic knife was also rather invested in us getting the relic back. It's like Quail is desperate for it, so I can't imagine him sitting by if there's a chance he doesn't get it by the end of this."

    Lina furrowed her brow. "You don't bring an antimagic weapon unless you're hunting wizards, after all…"

    "Maybe I could stay out here as bait, then," Rhea suggested. "Not alone, hopefully. At least not in my current state."

    "If we're dealing with anti-magic," Prim said, "I guess I better stay out here with Rhea at the least. I can't imagine that would be particularly effective against me."

    "Right, this is a bit more like it," Ith'Drell murmured. "Hey, Faris - you're the most knowledgeable about those woodland spirits, right? Relic-grabbing seems like a diplo job, so we need know-how and we - well, Pat probably helps a ton too."

    Patileer flexed at the praise and beamed. "Between me and Faris I bet we can make friends with all the spirits!"

    Faris nodded. "I'm amazed that he can sense them at all. I've never properly spoken with them if I'm being honest, but I know enough about them that we should be able to manage it together. It says something that Tiran wasn't able to find the relic with his head start, so hopefully we can convince the spirits to lead us to it."

    Tiran grumbled. "I'll leave that to you people, then. Ralga and I will stick around here and make sure nothing makes it in after you."

    "If up here's where all the fighting is gonna be then like hell I'm missing it," said Natalie. Simon nodded in agreement.

    "If it's all the same to you, then, I'd like to go into the tree," Aja said with a smile, her excitement building.

    "No," Drell shook her head. "We all just got a real good look at how you handle diplomacy, dude. Don't think we want that in- uh, like, a sensitive situation. You can get a look at the relic after they bring it out." Aja crossed her arms and pouted but she didn't argue. "Thanks for understandin'. Uh- Prim, Faye, don't suppose I can convince you two to head in with Faris and Pat?"

    "I'm not sure I want Prim in there…" Pat said. "She's acting too… much today. I'd feel more comfortable with her out here."

    Elidyr dropped from the trees, hopping from one dry spot to another to stand by Prim. "Don't worry, Drell. I'll help her keep an eye on things out here, if it'll help Pat feel more comfortable."

    "I'm not going anywhere anyway," Prim remarked, "It makes sense for me to stay out here and that's what I'm going to do."

    "Yeah, cuz you'd be no help inside." Pat grumbled.

    "Uhh… I suppose I'm gonna fight too. Can't keep that one out here alone." Faye said, basically pointing at the shorter Prim.

    "No, I think you should come with us," Faris stopped her. "Prim will be far from alone, anyway. Honestly I agree with Drell that neither of you should be out here, but Prim at least looks like she can stand."

    "I disagree. I can also stand which means I can probably also fight." Faye verbally fought back, crossing her arms at Faris. What was he gonna do, drag her along?

    He crossed his arms back at her. "Hmm. What do you think, Merry? You've always had a sense for these sorts of things." In response, the blight toad stepped up to Faye and lifted her onto his back.

    "W-Wha?!" Faye let out a sound, causing the group around to laugh with a scoff from Tiran. "Ugh…" She ultimately stopped squirming, realising Merry wasn't going to let her go.

    "I think I can trust you guys to make sure Faye's okay," Drell chuckled. "I'll keep an eye on Prim out here. Prim, you tell me if it gets any worse, okay? I got a couple potions. Full warning if you die I will kill you, dude, I ain't playin'."

    "Even dead, I'd still pummel you for trying." Prim flashed a not-at-all reassuring grin at Drell.

    "They'll have to get through me, first." Eli metaphorically puffs up his chest, while also literally making his muscles bigger with a spell. "Just, uh… try not to take too long? I'd rather avoid a fight if we can."

    "She seems to be in good hands," said Simon. "I'll do my best as well, on my honor as a member of Gryphon Gale."

    Lina looked at all the wizards gathered before her with a soft smile, though Pat could feel there was something troubling her. Whatever that was, she kept it hidden away. "I'd say you guys have things covered out here so I'll join Pat and Faye in finding the relic."

    "On my honor…" Aja echoed Simon's words. "What if I swear that I'll, um, behave I guess. On Unicorn's honor and Master Avila's. Izan, not the other Avila. You can bring it up with him if I cause problems. But either way I'm the most knowledgeable one here as far as relics go!"

    A shifting shadow beneath Drell's visor divulged the raising of one of her brows - she addressed the others, "Uh, can anyone here vouch for Aja?"

    Aja shuffled as the other wizards shook their heads. It was Simon who spoke up. "I can't vouch for her, but I can speak on her master. I didn't know him long but the other Gryphons spoke of him often. He was always a stubborn sort who stuck to his ideals, but they were noble ideals. He always wanted to do what he could to improve the lives of those around him. If he's created a guild, I'm sure it follows those ideals to some degree, and I can't imagine him letting just anyone into it."

    "I- look," the big Phoenix ran a hand down her helmet, shaking her head. "I don't, like, I'm not here to order anyone around, I'm just tryin'a- today's been a long day of a lot of preventable trash, and I just wanna make sure there's no more… stuff, y'know? If the others are fine with it, I'm fine with it, I just- please don't start anything, okay? I'll be so upset."

    Pat put his fist to his chest with the gold Phoenix stamp facing outwards and projected confidence. "Don't worry, Drell! We got this! Aja's not so bad, she's just really excitable!" He pulled Lina in shoulder-to-shoulder and smirked. "We can handle whatever happens!"

    "... A'aight, you bean," Drell relented with a sigh. Seeing Patileer so optimistic, a little ray of sunshine, brightened her demeanour a little. "You don't let her distract you from the spirit thingies though, yeah? You guys all stay alert and stay safe."

    "Don't worry, I'm good with spirits! Dad and Rowan both said so!" He replied with a salute.

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  • 957

    Mercs and Mirages Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    The relic retrieval group had entered the Greatwood, leaving the others outside to defend the entrance from any dark wizard that might be lurking around. As well as to defend Rhea in case there were further consequences in store for her breaking the contract.

    "So, is there a plan besides just standing here and waiting to see if anyone shows up?" asked Tiran, gaze fixed out at the wetland before them. Ralga leapt up to the wooden arches above for a different view. At their feet was soft soil and fallen leaves, but they weren't far from the muddy water they'd become so well acquainted with.

    "I could fly up for a bird's eye view to see if anyone is coming," Prim replied while trying not to rub her aching head, "But I don't know how much I'd really be able to see through all the trees. I'm not sure there's much point."

    "And it's probably not a good idea to go off by ourselves." Elidyr chimed in from his perch on a nearby branch. "If you and I stuck to the trees, we could probably take a look around, but I don't want to agitate any more of the local creatures, especially if someone is still watching us. They might just be waiting for us to drop our guard!"

    "That's good stuff Eli!" Ith'Drell gave her younger guildmate a spirited thumbs-up. "Just keep an eye out and don't wander too far. And, uh-" She turned to Natalie. "Maybe hand me back my sheath before I forget, hah."

    "Oh, forgot to give that back to you after the scrying," Natalie said as she tossed the sheath back to her. Drell slung it over her shoulder and gave a nod of thanks.

    "Oh right, your Heart of the Navigator spell," said Rhea. "Actually, I'm surprised nobody knew anything about my situation. Did you never use it on me?"

    Natalie scoffed. "Of course not. Why would I need to check up on you of all people? I had complete faith in you the entire time. I don't expect any less of my reason for joining the guild."

    Rhea's expression was a mix of flattery, confusion, and annoyance. "Uh, sure...."

    Before the scouting members could get very far, a figure suddenly appeared in their midst. It looked like one of Quail's maids. She was in full uniform but her body was transparent.

    She cleared her throat. "Milord offers his greetings. It seems that despite some unexpected setbacks, you've all made it to the tree. He congratulates you and wishes you luck in retrieving the relic for him and completing your job. It seems one of you has been misled by false information and illegally abandoned your contractual obligations, but the others still intend on seeing things through, yes?"

    "Be careful with your words, perhaps even your thoughts," warned Simon. "I don't intend to abandon my work. Nor do I intend to abandon my comrades, whatever happens. Neither is befitting of a Gryphon."

    "That's up to the people going after the relic," Prim replied with a shrug, "We're just here to defend the tree's entrance from anything, or anyone, fishy."

    "Not that there's anything wrong with fish!" Eli called out to the marsh in general. "As long as they stay in their water, we won't go near them!"

    "Is that all you have to say, then?" Rhea barked at the maid. "You're just going to pretend your lord had nothing to do with those dark wizards? Why don't I go fetch them and we'll see what they have to say about that?"

    "If you are referring to the wizards that were restrained in stone nearby, they have already been taken care of," the maid answered calmly. "And I do not need to pretend anything. There is nothing between them and Milord. And he no longer has any business with you either, unfortunately. I suggest you vacate the job site lest you get in the way of official guild work."

    "And what are you gonna do if she says no?" Natalie challenged as she stepped beside Rhea.

    "We will ask again that she cooperate with the job, and if not we will remove her from the premises and escort her back to the city. The way is quite safe thanks to your efforts, so you needn't worry."

    As she spoke, Ralga sensed some rustling in the distance, in the trees back toward the swamp. It was too faint for most of the others to catch, but Elidyr was able to spot it as well being with her. Be they people or just more wetland creatures, he could tell there were multiple of them, though he struggled to tell just how many.

    Elidyr leaned forward on his perch, his eyes becoming more reptilian. Like the mighty flying wyverns, a second pupil in his eye now allowed him to "zoom in" his sight to make out details from a distance. "Um… everyone? I think I see something out there. Several somethings…"

    He was able to see the occasional glint as the dancing lights of the wetland passed over certain spots, like someone was poking a piece of metal out through the trees at them.

    "With all due respect, how 'bout you leave us to do our fuckin' jobs?" Ith'Drell, on guard, demanded of the transparent maid. "Rhea ain't goin' anywhere, she's helpin' us - you don't get to just remove people from whatever. If you wanted more control you shoulda tagged along. Now quit bein' a distraction and kindly, like, leave."

    "We do have a job to do after all and potential enemies are approaching." Prim smiled a little too widely at the holomaid.

    The maid closed her eyes as if she was letting the group's words sit. "I still suggest she return, but you are right. If we have already seen dark wizards, there could always be more. Who knows what else lies in these wetlands? Poachers? Smugglers? More beasts? I will leave you to your work now, and I wish you luck. But if Ms. Tavidell changes her mind though she needs only call for us and we will be happy to escort her back. And the same goes for any others who decide they'd like to follow her example." With those ominous words, she disappeared.

    "Get ready," Tiran said, his body sparking as he gripped his halberd.

    Prim cracked her knuckles. "About time. I thought we'd have to listen to her talk forever."

    "There's more people out there!" Elidyr called down to the others. "And they have weapons! I can see them!"

    "Agh, jeez," Drell grumbled. "Some people, dude. Just don't get what their deal is."

    There was a moment of silence, quickly broken by the crack of gunfire as bullets shot from the trees Elidyr had noted. The wizards were ready. On one side, Natalie created her protective dome around herself and Rhea. On the other, Simon summoned Scutum to protect him. The bullets bounced harmlessly off their defences. Tiran zipped away from the line of fire, appearing next to Ralga.

    Ralga opened her mouth and shot a great beam of electrical energy at the enemy forces, a blast that vanished without impact. Stepping casually out of the trees was a cyan-haired woman with a featureless white mask, and in her hand was a longsword made of deep black stone. Two more swords sat at her hip.

    "You handle the others. I'll deal with the S-Class wizards." she ordered calmly.

    During the commotion, Elidyr could spot another disturbance in the trees closer than the main enemy group. Something was coming closer to the group, approaching from the side.

    "Prim, on your left!" Eli called out, alerting his bird friend to the encroaching disturbance even as he leapt to another branch to investigate closer.

    Prim wasted no time, changing to her bird shape and shooting up into the trees to get a look at what Eli had seen, changing back on arrival in preparation to strike. She spotted her target; a man in a black cloak and mask with an even darker black dagger in hand, already anticipating someone after him.

    Prim felt something within her as she came close to the man and his weapon. Something deep in her body that told her to stay away. He saw her strike and countered with his own, lunging forth with his blade.

    "Prim, watch out!" Elidyr recognized the dagger as an anti-magic weapon, just like the one carried by the mysterious stranger he'd encountered earlier with Pat and Lina. He didn't know what the dagger would do, only that Pat didn't like it and it was probably bad.

    Prim twisted in mid air, avoiding the worst of the attack but suffering a small knick to the cheek instead. But that small cut was enough to cause a horrible rending pain to run through her body. She missed her mark and slammed into the ground, screaming in agony. "What the hell?!"

    Elidyr threw himself from his perch, clawed hands outstretched as he flew toward the man like a spear.

    As he came close to the man he could feel his draconic enhancements trying to recede back into his body, but he was able to maintain them with some effort. He crashed into the man, gripping him as they tumbled to the ground near Prim. Elidyr ended up on top, kneeling on the man's chest and holding him by the biceps.

    "Part of me was hoping you'd turn," the masked man said through grit teeth as Eli's claws cut through the thin padding he wore and into his flesh. His voice was identical to the man who'd been following them earlier. "It's always such a rush getting to kill another cocky wizard!"

    The assassin drew another dagger from his belt, this one a sleek and sharp metal to contrast the rugged black stone of the other. He changed his grip on his black knife and swiped at Eli, keeping the other one readied for a follow-up attack.

    Eli sensed the movement of his arm, twisting slightly, but not fast enough. His protective scales receded at the touch of the antimagic weapon, leaving only smooth brown skin to resist the blade. His attempt to dodge reduced what could have been a lethal puncture to merely a painful slash as the knife sliced through his new tunic, leaving a clean cut along Eli's stomach.

    Fortunately for him, the follow-up attack never came, as that hand found itself on the receiving end of an extremely hard kick from an extremely irate Prim before it could make contact. She had stumbled up and rushed the man with barely time to spare.

    "Try anything else and the next one is aimed at your head," she heaved.

    "Hold him!" Elidyr winced, his wings and tail retracting and vanishing as he shifted his grip to better pin the arm holding the black blade. His other augments dropped as well, so he could better focus on the important ones: his claws and muscles.

    "You are letting your emotions get the better of you again," came another voice from behind them, appearing out of nowhere. It was the voice of the maid who'd spoken to them moments ago. "I advised him against hiring your ilk, but he did not listen."

    At a glance, they saw a woman in sleek black clothing with a featureless white mask like the swordswoman's, wielding a pistol in each hand. They also saw that her body was see-through. In the moment that they looked at her, bullets came flying from a different direction.

    Prim dropped to the ground and rolled to the side, forced away from Eli and their downed opponent as the bullets whizzed past them. She dizzily pulled herself into a crouch, looking for any sign of the shooter and doing her best to ignore the fake. "I've heard worse."

    The illusory maid disappeared and gave way to more gunfire. She was able to hear the general direction it was coming from, and saw a visible figure in that direction, perched on a branch. But it was hard to make out details about them in the middle of dodging.

    Prim reached to the side, hoping Eli wouldn't resist and grabbed the attacker beneath him. With far greater effort than it should have taken, envenomed or otherwise, she tried to hurl the man up between them and the bullets.

    Eli had a similar idea once the bullets started flying, getting an arm around the man's neck to keep him somewhat restrained and hiding behind him. With Prim's help, they were able to keep him restrained while also using him as a shield.

    "Wait hold on I thought you guildies were supposed to be goody goodies! Using me as a fucking human shield?" the man shouted as he struggled with all his might. "And you, you piece of shit maid! Can't you see we're on the same side?"

    There was no hesitation from the shooter, pumping lead into their comrade without remorse. Some of the bullets managed to graze the Phoenix members from his squirming, but they managed to avoid most of the damage. The man who had taken the brunt of it was bleeding and his breathing was rough, but he was still alive. Meanwhile, the shooter backed away into the foliage, out of sight once more.

    "You were captured before the battle even started," announced the maid, her voice now coming from multiple places around the group. "You had already proven yourself useless, else I might have considered keeping you around. And this way milord need not worry about your payment. But a human has no place in a battle among wizards to begin with. If you disagree then prove me wrong and do something worthwhile with that disgusting thing you call a weapon."

    Two voices. Three. Four of the same voice surrounding them. Left, right, ahead and behind, each close enough that they could chase down the source if they wanted. "As for you two, I'd like to see what wizards working under Myeloch Latare are capable of. You can dispose of that lout if you wish, along with that knife. He'll hold onto that thing for dear life. It's the only way their kind stands any chance against us, after all."

    "Y-you bitch!" the man cursed.

    Prim ignored the woman and man both, wrenching the anti-magic weapon from the injured of the pair's hand and hurling it into the forest after one of the voices before it could drain too much of her strength. "Happy to give a demonstration if you'd like to stop hiding."

    In response, another image of the maid appeared in front of her. "Very well," she said. More images of her began to step out of the forest, weapons pointed at the pair. Like before, a close look would prove which were fakes. But the time to examine each one wasn't there as their numbers only increased. They would need more time, and this woman likely wasn't going to give it to them.

    Each of the mirages opened fire, the sound of their guns all too real as illusory bullets rained down on them. A moment of panic would make an opening for the real bullets, so the maid thought as she stayed back, ready to strike.

    Elidyr hid behind the wounded knifeman, wrapping himself in his wings for extra protection. Without the black blade nearby, his transformations came much easier. "What are we supposed to do now? I can't tell which one's real or not!"

    As the bullets started flying, Prim leapt upwards and changed to her bird shape allowing her to avoid them. She circled around, dropping from the sky as she changed back to land on… or rather through one of the false shooters as the illusion faded away. Punching the next closest had a similar effect. "I don't really have anything that can hit multiple targets at once like this. Do you?"

    "Well, I… I have one… but I don't want to hit you, too!" Eli peered out from behind the human shield, idly noticing that the man had fallen unconscious at some point.

    "Not a problem!" Prim took out one more illusion, for her own satisfaction more than anything. In the next moment, she was a bird in the air again.

    With Prim clear, Eli vaulted over the unconscious man, letting him fall to the ground. Taking a few breaths, the magic ignited in his throat as he unleashed a stream of dragon fire into the illusions. He turned his head, sweeping the flames through the horde of images and dispelling them. The soft ground below hardened under the heat as steam rose and evaporated. Elidyr fell to one knee, coughing out smoke as he caught his breath.

    As soon as the fire spewed forth the maid knew her illusions wouldn't last. She aimed one of her guns at Eli and the other at Prim, hoping to at least incapacitate them to finish off after. She fired both, giving away her position in the trees.

    For Elidyr, he heard the shot, followed by a dull *thump* behind him as the bullet hit the earth. "Prim, there!" He tried to point, but couldn't get his arm to move. Glancing down, he saw blood coming from his shoulder. "The shot must have grazed me…" he mumbled, his vision getting blurry. He shook his head, trying to focus. His spell must have taken more out of him than he realized.

    To anyone else, they would see the small entry hole, and a considerably messier exit hole. The bullet had gone clean through the young wizard's shoulder, but the shock had dulled Eli's perception.

    As a smaller and more agile target, bird-Prim proved harder to hit, even so she was only a feather's breadth away from having a matching hole in one of her wings. She snapped her wings shut and went into a dive, spearing right towards the source of the gunfire.

    As she reached the canopy of the trees, catching sight of the real woman, she changed back to her usual self, keeping the momentum as she hurtled towards her. Prim caught the woman's head as she flew past, pulling her with her and slamming her into the ground with a thunderous impact.

    From back where Eli had been standing, the collision was out of view because of the trees. The sound, however, reached him like a sonic boom, carrying with it a wave of displaced mud and dirt.

    A few moments later, Prim came staggering out of the trees, swaying from side to side. The venom was still taking its toll, affecting her balance and throwing her vision in and out of focus.

    She leaned against a nearby tree to catch her breath and chuckled. "She looks much cuter when she's sleeping."



  • 957

    Drell VS. Lots of Guns ft. Simon and Some Other Wizards but Mostly Drell Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    "Man, what the fuck, they have guns? I want a gun," complained Drell between breaths as she sprinted towards her now slightly-more-official teammates. The gunfire ricocheting off the curvature of her armour had left a few nasty dents, but she managed to make it over to Scutum's more potent defensive barrier without too much trouble. "Hey Si and Scute, 'sup? What's the plan, dudes?"

    "I'll need a moment to summon Cancer," he said. "I think he'll be okay judging by your armor. Do you have any ranged attacks? Or maybe if you can draw their attention I can give you Scutum."

    "Yeah, their puny pellets won't get past me!" Scutum boasted.

    "I think I can handle some attention," the big Phoenix grinned. "I'm, like, the biggest target that ain't a tree. And I still feel bigger than some of the trees. Plus I'm always down for a round two with ol' Scute-o, right buddy?"

    "That's right! Witness me, Master!" With Scutum's blessing, Drell strode up in front of Simon with her arms raised provocatively. Scutum hovered from his place on Simon's arm and onto Drell, keeping his shield up the whole time.

    "Ey, why don't you come down here and fight me like real guys, ya bunch of cowardly pew-pew babies?" Ith'Drell called out to the array of gunners whose shots plinked ineffectually off of Scutum's stout protection. "And hey, let me know who's got the best gun! I wanna know which one to nab up after we're done clobberin' your stupid asses!"

    With the gunfire focused on their defenders, Tiran made his move. "Let's blow 'em to hell, Ralga!" She roared, summoning forth great balls of lightning. At the same time, Tiran summoned an arsenal of lightning spears.

    The spears fell first, passing neatly between the trees and piercing their targets. The lightning orbs followed quickly after, exploding near their arboreal cover. But the electricity was careful not to harm them, instead zeroing in on the spears and chaining between them, frying anyone in their range while keeping the wetlands untouched.

    But another wave of fodder took their place. And the swordswoman seemed completely unharmed. She rushed forward at great speed, as if unhindered by her antimagic weapon's weight. She rushed straight at Rhea, who countered with an attempt to flatten her with magic. Between her weakened state and the antimagic mass of a longsword, it was futile.

    She tore through Natalie's barrier like paper. But before she could injure one of the wizards within Tiran appeared, zipping over them and diving down with his halberd. The physical weapon was able to push hers away, but it wouldn't stop her for long.

    Meanwhile, Simon got to work, drawing out his golden key. "I'll give you a proper summoning this time. Give you all the strength you need to go all out. Open, gate of the giant crab, Cancer!" He held forth his key with a dramatic pose and turned it in midair. A shining circle appeared in the air, splitting in half around his key like an opening door with a doorbell's "ding dong" to accompany it.

    The familiar crimson spirit stepped from the gate, understanding the situation with a quick glance of the battlefield. He faced Simon. "What would you have of me, mas-... Simon?"

    "You'll cover me and Scutum will cover Drell, and together we can push through. Two targets means each is taking less fire." He looked at Drell as if seeking her approval. "Does that work?"

    "Uh- I dunno how valuable pushin' them all back is gonna be," the Phoenix murmured quickly, trying to take stock of everything that was happening. "Is that anti-magic? What the-? Uh, hey guys up there!" She shouted into the canopies above. "If you're in trouble then drop down and get behind me or the crab! Uh- Rhea!" She called out to the S-Class wizard. "You want a blade?"

    The swordswoman deflected Tiran's weapon, maneuvering her weighty weapon with ease and countering with a slash. Tiran was able to zip away, but not very far when he was so close to antimagic. In the moment he fled she came after Rhea again. This time it was Natalie who came to her aid, struggling to use her dagger as an actual weapon.

    Rhea took a step back and looked at Drell. "Not sure how much use I'll get out of it the way my strength is being sapped, but I'll take anything that'll let me fight!"

    "Take mine!" Said the reptile, chucking Big Whap over.

    "But what about you?" asked Simon.

    "I got massive hands, don't I? Rhea needs it more than I do for these gun clowns."

    Rhea drew the weapon into her hand with her magic and immediately unsheathed it. She turned her gaze back to the battlefield trying to see how to best make use of it. And for the moment her answer was to run away. Natalie and Tiran exchanged a knowing glance and did their best to keep the swordswoman from following. Ralga supported them with lightning bolts from above, each of which forced the swordswoman to block the attack with her blade and leave herself open. But the openings never lasted long enough for Tiran and Natalie to deliver a meaningful blow.

    Rhea didn't run very far before she turned back, mustering all the magic she could. "Alternate World!" she chanted, shooting herself blade-first into the fray as if she were falling sideways. Faster and faster until she collided with the antimagic weapon, her strike blocked and her spell cancelled. But she'd built up too much speed and force to be stopped so cleanly. She sent the two of them flying all the way back into the swamp past even the gunmen firing at Drell and Simon.

    "Goddamn, where do you even find a merc like this?" Tiran griped before zipping after her, while Natalie was finally able to summon her spectral armor and follow suit. The gunfire coming after Drell and Simon became more scattered, the gunners clearly shaken by the sudden events.

    "If we're going to do something I think now's the time," said Simon. "What's the plan?"

    "They're sandwiched!" Announced the big Phoenix, breaking into a sprint. "We charge - nab their guns, dude!"

    With their attention split, their position compromised and their gunfire rendered largely ineffectual, the mobs of gunners were quickly routed as giant plated lizard and even-more-giant spirit crab bore down upon them. Nothing got past Scutum as Ith'Drell rushed into the fray, and the forks of electricity that lanced from her fingertips locked up the muscles of the first gunner she crashed into before they could jump away. She grabbed them by the back of their collar, elbowed them in the air and smashed them roughly into the dirt.

    Cancer formed a rapid current of slicing water that travelled along the inside of his claw, the same one he'd created in Simon's fight with Prim. He grabbed the enemy's weapons with his claw and broke them in two, leaving Simon free to finish them off. While he'd lost his spear earlier, he was making apt use of a long stick he'd found since. If an enemy outside their range tried to target them, Cancer would knock them down with a foamy beam from his mouth. Simon always found it entertaining how hard it was for them to get back up when covered with the slippery substance.

    "They didn't tell me which one was the best," Drell complained, nabbing her unconscious opponent's gun as promised and trying to figure out how to work the thing - it wasn't like any gun she'd used before, not that she'd used many. "Hey Scute," she asked of the spirit on her arm as she sprinted at yet another distracted gunner. "Can I, like, throw you? Like, shield-missile strike! You know?"

    "You throw me hard enough and I'll be the toughest cannonball you've ever seen!" Scutum boasted. Drell persuaded him off of her arm and into her hand.

    "Cannonball that guy then," she guffawed, hurling her arm back and flinging it forward. Scutum's shield-carapace ploughed into the marksman's face and left them a nullified threat. As they hit the floor, the Phoenix levelled her newly acquired firearm and experimentally pulled the trigger - to her moderate surprise, it fired, and the gunner behind the first took a blow to the shoulder and dropped their weapon. "Oh hell yeah, that's fast, okay-" The big Phoenix bent down to the unconscious gunner at her feet, looking for more ammunition so that she could fire again. Guns used pellets, right? It was as she spotted in her periphery a panicked gunner firing off several ineffectual shots at Scutum in succession that she realised: "Oh! I can just, like, keep firing."

    And so she did.

    Drell could still hear the fighting nearby between the swordswoman and the S-Class wizards, but it seemed like her own battle wouldn't be lasting much longer. The gunmen struggled to organize themselves in the chaos, and didn't seem to pose much of a threat to the four anymore. A few stray rounds hit against Drell's armor but nothing that was worth worrying about.

    "This many of you and you can't take out two wizards?" Drell heard a gruff voice say from behind cover. "Fine then, I'll have to do it myself."

    As quickly as he left cover, the source of the voice came charging at her. It was a muscular, older man with a more confident bearing than his comrades. In one hand was one of said comrades, picked up off the ground to be used as a shield. And in the other was a trench knife, the thin blade attached to thick brass knuckles.

    "Dude, I know, right?" Said the Phoenix as she turned to face her new assailant, brandishing the firearm as a makeshift club. "Glad we agree about those guys - let's be friends!"

    "Maybe if I wasn't getting paid to kill you we could, you seem pretty interesting!" he laughed. As he came close, he threw his human shield in the air toward Drell to block her view while coming in for an uppercut below it. The Phoenix's other arm came forwards, now bearing the returning shield-bug extraordinaire, Scutum. Human shield and uppercut alike rebounded off of the spirit's sturdy silver barrier.

    "Oh ey, who's payin'? How much are they payin' you?" Ith'Drell questioned, keeping her stance low and digging one heel into the mud. "I'm just sayin', I've got like fiiive jewels I could slip your way, you know what I'm saying?"

    "Might have told you if it wasn't in my contract not to. Those five jewels are pretty tempting though!" He played along. Despite his deflected attack, he maintained his aggression. "A shield, eh?" Without hesitation, he grabbed at Scutum's barrier and tried to shove it aside with his free arm.

    "I'm not just any old shield, buddy!" Scutum shot back, his wings buzzing as he resisted the man's push.

    "You want the shield? You can have him," Drell taunted, lightning rippling through her back-leg muscles and forcing her foot against the ground like a piston. Force pushing Scutum aside was overwhelmed by force driving Scutum forward and down into the aggressor's face, the full mass of armoured reptile behind it.

    He was launched back, tumbling along the ground before he was able to grip the ground and right himself. It was clear he was at a disadvantage, as his eyes darted around for something he could use. He had a variety of equipment on his belt, but none of it could pierce Drell's defenses. A handgun, grenades, and rope attached to a grappling hook among other things.

    He pulled the pins on a pair of grenades and lobbed them at her sides. If they didn't take her out they'd at least keep her busy long enough for him to ready his grappling hook.

    "I- dude," Drell's arms went limp, disappointed. "Really, if you're gonna throw stuff at me, at least make it look like you're trying to aim-"

    The grenades exploded. The twin impulses rumbled through her frame as shrapnel clattered against plate. The shock cleared, and the disoriented Phoenix realised she'd been knocked to the floor and the stranger was slowly making his way toward her.

    "Definitely wasn't expecting that to get you, what happened?" He asked with genuine curiosity as he moved forward. Not idly though. He quickly put away his trench knife and instead drew his handgun, firing not at Drell but at Scutum who was still latched onto Drell's arm. In his other hand was a heavy grappling hook tied to a rope. The man spun it, ready to knock or drag away Scutum's shield if Drell tried to use it again.

    The first round hit Drell's arm and plinked off. The second grazed Scutum, instead hitting his shield. The third tore off a chunk of his wing, leaving a shimmering glow at the wound while the lost part of the wing shattered into shards of light.

    "Uh oh, this seems bad, my friend! I'll protect you as long as I can but I'm not sure how much longer that is!" Scutum's usual confidence was shaken.

    "Wha-uh hey, I got one of those-!" Ith'Drell loosed a couple of rifle rounds at her attacker as she leaned up on one elbow. She rolled to the side to rise to her feet and to cover Scutum, momentarily forgetting that as a spirit he would just come back if slain. "Ugh, man, how'd you get those things to blow up?"

    The mercenary immediately noticed her aiming and stepped aside, being nicked by the first round and avoiding the second. "You really never seen a grenade? Just pull the pin and it goes boom, they're great!" He closed the distance between them quickly and threw his grapple to hook Drell's shoulder and pull her aside, off her spirit companion. He was rather done dealing with Scutum and wanted him gone. The armoured Phoenix was yanked backwards, reeling, until one hand flew up to grasp the hook on her shoulder plating. A sparking current ran up Drell's arm into her shoulder, through the grappling hook and down the length of dampened rope - the electric charge met merc's hand and continued to lance through his body, clenching every muscle it struck as it passed. He couldn't stop from flinching, he couldn't stop from loosing a handgun round uselessly into the distance, and he couldn't let go of the rope as Ith'Drell yanked on the hook and brought it, and him, toward her waiting elbow. The bludgeoning bend in her arm brought the man's momentum to an immediate halt and as he fell she went with him to the dirt, throwing her rifle to the side and bringing a hand down on his gun-arm.

    "Didn't expect that to get you!" Drell laughed, "What happe- haha, 'm'only kidding - I like, totally expected that to get you-"

    "Ha! You're gonna be like that, huh?" he said, struggling against her strength. His free hand still held the grapple, which he grabbed by the hook and swung at Drell's head with. It met her helmet with a resounding clang.

    "Ow!" The armoured reptile cried, hurt and a bit insulted. "You wanna test the toughness of my head, do ya?" Her question was followed by another resounding clang from her helmet as it slammed into the mercenary's forehead.

    His head spun as he reeled from the hit, but he was too stubborn to back down now. He turned the hook in his hand and came at Drell's head again, this time trying to jab the hook's point through her visor and into her eye. The hook poked into the Drhelmet, drawing cries of protest from the reptile who raised one hand to bat away the hook and hand. There was a rattling of metal on metal as the two scuffled.

    "Ey ey ay ay ay ayy! That's my eye, don't go there dude! What the fuck? Mean!"

    He struggled against Drell, but with her armored body still pinning him down and both his arms now in her grasp, struggle was all he could do. "...Well I guess I've got no right to criticize the others if I can't do the job either, eh?"

    "Hey man, don't be hard on yourself - I'm, like, invincible," the Phoenix boasted, even as she held the poked eye shut and tried to ignore the reckoning the grenades had wreaked on her stomach. She paused on her way to delivering another headbutt. "Hey sorry but I kinda gotta knock ya out here- is your gun better than those other guns do you think?"

    He shrugged as best he could in his current position. "Better than a rifle? It's a pistol, come on. But it's reliable. What, you gonna take it?"

    "Dude I dunno what this new tech is!" Drell complained hurriedly. "I was lookin' for- I mean, yeah, like, if it's not a super personal thing - I figure it's right here and you're not gonna be needin' weapons where you're going so if you're not attached to it or anything…?"

    He thought about it for a moment. "I mean sure, it's yours, but take it after you knock me out will ya? Got what's left of my dignity to consider, you know how it is."

    "Oh hell yeah- thanks dude, don't gotta tell me twice!"

    With a mighty heave, the big Phoenix's forehead dropped and sent the unfortunate mercenary to dreamland. She rolled off of the smaller man and shook her head dizzily - explosions and headbutts were, as it turned out, not a great combination - before retrieving the firearm from his limp hand and rising to a crouch to take stock of how everyone else was doing.



  • 957

    A Spirited Performance Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    The small group of wizards stepped through the opening Ralga had guarded and into the Greatwood. The lighting was dim but they could see well enough, thanks to the luminescent vegetation and magical wisps abound like they'd seen outside. Within was a wide open space, with thick walls of wood like cliff faces along the edges. Thick, natural wooden bridges stretched across the space overhead, from which many beasts that called the place home watched them. These became thicker and more plentiful the higher they went, the view above being completely blocked after a certain point.

    "If we were to climb the tree, then after a long and painful journey we'd reach the Guardian's resting place," Faris explained. "Tiran sounded confident though that the relic was down below. I'm guessing with his speed and the head start he had that he already checked above and didn't find anything. Or that he found some sign of the relic below. The aforementioned below was a solid wooden floor dotted with tunnels that lead downward.

    Faris looked at Pat. "You can feel the spirits, can't you? All around us but especially down there. If we want their help then we'll need to lure them out first. They like beautiful things most of all, be they flowers, a performance like dancing or music, or even a particularly beautiful person. They also like kind, friendly people who will play with them but we have to be very careful with that. Their idea of a game is not quite the same as ours. Any ideas?"

    Pat's brow wrinkled and he looked around them as they descended, trying to come up with a concrete idea. "Well...I would be willing to try playing with them if I have to. I'm good at playing but that seems a little dangerous…I'm not much of a dancer, I'm an okay singer but uh…Oh, there is this one thing I can do if I'm happy enough. Maybe they'd like it?"

    "What would that be?" Faris asked.

    "Er, well, it's hard to describe." Pat said. "When I feel something intensely enough, sometimes the things around me are reshaped by those feelings. Rowan says my magic can unconsciously do things that it could never be made to do through a direct spell. I guess he could too, technically but he isn't powerful enough, and he doesn't ever really feel anything all that strongly. Faye saw it earlier, when we met up in town."

    "When he's happy we suddenly feel a warmth coming over us. When he's said it's the opposite." Faye explained like a school teacher.

    "If you're happy enough?" Questioned Aja. "Also I'm a little offended they don't think we're beautiful enough already but it sounds like we've got other options anyway. Maybe they'd like some of my blood art?"

    "I think we'll leave that for a last resort maybe," Lina said with discomfort. "What about you, Faye? Got any secret talents?"

    Faye thought and shook her head. Her book reading wasn't really a talent and anything she could do with magic she couldn't because she was low on aether. Shadow magic also isn't particularly beautiful magic…

    "There's nothing I can think of but… you mentioned dancing, right? I can… maybe…" Faye hesitated for a moment and looked away from the group. "I guess… I could… dance?"

    Faris lit up. "Oh, right! I remember seeing you dance a lot when we were little."

    Faye's ears twitched upon hearing Faris speak. "You watched me?!" The girl half-shouted surprisingly, quiet enough to not disturb the spirits. Showing so much emotion at once wasn't at all like her and she immediately shot back into her shell. "You never said anything." She pouted.

    Faris flinched. "R-right, sorry about that. You were really good though."

    "Rowan's gonna wanna hear about this!" Pat beamed. "I bet Faye's a great dancer! She's already beautiful, and she's - someone I think the spirits would find really interesting!" After a moment's pause to think past his verbal stumbling, Pat thumped his left palm with his right fist. "Oh yeah, and she's connected with this land, she might feel familiar and safe to them! In fact, I think they're already watching us. I feel oodles of curiosity."

    Faye's face started blushing. The last person she wanted to know was Rowan. He was going to tease her madly with this…

    "Hmm…." Lina mused. "If you're going to dance, are you going to need music? I could try singing if you want. Dad used to sing to me a lot and I like to think I picked some of that up."

    "Yeah, that sounds super fun, let's do it!" Pat cheered, stepping forward. "It'll be a blast! I'll sing too! I can match other people really well!"

    Faye stepped a bit back and held her hand against her chest. Not sure if she should do this, she glanced up at Faris.

    "Would… that work?" She asked her childhood friend.

    "It's as good a bet as any," Faris said. "And with the possibility of the outside group being attacked I don't think we have too much time to look for more options."He flashed her a smile. "But yeah, they'll like it. I know it. And I think we can help set the mood a bit. Merry?"

    The Blight toad sprouted a mushroom on his back, one that shone with bright, almost neon color. The mushroom got bigger and bigger until it unleashed a cloud of spores into the sky. These spores were just as bright as the shroom and came in a rainbow of colors, gently drifting down through the air around them. Faris followed up by drawing his chakrams. His gloves began to glow, lifting the chakrams with telekinetic force and spinning them at his hands. Spores appeared from his fingertips and coated the spinning weapons, the same luminescent spores that Merry had made.

    He unleashed the weapons with a nimble twirl. They flew along the wooden floor around them in a circle, their movement driven by his gloves' magic. In no time the spores he'd left behind had grown into a ring of rainbow shining shrooms.

    Aja pulled out her relic blade and Faris immediately stopped her. "Whoa hold on," he said. "We don't need any of that, uh, blood stuff. I don't think they'll appreciate it."

    "Hey, my Mimic Blade can do more than that!" Aja argued. She swiped at one of the falling spores and activated her relic, the blade stretching to its full length and taking on the same bright glow. "It makes a pretty glowstick at the very least."

    "Wow…" Lina said as she looked at the scene of neon lights around her in their myriad colors. "I think it's been a few minutes since the last time I mentioned how cool magic is, right? It's probably about time I do it again. But I guess I've got my own part in this, huh? Is there a specific kind of music you like to dance to, Faye?"

    "A-Ah… N-Not really. I can dance to anything…" Faye's cheeks showed a rosy glow from all the attention she was suddenly getting. Was mentioning her dancing a bad idea…? But if she wanted to help the outside group, this was the least she could do… Faye took a deep breath and exhaled the air she had gathered in her lungs into a deep sigh. "I think I'm ready."

    A flash of white summoned a strange, ornate box in Lina's hands. It was a magitech music box of her own design, just big enough that she needed both hands to hold. She could turn a wheel on the side to switch between a few of the songs she'd built into it.

    Lina took a deep breath, humming a little tune over and over to make sure she had it right before starting properly. She spared a glance at Pat and Faye too to make sure they'd gotten a sense for what she'd be going for. "Okay, I'm starting."

    She activated the box and it began playing imitation strings and piano. They were simple sounds. An inferior version of tune to the one her father would play with his magic. But in Lina's mind she could easily hear it as that full, beautiful orchestra. She closed her eyes and hummed along.

    The strings picked up. They would swell again, and she would begin.

    Far, so far away
    To where the walls of home are but a distant, fading mem'ry
    There she walked
    She walked, and walked, away
    From all the pain and sorrow, and the bleak tomorrows
    Into the horizon, to a brighter place…

    Pat started out just humming a tune that matched Lina's, closer and closer while he felt the waves coming off of her as thoroughly as possible. After the first stanza he seemed to defy earlier assurances that his magic had no mind reading by even matching the lyrics Lina sang, quietly enough to become an undertone to her voice. As the song went on, Pat began to radiate the feelings the song pulled out of him and those of Lina and Faye as if they all shared in his magic and the music itself carried their feelings with complete clarity.

    Faye took a deep breath and started moving her body slowly to the music. First she waved her arms around slowly and enchantingly but soon noticed that it was too embarrassing with all eyes directed towards her… so she closed them… and continued. Her arms, her legs, eventually her entire body was an extension to the music that was being played and the lyrics that Lina and Pat were singing. Graceful moves flew over in each other. The view of a tranquil being surrendering themselves to the music around them.

    The floating lights danced around her movements as if she were the one controlling them, dancing alongside her and giving her an ethereal look. While Faye had chosen not to look at them, her audience was certainly looking at her. And they were mesmerized. Faris and Aja, Pat and Lina, and the spirits that had chosen to make themselves visible.

    Their translucent bodies emerged from the wood around them, leaning in to watch the performance. Their earth-toned glow masked most of their features, but they were human-shaped, mostly resembling women and children. Aja opened her mouth to speak, but Faris stopped her by putting a finger over her lips. He gestured toward the ongoing performance. He wasn't going to let it be interrupted now.

    The final note left Lina's lips, and she took a moment to breathe as the music box finished the instrumentals. A brief moment where she could enjoy what remained of Faye's performance without worrying about her own.

    She looked around at everyone, her face locked into a smile as her heart pounded. She'd been singing like this for a lot of her life, but this was the first time she did it as part of a group performance like this. It was fun.

    "I'm guessing it worked, then?" asked Aja, looking around at the ethereal beings surrounding them. They giggled playfully at her as she watched them closely.

    "It did," Faris answered. "Looks like you three put on quite the beautiful show to bring out this many of them!"

    Faye stopped dancing upon hearing the words emerge and the music stopping. She reopened her eyes to watch the life that had surrounded them grant them an audience. It was mesmerizing. Faye had lived in this land and not even she had ever seen something like this. Her awe was short-lived when she remembered everyone had been watching her dance. A blush took place where her surprise had been.

    The spirits fluttered through the air toward the group, coming close to admire them. Specifically the members of Phoenix Nest. Lina couldn't help but take a step back at their sudden interest. Some of them even reached out as if trying to grab hold of them.

    Pat could feel their strong desire for more, much more, but they hadn't the time for that. Before they could get too greedy Faris spoke up. "Oh beautiful spirits of the Wetlands, great and pure, we come to ask for your aid. We've come to cleanse these lands of the blight that brings it suffering, that taints the very soul of the Wetland." Their mood changed immediately at his words, with some of the younger-looking spirits hiding behind the bigger ones.

    Faris' eyes scanned over them before he continued. "There is nothing to fear. As you can see, we've offered you this gift as proof of our intentions. The color of their souls shone through their art and brought your forth, did it not? You know we mean no harm. Now please, guide us to the source of this blight so we may eliminate it once and for all."

    The spirits glanced at each other, communicating wordlessly. They seemed to come to an agreement before dancing through the air once more, diving down into the base of the tree. The group could feel the earth shifting below as the spirits untangled the labyrinth of arboreal tunnels.

    Finally, a single spirit of a young girl emerged from below, gesturing at the group to follow her.



  • 957

    Chapter 2: End Inner Wetlands, Friday July 20th, X784

    The group inside the tree was led down through the maze of its tangled roots by the spirits. It became clear how Tiran failed to find the relic, as the paths were entirely at the whims of the spirits. But as they traveled, the scenery became less natural. Glints of glass and metal emerged from behind the plantlife. If Aja was to be believed, they were wandering into a structure built by the ancients, preserved by the spirits.

    Faris struggled to believe it, as it would suggest either they built it under the wrathful Guardian's nose, were somehow allowed to tarnish the Greatwood, or that they'd somehow built it before the spirits and the Guardian were there. But they'd been there from the beginning, so that was impossible, right?

    They ended up in what looked like a laboratory overgrown by nature, the floor flooded up to their knees. Most of what was inside was damaged or unrecognizable, but they immediately identified the relic at the source of this from the sheer magical energy it radiated. It was an ornate but cracked bottle, submerged in the water. The liquid within slowly dripped out, but somehow the bottle never grew emptier. Aja didn't seem to know anything about the liquid inside, but was excited to explain that they'd found a "Replicator Bottle".

    With careful handling, the group was able to stop the leak and retrieve the bottle.

    On the surface, the battle between the Phoenix members and their foes concluded, but Tiran and the others continued their fight against the antimagic swordswoman. They seemed to have the upper hand, when she inexplicably cast aside her black blade. Instead she drew her final two swords, radiating with magical energy.

    Without the antimagic stone weighing her down, she came at them with speed and ferocity even further beyond what she'd shown them. She was utterly superhuman. They could hit her with their magic more easily now, but it didn't seem to affect her as much as they'd hoped, like she herself was somehow resistant to it. And her blades' magic sent razor winds with each slash of her weapons. The three were somehow on the defensive again, unable to deal a decisive blow until finally Ralga swept down. Not to attack the swordswoman, but to whisk away Rhea and Natalie from the battlefield.

    "I'm done having you slow me down," spat Tiran, reuniting with Ralga as they squared off against the swordswoman. "What do you Atrians call this again? The technique you've stolen from us and taken for yourselves? ...That's right. Unison Raid: Lightspeed Rampage!" The two flared with increased ether, unleashing a lightning-speed onslaught against their foe. The moment one came close they rematerialized with an attack, bolting away to make room for the other to come in from a different direction, their strikes coming without pause.

    Their combination wore her down enough for Tiran to land the final blow, piercing her with his halberd. Her body fell to the ground, and Tiran sneered at the helpless Rhea on the sidelines.

    The disparate groups reunited and restrained their assailants the best they could. Faris decided he would go to one of the Wetland's research outposts and contact the Council. Sure they had nothing more to fear, he thought he could safely tell them everything that happened and have them arrest these people, as well as investigate Quail. He decided he would leave the fate of the relic to the members of Phoenix Nest, but suggested giving it to the Council, despite Aja's insistence they keep it for themselves. Tiran agreed to watch over their captives in case they tried anything.

    Despite his victory, he seemed concerned about the swordswoman's unusual strength. Especially since he could tell for sure she was no wizard. And she refused to answer any of his questions, or even to speak for that matter.

    This left the others to take the relic and go home. Rhea had the boat they'd used to get here nearby, having been the only one to resist the Guardian's wind, and they were able to use it for the journey back to Lautela.

    Upon arriving they found only Quail's butler Zereus awaiting them, calmly asking for the relic. The group was already suspicious of him, and quickly noticed the miniature comm lacrima in his ear he didn't use before. Pat could sense ill intent from him, and Rhea could sense a large amount of magic underneath them.

    Even so, they refused to return the relic and braced themselves. "I see," was all Zereus said. A once-hidden magic circle beneath them flared to life, tearing open a hole into space. The guild wizards avoided its maw. But it wasn't meant to drag them in, rather to let something else out. A demonic beast reached out from within, its hulking body grotesquely mangled with multiple eyes and great fangs. The group readied to face it, but felt their bodies heavy. Rhea immediately recognized this magic; her own magic.

    Meanwhile, a portal appeared behind Zereus. One that Pat, Eli, and Prim recognized as the same kind the soldier escaped through in the mines. "Judging by the activated sigils and the lack of a report from those mercenaries, I was expecting this. I expect the Council's dogs are already on their way as well. What I was not expecting was for Enabosk to be missing from your ranks. I had doubts my little pet would suffice for all of you, but without him it should be fine. My darling will have no issue bringing it to me when it is finished with you."

    They tried to stop him but were unable in their current situation. Zereus escaped, leaving only them and his demonic beast. It raised its arms to attack, and in the next moment its chest exploded, leaving a gaping hole. Its magic was released and the creature slumped to its feet, falling to reveal the person behind it. Fist raised, there stood a woman with long golden hair and a blue longcoat emblazoned with an ankh symbol, her body covered with bright magic markings. Commander of the Rune Knights, Milla Cavan herself, had arrived.



  • 957

    Chapter 3: Beneath the Shimmering Mist
    The Lakeside Town of Shessalie, Monday July 30th, X784

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

    Overlooking Lake Cellis, Shessalie is a bustling town at the upper edge of Central Atria. Between the rapidly-growing popularity of their local guild Phoenix Nest and the push for development by Burgess and Sons Mining co., the town has transformed. Most crucial to this is the recently-completed railroad connecting it to the capital, and thus to all the rest of Atria's major cities.

    Shessalie sees a steady flow of trade and workers thanks to the railroad, but the town also sees a fair amount of tourism now; people eager to see the legendary Phoenix Nest for themselves. And how could they not? They'd heard about rising star Rowan Hoskel passing the S-Class exam on his first try as one of only two to pass at all this year. They'd heard about its other members' mission in the Lautela Wetlands where they allegedly faced both rival wizards and a swarm of mercenaries, and where they helped uncover the dark dealings of Lautela's Lord Quail who was apprehended by the Magic Council. Unfortunately, his butler Zereus was never found, and the search for him continues.

    Be it good or bad, Phoenix Nest was all people wanted to talk about. And neither Shessalie's townspeople nor the many companies involved in marketing the GMG were going to pass up on that. Posters, t-shirts, and figurines of the guild's more well-known members lined the shelves of capital megastores and Shessalie vendor stalls alike. Boriel and Rowan even appeared as rare pulls in the new set for the popular trading card game "Guild Crossfire". It wouldn't be long until journalists came seeking the other members, or until bigger companies came seeking brand deals and such.

    Needless to say the guild was doing rather well for itself. They were now receiving job requests from towns further off, and even the occasional special request from one of the other major cities like Lautela or capital Atria if it called for a more specific skillset. Quelling beasts and defeating bandits, retrieving precious items and investigating mysterious happenings, or even the usual mundane busywork; the guild's members had their pick of the lot.

    Sorcerer Weekly

    Two more issues of the iconic wizard magazine have been released, covering various things including magic and magitech discoveries, dark wizards, the accomplishments of famous wizards, and the S-Class exam.

    Sorcerer Weekly Issue 127

    Sorcerer Weekly Issue 128

    Main Story

    It was another beautiful morning over the Phoenix Nest guildhall, and Myeloch appeared with quite a bit of news for the Nestlings. He requested they meet him outside the hall. When they found him, they saw that he was not alone. Beside him was a young armored man with fair skin and neatly-styled blonde hair. But more importantly, he bore an Ankh symbol on his chest and wore a pitch-black sword and buckler. He was a fledgling member of the Council's Antimagic Corps, a unit that specialized in neutralizing wizards.

    He also seemed to be an acquaintance of Boriel judging by the way he lit up at the sight of the man, though Boriel didn't seem to reciprocate his feelings. Myeloch, didn't seem too fond of him, something a few of the members caught beneath his unchanging smile.

    He explained that Phoenix Nest had increased in priority in the Council's eyes, and that they would now have a representative of the council stationed in town alongside them. The man introduced himself as Sir William Alexander, aspiring knight of Sidia before he was interrupted by Myeloch. Myeloch explained that sending a member of the Antimagic Corps was likely a security measure after seeing the magic Boriel and Rowan were capable of alongside his own infamy, a statement William refuted as pure speculation.

    He finished the matter by explaining that William was banned from the guildhall as long as he wielded his antimagic weaponry lest they interfere with the guild's magical wards, and warned him that it wasn't smart to disobey that. William reluctantly agreed, and promised to keep to the town, though he told the other guild members they were free to speak with him whenever. He apparently loved tales of adventure, and would love to share his own. He smiled at Boriel once more before taking his leave.

    Myeloch's tone brightened as he explained that he had more exciting news. The guild had apparently been invited to a banquet by the Emperor himself to celebrate the progress of wizardkind. The Emperor specifically mentioned Myeloch's contributions toward research he still refused to elaborate on as well as Rowan passing the council's newly revamped S-Class exam. But Emperor Arvis made sure to say the other guild members were welcome as well. The banquet would be held on Friday, so there were a few days left. Myeloch encouraged everyone to use that time to find something nice to wear, get any pressing jobs out of the way, or otherwise relax if they were feeling nervous about it.




  • 957

    Before ???, Sunday July 29th, X784

    A soft breeze swayed the grass atop the hill, sending the light pink petals of a plum tree drifting through the air. As they danced in the wind, a little girl chased after them. She had rosy cheeks and even redder hair that fluttered about behind her. She laughed and smiled without a care in the world.

    This dream again… thought Lina, observing the scene in her mind's eye. She spent her youth wandering from place to place but none of them felt as warm and comforting as this place, the place she'd spent her earliest years.. It was home, her real home. It had been a while since she'd had this dream. Maybe she was here now because she'd been thinking about it ever since getting back from the wetlands, when she revisited this place in the waking world. A replica of it in her father's reality chamber, at least.

    Sitting at the base of the tree was a man with long silver hair, watching her with a soft smile. It was her father, of course. In a different time, when he would never leave her side. A short distance from the tree was a small cottage, an amber glow coming from the windows. Smoke billowed from the chimney above, carrying with it the aroma of freshly-baked bread.

    Within that cottage was her mother. Lina could still remember her tender touch. She could remember the warmth in her chest whenever she was with her. But even so, she was unable to remember her face, her name, or even the sound of her voice. She wanted desperately to go into the cottage. To see her again, to hear her again, to hold her again. But while her thoughts were her own, her body was not. And so she continued chasing flowers, unable to do anything more.

    "Princess, come here for a moment please," asked her father. She looked at him, glanced back at the petals for a moment before rushing eagerly to his side. She nestled in the grass next to him, resting her head against his body. He gently patted her head, and she giggled with joy.

    "I want you to look around us," he said. "To really look, closely. At the color of the petals, and how it changes a bit when the light of the setting sun hits it. How that light casts shadows along the ground that dance in sync with the petals that made them. How all of it feels against your skin, the warmth of the sun contrasting against the tree's shade, each washing over different sections of your body. The smells on the breeze, the sounds of the tree… each and every thing."

    She took a deep breath, trying her best to feel what her father wanted her to before looking back up at him inquisitively. "Ah, sorry. I may have gotten a tad carried away with that, haha. But you'll be casting your first spells soon, and these sorts of things are important for magic. Okay? The more vividly you can remember how the world around you feels, the better you can recreate it with your magic!"

    Casting spells. Ah, that's right. He didn't know yet.

    That I'm defective.

    It all came back to her. How the rest of the dream would go. Her father was going to sing to her for the first time. He would craft a song right there as they watched the setting sun. And when the sun crossed the horizon she would wake. She could tell it wouldn't be long from the violet edge pushing against the pink and orange sky.

    "Papa likes to make little poems and songs to get the images really stuck in my mind. The more things connecting an important piece, the better."

    "Songs? Can you sing one? Pretty please?" she looked up at him eagerly.

    Her father chuckled. "Of course, sweetheart. Actually, how about I make one? Really show you how it's done?" She looked at him in awe. "One about this place right here. It's important after all. We'll connect it in our minds so even if things change, we'll never lose it. Ok?"


    "Let's see…" He waved his fingers around, and tiny glowing instruments appeared in the air. "Which ones look good to you?" Lina hopped up to get a closer look at them. As she got close to one, Myeloch made a little noise with it. She giggled, and began poking at them to provoke more sounds. Her father was happy to oblige.

    After a fair bit of playing around, the instruments were chosen and she returned to her seat at her father's side. "Alright. Let's call this one… Plum Tree Blossoms. Easy to remember, which is the most important thing." Lina repeated the name, trying it out. She liked it.

    The sky's warm colors were fading fast. It was almost time.

    Myeloch tried out their chosen instruments one last time, running through a few different melodies he might want to accompany his song. Lina helped him, giving her thoughts on them as he played. Even if sometimes those thoughts were a little harsh, which amused her father more than anything.

    The shadows around them stretched, beginning to fade into the growing darkness around them. Even in the dream, Lina could feel the lump in her throat. The pressure on her chest. This dream was a painful one. But at the same time, she didn't want to leave it. Not yet. Not again.

    Everything was ready, and Myeloch took a deep breath to begin. Lina leaned in closer to listen. He held that breath and gave her a side glance, just to tease her. She laughed and smacked him lightly.

    Deep purple hues bathed the verdant hill, accompanied by darkness. Her cheeks were warm, her vision was blurry. She wiped her face, once more in control of her body. Above her was a rough wooden ceiling, and below was a soft bed. She was back.

    She took a deep breath to calm herself, and quietly began to hum a song.

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  • 957

    Post-Exam Partying Atria City, Friday July 20th, X784

    As much as Zaline would have loved to go somewhere bright and exciting where she could drink and dance her heart out, she had to consider her company. She considered Rowan a good friend by now and thought he might be willing to join her for that, but she didn't know their other two companions all that well. The Gryphons' Valbestian member Kubra Bline, who had left his beast Epludo back at the tower, and another Gryphon named Siren. Besides Rowan, Siren was the only one of them to pass the exam.

    And so, the group arrived at a bar nestled between the city's business and entertainment districts. It was a fairly small place with warm lighting that bathed the simple wooden interior. There were pool tables nestled in the corner next to a jukebox, and various plaques on the walls gifted from different breweries. A lively older woman stood at the bar chatting with her patrons as a nearby radio played the city's latest news, the radio chatter somehow not being drowned out by the jukebox's music.

    Zaline breathed in the smell of oak and whiskey. "This isn't my usual spot, but I still like to come here when I'm looking for a homier feel. Ms. Barkeep's connected to a lot of the local breweries so they've got a pretty good selection here. It's no Lautela but you can tell there's love there."

    "Yeah, you really can." Rowan agreed, feeling the atmosphere of the place force a real smile out of him. He couldn't resist peeking over at this 'Siren' girl Zaline had brought along with them. There was no doubt she was the source of that strange feeling he'd had earlier before the exam, which lined up with the way she'd immediately ordered her first drink as soon as they'd arrived and was now quietly sipping it as if she was alone. "So, we're lucky enough to have two Gryphons at our little party, we must be something special. You passed, right, miss, what kind of challenge did they put you through?"

    "An easy one." Was the only reply he was given, and even those three words made the hearts of everyone who heard them flutter despite how subdued they were.

    Even Rowan's eyes widened a bit and he let out an impressed whistle, detecting no dishonesty from her. "Wow, I can't say the same. I mean, I've been through worse. I really didn't have too much trouble coming up with plans for everything in front of me but...as for executing them...woof. Every one of those dark wizards was so much stronger than me, I really had to use every single ounce of strength I had and even then if I hadn't been able to bring it to a mind game I might not have made it."

    "Yeah, you seem like the type to play mind games." Was the rather brusque response, freezing Rowan's mouth somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

    "Siren is one of our strongest members, despite her eccentricities," Kubra explained after ordering his drink. "I was surprised to discover she had not made any appearances in the Grand Magic Games, and even moreso to learn she had not completed her S-class exam. Not for a lack of ability, as you can clearly see." He was soon brought a large mug of mead, which he took to heartily.

    "Oh wow," Zaline said in genuine awe. "But why? If you don't mind me asking." Her first drink of choice was gin. She waved her hand, and a small hole in space appeared over the drink. From the hole poured a different liquid, Zaline letting a small amount of it mix into her drink before she closed the hole.

    "I might have been strong enough," She began, pausing to take a slow slip of her drink before continuing. "But that doesn't mean I was ready before. This time I felt like giving it a shot, and here I am." Her tone was apathetic, yet nobody could help hanging on her every word as if they carried the weight of the world. Even Kubra, who'd grown used to the sensation, felt invisible strings pulling at him every time she spoke, he was just able to resist them more easily.

    Those words sat heavy in Zaline and Kubra's minds as they stayed quiet.

    Rowan, on the other hand, felt as if he was being pulled in two different directions and it was beginning to give him a headache. Her tone and that strange sensation pushed towards disinterest and mystery but the feelings he sensed underneath were a chaotic whirlwind and he was hard-pressed not to headbutt the desk at the assault of nausea and dizziness they brought to him. "Your guildies were hassling you, weren't they? I'm sure with how important strength is to them they must not have liked seeing someone they were sure could handle it hold off, hm?"

    She snorted and set her drink down with a clink. "No, my guildmates understand respect for themselves and others, unlike some little birdies I've been told about."

    "And unlike Harmonia." Rowan added matter-of-factly before truly responding. "We've got our fair share of respect." He smiled, thinking about how rowdy most of their dinners in the guildhall became, almost chuckling out loud at the memory of when he and Drell hopped up on the hall's longest dining table and just danced until everyone was finishing up their food. Sarah gave them an earful afterwards, but he could tell even she'd been holding back her smiles and laughter and she couldn't complain too much, since they managed not to break or spill anything. The others gathered at the bar felt a strong, warm comfort and a spark of excitement beaming straight to their hearts, redoubled in strength if they saw that smile before it was gone.

    "You've gotta show me your guild sometime!" chimed Zaline. "It seems so nice. I can show you Nymph's hall sometime too, we've got a massive alchemy lab and an amazing library too! Though I wonder if you're all that interested in those kinds of things..."

    "You would certainly be interested in Gryphon's training facilities," said Kubra. "Master Avila's reality magic and its integration into our hall alongside magitech mean we can train in any situation for any situation. Though I admit that what you saw in the exam surpasses ours in scale, you still have yet to see a lot of the other things it can do."

    Rowan smiled. "That could be really fun, actually, maybe we should arrange a group tour of sorts. All go together to each of our halls at one point or another, show each other around. I'd really like to see that, could be good for our guilds, too. I think Wizard guilds are a little too…" He looks at the array of bottles behind the bar with an ambivalent smile. "Frictioned. I like the rivalries and sense of competition, but we're also a community, smaller groups that are part of a bigger group. It'd be nice if we could all act a bit more like it sometimes. Clearly the guilds need more get-togethers like this one!" Rowan finished with a little cheer, raising his glass high.

    "To, uh, guild togetherness! Woo!" Zaline raised her glass alongside him. Kubra chuckled and raised his mug as well. The two then glanced expectantly at Siren.

    She rolled her eyes, but after a moment of staring at her glass, she raised it up with the others. "Sure, why not." The four cups clinked in celebration and each wizard took another drink. Rowan, for his part, downed what was left in a single draught and shook his head.

    "Brrr-wugh! This places has some good stuff! Gimme something stronger and colorful, this time!" He slid his glass to the inner edge of the bar and put enough money on the table to be confident it could cover whatever she thought up and leave some for a tip. "The rest is for our lovely host, of course." He added with a suggestive smirk.

    The barkeep smirked right back. "My, what a charmer! You want colorful I'll get you colorful, hun." She got right to work, gathering various bottles and other mixing tools. Alcohol, syrup, and fruit juice that she mixed together into a tall glass, making a drink with a sunset-colored gradient. She added an orange slice at the top and handed it to Rowan. "Lemme know if you want more color or more punch and I'll have it for ya right away!"

    Zaline asked for something equally colorful, while Kubra simply asked for another tall mug of ale. Zaline nudged Rowan's arm. "So, you still wanna know about Egan's new spell? You said you were gonna ask over drinks so I've been waiting, you know."

    Rowan's eyes twinkled with mirth at the topic change and he took the first long sip of his new drink, enjoying all the flavors layering and mixing on the way before sending them down together. "Mmm, just right, like the one who made it." After a deep, satisfied breath, he turned rapidly to Zaline and slapped his hands on the bar. "Yes! Dish!"

    She puffed out her chest in pride at her exclusive knowledge. "Listen well, young Rowan!" Kubra raised an eyebrow at her display. She stopped making a show of it quickly though. "It's uh, pretty much the sort of thing you'd expect though. Lautela's got a lot of alchemically-altered flames like the one we use in the Day of Remembrance that won't harm any of our plantlife. He wanted to incorporate our waterproof fires into his spells, so I've been working with him on that."

    The scarlet-headed phoenix grimaced at the news. "Oh, that's just wonderful. But unstoppable explosion man is gonna have waterproof fire. What does that leave me to slow him down with? Dirt? I can't do anything with dirt!" He complained exaggeratedly.

    "Not like you stood a chance against him anyways." Siren muttered not-so under her breath - to which Rowan's eyebrow twitched and a wave of palpable irritation came off of him. When he looked at her she simply swished her hair in a suave readjustment and didn't even look his way. "If you even make it far enough to the games to compete in the finals you'll never even see Egan from anywhere but the stands, since you couldn't beat me to get to him anyways.

    Rowan took and then released a deep breath, followed by a sip of his drink. "Such harsh words to a relative stranger." He shrugged hyperbolically. "I thought sirens were supposed to sing sweet serenades so lovely they could drag anyone to their doom~"

    "You were already doomed before I ever spoke a word." She riposted, leaving his eye to twitch as another wave of annoyance surged from him.

    It was getting harder and harder to clear his head. What about this woman makes her words hit so hard? He couldn't seem to shake off her spite even after all his years of practice controlling his feelings. "I guess we'll just have to see, then. Never count a Phoenix out." Rowan paused for a moment, and his hair was overtaken by a metallic lavender sheen, and even his words seemed to take on a similar weight to Siren's. " From ashes, up through the sky and even past the heavens we rise, holding no fear of the sun for even the stars will bow to us, and flare our flames all the brighter."

    Zaline had been watching their intense exchange wordlessly, but she finally snapped out of her stupor to chime in. "H-hey hold on, this is supposed to be a fun night out. A celebration! No fighting, you can do that later."

    Kubra shrugged. "Such is the way when dealing with we Gryphons. Each and every one of us strives to reach the top, and we wear our ambition proudly. Speaking honestly, I believe Rowan would make for an excellent Gryphon if he ever decides Phoenix Nest is not meeting his needs."

    "If I wasn't in Phoenix Nest already Gryphon Gale is probably the first place I'd look to, yeah…" Rowan said. "But the man who took me and my brother in when the world was ready to let two more orphans self-destruct trying to find their place in the world is a Phoenix, and Myeloch didn't hesitate to give the three of us a home where we could grow and thrive. I can't imagine being anywhere else. Besides!" He added the last bit with a light bump to Kubra's shoulder. "I wanna fight you Gryphons, no-holds-barred at your best and most determined! I can do that better in a rival guild!" He smiled wide, then turned his attention to Zaline.

    "I'm sure you feel similarly about the nymphs buuuuuut if you ever do want a change of scenery I bet Phoenix Nest would love to have you. The rest of them are actually heading out to Lautela right now."

    "Oh, the Quail job?" she asked. "I don't exactly like the guy but he's done a lot to support us Alchemists, and our guild too. I'll be wishing them luck! Oh! But that means Faris will be with them! I'll still wish them luck, but with him around I know they're going to be alright."

    "Especially if your guildmates are anything like you, Rowan," Kubra added. "I respect your desire for strong opponents, and will give my all when we meet on the field of battle. To give any less would be an insult. But I hope you do not regret your words when the time finally comes."

    "Did you hear me complain about losing to Egan?" Rowan said cheekily. "But don't you worry about that, I don't plan on losing again anytime soon. Not to him, and not to anyone else. I'm gonna get so strong I can change fate itself." After a moment of determined staring into the distance he waved off the steely expression."Or something like that."

    Siren simply rolled her eyes and took another sip of her drink.

    "Hmph," Zaline stood up with her hands on her hips. "If we're gonna be like that then I'm not holding back either! You know, besides Master Melidor I might actually be the strongest wizard at our guild. And I'll prove it when I face you all in battle! For now though I'd be happy to kick your asses in a drinking contest. If anyone's up for it, that is." She accompanied those words with an incredible smugness.

    "I'm not normally much of a drinker, but I'll make an exception just this once!" Rowan eagerly rose to the challenge. "You're on!"

    Siren smiled despite herself, but shook her head. "I can't drink more than a little bit, but I'll hang around and watch, this could be fun."



    Magnificent Turnip
  • 693
    Drell Demands Justice But To Be Honest For Drell It's Not That Difficult To Get It She's Strong She Can Just Pick It Up Or Something
    Featuring Duke Ith'Drell and Myeloch Latare

    A medical check-up and a good night's rest had eased Drell's mind a little, but that wasn't by any means to say that her thoughts were completely in order as she marched toward her boss' office. The Guildmaster's office. Myeloch's office. Mr. Latare's office? Lina's dad's office. The way everything tied together was complicated and the big lizard still wasn't sure what kind of angle she wanted to go in at. How angry exactly should she be? She could play up the big scary - not that she figured it'd intimidate Myeloch, who by all accounts was both chill and fearless - as a way to show how serious she was. She wasn't sure she even wanted to do that, though, as the guy was pretty nice from all she'd interacted with him properly - which was, admittedly, not a whole lot. Dude was busy. She could play the 'not angry, just disappointed' angle, but was that really do-able if she actually was angry? Ith'Drell drew ever closer to the office, and so the time for strategising came to a close. It was time to put the plan into action.

    There was a polite knock at Myeloch's door.

    A few moments passed before the door swung open on its own. Within was an empty room, which was promptly occupied by Myeloch who had materialized from nothing. Though materialized probably wasn't the right word when what stood before Drell was clearly another of his shades.

    "Did you need something, Drell?" Myeloch greeted her. "I can prepare some tea if you think it might take a bit."

    "I-!" Drell coughed awkwardly. "I, uh, yeah, that'd be nice, actually, I think. Give it a second though - uh, do you think you could put the door back? I was going to, uh, do a thing."

    "Of course," he said calmly, and the door gently closed by itself until it FLEW OPEN VIOLENTLY AT THE PERSUASION OF DRELL's STEEL HEEL, the impact of the blow sending a shockwave through everywhere probably. And through the doorway, imposing, stood none other than Duke Ith'Drell, the person who had kicked the door in really thoroughly and impressively and was definitely angry - but was polite enough to wait for the appropriate time to be angry. She would be heard, whether Myeloch wanted to hear her or not. But only if he wanted to.

    "All right Mr. Latare Guildmaster Myeloch buddy!" The huge terrifying approachable lizard roared courteously, approaching in menacingly even strides. "I'd really appreciate it if you'd hear out my demands right now, if you've got the time, because recent stuff has brought to mind some heavy stuff and I'm furious at how disappointed I am with the way this garbage guild has approached some stuff because I care so much about it, man, it's like home-"

    "Sorry to interrupt," he interrupted, "But did you have a type of tea you prefer?"

    "Uh- oh," Drell blinked. "Er, jeez, the hot kind?"

    He chuckled. "Let's go for a vitalizing green tea then. It seems like you've got a lot to say, after all. Please continue."

    "Ah, aaight thanks. Right," the big Phoenix (in physical-size terms) gestured with both hands as she moved to sit down. "So I've worked in guilds before, yeah? Popped in with lots of different ones over time. Don't think any of them involved stuff quite as big as the job we just got back from- er- yeah, all the stuff of that size I just did myself, but like- I noticed it seemed like there were a lot of, like, gaps? Like I don't know how much guild work experience some of the other guys have - I know it really can't be a lot for some of 'em - and it occurred to me that they kinda… don't have the basis on how to do guild work properly? And don't get me wrong, everyone's super powerful - and it wasn't even just us, I dunno if it's just a big-shot guild thing or something, but most of the other wizards were kinda actin' like lunatics too - I'm just thinkin' to myself: nobody's actually, like, teaching people how to not die? And that's, like, bad? And there's- dude, there's fuckin' kids on these jobs, man, I don't- are you getting me here? It's crazy. Well… y'know, crazy is one word for it - deplorable is what it is, no way around it."

    Myeloch was silent for a moment as a pair of filled tea cups appeared in front of the two, resting on matching plates. "It's different looking in from the outside, but for the past few years this is what the culture has been among the 'big-shot' guilds. There-"

    "The culture?" Drell echoed. "Dude, no 'culture' is gonna justify a dead kid, I don't care how big the guilds are."

    "Indeed. It's a widespread issue, and one I suspect is not dealt with because the wizards are strong enough to handle things regardless. There are various things that could have caused this state of things, but it can't be swept aside much longer with the resurgence of dark wizards."

    "Damn straight it can't."

    "However, that does not address the root of your concerns. Nor have I any right to criticize this culture when I've done nothing to stop it. I'd honestly hoped that between the various members here the guild could regulate themselves in this regard. Which was, again, irresponsible with me. If need be I can ask Sarah to restrict which jobs she lets the others go on but I suspect they wouldn't like that. And as bad as it may sound, I suspect they'll need to gain strength for the coming days."

    He took a sip of his tea, his expression remaining unchanged. "You're right to worry, and I'm sorry for making you worry. I'd like to hear your thoughts on what should change, moving forward."

    It took a while for Drell to process what the Guildmaster had said, and the moment it truly sank in was marked by a chortle of relief. "Dude," she said, grinning. "I'd give ya a big hug but you're not here."

    Myeloch chuckled. "I appreciate the thought at the very least."

    "Aah, it's all good, man," Drell waved a hand, leant back and took a sip of tea. "Phew, okay. So you want my thoughts? I mean it's kind of a pickle, right? You're a busy guy. You've managed to hire an assortment of also very busy guys. Ultimately what ya need is someone to handle protocol rundowns like they got elsewhere, question is just who's available and qualified to do it. Better put out a job listing for it or somethin'."

    "It'll be more difficult to find experienced guild members who are free as the year goes on, but I'll put the word out and see what I can find. If I can't find anyone then maybe a mercenary would suffice? Until then, I'll speak with Boriel and maybe Rowan to see if something can be arranged."

    "Yeah, in my experience it's usually been the more experienced members making time for it - but then our big guys are a lil' more in demand. And I got stuff to do outside of the job, too, though I guess that could be the case for anyone. I've been fillin' in gaps where I could but I figured they were just flukes or somethin', kinda slipped my mind that there was no instruction of etiquette goin' on."

    His smile grew a bit. "I'm sure the others appreciate that. So was there anything else on your mind?"

    "Oh! Yeah, actually," Drell took another sip of tea, visibly a lot more relaxed than she had been when she came in. "You know just a lil' while after I joined the guild I talked to you about lookin' for my grandma?"

    "Ith'Red, yes?"

    "Yeah! Plan… well, plan was to probably head further South in the next month or so," the big lizard readjusted herself in her seat and sipped her drink again. "Which, you know, ordinarily would be a permanent kinda thing. Unfortunately I kinda love you guys so I've gotta come back, but I still gotta do it - big reason I'm down here'n'all - so I guess I gotta ask for some temporary leave, or something? I can probably do the next leg of the search in batches, or somethin'. At an estimate, about six weeks for a good bit of the South-West?"

    He chuckled again. "I'm glad you've grown fond of this place. You're free to come and go as you please, as long as you don't have any jobs pending. Please make sure to let Sarah know in case there are jobs asking specifically for you so she can handle that. Now is there anything more I can do to help you in your search? A quick enchantment here, a little teleportation there?"

    "Hmm, I mean, it could cut a day or so off," Ith'Drell chuckled, placing a conspiratorial claw to her chin. "But, uh, not right now, obviously. Still gotta pack and everything, right? And I gotta go through the lengthy process of talkin' to everyone so they don't blow the place up because I left without sayin' anything while also convincing 'em to let me go without blowin' the place up anyway. I mean not everyone would blow up the place but you know who I'm talkin' about."

    "Of course. I'll be leaving now but thank you for coming to speak with me. Good luck in your search, and you know where to find me if you need anything." He offered her a smile and a wave. "Oh, and you can take your time with the tea. I'll come get it later."

    "Ah nice, thanks. And thanks for listening, dude!" Drell raised her cup to the guildmaster's shade. "Means a lot, for me and for the guild in general, y'know?"

    Sapphire Rose

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

    Faye Aubrey

    Female | Wizard/Touched

    Sleepless company


    Sounds of the moving leaves in the forest broke through the silence of the early morning. So early that the waking sun was barely visible from the horizon and the birds had not yet started singing their songs. The light had barely touched the earth through the trees and while some loathed the remaining darkness of the night, for a certain Phoenix this was the perfect training circumstance.

    Another one of Faye's darkening blades shot through the leaves, splitting a few in half like she intended but her magic nowhere near as strong as when she was fighting Veechar. She could scarcely remember the fight but if she had to believe what Prim said, then supposedly she nearly killed a super powerful wizard if she wasn't stopped. The very thought was unbelievable. Faye fighting on par with an experienced wizard? Not possible. Not with magic like hers and yet… it had happened. Prim wouldn't lie about something like that and Faye clearly felt her aether pool had been touched in a way she had never been able to before. So how? How did she do it?

    The white haired girl gritted her teeth, the bags underneath her eyes starting to become visible as she had been trying to find an answer to these questions all night. Out of pure desperation and frustration she shot another two blades made from her shadows but it made no difference. A rustling signaled another target for Faye to slice and she whipped around only to face a very different tree than she expected.

    "You look tired." Rowan's face was upside down mere inches from hers, sporting an inviting smirk and a raised eyebrow as he hung from the very tree she'd been training under. "You been sleeping enough?"

    "R-Rowan?!" Faye tumbled backwards upon the sudden reveal. Usually she'd notice if someone snuck up on her but the sleepless nights hadn't done her well. She attempted to regain her composure but at this point her body was getting a little bit too heavy and while she felt a bit light in the head, she dropped.

    Dropping from his monkey-esque perch, Rowan grabbed Faye's hand before her butt could meet the floor, and he pulled her gently back to feet. "Wow, I've never had a question answered so quickly without words even being used before! Why ya so worn out?"

    Faye shook her head a little to get rid of the blurry sight and the dizziness she had been feeling. While Rowan's question rang through her head, the words themselves didn't quite reach her until she looked back at him again and eventually away.

    "I've been trying to train…" she simply said. "The darkness of the night is the ideal training condition for me." She added with a yawn while peeking back at him.

    "Uh huh, and the only reason I flirt with girls is because the emotional connection makes my magic stronger." He said, rolling his eyes. "You're the queen of overthinking things without saying what's raging through that noggin' of yours. Wanna try telling me the real reason?"

    While Faye felt weirdly annoyed by the flirting comment she grumbled and looked away once again. She was quiet for a moment, the quietness being her trademark, but Rowan's persistent look was something she could not avoid.

    "Have you heard what happened during our mission in one of the battles I had…?"

    "All I heard about was that you had a really intense one. Prim didn't wanna tell me more. But that's okay." Brazen as ever, he placed a hand on her head and gently rubbed like he was petting a cat. Almost instantaneously Rowan froze and Faye felt a shift in the air. A cold wind blew over them and with it, Rowan's eyes and hair were overtaken by an inky black that sent shivers up her spine. For just a moment she felt the earth rumble beneath her, then just like that the wind stopped and Rowan looked normal again, as sudden as if it were a hallucination. Faye looked up to him in confusion but quickly understood why. Her… horn.

    "It broke during our fight with Veechar… it's not supposed to break easily but it was encased in stone…" she rumbled a bit in her pockets and took out the other piece of her broken horn. The stone curse had been dispelled and it once again had a cream, pearly white shimmer like the rest of her scales and her other horn. Ever since it had happened she wasn't sure if she was upset about it having broken at all but she held it out towards Rowan for him to see nonetheless with the same expressionless face she always had.

    His face showed no reaction besides curious contemplation, even as he held out his own hand and felt the horn, still as smooth as if it were attached. "Veechar...I've heard that name, not too much about him though. So, he got in the way of the mission?"

    Faye was quiet once again and rather than looking at Rowan, she glanced at her feet. "I…" she started but stumbled over her own words. She couldn't say it directly after all.

    "Yeah he got in the way." She eventually sighed and said. "Prim and I had a little argument with him on the train towards Lautela and once he found us in the forest he was fully intending to kill us." She brushed a few strands of her hair out of her face, a result of Rowan's head-patting that she had gotten a little too used to. "We defeated him though. Had some trouble with poison afterwards but we're fine now." She brushed it over coldly, pretending the whole thing Prim mentioned hadn't happened at all.

    Rowan's face showed no discernible change, he simply stood there in silence a few seconds before he began rubbing again, this time between Faye's remaining horn and the broken nub. "You did good handling him, he sounds like a nasty piece of work~" His warmth returned and he gave her a knowing smile. "It's alright, you can tell me the important details later~ For now, what do you say to taking a little break? You can't really learn much or grow stronger when you're exhausted. It just kinda cuts down every gain you could make to a little fraction. There's not enough time to spare for any of us to waste what little we have, aye?"

    Faye sighed in annoyance. She knew she needed a break but it felt so inefficient right now. Still, she walked off towards the direction Rowan was gesturing her towards with him promptly following the shorter girl. A bit further away from them was a lake. Not just any of the ones found in Shessalie. While the main lake was out in the open and people would visit it often, this one was a bit more hidden inside the forest and only a tiny bit smaller. Especially in the early morning the townsfolk wouldn't usually come here for a stroll. Faye sat down in front of the reflecting water. Her face was a mess as was normal for someone who hadn't slept. The feeling of exhaustion only now krept up on her.

    "How was the S class exam?" She asked in between her spur of the moment releases of sleepy yawns.

    "Pretty tough." He admitted from beside her, standing tall and looking down at her reflection without giving his thoughts away in his own visage. "To be honest, that trial wasn't suited to me at all. Every real enemy I faced was stronger than me, a lot stronger, actually. It took every ounce of wit and flexibility I had. At the end I was nearly helpless...the only reason I was able to win in the end was because I took an all or nothing gamble…back to a place I never want to see again...and see almost every night when I close my eyes." Faye almost felt as if she could see a fire burning in his eyes, matched only by the determination that stood against it. "But my will was stronger than his. Nothing is going to stop me."

    "I see…" Faye responded. She pulled her knees closer to her body and hugged them as she kept staring in front of her, solemnly focussing on Rowan's voice. "I knew you'd win, you did well." The quiet whispers left her peachy lips but as soon as she realized what she had said she was a little bit embarrassed. "I-I mean… You're strong and all, and witty." The Phoenix girl corrected herself. "But… what is this place you speak off…?"

    The moment of silence that followed her question stretched on longer than Faye had ever heard Rowan be anything even resembling quiet. The wind blowing through the trees around them and the water lapping at the lake shore nearby were all she heard for what seemed like an eternity. Until one word brought the world back into focus, barely a whisper yet all-encompassing.


    The silence remained for another solid minute. The wind playing with their hair and leaves dancing in front of them on the lake. Despite the words being barely whispered, they hit the girl like thunder.

    "I'm… Sorry…" Faye stared at her knees. If she had the capacity to look sad, she'd probably be looking like that now. It felt like she had done something insensitive, like she had asked something even though she knew the answer. Yet she kept asking for the known routes.

    Another yawn escaped her lips and her body trembled from exhaustion.

    A hand dropped into Faye's hair and rustled it a bit, with Rowan bent down in a low crouch beside it, beaming at her. "Don't be so gloomy! The S-Class exam is supposed to be tough! I was just facing a guy with power over nightmares and no hope of beating him in a fight, so I brought him somewhere he couldn't handle. You worry too much!"

    Faye's winced upon the sudden touch on her head, though eased almost immediately. She truly had become too used to the head pats. How embarrassing.

    "You took him somewhere he couldn't handle…?" Faye asked with another yawn she tried to suppress with all her might.

    "People like him get drunk on whatever their idea of power is. This man got his power from nightmares, so I showed him the worst I had to offer. Gave him a glimpse at a power he had never seen before… he jumped at the chance, and it destroyed him." Rowan plopped all the way down beside her and sighed.

    "Never forget, Faye. Hate…is a poison. If you accept it, it flows through you, absorbing and assimilating everything else until there's nothing left. Given enough time it becomes all you are and then the actions of one consumed by hate breeds hate in others. That's how it continues its own existence, like some parasitic plague."

    He continued rubbing her head absently, now seemingly for his own comfort. "It's okay to feel hate. Bad things happen in life, it's only natural. But don't let it run free. Hate turns people into monsters… and sometimes even love isn't enough to save them."

    "Hate… turns people into monsters…" Faye repeated words trembled through her tired lips. What she felt during that fight with Veechar… was something resembling hate. It made her… mad. Even Prim couldn't get through to her anymore until the very last moment. "Rowan… there is something… I…" Faye tried to speak but her words weighed heavy on her conscience.

    "Say no more!" Rowan blurted out. "You had me at hello! Yes, a thousand times yes I will marry you!" He leaned over to hug her like an ecstatic bride, doing his best girlish, excited giggle. Once his face drew close to her ear, however, he continued much more gently and quietly. "It's okay, you tell me as much or as little as you want. I'll listen whether it's baring your soul or just complaining about something annoying you saw at the store. I promise not to jump to conclusions based off of the waves I detect."

    He released her and scooched away a bit before the joke went too far. "It's the least I can do."

    "M-Marry…?" Faye blinked a few times while she could feel her face heat up. "Y-You're honestly ridiculous!" She blurted out with her arms crossed and something resembling a pout. He always had to say something like that in moments like this…! Though… she couldn't deny that the mood had lightened up a bit. She sighed.

    "Prim didn't want to tell you more because I wasn't myself during that fight…" She spoke up. "I scarcely remembered what happened but when I came back to my senses, the battlefield was destroyed and I was about to… end Veechar…" Faye hugged her knees. "I heard I turned into some kind of maniac. I told you how I can't quite control my own magic but… I was able to control it somehow with much more precision. We turned the tide of that battle despite the fact that he was destroying us only moments earlier…" Faye continued. "But it was terrifying. Prim wasn't able to get through to me until the very end and I was unaware of my surroundings. It's as you said… Hatred turns people into monsters…" Faye grabbed the broken horn she had been holding onto from her pocket and stared at it for a little bit. "That's why I've been training through the night… I don't want that to happen again…"

    "I see." Rowan's smile grew wistful as he gazed at something only he could see. "I'm glad you didn't. I wouldn't miss him if what Pat told me about him is true, but I would miss you. I don't actually think life is sacred and nobody should ever kill or anything like that…but doing it out of hate…" He returned his eyes to her face softer than ever without a hint of doubt. "But you didn't. Prim helped. but the one who ultimately stopped it, who decided not to become that, was you. You beat hatred, and if it rears its head again, you'll smack it back down. And if you ever get lost in that scary mist where it seems like the only way out…we'll find you and bring you back."

    He rubbed her head a bit again, stopping more quickly this time to avoid overstaying his welcome. His hand rested on the nub of her horn for a moment. "You've never been a monster, and you never will be." He finished with a light squeeze before pulling his hand away.

    "I'm not so sure if I beat it but… thanks Rowan." Faye answered quietly, fighting more against her own sleepiness with the minute. "Prim found out by the way… that I'm uhm… touched."

    "That figures." He chuckled. "She has a sense for these kinds of things. A sort of pull towards people like her. Not necessarily Touched but…People who are… well, like us. Like everyone in the guild. Out of all of us, I think the two of you - and Elly and Pat - more than anyone else were meant to be here. Drell could go anywhere and not much would change, I figure. Sarah can make a home out of anything and any place, Boriel just needs a place to settle down and relax a bit for once in his life, Myeloch has and will always be someone who simply shapes the world around him to be what he wants. He doesn't just go with the flow, he is the flow. Lina would go wherever her father does, and I…"

    He contemplated for a bit only for his words to catch on his throat when he attempted to continue his assessment. Ultimately, he gave up. "I'm glad to see you all here. Phoenix Nest is a beautiful thing, it gives me hope, for as long as I'm here."

    Faye looked back up at Rowan with a puzzled look. "P-Perhaps…" she could only muster up to reply. She didn't like how he implied he'd be going anywhere but she didn't get much time to think of inquiring further.

    "Hey, what'dya say you let me hold onto it for safekeeping? Your horn, I mean." He broke through her thoughts. "I don't know if it's gonna grow back or not, but I have an idea for that one."

    "Huh?" Faye looked a bit surprised. "U-Uhh… Sure. I mean… it'll grow back eventually. Those things aren't easy to get rid of. I've tried." Faye took Rowan's hand and laid in his palm the broken part of her horn. The shimmering pearly white almost sparkling in the dawn sun before she wrapped his fingers around it. "May I ask what you want to do with it?"

    Rowan smirked and put his other hand over hers, sandwiching it between both of his and smirking at her. "A good luck charm, of course!" He didn't let go but he left his grip loose enough to make the inevitable embarrassed pull-away easy for Faye. As soon as she did, he held the horn up, enjoying the way the light played off of it and the reflection in the lake's surface as leaves floated by it. "I want a reminder of the inner strength of someone I look up to, among other things. Aaaaaaaand…there've been a lot of emotions put into this horn over the years. When it was still attached it was just a part of you, but now that it's an object I can practically feel the remnants of all your feelings for and of it, for someone like me that can be a genuine source of power…Who knows, you might save my life some day!"

    There he went again, saying silly things. Yet his faith in her felt like a warm embrace. The way he joked around and grabbed her hands but allowed her to still pull back… it was gentle. He was doing an effort to understand her while also trying to give her more confidence. She noticed. He had the ability to make her heart beat just a little faster sometimes.

    … Or was that the exhaustion catching up to her. She felt her head becoming light again.

    "I… I think I need to go take a nap at the very least. Prim wanted to speak to me later. I need to be able to focus on what she has to say."

    "Why go?" He asked. "Don't you think it's pretty nice and cozy right here?" He swept his arm around them at the gently lapping lake, the softly rustling trees, and the grass underneath them, soaking in all the warm sunlight.

    Faye blinked a few times but when she felt the soft morning breeze on her cheeks, she realized Rowan was right. It had been long since she took a nap outside, especially with the dangers around them but now was the perfect weather for it and… he was here. No one was going to accidentally see her… scales. Or… Horns. He'd make sure of that.

    "Hmph. Fine. I guess you're not wrong…" Faye sighed with a slight blush spreading across her cheeks, sounding almost pouty as she allowed herself to fall over on the soft grass. She looked up. Watching the trees. The sky… Until she felt her eyes becoming heavier with every blink.

    "I'm never wrong when it comes to picking times and places to nap!" Rowan eagerly proclaimed upon plopping down next to her and stretching his legs out, but leaning back on an elbow instead of laying down. "So relax. Let down your hair. You work too hard not to unwind and just…let go every now and then."

    While Rowan's last words rang through Faye's ears, her vision became more blurry with every second. Eventually… she finally snoozed away.

    Once the emotions rolling off of her became so quiet and tranquil, Rowan smiled down at her, feeling himself relax from the sight. He allowed his head to hit the grass beside her and stared up at the sparse clouds. A more hopeful refrain of that old song he couldn't forget refused to leave his head and without even meaning to, he began to sing, more to the air itself than to the girl resting beside him. "Haaaaave you ever heeeeaaard…of a kingdom in the sky…"

  • 25,607
    Primilla Bellamy and Faye Aubrey

    Shessalie Park
    Prim reclined on a wooden bench at Shessalie's small local park, stretching her legs across it and leaning back against its arm. Maybe this wasn't the most socially acceptable thing to do, but social norms were never something she had cared about and nobody in the town was going to say no to a member of Phoenix Nest at that point.

    It was a pleasantly warm, clear day and she was intent on enjoying it until Faye arrived. It was likely that they weren't going to have the happiest of discussions, so she wanted to go in with a good mood.

    They hadn't really had much of a chance to talk since the events in Lautela. Once they were properly recovered, they had very quickly found themselves swamped with requests for jobs and interviews. With their guild being a small one, with their newfound fame, they had been run ragged with work and hadn't had much time for socialisation. This was the first time that Prim and Faye had both been readily available for a long discussion in two weeks… and they had a conversation that they needed to finish.

    An uncharacteristic fluttering nervousness faintly twisted in Prim's stomach. She didn't want things to turn out anything like they had in Lautela, but her feelings about those events were still mixed up. Besides, she was good at hitting things, not words. There was nothing to do for it but get it over and done with though.

    Soon enough Faye would arrive and Prim couldn't help but grin seeing the girl show up in the outfit they'd bought together. A lime green crop top and lime green shorts. Prim had told her to keep her gloves off for this outfit, it would look better but much to her annoyance she was still wearing those darn gloves and boots tall enough to hide her scales underneath. Faye looked unfazed. Like she always would… Though Prim better than most knew what kind of storm was hidden underneath that stoic expression of hers. That much was clear from their fight against Veechar.

    "Hey!" Prim called out to her, catching the girl's attention. She waved Faye over, but couldn't find the words to follow-up. For a moment, an awkward silence fell in the air between them. Prim couldn't stand that, so she started talking despite herself and gradually an idea formed in her head.

    "Okay, let's just get the hard part over with. I know I said it already, but I'm sorry I yelled at you. I know it's more complicated than I made it seem… and I know that it's hard to believe that I get it because I don't look Touched. I want you to understand that I do though, and I want you to get why I was so angry. So uh… if it's okay with you, I have two stories I'd like to share with you and, after that, I want you to tell me more about what growing up was like for you. Okay?"

    Prim crossed her arms across herself and averted her gaze slightly, she wasn't used to talking like this and, for reasons beyond herself, the idea that Faye would tell her she wasn't interested was anxiety-inducing.

    Faye sighed. She somehow had an idea why Prim invited her when she did but now that the moment was there she hardly could find the words to speak. Prim had valid reasons to be angry. A guildmate is hiding something from the rest while there's supposed to be trust among each other. She didn't feel like Prim had to apologize for something but here they were...

    "I'll listen…" She spoke quietly and sat down next to her on the bench.

    "Right," Prim said, "First story. Sorry if it gets a bit murky, my memory is a little hazy about this time. Basically, when I was seven - or I guess when half of me was - I wandered away from my tribe following this bird I was drawn to. Our village was located really close to the mistlands and I ended up past the border without noticing. Next thing I know, both parts of me are getting mashed together and it knocks me out. I wake up with blue hair, a headache and barely any idea who I am."

    Prim paused for a second to make sure Faye was following the story to which the girl nodded in return, seemingly understanding that the younger girl of the two was checking on her. Faye was surprised. She always thought Prim's hair was naturally blue but that's one of the features she got from the bird.

    "Anyway," Prim continued, "I staggered back home, because thankfully I remembered where it was. I got there expecting comfort and help but instead everyone freaked when I told them what happened. They thought I was a demon or something, they were always weird about the Mist. So they kicked me out, sent me back to the mist from whence I came or whatever. My uncle was a researcher on the outskirts of the Mist at the time and found me by chance, so he brought me back to Atria to my parents since they couldn't have kids of their own. So yeah, that's the story of how a weird Valbestian girl ended up the daughter of a wealthy Atrian family. One down!"

    Prim flashed a grin at Faye, hoping to lighten the mood a bit.

    "I see…" Faye answered, her face as expressionless as ever but the fact she leaned backwards and looked up at the sky was sign enough that whatever mood there was, she did not feel uncomfortable. Still she seemed to be in thought. A "demon" was often the first reaction a person from the Mistlands would get. She wondered if Drell had to deal with the same stuff as Prim did. "It does make a few things clear and I'm glad you ended up where you did." She eventually nodded, not looking back at the blue haired girl but rather opening her eyes and taking a deep breath. "I suppose you want to know what it was like for me…" She spoke quietly.

    "Yup," Prim confirmed.

    "I grew up in Lautela with my mom and dad. When I turned five years old my mother disappeared. I never understood why and aimlessly searched for her while my father insisted I'd hide my horns and scales at least. I always thought I was a normal kid but it wasn't until a few years later that I got called out for being a "freak"." Faye swung with her legs as she explained. It was cute in a way but it was obvious that reliving the memories was painful for her and that was her way of staying calm. "That's when I noticed how the townsfolk looked at me. I was a monster to them. My mother left…" Faye took a deep breath. "...Because she couldn't take their harsh racism anymore…"

    "Yeah, I get that," Prim said. "It doesn't matter as much for kids, but adults tend to be stuck in old prejudices. That second story I mentioned? The short version is that I never had friends, not for long anyway. Their parents would find out about me and poison them against me or force us apart. When I was thirteen, I had this really close friend... well, that's probably a bit of an understatement. Her mum was a business partner of my dad's so we got to know each other that way. Then, one day, she just stopped talking to me and I didn't see her for months. The next time I did, I ran into her and some friends of hers by pure chance and she said terrible things to me. When I told my parents about it that night, I found out her mum had heard about my being Valbestian and not only made her daughter think I was a monster but dropped the business deal she had with my dad. It wasn't the first time adopting me cost him thousands."

    "They went as far as dropping a business deal?" Faye looked up in genuine surprise, this time it being evident on her face too. "That's absolutely awful…" She crawled back together again. "...Do you think your parents ever regretted adopting you…?"

    "Not really. Not any more anyway. They've always been really supportive - even about me moving to Shessalie to join Phoenix Nest. Back then though? How could I not think about that? Do you think your mum regrets leaving?"

    "I sometimes still wonder…" Faye answered, staring into the distance. It saddened her to not know what her mother was up to and if she regretted leaving. Is she was perhaps afraid to come back? "My father owns a Lacrima shop in Atria city. I hid my heritage so that he wouldn't lose any customers. We're not so different, you and I." Faye tried to lighten up the mood a little.

    "The difference is I refuse to hide," Prim said, "But I guess the point is that I understand why you do. I don't agree with it, but I get it. Not everyone is lucky enough to be from a family that can afford to lose money like that. You're amazing and you shouldn't feel like you have to hide… the fact that you do makes me angrier than I have words for. That's not your fault. Can I be honest with you though?"

    Faye was a bit surprised by the outburst of opinions but she still nodded.

    "That makes me angry, but it's not why I was angry at you." Prim sighed and took a breath, readying herself for what came next. "You're pretty much the closest friend I've ever had - the whole guild are. We haven't known each other that long really, but you're special to me. So finding out we had all those shared experiences and that you didn't trust me enough to talk to me about it - and that you ended up talking to someone who didn't have those experiences about it first - it bothered me. That wasn't fair though, you don't owe me anything."

    Faye shovelled around with her feet and looked down at the ground. Prim didn't like that Rowan knew about it first. That one was as clear as day ever since they had their little quarrel and somehow Faye knew the reason for it too but hearing it was something else. A friend…? Hm…

    "I'm sorry I've been keeping it a secret…" was all Faye was able to muster up to say. "But you have to understand I didn't choose to let Rowan know. He discovered it by accident. With his emotion magic going on he already sensed something was off about me too."

    "Yeah, I know," Prim replied, "You said as much back in the swamp. Well, that and something about him barging into your room. There's talks to be had about that."

    Faye scratched her chin and looked away from Prim, once again unfazed but she was definitely embarrassed.

    "Hey Prim… What exactly happened during that fight against that racist bastard? I can scarcely remember anything…"

    Prim looked back at Faye sheepishly. "Well, you kind of went crazy. I've never seen you produce so much magic and raw power before. You were feral though, like it was controlling you more than you were controlling it. I had to hold you down to stop you literally tearing him apart... even if it was tempting to let you."

    Prim's words rang in Faye's mind. It was controlling her more than she was controlling it. That could very well be the reason why she hasn't been able to reproduce the same amount of magic she had used during that fight… She definitely did feel like she had used up a lot more aether than usual back then. She didn't understand though. This had never happened before. What had been the catalyst?

    "I… I don't know why that happened." Faye replied only shortly. "Feral… even… That's scary to think about." Despite the usual stoic expressions of the girl, she actually looked like a worried person for once.

    "Well, it wasn't anything I couldn't handle." Prim flashed her usual shit-eating grin at the other Phoenix. "Besides, it makes sense you'd have all that power since you're Touched. I'm the only one that doesn't as far as I know. You just have to get better at keeping it in check, it'll be a cinch for someone as level-headed as you."

    "Right… Touched…" Faye repeated, almost as if hearing the very words stung her massively. In a sense they did.

    "Yes. Touched." Prim sighed, "You're going to have to get over this complex one day… but I know you're not ready yet. You'll have to work towards being ready, then when you are you can tell everyone. If anybody has a problem with it, I'll personally beat the crap out of them. Deal?"

    Faye rubbed the back of her head. Ultimately she sighed and nodded. Prim was a persistent one but she knew both her and Rowan were right. She couldn't keep it a secret forever. She was just very afraid of what the world would think of her…

    But all of those thoughts immediately left her mind as she yawned, the lack of sleep once again kicking in.

    "Well, I was going to invite you out to shop for clothes for the emperor's party thing now that all this heavy talk is over, but maybe you should go back to bed instead." Prim's expression reverted back to its usual more mischievous look.

    "It's fine, I already had a nap with Ro-...." Faye stopped herself just in time. She grew quiet for a moment, as if realizing how that whole sentence could cause misunderstandings. "I'll catch up on sleep later. We need a dress and I have no idea about fashion. So… lead the way."

    Prim raised an eyebrow at Faye's slip up. She slipped an arm around the older girl's shoulder and started leading her in towards town with a wide grin on her face.

    "Maybe we should get matching dresses and you can come as my date. I wonder what your nap-time buddy would think of that." Prim teased her, steering her towards the nearest boutique.

    Faye understood she had been caught and followed Prim with hanging shoulders. Sighing as she let the comment just pass by.



  • 957

    The Royal Banquet Atria City, Friday August 3rd, X784

    As the sun set over Shessalie, the members of Phoenix Nest gathered in the guild's training hall. In the middle of the room stood Myeloch, standing over another of his teleportation circles. Of course, the train to the Capital was fully functional now and they could have gone that way if they'd left a couple days ago, but Myeloch wanted them to have as much time as they could to prepare. After all, this was the first time most of them had been to this kind of event.

    He himself was dressed in the same casual and comfortable robes he always wore despite the occasion. Beside him was Boriel, who also wore the usual all-black ensemble with his coat and belts. Sarah was not with them, as she had been called away to join her family a couple of days ago. The Burgess family had been invited to the banquet themselves, and it seemed they planned to go together as a family. Sarah didn't seem too excited at the idea, but went regardless.

    "Is this really going to be enough?" Lina muttered to herself as she looked over her outfit for the hundredth time. It was a fairly simple black dress that hugged at her waist before letting the skirt billow slightly. It was one of Sarah's old dresses she'd been allowed to borrow, but Sarah was never really the flashy type she supposed. Lina rubbed her bare arms as if she wasn't used to having them exposed. Her hat would be staying home, though she hadn't done much with her hair to compensate.

    "It's plenty, you're even more lovely than usual!" Pat blurted out a little louder than he meant to before shrinking back and trying to hide his head in his equally simple black suit.

    "Pat is right, it looks good on you." Faye gave the younger girl a glance of recognition. She wasn't one for smiling but the members of Phoenix Nest had gotten used to her stoic expressions to a point they could at least picture her with somewhat curled up lips. Her real smiles were still somewhat rare after all. She rubbed her arm for a moment. She herself was wearing a long mint green dress with naked shoulders. Around her waist was a ribbon tied at her back and decoration that allowed it to be a bit more fancier than usual. Her skirt was layered with transparent chiffon and her arms… were of course covered by mint green satin gloves. It was the dress she had picked out with Prim and much to the blue haired girl's dismay, the gloves as well. Her hair, however, was brushed a bit more neatly than usual. A hair ornament was hiding the horn that was still intact. Now that her other horn was broken, it was already hard to see anyway unless you were specifically searching for it. It was a start.

    Prim, also dressed up for the occasion in a white and blue number that draped from her shoulders, put an arm around Lina with a grin and a chuckle. "Don't you worry, you'll have all those eligible bachelors all over you."

    Lina blushed. "Hey, that's not… I'm not… ugh…" She shook her head. "Even if it were true those 'bachelors' are out of luck because I'm not looking for anything. And besides, we'll be representing our guild in front of the Emperor himself. I don't think going around trying to pick up dates or whatever would be a good look." She glanced briefly at Rowan.

    "You're right," Prim agreed, "We wouldn't want anyone sneaking off to 'take naps' with each other. It wouldn't look good."

    Rowan raised an eyebrow at Prim's words but ultimately let them pass by and addressed Lina's instead. "Who needs to find a date when I'm already going to the occasion with some of the loveliest ladies in all of Atria - and a squirt who can be very cute when she behaves?" He added the last part with a quick ruffle of Prim's hair, snapping his hand away just in time to avoid it being smacked. For his part, the older Hoskell sibling was dressed down compared to everyone else, covered from his shoulders down in a new brown cloak and seemingly wearing his usual guild attire underneath. He of course had refused to elaborate when queried on what he planned to do.

    Faye could only rub the bridge of her nose at the exchange between the two. That she had to be more careful with her words around Prim next time was duly noted.

    "We'll be fine. It's a party, right? Those are supposed to be fun. I think. I don't really know…" Elidyr muttered from the back. Finding a suit too restrictive, they'd instead opted for a simple and loose yellow dress, leaving their arms bare except for the black gloves to their elbows.

    "Banquet, I thought, dunno if that's a kind of party," said the guild's resident big lizard Ith'Drell, craning her head to look down at her younger guildmate. "Might count. I just thought about it as fancy food? Can always make our own fun, even if there's not- I mean, there should at least be, like, mouth-fun." She paused in thought, catching sight of Big Whap on her shoulder - autopilot had her dressed in regular mission attire, backpack, weapon and all. "Do I need the-? Is sword good etiquette or bad etiquette?"

    "You could always just go to social stuff with an armor outfit and a no-armor outfit." Rowan explained casually, folding his arms behind his head to lean back into them a bit. "Just wear one and bring a requip lacrima to switch into the other if it works better. The lacrima could handle ol' Whap too."

    "Damn, I need to get me some friggin' lacrima…" breathed the reptile.

    "Personally," Prim added, "I find the thought of Drell not in armour unnatural and disturbing. I vote yes to both armour and Whap."

    "I agree. It wouldn't hurt to be prepared. And you can tell some fun stories!" Eli looked at their own attire again. "It's probably too late to ask for these without fingers. Why did I wear a dress? I'm not used to looking fancy, I don't how to deal with it…"

    Myeloch chuckled. "The other guests might fuss if you're not fancy but I don't think ol' Arvis will mind, and who cares what the others think?" He began channeling his magic into the circle and it shone brightly. "Well, are you all ready?"

    "Ready as I'll ever be I suppose…" Faye sighed to what already proved to become another tiresome night.

    "You kidding? I was born ready." Prim flashed a grin that very much communicated the opposite, upbringing be damned.

    "Very well then, off we go!" The magic circle flared, and in a flash they'd left the guildhall.

    "...Presenting Arthur Grenholt, president of Alpha Lux Industries, accompanied by his family." A light clapping echoed through the grand hall of the Atrian royal palace. White and gold as far as the eye could see, forming ornate patterns that covered the floors and traced up the great columns along the sides of the hall. Dining tables were set along the sides of the hall, each with a lavish floral centerpiece. The food hadn't been served yet but the guests happily stood around enjoying conversation amongst themselves, with servants weaving between them offering drinks and hors d'oeuvres.

    Along one of the walls were large windows providing a clear view of the palace courtyard, with its famed garden displayed proudly. These windows doubled as doors, some of them open for guests to explore the garden at their leisure. Musicians were also stationed within the hall, playing a tranquil melody. At the back corners of the hall were spiral staircases leading to a second floor, where guests could enjoy a bit more quiet while still looking down over a balcony at the festivities.

    The door to the grand hall was wide open, with Royal Guards standing vigil on the sides. President Grenholt walked through as all the other guests had before him, walking along the plush red carpet that led from the door straight to the back end of the hall where Emperor Arvis Atria himself sat at his personal table with his daughter Ennis and the members of the Magic Council. Standing near them but keeping his distance was the legendary "strongest man in the world" Cignus Fair, clad in his pitch black suit of full antimagic armor.

    Grenholt would walk up to the Emperor and pay his respects, thanking him for the invitation and offering his well wishes as was customary for these events. The Emperor himself was an aging man dressed in grand robes of the same white, gold, and red as his hall. His crown sat neatly upon a head of brown hair with streaks of gray. His iconic sideburns were thick as ever, and he flashed his bright smile at the new arrivals as he greeted them.

    At his side was his daughter Ennis, greeting the arrivals with similar delight. Her wavy auburn hair cascaded over her pale, exposed shoulders and down her back. A vibrant rose from the garden sat nestled neatly within. She had the same lavender eyes as her father, though his looked far more tired. Her dress was red and poofy, though it didn't hide the thinness of her fragile form.

    "...Presenting Stephen Burgess, President of Burgess and Sons Mining co., accompanied by the esteemed Burgess family." Next to arrive was Stephen Burgess, accompanied by his stern-looking father Calvin, his serene mother Irena, the conservatively-dressed eldest daughter Sarah, her opposite in the sprightly guild-wizard-turned-researcher Celia, and the youngest son, the magitech genius Cassius.

    As they began making their way to the Emperor, a flash of light burst from the center of the room, quickly fading and leaving behind a small crowd of mismatched figures. Something about the Emperor's smile changed as he saw these people who had interrupted his event. He leapt out of his seat, nearly climbing over his table as he rushed to greet them himself.

    The man who had been announcing the arrivals groaned audibly. "...Presenting…"

    "Myeloch, my friend!" Emperor Arvis called out as he grasped the Phoenix Guildmaster's hand. "I'm glad you finally made it! Knowing the Council and the Gryphons were going to be here I wasn't sure you would show." He chuckled.

    "Come now, you were kind enough to extend the invitation to my adorable guild members and I wasn't going to let them miss something like this!" Myeloch said with his usual smile. "And besides, we're also here to hear a request from my lovely assistant. Though that can wait until after my guild members have had a bit of fun."

    "Of course, of course! Dinner will be served soon and once the last guest has arrived the hall will be open for dancing, but until then please enjoy yourselves. There are guests from all corners of the magical world here, I'm sure there's something to be learned from them!" He leaned in and spoke a bit more quietly. "Even if they're not the most interesting to listen to sometimes. They could learn a thing about enthusiasm from a guild wizard."

    As Emperor Arvis and Myeloch spoke, everyone in the hall stared at them, wearing faces of displeasure as they gossipped amongst themselves.

    Rowan regarded all the other guests with curiosity, but was otherwise uncharacteristically subdued, content to fade into the background with his cloak.

    Ith'Drell began liberally distributing finger guns.

    Similarly, Prim made a point of flashing the biggest and most mischievous grin she could manage at every gossiper she noted. "As much as I love the city and all, I can smell the politics in here. How do these people stand all this pomp?"

    "Ah… it's a bit uncomfortable I must say…" Faye spoke quietly. She rubbed her arm with her other hand. Despite her scales being hidden underneath the gloves, it felt like they were staring right through it. Those were the same looks she got whenever she was in Lautela… It didn't help that she was now all dirked up in a dress. Perhaps she wasn't ready to be this vulnerable yet. Despite her obvious trembling, the expression on her face was as stoic as ever.

    Rowan gently pressed his shoulder against Faye's and just stood there without moving for a few seconds. "Relax, if anything those are looks of pure envy. And they should be jealous, look how bored the Emperor was until we showed up.

    "Right, we'll get out of your way," Myeloch laughed as he ushered his guild away from the middle of the room. "You still have other guests to welcome, it seems." As he said that, Stephen Burgess scowled at him from behind, as did his father. Sarah sighed and Celia smirked, while Cassius and his mother didn't seem to care.

    A loud tapping of a foot could be heard from another direction, as Rune Knight Commander Milla Cavan emerged from the crowd to glare daggers into Myeloch. Myeloch chuckled. "It seems I have other business to deal with as well. Nothing for any of you to worry about though. I'm sure you'll manage though. Call for me and I'll be there, regardless of what the council is fussing about this time." Milla groaned but Myeloch paid her no mind.

    Welcome to the Royal Palace of Atria! By now the guests have all entered and been greeted, and everything is fully underway. The red carpet has been picked up and people are slow dancing in the middle of the room to the live music. People around them are sitting at their tables enjoying their meals. The finest Gildan seafood and Atrian Steak with Lautelan herbs and vegetables, with rare Valbestian spices as only a small part of the offerings being served. Outside the hall people were exploring the large garden or touring the publicly available parts of the palace.

    The guests attending the banquet were many; If there was anything anyone wanted to know about the magical world they'd be able to find someone knowledgeable on it here. Such people included:

    • Alpha Lux Industries, magitech pioneers who recently developed fully-functional prosthetics, including their president Arthur Grenholt and their brightest mind Cassius Burgess, who created Gryphon Harmonia's armor
    • Gryphon Gale themselves, or at least their guildmaster Yvonne Avila and a few of their top members. GMG star Egan Lynch, teammate and guild beauty Adena Vaenar, and famed surgeon and Wizard Saint Dr. Carol Gammet.
    • Gloombridge representatives, including researchers from both the Mistland field expeditions and the city's main research institute. Among them was former S-class Celia Burgess, and two members of Silver Chimera. One was its more well-known magical beast member Fox, called as such for looking like just a small, multi-tailed fox with smooth white fur and purple markings all over. Small enough to fit on a shoulder actually, as he did now. Bearing him was a Chimera not on the GMG team, a woman with pale purple skin and a serpent-like lower half. Clearly Touched, and heavily so. She looked thin and tired with frazzled hair and glasses. The other guests kept their distance from the two.
    • A few journalists from Sorcerer Weekly who were eager to collect information, though they'd been instructed to keep from hounding the guests too much lest they be kicked out. With them was the creator of the popular Guild Crossfire card game, eager to find new wizards and mechanics to incorporate into the game.
    • The Magic Council, including its most active members Gregory Argyle and Sena Cain, along with Rune Knights Milla Cavan and Winnifred Tulles.
    • And of course the royals, Arvis Atria and his daughter Ennis Atria, accompanied by the Royal Guards and their titanic captain Cignus Fair.