Chapter 10 – Ships and Shrines

After a talk with a very confused Mask, a reunion with his overly distracted students, and a trade to his moderately delighted sister, Julius finally had his damn ship and could get on with his world-saving quest. 

Well, continent saving. Maybe world-saving. It depended on how far Valondrac wanted to go with her conquest. Point was, Julius was now on a very nice galleon with his now six students and a crew of very gruff and quiet nereids who were starting to annoy him with how they seemed to regard doing their damn jobs and taking them across the bay as an irritating chore. Considering all of them were apparently working in reserve for Graves, literally getting paid to wait around until they were needed, he really had no sympathy for them.

Well, it wasn’t like he would have to deal with them for long, and at least they were giving them plenty of space on the deck of the ship. 

Walking on a ship was odd. It’d been years since Julius had ever set foot on one, at least one that wasn’t up in the air, so he was having an interesting time trying to get used to the movement under him. Water had an interesting sort of motion to it that air just didn’t match, even when they’d been high up in the sky. His practice swings with the wooden training sword were going either too wide or too short as he went off balance or over-corrected himself.

Julius frowned. Keeping his steps light could easily trip him up as he was moving, but keeping his stance wide and solid could turn out worse if he was knocked off balance. Still, at least he didn’t have to worry too much about drowning if he went overboard.

Like his students, Julius wasn’t wearing his usual armor. Nobody had managed to figure out how to make steel float yet, too much of a clash between the different elements, but that didn’t mean other armor wasn’t an option. In this case, he and his students had chosen to wear a fish-scaled armor that would help them swim in the event one of them fell in the water. 

Speaking of his students, he glanced over at their newest member, Mask, who seemed to be hopping from one foot to the other in anticipation for their sparring. And, thankfully, they didn’t seem to be interested in banter. 

The same couldn’t be said for everyone else. 

“Come on, Mask! Land a hit for us!” 

“Aim for the crotch!” 

“Trip him into the water!”

To be expected, really. Well, no point in getting angry over who they favored. Again. At least they had an easy camaraderie going on with their odd new comrade.

“You ready, Mask?” 

“Of course!” The newly outfitted rogue was clearly excited, two of their newly repaired knives dropping out of their scaly sleeves and into their gloved hands in one fluid, clearly practiced motion.

“Good. Come at me if you want.” His balance was going to be an issue no matter what, so hanging back might be his best option at the moment.

Mask nodded, apparently taking his words as a cue to start–which was what he was going for, so good–and ran right for him, their balance apparently unaffected by the swaying of the ship, and darted fast for chest. It was an easy feint to bat away and their follow-up with their free hand was good, just not enough when someone was expecting it and they only just barely bent backward to avoid his fist catching them right in the face. The backflip was a little unnecessary, but they did get some good distance, their stance clearly warier. 

Julius smirked, placing his sword on his shoulder and gesturing ‘come at me’ with his free hand. Mask didn’t rise to the bait though, crouching lower and slipping one dagger up their sleeve in favor of a longer, curved combat knife that they flipped around into a reverse grip. Dagger for stabbing, knife for slicing. Smart.

Smarter was how they weren’t moving towards him again. It looked like Julius would have to make the first move, which was terrible for him, considering his off sense of balance. 

He smirked again and made a show of shrugging before striding confidently across the deck towards Mask. It was a performance by this point, acting as though he hadn’t noticed his issues of balance, stepping just right so it seemed like he wasn’t having trouble then a little deliberate misstep, barely enough for anyone to notice unless they were damn observant and he had to stop himself from smiling wider as Mask twitched almost imperceptibly, noticing his ‘error’.

Julius swung his sword up in a deliberate flourish, acting every bit as brash and confident as he could, radiating a surety in himself that visibly made Mask bristle. Mild annoyance, a little reminder of people they didn’t like, but he didn’t need them angry. He needed them determined.

In an instant, he rushed forward, telegraphing a wide horizontal swing and Mask immediately ducked around and aimed a kick out towards his ankle–a good plan, play off his misstep, just not enough–right as he lifted his foot out of the way. He stepped right by their overextended leg, hard enough to make it clear how bad it would’ve been if he’d stomped on their leg and swung the sword right back, pausing it right before it would’ve slammed into the side of their head.

Mask still wound up falling down on the deck though, the sudden swing right after their missed kick catching them off guard enough that they couldn’t balance. “…huh.”

Julius grinned. “Should I take that as a yield?”

“No thank you, sir! Not yet!”

Julius frowned–Where was their dagger. They only had the knife in their–

Julius immediately leaned back, the dagger missing his nose by inches and thudding straight into the deck as Mask sprung up, managing a light cut up his thigh before Julius leapt back. It hadn’t even gotten through his pants, but it was still a hit. He couldn’t help but grin at that.

“Okay, good.” Julius dropped his sword and clapped his hands together. “Congratulations, Mask, you win by first blood.”

Mask paused, then slowly straightened up. “Um. Thank you, sir? I didn’t know we were going to first blood. I don’t think I drew any blood either?”

Julius shrugged. “You managed to hit me, which is more than the rest of my students had managed.” He gestured to his oddly silent students, all seemingly stunned by Mask’s feat. “Though this does mean I’ll be holding back a little less next time. Oh, and good trick with the dagger.”

“O-Oh, um, thank you sir-” And then the cheering started. 

“Woo! Congrats!” As the others surrounded Mask, Adrien gave them a hard, cheerful pat on the back that they actually took pretty well, not even stumbling. “Ha, you actually landed a hit on the old man! You need to show me how to do that stuff when we spar!”

“Hey, you definitely need to tell me your tricks so I can try them next time,” Sergio cut in, before he was lightly shoved aside by a beaming Sue. 

“Congratulations!” 

And then Maria full on hugged them while Sophia giggled. “I’m so proud of you! I knew it was the right choice to carry you off when we met!” 

Smiling to himself, Julius leaned against the wooden railing as he stared at his team. It almost reminded him of the old days. Granted, his own team was a lot more aggressive with one another…well, that was actually mostly Douglas and him. Thinking back on it, everybody else had it pretty good…hm. 

Looking towards the front of the ship, Julius could see Mesa Island slowly growing bigger as they approached it. At the rate they were going, it wouldn’t take long to arrive. 

“Well, you kids better make sure you’re ready. It won’t be long till we arrive. Thankfully, Mesic’s temple isn’t like Foco’s, so there won’t be continuous fights that we have to get through.” 

“Oh! Um, Sir, I have a question!” Raising their hand, Mask waited for Julius’s go ahead. At his nod, they continued. “So…what exactly is a temple?” 

Huh. Well that raised a lot of questions about their upbringing. “You don’t know what a temple is?”

“Ah, yeah, I didn’t exactly get taught much. Sorry if I asked something dumb…” 

“Oh, no, it’s not a dumb question. Hm…well, I’m not exactly a devout follower of any god, so my own knowledge is limited, but the temples used to be houses of prayer that were created by the gods. However, once the light lands started to need a hero, the gods changed them from huge shrines into testing grounds.

“The one we’re going to now is the Water Temple, created by the matron Mesic. The island the temple is on apparently used to be a lot bigger, but now it’s pretty small. And, before any of you ask, I have no idea what happened to the island. At most, people have theories about demon magic and water erosion. I, personally, know nothing.”

“Huh…neat, I guess.”

“Yup. Anyways, the basic setup for this temple is that we’ll have to defeat four creatures in specific throughout each of the rooms that will then open a passageway to the temple guardian. Or to the general, if they already infiltrated this temple.” 

“Are you going to try facing them by yourself again?” Sue asked.

“That depends entirely on what the general might be planning. Hopefully, whoever is in there isn’t as strong as Leok or Autumn, though they’re likely to be in the same range. On that note, Mask, you haven’t had time to train with everyone, so it might be best for you to hang back when it comes to a fight.” 

“Huh? Why do they have to do that?” 

“It’s nothing against their skills, but fighting alongside someone who you’re not used to, especially against someone stronger and more experienced than you, can be very dangerous. Worse case scenario, you might bump into one another and give the opponent an opening.” 

“Oh…well, that makes sense,” Mask conceded, “I don’t work together with other people often so it’s probably for the best.” 

“Don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to get some practice in up until we face the guardian or general. Consider everything up until that point a part of your training.”

“Yes sir!” They nodded firmly, much to the obvious amusement of his other students. Sergio actually snapped into a salute, before dropping it as he chuckled.

“Heh. Alright, dismissed. Do whatever you want until we get to shore, though no messing around with the crew, breaking the ship, or hanging over the side to flirt with merrows.” 

“Awwww!” Of course Sergio and Maria complained, but Julius was a little surprised to see Sophia slump slightly too.

At any rate, it didn’t take much longer for them to reach Mesa Island. Like the name implied, the island consisted of a large, flat hill with sheer cliffs all around it with a smaller shoreline at the bottom. The temple, a large building with a spiral steeple that looked almost like a seashell, rested at the very top of the mesa, overlooking the island, while a smaller shrine was set up only a few paces away from the dock.

Supposedly, the smaller shrine used to be a sort of receptionist area, where a Mesikish cleric would help out people looking to enter the temple. The shrine was still there, but it was entirely empty by this point and barnacles were covering a good deal of its surface, including the little four-armed statuette seated inside. The statuette, of course, was of the water goddess and third Divine Matron, Mesic. 

As the various nereids promptly got to relaxing around the ship, their job done until they returned, his team walked onto the island. Heading to the small shrine, Julius began to pull off the barnacles on it and the statue as the others looked around the rather small island. 

“You weren’t kidding about this place being small,” Adrien muttered, looking at the ropes and hooks hitched into the side of the mesa’s cliff.

“It’d be an odd thing to kid about.” Tossing the last of the barnacle back into the water, Julius turned to face his students. “Anyways, all of you are ready, right?”

At the resounding positives responses, Julius was about to head for the side of the cliff for a fun round of ‘explain why some gods were dicks for putting their temples in weird places’, up until the statuette began to glow, immediately catching everyone’s attention. 

Water began to leak from it, slowly forming on the floor, before it began to rise up, taking a humanoid form. Soon enough, a figure made entirely of water stood before them, wings made of water sprouting from her back in solid, feathery constructs. Much like her fiery cousin, the watery angel was a bizarre mix of physical and elemental, the blue water composing her body formed into detailed, if translucent, skin and tentacle-like hair filled with specks that looked almost like stars against the night sky.

“Greetings, Chosen Hero and companions,” the angel spoke in a soft voice, then bowed politely to the group. 

“O-Oh! H-Hey-I, uh, mean hello!” Adrien replied, his eyes wide in clear awe, before his manners took over and he bowed back, an action quickly mimicked by the rest of their party, though Sophia hesitated for a second longer before following her friends and bowing too. Mask, who just seemed confused by their sudden deference, was another exception, and Julius, of course, didn’t bother, mostly because he was getting a very bad feeling about this.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise that the kids, even Sophia and Sergio, would act like this. This was the first time they encountered an angel, after all, and they didn’t know how some of them, mostly the light and wind ones, could be complete dicks.

“Um, is there something you need?” Adrien asked, glancing up a little, but still staying mostly bowed.

“Not from you, young hero. I was sent here to deliver a message,” the angel intoned. Her blue gaze turned towards Julius. “Mother Mesic wishes for me to inform you, former companion, of a matter of great importance. To directly state her own words: ‘Don’t even think of stealing my shit.’” 

“…” If it was any other situation Julius probably would have laughed. “…Don’t worry, I won’t.” 

“Be warned, Sir Goldforge, Mother Mesic will be watching your actions closely. For, even if you were to give us your solemn word, your new companion makes her less inclined to believe you.” 

“Hey! Just because Mask is a rogue doesn’t mean they’ll steal anything from a goddess!” As the angel turned her gaze to Maria, she immediately faltered. “A-Ah, sorry for my tone, g-gracious one! R-Really, super sorry!” 

Well, that was to be expected. Of all of them, she probably had the most ‘religious’ upbringing.

Still, weird. Even if Mask was a thief, that wasn’t enough for an angel and goddess to be suspicious of them. Though, if they happened to be someone from a demon-blooded race, that might make them a little antsy. 

Well, even if they were, Julius wasn’t about to kick them out of the group. After all, if it wasn’t for them, he would have still been scrambling around trying to find that awful jewel.

“Is that all?” Julius replied, “We do have a temple to get to.”

“Your concerns are understood, Sir Goldforge. However, it must be stated again, do not steal the core from the temple. Mother Mesic wants this to be heavily emphasized, sir. You will have severe issues if you attempt this.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it. Are we good?”

“Again, I must-”

“If you repeat yourself again, I’ll tilt that statue three inches out of place.”

The angel immediately glared at him. “Try it and lose a finger.”

“And then I won’t be able to use my sword properly, my students will have to save the world on their own, and if they wind up failing it will be entirely on your head.”

“…”

“…”

“…Teach, maybe don’t get into a stare down with the messengers of the gods,” Sue suggested, a little nervously.

Julius would have taken her advice, but by this point he was damn committed and there was no way he was blinking first. He could actually see the moment that the angel realized he was actually making a contest of this and started staring at him more seriously.

“…Uh, Teach?”

“Oh gods, he’s actually trying to stare down an angel.”

“Uhh…I feel like this is weirdly heretical…”

“So should we just go climb up the cliff now?”

“I mean, there are ropes and stuff there. Uh, Teach? We’re supposed to climb up the ropes, right?”

Julius didn’t respond. He was in the zone now.

“…Climbing the ropes does make sense.”

“Oh…um…”

“Right, Sophia sucks at physical stuff.”

“S-Sorry…”

“Serge, don’t be a dick. Soph, don’t worry about it, you can just piggyback me.”

“Hm. So does Mr. Goldforge do this often?”

“Uh, he might? This is the first time this specific kind of thing has happened.”

“Eh, just leave him for now. If he’s not following us by the time we get up to the top, we can start chucking rocks at him.”

“Do it and I’ll throw you off,” Julius replied, not looking at all as Sergio audibly flinched.

“…So that gets his attention.”

“Right. Uh, old man, we’re going up the cliff. Uhh…have fun with this? See you in a minute, I guess? And, uh, nice to meet you, water angel…person. Being. Right, okay then.”

Julius didn’t look as his students walked over to the cliff. The challenge was too important, and he would not blink first. 

Hm. He was semi-tempted to use one of his pepper bombs, but it wasn’t like the angel had cheated yet…

“Do angels even need to blink?” he heard Adrien mutter in confusion. The answer, of course, was yes, and Julius knew that because he had won one of these before and that meant there was no way he was backing down now.

Though, now that he thought about it, given her current form, the angel probably didn’t have eyelids. Thus making it impossible for her to lose. So, in a way, that’d be cheating right? …Wait, would a pepper bomb even work on her? 

Before he could continue that train of thought, a sudden wave splashed up from the coast and landed down right on top of the two, drenching them and breaking their contest.

“…It appears mother tires of our antics,” the angel muttered, actually sounding a little embarrassed as the sea-water dripped from her water body. Which was kind of weird looking, but angels didn’t really make sense anyway. He was also a little happy and a little annoyed to see her blink once, proving that he totally could have won that contest.

“Hmph. Guess she does.” Julius huffed and began to walk away, glancing at the angel as he passed her. “My own pettiness aside, I won’t let you judge Mask just because of what race they may be.”

“And someone of your stature should be more wary of others. Regardless of your own intentions, others may intend differently.” 

“Then I guess I’ll just have to prove you wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done something like that.” 

The angel didn’t reply, and Julius began to climb up up the mesa, towards where his students waited, all of them staring down at him.

He couldn’t help smiling at the sight. They all made it up without him–Was Sergio holding a rock?

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