Novel Everyone's a Catgirl!

Discussion in 'Community Fictions' started by DoubleBlind, Sep 28, 2021.

  1. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 36: Cat's Cradle

    The leatherworker finished our armor the morning of the second day, sending an apprentice to get us from the Lucky Star while we were eating breakfast. Beyond my dumb hat, this was the first time we were getting an upgrade in armor, and I had to admit I was excited. I’d always been a sucker for appearance and cosmetic upgrades in games; it’s where a lot of my extra cash flowed after bills. At least this upgrade will do something more than look nice on my phone.

    I held the vest up to my chest and looked at the girls. “So, can I just equip this right here?”

    Ravyn smirked. “Sure, if you want to strip here in the street.”

    “T-that would certainly draw a lot of attention,” Cannoli stammered, staring down at the freshly crafted garment in her hands.

    “I won’t protest,” Keke said.

    “Alright! I get it! Jesus,” I laughed. “Let’s go back to the inn, then.”

    “No fun,” Keke teased.

    Take it off! Take it off! Squaaaawk!” Ball screamed.

    The gazes of two girls passing by lingered on me, sliding the length of my body as if undressing me. They giggled behind their hands once they caught the dark looks from Ravyn and Keke, then hurried away. My ears burned, and I scratched the back of my neck.

    “Yeah. Alright. Inn,” I repeated, leading the way back to the Lucky Star.

    Back in my room, I switched to [Combat Mode] and stripped away the [Warrior] beginning leathers and skins. I’d washed them a dozen times, and the wear and tear was beginning to show, but replacing them felt strange. Like I was ditching a friend.

    Not the time to be sentimental, dude. You need to be sturdier than a wet paper bag.

    The tiger armor fit like a glove. Ravyn wasn’t kidding; the artisan was at the top of her Class. I’d never sewn anything in my life, but I’d had plenty of hand-me-downs that were two sizes too big or small, so wearing something tailored to my size was a nice change of pace.

    Though this bare stomach thing is… something.

    The orange and black-striped tiger skins had been turned into a thick cropped top with short sleeves and lined with white fur. There was a tight black shirt underneath it with a thick material that reminded me of a bulletproof vest, but that cut just as high, leaving my abdomen exposed.

    Is this my punishment for all the chain-mail bikinis my characters wore?

    The pants were jet black, made of a material that felt like denim but didn’t have the ridges like a pair of jeans would. There was a belt with more of the orange tiger skin hanging in a kind of ass-cape.

    Really leaning into the flair, I see.

    Fresh leather boots and leather gauntlets completed the ensemble. “Wait, where’s the headgear?” I pushed aside my previous armor and shoved the bedding aside. Nothing. Just my old hat and my old gear. “Is there really no hat?”

    I’m stuck with this stupid hat? I sighed. Note to self. Get a new damn hat. “Well, let’s see what this upgrade does.”

    I snatched the iPaw and thumbed through the screens.

    New Notifications!

    Matt has gained: Tiger Chest!
    Matt has gained: Tiger Pants!
    Matt has gained: Leather Gauntlets!
    Matt has gained: Leather Boots!

    New Equipment Bonus:
    Tiger Chest: +1 Strength, +2 Defense, +1 Resistance
    Tiger Pants: +2 Defense, +1 Resistance
    Tiger Leather Gauntlets: +1 Strength, +2 Defense
    Tiger Leather Boots: +1 Agility, +2 Defense

    Set Bonus Complete!
    +4 Defense, +1 Strength, +1 Agility, +1 Resistance

    Even I had to admit the Stats were a huge increase over the starting gear. The Agility was a massive boon in terms of dodging roaches, and I already felt lighter on my feet. I could only imagine that Keke felt the same way.

    I swapped back to [Civilian Mode] and went to look for the girls. All three met me in the hallway, Keke wearing her new [Combat Gear] while posing for a clapping and awing Cannoli. Ravyn leaned against the wall with her arms over her chest, granting Keke a nod of approval.

    Keke’s armor was sexy. They’d reinforced her previous top with thicker, higher-quality leather by adding a layered, burnt umber corset that cradled her breasts like a lover. Her skin-tight pants were made of the same colored leather, with diamond-shaped openings cut into the thighs, accentuating her shapely legs. A short cape clung to the collar of her top, made of tiger skin similarly patterned to mine. Her belt also included an ass-cape like mine, though it looked a lot better on her. Tall leather boots and archer’s gauntlets decked her hands and feet. She’d pulled her dark hair free of its tight ponytail, allowing it to flow loosely around her shoulders and obscure one golden eye. She held one hand against her head and the other against her hip, half-turning for the others to see her capes.

    “I like the pose,” I said.

    Keke whipped around to face me, eyes wide and mouth gaping. “M-Matt!” Her cheeks burned, and she ran a hand through her hair. “I, um. I really like the armor,” she murmured. “What do you think?”

    I wonder how fast I could get that corset off? “It looks great. You look great.”

    Keke smiled, her pearly teeth just visible between her soft lips. “Thanks.”

    I could see every rise and fall of her chest very clearly. I cleared my throat and turned to Cannoli. “Let’s see yours.”

    Cannoli’s smile faltered. “O-oh. Right. Um…” she rubbed her hands together, then brushed them against her biceps.

    “Is there enough room in this hallway for your magical transformation?” Ravyn teased.

    Cannoli’s eyes dropped to the floor. “It’s not that.” She sighed. Without flourish, glitter, or posing, she muttered, “[Combat Mode].”

    Much like my armor, Cannoli’s dress was entirely new. Flowing white fabric billowed from her hips, held tight by a leather waist cincher the same rich brown color as Keke’s. Her chest and arms were covered with a continuation of the skirt fabric in a turtleneck-style collar and sleeves. Each sleeve was pulled taut by a ring of fabric circling her middle finger. Draped around her shoulders was a fluffy shawl of brilliant white tiger fur.

    “It’s, um,” Cannoli’s voice trailed as she stroked the fur, her gaze wandering off into the distance.

    “Oh,” Keke whispered. She approached Cannoli and lay one hand on top of hers. “We can find a different cape if you like.”

    The image of Cannoli huddled over the tiger kitten’s body when we first arrived to San Island returned. Oh.

    “No. I asked for the white fur on purpose,” Cannoli replied, shaking her head. “I don’t want to forget what happened here. Ever.” She rubbed her cheek against the fur. “Maybe it’s silly but, this is— Well, this is my way of honoring all of them. Every last tiger that had to die.”

    “They’re just roaches—” Ravyn began.

    Now is not the time, Ravyn. “That’s not silly. Not at all,” I said.

    Cannoli lifted her chin and blinked as if I’d broken her from a trance. “You don’t think so?”

    “No. I think you’re better at remembering how important life is than any of us. It’ll help keep us in check, you know?” I was struggling to find the words to say. I did think it was important. From what we’d seen on San, Encroachers included more than just monsters and enemies in this world—to forget that could really bite us in the ass later. I looked to Keke for assistance.

    Keke nodded and brushed a length of hair away from Cannoli’s eyes. “Matt’s right. You have the best heart of all of us.”

    Buttons crawled out from beneath the tiger fur and shoved his head beneath Cannoli’s fingers. She smiled sheepishly, stroking the back of Buttons’ neck. “I don’t know if I’d say that.”

    Hai, now we’re pushing it.” Ravyn rolled her eyes. “Alright, enough with the touchy-feely talk. Let’s see your new get-up, Matt.”

    “Yes! I want to see!” Cannoli’s mood perked up.

    Keke nodded, turning back to me.

    Oh. Right. “Can we wait until a battle?”

    “No,” all three girls said in unison.

    I grimaced. “Alright. [Combat Mode].”

    As soon as I changed, there was a stunned silence.

    Keh. Kehehehehehehe.” Ravyn clamped one hand over her mouth and the other over her stomach, bending forward in a torrent of giggles. “You still have—kehehehe—the dumb hat!”

    Keke slid the hat from my head, then let her eyes wander down. She walked her fingers down my chest to my abdomen, a prurient smile playing at her lips. “I like it, actually.”

    Don’t shiver. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t fucking implode. “Thanks,” I managed.

    “You look really cool, Matt!” Cannoli moved to my side and toyed with the cape at the waist. “You and Keke match. That’s kind of cute, actually.”

    Mou ii, you people are gross.” Ravyn righted herself and brushed her fingers through her hair.

    Squaawk! Get a room! Get a room!” Ball cried from the rafters.

    “Okay, show and tell over.” I took my hat from Keke, shoved it awkwardly over my head, and changed back into my civilian clothing. “You didn’t get anything new, right Ravyn?” I asked, desperately searching for a change of subject.

    “No. Everything I have is better than what we could make from those skins. An upgrade to my gear is gonna cost a lot more Bells than that.” Ravyn shrugged. “Maybe when we get to Nyarlothep.”

    Maybe I’ll get there before I have one foot in the grave after all. “Got it. So, then, what do we do with our old gear?”

    Cannoli and Keke exchanged confused looks, then shook their heads.

    “We’ve never bought new combat gear before. But, I really like that dress,” Cannoli admitted, chewing on her thumbnail. “I’ll probably keep it at home. You know, just in case.”

    ‘Just in case’ of what, exactly? I was afraid to ask.

    “No one will buy the beginner combat gear. You can save it or scrap it,” Ravyn said. “Your new pieces you’ll be able to sell for a good price if it stays in decent condition. But you’re better off ditching the old stuff.”

    “I’ll probably keep what’s leftover then, too,” Keke said, also swapping back to her Ni Island garb. “I’ve had it for so long. It doesn’t feel right to just throw it out.”

    “Great. Can we go drink now?” Ravyn pushed herself clear from the wall. “We’re leaving tomorrow, yeah? Frida can’t make dragon’s breath cocktails like they do here. I want my fill.”

    “It’s still early afternoon!” Cannoli cried.

    “And?” Ravyn was already halfway down the hallway. Ball descended from the ceiling and landed on her shoulder. Ravyn’s generous hips and fluffy tail swayed in a hypnotic rhythm that caught and held my eye. “Join me if you want.”

    Keke shrugged. “We’ve been pretty busy the whole time we’ve been here. I think we deserve a day off, don’t you?”

    I shook my head, yanking my focus back to Keke and Cannoli. “Yeah. That can’t hurt.”

    We descended to the restaurant and took a corner booth. Buttons and Ball bickered on the table while Ravyn ordered us drinks and food.

    “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for tonight,” she said as I eyed my [Cat Pack].

    “Thanks.” I wanted money for my axe and shield. The last thing I wanted was to see our Bells go to booze. Again. Just don’t challenge Ravyn to another drinking contest, jackass.

    It was my first time trying the dragon’s breath cocktail, and Ravyn wasn’t kidding. That shit burned like the fires of hell going down and kicked like a mule. “Woah,” I coughed. “Is this how Buttons feels when he spits fire?”

    Ravyn cackled and snorted. “Man up, my boy!”

    Cannoli tried a sip of hers. Her lips, eyes, and nose scrunched together in a wrinkled mass at the center of her face. “Oh my goodness,” she squeaked.

    Keke enjoyed it like a fine wine, draining half the glass before setting it down with a sigh of content.

    I stared. “Damn. I bet you could beat Ravyn in a drinking contest.”

    Keke eyed Ravyn over her glass. “Is that so?”

    “Bring it, bitch.” Ravyn sneered, then emptied her glass and slammed it to the table.

    Keke grinned, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Let’s dance.”

    “Waitress! Two more!” Ravyn waved and called.

    It was a fearsome battle. Cannoli and I picked at appetizers and watched in a mixture of shock and awe while their faces reddened and words slurred. To be honest, I didn’t know what the real rules of a drinking contest were. Drink until someone passes out? Until they throw up? I mean, I’d assume it would end when someone gives up. But knowing these two, this was a veritable fight to the last woman standing.

    “Excuse me, Matt?” a newcomer approached the table and lay a hand on my shoulder.

    I looked up to see a girl with tied-back blonde hair and brilliant green eyes set in an ivory face. She wore a forest green cloak over combat leathers, and a longsword was sheathed across her back.

    “I’m sorry, have we met?” I asked.

    Her straw-colored ears flicked forward, and she smiled. “No, but everyone around here knows you. I’m Myrun.” She offered a short bow and clasped her hands behind her back.

    “Oh, uh, right.” Not like it’s hard to find information on the only other dude in a city, I guess. “How can I help you, Myrun?”

    “Hurryitup! Yer belaying our contest!” Ravyn slurred behind me.

    Myrun’s eyes flickered to the inebriated party behind me, and she laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

    “It’s alright. What’s up?”

    “Well—” she paused, chewing her lower lip and swaying side to side. She glanced at the floor, then looked at me with a heavy-lidded gaze. “I need your help.”

    Uh-oh. “Okay. With what?”

    “You see, I want a kitten of my own.”

    I drained my drink, cleared my throat, then looked back at Myrun. “Isn’t this Cailu’s area to, uh, take care of?”

    Myrun wrinkled her nose. “I hate Cailu.”

    “Join the club!” Ravyn chortled.

    Cailu the cunt! Cailu the cunt!” Ball screamed. It seemed Ravyn had been sneaking him drinks again.

    “Smart bird,” Myrun remarked. “But, no. It can’t be Cailu. Not now, not ever.” She bent to one knee and lowered her voice. “Look, I can make it worth your while.”

    “Uh, I’m sure, but you don’t have to—”

    She unsheathed the sword from her back and presented it before me. “This sword has been in my family for generations—”

    Oh no.

    “—passed down from mother to daughter for time immemorial.”

    Is this really going to be a thing?

    “I’m certain it can help you or one of your companions in your many battles to come. Please, you can have it if you’ll have me.”

    Okay. This is happening. I looked at the girls. “Thoughts?”

    To my surprise, Cannoli was staring at Myrun with her hands clasped and pained empathy on her face. “Matt, you’re the only person that can help her.”

    Unexpected reaction. “Well, yeah, but, I mean—”

    “Jus’ go. Dontcha have thad fuggin’ quest to compete?” Ravyn asked in broken words. “We’ll be here.”

    So, she knew about the quest. Interesting. “Keke?”

    Keke’s head lulled to the side. She batted her hand and flashed a wide smile. “Get used to it. Get better at it. Have fun.”

    Wow. How do you really feel? I looked at Myrun. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

    “More than anything in this world, sir.” Myrun nodded enthusiastically. “Please, anything you want—”

    “Alright. Let’s go.” I stood, and my heart pounded against my chest. I didn’t want to look as nervous as I felt. I was entirely sober and very aware of Myrun’s presence next to me. “You don’t have to give me your family’s sword.”

    “I insist, sir.”

    “Just Matt is fine. Really.” I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Hold hers? Put an arm around her shoulder? Lead the way like I was headed into battle?

    Myrun solved my quandary, wrapping her arms around my arm. Her supple chest pressed against my skin, and my breath caught. “I can’t thank you enough.”

    “Yeah, don’t say that just yet,” I chuckled beneath my breath.

    Myrun paused. “Why? Is there something the matter? Can you not mate?”

    Just keep digging your own grave, Kelmer. “N-no, that’s not it. Just, ah, new at this.”

    “Oh! That’s alright. Me, too,” Myrun laughed, then murmured, “though, I do know my way around swords…”

    A familiar heat stormed my veins and rushed to my limbs. I closed the door to my room as Myrun tugged the tie from her hair, letting it fall in waves around her shoulders.

    I’d received express permission from my girls, and Ravyn was right. That quest wasn’t going to finish itself. No Enchantments, very little alcohol—this is about as pure as it was gonna get. So why the hell were my hands trembling?

    My heart hammered in my ears while she untied the knot of her cloak at her throat. “Am I going to have to do this all by myself?” she mused.

    I crossed the room and reached around her thin waist, finding the strings of her corset. Her hair smelled heavenly, and her warm body leaned into mine, her hands wandering beneath my shirt. She traced the line of my spine with her fingertips, and I shivered. When I finally had the corset off, I was relieved that her remaining clothing would be much easier.

    Myrun’s tongue mapped the line of my collar bone and traveled up my throat. She stood on her tiptoes to nibble gently on my ear. “Just relax,” she hummed. “I promised I’d make it worth your while, didn’t I?”

    [​IMG]

    [Memory stored and saved for Catgirls...]

    New Notifications!

    [A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good] Updated!

    2/5 Catgirls Successful!

    Myrun stayed the night with me, and I realized it was the first time anyone had fallen asleep in my arms. She left when the sun rose, set on me accepting her sword as payment.

    “Thank you again, Matt. Really.” Myrun kissed me on the cheek, then retied her cloak around her throat.

    “You’re welcome. Take care of yourself and—” our kid is what I wanted to say, but that sounded strange considering the circumstances. “Be safe, alright?”

    Myrun smiled. “I’ll protect her with my life. I promise.”

    Cannoli was waiting in the restaurant when I dressed and came down shortly after seeing Myrun off.

    “I thought you might be up early,” Cannoli smiled and passed me a teacup. “I ordered a pot.” She carefully poured a cup of steaming liquid into my cup, then set the pot aside.

    “Thanks.” I circled the cup in my hands, enjoying the warmth against my palms.

    “How are you feeling?” Cannoli asked, leaning her cheek against one propped-up arm.

    “Weird,” I admitted. “I’m still getting used to this part, I guess.”

    Cannoli nodded. “What you did for her was really kind.” She cradled her teacup in her free hand, her eyes searching its depths for targets unseen. “I-I know that I’ve been a little selfish with you. I’m sorry.”

    “Keke apologized, too. You don’t have to be sorry.”

    “But I do, Matt. We can’t be selfish. This is what you’re supposed to do, and we can’t be upset about it.” Cannoli hastily wiped her eyes and shook her head. “No. I can’t be upset about it.”

    Cannoli’s inner turmoil showed all over her face. “Hey. I think it’s okay to be upset sometimes.”

    She sniffled. “You don’t hate me?”

    I shook my head. “No. I could never hate you.” I laughed beneath my breath. “You were pretty tipsy, but I did tell you that I like you very much.”

    Cannoli blushed and dabbed her face with the back of her hand. “I thought that was a dream,” she muttered.

    “Nope. And I still like you. I’ll be here as long as you want to put up with me, okay?”

    She nodded, a smile finally returning to her lips. “I feel like such a crybaby.”

    “Nah. I don’t think so.” I reached for her hand and massaged the back with my thumb. “I just feel bad for making such a beautiful girl cry.” Worst. Pickup line. Ever.

    To my relief, Cannoli chuckled. “It’s not you. Really.” She gave our entwined hands a single, resolute nod. “I’ll get better at this. I promise.”

    “We’ll adjust together,” I laughed. “You can always talk to me, remember?”

    “Yes. Thank you.”

    Ravyn’s hangover lamentations echoed through the dining hall as she and Keke descended the stairs. Looked like we’d be renting a carriage back to Port of Meow for sure.

    Matt has gained: 3 points of Energy!
    Matt has gained: 1 point of Kindness!
    Matt has gained: Myrun’s Family Sword!

    [​IMG]
     
  2. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 37: Twenty Questions

    “Why is it so bright?” Ravyn moaned.

    “Shhh, I can’t hear myself think,” Keke complained.

    The four of us sat in the back of an uncovered wagon. Cannoli and I took one bench together while Keke and Ravyn sat beside each other across from us. They incessantly bickered at one another, shifting positions to find any way they could to hide from the sun and reduce the motion of the wagon.

    “What’s that you have there, Matt?” Cannoli asked, pointing to the newly acquired sword resting in the corner.

    “Oh, that?” I paused, trying to think of how to put it. Cannoli nodded. “A parting gift from the girl last night.”

    “Ah,” Cannoli said simply.

    Well, this is awkward.

    I reached for the sword handle and rested the sheathed blade against my forearm. “A-apparently, it was a family heirloom. Feel a little bad taking it.”

    “It might be a stronger weapon than yours though, right?” Cannoli said excitedly.

    “Hey!” screeched Ravyn. Her eyes were bloodshot, her lips curled and twitching. “Quiet! People are trying to relax!”

    “S-sorry,” Cannoli and I said in unison.

    Ravyn relaxed her elbow against the wagon’s side and leaned her face into her palm. “Fucking children,” she said, her voice trailing off into a whisper.

    Keke groaned and smacked Ravyn’s leg. “You’re too close. And too loud.”

    “Then move,” Ravyn muttered back.

    The two continued to argue in low sentences that I could barely pick up. I shook my head and turned back to Cannoli. “Anyways. She said it was a family heirloom. It’s beautiful, I’ll give it that much.”

    The scabbard was made of thick leather. I couldn’t tell what the lining was made of, but I had the distinct feeling there was a metal base within the leather covering. Gold outlined the tip of the scabbard where the blade’s point would rest. At least, It looked like gold. I was still learning what ores, metals, and gemstones were available in Nyarlea.

    Beads of varying colors and shapes snaked and crisscrossed their way up to the top. Even if I didn’t take the blade into account, the scabbard was remarkable. It was clear a lot of hard work had been put into it.

    “Amazing,” Cannoli said with wonder in her eyes. Her thin fingers brushed against the scabbard in such a way that had me thinking she was afraid she might break it if she looked at it the wrong way. She was exceptionally gentle, never fully placing her hand on the scabbard. “What does the blade look like?”

    “Well.” I lightly tugged the blade free, the golden-thread tassel at the hilt of the sword swaying as I did so. Yup, that’s a sword. There wasn’t much to it in comparison to the scabbard. Given, I wasn’t an expert on blades or anything, but you didn’t need to be a chef to know when food tasted like crap either. “It looks okay enough.”

    “Better than your axe, right?”

    “Hmm. Maybe not.”

    Cannoli’s frown wasn’t the type of frown that one saw out of disgust or disappointment. It looked more confused if anything, as if she was questioning my intelligence.

    “Matt—”

    “Hear me out.” I placed the scabbard against the corner of the wagon, taking great care not to make much noise. Those two might be more frightening than any Defiled right now. Afterward, I scooted closer to Cannoli, taking in her scent. For a moment, the sweet smell of her perfume stopped me.

    “Matt?”

    “Sorry.” I shook my head. “Couple ways you can test the blade’s sharpness. Gotta be careful, though.” I took my index finger and tapped it against the edge. Cannoli’s fingers curled. I’m sure she was expecting blood. I held the finger in front of her. “See? No blood.”

    “So, it’s not sharp then?”

    “Well, it could be, but it definitely needs some work if it’s going to be used in a fight. There is another way to test it too, but it’s too reckless.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Sliding the finger against the edge.” I retrieved the scabbard and replaced the blade. “But I’d prefer to not do that,” I said as I put the sword back into its corner.

    “So, what now then? If you can’t fight with it, what do you do? You can’t sell it. That’s her family heirloom.”

    Similar moral dilemmas of familiar video games replayed themselves in my mind as I responded. “Nothing. I carry it along, burdened by the inability to ever sell or use the blade.” I sighed. “Maybe I can put it up on my wall if I ever buy a home in Nyarlea.”

    And there it will rest. Along with all the other swords passed down for generations.

    “A home. That would be nice one day!” Cannoli clapped.

    The piercing gaze of Keke’s golden eyes accompanied Ravyn’s violet glare. The girls grunted and growled.

    “Ah-ah-hahaha,” Cannoli laughed nervously. “I-I mean, that would be nice one day,” she repeated in a quieter tone.

    “Mm, yeah. Maybe one day. Oh, before I forget, did you spend your Stat points?” Holding out my hand, I whispered at a level even quieter than Cannoli’s, “appear, iPaw.”

    Cannoli flashed one of her brightest smiles. It was cute. In my mind, I pictured some cat whiskers poking out of her cheeks. “I sure did. Another point of [Vitality].”

    I chuckled. “I was going to suggest that.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “As much as I want to protect all of you, the amount of [Health Points] you have make me… well, nervous.”

    “I kinda had a feeling,” Cannoli said, the edge of her lip twitching and her brow furrowed. “When you and Keke were talking about your values, I grew a bit nervous myself.”

    The iPaw appeared in my hand, and I made my way over to the [Stats] screen to distribute my Stat Point first. “No worries. We have the new armor, too, which should help.”

    Cannoli nodded.

    I didn’t have to think about it as hard this time. It was a given that [Strength] and [Vitality] were going to be the way to go. I had to admit, though, I was starting to worry about whether my lack of [Agility] or the other Stats would come back to bite me later. As incredible as the idea of throwing around a giant battle axe and protecting my girls sounded, I realized I wasn’t sure where my Class would go after this.

    “Hey, Cannoli. Do you know what sort of Classes are available later on? For a [Warrior], I mean.”

    “I do not,” she said, shaking her head, “only the ones for [Acolyte] and a couple for [Scout]. Maybe Keke and Ravyn would know more?”

    I guess I’ll wait until they’re feeling better. Hate to say it, but maybe I should’ve asked Cailu.

    I had another thought. “Do you know what [Resistance] does? I mean, specifically.”

    Cannoli tilted her head. “Yes. Well, mostly, I mean. Sturdy is the name of the game with [Resistance]. It grants you defense against all attacks.”

    “Wait, all attacks? So, physical defense and magic defense? What about ailment resistance and status effects?”

    “S-sorry, I’m not certain what you mean by the last two.” Cannoli fidgeted with her fingers.

    Ah, right. Meta knowledge and all.

    “So, let me try this another way then. Meaning, I can take better hits. [Resistance] would help if someone were to punch me?”

    Cannoli nodded.

    Okay, so far, so good. “Spells won’t hurt me as much?”

    “Mhm.” Cannoli nodded again.

    “And for ailments—like poisons or stuns—things like that won’t affect me as much?”

    “Yes, exactly.”

    Maybe [Resistance] wouldn’t be a bad idea.

    On paper, that sounded fantastic. However, thoughts of [Resistance] from another game I played came back to mind. In that game, and in most games where this type of Stat existed, it was usually pretty useless and served as bait for players who just didn’t manage their inventories and equipment very well.

    Then again, though, this isn’t a video game.

    Reasoning that I could always dip into [Resistance] later on if I wanted to, I decided to stay the path that I knew had worked so far and threw my Stat Point into [Strength]. With the press of the button, I felt the effects almost immediately. My muscles tensed and stretched in place—as if the tissues themselves were realigning, folding, and intertwining to make more effective muscles.

    “That felt really good.” And I mean, really, really good. Felt like I just got done working out at the gym, and now all of my muscles were happily resting. That sorta feel-good soreness. And then the feeling was gone. But the increased [Strength] remained.

    Cannoli rested her hand on my bicep and squeezed slightly. Her eyes widened, and the two of us blushed. “My, my, umm, I-I’m glad that it’s so effective.” Cannoli used the tip of her finger and played with her bottom lip. The vacant stare on her face made me wonder if she was fantasizing.

    I coughed, hoping to bring us both back from daydreaming. “S-so, I should probably see my total Stats now, huh?”

    “Oh! Yes, yes. Take a look at mine too. I want to know that I’m keeping up.” The smile on her lips and the trust in her eyes were always so uplifting. The shape of her face was demure, and for a brief moment, I pictured taking her to bed next, fantasizing what she could do with that mouth and how incredibly thoughtful—

    “Matt? Matt, are you okay?”

    I jerked away. Focus, man. “R-right, no, yeah, I am. I’m fine. Sorry. Stats, Stats, Stats.” I scrolled through and started with my layout first.

    Matt
    COMBAT STATS
    Base Level 4
    Warrior Class Level 4
    Health Points: 26/26
    Myana Points: 4/4
    Energy: 17/17
    Strength: 4
    Magic: 1
    Vitality: 3
    Dexterity: 1
    Agility: 1
    Resistance: 1

    Seeing all of the 1’s made me feel that I was a little too specialized. Though I guess up to this point I’d been mostly successful at what I made out to do—defend my girls. As weird as it felt to look at, I suppose I did always have the option to distribute points to other areas later on.

    After all, I still have forty-six more levels to go.

    “My [Health Points] are high, my [Strength] is nothing to sneeze at. Well, for my level anyway. I’m certainly no Cailu.”

    “Thank the goddess for that,” Cannoli replied. “What does mine look like?”

    “Oh, right. Sorry.” It’d been about almost two months since I first landed in Nyarlea. So much of what I’d done up to this point just flew by in a flash and in that time I’d forgotten the girls couldn’t see what was on my screen. “I’ll read it off to you and tell you what I think.” I caught myself. “I mean if you would like my opinion.”

    Cannoli frowned. “Of course I would like your opinion. Why would I not?”

    I scratched the back of my neck. “Never mind. Alright, here we go.”

    Cannoli
    COMBAT STATS
    Base Level 5
    Acolyte Class Level 5
    Experience Points: 815/815
    Health Points: 15/15
    Myana Points: 28/28
    Energy: 32/32
    Strength: 1
    Magic: 5
    Vitality: 4
    Dexterity: 1
    Agility: 1
    Resistance: 2

    I read off each point on her Stats, unable to hide my surprise when I saw her [Health Point] value. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. [Acolyte] life was rough life. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t one of the types who’d yelled at healers before in games for letting me die, but I wasn’t unaware of their troubles. I knew it was tough. But this? This felt targeted.

    After I’d read off each point in Cannoli’s arsenal, the look on her face said everything I needed to know. She was mortified.

    “Did you know how many [Health Points] you had?” I asked.

    Cannoli played with the tips of her fingers. “Yes. But I thought for sure I’d be closer to yours by now.”

    Ah, she really doesn’t realize just how sturdy tank classes can be.

    “No, Cannoli, you won’t,” I said in an attempt to hide my laughter. I caught Ravyn opening one eye, and I quickly clammed up, clearing my throat in the politest manner I could manage. “It’s not fair to compare yourself to me.” After realizing how that sounded, I waved my hand frantically in front of her. “Wait. Wait, no. What I meant is, you can’t compare your class, an [Acolyte], to a class like mine, [Warrior]. I don’t need to know anything about Nyarlea to see that I’m very obviously meant to protect and take hits. You aren’t.”

    “I know that,” Cannoli said in a pout.

    Man, I’m just screwing this up more and more.

    “Let’s look at Keke’s Stats,” I stammered. “I think she’s a better point of comparison.”

    Keke
    COMBAT STATS
    Base Level 5
    Scout Class Level 5
    Experience Points: 831/831
    Health Points: 20/20
    Myana Points: 12/12
    Energy: 34/34
    Strength: 3
    Magic: 1
    Vitality: 2
    Dexterity: 4
    Agility: 4
    Resistance: 1

    I was grateful that Keke’s [Health Points] were very close to Cannoli’s—even if Cannoli had spent a couple more points in [Vitality] than Keke had.

    “I see,” Cannoli said simply, playing with the locks of hair around her shoulder.

    “Does this make you feel a little better?”

    “Yes. Thank you, Matt.”

    The tone in her voice told me otherwise, but I decided not to push it. During my short time in Nyarlea, I’d learned that managing Cannoli was very much like managing, well, a cat. Too much attention, and she reeled back. So I decided to give her just enough to make her comfortable approaching me later. Cannoli would come to me in her own time if she needed. I had to trust that much of her.

    “Don’t mention it. I’m here for you. All of you. We’re a team.”

    Ravyn stuck a finger into her mouth and made a gagging noise.

    Except maybe you.

    After a colorful conversation between Ravyn and the stagecoach, we made our way down the road and into the port. Several catgirls passed whispers and looked between each other as we descended the slope. Judging from the looks on their faces, I had my doubts that it involved anything sexual. It sounded more along the lines of high school gossip.

    Oh boy. My favorite.

    We spent some time looking for Portia. To our surprise, she wasn’t hanging out in any of the spots we expected her to be. Worry and concern decorated our conversation. Ravyn seemed the most out of sorts about the situation—a rare emotion to see from her.

    Eventually, we found Portia tucked away at one of the docks, running back and forth across a much bigger boat than I remembered. “Ship” wasn’t a good word for it, but neither was “boat.”

    “What do you call this thing?” I said aloud.

    “A sloop!” Portia yelled out; her chest puffed out in pride. She waved us in closer as she bent down to tie a rope around a thick piece of pointed metal. “You all took your time! I got places to be too, you know!”

    “Please. The noise,” Ravyn grumbled.

    “Why won’t the headache go away?” Keke whined as if on the verge of tears.

    Ara ara, the weakest link reveals herself. I guess we know who won last night,” Ravyn hissed with an undercurrent of malice in her voice.

    Ball Gag moved as if he wanted to say something, but Ravyn’s glare had the parrot repositioning on her shoulder multiple times.

    Keke’s audibly ground her teeth. “Tell me. Have you always been such a bitch? Or did that take work?”

    “Oh, you little rat,” Ravyn whispered back.

    “Yes, yes, yes, that’s enough,” Portia said with a clap. The two hungover girls flinched. “If you two want to keep bickering, fine. But you’ll find another person to sail you back. Am I understood?”

    “I think the sloop is going to your head,” said Ravyn.

    Portia said nothing but raised a single brow.

    “Fine,” Ravyn lamented.

    “Thank you,” Portia said with a beaming smile. The proud owner of the Port of Meow sloop made room for us, and we welcomed ourselves on board.

    “This really is a nice boat,” I said.

    “It’s so pretty,” Cannoli said, brushing her hands against the wood.

    “Thank you, thank you,” Portia said with a big sigh. “It took a long night of gambling to win this girl.” She pulled out a muddied-up rag and started to wipe and buff away at a small imperfection, her tongue stuck out to the side.

    Portia continued to polish and perfect every little inch of her new boat in between our conversations. There was something charming about how involved she was with the care of her new sloop. It felt to me like this was her whole world.

    “Learned from your father, right?” I said.

    Portia stopped for a second. “Yeah, taught me a lot.”

    I smiled. “If he was anything like you said, you’re definitely your father’s daughter.”

    Portia turned to look at me, the smile never once fading from her face. “Thanks for the compliment, Matt!”

    The ride back to Ni Island was peaceful and much less stressful than the wagon ride back to the Port of Meow. Keke and Ravyn bunkered down below in a small cabin while Cannoli, Portia, and myself all walked around on deck.

    I rested my arms against the railing and breathed deep, enjoying the salt in the air and the spray of the ocean against my face. To be honest, I felt a little giddy about returning to Ni Island, proud of what I’d accomplished so far. Even though I’d been gone for less than three weeks, I felt I had much to show for it. The people of Ni Island would be seeing a very different Matt. At least, that’s what I thought.

    While we traveled, I made a mental list of things I should get done before we began our search for the other two men. This land at large was not peaceful, and its inhabitants—at least the Encroachers and Defiled—were not kind. If we were to make any sort of progress, we would need plans.

    First off, I’d complete my potion quest. Granny Nauka had taken the time out to help me learn [Alchemy]. The least I could do was finish the damn quest. Maybe she’d give me another one, and I could learn a few more recipes. I was grateful that we hadn’t used all of our potions yet. But it was only a matter of time until we would need them. And the ones I made would fall off soon with our [Hit Points] increasing so quickly.

    After that, I’ll get a new shield and a new axe. Hopefully, we have enough Bells for both. Maybe Keke and Cannoli could get weapon upgrades too. But, shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch, I suppose.

    Cannoli came to my side and relaxed next to me. Our arms touched, and my face heated up.

    “Hey, Matt.”

    “Hey, Cannoli. How are you feeling?”

    “Okay.” She looked up to the sky, a pensive look on her face. She sighed and then said, “I’m a little bothered about how I’m keeping up. Can we talk for a bit?”

    “Of course.”

    [​IMG]
     
  3. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 38: Go Fish

    After saying our goodbyes, the girls and I left Portia to her sloop. We arranged a new meetup in two days, and Portia merrily sailed away.

    “Hope she’ll be alright,” I said to myself.

    “She’ll be fine,” Ravyn assured me, “that girl’s made of steel.”

    “Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

    The four of us made our way back into town, and faces both foreign and familiar greeted us on our way in. Most of them knew my first name by now. This created an awkward position where I could barely remember their faces, let alone their names, half of the time.

    “How can you not remember them?” Keke asked, aghast.

    “Because the first two girls I ran into decided it would be best if they kept me hidden for my first week in Nyarlea.”

    “Ahaha,” Cannoli laughed nervously. “Whatever are you referring to, Matt?”

    “You locked him up?” Ravyn said, stifling a laugh.

    Lock him up! Lock him up! Squawwk!

    “I wouldn’t put it like that. That’s not fair to say,” Keke said, nudging herself closer to me.

    “Locking him up has its own appeal, too. It just isn’t fair to hog him all to yourself,” Ravyn said, passing me a lecherous smile. I drew back slightly, and Ravyn shut her eyes. “It has no importance to our situation. Let’s find Espada.”

    “Yeah, good idea. Espada could get a start on things while I work on my potions,” I agreed, happy to change topics.

    With Keke leading the way, she and Cannoli gestured down one of the roads cutting away from the fork.

    “Working on [Alchemy] too?” Ravyn asked with a hint of surprise in her voice.

    “Was working on that before we left. Just hoping Granny Nauka isn’t too angry with me. I kinda half-assed it and left shortly after we met you.”

    “Ahh,” Ravyn said, as if she just remembered something, “I could teach you a bit of [Alchemy] as well. If you’re interested, that is.”

    “You know [Alchemy]?”

    “I’m a [Sorcerer]. Of course I do.”

    Ah, right, of course. Why wouldn’t she?

    “Someone is in a generous mood,” Keke said with a pointed brow.

    “I am a generous goddess.”

    Keke rolled her eyes, and I chuckled.

    Espada’s stall hardly looked any different from our previous visit. I recognized a few of the weapons and armor pieces lying around.

    “Hey, Espada!” I said to the sweaty back hammering away at some new project.

    Espada turned her head. At first, she seemed irritated, but her face quickly lit up when she saw us. “Keke! Cannoli! And Matt.”

    And Matt. Ah, how I missed you too.

    “Long time no see,” Keke said with a wave.

    “What are you working on?” Cannoli said with a wide-eyed stare.

    Espada turned back to the sword and continued to beat the red-hot metal into a more defined shape. “Busted up my old blade, so gotta make a new one.” Espada stopped and lined her sight along the blade, paused, then set it back down on the anvil to beat pound it some more.

    Espada’s one of the few catgirls I can plausibly see breaking one of her precious swords.

    “Got time to make me a weapon too?” I called.

    Espada turned to look at me for a moment. “Ah, the boy.” The boy now, huh? “Did you bring me some actual money this time?”

    I could feel a sneer creeping up on my face but fought it back down. Just what will it take to impress this chick? I loosed the strings on my [Cat Pack] and pulled out a bag of Bells from inside, tossing it onto the counter. The satisfying sound of coins clinking and rubbing up against each other rang through my ears, and I had hoped it made a point that I was significantly better off than before.

    Espada smiled, bashed a couple more shapes into the sword, then stood up to drop it into a vat of oil. Flames burst upward, licking around Espada’s muscles. She didn’t flinch. I guess not even fire frightens a woman like her.

    Espada took off her mitts and threw them onto the counter beside the bag of Bells. She opened the bag up, and a rare look of surprise decorated her features.

    “You’ve been busy,” she said with a smirk.

    “I need a good axe. And a shield. If this is enough.”

    “I might be able to work with that. You got any more?”

    Now I couldn’t help it. I leaned on the counter. “Plenty. My girls need some gear too.”

    “Haha, don’t get too full of yourself. You’re gonna get yourself fucked up if you keep pushing your luck like that,” Espada said as she tied the strings back together on the sack of Bells. “Tell you what. Come back in about three hours and let me see what I have available. If you want to buy one of the weapons in my cart, have at it. You have enough money, though, that I could craft one personally for you.” She met the excited stares of the girls. “But I’ll let you all discuss that first.”

    I shot back up, thrilled that I had, at least somewhat, impressed Espada. “Thank you!” I had meant to say that in a more casual manner, but it came out a little nervous and a little desperate.

    Espada laughed. “See you in a little while, boy. The lot of you are looking good, by the way.”

    I was on cloud nine. The entire walk back to Granny Nauka’s lab, I was smiling and giggling like an idiot.

    “Stop that. You look ridiculous,” said Ravyn.

    “I can’t help it,” I said through a half-laugh. “I actually impressed her.”

    We impressed her,” Keke corrected.

    “Sorry, you’re right. We impressed her,” I repeated.

    “I’m so happy for you, Matt!” Cannoli cheered. “Espada’s a real toughie. Just the fact that she didn’t say no is great!”

    “Yeah, it is. Say, you and Keke need weapon upgrades too, right? You’ve been using the same bow and wand for a while, I take it?”

    “Ah,” Cannoli said, her voice trailing off, “right, yes. We probably should.”

    “I don’t want to take all the Bells for myself. It’s only fair that we all get upgrades. If I have to get a lower quality weapon and shield, then so be it.”

    Keke curled a lock of hair between two of her fingers. “I would like that very much.”

    “Then we’ll see what Espada can do when we get back.”

    Mou ii, can we get a move on?”

    Something that had begun to bother me was how often Ravyn seemed to have just what we needed at that very moment. If she didn’t, then she usually knew how to get it, where to get it, or just what we needed to do. A regular goddess in the machine over here.

    [ Novice Potions ] Updated! 10/10 Potions Complete!
    Matt has gained: Minor Healing Potion x2!

    “Thanks for the supplies, Ravyn,” I said as I corked the last bottle up. I shook the golden liquid around in the bottle, proud of the work I’d done. Cannoli’s lessons hadn’t been wasted. “I’m glad I could get them both done without failing.”

    “Like swimming! Once you do it, you never forget!” Cannoli beamed.

    Pretty sure that was riding a bike, but I’ll roll with it.

    “Hey, Granny Nauka!” I held up the remaining Minor Healing Potions and clinked them together.

    Granny Nauka nodded. “A fine job, lad. As I promised, you’ll get a new recipe and some bottles on the house from me.” She walked behind the counter, procured five glass bottles, and brought them back, along with a rolled parchment. “The next recipe may not help you too much, but it should help Cannoli and,” she trailed off, eyeing Ravyn up and down in a judgmental manner, “this hussie.”

    Ehhhhh? Hussie?” Ravyn smiled big. “This witch doesn’t know a thing about me. How sad to be so old and still so foolish.”

    “The arrogance of youth,” Granny Nauka said with a shake of her head.

    Can we leave now? I want to leave now.

    Cannoli was fidgeting and shifting her weight from leg to leg, looking up at me occasionally like a scared child.

    Hang in there, Cannoli. We’re almost out of here.

    New Notifications!

    [Novice Potions] Complete!

    Matt has gained: 1 point of Knowledge[Alchemy]!
    Matt has gained: 5 Glass Bottles!
    Matt has learned the [Alchemy] Recipe, [Minor Myana Potion]!

    Yeah, just as I expected. Myana pots next. Maybe I’ll learn how to cure some status ailments soon.

    “Thanks again! Gotta go!” I grabbed Cannoli and Ravyn’s wrists, the latter taking a little more effort to drag out of the shop. “Next time, we’ll bring Keke!”

    Granny’s a bitch! Granny’s a bitch! Squawwwk!

    We reconvened in the center of the marketplace, Ravyn’s sharp smile still plastered on her face. I cleared my throat. “We’ve got some time to kill. What do you girls want to do?”

    Ravyn shrugged. Cannoli looked between Ravyn and Keke. Keke chewed her lip, then spoke up. “I’d like to go Fishing.”

    “It has been a while, huh?” I hadn’t realized just how long since we’d last gone. Unless Keke had slipped away to do some night fishing at some point, our last adventure was together just a few days after I’d arrived in Ni. “I think that sounds fun. Cannoli? Ravyn?”

    “Sure thing!” Cannoli smiled.

    Ravyn rolled her eyes. “Guess I’ll come.”

    “Alright, it’s settled then.”

    Keke changed into her full fishing regalia while Cannoli and Ravyn favored swimsuits. I once again used the leftover equipment from our first fishing trip. Even if I looked like a walking thrift store, it was worth the couple of extra Fishing bonuses. Plus, I knew it made Keke happy, which was the bigger win.

    Cannoli and Ravyn met us down by the beach. Cannoli was already prancing through the shallow tide when we arrived, the fluffy layers on the top half of her bikini bouncing with every skip. Ravyn stood at the edge of the water with her hands on her hips, watching Cannoli flounce back and forth. She wore a black one-piece that barely fit the definition and—like the rest of her outfits—looked more like lingerie than a swimsuit. Black straps and strips of spandex hugged her waist and hips, alternating between rectangular cutouts of her pale skin. The suit’s neckline plunged below her navel in an intimidating V-shape, putting her voluptuous chest on display. A giant black sunhat perched low on her head, but her brilliant red ears poked through the brim.

    Ravyn turned to see us approaching, then burst out laughing. “Kehehehe! You’re brave to come outside in that getup!”

    “Interesting, I was just thinking the same thing about you,” I countered.

    Keke snickered.

    “You’re really gonna fish in that?” I gestured to Ravyn’s swimsuit.

    “I said I’d come with you, not that I’d fish. Baka,” Ravyn sneered.

    Bally wants a fish! Squawk!” Ball screamed from overhead.

    “You don’t need fish!” Ravyn screamed back.

    Cannoli splashed up to Keke and me, breathless and wearing a wide smile. “It’s so good to be home!”

    “We could have gone to the beach on San.” I looked between Keke and Cannoli. “Why didn’t you guys say something?”

    Keke shook her head. “It’s not the same. I looked around while we were in the Port. Their beaches didn’t have sand, really, just pebbles. Lots and lots of pebbles. Like a river.”

    “Huh. That’s interesting.”

    “And home just smells different!” Cannoli took a deep breath. “It just smells like… home!”

    I couldn’t help but return the smile. “Well, I’m glad we could come back for a bit.” It did feel nostalgic, returning to the very beach I’d washed up on. “Maybe I’ll actually catch something today, huh?”

    “I’ll cheer you on!” Cannoli clapped.

    “You’re not fishing either?” Keke frowned.

    Cannoli’s hands fidgeted, and she toyed with her fingers. “I, um, never replaced my rod. From last time?”

    “We could find you a new one. I’m sure we could buy one with what we have left,” I suggested.

    “No, it’s alright! You two go fish. I’ll swim with Ravyn!” Cannoli announced.

    “Goody,” Ravyn murmured.

    Cannoli kicked a targeted stream of water at Ravyn. Ravyn shrieked and jumped back, but not fast enough. Sparkling beads of saltwater dripped from the tip of her nose and wound their way down her chest. Cannoli squealed in delight and dove beneath a wave.

    “Oh, no you don’t, you little shit,” Ravyn called, tearing her hat free from her head and diving in after her.

    I chuckled and turned back to Keke. “So. Fishing?”

    “Yeah. Let’s go over here. I know a great spot.”

    We walked along the shore in companionable silence. She entwined her fingers in mine, flashing me a sideways smile, and my heart skipped. Despite everything that had happened on San Island, Keke, Cannoli, and Ravyn still made my heart race with the slightest of touches. I was happier for that, I think.

    We came upon a long line of boulders that extended a couple hundred feet into the water, curving off just out past the breakers. Keke guided me through the stacks of rocks, the ocean mist lapping at our skin as we moved. It was a warm, beautiful afternoon, much like every day I’d spent on Ni Island, and Keke’s hand in mine quieted my thoughts. Huh, this feels like a date.

    We made it to the end of the rock formation, and Keke took a seat on one of the flat-topped boulders. I followed suit, checking to see how far we’d moved from Cannoli and Ravyn. I could still make out their outlines and hear desperate squeals and giggles.

    “Have fun, guys!” Cannoli yelled, waving one arm emphatically over her head.

    Ravyn emerged from the waves like a shark, tackling Cannoli at the waist and taking her back down into the water.

    “Good to see they’re getting along,” I laughed.

    “It was only a matter of time, I think. Cannoli gets along with everyone.” Keke procured her fishing rod and tackle box from her [Cat Pack].

    “What about you?” I mimicked her movements and reached into my tackle box. Garden Lure.

    Keke shrugged. “I’ve never had a lot of friends. Having a group like this is new for me. But, I like it.”

    “While I find that hard to believe, I know what you mean.”

    “What part?”

    “That you’ve never had a lot of friends. You’re really easy to talk to and be around.” I readied my fishing rod and gave it a couple of test flicks.

    Keke blushed, and she looked at the sky. “That’s really sweet of you, Matt. Thank you.” She smiled and looked back at the water before casting her line. “You didn’t have a lot of friends? Like, before you came to Nyarlea?”

    “Mhm,” I hummed.

    “That surprises me, too.”

    “You don’t have to lie,” I chuckled.

    “No, I mean it. You’re funny and kind and brave—”

    “—and thick-headed and impulsive and bad in bed,” I finished for her.

    Keke nudged me with her shoulder. “At least you’re getting better with the last three,” she snickered.

    “Wow. I don’t know if I’ll recover from that burn,” I laughed, casting alongside her.

    “Hey! That was pretty good!” Keke said proudly. “You’re getting better at this!”

    I felt a glow of pride. “Thank you.”

    Our dangling legs swung in time over the edge, calves brushing against one another with each revolution. Keke leaned her head against my shoulder and sighed.

    Keke’s displays of affection sent butterflies free in my stomach and chills on my arms. Yeah, sex is great, but have you tried ocean fishing with a girl you love?

    The easy thought froze me in my tracks. Love? Was that what this was? I’d had girlfriends, sure, but none that I’d ever felt so strongly about before. I’d always thought love was a word created and curated by social media to make single guys feel like slacker assholes. But, what I felt for Keke...

    I didn’t get a chance to think about it much longer—a familiar tingling sensation emerged in my fingers and at the back of my mind. The green [Fisherman’s Sense] filter obstructed my vision, and my heart raced. No Defiled. Not this time. I leapt to my feet and cradled one hand on the reel while the other remained firmly on the handle.

    “Oh! Get it, Matt!” Keke whispered excitedly.

    I could see everything. A large shadow beneath the ocean’s surface flickered white in my vision, then bit down on the lure. I yanked hard on the handle, hooking it through the mouth. “He’s on!”

    “Great!” Keke jumped up and quickly reeled in her line. “Now, you’ll want to tire him out. Pull in the opposite direction that he tugs on the line and slowly reel while you do.”

    The fish veered left, so I went right. Then left. Then center. This little bastard was putting up quite a fight. Adrenaline pounded in my ears, and I stabilized my footing. The tip of the rod bent dangerously forward, the tension of the line dragging the farthest guide near the water’s surface.

    “A little slower on the reeling. Like this.” Keke cupped my hand in hers and reset the pace of my reeling. “Yes, there we go!”

    Slowly but surely, with Keke’s help, we reeled in my first catch. Ripples broke in wide circles shortly before the thrashing fish breached the surface. Dazzling purple scales shimmered in the sunlight, and long whiskers whipped around its face. Keke grabbed a net and snagged it free from the water. She gasped.

    “Is it a bad fish?” I asked. It was a gorgeous catch, but it also looked like it might kill me if I ate it.

    “N-no! This is a violet ryba! It’s my favorite food!” Keke danced on the balls of her feet and licked her lips. “I haven’t seen one in over a year now!”

    “That’s awesome!” I did it! I caught a damn fish! “Guess we’ll have to let Cannoli cook it up then, huh?”

    Keke squealed in delight and kissed my cheek. The unusual reaction was adorable on her generally serious features. “Best day ever!”

    I couldn’t help but agree.

    New Notifications!

    Matt has gained: 1 Level of Fishing!

    Keke’s Favored Item Unlocked: Violet Ryba

    [​IMG]
     
  4. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 39: Fruits Basket

    Espada was still working away by the time we returned. The sound of hammer against steel rang through the air with the golden glare of the setting sun descending on the many blades Espada had crafted. The four of us approached, and I knocked against the top of her stand.

    “We’re back!” said Cannoli.

    Espada turned her head and grinned. “Ah, good timing. Was just finishing this up.” Espada held up an axe that was definitely more appealing to the eye than my crummy starter axe. It was double-bladed, with chaotic gold and black marks arranged like a thunderstorm. I could practically see myself in the edge, and as I reached to touch it, Espada pulled it back. “Don’t hurt yourself, boy. This is going to do the damage you need.”

    “Sorry,” I said, retracting my hand. “It just looks so damn good.”

    Espada laughed. “Thanks. I take pride in my work.”

    “It shows,” I said. “Not that I’m trying to be pushy, but do you have an ETA?” Espada raised a brow, and I realized she’d probably never heard the phrase. “I mean, do you know when it’ll be done?”

    “Yeah, about ten minutes. Just putting the finishing touches on it now. You in a rush?”

    “No,” I said with a shake of my head. “We were just thinking we might have some more work for you.” Seeing how beautiful the axe was, I wondered if we really could afford this thing. “I’m afraid to ask. How much is this weapon going to cost?”

    “You have enough,” she said, looking away.

    I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Please? How much?”

    Ravyn snickered, and I glowered back at her.

    “Easy, boy, I’m not going to rob you.” She ran a finger across the blade, drawing a thin line of blood from her finger. She squinted in satisfaction. “Very good. Well, Matt! This baby is going to cost you fifteen hundred of your precious Bells. Are you willing to part with them for this monster of a weapon?”

    I passed looks between the girls. “Are we alright with this?”

    “Yes, yes! Absolutely!” said Cannoli.

    “Still asking permission. Well, at least you’re getting more considerate,” mused Ravyn. “Sure.”

    Keke intertwined her fingers in my hand, and her face flushed. “Absolutely. Get it.”

    Still not used to displays of public affection, I scratched the side of my chin nervously as my cheeks grew hot. “A-alright.” I looked Espada directly in the eyes. “We’ll take it. Please.”

    “Great! Just give me a bit.” With that, Espada dipped the blade into a vat of oil, pulled it back out, then sat down on a small stool, reaching for one of the many strips of leather on a nearby table.

    “Well, might as well just stick around,” said Keke.

    “I suppose you’re right,” I said.

    “Say, Matt, what are we going to do with the sword you received from… uh, that girl?”

    To be honest, I had completely forgotten her name. Holy shit, dude, way to remember your one-night stand. I remembered her eyes, her hair, and that mouth, but goddammit, not her name. Think damn it.

    “Appear, iPaw,” I murmured. I hope this works.

    Fortunately, the girls couldn’t see what I could. I scrolled through the numerous menus and made my way to the [Items] screen. There it was in all its cursed, unholy glory. Myrun’s Family Sword.

    “Oh, you mean Myrun,” I said in what I thought was a perfectly natural reaction.

    “Yeah, her!” Cannoli said back.

    Ravyn raised a brow and snickered.

    Does anything get past you?

    “You got a sword?” asked Keke.

    “Yeah, look.” I parted from Keke’s grip and reached into the [Cat Pack] around my waist. “Ah, there you are.” I pulled out the long, ornate sword from inside the pouch and held the sheathed blade before the girls. Ravyn approached and leaned in, so her face was only inches from mine. “Personal space?”

    “Yeah, whatever.” Ravyn scanned the length of the scabbard. Ball Gag mimicked her gaze with one bulbous, birdy eyeball.

    Does the bird even know what it’s looking at?

    “This looks like it was made on San. Interesting.” Ravyn took the tip of her nail and poked at one of the jewels.

    “H-hey! Be careful!” I said, pulling the sword back.

    Ravyn beckoned me with one of her fingers. “Bring it back, numbskull. I’m still looking at it.”

    I breathed a deep sigh and held it back in front of her as Keke rolled her eyes. After some time, Ravyn drew away and said, “Let me see the blade.”

    I pulled the blade from its scabbard and held it sideways.

    Ravyn came closer once again and grunted. “Eck. I wouldn’t pay ten Bells for this piece of trash.”

    “Easy there.” I could feel my blood pressure rising. Even if it wasn’t a great weapon, it was still a gift, and I had my doubts that Myrun would intentionally give me a sword born inside a Cracker Jack box.

    Ravyn seemed to have caught on and smirked. “The scabbard is pretty. The jewels are real,” she said as she straightened her posture. “Whether the sword is meant to go with it though, well that’s up for debate. Might be able to get a pretty Bell for the scabbard, at least.”

    “I’ll ask the expert. H—”

    I turned, but seeing how focused Espada was on her work, I refrained from bothering her. I wanted to make sure the axe was perfect, and she deserved the respect of being undisturbed while she worked on my commission. I’d ask her once she was done. Perhaps she could give the sword a proper appraisal.

    I grumbled beneath my breath and put the sword away. “Way to smack talk a gift.”

    “If it quacks like a duck,” Ravyn said with a shrug.

    “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean—”

    “Hey! I got an idea!” Cannoli clapped her hands together with the sparkle only she could manage in these weird situations. “Why don’t I cook up your catch? You did catch something, right?”

    Keke went blank-faced, and for a moment, a line of drool began to fall from the corner of her mouth. She quickly wiped it away, her face alight with red. “Only the best!” Keke reached for Cannoli’s hands, pushing me aside like yesterday’s garbage. “We caught a violet ryba!”

    “A hwah?” Cannoli’s eyes widened, and I could see her pupils dilating in real-time. “Matt!”

    “Ah! Yes, yes!” Suspecting what Cannoli’s next choice of words were going to be, I reached back into my [Cat Pack] and pulled out the fish. It was still somehow alive, but it seemed to have given up the struggle some time ago. Its mouth opened and closed, and while I was mildly disturbed, I had to admit it would taste better fresh.

    “I’ll take that!” Cannoli said with an almost crazed sort of grin. In an instant, Cannoli released her grip from Keke and stole the violet ryba in a flash, pocketing it into her own [Cat Pack]. “I must be off now. If this is to taste proper,” What an interesting choice of words, “then I must start the oven pronto!” Cannoli gave an exaggerated salute and ran off in the direction of her house, practically singing on her way out.

    “I… didn’t mean for her to steal it like that.” Keke turned to me with a frown that told me she was just as surprised as I was with her reaction. “Sorry, Matt.”

    “I mean, I was gonna give it to her anyway. So hey, one extra step avoided.”

    “I’m done,” remarked a voice from behind us. There, Espada held out the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Yes, more beautiful than Myrun, more tantalizing than Yomi, more striking than Ke—well, maybe not her, but what I felt when I held that axe in my hands was almost emotional. My first upgrade was finally complete. I didn’t just receive a new weapon or a dumb fucking hat. I got a full set of armor! And a weapon! I curled my fingers around the shaft of the heavy metal, surprising even myself that I could hold it without much issue.

    “Espada, thank you. I mean it. I’m not sure you realize how much this means to me.”

    Espada shrugged. “Just doin’ my job. Just don’t go losing your head over it,” she said with a laugh. She held out her hand, and I set the axe on the counter, reaching for a couple bags of Bells. After a short time of counting, which might I add hurt me a little bit when she bit one of the coins for authenticity, Espada threw the bags under her counter and smiled wide. “You did good. Got anything more for me?”

    “I do, as a matter of fact.”

    Keke, Ravyn, and I spent some time discussing what we needed and what jobs we had ahead of us. We spoke about Cailu’s quest to find the remaining men, my need of a shield, and whether or not the sword was worth anything. Turns out, Ravyn was right about the sword. The scabbard was valuable—worth a good chunk of Bells if someone was vain enough to pick it up. On top of it, the sword was designed to fit the scabbard as well, though Espada was as convinced as she was that it was top-tier garbage. Goody.

    A few minutes later, we had a plan. The price for a commissioned shield was too much to bear, so I purchased a ‘gently used’ model from Espada’s cart. Unfortunately, it also turned out that Espada wasn’t too knowledgeable in the way of bows or wands, so my girls were left without any new weapons. Even so, there were some valuable ores that could be crafted into bows or wands. Even if she didn’t know the methods, she at least knew the materials and was adamant about joining us for the adventure.

    “It’s a tad dangerous where I’m thinking of,” Espada remarked. “Let me tag along, and I’ll show you where some of the good foraging spots are.”

    “Tomorrow then?” I asked.

    “Tomorrow,” she said with a nod.

    With that, we departed on our way to Cannoli’s house, waving to Espada on our way out.

    Maybe we really can do this.

    Matt has gained: Espada’s Axe of Crushing!

    “We’ve been gone for a while. I don’t think Cannoli has very many vegetables to go with the fish,” Keke said, tapping one finger to her chin.

    “If we buy some fruit, too, I’ll make desert,” Ravyn added.

    Keke and I stared at Ravyn. She looked between us and frowned. “What?”

    “Just the thought of you cooking anything is strange. Dessert is on a whole different level,” I said.

    Baka! I like cooking! Fuck me for trying to do something nice, right?” Ravyn barked.

    “No, I don’t think he meant it like that,” Keke laughed. “I’d love to try anything you make.”

    Ravyn crossed her arms over her chest. “You sure? I might poison it.”

    Keke bumped her shoulder into Ravyn’s. “I trust you.”

    To my immense surprise, Ravyn blushed and looked away. “Mm. Where’s that farm stand?”

    Don’t worry, Ravyn. Keke has the same effect on me.

    “This way.” Keke gestured with a grin.

    I closed in on Ravyn and elbowed her arm, lowering my voice so only she could hear. “Nice having friends, eh?”

    Ravyn grimaced and made a gagging noise. “How dare you.”

    We made our way to the edge of the shopping district, and a familiar pair of brunette cat ears hopped forward to greet us.

    “You guys! Praise the goddess! It’s so nice to see you!” Saphira’s smile sparkled in the setting sunlight.

    “Hey, Saphira. Looking good as always.” I waved.

    She turned beet red beneath her freckles and braided a section of her hair. “Y-you remembered my name!”

    “Of course, I remembered.” Sorry, Myrun. “We could use your help picking out some vegetables for dinner.”

    “R-really? You want my help?” She looked positively giddy with excitement. Her fluffy tail swished behind her so quickly it was a blur. “Okay! What are you having?”

    “Violet ryba,” Keke said, eyes in the distance as if she’d found a picturesque fantasy.

    Damn, Keke, favored item is an understatement.

    “Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen one of those in a long time,” Saphira clasped her hands over Keke’s. “That’s your favorite, right?”

    “Ahaha, yes,” Keke laughed. “You have a sharp memory.”

    Saphira shrugged. “I love knowing as much as I can about my friends.”

    My stomach twisted. And I thought Cannoli was wholesome. “So, what goes well with violet ryba?”

    “Cannoli’s cooking, right?” Saphira bounded behind her stall and poked through her offerings with one slender finger.

    “Well, she certainly wasn’t letting any of us cook it,” Ravyn grumbled.

    Saphira giggled. “She’s very possessive of her cooking.”

    Wow, she really does remember everything.

    “That’s a word for it.” Ravyn smirked, picking through the boxes of fruits to our left.

    “Can you tell me what all of these are called?” I recognized the nyapples, and I was sure I’d eaten at least half the things that Saphira was offering. I remembered the death-spiral romanesco from Cannoli’s forest foraging. But, the girls usually ordered for me with an idea of what I liked, and it was hard to remember what everything was called. Let alone know what the hell it looked like in its original form.

    “Of course!” Saphira nodded enthusiastically. “So we have yellow squish and red squish here—”

    Squish? Like squash?

    “—green and red onyans, rubenesco, meozuna greens, pak choy, sea beets, spiny potatoes, and carrots!”

    ‘And carrots,’ she says. “Okay, let me try.” I repeated back the names, only tripping up on the meozuna and pak choy. I did call them squash, to which Saphira replied by pressing one finger into the vegetable and showing me that it does, in fact, squish.

    “Nice job, Matt!” Saphira praised.

    “Mm, I can already taste the ryba,” Keke said, still half-dazed. “Cannoli’s cooking is the best.

    Earth to Keke.

    Saphira procured a basket from beneath her stall and began to explain. “So for Ryba, I suggest an onyan of each color, a sea beet to bring out the flavor, one spiny potato, and two carrots. That should be enough to feed four of you and will balance with the fish.”

    “Wow, you know a lot about all of this,” I marveled.

    “I’ve been a farmer practically all of my life. I love it.” Saphira set the basket in front of us. “It kind of goes hand-in-hand with cooking, if you think about it.”

    “That makes sense,” I agreed.

    “Hmm,” Ravyn hummed as she mulled over the fruit options.

    Buy it all! Hurry up! Squawk!” Ball cried from her shoulder.

    Ravyn shot him an angry look, but he didn’t seem to notice.

    “He’s so cute!” Saphira crooned. She skipped down to where Ravyn stood. “Hello, there!” Holding one arm out toward Ball, Saphira clicked her tongue.

    “Bally doesn’t really like peo—” Ravyn started.

    Ball hopped from her shoulder to Saphira’s hand and preened his feathers. Saphira held up a slice of a red vegetable, and Ball happily snapped it in his beak.

    Thanks, pretty lady! Pretty lady!

    Saphira giggled. “He’s sweet, too!”

    “I will fry you in oil,” Ravyn hissed between her teeth.

    Saphira was too occupied with her newfound friend. She sweetly asked, “What are you making, Ravyn?”

    “A pie,” Ravyn replied.

    “What kind of pie?” Saphira peered over her shoulder.

    “One that doesn’t suck.” Ravyn glanced up at Ball Gag. “Maybe parrot pot pie.”

    Keke snickered.

    Saphira’s smile didn’t so much as quiver. She stroked the side of Ball’s head as she continued. “The pawmegranates grew very well this season and taste delicious. So do the bananyas, nyapples, and nineapples.”

    Ravyn sighed. “Yeah. Alright. Pawmegranates it is. I’ll take four.”

    “Coming right up!”

    Ball Gag returned to Ravyn’s shoulder and brushed his cheek against her face.

    “Sucking up to me now that I’ve threatened to cook you, eh?”

    Squaawk! I love you!

    Saphira totaled us out, and we paid for our vegetables and fruits. As we turned to leave, Saphira laid a hand on my shoulder. “Matt? Can I talk to you?”

    “Yeah, sure. Here, take these to Cannoli, and I’ll meet you there?” I handed the small basket of vegetables to Keke.

    “Alright.” Keke’s eyes flashed between Saphira and me.

    Ravyn pressed Keke’s elbow, urging her forward. “Come on. Loverboy’ll be home soon.”

    “What’s up?” I asked once they were out of earshot.

    “W-well. I, um… I—” Saphira breathed deeply and closed her eyes. “I was wondering if m-maybe you and I could spend some time together. If you’re not too busy.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I would really l-like to get to know you better. Since you’re Ni’s protector and all.” Saphira clenched her hands in front of her, and her ears flattened against her head. “I-I mean if you want to. I know you have a lot going on.”

    How was I supposed to resist that face? And she had a point. Ni was my island; it only made sense to get closer to the girls that were on it. Especially since we’d have to leave again to find the other guys soon. “How about tomorrow night?”

    Saphira’s eyes lit up, and she held her hands beneath her chin. “Really?”

    “Yeah, really. It’ll be later on, if that’s alright? I can come find you.” I was surprised by my confidence. Two months ago, I would have melted to the ground and stammered like hell. It felt good.

    “Okay! Yes! Thank you!” Saphira clapped her hands together and bowed repeatedly. “Thank you, Matt.”

    I placed a hand on top of her head between her ears to slow her bows. Her hair was silky and thick. “You don’t have to thank me. It’ll be fun.”

    [​IMG]
     
  5. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 40: Rock, Paper, Scissors

    When I got back to Cannoli’s house, the aromas in the air made my mouth water. I hadn’t ever been a huge fan of fish back in my world, but this smelled nothing like the fried fish I remembered.

    Ravyn and Keke were sitting at the table with glasses of a dark red liquid that I could only assume were alcoholic. Ball was perched on the sill of the open window, preening his feathers. Ravyn was slicing the pawmegranates while Keke rolled out two circles of dough. They looked up when I came in.

    Keke smiled warmly. “Welcome back.”

    Damn. I could get used to that.

    “What’d the fruit girl want?” Ravyn asked.

    Maybe not that. I shrugged. “To get to know me better.”

    Ravyn snickered. “Fufufu, is that so?”

    “Saphira’s a sweet girl. I’m sure she means what she says,” Keke countered.

    “Don’t we all.” Ravyn rolled her eyes.

    I changed the subject. “That smells incredible.”

    “Doesn’t it? Watch the master at work.” Keke gestured behind her.

    Cannoli had entered an Iron Chef mode that I’d never seen before. She had changed into a light blue dress that cut high on her thighs with white brocade and a thick collar—I realized she must have bought it on San Island—and a white apron. Her long hair was pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck and held in place with ornamental chopsticks. Buttons’ head and front legs poked out of a pocket of her apron, watching the food intently while he licked his eye.

    “That’s a really cute outfit,” I noted aloud, then blushed. Just blurting out whatever now, huh?

    “Isn’t it, though?” Ravyn flashed a sharp smile. “I helped her pick it out in Shulan. It gives bonuses to Cooking.”

    Sounds like you picked it out for more than that. I wasn’t sure whether to be thankful to Ravyn or give her an earful. But damn if Cannoli isn’t an eyeful.

    Cannoli didn’t respond. Her focus was entirely on the multiple pans she had going over the stove. Sizzling vegetables soared through the air as she tossed one pan before quickly replacing it and flipping glistening fillets with a wooden spatula. That pan went back to the heat, then to a third she added a dash of spice and a shot of clear liquid.

    “Anything I can do to help?” I asked the group.

    “Here. Sit. You can help us put the pie together,” Keke gestured to a chair across from them and poured a glass of what they were drinking for me. “Have some whiskerberry wine.”

    “Thanks.” I was at last beginning to grow numb to the feline naming conventions, though some still did surprise me. The wine was thick and sweet—something I’m sure would be labeled a “bitch drink”—but I enjoyed it all the same. “What about Cannoli?”

    “She’s in her trance. Throwing her off could be fatal,” Keke laughed and lowered her voice. “Plus, I think she wants to show off a little.”

    “Who am I to stop her, then?” I grabbed a pawmegranate and slowly mirrored slicing it as Ravyn did hers.

    The three of us talked about nothing in particular while Cannoli worked, humming and murmuring to herself from time to time. The atmosphere was warm and comfortable. The girls’ laughter mixed with the aromas of dinner and the rose-colored tint of alcohol made for a setting that I wished could continue forever. Just me and my girls, like our own family.

    And that kind of inaction in this world brings around girls like Yomi.

    I shivered and blinked away the thought. Fuck, will that ever stop messing with me?

    “Matt? You okay?” Keke asked. “You just... kind of stopped moving.”

    “Oh, yeah. I’m fine,” I lied. “The wine hit a little harder than I thought.” I covered my feelings with a laugh. “Hey, our pie’s looking pretty damn good!”

    Ravyn had cut one of the circles of dough into strips and latticed them across the top, creating an appealing checkered pattern over the red fruits.

    “I told you I’d make a pie that doesn’t suck,” Ravyn said.

    We made a pie that doesn’t suck,” Keke corrected.

    “Yeah, yeah. You did good.” Ravyn patted Keke on the shoulder and took another sip of wine. “You too, boy.”

    “Thanks.” I scratched the back of my neck.

    “Dinner’s ready!” Cannoli announced suddenly, startling us all. “Clear the table!”

    We pushed the chairs away and picked up our drinks. Ravyn took the pie and slid it into the oven while Cannoli snagged plates and silverware from a high shelf. Cannoli set the table in the space of a few heartbeats, then grabbed the first pan and served four perfect portions of fish filets. Then the second pan. Then the third.

    Violet Rybia du Cannoli is served!” Cannoli beamed and bowed.

    The rest of us clapped for her, even Ravyn. If reluctantly. We returned to the table and I poured a glass of wine for Cannoli.

    “Thanks, Matt!”

    “Cannoli, this looks amazing!” Keke’s eyes were as wide as the plate she was staring at. She picked up her fork and knife and stared at us expectantly, her tail whipping back and forth in anticipation. She inhaled deeply and licked her lips. “I’m so excited.”

    Cannoli giggled. “Dig in!”

    There was nothing from my previous world that could compare. I wasn’t a food guru by any means, but Cannoli’s dinner was nothing short of perfect. Flakey textures, a harmony of spices, and a mixture of tender and crunchy vegetables that paired perfectly with the fish.

    “I’ve never had anything this delicious in my life,” I said to Cannoli.

    Cannoli blushed and hid her face behind her glass. “You’re just saying that!”

    “No, I mean it. You’re gonna spoil me.”

    Keke had inhaled her dish and lulled in her chair with her head leaned back. “So good,” she moaned. “Ugh that was so good.”

    “Do you like it, Ravyn?” Cannoli asked.

    Ravyn chewed her lip. It was as if I could visibly see her swallowing her first answer. Then her second. “It’s delicious,” she murmured at last.

    “What? Really?” Cannoli clapped her hands together.

    “Don’t make me repeat myself,” Ravyn snapped. She grimaced, then stabbed her fork into another chunk of onyan. “Yes. It’s delicious.”

    “Oh my goodness! Thank you so much!” If Cannoli’s mood were any brighter, she would glow.

    “Wow. Cannoli’s cooking really is the cure for everything,” I laughed.

    We finished dinner and helped Cannoli clean up. The pie was ready by the time we’d tag-teamed the dishes and Cannoli procured ice-cold milk from her cold storage.

    “You can’t have pie without milk!” she exclaimed.

    “I couldn’t agree more.”

    The pawmagrante’s flavor reminded me of a cross between peach and a strawberry, with the texture closer to an apple. It was sweet and tangy and the crust was fantastic. Cannoli offered a small piece to Buttons while Ravyn did the same for Ball.

    We talked and laughed late into the night until Keke’s eyes grew heavy and even Ravyn started yawning.

    Kuso, it’s a long walk home,” Ravyn groaned.

    “U-um,” Cannoli began, her gaze flickering between Keke and me. “I-if Matt wants to stay here tonight, Ravyn could stay with Keke?” Her face burned red and she stared into her lap. “Unless that’s not okay. I’m sorry. That was assumptive of me.”

    Keke looked at me and her expression was difficult to read. Like a strained acceptance. “Up to you,” she said.

    Ravyn rubbed a hand over her face and groaned, “Mou ii.

    “Yeah, I can stay here.” I nodded. “We’ll meet back up in the morning.”

    “Sure thing.” Keke offered an awkward smile. “Have a good night, you two.”

    “Get sleep. I don’t want to hear any cranky bullshit in the morning,” Ravyn said, putting Ball on one shoulder.

    They left. Cannoli and I were alone.

    She moved the pie plates to the sink and returned to the table. She stood next to me, leaning up against me with her palms resting on top. “I hope it’s okay that I asked you to stay.”

    “Yeah, of course.” My heart raced. I could smell her perfume and feel the heat of her skin. “Everything alright?”

    Cannoli nodded. “Everything’s wonderful, honestly. Tonight was the happiest I’ve felt in a long time.” She toyed with a strand of hair that had fallen free from her bun and over her shoulder. “But I’m really worried about you.”

    “Why?” I struggled to decide what to do with my hands, eventually deciding to leave them folded in my lap.

    “Please don’t be mad. Keke told me what happened with Yomi.” Cannoli chewed her lower lip. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”

    Well, not mad, for starters. “It’s okay that you know.” I struggled to find the words. “I’m alright, I think.”

    Cannoli searched my face, then traced my cheek and chin with her fingers. “You always tell me to talk to you. You can talk to me too, you know.”

    I chuckled beneath my breath and leaned into her hand. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m not great at the whole talking thing.”

    “I noticed.” She smiled, resting her palm against my cheek. “I guess I just want you to trust me. Like you trust Keke and Ravyn. And I,” she paused, then shook her head, “I don’t want to be left behind.”

    I rose to my feet, standing parallel to Cannoli with my body on hers. Her eyes widened and stole a quick breath. Our faces were inches from one another and her hand lingered on my chin. “I’ll never leave you behind.”

    Cannoli lifted up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips against mine. They were just as soft and sweet as they looked, her kiss as gentle a caress as her voice. I circled her waist in my arms and leaned into her, feeling her relax in my embrace. The tip of her tongue danced across my mouth and I parted my lips, letting her take time to explore our kiss before reciprocating. Her tail curled around my lower back, pulling me deeper.

    I could hardly breathe. The carnal things I wanted to do with her collided against the desire to simply remain in her embrace. It was warm and welcoming and safe.

    Cannoli broke our kiss, both of us rasping for air. She giggled and leaned her head against my chest. “Can I ask something silly?” Her voice was muffled by my shirt.

    “You can ask anything.”

    “Can we just… cuddle?” She paused, then quickly added, “I mean, kissing is fine, too!” Her gaze lifted and she smiled. “I just really want to be close to you right now.”

    The yearning beneath my skin screamed in protest. Cannoli, the master of cock-blocks. But I would never do anything to push or hurt my girls. “Of course.”

    Never.

    Cannoli’s grin widened. “Thank you.”

    I stripped to my boxers and Cannoli changed into an adorable pair of shorts and a tank top. Oh, you are not making this easy. But I kept my word. We cuddled beneath her blankets and kissed deeply until she fell asleep in my arms.

    Sleep didn’t come so easily for me. But eventually it found me, and I dreamed of talking violet rybas.

    ---

    “So how far is this place?” I asked as I passed what I was sure was the hundredth rock. Each of them were shaped like little spires, about half the size of my palm. It felt like we were walking between the grooves on the back of some giant kaiju monster. Part of me began to wonder if it was going to start moving and I’d be told to mine the ore off of its back.

    “Not much farther,” Espada said. She’d been leading the group for a bit more than an hour now. She guided us south, past the hideout of the dryder and into the mountains. Wasn’t even sure when it became mountains, as many of the paths were surprisingly smooth and easy to traverse. I didn’t recall them looking so smooth back then.

    “You come here often?”

    “Why, you looking to buy me a drink?” Espada replied. She turned to smile, but my lack of a response seemed to wipe that smile off in an instant. “It’s a joke.”

    “I-I know. Just didn’t expect it.”

    “Espada knows some great jokes,” Cannoli mused.

    “She does?” I said aghast.

    Espada sighed, taking out a small brush and painting a red line across one of the many rocks. “Don’t oversell me. Just keep following.”

    “As you wish,” Ravyn muttered with malice on her tongue. I was pretty sure Espada didn’t hear it, but Cannoli and I sure did.

    “Shh, we don’t wanna tick her off,” I whispered back with a finger to my lips.

    Ravyn continued to mutter and grumble colorful words, with some notable ones being “gemstones,” “jewels,” and “bitch,” occasionally escaping her throat.

    I tried to push out her vulgarities and focused on keeping my heavy backpack balanced. Espada had insisted on using it in addition to the [Cat Pack]. Apparently ore had a way of overflowing inventories in no time at all, and her bag was specialized for mining.

    A pickaxe and a helmet dangled from a couple of straps on the sides of the backpack. But still, it felt weird to be carrying something on my back again. I started to remember why I never cared to hike.

    “Wrigglewrots have been here,” Espada said, kneeling down to pinch a bit of dirt between her fingers.

    “Wriggle-whats?” I asked.

    Cannoli’s eyes widened. “Where? Where!”

    “Haven’t seen one of those guys in a long time,” Keke mused.

    “Sorry, but what’s a wrigglewrot?” I raised my hand this time, hoping to emphasize my ignorance of this elusive creature.

    Cannoli turned to me, positively beaming. “They’re cute little pudgy rock eaters! We don’t get a whole bunch of them on Ni Island, so there might be a nest of them nearby!”

    “Should I be worried?”

    Cannoli shook her head with enthusiasm. “Harmless as can be!”

    “So long as you don’t take their rocks,” Espada reasoned, standing back up. “Just make sure you’re in [Combat Mode]. I don’t wanna have to cart your sorry ass back.”

    “Great, rock eaters too,” Ravyn complained in a quiet tone.

    Right up there with glue eaters for you, huh?

    The path seemed to be widening now. The path was getting steeper and more difficult to navigate. Each of us helped the others up as needed, Cannoli needing just a little more help than Keke or Ravyn.

    “Couldn’t pick a better set of shoes to walk in?” I said to Ravyn as I helped her up. “Pretty sure heels are the worst hiking shoes available.”

    “Would you hurry the fuck up and just be quiet?”

    Someone’s a little more ornery than usual. What gives?

    Ball Gag watched from above as I helped his master up. He was being strangely observant, and while I wouldn’t be particularly concerned with anyone else doing it, Ball had done little to prove otherwise that parrots were nothing more than loud nuisances best roasted over a campfire.

    “Hello? Help?” Ravyn said.

    “Sorry.” I leaned back on my right foot for support and pulled. I realized the moment I did it that I used far too much force. A phys ed teacher from junior high had taught me that I should just go with the flow if I ever fall on my back. Could dislocate my shoulders if I try to stop it with my arms. So my instincts kicked in and I let myself fall. It hurt, but the backpack offered a bit of support—as much support as a nearly empty backpack could offer. Though now I was in a much more difficult position.

    Don’t. Move.

    Ravyn had fallen on top of me. Looking straight up, there was a sinister, yet adoring squint of eyes from the evil Ball Gag above. I hadn’t realized how tightly I was holding onto Ravyn’s arms until I heard her protest.

    She met me with a big smile, not a hint of red or nervousness anywhere to be seen. There was a darkness behind those eyes though. Something more… concerning.

    “Matt. Kindly let me go,” she said, unblinking.

    Terrified of being roasted alive, my arms sprang away from her body with a speed I’d never managed before. A snapping twig caught my attention and I rocked my head back to see Keke with a rather… thick branch, now snapped in two. Cannoli looked horrified, and Espada looked like she was fighting everything she had not to laugh out loud.

    “Thanks for that. Not a scene I’ll soon forget,” Espada said, continuing down the path like nothing even happened.

    Ravyn brushed herself off and walked around me in a wide berth, like I was some sort of filth she wanted to avoid. She shot me another smile that was much, much too demure and genteel to have any meaning beyond malevolent.

    Keke and Cannoli stood dumbfounded as I rose to my feet. I didn’t need anyone to point it out to know how red my face was.

    “Next time, you’re fucking dead.”

    You’re welcome for the help.

    Good lord, what was it with her statements and facial expressions not matching? I was starting to get creeped out. Ravyn delivered all of it with a wide grin that rivaled Cannoli’s. Yet none of the wonder, none of the light was there. The girls continued onward and I followed a few feet behind in silence.

    When we reached the peak, there were pockets and clusters of stones, crystals, and various other gemstones resembling those on Earth. They shone brilliantly, and for a brief time I wondered if this had been an active volcano at some point.

    “This doesn’t seem real,” I said aloud.

    “Be careful, wrigglewrots will make it a reality,” Espada warned, unsheathing a long, double-edged sword from her waist.

    “We’re not going to hurt them, are we?” Cannoli said with her hands clasped together.

    “Don’t be a fool! Wrigglewrots or not, any Encroacher is dangerous if you don’t take it seriously.” Espada snapped.

    “Espada, wait,” Keke said with her hand held out, “wrigglewrots just want their rocks, right?” Espada nodded. “We could just give them something else to eat.”

    “A distraction.”

    “Exactly that,” Keke said with a nod.

    “Any suggestions? We’d have to mine some first and that costs time and our ore.”

    Cannoli proudly procured her frying pan from the [Cat Pack]. “It’s made of metal. Tough metal. They can have my frying pan.”

    “Wait,” I said as I gripped Cannoli’s shoulder, “are you sure? You carry that thing everywhere.”

    Cannoli turned and looked me in the eye. “Wrigglewrots must be protected.”

    I am smitten.

    “Alright, alright, but where are they? I don’t see any—”

    Just then, one of the clusters of crystals moved, and one yellow orb opened up in the middle, scanning its surroundings. It squinted, shook, and then rolled from one cluster to another a few feet away. We all watched in silence as it moved from one bunch of rocks to the other, eventually unfolding itself to stand on four legs.

    It looked… well, not too bright. It tilted its head like a bird, moving its eyes independently like a chameleon’s. The Encroacher had a massive lower jaw, and three pointy white spines stuck out from the, well, lips, I guess. Keeping one of its large, beady eyes on us, it approached a stone that shone as beautifully as the sun. The stone bore a striking resemblance to topaz, and—

    And he ate it.

    With a force I could only admire, the little dude dug his jaw into the ground and shoveled the horde of stones into his mouth, crunching the gems between its jaws with little effort. Bits and pieces of ore spilled to the ground as he ate. It was like watching a two-year old at the dinner table.

    Cannoli hopped from one foot to the other. “I want to get closer. Can we get closer? Please?”

    “Well, hold on, just be careful,” Keke said, barring Cannoli with her arm.

    “They shouldn’t be too much of a threat,” Espada admitted with a sigh. With her sword still firmly grasped in her hand, she approached the creature with casual steps.”Just bring the frying pan.”

    Cannoli crooned and squealed over the wrigglewrots, and time flew by as we worked. Among the ores were a total of four wrigglewrots, each of which rolled their way over to Cannoli, though one had become enamored with Ravyn. I had the distinct feeling though that it had more to do with the giant necklace hanging around her neck and less to do with her as a person.

    Espada was kind. Much kinder than the catgirl I recalled when I bought my first piece of gear. She taught me the angles on how to hit ores, how to get the most out of a rock without breaking or shattering it, and what to look for depending on the ore or stone I wanted to mine. I was trash at it, if I’m being honest. Even so, I had a few good rocks to bring back, and I was sure I’d be using this skill a great deal in the future.

    Cannoli learned nothing, and although she was short one frying pan, she gained four more friends that day, even if temporary.

    Keke guided my hand in ways Espada couldn’t, and Ravyn’s mood improved to the point where she took her time to explain which stones were the most valuable and why.

    When my bag was full and the sun was setting, I wiped a sheen of sweat from my forehead and looked on, proud of our accomplishments.

    With these girls by my side, I was sure that I could accomplish anything.

    And now to survive a date with Saphira.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 41: Die With Memories, Not Dreams

    “This one’s me.” Saphira stepped onto the wide porch of her house.

    It was crafted in white wood and stone, shaped in the same square stylings of the other houses in Ni. But around the back, fences extended farther than the eye could see. I spotted rows and rows of crops in the limited remaining sunlight, neatly sectioned off and sprouting bright green leaves.

    “You do all of this yourself?” I marveled.

    Saphira blushed and nodded. “Yes. Ever since I was a little girl.”

    I joined her on the porch. I wanted to ask what happened to her parents, but that seemed to be a sore subject for the majority of the catgirls I’d talked to, so I left it. “That’s really amazing.”

    “The days start early, but I love farming. It brings me a lot of joy.” She tugged at the hem of her skirt. “Do… do you want to see it?”

    “Yeah, give me the tour.” I grinned. So far, Shizen’s farm was the only one I’d seen, and I was interested to see the differences in crops and Saphira’s farming methods.

    Growing spices turned you into Old McDonald, eh Kelmer?

    I pushed the thought aside and followed Saphira around the side of her house. She propped open a gate and held it open for me.

    “Does the saltwater in the air mess with the soil?” I asked, surprising myself as much as it surprised Saphira.

    “It can, yes.” She knelt near one of the tall stalks of a red-leafed plant and combed her fingers through the topsoil. “Thankfully, we have enough rain that it blocks any errant mist from getting to the roots. And I built an irrigation system that brings in water from the nearby pond.”

    “The one with the catfishes?”

    Saphira giggled. “Yeah! They’re not so bad, though. I bring them a few onyans, and they eat those and leave me alone.”

    And I thought Cannoli was a Disney Princess.

    “Do you keep any livestock?” It was impossible to imagine that she didn’t. With how Ball immediately took to her, it seemed like Saphira had a lot of experience.

    “I do!” She stood and pointed at another building in the distance. “They’ll be getting ready to sleep about now. But, I keep chickens, cows, and a pony. I have eggs at my shop almost every day, but they sell out early.” She dusted her hands off and grinned. “Sometimes, Cannoli buys my entire stock.”

    “Are they considered Encroachers, too? Your livestock?”

    Saphira tilted her head, squinting curiously. “What else would they be?”

    Which makes Buttons an Encroacher. And the tigers. Interesting. “Where I’m from, I guess you’d refer to them as domesticated Encroachers.”

    “Actually, I’d like to hear more about that, if you don’t mind. Where you’re from.” Saphira plucked a few vegetables from different sections of the garden. “I’ll start dinner while we talk?”

    You’re spoiling me, Saphira. I hadn’t realized our date came with a home-cooked meal. I wasn’t about to protest. “Sure. Let me help.” I took the vegetables from her arms to lighten her load.

    “Gosh, okay, thank you. This way!” Saphira led us up the stairs of her deck and to her back door, unlocking it and ushering me inside.

    Saphira’s house was the size of Keke and Cannoli’s put together. The back door led into the expansive kitchen, where I set the vegetables in the sink. I peeked around the corner and took in the large, fully-furnished living room. A couch and recliner posed near a stocked fireplace. Paintings of landscapes adorned the walls—some of the settings I was certain I’d seen around Ni in my travels, but others were unfamiliar.

    “Who did the art?” I turned back to the kitchen as Saphira procured a cutting board and a knife.

    “My grandmother, my mother, and me,” she replied. “This house has been in my family for a long time.”

    “They’re really good.” I slid a second cutting board and knife from the same shelf and set myself up next to her. She eyed me curiously. “I can help cook. No fair to make you do all the work.”

    Saphira grinned. “You’re so sweet, Matt.” She handed me an onyan and started me off before focusing on the other vegetables. “You’ve changed a lot since you first arrived.”

    “Yeah?”

    “Mhm.” Saphira chopped and sliced with an efficiency that put me to shame. “You’re a lot calmer, and,” she paused, searching for the words, “it seems like you really care about Keke, Cannoli, and Ravyn.”

    I nodded. “I do.” I accepted another vegetable to chop and carved off the end. “I care a lot about this island, too. And the people on it.”

    Saphira hummed her reply, washing her newly cut vegetables in the sink. “That makes me happy to hear.” She went to her cold box and collected two meaty filets. “What was it like? Where you came from?”

    A reel of memories flooded me with her question. Working the Wendy’s drive-through the summer after high school. Playing video games at all hours of the night and forgetting what the sun looked or felt like. Swiping through dating apps like a man possessed. “Overrated,” I said.

    Saphira laughed. “What do you mean?”

    I chewed my tongue in thought, adding the finished vegetables to Saphira’s growing pile. “Growing up, my parents told me I could do anything I wanted to so long as I set my mind to it. But, when it came to it, anything I wanted always turned out to be just outside my reach.”

    Saphira blinked. “That sounds frustrating.”

    “That’s a good word for it,” I agreed. “Sometimes, I wonder if I wasn’t trying hard enough. But, now that’s impossible to say for sure.”

    “What were your dreams?” Saphira seasoned the filets and returned to the cold box, fishing out a dark bottle. “Oh, is it okay if we have a drink or two?”

    I’m gonna need more than that if we’re getting into dreams talk. “Yeah. Of course. Thanks.”

    She poured us both a glass and handed me mine before returning to her meal preparations.

    I took a drink and leaned against one of the counters. “I was going to school to learn how to, er—” What the hell would an ‘engineer’ do in Nyarlea? “Well, I was really good with math and science. I wanted to get a good job and a girlfriend and just be happy.”

    “A girlfriend? Like a friend that’s a girl?” Saphira furrowed her brow and sipped her wine. “Am I a girlfriend?”

    What a question. I chuckled. “Something like that. I guess it’s more complicated than I thought. But, yeah, there’s that. What’s your dream, Saphira?”

    Saphira took another drink. I feel that. She cleared her throat and faced away from me, focusing instead on the food. “Don’t laugh?”

    “I would never.”

    “My favorite memories are of when my mother, grandmother, and I all lived here. We spent nights by the fire talking or painting or reading to one another. I miss having others here with me. I-I want to have daughters to share all of this with.” She shook her head. “I know that’s what a lot of other girls want. So it probably sounds stupid.”

    Heat danced along my skin. I knew she wasn’t asking for anything—it didn’t seem implied, either. From the look on her face, this was clearly something she didn’t share often. “I don’t think that’s stupid. Not at all.”

    “Thanks,” she murmured.

    “No, I mean it. It sounds like your family had a lot of traditions you want to continue. It’s a great dream.”

    Her smile returned. “Thank you, Matt. Really.”

    The conversation lightened up as more wine flowed and Saphira cooked dinner. Saphira told me more about her paintings, her preferred subjects, and her favored medium. I knew next to nothing about painting, so whether the watercolors she described were similar in my last world, I couldn’t say. I somehow got on the topic of movies and tried to explain the concept without much luck. Even sketching a lame diagram of cameras, film, and the projection screen had Saphira in fits of giggles but didn’t help convey how they worked.

    “This is delicious,” I admired as I ate.

    “I’m glad. I know I’m a far cry from Cannoli’s Cooking Skill—”

    I waved her statement away. “No, stop that. This is fantastic. Everything tastes so fresh.” Compared to the steady diet of Mountain Dew, Doritos, and processed fast food that had sustained me before coming to Nyarlea, the home-cooked meals—and even the inn’s food—tasted like heaven. “Tastes even better knowing you cooked it.”

    Saphira touched her pinking cheek, her eyes lowered. “I’m never going to stop blushing around you, am I?”

    “It’s adorable,” I said. My filter has turned to tissue paper. But, the thought didn’t bother me as I watched Saphira squirm in delight.

    I stood and rounded the table, reaching for her hand and guiding her to standing. Her eyes widened as she gazed up at me. God, I could drown in that stare. I brushed my thumb along her cheekbone and cradled her face in my hand. “Hey, you’re real.”

    She laughed and leaned her cheek against my palm. “I can’t believe that’s the first thing I said to you.”

    “I don’t mind.” I rested my forehead against hers, sharing the sweet air between our lips. “Is this okay?”

    “Yes,” she breathed.

    I tipped her chin up and kissed her. Her hands encircled my waist and her frame relaxed against mine. She tasted like wine and the ocean air. Her soft lips and gentle touch stole my breath.

    “Let’s go to my room?” Saphira murmured against my mouth.

    “Alright.”

    She took my hand and led me through the living room, past multiple guest rooms, and into the master bedroom. She glanced from the bed to me and squeezed my hand. “U-um, this is my first time. With anyone. Please be gentle?”

    Adrenaline pounded against my eardrums. I brushed my fingers through her hair and caressed her face. “Of course.”

    [​IMG]

    New Notifications!

    [A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good] Updated!

    3/5 Catgirls Successful!

    Saphira cooked me pancakes for breakfast the next morning before I headed off to find Keke, Cannoli, and Ravyn. Before we made our way to the new island I desperately wanted to be a higher level.

    A wave of nostalgia hit me during our trek through the forest. I was struggling to think of the last time we did something like this. Regardless, I was eager to put my new equipment and skills to the test. With my most recent Class Point, I danced the line between saving it for later, perhaps spending it on [Adrenaline Rush] if my gear seemed more up to snuff, or whether I should just dump it into [Axe Mastery] and just finish it off.

    In the end, I settled on finishing up [Axe Mastery]. Better to put it into something I knew was working, and the way I figured it, I was going to end up mastering it at some point anyway. Seemed like a better idea in my head. We’d soon see if it granted me any sort of divine epiphany or if it was just that minor of a benefit.

    The axe felt lighter in my hand, much lighter than the axe before it—which was strange to me. I hadn’t fought with my original axe in some time, which I nicknamed ‘Old Reliable,’ so maybe it was my imagination. Regardless, Whether it was made of a lighter material, my [Strength] was doing the job, or [Axe Mastery] was where I should be putting my thanks, I guess it didn’t matter. Light or not, it was no substitute for combat ability, and I admit I was a bit nervous that I’d gone too long without a fight.

    I looked up, carefully watching Ball for any signal. Keke led the pack a good few meters ahead of us, occasionally placing her hand on the odd tree here and there and making some small comment about what might be nearby. Cannoli stuck close to my side, her face scrunched in concentration. She was determined to be braver, be the support we all needed. I just hoped she wasn’t putting up too much of a front.

    “Any idea how much longer?” I asked Cannoli.

    “Not much longer,” Keke answered for her. She put her right hand on the trunk of a tree and peered around it, motioning with her free hand for us to stay put.

    We paused, kneeling behind a bush. Keke continued to tilt her head, bending her neck forward and back.

    What’s she looking at?

    “Patience,” Ravyn whispered from behind me.

    I flinched on the spot and just barely managed to avoid yelping. I bit my bottom lip and steadied my breathing. She’d been so quiet I’d almost forgotten she was behind me. Goddamn it, why couldn’t I calm down?

    Cannoli put a hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Just breathe, Matt.”

    I scratched the side of my neck and looked away in slight shame. “I-I am, just been a weird morning. Err, day, I mean.” Yomi and Myrun had been one thing, with them essentially disappearing from my life after we’d slept together. Saphira was someone I’d see a lot more often. And in turn, my kid. It was a strange thought to come to terms with.

    “That’s okay. We’re here to help you,” Cannoli grinned.

    “Eeyeck,” came the groan of Ravyn.

    I turned to her with a frown, putting a finger to my lips. “Not a word from you.”

    She raised her brow. “Think the tigerskin has gone to your head, boy. And I don’t mean the one on your neck.” She folded her arms in that authoritative way she did when she had some sort of double-edged advice to offer and said, “Don’t go running in there blindly.”

    “I’m not going to,” I said, looking away from her. “We don’t move until Keke does. When her and Ball give the signal, we move in.”

    “Good boy.”

    Where’s my Scooby Snack, Ravyn?

    Keke put a finger to her lips and gestured for us to follow. Continuing our pace, we managed to keep our distance for the next few minutes, making as little sound as we could manage. The next time Keke stopped, she smiled and gave us an enthusiastic bob of her head.

    “Great,” Ravyn said, returning the smile. “I’ve been itching to burn something all day long.”

    “Don’t burn the forest down,” Cannoli said with a quiet plea.

    “I’m not. I know better than that.”

    Keke frowned with a roll of her eyes and motioned for us to join her. The three of us moved in single file and found ourselves berated by our hunter.

    “You guys suck at staying quiet,” she said bluntly.

    “Look, the boy—”

    “And still you keep going,” Keke hissed in astonishment. She glared at each of us, and Ravyn was the only one who refused to break the stare. Keke kneeled. “The three of you have scared off our targets at least twice now. If I hear another word, that person gets an arrow in the knee. Is that understood?”

    Cannoli nodded, and I held up a thumb. Ravyn didn’t say or do anything, but I guess silence was good enough for Keke.

    “Good. Now. The plan.” Keke looked up. Ball Gag was making a slow descent. The targets were in place. Keke passed looks between each of us. “Does anyone need a refresher?”

    I shook my head. I admit I was a bit nervous with what was about to happen, but the plan was solid. As long as no one did anything brazen, we’d be walking out of here with four Encroachers.

    The girls followed suit, and Keke looked to Cannoli. “Start us off, then.”

    “Right.” She did a silent arm pump, and I held out my double-sided axe, keeping it low to the ground. “[Illuminate].” Cannoli put a hand on the flat end of the blade, and a brilliant white glow enveloped both heads of the blade. “Let’s do it.”

    The four of us gingerly approached a thick line of bushes. I peeked over and saw the four Encroachers we had set our sights on. Each of them was deep blue, bearing black beady eyes and crouched on all fours. They were shaped like lizards, their bodies covered in large scales. The one closest to us seemed to be on edge, flicking its forked tongue out repeatedly while the others were further off, munching away on some nearby shrub.

    “We have to act fast. They’re getting spooked again,” Keke whispered to us. “[Pinpoint Weakness].” Keke slowly raised her head over the top of the bush, and I readied myself into a sprinting position. “Now!”

    Keke suddenly stood upright and fired an arrow from her bow. It soared through with purpose and struck the closest Encroacher through the side of the head. The creature collapsed over on its side, gurgling and coughing up violet blood onto the grass in a fit.

    There was no time to confirm the kill, no time to wait. As Keke fired a second arrow—this time, into its breast—I charged out of the bushes, racing to get in between the remaining beasts. They hissed at my appearance, and they were quick to run. Thanks to the surprise, though, I was able to do what I needed.

    “[Blessed Light]!” I heard Cannoli cry out.

    And just as she spoke, the light around my weapon erupted into a glare of blinding white light. The Encroachers reeled and writhed on the spot, each of them squinting their eyes in pain.

    Now’s my chance!

    Gripping both my hands around the axe, I swung it sideways at the one in front of me. The blade cut through the beast like butter, decapitating it. There was so much going on in my head, in my body. I hadn’t expected to behead it. I’d put a lot more force into the attack than necessary.

    My balance thrown off, I nearly hurled myself backward on the backswing. I’d realized it moments before the blade had made contact, thankfully, and was able to spin on my heel and regain my stance.

    “Matt, are you okay?” Keke called out.

    “I’m fine! Stick to the plan!”

    Okay, calm down. Not so much force this time.

    I still had time. I took one step forward, and this time measured my strength. I swung the axe sideways once more, beheading the second Encroacher. Its head fell to the ground with a thud, and the pools of blood joined together in the soil.

    Just as I was revving up to finish off the last Encroacher, it opened its eyes and slithered backward like a snake. It hissed and flicked its tongue at me. A stray arrow struck its side, prompting it to make a getaway into the forest. It was fast, far faster than I could run. The Encroacher slithered out of sight before I could even swing my axe, and I breathed an audible sigh.

    “Damn it!” said Keke.

    “Get ready,” mused Ravyn.

    Get ready? For what?

    “[Displace]!”

    And then I was gone. I blinked, and suddenly I was somewhere else. I could still hear the girls, but they were way far from where I was. What the hell? I ran toward the sounds of my party, and as I approached, I could hear them cheering. When I came to the clearing, there was the fourth Encroacher, burned to a crisp and lodged with arrows.

    I looked down at the Encroacher for a few seconds, then back up at the girls. “And you call me reckless?”

    Shouganai. It worked, didn’t it? Besides, now we have four Encroachers under our belt.”

    I’ll remember this.

    New Notifications!

    Matt has gained: 3 points of Energy!
    Matt has gained: 110 XP!
    Matt is now: Base Level 5!
    Matt is now: Class Level 5!
    Matt has gained: 1 Stat Point!
    Matt has gained: 1 Class Point!

    Keke has gained: 91 XP!

    Cannoli has gained: 83 XP!

    Ravyn has gained: 24 XP!

    [​IMG]
     
  7. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 42: One Cannot Step Twice in the Same River

    With another level beneath my belt and my gear situation figured out, we were ready to go to one of the other islands. I remembered Cailu saying that Ichi was a desert, but I couldn’t recall if he’d mentioned anything about Shi. The last man there was eaten by a dragon, but that didn’t necessarily mean there were dragons on Shi.

    The four of us found Portia on the dock, caring and crooning over her sloop like a newborn. You’ll have three of those soon, too, buddy. I pushed the thought of my future kids out of my head.

    “How’s sailing, Portia?” I called with a wave.

    “Oh, goddess in heaven, never been better!” Portia laughed. She hopped from the deck to the dock and greeted us with a smile. “She steers like a dream. And big enough to keep the damn roaches away.”

    Heh. I have a feeling that it isn’t just the boat that keeps them away,” Ravyn snickered.

    “You probably have a point, there. Got a few new weapons in the kit to boot.” Portia stretched her tattooed arms and cracked her neck. “What can I do for my favorite customers?”

    “We’re on a quest!” Cannoli announced. Buttons scurried into her hair and took a seat on the top of her head, bobbing his head in time with hers. “We need to find the men on the other islands!”

    Portia ran a hand through her cropped hair. “Hmm. Well, ya know where Cailu is. Though his purse is a lot lighter.”

    “Right. Not Cailu,” Keke agreed.

    “We need to go to Ichi Island and Shi Island. But I’m not sure where to start,” I admitted.

    “Ichi’s dangerous as hell. There’s a lotta high-leveled Encroachers and more Defiled there than Nyarlothep, as I heard it.” Portia crossed her arms. “And the desert is a pain to cross without the right Equipment.”

    “I went there once. I’m not looking forward to going back,” Ravyn added.

    Portia nodded. “Shi Island is, er, well.” She paused and chewed in thought. “Shi Island is strange.”

    “Strange how?” I asked.

    “It’s pretty harmless, I think. But the girls there, they’re a weird bunch,” Portia said.

    “They can’t be much weirder than Ravyn, right?” Keke asked with a dry laugh.

    Hey. Eat shit,” Ravyn snapped.

    Portia laughed. “If I had to choose between Ichi and Shi to visit first, I say Shi. It’ll be an overnight ride, but the sloop has plenty o’ room for all of us. We can take turns on watch.”

    “That sounds great. We should have enough Bells for the trip.” I dug through my [Cat Pack] and procured a section of the money left over from our Equipment run. We’d made a solid amount off of the four lizard Encroachers as well, so I knew we’d have enough money for inn stays and food. It was nice not scraping the bottom of the damn barrel for Bells.

    “Oh, Matt, I can pay my own way. It’s okay!” Cannoli said, also rifling through her pack. “We made lots yesterday!”

    “Let me have this one. You guys have done enough for me,” I insisted.

    Cannoli beamed. “Alright.”

    I paid, and we swapped to [Combat Mode] before boarding. Portia swiftly had us out to sea, and I sat down with the iPaw. I’d thought about where I wanted my points to go before I’d leveled, so it didn’t take much time to throw my Stat point into [Resistance] and the Class Point into [Adrenaline Rush]. After Cannoli’s explanation of [Resistance] and the Defiled’s Enchantment display, anything to resist that bullshit was welcome.

    Afterward, I took a seat on the stern near Portia while the girls relaxed below deck. “Did you have a good time on your own?”

    “Saoirse’s tits, yes,” Portia groaned in satisfaction.

    I laughed. “Saoirse? Who’s that?”

    “The goddess of this world. You didn’t know that?” She wrinkled her eyebrows. “You are a curious one.”

    I’d heard plenty of the girls talk about a goddess and a heaven, but it was the first time anyone had said her name. Was there a temple for her somewhere? Was she a ‘manager’ like Leiana? I made a mental note to ask more about her later. “Where’d you go?”

    “Made it to San and back in record time. Sailed around Ni for a day. I wanted to warm this baby up and get to know her better.”

    “Sounds like a great time.” The word ‘baby’ made me flinch. “Hey, Portia, you said your dad was around for a while, right?”

    “That’s right.” She took a seat next to me and dug two bottles free from a nearby bucket filled with ice. Passing one to me, she popped the cap and took a swig.

    I accepted the drink and did the same. It was ice cold and refreshing beneath the warm sun. “Does that happen a lot? I mean, dads staying around with their daughters.”

    Portia studied me for a time. “No, it doesn’t. I know I was really lucky to have him around for as long as I did.”

    I sighed. “How did he manage it?”

    After another drink, Portia replied, “From what my mom told me, for most of his daughters, he didn’t. I was the last of his kids, and my mom was his final partner. We had eight great years together.”

    “What happened to him?”

    She shrugged. “I remember a royal guard coming to the door and calling him away, and he never came home. Mom never told me what happened. She died a few years later.”

    Have all of you been alone for so long? “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    Portia gestured toward me with her bottle. “I don’t envy you, Matt. The men in this world have a hefty charge on their shoulders.”

    “I’m worried about the girls I won’t be there for,” I admitted.

    “Don’t be. We’re all more than capable of taking care of little ones. And if there’s trouble, there are plenty of nyannies to help ‘em out.”

    Nyannies. Jesus Christ. “I... see.”

    Portia clapped me on the back and chuckled. “You’re not a bad guy. Talking with you makes me miss my pops. He would’ve liked you.”

    I grinned. “Thanks.”

    Ano sa! How will the watch work later?” Ravyn called from the steps.

    “Guess we can figure that out now.” Portia shrugged.

    The ride was relaxing, and I’m happy to say there were no roaches on the way to Shi Island. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for five people to sleep, so we took turns on who got two of the beds. At least, that was the intent. What this really meant is that Keke and Cannoli fell into comas while Ravyn ribbed me raw, so I escaped out onto the deck to talk with Portia for most of the ride.

    Admittedly though, I was able to get more sleep than I thought I would. And when the morning came, we arrived on the island.

    The sloop didn’t need to dock for me to realize what I was looking at. There, just a few dozen meters away, were catgirls. Not just catgirls, though. What I beheld was something many men would have committed murder over.

    “Hey, Portia. You said they were a bit of an odd bunch?”

    “Yeah, keep your wits about ya.”

    That’s gonna be difficult.

    The port was small, under half the size of the Port of Meow. The service, though... Oh, the service.

    “Welcome to Shi Island.” A pair of identical twins dressed like French maids curtsied at the bottom of the ramp. “We hope you enjoy your stay!”

    Amazing. I give this island a perfect ten.

    I shimmied my way through from the back and descended the ramp. Eyes lit up, and mouths hung open as I drew closer. The twin on the left, a beautiful girl whose hair was short and teal in color, elbowed the twin on the right. The wounded catgirl mumbled something back to the perpetrator with a look of irritation, sweeping her long, golden-blonde hair behind her—the only recognizable difference between the two girls.

    “Hey there. My name’s Matt,” I said with a brief wave.

    Each of the girls awkwardly shifted and fidgeted with their hands, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d get even a peep out of them.

    “Hello?” I repeated.

    “Just say hi to him,” Ravyn snapped from behind me.

    The girls wagged their tails, a visible hue of pink on their cheeks. “Uh, um,” the teal one started.

    “Destiny, Lara, stop wasting time and see to it that our guests are taken care of!” boomed a voice from behind them. Another catgirl in maid attire was approaching at a brisk pace, her heels clicking against the stone. She stopped just before running into the girls in front of me, and she bowed at the waist, shooting a nasty glare in their direction. “Your nonsensical fantasies can wait another summer. They have just arrived, and I’m sure they are most exhausted from their venture. Have you even bothered to find out where they are from?”

    “N-no, Madam Celestia,” the teal one replied.

    Celestia shook her head. “A disgrace, Destiny. An absolute disgrace.”

    The blonde catgirl, who I assumed was Lara, slowly began to exit. When her back was completely turned, Celestia grabbed her by the collar without bothering to look at her. “You are not going anywhere, Lara.”

    “Oh, come on!” Lara complained.

    “Told you they’re weird,” I heard Portia whisper from behind me.

    “That’s really not necessary,” I said. “I understand if they were caught off guard by my sudden appearance.”

    Celestia adjusted the pince-nez glasses on the bridge of her nose and bore her sharp eyes into mine. It was unnerving, and a little voice inside of me said that this was not a woman whose bad side I’d ever want to see.

    “Unacceptable. Your kindness is noted. However, I do not tolerate such timidity and hesitation in my cloister.”

    Is this a religion?

    Celestia let go of Lara’s collar and spun her around, staring daggers into the poor girl. “I better not witness this again. Man or not, you are expected to uphold your duties to the best of your ability. If you are unable to, then you shall be replaced. Is that understood?”

    “Y-yes, Madam Celestia.” Lara was shaking in her boots, and frankly, I couldn’t blame her.

    What a hardass.

    “Very good.” Celestia drew back and passed looks between them. “The two of you are dismissed for an hour. I expect both of you to practice our mantra while I take care of our guests.”

    “Yes, Madam Celestia,” they said in unison.

    I watched them as they walked away, and I couldn’t help but feel a lot of empathy. I’d worked under bosses like this before, and gee, she had the same look in her eye as a Safeway manager on a short-staffed Sunday.

    “My humblest apologies,” Celestia said once more, bowing. “This sort of reaction is abnormal.” She straightened and held a hand out toward the dock. “If you would allow me, I would show you to the inn and a number of our finest eateries.”

    “T-thanks,” I said, tilting my head nervously.

    As Celestia began her walk, Keke and Cannoli closed in and flanked me, each of them with their hands on an arm.

    “That… was a little weird,” Keke mumbled.

    “Maybe we should leave,” Cannoli suggested in a whisper.

    “Nah, we got a job to do,” I replied. “Don’t worry, you can depend on me. I’m betting the island is safe with girls like this here. They seem to take their jobs seriously.”

    “A little too seriously,” Ravyn said with a raised brow.

    After we switched back into [Civilian Mode] at the suggestion of Celestia, she took us on a tour around the town. Portia politely declined, saying she was more than happy to find her own food and sleep on the boat. Save for the catgirls in maid outfits, one of the most noticeable things about the island was how organized everything was.

    The dirt roads had the same tufts of grass hanging over the borders from beginning to end, never breaking in pattern, all virtually identical in size. Hedge animals decorated lawns and gardens, and gorgeous arrangements of flowers could be seen from anywhere you looked. Homes were built with gable arches and points, many of them having one, two, sometimes even three hexagonal structures attached to the building. It reminded me of the old Victorian homes I’d ridden my bike past when I was a little kid.

    The entire island was exceptional. Shulan and the Port of Meow were spectacular in their own ways, but this was on a whole other level. Shi didn’t have the grandiose or mystery of San Island, but their architecture and grid-like layout of the homes and businesses was close to the level of modern-day Earth.

    “They must be loaded,” I murmured.

    “I apologize, Master. By what you do mean, ‘loaded?’” Celestia asked as she continued to guide us through the roads and alleyways. I admit I didn’t realize I’d spoken out loud.

    “Oh, I-I mean, like… ahem. I’m referring to this city looking very, uh, profitable.” Nice word choice, dude.

    Celestia pointed to an alley on her left and continued onward. “If you are referring to whether or not it costs a great deal of Bells to construct our neighborhoods, then no, you would be incorrect.”

    “Just exhausting, bone-breaking work,” Ravyn said. I turned around to see Keke and Cannoli had gifted her the same look of astonishment as I was now feeling. “Eck, my feet ache just thinking about it.”

    Celestia’s sharp gaze caught Ravyn, and for a moment, I thought she was going to go Terminator on her and pull a laser gun from under her skirt. To my relief, her gaze lasted mere moments.

    “From where do you hail?” asked Celestia.

    “Oh. I’m from—” I began.

    “My apologies, Matt,” Celestia said in a rather strange monotone voice, “but I was referring to the one in red.”

    “The one in red,” Ravyn mumbled, pushing her tongue against the inside of her cheek.

    Keke gripped Ravyn by the elbow, casting her a glare. “What are you doing?” she whispered as low as she could.

    Ravyn shook her arm away. “Name’s Ravyn. I’m from Shulan.”

    “The third island,” mused Celestia.

    “The very same.”

    “Do the orphans still commit theft?”

    I really don’t like where this is going.

    Ravyn furrowed her brow and lied easily, “Wouldn’t know. Left a long time ago.”

    “I see.”

    To not only my relief, I’m sure, Celestia arrived at our destination—a smaller home than the other elaborate Victorian estates. The front and center were box-shaped and flanking the sides were two hexagonal towers. A black wrought iron fence surrounded the entire building, and a pair of dragon-shaped hedges flanked the red-brick pathway.

    Smaller, but still ridiculously sized.

    There’s no way they aren’t loaded. How in the hell do they manage something like this?

    “This is where you will be staying if you so choose,” Celestia said, presenting the estate with a half-bow.

    “What does it cost?” I asked while reaching for my [Cat Pack].

    She shook her hand, glancing over at Ravyn. “For you, Master, no cost. Naturally, that also means that your companions will not be expected to pay anything either. Venicia is a hospitable town. We take care of our own, especially the men.”

    I’m so confused. Is this the norm? Have I just been getting the short end of the stick all this time?

    “Um, thank you,” I said, putting away my [Cat Pack].

    “What’s the catch?” said Ravyn.

    Oh my God. Can you not leave well enough alone?

    Celestia didn’t hide her glare. But it quickly morphed into a smile. “Why, there is no ‘catch’ in the town of Venicia. We strive to provide great service to our men and their fortunate companions. ‘Service, Grace, Urgency.’” Celestia held up a single finger, reciting the words back as if counting them to herself. “These are the three pillars that we practice and abide by each day.” Her smile widened. “I understand if it is a shock to someone from Shulan. Their greed is reprehensible.”

    I could practically hear the teeth grinding in Ravyn’s mouth, and before it could escalate, I raised a hand. “So, uh, where do we eat?”

    “Inside. There is a veritable array of fruits and vegetables. Please help yourself and pay no mind to the speed of consumption. If you require further, then you need only ring the Enchanted Bell.”

    “Where is this bell?” asked Keke.

    “A fine question. You will find many of them. There is one for each room in the house, including the basement and attic. They are silver and rest upon wooden countertops where available.”

    “Thank you, Celestia. I think we can take it from here.” I held out my hand, and Celestia shook her hand in refusal.

    “Please. This is fine enough.” Celestia curtsied. “Thank you for visiting Shi Island, Venicia, and gracing this humble town with your presence. We wish to serve you again soon.”

    With that, Celestia left at a casual pace. I’m sure she had other places to be, so maybe it was just the hustle and bustle of retail and food industries that had instilled that sense in me, but she was awfully slow-paced for an acting head maid. Manager? I don’t know.

    “Well, why don’t we get inside and talk about what to do next?” suggested Keke.

    “Alright, sounds good,” I said, nodding.

    Just as Keke reached for the latch around the gate, she pulled back in a yelp. “Ow, what the heck?”

    “Are you okay?” I asked with my hand outstretched.

    “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a weird shock.”

    “Static electricity,” I said with a chuckle. Her cheeks turned pink, and I reached for the latch this time. Nothing happened. “Looks like an ordinary latch to me.” I flicked it back and beckoned the girls in behind me. Cannoli was the last to enter, shutting the gate behind her.

    The steps leading up to the home were made of varnished wood. Have to say, I was impressed. To my surprise, the door didn’t have any type of lock. I thought this was a little strange since even Ni Island had locks on their doors, and everyone seemed to know everyone there.

    Guess it’s just a super safe neighborhood?

    I reached for the door handle, and this time it was my turn to be struck by the electricity. My hand jerked back and I whispered, “Ow!”

    “Your turn!” Keke said with a laugh.

    I laughed with her. But at that moment, a strange sensation came over me. It didn’t feel any different than a regular shock, but the spot around where my ear was pierced throbbed for a split second. I fingered the earring, and Ravyn shot me a suspicious look, clicking her tongue.

    With a bit of apprehension in my movement, I went for the handle again and pushed the door open. The inside was just as beautiful as the outside. Wooden floors shined to perfection, white silk drapes, four-panel window panes, and a spiral staircase were the first things I saw.

    That is until I saw the catgirl to my right.

    “Welcome home, Master!” she said brightly.

    Well, this is going to make things a little awkward.

    [​IMG]
     
  8. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 43: The Secrets That You Keep

    “It is my pleasure to serve you, Master,” she said. Twin violet braids trailed over her shoulders, distinct against the black of her uniform. Clear blue eyes peered at me behind a dusting of freckles on her pale face. A white flower was positioned above one silky ear on top of her head, and her swishing tail was the same brilliant purple as her hair. “My name is Lynn. My sister Ara and I will take care of you for the duration of your stay.”

    “Oh. So you’re a permanent fixture. Great.” Ravyn rolled her eyes.

    Keke chewed her lip, and Cannoli’s eyes flickered between us.

    “U-um, I’m certain we could maintain the house just fine. I can cook, and all of us can help clean,” Cannoli suggested.

    Lynn’s warm smile never faltered. “Please, we would hate for you to lift a single finger during your stay in Venicia. You need only call upon us, and we will ensure your comfort.”

    Damn, she’s adorable.

    A second maid appeared with dirty blonde hair but the same clear eyes and button nose. She bowed, her eyes lingering on me. “As she says, I’m Ara.” She paused, then licked her lips. “If there’s anything I can do to please you, Master—”

    Keke hauled her [Cat Pack] into Ara’s arms without warning. “If you could show us to our rooms, that would be great.”

    In an impressive display of dexterity, Ara caught it without so much as a fumble. Her grin widened, and she chuckled. “Of course.”

    Lynn and Ara led the way, and as we ascended the staircase on the far wall, and I couldn’t help but gawk. It was like an Airbnb on steroids. With maids. It would be easy to stack the Golden Dragon on top of itself and fit it inside. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about any other catgirls or elf assholes staying in the same place.

    Speaking of Cailu, we haven’t asked yet… “There’s already a man on this island, right?”

    Lynn glanced over her shoulder. “What do you mean?”

    “Are you new here?” Ravyn snapped. “Every island has a man. Where’s Shi’s?”

    “No need to be rude, Miss,” Ara replied, venom lacing her words. “Shi Island hasn’t had a man in a very long time.”

    “That isn’t what we heard,” Keke said.

    “I apologize, but you have been misinformed.” Lynn shook her head. “We have awaited a new Master since our last one perished years ago.”

    The dude a dragon ate? But Cailu said that was a long time ago. It was easy to tell that Ni Island hadn’t seen a man in ages by their low population. But Venicia was a lot bigger, and if nothing else, there was a lot of money here. So, who was populating it? And where were the Bells coming from? “Hmm.”

    “Are you quite certain?” Cannoli asked quietly, chewing one of her fingernails.

    Ara laughed. “Why wouldn’t we be certain? You only just arrived. Venicia is our home.”

    Cannoli blushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” Buttons appeared from the pocket of her dress and skittered up to her shoulder, bulging eyes narrowing at Ara.

    “Oh! What an adorable blazard!” Lynn noted, reaching back to scratch Buttons’ chin.

    He accepted and relaxed. “Thank you,” Cannoli replied.

    “I’m sure there was no offense taken. Right, Ara?” Lynn eyed her sister and continued to the top of the stairs until she paused at a tall, elegant door. The golden handle looked more expensive than my axe. “Here we are. Oh! I realize I do not know your names!”

    We introduced ourselves, and Lynn bowed again.

    “Thank you.” She smiled and pointed in turn to three more doors down the long hallway. “There are four separate rooms for you to enjoy. All have their own washrooms and equal amenities. Please choose whichever you like. And of course, you are more than welcome to share.”

    “Do we have any reason to stay?” Keke asked. “If there isn’t a man here, we should move on to Ichi as soon as possible, right?”

    While I agreed with her, a voice gnawing at the back of my mind insisted we needed to investigate further. I smiled and said as casually as I could muster, “Let’s at least rest the night. Better than sleeping on a boat, yeah?”

    Ravyn was already halfway down the hallway, opening the door farthest away from us. “I’ll take this one.” Ball remained oddly silent on her shoulder, beady eyes never settling on one thing.

    “Excellent choice, Miss Ravyn.” Lynn nodded.

    “I’ll take this one.” I knocked on the third door down, not wanting to split Keke and Cannoli from neighboring rooms.

    The two exchanged looks, and Keke gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. Cannoli sighed and went into the first room without a word. Keke triumphantly took the room next to mine.

    Well, that was awkward.

    “Perfect. Dinner is served at seven p.m. and will be formal dress, please,” Lynn said.

    “Wait. Formal dress?” All I had was what I was wearing and my Combat Equipment.

    She blinked and looked at me curiously. “Does your party require formal attire, Master?”

    I looked at the other girls.

    “What a bunch of bullshit,” Ravyn’s voice drifted from her room.

    “There is an Expert Tailor down the way who can fit you before then. Might I suggest giving them a visit?”

    “Lynn, maybe we can make an exception this time?” Ara asked.

    “Is this really a requirement?” Keke asked.

    Lynn wrinkled her nose at her sister. “It is custom in Venicia that dinners are celebrated together with the highest class and immaculate service—”

    “They’re right. I don’t think this is really necessary,” Ara interrupted.

    “A new dress would be nice,” Cannoli said thoughtfully.

    “Of course it’s necessary, Ara. We cannot forego tradition. What would Madame Celestia say?” Lynn countered.

    “But we’re in dresses,” Keke protested.

    “Please, I insist. We can have you ready by dinner without charge—”

    Kuso. Let’s go. She’s not gonna shut up.” Ravyn stormed through the hallway and snatched my arm. “You too, ladies.”

    I’d only ever owned a pair of slacks and a button-up. Maybe a tie in the depths of my dresser drawers. But the thought of seeing the girls in something fancy was enough to keep me marching down the street. The oddly empty, unnervingly quiet street.

    “Where is everyone?” Cannoli asked as we traversed the grass-flanked sidewalks.

    It wasn’t for lack of buildings, either. More massive houses lined either side of the walkway, separated by shops with colorful awnings and painted signs. Murmured talk could be heard inside the stores and movement behind the windows of the houses, but we were the only four people outside.

    “I don’t like this,” Ravyn murmured.

    Aromas of fresh-baked desserts wafted through the air: pies, cookies, cakes. They mingled with the scent of tea and honey. Someone laughed inside a nearby café, and it startled me. The normal sounds of a city were absent—the shuffling of feet, the whispers of passersby, or the relentless onslaught of bird calls. No breeze, no buzz, no anything.

    “This must be it.” Keke pointed at a store with pure white awnings and a spool of thread painted on the glass windows.

    I opened the door, and bells tingled in warning for the proprietress awaiting us. The girls entered first, and I followed, taking in the colorful dresses posed on mannequins and hundreds of bolts of fabric around the store.

    “Welcome!” A petite catgirl with curly auburn hair and hazel eyes hopped down from a stepladder. “Oh! Travelers! It is good to see new faces in Venicia!”

    Four pairs of eyes locked in on her midsection. She was pregnant. There was no doubt about it.

    No men, eh?

    She flushed and looked down at her stomach. The round orb protruded from her slight frame, pushing against her maid uniform with a prominence of an expecting catgirl. Stroking the outline, she coughed and said, “I-I’ve had a problem with my weight.”

    Keh. Kehehehe. Ahahaha!” Ravyn doubled over with laughter, covering her mouth with one hand and sputtering behind it.

    “Ravyn! It’s not nice to laugh!” Cannoli said.

    “Is it a kitten problem?” Keke asked, one eyebrow raised.

    She tugged at her hair and bowed as low as her stomach would allow. “Let me start over, please. I’m Notch. How may I help you?”

    “First, you can tell me where the other man is on this island,” I said.

    Notch shook her head furiously. “I-I’m sorry. You are mistaken.”

    “Come on, really?”

    “Master, if there is nothing I can assist you with, I must ask you to leave.” Notch was clearly becoming more uncomfortable by the second. Her knees trembled, and her eyes squeezed closed.

    Cannoli tugged on my sleeve and whispered in my ear, “Matt, she’s scared. We’re here for formal attire, remember?”

    She’s right. Don’t be a bully. “Sorry, Notch. Lynn asked us to come to you for formal clothes. We’re uncultured or something.”

    Notch stood and smiled, the tension evaporating from her shoulders. “That would be my pleasure! Who would like to go first?”

    “Oh! Me!” Cannoli raised her hand and hopped.

    I jerked my thumb toward her. “Cannoli would.”

    “This way, please!” Notch extended one arm, gesturing to the curtained-off portion of her shop, and Cannoli skipped to where she stood.

    When they disappeared, Keke, Ravyn, and I huddled in the front corner of the store.

    “Why are they pretending a man isn’t here?” Keke whispered.

    Ravyn shook her head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense.”

    “Maybe that’s one of Cailu’s?” I suggested.

    “No, I don’t think so. It’s looked down on to populate an island that isn’t yours. And he’s Nyarlea’s golden boy,” Ravyn replied.

    I flinched, thinking of Myrun. Great. Good job, Matt. “So, what do we do?”

    “I think all we can do right now is wait,” Keke said.

    “Unfortunately, she’s right,” Ravyn agreed.

    We mulled over in silence until the sound of shuffling fabric and excited murmurs returned to the main room.

    “What do you think?” Cannoli asked.

    “Woah,” I murmured.

    Beyond the cat ears, Cannoli looked as if she’d stepped out of a Victorian party with the Queen of England. The dress was a floor-length, sky blue ball gown with a bead-embroidered corset and belled sleeves.

    “I feel like a princess,” Cannoli giggled, spinning in place.

    Buttons popped up from inside her corset and licked his eye. Lucky lizard.

    “You look wonderful,” Keke said.

    “I am not wearing that,” Ravyn grumbled.

    Keke went next. Notch fitted her with a similar dress in forest green, tying her hair back into a low knot with a matching piece of ribbon.

    I followed Notch next, impressed by the speed of her measurements, pinning, and stitches. She moved with intense concentration and focus, making experienced alterations. Even though mine was a black-tie suit, it fit like a perfectly tailored suit should.

    “Wow, Matt! You look really handsome!” Cannoli clapped as I emerged.

    Keke slowly eyed me up and down, a smile creeping across her face. “I like it.”

    “Thanks,” I said with a slight bow. “And thank you, Notch.”

    “Of course, Master,” she turned to Ravyn. “And now you, Miss?”

    “I am not wearing the red version, dammit,” Ravyn cursed and disappeared. When she emerged, well, it was about as formal as I’d expected.

    “Now, this is more like it.” Ravyn posed and cackled. She wore floor-length a dress made of red velvet and black satin, the corset accentuating her ample chest and cinching her already small waist. How are her nipples not showing? The skirt cut high on the thighs at the center of both legs, putting a pair of fishnets on prominent display.

    ‘Dominatrix Sorceress’ came to mind. Even Ball had a little bow tie.

    “Does everything you wear have to double for lingerie?” I groaned.

    “Mmm, do you not like it, boy?” Ravyn sidled up to me, leaning her chest into mine. Her lips were only inches from my face, and her purple eyes burned into me. She licked her lips and lowered her voice. “Or would you rather see it on the floor?”

    I fought tooth and nail against my arousal and pressed my index finger into Ravyn’s forehead, slowly pushing her away from me. “How much do we owe you, Notch?” I called.

    Baka!” Ravyn barked and stormed away.

    “Oh! N-nothing! It’s on the house, Master!” Notch bowed again. “Thank you for visiting my shop!”

    “Are you sure? We’ve got enough to pay for it—”

    “No, Master, I am sure! To ask anything of you would go against our credo!” Notch insisted.

    I thumbed the lining of my jacket. God, I can’t imagine what I’d pay for a suit like this in my last world.

    “Thank you very much, Notch,” Cannoli said, curtseying. “If there’s anything we can do in return, please let us know?”

    I’m glad she’s better at this than I am. “Yeah. Anything at all.”

    “As you wish. Have a wonderful evening!”

    I’m still struggling to see why we dressed up for this.

    It was seven p.m., and the table had been set. An arrangement of silver cutlery, porcelain plates, and a single wine glass was placed at each seat. Beautiful floral patterns were etched into the plates, and judging from the incredible designs on the tablecloth, I had to imagine the setup alone cost a lot more than anything I’d ever owned in my old world.

    The aroma of freshly cooked food made its way to my nostrils, awakening an entirely different beast in my bones. My first instinct was to grab the fork and knife, pound on the table, and hoot and holler. Then I remembered that this was a town that seemed to value the presentation more than the act itself.

    I restrained myself as I sat down. The vest was a little tight around my stomach. Is it supposed to be this uncomfortable?

    Lynn gestured at me, motioning for a button around a make-believe vest of her own. I mouthed a “thank you” and unbuttoned the vest.

    Much better.

    The girls—that is to say, everyone except Lynn and Ara—seated themselves at the table. Cannoli sat beside me while Keke and Ravyn sat opposite of us. Unfortunately, since this was all arranged seating for God knows what reason, Ravyn sat directly across from me tracing the rim of her wine glass. She grinned and locked her eyes with mine. Under any other circumstances, and from probably any other girl, my heart would be beating a mile a minute. Instead, I frowned and tilted my head sideways, suspicious that she was up to something.

    “A girl could get used to this,” she said, raising and dropping her brow repeatedly.

    “It almost suits you. Almost,” I said back.

    Ravyn narrowed her stare, looking away from me and to the kitchen. “When’s supper?”

    “Dinner,” Lynn corrected with a raised finger. She’d been standing at the doorway for some time. I admired her determination to, uh, being a maid—but it was a little strange how dedicated she’d been. I’m sure Ara could handle it just fine, but I thought it odd that Lynn had no hand in the cooking thus far.

    “What are we having?” Cannoli asked as she played with the numerous bows and pins on her dress. She struggled to sit still, even after asking if there was anything she could do to help for the eighth time.

    You are too precious for this world, Cannoli.

    “Oh, it’s a surprise,” Lynn said with a wink.

    I have to admit, even if I didn’t trust her for a second, she sure was cute. I guess I’m a sucker for freckles.

    Mou ii,” Ravyn groaned. “As long as we get some hard shit in this glass,” she said, tapping the glass with her nail, “then I’ll be fine.”

    Lynn gasped and put a hand to her mouth, wide-eyed.

    I admit I was confused. Sure, Ravyn was trashy, but I didn’t think it garnered that kind of reaction.

    “You must not speak like that.” Lynn cleared her throat and adjusted her posture. “Each resident must uphold—”

    “Can it, tight-ass,” said Ravyn, sighing.

    Lynn bowed her head, and Keke passed Ravyn a dirty look. Oh, why did those two have to be sitting next to each other? Ravyn yelped and slowly turned her stare on Keke.

    Even if Keke wasn’t a fan of it, I have to say that while Cannoli was the obvious winner for the formal attire, Keke had that cute girl-next-door look. That kind of look where you’d see the tomboy get dressed up and prettified, and then everyone was amazed at how beautiful she really was. Not that she wasn’t beautiful already, but damn if she didn’t look incredible in that dress.

    “You should be mindful of where you are.” Keke seemed to be forcing each word.

    You’re struggling to fit into the mood, too, huh?

    “We’re not on Ni Island. We’re on Shi Island.”

    “Yeah, yeah,” Ravyn said with a wave of her arm.

    Ball Gag was resting on a perch that Lynn and Ara had set aside just for him. He’d yet to say anything since we first arrived, and not for one second did he seem capable of resting. He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but I thought it weird that not once had he interrupted Lynn or Ara, nor had he said anything, well, typical of Ball Gag.

    At least he wears a bow tie well.

    I rested my head on my chin and caught a shake of Lynn’s head. Just how long was it going to be until we could eat and escape this intense atmosphere?

    I sighed. “Do we have an ETA on when dinner’s going to be ready?”

    Lynn delivered a single nod. “It shan’t be more than ten minutes.”

    “Alright.”

    Ravyn and Keke frowned and looked at each other. Then they passed their looks to me. Did I miss something? Suddenly, a high heel struck my shin, and I audibly yelped. Ravyn continued to glare at me, and Keke’s stare was growing in strength.

    “Did I do something wrong?” I decided to ask.

    Ravyn clicked her tongue, and Keke deeply sighed. I looked over at Cannoli, who seemed to be oblivious to the entire matter.

    And then it hit me. One very simple sentence, one very simple term. ETA.

    My eyes widened, and I looked back and forth between Keke and Ravyn. Ravyn stifled a laugh, and Keke smiled wryly.

    There is a man here. And one way or another, we’re going to find him.

    [​IMG]
     
  9. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Bonus Quest: Yomi's Pact

    [​IMG]

    Yomi combed through the great library in Nyarlothep, adding any books she could find on [Dark Priest] to her growing pile on a nearby table. Cailu had taken a blessed afternoon off, surely sleeping with whoever showered him with the most attention. Naeemah constantly served as his active, unnecessary bodyguard, giving Yomi a rare chance at some much-needed alone time.

    Beyond his saccharine-sweet façade and the infuriating level of vanity, the main problem with Cailu was his outlandish expectations of Yomi and Naeemah. They had to be the best in their classes at all times. She’d seen enough fourth party members abandoned, ignored, and killed off with Cailu to know what happened if they weren’t. Needless to say, recruitment was closed.

    But there weren’t many [Dark Priest]s in Nyarlea to learn from. In fact, Yomi hadn’t met a single one. Every catgirl with an affinity for healing wanted to be a shining example of Saoirse—a pure, glimmering light of heaven in the dark. Yomi had never felt that do-gooder draw. She’d dabbled in [Mage] before she met Ravyn and liked it well enough. But two [Mage]s in the same party were redundant, and the thought of Ravyn healing was laughable. So, she’d turned to [Acolyte], half-listening to the Saoirse-worshipers in Shulan until she could escape to Nyarlothep and turn to the darker arts.

    Carting the remainder of her book haul to the table, Yomi began thumbing through them in search of anything that would help her understand her Class better. There were a fair amount of books on the history of Nyarlea and the Classes themselves. The requirements to reach them. And one book dedicated to the study of [Dark Priest] skills.

    “This is helpful.” Yomi set the skill book aside for closer inspection when another book caught her eye.

    Demonology was the simple title engraved into the leather cover with blood-red ink. It seemed more like a [Necromancer]’s guide, but she’d found it with the rest of the [Acolyte]-themed books.

    “Hmm.” She flipped it open and found the short introduction.

    [Demonologist] is not a Class for the faint of heart. [Acolyte]s who seek the pure path will not find solace here.

    “Well, this is interesting.” Yomi knew she still had some time before Level 30, but no reason not to look into her future options. Not when she’d worked so damn hard to get there.

    The pages were filled with complex diagrams and intricate magic circles. Spells, Enchantments, even potion recipes to assist a budding [Demonologist]. One Spell, in particular, stood out from the rest. [Summon Demon]. As far as she knew, that wasn’t available to [Dark Priest]. But, according to Demonology, the initial summoning seemed to involve a long and grueling ritual, along with forging a successful pact with the summoned demon.

    What if I could do it? Yomi mused. Who needs Cailu’s protection if I have a demon at my call?

    The ingredients would be expensive and take time to collect, not to mention the overwhelming possibility that it wouldn’t respond to a simple [Dark Priest]. I’ll brew a potion to increase my [Magic]. Her [Alchemy] was nearly mastered, after all. She supplied Cailu and Naeemah with endless concoctions to boost their Stats; she could make one of her own. What’s the harm in trying?

    Yomi brought Demonology and the [Dark Priest] Skill books to the receptionist. “I’d like to borrow these for thirty days, please. You can put them under Cailu’s name.”

    ---

    It took two full weeks and a lot of persuasive suggestions of roaches to kill to collect all of the ingredients. Yomi had encountered Ravyn just a few days before on the steps of the Guild Hall, and the knowledge that her former best friend had leveled nearly as quickly as Yomi had beneath Cailu’s prison egged her on. Were there any catgirls that had transcended their Class abilities? She prayed she was the first.

    After restless days and nights Leveling, item collecting, and Alchemy with Cailu and Naeemah, Cailu had offered them both a few days to themselves. Yomi jumped at the chance, returning to her modest home in Shulan and locking herself away from curious eyes. She’d cleared out the meager furniture in her common room, leaving only the wooden floorboards visible to the naked eye. Upon them, she painstakingly painted a magic circle with the sanguine essence of hundreds of Encroachers, mirroring the design in Demonology.

    Five candles perched at the pointed ends of the inner pentagram, infused with her hair, fingernails, and blood. It wasn’t the first time she’d considered just how much of her blood this Class would consume, but what did it matter? If her body could be of any use at all beyond Cailu’s puppet, any cost was worth it.

    She’d mixed the Magic potion with a fair bit of alcohol in a tankard. Whatever happened, a little liquid courage couldn’t hurt. When the preparations were complete, and she’d checked the locks on the doors for the fourth time, Yomi chugged the potion to the last drop. No turning back now. Magic pulsed through her veins and set every nerve on her skin on edge while the alcohol burned in her stomach. She snatched the silver blade she’d had specially forged for this very moment and drew a scarlet line from her inner elbow to her wrist.

    “With my voice, I call you. With my life, I beseech you. I am Yomi of Nyarlea. [Dark Priest] and servant to your will.” The circle began to emit an eerie glow, shining in Yomi’s heterochromatic gaze. She held her arm forward, tilting her wrist to allow the crimson droplets to trickle downward and splash against the floorboards. “I summon you, demon!”

    Her blood sizzled in the circle, and the flames of the candles flickered in a non-existent wind. Yomi felt the pull on her Magic as if a hand had reached inside of her chest and gripped her heart. Her shallow breathing clenched in her throat as more blood flowed and seeped into the floor. A shimmering void the size of the circle replaced her floorboards, and a dark form ascended to the surface.

    Yomi’s eyes widened, and her fingers trembled. I did it. I really did it.

    The ebony creature standing before her was three heads taller, with an elongated head like a ram’s and horns that curled behind animalistic ears. It had the chiseled torso and arms of a man, but the legs were hooved and covered with thick tendrils of black hair. A leather loincloth dangled between its legs, resting loosely on its defined hips, but it was otherwise nude.

    “Yomi,” the creature growled her name in a deep baritone, flexing its long fingers into tight fists. It blinked, glowing golden eyes picking her out in the dim candlelight. “You call me under false pretenses.” It took a step forward, ensnaring one hand in Yomi’s hair and lifting her to her feet. “I have killed mortals for less.”

    Yomi laughed. The grip against her scalp hurt, and the cut on her arm throbbed. But what did it matter? Let them find her as nothing but a smear against the wall in the morning. Let it be known that she successfully performed a Skill beyond her class. Let Cailu find another damned healer.

    It paused, the audible grind of its teeth sounding before a question, “Why do you laugh?”

    “These aren’t ‘false pretenses.’”

    “You do not have the power to control me,” it rumbled.

    “Then say I don’t want to control you. Say I only wish to call on you in times of extreme need.” Yomi challenged, staring straight into the yellow gaze.

    “How does that differ?” The grip tightened.

    Yomi fought back her flinch. “You can choose when to assist me.”

    There was a silent pause. At last, he released Yomi’s hair. “Interesting.”

    “Do you have a name?” Yomi asked.

    “Belial.” He fingered Yomi’s ears and hummed. “You also have an animal aspect?”

    “Yes.” Yomi hadn’t realized she was different until she’d seen Cailu’s pointed ears situated on the side of his head. She wrapped her tail to the front and let it rest in his palm. “It seems we have that in common.”

    “I have had many masters. But none that share this quality.” Belial wrapped his own slender tail around his side, offering it for Yomi to examine. It had a tuft on the very end, like a lion’s.

    “I am not your master. You said so.” Yomi traced its length in her hands, playing at the fuzzy ends with curiosity. It seemed… cute, for a demon.

    “Yomi, if you truly wish to forge a pact, it will require an additional show of desire.” He gently stroked her tail.

    Yomi shivered. “What do you mean?”

    “You must fornicate with me.”

    Yomi’s veins turned to ice. Surely, he didn’t just say that. That was the booze talking. “W-why?”

    Belial smiled, as much as a ram’s head would allow you to smile. Like a furious curling of lips with a glimmer of white teeth. “So we may carry one another’s base essence. It will allow me to hear and feel you calling me.”

    He was serious. Why would a creature that could have rendered her an unrecognizable pile of gore lie? “Alright.”

    “Are you certain?”

    “Yes.”

    [​IMG]

    [Memory stored and saved for Catgirls. . .]

    ---

    The pulsing between Yomi’s legs refused to cease, but Belial lifted her free all the same, laying her gently on the ground. His eyes shining with satisfaction, he licked his lips as he traced a pattern around her navel with his index finger.

    “The pact is sealed, Yomi of Nyarlea,” he murmured, a mild stinging sensation framing Yomi’s belly button. “Call my name, and I will aid you where I am able.”

    Yomi glanced down as she caught her breath. Belial had carved a runic symbol on her stomach. “Thank you, Belial.”

    Belial hummed his response and vanished.

    Yomi rolled to her side, quivering with thirst, and stared at the circle.

    If I call him, would he do that to me again?
     
  10. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Side Quest: Turkey Day

    [​IMG]

    “What’s a turkey?” Portia leaned on the balls of her feet, snooping over the top of the wooden table at the list Papa was making.

    He grinned and turned to grasp Portia beneath her arms and lift her into his lap. Portia tucked her tail to the side, resting it in her lap. “You heard mom and me talking?”

    “Mhm.” Portia glanced over the list, recognizing some of the letters and words, but Papa’s scrawl was difficult to read. She squinted her eyes and wiggled her loose tooth with the tip of her tongue. “Something about fanksgiving?”

    “Thanksgiving, yes.” Papa picked up his quill and dipped it in ink, sketching swift circles and curled lines. “A turkey is a kind of bird. Like a chicken, but a lot bigger.” He drew a long neck and a thick body. A half-circle of tail feathers jutted from the bird’s backside, and a thin piece of something dangled from its neck.

    “It looks so weird!” Portia giggled. “What’s that part?” She pointed at the dangling section.

    He tapped the point of the feather against the parchment and frowned. “Huh, it’s been a while. A wattle, I think?”

    “A ‘wattle’? What does it do?” Portia loved watching the roaches around their house and at the dock, trying to figure out what each of their spikes and claws and limbs was for. But this thing looked useless.

    “Makes them look pretty to find a mate, I believe.”

    “Does mama have a wattle?”

    Papa barked a laugh. “No. Mom doesn’t have a wattle.”

    Portia had more questions but knew she would lose sight of the turkey if she kept going. She forced herself back to her first train of thought. “Hmm. So, what does a turkey have to do with fan— Thanksgiving?” She quickly corrected herself.

    “Well, where I was raised, everyone celebrated Thanksgiving around this time of year, and most folks put a turkey on the table for the holiday. Guess I was just waxing nostalgic with your mom.”

    Portia narrowed her eyes and looked up at Papa with a mirrored green gaze. “You were what?”

    Papa chuckled. “Sorry, baby. I was remembering Thanksgiving, that’s all.”

    “Why a turkey? Why not a fish? Or a chicken?” Porta traced the outline of the giant bird with one tiny finger. A drop of ink caught her skin and followed the trail, adding a bit of shade to its feathers.

    “You know, that’s a great question. They probably had it at the first Thanksgiving.” Papa wrapped his arms around Portia’s waist and held her close. He kissed her head, his mustache tickling her ears. “I’ve been here quite a while, and I still forget how difficult it is to explain where I’m from sometimes.”

    “I like your stories!” Portia insisted, leaning back against his chest. Papa’s hugs were the best—safe and warm and strong. “What else do you do at Thanksgiving?”

    “Well, you give thanks, for one. My family and friends would sit around the table and each name something they were thankful for.”

    “Hmm.” Portia stared at the turkey and thought hard, tonguing her loose tooth. She’d be most thankful if that darn thing would come out of her head. “I’m thankful for you and mama!”

    Papa grinned and squeezed her tight. “Well, my dear, you took the words right out of my mouth.”

    “What else did you do?”

    “Well, besides the turkey, families would cook a big meal. All kinds of fruits, vegetables, fresh-baked bread, pies.”

    Portia’s eyes widened. “How did you eat so much food?”

    “Slowly,” Papa said. “And then you’d eat the rest for leftovers.”

    Portia imagined their small dinner table stacked with steaming fish, mashed spiny potatoes, meozuna greens, and fresh nyapple pie. Her mouth watered, and she licked her lips. “Can we have Thanksgiving? You and mama and me?”

    “I don’t see why not. But we’d have to help her with the cooking. Think you’re up to the task?”

    “Yes!” Portia loved helping mama cook. “But, can we still have one? If we don’t have a turkey?”

    “Of course, love.” Papa tickled Portia’s sides, and she giggled. “Thanksgiving isn’t really about the turkey. Just spending time with the ones most dear to you and remembering what you’re thankful for.”

    “Could we fish together? And then we can help mama cook it?”

    “I’d love nothing more.” Papa set Portia back on the ground and stood. “Why don’t we go now? Thanksgiving dinner won’t catch itself.”

    Portia skipped off to the porch in search of their rods and tackle boxes.

    This would be the best Thanksgiving anyone had ever had!
     
  11. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 44: Manners Maketh Man

    The next morning, we gathered around the breakfast table under the watchful eyes of our sister maids. It was strained and quiet, and Ball’s continuing vow of silence made me more uncomfortable than I wanted to admit. But Ravyn fed him bits of fruits and toast from the table while watching Lynn with a deep frown and narrowed eyes.

    Lynn either didn’t notice or was queen of keeping her calm. She smiled sweetly and asked, “Will you continue to stay with us?”

    “Yeah. This place is a nice getaway from Ni. Right, guys?” I asked, spooning through my oatmeal without much of an appetite.

    “Oh yeah. It’s great,” Keke replied with a smirk.

    “Do you, um, have any suggestions on what we can do? Like in town?” Cannoli asked, stroking Buttons’ head and spooning him some applesauce. “It seems like a lot of places are closed.”

    Lynn nodded her understanding. “This does tend to be a quieter time of year. You are the first visitors we have hosted in quite a while. Hmm, let’s see.” She gave the question a lot more thought than it deserved.

    Wondering where we can go that we don’t see pregnant catgirls?

    “Oh! I don’t suppose you like ice cream?” Lynn clapped her hands.

    Cannoli gasped and slammed her hands against the table. Buttons jumped in surprise and rushed up her arm and behind her neck. “I love ice cream!”

    I looked at Keke and Ravyn. “Is ice cream hard to come by?”

    Keke nodded. “It’s expensive to make and expensive to store for long periods of time.”

    “There’s been a sugar shortage lately,” Ravyn added.

    Well, that’s a bummer.

    Lynn continued, “There is a café just around the corner that specializes in many flavors of ice cream. Felsi would love to see new faces!”

    Cannoli turned her pleading gaze and clasped hands on me. “Please, Matt! Can we go get ice cream?”

    “I don’t see why not.” With that face? I’d agree to jump off a cliff.

    “Yay! Oh my goodness! Ice cream!” Cannoli scooped a dazed Buttons into her palms and nuzzled her cheek to his. “You get to try ice cream, Buttons!”

    Ravyn tossed a grape to Ball, and he caught it in his beak.

    “He’s been oddly quiet,” Keke said, watching the display with mild interest.

    “Mm,” Ravyn replied noncommittally.

    Good talk.

    “Ice cream! Ice cream!” Cannoli sang to Buttons.

    Lynn giggled.

    Never change, Cannoli.

    We made our way to the ice cream shop with Cannoli making up new songs about the frozen dessert along the way. I was surprised that Ravyn remained silent—anyone singing usually grated on her nerves like sandpaper. She’d seemed distracted all morning and lulled behind us as we walked.

    “Good morning!” A cheerful voice greeted from behind a narrow, oak counter. A catgirl with a wild mane of bubble-gum pink hair and shining grey eyes waved us in. Over her maid uniform was an apron with a tiny ice cream cone embroidered into the corner.

    “Is this the ice cream shop?” Cannoli asked, sounding as if she was about to burst.

    “There was ice cream painted on the window,” Keke teased.

    “You noticed! I did that myself.” Pink-hair grinned and bowed.

    “Are you Felsi?” I asked.

    “The one and only!” Felsi skipped behind a row of tubs shielded by glass.

    The set-up reminded me a lot of the ice cream stores from home. Uncomfortably so. In fact, I would have bet money that someone from my last world strongly influenced the whole shebang.

    “This is pretty amazing,” Keke murmured, leaning over the glass and studying the still-frozen ice cream beneath. “How do you keep them all cold? I imagine that takes a lot of ice?”

    Felsi giggled. “No. These bars here are infused with ice magic.”

    “You’re a [Wizard]?” Ravyn raised an eyebrow. “And you’re serving ice cream?”

    “Squaawk! What a hack! What a hack!

    I think all of us jumped except Ravyn at Ball’s proclamation.

    Felsi blushed, but her smile remained. “Owning my own store was my dream. And ice cream makes people so happy!”

    “Wow! There are thirty-one flavors!” Cannoli cried.

    Alright. This is definitely a Baskin-Robbins knock-off.

    A door behind Felsi swung open, and a tiny kittengirl with a mass of pink curls and green eyes cuddled a stuffed animal waddled to Felsie’s leg and tugged on her apron. The four of us watched in stunned silence.

    “Oh! Solonie, honey, I’ll be there in just a moment, alright?”

    “Mm,” the kittengirl hummed and nodded, looking up at the rest of us with wide eyes. “Stwangers?”

    “Visitors, sweet. I won’t be but another minute.”

    “Okie.” Solonie waddled back through the door, letting it swing shut behind her.

    “That your kid?” Ravyn asked bluntly, crossing her arms.

    Such tact. What a party face.

    Felsi shrank beneath Ravyn’s gaze. I felt bad for her. Solonie was obviously something we weren’t meant to see.

    “I’ll take pawmegranate chip, please!” Cannoli shouted, pointing enthusiastically to a tub of pink ice cream. “Two scoops!”

    “Yeah, I’ll have that too,” Keke agreed.

    “Of course, coming right up!” Felsi sighed with relief and rushed away from the weight of Ravyn’s gaze.

    Kuso. Why did they interrupt me?” Ravyn growled.

    I shrugged. “It was a pretty rushed interrogation.”

    “That would have won us an answer,” she snapped. “Whatever. I’ll be outside.”

    I know, Ravyn. I hate this, too. I ordered the same ice cream as Keke and Cannoli, then paid for all of us before we joined Ravyn outside.

    “This is so good!” Cannoli squealed, licking her spoon with delight.

    Watching her tongue work was more than distracting. It didn’t help that Keke gave me a knowing glance with hers still in her mouth. You tease.

    “Matt. Look.” Ravyn punched my arm and pointed off into the distance.

    I cleared my throat and readjusted my legs, hoping to ward off Keke’s wandering gaze as I followed her finger.

    At the entryway of a particularly large estate, a catgirl slid past the door, looked around her immediate surroundings, then marched down the stairs at a clip. Her outline disappeared over the horizon, but another catgirl came into view just as she did. With the same determined pace, she strode up the stairs and vanished behind the front door.

    “Party at that house,” I murmured.

    “That’s the third girl I’ve seen go in there,” Ravyn replied. “I think we’ve found him.”

    “Time to check it out?”

    “Yeah.”

    We let Keke and Cannoli finish their ice cream, watching two more girls arrive and leave. Were they swapping him out that quickly? I had a hard time believing that. Regardless, the four of us made our way to the party house—‘mansion’ was a better word, I think—and took a precursory look around before stepping inside.

    There were no maids to greet us, and the entryway was silent. Fine art, decorations, and trinkets from the other islands decorated almost every inch of the damn place. A grand marble staircase at the center of the front room, like the Titanic on steroids, led to multiple other floors of the estate. I heard a giggle from the back corner of the room and spied a catgirl passing between two carved pillars holding the next floor aloft.

    “Do you see her?” I whispered.

    “Yeah,” Ravyn replied.

    “See who?” Keke murmured.

    “She’s right there.” I pointed toward the dark-haired maid in the back. “In that hallway. It’s kind of off to the side.”

    “Matt, there’s nothing there,” Cannoli replied, tilting her head in confusion. “It’s just a wall.”

    Ravyn and I exchanged looks, and a booming voice sounded behind the four of us.

    “Dear visitors! What brings you to the Venicia School of Etiquette?” Celestia had a knack for making her questions sound like demands.

    We turned to meet her piercing gaze. I could feel Cannoli shrink beside me, sidling closer to me as the fires of Celestia’s stare brushed her.

    “We were curious. There seemed to be a lot of activity here,” Keke replied calmly.

    Always the best under pressure. Good job, Keke.

    “Of course there is activity! Each and every catgirl on Shi Island must attend the Venicia School of Etiquette. It is the highest honor to graduate from our establishment.” Celestia smiled; her glittering teeth looked like fangs. “Service, Grace, Urgency!”

    “Uh-huh. And which part of ‘Service, Grace, Urgency’ covers fucking the man you’re hiding?” Ravyn said, staring Celestia down.

    Emergency! Squawk! Emergency!” Ball wailed.

    Tact, Ravyn! Just a little tact?

    Celestia’s smile only broadened, her eyes cold and hard. “I beg your pardon?”

    “Apologies, Celestia, it’s been a long couple of days,” I interrupted, moving to intercept whatever blow may be headed Ravyn’s way.

    Celestia clenched her hands, then rested them clasped in her lap. “Of course, Master. I completely understand. I do believe it is time for lunch. May I suggest swiftly returning to your quarters? It would be a shame to miss such a wonderful meal.”

    “I agree. Let’s go,” I said.

    Keke and Cannoli didn’t have to be told twice. They were out the door before I could say another word. Ravyn was a different story. I tugged on her arm, and she yanked it back, fury twisting her expression.

    “What you’re doing is wrong,” Ravyn snarled at Celestia.

    “Training ladies in the ways of etiquette?” Celestia politely laughed. “I shan’t think so. Though, I imagine a young woman of San Island would certainly have a difficult time understanding manners.”

    Ravyn growled.

    “This isn’t the time or the place, Ravyn.” I tugged again.

    At last, Ravyn moved, joining me on the way out. Once we were out of Celestia’s earshot, I dropped her arm and my voice. “Hey, we’re gonna figure this out, okay?”

    Ravyn’s anger was palpable. But she gave me a curt nod and stormed back to our lodgings.

    I joined Keke and Cannoli, and we quietly followed in her wake.

    Night fell. Accompanying us at the dinner table were the chirps and buzzings of grasshoppers and crickets. I watched as Ravyn glared at each of us under the candlelight like some tough-as-nails gumshoe.

    She put a finger to her lips, and Keke, looking half-ashamed of herself, nodded and bowed her head. I moved to speak, but I received an immediate look of disapproval from Ravyn.

    Keke, it’s okay. There’s no way you could’ve known.

    Ravyn yanked a feather from Ball’s wing, and Ball twitched and squirmed. He never made a sound, but his squinted eyes and his refusal to keep his attention on anything for more than a couple of seconds said he had bigger worries than the pain of a single feather being plucked from him.

    Ravyn dipped the makeshift blue quill into a small ink bottle at the center of the table, then started to scribble on a piece of paper in front of her. Despite the fact that we didn’t have a pair of, albeit cute, catgirls to dictate where we sat, we ended up in the same seats as usual when Lynn and Ara were awake.

    Guess I’m a conformist.

    Ravyn sure did take her time scrawling her missive. We sat there for at least a couple minutes. Keke remained slumped-shouldered and heavy-lidded, chewing on her lower lip with remorse. Cannoli played a game with Buttons on the table, trying to make him guess which fist she’d hidden a carrot in for him. There were a few times where I’d raise my hand and open my mouth, but either by my own realization, one of the other girls kindly reminding me with some sort of gesture, or even worse, getting that “I’ll fucking kill you” glare from Ravyn peeking up from her paper, not a peep came out of my mouth.

    After some of the longest few minutes of my life, Ravyn nodded to herself, spun the paper around, then pushed it toward me. With a single finger, I slid the sheet of paper to the edge of the table, then began to read.

    First of all, what fucking right does she have harnessing such impeccable penmanship? My half-assed scribbling would never come close to this. I cleared my throat and silently mouthed the words on the paper.

    As I expressed earlier, none of us are to speak while in this house. Please be sure it is common knowledge that you would be comfortable sharing with a stranger if you must speak. As far as Lynn and Ara are aware, we are resting at this moment. Finally, please complete your sentences on this page with ‘this is’ and your name. Is that understood? This is Ravyn.

    I frowned. Who the hell’s writing was I looking at? There were more ‘pleases’ on this paper than I’d ever heard her say aloud. And why did she take so long to write a single paragraph? I looked up at Ravyn.

    She was leaning on her elbow, tapping a single finger against the table with impatience.

    I have to admit. It was very difficult not to laugh.

    Ravyn’s glare was growing in strength, so I gave Ravyn a simple thumbs-up, and I shifted the paper and pushed it to my left, toward Cannoli.

    Cannoli looked at it with wide eyes, nodded, then reached out with her hand, opening and closing her fist. The carrot fell free, and Buttons scrambled to its location, munching away happily as Ravyn raised a brow and handed her the quill. Cannoli scratched her own note into the paper, and admittedly, it was a far cry from Ravyn’s aristocratic handwriting.

    Cannoli pushed the paper toward Keke. Keke put a hand to her mouth as she accepted the quill from Cannoli.

    Keke wrote her own response onto the sheet, then pushed it back over to Ravyn.

    Ravyn received the paper, and I watched as Ravyn’s face gradually grew redder and redder. Her brow flattened, and she set the paper flat on the table, practically ripping the quill out of Keke’s hand.

    Another couple of minutes passed, and Ravyn pushed the paper toward me. I picked it up and mouthed it off again.

    As I expressed earlier, none of us are to speak while in this house. If you must speak, please be sure it is along the lines of something you would share with a stranger. As far as Lynn and Ara are aware, we are resting at this moment. And please complete your sentences with ‘this is’ and please input your name. Is that understood? This is Ravyn.

    “I understand! I won’t say a word! By the way, Ravyn, your writing is so pretty! Did you learn that in Shulan? This is Cannoli!”

    “Don’t worry, won’t say a word. So what’s the plan? This is Keke.”

    Look, you fucks. From this point on, do NOT touch the bells again. Keke, Cannoli, I know both of you have already touched them. However, please refrain from doing so from this point forward. There’s something wrong with them, and I need to investigate them further. This is Ravyn.”

    I took the quill from Ravyn and wrote the words, “I understand. So let’s talk. What’s the plan? I think it’s pretty clear that the man is inside the etiquette school somewhere. This is Matt.” Afterward, I passed it to Cannoli.

    Cannoli passed to Keke, then from her to Ravyn. Ravyn paused with her head resting on her palm, tapping at her cheekbone in thought. Another few minutes later, Ravyn passed the paper back to Keke. Keke scribbled a few short words, then after Ravyn did the same, Ravyn passed me the quill and paper next.

    I twirled the quill in my hand as I read.

    I’m not sure. Should we try and sneak in during the daytime? Because there would be a lot of guards walking around during the night, right? Also, I’m really sorry about touching the bell. I had no idea :( - this is Cannoli.

    I think we should go during the evening. Even if there are guards, I can see just fine in the dark. It would also help if we had the veil of darkness to hide us. I feel really bad about the bells. Do you know what kind of Enchantment it was? This is Keke.

    Infiltration during the evening will be our best chance. I’m with Keke on this one. As far as the bells are concerned, please do not worry. They are smaller, weaker Enchantments. They may wear off if they’re not applied within a certain timeframe. So if we’re lucky, you girls might be better tomorrow. I know it’s an illusion Enchantment of some sort. That much was evident when neither of you could see the room. This is Ravyn.”

    Still, though. I’m sorry. This is Keke.

    It’s okay. You could not have known. Let’s focus on the plan. This is Ravyn.

    I had to admit, it was a little spooky reading Ravyn’s writing. I swore I was reading someone else’s penmanship. She used very few contractions, and her vocabulary was a lot kinder—well, save for ‘You fucks.’ If only we could see this version of Ravyn more often.

    I wrote my own response, and we circled the paper around once more.

    So this illusion magic. Can an Enchantment have more than one effect beyond the illusion? I'm worried that there's more to it than what we've seen. Getting further into the school is dangerous unless we know what all could happen. This is Matt.

    It was just that wall, right? That you could see, but we can’t? This is Cannoli.

    It might not be. The only reason the wall was so easy to identify was because it was something that stuck out. We wouldn’t question a gilded spoon or minor differences in color or appearance. This is Keke.

    That’s a good point. As far as its power is concerned, it should be one of those set-it-and-forget-it types of spells. The Enchanter could be Lynn or Ara. Such a weak spell may require them to Enchant the bell on a daily basis. With that in mind, they should not be able to alter its effects after the victim has touched the bell. This is Ravyn.

    So the entire place might be bug—” I scratched the word out. How would they know what ‘bugged’ meant? “So they might be listening, too? This is Matt.

    I don’t like that. Then, what do me and Keke do?

    You forgot to put your name down, Cannoli. I think we should scout out the manor and talk more tomorrow. Outside of the house. Worst case scenario, Cannoli and I can be distractions while Matt and Ravyn try to locate the man. This is Keke.

    We have plenty of Bells to continue staying here, so let us bide our time and be patient. If at some point we could confirm the Enchantment has been dispelled, then all the better. That’s not something I can do in a day, though. I suggest we wake up a little earlier than normal, get a headstart. This is Ravyn.

    Alright, I’m game. Let’s do it. This is Matt.

    I took a moment to look over and see what Cannoli was writing. I imagined her with a cellphone, and the thought of her emoji-ridden texts warmed my heart.

    Sorry! I forgot! Then it’s a plan! This is Cannoli :)

    Cannoli passed the paper to Keke, and without writing anything down, handed it to Ravyn. Ravyn took a minute to look over all the responses, then nodded to each of us.

    Guess I’m about to see if my years of playing stealth games did anything for me.

    [​IMG]
     
  12. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 45: He Is What He Hides

    As we quietly picked at our breakfast the next morning, I realized a presence I’d just barely become accustomed to was absent.

    “Where’s Lynn?”

    Ara stood alone in the corner, watching our interactions with a sharp eye. “She was reassigned where her talents are more warranted.”

    “Why? She was doing fine here.” Even if we couldn’t speak openly in the house, Lynn was good at creating topics that we could discuss.

    “I apologize for the inconvenience, Master. I assure you, I will address your every need to your utmost satisfaction.” Ara grinned and bowed. “Whatever that may be.”

    “Hey, we get it. Your snatch is open for business. Just stand quietly over there and let me eat,” Ravyn snapped.

    Ara flushed, and her smile vanished. She averted her gaze and instead focused on dusting the already immaculately clean furniture.

    Keke hid a grin behind one hand. Cannoli stared at Ravyn in horror.

    I cleared my throat. “So, what new adventure should we have today?”

    “I saw a shop yesterday I’d like to visit,” Cannoli replied timidly. “There were stuffed bunnies in the window. And games!”

    A toy store in business with no man present? They’re not very good at hiding him. “Sure, we can check that out.”

    “Hmm,” Ravyn tapped a finger against her teacup. “Is there a store for Cooking supplies?”

    Ara remained silent.

    Ara ara!” Ravyn snapped, then paused, snickering at the irony. “Ara, you can speak now.”

    Ara worked her jaw. “Yes, Miss. Indeed there is. Stationed by the Tailor.”

    “Oh! What about Fishing?” Keke asked.

    “Yes, Miss. Close to the dock,” Ara said flatly.

    “Can we go there, too?” Keke’s eyes shined.

    “I don’t see why not.” Better to fill the time with something while we figured out how to navigate the damn school. I finished my drink and stretched. “Let’s get started?”

    Keke crooned over her new shiny tackle box as we browsed the store dedicated to Cooking. Sharpened utensils, expensive gadgets, and pots and pans lined the walls and shelves. Cannoli ooh’d and aww’d over every little thing like a kid in a candy store.

    “Cannoli, come here,” Ravyn called, ushering Cannoli to a long display of pans.

    Cannoli shuffled over to Ravyn’s side, staring at the options in wonderment. She traced the outline of one with her fingertips and shivered. “These are so nice.”

    “Pick one,” Ravyn said.

    Cannoli’s eyes nearly burst out of her head. “What?”

    “You can’t feed this one to wrigglewrots, understand?” Ravyn stroked the quivering Ball on her shoulder.

    “I-I couldn’t possibly. They’re too expensive!” Cannoli glanced at the price tags and shook her head. “I can find one on Ni—”

    “What about this one?” Ravyn lifted a jet-black cast-iron beast with an inner lining that looked stainless steel. “It’s made of two different metals. That’s impressive craftsmanship.”

    “Might I suggest a piece that is more novice-friendly?” Celestia appeared from behind the counter.

    What the fuck? She wasn’t there ten seconds ago.

    Keke moved to my side and whispered. “Why is she here?”

    I shook my head.

    Ravyn twirled the pan in her wrist, locking her gaze with Celestia’s.

    Christ, please don’t hit her with the pan.

    “It’s not for me, madame,” Ravyn spat.

    “Yes, so I heard. You wish to purchase one for your friend?” Celestia grinned. “I can only imagine the quality of Cooking from a minor outlying island like Ni.”

    “Her Cooking is better than any of the shit I have eaten here,” Ravyn countered.

    “Oh! Might I suggest returning home post-haste, then? If we are not to your satisfaction?” Celestia clasped her hands at her chest. “We live to serve and fulfill your desires, Miss. We are a people of culture. I can understand the disconnect.”

    “She’s ruthless,” I murmured. Keke nodded.

    “R-Ravyn, it’s okay,” Cannoli whimpered.

    “Give me the most expensive one you have,” Ravyn demanded.

    Celestia peered down her long nose, eyes sparkling through the tiny frames of her glasses. “I am not certain you can afford such a piece.”

    “Oh? Now it’s your job to assume?” Ravyn cackled. “I’d appreciate it if you'd wrap it nicely, too. It’s a gift after all.” She strode proudly to the checkout counter and seized a hefty bag of Bells from her [Cat Pack], holding them aloft and wiggling the pouch back and forth. “We can count them together if it’s too difficult for you.”

    The haughty, prideful expression on Celestia’s face dwindled for a split second when Ravyn pulled out the Bells. She pursed her lips, seemingly holding back the things she really wanted to say, but it was clear she’d lost this fight. She procured a pan from the higher shelves and briefly showed it to Cannoli.

    While any good salesman would have lived for the pitch, Celestia’s fell flat. “This piece is crafted from an advanced steel alloy. It contains a copper core, which distributes heat more evenly. The lid is perfectly shaped to fit only this pan.”

    Cannoli’s excitement bubbled over all the same. She covered her mouth and looked from the pan to Ravyn, and back to the pan. “Really?” she squeaked.

    “Let’s go, Celestia. Time is money.”

    Keke and I watched in stunned shock as Ravyn counted out the Bells and Cannoli squealed in happiness.

    Once they’d checked out, Ravyn handed the pan to Cannoli. “Just cook me another dinner with it,” she grumbled.

    Cannoli carefully placed the delicately wrapped pan into her [Cat Pack], then tackled Ravyn in a tight embrace. “Thank you so much.”

    Ravyn tensed, then hooked her arms around Cannoli’s back in a maneuver that avoided as much contact as possible. “Er, you’re welcome.”

    “Holy shit,” Keke whispered.

    “Took the words right out of my mouth.”

    We escaped Celestia’s furious huffs and made our way to the other shop Cannoli wanted to see. It was definitely a toy shop: wooden cars, rubber balls, games, and brightly drawn pictures. Cannoli squeaked in excitement and disappeared between the shelves. Keke, Ravyn, and I hung back.

    “Strange to have toys for a place with no kids,” Keke whispered.

    “I was thinking the same thing,” I replied. I looked at Ravyn, who was whispering unintelligible words to Ball. “Is he okay? He’s seemed really weird since we got here.”

    Ravyn shook her head. “Bally’s sensitive to magic. And it is crawling all over this city.”

    I remembered Ferdinand and his insanely emotional parroty reactions to my mom leaving the house too early or returning too late. Ball’s non-stop trembling began to make more sense. As much as I still didn’t care for parrots in general, I’d grown pretty attached to the bright blue feathered member of our party.

    “Hey, is that seriously her again?” Keke motioned behind the counter.

    Celestia stood at attention, watching Cannoli peruse and test various games on Buttons.

    “She wasn’t following behind us on the way here,” Ravyn murmured. “I had Ball keep an eye out.”

    “So, what, she’s a better [Assassin] than Naeemah?” I asked, picturing Celestia sneaking through bushes and behind buildings beneath our attention.

    “Or she always knows where we are,” Ravyn hummed. “I think we’ve figured out what else that Enchantment does.”

    Keke rubbed a hand over her face. “I just had to touch the bell.”

    I shrugged. “We didn’t know.”

    “We might be able to use this to our advantage,” Ravyn continued. “Matt and I haven’t been affected, and I think Celestia knows.”

    “Seems like that’s getting to her,” I chuckled.

    “What do we do?” Keke asked.

    Cannoli bounced back to us, a giant smile plastered on her lips and a parcel in her hand. From it, she retrieved a fluffy blue parrot plush that could have been Ball’s twin. “I got this for you, Ravyn. As a thank you for my pan!”

    Ravyn carefully accepted the plushie parrot, blinking as she studied it. She blushed and cuddled it to her chest. “Thank you.”

    “Yay! You’re so welcome!” Cannoli cheered.

    Emotions I’d never seen cross Ravyn’s face took their time with her features as she idly stroked the plushie’s soft fur. Keke and I exchanged glances before stepping outside the shop to give them space.

    “Weird day for Ravyn,” Keke whispered.

    I nodded. “Not a bad one, though.”

    “No. Not at all.” She leaned her head against my arm, snaking her fingers through mine. “Hey, can I see you later tonight?”

    My heart sped, and I grinned like an idiot. “Yeah, of course.”

    “Alright, break it up,” Ravyn called. She and Cannoli joined us outside before she lowered her voice. “I have a plan.”

    We had little way of knowing where Celestia would be lurking, so our only option was to wait until nightfall. After dinner and Ara excusing herself for the evening, Keke and Cannoli stayed in the house while Ravyn and I left through one of the back doors, careful not to make any noise that could possibly alert our housemaid. We trekked behind estates once we were outside, avoiding the main path, using the tall hedges and enormous trees for cover. It felt wrong romping through the manicured lawns, but what about this place didn’t feel wrong?

    There were lamp posts along the sidewalk that dimly illuminated the backyard, but Ravyn and I both hugged the shadows just in case a certain madam had a sudden stroke of insomnia and patrolled the streets.

    “You said we should get a layout of this place. But how?” I whispered while we moved. “They’re not going to let us inside.”

    “No. I just need to get Bally in there,” Ravyn murmured.

    Ball flew overhead, a dark shadow against the moon. I imagined he was stoked to be so far away from the Enchantment hell.

    “Ball?” I asked.

    “Mm. [Farsight] will let me map the rooms. If I get lucky, we’ll find the guy.”

    We hunkered down across from the school behind a line of hedges shaped like stars. “How do we get him through the door?”

    “We wait.”

    This could be a long night.

    I shifted to a more comfortable position on my knees, ensuring that I still had a clear view of the door between two points of a star. Ravyn followed suit, smoothing her dress in her lap.

    We sat in silence for a few minutes. It wasn’t exactly awkward, but her thigh touching mine was hot and shapely and—

    Not right now, Kelmer. I forced my eyes away, returning my focus to the school. “That was really cool what you did for Cannoli.”

    “Cannoli fed her fucking pan to roaches. Who does that?” Despite her sour words, Ravyn chuckled. “She needed a new one.”

    “Still, though. You’ve done nice things for all of us, really.” I feigned a quiet gasp. “Are you going to drop the F-bomb on us?”

    She rolled her eyes, but her smile stayed. “Don’t think you’re that lucky. Not yet.”

    “So, you’re saying there’s a chance?”

    She lightly bumped her shoulder against mine. “Baka.

    The creaking sound of a door snapped both of us to attention. A catgirl with tied-back hair smoothed her apron and stepped out onto the porch.

    Kehehehe. There we are,” Ravyn snickered, then pointed to the sky.

    I followed her hand, and, as if on cue, Ball Gag performed an impressive nosedive into the school’s backyard. His bright blue outline glimmered in the moonlight before vanishing behind the building.

    “[Displace]!” Ravyn hissed.

    The girl on the porch disappeared, replaced by a preening, unfazed Ball.

    “Go, Ball,” Ravyn whispered.

    Ball flapped inside, rising high past the door frame.

    The bushes around the yard rustled, and the catgirl stumbled through, whipping her head back and forth and brushing the leaves from her skirt.

    “Annabelle! Are you fucking with me again?” she cried. “The madam will have your ass!”

    Wow. Much etiquette.

    Ravyn closed her eyes and rolled her shoulders. “[Farsight].”

    The catgirl visibly shivered beneath the cone of lamplight and covered her chest with both arms. “Annabelle! I swear to fucking Saoirse if you don’t stop this! ” she squeaked.

    Very manners.

    I remembered very well the feeling of [Farsight] from San Island. Like something was stripping and scanning your entire body inside and out.

    “Come on, c’mon, c’mon,” Ravyn whispered and shivered.

    “Anything?”

    One curt shake of her head. “I have the hallways mapped out but,” her words cut short, and she grinned. “Found him.”

    “Great, get Ball out of there.” I was afraid if the maid-in-training went back inside, we wouldn’t have an easy time explaining why Ravyn’s very identifiable parrot was inside Venicia’s School of Etiquette.

    “[Displace]!” Ravyn murmured.

    The catgirl vanished once again, and Ball returned to the sky without hesitation.

    “Annabelle!” the shriek echoed through the manor.

    “We’d better go before she wakes up the whole damn city,” I said, hustling to my feet. “Nicely done.”

    “What did you expect, boy? I’m the real Master here.” Ravyn snickered and stood. “Back to the house, then.”

    The four of us once again sat around the dining table with a stack of parchment and quills for each of us. Cannoli had brought along Buttons and one of the toys she must have purchased from the earlier shop. A tiny wooden ball and an object shaped a lot like a miniature soccer goal.

    I was able to map the entirety of the school with [Farsight]. I have located the young man of this island. -Ravyn

    Nice going, Ravyn! You’re amazing! :D -Cannoli

    Cannoli propped the wooden ball in front of Buttons, watching as he rolled it with his face between the posts and into the net. She squeaked with happiness, then clapped her hands over her mouth.

    Keke stifled a laugh before scribbling her piece.

    Yeah, good job. So, what’s next? -Keke

    Ravyn tapped her quill against the table in thought.

    Buttons swapped his face for his tail, shooting an impressive goal. Damn, he’s better at sports than I ever was.

    Before we can try even talking to him, we need to break the Enchantments on both of you. If Celestia finds us inside, our time on this island is done. -Ravyn

    How do we do that? Buttons spun in place, adding a flare to his next tail shot. Oh my gosh! Buttons is so good at this! Ah! -Cannoli

    Neither of us has touched the bells since we talked about it, but Celestia found us just fine. -Keke

    Yes, your fire-lizard can aptly use the ten brain cells the goddess gifted him with. And unless we can get the caster of the Enchantment to break it, we need to find [Dispel] scrolls or potions that will do it. -Ravyn

    I think Buttons is pretty great. Anyway, do any of you have stuff that can [Dispel] with you? -Matt

    The note made its way around the table, and the girls shook their heads. Buttons made another shot but missed. Keke blocked it with her palm and carefully reached across the table to replace it in front of Buttons’ scaly body.

    I have not seen a magic shop in Venicia. But we can ask the locals tomorrow. -Ravyn

    Wouldn’t it be okay if just Matt and Ravyn talked to him? -Cannoli

    Yeah. We could keep guard or stay here again. -Keke

    I don’t see why not. -Matt

    What if he does decide to come with us? Do you think they will let him go so willingly? Or, if they do, would we truly want them to know our location as we travel? It is too much of a gamble. We would have to [Dispel] the Enchantments on him as well. -Ravyn

    You think they would follow us? :eek: -Cannoli

    Celestia does seem pretty damn determined. I think Ravyn’s right. -Keke

    I had nothing of merit to add to the conversation. I pulled the goal post further away from Buttons and gestured for him to try again. He scooped the ball up with his tongue, tossed it into the air, then swatted it with his tail. It flew into the net with a tiny swish, and I pumped a fist for him.

    Matt! Quit playing with the lizard and pay attention! Alright, let us locate the nearest magic shop before we attempt to intercept our target. Once we know we can [Dispel] these Enchantments, we can continue our plan. -Ravyn

    Okie! -Cannoli P.S. Great job, Buttons!

    Sounds good. -Keke

    I am paying attention! That’s fine! -Matt

    We nodded our silent agreement and packed up our writing implements. I handed Cannoli the net, and she scooped Buttons onto her shoulder with tiny praises and scritches. Scratches. Dammit.

    Keke moved to my side and looked up at me with a mischievous smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She slid her fingertips down my forearm, and a trail of goosebumps followed. I returned her smile and gave her a quick nod.

    The night wasn’t over yet.

    [​IMG]
     
  13. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 46: Hot Tails(NSFW)

    We waited for the other girls to vanish behind their doors before I followed Keke into her room. It was virtually identical to mine and she disappeared behind an intricately decorated screen in the corner. I felt like a moron, but I hadn’t realized what the hell the thing was for until Keke hung her dress over the top.

    “No fun if I can’t watch,” I called.

    She chuckled. “Just give me a moment.”

    I leaned against a bedpost and crossed my arms. I still didn’t know what to really say in these situations. So, how are you enjoying your time in Ba Sing Se? Sorry, I meant maido hell. But none of that mattered right now. All I wanted was to feel Keke’s skin on mine.

    More rustling of fabric and Keke made her entrance. My heart skipped. A green corset the same color as her formal dress hugged her waist and carried her breasts high on her chest. Black panties and thigh-highs accentuated her lower half, complete with a pair of high heels. Her tail swayed excitedly behind her, and a playful smile painted her lips.

    “Woah,” I whispered, arms falling to my sides.

    “Like it?” Keke slowly turned in place, then made her way toward me.

    “I love it.”

    Her smile widened. “It’s what I have to wear under that dress.”

    I closed the distance between us, wrapping one arm around her waist and cradling the back of her neck with the other. “I like it better without the dress.”

    She bit her lower lip, cheeks flushing. Goddamn, everything you do is sexy. I tangled my fingers in her hair and claimed her mouth. She gripped the front of my shirt, parting her lips and immediately reciprocating the motions of my tongue. We were both breathless and desperate. It had been too long and Keke’s form, her scent, her kiss; they felt like home.

    I untangled the knots of her corset, savoring the taste of her and shivering with the intensity of her embrace. When I felt the strings give, I tugged the corset off of her and tossed it to the side. She all but tore my shirt free, discarding it without a word. I admired her at arm’s length, memorizing the picture of her half-naked in her stockings and heels.

    “That’s a good look for you,” I breathed.

    Keke danced her fingers through the curves of my chest, her ears and eyes flickering with interest. “Same for you.”

    I took her hand and slid two of her fingers into my mouth, holding her stare while gently sucking on the tender digits. She gasped, leaning into me before I felt the tip of her tongue gliding across my collar bone and her teeth sinking into my shoulder.

    Playing harder, hm? Don’t mind if I do.

    Releasing her fingers from my lips, I snagged another handful of her hair and pulled, craning her head and exposing her throat. While I toyed with one hardened nipple, I kissed, caressed, and bit the length of her neck. She whimpered, her back arching in my embrace in a sweet show of submission.

    “You’re mine,” I growled against her skin.

    “Mnh...yes,” she gasped, her nails raking lines down my spine.

    I grabbed her wrist and, still holding her by the hair, pulled her to the bed. Plunging my tongue down her throat, I dragged her down to the sheets, living for the quivering in her fingers and the sharp intakes of breath between our kisses. I broke our embrace, craving the taste of her skin. But despite our urgent groping and grasping and the growing intensity against my pants, I wanted to take my time with her.

    I wish I could stay like this forever.

    I started with her throat, then her shoulder, then her abdomen, kissing and drinking in every inch. I drew a heart around her navel and sucked on her hip bone.

    “T-tease,” she whispered, goosebumps peppering her flesh.

    I laughed and caught the hem of her panties with my teeth, pulling them free from her hips and down below her knees. I kissed the inside of her thigh and tested the vulnerable skin between her legs with the tip of my tongue.

    “A-ah!” Keke moaned and spread her knees as she raised her hips.

    I parted her folds and lightly licked her clit, sending a shiver rocketing through her. When I flattened my tongue and set to work, my name escaped her like a prayer. She wrapped her calves around my shoulders, the heels of her shoes poking into my back. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair how badly I wanted to fuck her, and I couldn’t.

    And then it hit me.

    I stroked her tail, summoning more moans from her perfect mouth, and followed it to the edge of her spine. Carefully parting her tight ass cheeks, I pressed the tip of my middle finger at the soft opening.

    “T-that’s— Nh!” Keke gasped, one hand shooting to my hair while the other gripped the blankets.

    “Is it okay?” I paused, the pulsing heat of her impossible to ignore.

    “Y-yes. Go slow,” she said.

    “Of course.” I returned my tongue to her slit and pushed to the first digit of my finger. Her body clenched, and I moaned. It was a tight, searing fit, and we would need lube for anything bigger.

    Dammit.

    For now, I waited for her to relax and continued to penetrate her, sliding my thumb into her dripping cunt to move in tandem.

    “That’s not fair,” she moaned. “It feels so good.”

    I sucked at her clit and plied her throbbing voids with increasing intensity, up to my knuckles at both ends. Keke’s hips rocked against my jaw, descended hard on my hand, then restarted the rotation.

    “I-I’m coming!” She announced at the top of her voice.

    The convulsions swelled around my hand, and I drank in her climax, massaging her depths as I did.

    “Come here,” Keke commanded. She wriggled her hips free and dug her fingers into my hair, yanking me to the bed.

    “Yes, ma’am,” I murmured.

    She unhooked the fly of my jeans with dizzying speed. “Off.”

    I like this side of you.
    I did as she said, stripping the boxers for good measure. My erection was finally free of its confines, and I struggled not to throw her down and take her that second.

    But Keke had other plans. She nudged my shoulders so that I lay flat on my back and straddled me at the knees. She paused, then blushed. “I want to try something. If you don’t like it, it’s okay.”

    Not sure I’m ready to have her fingers in my ass, but what the hell.
    “Alright.”

    She leaned forward, balancing a breast in each palm, then sandwiched my shaft between them.

    “Oh, fuck,” I groaned, half in pleasure, half in surprise.

    Keke slowly rose and fell, massaging my cock between her tits. Sweat glistened on her skin, and her chest was so fucking soft. She bit her lower lip and watched me with her hopeful, golden eyes. “Is this alright?”

    “That feels amazing.”

    She grinned. “Good.”

    I relaxed my hands on her thighs, watching her as she tried different speeds and techniques. When she discovered a rhythm that made my eyes roll back, I found myself no longer able to control the thrusting in my hips.

    “You’re lasting a lot longer,” she murmured.

    “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I moaned.

    “You should.” As if to make me eat my goddamn words, Keke leaned her head forward and incorporated her mouth with her machinations.

    It only took a few rotations of her slick, hot tongue against my shaft between the plush cushions of her breasts before I orgasmed. I couldn’t even warn her. Hot seed painted her chest, throat, and cheeks. “Fuck, sorry.”

    Keke giggled, then licked her lips clean.

    Well, that’s an image I’ll never forget.

    “Here, hang on.” I freed myself from beneath her and went to find a washcloth, wetting it in the sink and returning to clean her off.

    She was still on her knees, one hand in her lap and the other masking her giggles.

    I gently wiped her face, then moved to her throat and chest. “What’s so funny?”

    “I’m just glad I can still make you do that,” Keke said, stroking her thumb over my cheek. “I was just a little worried, I guess.”

    “Worried about what?” I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The slow sway of her tail, the curve of her waist, the silken tendrils of her hair. God, had there ever been a more beautiful creature?

    “That I wouldn’t be able to please you like the others have, I guess.”

    I laid my hand over hers and kissed her. “You don’t ever have to worry about that. I mean it.”

    “I’m glad.”

    We snuggled under the sheets, and I held her close. We talked about fish and Buttons and whatever came to mind before we both drifted off to sleep.

    [​IMG]
     
  14. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 47: All Purpose Cultural Catgirl

    Maybe it was a bit immature, but I insisted that Keke leave her room first when the morning came. Good thing, too, because just as she stepped outside, Cannoli was there.

    “Good morning, Keke!” came Cannoli’s sweet voice.

    “A-ah! G-good morning, Cannoli!”

    Come on, Keke, keep it together. Don’t blow my cover this early.

    “Ready for the most important meal of the day?”

    “Y-yeah. Lead the way?” I caught the fleeting image of Keke walking away with a hand gesture. After the girls turned the corner and I could hear the sound of descending footsteps against the stairs, I exited the room and faced the door, shutting it quietly.

    I looked off to where I saw Keke and Cannoli left.

    Hate to see you leave, but love to watch you go.

    Then the footsteps of another came from behind me. I turned to see Ravyn, who I assumed saw the whole thing. “Good morning,” I said in the most natural way I could manage.

    “Morning.” Ravyn didn’t give me so much as a glance as she walked by. She seemed focused on something else, chewing on the end of her thumbnail.

    “You okay, Ravyn?”

    Ravyn continued on her way and descended the staircase. I guess she’d tell us later.

    When we were in our assigned seats, Ara came to each of us with a glass cup. Keke furrowed her brow, but Cannoli clasped her hands together with a sparkle in her eye.

    “Smoothies?” I asked aloud.

    Ara bowed, the metal tray held at her waist. “Yes, Master. I thought it prudent that something a bit more nutritious be supplied today.”

    I lifted the cup and observed the violet liquid within. How in the hell could someone have the patience to make something like this without a blender? “How did you make this?”

    “Oh! Oh! I know how!” Cannoli said, raising her hand. “It’s a painstaking process. You have to mass and beat every vegetable and fruit into a fine paste. You can use a big, long stick if you want, but I prefer a pestle!” Cannoli beamed and looked up at Ara for confirmation.

    Ara stared blankly. “Why, yes. That’s exactly how I made it. You seem well versed in the matters of Cooking.”

    Cannoli pressed the cup to her lips, passing looks between each of us. “I just love making delicious meals. Maybe you’ll let me cook with you sometime?”

    Ara gaped. “I… I could not permit that, miss. Thank you so very much for the offer, though.” I raised my hand to speak, but a knock came at the door. Ara bowed briefly, then made a brisk escape to the front door.

    Ravyn slid her glass across the table, away from her and toward Cannoli. “You can have mine.”

    “Wah, really?”

    “Hang on here,” I said without knowing what I could actually say without getting us in trouble. We still had no proof one way or the other that this place was listening in on us, so after a few seconds of deliberating, I put Ravyn on the spot instead. “You should really eat.”

    “I’m not hungry,” she muttered.

    “Something wrong?” Keke asked as she reached for Ravyn’s hand.

    Ravyn swiftly removed her hands from the table and folded her arms. “I’m fine. I just want to leave. I’m not eating a smoothie. And the rest of you shouldn’t either.”

    I see. So we’re going with that angle.

    My mother had taught me the vices of wasting food, but considering our circumstances, I had to agree with Ravyn. Who knows what the stuff was laced with. I pushed my smoothie aside and put my hand around Cannoli’s glass. Cannoli grabbed hold of the cup.

    “We should get something a bit more filling, don’t you agree, Cannoli?” I said to her with raised brows.

    Cannoli looked up at me, piercing my body with a concerned stare, her hand clamped around the glass like a vice.

    Ravyn sighed deep and got up the table, the legs screeching against the wooden floor. “I’ll be outside whenever you’re ready.”

    “Ravyn, wait,” Keke said with her arm outstretched.

    The three of us watched as she brushed shoulders with Ara and another catgirl on her way out. The door shut behind Ravyn, and Ara approached with a new maid by her side. “Is something amiss?” Ara asked.

    “No, nothing,” I said with a shake of my head.

    “Hm. Well, if I may introduce someone.” Ara took a step to her side and held out an arm to a dark-skinned catgirl with piercing green eyes and hair of jet-black. “This is Amira. Since Lynn has departed, she will be my second half for the remainder of your stay here.”

    Each of us bent our heads forward awkwardly, Cannoli and my hand still firmly clenched around the smoothie.

    “A pleasure.” Her voice was soft, almost monotone. Amira curtsied longer than the maids usually did, then stood back up to sweep some of her long, black hair behind her. Every movement she made was slow, deliberate, patient.

    Not an ounce of haste in this girl.

    One awkward conversation and two unfinished smoothies later, Keke, Cannoli, and I briefly explained our plans to Ara and Amira, then went outside to meet Ravyn. She leaned up against the fence, playing with Ball Gag while muttering unintelligible words.

    “Take enough time in there? We got work to do,” said Ravyn.

    “Still should’ve eaten,” Keke said with a tone of irritation.

    Mou ii. I never started having breakfast until you all showed up anyway.” Ravyn spurred herself away from the fence with her foot, motioning for us to follow. “Let’s go get some ice cream.”

    Seemed like a busy day for Felsi when we arrived. There was a line of at least ten catgirls by the time we arrived. It was the highest number of people we’d seen outside since we’d come to Venicia.

    “Is it national ice cream day or something?” I asked, standing on my tiptoes to peer over the heads of the girls.

    The brunette catgirl in front of me turned and bowed. “We are granted time for ice cream once per week from the School of Etiquette, Master. My sincerest apologies if this has created an inconvenience for you.”

    “Huh.” I shrugged. “We can wait.”

    Ravyn rolled her head and groaned.

    “Fuck this.”

    “Hey, wait! Ravyn!” I called out to Ravyn, but it was too late. Ball leapt off of her shoulder and fluttered over to perch himself on my shoulder. He twitched a few times, but otherwise, I let him stay where he was. Not because I liked him, though.

    Keke, Cannoli, and I watched as Ravyn sifted through the crowd with relative ease, the bobbing of her black, pointy hat making for a good marker. She remained in [Combat Mode] every time we went outside. Not that I could really blame her.

    Felsi leaned over the counter with a hand to her ear. I couldn’t hear a thing over the clamoring for ice cream.

    Then there was a harmony of gasps. The top half of Felsi’s body disappeared for a few seconds as a black-gloved hand reached out and pulled her over the counter.

    “Is everything okay in there?” Keke asked.

    “Y-yeah, I think so.” I hope so. I stood higher on the balls of my feet and craned my head over the crowd.

    Felsi jerked back in a sudden motion and shook her hands in front of her in a frantic gesture. She bowed several times over, and moments after, the pointed hat started to make its way back over to us.

    “Did you find anything useful?” I asked as Ravyn emerged.

    She shrugged, and Ball was quick to abandon me for Ravyn’s shoulder, nuzzling up against her neck and cheek on arrival.

    “Scared, were you?” Ravyn said, procuring a small treat for Ball. Ball nibbled on the crunchy bird snack, holding the cylinder of food in his talons. “And yeah. Sorta. I can tell you this much though—Felsi won’t be able to get us what we need. There isn’t a magic shop for miles. We’re going to have to go out of town to find what we need.”

    “More walking,” I heard Cannoli mumble.

    “I’m no more excited than you are, but it’s our only option at this point,” Ravyn said, sighing.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a retreating length of brown braids cutting the corner of a nearby building. I wondered if it was my imagination, then thought again. Coincidences were not a thing in this town.

    “What’s wrong, Matt?” Cannoli said with a hand on my arm.

    I would’ve normally enjoyed the sensation of her skin on mine. Bask in the goosebumps and fly off to a momentary land of bliss and wild imaginations. Instead, all I could think of was how much I wanted to get out of this city.

    “I think our stalker isn’t far behind us,” I said, just loud enough that they could hear.

    “Already?” Keke said with half-closed eyes.

    “Do you think she’ll follow us out of town?” asked Cannoli.

    Ravyn shook her head. “I don’t think she’ll leave her minions for a second. Once we’re out of here, the cunt should leave us alone. Barking orders like a bitch takes too much time for little miss head maid.”

    “But somebody else might track us,” reasoned Keke. “Somebody we haven’t seen.”

    “Possible, but unlikely. Tracking spells are tied to the caster in most cases. I doubt we’d have the head maid on our tails if someone else could stalk us instead.”

    The logic was a bit iffy in my eyes. At this point, though, there wasn’t much else we could do but move on to the next town in hopes they had the items we needed.

    “So, where to, then?” I asked.

    “Next town over is Badyron.” Ravyn wiped her shoulder clean of the cookie crumbs and gestured for a stagecoach nearby. “Let’s hitch a ride.”

    “Uncomfortable” was the understatement of the year for our ride to Badyron. I was just grateful that it was only a few hours away from Venicia.

    “If I see another maid after we leave, it’ll be too soon,” muttered Ravyn. She clicked her tongue and spit into a nearby bush as we watched the carriage leave.

    “S-so, how about finding that magic shop?” I suggested while walking up to the perimeter of the town.

    Cannoli was covering her face and shaking her head. “Please!”

    Buttons appeared on her shoulder, warbling back and forth like he’d just escaped a Tilt-a-Whirl, which wasn’t all that far from the truth.

    Keke and Cannoli took one of my arms, and the three of us were spry on our feet. Though I’m sure we were mostly just afraid of getting an earful from Ravyn.

    “Manipulative, spineless, uptight, cooch-spreading bitches. All of them,” Ravyn continued while the rest of us pretended not to hear.

    Badyron wasn’t unlike Venicia, just a constructional downgrade or two. They looked as if the entire town was created with second-hand materials—perhaps the maids didn’t take as good of care of this place as they did Venicia. Cracks and pieces of plaster and chipped paint stuck out on most of the homes and businesses. Grass poked through the minor crevices and imperfections of the road, and the gardens had their share of weeds.

    Despite the imperfections, it felt a lot more like home to me. I wondered if it was too much to ask that this town not be as uptight, not as strict. Perhaps they’d be a little more homely or—

    “First of all.” Ravyn grabbed a good chunk of my shirt from behind, nearly yanking me backward. “Let’s get a fucking drink.”

    “Hey, be careful!” Keke snapped loudly.

    “You could hurt him,” Cannoli said in a quieter tone.

    “Oh please, he’ll be fine. I’m sure he’d like a drink anyway, wouldn’t you?” Ravyn’s eyes bore daggers into me, and I felt a strong inclination to agree, regardless of how I actually felt.

    I looked away. I suddenly felt very, very tired. Maybe the stress was, at last, getting to me. “S-sure, I’m sure we could all use one, yeah?”

    Time to get wasted, squawwwwwk!

    Our mouths dropped, and an audible gasp escaped from our throats. Initially, I wasn’t sure—but now?

    “Hell yeah, let’s get a drink!” I said with renewed vigor in my veins. If Ball was feeling better then I was game for just about anything.

    Ravyn breathed a sigh of relief and scratched the chin of her feathery companion. A rare smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Even if it had nothing to do with the rest of us, it was nice to see Ravyn smile so genuinely.

    Guess you really do love the little shit, don’t you?

    As per usual, we drew the eyes of most of the catgirls in town, some braver than others to try and strike up a conversation with me. One quick glare from Keke, Cannoli’s tightening embrace around my shoulder, and a quick-witted comment from Ravyn later, and just about every catgirl within a five-mile radius had lost any and all urge to approach us.

    Thankfully, it didn’t take long for us to find a nearby tavern.

    “Do you have to use such harsh language?” Cannoli asked, her shoulders scrunched.

    “It’s working,” Keke said with a shrug. “At least they’re staying away from us.”

    “You’re welcome.” Ravyn was the first to ascend the stairs leading up to the tavern.

    It had a sort of wild west feel to it with the batwing doors. Grains and splinters of wood poked out between corners and crevices within the floorboards and tables, and many of the glasses looked like they’d been simply rinsed and dried out. That last part had me concerned for sanitary reasons, but if it was good enough for the girls, then it was good enough for me.

    Ravyn pushed open the doors with a hand on each wing and held fast to her spot, surveying the room and pointedly staring at each of the girls.

    “Hey, Ravyn,” I whispered to her.

    “What?”

    “Is it safe to come in?” I asked.

    Baka. When have you ever asked me that?” Ravyn snickered.

    I swung the doors open and surveyed the room, pointing to a table in the corner to our right. “How about that one?”

    “Sure.” Ravyn welcomed herself in like she owned the place, and we meekly followed behind.

    We drew looks of timidity, fright, joy, and numerous other expressions on our way to our table. It seemed there wasn’t a single girl in here who was feeling the same two emotions, which brought its own sort of concern.

    I turned toward Ravyn, my fight-or-flight response starting to kick in.

    “Hey, Ravyn, maybe we should—”

    The slamming of a tray twisted my neck around to the source of the sound. A maid with a skirt cut halfway up her thighs stood at attention, a pencil and a pad of paper in her hands. She had a ring pierced into her left ear, bore bright red hair tied up into a ponytail, and stared down at us with steel-grey eyes.

    “What’ll it be?” She had the look—albeit a sexier than expected one—that she was ready to take an order. Couldn’t help but feel like it was more of a demand than a question, though.

    “Marlene!” came the whisper of another girl from a nearby table. “Master! Master!

    Our waitress sighed. “What’ll it be, Master?”

    “What do you suggest?” I asked.

    “We’re new here!” Cannoli chimed in with Buttons scurrying his way out from underneath her shirt collar.

    “Just give me some hard shit. Not too hard, though. Need to be able to walk afterward,” said Ravyn.

    “I’ll have water, thanks,” Keke’s reply came as a surprise to me.

    “Really? You don’t want anything?” I asked.

    Keke shook her head. “No.” Then her voice grew low. “The hangover has destroyed any desire for alcohol I had.”

    “Ha! Weak!” Ravyn cried out. “There’s the proof I won last time!”

    Marlene watched us, her plush lips growing into a thin line while she tapped at the rim of her notepad with the pencil.

    Keke raised a brow, then looked to the wall with her cheeks puffed out.

    It’s okay, Keke. I get it.

    “A Blaze of Fury for the well-endowed one, water for the pouty face. Understood.” Marlene scribbled a few notes onto her notepad, turning her attention back to me. “I’d suggest a Caramel Daffodil for the Master and a Pink Sunday Splash for the white one.”

    I think I’d be walking out if this was a bar back on Earth.

    I raised my hand. “Do you have anything a little less—I dunno, girly-sounding?”

    “A Blaze of Fury for the Master. Understood.” Marlene flipped the notepad back over and walked away, the clicking of her four-inch heels ringing higher than the chatter of the patrons.

    Kekeke, walked into that one,” Ravyn said.

    “Cannoli has a Pink Sunday Splash, and you’re complaining about a Caramel Daffodil?” asked Keke. “Should’ve just rolled with it.”

    I sighed. “Can we swap seats? It’s um, uncomfortable not being able to see the rest of the bar.”

    Call it an instinct or man’s sense of danger, but I was certain I was being stared at by the vast majority of the girls in the room. It reminded me a lot of Shulan, and I didn’t like that.

    “Of course!” Cannoli popped up from the table and offered me her seat.

    The faster we could get the hell off this island, the better.

    [​IMG]
     
  15. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 48: Broken Blade

    Choking down the Blaze of Fury without grimacing was one of my more impressive feats in my lifetime. The name should have been clue enough that the drink would scorch my throat and summon flames in my chest.

    But really, the drink’s name was the understatement of the century. Each taste bud on my tongue felt independently scorched, tears flooded my eyes as if I’d dunked them in a bucket of lemon juice, and an eternally lingering, smoky aftertaste choked my throat to the point I was afraid I’d open my mouth and breathe fire. I wondered what the hell “too hard” looked like if this was just the “hard shit.”

    Marlene and Ravyn watched me drink with shared amusement while Keke and Cannoli sipped their drinks with concerned gazes. No. I can’t let them know how hard this is. I swallowed hard against the burning ash of my throat and exhaled. Good, no smoke. “So, magic shop?” My voice scratched and squeaked like my vocal cords themselves were raked over the coals.

    Kehehehe,” Ravyn sputtered, sipping from hers like a favored tonic. “You, boy, need more hair on your chest.”

    Squaawk! Matt’s a lightweight! Stupid Matt!”

    I cleared my throat and coughed, then repeated, “Magic shop?”

    “Marlene, do you know where we can find the shop for magical items?” Cannoli asked, sipping her adorable pink and bubbly drink.

    I really should have just ordered that one.

    Marlene chuckled and nodded. “It’s just down the way a bit. Esmerelda’s Eclectics, you can’t miss it.” She leaned forward and pointed out the window, straight down a path outside the bar. “Now, can I ask a question?”

    Master!” someone hissed from behind me.

    “May I ask a question, Master?” Marlene stood and performed a tilted curtsy.

    “Yeah, of course.”

    Marlene pocketed her notebook and crossed her arms over her chest. “What are you doing in Badyron?”

    Marlene!” the same voice that had constantly chided our waitress sounded once more.

    “Shove a cork in that trap, Karen! Goddess above,” Marlene sighed. “My apologies. Everyone around these parts believes we should mimic Venicia. ‘Service, Urgency,’ and,” she chewed her lip, then shook her head, “Whatever the hell’s the third one.”

    Grace!

    “What did I just say, Karen?” Marlene chucked her pencil at the persistent catgirl.

    A sharp yelp pierced the bar, and Karen’s companion snickered. I caught Ravyn giggling into her drink.

    “What do you mean?” I asked, hoping to stop a riot between Marlene and Karen. “We’re just passing through.”

    Marlene shook her head. “That’s a load of roach shit. There hasn’t been another man here in years.

    Keke’s eyes widened, and she carefully set her water back on the table. “‘Another’ man?”

    “Yeah. Outside of the one in Venicia, of course.” Marlene paused and examined our faces. “Wait, you didn’t see him?”

    We shook our heads.

    Marlene barked an incredulous laugh. “Celestia is out of her mind. Well, he’s there. Only a few of us in Badyron have ever seen him, though.”

    “Well, there we are,” Ravyn murmured.

    “Is he okay?” Cannoli squeaked.

    “I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never seen him.” Marlene collected our empty glasses. “I know it’s not my place to stick my tail in your business, but if you four need help with anything, just ask.”

    “Thank you, Marlene.” I paid the tab with plenty extra for a tip, and we made our way to the magic shop.

    It was strange seeing so many girls in the streets after the deserted roads of Venicia. Even if Badyron was missing a coat of paint or a few hedge trimmings here and there, the friendly smiles and jovial laughter of those around us made it feel so much more alive.

    The shop had a royal blue awning and Esmerelda’s name spelled out in intricate cursive on the window. Inside, the lights were dim and floral scents and spices circled around the shop. The hairs on my forearms and neck stood on end—was I gaining a sensitivity to it?

    Lights in the ceiling twinkled above us like a brilliant night sky. I swore that, as I studied them, I saw one shoot across the length of dark blue—a falling star.

    The catgirl that greeted us with a smile had green hair down to her waist and sparkling emerald eyes. Her attire seemed an open rebellion against the maid aesthetic of Shi Island. Instead, she wore a tight black corset that cut high on her abdomen, and a flowing skirt settled on her hips. Fur-lined gloves adorned her hands, and her ears flickered with interest. Her curves were easy on the eyes, and the slit riding up her thigh called my attention like a magnet.

    Keke and Cannoli closed in on either side of me, taking a hand and an arm for themselves. I bit back a smile.

    “Esmerelda, then?” Ravyn asked curtly.

    “Yes, I am Esmerelda,” her smile widened, and she bowed. “Welcome to my shop, Master and Mistresses. It is an honor to meet a [Sorcerer].”

    Ravyn raised an eyebrow. “You can tell?”

    “Oh, yes. I can feel your power like a wave.” Esmerelda held an arm out, and without verbal instruction, Ball flew to her forearm and nuzzled her cheek. “And you have such a sweet familiar.”

    “Neat party trick. We’re looking for [Dispel] scrolls. Have any?” Ravyn poked through nearby shelves and displays, rifling through scrolls, charms, and books.

    “I do, yes. If I may ask, what are you using them for?” Esmerelda strode to an opposite display, pulling free a basket filled with scrolls.

    “None of your damn—” Ravyn began.

    “We need to [Dispel] the Enchantment from Venicia. Please,” Cannoli interrupted Ravyn and bowed. “We heard you may be able to help us.”

    “Ah, I see.” Esmerelda nodded. “There are different levels of Enchantments, you see. I only wish to provide an accurate scroll for your needs.”

    “Give us the strongest shit you’ve got. We need five.” Ravyn returned to the group and swooped Ball back to her shoulder.

    Esmerelda gingerly returned the basket to the shelf, then tapped one long finger against her chin. “Those are created by third classes who are masters in their Crafting. They are quite expensive.”

    “Did I stutter?” Ravyn’s eyes narrowed. “And I need a [Sealing Charm].”

    “Of course, miss. As you wish. I have both locked away in my inventory. Please give me a moment.”

    Esmerelda turned and walked toward the back of the store. As her hips swayed, the cut in her skirt revealed one firm cheek of her backside. Damn. That’s nice.

    Keke’s hand tightened around mine, and Cannoli bumped me with one elbow.

    “Hey, now. I’m not going anywhere,” I chuckled.

    “You didn’t need to be so mean to Esmerelda, Ravyn,” Cannoli murmured.

    “I want out of this town, off this damn island, and a night in my own bed,” Ravyn growled. “I don’t trust any bitch in this place, and the whole damn service routine is getting really old.”

    Keke stepped between them. “Ravyn. We all want to go home. Cannoli’s right though. There’s no reason to take it out on a shopkeeper.”

    Ravyn clenched her fists, glancing between them, but kept her silence. As soon as I’d found the right words to say to them, the door burst open. Four harried-looking catgirls pushed through, frantically searching around the shop.

    The one at the front of the party had a silver ponytail high on her head and glowing silver eyes. With the efficiency of a commanding officer, she pointed to the others in her group and issued a slew of orders. “Bridget, go across the way and secure us potions. Nadine, round up any additional fighters we can muster. Violet, with me. Go!”

    “Yes, ma’am,” they replied, dispersing as soon as they were dismissed.

    “What’s going on?” I asked, drawing the attention of the silver-haired girl.

    Her eyes widened as she scanned our group. “You haven’t heard? There’s a Defiled destroying Sorentina. We need supplies and units, now.

    “Aster, I don’t think they’re from here,” the one she called Violet murmured, tugging on Aster’s sleeve.

    Esmerelda returned with the scrolls and charm Ravyn requested, carefully placing them on the counter. She glanced at the newcomers and offered a bow. “Welcome to Esmerelda’s Eclectics. How may I help you?”

    “Our town is under siege, and we’re going to lose it. We need everything you can give, please!” Aster returned the bow.

    Esmerelda paused, then slowly shook her head. “I can offer a discount, but I cannot gift my wares for free. I’m sorry.”

    Aster marched up to the counter and slammed one gloved hand against it. “Did you hear me? My town is being destroyed!

    “I heard you. But my business and livelihood would be ruined. Sincerely, I apologize, but if I gave charity each time a Defiled attacked a town, I’d be on the streets.”

    That wasn’t good. Are places attacked this often? How are Badyron and Venicia still standing? “I think we should help them,” I whispered to the girls.

    “This isn’t our fight, Matt,” Keke murmured.

    “Besides, we’ve got big enough problems as it is,” Ravyn added.

    “But, you guys,” Cannoli whimpered, tottering between the balls of her feet. “We can’t just watch a city burn. Can we?”

    Aster turned to us, eyes boring into my soul. “You look like a capable bunch. Sorentina is twenty minutes on horseback from the outskirts of town. Please, we’re desperate.”

    “Sorry, we’re sitting this one out,” Ravyn said before I could speak.

    Aster smirked and shook her head. “Right. You’re useless. Just like the rest of the goddess-damned men on this island.”

    I clenched my teeth and fists, heat rising to my face as I looked to my party.

    “Come on, Violet. There’s no help to be found here.” Aster waved her companion away, and they left the store.

    After Ravyn purchases the scrolls and the charm, the four of us left the shop. The thought of the Defiled destroying Sorentina and killing catgirl after catgirl continued to haunt me.

    “Should we use the dispelling scrolls now?” Cannoli asked.

    “No,” said Ravyn, “the moment we do, we put a target on our backs. We reveal that we know we’ve been Enchanted. Then the whole fucking city is on high alert, and they kick us out. We’ll need to wait until we get back, preferably after we put the actual plan into motion.”

    “Oh, okay! Yeah!” Cannoli nodded with enthusiasm. “That makes sense!”

    “I’m exhausted,” Keke admitted. “The sooner we can rescue the man, the better.”

    “Let’s take a break,” Ravyn suggested with a clap of her hands. “There’s a picnic table over there.”

    The girls led the way while I stayed back. Keke took notice, then fell behind to walk in pace with me.

    “Are you upset with us?” Keke whispered, her hands held behind her back.

    “Kind of.”

    Keke’s stare wandered. “I see.”

    When we arrived at the picnic table, we all but collapsed into our seats. Keke and I took one side of the bench while Cannoli and Ravyn took the other. Save for the sounds of our breathing and the occasional sighs, an oppressive silence surrounded us. It took some time before one of us spoke up.

    “I don’t agree with this,” I said flatly. “They need help. We’ve proven we can fight against the Defiled. Isn’t this our job?”

    “No, it’s not,” Ravyn replied with an equally flat tone, her head resting on the table. Ball Gag fluttered down onto the table and nuzzled against Ravyn’s forearm. “We’ve had our share of decent luck up until now. I’m not about to go piss it away on a Defiled. We have a man to save.” Ravyn dug a small treat out of her bag for Ball. He snatched it out of her hand, cracking and munching on the crunchy morsel.

    “He’s not going anywhere. Whether we fight the Defiled or not, he’ll still be there when we get back.”

    “The longer we’re gone, the more suspicious we’re going to look when we return,” Ravyn snapped.

    “I… have to agree with her,” Keke said, coiling a lock of hair around one of her nervous fingers. “Who knows what trouble we could end up with.”

    “Fine. I get it.” I stood up and climbed over the bench. “I’ll go by myself. You three go save the guy.”

    Baka!” Ravyn yelled, standing up from her own seat. “Have you learned fucking nothing since coming here? Do you not understand the dangers?”

    “I understand full-well, thank you very much. But I can’t just stand back and watch. Not when I can make a difference. With or without you, I’m going to help them.”

    “Matt, I—” Keke started.

    “Fucking damn it, Matt!” Ravyn pounded her fist against the table, fury searing her features.

    Ball Gag squawked, then flew away to perch on a nearby building.

    Ravyn looked down, pounded her fist again, then looked back up at me, violet eyes ablaze.

    “R-Ravyn, p-please calm down,” Cannoli begged with her hands held out toward her. “Let’s just t-talk about this. Okay? Please?”

    “Ravyn, come on, Matt just cares about the other girls,” Keke reasoned.

    “Not enough about us, though!” Ravyn spat back. “He’d rather put his life at risk to go save a bunch of people he doesn’t know! He’d rather put our lives at risk! The lives of his fr— fr— fuck!” Ravyn slammed her fist into the table again.

    Cannoli stood up and ran to my side. “I-I-I’ll c-come with you.” She took one of my arms and buried her face into my sleeve. Cannoli was trembling. “I-I’ll h-help you p-protect them. Just please stop f-fighting.”

    I sighed. “I’m sorry, Cannoli. I would love your help.”

    Keke stood up next. “I can’t let him go alone, Ravyn.” And Keke took to my opposite side.

    Ravyn stood with her mouth agape. “Don’t you give a shit about us?”

    “More than anything in this world,” I countered. “And I’ll never stop protecting you.”

    Ravyn searched our faces, fists clenching and unclenching. At last, she shook her head in defeat. “Mou ii. Fine! We go! But afterward, we follow the plan! To the letter! Is that understood?”

    The rest of us nodded in unison.

    Ravyn whistled, and Ball Gag came back to her shoulder. Ravyn shared a few quiet words of apology with her feathered friend, then approached us. “You three would be helpless without me, anyway,” she growled.

    I smiled. “I know. I hope you’ll roast the motherfucker for us.”

    “You can bet on it,” she said.

    ---

    It wasn’t difficult to find some horses. Once Badyron was aware of the Defiled situation in Sorentina, all transportation out of the city had halted in its entirety. It wasn’t our first choice, but at least they had some horses for us to borrow.

    “Have you ever been horseback riding?” Keke asked with a hint of concern in her voice.

    “A little bit. I went as a kid.” I vaulted myself over the horse and took hold of the reins. It’d been almost a decade since I’d done it, but much like riding a bike, it felt completely natural. “I should be fine. I know the basics.”

    Keke raised an unbelieving brow. “If you say so.”

    It came as no surprise that Keke had experience in riding a horse, but my concern grew at the thought of Cannoli riding one by herself.

    “Hey, Ca—” I called out, intending to invite her onto mine.

    Just as I did, however, she hopped onto the back of Keke’s horse and wrapped her arms around Keke’s waist.

    Ah, bummer. That would’ve been nice.

    Ravyn stood at the side of my horse, her arms folded.

    “Do you know how to ride, Ravyn?” I asked. She shook her head, and I held out a hand. “Hop on.”

    Ravyn approached with a bit of apprehension in her step, her hands held up and fingers wriggling. The horse snorted, driving Ravyn back slightly.

    “Just take my hand. It’ll be easier that way. Promise.” I offered my hand once more. Ravyn slipped her fingers into my palm. I gripped her tight and pulled her just as she hopped up. She was surprisingly light and fit behind me without issue. “See? Nothing to it, right?”

    Hai,” she said in a whisper. Ravyn surveyed the horse like someone who was riding a rollercoaster for the first time. The horse trotted in place, and Ravyn threw her arms around my waist tightly.

    “Haha, it’s okay, really. You’re not gonna fall.”

    “Oh, shut the fuck up. I’m not a child.”

    “Didn’t say you were.” I motioned to Keke. “I think we’re good.”

    “Same here!” cheered Cannoli. “We haven’t done this in forever!”

    “No! I’m looking forward to the ride, at least,” Keke replied.

    One thing I’d learned was to let the more experienced rider lead. I gestured to Keke, and she took the lead a good meter or two ahead of us, their black and white-speckled horse trotting along at a comfortable pace.

    “Ready?” I asked Ravyn.

    “Just go.”

    “If you say so.” I kicked the side of my horse, and we were off. The sudden movement of hooves against dirt and rock prompted Ravyn to hug me even tighter. I could feel her generous bust against my back, and I briefly thought back to the first time she and I met. My face grew hot, and I was grateful she wasn’t able to see.

    Kehehehe. Like what you feel?” she murmured.

    This is going to be a long ride, isn’t it?

    [​IMG]
     
  16. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 49: Attack on Sorentina

    Thankfully, Sorentina was a straight shot east of Badyron. After about ten minutes of pure galloping and Ravyn desperately groping at my waist for purchase—a sensation I couldn’t say I minded—we spotted dark clouds rising above the trees in the distance. They didn’t look like smoke; the density and color were off. My stomach twisted with a nervous energy that had evaded me when I’d set my mind to helping this town. Well, no going back now. Just keep your promise to your girls, Matt.

    When we reached the edge of Sorentina, everything was chaos. Catgirls clutching [Cat Packs] and parcels while fleeing their homes. Screaming and shouting from all corners overlapped in a cacophony of disarrayed horror. The streets were too crowded to push through on horseback; Keke and I pulled just short of a disheveled wrought-iron gate that served as the entrance to the town.

    “What should we do?” I shouted over the din.

    “Let’s go around!” Keke cried, turning her horse to the left and kicking off into a gallop.

    I followed suit, Ravyn’s cheek pressed firmly against my back and her arms clenched firmly around my stomach.

    “I want off this ride!” Ravyn yelled.

    “Soon!” I replied, keeping my focus on the blonde tail of the horse in front of me.

    We rounded the high walls of Sorentina, dashing through the thin growth of trees until our party caught sight of the Defiled.

    “Holy shit,” I muttered, my eyes traveling higher and higher until I found the damn thing’s head.

    The Defiled stood at least three stories high, as tall as my last apartment building. It had thick, defined arms and legs dripping with sludge around embedded rock and a distorted face with a mouth gaping open and closed like a fish. Strings of mud dangled from its lips and limbs, dripping onto the catgirls and buildings at its feet.

    Is that a fucking mud golem?

    It roared and lifted one of the houses in the district—as easily as if it were a pile of Lincoln Logs—before chucking it at a nearby grouping of hills. The house shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces and crumbled to the ground. I prayed there was no one inside.

    “It’s so big,” Cannoli whimpered. “How do we defeat that?

    Keke’s eyes narrowed as she watched the golem crush another house with an enormous foot. “I don’t think arrows will do much to its body, but I can at least figure out where it’s weakest. Ravyn, what about your magic?”

    Ravyn jumped off the horse and summoned Ball to her shoulder. “Honestly, I don’t know. Will fire just turn him into fucking pottery?” She shook her head. “We’re already here, so we can at least try something.

    “Agreed.” I hopped down and lent a hand to Keke and Cannoli from their horse. “Let’s see what we can do.”

    We ran closer to the mud golem, and the size of the thing just grew more intimidating with every step. Beady eyes beneath chunks of stone peered over Sorentina with fury. It leaned back and inhaled a deep, rasping breath. Then opened its mouth and breathed the dark cloud we’d seen from far away into the streets. It reminded me of thick, hazy pollution descending on a crowded city, and the girls’ screams intensified.

    “We do not want to get hit by that!” Ravyn yelled. “It’s infused with magic!”

    Great, what else can it do?

    The sharp, familiar voice of the warrior we’d seen in Badyron screamed from behind a gate, “Ceres! What the hell are you doing?”

    “Stay back, Aster! This battle is mine!” A tall catgirl with blonde hair in a thick braid over one shoulder stood at the golem’s feet with gloved hands clenched around a polearm. Her face was spotted with dirt and scratches leaking blood, her Combat attire blotted by smudge. Unlike our Combat Mode’s, Ceres’ looked like she’d taken her maid uniform and simply added thick layers of armor on her legs, arms, and chest.

    “Don’t fight him alone!” Aster called. “Fall back!”

    “No! We make a stand here and now!” Ceres licked her lips and bent her knees, pointing her polearm toward the golem’s center. “Face me, Defiled!”

    Keke, Cannoli, and Ravyn all looked at me with varying degrees of wanting to assist and fear. This was my final call. Ravyn raised an eyebrow. Do our lives mean nothing to you?

    “Keke, get that thing’s weaknesses down right now. Cannoli, we’ll blind it as soon as we get close enough. Ravyn, be ready for anything. All three of you stay behind me, and if shit goes south, you get the hell out and back to safety. Deal?”

    “Matt—” Keke began, chewing her lip.

    “[Invoke Frost]!” Ceres yelled. A cold blue glow enveloped her hands and her polearm, traveling to the halberd’s blade and coating it with ice.

    “A [Magic Knight],” Ravyn murmured. “That’s...helpful.”

    “Let’s go!” I charged forward with axe in hand, locking my sights on the mud golem and trusting the girls to follow suit.

    “[Pinpoint Weakness]!” Keke cried. Moments later, she relayed what she’d found, “Its weakest point is the legs!”

    So, we just need to get past the arms, then. We should get Ceres on the same page.

    There was no room for error on this one. No Cailu to save us from the Defiled if things didn’t go as planned. My palms were slick with sweat, and my heart raced, but I trusted my girls with my life. We could do this.

    “Cannoli, [Illuminate] one of Keke’s arrows!” I called over my shoulder. We had to make sure her [Blinding Light] was high enough to reach the golem’s eyes

    “Okay!” Keke drew an arrow from her quiver, and Cannoli enchanted the tip.

    “Keke, aim for its head!”

    “Got it!” She stopped in place, drew back her bow, and aimed for the sky. We watched it fly together, and I counted silently to three. “Now!”

    “[Blinding Light]!” Cannoli cast on the arrow.

    The sky erupted with white light immediately to the left of the golem’s head. It screamed and reared back, covering its face with truck-sized hands. As it shook and worked to clear its vision, globs of mud hurled from its body to the vulnerable city below.

    Ceres turned toward us, eyes wide. “Who are you?”

    We made it to her side and paused. “We want to help. But, we need to get to its legs!”

    Ceres looked between our faces, glanced at my axe and shield, then nodded. “Can you get its attention?”

    “I’ll give it my best shot,” I answered truthfully. So far, [Provoke] hadn’t been effective on Defiled, but this one seemed less...coherent. I had a feeling it just might work.

    Ceres nodded. “If so, then you and I can keep the arms busy.”

    “Ravyn, can you use [Scorching Ring] with Ball on its legs?” I asked.

    Ravyn adjusted the wide brim of her hat and sneered. “Who do you think you’re talking to? Baka.

    “Keke and Cannoli, stay out of the line of fire. I don’t want you two swimming in mud, okay?” I tried to joke, but the tension between us was palpable.

    “Right. Come on, Cannoli.” Keke took her arm, then looked back at me one more time. “Be careful. Please.”

    “I will, promise.” I nodded and turned back to Ceres. “Ready?” Whatever I was preparing for, I had to trust that Ceres knew what the hell she was doing.

    “At your command, sir!” Ceres saluted and faced the golem.

    “[Provoke]!” I shouted.

    The mud golem shook its head once more. Then its attention snapped to me.

    “[Magic Armor]! [Titan of Ice]!” Ceres held fast to her polearm and stepped closer, so our arms touched. The frost around her halberd trickled outward in intricate patterns like the delicate formations of snowflakes. They solidified into a brilliant half-circle of ice that touched the ground and curved over our heads, shielding both of us from the golem.

    The golem cocked one arm back, and I lifted my shield, bracing for the impact. How sturdy can a shield of ice be? At least I could offer one more wall of defense before the golem found flesh.

    It slugged its fist against the ice shield and howled with pain. Tiny hairline cracks formed in the shield, but it stayed firm. The golem’s thick fingers were coated in a thin layer of frost that shattered when he writhed his hand.

    “Ravyn! Go!” I yelled.

    “From the deepest fires beneath the earth, I call to you. Swathe my foe in a blaze unlike any other. Rend apart the very fabric of its being… ”

    Another punch and the fractures continued to spread along with the frost on the golem’s arm.

    “I must tell you about when this shield breaks! Everything within ten feet of me is frozen!” Ceres yelled after another crash of mud against ice.

    Everything?” I asked.

    “Yes! So you need to stand back!” Ceres replied.

    Fuck. “Ravyn! Hurry!”

    The golem’s attention wavered to Ball’s flightpath.

    “[Provoke]!” I casted again and found myself relieved to have its angry gaze back on me.

    “Get back! Now!” Ceres repeated.

    I didn’t want to leave her alone, but being frozen in place sounded like the worse option. I jumped back to where Ravyn stood just as the ice shield shattered into a thousand glittering shards. Just as Ceres said, a thick layer of frost covered the grass, the dirt, and the golem’s arm.

    A deluge of arrows soared from behind the trees, sinking into the frozen mass of mud. The ice crackled and breaks spread throughout the surface in branching webs.

    Nice shots, Keke!

    After a moment of the golem’s confused silence, the arm snapped completely off and toppled to the ground.

    “Look out!” I dove forward, grabbing Ceres’ arm and wrenching her to the side. I pivoted and held my shield up to protect us both. While the arm narrowly missed us, chunks of frozen mud broke free on impact and slammed against the shield, leaving tiny dents and marks in the metal. Thank you, Espada.

    The golem screamed.

    “[Scorching Ring]!” Ravyn shrieked.

    Ball dove between the golem’s knees, and the flames enveloped its legs, searing the lower half of its body into crumbling dust. The chest, remaining arm, and head tipped sideways, then slid backward from the rest of its body.

    “[Fire Ball]!” Ravyn charged a blaze from her fingers and focused it at the golem’s head. It rocketed into the black hole of the golem’s mouth, then exploded in a bright orange burst.

    At last, the dust settled, and the golem was still. Keke and Cannoli rushed back to our party, panting when they reached us.

    “Are you okay? I’m so sorry. I thought shooting it would help!” Keke rasped.

    “We’re fine. It was a perfect shot,” I assured her.

    Ceres looked at me with wide eyes, then dropped to one knee. “My Lord, I owe you my life! Please, allow me to pledge my eternal service to you.”

    Ravyn snickered. Keke and Cannoli exchanged looks. I searched for the right words to say.

    “Let’s, uh, check up on Sorentina. Then we can talk about it.” I scratched the back of my neck.

    “Yes, My Lord!” Ceres stood and bowed. “I am at your command!”

    Matt has gained: 160 XP!
    Matt has gained: 1 point of Valor!

    Keke has gained: 160 XP!
    Keke is now: Base Level 6!
    Keke is now: Class Level 6!

    Cannoli has gained: 160 XP!
    Cannoli is now: Base Level 6!
    Cannoli is now: Class Level 6!

    Ravyn has gained: 112 XP!

    Matt has befriended: Ceres!

    [​IMG]

    Now accessing system memory. . . .

    Prim, proper, perfect. Everything has its own place. Not a speck of dirt or hint of clutter.

    This egregious perfectionism must be stopped.

    Memory storage successful.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]