Big Smoke ran through the rainforest, ducking and weaving through the wild vegetation. Behind him, ancient kapoks exploded into splinters or were thrown far away, because chasing him was a whole school of gigantic flying fishes. Who would’ve known that they would find his trail of smoke that appealing? That they would have wanted to eat him up so much that they were willing to come crashing down onto the earth just for a chance to catch him?
The shadow panted. He was not used to walking, much less running, and so his newly materialised muscles struggled to keep up with what he knew his body was capable of.
Finally, he ran into a particularly dense part of the rainforest, so dense that the canopies did not allow the flying fish to track him from above. Instead, they had to wiggle their way into the forest and look for him the old-fashioned way, and fish were definitely not good at tracking others that way… Or so he hoped.
He ran into a shallow cavern and threw himself onto the ground against the cold muddy walls, sitting to try and regain some of his stamina.
The last few days had been horrible for him. Ever since he’d gotten separated from his friends, nothing had gone right. He’d lost his possessions and parts of his body, he’d been tracked and hunted not just by beasts but by non-shadows. He didn’t have much left in him. He was far away from home, lost in a strange land and completely alone.
Memories flashed across his mind. Even though he was in danger, even though he could hear the slithering and clumsy tracking of the Iwaks above ground.
He remembered his first smile, when Astarte had given him his name and gender. He remembered the first tears he shared, when Lorelei had come to him crying in the middle of the night.
Faces he’d never made. Words he’d never used. He truly was glad to have chosen to follow the cat and the spirit, to have disregarded his purpose as a servant of trade. It was the only and best decision the shadow has ever made in his short life. To think that only a couple years could be so meaningful to a shadow…
He exhaled. The earthen flow within his body dissipated. His form became diffuse and weak once more. And then he saw the pair of glinting, wide set eyes in the darkness at the depths of the shallow cave. The nesting Iwak lunged at him, mouth gaping, and engulfed him.
“I can’t wait to find him! He always runs off in the worst direction, y’know!” Astarte explained with a giggle and a hop.
“He went v-very far this time…” Lorelei sighed, her tail swishing behind her and her ears laying flat against her head. She kept walking, however. It would be easy to locate Big Smoke, considering Astarte’s strange ability to track residue… And apparently, following the path of destruction through the rainforest was the correct way to go. Lately, she seemed to only ever chase trouble rather than evade it, Lorelei thought.
Astarte smacked her lips after licking a particularly pulverized tree, spit out a few pieces of bark, and nodded in satisfaction. “Yep! Big’s that-a way!” She grinned, pointing at the densest part of the rainforest, only visible from so far away due to the lack of canopies or tree trunks in the way.
Lorelei nodded in response, walking a bit faster but not without noticing the schools of Iwaks circling the rainforest above, nor without noticing the several sets of eyes watching her and Astarte’s moves from the shadows of the rainforest. Hungry, hostile eyes. “G-Gotcha. Keep an eye out, Astie. We’re being w-watched.” The [Feline Tinkerer] said as she pulled out her collapsible quarterstaff and pretended to use it as a walking stick.
It happened in the blink of an eye.
One moment, Astarte was leading the way through the thick rainforest. The next, half a tree trunk exploded into bits and the self-proclaimed goddess was tackled into the thorny overgrowth.
Screams rang out. A massive shadow stabbed into the overgrowth with two of its many legs. Lorelei’s eyes widened, and she sprung into action. She blasted forward toward the monster and swung her quarterstaff, hitting one of the monster’s legs so hard that it cracked. “[Sweep]!” She shouted. The skill activated and carried her strike through, fully breaking the leg.
The monster had eight legs, though. While it screeched in pain, it lashed out with three of its other legs. Lorelei barely dodged the wild barrage until she had to deflect one of the legs that would’ve gone through Astarte’s prone body. The catgirl overextended to defend her friend.
The monster pressed its advantage and lunged forward and before she knew it, Lorelei’s side hit the ground and the full weight of the monster trapped her legs.
The spider-thing stabbed down with two legs. Lorelei deflected the strikes and ignored the searing pain on the left side of her face.
As the monster prepared another barrage, Lorelei took in a sharp breath and struck upward with an open palm. “Lion’s Palm!” The Monster was launched off of her with yet another sickening crack.
Lorelei’s stance wobbled as she jumped up to her feet. She felt a warm liquid drip profusely from the left side of her face. Her vision blurred.
When the spider monster started to charge, an even bigger shadow crashed through the rainforest and swallowed the monster whole. Several cracks echoed through the damp darkness as the spider traveled down the gigantic fish’s throat. One tense moment later, the fish turned and looked at Lorelei with big glowing pink eyes. She couldn’t make its features out too well, due to an aura of shadow around it, but she could at least tell that it wasn’t hostile and not only because it was an Iwak.
Immediately, the catgirl stumbled over to where Astarte was writhing and sobbing on the ground, holding back a gasp as she saw the massive gash across her friend’s shoulder and the black coloration and horrible swelling that the wound had.
Lorelei dropped to her knees and fussed over the wound, not sure where to start. They didn’t even have any antivenom on them! A cold sweat broke out throughout her body. Was she poisoned as well? She touched the side of her face and her hand came back completely coated in blood. She also couldn’t see out of her left eye. What was she supposed to do? What could she even do?
Lorelei felt like throwing up while Astarte whined and cried there on the floor. She had training, so why…! Wait, she had training? Besides Lektoria’s? Before it all?
Lorelei’s heart skipped a beat. “Focus on water, Astie! P-Please! Just like earth makes us stronger, water will cleanse you. It has to!”
Astarte gagged. “B… Big… Vestec…” And then she passed out.
“No! Wake up, d-dumbass!” Lorelei sniffled.
Two more spider-monsters appeared from the tops of the trees, and yet Lorelei couldn’t even find the strength to stand up.
A bowstring sung, and the sound of flowing water filled the air. Two crimson projectiles found their targets, whose veins exploded in a shower of boiling hot gore.
Lorelei fell to the ground next to Astarte, her eyes only seeing the dark skin of her savior’s legs as he ran up to the group and started to look through his pouches. Then, she passed out as well.
Mortie gang is seen once more after having been split up by some off-screen event near Heavenfall. Big Smoke is seen on his own, running away from a school of Gedhe’Iwaks that think he looks like a tasty treat. Astarte and Lorelei are trying to look for him, tracking the path of destruction the chase left after the fact. When they get close to finding Big Smoke, they’re ambushed by a massive spider monster. Astarte is immediately taken down via surprise attack but is not killed thanks to Lorelei’s quick spring to action. She fends off the monster for a while and eventually a big shadowy Gedhe’Iwak arrives and swallows the spider monster whole, saving the catgirl and self-proclaimed goddess.
Lorelei realizes Astarte and herself have been envenomed by the Spider monster and even though she tries to direct Astarte to utilize Lektorian element-manipulation to cleanse herself of the venom, they both fail.
Two more spiders appear but are quickly dispatched by a pair of crimson arrows that make the spiders’ blood boil and veins explode, and the last thing Lorelei sees before passing out is her savior running towards them.
He awoke with a start. His heart beat in his chest, his stomach rumbled angrily, and his head felt like it was being pounded by the waterfalls behind Allara’s hut.
“Who… Am I?” He asked the air breathlessly.
The taste of warm iron. The gentle breeze caused by a butterfly’s flight. The weightlessness of clouds and the sense of finally arriving where one was meant to be…
Julles groaned, holding his temples as if doing so was any help in attempting to avoid his head splitting apart. He shakily got off his bed (made out of dead grass and full of dead insects) and out of his hut, taking in a deep breath of the fresh, non-smoke filled air of the wide outdoors.
A desire to run free, to seek new things and to meet and talk to new people washed over him. It was unlike him. It made him a little bit sick to his stomach.
Julles hobbled over to the creek that passed by his hut and drank some of the crystalline spring water.
The grinding feeling of earth forcing its way into his veins, tying him to the world’s roots. The desire to uphold tradition and punish anyone who broke it… Plus the impulse to break those traditions and see them and the world bathed in beautiful flames, all swirled inside his heart, which felt heavy with the shadows of the forest and as murky as an abyss.
And yet… It all came back to the flames. It was always the flames.
Julles closed his eyes tightly and scratched his face so hard he drew blood. That blood dripped freely into the creek, dissolving, flowing… Up?
He had to raise an eyebrow at that and follow its trajectory, taking his sight off of his reflection in the water. Blood had never flowed upstream, had it? Yet this time it did, and it flowed for a good few feet until it went down and into the muddy and rocky bed of the creek. A pulse of warmth emanated from that spot, and Julles had to do a double take as he saw an old skeleton, almost completely hidden from view by the overgrown grass and mud that had come to cover most of its bones. Its arm, broken, reached towards the creek and right at the bloodsucking spot, which continued to draw in every single one of the drops of his blood that fell into the water.
He felt cold sweat run down his spine. His jaw and arms shook as if he was freezing, despite it being midsummer. As he knelt into the crystalline water and dug into the ground with his bare hands, he felt a sharp pain in his left hand and winced. It was bleeding, but it wasn’t a normal injury – Instead, the blood flowed too fast and too precisely. Again, it went down into the muddy depths, but this time the ground shook a little, then a bit more, until something shot out from the mud and into his hand. A bow, too beautiful and too solid to have been made by elf hands. It was a pure, unadulterated black with streaks of liquid red flowing along its length. Its drawstring was red and warm, and in the back of his head, Julles could hear its heartbeat, synced to his.
He looked between the bow that had just forced itself into his grasp and the skeleton. Whoever had owned the thing before died while reaching, desperately, for it. Julles nodded his head at his now-predecessor, and rushed back to his hut.
A dark elf called Julles wakes up after dreaming of his fate once again. He goes to the creek right outside his hut and nearly scratches his own face off, then notices that the blood he’s dripping into the creek is flowing upstream. He follows the blood and finds and obtains the Sanguine Bow.
It had been months, but, at last, the seekers of the pie were ready. They’d been gifted the mighty power of leveling which Jeon Du Termas claimed was the very same that had once let him slip free of all realities and into the void beyond which had been the pathway to his divine power (the god had left out the indeterminate amount of time he had spent starving to death) and been dubbed the Forest Furies. Then they’d trained hard and gone on practice missions during which they’d lost two of their number ( to injuries) and gained one more.
As such when they approached the place which they had been told the secrets of pie could be found, Pebble (level 15 [traveling tosser]), Fern (level 16 [adventurer]) and Stag (level 11 [spearelf explorer] and level 4 [hunter]) were joined by Lorelei (level 3 [beastkin adventurer]), whom they’d met by chance at the weekly dance party last night.
The four of them were crouched in the underbrush, and looking out at the wide patch of dead earth that lay beneath the towering tree within which their prize was said to lie, who’s branches blocked out the sky high high above them. There was only one question.
“Wait. So. How do we get up there?” Stag asked from the back of the group
Lorelei smirked and showed one of her clawed hands. “Easy! I climb up and drop a rope for the r-rest of you guys.” Without waiting for the others, Lorelei rushed forth out of the bush and gracefully climbed the tree. One, two, five, ten meters up to the first branch, where she deftly grabbed one of the tools she kept on her toolbelt at all times - a hammer - and used it to nail a big metal stake into the tree through a hoop at the end of her rope. She uncoiled the rope, which she’d kept tied around her waist, and let it drop down all the way to the ground. After testing if it was secure, she sat on the branch and waved at the rest of the adventurers, her tail swinging gracefully behind her.
“Is that… stable?” Stag asked only for fern to brush past him saying “Probably, lets go!” followed by Pebble, who was going to get that pie or die trying.
The monsters who were going to try and make sure Pebble ended up taking the die option took that moment to introduce themselves to the group. A rotting corpse of a hammerhead shark with glowing red eyes proceeded to poke its head down out of the foliage of the big tree to see what the banging noise had been about. Upon seeing the cat it made a guttural hiss -which she responded to in kind with one of her own as she crouched down low- and lunged at her, while a small swarm of other undead tonnikala started to rain down out of the branches with vicious intent.
“Look out!” Stag called out in warning, while Pebble was already trying to help, calling out “[two birds!]” before tossing a stone with remarkable strength that proceeded to thwack into a skeletal piranha and then defect off at a right angle to smack another one with perfect precision, causing both to drop from the sky.
More were coming however, but Lorelei didn't have the time to worry about that. She dodged the undead shark’s charge by throwing herself back-first onto the branch and in a smooth fast movement, Lorelei’s clawed hands swiped at the shark numerous times, severing some fins, popping an eye and disemboweling it. The shark’s rotting maggot-filled guts spilled all over the catgirl, and the shark continued to crash head-first against the tree trunk with a sickening crunch.
The flimsy undead construct practically pulped itself against the thick as a clearing tree trunk and the remain’s dropped down, lifeless, towards where the rest of the [adventurers] were dealing with the rest of the trouble.
“Oh no no no what do we do?!” Stag stammered, backing up as a stinky ol salmon came swimming at him, only for Fern to dart ahead of him and skewer it with her weapon
“It’s just like spear fishing!” she told him, before gagging at the smell of her kill. That was all the opportunity another tuna thought it needed to go after her, causing a panicked Stag to call out “ah, look out, [quick stab]!” as he rushed forwards and then his spear moved in a flash to skewer the tune before it could strike Fern.
“Wow. Hey, not bad. I should get in danger more often if it's gonna get you to get over your nerves” She taunted him, before flicking the sammon off of her pointed stick and charging another, leaving the worried Stag to go chasing after her.
While the elves dealt with the droppers down below the slowest of the past it’s sell by date seafood introduced itself to Lorelei as two coconut crabs crawled down the tree trunk, their big old meaty claws twice the size of her clawed hands beared.
“Wao!” Lorelei hissed and deftly jumped back along the tree branch, giving herself a little bit more time to delve her hands into her tool belt pockets. Coming up empty, she instead dropped her whole back onto the branch and pulled out a long collapsible quarterstaff from it. As the crabs caught up with her, she gagged and spoke, “[Sweep]” And in one fluid motion, swept both crabs off the branch and sent them reeling into the depths of the forest. “N-Nasty things-” She whispered before dropping to her knees and leaning over the branch to throw up due to the scent.
“EW. Hey watch it where you chuck up up there!” came a shout from Fern who had narrowly avoided being spewed on while the rain of vomit was the last straw for stag, who upchucked against the tree. While they were dealing with that nastiness, Pebble was toughing out with a scrunched up nose as she used a big rock to smash the last of the rotten fish’s brains out.
“Well. This has been the worst” she complained, as she discarded the stinky rock and grabbed a rope and started to climb, leaving Stag and Fern to follow once the latter had patted the former on the back sympathetically.
“Sorry about this. Most of the ‘training’ we’ve been sent on has just been dangerous not. Well. gross. Never seen anything like this before, and I hope we never do again” Pebble apologized to their newest member once she caught up with her, though Lorelei was too busy retching to reply.
“Yeah what was this?” Fern asked as she got up into the branches
“Maybe it's the g-g-g-ghosts. They've found a way to come back and haunt us for eating them!” Stag suggested worriedly.
“G-Ghosts or not, they’re disgusting… I will have to wash my clothes l-like 20 times once we’re done here…” Lorelei said in between gags, then sat up and wiped her mouth. “S-So the reward should be at the top, right… There can’t be many more c-corpses left…”
“We can only hope,” Pebble agreed, before grasping a branch and beginning to climb. They got about two meters before suddenly bursting out into a clearing, the thick covering leaves smothering the light having suddenly thinned out, being replaced by a looser knitting of spaced out strong branches. These would have been harder to climb between, if there hadn’t been the strangest thing.
A village, grown out of the tree itself. Branches twirled and twisted and wrapped around each and grew in unnatural ways other to form walkways, streets and stairs connecting stylish homes with leafy roofs. All this spireld up and up the tree, forming a lovely looking community that even had denizens. At least that was how it looked at first, but the humanoid figures they had spotted were not elfish in proportion, squatter and wider as they were, and, as the keen eyes of the elves could see, they were not made of flesh but rotting wood.
They stumbled through the tree village, patrolling its walkways on the look out for intruders.
Those intruders ducked back into the foliage as one of the red eyed monsters started to turn their way. It paused, groaned, when it found nothing to see, and then kept walking along the branch road they had popped up next too.
“Ok. not over” Pebble noted, while Stag asked the obvious question:
“What are those t-t-things?” to which Fern’s only answer was “Whatever they are, they can't smell worse than the tonnikala”
“Smell or no smell, I don’t think we c-can take on so many of them… There must be dozens…” Lorelei furrowed her brow, and after a while nudged Fern with her elbow, “Time to sneak. I’ll go first.” The catgirl nodded, her tail accidentally slapping Stag across the face as she snuck out of the bush and across the branchy street to hide behind a hut. The others followed after her, and just like that they began to make progress.
By being patient and using as much cover as possible and thanks to Lorelei’s superior hearing, they had soon made it over half the way to the top.
It was when they used a tight and particularly humid alley as a hiding spot that things went wrong, as what they had at first thought was a regular mound of plant-y rubbish was actually a tree-zombie covered by rubbish. As the group of adventurers leaned against each other with Lorelei peeking out of the alley to decide when it was safe to move on, the tree-zombie-hobo awoke and sat up with a groan, its glowing red eyes looking straight at Pebble, who was standing behind everyone else.
“Huh, what was that noise?” the [thrower] said, turning, only for her eye’s to go wide as she beheld the lumbering monster coming at her, arm’s ending in splintered claws outstretched. She bit off a scream and stumbled backwards, only to bump into Stag’s back and for them both to go sprawling.
“I got you” Fern whisper shouted as she nimbly stepped over her companion’s forms and drove the spear deep deep into the rotten chest of the zombie, a victorious sneer on her lips, only for that smile to be wiped away as the organless undead was barely slowed and kept trying to push forwards, impaling itself further on the spear to get to her.
“What the- ah!” Fern cried out in pain as it slashed at her, thorny claws nipping at her belly before she could pull fully away, leaving a pair of bloody streaks on her torso. The adventurer cursed, and delivered a knee to the thing’s own stomach, but as there wasn’t one under there all it did was crack the wood more, and did nothing to stop it from grabbing her by the arms. The thing held tight onto Fern’s arms and growled at the elf, baring its gaping hole of a maw.
Before it could try anything however, Lorelei jumped over the two elves still sprawled on the floor, hissing. The thing hesitated, and that short moment was long enough for the catgirl to close the distance and break one of the thing’s arms in two with a lethally quick ax kick.
The thing screeched and recoiled and let go of Fern, only for Lorelei to press forward. She lacked the weight to tackle the thing to the ground, so instead she baited it out and used its first strike’s momentum against it. By taking a hold of its arm and sweeping her legs against its rooty limbs, she brought the monster down, a crack echoing down the alley as Lorelei stomped on the thing’s shoulder, disabling its other arm.
As the tree-zombie whined and groaned, flapping about on the floor, Lorelei panted. A moment later, she wiped bits of wood and sap off her clothes and went back to the edge of the alley, checking to see if any other entity had heard their little encounter.
The numerous sets of red eyes already looking right at her when she peaked out made it safe to say that they had. The zombies were coming. At least they were slow.
Back in the alleyway Fern was hissing with pain as she used a combination of some gummy wax and a relatively clean leaf to primitively bandage her wound shut, her [field aid] skill doing most of the work of actually getting it to stick. Stag meanwhile had pinned the un armed zombie to the floor with his own spear and was nervously looking on as Pebble inspected it
“It's just wood. Not like the kin who have guts. Just rotting wood all the way though” she noted, as the cat girl returned with the bad news.
“Bad news guys, we g-gotta run. The whole town heard us!” She explained quickly, her eyes wide as a pair of (adorable) saucers and ears flat against her head. “They’re pretty slow, so we s-should be able to outrun them all the way to the top.” She didn’t sound too confident, but came up to Fern and patted her on the shoulder. “Y-You okay? Can you run?”
“Yeah. I think I can-” Fern began to reply before Stag wrapped an arm under her shoulders for support. “Oh. Ok yeah definitely good to go now” Fern correct herself, giving Stag a smile before Pebble started to shoo them forwards.
“Get a move on you two, I’ll stick to the back. Slow them down even more” she then said, tossing a stone up and catching it “So let’s go!”
And go they did, racing upwards on their long elfish legs and nimble cat feet, with Pebble dancing at the back and giving the front runners of the growing horde a pin point rock shot in the knee for their exceptionalism whenever her skills came off cool down.
Ahead, at the top of the tree, sat of all things a tower, the upper most oranges all joining together to make a mighty spire that looked out across all of the forest. The winding road they were on led up to two mighty gates, which were, oddly, open slightly ajar rather than sealed shut to keep intruders out. Not that the elves noticed discrepancy, the lot of them having only just learned what a door was during their sneaking, and the why’s where less important than what it let them do, which was squeeze in through the gates and then slam them shut behind them, sealing them in the tower that became swiftly besieged by the undead hordes.
As the lumbering dead moaned and clawed at the door the [adventurers] took in the room at the bottom of the tower, which was fairly specious, and featured mainly an reception desk (ot that they knew what was) varios chairs to sit in while waiting to be served and, behind all of this, a shallow spiral staircase leading up the wall.
Behind the desk bathed in light shining in through amber windows, sat a much more put together wooden undead, clad in a cloak of dead leaves, the hood of which framed a considerably more detailed head stylised like a skull. It was casually flicking through the pages of a book that matched the description of what the [adventurers] where here for, but its red eyes flicked up upon hearing them enter and cleared its throat
“Greetings heroes, and welcome” it said with a polite customer service voice, before slamming its hands on the table and standing up and concluding with “TO YOUR DOOM! Nyeh he heh!” in a cackling voice.
“What.. Who?” Stag stammered, before being cut off by the undead’s introduction:
“I am Jim, the legendary, the magnificent, the stupendous, and mortal kind’s eternal foe!” he declared, arms spread wide and grand as himself proclaimed titles
There was a pause and then Pebble said “Well I’ve never heard of you?”
“Till today, Nyehehehe. My legend starts here, and it will spread far and wide. If you survive to tel lthe tale that is! Now, prepare yourself for my most devious plot yet!” he said, before grabbing a gnarled wooden staff sitting by the desk, thrusting it forwards and shouting “furniture attack!”
At his word’s the dead wood making up all the rows of chairs around the sprung to life and began kidna awkwardly stumbling towards them on stiff legs while the litch sprinted up the stairs, pie making instruction based brize tucked under one arm, cackling wildly as he went.
Lorelei kicked over one of the attacking chairs and watched it wiggle about until it stopped moving, tail swishing curiously behind her. “T-This is kinda cool!” She mused, casually knocking over another chair that had approached her, then another, watching each one until they stopped moving.
It was a stare from Stag that broke her out of her reverie. “Oh! Um… Right, l-lets catch this wooden prime!” She shouted with renewed vigour and deftly ran past all the wiggling chairs and up the stairs after Jim. Vines dropped from the ceiling and wooden roots emerged from the walls and floor to try and trip her up, but Lorelei’s catlike agility made it seem like she was effortlessly dodging every single trap. As she neared the top of the stairs and saw Jim run off into a long hallway, she shouted. “Hey, gimme that recipe book or I’ll turn you into c-charcoal! Come on guys, keep up!”
I’d like to see you try nyeh heh heh!” Jim jeered, before shouting “zombie ambush!” as the doors on either side of the hallway were flung open and a mini horde of lumbering dead shambled out to give the [adventurers] a bad time. Lorelei could do nothing but jump back with a yelp as she narrowly avoided being grabbed by the zombie horde. “W-What the heck kinda skill is that? Cheater!” She hissed and stretched her arm towards the horde, “[Zombie Retreat]! [Zombie Kill]! [Cat Luck]! Ugh!” When none of the things she shouted actually did anything, she huffed and stepped back even further .
“You can’t just make up skills,” Pebble informed her, before shouting “[enhanced improvised toss]” and throwing an undead chair at an incoming zombie, both it and the chair exploding into splinters.
“Yeah well then where the heck did that thing learn to do all this stuff!” Fern complained as she and Stag arrived, their [traversal: forest] having proved to have a second use of avoiding tripping over an re-animated forest of root and vine as well.
“M-maybe focus on getting him to stop?” Stag countered, while using his spear to flip an aggressive bit of furniture off of the staircase and sending it smashing down to the floor.
“Right. Arms, legs and heads, let’s go!” Pebble tried to regain order, before hefting another of her diminishing supply of stones and aiming for headshots with them. Fern scowled, speared another zombie and cursed as she ran into the same kind of problem she had already had: Pointed sticks were not good against the lumbering dead. So she ditched it, yelled “[improvised weapon]” and then ripped a door off its wooden hinges and started using it lengthwise as a battering ram.
“What!” Lorelei didn’t know what was happening anymore, and just decided to go along with it and followed Fern closely, kicking away any tree zombie that strayed too close from the group’s flanks. “[Cat Kick]! [Cat Kick]! [Cat Kick]! [Cat Kick]!” She yelled many times, even though she didn’t have any skill with the words “cat” or “kick” in it.
Eventually, they had pushed through the thickest part of the horde and found themselves at the foot of yet another staircase, though this one was a spiral kind and went straight up, with windows (more like holes) looking out towards the forest. It wasn’t like the group could stop to admire the view though, with the undefeated horde hot on their tails. “A-All of this to learn about pies!” Lorelei screamed as she began running up the staircase, lungs starting to burn.
“My life is on the line here. Maybe. Just keep running!” Pebble ordered as she raced ahead while Stag helped an increasingly winded Fern climb up the staircase until, at last, they reached the top of the tower for a dramatic final showdown.
They emerged under a blood red sky and once again found Jim opposite the stairs, only this time stood atop a set of battlements with only a bearskin rug between them and him. As they arrived he swept his staff towards them and cackled “nyeh he he, you may have bested my hordes, but are you ready for my final and greatest minion!” he declared before thrusting the staf up dramatically and crying out “rise my creation!”
And rise it did, the ‘rug’ pulling itself off of the ground to reveal itself to be the, rather beaten up, remains of a mossbear, hulking brutes of the forest, big as a grizzly and twice as tough.
“Lets see how you deal with-” Jim began, only to be drowned out by a triple cry of “[forest-kin slayer]” followed by twin shouts of “[rock hard throw],” “[piercing javelin]” from two of elves as they unleashed all of their long cooldown priority target skills at once on the rotting form of a beast they’d had to deal with before down in the darkwoods.
Stag’s last (and only) spear lanced out, stabbing right through the mossbear’s eye, Pebble’s small stone hit with the force of big rock and caved in its other eye, and finally Fern just ran at the blind thing, jumped and brought the door she still was caring down in an overhead smash with a cry of “[expend weapon]”, the door dealing a spectacular blow that brought down the moss bear before it literally disintegrated into ash.
“This…” Jim trailed off as his final gambit failed spectacularly.
“Ahh,how the turns table! N-Next time, get yourself a few elf friends. Maybe then you’ll stand a chance!” Lorelei grinned and cracked her knuckles as she approached Jim “Any l-last words, machine?”
“Last… words? Last words! ” the lich cried back as he as scrambling up onto the battlements to and right up to the edge, before turning with a leer and holding up the book and began to threaten them with “not one step closer or I’ll-” only to receive a rock to the chest that sent his pitching towards the edge and his arms pinwheeling for balance. At that exact moment, Lorelei shot forward and snatched the book off of Jim’s flailing arms and watched as the villain fell off the tower.
“Heh. Neat.” She muttered as she stowed the book under her arm and walked back to the group, only for a cackling to rise back up from below the tower and the litch reappeared, seeingly flying.
“Foooooool!” Jim cackled, before taunting “remember this day, heroes, as the day you alost stopped the legend of Jim! nyehehehehehehehe!” and then rising up further, revealing himself to be standing on the backs of two flying sea turtles that swift bor him away front the tower while he laughed at them from on high.
He also ducked the rock tossed at him this time.
“What a weirdo” Fern commented, before sitting down, the exertion and wounds catching up to her, Stag sitting down next to her and adding “well at least it's over”
“Thanks to you, Lorelei. You really saved my skin there” Pebble said , her eyes locked onto to the book the catgirl had under her arm
“That eager for a p-pie, huh?” Lorelei sighed and handed the book to the elves, “Well, it was fun tagging along with you guys, and I got to prove that short people are as cool as any e-elf.” She declared and nodded to herself with a satisfied grin.
“Yes!” Pebble practically snatched it from the offered hand and then raised it up triumphantly and delcard “pie!” which was greeted with a shower of confetti bursting out of the now open pages in celebration of a quest complete. Then there was a little pause before Pebble noted “wait… how do I use this too make pie?”
She frowned and brought the book down and after turning it over a few times and poking it figured out how they worked and started leafing through it. “it’s… pictures. And little squiggly things” she said, describing her interpretation of the contents.
“Guess we’ll have to figure it out” Fern said “later. Sit down and rest Pebble. We still need to get back down and past all the ‘zombies’ and stuff”
Stag moaned at the prospect, till Fern punched him lightly on the shoulder “ah come on, don’t be like that. Least it’ll be easier”
“Mmm, short rest, and then we get back at it” Pebble agreed, first sitting, and then laying, down as Jeon’s system made up for his delayed gratification of the pie book with some instantaneous rewards for surviving his treehouse of dread puzzle:
And after that, well, zombies never stood a chance.
Fern, Pebble and Stag, 3 of the elves from the exploring the underground post, along with Lorelei the cat girl, (all of them now [adventurers] of various stripes) arrive at the base of the treehouse dungeon Jeon had made to house the legendary artifact: Granysmith’s cookbook, which he had tasked them with retrieving so they could use it to progress towards completing Lektoria’s quest for Pebble, which was to make pie.
The 4 of them battle, sneak and run their way up through the sprawling treehouse settlement, facing off against Jim’s many undead minions, before confronting him at the top of the treehouse. Lorelei snatches the book off of him before he escapes on the backs of two undead flying sea turtles
The [adventurers] then examine their prize, realize that they will still have work to do desciperingit, and then take a short rest to level up before hedging back down the treehouse, mopping up the remaining undead with their new [skills]
Darkwood [Adventurers] Guild:
+1 prestige: playing a significant role in the post +1 prestige: collab +1 prestige: +10000 characters +5 from completing the divine quest: claim the legendary artifact: Granysmith’s cookbook
Mawazo the prophet and Mahara the prophetess did not know what they were to each other. Amongst the many things they had not been told, that had swiftly become the most acutely inescapable. Were they the children of the Anath and wonder - and so siblings? Or were they the creations of those two mighty beings, and so a divinely ordained couple? Were they to be platonic companions- in fact, were they to be companions at all? Were they to separate and, separately, see to their prophetic duties? And if they were companions or siblings or a couple, were they equals or were they leader and led, commander and commanded, master and slave? Prophet and prophetess though they were, and granted seeing most discerning at that, the thick fog of the ineffable will and intent of the gods was impenetrable to them. “And it’s probably for the best!” Mahara declared one day as Wonderlust, shrunken to a fifth of his normal size, trudged through the muddy forest. Mawazo glanced at her bemusedly. They had both been quiet for days and he could not fathom what she could be referring to. She ignored him and continued gazing out into the dark forest. It had escaped neither of them that they were being watched by odd creatures stalking in the shadows. They did not seem harmful, though they also did not appear desirous of being detected. And so the prophet and prophetess, independently and without communicating to one another, decided to go on as though they had no perceived them.
They eventually found themselves by a boggy lake, from which trees grew, and decided to stop there for a while and let Wonderlust roll about in the water and muck as he seemed to so love doing. The two pale humans, eyes as dark as night and lips as crimson blood and whose hair was as black silk, sat on their wagon in stoic silence. Now and again Mawazo scratched his long, curly beard of ebony, but beyond that they neither looked at each other nor spoke. It was neither an uncomfortable silence nor a particularly joyous companionship. It simply was.
It was at the edge of Mawazo’s vision that a pair of orbs of light appeared in the total darkness of the forest. Golden and perfectly round, they stared at him intently before tilting towards Mahara and then coming back to him. A voice came from underneath those orbs, youthful but with the telltale rasp of someone who’d done their fair share of shouting in the past.
“Jeez, w-will you two do something already? It’s like I’m tailing Primes…” The orbs flickered a few times, until from out of the darkness walked out a young humanoid. She had a healthily bronzed skin tone, along with most importantly a pair of cat-like ears and a tail. She moved gracefully and silently, so much so that had Mawazo not been looking at her directly, he probably wouldn’t believe that she was moving at all. “Anyway, who are you two? Humans? T-Too white to be- Not machines either. I’m Core-Lorelei, by the way, am I right to assume you two are related to divinity in some way?”
The two gazed at her for a few moments, then Mahara spoke. “I am Mahara. I do not know if I am related to the gods. They never told me. It is a pleasure to meet you, Core-Lorelei.” After a pause, Mawazo spoke up. “I am Mawazo. I also do not know what relation to the gods I have, for they never spoke of that. It is a pleasure to meet you, Core-Lorelei.” They were both rather monotone. Wonderlust leapt from, covered in mud, and circled around Lorelei excitedly, who immediately grinned and patted the big softy’s side. Whatever life Mawazo and Mahara lacked, the strange flying-running lizard seemed to have amply. “I have not seen your like before, Core-Lorelei. Are you, perhaps, related to the gods?” Mawazo asked.
“I’m not, funnily enough! T-The cat ears are a rare s-sight in this forest.” Lorelei wiggled them for emphasis. “You’d do well to know that people who look very unique are most likely closely related to the gods. You two, f-for example, are chalk white with jet black hair, which never h-happens in normal humans. Plus you have a massive Atson-Nin for a pet, and a wagon that should never have been able to r-reach this deep into the woods. Therefore, you two were definitely made or mutated by the Gods!” Lorelei declared, placing her hands on her hips and puffing her chest out. Her teeth would’ve glinted had there been any significant light source around. “I-I gotta say though, I’m glad to finally meet some normal people. One of my companions is a bit, uh, off I guess.”
The prophet and prophetess looked at one another for the first time in… well, a long time, and seemed to notice the features Lorelei spoke of for the first time. “Unique?” Mahara asked quizzically, looking away from him and to Lorelei once more. “Atson-Nin?” Mawazo asked, likewise looking away from his strange twin and returning to Lorelei. “There are others… with you… like you?” Mahara added stoically. “It is no secret: we were made by the gods. It is true.” Mawazo intoned. He looked sorrowful, but nothing in his voice suggested that it was the case. It seemed to just be his face. “The Anath and wonder.” Mahara agreed.
Lorelei pursed her lips. “T-Those names mean nothing to me, I’m not from around here. Don’t be sad, though, being made by the gods is usually a good thing. You’ll probably never get kidney stones, for once!” Lorelei chuckled and walked closer to the twins, nodding at Mawazo. “An Atson-Nin is what the small version of your beast of burden is called.” She then looked at Mahara. “And nah! I-I don’t remember much, but I know I’m the only one of my kind left. It feels f-familiar, to be honest.” She shrugged.
“So what’re you two doing here? Do you like being s-stalked by shadows and cats?” The catgirl asked, her tail swishing almost hypnotically behind her as she put her arm on Mawazo’s shoulder and leaned her weight against him.
Mahara stared at what Lorelei was doing with inexplicable shock. “What are you…” she began, then her words seemed to evaporate on her lips and she simply gazed at her slack-jawed, while the catwoman smirked back rather smugly. Mawazo looked from Mahara to the catwoman’s arm on his shoulder. He had only ever been touched by the god. He had not enjoyed it very much. This was different though - not as invasive.
Ignoring - or perhaps failing to have noticed - Mahara’s shock, he responded. “We’re just wandering. We’re meant to teach… or warn… or, um… something. I think if we keep moving we’ll eventually work it out.” He sighed and looked at his feet.
“Waow, you guys are c-clueless for real.” Lorelei sighed. “Maha, gimme your hand.” She requested while offering her own hand to the pale woman and stepping back slightly from Mawazo, before offering her remaining hand to him as well. “You too, Mawa.”
The two humans looked aghast and brought their hands to their chests almost simultaneously. “Give you-” Mahara began. “My hand?” Mawazo finished. “That’s terrible!” Mahara cried, tears welling up in her eyes. “They weren’t made to be given.”
“H-Hey! Now wait just a- Gosh!” Lorelei groaned and just placed a hand on the twins’ shoulders. “Feel that? That’s warmth. R-Real warmth, not the kind that burns. Forget about all that crazy god quest stuff for a second and focus on what’s right next to you. From your reactions I c-can tell you two have never touched anyone else before. You should start now, physical contact is one of the best things in the world. And after that, just travel and see things and enjoy the w-world, one step at a time. Like adventurers! ”
The two blinked for a few moments, and then sat there quietly, focusing on the feeling of Lorelei’s hand on their shoulders. Even through the thick fabric of their clothing, they could feel the incredible warmth and life. Slowly, Mawazo raised his own hand and placed it curiously atop that of the catwoman. The movement immediately drew Mahara out of her reverie and - for no reason she understood - she frowned. “Hey!” She spoke sharply, causing the man’s hand to flinch away from Lorelei’s. He glanced guiltily at his cold twin, then coughed. “Adventurers?” He asked Lorelei, desperately ignoring the daggers in Mahara’s eyes.
Lorelei desperately tried to hide her laughter. “Uh, y-yeah!” She nodded, “You know, go on trips and do things that make your heart beat faster and harder in your chest, meet new people, fall in love, get mugged and scammed… The works! Say uh, are you two going to travel to any place that has a lot of shiny rocks anytime soon?”
The two were quiet for one long minute, clearly ruminating too deeply on the catwoman’s words. “Do things…” Mawazo mumbled under his breath, staring at his feet again. “To make your heart beat faster and harder…” Mahara continued. “Meet… new people.” Mawazo added. “Get mugged and scammed.” Mahara said. Mawazo stiffened and looked at her. “No, she said something else before that.” He advised gently. Mahara raised an eyebrow. “No she didn’t.” The woman assured him calmly. “I am sure of it, there was one thing before that.” Mawazo insisted with the faintest smile. “You must have misheard.” Mahara responded, a larger smile breaking out across her face. It gave Mawazo pause, and he stared at her for a few surprised seconds. “Mawazo?” Mahara asked, after he had been staring for an oddly long time. “Oh, uh. Yes. I… I guess I must have. How odd.” He looked away, his eyes returning to his feet. Mahara turned back to Lorelei. “I don’t think we had any plans, really. But I do remember flying over just such a place before landing here.” She gave the wagon a once-over, then glanced back at the catwoman. “We can take you there if you like.”
Lorelei removed her hands from the twins’ shoulders to allow herself to fist pump the air victoriously. “Yes! Transport obtained! T-Thank you guys, I’ll go get my friends and meet you back here in a couple hours, sounds good?” She asked hopefully.
Mahara nodded simply, and Mawazo followed suit after a few seconds. And with that the energetic catwoman was off into the foliage and quiet returned all about them. The prophet and prophetess sat staring at where she had disappeared for about an hour, and then Wonderlust came up onto the wagon, now cat-sized, and distracted them from that. He did not stay long, however, for he was soon off into the bog. Mawazo sat back and sighed. Mahara glanced at him. “Uh-” she began, but then stopped. His eyes flickered toward her. “Hmm,” he grunted. She almost winced at the sound, and promptly reddened. “Uh, yeah. Ahem.” She cleared her throat and fiddled with her fingers. He scratched his beard and repositioned himself for comfort. And perhaps accidentally grew closer to her. She patted her dress down, stood slightly to get a wrinkle out, then sat back down. Perhaps, by no conscious intention at all, shifting closer to him. They sat straight and rigid and tense, by one another. If he focused he could almost feel her warmth through the air. Or maybe that was just his imagination. No no, he was sure it was her warmth. He leaned back. It was nice.
The wondertwins travel into the darkwoods and stand around awkwardly as they reach a bog. They are so awkward in fact that one of the entities stalking them throughout their whole journey decides to intervene. It’s Lorelei. She teaches them about physical contact and what adventures should be like. Towards the end of their interaction, they offer to give Lorelei and her gang a ride to the Mesa, where the twins have seen metal ore before.
Mawazo: —-+1 due to: 1 spirit, at a minimum, is awarded to a champion for every post in which they appear as more than just a passing mention in one line. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally awarded to a champion if they are the main character and central focus of the post. This only applies to one champion per post. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally awarded to all relevant champions if the post is a collab. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally earned if the post is of medium length (think about 10+ non-dialogue paragraphs). Total: 4 Spirit
Mahara: —-+1 due to: 1 spirit, at a minimum, is awarded to a champion for every post in which they appear as more than just a passing mention in one line. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally awarded to a champion if they are the main character and central focus of the post. This only applies to one champion per post. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally awarded to all relevant champions if the post is a collab. —-+1 due to: 1 spirit is additionally earned if the post is of medium length (think about 10+ non-dialogue paragraphs). Total: 4 Spirit
Lorelei yawned and stretched as she watched the gypsy wagon ride away and waved a last farewell at her newest friends, Mawazo and Mahara. They were innocent and pure and naive, sure, but Lorelei found those traits to be refreshing when presented in the way that the two snowflakes had done. She smacked her lips a couple times, ruffled her short hair a little and moved her ears around a little before turning towards Astarte, who was already busying herself by poking a small round cactus nestled in between two of the reddest sandstone boulders she’d ever seen.
The cat girl sighed but couldn’t help the smile that came to her face. Ghosts of memories tried to resurface, like a particular scent or a strange prickly sensation across her ankles. After a while, the ‘goddess’ poking the cactus turned sharply towards Lorelei with a quizzical look in her eyes.
“Lore, why is this fruit so prickly? How am I supposed to eat it?”
“That’s not a fruit, it’s a cactus. You don’t eat it, not that I know of. It’s too small to hold any s-significant amount of water, too, so don’t even try any funny business.”
“Aw.” Astarte groaned, but for the first time ever actually listened and stepped back from the threatening little grenade.
“So… A-According to those two, there should be some ‘shiny stuff’ somewhere on this mesa. Let’s start looking, Ace. The sooner we find metal and someone that’s got the t-tools to work it, the quicker we can make ourselves some nifty equipment, like those forks I m-mentioned.” Lorelei explained, knowing full well that Astarte had probably forgotten by now what the whole point of leaving the darkwoods was.
“Ooh, yeah! The forks! By the way, can any of you feel that?” Astarte sniffed the air and dropped down into a prone position, ear against the sandy soil.
Lorelei watched the scene play out with one of her eyebrows slowly raising against her will, and eventually brought her barely-held-together-with-string messenger bag up to her face. “She’s d-doing it again, Smoke…” Lorelei whispered into the bag. A bit of smoke leaked out.
“Master Astarte can feel currents and track down residue, Lorelei. This shadow trusts its Master.”
Finally, she licked the soil, chewed on it and swallowed it. “Mmm! Yes, this is top-quality mesa dirt, and also yes! I’m sure we’re pretty close to a place of power, Lore. Wanna check it out?”
Lorelei psed her lips and crossed her arms, letting her bag fall to her side once more. “Aren’t places of p-power like, super dangerous though?”
“WHAT! Where did you get that from? You silly kitty!” Astarte giggled and scooted up to Lorelei’s side and pulled her by the wrist, walking in a seemingly random direction.
“H-Hey! I don’t think there’s anything down that way- Traveling without a set direction is bad news, too, we shouldn’t do it!” Lorelei desperately tried to reason with her, but Astarte wasn’t having it. In the end, the cat girl resigned herself to listening to the wannabe goddess for once and followed her.
For days on end.
The mesa was a weird place, clearly originally a sub-tropical lush-ish land which had risen high above the clouds into broken apart plateaus usually covered by a thin fog. The local flora and fauna had obviously struggled to adapt, something Lorelei realized thanks to the underwhelming biodiversity in the area. The few living beings that survived what must have been a divine cataclysm in the past had spread out unpunished, giving the unusual combo of visuals such as tall pine trees surrounded by cactus bushes.
The location had already been inhabited by sapients. Small bridges, often way too flimsy to be above endless ravines, connected different plateaus when the mesa broke apart, other times, they would have to rely on Lorelei making ropes or finding a rock outcrop or redwood tree that had fallen across the fissures. The closer they got to the center, the rarer these struggles became.
Finally, they dove into an area where the mist was very thick, to the point the two had to hold hands or risk losing each other. Their main guidance became only Astarte’s intuition, at some point, it felt like the mist enveloped them and almost seemed to try to lead them astray, until, at the last minute, it seemed to give up and slide away. Not long after that, they got up a hill and saw in the distance a tall layered stone tower with a whole complex of buildings around them. The echoes of a murmuring crowd and the smell of barbecued carp filled the air. A smell that immediately made Lorelei’s mouth water and stomach rumble. Astarte laughed at her for it.
- 2 -
Lektor perched on a stone pillar, as she typically liked to do, and observed the students as they fought each other hopelessly, the endurance of the human body was kinda pathetic, but she was sure she could train it over time. Her focus was suddenly broken as she noticed something walking past the main gate, where typically people would only leave.
It wasn’t just a single something either, but three. One of them had a body that lacked earth but was abundant in wind and water. The other had a body identical to that of the humans she’d grown so accustomed to but held a fire that threatened to spill out and burn itself out. And the last one had a body that looked like one of the chimeras’- With the one difference being that her feline ears and tail were not made of spirit, but of flesh and blood. Her fire burned brightly, and deep within her there was the glint of something she had not seen before, something smooth and tempered.
“We’re here! Place of power reached, I know it took a bit long, but what do you think Lore, Big?” The one with the brightest flame asked of the others, seemingly oblivious to everything.
“This shadow enjoys its Master’s joy.” Came an echo-y, disembodied voice from within the bag carried by the tempered one, who spoke next, rather incredulously. “You really haven’t n-noticed the God sitting on a pillar by the tower’s entrance? We’re soo gonna be ash-ified.”
Lektor observed the three stooges at her gate and continued to be extremely confused over it all. ”By the Core, who are you people?” she jumped down and made the whole of the place shake, her students immediately turning to look at the strangers with equally confused glances. The cat-eared stranger smirked nervously while the human grinned with stars in her eyes.
”A Chimera, a human and one of the shadow stalker things. But… my temple was supposed to turn all of you away.” she tilted her head, now towering over the newly arrived. ”Oh. I see what is happening here. You are…” for some reason strange words came to her mind and she almost lost her train of thought, almost. ”Foreigners. Not of this world. So you break the ward of my temple. It is set to ward off all those who leave it or who are born elsewhere on this planet. You… are neither of those. Well, at least not the two with legs. The shadow would likely be expelled if not the bag.”
She raised her golden gloves and grabbed Lorelei by the head, tapping her with a serious look, scanning her body using vibrations, a serious look that turned into a smile. Towards Astarte she would just rub her chin, before she started eyeing downard. All of the sudden, the goddess poked the “human” at her midsection and then seized the arm, squeezing at them. “Gods, are you a woman or are you a slime? I have never met someone so flabby.”
The human huffed. “Rude! I’m a Goddess just like you, you… You… Yoou… Pervy catbird?”
“Sorry about Astarte’s language, Goddess, she was dropped as a child and has been flabby in both body and brain since then.” Lorelei said and knelt with her head down.
“What! You never bowed for me before!”
“Huh! I wouldn’t guess the one with a punkish fashion sense would be the polite one. Do you want to join me for the cocoa ceremony?” she proposed before staring at Astarte with a far more imposing stance, letting the full gravity of her role as the earth goddess weight down on the faux-goddess, who shrank a little with an actually scared look on her face. “And you. Slime girl. Here is a uniform. You will do five laps around the temple then complement it with a brick lifting session. The material is improper, but I will carve a woman out of you.”
Astarte, or ‘Slime girl’ now, quickly nodded and took the uniform. “Y-yes ma’am! Where should I change into the u-uniform?”
”There is a changing room by the bathhouse. Or find a room for yourself, there is plenty of empty spots after I kicked out a whole wave of brats out of this hall.” Lektor’s voice had even changed and she had to put great will in not having the sides of her mouth turn upward in a smug smirk.”Now get moving, if I needed another statue standing around I would carve it myself.”
She then clapped her golden gloves together and turned to the punkish cat, who sported the biggest smirk she’d ever seen as Astarte ran off to presumably find a room. ”Now, where were we? Right. Hot cocoa time with my new feline pal.”
- 3 -
After Lektoria responded to Lorelei’s request for metal to fix her gadgets with a request of her own, the cat-girl decided to stay in the Temple for a while and learn their ways. It was good to have a set place to rest her head every night, and the incredible quantity of new faces to meet and new voices to remember made it so her stay in the Temple was always stimulating.
Before she realized, the next few months had passed by in the blink of an eye. Every day had been busy as Lorelei delved head-first into the Temple activities and training. She quickly became popular due to her proficiency at the Martial Arts, Acrobatics, and most subjects involving her hand crafting skills, but above all else she was also very highly sought after by the many cliques because of how open and welcoming she was.
Her time off was spent either helping others with things they struggled on or hanging out and laughing alongside whoever sat next to her during the many designated break times throughout the temple days.
The trio had been kept so busy (yes, even Big Smoke, who no one was actually sure if he would benefit from physical training) that they had not been able to see each other past a few distant glances and nods here and there. It was only as their 11th week at the Temple came to a close that they were finally allowed to reunite in the form of a competition.
It was a simple 100m run, pitting twelve different runners from different cliques against each other in a free-for-all. Lektoria clapped her hands and everyone sprang into a run. It was all over in less than 10 seconds, with the first, second and third place being taken by Hills of Bountiful Harvest, Gold Fanged Cat and Slime Girl respectively.
Lorelei herself got fourth place and Big Smoke smashed his previous record by placing 6th, mostly by hitching rides within the other runners’ shadows.
It was a surprise to everyone to see Slime Girl (Astarte) become such a fast runner and Lorelei and Big Smoke wasted no time walking up to Lektoria to request a feast for their friend.
It was Lorelei who spoke first, “Goddess, she’s earned it hasn’t she? She’s not flabby at all anymore!”
“This shadow agrees. Its Master has exceeded its expectations. When its Master first came into the world she could barely walk.” Big Smoke spoke, looking perhaps a bit more solid and denser than he did weeks ago.
Lektor had spent the whole time with the group poking all over Astarte, before letting out a prideful single tear. ”Ah! My little slime baby has grown so much! Look at her. You could grind a knife on these muscles.” she pulled the ex-goddess into a tight hug, and while that would be fatal to most, Astarte barely felt it aside from the fear that was clear on her face.
”And yes, she is more solid and denser, which is why tomorrow she is invited to a special class along with the other two winners and a previous winner of the brick breaking competition.” Lektor announced proudly. ”Oh, and of course, a feast will be served today, we even brought over some special snacks from the Shadow Woods, Master Shadow Hopper.” she looked at Big Smoke with a certain smirk, using the name the students had been calling the very popular Umbra.
“This shadow is eager to feel the taste of Home. It is grateful to you, Goddess of Earth.” Big Smoke bowed as low as he could, which was pretty low considering he didn’t have a lower half to worry about. “To think this shadow would be able to taste Chungusite Skewers once more…”
“They are a delicacy for real. Say, Goddess, could we be allowed to dress as we wish for this feast? I love the uniform but I feel like I’d lose something important if I had to wear it any longer.” Lorelei asked, patting her uniform for emphasis.
The goddess tilted her head from side to side. ”Very well. I guess you are not exactly equal to my students, and only a few hate you for being different, and half of those few were humiliated in that whole ‘arc’ with those smug twins from the Slide-Down-The-Snowy-Peak clique. Just make sure your clothing is properly washed for the time, when you arrived your smell was quite terrible.”
The goddess then sighed. ”To continue on my harsh honesty, Big Smoke, I am sorry. But I did make a certain promise to one of the students who won. Please forgive me for my betrayal.”
Just before she had announced that a new arrival had made it in, it was Hills of Bountiful Harvest, who stood at the door with her typical ‘aura’ of smugness. No, not only her, but most of her clique, The Phantom Wings. An all-female clique that had a certain fame for causing trouble.
“Neat that you will get your special feast later, but my feast, like my position, comes first” she announced, giving the group a little clap before leaning forward. “And we wanted a special guest to pamper about! And none other than Master Shadow Hopper will do for me~” she rose her hand and made a signal.
The Phantom Winger students marched forward, an army of the prettiest chimeras about, most carrying big two handed fans. Lektor had discovered these time of focused air blasts were some of the few direct ways to keep the Umbra away, and she had given that knowledge to a troublesome group. They started to fan poor Big Smoke about, slowly forcing him towards a scary group of giggling cute girls. To his credit though, Big Smoke seemed to embrace the treatment and happily engaged the Phantom Wingers as they blew him all the way into the darkest recesses of the Temple.
“I had been wondering for a while whether the Umbra had any kind of reproductive instinct, y’know! Since he never tried to pull anything on me!” Slime Girl quipped, having freed herself from Lektoria’s grip sometime throughout the commotion. “Maybe we’ll see shadow bunnies hopping around soon? Shadow Hills, huh…”
“Are we completely sure he’s not just playing along thinking they’ll just make him play a game of DOS with them?” Lorelei sighed.
”Maybe they will just play pranks on him or try to puff smoke ribbons into his head, maybe… terrible things will happen tonight. There are certain abysses it's best not to peek too far into. Whatever drives Miss Hills is one such a thing. We can only pray for Mister Big Smoke.”
The goddess shook her head in true resignation. ”Nevertheless. Let’s set up the details of the feast, and let me also give Miss Slime the location of the special training. Miss Lore, there will also be a reward, if smaller, to you. I have set aside a room with a forge and a supply of a variety of metals. I do not understand most of what you speak but will that be enough for your purposes?”
Lorelei snapped up to grin at Lektoria, wiggling her ears happily. “Y-Yes! Definitely! Thank you so m-much, Lektoria!” She shouted and jumped up to give the Goddess a hug.
- 4 -
The special training room was a field of perfectly cut grass above the main tower of the building, no walls would stop one from falling down but there was a winged goddess overlooking it all.
By the time Astarte arrived both Hills and a tiger man she would identify as the Golden Fanged Cat were already there, standing up and still, hands raised, in a tree-like stance perhaps.
”Ah, Miss Slime. It is good to see you.” Lektor swooped in. ”I hope your group had fun last night? I was unfortunately too busy to participate in the feast.”
“Oh y-yeah, for sure. Big Smoke was covered in some kind of goop when we got him back. What even was that, Hills? It tasted weird.” Slime Girl shuddered, “So what are we doing today?” She asked even as she assumed the same stance as the other two.
Hills for once did not answer, she seemed to be deeply focused. And when Astarte took that position, she could see why. This whole location, by accident or design, had a massive amount of earth mana flowing through it, the presence of the goddess only increasing it. It would resonate with Astarte as well, perhaps not for the same reason it resonated with the two earthling chimeras by her side, but it was still something she could tap into with the right technique, in fact, upon closer inspection, she already had. The perceived density she had gained under Lektor’s training was in part due to some of this Earth element infusing itself to her.
”One of the greatest weaknesses of our body is its systematic elements, water and air. Most fatigue, most injuries, are not born from a failure of flesh or bones, but of damaged blood vessels, lungs and other key organs.” the goddess explained, giving all three many memories of bruises and injuries. ”The stone too cracks, but at a much lesser rate. What I will teach you three today is a technique that allows you to imbue some excess earth energy into the water and air elements of your body. I like to call it the “Mud and Dust” technique, but it perhaps doesn’t give the right image.” she added with a chuckle.
While all three kept their eyes closed, Lektor called forth someone. ”Miss Spring Blossom, please come here.” everyone had a certain will to peek, but the very gravity of the earth's energy seemed to keep their eyes closed, still, they could feel the flow of the earth mane through the newly arrived student’s body.
“Hello Miss Lektoria. I am ready to showcase to our friends this technique.” she had a gentle, soft voice, giving a true ladylike aura. With a bow to the teacher, Blossom took a similar stance to them, but quickly shifted her arms, as if clawing and hoarding the mana.
”Miss Blossom’s willingness to test her limits with me is how I discovered the path to this.” Lektoria started, as the student started to technique, the Earth mana now flowing along the streams of water mana in the blood vessels and organs, as well as filling her lungs. ”It will strengthen all aspects of your body. Strikes against you will not cause even a minor bruise lest they are strong enough to crack bones, your brain won’t be jostled about when you move, a strike to the chest won’t take the wind off your lungs. And even your arms will feel more solid, acts such as dual wielding weapons or striking with full force with your fists will become much easier.”
Blossom finished her spell, a controlled, angular flow of united water-earth and wind-earth now all over her body. The other students started to follow the steps, meanwhile, Lektoria gave a few warnings. ”It will however fatigue you a lot, avoid running while this technique is active. And uh… Drink a lot of water after finishing it. As Miss Blossom discovered, use of it seems to increase the chance of kidney stones, a pain you would all benefit from not knowing.”
As Astarte finalized her spell, she could feel her body become much stronger and resilient than before. It felt like she’d recovered a tiny fraction of what she used to be a long time ago, but of course she wasn’t able to maintain the spell for long as soon as her memories got in the way. Once she safely dispelled the energies that she’d invited into her body, she dropped to a sitting position on the grassy roof while panting.
“Wow… That’s good magic. Better than anything I ever created, anyway.”
Lektor rose up an eyebrow. ”I would not say it crosses into the path of magic just yet. You are not really generating or even converting energies. But I will not overthink a simple term like this.”
A loud THUMP startled Astarte, but not the other two who were still trying to perfect the spell, showing lesser skill than Slime Girl had. The source of the loud noise was Blossom dropping a few wooden pillars at the center of the field, probably training dummies. This was the first time the two saw each other, Spring Blossom had pink-ish hair and a gentle face, plus the body of a 2.2 meters tall amazoness clearly influenced by her bovine spirit, as seen in her horns.
“Oh, she already woke up? That was fast. Here, have some water.” the gentle giant smiled and handed Astarte a bowl of fresh water she had been carrying on her head, as well as a smaller one to serve as a cup, both of which Astarte took. She’d had enough of pain for a whole lifetime already, so she took Lektoria’s warning about kidney stones very seriously. She drank several cups of water and nodded thankfully at Spring Blossom, then looked at Lektoria for a moment before speaking.
“So, I have a confession to make…” Astarte began, gulping, “I’m not actually a Goddess anymore! I lost my powers, and I’ve been looking for a way to get them back…“
“Oh. Is that soo?” Lektor purred, but then undid her entire playful mood noticing how serious Astarte was about. ”Right. Hmm. Homura would be a shot at this, but if she didn’t give you direct divinity, she may have some opposition to the concept, plus, she is beyond this planet from what she told me, and I am a bit of an earthbound goddess so I would not know how to meet her.”
Then something clicked. ”But ah! Perhaps the Goat boy will know. Ahem, I mean Jeon. He is the god of adventures and quests, if you told him your tale, he would surely be enthralled beyond belief.”
“I have never met these brothers and sisters you just name-dropped. The Homura one sounds like a big shot though. Then again, this John guy…” Astarte furrowed her brow in thought. After two seconds, she shrugged “Whatever! At least I have two names to chase. Thanks, uh… Sis?” Astarte said awkwardly. “Goddess. Lekt-”
“Haycha!” Slime Girl was saved from this moment by the bunny chimera, having woken up and deciding she wanted to test herself against the wooden pillar, carving it with fifteen kicks before she stood back and just went “Wow!” with a smirk, patting her legs as she did not feel a hint of pain or wear down.
Lektor sighed. ”You can go back to CatBird if other terms are complicated to you.” she confessed to Astarte. ”But Miss Astarte, I am sure your Umbra companion, Mr. Smoke, is from the area where Jeon is active, that is why I expected you to have a hint of that. Ironic no? That you seem to have arrived so close to the person who can help you, and then moved a third of a continent away from that.” notably, this was the first time Lektor had bothered not saying the other name. Astarte nearly teared up at that.
”But, I am glad you are here. You, Smoke and Lorelei. It has been fun. But if you must continue traveling, I will also not impede it.”
“Yeah… Lorelei’s on a bit of a quest to remember her past and fix her stuff. Right now, she’s probably busy in the forge you built for her. She’ll probably spend a whole week there, at least. Then we’ll have to go seek the help of a more esoteric deity for those memory bits. I bet she’ll be surprised that I remember what comes next in our journey.” Astarte smiled and stood up. “Is there anything else to the lesson? I need to go for my morning run, I can’t slip up or I’ll look like Hills before I know it.” Astarte smirked.
“Oi, you brat.” Hills pouted at that. “You wish you’d get this flowing form of mine~” she added with a wink.
”No flirting during class please.” the rock cat goddess added with an obviously forced sigh. ”Hmm~ Well, there will be new things we can try, I can built some stone walls to see if you can run through using these powers~” there was a mischievous grin. ”But overall, you did it to an excellent level~ Bet your strong hands will also be super useful for Lorelei with her metal thingamajigs. The way the kitty has to put all her strength to mold those things is cute but also worrisome, one of these days she will fall into her forge and make herself into a marketable iron keychain.”
“She’s too quick on her feet to fall at all, but I’ll ask her to make us matching keychains! Not that I have any keys.” Astarte giggled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Hills isn’t the only gym bunny around.” With that, Astarte took her leave.
The Mortal Gang lands at the Mesa after hitching a ride with the Wonder Twins’ flying wagon. There, Astarte catches a whiff of divine energy and leads the gang to Rock Cat’s Temple. They stay at the temple for a few months, with Astarte becoming a gym bunny (not literal) in the process due to an incredible amount of bullying from many parties. Smoke becomes a gigachad and gets kidnapped by the Cougar Clique, and Lorelei becomes a mix between an actually nice cheerleader and councilor. Towards the end of their stay, Astarte wins 3rd place in a running contest and is taught an earth-element technique by Rock Cat. Lorelei was given a forge and some metal to fashion into whatever piece she needs to ‘fix’ her equipment as a participation reward.
The collab finishes as Astarte (slime girl) announces the gang’s intention to move on soon to Rock Cat, and leaves to go on her morning run around the temple.
Rock Cat 5MP - 5AP 1 AP (discount from 2) to teach an earth elemental technique 5MP - 4AP Remaining
Astarte sat on a pile of moss in the corner of Big Smoke’s rudimentary treehouse, watching every single one of Lorelei’s actions like a hawk. That was because the young cat-girl was about to finish making the artefact she’d been crafting for the better part of last night.
As Lorelei strung up one last bundle of leaves onto the rough framework of an umbrella, she sighed out in joy and relief. A quick shake and patdown of the umbrella had it pass the most basic of integrity tests which gave Lorelei the confidence to clap her hands twice, prompting a dark smoky liquid to drip into the treehouse through the leaf-covered ceiling to pool at the centre of the room and then take the familiar spiky form of Big Smoke. It (he?) looked at Lorelei with his two small, glowing, unblinking pink eyes.
“There w-we go, Smoke! Now you don’t have to fear the sun!” Lorelei grinned, and tossed the umbrella over to the Umbra, who caught it and started to inspect it.
“You spent the entire night tying leaves to wooden sticks. How come you’re grinning when it was so boring just to watch you do it?” Astarte asked as she rested her head against the wall.
“Maybe you’d understand if you tried making stuff y-yourself instead of sticking all the things I make in your mouth, Astarte.” Lorelei chuckled and stuffed the extra bits of string and wood leftover from her latest project into one of her pouches.
“You’re so rude! I’m a Goddess, remember?!”
“Smoke, remind me who it was that punched a hornet nest?”
“Master Astarte.” Came Big Smoke’s echo-y reply.
“Hey, I only did that because-!”
“Who was the one t-that was about to stick her arm into a crocodile’s open maw?”
“But it looked so funny!”
“And who was it that chucked my b-booster bracelets into a bottomless ravine as I was about to finish repairing them?”
“Aww, come on~” Astarte whined and pouted, pulling herself into a little ball in the corner. Lorelei saw this and shared a look with Big Smoke, smirking.
“She’s doing it again Smoke, she thinks w-we’re gonna fall for it!” Lorelei snickered, stood up, and gave a quick stretch with what almost sounded like a meow at the end. Astarte stood up as well and huffed.
“Whatever! You guys are mean, I’ll curse you when I get my powers back. Bye-bye, see you never!” She declared and jumped out of the tree house. Almost immediately afterwards, a crash and the sound of snapping ropes echoed through the darkwoods, topped off by a high-pitched feminine scream and even more of that all-too-familiar whining and sniffling.
Both Big Smoke and Lorelei peeked out of the treehouse to see Astarte strung upside down, dangling from a tree branch with a thick rope tied around her ankles. She sniffled as she made eye contact with them and saw them trying their hardest to contain their laughter.
“STOP LAUGHING AND GET ME DOWN!”
Lorelei finishes crafting an umbrella for Big Smoke, which he’s going to use as he travels outside of the darkwoods as he’s afraid of the sun. Astarte acts like an Astarte would and ends up making a fool of herself.
Next thing she knew was a tingling feeling on her scalp, followed by her opening her eyes to see a blur of activity and then nothing. She recognized herself as Lorelei, and she knew she was an Astalonian, but she couldn’t remember much more.
It was pretty dark, and there were tall trees all around. Lorelei found herself laying down in a small crater on the ground, most of her clothes tattered beyond use or repair and all her equipment non-functional.
First things first, she sat up and wiped her face ocean of mud and moss and then discarded all her damaged stuff. All of it but a piece of machinery she recognized as a botboard, which she slung over her shoulders and secured with a strap.
Once she stood up, she noticed the two pairs of eyes looking at her from within a bush and waved towards them. For some reason, she wasn’t scared.
Out of the bush floated a young woman wearing a tattered white dress and long matted lavender hair. She had bruises and scrapes all over, but still sported a massive grin on her face as she approached, her feet never touching the ground as she did so.
“You’re alive! And you have cat ears and a cat tail!” The woman said breathily, lunging forward and trying to grab Lorelei’s ears. It was an unrefined move which Lorelei effortlessly dodged. The woman crashed into another bush shortly after that.
At that point, another creature floated out of the bush, this one large and spiky and pretty intimidating. Its eyes however were a beautiful shade of glowing pink, and the way it floated as if it was smoke calmed her somewhat. Its voice was also as smooth as its movement.
“This shadow apologises about its master’s behaviour. This shadow believes you must be hungry.” The shadow-creature said with a slight bow of its smokey head, “Apple?” It offered an apple to Lorelei.
“Knife!” Lorelei muttered to herself, rummaging through the many pouches in her tool belt, to ultimately sigh in defeat as she came up empty handed and decided to just grab the apple and bite into it. It was juicy and sweet, unlike what she thought an apple was supposed to taste like. “Waow! This is too good, man! What’s your name, dude?”
“This shadow has been named-”
“Big Smoke! That’s his name. Fitting, right?” The floating woman interjected, just now freeing herself from the thorny bush she’d flown face first into. She had thorns stuck in random places.
“Whew. I mean, sure. And yours?” Lorelei tries to ignore the thorns.
At that point, the woman feigned offence and crossed her arms. “How mean! You must know who I am!”
Lorelei stared at her, blankly. After a few seconds, the woman looked at her nervously. “Wha- Seriously? Lavender hair? White Dress? Extremely intelligent? Doesn’t ring a bell?”
“Nah, not really.”
“What!” The woman rubbed her temples. “Astarte! ASTARTE!” She groaned. “Goddess of Magic and… Stuff. What’s wrong with mortals nowadays? Sure I jumped into a rift out of boredom, but come on, I should be famous no matter what world I’m in, everyone loves Magic!”
Lorelei tapped her chin and hummed, her tail swishing cautiously behind her. “Meh. I’m more into machines than magic, to be honest.”
“Big Smoke is sorry to interrupt. Night approaches and we must reach shelter for blood, bone and flesh. Small distance travelling that way.” The shadow pointed in a random direction.
“Let’s go then.” Lorelei agreed and started to follow the shadow-man. “By the way you’re clearly not a human like this crazy lady nor an Astalonian like me. What are you?”
“I’m NOT crazy nor a HUMAN! Ugh! I’ll teach you!” Astarte tries to cast some sort of magic spell at Lorelei, only for a sad and tiny spark to flop out of her hand and fizzle out mid air. She was ignored.
The small meerkat-kin standing on top of the equally diminutive podium in the middle of the Internodal One pursed her lips as she saw the distant shadow of a flying creature appear over the horizon. As it grew closer and closer, she sucked in a big breath and exhaled, then waved her arms, both of her hands holding a blue and white flag in them. Her tabard, painted in the same colours as the flags, flowed wildly in the gusts of wind that washed over the land, caused by the approaching dragon’s powerful wings even though it was still somewhat far away.
“E-Excuse me!” She shouted in a high-pitched, almost creaky voice. “Please land! Land!” The request was as hopeless as her career, she realised, but rules were rules…
“It’s dangerous ahead!!” She shouted again, waving the flags even quicker.
At her words, the dragon changed direction and sent a raging wave of wind right at her. The sharp torrent not only forced her eyes closed, but pushed her back and off her podium until she was on her back sliding across the rough cobblestone road, unable to see what was happening past a blob of movement and unable to sense much past her own desperate attempts to hold onto anything so she wouldn’t be blown away. It only got worse as the dragon landed with an immense quake. Only after everything settled did she manage to shakily get on her feet and get a glimpse of the travelers.
“Well, hello, dear,” Benea smiled from atop the dragon’s head, somehow sitting on a chair perfectly balanced on the scales.
“A-Ahm… Uhm…” The young girl stuttered for so long that eventually she just sighed and walked back to her podium, climbing on top with just the slightest difficulty. There, she opened a hidden compartment and knelt down to reach into it.
“S-So. I don’t have a mask big enough for the flying crocodile…How many are you? Y-You all need to wear masks. It’s plague s-season around New Dama.”
“Plague season?” Benea scoffed. “I’ll fly in alone then. I’m here for your node, dear, care to show me the way?”
The girl pointed down the lonely road, towards the horizon where one could see sickly clouds of green and black. “O-One day’s walk that way. Flying…” She furrowed her brow in thought for a second. “Maybe half? Wear s-sunscream.” The girl said and took a small glass container from her stash and offered it to Benea.
Benea gave the girl a pitied smile. “I think it’s best you keep it, dear.” With little else, the dragon wafted its mighty wings and shot Benea up into the sky with a blast of wind.
“Yo, is that what I think it is bro.” Asked a labrador-kin of his colleague, another labrador-kin who stood next to him, guarding the entrance to the (newly renovated) Temple of the Bronzed Bloom.
“Uhh… Like what, bro? A bird?” Responded the colleague after a few seconds of observing the slowly growing shadow traveling towards New Dama.
“Nah bro. It’s like…” The first guard furrowed his eyes, tail standing at attention. “... a big alligator.”
The second guard chuckled. “Good one bro. Alligators don’t fly.”
“This one does bro.”
The first guard huffed and shrugged.
Eventually, the shadow grew close enough so that details of the creature could be clearly discerned. As panicked whispers arose from the market surrounding the temple’s entrance, the guards looked at the skies once more.
It was the first guard, who was armed with a crystallista, that spoke first once more.
“See bro? Flying alligator.”
“... Nah. Must be from the plague fumes, bro. Hyaluminations or whatever the leafheads call ‘em.” The second guard shrugged.
“Bro you dumb.”
Even more time passed. It was only when people began vacating the market, and when stalls and furniture started to be knocked over by the wind shockwaves of a landing dragon, that the first guard spurred into action.
He shakily jumped behind the arch he was guarding and pointed his crystallista at the dragon, mostly blindly due to the sheer density of the gunk that had come to coat his mask’s visors thanks to the dragon’s landing, and shouted.
“BRO TAKE COVER! IT’S GONNA TRY TO EAT EVERYONE, WE GOTTA TAKE IT DOWN!”
With that said, the first guard shot his crystallista bolt, designed to be powerful enough to blow an entire Otori squad to bits, at the dragon. Then the dragon snapped its head and ate the bolt whole.
Half a moment of silence ensued. Then the second guard spoke.
“Yo bro I think the alligator is real.”
“Hello, darlings!” Benea was standing atop her dragon’s head with a new drink in her hands; something minty green with a citrus garnish. “I’m here for that node of yours, and a chance to talk with whoever is running the show.”
“Brough… There’s a lady on top of the alligator...” The second guard said breathlessly, still not moving an inch from his post.
“... I think I’m gonna shoot again bro. She’s clearly plague-crazed. She’s drinking a whole lemo-”
“STOP! STOPP YOU DUMB DOGS!” Screamed a deep voice from inside the temple, followed by the big heavy doors being blown open by a kick. It was a large bull-man, wearing a golden collar and a majestic set of bronze plate armour. The man stomped his way over to the two stunned dog guards and slapped them over the head so hard their ornamental helmets flew off into the market, to be immediately snatched by some random outlaws that crawled out from the sewers.
“YOU JUST SHOT AT A GODDESS, YOU IDIOTS!” He bellowed again.
The guards shrunk back and shook in their boots. “B-Boss, we thought-”
“THOUGHT?! YOU CLEARLY DON’T-”
“Sun-Downer, that’s enough.” Came another voice, this one much quieter and clearly female in origin. It rang out from inside the temple. “Please show the Beneavolence Rep to the Altar.”
After taking a deeeeep breath and giving the two fools the stink eye, Sun-Downer knelt before Benea and her dragon and motioned towards the temple. “Please make your way inside, lady. No alligator, please.”
“Oh very well, sweet thing.” Benea walked, on air, all the way down to the cobbled streets and took another sip at her drink before handing it to one of the dogmen. Jermane quickly caught up and pushed himself between his Queen and the others, his own glare being even more intense than Sun-Downer’s.
Inside, the atmosphere was different. Literally. The air was cleaner than outside and smelled of lavender, it was completely free of the green-gray gunk, and the temperature was much cooler and rather refreshing. Besides that, the furniture inside the main hall of the Temple wasn’t too impressive. Cushions of many different leathers lined the hall and hanging chandeliers kept the area lit up, a soft hum emanating from them. At the far end of the hall and protected by a line of heavily-armoured plant-kin guards wielding axes and tower shields was an impressively crafted altar resembling the blooming petals of a rose, cast in bronze.
Sitting on that altar was a form that seemed almost dwarfed by the grandiosity of the hall.
“Welcome to New Dama. I’ve been awaiting your arrival.” Said the form. Her green skin, black eyes and leafy head of hair glistened with moisture as a pair of servants much taller than her sprayed water at her with their glass bottles. Truly, she resembled a rich teenager more than a seasoned ruler.
“Indeed?” Benea flashed a big grin, before flickering her eyes to every inch of the room. “Shall I be offered a seat, then?”
The ruler waved a hand over the entirety of the hall, her gold-laced dress’ sleeves pooling around her shoulders as she did so. “Take your pick. There are cushions everywhere.” She said and turned to one of the servants. “Bring them something that their people can drink.” The servant nodded and, after hooking her bottle into her belt, disappearing into a side door for but a moment before emerging again and pushing past the line of soldiers to offer Jermane and Benea a glass vase full of crystal clear water.
Benea furrowed her brow and Jermane stepped forward. He stood up straight and announced. “This is Queen Benea of three cycles, born Olipha. It is customary to stand when addressing her as she stands and sit only after she sits.”
Before she could act on the growing scowl on her face, the servant remaining at her side whispered something into the Ruler’s ear. “Oh? For real?” She asked, to which the servant nodded her head with but the slightest quiver in her leaves.
After that, the ruler carefully slid off the Altar and stood up straight, the pair of bells hanging loosely from her neck ringing as she moved.
“I am The Orbita, The Fourth Bronzed Bloom, and Representative of the United Daman Clans. It seems I mistook you for a… Whatever.” The Orbita then motioned over the entirety of the Temple Hall. “You may take your pick of our available seats.”
“Fantastic, dear!” Benea was smiling again as she fell backwards into the comforting plush of a birch woven chair that had suddenly appeared. It was speckled with emerald and had the faintest perfume of the forest hanging off it but most importantly, it was brighter and bigger than every other seat in the room. “Now to cut to the chase, sweet Orbita, everything you know is about to be wiped clean. Gone, I dare say, completely gone. Your thoughts, memories, your land, your nation, everything, poof. I’m sure you noticed the crack in the sky by now, darling, but worry not, I’m here to prevent that fate from befalling you. Isn’t that just great?” She clapped her hands together and gave a wide grin.
“Yes we’ve noticed the crack in the sky. The Daman Peoples believe it’s a bad omen from when we imprisoned Eleanna, but we know the truth from the news brought to us by tourists and wandering Paladins.” The Orbita explained before carefully climbing onto the Altar once more. “Now tell me, why would we want this world to be saved? It’s so dangerous and boring…” She trailed off, slumping against a bronze petal.
“If you think that’s boring, try not existing, darling.” Benea frowned and crossed a leg. “And despite that, there are millions of other lives that would rather not.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Benea. Not just as The Orbita but now as the Bronzed Bloom, I can’t stop someone from chasing a dream as dumb and far-fetched as saving this world is. Plus, even if the entire garrison stationed in New Dama now were to attack your dragon, I doubt we could take it down. So do as you like and leave us be. We have more pressing matters to attend to at the moment, like making sure our citizens don’t choke to death or grow extra limbs from the Alchemical Ash.”
“Jermane, dear,” Benea smiled softly at her guardian. “Could you please explain exactly who I am again?”
Jermane stepped forward again. “Queen Benea is-”
“I heard you the first time.” The Orbita interrupted.
A great white flash devoured the temple and ate the sound. Smell dissolved and touch went forfeit. All that remained was Benea’s voice, clear of any joy or benevolence. “I am Olipha, with a touch of my finger, I can turn your alchemical ash to pigeons and twist your pressing concerns to clouds of cotton. With but a sneeze, I can turn your region into a pool of crystal water.”
The next time the Orbita woke up, she did so with the worst headache she’d had since the morning after her coming of age celebration, and when she opened her eyes and sat up, she was greeted by the familiar sight of her two aunts sitting to each side of her bed. They were asleep, slumped over the bedside tables.
The doors opened, jolting her aunts awake and in came Sun-Downer the Companion, holding a pair of silver trays with carnivorous meals on them. He did a subtle double take as he noticed Orbita’s awakening, but kept his comments until after he handed Orbita’s aunts their respective trays.
Once that small duty had been fulfilled and Orbita’s aunts started to dig into their steaks, the older bull-man nodded at the teenage Ruler.
“I’m glad to see you awake, Crysanth.”
“Thank you, Buncle.” Orbita smiled, “When did I fall asleep?”
“You, along with most of New Dama, were knocked out by Benea the Goddess. We must have offended her in some way.”
Orbita’s eyes glazed over a bit as she rested her back against her bed’s headboard. “... Huh.”
“Also, the lower district is flooded, and the mudbrick houses near the northeastern market have collapsed due to the torrential rains.”
Orbita’s right eyebrow twitched. “Torrential rains?”
“Torrential rains, yes.”
“It isn’t even the wet season yet, though?”
Orbita let herself sink into her fluffy bed, an action which Sun-Downer took as a sign to leave the room.
As soon as her bedchambers’ doors closed her aunts started to stroke Orbita’s leafy hair, prompting her to hide her face with one of the massive pillows, sniffling.
Benea arrives in New Dama. Meets the Orbita, who isn’t the actual Orbita that conquered the Daman Lands, but their descendant. Orbita offends Benea and she flashbangs everyone and curses Node 10 with constant torrential rains.
-3 might to change the landscape of Node 10: it’s now in a constant state of torrential rain -1 might to create buzzbees: strange fluttering orbs that consume alchemical ash and clean areas of the infection
Melena waved goodbye to their latest hosts, a wide grin on her face as her long golden hair flowed in the morning breeze.
“Thanks for the food and the warmth, Jacques, Marie! Good luck with the cubs!” She shouted and laughed, then turned and walked away from the cosy little homestead. Jacques and Marie, a newlywed couple living in a lonely part of the foot of the World’s Reach, had been gracious enough to house both Melena and Eleanna for a week after having found the pair struggling to travel through the particularly rough north-dusklands terrain. In that week, Melena had gotten to know the couple well enough to consider them friends, and though it pained her to have to leave so soon without being able to pay back her debt for providing Eleanna a place to rest, she had to keep going.
It was perhaps a fortnight or two ago when they came across a travelling Artificer, one who had been running from the conflict like everyone else seemed to be doing. The old insectoid man seemed delighted to be able to provide Eleanna with all the assistance he could give, removing the tendon-severers and throat-slicer from her body, as well as providing a trio of rudimentary sight beads which he implanted into her forehead, as a workaround for her eyes which had been maimed beyond even divine healing.
Since then, with every day that passed, Eleanna’s physical condition improved a little bit. When they had first broken out of the Sun Prison, the once-superhuman goddess couldn’t even walk. Now, she could hike for hours. Divine bodies were really something else, Melena thought, but what they made up for with their bodies’ resilience and physical ability they lacked in mental fortitude.
The young Lion-kin sighed. Her golden eyes glinted in the early morning’s sunlight as she tied her hair into a loose ponytail and adjusted her pack as well as Eleanna’s, then she walked with the Goddess following a few steps behind.
“Nothing better than a long walk with freshly cleaned washed right Anna?” Melena asked with a smile.
Eleanna opened her mouth slightly, but offered no further response.
“I know, I know they’ll get dirty again, but hey! Maybe we’ll meet more nice people along the way and maybe they'll let us borrow their soap, you know? It’s a nice change of pace don’t you think? To go from crazy adventures to a simple journey to meet an old friend of yours?”
Eleanna closed her mouth and walked a little bit faster.
“Let’s just hope she’s back from the war down south. We can’t afford to wait for her in a city forever, not with the three stooges following us…”
Eleanna and Melena have reached Node 3 and are close to arriving at one of the main cities of the region, in the hopes that they’ll be able to get in contact with Dzallitsunya there.
Her gift of sight had been stolen. all she could feel were the dozens of pin prick-like sensations and the pulling along her eyelids. She could not open her eyes, for whenever she tried to do so, a fresh wave of searing white pain tore through her spine and brain.
Eleanna couldn’t speak.
Her gift of speech had been sealed. All she could feel was a strange numbness in her throat on top of her tongue doing the opposite of what she wanted it to do whenever she tried to speak.
Eleanna couldn’t move her hands or her feet.
Her gift of dexterity had been taken away. Her fingers hung dead in the air, with her wrists slit open and prevented from healing by what she could only guess was some kind of metallic fibre contraption. The same thing happened with her feet, her tendons cut off by the same kind of contraption.
Both old and new scars graced her naked form as she lay there slumped against a damp sandstone brick wall, her arms and neck cuffed tightly to the wall.
Imprisonment and torture can change a person.
It had been weeks since the heist. It took that long to convince the infant soul-arm to form a bond with her, who knew that artificial souls could be so stubborn?
Now, the young lion-kin walked through the haphazardly constructed hallways of the Sun-Talking Imprisonment Facility, A.K.A. the Sun Prison, dressed in rags and covered in bruises.
When she gave herself up to the New Daman authorities she didn’t expect to be beaten up, but such was life.
‘Lucky you even got here alive, Mel. I bet your friends killed dozens of their co-workers.’ A high-pitched voice popped up in her mind. It was Inertia, her Soul Arm.
It is what it is, Melena thought. She sighed openly and lagged a bit in her march through the prison. One of the two burly guards behind her, a shark-kin with no fins, pushed her forward with the butt of his spear. She grunted and sped up again.
“We’ve walked past the normal cells, guys.” Melena called out.
“You’re not a normal prisoner. You’re a Freak.” the other guard, a subjugated member of the Otori remnants, explained.
“Bit rude.” Melena rolled her eyes.
Of course, that was all part of her plan. Seconds turned to minutes as they kept walking, passing two checkpoints until they reached the Freak wing. The eye-watering stench immediately flooded Melena’s nostrils and she had to hold back an urge to gag. The guards weren’t so successful, though.
Eventually, they passed by a particularly dark cell with orichalk-reinforced bars. She couldn’t quite see the person that had been cuffed to the far wall, but she immediately knew who it was.
Melena only knew one person with that particular aura and that particular scent. She stopped walking, the shark-kin bumping up against her due to her sudden stop, eliciting a grunt from him and another push.
Melena turned around.
“The fuck-” The guards stepped back, levelling their weapons at her. Despite her bruised body, the strength behind her sudden posture was unmistakable. She raised her fists as a pair of elaborate, glowing gauntlets materialised on her hands.
“Well? Bring it on.”
In a rush of movement, the shark-kin charged, his spear aimed at her torso. She stepped aside and struck the shark-kin’s side as he charged past. He collapsed with a yelp behind Melena, holding his side tightly.
After the shark-kin came the Otori. He discarded his weapon from the get go, raising his fists in a mirrored stance to Melena’s.
“I won’t be that easy to take down, Freak.” He declared.
And thus the two fighters fought. It was a flurry of blows on both sides, with Melena maintaining a comfortable edge against the Otori man.
A minute after the fight had begun, both fighters with their faces and fists bloodied, Melena saw her chance.
The Otori man threw a kick aimed at her liver. Instead of dodging it, she turned her whole body to block it with her abs and grabbed his leg tightly before sweeping his supporting leg from under him.
Both she and the Otori man fell onto the dirty floor, but she had the advantage. She quickly threw herself on top of him and pushed her forearm down against his windpipe as hard as she could until he stopped moving, eyes rolled back into his skull and mouth foaming.
She took a moment to collect herself, but she eventually looted the guards’ keyrings and used one of the keys to open the door leading into the dark cell.
Once inside, she made her way to the prisoner cuffed to the wall and had to bite back a gasp as she saw Eleanna’s state.
“I was too late… I’m sorry. I’ll bust you out of here now.” Melena said after a while and ripped the tendon-severer devices out of the goddess’ wrists and ankles. Eleanna hissed soundlessly in pain, the dirty bloodied rag wrapped around her eyes in the form of a blindfold-bandage becoming wet with tears before she went limp, allowing Melena to break the rusty chains keeping her tied to the wall.
‘Deep inside, I know that’s her, but I always imagined my Mother to look… Different.’ Inertia whispered quietly.
Not giving the Soul Arm a response, Melena laid Eleanna down on the floor as she busted open a hole in the wall, leading to the outside of the facility. Immediately hearing alarms being raised inside the complex, Melena hoisted the unconscious Eleanna over her shoulders and ran out into the western wilderness. The authorities wouldn’t follow her there.
Over her months-long imprisonment, Eleanna has been continuously tortured and had parts of her body besides her claws extracted or had their usage sealed or restricted via heavy usage of ambroisen fibres. It takes a Soul-arm wielding Melena to bust her out of the Sun Prison.