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Calamity Ascendant - Return of the Black Queen [Berseria/Zestiria]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Naron, Jan 30, 2021.

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  1. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The shepherd's duty is to protect Desolation from ruin, to face and overcome the Lord of Calamity. A story repeated countless times, hardly ever changing since its beginning in distant past. And yet it does change; it will. For in time, champions of old and the very gods will rise from their slumber, changing the fates of Shepherd Sorey and Desolation forevermore.
     
  2. Threadmarks: 0.0 Introduction
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    A/N: A few quick notes before we start.

    First of all, expect massive spoilers for both Tales of Zestiria and Tales of Berseria, beginning in this very chapter. If you mind spoilers and still want to play one of the games, do that first and return here later.

    Secondly, I will be making some adjustments to the world as portrayed in Zestiria based on information learned from Berseria, plus a few other things to improve the mess that is Zestiria's lore. I guess this technically makes this an AU.



    The sun stood high in the sky when an odd pair of travelers made their way through the forest. Blood red leaves crunched weakly under the woman's boots, neither of the two caring for what was a normal sight in these parts. The younger boy trailing after her wore a beaming smile as he spoke, uncaring for the backpack that weighed on him. "I can't wait to have some of Celica's cooking again!"

    His companion glanced back with a sly grin and shoved his shoulder playfully. "Why now, isn't mine good enough for you anymore? Is that how it is, Laphi? My own brother betrays me for my sister's cooking?" They both giggled at that and the boy weakly slapped at her offending hand, his eyes glinting mischievously.

    "It's not my fault you're the middle child, Velvet. Celica has years of experience over you, so you just don't compare." He put a hand over his heart and offered a half-solemn expression; half mainly because he was still grinning. "But you are my sister, so I love you anyway, even if you're the worse cook."

    "Why, you brat!" Velvet swatted her little brother's shoulder again and turned around to keep walking. Yet she, too, was grinning. "You better not say that to any girls you bring home." The boy's laughter died. "Don't think I didn't see how well you got along with that Kamoana girl."

    "Velvet, she's seven!" Laphi whined, taking longer steps to catch up with his sister.

    "And you're eleven, that's not much of a difference when you get older," Velvet chided him immediately, though with a grin even meaner than the one he had before. "I mean, look at Arthur and Celica. They're almost ten years apart and I haven't seen a more loving couple."

    "It's still creepy at my age. Or yours." Despite his complaints, all Laphicet got in response was a tinkling laugh.

    "Velly!" As so often, the first one to see them coming was their nephew; he rushed out to meet them on the path up to the house and ended up stumbling right into Velvet's arms with a happy noise. She picked the child up and twirled him around.

    "There you are," Velvet cooed as she held him. "You get bigger every time I see you; you're already four now, aren't you?" Laphicet just smiled indulgently and waved at the little boy, who waved back with a big, toothy grin. The young woman took that time to greet their family, roused by the earlier shout: "We're back, Arthur, Celica."

    Both of them had made their way over by that point; Arthur arrived from the backyard, dressed in his usual grey pants and shirt though smudged with brown earth, his deep blue eyes darting over the two siblings. "So I can see. Welcome home." His smile was small, but that did not diminish the warmth he greeted them with; one could see how the little one in Velvet's arms inherited Arthur's pale blond hair, though it was a few shades more yellow instead of being almost white.

    "It's good to see you two still in one piece," Celica added while slinging a rag over her shoulder; both husband and wife had their hair bound in ponytails for their chores. With them standing next to each other, the deep black of Celica's longer tresses stood out even more than it normally did; the same shade Velvet had, if a good bit shorter.

    While Velvet was busy holding her nephew, Laphicet stepped forward to embrace his sister and brother-in-law. "It's good to be back," he greeted them as well. "How have things been?" In comparison to his two sisters, the boy appeared more like he was related to Arthur with his bright blond hair, though he had the same amber eyes as Velvet and Celica.

    His oldest sister gave him a gentle pat on the head. "Oh, the same as always. You know how it is, nothing ever happens in Aball."

    Everyone was seated around the table with several large bowls arrayed on it. Velvet and Celica had gone all-out for their meal, the two sisters chatting about the goings-on in the village while Arthur and Laphicet discussed one of the older man's many books.

    The entire family sat outside to watch the sunset. It was a tranquil evening, interrupted by nothing but a few chirping birds and buzzing bees. Velvet felt at ease being home, content. She leaned back against her big sister's side and ruffled her little brother's hair; both women chuckled over his indignant squawk while the little boy on Celica's lap giggled at the sight. Arthur just shook his head with a faint smile, one arm wound around his wife's shoulder from the side Velvet did not occupy.

    Then the sinking sun flickered. Once, twice, thrice. Velvet blinked as the light dimmed, the horizon greying out. "What the hell?!" She shouted and surged to her feet together with her brother, but there was no enemy. The world simply began to fade and darkness steadily approached them. She had no idea what was going on, panic and dread bubbling in her gut. Nonetheless, she made to usher her family to safety.

    "Get in the...." She trailed off, seeing that her nephew was gone, not a single trace of him left. Arthur and Celica began to fade as well, both of them displaying sad smiles.

    Then, suddenly, Velvet remembered. Her eyes turned to her brother, the only thing that remained solid in this ending world. His expression was downcast, but he understood; from one moment to the next, the boy stood clad in pristine white, finer than they would ever be able to afford. His hair changed tone toward the tips, growing ever more white where it reached his shoulders.

    She turned back to her fading family, eyes prickling but still smiling. Arthur sighed and lowered his head as he vanished, but Celica remained moments longer. "I loved every minute of it," she told them quietly even as she, too, became nothing.

    "I loved it too," Velvet told the void and Laphicet. "Our dream." Her brother just silently took her hand and squeezed it, having no need to voice his agreement. They stood and watched the void envelop them.

    Then Velvet woke up.
     
  3. Threadmarks: 0.1 Prologue 1
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Velvet opened her eyes. Her breath came slowly, softly, chest aching as if she had not drawn any in ages. She did not heave, but felt numb. Faint blue light shone above, crystal structures lying silently, almost like stardust in the faint glimmers of sunlight; the stars shone down from above.

    She blinked, then again. After the third time, her nose detected a faint scent of mint in the air, then something else she could not yet place. Another few blinks passed until she could hear faint breathing over her own heartbeat; the sound made Velvet turn her head, which sent jolts of pain through her entire neck and left shoulder. She flinched weakly, but did not abort the motion; her reward was the sight of her brother, silently bleeding golden blood from the wound on his back.

    Another blink and Velvet felt the stickiness on her own neck as well; right, she remembered. That was where they had bitten each other. Consumed each other, a cycle that was meant to be forever. Both siblings sat where they were for a while as they got used to their actual bodies again, just breathing. Only when the silence became overbearing did a single word roll out of her throat: "Laphi?"

    Her voice sounded a little odd to her own ears, not weak or hoarse, but odd. Her brother paused once the wordless question was spoken. "I'm here, Velvet," he whispered with a budding smile.

    Then a third voice interrupted their tranquility, female and audibly relieved: "That is quite fortunate. How are you feeling?" Both siblings turned their heads to find the speaker, only to be confronted with the odd sight of a rapig, its long ears standing at attention. The bulbous body was normally of pink skin, Velvet knew, but this specimen was coloured in a pure white with some silvery streaks, its beady eyes staring at the siblings intently. Moreover, the creature had wings.

    They both stared for long moments, neither sibling sure what to say. In the end, Laphicet was the first to speak up: "Aside from that gaping wound on my back, I am well. And confused. Who are you?"

    "We met before," Velvet chimed in before the creature could answer; she frowned, trying to recall. "You're a malak, I remember that. But I forgot your name." She slowly pushed herself into a sitting position while trying to put her thoughts in order. Her brother followed the motion; the cloth of his pristine suit rustled lightly in contact with the ground.

    The rapig nodded its, her head. "Indeed," she confirmed. "I am Zui Fuu, guardian of the Heavenly Steppes. We met the day before Shepherd Artorius died."

    Memories fitted themselves together and Velvet nodded as she remembered. A glance around told her that they were still on Innominat's body, in the same elevated chamber where she and her friends fought Arthur and Laphi. The stars twinkled above and from where she sat, she could see the edge of their world, Desolation, far in the distance. The god's physical body remained up high in the sky even after she sent him into eternal slumber.

    As her mind cleared and Velvet began to wonder, her brother spoke up first with a small tilt of his head. "While it is a pleasure to meet you, why did you wake us? Actually," he noted thoughtfully and glanced at his sister, "did you ask her to do such a thing?"

    Velvet's flat "No" made the boy nod as if he already suspected that. They both turned their eyes back to Zui Fuu, who held her head lowered. "I was acting on my own initiative," the ancient malak admitted softly. "You are needed. The world is in danger and there is no one else left to turn to."

    Hearing this, Velvet expelled her breath in the first sigh she heaved in centuries. She felt she should have expected it. "Okay," she began and then stopped, unsure how one should address this kind of thing. She was annoyed about being woken but still too busy adjusting to get mad. After a moment of thought, she motioned for the rapig. "What do you need?" Perhaps, she reasoned, she could just take care of it right quick and drag Laphi back into the seal.

    Laphi, however, was already floating around and peering out to the planet below. Velvet sighed again and got to her feet as well while he took up the conversation: "Does it have to do with those clouds of Malevolence?" His words roused Velvet to dart over to his side, calf-length hair swishing around her as she moved. She stumbled twice before her body remembered how to move.

    "Yes," Zui Fuu confirmed. "I refuse to see all creation extinguished." She joined them solemnly while Velvet gazed onto the distant planet below, some parts almost covered by this darkness born of the human heart. The rapig continued unbidden: "Thus I committed the ultimate sin and broke your seal, to free Innominat." Both siblings listened closely as she addressed the younger one directly now: "The Empyrean who took your place as the fifth of the gods, the one to maintain balance between the four elemental Empyreans, is on the brink of total corruption. For almost two decades, a Lord of Calamity has been running rampant without being stopped. No shepherd has risen to oppose him yet and I fear none will come in time. I saw no other choice."

    Her annoyance was rising, now that she got used to being awake again, but Velvet kept it under wraps. She could see why Zui Fuu had done what she did, even if she did not like it. "So you're saying that if this Empyrean falls, you want Innominat to be there and suppress mankind's emotions to stop the spread of Malevolence."

    The rapig nodded once again, though her head hung low and her wings drooped. "Correct. I wish this was not necessary, but I prefer a return of the endless cycle to a definite end."

    The worst part about this, Velvet realised, was that she could understand the malak's reasoning. In the same position, she might have done the same thing; a single glance at her brother's set expression made it clear he thought similarly. He spoke up this time, putting a hand on Zui Fuu's shoulder in an attempt to console her. "Very well, we can try to help. Maybe that Empyrean can still be saved, even. Else I can reclaim my place and perform the suppression... unless someone disagrees?"

    He gave Velvet a telling look with the last few words, one which she answered with a roll of her eyes. "How about you ask nicely instead of being a brat about it?" Despite her response however, despite knowing she should be against it firmly, Velvet also knew it had happened many times over the millennia; the only reason their world had not been suffused by Malevolence in its entirety was Innominat, so she could not just deny him this without a good reason. So she turned back to Zui Fuu: "Anyway, can you explain what happened since we went to sleep up here?"

    "Of course."

    And so Zui Fuu spoke, of a thousand years having passed since Velvet sealed Innominat; how her awakening the elemental Empyreans back then led to great continental drift, turning the archipelago into a supercontinent now called Glenwood. She spoke of the current naming conventions, of Shepherd and Lord of Calamity having become recurring titles of the champions of good and bad respectively, much to Velvet's annoyance. How the malakhim were now called seraphim and daemons, born from creatures and objects corrupted by Malevolence, had been redubbed as hellions; these were changes which Zui could not understand but suspected were caused by one of Velvet's old companions.

    Once she got to the new fifth Empyrean however, to Maotelus who gave the silver flame of purification to the world, her brother locked up and snarled before he got a hold of himself. Velvet blinked at him while he muttered the name. "What's with you?" she could not help but ask.

    Zui looked between them cautiously and explained in Laphi's stead: "The term 'Maotelus' is a quite literal translation of 'Laphicet' into a more ancient tongue. He ascended on the day you two were sealed, from the young malak boy you held so dear." Velvet stilled as that sank in, felt herself grow colder than the endless void above. It took seconds to truly comprehend what she had just been told. Her saviour, the young boy that kept her heart from tearing itself apart entirely, whose words reached her when she had already given up. Her Phi, who had punched a god in the face for her sake, whom she loved dearly like her very own brother. Like she loved Arthur, and Celica.

    She was halfway to the dim staircase before the thought even registered; she had to act immediately.

    "Velvet, wait!" And then there was a small hand on her arm that stopped her, not allowing to shake it off. Velvet rounded on her brother with a snarl, but he covered her mouth and completely ignored when she bit him. "You can't just rush out there! Calm down!" They struggled for a moment until the immediate flare of emotion subsided; Velvet did calm herself somewhat and pulled her teeth out of Laphicet's hand. He healed the damage away without a second thought or a single word and kept meeting her gaze, serious.

    "This is no longer a matter of you against the world," he began gently, hands grasping Velvet's shoulders. She wanted to shout back at him that he never liked Phi, but he carried on. And she listened. "We are different now, both of us. We need to see and understand what has changed and what remained the same, identify who is involved and who we may gain as allies, which areas we need to sustain and which we can accept as collateral damage. We can no longer pretend we don't care about what happens to the world."

    His words touched something within her, but Velvet needed concious effort to calm her raging emotions. At the same time however, she wondered and asked: "What has changed?"

    Laphi frowned at that and reached up to cup her cheeks, but the expression fell away and turned into a serene smile quite soon. "After consuming you for so long, I am now whole. But I am also weaker, I can feel it. All the strength I lost, I can sense in you now." Velvet's eyes widened at that; as if his words were a trigger, she began to feel new sensations; feelings that drew her gaze to something pitch black, pulsating almost right above the spot where their seal was. A cocoon, thrumming with power. She felt herself connected to it, felt might beyond any she had ever felt even at her apex before. At the same time she felt constricted, trapped, despite her body remaining completely unbound.

    Her brother was watching as well, now taking her hand. Squeezed tenderly as he spoke what she already knew: "You have ascended, sister. You are daemon no longer, Lord of Calamity no more."

    It was true, despite of how unbelievable it sounded to her in that moment. Velvet's own voice came only weakly: "I'm an... Empyrean." They both beheld her greater, yet incubating form for long, awestruck moments.

    Then Laphi grinned up at her. "Besides, you might want to get dressed before rushing out." His comment gave Velvet pause and made her look down, for the first time realising she was, in fact, stark naked.
     
  4. Threadmarks: 0.2 Prologue 2
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Velvet looked herself over and found the only remaining kind of covering to be her long hair, as well as the strips of skin covering her left arm like snugly tied bandages. Those had remained, naturally, seeing that they were her own skin ever since she was transformed into a daemon.

    She was in the nude, though little embarassment followed that realisation; the only people around were her little brother and a talking rapig, after all; she did not feel any cold either. Yet nurture, having worn clothes most of her life, made Velvet try to cover herself instinctively; she failed at that and then ceased her efforts, rather focussing on her brother who was very much clothed even though her own garb had been disintegrated by a thousand years in their seal. "How am I the only one naked?"

    Laphicet chuckled at that and took off the ground, floating over to orbit his sister. "I'm a malak, Velvet. We're pure mana, so we can weave clothes out of mana whenever the need strikes." He kept circling her as if to brag and she threw him unamused looks whenever he passed by. "You should be able to do the same, being a daemon and all. Er, hellion, I mean. We should probably get used to calling them that."

    He had a point, though she realised she never asked about things like that before. Then again, this new information also confused her. "Wait, that can't be right. I know Eizen went to a tailor to get new clothes made at least twice while we traveled together." And he had paid a decent amount of money for his sharp suits and sturdy boots, she distinctly remembered that.

    It was here that Zui Fuu chimed in from the side, having sat down on her rear but with her forelegs still straightened: "It is a common skill," she explained, "but few are willing to spend the time on bringing it to mastery; the important part is that keeping any construct made of pure mana in its shape requires a constant amount of focus, which is impossible to hold in battle unless one goes through special training. Most human-shaped malakhim prefer to clothe themselves in physical cloth instead, but especially those who expect to see battle."

    She glanced between the siblings, Laphicet now hovering next to his sister while they listened to her. "Naturally, non-human malakhim do not need to bother; the others only began doing this so as to not stir up issues with humans who can perceive them. Ah, I remember a few rather amusing events from fourty thousand years or so ago...." Zui Fuu trailed off when she saw the Crowes' flabbergasted expressions and grunted. "Well, Zenrus' embarassment aside, an Empyrean's greater mind should allow you to keep up the focus on any projected objects far easier, or at least that is my assumption for why Innominat would not even have noticed an issue."

    Velvet just nodded slowly and decided to keep this an emergency measure; considering that most humans could not even see malakhim, her crafting clothes out of mana might make them invisible to normal folk. Nonetheless, she let the two malakhim, no, seraphim run her through the basics, which boiled down to focussing on what she desired and weaving her power into the given form. The difficult part lay in managing to do something with her mind instead of her body, but Velvet quickly began to form a simple blanket and covered herself.

    They immediately found a problem with her work: "That's not mana, Velvet." Laphi poked at the pitch black cloth while she forced it to become brighter. "That's Malevolence," he judged with a nod. "It makes sense, I guess; you aren't a malak like me, so you wouldn't weave mana on instinct."

    "Curiously," Zui Fuu chimed in as she stepped closer to sniff the cloth, "I can barely sense it at all. Concentrated Malevolence like that should be quite a bit more noticeable." She raised her head to look up at Velvet, then back at the blanket. "I reckon it is either something in your nature, or that this Malevolence takes physical form."

    Velvet could not help but clutch the blanket a little tighter. "Something in my nature?"

    "Yes. You are indeed Empyrean, but in difference to the other six, you ascended from being a daemon and not as a malak. Yet I can not sense much of any Malevolence from you, even though you should be a maelstrom." She had a point; daemons constantly emitted great amounts of Malevolence from the moment they first turned, whether they were originally human or not; only humans produced Malevolence otherwise, after all.

    Apparently disregarding their conversation, Laphicet tore off a piece of cloth and stuck it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. "Tastes like blanket," he told the women once he swallowed, to blank stares. "And some wrath, I think? Anyway, my guess would be that it's because Velvet was a therion, a daemon who devours Malevolence. Her nature as an Empyrean would align with that, similarly to mine as Innominat."

    With Innominat being the only malak, from the lowest to the very gods, who lacked the racial weakness to Malevolence, she saw what he meant. "So you're saying you can't sense Malevolence from me because I keep eating it?"

    She received a poke to her side before Laphi put his ear against it. "Yes and no. I can sense it in you and you're not digesting it like I do. You still do it like a therion, integrate it into your own being after consuming it instead of digesting it into mana. I think the reason it's super difficult to sense is that you don't emit any Malevolence for others to sense, and the same goes for that blanket."

    When Zui Fuu had nothing else to add, Velvet nodded at her brother. "Let's go with that for now. It should be fine either way, I saw Kurogane make a hammer out of nothing before." It had been quite the sight, though she did not stay around to watch the master blacksmith work back then and promptly forgot about it.

    "Alright, that's good." Laphi returned to the ground and crossed his arms as he said that, which Velvet found amusing with how she stood more than a head taller than him. "Back to the other thing, you can't just rush out there and into the thick of it."

    The siblings' eyes met and both frowned at the other. Velvet's tone was low as she responded, deceptively calm: "And why is that?"

    "Because we don't know enough." Laphi motioned for the planet lying beneath after that and she followed his gaze. "A thousand years are a long time and much will be different. We do not know the people involved, how many there are, where they are, how powerful they are. Are the elemental Empyreans under threat as well? Is Maotelus in enemy hands instead of simply falling? What is the Lord of Calamity planning?" With every question he asked, Velvet understood a little better.

    "We are Empyreans, sister, but you are young, still gestating up there." He motioned for her cocoon. "And as you yourself proved, I am not invincible, either. Even if it took a few coincidences and a good amount of luck for you to pull this off, I don't want to be defeated again. That's why we need to stand back for now, to observe and learn about this new Desolation. We need to accumulate strength, gather allies, find our enemies. If possible, set up a single, precise, overwhelming strike before they even know we're around."

    He was right and she knew it. Even though parts of her were still urging to rush to Phi's aid, there were too many unknowns. Velvet forced her emotions under control and nodded, which drew a relieved sigh from her brother. Something about his wording had surprised her, though. "'Our' enemies?"

    Laphi blinked up at her and tilted his head. "Your enemies are my enemies." He left it at that and Velvet decided not to push, thinking the entire argument over for a moment instead.

    In the end, she sighed. "I guess I'm still in the underdog's mindset. A small group of misfits against the world doesn't have the luxury of picking their targets, or to stand back and watch their enemies go through with their plans." The consequences of inaction had been greater than those of failure; it would take some time to get used to this new situation. They were unknown, they had time, and they had options.

    She was lost in thought for a while, but Laphi brought her out of that with a non-sequitur: "You should cut your hair." When Velvet raised an eyebrow at him, he pointed at the curtain of black hanging down to her calves. "It grew a bit too wild for me to like, you know? I think you're prettier with neat and tidy hair."

    Velvet felt for her long tresses and considered them, as well as their length. "I think you have a point. It did grow a bit long over those three years on Titania." After that, she was on a mission and without much care for her appearance. So she focussed as she had been taught just before, creating a small mirror and a pair of scissors. Zui Fuu at the side made an amazed sound while Laphi just shrugged it off. Velvet sat down and began to see to herself.

    . .
    . .

    With his sister busy, Laphicet turned his attention back to Zui Fuu. He felt surprisingly good after being woken; weaker, yes, but whole now that he had the wrath Velvet held so long ago. But he also felt different, like he was now more despite his sister having taken a part of his power. Without doubt, he was the Empyrean Innominat. But he was also Laphicet Crowe, despite having been reborn as the god whose awakening his life was sacrificed for. He was with his sister again.

    More importantly, only now did he realise just how much he hurt Velvet in the past. Horror surged through the boy for one long moment, but then understanding made it subside. "It seems my emotional range was impaired after my rebirth," he told Zui Fuu conversationally. "I can't say whether gathering all eight types of Malevolence or being sealed in this cycle of consumption restored it, but it did."

    "It was likely your consumption of your sister," the ancient malak replied after a moment of thought. "I encountered some of Innominat's previous incarnations and none were particularly emotional."

    Laphicet sighed and slumped down next to the winged rapig. He was not happy with what he did, but there was nothing he could do about it now. So he put it aside it for the time being, instead beginning to truly take in his surroundings to the infrequent snapping of scissors.

    The air was crisp and clear, filled with traces of mana and not a speck of Malevolence; he could feel it thrumming through his larger body, the cosmic earthpulse he once created; it was still there if slowed and almost inert, mana flowing in an endless circle and maintaining the area within his body as if it were part of the land; moreover, it drew mana from the void above, from the direction of the moon. Sensing that, Laphicet wondered whether there were earthpulses running beneath the moon. He wondered whether he could connect them to those running on Desolation below, on their world. It was a thought for later, he decided when something else caught his eye for the first time since his awakening.

    There, but a few metres away from them, lay a body. Clad in pristine white with golden trims and decorations, a longsword stuck in his chest. A small pool of blood surrounded the fallen warrior, looking almost new, as if it had been shed but a few minutes ago. His eyes were closed, face relaxed.

    Arthur. Artorius Collbrande. His brother-in-law, his pactkeeper, the shepherd. Felled by his sister, impaled with his own sword. The fallen saviour of mankind. Laphicet averted his gaze and looked out onto the planet below instead, trying to ignore how his gut clenched. He stepped closer to the platform's edge, looked out at Desolation, watched the great clouds of Malevolence which partly stole the breathtaking view from him. He understood why he was awakened.

    But something bothered him and made him turn back to Zui Fuu, who had remained in place; now that he was mostly awake and paid more attention, he realised she was filled with Malevolence. "Are you alright?"

    "I will be," she answered after a moment, blinking her beady eyes. "My blessing is a mostly personal one, for it allows me to bleed off any amount of Malevolence over time and regain total purity as long as I do not turn."

    Laphi raised an eyebrow at her in wonder; he knew every malak held a personal power, a blessing, but he never heard of one like this. Moreover... "I doubt it's pleasant." Even if a malak, no, seraph did not turn from it, Malevolence was still poison to them. "But if you say so. How did you get up here? There is no earthpulse leading this way and not even a dragon's wings would reach this far." Excepting his own wings of course, but an Empyrean stood far greater than any other dragon.

    Zui Fuu chuckled at that and got to her feet, tapping over to stand next to Laphicet. "To be honest, it hardly even burns anymore, ever since I set foot into this chamber. That aside, while the younger malakhim have lost the arte of teleportation, I have not. The gate you once set at the lowest ring of this structure still persists, even if the other end has been removed by Maotelus. I merely needed a few years to find the correct frequency, attune my own arte, and gather enough mana from the earthpulses to power it. Exposure to the Malevolence in them is the reason for my current state as well."

    She paused and slumped down again. "I merely hope I made it in time."

    Laphicet put a hand on her shoulder at that, taking a moment to marvel at the smooth, pearly white skin. "I'm sure it will work out. You worked hard for this and we will do what we can." He gave the far older being a soft pat and then turned his gaze back to the planet. "Can we use your connection to return to Desolation? I would rather not risk putting down an arte at this distance and, well, freeing up my main body would definitely draw attention to us."

    Innominat's true form, the eight-headed dragon, was quite massive after all. The entire flying fortress surrounding them was this form turned into solid matter, large enough to accomodate an entire earthpulse. No one would miss a city-sized dragon descending from the heavens. Thankfully, Zui Fuu agreed. "I traveled here from the Heavenly Steppes; from there, the two of you will be able to access the earthpulses beneath the planet and ascend to the surface. Feel free to pass through once you are ready."

    The scissors stopped and Velvet chimed in from behind them: "Good. We will make use of that later."

    Turning around, Laphicet found that his sister was done and rustled around; a surprising amount of raven hair was slowly swiped into a pile, Velvet's own mane now having lost some of its volume and merely reaching toward her thighs. The younger Crowe could not help but nod his approval. Scissors and mirror vanished, their tasks fulfilled. After a moment however, he realised that something was missing still. "Can I braid your hair?"

    Velvet gave him a sidelong glance while she finished up and burned the excess hair with a quick flash of fire; she measured her brother for a long, anxiety-filled moment. But then she smiled softly and nodded, extending at least that much trust to him. Laphicet braided her hair before on occasion, but that was before everything happened. He could not help but smile as well while he hurried over.

    Meanwhile, Zui Fuu toddled toward the staircase, excusing herself. "I need some rest, I am afraid. Please find me once you brought your affairs into order." She received no response from the siblings, but did not expect one at this moment either. She had been heard and knew that.

    . .
    . .

    While Velvet sat down and began to practice creating clothes once more, Laphi kneeled behind her and separated strings of hair for her braid. He worked slowly and a little clumsily, knowing that it had been a while and not wanting to mess up.

    Silence enveloped them for a while; a calm, almost forgotten kind of silence that put them both at ease. Velvet did not require her entire attention on the creation process, but her thoughts wandered. Sometimes she felt a slight pull on her head, but Laphi tried his best to be gentle with her hair. Yet he was Innominat, and there in the corner of her eyes was the body of Artorius, right where she struck him down. Velvet had a feeling that she was not the only one thinking of the past. As proper trousers began to form on her legs, she sighed. "We need to talk."

    The motion behind her ceased momentarily, then Laphi continued his work. "Agreed. I'm sorry, Velvet. Terribly sorry about what I did to you, and what I let others do. There is no excuse for that." He was right and they both knew it. Velvet would never be able to forgive those hellish years.

    At the same time, she still loved him. Her unbandaged hand reached back to pat his knee a little clumsily. "It's okay," Velvet reassured her brother. "I won't forgive you, but I accept your apology. You and Arthur both, you were punished. So let's leave all this in the past and go back to being a family." She paused for a moment, then nudged her brother, her sense of humour reemerging. "We can call this your rebellious phase."

    Laphi let out a silly giggle at that and Velvet had to smile as well. "I don't mind that," he ultimately said, then went to hug her from behind. "I'm just glad you give me the chance. I still love you, Velvet."

    "And I love you, Laphi. I always have." She did not try to turn around, just let herself be at ease now that she had her brother back. After a while of them just staying like that, he went back to working on her braid; it came a little loose during their embrace, but they had time right now. Velvet's smile dimmed as she thought of where to go next.

    "We will have to put down some ground rules." Laphi slowed a little as she began to count up: "First, no genociding mankind. Second, no suppressing anyone's emotions unless it is necessary or you have my explicit permission. Third, no eating people needlessly. Actually, make that not eating anything beside food needlessly; no, blankets are not food." She could vividly imagine the face he made at that and found herself grinning. "Fourth, no killing people needlessly. I feel I should say something about mental torture, but you should understand that one on your own."

    "Alright, alright, jeez." He sounded so exasperated that she could almost feel the force of his eyes being rolled. "There you go trying to eradicate mankind once and they never let you hear the end of it!" Velvet just huffed at that and let the conversation stall. Now that she had her brother back, she felt herself relax more than she had in a long time.

    At some point her braid was complete, but Laphi undid it and started from scratch. She let him, just for the novelty of it. Halfway through the second attempt, he spoke up: "We need true names." Velvet inclined her head to convey she was listening. "I want a new true name to commemorate this new chapter in our life and you need one period. You're an Empyrean now. Actually, you will need a more fitting name for your station, too."

    "Ah, like you being Innominat?"

    "Exactly."

    "Alright, what do you suggest? I don't know the ancient tongue."

    Silence settled once more while her brother considered the question. Velvet knew that true names were important to the mala-, seraphim. A name in an old language, one that only their beloved and most trusted friends even knew, resonating with their very being. After a little while, Laphi poked her shoulder. "Just tell me something you consider for my true name and I will translate it, then I'll name you."

    And so it began; Velvet first considered just using 'Laphicet', but remembered that made Maotelus before she even suggested it. She tried a few simple things like 'Beloved Brother', but found that none worked; that one ended up being 'Dumipuy Dwishuw', which both agreed was unworkable just like her other initial ideas. She considered doing something mean, but felt it inappropriate for a name meant to be eternal.

    After a few attempts, she found a winner. "What about 'Kind Light'?" Once she was given the literal translation of Geby Mexhs, Velvet played around with it for a bit. "So we could make Geb Imesch out of it, right?" He confirmed that and she decided to pick this one. It felt appropriate.

    After that, now that it was his turn, Laphi just considered for a few moments. "Considering your primary colours, I think you will be best described as 'Mib ncajs kubbitt', Red Black Goddess. With some adjustments, that makes you Minkkubi, the red and black goddess. That I declare the name the world shall know you by." There was no actual weight to this name, but Velvet knew she would treasure it anyway. "As for your true name, it shall be Sub Smuyaw, which means 'Gentle Dark'."

    Once more she was touched; Laphi quite clearly adjusted the length and number of syllables in her true name to match the one she chose for him. Velvet repeated it to herself and internalised it, felt it sink into her very being. It became a part of her, different from Minkkubi or Velvet. And as the true name took hold, a small shock went through the room. Velvet shuddered as more sensations connected to her, feeling herself surrounded by darkness. Both siblings looked up to the cocoon as it began to pulsate.

    "We might have affected your gestation, sister, Laphi noted idly. "See if you can take hold of your body?" He put the finishing touches on her braid while Velvet did as he asked, casting her mind outward on instinct. She pulled on muscles she did not realise she had, saw the cocoon buck a little bit. A pair of bright crimson eyes opened within, shining outward. Suddenly she could see herself sitting on the ground, her brother standing behind her and finishing the braid.

    Looking up, she found that the cocoon began to fade, Malevolence being drawn in and revealing a draconic head peering down at them. It was long and sharp, attached on an even longer neck that connected to a massive body, which flopped onto the ground with a wet sound; the impact sent a weak tremor went through the platform.

    Both siblings looked over the newborn creature, still as it lay to watch them in turn. Velvet felt quite weird to see from two different bodies, but even more so at the sight of an unfinished dragon. Her scales were a pure obsidian and covered the entire body, in some places run through by pulsing crimson veins. She was, however, missing all four legs apart from a few centimetres of stumps, her tail, and one wing. Stepping forward and running a hand over her scales, she found them to be warm and sturdy. Each one had about the size of her hand, the body itself roughly as big as a horse; if this body of hers had its legs, it would roughly compare to an equine in height as well.

    "Hm. I'm not sure if this was supposed to happen, or if we turned you into an early birth on accident." Laphi stepped next to her and she felt power flowing from him even while he rubbed his hand over her scales. Empyrean Minkkubi's eyes closed for the time being, she only needed one pair. At the same time, one of the giant spires in the distance lost its solid form and became a golden scaled head, attached to a giant golden neck which reached down and terminated in solid matter further down. It leaned closer and became bigger, finally revealing itself to be the size of the entire platform they were standing on. An eye bigger than Velvet glanced down at the comparably tiny form.

    "I would like to protect you until you can spread your wings on your own," Laphi explained sadly, "but there is no Malevolence here to feed you with. We will have to take you down to Desolation so you can feed."

    "Yeah." Velvet did not like the idea much, but she also knew the earthpulses were generally empty of threats. Thanks to her previous exercises, she put some effort into creating proper clothes now while Innominat's head leaned closer still, garbing herself in something reminiscent of her old villager clothes; sturdy boots and light, black trousers together with a maroon tunic. It would do.

    "Well," Laphi noted with a glance over her attire, "with you dressed nicely and smiling again, maybe you can find yourself a man this time instead of scaring them all away." He just grinned about the unamused look that earned him, even when Velvet went and ruffled his hair.

    "I think I will have my hands full running herd on my cruel god of a brother, don't you think?" He chuckled and so did she, but at the same time Velvet wondered just how long it had been that she even considered romance at all. It felt like a lifetime away that she even cared and now she wondered whether it should matter in the first place. She was an Empyrean now, a goddess. Immortal at that.

    In the end, she decided to wait and see what life brought her on that end.

    "Either way, I will pick you up and set you down at the teleportation arte below; you can't fly like this." They both stepped back while the giant head leaned down and gently picked up Minkkubi with his teeth. Velvet felt weird about those sensations, but gave no reaction beside a faint shudder; from what she could see, her body would have fit five times into this single maw of Innominat. Turning away, she found her gaze once again drawn by Arthur's body. He looked more peaceful in death than he ever had in life.

    After a moment of consideration, she walked over with Laphi following; the giant shadow above them slowly left and light once again illuminated his face. Something had preserved him in this state, perhaps the direct presence of their seal just a few dozen metres away.

    They stood over him for a long moment, then Velvet slowly pulled the blade out of his chest. Instead of throwing it away however, she considered the pendant still attached to it; Celica's pendant, the one Arthur himself crafted for his beloved wife and which he kept carrying after her death. Two lightly coloured feathers crossed over a round, dark plaque.

    Her hands shook when she undid the knots and took it off the blade's crossguard; Laphi watched her but said nothing, receiving the weapon to carry along. The pendant went into Velvet's pocket, then she crouched to pick up Arthur's body. "Leaving him here feels wrong," she told her brother, who just nodded solemnly.

    With nothing left on this fateful platform, they made to leave and wake up Zui Fuu.
     
  5. archfear

    archfear Getting out there.

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    Nice.
     
  6. Threadmarks: 0.3 Prologue 3
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Atop the heavens hung a temple fortress, coloured a bluish black much like the night sky. Light used to orbit the grand structure, but had faded over time. All around the main structure, giant diamond-shapes floated, directed downward like swords ready to fall. They had remained in place, disconnected but still a part of Innominat.

    To Velvet, their walk down the different rings and layers was uneventful. She distinctly remembered fighting her way through droves of mind-controlled mala-, seraphim, but now it all lay silent. Walkway after corridor after staircase, inert. The faint thrum of mana rushing through the structure was subdued in comparison to before; only slight tremors went through the stonework under their steps, like faint breaths or a heartbeat.

    It was eery how much this solid structure could feel like a living being, even if it was one.

    There were only the three of them, a procession that remained mostly silent for the first part of their journey. Zui Fuu spent some time explaining an arte developed by Maotelus and Mayvin to hide sight of Innominat from below as an additional precaution, the behemoth's position unchanged far above the Empyrean's Throne; the grand temple once built for Innominat lay abandoned now, for Maotelus had been sealed beneath it.

    Soon enough the scenery changed, from blue-tinged air around the various rings, buildings, and spires to a purple and black flow, the latter clear and deep in difference to Malevolence's inky darkness. They descended to the cosmic earthpulse that ran through Innominat's center and encountered an issue: the path was unstable now, leaving them no way further down. Velvet dipped her foot into the flow to test it, but the mana gave without even a token resistance. She sighed and shook her head at the other two. "What now? Do the other teleportation artes below still work?"

    She received a shrug from Laphi, who took to the air again. Zui Fuu fluttered her wings in response and both got a flat stare from Velvet; her brother just motioned for her to go up. "Just do as I do and will yourself to fly," he offered with a shrug. "Will yourself to take to the air. The base of it is the same as creating cloth and other things."

    So Velvet did, surprised at how easily she rose once she focussed on it. Her braid bobbed back and forth as she tried to keep her balance, moving this way and that; the body in her arms made it more difficult, but she held on firmly so as to not drop him. Laphi clapped for her when she hovered in a stable position with a cheerful "Well done!".

    Their descent continued from there, though this time more vertically; the three travelers could easily glide downward and made certain not to cross the streamers of mana more often than they had to, just in case. Ring by ring they passed, time that Velvet spent thinking and getting used to her new powers. She slowly began to realise that the sensations from her draconic body did not become in any way weaker, but asking Laphi just brought out a dismissive "distance doesn't matter"; either way, she decided to look into what else changed before long.

    "I am quite glad your awakening went so smoothly," Zui Fuu admitted to them along the way. "I expected greater complications than I encountered and the seal itself was easy to remove."

    Laphi turned her way in mid-air at that. "Actually, now I'm curious: didn't you worry that you might get suppressed or killed in a rage after waking us? It was fairly reckless."

    "That it was, but I accepted those consequences in exchange for a chance." Her voice was solemn and Velvet's opinion of the malak rose a notch. She was far less annoyed about being woken now, understanding how important this was to Zui Fuu.

    The next revelation followed by the time the sun shone at them from the other side, blasting the three with bright light; they traveled for hours, yet neither Velvet nor Laphicet were tired while their companion had to rest her wings from time to time and desired to take a longer break now. "I'm not used to such exertions anymore, my ascent took days."

    "Well, Laphi is a big boy now," Velvet mused out loud while her brother shuffled awkwardly at the side. Then she shrugged and made to sit, but he had a better idea.

    "If it isn't too intrusive, I could carry you? We can get places faster that way." Laphi still fidgeted a little after Velvet's last comment, but his offer was genuine.

    Zui Fuu hesitated and considered, then she nodded and toddled toward the boy; he had to fiddle a bit and create a scabbard for Arthur's blade first, but then he picked her up to carry in his arms, almost vanishing under her mass. "It is quite alright," the older malak explained gently, "I am just not used to having company anymore. Thank you kindly."

    Neither of them could see Velvet's grin; like this, it looked just like a boy and his pet rapig.

    As their journey continued and they scaled the various rings, their goal at the very bottom slowly getting in sight, Velvet continued to practice her flight while Laphi and Zui talked about the latter's duties in the Heavenly Steppes; she already knew what those were, so she paid no mind to it. By herself, she wondered about this way of flying; anything else she ever saw in flight had wings, even if some dragons appeared far too heavy to be carried by theirs. She had none, simply willed herself to move in any direction. It would be an incredible boon in combat.

    Then however, thinking of wings, she thought of birds. And from there she thought of Arthur, the weight in her arms becoming more prominent to her senses again.

    Velvet thought back to her friends, her little band of misfits. It had been a thousand years, yet she wondered whether some of them might still be around; Eleanor and Magilou had both been human and obviously died long ago. Both were far too steadfast to become dae-, hellions. Laphicet, Phi, she knew was still there as Maotelus, if currently in danger. A flash of determination made Velvet glide faster for a few seconds, but she caught herself before Laphi noticed.

    This left Rokurou and Eizen. Hellion and seraph they were, and both tough as nails. She doubted either of them would get killed easily, so there was hope to meet at least someone again.

    These thoughts slowly began to worm their way deeper as Velvet realised there was nothing else left. A thousand years had passed, anyone she ever knew had long since turned to dust. Aball, her village, likely was wiped off the map. The map itself would be unrecognisable due to her own actions in the past. She and Laphi both, they had nowhere to go and no one they knew. All they possessed at the moment were an unusable armatisation catalyst, the corpse of a shepherd, a pendant, and each other.

    Velvet's jaw clenched and she fought down a wave of sadness as reality crashed down on her. She felt her eyes prick, but fought back the tears. She was where she stood now due to her own choices and she knew she would make them again, do the exact same things, were she back at the beginning. This was who she was and if they had nothing waiting for them now, she knew, they would just build something of their own instead.

    Soon after her surge of nostalgia, the little group reached the lowest ring, only a few dozen metres wide and connected to the next one over various pristine spires. The singular platform it consisted of held a circle of solidifed mana glowing in faint white mixed with gold, a curtain of the same colouration roiling above it like a portal.

    Velvet let out a quiet sigh and turned away from it, addressing Zui Fuu: "Give us a few minutes, there is one other thing." Laphi let down the rapig, who seemed to understand without any need to explain. Velvet stepped over to the walkway's edge and put Arthur's body down with great care, her little brother by her side. "I don't think he'd want a grave in nowhere," she mused. "Aball is gone, Celica's grave never even held her body... do you mind?"

    She produced fire from her palm and glanced to Laphi, who raised his own hand to do the same. "We will do this together," he told her quietly and Velvet nodded. Her gut clenched and she allowed the tears to flow this time; Laphi did the same and neither cared.

    Wordlessly, the siblings weaved a ring of fire around their dead brother before raising the temperature and incinerating him. Zui Fuu was the only witness as the first shepherd, the man meant to save the world yet lost faith in mankind and sought to end it, turned to ash under his solemn family's hands. Neither spoke, but both Velvet and Laphicet thought back to happier times, when they were just a family living together.

    In the end, when the fire died, Laphi broke the silence. "Your soul has long since departed, but it is only right to give your body back to the world you loved so much. I'm sorry it took us so long." He turned his head to Velvet. "May I?"

    She nodded and stepped back while her brother created a sphere of wind to gather up every last speck of ash; he then split it into two even amounts, two spheres, one of which he slowly offered to Velvet. A few words of advice on how to keep the winds steady and she held onto it, understanding what her brother intended to do. They began to float and left the stone archway, away from Innominat in opposite directions.

    Once she made some distance, Velvet steadied herself and cast her sphere outward. Her control broke after it made a few dozen metres, but it was enough; when the winds dissolved, his ashes fluttered out and began to sink slowly. Artorius Collbrande would return to Desolation, what was left of him to be carried all over the world by the winds below.

    Velvet could not think of a better way to put him to rest.

    All three kept an almost reverent silence for a minute as they watched the ashes scatter, brother and sister returning to the glowing arte in the meantime.

    After a time, the entire structure lurched and Innominat's head came into view from above, bending backward on his long neck; he carried Minkkubi's body between his teeth, so gentle that Velvet barely felt them poke her scales. Zui Fuu watched the head grow closer with them, saw him gently deposit the newborn goddess on the archway right next to the teleportation arte before retreating; a wave of hot breath ruffled their hair and feathers and clothes, then the head bent out of sight.

    Velvet and Laphi picked up her new body while Zui Fuu activated the arte, then the four simply walked through and arrived in a hall of pristine white, marble-like architecture. Dust had settled in various places, on the stairs they were led down and on any of the ornamentation in the hallways they passed. There were no personal effects, no plants, not even something like frescos, just empty, white walls with some slightly darker spires and soft light shining from every ceiling, wherever they went.

    "I am afraid you can not stay for long," Zui Fuu apologised to them. "I need to recuperate, and I feel the both of you wish to get to work sooner rather than later. My apologies for the rudeness nonetheless."

    She was right, though Velvet did not much care for the rapig appearing rude. She had been far more abrasive not too long ago, at least where her own memory was concerned and not the actual passage of time. "It's fine, you're right." Though she would miss Zui Fuu somewhat, having gotten used to her presence by this point.

    "Get better soon," Laphi supplied from behind Minkkubi's form and Zui Fuu's wings folded up a little tighter. "And thank you, for helping us get started."

    They reached a gate at the bottom of the Heavenly Steppes minutes later, in the center of a once again empty hall big enough to hold hundreds of people comfortably, with only the stairs leading up and out. The gate opened only after Zui Fuu deployed six different artes to various sections of it. She bowed her head deeply at them while bright light cast her into a deep blue from behind. "I wish you two the best of luck. Follow the green earthpulse for now, it will lead toward the surface."

    She made room for the siblings to walk through, but Velvet stopped by her side and balanced her new body on one hand; the other, she put on the ancient malak's shoulder while giving her a smile. "We'll see you later," she promised, "once this mess has been taken care of." A gentle squeeze later, she took proper hold of herself again and kept moving. Zui Fuu did not respond, but Velvet thought she saw her eyes glisten.

    The gate closed behind them, leaving the two Empyreans to stand on a small rock platform in a sea of gleaming, blue mana. It flowed in the direction they were looking, intersecting with a red stream and a green stream that seemed to spread toward the horizon, under a sky which was an odd sort of black that felt more like a wall than an abyss. More importantly however, Malevolence coursed through all three in thin streamers like oil in water, standing out against the otherwise bright colours. They set down Minkkubi and Velvet looked out into the distance. "It's still weird to look at, you know? How does all of this fit in here?"

    Laphi just shrugged before dipping a hand into the blue mana flow, explaining: "The space within an earthpulse is extradimensional, it doesn't conform to the area outside of it. If more than just the Empyreans and a few skilled or powerful malak-,er, seraphim could access it, there might be an actual second ecosystem down here. But that aside, you should eat."

    The Malevolence streaming past them began to pool around his fingers and Velvet had her draconic body inhale, which drew darkness from the entire area and into her maw. It flowed down her throat like syrup, but she could feel it pulsate within. Some mana came along but integrated itself just as well. The stump of Minkkubi's second wing began to grow out as they watched; it would take a while, but she should be able to at least steer herself soon.

    Then her brother stepped to the edge and made a clumsy nosedive into the mana, much to Velvet's surprise. He surfaced a moment later with a laugh and turned around to wave at her. "Come in, we need to swim and it's warm!"

    She blinked at him before huffing and shaking her head. A harsh push to her other body brought it into the stream where she could keep drawing in Malevolence and mana, then Velvet followed Laphi's example and dove. It was indeed warm, pleasant even. Her clothes stayed dry, she noted to herself as she began to make breaststrokes out of habit to follow her brother.

    At the subject of clothes, however... "Get changed, Laphi."

    "Hm?" He looked down at himself, then at her. Not understanding what she meant.

    Velvet pointed at his gaudy outfit as she explained: "Those are too attention-grabbing, I need you to wear more plain clothes for the time being." Not to mention that she had some issues with how his current garb had been cut, as well as some wonder about the strips of cloth spiralling around his legs below those short shorts. She would bring it up some other time, though; at least he got her point and transformed his clothing into long, dark brown pants and a white shirt with the same green jacket he used to wear. Velvet could not help but smile at the sight; they both picked outfits similar to what they wore before... everything.

    They began to swim through the earthpulse, once again on an uneventful journey beside some trouble steering into the green stream and bringing Minkkubi along. Laphi emitted streamers of golden light that settled into the flows as they traveled, telling her that he would use Maotelus being out of it to slowly subsume some of the earthpulses, just in case they needed it.

    A day passed that way before they reached another intersection; Laphi had a better grasp of these ethereal areas than her and could tell both earthpulses led to the surface, so they took the blue stream for no real reason.

    After a time of drifting through the calm blue, Laphi bumped into his sister softly. "You might need a vessel sooner or later," he told her of his thoughts. "Maybe you won't need one as a former daem-, ah, hellion, but you just might. We can share the earth after dealing with Maotelus, there is enough space in here." Velvet nodded softly, recalling that a vessel helped seraphim to stabilise and to ward off Malevolence to a certain extent. She was still surprised when Laphi continued: "On that note, I would like to bond with you, make you my vessel for the time being."

    They looked at each other, drifting through mana even as they took some of it into themselves. Velvet tried to make sense of what her brother wanted, but needed to ask: "Explain?"

    Her confusion was obvious and Laphi answered while rubbing his hands together awkwardly. "Well, I know I don't need one, but I want it anyway. I can digest Malevolence, so I can bond even with a being consisting of it like you, don't worry." He quickly continued when he saw her mouth open. "It will be safe for you, too! It's just... well, I figure I could mask what few traces of Malevolence you have. Throw people off thinking you're a hellion. And it makes a lot more sense for us to be bonded if we travel together, you know?" He paused for a moment while Velvet considered, then added one more reason: "And anyone in the know would get suspicious at your speed and strength if you have no bonded seraph."

    That, she agreed, was a good point. After all this talk, she had to admit that she was also curious what it felt like. So she agreed.

    Unfortunately, her question was answered in a rather disappointing way; once Laphi completed the arte, she just felt a little weird. Her body did not need to adjust because she was already powerful, so she just felt odd, tingling all over for a few minutes. It took some getting used to Laphicet hanging around inside of her body, too; he whispered silly things into her head just to annoy her, became immaterial and phased inside from time to time, but she could not bear to chide him. He was just so happy and playing around even as they traveled. So she just quietly went back to practice, wanting to create and maintain a sword. She would want to have one soon.

    By the following day, they were beginning to tire a little. Minkkubi's second wing had grown fully and she could now swim as well as steer with sturdy beats. Her forelegs were beginning to grow from their stumps when they came by a network of crisscrossing earthpulses in various colours, many of which connected directly to the surface. Something about the sight felt familiar, but she could not put her finger on it

    Velvet was distracted from that thought by the vast amounts of Malevolence surging around everywhere. She drew in some more but held back on Laphi's suggestion, only taking some and then plunging her body right into the middle of it to keep feasting over time. He once again had a point with going slow and steady; if she acted too rashly, Maotelus or someone else might notice her within his vessel despite the haze on his mind.

    By this point, it was almost second nature to direct two bodies at once; she tried not to think of the one time they climbed onto a solidified chunk of mana and she walked on all fours for a moment. Laphi laughed at her for a while after that one. Now they both watched Minkkubi paddle around with her wings, until Velvet realised something and had to chuckle. "Heh. Budding darkness below, a cruel god's light above. They won't stand a chance!"

    Laphi laughed as well and she ruffled his hair, the boy leaning against her side as they rested. The two remained that way for a little while, but found they did not need sleep. As they enjoyed each other's presence, Laphi pointed up at one specific earthpulse, a green stream as far as Velvet could see. "We should take that one, it seems to reach higher than the rest on the outside, so that might be a mountain."

    "Good thinking," she agreed despite having no idea how he could tell. "We can get the lay of the land from there and it's less likely anyone is that far up." Laphi received an affectionate squeeze, then Velvet got up. "Let's go!"

    They left Minkkubi behind in the melting pot of mana and Malevolence, allowing them to move at a far greater speed. Up the earthpulse they swam, toward its highest spot where they pushed some mana together and made it float, a solid platform for the two of them to stand. Amber eyes shared one last look before Laphi nodded and raised his arm, gathering power. It fell like an axe, the edge of his hand cutting through the air and tearing at the earthpulse's internal dimension, tearing it open under the will of a god.

    The air parted, space parted, to reveal an orange wound in this reality. A rift. The siblings nodded at each other and stepped through.

    It was time to see what happened to Desolation while they slept.
     
  7. Threadmarks: 1.1 Emergence
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    A vast mountain towered over the near endless meadows, their borders invisible even from its very top. The land split and coiled, veins of clear water drawing their path through a sea of emerald and gleaming in the setting sun's light. Flowers bloomed atop the mountain, birds of prey calling for their mates or in challenge. Wind rustled leaves with quiet noises, nature being the only active force around. There were no people far and wide, bar one.

    One man, standing tall on the very top of this very mountain, his black pants ragged as they often were; his chest was bare and bore white markings, skin kissed by the sun that gave an even greater contrast to the three lines running from shoulder to waist like claw marks. A mane of white hair blew around his shoulders and back as he beheld the untamed nature surrounding him, gazed toward the horizon.

    This tranquility was how Zaveid preferred it most of the time. The winds whispered secrets of the land to him wherever they blew from, told him of the many flowers in bloom, revealed the faint noise of chicks taking flight for the first time in their lives.

    The glass pearls on his necklace clacked against each other weakly when he turned his head, bands of muscles coiling under taut skin with every motion. There was darkness in the air, a crucible not too far from where he stood; a dark place of darker history and darkest deeds. But it was not his concern for the moment. He was here for the past, as always when he felt like making the journey. Not every year, not even the same day in the year. Just sometimes, when memories drew him back here, to this very mountain. Memories that he knew he must never forget, that he would never forget.

    Zaveid had considered putting up a grave for his beloved Theodora long ago, but figured that she would laugh at him if she heard that thought. He would have too, knowing he was just not that kind of sentimental type. Yet sometimes, he just had to return to this mountain. Stand where the first love of his life died a second time after already losing herself in Malevolence before. Stand where he made his promise with Eizen.

    A gentle breeze blew out his long, untamed mess of hair, rustled the long green feathers on his necklace, but he paid it no mind. It was soothing to him as a seraph, feeling his own element. The wind would always be special to Zaveid, just like any fire seraph appreciated flame, any earth seraph felt most at home underground, and the seraphim of water relaxed most in or under water.

    One of his hands was behind his back, on the handle of an old relic. A single barrel with a trigger where his pointer finger would go when he held it, one of a kind and crafted by a civilisation more than a millennium dead. A memento of a dear friend, no, of several dear friends. A part of his promise. Even though ammunition was running low, Zaveid knew he would yet find a way to keep his promise; to end Eizen, no matter what.

    All of a sudden, the tranquility broke. The winds shifted, the very flow of mana he felt around and beneath warped. The air crackled, hiccupped behind him. Zaveid swiftly turned around, hands already grasping for the pendulums on his belt with practiced motions; then golden light shone and they went slack as instinctive fear locked up his limbs. He knew the light before his eyes truly saw what was within. A thousand years had passed, but his soul remembered. Would always remember that light. The warrior froze for several moments, memories returning unbidden of a time where he was but a puppet, a tool to be used without a will of his own. Suppressed, stripped of feelings and choice. It was not something a living soul could ever forget. Not truly.

    There, in the mountaintop's center, stood a figure of golden hair with their back to Zaveid. Their clothes were different, he could not see their face, but he knew without doubt who it was, looking out onto the meadow in the other direction. Instinct compelled him to flee and only terror kept him rooted.

    The glow shorted out, the moment passed, and he could breathe again. Zaveid exhaled softly, steeled his resolve, and crushed the instinctual responses. It caught him by surprise this time, but past or present, he would not give in again. Not to Innominat, or anyone!

    Yet while he knew what he saw, he refused to believe it for several seconds more; staying quiet, he watched the golden being behold the world. Together with a black and red one that Zaveid barely noticed before, his vision having turned into a tunnel toward Innominat until this moment. The orange glow of an earthpulse rift shone next to the pair, crackling again and slowly closing up as neither paid attention to it.

    The larger of the two spoke in a familiar voice: "This looks similar to how it used to be." Her head rose slightly and she clicked her tongue at the black flakes dancing in the wind. "Just a lot more Malevolence."

    The shorter one shrugged and answered without missing a beat. "It has been like this even in our time, sister. My domain merely masks free Malevolence somewhat when no one affects it. I'm not going to put it up for now, for obvious reasons."

    Both voices were more or less forgotten, yet they slotted into his memory perfectly. The woman's was softer than he remembered, but still familiar enough; together with what was undoubtedly Innominat the suppressor by her side and knowing that they were sealed together, his memory provided images and a name. Zaveid closed his eyes for a moment and focussed, casting away his surprise, his fear, his confusion. Now was not the time and none of these feelings were among those he liked, anyway. He would find out what went on here, the certainty of it loosened his muscles and he returned to a more normal stance, chest thrust out and with an easy grin on his face as he called out.

    "Now look at that, are the endtimes upon us?" His dark voice almost echoed over the distance and he could see the immediate change it caused. How relaxed shoulders tensed, how two turned almost as one. His grin widened; he still got it. "Fancy seeing you here, Velvet! Almost didn't recognise you; I gotta say, I liked your old style better!"

    He ran his gaze over her primly dressed form, intentionally staying a little longer on the curves her tunic hid more than revealed. The woman herself blinked at him stupidly while he swaggered up to the two, any remaining discomfort at Innominat's presence stuffed away and hidden. The boy by her side blinked and his lips formed into an O-shape. "Oh. Him," he started with a toneless voice that gave Zaveid the creeps. "I remember now."

    Yet he did not show any of it, pointing a thumb at himself with a widening grin. "That's right, kid. There's only one of me in this wide world." He then turned back to Velvet, who was still staring wide-eyed. "Now don't gape like a fish there, girl! How about a hug for old Zaveid?"

    Only after saying it did his mind catch up and remind him that this here was a woman he might not want to rile up with his usual shtick. It was all fun and games even if they tried to hurt him for the audacity, but this one was actually capable and willing to murder him if he pushed too far. Either way though, he said it, so he committed and opened his arms wide while holding his grin and hoping for the best.

    Moments passed as neither moved, but then Velvet's surprise melted into a faint smile. "You get this one." Before the meaning even registered with him, her arms were wrapped around his back.

    A beat.

    Then Zaveid carefully hugged her back, surprised by the turn of events; he cradled the most dangerous woman in the world in his arms, dumbfounded yet appreciative of her warmth and softness. "Okay, I didn't expect you to actually go for it, y'know?"

    "Neither did I," Innominat added from the side; a weird feeling, that. To have a god agree with him like this. Either way, Velvet did not respond at first and neither of them could see her face in this position, chin resting on his shoulder; she stood not much shorter than Zaveid himself, which was quite tall for a woman. He had completely forgotten that.

    "It's good to see a familiar face despite how long it's been," she told him quietly and Zaveid patted her back a little awkwardly. "We were told that everything is different from what we know. Meeting an old friend makes it feel a bit more real, that this is still the world we once lived in." She then fell quiet and did not break the embrace, so Zaveid left her there; he felt a little warmer now and maybe she did, too. "You used to dress more nicely, though."

    He chuckled at that and squeezed her lightly; his jacket had been ditched centuries ago, he much preferred this style to his old one. "Ah, but I can't take away this bod's sight from the ladies, now can I?"

    He did not show it, but the giggle this drew from Velvet jarred him even more. The Velvet Crowe he remembered did not giggle, she rolled her eyes and told you to stop with the nonsense. This new, different Velvet let go and so did he, but did not take more than a step back to take her in from up close; she used to be a wild, untamed kind of attractive. Like a flame one could admire but never hope to catch. Now though, she appeared more conventionally pretty, a long braid of raven hair gleaming in the orange sunlight. Her clothes were a little too dark to appear kind, but the gentle smile on her face made up for that.

    Zaveid could not help but huff. He was not the only one who changed quite a bit. "Looks like ya got your beauty sleep for once." Now however, he got the familiar eyeroll; nonetheless, one could almost mistake her for a common woman living in the next village, were it not for how she carried herself even while at ease. Her guard was up despite it all, a warrior's stance.

    Just then, a brighter voice chimed in from the side and distracted him: "What were you doing up here?"

    Turning his head to Innominat with a frown, Zaveid made a dismissive motion. "Just passing by, figured I'd take a look around." He was far less happy to talk to that one.

    "I didn't know you were a sightseer," Velvet shot back with a bit of a grin and he snorted, then shrugged.

    "Lotta time went by since way back when. You kinda learn to appreciate where no humans walk." Zaveid glanced between the two unlikely beings and began to cross his arms, returning to the problem at hand. "Now, why're you here?"

    The mood changed immediately as both became serious. Velvet quickly turned her head this way and that, but was distraced when the very air shifted; Zaveid's gaze snapped to Innominat, who tapped Velvet's side. "Not to worry, I just sealed the area; no one will be able to listen." Zaveid felt for the winds with his own powers and found a quite literal wall surrounding them; not exactly solid, but built in a way that prevented sound from carrying. He gave a nod at that, somewhat grudgingly admitting that it was good work. The boy eyed him thoughtfully. "Should I leave? You obviously don't like me."

    Zaveid paused at that and looked Innominat over, then held up a finger at him. "We'll get to that in a bit. It'll depend on why you're here, too." He received a nod and both turned to Velvet, who gave him a brief explanation. What she told him was nothing he liked to hear; Maotelus on the brink, a Lord of Calamity on the loose, no shepherd, the like. For an ancient seraph to go up there and wake up both siblings meant someone thought this was beyond mortal means to salvage. Toward the specifics however, he had to interject: "What d'you mean, Innominat is the final measure? Suppressing the free will of all humans ain't a solution to anything!"

    Velvet made to speak, but her brother squeezed her arm and she remained silent while the boy explained; all three of them were sitting in a loose circle at this point. "In previous cycles, Innominat's suppression was meant as the final bulwark against the spread of Malevolence. To suppress mankind's emotions means to cut off the generation of Malevolence while my nature allows me to draw it out of the world as sustenance. Once the total amount grows too low to sustain me, I fall back asleep and the suppression fades, allowing humans to start anew."

    He obviously noticed the glare Zaveid levelled at him, raising an eyebrow and throwing out his arms in challenge. "It's no good solution, but I'd rather have this over a world completely covered in Malevolence, populated by hellions and dragons. You'd rather have that?!" There was some actual heat to the question that almost made him flinch and grimace. Zaveid would not, but he still hated the principle of the 'solution'.

    Yet, if there was no other solution? He hated times like these, when things got more difficult than 'find monster, kill monster'. Zaveid was no great thinker. Some other force decided they needed the first Lord of Calamity and Innominat of all people, so Desolation was obviously going down the drain. He would have to step up his own game, too.

    "Anyway," Laphicet added morosely, "the last time we met was different because Arthur called onto me before my time and made preparations to sustain my suppression forever, instead of letting it fade naturally. I'm not going to refuse my own responsibility in the matter, but I won't dwell on it. I understand that you doubt me, but I will make this world better!"

    His declaration sounded nice, but Zaveid merely gave him a bored look, one eyebrow raised. "Kid. Pretty words mean nothing to me, so save them for a cute girl you wanna woo." It was still reassuring, but he stood by his words. His expression shifted, became more feral as he grinned, slamming a fist into his hand. "If you're a man, there's only one way we're going to clear the air."

    He received deliciously surprised faces from brother and sister both, which only made his grin widen further. Laphicet gaped at him. "Are you sure? That wouldn't be fair to you at all, I'm weaker than I was back then, but I'm still an Empyrean."

    "Ouch, kid! That hurts!" He was right of course, they fought before and Zaveid could not so much as scratch the god. Yet his grin had not wavered at all; it did not matter if he stood no chance, it never did.

    Laphicet considered it for a moment, then he nodded and floated up into a standing position, surprising both Zaveid and Velvet. "But alright, if this is what it takes."

    Velvet just palmed her face and got up to get out of their way while Zaveid stood and raised his fists in anticipation. Nothing happened for a second, then the boy tilted his head. "Um, no Siegfried?" So he had seen that Zaveid still carried it. He was a sharp one.

    "Sorry, can't. I'm running out of bullets, so I can't waste 'em like this." Oh, how he would love to waste bullets on this little brawl, but he needed the last few for Eizen.

    "I see." Laphicet's expression was odd in a way he could not read, but Zaveid could definitely see the mana flicker over his form. "If you can't fight at your strongest, then I will lower some of my defenses and stay on the ground. That's only fair."

    He received an almost owlish look from Zaveid for this, who had not expected the gesture. The older man was unsure whether he should appreciate this earnestness or feel insulted, ultimately deciding on a bit of both. "Alright then, you ready?" A nod. "Then let's go!" And he shot off to take the first strike.

    Laphicet let him come, hands raised somewhat clumsily and trying to step out of Zaveid's charge; he failed and took a fist to the cheek. But the boy snapped out his shorter arm and the gale his punch threw out pushed Zaveid back. He was unharmed, but Laphicet did not even seem to bruise, so he got back in and threw a few wild swings.

    His opponent leaned out of one but took the follow-up against his chest, wide eyes staring at Zaveid even while he punched back. His fist was small, but it hammered into Zaveid's ribcage and shook his entire being. Were he human, his ribs and organs would be paste from that punch. The impact's shockwave shattered grass and dirt around them, he was thrown back and off the plateau to fall down to the next outcropping; Zaveid pushed on the winds to right and throw himself back onto their chosen field. Now he was grinning again, pumped up and wanting to at least leave a bruise.

    They exchanged blows again and again, Laphicet's clumsy swings missing more often than not while Zaveid tried to evade after that first hit he took, aiming few but strong punches instead of flurries like he was used to. It did not work out entirely and a minute or two after they started, he was lying in one of several craters on the ground, his entire body aching but his mind content.

    Next to him sat Laphicet Crowe, sporting a black eye but weirdly cheerful just like Zaveid was.

    Beside them both stood Velvet Crowe, a hand on her forehead.

    He could tell the boy never was in a fistfight before; only the insurmountable gap between man and god allowed him to stand victorious. Zaveid chuckled and, after resting a moment longer, he leaned back and hopped to his feet. "Alright, we're good, kid. Your fists are small, but honest. I like it!" They shook hands as he praised the boy, both grinning.

    "I'm a little surprised it would only take that much," Laphicet admitted and Zaveid almost shrugged, but then thought better of it considering his throbbing everything.

    "Look, kid, if we'd met a few years after all that stuff, I'd probably still be furious. But it's been a thousand years since, I can't stay mad that long. Besides, you're trying to make up for it now, so I'm not gonna make a fuss unless you go back to how things were." The boy nodded slowly as Zaveid explained, then received a pat on the head which he didn't seem to mind.

    Velvet sighed at the sidelines. "Boys are such simple creatures...."

    He gave her a wink at that. "You just don't understand what it means to be a man."

    This prompted the woman to turn to her brother with a voice devoid of emotion: "Don't you ever become a man like him."

    Zaveid chuckled, which turned into a full belly-laugh when Laphicet deadpanned back at his sister: "I am afraid you are too late. The man-poison in his fists has already infected me. My voice will become darker within the next few weeks and I shall adopt a more striking fashion style in due time."

    "Damn," he couldn't help but call out when Velvet huffed, "I actually like that kid!"

    The boy grinned at that and Velvet kept shaking her head for a few seconds, but then Laphicet returned the conversation to more important matters. "Say, Zaveid? Can you tell us where we are and what happened recently? What we got from Zui Fuu was more the general gist of it, with few to no specifics."

    "Yeah, sure. I've got time." He slumped down again, uncaring for bits of dirt finding their way onto his clothes. The others lacked such care as well, following him to recreate their earlier seating formation with the Crowe siblings almost next to each other and Zaveid opposite to them.

    Before he could start however, Laphicet groaned and held his stomach. "I'm hungry."

    "How can you be? Malakhim, er, seraphim don't need to eat." Despite her words however, Velvet did not even wait for a response before waving her hands through the air.

    Zaveid looked the boy over curiously and answered while waiting for whatever his sister was doing: "Eh, seraph or not, if you like to eat, your stomach will tell you it wants food. Doesn't matter if it's more of a hobby for some of us. Whoa, what the hell?!" Part of the great cloud of Malevolence in the distance had begun to float closer, turning into several streamers of darkness which gathered in Velvet's hand. He leaned away from the closest stream so as to not get any more into his system than he already had, that was a lot of it floating by.

    "Oh, man up and take it," Velvet muttered at him while keeping her eyes mostly on the Malevolence. Which was easy for her to say, being unaffected by the stuff. She compressed the darkness into a bread-sized lump which she handed her brother. "There, that should tide you over." Looking back, even the sizable amount she took barely made a dint in what suffused the area.

    Laphicet dug in happily while Zaveid worked himself out of the whiplash brought by this boy just tearing chunks out of Malevolence-bread like it was a delicacy. Laphicet adressed his sister between bites: "Your mastery of Malevolence is new, but I guess it makes sense with what you are now." Zaveid sighed; he had forgotten just how crazy things could become with Velvet Crowe around. Not to mention that she was now there to stay, having become a goddess herself.

    It was around this time that the sun sunk below the horizon, so Laphicet created a small ball of light to illuminate them; none of them wanted to bother with a campfire, but the moonlight was also not suitable to this conversation.

    "Alright then," Zaveid started once they had light again, leaning back to look at the faint few stars he could see up high. "Let's start with the place; this here used to be the, uh..." He needed a moment to remember what it was called. "The Aldina Plains, right. Shifted around a little, but the general layout remained the same. Might have actually grown bigger since." Glancing down, he saw Velvet's brow crease and how her eyes shifted to the faintly familiar form of the mountain surrounding them. Chances were she understood this was the one she helped kill Theodora on, but she did not say anything and he was fine with that.

    "As for general stuff, let's see. The area around here is called the Meadow of Triumph and it goes on for ages. Connects the Empire's capital of Pendrago and Lastonbell at the border." He paused and his fist slammed down onto his palm. "Oh yeah, there was only Midgand back then. Today the continent is split into the Rolance Empire and the Kingdom of Hyland; we're in Rolance right now. Pendrago, er, the capital, is at that end of the meadow. The other direction is Lastonbell, both are big cities. I've heard there is bad blood between Rolance and Hyland these days, they're prepping for war recently. But that's all I can tell you, I don't go into cities much."

    Neither was surprised about that. Velvet gave a few nods as he spoke and frowned down at her hands. "That's fine, this is more than we had before. What about the others? Rokurou, Eizen?"

    "Oh boy, where do I start?" He knew where he did not want to start, so he began with the one he knew less about, leaning onto his back to watch the stars, arms crossed behind his head. "Last I heard of Rokurou, he's still working on his swordmanship. I think I remember him marrying, a few hundred years ago or so. Or maybe he took a student, either or. He definitely took a few more a bit over a hundred years ago to see if one of them was good enough to challenge him, that was the last time I saw him too. Was pretty bummed out he couldn't find any real challenges anymore, so he tried to make his own. That, ah, didn't work."

    "It must be hard, being one who yearns for a challenger yet stands undefeated." Zaveid brought his gaze down to Laphicet, whose eyes were focussed on the small ball of light floating between them. His expression was unreadable.

    "Nah, the guy is as single-minded as ever; last I saw him, he found himself a madman who wanted to sail for the far continent. Told me he's going to look for strong opponent's there."

    This prompted a huff from Velvet and the boy to turn her way. "He would. I'm not even surprised." She left it at that, but Zaveid could see that her lips were curling up a little bit. His own went down at about the same time, knowing what came next.

    "And Eizen... well. He turned into a dragon, a few hundred years back." Her smile was gone and Zaveid averted his gaze from her, back to the starry sky. "I couldn't kill him yet. Damn that guy for being so tough, I don't have the bullets to go head to head with him and...." He trailed off, unsure how to continue. A face danced in front of his mind's eye, one that bothered him. "He settled down near his sister, Edna. She's still hoping that there's a way to save him."

    There was no response at first, but Zaveid really did not want to say it out loud. Thankfully, Velvet did it for him after a few moments: "So you haven't made an honest try yet." Of course she understood; Edna looked young. Zaveid and Velvet both had a soft spot for children. He could not bear killing her brother when she still had hope.

    "He was still reacting to her voice last time I visited," Zaveid added quietly, then laughed. "That bastard is still fighting to this day, hasn't tried to hurt her once in all that time!"

    A hollow silence reigned after that. There was no crackling of fire, just the calls of a few owls and the chirping of crickets who made their home this far up.

    There was a rustle of cloth before Laphicet spoke, the boy having leaned forward. "We could take care of him for you."

    "Nah." Zaveid sat up with a push of his back and shook his head at him. "I made a promise to him, kid. No way anyone else is gonna do it." From the nod he got in return, his message was received.

    "Hm. I guess I could offer you a power boost, make you a sublord and give you a piece of my power for a little while so you can do it, but I'm not sure I should and I doubt you'd want to be." Zaveid huffed, the boy had been completely right there.

    "You're right, I wouldn't want to. Maybe if there's really no other choice, but I ain't becoming anyone's sublord without a damn good reason."

    "Yeah, I figured as much. What about Siegfried?" Zaveid perked up at that and Laphicet continued with actual enthusiasm this time: "If you let me borrow one, I can try analysing and replicating your bullets! Melchior taught me a few basic scanning artes, sooo....?"He trailed off and waited for Zaveid's reaction, who was intrigued by the idea. He hated to be reminded of Melchior, but the proposal itself had merit; if he had a steady supply of bullets to power himself up and kill stronger hellions with, that would give him options.

    After a few seconds of thought, Zaveid pulled out one of his four remaining bullets from the small pouch on his belt. He then dropped it onto the boy's waiting palm, where several elaborate, golden arte circles flared to life immediately. Thin beams of light flickered over the ammunition. They faded out before he even registered the terrifying light.

    "Curious," Laphicet muttered as he handed it back. "This is mostly just supercondensed mana, likely drawn out of an earthpulse and then refined. Which means that Siegfried itself contains the entire workings of the arte, the bullets are just fuel." He smiled up at Zaveid, his voice filled with wonder. "Isn't it amazing, though? The people of Avarost created artes to draw power from the earth itself and to condense so much of it into such a small form!"

    He could not help but ruffle the boy's hair at that; despite of how mature he sounded at times, there was still a child in there. "Yeah, they really were amazing." Laphicet let his hair be ruffled, but righted it immediately after and left the reach of Zaveid's arms.

    "I can definitely replicate those," he told the wind seraph earnestly. "It will take a while to gather the necessary mana and some figuring out how to compress it, but I will." He paused and turned to look at Zaveid more closely. "Actually, I was just thinking; would you travel with us for a bit? A journey is more fun with more people."

    He had to huff at that. "First of all, thanks. I'll owe you one if you can actually pull that off. Second, I'm more of a lone wolf. Sorry, kiddo."

    "Oh, okay." He did not appear sad, though the light drew some odd shadows over his face now as he turned to his sister. "A pity, though. Velvet is such a good cook, now I have to eat all her delicious food on my own."

    Aha. So that was his game.

    Zaveid considered the obvious bait and, after a moment, decided he could bear with those two siblings for a little while. Not for the food, but for the novelty of being around people who didn't rub him the wrong way. "You know what? Fine, I'm in, I'll stick around for a day or two. Have to find out if you're really as good as he says."

    Velvet just rolled her eyes, a quiet mutter of "Boys" being her only response.
     
  8. Threadmarks: 1.2 Begin of a Journey
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The night passed slowly; no one but Zaveid actually slept. Velvet tried to, but found herself restless, too taken up by thoughts and sensations; she still had to get used to having two bodies, especially when one of them was constantly bathing in liquid mana and Malevolence, both of which prickled on her scales in an unusual yet also comforting manner. As for Laphicet, he played around with some kind of arte whenever she opened her eyes to peek at the world surrounding them; he even kept the emitted light to a minimum once she admonished him at some point.

    After a few long hours, when the horizon began to brighten up, she found herself sitting and continuing her own practice at projecting various items she might need. By the time the sun rose and woke Zaveid, she had her hair down and was busy combing it; his whistling made quite clear that he was awake. "Damn, girl; now you look more like you used to!" She threw a sour look back at him, which only prompted a grin. Velvet had forgotten how irritating this could be, but it was also fun in a way. Reassuring, too; Zaveid looked a bit different, but he was still the same man she knew back then.

    Thankfully, her response made him back off and leave her alone until she was done; he went to talk artes with Laphicet instead, who seemed happy to have someone else to talk to as he worked. Perhaps Velvet imagined it, but she felt she saw Zaveid tense a little with each new flash of light. After some thought, she decided it was her imagination and went back to her hair. Without distractions, she once again felt her empty stomach; she often did, hardly remembering a time when she felt sated, but now Velvet was actually famished. Sucking in Malevolence simply did not suffice for her, or at least not yet. This more human body of hers still required sustenance.

    The comb faded away and Velvet put a hand on her stomach, brow furrowing as she considered what Zaveid told them the previous day; perhaps she could train herself not to require food, now that she was Empyrean. The thought faded soon after and she sighed in disappointment, arms rising to bind her hair into a simple ponytail. "We should get going."

    "Yeah, we better, before you make a snack of me and not in the nice way."

    Her eyebrow twitched, and twitched again when Laphi giggled about the quip. So that previous motion of hers had been seen. Velvet turned her head to behold the grinning Zaveid, annoyance mostly absent of her voice as she quipped back: "You don't need to worry. Machos taste gross, I'd rather go hungry."

    He put a hand over his heart in mock pain. "Ouch, way to hit a guy where it hurts!" But he was grinning and so was she. Laphi kept giggling a little longer before calming down.

    They headed out and began to descend the mountains after that. An hour or two passed in idle conversation while they walked or floated, ignoring easy but longer roads in favour of simply dropping off where the distance was not too great. The three were already halfway down the large mountain when Laphi stopped them, pointing at a bird pecking at something a bit further down the slope they were on.

    At a second glance, Velvet figured it was a falcon; the bird had not seen them yet. Laphi poked her hand and then motioned for himself, so she watched as he composed a small arte circle surrounding his feet. It glowed faintly as he channeled mana while a second circle formed in front of his hand. In that circle, a spear of roiling air formed and rushed off when the arte completed after a second; it hit home and replaced the falcon's head, the bird dropping off the rock it had been sitting on. "I was thinking," he explained while they walked over to collect their prize, "that you're an Empyrean now, so you should be able to use malakh-, er, seraphic artes like these. Hellions usually don't have an aptitude for them and humans only learn a few basic ones while they're bonded with a seraph. You, though?"

    He had a point and Velvet gave him a nod. Zaveid huffed at their side. "You definitely got the mana to pull it off, unlike unbonded humans or hellions. Kind of a shame if you ask me; would be interesting to have some humans cast more than a bit of reading light or the bonding arte on their own."

    "They simply lack the instinctual understanding of how to shape mana on their own," Laphi shot back from her other side. "Which might be an issue for Velvet, too. We will have to test that soon."

    Another half hour on their descent, they came by another bird. Laphi had coached his sister on the arte he used before and she brought her new senses, her new understanding to use as she drew on the mana within her. A green arte-circle formed as the mana took the shape she was told, drawing itself around her feet. The circle was apparently the most stable structure to build artes in, though others were sometimes used for greater creations.

    She reached out with her hand and felt her mana grasp for the surrounding air; winds howled as they were drawn into the spear, not thin like Laphi's had been but rather the size of her head and growing. While the noise startled her target and made it flee, she only noticed after the arte ran its course and completed; after the projectile was already flying and right before it impacted the branch the bird sat on. After penetrating the branch, it punched into the tree's thick bark and tore through as if it were paper. Then it ran into the solid mountain behind the tree, using itself up in an explosion of dust and flying stones. Zaveid whistled while Laphi sighed.

    "Well," the boy offered, "it makes sense that you're used to putting in everything you have. You can definitely learn and cast seraphic artes, but you will need to learn moderation." Velvet quietly added this to the pile of things she had to do, but did not comment further. Seraphic artes were useful after all.

    Just how useful they were became apparent soon after, when her brother went and called a break right before they reached the mountain's foot. He took some distance and began to weave another arte, consisting of seven circles interwoven with three squares and a triangle in the very center. Veins of golden light raced through every single structure, connecting them in places and running together; the whole arte had the size of a small house.

    "I remembered the basics of that arte from back then," he told the watching two conversationally as he worked. "Then I spent last night going over what I knew and had to find out, and played around a bit." The various forms pulled themselves closer together in the air, becoming smaller until the entire setup hovered between his hands. "And I think I got it... yes!"

    A flash of light blinded Velvet for a moment; when she could see again, the geometry was gone and replaced with a slowly glowing hole floating where the separate components were before. Laphi grinned widely. "There we go, an extradimensional storage space for anything we pick up on the way!" He then demonstrated what he just did by pulling Arthur's sword from his waist and pushing it through the hole that expanded in size to let it through; he went in up to his elbow, rummaged around for a moment, and then pulled his empty hand back out. "And it works just fine!"

    Zaveid and Velvet shared a look at that. "Can I get a convenient Empyrean to do stuff for me, too?" he asked, though she snorted about the resigned face he made, which then turned into a kind of playful indignation. "I mean, seriously! That's cheating!"

    "Oh well," Laphi supplied while he pushed the hawk into the hole as well, "being allowed to cheat is just one perk of being a god." He winked back at them, which made Zaveid huff in turn.

    . .
    . .

    Morning turned to noon as they spent their time hunting more than traveling; supplies were important after all and Velvet would not have anything else, so they filled Laphi's new creation with several more birds and even a wild boar that crossed their path. Berries and herbs were added to that on the way, most of them kinds she remembered from her own time.

    Velvet made doubly sure that the storage her brother created was ordered properly; it would be a mess if she just threw everything inside. Thankfully, Laphi thought ahead and gave it several 'pockets' for different things. She could even walk inside if she wanted to, finding a warehouse-sized area in every single pocket, their borders clearly marked by the intricate lines of golden mana running over every void-coloured wall and interconnected on the inside. By herself, she understood what Zaveid meant when he spoke of cheating. Although she had to admit that it felt nice to be the cheater for once and not on the receiving end.

    Soon after her short exploration however, they found their first hellions. A werewolf cowering on their hindlegs, muzzle lowered and growling weakly, surrounded by three wolves that were lying on the ground and looking up at the larger canine. All four sniffed the air and turned their heads to them, but none attacked.

    "Weird," Zaveid mused even as he pulled out a pendulum, "they got more aggressive than they used to be, might be the greater amount of Malevolence in the air. Those are a lot more docile than most. You've still got the odd one like Rokurou who's perfectly fine, but not all that many recently." Velvet nodded at him; she recalled many daemons just quietly living in the wilderness during her first journey, far away from people and hoping to make do somehow. Some were aggressive and hostile, but not that many. The hellions had yet to make a move, they were simply watching them; the werewolf drooled a little, which she took as a bad sign.

    "Um, Zaveid? How are you feeling with all the Malevolence in the air? Anything odd?"
    "Well, now that you mention it, I feel surprisingly fine. Kinda odd, but I'm not complaining."
    "I see. Velvet? Is your domain active?"

    That got her attention and she stopped observing the hellions; Laphi was looking at her, but she could only shrug. "No idea." When that got her confused looks from both sides, she rolled her eyes. "I know domains exist, but I could never manifest one conciously. It isn't like I had a teacher for it, Phi never tried and Eizen obviously wouldn't, with his curse."

    She turned her attention back to the hellions, only to find the werewolf stroking two of the smaller wolves, quietly, calmly. All four were still gazing their way and Laphi sighed. "We will get to that in a bit." Then he raised his arm and waved at the hellions, visibly making the werewolf rear back. "Hello!" Velvet could not help but give her brother a look; he was completely unrepentant and began to walk over. Zaveid shrugged and followed, so she did the same, wondering what Laphi's game was the entire time.

    The hellions tensed as they approached, but did not attack. Velvet took the time to look the werewolf over more closely, finding her to wear rags that might have been villager clothes. They were torn as if exploded outward, so she grew in size and mass when she turned. At least Velvet assumed it was a woman, considering the noticeable bulges in the chest area where breasts would have been on a human.

    When Laphi reached, her assumption was confirmed by a soft and hesitant "Hello", delivered in a bright soprano voice; the werewolf crouched to be closer to his height. "I'm, uh, I'm sorry, but it's not safe around me. I-" she stopped when the boy shook his head.

    "It's fine, ma'am. I know you won't hurt me. Who are you?"

    The hellion's jaw hung open for a moment before she hugged herself weakly and sighed. "Amelia, I'm a huntress, or was. And I used to live in Opin, that's a small village a few days thisaway." Her explanation came slow and with audible sadness.

    "Did something happen to your village?"

    "No, but... look at me. I can't go back like this! I haven't been home in weeks." Velvet listened and found her heart going out to the werewolf; she turned on her own and was alone, much like Velvet herself had been after the tragedy in Aball.

    "So you left of your own volition?"

    "Um, kind of? I, I always get so angry, and so easily. I think they can't see what I've become, but I'm scared of getting angry and hurting someone." Amelia hugged herself a little tighter and shivered, which prompted one of the wolves to reach up and nuzzle her fur-covered thigh. Another had slinked closer to sniff at Velvet curiously, but a quick "Mint, down!" made the creature return to its obvious owner's side. Laphi frowned as he watched that, then turned his attention back to the huntress.

    "Say, you don't seem angry to me at all. Do you still feel it?"

    Her response was interesting: "Well, no. It went away a few minutes ago." Before Velvet could consider the implications however, Amelia had risen to her full height and pushed her hands together to plead with him. "But it could come back any moment, please leave before I hurt you!" The third wolf took that moment to sniff at Laphi; whatever dog it used to be, now it stood as tall as the boy's chest. And yet he showed no fear but rather reached out to scratch the hellion behind its ears. Velvet could not help but smile when she saw Amelia stare at the sight, flabbergasted.

    Zaveid spoke into that silence, injecting himself into the conversation: "A shepherd can help you with that one, lady." He did not even flinch when the werewolf's attention and muzzle snapped to him in an almost feral manner. "There's gotta be one soon...ish. Might be a few years, but there will be one. They're gonna purify you." Velvet could not help but give him a look at the kind words, but he gave nothing away and continued: "You should go see your family sometime, too; not like many beside other hellions and seraphim can see what you are now."

    "I, I see. Thank you, kind sir." Amelia lowered her head and muttered 'Hellion' to herself, but then went stock still, wide eyes rising back up first to Laphicet and then to Zaveid. "S-Seraphim? You, you are....?"

    Laphi nodded at her and let off the panting wolf with a sigh. "The world is cruel like this. Hellions and seraphim alike remain hidden from human eyes except for a select few, the shepherd being among them. In becoming a hellion, one gains the power to see yet loses most any chance of having a peaceful life."

    Amelia whined a little as he spoke, nodding sadly. "I understand," she muttered to no one in particular. "I never knew all of this happened right in front of our eyes."

    Velvet nodded in agreement, then pushed herself into the conversation: "Will you be alright?"

    In response however, something odd happened; something she had rarely seen from the outside. Amelia tensed up, her hands curled into fists, and she raised her head defiantly. "I think I will be fine now, thank you. To meet such kind seraphim, and to know a shepherd will come."

    Zaveid chuckled at that and gave her a wink. "They always do," he told the huntress who seemed a little enthralled... probably by his abs, Velvet amended when she saw her gaze dip down a bit.

    And then Laphi had to ruin it by pointing at her. "That aside, you might want to dedicate a prayer to our Minkkubi here." When he drew everyone's attention, he smiled up at Amelia. "She is still coming into herself as a deity, but her power is what quelled your anger and cleared your mind. I believe she will allow all of mankind and the seraphim alike to push back against this corruption."

    A stunned look went her way at that point, but Velvet was scowling down at her brother. "And where do you take all that from?" She was not all that annoyed, but it felt too out-there and she really did not want prayers dedicated to herself.

    Laphi just shrugged. "Simple conjection, really. A seraph on the brink of falling is suddenly alright once your domain settles, and a hellion who was on the verge of giving in to violence is suddenly clear-headed again." He then turned to Amelia once more. "We are still figuring out how her powers work, as she has just been born."

    His words seemed to not even register, aside from pushing the huntress out of her fugue; she sank to her knees and lowered her head before Velvet, a low howl rolling out of her throat. "Oh, have thanks oh Great Lord for your kindness! Or is it Great Lady? Please forgive your lowly servant for not knowing, have thanks!" Velvet was taken aback and completely out of ideas for what to do while Amelia continued to praise her. She did not know how to react. This was the first time since she turned that anyone thanked her like this, and the first time ever that she was actually revered. She started to reach out with a hand but faltered, expression shifting back and forth; Zaveid and Laphi were trying to hold in their laughter in the background and she threw them glares.

    When the litany of thanks and apologies stopped after some time, she tried her best to keep her expression calm. "Please get to your feet." Amelia did, not daring to meet her eyes. "Look at me." She did, jaw hanging open ever so slightly and tongue lolling out. "If you will be fine, that's good enough for me."

    "Chances are," Laphi interjected before another flood of thanks could begin, "that Minkkubi's blessing will fade as we leave and plunge you back into your previous state."

    There was a moment of silence before Amelia bowed her head once more. "That is just fine, oh kind seraph, oh Great Lord. Just being able to catch my breath is enough, it's more than I could ever hope for. I will endure, I swear!"

    "Then we better get going," Velvet decided to intervene with a smile for Amelia. "Good luck." They saw the huntress and her pack off with only a modicum of praises to the 'Great Lord' and the seraphim; Amelia soon led the wolves off to do whatever and Velvet learned that Great Lord was the current term Empyreans were referred to as. In addition, after asking Zaveid, she also found out that seraphim were worshipped in general, even if true worship went back recently.

    She just gave this huntress a religious experience.

    Either way, Velvet sized her brother up once the hellions were out of sight; Laphi grinned unrepentantly. "An Empyrean ought to have a following, even if she is a goddess of darkness." Which got Zaveid to laugh and agree with him.

    "Heck, considering how the four of the elements are sleeping all the time, I'd be following you if you can do the goddess thing even just half as good as the villain!" Now Laphi was chuckling and Velvet had to snort, too. She ended up shaking her head, understanding that she just could not keep up with these two.

    Their wandering continued and the three soon decided to leave the dirt path they were on before to explore the plains further; that was when Zaveid got back to the previous subject. "Anyway, what about that blessing of yours?" From that followed a quick introduction to domains and how to sense or project her own by Laphicet. He also explained that his therions normally did this instinctively because the technique could not be taught to animals and the domains needed to be active to draw in Malevolence. Velvet retained that power, making her first blessing a personal one; to devour Malevolence without risk and bolster her own power with it. The same as Innominat's.

    "As Empyreans however," he then added with a teasing grin in Zaveid's direction, "we get to cheat again and have more than one blessing where seraphim only have one and most hellions or humans have none. I have three myself, the boost to peoples' resonance and the suppression being the other two. Just focus inward and meditate for a bit, it should come to you."

    They took a break soon after, allowing Velvet to actually try as she was told. She even went so far as to close her draconic body's eyes, feeling the power thrumming in her veins. Power she realised she never wanted to explore too closely. She had seen herself as a monster, still did. What more did she need to know before? Now however, she embraced her nature and looked deeper. It did not take long until her senses adjusted and made her realise something else; there was power and even her very essence flowing outward. It suffused the surrounding air and plants and ground and even living beings, coursed through it all, then returned back to her from elsewhere. It remained a cycle, but one that continued beyond her body.

    "Yeah, I can feel it now." That was Zaveid, calm and perhaps a little intrigued. She kept focussing and testing her own powers. Pushed on her surroundings and pulled, brightened and darkened the surroundings, tried to shift space so the plants grew in loops but failed at that.

    When she opened her eyes, she found herself in an almost monochrome world with the other two, yet knew this power was circulating through her. Crimson lines ran over reality and seemed to emphasize darker contours. Zaveid was looking himself over while Laphi eyed their surroundings. "On a guess," he mused, "my therions usually have hardly noticeable domains because they don't try to affect their surroundings. They just take Malevolence out, so one's senses wouldn't notice the domain being there."

    Weirdly enough though, she did not feel like truly commanding what was in her domain; rather the opposite, if she was perfectly honest. Laphi commented on it when she mentioned that, his own eyes closed: "I can feel it too, sister. Your very presence urges us to... to follow our own will, to not give in. Something along those lines." His eyes began to shine and he turned to Zaveid. "Can you help me test something? I'm almost certain her blessing strengthens the resistance to Malevolence in humans and seraphim both, even after they turned. We don't have a dragon to test it on, but-"

    "But I'm right here, yeah." Zaveid eyed them both for a moment while the surrounding colours faded back to normal, then nodded. "Alright, I'm fine being your guinea pig for this one, it'll be huge if this is what it looks like." Velvet agreed, knowing that even small amounts of Malevolence could be dangerous to a seraph. Then Zaveid pointed at Laphi while the latter pulled on a few motes of Malevolence floating closeby. "But don't you dare pull your 'you're a dragon now' trick!"

    He just received an eyeroll from Laphi, who decided not to snark back and rather turned those motes into a small wisp. Not enough to immediately turn Zaveid, not even enough to harm him gravely, but definitely enough to have an effect. The wisp was blown right into Zaveid's face and dispersed, sinking into his form. A few seconds passed while both siblings watched the wind seraph, who blinked a few times, eyes widened by a fraction. "Huh, not a thing. I should've felt something, but I didn't." Then his almost ever-present grin returned and he winked at Velvet. "Congrats, looks like you're going to be our ticket out of dragonville."

    "Yes and no," Laphi immediately shattered the idea with a sad shake of his head. "It's not a free pass, it can't be. Most likely is that it increases your resistance, not that it makes you immune. And I think I understand why." Then he studied Velvet who waited for his explanation, while Zaveid followed Laphi's gaze. "Seraphim gain their blessings upon birth, ignoring the Empyreans; it's more or less random, but often shapes the character of the person it belongs to. Velvet only developed her blessing after she already fully formed as a person and it's based off of who she is instead. It allows others to choose more freely, to not be so easily bound by the shackles of Malevolence, but they still have to fight on their own."

    It felt right. She could not say why exactly, but this explanation just felt right to her. Everyone had to take flight on their own, all she could do, should do was to ease the burden on their wings.

    "It's still big," Zaveid answered after a moment, to agreement from both Crowes. "If you can expand your domain over the entire continent, this'll change the world."

    "It would." Laphi frowned and turned back to her thoughtfully. "It just occurred to me that we need to figure out if prayer grants you power. You're not a seraph, so it might work differently for you."

    "It's not prayers." Velvet enjoyed the owlish look her brother gave her, being the one to be lectured for once. She poked his nose. "Prayer doesn't mean anything to seraphim. It's deep and heartfelt emotions and thoughts toward a seraph. We just call it prayers because that's the same thing if genuine, just easier to explain." He nodded slowly and she continued with a hint of curiousity: "But what does it feel like?"

    Zaveid took over there, making a sweeping motion with his hand. "It's a little odd. Like a soft whisper of thoughts and feelings not your own flowing into you from outside. Like, I got a few of my own and that huntress is definitely one of 'em now. She's happy to her core just for me giving her the good news. You feel anything like that?"

    Velvet closed her eyes again and listened into herself, but found nothing. After a minute of quiet, she shook her head. "Nothing. Looks like I will have to do without. And good riddance, that takes a lot of potential work off my shoulders." Zaveid huffed at that but did not disagree.

    A moment later, Laphi put a hand on his forehead and sighed. "We're dumb," he told the other two. "Sure, we had to check, but Velvet is a goddess of darkness. It makes perfect sense that she would work mainly on Malevolence, which is also something humans produce."

    Zaveid snapped his fingers at that. "Yeah, you're right." Velvet agreed, too. They went on their way after that, with Velvet spending most of her time thinking while her brother talked quietly with Zaveid about whatever struck his fancy. Or he ran through the thigh-high grass of the meadows, or smelled whatever flowers grew around the area and tried to remember their names.

    A few more hellions crossed their path, but they were all aggressive and thus killed. Velvet or Laphicet bisected them with easy strokes of their blades, which more often than not ended with visible tears in the ground and them knowing they had to work on their fine control. They took whatever the few once-human beings among the bunch had on them before devouring them whole. Laphi by just absorbing them through his mouth, Velvet by gobbling them up with the maw in her hand.

    It was odd to use her left arm again. A mental command, almost a reflex, and the flesh would grow outward while bandage-like skin rolled up and away. Her palm grew as big as her head and the entire thing turned black, jagged claws protruding from it while crimson veins ran up from her fingertips until right before her shoulder. Hundreds of teeth churned within her palm, taking the bodies she pushed in with the wet crunching of bones and all sorts of tendons. She could taste the blood but not the flesh, feel its texture, but nothing else. That had not changed either.

    They noticed a large, spire-like building reaching high up in the distance, but Zaveid told them to ignore it for now.

    Once they were done with the hellions, Velvet decided to get on with lunch and sent Laphi to gather firewood; Zaveid was kept by her side to help turn some straight sticks into skewers. Unfortunately, she could not make any pots without clay and refused to form one out of mana; it was too much of a risk to have it fade away while she was cooking. The same for the skewers, though they formed mana-knives to carve them.

    A few skewers in, Zaveid began to make conversation again. "So, eh, 'Minkkubi'?"

    Velvet paused to look up for a moment and shrugged. "Laphi came up with it, a new name for a new Empyrean. I'm still Velvet to you, though." The silence only held for a moment before she felt compelled to add: "It's not my true name either way and I'm not going to tell you that one."

    She almost missed how Zaveid shaved off half of his stick in one stroke; the knife fell to the ground and he raised his arms defensively at her. "Whoa now, I wasn't asking about that! We don't know each other nearly well enough to go that far!" Looking up again, Velvet thought he appeared almost flustered.

    Then she recalled how much true names meant to seraphim and averted her gaze, sheepishly getting back to carving her stick and soon picking up another. "Sorry." He just grunted and they got back to work, this time with Velvet herself picking the conversation back up after a little while. "Actually, I do know your true name; what about that?"

    "You do? Can't remember telling you."

    "I was around when you told Eizen."

    "Ahhh, yeah. That'd do it." He interrupted his work and she followed to meet his eyes. "Just don't use it then. If you learn it by being around, that's fine and all, but no one except the people who tell you personally or allow you to use their true name are who you're allowed to call by them."

    "I'll keep that in mind."

    The conversation stalled there and they both finished their work before Velvet got started on eviscerating her earlier catches. Laphi, her little angel, soon returned with a bunch of dry wood, some mushrooms, berries, herbs, and even a bit of clay he found.

    Preparations took a good while longer than she was used to, having to do everything from scratch, but Velvet found enjoyment in the menial work. Once they ate however, she was once again reminded that not every scar of the past would fade. Just as she thought, her sense of taste was still gone. Its only exception was blood.

    "I've gotta say, I was promised something outstanding," Zaveid joked halfway through while throwing a bone behind himself, grinning to take the sting out of his tease. "This is good, but not all that special to me."

    Velvet just gave him an unamused look, then idly looked down at her hand. "Maybe I should make wind malakh stew next time."

    "I thought you don't each machos?" A flat stare went to Laphi, who cheerfully undermined her counter and continued to fill his belly with boar and berries. Velvet shook her head and let him off the hook this once, then turned back to Zaveid.

    "Give me some time to get set up properly and we'll talk again. Now, what's with that building over there?" She pointed toward the structure in the distance, which she could tell oozed Malevolence and that she only dropped the subject on earlier because Zaveid asked her to.

    Seeing what she meant, the wind seraph sat a little straighter while pointing with his newly emptied skewer. "That's a crucible. I think that one's been there for centuries now, and there's a few others around the continent. Shepherds went in many times but they just can't manage to clear them out, that's how persistent the Malevolence in there is. Some Lords of Calamity use 'em to pit hellions against each other or to deal with prisoners, but mostly the first one. Loser gets eaten, winner eats the loser and gets stronger."

    "So venomisation?"

    He pointed at Laphi with a nod. "The one. They like their powerful but insane beasties better than when their hellions still have a mind."

    The boy sighed and shook his head while looking at the structure, even interrupting his feasting for a moment to speak. "It's such a waste, though. Instead of putting in the time and effort to build structures of Malevolence that stay stable when the system is flooded with more, they just immediately throw more and more on top until they get something which can do nothing but kill and rampage." He cast a glance in Velvet's direction at that point, then lowered his head and muttered onto his skewer: "I'll admit some of my therions weren't much different, but-" A bone flew past his face and he shut up.

    By herself, Velvet decided to pay this crucible a visit later. Once she knew what she was dealing with.

    "Anyway," Zaveid picked up the previous topic, "the Rolance Empire is most of what used to be Midgand and that's where we are. Lastonbell used to be some dingy little frontier village, I think we met there once-" "Stonebury?" "Yeah, that. City's got this giant belltower, that's unique around the entire continent, and it's the gateway city to Hyland. Lots of travel and trade going through there." Velvet was still with the belltower, faintly happy that the young apprentice she remembered meeting had achieved his goal after all.

    "That's the east, to the west is Pendrago and... well, that's basically Loegres with some changes in the layout. That and Lastonbell are the big cities here in Rolance, with some smaller townships and a bunch of villages strewn across the country. Lots of plains and most of the cattle on the continent, and a lotta horses." Zaveid leaned back a little and peered into the distance, where Velvet could spy a small herd. "Some of the farmers got corrupted too, but most of 'em stay with their cattle. That's basically what's around us."

    Laphi nodded a few times while he chewed and Velvet let the new information run through her head as well. Pendrago and Lastonbell both sounded like good first stops. To see what remained of Loegres from her time, or to see what became of Stonebury. In the end, it was her brother who gave that small push she needed to make her decision when he offered his opinion quietly: "I'd like to see that belltower."

    She just could not deny him. Lastonbell it was.
     
  9. Threadmarks: 1.3 Lastonbell
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The next day was filled with mostly eventless travel, though they went through a heavy downpour for most of it. Neither of the three cared much for that, though they all noticed the Malevolence it carried. Zaveid supplied that the dark force could influence the weather and bring forth illness, which was useful to know.

    They also stumbled over more hellions; the non-human ones they all killed and ate while about half of the few former humans they met were spared and sent on their way. The hostile and aggressive other half went the same way as the rest, which left the siblings with some money and other possessions; among them was a sturdy backpack, which Velvet immediately used to store her things in. Laphi's storage-arte was anchored at its bottom and sealed when not in use, then the furs and feathers she took off their other catches were neatly stacked inside. She could sell those at the next marketplace.

    Velvet spent a lot of time working with her domain, expanding and retracting it intentionally instead of instinctually. Laphi spent most of that day playing with artes or talking to Zaveid about the area; their traveling companion knew a great many things on that end, which kept Laphi entertained for quite a while and drew a smile from Velvet even though she was soaked. By the end of the day, just as the rain let up, Zaveid made a sideway turn and raised his hand. "Well then, it's time for us to part ways. I'll be around for that cooking Laphicet promised me sometime."

    It was abrupt, but not unexpected. Velvet nodded and offered a smile to Zaveid. "I figured you'd leave soon. Good luck out there."

    Laphi made an agreeing noise at that. "Yes. Thank you for talking to me, telling me all those things. It was fun."

    "Glad to hear it. See ya!"

    And with that, he began to walk away; Velvet and Laphicet both stayed where they were until he had made some distance, then they turned to each other with matching, lenient smiles. "He's odd," Laphi told his sister.

    "I'll say."

    They carried through the night after parting from Zaveid, making decent speed now that it was just the two Empyreans. A journey that would normally take four to five days by horse, they made in two, with one night spent resting up. Aside from interacting with the hellions and occasional travelers they encountered off the roads, Velvet had some more time to work with her old and new powers. She also learned that Malevolence was easy to manipulate for her, though this remained a mostly useless power unless she wanted to corrupt others intentionally; that, Velvet knew, was a self-defeating idea. Turning a human into a hellion or a seraph into a dragon made them stronger, so this power did not work as an offensive tool.

    On the night before they entered the city, she took inventory. Before her sat a few leather pouches of her own making, as well as a knapsack she ended up putting together in addition to the backpack they pillaged. She made bone needles for sewing as well, but that was the extent of it for now; there were also the parts she harvested, but even then it remained meagre. Velvet knew this was because they traveled most of the time, but she still disliked her lack of preparation.

    "Don't beat yourself up over it, we have plenty of time," Laphi chirped casually, still playing with a bunch of miniaturised arte-components. "You did a lot with what little time you had. We can go a little slower and then it will all work out. If only this stupid-"

    He kept muttering about whatever he was trying to put together. Velvet raised an eyebrow and scooted up to her brother, but could not make any sense of the complicated patterns. "What is this supposed to be?"

    "Stasis." One of the circles threw sparks and another began to deform, so he quickly made the whole structure disperse and sighed. "I wanted to adjust one pocket so it keeps all the food and ingredients fresh by putting them in stasis. Or maybe by cooling them down a lot, I have to test if that works first. But somehow it keeps failing, so I need to go over it some more."

    "Huh, that would be useful." Velvet chuckled lightly over her brother's muttering and pulled him against her side. "Take a break, Laphi. We don't need it immediately. Actually, how do you even make that stuff so fast?"

    "Hm?" He relaxed and nestled into her side like he always did. "Oh, I remember bits and pieces about all those useful artes the exorcists used. There was no time or interest to learn them all, but I picked up a bit to start from. It would take me years to build something as big and specialised as the Caelix, but that little pocket space we have is much easier." He paused and peeked up at her thoughtfully. "But maybe I should start teaching you some seraphic artes soon. That might be fun, too. You were always a good student for Arthur... then again, maybe that was because he let you swing a sword around."

    Sadly, the playful glare she gave him only made him stick out his tongue at her. So instead, she shrugged and teased back a little. "Well, it seems my baby brother is a genius after all." And there he was pouting, to which she allowed herself a victorious grin.

    "Ugh, I hate when people call me that. I haven't earned it." He kept quiet for a little while, but then rubbed his cheek against her shoulder. "Say, how is your other body doing?"

    It was an interesting question all the same, so Velvet let herself be distracted and focussed on her draconic form; it had not yet done much of anything. Minkkubi lazily moved her wings and rotated her neck. She could even paddle now. "I have forelegs, but no hindlegs. No tail either. And I haven't actually grown yet, either." It was odd to her, considering the size of Innominat.

    "Don't worry, you will grow in time. Right now Minkkubi is little more than a newborn, if even that much. Focus on growing the rest out first."

    "Yeah, I will."

    They spent the rest of the night cuddled together, dozing.

    . .
    . .

    Morning started normally enough as both siblings got ready and on their way to Lastonbell, which they reached within the hour. A large wall greeted them and reached far into the distance, with watchtowers placed along its length. The road ended in a large gate, far ahead of them. There was no real queue at this time of day, so she could simply walk up to that same gate. Which was where her now recurring nemesis struck.

    "Papers, please." The red-clad knight's face was invisible under his helmet, staring at Velvet as she stood there without having considered this. Of course she needed documentation, how could she make that stupid mistake again? When she stuttered for a few moments and Laphi already prepared to cast something, the knight made an understanding noise. "Ah, you don't have any, miss?"

    Velvet was hesitant when she nodded, but strangely that just got her a nod from the knight. "Figures, we get a few of those most days." A gauntlet pointed toward a door to the right. "Simply walk through there and enter the second room to the left, we can have you registered there. It will take some time, though."

    That was... convenient. Laphi lowered his hand while Velvet blinked away her confusion, then she nodded. "Thank you, sir. Um, if I may ask, why do you get so many people without papers?"

    Seeing that there was no one else in line yet, the knight took the time to answer her, though not without a faint chuckle. "Well, miss, we can hardly march through every little village to register everyone. Don't have the manpower or the money, I hear. So they set it up to let people register themselves once they enter either Pendrago or Lastonbell, no harm if they aren't before that point. That's better than forcing people to leave their fields and travel here just to get their papers."

    "Interesting," Laphi muttered at the side. "And a good way to prepare a census in a few years, when everyone not a newborn has been to the city at least once."

    Velvet did not react to her brother's comment and nodded. "I see, that makes sense. Thank you for your time, sir."

    "It was a pleasure, miss. Now off you go." She was waved aside and quickly strolled through the door she was told while a small caravan began to roll in.

    As she made to enter the mostly empty room however, Laphi tapped her shoulder. "I'm going ahead," he told Velvet with a grin. "Have fun!" And off he was, before she could even think to protest.

    . .
    . .

    Laphicet felt oddly excited, wandering the streets on his own; there was just so much going on that he did not even home in on the belltower immediately. He could see workers putting up the foundation for a building while others tore down a ruin right next to it; he figured it burned down. Shopkeepers traded and haggled already despite the early hour.

    A merchant caravan moved past him after a while and his senses tingled. Looking up, Laphi found a seraph sitting on the foremost cart's roof, head turned his way. The man was dressed sharply with a green shirt under a black jacket, brown gloves, and a fancy top hat. His eyes remained hidden behind long, greenish white bangs; that did not stop him from giving Laphicet a nod in passing, which he returned after a moment. Now Laphi wanted a top hat. He just knew it would look great on him.

    Shaking the short encounter from his head, he moved on; there were a few other seraphim about, those more dressed like the locals and giving him friendly waves when they noticed him. He waved back, then a gaggle of playing children ran right past him and caught his attention. He watched them for a moment, smiling at how easy they took their life but also sad he could not join. He was a malak, so they could not see him.

    He was, however, not the only one staring at the group with longing. A girl, human girl, sat some distance away from the town square on a bench while wringing her hands in her light blue skirt. She could not be much older than he looked, twelve, maybe thirteen. She was petite, almost gangly and a little odd-looking even while her eyes followed the playing children around. Laphi made a few steps in her direction without even realising.

    Her hair was the colour of spun gold, if shorter than those of the other girls around. That, too, was similar to Laphicet's own, if far stronger in its tone. A plain white blouse set a contrast to how pretty her hair looked. He could not put his finger on what about her caught his attention beside the looks she threw the other children. Either way, he could empathise with this girl; whatever stopped her from joining them, she did want to. He knew that feeling so, so well.

    Almost without thinking, he wandered over and sat down on the same bench, right next to her. Maybe his presence would spend her some comfort, even if she did not know he was there. A few seconds passed in silence, but then the girl averted her gaze. First toward the ground, then toward the side where he sat, then up and... it remained right on his face. Laphi blinked, she talked to him: "Oh, I haven't seen you here before. Are you with one of the caravans?" He blinked again, then pointed at himself just to make sure. The girl nodded with a soft tilt of her head. "Yes, you. Is something wrong?"

    Laphi shook his head. "No, no. Just surprised is all. I'm traveling with my sister, but she got held up elsewhere. Lastonbell is really great, there are just so many people!" Once he got over his stupor, he began to talk animatedly and motioned for their surroundings. "I've never seen such a big market before and I wanna go look at the belltower later, do you know how it works? Are there other interesting places to visit?"

    The girl laughed quietly and a shy smile wormed its way onto her face. "You're weird," she told Laphicet earnestly before answering his questions: "I don't know how the belltower works, but there's lots of fun places around town. I can show you later if-" "Hey, look!"

    The call came from the side and drew attention from both to another girl their age, who was pointing over to them. "Its Maggie talking to herself again!"

    Laphi blinked once again while there was some sparse laughter. The girl by his side appeared confused at first, but then her eyes widened and returned to him. "You're....?"

    Meanwhile, his gaze lay on the other children, who left another taunt or two before going back to playing on their own. A picture was starting to form and he turned back to the girl. "Maggie, was it?"

    "Margaret, actually. So, you're... you're a seraph?" She fidgeted a little, trying not to meet his eyes but being too curious to avert her gaze entirely. Laphi nodded and she bunched up her skirts as her hands clawed into them. "Sorry, I didn't notice. I'm, well... no one believes me."

    "So I saw. Could you tell the other children something from me?"

    "Huh?"

    "Tell them they either apologise for laughing at you, or I douse them."

    "H-Huh?"

    Laphi held her gaze evenly and began to produce a minor water arte. Not dangerous, just uncomfortable; it was a warm day after all. He let the circle spin over his palm. "Please tell them that. I don't like people who treat others badly."

    "It's fine, really. I'm used to-" "Margaret. Please."

    She shut up and fidgeted harder, but then got up and took a deep breath before wandering over. Laphi followed to where the other children were playing some kind of game with a straw ball, kicking it back and forth. Then it landed at Margaret's foot and they finally noticed her. She did not back down from the displeased looks and pointed to her side. "Um, he says-" "Yeah, yeah."

    One of the boys rolled his eyes and talked over her, already moving to get their ball back. "We all know the story, they're really seraphim and you aren't cra-uuumph!" The rest was drowned out by the equivalent of several buckets of water emptying onto him from above. It splashed down to the ground all around the dark-haired boy, soaking his clothes and creating a small puddle all around him. Some splashes hit the surrounding children and left wet spots on their trousers and skirts, one girl squeaking in surprise.

    Silence reigned among the children and even a few passing adults turned to watch the spectacle. Margaret solemnly pointed to where Laphicet stood again. "That's what he said. 'Either you apologise for laughing, or you get doused'."

    Laphi was already setting up his arte again when the boy he picked next quickly bowed his head. "I'm sorry for not believing you, Maggie! And for laughing at you!"

    Huh. He cancelled the arte, though a drop of water hit that boy's neck and he fearfully looked up before heaving a sigh of relief when nothing else happened. Others followed with the apologies, though one of the girls who refused to relent got an impromptu shower as well.

    It took minutes to crush any doubt that Margaret was speaking to a seraph, which made him wonder just why none of the locals ever did anything like that. When he asked once they got back to sitting together, she fidgeted again. "It's, uh, they either said they didn't want to scare the others or I got them not to. I didn't think it would actually work when no one believed me before. Just because I said the sanctuary is empty...."She trailed off and sighed, then turned her gaze back to Laphicet. "Can you tell me more about your travels? I'd love to travel, but I need to help momma at the inn and we don't have the money for a teacher to learn swordfighting, either." She drooped quite a bit as she explained and Laphi understood.

    "I get how you feel, I always wanted to travel too, but we only got to it not long ago. Lastonbell is our first stop."

    "Oh."

    She drooped further and Laphicet sighed, then gave her hand a quick pat. "I'm sorry I can't tell you much right now, but I'm sure we will come back here and then I'll tell you everything. And, hm. Hold on." He had already helped this girl out a lot, but Velvet was around and good with a blade. She could teach. Maybe.

    Before he got to mention that however, someone cleared her throat. Speak of the devil; Velvet stood next to them with her arms crossed. "I heard rumours that a kind seraph gave someone a public bath. You wouldn't happen to know who that was, would you?"

    Laphicet reacted immediately and in the only way he could: "Nope, haven't seen any seraphim around here." He turned to Margaret with a silly grin. "Have you?" She stared at him, but then shook her head shakily as she caught on. Velvet sighed at that.

    "So it was you. We are going to have a talk about that later."

    "Um, ma'am?" Margaret piped up and drew Velvet's attention from him; once she did, the girl continued with only the slightest bit of fear despite the fact Velvet was as imposing as always. "He was just trying to help me, because no one believed I can see seraphim." The stern expression softened immediately and he knew the immediate danger was over. Margaret followed up: "So you can see them, too?"

    "I can. Why am I even surprised that I find him making friends already? I'm Velvet." She held out her hand with a smile and Margaret shook, giving her own name. "There aren't that many who can see the seraphim. You're a special girl, Margaret."

    "I know. Momma says I'm blessed, but I dunno. You talk a little funny." The last part seemed to have just come out unintentionally, seeing how the girl grimaced; Laphicet just shrugged at that. He noticed people talking weirdly as well, so that was probably a shift in the language over time.

    To distract from the slip, he poked his sister with another question: "Did it really go that fast?"

    "Hm?" She needed a moment to realise he meant the registration, then shrugged. "Kind of. They didn't ask all that many question after I told them what happened to Aball, just what they needed to fill everything out and send me on my way." He almost grinned, but managed to keep his expression calm. That was a devious way of getting around difficult questions. No one would even check if there was a small village named Aball.

    Margaret's eyed them curiously, but was distracted. "Your arm! Are you alright? There's an apothecary just down the street if you need medicine!" They both followed her wide-eyed gaze to the bandaged limb, wondering how to explain it. Velvet shook her head lightly.

    "No need, but thank you for your concern. My arm is mostly healed up, but I got to like the look of these." She flexed the oddly formed skin a little and offered a winning smile, then pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. "Anyway, we're new to the city. How about you show us around for some pocket money?"

    "Of course!"

    . .
    . .

    Finding Margaret had been great luck on Laphi's part. The girl quickly took a liking to Velvet, who had to admit to herself that the feeling was mutual. She was young and likely a late bloomer, considering how small and underdeveloped she still was. But she had a quick wit and keen eyes, helping Velvet to haggle with the merchants through clever comments from the side. Some decent sums changed hands for the furs and feathers she accumulated.

    After the marketplace, they were shown around the barracks, the town's living quarter, various fabled spots like the belltower, the commercial district that held the actual shops and blacksmiths and others, and finally to her family's inn. Velvet had to admire her guide's self-control; there was not even a bit of sheepishness or smugness as she ushered them in the door with her sneaky self-advertising. Not that Velvet minded, she needed a place to stay anyway. Perhaps for a week or so, to explore the city a little. The money they took off hellions and what she got earlier should keep them afloat for a while.

    As they entered, they were greeted by a middle-aged woman with a friendly smile and almost the same golden blonde hair as her daughter, if a few shades darker. Her figure was more womanly and a little plump, but Velvet figured that the simple brown dress she wore hid more muscle than fat. She greeted the new guest warmly. "Welcome to Randgriz Inn! I see you already met my daughter."

    Velvet nodded, but Margaret was faster and pulled her mother aside to chatter at her excitedly. Smiling, she took a seat at the tavern portion to wait; seeing that the sun had yet to sink, the bar lay empty except for an elderly man who quietly drank his beer. It was a cozy taproom, decked out in wood and with a decent assortment of spirits in the rows at the back. It took a few minutes until mother and daughter joined her, with Laphi standing by Velvet's side. She watched them curiously and took note how both eyed the sword strapped to her hip. The mother thoughtfully, the daughter almost hungrily. It was a look she had seen on Margaret a few times so far, though sometimes it had felt more calculating.

    "Allow me to introduce myself," the older woman started when Velvet rose to meet her. "I'm Cynthia Randgriz, the owner of this inn. Margaret tells me you are new in town and need a place to stay; I'm sure you're tired after everything that happened today."

    "Velvet Crowe, a pleasure," she introduced herself in turn when Cynthia paused there; the older woman seemed to consider something. Velvet thought to leave it unadressed, but ultimately decided to poke whatever the issue was. "I can tell you're thinking of something else. What's the matter?"

    This earned her another thoughtful look, then Cynthia turned to her daughter. "I think we need some more water. Be a dear and get some from the well, yes?"

    "On it!" And off the girl was, with Laphi wandering after her curiously.

    Velvet's attention went back to Cynthia, who was kneading her hands self-conciously but did not avert her gaze. "Well, I have to ask: that sword you carry, that is not just for show, yes? You are trained to use it?"

    One eyebrow rose, but she nodded. Cynthia nodded back and slid her hands under the table where Velvet could no longer see them. "Well, I was hoping to offer you some... alternative payment for room and board." Things began to make sense now. "You see, my little girl always dreamed of traveling the world, but I just can't allow it if she doesn't even know how to defend herself. So if you could teach her a little, while you're here, that would be more than enough."

    A smile blossomed on Velvet's face and she could not help but chuckle. "Out of curiousity, which of you two thought of that little deal? With what I saw of Margaret so far, she worked it out after seeing my sword for the first time."

    Her comment brought a smile to the older woman as well, who nodded gently. "She was always a driven and smart girl," Cynthia praised. "I wish I could have sent her to Pendrago for schooling, but we just don't have the money." She did not say whether the girl came up with it, but Velvet took it that way and considered her answer.

    It would be a bad trade for her, she knew that much; lessons in swordsmanship did not come cheap in any age, especially from someone competent. Something struck her curiousity, though. "What about the knight orders?" Which she only heard about earlier. "They do take women into their ranks, so why not send her there to learn?"

    "I...." Cynthia fidgeted, but shook her head resolutely. "No. A thousand times no. You hear rumours, miss Crowe. People whisper that war is coming again, that Hyland will engage our troops again. I won't, I can't-" She stopped when Velvet held out a hand in understanding.

    "I get what you mean. It was a stupid question, I should have guessed that." Of course a mother would not want to risk her child being sent to war. She leaned back and took in this woman. It was on her daughter's suggestion, but she was willing to go along with it. Someone who had little means to herself yet desired for her child to be happy. Yes, it would be a bad trade for Velvet, but did she really have to care about that?

    Deep beneath the Meadow of Triumph, her draconic body opened its maw wide in a yawn and turned around to swim upside down for a change.

    Velvet was an Empyrean now. She could do as she pleased. "You're willing to let her go if she learns?"

    Cynthia averted her gaze for a moment, but then forced it back with clear conviction. "I heard some of the knights complain about their basic training and they're older than my Maggie. If she makes it through that, she earned it. No matter how much I'd rather keep her here."

    Velvet considered her words for a moment, then she grinned and held out a hand. "You've got yourself a deal. I will stay here whenever I pass by in Lastonbell on my travels and take some time to teach your daughter every day. I'm not going to go easy on her and she will spend the time I'm away practicing what she learned." Her offered hand was taken and they shook. Were Velvet not herself good at reading people, she would have missed how relieved Cynthia was about her proposal being accepted. She received a faint yet honest smile.

    Velvet left Cynthia there to wait for her daughter and to deliver the good news; meanwhile, she would head out once more to procure a few necessities. By herself, she mused how nice it felt to make people smile; that was a feeling she had long since forgotten. Perhaps she would appreciate having become a goddess after all.
     
  10. Threadmarks: 1.4 Claudin's Line Unbroken
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The bright smile was a set fixture on Margaret's face after she heard the good news. Laphicet congratulated her and then settled down to wait for his sister's return. Margaret went to do some work around the place to distract herself and he decided to leave her be with her joy, instead trying to finally get his stasis-enchantment to work.

    The elderly man at the bar left after a time and others entered, but he gave them little more than a glance; he simply needed to find the correct mana structure to slow decay, but nothing short of a complicated and convoluted double-helix even began to work. Even those still warped the space inside and tore at whatever was placed into stasis. He had already given up on ever achieving a field that would put a living being in stasis without killing it, but now he was beginning to get frustrated.

    The taproom began to fill up by the time his sister returned; Laphi had not made any actual progress and left his arte be with a sigh, only then noticing the receding light levels. For once in his life however, he was not the happiest person in the room to see Velvet step in; Margaret appeared to have lain in ambush, for she was on her within moments and peppered her with questions. When she could start, how long Velvet would stay, so on. The siblings exchanged an amused look at that.

    "Do you have a backyard, or some other place where we have some room?"

    "Oh, yes! This way, come!"

    He followed with a wry grin as Velvet let herself be led through the inn's large structure, toward a staff area, where a maid crossed their path and merely dodged them with a knowing smile; the news spread like wildfire due to Margaret's giddiness. She led them out into a fenced off backyard, which appeared to be used for larger food deliveries and the like, being paved with even cobblestone and offering enough space for a half dozen people to move in comfortably. The fence reached higher than Velvet was tall, which she seemed to appreciate. "This will do," she gave her own assessment a moment after Laphicet was done taking it all in. She put down her looted backpack and rummaged through it while Margaret waited, almost vibrating in place and looking a small push away from crawling in there herself to look for whatever Velvet was searching.

    Laphicet had no such restraints; he stepped next to his sister and peeked over her shoulder to find a bundle of clothes up top. That made sense, as well as the other necessities. What his sister finally produced, however, was a belt with attached scabbard; glancing at Margaret told him that the girl's gaze was focussed on the sword's hilt the moment she saw it. Velvet held it out to her calmly, lecturing at once: "This is a wooden blade you're going to use for practice. You're not going to so much as touch an actual one until you are proficient with it, are we clear?"

    Margaret took it with clear reverence. "Yes, teacher!"

    "Good, now- stop." Margaret was in the process of drawing the sword out of its scabbard but halted, blinking at Velvet who frowned ever so slightly. Laphi took a seat at the side and waited for where this was going. "The first thing you will learn is not how to draw a sword, but how to put it on properly." What followed was a series of repetitions in which Velvet demonstrated how to tie the belt and the height at which it had to sit so as to not pose problems. She let Margaret practice the motions a few times after tying the blade to her waist the first time, ignoring the protest that the girl knew how to work with a belt.

    He could not help but laugh in the sanctity of his own mind; Margaret's disappointment and impatience were obvious. Her mother, Cynthia, wandered off after a few minutes of discreet observation. After attaching the sword came actually drawing it. Which, once again, Velvet ordered her student to do repeatedly; drawing and sheathing, both of which happened only with some bumps and fiddling respectively; Laphicet, who was used to Arthur's fluid drawing of a blade, saw just how great the difference was.

    It took about half an hour for Margaret to stomp her foot. "Ahh, how many more of these things do I have to do before we start with the actual lesson?!"

    Her outburst received an unamused stare and the girl wilted immediately, apologising with a soft voice. Velvet just shook her head, voice stern as she explained: "Everything is part of the lesson. How to get the sharp edge into your enemy is no more than half of what you need to know, perhaps even less. You need the right footwork, the muscles, and the endurance to not die. You need knowledge and even a bit of philosophy."

    Laphicet's eyes widened as he realised just what she was going to do. And he was intrigued, curious, wanting to try as well in that very moment. He never got much of a chance to even make the attempt in his old life, so he got up now and formed a blunt sword of his own to join with Margaret; Velvet just gave him an odd look but did not shoo him away. Margaret's eyes grew a little wide, but she said nothing either. He usually got by on overwhelming force and speed, as well as the bits he learned from Arthur in what little time they had after his reincarnation, but he knew that was a bad habit.

    "Either way," Velvet continued then, glancing to where the shadows kept growing longer. "There isn't much time left today, so we won't have a full lesson until tomorrow anyway. I'm starting out with the things you will need most today. After what we already have... we continue with the five maxims my own teacher hammered into me when I started. Listen well and remember them; you will know them inside and out by the time I leave."

    Just like he thought. Margaret tensed up and stood at attention, an action which Laphicet mimicked somewhat; he already knew what would follow, could recite the first four from memory just through osmosis, but he listened raptly anyway.

    "First: Plans must be solid, reactions flexible. Repeat it."

    They both dutifully spoke her words back at her and Velvet nodded. Laphicet could not help but smile at the thought of what she would do to Margaret; his sister had to recite all of those maxims before bed and after every meal for months until they burned themselves into her mind.

    "Second: Know your enemy, and strike them where they are weak."

    They repeated this one without prompt, which drew a faint smile. The shadows dancing over her face made that appear a lot more sinister than she meant it, though. Margaret did not notice, enraptured as she was.

    "Third: Never waver once your sword is drawn. Control your feelings to control the tide of battle."

    As before, they spoke the words back at her; this time Laphicet threw a sly grin at his sister however, knowing that this was the maxim she had the greatest difficulty with herself. She rolled her eyes, having gotten the message.

    "Fourth: Never let your guard down, even when victorious."

    Another repetition and Velvet nodded; in the longer pause however, Margaret, turned her gaze to her hands in wonder. "I, I think I get them. They just feel... right. I already forgot numbers two and three, but I promise I will learn them all soon."

    "See that you do. I want you to repeat them to yourself at every toll of the bell." As if on cue, the bell's distant gong filled the air nine times; Margaret nodded vigorously but needed an expectant look from her teacher to realise she had to start already. True to her words, she only remembered the first and fourth maxim. Laphi added the other two afterward.

    "Okay, I think I have them. What's the fifth?" The question prompted Velvet to close her eyes for a moment, posture shifting. It almost appeared as if she was about to snarl, but she remained calm. When her lids opened back up, Margaret and Laphi both were rooted in place by her stare's intensity.

    "Don't give in to fear. Don't despair, no matter what."

    She enunciated each word slowly, with a calm that belied steel. Boy and girl stayed silent for long moments after she finished, but then they repeated the fifth maxim back at her. The following, pregnant pause lasted for a while... until Margaret lowered her head in shame. "I forgot the first maxim again. And half of the third."

    Velvet stared down at her befuddled, but then she huffed and shook her head at the situation. Laphicet did much the same, though he had an idea: "Maybe you should write them down so you can read them later?"

    Surprisingly however, this got him a confused look from the girl. "I'm a peasant, I can't read. Or write. I can do math, but that's it." Both siblings eyed her owlishly and she blinked, then looked between them. "Wait, you can? Both of you?"

    Velvet sighed and gave her brother a look. "I'll teach her in the mornings, you get her in the evenings." He nodded at that without need for any clarification while Margaret stared at the both of them; her eyes only widened further when Velvet addressed her: "Starting tomorrow, you will learn to read and write."

    It seemed that skill had been more common during their time; then again, Laphi thought, he and Velvet only knew it because Arthur taught them. Celica had been illiterate, much like the rest of Aball except a few people. He found it a shame that so many were unable to make use of the written word, past and present.

    Night truly began to fall at that point, drawing a sigh from Velvet. "This will do for today," she declared. "We're starting early tomorrow, so don't stay up too late." She ushered the girl back inside and got no backtalk at all, probably because Margaret was still reeling from the new development. Laphi sympathised with her, but did not stop. He followed Velvet as she first talked to Cynthia and then walked to 'her' room which was actually theirs. The clothes he saw in her pack came out now and she spread them on the bed. "I bought a few different things so we can pick what we like and have some spares. Better sooner rather than later, before my focus slips."

    "Good idea. At least we know that humans can still see the clothes you weave, imagine if they couldn't." He got a nasty look from Velvet, but only stuck out his tongue and started to go through the things in his size. His sister followed soon after and he found his thoughts idling on the last few hours. "Who would have thought that you end up teaching someone else one day?"

    "No one, not even me. But if she wants it so much, I can at least try." Velvet then muttered something about putting together a training dummy before they left town. She then proceeded to pick an outfit much like her mana-crafted one, except that the tunic was dark brown and she wore actual pants of a similar colour underneath. Her boots were sturdy leather, though nowhere near as sharp or blade-carrying as those she used to wear. A simple red ribbon bound Velvet's long, raven hair into a ponytail, which he vowed he would turn back into a braid before the night was out.

    Laphicet just picked up a white shirt that fit him well enough and similar pants to those his sister wore, if smaller. He did not need actual boots, but the sensation of wearing footwear that sturdy made him decide to keep them on. Thankfully, even material items worn by a seraph would not be seen. He had no idea why, but he did not much care either. Neither of them would need to sleep that night, but they had to pretend; Laphi knew he would use that time to prepare a few things for Margaret. He was surprisingly giddy to teach and figured that his sister felt the same.

    Velvet had certainly made plans; the next day, she took a bleary-eyed Margaret out of her comfortable bed soon after the sun first revealed its shining face to Lastonbell. She grumbled and moaned, but woke up nonetheless and recited at least the first and second maxim from memory when the bell tolled. It was a start.

    She started them slowly, let Margaret wake up some more by having her do a few stretches to get limber, made her draw and sheathe a few times. When the girl appeared ready to absorb knowledge, Velvet began: "The style I will teach you consists of six basic stances and a number of more advanced techniques that all build on those basics. You will spend the first few months building up the muscles you need and internalising those six stances. Everything builds on them and they will be the most important tools at your disposal."

    Her first student nodded just as fervently as she had the previous evening. Velvet reserved her judgement for another day and began to describe the first stance in detail; it was just a straight slashing motion at the end of the day, but it had to be completely straight and required some proper footwork. As she did, Laphi began to perform that same stance somewhat shaky but passably; it was a well-enough demonstration, though his blade shuddered a little even as he swung.

    "Um, Velvet?" Her attention turned back to Margaret after she gave her brother a few comments on how to improve; the wide-eyed girl was obviously hopeful. "Can't you show them to us, too?"

    Now there was another problem, one she had hoped to get around. Velvet sighed and shook her head. "Maybe some of the basics, but not more. I remember all the things I was taught, but my body just moves on its own and does something else, something more my own. And I can't teach you that because that downward slash can come out like so," she drew her sword in a fluid motion, then slashed down at an angle, "like so," the blade rose and came down again, "or like so," and she twirled around on her heel, delivered a straight kick into the air with her other foot to use the momentum, then followed that with an angled slash in the same direction. "And none of this is technically part of the original style. I just play it by ear and decide what to do as I fight."

    "Ohhh!"

    Margaret appeared more impressed by the precise and fast motions, but Velvet hoped her point was understood. She added to it regardless, a little sheepish for that failing on her part. "So I'd rather get into the habit of explaining them to you instead of demonstrating; I can't do that for long. You don't need to worry too much," she reassured after a moment of thought, "they're all basics after all. Downward swing, upward swing, block, dodge, turn, kick."

    "The original style is like clockwork," Laphi chimed in with a sly grin. He motioned at Velvet and she already grew a little annoyed. "Velvet's own version is more about wild and chaotic combat, almost the total opposite." He was right, but he did not have to phrase it like this.

    "Essentially, yes. Now it's your turn, Margaret. Do you want me to explain again?" Margaret nodded and received the instructions a second time, closing her eyes to let them sink in. Velvet waited once she was done, watched the minute changes in her student's posture. Her feet were put further apart, her center of gravity lowered, she held the handle firmly with both hands. Then she raised her arms slowly but with varying speed... and brought the blade down in a perfect downward slash as she made a half-step forward. The strength of her entire body went into it and a quiet woosh of displaced air hit Velvet's ears.

    Margaret did not stumble forward or backward, she remained balanced as she returned to her original posture. She did not lose her sword. Eyes now open, she waited for Velvet's verdict.

    Meanwhile, Velvet herself was confused. "Again."

    The motion repeated, then again, then again. Laphi peered at Margaret as well once he realised what was going on; he balanced himself by being able to fly, Velvet knew that. Margaret could not, yet she remained perfectly on her feet.

    "Look at that," she muttered more to herself, impressed. "we won't need months if this wasn't just a fluke. Laphi, keep practicing the first stance. Margaret, to me." Both children did as they were told and Velvet finally gave her verdict: "You were a little shaky on raising the blade, but everything afterward was close to perfect. We're doing another for today and you will practice those two." She began to explain how to perform the upward swing right after and tried not to get too affected by Margaret's bright grin.

    Later that afternoon, Velvet sat together with Cynthia after another trip through Lastonbell. Margaret worked upstairs at cleaning a room and Laphi wandered off to explore on his own, leaving Velvet in the taproom with Cynthia as the other woman prepared for the evening rush; much as she expected however, the obvious question was soon asked: "How is she doing?"

    Velvet took a sip from the water she was offered and considered; a smile broke through her calm facade rather quickly. "So far, it looks like she's a natural," she revealed. "My brother started learning a while ago, but she is already better than him at what I showed her so far. She's tutoring him, even. She took to it like a fish to water."

    Cynthia's eyes widened slightly, torn between joy and resignation. "Truly?"

    "Yes, I was quite surprised. But you don't need to worry about her running off for adventure anytime soon, these things take time." Velvet motioned for herself. "A proper form only takes her so far. She will have to exercise daily beside the actual training to build up stamina, and that for a long time. It helps that she already lives an active life, but that isn't enough for what she wants to be." The older woman nodded along slowly, taking it all in while Velvet took another sip and continued: "I started my own training when I was ten. The first time I was allowed to go out and fight anything was at fourteen. Margaret is older than I was and good at what she does, so in the very best case I'd say two years. She is still slow and a little shaky, but that's normal for a beginner."

    "I see." There was silence, though Cynthia's relieved smile did not go unnoticed; she put a hand over her heart for a moment and turned her attention to Velvet herself with a hint of curiousity. "I was wondering, miss Crowe. Or Velvet, if I may?" The younger woman nodded and she continued: "I was wondering, you said your 'brother' is learning with Maggie. Is that something which happens... often? For a seraph and a human to be siblings? How does it work?"

    This was not quite where she had expected the conversation to go; at least Margaret had not shared that bit with her mother yet, even though she asked before as well. Velvet lowered her gaze to the table and shrugged, a pang of leftover pain striking her chest. "It doesn't, normally. Most seraphim are born from pure mana in specific locations around the world. Some, like Laphi, are reincarnated from a human after their death." Cynthia's eyes widened even though Velvet kept speaking: "Though those don't keep the memories of their previous life in most cases."

    "Oh, oh no. I am so sorry." Cynthia's voice was almost toneless and she covered her mouth with one hand. "I wasn't thinking-" "It's fine."

    The older woman cut herself off while the younger one let out a deep breath. "It's been a while ago. I... dealt with it all. And I still have my Laphi." There was so much more to it, but she did not want to discuss any of it with a near-stranger. Velvet just put on a weak smile. "I'm fine."

    The first week of her stay in Lastonbell passed rather quickly after that, though there were two more rainstorms rolling over the city in as many days. Be it outside or inside however, Margaret soaked in the remaining basics like a sponge and Velvet told her to practice them for an hour every day once her and Laphi left town. She introduced the girl to several exercises she had to go through herself, to strengthen her arms, legs, stomach, and other important muscles. Margaret started on them all without complaint, though she quickly began to whine.

    "Start slow," Velvet told her not much later. "Start slow and ramp it up a notch whenever you start to feel comfortable, until you have a good workout. You don't need the strength and endurance right now, you have time."

    Margaret also learned to read in the evenings, which progressed quite nicely as well; Laphi had her write all the characters on a chalk board they procured and read to her from a book they got for cheap.

    The second week, she decided to cover two of the more advanced stances. Flowing from upward swing to downward swing and combining them into a one-two combination, as well as going from a turn into an upward swing immediately. Again, Margaret did well even if this took her a bit longer to get through.

    As the days went by however, Velvet could not help but feel a little odd. Something which was not because of the sudden storm uprooting half a forest fifty kilometres to the north. No, it was because of what her student learned and did. These were Artorius' teachings; the same style, the same motions, performed by a girl younger than herself. The art of the blade as it had been devised and perfected by King Claudin Asgard himself, the man who taught Arthur everything. And yet they were performed so well by this child, who wore any expression between a bright smile and a frown of concentration as she practiced.

    This age would see their accomplishments once more, if Margaret's early achievements were any indication.

    Toward the end of that second week, Laphi nudged his sister's side as they were dozing next to each other. "If need be, she would make a good shepherd," he suggested. Velvet just shrugged at that, unsure whether they should make plans that far into the future. But she knew they would have to at some point. Laphi had begun to eavesdrop on the bar's patrons, which gave them a few trickles of useful information. He also went to talk to the native seraphim, for much the same result; from there they also learned that the seraphim kept culling local hellion populations, which helped lower the amount of Malevolence near most cities and villages.

    After some more thought, she nudged him back. "I guess I have to get used to thinking strategically. You're probably better at this than me, so you can be in charge of our long-term plans."

    He nudged her in turn and she had to chuckle. "Not true, you're decent. You led a one-ship guerilla campaign against an empire. You're just unused to the change in perspective."

    That was not entirely wrong, though she disagreed with his assessment and nudged him once again to keep the little game going. "I'm good enough at leading small groups of people myself, but I don't think I'll be good at this. You have the smarts to keep something bigger running." Laphi hummed and they both fell quiet to think for a while. In the end, Velvet sighed and nudged her brother again: "We still have to decide just what exactly we even want to do. I guess there's still some time before we need to commit, but we can start laying the groundwork on the way if we have a basic idea soon."

    She was nudged back almost immediately and winced slightly from the force of his elbow. "You're right, but I don't have any real ideas right now. How about we talk it out tomorrow?"

    "Good idea." Soon after, the two gods fell into a dreamless slumber, leaning shoulder to shoulder.

    That following day marked the beginning of the third week after they descended from the heavens. It was also, by Velvet's choice, the final day of their stay in Lastonbell for the time being. Margaret's expression fell harshly when Velvet explained their imminent departure during breakfast with the innkeeper and her daughter; both of them appeared unhappy, but they understood.

    "It's such a shame," Cynthia noted with a faint smile after some time. "You are such a wonderful customer, cleaning your own room better than most of us could and even helping in the kitchen from time to time. I would hire you if you didn't want to leave."

    Both children laughed at that and Velvet had to smile, too. "I'm just used to doing chores from home," she brushed off the praise. "It's relaxing." Then she turned to Margaret. "And don't worry about me. We will be around every once in a while."

    "Promise?"

    "...promise." It seemed to appease the girl at least somewhat, though giving her word made Velvet a little uncomfortable for what the future may bring. She rather changed the subject and poked her cheek. "Maybe you get an audience once scary old me isn't around anymore. I wonder how many of the other children are peeking when you're training."

    "Quite a few," Laphi provided without prompting. "Word about this got around pretty quickly." They did notice a few of them peeking over the fence on the last few mornings; Velvet just chuckled and Cynthia joined, though the latter rather about the first comment and not Laphi's addition. It made sense, though; she took Margaret running, among other things. They could not have kept this a secret even if they tried.

    Margaret fidgeted a little, but soon her eyes went back to lie on the table. "It's still... I don't know. You get to go wherever you want, whenever you want. I'd like to do that, too."

    The siblings exchanged a glance at that, but Velvet did not feel like pointing out that kind of freedom required a certain amount of dead relatives and friends. "I do get it," Laphi told his friend quietly, "but you will get there, too. Don't worry."

    Only Velvet saw because she paid attention, but in that moment Laphi's eyes widened fractionally and he formed unspoken words with his mouth. Then his expression relaxed and he went back to eating cheerfully. It took until the evening for her to find out what he had thought of; after a lonely meal in the taproom that she could not taste and which she spent making a list of their current goals and how to achieve them. And after Laphi returned from tutoring Margaret once more.

    "Did she finally stop getting shy when you two are alone?" Laphi only shrugged and she dropped the subject there. Teasing him about that got old a while ago, especially when it became clear this was less a crush and more a general awkwardness around a cute boy that Margaret had.

    "I was thinking since earlier," her brother started without preamble once no further teasing happened. "It kind of slipped my mind so far, but I can set down teleportation artes; they don't make for constant travel back and forth, but singular journeys should be fine." Velvet listened curiously and let him explain, although the merits were obvious to her as well. "If we can hide one near Lastonbell and put down another after we reach Pendrago, we can come back here instantly. And after that, too; when we're leaving Rolance."

    She immediately understood and liked that idea. She liked it a lot.

    "We will do that right after leaving the city tomorrow," Velvet decided, receiving a nod from Laphi; he then peered at the sheet of parchment now placed on the ground between them and she explained it: "Beside that, I made a list of what we need. Information, allies and influence, a base of operations, and resources; in that order, too. With teleportation, we can move quickly over the entire continent once we have set up."

    "And gather information everywhere without losing time," Laphi agreed when Velvet made a pause. He increased the light shining down a little to peer at the page. "It's definitely worth the mana to power them, not that I am lacking either way. Hm." A pause as she waited for him to complete his thought; Laphi tapped the 'base of operations' on her list. "We could set up a base on my other body. There is definitely enough space there and no one is going to find it."

    Velvet opened her mouth to disagree, but shut it again when she realised that idea had merit. She scribbled a note behind that bullet point. "We will keep it in mind and see if it's viable later."

    "Alright." Another appraisal was given to the parchment, then Laphi studied his sister. "I still wonder what we're going to do, in general I mean. With what we want and need, the best option might be to form an actual organisation. Find a source of income, recruit people to do some of the work for us, that kind of thing."

    He had a point, but Velvet frowned nonetheless. "You're not wrong, but growing an organisation from the ground up takes too long right now. If we push it to grow faster than normal, that raises suspicion." She liked the idea, but it did not feel feasible. "We will have to put a lot of thought into how to proceed from here, but it's good to have some ideas ready."

    "You're right. Was that everything we need to prepare for tomorrow?"

    Velvet threw a glance to her pack and took stock mentally, then nodded. "We're done." It only took that long for her brother to be back at playing with his stasis-arte. She just rolled her eyes at the sight. Boys.
     
  11. Threadmarks: 1.5 On Crimson Wings
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    They made to head out in the morning, right after breakfast. Margaret surprised Velvet a little by hugging her goodbye, then doing the same to Laphi. Both siblings reminded her to keep up with her studies, but Velvet knew there was no real need to worry about it; their student was a diligent girl. Nonetheless, both Crowes looked back to the city once they passed through its heavy gates. Even if it was not for too long, Velvet felt she would miss Margaret being around.

    One of the reasons they left so early was the preparations they had to make; it took around four hours for her brother to put together a teleportation arte, time Velvet spent looking for a good hiding spot. They ultimately placed it in a small cave just a quick sprint from Lastonbell but out of view, then sealed off the entrance after placing a self-activating light arte inside. "The gate itself will stay inert until I need it," Laphi explained as they turned to leave for good. "Those artes were made so you can activate them from any connected gate."

    After that however, their journey remained mostly uneventful; they traversed the Meadow of Triumph once more, however an area so large could be called a meadow. There were the occasional days of blistering heat or strong gales in the first week, but neither stopped them. Velvet spent the days practicing with her new powers, now a little more free to do so because she had no ethereal clothes to keep from fading away. Unfortunately, she could not practice seraphic artes on the move. Aside from the fact that they could easily stride at the speed of horses and beyond, those artes often required the caster to remain still while the formula was put together; moving could change the flow of mana and thus disrupt the arte. This limited those studies to the breaks they took. Laphi had similar issues, though he did figure out that basic stasis arte a few days in and remained content about his success for almost the rest of the journey.

    Some hellions crossed their path, they spied some wild game to hunt and overtook a few travelers by circling around them. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, though especially the first two occurences allowed them to stock up on a great deal of resources; meat, pelts, some money and other effects, the latter taken from those once-human hellions who attacked them mindlessly even within Velvet's domain. In the end however, they needed an entire two weeks to Pendrago like most people required on horseback; Laphi kept making detours to explore small woodlands, caves, and even the odd ruins they found on the way.

    He enjoyed those little trips so much and crawled through the smallest openings with such curiousity that Velvet could not get herself to stop him. This was the journey he always wanted, a real one and not just in a dream. They walked where few humans had been in many years, saw wonders and beauty and cruelty alike. In a way, Velvet understood his feelings in that regard. She got used to seeing so many things on her own journey and tempered herself a little more, but all of this was new to him. So she indulged her brother.

    Her own justification, that he might find something useful, proved itself to be more than that after the first week.

    "Velvet, look!"

    The older Crowe brought the arte she focussed on to completion and let a hail of fist-sized fireballs loose on the back of the cave they made camp in. Only then did she turn to her brother to behold the ornate short sword he held; appraising it, Velvet noticed how the blade was little longer than a dagger and the hilt coloured a deep, earthy brown. The light shining on it made faint engravings visible over its entire length, gleaming pristine as if it had just been forged. Then she took in her brother and sighed. "You should dry yourself." True to the heavy rainfall outside, Laphi was soaked because he could not care less. "God or no god, I won't have you run around in damp clothes."

    "Yes, Velvet." He did not argue and put his find down carefully, then wandered over to their pack to get himself some dry clothes. His gaze went to the scorched wall on the way, though. "You seem better at picking up fire artes. Maybe we can move onto Meteor Storm within the year." There was some stifled laughter in the suggestion, but she heard it even though her brother vanished into their storage a moment later. Velvet rolled her eyes and left the quip uncommented, more interested in the sword Laphi found.

    Picking it up and holding it, she quickly realised that it was completely unbalanced. The blade had barely any weight at all while the hilt felt heavier than it should be. "This is a ceremonial weapon," she muttered to herself, turning it this way and that. Inscriptions lit up when the light hit them just so, faint lines trailing the gleaming metal. She looked up when the storage-arte flared and Laphi stepped back out, his damp clothes nowhere to be seen; she would have to dry and air them later, she just knew it. Once he returned however, Velvet picked their conversation back up: "It might be because Seres' powers are rooted deep inside me. Her flame is still burning, even if she's gone."

    "Possible," Laphi returned while studying his sister. He sat down opposite to her and took the blade, dismissing the subject. "Anyway, this here is an armatisation catalyst. The same formula as what Arthur used, but a lot more advanced and nuanced."

    Velvet's eyebrows rose and she scrutinised the weapon again. It was ceremonial, just not in the way she thought. "That explains why it doesn't make for a good weapon on its own. I remember meeting some malakhim who said they wanted to refine the formula for future use."

    "They certainly did that," Laphi muttered while running a scanning arte over the blade. "It's almost a piece of art as much as a working formula. This is a catalyst for earth seraphim, so they still kept them separated by element to bond easier with a given seraph. But instead of the old design that only regarded the human part and enhanced it with the malak, this here creates an almost perfect union between both. It's amazing!"

    "Interesting." Her eyes wandered from the sword to her brother. "Can you use it?"

    Laphi just gave her a flat stare in response. "Do I look like an earth seraph to you? I have no direct elemental affinity at all."

    "Shouldn't that mean you can use all catalysts?"

    "The opposite, really. I can only use a specialised catalyst made for me specifically, especially because I'm not just a seraph. So I need to make one myself if I want that."

    His explanation made sense to her, though Velvet also wondered whether they would need anyone to armatise with Innominat. Again. Not to mention... "You can do that?"

    She only received a shrug at that. "Probably? We do have the old catalyst Arthur used and this one here, so I can definitely learn how the arte works and how it was refined over the centuries. It will still take some time, but I should be able to make those after comparing the old and new designs. It will be good to have some at hand in the future."

    "I'll say," Velvet agreed with a small grin. "I remember how much trouble those armatised exorcists were. Armatisation is a game changer, assuming we have pairs capable and willing to do it."

    "Margaret will probably get there in a few years," Laphi provided thoughtfully. Velvet agreed and they shelved the subject for the time being.

    Rain appeared to become a theme over the next days. Where it was more of a nuisance when they got rained on for an hour or two at first, the day they reached Pendrago it had been pouring throughout night and morning. The clouds did not seem like they would lighten up anytime soon, either.

    Velvet offered her recently gained papers at the gate and was let through, only to find herself stopping right inside the main gate. She already passed an unfamiliar outgrowth of housing outside of the walls, the lines of houses had shifted, and architecture was a little different, but the main plaza's fountains and its general layout remained similar to what she remembered. This city remained Loegres, even if it was hammered by torrential rain. Pendrago stood bigger than anything they had ever seen, safe for its previous incarnation and Innominat's physical form up high. Yet now, for the first time, neither of them was on an important mission. For the first time, they could take in the majesty that was a capital city.

    It did not matter that people hurried this way and that to escape the rain, the rain itself did not matter in these moments. Velvet and Laphicet just drank in the sight solemnly, holding hands and squeezing the other. Houses of stone and wood reached almost to the horizon, kept safe by walls which had been built a thousand years ago. The royal castle rested high above, having been built on a hill overlooking what was once Loegres. Carts rolled past them through the gate, in and out, horses trotting along with their riders. The Crowes were not the only people awed by the sight of Pendrago, though they stood to take it in the longest. When they finally moved, it was toward the inner city. Laphi did not take long to skip forward in a different direction to Velvet's own. "I can go and talk to the local seraphim," he excused himself with.

    Velvet let him, knowing that most of her current errands were about selling the things she found and hunted. It would take a while, partly due to the amount of goods she accumulated on the way and partly because selling all of those at once would be suspicious. She would have to give the impression of hauling things in over several trips, perhaps even sell to different people so as to not raise too much suspicion. On her way, she heard some people muttering that the rain had been pouring down for an entire week at this point despite it not being the right season. The harvest would be ruined at this rate, they said.

    This gave her pause and stayed on her mind until she reunited with Laphi in the evening; once in the safety of a room at one of the inns, she asked him about it. "I was wondering, are there artes to affect the weather?"

    "Because of the rain?" She nodded, figuring he heard the same thing as she did. Laphi shrugged and emitted a few streamers of mana that he began to weave together absently. "Yes, there are. But those are not at all easy to set up or to maintain, they are rituals somewhere between normal artes and Oaths. Possible for a single seraph to pull off, but it takes a while. Especially if you want a continuous effect, that requires to maintain the arte after setting it up."

    Velvet took that in quietly, sitting on the bed and playing with some minor arte of her own. Strings of mana weaved together to form a crimson circle. "The seraphim here in Pendrago wouldn't have any reason to do this, right?"

    "Right. I didn't hear anything from them, they're just as confused about this." Laphi paused to watch as she created a small, gleaming sphere, then continued to talk and weave: "But it's still odd enough that we should keep an ear out. We can take a few days to look around, right?"

    A nod was given and remained unseen because Laphi was busy. Velvet did not even notice as she made her source of light hover around carefully. "We can, and we will keep an ear out. I want to do some shopping myself, now that we have some money at hand." The light fizzled out. "But that aside, I have been thinking." She got up and went over to their pack, then bent inside and pulled out a few pieces of parchment holding their notes, as well as an empty one; quill and ink followed, then she settled down at the room's small desk. Laphi joined her soon after, curious.

    "We need something like an organisation and we need it fast," Velvet voiced her thoughts as she uncorked the ink. "This leaves us with two options; either we try to take over an existing organisation, or we found something illegal, out of sight of the law. Anything else takes too much time."

    "Agreed." Laphi frowned down at the yet clean parchment. "But we do not know which organisations exist, who is in them, or where the Lord of Calamity might already have his own people to undermine a group. So I think we should make our own."

    "I was thinking much the same thing," Velvet agreed with her brother. "The longer we can stay unseen, the more we can set ourselves up for a decisive strike. We also need to find people we can be sure aren't with the Lord of Calamity, that will be the bigger problem." She paused and sought her brother's eyes, smiling. "I actually had an idea about that. We are both dummies for not thinking of it sooner, it just came to me earlier." She dunked the quill's tip in ink and began to write as she explained: "There is an entire race afraid of Malevolence, right in front of our noses. If we can recruit seraphim...."

    She trailed off and let Laphi finish the thought: "Then we have people who are assuredly not working with our enemy and who can easily spy on humans without being noticed." It was so simple and yet genius; he grinned just like she did, even more when he read the bullet point she had written in her own, somewhat messy handwriting. "I can see where you are going with this and I like it."

    Velvet nodded at her brother, but hesitated and added an additional point as she thought of her old friends. "We just have to keep in mind that even a Lord of Calamity can have a few seraphim helping them. I did, too." Reminding herself of Eizen and Phi made Velvet think back for a moment. Being reminded of their current situation made her chest ache, but she expelled those feelings with a deep sigh.

    "That is true as well," Laphi conceded then. "Nonetheless, seraphim are the least likely to be involved with our enemies. So once we have everything worked out, I can go and ask around. Though I guess we actually need a name and a base of operations... and maybe not be too evil for them to work with us. Unless you want me to suppress them." Velvet had begun to giggle over the 'not too evil' part, but what followed made her gaze harden instantly. The smirk she saw on Laphi's face made it clear he was joking, though.

    After a few minutes of idle silence, he got up and went for the door. "Do you mind if I look around some more? I'm curious how the city looks at night." Velvet made a dismissive wave at that, knowing that he could protect himself if need be. "Thank you, I won't be too long!"

    The door opened and closed, leaving Velvet alone with her thoughts.

    The older Crowe sighed and sealed the ink vial again, then she let out another, heavier sigh and put her head on her arms. Thinking of some of her friends made her aware of the rest again; she missed them. Eizen with his grumbling and almost childlike excitement for all kinds of knowledge, Phi's kindness and pleasant behaviour, Rokurou and his earnestness, Eleanor as a stick in the mud to their fun and yet always willing to help and improve, and Magilou too.

    Funny, she thought to herself; the first time she met the quirky witch, Velvet would never have thought she would miss her one day. Magilou of all people was bothersome, loud, lewd, and generally an annoyance; yet she was also bringing cheer into the group, remained fiercely loyal until the very end despite acting so weird about it, and aided with knowledge no one else possessed. They would not have succeeded without her.

    Thinking of those five however, made Velvet think of the many other people she had met during that journey. Dyle and Kurogane, a lizard daemon and animated armour respectively; sailor and blacksmith, yet they somehow became an odd sort of friends. She thought back to Medissa and Kamoana; a mother who lost her child and a daughter without a mother, who found solace in each other. More than anything else, Velvet hoped that those two managed to live good lives.

    She thought of Prince Percival and his pet hawk, Griffin. A man who would betray his country for his feathered friend, for Griffin to be free. An ordinary man of great character nonetheless. Then, fatefully, Velvet's thoughts went to Tabatha. Just as ordinary as Percival yet hardly more different. An old woman who maneuvered through the shadows for decades. One who aided Velvet's cause... behind the scenes.

    Her mind ground to a halt as an idea began to form. This last memory brought with it many more. She uncorked the ink again and hastily began to write her thoughts down, an almost manic grin gracing her features.

    . .
    . .

    In the meantime, Laphicet was wandering mostly empty streets. There were still people out, but far less of them than during daytime; he figured at least some of them were smugglers or thieves or other such things, but he caught none of them actually committing a crime when he passed by and left them be. Chances were they would find no victims, thanks to the constant rain. He was looking for seraphim yet those, too, had been driven back into their homes by the downpour. It would be rude to bother them there this late, so Laphi kept wandering, kept taking in the much different face of such a big city by night.

    He did not pay much mind to his other senses, which led to a bit of a surprise when he passed by a nook in the wall he had ignored before. A mature, female voice called out over the rain: "My, this is a most unusual sight. My eyes are not deceiving me." He turned back immediately and felt the sensation of mana in front of him; it tingled his senses in the way only the presence of a seraph could. Before him sat a chubby cat, fur as white as snow. The feline gazed up at him from under a small dome of mana that protected her from the rain, slitted eyes studying his form.

    The boy could not help but smile as he recognised her. "Hello, Morgrim. It has been a while." He then crouched in front of the cat and reached out a hand. "Is touching you okay?"

    Morgrim blinked, but her expression did not change beside the pleased surprise in her voice: "And so polite. Go ahead, though I am curious why we meet again."

    Laphicet reached over, but then paused and created a bigger mana dome first to keep the rain out; then he dried his hands and pulled up his sleeves before he began to pet the other seraph carefully. "My sister and I found out there is some... business for us to take care of," he offered. "We're looking around to learn more about the situation at the moment."

    Despite her purring, Morgrim listened attentively; she pushed her head against his hand. "Scratch a little stronger. I think I understand what you are after; the recent spread of Malevolence is unusual; it must be worse than I expected, if you of all people were brought forth to deal with it. Although I heard you were destroyed."

    "Probably a lie someone told to prevent people from looking for us."

    "Quite true." The purring faded out somewhat and after a moment, Morgrim left her perch under Laphicet's hand to face him directly again. "Please take me to Velvet. I wish to speak with her."

    Boy and cat stared at each other for a long moment, then Laphicet nodded. "Alright. Velvet is allergic to cats, or at least she was, but I think you should be fine as a seraph." He quickly dried the rest of himself and picked Morgrim up to carry her in his arms. The cat seraph mewled a little, but did not complain any more once they began to move; instead, she curiously peered around at the various things around them from her unusual, new perspective. Laphi kept his dome up and expanded it a little so the wind could not carry any water to Morgrim.

    Once he returned to their room at the inn, Velvet greeted him with a bright grin. "We're set," she announced.

    "We are?"

    "Yes. We will reform the Bloodwing Butterflies."

    Laphicet's eyes widened at that, but it did not take long for him to grin as well. "The shadow guild? That might be perfect, actually; I heard they put a lot of effort into aiding the common folk, so if we go with a similar approach, that should convince quite a few to join up."

    Only then did he remember their guest, seeing that Morgrim began to squirm. "Oh, right. Sorry."

    Velvet appeared to notice the cat for the first time now and eyed her curiously as she was let down onto the ground. "Who did you... is that Morgrim?"

    "Just so, Lord of Calamity." If cats could grin, then this one absolutely did as she sat down and peered up at Velvet. "It has been a while. How have you been?"

    The other woman huffed and crossed her arms with a smile. "Just fine, how about you?"

    "The same."

    Both stared at each other curiously and Laphi took a seat at the side; it made sense that Morgrim kept her distance from a being of Malevolence, but he did not expect both of them to act so formal. "For the record, Velvet is no Lord of Calamity anymore," he commented Both turned to him as he elaborated with a weak grin: "It's 'goddess of darkness' now. Her new name is Minkkubi."

    "How intriguing." The cat eyed both gods as she considered everything, then she hopped onto the bed and laid down on her paws. "You just spoke of forming a shadow guild. Explain what is going on in the world and I will consider joining you." The siblings exchanged glances, but neither saw a reason not to. Morgrim knew much and they could not afford her to relay information to the wrong people; moreover, they could not just throw away an opportunity.

    So they explained, much as they explained to Zaveid before. About the sibling gods, about Maotelus being under threat, about their own decision to explore the world and learn what they could before taking action. The night had progressed by the time their explanations and Morgrim's questions wound down. The cat seraph had rolled onto her side and received pats from Laphicet, purring and thinking.

    "I believe it is prudent that I help you," she ultimately decided; Laphi was quietly relieved at that, to learn they just made their first ally. "I know a few of the locals who would be interested in joining a shadow guild. Some for the novelty of it, some out of a desire to do good for the humans. But in addition, I will step up as Lord of the Land." Velvet frowned at that and turned her gaze to Laphicet, who shrugged; Morgrim followed the exchange and explained without prompting: "A powerful seraph, provided a pure vessel, can extend a domain to weaken the effect of Malevolence in the area. It will not be anywhere near as potent as your blessing," she told Velvet without much care, "but it is something."

    Laphi was curious now. "Why didn't you do that before now?" he asked, but the question just earned a look from Morgrim.

    "I didn't feel like it."

    They stared at her askance, but left it at that. Yet he knew Velvet thought the same thing: cats would always be cats, seraph or not. "...anyway," he picked back up after the silence carried on for a while, "how much should we reveal to any other Bloodwings? Especially those who haven't been around in our time? Would they work with a hellion?" A nod went to Velvet and Morgrim considered the matter Laphicet presented.

    "A good question," she allowed in the end. "Seraphim have become more comfortable being around humans in the past thousand years, but this might strain their goodwill. Likewise, while revealing that part of Velvet's nature would be a risk, it could also serve your, our goals long-term. You do not exude Malevolence," the cat told his sister directly, "so it may work; disclosing this much ahead of time instead of turning it into a secret which, when revealed, might lead to issues down the road would be my recommendation."

    There was no 'if' to be considered; all three of them knew such matters would come out sooner or later. Velvet nodded. "An organisation such as this requires trust, and trust needs to be earned."

    Laphicet had nothing to add to that, except one matter he doubted would be an issue: "We all agree that our actual natures should and will remain secret, though." Both Velvet and Morgrim gave him nods, just like he expected. "Good, good. I can put down a teleportation arte tomorrow and follow Morgrim to talk to any prospective members."

    "Curious, so very curious." The cat batted his hand away and began to groom herself, but she kept speaking: "I know a few abandoned houses around town; one or two of them are thought to be haunted, so humans would not go there. We can dig a cellar to hide such an arte." Everything was falling into place and even while they spent another hour discussing how to proceed, Laphicet felt confident about their plans. They had a goal now, not to mention a good idea to act on. He wondered if perhaps there should be a secondary means of approaching their problem, but they could not afford to spread themselves too thin at the moment. It would have to do.

    Going by the smile on her face, Velvet was happy with their progress as well.
     
  12. Threadmarks: 1.6 Pragmatic Evil
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Over the following days, Morgrim and Laphi recruited four of the local seraphim; they were all surprised about Velvet being a hellion, but gave her the benefit of the doubt after Morgrim explained the situation and they got to see that she did, in fact, not ooze Malevolence in any shape or form. More than half a week had passed since the siblings reached Pendrago and Velvet was in a good mood; some part of her still urged to make haste, but it got less pronounced every week she resisted it. This was different than her rampage against Artorius; these things took time, Velvet just had to get used to it.

    She was in such a good mood that day, the leader of the new Bloodwings actually took the time to braid her hair. Laphi had done so several times over the past month, but he already headed out to meet their first recruits; this was the first time since their awakening that she did it herself. Thinking of recruiting however, Velvet mused that they still needed a proper base. She did not feel much like hiding somewhere underground, although it appeared like a good solution for stealth. Innominat up high would do just as fine, though the older seraphim might definitely get ideas about what the structure actually was; Velvet wondered whether it even mattered if they suspected, or whether they should just be allowed to figure it out. Another boon of turning Innominat into their base, she realised over watching a small cloud of Malevolence flow into her hand like mist, was that the seraphim going up there would be free of the corrupting darkness.

    A last quick flick and her braid was done; Velvet bound it in place and gave it a little tug to see if it held, which was when another thought presented itself to her. The old Bloodwings based their operations out of a tavern, among others. She could see how useful such a location was to a shadow guild based on information, too. A tavern stood right in front of peoples' noses, completely going against expectations of where one would find the headquarters of an illegal group. Not to mention all the patrons who chatted with each other or the staff. She also considered that while hiding somewhere in the woods was safer and arguably more secretive, getting something like that set up would take more resources and time than opening a tavern in the middle of a city. Granted, they were Empyreans and had more seraphim at their hands to make short work of such building, so this one was a less pressing point for the Bloodwings.

    Still, a tavern. Velvet could not help but like the idea; she faintly remembered joking with her friend Niko about opening a business together. It never happened back then, but today was different. Velvet was a good cook, so they had a foundation. The greater problem would be setting everything up on the organisational and funding level; she would have to discuss it with Laphi later.

    Her thoughts in order, Velvet turned around and marched out of her room at the inn, into the unending rainfall which had begun to bother her by this point. Aside from soaking everyone and everything, having nothing but rain clearly lowered peoples' moods; Malevolence bred fast like this, even for a city of this size. Not to mention that it dispersed the market; she could still procure the necessities, but there were hardly as many people around to either buy or sell as the plaza offered space for.

    Laphi found her around the time she handed some money to a woman from the Sparrow Feathers merchants and bagged her supplies. Velvet then walked off with her brother trailing behind, explaining while they walked so as to not raise suspicion: "We have a bit of a problem; there is no pure vessel to be found for Morgrim. At least none in the areas where we could set up shop more easily. Nothing she could stay in for longer amounts of time." Velvet nodded and they rounded a corner away from the marketplace. "She thinks we might find something at the shrinechurch; the great temple that way."

    A finger was pointed and she glanced over, then nodded again. The structure had been familiar from the start, standing somewhat elevated. Laphi confirmed her suspicions when he kept talking: "It's kinda amazing, you know? They set the foundation for that church before we were born and only finished it hundreds of years later. From what Morgrim tells me, they did it all without seraphic artes; a purely human accomplishment." Velvet could not help but smile and Laphi did the same; it was an impressive feat.

    Due to the early hour, she managed to stand alone for a short few seconds; long enough to quickly tell Laphi to "pick up Morgrim and look around" without being overheard. Then it was for her to follow him to where the cat-shaped seraph was staying. Gathering their co-conspirator and maneuvering through the small but everpresent crowd went without trouble; they reached the shrinechurch around noon. Velvet had to admit that it still appeared much like it used to from the outside. The arching tower and majestic gates remained as imposing as they were so long ago; even without being a faithful, one could be in awe of the place itself.

    The gates were opened halfway, allowing the public to file in and out at their desire; striding into the vast main hall, an even stronger sense of nostalgia assaulted Velvet's senses. The benches arrayed before the main altar and the stone-throne standing behind it, all the distinct shapes and sharp architecture, the archways and pillars, it was all as it had been. Many were seated on the benches, a slow buzz of quiet conversation suffusing the room. "It's even more impressive on the inside," Laphi muttered to Velvet and Morgrim; even though no one in here would be able to hear him, he immediately adjusted to the atmosphere.

    The cat in his arms leaned back to look at him from below, paws lying on his arms and pushing to be let down. "I agree," she murmured. "While this place can not measure up to the Empyrean's Throne, it is certainly a monument to the dedication of man. Those who set the first stones were long dead by the time it stood completed, yet they carried on; generation for generation." Cat and boy let their eyes wander this way and that while Velvet stepped to the side to not bother anyone.

    Observing the area for a few minutes yielded little of use; there was no sermon ongoing, just people offering prayer. "They wish for the rain to stop," Laphi told her quietly. "A lot of these prayers are heartfelt and most of them go to the Empyreans. But some just radiate to all the seraphim who may hear, and I'm right here."

    "As am I," Morgrim added. "Out of curiousity, could you put together a ritual to undo the rain?"

    "I think so, but it would take some time and I don't know if this is just a natural phenomenon or hostile action. It might mesh badly with an already ongoing ritual."

    While the two seraphim discussed, Velvet took note of a scant few people going past the main hall through a set of doors behind the altar. Their clothes were not uniform and only one of them was an actual priest, all the rest appeared like commoners. She figured she learned all she could from where she stood and marched forward, just as a priestess in pure white robes walked through those same doors. "Excuse me," she started in a quiet tone to catch the older woman's attention, then pointed to the area beyond. "I saw people going in there. Is that area open to the public?"

    She received a kind smile and a nod. "Indeed it is, my child." Velvet only barely did not make a face at being addressed like that. "Most of the shrinechurch is open for visitors during the day, as it was intended by our forefathers. Feel free to explore to your heart's content, but do stay clear of wherever the guards bar access." The woman stepped aside to let her through, her smile never faltering.

    "Thank you, I think I will." She then proceeded through the doorway and was soon joined by her companions. The priestess nodded once more and wandered off on her own again.

    This area was new to Velvet, who had never been further inside than the previous room. A sizable hallway led deeper into the building, with various rooms and corridors breaking off from where she walked. Laphi was quickly running around to study the various engravings and furniture, though Morgrim toddled along by her side. Scrolls had been spread on over the walls to reveal old writings to those who could read them, with most having at least one or two people kneeling before them in prayer.

    They kept walking, going this way and that only to find more of the same; it was a sprawling area full of people, yet even she could feel the reverence in the air around her. Velvet took note of a few markers carved into the stone, pointing the way she had come; keeping an eye on them as they wandered, she soon found that they all led back to the entrance in case one got lost. A wise choice of the old architects.

    As Laphi ran ahead to inspect another, unoccupied scroll on the wall, he dashed past a woman garbed in pristine white with golden embroidery; that woman paused in her stride almost imperceptibly and thus garnered Velvet's attention. At a second glance, she found this one's robes to be more elaborate, with a coattail that almost touched the ground attached to the upper robe, dark green on the inside. Her headdress and the staff she held made it even clearer she held a high position; the three golden rings melded together at the staff's head were the same as the golden embroidery on dark blue on her chest.

    Their eyes met and Velvet took note of how sharp and gaunt her features were. Of how pale she was. Her face was the only visible bodypart beside her hands, all else hidden by cloth.

    "Quite an unusual sight," the clergywoman spoke with a rather deep voice, almost alluring, were it not for how clear each word was enunciated. She took a step closer and scrutinised Velvet, who stood a head taller than her and could guess that was what drew her attention the most. "Are you here to pray, child? Do you seek insight into the workings of the divine, perhaps?" She bit down on the almost instinctual comment; almost a third of the existing pantheon stood right in front of that woman. Laphi had turned around and watched the exchange, as did Morgrim.

    After a moment of thought, she shrugged lightly. "I've never been one for prayer, it's not like the Great Lords would come down to help me even if I spent every moment of my life calling to them."

    She had meant to agitate the woman a little, but her comment was taken in stride. "Fairly true, I agree. Yet you do believe the Great Lords exist, even though they will not partake in communion with us mere men?" Her voice remained crisp and clear, collected, almost like a whip to a lesser person. Velvet was unimpressed.

    "Of course they exist, that isn't even in question. I'm just not the kind to run to others for help."

    "I see." Her eyes wandered over Velvet's appearance again, from the damp hair down to her heavy boots. "You are a traveler, I presume?"

    Laphi had begun to circle around the woman now, curiously examining her from every side; Velvet let him and continued the conversation: "I am. You have to forgive me, but I don't know who you are exactly."

    Her gaze slipped; just for a moment, but Velvet saw her eyes flick to her brother when he next shuffled around her. The woman still caught herself quickly, fast enough that anyone not observing her like Velvet did would not even have noticed. "I am Runette Forton," she introduced herself curtly, "Cardinal of the Church of Rolance and acting aide to his holiness, the pope." There was a momentary pause, as if she waited for Velvet to do something. Then a minute smile graced her features. "It is refreshing to meet one who does not immediately prostrate herself to those in power. An unconventional attitude." Velvet raised an eyebrow, now aware but still uncaring of the social suicide her behaviour would be against most other people. It was obvious the Cardinal did not care.

    Before she could answer however, Laphi hovered up into the air behind Runette Forton and whispered into her ear, making her flinch visibly: "A valiant attempt, but not good enough. Shall we drop the act?" The older woman's gaze went to Velvet, who wore a faint smirk but scrubbed it away when another clergyman walked past them. He offered a friendly bow to the traveler and a deeper one to his superior, then he was past. The two women sized each other up.

    . .
    . .

    Runette's mind was reeling and part of her screamed to destroy the nuisance immediately; this girl was dangerous, she could perceive seraphim and had figured out she could too. Some part of her seethed, truly, but she shut it down as she had so often done before. Anger was powerful in keeping one going, but led to bad decisions if relied upon too much; now was not the time to be hasty. Runette's lips tugged up the slightest bit as she surrendered this round, one hand motioning to a side corridor. "Shall we reconvene in private to continue this conversation? I am quite intrigued about you, child." It was not even a lie, curiousity did surge through her at the moment; at the same time however, Runette figured she could just petrify girl, boy, and cat if they turned out to be threats.

    Unaware of the danger, the younger woman nodded and made to follow her lead. An odd one for sure, yet gullible. Or assured of her superiority, Runette thought then. It could be either with this one, especially when knowing there were two seraphim with her. "It was to be expected," the cat noted as they walked, her voice quite womanly to Runette's surprise. "Where but in the church would we find a woman of strong resonance?" It was almost too easy if they already made her case for her, or at least she thought so. Until the boy opened his mouth again.

    "A bit of a correction there, Morgrim. She does not have resonance." Four eyes went to the child while Runette kept hers averted, a moment of panic suppressed before anyone could see. "This is a hellion." She still kept quiet, merely casting a glance to the smiling boy when he addressed her directly: "You are hiding it well, to the suppression of your inhuman traits even, but I can smell the Malevolence within you." She wanted to ask badly about how one could smell whatever this Malevolence was, but plausible deniability had to be maintained. At least until they were in a place where she could murder these obstacles unseen. Odd though, they still followed her despite apparently having figured her out. Perhaps, Runette thought, she should gauge their motivations some more before taking action.

    At least the cat already asked some of her questions, for Runette had figured she was the only hellion capable of it. "I did hear of hellions who maintained their human form through turning, but not of any that could suppress their new appearance. Where did you learn such a thing?"

    "Arthur told me about it," the boy answered without clarification; neither of the other women appeared to need it. "It's a possible if rare trait and requires a great force of will. With enough dedication and focus, a hellion can suppress the physical changes and traits they gained when they turned. You don't find it often and it's still just the physical side, not any mental changes." She would not confirm the boy's assessment yet, but by herself Runette could feel the snake within her hissing. She merely listened idly to his explanations and put the new knowledge aside for later, if it ever became relevant. They had arrived.

    "This chamber is usually meant for the clergy to meet," she explained as the guards saluted and stepped aside. "but no meeting is scheduled for today." The doors were opened and revealed a well-sized room with a soft carpet and some decorative plants. Of other furniture however, there were but a handful of workdesks currently pushed together in the room's center. Writing materials had been arrayed and chairs were mostly in order. "Please make yourself comfortable."

    The door closed, but Runette did not spring the trap. Not yet. She instead turned back to that odd woman, who eyed her with sharp eyes; different, now. Not those of a curious if disillusioned traveler. A predator.

    Except that Runette was not prey.

    The two sized each other up once again, neither moving yet both ready to spring into action. In this moment, she knew she had been found out; yet she was not attacked, or threatened in any way. So Runette challenged the girl: "Now that you know I am a hellion, what will you do?"

    "You mean because we still followed you into a private space?" She casually leaned against the wall next to the door, arms crossed in front of her chest. "Nothing yet. I know your type, Cardinal. A will strong enough to return your form to human and your position here? You have ambitions, but what for exactly?"

    Not what she expected, but she could work with that. Runette always disliked deception; honesty had brought her far, being perceived as always honest brought her further. Her aims were true and honesty would merely aid in gauging these strangers. "I wish to preserve Rolance, as a nation and as an empire. I desire Rolance to pass the test of time and last eternal. The best approach I found for this is to unite the people against outsiders who think differently."

    The cat, Morgrim if she heard right earlier, had sat herself by the human woman's feet and peered at Runette with a penetrating gaze. "Can we trust but her word?"

    "It's fine, I said I know her type. She won't lie, especially because she truly believes she is in the right." The words were delivered with a calm similar to Runette's own, but that only allowed her to focus on their meaning.

    "That makes it sound like you disagree?"

    The other woman waved her hand at that. "Yes and no, really. Wanting to preserve your home nation is never a bad thing, but the how matters. How would you even...." She trailed off and while Runette understood the question, she waited for where this one's thoughts would go. Her amber eyes flickered to the staff she still held, then to the walls as if taking in the cathedral as a whole. "Of course. Through faith."

    "Quite perceptive," she confirmed immediately to distract from her surprise at being understood. Somewhere, she also appreciated that there was someone who could follow her train of thought. "As long as the people truly believe in the same gods, they can easily be banded together against those who believe otherwise."

    Silence took hold after that, both women eyeing each other with curiousity more than hostility now. It was the child who ended the stalemate, having stood at the side and left them to it so far. "I think I like her, Velvet."

    And that of a seraph. Runette cast a glance to the smiling boy, then back to the girl. Velvet. If she built a rapport already, she might as well try to be daring. "It seems you understand my goals, and at least concur with the spirit of them." She almost switched to the honey-coated words she got so used to over the years, but reminded herself that this Velvet appeared to favour bluntness. "I could use a capable woman such as yourself, and I have much to offer."

    A second passed, then two. All eyes were on Velvet, whose face twitched once or twice but remained calm. "I won't become your minion," she finally told Runette. "I'm not the type to let myself be bossed around."

    "Although a partnership might be interesting," the boy added right after. "We have no issues with hellions and a friend high up in the church would benefit us a lot."

    She almost missed Velvet's nod at that, confused but also considering. A partnership, he said. Runette cast the feelings of confusion and alienation aside to be examined later, needing a clear head now. "I appreciate your being candid with me, although I do not see how we would benefit mutually."

    Surprisingly however, it was Morgrim who answered her veiled question. "There is more to those two than meets the eye. Not to mention that your interests align in parts." Slitted pupils went from one to the other, then the cat bounded over and hopped onto a desk to be closer to eye-level with them. Runette waited for her, curious where this was going. "As a hellion, surely you noticed the increased spread of Malevolence in recent years. This is not a natural occurence and if not stopped from growing worse, it will spell the end of the Kingdom of Hyland and the Rolance Empire."

    This was news and there was this word again; at least she could be sure to have determined its meaning. Runette had known the darkness grew, that more people turned into hellions recently, but she lacked knowledge about this. Morgrim putting it in dramatic terms like this made her wonder whether it was actually true; she raised an eyebrow at the cat. "Could you elaborate?"

    After a moment of quiet eye contact, Morgrim did heed her request: "While your force of will is certainly impressive, you are an outlier. Most humans can not retain that which makes them human when they turn into hellions; they become nothing but beasts. If the Malevolence overflows, everyone will be turned and all social order will collapse. Faith alone will not save them then." She had a point, which Runette conceded with a nod.

    "We're investigating the source at the moment," Velvet interjected from the other side, but Runette did not need any elaboration on that. While she was still doubtful of the societal threat, a quiet dread settled in her heart as she began to understand just what she was dealing with.

    "The Lord of Calamity. It has to be." A curious blink was all the surprise that got out of Velvet, but Runette explained to heed off the question: "The old books tell of the line of darkness that desires to drown the world in chaos. No being in the world can be a greater threat to mankind." For some reason, even while Runette began to convince herself that this was a serious issue, Velvet snorted over something she said. Her seraph made a face at the same time, but she could not figure out why.

    "Good, we don't have to explain that part." Velvet chuckled once more and sized Runette up. "Just keep in mind that the Lord of Calamity is a hellion like yourself. Our enemy is a person with an unknown number of allies of unknown identity."

    The pieces began to form a picture, one she did not like at all. Yet something bothered Runette nonetheless. "How can you know it is not me, if the Lord of Calamity is indeed a hellion?"

    "You would have told us by now," the boy seraph told her with a smile; at this point, the way his wide eyes took her in without fear was more off-putting than reassuring. "You may, however, be a pawn in their plan." Runette hesitated and the boy tilted his head, motioning for her. "Just think about it. A cardinal, who is a hellion, who is willing to support conflict with others. Even if it is to aid her own country, your existence opens many possibilities to spread Malevolence. I helped engineer far more daring plans than that in the past."

    She took a few moments to mull this over while Morgrim agreed with the other seraph about something he said. She still lacked some vital knowledge here, so she spoke up after a time. "I am afraid you know more about this than I do. Up until earlier, I did not even know the spreading darkness is called Malevolence. How does the Lord of Calamity create it, and how would I spread it for them without knowing?"

    She received rather open surprise in response. Velvet exchanged glances with the seraphim, then she pushed herself off from the wall. "You didn't know?" Runette shook her head and waited. She did not have to wait long until the younger woman began to explain: "Malevolence is born from humans. Any humans, all humans. An old friend called it 'emotions that are beyond reason to rationalise', but that's a bit too abstract. The moment you feel something you know you shouldn't, or that contradicts other feelings you have, it creates Malevolence. Killing a man and then blaming yourself, hating someone you love, crushing despair, but even just wanting more for yourself even though you were taught not to take too much can be enough. It's innately human and you will spread it through your actions."

    Velvet paused to let her take it all in, which Runette was thankful for; she needed a moment to get her horror under control, to internalise her folly in not learning more, then was distracted when the younger woman continued: "Some people can take more of it than others before they turn. The seraphim are a lot more vulnerable than humans, at that. But in the end, enough Malevolence will make anyone turn into a hellion. Even animals and lifeless objects."

    That, she felt, might be a problem. Her own plans were necessary without doubt, but this would create a greater amount of risk than she had thought it would. As if he had read her mind, the boy added to his companion's explanation thoughtfully: "Take that endless rain for example. It brings down peoples' mood, so you get more Malevolence. Negative emotions are a lot more prone to that than positive ones."

    "That may be true," Runette found herself defending her opening gambit, "but at the same time it drives the people together in prayer, in faith, to appease the gods they believe they angered in some way." Only after she spoke did she realise she gave herself away. The two in front of her were exchanging looks while the cat on the table had begun to groom herself.

    "To be clear," the boy began curiously, "the rain is your doing?" Knowing that it was already too late to pretend otherwise, Runette confirmed it for him. He cast a glance to Velvet and then back at her in silence for a while. When he finally spoke, it was not what Runette expected: "That's such a crude plan."

    She had expected them to take offense, to try arguing with her, but not that kind of response. She could not understand why he would say that, either; again, Runette had half a mind to petrify them all, but that was the Malevolence talking and she knew it. The boy addressed her into the momentary silence: "What was your goal again? Please repeat it for me."

    More confused than irritated, she did what he asked: "To preserve the Rolance Empire."

    Now Velvet chimed in with a question of her own. "Do you mean its structure or its people?"

    "Both."

    "Hm." The boy eyed her without seeing, deep in thought. "You could do better on that end, then. Instead of making the rain perpetual like this, have it go on for a week or two, maybe three if you want to make a point. Then hold a mass sermon in order to 'beg the Great Lords for aid' or something like that and cancel the arte you're using afterward." Runette's eyes grew wider as he laid out his reasoning, the cardinal completely flabbergasted. "Rinse and repeat this every half or full year and then, a few years down the line, you not only strenghtened the faith but also put yourself into a position of greater authority; for people to listen whenever you speak. And it drives down the risk of destroying all the crops and triggering a famine like people are starting to expect right now."

    Her mouth clicked shut; she did not know what to say. Not only had this been a chance encounter, but these people did not even try to dissuade her from affecting the weather. No, rather they advised her on how to do it better. She had not even considered the effect this rain would have on the harvest!

    The seraph observed her for a while, but kept speaking when no response was forthcoming. "As I said, working together is beneficial for both sides. You are held up in Rolance and lack the means to investigate. No shepherd has come forth yet and the world will change soon." He paused, cast a calculating look to his companion, and then back to Runette. "We're currently setting the foundation for a shadow guild, one that deals in information and will mostly recruit seraphim. This is a chance for both sides because we won't stop and you won't either. In working with us, you head off the risk of becoming our enemy later. You gain insights most others will never have and will stand right at the root of change, so you can steer Rolance through it as best as anyone can."

    Closing her eyes for a long moment, Runette Forton cleared her mind again. His argument made sense, though she wondered what kind of change there might be up ahead. She wondered just who these people were. But it did not matter, right now she had choices to make. It was tempting and yet she could not bring herself to commit. "You said before that I am trusworthy because you know my type and I would not lie. The same can not be said in reverse; how would I trust all of this with but your word for it?" It all made too much sense to be an elaborate hoax, she could feel that in her gut. Yet she needed to make certain.

    A moment passed as looks went between them, then Velvet brought her curiously bandaged arm out from behind her back. "Alright," she conceded. "A secret for a secret." That arm then began to bulge and grow. The bandages unfolded, sliding back to reveal crimson and black flesh, veins of even deeper red pulsing through it. Fingers grew into jagged claws, the entire arm lengthened until the revealed limb was large enough to grasp a man around the torso and touch its fingers at the back.

    Runette stared at the appendage, then at Velvet. "I see," she got out with a wavering voice. "That explains why you were so calm around me." This woman was a hellion just like Runette herself. Yet the fact she could hide her own appearance brought up a question: "How did you not know some hellions can hide their nature when you do the same?"

    "I don't. Changing back and forth doesn't take much effort at all, that's how I've always been since I turned. I'm not what you'd call a normal hellion."

    There were more questions there for her to ask, but the boy interjected and stepped forward. "I feel I should provide proof of my own. If you allow?" She nodded and he channeled mana immediately, an incredible amount of it, enough for Runette to feel it. She stepped back cautiously, but found nothing attacking her; a larger circle formed on the carpet, intricate, golden lines glowing faintly as something like a veil appeared in its center. Seconds passed and the mana solidifed, then he motioned for it. "There. We need to go elsewhere so I can show you." He received a glance from Velvet and shrugged. "This one didn't take as long because I already know where to go and don't have to attune the arte."

    A transportation arte of some kind. Runette hesitated for a moment, paranoia acting up and screaming that it was a trap. But someone who could expend that much mana casually would not need a trap to deal with her, she was almost certain of that now. So she stepped forward, hellion and seraphim making ready to follow right after her. Before she walked through the golden haze however, she turned to the boy. "Your name?"

    "Laphicet."

    "Very well."

    She stepped into the haze and felt like falling through a long tunnel of light. Runette fell forward, then suddenly stood on solid ground again. She stumbled for a step but caught herself, then made a few more to get away from the arte; only then did she turn to look and her eyes grew wide.

    Before her lay a sphere. No, a ball. A great sphere of green and blue and black, with a merciless sun shining at her from the side and onto what lay beneath. She stood on solid stone, a platform belonging to a giant castle that drew her gaze away once she noticed it. Runette craned her neck yet could not see the top from where she stood, grand archways and buildings lying before her eyes. It was like the tales of the ancients had come to life; a temple the size of Pendrago and ten times as grand.

    "Though I applaud your plan to exploit faith for unity," Laphicet spoke up as he made to stand by her side, "you have to remember that the gods do exist." She could not even turn her head to him, too absorbed by this giant structure. One of the spires shuddered and turned from dark grey or blue stone to gold; scales bigger than herself, one and all. Her eyes wandered up the colossus as it bent into view, eyes gleaming red on a head that could barely fit into Pendrago's main plaza. A dragon stared at her for a long moment, golden and magnificent. Its gaze made Runette feel insignificant, powerless; she lost the grasp on her form and reverted, legs melding together into a tail and elongating as she, too, grew scales. Her facial structure shifted and her arms grew longer, but her dress remained unharmed by the changes as her body mainly grew in length.

    Runette stood still, almost rooted to the ground until the dragon stretched back up and turned to stone. A hand tapped her shoulder and she beheld the boy, Laphicet, as he floated at her eye-level. His gaze was calm and he wore a faint smile. "You are the first to set foot on here in a long time. This is the body of Empyrean Innominat, of me. Remember this well, Runette. A sight no human has ever seen in a thousand years, and of them there were only three before you."

    Faint light surrounded him, the same in colour as those magnificent scales. Runette cowed almost on instinct, lowering her eyes from the god's face. Empyreans, she knew the Great Lords had been called that long ago. To hear it here, now, only made it all feel more real despite how dreamlike it was. Her heart meant to shut itself off, her will demanded she refuse this, but the sight and feelings, this smallness she had never felt before, asserted the faith she thought long lost; the faith that originally made her join the church.

    Standing atop the heavens, so close to the physical manifestation of a true god, Runette Forton began to believe in earnest once more. Laphicet, no, Innominat inclined his head with a motion for Velvet. "I would like to introduce you to my divine sister's true form as well, but she is currently out of reach."

    Runette paid no mind to the apology and bent at the waist in a deep bow, her headdress falling down to reveal silky, discoloured hair. "It is of no concern, oh Empyrean. My pride refuses me to be your servant, but to aid your cause would be my greatest honour." With a start, she realised that she meant it. Every word.

    Surprisingly however, her refusal to serve elicited no anger. Just annoyance from Velvet, who waved her hand dismissively. "We don't need servants. Your life is your own, just like your decisions."

    Once Runette stood upright again, the goddess offered her hand to her; the right, unbandaged one. Of course it made sense she was different, now. Runette was different too, her true form allowing to stand at eye level with Velvet. She took the hand without hesitation, smiling brighter than she had in a long time.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2021
  13. Threadmarks: 1.7 An End Inevitable?
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The siblings spent another two days in Pendrago to set up some more. With Cardinal Forton providing information and access, Velvet found that things went a lot more smoothly all around. Moreover, the few times they met, Runette wore honest smiles she had not shown before. She already called to prepare a mass sermon in that time, having taken their advice.Their last meeting, however, ended a little different.

    "You plan to cross the Great Camelot Bridge, correct?"

    "We're making a short stop in Lastonbell first," Laphicet answered the not unexpected question, "but yes."

    In response, Runette clasped her hands and lowered her head. "Then, if you find yourself traveling near Horsa village, I would ask you to pass a message to my older sisters, Rodeen and Enid. To let them know I am doing well." Her request touched Velvet's heart and her expression softened immediately; Runette did not see as her gaze remained averted, but Laphi did. He smiled, too; they understood the worry for one's siblings well.

    "I'm sure that can be arranged," Velvet finally answered their partner. Runette lowered her head a little deeper before straightening up again. "Stay safe."

    "You as well, oh Empyreans."

    They kept their silence for a time, wandering Pendrago's lower districts. Laphi spoke up only as they neared their current hideout: "You could have told her we're going that way anyway."

    Velvet shrugged. "That wouldn't have added anything and we might still take another route than near Horsa." She gave the two seraphim a wave which they returned with only slightly uneasy smiles, then they were inside and descending to the teleportation gate. "Now you stay out of trouble while I'm in Lastonbell, yes?"

    "Yes, sister," Laphi intoned obediently and Velvet drew him into a short hug before he activated the gate. "Don't be too hard on Margaret." Rolling her eyes through the transit, Velvet quickly stepped out into the cave near Lastonbell. A short stroll later, she passed through the gate. Despite having been gone for about three weeks, Velvet found that nothing really changed except for the marketplace. Different carts and different faces, slightly different wares. Some people actually recognised her, just like she recognised others.

    Another short walk brought her by the well near Randgriz Inn, where her first target was currently busy drawing water. Velvet stopped and watched her, saw the girl grit her teeth as she pulled the bucket back up. She took a while, only noticing the observer afterward; when Margaret did see Velvet, her pale face lost its light frown in favour of a bright smile. She almost threw away the bucket in excitement, but stopped herself just in time. "You're back already!"

    "So I am," Velvet agreed kindly. She fell into step next to her student, studying her. Margaret grew a bit if she saw that right. Moreover and more worryingly however, the girl looked haggard, pale. "Are you doing alright? Did you come down with some illness?"

    Margaret quickly shook her head in response. "No, no. I'm fine, really! I'm doing all the exercises you told me to, every day." The moment Velvet made to level an unamused look at her however, the bell tolled and Margaret immediately went to reciting under her breath: "Plans must be solid, reactions flexible. Know your enemy and strike where they're weak. Never waver once your sword is drawn, control feelings to direct the flow of battle. Don't let your guard down, even when victorious. Never give in to despair."

    The look turned appreciative and Velvet nodded. "Good. I think you did that often enough, you can stop by the end of the week. We'll have to talk about what those actually mean again, though. Just remembering them won't help you much." She received a demure nod; Margaret appeared to like those discussions about strategy, about morality, about philosophy in combat. Velvet worried nonetheless, seeing that the girl did not look healthy.

    Both of them entered the inn together and Margaret quickly went to deposit the water while Velvet strolled to the front to talk to Cynthia, who greeted her warmly. "Ah, Velvet! A pleasure to see you again so soon. How have you been?"

    "Just fine, we're making good progress recently." She made a dismissive motion and leaned against the counter, frowning. "I'm a little worried about Margaret, though. She says she's fine, but she doesn't look like she is."

    Just like that, Cynthia's own smile faded as well and the older woman crossed her arms. "It's, well. I was meaning to ask about that; are you certain that she has to practice this much in a day? Is it really necessary for Maggie to run herself ragged like that?"

    Velvet blinked at her, not comprehending what the problem was. "You have to explain that one. An hour a day is definitely not too much, not even if we count two by including the physical exercises."

    Now it was for Cynthia to be confused; she turned her head sideways a little as if to watch her daughter through the walls. "You didn't tell her to practice with that sword six hours a day?" Velvet's eyes widened at that. "Because that is what she does."

    "That's insane." Her flat tone drew the worried mother's gaze, though Velvet did not meet them. She closed her eyes and thought back; she knew without a shadow of doubt that she said one hour. It took some pondering to understand how her student could have turned one hour into six; when she did, the realisation rolled over her like a wave. Velvet palmed her face, feeling exasperated as well as proud. It was to that scene that Margaret entered the room, only to find herself immediately seized by the shoulders. Stern amber met confused blue, but Velvet let go after a moment to take a breath. "Show me your hands."

    Her student fidgeted awkwardly, but Velvet's stare made her relent and reveal the blistered and raw fingers. Velvet sighed, shaking her head. "Like I thought. Come along. You as well, Cynthia."

    Mother and daughter followed her into the backroom, mainly because she did not want to chew Margaret out in front of strangers. Velvet turned back to her student once the door closed; Margaret stood mutely, allowing Velvet to begin: "When I said to practice for an hour, I meant one hour for all six basic stances, not one hour for each of them. I have half a mind to let those heal on their own so you remember what you did to yourself those last few weeks," she added curtly with a motion for Margaret's abused hands. The girl's face had fallen and she wilted further under Velvet's disapproval; seeing this drew a sigh from Velvet, who began to weave the most basic healing arte Laphi had shown her. She had no real aptitude for them, but she could do at least that much. Mana formed into a circle and crimson light soaked Margaret's hands; the mother watched it happen with fascination while the daughter sighed in relief. "But it seems you already have too much self-discipline, and I'm too nice."

    Velvet took a hold of the now healed hands and stared into Margaret's eyes sternly. "You will not do any practice or exercise for the next week. You will eat an additional meal every day to make up for that torture you put yourself through. You will do as little work as possible to let your body heal and if you still ache next week, you will do that again until the week after. Am I understood?"

    "Y-Yes ma'am!"

    Teacher and student stood like this for a moment; Velvet did not actually see anything in Margaret's eyes beyond how wide they were, but she felt like giving off the impression she did. When she let go and straightened up with a curt "Good," Margaret slumped in relief; meanwhile, Velvet turned to Cynthia, who appeared relieved as well. "Let her rest as much as she can. Tie her to the bed if need be." The adults exchanged grim nods at that and Velvet addressed both others then: "Muscle and muscle memory are built through constant exercise over time, not through one short burst. Trying to force it quickly will only make you collapse."

    Margaret and Cynthia nodded, her words understood. Velvet gave a nod back and pushed her student to the door. "For that matter, you will go and lie down right now." She could not tell if the lack of protest spoke of how tired Margaret was, or of how much Velvet intimidated her in that moment.

    Cynthia waited until her daughter left before sighing. "I was thinking it might be something like that, but I couldn't say either way. Thank you for getting back so quick to clear it up. Maggie kept pushing herself so much, she would have broken down."

    Velvet made an agreeing noise even while her lips curled upward. "Yes, she would have. That she even managed that long says a lot about her. Her will is strong, stronger than most." She outright grinned at Cynthia then. "If she doesn't end up breaking herself with stunts like this, she will be great one day."

    The other woman mostly just grimaced back. "I will just hope for the best then."

    The two days that followed this moment were mostly relaxed; Velvet only even stayed that long to ascertain her orders were followed. Afterward, she said her goodbyes and returned to Pendrago to fetch her brother.

    Apparently, events had taken place in her absence.

    "The three important matters," Laphi summarised for her as they left town through the main gate, "are that Morgrim found a vessel in that carved throne in the shrinechurch's main hall. It's pure and serves our purposes. Can you feel Morgrim's domain?" As a matter of fact, she could and told him so. The air was different somehow, more crisp. Less Malevolence suffused their surroundings and it always felt as if Morgrim was just there.

    In addition however, she could already guess the second piece of news. "It's not raining."

    "Yep, that's the next part. Runette's mass sermon was a great success and everyone is excited that it worked. Donations to the church increased and most of the local seraphim receive a few more prayers now." She made a soft nod, seeing how they were still among people on the road. Laphi nodded back and moved on. "The third is, well, odd. The pope left town yesterday." Seeing the look Velvet gave him, he raised his hands defensively. "We had nothing to do with it! Runette is already consolidating power, but she says she didn't do anything, either. He just... left. Not a word to anyone." He was right, Velvet decided. Odd indeed. "We don't know where he went, so the matter has been put aside for now. Oh, and Morgrim is our liaison with Runette and brings us information from within the church, that just made sense with where her vessel is."

    Velvet nodded and then focussed on finding her way for a time. She would have to think about this as well.

    Before journeying for the north of Rolance as they said they would, the siblings spent two weeks exploring the wilderness in the south. Several small villages lay on their way, the last one being called Gododdin and situated at the foot of an inactive volcano. They found many curious things, but none of actual interest; a teleportation gate brought them back close to Pendrago after those two weeks. Only then were they off to the north.

    The Great Camelot Bridge, then, took their breath away. A giant bridge built to reach across parts of the ocean, large enough for several caravans to travel next to each other; Laphi cheerfully pointed out the combination of seraphic arts and human means being used to build the colossus, which was in its own way as impressive as many of the other sights they saw recently. Traversing the bridge took several days. Just like during their journey so far, teleportation artes were set down; one on each end of the bridge and beyond that, in several places of Zaphgott Moor that followed after. It was more of a desert in recent times, but neither of them minded that much; after the almost constant rain in Pendrago, the heat and dryness appeared as a nice change of pace.

    Before making their way to Horsa however, the siblings stopped at a place they both still remembered. The tower of Lothringen, once the training grounds for the exorcist abbey, still remained. Dilapidated it was, broken down. But it remained, with a small village having grown around it. Lohgrin, it was now called.

    Velvet spent over an hour taking the place in from afar and about as much just walking through the original tower's foundation. Some parts of the upper floors still remained and she vividly remembered their first encounter with Melchior up there; the illusions, the dragons. It drove home once more just how much time had passed since she last stood here.

    At the same time, Laphi went around to speak with the local seraphim, as he had done on the way so far. They managed to hire a few more over the two weeks they were traveling now and found two more in Lohgrin; just like the rest, for now they were only prepared for later and told to write down anything of interest that happened until the network could be established properly. While they were still arguing about whether to use Innominat as a base, both siblings had begun to agree that it might be a good idea. Chances were that it would happen, and soon.

    The day after they left Lohgrin however, Velvet took a quick detour to check on Margaret. It had been the better part of a month since the last time she visited and her student was doing well once more; the slower pace did her good and she improved steadily, not to mention that she began to shoot up in height. Just like Velvet assumed, Margaret was a late bloomer; born in winter and just now seeing her thirteenth Summer, the girl was hit by puberty like a swooping dragon. She filled out a bit and became more lean than gangly, her training doing its part for the child.

    The day she visited however, Velvet did not speak with Margaret directly; her student was off playing with some of the other children, whom Cynthia told her started to reconcile with Margaret after Laphi asserted his existence and proved that she truly could see seraphim; in fact, Margaret slowly turned into a celebrity in town due to her rare gift.

    On that day, Velvet also noticed the same crisp note in the air that she felt in Pendrago. A domain embraced Lastonbell now, the entire city appearing more bright than before. Laphi later told her that a water seraph called Sindra took over the duty, after some prodding from Margaret.

    Back in Zaphgott Moor, she began to realise that it was getting colder; Summer neared its end and the days grew shorter as well. Another rainstorm rolled over the two of them the next day, which Velvet decided to use for practice instead of pushing ahead. "We can't get sick, but I don't want people to get suspicious if I walk in there soaked but completely fine," she told her brother that day and he agreed.

    Only minutes later however, Laphi sniffed the air and blinked to the side of their current path. "Malevolence," he noted, "a lot of it." She could see the black flakes dancing in the wind and took a moment longer to consider how much of it floated around the area.

    "Probably a dragon," she returned a moment later.

    "Most likely a dragon."

    They exchanged glances before turning in that direction, following the Malevolence to its source through the sand. Darkness spewed forth constantly and was devoured before it could spread past them, the siblings undeterred. Wet sand squelched with every step they took.

    Half an hour later, they stood at the edge of a large depression, its sides molten to glass with flaming breath. In its center lay a scaled form curled up in a ball, generating great amounts of Malevolence and heat to fill the entire area. No rain fell here as each drop evaporated long before hitting the ground. A draconic head rose and smelled the air, then turned to the siblings with a low growl. It got up to its feet, revealing itself to be a bipedal dragon warrior.

    Velvet extended her domain without comment, watching just what might happen this time. This was the second dragon they found since their journey began, but their first one had shown no real difference in behaviour. This one did. Once the domain was established, its posture turned less aggressive; the creature observed them for a bit longer, then settled back down and curled up again. The heat lessened a great deal as well.

    "Curious," Laphi commented. Velvet had nothing else to add. They observed the dragon for a few hours and followed it around, watched it hunt a few weaker hellions, drink from a small pond, and generally do things a normal animal would do. In the end, it was her brother who put their findings into words: "If this is indicative, your blessing might affect them anyway. I remember the last dragon growling at us, maybe because we were too close. On a guess, it seems you turn them into something closer to animals than beings focussed on destruction."

    Velvet did not find an issue with that description; the main problem still remained, though. "Even if you're right, we can't let them live. They will just turn back the moment I leave and they'll still radiate Malevolence."

    "Agreed. Do you mind if I do it?"

    "Not at all, go ahead. Just keep in mind what I taught you."

    She waved him forward and Laphi took to the air gently while rolling his eyes. "Yes, Velvet. I know I'm not supposed to play with my food!" He shot forward on the last word and Velvet chuckled by herself, then started to walk in the same direction. Their quarry had just made to lean against a large rock, but perked up to watch the approaching seraph. A low growl was given, but Laphi already slammed straight into the beast's scaly chest. His sword speared through the tough hide and left a bleeding wound, the force of his assault pushing the bellowing dragon back against and then trough the boulder.

    Each of the creature's arms were longer than her brother was tall, but Velvet watched without worry. Heat emanated from the dragon again, burning away every plant in a hundred metres and making the sand boil; Laphi remained unaffected as he floated around a swipe, its impact alone tearing open twenty metres of melting ground. He dashed further up and twirled around for momentum, then delivered a devastating swing to his opponent's neck. The elbow that hammered into him in turn threw the boy out of the melting zone before he caught himself, but he was unharmed.

    The heat faded already when the dragon's severed head hit the ground, its body following right after. Velvet felt herself salivate a little and swallowed it down, her hand already bulging out. Laphi landed by her side soon after, none the worse for wear. "You still need to work on your technique," she criticised. "The only reason you won is that you're superior in all aspects except skill."

    "I'm working on it."

    Velvet considered to needle her brother some more, but decided to leave it at that; they quickly dug into their meal, Velvet by pressing her palm to the dragon and devouring it, Laphi by slicing off half of its body and dropping it into one of his artes, straight up to Innominat for consumption.

    After they were done and gained a decent chunk of power, Velvet willed herself into the air to take in her surroundings a bit better; they got turned around somewhat by that excursion, though she could see a small woodland they passed earlier not too far away; Laphi flew with her, the two siblings almost dancing around each other in the air. Flying felt incredible, even though she only allowed herself to do it every once in a while. To have the wind pulling at her yet standing meaningless, to be able to go in every direction she wanted without anything stopping her. To watch the ground below, so distant.

    Deep below, in the earthpulses running beneath Zaphgott Moor, Minkkubi spread her wings and rose out of the mana. Her four legs were now fully grown and she even had a tail. Curiously though, she noticed that her other body took one characteristic from her more human one; her left foreleg was not the colour of obsidian like most of her, but rather a furious crimson with some black lines running over the limb. She could feel a second maw within that paw, just as dangerous, just as deadly as the one in her left hand. When they made to camp in the glassed nest, she told her brother about it, which made him consider the matter for a bit.

    "It might have copied your main property as a therion there, not that you really need it in that form anymore. Which reminds me that I wanted to talk to you about something." The look on Laphi's face was oddly thoughtful, so Velvet let him talk as she worked: "I need the therions to gather Malevolence for my awakening whenever I fall into hibernation, but I can't make them anymore."

    She had not expected the conversation to head there, but him having lost that power was definitely worrying. Velvet put her carving knife aside and turned her full attention to Laphi. "What do you mean?"

    "I can't make therions anymore," Laphi repeated, slumping a bit. "The only thing that changed between back then and now is us being sealed together. My nature changed, as has yours; I think you are the one to create therions now."

    As he said it, Velvet felt instincts she did not even know of agree. If there was just the right foundation, she could twist the Malevolence just so to create hellions like no one else would ever make. She blinked and looked down at her hands, then back to Laphi. "I think you're right. I can feel it. But why? How do you wake up now?"

    "I think it's supposed to be you," he theorised. "You will slumber with me and wake up first, you create the therions and gather the eight types of Malevolence, then you use them to wake me if you judge that I'm needed. A symbiosis between light and darkness, that makes sense, doesn't it?" It did. "Minkkubi allows all to resist Malevolence better, Innominat returns them to purity if they go past the brink of corruption." Laphi hesitated, then let out a loud huff. "With, hah, Maotelus, we actually form a triangle. You enhance them, he cleanses them to try again if they fail, and I renew them if even that is not enough." He eyed Velvet again with a frown. "It feels more clean than it used to be, at least to me. I can't end up unstable anymore, I don't need to integrate a soul into my power anymore. It feels more whole, as if this was always needed."

    She could not say anything to that; matters of the gods had not been any of her business until three months ago, at least not like this. She did have one question, though: "What do you mean with 'integrating a soul'?"

    Laphi shrugged. "I'm not sure how to explain it differently. Innominat's power is more... loose, I guess you could call it. At least one soul needs to be given for the power to be molded to, to reincarnate. Like what happened with me. An endless line of succession that is now over, because I am me and always will be."

    It did not make as much sense as she had hoped for, but she would not complain. Yet them speaking of divine matters made her think. Made her wonder. "While we're at it, do you have any idea why I ended up looking like a dragon?"

    "Um... I'm not sure what you mean? Why wouldn't you be a dragon?"

    Velvet almost rolled her eyes, but did not and motioned for herself. "Only corrupted seraphim turn into dragons. I'm not a seraph." Laphi made to answer, but stopped before the first word even formed. His eyes grew wide and sought Velvet's, who had no idea what epiphany he just had. "What were you going to say?" she inquired softly.

    Laphi's eyes were shining. "That all Empyreans are dragons," he told her reverently. "I am, Musiphe, Amenoch, Eumacia, Hyanoa, and Maotelus are. You might also be a dragon because it is a form of power, or because you devoured parts of a seraph." He appeared thoughtful even while his excitement grew; Velvet was a little surprised by the news, having never seen any of the four elemental Empyreans before. She waited for Laphi to continue his train of thought, which did not take long to happen. "It's... weird. Regular seraphim turn into dragons once they get corrupted, but us Empyreans are the exact same thing without losing ourselves."

    Velvet's eyes began to widen as what could be the actual truth became clear to her. "So it might be that what Malevolence actually does to them... is to empower them too fast, so fast that it slips into their souls as they transform and makes them lose their minds."

    They stared at each other in wonder. Laphi nodded a few times, mostly to himself, before picking up the conversation again. "This is big, Velvet. If we're right, and there is at least no evidence to contradict us for now, that means every single seraph can become a proto-Empyrean by turning into a dragon. By extension, that means if particularly powerful seraphim live long enough, their powers may make them grow naturally into dragons and thus new Empyreans."

    "Which makes sense, too," Velvet added as she thought back. "We always knew that the four elemental Empyreans are seraphim themselves; they're just the most powerful of them, and the oldest beside Zui Fuu and that friend of hers."

    "Which means that the dragon is indeed the end of all seraphim. It is the natural stop of our evolution, twisted horrifically by Malevolence!" Laphi began to smile brightly at her. "We need to find older seraphim to talk about this with, and we need to find more dragons to test this with!"

    "It would definitely explain why dragons are so powerful," Velvet noted with a glance at the crater of glass around them. Then however, her mind strayed; if they were right and seraphim were merely forcefully evolved instead of completely changed, this might mean there was a chance to revert that process. To bring back Eizen. "Do you think it might be possible to undo it?"

    "Purify a dragon? Yes, maybe." Laphi's gaze went to the ground as he considered the matter. "But I doubt it will be easy, even for just a single dragon. So even if we find a way, I vote we only do it if there is a good reason for making the effort."

    "Agreed."

    The siblings ended up grinning. Idle conversation had put them on a lead to something which could once again change the world.

    "But enough of that," Laphi finally declared. "Minkkubi is fully gestated, right?" He waited for her to nod before pointing at the crater surrounding them. "Good, here is as good a place as any to bring her out. You will have to practice that a bit... and I think you actually need to swim to the place you want to leave the earthpulse from, roughly. It only works from everywhere if you use the earth as your vessel." Velvet thought to protest, but then decided against it; Laphi did have a point with what he said, she ought to at least know how.

    So it was that an hour later, a large pool of reddish black roiled on the ground; three interconnected arte-circles had opened it up, fifty metres in diameter. However, the creature that ascended out of the pool required less than half of its space. Crimson eyes gleamed softly in the evening light, set into scales as dark as the night. Black and red, just as Laphi seemed to have expected when naming her, were predominant in Minkkubi.

    Velvet once again focussed on moving two bodies at once; she let the summoning pool fade away while trotting toward herself and Laphi. Being the size of a large horse instead of a normal one now, Minkkubi had a wingspan of about six metres; far too small for her weight, were she not an inherently magical being. Just like she did as Velvet, the dragon could will herself into the air even without a single wingbeat.

    Laphi stepped forward to meet the dragon on the way and Minkkubi stopped in front of him; he curiously ran a hand over her scales. "They're warm. You're a pretty dragon, Velvet." She could not help but preen a little, quietly agreeing with the assessment; it was difficult to believe that this new form of hers was so elegant to look at. Now she only had to grow bigger, which should happen as time went on.

    "I wonder how durable I am," Velvet muttered quietly... and also with both of her bodies.

    Laphi heard her, staring into the dragon's eyes instead of turning around. "I think," he quipped with a wry grin, "that anything not a god would have trouble even just scratching you, in either of your forms. The only beings who could beat you easily are the other Empyreans; you're still just an infant after all." He had a point there.

    Velvet spent a few minutes admiring herself, but soon decided to bring her body back into the earthpulse; having her spotted would be bad and she could do more beneath the earth. The day ended with her and Laphi having a quick meal as well as a few hours of sleep.

    Unbeknownst to them however, others had been watching. They were pondering their options, their wishes. And now these others moved for the sibling gods.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 1.8 Bonds Beyond Time
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Laphicet Crowe woke to a blistering heat that had not been there before. He blinked wearily before realising that it was not his small, human body which felt the sensation but rather his greater form. Still waking up fully, the dragon made to move his cathedral before remembering to turn it back into a neck first. Velvet got up with a groan by his side.

    Turning his head in the opposite direction it had faced before, Innominat beheld a pinprick of light. Maybe twice the size of a fully grown human and consisting of fluctuating mana; the construct constantly emitted a blistering heat that merely warmed Innominat's golden scales. What was more, it had a scent; one which felt faintly familiar even though Laphicet knew he never smelled it before. The part of him that was Innominat however, had. Musiphe.

    "Finally!" The construct exclaimed in an echoing baritone, cheerful despite the situation. "I thought you'd sleep even longer!" Innominat just blinked at the construct, only now noticing thin streamers of mana running up from the planet below; it had no clear form, appeared more than an orb which constantly twisted and turned. Only its colouration remained constant, a deep, flaming red.

    "Musiphe," the younger Empyrean greeted, though he could not help but be confused.

    Next to him, Velvet looked up sharply. "How did I just hear your voice?" A moment later, her voice echoed from the construct as well: "What do you want?"

    Laphicet's eyes narrowed and his gaze was drawn to the glassed crater they slept in, then down to the ground. "I think he transmits between our bodies," he suggested. To Musiphe, Innominat answered as well: "I concur with my sister, you should be asleep." It was not even a question.

    Musiphe did not seem to be bothered by their irreverent tones. "Yeah, yeah, but did you know? We're Empyreans, so we can do whatever we want!" The construct made some bobbing motions in tune with his rebuttal, then turned a bit more static while the siblings eyed each other. "But that's beside the point; see, we were watching you two for a little while. Have been waiting for you to gestate properly, girl. Now we wanna meet you in person, being the new Empyrean and all." Icy, irrational fear filled Laphicet in that moment; he had just said earlier that only the other gods could still destroy Minkkubi. Now his own words echoed in his mind. Be it something in his head drawing back or something Velvet did, the construct let out bellowing laughter. "Relax, we aren't going to tear her apart! Ugh, I doubt we even could with how Maotelus is hogging most of the prayers recently, y'know?" Velvet and Laphicet exchanged glances again, both a little more pale still; neither of them felt confident about this, considering that Musiphe likely spoke for all of the elemental Empyreans.

    They were distracted from their worries by a loud slapping noise, followed by the construct turning a deep, navy blue and becoming less animated. Ripples ran over its surface, carrying the faint scent of salt and Amenoch. Her firm voice echoed out next with a note of gentleness. "We have many concerns that ought to be addressed in person. Unfortunately, we can not approach you due to the Malevolence surging through the earth. We can not gather together quickly and need to exchange messenges like this, even."

    This at least proved one point; Malevolence was still dangerous, even to the other Empyreans. Laphi said as much to Velvet and wondered whether it was a point against or in favour of trusting the four on their intentions. For the time being, he repeated the question Musiphe had not really answered: "I am surprised you're awake at all, considering the current state of Desolation." He was tempted to ask about the arte they used to communicate like this, but that could wait.

    Amenoch's chuckling sounded more like a rolling wave caressing the beach than any sound a human throat could produce. "Quite true, quite true. We, just like you, normally slumber to save our strength for when it is needed. Now that Zui Fuu deemed it necessary to undo the seal on you, such a time may have arrived."

    The siblings eyed each other again, a little surprised. Innominat took to asking what they both thought: "You know Zui Fuu?"

    "Indeed, young Innominat. Zui is an old acquaintance and a dear friend. Her and Zenrus are the only ones still living who descended from the heavenly realms with us. We trust their wisdom and their council beyond all doubts. It was your sister who reignited Zui's faith in the cycle being broken, who chased away her despair when last they met a thousand years ago." He had the distinct feeling that the construct was not addressing him at all with what followed after: "So we wish to thank you for that."

    Velvet's lips were pursed, which likely translated somewhat to her draconic body's language. "I didn't do anything extra, so I don't need thanks. More to the point, you leave mankind to their own devices unless the entire race is in mortal peril. Does it actually surprise you that there are no faithful sooner or later, forcing you to sleep most of the time?"

    The watery surface suddenly began to boil and steam; they could hear Musiphe's voice again: "Oh, I like her! She got spunk!"

    "Get off the line, Musiphe." The construct turned a calmer shade of blue again, though Amenoch's voice held a tinge of amusement. "Though I do agree with him; it is good to see you two so lively."

    Neither could tell if the praise was heartfelt, but Laphi did feel a little better at this point; no threats were exchanged at all and they took even Velvet's more abrasive behaviour in stride. He watched the rumbling construct change appearance again, becoming more earthy. The scent of fresh flowers and Eumacia followed. "We are all glad to see that," he began where Amenoch left off. His voice was a little brighter than Musiphe's, a bit more youthful if far more grounded in tone when he addressed Minkkubi. "More importantly, however, is that you have done the impossible yet again; a mere thousand years ago, you were but a mortal woman, content with tending to her sick brother. Now, you have ascended to be our peer."

    A moment of silence followed as Velvet frowned; it was interesting to watch her facial expressions and guess her thoughts before Minkkubi spoke. Or perhaps it just took some time to transmit her response to where Laphi was. "... you were snooping around in the earthen historia, weren't you?"

    "In fairness," Laphi told his sister quietly, "he is the Empyrean of Earth. To take a look at the memories of the world makes sense for him." It earned him an unamused stare and he shrugged.

    They were distracted from their private conversation when Eumacia continued, a slight tremor in his tone now. "I am afraid so; we knew nothing about you back when you last woke us, but your rise to power remains unprecedented. We have been four of the elements for tens of thousands of years, with only Innominat joining us soon after we descended from the heavenly realms."

    The construct began to melt into lava almost immediately after the last word was spoken, a now familiar voice once more chiming in: "But Innominat cheated by getting stronger through devouring Malevolence!"

    "Can it, Musiphe!"

    A chuckle, then the construct returned to its blocky form; Laphi could not help but grin at Velvet, whose frown had melted away much like the earth earlier. The Empyrean's memories from before Laphicet became Innominat were hazy at best, so it was nice to learn a few things beside the pure knowledge he retained. A rumbling sigh echoed at them and Eumacia continued once it was clear Musiphe would not interrupt again, at least not immediately. "We wish to meet you in person, so to speak. To ascertain that our initial impression is correct, that you are one of us and not our enemy. To welcome you among us Empyreans, and to welcome this incarnation of Innominat as well... if possible." The construct appeared to turn this way and that. "You moved from atop where Maotelus is sealed, but a descent might still be difficult for you."

    Laphi eyed his sister curiously while she mulled it over; a casual meeting between the gods sounded and felt like something he wanted to experience, but he worried about her. If they were lying about their intentions, she was in mortal peril. Velvet took a deep breath and sought his eyes, both pairs the same shade of bright amber. "I don't think they're lying," she explained. "But even if I did, we can't really afford to irritate those four, can we?"

    "You have a point." Laphi sighed, wondering just how two gods of all beings could be forced by their circumstances like that. Then he intoned as Innominat, addressing their fellow Empyreans: "I can learn this arte you are using and maybe create a shortcut to fit myself through for a while. If I leave a shell of myself behind up here to keep the structure up, this should prevent anything odd from happening. I have enough extra mana at hand." There went his plans of bridging the gap between Desolation and its moon with the cosmic earthpulse. That kind of arte would likely take up most remaining reserves.

    "Honestly," Minkkubi's voice echoed into his thoughts with open curiousity, "I'm more wondering why you get along with Innominat. Last time I saw you, you were tearing into each other." Laphi blinked, realising that this was true; he had not spent a single moment thinking of the battle they once fought with their domains.

    The construct shifted once again, back to the rippling blue. Amenoch explained patiently: "We do not hate Innominat any more than Innominat hates us. He sometimes wakes before his time of actual need, moving to destroy that which needs not yet be destroyed; so we awaken in turn to stop him until that time does arrive. Sometimes, we admittedly need a little wake-up call." He thought he heard a bit of sheepishness there. The construct changed back to the earthy block at that point.

    "Not to mention," Eumacia added to Amenoch's explanation, "that during your time, we acted because we did not want humanity suppressed forever, either."

    "I see."

    Minkkubi fell quiet after her short response, so Laphi took up from there. "Where exactly do we meet up? Should we swim to each of you?" That would take a while with how far they were apart.

    Amenoch once again took hold of the construct and answered him. "There is one path we can all take, mostly free of Malevolence still. Meet us at the heart of the world, where all the earthpulses lead in the end."

    Laphi faintly knew what she spoke of, but figured they would not need much guidance if all earthpulses led there. "Alright. I will take a while to detach myself and connect with the earth."

    "Days are nothing to us, young Innominat." Amenoch's voice made the sphere ripple softly. "We will require a few of them to reach the place ourselves. I look forward to meeting you both in person."

    The construct began to fade with those words, quickly degrading into motes of mana. Laphicet and Velvet shared a long look even while he began to make the necessary preparations. "Could we stay here until I'm down in the earthpulses? I need to do a lot of precise work."

    "Sure." Velvet slumped onto her back to the cracking of glass, examining the cloudless sky with slowly narrowing eyes. "We only heard three Empyreans, didn't we?"

    "You're right," Laphicet agreed absently. "Hyanoa didn't say anything." He let the silence descend after that, at least for a while. Then he could not help but share his feelings: "I don't really like that we have little choice in the matter, but I'm kind of giddy about meeting them."

    His sister snorted and threw him a sly look. "Who wouldn't? They are Empyreans after all."

    It took Laphi two days to finish his preparations after that; Velvet practiced and hunted around their chosen perch in the dragon's nest. She was just heading back there when a gold-tinted rainbow descended from beyond the horizon; it met the ground ahead, where she knew the earthpulse ran close to the surface. The phenomenon consisted for several minutes as she felt something greater travel through the band of light. Below, Minkkubi watched a giant arte-circle turn almost lazily. Velvet just stepped down into the glass crater when a giant, golden head broke through the center of that circle and beheld her for a moment; the dragons stilled to study each other, but then Innominat continued to push through. One head was joined by a second, slightly smaller one; then another, and another. Eight pairs of eyes finally fell on Minkkubi, the core body they were all connected to hidden by the god's many necks winding around it.

    Laphi said nothing even when she saw him, only wordlessly went for a hug while Innominat snaked forward to pull himself around Minkkubi.They stayed that way for long minutes, their draconic embrace almost comical with the respective Empyreans' sizes. Neither cared for how it may look like; they were brother and sister, now and forevermore.

    When the siblings separated, both above the earth and beneath, Laphi smiled at Velvet while Innominat gave Minkkubi a gentle push. "It will take a few days to reach them, let's go."

    "Yeah, let's. We should be in Horsa soon, too."

    The dragons began to swim through the earthpulse, Innominat's heads surrounding his sister's far smaller body as the greater dragon sailed along in an almost majestic manner. Velvet still felt somewhat odd and cumbersome in comparison to her human body, but she swam and steered smoothly despite the feeling. Just as they broke camp and began to travel once more outside of the earthpulse as well, Minkkubi spotted streamers of mana beginning to follow several of her brother's heads. Velvet cast a glance at Laphi, who looked up at her with an innocent smile. "I figured now is a good time to gather the mana for Zaveid's bullets."

    "Alright." She left it at that and focussed on traversing the sandy area; she had trouble believing that this was marshland not too long ago, even though several people in Pendrago and some travelers they met on the way all told the same thing.

    The siblings soon returned to the road they were following before and carried on toward Horsa, curiously noting not a single carriage or horse. No one appeared to be on their route, which she found a little odd. Following it led through a small lakebed, past a herd of elephants that Laphi insisted they spend time interacting with because neither of them had ever seen anything like them before, and ultimately through a narrow pass along two hills. Which was where they met other people, though not in the way she preferred.

    Having walked halfway through the narrow, four people jumped out from larger boulders in front of her. The rustling of sand and a glance back revealed three more behind them. All were armed, all looked a little ragged. Velvet did not draw her blade yet, but she remained alert. No bows as far as she could see. Laphi remained by her side, relaxed.

    Of the four in front of her, the tallest man stepped forward with a grin. Velvet focussed on him, noted that he was taller than her, confident, that his hair was black and unruly, mussed back and out of the way. She noted the sabre he carried, took in the sharp eyes, his sturdy boots, the neatly trimmed, pointy beard. He was still walking, so she spent a moment sizing up the people behind him and those behind her. Three grown men, one adult woman, two teens; the latter stood behind their boss, a boy and a girl.

    Turning back to the apparent leader, Velvet could not help but raise an eyebrow. The bandits she heard about were usually more rugged in appearance than that, and more numerous. "Listen up," he called out once he was but a dozen metres away. "We're taking your things now and then you'll be on your way!" The other six closed in on them as he spoke.

    Laphi looked around once more and tilted his head up at Velvet. "That sounds surprisingly tame, doesn't it? I remember those stories about what bandits do with women they catch." She threw him a look and he shut up. Unbeknownst to her brother, those 'stories' led to the first and only time Velvet hit her dearest friend back then. Niko scared Laphi so bad at the time that she saw red and did not talk to the other girl for weeks after slapping her.

    "Nah, we're not like that. What kind of conquest is a woman if she didn't give herself willingly?"

    The dark voice carried to them and gave both siblings pause; that bandit in front of them had answered Laphi, one arm on the hilt of his weapon and the other hanging lazily. He gave them a confident grin even while those behind him exchanged odd looks. The adult man called out: "Uh, boss? Who're you talking to?"

    "Can't you see? The kid there of course!"

    He motioned for Laphi right next to Velvet, which led to more looks going around. The Crowes could not help but grin at the confusion until the teenaged girl called out next: "But there's only that woman there!"

    Her answer made the man hesitate; the atmosphere had already turned from threatening to comical when he motioned for Velvet to wait a second and turned around. "What? Hang on, can't you....?" He trailed off before glancing at the siblings again, one hand stroking his beard in thought. Moments passed, then his eyes lit up. "Oh, they can't! So that's why you travel alone, girl. Looks like it won't be that easy after all!"

    Meanwhile, Velvet considered her options. She could just kill them all, but one of them had a powerful enough resonance to see seraphim. Moreover, she knew that many bandits only turned to measures like this because they had no other choice. She was a goddess now, so she might as well try to kill the cause and not the result; it was not like this bunch was any kind of threat to her. "Mind if I ask you a question?" Her tone was calm and stopped the lead bandit after the two steps he took her way. All the rest tensed up from seeing their supposedly easy prey standing fearless. "Why did you turn to banditry?"

    The boy in the back stumbled backward at how her tone grew darker with the question. Surprisingly however, it had the adverse effect on the man in front. He blinked and narrowed his eyes, looking her over more closely. "Hey, girl. You mind undoing your braid?"

    "...what?"

    Her own eyes narrowed at the older man, who stroked his beard again. This was about the last question she had expected, but it certainly distracted her from her previous thoughts; now Velvet was simply befuddled. Laphi did not appear any less confused than her.

    His response was as simple as it was weird: "I feel like I saw your face before somewhere."

    "That's impossible," Laphi muttered, mostly to himself. Velvet had to agree with him, though the stranger did not answer his claim; he merely strolled forward without a care in the world. Both siblings tensed, but he did not pay their stances any mind. His brows were furrowed as he circled around Velvet, leaning this way and that, eyes slowly going up and down her entire form.

    None of the other bandits moved, all of them just as confused as Velvet felt. The silent scrutiny continued until he stood right in front of her, deep in thought. Then, all of a sudden, his eyes widened and he let out a cheerful laugh while slapping his forehead. "Right, of course! Now that's even more interesting! You were with Eizen and that silver flame kid!" Velvet froze solid, as did Laphi by her side. They both stared at the stranger in disbelief, but neither could refuse what was now almost certain. Who this man was.

    The riddle solved, his attention then strayed to Laphicet and he leaned down to peer at the seraph boy. "Now that I think about it. My memories of that time are hazy, but haven't I seen you before, too?"

    Both still stared at him dumbfounded, though Laphi caught himself at that point. Mana flowed out from him and took hold of the winds, sealing off the area around them as he nodded. Velvet saw the other bandits shudder, obviously feeling something happening without being able to tell what. "Yes," Laphi told the man earnestly. "I am Innominat, the suppressor. I am the one responsible for your demise, the last time around. And for that, I am truly sorry."

    "Eh, it's fine, kid. We all gotta do what we gotta do."

    Velvet's eyes ran over that man again. His easy grin in the face of mortal danger, the rogueish appearance, that pointy beard she already found familiar before. "I never thought I would get to meet you properly, van Aifread." It remained hard to believe, but speaking his name made the whole thing feel a little more plausible. She offered her hand to the reborn pirate king, who shook it vigorously.

    "The one and only! Never thought I'd see familiar faces again!"

    "Curious," Laphi commented from the side while the two adults sized each other up once more. "Now we know that not just reborn seraphim can regain memories of their past lives." A moment later, he was shaking Aifread's hand as well.

    Velvet, having turned her attention back to the situation at hand, decided to defuse it. "How about a deal: you leave me be and I cook you all a proper meal."
    "Deal." He did not even hesitate when she made her offer; Velvet's smile only grew further when the adult woman and one of the men stepped forward to complain at their boss; apparently, they were usually in charge of food and felt themselves insulted. Aifread simply shooed them off with a smile while citing variety as the spice of life, but the flick of his eyes to her left hand made it clear he also knew not to pick this fight.

    About an hour later, with the sun already on the descent, all complaints had been silenced when Velvet outdid the usual cooks at their own specialty. It felt nice to prepare food for a larger group again, she had to admit. Everyone dug in heartily and no one stopped before at least asking for seconds. She smiled as she beheld their cheerful faces, hostility and most of the awkwardness since gone. Laphi idled around, examining people more closely as they ate.

    "So," Aifread spoke up while sitting down next to her, "how's Eizen these days?"

    Velvet made a bit of a face at being reminded, shaking her head sadly. "I haven't seen him yet, but Zaveid told me he turned into a dragon long ago."

    She noticed the others listening curiously, but no one interrupted. Aifread sighed, slapping the ground weakly. "Shame, that. He always made things interesting. Zaveid's still around, then?"

    "Around and healthy," Velvet told him with a renewed grin, which he returned. "And not scared to throw fists with a god." Her gaze flicked to Laphi, then back to Aifread when he bellowed out a laugh.

    "That sounds just like him, it does! Glad to hear at least that old dog is still kicking!"

    He made to tip up his bowl of stew, only for Velvet to stop him with a stern look and a finger pointed at his spoon. Aifread grinned and tipped the bowl up after all, emptying it in a few gulps; he seemed unaffected by Velvet's disapproval, yet in the end she could not help but smile about it. "What have you been doing out in these parts?"

    "Ah, yes." The bowl was held out to her for a refill and she stood to do just that while Aifread explained with a big grin. "I'm putting a new crew together, even found a few people already."

    He then motioned for the handful of people around him, first at the teens. "These there are Emil and Martha. She ran off when her old man decided she couldn't see him anymore, and he went along." Both nodded at her, the boy more shily and the girl faintly rubbing her cheek.

    "The lovely over there is Judith," he introduced after that. The woman gave Velvet a measured smile where she leaned against a rock, her fitness obvious to Velvet's trained eye. "She's an outlaw 'cause she tore up some prized art pieces, I didn't ask why she hated them so much and it doesn't really matter."

    Velvet was starting to see a pattern there, her eyes going to the men in the group next. "And there we have our lovely womaniser Zelos-" "I told you I'm trying to keep it down" "-my right-hand man Alvin, and Ludger." She could see that Zelos was attractive and already figured why he was out here; Alvin gave her a grin and Ludger just a nod while Aifread grinned. "I've got no idea why Ludger's here, he doesn't talk much, you know? Alvin's been a bandit longer than any of us."

    "A pleasure to meet you all," she offered her own greeting to the group once their boss fell silent. "I am Velvet." She then turned back to the man she was most curious about. "I wonder, though; how long has it been since you remembered and what's your name now?"

    If he was surprised by the subject change, he did not show it. The man merely shrugged. "It's just Aifread, I like the idea of building a legacy like that. I wasn't that different from the old me anyway, so my 'new' name doesn't matter. Has been a few months since it all came back to me." His expression turned brighter then, a grin finding its way back onto his face. "Just you watch, Velvet; in a few years, the world will know the name of Aifread's Bandit Crew!" He held the grin a few seconds while Martha and Emil clapped politely, but then it fell. He slumped with a sigh, looking almost crestfallen. "Oh, to hell with it! That just doesn't have the same ring as Aifread's Pirate Crew."

    Velvet could not help but chuckle over how fast his mood changed. The glare he sent her over it only made her laugh harder. When she was finished, Judith gave her side a little tap with her foot. "Is it true, though?" she inquired. "The boss said it a few times, but we didn't have any way to prove he really lived so long ago. And how'd you know him back then?"

    She considered the other woman who met her gaze evenly; not hostile, but curious. The others were much the same, trapped between the sheer scale of what they were told and wanting to believe nonetheless. A glance went to Aifread then. "Can this bunch keep a secret?"

    Laphi sighed by her side while the man himself gave a thumbs up. "Of course we can." So, despite her brother's obvious dislike of the idea, she gave the bandits a quick rundown on hellions and resonance. It ended with the revelation that she, herself, was a hellion and thus immortal just like the seraphim. Predictably, all of this was as hard to believe as the initial claim.

    "Doubt my words all you want," Aifread ultimately told his crew, "I don't care as long as you don't doubt me or our goals. It's your choice to make!"

    The others made agreeing noises of some kind or other, but soon the group scattered somewhat. Velvet remained seated with Aifread and her brother, the latter of which spoke up after a while. "I'm a little confused. You take all of this in stride even though I took your free will away, made you a tool. Shouldn't you be angry at me?"

    He received a long look from the aspiring bandit king, which was followed by a rough pat on the head. "First of all, that was mostly Melchior and not you. And you know, I don't give a damn, things worked out and now you're not going to do that again! Right?"

    Velvet received a glance with the question, so she nodded. "If he does, he'll get another spanking."

    "Fantastic! See? No reason to get worked up over the past!"

    She could not help but smile at this. "I think I can see why Eizen thought so highly of you," Velvet told Aifread while Laphi tried to make sense of what he was just told. She considered the situation for a moment, then decided to take another leap. "Laphi and I are reviving the Bloodwing Butterflies." This brought her Aifread's immediate and complete attention. He knew what it meant, even before Velvet finished explaining. "We're still setting up right now, but we would gladly trade information with you once we're ready. Interested?"

    Their grins were mutual now. Aifread offered his hand without further prompting. "You had me at Bloodwings, I'm in! Always pays to stay informed."

    "I'll say."

    "Yeah. Anyway, care to share what you two were doing out here? There's nothing much of value around, you on the way to Lohgrin?"

    Velvet frowned while Laphi rooted through her pack for the map. "Isn't this the road to Horsa village?" She knew something was wrong when the chatter around them ceased at the mention of their destination. Aifread tensed up a little and grimaced, much like the bandits around them.

    "I-It is," Martha finally told them in a subdued tone. She did not meet Velvet's eyes. "Or, uh, it splits into the road there, but Horsa was destroyed a month ago. Or was it two?" The girl looked between her friends, all of which shrugged.

    She had no idea. Truthfully, Velvet now felt a little cold; she had torched cities herself in the past, but that was for a reason. She cast her heart in chains because it hurt too much. Now that her heart was free, she felt sad. Sad for having to return to Runette with news of her sisters' deaths. As a sister herself, she knew just how much it hurt. Even if they were estranged or rarely saw each other, the cardinal still cared about them.

    "Yeah," Aifread broke the somber silence that followed Martha's words, "the village is gone and I kept us away from there. Saw a couple snake ladies from a distance, hellions." Eight heads turned to him in response and he shrugged at Velvet. "I might've been able to take 'em, but I couldn't risk the others. Hard to warn people when they can't see the danger, too."

    "That makes sense." Velvet's muttered comment went mostly to herself as she thought. Runette was a lamia; even if it was a stretch to assume this to be her sisters Aifread saw, they had to check and make sure. The other Fortons may yet live.

    When she looked up´, her gaze alone made quite clear what she thought. Aifread chuckled and threw her another grin. "You're going anyway. And you know what? I'm curious now, so I'll tag along." She had half a mind to refuse because he would slow them down, but the bandits immediately called out that they would follow their leader. Seeing them cheerful again, Velvet decided to let them.

    Deep beneath the earth, gliding further into the depths, Innominat's main head turned to Minkkubi and rumbled at her: "These people are weird." The black dragon agreed readily.
     
  15. Voidlord

    Voidlord Know what you're doing yet?

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    Very interesting you have a watch.

    Also I reckon a non empyrean Velvet would still be able to beat up Heldalf. She would just siphon his Malvolence.

    Not enough ToB/ToZ fanfics out there!
     
  16. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Amen.

    In regard to Heldalf and regular Velvet, well; I feel it would be quite even. Velvet is vastly more powerful at base, but Heldalf is bonded to a god and sufficiently empowered. Ignoring the Armatus, I would say Heldalf has greater power but less skill than Artorius in the same situation.

    That aside however, Velvet would indeed hold the advantage due to being a therion and thus able to literally eat the source of Heldalf's power.


    Anyway, that's my two scents on the matter. I'm glad you enjoy the story.
     
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  17. Voidlord

    Voidlord Know what you're doing yet?

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    Oh i didn’t mean Bonded Heldalf. Cause yea that would be way more balanced. I meant unbonded.

    Cant wait for them to meet Sorey and Co. Mainly because Sorey is a pretty decent person all in all. And he wouldn’t try to purge Velvet when they meet. Be intimidated by her and Laphi for certain. Afterall one is the King of The Gods and the other is his sibling.
     
  18. Mquz

    Mquz Versed in the lewd.

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    Personally, I don’t think Violet would be all for manipulation of the people by the church. It’s the sort of thing she fought against, and kinda goes against her domain. She didn’t even need to be convinced much here. Sure, she’s probably agree if there was a good reason to, but not in the long run.
     
  19. Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    You have a point, though I never felt like Velvet fought against such manipulation itself; she fought the exorcists who used this against her among other things. Regardless, she would be much more upset if Runette were manipulating the faithful for her personal gain. As is, Velvet can appreciate the idea and anything else comes with time.

    Point of order though, Velvet's concept of freedom is the freedom to choose. If people choose to believe Runette's words and manipulations, she is not going to make a fuss; that's just human nature, for the people in charge to have sway over the masses.
     
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  20. Threadmarks: 1.9 Fall (From Grace)
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    A night spent at camp with Aifread's crew felt decidedly odd to Velvet; she was used to it being just her and Laphi by now, so the presence of another half dozen people around them gave her pause. They kept a watch, which the siblings had never bothered with for obvious reasons. They snored, one and all, though with various noise levels; that did not interrupt her sleep, but it kept winding her up from the sounds she was not used to hearing. They slept, where Velvet and Laphi simply stayed awake through the night.

    As it was, she forewent her usual experimentation with artes in favour of dozing, settled more at the camp's edge with her brother leaning onto her. Most of the time however, Velvet's eyes were scanning the various people there; they had no tents, merely bedrolls and blankets. Emil and Martha were sharing one, both obviously comfortable with the arrangement.

    Judith and Alvin had settled next to each other with some room to spare, facing away from the dune the camp sat against. Their weapons were placed in easy grabbing range. Zelos had found his place resting close to the crackling fire, on the side opposite to Emil and Martha. Aifread settled near Velvet and snored up a storm. Ludger, whose bedroll sat empty between the couple and their leader, had taken first watch. At times Velvet felt like his eyes bored into hers when he turned to gaze in her direction, but he never said anything. She could not shake the feeling that he knew she was awake.

    Sighing, Velvet let herself fall into slumber again as best as she could. She felt well-rested and more like skulking through the night; however, not alienating her temporary companions felt prudent.

    It was a long night.

    At least the morning went a little easier; Velvet paired with Zelos to make breakfast and the larger group headed out for Horsa village soon after. She had to admit, if nothing else, Aifread knew how to keep morale up. The mood between his bandits was one of casual companionship; barbs were traded back and forth from men and women alike, with some slack cut to the two who were obviously younger. They joked back and forth and everyone joined in jovially, even the captain. Stoic Ludger sometimes let a quiet comment flow into the conversation.

    Velvet stayed out of it most of the time, feeling like an outsider. Laphi did the same, partly because they would not have heard him anyway.

    Horsa village, when they reached it in the afternoon, was just like the bandits told them; in ruins.

    Bodies were still lying in places, one and all in advanced stages of decay. They were left where they fell, sometimes with parts coming to rest further away as if removed forcefully; a faint, sickly sweet smell hung over the entire area. Men and women and children, though one could only still tell from their clothes and sizes. Aifread's people stood silently, beholding the carnage with various expressions; Alvin and Ludger took it in stoically, a green-faced Zelos had his gaze averted, Judith looked around more than at the remains, and the teens were keeping their eyes on the ground.

    "Their valuables are still there," Judith noted after a somber minute. Velvet peered at some of the bodies to find the same. Earrings, necklaces, and bracelets of some kind or other gleamed in the sunlight, still where they were originally worn. She felt a touch of revulsion at the sights still, but it was a small one at most. Velvet had never been around the decomposing dead, just around the recently deceased.

    Martha hid himself behind Emil, who hid behind Aifread, who in turn began to walk into town slowly. Velvet and Laphi strode along with the rest slowly falling into step. They found derelict, partly broken, empty houses and more death.

    It did not take long for Laphi's head to turn slightly and point toward Horsa's center. "There is a hellion that way." The comment got him a glance from the two who could see him. Velvet just nodded, but Aifread looked him over more curiously then.

    "Care to share how you can tell, kid?"

    "Seraphim have fine senses for mana and free Malevolence. We can identify other seraphim by how strong they ping that sense and hellions by the Malevolence they keep emitting." Laphi grinned at that point and nodded to Velvet. "Not that it works all the time; my sister emits no Malevolence, so one can't tell from a distance that she is a hellion." Aifread made a thoughtful noise, stroking his beard as they went. His gaze alternated between the two siblings. Without further questions, Velvet returned to watching their surroundings.

    Reaching the town square soon after, the odd group found a large if damaged townhouse and several dilapidated shops surrounding it. Living spaces were just as abandoned and here, too, lay the dead.

    Velvet was about to suggest she and Laphi round up the corpses to burn them later, but the opening of a door distracted her. Heralded by a cloud of Malevolence surging ahead, a lamia slithered outside on dark blue if dull scales. She looked haggard, hair disheveled and shoulders slumped even while she carried a knife and a freshly killed rat in her hands. "Doesn't look like any kind of monster to me," Alvin supplied from the side. "You sure it's not just a woman?"

    "Trust me on this." Aifread tensed up as the lamia's head rose and her eyes left the ground to focus on them. "She's seen us and here she comes."

    True to his words, the lamia dropped her catch and slithered toward them with fast, almost hypnotically fluid motions. Velvet stepped forward in turn but pushed down on the gnashing teeth in her palm; she would not feed today, or at least not yet. "We mean no harm! Who are you!"

    Her words did not stop the hellion, but they did make her slow down to rake hate-filled eyes over the lot of them. The lamia snarled before focussing on Velvet. "Scoundrels and wenches all, coming here to disrespect the good-" She broke off and wailed in what could be sorrow or anger, coiling up and surging forward.

    She caught Velvet off-guard, who thought she would at least finish the sentence. The impact threw her a dozen metres away and buried her under four hundred pounds of angry snake-woman, to surprised exlamations from the bandits. She was unharmed if miffed, considering she let her guard down again despite the teachings Arthur drilled into her.

    "Die!" the lamia shouted while she tried to slam her claws into Velvet's face. Her arms were caught in a vice-like grip, an unamused stare leveled at her. Velvet heaved and hauled the lamia off; she landed on her back with a stone-breaking crunch, lying basically head against head with Velvet.

    While she was dazed, Velvet extended her domain to cover the whole village; she also drew in Malevolence out of habit. The lamia ceased moving then, just stared up at the sky with wide eyes. Her clawed hands opened and closed slowly, the clapping of feet on stone momentarily being the only noise. Aifread and his bandits reached them moments later, forming a loose circle around the two downed women. Velvet let the lamia rest a moment longer, then released her arms. "Does the name 'Runette' mean anything to you?"

    Her downed opponent's head turned and they watched each other upside down, the lamia's eyes taking her in cautiously. "Y-Yes," she croaked. Her tail flopped to the ground and Velvet could see tears form in the corners of her eyes. "That is my youngest sister's name. Do you know her?"

    "In a way, yes." Velvet saw Laphi step next to Aifread in her peripheral vision, watching the exchange but leaving it to her. "We met her a little while ago, she asked us to tell you she's well." Her words made the hellion's eyes grow wide, then her lip wobbled. Before Velvet could even take in that much, she wailed again; covered her face to hide the tears, bending inward at the waist and curling her tail around herself while she cried helplessly.

    Velvet watched this from the ground for a moment, then she slowly pushed herself into a sitting position. From there she stood, took two steps, and kneeled next to the crying hellion. Aifread quietly ordered his people to loot the stores and something about not taking personal effects; Laphi went with them, leaving the two alone for now. After another moment of indecision, Velvet gave herself a push and leaned forward to pick the lamia up. She surged into her arms immediately, crying into Velvet's chest. "I-It was so h-horrible," she blubbered in-between hiccups while the other woman stroked her back soothingly. "I, I could live with him not l-loving me back, that he, hic, that he left me, but, but then, hic, then that sickness, and my poor little boy, hic, I, I just-" "Shh, it's okay."

    She was beginning to understand. Velvet just stood and hugged the inconsolable lamia tight; everyone needed a hug from time to time, she knew that well. So she stayed there, letting her cry it all out.

    "And my s-sister," the other hellion blubbered after a while, only slightly calmer than before. "S-She turned into this right when I did. Hic. T-They expected her to save them, hic, all of them thought she'd do it on her own. They, they didn't even hic try! I hate them," she mewled into Velvet's chest right as she fell into another crying fit. "I hate them sohoho much!"

    "Yeah, I get it. People are horrible like that." Velvet whispered calmly and held the lamia close.

    She did not know how much time exactly passed, but at some point the tears stopped coming. She had a scaly tail curled around her then, a shaking lamia in her arms, and held on a little longer. The other hellion hesitantly lifted her head to look at Velvet, who produced a piece of cloth to clean her face. "Thank you, kind stranger," she mumbled, her voice raspy. "Please forgive me for losing my composure like that."

    Velvet finished her work with a soft smile and shook her head. "It's alright. I know these feelings well." The tail unwound and she stepped back to take in the woman. "What's your name? And where is your sister?"

    "Enid," the woman introduced herself quietly. She did not meet Velvet's gaze, one hand clasping her other arm. "Rodeen is hiding, in a house at the outskirts. She killed most of the people here in a fit of rage like I never saw from her before, right after she turned. It left her worn out, together with the few wounds she took from the guards. She healed, but she won't leave that place, she's praying to be saved from the insanity clawing at her mind." Enid took a deep breath, shoulders slumping a little further. "I would rather you do not see her; she has not forgiven herself for hurting these people and she won't forgive herself for hurting you."

    Velvet did not correct her on who would end up hurt. "You're doing a little better than her, then?"

    "Y-Yes. I can keep my mind clear most of the time. I hunt for us, that is at least one thing good about this damned form." She pulled on the tip of her tail in distaste, though Velvet nodded in agreement. At this point however, Enid was curiously examining her fingers; she peered at Velvet afterward. "Strangely enough, the madness is almost gone now. I can think clearly ever since meeting you. Is this, perhaps, your doing?"

    "It is." Velvet watched her eyes widen and smiled. "It won't stay around after I leave, but my power pushes back the darkness, makes it easier for you to stand strong against it."

    Enid immediately bent at the waist, much like her sister had done. "Have thanks," she offered serenely. "Have thanks, kind traveler." She bowed once more and began to smile for the first time since they met. "Would you be able to do the same thing for Rodeen?"

    Velvet took the gratitude in stride, at least outwardly. When Enid asked about her sister, she nodded. "If I can, then I already did, she might just need some time to notice." Then she had to sigh, knowing it would not last. "Just, keep in mind that it will go back to how it was once I'm gone." A moment passed as Enid nodded, a little sullen, but Velvet offered her a smile. "I think you're doing fine, though. Staying in control at all times isn't easy, but if you managed it so far, you will keep doing so."

    Now that she thought of it, many, if not all of the prisoners on Titania had kept their sanity by the time she pushed them to riot. There were a lot more hellions capable of holding on than one would expect, though they often hid away somewhere.

    "Odd, isn't it?" Both women turned to Laphi, who sat on a piece of rubble neabry. His gaze was directed more at the village than them. "Here we have three sisters, the youngest of which is of high rank in the church. And the middle child just killed her entire village."

    Enid's expression fell into deep and obvious displeasure, the same as Velvet's. The lamia was faster to admonish Laphi, though: "And what, pray tell, do you mean by that, young man?"

    Laphi was not intimidated, he simply returned Enid's gaze with a shrug. "I am just wondering if this kind of thing is a coincidence, or if it happens more often than we think. There were three of us Crowes too, I am a seraph now and thus have some pull with the church, while Velvet as the middle child killed everyone in our village right after she turned."

    Velvet just sighed and ignored Enid's dumbfounded look. 'Some pull with the church', he said; that was one way to undersell the matter, but he had a point in how many parallels there were. "It's probably a coincidence," she finally told her brother. "There were enough differences between those two cases, too."

    "I'll give you that." Laphi made to say something else, but he fell silent; his head turned and Velvet followed his gaze, only to find a second lamia beelining right for them. This one had crimson scales, which made the previous conversation even more odd when considering Velvet's own colours.

    Enid slithered forward to meet her sister, whose beaming smile was obvious even at a distance; Rodeen surged forward until she impacted Enid with a joyful shout, almost throwing the older sister onto her back from the force of it. "Sister, the gods have answered my prayers!" She all but shouted while hugging Enid tight. "The madness is gone, I am free!"

    She almost bounced in place while hugging the other lamia, who wore an indulgent smile and held the embrace for a moment. Then however, she pushed her younger sister back. "It was not the gods, Rodeen." A nod was given toward Velvet. "This kind traveler brought with her a power to force it back. We have her to thank." Velvet remained standing where she was, still feeling a little odd about the mystified, joyful gaze she was given; it would take a while longer to get entirely used to this.

    Then Rodeen threw herself into the dirt by her feet, face pressing against the stone. "Oh, have thanks! You are my saviour, oh kind traveler!" She felt more than a little odd now, especially when the accolade continued. Aifread was watching from a distance and she could see him laugh at her visible discomfort. After some time however, Rodeen's voice grew weaker; praise became interspersed with sniffles and whimpers, then she broke down crying much like her sister had before.

    Velvet had already made to bend down when a scaly hand touched her arm, drawing attention to Enid. The older Forton shook her head gently. "Let me," she said and made to comfort her sister; Velvet stepped back to give them space. She gave them a bit of time to sort themselves out and checked over her backpack, which was torn from Enid's earlier assault. Velvet spent a few minutes patching it up despite it being irrelevant due to their storage arte. In her own mind, she had a rough idea what she would do with those two; the least they deserved was a proper explanation of what happened to them. Runette had not even known about Malevolence.

    Once Rodeen was mostly consoled, Velvet gently took both sisters by the hand and led them into the townhall; she spied Aifread talking to Alvin on the way, but left them to their looting. Laphi had run off to poke around.

    Once they were inside and settled on the dusty floor, she started carefully: "Do you two know what happened to you?"

    Rodeen spoke first and Enid nodded along: "We were punished for our sinful hearts, being turned into monsters."

    "No."

    Now both lamias gave her owlish looks, their scaly tails wiggling. Velvet eyed both with stern eyes. "This is not divine punishment. It isn't a curse meant for the sinners. This is Malevolence, the darkness that lives in all human hearts overflowing. The people around you and your circumstances put so much pressure on you that it broke free and transformed you into hellions. They come in all shapes and forms, the Malevolence can transform objects and even the dead. You weren't too weak," she headed off the first thought she figured they would have, "it simply ran too strong."

    The Forton sisters listened with rapt attention, much like Runette had when she explained it to her a few weeks ago. Velvet continued as she did back then: "You already noticed the main effects this has; it changes you, not just your bodies but also your minds. That irrational anger is the Malevolence riling you up. But there are not just drawbacks." She pointed at Enid, whose eyes were transfixed on her finger immediately. "You're stronger now, faster. Age won't affect you either. I can't tell at a glance what else changed because it's a personal matter. I know my senses got sharper and an old friend of mine lost most of his human emotions."

    Velvet's gaze went from one sister to the other; both fidgeted, expressions changing back and forth as they considered their situation. Enid ultimately broke the thoughtful silence, pondering out loud: "We have always been faithful to the Great Lords, have been kind to others and done no harm. Why would they allow such a fate to befall us?"

    Rodeen was next, adding to her sister's question. "Why would they allow for this Malevolence to exist at all?"

    "Because they aren't all-powerful," Velvet told them with a shrug. "They are the apex of all seraphim, but they are still seraphim, who Malevolence is still poison to."

    She should have put some more thought into her words; the careless explanation made Rodeen rear up and tower over her. "How dare you speak of the gods like that?!" she screeched and almost made to lunge.She made, but did not go through with it. A wave of ominous crimson pulsed through the bandages on Velvet's arm, a sight which gave Rodeen pause.

    "Calm yourself," Velvet told her in a flat tone; for a moment she might have attacked anyway, but Enid's hand on her shoulder calmed her enough to sit again. Velvet eyed her intently. "I am aware that the five are powerful, powerful beings. But not even they can just snap their fingers and Malevolence is gone forever. Its inherent to mankind."

    Taking a few deep breaths to calm her obviously raging anger, Rodeen coiled up and pressed a hand to her forehead. "Could you tell us more about Malevolence?" she finally asked. Enid remained by her side to stop new flares of her sister's temper.

    Velvet, meanwhile, leaned back a little. "It's difficult to explain, honestly. What I do know is that there are eight specific types of Malevolence, eight flavours if you want." She counted them off on her fingers. "Wrath, greed, conceit, cowardice, selfishness, obsession, lust, and despair." Then she cast a glance at the sisters. "Some conform to certain emotions, but just feeling a flash of that emotion does not immediately create Malevolence. Once it gets out of control within your heart is when it starts. Another's Malevolence can affect you as well, if they have too much of it."

    Both lamias nodded along, clearly aware that Rodeen's primary type was wrath. Rodeen lowered her head in thought, previous anger already faded. "Is there any way to stop humans from producing Malevolence? And what of the seraphim?"

    Velvet just shook her head. "The seraphim produce no Malevolence, but are also far more vulnerable to it. Many of them hide far away from humans out of fear, though I heard more of them live together with humans in this age than ever before."

    When she made no motion to answer the other question, Rodeen asked it again: "And is there a way to stop it entirely?"

    "Is there a way to stop all humans from having feelings, Rodeen?" She let that question stand, let the lamia's head droop, and hoped neither of them would guess that the answer was not 'no' like she just implied. To change the subject, she carried on with the rundown; her next words had both women perk up: "There is one way to undo this. Once a shepherd comes, they will wield Maotelus' silver flame that burns away all Malevolence. It's the only way to turn back a hellion without killing... them."

    She hesitated on the last word, seeing how the ground began to shake. Velvet almost felt the mana racing through the earth and got up after she finished, eyes narrowed. "Now what are they up to?"

    She strode outside with a frown, both Forton sisters following curiously; there they found Aifread and his crew watching the earth shift. All but the man himself were awed into silence as the ground reared up to reveal the area beneath Horsa; sand and soft soil churned before solidifying into stone, forming buildings beneath the broken village. Some houses broke down with the shifting, the center of which was Laphi; her brother glowed in faint, golden light as seven arte-circles surrounded him.

    A quick glance told her that the lamias were frozen in place as well. Velvet was not; she walked over to where her brother just shifted the ground back in place, then crossed her arms and waited for an explanation. He smiled.

    "I talked to Aifread. He thinks that with Horsa finished, people won't look at it closer for a long time. He wants to set up here, so I offered to help him out with an underground base. A few rooms, two hidden entrances." He motioned cheerfully as he spoke, making Velvet feel more amused than annoyed now. "It's just basic because I'm no earth seraph, but I can do that much just fine." As an Empyrean, he did not say. Velvet did not call him on it.

    A hearty laugh announced Aifread's arrival by their side. "I like this kid more and more," he told no one in particular and clapped Laphi's shoulder. The boy beamed.

    Shaking her head, Velvet turned back around, only to find a once more larger group behind. Zelos stood closest, scratching his cheek and glancing at the Forton sisters. "It's still hard to believe. I know what I've seen, but are those two really lamias?" There were some agreeing sentiments while the two hellions eyed the bandits they found themselves with.

    Then Enid blinked and turned back to Velvet curiously. "Why can't they see what we have become?"

    Figuring that she might as well, Velvet nodded toward Aifread, who was excitedly chattering with Laphi a little bit away, making sweeping gestures all the while. "You need a certain quality called resonance. It's not something you train or get from somewhere, you are born with it. That guy there has a powerful resonance, so he can see hellions. His is strong enough to even let him see seraphim like Laphi. As a hellion, you get to see them as well." Then she paused. "Come to think of it, we should have found a few more resonant people than we did. Laphi! Did anyone see you who wasn't a hellion?"

    Her brother perked up and called back after but a moment: "Only Margaret!" He caught her train of thought as well and neither liked the implications, but they kept quiet about them.

    Velvet shook her head and shelved the thought. That was, however, when Enid spoke up while glancing at the men and women around her. "You lot, you are bandits?"

    There was some hesitation as none of them wished to draw the apparent hellion's ire. "They are," Velvet finally answered in their stead.

    Enid nodded and slithered forward, to where Aifread had joined them. "Let me join."

    It was funny to see how many faces that turned, even Laphi was surprised. Velvet managed to keep her expression calm while Aifread just laughed. "Aye, welcome aboard, lady! Doesn't matter who or what you are, you're one of ours now!"

    There were some bewildered looks thrown around while Enid grinned with visible satisfaction. Rodeen's jaw worked silently as she leered at her older sister, but ultimately she slumped. "I guess it makes sense. There is nothing left here for you."

    Velvet felt that something else remained unsaid, but she did not push. Instead she turned her attention to Rodeen. "What about you?"

    "Me?" The lamia remained deflated and looked around. "I will stay here for now to put all those people to rest. And to tend to the town until someone else might come to settle here."

    "So it's settled," Aifread chimed in cheerfully, "you'll be one of us, too."

    "Excuse me?! I would never join a bunch of thieving outcasts!" She shouted a few more profanities at him, but Aifread merely laughed them off and deflected a few swipes aimed at his face. Even Enid was taken aback by how casual he disregarded the incensed lamia's anger.

    "Easy there," he finally started to calm her with a smile, "I won't force you to raid or kill. If we're having a proper hideout, we'll need someone to look after it anyway. I wouldn't want to split you two sisters apart."

    "Urgh, alright! It's not like I can stop you!" Rodeen still grumbled after that, but she did not try to attack Aifread again.

    Velvet shook her head and took a step closer to the sisters once more. "Just remember that my power will leave with me; you better prepare for that." Then to Laphi: "And you, find a good place for your arte."

    "Yes, sister!"

    He got what she meant with that; they would leave soon. Velvet watched him trot off for a moment, but then Rodeen addressed her with a weak smile: "It should be fine now. I feel a great deal better, you gave me a chance to center myself. I will not fall to the Malevolence again, this I so swear."

    Enid agreed, but then turned to Velvet with her hands clasped together. "That aside, we never asked your name. Would you tell us that much, so we know whom we can thank for this gift?"

    Now that she mentioned it, introductions were something they forgot over everything that happened. She could do at least that much. "Velvet Crowe."

    "Thank you," Rodeen told her with a short bow. "I will pray for your wellbeing."

    Deep down, Velvet felt a little warmer. She knew it would not last, but her very being allowed tortured souls like these two at least a moment of respite. She cherished this feeling, happy that she could once again do something good for another.

    That was when Aifread spoke up: "You're not staying around for the party?"

    Her first thought was that of course he would throw a party immediately. Her second thought was that she should consider it. With the third, that notion faded. Velvet shook her head. "Sorry, but no. We aren't in a desperate hurry, but we can't afford to waste... no, spend time on this. I'm sure you'll make do without us."

    "Ha, that we will!"

    They shook hands, both grinning and surrounded by a group of bandits that just grew by two nuns turned hellion. The world was indeed weird.
     
  21. Threadmarks: 1.10 Change and Choice
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Pendrago had changed. It was not the places or the buildings, but rather the people; some time passed since Runette ended the continuous rain. Laphicet could see it clearly: men, women, and children were out in force, every street and every corner more densely populated than before. Smiling faces, worried faces, bothered faces, and a volume of conversation that turned into a constant, loud buzz wherever he went.

    The young Empyrean did not explore much of this new atmosphere because he had a set destination, though this did carry him through several districts. The shrinechurch was filled with people as well, many still around to thank the Great Lords for the good weather. He moved past them easily and waved to the cat lounging on her throne. "Hello, Morgrim. Do you know where Runette is?"

    His fellow seraph peered down at him imperiously, though her words held no hostility despite her posture: "She is in prayer in her chambers at the moment, although I doubt she will mind an interruption from you." His greeting was not returned and neither of them mentioned it. Laphicet thanked the cat, then moved on to find their ally, which took him a while as the shrinechurch was large.

    When he did find the place he was looking for, he gave the door two firm knocks before opening it. First he was given an unamused look by the cardinal, kneeling before the window and surrounded by a sheen of light from outside; her head was turned to an almost inhuman degree. "Pardon the intrusion, but I have news for you."

    The stare abated and Runette's expression softened the moment she recognised him. She quickly rose, turning around in a single, fluid motion before bowing her head in greeting. "Of course, think nothing of it, oh Empyrean." Laphicet accepted her respect without comment; he knew he was greater than her, but he also remembered his roots and tried to stay humble.

    Runette, unaware of his thoughts, asked for what brought him here. Laphicet offered her a smile. "I just returned from Horsa. We made a bit of a detour toward Gododdin and Lohgrin, so it took a bit longer." He could tell her amazement even as she nodded in easy acceptance; those distances would take anyone else far longer than the month Velvet and he needed. "The good news," he continued, "is that both of your sisters are alive and... reasonably well."

    Her eyes narrowed as the implication registered. "And the bad news?"

    "Horsa village was destroyed by a rampaging hellion." He waited out the initial surprise, if just to give her a moment before adding to that. "Who was, in fact, Rodeen. Enid turned, too. Those two are the only survivors." Seeing her now wide-eyed look, lips drawn apart in surprise, made him feel a little bad.

    It was not for long, though; Runette got a hold of herself, expression smoothing out. "I see. Thank you for taking the time to deliver these news personally, even before word of Horsa's destruction reached me. I am glad to hear that my sisters are still alive; will they be alright on their own?"

    He nodded at that. "They will. We met a few people on the road who took both of them in."

    Laphicet purposefully did not mention van Aifread or his bandits by name. Runette mulled it all over and he could see the faintest smile on her lips. "Again, thank you, oh Empyrean. I begin to understand just how powerful this 'teleportation arte' of yours truly is. To move from one corner of the Empire to another in a few heartbeats." She paused thoughtfully. "I doubt you would allow me to make any more than personal use of it, would you?"

    It took him a moment to parse what she was asking; once he did and realised how sneaky she managed to be about it, Laphicet could not help but smile. "We're still setting up the network right now, so it will be a while until anyone but Velvet and I uses those artes; you can visit them whenever you want after we're done with that. But I'm afraid the only schemes we will allow its use for are our own."

    His response prompted a huff, almost an actual chuckle from Runette, who bowed her head again. "Very well. I shall wait patiently."

    In the meantime, Velvet appraised her student's form after a cheerful greeting. Cynthia stood to watch as well, both women observing how Margaret presented the six basic stances far more securely than she had when Velvet first taught them to her. In addition to her increased confidence however, Velvet took note of how much the girl grew since they met. Margaret stood at a decent height for a girl now. The exercises left her a lean young woman.

    "What do you think?"

    Velvet eyed her student critically once she asked the question, the girl waiting with bated breath. She idly played with her ponytail before strolling to her backpack without a word; mother and daughter both observed her curiously while she produced a sheathe slightly different from the one her student already possessed. "I think," Velvet began with a smile, "that you are far enough along now."

    The implication took a moment to sink in and when it did, Margaret's eyes widened. "R-Really?!" She almost dropped her wooden practice sword in her haste to sheathe it.

    "Yes, really. You're a responsible and talented young woman, so let's call this your next test." Velvet drew an iron short sword and let it gleam in the afternoon sun momentarily; taken off a corpse in Horsa and cleaned up, it would serve a better purpose to this very alive girl in front of her. "Treat this blade carefully and responsibly." She sheathed it again and handed it over to Margaret, who took the weapon with reverence; Velvet noticed Cynthia's visible worry and sent a smile her way. It would be fine.

    "Next up,", she continued with a weak grin, "Laphi and I are going to stay for a few weeks again, so it's time to get you onto the more advanced techniques. Your basics should be solid enough by now."

    A cheer followed.

    . .
    . .

    Several days after the Crowes returned to Lastonbell, Minkkubi and Innominat reached the heart of the world. Earthpulses in red and blue and brown and green ran both above and below them when they emerged; they spread outward in every direction or ended in a myriad of colours, some of which Minkkubi knew she had never seen before in her life. Shades she was not even sure one could observe anywhere else.

    What was more however, the liquid core of mana was already partly filled with the four they were meant to meet. She did not need any introductions, it was clear who was who just from their colouration alone.

    A serpent dragon with six wings coiled around himself and studied them curiously; he had no legs, but quietly burning flames sprouted from between the deep red scales lining his entire body. A quadrupedal dragon perched further below, having no wings but two heads to watch their approach with. Her scales were the deepest blue Minkkubi had ever seen.

    Where Musiphe and Amenoch appeared atypical in their forms, considering the dragons Velvet met so far, Eumacia and Hyanoa seemed closer to what she knew. The Empyrean of Earth was a quadruped with one pair of wings, structured just like Minkkubi but over five times her size and covered in scales of grey stone instead of her obsidian. Hyanoa, then, held scales of a viridian green. He stood the tallest of the four, for he was bipedal and the only Empyrean with actual hands. A greater pair of wings framed his back and a pair of horns crowned his head

    All four were dwarfed by the giant that was Innominat, but they all dwarfed Minkkubi in turn despite her recent growth; the closest in height to her was Eumacia, who might still be the most massive of his peers.

    Innominat had kept at least one of his eight heads right next to her at all times as they got closer, ready to defend her if need be. He need not have bothered. When they reached, the other four broke up their close formation; Amenoch bumped a head against Musiphe, who bumped back and hissed at her. While they squabbled, Eumacia swam forward to peer at the new arrivals.

    "At last," he began with a gravelly tone that somehow convey warmth which might have been actual joy. "Greetings, Innominat. And welcome, Minkkubi." He leaned closer to take in her young form, then chuckled as if he saw it in detail for the first time. "Well, well, it seems we finally have our answer as to what the superior form is, hmm?" The long neck turned his head away from Minkkubi and to the other three, of which serpent and hydra stared back; their own squabble was forgotten.

    "That ain't true and you know it," Musiphe fired back immediately, surging forward to tackle Eumacia aside; he then proceeded to spread his wings and, impossible as it may have sounded for a dragon, grin at her. "We're gonna talk about that later, Eumacia. Heavens and earth you're tiny, girl!"

    "As are you," Innominat threw in from the side as he slid one of his heads next to the fire Empyrean to compare; Musiphe was about as long as his neck, though it did not seem to bother the burning serpent.

    "Bah, there's being a decent size and there's compensating! I know what I am," Musiphe called up confidently; Minkkubi belched a flash of fire out of her nose, a snort. She received another grin from the serpent, who quickly coiled out of the way when Amenoch made to headbump him aside. The hydra paddled effortlessly with her four legs despite her comparably large body and took Minkkubi in with two pairs of eyes.

    "I concur with Musiphe on this," she began. "Quadrupedal you may be, but we all know the number of your legs is meaningless in the grand scheme of things." The black dragon eyed her curiously while a watery chuckle escaped her.

    Another voice chimed in before she could finish the statement. "Yeah, it's obviously the number of wings!" Amenoch kicked out when Musiphe surged by just behind her back, but missed him. He laughed at her. "What, were you about to say 'heads' again? Because that makes none of us win!" A six-throated laugh answered them from all around. Innominat appeared to have calmed down somewhat and floated aside to give everyone some room. Three of his heads turned away to explore the area while the rest remained focussed on the other five Empyreans.

    Minkkubi, meanwhile, turned her gaze to the last of the four with a bit of curiousity. "I haven't heard you say anything yet, Hyanoa," she challenged the biped who had spent the time so far with watching her quietly.

    Their eyes met and he held her gaze without even blinking, but also without a word. The other elemental Empyreans chuckled in the background as neither of them gave in for a while. Then Hyanoa shrugged in an almost human way and reached up to give her a pat on the head. "The others have more to say than I do, but I appreciate your presence." His voice was rich and almost seemed to echo on its own.

    "That's Hyanoa for you," Eumacia commented from the side. Musiphe snorted, which came out as a firestorm, and Amenoch chuckled again.

    The avatar of the sea turned her attention back to Minkkubi at that point, her heads still floating before and behind her. "Either way, I welcome you as well, young Empyrean. I look forward to our future together."

    "I am not sure what to make of all this." Minkkubi's gaze went from one Empyrean to the next, uncertain but also humbled; for the last few months, she had always been the most powerful being in a given room. Now, she most certainly was not. "What do you mean with 'our future together'?"

    Musiphe appeared to her right at that. "Simple, you can hate it as much as you want, but the four of us are the only people who'll stay around once you grow older. First thousand years will be easy for you, but after that?" He waggled his first pair of wings while peering at her. "I think you get it." She did; odd, how these beings could think of a millennium as but a moment. Minkkubi figured she would do the same, in time.

    In that moment, she understood just why those four appeared so happy to meet her. Why they did not want to fight. While this calmed Velvet, it still left her with another question: "You sleep most of the time anyway, don't you?"

    Musiphe had no shoulders to shrug, but his tone implied he would have if he could. "Yeah, we are. Kind of have to to conserve strength, and you wouldn't get up to do things either if volcanoes broke out the moment you make two steps, or the sea gets into unrest from you breathing too hard."

    "...point taken." She could imagine just how complicated that would get. Then however, another thought presented itself. "Will that happen to me once I grow into my power?"

    Her gaze went up to Innominat, who looked back with several of his heads; the other Empyreans glanced between each other, but it was her brother who answered the question in the end. "Yes and no. It will take at least a few hundred years until you need to be really careful, but you aren't bound to the elements like those four are. At least I hope so, else you would command Malevolence with every motion."

    All the elemental Empyreans shuddered at the thought and Minkkubi took the time to roll her eyes. Innominat curled around himself idly. "But it should be the same as myself, seeing that you devoured parts of me to ascend. I can enter the surface of Desolation without destroying everything around me if I am really careful, but this is usually left to my core body."

    A muttered "Damn cheaters" interrupted the explanation, which brought Musiphe several unamused stares. He did not even flinch. "I stand by what I said," he shouted at the siblings, "You're cheaters, both of you!" There was no real heat in it, but this did tell Velvet something new.

    "So the other four don't have those separate bodies?"

    "No. Only we do. Or, hm." One head turned to Amenoch at that. "Can Maotelus project a separate body?"

    The other Empyrean shook both of her heads. "No, it was a common complaint of his," she told them. Then her eyes focussed on Minkkubi. "Do keep in mind that those bodies of yours contain your essence, though. They are your cores; if they die, you die as a whole. They are a great deal more vulnerable, too."

    "Ah, yes," Innominat agreed immediately and recited a familiar line: "'The nameless Empyrean hath one heart', no?"

    "Quite correct." Amenoch glanced from Innominat to Minkkubi, then retracted her heads from the latter's personal space as she finished her warning: "And as you so clearly showed us, it is possible for your core bodies to be defeated, under the right circumstances."

    Minkkubi nodded her head and beat her wings once to turn, then beheld Amenoch in full again. "I will keep it in mind. Though I was thinking, the two of us won't sleep as much as you four, will we? Unless Innominat suppresses mankind, we have Malevolence to sustain us."

    "That is correct, young one," Eumacia offered from the side, his head tilted so he could look at them more closely. "You two will be a lot more active than the four of us can be. More so than even Maotelus, who has not retained his original form."

    Minkkubi made to respond, but was stopped from that when a green-scaled, clawed hand wrapped around her. She let out something between a roar and a squeak, tried to thrash in surprise, but despite his care not to injure her, Hyanoa's grasp was firm. She was pulled down somewhat and held around the waist, his fingers circling her body just beneath the roots of her wings. Giant, slitted eyes took her in calmly. She could see how the other Empyreans were watching from her greater field of vision, but no one interrupted whatever was going on.

    When the Empyrean of Wind spoke, it was with an odd mix of thoughtfulness and reverence. "A monster of Artorius' making, a saviour of man yet also its destroyer in a way. Zui Fuu woke you in the hopes of preserving the world. But you are not preservation, you are change." There was no doubt in his words, only certainty. He paused for a moment to consider, eyes never leaving Minkkubi's smaller form. "We have always desired change, yet it never came. Always the same, always a cycle. Perhaps you and this last incarnation of Innominat will break it for good."

    Then, much to her surprise, he hugged Minkkubi to his chest.

    A moment passed before Amenoch began to chuckle. Eumacia shook his head at the sight while Innominat watched on in wonder; Minkkubi herself felt oddly warm, her scales resting right against Hyanoa's far bigger ones. She ended up not minding this much, if at all.

    "Well," Musiphe summarised their consensus, "no matter what, things are going to get interesting."

    They spent a while reminiscing about the past as well as discussing the present, then the Empyreans saw them off warmly. Now that they made sure Minkkubi was one of them and could be trusted, they would return to their resting places; they promised to wake if the sibling gods did need help later, though.

    "I still wonder why they accepted you so easily," the golden dragon told his sister as they swam back up through the earthpulse. "It doesn't make much sense to me, considering your nature."

    Minkkubi, who decided to ride on one of her brother's heads for a while, gave him a pat. "I get it just fine. Just think, it's always been the four of them and you. Tens of thousands of years. Now, in just a thousand years, two more were born. Kin, in a way. People who will live as long as they do, perhaps forever."

    Innominat stayed silent for a long time after that.

    . .
    . .

    Velvet and Laphi stayed in Lastonbell for three weeks.

    Margaret received further tutoring both with the feather and with the sword in that time; Velvet now expanded her regimen from the how of fighting to many areas surrounding it, such as weapon maintenance. "Your weapon is your lifeline," she told the eager girl when they began. "Do not, ever, leave its care in the hands of another, no matter how much you trust them."

    Summer had well and truly passed by this point, seeing that the harvest was brought in during their stay. It meant full pantries and a busy market, which Velvet used to stock up on goods she could now get for cheaper than during late Spring and Summer. Thanks to her brother's stasis-arte, even the fruits and vegetables would stay fresh for months at the least.

    During the second week of their stay, Minkkubi and Innominat returned to the earthpulse running below Lastonbell; before drawing another connection to the heavens for his draconic body to ascend however, Laphi brought out a lump of mana he gathered from the earthpulses. This, as he told Velvet before, went toward the creation of bullets for Zaveid almost immediately. When he brought his larger body skyward the next day, the rainbow that was seen without any rain in sight remained the talk of the town for a good while.

    Toward the end of their stay, Velvet had an idea. She was standing right in front of Randgriz Inn when it hit her out of nowhere. An idea for advertisement which would draw in many kinds of people, all of which they could listen in on.

    She immediately went inside and brought out the parchment they used while brainstorming; Laphi was already in their room, having read a book but setting it aside when he saw what she did. "Did you think of something?"

    "Yes." She answered absently while setting up, then focussed on her brother and explained. "I told you the old Bloodwings operated out of a tavern in Loegres, right at the heart of the empire. We agreed that would take too long to set up for drawing in people." Laphi nodded, only for Velvet to grin and point at him. "But if, say, people heard that there is a tavern staffed by seraphim, where anyone and everyone can see and speak to them...."

    She trailed off and left the thought unfinished, but Laphi caught it with a growing grin of his own. "That would bring people from all edges of Rolance, wanting to talk to a seraph at least once. I like it." He then paused and held up a hand before Velvet wrote anything down. "Just, not in Pendrago. A place like that would also draw attention from our enemy, so it will have to pass muster."

    The older Crowe made an agreeing noise and put the feather to her lip in thought. "You aren't wrong. But if not Pendrago, that only leaves Lastonbell." No other town had a decent enough size or the position to serve their purpose.

    "And if we do it here," Laphi finished that thought as well, "we might push Cynthia out of business." They already noticed how their current host was living; she did not rake in great profits, though she managed to stay out of actual poverty. "Except... if we recruited her and Margaret, then expanded her tavern for our purposes?"

    The question gave Velvet pause. It was risky, involving a common woman like Cynthia while trying to get a shadow guild off the ground. She frowned. "We can't tell how they will react, but the area is perfect; with all those merchants from Hyland coming through here, we can throw out feelers to both sides."

    Tempting as it was, Cynthia and Margaret presented a risk. Part of her wanted to just waltz over them if they refused, but the rest ached at that thought. This time, it was Laphi who made the choice: "Let's take the risk," he suggested. "Cynthia helped us out and Margaret is your student. We owe them that much."

    Velvet sighed and ran a hand through her hair, knowing that he was right. "Yes. They deserve to make that choice on their own."

    She sat down mother and daughter that evening. After taking Cynthia's promise to listen until she was done, she laid it out for the two. The Lord of Calamity they were hunting, the Bloodwing Butterflies, the seraphim, hellions, and lastly their newest plan. Velvet could tell that both of them were horrified but also intrigued by her tale.

    When it came to her plan to advertise with the seraphim, Cynthia interrupted her shakily: "Just, how would you do that? Most people can't see them, so staffing a tavern with them can't work." She received an easy smile from Velvet, whose gaze went to the fourth seat at the table, which Cynthia could not see anyone on for now. Until she could.

    Margaret watched quietly as her mother blinked a few times before staring at the boy she had been told so much about yet never seen before. "The trick here, ma'am," he told the baffled woman with a bright smile, "is that I have the unique power to boost humans' resonance. I can keep up my domain indefinitely over a tavern, allowing people to perceive us seraphim while inside, but not on the outside or from the outside." Then he held out a hand. "I'm happy to meet you properly now."

    Cynthia took it in a daze, still blinking dumbfoundedly; neither sibling made an issue of it, seeing that they understood this was hard to take in. Margaret was another matter; always quick on the uptake, she considered the siblings cautiously, more so than she had been of them in a long time if ever. "What if we refuse?"

    Velvet just shrugged at her then, answering perhaps a little more sharply than she would have liked. "I didn't tell you to force you in; you can do what you want as long as you keep all of this to yourselves. I owe you both at least a proper choice for your help." Margaret's expression had fallen back into surprise, so Velvet decided to end the conversation there. "You don't have to decide right now either, think about it and talk it through; we will head out for Hyland tomorrow morning."
     
  22. VineShadow

    VineShadow Currently edging

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    Tales series fanfic is rare af, especially something this good. Keep it up and i eagerly wait for more
     
    Turamarth and Naron like this.
  23. Threadmarks: 1.11 Where the Wind Carries You
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    The siblings headed out on a foggy morning, leaving behind a distraught mother and daughter. Velvet did not feel well after leaving before either of them even got out of bed, but she figured it was for the best to get out of their hair for a little while. To herself, she admitted part of her reasoning was that she did not want Margaret to look at her with actual distrust, which she might.

    Out of the gates they went, soon to enter the adjacent Volgran Forest; it had an almost eerie air in the fog, the trees yet lush but beginning the process of shedding their leaves. Laphi went off at speed to explore on his own just as he did on the journey so far, which gave Velvet time to brood as she made her way through the thicket. He would always return to her side in time.

    Several days passed like that, partly because the countless trees and other obstacles slowed her down. She considered to just fly more than once, but decided against it every time out of a desire to stay inconspicuous. They could never know who might be watching and Velvet did not have Laphi's excuse of being a seraph. In time, her caution was rewarded; Velvet noticed herself being followed and observed. An errant rustle of a bush, a hint of black where the shadows were not that dark, small signs that meant little by themselves and a lot when put together. Whoever it was, they were good; yet they never approached her, either because she kept her guard up or because they were but observers.

    If Laphi noticed, he did not say. It might be that his attention was taken up by the sprawling ruin they stumbled over minutes later, though. Velvet stood before the dilapidated complex with furrowed brows, considering to join him on his exploration. But then she shook her head and turned away. "Ruins just aren't for me," she muttered while making a shooing motion toward the entrance. Laphi took the hint as permission and beamed at her before darting inside, leaving Velvet with whatever kind of pursuers were after her. She rolled her eyes and kept wandering, now slowed even further because she had to pretend to be a normal huntress.

    While his sister kept up her pace outside, Laphicet wandered through the old stone corridors with wide eyes. There were faded frescos barely still visible, odd protrusions and angles at the walls, even bits of stone furniture that passed the test of time. He ran his hands over as much as he could, taking in how plants fought their way through the stonework. Within Laphicet's mind, he pondered just what era these ruins might be from; he read enough more recent history books to at least guess, but there was little to even hint at the truth; he did not even have time to analyse those frescos. At some points he found small dragon statues, which brought to mind the dragon cult Tintagel, but that was already old history before the time he first lived.

    Nonetheless, Laphicet loved to explore these ancient places. A lot of it was dull and long stripped bare, but the architecture remained impressive and he did sometimes find something worthwhile to add to their Bloodwing treasury. After a few minutes of cheerful exploration however, he began to hear voices ahead and paused. Then he crept closer despite knowing there was no need for stealth, curiously peeking around corners until he found the commotion. There were three people there. One a tall and muscular man, the other two in sinister black outfits covering their entire bodies tightly, with matching skull masks. Now that he was this close, he could listen in properly.

    "Just one?" The muscled man asked at that moment; Laphi caught before that they were talking about an intruder of some sort.

    The first mask nodded at that. "Yep, just one woman. She's hunting out there and pretty good at it. Really knows how to use that sword of hers, I wouldn't wanna fight her one on one."

    Now Laphicet knew what led to this and wondered whether they followed them before he entered the place, or only noticed Velvet afterward. As he pondered that, the other mask agreed with her companion: "He's right, but she's still too close. What do you think, Eguile? Wanna make some noise to scare her away?"

    The now named Eguile frowned at that for a long moment and Laphicet already prepared to act for his sister, but then he shook his head. "No, leave her be for now. Capture her if she enters the ruins, but don't hurt her. Who knows, if she's that good, we might be able to recruit her!" He could not help but laugh over that, for a different reason than the masked duo; these people had no idea what they were dealing with.

    Having determined that everything was fine, he went past the three and deeper into the ruin to poke around. Finding an entire camp ahead was just a small surprise at this point; no one saw him, so he freely scrutinised their various personal effects and watched some of the might-be assassins spar. At least that was what he suspected they were, considering their apparent 'business' attire. He had to admit that they were good, definitely at least one cut above most of the knights he watched spar in Lastonbell and Pendrago. Their weapons were maintained carefully, too.

    "I wonder," Laphicet told a group of four black-garbed figures sitting around and playing cards, "are you the Scattered Bones?" No one reacted to him and he did not expect them to.

    Yet, the Scattered Bones. It was the most likely case here, seeing that there were at least two dozen of them around this camp. He heard enough to know there was no other assassins' guild with that many active members. Some of them were talking about seeing their boss again soon, which meant this was not even their entire force. There were some valuable insights gained from listening to their conversations, as well as a red face when he poked his head into a separate room he really should have stayed out of after hearing the noise. Laphicet decided to return to his sister's side at that point, both out of embarassment and because he figured he learned most of what he could learn here.

    The important information he took away was that they used the Sparrow Feathers merchants as one of their fronts. "It seems someone else had similar ideas to ours," Laphi finished his recap with a smile.

    Velvet had to agree. She considered their options and cast a discreet glance around, but found no sign of her previous pursuers. Now that they were far away from those ruins, she figured they had fallen back and it was safe to talk to her brother again. "Let's keep this in mind and contact them later. When we're properly established." Laphi nodded and finished off the notes he added to their slowly growing pile. It would not do to forget valuable intel after all, so they took to writing it down.

    They walked through the night afterward; in time the trees began to thin, then vanished entirely around sunrise. Ahead of them was sandy earth with some patches of grass. Their map called it Glayvend Basin and Runette told them how it served as a buffer area between the two rivalling nations. A large area holding an unsurprisingly thick curtain of Malevolence, seeing how it saw the vast majority of all battles between Rolance and Hyland.

    They discussed devouring that Malevolence, but decided to take the risk of leaving it as it were; its absence would be noticed without doubt. At least the approach of Winter stalled further campaigns. All they found on the first part of the road was a guarded outpost that watched travel in both directions, as well as a few merchants moving toward Lastonbell. While they decided not to affect the area, Velvet voted to take a closer look at it after some pondering. Laphi agreed with her judgement and they spent a while on doing that.

    The eponymous basin itself was humongous, almost a small desert caught in a giant crater. No-man's land that took days to traverse from one side to the other, even when ignoring the fortifications on both sides. It took them a week to check the surrounding countryside, the rivers below and the cliffs breaking off into free falls. Then they needed another week to get a good idea of the entire area's layout, but it was not entirely without interesting finds. For one, there were quite a few more hellions of all kinds around the area. For two and more importantly, even some of the soldiers on guard were turned; most of those were lizardmen. They took note of that without interacting with anyone, just to be safe.

    They also found the ruins of a long-destroyed village up to the north, but could not even put a name to the place. It had almost completely fallen apart.

    As the two Crowes were traversing the basin however, about a few hours away from Hyland's encampment, the winds picked up and churned around them in a small storm. Sand peppered them for a moment as they slowed, then the air solidified into a familiar form; tall, bare-chested, and with long, flowing hair. Zaveid grinned at them with an idle wave. "Heya, fancy meeting you here!"

    Velvet came to a stop, torn between raising an eyebrow and smiling. "I'll say. Were you in Hyland?"

    "Ayup, got it in one." Zaveid then proceeded to bump fists with Laphi. "How's it going, kid?" The classic mistake. Now Velvet did smile, seeing how her brother immediately went into detailed recountings of the many things they saw and the people they met since parting with Zaveid; he took the deluge of words in stride, but she could not tell whether he actually listened. It only really dawned on her at this point, but their last meeting had been four months ago. Not that Zaveid appeared any different.

    Curiously, Laphi finished his recounting without any mention of Aifread; once he fell quiet, the older seraph chuckled. "Sounds like you guys were busy. Good thing my winds spied you on the way, that's one hell of a tale you got there!"

    Velvet peered at him then, curious. "You were looking for us?"

    "Eh, kinda?" He shrugged. "Just checking in how you guys are doing."

    "How noble."

    Her deadpan prompted another laugh and Velvet found herself smiling again. Laphi went to dig in her backpack, so she figured she should keep the conversation going. "You remember the Bloodwings? I think Laphi already mentioned that we're reviving them, do you want in?"

    "Hm." Zaveid made a few more thinking noises while watching her. "I'm normally not the kinda guy to join up with a group. More of a lone wolf, y'know?"

    "I do and it doesn't really matter, now does it?" Velvet grinned and motioned for their surroundings as she explained. "We need people to travel around and pick up rumours just as much as we need actual staff. So all that changes for you is that you have to drop by in Lastonbell once in a while to tell us what you found."

    "Oh, huh." He considered again and shrugged. "Well, sure, why not?"

    That made one more. Velvet grinned at their newest member, but they were both distracted when Laphi reemerged from the storage with several leather pouches. Each one was filled to the brim and handed over to Zaveid. "There you go, that's the first batch."

    The wind seraph set all but one pouch down in front of him curiously; that last one he opened to reveal a heap of bullets. Velvet could see his eyes widen at the sight, then Zaveid's gaze rose to them. "You serious."

    "Yes."

    He did not seem to have expected that many, or for them to be complete this fast. Velvet almost laughed at the stupefied face Zaveid made then, but she kept herself under control for this one. He picked out a little bullet and frowned at it, then stood to draw Siegfried. "Alright, then let's give this a shot." He clicked back the loading chamber and paused with a grimace, then looked to the two Empyreans. "No pun intended."

    Now she did laugh, if quietly. Laphi just rolled his eyes. Together, they watched him slot the bullet in and bring Siegfried up to his temple, then pull the trigger without hesitation. A loud bang echoed over the basin, mana freed itself before surging into Zaveid with a vivid, green glow, and he vanished from their sight. Storms howled for a few seconds and the earth was torn open in all directions. A fountain of sand turned into a wave which rolled away to the north, reshaping this part of the basin. Then Zaveid reappeared, a few metres behind his original position and still glowing as a deluge of mana surged through his system. He was grinning almost maniacally. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff! You really did it, kid!"

    He expelled the leftovers instead of continuing to ravage their surroundings, a stream of green-tinged mana settling over the entire area. Zaveid grinned and returned to them. "I'd owe you one, but I guess we can call it even with me helping out your Bloodwings."

    Laphi did not even try to disagree. "That's perfectly fine," he answered immediately. Velvet rolled her eyes, knowing that these bullets were technically worth far more. On the other hand however, Zaveid was a friend. "Anyway, I think it would be good if you dropped by in Lastonbell every month or two to drop off information."

    Now the wind seraph frowned at them, if with little heat. "Just a reminder, kid: I'm no god, I can't really go far in a month." It took Velvet a moment to understand where he misunderstood Laphi; when she did, she almost chuckled. Zaveid thought they were going on foot the whole time, that they explored a good bit of the continent and returned back to Lastonbell in four short months. On foot.

    Laphi just grinned mischievously. "We'll get to that in a moment. I left out something earlier that might interest you."

    She snorted and waved at her brother to stop talking, which he did. Zaveid's gaze flicked between the two siblings and he leaned forward, intrigued. "What is it?"

    "We met old pointy-beard on the way," Velvet told him.

    He stared at her blankly for a second and another, then his eyes began to widen slowly as he remembered. His own moniker for Aifread, an old friend of his. Velvet could not help but grin. "He reincarnated as a human and regained his memories. And then he decided the best thing he could do was the same thing he did last time."

    "Rob other people of their belongings?"

    "Yes, Laphi. Just on land this time."

    Her brother snorted while Zaveid stared at them both. Searched for a lie he already knew was not there. Velvet raised an eyebrow at him, then laughed when he jumped to his feet with a single question: "Where?"

    She got up as well and clapped a hand on his bare shoulder to keep him there. "Zaphgott Moor, Laphi built him a small base below Horsa village." Boys and their secret bases, she almost had to shake her head about it again.

    "And before you run off," Laphi chimed in cheerfully, "there is one other thing you should see. As a Bloodwing, you get another nice privilege."

    He led them some ways away from the basin, neither sibling answering Zaveid's question about what he would get to see. It took a while to travel the distance, but when they found a good spot near a set of ruins, Laphi needed some more time to set down his teleportation arte.

    "Tada!"

    Zaveid stared at the completed arte, then at Laphi. Then he let out a roaring laugh and ruffled his hair. "Heh, looks being chummy with a Great Lord has more perks than I thought! Now it makes a lot more sense to be in Lastonbell every month or two."

    The younger seraph smiled and accepted his fate of disheveled hair. "But telling you before wouldn't have been as fun." He eyed the arte a moment longer before averting his gaze from them. "But I, uh, did not expect anyone to need them just yet, so I only memorised the locations instead of writing them down or thinking of a way to find them."

    "Nah, that's fine. I can just take a look around each one to know where I am. You ready to show me how to use 'em?"

    "Of course! You do it like so..."

    . .
    . .

    It was a quiet day in van Aifread's bandit base, at least so far. After some consideration and surprisingly little arguing, Enid and Rodeen had been allowed to put together a small chapel to the Great Lords and the seraphim. It appeared that even outlaws did not forsake the gods and their spirituality, or at least not all of them did.

    The lamia sisters were currently busy setting up a small pedestal when the inert arte circle at the room's head flashed in bright, golden light; it subsided as fast as it appeared and allowed them to stop shielding their eyes; this revealed a sight neither of them had expected. They figured it might be their kind saviour or the sweet seraph accompanying her. What they got instead was a hunk of muscle and masculinity that made them both a little uncomfortable to be close to.

    The man looked around curiously before peering at the Fortons. "This Horsa?"

    Rodeen still stood speechless, but Enid managed to gather her wits and respond: "It is. What brings you here?"

    The stranger then gave them a confident grin and pointed his thumb at himself. "Name's Zaveid, I've got business with Aifread." He then proceeded to march past them without even waiting for a response, out the door and into the adjacent room. Both lamias looked at each other with equal amounts of confusion, scandal, and worry. Then, on an unspoken agreement, they slithered along to follow their surprise visitor. By the time they caught up with him, he was already two rooms ahead.

    Zaveid went through one further door and stood in one of the two largest areas, where most of the bandits were currently preparing dinner. His head turned this way and that before he hollered an almost ear-shattering "Aifread!" and marched forward; had either lamia seen his face, they would have found the widest grin on it.

    Van Aifread himself turned from where he had been discussing with his second-in-command, who watched his leader's sudden distraction with confusion that went ignored. The man's eyes lit up when he saw just who came to visit. "Zaveid! About time you show your face around here!" He strode forward with a grin to match the wind seraph, completely ignoring the baffled faces from his non-resonant underlings. They did not matter at the moment.

    Both men approached each other confidently, stopped in front of each other carefully, and then punched each other in the face viciously. Zaveid was thrown back into Rodeen arms, who eeped after catching him and quickly let go. Aifread landed against the soft wall and left an Aifread-shaped dent in it, but pushed himself out of there with a feral grin moments later.

    What followed was a quite surreal brawl for all sides involved. For Zaveid, because he traded blows with a man a thousand years dead. For Aifread, because he traded blows with a man he remembered from a life long past.

    For Enid and Rodeen, it was surreal because their de-facto leader was throwing fists with a seraph, whom they supposedly revered.

    And for the dozen bandits, well, they watched their boss throw fists at empty air and get thrown around by nothing.

    It ended almost as fast as it began, with both men on the ground. Aifread sported a bruised cheek and a black eye while Zaveid's entire chest area took on different shades of purple. Both men chuckled heartily nonetheless. "It's still hard to believe," Zaveid told his old friend once they were done. "Didn't think I'd see you again."

    "Aye. Should have figured it takes more, to take down van Aifread." The human chuckled despite the heavy breaths he was taking. "Damn good fight, that was."

    "Heh, yeah." They slowly sat up and got to their feet, then Zaveid reached behind himself and presented Siegfried. "Here you go, I kept it safe."

    The other man shook his head, however. "It's yours now; became yours when I kicked the bucket. Keep it."

    His bewildered crew watched the exchange as exactly no one explained any of the details to them. Zaveid hesitated for but a moment, then shrugged and returned the weapon to where it usually rested. "Alright, if you say so."

    "I do." Aifread grinned and clapped Zaveid's shoulder. "Say, you interested in joining up with me this time?"

    The seraph cast a look around before grinning back and shaking his head. "Sorry 'bout that, but no. I've never been much of bandit, you know? 'sides, I still have something to take care of before I can think about changing my style."

    "And what would that be?"

    The jovial expression fell away and Zaveid sighed. "Gotta kill Eizen. Gave him my word I would once he turned."

    Now Aifread, too, lost his grin. "So he's really gone?"

    "Yeah. He was one hell of a guy."

    Their somber tones turned to chuckles in a heartbeat. Aifread nodded along with Zaveid's words. "Oh yes, he was. Let's go drink to him." And just like that, they were both grinning again.

    "Now you're talking!"

    The former nuns were completely exasperated at this point while everyone else remained stupefied.

    And so it was that instead of having dinner as normal, Aifread's bandits held a celebration to a man none of them actually knew, and drank far into the night. Rodeen almost threw a fit when Zaveid beckoned her and Enid to join the binge, the only reason it did not happen was the shock of seeing her sister partake in the alcohol, even if not for long.

    By morning, people were asleep in various places not their beds and the younger Forton had to contend with her sister being hungover anyway.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2021
  24. Threadmarks: 1.12 Brother and Sister
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    It took Velvet and Laphi another few days to reach the next town from Glayvend, smaller than Lastonbell but not small enough to be called a village. Despite how close Marlind was to any potential battle and the people being notably worried about it, Velvet had little issue entering the city. She earned some looks due to her unusual height, but no one minded her much; especially after she went and sold some of her provisions to the locals. Winter was coming, after all; the days grew shorter, colder, and more rainy.

    What they quickly found Marlind to be was a town of scholars in the shadow of a giant tree; literacy, she learned from a chatty merchant, was higher here than even in Hyland's capital city. They had their own library, a prospect which lost her access to Laphi for most of few days they stayed. Velvet got herself a more accurate map of Hyland in those days and spent a lot of time talking to people; it felt oddly nice to just chat with strangers, she found again. A certain sense of curiousity about other people gnawed at Velvet, one that she thought lost.

    From these conversations, she heard rumours and tales; some of them stood out; a dragon was thought to roost at the nearby mountain range, Rayfalke Spiritcrest. Travelers went missing regularly as they climbed it. She figured it made for as good a destination as any, and for a proper meal if the rumour was true.

    The most curious tale she was told brought a laugh out of Laphi when she caught him for a minute to share it. Local folklore spoke of eight serpents 'who betrayed the seraphim and were banished into the underworld'. They both understood that someone misconstrued Innominat's eight heads and the events from a thousand years ago, though Laphi appeared more intrigued that word of him still remained in the world despite how much time passed.

    Their time in Marlind was short but pleasant, yet it also held a surprise for them when they left. Just a minute out of town, a high-pitched shout drew their attention and made the siblings stop. Behind them bumbled a golden helmet, worn by a small, fuzzy creature. Humanoid but hardly reaching even Velvet's knee in height, their fur a dark, bluish grey except for their cream-coloured belly. The two gave the odd creature some time to reach them; once they did, they beamed up at Velvet and threw out their arms. "Wow, it's been ages since I saw you last! How have you been?"

    She offered the little seraph a smile and crouched to talk to him. "It has been. What's a Normin doing out here?"

    "Oh, you know, Normin things. I really didn't expect to see you again, Lord of Calamity! You have to tell me where you've been all those years!"

    The siblings exchanged a glance which the Normin missed entirely as he cheered, both somewhere between amusement and confusion. Velvet then reached out to push his helmet back before it fell over his face. "Careful there, I don't really need people to know that. What's your name?"

    "Oh, I'm Atakk and don't worry, I won't tell a soul!" The Normin looked between both Crowes before jumping and clapping his tiny hands. "I know! Do you want to see my collection? I lost a few pieces recently, but I'm sure they'll come back."

    "Your collection?"

    Atakk turned to Laphi with a smile as big as a creature that small could have. "Yes! I'm the local museum's guardian spirit and most of the stuff there is mine! Come on, it'll be great!"

    Velvet knew she lost in that moment, seeing that not only did Atakk give them both puppy dog eyes, Laphi did the same with her in particular. "Can we, Velvet? Please?"

    She just sighed, wondering why she was even surprised by this turn of events. "Alright."

    "Hurray!"

    Though now she was slightly surprised that only Atakk cheered openly.

    Needless to say, Laphi loved every moment of their little excursion. He wore the brightest smile for the entire rest of the day, talking animatedly about all the things they saw and how they related to past history. Velvet indulged him by listening, though her thoughts strayed somewhat. They got nothing worthwhile about the present from Atakk, if one ignored the repeated promise of keeping quiet about Velvet's identity. This was a bit of a relief nonetheless; she could live without a passing shepherd hearing this and deciding she must be the Lord of Calamity behind the world's decline.

    The Crowes moved on from Marlind and traveled through foresty areas then, following a more or less well maintained cobblestone road that led to Griflet Bridge, itself a massive stone construct; it could not be called the biggest bridge they had ever seen, as only the Great Camelot Bridge could claim that title now, but it was bigger than most. A water seraph by the name of Uno made his home in the large river flowing underneath that bridge, though they only met him briefly. The man ascended from the waves as they passed the bridge to warn them about the Spiritcrest to the north, which one fork of the road led to.

    "Thank you, but it's fine," Velvet told him then. "We're just poking around, not picking a fight." He did not seem reassured, but made no issue of it and watched them head off toward the mountains. By herself, Velvet figured that if they could find the beast, they would definitely fight and eat it.

    Their trek to the mountains would have ordinarily taken three days; due to Laphi's tendency of running off and his luck in finding a larger ruin to explore even here, they made it in six. Ascending the mountain, seeing that neither of them wanted to use their flight out of caution, took another few days. When asked why he refrained, Laphi told her he wanted to get the actual mountaineering experience instead of making it easy on himself. Now that the days grew really cold and their own careful ascent made them even colder, Velvet once again thanked her own daemonhood for not having to freeze. Laphi bundled up because he did feel it, though he also used the excuse to snuggle with her during breaks. Some things really never changed.

    The air grew thinner, which curiously did not affect them much, if at all. Somewhere close to the higher plateau, the two took a proper break in a small cave to mend their clothes; the mountains were not kind to them, which Velvet really should have expected. Her new favourite tunic was starting to fray and grow thin from the abuse she put it through, so that had to be replaced soon.

    That day and night spent in a cave marked the end of their first week on Rayfalke Spiritcrest. Laphi used the time of rest to set up another teleportation arte right there, in a separate cave further in so it could be hidden from view. After that, Velvet hugged her brother close once again as they dozed through the night.

    When they woke up and took stock of their surroundings, flakes of white were quietly dancing before the cave; they settled on in a thin but growing layer. The siblings gave each other looks as this new, most clear announcement of Winter continued in front of them. Snow, the first one they had seen in this age. "Remember not to eat the snow," Velvet reminded her brother as they packed up and set out. Laphi just threw her a look and she could tell he was trying not to pout. "I know you want to."

    No response, but she knew she was right.

    Aside from that, the first hour or so of their walk was calm. The pristine white blanket crunched under their boots as they went, up a more straight path ahead; neither had complained about the many steep cliffs and walls, but being able to stroll forward normally was welcomed nonetheless. Laphi's head swerved this way and that to take in the sprawling mountains in the distance, their peaks lying even higher than the two Crowes currently were and dusted in snow.

    The first and only sign of civilisation they found was an altar, or a shrine, carved out of the mountain's rock. It stood several metres wide and about two high at a wall formed by a large boulder, wearing a coat of white on its roof. "Odd for people to put something like that up here," Laphi commented. Then his eyes narrowed and he peered ahead on the path they were following. "Or not. There's an earthpulse point that way, so pilgrims might come here to pray."

    "That would explain why it looks so tidy," Velvet added after wiping some snow off the shrine and finding it without any blemishes. "Though praying won't solve their little dragon problem."

    "I mean..." Laphi gave her a sly look and pointed at himself. "Technically, what we're doing is divine intervention, so their praying to the gods technically solves the problem." He recevied a flat stare and chuckled. Velvet rolled her eyes; she did not feel like arguing about definitions, even though she could. After that however, her brother turned back to the little shrine. "Actually, now that I think about it." He leaned closer and ran his hands over the masterfully formed stone. "This might not have been made by humans. It's too smooth, too intricate."

    "You think so?"

    "Maybe? There are probably a few humans good enough to pull it off, but, well." He leaned down and wiped the snow around the base away. "Unless they had a seraphic friend to grow out the rock, they would have crafted this piece of art out of a natural bit of the mountain, on the first try. So I would bet on a seraph."

    Velvet nodded; she understood his reasoning. Though it did make her a little curious: "Can every seraph do something like this?"

    "Uhhh...."

    Laphi turned back to her and held out his empty hands. "Not really? I can make some buildings just fine, but I'd have to study a while to make something half this pretty. Maybe an actual earth seraph could do this naturally, but I think even they have to practice a lot."

    "Hm, I see." She took one last look at their find, then turned to carry on. "Let's get going."

    "Coming!"

    They left the shrine behind, both siblings somewhat covered in snow at this point. Laphi then shook his head and created something like an umbrella out of mana which he angled over them, then brushed off what had not yet melted. Velvet did similarly, quietly amused that he apparently forgot about it until that moment. Looking back after a few minutes, the two found what was almost a road winding itself up the mountain on a different side than they were moving in from. They felt a little silly about having made it hard on themselves then, but shrugged it off; they had fun nonetheless.

    It was shortly after the snowfall ceased half an hour later that they were once again interrupted; this time however, it was because the mountain suddenly and violently grew spikes in front of them.

    "What now," Laphi asked out loud, sounding faintly amused as he turned to the side. "More bandits?"

    Velvet turned with him and found a girl standing but a dozen metres distant. Not a woman, a slip of a girl staring at them more or less blankly out of big, blue eyes. Her first thought was that this short, cream-coloured dress could not be warm enough for the climate. Then she took note of the umbrella the other one held onto casually, traces of snow still atop it; a miniature-Normin plush doll hung from it upside-down. The girl's hair was short and of an earthy ochre hue, with a small sidetail bound by a green ribbon.

    The colours reminded her of something, as did the girl in general. Instead of trying to figure it out however, Velvet made to answer her brother with a faint smile: "Don't you think this one's a little too cute for a bandit?"

    Her brother gave her a side-eyed glance, his expression remaining more or less neutral. "No, no, that's how they get you," he deadpanned.

    The girl remained unamused as well, just staring at them without a word. When she did not respond, Velvet carried on: "I'd say the only things she steals are hearts."

    "That would require us to not be heartless, so we are safe."

    Laphi's final comment made the girl's lips twitch and Velvet began to grin a moment before she did. "You're quite behind," the other seraph told them in a dry tone, "hearts fell out of favour with modern seraphim centuries ago. Taking peoples' calm is all the rage these days."

    Velvet huffed at that and reached over to ruffle her brother's hair, accepting the little game she found herself in. "Looks like you're doing well then, but you're not enough of a brat to compare to this one." Then, as if in thought, she glanced between the two seraphim. "But maybe that's because you're a girl."

    He stayed quiet and only threw her a bit of a glare, which Velvet simply ignored. The girl seraph contemplated both of them curiously, one hand in a black, far too big glove stroking her chin in thought. Velvet idly noted that only this hand was gloved when it began to point at her brother. "Are you sure that's a boy? She looks like a girl to me." Both of them blinked while the retort registered, then Velvet snorted, one hand pressed to her mouth as she fought for composure. The stranger adopted a more pronounced smirk and oozed smugness; she leaned forward a little as if to look at him more closely, taking a few steps toward them.

    Laphi just pouted at them both and pulled on a strand of his blond curls, which were a little bit longer than hers. "Is it the hair?"

    His comment prompted the girl to step closer again, her grin still in place. "The hair, the voice, and you act pretty much like a girl, getting embarassed like that. Isn't it cute?" Her tone adopted a note of amusement at that point without losing its dry note, eyes focussed on Laphi. "Now you only need a proper dress and to blush like a maiden." Laphi sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, which prompted fake cooing from the girl. "Oh, did I break her? Maybe she doesn't do well with compliments?" She put extra inflection on the gender pronouns and waited for a reaction.

    And a reaction she got; Laphi stepped forward, reaching out to pet the dumbfounded girl's head. He smiled at her, both of them roughly of equal height. "There there, you don't have to envy me for my looks. I know I'm the most beautiful girl around."

    Velvet broke. Her giggles no longer allowing to be suppressed, she laughed into her hand and bent forward a bit in her mirth to get it all out. This was hilarious in an odd way!

    When she caught herself a few moments later, the girl was still staring dumbly at Laphi. Her grin returned a moment later and she stepped back, rolling that umbrella on her shoulder. "Look at that, the pup has some bark after all. What about your bite?"

    Laphi shrugged at that. "I'm afraid I only have the frostbite of my cold heart. Does that count?" He then held out his hand.

    "It will do." She took it, boy and girl shaking amicably. "What do you want here?"

    "We're traveling," Velvet interjected with a smile for their new acquaintance. "And we found a mountain, so we climbed it." She then paused and scrutinised the area, remembering what else brought them here. "Though we heard there is a dragon somewhere up here; do you know anything about that?"

    She almost missed it, but there was a single moment of the girl's brows furrowing. Her frown faded quickly, together with her grin. "I do."

    Something about this felt odd, something about her felt familiar. Velvet found that thought bothering her once more when she looked the girl over, now noticing her boots for the first time; boots several sizes too big, and familiar. On a hunch, she tapped her forehead. "Oh, silly me, I completely forgot! I'm Velvet, this is Laphicet."

    "Edna," she gave her name in response while Laphi waved from Velvet's side.

    There she had it. How she could even miss it was a mystery all its own; just from the face, she was almost a female version of Eizen. Those were his boots she wore, and his glove. Velvet had even seen the girl herself one time, even if it was just her back and an illusion on top of it. Yet she only recalled that in hindsight.

    Which would make the dragon...

    Casting a careful glance at Edna again, Velvet changed the subject: "Say, Edna, can you show us around a bit? You must know all the best spots up here, right?"

    The girl measured her up in turn, idly rolling her umbrella. "It's a hassle, but I guess I can make an exception this time. Not like I get many visitors up here." Velvet could guess at least one other, but did not comment. She just followed when Edna turned around and started walking.

    "You're in luck," the earth seraph offered with a note of humour in her voice, "this time of year you can see a whole new sight." She then pointed at a nearby rock. "To your left, you see rocks. To your right, you see more rocks. But up ahead, you can see rock with snow." Her deadpan remained throughout and Velvet had to chuckle despite herself. Laphi smiled, too; neither could tell if Edna did, seeing how the umbrella hid everything above her waist from view.

    This continued, in a way; Edna stopped introducing every rock to them after a few minutes, leading the siblings over more narrow passes and through small caverns to find ponds or mountainside lakes, as well as some vantage points.

    Seeing that their guide remained mostly quiet, Velvet nudged her brother along the way. "What had you so docile with her at the start?" she inquired. Velvet could not be sure, but thought that Edna's stance shifted a little when she heard them speak.

    Laphi glanced up at her with a shrug. "I blame you and Arthur. You taught me to be nice to girls for as long as I can remember."

    "And suddenly you remember your manners?"

    He grinned and raised a finger as if to lecture her. "Velvet, you're my sister. Don't you know anything? I am supposed to make your life hell!"

    That did it. "Oh, you little brat!"

    Velvet's arm surged forward and ruffled her brother's hair again, even though she laughed with him.

    Edna's expression remained unseen, hidden behind her umbrella.

    They spent the entire morning and afternoon following the local seraph around; she showed them to several scenic spots, some of which allowed to look out over the entirety of Glayvend Basin and others which gave them a view until Ladylake in the distance. They found small trees and other untouched parts of nature, including the aforementioned lake deep below amidst the mountains. It was a blessed kind of silence that enveloped them for most of the time; Edna spoke little, but she did answer whenever spoken to. The snow masked the sounds of nature around them, leaving an odd sort of tranquility for most of the day.

    This tranquility was violently shattered toward the evening, when a bestial roar made the very air shudder. The mountains shook as a cloud of Malevolence broke over distant peaks, immediately followed by him.

    All three of them held their balance during the small quake; Velvet absently noticed several rockslides being triggered in other parts, but her eyes were on the dragon that swooped over and past them without taking notice. A truly incredible wave of Malevolence followed the large creature, easily twice the size of any other quadruped she had ever seen. With exception of Eumacia, that was.

    What was left of her old companion flew a tight spiral as he ascended, then flapped his wings a few times to stay in place as if to behold his domain. Again, he took no notice of the three standing half a kilometre below him. Velvet's heart ached, her stomach turned to knots at the sight. She stood right next to Edna as all three of them beheld the dragon, saw how her face was frozen in its blankness.

    Velvet did not say anything, she just put a hand on the other girl's shoulder. There was no response, but Edna did not shake her off, either. Neither did she ask for how Velvet could guess at her state once Eizen swooped out of sight, which was a small blessing. She really did not want to explain.

    What this told her, though, was that this dragon would remain alive for the foreseeable future. She could effortlessly drag Eizen out of the sky and kill him if only she wanted to, but she just did not want to; seeing this lost girl just stand and watch what her brother had become tugged at Velvet's heart. It might have been what made her proceed as she did. The rest of the evening following this encounter was more subdued than she liked, so she decided to do something about it.

    Half an hour after Eizen flew out of view, she crossed her arms and nodded to herself. "Alright, we're stopping here for today." This brought her looks from both seraphim, but Velvet paid them no mind and pointed to a cave she spied nearby. "Get yourselves in there, it's time to make dinner." Edna stood still for several moments when Laphi already started to move, but then she strolled after him without complaint. It occurred to Velvet that their 'host' would not be eating all that often up here, if at all. She quickly followed after them, mentally recounting what she needed.

    Once inside and out of the cool wind, she took stock of what they had at hand with a thoughtful noise, then directed the other two. "Can you make me a stand for the pot here, Edna? Something I can put a fire under. Laphi, you're chopping onions." Her brother went to turning one side of the cave into a smooth surface and then sprayed it clean with water, though Edna kept throwing her these looks Velvet could not place.

    "How big is that pot?"

    She paused and motioned for the seraph girl to wait a moment, then reached into her bag and pulled it out. "About this big." It went airborne and was caught easily; Edna looked over the well-made iron with a soft nod, then placed it down for a moment to put her umbrella aside. Mana flowed through her and formed an arte circle when she picked the pot back up, thin strands of rock more flowing than growing out of the earth. Laphi stopped what he was doing to watch Edna work, as did Velvet; within a minute, they had a gently curving stand which circled twice around the pot Edna placed inside, its bottom held by four interlocking stone tendrils. The two grips at the top were placed on corresponding tips of the encircling rock snakes.

    Once she was done admiring the elegant stonework, Velvet could not help but smile. "You're definitely more useful than Laphi already."

    "I heard that, you know?"

    Neither of them paid the grumbling boy any mind as they grinned at each other. Edna channeled some more mana into an arte atop the pot, which released a stream of water into it. Velvet watched and told her when to cut it off.

    It continued like this, with stands for a second pot and a pan following. Velvet almost convinced herself to also make pudding for dessert and ask for a bigger setup, but curbed her enthusiasm to focus on the intended meal instead. Edna silently went to help Laphi with the preparations once she was no longer needed; meanwhile, Velvet dove into her backpack for the other ingredients and seasoning she needed.

    As she was still up to her shoulders in the pack, she heard her brother speak up: "So I was wondering, what do you do up here?"

    A momentary pause followed, interrupted by chopping noises. Then: "I live here."

    Velvet cringed for her brother; Edna's tone had not changed from its usual deadpan, so she could not make anything of it. Laphi kept quiet and Velvet had to wonder just how they would even approach any kind of personal questions; how did one ask a hermit on a mountain what she did with her free time?

    A contemplative but ultimately silent while later, they were all watching a pot full of noodles boil while some spicy sauce and slowly roasting beef filled the cave with a mouth-watering aroma. Velvet nodded at herself and tested one of the noodles, only to find they still needed a minute or two. Then she smiled and beckoned Edna while producing a spoon.

    The girl followed without hesitation, eyeing Velvet and then the food. "What is it?"

    She then watched Velvet scoop up a bit of the sauce onto that spoon and hold it out to her. "You're my taste-tester for today. Tell me how it is."

    That little surprise broke Edna's stoic expression for a few moments as she peered at the spoon, then up at Velvet. "Why don't you do it yourself?" She did not even wait for a response before chomping down.

    "I can't really taste anything, so I need someone else for it."

    This only brought her a slight tilt of the head and an understanding noise; Edna pulled back from the now-clear spoon. "It's alright. But that lack of taste explains your choice of clothes, too."

    "Very-" She interrupted herself and gave Edna a look, who grinned up at her. "I see, you're a brat just like Laphi. Looks like the two of you will be the best of friends."

    She could have said worse, tried to argue, but Edna did look young and Velvet preferred not to have an argument right now. Ignoring the suddenly thoughtful seraph girl, she went back to her work, stirring the noodles and sauce again. Then she turned the beef around, poked it with a fork, and told Laphi to turn down his fire arte beneath the smaller pot and the pan. "We're only waiting for the pasta now, it should be done any moment."

    She had to grin when Edna turned away to poke her backpack, likely curious about the storage-arte they hinted at having by pulling out all those things. Whether the girl knew it or not, they were just finishing up with pasta in the exact way Eizen always wanted it prepared for himself. It would not do much for her, but perhaps offer a little comfort. Checking the noodles again, Velvet found them good to go and snuffed out the final fire arte herself. "Alright, now we just need to set everything up. Be dears and fix the... a table?"

    The younger-looking two gave her almost the same blank look; without a single word but a rumble, a rectangular plate of stone grew out of the ground, followed by three smaller, rocky chairs. Edna blasted the surface with a stream of water, Laphi dried it with a wave of heat.

    Velvet chuckled and placed bowls and pan on the new table while her brother fixed the plates. "You're such obedient little ones," she told them cheerfully before putting food onto those plates.

    A quiet "how did it come to this" escaped Edna, but Laphi merely ushered her to her seat.

    "You get used to it. Velvet is unstoppable in the kitchen."

    "That, I am." She struck a short pose and pushed a filled plate to her brother, then fixed Edna's; Velvet made sure that their new friend got the biggest, juiciest portion of beef she made. "And Edna, let's call this thanks for showing us around," she told the girl with a gentle smile. "Now dig in, children!"

    Their meal passed in silence after that, but Velvet could rest assured that her effort went appreciated; she had given Edna a bigger portion than either Laphi or herself, but the plate came back completely empty. After the girl took seconds. And thirds.

    It was a good thing she made lots.

    Similar events took place the following morning, though a good bit less elaborate. Velvet and Laphi said their goodbyes with smiles, though Edna remained stoic as she told them not to break their necks on the descent. Only once she turned around, had her face unseen and hidden by her umbrella on top of it, would one have found the faintest smile on her.

    Half an hour into their march to the mountain's foot, Velvet turned to her brother curiously. "Well, what do you think of Eizen's sister?" He did not react at first, brow furrowed and deep in thought. Velvet had to nudge him to get a reaction, which made her start to grin. "Could it be that she's the kind of girl you like?"

    She was teasing, but also a little curious. Perhaps unfortunately, Laphi sighed and made to shake his head. "That's not it, Velvet." He then paused and slumped a little. "Or, I can't really say? I think she's cute, but that doesn't mean I like her that way, does it?"

    "Aww, my little Laphi is starting to think about girls!" Velvet cooed at her annoyed brother, only barely stopping herself from giggling. "And it's the snarky cute girls, not the earnest and overeager town girls!"

    "Margaret is cute, too."

    "You're not helping your case, Laphi~" He groaned and she laughed, deciding to let off him at that point. It was fun to tease a bit, but she did not want to make too much of it at the moment. "But alright. What were you thinking about?"

    "Hm?" He blinked at her, then turned his gaze toward the snowy ground. "Oh. I was just thinking, it must be awfully lonely to live that far up on a mountain with no one but a dragon for company."

    "Yeah. Maybe it's what she wants, though." She glanced back up to where they last saw Edna. "Do you think she needs a friend?" He just shrugged and she left it at that, though they both knew Velvet might have a point. Her brother would keep thinking about this for a while, she could tell that much.

    By herself however, Velvet still wondered whether Laphi and Edna would make a cute couple. And how mad Eizen would get if he could see them together. Then she realised she got carried far, far ahead of any reasonable thoughts and pushed the matter aside. They had places to be.

    So they marched on.
     
  25. Threadmarks: 1.13 Hyland
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    It was in the early morning that space broke. The fog split apart as a figure appeared amidst it where there had been none before, almost as dark as the night if not for her bright if sunkissed skin. Another kind of darkness surrounded her in streamers that had just before torn reality apart in the area. The figure turned around to wait for another to emerge from a hundred metres distant, now invisible in the fog. Soft, golden light announced him before she could see him again and when he did appear, it was with a deep frown. "Not advisable," Laphi delivered his quiet verdict. "This is really potent, but it tells me quite clearly you're a hellion. You should stay with seraphic artes entirely unless you want to reveal yourself."

    This prompted a sigh from Velvet, who crossed her arms and started to walk again. "I figured as much," she admitted, "but we might as well check. It's short-ranged, but I can do it well enough; beats spending months or years to learn your teleportation arte." She paused and turned back in the vague direction of the Spiritcrest. "I wonder how Eizen did it."

    Her brother shrugged, for once clueless as well. "No idea. Though I was planning to work on the teleportation for a while. Long-range communication just isn't going anywhere, so I'd rather make the transportation arte less mana-intensive to use; we can pass messages that way well enough."

    "Makes sense," Velvet added absently as she eyed the distant form of Griflet Bridge by the roadside. "How about the armatus?"

    "Done analysing the changes, but building a new catalyst will take a while." Laphi turned his head to the bridge as well, them having heard the river flow below for some time now. "Any sign of Uno?"

    "None that I could see. You're the one who can sense seraphim, so you tell me."

    "I... don't think he is around."

    They fell quiet after that, marching on and in the opposite direction of where they had originally gone. The meeting with Edna still weighed on Velvet's mind a little, but she could not let it slow her down at the moment. Even if they sometimes forgot that their journey was not just for fun, they could never do so for long.

    In the end, her thoughts returned to her earlier experiment and she broke the silence a few minutes later. "I don't think I will work with these artes any further for now." She got a curious look and a 'go on' motion for her comment. "They're... odd. It's hard to describe, but using Malevolence like this feels more, well, raw than mana. It's not clever manipulation, I'm just forcing it to act as I want."

    "How is that any different to what you normally do?"

    Laphi got a look for that quip, but it did nothing to wipe the grin off his face. Velvet rubbed her temple as she tried to explain her feelings on the matter: "It can reach deeper than before. Like earlier? I just pulled a place in the distance to me and made a step, no careful tunneling around or whatever your arte does." For emphasis, she stopped at a nearby tree and pointed at it. "The problem I see and that we need to look into before I actually put a lot of time into these new artes, is..." She punched the tree and the shock of her fist's impact tore a hole into its trunk. "...that we don't know what they could end up breaking."

    As if for emphasis, the tree slammed into the ground before them; birds took flight all around, their wingbeats echoing through the mist. Velvet watched her brother instead, who held a thoughtful expression. After a few seconds, he nodded. "I think I get it. You're right. We need to figure out the limits of Malevolence and how to safely manipulate it before we can develop artes. You know that might take centuries, right?"

    Velvet shrugged and got going again. "Not like we have anything better to do when this is over."

    "That's fair."

    The fog held long beyond their conversation, dispersing only when the sun began to dip low after a day of eventless travel bar some hellions. Far ahead, the two Crowes found their path turn into a slope which, once they reached it, revealed a mesmerising view of what lay beyond. Before them spread a vast mix of meadows, hills, and rivers; the flowing water glinted like diamonds in the sunlight while the occasional tree threw dark shadows. Waterfalls thundered down in the distance, the large river behind them having spread into many smaller ones. Flowers were on the decline by now, but the sight of such a sprawling landscape tinted in warm orange kept Velvet rooted for a while as she admired it. The same went for Laphi. In a way, seeing things like these, such beauty in nature, was reason enough to travel; she only learned to appreciate that over these last few months.

    "Lakehaven Heights," Laphi provided the area's name quietly. "It's more beautiful than I thought it would be. And bigger." He raised a hand level to his forehead, shielding his eyes. "I can't even see Ladylake from here."

    Velvet nodded and cast a quick look over the area; traversing it would take them a while, she knew. Her brother' side received a faint nudge. "And we won't get to Ladylake anytime soon because someone insists on exploring every nook and cranny."

    "No fair, it's only every second nook and cranny!"

    She snorted at that and shook her head. "Anyway, let's go. There's still some daylight for us to use." Laphi followed her obediently. Seeing that they just made camp the previous day, neither sibling was tired and they would walk through the night.

    "While we're at not getting there soon," Laphi began as his sister hopped over the first small river. "Are we going to go back to Lastonbell first?" He forewent jumping and rather walked across the water, which Velvet knew he did by flying close atop the surface. It was a good question, though.

    After giving it some thought and leaving the regular path for good, she had her answer: "It's a bit early for that. We should give them more time to consider." Admittedly, her own anxiety about a refusal made pushing it off easier.

    "Alright," Laphi acquiesced and dropped the subject, eyes turning forward to where Ladylake might be in the distance. "I was thinking that maybe we should open a second branch of our tavern in Hyland, what do you think?"

    "You think we could operate two taverns like those without making ourselves suspicious? Or stretching ourselves too thin?"

    He shook his head and followed Velvet down a hill they climbed. "No, not really. I was just considering if it's worth the risks for greater coverage. And we wouldn't know where to put it; Marlind is too close to Lastonbell for it to make sense and Ladylake is the capital, again. Nothing else is where we would get much out of a second tavern." Laphi pondered a moment longer before shrugging. "Oh well, we'll keep it in mind. What we definitely need to do is hunt some more, if any wild game is still active at this time of year." He eyed a few birds up high and Velvet spotted a deer in the distance, which she then proceeded to run down; a broken neck later, she was busy removing the fur without damaging it. Laphi continued after the short lull in their conversation: "We need funds and information at the moment. Information, we get through traveling and recruiting more seraphim. Funds are a bigger problem until everything is set up and we have something to sell regularly."

    Velvet acknowledged his thoughts with a grunt, attention focussed on her kill. Laphi sat down on a rock next to her and kicked his legs. "We could take and sell Atakk's art pieces, but that would be kind of mean."

    Now she had to pause to laugh. "Yeah, it would be. Keep it in mind as a last resort, but there are many better ways to get money."

    "Such as rifling through the pockets of hellions we kill?"

    That only brought a shrug out of Velvet, who then proceeded to get back to the deer. "It works and they're already dead, so yes."

    Like this, two weeks passed in a blur as they explored the area; true to her expectation, Laphi more or less investigated every nook and cranny. He appeared to love the Lakehaven Heights more than most other areas they were in before, though Velvet had no idea why that might be. They killed a few hellions on the way and found it quickly getting colder as the days passed; there were even two days of snow during the second week.

    Their first big find were the ruins of yet another small village, the number of which became suspicious by now; the siblings could both guess who was responsible for it. Curiously, they also found a shrine to Amenoch, hidden behind one of the many waterfalls around. It was covered by dust, but remained in an almost pristine state. After determining that the chamber was a dead end, Laphi went and built a sidechamber to put another teleportation arte into. After he asked Amenoch not to be mad at him under his breath, that was. Much to Velvet's amusement.

    They moved on from the general area two days after finding that shrine, once Laphi was finally content with the amount of exploration he undertook. They did not find much of note, but the sight alone almost felt like it was enough to make up for that; Velvet also spent a lot of these weeks hunting. By herself however, she was happy to see her little brother enjoy himself so much; Laphi examined plants and animals carefully wherever he could, played in the snow when it fell. He could do all the things he never could before and it made her heart almost explode in joy. This was what she always wanted for him, to be happy.

    Finding herself with a bright smile, Velvet made to prepare their campsite; they would make their way toward Ladylake the next day. She was perfectly content right now, though that feeling did not last long. It ended a moment after she put down her pack, when something slammed into the back of her head and splattered.

    Velvet paused and felt her now damp hair, noting something wet and crunchy before she brought the hand to her face. Snow.

    Laphi stood a few metres distant, another ball of white in his hand and the brightest grin on his face. Velvet stared at him, going back and forth between annoyed and amused, the puffs of mist from their breathing the only change between them for several seconds. "You didn't just do that."

    His grin grew wider and he threw the other snowball with a whoosh of displaced air. She angled her raised hand to block it, but missed and had the missile splatter against her face; for a moment, her entire world was white as it pushed her back a step. Slowly, ever so slowly, Velvet wiped a hand over her face to get the snow off. Amber eyes met the exact same colour a moment later, but Laphi merely kept grinning. "I did just do that," he crowed. Her eyes narrowed while he quickly dove for cover behind a fallen tree.

    She let out a breath and crouched to bunch up some snow of her own. One, two, three balls she made, a little clumsily, before getting up to find where the brat had gone; she surged forward and jumped over the tree, but he was no longer there. Looking around, Velvet found a flash of gold to her right. Then she ducked as another snowball sailed past and into the river behind. A fountain spewed three metres high but thankfully away from her. She gave chase, legs carrying her only every other step as she floated up to go faster.

    Velvet shot onto the hill while Laphi gave a startled yelp and scrambled for a patch of snow, but she already had him in her sights. Her right hand pulled back, then snapped forward; the ball hit him right in the small of his back a moment later. Her throw pushed him a metre through the soft snow; he rolled out of the second throw, which left him face-up to take the third up his nose. Velvet grinned at having gotten payback.

    She then strolled over to her brother, who sat up and wiped himself off with the brightest grin. "Did you have enough?" The answer was a snowball to her left cheek, shot forward by a stealthily placed wind arte. Velvet then proceeded to hunt her cackling brother over a frosted meadow and down a slope, then up a river. He dove away from her throws and abused his flight to not get hit, throwing back whenever there was an opening. A wandering wolf-hellion turned to them as they approached, but a misplaced throw from Velvet caved its skull in and created a macabre mix of red and white all over its head.

    At some point, as night had already fallen and only the stars still illuminated them, the two laughing and completely soaked Crowes returned to their chosen campsite. Despite it all, Velvet enjoyed herself. "And to think you used to hate winter," Laphi told her cheerfully while setting up a small fire. "This is so much fun!"

    Velvet just shrugged, being in the process of pulling out dry clothes for them both. "Hellions don't feel the cold, so it doesn't bother me as much anymore. The damp clothes still do, though. Now get changed."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    By herself, Velvet was still smiling. Perhaps she needed something like this, once in a while.

    . .
    . .

    They met knights on patrol over the following week. Few of them even stopped their horses to talk to them beyond an exchange of greetings, and those that did mainly asked about Velvet's destination. Laphi spent his time watching birds or working on his artes.

    When they first saw Ladylake, it was in the morning after walking through yet another night. Deep cold took root in the area by then and made the capital city appear all the more majestic; it was built atop a vast lake, thus the name. This lake sat frozen, its solid surface glistening in the morning sun.

    Velvet stood atop a small hill on the cliffside path descending toward the city's main bridge, taking in the sight with Laphi by her side. He was the first to spot something and point. "Look!" When she followed his motion, Velvet found herself looking at a gaggle of children playing on the ice.

    The distance made it difficult to discern what they were doing, but she could tell well enough what her brother was thinking. Rolling her eyes, she gave him a nudge. "If you want to go, then go." The encouragement earned her a smile, then Laphi was off and scaled down the cliffside. Velvet remained where she was, watching the goings-on with clouds of mist forming in an even rhythm from her nose. She could observe the main bridge leading into the city from her position, merely a few hundred metres distant. Traffic was light this morning, yet many knights secured the area.

    Around the time Velvet wondered how these children below actually made it down onto the ice, she noticed someone walking her way. It was mostly from the corner of her eye, which she left it at in favour of watching the children a little longer. Laphi was difficult to spot among them from up high. A few minutes passed until the other person stopped by her side; she cast a curious glance at them to find a somewhat older woman, possibly in her late twenties. She was dressed sharply, wearing steel boots and vambraces over white trousers and a dark blue, corset-like jacket; the golden trims made rather clear that she was a dame or noblewoman, though the armour implied the former. As did the spear she carried. Velvet could see hints of a stern expression, but they were mostly hidden by a lenient smile as the stranger also watched the goings-on below.

    "It is good to see the children play so carefree," Velvet opened with another glance to the side, "despite recent events."

    The other woman gave her a look in turn, one eye hidden by her wine red hair. "Are you referring to the skirmishes with the Rolance Empire?"

    "Yes." Velvet did not turn away from the sight below, deciding to keep the conversation a little distant like this. "Children shouldn't be drawn into the matters of adults."

    The dame did much the same, one arm held behind her back and the butt of her spear resting on the ground. She frowned ever so slightly. "Yet they will be adults soon enough, and this will become a matter concerning them."

    "Maybe so, but they shouldn't have to grow up before the time is right. Nothing good comes of that." A stiff breeze caught her braid and threw it forward as she voiced her opinion; Velvet had to grow quickly when she lost Celica, for Laphicet. She did not wish that kind of thing on another.

    Her company gave a slow nod. "I find myself in agreement. Yet all those children down there are commoners, enjoying themselves mindlessly while the nobles have to study. What do you make of that?"

    Velvet shrugged and threw her braid back behind herself as she considered how to respond. "Nobles are held to different standards; they're expected to carry on their family name with pride, carry out important tasks, and need to manage many more possessions and wealth." She let out a quiet sigh, turning her head fully for the first time and meeting the stranger's eyes with a light frown. "This kind of freedom is something one begins to lose as responsibilities and status pile up. In exchange, I doubt any of the noble children will ever go hungry for their entire youth. They don't have to carefully weigh every Gald, don't have to work from an early age to support their family."

    She received a thoughtful nod and was appraised more closely. "That is a wise stance to have," the older woman mused, "especially at your age. You are speaking from experience." It was not a question and they both knew it.

    "I am."

    Another nod and both of them turned back to watch the frozen lake a little longer, though the conversation stalled out there. Whatever this person had been looking for, she seemed to have found it, one way or another. She soon left Velvet be, who stood to watch until a disembodied Laphi flew back up the cliff and settled within her. Once he returned, she began her march toward the gates, prepared to require new papers much like on her first arrival in Lastonbell. Much to her continued surprise, the knight at the main gate waved her through. "We've seen you talk to Lady Maltran, ma'am. Go on inside, and welcome to Ladylake."

    Velvet tried not to look too confused as she stepped into the city. She could only guess that the woman who spoke to her was this Maltran figure, but why that meant anything eluded her. "I heard some of the children talk about her," Laphi provided from within, his voice ringing in her head. "And people in Lastonbell, and in Marlind. Her full name is Hyaci Maltran; she's called the 'Blue Valkyrie' and really famous for being an exemplary knight. She's a role model to every female knight in the kingdom, sometimes even beyond."

    Velvet just nodded faintly to herself, being mindful of the throngs of people going this way and that while her brother materialised next to her again. She smelled some Malevolence and found one or two hellions among the crowd, but left it all be for the time being. There had been hellions in Pendrago as well, so the sight did not surprise her much.

    As her first step, Velvet decided to find an inn and begin planning their stay. At least that was the idea. But as it was with plans and reality, she did not get far with it as she went down the main road. A hand grabbed onto her arm and a voice called out warmly: "There you are, dear!"

    Confused, Velvet turned around to find herself in front of an old woman; her wrinkled face and greyish white hair were the only parts visible due to the thick winter coat she wore, though a bright smile peeked out from its collar. "That you're finally back home for once! I haven't seen you since you were this tall!" The elder held up a hand at the height of Velvet's waist and tugged at her arm gently. "Now, it's cold today. Come along and let grandma make you something to warm up!"

    Velvet stared at the woman flabbergasted, her mind racing as she tried to make sense of what was happening. After a moment, she decided against making a commotion and let herself be pulled along with a muttered "Alright". She did not feel right pretending to be someone's granddaughter, but did not feel like she should be rough with someone that old, either.

    As she was led through the streets, she heard a middle-aged man mutter to another: "Granny's as forgetful as always, that's the second girl this month." That made her feel decidedly odd, though Laphi was clearly less bothered. He kept laughing as he followed the two women.

    Velvet was ushered into a cozy house a few streets away from the main road, right at an old wooden table. "Sit right there, sweetie. I'll have something cooked up for you in a moment!" So she sat, feeling decidedly awkward as she answered half-shouted questions about 'how mom and dad are doing' and the like, playing along as best as she could while Laphi kept grinning as if this was the best day of his life; he sat by her side and laughed with every awkward response, relishing in what happened to her despite her glares.

    Then a pot with stew was placed on the table and two bowls put out by the surprisingly sturdy elder, who smiled at her cheerfully. "Eat up, I made lots. A big girl needs to eat."

    So she ate, mostly in silence under 'granny's' watchful gaze. She could tell the stew had a pleasant warmth, but failed to taste anything in it. Velvet could not help but lower her gaze to the table. "It's super tasty, grandma," she muttered while trying to force herself not to blush. Laphi giggled and their host smiled.

    "Of course it is, my dear."

    She felt deeply uncomfortable with every spoonful that she ate. So much genuine kindness was heaped on her, more than she had ever been given in one go since she was ten. The only one who she remembered to have this much warmth for her was Celica.

    After she finished eating, 'granny' sat her down a bit away from the table and undid her braid. "It won't do for a pretty thing like yourself not to look your best!" she told Velvet cheerfully as she produced a brush and began to see to her raven hair. "Ahh, such beautiful hair. Just like your mother's!" She kept quiet about having inherited the hair from her father. Laphi got their mother's blonde tresses.

    Velvet began to fidget from time and time as the day continued to noon. She slowly made herself smaller as this went on for another hour. The moment she was given an apple pie right out of the oven however, she folded.

    "I, I'm not your granddaughter."

    "Hm? What was that, dear?"
    Velvet just kept staring away, cheeks so hot that she knew she was actually blushing. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I just, you looked so happy and I couldn't...." She trailed off, unsure what to say.

    That was when the old woman broke into laughter, immediately drawing her gaze away from the tabletop. The elder giggled haltlessly and had to wipe tears out of her eyes when she was done. "I know," she told the befuddled Velvet. "Of course you aren't my granddaughter, I don't have one. I think."

    "Then why did you....?"

    She trailed off again and made a vague motion for their surroundings; this brought her a cheerful shrug and a toothy grin from the old woman. "It's just too fun to mess with travelers, dear."

    Velvet blinked and Laphi started to giggle in the background, but she paid him no mind for now. Before she could actually figure out how she felt about being had like this, she was given another grandmotherly smile. "But I do like the company, too. Stay safe and come visit me sometime, sweetie. And eat up before you go, I can tell you have business to do, but you can't do it on an empty stomach."

    That any ordinary stomach would still be filled with stew remained unmentioned. Velvet just sighed and dug in. "You're one weird woman," she told the elder between bites.

    "Heh, that I am."

    When she left a few minutes later, it all felt surreal. Hours passed like this and she felt oddly warm, even if it had all been part of a prank. At the same time, she was completely confused. "What the hell happened here," she muttered to Laphi, who shrugged.

    "She's good," he noted in turn. "I can tell she had a bonded seraph, but she didn't even glance in my direction once." When Velvet blinked at him and asked under her breath why he did not say anything, he grinned again. "It was too funny to watch you getting pampered. How does it feel to be on the receiving end for once?" Velvet was aware of the understanding looks the neighbours gave her as she walked away from this particular house. She did not give Laphi an answer.

    Back inside that very house however, an old woman sat down heavily after watching her newest victim walk away. She felt her age in these moments, every month of every year. Yet at the same time, she could not stop smiling.

    The two dwelling deep within her shared that feeling.
     
  26. Threadmarks: 1.14 New Acquaintances
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    They spent the morning exploring Ladylake; the capital's appearance changed rapidly, depending on the district one traversed. Velvet found that peasantry and nobility remained more or less separated with some wealthy merchants bridging the gap, but there were no physical barriers. People simply preferred to stay in their own areas unless they had business with the higher or lower classes. The royal palace obviously remained off-limits without invitation or employment.

    Velvet focussed on finding shops and merchants she could trade with, scouring their wares for whatever might be interesting and selling the furs she gathered over time. They might have fetched a little more in Autumn, when there was time to prepare for the bitter cold, but she still got a good price for everything. All the same, the previous day's encounter with that old woman stayed fresh in her mind; doubly so when she ran into Velvet around noon, greeted her with a smile, and moved on as if nothing odd ever happened. She just could not make sense of these events, no matter how much she tried. Laphi once again confirmed that this woman definitely had a bonded seraph, but they saw neither hide nor hair of them and ultimately decided to leave this matter be.

    Snow began to fall about an hour after that encounter in the streets, which turned Velvet away from further exploration and toward the cathedral; it stood tall amidst the many buildings, if not as large as Pendrago's shrinechurch.

    She headed inside with a few other people, some of which probably sought shelter from the snow just like her. Laphi followed, though his attention was elsewhere immediately. Taking in the spacious room herself, Velvet took notice of steps carved into the stone up ahead, leading to a pedestal which drew the eye. Several priests spoke quietly among each other and people stood in prayer around the room. Not many, but enough. A young woman in light armour knelt right before the central pedestal which held a block of stone and a sword stuck in it.

    Then Velvet gaze fell on what caught Laphi's eye already; a woman slept next to the sword in the stone, garbed in robes of bright red and white.

    She threw a look at her brother, then made a sharp nod to the sleeping figure; he took the hint and walked over while Velvet kept looking around. The architecture here was distinctly different from what she saw in Pendrago, which made sense because Ladylake had been built in the last millennium. This cathedral paled against the shrinechurch's size, but somehow she felt more at home here; it was a large, open space instead of half a maze, which they could only afford to build because they had all the room they wanted when setting the foundation.

    For some reason, Velvet felt an odd tingling in her gut soon after she, too, began to step up to the pedestal. "It is always a pleasure to see another find her way to us," a black-clad priest spoke to her as she neared, distracting her from the odd sensation. He was middle-aged and smiled benevolently. "Pardon, but I believe you have not been around these parts before?"

    "That's true," Velvet answered him quietly while trying to ignore that growing tingle. "I'm a traveler, just arrived yesterday."

    She noticed the armoured woman near them perk up, but kept listening to the priest as he almost clapped his hands before remembering to keep quiet. "Oh my, I see. The kind seraphim will certainly be watching over you, young lady!"

    Somehow, she felt that this man truly believed it, too. Not that he was wrong, considering Laphi's presence. So she nodded and gave him a smile. "I know they will."

    "A traveler?" A soft voice chimed in. "How curious." They both turned to that same woman she noticed earlier, who had risen from her kneeling position and was examining Velvet curiously. The stranger displayed an open smile and shining, green eyes. "Where would you hail from?" Now that she entered their conversation, Velvet really took her in for the first time; those green eyes she already noticed, framed by sandy blonde hair which barely reached her shoulders except for a longer sidetail. Her armour consisted of greaves, thigh-high steel boots, and a breastplate covered by a white top that turned into pinkish red at the sides and back.

    More importantly however, the tingling in Velvet's gut turned into a squeezing kind of sensation when their eyes met. She hesitated for a moment, then averted her gaze first. "A small village some ways from here. It, uh, doesn't matter much, now."

    "I, um, I see?" She obviously did not, but seemed to decide not to force the matter. The friendly smile remained nonetheless. "Either way, I have to admit that I rarely meet travelers, yet the many wonders of the world have always drawn my interest. Would you be willing to share some of the things you saw on your journey, miss?"

    Velvet blinked, now having had time to get herself under control again. The priest had taken a step back and seemed happy to let them talk, so she decided to just go with it. "Sure, and it's Velvet."

    "Ah, of course. Pardon my poor manners." The other woman bowed her head and Velvet waved her off. "My name is Alisha."

    "Very well, Alisha." Knowing that she saw precious little of Hyland so far, she had to ponder the matter for a long moment. What came to mind was... "Perhaps you're interested in my ascent of Rayfalke Spiritcrest?"

    Alisha's eyes immediately widened and she leaned forward. "My, the Spiritcrest? Word is that a horrible dragon lives at the peak; yet you braved the mountain regardless?"

    Horrible dragon indeed. Velvet could not help but smile. "I did, it was around this time last year, just during the first snowfalls. It took weeks to climb up the mountain because I didn't know there was an easier path if I followed the road further. The icy winds tore at me all the way and it was bitterly cold." She had to edit her tale carefully, but going by Alisha's enraptured expression, there was no trouble. "Some days I was thinking if it's actually worth it, but then I reached a plateau of sorts. Cliffs going off from the edges and distant mountaintops in sight; I could see all the way to Glayvend Basin and Ladylake from up there. I don't think I will ever forget those snow-dusted mountains in the evening sun's light."

    "I, I can hardly imagine a sight so breathtaking," Alisha mumbled and Velvet could not help but smile.

    "I spent days just walking around and taking it all in. The snow was cold, but it gave those jagged mountains a peaceful look." A pause. "Then I found a small shrine up there, intricate and marvelous in its design."

    "A shrine? Up in the mountains?"

    It was almost cute how Alisha followed her prompts so easily. Velvet nodded. "Yes, a shrine. I don't know who built it, but they were a true master. Even this here," where she motioned for the sword in the stone and its surrounding, intricately carved pedestal, "hardly compares." Then she leaned closer and whispered to the other woman in a conspiratorial tone: "I'm not even sure that shrine was made by human hands."

    A gasp. "You mean... a seraph built it? Truly?"

    "That's what I think, at least. It looked like it grew right out of the mountain, so either that or a true master carved it from the very stone on his first try." She also shamelessly stole the explanations Laphi gave her, knowing he could not call her out.

    Alisha, meanwhile, had her hands clasped in front of herself and eyed Velvet curiously. Almost... desperately? "Then, perhaps, did you see the creator up there? Did you meet a seraph?"

    The actual answer was yes, potentially, assuming Edna had made that shrine, but Velvet did not want the attention right now. So she shook her head and more or less ignored the question. "I did see that dragon, of that I'm sure."

    She had kept her voice down as before, but some others caught it anyway. There was muttering while Alisha's eyes widened and her hand rose to cover her mouth; Velvet knew she just made herself the center of attention, as even the priests were regarding her with curiousity. She wondered if any of them actually believed what she just said, but she went on anyway to the now larger audience: "The only reason I'm still alive was that it didn't see me. Probably. I saw it high in the sky one day, just... flying. It was far too big for any bird and full of an eerie darkness, and when it roared, the entire mountain shook under me." She sighed, more at the memory of Edna's face when Eizen made his appearance. "After seeing that and surviving it, I made myself scarce."

    Alisha's narrow-eyed gaze was directed at the ground, hand having wandered to her chin as she mulled it over. The attention of those around them faded in the long pause Velvet left to emphasize the end of her little tale, though some kept whispering with each other about dragons and the Spiritcrest. In these moments, she felt another lurch that she just knew had to do with Alisha but could not put to anything she ever felt. It was simply weird. For an idle moment, Velvet even entertained the thought that she might have an interest in women after all; then she remembered the fact she had been attracted to men before and never felt like this. This was not her heart fluttering, it was something else.

    "This is truly remarkable," Alisha finally muttered, more to herself. She looked up and the smile returned then. "Thank you for sharing this with me, Velvet."

    "Think nothing of it." She ended up smiling back, even though the image of Eizen still remained before her mind's eye. Perhaps it was his wings that made her think of it, but Velvet decided to ask on a whim. "Mind answering a question?"

    "Oh, of course. What do you wish to know?"

    They stood relaxed now, both of them. Velvet still sized up Alisha, who seemed almost eager to be of assistance. "Why do you think that birds fly?"

    The other woman blinked in clear confusion for a moment as the question registered, then she lowered her gaze to mull it over. Velvet took the pause to glance around, finding Laphi talk with the seraph lady after having woken her somehow; neither of them paid her any mind.

    "I think," Alisha finally answered with a faint smile, drawing Velvet's gaze back, "that you do not wish to hear what the books say. Personally, I believe that birds fly to behold all the beauty in this world. From their perch up high they can see so much more than we who remain on the ground, and so they spread their wings."

    Velvet could not help but smile once more; it was certainly the most unusual answer she had heard so far, but nonetheless a beautiful one. "I see." She started to understand why Arthur was so fond of asking that question.

    Alisha made to speak, but then a clattering at the door drew her eyes and she paused. "Oh." Turning, Velvet found another knight, this one in regular blue full-plate, standing there and looking their way. "Goodness me, I forgot the time again." Alisha bowed her head with an apologetic smile. "I am afraid I have to head out on parol now. Please enjoy your stay in Ladylake, and take care on your journey."

    Velvet nodded in understanding and offered Alisha a smile. "I will. You stay safe, too."

    "Certainly!" One graceful turn later, she hurried to the door, exchanged a few words with the other knight, and left with them. Velvet was once more on her own, joined again by a softly chuckling priest.

    "Her highness is quite the character, is she not?"

    "Her... highness?"

    He seemed to delight in her confusion, almost laughing out loud. "Yes, indeed. Princess Alisha always offers prayer before she heads out for a mission. It shows you are not from anywhere near Ladylake more than anything else; everyone here knows her on sight."

    Velvet stared at where the apparent princess vanished, uncertain what to make of this. "Huh. It sounds like the people like her."

    "There is nary a being in this country more compassionate," he answered sagely, though his fond smile fell a moment later. "Unfortunately, I hear that she is far less popular with the higher nobility and the other royals."

    "Who, let me guess, are not so well-liked by the people." Velvet almost huffed when he threw her a look that told her she should not say it out loud, even if she was right. "Alright, I get it. I guess I'll be on my way then, a pleasure to talk to you."

    "Quite the same. Do stay safe, dear traveler."

    She nodded at the older man and made to leave. While she turned, Velvet could see clearly that Laphi was listening to the seraph woman's animated chatter, so she left him behind for now.

    . .
    . .

    When he separated from Velvet, Laphicet wondered just who this seraph might be; he had never seen her before, but her clothes appeared immaculate and important. Then again, she was also curled up into a ball right next to the pedestal which... now that he stood next to it, he saw held a sword full of artfully shaped inscriptions and signs. Paying no more mind to it, he crouched next to the sleeping seraph and watched her for a moment, curious yet also uncertain whether he should interrupt her slumber. She looked so peaceful.

    In the end, curiousity won; he reached out to shake her shoulders gently. At first this only yielded a sleepy moan and a badly aimed hand batting at him to let go, but then her eyes slid open. "Hwuh? I, is...." She trailed off to cover a yawn with her hands, then peered up at Laphicet blearily. "Is it time to get up already?"

    Her sleepy mutter drew a faint smile from the boy, who pulled back to leave her some space. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I can leave if you'd rather sleep some more?"

    She blinked at him a few more times, but her posture slowly changed. "Oh." Her legs were released and she pulled herself into a sitting position, dark blue eyes drinking in his appearance. "Oh my!" She then seamlessly transitioned from sitting to standing, a silvery white ponytail longer than Velvet's hair at peak length fluttering from the sudden movement. "By all means, please stay!" She clapped her hands with a happy smile, beaming down at him even though Laphi was visibly thrown for a loop by the change. A pure white robe draped to her feet at the back like a ballgown, but left her front completely bare from the thighs down. A layer of bright red covered most of her arms and the area around her shoulders, with some golden accessories in the mix. All over, she was pretty.

    "Okay." He blinked one more time before shaking off his confusion, then returned the smile. "I'm Laphicet. Who are you and why were you sleeping on the floor?"

    The woman leaned forward a little to study him more closely. "I am Lailah, a pleasure. As for the floor, well." She chuckled a little sheepishly and motioned for the sword next to them. "I prefer to stay close to this blade. It is imperative that I keep it safe."

    Laphicet just tilted his head at her. "Why is that?"

    His question renewed Lailah's smile. "Why, it is because the one to draw this sword from the stone is worthy to become the next shepherd! So I need to make absolutely certain it remains where it is and stays in good condition. You could say I need to keep sharp eyes on it," she finished with joyful emphasis on the term. Laphicet needed a moment to realise what she just did, and sighed. Lailah giggled. "Hehe, it seems I haven't lost my edge yet!"

    He had never liked puns much. Edna's, he did not mind because they were really clever and a lot more snarky. Instead of dwelling on what he just got himself into, or wondering how Edna was doing yet again, he rather kept the conversation going. "So there hasn't been a shepherd yet?"

    Her cheer faded almost instantly and she shook her head. "No, not yet. But I am certain one will arrive soon." A glance went to the sword, then an encouraging smile to Laphicet. "It is just a matter of time. The line of shepherds has been unbroken since Saint Eleanor herself."

    He had to blink at the moniker and its implications, but decided not to pursue that particular question. His eyes did stray to Velvet, though; she was busy talking to another woman around her age. The same woman Laphi had noticed earlier; he could feel it quite clearly, now that he looked at her. "Oh my, the princess is here again." Lailah apparently noticed them as well and stepped next to Laphicet, her lips curling up further. "She is a frequent visitor. A true shame she lacks the resonance to interact with us."

    "I agree." He could feel the strength of this woman's feelings; they radiated outward, filling any seraph who may be out there with strength. It was still not much of course, being just a single person, but he still took note of it. "She looks like a good person."

    "Oh, she is. Now, Laphicet, what brought you to Ladylake?"

    They turned back to their own conversation at that point and he shrugged lightly. "Well, I'm just traveling to see a bit more of the world. Can you tell me about the city?"

    He opened his eyes wide and stared up at her pleadingly, but need not have bothered. Lailah agreed at once, beaming. "Of course I can!" She almost cooed the words and quickly made to sit on a flight of stairs leading further up from the pedestal, patting the seat next to her. He sat without hesitation and began to listen.

    Laphi learned a great many things about the construction and people of Ladylake in the following hours, but nothing immediately important. He only saw his sister again at the inn, but knew one matter that needed to be discussed immediately: "That woman you talked to back at the cathedral, do you remember her? Did you feel it?"

    "Who, Alisha? And feel what... wait." Velvet's eyes narrowed at her brother, who appeared more serious than usual. "You felt it, too?" He nodded. "And you know what it was?"

    She still remembered that weird sensation, as if something was pulling at her gut, squeezing it. Not strong enough to actually make it lurch, but enough to be uncomfortable. Laphi nodded again, offering but two words: "She's receptive."

    Those were all it took for Velvet to understand. She leaned back on her bed with a frown and pondered that encounter. "But, how?" she found herself asking. "Why her? She didn't strike me as someone who'd have Malevolence that strong. There wasn't even any around her."

    "Neither did I," her brother added. "Either it wasn't something that immediately draws Malevolence, or her will is strong enough to prevent it from forming at all. I think it's the latter, but I was distracted, so I couldn't get a good feeling for it."

    They held each other's gazes and Velvet tilted her head slightly. "How can I tell which of the eight it is?"

    "Describe it to me. How did it feel when she was close?" So she did, as best as she could describe that gut-clenching, cold sensation. Laphi's expression fell further and he let out a deep sigh once Velvet was finished. "Her will is strong. I'm certain that this is despair. She could turn any day if something pushes her over the edge."

    Despair.

    Velvet's thoughts drew back into the past. A despair so strong that it would ping their senses as pure enough would have to be cultivated over years. Despair like that of Artorius himself, who lost the people he loved the most one by one, a man beaten down by life. A saviour who, in the end, lost his faith in those he was meant to save. In retrospect, Velvet felt sorry for Alisha. She could not tell how her life was so harsh as to produce such feelings in her, but that really did not matter. If Velvet had a chance to do so, she would spend some more time with her; that was the least she could do.

    "But that brings us to another question," Laphi continued when the silence became uncomfortable. "What do we do about therions? Alisha is receptive, so you could turn her into one tonight. But will you? Do we want therions at all?"

    Velvet gave him a sharp look and shook her head. "I won't just turn random people and critters into therions, just because they have the qualities for it. If at all, there will be therions when there is a need for them." She was not challenged on her decision; either because Laphi agreed, or because he knew she would not budge.

    They spent a few more days in Ladylake afterward; Laphi talked to the local seraphim and did some more recruitment for the Bloodwings, Velvet mainly fished for information as she explored the city. During that time, she came by some rumours that the mountain range two days out from the capital held a hidden village of seraphim somewhere far up, with ancient ruins running through most of the mountainside closest to Ladylake.

    Laphi also went back to talk to Lailah some more, which brought him some teasing from Velvet that he shrugged off this time; the lady seraph appeared happy to have an attentive boy listening to her. She explained many curious things to him, so Velvet left the matter alone.

    During one of her strolls however, she found a familiar shade of blonde in front of her; right below was a familiar shade of red, with the crest of Hyland on her back no less. And, of course, the strong ping of gut-clenching despair. She could not help but smile at her good fortune and sped up a little. "Alisha!"

    Her call was heeded and the other woman turned around curiously, then brightened at seeing her. "Ah, Velvet! A pleasure to see you this fine day, how have you been?"

    Velvet stopped in front of Alisha and returned her smile. "Just fine, good to see you, too. Do you have time?"

    "Well, not at the moment, I was about to patrol the cliffside path. Perhaps later today?" Alisha fidgeted a little, though she mainly appeared sad about having to turn her down immediately.

    Velvet just shrugged and patted the sword at her hip. "I can walk with you if you're on foot."

    "Oh, I could not possibly ask this of you-" "It's fine."

    Alisha stopped at being interrupted and Velvet threw her a grin. "It's fine. I can handle myself well enough, and I am curious enough to spend a few hours on this. Lead the way."

    She received a long, confused look before Alisha nodded and turned to walk; Velvet fell into step by her side. With Laphi once again off to talk to Lailah, she had time. Alisha sighed softly. "I normally prefer not to draw civilians into the matters of knights, traveler or not." She hesitated and cast a sideway glance her way. "Although I believe I can make an exception today, as it is but a routine patrol."

    Velvet made an agreeing sound, then peered at the shorter woman. "A little odd that they have a princess run around like that."

    "Yes, well, my teacher taught me not to turn my nose up at menial tasks, or at those who fulfill them. I am a knight and so I will do my fair share of the less, let us say, interesting work." Alisha gave her a serious look then and Velvet began to understand where the peoples' respect came from. She left it at that and changed the subject.

    "Your teacher?"

    "Oh, yes! Ah, one moment." A minute or two passed as Alisha spoke to one of the guards at the main bridge, then they were outside and walking through the crisp winter air. The princess wore a softer smile now, eyes on Velvet. "I was tutored by Lady Maltran for many years. She hammered discipline and chivalry into me."

    That made sense, considering the spear her companion carried. Velvet nodded, then motioned for the cliffside. "I met her the day I arrived, we talked for a bit." She got a curious look from Alisha at that. "From what I saw, she would get along well with my own teacher."

    "Oh, is that so?"

    "Yes. He was an incredible swordsman. Easily the best I have ever seen." She left it at that and Alisha, after seeing the wistful look on her face, left it alone. Velvet wondered when she started missing Arthur.

    Silence descended on them like a blanket, both women marching along the snow-covered road. Alisha's thoughts remained hidden while Velvet took deep breaths of the crisp air, wondering how to keep the conversation going; it was difficult to do this without hinting at knowing more than she should.

    "It is quite odd," Alisha finally piped up after a while. Her eyes had wandered from the road to the ice below. "Lake Perniya looks completely different this time of year." She kept walking a few steps before realising that her companion had stopped. "Velvet?"

    The taller woman's gaze alternated between Alisha and the lake, eyes wide. "This is Lake Perniya?" She could not help but ask, knowing she had to make sure. It had not even occurred to her to check the maps.

    "Well, yes. Is something the matter?" Alisha was obviously confused by Velvet's astonishment.

    She considered to tell her for one insane moment. To just blurt it all out. But she did not. "No, it's just...." She did not finish the sentence. Alisha did not ask. At this point, Velvet wondered if this was actual consideration or the despair stopping her from pushing at least a little bit. At the same time however, her mind became occupied with the implications of this find and the thought fell away.

    Even though she had a nice chat with Alisha after that, Velvet remained distracted. She immediately returned back to the inn after saying goodbye to the young knight, bringing out their maps and trying to angle them in a way which fit. When Laphi returned a little while later, she told him as well: "This here is Lake Perniya. Which means this area used to be Eastgand."

    He caught her meaning immediately and leaned over her shoulder to study the maps. Together, they figured out how the various pieces of the archipelago had been fused together to form Glenwood. Despite Pendrago and Lohgrin, despite having been confronted with the remnants of the past before, they both felt oddly somber when everything was arrayed.

    "Looking at this," Laphi mused, "Aball would be up to the north. And with this having been Eastgand and this over there Midgand, the Empyrean's Throne shouldn't be too far from here. Maybe just past the mountains."

    Neither of them paid much thought to that, though; Aball was on Velvet's mind and on Laphi's as well. She held his gaze, finger running up north on the map. "We're leaving tomorrow." Where to, she did not need to say. Laphi nodded. The two Crowes prepared over night and split up once more in the morning. Laphi went to say goodbye to Lailah, Velvet headed out to do one last shopping run.

    On the way back however, she ran into Alisha, who had been strolling in the opposite direction near the inn Velvet stayed at. The princess greeted her with a smile. "Oh, hello, Velvet. How are you this morning?"

    They exchanged a few pleasantries and Velvet felt a little bad at what she had to do. Once they were standing a bit to the side to talk, she broke the news: "I'll be heading out in an hour or two. It's time for me to move on."

    Had she not known what hid beneath Alisha's heart-shaped face, the way her smile dimmed would have just appeared as disappointment. At the same time however, Velvet's gut lurched as the despair within the other woman roiled. Nothing could be seen on the outside. "Oh. I, I see. I should have expected it, you do not seem like a woman who stays anywhere for long." Now she felt outright awful, but Velvet just could not go out of her way for others at the moment; at least not much.

    What she could do was to put a hand on Alisha's shoulder and give it a squeeze. "No need to be sad," she told the princess with a gentle smile. "I'm not going to die anytime soon, so we will meet again sooner or later."

    Astonished green met kind amber, then the feelings in her gut settled a little as Alisha brightened once more. "Yes, that is true." It would not chase away her despair, but at least calm it somewhat. Then however, Alisha's brow furrowed and she clasped Velvet's hand with her own. "If it is alright, may I escort you some way out? I have no active duty today, so I can do at least that much for you." If she noticed Velvet's surprise, she did not say anything as she waited for a response.

    In the end, she could only smile. "Sure. I'd love to have you."
     
    wolfFry1132, Menosay, tnt and 4 others like this.
  27. Threadmarks: 1.15 Origin
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    "Are you certain you will be fine without a horse? There are few villages up north." This was the third time Alisha brought it up; Velvet's slightly annoyed look made the princess wilt. "Apologies, I am merely worried."

    And gone was the annoyance; Velvet sighed, unable to stop herself from smiling. "It's kind of you to worry about someone you barely know, but you don't need to. I won't die easily and I have enough provisions for the trip. A horse would be an extra mouth to feed, another life to take care of beside my own. The increased speed doesn't make up for that." Not to mention that she was faster than any horse, anyway.

    Unaware of that final thought, Alisha nodded softly. "I, I guess that makes sense," she murmured. "I did not consider it from this angle." Falling silent, she simply continued to walk next to Velvet as she had for the last few hours. Not a single complaint was uttered even though one could tell Alisha was sweating from the march; plumes of mist spread whenever either of them breathed, the only visible change in their surroundings. It was calm, the air a soggy kind of cold that Velvet knew would have crept into her bones, were she still human.

    Realising that this had gone long enough and considering the sun's position, she stopped with a small frown. "Let's take a break and then part ways, I don't want you to trek back at night."

    Alisha first opened her mouth as if to protest, but then she, too, recognised how far the day already progressed. "Oh my, have we been walking this long? I hardly noticed."

    "Those logs over there look alright," Velvet mused in response and walked over to wipe some snow away. A few trees stood next to where the one she chose had fallen, but otherwise they were surrounded by plains wearing white blankets. Equally bright clouds covered most of the sky, tinged orange by the sun behind them. Laphi then deigned to manifest, having dwelled within her so far. She threw him a look as she sat, wordlessly motioning for Alisha to do the same.

    The princess hesitated for a moment, fidgeting. "Well, I will be along in a moment. If you would excuse me?"

    It took a second for Velvet to understand, but then she nodded. Once her companion was out of sight over a small hill, she nudged Laphi. "Once she gets back, I want you to cast some artes to warm this place up. She'll catch a cold otherwise with how much she's sweating." The roll of his eyes, she returned in kind. "I'll just say a seraph must have blessed us or something. You know she'll believe it."

    "You're too nice, sister." Despite that comment, he lowered his gaze momentarily to mull it over. "But I can do that much just fine. Are you sure you don't want to recruit her? She might make for a powerful ally."

    Velvet could only huff at Laphi. "A woman as righteous and self-sacrificing as Eleanor ever was, in the Bloodwings?"

    "Okay, yeah, bad idea." He then tilted his head and grinned up at her. "You just want a normal friend, don't you?"

    "Heh, perhaps a little bit." She could not say for sure if he was right, but Alisha was pleasant to be around if nothing else.

    They were soon alerted by the crunching of snow and a more relaxed looking princess returning to them. Alisha took a seat next to Velvet, which was when Laphi began setting up artes merely to generate heat. Velvet handed her companion some jerky and one of the apples she kept in storage. "My, this one wasn't dried." Ever perceptive, Alisha eyed the fruit curiously and mused out loud between bites of meat. "It is rare to see apples this far into Winter, especially looking like they were just plucked off a tree."

    When her eyes went to Velvet, the former therion just grinned slily and put a finger in front of her lips. "Trade secret." The comment earned her a faint chuckle, but Alisha left it at that and accepted her offering without complaint. She made appreciative noises after biting into the apple, finding it sweet and juicy. Soon after, she also noticed how it was getting warmer around them. As expected, she believed the 'errant' idea of a seraph having blessed them easily enough, offering prayer after Velvet urged her to take off her armour and warm up while she could. They stayed like this for half an hour, neither talking but not feeling any need for such, either.

    Once it was time to say goodbye, the heat fading and the sun leaving its apex, Alisha took Velvet's hand with a brittle smile. "I do believe I need to turn back now, too. Yet I meant what I said, Velvet: please, do stay safe. I would love to meet you again at some point in the future."

    "Promise. We'll meet again." Then, surprising Alisha and even herself a little, Velvet freed her hand, leaned forward, and drew the other woman into a hug. Alisha hesitated for a moment, but then gingerly wrapped her arms around Velvet, who squeezed back. "So don't you get yourself in trouble while I'm gone."

    The response was little more than a soft mumbling: "I will try."

    They separated a short while later and parted ways, with Velvet feeling a little better about everything. Laphi set up a teleportation arte and the two siblings took off for Aball, or what was left of it.

    The next few days passed in a blur.

    Velvet felt it first, but her brother soon held feelings similar to her own. They had already appeared when the siblings realised where they were, but every passing day only made them grow.

    They hardly spoke, they did not rest. They only stopped once to kill and eat a dragon. Neither of them cared for the cold winds, or fog, or the infrequent snowfall. Had any living soul seen them run or fly through the countryside, none would have believed their tale of a woman running as fast as the wind. Both of them had but a single thought; to find what became of their home, what might have been built in its stead after so much time. To see once more the place where brother and sister both cast away their humanity, on the same night no less.

    They reminisced in these blurry days, thinking back to those early years; when it was merely the two of them and Arthur, a small family despite everything. Laphicet thought back to the many stories his brother's malak, Seres told him whenever Velvet had to spend the day out hunting or foraging. Velvet, meanwhile, once again missed her big sister and brother-in-law, thinking back to the days her little brother could not even remember. She might have hated Artorius Collbrande more than anyone, but she also loved him dearly. She still did, where her rage had been tempered instead.

    Their first find after days of ceaseless travel was a somber one; of the Morgana Woods and their blood red leaves, there was no trace. They would have seen them even in Winter, for those trees were hardy enough to keep their leaves deep into the cold season. But there was no such thing. Not even a forest at all, or a mountain for the path along Lake Perniya to snuggle against. Just plains and woods. And yet they both felt the earthpulse running beneath. Could tell that it had not changed its shape in the last thousand years.

    Even at their incredible speed, it took an entire week to reach the very tip of the land as they followed that earthpulse. They met no other travelers, having long left any roads and staying far distant from any of the handful of villages up north as they carved their path through the land.

    The realisation had begun on their approach, but it only truly settled in when they slowed and came to stand atop a cliff. The earthpulse ran along beneath where the land itself broke off, ending in a steep fall and then the sea. The sea, as far as the eye could reach.

    The earthpulse point lay hundreds of metres ahead of them, below the ocean where it was once beneath a temple at the cliffside. Aball, the Tranquil Woods, even that temple Innominat had then been sleeping in, it all fell into the sea when the land shifted.

    Brother and sister stared out into the distance quietly, hand in hand. A strong breeze ruffled their clothes and hair, bringing with it the scent of salt. Amber eyes simply rested on the waves, unblinking for a time neither of them could quantify.

    The silence that had last so long was finally broken when Laphicet turned away, facing his sister. "I don't like this feeling," he muttered weakly. "Why is my chest so heavy?"

    His eyes were glittering and so were Velvet's, who slowly met his gaze. "I don't like it either, but we can't...."

    She trailed off as memories assaulted her from within the depths of her heart, the same as what happened to her brother. Memories of kinder times, of many days spend together and apart; reading books, animatedly talking over dinner, sleeping in the same bed, fooling around with Niko, and so much more.

    Velvet broke first, pulling Laphi forward and into a tight hug. A choking sob made its way out of her throat and tears followed soon after; then Laphicet squeezed her more tightly still and began to wail into her chest. She could not stop crying even while stroking her brother's back, knowing what she now knew. What could never be regained.

    Aball was gone, so many memories buried under time and water. The only real home they ever had, forever lost.

    They had known it before, of course, but seeing what happened to their birthplace drove the point into their hearts like a burning stake. They held onto each other for dear life, forgetting the world in their desire for comfort, for familiarity, for something that would remain.

    Time passed as they cried themselves hoarse. At some point, they fell quiet and separated, sitting down at the cliff with their legs dangling over its edge. Laphicet leaned against his sister, eyes puffy red like her own; they stared out at the sea once more. Their tears had dried, but they still felt this emptiness within them, a deep sense of loss. "I never really processed that it's all gone," Laphi told Velvet quietly, unable to bring up the energy for a normal volume. She did not respond, but they both knew she felt the same. A moment passed, then the boy turned to look up at her. "But that doesn't mean we will stop, right?"

    Velvet's head turned slowly, her expression as lost as his own. During that motion however, it hardened somewhat. "No," she reassured her brother. "We won't stop. Our home is no more, but we can build a new one for ourselves." She believed it, too; they still had each other and a whole world to live in.

    "It's sad that we can't use Aball's old position as a base," Laphicet mused, the heavy feelings slowly receding from his heart. He still felt exhausted, but the thought simply wanted to be shared. "Digging below the sea would take too long. The symbolism would have been nice, though."

    Velvet made a noncommittal sound and absently pulled him against her side. "You're not wrong," she allowed. "But it's probably better this way; all of these memories can be put to rest properly instead of being dragged back up." She sighed heavily even while her brother nestled into her side. "There have been enough tragedies in this area. I don't want to put any more on them."

    He did not respond to that, merely accepted her reasons.

    They spent a few days scouring the countryside for anything which might be of use, more out of habit than desire. Brother and sister felt too empty to just head back and do anything else but menial, thoughtless tasks. Slowly, the heaviness receded and left them with a sense of melancholy. By the end of their stay, both siblings felt lighter than they had before; they found closure.

    Laphicet set up another teleportation arte to take them back, but which would remain. In his words, the area was still beautiful; they might want to return one day, if just to look out at the sea again. As he opened the gate so they could leave however, he turned back to his sister. "Once all this is over with and we both begin to act as proper Empyreans, however many centuries that takes, we should build a temple out here."

    Velvet remained silent as she mulled it over, but ultimately agreed; it felt somehow right to create a temple here of all places. Where it all began.

    They left in a still somber mood, needing no words to declare where their destination was; it was time to return to Lastonbell.
     
  28. Threadmarks: 1.16 Home
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    It had already been getting dark when Velvet and Laphicet left northern Hyland, but the sun was still up in Rolance. The cold remained however, seeing how the path to Lastonbell and the city itself were covered in snow. Children played in the streets Velvet traversed, the sight slowly driving away her lingering melancholy. She could not really keep brooding when life continued to flourish around her like that. It was loud and full of people, the same as every other city during the day. Few, if any, would even know that something had changed or was taken away in distant lands.

    Some of the locals recognised her soon enough and she exchanged greetings with some housewives and even a few guardsmen walking past. She returned the waves of children when they passed by her, but made for the marketplace instead of her actual destination. Someone would carry the news to Margaret and give the girl some advance warning of her return. Laphi wandered off to talk to the other seraphim nearby.

    Unfortunately, Velvet's plan did not work out as intended; she did manage to sell the few things she prepared since leaving Ladylake, but ran right into Margaret when she left the store. Both of them stared at each other for a moment, the older one taking note of the wicker basket and coin purse the younger one carried. Velvet stepped past Margaret and held the door open wordlessly, then waited outside while the local girl made her purchases. When she emerged a few minutes later, basket filled and purse lighter, they stared at each other for a moment longer. The girl's face was calm, but Velvet did not miss the tensing in her body. She offered a weak smile to Margaret then. "I'm back."

    Some part of her still worried about their proposal being rejected, but she shut it up; there was nothing they could do about it now, only accept whatever happened. Margaret had begun to relax at this point, gaze averted. "You were gone for a while." Her words were almost inaudible under the constant thrum of conversation, but the arms she wrapped around Velvet's waist a moment later made her feelings clear. "I was worried about you."

    It was only the third time they had actually shared an embrace. Velvet stood stiffly for a moment before leaning down and hugging her back. "You know I'm tough. You don't need to worry about me, but I appreciate it."

    The bell rung in the background, reminding them of the world. Their arms loosened and both of them let go, then Velvet took in her student critically. "I can tell you kept up your training."

    For Margaret's muscles were more defined now and she held herself upright and straight, with confidence she simply lacked when they began; outside of that however, she had also gained some more height since the last time Velvet saw her. The girl herself nodded with a grin, one hand at her hip where she could readily draw her sword if need be. "I did! Every day, just like you told me to. The cold is actually kinda nice to wake me up in the morning."

    She received an approving nod, though Velvet decided against testing her immediately; this could wait. Instead she motioned toward the direction Randgriz Inn lay, prompting Margaret to start walking back home. She tensed up a little when the taller woman fell into step with her, though. "We shouldn't have too much to do right now, so we can probably get Mom away and have that talk."

    Velvet cast a careful glance at their surroundings before turning back to her student; she doubted that anyone would listen in on them. "So you decided?"

    "Yeah." The tension faded as Margaret took a deep breath, then smiled up at her. "I trust you both. Mom does too, in a way. She was just really worried and unsure, but I convinced her." A weight dropped from Velvet's chest while the young blonde grinned up at her. "I was always good at being reasonable while arguing, but I never thought I'd have to haggle with my mom of all people."

    Now with an easier smile, Velvet huffed and ruffled her hair, to an indignant squawk which she ignored. "Good job. I just need to, ah, there he is." She left Margaret's side for a moment while the girl righted her hair, moving as if she was looking over a stall's contents but actually taking Laphi's hand and pulling him along. Her brother quickly said goodbye and followed back to Margaret, who eyed them with an easier smile.

    Upon reaching the inn, Margaret guided both Crowes up to the family's private living room and sat them down; it was the same table they initially discussed the matter at. Then she flew back down the stairs to fetch her mother from the kitchen. Neither sibling spoke as they waited; Velvet found herself almost completely relaxed by now. Laphi, who did not know it yet, remained somewhat tense.

    The Randgriz women returned a few minutes later. Margaret's expression had turned into a mask of calm while Cynthia greeted them with a nervous smile; the two humans settled down while Laphi projected his domain. There was no big leadup, Cynthia simply eyed Velvet and then her brother for a moment before sighing. "We talked it over for a while, and we're both willing to work with you."

    Laphi relaxed while Velvet allowed herself a smile, the last bits of anxiety fading away. "Glad to hear it," she told the older woman. "Then we should start talking about the details now. There's a few things we have to prepare and plan out."

    Cynthia nodded slowly; she did not try to make any conditions beyond what Velvet already laid out months before, which the older Crowe appreciated. Laphi took over from there and motioned for their surroundings. "We want to build an attraction based around seraphim, so I will be the key piece in any such plan. My domain can do it easily, but I don't really like the idea of being bound here all the time. So I will see about putting something together to project it here while I'm away; with some luck, it's ready by the time everything else is." He then gave them all a sly grin. "I actually tested a few things in that direction over the last month, they just need some more work."

    That explained what he was doing with his domain those days. Velvet gave her brother a nod before bringing up another point: "We'll need to expand, too."
    Now she had Cynthia's and Margaret's attention again. The mother made to speak but stopped thoughtfully, which allowed the daughter to do it instead: "Why is that?"

    "The obvious answer is that we need space," Velvet returned with a faint smile over Margaret's immediate pout. "I thought it over before, but this place is mostly an inn with a small tavern attached to earn some extra money. If we want to create something big in the way we're thinking of, we need to expand the tavern part."

    Laphi made a thoughtful noise at that and considered the women he shared the table with. "We could split it up," he offered as a solution. "Separate inn and tavern a little, then have the inn portion under Cynthia, and us in charge of the tavern."

    He received nods from both of them and Cynthia lowered her head in thought. "Well, it's not like I mind that much. It might actually be for the best; we ran ourselves ragged to keep everything running ever since my husband died." There was nothing any of them could say to that; Margaret averted her gaze. Velvet tried hard not to sigh; she had figured something like this.

    "My condolences. I'm fine with this, too. We will do it this way... but let's talk about how the earnings are distributed later."

    A faint nod came from the older woman, who then sighed. "Unfortunately, I don't have the money to expand the place outward, so you will have to break down some of the inn to make room for the tavern. Will this really be fine?"

    Laphi chuckled quietly, which drew her attention first. Then Velvet huffed and reached into her backpack. "Just give me a moment," she told the confused pair before reaching deeper inside. "Where did I... okay, I have to go inside. Laphi, where did you put our funds?" Now he was laughing at her instead of the situation. Velvet sighed and pulled out the few other things she kept on the outside of their storage. "One moment."

    Then she hopped into storage, head-first so she could make a quick roll on the inside. It was still mostly empty, but a few of the pockets were starting to fill up. Velvet still had to run around, seeing how the money she was looking for was not where she thought it was. By herself, she figured they really needed to install a safe or something similar. A ripple went through the arte's walls while she rooted through a small pile of neatly sorted, floating clothes; turning her head back, Velvet found Cynthia and Margaret stumbling into the storage, gaping at its. Laphi followed a moment later and waved at her, but Velvet just sighed and got back to searching. When the others approached her, she threw a glare at her brother. "There is a reason we divided who takes care of what and where, you brat! Did you hide it on purpose to mess with me?"

    "Uh... whoops? I think I did a count and then forgot to put it all back, or something like that. Sorry?" He did not sound apologetic. Velvet crossed her arms and stared down at him until he caved and quickly darted into another pocket she had not yet examined.

    Cynthia, meanwhile, took Velvet's arm. She was shaking a little. "This is, Velvet, what is this?! How does it work?"

    She barely stopped herself from babbling and Margaret fared little better. Both looked to her for answers, but Velvet could only shrug. "Storage. Don't ask me how it works, it's all Laphi's doing. And, uh, please keep this one to yourself; it's supposed to be an old and lost arte."

    Cynthia slumped a little while her daughter already began to analyse their surroundings critically. "Couldn't we use this to make the tavern bigger?" she asked after a moment

    Velvet eyed her and then the arte thoughtfully, but shook her head. Laphi returned with two sizable sacks at that point, but stopped to listen when she spoke: "As I said, it's supposed to be a lost arte. If we displayed it freely or advertised with it, that would get us too much attention from the people we're hunting. This will have to be done the old-fashioned way. Come now, back to the table; Laphi can give you the tour and explanations later." She then proceeded to usher everyone back out, knowing that their new business partners would likely take her up on asking her brother a thousand questions.

    Back outside, Laphi placed both sacks onto the table with audible clinking noises. Velvet glanced at him and he smiled. "From my last count, we have half a million Gald at hand."

    Two pairs of wide eyes fell on the money set up. Velvet whistled. "Surprising that it's so much already. I didn't really keep count."

    Laphi just shrugged. "You can earn a pretty penny if you're willing to brave danger." He thankfully omitted the once-human hellions whose pockets they went through. "But almost half of that was actually a donation from our friend in Pendrago, both to aid our cause and because I brought her news of her sisters."

    "You, you earned that much in half a year? While maintaining your clothes and weapon, and with lodging and food?" Margaret just stared at her in amazement and Velvet felt herself fidget a little under the unbridled admiration.

    She got a smile from Laphi as well. "We're used to living frugally," he told the other two. "Velvet is amazing at getting as much as possible out of every Gald she spends. And, well, we have superhuman strength and speed, among other things." He then clapped his hands. "Anyway, we should have the money to buy the buildings next to this one. Our next problem is the, well, building." He paused for a moment over the awkward phrasing, but got back to it immediately: "Which, this I can tell you, will not be a problem at all. We have a few capable earth seraphim among our recruits."

    "Um." Cynthia glanced between them. "How does that help with construction?" Margaret appeared just as lost as her mother, which reminded Velvet just how little ordinary people actually knew of the world hidden to them.

    She smiled at the two and folded her hands in her lap as she explained: "Seraphic artes are incredibly potent when used the right way. Have you ever seen the shrinechurch in Pendrago?" Margaret shook her head, but Cynthia nodded. Velvet's smile diminished a little as she thought back to the place she had in mind. "The shrinechurch was built over centuries, purely by human hands. But long ago, generous use of seraphic artes allowed people to build a temple several times as big in less than three years."

    "Wow." Margaret appeared to try imagining it while Cynthia seemed dazed. The younger of the two then gave Velvet puppy dog eyes that failed to work anywhere near as well as Laphi's. "Can you take me there? Can we go see it?"

    "Heh, maybe one day. The Empyrean's Throne is in enemy hands at the moment."

    "Oh...."

    "That aside," Laphi ended the little tangent and drew the others out of their thoughts, "we also need a new name. We can hardly keep calling the tavern Randgriz Inn when that part is more or less separated." Velvet nodded and, after a moment, Cynthia did, too.

    They all considered this for a few seconds, though no good name presented itself at first glance without being too obvious about what they were hiding. Velvet had never been good with names. Then however, a giggle distracted her. Margaret was trying hard not to laugh, hands pressed to her mouth and sparkling eyes alternating between them. When she found herself having everyone's attention, she giggled again and blurted it out: "How about 'Crowe's Nest'?"

    A beat.

    Velvet's lips curled up into a grin while her brother groaned softly; Cynthia chuckled as well. "It sounds apt enough and its clever," she commented, to a nod from Velvet. "But it could be a bit misleading, couldn't it? It sounds more like an inn than a tavern."

    Margaret mulled it over for a moment. "We have both anyway," she told her mother with a shrug. "So it should be fine even if the name is a bit misleading; we can just put up both signs next to each other." Then the girl grinned slyly. "And now that I think about it, it has this nice double-meaning nobody will guess because this is supposed to be the Bloodwing's main base."

    That reminded Velvet that they had to show them to Innominat someday; they never mentioned anything about their 'hidden' base so far. It would have to wait, though; at least one of them would faint from all the new things if they did it right now.

    "I like it," she finally declared before winking at her brother. "And you are overruled unless you have an actual complaint."

    Laphi just shook his head. "I don't, as long as you don't start stealing clothes to make an actual nest."

    Velvet had to roll her eyes at that while Cynthia chuckled at them. The older woman leaned back a little, far more relaxed than she had been earlier. "I'm starting to believe that this was the right thing to do," she admitted softly. "Now, how about we have a toast to this new partnership? No, I insist we have one!"

    She was already up and out of the room before Velvet even considered complaining. Margaret leaned back a little, smiling happily. No one spoke until Cynthia returned, carrying a tray with four glasses, a carafe of freshly pressed orange juice, and a bottle of wine. Velvet, noticing that there were two of the bigger glasses, turned her gaze to Cynthia. "I don't think I'm old enough to drink yet."

    The other woman peered at her dumbfounded. "Really? How old are you?"

    "Nineteen."

    "More like twenty," Laphi commented from the side; he was right, too. Quite some time passed since she was nineteen. Velvet nodded at him to agree with his point.

    Strangely though, this earned them befuddlement. Margaret eyed them with not just visible but obvious confusion. "But, the drinking age is nineteen. And I think I heard some merchant say it's eighteen in Hyland." Now she had them both stumped. Things had changed where she did not expect them to.

    "Huh." Velvet peered at the bottle again before deciding it did not really matter. "Alright then, my mistake." The confusion did not last long as drinks were distributed and soon, all four of them clinked their glasses together. It was oddly peaceful to do so, exchanging smiles with what were actual business partners. Much had changed indeed, with Velvet herself as well as with the world. She did not dislike it.

    Similar could be said of the wine she sipped; it had no taste, but a velvety texture as it ran down her throat. A faint trail of warmth remained in its wake. Velvet did not say anything about her lack of taste to keep the mood up. Looking around at everything around her and the possibilities of the near future, she began to truly believe her own words. It would take a while, but they had time; time to act, time to work. And in this time, she and Laphi would build a new home for themselves. Together.
     
    Euroteres, wolfFry1132, S_K and 5 others like this.
  29. Threadmarks: 1.17 Setting Up
    Naron

    Naron Not too sore, are you?

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    Sometimes, Zaveid felt odd entering a city. Maybe that was because he forewent the gate in favour of leaping onto one of the guard towers flanking it, but then again, he rather felt he did not like cities much. From his perch, he took a moment to study Lastonbell; not much had changed, even though everything had. He still saw the old Stonebury before his mind's eye, a frontier village of just a few dozen people living in a handful of buildings around the fields. One could have put five or more Stoneburys into a single district of what he beheld. Perhaps this was what human elders meant when they said they were getting old.

    Zaveid shook off those thoughts and soared into the streets below, light as a breeze for the moment; some passersby shuddered or huddled deeper into their coats. Spring may be close, but it remained cold outside. Zaveid, hardened by many years spent in the wilderness, barely even noticed.

    He spent over a week with Aifread and his gang before parting ways with them, now he was here, having decided it was about time he showed his face after agreeing to assist the Bloodwings. Three months passed since he last saw Velvet and Laphicet.

    Wandering the streets, Zaveid could not help but muse; it had been a weird last year. The original Calamity returned from beyond, more or less, and brought along a god he used to hate but who turned out to be a decent guy while not on a worldending bender. That was as far from normal as he could imagine it to be, but then again, times seemed to be odd in general.

    The siblings had not given him a place to go to beside Lastonbell itself, so he considered asking one of the local seraphim; he would have done it too, but his stroll carried him past a pair of housewives gossipping. Which was almost as useful as asking someone, really.

    "Did you go yet?"

    "I did, just yesterday."

    "And? Is it true? Can you really speak to the seraphim there?"

    "It is! I had a long talk with this sweet older lady who lives around here, not that we could see her normally."

    "Really? It's so hard to believe, even with so many people swearing on it. How can you tell she was a seraph?"

    "Oh, you won't believe it! She showed me this beautiful spell where she formed a flower out of ice without even touching it!"

    "I'm so jealous! I really need to find the time to go, too!"

    He tuned them out at that point and began listening to other gossip, having less of a hunch and more of a certainty. Of course those two would think of turning a god's power into a business model. He would have laughed at anyone else suggesting something that brazen, but hey, they were the actual gods, so more power to them. Or not.

    Some more careful listening told Zaveid that the Crowe's Nest, and whoever thought of that pun deserved both a medal and a whack on the head, had appeared by and fused with Randgriz Inn, subsuming the neighbouring buildings. It showed up almost over night, the other buildings torn down and replaced in a matter of a week where it normally took months at best to construct something that big. So yes, he had a winner. Finding the place was even easier with how people kept pointing toward it while discussing. A throng of people moved that way, too; it made sense, what with sunset approaching. People were in need of a good rink, a sentiment Zaveid could empathise with.

    He found the tavern after a leisurely stroll, whistling at how it dominated its entire street; at least an entire storey taller than the surrounding buildings, a large sign hung from the front proudly proclaimed the Crowe's Nest. Someone painted an actual bird's nest below the name and artfully placed black feathers in the background. The building itself was pristine where most of the neighbourhood had at least some damages or signs of age. Zaveid could tell that it was drawn from the ground by earth seraphim, formed and put into shape; the earth was then baked and partly molten by fire seraphim before being left to cool, improving stability; the result was then polished by the gales of wind seraphim and everything cleaned thoroughly by water seraphim. Perhaps some of the artes had been cast by some not native to the element, but he doubted that it mattered.

    Either way, the result was nothing to scoff at. Smooth, dark grey stonework created an imposing front before turning into dark red wood around the entrance, with a door in the same colour and the sign hanging just above. Windows of polished glass looked out onto the street, revealing a vast taproom filled with people talking animatedly or toasting each other. He could not even distinguish seraphim from humans at this distance, the great amounts of mana pinging his senses of the building in general, to the point he could hardly feel Innominat's domain. Had he not known it was there, he would have missed it entirely.

    Shaking off his amazement over the cozy atmosphere, Zaveid strolled forward. At the same time, someone else did similarly after having admired the building some ways away; a stern-looking man, his face all hard lines amd short if messy brown hair. He was decked out in plate armour with Rolance-red plating down its center, sword strapped to his hip and a red cape cut like wings fluttering behind his back; if that was not enough to declare him a commander, the steel wing welded to his pauldron was. Zaveid felt like he saw him before, most likely on one of his previous visits.

    A moment before they reached the door, the knight turned his head in surprise and stepped aside; their shoulders had almost touched. "Oh, pardon, I did not see you there, sir," he apologised politely, the behaviour at odds with his hardass look.

    Zaveid just shrugged at him and grabbed for the doorhandle. "It's fine, pal. Not like you could've." He then pushed it open and swaggered into the sudden noise of chatter and smell of food and drink. The door he left open for the knight that followed after him.

    Just as it appeared from the outside, this place was full of life and held an upbeat mood; he could not count how many people there were. A barmaid walked past and drew his eye, the woman now obviously a seraph to his senses from up close; he had her eye as well, for a moment. Zaveid winked at her and took note of a few other heads being turned his way as well; most of them likely human that were just idly curious instead of checking him out. Some of the younger women were doing that as well, though.

    As he walked to the bar he spied, he began to take notice of some people who chatted openly with the seraphim seated at their tables; most, however, needed prompting and appeared more shy or overly respectful. That was when he realised the other purpose this place had: exposure. By letting people freely interact with seraphim, they slowly lost their nurtured reverence and treated them more like the people they were instead of minor gods. Clever. Almost every member of the waiting staff, male or female, was a seraph.

    The clattering of armour and a short burst of his winds told him that the knight captain had the same destination as himself, though he seemed to walk a little slower than Zaveid did to take in the ambience. Getting closer to the bar, Zaveid finally spied the bartender and could not help but grin. "Damn, kid," he greeted before sliding onto a free stool. "You really went all-out on this!"

    Laphicet turned his attention from another patron and offered a friendly smile. "Hello, Zaveid," he greeted. The boy was clad in a fine, black suit with white shirt and even a dark red tie.

    "So, you choose that getup yourself or had Velvet force ya into it?" He quipped in response, receiving no response beyond a sour look, which was enough for Zaveid to chuckle.

    Laphicet's eyes turned a little to the side when the knight climbed onto the stool next to Zaveid's, a stern gaze directed at the boy on the counter's other side. "Are you not a little young to handle alcohol?"

    Zaveid had to smirk at that, even if it was true. He chimed in before Laphicet could: "Can't really tell with us seraphim, pal. I know the kid still looks his age, but he coulda been a thousand years old too." A more curious look now went to him while he scrutinised the boy. "Kinda doubt he'll drink either way, he's a goodie goodie boy who'll do like big sister says."

    Who would have thought that poking fun at a god could be so amusing? Laphicet sighed in defeat. "That last part aside," he spoke up himself, which drew the knight's attention back to him, "I'm just helping out until we found a proper bartender, sir. I learn the fastest out of everyone on staff, so I took the spot for now."

    "I see." The knight bowed his head at Laphicet. "My apologies for the rudeness, kind seraph."

    "It's fine, you were right to ask. Now, what will it be?"

    "Whiskey," Zaveid told him without hesitation. He was never one for fancy mixtures or anything of the like. So he received a bottle and a glass, the latter of which his bartender made a show of creating two ice cubes with an arte for; the man by his side watched the procedure in awe to the point he forgot to think of an order of his own for a time. Zaveid began to fill the glass while casting another glance at the merry people around. This place was basically chock full with them. "Looks like business is booming for ya."

    He was given a cheeky grin. "It is as expected," Laphicet told him, "A conversation with an actual seraph, or even just being able to look at one, is enticing like few other things are." He then sighed. "If only the official documents hadn't taken so long, we could have opened right after we were done building two weeks ago, instead of the day before yesterday." He must have missed something. They could not have taken longer than a week to build this place; since when did paperwork go this fast- ah, Empyreans. Zaveid reminded himself not to question the arcane powers of the gods; at times, of course they could even bend bureaucracy.

    He heard a faint sigh and some inaudible muttering from the knight, who then ordered a beer. "It is still difficult to believe that there are truly seraphim here, right before my very eyes," the man admitted, but paused when Laphicet hovered a filled tankard to him on a gust of air. "How is such a thing possible?"

    One of the other men, an old fellow with curiously well-maintained hair and teeth, raised his own tankard at the knight with a wide grin. "Good question, sir knight; how's it, laddy, you willing to tell us?"

    Zaveid could guess that the casual tone toward a seraph drew that frown out of mister law, so he clapped him on the shoulder with a laugh. "Relax, man. This is a bar and not a fancy ball or something." That narrow-eyed gaze went to him now, to no effect, but then it faded away and any potential crisis was averted.

    The boy smiled for some reason and cast a quick glance around, probably to find if he was needed anywhere; that was more or less unnecessary, seeing how everyone at the bar and even some people at the closer tables were waiting for him to explain. Nodding, he turned back to the knight. "Well, sir, what you have to understand is that every seraph, without exception, possesses a special power called a blessing. Some stand out, some are fairly normal, but they can be almost anything. In addition, there is an innate quality a human needs to possess to perceive seraphim, which we call resonance. It's a part of the soul and immutable by normal means. In this case, well." He made a sweeping motion for the taproom, the people around them listening with rapt attention. "We have a seraph on staff whose blessing boosts the resonance of people around them, for a time. They don't want to be identified, so I can't give you their name, but that's how we made it all work."

    Cheeky. Zaveid threw the boy a knowing grin and leaned back while sipping his drink. Of course he knew all of this already, but all the humans around appeared as if they found enlightenment. He cast a glance to that knight whose sharp features were drawn into a thoughtful frown. "Say, what're you doing here, anyway? Aren't knights in armour on duty?"

    The tankard that was on the way to his mouth stopped and the man blinked down at it. "I am," he admitted after a moment. Then his gaze turned back to Laphicet. "I am Sergei Strelka, captain of the Platinum Knights," he introduced himself. There were some double-takes from around them and Zaveid's initial assumption was thus proven right. "I was in the process of vetting the new businesses in Lastonbell, and to ensure there is no foul play involved here in particular." He cast a glance around before inclining his head. "I now know that there is none, though."

    "Hm. I guess there are quite a few charlatans pretending to see or be seraphim?" Laphicet inquired curiously, to which the knight nodded.

    "Yes, quite." Sergei took a long drag from his tankard after that and set it down with an appreciative nod. "But as I said, this, here, would not be possible to be just some charlatans."

    Zaveid finished off his own glass and began to refill it, a silly grin on his face as he chimed into their conversation: "Best part is always the guys who pull that stunt right next to an actual seraph. Suddenly they keep stumbling or have a small raincloud pouring down on them, that kind of thing."

    He chuckled and some of the people around joined in. Sergei wore a faint smile as well and nodded in agreement. "That is usually how we find such charlatans. It is good to know the seraphim will not stand for such trickery."

    "Now I feel like I missed out," Laphicet told them with a frown. "I have been traveling for months and couldn't do that kind of thing even once." He shook his head sadly before dropping the subject. "But that aside, captain, if you wish, we can show you around the facilities later so you can make sure there is no foul play involved."

    Sergei looked taken aback for a moment, though he caught himself soon. "You are too kind to offer this freely," he replied with a more open smile. "I am glad I do not have to insist against your wishes." Then he frowned for an instant. "Although, are you allowed to offer such things, kind seraph?"

    The boy just smiled back. "It's kind of you to worry, sir, but there is no need. I am Laphicet Crowe, co-owner of this tavern. My sister Velvet is in in charge of acquisition and personnel while I mainly tend to the books and other such matters." He pushed some kind of drink over to another patron as he spoke, but his eyes never really left the knight captain, who stared at him a few moments longer.

    "Ah, I see. My apologies, once again. I had no idea I was talking to one of the owners."

    Zaveid just laughed over the uptight man and rummaged through one of his pouches, then put money on the table, next to his empty bottle. "Here you go, and one more beer for the captain. I'm gonna pay Velvet a visit now." He slid out of his chair while Laphicet pointed down to a door behind the bar with his thumb, the other hand already clearing his spot. Zaveid grinned at him and swaggered off.

    Good thing he kept the money he took off of the hellions he killed. Some may think differently, but he did pay for stuff... most of the time. The few times he did not, the previous owners deserved it for one reason or other.

    Left behind, Sergei's eyes followed the confident seraph until he was through the door. Then they turned back to the young bartender. "Was this really alright?"

    The blond boy huffed at that as he began to wash and then wipe dry the used glass. "He is a good friend, so there is no need to worry." Silence reined after that, for a time. It was not truly quiet with how the chatter from around the room filled their ears, but the handful of people at the bar drank in peace. Sergei, too, enjoyed his beer despite the fact he was on duty; he completely forgot about that the moment he entered this place.

    Their next distraction came in form of a girl, or rather a young woman. What drew his attention was her blonde, almost golden hair as it shone in the warm firelight. What kept it was the sword strapped to her hip. She stood a bit taller than the average woman and wore trousers instead of a skirt or dress, which was just a little unusual. He could not really guess her age; strangely, he felt he saw this girl around town before. He said nothing, merely watched as she tapped the boy seraph's shoulder. "I'm done with my exercises," she then told him. "Anything else you need me for?"

    "Nothing for now, go and enjoy your evening."

    And off she was. Sergei's gaze followed her through the door in the back, a thoughtful frown etched onto his features again. He could not help but ask: "Another young seraph?"

    Laphicet Crowe then turned back to him with a shake of his head, but the elderly man down the bar laughed out loud and spoke first: "Nay, but it makes sense ye're thinking that! That's the innkeeper's daughter, Margaret. Started turning into a fine woman recently, that one. Really dedicated to whatever she's doing." Laphicet nodded along and Sergei mulled it over; so he had seen that girl before.

    Either way, duty called. He emptied his second tankard and was sorely tempted to order a third, but ultimately forced himself to be reasonable. "Would it be possible to have someone show me around then? I will not be long, it is quite clear this is the real deal." Perhaps a few words with Velvet Crowe as well, but he doubted he would find anything suspicious.

    "Of course, just a moment. Bell!" His call drew one of the barmaids from her path around the room and to the bar; she was a pretty, shapely thing clad in a plain, brown dress made to emphasize her curves. "Please show captain Sergei around the facilities. We're an honest establishment, so there is nothing to hide."

    "Sure thing, boss!" The woman sounded bright and Sergei forced his eyes to stop wandering, forced them past the red scarf covering her throat and up to her freckled face; going by the sly grin she threw him, she noticed anyway. "Off we go, captain. This way, please!"

    He was quickly led away and into the backrooms where more people were at work preparing ingredients and supplying the bar. Part of him still wondered whether this was all a dream; this place felt more like a miracle taken form, to allow everyone to partake in communion with the seraphim.

    He would need a while to come to terms with it.

    He would take a long walk to clear his head after this.

    He would definitely come again.

    But for now, he had a duty to fulfill. So Sergei cast all these feelings aside to focus.
     
  30. tnt

    tnt Getting sticky.

    Joined:
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    Still always great to see this update.
     
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