Tramontava was a bright place and its capital, Stenistrata, was equally bright. And also huge. Probably four or five times the size of Orindaco. Though, maybe that wasn’t the right city to compare it to.
Queenshill, the capital of Luceneva, was the closest city in terms of scale Julius could think of, but it wasn’t nearly as tall as Stenistrata. The capital city of the northern nation seemed to be completely filled with narrow towers flying flags and hanging banners in yellow, green and turquoise and decorated with silver swirls, all fluttering in the breeze.
From up on the Finja, he could see bridges extending between the towers, where humans and harpies walked. Stenstrata’s winged citizens were flying from tower to tower or down to the streets while small wyverns roosted with blue jays in the outcroppings formed by the structures.
Airships were plenty visible too, drifting high enough to avoid the towers’ points as they headed towards the large airfields used to dock them. The Finja was currently on its way to one of those, in fact. The one as close to the Air Shrine as they could get.
Julius really didn’t want to have to stick around here for too long.
“Hey, Goldforge.” A voice caught his attention and he turned towards Nadine, Joral’s first mate, dressed in gray pants and a blue jacket similar to her captain’s. She was a tall and slim crow harpy with jet black feathers, pale-gray skin, and noticeable bags under her eyes, lending an almost permanent glare to her visage. Though she looked more tired and irritable than actually intimidating, at least to him. “Captain needs you to talk to the canary. Paperwork says you’ve gotta establish your reasons for being here ‘n stuff.”
Glancing behind her, Julius noticed a harpy, far smaller in comparison to Nadine, resting on the railing of the ship, his talons gripping the wood as he talked to Joral.
Julius couldn’t exactly tell what type of harpy the small guy was exactly due to the overly bright yellow jacket he wore, which covered most of his body, and matching cap, which covered the feathers he had instead of hair. The jacket, of course, was the reason why he and other harpies working at the airfields in Stenistrata were called ‘canaries’.
“If they really need it, then sure.” Waving back at the canary as he started waving at Julius, he walked towards him and Joral. “Hello there, my name is Julius Goldforge. I heard you need me for something?”
“Hello, Julius! My name is Panara, and I just need to ask you some questions!” Pulling out a small book from one of his pockets, Panara held it in one wing, then opened it and looked at the page. “First and foremost, I understand that this is a passenger vessel carrying you and six others. Are you here for business or pleasure?” As he asked his questions, Julius stiffened slightly as he felt a small pulse of magic wash over him. An after-effect of the canary using magic to detect lies.
“Business. My team and I are going to be visiting the temple.”
“Wonderful! The temple is always a lovely place to visit. Ah, but you said it was for business?”
“Yes, we have the chosen hero on board so we plan on clearing this temple next.”
“Oh, how exciting! I’ll make sure that word of your arrival reaches the king’s ears!”
Julius tried to hide a wince. “Right. Thanks…um, we don’t need to meet with him or anything, right?”
“Oh no, it’s not a necessity! You can feel free to complete your temple trip before or after meeting with the king, at your leisure, sir.”
“Good. Uh, I meant good to know. Just, thanks.” He scratched the back of his head, trying to ignore his own awkwardness. “So, is there anything else you need to ask me?”
“Yes, indeed there is! Now, are you or any of your companions carrying any potentially harmful substances with you?”
“Uh…yes? We have some alchemical bombs.”
“Hm hm…okay, understood! Do you have any licenses to carry such materials with you?”
“…Uh…I’m registered at the Central Lucene Adventurer’s Guild. Does that work?”
“Indeed it does, sir! We’ll just need to pull up your records to confirm. We would like to request that you keep your explosives devices on your ship though.”
“Yeah, that’s…kind of fair.”
“Thank you for the cooperation. Now the final question, how long do you plan on staying?”
“Well preferably only three days, depends on how quickly we can finish what we need to.”
“Thank you for informing me. Now then you are officially cleared for landing, and welcome to Stenistrata!” Putting the book away, Panara flapped his wings once before taking off and drifting back down to the airfields.
“Huh. Guess that’s as good a signal to land as I’m gonna get,” Joral muttered, before turning to his crew, “Bring us down! We’ve got a landing zone all picked out!”
After the crew jumped to obey their captain’s orders and they landed without a hitch, Julius and his team set off into the capital of Tramontava. Unlike the towers of the city, a majority of the roads were quite wide, allowing easy landing and takeoff for the many flying species that resided within the city, as well as a large degree of traffic, both in terms of carriages and pedestrians.
It also appeared that, just outside of the docking areas, the local marketplace had been set up. Or, well, the airfields were set up next to the marketplace. Either way, it was most likely set up to get customers from the arriving ships.
“Okay so, just a heads up, but I’m not that familiar with this place. So we should probably stick close to one another so we don’t get separated,” stated Julius as he and his team walked about. “That means no wandering off if you see something interesting.
There were a few annoyed grumbles before Sue spoke up, “So do you have any idea on where we should go next?”
“I think the shrines are near the center of the city, so we should head there first. We need to head to the Grand Air Shrine to talk to the Kataban Pontiff first. That’s how we actually get a key into the temple, which we do need in this situation. Afterwards, we can make sure to stock up on supplies before resting up for the day so we’re prepared for the temple.” Turning around to face his students, Julius held up a finger. “This place might not be Orindaco, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye out. You never know what’ll happen in a big city like this.”
As if on cue, Julius felt someone bump into him from behind, nearly causing him to stumble forward. He immediately moved his hand to his pockets to check for any sneaky fingers, then paused when the guy spoke.
“Oh, my sincere apologies, I wa-…” Blinking, Julius slowly turned around at the very familiar-sounding voice. And then his mood immediately dropped into a deep pit as he stared directly at Douglas Orville Yew, the former Chosen Hero of the Light Lands.
“What the fuck are you doing here.” The two of them simultaneously said in their flattest voices possible. “Hey, no-Hey, don’t-No, just-Stop-”
Both men stopped their interrupting and just stared at each other, silently appraising one another. And in Julius’s firm opinion, Douglas looked even stranger than the last time he saw him.
Douglas was still a brown-skinned and pretty well-built man who was slightly skinny and about the same height as Julius, but now he’d shaved his head completely bald and had pretty much every visible inch of his skin completely covered in mage tattoos. Red, blue, green, yellow, brown, orange, white, black; every color associated with magic was visible somewhere on his body, which was a pretty huge step up from just having them on his arms.
Most obviously, he had a set of five dots on his forehead. A gold-yellow one in the center, an orange one on top, light-blue below, pale-green on the right and purple on the left, all with lines curling around them, down his cheekbones, around his chin and over his hazel eyes, which were covered by a pair of round glasses.
Julius frowned suddenly as he looked closer. Around the five dots were four more, in the lines. One dark-red on the top right; dark-blue, bottom left; dark-gray, top left; and completely black on the bottom right. Those seemed really damn familiar.
“‘Oh hi Doug, it’s me, your good pal Julius! You know, your dear friend that doesn’t creepily stare at your forehead for hours?’”
And that snapped him out of his train of thought. “Douglas.”
“Don’t call me that. I’ve said over and over again that you don’t get to call me that!”
“Ellie calls you that! Charlie calls you that! Seriously!” Douglas spread his arms wide, the sleeves of his bright yellow robes drooping down slightly. “We killed a dragon together! We toppled an empire–well, more an expansionist lunatic trying to build an empire–MY POINT IS, I should get to call you by that nickname!”
“Because I said no! Learn to take a hint!”
“I have! I spent years figuring out social stuff! It honestly hurts that you don’t care about me enough to be casual!”
“I-” What? “It, no, that’s not-Look, I just…Ugh, dammit, do we really need to have a talk over this?”
“Fine! Subject change! What’s with all those chickadees trailing behind you?”
“Slang, Julius! It’s urban Tramontavan harpy slang for young people! Remember Tramontava, the country I live in?”
“…Hell’s forty bells, you forgot I lived here.”
“I…It might’ve slipped my mind.”
“Hey, old man?” Julius paused and glanced back at Adrien. “What’s with this guy?”
“I, okay, just.” Pausing Julius took a few moments to take some breaths. “Kids meet Douglas, former chosen hero; Douglas, meet my students, the current heros.”
“Wait, you have students?”
“Yes, and we’ve been doing fantastic!”
“Well we’re still alive at least,” muttered Sergio as he stared at Douglas in some obvious curiosity.
“I-It’s nice to meet you, sir.”
“Ooo, so you’re the old hero? Is it really true you two killed a Great Dragon?”
As his students began to crowd around Douglas, Julius couldn’t help but frown. It’s not that he outright hated Douglas, but he had his own, albeit petty, reasons for not liking him.
“Um… Excuse me.” Looking over to the side, Julius found a pale wood elf with freckles covering her skin and short brown hair that her antlers were poking out of, standing there somewhat nervously. “Julius Goldforge, correct?”
“Yes? And you are?”
“Ah, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. My name is Sylsa and I’m Mister Yew’s student,” she said as she bowed to him. Much like Douglas, she was wearing a robe, though hers was a grassy green.
“He has a student? Ah, I mean, hi. Nice to meet you.” After a second, he raised a hand in greeting.
“Likewise!” Sylsa replied as she straightened back up, then paused, “Oh, wait, I already said-Uh, i-ignore that, please. Should I start over? I think I should start over…”
Okay good, she was awkward too. “No, it’s okay. No need to worry. So. Douglas.”
“…What’s he like as a teacher?”
Sylsa took way too long to respond. “…Good? Good…ish. He’s…competent. Mostly. Usually.”
“Hey! No turning my student against me!” Douglas suddenly called out, interrupting a few of the questions Julius’s own students were asking him.
Julius stared back at him for a moment, then looked towards Sylsa again. “Does he still do that ‘helping random people because they catch his interest’ thing?”
“HEY!” Well, good to hear some things were consistent.
“So, leaving aside your usual flightiness, what are you doing in Stenistrata anyways?” Julius asked, glancing at Douglas.
“Oh, we’re just doing some shopping.”
Douglas nodded, very lightly pushing Adrien and Sue to the side so he could walk up to Julius. “Shopping! The markets around here have great discounts on Kataday, so I thought it best to drop by!”
“That’s… surprisingly mundane for you.”
“Well I can’t always be trying to break the boundaries of magic. I need to eat and sleep as much as the next person. Well, for now anyway. Getting close though!” He tapped his forehead with a grin.
“Hm…yeah, good luck with that. Anyways, since you’re here, can you make yourself useful and help lead us to the Air Shrines and such? We’re planning on going to the Wind Temple.”
“Oh sure, it’s not like I was busy.”
“…I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic.”
“Why would I be?”
“…Sure. So, the shrines?”
“Oh, yeah, just follow me, not that hard to find.” Lightly pushing past his still starstruck students again, Douglas began to lead the way, though Julius quickly caught up and walked alongside him. “So how’s the journey been?”
“Nothing that int-”
“Teach stole a temple core,” interrupted Sergio. Julius shot him a glare and Sergio grinned back right as Douglas immediately halted in his tracks.
“Sir Goldforge stole a big core, apparently. I wasn’t there at the time so I don’t really know what happened. Oh, but apparently that gem I found was pretty important. Something about an ancient?” interjected Mask. Julius switched his gaze to Mask, which got them to blink in obvious confusion. “Er, was that a secret?”
…Well, it wasn’t exactly a secret, but he did want people to stop bringing it up.
“Julius, you stole a temple core, and found an ancient gem?”
He sighed and turned to look at a clearly scandalized Douglas. “Look, you don’t know the details-”
“OH! SO IS THAT IT?? WHEN I TRY TO TAKE A CORE TO STUDY IT’S A BAD THING, BUT YOUR ‘DETAILS’ MEANS IT’S OKAY FOR YOU??” Great. He should have seen this coming. “AND YOU FOUND AN ANCIENT GEM AND DIDN’T LET ME SEE IT!?!”
“Okay first off, a dragon forced me to. Second, Graves took the gem after we got it.”
“…Alright, fair, she is terrifying. BUT I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THE DRAGON THING!”
“You don’t have to believe it for it to be true.”
“Ah-” Douglas paused, before slowly pointing at him. “Yooooooou are using my phrases against me and I do not appreciate it. What I would appreciate is you explaining how exactly you wound up stealing a core for a dragon when you hate dragons.”
“I don’t hate them.”
“Fine! Julius! I spent a long while with you! At least a year! A majority of which, you ranted and raved over how much you hated that Earth Dragon whose name I’m currently forgetting!” Julius grimaced. “My hometown was literally annihilated by her but you were the one whispering death curses against her as you fell asleep every night!”
“It’s not a competition-”
“I know it’s not! I said it’s not! Literally! ‘Tragedy is not a competition’, my exact words, because you were getting all insecure about it!”
Julius felt his jaw twitch as he bit back the urge to snap at Douglas. “I’m not having this argument with you.”
“Good! Because we need to have a very real discussion about when you got over your dragon hatred.”
Julius sighed. “I never hated the race as a whole…no, that’s wrong. I did, when I was younger and angrier. It was easy to see them all as destructive monsters, but after that…thing, with the Butcher, I let it go. I still acknowledge that Kigalori needed to die because she was a monstrous person who reveled in her power ruin lives without consequences and would have never backed down, even when we gave her the chance. The same went for Irascagan and the rest of his sociopaths. But I don’t hate their people for what a few evil bastards did.”
Douglas stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “I’m surprised, Julius. I suppose I never saw that change, or perhaps I just tend to forget these things…though, do you know what I didn’t forget?”
That was never a good question. “…What?”
“The fact that you still haven’t explained why you decided to steal a temple core for a dragon. I feel like that should have triggered some type of residual trauma.”
“Well it didn’t, because sometimes people go to therapy and have good support systems.”
“And then steal temple cores for dragons.”
“…Look, she didn’t want to let us into the temple, and I didn’t feel like fighting a dragon.”
“Is that reaaaally the reason?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Julius, I’ll be blunt, was she taller than you?”
Julius frowned. “Yes? What does that have to do with anything?”
“You have a thing.”
“What-” He cut himself off and narrowed his eyes at Douglas. “I do not have a thing!”
“Julius, I am gay and asexual. I’m not attracted to women, I’m barely attracted to men, at most, I appreciate aesthetics, but I am also observant, and you, my friend, quite blatantly have a kink for taller women.”
“Wh-What!? No I don’t!”
“That, that’s just one other person!”
“Okay, two, fine, but that doesn’t prove any-”
“I’m taller than her!” Now, anyways.
“Not when you were younger.” Shit.
“Hey…isn’t Valondrac taller than the old man?” Adrien asked, interrupting the two.
“…” Blankly turning to look at the new hero, Douglas remained silent. After several seconds passed, he looked back at Julius. “…You can’t be serious.”
“Look. Just. Shut up.”
“Well, even if she isn’t, she probably did look tall enough to make Teach immediately propose,” joked Sergio with a shit eating grin on his face.
“Julius…I don’t even know what to say. Please tell me he isn’t being honest.”
“…It wasn’t immediately.”
Douglas just stared at him. He crossed his arms over his chest. Stared at him some more. “You proposed to a demon lord.”
“Three times,” Sergio chimed in.
“Really??” No stop-
“Yup. First time seemed automatic, then he said it again after she asked him what he said, and actually paused to think and said it a third time-”
“Did you memorize what happened!?” Julius asked, trying to ignore how he nearly yelped that, and how people were starting to stare at them. Why the hell did they have to do this in the middle of the street!?
“Yeah, duh. It was amazing.”
“Wow, I am officially the most responsible member of our group now,” Douglas mused.
“YOU KNOW FOR A FACT THAT YOU’RE NOT!”
“True, Julius, quite true, we both know that’s Tizzy. Or Charlie. Or Ellie. Maybe Yuli on a good day? Not Cy, never Cy, but my point is, I’m officially more responsible than you, and that makes me the more responsible one of our current group.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s Sophia,” Adrien spoke up, not even bothering to hide his amused grin.
“Students don’t count, you’re all like five or something.”
“…Yeah, so it’s Sophia.”
Douglas frowned, before shrugging. “Fair enough. Which one of you is Sophia? No, don’t answer that, I’ll figure it out on the way, talk amongst yourselves, adults are busy.”
“But we’re all adults-”
“You’re better off not arguing…” muttered Sylsa.
“See, the ten year old agrees.” As Sylsa, who was probably older than Douglas by simple dint of being an elf, started grumbling, Douglas turned on his heel and started walking off again with a wide grin on his face.
“Oh, so we’re going now?” Julius asked as he caught up to Douglas while their students took a second to actually start hurrying after them. Douglas could walk fast when he wanted.
“Indeed we are! While I would like to discuss things a little more, I feel that we should definitely go talk to King Fritz and Ponty Andy, and, fair warning, but Fritzy’s a little eccentric.”
Julius blinked, suddenly very concerned that the king was someone Douglas would call eccentric. First though- “What? Why do we need to talk with the king?”
“Why wouldn’t we? You need to access the Wind Temple, and I need to tell Fritzy about how MY GOOD FRIEND JULIUS GOLDFORGE PROPOSED TO THE DEMON LORD VALONDRAC-”
And that’s when Julius tackled Douglas.