Novel Everyone's a Catgirl!

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

  1. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Side Quest: Dragon's Dream

    Ravyn was running out of bars in Shulan. Too many drinks led to a dangerous loss of inhibitions that led to having her name blacklisted from the establishment.

    Whatever. Fuck ‘em.

    She was so sick of the assholes in Shulan. On San Island. None of them remembered Finn or what he’d sacrificed to keep them safe and thriving. Now it was all about Cailu. The blonde elf cunt who expected more out of the girls in his Party than the damn Queen. Yomi could keep him. Seemed she’d forgotten about Finn, too.

    Ravyn twisted the serpent band around her finger, and the echo of his hand in hers danced along her skin. She bit back the swelling hurricane of emotions in her chest and let her arm drop. She needed a drink. Now.

    Turning off the bustling main roads of the illuminated city led to a twisted patch of seedier establishments. The places her mother had always warned her about. Gloomy, winding roads with darkened doorsteps that required passwords for entry. Many of the pick-pocketing kittens shared one-room living spaces in this part of town beneath their thieving elders. There were a few watering holes where a thirsty girl could find a drink, and while Ravyn didn’t exactly fit in with the crowd, she certainly wasn’t banned from any of them.

    Don’t have anyone to tell me no anymore, anyway. Not Mom, not Yomi, not Finn.

    Just as Ravyn picked a shadowy doorway to enter, there was a tap on her shoulder. She hadn’t heard anyone approaching and, as a result, nearly leaped out of her skin. Readying a [Fire Ball], she spun on her heel to face down her opponent.

    “Woah, woah, there!” Bright green eyes shimmered in the glow of Ravyn’s hand. She threw up her hands near her shoulders, palms empty, showing that she wasn’t armed. “I come in peace.”

    Ravyn scowled and sapped the magic away from her hand. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

    The girl took a step back, and Ravyn suddenly realized how short she was. The tips of her ears barely brushed Ravyn’s shoulders. “No holes in your dress, clear eyes, combed hair, white teeth. You don’t seem the type craving a trip.”

    “I’m not here for drugs.” Ravyn narrowed her eyes. “I just want a fucking drink.”

    “Then come with me. Let’s get you a drink.” Her gaze wandered to the top of the dark building’s doorway. “You won’t find it in there.”

    “I can’t go to any of the taverns on the main road.”

    She grinned. “Sure you can. Come on.”

    Ravyn took one last look at the door, grunted her assent, then followed the stranger back into the glittering heart of Shulan.

    “You have a name?” Ravyn asked.

    “Sumire. Sumi. Whatever you fancy is fine. You?”

    “Ravyn,” she replied curtly.

    Sumire’s hair caught Ravyn’s attention in the light—a burnt orange with black and white streaks throughout; a pattern mirrored in her pierced ears and slender tail. One side of her head was shaved, with the remaining hair flipped to the opposite shoulder. A black and red corset hugged her curves, the hips leading into a short tabard draping around tight thigh highs. Twin daggers hung in sheathes on either hip, and the buckles on her boots jingled with each step. Even if she was short, she carried herself with quite the attitude.

    Just as she was about to lead them into the warmly lit tavern, Ravyn touched her shoulder. “Hey. They don’t want me here.”

    “Roachshit.” Sumire grinned and winked. “Follow me. You’ll see.”

    The tables were packed, and the swell of conversation swallowed them whole as they moved deeper inside. The catgirl proprietress that had thrown Ravyn out just three nights before eyed her over a glass she was polishing with a white cloth.

    “What part of ‘Don’t step foot in my pub again’ didn’t resonate the first time?” the proprietress growled as they approached the bartop.

    “Kayla, sweet. Ravyn here’s my guest tonight. Won’t you fetch her a drink?” Sumire swiped a leather pouch from her [Cat Pack] and tossed it on the counter. Golden Bells spilled forward, clinking together and glimmering enticingly in the overhead lights. “With a few Bells and your recent delivery, I think we can let her stay. Don’t you?”

    Kayla scowled, her narrowed eyes flickering from the Bells to Sumire’s face. “If she causes a scene, you’re both out. Understood?”

    Sumire shook her head, her smile widening. “We wouldn’t dream of it. Now, two Dragon’s Dreams, if you would.”

    Kayla swept the Bells from the counter into her apron and moved down the bar without another word.

    “The hell’s a Dragon’s Dream?” Ravyn asked.

    “An Ichi Island specialty. Had to teach Kayla to mix one a long time ago.” Sumire gestured to the stool for Ravyn to sit first before she took the one beside her. “Needs a special liquor made from the desert fruit out there. Just so happens to be an exclusive offering for Kayla’s patrons.”

    “You go to Ichi that often?” Ravyn raised an eyebrow.

    “Oh yeah. May as well get my own place there at this point,” Sumire laughed. “Dry as a fucking bone, and the girls are uh…interesting. But it’s good for business.”

    Ravyn had never been to Ichi. Even in her travels with Finn and limited time spent with Cailu, she’d only visited Nyarlothep, then returned to San Island. Returned home. “Well, good for you.”

    Kayla returned with two tall glasses filled to the brim with a fiery red mixture, then topped with a pawberry.

    “Looks like a fruity bitch drink,” Ravyn remarked.

    The proprietress opened her mouth to speak, but Sumire raised a hand and offered a slight shake of her head. “Don’t let looks deceive you.”

    “Go easy on them,” Kayla growled and vanished to help a new set of patrons at the end of the bar.

    Ravyn shrugged and took a sip. The response was immediate. Warmth trickled through her veins and tickled her fingers, crawling to her toes and then back to her throat. “Fuck,” she murmured.

    “You didn’t seem like a ‘fruity bitch drink’ kind of girl,” Sumire said, watching Ravyn take another long pull. “You do seem like you have a lot on your mind.”

    Ravyn hesitated. “Yeah, well, gonna need more booze to talk about that.”

    Sumire nodded, watching as she finished her glass. With a wave to a disgruntled Kayla, she ordered Ravyn another.

    The Dragon’s Dream was probably the strongest thing Ravyn had enjoyed all week. And she was ready to throw back as many of the damn things Sumire was willing to put in front of her.

    Visions of Finn flooded her memory with each glass she saw through to the bottom. His laugh, his touch, his voice. His first failed attempts at [Alchemy] and then his numerous successes. Finn protecting her against countless Defiled. Finn confessing his love and suggesting they run from it all.

    The pleasant tingling along her skin was intoxicating, and, against her better judgment, the drink worked its magic on her tongue.

    “I couldn’t protect him,” Ravyn whispered. “It’s my fault.”

    Sumire observed quietly, patiently taking sips from her red-tinged glass.

    Ravyn looked at her. “The man before Cailu was mine to protect. And I fucked it up.”

    “Ah. One of Finn’s girls,” Sumire replied gently. “He was a quiet one. Kept to himself.”

    Ravyn worked her jaw while the weight of Sumire’s words took hold. “You…You remember Finn?”

    “Mhm. Didn’t get to talk to him, but I’d see him around.” She swirled her drink in thought. “I think he had good intentions, but, well— I think you’re taking too much credit.”

    “What do you mean?” Ravyn rubbed at her eyes. Why the hell were they wet?

    “This world is a shit show. You have to be able to fend for yourself, or you're fucked.” Sumire took another long draw from her glass. “We can’t protect everyone, and they can’t protect us. Even in a Party, it’s every catgirl for themselves.”

    Ravyn wanted to tell her she was wrong. That it had been her fucking job to protect Finn. She’d promised him they could vanish from it all and start their own family. Just the two of them.

    And in the end, neither of them was strong enough.

    Sumire signaled for Kayla to bring another round. “Besides, aren’t the men supposed to protect us?”

    “Finn was different,” Ravyn snarled.

    Lifting her hands at her shoulders as she had earlier, Sumire shook her head. “Hey, no harm intended. You knew him way better than I did.”

    The creeping thought that Finn just hadn’t been good enough for Nyarlea had plagued Ravyn more than once. She’d swallowed it and pushed it away every time, but hearing it out of someone else’s mouth had a way of adding a measure of truth to it. Even Yomi had said something of the like a few times.

    No. Fuck that. He was everything this world needed.

    Another long drink of her refreshed drink. Another long glare from Kayla as she went to tend to other people.

    “Look. It’s been a rough fucking week for me, and clearly a rough fucking life for you.” Sumire tipped her glass toward Ravyn. “Let me take your mind off of it for a while?” Green eyes drank Ravyn in from head to toe. “Promise to make it worth your while.”

    Sumire’s gaze and smooth skin had taken on a welcoming glow, and a shiver ran down her spine. How long had it been since she’d shared a bed? When was the last time she’d let anyone in?

    Ravyn finished off her drink. “Sure. Why the fuck not.” The words slurred on her tongue but she didn’t care. It was the first time she hadn’t been thrown out of a bar in months. The first time she’d let anyone offer her companionship in years.

    Fuck it.

    Sumire left another pack of Bells on the bartop and gently hooked her arm around Ravyn’s waist. “So you don’t fall over on me.”

    Ravyn wanted to protest, but when she stood, the walls began to shift. “Whatever,” she murmured, though it was nearly impossible to understand.

    Sumire chuckled and guided her outside, then to a nearby inn. One of the nicer places in Shulan, with unchipped paint and new wallpaper. After a short conversation with the hostess at the front, Ravyn found herself led to a room on the first floor and standing before a four-post bed.

    “Don’t like the…er, fuck…the upstairs?” For whatever reason, the term ‘second floor’ evaded her.

    “Didn’t want you to fall down the stairs.” Sumire shrugged.

    “Confi— consit…fuck.” Words were evading her completely.

    Sumire laughed. “Considerate.” She locked the door, then moved around Ravyn until they were face to face. “Still alright?”

    Ravyn frowned. This wasn’t supposed to be an exercise in hand-holding. She snaked her fingers into Sumire’s hair and around her neck. Throwing her remaining doubt to the wind, Ravyn kissed her.

    Sumire gasped, reciprocating with her tongue parting Ravyn’s lips.

    “I said let me help,” Sumire breathed against her mouth, then pushed Ravyn against the door.

    [​IMG]

    [Memory stored and saved for Catgirls. . .]

    At last, Sumire rolled away, staring at the canopy as she caught her breath. Ravyn did the same, licking her lips and chuckling to herself.

    “What’s so funny?” Sumire asked.

    Ravyn turned her head and reached out to trace the line of Sumire’s hip. “I was just wondering—” she hesitated just below Sumire’s navel, grinning at her gasp, “—if it’s too late to go get another one of those Dragon’s Dreams.”

    Sumire barked a laugh and swatted away Ravyn’s hand. “Like I said. We got all night.”

    For a few incredible moments, Ravyn felt normal. Like things were okay.

    She clung to that feeling with every fiber of her being.

    [​IMG]
     
  2. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 124: Tai Chi

    I was in the dining room for only a few minutes before returning to Ravyn’s side, curious about the next steps. Ceres, Ara, and I watched in silence as Ravyn swept her hand over Lynn’s body. She started at her feet and then worked her way up as if scanning her body for abnormalities. It reminded me a lot of getting a CT scan.

    Ara looked beside herself. She rested beside Lynn, tightly clinging to her sister’s limp hand. Her face was deathly pale, and her eyes were bloodshot. She must have been crying on the walk home. I didn’t know what to say that would help her feel more at ease.

    After a while, Ravyn exhaled and rested on her knees.

    I put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, are you okay?”

    “I’m fine.” Ravyn put her hand on top of mine. “Just takes a lot out of me.”

    “Rest if you need to.”

    Ravyn shook her head, then rose to her feet while she removed my hand from her shoulder. “Part of why these girls are like this is my fault. I don’t have the luxury of rest.”

    “Dear Ravyn, please listen to Matt,” said Ceres. “I understand your concern. Truly, I do. But we mustn't exhaust ourselves in our efforts.”

    “I know that,” said Ravyn. “I’m fine.” Then she clicked her tongue, delivering her next words in a hiss. “What fucking monster would do this to these girls?”

    Ara’s head hung low. She’d spoken choice few words since Ravyn began checking Lynn. Seeing her sister beaten and bruised, I couldn’t imagine how she felt right now. I grimaced as I tried to picture myself in Lynn’s shoes while we were gone. I realized that I had no idea what she was actually like. The last time we were here, I was on the defensive the entire time—I couldn’t trust a word out of hers or Ara’s mouths.

    And now look where we are. How the hell do we fix this?

    I had to admit that I felt responsible for Lynn, Destiny, and Lara’s current situation. In our efforts to accomplish the goal that Cailu had given me, we’d put Shi Island in a compromised position. From Celestia’s immediate treason accusation, she’d assumed the worst for a long time—believing Tristan had been kidnapped or killed. It was no small wonder that Lynn, Destiny, and Lara weren’t executed for their ‘assistance’ in our plan.

    “I’m sorry, Ara.” The words flowed out of my mouth so effortlessly. There was no getting around it. Despite Tristan’s circumstances, no one could deny that this was ultimately our doing. Even if we were right, by all accounts the island and its issues were none of our business to begin with. This was not my island. These were not my girls. It was not my responsibility.

    Ravyn drew her hand away from Lynn’s body. “The spell is still strong. It’s not showing any signs of weakening. We should have a few days. We’re going to need some strong potions before we wake them up.”

    “But we can wake them, right?” I asked.

    Ravyn nodded. “Yeah. Waking them up is the easy part. We need to get them out of pain first. Ara. Felsi is a [Wizard], right?”

    “Yes,” said Ara.

    Ravyn sighed. “Mattaku. Then there’s no doubt about it; this is [Slumber].” She stepped away from the bed, and Ara buried her face against Lynn’s shoulder.

    I frowned. “Beyond the obvious, what does it do?”

    “[Slumber] is a magical sleep,” Ceres explained. “Very potent, but very simple. Many [Wizard]s learn the spell for self-defense in close quarters. Like Ravyn said earlier, you have to be touching the person in order to deliver it.”

    “We used it a few times to incapacitate enemies,” said Ara. “But I never thought it would be used like this.”

    Ravyn folded her arms. “We need to get them in better health as soon as possible.”

    I could understand getting the person out of pain before they woke, but I still wasn’t following why this could be such a big deal beyond the fact that while they slept, they also couldn’t eat, exercise, or anything else for that matter. I assumed they weren’t getting the normal sort of rest that a person would typically get from falling asleep naturally, but I couldn’t help but feel there was still a hidden message behind this spell that I wasn’t getting.

    “What makes this spell so dangerous?” I hesitated and ran a hand through my hair when no one immediately replied. “I’m sorry. I really wanna know every single issue about this spell. Magic has been a driving force for most of the issues we suffer from.” I scratched the back of my head. “I feel like I could learn a lot from you and Ceres.”

    The faintest hint of pink colored Ravyn’s cheeks. She cleared her throat. “Well, boy, if I must. First off, to understand [Slumber], you need to understand magical sleep. Like I said earlier, it puts you in a kind of stasis. As if someone froze you in time. You can’t feel, think, dream—you can’t do anything. All you can do is watch.”

    I blinked, taking another glance at Lynn. Her eyes were still closed. “Then… they can see us?”

    Ravyn seemed hesitant but answered, “Yeah, if their eyes were open. We’re doing them a favor by keeping them closed. Don’t force them open.”

    “I wasn’t going to.”

    “I know, I just—” Ravyn grunted. “With that in mind, since your mind and body are frozen in stasis, you can’t sense or experience much. She could see us, but she wouldn’t be able to comprehend anything. Following so far?”

    I crossed my arms and thought about it. “I think so. Carry on.”

    “It does not mean that those things are not still happening to you.” Ravyn turned around so that she faced me. “So, what do you think happens when a person who can’t feel or experience anything at that moment is suddenly woken up?”

    I tilted my head to look up at the ceiling while thinking about it. It didn’t take long for an idea to come to mind. My eyes went wide, and when I met Ravyn’s gaze, I suddenly realized why this could be so dangerous. “Do… they feel everything all at once?”

    Ravyn nodded slowly. “That’s right. Anything their bodies suffered from while they were in that stasis happens all at once. Any slight budge, any damage, any hunger pangs, sleep deprivation, all of it. Like a waterfall. It can get real fucked up real fast.”

    I was no medical expert back in my old world. Not by a long shot. Even so, I recalled reading stories and articles about people dying from shock. A lot of times, bites, explosions, stabs, gunshots, and other severe wounds wouldn’t actually kill the person. It was the shock. Too much of it, and the person could die right on the spot.

    “What the hell do we do?” I asked.

    “A numbing agent is the best treatment for a situation like this,” Ceres offered without a hint of doubt. “When I attended the academy, we were taught the importance of tinctures and agents that could remedy, boost, or weaken the effects of certain spells.”

    Ravyn pointed at Ceres. “That’s exactly it. We get the agent. We feed it to the girls, and then we wake them up. If the numbing is strong enough, it should dull most of the residual pain. Then we can get them a good meal and let them heal.”

    “Then let’s get to it.” I turned around and opened the door out into the hallway. “I don’t want to waste a second when we could be out there helping these girls.”

    “Of course, Sir Matt. Please, lead the way,” said Ceres.

    I gestured for Ceres to leave first. After she exited, I stood by the side and waited for Ravyn to pass through next. When it was just Ara and me, I spoke. “I mean it. I’m sorry, Ara. I promise I’m going to do everything I can for your sister.”

    Ara nodded without looking at me. I shut the door behind me as I left.

    As Ravyn and Ceres descended the staircase, I stopped with my hand on the railing. “You two go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a few.”

    Ravyn frowned, but Ceres nodded, ushering Ravyn downstairs.

    I made my way to the room where Ara had escorted Tristan. I put my hand on the knob, drew a deep breath, and opened the door.

    The room was dark beyond a single candle glowing from the bedside dresser. A thick blanket was pulled up to Destiny’s torso. Tristan was on his knees, Destiny’s hand clasped between his palms. When he turned to look at me, it was with puffy cheeks and red eyes.

    “Can I come in?” I asked quietly.

    Tristan nodded slowly, then rasped, “Sure.”

    I shut the door behind me. “How are you holding up?”

    Tristan hesitated. “Could be better.”

    I stood next to him and took in Destiny’s features. Strands of her short, blue hair clung to her cheeks, and her shallow, rhythmic breathing whistled from her nose. Destiny appeared no different from Lynn—the casual onlooker would assume she was sleeping peacefully. Even if I’d only met Destiny once or twice, I still remembered the day she welcomed us at the docks with her twin sister, Lara.

    “We’re going to help them.” I wanted to be as reassuring as possible, but to be honest, I was trying to push down the building guilt and rage. There was nothing we could do about the past. It was too late to think about do-overs. It’s not like I could just load a save file and try a different route. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see Celestia burned at the stake. “I promise.”

    “I know. I just wish I could’ve prevented this,” said Tristan. He rubbed his thumb against the indent between her thumb and index finger. “I drew her more often than any of the other girls.”

    That one scene from Titanic came to mind. Draw me like one of your Shi Island girls. I shook it away. Now wasn’t the time. “I’m sure she finds that flattering.”

    “She doesn’t know. I was going to tell her. I was supposed to meet her later that night—the day you ki— rescued me. She’d sneak into my room and visit me from time to time. We’d share a drink, and she’d tell me about her day.” Tristan touched his forehead to her hands. “I let her down. I let everyone down.”

    “You’re not to blame, though. Look at the hellhole Celestia created. Look at how she orders and barks like some mad woman on a mission. She’s like Miss Trunchbull.”

    The slightest hint of a smile quirked Tristan’s lips. “Now that's a reference I can agree with.”

    “But seriously. We’re going to get them taken care of. Ravyn’s given me the lowdown on what we need to do. We just gotta numb them up and slowly wake them all.” I knew it wasn’t so simple, but I had to pull Tristan out of this slump somehow. “I’ll do everything I can to help.”

    “Thanks, Matt. I think I’ll be calling on your aid a lot from now on.”

    I shook my head. “Don’t mention it. We need to work together. This whole one-man-per-island thing is stressful enough. You saw Ni Island. Let’s be real. I’ve got an easy job. I could drop off the face of Nyarlea, and no one would be the wiser.”

    “I wouldn’t be okay with that,” said Tristan. “And I know that Keke, Cannoli, Ceres, and even Ravyn wouldn’t be okay with that. I can tell how they feel about you, Matt. They lean on and depend upon you. They’d be a wreck if you left this world.”

    I was at a loss for words. No matter what I came up with, it was short of what I thought was appropriate or necessary. I let the silence speak for a time. When I thought about what would happen to these girls afterward, I spoke.

    “I doubt there’s going to be room for three more people on the boat. What do we want to do?”

    Tristan swallowed. “I don’t trust Celestia. I’m afraid she’ll hurt them while I’m gone.”

    “She can’t. She knows she fucked up big time.”

    “Even so, she might. I don’t know enough about her. Who is the real Celestia? Is she just an inch away from snapping and hacking their heads off? She was capable of feeding me information and keeping me complacent in my day-to-day. Of torturing her students for information, which is unforgivable.” He gritted his teeth. “Even if she intended to heal the island, her actions don’t warrant her continued position as headmistress.”

    “I’m surprised you let her walk,” I admitted.

    “Just until we figure this out. I didn’t want it to come to blows. More innocent girls shouldn’t be punished for what she’s done.” He shook his head. “The school and this city need a different leader. Especially while I’m gone.”

    “Anyone in mind?”

    “I admit, my relationships with the girls in the school, well… Didn’t go much farther than the bed.”

    I had to be honest. “There might be room for one more person, but even then, I think Portia might disagree. I don’t know for sure. But there’s no way Ara’s going to leave without Lynn. Not if Celestia remains in charge.”

    “And I can’t leave Destiny and Lara here knowing what Celestia did to them. I just can’t. I meant every word I said. This island needs me.” A knock came at the door. “Come in.”

    The door opened to reveal Ara. Tristan let go of Destiny’s hand and shot to his feet. “Ara, what did—”

    “I’m sorry, young Master. Please forgive me; I was eavesdropping on your conversation.” Ara kept her hands clasped in front of her. Tristan gestured for her to enter, but she refused. “This will only take a moment.” Ara averted her gaze.

    “What’s wrong?” Tristan asked.

    Ara’s fingers writhed, and she shifted from one foot to the other. “If I may be so bold, I… I have a proposition for you.”

    [​IMG]
     
  3. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 125: Muay Thai

    I exchanged looks with Tristan, then turned to Ara. “Should I leave?”

    “No. I believe you should hear this too,” Ara murmured.

    Tristan gently set Destiny’s hand on the bed and stood, setting his shoulders and shifting his attention. “What is it?”

    “There is no easy way to suggest this, so I will be brief.” Ara pulled her arms behind her and straightened her spine. “Please allow me to take Celestia’s place.”

    I’d expected her to request an exit from the Party for her sister, but the sudden suggestion of her taking over the school? That about knocked the wind out of me. “Seriously?”

    Tristan held up a hand. “I couldn’t put that kind of pressure on you, Ara.”

    Ara’s lips quirked into a sad smile, and she gave a small shake of her head. “You wouldn’t be. I am the one making the request. Not to sound immodest, but I believe I am the most qualified of the girls in the Venicia School of Etiquette—or in Venicia for that matter—to become acting Headmistress.”

    “How do you figure?” I asked.

    “After my formal education, I was one of the select few girls Celestia often called on to manage her books and records, as well as take deliveries and messages around the town. She would call on me first to resolve conflicts and seek my opinion on changes.” Her tail flicked behind her ankles and she took a deep breath before continuing. “Thanks to my travels with the two of you, I have a greater understanding of the current situations across Shi Island. While… While you’re…” She paused, chewing on her lip as her eyes dropped to the floor.

    “Ara, you don’t have to—” Tristan began.

    She raised her voice, speaking over him. “While you are away, I can simultaneously initiate immediate restoration efforts while moving the school in a more positive direction.”

    Tristan waited until she was finished before asking, “And what about Celestia?”

    “That, of course, is ultimately your decision.” Ara cleared her throat. “However, if it were up to me, I would consider keeping her confined to a room. Perhaps the one of her own design for some time.”

    I thought Celestia deserved far worse than that. Let Ravyn sear every nerve on her body, then throw her in a pitch-black cell. Ara’s frustrated stare and tense shoulders implied that she felt similarly but held back what she really wanted to say.

    Tristan’s fingers balled into fists, his knuckles white. “While I agree that Celestia needs to be punished, I don’t know if torture is the way to do it.”

    “Torture?” Ara’s smile turned wry. “But, young Master, the Room was always seen as a disciplinary measure. A place to ‘reassess your actions.’ There is no torture involved.”

    I watched the warring emotions take their time with Tristan’s features. He didn’t hide his feelings very well—Ara would be wise to teach him her poker face some time. I could see how badly he wanted to be the good guy in all of this, and none of the options presented were great.

    “What about our Party?” he asked after a few heartbeats of silence. His voice broke halfway through the sentence.

    Ara flinched. As if we’d already covered that part. “I-I know. However, Destiny is a capable [Alchemist] and Lara a [Conjurer]. They should be the ones to go with you.”

    “But I want you with me. You and Lynn.” His plea was thin and desperate. Gut-wrenching coming from a guy who’d suffered the full wrath of his island. I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling. It’d be like if any of my Party suddenly left. “We started this together.”

    “And I will be here when you return. So will Lynn,” Ara reassured him gently.

    I set a hand on Tristan’s shoulder. Wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone. “Ara, is this really what you want? Not just for the good of the island or your sister?”

    She slowly nodded her head. “It would be irresponsible to believe otherwise.”

    “Maybe, but I’m sure we can find someone else to lead. We can all see this through. You’ve earned your spot a hundred times over,” I replied.

    “That is kind of you to say, Matt. But I am certain that this is the best course of action.” Ara bowed. “Young Master, please let me know your decision as swiftly as possible so I may make the necessary arrangements.”

    Tristan nodded, running a hand through his hair. When Ara left the room, he looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “I… I need some time alone.”

    “Yeah, no problem.” I patted him on the back and moved to the door. “We’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”

    “Mm,” he hummed, kneeling next to Destiny once more.

    I closed the door behind me. It seemed Ara had already vanished into Lynn’s room, so I made my way down the stairs to find Ceres, Ravyn, and Cannoli at the large dining room table. Multiple candles and two oil lamps flickered from nearly every surface, illuminating Ravyn’s perfect penmanship across the parchment.

    Ball Gag perched on the mantle of a fireplace with more dust and cobwebs than kindling inside. Ceres and Cannoli were seated on either side of her, leaning forward with focused concentration on Ravyn’s list. Keke stood, leaning against a nearby corner with her arms crossed over her chest, tail listlessly whipping back and forth behind her. Her gaze was miles away from anything in the room, and I wondered what she was thinking about.

    Only a few soft words were exchanged between the girls when I entered the room, and all four pairs of eyes snapped to me as my footsteps echoed against the wood flooring.

    “Sir Matt, is aught amiss?” Ceres asked, immediately standing from her seat and offering a curt bow.

    “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Please, you don’t have to stand up like that.” I gestured for Ceres to sit back down. “I don’t know about amiss, but I do have some news.”

    Ravyn set her quill to the side, carefully balancing the nib on the bottle of black ink. Buttons was curled around the circular glass, dozing with his head resting on his tail. “What the hell did we miss in the ten minutes you were gone?”

    I pulled a chair across the table away and slumped into the cushioned seat. “Well…”

    Keke took a seat beside me, and they attentively listened as I explained Ara’s proposition to take over Celestia’s role and offering Destiny and Lara as replacements.

    “Oh, no. Tristan must be devastated,” Cannoli murmured, touching a hand to her lips.

    “He’s not taking it great, no. Can’t really blame him,” I agreed.

    “Yeah, but, like you said, this isn’t forever. Tristan will come back here eventually.” Ravyn shrugged.

    Keke nodded. “Ravyn’s right. All of us traveling together will end once the men meet. I think Ara could really make a difference here.”

    “It would let her keep an eye on Lynn, too,” Cannoli noted. “But, still. Poor Tristan.”

    Keke’s comment about our travels ending set off a pang in my gut. I guess I hadn’t really realized how attached to our caravan I’d become. Having Tristan and Ara with us felt so normal that the idea of splitting up with them was strange as hell.

    “Matt? Are you alright?” Keke asked, touching my shoulder.

    “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Whether I was reassuring her or myself, I couldn’t tell you. “Has this ever happened before? The four men in Nyarlea trying to meet up?”

    All of us looked at Ravyn. Her eyebrows raised, and she bared her sharp white teeth. “Nani? What the fuck are all of you looking at me for?”

    “You’re the, um, most experienced, Ravyn,” Cannoli replied carefully.

    Good job not calling her old.

    “Wow. Smooth. Kuso,” Ravyn cursed quietly. “No. I don’t think it’s ever been attempted before. Or if it has been, I’ve never heard of it in my advanced experience.

    “Perhaps you could ask Tristan as well? He is well-read, it seems,” Ceres suggested.

    “Why do you ask?” Keke wondered.

    I shook my head. “Just thinking out loud, really. Without Cailu sending us, we wouldn’t have met so many great people or traveled so far. It’s crazy to think about.”

    “Gross. Don’t give him compliments,” Ravyn hissed.

    “Nah, not really a compliment. Just something I noticed.” I shrugged. “So, yeah. Ara wants to take over. Destiny and Lara may be joining in her place. You’re all caught up, and now it’s my turn. What’s on the list?”

    “Cannoli’s helping me come up with ingredients we can use for the potion we need. Since not everything from San Island or Ni Island grows on Shi Island, Ceres gave us some options for herbs and materials that would act the same way,” Ravyn explained.

    “And I’m Keke,” Keke grumbled.

    I squeezed her thigh beneath the table, and she snickered.

    “That reminds me.” I let my hand rest on Keke’s leg, and her fingers snaked through mine. “I didn’t know that [Alchemist] was a Class.”

    “Wait, really?” Ravyn sneered. “Did you even look at your options before you chose [Warrior]?”

    “I…no,” I admitted. “I wanted something tanky that could do a good amount of damage. So here we are.”

    Baka. You should seriously read your iPaw once in a while. For Saoirse’s sake.”

    “[Alchemist] is one of the options for second Class after [Chemist],” Cannoli explained cheerily. “I tried [Chemist] out for a little while, but it’s, uh, really expensive.”

    “Why become an [Alchemist] Class instead of just practicing [Alchemy]?” I asked.

    “[Chemist]s and [Alchemist]s have the ability to add additional effects and options to everything they craft. Whether it is offensive or defensive. As Cannoli said, however, the materials and ingredients required are exceedingly rare and expensive,” Ceres explained. “For most, it is better to simply practice [Alchemy] and have the option while using a more powerful Class to Level.”

    “Offensive [Alchemy]? And that isn’t your Class, Ravyn?” I teased.

    “No,” Ravyn replied in a tone suggesting that the conversation was over. She picked up the quill again. “Let’s get back to work. I want to leave as soon as the sun’s up.”

    What did I screw up now? I sighed and stood. “Is there anything I can do to help you right now?”

    “I believe we are sufficient. Thank you, Sir Matt.” Ceres stood again.

    How do I tell her not to do that without hurting her feelings? “I’m gonna get some sleep, then.”

    “I’ll come with you,” Keke said and got to her feet. “I’m not helping much here anyway.”

    “We’ll need your foraging tomorrow, Keke! You’re the best of all of us!” Cannoli cheered.

    Keke cracked a smile. We gave them one last wave and a good night before heading upstairs.

    There were two rooms still unoccupied upstairs and two more I spotted downstairs. I figured everyone else could figure out their sleeping situations and picked the empty bedroom farthest down the hall. Keke followed me inside and had her arms around my neck by the time I shut the door. She pulled me down and captured my kiss, and I circled her waist to draw her close.

    Nyarlea was a crazy world. There were still so many things that didn’t make sense and subjects that completely evaded me. Yet, in Keke’s embrace, I felt safe and sure. For just a few moments, the rest of the world melted away.

    Please don’t ever melt away.

    [​IMG]
     
  4. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 126: Hip-Hopping to a Store Near You

    When I awoke, the tiniest hint of sun peeked through the blinds ahead. Sleepy brain wondered if we’d been moved to one of Celestia’s cells. I smiled when I discovered I was in the same bed from the night before. Keke was still sound asleep beside me. I turned my head to the right to admire the curve of her bare backside. Her body rose and fell with every breath she took. It mesmerized me.

    With reluctance in my motion, I reached over and gently shook her shoulder. “Hey, Keke.” Mumbles and groans escaped her lips. She yanked away what remained of my covers, wrapping herself in a cocoon of blankets. The cold air nipped at my skin, and I rubbed my hands against my biceps for a bit of warmth. I shook her again, this time with a little more force. “Come on. It’s time to get up.”

    “Just a couple more minutes,” Keke whispered.

    I made several disapproving expressions. I wanted to let Keke rest, but Ravyn was right. We needed to get this done as soon as possible. Every minute we spent resting or lazying about was another minute our [Slumber] victims were suffering.

    “Keke, get up. We need to get going.”

    She turned toward me in her sleepy trance, and the morning chill completely evaporated with the sight of her breasts. This was still taking some getting used to. I averted my gaze, then scratched the back of my neck and got out of bed before the more bestial side of me could take control.

    Where are my clothes? Oh, over there.

    Halfway to the pile of garments, a fierce knock came at the door. Keke shot up into a sitting position. Dark circles hung under her eyes. A gnarly growl emanated from the deepest part of her throat while she squinted at the door.

    “Time to get up! Get dressed! We’re burning daylight!” Ravyn’s voice boomed from behind the door. The doorknob rattled, and soon after, another knock came.

    Get up, dumbasses, get up dumbasses, squawwwwwk!

    Did she really have to bring the demon bird?

    Keke continued to growl, then swooped up the covers and wrapped them around her until she became a ball of sheets and blankets. After I got my undergarments and pants on, I unlocked the door and swung it open, a finger to my lips.

    “Can you be a little more gentle?” I asked.

    Ravyn was already dressed. Ball Gag sat atop her shoulder, munching on a cracker. She folded her arms and raised a brow. “Baka. We don’t have time to be gentle. Got shit to do. Cannoli’s already prepared your breakfast, so hurry up before it gets cold.”

    “Did you already eat?” As eager as she was to get started, I had a hard time believing she’d leave without at least getting a bite.

    “No, of course not. I offered to wake you up. You and Keke are the only ones who aren’t eating, so hurry the fuck up before I eat all your food.”

    Hurry the fuck up, squawwwk!

    I didn’t fight back. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, she was right. We’d already agreed on getting out by the time the sun was up, so any lost time would be on Keke and me.

    “Alright, just need a few minutes. We’ll be right down.”

    “Chop chop!” Ravyn exclaimed, clapping her hands together.

    I shut the door in her face and locked it. Curses spouted from Ravyn’s mouth, and I ignored them. Then I turned around to face the bed. I got down on all fours and crawled across the mattress, putting both of my hands on the blankets. With a sigh, I started to remove them one by one.

    “Noooo,” came a voice from within the ball of comfort. “Just five more minutes. Pleeease.”

    “No, Keke. Come on, get up. We got shit to do, just like Ravyn said.” I tugged harder at the fabric. It was coming loose, and for a moment I wondered if this was how my parents felt every day before school.

    The idea of waking up one of my own kittens crossed my mind, and I quickly shook it away.

    “Breakfast is downstairs,” I continued. “I bet Cannoli and Ara made it. It’s gotta be delicious.”

    There was a pause, but I could feel her wriggling inside. At last, she relented. “Fine. I’ll get up.”

    Despite how tired we both were, we were quick to get our clothes on, taunted by the enticing aroma of Cannoli’s, and presumably Ara’s, cooking. Afterward, we soared down the stairs. Even if I was pretty quick, Keke was the faster of us. She’d managed to reach the bottom before me.

    “Winner!” She threw her arms into the air for a quick victory stance, then took an empty seat next to Ceres.

    “Good morning, Keke,” Ceres said with a slight bow of her head.

    I lazily walked the remainder of the stairs and caught Ravyn’s glare. “Loser,” she said, pointing at me with her fork. She directed the utensil to an empty seat across from her. “Sit, boy.”

    I rolled my eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Good boy.”

    “Good morning, Sir Matt,” Ceres said with a warm smile.

    “Morning.” I took the other spot next to Ceres, avoiding Ravyn’s gaze.

    Right after, Cannoli and Ara approached with a nice spread of food I was familiar with by now. Potatoes were mashed, some of the local fish was fried in a pan, and a few bowls of cleaned fruit sat at the center of the table.

    “Did you make this too, Ara?” I asked.

    A rare smile, probably one of the most honest I’d seen on her, tugged at her lips. “I did. With Cannoli’s help, of course. No catgirl would go to Venicia’s School of Etiquette without learning the essentials of cooking.”

    “I’m impressed. Really, this looks amazing. Thank you.”

    Ara offered a curt nod before placing a plate of potatoes and fish in front of me.

    “Try the fruit, Matt. We picked it this morning,” Cannoli said as she put a plate of food down in front of Ravyn next. “It’s really fresh!”

    “Oh, this looks so good.” Keke’s eyes went wide as she plucked a smaller nyapple from the bowl in front of her.

    “Why are they so small?” I asked.

    “The smaller, the sweeter,” said Keke.

    I frowned. “I never saw you rip down a nyapple that small before.”

    “Bigger is better.” Cannoli was wearing a beautiful pink apron with frills on the ends. Come to think of it, so was Ara. The two were a cute cooking duo, and it put a smile on my face to see them passing by each other to put food on the table for us. “Typically, catgirls want more food. Ni Island isn’t very particular about taste, so much as quantity.”

    I guess I can see that.

    “Typically, anyway,” Keke said as she tossed the nyapple around in her hand and took a big bite out of it. Her face scrunched, and her lips puckered. “Oh, Saoirse, that’s sweet.”

    “How are the sleeping girls doing?”

    Ravyn shrugged. “About as well as they can be. We still have two days on the spell, but we need to get them food and water as soon as possible.”

    Ara and Cannoli set down two more plates of food, then took two of the seats on Ravyn’s right. Now that I was getting a good look at everyone at the table, I had to ask. “So, where’s Tristan?”

    “The young Master is attending to business in the town,” Ara said with stony indifference.

    “I see. Did he take off to go talk to Celestia?”

    “I would presume so.”

    You would presume so? How unusual for you.

    This was kind of strange. I struggled to think of a world where Ara wasn’t at Tristan’s heel, available at a moment’s notice. Their circumstances weren’t something they would get over in just a night’s rest, but I felt that an argument might’ve occurred.

    I picked up a fork next to my plate and used the flat end to cut off a piece of the fish on my dish. “Is he going to be back soon? There were a few things I wanted to ask him about,” I lied.

    “I do not know. Let us take care of the matters at hand first. We can return to your queries later,” said Ara.

    “Yeah, stick to the plan. We finished the list last night,” Ravyn said as she procured a rolled-up scroll from beneath the table. “Simple stuff, but potent. Even if the bitch ratted us out, Esmerelda had some good wares. I think we should visit and pick up what we need from there. Maybe we can save ourselves a trip to an [Alchemy] lab while we’re at it. Esmerelda would have to have one.”

    Cannoli chewed her lip. “I don’t think she intentionally hurt us, Ravyn. Celestia may have just asked her her opinion on the empty bottles and scrolls.”

    “Yeah, not like she’s been telling anyone here the full story.” Keke rolled her eyes, taking another bite of her nyapple.

    “That’s reasonable,” I said. I shoveled a hunk of fish into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “Who’s going to stay and watch our sleeping beauties?”

    “Ara, Ceres, and Tristan will stick around to keep an eye on them. The rest of us are going to Badyron,” Ravyn said.

    I did a quick count with my fingers. “You, me, Keke, and Cannoli?”

    Ravyn nodded, spooning a helping of potatoes and delivering them to her mouth. “Cannoli seems pretty well-versed in [Alchemy],” she said between fits of chewing. She swallowed and lifted another helping to her mouth. “She came up with a few herbs that I didn’t think of.”

    I sliced free another helping of fish. “That’s right. She helped me make my first potions.”

    “That was such a wonderful day. You caught on to it really quick too, Matt!” Cannoli noted. She was hard at work on her own breakfast, and was managing to pass most of us by. I reckoned she had a busy morning. Was probably eager to get outside too.

    Up long before dawn, were we?

    “Well, sounds good to me.” I shrugged. “I don’t see what you need me for, though.”

    Ravyn pointed the spoon at me and formed a flat line with her lips. “You know [Alchemy]. Novice or not, we’ll work faster if we have more people to throw at it. Simple addition, Matt.”

    “Right, right.”

    Most of breakfast passed by without interruption. Tristan never showed up. As much as I wanted to ask about him and Ara, I decided against it. I already had a knack for putting my nose in places it didn’t belong, and I didn’t want to be responsible for any more mishaps. This was, of course, coming from the guy going to Ichi Island to take yet another man away from his duties.

    I hope Cailu’s plan works.

    As much of a cuntbag as he was, I couldn’t fault the reasoning behind the task. If the four men could meet and build a council, or at the very least, just manage our resources together, then maybe we could fight the Defiled threat and return these girls to a life of normalcy.

    I helped clean up, then moved outside. I stood on the front porch, my hands in my pockets, pondering over Tristan and Cailu. Both of them had unique circumstances, and I’d been fortunate as hell to end up on Ni. Considering what we’d encountered up until now, I’m not sure I would’ve survived if I’d found myself in Tristan’s or Cailu’s position.

    A sensation on my shoulder broke me from my thoughts. “Hey. It’s time to go,” said Ravyn.

    I turned to face her. “Oh. Yeah. Are Keke and Cannoli ready?”

    Ravyn nodded. “They will be in a moment. I’m going to get us a ride while we’re waiting.”

    “Wait.” I grabbed her by the bicep. She turned her head and looked at me. Part of me hoped there might be an angry hue of pink on her cheeks or that she’d snap at me. Something Ravyn-like. There was nothing of the sort. The last thing I wanted from her right now was for her to let the guilt of the slumbering girls drag her down. I wanted to ask if she was okay. But I didn’t. “How will I find you?”

    Ravyn paused, then shook away my grip. “Same place we did last time, boy. Remember where the horses were stationed?”

    “Yeah, I do.”

    Ravyn smirked. “Good. At least you have a good memory for geography.” Nothing else came out of her mouth. Ravyn continued on her way with Ball Gag perched on her shoulder. I watched for as long as I could see her.

    “Hey, Matt?” I flinched at the sound of Cannoli’s voice. “Are you okay?” Concerned ruby eyes stared into me, analyzing me. Keke stood just behind her.

    I drew a deep breath. “I’m fine.” I forced a smile. “Come on, let’s catch up with Ravyn.”

    Cannoli nodded. “Yes, let’s! The sooner we get these girls back to full health, the better! Lead the way, Matt!”

    [​IMG]
     
  5. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 127: Trapped in a Box Step

    Tristan walked to the center of Venicia, circling the fountain and listening to the birds sing their first morning melodies. He lapped the perfect stone once, twice, then a third time, not sure what he was hoping to accomplish. No one came outside. Every window was closed with curtains and blinds drawn. The city was still hiding from a nonexistent Defiled threat.

    He abandoned the fountain in favor of weaving between closed shops and abandoned buildings. Thoughts and memories bombarded his head and heart, colliding in a chaotic cluster. Like an abstract painting that lacked any kind of control or balance. Ara taking Celestia’s position and leading the party. Jazz dead and bleeding on the field. Drawing pictures for the kittengirls in Catania. The [Necromancer] of Anyona. Destiny’s late-night visits and addictive laugh. The slumbering girls beaten and bruised, emaciated, and freezing cold.

    How do I even begin to fix this?

    Without realizing it, his feet had taken him to the shoddily kept house that served as Celestia’s temporary establishment. Was she still here? Had she returned to the school? What the hell do I even say? He straightened his shoulders and knocked.

    There was a short pause, then Celestia answered. That surprised him—he’d assumed one of her followers would bring him in as they had the day before. Misery, maybe.

    “I’m surprised to see you again so soon, Young Master,” Celestia said with a bow, gesturing him inside.

    The feeling is mutual. “Good morning, Celestia.” The sun had just crested the horizon when Tristan crossed the threshold. “Are Felsi and Annabelle here?”

    Celestia tilted her head quizically. “They are upstairs asleep.”

    “Wake them up.” Any patience he’d had with the headmistress was sapped. He hadn’t slept a wink the night before, choosing to stay at Destiny’s side. How many welts and bruises had he counted? At least two dozen.

    “...Yes, sir,” she assented after a brief hesitation. She padded up the stairs, her brown tail swishing back and forth behind her.

    Every time he’d felt the first nags of cabin fever at the school, there was something new to catch his interest within the hour. Paints, pictures, another girl to bed. Books. They’d given him so many books to read that he hadn’t realized how rare they were until his travels with Matt. Fiction, fantasy, Nyarlean history, romance. Celestia made a point to replace the ones he said he wouldn’t read again with something new. What she hadn’t realized, however, was the wealth of knowledge she’d handed to him on a silver platter.

    There was no denying that he still wasn’t the best [Mage] or offensive fighter. He’d known so little about the current state of Shi Island, only shreds of what it had looked like in its prime.

    But if he were the gambling type, he’d bet every Bell stolen from his [Cat Pack] that he was better-versed in Nyarlean law than Celestia. There were a dozen things she could have called Matt rescuing him from the school; ‘Treason’ was the wrong one.

    “Here they are, Young Master,” Celestia announced as she descended the stairs.

    Felsi and Annabelle followed close behind, averting Tristan’s gaze in favor of the wooden banisters and slick flooring. They moved to the center of the room, Felsi and Annabelle flanking Celestia on either side and clasping their hands against their aprons.

    “There are going to be some changes to Venicia effective immediately,” Tristan said, working to keep his voice still. How many of you helped torture Lynn, Destiny, and Lara? “Felsi, Annabelle, I would like to believe that I have your confidence and trust?”

    “Of course,” they murmured in unison.

    “Good. First, tell me, how did you force information from Destiny, Lara, and Lynn? What happened to them?” He could corroborate their story with the girls once they woke up.

    Felsi and Annabelle shifted uncomfortably. Celestia’s icy glare slid to the corners of her glasses, but her face stayed forward.

    “We brought them here on Celestia’s orders,” Annabelle began. “Felsi kept them asleep between…between questioning.”

    Celestia reset her jaw and blinked. She smoothed her apron and retook her strict posture.

    “Misery, Katrin, and Celestia would interrogate them in the room you saw. Annabelle and I stood watch,” Felsi supplied.

    “Is that true, Celestia? Felsi and Annabelle cast the spell and stood watch?” Tristan asked.

    “They are just as guilty as accomplices—” Celestia began.

    “That isn’t what I asked!” Tristan snapped. He wouldn’t let her worm her way out of this. This woman who’d taken him in when he was reborn on Shi Island. Convinced him that his job was to stay safe and populate the island. There were many days he saw her like a mother. Not anymore.

    Celestia’s ears flattened against her head, and she narrowed her eyes. “Yes, Young Master, that is correct.”

    “Felsi, where’s Solonie?” Tristan asked.

    She winced as if surprised to hear her daughter’s name. Or maybe that he’d remembered. But he’d committed all of them to memory. It gave him a sense of purpose. “S-she’s with a nyanny, sir.”

    “And Kiora?” he asked Annabelle.

    Annabelle shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “The s-same nyanny, sir.”

    “Am I correct in my assumption that you both were coerced into this?” Neither Felsi nor Annabelle had the same sadistic disposition as Misery or Celestia. Never had Tristan believed them capable of torture or standing by while it happened.

    Felsi flushed a sickly shade of white while Annabelle’s neck and face flared bright red. There it is.

    “I-I would never!” Celestia’s cool façade faltered, and she looked between Felsi and Annabelle. “Tell him. Both of you.”

    Felsi rolled her shoulders back and glanced at the ceiling. Annabelle blinked tears away from her eyes.

    “I haven’t seen my kitten since you left,” Annabelle whimpered. “I don’t want her hurt.”

    Felsi nodded her agreement, her pink hair bobbing around her chin, but her lips remained in a tight thin line.

    A new wave of rage rolled through Tristan’s blood. His fists balled at his sides, and he took a deep breath before continuing. “Celestia of Shi Island, you are hereby removed from your position as Headmistress of the Venicia School of Etiquette. You, Misery, and Katrin will be held in isolation until escorted to Nyarlothep by the next trade vessel that comes to this island.”

    “Young Master, wait—” Celestia held up a hand. That same hand had consoled him through a slew of nightmares and passed small gifts here and there whenever he missed home.

    Tristan swallowed and continued. “Felsi and Annabelle will accompany you, carrying a writ of your transgressions penned by myself. There, you will be tried by the Royal Guard and handed the Queen’s Justice. Do you understand?”

    “Tristan—” She hadn’t called him by name in ages. Her voice through his door, holding a plate of milk and cookies. Or waiting to introduce him to his next catgirl companion.

    Do you understand?” Tristan barked. All three women flinched with surprise. His knuckles were white. For three years she’d held him in a cell, hiding him from the world. And now she dared harm the very girls he’d sworn to protect.

    Celestia slid her hands down her twin braids, squinting through her glasses as if taking her first real look at Tristan. “I understand.”

    He looked to Felsi and Annabelle. Their eyes were wide, and neither looked as if they were breathing. “From this day forward, Ara will take Celestia’s position as Headmistress of the Venicia School of Etiquette. While I’m away, her word is my word. Any rules or decisions put forward by her are to be treated as my own. You both stand witness to my demands, do you accept?”

    The most essential piece of Nyarlean verbal contracts was the presence and agreeance of two witnesses that hailed from the island. Even if a man made the claims, they wouldn’t be carried through without the sign-off of at least two island natives. A ruling that had been placed into effect nearly a hundred years before when a man began carelessly overhauling an island’s culture with dangerous and self-serving laws.

    “I, Felsi of Shi Island, accept your terms,” Felsi said with a small bow of her head.

    Annabelle looked at the seething Celestia, then at Tristan. “I-I, Annabelle of Shi Island, accept your terms.”

    “Traitors to your island, the lot of you,” Celestia growled. “You do not understand the effort and experience needed to lead Venicia. Ara is doomed to fail—”

    “[Slumber],” Felsi whispered, touching Celestia’s shoulder.

    Celestia froze in place. Her eyes and lips slowly closed, and her arms fell to her sides. Felsi and Annabelle caught her before she could fall.

    “I’ve wanted to do that for years,” Felsi admitted sourly.

    Annabelle giggled beneath her breath. “Me, too.”

    Tristan ran a hand through his hair. “I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here. To both of you. Are Solonie and Kiora safe?”

    Felsi nodded. “A quick word from you should do it. I don’t think the nyanny wants to be on that boat to Nyarlothep.”

    “Then I’ll do it. Are there empty rooms in the school where we can keep Celestia, Misery, and Katrin until the next ship arrives?” Tristan asked.

    “Plenty,” Annabelle replied. “We’ll be able to move them in easily, and I can lock them from the outside.”

    “Great. I know I’m putting a lot on you both. Will you be comfortable traveling with her?”

    Felsi shrugged. “Wouldn’t have agreed if I weren’t. I think Annabelle feels the same way.”

    Annabelle nodded.

    “Thank you. Sincerely.” He glanced up the stairs to the second floor. “And now we have to tell the other two. I hope they don’t run.”

    Felsi swirled her free hand in the air and grinned. Tiny crystalized particles circled her palm and wrist like a miniature snowstorm. “It’ll be impossible to run with their feet frozen to the ground.”

    Tristan wanted to smile with her but found that he couldn’t. It was impossible not to stare at Celestia. Three years beneath her ‘care’ and tutelage. Three years she’d spent manipulating Venicia to her every whim.

    He sighed. That was officially the past. Today, everything changed.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Side Quest: Ceres' School of Etiquette

    [​IMG]

    Ceres hid behind the sweet shop, knees deep in the mud, while she carefully shaped another ball in her hands. The girls were still there, just in front of Mindy’s Tailor Shop, pining over the newest fashions in Sorentina. Expensive silks and skirts from San Island, opulent hats from Nyarlothep. Who cared about that stuff? Not Ceres, that was for sure.

    And it’s none of their business whether I care or not.

    After a long day of schooling from Nyanny Leona, they’d been released to head straight home. And Ceres would. Just…right after she showed them that it didn’t matter if there was dirt on her knees or cheeks. Who cared if the hem of her skirt was coming loose? They giggled and poked fun without mercy. Ceres stayed silent the whole time, biting her tongue raw. When the sky had opened, and the rain poured during luncheon, she knew she’d get her chance.

    While most of Sorentina was well-paved with bricks and stepping stones, a few of the shops hadn’t bothered to maintain their alleyways well. Which made for the perfect mud puddles after a downpour.

    The drops had weakened to a gray mist from the dark clouds, but Ceres still had plenty to work with. She grinned at the final ball of mud in her coated hands, then collected all four in her apron. She stood, the brown muck clinging to her shins like a coat of muddy armor, and held tight to the edges of her white pinafore. Her shoes squished through the swamp she made until she reached the edge of the brick road.

    “You would look so cute in that dress, Viola,” Winter crooned. “Stripes suit you.”

    Viola cupped one dainty hand over her lips and blushed. “Oh! I couldn’t!”

    Brianne twirled her umbrella in her hands and spun. “Can you just imagine those shoes with this parasol? Absolutely divine.”

    “Too true! Too true!” Titania added.

    They sound like tittering old bats. Ceres gritted her teeth and kept her back against the wall, creeping closer and closer on the balls of her feet.

    When she’d reached the edge of the shop, she curled her fingers around the first mud ball. The scent of sweet fruit and sugar wafted from the open door to her right, perking her nose and ears. No! Focus! Narrowing her eyes, she wound her arm back…held her breath…then…

    Smack!

    The first mud ball struck Viola square in the back, exploding all over her blue velvet dress.

    “What in the world?” Viola squealed.

    Before they could register what had happened, Ceres snatched another ball and hurled it at Brianne. It found home against the puffed red shoulder of her top, plastering the underside of her umbrella and her hair in brown. She sucked in air with her surprise, abruptly spitting out the mud that came with it.

    Titania’s landed squarely against her chest, spreading mud to her face and arms. As for Winter, Ceres poured every prayer for aim into her arm. Winter was the instigator, the heckler, the one who always commented on the state of Ceres’ disarray. For Winter, her ball of mud slammed into her nose, erupting against her face.

    Ceres’ adrenaline melted in laughter as she fell to her knees with her hands wrapped around her abdomen. Tears threatened the corners of her eyes while the four girls futilely wiped the mud away from their bodies.

    “You should see yourselves!” Ceres cackled, pointing at each of them in turn. “You look ridiculous!

    Brianne shook her parasol, then slowly closed it and turned to face Ceres. “Classless, commoner Ceres,” she hissed. “You’ll never be a lady.”

    “Not if I have to look like you,” Ceres retorted, falling into another fit of giggles.

    Winter ran the back of her forearm over her eyes, clearing the mud enough so she could see. Flecks of dirt marred her sky-blue hair and ears, and her silver eyes turned to steel. “I will ruin you, Ceres,” she growled. “Come on, ladies!”

    She led the charge with a scream. Ceres scrambled to her feet, the adrenaline returning to her veins with the thrill of the chase. She turned heel and fled, clearing the bricks in one wide leap and then landing in the mud. Puddled rain splashed on her skirts, and she laughed as she navigated the mud with ease.

    Titania was the first to abandon the chase as soon as she noticed the muddy lake. “S-sorry. Mother would be displeased,” she stammered to her friends.

    The other three sped toward Ceres full bore, ignoring the splashing sludge against their knee socks and expensive skirts. But it would take more than going through a little bit of mud to get to Ceres. No one knew the alleys and roads like she did. They’d never catch her. No one could catch her.

    Ceres squeezed through narrow openings between shops, dodging across the road and weaving between ladies who offered her a curt word and sour expression. But she didn’t care. She was breathless with excitement, reveling in the shrieks of the three girls behind her. Viola was lost to the crowds, leaving only Winter and Brianne in pursuit.

    The rain was beginning to pick up again, heavy droplets splashing against Ceres’ cheeks and forehead. She welcomed it with open arms, hoping that it may clean at least some of the mud away from her dress and shins. As it was, Mother would be furious. But she could worry about that later. Right now, she needed to get away from Winter and Brianne.

    Ceres whipped around the corner of the armor shop, jumping the fence, skidding across the anvil, then skipping through the forge. “Good luck, ladies,” she called over her shoulder.

    Brianne stopped at the edge of the anvil and looked dejectedly at Winter. “I may tear my skirts. I’m sorry, Winter.”

    “Ceres! You— You bitch!” Winter snarled and hurled herself over the anvil.

    “That’s not very lady-like, Winter!” Ceres shouted over her shoulder. Her house wasn’t far now. Mother’s anger would be a lot easier to handle than Winter’s rage. “Better go back to Nyanny Leona!”

    A loud growl and a scream erupted from Winter’s throat. “[Freeze]!”

    The spell was immediate, binding Ceres’ shoes to the cobblestone. She pitched forward, feet sliding free from her strapped sandals, coming to a skidding stop on her hands and knees. Coarse granite ripped at the soft skin of her shins and calves, the sudden scrapes loud and painful. “You’re not allowed to cast magic, stupid Winter!”

    “Don’t you lecture me on rules, you filthy degenerate!” Winter was quickly gaining ground.

    Ceres was sure she wouldn’t be so lucky with Winter’s next cast. She scrambled to her feet, ignoring the searing pain in her hands and legs, and made a break for home. The dark green roof was just there in the distance. Just a little longer…

    “[Freeze]!” Winter howled.

    “[Myana Wall]!” a deep voice bellowed.

    Ceres dug her heels into the ground just as her father appeared from behind the baker’s shop. An iridescent shell formed behind her, blocking Winter’s attack with ease.

    “What is the meaning of this?” Father barked, looking between Ceres and Winter. “Casting offensive spells in town, Winter? At a civilian?”

    “She started it!” Winter squealed, pointing at Ceres. Just as the words escaped her lips, her etiquette teachings struck her like lightning, and she straightened her back. “I-I mean, apologies, Master Janusz, sir. I meant no harm.”

    Father looked Ceres over from head to toe, taking in the mud on her arms, legs, and apron. His identical blue eyes narrowed to slits, and his mouth drew into a long, thin line. “Go home, Winter,” he growled.

    “Y-yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Winter bowed over and over again as she vanished from sight.

    “Get your shoes, Ceres,” he snapped.

    Ceres hummed her reply, all feeling disappearing from her fingers and toes. She jogged to where her shoes had frozen in place, plucking them from an overgrown weed patch. The town’s [Alchemist] was really letting her property go, Ceres thought idly. Her feet were too covered in dirt and grime to slide them comfortably back into her shoes, so she padded across the road in her socks back to her father.

    Janusz scowled. “Kurwa! Can you not put all of this…this energy into your studies?”

    Ceres flinched. He saved that word for when he was especially angry. “I’m not learning anything. What does it matter how we hem our dresses or which fork goes where? I want to learn something real. Like how to fight!” She whined. “Like what you just did! Then stupid Winter would never think to cast at me again.”

    “Enough!” he roared.

    Ceres shrank, her ears drooping to the top of her head and her tail tucking between her legs.

    “I thought Nyanny Leona would teach you some manners, and you’d behave better. Clearly, I was wrong.” His hands balled into fists, and he looked to the dark sky. “There’s a school of etiquette in Venicia. I hear their program works miracles.”

    “Father!” Ceres squeaked. She didn’t want to go to Venicia. Everyone she’d ever met from that city was so…so stuck up! “Please! Let me stay here!”

    “No. You’re seven now and grow wilder by the year. I cannot, in good faith, release you to the world like this. That’s final.”

    Ceres’ chin dropped to her chest. She studied the stones beneath her stockings. It didn’t matter how much kicking or screaming she did. Father’s word was as good as law. She was sure he’d be taking her to Venicia within the week.

    But I will never be like them, she thought defiantly. Never.

    [​IMG]
     
  7. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 128: It Takes Two to Tango

    The ride proved to be a short one. When we arrived in Badyron, I was welcomed by a flood of memories, both good and bad. At a distance, I could see the shack where we spent time experimenting with the [Impersonate Soul] scrolls. Esmerelda’s shop was within view, and before anything could occur, I put my hand on Ravyn’s shoulder after she jumped off the cart.

    “Remember, we want to smile and not put any blame on her,” I said with a toothy grin.

    Ravyn batted my hand away. “I know that, dumbass. We got along just fine last time. What do you think I’m going to do, just light the whole place on fire?”

    The idea did cross my mind, yes. I put my hands up. “No, just saying.”

    She rolled her eyes and started her march toward Esmerelda’s shop. I helped Keke and Cannoli down from the cart, and we followed a few paces behind Ravyn.

    A chime rang throughout the shop when Ravyn pushed the door open.

    “Welcome to Esmerelda’s Eclectics, where all—” Esmerelda was leaning on one elbow and thumbing through a book when we entered. Even at this distance, I could tell her eyes locked with Ravyn’s. Both women shared a glare, and Esmerelda stood up, crossing her arms. “Oh. It’s you.”

    Ravyn raised a brow. “What a warm welcome. Do you greet everyone this way?”

    “No, I reserve this one for my favorites,” Esmerelda replied with a half-smile.

    Coming on a little strong. Good start.

    For the second time, I put my hand on Ravyn’s shoulder and whispered into her ear. “Ravyn, pull it back.”

    “Saoirse, are you my nyanny?” she whispered back, grabbing my hand like it was some dirty rag and moving it away. “Stop that.”

    “I’m surprised to see you back here.” Esmerelda’s stare landed on me next. “I take it then that my wares were sufficient?”

    “Yes, thank you so much for last time,” said Keke.

    We marched up to Esmerelda’s counter, the floorboards squeaking underfoot with each step. I scanned the shop as we made our way over, noticing that the shop looked a lot cleaner than before. The boxes appeared freshly dusted, and the empty jars replaced. Not a single cobweb stuck out to me, and a glance at the floor said that it was recently swept.

    When we reached the counter, Ravyn opened her mouth only to be interrupted by Cannoli. “I love what you did with your hair! How do you keep it so shiny?”

    I admit, the question caught me by surprise.

    It seemed to catch Esmerelda off guard, too. She blinked twice, then whipped her long, curly green hair behind her, her expression unchanged. “Trade secret.”

    Maybe she’s born with it.

    Cannoli crossed her fingers. “It’s lovely!”

    A faint smile tugged at Esmerelda’s lips. “Thank you, sweet.” Her attention came back to Ravyn. “You brought your lovely familiar back as well.” She put her arm out, and Ball flew from Ravyn’s shoulder to Esmerelda’s forearm. She used the middle knuckle of one finger to play with the underside of his beak, her smile widening. “He is such a beauty. When did he answer your summon?”

    Maybe it was my imagination, but I could’ve sworn I saw Ravyn’s eye twitch. “Long time ago,” Ravyn growled.

    A moment later, a scaly creature slithered its way around Esmerelda’s waist, past her bust, and relaxed comfortably around the top half of her torso and neck. Numerous shades of red speckled an emerald body. “Mine came to me as a child.” Esmerelda caressed the top of the viper’s head, and the snake responded by flicking out its black forked tongue.

    Ball is strangely complacent right now for being around a snake.

    I had to know. “No offense, but should a snake be hanging around a bird?” I didn’t have any particular opinion on snakes, but I knew enough that one that big could eat a bird if given a chance.

    “It’s fine,” said Ravyn, “they won’t hurt each other.”

    Esmerelda nodded, and for a moment, I was distracted by how the snake looked coiled around her lithe body. “It’s as she said. They are not Encroachers. They are familiars.”

    “Desiree didn’t have any urge to eat Bally either. They all come from the same place,” Ravyn explained. “There’s no reason for them to fight or eat each other.”

    “I see.” The longer I looked at Esmerelda’s familiar, the more features I noticed. Its fiery-red eyes, its black underbelly, and a strange, feathery bulge about a quarter of the way down its body. They looked like tucked wings from where I stood. Somehow it felt like the longer I looked at the familiar, the more it entranced me. As if it was luring me in. The snake turned to look at me, then flicked its tongue.

    I’ve had enough Enchantments for a lifetime. My ear wasn’t burning, but better off safe than sorry. I shook my head. “Sorry, Esmerelda. This is fascinating stuff, but we need to get a few things from you.”

    “My apologies. What brings you to my shop today?” Esmerelda lowered the arm that Ball was sitting on, and the viper turned to look at him. I wondered if the familiars were sharing a telepathic conversation.

    Ravyn leaned on her forearm and narrowed her eyes like she was about to do business with the local mafia. “We got three girls caught under a [Slumber] spell. They’re in bad shape, and we need some potent materials to make sure they don’t wake up screaming.” With her spare hand, Ravyn procured the list from her [Cat Pack] and put it on the counter. “Do you have any of this stuff?”

    Esmerelda set Ball down next to the parchment, unfurled the scroll, and began reading off the components in a mumble. After a minute, she put it aside and nodded. “Yes. I have everything you need.”

    “That’s great,” said Ravyn.

    “Guess I didn’t need to come after all,” Keke said with a frown.

    “Never hurts to be cautious,” Cannoli said with a consoling smile. “We had no idea if they were going to be in stock!”

    Keke let out a nervous laugh. “Thanks.”

    “Will you need an [Alchemy] lab as well?” asked Esmerelda.

    “Yeah. How much is that going to cost me?” asked Ravyn.

    Esmerelda put a finger to her violet lips. “It’s two-hundred Bells an hour.” Ravyn opened her mouth, and Esmerelda put her hand out. “I’m not done. In addition, if you are using materials from my shop, there will be an additional charge per hour equal to fifty percent of the total cost of materials.”

    Ravyn gritted her teeth. “That’s robbery.”

    “That’s business.” Esmerelda drew a deep breath.

    Sighing, Ravyn put her [Cat Pack] down on the counter and pulled out a handful of Bells, counting them in a whisper.

    I untied the [Cat Pack] around my waist and threw it onto the counter. “I’m pitching in, too. It’s not fair that you have to cover the entire cost.”

    “You have a nice man there,” said Esmerelda.

    “Y-yeah,” said Ravyn.

    By the time we estimated the price of materials and how long we’d need, the total came out to six-hundred Bells. Assuming we finished in two hours like we claimed we could, that meant Ravyn and I would be paying three-hundred Bells each.

    After we got everything sorted out, Esmerelda led us to a room at the back of the shop where an impressive [Alchemy] lab was stationed. Bottles of varying shapes and sizes, tools I’d never seen before, and shelves after shelves of herbs, spices, and who knew what else lay in jars, bags, and bins.

    “Damn, this is nice,” I expressed out loud.

    “It’s pretty good,” Ravyn said with a hint of irritation in her voice.

    Cannoli looped elbows with Ravyn. “I think it’s a beautiful lab. It’s got so much more than the one on Ni Island!”

    Ravyn scratched one cheek. “Yeah, I guess so.”

    “Please clean up when you’re done.” Esmerelda had a scroll and quill in her hands. I assumed she was taking note of her inventory. Her viper continued to hang around her neck, its head perched between her cleavage. “I don’t want any herbs laying around, or else there will be an additional charge.”

    Ravyn rolled her eyes. “You and your additional charges.”

    “You can go somewhere else if you like.” Esmerelda paused for a reaction, then bent one of the bins on the shelf forward, scribbling something down on her quill. “I will leave now. You have the lab for two hours. Let me know if you need more time.” She rolled up the parchment, brushing shoulders with me on the way out.

    That’s a nice scent.

    Esmerelda shut the door behind her, and Keke breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad she didn’t ask about Celestia.”

    “Yeah, you and me both,” I admitted, scratching the back of my head.

    “But hey, it all worked out, right?” said Cannoli.

    “Thankfully. Well,” I said, cracking my knuckles, “shall we get started?”

    Keke wore a wry smile. “Been a while since I did this.”

    Cannoli used her spare arm and hooked it around Keke’s elbow next. “Do you need a refresher? Teacher Cannoli would love to assist.”

    Keke’s cheeks reddened. “I think I still remember most of it, but I wouldn’t mind a crash course.”

    “Of course!”

    After a bit of discussion, we figured making the potions in pairs was best since there were enough tools for two brews at any time. Considering I had the least experience, I paired up with Ravyn. At first, the experience was miserable. I wondered if this was how people who entered Boot Camp felt whenever their instructor yelled at them for every tiny thing.

    Eventually, though, I found a rhythm, and even she admitted I was doing a decent job. Never did she use the words ‘good’ or ‘yes.’ No, instead, I got ‘acceptable’ and ‘sure.’ It was usually a matter of being off by a point or shaking instead of stirring or forgetting that I let something boil for too long.

    An hour passed. Ravyn and I worked in silence. I would periodically confirm with her if I was doing something right. Short discussion would follow, and soon the silence would return. Ravyn taught me that some chemicals and herbs made certain sounds when they were ready, so I ensured that I never spoke much higher than necessary. But the long silences bothered me a bit, so I decided to start a conversation.

    “So, did you ever become an [Alchemist]?” Knowing that the catgirls could switch Classes, I wondered if Ravyn ever dabbled in something else. I never took my attention off of my work as I spoke. I’d learned that Ravyn had no tolerance for a driver who didn’t watch the road while they talked.

    “No. Never considered it.”

    Another short reply. Like the one last night. “So, uh, can you sum up what an [Alchemist] can do? If Destiny’s going to be coming with us, I’d like to know what I should expect.”

    For a while, Ravyn didn’t answer. I could hear Cannoli and Keke giggling in the background. If I listened closely, I could hear some of the details, but for the most part, it was all whispers.

    “A bit of everything,” she said flatly at last.

    When she didn’t elaborate, I pushed. “Like what?”

    A deep sigh escaped through her nose. “Bombs, poisons, tinctures, things like that.”

    I nodded, and although I’m sure she knew what questions were coming next, I asked them anyway. “But that’s what we’re doing now, right? Creating tinctures? Hell, we could make some poisons and bombs right now, I’m sure. Why don’t I make some of those?”

    “You can, but they won’t be as effective. [Alchemist]s use a special type of magic.”

    Finally, an answer. “Ohhh, okay.” I poured the violet-colored contents of a vial into another filled with a clear solution. Carefully, I shook it around nice and slow until the concoction turned to a pastel version of its previous appearance. “How does the [Alchemist] use magic?”

    Ravyn set down the mortar and pestle and turned to look at me. I noticed out of the corner of my eye but maintained my focus. At least until I was done with this step of the concoction. After a few more seconds, I corked the vial and put it on the rack with the others. That was one dose down. Ravyn could tell me later if I did it right.

    “Depends on the Skill they’re using. [Alchemist]s use a combination of magic to call out the more potent versions of their concoctions.” She looked down at the rack of vials I made and pointed at one. “Imagine if I could cast that tincture from the bottle on another person instead of drinking it. It still uses the contents, but the effects hit someone else. That’s how [Alchemist] works. Loosely.”

    “Can they double as good healers?”

    Ravyn smirked. “Some of the best.”

    The entire time we spoke, Ravyn seemed distant. Her answers detached. As much as I wanted to know more about the [Alchemist] Class, I decided against probing any further.

    Time passed, and with a bit of luck, we managed to finish ten minutes earlier than we intended. I wiped a sheen of sweat from my forehead and exhaled.

    “That’s a lot tougher than it looks,” I said.

    “You’ll get used to it,” said Ravyn. “You did good, Matt. No mistakes.”

    “Yay! Great job, Matt!” Cannoli squealed. “My protégé has come so far!”

    “You’re a quick learner. How many times have you done this?” Keke winked.

    I struggled to remember but leaned into the only time that came to mind. “Only once, I think. Maybe twice?” I looked at Cannoli for confirmation, thinking back to when Keke waited outside the lab. “Right?”

    “Unless you’ve been sneaking out to make potions with Granny Nauka, I think so!”

    Ravyn didn’t take much time to examine Keke and Cannoli’s work. The way we’d done it was split into two groups—one working on a salve and the other a tincture. The salve was meant to act as an external numbing and healing agent, while the tincture would be for any internal damage suffered. The second one was the iffy part. That would have to be ingested. All we could do was hope that the salve would be strong enough to allow the girls a moment to swallow the tincture.

    “The salves are perfect,” muttered Ravyn. “Perfect. Let’s get the hell out of here. Sooner we’re off this island, the better.”

    “Maybe she’ll give us a discount,” I quipped.

    Ravyn sneered. “Don’t hold your breath.”

    Matt has gained: Two Levels of [Alchemy]!

    [​IMG]
     
  8. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 129: Bolero(NSFW)

    The house smelled like freshly baked bread when Tristan returned. A cheerful fire lapped at fresh logs in the hearth, and Ceres descended the stairs with an empty tea tray.

    “Welcome back, Tristan,” she greeted warmly. “May I cook you something to eat? Procure another pot of tea, perhaps?”

    Tristan shook his head. “I ate before I left. Where’s Ara?”

    “She is in with Lynn at the moment.” Ceres closed the distance between them and lowered her voice. “I apologize if this is beyond my rank. However, is aught amiss, young Master? You both seem…out of sorts.”

    He blinked, surprised that anyone else had noticed. Ara’s conversation and demeanor became short and snappy when he’d given her his reservations about her staying behind. But, in every light he cast on the situation, he realized that his reasons were selfish. Venicia— no, Shi Island needed Ara as much as they needed him.

    After a brief pause, he hummed and nodded. “We’ll be alright, I think.”

    Ceres adjusted the tray in her hands and offered him a small bow. “Forgive my asking, sir. However, please allow me to offer my services if you need someone to speak with.” She smiled, a slight blush pinking her cheeks. “You do not have to face this world alone.”

    “I…Thank you, Ceres.” Tristan felt his chest tighten. When was the last time he’d had a group of friends? Not since kindergarten, I think. Always the last to be picked for a team and the first one to be picked on. “Really, that means a lot.”

    “Of course. I will continue my cleaning duties for now. Simply call if you should need me.” Ceres bowed once more.

    Even though we’re not going to be here much longer? He considered saying it, but the gleaming banisters and dusted hearth were really nice to return to. “Don’t overwork yourself.”

    “I would not dream of such a thing.” Ceres winked before returning to the kitchen.

    Tristan slipped off his shoes and padded up the stairs. He counted the doors until he reached Lynn’s room and entered after a gentle knock.

    Ara closed the book in her lap, set it to the side, then stood straight-backed as soon as he entered the room. Like a soldier moving to attention.

    “Young Master,” she greeted curtly.

    “Ara, please. You can relax.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I went to see Celestia.”

    Her posture tensed—she leveled her chin parallel to the floor and straightened her shoulders. The corners of her lips twitched into a frown, but she stayed silent.

    “I had Felsi and Annabelle arrest her.”

    Ara blinked, then furrowed her brow. Her lips pursed, and her tongue poked behind her cheek. It was clear she hadn’t prepared for this. “You…What?”

    “They’ll accompany her on the next boat to Nyarlothep. I’ll draft a writ of arrest for them to bring with them. Misery and Katrin, too. The Venicia School of Etiquette is yours, Ara.” Tristan crossed his arms over his chest and took a deep breath. Don’t cry. Do not cry. “I’m sorry for what I said before.”

    Ara’s features softened, and she crossed the room. With a hesitant hand, she brushed his cheek with the tip of her fingers. “Tristan. I’m sorry, too.”

    He swallowed against the building lump in his throat. “You were right. This is the best place for you and Lynn. Even if I—” A tear slipped from the corner of his eye, and he hurried to brush it away. Dammit! “Even if I’ll miss you. Dearly.”

    “I know,” she whispered.

    He cupped her hand with his, memorizing her touch. The nights in Abalone seemed so far away and short-lived. Their travels together over Shi Island like a distant memory.

    Stop it. This isn’t forever.

    But it felt like it was. Even when he returned, Ara would have to stay at the school and keep things running in Venicia. She wouldn’t be able to join him on Defiled hunts, and traveling together would be limited. “Dammit,” he murmured.

    She slid her other hand behind his neck, gently pulling him down until their lips met.

    She pressed her chest into his, eliminating the space between them. How was it possible that after hundreds of partners, her kiss still sent electric shocks through his skin? That her touch made his heart race?

    “Ara,” he muttered against her lips.

    “Come with me.” Ara twined her fingers through his, then led him out of the room. They moved down the hall to the bedroom Tristan was using as his, where she guided him inside, then closed and locked it behind her. She stroked his hand with one thumb as she stared at the handle. “There are…many things I wish to say to you that are forbidden.”

    Tristan waited. To press her to say them was cruel—he’d read countless tomes of Nyarlean law detailing the actions and repercussions of falling in love with a man. No matter how desperately he wanted to hear her tell him, it was just one more selfish desire in a long list of keeping Ara by his side.

    She let her hand fall from the handle. “I guess the easiest way to convey it is… You aren’t alone in your feelings, Tristan.” Turning to face him, she rested one hand on his chest. “And if I cannot say them, then let me show you.”

    Before he could reply, she was tugging his shirt over his head. Tossing it aside, she gently pushed him back toward the bed. He sat down, and her mouth claimed his as she climbed into his lap, wrapping her legs around his back.

    Tristan slid his hands beneath her skirt, circling his arms around her thighs and groping the taut muscles of her backside. He traced her lower lip with his tongue, and when she let him in further, he curled her tail around one hand, caressing it gently between his fingers.

    Ara gasped, then moaned. She tangled one hand in his hair and used the other to draw pleasurable patterns on his bare back with her nails. Tristan shivered beneath her touch, committing every sound, taste, and sensation to memory. Even her scent was distinct—like lavender on a spring breeze.

    With every twist of his wrist, her hips rocked against his hand, then forward in his lap. Even with the layers of his jeans and her panties, he could still feel the growing heat between her legs; his need for her was growing with it.

    She drew away from him for the span of a few heartbeats, pulling her dress over her head and tossing it to the side. The sight of lacy black lingerie against her pale skin was enough to make him dizzy.

    You’ve seen this a million times. And yet, the voice was silenced by his pounding heart. This was different. Ara was different.

    Ara unwrapped her legs, straddling him at the thighs. “Move back,” she instructed breathlessly.

    Tristan nodded and shifted his weight backward so that everything but his feet was on the bed. She worked at the button of his jeans, unfastening and divesting them in seconds, following suit with his boxers. She shifted her weight to his calves, then reached behind her back and pulled her short blonde hair to the side so it fell over one shoulder. The gesture itself was simple but elegant. Just as he’d thought to comment on how stunning she looked, she leaned forward and enveloped his shaft in her mouth.

    Ngh!” Tristan groaned, and his thighs tensed.

    She glanced up at him, eyes locking his, glittering with satisfaction while she teased him with her tongue. He’d learned during their first encounters together that she was a fast, attentive learner. Every noise that escaped him encouraged her, and if silence drew on for too long, she adjusted her machinations. His breath caught in his throat, and goosebumps peppered his legs. He rested a hand in her hair, tracing the soft outline of her ear. She leaned into his palm, humming as she descended the length of him.

    Ara’s mouth reached his base, and he gasped. Her throat was searing hot, tight, and soft. Her tongue danced along the base of his shaft and lapped at the veins beneath the head as if she knew every spot that would drive him wild. His heart pounded against his chest and his eyes fought between staying on her face and rolling backward.

    “That feels so good, Ara,” he moaned. “God, please don’t stop.”

    Ara chuckled, her laugh vibrating through him. She slowly raised and lowered her head, dragging her tongue along every inch that forced a gasp with each rotation. Every thought that plagued him vanished, replaced by a desperate need for release. The sight of her bent over him, her clear blue eyes flickering to his, her hair draped over her shoulder…

    “I’m gonna come.” It was a sudden sensory overload, and there was no way he could hold back.

    Ara sped her movements, keeping a delicious pressure against his base and forcing him over the edge. Tristan’s back arched, and his toes curled. She lapped and sucked at him until she’d swallowed every drop. His lips and fingers felt numb.

    She sat up and licked her lips with a teasing half-smile. Sliding her underwear free, she positioned her hips over his and reached for his still-erect shaft. The soft, vulnerable skin between her thighs parted around the head of his cock, sending a new, desperate desire through his veins.

    Just as she lowered her hips, the gravity of what she was about to do hit him. “W-wait. Are you sure?”

    “I wouldn’t want a kitten with anyone else, Tristan. I’ll have plenty of help.” She bent forward and nibbled his lower lip, her voice dropping to a purr. “And if you don’t take me right now, I’m going to scream.”

    Tristan grabbed her hips and thrust into her. Their cries harmonized, ringing in Tristan’s ears and echoing against the walls.

    “You’re really deep,” Ara whimpered, her thighs trembling around his. Her head rested on his shoulder, and she giggled nervously. “I don’t know if I can move.”

    “Then just relax,” he replied.

    “N-no. Let me.” She slowly sat up, moaning with the new position. “Mnnh. I feel so full.”

    “You feel amazing, Ara,” Tristan breathed. Every twitch and shift of her body resonated into his.

    “So do you.” She slowly rocked her hips, drawing as far away as she could before advancing once more. Her breathing skipped, and her face flushed.

    “Take this off,” Tristan said, tugging on one of the cups of her bra.

    Ara paused her rhythm, reaching behind her to unhook the clasp before tossing it to the side. Tristan rested one hand on her thigh, using the other to knead her breast. She bit her lower lip, curling her tail around her lower back and resting it against his fingers on her thigh.

    He smiled and took her tail into his palm, running his hand along the plush fur while teasing her hardened nipple. Her chin lulled forward, and she resumed the deliberate thrusts of her hips.

    Watching Ara’s face gave Tristan more pleasure than he could say. The way she clenched and relaxed her eyes with every rotation of her hips. How she’d switch between biting her lip and gasping for breath. The thin sheen of sweat across her brow. He captured every instance like a photograph, hoping he could scrape together enough materials to draw her later.

    “I’m close,” Ara murmured, leaning heavier into his touch and thrusting faster against him.

    “Then come,” Tristan encouraged, massaging her breast and tail, trying to hold back his own quickly building climax.

    “I…I’m coming!” Ara squealed between rasped breaths. Her maddening pace and the sudden clenching of her body pushed him over the edge once more, stealing his orgasm with hers. She melted forward, pressing her chest to his and wrapping her arms around his back.

    Holding her thighs, he thrust through his climax. For a few perfect seconds, their heartbeats aligned. He reveled in her cries and groaned when her teeth sunk into his shoulder.

    When her jaw relaxed, he slowed to a halt before moving his arms to her lower back. She lifted her hips away from his, then straightened her petite form against his body. She tucked her head beneath his chin and traced the lines of his bicep with one finger.

    “Tristan,” Ara whispered.

    “Hm?”

    “You…” she paused, swallowed, then began again. “You will return for me, won’t you?”

    Tristan kissed the top of her head and tightened his embrace. “I’ll always come back for you.”

    “Good.” She nodded and sighed, snuggling against his chest. “Good.”

    [​IMG]
     
  9. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Side Quest: Yomi's Nightmare

    [​IMG]

    Yomi’s symptoms were growing worse in intensity and frequency. Splitting headaches that made even soft candlelight awful to look at. Back and leg pain rendered her immobile. And every time she ate, no matter how small the meal, she felt as if she’d throw it up—oftentimes, she did.

    I can’t do this alone.

    She was well aware of the nurseries set in place for pregnant catgirls. [Priest]s and nyannies worked side by side to care for expecting women. Then, once the kitten was born, they trained mothers who decided to personally raise their offspring on best practices for newborns. Otherwise, they found a communal house accepting new tenants to tend to the child.

    Do I deserve that kind of care?

    But every day that passed grew worse. Each morning it was harder to get out of bed. The overwhelming pain and nausea paralyzed her in place. She knew if she didn’t seek help, it wouldn’t just be her life she’d compromised. Ruyah deserved better.

    Another sunrise dragged into purple dusk. Yomi forced herself from the bed, sweat coating her skin and weighing heavily in her thin nightgown. With one trembling finger, she drew a violet oval in the air, closing the warp with her intent. She remembered visiting a nursery in Nyarlothep with Finn and Ravyn many years before. Her spell would deliver her straight to it as long it was still there. She rasped a shaking breath and stepped through.

    To her relief, the portal gave way to a well-lit doorway. Aromas of fresh bread and hot soup wafted through the windows, accompanied by cordial conversation and heartfelt laughter. Yomi knocked, teetering on quaking knees.

    A [Priest] in pink and white garb answered the door with a kind smile. Gentle laugh lines creased the corners of her eyes and lips. A mane of silver hair was swept back into a braid trailing down her back, and her kind brown eyes peered into the night. When she spotted Yomi, her smile evaporated, replaced by deep, furrowed brows of concern.

    “Oh, goodness. My poor, sweet girl. Come in,” the [Priest] crooned, stepping forward to take Yomi’s arm and steady her. “Jesna, prepare an emergency bed and call for the [Hermetic] immediately.”

    “Y-yes! Right away, Miss Miral!” A young nyanny in a modest brown dress stood from her meal and vanished from the room.

    “What is your name, love?” Miral asked gently, slowly guiding Yomi through a long hallway.

    They passed multiple curtained-off rooms on either side. Through the tiny gaps, Yomi noted catgirls sleeping peacefully or resting comfortably with a book. Some rooms had bassinets near the beds with a nyanny attendant standing close by. “It’s Yomi, ma’am.”

    “Please, call me Miral.” Miral touched her hand to Yomi’s forehead, her eyes widening. “What symptoms are you experiencing, child?”

    “Everything…Everything hurts,” Yomi admitted, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. “My back, my legs, my arms. It’s hard to breathe and—” she paused for another shallow breath. “I can’t eat without throwing it back up.”

    “How long have you felt this way?” Miral led them into an identical room to the others. She stepped away from Yomi momentarily to light the oil lamp on the wall, then returned to help her toward the bed.

    The blankets on the bed were freshly cleaned and pressed, and a bouquet of yellow flowers bloomed from the side table. A short wooden table with multiple drawers was positioned opposite the bed. An empty bowl, folded cloth, and metal tools that Yomi didn’t recognize were neatly lined along the top.

    “I-I don’t know. At least a week.” Yomi let the tears fall free. I’m so stupid. “I lost count.”

    “Oh, sweet. Everything will be alright. We will take care of you.” Miral ensured Yomi was situated in bed before drawing the curtain at the door. “You’ve come to the right place.”

    “Will my…my kitten make it?” Yomi asked between sobs.

    Miral returned to Yomi’s side, pulling the blankets up to her chest and tucking them around her sides. “I’m certain you and your daughter will be fine. For now, we shall make you as comfortable as possible until—”

    There was a knock on the outer wall before a young woman with pale violet hair poked her head around the curtain. Large white feathers dangled from tiny hoops on each of her ears. “Miss Miral? You called for me?”

    “Latali! Praise Saoirse for your excellent timing. Come in. Please.” Miral brushed the damp strands of Yomi’s hair away from her face. “Yomi urgently requires your assistance.”

    “I was on my way here to check on the others.” Latali entered the room with a grin, making sure to readjust the curtain to offer them privacy. Her hair hung all the way down to her hips, and her attire was unlike any Yomi had ever seen before. She wore a deep green top that cut just beneath the bust, and an ankle-length skirt that both appeared hand woven, bedecked with geometric shapes and angled lines. Strappy sandals wrapped around her calves and feet, offering little protection from the elements. A tattoo of a flowering vine that began at her cheek curved around her throat and shoulder, lining her waist until it vanished beneath her skirt. “It’s nice to meet you, Yomi. I’m Latali, a [Hermetic].”

    “Hello,” Yomi said meekly.

    “It’s my job to keep you out of pain and help Miss Miral get you on the mend.” Latali crossed the room and set her sizeable [Cat Pack] on the floor next to Yomi’s bed. After touching her forehead and a brief physical inspection, Latali folded her hands against her skirt and asked, “Can you tell me what symptoms you’ve experienced the last few days?”

    Yomi relayed every ailment and symptom she’d felt for the previous week while Latali listened intently and slowly nodded. Miral stood at the foot of the bed, watching the exchange with more worry in her eyes than Yomi wanted to see. Am I really going to be okay?

    “Alright. I’ll be blunt. You’re not in a good way, Miss Yomi. But I think you got here in time,” Latali said once Yomi had finished. “I’m going to give you two tinctures tonight. One will ease the pain and help you rest. The other will begin to fight the infection. The latter of the two can have powerful side effects. Nightmares, hallucinations, sudden shifts in mood. We’ll have Jesna stay in your room and Miss Miral will be close by. We’ve had great success with this combination of tinctures before, so you should sleep soundly.”

    A new wave of chills crept up beneath Yomi’s fever. She shivered. “Okay.”

    Miral gently patted Yomi’s feet beneath the blanket. “We will take excellent care of you, sweet. You have nothing to worry about.”

    Latali knelt and opened her pack, procuring two glass bottles. One contained a foggy blue liquid as if she’d bottled the sky, and the other was a brilliant silver. She chuckled as she stood. “They also don’t taste great, but I need you to drink all of them.”

    Yomi nodded and accepted the first bottle from Latali—the sky blue one. She pinched her nose—a trick Finn had taught her—and drained it in four gulps. Despite looking pleasant enough, the potion burned her tongue and throat like a bottle of fire. Violent coughs racked her chest when she was through, and Latali swapped the empty container for the silver bottle.

    “This one’s easier. Promise,” she assured, uncorking it for her. “It’ll stop the burning.”

    The flames were quenched by cool, bitter liquid as soon as the silver tincture reached her tongue. It was thick and difficult to swallow, but Yomi was eager to stop the pain.

    “There you go. You should be feeling that one pretty quick.” Latali took the bottle from Yomi and placed both in her pack. “I’ll be crafting custom tinctures for you over the next few days based on your progress. Depending on how tonight goes, we’ll see what strength of potion you need.” She snapped her bag shut and swung the strap over her shoulder. “I’m sorry to pour and run, but there are a few more patients expecting me tonight, and I have one more nursery to drop by.”

    “Thank you, Latali,” Yomi whispered. The draught was already taking effect, slowing her tongue, numbing the pain in her joints. For the first time in weeks, the aching in her back and legs eased. The soft blankets caressed her skin and promised a full night’s sleep.

    “Yes, thank you so much, Miss Latali. We shall expect you in the morning?” Miral asked. Her voice sounded more distant with every word she spoke.

    “Bright and early!” Latali smiled, her tail twitching happily behind her. “Hang in there, Yomi. We’ll do everything we can.”

    “Just…Just save Ruyah,” Yomi muttered, not sure if she’d enunciated any part of her words. “Please.”

    “Of course, Yomi. Get some sleep. I’ll send Jesna here at once.”

    Before the lamp was extinguished, Yomi had fallen asleep.

    ---

    “This is amazing!” Finn’s green eyes glittered with excitement as they moved through the nursery. “It’s just like a hospital. Better than a hospital. Why don’t none of the nurseries on San look like this?”

    Ravyn shrugged. “The economy went to shit a few years ago, and trying to get help from Nyarlothep is a joke.”

    “The island should be able to fund itself,” Yomi argued. “That’s part of our job as its protectors.”

    Our job, huh?” Finn grinned, and Yomi’s heart skipped.

    “I-I don’t want you to feel like you’re in this alone.” She blushed and fingered the silver pendant at her throat. “You’ll always have us.”

    “Then we should work together to fix the nurseries on San,” Finn proclaimed. “I don’t think they have a designated [Hermetic] there. I could work on that! I just hit [Alchemist], after all.”

    Finn’s excitement was contagious. “I’d love for my kitten to grow up in a place like this,” Yomi agreed.

    His expression suddenly darkened. The sweet smile he reserved for Ravyn and Yomi disappeared, replaced by a malicious sneer. The excited gaze turned to ice, and venom dripped from his words. “You? A kitten? After what you did?”

    Ravyn laughed beneath her breath, crossing her arms over her chest and sharing the same disgusted aspect. “No one wants a kitten with a rapist.”

    A cold sweat broke over her skin. Blood seeped from the nursery walls, and flames licked at the edges of the curtains. “N-no, I didn’t mean to—”

    “Didn’t mean to? You hypnotized him, you stupid bitch,” Ravyn cackled. “It wasn’t an accident.”

    Yomi fell to her knees. Heavy shackles bound her wrists and ankles while the chimes of bells rang in her ears. “Please, I just—”

    Finn stepped forward and snatched her chin, forcing her to look up at him. Pure, unbridled hatred burned in his gaze. He spat in her face. “When will you stop making excuses, Yomi?”

    Tears streaked her cheeks. The shackles grew heavier. The blood on the wall thicker. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

    “You’re pathetic,” Finn snarled, throwing her face to the side and stepping backward.

    “Worry not, young ones. There is still a place suited for her.” Belial’s deep baritone voice sounded from behind her. “An eternity where she can never harm another person.”

    A hundred blood-soaked arms shot from the walls, wielding swords, daggers, and scythes. All manner of sharp implements were aimed at Yomi.

    Finn held up a hand, and the arms paused. “But first, we should carve her kitten free.”

    Yomi screamed.

    ---

    “Yomi! Yomi, it’s Jesna! Please wake up!” Jesna held Yomi’s shoulder down with one hand and a cool cloth to her forehead with the other. “You’re safe. I promise you’re safe.”

    Yomi forced her eyes open, the dim oil lamp light seeping through her heavy lids. She was trembling uncontrollably with her knees curled up beneath her stomach. Her throat was hoarse as if she’d screamed it dry, and the blankets were drenched.

    “I’m sorry,” Yomi whimpered through tears. “Matt, I’m so sorry.”

    Jesna threw the covers back, her eyes widening. She grabbed a small bell from behind the flower vase and rang it vigorously. “Miss Miral! Miss Miral, come quickly. Her water broke!”

    [​IMG]
     
  10. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Member

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    Chapter 130: Le Ballet du Guerisseur

    I was starving by the time we’d finished up the potions but understood that we were pretty strapped for time. It was getting close to lunch and one of the market stalls had fruit and cheese for purchase. So we loaded up on nyapples, a loaf of bread, and a white block that looked like swiss cheese before we went to find our horses. It’d be weird to cut chunks off during the ride, but I could manage. Or I could just eat the whole damn thing, whatever was easier.

    Since we’d left so early, we were back just as the sun reached the middle of the sky. It was a quiet trip, punctuated by awkwardly trading around the bread and cheese without running into one another. At one point, I thought Ravyn was going to fall off her horse trying to hand Cannoli her utility knife, and I laughed until she chucked her nyapple core at my head.

    Regardless, the journey had lightened all of our spirits, I think. We were one step closer to reviving the girls and getting the hell off of Shi Island.

    A grinning Ceres met us at the door, and she curtsied before gesturing for us to come inside.

    “What’s so funny?” Ravyn asked.

    “Oh, it is not amusement I feel,” Ceres replied softly. “You shall see.”

    When we entered the common room, Cannoli’s ears perked, and she covered her mouth. I followed where she was staring and found Tristan lounging on the sofa, Ara sound asleep with her head in his lap. He was reading a book with one hand while stroking her hair with the other. When he looked up, he smiled sheepishly and set the book aside.

    “She dozed off while I was reading to her,” Tristan murmured.

    “Must have been a boring book,” Ravyn quipped.

    Keke nudged Ravyn with her elbow, but I caught the mischievous grin tugging at the corner of Keke’s lips.

    “That’s so sweet,” Cannoli squeaked beneath her hand. “I don’t think she slept a wink last night.”

    “She definitely deserves some rest. There’s…there’s a rough road waiting for her.” Tristan sighed.

    “Does that mean you’ve made a decision?” Keke asked.

    Tristan nodded. “Ara will stay here and lead Venicia.”

    “It is a wise decision, if I may add,” Ceres said, moving to stand beside Cannoli. “Ara is a capable leader and knows well the plight of our land.”

    “Yeah,” Tristan murmured, glancing down at Ara’s steadily breathing form.

    “What happens to Celestia?” I asked.

    “She’ll be escorted and tried in Nyarlothep. Likely they’ll execute her,” Tristan replied carefully. “I don’t want this island to see me as its executioner.”

    I nodded. “You’ll have to tell me how that works.”

    “Sure thing. We’ll have plenty of time for it.” He chewed his lip and shook his head. “Anyway. How was your trip?”

    “It went great. We have everything ready to go,” I said. We could talk more about Ara’s staying back later. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it had been for Tristan to agree.

    “We can start waking them up as soon as you’re ready.” Cannoli toyed at a section of her hair. “Assuming you wish to be present, anyway.”

    “Is there anything I can really do to help?” Tristan asked.

    “Honestly, just talk to them while they wake up. Familiar faces and pretty words can go a long way in reducing shock,” Ravyn explained. “Matt and I should probably stay out of sight when they start waking up.”

    I frowned. “Why’s that?”

    “Who were the last two people Destiny, Lara, and Lynn saw before we used the scrolls, hm?” Ravyn scoffed. “They’ve been tortured for weeks because of what we’ve done.”

    “You can’t blame yourselves for this—” Tristan began.

    Ravyn held up a hand. “Blame has nothing to do with this. We’ll have time to explain after these girls are awake. Got it?”

    My stomach sank. She was right. “Yeah. Got it.”

    “Should we wake them up one at a time or all at once?” Keke asked.

    “I believe one at a time would be best. This way, we have all hands available should we need them,” Ceres answered.

    Cannoli nodded. “Agreed. The more options we have should something go wrong, the better.”

    Tristan rubbed his face with both hands and took a deep breath. After a few seconds, he exhaled and looked back at us. “Let’s get started then.”

    “Mm. Tristan, don’t stop petting me,” Ara murmured, then giggled. “It feels so nice.”

    Keke snickered, and Cannoli squeaked behind a deep blush. Ceres smiled knowingly while Ravyn groaned and rolled her eyes.

    I cleared my throat, and Ara’s eyes snapped open. She pushed herself to sitting and quickly brushed her fingers through her hair.

    “O-oh! You’re back.” Ara coughed and smoothed her skirts. “Excuse me. I must have lost track of time.” Her face turned a deep red, and she slowly rose to her feet. “So, erm, do you have the potions?”

    Ravyn crossed her arms over her chest. “We do.”

    “Wonderful. Can we proceed?” Ara didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she pushed between Keke and me, making her way to the staircase.

    “She’s so cute,” Cannoli whispered.

    “She really is.” Tristan chuckled beneath his breath as he watched her quickly ascend the stairs. There was a lot he wasn’t saying behind that stare. But I had to give him points for holding it together. He shook his head and stood, rubbing his hands on his jeans. “Well, let’s start with Lynn, then?”

    “As you wish.” Ceres nodded and followed Ara to the staircase.

    Ravyn caught my sleeve and held me back once Keke and Cannoli had gone. Her eyes were cold, and her lips formed a small, hard line.

    “What’s up?” I asked.

    “This won’t be pretty, Matt,” she whispered. “No matter what happens, you need to trust us.”

    “I do trust you,” I replied, if a little incredulously.

    Her frown deepened. “I’m serious. Complete trust. Without question. If Ceres or I tell you to jump off the roof, you do it. Understood?”

    The tight knots in my stomach returned, but I nodded. “Yes. I promise.”

    “Alright.” Without another word, she accompanied the others to Lynn’s room. I gathered my thoughts and did the same.

    Keke and I stood in the doorway, out of the way from the three working on Lynn. Cannoli and Ravyn flanked Lynn’s bed while Ceres drew back the curtains, spreading more light into the dim room. Tristan and Ara stood in the far corner, Ara’s trembling hand entwined with his. Keke glanced at Tristan and Ara, then slid her hand into mine.

    “It’ll be okay,” Keke murmured, squeezing my hand.

    “I hope so.”

    “First, we’ll start with the salve.” Cannoli set her [Cat Pack] on the bed next to Lynn, fishing out one clay jar of ointment and one glass bottle of the violet potion. She twisted the cap free and lathered her hands with the balm before passing it to Ravyn. “We should apply it everywhere we can since we don’t know where she’s hurt.”

    Ravyn accepted the container and coated her palms. “This smells really strong,” she noted.

    Cannoli nodded. “Keke and I doubled the intensity. She knew a heating trick that upped the potency without using more ingredients.” She smiled as she gingerly applied it to Lynn’s arm. “She’s a lot better at [Alchemy] than she says.”

    Keke grumbled, “I’m standing right here.”

    Ceres took the jar after Ravyn and started on Lynn’s leg. “I wish to learn more of this art from the three of you. If you are open to teaching me, of course.”

    “I would love to!” Cannoli replied. “I can show you around Granny Nauka’s lab, and we can make potions together! Ravyn even knows how to—”

    “Cannoli. Focus,” Ravyn chided gently.

    “O-oh! Right. Sorry.” Cannoli chewed her lower lip and set back to work.

    There were hushed affirmations between the three girls as they continued to cover Lynn in the numbing agent. I hadn’t realized how tightly I was squeezing Keke’s hand until she glanced up at me and touched her head to my shoulder.

    “That should be good. Let’s start feeding her the potion,” Cannoli said.

    Ceres gently slid one arm beneath Lynn’s neck, supporting her head as she lifted her up from the bed. Cannoli parted Lynn’s lips and tilted the purple brew into her mouth. Ceres tipped her chin upward, and they poured a slow, measured stream down Lynn’s throat.

    “Start the spell, Ravyn,” Cannoli instructed.

    “[Disenchant],” Ravyn whispered, holding her hand against Lynn’s forehead. A warm, white aura surrounded her hand, and she closed her eyes.

    I counted ten heartbeats before Cannoli said, “Alright, that’s about all we can give her until she’s awake.” She drew the bottle away and set it on the table beside the bed.

    Ceres held Lynn steady, and Ravyn continued casting. Five more seconds passed, and the glow disappeared.

    A soft groan hummed from Lynn’s lips.

    “That’s our cue, Matt.” Ravyn stepped away from the bed and tugged my shirt. “Further back, boy.”

    Keke, Ravyn, and I moved outside of the room, watching the procedure through the open door. Ara and Tristan stepped forward, standing beside Ceres and opposite Cannoli. I could still see slivers of what was happening between their bodies, and I held my breath.

    Lynn’s groaning escalated into panicked whimpers.

    Ara reached for her hand. “Lynn. Lynn, it’s me, Ara. I’m right here.”

    “No…No!” Lynn cried. “Please! Not again!”

    “I’m right here, love. You’re safe,” Ara continued, dropping to her knees.

    “I don’t know anything!” Lynn mewled, sobs wracking her chest. “I-I told you! I don’t— I don’t!” Then she screamed.

    Keke huddled closer to me and grabbed my arm. Ara and Tristan repeated soft words and kind phrases. Ceres and Cannoli held Lynn at the shoulders while she writhed in pain. She’s feeling everything all at once. Every renewed howl sounded as if we were witnessing the beatings in real-time.

    Hell wasn’t deep enough for what Celestia deserved.

    “Lynn, sweet, I need you to drink this. Please,” Cannoli said, reaching for the bottle on the table. “It’ll help. I promise you.”

    Ceres helped stabilize Lynn as Cannoli put the potion to her lips again, forcing her to drink it between sobs.

    The cries sank to desperate whimpers and violent coughing. Lynn blinked wildly, her hands writhing beside her. Violent coughs wracked her throat, and her breathing sped to shallow gasps.

    “She’s going into shock,” Ravyn murmured. “Cannoli, you have to calm her down.”

    “I’m trying my best,” Cannoli replied, her face maintaining the same concentrated disposition of a surgeon. “Lynn, everything’s alright.”

    Tears streaked Ara’s face and she touched her forehead to Lynn’s hand. She stole a shuddering breath, then started to sing. “Dry your tears, my precious one, ‘tis only shadows o’er the sun. Feel the warmth upon your face and recognize its sweet embrace.

    The rapid rising and falling of Lynn’s chest gradually slowed, and her eyes became focused.

    See the flowers in the trees, scent their petals on the breeze,” Ara continued. “And if e’er you find yourself afraid—

    —Look ‘round at our world that Saoirse’s made,” Lynn whispered in harmony. “A…Ara?”

    Ara bit her lip and nodded. “I’m here, Lynn. I’m right here.” She laughed with relief before she was overcome once more with emotion.

    “Welcome back, Lynn,” Tristan murmured, brushing long strands of damp hair from her face.

    Keke buried her head against my arm, her tears soaking my sleeve.

    Ravyn looked up at me, tinges of anxiety still evident in her features. She set her jaw, then smacked her lips. “One down.”

    [​IMG]