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Thread Description
A HeartGold nuzlocke twisted into a fantasy setting. Updates Wednesdays.

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon

1) Catch only the first thing on each route. (This only applies once I actually gain access to Pokeballs).
1a) Dupes, including the entire evolutionary line, don't count. I have 5 chances to catch a non-dupe.
1b) Gift Pokemon don't count as an encounter. Pokemon from the Game Corners don't count as gifts.
1c) Each area of the Safari Zone counts as its own encounter.
1d) I can make in-game trades if I wish. This doesn't count as an encounter at all, though I can't go back and catch something from the route I got the requested Pokemon from, and it still counts as being encountered for the purpose of dupes' clause.
1e) In the unlikely event of running into a Shiny Pokemon (not including the plot Shiny Gyarados), everything goes out the window and I can catch and use it freely.
2) Fainted Pokemon are dead and must be released.
3) Nickname everything. For the sake of making it at least slightly easier to tell what Pokemon everyone is, most Pokemon are named after the first letter of their species when they are first met in-story. There are some exceptions.
4) ?????? (Revealed in Chapter 26)

I'm not sure how long I've been here.

It's not like there's no way of telling. The guards bring me three meals a day, and my cell has a window through which I can see the sun rise and set. But the meals and sunsets all kind of blur.

I think it's day 7. Then again, I thought it was day 7 yesterday. Funny how the mind plays tricks like that, like I'm trying to cheer myself up by going 'you've made it a week. You can get through this.'

It'd be more convincing if I knew what 'this' actually was.

Someone came to visit me earlier - my first visitor since the first day, if you don't count the guards. A week ago I'd have called him weird as fuck, but that's a pretty good description for what's happening in my life right now. But even so, who the hell goes round dressed like the damn Phantom of the Opera?

And it wasn't just the way he looked that was weird. When the guards let him in, he sat down in the middle of my cell, closed his eyes, and just kind of sat there for about ten minutes. For a few moments, I thought about grabbing him and...I dunno, demanding that the guards let me out or I'd...do something. I didn't do much more than briefly consider the idea before dismissing it. It works in Hollywood, but I'm not an action hero. And just from my cell I can see at least three swords, and the bandage on my arm is pretty damn good evidence that they're real - or at least one of them is.

It's about two hours after the masked dude leaves that I get some more visitors. I'm just Mr Popular today.

I know these ones, though.

There are a lot of things that scare you when you're a kid, and then as you grow up, you get over those fears. You keep a couple, of course - heights, spiders, trains, whatever. But you think that when you're an adult, you're tougher than you were as a kid, less likely to get scared.

It's complete bullshit.

I don't even realise I'm backing away from the two of them until I feel the cold metal of the cell bars against my back. The only reason my nails aren't digging into the palm of my hands is that I've brought the blanket that was on my cot with me, and I'm hugging it to myself tightly. I want to look at them, but I can't - it literally feels like something's got hold of my head and is twisting it away. Must be the same invisible force that's making me shudder uncontrollably. I find myself focusing on the tray that had what I think was lunch on it. What little I left is now on the cell floor - I must have knocked it over when I'd hidden away from the two women that have just come into the jail.

I feel the air stirring around me as someone moves closer, and press myself further back into the cold stone and metal. "It's okay," says a soft, high voice, in an upper-class British accent. I risk a look at the speaker. As I'd guessed from the voice, it's the woman in the pale blue dress, with long blonde hair. She's kneeling down in front of me, positioned so that she's blocking my view of her companion. "You don't need to be afraid," she adds.

I want to snap at her, to tell her that you can't just stop being scared like flicking off a light switch. But all that comes out of my mouth is a kind of stuttering whimper.

"My name's Lyra," she continues. She pronounces it weirdly, though, so it sounds like she's that old Italian currency, back before they switched to the Euro. "What's yours?"

"E...Ethan," I manage to stammer out on the third attempt. "Victor Ethan Hall."

"That's a rather long name," Lyra remarks dubiously, in such a deadpan manner that I can't help but chuckle slightly.

"Just...just Ethan is fine."

Lyra shifts her position so she's sitting cross-legged in front of me. "I apologise for what's happened to you."

"Which bit, exactly?" I ask bitterly. I realise that antagonising the only person who's been nice to me so far probably isn't the smartest thing to do, but now I've started I can't stop myself. "Locking me in this cell, interrogating me with these insane, made-up questions, treating me like I'm a fucking criminal, slicing my arm open with-"

My voice is getting more and more panicked and louder, until to my surprise, Lyra abruptly reaches out and hugs me. I flinch away instinctively when she moves, but right now I really need the comfort, and I cling to her tightly as she strokes my back. "I'm scared," I admit, in a wavering voice.

"I know," Lyra replies softly. "It's okay." I'm not sure in what possible way any of this could be considered 'okay,' but I'm not about to complain about the reassurance. "Carly and I are going to help you work out what's happened."

"Carly?"

"Carlei," Lyra corrects me, pronouncing it 'Carl-ay.' "Princess Carlei of Joto." The 'Princess' thing catches me completely off-guard, and I only figure out who Lyra's talking about when she comes closer, and then it's only the fact that Lyra's still holding me that stops the panic building in my chest from becoming overwhelming.

Princess Carlei is dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, with a strange jacket that covers her shoulders and arms and trails down her back in two strips of fabric. She has dark blue hair, but my gaze is instinctively drawn to her greyish-blue eyes. They're warmer and friendlier than they were last time, but I can still see that same, terrifying, merciless edge to them. "I'm sorry I hurt you," she says softly. She has a British accent, same as Lyra. "For an intruder to get so deep into the palace is...frightening." And for a moment that steel in her eyes vanishes, and I realise that she's younger than I'd first thought. So's Lyra - neither of them can be much older than I am. "I reacted on instinct, but it was the wrong thing to do. I am sorry."

"The thing is, Ethan," Lyra continues, drawing my attention back to her, "most of His Majesty's council believe that you are...well, not to put too fine a point on it, insane."

"We don't," Carlei adds.

All I can really do is gape at them. I'm the insane one? Before I can voice my thoughts, Lyra continues. "It is our belief that you are from...bizarre as it sounds to say...another world."

I look up at her, and then over to Carlei. Both of them are watching me cautiously. "You..." I stammer, less out of fear this time and more out of sheer bemusement. "You're serious? You think I'm an alien?" I have to resist the urge to laugh at them.

"Do you not agree it makes sense?" the princess asks. "You speak of all these things that are natural to you, but which we have never even heard of. And you in turn have professed no knowledge of information that even a child of our world would know."

"Lady Will confirmed that you are telling the truth," Lyra continues. "Or, at least, that you believe that you are telling the truth. Thus, we see only two options. Either your mind has been ravaged by magic and these...fanciful ideas sculpted from the madness that resulted, or you have somehow come from somewhere where the Divines are unheard of, and instead you have..." She waves a vague hand. "Phones, and Florida, and so forth. Can you see another option?"

I can, of course. But though Lyra doesn't frighten me, Princess Carlei does, and I sure as hell don't want to tell her that she is completely fucking sick and insane. But what I want to say obviously shows in my eyes, because Carlei glares at me. "Perhaps you believe that we are the mad ones, imagining our own world. Tell me, Etharn -" she mispronounces my name "- is this our imagination?"

She holds out her hand, and a streak of flame blasts out from her palm. Even though it's a fair distance away, I can feel the heat wash over me. And then the fire fades away and there's a fucking sword in her hand what the fuck?

She flicks the sword and suddenly the tip of it is pressed against my throat, and I'm shaking so much I'm scared I'm going to impale myself on the damn thing, and that only makes me shake more. "I would have thought you would remember," Carlei remarks coolly.

And I do remember - the sudden flash of light and heat before she'd lunged at me with the sword in the gardens, without a trace of humanity in her eyes. "Carlei, please," Lyra says quietly. "He's scared enough as it is."

"He needs to see the truth," Carlei replies, unapologetic, but she takes the sword away from my throat - and drops it. Before it lands, it vanishes in another flash of fire.

I wave my hand through the space the sword should occupy, running my fingers over the rough stone floor of the cell. I saw it vanish, but it's like my brain won't accept that it's gone. I stop only when Lyra scoops up the wooden cup I'd knocked to the floor earlier and offers it to me. Somehow it's still full of water, and I gratefully take it. There's a slightly wooden taste to the water, but I'm used to that at this point, and it calms me down a little.

I'm not sure how long I sit there, still leaning against Lyra, taking occasional sips from the cup and trying to ignore Carlei pacing back and forth impatiently. Once I've drained the cup, I look back to Lyra. I open my mouth a few times, but I can't even begin to formulate a question. "Carlei is what we call one of the Blessed," Lyra begins to explain. "A Chosen Warrior of the Divines, granted powers beyond those of normal humans like you."

Lyra and Carlei stay for what must be a good couple of hours, because they only depart when the guards bring my dinner. My head's still spinning with everything they've told me. Gods are real, they bless people with supernatural abilities (like magic fire swords) and reward them for beating the shit out of each other, and somehow I managed to find my way into the most well-guarded location in the entire kingdom of Joto - because that's where I am now, apparently.

There's still a small part of me that insists that this is all a dream, or some kind of sick, twisted joke, like one of those 'caught on camera' pranks that rack up millions of views while everyone - including me - laughs at the misfortune of the poor saps in the video. But it's easy to prove myself wrong. All I have to do is reach up to my throat and touch the small cut Carlei's sword left behind.

I'm partway through eating dinner - which, like every other meal in the jail, is some kind of porridge-y stew - when I get another visitor.

His hair is what draws my attention first. Like Carlei's, it's a weird colour - though vibrant red instead of dark blue. He's wearing a kind of turtleneck jacket thing and matching trousers and boots, both in a dark blue and with a red trim that perfectly matches his hair. He taps his foot impatiently as he waits for the guard to open the door to let him into my cell, before dismissing the man with a casual gesture.

"So you're the boy that thinks he fell out of another world," he remarks without preamble, when we're alone. His tone is arrogant and scornful, and he reminds me a lot of the kids in my class who used to push me around at school. He's about the right age to be one of them, too, no older than me, and the 'boy' comment pisses me off.

"That's what people tell me," I reply, trying to match his snarky tone. It doesn't quite work.

"Trespassing in palace grounds carries the death sentence, so you were going to be executed tomorrow," he continues, and I pale. He grins at the reaction. "Fortunately for you," he continues, "your tale of woe convinced my sister to plead your case before Father. She's always been too nice for her own good." He steps closer to me as I figure out who he is from the people Lyra and Carlei mentioned - Prince Silver of Joto, Carlei's younger brother. Probably not someone I should be sassing. He's an inch or two smaller than me, but I find myself backing away from him anyway. "For whatever reason, Carlei trusts you. She thinks you mean no harm. I don't." I hear a bubbling sound and feel a faint tugging on my shirt - and look down to see a trio of slim blades protruding from Silver's sleeve. He takes a small step closer, and I can't back away any more, and I feel the cold steel of the middle blade pressing against my stomach. "So I'll make this clear," Silver continues, as I freeze in place, "and this is the only warning you'll get. You hurt her, and it isn't Father or the guards you should be scared of."

"I'm not...I'm not going to hurt her," I gulp, trying not to move - or even breathe too deeply.

He matches my gaze for a few moments. His eyes are like Carlei's as far as their colour goes, but they don't have any of her warmth. There's nothing but cold fury there. "No," he agrees. "You're not."

I let out a deep breath as Silver steps away, his claws dissolving back into water. "I couldn't," I add, as he turns away and leaves my cell. "Even if I wanted to...do you seriously think I could hurt her? I'm not...Blessed, or whatever."

Silver pauses and turns slightly, looking back to me with a small grin that doesn't make me feel at all happier. "Then you and I will get along just fine," he replies over his shoulder, before casually strolling out of the jail.

I don't get much sleep that night.

Lyra comes back the next morning. She brings a map of Joto with her, and spends most of the day teaching me about the kingdom as a whole. She's not a great teacher - she keeps getting distracted with little anecdotes about random things that happened around the kingdom - but it gives me something to do besides worrying about what's going to happen to me, so I'm more than happy to let her ramble on even if I could probably learn more just by looking at the map for a few minutes. I don't quite have perfect recall, but I've always found it easy to remember simple facts, so learning locations isn't too hard for me.

Joto, she explains, is split into a whole bunch of small regions, each of which (except for Sekiei, where we are at the moment, which is under the direct control of the Imperial family) is ruled by a vassal of the King. There are eleven major regions, though most of those eleven actually consist of two or three regions of their own, which have kind of merged together over the years because politics. Lyra doesn't explain it very well.

Just after lunch, Carlei arrives to say that I'm allowed out of the dungeons, under certain restrictions. She doesn't actually say it, but from what Silver told me last night I'm pretty sure that's thanks to her talking to the King. Maybe it's her way of apologising for attacking me when I first arrived. I can't go wherever I please, and I still have to be guarded. But considering that we're in the Jotan equivalent of...like, the White House or something...the rules make sense, and it's a hell of a lot better than the damp, cold dungeon. I'm surprised that they'd let Lyra 'guard' me if they still think I'm a danger, but when my choice consists of her, Carlei or the armoured guards, I'd definitely rather have Lyra around than anyone else, so I don't mention my confusion at that aloud.

We spend the rest of the day out in the gardens, relaxing in the summer sun close to where I'd first stumbled out of the bushes and into Carlei and Lyra. The guards have been investigating the spot I woke up in for the past four days - turns out I haven't been here a week at all - but Carlei and Lyra let me look anyway, though none of us are surprised when I don't find anything.

The days seem to go more quickly now I'm not stuck in the dungeons. I'm given one of the spare guest rooms, of which the palace seems to have dozens, and even if there are guards posted outside my door and all my windows are shuttered and locked from the outside (somehow), it's a nicer room than the one I have - had - at home. Despite the medieval vibe the place gives me and a complete lack of technology beyond, like, lanterns, they kind of make up for it with...well, magic - little trinkets that heat bathwater, or clean clothes, and other domestic shit like that.

If I don't pay too much attention, I could almost forget I'm still a prisoner. I spend most days with Lyra, learning about the kingdom. On the second day since I'm let out of the dungeons, she introduces me to Lord Koga, who seems to be the castle librarian, and who is more than willing to lend us all sorts of ancient tomes and scrolls that detail the history of Joto (and translate them for us, in some cases). I'm not exactly sure what he's a lord of, though, and Lyra kind of dodges the subject when I ask, eventually settling on telling me that it's just an honorary term given to the King's councillors.

It isn't just the geography of Joto I learn about. Lyra makes sure that I know the major members of the noble families across Joto, and the various important figures in Sekiei. Lyra herself, as it turns out, isn't Jotan at all. She's a ward of the King, having come from the far-off kingdom of Hoen when she was very young. That kind of catches me off-guard; from the way she interacts with Carlei I'd figured they were about equal in status, but Lyra gives me the impression that she's actually about as low on the nobility ladder as it's possible to get. Still, it makes me feel a little more comfortable around Carlei knowing the princess has a soft side to her, at least where Lyra's concerned.

It's on about the fourth day that I realise that I'm not finding the magical, medieval life strange any more. I still miss home, of course, and almost every day I pester Carlei to see if she or the King's council have figured anything out about how the hell I got here, but if they have then they aren't telling her - or maybe she isn't telling me.

It's slightly more than a week after Carlei and Lyra first visited me in the dungeons that everything changes.

Koga's translating an ancient, tattered scroll for me and Lyra - it's telling the tale of how humans were taught to work with steel by one of the Divines, who stole the secret of steel from another - when the door bangs open and four guards march in. I now know enough to know by their purple cloaks that these are the King's elite guards, not the normal soldiers that are always around me. They're accompanied by a man I've only seen once before, the day I first arrived in Sekiei, though now I have a name to put to the face: Bruno, Commander of the Imperial Guards. He barely even pauses to take in the scene before pointing at me as I try to subtly shuffle away from him and his soldiers. The fact that I'm almost constantly accompanied by sword-wielding guards has not made me any more comfortable around the damn things, and there are way too many swords here. "Take him," Bruno orders, nodding vaguely in my direction. He says it so calmly, casually, like he's just ordering takeout or something, that it takes me a moment to actually figure out what he's saying. Judging from the panicked expression on Lyra's face when I look over to her, she got there before I did.

"What is the meaning of this?" Koga asks mildly, and the guards freeze for a moment, looking to each other nervously. Not for the first time, I wonder who the hell Koga actually is, but I'm distracted from that thought by the appearance of Silver from behind the guards. He doesn't have his normal, cocky expression.

He weaves between Bruno and the soldiers and hands a scroll to Lyra and Koga, before turning back to me. I swear he almost looks apologetic. "By order of His Imperial Majesty, King Lance of Joto," he tells me, almost in unison with Lyra as she reads the scroll aloud, "for the crime of trespassing upon the grounds of the Imperial Palace, you are to be taken to the cells..."

"...and executed at dawn."

After my brief taste of freedom, the jail cell seems much smaller and colder. And darker. All the things I'd tuned out over the week I spent here - the clumping of feet in the courtyard outside as the guards go through their drills, the unintelligible murmurs of the guards talking outside the jail, the faint scent of stale lavender from the bouquet hanging in the ceiling (a medieval air freshener, I assume) - refuse to be pushed to the back of my mind. My dinner lies on my cot. I couldn't stomach more than a spoonful. Not like I'm going to care about being hungry by tomorrow anyway.

They don't let Lyra into the jail, though I briefly see her face through the barred grille on the main door to the cells at one point. No-one else comes.

It's kind of strange. I'd almost started to become accustomed to the...well, brutal...nature of this world, through all the tales Lyra, Carlei and Koga had told me. God knows a lot of the bad guys (and some of the good guys, too) in those tales ended up dead. But somehow, even though I knew thanks to Silver that there was a death sentence hanging over me, the possibility that I might die here - actually die - had just...never occurred to me.

From what I've heard, it's dishonourable to fear death, or some shit like that. The Divines are the ones who decide who lives and who dies, and if they decide we die then we should accept their judgement. I don't care. Maybe Carlei, or Silver, or even Lyra would face execution calmly and without hesitation. But I'm not them. I don't even belong in this world, but it's going to kill me. And I'm fucking terrified.

There's a faint metallic clatter from outside the jail door, and I look up, expecting one of the guards to come and take away my untouched tray. Instead, when the door opens, it's Carlei, who slips inside and closes the door behind her. She looks exactly the same as she had when I'd briefly seen her earlier in the day, except now she has a satchel slung over one shoulder.

"Wha..?" I start to say.

"Quiet!" she hisses at me. She stalks across to my cell and begins repeatedly working the keys in the lock, one after another, until she finds one that fits.

I stare dumbly at her for an embarrassingly long amount of time before it clicks. "Holy shit," I breathe. And then a new thought occurs to me. "But...why are you doing this? I mean, don't get me wrong," I stammer, as she stops messing with the lock for a moment and glares at me, "I'm...you have no idea how glad I am that you're doing this, but aren't you, like, heir to the throne? Breaking someone out of your dad's jail seems...unheirly." I'm sure not going to tell her to her face that I still don't really trust her.

She doesn't reply until she finally finds the right key and the lock opens with a loud metallic clunk that has us both flinching at its volume. "Because it is the right thing to do," she replies softly. "Come on."

She slips back out of the jail door to check the coast is clear before opening it for me to come out as well, and then I get another surprise - the two guards that were stationed outside the jail cell are slumped on the floor, unmoving other than slight movements of their breastplates that suggest they're still breathing. "You knocked them out?!" I yelp, barely managing to stop myself from shouting.

"How did you think I got in?" she asks, hooking her hands under the shoulders of one of the unconscious guards and starting to drag him into the jail. "You bring that one," she adds, nodding to the other guard.

I can't help feeling reluctant. The way Carlei just casually drags the first guard in and talks about them, like knocking them out is no big deal, makes it sound like she sees them as nothing more than heavy weights. Maybe she does. But I can't just conveniently forget that they're people. And that's not the only reason for my reluctance.

As much as I know that Carlei, right now, is my best chance at survival, the idea of breaking the law - even if it's the law of this mad, deadly world - is one that makes me hesitate. About the worst thing I've done before now is cheat on my then-girlfriend. Becoming a criminal isn't a step I can just idly take without thinking about it.

I hear the scraping of metal on stone from behind me stop, and I don't need to look around to know that Carlei's glaring at me. She mutters something I don't hear, but it's probably not complimentary. With a muttered apology to the unconscious man (or maybe woman - it's kind of hard to tell through the armour), I grab the other guard by one wrist and start dragging them in after Carlei. It's slow going - I'm not particularly unfit, but these guys are uniformly pretty bulky, and their armour and shit probably adds 70 pounds on top of that. "I thought," I groan, "you'd told them you'd...I dunno, seen someone suspicious in the gardens or something."

By the time I get to the door to the jail, she's managed to already dump her guard in the cell that she just let me out of, and she pauses as she comes back and bends down to help me manoeuvre my guard through the door. "I...did not think of that option," she admits. "Though if I had done so," she adds defensively, once the two guards are piled in the cell, "they would have known I was involved in freeing you the moment they returned to find you gone." She lets me go out of the cell first before closing and locking the door.

"Uh, you just knocked them out," I point out, as we leave the jail and Carlei locks the jail door as well. "Aren't they gonna know you're involved anyway?"

"A Blessed with the element of surprise is always going to defeat two humans," she answers. "No matter how well-trained the humans. They never saw me coming." She makes it sound like it's no big deal, but when she looks back to me I can see a faint smirk on her face for a moment before she grows serious again. "We're heading for a passage that leads underneath the palace and out," she explains. "It was designed so the Imperial Family could flee the palace if it was ever attacked and looked likely to fall. The guards don't know about it - almost no-one does. Commander Bruno showed it to me after..." She pauses. "Never mind. The point is, unless you know about the passage, no-one would ever expect someone fleeing the palace to go deeper in. The guards will be blocking the main ways in and out of the palace, but this tunnel goes beyond them all."

"Okay," I agree, "but if Bruno knows about the passage, won't he know you're coming this way?"

Carlei grins, almost mischievously, before quickly pulling me aside as two servants pass through an intersection ahead of us. "Only if he knows I'm responsible," she answers, once she deems it safe to move on.

I can't help but be impressed at how well-thought-out this jailbreak is, considering she's probably only had a few hours to think of it. Then again, maybe she had a little help. "What about Lyra?" I ask, a few seconds later.

Carlei looks back to me. "She isn't coming with us." My disappointment must show in my face, because Carlei pauses for a moment, stepping back into one of the doorways so we can stop to talk without risking being seen. "While I'm sure you would feel happier if she accompanied us, it's safer this way - for her. I'm the heir to the throne. Lyra doesn't have that protection. If she was caught doing this, Father would have her killed." It still freaks me out how easily people in this world talk about death. Before I can answer, a gonging sound rings through the corridors. "Damnation!" Carlei swears, making a strange motion with one hand - a kind of upwards pushing movement - that I don't understand the meaning of.

"I'm guessing that's not good?" I ask tentatively.

"The warning bell," Carlei nods. "Someone must have noticed that the guards were not at their posts and looked inside the jail. We should move quickly. You hold this." She shrugs the satchel she's been carrying off her shoulders and gives it to me. It takes me a moment to figure out why she wants me to carry it instead of her - so it won't get in the way if she has to fight.

Thankfully, Carlei's right - though we have to duck aside from guards running through the halls, they obviously expect their fugitives to be making a break for the main entrance to the palace, because they don't pause to look for us. There's only one scary moment where we all but literally run into a pair of guards who obviously know that I'm not supposed to be out of jail, because they start drawing their swords until they notice Carlei besides me and pause for a moment in confusion.

That moment is all Carlei needs. She...more pounces than anything else, tackling one of the guards to the floor and landing a blow on his neck - unprotected between his helmet and breastplate - before rolling to her feet and stepping behind the second guard, wrapping one arm around his neck and choking him out. She takes an elbow to the stomach, but it doesn't seem to bother her, and when the second guard stops struggling and goes limp, she's barely even out of breath. The whole thing probably takes about five seconds, and she immediately steps over their prone bodies and grabs me by the wrist, tugging me along as if nothing had happened.

I dread to think what she's capable of if she's actually trying to hurt someone.

"Here," she says, a couple of minutes later. We're in a part of the palace that looks like it doesn't even get dusted frequently, much less visited. Elsewhere in the palace there are lanterns and candles regularly lit and topped up by servants, but there's none of that here. There's barely even enough light to see by. Part of me can't help but feel curious about the abandoned wing, but somehow I don't think Carlei is going to let me play tourist and ask questions. She runs her hand along the panelling of one wall, and after a few moments there's a click and the bottom segment of the wall swings inwards, revealing a dark passage. "There's a drop down to the tunnel," she warns me, before sitting down at the lip of the entry into the passage, legs dangling over the edge, and pushing off, vanishing from sight. A moment later her voice floats back up to me. "Come on!"

I peer down into the passage, but I can barely see anything down there. Lucky I'm not scared of the dark. I follow what Carlei did, sitting down over the edge and letting myself slide off into the darkness.

My guess at the depth of the drop is way off, and in the darkness I can't see the floor of the tunnel coming up on me until my feet suddenly slam into it. I land awkwardly, and cry out as my left leg gives out under me.

Light illuminates the tunnel a moment later and I see a small flame burning in Carlei's hand. "Can you stand?" she asks.

I can, but only by leaning against the tunnel wall. My leg won't take any weight; I'm pretty sure I've twisted my ankle or something. Carlei watches me struggling for a moment before stepping past me, picking up a long pole that must be left there for this exact purpose and using it to push the door to the secret passage above us shut again.

"Aren't you gonna burn up all our air?" I ask, after a moment, as Carlei scowls at me, as if my injury is my fault. Somehow I'm not surprised that she made the same jump effortlessly and unharmed, and I can't help but feel a little frustrated. Sure, she's Blessed and all that shit, but I hate feeling completely useless next to her.

"I doubt it," she replies. "But if it worries you..." She turns and throws the fire she's holding like it's a baseball. It fizzles out after a short distance once it leaves her hand, but there's still light in the tunnel - small stones set in the walls, floor and ceiling that seem to have somehow stored the light. It's a rather picturesque sight, though Carlei doesn't give me much time to take it in. "We should keep moving," she declares.

For a moment I think she's going to make me hobble along behind her and scold me for being slow. She is a Princess, after all. But then she steps up next to me and lets me lean on her for support, putting my arm around her shoulders. "Thanks," I mutter quietly, as we set off down the tunnel.

"After everything I've done to ensure your freedom," she replies, "I'm hardly going to leave you behind now." The way she says it doesn't entirely reassure me; like she's only helping me now out of sheer stubbornness. Then again, I don't really understand why she helped me in the first place, and I'm sure not going to complain.

As we travel under the palace, we can hear people running to and fro above us occasionally, and muffled voices shouting unintelligibly. I worry each time the voices get louder, scared that we've somehow been detected. Carlei's more confident in the secrecy of our tunnel than I am, though, and keeps pulling me on every time I pause to listen.

Then I start to hear sounds that definitely aren't from above. "How many people did you say knew about this tunnel again?" I ask Carlei nervously.

"Very few," Carlei answers, but she's tenser than she has been when we've heard the other sounds. "Commander Bruno, my father, likely Lord Koga, and -"

"Carlei! What in the hells are you doing?"

"- Silver," Carlei finishes, as we look back to see the red-headed teenager standing in the tunnel behind us.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
 

Flopdisc

weary emoji ok_hand emoji
🎇Contributor
Writer
Pokédex No.
31
Caught
Jun 9, 2019
Messages
70
Location
NSW, Australia
Nature
Lax
Pronouns
she/her
Pokémon Type
Normal, Poison
Pokédex Entry
They absorb garbage and make it part of their bodies.
Really glad to see Call of the Divines make the leap over here. With your porting pace, I'm very excited (and grateful!) for the chance to catch up. I know I fell a very long way behind but Ethan, Carlei, their crew, and the wonderful world you've built around them have all been in my thoughts.

(also, I am all about that one tag in particular hahaha)
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #3
Flopdisc - Hiya! 👋 Thanks for the compliments, and I hope you enjoy it once you've caught up!

(And also yes lol I couldn't resist.)

Carlei pushes me backwards as she steps towards her brother. "What does it look like I'm doing?"

"Well, to me," Silver snaps back, as I struggle to keep my footing, "it looks like you're committing treason."

Carlei laughs scornfully. "Treason, Silver? Really? This is the right thing to do, and you know it!"

"I don't 'know it'!" Carlei's laughter seems to just make Silver angrier. "In what possible way is this the right thing to do? You're disobeying our father, attacking the guards who have sworn their lives to defend you, betraying the very crown you will one day wear!"

"I know!" Carlei yells back. "I am aware, Silver, of what I am doing. And I am doing it because I cannot simply stand by and let an innocent person die when I am capable of stopping it! You cannot truly think killing Ethan is the right thing to do!"

"I don't," Silver admits, which makes me feel a little better - though he doesn't seem to have any intention of backing down, whether he thinks he's doing the right thing or not. "If it were up to me, right now, given the information that I have access to, I wouldn't make that decision. But it isn't my decision to make, and it isn't yours either, Carlei! It's Father's - and we have to trust that he had a reason for it, that he has information we do not!"

"'Reason'?" Carlei scoffs. "You know full well that our beloved 'Queen's' poisoned whispers in Father's ear are the only possible reason for this injustice! This would never have happened were Mother still alive!"

That catches me by surprise. Carlei never really spoke about her family, and I'd just assumed that, like Lance, the Queen - whoever she was - was just vaguely around in the background. It's a hell of a thing for her to not have mentioned, and I find myself wondering...what else hasn't she mentioned?

"She's not!" Silver screams back at her. "She's not," he repeats, more quietly. "And while...I agree that Father has been known to give more credence to Stepmother's words than they sometimes deserve, he is still the one to make the decisions, and he would not condemn someone to death simply because she asked him to." His face grows hard. "You are the heir to the throne, Carlei," he hisses. "More than anyone, you should understand the importance of loyalty to the crown. Especially after what happened six months ago." I don't know the significance, but Carlei suddenly goes very still. Somehow I don't think this is a good time to ask what he's talking about. "The laws of the land must be upheld. We are not above them merely by dint of our birth."

"That," Carlei replies, through gritted teeth, "is precisely why I cannot allow this to stand. Father is no more above the laws than we, and he has no right to command the death of someone for no reason. His ability to sign a law to the contrary changes nothing."

Silver sighs, closing his eyes for a moment. "I came alone, Carlei. I am, at present, the only one aware of your role in this affair. I am trying to give you a chance." He holds out a hand to her, even though a good twenty feet still separate them. "Please, take it. Unless you intend to hide in the forests of Bond for the rest of your life, a fugitive from your own family."

Carlei gives a low, mirthless chuckle. "I...I thought I knew you, Silver. I thought you had a sense of justice, as Mother did, as I do." She bows her head for a moment. "But...it appears I am wrong." She holds out her own hand to one side, and her sword materialises in a flash of flame. Part of me wants to stay close to Carlei, but at the same time I don't want to be anywhere near that sword.

Silver narrows his eyes, sighing. But he doesn't seem surprised. He clenches his outstretched hand into a fist, and his claws appear on both it and the other hand by his side. "So be it," he says softly.

I barely even see either of them move. But suddenly they're in about the mid-point between their previous positions, slashing at each other with blade and claws. Sparks fly as the weapons clash again and again, faster than I can follow in the dim light. Suddenly they come to a halt with Carlei holding her blade near the tip with her free hand, Silver's claws caught on the middle of the blade, barely an inch away from Carlei's head. For a moment they seem nearly motionless, but Silver seems to be stronger than Carlei, because he slowly pushes her downwards, and his eyes flick from her to me, and despite the dim light and the distance between us I can see the cold, murderous fury in them.

And then as abruptly as they'd come to a halt, Carlei moves again, shoving him away and knocking him off-balance, and follows through by spinning and landing a kick right on Silver's chin.

She kicks him a hell of a lot harder than she'd hit me when I'd first arrived, and he flies a good ten feet backwards and lands limp on the floor. "Holy shit!" I yelp. "Is he okay?"

"Of course, worry about the person trying to get you executed before the one protecting you," Carlei replies archly, panting, and I can't tell if she's seriously upset or just teasing me. "But he'll be fine," she adds. "It is harder to kill one of the Blessed than it is a human. He will regain consciousness given time."

She lets her sword vanish as she comes back towards me, offering me her hand to help support me again. "So, are you okay?" I ask after a minute or so, once she's stopped breathing quite so heavily.

"I'm fine," she replies. "Though we spar frequently, we've never fought with our manifestations before, and...he underestimated me."

We're silent for another minute before I speak again. "That wasn't what I meant."

Carlei stops and glares at me. If not for the fact that she has to stay next to me to help me walk, I'm sure she'd be storming off ahead right now. From the look in her eyes, it looks like she's thinking about just shoving me away and walking off anyway. I'm a little surprised when she relaxes and turns back to the tunnel ahead. "I'm...disappointed," she admits as we set off again. "Blindly obeying orders you know to be wrong is not just or honourable. I had always hoped that when I was crowned Queen, Silver would be there to tell me when I'm making a mistake. Now...I do not know that I would be able to trust him to do so."

"Um..." I pause, not sure exactly how to bring up what might be a rather awkward topic. "Are you going to be crowned Queen after this? I mean...we're kind of on the run."

Carlei pauses again. "We will not be on the run forever," she replies. "Father has been preparing me for the day I will take his place since I was a child. Between hunting you down and losing his heir, I refuse to believe he will put you before me." She almost sounds confident - but there's a slight quiver in her tone, and I see a flicker of uncertainty and fear in her eyes, and I can't help but feel bad for worrying her about something like that when it's only because of me that she's in this situation in the first place.

We don't speak again until we're out of the tunnel. It leads to a trapdoor that's been overgrown by underbrush, and Carlei struggles with it for a few moments before she manages to force it open enough to run a hand full of fire around the edge, scorching the restraining foliage into ash and allowing her to open it properly. It's dark out, though the stars provide a pretty good amount of light, and Carlei conjures a flame to light our way.

We eventually set up camp in a small clearing a couple of hours' walk from the exit to the tunnel. And that's a couple of hours by our pace, so probably more like an hour to our pursuers if not less. We're both nervous we haven't travelled far enough to make sure we aren't found, and I know Carlei wants to travel further. So do I, to be honest, but my injured leg is killing me, and even with her support I can't keep going.

While Carlei collects some firewood, I start digging through the satchel she brought with her. Mostly it seems to be full of rations that she must have taken from the barracks, and I can't help but notice a distinct lack of tents, or sleeping bags, or indeed anything comfortable except a pair of blankets.

"I could not easily acquire such things," Carlei explains, when she returns with arms full of firewood. "Not without raising suspicion, anyway," she adds, beginning to build a makeshift fire. I'm pretty sure the smaller bits are meant to go in the middle, but I don't know enough about all this shit (or, you know, want to piss off the hot-tempered girl with the sword) to feel confident correcting her. In any case, once she blasts a stream of fire over the logs, they catch light quickly enough. "We should get some rest."

I manage to awkwardly toss her one of the blankets, and we sit on opposite sides of the fire, wrapping the blankets around ourselves. Late as it might be, though, there's still way too much adrenaline running through me for me to even think about sleeping, and Carlei seems to be in the same situation. "What did Silver mean?" I ask, as much to break the awkward silence as anything else. "When he was talking about what happened six months ago?"

Carlei doesn't answer for a few moments. "You were learning about the history of this land, correct? What do you know of Kanto?"

I have to pause to think about it, not completely sure what the relevance is. "It's...east of here, right? Other than that, not much," I admit.

Carlei nods. "Generations ago, Kanto and Joto were unified into a single kingdom, Tojo. The last king of Tojo had two sons. Under the laws of the land, the elder child would have inherited everything, while the younger nothing. But the younger child was a more promising ruler, and more popular with the nobility and common folk alike. To follow custom and give everything to the elder son would have likely resulted in rebellion. So he divided his crown in two - the elder son became the King of Kanto, the younger the King of Joto. Since then, the two countries have been allies for centuries, their rulers related by blood." She pauses again. "Until recently."

"What happened?"

"Over the past few years, the King of Kanto became...well, a tyrant," Carlei replies. "He grew obsessed with unravelling the mysteries of the Chosen, deducing a mechanical, 'scientific' method to explain the blessings of the Divines - and eventually, control them." Her tone is colder and harsher than I've ever heard it. "He lost sight of his duty to his people. One of my friends was studying at a military academy there at the time, so more than most in Joto I know the darkness that was wrought in Kanto then. And then..." She shrugs. "Truthfully, even I do not know exactly what happened. There was some kind of rebellion in Kanto, and the King was forced to abdicate. He had no children, so the crown passed to my father."

"So your father is the king of Tojo again?" I ask.

"Not precisely. While he is the first King of both Kanto and Joto in centuries, he was never formally recognised as the king of Tojo. But whatever happened in Kanto, it made the lords of Kanto less content to accept Imperial rule. My father's rule over Kanto was tenuous at the best of times, and then..." I can't really see Carlei's expression, but the fire we're sitting by burns a little hotter and brighter, responding to her obvious anger. "The former councillors of Kanto - the same ones that had hurt so many in their blasphemous quest - came to Joto seeking sanctuary, and my father granted them it. More than that, he began taking their advice. Following the path laid out for the King of Kanto. He even...wed the former Queen of Kanto." The fire blazes hot enough that I have to shuffle back from it a little. "Sorry," she apologises, and the fire dims back to its natural size. "As you might have guessed, I do not agree with my father's choices. And I am not the only one." She pauses and takes a deep breath. "To answer your question, six months ago the lords of Kanto came to my father with an...ultimatum. Unless he banished the King of Kanto's former councillors - including his wife - from Tojo, they would no longer accept him as their king."

"I'm guessing he didn't do what they said?"

"He did not," Carlei confirms. "Even before my dear stepmother got her claws into him, he was always a proud man. My father accused them of treason - which, in fairness, was a just accusation - and demanded they be imprisoned." She pauses for a moment. "Something you need to understand, that Lyra may not have told you - the noble families are Blessed, and have been for generations. More than that, the Divines grant those of noble blood powers that other Blessed never possess. Within that council room stood some of the most dangerous people in Tojo. And the Kantan Lords and Ladies had no intention of surrendering to my father's judgement. Lady Agatha and Lady Lorelei, both of my father's council, Lord Gawain and Lord Murtagh of House Cerulean and Lord Seisyll of House Azalea all perished in the ensuing fight. I...I nearly died too." She doesn't manage to disguise the shiver in her voice.

I'm not really sure what to say to that. "I'm...I'm sorry," I decide on.

We're both quiet for a little while before Carlei speaks again. "So what about you?"

"Huh?" The question catches me a bit off-guard.

"You have learned a great deal about our world, and about me and my family, but I still know almost nothing about you. What is life like in your world? Your family?"

I'm not sure how to explain most of the shit I've taken for granted to someone who probably can't even imagine it. And I don't really want to talk about my family to someone who is, for the most part, still a complete stranger. Still...she opened up to me about what happened to her when I asked. It seems unfair to not respond in kind. "My family...used to be good," I answer, after a few moments. "My mom, my dad, my older brother, Jake...we all got on, had fun. But...three years ago, everything changed."

She seems to notice something in my tone. "What happened?" I'm surprised how sympathetic she sounds - then again, she sure knows a thing or two about dysfunctional families.

"Jake...vanished. Just...one day, he never came home. The police - er...like, town watch, I guess you'd say - never found a trace of him. People started to talk about it, behind our backs at first, and then to our faces. Some said he'd run away from us. Some people said we were responsible."

"What do you think happened?" Carlei asked.

The question catches me slightly off guard. "I...I don't know, to be honest," I admit. "I really want to believe that he just...left. I can sure think of some reasons he would've. But...he'd have said goodbye to me at least. So..." I sigh. "Anyway, when he...left, it kind of messed my family up. My mom and dad blamed each other. I wasn't the easiest kid to parent, either. Jake had always been the one to help me get on with them. I was looking forwards to going to college, getting away from all of it."

I can't help but chuckle as I realise something. "Guess I got my wish."

First rival fight was about as undramatic as they tend to be. Carlei finished things in style with a crit though, so that was cool.
Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

Considering the circumstances, I sleep pretty well that night. Partly that's probably thanks to the adrenaline that our escape from the castle had summoned fading away and leaving me feeling more tired than I have in my life. I almost regret sleeping well when I wake up the next morning, though. I must have slept in a really awkward position, because it isn't just my leg that hurts as I sit up and start moving around.

It's cruel, especially after everything she's done for me, but I can't help but feel a little happy that Carlei looks just as stiff and uncomfortable as I do. It cheers me up a little to know that my Blessed companion isn't quite as invulnerable as she's seemed so far.

My little guilty pleasure quickly fades as we both start moving around and working the stiffness out of our joints, because she recovers quickly and I still can't put any weight on my injured leg. "I had hoped the night's rest would have helped to heal your injury," Carlei remarks, once we've finished the rations she digs out of her satchel to form our makeshift breakfast. She's watching me hopping around the clearing, leaning on the trees I pass for support.

"Yeah, you're not the only one," I reply, a little more harshly than I really meant to.

"There is a small village about a day's travel from here," she continues, either missing or ignoring the edge in my tone, "at the edge of the Kurayami region." It takes me a moment to remember where Kurayami is, because it isn't one of the eleven major regions, but eventually I figure it out - it's within the Kikyo region, under the rule of Lord Falkner. "Most small villages have some sort of makeshift physician who will be able to look at your leg. And it ought not be too far out of our way."

That reminds me of something I'd meant to ask, but in the chaos of our escape and the fight with Silver it had gone clean out of my mind. "So...where exactly are we going? After going to this village, I mean? What...what are we going to do?" I can't help but recall Silver's scornful suggestion of hiding in the forests.

The slight pause before Carlei replies, and her uncertain tone when she does, is far from reassuring. "Lady Jasmine of House Olivine is an old friend of mine, and I trust her. She'll keep you safe until I can work out a way to have the accusations against you nullified."

"Okay, but...isn't she the Lady of the Asagi region?" I ask. "That's the wrong side of the country."

Carlei nods. "It is, however, about as far from Sekiei as it is possible to get on the island. Father's influence is lesser there." I look at her, hoping that she's joking. "What?"

"It's the wrong side of the country," I repeat, emphatically. "And I'm supposed to be being executed. How the hell are we going to get all the way over there without anyone seeing us? We'd have to go through...like, Kurayami, Kikyo, the mountain pass, Enju, and then finally get into Asagi."

"Not quite," Carlei corrects me. She looks a little embarrassed. "The mountain pass travels through Usokkie Fortress. For most innocent travellers, or even for me, that is of no concern, but for you..."

"Yeah, walking into a fortress full of people trying to kill me isn't exactly high on my to-do list." I do feel bad for snarking at Carlei all the time, but it's the only way I've found I can actually stay calm enough to focus on anything and not get completely overwhelmed by all the shit that's happened to me over the past couple of days.

"Precisely," she nods. If she's bothered by my tone, she doesn't show it. "Instead, we shall need to travel through Kurayami and Kikyo, as you said, and then through Bond, Hiwada, Ubane, Kogane and Kirameki, and finally to the city of Asagi." While we've been talking, and I've been trying (without any success) to get the hang of hobbling along on one leg, she's been packing up the few supplies we took out of the satchel, and she slings it back over her back and offers me her hand. "Come, we should set off if we wish to reach the village before nightfall." She looks as though she's about to say something else, but after a moment she just turns away from me with a quiet "Hmph."

I'm pretty sure I know what she wanted to say. Maybe she's more bothered by my attitude than she lets herself appear.

Travelling is hard going. My ankle doesn't hurt quite as much as it did last night, but that doesn't stop stabs of pain running up my leg every time I so much as brush it against a tree root. Carlei grows rapidly impatient with my frequent need to stop to rest, and though she does a pretty good job of acting sympathetic at first, by midday she's worn through whatever patience she had. The way she treats me like I'm just an inconvenience slowing her down - no matter how accurate it might be - frustrates me in turn. I do my best to keep my temper under control, partly because she's more or less carrying me and mostly because even if I'm pretty sure she wouldn't hurt me she still scares the hell out of me, but by mid-afternoon the atmosphere between us is tense, to say the least.

On reflection, that probably doesn't make it the best time to bring up something that's been bothering me for most of the day. "How do you know we're going the right way?"

"Because," Carlei replies shortly, "I have spent more than a minute or two in the wilderness before today. Unlike you," she adds. I don't think she means to say the last bit aloud.

I'm not convinced that she knows what she's doing any more than I do. And the fact that she doesn't actually answer my question doesn't make me feel any better. Seeing the anger in her eyes still intimidates me, but it's not like I can actually move away from her. "Yeah? So how, then?" Even through her jacket, I can feel heat beginning to emanate from Carlei as I argue with her. Either she's not good at controlling the power of her Aspect when she's angry, or she just doesn't care about making me uncomfortable. She doesn't grow hot enough to burn me through her jacket, though, and whether she's trying to do it or not it doesn't make me back down. There are all kinds of sayings making heat and anger equivalent, and maybe there's something to them, because I start to feel a little less intimidated and more pissed off. "If you actually know where we're going, then how are you figuring it out? We haven't got a compass, or a map, so as far as I can tell you're just guessing. And we're both already out of water, and by tonight we'll be out of food too."

Carlei turns her head slightly, glaring at me. I swear I can actually see her irises shining with fire. "Our pace is slower than I intended," she tells me, in clipped, precise tones, "because I did not expect you to injure yourself." The fact that I know she's right doesn't mean I like it any better when she says it to my face. "Even by your pace, in an hour or so we will reach a tributary of the Yadon river. Ask me again in an hour if I know where we're going. Unless you need another rest."

Truthfully, I do. But her arrogant tone - so much like Silver's - and the expression in her eyes that tells me she's absolutely expecting me to ask for another break is enough to make me straighten up. "I'll be fine," I snap back at her. "Let's see what happens in an hour."

Honestly I'm hoping for her to look surprised, or maybe even a little impressed. At worst I'm expecting her to just nod and keep going.

I'm not expecting her to look as though she's pitying me.

Without an easy way of telling time, I have no idea how long it is we're travelling. It feels like a hell of a lot more than an hour. But the sun is still high in the sky when we start to hear the sound of running water.

We don't say anything aloud, but we speed up, even tired as we are (or at least as I am), and it's only a few minutes when we emerge from the forest and find ourselves by a reasonably sized river. "The Yadon River," Carlei announces, gesturing to it grandly with her free hand. "As promised." I was expecting her to be less upbeat and more scornful, but at this point I'm too thirsty to care. Carlei helps me sit awkwardly by the side of the river before sitting down besides me. Where I'm trying to position my waterskin to catch the flowing water, she just cups her hands in the river. She probably splashes more water over herself and the rock we're sitting on (and me) than she actually drinks, but it's not like the river's going to run out any time soon, so after a minute or so of impatiently waiting for my waterskin to fill up I give up and just imitate her. The cool water on my face is refreshing anyway, and after a moment I shift position so my injured leg is dangling in the stream.

It's kind of scary how much being thirsty and shit like that affects your mood when you aren't paying attention. I feel a hell of a lot more relaxed after a few minutes, and judging from the way Carlei conjures a small flame and starts flicking it from hand to hand absently, she feels much the same.

It's also scary how unobservant you get when you're angry. We'd been walking most of the day, and it's only when Carlei reaches out and takes 'my' waterskin from the rock I'd put it on to dry that I realise that I still have an empty waterskin tied to my belt.

I never even realised she'd given me hers.

"Um..." I mumble. Carlei pauses, balancing her flame on one finger. "...sorry," I say quietly. "For...getting mad at you, when you're trying to help me. When you are helping me." Carlei picks the flame off her finger with her other hand and snuffs it out by closing her fist around it, looking over at me.

"It's just...I told you my brother went missing, right?" My voice is hesitant at first, but as I keep talking and she keeps listening I begin to speak more confidently. "Well...he was always better than me. Guess it comes with being older. You know, it was like...he'd go out and volunteer at some charity or something, and I'd just be screwing around playing games in my room. He was captain of the football team and I never made it off the bench."

I'm not completely sure why I'm even telling her all this, but now I've started it's difficult to stop. I've never spoken about it to anyone before. "And...he was cool about it. Like, he went out of his way to make sure I didn't feel bad." Just like she'd done for me with the waterskins.

"But then when he...left, everything I did got compared to him, more and more. Pretty much the only fucking thing Mom and Dad could ever agree on was that whatever I'd done, every achievement I managed, he'd done better at some point. Except for one thing that they shouldn't have fucking seen as a competition in the first place." I think the anger in my tone surprises Carlei a little, because she tilts her head on one side for a moment or two. "And...I just hate feeling like I can't do anything," I admit.

To my surprise, Carlei gives me a small, sympathetic smile. "I...know how you feel," she replies, looking down at the waterskin she's holding. "Though he is the younger of the two of us, Silver is...considerably better at the business of being a child of the King than I. Better at behaving as the Prince 'should,' regardless of his personal feelings on the matter, as you observed in the tunnel. That is not something I am so easily able to do. And he is more adept at the politics of the court than I - and a superior fighter."

That last part makes me raise an eyebrow. "You kicked his ass back there yesterday," I point out.

Carlei grins for a moment before returning to her sombre expression. "Thank you, but as I said, he underestimated me. And he did so for a reason - I told you we sparred regularly, but I have never bested him in a fight before. Had he chosen to use the power of his Water Aspect against me, as he would have against most opponents blessed by Lord Entei, he would have defeated me quite easily." She pauses for a moment or two, looking back up to me. "If it helps...considering what you have told me of your world, you have coped remarkably well with this one."

We only stay at the river for half an hour or so, but even that half an hour is much more relaxing than the previous rests we've taken, and we set off again feeling more confident. Admittedly part of that, at least for me, is the reassurance that Carlei's not getting us lost in a forest somewhere. When the village we're heading towards is downriver it's not like we can go the wrong way.

We manage to retain our newfound cheer for most of the afternoon and into the evening. And then things start to go to hell.

Again.

It starts as just a slight feeling of dizziness, and I don't pay it much attention at first. When I've probably walked more today than I normally walk in a week - or even a month - it's not surprising that I'm getting tired. But then it starts getting worse, and I find myself having difficulty keeping my steps (or more accurately, my limps) in time with Carlei's and even just going in a straight line. It doesn't make too much difference to our progress, not when Carlei's mostly dragging me anyway, but once or twice I end up stumbling into her and almost knocking us both over.

The third time it happens, I'm expecting her to yell at me. But instead she just looks at me with an expression I can't recognise in my barely-conscious state. "Ethan, are you okay?"

"I'm..." I start to say, but abruptly have to turn aside, dropping to my knees - my injured leg screaming in protest - as I'm violently sick. "...fine. I think." It's almost like my mouth won't quite move the way I want it to, and I have no idea how much of that sentence is actually intelligible. "I guess those..." I retch again, though there's nothing more for me to bring up.

"It's not far to the village," Carlei says. It sounds like she's speaking from a long way away. "Come on, we can make it." She tries to help me back to my feet, but now my uninjured leg won't obey me either, and I slump back to the ground.

Another stab of pain runs through my wounded ankle, and I feel faint, like I'm fighting to just keep my eyes open. I've never felt anything like this before, and it scares me - more than even the first time I met Carlei, or when Silver was threatening me. There, at least, I had some measure of control of the situation; I knew, in some subconscious way, that as long as I was quiet and didn't do anything to offend them I would be safe. But I have no idea what's happening to me here. "I..."

I don't manage to finish my sentence before darkness overtakes me.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

I drift in and out of consciousness, brief images and sounds filtering into my mind before being swept away.

A vague sense of motion, steady, slow steps.

"...as if he's never been ill in his life..."

I'm cold, colder than I thought it was possible to be.

"...from the Wakaba region, heading towards..."

"...not sure even a diluted elixir would not itself be..."

Something hot wraps around my shoulders and presses against my back, and I feel warmth flowing through me.

"...might have blackened your hair, but that doesn't mean I don't know..."

"...awaken, scion of mine..."

"...the only one who can recognise an infamous face..."

"...not like it could make anything worse..."

...

...

When I next wake I feel absolutely exhausted, like I haven't slept in weeks. Considering that I've been doing nothing but sleeping for the past...however long it's been, it's a weird feeling. But my mind is alert enough.

I'm lying on a wooden bed with an uneven, scratchy mattress. I discover after a moment why the mattress is so uncomfortable when I rub my hand over it and find a piece of straw poking through a small hole in the cloth covering. A far cry from the soft mattresses of the palace.

Looking further away from myself, I'm in a small house - if it can be called that and not a hut - with rather uneven wooden walls and a thatched roof. There's a rickety set of shelves on the other side of the room, with all sorts of bags and ceramic pots piled high, and another bed that I'm guessing looks identical to the one I'm lying on.

It takes me a moment to realise that there's someone else in the room, and another moment still to figure out who it is. She's gotten rid of her sleeved-cape thing, and - the bit that really confuses me for a moment - done something weird with her hair. It's wavier than it used to be, hanging loose down to just below her shoulders instead of tied in a ponytail, and closer to black than dark blue.

But it's definitely Carlei, and she gives me such a relieved, warm smile when she realises I'm awake and I meet her eyes that I can't help smiling back even though I can't help but be slightly confused at her sudden change in attitude towards me.

There's a moment of slightly awkward silence as she waits for me to say something and I try to decide which of the half-dozen questions bouncing around through my head to ask first. "How..." My voice is dry and scratchy, and my throat is killing me. I realise there's a wooden cup next to me, and to my relief, when I sit up a little to pick it up, it's full of water. I mostly drain the cup before setting it back down and having another go at speaking. "How long has it been?"

"Slightly more than a week," Carlei replies. "You were...very ill. I - we - feared that..." She trails off, but I get the picture. Why is it that everything in this damn world wants to kill me?

"What...what happened? Where are we?"

Carlei sighs. "It...was my fault." I obviously look confused, because she clarifies after a moment. "The riverwater we drank from, though it was running...it was not pure. As one of the Blessed, sicknesses of the sort that drinking impure water cause have no effect on me," she adds, "but...I did not consider what it might do to you. And for some reason, it made you far sicker than anyone expected."

I can't help but feel slightly pissed - not so much at Carlei, but at myself. I've been on holiday to places where we aren't allowed to drink the water because of exactly this kind of thing happening. And that's in the modern world, with water treatment and antibiotics and shit like that. Why the hell did I think it would be okay to drink untreated water when we're in the fucking medieval ages?

Carlei interrupts me, intentionally or not, from my mental berating. "I...I am sorry, Ethan." Her voice doesn't have any of her usual force and confidence, or that rare warmth that it had had when we'd been talking at the river. She just sounds...defeated.

"It's okay," I say, impulsively, almost before realising I'm saying it aloud. "You made a mistake."

"A mistake that nearly cost you your life," Carlei retorts. "I should have known better." I'm...not completely sure what to feel about the sudden flash of anger in her tone. "But...thank you," she adds softly, after a moment or two. She sniffs and sits up a little straighter before returning to her narration. "We were not far away from this village at that point, so I was able to find help to bring you here." She pauses, looking a little nervous. "You need to rest, but there is something you need to know before you speak to anyone else here."

She pulls a couple of pieces of parchment out from a loop of her belt and shows them to me. I look at them for a few moments before recognising one of them as a drawing of Carlei. It's more of an artist's impression than a real drawing. I'm so occupied looking at the drawing that I don't even notice the writing above and below it at first. "Wanted?!" I screech, and Carlei flinches. I realise my mistake and continue more quietly (but still just as stunned). "You said your father would choose to keep you his heir over dealing with me!"

"I...thought he would," Carlei replies quietly. "I considered the alternative, but at worst, I thought he would arrange for me to be held by the first noble family I approached. Not publicly branding me a traitor and..." She trails off. I can't blame her, and I really don't know what to say. What do you say to someone whose fucking dad is trying to have them killed?

Logically, if one of the images is Carlei, I guess that the other is mine. The drawing of me is even worse than the one of Carlei, which is something to be thankful for. Somehow in comparison to Carlei's warrant, my own takes up less of my attention. "I guess that explains your hair," I eventually say, just to break the silence. "Have you got a fake name or something too?"

Carlei shakes her head. "The names of the Imperial Family are often popular a few months after their birth. I am far from the only girl called Carlei in the kingdom. If anything, your name is more unusual."

I still feel like I should say something to try to make her feel better - no matter how well she's hiding what she feels about it - but I have no idea what I could possibly say about it that wouldn't just piss her off. So instead I just keep asking questions that come to mind. "Well, okay, but...I mean, you're the Princess of Joto. How can people not recognise you?"

For a moment it seems like the old Carlei is back, as she gives an amused grin, just like she'd had when we'd been escaping from the palace. "Aside from the palace servants, the Imperial Guards, the Lords and Ladies, and others - like Lyra - who interact with me personally, very few people know what I look like, how I sound or how I act. In many cases they simply make assumptions, which are often incorrect." She giggles slightly. "Once, a few years ago, Lyra, Silver and I snuck out of the palace and walked the streets of Sekiei. We were completely unrecognised. At least until Lady Lorelei discovered we were missing and came to find us. Father was furious."

"Who here knows who we really are?" I ask, hoping to distract her from her thoughts going back to Lance. I'm not sure it works.

"More people than I would like," Carlei admits. "The herbalist, Rafferty of Kikyo, his apprentice, Bradon of Kikyo, and...Gaius of Kuraymi." The way she says the last name kind of reminds me of how I once heard myself referred to by an ex-girlfriend who thought I wasn't listening, that same scorn and reluctance. Like even saying the name is better than whoever the hell 'Gaius' is deserves. "Gaius is an Imperial Guard - a disgraced one," she continues. "I...truthfully do not know what happened, but it is exceptionally rare for those sworn to the Imperial Crown to be banished from its service, so I recognised him by face and name. Unfortunately he recognised me as well."

Carlei sounds more frustrated than nervous, which I hope is a good sign. Maybe she's annoyed her disguise didn't work. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"He says not," Carlei answers, clearly dubious. "And...in all fairness, he had ample opportunity to inform the guard patrol that passed through here of our presence, and did not. But to have been banished from the Guards is clear evidence that we cannot trust him." She seems to calm down a little, and stands up. "I should leave you to rest." She pauses just before she heads out of the door. "I am glad you have recovered, Ethan."

Once she leaves, I lie back down on the bed. The slight flash of adrenaline at the discovery that my time in this world has taken yet another perilous turn is fading, and making me feel more tired than ever. But it's way more...comfortable, I guess...than the feeling of helplessness I'd felt when I'd fainted outside the village, and I'm perfectly happy to just give into it.

I'm just drifting off when I hear soft voices outside the hut, and I'm just about awake enough to feel a blanket pulled over me and a warm, gentle hand on my shoulder as I slip into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #4
I sleep for most of that day and night, eventually waking up in the early morning of the next day. At some point when I was unconscious, someone put a splint on my leg, and at the foot of the bed I find what must be intended to be a rudimentary crutch - it looks like a spade, but with the actual spade bit taken off. Between the two - and the week of lying in bed without putting any weight on my leg - I can hobble around without help and without it hurting too much.

There's a bowl of soupy stew on the bedside table that must have been put there while I was sleeping. It's gritty and mostly tasteless, and cold on top of that, but I wolf it down anyway. I got used to similar fare in the week I was in the palace dungeons, though I can't help but wonder how Carlei, who must have grown up her entire life with extravagant food available whenever she wanted from the palace servants, is coping with it.

It's not too cold outside, despite the relatively early time of day. At a guess, I'd assume it's about 5 or 6 in the morning, though my guesses as to the time have been out by hours before now, and those guesses were made with the aid of knowing the regular schedule of the palace.

Early as it is, though, I'm not the first up. As soon as I open the door I see a middle-aged man leading a horse down the dirt path, and beyond him there are two people picking some sort of plants from a small farm. Of the four of them, the horse pays the most attention to me emerging from the hut, and snorts at me before looking back at the ground again as it plods past. Being unnoticed is surprisingly reassuring.

I wonder if I'm supposed to stay in the hut. Probably. But I've been cooped up enough - in the jail, in the palace, even being dragged around by Carlei. So instead I follow the man and his horse down the road.

The dungeons smelt of damp and stale lavender. The palace in general smelt...just clean, really, and nothing else. The forest had smelt of grass and wood and other things I don't know. But the village smells...alive, I suppose. As I walk I find myself smelling at least a dozen overlapping smells, and those are just the strongest ones. The path is rougher to the roads at home, and the smells different, but there's something reassuringly normal about the smells changing as I walk.

I don't know where I'm going. There's no signpost helpfully directing me to this or that like there would be in a village like this on Earth.

I pause for a moment as I realise that I'm considering that - the fact that I'm on a different, alien world - normal now.

"Hey, kid! Nice to see you on your feet!" The sudden greeting, delivered by an unfamiliar voice, startles me, and I drop my makeshift crutch as I look to my right.

He's probably in his thirties, tall and built like a bodybuilder or something. He's dressed like most of the people around here, in a simple short-sleeved vest and trousers. It's only as I look over his attire that I realise that I'm dressed in much the same way. I can't help but wonder what happened to my old clothes.

The big guy gives a kind of sheepish laugh, and my attention returns to him instead of my clothes. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you. Guess I've known you for a week and a half, but you probably don't remember me, huh." He has the kind of ingratiatingly friendly personality that makes me immediately distrust him, and he's not as good at seeming sincere as most of the journalists that tried it on me three years ago were. "Gaius's my name."

"Gaius," I repeat, recalling Carlei's mention of him. I'm obviously as shit at hiding my expressions as he is, because his eyes narrow.

"I'm guessing Carlei's told you about me, then. Spun your head full of some damn nonsense about me being a traitor to the crown or something." He looks awkward for a moment and makes that odd pushing motion that I saw Carlei do back in the palace. It makes him seem a little less intimidating, which is a good thing - trying to keep my balance mostly on one leg with no crutch for support makes me feel very fragile even before the fact that the guy looks like he could snap me in two. "Somehow I guess she didn't tell you that I was the one that hauled your sorry ass into the town." She hadn't. "Funny how the nobles'll do that." After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he nods down at the crutch at my feet. "Want me to get that?"

"No, I got it," I answer reflexively, almost before I even register his offer, never mind consider it. I don't want him to come any closer, that's for sure, but more than that...he has that same look in his eyes that I'd seen in Carlei's sometimes, that one that makes me feel like I'm a little child needing to be babied. It annoys me enough to see Carlei looking at me like that, to say nothing of someone I've never met.

"Fair enough," he nods, though, and lets me awkwardly crouch on my good leg, stretching my injured one out behind me for balance as I bend down to close my fingers around the rough wood. I probably look fucking stupid, but at least I don't crash to the ground or anything even more embarrassing.

"What are you doing?"

Almost as if my thoughts of her had acted like a lure, Carlei suddenly approaches from behind me. Even in the comparative warmth of the summer dawn, I can feel the heat radiating off her as she steps past me and faces down Gaius.

Gaius seems much less intimidated of her than I would be in his shoes. It probably helps that he's got about six inches of height and seventy pounds of muscle over her, but if he knows her then he must know what she's capable of.

As I consider the implications of that, suddenly I feel a lot more intimidated by him than I had a few moments earlier. "Just talking," he answers Carlei with an easy shrug. "There a law against that, milady?"

His use of the honorific, even if it's almost whispered, clearly spooks Carlei a lot more than his sarcastic tone annoys her, because she flinches and stammers for a moment, and when she speaks again her tone is once more very carefully controlled. "What do you want?"

"Pretty simple." He turns and beckons us down one of the side alleys that leads out of the village and into the fields. I start following him before Carlei does, more out of instinct than anything else. Carlei's fists are clenched, and if anything the heat coming off her is strengthening in intensity. "Seems to me like you're not going to languish away in this village for the rest of your life. So at some point you'll leave. What I want," he replies over his shoulder, "is for you to take me with you." I wasn't expecting that. Nor was Carlei. While we both stare blankly at him, he continues. I get the impression he's rehearsed this little speech.

"You're not stupid enough to try to cross the kingdom on your own, I assume," he continues, "so you'll want to hire warriors. Well, not that hard, if you're patient, and I'm sure you brought a little spare change with you. There's maybe one a month that comes through here. Thing you have to consider, though -" and now he turns around to look at us "- do you think the money you have is enough to outbid the Imperial Crown? Because that's what it comes down to." He gives a bitter laugh. "That's the thing with mercenaries and sellswords. They only care about the money."

Carlei scoffs. "And that is intended to convince me to accept your help? You are not merely a mercenary - you are proven untrustworthy."

"Really, Princess?" Carlei doesn't flinch as much this time. "Am I? Tell me, since you know me so perfectly - what did I do to be 'proven untrustworthy'?"

I remember that Carlei told me she didn't know what Gaius had done to get sacked, but she barely even pauses. "I do not know," she admits, perfectly calmly and unashamed, "but I trust Commander Bruno's judgement. He found you guilty of treachery and stripped you of your title." Her tone turns scathing. "So why would I trust you to defend me, when you are unfit to defend my father?"

That gets Gaius's attention. So far, though his voice has been bitter at times, he's been calm. Whatever facade it was breaks now, though, and he clenches his fists. "I have suffered your secondhand accusations," he snarls. His voice changes slightly, becoming more formal - more like what I heard in snatches from the Imperial Guards while I was in the palace. "I will not suffer them straight from you. I challenge you, Carlei of Sekiei."

Lyra told me a bit about duels of honour - one actually happened while I was staying in the palace, between two noblewomen, but I didn't want to watch. From what she told me, it started out as a Blessed thing. Blessed that fight strong opponents get stronger than makes any kind of sense for the physical activity (or whatever the hell the equivalent is for roasting people with fire) they're doing. Between that and the fact that a Blessed is literally bestowed their power by a god, a lot of people, Blessed and not, believe that a duel of honour is a way to call to the Divines to cast their judgement, that the duelist who's in the right - whatever that may be for the situation - will win because of the Divines' favour.

Considering that the Divines' whole schtick is not interfering in the world outside of Blessings (and their priests and temples, probably), I pointed out to Lyra at the time that that's completely stupid since then the toughest fighter is always going to be 'in the right,' no matter what it is they're doing. She tried to justify it by saying that only those honourable enough to fight for causes they believe in gain enough power to be able to do shit like that, but I don't think she convinced herself, much less me.

But however stupid it may be, pretty much every Blessed, and a lot of humans, believe in the idea, to the extent that an entire region is basically run on the principle. It doesn't surprise me that Carlei is no exception. "Very well, Gaius of Kurayami." There's some etiquette about using people's full names, but Lyra never really bothered explaining it too much. She probably thought I'd never need to know. "I accept your challenge."

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

The duel is a lot more formal than Carlei's fight with Silver in the tunnels under the palace had been. The two of them stand a short distance away from each other - had Gaius led us out here because he'd planned to challenge Carlei the entire time? - and bow. Or at least they're supposed to bow, but neither of them really do much more than nod. "My terms are these," Gaius continues, when he looks back up. The earth begins to rumble around him, and soil and stones drift slowly up, covering his clenched fists and forearms. "Should I prove the victor, you will not again accuse me of treachery or betrayal, or call me untrustworthy, for a reason you know nothing of."

Gaius's gauntlets don't turn into the magical metal that Carlei's and Silver's weapons are made of. Instead the earthy mixture solidifies into something that looks more like rock than anything else.

While I was in the palace, Lyra had explained Aspects to me a little - the Divines squabbling for power (she put it more politely, obviously, but that was the gist of it) meant that some people's Blessings had a natural advantage over others, in a kind of crazily complicated Rock-Paper-Scissors pattern. Except instead of Rock-Paper-Scissors, there are nine Aspects instead (though there are a hell of a lot more than nine Divines, just to be unhelpful). Carlei's a Fire Aspect and Silver's a Water Aspect. Where things get complicated is the fact that there are actually more Aspects than the nine that people recognise, but all the prayers and shit were written before anyone realised and it's too much effort to rewrite everything. So sometimes Water beats Fire, as with Silver and Carlei, but there are some Water Aspects who are actually beaten by Fire instead.

Almost all the Aspects have weird interactions like that, but one of the rare few that doesn't is the fact that Earth beats Fire, and I start to feel a little nervous for Carlei.

Carlei summons her sword much more quickly than Gaius had summoned his gauntlets. "Agreed," she nods. She could have set terms of her own if she'd wanted, but then Gaius would've had the opportunity to withdraw or negotiate. I get the feeling she wants to fight, maybe more than he does, and she clearly doesn't care about her disadvantage any more than she did against Silver.

Carlei doesn't start the fight the way I was expecting. She holds out her free hand in front of her, and a small flame ignites in her palm. Then another, and another. Pretty quickly, a roaring fire is burning just above her hand, a little bigger than a closed fist.

I've seen how fast she is three times now, but her sudden movement still takes me by surprise as she hurls the fire at Gaius. He's more prepared than I was, because he raises both his gauntlets to block the fireball. It explodes when it hits, the blast almost knocking me on my ass even though I'm a good few feet away. Gaius takes it better, though he goes sliding backwards, halting himself by slamming one gauntlet into the ground. More soil and pebbles flow onto it, and further up his arm, as he regains his balance and looks at Carlei. "Don't you want to know what really happened?" he growls, stretching out his less-rocky arm.

Carlei doesn't seem to be in the mood for conversation. She raises her sword and springs at him, getting halfway towards him in a single stride. He makes a sharp upwards gesture and a wall of stone erupts from the ground in front of her just as she's about to make another leap forwards - and to my surprise, she smashes straight through it and slashes at him. He obviously expected a lot less out of his barrier than I had, because he quickly turns and blocks the blow with his gauntlets, though he doesn't manage to keep his footing this time when he gets knocked backwards.

As he rolls back to his feet, he doesn't seem particularly annoyed that Carlei's knocked him away twice now, and I notice that she's moving slightly gingerly after hitting the wall shoulder-first. "You know I served in the Imperial Guard," he continues, as if nothing had happened. I get the feeling he's talking to me, not Carlei. "A prestigious position. The Guards are allowed a great deal of freedom."

Carlei leaps at him again. She's expecting the wall of rock this time, but it still slows her down. I'm beginning to understand his tactic - Carlei is clearly quicker and stronger than he is (and pretty pissed off), and in a straight-up fight he wouldn't stand a chance, Earth Aspect or not. But by making Carlei smash through the barriers of stone to get to him, he's both weakening her attacks and tiring her out just as her blows are tiring him.

"I had only recently completed my training when something strange occurred." He summons more earth and rock on one arm until his gauntlet is almost the same size he is and brings it crashing down on Carlei. I expect her to dodge, but instead she drops her sword and catches his blow in both hands with a grunt of effort.

I'm not sure at first why the hell she'd do that - even I can see that that puts her at a massive disadvantage - but then I'm reminded of something Lyra mentioned. Blessed have a natural urge to fight, to test themselves and their powers. Some Blessed are more strongly affected by that urge than others, and from what I've seen I'm getting the impression that Carlei is one of those who's pretty strongly affected. She could have dodged that swing easily enough, but she wants to test herself against Gaius. And to be fair to her, she pretty much stops Gaius's swing dead before shoving the giant rock club away and lunging at him, her sword flaring back into her hand mid-stride. He still has his other gauntlet to defend himself with, though, and all she manages to do is knock him away again.

The two of them circle each other, stepping instinctively over the lumps of rock and soil that have been left behind from Gaius's walls - and the giant mallet-like thing he'd turned his gauntlet into, which begins to crumble away - without looking down. "I was guarding one of the side entrances to the city when a group of my compatriots travelled through." They're both panting heavily, and I'm not sure whether Carlei's letting him speak because she wants to use the time to recover or because she's actually interest in what he's saying. "I would not have thought it unusual, except when they saw me, they told me they were going on patrol. But a patrol is led by a sergeant at a minimum, and there was no sergeant amongst them."

He lunges at her again, this time without turning one of his gauntlets into a giant lump of rock. She parries his first swing, but he forces her to keep her blade out to one side holding that gauntlet off, giving him an easy strike at her unprotected side. She jumps backwards and rolls to her feet, apparently unharmed. But then I see blood staining her shirt - one of the rocky 'claws' on his gauntlet must have caught her.

She doesn't seem to notice, and if Gaius does he doesn't comment. "Er, Carlei?" I pipe up, more than a little nervously. "You're kind of bleeding?"

They both look at me with almost identical expressions of irritation. "Goodness me," Carlei replies sarcastically. "I didn't realise."

"I'm just saying!" I protest, but they turn back to each other, ignoring me.

"When my shift ended," Gaius continues, as they begin to circle each other again, "instead of returning to the barracks, I waited to see them return. They were furtive until they confirmed that I was not amongst the guards on duty, at which point they became much more calm and confident. And then I saw them passing gold imperials to the stationed guards - more than their wages ought to have earned them in a month."

Carlei feints forwards and Gaius summons another barrier to block her. But instead of slamming through it this time, she banishes her sword again and climbs up the wall, leaping off the top of it and tackling a surprised Gaius to the ground.

One disadvantage of Gaius's massive gauntlets is that there's a lot more surface area to them than there would be his arms, and Carlei manages to pin both of his gauntleted arms down with one arm, and punches him hard in the face with the other. Before she can land a second blow he comes to the same realisation as me, and banishes one of his gauntlets. Carlei isn't quite quick enough to catch his now-free arm before he punches her in the side - the side he'd already cut open. She recoils in pain and lets go of his other arm, and he shoves her away with his gauntlet, sending her flying into the wall she's just climbed over. I half expect her to smash through it again, but obviously he didn't throw her with as much force as her charges have possessed.

They're both injured and tired now, but as they clamber back to their feet and circle each other, summoning blade and gauntlet again, I can see steel in their eyes. "I'm sure you can see the implication just as I did, Princess," Gaius continues, interspersing his words with heavy breaths. "Corruption amongst the Imperial Guards. Naturally, I was horrified, and hastened at once to report to my sergeant. And he nodded, looking most stern, and assured me he would investigate thoroughly." I begin to see where his story is going. Maybe Carlei can too, because she stops moving, and after a moment Gaius does the same. She keeps her sword raised, though, and he doesn't lower his gauntlets.

"Not a day passed before I was accused of treachery, of plotting to steal from the Imperial Vault. They brought out guardsmen I'd considered my comrades - my friends - and had them spin a tale of my 'suspicious activities' that I had never committed. Maps were found in my chest in the barracks that I had never seen. It was a poorly-executed plot - even I could see gaping flaws in their version of events. But your Commander Bruno did not give me a chance to defend myself. I was not even allowed to attend my own 'trial' - what I know was passed to me by one of the few guards I can still call honest. Instead, at best, he accepted the word of his underlings at face value and had me banished with great pomp and circumstance. No doubt whispers now travel the barracks of what happened to the last person that tried to confront the corruption." Carlei's blade shakes in her white-knuckled grip, and the grass is wilting around her under the heat she's giving off. "So that is my tale, Princess." Gaius draws himself up. "Your beloved, respected Imperial Guards - rotten to the core."

"SHUT UP!" Carlei screams at him - the first thing she's said to him since the duel started - and charges him. Gaius seems to expect it, and brings his gauntlets together, melding them into a massive shield. But if, as I suspect, Gaius has been trying to exhaust her and use her anger to have her make a mistake, he's miscalculated. She doesn't even strike with her sword at first, slamming into him in a tackle that knocks him off-balance - and then pivots, takes her sword in both hands and slashes down at his shield. With a horrible screeching sound and a gout of sparks, it literally splits in two, sliced cleanly down the middle. He stumbles back, half in surprise and half from the raw force of her blow, and she steps after him, leans back slightly, and kicks him to the ground now his shield isn't protecting him.

Gaius's gauntlets crumble back into the dirt and pebbles they'd been before (except for where Carlei's sword had cut through them, where they seem to have hardened into a dark, shiny substance), which I'm pretty sure is a sign that Carlei's won. But she doesn't dismiss her sword. Instead, she raises it up to head height, tip angled down at him. "You're lying," she hisses.

"Why?" he scoffs, sitting up. "Because it's inconceivable that the Imperial Crown can ever make an error in judgement? Tell me something, then, Princess. If that's true - then why are you here?"

He has a point. Carlei doesn't seem to think so, though, because she steps towards him. Flames begin to run down the length of her sword. "There is no similarity between us," she snarls.

"Isn't there?"

I don't honestly think, all her posturing and fury aside, that Carlei intends on hurting Gaius. From what I've seen of her, her sense of honour, or righteousness, or whatever, wouldn't allow her to hurt an unarmed, defeated opponent. But I still move towards her - making sure to circle around her so I don't get too close to that sword - and try to put a hand on her shoulder. The sheer heat radiating off her makes me recoil when my hand gets within a few inches of her, though. How the hell are her clothes not even scorched, much less not burning? And for that matter, how did she not burn Gaius when they were grappling?

But I get the result I wanted - my movement attracts her attention, and she glances at me briefly before lowering her sword. The waves of heat diminish a little, but they're not gone, and she's still holding her blade.

"Why do you want to come with us?" I ask Gaius. I think he expects Carlei to tell me to be quiet (to be honest, so do I), but she doesn't, and after a moment he answers.

"Way I see it, I have three options." As he speaks, his accent slowly devolves back to what it had been when he'd first spoken to me. I wonder which is his real one. "One of 'em is to try to get an audience with the King and plead my case, but I ain't stupid enough to think I'd survive to get that far. Second is to rot in this place -" he gestures past us to the village "- for the rest of my life, and I ain't made for rotting. So third is to come with you, and hope that if you can get yourself pardoned there'll be a way for me to do the same. So I'm trustin' you - maybe you oughta try trustin' me."

Carlei is quiet for a few moments. "The accusations against you notwithstanding," she eventually says, "you yourself pointed out - I can trust no sellsword."

"Which is why I ain't asking for payment." Gaius gets cautiously back to his feet, eyes still focused on Carlei's sword. "If you want to think of it like that, then here's my fee - if you get the charges against you lifted, you get your father to take a good look at his Imperial Guard. That ain't something the Crown'll give me, so it ain't like you need to worry about being outbid. Or," he adds, "you can ignore me and sod off into the sunset, and probably get your amnesiac friend there killed like you nearly did earlier." Carlei's heat, which had been diminishing, flares right back up again, and I edge away from her slightly.

Gaius doesn't notice. Or maybe doesn't care, even though she almost killed him barely a minute ago. "See, unlike you, Princess, I grew up in places like this, where you don't have your meals delivered at the ring of a bell. I know how to survive out there - and I can help you two to survive too. I saw enough of the shit you brought with you in your daring escape to be pretty damn confident in saying that you wouldn't make it to Kikyo." He makes that funny pushing motion again, but doesn't take his eyes off Carlei. "Neither of you. You might be immune to disease, but you ain't immune to starvation. What were you gonna do, eat grass?"

He has got a point. Not that I want to tell Carlei that right at this moment.

Carlei doesn't reply for a few moments. When she does, she speaks slowly, carefully, almost like she's tasting each word before spitting it out. "You say you wish only to help us, yes? That your fortunes rise - or fall - with ours?" Gaius tilts his head on one side slightly, obviously just as puzzled as to where she's going with this as I am, but then nods. "Then swear it - upon the name of the Divine that Chose you."

Gaius pauses for a few moments, eyes flicking between me and Carlei in equal measure. "Fine," he eventually answers. Carlei's heat vanishes entirely, and she looks completely taken aback. Whatever she just dared him to do, she obviously didn't expect him to agree. He kneels down and lays one hand on the ground. He's looking down, not at us, and sometimes his voice is a bit muffled, but we can understand him easily enough. "My intentions towards Carlei of Sekiei and her companion are earnest. I intend to assist, protect and fight for them as needed. This I swear, under the gaze of Lord Groudon, he who Chose me as his warrior."

Given how much reverence he - and Carlei, judging from her reaction - place on the oath, I kind of expect something dramatic to happen, like a face appearing in the ground to declare he's telling the truth or something. But nothing does. There's just a few moments of quiet, before Carlei lets her sword fade away in a few last spirals of flame and smoke. "Very well, Gaius," she says, more quietly, as he gets back to his feet. "I accept your offer."

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds

"Good," Gaius replies, somewhat bluntly. "Look forward to traveling with you. Where the hells are we trying to get to, anyway?" he asks.

"Asagi," Carlei responds, after a brief hesitation. Gaius raises an eyebrow.

"Well, that's about as far on the wrong side of the country as you can get," he observes.

"I said that," I point out. Neither of them pay me any attention.

"Is that a problem?" Carlei asks.

"Didn't say that," Gaius answers, with an idle shrug. "Just figuring we'll need better travelling gear than the little general store in this backwater dump's got. What they can give'll last a little, to Kikyo or Yoshino, but we'll want to resupply in one of those before we go further."

"Kikyo," Carlei decides swiftly. Then she pauses briefly. "Although...my mother once mentioned something to me, something she told me was essential I remembered. She said an old friend of hers lived where the borders of Kikyo, Yoshino and Hiwada meet, and that if I ever found myself truly in need, and it seemed like everyone had turned against me...he would be able to help me. I thought it was just one of the many strange things she said after..." She pauses again, and though her back is to us we both hear her sniff, and see her hand go to her face for a moment. I think back to her argument with Silver. "But she had the power of a prophetess, albeit poorly mastered," she continues, turning back to face us as if nothing had happened. "I never heard her tell a true prophecy, but perhaps...perhaps that was one. Advice for me she knew I would one day need."

"So Yoshino, then?" Gaius asks.

Carlei frowns slightly. "To resupply, yes, I think visiting Yoshino is advisable. It is the closest major temple beyond the one in Sekiei in any case." She obviously sees my puzzled look, because she explains after a moment. "Temples are more than merely places of worship. To Blessed like us, they are places of refuge, and places where we can gather supplies that human merchants have no need of nor sense of value for. Supplies like these."

I hadn't noticed until she draws attention to them, but on her belt are a small set of pouches, and she reaches into one of them and pulls out something wrapped in white fabric. She pulls the side of her shirt up, exposing the bleeding wound Gaius had inflicted, and presses the white whatever-it-is against the injury, closing her eyes in concentration. A faint golden light spills out from between her fingers and the white thing seems to diminish in size, until she takes her hand away, now empty - and the injury is completely gone, only the blood around where it used to be a sign that there was once a wound there.

"Not only that," she continues, peering down at her shirt and frowning at the bloodstain, "but if anyone is likely to know about your...unusual circumstances, it would be the priests." It takes me a moment to realise she's talking to me, and I'm honestly a little touched that after everything that's happened - especially when her life has turned upside-down just as much as mine - she still has the forethought to consider my plight. I wish I could be confident in saying that I'd manage the same for her if the situations were reversed. "Let me see your wound too, Gaius," she adds, oblivious to my somewhat blank expression, moving over to him.

He clearly doesn't expect her to treat him too, and stands rather awkwardly while she reaches up and presses a second one of the strange white parcels to his cheek. Again golden light glows, and though there's less physical sign of the healing this time, I don't doubt that his jaw is mended just as her side was. "Hang on, why couldn't you just have done that to heal my leg?" I protest. I don't doubt that there's a reason - as much as she fucked up with the riverwater thing, I can't imagine she would forget something this major - but I'm still a little upset that I've been barely able to stand for the past couple of days (more, if you count the time I was unconscious because of the fever) when she seems to be able to heal wounds with a click of her fingers.

Carlei giggles at my angry expression, and though I almost want to be more angry at her laughing at me I find myself relaxing. "Sorry," she apologises, calming herself a little. "Healing magic like this only works on the Blessed." Of course it does.

"More than that," Gaius interjects, rubbing his healed chin absently, "it can only be performed by nobles like the Princess. I could wave a dozen of those totems around and the only thing I'd manage is looking like a damn idiot." Once again, he makes that odd gesture.

"What does that mean?" I ask, curiosity finally getting the better of me (not to mention wanting to distract myself from my renewed envy). "That..." I try to imitate it, probably badly. "...wave thing."

"Oh, it's a...shorthand prayer, I suppose," Carlei explains. "There are some prayers where Blessed will offer something up to the Divines - wealth or a small amount of food, normally - by holding it up to the sky and using their powers to destroy it. From that ritual came this...everyday version, you could call it. It represents offering an apology."

It takes me a moment to figure out what Gaius has been apologising for, but I suppose it makes sense that in a world where the gods explicitly exist and mess with shit in the world the equivalent of 'God damn it' is probably not a particularly smart thing to say.

"So when are we leaving?" Gaius asks. He sounds impatient with the sudden diversion into religious gestures. Or maybe just embarrassed that he's being called out on doing it, even if unintentionally. "There's a merchant caravan leaving later this week, heading down to Yoshino."

"That sounds ideal, then," Carlei nods. "You chose a rather convenient time to wake up, Ethan," she adds to me. "We can accompany the caravan as far as the triple border, and make the journey to Yoshino on foot the day after to purchase proper equipment. As long as you feel okay to travel?" The upwards lilt to the end of her sentence makes it pretty obvious what answer she wants me to give. I wonder if she'd wait if I said I wasn't.

"I mean, it's a caravan, right?" I ask them. "It must have seats or something. "

"Only if you pay," Gaius corrects me.

"That won't be a problem," Carlei reassures us.

Over the next couple of days, it becomes quickly apparent that paying for shit is one of the few problems we don't have. If anything, it's more of a problem that Carlei hasn't got much in the way of smaller denominations, so it always takes a lot of sheepish rummaging through her bag before she finally finds something that wouldn't be the equivalent of handing over a bundle of hundreds. (I do wonder about the wisdom of her keeping her money in a satchel, but to be fair she doesn't really have anywhere else to put it; pockets don't feature too heavily on her outfit.)

She's been staying in the village tavern, and now I'm healthy enough to walk around I get rather unceremoniously evicted from Rafftery's hut, so I end up getting a room there as well. Although when I say 'room,' what I actually mean is a place on the floor once the tables and chairs have been pushed aside. If anything it's even less comfortable than the ground outside, but at least it's warm.

I can't help but notice, however, that Carlei manages to get an actual room for herself. Apparently all the other rooms are occupied, and to be fair I don't actually see anything that disproves that theory...but I still find it kind of oddly convenient.

There's fuck all to do in the village. Most of the people my age are working in the fields, and the younger kids somehow manage to endlessly amuse themselves kicking around stones and throwing sticks, which probably have some great significance in their make-believe world. I guess this is how people entertained themselves before the internet.

Carlei's just as bored as me, which might be why she decides, on the morning of the day after I woke up, that she should teach me to defend myself. Judging from the way Gaius, who's stopped his pretend friendliness - I think he only wanted me on side to stick up for him when he was trying to convince Carlei to let him come along - treats me on the rare occasion I run into him, I get the impression that fighting is the only way he (and, to be honest, Carlei too) are ever going to respect me, so I agree. Plus there's the whole 'hunted by the King of Joto' thing hanging over my head.

Carlei's not the greatest teacher. I'm not stupid enough to think that I'm somehow going to be a match for her - I've seen her fight, and the closest I've been to a serious fight is a drunken shoving match with an equally-drunken friend. But she still makes me try attacking her time and again, supposedly to let her see how well I can fight already. The answer, unsurprisingly, is 'not at all,' which I could've told her in the first fucking place without getting shoved around for half an hour, so I'm not exactly in the greatest mood by the time she finally decides that she's ready to teach me.

Still, at least it makes it easy for her to teach me to attack, since I don't exactly need to worry about being careful when there's no way I can hurt her. Defending is another matter, and the only thing she feels confident teaching me is how to dodge. Since I'm in no mood to get knocked around any more than I already have been after her 'tests' I don't bother to argue.

I learn a little more about the caravan we're going to be joining, as well. Because the road it's taking isn't one of the major ones across the regions, and so not well-patrolled by guards, a whole bunch of merchants band together - along with just random people who happen to need to travel in the same way, like us - for the journey through potential bandit country. The caravan actually starts forming up the day before it's due to set out, and the three of us, led by Gaius (who unlike Carlei has actually travelled like this before) join the growing group and try to find a merchant willing to take us as passengers for a reasonable fee. At first I find it kind of cool watching everyone interact - it feels like I've fallen into the set of a movie - but my good mood quickly fades when I see people begin to arrive with spears, swords, and various other weapons. There's even a guy with some kind of old-style rifle. I never really considered it before, but I find myself seriously glad that the Blessed can summon and dismiss their weapons apparently at will. If Carlei's sword stayed with her at all times, I'd probably be a nervous wreck by now.

It's really only when I see all the weapons that the remark about travelling through bandit country properly clicks for me - that everyone here is armed because there's a real chance that the caravan might be attacked.

I'm glad Carlei's here.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #5
The next day, we quietly tuck ourselves onto the back of one of the half-dozen carts - not the most comfortable thing in the world, but a hell of a lot better than walking all day - and settle in for the journey. It's two days' ride to the place where this mysterious friend of Carlei's mother lives (we think). We pass a little of the time by talking quietly, but we can't talk about much that's relevant without attracting attention, and neither Carlei nor I can really relax to focus on conversation anyway. In the afternoon, Gaius, more used to travelling like this than we are, drifts off to one of the other carts and joins in a game of cards.

I'm not too sad to see him go. He's not actually rude to me or anything, but it's pretty obvious he doesn't think much of me and even in the short time since he joined our little group I find myself left out of conversations between him and Carlei, who doesn't seem to notice she's doing it and looks apologetic every time she realises.

Gaius comes back when the caravans stop for the night. We make camp in a clearing that's obviously been hacked out of the forest for this reason, the carts positioned into a kind of barricade around the bedrolls (and the occasional actual tent) and fires.

He's not the only one to join me and Carlei, though. Barely a few moments after Gaius sits down besides us someone else sits around our fire too. He's about Carlei's age, with a goatee and - the most obvious thing about him - a ridiculous felt hat with a feather stuck in it. Carlei and Gaius both seem to recognise him. Carlei looks confused. Gaius looks pissed.

"Ah, Sir Gaius!" the young man exclaims, smiling at us cheerfully. "I thought I saw you earlier!"

"You two know each other?" Carlei asks Gaius.

"Of course he does!" the newcomer declares, much too loudly for any of our liking. "I am Bradon of Kikyo, squire to Sir Gaius."

I recognise the name as one of the three that knows Carlei's true identity. Though Carlei introduced me to Rafferty so I could thank him for saving my life (not that he seemed particularly happy with my gratitude), I never met Bradon before now.

"Damnation, kid!" Gaius snaps at him, apparently so angry he forgets to do the 'sorry for swearing' gesture. "For the last time, I am not a 'Sir' - I was never a 'Sir' - and you are not my, nor anyone else's squire!"

"The fact that you were the target of a vile injustice does not eliminate your knightly qualities, Sir Gaius!" Obviously Bradon has heard Gaius's story too - and unlike Carlei, believes it.

Gaius looks like he's about to try to throttle Bradon. Carlei at this point doesn't look much happier, and after what happened with her and Gaius earlier in the day I'm not sure either of them are going to let him keep talking. "You're...the herbalist's apprentice, right?" I ask. The last thing we want is a fight drawing even more attention.

"Merely a side occupation while I awaited a chance to practice my true calling!" I swear he says literally every sentence like he's an actor in a play. "I knew one day Sir Gaius would leave to reclaim his honour, and so I studied under him so I might assist him!"

"I taught you a couple of moves, kid, so you'd stop pestering me!" Bradon just beams at him.

"Wherever it is Sir Gaius's quest takes you, you'll need warriors by your side!" I belatedly remember that he knows who Carlei and I are - and though he's talking about Gaius, he's looking directly at Carlei, and I begin to wonder how much of his stupid exuberance is an act. "I wish to offer my service, to serve my purpose as a Chosen of Lord Celebi and prove myself to the Divines!"

So he's Blessed too. Great. Carlei sighs and looks over to Gaius. "Is his Aspect that of Nature?"

"Yes," Gaius admits irritably. Bradon's grin grows even wider.

"We'll accept your service," Carlei decides on our behalf, "on two conditions." Gaius looks even more furious, but doesn't try to argue with her. Bradon sighs in relief, and looks about to say something else, but Carlei holds up a hand to forestall him. "First - stop attracting attention. And second - tell us why you really want to come with us. Don't take lines from one of the most famous pieces of theatre of our culture and expect no-one to notice," she adds, almost dismissively.

I guess he actually was speaking like he was an actor in a play. I know she's a Princess, and probably going to plays and shit like that is how she used to spend her time, but I'm still surprised that she can recognise the line instantly.

Bradon is quiet for a while, looking at the fire, his expression obscured by the shadow of his stupid hat. "Since you ask, my father was a knight of the kingdom," he says eventually, taking off his hat and resting it on his lap. His tone is sullen, a little bit like a sulky child. "And he died. My father gave his adult life serving the kingdom. Serving you," he adds, with a spiteful glance at Carlei.

Carlei's expression seems mixed between sympathy and anger, and it settles into anger at Bradon's last couple of words. "Knights of the realm are sworn by divine oath -" she begins.

To my surprise, Bradon interrupts her. "- to give their lives to the Crown, travelling the kingdom to defend it against all threats. You think I don't know? My father was so proud of his service. I damn near know the oaths by heart." He gives a small, sad smile, which swiftly vanishes as he looks back to Carlei. "You didn't let me finish. When I was a boy, all I ever wanted was to be a knight, to follow in his footsteps. When my father died, that didn't discourage me. I wanted to serve more than ever, to honour his memory. So at the age of sixteen I travelled all the way to Sekiei, to ask Lord Bruno if, as my father's son, I might be permitted to retrieve my father's arms and armour to serve as he had."

"Bet that went well for you," Gaius snorts.

"I have no idea, actually," Bradon replies sharply. "I never got to see Lord Bruno. Some brutish guard - not even a Knight, just one of their failed esquires - came out and told me that my father's equipment was the property of the Crown. Not just what the Crown had equipped him with, but his equipment, family heirlooms dating back to the days of Tojo - it was theirs now." I notice the grass around his feet is slowly beginning to grow before my eyes, twining around Bradon's feet. Gaius inches away from him a little. "And then they told me to begone, and to not show my face and waste the time of the Imperial Knights again."

"I'm...sorry to hear that," Carlei says softly. "Truthfully I know little of the Knights' traditions, but...that is unjust, tradition or no."

Bradon nods, eyes hard. "Yes," he agrees bluntly. Carlei seems slightly put out - maybe she expected some kind of acknowledgement of her sympathy. "But what could I do? Every authority that I might have turned to for assistance against these...brutes was barred to me by those very brutes themselves. So I left, determined that I would not permit the Imperial Crown to prevent me from honouring my father's memory. It was as I returned home, this in my mind, that I was Chosen." He glances down at the grass moving around his feet and makes a faint gesturing motion with one hand, and the grass suddenly begins growing even faster, spiralling up and intertwining into a rope which coils around his arm and eventually blooms into a large flower with pink petals in his palm. He plucks the flower off its branch and adds it to his hat, so he's got a feather on one side and a giant flower on the other. "What clearer sign could the Divines have given me? That is my path," he declares, sweeping his hat back onto his head flamboyantly, "to become a knight, as my father before me, whether your Imperial Knights in their shiny armour permit it or not."

When he finishes adjusting his hat, he looks to each of us in turn. There's an intense, almost fierce look in his eyes that kind of unnerves me. I don't think I'm alone in that. Eventually it's Gaius that speaks. "Why didn't you say any of this when you asked me to train you?"

Bradon scoffs. "Because you'd have pitied me. I want to prove that I can match - no, exceed - Imperials on my own merit, not because you felt sorry."

Gaius shakes his head, chuckling a little himself. "Believe me, kid, knowing all that wouldn't make me go easy on you. Just the opposite."

"Okay, so..." I interrupt. I'm not even surprised that Gaius glares at me. Bradon doesn't, though. "If you're the son of a knight or whatever, then...how did you become the apprentice to that Rafferty guy?"

"Oh." Bradon looks a little sad again. "My mother and father loved each other deeply. Some people even said they were blessed by the Lovers." I assume that's a couple of the Divines, but I never got all the folk-tale names for them straight - remembering their actual names is difficult enough. "And when my father died...part of my mother died too. She sickened, and died about a year after him. Had she not needed to take care of me, I suspect she would not have even lasted that long. It was Rafferty who made her last days painless, though only through the expenditure of rare, expensive herbs. What little savings we had were quickly spent. Rafferty allowed me to work as his apprentice to repay the debt I owed him."

Carlei frowns slightly. "Then ought you not have remained to repay it?"

"I finished paying it off a year ago," Bradon answers with a small smile. "I merely stayed because I could see no reason to leave. An honourable knight must have a quest, after all."

"...right."
Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds

I'm not sure what to think of Bradon. On the one hand, he actually makes a consistent effort to include me in conversations with Carlei and Gaius (something Gaius never does and Carlei only does when she remembers, which isn't all the time) and he's a friendly, likeable kind of guy. On the other hand, there's always that...edge to him, just that hint of the creepy, intense 'knight' persona that makes him somewhat uncomfortable to be around, the way he says things that are completely ridiculous and sound like they've come out of storybooks and genuinely means them.

I don't think I'm the only one with misgivings, but nonetheless when the caravan reaches the three-way border between Yoshino, Kikyo and Hiwada - easy to notice because it's also where our path rejoins the main, cobbled road from Yoshino to Sekiei - and we split off from it, Bradon comes with us without any argument.

Talking to the merchant who owns the cart we've been riding on has given Carlei a better idea of where this mysterious friend of her mother's lives. I'm not sure how she figured it out when basically all she has to go on is 'a friend of my mother from a decade ago, who I can't tell you anything about.' But she comes back telling us that we're headed for the outskirts of a small village a couple of days away, from where it shouldn't be too hard to travel to Yoshino along the main road.

I'm beginning to get used to the travelling now. It's kind of peaceful, just walking along and taking in the scenery slowly changing around us. It's also a lot easier walking on the main road than it was through the forest and on the dirt path, which is a plus.

Even though we're on the main road (or at least just off it), the three Blessed insist on having one of them keeping watch at all times. They don't include me in their rotation. It's as demeaning as ever - and for the first time I think I might have someone willing to speak up for me in the form of Bradon if I did want to take a watch - but it means I can get a good night's sleep.

When we wake up the next morning, the three of them spend a short time sparring, interrupted only briefly by Gaius going to check on some snares he apparently set up the previous night. Their 'sparring' is way quicker and more brutal than Carlei's sparring with me had been. By Earth standards it'd be called a no-holds-barred brawl. In comparison to the fight between Carlei and Gaius, or Carlei and Silver, though, it's pretty obvious they're going easy on each other.

The most obvious thing is that they're careful about the use of their manifestations. Carlei attacks Gaius with hers, and Bradon - who has this kind of multi-pronged blade at the end of a thin rope, which he whirls around like a madman - attacks Carlei with his. But Gaius doesn't use his manifestation to attack at all, only to defend himself from Carlei. It takes me a little while to realise that they're deliberately targeting their own weaknesses so that if someone screws up and an attack actually lands properly it won't do too much damage.

Aspect advantages aside, Carlei's the best fighter of them, with Gaius close behind. Bradon is no match for either of them, though even in the short time they spend sparring I notice he picks up moves from both of them extremely quickly - the Divinely-powered way Blessed grow stronger by fighting at work, I guess. Even when they aren't using their manifestations, they knock each other around pretty hard, but by the time Gaius has cooked breakfast (I try to ignore him cutting up dead animals in the middle of the fucking campsite by focusing on Carlei and Bradon sparring, though I eat the slices of roasted meat that are put on my plate hungrily enough), all three of them are moving perfectly normally, like they'd never so much as got out of breath. Freaking Blessed.

We get into a kind of routine over the next day-and-a-bit. It's not a very complicated one - sparring, breakfast, walking, sparring, lunch, walking, sparring, dinner, sleep (and keep watch for the other three). It becomes pretty evident that all three Blessed enjoy being able to test themselves against each other and fight, even if not seriously.

Carlei insists that I spar with the other two as well. I don't mind sparring with Bradon particularly, even if he refuses to teach me to defend, just like Carlei. Gaius, for all that he repeatedly complains that trying to teach me to fight is a waste of time, is the only one of the three who agrees to teach me to block attacks, and he's also the only one who is actually a teacher worth a damn. Sparring with him is a lot tougher than sparring with either of the other two, though, and not just because I have to put up with him hitting me (even if I'm sure he's barely tapping me by Blessed standards, his punches still bloody hurt). He pushes me a lot harder than the others do.

The sparring matches, even toned down as they are for me, are a lot more exhausting than they look when I'm participating instead of watching, and I always have to stop to rest long before the others have got...bored, or tired, or whatever. I don't actually know how they decide they're 'finished' sparring.

Nonetheless, by the time we've eaten and are ready to head out again, I feel fine to keep going. I'm honestly a little surprised myself, but I guess I've done a hell of a lot of walking lately. Even after just the few days I've been here (not including the time I've been unconscious, or trapped in a jail cell) so far, I'm probably fitter than I've ever been. I wonder how fit I'll be by the time I get back home.

If I get back home.

We finally arrive at our destination towards the end of the next day. It's a small stone building that looks a little like a church from Earth, looking a bit worn and run-down but definitely still intact. By the time we get there, the sunset is bathing it, and the neatly-maintained gardens around it, in a warm pink light. It's a rather beautiful sight, and I think we all spend a couple of minutes just looking at the view before Carlei eventually steps forwards to knock on the door.

It's opened after a few minutes by a man dressed in a surprisingly smart outfit considering our surroundings, with messy grey hair and a handlebar moustache. He looks at Carlei for just a moment before he gives her a broad smile. "Princess! A pleasure to see you again!" Carlei tenses up at the mention of her title. I think we all do, to greater or lesser extents, and the man frowns. "Ah, of course, you probably last saw me when you were but a child of three summers. My apologies. Please, do, come in. I was just making tea."

He leaves the door open as he vanishes back into the building. We hesitate for a few moments before heading after him. "Do you remember him at all?" Gaius asks Carlei.

She frowns slightly. "I...think I do, but I cannot remember why, or who he is." She shakes her head, but then gestures to the building. "Regardless, this is still a holy place. My father's warriors would not dare cause a fight here even if they do find us."

"You think far more of the Guards than they deserve, Princess," Gaius mutters to her. He and Bradon go in first, leaving me and Carlei to enter after them.

I was expecting a church-y interior, but instead it just kind of looks like someone's living room - albeit a living room with a big altar-looking thing against one wall and a large space around it where there's literally nothing, not even a decorative plant. The floor is made of uneven wooden planks that creak at various pitches as we approach the small table and in one side of the large room, where the moustachioed man is indeed pouring 'tea.' I've learnt by now that the tea in Joto isn't the same as tea on Earth, but more like boiling water mixed with mashed fruits and then strained. It makes the tea all kinds of weird colours (in this case, green with pink swirls). The man offers ceramic bowls of the stuff around. Gaius doesn't take one, but the rest of us do. It tastes a bit like sweetened coffee without the actual coffee - a sweet fruity taste, but with a slightly bitter tang.

"Now, as to introductions," the man says, once we're all settled on the mismatched chairs that surround the table, and he's taken a sip of his tea. "People call me Jisan. Or 'Old Man,' these days. Although I suppose technically my title would be something complicated like His Royal Highness, Prince Jisan of Enju. Your mother was my niece."

Carlei splutters into her bowl of tea. "I...I cannot recall ever being told my mother had an uncle."

"Your father, I'm afraid, is none too fond of me," Jisan explains, setting his bowl down on the table. "And, in fairness, nor I him for much of the time we knew each other - a fact I spoke rather plainly about. I thought she could do better than him."

"Better than the King of Kanto?" she asks, obviously sceptical.

Jisan waves an idle hand. "Only the Prince, at the time. To be blunt, I did not trust his motivations. To me, it seemed as though by marrying into a family like ours, Lance was trying to compensate for his own...condition."

"What condition?" Bradon asks.

"Ah, you don't know," Jisan realises. "Never mind, then."

"Ignore it," Carlei adds, emphatically, fixing me and Bradon with a glare. I can't help but be curious, especially after Bradon's question got shot down by both of them like that, but it is her father, after all.

"Who's the other bowl for?" Gaius asks, suddenly. It takes a few moments of mental arithmetic before I realise that he has a point - he didn't take a bowl, and Jisan put his back. But there are three bowls set out on the table, not two.

Jisan doesn't seem too put out at this revelation. "An old friend, paying his respects in the memorial garden outside." He gestures to another door opposite to the one we all came in through. Gaius glares at the door as if doing so might make this 'friend' appear. "He should be in shortly. In any case," he continues, going back to his story as if nothing had happened, "it was only Niamh's goodwill that made me welcome at the palace to visit my great-niece and great-nephew. After she...passed, I found myself unwelcome. So I came here instead, to this abandoned temple. Restoring such a place is a nice task to occupy the years. Occasionally people from the neighbouring villages come to ask for my assistance on spiritual matters, though I am no priest, but otherwise I am left alone." He pauses, taking another sip of his tea. "Hmm, a touch too much midori, I think."

"How much do you know about what's going on?" Gaius asks, as Jisan gets up and starts rummaging through one of the cupboards.

"You mean, do I know that Lance has named his own daughter exile?" Jisan replies over his shoulder, coming back with one of those multi-layered trays that fancy cafes serve cakes on. In this case, instead of cakes, it holds a number of glass jars full of what look like dried strips of fruit peel, or slices of dried fruit themselves, and a small set of tools. "Yes, I do, and I don't care. My loyalty lies with my niece's children, not her husband."

It isn't until I see the others' surprised looks at the jars that I remember that glass - especially the seemingly-flawless glass on display here - is a lot rarer in Joto than on Earth. For all the down-to-earth surroundings, this thing, and the fancy bowls, must be worth a pretty substantial amount of money. He obviously sees us looking, because he chuckles. "My little guilty pleasure," he explains. "I can spend hours sometimes getting a blend perfect." He uses a pair of tweezers to take a chunk of dried fruit out of one of the jars, and carefully grinds it into his tea, stirring it once or twice before setting down his tools and taking a sip. "Ahh, much better."

A rustling at the door Jisan had previously pointed to attracts our attention, as his friend returns. Everyone else stands up, which must be a polite thing to do or something, so I follow suit as a figure in a hooded robe steps in, carefully wipes their feet, and looks over to us, tugging down their hood.

It's a man probably the same age as Jisan, with grey hair that looks like it might have been slicked back at one point, but which seems to have lost its neat styling thanks to the hood, so it's kind of spiked up all over the place. He has big, bushy eyebrows and a warm, friendly smile.

And, judging from how Carlei, Bradon and Gaius immediately all kneel to him, he's someone important. A moment later, Gaius reaches up and grabs my wrist, yanking me down through sheer weight to kneel as well. My knees smack painfully into the wooden floor and I almost crack my head on the table, and I look over at him, angry.

"What was -" I start to say, but he cuts me off with an angry whisper.

"Show respect!"

Carlei interrupts before we can argue any more. "Please forgive my companion's rudeness, High Priest. He has no memories of this world."

The High Priest (apparently) considers this for a few moments. "Well, then, it seems remiss to blame him for not knowing something he never learned, does it not?" His tone is mild, and he's looking at Carlei, but Gaius lets me go like my wrist is suddenly burning hot, bowing even lower. "Please, do stand up." He almost sounds embarrassed by the attention. "I am not here in any official capacity."

"Perhaps further introductions are in order," Jisan suggests, as we (slightly painfully, in my case) get back to our feet and sit down again, joined by the robed man. "Princess Carlei of Joto and her companions, High Priest Oak of the Faith."

I didn't learn much about the Faith while I was studying with Lyra, beyond learning that it's pretty much ubiquitous in Tojo. But I do know enough to know that the High Priests are about as close to the mouthpieces of the Divines as anyone (except, possibly, the High Priests themselves) is ever going to get.

"Gaius of Kurayami, Blessed Warrior of Groudon," Gaius introduces himself.

Bradon follows suit, stammering slightly. "Bradon of Kikyo, Blessed Warrior of Celebi."

Oak looks to me. "Um," I begin. "I'm...Ethan? Not really of anywhere, I suppose." I don't think saying 'of Miami' is going to help matters at all. "Or Blessed."

If Oak is offended by my unconventional introduction, he doesn't show it. Instead he plops down in one of the chairs, turns to Jisan and gestures to the table. "Was one of these mine?"

"That would be that one," Jisan answers, pushing the untouched bowl of tea a little closer to Oak, before looking up at the robed man - and I swear his eyes literally shine. "Would you care for some...hmm, petaya and midori?"

"Please," Oak nods. As Jisan busies himself going through a much more convoluted process with Oak's tea than he had with his own, the High Priest looks over to us. "You should try one of Jisan's personalised blends," he comments absently. "He doesn't have the Sight in the conventional sense, but he has an excellent grasp of tea-making." Carlei notices my confused look and starts to speak, then stops again, looking back towards Oak. When he notices, he gestures to her to continue. "Go ahead."

"Priests - or sometimes just devout worshippers - of the Divines," Carlei explains, "sometimes develop a kind of...sense, for want of a better term, for the Blessed. We call that the Sight. Those that possess it can determine things about us that often even we don't know. The most famous example is our heraldry. Which I suppose you've never seen either." She frowns slightly. "Well, when we get to the temple in Yoshino, you'll see what I mean." I swear I see Oak giving an amused smirk at Carlei's rather vague explanation.

Jisan finally finishes whatever the hell it is he's doing to Oak's tea a few moments later. "Would any of you care for an adjustment to your tea?" he asks, handing the bowl back to the High Priest. There's no mistaking it this time. His eyes are actually glowing as he regards us. Gaius - who still hasn't touched his bowl - refuses almost instantly. Bradon looks about as confused as I feel, but after Carlei offers her bowl over to Jisan, he follows suit.

The tea is perfectly pleasant as it is, and from what Carlei's said, it sounds like this tea-making shit that Jisan does is some freaky 'Blessed sense,' so I don't see how it would work on me in the first place. But Jisan looks at me patiently once he's taken Bradon's and Carlei's bowl, and it's nice to be included for once. "Sure, why not?" I eventually decide, handing my bowl over too.

I'm a little disappointed at first; it looks like he's just copying what he's doing to Carlei's tea onto mine, adding liquid from the same pot (brewed from what look like sliced grapes) into both our bowls. But then he starts adding a kind of orange-ish powder to Carlei's tea and stirring it in with a transparent rod that's either glass or some kind of crystal, whereas to mine he whisks up this weird pale pinkish froth in yet another of these tiny bowls and carefully layers it over the top. If nothing else, it looks cool.

He's so intent on his work that none of us speak for a while. The High Priest gets up and goes back outside. Once he's left, the atmosphere gets a little less awkward, and Gaius and Bradon start talking quietly. I get distracted watching Jisan work, and when Carlei taps me on the shoulder it startles me a bit. "There's something I've been thinking since we saw the High Priest," she says softly to me. "He has access to all the knowledge the Faith has collected throughout history. If anyone could help explain how you -" she pauses briefly, and takes a surreptitious glance at her great-uncle, who seems intent on making the final adjustments to our teas "- how you arrived here from your world, I believe it would be him." She rolls her eyes slightly when I don't immediately get the message. "You're unlikely to get another chance to speak to the High Priest of Tojo. What's the worst that could happen?"

I'm given a few moments to think about it by Jisan handing us back our bowls of tea. The frothy stuff he put on mine is airy and surprisingly tangy, though I have no idea what it tastes of - the closest thing I can come up with is flowers. It's nice, though, whatever it is, and I feel the warmth of the reheated water run through me. It's a comforting feeling. "Okay," I nod, getting to my feet. "Thanks," I add, both to Carlei and Jisan, before following Oak out of the temple.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

I assume this must be the back garden. It's just as nicely maintained as the front, though the plants are a bit bigger, and it takes me a few moments to find Oak in amidst the bushes. He's kneeling, bowl of tea besides him, in front of a small pile of stones.

"Um..." I belatedly remember that last time Oak was out here, Jisan had said he was paying his respects. This must be one of the memorials he was talking about. "Am I...interrupting?"

Oak looks around. "Not at all...ah, Ethan, correct?" He's the first person in this entire kingdom who pronounces my name right the first time. "Carlei said you have no memories of this world. An odd turn of phrase, don't you think?"

He still looks very much like the stereotypical kindly, doddery old man, tatty robes aside, but his eyes are keen and intelligent despite his age, and somehow I feel like he'll know if I lie to him. Still, actually coming out and telling someone 'I think I'm from another world' is kind of difficult to do when I've been taking such care to hide it ever since Carlei and Lyra visited me in the Sekiei dungeons. "She meant what she said," I answer, after an awkwardly long pause made only a little less awkward by us both sipping at our tea. "I...I don't have any memories of this world, but I have memories of...another one."

Oak raises an eyebrow, and gets back to his feet - much more smoothly than I'd expected for a guy who looks like he's in his eighties. "How curious," he remarks, bending down to retrieve his bowl. He doesn't sound sceptical, though. "Perhaps you should tell me what has happened to you so far."

And so I do, starting from the moment I woke up in the palace gardens to our arrival here. Oak doesn't interrupt, just occasionally sipping at his tea. He's easy to talk to - I find myself mentioning random thoughts that come to me as I speak, even if they don't paint me in the best light.

He takes a long drink from his bowl once I'm finished, before eventually speaking again. "What sort of world was it?" he asks. "The one you came from before being conjured into the palace."

"One...miles different from this one," I answer. "Like...this world, the Divines, and the Blessed, is completely impossible according to everything I learned as a kid. And...my world is probably just as impossible to you." I pause before asking the important question. "Do you...have you ever heard of something like this before? Someone who came from of another world? Or how I could get back?"

Oak drums his fingers against his bowl before answering. "What I can say for certain," he replies, "is that if you come from another 'world,' then there is no mortal power capable of bringing you here from your own world." He gestures upwards grandly. "And the Divines do nothing without cause. Of that you can be certain, Ethan. I would suggest...stay with Carlei. Your destiny seems intertwined with hers."

I frown slightly. "What do you mean?"

Oak waves a hand. "His Majesty chose to name Carlei - his own heir - traitor for her actions in protecting you. Perhaps it is the ramblings of an old man, but...does it not seem an excessive measure? And yet, now Prince Silver is the heir to the throne. And His Majesty, not to mention his councillors that once served his brother, view him as a 'superior' heir."

"How's Silver 'superior' to Carlei?"

"I did not say I agreed," Oak points out mildly. "Merely that that is their perspective. And ruthless measures are far from unheard of for the King's so-called charologists." For the first time, Oak's voice turns hard and cold. "To attempt to study the blessings the Divines grant their Chosen Warriors, to deduce a 'scientific method' behind it all...foolishness and envy at best, and blasphemy at worst." He frowns into his empty bowl for a few moments before looking back at me. "Regardless, my point is this. If you wish to understand what brought you here, you must consider all aspects of the matter." I have no idea what he's talking about. "For instance, consider this very conversation. Language," he adds, when I continue looking confused. "Merely considering Tojo and the kingdoms with which we regularly interact, there are four commonly spoken languages, in addition to an assortment of miscellany dialects. Logically one would assume that your own world contained a multitude of its own languages. And yet, you not only fluently speak Tojan with barely even an accent, but you arrived in the one kingdom in which Tojan is spoken."

"I...never thought about that," I admit, finding myself wondering how many other things there are about my arrival here - and my life since - that don't make much sense if I actually thought about it. I'm not completely sure I want to know.

"You were not merely summoned to Tojo, however," he continues. "You were very deliberately placed in the palace gardens - not just that, but precisely where the Princess and Lyra happened to be walking. Had you not encountered them in person, they likely would never have taken an interest in your situation - or, indeed, likely never known about it but for a passing mention of an intruder in the palace grounds."

The idea is slightly frightening. Mostly because it was pure chance I happened to pick the direction that had led me to Carlei and Lyra. Had I gone the other way, I'd have been wandering around in the bushes for ages and missed them completely. "And then I'd be dead," I mutter.

"But you aren't," Oak says firmly. "And regardless, it is not only your life that was affected by your arrival. Should you not have been brought to the palace, Carlei would still be there, heir to the throne. And what might have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Carlei might have ascended to the throne. Or perhaps something else might have happened to remove her from her position as heir." He doesn't have to elaborate. I still remember the fear in Carlei's eyes when she'd told me how she'd nearly died six months ago. "But instead, thanks to your mysterious and inexplicable arrival, she is unharmed and free, albeit hunted."

"So...what?" I ask, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. "You think the Divines brought me here to protect her?" I try not to laugh, because the guy is basically this world's version of the Pope or something. But the idea that I could be protecting Carlei is kind of ridiculous.

"Not all battles are fought with blade and fire," Oak remarks. "And not all guardians bear shields and stout plate." He gives me another warm smile. "Perhaps my musings are as meaningless as birdsong, and merely pretty to listen to." I get the impression, though, that whatever he might be saying, he's confident about his deductions. "Either way, your path will become clear to you as you walk it. Such is the nature of the Divines. Now, should we return inside?" he suggests, after a brief pause. "It will be rather difficult to see out here shortly," he remarks, quite accurately.

It's only after we return to Jisan's house/temple that I realise that he never actually told me whether or not he'd heard of something like this before.

I get the feeling that Jisan doesn't have guests very often (except for maybe Oak.) No sooner have we finished our tea than he insists on making us all dinner - individual dinners, and this time I'm certain that he looks at me with his not-quite-Sight just like he does the Blessed. It's basically just a bunch of cooked vegetables, seasoned with all those spices and things he'd been putting in our tea earlier, but it tastes damn good. Gaius actually does accept his meal, unlike the tea, though I feel like it's more for some reason of honour or other than actually wanting to trust Jisan.

It's as Jisan busies himself lighting candles in seemingly-random locations around the house, while Oak kneels down in front of the shrine in the corner, that Carlei gathers us back together. "There is something I have been considering," she says to us softly. "While I agree that travelling to Yoshino to properly equip ourselves is still our best course of action, I think it might be best after that to double back and travel to Kikyo." She sees our confused looks and quickly continues before anyone can argue. "Lord Peredur, the former lord of Kikyo, made his opposition to my father's decisions quite clear, to the extent that after the Kantan Lords and Ladies rebelled, he abdicated his position and passed it to his son. With any luck, Lord Falkner will share his father's position, and with his aid we would be able to travel directly through Usokkie Fortress."

Gaius frowns. "Even if he disagrees with the King, aiding a fugitive from the Crown is a different matter. That's the entire reason that Lord Peredur abdicated - it was the most dramatic step he could take without committing treason."

"On the other hand, it would cut weeks, if not months, off our journey," Bradon points out.

"Precisely," Carlei nods. "With luck, Falkner will be reasonable. If he is not, we will still have lost less time than we stand to gain if we can travel the mountain pass."

"Or he might decide to arrest us," I point out. "Or, at least, you and me."

Carlei's only response to my point is an idle shrug. "We will not know until we get there. So we shall travel to Kikyo after Yoshino."

Apparently this isn't a democracy. Then again, I suppose it never was.

From somewhere in one of the back rooms, Jisan manages to unearth some rather old mattresses. They smell of dust and dirt, along with a faint cinnamon-y smell. "A mixture of dried kasib and pecha," Jisan explains, "to keep away the flies." This guy is freaking obsessed with his dried fruits.

For all their age, the mattresses aren't made of straw, which is a vast improvement over the last mattress I slept on, and the fact that they're mattresses at all makes them miles better than the blanket I've been sleeping on these past few days.

Something bothers me a little, though. The last time I saw a 'normal' mattress was in the palace, and I got the impression that that was only for nobility and guests. If Jisan's basically renounced his Imperial connections and is living as a village priest, why does he have all this expensive shit just lying around gathering dust?

Once it seems like Jisan is asleep - Oak seems to have just settled down by the shrine - I go back into the memorial garden in pursuit of Bradon. He's messing with the plants - holding his weird blade thing in one hand, his other hand projecting a kind of wave of green energy down past the blade and onto the flowers. The light from his Aspect is enough for me to watch the slightly-wilted leaves in the bush visibly perk up, small pieces eaten by bugs repairing themselves. Bradon glances back as I approach, but doesn't stop his work. "Considering the hospitality Jisan is showing us," he explains, "this seems a fair way to repay him."

"Yeah," I agree noncommittally. It takes me a few moments to figure out how to phrase my next question. "So, er...you know about plants and shit, right? Like, not just because of your Aspect, but you were Rafferty's apprentice."

He glances back, taking his free hand away from the plants. When the green light fades I can barely make out his silhouette. "Indeed, I do. What did you wish to know?"

"Jisan's 'hobby,' or whatever the hell he called it. How hard would it be for, like, you or me to get all those powders and flakes?"

Bradon's head moves slightly. I think he's nodding, but I can't really tell. "Extremely difficult. Some of the fruits, certainly, are easy enough to find - there was a midori bush in the front garden. But others...the namo fruit whose peel was mixed into your tea, for instance, has only been grown in Tojo by skilled herbalists with the aid of Blessed with Nature Aspects. Leaving aside the issue of cost, Jisan must have a remarkable network of suppliers to have such things delivered to...well, out here." I see him shrug in the darkness. "Still," he adds, "we are talking about a member of the Imperial family who personally knows, and is regularly visited by, the High Priest of Tojo. Perhaps it is not such a bizarre situation."

He answered the question I asked, but not the question I really wanted answered. "Do you trust him?"

Bradon is quiet for a moment or two. "The High Priest would not befriend someone unworthy of our trust," he says eventually. "Even if he did...we have broken bread together, eaten from his larder. The tradition of hospitality is sometimes poorly-observed, but even the most impious man would not dare to break such a thing before the High Priest himself."

I'm sure to him, and probably to anyone else from this world, that that's an ironclad reassurance. But telling me to basically trust the presence of an old man to keep us safe from someone who may or may not be being honest with us, when more or less the entire kingdom is literally trying to kill me, doesn't make me any more confident.

Maybe Carlei doesn't entirely trust Jisan either, though, because when I get back inside again I realise that she and Gaius have arranged our mattresses and belongings in one corner of the room, with me in the very corner and the other three a little further out - putting them between me and any potential danger.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #6
Despite my worries, the night goes by uneventfully. The next morning, Jisan makes us breakfast - and more cups of tea, unsurprisingly - before we head out. As we set off, it's pretty obvious that Carlei's disappointed that Jisan's 'aid' extended just to giving us a roof over our heads for the night. I'm not sure if she's more upset with him or her mother' s prophecy not proving accurate. She still doesn't really show it openly, but I'm getting to know her well enough at this point to recognise her emotions.

As we get nearer to Yoshino, we encounter more and more people on the road. Mostly we pass farmers and people like that taking their goods into the city to sell, but there are a few exceptions. Occasionally we meet a couple of other Blessed travelling to Yoshino to visit the temple (or back from it), or travelling mercenaries.

There's one slightly worrying encounter, about half a day away from the city, when we run into a group of mounted guards - not Imperial Guards, but a squad from Yoshino itself, returning from their patrol - who stop us to ask if we've seen a pair of wanted fugitives. Thankfully, the pictures of me and Carlei are no more accurate than the ones we saw in the Kurayami village, and the guards are clearly completely oblivious as to the fact that we're the fugitives they're looking for. I don't think they expect us to be travelling this way, because they take Carlei's nervous denial at face value and ride off.

It's only after they leave that I realise that they probably didn't pay us too much attention because there are four of us travelling together and not two. Maybe that was one of the reasons Carlei let Bradon and Gaius accompany us.

Yoshino is a very pretty place; flowers and plants of all colours are liberally spread around the city, and a pleasant floral smell hangs over the entire place. As we head into the city proper through the big gates, Carlei explains that, as the closest major port to Kikyo, its primary industry is processing and trading the plants and flowers grown over there. Over time, with the occasional seed blowing away and stuff like that, a lot of the plants that are farmed in and around Kikyo started growing in Yoshino. Unlike in Kikyo, though, where the plants are killed as soon as they bloom so they don't mess up the neat layout of the city, they're allowed to grow wild in Yoshino. The current Lady of the region, Stephanne of House Cherrygrove, has gone one step further, and spends most of her time trying to get the plants to spread around the city even more. This is a good thing for us, apparently, because it means that she spends a lot of her time in Kikyo, where there's a temple particularly dedicated to Nature, so there's no risk of her recognising Carlei.

"Speaking of temples," Carlei concludes, as she leads us down a leaf-strewn path, "this is the Yoshino Temple." It's a building of white marble, taller than most of the buildings surrounding it. The entrance is a giant archway, which seems to be guarded by two people in white robes. Robes seem to be a popular choice of clothing in Yoshino - I've seen a lot of people in robes of various colours as we walk around. Other than glancing at us as we approach, they don't react, and none of my three companions pay them any attention, heading straight inside.

I realise when we get in that we're not in the actual Temple yet. We're in a reasonably large courtyard, and the doors to the Temple itself - just as big as the archway, though with actual doors this time - are 'guarded' by four more people in white robes.

We're not the only ones in the courtyard. There are a dozen more people in white robes, a couple of people in robes of other colours...and two people dressed absolutely weirdly. There's one guy wearing a light blue cloak that trails on the floor behind him and a roman-style helmet, with spiky brown shoulder pads, and another wearing a green shawl that looks like it's made of giant leaves, with giant yellow crystals braided into her hair. "Those in white robes are the priests," Carlei tells me softly. "The others are visitors, like us. To enter the temple, we must be dressed respectfully - either in robes, or, for Blessed, in our heraldry." She nods to the two crazy-outfit people before turning to one of the priests - a middle-aged man with short, brown hair - as he approaches. To my surprise, she actually bows slightly to him - as do the other two. I follow suit slightly behind them, but either the priest doesn't notice or isn't bothered. "Good day."

"Good day," he says, bowing back to us.

"I would like accommodation for the night, if you please," Carlei continues, with what must be the formalities out of the way, "for myself and my companions. And I should like to visit your quartermaster, also. However, we do not possess proper attire."

The priest nods. "Of course. " He gestures to a small door in one side of the courtyard. "You may refresh and attire yourselves down there. Have you all visited a temple before?"

"Uh...I haven't," I admit.

"Perhaps you would accompany me, then?" the priest suggests. "I can assist you."

Almost instinctively I start turning towards Carlei to see what she thinks, but she and the other two have already started heading towards the door the priest indicated. I guess they mustn't think there's any danger here. "Sure," I agree, still a little hesitantly. "Lead on."

I'm a little surprised when the door leads directly into a staircase curving downwards. It eventually opens up to a cavern, lit by magical globes of light - something I only saw once or twice before in Sekiei Palace - where there are a large number of what look like small booths cut into the rock, with curtains not just on our side but, from what I can see from the booths with open curtains, a matching curtain on the other side of the booth. There's a sound of lapping water that makes me feel like I'm at the beach, but I can't actually see any water.

We're not the only ones down here, though I don't see Carlei or the others. The priest leads me over to a massive set of wooden boxes. He bustles around fetching things, and I realise that each row of boxes contains clothes of a different colour - blue, red, green, and so on. No white - the priests' clothes must be stored elsewhere. The priest shepherds me over to an unoccupied booth and dumps most of the various clothes he's picked out (all of which are various dull shades of grey) into my arms, leaving him with one set of robes and a grey satchel. "If you wish to bathe," he explains, "wear these robes." He adds the last clothes he's still holding to the pile I'm holding.

I'm not sure where exactly I'm supposed to be bathing, until I move the curtain at the back of the booth aside slightly and realise where the sounds of water are coming from - there's a freaking lake in the centre of this place, with people in variously-coloured robes paddling around in it. How the hell did they build this place?

"Your personal belongings go in here," the priest adds, handing me the bag. "If your friends aren't waiting for you when you return, any of my brothers and sisters will be happy to help you track them down."

I probably look a bit stupid, staring at him with a nonplussed look as I try to keep track of the information dump. "Uh, thanks," I say, and he promptly bows again and retreats. "For not a whole lot," I mutter under my breath as I close the curtain and start examining the clothes I've been given.

The 'bathing' robes, I figure out after a moment, are identical to some of the other pieces of clothing the priest gave me, so I guess they're just a spare set so I have something dry to wear once I'm done bathing. It takes me a while to realise that what I'd thought was some kind of headscarf is actually a towel.

The bathing lake gives me two surprises. The first is that it's not frigidly cold. I wouldn't call it hot, but it's no colder than most indoor swimming pools. The second is that it's not dirty. I figure out why when I dunk my head under the water and run my hands through my hair. When I get back above water and open my eyes again, I realise, to my embarrassment, that I've managed to turn the water around me somewhat mucky with two weeks' worth of grime. But even as I watch, the dirt and muck fades away, until a few seconds later the water is perfectly clear again.

So, magic lake. Apparently that's a thing.

The robes are a hell of a lot more complicated than they looked on everyone else. You wouldn't think just putting on a robe would be that hard, but for whatever dumb reason these robes are made of half a dozen different layers. First are a pair of pants and a tight, sleeveless gown that is surprisingly stretchy considering that elastic probably hasn't been invented. Then there's not one but two dressing-gown-like robes, one light and again quite tight and the other heavier and looser. And on top of that goes a weird kind of shawl thing, which fastens at the neck. The last piece of the puzzle is a pair of warm fur slippers.

It's a bit of a nightmare getting all the damn things on, but once I figure out what order everything goes on and tug some of the inner layers around, it's surprisingly comfortable. I bundle my old clothes into the bag, hoping that somewhere in this city sells clothes - the boots I got given are fine, but I'd rather have more than one set of clothes.

When I get back up to the surface, Carlei is waiting for me. It takes me a little while to even recognise her, because she's wearing a weird outfit too; she's wearing beige robes with a dark blue hooded cloak, and an equally-blue mask that looks like one of those beak-like doctor's masks from the medieval ages. It's not quite as ridiculous as the crystal-hair girl I saw when we arrived, but it still looks a bit silly, and if she didn't wave to me when I appeared between the hood and the mask I probably wouldn't have recognised her.

"What's with..?" I gesture vaguely at her outfit.

"This is my heraldry," she explains. "As strange as it looks, our heraldry is an intrinsic part of us - it's a material sign of our connection to the Divines, just as the priests have their white robes. More than that, it's designed to allow us to fight freely - more freely than normal human clothes allow."

Somehow I can't see Carlei moving at her normal speed in that robe, but I don't want to tell her that. "Where did you get it?"

"The temples provide all Blessed with their heraldry," Carlei says casually.

"What, for free?"

"They recoup the expenses from the Lords and Ladies of their region. An ancient pact between the Faith and the Crown. In addition, there are some services beyond the provision of room and board, and the creation of heraldry, that the temples charge for, and those Blessed well-off enough to do so often make donations. The temples employ a large number of skilled individuals with the Sight - physicians, herbalists, tailors, armourers, and so forth - so it is to the advantage of the Blessed that visit them to make sure they are not impoverished."

Somehow I feel like that nice, honourable arrangement wouldn't work on Earth. For all that it's a medieval, dangerous, terrifying place...there are some ways Sekai is better.

"Where are Bradon and Gaius?" I ask after a moment.

"Gaius, I believe, is training in the arena within the temple," Carlei answers. "Bradon is visiting a friend in the city." She must see my surprised expression at the fact that everyone's splitting up, because she chuckles slightly. "This place is safe, Ethan. The guards didn't recognise us when we were right in front of their faces, and we look even less like our posters now. So long as you stay to the main roads and well-travelled locations, even you will be safe alone."

I wish she'd notice what she's saying.

"We have agreed to reconvene here at dusk," she continues, oblivious to my frustration. "The temple rings a bell to signify the time."

She reaches into a pouch at her belt, on the other side to the 'totems' she uses to cast her healing magic, and to my surprise, hands me a few coins. "In case you wish to purchase anything," she explains, just in case I couldn't figure it out.

I take a moment or two to look at the coins she's given me and figure out which ones are which - Lyra never bothered to teach me about the currency of Joto, so what little I know is from watching Carlei interact with the few merchants we've encountered. I'm pretty sure she's given me more than I could possibly figure out how to spend in half a day, though.

"Thank you!" I say, realising that I've just been staring at the coins like an idiot while she's been waiting there. I think I sound far more excited than anyone would normally be at being given spending money, because Carlei tries (and fails) to hide her chuckling for a moment or two.

"It's no problem," she smiles. "See you at dusk."

Carlei leaves, heading back into the temple - probably, if I know her, to the sparring arena or whatever it was she mentioned - leaving me alone.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

As I stand in the courtyard of the temple, I realise something - it's the first time since arriving in Joto that I'm completely free to do whatever I want.

Ever since arriving I've been dragged around following other people's (mostly Carlei's) instructions. Even when I was a 'guest' at the palace, the almost constant presence of guards shadowing my every move made it hard to forget that when it came down to it I was still as much a prisoner as anything else.

I could leave.

I could just hop on one of the many carts going in and out and live in some small village somewhere, and keep going with the 'amnesiac' story. I know enough about the kingdom at this point that I could manage that without anyone to cover for me. And the money Carlei's given me would be enough to help me pay for everything until I could get a proper job.

It's tempting - more tempting than I would have ever thought a life without computers and the other trappings of modern life could be, before all this happened. But I don't do anything more than think about it. Oak's words come back to me - 'the Divines do nothing without a reason.' And I don't really fancy having a bunch of gods looking down disapprovingly at me because I've screwed up whatever cosmic chess game they're playing.

Admittedly, that's not the main reason. I might have never asked for her to get involved, but after all the shit I've put Carlei through, abandoning her and running away just...isn't right.

Oddly, far from feeling unsure that I've made the right choice, I find myself feeling happier once I've made that decision.

I wonder if I have to change back into my normal clothes to leave the temple, but before I can embarrass myself asking someone the crystal-hair girl, accompanied by an older woman in green robes, provides the answer to my question by walking out the archway. She isn't quite wearing the same ridiculous outfit, and the older woman isn't wearing the shawl thing that comes with the robes, but other than that they're staying in their 'temple clothes.'

I wander the city for a little while, playing tourist and taking in the sights. It's a chaotic mess of colour, with crazy-coloured plants growing in all kinds of weird places. The city just sort of works around them, even when, in one case, there's a large pink bush occupying half the road.

Whatever Carlei might have said about me being safe alone, I'm careful to make sure that I don't go anywhere where there aren't lots of other people (which, fortunately, isn't difficult at this time of day). I might more or less look like a local now, but I'm not stupid enough to think that I'm acting like one, and I'm probably carrying a small fortune in my bag.

I reach the other side of the city quicker than I'd expected. Or maybe I just lost track of time. Either way, I don't get too close to the gate - Carlei might have reassured me that I'm not going to be recognised, but I'd rather not parade under the noses of the guards and test her theory when I don't need to - and instead just turn and head back towards the temple. On the way, I buy a kind of odd pastry - a sweet-tasting loaf of bread with a flowery aroma. It's a bit too sweet for my liking, but not so bad that I'm inclined to leave it.

I'm still eating when I find a tailor's shop. Tempted as I am by some of the outfits they have on mannequins - apparently the Blessed don't have a monopoly on crazy getups - I resist the urge to get too ridiculous and just buy a couple of sets of simple clothes like the ones I already own. That said, a knee-length brown coat catches my eye just as I'm about to leave and I figure I might as well splash out just a little.

One thing I didn't think through before going shopping was that my only bag is the one that has all my normal clothes in it, and I feel kind of dumb crumpling my new clean clothes on top of my old dirty ones - especially my nice new coat, which of course I can't wear in the temple.

When I get back to the temple, I ask one of the priests if Carlei already reserved a room for me, and I'm not surprised to discover that she has. Getting to the damn thing turns out to involve a lot of flights of stairs and corridors, and I'm pretty sure I'm never going to be able to find my way there on my own. The door isn't locked (it doesn't even have a lock), and I find myself looking onto a small room - but it looks luxurious in comparison to all my accommodations since leaving the palace.

I hide my bag under the bed - not that I don't trust the reverence everyone in this world has for the Divines and their priests and temples, but I still don't feel entirely comfortable leaving basically my entire worldly possessions on open display in a room I can't lock - and ask for directions to the sparring arena.

As a human, as it turns out, I'm not allowed to go into the sparring arena itself, not even to watch, but they have a kind of balcony that I can watch from. I'm a little bit annoyed at first - what the hell do they expect me to do, run into the middle of a Blessed fight? - but it turns out that the balcony is only a foot or so above the ground, so I'm plenty close to the fights. And when I actually see the fights, I quickly decide I'm perfectly fine staying away from the action.

If I didn't know that these were sparring matches, and didn't notice after a few minutes a couple of restrictions that the groups are fighting under - most obviously some lines that form areas that they clearly aren't meant to leave, because they pause and return to the centre of the area whenever they get to the edge - I could've been fooled into thinking that these were serious fights. People are fighting with Aspects, weapons, martial arts, everything. Every so often a wayward attack flies across the room and everyone gets out of the way, especially when the attacks are from the more powerful Blessed.

In the craziness it takes me a little while to actually notice Carlei. She's fighting against two opponents who look like mirror images. They're both dressed in brown robes with white highlights, both have long brown hair, and both of them are fighting with long, weird-looking staves with stripe patterns in brown and darker brown. But though they both have a pink streak in their hair, it's on opposite sides of their heads, and the stripes on their staves alternate.

As I watch Carlei fight, I realise that - sure enough - she's just as quick and agile in her robes as she was dressed like a normal person. And her cloak is obviously made of something weird, because she has this fancy trick she can do where she sets it on fire with her Aspect and it burns for a few seconds before going out, seemingly unharmed. I kind of expect her to light her mask on fire and peck at people with it or some shit like that, but it seems to just be decoration.

She attacks with her sword, with her burning cloak, and with kicks pretty much evenly, and despite being outnumbered she's holding her own, taking advantage of her speed to force the nearly-twins to work together to keep up with her. I realise that she has to keep attacking to prevent them from ganging up on her and landing hits on her just through sheer force of numbers.

As seems to happen a lot with Blessed fights, what seems like an even match suddenly comes to a stop when Carlei sets even more of her cloak on fire than normal, causing it to leave behind a thick cloud of black smoke that makes one of her opponents stagger back, coughing. He's only out for a couple of seconds, but that's enough for her to twist the staff out of the other one's hand and blast him in the chest with a fireball, following through by sweeping the first fighter's legs out from under them.

I'm startled that she'd use her fire so aggressively, but I realise why a moment later, when one of the priests comes over and lays a hand on the outlines on the floor, causing them to glow. A couple of seconds later, all three of them seem completely fine - if a little out of breath. I guess that explains why everyone's so careful about staying in the areas.

She notices me in the balcony and waves, weaving around the other fights to approach me, smiling more widely than I've seen from her since I woke up in the village. "You look like you're enjoying yourself," I remark.

"I am," she admits. "Not merely because we are safe from pursuit for now. In the palace only Silver was really at my level, and even Bradon and Gaius can only provide so much tutelage...but there are just so many people here to learn from." She chuckles. "I suppose it probably doesn't make much sense to you, how we love to fight."

She's not wrong, but I don't really want to admit that. "So what is there to do around here beyond shopping?"

Carlei frowns. "Admittedly, not an enormous amount. Many of the rooms of the temple are unlikely to be of much use or comfort to a human. However, there is usually a library in the temple, though I do not know off-hand how many records are stored here. You seemed quite interested in the palace library; perhaps you could investigate there. Or, of course," she adds, with a grin that's almost mischievous, "you could keep watching the fights."

I do stay watching the fights for a while - not just Carlei; Bradon and Gaius both show up at various points. Bradon is wearing his heraldry as well, and if anything his is even weirder than the girl with crystals in her hair. He looks like an Egyptian mummy (though with dark brown bandages) wearing a bright green shawl over his head and shoulders. It's not until he happens to be in a fight close to me that I realise that his 'bandages' seem to have a light coating of soil, and his shawl is made of moss - and he can summon plants out of both of them. Unlike Carlei, he doesn't use the odd properties of his heraldry to attack directly. Instead he summons plants to disorient his enemies before attacking with his blade, which gets somewhat indistinguishable amidst a mass of lashing vines.

Gaius, on the other hand, is just wearing brown robes. I'm kind of disappointed.

After a little bit, I leave the arena and ask for directions to the library. When I get there, it looks so much like the library in the Sekiei palace - though a little smaller - that for a few moments I could almost forget that we're on the run from people trying to execute me, and pretend that I'm back in the palace with Carlei and Lyra.

The contents of the library are different, though. It seems like 90% of the scrolls are about crazy martial arts moves (though given the kind of shit I've seen Blessed, especially Carlei, pull off, they probably aren't quite as crazy as I'm imagining) and different ways to control Blessed power. The first one or two I read are interesting enough, but I get fed up of finding the damn things pretty quickly. It doesn't help that there seems to be no method to where the scrolls are stored, or if there is one then no-one's told me what it is.

I do eventually manage to find an interesting string of scrolls, about an old warrior from centuries ago, called Larence. It's been transcribed a few times, but was originally written by his squire - and judging from some of phrasing, I get the impression that his squire was also his boyfriend. This was back in the time that Joto and Kanto weren't unified in Tojo, and were at war with each other, and the scrolls give the impression that Larence was basically singlehandedly fighting the war for Joto. His most notable achievement, which the author devoted a whole scroll to describing in excruciating detail for some goddamn reason, was luring a Kantan army onto an abandoned island to the south of Joto and using Imperial magic to collapse the entire island when they were there.

This wasn't the sort of thing that Koga fished up for me to read back in the palace, probably because it's mostly made up, but it's still fun to read - especially the occasional annotation scholars in the past have made on it, some of which are rather snarky. The story ends in a rather anticlimactic manner, with Larence abandoning his squire and going to 'the holy place' to 'fulfil his destiny.' General consensus is that, if he ever existed at all, he died and the author didn't want to admit it.

I get a little bit absorbed in reading the story, and don't realise how much time has gone by until a bell ring suddenly echoes through the library - and probably the rest of the temple. That must be the dusk bell.

Even though I completely forget the time, I still get out into the courtyard before Bradon. Carlei and Gaius are already there, and we wait with varying degrees of patience before he finally arrives - not from the temple, but from somewhere in the city - about ten minutes late. "Last I checked, squires are meant to be punctual," Gaius says, which feels a bit harsh to me. Judging from Bradon's downcast look, he agrees.

"Come, let us get dinner," Carlei interrupts smoothly. "It is generally custom to eat in the courtyard and interact with other visitors to the temple," she adds to me.

Finding the kitchens isn't hard - we just have to follow the stream of people in and out. There's not an enormous amount of selection available - basically meat or vegetables (or both, since there doesn't seem to be anyone stopping you taking both and indeed quite a few people are doing just that) - but it's more than soggy gruel, and unlike the flowery bread I bought earlier it's free.

I can see why people like to sit around and all eat in the same place; there's a nice, comfortable atmosphere to the courtyard as people drift in and out while we eat our dinner. A few of the Blessed show off with minor displays of their powers, and we have brief conversations with other people near us - shallow, mostly about meaningless stuff like the weather or the plants, but warm and friendly. Maybe it's something about the temple being a holy place that discourages it, but there aren't any arguments (at least, none that I can see).

All in all, it's a relaxing conclusion to what has, on the whole, been a reassuringly peaceful day, and the bed in my poky room is comfortable, and I quickly find myself falling asleep.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

After the day of peaceful rest (if you can call the Blessed sparring 'rest') in Yoshino, I think we're all a little disappointed to leave it behind when we set off for Kikyo the next morning. Certainly we set off a lot later than the dawn that became the norm for us while we were travelling.

Given that it's a bit of a trek to Kikyo, we hitch a ride with another merchant cart - just one this time, because we're back on the main road, which is regularly patrolled by guards from Yoshino and Kikyo, and therefore safe from bandits. I try not to think too much about the fact that that also means that there are going to be a lot of guards going to and fro who could recognise us.

The merchant who owns the cart is a middle-aged woman called Hadia, who's a bit reluctant to talk to us at first but slowly begins to open up as we travel. She's one of a large number of merchants who live off the leftovers of the profitable perfume and soap industry between Kikyo and Yoshino; she buys off-cuts of soap, mixes them with water, pressed flowers, and a few other things (her 'secret recipe') and makes large jars of what seems to be a kind of cheap alternative to soap - Hadia proudly boasts that she gets four times the volume of 'soap' from the original bits of soap. She offers us small samples each, and it turns out that this is mostly because she's padded out her soapy goo with what seems to be dirt. Honestly it feels more like wet sand than anything else, and I'm not really convinced that it'd provide any benefit as far as cleanliness is concerned.

Despite her questionable soap-making, Hadia turns out to be rather knowledgeable about the Blessed, and quite happy to answer my questions about them while the other three have their usual sparring matches over the course of the journey up to Kikyo. It's from her I learn things that are undoubtedly important to know but which Carlei and Lyra never thought to mention.

Like the fact that Blessings always occur at a young age, with sixteen being the oldest known age for anyone to receive a Blessing (which maybe explains why, if he'd more or less resigned himself to being a mundane human, Bradon has basically built his outlook on life around the time he was Blessed), and most receiving their Blessings at around nine or ten. I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed at this discovery - I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about how cool it would be to become Blessed myself.

Though the interactions between the four of us are nothing like how Carlei and I had been after our escape from the palace, or how Gaius and Carlei had been when they'd recognised each other, the atmosphere in the cart still gets a little tense at times. Even though we basically have no-one to talk to outside of each other and Hadia, we don't really grow any closer over the journey, and I still couldn't call any of them, except maybe Carlei, anything more than acquaintances. I guess we all have our own walls - Carlei the life and title she's lost, me my arrival in this world, Gaius his determination to prove he was framed, Bradon his conviction that he's a 'true knight' - and none of us are willing to lower them.

It's not until we start to see the signs of proper civilisation again that Bradon brings up something that I'd considered once or twice, but hadn't wanted to challenge Carlei on (after all, the last time if I'd asked if she knew what she was doing hadn't exactly gone the way I'd hoped). "How exactly are we going to gain an audience with Lord Falkner?" he asks. "It's not as though you can walk in and announce yourself, no matter how sympathetic he might be. And it may be months before he is willing to grant us an audience without knowing who you are."

Carlei doesn't seem offended, though. "I have considered that," she replies, which is a relief. "We shall ask the priests of Kikyo Temple for assistance. So long as we can convince them to hear our request in confidence, I do not doubt that Lord Falkner would be willing to receive petitioners with the backing of the temple, even anonymous ones."

Bradon looks slightly nervous. "Er...there may be a small problem."

Carlei frowns at him. "What?" she asks, irritably.

"Kikyo Temple is not like most of the others," Bradon admits. "Though they will grant room and board, as per the pact with the Crown, their highest acolytes do not grant audiences lightly. Theirs is one of the most accessible Shrines in the east, so many come to ask for audiences, and they cannot answer everyone."

Carlei's frown grows deeper. "How do we get an audience?" she asks, at the same time as I ask "What makes this shrine important?" Gaius scoffs at me, and I try to ignore him.

Bradon chooses to answer her first, which I guess is understandable. "The priests use the power of the Shrine to test those that would seek their guidance, to determine if they act with honour." He's slipped back into his formal 'knight' voice. "Should we wish their aid, we must undergo their trials."

I'm expecting Carlei to ask what these 'trials' are - certainly I'm curious myself now - but instead she looks over to me, and I'm sure she shoots Gaius a glare as she does. "There are a few places of great holy power in Joto. We call them Shrines. People come from all around to pray to the Divines represented by the Shrines' power - in many cases, to offer their children to the service of the Divines as Blessed Warriors and pray for them to be accepted." The image of parents praying for their kids to be turned into supernaturally powerful fighters is a slightly creepy one, but she says it casually, as if it means nothing.

"There are four in Joto," Bradon adds. "An Imperial Shrine in Fusube, a Nature Shrine in Kikyo, a Water Shrine in Hiwada, and a Fire Shrine in Enju. There was a Grand Shrine - one of all Aspects - in Kogane until a decade or so ago, but its power faded. As for the trials," he adds, turning back to Carlei, "petitioners must defeat the Elder of the temple before the Shrine."

"That's it?" Gaius asks. He sounds almost scornful.

"Supposedly," Bradon nods, "but I doubt that the fight will be a matter as simple as defeating a single Blessed."

"Agreed," Carlei says.

As we drift back to our tents - one of the purchases Carlei made on our behalf in Yoshino, and a welcome one - I pause to speak to Hadia. Maybe it's risky letting her know that we're planning to visit the temple, but we can't be the only ones going there, especially if it's so popular. "Hey, do you know anything about the Kikyo temple?" I ask.

She nods. "I pass it regularly on my way to the marketplace. Why do you ask?"

"Well, the others were mentioning these...trials, or whatever they are, and I wondered if you knew what they are." I hope there's not some stupid law against talking about the trials, but given the weird honour shit that goes on with the Blessed it wouldn't surprise me.

"I have heard rumours," Hadia admits, with a look in her eyes that suggests she's done a little bit more than just hear rumours. "From what I have heard, the Elder calls upon the Shrine itself to test those that would pray for its guidance." I can't help but picture an altar getting up and punching people, and have to suppress the urge to laugh - mostly because, ridiculous as it sounds, after all the weird shit I've seen an altar being made to spring to life and beat people up is probably a thing that could happen. "Though your friend with her Fire Aspect may possess a natural advantage, I would not rely on her strength to carry you through the trial."

That seems to be all she's willing to say on the subject, and I don't particularly want to press her on it.

When we arrive at the Kikyo Temple, it turns out that we aren't the only ones there. There's a whole contingent of Imperial troops arrayed outside the temple, causing the medieval equivalent of a traffic jam.

And staggering out of the Temple, clothes torn and bloody cuts all over his body, is Silver. I feel a painfully strong grip on my wrist and look down to see Carlei's hand closed over mine. She's completely still, like a statue, and I'm not completely sure she actually realises she's grabbed my hand - she certainly doesn't seem to notice when I try to pull my arm free.

Silver doesn't notice us, which is a good thing, since I get the feeling that he'd recognise us if he saw us again, even in our new clothes. He's too preoccupied with his wounds, and with an important-looking Imperial (something I've come to learn about the Imperials: the important ones don't wear helmets, which seems rather counterintuitive to me) rushing up to him. "My lord! Are you okay?"

Silver obviously thinks it's as fucking stupid a question as I do, because he glares at the man for a moment before turning away, rummaging through a bandolier at his waist until he pulls out one of the poultice-looking things I saw Carlei use back in the Kurayami village. Blue light runs over him and most of his wounds close themselves. His clothes fix themselves too, which is a neat trick.

After being ignored once, the Imperial obviously doesn't learn his lesson and tries again, ducking round so he's facing Silver again. "These monks dared to assault you, my lord?" Some of the Imperials shift awkwardly at their commander's righteous anger, but none of them interrupt. "Just say the word, my lord, and my men and I will -"

Suddenly Silver has a clawed hand at the man's throat. I can't see his expression any more, but judging from the way the soldier goes pale I can imagine all too well the icy hatred in Silver's eyes. "You will what?" he hisses.

"Nothing, my lord!" the Imperial squeaks. To his credit, he doesn't back away like I did when I was in that situation.

"No." Silver steps forwards, and the man steps back - it's either that or be impaled. "You intended on saying something. So say it." They take another step, almost in perfect unison, and the Imperial glances back briefly as he realises he's backed himself up against a tree. "Since you profess such devotion to the Crown, I command you."

The man's eyes flick to his soldiers. Unsurprisingly, none of them feel like intervening. After a few nervous gulps, he obviously decides to go for broke. "Just say the word and my men and I will make the monks regret attacking the Prince of Joto." He says it all in one breath.

Silver doesn't do anything for a few long seconds. I think everyone on the entire road is holding their breath. I half expect him to fucking kill the guy, and look away slightly just in case it looks like he's about to (though at the speed he moves, I'd probably not even notice he'd started moving until it was too late), but he doesn't do that either. Instead he suddenly shoves the man against the tree with his free hand, and very deliberately moves his claws downwards, cutting through the man's breastplate like a hot knife through butter.

We all wince at the screeching noise, and when we look back, Silver tosses the man to the ground unceremoniously - and catches the cloak that starts fluttering to the ground without its former owner's bulk pinning it to the tree. He must have cut whatever was keeping it attached.

Cloak draped over one arm, he moves back to the rest of his squad (or whatever the hell the actual term is), and glances between the soldiers for a moment. I don't know what he's looking for, but after a moment he finds it, because he points at one of the soldiers. "You. Step forwards." The figure jumps slightly when Silver suddenly points at them, but then they obey, taking a smart step forwards. "Remove your helmet. What is your name?"

It turns out that beneath the helmet is a young man, probably Bradon's age, with cropped brown hair. "Private Goban, sir. Goban of Kikyo, Blessed Warrior of Giratina." A couple of the other soldiers seem to flinch slightly at the mention of the Lord of the Dead (one of the few alternative names I can ever remember). Silver doesn't.

"Give me your helmet." Goban obeys. "Consider yourself promoted, Lieutenant Goban." Silver hands Goban the cloak - and then turns and tosses Goban's helmet at the cowering former lieutenant. "If the new Private Sylvester - or anyone else in your squadron - fail to recognise your new station, court-martial them and throw them in the gaol cart. If any of them so much as think about attacking a holy place again, send them to me and I will deal with them personally." He raises his voice and gestures - with an arm still brandishing silvery claws - towards the mud-splattered Sylvester. "Consider that the only warning any of you will receive."

When people start murmuring approvingly, I glance around the other stopped carts, and notice more or less everyone nodding. Obviously most people share Silver's opinion of the threat to attack the temple. Bradon isn't nodding, though, and he scoffs when he catches my eye. "How likely do you think it is that the Prince would have behaved so if he wasn't being observed?"

"Likely," Carlei replies softly. Bradon looks poised to argue, but I can almost see the gears in his head turning as he remembers who he's talking to. Honestly, much as I don't like Silver, I agree with Carlei. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who really cares what other people think of him (except maybe Carlei). Finally distracted from Silver's presence, she obviously realises that she's crushing my wrist, because she suddenly lets go. "Oh, Divines, I'm sorry, Ethan!"

It almost seems to hurt more after she releases me. "It's fine," I say through gritted teeth, more because I don't want her to start talking too loudly with Silver right there than because it is fine - although to be fair, I know she didn't mean to hurt me.

Goban manages to adapt to his sudden promotion a hell of a lot faster than I would've done. Maybe this sort of thing happens a lot around Silver. By the time I look back to the scene at the front of the temple, he's just finishing fastening his new cloak around his neck, and the soldiers behind him have neatly shuffled closer together to fill the gap he's left. I'm not sure where Sylvester went.

"We travel to Hiwada at once," Silver announces to his troops, when Goban marches over to stand in the place Sylvester had previously occupied. "Break camp. Lieutenant Goban, walk with me." He turns on his heel and marches away into the forest as the Imperials get moving - and finally stop blocking the road.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #7
Not wanting to risk attracting the attention of Silver and his soldiers, even though it's actually the Temple we want to go to we decide to stay on Hadia's cart until we reach Kikyo proper. If the older woman notices our nervousness at the guards she doesn't comment on it, though I'm sure I notice her watching us more than before as we pass uneventfully through the gates.

She's perfectly civil when we part, though. "Oh, it's no problem," she says, waving off Carlei's offer of additional payment as a thankyou. "It's nice to have someone to talk to on these journeys. I wish you luck in your quest, whatever it may be."

I don't think I'm the only one expecting some kind of betrayal, but we aren't suddenly surrounded by guards in our short journey back to the Temple - we certainly encounter them, but they pay us no more attention than any of the other guards have done.

The Kikyo Temple is noticeably different from the one I saw in Yoshino. It's still made of that same white marble, and it's still taller than the surrounding buildings - a lot taller. But it looks like plants are consuming it. Vines, grass and even a couple of trees surround it, stretching up multiple stories. Most of the plant life comes to a halt about twenty feet up or so, but there are a few vines that twine all the way up the walls as far as I can see. The big archway entrance is completely surrounded by flowering vines, though the archway itself is clear.

It's also a lot busier than the Yoshino Temple. There are a lot of people going in and out - and a lot more people in grey robes like mine. Back in Yoshino I was the only one dressed like that, but here they seem to be in the majority.

As normal, Carlei doesn't give us any time to stop and watch, and heads in, with the rest of us trailing in her wake. By the time I manage to weave my way through the crowd, Carlei has already managed to catch the attention of one of the passing priests. I don't hear what she says to him, but I do hear his response as he gestures to one of the side doors. "If you would care to refresh and properly attire yourselves, one of my brothers or sisters will take you to face our Elder's trial."

As far as the whole process of bathing and dressing properly goes, the two Temples seem to be identical - another magical lake in the basement (though this one is quite full of lilies and seaweed, which I imagine must be magical in some way as well) and more small dressing rooms. Once I'm dressed in the complicated robes again, I manage to find another priest and ask where these 'trials' are held.

As it turns out, the trials are held right at the top of the building, up staircase after staircase. By the time we get up there I feel like I've run a marathon - the priest guiding me is a woman who looks like she's in her seventies, but she's barely even out of breath. Are the priests Blessed too or something?

When I've recovered my breath enough to actually look at the room we're in, I realise that we're in a big hall with massive windows spaced all around it. There are a selection of priests - or at least I assume they're priests, though they're dressed in green robes, not white, and their robes are of a different style to everyone else's - standing by the windows, one priest per window. At the other end of the hall, there's a beige-coloured mat, and it takes me a moment to realise that there's someone sitting on it, almost blending in with the mat.

"Please, come forwards," says the seated man, beckoning us closer. It feels more than a little creepy walking between all these silent priests, who watch us as we move but don't do anything else. As we get closer, I realise that he's old - older even than Oak or Jisan, who were by far the oldest people I've seen in Joto since arriving. "I understand you wish my assistance in gaining audience with young Lord Falkner?"

"We do," Carlei confirms. She and the other two Blessed are tense, obviously expecting a fight.

"Curious how these things turn out, isn't it?" The elderly man chuckles slightly. "The royal family keeps itself to itself for near a decade, and then both its scions visit me the same day." He tilts his head slightly, like he's listening to something, and I'm sure I hear someone whispering, though I can't tell who it is that's speaking or what they're saying. "You may undertake this temple's trial, but allow me to warn you - it is not I who shall test you. I am merely a conduit for the will of the Divines. It is they who shall determine the trials you shall face, and they who shall judge your actions. As such, should you find yourselves in peril, there is nothing I or my brothers and sisters will be able to do to aid you. Not all that undertake these trials survive."

So that's not ominous at all. Carlei doesn't seem bothered, though. "We understand."

The old man chuckles again. "Interesting." He carefully gets to his feet, leaning on a cane. "Open the windows," he instructs, and the priests lining the room turn and push the windows open, causing a strong wind to begin running through the room. "Great Ones, hear my call," he intones. His voice is soft, but it somehow echoes over the sound of the wind and the rustling leaves outside. "I give of myself to your power, such that the petitioners before me may be tested and judged in your eternal wisdom."

The rustling grows louder, and the wind grows stronger - strong enough that it threatens to push me across the room. The Blessed don't care, unsurprisingly, and the priests also seem rooted to the spot, though their robes and long hair are blowing wildly. I jump when all the priests speak in perfect unison. "Let the trial begin."

From the open windows, plants come rushing in - massive vines, thicker than my body, coiling and writhing like snakes. The priests are pretty much hidden from view instantly as the vines converge on us. I take a little bit of pleasure in seeing Gaius's nervous look at the Nature magic at work, but it quickly vanishes when one of the vines comes flying straight at me.

All I manage to do is freeze. I hadn't even considered the possibility that the trial might involve me - and I don't think any of the others had either, because they're a good few feet in front of me, standing in a close triangle to protect each others' backs. Carlei throws a blast of fire at the vine, but it hits me long before she hits it.

It slows down at the last moment, but it still hits me with enough force to knock me backwards, even further away from Carlei and the others. I hit a mass of small vines that catches me like a trampoline, bouncing me onto the floor.

Through swimming eyes, I look up to see the vines closing around Carlei, Bradon and Gaius, forming a barrier separating me from them. I can hear them shouting - Carlei yelling something that I can't understand in my dazed state - and the sounds of combat, but I can't see what's going on.

The plants seem focused on the Blessed, though, because I'm not attacked again as I slowly, painfully climb to my feet. The pain is already ebbing away, though, and it's not as hard to breathe as it was just a few moments ago, easing my fears of having a broken rib or something. Maybe, somewhat depressing as it is, I'm getting used to being hurt.

I can't walk normally, never mind run, but I manage to stagger over to the mass of thick vines that's holding the others. Though the vines shift and ripple occasionally, maybe from blows coming from inside, they might as well be made of stone for all the effect I would have on them, so I don't bother trying to push my way back towards the others. Though I'm pretty sure I'm safer out here anyway.

As I lean on the vines, they ripple again, and for a moment or two a small gap in them opens up - enough for me to see through. I just get to see a vine coil around Carlei's legs and trip her over before the vines move again and cut off my view.

I can still hear the sounds of fighting coming from within, which is reassuring, but that doesn't stop me being frightened for her. A couple of seconds later, another peephole appears in the vines.

I follow around the outside of the plant cage that Carlei and the others are trapped in, getting occasional glimpses of the fight inside - Gaius being caught and crushed in a vine before Carlei slices it off, Bradon struggling for control of his whip-blade against a vine that has caught the bladed part, Carlei getting slammed in the head by a giant vine and knocked to the ground.

I'm distracted from trying to chase glimpses of the fight by realising that the head priest is still pretty much where I'd last seen him, standing on his mat with his eyes closed. His cane is discarded by his feet, and he has both hands raised up. He's the first priest I've seen since the trial started - I have no idea where the others went, but they aren't by the windows any more. He's the one responsible for controlling the plants. I'm not completely sure how I know that, but I know it's right.

While I'm watching the priest, a rustling right by my head makes me jump and I look through another peephole just in time to see Gaius grabbed by the neck and abducted somewhere into the mass of vines that occupies the ceiling. Carlei shoots a blast of fire into the vines, but it splashes off harmlessly, and another vine coils around her throat.

The hole in the vine wall closes before I can see what happens, and I curse myself for not warning her. Then a creaking of wood makes me look away from the vine wall. There's a wooden club resting on the floor that wasn't there a moment ago, and I look from it to the head priest and back again.

Behind me, the sounds of combat fade, and the hall is silent.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

I'm half expecting the temple floor to swallow me up or something when I reach down to pick up the club. It's heavy, and my injured chest complains when I lift it, but I manage to rest it on my shoulder with one hand, keeping my other to my aching chest.

If it was someone like Silver standing there, praying and seemingly completely unaware of me, I wouldn't hesitate (other than maybe out of fear of what he'd do in retaliation). That's one thing that Carlei, Bradon and Gaius have made a point of teaching me, perhaps more than how to actually throw a punch. But for all their teachings, clobbering a doddery old man in the head is different.

The vines that had been trapping Carlei and the others begin to retreat back through the windows they'd come from - leaving Carlei, Bradon and Gaius dangling from the ceiling.

Carlei and Bradon are still conscious and struggling against their bonds, but they don't seem to be having much success. It takes me a moment to realise something's slightly odd; though they're looking around frantically, they don't seem to see either me or the priest.

Then the vines start to tighten around them.

Bradon and Carlei start struggling harder, but more vines coil around them, seemingly immune to Carlei's burning skin, the heat of which I can feel even from my position. I know she can't see me, but seeing the fear in Carlei's eyes hurts.

I barely even realise that I've moved closer to the priest until my chest aches again when I raise the club in both hands. I feel like I should say something, maybe apologise, but I can't think of anything to say. So instead I close my eyes and bring the club down at the priest's head.

I feel it make contact with something that feels much more solid than an old man has any right to be and open my eyes to realise that I've hit the priest in the shoulder. But it has the effect I was hoping for - he falls to the ground, and the vines immediately let the three Blessed go.

I don't bother to check if the priest is alright, which is probably a bit rude, but I'm more worried about Carlei and Bradon (and Gaius too, I guess), so I drop the club and move back over to them. They're both sitting up, coughing and rubbing at their necks where the vines had choked them. Gaius doesn't move, though.

"He is merely unconscious," the priest says from behind me, getting back to his feet with the aid of his cane.

Carlei gets to her feet, ignoring my offered hand, and glares at the priest as I help Bradon up instead. Bradon gives me a slightly apologetic smile. "What was the meaning of that?" Carlei demands.

"The meaning of what, precisely?" the priest asks.

"We agreed to take your trial, not Ethan."

"On the contrary. You accepted my warning on the behalf of yourself and your companions. Perhaps you should ascertain whether you truly speak for your companions or you merely believe you do."

I'm not about to complain about Carlei being called out on the way she takes charge of everything, not when she might actually listen to a priest, but I can't help feel like it's a bit harsh to start scolding her just after almost killing her.

She doesn't say anything for a little while, though. "So...did they pass your trial or not?" I ask eventually, when the silence stretches on to an awkward length.

The priest turns his attention to me. He doesn't seem too offended about me clubbing him (or too hurt), which is something of a relief. "Yes, you did." I don't miss his deliberate choice of pronoun any more than he did mine. "I suggest you rest and recover. It will take a few days to arrange an audience with Lord Falkner, but it shall be done."

"Thank you," Carlei says brusquely, and turns and brushes past us, disappearing down the stair before any of us can say anything.

The priests file back in through another door - I'm not sure how the hell they got out of the room when the plants invaded, but maybe it's some priestly trick - and start closing all the windows. Some of them arrive with a stretcher which they arrange Gaius onto and take him off down another corridor, leaving me and Bradon to follow after Carlei. "So could you not see me?" I ask, once we're away from the trial hall.

"No," Bradon confirms, "not until the trial was over. But we saw you standing over the fallen priest holding a club. It was fairly obvious what happened to me."

There's an odd edge to his tone that I can't identify. "Should I not have hit the priest?" I ask.

Bradon chuckles. "Considering you saved my life, I don't think I'm in much of a position to complain."

"I don't think Carlei agrees." I didn't actually mean to say that aloud.

"I'm not convinced Carlei has deduced the true nature of that trial," he replies. "Or, perhaps, she did, and doesn't want to admit it." Seeing my confused look, he elaborates, removing the (now rather crumpled) feather from his hat and straightening it as he does. "Did you notice that Carlei's fire did nothing to those plants? They were created and controlled by raw Divine magic. Those plants could slay an army if the Divines willed it. To think that a mere Blessed could overcome them is foolish. But you were provided with the opportunity to succeed at the trial - you, Ethan, not me, Gaius or Carlei."

I pause on the stairs. "So...what? You think that trial was meant for me?" I would laugh, but it's not the first time I've heard something like that. "Why?"

"Why I don't know," Bradon admits. "It is strange for a trial created at the will of the Divines to revolve around one they have not Chosen. But that trial was indisputably intended to test you. We were merely...motivation." It's slightly unnerving how easily he talks about how close to death he came, but he shrugs idly. "But from what I understand of your time so far with Carlei, you saving her life is something of a novel situation. Especially for someone like her."

"What do you mean?"

Bradon frowns slightly. "There's a general consensus amongst most Blessed that it is our duty to protect humans, but how far that is taken varies between Blessed. The Imperial Knights have a particular code of honour when it comes to humans - they view it as dishonourable to strike a human, and a failing on their part to allow a human to be endangered. Judging from the way she acts, I think Carlei tries to follow those teachings."

That would actually explain a lot - especially how, despite her quick temper and the fact that I've pissed her off more than once, she's never done anything to deliberately hurt me (other than when she thought I was an intruder into the palace, but in fairness she probably didn't know I was just a normal human then.) It also explains why she was so angry at what happened in the trial. "So being rescued by a human is...what, embarrassing?" I ask. It feels really weird to talk about me protecting Carlei and not the other way around.

"In essence, yes," Bradon nods. "Let us hope she won't do anything reckless to make herself feel better."

I want to reassure him that Carlei's not the sort of person to do something reckless. But...well, it's Carlei. "Yeah," I agree eventually, and set off down the stairs again.

Gaius recovers from the trial over the next couple of days - as vulnerable as he is to Nature magic, between the natural healing factor the Blessed have and the care of the temple's healers, he's back on his feet pretty quickly. When we catch him up on Bradon's guess as to the true purpose of the trial, he grudgingly admits that the younger Blessed is probably right - and even gives me a gruff thank you for saving his life. Like Bradon, though, beyond that, he doesn't treat me much differently to how he did before the trial.

But Carlei does.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

After she left the hall at the end of our trial, I don't see Carlei again until the next day. I'm not really sure where she went, but I eventually catch sight of her in the temple's sparring arena. She's being a lot more aggressive and careless than she was in Yoshino, picking fights with Blessed much more powerful than she is, and though I'm sure she notices me she doesn't make any effort to come over to the viewing stands that I'm restricted to - if anything, she moves further away.

I don't hang around in the arena for long. Watching her fight in Yoshino was cool, but I don't enjoy watching her get hurt just for the sake of it.

I don't think Bradon or Gaius are any more comfortable with it, but somehow I think the only way they could get through to her would be literally beating sense into her, and from what I've seen of their capabilities I'm pretty sure that the chance of either of them beating her in a fight is barely any better than the chance of me doing so.

As safe as the sparring matches in the temple might be, that doesn't stop me being relieved when, two days after the trial, one of the priests approaches me in the library to tell me that Lord Falkner has agreed to receive us in a private audience that evening.

The priests insist that we travel to Falkner's manor as a group, which is probably the only reason that Carlei sticks around. But she does stick around, waiting in the courtyard while the priests find Bradon and Gaius, giving me the chance to talk to her for the first time since the trial.

Not that I'm really sure what to say.

"I..." I stammer for a few moments. "Can we talk about what happened in the trial?"

Carlei doesn't look at me, not really, but she turns her head slightly and I can see the anger in her eyes. She reminds me of Silver in that moment, but where his eyes were cold and merciless hers are intense and fiery. "What is there to talk about?"

"Well...all of it." Carlei glares at me, and I'm surprised to realise that I'm not as instinctively afraid of her as I used to be. Consciously, logically, I know that she's every bit as dangerous as she was when I first met her - maybe even more dangerous - but somehow, whether because of Bradon's explanation of her self-imposed code of honour or just because I've been around her long enough to get to know her by now, whatever part of me had always seen her as a threat is quiet. "Look, I get that you're mad about me helping in the trial, but it wasn't like I had much of a choice."

"You shouldn't have been in that trial in the first place," Carlei snaps back. "And...I am not angry with you."

"Yeah?" I ask, trying - without much success - to keep my frustration from seeping into my tone. "You could've fooled me."

Carlei is quiet for a little while after that. "I appreciate you protecting me, Ethan," she says eventually, and for a moment her voice is much softer and gentler. "I realise that combat isn't the same to you as it is to me. So...thank you. But you should never have had to protect me. That is what I am frustrated - or angry, if you prefer to call it that - about."

"Blessed aren't invincible." That's something that I've been painfully aware of ever since back in the palace, when I started reading all the old scrolls and texts talking about ancient Blessed heroes. Almost all of them died.

"We are not," Carlei agrees. "But that isn't the point. Competence and invulnerability are very different things. I do not expect the latter of myself, but I should be capable of the former. And yet, clearly, I am very far from competent."

I laugh slightly, unintentionally, and see Carlei's eyes narrow. "Sorry," I apologise, "but really? You're telling me - of all people - that you're incompetent or something because you made one mistake? If you can even call that rigged trial a mistake. I bet if you hadn't accidentally volunteered me they'd have found some way to make me take part anyway."

"It is not just one mistake, though, is it?" Carlei asks, quietly. "That is not the first time my arrogance has endangered you."

"Oh, for..." I run my hand through my hair, beginning to feel frustrated at Carlei for an entirely different reason. "You're seriously still beating yourself up over that whole water thing?" She doesn't reply verbally, but I don't need her to - not when she actually flinches slightly. "Look, I'm not gonna pretend that I know what it's like with your...Blessed instincts, or your code of honour, or whatever. But I do know about fucking things up. And...yeah, just pretending like you didn't screw up is dumb, because you'll just make the same mistake again later. I'm pretty sure there's some fancy quote about that back on my world. But it's just as dumb to focus on your mistakes and never move past them."

"Why?" I'm expecting Carlei to be angry, considering that I just basically called her dumb. But instead she just sounds resigned, almost dismissive.

"Because while you're focused on kicking yourself about how you fucked something up, you fuck something else up because you're not paying attention to the present. And then you've got two mistakes to beat yourself up over, and you screw up again. And it just...it never stops." I look back to Carlei, meeting her gaze. "And you don't want to tell anyone, or ask for help, because it's your fault, your fuckups, your responsibility. But you have to. Otherwise it just eats you up inside."

I don't think I've ever really seen Carlei speechless before. "I..." she stammers, clearly not really sure what to say.

"Please," I interrupt her. "I get that you might not want to talk to me, because you're Blessed and I'm not or whatever. But please talk to someone."

Carlei is quiet for even longer, and I start to worry that I might have overstepped whatever boundaries she thinks I have. But that anger is gone from her eyes now. "It is not because you have not been Chosen," she says quietly, when she finally speaks again. "I would rather talk to you than Bradon or Gaius," she adds. I can't help but feel a little bit proud at that. "I have merely...grown up being told by my father that we can't afford to show weakness. Especially him, since..." She pauses, shaking her head slightly. "Never mind." I recall back to our evening in Jisan's home, when Carlei had again deflected the topic of conversation away from her father. What is she hiding? "Regardless," she continues, "Father's rule has, truth be told, always been a little unsure, and after the Kantan nobles rebelled in all but name, even greater attention has been on me and Silver." She shrugs slightly. "When I was in the palace, I could talk to him and Lyra - and our childhood friends, on occasion, if they happened to be visiting. But aside from that, I suppose I am...simply used to not allowing anyone to see anything but a mask."

"Yeah, I get that," I admit. "I've had enough of a taste of celebrity to know what it must be like for you. My brother," I explain, when Carlei raises a quizzical eyebrow. "When he went missing, we became the centre of attention in town. I hated it - especially when people started digging into shit that was meant to be private. But Mom was always holding press conferences and shit like that, trying to make sure no-one forgot about Jake." I pause for a moment as something occurs to me. "I guess now she's gonna be trying to find me too."

It's odd to think that I'd almost forgotten that. But for a good while my own plight hasn't really been at the forefront of my mind. Dangerous and alien as Sekai is, after everything Oak said, and everything that happened in the trial...it's nice to have a purpose for once.

I return my attention to the present to find Carlei still watching me. "Look, let's...I dunno, make a deal or something," I suggest. "We both talk to each other if there's shit that's bothering us."

Carlei holds my gaze for another long, few moments as I hold out my hand. "Agreed," she says, shaking my hand.

"And," I add, before she can take her hand away, "you stop getting the shit beaten out of you in the temples just for the sake of it." She narrows her eyes slightly, and tries to pull her hand away from mine, but I tighten my grip. I know full well that that wouldn't stop her, but other than a halfhearted tug she lets me keep hold of her hand. I don't think she really minds me calling her out on it.

"Fine," she huffs, but there's a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. And then she spreads her fingers and easily slips her hand out of mine. Show-off.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
 

Xita

Moo
Writer
Team Omega
Pokédex No.
186
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
27
Location
Germany
Nature
Quirky
Pronouns
She/Her
Pokémon Type
Water, Dark
Hey I don’t mean to break your importing but I just caught up and I’m big :datass:at what’s gonna happen next

Lance is a human what the duck what does this mean tho

Also I have a lot of respect to you for keeping up with that weekly posting schedule? (Especially for like 70+ chapters? Got damn) How do you do it? How far ahead have you written?
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #9
Thanks! As for the update schedule, I have taken a couple of breaks, but yeah I've been trying to stick to weekly updates as much as I can. I used to have a pretty significant buffer, but RL was its inconvenient self, so everything from about chapter 60 to the latest chapter 71 was written in the week preceding it being posted - or on the day it was posted, on more than a few occasions.

When the priests return, Bradon and Gaius in tow, we set off. The priests, led by the old man with the cane, give us these heavy, itchy cloaks to put on over our robes, and wear the same robes themselves. With the hoods up, I can barely tell the difference between us and the priests, so I doubt anyone else could. (Bradon eventually, if reluctantly, agrees to leave his hat behind.)

The head priest isn't taking any chances, though, because he leads us through this complicated network of back alleys. By the third or fourth turn I have no idea which way we came from, and judging from their confused looks the others aren't having any better luck keeping track. The old priest clearly knows where he's going, though, because suddenly we turn yet another corner and find ourselves more or less standing in front of the gate to Lord Falkner's manor.

"I last came here years ago, but I do not recall the manor bearing such similarity to the palace," Carlei remarks quietly. Now she's said it, I can see what she means - Lord Falkner's manor looks a little like a smaller and less extravagant version of the palace, right down to the style of the gate. I hadn't gone too close to Lady Stephanne's manor in Yoshino, but from what I saw of it it looked very different, so I assume the architecture is an intentional choice on House Violet's part.

"Lord Falkner has been making architectural renovations," the head priest - who apparently has crazy good hearing for an old dude - answers. His tone is carefully neutral. Then he turns away from us and takes a couple of steps towards the two guards, dressed in the uniform of House Violet, who are guarding the gate and watching us with much less suspicion than I would've had if a dozen hooded figures had unexpectedly come out of an alleyway. "A delegation from the Temple," he says. "We are expected."

Obviously we are expected, because one of the guards nods and steps aside, unlocking the gate with a key from a ring on his belt. I find myself breathing a sigh of relief, letting out a breath I hadn't realised I was holding.

The priests don't go through the gate. "This is as far as we go," the old man tells Carlei. "Please, feel free to keep the cloaks," he adds as an afterthought.

Without saying anything, we all bunch a little closer together now it's only four of us and not a dozen as we go up the path towards Falkner's manor. "Any tips on what we should expect from Lord Falkner?" I whisper to Carlei. I'm not entirely sure why I'm whispering - the guards don't escort us, so it's not like there's anyone to overhear - but I am painfully aware that we are almost literally walking into the lion's den.

"I do not know much of him, in truth," Carlei admits. "His father was a just and honourable man, and their family has for a long time been capable of Manifesting."

She puts an emphasis on the word, like how she says 'Blessed' or 'Chosen.' "Manifesting?" I repeat.

"Powerful Blessed are capable of not merely summoning weapons of mithril like Bradon and I," Carlei explains. "Their Blessing physically transforms them. It is a sign of great favour of the Divines that one of their Chosen can Manifest." I know her well enough by now to catch the slightly downcast tone in her voice. "House Violet have for a long time served Lord Lugia, and their scions have for generations been Chosen by him and bestowed powerful Blessings, their Manifestations taking the form of great eagle wings. Falkner is no exception. One thing I do know of him, though, is that he is very proud of his Manifestation. Thus the rather peculiar construction of the roof," she adds.

I hadn't noticed it at first in the dim light, but now we're closer I realise that what I'd thought was just a row of tall trees or something behind the manor is a crazy scaffolding-like design that's almost as tall as the manor itself. "That does not look safe," I point out.

"Scared of heights?" Gaius asks me, with an annoying smirk on his face.

"No," I answer honestly, taking a little pleasure in watching the smirk vanish, "but I'm not a fan of the idea that he could just kick us off his crazy roof and let us fall to our deaths."

"It is troubling," Bradon agrees - and somehow I get the impression that maybe he really isn't fond of heights - "but I do not believe Lord Falkner would receive all his petitioners up there. He would have no reason to receive us there either."

As we get to the manor itself, it becomes obvious that Falkner is not the only member of House Violet there. We pass a half-dozen people wandering around in the fancy clothes I learned back in the palace to associate with minor nobles - and all of them have wings.

I've kind of gotten used to the weird outfits the Blessed wear as their heraldry (and for that matter the weird outfits that some normal people wear), but the winged people are weird even by those standards. Some of them have wings that clearly wouldn't be big enough to support them in flight, but others have wings that are almost as tall as they are. And they aren't just weird props or something - on more than one occasion I see someone's wings twitch and flutter in a way that some kind of inanimate attachment couldn't.

Judging from the reactions of the servants whenever one of the winged nobles walks past, wings trailing behind them, the members of House Violet enjoy being admired, so my gawping at their wings goes mostly unnoticed (it probably helps that we still have our hoods up, for some reason of protocol that I didn't quite grasp when Carlei explained it). Gaius and Bradon watch the passing nobles with a similar, if lesser, curiosity, but Carlei looks steadily more and more irritable as we're led towards the audience chamber.

"What is it?" I ask her eventually, when our guide gets distracted talking to one of the winged people.

"I can understand that they might be proud of their Manifestations," she answers in an undertone, "but to constantly use the power of their Blessings purely for the sake of impressing those around them is just...crass. Lord Peredur only twice used his Manifestation in all the times I saw him at council, and once was in defence of his life."

I'm not quite sure I see the difference between what they're doing and how the Blessed often show off in the temples, but there clearly is a difference. And I get the impression that she's starting to feel less confident about this plan of consulting Lord Falkner.

Pretty soon she's not the only one feeling less confident, as we all regard the winding staircase upwards. "He's waiting for us up there?" Bradon asks.

"Lord Falkner prefers to receive guests in the comfort of the aerium," our guide answers, just a touch smugly, already starting to walk away from us, "away from the distraction of court life."

"And clearly not so he can show off his fancy wings," Gaius mutters.

"Bradon, perhaps you could stand watch here," Carlei suggests, and the young man visibly cheers up.

"Of course," he nods - and from one of the pockets of his robes produces that stupid feather that he normally keeps in his hat, and pokes it into his hood. "When I shall be the only one garbed in a cloak standing here, one feather is hardly going to make me more distinct," he points out defensively, as the rest of us look at him.

"Very well," Carlei accepts, after a moment's consideration. She glances over to me, raising an eyebrow.

"I'm fine," I answer her unasked question. I have no intention of staying behind - partly because I want to see this 'aerium' and mostly because I feel a hell of a lot safer with Carlei and Gaius than I would with Bradon.

"Very well," Carlei says again. "With any luck, we shall see you shortly."

"Good luck," he answers, raising his hand to his head to raise his hat to us before remembering he isn't wearing it and settling for a stupid-looking salute instead. Gaius shakes his head and stomps up off the stairs.

The aerium is so high up that, even though it's a calm evening, the wind whips through our robes, and it's noticeably colder than it was downstairs. Of course, none of the Blessed seem to give a damn about the cold. But even they - at least, except for our winged guide - seem more than a little nervous at the narrow, unfenced walkway that leads from the small building on the roof to the aerium proper.

"A delegation from the Temple, my lord," our guide announces, and for a moment I don't realise who he's talking to. Then something drops off of one of the rafters. For a moment I think the stupid scaffolding has chosen this moment to fall to bits, but then the object spreads out wings that had until that moment been furled and lands on a kind of podium. The wave of displaced air from the figure's wings kicks a cloud of dust up into our faces, and the force of it makes me stagger back a step - luckily I was a good distance away from the edge of the platform, though Carlei half moves to catch me anyway before realising that I'm not about to fall to my death and relaxing again.

Lord Falkner stands back up from the crouch he'd landed in, flicking his wings back dramatically. He's young, probably about my age, and dressed in robes that shimmer even in the dim light and a long cloak that somehow doesn't seem to interfere with his wings, which is in stripes of red and golden silk and which seem to be so studded with gems that they jingle when he moves. After his extravagant entry - guy could compete with Bradon for stupid flamboyance - he doesn't move for a moment, and I honestly think he's expecting applause. And to my amazement, he actually gets it from the winged dude who brought us up here. When none of us make any move to congratulate him, he tuts, furling his wings around himself like a robe. "So, the Temple insists on disturbing me at irregular hours to have me meet a group of hooded figures? I think not. Reveal yourselves." He waves a languid hand at us.

Carlei barely even hesitates, and draws back her hood. Falkner and his crony take an astonished step back (I try to resist the urge to smirk at how Falkner's cockiness vanishes), and Carlei takes the opportunity their surprise affords her to speak. "Lord Falkner," she begins, in a formal tone, almost verging on subservient, that I've never heard her use before, "I humbly request your assistance. My companions and I require passage through the Usokkie Fortress."

"You?" Falkner gapes. "Ihow did you"

While he's stammering, Carlei continues. "Lord Peredur was an old friend of our family, and I am proud to have considered him my mentor in happier times. In his name, I ask you to help us."

"My father was an idiot!" Falkner manages to recover his voice, though it goes up about an octave in his anger. "And a craven!"

I can feel the air around Carlei beginning to get hotter, but she manages to keep her tone calm. "He was a good man, who believed that acting with honour was more important than obeying unrighteous commands."

"And he ran!" Falkner takes a deep breath, and is quiet for a moment. "Oh, he called it 'retirement,' and everyone nodded and smiled and said how he deserved the rest, but he ran, and he left me to deal with his mistakes! Do you think the King merely forgot the insult? No! Now I suffer for my father's foolishness. And it is your father who increases my taxes, sends his Imperial Guards to raid my lands under the pretence of rooting out bandits, and lets his sycophantic Kantans mock me in front of the council!"

"My father's actions of late have been ill-judged," Carlei agrees, but Falkner cuts her off with a cruel laugh.

"Oh, don't pretend you care! This has been happening for far longer than a handful of weeks, and you never cared before, when you were happy in your palace. Your father's behaviour only concerns you now because you are on the receiving end of it."

"Perhaps I have been short-sighted," Carlei admits. And I think she actually means it, though from the look in his eyes, Falkner clearly doesn't. "But I cannot do anything about it if I am forced to skulk below the noses of the council."

"You could not do anything about it even if you were still Princess - which you are not, I might remind you," Falkner retorts. "And nor would you - the signs were plain for all to see, but you were too concerned with your little party of friends - Jasmine and Ampharal, and that exile from the Fire Lord's realm who you pretend is your equal. Why should I believe you would be different now?"

I've never heard of Hoen being referred to as the 'Fire Lord's realm' before, but especially with the way the air around Carlei gets even hotter, it's not hard to figure out who Falkner's talking about. "Her name's Lyra," I snap, impulsively, and only realise after I've spoken that telling off the guy we need to help us probably isn't the brightest idea. But Carlei glances to me briefly, and I see a faint smile on her face, which quickly fades as she looks back to Falkner.

"So that is your answer, then?" she asks. "You would rather hide your head in the sand and weather the storm of my father's cruelty rather than fight for honour? Very well. Lord Peredur would be disappointed in you," she adds, as she turns to leave.

Almost before I notice that Falkner's moved, a rush of air almost knocks us all to the ground as he takes off, swoops over our heads and lands between us and the way out. He flicks his wings back again, and as he does a long, curved sword appears in his hand. Carlei and Gaius step in front of me almost simultaneously, summoning their own weapons. "You think I care what my father thinks of me?" Falkner scoffs, as the winged man that had guided us up here summons a dagger and steps up besides his lord. "He's a traitor to House Violet, in spirit if not law. But with your capture, I will return my House to the greatness it deserves!"

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

Falkner's crony moves first, taking off with a beat of his wings and flying at us. He barely gets halfway before something slams into his midriff with enough force to bring him to a dead stop, crumpling around the dark object almost comically before crashing down to the wooden platform. Gaius lowers his hand, and I realise that he somehow propelled the rocky 'gauntlet' he normally wears at the other Blessed, like he'd fired it out of a cannon.

Falkner looks more than a little caught off-guard by how swiftly his only ally was defeated, and seems to strongly consider retreating for a few moments, glancing over his shoulder to the door behind him. Then his eyes harden and he looks back to us. "I challenge you, Carlei of no name," he declares, flourishing his sword. I can only assume that 'no name' is some kind of insult, because Carlei and Gaius bristle. "Or are you only brave when hiding behind your bodyguard?"

Gaius starts to step forwards, but Carlei reaches out a hand to one side to stop him, and steps forwards herself. I know what she's going to say long before she actually speaks. "As you wish," she says softly - and almost before she's finished speaking, Falkner launches himself into the air and dives at her.

Carlei manages to block his attack with her own sword, but the force of the blow knocks her down. She rolls backwards along the narrow passage and back to her feet with barely a pause, but she hasn't quite regained her balance when Falkner lunges after her again - and somehow, she almost seems to flow around him, catching one of his wings with her free hand to stop herself from toppling off the bridge as Falkner overextends and drives his sword through the bridge by mistake. Before he can recover, Carlei takes advantage of her grip on his wing and his sudden loss of balance to throw him to the ground - leaving a shallow cut across his stomach with her sword as she goes. I didn't even realise I was holding my breath.

She could easily have killed him there, and I think Falkner knows it too. But then he cranes his neck to look at us, anger clear in his eyes, and he stretches out his hand and his sword vanishes from its position stabbed into the platform, reforming in his hand. Before he can do more than start to get back to his feet, though, Gaius steps forwards and puts his hand on Falkner's back. Rock and soil run like water down his arm and cover the young man's wings. I'm surprised at him interfering in the fight when they have so much respect for the whole 'challenge' thing, but Carlei doesn't stop him. "You lost, kid," he tells Falkner gruffly. It reminds me of how he sometimes talks to Bradon. "Stay down."

At first I think Falkner's ignoring him. He manages to get back to his feet, half doubled over from the weight of the rock on his back, and stumbles back towards his little podium - past me, but it's not like I'm going to try to stop him - and starts trying to remove the rocky coating on his wings. "We should leave," Carlei says quietly. I swear her expression as she watches Falkner is more one of pity than anything else, and I can kind of see why. Falkner doesn't look so impressive and proud any more, whimpering as he claws at the stone and soil. "We are not going to achieve anything here."

Thankfully, the fight was quiet enough - or the aerium isolated enough - that when we get back downstairs, no-one seems to have realised that anything's up. "I take it Lord Falkner was his usual self?" Bradon asks, when he sees us returning.

"If 'usual' is spiteful, arrogant and dishonourable, then yes," Carlei replies.

"That sounds about like him. Still, at least he let you go." Bradon pauses, seeing our expressions. "ah."

Hoods up, we bid a hasty retreat back through the manor and out into the grounds. To my surprise, none of the assorted members of House Violet we pass try to stop us or question us. "Anyone else wondering why no-one's managed to figure out that their precious lord got his ass kicked?" I ask, once we're safely away from any more winged nobles. The architecture is so similar to Sekiei palace that I'm reminded of our escape. It seems a lot longer ago than it was.

Bradon chuckles. "Perhaps admitting he was defeated in combat is too great a blow to his pride."

"Won't stop him inventing some reason to send his men after us," Gaius remarks.

"No," Carlei nods. "And though Silver is now ahead of us, a messenger on horseback could swiftly reach him and relay our position. We need to leave before we are caught between him and Falkner."

We take the main roads back to the Temple - the risk of getting lost in the twisting network of alleyways isn't worth the gain in subtlety. One advantage of not having much in the way of possessions is that it's not hard to pack, and we're able to collect our bags and leave the Temple (if the priests are surprised or confused by our haste, they don't question us) and get most of the way out of the city before we hear the deep ringing of a bell echoing over the city.

"Damn it," Gaius mutters under his breath. We can literally see the gates in front of us, only a couple of minutes' walk away - and see the soldiers guarding them filing out of the towers, clearly alerted by the bell.

I glance over to Carlei. So do the others. "In Sekiei, the gates are not closed even when the warning bell tolls," she says, somewhat hesitantly. "The guards merely question those entering and leaving, but we are carrying nothing that would make them suspicious. So long as they do not receive word from the manor before we can depart, we should still be able to leave peacefully."

"And if we can't?" Bradon asks. "I am loath to attack innocent men and woman whose only crime is to loyally serve their lord."

"As am I," Carlei admits, "but we may have no choice."

We're not the only ones at the gate. There are two other figures there too, a man and a woman, both dressed in robes somewhat similar to the robes we wear at the temples. But they're not quite the same. The woman is wearing red robes with a green trim, and a long green scarf flutters behind her. The man is dressed in darker robes with golden swirls running across them - and when he turns to look at us, I realise he's wearing a weird mask, also dark with golden stripes, which makes him look a bit like a cat or something. And a moment later I realise something else - he's not looking at us, he's looking at me.

"Gracious," the woman says as we arrive, "whatever is the matter at Lord Falkner's manor?"

One of the guards shifts awkwardly. "Afraid I don't rightly know, milady," he answers. Judging from the honorific, the woman is clearly important, but I don't know who she could be. And I can't really ask Carlei or the others, not when we're standing right behind her.

The masked dude is still staring at me.

"Well, then, if there is no trouble here, then surely you can permit us to pass, hmm?" the woman says. "I would most like to return to the monastery before it rains."

"Of course," the guard agrees at once. It reminds me a bit of how Silver's guards had treated him, but where Silver had inspired fear this woman seems to inspire respect. The guards part to let the woman through, and her companion follows after a moment, eventually taking his eyes off me. Once they're safely through the gate, the man breathes out a sigh of relief and looks back to us. "State your business."

"We wish to leave the city," Carlei replies, managing to say it in a far less sarcastic and patronising way than I would've managed. I mean, what the hell else would we be doing trying to go through the gate?

"Where are you travelling to?"

Carlei hesitates for just a moment before answering. "The Arufu Monastery." It takes me a moment to realise that she's trying to take advantage of the respect the guard had for the robed woman.

And it works, as the guard stammers a bit before regaining his composure. "Oh! Right. We'll have to search your possessions," he says, in an apologetic tone.

"Of course," Carlei nods calmly. I can't help but wonder what they're going to be searching for, but whatever it is they don't find it. About the only thing that gets any reaction is Carlei's purse of gold, which if I was a guard would've made me pretty damn suspicious, but the guard who finds it just glances into it, raises his eyebrows, and quickly ties it closed again and puts it back in her bag.

They might not be too suspicious of us, but to give them credit they are thorough in their search. It takes them a good few minutes to finish going through all our bags and coats and things, and by the time they finally give us our stuff back and let us go through the gate, it's beginning to spit with rain.

Waiting patiently at the other side of the gate is the robed woman and her companion - who immediately fucking starts staring again. "I couldn't help but overhear," she says, in that light, musical tone, "that you were planning on heading to the monastery. Perhaps you might be so good as to allow Urien and I to accompany you?"

Carlei doesn't quite manage to hide a grimace, but she nods. "Of course," she agrees - and even she speaks in a low, deferential tone. Not the fake, pleading tone she'd had when she'd tried to convince Falkner to help us, but more like how she'd spoken to the High Priest back in Jisan's house. Just who is this woman? Carlei seems to realise that I have no idea what's going on - either that or it's one hell of a coincidence what she says next - because she continues. "We would be honoured to be accompanied by a Warden of the Faith."

Which doesn't exactly explain much, but I can only assume that these Wardens are more important than priests. The Warden smiles. "Please, just call me Zuki. It's a pleasure to meet you, Princess Carlei."

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

There's a stunned moment of silence from all of us, which is promptly broken by Zuki laughing lightly. "Your faces!" she giggles. Her companion looks away from me for once and clears his throat slightly. "I'm sorry," she apologises, "that was a bit mean. Don't be afraid. If we wanted to reveal you, we would have done so while surrounded by guards, no?"

"I suppose so," Carlei admits. She doesn't sound too happy with Zuki's joke. I can't exactly blame her.

"Come, let us travel to the monastery. Few would think to look for you there." She doesn't wait for us to reply, and just turns on her heel elegantly, scarf fluttering, and walks off. The masked guard follows a step behind her. Carlei hesitates for a few moments, but then begins following too.

"What is this monastery?" I ask her quietly, while we're still catching up with Zuki and Urien.

"It is home to the Nameless," she explains. "Also known as the Guardians of Heresy." All three of them - Carlei, Bradon and Gaius - make that funny religious gesture again. "They are monks who their very identities in order to focus on nothing save for devout worship. Supposedly, when great sins of heresy are committed, it is the Nameless who remove and destroy whatever remains. Their monastery is none too out of our way, but their reputation means it is rarely frequented."

"And who's she?" I ask, nodding to Zuki in front of us, who's cheerfully humming a song as we walk down the road. "And what the hell is that guy's problem with me?" I add, when I catch the masked guy looking back over his shoulder at me.

Carlei frowns slightly. "I had thought I had merely imagined the Paladin's interest in you. Truthfully, I have no idea why he seems so focused on you. As for the Warden and Paladin themselves, they both protect the Faith itself - its temples, Shrines and the like. The Wardens' protection is of a more spiritual form, however, while the Paladins are themselves Blessed and defend the Faith from physical threats. They arerare, to say the least. In Joto I believe there are only half a dozen Wardens, and slightly more Paladins."

So first we ran into the High Priest of the entire religion and now we run into their incredibly rareinquisitors, or something. Especially after what happened in the Temple, I'm really beginning to get the impression that something else is going on here.

We only walk for an hour or so before we reach the monastery. I was expecting something like the Temples we've seen, but it doesn't look anything like that - it isn't made of the same white marble, the architecture is completely different, and most notably it looks like it's all but abandoned. Walls have collapsed, spires toppled. I couldn't imagine anyone living there for any length of time.

But sure enough, when we get closer, it becomes apparent that it is occupied; smoke from cooking fires drifts over the wall and there's a general sound of hustle and bustle. When we actually find the entrance, I find myself stopping and looking in bewilderment.

Every single person in there is dressed in hooded black robes, with stripes and swirls of white fabric, and each one of them carries a dark staff topped with an odd-looking rune. When one of the figures turns towards me, I realise that they're wearing white masks with no facial features except two holes for the eyes. Watching the black-and-white figures move around, brushing past each other without seeming to speak to - or even acknowledge - each other, almost makes my eyes hurt.

Zuki is something of a flash of colour in amidst the monochrome, weaving through the monks with practiced ease. "Come!" she calls back to us, beckoning us when we seem hesitant to follow. Her voice seems so loud in the near-soundless monastery and I flinch at the sudden sound. When we eventually make it over to her, she's sat herself down by one of the fires that are dotted around the place - if there were any monks there, they've all left. Urien, the Paladin, is still standing, not even leaning against the broken column he's next to. "Please, relax," she says, gesturing to the fire. "The Guardians will be more than happy to share their supplies if you ask. Now, if you don't mind -" as if any of us are going to try to tell her to stop "- I shall leave you for a few moments."

To my relief, Urien goes with her. "Sodoes anyone feel particularly inclined to ask the monks for supplies?" Bradon asks, voicing a question that was in all our minds. None of us do. Eventually Carlei sighs and gets to her feet, looking around for a moment before heading over to the first monk that doesn't seem to be doing anything too important (not that it's exactly easy to tell) and speaking quietly to them for a moment. The monk nods and leads her away, and even if I know that Gaius and Bradon are perfectly capable fighters somehow I feel a little more uneasy.

She gets back, a worn-looking bag slung over her shoulder, just before Zuki and Urien do. "Please, don't let us interrupt your meal," Zuki says, as Carlei hands the bag to Bradon.

Bradon and I kind of became the designated cooks for the group at some point. I'm not sure exactly when it happened; the original plan was that we took turns, but Carlei can't cook for shit and while Gaius can cook, he's kind of hit and miss with it and grumbles the whole damn time. It took me a little while to get the hang of cooking over a campfire, but for simple things it isn't too difficult. Bradon's the real chef, though - maybe it's his connection to Nature, but he's crazy good at finding edible herbs and mushrooms to flavour our meals. It reminds me a little of Jisan messing around with our teas, except the shit Bradon uses is fresh, not dried, and maybe it's just because I know it's fresh, but I swear it makes a difference.

"This is Erewan," Zuki continues, gesturing to one of the monks (who, to be honest, I'd thought had just been lurking around in that kinda aimless way they seem to like doing) as Bradon rummages through the bag and starts producing a handful of vegetables. "If it's quite all right with you, I'd appreciate it if you would escort them to Hiwada."

The four of us look to each other confusedly. "Um" Carlei stammers.

"Wonderful!" Zuki beams, apparently taking that as assent. "I'll leave you to get acquainted. It truly was an honour to meet you, Princess."

And with that, she turns on her heel, scarf still fluttering away, and leaves. Urien keeps looking at me for another few long moments before he breaks eye contact and follows her. I have to resist the urge to keep glancing over towards the departing duo to see if he's staring at me again.

"Sorry for imposing on you," Erewan says. Their voice is a lot more casual than I was expecting. "I hope you were going to Hiwada anyway."

"We were," Carlei answers, a little hesitantly. "If I may askwhy do you need to leave the monastery? I have rarely heard of members of your order doing so."

Erewan shrugs slightly. "I'm afraid I don't know. The Wardens are given a greater insight into the will of the Divines beyond anyone else - except, perhaps, for the High Priest - but as far as I understand, their insights rarely come with explanations." Which sounds pretty accurate for the Divines, from what I've experienced of their 'will.' "I can only assume it will become apparent when we arrive. Either way, I think that a merchant caravan is passing by tomorrow. Perhaps we could barter for passage with them? The forests of Bond are somewhat notorious for being infested with bandits and other outlaws, after all."

"Surely no bandit would dare to trouble one of your order, Guardian?" Bradon asks.

Erewan frowns. It takes me a moment to realise that something weird's going on. How the hell can I tell that they're frowning? Their white mask is as featureless and inexpressive as ever - but maybe there's something in their grey eyes, because I know, with an almost unnerving certainty, that they're frowning behind it. "Bandit activity has gotten worse lately. Sadly, since the passing of Lord Seisyll, the soldiery of Hiwada have had less success in keeping such outlaws under control. Lord Bughsearre, unfortunately, doesn't command the same loyalty from his men that his father did." They pause a moment, taking in our surprised expressions. "I'm a monk, not a hermit. I pay attention to what's going on in the outside world."

That seems to be all they're willing to say on the subject, though, and after that they return to their silent, eerie staring - I'm sure it wouldn't be so creepy if not for the mask. When Bradon finishes cooking, they take their plate and turn away from us to eat (I have to admit, I was wondering how the hell they would eat and drink through a full-face mask.)

I take the opportunity to turn to Carlei. "Seisyllthat was one of the people who died in the council rebellion, right?" I ask quietly. Even if I hadn't remembered the name, the way Carlei tensed up slightly was a pretty good giveaway. "Do you think thisuh, Bug" I haven't had too much difficulty with Johtan names, but as easily as Erewan pronounced it it's a hell of a tongue twister.

"Everyone calls him 'Bugsy,'" Carlei supplies helpfully. "Though I would suggest not calling him that in his presence."

"This 'Bugsy,' then - do you think he's gonna be like Falkner?"

"Possibly," Carlei admits. "However, he has never been Chosen, even when the scions of noble families tend to be chosen at a much younger age, and many look down upon him - or even mock him - for it. I never have, so perhaps that will work in our favour."

I'm not convinced. Sometimes she's frustrated me with how she talks about me as a normal human - I know she doesn't mean it, but I know enough about being bullied to know that if Bugsy gets a lot of shit for not being Blessed, he'd probably be more likely to pick up on that kind of thing than I have been.

"That was delicious!" Erewan abruptly interrupts the conversation, turning back to us and presenting a plate so spotless that I think they might have licked it clean. "You have a real art for the culinary, Bradon!"

"Oh, uh, thank you!" He beams at the praise, tilting his hat to an even more jaunty than normal angle.

"Not to dampen the mood," Gaius says, speaking for the first time in a while, "but...you do realise that you're accompanying outlaws, right? Ain't that against your code or something?"

Erewan shakes their head slightly. "To the common man, yes, as His Majesty the King is appointed by Divine will, the laws of his kingdom are by extension also the will of the Divines." That catches me off guard a bit. I hadn't known that, and it makes me wonder why the priests we've met have been so willing to assist us. "But we are servants of the Divines and the kingdom. Not the King and his nobles." And for the first time, there's a slight edge to their tone. "Neither I nor any other ordained follower of the Faith are under any obligation to obey Imperial law. So you need not worry," they add, in a more upbeat tone. "I will not endanger you by my presence."

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #10
In the absence of a better idea, we follow Erewan's suggestion to join the caravan that passes through the next day. It's not at all like the caravan we joined to travel from the village in Sekiei to Yoshino, though - most of the occupants of that caravan had just been random people like me (well, maybe not exactly like me) who had needed to travel over a long distance. This caravan is a lot more organised. And clearly a lot more worried about bandit attacks.

Most notable are the guards. There are only half a dozen of them, but in their matching armour they stand out pretty dramatically from the rest of the passengers. Gaius identifies them as belonging to a mercenary company that primarily does guard work for caravans just like this one, which is at least somewhat reassuring - they must know what they're doing if this is literally their job.

Getting passage on the caravan isn't difficult. Erewan clearly spooks pretty much everyone who meets them, because they get offered a seat on one of the wagons almost at once. It takes a little longer for the rest of us to be allowed on, but eventually we get given seats as well - the leader of the caravan apparently judges having three extra Blessed guards as being advantageous enough that we (or rather Carlei) don't have to pay for me.

When the caravan sets off again, I notice another difference. In the first train of caravans, people had always been wandering between wagons, chatting, playing games, and generally being relaxed - other than the weapons pretty much everyone had with them, there was very little sign of anyone being concerned about bandit attacks.

That isn't the case here.

There's very little talk other than an occasional quiet muttering. The guards are clearly on alert, hands on their weapons, for the entire journey - it must be exhausting to be so tense for the entire day, but I guess they're used to it. We don't stop for lunch - or at all, actually, until the caravan stops for the night. Which at least explains how we're expected to make it to Hiwada in three days when it's about as far from Kikyo as Yoshino was.

When we set up our tents for the night - no campfires this time, presumably to avoid letting people know where we are - the six guards remove all their armour and head to bed as well, and I start worrying that the caravan leaders are just hoping that we won't be detected overnight. But then half a dozen of the 'passengers,' who'd spent most of the journey asleep from what I'd seen of them, unearth their own sets of armour and weapons from one of the wagons and position themselves around the perimeter of the camp.

Seeing that we're still protected is reassuring, but the general nervous atmosphere in the camp gets to me, making it difficult to sleep. Carlei and the others are ordered to pitch their tents near the perimeter of the camp, presumably so that they are closer to any potential danger. It's the first time since leaving Sekiei that we haven't stayed together overnight - even in the temples, our rooms were all very close by if not literally adjacent - and I'm surprised at how worried I feel without them near. But eventually I do slowly drift off into an uneasy sleep.

Maybe because I'm worried about the caravan being attacked, I sleep pretty lightly and keep waking up for a few minutes at a time. Normally I go back to sleep pretty quickly, but on what might be the fifth or sixth time, I can't. There are noises outside. I try to tell myself that it's just the guards doing their thing and patrolling around. Or just someone going to take a piss. But I don't convince myself.

I sit up, waiting a minute or two. The sounds don't go away.

A loud noise makes me jump - a metallic clang. And I've heard it enough times now to know what a sword sounds like when it hits something metal. I flinch from the sound, shuffling away from where I think the sound came from until I feel myself pressing against the fabric of the tent wall.

But if we're under attack, surely I'd be safer in the open, where I'd be able to run away, rather than cornered in this stupid tent?

Another sword stroke snaps me out of my confusion and I make a decision - instinctive, without entirely thinking through either option. I crawl forwards and slip out of the tent.

At first, it seems like I'm just imagining things, and everything is fine. The campsite is dark, and it seems peaceful.

Then a plume of fire erupts into the air from the other side of the campsite. Carlei. I take a couple of steps forwards, and in the light of the fire see what I hadn't been able to before - passengers of the caravan, on their knees with shadowy figures standing near them. I can guess why none of them are trying to fight back, but I can't see any weapons to confirm my guess.

And then I don't need to see any weapons, because something cold and sharp presses against my throat.

I risk a glance behind me. The man standing there, knife to my throat, is much younger than I'd expected. He can't be much older than I am. But the coldness in his eyes scares me, more than even Silver.

I know what I need to do. The guy clearly isn't expecting me to fight back. I just need to grab his wrist, step closer to him and pivot to throw him to the ground. Gaius and Carlei made me practice it a dozen times. It's easy. I know I can do it. It's no harder than striking the priest in Kikyo.

So why can't I move?

I'm still trying to convince myself to go through with it when my captor shoves me forwards, roughly enough that I stumble and feel the blade pressing even harder against my neck. Somehow it's far colder than Carlei's sword had ever felt. When he moves the knife away I reach up with a trembling hand and feel a little trickle of blood dampen my fingers.

By the time we get to the middle of the campsite and I can see Carlei and the other two, they - and the caravan guards - have already surrendered, unwilling to endanger the other captives by continuing to fight. I wish I could take some comfort in knowing that even if I'd managed to disarm my captor it wouldn't have made a difference.

But I can't. When I see the pain and anger in Carlei's eyes the only thing I can think is that this is my fault.

Even after everything, I'm just a fucking coward.

They keep the three Blessed away from us as we set off, marching into the dark forest. One or two of the bandits have torches - stolen from the caravan, probably - but it's barely enough light to see by. Somehow, they must know that I'm friends with the Blessed, because they make sure to keep a knife at my throat for the entire journey.

I don't know how long we walk for - maybe half an hour. I don't remember putting my boots on before leaving my tent, but I must have done, and I'm glad I did. A lot of the other passengers in the caravan don't have that luxury, and they're struggling to walk on injured feet by the time we arrive at the bandit camp. The bandits don't give a damn.

The camp is well-lit, so I get a good look at the large, crumbling stone building that the camp has been constructed around. A moment later I notice two figures within it, chained up. Is that what's going to happen to us?

There must be more than two dozen bandits here, including the ones that ambushed us. Most of the join the group corralling us, so there's one bandit per captive if not more. They search us all - not that most of us have any possessions, but a couple of the merchants have jewellery confiscated. None of them dare to touch Erewan.

After a long, terrifying few minutes, another figure arrives. He's big, taller even than Gaius, and every bit as brawny. Accompanying him are another half-dozen figures. At first he doesn't say anything, but then he raises his hand - and a massive whip-like string of boulders appears. He's fucking Blessed. He flicks it into the air and slams it down just in front of us, leaving a crater a good foot or so deep in the ground with each rock. Even the smallest rock, the one at the tip, is almost bigger than I am.

The other bandits that had accompanied him summon weapons of their own. They're all Blessed. It's a show of strength, designed to intimidate us.

It works.

Mostly.

"You dare misuse the gifts of the Divines in such a manner?" Erewan calls out. They haven't been forced to kneel like the rest of us.

The big guy turns his attention to them. "We ain't got a quarrel with you, priest. You're free to go."

"My destiny lies with the people you have captured," Erewan responds. "And you did not answer my question."

He snorts. "Yeah, we 'dare.' Who in all the hells is gonna do anything about it? We were given this power, so we're gonna use it. Just 'cos these brats ain't got the guts to do anythin' with their powers don't mean we don't."

"If you think we do not have the courage to use our gifts meaningfully..." Bradon stands up. The bandit standing behind him tries to shove him back down, but even if he isn't as strong as Gaius or even Carlei, Bradon's still stronger than a human. I can't help but chuckle slightly when I notice he still has his damn hat, feather and all. "Then perhaps I can show you otherwise. I challenge you."

The bandit chief laughs, waving off the two bandits that had just started moving towards him. "Ooh, you challenge me, do you, boy? Why, I'm shaking in my boots." He stamps the ground with one of those boots, sending a tremor through the earth. "Well, far be it from me to refuse an honourable challenge. I accept."

And suddenly, with a cold, horrible, terror, I know something.

I don't know how, but just as I knew that the priest in Kikyo was the one responsible for the Divinely-powered plants, and despite his grin and laughter, I can see a vicious, terrifying fury in the bandit chief's eyes.

Bradon's going to die.

Carlei - Cyndaquil, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

The bandit chief casually waves his free hand, and his thugs back off, forming a rough circle around us. Bradon steps past the circle, but one of them points his knife at me when I try to follow after him to warn him.

I almost consider trying to dodge past him anyway when Carlei catches up to me. "What's the matter?" she asks.

I don't want to speak too loudly, in case one of the bandits hears. "He's going to kill Bradon!" I hiss.

Carlei looks somewhat puzzled. "Ethan, duels are not to the death. You have seen -"

"I know." Carlei pauses, clearly caught off guard by me interrupting her - it's not something I do often. "He won't care. Just like Falkner. "

I can tell she doesn't believe me. After a moment, she reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder, her aura of warmth expanding to cover me. In other situations, it would have been comforting, but I barely notice. "Falkner was an idiot. But even that brute would not dare break the laws of a duel with a priest watching," she tells me, reassuringly.

"And if he does?" Carlei gives me a sceptical look. "Look, I know...I know this probably makes no sense to you. Honestly I don't understand it either, and I don't know how I know this, but I know that I'm right. He doesn't want to beat Bradon. He wants to...to kill him." I stammer the last couple of words.

She clearly doesn't have much of an answer. "I realise that your world functions differently to our own," she says eventually. "But what you're describing is simply something that would not happen. The laws of duelling are a command from the Divines themselves. To defy them as egregiously as you say he intends to..." She offers a vague shrug. "None would dare. And even if they would," she adds, "he still has to defeat Bradon. And as...odd...as Bradon might be, he is a perfectly competent combatant - especially against an Earth Aspect Blessed like that thug."

I can tell she believes every word she's saying. And I know Bradon - and Gaius, who's watching from the edge of the circle, ignoring the two knives pointed at him - would be thinking exactly the same thing. None of them can even consider what's about to happen a possibility.

Carlei tightens her grip on my shoulder briefly, drawing my attention back to her. "Everything's going to be okay," she says. "Trust me."

But for the first time since we escaped the palace, I don't.

Not this time. I wish I could.

The bandits shepherd us further back to leave room for the fight, but mostly leave us to our own devices after that. I think they're as interested to see what's about to happen as most of us, and some of the captives take advantage of that, slipping away into the dark forest and vanishing from sight. If any of the bandits notice, they don't seem to care.

Bradon summons his weapon with an overly-dramatic flick of his hand, and I want to scream at him to take this seriously. Carlei still has her hand on my shoulder, and despite her reassurances I can tell she's worried - her aura is a little hotter, and her grip on my shoulder a little tighter. I look around for Erewan - they're outside the circle, watching the fight closely.

The two of them begin circling. Every so often, the bandit chief flicks his rock whip up slightly with a casual motion of his wrist, and when it lands it sends a tremor through the ground that threatens to knock us off-balance. But Bradon adapts to it after the first couple of tremors, catching our eyes and giving us a cocky, confident smile when he's facing us before the slow circling of the two duellists pivots him away again.

Eventually, it's Bradon who makes the first real move, bringing his blade up in a circle and sending it arcing towards the bandit chief, who raises his whip to block it. Bradon's weapon coils around the first, largest rock in the chain, and the older man grins, taking hold of his whip in both hands and pulling, dragging Bradon forwards despite his best efforts to brace himself. Carlei inhales sharply, and I realise that she (and probably Bradon too) had underestimated how strong the bandit is.

Gaius shakes his head and sighs, like Bradon's a schoolkid who gave the wrong answer to a maths question, and I feel like screaming at him - or maybe punching him in the face, no matter how much I know it'd hurt me more than Gaius. Bradon's fighting for his life - our lives - and the asshole is watching casually like it's just one of the sparring matches back in the temples.

Bradon reacts quickly to his mistake, though. He gives the end of the rope he's holding a quick flick, and whether because of Blessed magic or just pure skill, the blade unhooks from the coils of rope it had become entangled in and comes loose. He stumbles backwards slightly as he's suddenly released from the pull, but turns it into a quick spin that sends his blade whipping back at the bandit chief, who deflects it with the first boulder in the chain - though the impact hacks a large chunk out of the boulder.

After those two attacks, the two of them go back to circling. This fight is a lot more tense than the others I've seen, both fighters focused solely on each other now. I guess it's because the stakes are higher.

Bradon makes a couple of feints, but the bandit chief is quick enough to recover that Bradon can't capitalise on them. When he finally makes an attack of his own, it's a wide sweep of his rocky whip that covers almost the entire clearing. Bradon doesn't try to block the attack, not like Carlei or Gaius might have done, and jumps over the whip. The bandit chief sneers at him and flicks his wrist slightly, sending the whip lashing upwards, slamming into Bradon's legs and knocking him out of the air, but Bradon rolls when he lands and returns the favour, slicing the bandit's right arm - the one holding the whip - with his weapon before the man can recover from the momentum of his own attack.

Their respective injuries don't seem to bother them, though. The bandit chief's next attack is much more powerful - he flicks his whip behind him, raises the handle up in both hands, and brings it down, the whip arcing down over his head.

For a moment I think that Bradon had somehow missed the obvious preparation for the attack or something, because he doesn't move. But then, at almost the last possible moment, he sidesteps, and the whip buries itself into the ground. Bradon pivots back and lashes out with his own weapon. The bandit chief yanks his whip back out of the ground to block it - and Bradon, standing on one of the rocks of the whip, goes soaring into the air. He flicks the rope he's holding again and his weapon whips down, wrapping around the bandit chief's neck. The man is quick enough to interpose his free hand, though, and I know he's strong enough to overpower Bradon and pull the coils away given enough time.

But Bradon doesn't give him that time. He slams his free hand into the ground and vines sprout under the man, wrapping around his legs. The bandit chief struggles, trying to keep his footing as the vines get thicker and stronger, and for a few moments I start to worry that even with what looks like an entire fucking tree on Bradon's side he might not be strong enough to overpower the bandit. But then Bradon blazes with green light and the vines erupt upwards with even more force.

When the bandit chief lands, it's with enough force that another tremor runs through the ground. This time I do get knocked off-balance, stumbling into Carlei, though she catches me easily. When I look back again, the vines are already retreating back underground, and Bradon's walking towards us with a big, beaming grin on his face.

He's won.

The bandits seem speechless. Some of the prisoners are cheering. Bradon, showboat that he is, takes his hat off and bows flamboyantly, laughing.

Behind him, the bandit chief starts struggling to his feet.

I know what's going to happen, but with human reflexes there's nothing I can do to stop it.

The bandit chief punches the ground, just like Bradon did, and a spire of rock erupts from the soil and buries itself in the young man's back.

He's still laughing, though the laughter subsides into a small, surprised gasp. His expression is more surprised than anything else. I want to look away, but I can't, transfixed by the red slowly staining his clothes. His hat drops from his limp hand.

I see Carlei's mouth open as she screams something, but somehow I can't hear it.

Almost as if in slow motion, Bradon drops to his knees, and then, ever so slowly, crumples to the ground.

The sound of battle dimly filters into my perception, but I can't look at anything but the pool of blood spreading from underneath Bradon. I vaguely notice Carlei charge at the bandit chief, but two of his Blessed subordinates get in the way.

There's fighting all around me - some of the bandits dropped their weapons in shock, and the closest people from the caravan have picked them up. I can see people falling on both sides.

More red.

One of the captives who'd already been in the camp when we arrived has somehow got free in the mayhem, now wielding a long, slightly curved sword and slicing through the bandits with an effortless ease that only the Blessed can manage.

"Awaken, scion of mine..."

A blaze of orange fills my vision as one of her opponents manages to wrestle Carlei to the ground, but she erupts with fire, and the man screams as the force blasts him away. When she gets up, she doesn't stop burning, and she moves with more speed and power than I've ever seen from her, and the two Blessed that had nearly defeated her are suddenly no match for her.

Somehow I end up next to Erewan. No-one's dared confront them, and they glance down at me. "Hold your breath," they say quietly. I'm not even sure how I hear them in the mayhem. Then they raise their staff, and it blazes with blue light.

So do their eyes.

"Great Ones, hear my call. I give of myself to your power, that you may smite those that dare defile your names with their dishonour." Then they raise their voice, and it echoes over the battlefield, impossibly loud. "In Lord Kyogre's name, suffer!"

They slam their staff onto the ground.

Suddenly I feel like I'm underwater. There's no water around me, but I'm wet, and I can feel myself gently floating upwards. After a moment, I try swimming, but even though I can feel the water I'm pushing against I don't move.

I'm not the only one affected. Everyone in the entire clearing, except for Erewan, is slowly drifting upwards. As I tumble slowly through the air, I notice Bradon's body still lying there, untouched by whatever magic is affecting the rest of us.

The blue light from Erewan's staff glows brighter before suddenly flowing out of the staff entirely, forming a shining orb of blue light that hovers in the air. It floats towards me and I can feel an impossibly powerful, ancient presence regarding me from within the orb.

Abruptly, the phantasmal water around me vanishes, dumping me back onto the ground, dripping and gasping for breath. If not for Erewan's warning, I think I might have drowned. The presence floats away, passing struggling bandits and civilians alike without paying them any attention and stopping at Carlei. It doesn't watch her for nearly as long as it had me, and barely even pauses before releasing her. Then it moves on, but I barely pay it any attention - though every fibre of my being screams in terror at me to stay focused on it and nothing else.

Bradon's body had lain still at first, but now he...it...floats into the air, more elegantly than any of the others. I hear a faint muttering behind me and I glance backwards to see Erewan focused on Bradon, hands clasped in prayer. Their staff is standing upright on the ground, apparently of its own volition. Something tells me that no human - or Blessed - force could move it.

As Erewan chants, the blood begins to fade away. So does the dirt, and the minor damage to his clothes fixes itself. I wish I could be hopeful that they were healing him, but I know they aren't.

Then he starts to...dissolve, almost, turning into small motes of green light that float up into the sky and spread out, most of them floating over the trees and vanishing from view.

The blue light that had been illuminating the clearing suddenly vanishes, and the oppressive feeling of the presence fades. In the pitch black - the torches were extinguished by the unnatural not-water - I hear a dull thump and a clatter as Erewan slumps to the ground behind me.

A moment later, a pair of small lights - one orange, one green - flicker into life. The orange is Carlei, a fire burning in her palm. The green belongs to one of the two people I'd seen chained within the stone building, a youngish woman with short, brown hair, whose arm and hand are glowing. The colour is the same as the light of Bradon's Aspect.

After a moment, Carlei raises her burning hand up. A great plume of fire soars into the sky, illuminating the clearing, and she holds it there. She'd never been able to maintain such a powerful flame for any length of time before, but now she barely seems to even struggle, and she keeps the fire going until some of the civilians - and the former captive with the sword - manage to relight the torches. Then she lets the fire go out.

Even with the torches, it's a lot darker without the massive flame, and I don't notice Carlei's approach until she's almost within arm's reach.

I hadn't understood how she'd been able to adapt so quickly, to cope so readily. But then I see the tears in her eyes, boiling and steaming into nothingness when they touch her skin, and remember what she'd told me. She was used to putting on a façade.

"I...I should..." She stammers and chokes up when she tries to speak. But I know what she's trying to say. "...should have..."

"Don't." I think she's as surprised as I am at how forceful I manage to sound. I blink away tears which immediately replace themselves and try to focus on her through swimming eyes. "Please. Don't."

"I..."

I step forwards and hug her. Her skin is burning hot, but I don't care. The pain is a welcome distraction. She shifts uncomfortably, clearly aware she's burning me, but I think she needs the comfort just as much as I do, and after a moment she hugs me back, tightly and forcefully enough that she nearly lifts me off the ground.

And in the dim light, in the carnage of the clearing, we hold each other and cry.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

I still can't believe he's gone.

My hands and arms, and the side of my head, are burned and blistered from Carlei's red-hot skin. She hasn't noticed. I'm not going to tell her.

I try to distract myself - and her - by asking about her sudden surge in strength. She answers absently, hollowly, like she's reciting from an invisible book. "Ascension occurs when the Divines approve of the actions of one of their Blessed. In essence, it's a second - or third, or even fourth - Blessing, further improving our power. Some Blessed go their entire lives without ever undergoing Ascension, but others may experience it multiple times. I have...never experienced it before." She doesn't say it, but it's obvious that in other circumstances she'd have been overjoyed at having this Ascension thing happen to her.

Bradon isn't the only one dead. Five other members of the caravan were killed in the melee, and every single one of the nearly two dozen bandits is dead, either from the fight or from Kyogre's power.

Somehow I can't bring myself to care about any of them, and I hate it.

Eventually, it's the Blessed prisoner with the sword - or rather, katana, I realise, when I get a closer look - who gets us moving again, warning us that not all the bandits were in the camp. About a dozen of them had previously left with a cart full of slaves.

Gaius is the one that asks the obvious question. "What do they do with them?"

The man shrugs. He's about the same height as Gaius, though a lot less brawny. Even ragged and dirty from his imprisonment, he has a calm, commanding presence. "Kogane is rumoured to be a city where anything may be bought and sold. Including people."

Carlei looks at him. For the first time since Bradon's death, there's a flicker of emotion in her eyes - anger. I'm glad to see it. Her eyes are normally so vibrant and expressive, and seeing them dull and emotionless like that hurts almost as much as Bradon's death had. "You cannot expect us to believe that the greatest city in Joto harbours slave takers."

"Having never been there myself, I cannot say for sure. But I have seen carts leave this place bearing prisoners and return full of Imperial-minted coin, and they are gone too long to be travelling only to Hiwada."

Carlei opens her mouth to ask something else, but we're interrupted by the Blessed woman with the glowing hand (though it isn't glowing any more.) "The, um..." Her voice is soft and shy, and despite the obvious quivering in her tone she's trying to sound if not upbeat, then at least hopeful. "Before we leave, there's going to be a small memorial for everyone in your caravan that...um, passed away."

"You mean the ones that were killed." I don't even realise I'm the one speaking until I notice her shocked, hurt look, and I feel rotten. Carlei leans over and puts an arm - no longer burning hot - around my shoulders. I want to shut up, to just let her hold me, but somehow I can't stop myself from talking. "Not like we can even...even say goodbye. Since Erewan fucking vaporised him."

Carlei inhales sharply and glances away to where I assume Erewan is, a nervous expression in her eyes. Some of the other people near me make that 'warding off judgement' gesture and glare. But the woman who was talking doesn't. "No," she says kindly, gently. She holds out her hands to us. "Come and see."

After a moment, I reach up and let her pull me to my feet. Carlei does the same, though the woman staggers slightly under our combined weight, which surprises me. For a Blessed she doesn't seem very strong. I think Carlei must be thinking the same thing, because she catches my glance - and then shakes her head slightly. And there's another little flicker of emotion in her eye. Sympathy, this time. And for once, not directed at me.

The woman leads us over to the edge of the clearing. It's still dark here, where there aren't any torches, but Carlei conjures a small, white fire in her hand that I can feel the heat from even from some distance away. "See?" the woman asks. It takes me a moment to realise what she's looking at - a pair of small flowers, a splash of red in amongst the dark clearing. At first I don't understand what's so important about the flowers, but then I look closer, and remember the motes of light that Erewan had scattered.

The petals are the same red as the feather Bradon wore in his hat.

"I don't think they'll last forever," the woman admits, "but just for a little while, they'll be everywhere."

Carlei gives a soft, quiet chuckle. "Adding a little beauty to the world...for all his pantomime about knighthood and honour, I think Bradon would appreciate this."

I want to scream at her. How can she just accept that he's gone? But then I catch her gaze again and see the sadness in her beautiful grey eyes and I know the answer. He isn't the first person she's seen die.

We stand in silence for a few moments, the only noise the rustling of branches and the crackling of the torches. Occasionally in the background I hear the rest of the caravan mourning their own losses.

It's the woman who breaks the silence. "I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I am Haneka of Hiwada, Blessed Warrior of Shaymin. Ostensibly, at least." There's a little downcast edge to her tone.

Carlei doesn't give me the chance to ask what she means by 'ostensibly.' "It's a pleasure to meet you, Haneka. Even if the circumstances are somewhat...unpleasant." She doesn't introduce us, though I'd be surprised if Haneka hadn't heard our names from the other people in the caravan. "Forgive me for asking," Carlei continues, "but...why were you not taken with the other prisoners, if there were indeed others? Why were you kept here?"

Haneka sighs. "I was captured along with a number of others from my village, perhaps a month ago. When we were brought here, that brute Owain - the one that your friend challenged - gave us all a choice. Either we could work with him or be prisoners. I am ashamed to say that a number of my old friends took his offer."

"Why are you ashamed about that?" I ask. "You didn't." I'd like to say I'm trying to cheer her up, but honestly my question is born from little more than morbid curiosity.

She gives me a sad little smile. "No, but...I can't help but wonder if there might have been something I did, some minor, insignificant action, that pushed them to the point where they found a life of inflicting misery upon others more enticing than honour and friendship."

"There will always be cowards," Carlei says, coolly, and a shiver runs down my spine. Cowards like me, giving up instead of fighting back in our camp. I think I must tense up or something, because she glances over to me, and then reaches out and takes my hand gently. I pull my hand away, though, and even though she's obviously confused - and a little hurt - she doesn't stop me.

I know she didn't mean me when she said that. But if she'd known how I'd frozen, how I'd forgotten everything she'd worked so hard to teach me...would she be so forgiving?

Oblivious to the interactions between the two of us - or, maybe, politely ignoring them - Haneka continues her story. "One of my friends had a different idea, however. His plan was to try to insinuate himself into the group and use his position to help the rest of us. It...didn't work out." I recognise the pain in her eyes. It's the same as Carlei's - and, probably, mine. "Aside from our would-be rescuer himself, I was the only one who had been Chosen. And meagre as my powers may be, they still confer upon me the resilience of the Blessed. We were...the only ones to survive."

"So, to answer your question," she continues, "I suspect Shayne was kept here because he has a good deal of knowledge regarding the manner in which the group operate, and they could not afford him to get into the hands of the Imperial Guard or the like. I think they hoped perhaps to turn him back to their side. They had few enough Blessed that his mutiny was a noticeable dent in their numbers. I...well, I think I was mostly kept here as a threat to make sure he stayed in line." She gives a small little shrug.

We both look around for Shayne. Eventually I notice him talking to Gaius. Carlei fixes him with a glare that I'm amazed he can't feel even from all the way over here before looking back to Haneka. "How do you know he was not simply lying to you?" she asks. "How can you be certain that freeing you was his plan all along and not merely a momentary change of heart?"

"Would it matter either way?" Haneka asks. "I believe in redemption. Maybe he didn't originally intend on helping us, but he did - or he tried, at least. And he survived Lord Kyogre's judgement, just the same as us. That's enough for me."

The sound of movement behind us attracts our attention and we look back to notice that the group are beginning to file out of the clearing, heading back to the caravan. Shayne is at the head of the formation, though Gaius is apparently waiting for us.

"Very well," Carlei concedes. "Thank you for showing us this, Haneka."

"I know this probably won't mean much," Haneka says quietly, "but I'm sorry for your loss."

She's the only one to have said anything like that to us.

When she leaves, Gaius approaches, glancing down at the red flowers briefly. "We're leaving," he tells us, rather unnecessarily and as gruff as ever. "Better not fall behind." And that's apparently as much as he cares to mourn Bradon, because he brushes past us in pursuit of the torchlight.

"Do you care?"

Gaius pauses, looking back to me. "What?"

"Do you care that Bradon died?" I repeat. "Or do you not give a shit about anyone but yourself?"

Gaius's eyes narrow and he steps back towards me, glaring down at me. I don't know if it's Carlei's reassuring warmth behind me or some small part of me that was inspired by Bradon, but even though I still find Gaius a bit intimidating, I meet his gaze without flinching. "You're lucky you're just a human," he growls.

"Yeah, cause you can't challenge me to shut me up." I'd figured out that little quirk of the Blessed codes a while back. Humans having the guts to stand up for themselves clearly hadn't been a possibility to whoever invented those codes. "So are you gonna answer?"

"He was a damn idiot."

I barely even register moving. Pull back, thumb outside fist, follow through with torso rotation. It's so simple. Just like they'd taught me, my fist slams solidly into Gaius's neck. I might as well have punched a brick wall for all the effect I have on him, and I have to grit my teeth to keep from crying out at the pain in my hand and arm, but he seems so astonished that I actually hit him that he doesn't react for a moment or two. "He fucking died because he tried to help us. And the best you can do is to call him an idiot?"

Gaius takes a step back, away from me. I know it's because of Carlei, standing behind me, and not actually because of me, but I still feel a small flicker of pride. "He was brave, sure. But he was never smart. He should've waited until the humans - like you - weren't so heavily guarded, and then made a move. That was what I was gonna do, and I'll bet it was what the Princess was gonna do too."

Carlei's heat diminishes a little behind me, and I don't need to see her expression to know that Gaius is right about her plan. "And you let him go through with his challenge anyway."

"I didn't expect him to die. Even if I had known that was gonna happen, what could I have done? You were standing right next to the kid and you couldn't stop him," Gaius points out. "I saw you try."

Like I fucking need him to remind me of my failure.

"Enough." Carlei steps between us before I can try to punch Gaius again, glancing back to me before facing Gaius. There's a warmth in her eyes when she looks at me that I almost think is admiration. "We cannot afford to be divided, now more than ever." I see what she means about hiding her true feelings behind a mask - if I hadn't just seen that look in her eyes, I wouldn't have known that she was on my side. "And we should hasten back to the caravan before any of our personal belongings are examined and anyone realises who we - or at least, Ethan and I - truly are."

Gaius gives a bit of a dismissive sigh, turns on his heel, and stomps off. I swear I hear him mutter "Of course, my noble lady," as he goes.

Carlei watches him go for a moment before looking back to me. "That was brave of you to confront him. Thank you."

It takes me a moment to realise why she's thanking me, but I realise after a moment that when she's trying to present a neutral appearance, she can't very well start yelling at Gaius. And, truthfully, I know she's right about us needing to work together. "I, uh, think it was more stupid, to be honest," I admit.

"Well, perhaps," Carlei replies, with just a hint of a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. "But brave and foolish is not the worst combination of traits to possess."

It's only after she says it that we realise she's just equated me to Bradon, and she stammers slightly, clearly unsure what to say. Honestly I'm not that sure either. But then an image of Bradon flashes briefly into my mind, and I bend down and pluck the two red flowers from the ground.

I hand one of the flowers to Carlei, but she still looks puzzled until I put the flower I'm still holding into my hair, mirroring as best as I can remember where the feather of Bradon's hat used to be. "For Bradon," I explain, belatedly, with a vague shrug. It had seemed a much better idea, much more poignant, before I'd actually done it.

Carlei pauses a moment, and then gives a sad little smile, threading the second flower through her hair. "For Bradon."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #11
It's a sombre group that finally arrives in Hiwada, a week later - not like we really have to worry about organised bandit attacks any more, not when a god has massacred most of them, so we travel at a more relaxed pace.

I probably get about five hours' sleep across the entire week. Every time I close my eyes I see Bradon dying. The only reason I get any sleep at all, towards the end of the journey, is because I physically couldn't stay awake even if I wanted to.

"Does it get easier?" I ask Carlei, after the first night. She doesn't answer, just gives me a sad little smile and a gentle hug. But I'm glad she doesn't try to lie to me.

The red flowers we keep in our hair don't rot or wilt. If anything, they look even fresher and more vibrant since we picked them.

Haneka and Shayne attach themselves to our group as well. With pretty much their entire village either dead or being sold as slaves god knows where, they don't exactly have anywhere else to go. I don't really mind. Haneka is friendly and kind, and Shayne, despite having a very similar, soldier-like outlook on life to Gaius, is polite and respectful - even to me. I have to resist the urge to tell Gaius that Shayne is basically a better version of him.

Gaius, for his part, is clearly still wishing his Blessed code of honour would let him hit me back in retaliation for my punch back in the clearing. Sometimes - normally after I've woken up yet again from seeing Bradon die in my mind's eye - I almost want him to just ignore the damn code and do it anyway, but he doesn't. He contents himself with being even more of an asshole than normal, and mostly it's Shayne and Haneka who are the ones keeping the peace between us.

I haven't spoken to Erewan. Carlei takes the time to thank them for that prayer thing they did that turned Bradon's body into a bunch of flowers, which apparently is normally reserved only for the most pious people in Joto, like the Wardens. I didn't really pay much attention to the theology behind it once Haneka mentioned that most Blessed would be honoured to be memorialised in that way. I'd almost forgotten how people in this world didn't fear death, and I don't like the reminder.

As we get closer to Hiwada, Carlei insists on us starting up our sparring sessions again. Shayne joins in too - which is probably a good thing, because with the new power of her Ascension, Carlei can take on him and Gaius at the same time despite their Aspect advantage. And I'm not entirely sure she'd hold back enough to avoid hurting Gaius if they fought one-on-one. Not that I really give a damn about his well-being, but I know Carlei would feel wretched if she hurt him, no matter how much of an asshole he is.

Haneka spends more of her time training with me than with the others. She might be Blessed, but she explains to me that her powers are kind of...locked inside her, and she can't do all the crazy stunts that the other three can with summoning weapons and that kind of thing. All she can do is heal herself, which seems like a pretty damn amazing power to me, but I guess it's not quite as dramatic and heroic.

For our purposes, though, her relative lack of power is convenient. She's not as strong and fast as the other Blessed, and I quickly discover that training with someone who isn't basically invulnerable is much more effective than training with any of the others - though having to be careful about not hurting my sparring partner is a weird experience. She tells me I don't need to worry since she can regenerate easily, but I do anyway. The scornful looks I get from Gaius when he catches me holding back only reinforce my certainty that I'm doing the right thing.

When we're about a day's walk away from Hiwada, we split off from the caravan. Not having to worry about accidentally revealing our identities is a welcome relief. We spend the day in a small, unoccupied campsite, just relaxing. It's the first time since the bandit clearing that I don't have to catch myself before talking about Bradon as if he's still here, or turning to talk to him before remembering.

Even though it would be quicker for them to stay with the caravan, considering that they claimed they were going to Hiwada, Erewan stays with us. I'm not exactly surprised at this point that there's more to this whole thing than we're being told, though it still pisses me off.

As the sun begins to set, there's a rustling from just outside our campsite. I think we all tense up slightly, even though there's no reason to expect there's a threat here.

"You gotta be kidding," I mutter under my breath, when I see the figure emerging from the bushes. Carlei shoots me a glare, so maybe I hadn't been quite as quiet as I'd intended.

At first I think Zuki has somehow caught up with us. The woman who's just stumbled into our campsite certainly looks very similar - she's wearing the same red-and-green robe, with the same green scarf, that I now know to be the ceremonial robes of the Wardens. But after a moment I realise that it's not Zuki - she's a little younger and taller, with slightly lighter, longer hair.

"Ah, goodness," the Warden mutters, as she emerges from the bushes. "I'm sure there was a path to this campsite around here somewhere." She pauses for a moment when she notices. "Oh, good evening."

Haneka and Shayne look completely astonished. We told them most of what had happened to us, but we hadn't mentioned encountering Zuki just outside Kikyo. I glance back to Carlei, wondering if she's thinking the same as me. Running into one Warden was bizarrely coincidental enough, but two?

A moment later, she's joined by another figure, who I'm guessing is a Paladin just like Uriel. This one is dressed in pale lilac robes, with a scarf that flutters behind him just like the Wardens. His mask - I guess the masks are part of the whole 'Paladin' thing - has a large, red gemstone set into the forehead. And just like Uriel, he immediately fucking zeroes in on me, staring at me, unblinking, through the mask. Unlike Uriel, though, he looks away after a couple of moments.

For some reason, I feel like I've seen him before somewhere.

"Uh...good evening," Carlei eventually says.

"I do apologise for wandering into your campsite. I think I have taken a rather roundabout route to Hiwada. You don't mind if I borrow your companion, do you?" she asks, gesturing to Erewan, as if she'd only just noticed them.

"Of course not," Carlei answers. She's clearly suspicious too, but she's still talking in that deeply respectful, formal tone.

"Wonderful. Come along, Erewan."

I consider for a moment asking how she knew Erewan's name, but I honestly don't care. At this point it's barely even a surprise.

I am surprised when the Paladin doesn't follow her as she leads Erewan away. "I apologise for Naoko," he says. I'm beginning to recognise Jotan accents, and his is very upper-class, like Carlei and Lyra. "She has a habit of permitting her instincts and intuitions to take priority over social niceties. I am Emrys, Paladin of Lugia," he adds, giving us a slight bow.

"It is an honour to meet you," Carlei says, still very formal. "I am Princess Carlei of Joto." I still get a little nervous whenever she introduces herself properly.

"Not according to your father, I believe," Emrys remarks, clearly not surprised by the revelation. I feel the air around Carlei get a little hotter - ever since her Ascension, her fiery aura has been a lot quicker to respond to her emotions. "In any case," he continues, after a few moments of awkward silence, "while we wait for Naoko to return, I wonder if perhaps any of you would be interested in a divination?" He holds up his hand and a deck of cards flash into existence. "It's something of a hobby of mine," he adds, as some of the cards begin to float off the deck and orbit around him. "You first, perhaps?" He turns and looks at me. Why am I not surprised?

My first instinct is to tell him that I don't believe in fortune telling. But in this world, I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of thing actually worked. And then before I can think of another excuse, Carlei puts a hand on my back and gently pushes me towards him.

I turn and look at her, annoyed. If she's so desperate to stay on the good side of the Wardens and Paladins, why doesn't she volunteer for the damn fortune-telling? But it's difficult to stay angry at her. "Fine," I agree, reluctantly.

Emrys turns and walks over to a tree stump that Gaius had been sitting on until Naoko and Emrys had arrived, sending his deck of cards floating ahead of him with a flick of his hand. I have to resist the urge to chuckle at how quickly Gaius backs away and makes room for us.

By the time we're both seated on the grass, on either side of the tree stump, the deck has already dealt about a dozen cards, face-down. Emrys passes his hand over the cards and they flip over - they're all covered in images and pictures that I don't recognise - and he peers at them intently. I can feel an aura of power around him and the cards, and I know that my first guess was right. In this world, magic like this really works.

I just wish I knew what he was seeing.

"You feel powerless." It takes me a moment to even realise Emrys is speaking. The voice seems to come from everywhere at once, and I jump, looking over at him in surprise. He reaches out and taps one of the cards. "Afraid that you are just holding the Princess back, putting her in danger. You think that no matter the cost, having power to match her would be a good thing."

He's not asking questions. He's stating facts. And as much as his cold, dispassionate assessment of my feelings is pissing me off - and is creepy as all hell - I can't deny that he's right.

He moves his hand and indicates another card. "Do not allow yourself to be consumed by spite and vengeance, or remorse." I want to laugh at him then. Does he really think I want to feel like this?

"Not every threat can be destroyed through raw force." He indicates another pair of cards. "And you do not need the blessing of the Divines to possess intellect." It reminds me of what Oak said, about how I was supposed to protect Carlei despite being a million times weaker than her.

But no matter how many people keep telling me that I'm going to be able to protect Carlei, and how magical and pious they are - or how many events they stage to set things up that way - I'm not going to believe them.

I look back up and meet his eyes, and somehow I suspect that he knows exactly what I'm thinking about him and his deck of cards, and again I get that weird sense of deja vu. "Sometimes you have to let something go if you want to save it," he adds. That part doesn't sound quite as much as though he divined it from the set of cards.

The others get their fortunes read too before Naoko and Erewan return. I'm glad I'm not the only one who walks away from that tree stump looking somewhat discomforted - Carlei, Gaius and Shayne all seem as equally unnerved by Emrys's divinations as I was. Haneka, though, walks away with a small, little smile on her face that she can't seem to suppress. Clearly she got a much more pleasant fortune than the rest of us, and I'm surprised to realise I feel happy for her.

Erewan and Naoko come back into the campsite barely thirty seconds after Emrys has finished Haneka's reading. Naoko glances around the group before focusing on me. "You're Ethan, I believe?" she asks. I wonder if Erewan told her how to pronounce my name or if, like Oak, she somehow managed to get it right anyway.

"Uh...yeah." Suddenly I feel very self-conscious, with everyone looking at me. Naoko beckons me over to her, stepping back into the bushes so we're mostly concealed from sight by the others - though I notice that Emrys, still sitting by the tree stump, is watching us with the same unnerving intensity as Uriel had displayed.

"Don't worry," Naoko says, drawing my attention back to her. "You know I won't hurt you." And somehow she's right. Just like I knew what Owain was going to do, I know that she's not a threat to me. From somewhere in the folds of her cloak, she produces a small pendant: what looks like a large pearl, with a ring of smaller pearls around it, threaded through a string. In comparison to the jewellery that Carlei and Lyra were wearing in the palace, it looks drab and cheap, but I'm sure it's more than just a tacky piece of jewellery. "Please keep this on you," Naoko requests, "but do not it to show anyone if you can avoid it. I apologise for all the secrecy," she adds, "but from what Erewan has told me, it appears that people have less respect for the Divines than they once did. Even though he is - mercifully - gone, the Exile King's dark legacy has not been forgotten."

It's not the first time I've been curious about the former King of Kanto, but no-one seems to want to tell me anything about him - even his name is apparently taboo. Somehow I don't think Naoko is going to be any more willing to tell me anything about him, so I focus on another topic instead. "What does this do?" I ask, stringing the pendant around my neck. The string is kind of itchy, but I get used to it soon enough - it's not like I'm unused to discomfort at this point. After a moment, I discover I can tuck it under my shirt and no-one would know it was there.

Naoko smiles at me - a smile that almost verges on being a smirk. "I'm sure you'll find out soon enough. Now, shall we return to your camp?"

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain

When we wake up the next day, Naoko and Emrys are gone. So is Erewan. I'm not entirely sad to see the monk go, but I'm still a bit put out that they just left without even bothering to say goodbye. The others don't seem as upset by it as me. "For the Warden and Paladin to have dined and camped with us is itself a great honour," Haneka explains to me. "We cannot be offended by their rapid departure, not when they have such important matters to attend to."

As we get closer to Hiwada, I'm surprised to find the path beginning to change from forest to dry ground, and then from dry, dusty soil to sand. It takes me a little while to remember what Lyra had taught me about the geography of Joto. "This is the outskirts of Yadon, right?" I ask Carlei, when we stop for lunch.

She nods. "Indeed. And at the centre of the desert is the Yadon Temple, an ancient ruin. And within it lies the Water Shrine." I can't help but feel it's a bit ironic that the Water shrine is in the middle of the damn desert. "As with the shrine in Kikyo, many petitioners travel there in the hopes of gaining the favour of the Divines."

As it turns out, though, she's wrong there. Where the road we're travelling splits off towards Yadon - although given how ornate the road into the desert is in comparison to the one to Kikyo, it might be more accurate to say that the road from Hiwada to Kikyo is the offshoot and the path to the desert the main road - there's a group of a dozen Imperial guards, blocking the road towards the temple.

There's no sign of Silver, but I look around nervously anyway, half expecting him to leap out from behind a tree or something. Carlei is doing much the same. Luckily, the guards aren't paying us too much attention. They're more focused on a covered cart, drawn by two horses and driven by another two Imperials, that seems to have come from Hiwada and is turning onto the road to the temple.

"Come on," Gaius hisses, shaking us out of our nervous reverie and leading us on. For once, I'm glad of his casual, near-emotionless demeanour.

As we get closer to the Imperials, though, I find myself staring at the cart and drawing to a halt. There's something wrong about the cart. Something dark and painful that holds my gaze, and it isn't until Carlei puts an arm around me and physically drags me forwards that I look away.

When I look over to her, though, her expression is more concerned than anything else. "What's wrong?" she asks quietly, pre-empting whatever Gaius was about to say - which, judging from his angry glare, probably wouldn't have been quite so kind.

I hesitate for a moment or two, falling into step with her, before answering. "I felt...something. I don't...I don't know what, exactly. But something about that cart, and the Imperials, was just...evil." It isn't until I say it aloud that I realise that that's what I was sensing.

Carlei doesn't respond, or let me go, until we're past the Imperials. I don't really mind. Once we're a couple of minutes past them, she stops, and looks back to me. "When you said you 'felt' it...is this the same as..."

I can tell she doesn't want to finish that sentence, and I don't blame her, so I just nod. "Yeah."

Gaius looks between us and chuckles. It isn't a friendly sound. "So we're waiting just a few minutes away from the soldiers that would capture - or kill - us if they knew we were there, just because you've got a funny feeling?"

"In the forest, Ethan sensed that that brute was intending on killing Bradon," she snaps. Her voice is level, but her arm is still around my shoulders, and I feel her trembling slightly when she says that. The others look at the two of us, with surprised, disbelieving expressions. "I admit that I do not understand how it is possible, but I will not ignore his instincts a second time."

I'm left a little conflicted. I'm glad that Carlei's listening to me, but at the same time I wish it hadn't taken someone dying. But the pain and guilt in her tone in her last sentence makes me feel rotten for my spiteful thoughts.

"I don't..." Haneka says quietly. "How is that possible?"

"I don't know," I admit. Gaius scoffs at me, and I try to ignore him. "It's just, like..." I sigh, surprised at how difficult it is to put into words something that's so obvious and instinctive to me. "I can just tell. And that Warden, Naoko - she knew I could do...whatever the fuck this is. Sensing people. She pretty much called me out on it."

"It's strange, for sure," Shayne comments, "but we all saw the Warden - and the Paladin, for that matter - take an interest in Ethan. And from what you've told me, that's not the first time you've encountered a Warden and Paladin. To say nothing of being accompanied by an ordained Guardian of Heresy when we met you." He turns slightly so he's facing Gaius. "Yes, it sounds like something we'd hear from someone deep in a tankard. But the holy ones see far more than us. And whatever they've seen in Ethan, I don't think we should ignore it. No matter how odd it seems."

I'm glad he speaks up to support me - and not just because Gaius respects him. Haneka is friendly with all of us, sure, but she pretty much hangs off Shayne's every word - and to be honest, I care more about what she thinks than what Gaius does.

"Ethan's abilities aside," Carlei adds, "it is extremely strange that the Imperial army would be blocking the path to the Temple."

"Can't argue there," Gaius admits.

"I suggest, however," she continues, in a tone that makes it sound less like a suggestion and more like a decision, "that we continue to Hiwada for now. If nothing else, we can likely ask around in the city for information on what the soldiers are doing here."

Hiwada's only about a ten minute walk away from the crossroads, but as soon as we get there it becomes quickly apparent that it's very different to Kikyo or Yoshino. It's extremely, unnervingly quiet, and those few people we see are nervous and shifty - even the guards at the gate don't bother to greet or acknowledge us, preferring to stay in the towers that border the gate.

"Is Hiwada always like this?" I ask. I'm not completely sure who I'm asking, but Shayne answers.

"I've only been here once before," he admits, "but no. Last time I was here, it was more lively than this."

We all shuffle a little closer together as we continue along the road.

After a few minutes of walking, we start to hear voices. Quite a lot of voices - calling and shouting over each other, in a cacophony that makes it difficult to hear anything that's being said. It doesn't take long to find the source - a large crowd, gathered in what must be the centre of town. They're mostly surrounding a carriage, on top of which stands a teenage boy with lilac hair and a tall, athletic woman.

"The boy is Bugsy - er, I mean, Lord Bughsearre," Carlei whispers to me. I'm not sure why she bothers whispering - it's not like anyone would hear us anyway.

I see Bugsy's mouth moving, but his voice is completely drowned out by the shouting. The woman standing on the carriage holds out her hands and summons a pair of swords, and clashes them together, loud enough to stun the crowd into silence. "Thank you, Sabyl," Bugsy says. "Now, please, one at a time." His voice is high-pitched, and cracks occasionally.

The crowd shuffles a bit. I can't see what's going on, but then someone calls out from somewhere near the front of the crowd. "Your city hides in terror, Lord Bughsearre. Innocent folk are scared to go outside at night for fear of being stolen from the streets and left mutilated in an alleyway. What are you doing about it?"

"I assure you, Master Kurt," Bugsy replies, "the city guard is doing everything in their power to identify and bring to-"

"To identify them?" the other voice - Kurt, presumably - cries out. "We know who's responsible - the cursed Imperials!"

A mutter of assent runs through the crowd. "You may be upset over being asked to depart your temple, Kurt," the woman beside Bugsy snaps, "but you should not forget your-"

Bugsy holds up a hand, cutting her off. "It's okay, Sabyl." He pauses a moment or two to let the muttering die down. "I know you all blame the Imperial army for this. And I agree that the timing is strange - Lord Proton arrives and claims the Yadon Temple on behalf of His Majesty, and these foul murders begin not a day later. However, the rule of law is based on evidence, not coincidence and hatred. We cannot simply accuse Lord Proton without any evidence. If you find anything that might hint to the true identity of this killer, I implore you to bring it to the city watch, such that matters can be dealt with in a just manner." He pauses for a few moments, presumably waiting to see if anyone else has anything to say, and then gives a small bow to the crowd. "Thank you for your time."

People begin to turn away, muttering, and as I step back to let them past, I feel a wave of heat wash over me and turn to see Carlei standing almost frighteningly tense, fists clenched. "Uh...you okay?" I ask.

She sighs, taking a deep breath, and beckons us - well, mostly me, but everyone else follows me - into a nearby alleyway. "Do you recall that I told you that my father accepted Gio - er, the former king of Kanto's - councillors into his court? Lord Proton is one of them. And...kidnappings, mutilations? That reeks of the Exile King's experiments."

"How do you know that?" Haneka asks. It's a genuine question, but Carlei's heat flares up even more for a moment - and briefly painful as it is, I'm glad I'm the one closest to her. I don't think she'd have bothered suppressing her aura for anyone else.

"A close friend of mine was studying at in Kanto when all this began," she explains. "He escaped back to Joto when the war with the outlying islands - and the rebellion - began three years ago. So while I don't entirely know how the Exile King was toppled - and I suspect my friend did not tell me the worst of it - I still know enough to know the kind of darkness that was wrought upon Kanto. This is exactly what happened there."

"So what do we do?" Shayne asks.

Carlei is quiet for a long, few moments. "First, we head to the Temple in the city, where we can rest and try to gather more details on these kidnappings. Tomorrow, I will try to get an audience with Lord Bughsearre. The information that these events duplicate those in Kanto is, I suspect, something he does not know, and it might be enough to convince him to order a search of the Yadon Temple."

"Can he do that?" I ask. "I mean, he said it was your dad's orders Proton was acting on."

"He can," Carlei nods. I'd almost forgotten how reassuring it was to see her calm and confident again. "He might have been given a contingent of Imperial soldiers, but Proton is still a courtier, not an officer of the Imperial army like Silver and me, and he is on Lord Bughsearre's land. Father's orders notwithstanding, he has no right to refuse Lord Bughsearre."

"So we're just waiting?" Haneka protests. We look at her in surprise, and she shifts somewhat uneasily, but doesn't back down. "What if they kidnap more people tonight?"

"I do not wish to be responsible for that," Carlei admits, "but we will only have one chance at this. When last I knew Bugsy he was prone to bursts of anger. If we draw his ire he could ignore us entirely, and then, through our failure to convince him, we would be responsible for even more kidnappings. Right now, however well he might have hidden it to the crowd, he will be feeling impotent, and being so publicly challenged by Kurt will have greatly frustrated him. We cannot risk him making a rash decision in his anger."

"You know him best," Shayne says. He's talking more to Haneka than to Carlei, though Haneka still doesn't look convinced. "Look, there's no way that in a single night they could abduct someone from the streets of Hiwada, smuggle them all the way to the Yadon Temple, experiment on them, and then bring them all the way back to Hiwada. Even if anyone is kidnapped tonight, they will still be alive tomorrow."

I wonder if he actually believes that or if he's just trying to cheer Haneka up.

The Hiwada Temple is very slightly less eerily quiet than the rest of the city. It's still not nearly as lively as the Kikyo or Yoshino Temples - there's less chatter and showing off Blessed gifts as everyone dines - but it's a damn sight cheerier than everywhere else, and it makes me feel a little better. There's a lot of people in grey robes here, just like there were in Kikyo - maybe the locals think that staying in the Temple will keep them safe from the Imperials. Maybe it works, too, because even after the sun sets I don't hear any commotion that would suggest someone's been kidnapped.

The Temples have always been quite pleasant places, and I've always found it easy to fall asleep in the poky little rooms that we stay in. But for whatever reason, I just can't seem to fall asleep. I'm not sure if it's because I'm worried about going to see Bugsy tomorrow - partly because I don't know how Carlei intends to get an audience with him, mostly because last time we visited one of the lords of Joto it didn't exactly go according to plan - or whether it's because I'm worried about what might be happening out in the streets of Hiwada. Or whether it's because I'm worried about how Carlei will be feeling, with all this stuff about her father's councillors suddenly coming back into prominence.

I'm distracted from my thoughts by the creaking of floorboards outside, as someone walks past my room. Logically I know that it should be nothing to do with me - there must be a hundred people, if not more, sleeping in the rooms here. But ever since I spoke to Naoko I've been more alert of what my instincts are telling me, and I know that it's not just some random Blessed going for a late-night walk.

By the time I get the stupid grey robes on again, whoever it was is long gone, but I know where they went. And they're obviously trying to be subtle, because they're moving more slowly than me, and I get to the courtyard just in time to see Haneka - still dressed in the long, red gown of her heraldry, green streamers in her hair - slip out of the gates.

Where the hell is she going?

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

Haneka clearly doesn't expect anyone to be following her. I follow her around the side of the Temple and down an alleyway, until we come to a small courtyard. She briefly looks behind her - impulsively, I duck out of sight just before she does - and then darts inside.

By the time I get to the courtyard myself, she's creeping around the edge of it, heading towards a small stable at the other side. A horse looks at her and snorts, but she holds up her hand and a soft green light shines from it, and the horse relaxes, going back to eating from its bale of hay.

Calming the horse slows her down, though, and I catch up to her. "What the hell are you doing?" I ask, in a sharp whisper.

She obviously didn't know I was following her, because she jumps in shock and barely represses a cry of surprise. "Ethan? What in the world...what are you doing here?"

"Following you," I answer. And then I look past her and see the carts in the stables, and realise what she's doing.

She sees where I'm looking and nods. "I could see them out of the window of my room. This must be where the Imperials are based within the city. Didn't you notice, when we were at the blockade? They never searched the carts!" She beams at me. "We can get in and they'll never know we were there!"

"Are you insane?" Haneka pauses, looking hurt, and I do feel a bit bad for it, but being upset by me is a hell of a lot better than being caught by Imperials. "What are you even gonna do if you get there? I can damn near beat you in a fight. What the hell do you think you can do against a group of soldiers when they catch you?"

"I'm not going to get caught," Haneka says, with a fierce confidence that reminds me a little of Carlei. "Emrys told me: 'hunt for darkness and you will find light.' And after Princess Carlei called what was going on here 'darkness'...well, what else could it mean? And maybe..."

"Maybe 'light' is your Blessing fully working for you, right?" She gives me a shocked look. "I saw how happy you were when Emrys read your fortune. Pretty easy to guess what he told you. But come on, don't you think that's a bit of a stretch?"

Haneka sighs. "Ethan...maybe you don't mind being weaker than the others. Maybe it's okay with you that you're slowing Princess Carlei and the others down." And now it's my turn to feel hurt - doubly so with Emrys's clinical assessment of my feelings still in my thoughts. "But...for my entire life, I've been the useless one. The one that always needs help. My own father disowned me when my Blessing didn't fully manifest, said that it was proof that the Divines had made a mistake." There are a couple of tears glistening in the corners of her eyes. "And I know I can't fight like they can. As you said, I can barely defeat you - and if you fought me seriously, I suspect you could overpower me." That catches me off guard - both that she noticed I was holding back against her and that she thinks I could beat her if I wasn't. "But this, for once, is something I can do. And I'm not going to just hide and do nothing."

"You're wrong," I tell her softly. "I hate being this weak. At least you are Blessed. I'm just a stupid lost human." Haneka flinches slightly when she meets my gaze. "Carlei's saved my life more times than I can count, and all I've done is drag her into trouble. Hell, the entire reason she's on the run is because of me." I shake my head slightly. "You have no idea how much I want to be as powerful as her. But you're not the only one who's been thinking about what Emrys said. He told me something - that I'd give anything to be as strong as Carlei is. No matter what it was. But he was wrong. Or..." I pause for a moment. "More, I guess, he was right and I was wrong. Because yeah, some part of me would do whatever it took to be as powerful as they are. But...the whole reason I want to be that strong is so I can protect Carlei, like she's been protecting me. So...there are some things I wouldn't give up, even if it meant I could be Chosen." I realise I've gone a bit off track, and run a hand through my hair, sheepishly.

"Look, what I'm trying to say is...yeah, we need them to protect us. But...Carlei could've left me behind a dozen times, but she hasn't. And from what you said, the only reason Shayne even got caught was because he was trying to help you and your friends. So...maybe it's okay."

Haneka chuckles slightly. "I wish..." she starts to say, but then we hear noise from the entrance to the courtyard. For a moment I hope that it's Carlei or Shayne - hell, I'd even take Gaius - coming after the two of us. But the clanking of armour gets rid of that hope in an instant.

Two Imperial soldiers round the corner and start heading into the courtyard. Haneka makes a quiet, scared, wordless sound and claps her hands over her mouth, even though there's no way the Imperials could have heard her from this distance.

Even if they haven't heard us, though, they'll see us soon enough - my drab grey robes blend in to the dark courtyard, but the bright green streamers in Haneka's hair are pretty damn obvious. But there's an obvious hiding place nearby.

"I can't believe we're doing this," I mutter, more to myself than anyone else, and head deeper into the stables, towards the carts. Haneka must have the same idea, because she follows me, and we quickly scramble into the closest cart.

"Who in the blue blazes are you?" A rough voice hisses out from the dark interior of the cart. We both jump, and Haneka makes her hand glow again. In the dim illumination we can see an old man with long, grey hair, dressed in somewhat ragged robes, sitting in the cart already with a gnarled walking stick by his side. "Get your own cart!"

It takes me a moment to place his voice. "You're Kurt, right? You were talking to Bugsy earlier this evening."

"That's Father Kurt to you," he snaps. "Just because the cursed Imperials have evicted me from my own temple - on 'the King's business,' supposedly - doesn't change the fact that I'm an ordained priest of the Faith."

"Did you come to investigate the Imperials as well?" Haneka asks.

"Hmph." Kurt doesn't seem inclined to answer at first, but then he nods. "If Lord Bugshearre wants evidence, then I intend on finding some. But this is no place for you children. You should get out of here while you have the chance."

"Children?" Haneka protests. "I'm twenty-seven years old!" Honestly I'd thought she was younger than that, but I'm not going to bring that up right now.

"And I've lived longer than the two of you put together," Kurt counters.

"Even if we wanted to leave, which we do -" I give Haneka a pointed look, and she scowls back at me but doesn't argue "- we can't. There are soldiers guarding the entrance. That's why we got in this damn cart in the first place."

"Watch your language, boy!" Kurt snaps. But then he tuts. "Very well. It appears we're all in this together, then. When we arrive in the Temple, I will show you some of the secret paths known only to -"

"Shh!" I push Haneka's glowing hand down slightly. She gets the message and dismisses the glow.

Kurt stammers in the darkness, probably offended that I shushed him, but then we hear the clanking of armour as an Imperial from outside the cart approaches. I hadn't even realised why I was trying to hide us until then, and as much as my instincts probably just saved our asses, it's pretty damn scary to realise I was doing something without knowing why.

"Are we going?" asks a voice from outside, and the cart shakes slightly as someone climbs onto the driver's seat (or whatever the hell the right term is) at the front of the cart.

"No point waiting," another voice answers. "We aren't expecting any subjects tonight, thanks to the brat's little speech."

I hear Haneka gasp quietly beside me. I barely manage to catch myself before doing the same. Subjects.

Reins clatter, and the cart jolts into motion.

We travel in darkness and silence, only broken by the two Imperials talking to each other. From them, I learn that these carts are often harassed as they leave the city - although tonight there's nothing more than a few quiet jeers from outside. I wonder if Kurt arranged for this cart to go unmolested so he could get into the Temple.

Just as Haneka had said, the Imperials don't search the cart at the blockade. Apparently this cart is only even travelling to the temple to avoid anyone wondering why the carts only go between Yadon and Hiwada after a string of kidnappings.

The journey must take an hour, if not more. We don't discuss it, but after waiting for that long, none of us see any reason to not wait a few more minutes after we stop to let the Imperials leave the cart and go about their business.

But when Haneka moves to push open the canvas flap at the back of the cart and climb out, I grab her arm and pull her back. She exclaims in surprise, making her hand glow softly again, but relaxes a little when she sees it's me. "Did you sense something?" she asks.

"I...think so," I answer, honestly a little confused. I'm not sure why I stopped her - or how I even knew where the hell she was in the darkness.

Much more cautiously this time, Haneka lies down and pushes the corner of the flap aside a fraction. From the way she stiffens, I can guess what she's seeing. "There are three Imperials sitting around a campfire, barely thirty feet from us," she whispers in an undertone. "If you hadn't stopped me I'd have walked right into them."

"Your powers are quite impressive, boy," Kurt comments.

Something occurs to me then. "Oh, right, you're a priest, aren't you? Do you know what the hell - sorry, what the heck -" I correct myself before he can snap at me this time "- is going on with me? How I can tell all this shit?"

Kurt pauses for a moment, studying me - and his eyes start glowing. Just like Jisan's had, back in his remote little house. "Look to your left," he says, after a moment. I do, and find myself meeting Haneka's gaze. She looks just as confused as me.

Can any of these damn priests give a straight answer for once?

Then, to my surprise, Kurt starts shuffling forwards along the cart. "What are you doing?" I barely manage to stop myself from shouting at him.

"My infiltration of this place will not surprise them," he answers, "especially after I made a spectacle of myself earlier. I can distract them, and the two of you can find the evidence Lord Bughsearre needs to march on this place."

"What if they just kill you?" Haneka asks, a quiver in her tone.

Kurt scoffs. "After I so publicly opposed them? My death - or disappearance - would immediately draw suspicion down upon them."

"Are you sure they'll realise that?" I ask.

"If they do not, then my death will be in the service of my Temple and my Faith. What better way for an old man to pass from this world?"

Fucking Jotans and their fucking acceptance of death.

But before I can think of anything to say, Kurt pushes the canvas flap aside and clambers out of the cart. "Now you listen here, you wretches!" he cries loudly, marching towards the three Imperials by the campfire, waving his stick like every old man caricature I've ever seen. I'm half surprised he doesn't shout 'Get off my lawn.' "I know you're responsible for polluting my Temple with your foul experiments!"

More Imperials come running towards the commotion. None of them notice us, peeking out of the cart. "He's doing that for us," Haneka says quietly. "We can't just stay here."

When he sees us hop out of the cart, Kurt goes into overdrive, flailing his stick wildly at the closest Imperial and drawing even more attention towards him. I think we could've walked right through the campsite without them noticing us.

The Yadon Temple is very different to the modern temples - where they're tall, it's sprawling, a massive complex that looks like it must be as big as the Sekiei palace. Haneka and I crawl in through a crumbling wall without anyone noticing us, and into a large atrium.

Just after we're safe inside, Kurt's tirade abruptly cuts off.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

Haneka lights up her hand again, and we start advancing down the first crumbling hallway we find. I'm not sure what we're really expecting to find - or what we'd do if we found it.

It becomes quickly obvious that, much like the modern temples, it's pretty much impossible to find your way around this place without a map or a guide. Except unlike the modern temples, there aren't any helpful priests to pop up out of side passages and tell you where to go when you need them.

I'm not sure how long we're walking for. Probably about quarter of an hour. "I think the Shrine is on the lowest levels," Haneka suggests, a few minutes in - and so we start looking for staircases leading down, or failing that collapsed floors.

But eventually when we find something, it's by pure chance, not any kind of purpose on our parts. It's the sound we hear first - soft crying, and the occasional quiet whisper. Then the smell hits us - piss and shit, and other smells, acrid and chemical.

Haneka lets the glow in her hand fade as we approach. She doesn't need it - magical lights, like the ones from the palace, are scattered around, providing erratic illumination. And in the dim light, we can see cages.

Most of them, thank God, are unoccupied. There must be two dozen cages or more. They don't look very robust. Carlei could have sliced through the bars with one flick of her sword - or just ripped them open bare-handed, considering how strong she is now after her Ascension. But all that tells us is that the five people trapped here are humans.

I don't think they even notice us at first. They're all curled up - not by choice; the cages aren't big enough for them to stand - and most of them have their eyes closed. Haneka runs for the closest occupied cage at once and starts pulling at the door, but all she does is make the cages rattle loudly. "How could they..." She whispers to herself, abandoning the cage after a moment and looking around the room. "There must be something!"

"Go..." I barely even hear his voice, but the man within the cage that Haneka had been wrestling with reaches out a weak hand to us. "Just...leave us."

"I won't!" Haneka finally unearths a long shard of metal that looks like it might have come from one of the cages, and jams it into the gap between cage and door, pulling on it. "Ethan, help me!"

I realise that I've just been standing there dumbly, and almost stumble as I move forward to help with her makeshift crowbar. Between the two of us, we can exert enough force that the lock suddenly gives way, sending the cage door springing open and the two of us staggering back. Haneka winces in pain, and I notice that the metal has cut her hands. She sees me looking and smiles slightly. Green light covers her hands, and a moment or two later, the wounds are gone.

The two of us look back to the man we freed - except he's still in the cage, still curled up. "It's okay," Haneka says, reassuringly. "You're safe now."

"I'm not," the man replies, in a voice that's almost a whisper. "None of us are."

Then I feel something. Not the same evil as I had from the cart - the cart, I now know, that was carrying prisoners here - but similar. The cart was just radiating with the fear and anger of the prisoners trapped within. But the aura I'm sensing now is darker, more active. It's the aura of someone who inflicts all this pain and fear without the slightest concern for other people.

And when I turn to look in the direction of the aura, I see a man with turquoise hair, immaculately dressed in a dark, formal outfit and carrying a long knife that drips with a dark liquid.

"I really should station more guards," Lord Proton remarks. "I can't have little brats ruining my experiments."

Haneka gasps, and backs up a step or two before stopping. The glow in her hands blazes into full light. "Well, you're too late!" she declares, trying to hide the fear in her tone. "These experiments are over."

Proton walks closer - slowly, casually, without a care in the world - until he's fully in the light. The cold sneer on his face sends shivers down my spine. "Hmm," he mutters. "A dud. Well, you're of little use to me."

He makes an idle throwing gesture with his free hand, as if tossing a ball. Half-way through the motion, a small, round orb materialises in his hand, and when he throws it it lands almost perfectly at our feet, leaking a thick, purple smoke.

Instinctively, I turn and run. Haneka has the same idea, and we make it to the end of the row of cages before the grenade explodes behind us. I risk a look back, and see a massive cloud of opaque, purple smog roiling towards us. Even from a distance, the horrible, acidic smell makes me gag. Haneka grabs my hand as I stumble and we keep running.

The smoke keeps going, spreading out unnaturally far from its source. We're running haphazardly, picking passages at random. I have no idea which way we came in, or where we're going. We can't stop, either to catch our breath or to try to figure out where to go. The cloud is always behind us, silent and inexorable - and I have no doubt that it's deadly.

We're both gasping for breath when we round another corner and find Proton stepping out of a side passage ahead of us. I guess Kurt isn't the only one who knows how to get around this place. "Goodbye," he says calmly, and drops another grenade at his feet.

Haneka hesitates, glancing back behind her to where the smog from the first grenade has already blocked off the corner. I don't, and keep running, and a jolt of pain runs through my arm as I nearly lose my grip on Haneka's hand.

The momentary delay means that we're barely a pace past the grenade when it explodes, and I don't quite manage to hold my breath in time.

A single breath of the foul, purple smog leaves me choking and retching, but I manage to keep going, staggering forwards. Haneka seems worse affected by it than me, and within a few steps the only reason she's still moving is because I'm still holding onto her hand, pulling her behind me as we struggle to breathe in the poisonous cloud.

Haneka stumbles, and we both crash to the floor. I manage to scrabble to my feet, but the impact leaves me disoriented, and I have no idea where Haneka is. I pick the direction I think is the way we came from, staggering back with the last of my breath, but I don't see her.

And then I feel the currents in the smog change slightly and realise I've emerged into a much larger room, not at all where we came from. But even this larger room is completely full of Proton's toxic smog, and there's no respite.

Eyes streaming, I feel my legs give out from under me. I try to pull myself backwards, back towards where I know Haneka must be this time, but all I manage to do is scrape feebly at the stone floor, tearing a nail on a flagstone.

Everything goes very quiet as I close my eyes. Even the faint hissing of the smoke seems to have died out. But then I hear a voice - quiet, but impossibly powerful, every syllable hitting me like a bolt of lightning.

"Awaken, scion of mine."

As I slip into unconsciousness, I breathe in, unable to hold my breath any longer - and then I realise I'm breathing.

I open my eyes and look around. The smog seems thinner suddenly, inexplicably, and though it tickles my throat a little I can breathe easily enough. I can see the room I emerged into - a great dome, with an incredible intricate, ornate fountain in the centre, bubbling away with pure, clear water. This must be the Shrine that the Yadon Temple is so famous for, and it's filled with small motes of light - mostly white, but there are some blue and red, and occasional ones in all sorts of other colours - that bob around aimlessly in midair.

I look back to the way I came - and see Haneka, faintly glowing green. Even though the smog's gone, it's clearly done its work, because she's lying still on the ground. "Haneka!" I call out to her, staggering to my feet and running back to her.

She's still breathing, thank God, and even still conscious. She stirs slightly when she hears my voice, and with my help she manages to get back to her feet. I'm as much dragging her as supporting her back towards the Shrine, but we both make it back there, collapsing against the side of the fountain - the Shrine's power is clearly keeping Proton's conjured smoke away.

"How..." Haneka coughs as she speaks, and pauses to shift position slightly, dipping a hand into the fountain and sipping at the water. "How did you find me?"

"You're glowing," I point out to her. "You aren't exactly hard to see."

She gives me a bewildered look, and holds a glowing hand up in front of her face. "No, I'm not."

I blink at her, dumbfounded. "You...definitely are."

"My glow doesn't shine through the smoke," she points out. "I couldn't even see my own hands."

"Back when the smoke was thick, yeah," I agree, "but now?" I gesture back to the hallway we came down.

"The smoke...is still as thick as it was." Haneka is starting to sound frustrated, like she thinks I'm playing some kind of joke on her. To be honest, I'm beginning to get a little frustrated myself.

"Okay, fine." I get up, walking towards the smoke - Haneka guesses what I'm about to do, because she grabs at my arm, but I dodge her. "Look, this is getting stupid. We can't be seeing completely different things." I turn away from her again and start walking forwards

"Ethan?!" I've barely even stepped into the smoke when I hear her call my name, and look around. She looks right past me, sightlessly, with fearful eyes. "Are you..?"

"I'm right here." She jumps when she hears my voice. "Can you seriously not see me?"

"Not at all." She seems to be beginning to calm down now it's becoming apparent that I'm not about to suffocate in the smog. "And the smoke? It isn't affecting you as badly any more?"

"No." I shrug before remembering she can't see me, and step back out of the smoke - Haneka stumbles backwards when I emerge. "I mean, it's not the nicest thing to breathe in in the world, but it doesn't seem like it's gonna kill me any time soon."

Haneka pauses for a few moments. "I have an idea. If this is some illusion that you can see through...somehow...then if I close my eyes, and you do not tell me when we are getting close to the smoke, then I should be okay."

"I guess that makes sense," I agree. I'm not sure either of us are entirely convinced by that logic, but back when I was reading about the crazy stunts Blessed can pull I had read about illusions, and not knowing that the illusion was there was a pretty good way of defeating them.

She uses the streamers from her hair to make a makeshift blindfold, and starts moving forwards, holding her hands out in front of her. The sparkling motes of light drift out of her way as she gets close to them. I keep pace with her, expecting her to make it to the wall - but the minute she steps into the smog, she starts coughing and spluttering again, tearing the blindfold from her face in an attempt to figure out which way she's going and staggering sideways. "Hey, this way!" I pull her back towards the clean air around the Shrine before she can get lost in the smog again.

Maybe because she only got one or two breaths of the cloud this time, she recovers a lot faster. "So," she surmises, when she can breathe without choking, "clearly it isn't an illusion that you can see through and I cannot. Do you think...perhaps, this is some kind of extension of your instincts? You sensed those Imperials at the campfire without ever seeing them, after all."

I hadn't thought about that. "So...what, you think I'm just sensing you, and the walls, and not actually seeing them?"

"It would explain why you can see through the smoke," she points out, quite reasonably. Then she suddenly exclaims "Oh! 'Look to your left!'"

"Huh? You mean what Kurt said?"

She nods, grinning widely and speaking quicker and quicker. "Precisely! When he told you to look to your left, you looked at me. Perhaps he was subtly trying to tell you that you were like me - Blessed, but without your full powers available to you!"

All I can manage to do is gape at her.

"And now, perhaps after your brush with death, you have access to your true abilities. That would also explain why the smoke has such an insignificant effect on you now - your Blessed resilience is protecting you."

It does make sense. Come to think of it, it explains how Jisan could use his weird Sight thing on me just like he had on Gaius, Carlei and Bradon, way the hell back then. But I can't believe it. "Well, if nearly dying is what unlocked my powers, how come you didn't get the same thing happening to you?"

She looks a bit downcast. "I suppose...the Divines work in mysterious ways. Perhaps when Emrys told me that hunting darkness would find light, he meant your light, not my own." I can't help but feel sorry for her.

The mention of light makes me think of something else. "Hey, on the topic of lights...can you see all these little sparkly things?" She looks around blankly. "I guess not."

So my powers involve seeing lights that aren't there and being able to see through evil poison smoke. Not exactly the kind of badass abilities that I've come to expect from the Blessed.

Still...

"So I'm Blessed now, huh?"

Haneka gives me a wicked, mischievous smirk. "I wonder what Princess Carlei will think when she learns of your new power?"

I wish the smoke would hide my blushing.

The run is considered failed if Ethan dies.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #12
Welp, guess who forgot to post some chapters yesterday? 😊

It's probably about ten minutes after we first made it to the Shrine room when Proton's conjured smoke disappears and we can leave. The presence of the Shrine - and its pure, clean water - might have helped Haneka recover to some extent, but she's still quite weak and pale, so between that and the fear that Proton might pop out of a side corridor again, we move pretty slowly.

It doesn't help that neither of us can remember which way we came.

As we're wandering aimlessly, though, we start to hear loud noise - blades clashing, and loud whooshes of air that I recognise as eruptions of fire. It has to be Carlei.

I'm not sure if that thought is just born of hope, or if my Blessed instincts are telling me it's her. It's still difficult for me to accept that this is actually happening, that I'm Blessed now.

By unspoken agreement, we follow the sounds, moving through areas that look more populated. They must be where the Imperials on the site are resting and sleeping. I wish I could tell what was happening just from the noises, but the best conclusion I can come to is that the fighting is still going on. I know that Carlei can heal herself and the others given time, but I bet Proton knows that too, and I'm pretty sure he'd be smart enough to make sure she didn't get the opportunity.

The motes of light - or whatever the hell they actually are - aren't just around the shrine. They're everywhere in the Temple, and I suspect they're everywhere outside too. When Haneka goes near them they just phase through her as if she isn't even there, but I keep getting the damn things stuck to me. They don't seem to do anything, but suddenly having a sparkling shoulder is really distracting.

As we're travelling through an area that seems to have been turned into a makeshift armoury, we turn a corner and come face to face with a pair of Imperial soldiers, fully armoured. They seem as surprised to see us as we are to see them, but they grab their pikes, and one of them reaches to the bandolier across his chest with one hand, tugging free the signal horn strapped into it.

I don't freeze this time. Maybe it's because my Blessing has given me newfound confidence, or maybe it's just because this time it's not only my safety at stake.

I run at the one with the horn and make a grab for it too, and manage to catch it before he can put it to his mouth, pulling it back with enough force that he loses his balance and stumbles towards me. Instinctively, I shove him away, turning so I ram my shoulder into his chest, and he goes sprawling on the floor, leaving me with the horn.

A moment later, Haneka crashes to the ground beside me, and instinctively I turn to help her up. "You okay?" I ask.

She's still pale, and the green aura around her is flickering with a dull, eerie grey. "I'm..." she starts to say - and then her eyes widen in fear and the grey light around her magnifies, almost completely blotting out the green.

Instinctively I turn, raising one arm to block whatever attack she saw. I find myself looking into the eyes of the soldier that I hadn't shoved away, and then follow her gaze down the length of the pike she's wielding and to the blade, just a couple of inches away from my neck. Without even realising it I've caught the pike one-handed, just below the blade.

"Holy shit," I whisper.

Haneka is the first of the three of us to react, and kicks at the woman's legs, trying to knock her off-balance. Against steel greaves her blow doesn't have much effect, but it distracts the woman, and gives me the time to stand back up and pull at the pike. With the cross-bar of the pike to brace against I have a substantial advantage over the soldier, even with only one hand, and there's a scraping sound as the haft of the pike slides out of the woman's gauntleted hands.

The two of them look nervous now as I toss the pike behind me. I think they assumed we were escaped test subjects - humans, not Blessed. I try to ignore the little voice that tells me that only an hour ago, they'd have been right.

To my surprise, they don't give up - but they both go for Haneka, not me. The woman I disarmed steps around me and charges in a tackle, while the man, who still has his pike, swings in a sideways arc, sandwiching Haneka between soldier and polearm. Almost without consciously realising what I'm doing, I step past Haneka and take the female soldier's charge in her stead - I don't have time to brace myself, and her tackle knocks me back a pace, but then I manage to stop myself and lever the armoured woman into the path of the pike. The man manages to twist enough to avoid hitting her, but as the woman struggles to get out of my grip, Haneka brings a large stone down on her head. Her helmet rings with a resounding gong, and when I let her go, she slumps to the ground.

I wish I'd kept the woman's pike now, because the man goes on the defensive, keeping his weapon between me and him, and I can't get around him. After a few ineffective feints, I just abandon any pretence at subtlety and deliberately step into his path, letting him swing at me. He realises his mistake too late when I catch his pike too, and before he can let go and get out of the way, I put both hands on the crossbar, and push, slamming the haft into his chest.

I let the pike drop as its former wielder clatters to the ground, and look back to Haneka, breathing heavily. She's panting too, but smiling a little. "Are you convinced you're Blessed now?" she asks, wryly.

I'm not entirely sure how to answer. There's no way I could have pulled those stunts off with human strength and speed. But at the same time, I remember how effortlessly Carlei took down the two guards in Sekiei. That had been pretty much exactly the same situation, give or take some armour. And I managed to nearly get Haneka chopped in two, twice. "I'm convinced I've got a hell of a lot to learn," I answer eventually.

Haneka nods, almost trying to suppress a laugh, but then looks down at the woman she'd hit with the rock, and suddenly looks panicked. That grey in her aura starts getting stronger again. "She's alive," I reassure her - though even if I can be certain that the woman's alive, I have no idea if she'll actually recover fully. Honestly, right now I don't care. Even before they just tried to kill us, these two might not have had such horrible, dark auras as Proton, but their auras are plenty malevolent.

We keep going more quickly after that. Haneka picks up one of the pikes, but discards it after a few minutes of lugging it around. She offers it to me, but even if I could carry it pretty easily, I'm pretty sure giving me a weapon would only make things worse if we got into another fight. On reflection, I wish I'd carried it just to give to her if we needed to fight again, but it's too late to go back and get the damn thing.

Eventually, we come to a corridor filled with Proton's conjured smog. Instinctively, Haneka turns to run, and I follow her, but after a moment I realise we aren't being pursued. "Hey, hang on," I call to her. "It's not moving."

She comes back hesitantly. I can't really blame her after her last experience with the smoke. "Is...is there anything in there?" she asks.

If I concentrate, I can see the smoke in both views - the impenetrable wall of purple gas that's all Haneka can see, and the thin vapour that I'm sensing. "No, but it turns about twenty feet in," I tell her.

Another eruption of fire - closer, this time, close enough that I see the gas illuminated from somewhere down the corridor - makes us jump. "Go," Haneka tells me, waving me towards the smog. "I'll be okay."

Part of me doesn't want to leave her alone here. But I know she isn't defenceless, and we haven't seen any more Imperials since the duo we fought. And Carlei might be in trouble. "Thanks," I say briefly to her, and carry on into the smoke.

I find the source of all the commotion pretty quickly. In the atrium of the temple, Carlei, Gaius and Shayne are standing together, back to back, surrounded by a half-dozen Imperials. It takes me a moment to realise why the trio are being so defensive - they can't see through the smoke any more than Haneka could, and the attackers obviously can. From their perspective, the Imperials must just be ghosting out of the smoke to attack and vanishing again before they can retaliate.

And it's working. Even as I watch, Shayne takes a cut to the arm - and as he and Carlei turn to try to strike back against the knife-wielding Blessed that did it, another one runs forward, lunging for Carlei's back.

"Carlei, duck!" I yell at her - and to my relief, she does, and the sword misses her by an inch, much to the surprise of its wielder. But as Gaius tries to cover her, he slams into her by mistake and they both go sprawling. "Shit!"

Another attacker looms out of the smoke at them, sword raised, and I know neither of them will be able to react to him in time. I start running forwards, grabbing something from the floor as I go and throwing it at the attacker.

It's a stupid thing to do, I know - even if with Blessed strength I can throw something that far, the chance of me actually hitting is minute. And then I realise that it wasn't even a stone I picked up, but one of the fucking sparkly balls of light, and feel even more stupid.

And then the ball of light flies across the atrium like a missile and fucking explodes when it hits its target.

There's a long moment of silence.

"The hells was that?" Gaius is the first to speak, voicing the thought that's probably running through all their thoughts - and mine. The guy that I'd hit with the ball of light doesn't get up.

"Holy..." I mutter, looking down at my hand, and then at the balls of light floating around me.

"Interesting." Proton was lurking at the other side of the atrium, letting his goons do the work while he provided cover with his smoke grenades, but now he steps forwards. A click of his fingers banishes the smoke, and Carlei blinks in bewilderment when she realises I was standing in the midst of the smog, just like they were.

Now that the smoke isn't hiding them, I can tell that they're all hurt - Carlei just as much as the other two. They let me join the tight-knit group without arguing, shifting to accommodate me, though I end up at the back, barely able to see Proton over my taller companions. I want to try to push past them, but I know they'd try to stop me, and injured as they are already and with my new powers, I'm worried I might hurt them.

Proton chuckles. "Not only could you see through the smoke, you could use your gifts with pinpoint accuracy through it. Clearly I was mistaken about you. Very interesting."

Carlei glances back at me, confused. "It was you that warned me," she says. "How did...I mean, how could..."

"It's a long story." I cut her off before she can get distracted - I wouldn't put it past Proton to try to stab her in the back somehow.

Proton's thugs start advancing. Carlei shifts uneasily, and I can tell she wants me to be a hell of a lot further away than I am, but I think she also guesses that with the three of them is the safest place for me to be. She opts for distraction tactics instead. "So tell me, Lord Proton - is this horrific barbarism truly at my father's behest?"

Proton chuckles. "'Horrific barbarism'? Please, let's not be so crass. It's just simple science. And indeed, it was at your father's request that we put our knowledge gained from our service under His Majesty, King Giovanni, to use in trying to alleviate your father's little problem."

"Do not speak his name," Carlei snaps. "He is exile -"

"Oh, hush now, little girl. Do you honestly think your decrepit Faith has any true power?" Proton scoffs, sounding animated for the first time. "Its priests are ancient relics. Its temples crumbling ruins. And its defenders helpless." I guess those 'defenders' are us. "I truly thank you for delivering yourself to me like this," he adds. "It is frightfully convenient."

His thugs have formed a ring around us. "Kill them," he orders, with a languid wave of his hand.

These soldiers aren't like the ones Haneka and I fought - they're Blessed too, and I'm not stupid enough to try to get in the way of Carlei and the others. I know that they're still far better fighters than I am. But I pluck another of the floating lights out of the air, keeping it hidden in a clenched fist, just in case.

Without the smog hindering them, I realise that - despite their mutual dislike - Gaius and Carlei actually work together well; Gaius summons rock barriers to hedge the opponents in and trap them facing Carlei, at which point...well, it's Carlei. I know she's not unbeatable - back in Kikyo, after our experience in the Shrine there, I saw her get knocked about time and again. But the only people I've ever seen beat her were far more experienced and powerful than the soldiers here. None of these assholes last more than a few blows.

As the melee moves around, I realise that I've been edged out of the makeshift circle that the three of them had formed, and left facing Proton. Carlei realises too, but too late - two of the thugs strike at her and she's forced to back up. "Ethan, just run!" she shouts.

But I don't - not that running had worked so well against Proton last time. The balls of light have started congregating about me, quivering. They remind me of dogs pulling at their leads.

I'm sure that Proton is tougher than his goons - I remember Carlei mentioning that the King's council consisted of some of the most powerful warriors in Tojo - but it had only taken one blast to take out the guy I'd fired at, and there must be two dozen balls of light floating around me. Those seem like pretty good odds to me.

I pause, though, when I realise I don't actually have the faintest damn idea how to use the orbs. How the hell do you order a mass of glowing orbs of light that only you can see to go blow someone up? I settle for pointing at Proton with the hand that was holding an orb of light, which springs free to hover at my fingertips. "Go get him?" I suggest.

It sounds fucking stupid, but it works. The balls of light rocket towards Proton, leaving trails of sparks in the air - and swoop past him, vanishing up into the high ceiling. "Oh, come on!" I complain aloud. That, combined with the light show, attract the attention of the fighters, and the melee slowly dies down. Everyone's focused on me and Proton.

Proton had started to duck when the orbs of light had flown towards him, but straightens up when he realises that none of them are actually going to hit. "Impressive power, boy," he concedes, "but you really should work on your -"

The air rips open.

Where my orbs of light had disappeared, a jagged tear has appeared. At first I'd thought it had been in the ceiling, but actually I think it's more like a hole has been torn in the air itself. White light rushes out of it, and Proton screams as it crashes down on him. It spreads out like a wave and sweeps his soldiers away, but it goes around Carlei, Shayne and Gaius without touching them, and though it washes into me it doesn't seem to harm me. It feels warm, familiar.

Bathed in white light, I can't see the tear any more, but I can feel it. After a moment, I reach out towards it, and mime pinching it closed, and the blazing white light diminishes, letting me see the result of...whatever the fuck I just did.

Proton's soldiers are strewn around the floor, unmoving but alive. Carlei, Gaius and Shayne are all still injured, but standing - I don't think the wave of light did anything more than dazzle them. Proton himself staggers to his feet, clutching at his face with one hand. With his other, he throws another grenade. Another ball of light zips into my hand - without any conscious instruction from me - as I tense up, expecting another of those horrible blasts of smog, but instead the grenade detonates in a bright flash that rivals my wave of light for intensity, and a small cloud of smoke. By the time we recover our senses, Proton is long gone.

Carlei is the first one to relax, letting her sword vanish back into fire. Shayne follows suit a moment later, his katana crumbling into sand - but Gaius doesn't dismiss his gauntlets, and stays facing me. "What in all the hells was that?" he asks.

"I...honestly, I have no clue," I admit. "But...I guess I'm Blessed too now? Yay?"

Somehow I'd been envisaging this revelation being more dramatic and poignant.

Some of the sparkly lights are beginning to flicker out - I guess because I'm calming down. Gaius obviously wants to argue with me, but after the wave of light it'd be pretty difficult for anyone to say I wasn't Blessed. He looks like he's strongly considering doing it anyway.

Carlei steps past Gaius and approaches me. "So, you have been Chosen too?"

"Seems like it," I agree. She nods - and then punches me in the shoulder. Hard. "OW!"

"What in the world were you and Haneka thinking, Ethan?" she demands. "Your fortuitous Blessing notwithstanding, you both could have been killed!"

"Uh..." I'm lost for words for a moment. It wasn't like I hadn't expected Carlei to be mad about what had happened - though the punch had taken me by surprise - and to be honest, I pretty much agree with her. But at the same time, I don't want to just throw Haneka under the bus.

"It was my fault." I look around behind me in surprise. I'd been too distracted by Carlei to sense Haneka approaching. "This was my idea. Ethan was trying to stop me, but he got caught up in this too."

I turn back to meet Carlei's gaze. She gives me a questioning look, and then a soft chuckle when she realises Haneka's telling the truth. Before she can start scolding Haneka, I look back to the older woman. "Hey, do you remember where the cages were?" I ask her.

Haneka pauses for a moment, obviously slightly confused, but then nods. "I think so."

"These assholes were keeping the people they kidnapped in cages," I explain to Carlei.

She nods, recognising where I'm going with this. I'm pretty sure she realises I'm also doing it to stop her yelling at Haneka, but she doesn't seem to mind. "Gaius, Shayne, go with Haneka to help get the prisoners out," she instructs. "We can use one of the Imperial carts to take the prisoners, and Father Kurt outside, back to Hiwada. This...desecration...ends now."

"Kurt's okay then?" I ask, relieved.

"He's somewhat bruised," Carlei admits, "but otherwise, yes, he's unharmed."

Once the other three are gone, she sighs and relaxes, sitting down and leaning back against the wall, pulling out one of her healing pouches and focusing on it. It's interesting to watch through my new senses - I can actually see power running from her and into the pouch, changing in hue and intensity before it flows over her wounds. "Are you hurt?" she asks, once the pouch fully dissolves.

"Oh, right, you can heal me too now," I realise, sitting down next to her. Being Blessed has a lot of perks. "But no, I'm fine. Other than that crazy light wave, the only people I got into a fight with were human soldiers. Except for you punching me just now," I add pointedly, though honestly I'm more amused than anything else. She didn't hit me that hard.

Carlei chuckles slightly. "I still remember you being so astounded that a Blessed could fight humans easily," she remarks. After a moment, she shifts position, putting an arm around my shoulders and hugging me. When she remembers I'm not so fragile any more, she hugs me a little tighter. "I'm glad you're okay, Ethan," she says quietly.

I hug her back more gently - even if she's got rid of the worst of her injuries, I can tell she's still hurt. "Same to you."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

While the other three are gone, I catch Carlei up on what happened after we left the Temple. She, in return, explains what the three of them did - Shayne's room had been next to Haneka's and his window had looked over the Imperial stables too. He'd happened to notice me sneaking into the stable, and when he'd discovered Haneka was gone too had pretty much figured out what had happened.

Carlei, Gaius and Shayne had been rather less subtle about their intrusion here than we had - they'd just smashed through everything in their path and left a trail of unconscious soldiers behind them. At least until they'd come up against Proton and his magical smoke.

It isn't until I start telling Carlei about what had happened that I realise that Proton's first smoke grenade had detonated pretty much directly on the prisoners. And considering how badly it had affected me and Haneka (at least, before the whole Blessing thing), I'm worried what it would have done to them. As it turns out, though, my worries are unfounded. Proton had clearly directed the smog around them - presumably to avoid interrupting whatever fucking experiments he was doing on them - because they're still alive. They're all very weak, and we end up pretty much carrying them out of the Temple, but they should recover.

Or, at least, they should recover physically. I'm not so sure about mentally. The palace dungeons had been bad enough for me, but in comparison to this place they were fucking luxurious. To be honest, I'm amazed how calm the prisoners seem. Even their auras, flecked with grey though they are, are shining a pale sky blue. I'm pretty sure if I'd have been in their place I'd have been nothing more than a trembling wreck by now.

Kurt's waiting for us outside. He's stolen one of the pikes from the Imperials to replace his walking stick, which apparently got broken when he was being a distraction for us. When I meet his gaze, I see his eyes shimmer slightly with that same, unnatural glow, and an almost amused smile crosses his face for a moment, but he doesn't say anything, instead busying himself checking over the five people we rescued.

Kurt drives the cart back to Hiwada - mostly because I have no idea how you steer a pair of horses, and I don't think any of the others do either. Inside the cart, the mood is...a little awkward. I don't think any of the others are quite sure what to think of my new Blessing. To be honest, nor am I. Eventually, to get away from all the staring, I go sit up on the driver's seat with Kurt, though he doesn't seem inclined to explain anything.

The little motes of light are still floating around, though there aren't nearly as many of them as they were back in the Temple. They still keep getting stuck on me, though, and I end up mostly using the journey trying to pretend that they aren't there or trying to shoo them away. If Kurt is confused by me waving my hands around in the air trying to push the lights away, he doesn't comment on it. To my surprise, I actually manage to get some measure of control over them, and by the time we're getting close to Hiwada I seem to have convinced them to leave me alone, because they flow around me, like a stone in a river. Part of me wants to see if I can still throw them around and blow shit up, but I resist the urge. Mostly because I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't blow the cart up by mistake or something.

By the time we get back to the checkpoint, word of Carlei and the others blasting through it has clearly gotten back to the city, because the checkpoint is swarming with guards - not Imperials, thank God, but ones with the crest of Hiwada emblazoned on their tabards.

Bugsy is there too, mounted on a big white horse. "Why does it not surprise me, Master Kurt, that you had a hand in this disturbance?" he calls over to us, as Kurt brings the cart to a stop.

"Before you arrest me, Lord Bughsearre," Kurt replies, "there are some people who wish to talk to you." He gestures to the covered part of the cart.

Bugsy's bodyguard falls into step with him as he dismounts and walks over to the cart. I hear her gasp quietly when she sees the state the people we rescued are in. The cart rattles slightly as the two of them clamber in, and a moment later I hear Bugsy speaking quietly from within. "You four, leave us."

He must be talking about Carlei and the others. And I guess he means Kurt and me as well, even if he doesn't say it, because Kurt - still using the Imperial pike as a makeshift walking stick - painstakingly climbs down from the driver's seat and beckons me after him.

Carlei and Kurt lead us a short distance away, presumably so we can't overhear Bugsy talking to the prisoners we saved. "So now what?" I ask.

"Now we await Lord Bughsearre's judgement," Carlei answers.

"And hope that those soldiers don't regain consciousness before he's made it," Gaius adds.

They do. About five minutes after we'd been evicted from our cart, there's some shifting and clattering of armour as the Imperials begin to get to their feet.

One of them - presumably the one in charge - notices Gaius. (The guy's about six foot five, he's pretty hard to miss.) "That...you!" He staggers to his feet and grabs the closest Hiwada soldier by the shoulder. "You there, arrest that man!"

We freeze. A mote of light jumps into my hand, unbidden. But then the soldier just shrugs the Imperial off. "You don't command me."

The Imperial seems astonished at the man's casual, almost cold, dismissal. I'm not much less surprised. "I am in the direct service of Lord Proton, councillor to His Majesty the King," he responds.

"Which gives you no authority at all." The Hiwada soldiers steps a little closer to the Imperial. "And you bastards took my wife from me."

"How dare you?!" The Imperial draws his sword. The soldier he's talking to mirrors the motion - and so do all the other Hiwada soldiers. Most of the other Imperials have swords at their throats before they realise what's going on. "You dare turn your blades on us? Lord Proton will have your head for this!"

"Enough!" Bugsy's voice makes me jump. He's standing on the driver's seat of the cart. The woman beside him has her swords summoned again. "Your denials are pointless, Sergeant. There are five victims of your Lord Proton's vile experiments in this cart. Five witnesses, even before accounting for the brave heroes that rescued them." He glances over to us - to Carlei - and I swear he gives a little smirk before looking back to the Imperials. "You kidnapped them from my city. That was a grave error."

The Imperial slowly lowers his sword. The Hiwada soldier doesn't. "I swear, Lord Bugshearre, I knew nothing of any kidnappings!" the Imperial protests.

"Your lies won't save you now, you scum," the Hiwada soldier hisses - quietly, but in the dead silence of the checkpoint everyone hears it.

"I find this unlikely," Bugsy replies, as if his soldier hadn't said anything. "Nonetheless, unlike your erstwhile superior, I prefer to follow the cause of justice. So, you shall all be imprisoned until the truth can be discovered. Sabyl," he adds, turning to the woman at his side, "fly to the Temple. Ensure that none of the Imperials there escape. I shall send a patrol to join you shortly. And incidentally, Sergeant?" he adds. "Every one of the soldiers you see here volunteered for this impromptu patrol, when word got back to us that your checkpoint had been attacked. Every one of them has lost friends and family to you and Proton. They will be more than happy for you to give them a reason to cut you down where you stand, so I suggest you and your soldiers stand down."

Young as Bugsy is, there's a certain power to his voice that I never heard from Falkner. To be honest, he reminds me a bit of Carlei and Silver. And after a moment, the Imperial soldiers (those of them that had managed to draw their weapons, anyway) seem to think better of crossing him and back down, placing their swords on the ground.

The woman standing by Bugsy's side nods - and blade-like wings snap out of her back, fluttering so fast they're little more than a blur. She takes off and flies upwards, and pauses just for a moment to look around the scene. I see her gaze focus on us, suspicion clear in her eyes. But if she's worried about leaving Bugsy alone, she doesn't voice her concerns, and tilts in the air and rockets away back towards the Temple.

Bugsy himself hops down from the cart and heads towards us. He's trying - and not really succeeding - to hide a big grin. Carlei bows to him, nudging us to do the same. "I'm very grateful for your assistance in this matter," he says.

Carlei doesn't answer for a moment. I wonder if she's reluctant to take credit for something she didn't actually intend to do. "It was our honour to assist you, my lord," she settles on, eventually.

Again there's that little smirk at the corners of Bugsy's mouth, and I realise that he knows full well who Carlei is. "Well, I'd be grateful if you'd remain in Hiwada until this matter is finished. Your testimony may be required. Of course, I'll recompense you for your delays."

Carlei grits her teeth slightly. With all our delays, Silver can't be far behind us. But I know she won't refuse - not when the way Bugsy phrased it makes it sound as if without us the Imperials might go free. "Of course, my lord," she agrees, with another bow.

"I look forwards to meeting you there, then," Bugsy says, and turns to leave, heading back towards the mass of soldiers. Carlei breathes a bit of a sigh of relief once he's gone.

"So now what?" Gaius asks. "We just wait until your pursuers catch up to us?" For once, I actually kind of agree with him - especially when Bugsy knows who we are, I'm not entirely sure Hiwada is safe for us.

"I would prefer not to alienate the first politically notable person we have met who has seemed friendly to us," Carlei replies. "Besides, it would be quite rude to simply run away when the lord of the region has requested we meet him." The way she says it, as if being rude is somehow worse than anything else, leaves me barely suppressing a laugh. Gaius grumbles, but I think he knows he's not going to convince her otherwise. "I suggest we spend the time until Lord Bugshearre calls for us recovering and training." She glances sideways to me. "In particular, we need to find out what your new abilities are capable of."

I can't stop a smile spreading across my face.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

By the time we get back to the Hiwada Temple, it's almost dawn. That doesn't stop me from going straight back to sleep, hanging my thick outer robe over the window to keep out the light. I'm pretty sure most of the others have the same idea; there's no particular suggestion of a celebration or anything.

I wake up only a few hours later, but I feel good. Really good. Last night I'd been more concerned about not dying - and about everyone else not dying - to really pay attention to the full extent of my new abilities. It isn't until I roll off my bed and get to my feet that I begin to realise just how different I feel. It's hard to describe, but I feel...light, I guess. I leave my robe on the window - just to make sure no-one sees me embarrassing myself seeing what I'm capable of now - and bend down to the cot I was sleeping on. It's pretty sturdy and solid, but when I try to lift it, I'm caught off guard by how easy it is. As I lift, my motes of light leave their positions hovering around near the ceiling and cluster around my hands, bobbing around like kites on a string. It probably takes me about two seconds to lift it so I'm standing upright, holding one edge of the bed by my waist with the other half still resting on the floor. I hold it there for a couple of moments before shifting my position, moving so I'm holding it roughly by the centre, and push up.

It's not effortless by any means - I couldn't toss it around one-handed or anything ridiculous like that (though I bet Carlei could, so maybe it isn't such a ridiculous thought). But at a guess I'd say that the bed probably weighs as much as I do, and I could easily hold it there for a long while. I don't - mostly because of how embarrassing it would be if anyone came in and found my standing in the middle of the room, holding my bed above my head with the most ridiculous grin on my face.

I'm still smiling when I head downstairs for breakfast. Carlei meets me as I sit outside in the courtyard, plate stacked with the roasted chunks of meat that seem to be the Joto equivalent of bacon - temple breakfasts are pretty much the same as temple dinners, just less stew-like. "So, how is your first day as a Chosen Warrior of the Divines?" she asks, matching my grin with a smile of her own.

I decide not to tell her about the bed. "So far, it's good. Do you...do you guys always feel this...cool?" She blinks at me, confused. She's usually pretty good at remembering what my anachronisms mean, but sometimes one does pass her by. "You know, powerful."

She chuckles. "Honestly, it's been nearly ten years since I was Chosen. I can't really remember what it was like to be human. But as far as I can recall...yes, we do. It's part of the reason why we enjoy fighting other Blessed so much - being able to freely exert our full abilities is refreshing. Oh, that reminds me," she says, setting her plate to one side. "Now you're Blessed, you need to have your heraldry chosen for you." She starts raising her hand to catch the attention of a passing priest, and I'm sure that she's fully intending on abandoning our meal and dragging me off for a heraldry...fitting, or however the hell this actually works.

"Hey!" I protest, catching her wrist. "You could at least wait until we finish breakfast!"

Carlei looks at her arm where I'm holding her with a slightly surprised expression, and I'm pretty sure I know why - just yesterday if I'd tried the same thing I probably wouldn't have even slowed her down. Then her eyes narrow and she gives me a little grin, and pushes upwards against my arm properly. Almost instinctively, before I fully realise what I'm doing, I try to pull her arm back down, but despite my best efforts she's still stronger than me by a good margin. I'm not entirely surprised, especially after her Ascension, and it doesn't actually bother me that much.

Once she's raised her arm enough to prove - to herself as much as me - that she's stronger than me, she relaxes, grinning even wider. I suspect I have much the same expression on my face; testing my strength against her like that sent a spike of adrenaline through me. I bet this feeling is what she's always meant when she talks about how Blessed like to fight.

"Fine," she concedes, still grinning. "Breakfast, then heraldry."

Once we're finished eating, Carlei tracks down one of the priests. If the priest she's talking to is surprised that I've only just awakened to my powers, he doesn't show it. Instead, he nods and beckons me off down one of the side passages, roughly (I think) in the direction of the bathing lake. Carlei doesn't follow. "This is personal to you," she explains. "I'll be here when you return."

We don't quite go to the lake - though I can hear the faint lapping of water, suggesting it isn't far away. Instead, the priest leads me into a vaguely circular side room, from which a mass of small side paths depart. Judging from the way that they're less neatly-paved and maintained, I assume that they're for the priests only.

There are three priests waiting for us already - again, the way they seem to know exactly what's needed is a little uncanny. "Stand in the centre of the room, please," one of them - an older woman, who seems to be in charge - requests.

As I do, the four priests encircle me, and their eyes shine with their Sight. After a moment of awkward staring I decide to break the silence. "So...what exactly is heraldry?" I feel kind of dumb for asking the question, but it's not like Carlei ever properly explained it to me.

The apparent leader answers, as one of the others disappears into the back tunnels. "The Divines are not human," she explains. "They barely have forms in the way we recognise at all. Their Blessings are a tiny fragment of that power that they bestow to us. Were we made of formless essence as they are, Blessings would transform us into warrior-beasts, but our form was long ago decreed by the Great Mother and Great Father, so our human forms approximate the beast our Divine sires wish us to be, with blades of mithril replacing tooth and claw."

The guy who'd left comes back with a long, white coat that looks very much like the old brown coat I have upstairs. He neatly folds it, places it on the ground in front of me, and then steps back into his place in the square of priests. A moment later, one of the other priests ducks out of the room and heads into the tunnels.

"Heraldry originates from times long gone, when more than merely matters of honour were settled by single combat - wars were won and lost upon such duels. The ancient kings wished for their greatest warriors to be protected, so they ordered their most devout priests to pray for guidance, to see the beasts that their warriors ought to be, and had their greatest armourers craft a suit of armour that brought the warriors closer to that ideal form as a display of piety, hoping that doing so would gain them the Divines' favour."

"Does it work?" I ask. The coat is joined by a weird, curved object I'm not quite sure of the purpose of.

She gives a small shrug. "Records of those days are few - too few for us to be certain if the victories of those warriors garbed in the most extravagant heraldry were due to their natural skill or Aspect advantage, or due indeed to the favour of the Divines. But certainly many Blessed believe that wearing their heraldry will bring them luck, and it is part of our ancient contract with the Crown that we provide it to any Blessed that need it."

"So..." Since the priest woman seems talkative, I figure there's no harm in trying to get more information. "One of the other priests basically told me, yesterday, that I was...uh, part Blessed, or something? And then later that day I got my full powers, but...I know someone who's not got her full powers, but she still had heraldry even though I didn't. How does that work?"

"No Blessed are obliged to wear their heraldry. Many prefer to, but some - especially those whose heraldry tends towards the extensive - settle for robes that display their Aspect and Chosen sire." I'm pretty sure there's some kind of telepathic argument going on between two of the priests now, as they stand holding something vaguely spiky-looking. Eventually, the spiky thing goes on the pile too.

"Okay, but I got given grey robes. That's what humans wear, isn't it?"

"It is. However, it is not our place to tell petitioners when the Divines have granted them their favour, and any Blessed has the prerogative to wear grey robes if they so wish."

I don't even realise that the priests are done picking weird clothes for me until the woman gestures to the pile. "Please, feel free to try your heraldry on."

I pick the bundle of clothes up - somewhat awkwardly, because quite a lot of it seems to be closer to armour than fabric. "One more thing," I ask, before I turn to leave. "What...which Divine am I even chosen by? Or of. Whatever."

"Lugia." The voice comes from behind me and makes me jump - the weird spiky thing tumbles onto the ground as I spin around to see Naoko. Emrys doesn't seem to be with her this time. "Leave us, if you would." The priests vanish so quickly I swear they literally teleported, as Naoko approaches and stoops to pick up the stray...whatever the hell the spiky thing is...and places it back onto my pile of heraldry. "At least," she continues, "'Lugia' is what you need to tell anyone that cares to know."

"So it isn't really Lugia, then." Naoko shakes her head. "Why do I have to lie about all this shit? That necklace, saying that I'm Blessed by Lugia...all of it."

She doesn't answer my question immediately. "Did you learn what the purpose of the pendant I gave you is?"

I can't exactly pull it out from under my shirt to examine it again, in case there's some hidden clue scratched into the gems, so I settle for just shaking my head. "No. Sorry."

That actually seems to take her by surprise. "Considering the level of Divine power present at the Temple, to have maintained control on your own merit is...impressive." I'm not entirely sure she's talking to me. "You have a rare power, Ethan. A rare and dangerous one. If people learned the truth of what you are, and of what you are capable of, it would endanger not just you, but your companions as well."

"Including Carlei." Actually, knowing her, I suspect she'd be in more danger than any of the rest of them, just because she'd try to help when anyone sensible would be running for the hills.

Naoko nods, slowly. "So for all your sakes, you must keep the truth hidden. No priest will challenge your claim to be Blessed by Lugia, and your Imperial abilities are not unheard of for one of the Argent Lord's Chosen." For some reason, the moniker 'Argent Lord' sounds familiar to me, though I don't remember ever hearing it in reference to Lugia before. "And I strongly advise you to spend some time training, learning to control your powers." She pauses for a moment. "Do you know that Imperial powers are harder to control than those of any other Aspect?"

I nod. "Yeah." There had been plenty of mentions of Imperials losing control of their powers in the legends I read in Yoshino. But hearing her say it makes me think of something else Imperials are in danger from. "And they risk summoning...uh, Chaos, right?" I don't know what Chaos is, but I know it's bad.

Naoko gives me a small smile. "Correct. And your powers, more than almost any other Imperial Blessed, leave you at risk of that darkness." I guess hoping that she could've explained more about Chaos was too optimistic. "Your pendant will help to control your powers to an extent, but they will still be dangerous if not tamed."

Honestly, I was already planning on training. Partly because the Yadon ruins made it painfully obvious that I'm still nowhere near the level of Carlei and the others, but mostly because I want to train. Just like with the bed, and with Carlei, some instinctive part of me wants to see what I can do.

"Alright," I agree. As she turns to go, I call after her. "You knew this was going to happen the whole time, didn't you? You, Jisan, Zuki, Oak, Erewan...all of you. You all knew."

Naoko gives another of those small smirking smiles. "As I said, your power is incredibly rare. We could sense you, and finding you was none too difficult. But any major interference on our part - like telling you the truth - could have left your powers dormant for the rest of your life. You had to embrace them of your own accord. You still do."

"You have any more secrets about me?"

"Do you think I would tell you if I did?"

She has a point there, I guess. But there's still one question she hasn't answered. "So what is the truth? Who Chose me really, if it wasn't Lugia?"

Naoko pauses, and turns back to face me properly. "The Great Father: Arceus."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #13
"Arceus?" Carlei repeats, softly.

"Yeah." We're at the back of the observation balcony in the Temple's sparring ring - there's never anyone here, and it's always noisy because of the sparring, so it's a pretty good place for a private conversation in what's otherwise a permanently busy place.

I still think my heraldry looks somewhat stupid, but at the same time, just like Carlei had told me, it feels...right. Like it's made for me. In comparison to some of the other getups I've seen, it's comparatively tame; it's a white greatcoat - I can't help but wonder whether they chose that specifically because of me buying the greatcoat in Yoshino, or whether I chose the greatcoat in Yoshino because my dormant powers picked it out for me - with two large slits in the back, along with a weird, spiky collar and a strange metal...kilt, for want of a better description, open at the front, which curves out before bending back around to end just above my knees. It took me a while to figure out how the hell I was supposed to sit down wearing the damn thing, but it turns out that there's a little lever that causes it to separate into a lot of interconnected scales, becoming more flexible. I'm not entirely sure what the point of it is. If my heraldry had to contain armour, I'd have preferred it to protect my heart, or face, or lungs, or something, not the back of my thighs.

In the time it had taken me to figure out how all my heraldry went on, I'd decided that - whatever Naoko might have wanted - I wasn't going to keep what she told me secret from Carlei. I'm not going to tell the others, but after everything she's done for me I owe Carlei the truth. And besides, despite my reading a few legends about the Blessed, she still knows far more about this whole thing than I do.

"Have you ever heard of someone being Chosen by Arceus before?" I ask her.

She shakes her head. "Not that I can recall. Most of the legends I know say that Arceus and Mew never bestow Blessings upon mortals, for fear that their uncontrolled power could be catastrophic."

I think back to the wave of light, of how easy it had been to summon. And of Naoko's warning. "My powers are dangerous," I repeat, quietly.

"All our powers are dangerous, Ethan. My fire is hot enough that I can melt steel. Shayne can create sinkholes that could collapse a house." She smiles at me gently when I look over to her. "Accepting that we're dangerous to the humans around us is the first step to being able to wield our powers safely." She pauses for a moment or two, seemingly considering something. "When I was Chosen, and worried about controlling my fire, my mother told me a story about a young man and his hound."

"The man's hound was aggressive, always barking and biting at everyone it saw except for its owner, and the man despaired of ever training it to behave. So he took it to a wise woman who lived in the village, who brewed a potion that she fed to the man and his hound, so they could communicate."

"Is that actually a thing that exists?" I ask. "Talking-to-dogs potions?"

Carlei fixes me with a glare, which she spoils by being unable to keep herself from giggling, and swats me on the shoulder. "It's a fairytale, Ethan." She clears her throat, getting more serious again as she continues her story. "Once they had both drunk the potion, the man asked his hound 'Why do you always bark and bite so when we are outside? I am forever worried you will hurt someone.'"

"The hound replied 'When we are outside, you are always worried. And I am but a hound, and I cannot understand what might worry you, master, but I bark and bite to protect you from whatever worries you so.'"

It takes me a moment to figure out the point of the story. "So we're the man and our powers are the dog, right?"

Carlei nods. "When we're tense, or worried, our powers are quicker to respond - and stronger when they do respond. Which, in a potential battle, is an advantage. But when the thing we're worried about is our powers themselves..."

"It's a vicious spiral." I get that she's trying to make me feel better, and I'm glad she is. And to some extent, it works. "But...look, when I hit Proton with that light wave thing, or whatever it was, I heard him scream. I sensed his pain. I know Proton's powerful, and Blessed are tough anyway, but I...I think I really hurt him," I admit.

Carlei is quiet for a couple of moments. Then she shifts position so she's a little closer to me, and puts an arm around my shoulders. I lean against her a little. "For someone who's had their Blessing for less than a day, you're remarkably powerful, but you aren't strong enough to defeat Proton on your own. Neither am I - none of us are. I suspect the five of us together could barely have matched him. I think you channelled the power of the Divines, like Erewan did against those bandits."

"I'm not a priest," I point out.

"But you are, apparently, a Chosen Warrior of Arceus," Carlei returns. "Perhaps you obey a different set of rules to us. In any case, the point is, it wasn't your power that hurt Proton. It wasn't your fault. And the fact that even after everything Proton did, you still feel guilty for hurting him...you are a kind-hearted person, Ethan. That's what matters."

"Thanks," I say, quietly.

We sit there quietly for a little while before Carlei stands up. "Now, don't you want to see what your powers are capable of?" she asks. She doesn't give me much choice in the matter with her arm still around me, lifting me to my feet with another mischievous little smirk. I don't need my powers to tell she's showing off.

Carlei leads me to a part of the Temple I haven't been in before, which looks something like a training ground crossed with a gym. It's a haphazard arrangement of ropes, weights, targets and what I guess are probably small sparring arenas, with wooden practice weapons neatly stacked on shelves alongside. "I thought you said Blessed get stronger by fighting," I point out. "Not lifting weights."

"I - I mean, we," Carlei corrects herself, "do, but these places are useful for practicing new techniques without also having to think about fighting an opponent. Or," she adds with a small grin, "for testing the limits of our abilities." She ignites a fireball in her hand and hurls it across the room at one of the targets. I jump slightly when it explodes, making her chuckle. Then she gestures to me. "Your turn."

I don't think my powers are quite as impressive as Carlei seems to expect. But when I hold up my hand and focus on one of the floating motes of light, it swoops towards me and hovers above my palm, so that's a good start, at least. "So can you see this?" I ask Carlei.

"The light? Yes," Carlei nods, "I can now. Although from my perspective, it looked as though it simply materialised, whereas from what Haneka said it sounds like you can see lights like that all the time."

"Yeah, I can," I confirm. "There seem to be more of them in Temples, but they're everywhere. It's kind of distracting," I admit.

"Between those lights and the way you can sense people and emotions, it must be difficult for you to focus on the normal world," Carlei says, sympathetically.

"It's not too bad, honestly." Especially when she's here.

Carlei is quiet for a moment or two before she changes the subject. "I take it that holding the light there isn't hard for you," she remarks, nodding towards my hand, where the ball of light is still hovering. "Maintaining powers in this manner is something that many new Blessed struggle with. And experienced Blessed as well," she adds.

"Like you?" I ask. "At least, before your Ascension?"

She nods. "Your abilities are very unusual. But," she adds, "you can't put this off forever. Go on."

Somehow I get the feeling I'm just going to end up embarrassing myself, but I turn towards the target anyway. Almost before I've focused on it, it feels like the ball of light in my hand starts to gravitate towards it, and far from having to aim at it, it's more like I'm having to focus to stop the ball of light leaping out of my hand. Letting it go is easy. I just flick my hand in the vague direction of the target, and the ball of light shoots across the room and smashes into the target besides the one Carlei blasted.

"Well, your powers certainly create a spectacle," Carlei remarks drily. She has a point - both times I've seen the motes of light explode, it's been with a loud bang and a bright flash of light. "Let us hope you never need to fight subtly."

"Remind me which of us it is that fights by setting people on fire?" I return. Carlei chuckles as we approach the two targets.

"Your accuracy is quite impressive," she comments, after making a bit of a spectacle of examining the two blast marks. "But I think I win on power," she adds, with another of those smirks. I have to admit she's right - she's definitely blown more of a hole out of her target than I did.

"Do you think I can do anything except blow shit up?" I ask Carlei. Not that that would be a bad superpower to have, but having seen the wide range of powers other Blessed can throw around, I don't want to end up missing half of my own powers or something.

I find myself turning almost before I consciously realise that my instincts are telling me something, and catch the wooden training sword Carlei had tossed to me. If she's surprised I caught it, she doesn't show it. "Only one way to find out," she answers, grinning. I've not really seen this side of her before - playful, competitive, almost cocky. I kind of like it.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

As it turns out, I can do more than just blow shit up. We discover it more or less by accident; Shayne suggests that if I can make the motes of light move just by focusing on them, I should be able to launch them at people without having to actually throw them. I can't get them to blow up without physically touching them first, but what I do manage to do is make them solid - solid enough to present an obstacle even to Blessed strength. From there, all I have to do is work on keeping them solid and moving them at the same time, and I basically have telekinesis. (It sounds simple to describe, but it takes about a week of practice before I can reliably control things I'm moving without accidentally dropping them or launching them off at stupidly fast speeds.)

Apparently telekinesis isn't entirely unheard of as a power, but it's normally only Imperial Blessed that are capable of using it with any real power. I guess my being able to use it is another of these weird things about being Chosen by Arceus - but luckily, Chosen of Lugia tend to have an affinity for Imperial powers like mine, so no-one finds it too strange. I suspect that that's probably why Naoko told me to claim I was Chosen by Lugia.

My telekinesis doesn't work on me, which I'm a bit disappointed about. When I first figured out I could do this, I was envisaging being able to fly around, Superman-style, but whenever I try to exert any force on myself with my lights, it feels like I'm trying to grab a wet bar of soap - my powers just seem to slide off me.

One thing that doesn't change much, though, is how strong I am physically. I might be stronger than a human now, but without my powers I'm still no match for any of the others, or for any of the other Blessed that are at the temple. With my powers, though, I can take on Blessed who've had years of training and win. And even if none of us - including me - are fighting at full strength, it's still awesome.

The thrill of fighting, though, is something else entirely. I'd felt it a little earlier with Carlei, the day after my Blessing, but when I actually get in a serious fight (a serious sparring match, anyway) that seem feeling is magnified ten times. It's completely addictive, and on more than one occasion over the next week Carlei pretty much ends up dragging me out of the sparring ring so I can get some rest. She seems amused by the whole thing, and though she doesn't say it I'm guessing she was exactly the same when she first got her powers.

I try to make a point of sparring with Haneka still, when she's around. To be honest, I feel bad for her. Not just because she was so hopeful of finally getting her full powers and I got powers instead, but also because pretty much ever since we got to Hiwada, the others have almost ignored her. They never sparred with her much, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone from our little gang sparring with her since we got here. Shayne hangs out with her sometimes, but he doesn't try to include her, and there's a big difference between the two. In fairness to Carlei, I think she'd be willing to spar with Haneka, but it wouldn't help anyone. I can at least give Haneka a chance in our sparring matches by not using my powers, but Carlei could easily knock her out with even a relatively light punch.

When I'm not sparring, I spend most of my time in the Temple's library. In Yoshino I'd glanced at a couple of the Blessed-focused training scrolls that were meant to teach you how to pull off new attacks, purely out of curiosity. But now they're actually relevant for me, so I spend more time reading them than looking through all the ancient legends that I'd found so fascinating in Yoshino. And whether it's some weird quirk of my new Blessed nature or something else, I find the 'tutorial' scrolls just as interesting as the old legends of heroes. One thing I find particularly interesting is the fact that apparently, if a Blessed can use Imperial powers for telekinesis, then they should also be able to learn how to use them for telepathy. Which would be a pretty damn awesome power - but unfortunately, there aren't any scrolls on how to become a telepath, and I don't want to risk hurting someone by experimenting.

True to his word, Bugsy questions us - individually - about the events at the Yadon temple over the course of the week. I was envisaging some kind of medieval courtroom or trial, but actually it's more like giving an interview or something. Bugsy himself only shows up briefly at my interview, to reiterate his thanks, and the actual interview is done by Sabyl, his bodyguard/second-in-command. I'm a little worried about what I might say if she starts asking me about exactly what I'd done in the Temple - I'm not really sure how much of that I'm supposed to be keeping secret - but she focuses more on the cages, and the people Proton had captured.

It's a week after we went to Yadon that Bugsy sends a guard to bring us to his manor. His is a lot less ostentatious than Falkner's was, fitting in much better with the buildings around it, and there aren't so many sycophantic courtiers lurking at every turn.

Bugsy (and Sabyl) are in the main hall, and when we get there we find a large table in the centre of the room, covered with all the shit from Proton's 'lab' in the Yadon Temple. "Lord Bughsearre?" Carlei asks, in a somewhat tense voice. "What is the purpose of all this?"

"This," Bugsy replies, gesturing rather unnecessarily to to the table, "appears to be the outcome of Proton's research. The Guardians have already removed everything they consider 'unsafe,' and to be frank I am at a loss as to what to do with it. So, since you were instrumental in saving the people of this town and bringing Proton and his thugs to justice, you are welcome to take whatever of it you wish."

"You're offering this to us?" Carlei asks, aghast. "How many people were hurt - or even died - to create these contraptions? This should all be destroyed!"

"I intend to destroy that which I cannot find a use for." In contrast to Carlei, Bugsy's voice is still calm. "But it is precisely because people were hurt that I do not wish to destroy these inventions out of hand. To do so would be to declare that they died in vain. I do not wish to dishonour them in that manner."

"Is condoning these experiments not a greater dishonour, Bugsy?" Carlei asks.

Sabyl bristles, but Bugsy doesn't seem to mind the use of his nickname. "Honestly," he admits, "I...I don't know." It's easy to forget that he's still just a kid - I think Carlei said he was fourteen or something - but right now he looks a lot younger and more vulnerable than the lord who'd traded barbs with the Imperial soldiers at the blockade. "I was hoping that the Guardians would remove all of this and take the decision out of my hands, but they told me it was my choice what should be done with all...this. That's why I asked you here - I wanted your opinion. And now that you have made it - hmm?"

Bugsy cuts himself off as Haneka walks forward, stepping between me and Shayne. "Haneka?" I ask.

"I can feel..." She trails off somewhat. "I don't know. Something. A...connection."

If I concentrate, I can see it too. In the mass of random crap on the table, there's something that resonates with Haneka's aura. We all fall quiet and follow Haneka as she slowly walks down the hall, stopping about halfway down. Whatever she's looking for is hidden under what looks like a piece of one of the cages. Haneka tries to lift it, but gives up after a moment. "Would one of you...?" She gestures to the pile.

Carlei reaches past her and lifts up the piece of cage, and I focus on the aura I can sense in the detritus, pushing my lights through the random crap until they reach whatever it is and then wrapping them around it, pulling it back out. A few other things get dislodged from the pile and nearly land on Carlei's feet. "Shit, my bad." Carlei doesn't really acknowledge my apology, putting the cage back down and looking at the object I've unearthed. I notice Bugsy and Sabyl approaching too.

It looks like an old pistol, like one of those Pirates of the Carribean ones, except it seems to be carved entirely from wood. There are even a couple of tiny flowers growing out of it. I let it fall into Haneka's outstretched hand - and it flares with green light.

When we can see again, there's one immediate, obvious change - four massive leaves are now protruding from Haneka's back. She clearly notices that they're there, because she turns around to try to look at them and almost smacks Shayne in the face with them. "Oh, goodness, I'm so sorry!" she exclaims.

"It's okay." Shayne had neatly stepped backwards to avoid being hit in the face, but once Haneka's leaves stop moving, he reaches out and gently taps one of them, which twitches away from him. "Did you feel that?" he asks.

"Yes," Haneka answers, sounding a little bewildered. "It's a bizarre feeling." After a moment's hesitation, she stretches all four 'leaves' back and then swings them forwards. I don't think the result is quite what she expected, because she goes flying backwards and smacks into the wall. "Ow!"

"Maybe try going up next time," Gaius suggests, drily, as Shayne and I go over to help her up.

"I guess you were right about the Yadon Temple leading you to your light, huh?" I ask her.

She nods, putting the pistol through her belt. "It seems I just needed a little patience." Her leaves retract away into her back - I'm not sure if she deliberately made them do that or if she just can't Manifest them without the pistol - as she stands back up and faces Bugsy. "Thank you for allowing us to examine these, my lord."

Bugsy smiles, but there's a bit of a sad look in his eyes. It takes me a moment to remember that he isn't Blessed himself. "You're welcome. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak with you two in private." He indicates me and Carlei.

Carlei hesitates a moment, but then nods. "Very well. We'll meet you back at the Temple. Try not to fly into anything else," she adds to Haneka.

Once the other three are gone, Bugsy sighs. "Grateful as I am that you helped rescue my citizens and expose Proton's plot, you are still wanted fugitives, Carlei." Carlei stiffens, and I feel her heat beginning to build. "To disobey the King's commands would be to go against everything my father stood for. So, this is the only thing I can do." He claps his hands, and two guards who must have been waiting for the signal burst in through the main doors. "Arrest them."

Carlei's sword appears in a blaze of flame, but I grab her hand before she can charge at Sabyl. "Wait!"

"Ethan, what are you -"

"Think about it," I whisper to her quickly. "Bugsy must have fifty guards - or more - he could've thrown at us. Why would he just have two hanging around? Hell, why aren't they attacking now, while I'm distracting you? He's trying to help us."

Carlei glances between Bugsy, Sabyl and the two guards. She's clearly still sceptical, but she relaxes a little. "You're sure?" she asks, quietly.

"Yeah."

"Okay," she nods. "I trust you."

She turns and leaps at the two guards blocking our exit, and I hurl a ball of light at Sabyl - or rather, at the floor she's standing on. It explodes very dramatically when it hits, and Sabyl plays along. I can sense her wings appear for a moment and she uses them to throw herself backwards, just like Haneka had done by mistake. Anyone looking on would think the explosion had flung her backwards, and she lets herself sprawl on the floor besides Bugsy.

Carlei's not quite as gentle with her two opponents. She's clearly still holding back, more than she does against me in our sparring matches, but she also makes a point of proving that she could've taken the two guards down in a serious fight too.

"Oh, no," Bugsy cries, in a tone of voice that would be completely unconvincing even if I couldn't sense his relief. "My guards have been incapacitated. I hope the fugitives don't flee through the servants' quarters."

"Subtle," I comment, trying to resist the urge to grin. Finding the route through the servants' quarters isn't hard - it's the one without anyone on it, guards or otherwise. Bugsy clearly had planned our escape the whole time.

Once we get out of the manor, through a side gate that's been left unlocked and unguarded, we find ourselves in a large crowd. "What's going on?" Carlei asks. I suspect she's wondering - just like I am - if Bugsy somehow arranged this too.

We get our answer shortly afterwards. As we make our way back to the Temple we bump into Gaius, Haneka and Shayne, who've been held up by the crowd as well. And now I can see what everyone's looking at - a large, wooden platform has been constructed, and all of the Imperials from the temple are lined up along it, black cloth over their heads, arms and legs bound with ropes.

At first I think this is just more of Bugsy's orchestrating our escape, but after a moment of horrified realisation, I turn to Carlei. "They're going to kill them, aren't they?"

Carlei obviously notices my alarm and concern, because she reaches over and takes my hand. "Yes." Her voice isn't as shocked and revulsed as mine, but there's definitely still an edge to her tone. "They are."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

I grip Carlei's offered hand tightly. "What...what are we gonna do?"

She gives me an odd look. "Why would we do anything?"

"I...we can't just let them die," I whisper back to her. Gaius, Haneka and Shayne are a couple of feet in front of us, and in the general noise of the crowd I doubt they can hear us, but I still glance towards them for a moment, expecting Gaius to turn around and mock me or something.

"And why not?" Carlei asks. "Distasteful as it is to witness, premeditated murder carries a sentence of death - and those...hateful brutes...did far more than just kill. Bugsy is entirely within his rights to execute them, in much the same way as Erewan killed the bandits that murdered Bradon."

"That was different," I protest. "After..." I trail off. Carlei might be able to say it aloud, but I can't. I haven't been able to since we left the clearing where it happened. It isn't just in a fight that she's stronger than me. "I couldn't think about anything but that. And those bandits...that was a fucking god that did that. But this...we did this, Carlei. These people are gonna die because of us."

"Yes," she agrees. "And if we had not acted, then half a dozen innocent people - if not more - would be dead." She steps forward slightly and gently pivots me to face her fully, taking my other hand in hers. "Fundamentally, that's what it amounts to. We made a choice, and we have to live with it."

"But I didn't make that choice, Carlei. I didn't go out there and decide to blast the shit out of those people so they could be fucking hung. I...I was trying to help people."

"I know," Carlei says. "And you did. But surely you didn't expect that Proton would simply get away freely? In what way would that be fair?" Despite her words, her voice is gentle. "Tell me something, Ethan," she requests, when I don't reply immediately. "You can see the souls of these people, can you not?" I nod. "Are any of them free of that evil you sensed when we arrived in Hiwada?"

"No," I admit, without looking away from her - I don't need to look at them. I sensed their dark auras the minute I saw them on the platform.

"You told me capital punishment exists in your world too, Ethan," she continues, after a moment of quiet. "Is this not something that would be punished by death in Florida?" She still mispronounces it.

"I don't..." I pause, looking down at our hands. "I don't know."

"I think you do."

"Fine, so maybe I do. Why the hell does that matter?" I don't have to meet her gaze to feel her pain at me snapping at her like that. Sometimes my powers aren't a blessing. "Sorry," I mumble. "I just...there are so many ways Joto is better than Earth. This...this isn't."

I turn to leave, to go back to the Temple to grab my stuff, but Carlei doesn't let go of my hands, and just leans back slightly as I try to back away, easily pulling me back towards her. "No," she tells me, voice firm. "As you said, our actions led to this. We don't have the right to simply leave and pretend these people aren't going to die."

"You want to watch this?" I ask her, aghast.

"Of course not!" she snaps back, her grip on my hands becoming painfully strong and hot for a moment. When she realises what she's doing she lets go, abruptly. "Of course not," she repeats, more gently. "But it is our responsibility. If we forget that they died, and ignore the value of their lives...then how are we any better than Proton?"

Despite everything she's saying, I don't think she'd stop me if I tried to leave now. But instead I reach out and take one of her hands in both of mine. She looks startled for a moment but then relaxes. "Okay," I say. I'd much rather be back in the Temple, but this is obviously important to her. "I'll...I'll stay."

"Thank you," she says quietly, and for a moment there's a little shiver in her tone just like mine.

Bugsy arrives a couple of minutes later, riding on that white horse again. Sabyl's nowhere to be seen, presumably to keep up the pretense of our escape. It isn't until the crowd begin to fall quiet that I realise that they were jeering at the imprisoned Imperials. "These men and women have been found guilty on multiple counts of kidnapping, torture and murder," he announces, as soon as it's quiet enough for him to be heard. "For these crimes, and the desecration of the Yadon Oasis and its Shrine, in accordance with the laws of our land, they are to be hanged by the neck -"

"Wait!"

There's a lot of muttering from the crowd when Bugsy gets interrupted. Carlei's grip on my hand gets a little tighter, and I move a little closer to her. Neither of us can see him, but we both recognise Silver's voice.

Above the crowd courtesy of his horse, Bugsy sees him before more or less anyone else, and gestures off to the side. "Clear a path for Prince Silver," he instructs. Whether it's because of the shuffling of the crowd as they try to obey Bugsy or because they're as worried as we are, Gaius, Haneka and Shayne move back towards us. Bugsy dismounts neatly onto the raised platform the prisoners are standing on. "We are honoured to have a member of the Imperial Family here with us."

Silver manages to shove his way through the crowd and gets up onto the platform too, accompanied by Goban - who's now dressed in a less armoured uniform - and someone I don't recognise. But Shayne and Haneka do. "The one on the left is Zane," Shayne murmurs to us. "A former neighbour of ours. A craven who would sell his own mother to save his neck."

"That doesn't sound like the kind of guy Silver would get along with," I whisper to Carlei.

"You can be allied with someone without liking them," she points out, very carefully not looking at Gaius.

"Don't be so honoured," Silver says to Bugsy. "I came here because I heard my fugitive sister is here, but you have no right to try or execute these soldiers. Release them."

"No right?" Bugsy repeats. "Forgive my ignorance, Lord Silver, but I believe that both the Yadon Oasis and this city are under the jurisdiction of my family. And as these criminals were not acting under the orders of a military official, they do not have the protection of the Army's laws, no matter what outfits they may don."

"They are Imperial soldiers on on the King's business," Silver responds. "That they were not following an officer is irrelevant."

"Do you even know what they are being charged with, my lord?" Bugsy's tone is mild and polite, but from the way Carlei tenses slightly I can guess that he shouldn't be talking back to Silver like that. "They kidnapped innocent civilians from the streets of this city, tortured, mutilated and murdered them, and desecrated a holy shrine, in pursuit of heretical knowledge your own father has outlawed." Silver looks taken aback, and I realise that he didn't know what the soldiers had done. Just like Carlei had back in the village where we'd met Gaius, he was just assuming the best of the Imperials for no reason. "Unless, Lord Silver, you mean to say that they were acting on the King's orders?"

I feel the presence a moment before everyone else. It's similar to what I felt when Erewan invoked their ritual to Kyogre, but it's not nearly as powerful. It washes over the crowd, bringing the smell of freshly-mown grass and flowers, and Bugsy is briefly covered in a whirlwind of greenish energy. It reminds me of what happened with Carlei, when she Ascended.

The whirlwind only lasts a couple of seconds, but we all watch, transfixed, until it vanishes - leaving Bugsy with four wings just like Sabyl's, which flutter briefly as he glances backwards to examing them, lifting him off the ground. Fortunately, unlike Haneka, he doesn't accidentally fling himself backward.

"It seems the Divines have made their position clear, my lords!" Kurt's voice comes from somewhere in the front of the crowd.

Silver glares for a moment into the crowd - I instinctively turn my head away slightly in the hopes of avoiding his gaze. "It certainly seems so," he admits, after a couple of long, tense moments. "However, Lord Proton is my father's councillor. No matter his crimes, he cannot be charged under our laws. And only my father can revoke that protection. He must be released." And I get the feeling that Silver isn't entirely happy about having to enforce this himself, not now he's heard what Proton did. "The rest can hang."

"That's a really dumb law," I whisper to Carlei.

"It came about centuries ago because rivals on the King's council were prone to framing each other for crimes," she whispers back. "It is a protection that has not been invoked in decades."

Bugsy frowns for a moment. "Very well." He releases Proton himself - summoning a sword into his hand and slicing through the rope around Proton's neck. And I barely suppress a horrified gasp when Proton pulls his hood off. An entire side of his face is burned and blistered, one eye staring sightlessly, turquoise hair now only on the uninjured side.

"Holy fuck. I...I did that, didn't I?" I ask Carlei. I speak louder than I meant to, but everyone around us is talking too, commenting on Proton's wounds, and I doubt anyone hears me.

But to my surprise, there's a hint of a smile on her face. "The Divines did, through you," she answers. "Perhaps 'Lord' Proton will remember that wound the next time he tries to torture innocent people to further the Exile King's research."

And...I can barely believe I'm thinking it myself, but I agree. It's just the sort of satisfying punishment that happened so many of the ancient Blessed tales I've been reading. And at least he's still alive. I try not to think about the fact that his soldiers aren't going to be as lucky.

Silver's next words distract me from staring at Proton's wounds. "Now," he continues. "Back to the original topic of my presence here."

"Ah, yes, Princess Carlei. Unfortunately, I only learned of her identity today," Bugsy lies smoothly.

Silver raises an eyebrow. "Bugsy, you know Carlei." He sounds sceptical. "You have for years. And yet you failed to recognise her despite speaking to her in person."

"I had assumed she had changed her appearance to that depicted by these posters that were distributed by your father. They are, however, rather inaccurate. Had you arrived sooner to tell me otherwise, I might have been able to arrange her capture."

"I was delayed," Silver replies testily, "because there were a large number of bandits - living and dead - in the forests of Bond. Your soldiery seem to be doing a poor job of suppressing them."

"The kidnappings and murders committed by your father's councillor have occupied much of the time of my garrison," Bugsy replies, with equal vitriol. "I apologise for the inconvenience to you, my lord. Perhaps you could take it up with your father. In any case," he continues, before Silver can snap at him, "I attempted to apprehend her, but she and her companion incapacitated my guards and fled. No doubt they are well away from the city by now."

"And the majority of your guard force is occupied with this very public and unnecessary execution. That's rather convenient for my sister, wouldn't you say, Bugsy?"

"Unecessary? On the contrary," Bugsy replies. "After the death of my father, there have been rumours that I am incapable of managing the affairs of my house. Some seem to believe my lands are a prime target for banditry. This execution is a message to them - they will suffer the same fate. And incidentally, Lord Silver?" he adds. "I do not object to my friends calling me Bugsy, but as you well know, it is far from a name of endearment, and I would thank you not to use it!"

Silver frowns, and his aura turns an angry red for a moment. Then he turns away from Bugsy and to Goban. "We're wasting time. Start searching the crowds for the fugitives. You," he turns to Proton, "get out of my sight before I execute you myself."

Proton takes the quite sensible decision to not point out to Silver that he's no more allowed to kill him than Bugsy, and backs away with a hoarse "Of course, my lord."

"I think we might have to forget the 'paying respect' thing," I whisper to Carlei. This time she lets me pull her away, back towards the Temple - the other three have already gone ahead of us.

"I apologise for my poor choice of words, Lord Bughsearre," I hear Silver add to Bugsy from behind us. "But if you will excuse me, I have work to do."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #14
Even with the streets crowded courtesy of Bugsy’s scheme, getting out of Hiwada is a worrying experience. I think to some extent we're all expecting one of Silver’s soldiers - or Silver himself - to suddenly round a corner and confront us.

It doesn't help that we have to go back to the Temple to get our stuff, just like we'd had to in Kikyo. We don't even have that much stuff. I can't help but feel that it would make more sense for us to just keep it with us.

Once we're a few minutes outside the city, we stop to catch our breath. "That was too close," Gaius grumbles. "The prince will be barely any time behind us now."

"So what would you rather we have done?" Carlei retorts. "Run away and allow Proton and his brutes to go free?"

"Whatever Lord Bughsearre might have said," Shayne points out, "those soldiers would have been put to death without our testimony. There were half a dozen witnesses besides us."

"He requested that we stay," Carlei says.

"And do you have any idea why?" Gaius asks.

Much as I hate to side against Carlei - especially with Gaius - he's got a point. If his only goal had been to help us escape Silver, it makes no sense for him to have kept us in Hiwada.

I'm distracted from my musings when I feel an aura above us, in the trees. "Wait," I tell the others quietly. The aura doesn't seem to be moving, so I take the time to gather a few motes of light into a ball, and then spin and hurl it up into the trees. It detonates loudly, and the scruffy-looking guy who was with Silver in the city - Zane, I think Shayne said his name was - comes plummeting down and lands with a thud.

"You've not stopped creeping around spying on people, then, Zane," Shayne comments.

"Shayne! Haneka!" He seems rather surprised to see them. "You're okay! And, uh...committing treason. If you leave now," he offers, clambering slowly back to his feet, "I won't tell Lord Silver that you were a part of this."

"Don't pretend you care about us," Haneka spits, surprisingly venomous. "You didn't even hesitate before joining those barbarians. Ethan and Carlei saved my life. I'm not going to abandon them. Just because you see nothing wrong with abandoning your neighbours and friends doesn't mean the rest of us do."

"I, uh..." Zane doesn't quite seem to know what to say in the face of Haneka's vitriol. "LORD SILVER!" he screams. "THEY'RE HERE! HELP!" He turns tail and starts to run back down the clearing.

"Get back here!" Shayne runs after him, summoning his sword as he goes, but bat-like wings sprout from Zane's back and he takes off, soaring into the air just in time to dodge Shayne's slash. "Coward!"

Haneka takes off after him, outpacing him in a matter of seconds and swooping around him. They're both clumsy fliers, but Zane seems even worse than her. "You can't get away from me like that."

If Zane is startled by Haneka's new wings, he doesn't show it. Instead he holds out his hand and summons a trident. "I don't want to hurt you, Haneka." Haneka doesn't seem to share his concern, because she shoots him. A green blast of light flies from her pistol and slams into him, but it doesn't seem to do anything. In fairness to Zane, he doesn't retaliate. "Get out of the way. You're a Nature Aspect, I'm Corruption. That's never going to go well for you."

"And what about Fire?" Carlei calls up to him, and swipes her sword through the air, launching a fireball up at Zane. It misses by about three feet, and for a moment I think his haphazard flight threw her aim off - but then she smirks, and makes a gesturing motion with her free hand as he turns to look down at her. The fireball reverses direction mid-air and slams into him from behind, and propels him back down to earth as he flaps his wings harder, helplessly trying to counteract the force of her fire. He leaves a bit of a crater in the ground where he lands.

"Was that trick..?" I trail off as I turn to regard Carlei.

She nods. "Your attack in Yadon gave me the idea. I never had the chance to try it until now."

"Well, I'd say it worked," I comment, looking at where Zane is slowly, woozily clambering back to his feet. And then we all hastily back away from the crater, because dark smoke suddenly begins to spiral out of thin air, and Silver and Goban emerge from the darkness. Silver has his claws out, but Goban seems unarmed. "Wait, they can teleport? How the hell is that fair?"

Carlei shifts to a defensive stance with her sword as Haneka and Shayne hastily rejoin us. "Silver knew we were in the city the whole time," she realises. "He wanted us to panic and take the most obvious route out. He tricked me," she admits, with a grimace.

Silver doesn't say anything at first, but then he nods. "The three of us are the only ones here."

"Why?" I ask.

"My soldiers care only for completing their mission - capturing you alive or dead. I'm trying to give you a chance - the only chance you have. This insane scheme of yours will not protect you."

"If you want to help us, then just leave," Carlei says.

Silver shakes his head. "I will not abandon my duties. Not like you."

"Your first duty is to the people of Joto," Carlei snaps back, "just like me. And yet you saved a sadistic murderer from the hangman's noose."

"If you genuinely think I want Lord Proton to escape justice," Silver says, "then you have changed far more than I feared." His aura is a deep, sad blue. "In accordance with our kingdom's laws, he will be tried by Father's council -"

"The hell's the point of that?" I interrupt. "He was working for your father in the first damn place."

Even from here, I can feel the air around Silver get colder. "Given your circumstances, I can understand some animosity towards Father," he says, in a very tight, controlled voice. "But he would never countenance something like this. Do not insult his name by saying that again."

"Proton fucking told us!"

"And you believe his words over the name of the King?" He might be replying to me, but he's addressing Carlei.

"Yes," Carlei answers, steadily. "I do. It might not have been Father's idea, and he might have been talked into it by Ariana, but I have no doubt that he was aware of Proton's actions and allowed them to proceed. It would hardly be the first injustice Father has committed in recent times."

"What has he done to you?" Silver asks, almost at a whisper. I think I might be the only one who hears it. He looks down at the ground for a couple of moments before returning his gaze to us. "You leave us no choice. I will uphold Zane's offer, however. If any of you wish to avoid being labelled fugitives from the crown, then now is the time to leave." None of the other three move. "Very well."

Almost at the same time, Shayne and Gaius run at him, but he slices both of his clawed hands through the air, and they leave a trail of water behind them, floating in midair. Water pours from the 'trails' and when Silver makes a pushing motion and the trails fly forward, they bring with them a wave that's a good couple of feet taller even than Gaius, and it washes the two Earth Aspect warriors away without even slowing down. Haneka narrowly gets back in the air in time to dodge it, and Carlei charges right through it, her entire body erupting into flames. She's powerful enough to get to the other side where Gaius and Shayne couldn't, despite her Aspect disadvantage, leaving a hole evaporated in the wave which I take advantage of and duck through.

It's a good thing I do, because the hole in the wave seals closed a moment later, and it spreads out, forming a ring around us, stopping Shayne and Gaius from interfering.

The wave might have slowed her down, but Carlei doesn't stop, charging at Silver in a wild, reckless swing, but he steps backwards, out of range of her swing. She keeps going, changing the angle of her swing and slicing at Goban instead - and her sword passes through him like he's made of mist. The complete lack of resistance throws her off-balance, and before she can recover, Goban reaches out and presses two fingers on her forearm.

For a moment I don't know what he's done, but then Carlei's sword drops to the ground and she staggers back, her arm hanging limp at her side. She tries to grab her sword up from the floor with her free hand, but Goban gets there first, touching her shoulder this time. This time, whatever the fuck he's doing is powerful enough to knock her backwards, back to where I'm still standing. I know it's stupid to have just left her to fight them both, but I still find myself forgetting that I can fight on par with her now. And honestly, sometimes I forget she's not as invincible as she often appears.

"What the hell did you do to her?" I shout at Goban.

"Corruption magic," he answers. "There are no lasting effects." I honestly think he's trying to reassure me, but I don't give a damn. I can see horrible veins of black-and-purple energy running through both of her arms, and it's hurting her. I sweep my arm through the air and propel a spread of motes at him, like a shotgun blast. He obviously expects them to just phase through him, like Carlei's sword, but they don't, and the explosions blast him into Silver's wall of water, which spits him back out by Silver's feet.

Silver lets out a surprised, wordless exclamation, dismissing his claws on one hand and bending down to check Goban's pulse. "How..?" It would be a perfect time to blast him too, but I'm more worried about Carlei. "How is that possible?"

Carlei gets back to her feet, leaning on me a little. With Goban unconscious, the darkness is already beginning to fade from her arms. "Thank you, Ethan," she says quietly, before looking back to her brother. "The Divines favour our 'insane scheme,' just as they favoured Bugsy in the city. What more proof do you need than this?"

Silver grits his teeth. "I...I cannot accept that," he says, but for the first time, he seems uncertain. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop him advancing, settling back into a combat stance as his claws reappear. "You should have allowed Goban to incapacitate you. It would have been less dangerous."

Though I can see Carlei's fingers twitching as she struggles to overcome whatever the hell Goban did to her, she's in no state to fight Silver. And now he knows about my powers, I can't surprise him with them, and in a straight-up fight, I'm not even on the kind of level I saw from him and Carlei in the tunnels - much less whatever he's capable of now. Maybe he's right. Maybe surrendering to him is our only chance.

Then a beam of green light arcs out of the sky and slams into Silver. Her attack might not have so much as fazed Zane, but Haneka's shot blasts Silver back, forcing him down to one knee. He reacts quickly - the claws on one hand dissolve into water and form a roughly fist-sized sphere, which he launches at her. I'm not even sure how he knows where she is; he doesn't seem to look. But the water-bolt hits her squarely in the chest with enough force to send her flying back and up. I can sense flashes of pain in her aura, but although she clutches at her chest with one hand, she keeps the pistol pointed at Silver and fires a rapid barrage of shots. The first one misses by a couple of inches, and he rolls out of the way of the second, but the next two hit him squarely and knock him down.

I sigh in relief as Silver's wall of water collapses. I hadn't even realised I was holding my breath. Carlei sighs too, but I think she's more disappointed than relieved. "Maybe we ought to get out of here?" I suggest, when she doesn't seem inclined to move.

After a moment, she nods, looking around at our gathered group as Shayne and Gaius catch back up with us and Haneka lands. "We'll keep going on the road, and stop once we're a few minutes away to rest. Silver won't pursue us in his current state. That should give us the time we need to escape."

"Assuming he doesn't manage to trick you again," Gaius remarks. And again, I'm forced to admit he has a point. Taking the obvious road is exactly what we did last time, and it didn't work too well.

I shake my head slightly. No. He might be able to outsmart her, but when it comes to something like this Carlei knows her brother better than any of us. I trust her.

I have to.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

Just as Carlei had planned, we stop after a few minutes of nervous travel, alternating between jogging and walking. Carlei's running low on her healing totems - she didn't get around to buying more from the Hiwada Temple - but Haneka was the only one who got physically hurt in the fight with Silver and his buddies, from the ball of water smashing into her side.

Whatever the hell Goban did to Carlei doesn't seem to be something she can cure, though she assures me that it will heal naturally over time. She also promises that she'll be able to fight if she has to, but judging from how much difficulty she had holding the healing totem to treat Haneka's injury I'm not convinced. But I guess I'm not as dependent on her protection as I used to be. It's still a weird feeling.

Silver might have tricked Carlei as we left Hiwada, but this time - despite the fact that she literally said where we were going in front of him and the other two - her decision to keep us on the main path works out. There's no sign of pursuit even as the sun begins to set.

Gaius and Carlei keep snapping at each other the whole evening, though. It isn't until Carlei retreats to her tent in a sulk that the arguing finally stops. Part of me wants to go and try to talk to her, but at the same time...she might not have my abilities, but she knows me well enough that she'd realise I agree with Gaius about a lot of the decisions she's been making recently. And I'm pretty sure that that not only wouldn't help getting them to get along but would also mess up my friendship with her.

Thankfully, a good night's sleep (despite the general concern about us being ambushed by Silver) diminishes the confrontational mood between the two of them the next day, and by mutual - if unspoken - agreement, Shayne, Haneka and I try to stop their arguments from blowing up again, with reasonable success. Sparring against each other gives them both a chance to work out some of the tension between them, though the fights get a bit rough at times - mostly Carlei's fault. Still, it's better than having them snapping at each other all day long.

The next two weeks go by in much the same way as we travel towards Kogane, the biggest city in Joto, the monotony only broken by angry barbs traded between Gaius and Carlei (and occasionally one of the rest of us, when we get fed up with it.) I think it's the first time since I arrived in Joto that I've honestly felt bored, and I throw myself into our sparring matches and training just to add a little excitement to the days. In terms of my skills I improve significantly - much more than I had in Hiwada - but for some reason that intoxicating thrill of fighting isn't quite as strong now. Maybe it's because I'm only fighting people I know, not the string of new opponents that had been in Hiwada. Or maybe it's because the most powerful warrior in our group, Carlei, is handicapped by her wounded arms.

One new - or at least unfamiliar - opponent who I can fight, though, is Haneka. She's still not really on the level of the rest of us, but fighting a flying opponent is pretty interesting - and after Falkner and now Zane, it seems a useful thing to practice. I keep training with her, just like I had in Kikyo, and we quickly discover that by using my telekinesis to gently restrain her while she's flying, I can help her strengthen her wings. It doesn't exactly make much sense considering that they're basically giant leaves that fan out above her head and don't actually have any muscle on them, but I guess it's not the weirdest Blessed power I've seen.

Shayne doesn't seem too pleased she has powers now, though, and almost every time he watches her sparring he always ends up scolding her for being too reckless. In fairness, I can see his point; she is reckless - more so when he's watching - but on the other hand, with her Nature aspect she can kick his ass, so on more than one occasion I have to resist the urge to snap at him about it. I'm not sure when I became the de facto peacemaker of the group.

We're less than a day outside Kogane, and starting to see travellers on the road again, when things change. Unlike when I'd sensed Zane hiding in the tree outside Hiwada, the feeling comes over me slowly this time - slowly enough that I don't realise what I'm sensing in time to give us a warning, until I abruptly realise I've been feeling something for the past minute.

The others are used enough by now to my supernatural instincts that this time, when I say there's a danger, they listen. "Where?" Carlei asks.

"I don't know," I admit, trying to focus on the auras I'm sensing. They aren't the same horrible, dark wrongness that I felt from Proton and his Imperials, but they're cruel and violent nonetheless. "It's like they're right here."

And then I realise where the auras are - underneath.

The ground collapses under Shayne and Haneka - she tries to grab him and fly up, but the sudden weight pulls her down enough that a lump of earth the size of her chest, rebounding off the wall of the rapidly-expanding chasm and slams into her wings. She falls with a pained cry.

Carlei, just ahead of me, jumps back as the chasm continues to expand, almost slamming into me and leaving us both off-balance. Gaius slams one of his rocky gauntlets into the ground and a pulse runs through the earth, bringing the chasm to a halt.

We race to the edge of the pit where Haneka and Shayne fell, but though I can sense auras shifting around each other at the bottom of the pit, until the dust settles I can't see what's going on any more than the others can.

It doesn't take long. Five figures - they have to be Earth Blessed - are surrounding Haneka and Shayne, fighting in quarters too close for Shayne to use his katana effectively. Carlei conjures a ball of flame, but she can't attack without risking hitting Shayne or Haneka. I'm having the same problem - I can grab the attackers if I can get enough of my lights around them, but in the chaotic melee I'm getting in the way of Shayne and Haneka as much as the attackers, and I have to settle for just interposing barriers to shield them where I can.

Haneka, despite her injured wings, draws her pistol and aims at one of them, but he just grabs her arm and forces her back so the pistol is pointing harmlessly at the wall of the pit. She kicks him in the balls instead and shoots him as he doubles over.

Before the other attackers can cover the hole in their circle, she hops back, giving Shayne room to maneuver. He takes full advantage and sweeps his katana around in a swift, powerful arc, forcing the thugs to back up or get chopped in half, and follows the motion through by kneeling and ramming his blade down to the hilt into the floor of the pit.

The earth begins to shake again, and Shayne looks up at me and says something. Between the rumbling earth and general shouts from our group, I can't hear him, but somehow I know exactly what he's saying.

"Save her."

And I do - grabbing Haneka with the lights that had been so useless until now and lifting her out of the pit. One of the attackers sees her flying upwards and jumps at her, grabbing onto her in the obvious hope of being able to pull her back down. I can easily handle the weight, but he grabs her wounded wing, making her cry out in pain, and summons a knife in his free hand.

“Haneka, curl up!” I yell at her. Thankfully she hears me over the din and realises what I mean, because she tucks herself into a tight ball. I send the lights I'd been using to hold her out in all directions at full force and then pull them back, throwing the guy grappling her off, though in a last, desperate attempt to cling on, he manages to twist in mid-air, contorting himself between my lights, and grabs her wrist as she uncurls and tries to aim her pistol down into the pit.

Without the risk of hitting Haneka by mistake now they aren't tangled up, I blast him off easily - though he takes the pistol with him - and pull Haneka back down to safety.

The moment Shayne sees she's safe, he rips his katana back out of the earth - and the chasm collapses in on itself, burying him and the attackers underground with a great crash of falling soil and stone.

The sudden, utter silence in the clearing is only magnified by the auras underground being snuffed out.

Haneka screams - wails, really, a horrible, pained sound that sends shivers down my spine.

“Son of a…” Even Gaius seems stunned. Then he slams both his rock gauntlets into the ground and the earth explodes up, revealing Shayne’s limp form. Even in death, there's an odd gracefulness to him.

There's a long few moments of quiet, broken only by Haneka's cries.

"Why did you save me?" she demands, rounding on me. "You shouldn't have saved me!" She punches me in the chest. "You should have saved him!" Her punches hurt, but I don't try to stop her. I just let her strike me, over and over. I'm not really sure why.

Eventually, her blows become weaker and she starts leaning against me for longer before pushing away. Her wounded leaf-wings still droop at a strange angle. I think it's the first time I've ever seen her able to Manifest her wings without her pistol in hand. When she stops hitting me at all, I hug her gently. I'm joined by Gaius and Carlei, and we form a tight, protective little triangle, with Haneka at the centre. Carlei has a healing totem in each hand, and she channels energy into us as she holds us. I don't really need the healing - Haneka's blows hurt, but they weren't doing any real damage - but I'm glad of the comfort of her warmth. I disentangle one arm from Haneka's wings and hug Carlei back, and she rests her head on my shoulder briefly.

I'm not sure how long we're standing there before Carlei asks the obvious question. "Who...who were they?"

Haneka pauses, wriggling free from our hug a little, enough that she can look at the man who'd grabbed onto her when I'd pulled her out of the pit. "I recognise him," she said quietly. "He was one of Owain's thugs. They must have assumed that Shayne and I were responsible for his death and the destruction of his gang."

This was our fault. Suddenly I feel cold, and Carlei's aura of warmth does nothing to get rid of that feeling.

"What do we do about him?" Gaius asks, nodding to the unconscious man. Carlei's eyes narrow, and I see her hand twitch as if about to catch a materialising sword.

"No," I say quietly. I'm sick of people dying.

"Then what do you suggest?" Carlei asks, in a tight voice. But she stops, returning her arm to Haneka's shoulders.

"How long do you think it will be before Silver gets here?" I ask.

Carlei's and Gaius's estimates differ by about a week. They glare at each other again, but neither of them press the issue. I split the difference, and focus on the unconscious bandit.

His aura is more peaceful while he's unconscious, though it's still cruel and angry beneath. I push my lights forwards, willing them to take on the colour of his aura, merging them into it. There's a little resistance...and that's it. With almost no effort, I'm in control.

I focus on my lights, changing their colour and hue to a more peaceful sky blue, and they change his aura with them. By watching how his aura tries to reassert itself in places I haven't placed a light, and how quickly it changes, I find I can estimate how much power I need to put into overriding his aura to make the change last longer - long enough that, hopefully, he'll wake up more or less when Silver arrives here.

It's scary how simple it is.

We spend the rest of the day here. Carlei and I dump the sleeping thug in a bush, where hopefully casual passers-by won't notice him but Silver's troops, plowing through the undergrowth in strict formation, will all but literally trip over him. Gaius uses his earth control to mould a grave for Shayne, just off the path, and we leave Haneka to say her goodbyes while we return to the path and start setting up camp, out of the way of the main road.

While we're waiting, I reach out with my powers again, finding the thin connection that leads from Haneka into the ground, and force a mote of light down that connection, drilling a hole into the earth. Gaius could do it more easily, I'm sure, but I want to do this.

When Haneka gets back to our camp, I've pulled her pistol from its tomb underground. It doesn't seem to have been damaged by the rough treatment. She looks at it for a moment, slides it back into its holster on her belt without a word, and sits down by the fire.

Gaius reaches over and puts a hand on her shoulder. "He cared about you," he says, in the quietest, gentlest tone I've ever heard him use. "Maybe not in the way you wanted him to, but he cared about you."

"I know," Haneka almost whispers back.

I'm glad he said that. It would have been so easy for him to lie and say that Shayne was secretly in love with her or some bullshit - the two of them spoke often enough that it would have been entirely feasible that Gaius would know something like that - and I would have been the only one to know the truth. Maybe it isn't quite as comforting to Haneka as the lie would have been, but I think in the end it will be better for her.

We stay up around the campfire that night, mostly silent, just keeping each other company, but all too painfully aware of the hole in our midst.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

We arrive in Kogane the next day. Even if I didn't know it was the largest city in Joto, I could probably have guessed - it looks bigger than every settlement we've been to so far put together. In other circumstances it would have been an awesome sight, but after what happened yesterday, none of us are feeling particularly like sightseeing.

"It ought to be safe for us to split up here," Carlei says. I think it might be the first sentence longer than a couple of words any of us have said all day. I'm surprised at her - with Shayne's death so recently in all our minds, I barely feel safe with the group, much less on my own. She explains a moment later, though. "I think we all...need some time to process." None of us disagree. "Shall we meet at the Temple at dusk?"

Gaius nods - which might be the first time they've agreed on anything for two weeks - and strides forwards into the city without so much as a goodbye. I bite down the spiteful insult I'm tempted to sling after him. He might not show it as much as us, but I think he misses Shayne too.

Haneka doesn't move. After a moment, Carlei puts an arm gently around her shoulder. "Come on," she says quietly, leading her towards the city - and glancing back at me and shaking her head slightly when I start to follow them. I know why Carlei doesn't want me to follow; to some extent, Haneka still blames me for what happened. And I know that she'll probably have an easier time coming to terms with it if she hasn't got me looming around and reminding her all the time that Shayne could be alive if I'd saved him instead.

It doesn't mean I want to leave them. I'm not sure if it's because I don't want to be left alone or because I'm worried about them.

I shake my head slightly as they disappear around a corner. I'm being stupid. She might not be at full fighting capability, but Carlei is still more than capable of taking on any dumb street thug that might try to mug them.

That doesn't stop me idly trying to sense Carlei and Haneka's auras as I wander aimlessly through the city for about half an hour - though I'm not sure what I'd do if I did find them. One thing I quickly discover is that Kogane, as well as being much bigger, is a much seedier and nastier city than Yoshino, Kikyo or Hiwada. Even in the middle of the day, people hurry along the streets, keeping their heads down, and there are a few buildings that seem to be guarded by menacing-looking thugs. I suspect the fact that I'm still wearing my heraldry discourages most of the street criminals from trying anything, but on more than one occasion I have to use my powers to knock away someone trying to steal my coin pouch out of my pocket. It's only after I've been wandering around for a while that I remember Shayne saying that the captives the bandits had taken were brought here to be sold.

I'm more glad of my abilities than ever before - I wouldn't have felt safe on my own in this place if I was still just a human.

It's as I pause to scan the crowd for any more approaching pickpockets that I sense an aura that seems somehow...familiar. I'm not sure why, though, because it isn't an aura I consciously recognise. Still, at least it gives me something to do beyond wandering aimlessly through crime-riddled streets, so after a brief pause I start heading towards the aura.

Whoever it is obviously sees me coming - the downside of wearing a bright white coat with stupid spiky collar - because they back off and leave as I get closer. I frown slightly, and follow them. They lead me down a network of alleys, and I notice little flecks of grey fear beginning to build as they do.

Apparently realising they're not going to throw me off their trail, after the fourth or fifth alleyway I realise that the aura has stopped, and is lurking just around the corner I'm about to turn. I turn it anyway, and duck under the clumsy swing of a mithril bow, reaching out and catching the ankle of its wielder as she tries to follow through and sending her sprawling.

It's only as I straighten up and my would-be ambusher rolls onto her back, eyes wide, that I realise who I've been following. "Lyra?!" She's dressed in sturdy travelling clothes rather than the blue gowns she'd always worn in Sekiei, and her long blonde hair is cut short. Her sapphire blue eyes are still the same, though.

She freezes in her attempt to get back to her feet, the bow still vaguely pointed in my direction. "E...Ethan?" She seems as surprised to see me as I am to see her, and I guess she didn't recognise me any more than I recognised her. "What...what are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing," I point out, crouching down to offer her a hand up. She doesn't let go of the bow as I help her back to her feet.

"But you're...you're Blessed!" I'd forgotten the odd way she pronounces the word - making the 'ed' on the end a separate syllable. It's surprisingly nice to hear it again. "How is that possible?"

"I, uh...honestly have no idea," I admit. "It's a long story. I guess you were Blessed the whole time, huh?"

She gives me a small, embarrassed smile, finally letting her bow dissolve into water, which splashes down on the ground. "Um, yes. I'm a Chosen Warrior of Kyogre. Since Carlei was your first introduction to our kind, I thought you might feel more comfortable if you didn't realise I was Blessed too. I did intend to tell you, but..." She trails off a bit. "Then everything...happened."

"Did you know?" I ask her, after a moment. "That Carlei was going to break me out?"

Lyra shakes her head. "Once I heard about it, I wasn't entirely surprised - it was the sort of thing she would do. But she didn't tell me in advance. Probably because I'd have tried to talk her out of it. Please don't take it the wrong way!" she says, hastily - and to my surprise, she actually flinches away from me a little even before I've fully processed what she's said. She's afraid of me, and even though I don't know why she would be, it makes me feel awful.

"Lyra, I'm...I'm not gonna hurt you," I tell her, quietly, confused. "Promise," I add, when she still looks nervous.

She gives me another small smile. "Sorry. I just...I'm still trying to get used to everything that's happened."

"So what has happened?" I ask her. Since she doesn't seem inclined to move, I start heading back towards the main streets, and she quickly keeps pace with me. Those fearful flecks of grey are still there in her aura, but they're diminished a little.

Lyra sighs. "The day after you escaped, Prince Silver came to see me. He said he was being given command of a contingent of soldiers and tasked with recapturing you. He asked me to come with him." I stop, and turn to look at her. "Not to help him!" she adds. "He was worried that some of his father's councillors - Lords Proton, Petrel and Archer, and Queen Ariana, primarily - would try to use me as a bargaining chip to coerce Carlei to return."

I remember the time I'd seen Proton, and all those cages. And that horrible, cruel smile and the darkness of his aura. He would have hurt even someone as innocent as Lyra without batting an eyelid. "He was probably right," I say.

"I...I want to believe that both of you are wrong," she replies, but she sounds a little unsure. "However, with that...witch...who calls herself an ambassador insinuating herself into King Lance's council, I would not be surprised if she took advantage of the situation to move against me." I'm not sure who Lyra is talking about exactly, but I don't interrupt. "So I accepted Prince Silver's offer of protection. While his men were searching the woods outside Kikyo for you, he and a small contingent rode through the mountain pass with me to bring me here. Only he and his most trusted soldiers know I'm here."

I realise that that must be the real reason Silver took so long to get from Kikyo to Hiwada - not, as he'd told Bugsy, because he was running around hunting bandits. I know the guy is trying to capture us so I can be executed for a made-up crime, but I'm starting to like him.

"So where are you staying?" I ask her. "I'm guessing not the Temple, unless that's your heraldry."

She gives a little smile and shakes her head. "In Hoen," she explains, "we only wear our heraldry for formal duels. Our beliefs say that to wear it casually as is often done in Joto is disrespectful to the Divines. And...while I am hardly a great adherent to the current dogma of my homeland, I will still practice my faith where I can. More to the point," she adds, "the Kogane Temple must have more than two hundred people within it at any one time, and the chance that at least one of them is willing to act as Lady Whitney's eyes in the Temple in exchange for coin is all but assured. It would only take one report of my presence to Lady Whitney to give me away, and I have no doubt that she would be more than willing to apprehend me for sale to the highest bidder."

"You're kidding." Suddenly I feel rather obvious in my white coat.

"Unfortunately not. Prince Silver introduced me to the owner of a small inn who has lived in Kogane for a long time - that's where I am staying, to answer your question. According to her, this city is the centre of crime in Joto, which is why it is such a prosperous settlement. And at its head is Lady Whitney, taking slices of every criminal enterprise in the city and becoming rich off the suffering of others. Thus my new appearance," she adds. "So far it seems to have ensured no-one notices me."

"Why don't you just leave the city?" I ask.

"That was Prince Silver's suggestion as well," Lyra tells me. "He suggested I head north to Asagi or Kirameki, where I would be safe - safer than here, at least. But I've not encountered any danger here in Kogane. The common criminals on the street seem to have learned that I do not carry any great wealth on me, so as long as I stay out of the way, I seem to be safe."

"That's not much of a way to live," I point out. "Are you just gonna hide in the back alleys for the rest of your life?"

"If necessary, yes." She sighs, and stops walking. I stop too, looking back at her. "Truthfully, I want to leave, to go to Kirameki. But...I'm scared," she admits, quietly.

I feel bad for her. It's my fault - indirectly - that she's in this mess, and ever since Silver left her here she hasn't had the luxury of having someone like Carlei to protect her. "You could come with us," I suggest, suddenly. "We're going to Asagi too. Carlei's idea," I add, by way of explanation.

Lyra frowns. "I can't imagine that Lady Jasmine will be too willing to protect fugitives from the Imperial Crown - even if one of them is her childhood friend. But...if you're willing to bring me with you, then I'd be grateful."

"Well, I'm sure willing, and Carlei's basically in charge of our group anyway and she won't say no to you either, so..." I trail off with a shrug. "Welcome aboard."

To my surprise, Lyra suddenly bounds forward and hugs me tightly. "Thank you," she murmurs quietly, her voice slightly muffled by my coat. After a moment, she seems to remember herself and pulls back a little. "Ahem. I mean, uh, I'm deeply grateful to you, Ethan."

I barely resist the urge to laugh at her ping-ponging between formal and genuine. "Sure. We're all meeting back at the Temple at dusk, so...is there anything to do in this city that doesn't involve crime or hiding in back alleys?"

"We could always watch the matches at the arena," she suggests, after a brief pause to think.

"What, like...gladiators?"

She nods. "They're duels between Blessed - informal ones, with more flamboyance and showing off than a real battle. The combatants are all willing, and they're quite a spectacle. And," she adds, "they are very well-attended, including by Blessed, so we'll both be able to blend into the crowd."

Getting to the arena isn't hard - Lyra knows the streets of Kogane like the back of her hand. I guess it's not that surprising when she's been lurking around here for about a month. The arena has areas to stand and watch the fights, but Lyra leads me towards the stands, which are suspended on columns and have a much better view of the arena. I know enough about Jotan economy by now to know that the admission fee for the stands is about a week's wages for your average worker, but Carlei gave me a thousand times that when we were in Yoshino and I've barely spent a fraction of it, so I pay for both of us.

Shortly after we find a position to watch the fight from, a hidden orchestra somewhere plays a dramatic fanfare and a fat man walks out onto a dias balanced precariously on one end of the stands. "That's the Master of Ceremonies," Lyra explains to me over the applause that accompanies his arrival. "He runs the fights."

The Master of Ceremonies' voice must be magically amplified, because it echoes through the arena. "This afternoon, for your entertainment, we have an up-and-comer in the arena. The master of hypnotism, the artist of deception...Somnos!"

Somnos gets some applause - including from Lyra - as he emerges from underneath the stands. He's dressed in an outfit too ridiculous to even be heraldry that looks rather like the stereotypical wizard's robe, purple with various silver stars stitched onto it, and he's holding an ornate pendulum that swings back and forth as he bows to the crowd.

"He will be facing the as-yet undefeated mistress of blades, cruel and lightning swift - Falling Leaf!" The Master of Ceremonies keeps talking as 'Falling Leaf' emerges, to the jeers of the crowd - she's dressed in a slightly more sensible outfit, albeit one that accentuates her figure and exposes far more bare skin than necessary. "Will Somnos be the first to topple her from her throne and win the prize?" He holds up a large pouch that's presumably filled with coins, but I'm not paying him any attention any more.

"What was that you were saying about the fighters all being willing?" I ask Lyra in an undertone, as I watch Sabyl stepping onto the sands of the arena.

Lyra glances at me, confused. "What do you mean?" She doesn't bother to speak quietly; the crowd are already cheering for Somnos.

"'Falling Leaf,' or whatever the hell they're calling her, works for Bugsy. She's his bodyguard. No way she just abandoned him."

Lyra shifts, uneasily, at the revelation. "Perhaps she wanted a change of occupation?" she offered, unconvingingly.

"Yeah, I don't think so." Even from here I can feel the anger and frustration radiating off of Sabyl.

We're both distracted by the Master of Ceremonies clapping his hands, the magical amplification making the sound reverberate across the arena. "Let the battle begin!" he proclaims...and Sabyl just blurs. In the blink of an eye she's in front of Somnos, slicing his pendulum in half. Another blink and she's behind him, sweeping his legs out from under him. Another blink and she's kneeling on top of him as he crashes to the ground, swords crossed at his throat until he stops struggling, at which she gets up, lets her blades vanish in a whirl of grass and wind, and walks back into the passage she came from without a second glance. The entire fight takes about five seconds.

The Master of Ceremonies takes this in his stride. "And another warrior falls to Falling Leaf's lightning-quick blades!" he declares, over the crowd booing. "Only three more victories and she will be eligible to challenge the arena champion and crowd favourite - the Unbreakable Fist!" The booing changes to scattered cheers at the mention of the champion's title. "Soon, two unbeaten warriors who dispatch their foes with immense speed and power will clash. Who will be victorious?"

As the Master of Ceremonies continues hyping up the crowd, I turn and start heading back down the stairs. "Ethan, where are you going?" Lyra asks, catching up with me.

"I'm going to see the Master of Ceremonies," I answer shortly. "Maybe he doesn't know Sabyl isn't here willingly."

"And if he does?" Lyra catches my wrist as I keep moving. "What are you going to do then?"

I stop and look back to her. She's obviously frightened of confronting the Master of Ceremonies. I guess if I'd spent the past month alone and hiding from everyone, I would be too. But I haven't been alone. "Look, just go back to the inn you're staying at and meet us at the Temple at dusk. You don't have to get caught up in this."

"Why do you?"

I step a little closer to Lyra and speak more quietly, so no-one can overhear me. "Sabyl helped Carlei and me get away from Silver in Hiwada. I owe her. And besides, I can't just...sit back and do nothing."

Lyra gives a small chuckle. "You sound like Carlei."

That takes me by surprise, but on reflection, I guess she's right. My Blessing has helped, sure, but I'd never have had the guts to do something like this before I met Carlei. "I guess she's rubbed off on me," I admit.

Lyra hesitates for a moment or two, and then takes a step past me, still keeping hold of my wrist. "So what are we doing?"

"Lyra..." I trail off, not sure what I want to say - or what I want her to do.

"As you said, we can't sit back and do nothing. Queen Niamh chose to act to help me escape Hoen. Carlei chose to act to befriend me when I was alone and scared after I arrived. Prince Silver chose to act to help me reach Kogane to protect me from Karen and the King's council." Her voice is still quavering and unsure, but she meets my gaze steadily. "Now it's my turn to choose to act."

Somehow I suspect Carlei would shake her off, tell her to go home just like I had a few moments ago and not take no for an answer. But even if Carlei has rubbed off on me to some extent, if she wants to help, I'm not going to refuse her - and besides, I don't want to force her to be alone again. "Okay," I nod. "Let's go."

We follow the Master of Ceremonies as he leaves the arena, having finally finished promoting future events. He's changed out of the flamboyant robes he was wearing in the arena and does a pretty good job of blending into the crowd, but he can't hide his aura, all greedy and smug. And since I don't need to see him to sense his aura, we stay a good way behind him, just in case he's watching out for people following him - in a city like this, it's probably quite likely. Lyra's obviously unsure where we're going, but she doesn't question me.

Eventually we get to a building that looks, on the outside, much like all the others. "Where are we?" Lyra asks quietly.

"The Master of Ceremonies's...either house or office. Maybe both." After a moment of hesitation, I step forwards and knock loudly on the door.

It's opened by a burly guy with a mithril sword manifested already. Lyra flinches away behind me. "What?"

"I want to speak to the Master of Ceremonies." I'm surprised I manage to keep my voice level.

The Master of Ceremonies obviously hears me, because I hear him call out to the guard. "Let them in." He's sat at a fancy desk, obviously having been interrupted in the middle of some paperwork. "Most curious," he remarks. "I prefer people to not know where I work, and yet all my precautions against being followed were apparently fruitless against you. Well, you have my interest, young man. How can I help you?"

"One of your fighters - Falling Leaf, or whatever stupid name you gave her - is working for you against her will." I watch his aura. He knows exactly who I'm talking about, and he knows she's not here voluntarily. "Let her go."

"That's quite an accusation, young man," the Master of Ceremonies replies, smiling smugly. He rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds the one he's looking for and holds it out to us. Lyra stays close behind me, still holding my wrist, as I approach to take it - I could grab it with my lights, but somehow I find myself not wanting to let this guy know what I can do. "However, as you can see, Falling Leaf - or Sabyl of Shizen Koen, if you prefer - signed a contract affirming that she was here of her own free will."

I scan the parchment briefly. It's simple enough; it states that Sabyl works for the Master of Ceremonies (it actually calls him that on the contract) until she buys the contract off him, for a price determined separately, or until he releases her from it, and so long as she's working for him, she fights in the arena for him at times and against opponents of his choosing. Supposedly, she was aware of the implications and voluntarily signed the contract.

"Bullshit. Forcing someone to sign a contract saying they're here of their own free will doesn't make it true."

"You're free to believe what you want, young man," the Master of Ceremonies replies. He seems to be barely paying us any attention any more, scribbling something on another piece of parchment. "But I'm afraid you have no grounds to force me to simply release her from her contract. However -" he glances up from his parchment, and his smug grin grows wider "- I am willing to offer you a deal."

I scoff slightly. "Yeah?"

"You - or the young lady besides you, if you prefer - fight in my arena." Lyra gasps quietly, behind me. "One fair fight, against a single opponent of my choosing. If you agree to fight, I will release Falling Leaf from her contract regardless of the outcome. Moreover, if you win, you can have the reward intended for the first warrior to defeat her."

"And if I lose?"

Somehow the Master of Ceremonies manages to grin even wider still as he hands the piece of parchment he was working on out to me - another contract. Damn guy looks like the Cheshire Cat. "If you lose...why, then you will work for me!" Lyra's grip on my arm tightens slightly. "So, do we have a deal, young man?"

It's a stupid deal. I bet it's my ability to track him here that's got him interested in me, and Sabyl doesn't play along with the showboating the audience expects, so she's not much use to him as a fighter; that's why he's so willing to let her go for a chance at getting me under his thumb. There's no reason he won't just throw me against the toughest warrior he has - that 'Unbreakable Fist' guy, probably.

But I can't just turn around and abandon Sabyl because the odds are against me. Carlei wouldn't. And Shayne wouldn't have, either - hell, they didn't. Carlei didn't abandon me, and Shayne didn't abandon Haneka, even though they both could have.

I know it's stupid. But I glance back to Lyra, down at the contract again, and then back to the Master of Ceremonies.

"Fine."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

cross_off

you chase the dragon but it follows you home
Writer
Team Omega
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231
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Jul 1, 2019
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168
Location
waterloo, ontario
Nature
Adamant
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he - him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
Pokédex Entry
it was banished for its violence. it silently gazes upon the old world from the distortion world
I've been meaning to say hi for a while tbh but I never got around to it, my b,

anyways I'm stoked to see that this is back and can't wait until this is caught up in its entirety - a lot of the chapters feel weirdly nostalgic tbh, and it's been fun reading some of them over again. as always the very episodic vibe works nicely for me, it's easy to see demarcations of 3-4 chapters that just act as their own self-contained piece somewhat and the reposting style helps reinforce that.

anyways there's not a lot I can say that I haven't already said but it's been a nice and refreshing re-read, will be back whenever this is caught up for good (because you did leave us on quite the wham line back on tapa and I'm v curious to see how that affects the storyline).
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
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Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
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Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #16
Hiya! And yeah it does feel kinda nostalgic reading through the old chapters. Hope you enjoy the story when I get back to posting new chapters!

"I can't believe you did that," Lyra says, a few minutes later, as we're walking back down the streets of Kogane. My fight is scheduled for this afternoon, so I have a few hours to kill.

"You know you've said that three times now, right?" I ask her.

"Sorry," Lyra apologises, "I just...I just can't believe..." She realises what she's about to say and cuts herself off before she can say it a fourth time. I find a smile tugging at the corners of my lips. "But seriously, Ethan! I know you said you owed Falling - uh, Sabyl, I mean - for helping you, but I'm sure she wouldn't want you to just be caught by someone else!"

"Relax, Lyra." Somehow, her nervousness is making me feel - or at least sound - calmer. "Now, you've been to a lot of those fights, right?" She nods, rapidly, as if worried that she might be giving me the wrong response. I still hate that she seems a little afraid of me. "What's this Unbreakable Fist guy like?"

"Well, for one thing, the Unbreakable Fist is a woman," Lyra tells me.

"Okay, great. Go girl power. What's she like?"

She offers a slight shrug. "Um...tall? She has long hair? She seems like a good person. Why? Are you going to ask for her help?"

"Uh...no, Lyra. How does she fight?" I suspect her nervousness is probably exacerbating it, but as much as it's inconvenient right now, her eager, innocent earnestness is remarkably refreshing - though I'm beginning to see part of the reason Carlei didn't get her involved in breaking me out of the palace.

"Oh!" Lyra looks away from me, sheepish at her misunderstanding. "Uh...I don't know, really. She's very strong. Every opponent she's faced she's knocked out in two blows - most of them in one. I've never really gotten to see her fight for a prolonged period. And to be honest, I'm not sure how much help I'd be to you even if I had. I've...never really been interested in fighting."

The way she says it, it's like she's confessing to a murder or something. I don't know if this is some Blessed thing I still don't know about, some Hoenese thing, or just Lyra's natural shyness, but I don't see what's so dramatic about it. "I was kind of getting that impression," I tell her, smiling when she looks back up at me. "No big deal."

She smiles back, hesitantly. "But how do you even know that the Master of Ceremonies will choose the Unbreakable Fist to fight you anyway?" she asks.

"An asshole like that isn't going to just give something up for no reason. If he wants me to fight for him so much that he's willing to use a fighter as strong as Sabyl as bait for me, then he's going to want to be pretty damn sure he wins." Interestingly, Lyra doesn't flinch at my use of the word 'damn' like everyone else does. "And the Unbreakable Fist is his champion, right?"

"Yes," Lyra confirms. "And it's not because she avoids the matches, either. She takes on anyone willing to challenge her. She's the strongest warrior in the arena, except maybe Falling Leaf - um, Sabyl."

"Okay, so he'll almost certainly choose her to fight me - especially if no-one's really seen her full fighting style before. Probably throw in that pot he's been collecting from Sabyl's matches to give her a reason to go all out against me." I pause for a moment, considering something. "How good was that Somnos guy we saw? Compared to the other fighters, I mean. Is there a leaderboard or something?"

"Beside the title of champion, there's no formal ranking system that I know of," Lyra admits. "But there are a few well-established duelists who newcomers get compared to. Based on his results against them, I'd say he's somewhere in the middle in terms of talent." She notices me grinning. "Why is that a good thing - or even relevant at all?"

"Because I could've put up a better fight than he did against Sabyl. Don't get me wrong," I add, as Lyra looks at me with a mixture of scepticism and astonishment, "she would've kicked my ass too. But I could've held her off for a little longer than three seconds. So if he's somewhere in the middle of the group, then that gives me a pretty good chance against the Unbreakable Fist. Especially since I know at least something about the way she fights - oh, do you know what Aspect she is?" I interrupt myself.

Lyra shakes her head. "Sorry," she apologises quietly.

"It's okay," I reassure her. "Anyway, point is, I know at least a little about how she fights, but she knows nothing about me. And from what you've said I'm pretty close to the top of these guys in terms of talent. So I've got a pretty good chance."

Lyra doesn't say anything immediately, and I feel emotions surging in her aura. When she eventually does speak, she's clearly trying to hide how worried she is. "So what are we going to do until the duel? Are you going to...train, or something?"

I shake my head. "I'd like to get the practice in, but chances are the Master of Ceremonies will have people watching us to try to figure out what I'm capable of, just like we're doing with the Unbreakable Fist. You said you were staying at an inn, right? You think they'll mind us staying there for a couple of hours?"

"I doubt it," Lyra answers. "Though...Floria, the innkeeper, isn't fond of the arena. Hopefully the fact that you're only getting involved to help someone will mollify her somewhat."

She leads me to a small building on the corner of two streets. It doesn't really look like an inn from the outside, but the door isn't locked when Lyra opens it, and it looks more like the inns I've seen in other cities from inside - though almost every available surface is sporting a plantpot, with various brightly-coloured flowers in full bloom. "Hope no-one here has allergies," I comment to Lyra quietly.

We're approached by a little old lady with a kindly smile who reminds me a bit of my grandmother. "Oh, hello again, Kris! How nice to see you again!"

For a moment I think she's just forgotten Lyra's name - which reminds me even more of my grandmother - but then Lyra turns to me and explains. "Prince Silver suggested I use a pseudonym while in the city. Mrs Floria suggested 'Kris.' Uh, Mrs Floria, this is Ethan. He's..." She stumbles for a bit. "A friend of mine," she eventually settles on.

"Well, any friend of dear Kris's -" Floria sticks with the fake name "- is a friend of mine. "Come, take a seat, you two. I'll bring you some tea."

Thankfully she doesn't do Jisan's thing of spending five minutes on each bowl. The fruits she's made this tea from aren't as fresh or extravagant as Jisan's, but I don't mind. I haven't had Jotan tea very often, since the Temples don't sell it. "So what brings you to Kogane City?" Floria asks, once she sits down besides us with a bowl of tea of her own.

"Ethan's fighting in the arena this afternoon," Lyra blurts out. I almost spit out my tea. I hadn't really planned on telling her that, especially since Lyra mentioned that Floria wasn't a fan of the arena.

"Not permanently," I add hastily. "I hope."

"Wretched arena," Floria grumbles. "I don't know what brutish types can bear to see people beating each other to a pulp." I glance at Lyra, who shakes her head slightly - obviously she hasn't told Floria about her hobby of watching the fights. "Sparring and duelling is one thing, but fighting purely for the sake of entertainment is just...disgraceful. Especially when the fights are held in one of the few surviving remains of our ancient culture. And," she adds, in a conspiratorial tone, "whatever that obese ringleader might say, I don't believe there are that enough people in Kogane willing to fight in his arena that he can maintain a rotating cast of gladiators of the magnitude he does purely from volunteers."

"Actually, that's why I ended up fighting," I explain. "Someone I know is being kept their against their will, and this was the only way I could convince that asshole to let her go."

"Ah!" Floria beams, suddenly all smiles. "How brave of you!"

"You didn't mention that if you lose you'll be taking her place," Lyra points out, quietly, nervously.

"If I lose." I sound a lot more confident than I truly feel.

Mostly to distract Lyra from worrying about me, I start asking Floria about her inn and the city in general. Pretty quickly this turns into Floria's retelling of how she's watched Whitney turn the city into the Jotan capital of crime and drive most of the innocent people elsewhere. "Why don't you just leave?" I ask her.

"This inn has been in the possession of my family for generations," she explains. "No matter what Whitney might do to the city it stands in, I won't leave it."

While we're waiting, Floria serves an early lunch - I don't think Blessed actually have to worry about stuff like not exercising right after eating, but no sense in taking the risk. The food is nicer than what the Temples serve, though I suppose under normal circumstances I'd be paying for this, whereas the Temple food is free.

It's just after we've finished, and Floria has gone to wash our dishes up, when I feel from Lyra those same surging emotions I felt just after we finished discussing tactics. "What is it?" I ask her, catching her before she can act like nothing's the matter this time.

When she eventually speaks, it's almost in a whimper. "What if you lose?"

Somewhat hesitantly, I put an arm around her shoulders. "I won't," I promise her. She slowly shuffles along the bench until she can lean against me, hugging me tightly, and I can feel her shaking. I almost feel like I'm back in the cell in Sekiei - only then it had been her comforting me, not the other way around. "It's going to be okay."

Truth is, though I am pretty confident about my chances, I have one more trump card up my sleeve if I do lose. With the way Jotans are about keeping their word, I bet the idea that I might break the contract I signed won't have occurred even to someone as slimy as the Master of Ceremonies - and even if it has, he can't be keeping his fighters locked up if he has everyone convinced that they're all volunteers. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the only thing stopping Sabyl escaping on her own is the contract, no matter whether she was forced into signing it or not.

But even if I haven't seen her for almost three months, I know Lyra well enough to know that she wouldn't accept me doing that. So as much as I hate to see her so frightened and scared by the idea of me being forced to fight in the arena for the foreseeable future, I don't tell her.

Floria waves us off as we leave. "Good luck!" she calls after us, nervousness clear in her tone. Lyra's insisting on accompanying me down the arena and watching my fight, which I realise is going to screw with my fallback plan a bit. But I can't think of a reason to convince her to stay behind, and when it comes down to it, no matter how pissed she - and Carlei and the others - would be about me breaking my word, they wouldn't actually try to force me back to work for the Master of Ceremonies.

The Master of Ceremonies asked us (well, me) to get there half an hour before the actual fight. It turns out that this is because he plans to get me dressed up in one of the stupid outfits. For a couple of moments I think about refusing him and just fighting in my heraldry - especially after all that 'victory in battle' stuff I got told in the Hiwada Temple - but then I realise that considering I'm still a fugitive, even if the pictures of my are still stupidly inaccurate, wearing a disguise in such a public spectacle might be a good idea.

It's as I'm removing my heraldry while the Master of Ceremonies and his lackeys start thinking up costumes for me that I realise it also gives me an opportunity to keep Lyra out of the way. She's awkwardly hanging out in the corner of the room, as far away from the Master of Ceremonies as she can possibly be. I bundle up my heraldry as I move over towards her, positioning myself so I'm hiding the bundle from their sight, should they happen to glance around. "Hey, I need you to do something," I tell her softly.

She looks up at me with big, wide eyes. "What?"

I pull the pendant Naoko gave me off my neck with my free hand. It's the first time I've taken it off since Naoko gave it to me, but I don't feel any different. "I need you to keep this safe for me."

"What is it?" she asks. "I can feel its power from here."

That catches me off-guard - even with all my senses, I've never felt anything from it. "I don't know, to be honest, but it was given to me by a Warden of the Faith." Lyra's wide eyes get even wider. "Whatever it is, I don't want these assholes getting their hands on it. So...just take it and get a little distance away, please?"

"But...I don't want to just abandon you," Lyra protests.

"You're not," I promise her, pulling my coin purse from the pocket of my jacket and slipping it inside. "This is more important." Plus, if this does go to hell and I lose, even if he doesn't expect me to betray him I wouldn't put it past the Master of Ceremonies to try to use Lyra as leverage to get me to obey him. "I'll find you after the fight."

I hate manipulating her, and I hate even more how easy it is. She nods, and takes the pouch, slipping it into an inner pocket of her clothes. "Okay," she agrees, and then wraps me in another sudden hug. "But please win."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

I'm never going to admit it to him, but I kind of like the outfit the Master of Ceremonies has given me. It's all in various dark shades, mostly dark grey, with a robe much like Carlei's - though unlike hers, it doesn't have a hood. Instead I have a hat with a large, floppy brim, though the front of the brim has been stiffened somehow so it doesn't get in my eyes. The one bit of the outfit I'm not so thrilled about is the tight, uncomfortable opera mask I'm wearing. The hat does more than enough to hide my identity; I'm pretty sure that only about a dozen people in the entire stadium can see my eyes. But apparently the mask is non-negotiable.

I realise why the Master of Ceremonies insisted on the mask when he starts another of his flowery speeches. "This afternoon, I have a very special fight for you all. A newcomer to the arena scene - his motivations, powers and very identity unknown. I present: The Mysterious Stranger!" I get a decent round of applause, to my surprise. "He will be pitted against the arena champion -" I smirk under my hat "- the one, the only, Unbreakable Fist!"

The greeting I got is eclipsed by the welcome she receives. It probably doesn't help that the Master of Ceremonies is leading the applause. As Lyra had said, she's tall, with long - really long - brown hair and a broad build, and probably not much older than Carlei. Her costume is less sex-appeal-oriented than Sabyl's; she's wearing simple clothes, over which she's been given a breastplate and shoulder guards, along with a helmet, though currently she's got the helmet tucked under one arm. "She gets armour?" I complain - not that anyone can hear me. "How is that fair?"

The Unbreakable Fist waves to the crowd a bit before putting on her helmet and dropping into a fighting stance - which gets her another round of cheers. I crouch slightly, but keep my arms hidden under my robe; I can't use my powers without moving at least my hands and fingers, so I might as well take the advantage I've been given to let me hide what I'm doing. Besides, I don't think there's much point to me trying to fight the Unbreakable Fist in a hand-to-hand brawl.

"The winner of the fight will be rewarded with this gemstone," the Master of Ceremonies continues, holding up an orange gem that sparkles beautifully in the light, "valued at nearly five hundred Imperial crowns." The crowd gasp in awe - that's probably as much as I have in the coin pouch Carlei gave me. "Is our Mysterious Stranger reckless or brave to choose to challenge such an opponent? Personally," he adds, in a magically-amplified whisper that still easily carries over the crowd, "I think reckless." I guess it was too much to hope for to have an unbiased judge. "But it matters not! The true question at stake is: does he have the power to withstand a blow from the Unbreakable Fist, or will he, like so many more, fall to a single punch?"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, asshole," I mutter.

The Master of Ceremonies lets the crowd quieten down before he raises his hands. "Let the battle...begin!"

The Unbreakable Fist comes straight at me, just like I'd expected. I put a barrier in her way, but she goes through it like it's made of paper. I hadn't really been expecting to stop her with it, but even so the sheer effortlessness with which she breaks through is the first sign that I might be a bit in over my head here.

I get the second sign a moment later. She lunges forwards in a punch that I manage to dodge aside from, but then she pivots on her extended leg, turns the momentum of her charge into a spin, and kicks me in the chest. I try to push her leg aside enough that it won't hit me square on, but I don't think I move her an inch.

I'm still not great at defending myself, and in the various sparring arenas I've been in I've been hit with some pretty powerful attacks - including from Carlei, once or twice - but the raw power of the Unbreakable Fist's blow is in a league of its own. It feels like I've been hit with a sledgehammer. Something slams into my back and for a moment I think she's used whatever power she has to hit me from behind, and then I realise that the thing that hit me is the wall of the arena.

The Unbreakable Fist clearly thinks the battle is over as I slump to the ground, because she starts grandstanding, bowing to the crowd. So does the Master of Ceremonies. "Well, it seems our Mysterious Stranger was reckless after all!"

I can barely keep my eyes open as spots run in front of my vision, but my aura sense is still working fine, and in the tidal waves of exhilaration and amusement and pride I feel a single spike of worry. Lyra's in the crowd, in almost exactly the same place she was earlier. Damn it.

I manage to prop myself up enough that I can properly see the Unbreakable Fist - still showing off - and launch a trio of lights at her, blasting her into the opposite wall. "I'm not done," I growl, in the sudden silence and astonishment of the crowd. I feel Lyra's aura all but erupt in relief and delight.

Unfortunately, nor is the Unbreakable Fist. She pulls herself out of the crater in the wall just like I had, staggering a little. For a few moments we circle each other until - just when my back is to one of the stupid giant columns the arena has for some reason - she launches herself at me again.

One thing I've learned from sparring with Carlei and the others is there's no point repeating a futile tactic. The Unbreakable Fist is a hell of a lot faster and stronger than me, and I doubt my second attempt at defending myself would do any better than my first. I can't let her get to me - at least until I can figure something out

Rather than a barrier, this time, I send as many lights as I can towards her, wrapping around her torso and pushing backwards. For a moment it feels like I might as well have tried to push away a mountain, but then her charge begins to slow, and I manage to bring her to a halt just a couple of feet away from me.

Even with my full power trying to push her away, though, she manages to slide her foot forwards a couple of inches and pushes back. A few seconds pass before she repeats the process, gaining ground ever so slowly but inexorably. At best I have a minute before she can get to me - if I can even maintain this level of force for that long.

Trying to think of a new strategy is all but impossible when I'm trying to focus on my powers, but then I hit upon an idea. I'm not sure if it's stupid or brilliant, but there's only one way to find out. I let the Unbreakable Fist go, pulling all the lights I'd thrown at her into one single, massive explosive blast, and blow it up right in our faces as she lunges at me with one arm outstretched, throwing myself the other way at the same time.

The sudden force of the blast does what my normal power couldn't, and knocks her off-balance enough that her fist whisks past my ear as I land on the floor and start to scramble to my feet. I can't see the Unbreakable Fist any more - the flash from my lights exploding has left me unable to see much more than the beige-ish blur of the yellow sands - but I can sense her and hear her as she snarls in annoyance and yanks her arm free of the column she punched through by mistake.

At which point, the entire fucking column collapses on our heads, and takes a large chunk of ancient roof with it.

Instinctively I raise a shield - around her as well as me. The sudden cries of panic from the crowd cut off as falling rubble builds up around us.

After the flash from my lights, the near-darkness of the dome-shaped area within my shield makes it difficult to see, and it takes a lot of blinking before I can pick the Unbreakable Fist out. Luckily, she seems to be having the same problem as me.

She'd taken an odd defensive stance - legs wide, arms above her head, both hands clenched together - when the column began to fall, but she relaxes, glancing around at the shimmering dome. "And they say chivalry's dead, huh?" Her accent isn't like the ones I'm used to hearing - she's got much more of a drawl to her tone. "How long can you hold this bubble for?"

"Why?" I ask, keeping my guard up in case she lunges at me again. The rubble has mostly settled into a stable formation, supporting its own weight to some extent, so it doesn't actually take much effort to keep the shield up, but I don't want to tell her that right now.

"Figured we could talk." That's not the response I was expecting. "Well," the Unbreakable Fist shrugs, "Mr 'Mysterious Stranger'...let's say you've made things interesting round here. Not often that bellowing lump of lard up there gets so excited about something he comes down and tells me personally that I gotta win a fight for him. And I don't think he's ever offered me extra gold for doing it. He really wants me to beat you. I'm curious. Besides," she adds, with a small chuckle, "you're the first person to put up a decent fight in ages, so I like you."

I hesitate for a moment before answering. She seems genuine enough, and I never really paid much attention to her aura while she was grandstanding, so maybe this is the real person under the persona. Still, I don't want to tell her the whole story. "You know...uh, what the hell is she called...Falling Leaf, right?" I ask, seeing her nod slightly in the dim light. "I don't know what happened exactly, but I know she'd never willingly work for 'that bellowing lump of lard,' as you so eloquently put it." The Unbreakable Fist chuckles slightly. "And I owe her a favour. The Master of Ceremonies offered me a deal - if I fight someone in the arena for him, she goes free. If I lose, I work for him instead. So...that's the great mystery, I guess."

"Huh." She seems to think it over for a few moments. I can dimly hear the Master of Ceremonies saying something, but even with his magically-magnified voice I can't actually hear him. Then the Unbreakable Fist pulls off her helmet with one hand, holding out the other. To my surprise, she's grinning. "I'm Magni. Nice to meet you."

"Uh, nice to meet you too, I guess?" This was definitely not a twist in the fight I'd expected, and I'm slightly nervous when I shake her hand, but though her grip is powerful - almost painfully strong - she's not trying to hurt me. "I'm Ethan."

"See, I don't like losing, Ethan," Magni admits, releasing my hand. "And I really don't like not giving a fight my all. On the other hand, I really want to piss that slimeball up there off for forcing all these poor sods to fight for him - oh, yeah, your friend isn't the only one."

"If you know that they're being forced to fight here, why don't you do something about it?" I ask her. "You're the arena champion. If the crowd out there is any indication, people would listen to you."

She scoffs. "Tell who? That bitch Whitney gets a lot of money from the arena. If the fuss got really big, she'd just cover it up, bury any evidence implicating her, maybe replace the Master of Ceremonies with some other slimeball, and keep on going like nothing happened. And that's the best I could hope for. The worst'd be that I - and all the poor sods I spoke to - have mysterious 'accidents.' Or just get knifed in an alley, if she's feeling particularly pissed. Trust me, it's not like I haven't thought about doing that." She sounds a little bitter.

"Then why don't you just leave? You're not trapped here too, are you?"

Magni shrugs slightly. "Nowhere else to go. Besides, I've got something I've gotta do in this city."

She paces back and forth in the confined space, considering something. "Uh, don't mean to interrupt your thinking," I tell her, after a few moments, "but there are people coming to dig us out."

She pauses, frowning, and then obviously comes to a conclusion, because she puts her helmet back on and turns to face me. Instinctively I back away from her a pace, but she just stretches out both arms slightly, beckoning. "Blast me."

"Wait, what?"

"Master of Ceremonies won't accept me just conceding the fight, and I reckon I can handle your hits better than you can mine." I grimace, irritated, but I know she's right. "So unless you want to wear that stupid hat every day from now on, blast me." She chuckles slightly when I hesitate. "What, you think I can't handle it?"

"No," I tell her. "I'm just...curious myself, I guess. What made you decide?"

Magni sighs slightly. "I remembered something my teacher once told me. 'If you ever find someone fighting for what's right, throw everything you have behind them. That's the true purpose of powers like yours.' Besides," she adds, with a smirk I can see even with her helmet on, "Leafy is pretty good-looking in that costume, and thanks to you I don't have to hit her pretty face. So it seems like I owe you one."

"Seriously?" She shrugs. Even with my powers I can't tell if she's being serious. "Okay, whatever. Just, uh...brace yourself, I guess."

I push the lights that were forming our shield out at the same time I throw a blast at Magni - a powerful one. The workers who'd been approaching dive for cover as the dome of rubble explodes outwards, throwing a cloud of dust into the air. Magni skids across the ground and lies limp just below the Master of Ceremonies' dias. I'm honestly not sure if she's actually unconscious or just faking it.

The crowd on my side of the arena are the first to notice what's happened to Magni. It isn't until the Master of Ceremonies notices all the whispering and pointing that he realises that there's something underneath his podium and awkwardly peers over the fence, leaning so far I half expect him to topple into the arena himself. When he doesn't, I'm sorely tempted to give him a little telekinetic nudge to change that.

"Sorry about the mess," I call over to him. The look of utter astonishment on his face is priceless, though he masks it well, and by the time he's clambered back onto the podium his usual smug expression is back.

"And in a stunning display of power, the Mysterious Stranger triumphs!" he declares, "and earns himself the prize!"

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

I feel like I ought to check on Magni - I know she not only fully expected me to blast her but outright expected it, but I'm still a little worried I hit her harder than I'd meant to. But there's nothing I could learn from looking at her that my powers can't tell me, and in any case a couple of the Master of Ceremonies' attendants take her out on a stretcher while the Master of Ceremonies is still talking.

One of the attendants beckons me from the small passageway I'd entered the arena in. I take a step or two towards him, but pause when I realise that the crowd are cheering - not for Magni, as I'd thought, but for me. I feel a little selfconscious, but I wave to them, like I'd seen Magni and Somnos do, and the cheering gets louder in response.

Lyra's still watching from the stands, and I turn towards her, take my stupid giant hat off and bow in her direction, keeping my head down so all anyone can see is the back of my head before I straighten up. I don't want to look up towards her, but judging from her aura she realises the gesture was meant for her, and I swear I manage to pick her voice cheering me out of the rest.

The jubilation wears off pretty quickly once I'm away from the crowd and back in the dressing room. So does the adrenaline, and all the pain from Magni's blows comes crashing back down on me. For all my confidence that the Master of Ceremonies would expect me to obey the contract, I'm beginning to worry that he won't - and right now Lyra could probably beat me in a fight, to say nothing of whatever goons he has on call. I'm back in my heraldry, sitting on the ground tiredly when he finally makes his appearance.

"Well, congratulations, young man!" he beams at me, producing the orange gem he'd shown off before the fight from somewhere in the folds of his robes and handing it to me. "I'd say the Mysterious Stranger was an unqualified success, wouldn't you?"

"Let me guess - you're going to keep hyping up a return from the 'Mysterious Stranger' now to get the crowd coming back?"

He chortles. "You're a quick one, young man! On which note, could I interest you in continuing your career as a gladiator? You certainly have the knack."

"No thanks," I reply, flatly, telekinetically plucking the gem from his still-outstretched hand, smirking slightly when he jumps. I have no idea if the gem is actually genuine, but I don't really care. It's not like I don't have enough money, courtesy of Carlei. "What about Sabyl?"

"I destroyed her contract the very moment you left my office this morning. You're welcome to examine the accommodations of the gladiators if you wish to confirm my story, though I'm sure with your capabilities you'll be able to find her without any help."

If I was Sabyl, the first thing I'd do upon getting free is go straight back to Hiwada. Then again, I don't actually know what the hell she was doing here in the first place. Maybe she still has some unfinished business. Either way, though, there's no deception in the Master of Ceremonies' aura.

I try to suppress a groan as I get back to my feet. "I'd say it's been a pleasure, but it really hasn't." I can't help but remember what Magni said - there are still lots of other gladiators forced to work for the Master of Ceremonies. I wish I could do something about it, but there's no way the Master of Ceremonies is going to make another deal like the one he made this morning. I suspect even if I agreed to fight for him he wouldn't release all his unwilling fighters. "Enjoy fixing your arena."

Lyra is waiting for me outside the arena, pacing back and forth at the entrance to a side street. She abandons whatever small amount of concealment she had when she sees me, running across and hugging me tightly. "That was incredible, Ethan! I can't believe -"

I manage to get one hand free and put a finger on her lips, wincing at her tight grip on my injured chest. "Maybe don't let everyone in the square know..." I take my own advice, speaking even more quietly than I already had been "...that I'm the Mysterious Stranger, yeah?"

"Oh! Um, sorry." She lets go and turns to go, pausing when she realises I'm not keeping up. "Are you okay?"

"I got punted into a stone wall," I point out to her. "So...kind of sore right now."

To my surprise, Lyra smiles. "That, at least," she says, when she sees my quizzical look, "is something I can help with."

Once we're around a corner and out of view from the people passing by along the main street, she rummages in her small bag and produces one of the healing totems I've seen Carlei use, concentrating on it. Blue light surges from it and whirls around me, surprisingly cold but soothing. It's the first time I've ever actually had cause to be healed by one of those before, and the feel of energy surging back into my body is incredible.

"So you can heal too?" I ask her - rather pointlessly, I realise a moment later.

She beams. "I might be an exile, but I still have the blood of one of the two great noble houses of Hoen in my veins. How do you feel?"

"Really good," I admit. I notice her looking at me curiously. "What?"

She chuckles slightly. "Sorry. I just...can't believe you could hold your own against the Unbreakable Fist, much less defeat her."

"Uh..." I hesitate for a moment. "I didn't...technically defeat her." Lyra pauses, obviously confused. "When that column fell on our heads, we had the chance to talk. When she heard why I was fighting, she let me get the finishing blow on her. You were right."

"Right about what?"

"That she's a good person. She has some other shit going on - she's not a fan of the Master of Ceremonies - but I think the main reason she helped was because it was the right thing to do. Sorry if that ruins your image of me as this badass warrior or something," I add, somewhat embarrassed by the notion.

"Even if you didn't defeat her," Lyra points out, "you still fought her to a standstill and matched her power. That's more than any other fighter has done." She pauses. "So...do you have that gemstone the Master of Ceremonies displayed?"

I nod, pulling it out of my pocket. "No idea what I'm gonna do with it," I admit. "I can't exactly pay for a bowl of tea with it." I hand it to her to examine, though she's a little reluctant to take it at first.

"It's beautiful," she murmurs quietly, turning it over.

"Yeah."

We walk for a couple of minutes before Lyra addresses the elephant in the room. "Look, um, Ethan...I'm sorry I came to the arena when you asked me to stay away." She pulls my coin pouch out of her pocket and hands it - along with the gemstone - back. Naoko's pendant is still in the coin pouch, though it feels no different when I put it back on. "I just..." She pauses, sighing. "This is probably going to sound childish, but...you're the first person I've really interacted with since Prince Silver left, except for Mrs Floria, and she never leaves her inn. And...well, you experienced first-hand how pitiful my attempt to defend myself was. Even before seeing what you're capable of in the arena just now, I...I felt safer with you," she admits, in a very small voice. "I just didn't want to be alone."

"It's okay. Everything worked out." I can't be mad at her for being scared, and I can't imagine what this past month must have been like for her. I'm genuinely impressed by how resilient she's become. "Just...next time tell me the truth, maybe? You don't have to be alone any more."

After some discussion, we opt to head to the Temple and hang around there to meet the others at dusk. Lyra's shortcuts through the city mean we get there before the general public, but about quarter of an hour after we get there, we overhear a couple of Blessed speculating on the identity of the 'Mysterious Stranger.' I'm not sure whether Lyra or I have more difficulty suppressing our giggles. At first I'm worried that this might be a problem if I want to spar with anyone tomorrow, but a little more eavesdropping tells us that the only ability I used that anyone can accurately describe was the net of light I tried to hold Magni back with.

I'm a little surprised that none of the others are there - not so much Gaius, who always seems to vanish off into the cities we visit, but Carlei not being in the sparring arena is strange. I try to suppress the instinctive, slight twinge of worry I feel when I realise I don't know where she is. Everything that's been happening this afternoon had mostly supressed it, but now it reasserts itself.

I might not be able to find Carlei, but I do find Sabyl - the Master of Ceremonies was right when he guessed that I would be able to find Sabyl with my powers. I don't have the luxury of having directly followed her like I did him, but I've seen her aura enough to recognise it by now - and even if it isn't to the same extent as the Yadon shrine, the Temple still magnifies my powers.

Needless to say, she's pretty surprised to see me. "What in the world - I mean, how did you...what are you doing here?" she settles on, eventually.

"Just, uh...checking up on you, I guess."

Lyra's a little more direct. "The Master of Ceremonies let you go? You're okay?"

"Uh, we saw you fighting earlier," I add. Sabyl gives Lyra a suspicious look, and she shifts back a little. "Oh, right, I guess you two haven't actually met. Uh, Sabyl, this is Lyra. She's a friend."

When Sabyl eventually speaks, it sounds more like she's thinking out loud. "The Master of Ceremonies let me go, yes. He also told me that someone had bartered for my freedom. And now there are all these rumours about a new challenger in the arena with unusual light powers." She raises an eyebrow. "I take it I have you to thank for my freedom?"

"Not just me." I pause, not really wanting to tell Sabyl about how exactly I won the fight. "Let's just say I had a little help." Sabyl doesn't look like she's going to let me off that easy, though, so I change the subject. "So how did you get caught in the first place? I mean, what are you even doing here?"

Sabyl hesitates for a moment. "Both Proton's thugs and the bandits infesting Hiwada claimed that they had traded away some of their captives to House Goldenrod," she tells me. "And according to rumours, Lady Whitney keeps meticulous records of all her illegal dealings. Lord Bughsearre tasked me with ascertaining the truth of both matters. My plan was to pose as one such captive and see where the trail led me. Unfortunately, that obese oaf took an interest in my capabilities as a warrior before I had the chance." She grimaces. "Now I must return empty-handed."

"At least you're returning in the first place," Lyra points out.

Sabyl nods. "Yes. And for that I am deeply grateful, Ethan."

Gaius shows up about an hour after we got here. I swear he's a bit drunk, which I don't quite understand considering Blessed physiology is impervious to poison, including alcohol, but he's perfectly courteous to Lyra when I introduce them. I don't tell him about my eventful afternoon. He hasn't seen Carlei or Haneka either.

It's getting close to sunset when Haneka arrives. I don't need my powers to tell something's wrong. She almost crash-lands in the middle of the Temple courtyard and comes running towards us, accidentally batting a few people with her wings as she goes.

"What's wrong?" I ask her, when she's close enough to talk without everyone in the courtyard hearing us - after her entrance, I'm pretty sure they're all listening. I don't introduce Lyra to Haneka, and I'm not actually sure Haneka even notices the unfamiliar face.

"She...they..."

"Just breathe," Lyra says, comfortingly, just like she'd reassured me back in Sekiei. It's nice to see she hasn't changed that much. "Nice, deep breaths."

"It's Carlei," Haneka says, after a few moments. "She's...she's been kidnapped!"

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Hoppip, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #17
Arg I forgot again! I am the most forgetful person ever, apparently.

For a long few moments, the only sound is Haneka's deep, panicky breathing. Gaius breaks the silence, speaking in a cold, harsh tone. "What happened?"

His voice and expression certainly doesn't do anything to calm Haneka down. "We were just walking and then...then these soldiers attacked us."

"Silver?" I ask, trying for Haneka's sake to keep my voice calmer. I'm not sure I manage.

She shakes her head. "No. Or...at least I don't think so. Their tabards had the symbol of House Goldenrod. And they...they knew I can't use my powers without my gun. I couldn't...couldn't stop them taking it. They told...told her to surrender or they'd kill me."

"You poor thing," Lyra murmurs quietly, putting a hand on Haneka's shoulder. She doesn't really seem to notice. Gaius just scoffs, and opens his mouth to say something unflattering.

"It's okay," I reassure her, cutting Gaius off before he can speak.

"It's not! It's my fault! First Sh...Shayne -" she stammers out his name "- and now Carlei."

"Carlei's not gone." Haneka and Lyra both jump slightly at my sudden fierce tone. To be honest, I kind of surprise myself. "We're going to get her back."

"How?" Haneka asks quietly. "I don't know where they went."

"You don't have to. If it was her soldiers that took Carlei, then Whitney will. And after everything I've heard about her today, if we have to kick the shit out of her to get her to tell us, then that's fine with me. Anyone have any objections?" Lyra shifts nervously, but she doesn't say anything. "You don't have to come if you don't want to, Lyra," I add, more gently.

She shakes her head. "No. I'm...I'm coming with you. Carlei is my friend too."

"No offence, kid," Gaius speaks up for the first time since I cut him off, "but just two competent fighters -"

"Three," I interrupt him, irritated at his dismissal of Haneka.

"- against an entire mansion of corrupt guards," he carries on without acknowledging my interruption, "isn't good odds. Besides, trying to attack the Lady of the city right when the guards are changing is a dumb idea. I heard about a fighter in the city who, from what I heard, would be more than happy to help us 'kick the shit' out of Whitney."

I don't want to delay, but having an extra ally is hardly going to be a bad thing - and he's right about the guards. "How long do you think it'll take you to find this fighter you heard about?"

Gaius shrugs slightly. "An hour. If that."

"It'll be pretty dark by then, too," I nod. "Fine. We'll meet in an hour. And be careful," I add. "If Whitney knew who Haneka and Carlei were, and about how Haneka's powers work, then she might know who we are too."

Gaius chuckles slightly. It isn't a friendly sound. "I can protect myself."

Once he's gone, I turn back to Haneka and Lyra. "Now what?" Lyra asks. "Aren't we a bit exposed here?"

"I don't think anyone's going to try anything in the middle of a Temple," I point out. "This is probably the safest place in the city."

"Um..." Haneka is still clearly worried, but she seems to have calmed down a little. "Ethan, I'm...I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," I tell her, suppressing the little voice that whispers that it is. "Everyone loses a fight at some point."

"Carlei doesn't. You don't." She draws her pistol from its sheath, resting it on her palms almost as though she's offering it to me. "But all someone has to do is take this from me and I'm...helpless."

"Look, Haneka..." I hesitate for a moment. "Carlei told me something, when my Blessing first manifested, about how our powers respond to our thoughts and fears. And a lot of the stuff I've read since then says that pretty much the only limit on our powers is our own beliefs. So...maybe you're thinking too much about Emrys's prophecy. I mean, I get that he's a Paladin and all, but all that prophecy turned out to mean was that the gun was the key to your powers, right? It didn't say anything about depending on it."

"But I do depend on it," Haneka points out. "I can't just...stop."

"Maybe you just need to have faith in yourself," Lyra says. "And in your friends."

"I have an idea." Whether it will work or not I have no idea, but it's worth a try. And besides, having something to do is better than worrying about what might be happening to Carlei. "Close your eyes and focus on your powers."

Haneka gives me a quizzical look, but she obeys, wings unfurling from her back. Carefully, I focus my own powers on her pistol, trying to feel its weight and replicate it telekinetically. When I think I have it about right, I reach over and take the pistol out of Haneka's hands, leaving her 'holding' a group of my lights, glowing softly in the dim light. Her wings don't react.

"Open your eyes," Lyra instructs her. When Haneka sees the pistol in my hands, she jumps in surprise.

"But - what - how?" For a moment, I swear her wings turn yellow, but before I can figure out if they actually changed colour or if it's just a trick of the light, they retract away into her back. "I could swear I was still..." She looks down at her hands to see the lights winking out.

"See?" I grin at her, feeling a little flicker of happiness for the first time since I'd learned Carlei had been abducted. "Your powers don't depend on the gun."

"Apparently not." A small smile spreads across Haneka's face to match mine. "But if I have to keep my eyes closed, then that's not much more useful."

"If you practice, I bet you'll get it," I assure her. "Just like your wings. Remember what happened the first time you tried to fly?" Then something occurs to me. "Actually, thinking about that...I just realised there's someone else who might be able to help us. You mind if we get back to this later, Haneka?"

Finding Sabyl isn't hard - she's still in the Temple. Unfortunately, she's not as willing to team up as I'd hoped. "Lord Bughsearre has taken the view that the warrant for your arrest is invalid," she tells us quietly, once I've explained the situation, "but that is not something he can admit to publicly. Capturing a fugitive from justice is not against the law. So unless you have concrete evidence that Lady Whitney has broken the law, for me to move against her would be politically disastrous. I cannot endanger my lord in such a fashion. I'm sorry, Ethan," she adds, genuinely.

"It was worth a try," Lyra reassures me, as we head back down to the Temple grounds. "To have as powerful a warrior as Fal - uh, Sabyl - on our side would have been a great benefit."

"So how did you even know she was here?" Haneka asks us.

"Uh, we...bumped into her in the Temple earlier," I tell her. "Let's just hope Gaius is having better luck than us. Now, come on," I add, turning back to Haneka. "Maybe by the time he gets back you can surprise him by not needing your pistol any more."

Haneka chuckles slightly. "I think you might be overestimating my abilities somewhat."

"Faith, remember?" Lyra chides her.

"Let's try again." This time, when Haneka holds out the pistol, I focus on her aura, letting my lights merge with her aura as she concentrates on her powers. I can feel her concern and nervousness about her powers - suppressed so long as she's holding the pistol (or thinks she is) but still there. As I carefully take the pistol from her again and she opens her eyes, that darkness in her aura tries to expand, but I shape my lights into a barrier, blocking it from affecting her powers.

She flexes her leafy wings slightly, and then looks at me. "You're helping me, aren't you?" she asks.

"Only a little," I lie - though pretty quickly it really does become only a little. Whether because she believes me that she was managing to maintain her powers mostly on her own or just because even the tiny amount of practice she's had so far has made a big difference, all her fears about her powers failing her are fading. As I let my lights flow out of her aura and back to me, Haneka's wings change - and this time I'm sure it's not a trick of the light. As they change from green to yellow, she's enveloped in a swirling mass of greenish light. More wings sprout from her back, as well, until by the time the light fades, at her back is a circle of giant, yellow petals, reaching up above her head and down to almost brush against the ground. A couple of the other Blessed in the Temple applaud politely.

Haneka twists awkwardly to examine her new petal-wings, and then gives an excited shriek of delight and hugs me and Lyra tightly, wings curling around us both. "See?" Lyra remarks, voice slightly muffled. "All you needed was a little faith. Now could you stop crushing us?" she adds, plaintively.

"Oops, sorry," Haneka apologises, relaxing her grip a little. Just like Carlei, her Ascension has come with a significant increase in her physical strength - though she's still not on Carlei's level.

"Let's see Gaius ignore you now," I grin, as Haneka flaps her new wings experimentally and almost lifts the three of us off the ground by mistake.

Almost as if he'd heard me speaking about him, barely a couple of minutes later I feel his aura returning to the Temple...along with another, rather familiar aura.

For a moment I can't quite figure out where I recognise the aura from - I don't immediately recognise its owner, not when she's dressed in normal clothes and with hair that doesn't reach down to her knees. But then she starts chuckling (much to Gaius's bemusement) and I recognise her voice.

"Pretty small world, huh?" Magni smirks.

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

When Gaius said he was going to go and find us an ally, I'd been expecting him to show up with some ex-soldier just like him. Magni's appearance is a pleasant surprise, and I find myself grinning. "Uh, do you two know each other?" Gaius asks.

"Yeah, we ran into each other earlier today." Just like with Sabyl, I don't really want to get into relating that whole story right now. For whatever reason, Magni seems to have the same idea, because she catches my eye and nods slightly.

Lyra obviously doesn't realise who Magni is. "I don't mean to be rude," she says, "but Gaius has told you that what we plan to do is -" she looks around us briefly, and speaks more quietly "- attack the Lady of the town?"

"Yep," Magni nods. "I've been wanting a good reason to smash Whitney's face in for a long time now. Besides," she adds with a grin, "when else am I gonna get a chance to rescue a princess?"

To my surprise, I realise that Haneka and Lyra are both looking at me - waiting for my decision. "Well, no time like the present, I guess."

The city is just as busy at night as it was in the day, though I suspect that even less of the people on the streets now are law-abiding citizens. I guess we aren't really law-abiding citizens either. It's weird to think how little that bothers me now.

"Any of you guys know anything about Whitney?" I ask the others, as we walk. "Aside from the whole 'crime lord' thing."

"I know she's rumoured to be able to control the minds of others," Lyra admits. "But I don't know whether that's true in a literal sense or just a consequence of her political power."

"Pretty sure it's literal," Magni answers. "I got invited to her manor once - long story," she adds, as the others give her odd looks. I'm betting it's something to do with her arena battles. "All the guards inside looked like they were half asleep. Completely out of it. Hey, hold up," she adds. "Next corner is Whitney's manor. You guys have a plan or are we just punching things?"

"Find Carlei. Get her out. Try not to be mind controlled." I know we probably should have a plan, but it's already been at least an hour since Carlei was taken. None of the others - not even Gaius - oppose me.

Magni grins. "Sounds good to me." She slips past Gaius and takes the lead, sauntering up with us in tow to what is clearly a side gate to Whitney's manor. There are two guards there, who watch us suspiciously, hands on their swords. "How's it going?" she asks, cheerily - and then punches one of them straight through the wall. The remaining guard hesitates for far too long, staring at Magni in astonishment, and doesn't even get his sword out of its sheath before she smacks him to the ground as well.

"I suppose that obviates the need for keys," Lyra remarks, quietly, obviously a little unnerved by Magni's sudden display of strength. She summons her bow as we step through the whole in the wall, but she's holding it more like it's a club and sticking very close to me. I don't stop her.

Unsurprisingly, the loud crash attracts some attention. There are another half-dozen guards in the grounds of the manor itself. They react pretty quickly to our sudden intrusion, forming into a tight-knit group, but unfortunately for them they go for Magni first. They aren't Blessed either, and Magni takes half of them down in a single punch.

"What's with the human guards?" I wonder aloud, as we rifle through their unconscious bodies for the keys to the manor itself.

"Whitney doesn't trust anyone," Magni answers. "She has a couple of handpicked Blessed goons, but she doesn't allow Blessed soldiers or guards. She's worried they might turn on her."

"I wonder why," Gaius remarks drily.

On the inside, Whitney's mansion looks like a Disney princess's castle, with almost everything one shade of pink or another, but despite being in immaculate condition it's completely empty. There are none of the courtiers and servants that were in Bugsy's and Falkner's mansions, and the utter lifelessness makes the place downright creepy.

It also makes the place hard to navigate. All the corridors look the same. "Any ideas?" Haneka asks, after a couple of aimless corners, the green glow from her hand making the overly-pink hallway look very strange.

I pause, concentrating. "I can feel...something. I don't know what, though," I admit, a little frustrated.

"Something's better than nothing," Magni points out.

We round a corner and come face to face with two guards. I almost blast them before noticing how weird their auras are, and the others react in much the same way. The guards, by contrast, don't even seem to notice us. "This what you meant by 'half asleep'?" I ask Magni.

"Pretty much," she nods, waving her hand in front of one of them.

He stirs slightly - we all step back quickly - and murmurs, gazing past us at the pink wall. "Lady Whitney..."

"Um, hello?" Lyra goes a little further than Magni, shaking the man's shoulder. He wobbles and for a moment I think he's going to fall over entirely, but after a bit of swaying he regains his balance.

"Such beauty...Lady Whitney..."

"Ugh," Magni spits, disgusted. "Let's go."

We pass another couple of zombie-like guards as I follow the aura I'm sensing through Whitney's manor, but they don't react to us any more than the first two. Eventually, we arrive at the first room we've found that isn't pink - the dungeon.

For a moment I think that Carlei's there; the figure hunched in the corner of one cell could definitely be her at a glance, especially since she's wearing Carlei's flammable cloak. But her aura is different - less fiery and aggressive than Carlei, much calmer and carefully controlled - and when she looks up it becomes apparent that it's not Carlei at all. She's a little younger than Carlei, with blue-green eyes and long, matted hair.

"Who are you?" she asks, when she notices us. She has the same upper-class accent as Carlei, though. "Did...did Whitney send you?" She keeps her voice level, but the fear shooting through her aura is obvious.

"No," I tell her. "Actually, we're looking for someone else who Whitney captured."

"The Princess?" the woman asks. "She was here only briefly. She was...she was kind."

"Yeah, she is," I say quietly. I pause, and then look back to the woman. "You might want to look away," I warn her, before blasting the hinges of her cell door, letting it fall inwards.

"What are you doing?!" she exclaims.

I chuckle slightly, reminded of how I'd reacted when Carlei had rescued me. "We're not just going to leave you here." I step over the wrecked gate, pausing when I realise that the woman is shackled to the wall. I can't blast the shackles without hurting her. "Hey, Magni?" I ask, turning to her. "Your turn."

She nods, stepping past me and crouching down, tugging the chains apart as if they're made of paper. "What's your name, anyway?" she asks the woman.

"Deanne. Deanne of...Fusube." There's definitely a slight hesitation before she answers, but I don't call her out on it. She has no reason to trust us.

"Nice to meet you," Magni smiles at her. Deanne smiles back slightly, Magni's infectious good humour already working its magic.

"How about Lyra and Haneka get you out of here, Deanne?" I suggest. Mostly because I'm pretty sure Magni is going to do so otherwise, and I'd rather she stuck around to help us when we eventually find Whitney. "You think Floria's place will be safe?" I add to Lyra.

"It should be," she nods.

"Is letting them go off on their own really a good idea?" Gaius asks, not nearly as quietly as he could.

"In case you missed the giant yellow petals, Haneka Ascended while you were out," I say, bluntly. I don't know if he's figuring he has to be overprotective of Haneka because Shayne can't or if it's just him being more of an asshole than normal, but I'm really getting sick of him belittling her.

"Look, mate, even if they do get grabbed," Magni points out, in an attempt to mediate between the two of us, "they're gonna be brought to Whitney. We'd be able to help them then."

Gaius hesitates a couple more moments and then sighs. "Fine. Just don't blame me if we have to rescue them too."

As Magni helps Deanne out of the cell, she pulls off Carlei's cloak and tries to hand it to me. "Keep it," I tell her, pushing her hands away gently.

"Are you sure? It belongs to your friend."

"She gave it to you," I point out. "Besides, no offence, but you look like you could use it more than us." Other than Carlei's cloak, Deanne is only wearing a nightgown, and it's not exactly warm out. I get the feeling Deanne only offered the cloak back out of politeness, because she's clearly glad to wrap it back around herself. "Be careful, you guys," I say quietly, before they leave. Not because I doubt Haneka's ability to win a fair fight, but because I doubt anyone in this city would get involved in a fair fight if they could avoid it.

Despite the noise we made in breaking Deanne out, no-one comes to investigate - not entirely surprising considering the zombie-like guards didn't even react to us being right under their noses, but still weird. "You know where Whitney spends her time in this creepy place?" I ask Magni.

"Not really," she admits.

My sense of time is kind of screwed up by the monotonous pink corridors and rooms, but I think it must be quarter of an hour before we finally find Whitney. At first it's difficult to tell which one's her - there are a half-dozen women in there, all gossiping and trading fashion tips - but then I notice the way they all take cautious, nervous looks at one of their number, who's reclining on a chair.

Whitney's younger than I expected given all the rumours I've heard about her; she's probably about Magni's age, with pink hair and a short dress. She's kind of cute, in an unrealistic, heavily-made-up kind of way - but her aura is almost as dark and cruel as Proton's.

She smiles when she sees the three of us. "Ah, the so-called Unbreakable Fist. Though I heard you've been...broken."

Magni doesn't say anything - she just lunges towards Whitney. One of the other women kicks a table towards her, knocking her off-balance just long enough for another to run up and slap her. It's such a bizarre reaction that I almost laugh, but Magni recoils with a curse, three bloody scratches down her cheek. A moment later, and another 'slap,' she gets a long trail of claw marks down her arm. If she had a moment to regain her bearing she could flatten her opponent - but the woman with the claws knows it, because she keeps scratching, preventing Magni from making any kind of attack on her own.

Gaius makes a shoving motion with his hands, and the entire floor - which must be stone beneath the plush pink carpet - ripples. Whitney's gaggle of noblewomen, including the one attacking Magni, are knocked off-balance, and before any of them can react, the stone erupts upwards, encasing them in rock, leaving only their heads free. Whitney herself gets knocked off her chair as rock closes around it like the jaws of some giant animal, and she goes sprawling on the floor. When she gets up, her picture-perfect, Instagram-filter look is no more. "You ruined my hair!" she screeches. "You ingrate!"

She points at Gaius, and before any of us can react a pink tendril of energy flashes from her finger and into him. When he turns to look at us, his pupils are completely dilated, his facial expressions slack. Just like the zombified guards. "Lady Whitney..." he drones.

"Much better," Whitney beams, as Magni and I gape. "Now, come over here, little rock man." I try to grab Gaius's shoulder, but he shrugs me off easily. I don't want to use my powers on him - controlled or not - but I can't stop him without them. Instead, I raise a barrier around Magni as she struggles to regain her footing, her mass of scratches turning the pink rug red. Sending Lyra away might not have been the best idea.

"Such beauty..." If Gaius is trying to fight Whitney's magic, he doesn't seem to be having much luck.

"Good. Now kneel before your new mistress." I clench my fist as Gaius kneels, face almost pressed into the makeup-stained carpet. Still, at least Whitney doesn't have the common sense to order him to release her allies, and she's too busy toying with Gaius to notice Magni getting back to her feet.

"That's not going to work on me," she growls at Whitney.

"No," Whitney agrees. "Your heart is too filled with hate. So ugly - just like you. But your pretty little friend here..." Another flash of pink light leaps towards me, far too fast for either of us to try to dodge. "Kneel before me," Whitney orders me. I brace myself, expecting to feel some outside force forcing me to move...but nothing happens. Whitney seems almost as surprised as me, and zaps me again. "Kneel!" she repeats, less languid and more forceful.

"I'm fine standing, thanks," I quip.

Whitney snarls. "Fine. If your heart belongs to another, then we'll just have to do this the hard way!"

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togepi, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

Whitney holds out her hands - and a giant fucking mallet appears in her hands, the head wider than Magni is tall.

"That was not what I expected," Magni admits.

Whitney doesn't give us any chance to recover from the surprise of her incongruous weapon. She swings the club at me, and I barely throw myself to the ground in time to feel it sweep over me. It smashes through two of Whitney's entombed allies, knocking them into the wall without even slowing. And her allies aren't the only ones to suffer from the oversized weapon - she barely stops it from smashing through the wall of her own manor, and in the few moments she spends struggling to control it, Magni crosses the room to stand between me and Whitney. She's still bleeding, but it doesn't seem to be bothering her as much any more. "Group up all you want," Whitney scoffs. "I'll flatten you just the same!"

Whitney swings the mallet back at us. Magni just stretches out one arm a little, an open palm faced towards the incoming mallet, almost contemptuously - and stops Whitney's swing cold. The recoil knocks Whitney off her feet and she goes flying with a surprised squeal, smashing into a stand of small cakes. "I might not be 'unbreakable,'" Magni snarls, in a much nastier tone than I've heard from her in the short time I've known her, "but I can still break a little girl like you."

Before Whitney can gather her senses, I pin her in place with bands of light. She struggles futilely, screaming obscenities at us.

When it becomes apparent that she's not getting away, and we start advancing towards her, she switches from swearing to pleading. "What do you want?!"

"Carlei," I tell her. Without meaning to, I tighten the bands of light on her slightly.

"She's not here!" Whitney protests, tears welling up in her eyes. I'd be more convinced if I couldn't sense the rage and hatred boiling under her thin veneer of fear. "She was taken to Usokkie Fortress as soon as my guards brought her to me! I'd have told you that if you just asked!"

Fuck.

When none of us respond immediately, Whitney looks hopeful. "Was...was that everything? Can...can you let me go now?"

"Not quite." Magni and Gaius give me confused looks. "You keep records of all the illegal shit you do." I try to keep the uncertainty out of my voice, and my ploy works - just for a moment, there's a spike of worry in her aura. "You're going to give it to us."

"But I...I don't have any records!" Whitney protests, vainly.

"Then I guess I'll just leave you with my friends," I suggest. Magni picks Whitney's massive club up in one hand, idly tossing it up in an arc. The entire room shakes slightly when she catches it again. Gaius doesn't do any kind of stunt to match, but his aura is almost as vengeful and hateful as Whitney's own, and it shows in his eyes.

Whitney weighs her fortune against her own well-being. It doesn't take her long. "I...I...it's in the dresser over there!" I'm holding her too tightly for her to point, but I get the idea. "The key's in my pocket."

I still don't trust her, so I slip a few lights in through the keyhole of the dresser. Some careful telekinetic tests tell me that there is something roughly book-shaped in there, so I form a barrier around it and then just rip the dresser to pieces, not bothering with the key. A bright flash of flame tells me that my instinct not to trust her was correct. "And you were going to tell us about the trap...when?" I ask, turning back to her.

"The trap? Oh, my. I must have forgotten about it." Whitney gives me a smug look - a smug look that becomes an astonished shriek when I pull the book out of the smoke, still shielded by my powers. "No! What?! But! How?!"

I don't need to study Whitney's aura to know that this is the real thing, though I open it anyway, just to check it isn't in some kind of code - it isn't. Just like she wasted her time taunting Gaius, she obviously didn't think anyone would ever get at her book.

"What do we do with her now?" Magni asks. "Not asking you," she adds, sharply, to Gaius. We both know what he'd say right now.

I pause, feeling an increase in the number of auras outside the manor. "I think I have an idea. One sec." The room we're in has two stories, and the second leads to a balcony. Glancing out of the window tells me that there's a large crowd outside, gathered by the big front gates to Whitney's manor grounds; all the smashing and banging has finally attracted attention. Judging from the hostility the crowd are showing to the few conscious guards, I don't think they're here to help Whitney. I grin to myself. "Come up here." I float Whitney up as well, breaking the lock on the balcony doors and letting them swing open. Magni sees what I'm doing and matches my grin with an even wider grin of her own. "You want to do the honours?"

"With pleasure." I drop Whitney into Magni's outstretched arm. She's obviously figured out what we're doing too, because she starts struggling even more wildly, but she's as helpless in Magni's grip as she was in mine.

"No! You can't do this! Guards!" Whitney screams wild orders and imprecations, both as useless as each other. Magni takes her time, walking out onto the balcony slowly. Just before the edge of the balcony, she whispers, very quietly to Whitney - and just like with Shayne, even though I can't even see Magni's lips move, I can hear every word.

"This is for my brother."

Magni hurls Whitney with enough force that the gates' lock breaks under the force and the gates swing open as Whitney - with ruined makeup, torn clothing, wayward hair, and cream and cake crumbs coating her face and body - lands on the ground in front of the crowd. There's a long, drawn-out moment of silence.

And then someone - a little kid who'd wriggled to the front of the crowd, who can't be more than six or seven years old - laughs. Then an older man joins in, trying to cover his guffaws with a handkerchief. "Don't look at me!" Whitney shrieks. Her zombified guards obey, turning and facing all kinds of random directions, and that sets a whole string of people off laughing. "Stop it! You're not allowed to laugh! I order it! I am Lady Whitney of the noble House of Goldenrod, ruler of Kogane, and -"

"And you're a disgrace to my house!" An old woman's voice, cracked with age, silences much of the laughter. It belongs to a figure in a long, tattered brown cloak, hood pulled up over her head. "You turn this city into your personal gold mine, its citizens into your toys - and your own mother into an exile."

"Mother?!" Whitney yelps, shrinking away from the hooded woman. "But you can't be here! I sent you away!"

"This is my city. I never left. And for ten long years I have been ashamed to call you my daughter. Well, now it seems someone has seen fit to make you feel shame for once. So if there are no objections, I do believe I shall join in." From beneath the folds of her cloak, the old woman reaches out her arms, something heavy and metal held in both hands. I don't realise what it is until she tips it - and a stream of water splashes onto Whitney's face. "Besides, dear, you look like you could use a bath."

"Someone - pfft - stop her!" Whitney splutters, as laughter erupts in the crowd. The guards try to stumble forwards - still obeying her earlier command to not look at her - but none of them make it before they start getting pelted with whatever random detritus the crowd have to hand. "Get me out of here!"

Much as I'm enjoying the show, we need to go too. We find a window in the second room we look in and escape out without anyone the wiser to our presence - in all the commotion, no-one's guarding the hole Magni smashed in the wall. "Now where?" Gaius grumbles. Seeing Whitney humiliated like that has obviously mollified him somewhat, but he's clearly still pissed about being mind-controlled. I can't really blame him.

"The inn Lyra's been staying at. It's not that far from here."

Deanne, Lyra and Haneka are all there already. Deanne has changed into more normal clothes - mostly borrowed from Lyra, so they're a bit baggy on her, but better than that stupid gown - and is wolfing down a large bowl of soup. Lyra greets me with a hug that squashes Whitney's book between us. "You're back!" she beams. "What happened with Whitney?" When Gaius closes the door behind us, her expression falls slightly. "Carlei?"

All the excitement with Whitney had driven it out of my mind for a moment, but Lyra's question brings back my disappointment. "She wasn't there. They took her to Usokkie Fortress before we ever even knew it had happened."

"Then...now what?" Lyra asks quietly. She slowly moves back to the bench she'd been sitting on when we arrived and sits back down.

"Nothing," Gaius says from behind us, bluntly. "Going after Whitney was one thing - she's an idiot. The fortress is run by the Imperial Army. You can't just punch through the front door. Whether you want to admit it or not, the Princess is gone."

"So you're just going to give up?" Haneka protests.

Gaius draws himself up and advances on her, Lyra and Deanne. Lyra shrinks back a little from him. "Maybe if you'd been a little quicker in telling us what had happened we could've stopped them. But I suppose that's just too much to hope for."

"Hey!" I snap, getting between Gaius and the other three, moving closer to him. Haneka can more than handle herself - and to be honest, at this point, I'd be more than happy to just let her blast the shit out of him with her Nature magic - but I'm not going to let him pick on Lyra and Deanne. "Just because you're mad and embarrassed about what Whitney did to you doesn't mean you get to take it out on them," I hiss, quietly enough that he's the only one that can hear me. "We're getting Carlei back."

Gaius clenches his hands into fists, and for a moment I think he's going to try to hit me, just like I'd hit him back in the clearing in the Bond region. But he doesn't. "Tell me something, kid," he says instead. "If it was me who'd been taken, and not the pretty young Princess, would you be so quick to jump to my rescue?"

I hesitate for a moment. "Probably not," I admit. "But Carlei would."

For a moment I feel strangely light and my lights swirl around me without any kind of command on my part. Then they stop, drifting away as idle as ever, and the weird feeling of lightness fades. I pause when I realise that Gaius - who'd been about to snap back at me - is looking at me with a startled expression. I turn around and realise that Haneka, Deanne and Lyra have much the same expressions. "Is something wrong?" I ask, confused by their expressions and the strange, multicoloured whirls in their auras.

"Uh, Ethan," Lyra says, hesitantly, "you just grew wings."

"Wait, what?"

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
 
Last edited:

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #18
After a few awkward spins around, craning my neck to try to peer over my own shoulder, I manage to catch a glimpse of one of my wings. They're white and feathery, poking through the strange holes in the back of my clothes that I'd never figured out the purpose of until now. They're also rather small - probably about the length of my forearm. In comparison to Haneka's wings (both sets) they're a bit underwhelming.

After a few moments of silence, Lyra reaches out and pokes one of my new wings with one finger. It feels simultaneously normal, just as if she'd touched my arm, but also really weird. The slight pressure of her finger on my wing tugs at my shoulderblade in a way that's entirely unfamiliar. I twitch my wing away from her without really thinking about it, and it isn't until she jumps slightly at the sudden movement that I realise how natural it felt.

There's something else odd about my wings, too. Ever since we escaped from Whitney's estate, I've been scanning for auras around us in case anyone was following. No-one has, but my wings feel...different, in some difficult-to-describe way, to the rest of me. I pause, concentrating, and wrap a string of lights around my wings and lift.

If I'd tried that just a few minutes ago, my lights would've just slid off me. I'd tried time and again to lift myself with my powers, but I'd never managed. But now almost the opposite happens. My lights stick to my wings like they're made out of magic flypaper, and I fly straight upwards - and crash into the ceiling headfirst, spiralling dizzily back to the ground and almost faceplanting into Deanne's bowl of soup.

My inelegant first flight breaks the stunned silence that had been present since my...Ascension, I guess. "Well, now you know how I felt," Haneka remarks, drily. I chuckle slightly, remembering her first attempt to get used to her new wings, back in Bugsy's estate. Hopefully I master mine as quickly as she did.

"Well, I don't know about you," Magni remarks, looking over to Gaius, "but the Divines seem to have made their view on the matter pretty clear, huh?"

Gaius grimaces. I think he was hoping that none of us brought that up. "You don't know what you're talking about. Maybe the Divines approve of this rescue mission of yours, kid -" I wish he'd stop calling me that "- but that doesn't change the fact that it's suicide."

"No," I reply simply. "There has to be a way. Carlei wouldn't abandon us. I'm not going to abandon her."

"If you want to go to your death, kid, then that's your choice. But don't drag us after you."

"Who's dragging anyone?" Lyra retorts, hotly. "You're the only one who doesn't want to help her."

I'm somewhat surprised to realise she's right - Deanne's aura is a little more tinged with uncertainty than anyone else's, but she doesn't seem to plan on leaving. Gaius notices it too - but he doesn't have the luxury of my powers. "What about you, Deanne?" he asks. "You don't have to get involved in this."

"Yes, I do. The Divines showed us their will, and I will not defy them." The way she speaks makes it sound like she's reciting something from memory. "Even had they not acted," she continues, in a more normal tone, "I am in much the same situation as Ethan and Princess Carlei. Through some skulduggery, 'Lady' Whitney procured an Imperial warrant for my arrest and imprisonment, some few days after she had captured me. She taunted me with it, telling me that I was her 'bargaining chip' now." She's keeping her voice level, but I can see the fear rising in her aura as she recalls her imprisonment. Magni leans over and puts an arm around her shoulders, and she smiles slightly. "It seems sensible for me to remain with others who understand that the word of the Imperial Family is not as ironclad and divinely mandated as we had once thought."

Gaius's grimace gets deeper. "If you all want to march to your deaths on Imperial steel, then you're welcome to. But I won't." He turned to leave, shaking his head and muttering something unflattering.

"I'll duel you for it." I barely even realise I've spoken until I notice Lyra giving me a startled look. Gaius pauses in mid-step, glancing back at me. "Or are you going to tell me you don't want to get me back for smacking you in the face back in the forests?" I taunt him, watching his expression grow more angry. Despite everything, I do feel a bit bad for manipulating him like this - but we need his help.

He could refuse, of course - I know enough about duels to know that. But I also know that just like Gaius refuses to accept Haneka's power, he doesn't accept mine either. Not quite to the same extent, perhaps, but he barely even considers the possibility that I might beat him. "Fine. But here are my terms, kid." He emphasises the diminuitive. "I win, and tomorrow, you go to the fortress - and hand yourself in."

"That's not fair!" Haneka protests.

"The hell it isn't!" Gaius retorts. "Two people have died because of this little 'adventure' of yours. This isn't a fairytale -"

He cuts himself off, abruptly. But maybe because of my new, Ascended powers, I know what he was about to say.

"You were about to call me Bradon, weren't you?" Gaius clenches his fists again. "Fine. I'll accept your terms. Now where the hell can we duel around here?"

As we file out, following Magni - I'm not surprised she knows the closest place feasible for fighting in - Lyra quickly catches up with me. "Are you sure this is a good idea, Ethan? Last time you picked a fight like this, it didn't quite go according to plan," she points out.

That's not exactly the boost to my confidence I was hoping for. "The difference is," I tell her, "I'd never seen Magni fight. I had no idea how strong she was. But I know Gaius. I could take him even before whatever this Ascension thing did to me." I twitch my wings for emphasis, though they're really too small for the motion to be noticeable.

"But your Ascension seems to have given you the Aspect of Air," Lyra points out.

For a moment I don't see what the problem is - Air beats Earth most of the time. But then I remember Gaius's cannonball rock fist back in Falkner's crazy aerium thing. He can use the kind of Earth magic that beats Air. I didn't think about that. Fuck. "Okay, so maybe the Ascension is kind of a wash," I admit, "but I can still take him." I'm trying to convince myself as much as her now, and I'm not sure I'm managing.

Lyra doesn't seem convinced, because she walks more quickly, catching up to Magni to try to talk to her instead. "Can't you stop this?" she pleads, not quite quietly enough to stop me hearing her. "Gaius would listen to you."

"A duel's a duel," Magni shrugs in return. "It ain't my right to get in the way."

"Who cares about rights?" Lyra hisses. "We can't just let Ethan be forced to hand himself in!"

"You're assuming he'll lose," Magni points out.

"I don't want to," Lyra replies. "But I saw enough of Gaius's Earth magic to know that Ethan is at a tremendous disadvantage with his new Air Aspect."

"Ethan might possess an Air Aspect now, but he wields Imperial magic." Deanne is walking with Magni too - she pretty much hasn't left her side since we all met back up at Floria's place - and she leans back slightly to talk to Lyra. "I can feel his power. If he can tap into his full strength, I doubt his mundane Aspect disadvantage will make much difference."

That's not what I expected. I've heard of powerful Blessed being able to sense the presence of their own Aspect, but I've never seen it before - at least not from someone I've interacted with personally. Deanne must be a lot stronger than I was giving her credit for. And their confidence is reassuring - especially Magni's. I'm pretty sure she's a hell of a lot better at judging people's strength than I am, so if she thinks I can take Gaius maybe this isn't such a dumb idea after all. Then again, she never actually said she thought I could win...

There are still quite a few people out on the streets. Word of Whitney's humiliation seems to be getting out - and from what I hear as we go, the citizens of Kogane have apparently taken it as a cue to lock her up in her own dungeon. It would be a revolution if there was actually anyone standing up against them.

Of course, that doesn't mean she'll stay in that dungeon unless someone makes sure of it. I look up above me, to where Haneka's flying, and take off - I probably ought to practice if I want to risk flying in the duel anyway.

Back before I got my Blessing, in the 'sparring' matches I had with Carlei, she pulled me around a fair bit, and it always felt like my arms were being pulled out of their sockets (which, considering the difference in our strength back then, was probably pretty accurate.) I was expecting to feel something very similar trying to lift myself by my wings for any length of time, but it's more like carrying a backpack, just pulling up and not down; the force seems to somehow get spread out over my back and shoulders. Whatever weird changes to my body happened when my wings appeared must have made my shoulderblades a lot tougher.

Haneka jolts in mid-air when I fly up to meet her. She's gotten used to her new wings quickly, even though she has twice as many as she did yesterday; she used to only fly in big jolts, with massive, strong beats of her wings all at once, but now, by beating each pair of wings in turn, she's maintaining a level altitude and a smooth flight. "I'm going to have to remember that I'm not the only one capable of flying in the group now," she remarks, chuckling a little.

I smile slightly, but stay serious for the most part, holding the book I stole from Whitney out to her. "Once this duel's done - whatever happens, whether I win or lose - I need you to get this to someone. You remember Sabyl?"

Haneka takes the book cautiously. "Lord Bughsearre's bodyguard?"

"Yeah," I nod. "She's in Kogane right now - or at least she was earlier today, and I can't see why she'd leave in the middle of the night. If we want to make sure Whitney goes down for good, giving this to Bugsy seems like a pretty good way of doing it."

Haneka nods, though she still looks a little confused. "But...why do you want me to do this?"

"Because both of you are Nature and Air Blessed, and you can both fly. You've got a better chance of finding her than anyone else. If you can't find her, there are other people we can try to give this to -" like the old woman who'd claimed to be Whitney's mom, if we could find her "- but Sabyl's probably our best bet."

Haneka hesitates for a moment, her golden wings flowing past each other in a rhythmic, almost hypnotic motion. Then she holds the book tight to her. "Okay," she nods.

"We're here, you two!" Magni calls down from below us. I push the web of lights holding me back down - and descend way faster than I'd meant to, and jar my legs painfully with the force of the impact as I land. Luckily I manage to keep my footing, and try to pass it off as some kind of overflamboyant landing. Surprisingly, I think it works.

We've arrived in what seems to be a large hole in a row of houses. "The hell is this place?" I ask Magni, as she and the other three back off to give me and Gaius room.

"A fire burned the place down, a few months back. Somehow there was never any money to rebuild, despite all the fancy jewelry Whitney kept buying herself."

"Two facts which, I'm sure, are not in any way related," Deanne remarks sarcastically. I think it's the first attempt at humour I've heard her make.

Gaius gets my attention by stamping one foot on the ground, sending a tremor through the nearby soil. "You fighting or not?"

I turn back to him, and bow slightly. Gaius bows even less - and then charges, one hand forming an oversized, rocky blade. He'll swing it down at me when he gets in range. It's a move I've seen him use a dozen times before, and it's a pretty effective one against an opponent that tries to dodge; he has a lot more control over the giant rock sword than its appearance suggests, and he can easily adapt to most attempts to evade it. It's a move I've seen him use more than a dozen times before.

When he raises the blade to strike, I blast him in the chest and knock him halfway across the street.

"Yes!" Lyra cheers quietly off to one side.

As Gaius gets back to his feet, I look over to her and offer her a thumbs-up. Gaius falls for it, assuming I've forgotten about him, and charges again, extending both arms creating a stone battering ram around them. At the last moment, rock walls erupt around and above me, hedging me in. I notice Deanne nod slightly - she can sense my powers. Unfortunately for Gaius, he can't, and he runs straight into the wall of lights I'd arranged in his path.

"I guess all the Kogane government needed to do was bring you in," I quip, tapping one of the rock walls that surrounds me, pushing Gaius back with the lights I've wrapped around him, "and these buildings would be rebuilt in five minutes."

I have to admit, I'm enjoying showing him up a little more than I should. Sure, he's attacking me harder and faster than he ever has in our sparring matches, because he was trying not to hurt me back then - but I don't think he realised that I was holding back just as much to avoid hurting him. And even after I've hit him twice now and he hasn't so much as touched me, I can see the confidence in his aura. He's still trying to convince himself that I've just gotten a lucky couple of hits.

He takes his next attack a little more cautiously, though, raising both hands and swiping them in an X shape. The rock prison he created around me develops large spikes that jab in at me, like one of those magic trick boxes full of swords. I roll forwards, out of the hole he'd left himself to charge in at me, blocking the few spikes that get close with my lights. Before I can fully get back to my feet, he swipes at me again with another two-handed blow.

I could probably shield myself and block it through raw force, but as much as my Blessed instincts were pretty out of control when I first developed them, I've never had quite the same urge as Carlei to take stupid risks in a fight just to test myself. So instead I fly back and up at high speed, narrowly dodging the spiky rock prison that Gaius hasn't dismissed yet. Gaius looks up at me and glares.

Then he punches the ground, and a spire of rock launches up at me. And just for a moment I'm elsewhere. Another fight. Another spire of rock. Blood.

The flashback disorients me for long enough that I can't dodge in time. I bring all my lights together and blast the rock into dust, but it takes a lot out of me. I probably couldn't do that again. I try to shake off the wave of wooziness, glaring down at Gaius - and see him smirk. That piece of shit. He did that on purpose.

Fine. If he wants to play dirty, I can do that too.

I fling my lights down at him again, wrapping around his aura. This isn't the careful, delicate manipulation I'd done on the bandit outside the city to keep him asleep, or to help Haneka control her powers. I just fill Gaius's aura with my own power, drowning out his natural feelings, leaving nothing but a muted grey. <Sleep.>

Gaius feels what I'm doing at once, and tries to fight it. But he's as helpless against me as he was against Whitney, and he drops to his knees. He tries to launch another spire of rock up at me, his Earth magic breaking free from my control for a moment, but I just tighten my mental 'grip,' adding more force to the mental barrier by diverting most of the lights holding me up over to Gaius. The shard of rock doesn't even fully emerge from the ground.

I slowly float back down to ground level, the few lights left holding me not enough to keep me aloft. But that's not much of a problem - Gaius isn't going anywhere. "Does this count as a win?" I ask the others as I land. I think it comes off as a lot cockier than I'd intended.

"Looks like a win to me," Magni answers.

I'm more than happy to release him, and when I do, he slumps properly to the ground, breathing heavily. Honestly, I'm already starting to regret controlling him like that. It won me the duel, sure, and he was pissing me off - especially after that stunt he pulled reminding me of Bradon's death to throw me off - but it's not like I couldn't have won with my normal powers.

Especially so soon after Whitney did pretty much the same thing to him, the fact that my immediate, vengeful instinct is to stoop to something so cruel is...frightening. It's just like what I did to Proton - except this time I don't have 'the Divines did it' as an excuse. That was me.

More out of habit than anything else, without really thinking about it, I hold out a hand to help Gaius back to his feet. He's a lot lighter than normal - or rather, I realise, I'm a lot stronger now. Probably as strong as Carlei. It's a weird feeling, and especially after what I just did, I'm not entirely sure I like it.

Gaius's aura begins to normalise as he regains his bearings. I'm surprised at how little anger there is in it. I think he's accepted what I did more than I have. "Okay, Ethan. I hope your plan is more than just 'punch through the walls.'" I'm never going to understand this Jotan thing about duels.

The others are all looking at me too, expecting me to come up with a plan. None of them seem even slightly bothered by what I just did. I want to shout at them, tell them I'm no leader. But right now I have to be - for Carlei.

Besides, it's not like I haven't had to hide what I think of myself before.

"Why do you think I went to all this effort to get your help?" I ask Gaius. "You were an Imperial Guard - I know you weren't stationed at Usokkie, but the rules and shit must be pretty similar throughout the Guards, right?" When he nods, I look over to Lyra. "And you passed through it...what, less than a month ago? Between the two of you, we ought to be able to get a pretty good idea of the layout of the place."

"And once we've figured that out?" Magni asks. I can see the eagerness in her eyes. The idea of marching into a fortress of hostile, trained soldiers is exciting to her. I wish I could share her enthusiasm...but maybe we can take advantage of it.

"Then..." I pause, and look back to Gaius. "How are the Imperial Guards about being challenged to duels?"

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

We set off the next morning. I don't think I've had more than half an hour of sleep - we were figuring out how the hell we're going to pull this heist off into the early hours of the morning, and even after we all turned in for the night, I was too worried about the what might be happening to Carlei - or what might happen to us - to get any real rest. My Blessed resilience helps to some extent, but I'm still trying to suppress a yawn every couple of minutes.

Haneka managed to catch up to Sabyl the night before - she hadn't actually left the Temple yet. Hopefully Bugsy will be able to use all the information in that book to bring Whitney down for good, which is something. But it doesn't help us save Carlei.

"Everyone knows what they have to do?" I ask.

"Not unless anyone's forgotten in the two minutes since you last asked," Gaius answers drily.

"Oh. My bad."

"Look, relax, Ethan," Magni says. "It's a good plan. The Imperials will never expect it."

She's not wrong there, but...them expecting it isn't what I'm worried about. What I'm worried about is the fact that the surprise factor is pretty much the only thing we have going for us.

We come to a halt just before the bend in the road that will put us in view of the fortress. "See you when it's over," Magni says - though it isn't until Haneka starts to head into the underbrush besides the road that I remember that we have our part in the plan to do too.

As we vanish into the undergrowth, Gaius and Magni turn back and set off to the fortress.

I'm scared. More scared than I've ever been, ever since I arrived in Joto. Not because of the danger I'm about to put myself in, but because of the danger I'm putting the others in. This is my plan. And my fault if it gets them hurt, or...

I try not to finish that thought.

"I wish I could come with you," Lyra says, as Haneka makes us a small clearing to wait in with her Nature magic, out of sight of the guards on the walls but within view of the main gate.

"I know," I tell her, "but you, me and Haneka are the only ones who can create energy blasts with our powers, and -"

"And you're needed to seek out Carlei, and Haneka's needed to free her," Lyra finishes. "I know. And I know that if things go wrong I'm...not strong enough to help." She looks so sad, and I cast around for something to say to make her feel better, but...as much as I'm not going to say it to her, she's right. She's not a fighter, and bringing her would make our already risky rescue attempt even riskier. "I just wish I could do something to help."

"You are," I assure her. "If Gaius and Magni can't keep the guards distracted and they go back to patrolling, we need a warning. Otherwise we'll be screwed."

"Speaking of which..." Haneka attracts our attention, pointing through the foliage. "There they are."

We'd have known Magni was there even without Haneka's warning. She strides up to the closed gates without a trace of fear. "I challenge the commander of this fortress to a duel!" she declares, with an air of bombastic confidence that only she could pull off.

The two guards posted above the gate look down at her, bewildered. "You do what?" one of them asked.

"You heard me!"

"Captain Sacheverell has better uses of his time than to answer the challenge of any random commoner who comes to our gates," the other guard answers, snidely.

"So you have orders to turn away challengers?" Magni retorts.

The two guards look to each other, and I can sense them beginning to grow less confident. If they did just turn her away, our whole plan would be shafted. But Gaius was right - they aren't willing to put words into the mouth of their Captain, even if there's no way he'd ever hear of it.

"Well...no," the first guard admits.

"However, that does not change the fact that our Captain is a very busy man," the snide guard continues smoothly, and I can sense the smugness beginning to build in her aura as she hits upon an idea. "Private Odel challenges you!"

"Uh, I do, Sergeant?" The woman whispers something to him that we can't hear from our distant vantage point, but which is probably quite unflattering.

"What's the matter, Sergeant?" Magni taunts from the ground. "Afraid to fight me yourself?"

And she is - or at least, she's very wary of someone with the guts to march up to one of the most heavily-fortified locations in Joto and effectively challenge anyone in earshot. "Of course not!" the woman calls back down. "I am merely giving my subordinate a chance to prove himself." Odel lowers himself down from a Nature-conjured vine, facing Magni on the drawbridge.

The 'duel' lasts about two seconds. Before Odel's even finished creating whatever Nature attack he was focusing on, Magni backhands him off the drawbridge and into the moat. I almost feel bad for the guy, but at the same time I find myself grinning. I hadn't believed Gaius when he told me that the weakest, least experienced combatants were posted on the walls of the fortress - the first place enemies are likely to be fighting - but he was clearly right (again.)

There are other guards watching now, though so far none of them have left their posts. This is the second hurdle - the first was getting the Imperials to pick a fight with Magni in the first place. Now we have to hope that the rest of them start getting drawn in. "That's the best the esteemed Imperial Guards have to offer?" Magni calls out to them. "Or do you want to try your luck, Sergeant?"

She clearly doesn't. "Who's your companion?" she asks instead, obviously trying to find an excuse to avoid fighting.

"I'm just here to make sure you Imperials don't try any tricks," Gaius retorts. "She's your opponent."

Gaius's implication that the Imperials might try to win the duel dishonestly does the trick. The female sergeant stays up on her post, but one of the other guards leaps down from the wall, hitting the drawbridge hard enough to make the entire thing shake. "I, Paget of Tokiwa, student of Field-Marshal Matis, challenge you, wanderer!" she declares. She has an unfamiliar accent - not the cultured tone I'm used to from the Jotan nobles or the common drawl Magni and Gaius use, but something else entirely. The only real similarity I can think of is Proton.

"Kantan?" Magni puts on a scornful tone that I only recognise as false by dint of knowing her. "You Imperials really are scraping the bottom of the barrel."

"Shut up and duel."

Paget does marginally better than Odel had - she leaps forwards, fast enough that even with my Blessed senses I don't see her move, and lands a few hits on Magni. "That the best you can do?" Magni asks, when Paget leaps away. "A feather duster hits harder than that." Those kinds of taunts aren't uncommon in Blessed duels, but in this case they're true, and I think Paget can tell how little effect her blows had. Certainly her aura is beginning to grow less confident, but with everyone watching her she doesn't back down. Instead she growls and leaps back in, electricity crackling in her hands - and Magni steps aside and clotheslines her. Gaius has to dodge as the unconscious Air Blessed sails past him.

Paget has barely even come to a halt another guard leaps down to challenge Magni, others leaving their posts. The logical thing would be for them to go and ask for help from a more powerful fighter - the fortress definitely has them - but just as Gaius had predicted, the pride of the Imperials is too strong for them to accept defeat from some random traveller. As long as Magni can keep fighting, it doesn't look like we're going to have any issues with the fortress walls. Now we just have to hope that there aren't any Corruption Blessed like Gabon among the wall guards - for all Magni's strength, she can't punch out someone made of mist.

I try to focus on the plan ahead, not all the possible ways it could go wrong. "Let's go," I whisper to Haneka, when I see a gap forming in the wall patrol.

"Wait," Deanne mutters, just before we set off, handing me Carlei's cloak. "It's still imbued with the Princess's fire," she explains. It might help restore her from her weakened state if she is incapacitated in the manner Gaius described."

I'm not going to pretend I know what she's really talking about, but Deanne already proved she's pretty knowledgeable about Blessed stuff, so I take it and tuck it under one arm. I think about wearing it briefly, but it would feel too weird. "Thanks. Be careful, you two."

We Manifest our wings and swoop up onto the wall just as Magni takes out her third opponent.

We slip into one of the towers - unoccupied after its guards left to join the growing crowd around the wall - and peek out of an interior window down into the fortress itself. It looks much like Lyra had described from her memories, which is reassuring. Hopefully her memory of the downwards-leading stairway she'd seen in passing is just as accurate. "Can you sense the Princess?" Haneka asks.

I shake my head. "Not from here." It's not entirely unsurprising, but it's still a little disappointing. Especially after my Ascension, I'd hoped that my powers would let me find her the minute we got close.

We find a couple of spare cloaks and helmets left around in the tower. It's not going to fool anyone that looks at us too closely, but from above or behind we should look just like Imperials. I start to look around for weapons to complete the image before remembering that there won't be any - human Imperial Guards never get stationed here.

I might not be able to find Carlei with my powers from up in this tower, but I can find pretty much everyone else in the fortress, and slipping through the patrols is pretty easy with that advantage. A couple of people catch sight of us as we go, but they dismiss us as just more guards. I'm glad - if I really had to, I could use my aura-manipulation to force them to forget their suspicion, but after what happened in the fight with Gaius, I don't want to use that aspect of my powers.

We make it to the door behind which Lyra saw a staircase down when she passed through here with Silver, but it's locked. "Great," I grumble. I could blast the door open, but that's not exactly subtle.

"Let me try something," Haneka says, stepping past and laying her hand on the door...the door that's made of wood. Small shoots begin to bloom around the lock, and in the glow of her Nature magic I can see the revitalised wood beginning to pull itself free of the metal lock under her instructions. It only takes a few seconds, and the only sign anything odd is going on is a small green glow and a faint creaking of wood.

"Nice!" I grin, impressed.

The staircase down is behind the door, just where Lyra said it was. And I remember one of Gaius's helpful hints - doors aren't locked when they don't need to be. Hopefully that's a sign we're going in the right direction.

And then, just as we reach the bottom of the staircase, I feel something. A familiar, fiery aura, muted and suppressed but indisputably Carlei. "I take it you can sense Carlei?" Haneka asks.

"How did you..?"

"You're grinning like an idiot," she tells me, smirking slightly.

I try to school my features into a more neutral expression, but I'm pretty sure I don't succeed. "Yeah. I found her."

Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About

We move more quickly now, more recklessly. Thankfully there aren't as many guards down here as there were up above.

And then we emerge into what appears to be a cave, Carlei's aura the strongest it has been the whole time we've been down here. The only feature in the cave is a pool of water...and within it, encased in rock, eyes closed, is Carlei. Only her head is above the water.

"Earth and Water. Just like Gaius said." I try to keep my voice level, but I can't. When Gaius had told me that they'd probably trap Carlei like this to suppress her Fire powers - and by extension, make her too weak to escape - I'd tried to joke about it being 'the carbonite treatment.' None of them had got the Star Wars reference, of course, but that was fine; the joke had mostly been for my benefit. I hadn't wanted to think about what Carlei must have been feeling, trapped motionless, surrounded by the water.

But now I can see her, feel her aura, and it's not a joke any more. Her fiery aura is weak, and I can feel the Earth and Water pressing in on her, suppressing even the fear and pain she's feeling.

I drop Carlei's cloak and start to move towards her, though Haneka gets there first. She raises her hands and green light erupts from them, washing over the cave prison in a bright flash that cracks the cave floor so thoroughly it becomes more like sand than rock. The water in Carlei's pool drains away into the lattice of cracks Haneka's created, and as the rock entombing her falls away as well, I crouch down and lift Carlei up out of the hole before it caves in on itself.

Carlei didn't seem to notice us while her powers were still suppressed, but free from her prison she stirs slightly. She opens her eyes and blinks once or twice before dazedly focusing on me. "Ethan..?"

I know we're not home free yet. Strong as Magni is, I can't imagine our distraction is going to last much longer, and we still need to get out of here - and Carlei's clearly in no state to help us fight our way out. But I can't stop a smile spreading across my face. "Hey," I mumur to her. "You okay?"

"I..." She pauses as Haneka wraps the cloak I'd dropped around her, and it becomes quickly apparent that Deanne was right. Carlei slowly, awkwardly, tucks the cloak more tightly around herself, and I can feel her fiery aura beginning to reassert itself - but it's so slow.

When we'd been figuring out this plan, I'd worked on the assumption that as soon as she was free, Carlei would be back to full strength. Gaius had warned that she might be weakened by her imprisonment, but she's always been so strong, so powerful. I'd never considered she'd be too weak to fight, much less too weak to stand on her own.

As I dither, Carlei finally manages to form a coherent sentence. "You shouldn't be here, Ethan. It's...it's too dangerous."

I can feel the little spikes of fear in her aura. "Well, if it makes you feel better, we're leaving now," I remark, trying to reassure her.

"Don't joke," she scolds me - but the corners of her mouth twitch slightly.

Haneka catches my eye. "You keep the Princess safe," she says quietly. "If we encounter any guards, I'll fight them."

"I can't ask you to do that, Haneka," Carlei protests. "I can fight too."

"You really can't," I point out, gently. She gives me an irritated look, but she doesn't argue with me.

"It was my fault you were put in this situation, Carlei," Haneka says. "I won't fail again." There's a fierce determination in her aura - fierce enough that the thing that worries me the most is that she's going to go to excessive lengths to prove herself. But the alternative would be that Haneka helped Carlei and I fought through any guards we ran into, and we both know I'd be too worried about Carlei to dedicate my full attention to the fight, no matter how much I trusted Haneka to protect her.

"Let her do this," I say softly to Carlei, when she's about to continue arguing with Haneka. "Trust her."

Carlei grumbles slightly, and tries to take a step forwards, but her legs give out under her almost immediately. As she tries to regain her footing, I shift position and bodily pick her up. She's much lighter than I expected. "Hey!" she protests.

"Sorry, but if we have to make a run for it, right now this is the only way you can keep up with us," I tell her, firmly. Carlei blinks in surprise. I guess I've never really talked to her like this before. "And I'm going to have to carry you in a couple of minutes anyway." When we'd planned our getaway, our plan had been to carry Carlei between us, but that was assuming she'd have the strength to hang on to us - and right now, I'm not sure she would.

"Fine," she concedes, begrudgingly, wriggling slightly into a more comfortable position. I use my lights to tuck her cloak back around as we set off. She doesn't seem to mind me carrying her that much, but I can sense frustration boiling in her aura - at herself, not at me or Haneka. I hate seeing it, but I'm not entirely surprised.

We make it back to the surface before anyone realises something's wrong. I feel something weird - a pulse of power that comes down the main staircase just as we're going up it.

"What is it?" Haneka asks, when I stop.

"You know how I can find people?" I send my own senses out, feeling a half-dozen auras approaching rapidly. "Someone just found us."

That's about all the warning we get before an armoured Imperial arrives at the top of the stairs, slicing at Haneka with a a long, two-handed sword. She ducks just in time, and shoves the guy's arms against the wall of the staircase, but before she can take him out, another lunges at her with a spear.

Under normal circumstances, I could have blasted the second guy easily. But I can't very well point at him right now, and while I'm getting better at controlling my powers without gestures, I'm not good enough at it to risk throwing a blast past Haneka in these confined quarters. Instead I raise a shield around me and Carlei, trusting Haneka to handle our attackers.

And she does - ducking behind the first Imperial, kicking at the spear hard enough to make it jab into the wall. It embeds itself into the stone wall with a screech and its wielder loses his grip on it. Before the two attackers can coordinate, Haneka punches the first guy in the neck and he slumps down. Then she draws her pistol and shoots at the other guy while he's still trying to yank his spear back out of the wall. Instead of the usual blast of green light, though, a glowing green vine erupts out of the barrel of the pistol, wrapping around the remaining Imperial and lifting him into the air, smacking his head into the ceiling.

The Imperials are clearly trying to trap us down here, because no sooner has that guy dropped than another one shows up at the top of the stairs. Haneka must realise what they're doing too, because she just outright charges.

The Imperial at the top of the stairs braces himself…and massively underestimates Haneka's strength and momentum. A couple of steps before the top, she crouches and springs, using the two Imperials she knocked out already as a springboard, and bowls the Imperial in front of her over without even slowing down.

I get to the top of the stairs just a couple of seconds after Haneka and realise that their plan of trapping her on the staircase was smarter than they even realised. In the narrow stairway, she was somewhat hindered, but now, in the open courtyard, she can - literally - spread her wings.

There must be a dozen more Imperials, backing off quickly and forming a cautious ring around us as Haneka lands, crouched. After she just took out three of them in less than ten seconds, none of them want to be next. Haneka takes advantage of their hesitation, sweeping her wings through the air, a strangely relaxed motion that I don't understand the purpose of at first. Then I see the dust - glittering golden specks, so fine as to almost be smoke, wafting from her wings and over our heads, drifting back down to ground level and towards the Imperials, forming a ring around us and expanding out.

One or two of them back off as the dust floats towards them. They're the smart ones - the rest start to slump to the ground, even those that try to cover their mouths and noses with hands or cloaks. The sudden sound of half a dozen snores is so incongruous in the midst of the skirmish that I find myself struggling to suppress a laugh.

I can feel the same aura that I'd felt in the scanning pulse, lurking on the other side of the courtyard, but its owner doesn't seem particularly inclined to confront us after we - or rather, Haneka - took down most of the guards in the immediate vicinity. But I can sense more auras beginning to close in on us, the guards on the walls beginning to realise something's wrong.

"Let's go!" I call out to Haneka, before she charges after the remaining Imperials. She nods, turns aside, and brings all of her wings forwards at once. I half expect her to come flying back towards us, but she, doesn't bracing herself against the push of her wings, and creates a strong gust, dispersing the sleeping powder in a small arc, giving us a way out.

So we run, straight towards one of the walls, the guards regrouping behind us. A few steps before the wall, we take off, leaping up into the air. Carlei yelps in surprise when I don't drop back down to ground level. "Sorry!" I apologise to her, as we swoop over the walls. "Guess I should have mentioned I can fly now!"

She shifts slightly, glancing over at Haneka's new, golden wings before looking back to me. "How did the two of you grow so much stronger in just one night?" she asks, eyes wide. The only answer I can really give her is a slight shrug.

Once we're on the other side of the wall, we swoop back down into the forest to evade pursuit - though it doesn't seem like any is forthcoming. I guess the Imperials are still trying to figure out what the fuck happened.

We catch back up to Lyra and Deanne pretty quickly, and when we do I realise a bit of a flaw in our plan - they might have been well-hidden from the ground, but they sure aren't from above. Blessed don't often fly around unless they have to, but an airborne messenger or something would've seen them easily. That could've wrecked the whole thing. Thankfully, that doesn't seem to have happened, but that's pure luck.

Lyra and Deanne notice us overhead, and as Haneka makes us a convenient landing site a short distance away from the observation clearing, they start to come towards us. "Put me down," Carlei whispers to me as we land. She didn't mind me carrying her when it was just the three of us, but I'm not surprised she's a little too prideful to meet unfamiliar people - she clearly didn't recognise Lyra in her new outfit - being carried like a child. She staggers slightly when I set her down, but she can at least stand on her own now.

She recognises Lyra when they meet on level ground, though. If she was surprised to see me and Haneka, she's absolutely astonished to see Lyra here. "What are you...I mean, how did you...I mean, why are you..." She realises she's babbling slightly and settles for just hugging Lyra tightly.

"How are Magni and Gaius doing?" I ask, stopping Carlei from continuing to barrage Lyra with half-formed questions. Besides, if we get Carlei out and one of those two got captured instead, it would make the whole thing almost pointless.

Lyra frowns slightly, pulling away from Carlei to address me. "I don't think they've aroused any suspicions yet, but just as you got here, the commander of the fortress arrived to find out what the commotion was about. But more troubling - we were discovered by a patrol."

"That's not good," Haneka observes, a little pointlessly.

"I don't think they knew we were here, and Deanne didn't give them the chance to raise an alarm." I'm glad I asked Deanne to stick with Lyra now - I've still not seen her fight, but my guess that she's pretty strong was obviously correct.

"Unfortunately," Deanne adds, "it will not be long before they regain consciousness. I'm glad to see you unharmed, Princess," she adds, with a very formal bow to Carlei. "And I thank you for the kindness you showed me."

It clearly takes Carlei a couple of moments to figure out who Deanne is. "You're more than welcome," she replies. She hesitates for a couple of moments before she continues, and that irritation in her aura flares brighter for a moment before she suppresses it, biting back whatever sharp retort had come to mind. "Though judging from this it seems you've paid me back a hundred fold."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #19
We go quiet again as we get back to the little clearing Haneka had carved out for us. It now also contains two unconscious Imperial Guards, who are tied to a tree with makeshift ropes that have clearly been made by ripping up their cloaks. I doubt even humans would be restrained by those for long, but I suppose it's better than nothing.

Back on the drawbridge, Magni is facing off with her latest opponent: a much better-dressed, better-groomed man than most of the others, who's wielding a short, thin club in each hand. "Is that the captain?" I whisper to Lyra and Deanne; Lyra nods, but Deanne is too focused on the fight to notice my question. I can sense the worry boiling in her aura.

"Who's she?" Carlei whispers to me in turn. Neither Magni nor Captain Sacheverell have moved yet, both tense, waiting.

"Magni...uh, I don't actually know her full name," I realise. "She's been helping us."

"Why?" Carlei is clearly suspicious, which I suppose I can't really fault her for.

"Originally because we both wanted to beat the shit out of Whitney. I...honestly don't know why she's still helping us," I admit, "but she knows about most of what's happened to us. She's a good person," I assure Carlei.

"And why is she duelling the captain of the fortress?"

"That was...her cover story, I guess. The point was to get the attention of the guards on the walls so we could get in and out without being noticed, so she challenged the captain. The guards challenged her to stop her."

Carlei pauses, and turns to look at me. "Challenging each defender of a castle to duels in turn until none are left...is that not the legend of Morganne?" she asks, with a raised eyebrow. I grimace slightly - I'd forgotten Carlei knew most of the old legends as well. And I hadn't really wanted the others to know that the rescue plan was based mostly on a fairytale. Thankfully, they seem too focused on the drawbridge to pay any attention to our conversation.

Magni makes the first move, springing forwards in a lunging punch - just like she'd done against me in our battle. But where I hadn't been able to block her attack, Sacheverell is. He dodges slightly, using one club to parry her fist, and whips the other around to strike at her side, preventing her from following through with the momentum of her punch. I'd like to think that it's just because she's worn down after her prior duels, but I have a horrible feeling that this guy could go toe-to-toe with her even on her best day.

After that first exchange of blows, Magni doesn't go as all-out as I'm used to seeing from her - and I'm beginning to realise that as unbeatable as she's seemed ever since I met her, her entire fighting style relies on her offensive power overwhelming her opponent to stop them from fighting back. She gets Sacheverell once or twice with a couple of good hits, but when he forces her onto the defensive he gets twice that number back on her in return.

"Captain Sacheverell!" Just as Magni is about to attack again, a shout from somewhere within the fortress makes us all jump - including Magni and Sacheverell. As Sacheverell glances back in the direction of the cry, it would be the perfect opportunity for Magni to attack, but she doesn't. A few moments pass and the owner of the voice becomes apparent - an Imperial Guard, but dressed very differently to all the others, unarmoured and with no helmet. This must be the fortress's Imperial Mage, the one Gaius warned us about - and very probably the one who'd found us with magic when we'd been making our escape. "The..." He trails off when he notices Magni and Gaius, obviously unwilling to admit to Carlei's rescue in front of outsiders. "We have a problem, sir!" he settles on.

Sacheverell frowns, obviously realising what the magician means. I tense up slightly. This was always going to be the riskiest part of Magni's side of the plan. Not because it's a particularly difficult task - though that Imperial Mage is going to cause issues if he tries to sense Magni's aura - but I know Magni well enough to know that backing off isn't something she likes to do. Especially against an opponent as tough as Captain Sacheverell.

But then, to my surprise, she does. "I'll concede the duel," she says. "Don't want to get in the way of you running the place, Captain. But when you're done with your little 'problem,' I'll be back."

Sacheverell relaxes, and offers Magni a very small bow. They're both carefully controlling their breathing in a way I wish I could manage. "Thank you for your consideration." Then he looks around and seems to notice his audience for the first time. "Back to your posts!" he roars, turning and marching back into the fortress.

The magician doesn't follow, though. Instead he watches Magni, sceptically, and I feel his powers begin to stretch out towards her. His magic is a lot slower and weaker than mine, but it's precise, and I'm sure if he reads her aura he'll know instantly she's part of the plot.

I hesitate briefly, but there's only one way I can think to stop him - if I can sense his magic, it stands to reason he can sense mine. I send my lights flying off to one side, as far as I can away from us, and pour power into them. There's a muted explosion from off that direction, and the magician instantly redirects his attention away from Magni and towards the direction it came from. I feel the questing tendrils of his magic already swooping in that direction, and it won't be long before he realises that it was a decoy.

But for now, he seems to be fooled, and Magni and Gaius slip away before anyone thinks to stop them.

We meet back up with them on the road between Kogane and Enju. Carlei seems a little puzzled - probably wondering why we aren't still heading towards Asagi - but she doesn't question it. Not yet, anyway.

Magni looks pretty battered and bruised, but she grins widely when she sees us all waiting to meet her and Gaius. "I'm guessing you must be Carlei. I'm Magni. Heard a lot about you," she adds with a smile. "Oh, I should probably be bowing, huh?" Carlei bristles, but before she can say anything Magni does bow - not with the same formal elegance that Deanne had shown, but deep enough to be respectful - which mollifies Carlei a little.

"From what Ethan has told me - and what I saw just now - you were instrumental in my rescue," she says. "I owe you a great debt."

Magni offers a shrug in return. "Hey, I was just in it for the fights," she says, with a grin that makes it clear she's lying. "Besides, you oughta thank Ethan more than the rest of us. He's the one that figured out this crazy plan." She glances at Gaius. "And convinced certain people to take part," she adds.

"Before we get into the whole play-by-play, maybe we should find somewhere to rest for a few minutes?" I suggest. "You look like you could use a break," I point out to Magni. And though I'm not going to say it aloud, so does Carlei.

Magni gives another shrug. "Yeah, I could use a few minutes," she admits. "Half a dozen duels in a row'll do that to you."

"I think you mean fifteen," Deanne corrects her as we set off, back into the thick undergrowth that surrounds the road on both sides, Haneka clearing us a path with her Nature magic - and sealing it again behind us. "Not including Captain Sacheverell." Carlei pauses slightly, obviously reevaluating Magni a little.

Once we settle down in another clearing, Lyra uses one of her totems to heal Magni as we - well, mostly the others - explain to Carlei what's happened over the past day or so. As I watch Carlei grow more and more worried and frustrated as she learns the lengths we went to to save her, I'm beginning to realise that it might have been smarter to hold off on telling her what happened, at least for a little while. I do at least manage to forestall Lyra telling her - and everyone else - about my brief foray into the life of a gladiator.

"So now what?" she asks, when we finish. "Are...are we still heading towards Asagi?"

"Kind of," I answer. "We figured Silver can't be far behind us, and he'd probably guess we'd make a break for Asagi."

"You mean you think he'd outpredict me again," Carlei says, quietly. And she tries to hide it, but there's a hurt, betrayed edge to her tone that makes me hesitate.

"So we're going to Enju instead," Gaius picks up, "and from there to Asagi."

"Wouldn't that mean we'd eventually meet Silver coming the other way?" she asks.

"Not if we're travelling by boat." Carlei pauses, looking confused, and I nod to Deanne.

"I have a small vessel moored outside Enju," she explains. "I was visiting the ancient Temple there when I was abducted by Whitney's thugs."

"And since Whitney must've broken a dozen laws doing it, and from what the others have said your brother's a pretty law-abiding guy," Magni adds, "chances are no-one even knows Deanne's with us. So Silver's never gonna see that coming."

"I see," Carlei nods. Then, to my surprise, she stands up. She's not swaying any more. "Would you excuse me for a few minutes?" she asks. Her voice might be calm, but her aura is whirling with emotion. "I just...want some time to think about everything that's happened."

I want to stop her, but I don't know what to say. I can't think of anything. I just sit and watch, numbly, as she vanishes into the undergrowth. I stay sat there, staring at the bush she disappeared behind, waiting - hoping - for her to come back.

Then a flurry of leaves blow into my face. "Hey!" I protest, spluttering. Haneka lowers her hand. "What was that for?!"

"Don't you want to go after her?" she asks, simply.

"Well, yeah, but..." I trail off.

I don't know what I want to say. Something about how Carlei asked for some time, or about how I'm the best bet for sensing if our captives wake up, or...

Magni gives me a look that's way too knowing. This isn't fair. She's known me for less than a day - and Carlei for less than five minutes! "I..." I stumble.

Magni shakes her head, chuckling, and gestures in the direction Carlei went.

"Go after her, idiot."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

Carlei doesn't go far, and I can find her aura easily. She's stopped just a short distance away from our temporary camp, in a much smaller, naturally-formed clearing. She's pacing back and forth in the clearing, her aura a chaotic maelstrom of anger and sadness and joy that I can't make any sense of. She doesn't notice me.

Then, abruptly, she turns and slams her fist into the trunk of the biggest tree at the edge of the clearing. The loud crack of the impact makes a couple of birds take flight from the trees around us. Just for a moment her whirling aura is suppressed by the stab of pain she feels.

Then she does it again, hitting the tree again with her other hand, even harder. Almost before I realise what I'm doing, I leave the edge of the clearing where I was hiding and lock my arm with hers before she can throw another punch. "What the hell are you doing, Carlei?"

She doesn't respond, just tries to pull her arm free of my grip. She's back to full strength now, and just twenty-four hours ago I wouldn't have been able to stop her. But now I can match her strength, and I don't let her go. I feel a surge of surprise run through her aura, momentarily blotting out the pain she's feeling from her bloodied hands. Her skin flares up to its full burning heat, but I barely even notice it.

Neither of us say anything. Neither of us give up. Carlei keeps trying to pull free, and I keep holding her. I know what she's trying to do; it's something she taught me, a tactic that I've seen work for her a dozen times over. If you can't overpower an opponent through raw force, try to tire them out - and hope you don't get tired first. But even before my Ascension, endurance was the one thing I was physically better at than any of the others - and she knows it just as well as I do.

And then I feel a little spark in her aura - that same competitive playfulness she'd displayed the day after my Blessing. It's just a spark, and I wouldn't have noticed it at all if I didn't know her aura so well, but it's so much more welcome and familiar than the chaotic maelstrom that I can't help but smile slightly.

That little flicker in her aura is all the warning I get before she twists, using me as a pivot to swing up and plant her feet on the tree, pushing back with enough force to knock me over. She lands on top of me heavily and rolls to her feet before I can recover from the impact.

As I get back to my feet, I feel the competitiveness in her aura growing stronger as she settles into a crouch, ready to spring. Her face is streaked with tears, but she's not crying any more - and her eyes sparkle with merriment, fiery and almost wild.

She's not the only one feeling that competitive urge, though. I've always been less affected by that Blessed 'battle lust' or whatever it is, but right now I feel adrenaline surging through me. I couldn't have backed down from the unspoken challenge even if I'd wanted to.

I flick out my wings as I charge.

Without any kind of discussion, we restrict ourselves to fighting without powers, just a straight-up, hand-to-hand brawl. But within those constraints, neither of us hold back, and within a minute we're both sporting some painful bruises. Neither of us care.

Before my Ascension Carlei could've beaten me in a couple of seconds, and even after it she's still a better fighter than me. But being able to keep up with her - more or less, anyway - is an exhilarating feeling. We've been fighting about five minutes when Carlei finally manages to pin me down, kneeling on my back and using my undersized, sensitive wings as leverage to keep me pinned for a couple of seconds before releasing me.

I roll over and sit up, looking over at her. We're both breathing heavily, both grinning madly. Carlei's the one to break the silence. "Thank you, Ethan," she says. "I needed to clear my head. Really needed to." She sits down, leaning against the tree she'd put a dent in earlier, and pats the ground beside her. I use my powers to fly myself over to her rather than bother to get up. "Though, on reflection," she admits, "with no healing totems, we could perhaps have timed this better."

She has a point - with the adrenaline fading, we're both beginning to feel the effect of our brawl. "Well, they might've gotten a bit beat up, but..." I pull a totem from one of my pockets, holding it out to her. "It's Lyra's," I explain. "She gave me a couple in case you needed to heal yourself when we found you in the fortress. I guess I never got around to giving it back." She puts both of her hands over mine, golden light flowing from the totem and into us both. Her healing feels very different to Lyra's - Lyra's was cool, soothing and refreshing, but Carlei's is hot, just barely cool enough to not be painful, and sends a wild stab of adrenaline through me. "That's a hell of a rush!"

Carlei chuckles slightly. "I suppose you haven't had cause to be healed before except by Temple priests," she comments.

I frown. I don't want to lie to her, but after the way she reacted to hearing what had happened after she was kidnapped, I'm not sure I want to tell her what I did either. Maybe because of the wild, fiery energy still running through me, I make an impulsive decision. "That's not quite true," I admit. "I, uh...got into a bit of a fight before this whole thing with Whitney and the fortress. Lyra healed me after that."

And so I find myself telling Carlei about what happened with Sabyl and the arena - and Magni. I skip over the fight itself except in the broadest sense, explaining that Magni had let me win for Sabyl's sake. "That was very brave of you, Ethan," she says quietly, when I finish. She's still holding my hand, and her grip got a little tighter as I was talking. I hope she doesn't notice me blushing.

"So what about you?" I ask.

"I think my day has been rather less exciting than yours," she remarks drily.

"You know what I mean." I nudge her with my shoulder. She grins, playful, and nudges me back a lot harder - hard enough that if she hadn't telegraphed it she'd have knocked me over. As it is, her shove sends another surge of adrenaline through me, but this time - though I'm sorely tempted to give into it again (and I do have another spare healing totem) - I manage to keep it under control. "You want to talk about..." I trail off, gesturing above us to the large dent she put in the tree with her punches.

"Not really," she admits. "But I made you a promise." It takes me a moment to figure out what she's talking about - the agreement we'd made back in Kikyo. I have to admit, I'm surprised she remembers after everything that happened. She notices my surprised expression. "You're...you're my best friend, Ethan," she says. Her voice is...tentative, almost. "I'm not going to forget something like that."

For a few moments, I'm just completely speechless. "But what about..." I trail off, realising that I don't actually know any of Carlei's friends - at least, except for Lyra. "...Lyra? Or Silver?"

Carlei lets go of my hand with one of hers and puts her arm around me. I shift slightly so I can put my arm around her shoulders as well, and she smiles, leaning against me a little. "There are friends - like Lyra - who I have known for longer, yes. But you're...different." She sounds a little unsure, and quickly changes the subject. "But to answer your question, Ethan...I suppose I just felt...useless. Weak."

I suppress my instinctive response to scold her for thinking something like that. How could she ever be useless? "Why?" I ask her, aloud.

"Ever since we left Sekiei, our group has not exactly been a harmonious one. I have always felt as though I was barely holding our group together. In a way, I suppose it gave me a purpose - something more to do than to merely flee and rely on someone else to protect us when we arrived at Asagi. And when I was abducted by Whitney's thugs, I feared that that would be the end of our group." She pauses, turning her head so she's meeting my gaze. "And instead, you took charge."

I think I see where she's going with this now. "To save you," I point out.

She nods slightly. Was that a tiny blush on her cheeks for a moment? "Yes. But they look to you for guidance. They trust you. They never sought my leadership - or trusted me - like that." But I did. "It isn't just that you've become their - our - leader," she continues. "To see Haneka, someone who...who I had always thought the weakest of our group, so powerful...you did that. You brought out a power in her no-one else had seen, not even her."

"What happened to 'Ascension is a sign of the Divines' approval'?" I ask.

"Nothing. But an Ascension alone cannot explain the power I saw from Haneka. You gave her the confidence to tap into all her powers, and not worry about what anyone else thought of her. And though I didn't know it at the time, the same is true of you," she adds. "Even knowing you had Ascended, given your affinity for magic I expected to be able to easily defeat you just now. And instead I found myself struggling to stop you overpowering me at times. You can't tell me you don't have the power I've experienced first-hand," she adds, with a small grin. "But the point is...seeing everything you achieved, in such a short time...I had convinced myself I was necessary to the integrity and safety of the group. But I'm not. They don't need me."

"I need you." I realise what I've said only after I've said it.

Carlei hesitates, briefly, and I can feel her aura whirling up into another wild mess of emotion. The surge in her emotions is so strong that I barely even notice her moving - at least until her lips brush against my cheek.

It's so unexpected, so incredible, that I just freeze. If I could see my own aura, I bet it would be whirling even more madly than Carlei's. My couple of moments of hesitation cause Carlei to begin to get the wrong idea, and she starts to pull away, stammering. "I didn't...I mean, I thought..."

I lean in and kiss her back, cutting her off.

We don't say anything for a few long, beautiful moments.

"We should...probably get back to the others," I suggest, interrupted briefly by Carlei kissing me again.

"Yes," she agrees. "We probably should."

Neither of us make any move to get up.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

We decide to try to act like nothing happened in the clearing once we get back to the others. But that doesn't mean that we have to act like nothing happened before we get back. Walking hand in hand with Carlei, feeling her aura of fire as she brushes against me...I wish we could just stay here. Just forget everything else.

When we do get back to the others, our facade lasts all of five seconds. The others don't help - Haneka's trying to hide a wicked grin, and Magni isn't even trying, giving me the most ridiculous smirk.

And I swear I hear Gaius mutter "About damn time."

Of course, none of this changes the fact that we've still got to get to Enju with Silver, Whitney and god knows who else looking for us - and we still don't know what we're planning to do once we get there. But despite everything stacked against us, I can't stop myself from smiling. Nor can Carlei, and the warmth in her eyes whenever she meets my gaze is almost intoxicating on its own.

Better yet, it seems like our idea to head up to Enju has foxed Silver, because we don't see any trace of him. We move pretty quickly for the first week or so, but after that we start to slow down, relaxing a little. The road between Kogane and Enju doesn't have the same bandit problems as the roads around Hiwada did, and any robbers that might be out there obviously think twice about attacking a group of half a dozen powerful Blessed.

And we are powerful. We're definitely not at the upper end of power, but when we get into playful sparring matches with other Blessed we run into on the road, we quickly discover that most of them have to take us on in groups to give us a challenge. It's a weird realisation. I still remember watching Carlei sparring in the Temple back in Yoshino. Back then there'd only been a few Blessed who she could fight without getting flattened. But now I'm pretty sure she - or any of us - would be able to give a decent fight to almost anyone in a Temple. Somehow I hadn't really twigged that we'd been through so much since then. I'm a little disappointed we didn't get the chance to stop off and get into some sparring matches in the Kogane Temple, but from what the others tell me, the Enju Temple almost as busy as the one in Kogane.

Of course, part of the reason we've all grown so much stronger is that we've been able to train with each other - and the addition of Deanne and Magni to our group is only going to make us stronger still. Magni's raw strength and power is one thing, but Deanne fights completely differently to any other Blessed I've met. Like Carlei, she can summon a sword, but her primary tactic is grappling, and she's damn good at it; in the three weeks we're travelling she's the only one that manages to take down Magni in a fistfight. Grappling is a noticeable hole in all of our fighting styles, but, with typical Blessed affinity for combat, by the time we reach Enju we've all picked up a few moves.

The one exception is Lyra, who I realise about halfway through our journey is the first Blessed I've met who doesn't like to fight. She obviously enjoys watching us spar, just like she'd enjoyed watching the fights in the arena, but whenever anyone invites her to take part she refuses, and then gets really quiet and withdrawn. I don't know why, and I don't think she'd tell me.

What I understand even less is the way she gets treated. I'm not surprised that Gaius is scornful towards her, and with her love of fighting Magni's occasional snarky remark isn't that unexpected either. But even Deanne and Haneka are dismissive of her at times - they try to hide it, but I know them well enough by now to read their body language even without my powers.

Carlei eventually explains it to me, a couple of nights before we arrive in Enju. "We're called Blessed Warriors for a reason," she tells me softly. We're scattered around a few campfires with a couple of other groups of travellers. Carlei and I have a campfire to ourselves - the others keep contriving to give us privacy, which would in other circumstances get annoying...but since it means I get more time alone with Carlei, I'm sure not going to complain. "Battle is in our nature. But rarely, Blessed don't feel that same thrill you and I experience when we fight - or feel it to a weak enough extent that their natural human fear takes over. To many Blessed, that lack is a sign of the Divines' disfavour."

"That's not fair," I say, bluntly.

"I agree with you," Carlei replies, quietly. She shifts closer to me and leans back against me, head resting on my shoulder. "But a centuries-old tradition is not easy to disperse. And unlike other traditions, this is one that is universal across class and country."

"Doesn't make it any better."

"I know." Carlei reaches up and rests her hand on my cheek. "But this isn't a battle you can fight for Lyra, Ethan. If she wants respect as a Blessed, she has to win it - the only way Blessed can. The best you and I can do is support her."

Enju is a very different city to Kogane, Hiwada and Yoshino. They're all modern (at least, by Jotan standards), dense and clustered behind walls. Enju sprawls, pockets of smaller buildings dotted around seemingly at random, and it doesn't have any city walls at all. But towering over the entire city from a distance are a pair of massive spires. One of them must have caught fire at some point, because it's only half as tall as the other, but it's still easily bigger than the Temple in the city. "Those are the Shrines, right?" I ask, nodding to the giant spires. I'd been half paying attention to the mixture of Carlei, Deanne and Lyra talking about their history on the way here.

"Yes," Deanne nods. "According to the ancient tales, they were once Temples, and a warrior-monk known as Hamar once resided within the one that still stands."

"Until he picked a fight with his brother, right?" This was one of the tales that I'd read back in Yoshino, and it had stuck with me.

"Well, aren't you quite the scholar?" Carlei whispers in my ear, a teasing glint in her eyes, her breath tickling my neck.

"Indeed." Deanne doesn't notice Carlei's interjection. "The legends are unclear as to Larence's fate, but the fury and rage of their duel was such that they destroyed one of the towers upon which they fought - and imbued the other with the untameable power of fire."

"Untameable, huh?" I whisper back to Carlei, as we set off again. Her response is to snake her arm around my waist and pull me in for a kiss.

"You know it," she whispers back to me, when we part. That's not the first time she's picked up an anachronism off me. They suit her strangely well considering her otherwise-formal demeanour.

I pay enough attention to the continued discussion about the Shrines up ahead to learn that we won't be going to either of them; they're considered sacred, and access is only granted with the permission of the Temple priests - and besides, the half-destroyed Shrine isn't stable anyway.

After three weeks without seeing a single soldier with an Imperial tabard, we've been getting pretty relaxed about keeping an eye out - so we get a nasty shock when we almost run straight into a gang of Imperial soldiers outside the Temple.

They're in a loose semicircle around the entrance, with a bit of a crowd gathered in turn around them. I flit upwards to see what's going on, and groan in exasperation. Another fucking Warden. Of course it is.

This one doesn't seem have a Paladin with her, though - and judging from the auras of the soldiers around her, she could probably do with one showing up. "All we want," the apparent leader of the group growls, "is a bed for the night."

Despite the ring of people surrounding her with weapons, though, the Warden is perfectly composed. Her scarf flutters slightly in the breeze. "You're welcome to it like all travellers," she replies, "provided you change into appropriate garments."

"We're soldiers on His Majesty's business," another soldier snaps. His aura seems somehow familiar, but I'm not sure why.

"And your point is?"

"Our point is that we have the right to go where we please." The third speaker is a woman, and it's seeing her aura in conjunction with the second speaker that makes me realise, in a horrified flash, why some of them seem familiar.

These soldiers were in the Yadon Oasis, under Proton's command.

"The ancient contracts give you no authority over the grounds of a Temple." The Warden is so confident that I almost wonder if she has some kickass martial arts skills or something she's just waiting to use, but her aura tells a different story. There's no fear there, but instead a kind of weary disappointment and resignation.

Fuck this.

The Warden doesn't so much as flinch when I land besides her. Some of the soldiers do, though, including two of the ones who were speaking. And then I realise that they recognise me just as much as I do them - they were the duo Haneka and I had fought. The speed at which their auras change from angry and confident to scared is remarkable.

Not all of the soldiers are intimidated, though. "And who do you think you are?" the soldier who'd first spoken snaps.

"Someone who knows what you did in the Yadon Oasis."

That doesn't quite get the response I was expecting. Rather than intimidating the guy, the revelation that I know what happened in the Shrine apparently makes him decide I need to be stopped from telling anyone his secret, because he leaps at me. I flick a mote of light at him and watch him go flying backwards when he runs into it, knocking over a couple of his allies.

As the soldiers get to their feet, they're looking a lot less confident - and their confidence gets much worse as they realise Carlei and the others have surrounded them from behind. There are more of them than there are us, but I know at least some of them aren't Blessed, and even the ones that are aren't a match for us. We've grown a lot stronger since the oasis, and they haven't - and they don't have Proton and his stupid smoke grenades to back them up this time.

Their confidence gets worse still when one of the soldiers Haneka and I had run into whispers something to the guy I'd blasted, overheard by most of the others, and they start looking around more nervously. One or two of them begin to edge away from the main group.

The mood of the crowd around them is changing too - the anger that had been suppressed out of fear of the soldiers' authority and weaponry beginning to bubble up. This could turn ugly, and the soldiers obviously know it too.

"As I said," the Warden repeats, her calm voice somehow cutting through the whispers and angry muttering, "if you wish to stay for the night, then all you need do is attire yourselves appropriately." Anyone could be forgiven for thinking she'd had our arrival planned out - certainly the soldiers obviously get that impression. One of them pauses, trying and failing to think of an intimidating comeback, but that's the most resistance any of them put up before they sheepishly file away.

The Warden stands aside from the entrance to the Temple so people can come and go again, and waits for the crowd to disperse before she turns to us. "You're Ethan, I believe?" I'm not even surprised at this point. "Thank you for your assistance."

"Aren't you guys supposed to have Paladins to protect you from this kind of bullshit?" I ask.

Carlei elbows me in the stomach with a whispered "Behave!" But that doesn't stop me noticing the way the vague notes of disappointment in the Warden's aura flash brighter briefly.

She doesn't answer - I suppose admitting that she didn't have everything under control would go against this know-it-all persona they love to put on. Instead she looks over at Carlei. "It might interest you to know, Princess, that your brother and his men are camped a short distance away from the city, having arrived from Asagi recently."

Fuck. I guess our decision to relax and slow down might not have been a good one. "I see," Carlei says. She keeps her voice level just like the Warden, but her hand finds mine, her tight grip betraying her nervousness.

"Thanks for the warning, I guess?" To be honest, I still don't trust these Wardens. I'm pretty sure they know something - or more likely, a lot of somethings - that we don't.

She smiles at us, but there's still that glint in her eyes, just like the other Wardens. "You're quite welcome. Now, I believe I shall take my leave."

As she turns to leave, another figure comes running up - a Paladin, this one in orange robes and mask, with a pale yellow scarf. When he sees us, he slows to a walk and tries to act like he was just strolling up casually. He's not nearly as good an actor as the Warden. The two have a brief whispered conversation, before setting off again. The Paladin glances back, looking at us - at me - with that same spooky intensity that Urien and Emrys displayed, but quickly turns away and follows the Warden away.

"Well, that's quite an entrance we made," Magni comments, breaking the tense silence in our group. "So now what?"

"How long is it gonna take you to get your boat back, Deanne?" I ask.

"It is likely to take the better part of a day. But if Prince Silver is here already, I'm not sure we -"

"Relax," Magni interrupts her. "The Warden said he was outside the city, not in it. Besides, the guy's got an army with him. He's not gonna be hard to see coming."

"And," I add, "those soldiers aren't gonna go running to Silver when they're supposed to have been executed. He doesn't strike me as the type of guy who'd turn a blind eye to that just because they have information." I glance at Carlei for confirmation, and she nods slightly.

"Either way, we need the boat," Gaius points out.

"Yeah. Magni, you stick with Deanne -" as if I could have stopped her "- but the rest of us should probably stay in the Temple, just in case Silver does show up and we need to get out of here in a hurry."

"And how much of that suggestion was because you want to see what your powers are truly capable of?" Carlei asks me as the others head off, a mischievous look in her eyes.

"Maybe a little bit," I admit, grinning, letting her lead me into the Temple.

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

llyarden

Perpetual Lurker
Writer
Pokédex No.
169
Caught
Jun 30, 2019
Messages
41
Nature
Lonely
Pronouns
He/him
Pokémon Type
Dark, Dragon
  • Thread Starter Thread Starter
  • #20
As I take a brief break from sparring to get some water, I notice someone watching me. Which, in and of itself, isn't that unusual; ever since we arrived here and started sparring there have been people watching us. This time, though, something feels...different.

My unease grows when I sense the person watching me leave the sparring arena just after I do - and then start following me through the Temple. As I turn a corner, I step aside into an alcove, waiting for my stalker to round the corner as well.

Unlike most Blessed, he's wearing simple red robes, not his heraldry, though he also has a hood that mostly hides his face. He pauses in confusion when he rounds the corner and doesn't see me.

"Can I help you?"

He jumps back and almost smacks his head on the opposite wall when I step out to face him, hood falling down. He can't be much younger than me. "Uh, I...think so. Or, no. I mean, I can help you." He brushes himself off slightly and holds out his hand. "My name is Finbarr."

I ignore his offered hand, studying his aura. It's a strange mix of embarrassment and...gratitude? Either way, he doesn't seem particularly malicious. "And why were you following me?"

"Oh, uh..." Finbarr hesitates, looking conspiratorially both ways down the corridor, and then twitches aside his outer robe to reveal a familiar red mask hanging from a strap on the inside of the robe.

Now I get it. "You're the Paladin from outside."

"Yes. The one who should have been protecting Lady Miki." Finbarr pauses briefly, looking down at the ground. "Thank you for protecting her."

"Uh...no problem, I guess? We weren't just going to stand by."

"I know. But...it is my duty. And I failed. I was, um...we aren't supposed to leave the Wardens unattended," he explains, sounding rather sheepish, "but Lady Miki gave me permission to leave. There's, um...someone in the city I wanted to see. Someone, um..."

"Yeah, okay, I get it." Even without reading his aura, it's pretty easy to see where he's going with this. "You were off with your girlfriend. Or boyfriend, whatever. Again, you're welcome. Now can you stop following me?"

"I, um, wanted to tell you something." I pause as I'm about to set off again. "I know you're not supposed to know this, but...consider it a way of repaying my debt to you. You know the ruined Shrine on the outskirts of the city? Go there tonight."

"Wait, what?" Finbarr pulls his hood back over his head and starts to leave. "Hey, you can't just tell me that and then fuck off!"

He glances back to me. "I'm already telling you more than you should know. Just...be there at the midnight bell. And...thank you again."

Well, that was fucking weird.

Despite my doubts, though, when it gets close to midnight, I leave the Temple. No matter how weird Finbarr might be, I've seen enough of the Wardens and Paladins to know that they know a lot more about what's going on than anyone else, so if he thinks it would be a good idea for me to be there, I'm not going to turn down the chance to learn more about what the hell's going on here.

I run into Carlei on the way out. "You can sense it too?" she asks, without so much as a 'hello.'

"Uh, sense what?"

She pauses, obviously wondering what I'm doing out here, but decides to explain herself first. "I can feel...something. Something familiar. Powerful."

"What is it?"

She shakes her head slightly. "I don't know. But I can sense its presence." She pauses, closing her eyes and concentrating. "I...think it's near the burned Shrine." She opens her eyes and looks at me. "Now why do I get the feeling that that doesn't surprise you?"

"Yeah, it doesn't," I admit. "I...sort of got told to go to the burned Shrine tonight by a Paladin. Only I'm not meant to actually be there or something." In all the ancient tales when the heroes are fulfilling their destinies guided by the Wardens, it never seemed so confusing.

Carlei simplifies it. "Well, there's only one way to find out what's there," she points out.

As we get closer to the Shrine, I can sense the same thing she can - an aura, but an incredibly powerful one that makes our auras feel like candle flames against the sun. "The fuck is in there?" I whisper to her. I'm not sure why I'm whispering.

"I don't know," Carlei admits. She's whispering too. "But there were priests guarding the Shrine when I passed by here earlier. They must have known this - Silver!"

"Huh?" I start to say, but Carlei pulls me down into a crouch, and I half turn to see what she had. Sure enough, Silver's walking up the hill towards the Shrine. It looks like he's alone, but he doesn't seem nearly so uncertain as us. "The hell is he doing here?"

"Can you sense anything?" Carlei whispers to me.

I try, but the aura from inside the Shrine is overpowering everything else. "Not much," I admit, wincing slightly, "but it feels like he's...resonating with it. You have any idea what that means?"

Carlei shakes her head. "Come on!" she whispers, pulling me after her as Silver disappears behind a fallen lump of stone.

We make it to the ruins just in time to be temporarily blinded by a blaze of blue light that erupts through the holes and cracks in the stone. "What was that?" I whisper to Carlei, but she's already creeping closer and peering through one of the holes.

For a moment, as I join her, I can't see anything at all - the light is too bright in contrast to the dark night. But as my eyes slowly adapt, I see Silver kneeling in the ruins of the Shrine, just in front of a deep pit.

And floating in the air before him...are gods.

Three great, shining lights - one blue, one red, one yellow - float in the middle of the Shrine. The blue one is the one Silver's kneeling directly in front of, with the other two slightly behind the first. I know, in some instinctual, Blessed way that's far deeper and more ingrained than anything I've ever felt before, that the three lights each represent a different god, but their auras are too powerful for me to even begin to figure out which aura is which - or even where the separate auras begin and end.

This is nothing like the shard of Kyogre's power that Erewan channelled. That had seemed powerful at the time, but in comparison to the gods themselves it was barely any stronger than us.

As I keep watching, it feels like the lights begin to grow, and I feel like I'm beginning to see pictures in the swirling light - waves lapping at a beach, a laughing young woman walking in front of a strange-shaped building, a rushing river - and the images get stronger and more vibrant, the light spreading to fill my sight, and I swear I can hear the sounds, even smell the salt of the sea, and it's so comforting, so relaxing, and -

The mysterious pendant Naoko gave me suddenly burns hot against my chest and I yelp in pain and look down. The lights snap back to normal. I shade my eyes with my hand before I can get trapped in them again. "Hey, don't look too close," I whisper to Carlei - but she's already staring, enraptured. "Carlei!" I whisper, slightly louder, and shake her slightly by the shoulders with my free hand.

Or try to, anyway, but she doesn't budge an inch. I shift so I'm looking away from the hypnotic lights and shove her harder, but she still doesn't move. Strong as she is, there's no way she could hold her own against me that easily - and I can feel her aura beginning to resonate with the Divines' light, just like Silver's. I have no idea what the fuck it means, but I don't think it's good. Silver's aura seemed to fit with the Divines' aura, but Carlei's doesn't, and I can already feel the two auras beginning to conflict within her. I pull back slightly, lift myself with my wings, and try to tackle her to knock her down, but all that does is slam me painfully into her.

But then I notice her shift slightly, leaning to one side. In all my struggles to get her away from the light, I'd - completely unintentionally - put my ridiculous spiky collar in front of her line of vision. And that gives me an idea: if physically pulling her away from the lights isn't going to work, then maybe stopping her seeing them will do. My collar isn't big or flexible enough to work as an effective blindfold, but Carlei's cloak will, and to my relief, even if she's held in place supernaturally her clothes aren't.

As I wrap the cloak over her eyes, she paws at my hands vaguely, but not with the supernatural strength she'd possessed earlier, and her aura begins to return to normal. As it does, I pull her away from the window and we slump down against the wall. "What...?" Her voice is hoarse, as though she'd been screaming, and I can barely hear her. "What was that?"

"The power of the Divines, I guess," I shrug in return, breathing heavily. "We should probably be -" And then suddenly the lights are gone. "Where'd they go?"

I hesitantly peer in through the window. "Careful!" Carlei whispers, obviously nervous that I might get trapped again. But I could break away from the Divines' light on my own before (well, with the help of Naoko's necklace), so it's definitely safer for me to look in than her.

With the lights gone, though, so has the immense aura of the Divines - and their hypnotic, terrifying allure. But Silver's aura still thrums with the same foreign pattern, and he reaches out one hand, as if trying to grasp where the blue light had been. "Where... " he whispers, his voice suddenly so loud in the still night.

"Where did you go?"

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

For a couple of moments, there's no sound - just the lingering echoes of Silver's voice, bounced around the ruins in a whisper.

Then the silence is broken.

"I saw her!" The sudden, booming exultation makes us all jump, and its source becomes clear a moment later - a tall man with a white cape tied with a red ribbon that flutters in the night and a manic grin on his face, who comes sprinting in from the other side of the Shrine. He's followed in by a trio of rather more drably-dressed Blessed. He has the same accent as the woman from Usokkie Fortress - and Proton.

Silver pushes himself up to his knees. "Who are you?"

The guy in the cape pauses, turning around and regarding Silver. And just for a moment, something...changes...in his aura, and it becomes darker - not like Proton, but different. Unlike anything I've ever sensed before. And though the man suppresses it after a moment, even that tiny flicker is enough to scare me.

"My name is Eusine," the man declares. "I am a scholar of the Divines."

Silver gets to his feet, swaying slightly. "You're a charologist," he states, in a cold voice.

"I am nothing of the sort!" Eusine hisses. "They are fools to think they can command such mighty forces. Only those worthy can ever be favoured with a glimpse of the true nature of the Divines. For years I have sought to prove myself. And now Lady Suicune has blessed me with the sight of her true self."

I was expecting Silver to calm down a little. But if anything, he seems to get even angrier, his aura still resonating with the power of the Divines. "If the Divines only show themselves to the worthy," Silver asks, "then why did she vanish when you arrived?"

That horrible, alien evil flickers back into Eusine's aura. This time he clearly makes an effort to suppress it - but it doesn't go away entirely. "You misunderstand what happened, boy. You see, in reality, Lady Suicune -"

Silver's claws are suddenly at Eusine's throat, and I freeze - for once, not because I'm afraid of what Silver might do. Can't he see?

But I know he can't. To everyone else, Eusine just looks like a crazy idiot. "I am Prince Silver of Joto," Silver hisses, dangerously. "And I will thank you to treat me appropriately."

Eusine seems about to respond...but then he pauses, and stares into Silver's eyes, completely disregarding the blades pressed against his neck. Whatever he sees there doesn't make him happy - the darkness begins to rise in him again. And this time he doesn't push it down. "Your eyes...no, no, no. It's a trick!"

"Is he insane?" Carlei whispers, eyes wide.

"No. He's...worse." I don't manage to keep the tremor out of my voice.

"Excuse me?" Silver snarls.

"It has to be!" Eusine ignores Silver, darkness bubbling and rippling in him - waiting, like a cat coiled to spring. "You...you stole it from me! It has to be!"

"Uh, Lord Eusine," one of the Blessed that followed him in says, hesitantly, "perhaps we should depart?"

Neither Silver nor Eusine pay her any attention. "Say that again," Silver whispers.

"Silver, don't!" I yell at him - too late.

The darkness snaps.

A wave of power erupts from Eusine, blasting Silver out of the door he came in and slamming Eusine's followers into the opposite wall. Sheltered behind the wall, Carlei and I escape the worst of it by ducking away, but the blast seems to shake the entire ruin, knocking me off-balance. "SILVER!" Carlei screams - and before I can even begin to stop her, she vaults in through the window we'd been watching through, sword appearing in her hand.

By the time we get in there, Eusine's not in the Shrine anymore - he's outside, stalking towards Silver, who's managed to regain his footing and is backing nervously away. I think it's the first time I've ever seen Silver scared.

And he has good reason to be, even if I'm the only one that can see it - the evil inside Eusine isn't stopping. It's growing stronger and stronger with every passing second.

But then as Eusine stalks back towards us, the shadows around him ripple and disgorge a blonde-haired man wearing a robe and scarf, just like Goban had teleported himself and Silver to our location outside Hiwada. "Get out of my way, little priest," Eusine snarls. His voice isn't his own any more - it's more guttural, feral...evil.

The blonde man shakes his head, sighing. His aura is so...mournful. "I'm sorry, Eusine," the blonde man says softly, before raising his voice. "This is holy ground. You aren't welcome."

Eusine laughs. "And you think you can stop me?" He looks past the blonde man to where the three of us - four, including the woman who spoke earlier, the only one of Eusine's followers still conscious - have gathered together. "First they die. Then you." He flicks his hand, almost contemptuously, and blasts the blonde man aside.

Without any coordination, we all attack at once. Water, fire, light - and electricity from the woman - swirl into a single, massive blast.

And Eusine fucking blocks it with one hand.

The power roars out of his outstretched hand and forms a barrier of swirling shadows that stop our attack cold. For a moment Eusine gets pushed back a few feet, and I think we might be able to beat him. But whatever horrible power he tapped into is still growing, and soon his shadows are holding steady against us. And then they start to push us back.

What the fuck is this guy?

I can feel the edge of the pit approaching, but I can't try to fly, not when it's taking everything I have just to stop Eusine from obliterating us - and I know that soon even that won't be enough. He's too strong, and getting stronger.

Then the blonde guy reappears, ghosting out of the ground again and stepping in between Eusine and the wall of shadows. Apparently he's a bigger threat than us, because the shadow wall explodes out, redirecting our blast into the ceiling, and streams back towards Eusine to form into a long blade that crackles with dark energy. But the blonde guy is quicker - something white flickers in his hand and suddenly there's a long, fluttering string of white paper stuck to Eusine's chest.

The dark blade fades. Eusine takes a step back, and I can feel the dark power in him being sucked away, back to wherever it was erupting from, by...whatever the blonde guy just did. Eusine's defenceless now, but I can barely summon the energy to keep standing, never mind attack. "Go away," Eusine snarls, still in that horrible, dark voice.

"You know I can't do that." The blonde man takes a couple of steps back - putting himself directly between Eusine and the rest of us.

"I know." For a moment it sounds like Eusine's voice again. Then a wave of dark energy blasts out from him, shredding whatever the blonde guy stuck on him. I manage to get a shield up in time to block the worst of it, but it becomes obvious a moment later that it wasn't a serious attack anyway. While we were all distracted trying to defend ourselves, Eusine's vanished.

The light of our powers fades away, and I almost topple into the pit as I feel a surge of weariness run through me. Carlei catches me, though she's barely doing any better than I am, and as soon as we're safely away from the pit we both slump down.

Carlei leans back against a toppled pillar. In the absence of another convenient support I just lean against her. I feel like I could sleep for a week.

"Are you okay?" We look over to one of the side entrances, where the blonde guy has reappeared. I guess he vanished back into the ground to dodge Eusine's attack, because he seems to be doing better than any of us, despite getting blasted aside earlier.

I glance around. Aside from our rescuer, Carlei and I are the only ones still conscious, but now the dark, imposing feeling of Eusine's aura is gone, I can sense the auras of the others properly again. "I think so. But what...what the fuck was that?" I ask quietly. "How did you stop him? Where did he go?" I'm stumbling over my words, not sure which question I want answered first - or even if I want to know the answer at all.

The man sighs. "That was the power of Chaos. Antithesis to humanity and the Divines alike. Many of our kind can be tainted by its power." He sounds like he's reciting from a script. "It calls to us when we feel hate, you see. But there are certain methods - prayers to the Divines for intercession - that can hold it at bay for a time. To answer your last question...I do not know. Much of the Chaos left him as he fled, stripped away by the sanctity of the Shrine we stand in. It is my hope that, wherever he is now, he is once more himself.

"You must understand...as a child, Eusine witnessed something impossible. Something no-one believed. He was certain it was a sign that the Divines favoured him - that he had a great destiny to be a hero. When the Divines manifested earlier tonight, I'm sure he believed it to finally be his time. And so he came here. And I can only assume that something happened to shatter that belief - to shatter his dream so comprehensively that there was nothing left for him but darkness."

"You cared about him, didn't you?" Carlei asks, gently.

A slender smile crosses the man's face for a moment. "Eusine and I met as children. We both studied at Field-Marshal Oboete's academy in Kanto. In those days, the Corruption Aspect was barely even acknowledged as an Aspect at all - to many, it was an expression of Chaos itself. And so we only had each other. That is why I tried to stand between he and you first, before resorting to conflict. I had hoped that our old friendship would have been enough to cause Eusine to hesitate. Clearly he did not treasure our friendship as much as I."

"I'm sorry." I'm not even sure what I'm apologising for.

"Don't be." The man pauses. "Though...if I may ask, what happened here? What caused Eusine to give in to the Chaos?"

"I don't know," Carlei admits. She glances sideways to me.

"He was arguing with Silver, and he kept pushing the darkness - uh, Chaos - down. And then he started staring in Silver's eyes, and..." I shrug. "Then he just stopped holding out."

The blonde man frowns. Then he limps over to Silver and crouches down.

"What are you doing?" Carlei growls. She's in no state to stand, but a small flame burns in her hand.

"I won't hurt him." Carefully, the man pushes one of Silver's eyelids up and - just like Eusine - stares into Silver's eye. "I see," he murmurs, in a voice that's somewhere between sad and...awed, almost. "Look," he adds to us. He lifts Silver into a sitting position and carefully opens the young prince's eyes.

"What happened to him?" Carlei gasps.

Silver's eyes have changed. They aren't grey any more, but instead a startling sapphire blue, almost luminescent, and as I stare at his eyes I begin to notice the blue starting to expand and fill my vision.

I look away quickly. Silver's eyes aren't as powerful as the light of the Divines, but that hypnotic power is scary enough to warrant a hell of a lot of caution. "This," the blonde man explains, almost reverently, "is the mark of a Champion, chosen by the Divines and marked by their sire to denote their status. It is the destiny of a Champion to achieve a great victory over Chaos. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a Champion in decades." He pauses, looking down at the ground briefly. "No wonder Eusine felt he stood no chance of earning the blessing of the Divines. For the first time in his life, he witnessed the outright manifestation of the Divines in person - only to see their favour given to another."

I wish I could feel sorry for Eusine. I do feel sorry for the blonde guy, and logically I know it wasn't actually Eusine that tried to kill us - it was the Chaos. But I can't bring myself to distinguish between the two.

The blonde man lowers Silver back to the ground and turns to peer out of a window. As my aura senses begin to return to normal after being deadened by the auras of the Divines and Eusine, I begin to make out some more auras nearby. "I would suggest we all depart," the blonde man says. "The four of you were not the only ones to hear the call of the Divines, and many Blessed now gather outside. The priests hold them at bay for the time being, but I think it is best if Lord Silver chooses when to announce that he is now the Champion of Suicune, and for your part...well, I suspect the two of you would rather avoid attention as well, hmm?"

"So how do we get out of here?" I ask.

"What about Silver and the others?" Carlei asks at the same moment.

"A tunnel leads from the pit beneath here to the Temple in the city. I suspect you may surprise a few priests, but you will be otherwise unnoticed. As for the rest, I will take them to my manor to heal. I'd say you'd be welcome to visit, but I suspect Lord Silver would try to arrest you as soon as he saw you, and that would get...complicated."

"Wait, your manor?"

The blonde man pauses, and chuckles slightly. "I think I may have forgotten to introduce myself." There's a slight smirk on his face that suggests that he didn't forget at all, and he gets back to his feet to give us a formal bow. "I am Lord Morty of House Ecruteak, at your service."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight

So this is Lord Morty. After all the weird rumours I heard about him while we were travelling to Enju - and earlier today in the Temple - I'm somewhat surprised how normal he seems. And that he doesn't seem to care that we're wanted by the king. "Aren't you going to try to arrest us or something?" I ask.

Morty gives a shrug. "The Imperial Crown's authority comes from the Divines, much as many of its bearers over the years forget that. If the Divines wished your downfall, you would not have survived gazing upon them." His voice is mild, almost casual, but the matter-of-fact way he says it makes me shiver slightly. And I know he's not wrong, either; there was enough power in those Divine lights to obliterate Carlei, me, and probably most of the city as well. "Since you still stand...or at least sit...before me, that seems clear evidence that the Divines have no wish for you to be destroyed, and I will take their wishes beyond some caricatures drawn on parchment. That said," he adds, more seriously, "if Lord Silver requests my assistance in apprehending you, I will be obliged to obey."

"I thought you just said..."

"I understand," Carlei nods, cutting me off. I'm glad someone does.

"Before you leave," Morty continues - not that we'd made any effort to climb down into the pit yet - "I have one further warning for you. The power of a Champion is more than just the new glow in your brother's eyes. It also confers a significant increase in power, akin to Ascension. Should you find yourself in conflict with Lord Silver, you may find him a more dangerous foe than you had anticipated."

Great. So as if it wasn't bad enough that the guy has an army at his beck and call, now he's supercharged or something. "One more reason to not pick a fight with him, then," I surmise.

"Indeed." Morty gives us another bow before glancing back out of the entrance to the Shrine. "I wish you well on your journey."

That seems like our cue to leave.

Still weakened from our fight - if you can even call it that - with Eusine, we fall about as much distance as we climb down into the pit, and just lie against the tunnel wall, listening to the faint sounds of movement above us.

"We need to grow stronger." Carlei breaks our silence, speaking softly so as to not be overheard by anyone who might be above us. "If...if Lord Morty hadn't intervened, we...you..." She wraps an arm around me, holding me tightly like she's scared I might disappear. I hug her back just as tightly. After a moment, she regains her composure a little, though she doesn't let me go. "We can't afford to be defenceless like that. We have to grow powerful enough that we can defend ourselves."

"I'm not sure it would have made a difference," I tell her quietly.

"What do you mean?"

I sigh. "It's...difficult to explain, but when Eusine was possessed by Chaos, I could feel the power pouring into him. I don't think we could have overpowered him, no matter how strong we were. It was like...like he was a crack in the world, letting the darkness in."

I pause briefly, suddenly remembering another crack in the world, in another Shrine. It had been light on the other side of that portal, not darkness...but in its pure state, Chaos isn't either.

I must tense up or something, because even in the near-perfect darkness Carlei notices. "What is it?"

"I...what if that was what I did to Proton? Summoning Chaos, I mean. Naoko even fucking said she was surprised I kept control in Yadon." I trail off again. That's not the only time I've felt that cruelty bubbling up inside me. "Fuck," I mutter, quietly.

Carlei cuts me off before I can freak out even more by kissing me on the lips, which distracts me pretty well from my spiralling thoughts. "I told you before," she tells me, almost scolding. "You're a good person. Perhaps that's why you have been able to tap into the power of Chaos - if indeed that's what you did - without becoming the ravening monster Eusine became when the Chaos consumed him."

I feel her aura of heat envelop me as she pulls us closer together. It's every bit as comforting as her words. "Thanks," I mumble into her hair.

Despite everything that's happened tonight, I like this. Just being able to be ourselves, without anyone watching or judging...this is almost the first time since the clearing we've had this opportunity.

"We should probably return to the Temple," Carlei suggests. "The priests might be rather angry if they discovered us down here."

"We've run into gods and Chaos and Champions," I point out. "Besides, it's only been a couple of minutes. Morty's not going to let them up here until he's got Silver away."

"Lord Morty can teleport through shadows. And if Goban can bring Silver with him, then Lord Morty, a significantly stronger Corruption Aspect, is unlikely to have much difficulty travelling with two passengers."

"Ugh, I'm too exhausted to be logical," I complain. Carlei gets to her feet, still holding my hands in hers. "Or to walk," I protest, trying to pull her back down. She doesn't budge. "Fine. You'll just have to carry me." I'm not expecting her to actually do it, but she giggles and picks me up effortlessly. "Hey!"

"Careful what you wish for." It's too dark for me to see her expression, but I can just imagine her wicked grin.

I let Carlei carry me for a minute or so before using my wings to lift myself up, landing next to her. We're far enough away from the hole we dropped down that I risk a faint light - and it sparkles off crystals set into the walls and ceiling.

It takes me a moment to remember why the sparkling tunnel looks so familiar. Then I chuckle, wrapping an arm around Carlei's waist as we keep walking. "What?" she asks.

"The tunnel under the palace." I gesture to the stones set in the wall. "You think these were built at the same time?"

"It's certainly possible," Carlei nods. "The palace has existed for centuries - ever since Tojo was first separated into Kanto and Joto. And many legends of the ancient times are rather uncertain as to the time period. It's not impossible that Hamar and Larence were alive at that time. Perhaps this tunnel was used by Larence's followers before his duel with Hamar to flee the devastation the battle would cause. Or perhaps it was used by Larence himself to visit a secret lover," she adds, with a mischievous grin.

"It's weird to think there's so much stuff out there that people just...don't know about. Like, what happened to Larence? Or Hanar, or Amela, or any of the other legendary heroes?"

Carlei offers a shrug. "That's part of what makes them so fascinating. Are there not such individuals on Earth?"

"People that vanish mysteriously? Sure. But they aren't all super powerful legends. I mean, are there any ancient heroes that don't disappear mysteriously?"

"Off-hand I only know of one," Carlei admits. "Agathe. I believe her legends are set in the same time period as those of Amela and Morganne, but after losing a close friend, she renounced her adventuring ways and returned to her home town."

"Okay, so that's one out of...what, like three dozen? Doesn't that seem strange to you?"

Carlei gives a small shrug. "I suppose I've never really thought about it. It's just the way things are, and it's not something we can very well change. Then again," she reflects, "once I would have said that the Imperial Guards were always righteous and just, because that was 'just the way things were.' Until you opened my eyes."

"The tunnel bringing back memories?"

"In truth, I'd all but forgotten about our escape through the tunnel," she admits. "So much has happened since then."

"Yeah," I agree. "It was a rough start."

"It certainly was. And..." Carlei hesitates. "Well, if someone had told me then that just a few months later we would be together, I suspect I might have laughed at them."

"What, is it that unbelievable that two fugitives with only each other for company might fall in love?" I tease her. "That's the stuff of all those plays you love so much."

"Oh, that wasn't what I meant," Carlei explains, though she's grinning too. "Especially among the nobility, there's a certain stigma against Blessed and humans forming relationships. And by contrast, marriages are often arranged between powerful scions of bloodlines. Considering my position, that was what I expected to happen to me. The idea that I might have fallen in love with a human would have been completely alien to me back then."

"So you only like me because of my powers?" I smirk. I love being able to joke around with her about this kind of thing. We both have too much faith in each other to take it seriously.

"Oh, your powers are a plus," she grins back at me. "But for you I'd make an exception. Besides -" and suddenly she's pushed me back, playfully trapping me against the tunnel wall. I can feel her red-hot skin even through her fireproof heraldry. "I'm still stronger than you," she purrs in my ear.

"You know we're never going to get to the Temple before morning at this rate." Not that I really mind the delays.

When we finally make it back to the Temple, it's almost completely deserted. A couple of priests give us stern glares when we emerge from the maze of side passages, but none of them scold us for intruding on the sacred ground of the Shrine. Maybe they think we were just looking for some privacy.

Even though it's the middle of the night, I don't feel tired at all. I don't need much sleep anyway as a Blessed, but after everything that happened in the Shrine, I still have way too much adrenaline to even think about sleeping. Being alone with Carlei for the past hour or so hasn't helped.

We trade a few more kisses as we head to our rooms. Mine is closer, and I linger with Carlei briefly, sharing one last kiss before opening the door and stepping in to my room. "Well, good..."

I head a click from behind me and turn around to see that Carlei's stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.

"...oh."

Carlei - Quilava, Blaze, Relaxed, Likes to Thrash About
Gaius - Geodude, Sturdy, Bold, Alert to Sounds
Haneka - Skiploom, Chlorophyll, Mild, Thoroughly Cunning
Ethan - Togetic, Serene Grace, Relaxed, Scatters Things Often
Magni aka Muscle - Machop, Guts, Lonely, Proud of its Power
Deanne - Dratini, Shed Skin, Careful, Impetuous and Silly
Bradon - Bellsprout, Chlorophyll, Timid, Somewhat Vain
Shayne - Sandshrew, Sand Veil, Gentle, Likes to Fight
Erewan - Unown (E), Levitate, Brave, Likes to Fight
 

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