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Chapter Thirty-Nine: Growing Troubles

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Growing Troubles

 

‘Back to her Rylthra form already?’ I slipped my arms around Arianna and pulled her sleeping form into my chest. ‘Mine… Finally.’

Arianna was so exhausted that she didn’t stir when I nuzzled the top of her head or when I rubbed my cheek into her fluffy ears. That she had returned to that form while sleeping told me one thing; she was most comfortable in that form, regardless of her protests about being petted.

I grew still and watched her turn in the dim light. Arianna didn’t stop until her body was facing mine and she nuzzled her head under my chin with a subtle purr. She slung her arm over my torso and pulled me as close to her as possible.

‘Nali, Nali! Nasty visitor!’ Alala whined, nosing the bedroom door open. ‘Don’t like her. Smells funny, musty. Old. Rotten.’

‘An Elder?’ I stroked Arianna’s back while considering ignoring the creature’s presence. ‘Fine, I will see to our “guest” if I can slip away without disturbing this one.’

“Miiine…” Arianna murmured, clenching me tighter when I tried to move.

‘“Hers”… I can’t claim it isn’t accurate.’ I ran my hand down her back again, eliciting another rumbling purr from her throat.

I managed to redirect Arianna’s attention to my pillow and then climbed out of bed. I couldn’t help but grin when she wrapped her arms and legs tight around the pillow, crushing it to her breast.

Once I had pulled on a robe, Alala leapt onto my shoulder and huffed with impatience while I covered Arianna with blankets once more. Arianna had curled her tails around herself for warmth but the cabin was cool. A little extra warmth couldn’t hurt.

‘You don’t wish to stay with Arianna?’ I scratched Alala’s cheek.

‘I’ll protect you while she sleeps!’ Alala declared, nosing my cheek. ‘Ari would be mad if something happened to you while she wasn’t here. Scary when mad.’

‘Clothes?’ I glanced at the pile of discarded clothing on the floor and then back at Arianna. ‘A robe should suffice. I’ll rejoin her once I’ve rid us of this Elder.’

I yawned wide as I made my way out of the bedroom and down the hallway. A brief pang of worry shot through my chest, causing me to glance back over my shoulder toward the bedroom. Leaving her behind, even for a moment, was difficult for me. The Elder’s presence made me tense—what if they were here for Arianna. I shut my eyes and took a calming breath. I would not let them take her.

The Elder’s stench made me wrinkle my nose in disgust. I smoothed my expression over before rounding the corner and entering the kitchen to face our “guest”. The Elder looked up from her cup of tea with a scowl when I walked into the room, revealing her jagged, shark-like teeth. She didn’t seem “off” or crazed like the bastard that had attacked Arianna and I, but the desire to execute her still rose in my mind.

‘False Elders… Are they behind the disappearance of the real ones?’ I wondered for a moment, examining the twisted woman. ‘Tch, how did she get in here? My barriers should have locked her out.’

“You finally fed on the whore?” The Elder snorted. “Why is she still here? You have no use for her now.”

Without a second thought I darted forward. My first connected with the Elder’s face and sent her crashing across the kitchen and to the floor. Alala clamped her jaws down on my shoulder when I moved to chase after the Elder, making me wince and come to a stop.

The Elder needed to die—especially after saying that.

“Oh? You’re not bored of her yet?” The Elder sneered, pulling herself to her feet. “A few more uses in her before you toss her away like the rest of your food? How unusual.”

This time when my fist connected with the Elder it tore a hole through the left half of her face. Shards of bone, blood, and gray matter splashed across the wall behind her. She laughed and staggered into the wall. Her harsh, gurgling laughter made my blood boil.

It would have been so simple to draw the Godslayer and end the creature’s miserable existence.

We have decided that woman, her brother, and a handful of others shall compete over the honor of sitting opposite you in your role.” The elder cackled at my expression of rage. “Unless you actually want her as your goddess. We might be able to arrange something…”

‘Trying to lure! Trap!’ Alala hissed and tensed on my shoulder. ‘Smellies can’t make gods, only the real ones can! Trying to hurt Ari again!’

‘I’m aware…’ I scratched Alala’s chin while tracking the Elder’s erratic movements. “You want them to compete? Didn’t that method fail you last time?”

“Ha, so you don’t intend to keep her around!” The Elder pointed at my chest. “Why delay the inevitable? I can take care of her right now. Then you can continue on with your mission without—”

“So much as look at Arianna and I will execute every last one of you,” I spoke coolly, settling my calm gaze on the Elder. What remained of her face drained of color. “She is mine. If you and yours cannot get that through your thick skulls… I will end you.

“If that is all you came here for, then leave.”

“Bah! She hasn’t even given you a zrintaas, has she?” The Elder smirked when my tail twitched. “So you’re just food for her as well, then. A fling until she can find someone better, someone more powerful, someone less broken, to satisfy—”

“Get out.” I growled. “Had she given me a zrintaas already it would have been on a mere whim. It would have meant nothing. Arianna would not humiliate me in such a way.”

I made a motion with one hand and tossed the Elder aside before turning on my heel and stalking through the cottage. I would have to clean up the mess I had made and take another bath before I could rejoin Arianna in bed, and I decided to reconstruct my barriers around our haven while doing so.

By the time I finished my rage had subsided and been replace with concern.

‘A “contest” to determine who should be my counterpart?’ I wrung the water from my hair before striding through the bedroom. ‘What sort of game are they playing—and why now?’

A small sigh escaped me when my gaze fell on Arianna. She was still curled up around my pillow and fast asleep. Her presence was soothing and yet did little to quell my unease. I gently pried her from the pillow so that I could climb into bed alongside her once more. Arianna’s arms wrapped around my torso the moment they left the pillow, making it difficult for me to lie down without crushing her.

‘Alala, you agree that the Elder was trying to lure us into a trap?’ I asked while pulling the blankets over Arianna’s shoulders.

‘They want to check if the real ones made Ari your goddess!’ Alala leapt onto the bed and curled up on Arianna’s hip before continuing, ‘Real ones made you a god—they could make Ari a goddess too if they wanted.’

‘A goddess…’ I closed my eyes and nuzzled the top of Arianna’s head. ‘I wanted to save her from this role. However…it is too late to avoid that now isn’t it? I won’t let anyone else have her.

‘If the real Elders are aware of that…’

I stroked Arianna’s back while I thought, more for my own comfort than for hers. The Elder had struck a nerve and yet I knew she was incorrect. Arianna wasn’t the sort of woman who would seek to use me for my status, for my power, or simply as food. She wasn’t like the women in Dauthrmir.

She wouldn’t abandon me for someone “better”.

‘Better…’ I frowned at the thought. ‘More powerful? The Elders do not take wives or husbands. They don’t even take Chosen or slaves. Just what was that woman—’

‘The real ones don’t!’ Alala interjected, leaping from Arianna’s hip and onto my side. ‘Fake ones are nasty. Strange. Leftovers from the last world. If they get rid of you and Ari, who would be left to find and fix the real Elders?’

‘Leftovers from the last world?’ I sighed and shot the fox a look. ‘It seems that you, Djialkan, and Arianna have much to tell me.’

Alala warbled softly before slinking off the bed and over to a nearby chair. I returned my focus to Arianna and watched her peaceful face while I continued to stroke her back. Even with my hunger sated I wanted to take her again. We had been so overtaken by our mutual hungers and lust that I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore her in the proper, savoring way I desired.

A shiver ran through Arianna when I shifted to plant a kiss on her throat, but she still didn’t wake.

‘She’s exhausted, hmmm?’ I settled on my back and watched my ayraziis shift to curl up beside me. ‘I should take the opportunity to get some rest myself. We shouldn’t risk lingering here.’

When I awoke a pang of panic hit me. Arianna wasn’t there.

By the time the scent of food cooking registered, I had already scrambled out of bed and conjured a robe. I breathed out a sigh of relief and staggered back against a wall to compose myself. It was unlike me to panic. Had I been dreaming something? Had I simply grown accustomed to her presence in my bed.

‘Although it isn’t a bad thing…’ I calmed myself, dressed, and then wandered off in the direction of the kitchen, coming across a plethora of displaced items along the hallway. ‘Still can’t walk properly? Ah…is that my fault?’

A smirk tugged my lips at the thought but I managed to push it from my mind as I leaned against the kitchen archway. I tracked Arianna’s movements in silence, watching as she moved between the stove and a collection of mixing bowls. The glow of the fire crystals that powered the oven confirmed what my nose had already told me—Arianna was baking something.

Arianna’s tails clustered together each time she moved and then fanned out behind her whenever she came to a stop. It appeared as though she was fine with short distances now but a glance at her feet revealed that she was clutching the floor with her clawed toes. Once she returned to her mixing bowls, I approached her and wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Did my vixen decide that her clothing was too cumbersome?” I teased her.

“I got tired of looking for something that would accommodate my tails.” Arianna shivered when I planted a kiss on her neck. “Did I wake you? I was trying to be quiet.”

“You may have been a little too quiet…” I wrapped my arms around her bare waist and continued to pepper her neck and shoulders with nibbles. “Did…you mean it when you said you wanted me to be your ‘Master’?”

“W-well, I mean if that’s not your cup of…” Arianna stuttered.

Arianna’s face flushed crimson when I raised a hand to her throat, gripped her jaw carefully, and turned her head to face me. I felt her pulse racing with anticipation beneath my fingers. There wasn’t even an ounce of fear in the petite woman—quite the opposite. Her expression was one of genuine adoration. It was an expression only for me, and I intended to keep it that way.

I pulled Arianna into a kiss and kept one hand on her throat as she relaxed back against me. Her pulse soared but I sensed he disappointment when I withdrew and loosened my grip. I chuckled when I spotted the small pout on her lips. Smiling, I reached up and pulled her hair back into place before it could get in her way.

“Someone is perky this morning.” I grinned and ran my hands up her torso, to her full breasts, and then pinched her nipples, earning a startled squeak from her. “How can I help? We will be leaving after breakfast—the sooner the better.”

“Leaving? It’s still raining—” Arianna wriggled out of my grip and darted over to the stove. “Ah! The pancakes! Almost too dark…phew.

“It’ll all be done soon, so you can just sit down. I think Alala is still asleep somewhere.”

“Here,” I caught her when she stumbled, “let me deal with the hot things. I won’t have my pet burning herself.”

Arianna hesitated so I ran my fingers down to her hips and began nibbling at her throat again. A small purr escaped purr escaped her, accompanied by her face flushing darker.

“Are…you still hungry?” Arianna tilted her head to look back at me when I straightened.

“I don’t need to be hungry in order to want a taste of you,” I informed her, smoothing one hand down her side while bracing myself against the counter with the other. “Besides, as I said, we are leaving after we’ve eaten. If you want more of me, you will have to wait until we stop for the night.

“Now then, hand me the pan. I will finish cooking our breakfast. Why don’t you go find something to slip into? I doubt you wish to travel nude.”

“But—” Arianna sighed and then let me take the pan from her. “I’m not sure if I have anything suitable for tails and travel…but we’ll see.”

“Good girl.” I smirked when I heard her pulse quicken again. ‘Now that the distraction is getting dressed…let’s see what she’s been up to this morning.’

A few minutes later, the sound of jingling jewelry and small bells signaled Arianna’s return. Her arms wrapped around my torso as she rubbed her cheek into my back. Her hands slipped into my robe and slid along my skin. A contented sigh escaped her as she leaned into me.

“I smell traces of an Elder.” Arianna traced my abdomen with her claws. “Did I miss something?”

“That bitc—woman…” I paused when Arianna giggled at me. “She dropped by to inform me that the ‘Elders’ have decided to force you, Darius, and ‘others’ to compete for the right to sit across from me in the role of Balance. She also—”

“They what?!” Arianna snarled and dug her claws into my skin, fire licking down her forearms. “You’re mine! I won’t let my brother have you, let alone these ‘others’ who probably don’t even know what your role—”

“The Elder was trying to lure Nali into a trap!” Alala warbled, trotting into the kitchen. “She as trying to get him to say you’re his goddess! Then she woulda done nasty things! They don’t want a completed Balance pair! Corentine warned me about it! Fake ones know that Balance is dangerous to them. Balance is closest to the real Elders.”

“Trap?” Arianna muttered, her grip twitching.

“Our food will burn if you don’t let me go.” I glanced over my shoulder at Arianna and then paused when I spotted her attire. “What…are you wearing?”

“This is the closest to ‘clothed’ I could get.” Arianna grimaced and pulled at the low hem of her harem pants before turning to wriggle her round rump and tails at me. “Leather trousers don’t work well when lowered beneath my tails. Can’t fasten them. These are stretchy at least.”

“You look like a Susthulite dancer.” I turned to face the stove once more and pulled the remaining pans off the heat.

“Are you complaining?” Arianna laughed and trailed her claws down my spine and to my tail. “I can’t very well travel naked, now can I? Who knows what sort of people we’d run into, or what—”

“Of course not. That is a sight for me.” I turned, gripped her hips, and shot her a firm look. “I will need to carry you anyway. It is quite obvious that you are still struggling to balance with your tails.

“That said, this shows more skin than your usual attire. Will you be alright?”

“I’ll be fine!” Arianna grinned, linked her hands behind my neck, and pulled herself up to kiss my cheek. “Besides, that’s all the more reason to wear as little as possible. Fur is hot and we’re both going to roast if I’m wearing a whole bunch of clothes while you carry me!”

“Go take a seat.” I gave her a squeeze and watched her hesitate to release me. “Arianna?”

“I meant what I said about wanting you to be my Master, and what I said about not letting anyone else have you,” Arianna grumbled, averting her gaze. “I’m not okay with this ‘contest’ the bastards want to put me and ‘others’ through. I know Alala said something about it being a trap, but—”

“The Elder was trying to ‘trick’ me into saying that you are my goddess,” I interjected, half-turning so that I could plate our food. “For one reason or another, they feel the need to check if the real Elders have made you a full-fledged deity. Without us—”

“Without you two there’d be no one left to deal with the fake smellies!” Alala huffed, drawing Arianna’s attention away from me. “The fakes don’t understand Balance. First they wanted to kill anyone that might be suitable for the role, then found out they couldn’t! Then they found out the real ones gave the role to Nalithor, so they—”

“They thought they could rein him in and control him, right?” Arianna crouched down and nudged Alala’s snout. “Humph. Foolish and smelly. Isn’t that right, ‘lala?”

I failed to suppress my amused grin as I strode past the fluffy pair. Alala squirmed and flailed around on her back while Arianna tickled and scratched the small fox’s stomach. After a moment, Alala righted herself and went running out of the kitchen to hide somewhere.

“Tea or iridesci?” I offered Arianna a hand and watched carefully as she wobbled to her feet.

“Something cold sounds good; so, iridesci,” Arianna responded with a bright smile. “I’d offered to help with the platters, but… Ah! Magic, right, here.”

“Did you remember to attune to Eoraso this time?” I questioned as I brought a pitcher and glasses to the table. “If not, you need to do so before we leave.”

“I did it when I woke up!” Arianna flourished her hand to one side and summoned the slender blade. “The ‘Moonblade’ is an accurate name for it after all. Though… I don’t quite understand why you said I needed to attune to it.”

“It is similar to your other weaponry,” I began, sitting sideways on a chair so that I wouldn’t crush my tail, “if you attune to it, then you can summon it at will even if you are disarmed. It will also ‘reject’ anyone who harbors ill will toward you.”

“So they can’t turn the blade against me?” Arianna tilted her head and examined the gradated blue blade. Wisps of silvery light flowed along the edge and faded into the air like tendrils of smoke. Runes gleaming with more moonlight were etched into portions of the blade, and they seemed to have drawn Arianna’s attention. “These runes don’t look Angelic.”

“The Astral and Umbral Mages of Leryci have their own unique variants of their native language that they use.” I watched Arianna wince when she sat down across from me. “Although they all speak the same tongue, the Order of Arde and the Sect of Eor created their own writing systems in order to keep their teachings and beliefs exclusive.”

“So, neither the commoners nor the Astral Mages would understand the runes on Eoraso?” Arianna waited for me to nod before continuing, “Humph. They seem like a secretive bunch.”

“I’m sure we seem the same way to them.” I chuckled at her, considering the many intricacies of the Vorpmasian Empire that the princess had yet to learn. “Put away your new toy, for now. We should hurry with our breakfast so that we can leave here.

“I don’t trust that the Elder won’t return.”

“Okay…” Arianna shifted in her chair after dismissing Eoraso and glanced toward the hallway. “Alala, if you don’t get back in here I’ll eat your share of the food!”

I heard several things crash to the floor, followed by the sound of claws slipping and scratching against the wooden floor in her haste to return to the kitchen.

“Well, now I know how to find the rascal,” I remarked dryly.

‘Her power is still growing…’ I frowned slightly and adjusted my grip on Arianna’s legs. I had opted to carry her piggyback through the forest surrounding Dragon’s Watch—it gave her the freedom to use her hands for magic if necessary, and was less straining that carrying her in my arms or over the shoulder for hours on end. ‘At this rate the false Elders won’t need to lure us into a trap in order to determine if she’s a deity. However, just how long has she been…

‘Or is her power simply rising to what a demigod’s “should” be?’

“So, what’s the plan?” Arianna rubbed her cheek against the side of my neck. “If we can’t pursue the Exiles, that leaves us with the Vulei River, the Zehylor… Can we even look into the missing children?”

‘We can, but I get the feeling that doing so will lead us near the Exiles,’ I answered before glancing at our surroundings, weary. ‘The Elders are already watching us.’

‘If they really intended to have me compete over you they would have insisted that you and I work separately.’ Arianna sounded rather bored while she traced her claws over my chest. ‘Letting me work with you could easily be construed as giving me an unfair advantage. They’re probably after something.’

A small shiver ran through me when Arianna nibbled at my earlobe and then down to my throat. Her claws dug deeper into my skin. A purr rumbled in her throat when my grip tightened.

‘Behave.’ I turned my head toward hers, though I couldn’t help but chuckle at her antics. ‘We will have plenty of time tonight for…’

I fell silent, watching Arianna’s attention snap to our right. Murderous desire shone in her eyes and her lips parted in a snarl. The scent of a beast engulfed my senses moments later, making me stop dead in my tracks. It was close. Arianna opened her mouth to say something but I hushed her and then leapt into the cover of the trees above us.

Alala whimpered on my left shoulder and trembled as the scent grew stronger.

‘I want to kill it.’ Arianna purred, drawing her nails down my chest as I set her down.

‘You know you shouldn’t fight right now.’ I pulled her against me when she stumbled, then placed my back against the tree’s trunk. ‘We’re going to avoid it if we can. I won’t risk—’

Arianna flinched and covered her ears with her hands. She hid her face in my chest and continued to clutch her ears, but not before I caught sight of her eyes welling up with tears. Whatever she heard, the sound never reached me. Shadows swirled around the petite woman for just a moment and the dispersed to reveal her Adinvyr form.

‘What did you hear?’ I kept one arm around Arianna’s waist while I scanned our surroundings.

‘I…don’t know.’ Arianna shook her head against my chest. ‘It came out of nowhere and was really high pitch. Disappeared as fast as it came but left my head and ears ringing.’

‘Alala?’ I nudged the fox.

‘Don’t know! Hurt!’ Alala yowled and rubbed her furry forehead into my shoulder. ‘Came from near beast. Don’t wanna go there.’

‘From near the beast?’ I frowned and stroked Arianna’s back while searching for a sign of anything wrong in the forest. ‘Let’s get out of here. I don’t like the feeling I get from this place.’

‘The bastards from Dragon’s Watch are tracking us, too.’ Arianna growled, her tail snapping behind her like a whip. ‘You sure you want to just leave? Killing them would be—’

‘—a waste of our time, and potentially draw the Elder’s ire.’ I shot her an amused smile when she looked up with a pout on her face. ‘Now, now. None of that. Hadyn and Edan can deal with Dragon’s Watch. You and I need to get as far away from here as possible.’

Arianna went to protest but fell silent instead when I scooped her up and began leaping from tree-to-tree. Energy rushed down my legs as I channeled magic to increase my speed and the distance of my jumps. Wind caressed my skin, lifting my hair and robes into the air behind me as I ran. A brief glance downward revealed that Arianna was shaping the wind around us to deflect branches and droplets of rain alike.

Movement to my left caught my attention, making me growl and tighten my grasp on the bloodthirsty woman in my arms. A massive beast lumbered through the forest, crushing trees and boulders beneath its feet. It was not alone. Like X’shmiran beasts, this one was a patchwork creation of scales, bare hide, and patches of fur. Sharp spines ran down its skull, back, and to the tips of its six tails.

The beasts accompanying the massive one were the size of horses and shared similar construction to the gargantuan one them appeared to be escorting. It sounded as if they were communicating through a series of harsh barks and howls, but I wasn’t certain.

‘X’shmiran?’ I questioned, feeling Arianna growing tense.

‘No.’ She buried her face in my chest and took a deep breath. ‘If you don’t want me to kill all of them… Get me out of here. Now.

‘You can’t control yourself?’ I picked up my pace as the heat of Arianna’s magic spread from her hands and across my skin.

‘They need…to die…’ Arianna shivered.

‘That wasn’t much of an answer.’ I glanced to the side again when the roars grew louder. ‘They do need to die, but…’

My thoughts trailed off when an unfamiliar scent assaulted my nose, followed by the increasing patter of rain. Alala tensed and then ducked behind my neck to hide beneath my hair. Arianna’s bloodlust lessened as her attention shifted away from the “herd” of beasts and focused on the trees before us instead.

‘Wait.’ Arianna reached up to grip one of my shoulders when we approached the edge of the forest.

‘Decided you’re in the mood to be giving orders?’ I smirked when Arianna turned a special shade of red. ‘I’m kidding, my dear. I smell it too.’

‘I wanna go back to the cottage!’ Alala whined, shaking.

‘We’re going to need cloaks.’ Arianna wriggled from my grip and stood next to me, opening her shrizar. ‘That…kind of smells like Human blood, doesn’t it?’

‘Similar.’ I nodded and then frowned at Arianna when she conjured a familiar black mask. ‘Arianna?’

‘It smells acidic.’ Arianna pointed in the direction we’d been traveling. ‘If that’s the case, I sure don’t want to get any in my eyes. Do you?’

‘Smells nasty!’ Alala protested, leaping from my shoulders, to Arianna’s, and then curling up in the back of Arianna’s hood. ‘Can we go back? Please? I don’t like it!’

‘I’m of half a mind to agree with her,’ Arianna muttered, scratching Alala’s chin. ‘This doesn’t smell like rain, even if it does sound like it. Furthermore, why isn’t it falling in the forest? What we’ve seen dripping off the leaves is clearly rainwater.’

‘I doubt we will like the answer either way.’ I sighed before shrugging on a long hooded coat and then summoned a mask for myself. ‘Tch. I suppose I owe Eyrian for convincing me to keep this damned thing…’

‘Mmm? Can you even see out of that?’ Arianna snatched the mask from me and turned it over in her hands a few times. ‘Humph! You’d be blind with this. Here, one moment.

‘‘lala!’

Arianna held my mask up by her shoulder. Alala’s nose poked out from within the leather hood and sniffed a few times. Several seconds passed before the fox let out a few musical chirps and engulfed both herself and my mask in black and sapphire energy. When Arianna handed the mask back to me I found that the interior had been replaced with an unfamiliar substance. Even though the outside of the mask remained solid leather I could now see clearly.

‘Did I do good?’ Alala warbled and blinked up at me with wide eyes.

‘You did well.’ Arianna laughed, scratching the eager fox’s chin once more.

‘A trick you learned from your parents, Alala?’ I questioned while fastening the mask into place.

‘Momma and Daddy thought Ari might need new masks!’ Alala warbled. ‘Taught Djialkan and me both how to do it, but none of us like those stupid masks anyway. The X’shmirans are mean!’

‘Just a kit after all, hmmm?’ I glanced at Arianna and watched a crooked smile settle onto her face.

‘Well, she may be small and cute…but she is a Guardian,’ Arianna pointed out. ‘It takes ages for them to become “adults” doesn’t it? At least, that’s what Corentine told me.’

‘It’s true; she may be a child for another few centuries yet.’ I beckoned Arianna closer to me. ‘I still need to carry you. Perhaps when we stop for the night I will modify some of your clothes to accommodate your tails…’

‘You’re a seamstress now?’ Arianna smirked. ‘I can do it myself, but, help would be appreciated.’

‘If you do it yourself you’re liable to cut your tail,’ I countered, making her cringe. ‘Up you go. Let’s see what Falrrsald is going to throw at us now.

‘I don’t wannaaa!’ Alala protested when I hoisted Arianna onto my back again. ‘Let’s go back to the cottage! We can hide there for a few more days while it rains, right? We don’t have to go across this smelly-stinky land yet!’

‘…judging by the look of things it will just get worse as time passes,’ Arianna muttered, resting her chin on my shoulder. ‘Regardless of whether it’s the Elders or the Exiles who are responsible for this…just what are they up to?’

My stomach turned as I pressed onward and the thinning trees gave me my first glimpse of what smell and felt so wrong. Dark liquid fell from the sky beyond the forest, painting the plains of Falrrsald with splashes of obsidian and garnet. Small scraps of flesh fell alongside the ominous “rain” and coated the ground in a membrane of decay.

‘An experiment gone awry?’ I wondered, stopping beneath one of the few trees by the edge of the forest that seemed safe from the downpour of flesh, blood, and…something. I couldn’t recognize the source of the acidic smell. It didn’t seem like the strange rain was damaging any of the organic matter it came into contact with, but the pungent scent was nauseating.

‘Well, the birds are flying in it.’ Arianna pointed at the sky.

‘Shield us with your wind magics while we walk.’ I lifted my gaze to the sky and searched for any possible source of the necrotic downpour. ‘Even if it is technically “safe” I would rather not risk this rubbish falling on us.’

‘Because some of it might not be safe?’ Arianna offered. A small amount of magic vibrated outward from her hands and engulfed us. ‘On it. I’ll let you know if I begin to tire.

‘Stop wiggling, Alala! Do you want to fall out of my hood and get all of that in your fur?!’

I took a moment to steel myself before stepping out from beneath the tree’s protection. My stomach turned again when I heard the sickening squelch of decrepit flesh bouncing off Arianna’s shield. I grimaced when my feet sunk into an inch or two of rotted flesh. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought that I was having a rather unusual nightmare.

‘Hmmm, none of it is fresh,’ Arianna murmured, resting her head on my shoulder. I sensed her attention flitting around us at a measured pace. ‘Maybe…they’re disposing of something?’

‘Maybe we should have gone back to Dragon’s Watch and questioned the bastards there after all.’ I sighed and glanced up at the sky. ‘This “rain” is obviously avoiding the forest. Someone must be controlling it. Why they would want to avoid hitting that place is beyond me.’

‘Those beasts weren’t heading toward the town either.’ Arianna tapped her fingers against my chest absentmindedly. ‘Normally we would just assume that the Exiles are behind both matters, right?’

‘I dislike this.’ I shifted my grip on Arianna’s legs. ‘I am going to run—we need to see just how fare this nonsense goes.’

‘Okay.’ Arianna tightened her grip and rubbed her cheek against my shoulder, purring. ‘If I spot strange magic or any other problems I’ll let you know.’

After summoning spikes of hardened earth to the underside of my boots, I took off at a run across the bloodied plains. Slipping in this mess was not an option, regardless of my precious “cargo”. I didn’t even a fleck of the foul-smelling gore on me, my pet, or Alala.

‘My pet…’ I smirked to myself and stroked Arianna’s thighs with my thumbs. ‘Perhaps I will reward her if she shields us sufficiently.’

I glanced to the side at Arianna when I heard her purr again. Her mannerisms certainly made “pet” a fitting term for her…but it wasn’t enough to describe what I felt for her. Neither was “ayraziis”. There wasn’t a word in my native tongue or the common one to accurately express my feelings for her or what she meant to me. Ayraziis, pet, girlfriend. Nothing had the right ring to it.

She was so much more than that to me.

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