Chapter 30 – The High Skies

Gorokiva was a fascinating nation with a very long history, interesting people, and a unique culture within the Light Lands that had formed and lasted through the influences of its outworlder immigrants. Shame they weren’t bothering to see any of it though.

“Can’t we at least make one stop?” groaned Maria as she stared back at the capital city of Shiomi, a sprawling metropolis extending out from the centered grounds of its royal palace. She sighed loudly and flopped against the railing, letting her arms dangle like she could touch the curved roofs they’d passed over, a pretty large change from how nervous she’d been when they first went up in the air. Seemed she’d really gotten over her fear of flying. “It’s one of the biggest cities in the Light Lands, there’s gotta be tons to do down there…”

“Yeah, there is. Which is why we’re not going,” Julius replied as he leaned against the same railing, the rest of his students currently either in the hull or at the back of the ship to get a better view of the huge city, “If I let any of you down there, you’ll wind up getting wrapped up in something ridiculous.”

“Says the guy that punched out a governor…”

“And that’s a very good reason why I shouldn’t go down there either.” 

“Then why don’t you just stay on the ship?” 

“Because the events that led to said punch happened while I was on the ship.” Instead of replying, Maria just grumbled some more as she let herself sink lower against the railing, still staring back at the shining city. 

Hm. There weren’t a lot of boats out in the waters below at the moment, funny enough. No airships around either…He could vaguely see people out and about, but most of the ships were moored, and the ones that were out were bigger, more like frigates and warships…What were they called? Atakebunes? That might-

“Fear not!” And now Douglas was here. Yaaaaaay… “While we may not be landing in Shiomi, thus making my lessons completely and utterly pointless, Rainfall Island does have its own rich culture! After all, it’s an island that’s been directly influenced by the Lightning God, Innominatum, for a great deal of its history, adding in entire new traditions and ideals!” 

“Eh?” Well, at least Maria was looking more curious.

“Aside from being home of a rather unique race which you should definitely remember if you’ve been paying attention, music is quite prevalent on the island! In fact, similar to Kataba’s terribly designed temple, the temple there requires a key to enter it, and the key in question just so happens to be a melodic voice!” 

Julius frowned at the mention of the ‘key’. He couldn’t help remembering just how smug Cyrus got when he heard that little detail. It didn’t help that he let everyone else go first–Well, more like Julius, admittedly, stubbornly decided he should give it a shot first to get rid of that dumb grin–and even after everybody sang, the doors still remained shut. And that was despite the fact that some of them were actually decent singers. Not Julius, admittedly, but whatever.

“…So someone’s going to need to sing?” Oh, right, present day, student’s talking.

“Well, enough for us to be allowed in, yes.” 

“…And if we’re not good enough?” 

“Then we will do our best to find someone who is!”

Maria hummed a little at that, then turned her gaze back to the sky as they continued drifting out towards the ocean. “…What kind of song?”

“Are you thinking of doing it?” Julius asked.

“Ehh…maybe. I mean…A bard’s my dad, and I do like singing. I haven’t had many chances to do it lately, but…” She shrugged. “I…might try it.”

“Well, hey, worst comes to worst, Douglas can blow it up.”

“HA! Ah, I probably could!” 

Maria snorted, grinning up at both of them as she climbed to her feet. “Yeah, don’t do that. You two already pissed off a lot of people, and probably at least one god. I don’t think we need to add more enemies to the list.”

“Words of wisdom from your instructor here: Your list of enemies will always be increasing. Just do your best to keep it at a steady rate, and remove as many as possible,” Julius imparted. And now both of them were staring at him. “…What?”

“Jules-”

“No.”

“Julius…don’t suggest murdering people to your students.”

“You can remove enemies by making them into friends, jackass.”

Douglas gasped dramatically, placing a hand on his chest. “Julius! You know what friends are?!”

“…You get ten seconds.”

“Good, you’re very fast.” The lead didn’t help him.

Suffice to say, Julius got in a bit of trouble for suplexing Douglas halfway through the deck. At least Maria laughed, as did the rest of his students when they found out what the crash was. 

Joral was a little less than amused, which was why Julius was currently in the hull again while Douglas and Sylsa fixed up the planks above him, the planks visibly molding back into place.

“How exactly are any of you actually beating us when you’re this ridiculous?” Ariel asked, frowning at him from the cell while he, Nadine and Mask played poker with her around a small table set in front of it. Apparently, their many games had started when Nadine was showing both of them how to play. Better than her showing them five finger fillet again…

“Doesn’t that say more about the quality of your forces then?” Mask asked, tilting their head curiously, their clear face currently bared to the room. No face coverings in poker and all.

Ariel opened her mouth, very obviously realized they were being genuine, and slowly closed it, though she did shoot Julius a glare when he chuckled. “…Hmph. None of us…None of us have slammed another person through the deck of an airship.”

“That’d be impressive if the Dark Lands actually had airships,” Julius replied, smirking as her frown deepened. “It also says a lot that you had to pause there. Anybody get slammed through the deck of a seaship?”

“…Just call them normal ships, peon.”

“No. You gonna answer?”

“I have a right to refuse such questions.”

“You do? Since when?” Mask asked, tilting their head the other way.

“…I fold.”

“Huh? Wait, why? Don’t you want to raise more?” The slimy rogue would be more convincing if their gooey flesh didn’t visibly shift colors based on what cards they had. Poor kid had an absolutely shit poker face when they didn’t have a mask on. 

From what Julius could tell just from a couple rounds, yellow equaled happy and blue equaled disappointed. Kind of standard, and seriously gave away whatever they were thinking at a given moment.

“Yeah, I’ll fold too,” he said.

“Fold,” Nadine echoed, and Julius had to bite back a smile when Mask puffed out their ‘cheeks’ in annoyance, their slime turning red before it faded back to a neutral teal.

“…Can I put my mask back on?” Ah, they figured it out. Damn.

“No facial coverings in poker,” Nadine recited as she dealt out the cards again.

“Hrrrmmmm…what if we do a different game then?”

“How about blackjack? It’s simpler, and it’s players versus the dealer-”

“Become the dealer then, Goldforge,” Ariel immediately ordered, much to Julius’s complete lack of surprise.

“Sure. Can’t wait to beat you again.” Collecting the cards as she left out an annoyed huff, Julius began to shuffle the deck. Interestingly enough, as he dealt the cards, Mask didn’t look at their upside-down card. 

“The way I see it, if you can’t use my tell, I have a better chance to win,” they explained at Julius’s questioning look. 

“…That makes both a ton of sense and no sense.” 

“I say it makes no sense,” Ariel retorted, frowning again, “You don’t even know your card!” 

“Luck always plays a factor in every game, so you might as well let them,” Nadine added.

“Thanks!” Mask beamed, their skin once again taking on a bright yellow tint. And then it immediately changed to an anxious purple when their next card turned out to be a king. 

Julius chuckled a little, partially because of his student’s complete lack of subtlety, but mostly because they didn’t even need to bluff him at this point. Blackjack was against the dealer, and there was no point to bluffing because of how the rules worked.

“Hm…Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” After checking her cards, Nadine glanced at Julius. “I have something to tell you.”

“Which would be?” He raised an eyebrow, casually keeping a hand on the deck. Just in case, of course.

“I apologize on his behalf but Kruger is not into humans.” As those bizarre words left her mouth, Julius felt himself choke on the air, completely caught off guard.

“Kgkh-W-What??” he finally managed to get out, staring in wide-eyed shock at her.

“He didn’t know how to bring it up, but he felt it was only right to mention this to you after what happened.”

“…”

“…Youuuuuu slut.” Julius blinked, and slowly turned his gaze to Ariel, who was blatantly glaring at him. “Is my lord and master not enough for you? Must you lust after every piece of ass you can see!?”

“Like that dragon lady?” Mask no. Why.

“What ‘dragon lady’?!” Every one of Ariel’s eyes were on Mask now and they didn’t seem to notice at all.

“Well, I didn’t meet her, but Mister Goldforge did shout-” And then the entire ship suddenly jolted and rocked, the secured furniture shifting slightly in their harnesses.

“The hell-” 

“WELL DAMN BETTER GO CHECK OUT WHAT THAT WAS!” Julius shouted over Nadine before he immediately ran up the stairs, grabbing his sword on the way.

“W-Hey, wait! You can’t have bare steel-” But Julius was already on deck and woah, there was a transparent oval around the ship. A massive, glowing orange oval.

“…Huh.” 

“GOLDFORGE!” Joral shouted from the helm, “DRAGON!”

Wha-

The ship rumbled again, the shield flashing as a massive stream of flame washed over the right side of it. Julius whirled, and blinked in shock as the sight of a full-sized dragon, distorted through the colors of the shield, turned through the sky, circling their ship.

“Shit.”

“Something of an understatement there, don’t you think?” Douglas muttered, scratching his chin as he stood in the center of the deck, staring out at the sky.

“HEY!” And now Adrien was running up to them. “Old guys! What do we do?!” Huh. His voice sounded weirdly quiet.

“What?”

“Wh-What do you mean what?! You two killed a dragon, right?! So this should be easier!”

“We killed a great dragon, yes,” Douglas muttered again. Dammit, why was everyone being so quiet? And what the hell was that rumbling noise? “But we were on a much more level field there, one that wasn’t-”

“Okay, but what do we do now then?! Can we shoot through the barrier? How solid is it-”

And then there was a sudden rumble, and the ship jerked downward for a second, shocked screaming filling the air.

“Solid enough for him to land on it, dammit that’s a bad oversight,” Douglas-

“Why are you mumbling?!” Julius yelled, glaring at Douglas-And now he looked confused, what the fuck was going on!?

“…Julius, your eyes-”

“He’s up top, right? Then let’s get up there!” Fuck it, he’d get up there himself. Julius ran and grabbed a rope, yanking himself up towards the balloons.

He glanced around as he went up. Sergio, Maria and Sylsa were all at the ready, arrows nocked and hands glowing but the stupid fucking balloons overhead were keeping them from actually shooting at the asshole trying to drive them into the ocean, and Sophia was muttering shields over everyone while everyone else ran every which way, trying for ropes or whatever the hell Joral was ordering them to do.

Julius couldn’t tell by this point, his ears were pounding and he growled as he twisted around the rope and started yanking himself up the side of the balloon. Before long, he was on top of it, glaring up at the dragon slamming its claws into the shield. 

They were huge, whoever they were, but not as big as Kigalori. Their wings spread wide and two large horns curled around the side of their long head like a ram’s while bony plates extended over their head and down their back, jutting up like spines, and as they opened their mouth to breathe a massive stream of blue flames against their shield, he could see the huge white teeth filling their mouth. 

“Great. Great, dragons. Thought I got over this shit…” He chuckled, his eye twitched, and he pulled his sword from its sheath, lightning crackling out in the open air. “Well, time to work through my issues then…IF I COULD HIT YOU, YOU FUCK!”

Yeah, turned out, some genius–Douglas–thought it would be a great idea to put some space between the shield and the actual balloons. Enough space that Julius couldn’t exactly stab at the bastard from where he was. Also that might break the barrier, so…maybe not a good idea. Hm.

He narrowed his eyes. There was, from what he could see, a very slight crack in the shield where the dragon was pounding on it. If he could time it right, he could stab right through it right as the dragon broke it and then he’d pierce straight through the arrogant fuck-

“HEY!” OH WHAT NOW?! Julius whirled, then blinked. 

“Douglas!? Why the fuck did you bring Adrien-Huh?” Wait, why the fuck was Ariel with them?

“SETH YOU ASSHOLE! ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME?!” …Wait, what?

Julius blinked as their captive shouted up at…Seth? Wait, what dragon was named Seth?? Didn’t they have a naming thing…

He turned his gaze from the enrage arachne to…Huh. Seth, which was apparently his name, had his mouth hanging open. But, not breathing fire. No, he genuinely looked shocked, his eyes visibly wide as he stared at Ariel.

“…Uhhhh…” Julius turned back to Douglas and Adrien, the rumbling in his ears starting to fade as he blinked. “…What?”

“I think we should be asking you that-” 

“Sh sh shhhh! No time!” Adrien actually cut off Douglas, waving his hand dismissively as Ariel marched forward and kept up her tirade. “We can talk about this stuff later! Old-Agh, fuck it, Teach, that’s simpler! Teach, I brought Ariel because I don’t think this Seth guy is going to want to sink us if she’s here, mostly because I don’t think he actually knew that she’s here and I don’t think any of the generals want each other dead? I mean, I know your group of generals were all assholes, but most of them have been pretty alright so far? So, yeah! Gambled on it, and I think it’s working?”

“…Huh.” Julius blinked. “…Well. I…guess that resolves it?”

“Not in the slightest, really,” Douglas replied, frowning and scratching his chin, “For one thing, this has shown me the many many flaws in my current airship designs, and for another, why the sudden shift here? Most generals have been content to wait at the temples they invaded, and now-…Julius, what do you know?”

Oh. Shit. Something on his face must’ve given it away… “Uhhh…See, you know those dreams with Claire that I’ve been having?”

“…You wanna rephrase that, Teach?”

“Yes, yes, the interactive ones, I do,” Douglas said, waving for him to get on with it.

“…She might’ve mentioned sending someone to get Ariel back. And I forgot to mention it.” He grinned a little sheepishly. “Whoops?”

“…” “…”

“…”

“-AND LASTLY, HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN EVERY PRINCIPLE OF MAGICAL ATTACKS OUT THERE?!” Oh, Ariel was still yelling. “YOU USE A SOLID TO DEFEAT A SOLID! THE HARDER AND SHARPER A CONSTRUCT, THE EASIER IT CAN SMASH APART A SHIELD!” …Wait, what.

Julius whirled towards the two of them right as Seth reared back and a massive blast of ice completely shattered the entire shield all at once. 

“Oh SHI-GACK!” Julius doubled over as a muscular, scaled arm slammed straight into his stomach, driving the air from his lungs.

“TEACH!” There was a sharp, burnt scent for one second but then an arm wrapped around his throat and Julius was pulled back against a bizarrely cold-feeling chest. 

“Drop the spell, mage,” a low, rumbling voice echoed-

“GH-!” Julius bit back a scream as another hand clamped straight on his wrist, nearly making him drop his sword.

Across from him, Julius could still see Adrien and Douglas. Adrien looked shocked, his sword still sheathed, and blatant concern in his eyes, while Douglas-…Shit, Douglas looked furious. 

For the first time in a long time, Douglas Yew was actually scowling, his outstretched hand alight with a red-orange glow as he glared at…Shit, Seth had him. The bastard switched to a smaller, bipedal form. Drakinoid, humanoid, folkish, whatever, point was, Julius fucked up.

“Ugh. Couldn’t you put on pants or something?” Oh. Great. The guy holding him hostage was naked too. What a great day to be Julius Goldforge.

“I expected to stay in my full form the entire time. I didn’t realize you were daft enough to let yourself be captured.”

“Hmph. I’ll have you know, I fought their entire team and nearly won, all without having to take a hostage like a coward,” Ariel complained.

“Coward, or pragmatist? Besides, are you truly complaining about your rescue?”

“When it’s this shoddily done, yes. You didn’t even get my chains off!” So this was his life now. Hm.

“Let him go,” Douglas ordered, his hand still glowing.

“No.”

“Do I need to repeat myself?”

“You can, if you want. It won’t change my answer. I have no intention of getting blasted.”

“Gh…w-what’s even your plan here?” Julius managed to ask despite the pressure on his windpipe.

“Kill all of you. Though now I have to hold back to rescue red-eyes.” 

“Hmph, as if I needed your help.” 

“Then I suppose you can survive the fall and subsequent swim?” 

“You don’t want to do this,” Douglas cut in, sounding bizarrely serious for once.

“Kill my master’s enemies, rescue my comrade, and fulfill my missions…No, I think those are all things I want to do,” Seth countered, his voice still low and flat.

“Your master doesn’t want us dead though.”

“Ariel, confirm?”

Ariel huffed from behind them. “We had a meeting on this, why do I…Ugh, it may well be true. Lord Valondrac appears to be…familiar with the reprobate you have in your grasp.”

“Fascinating. Then I’ll make sure to snap his neck so he’ll merely be paralyzed.” Okay, no, bad plan. Fuck, okay, he couldn’t just stab into the balloon, but maybe if he took his left hand of Seth’s arm and grabbed his dirk-

“Wait! Just…don’t do anything!” Adrien suddenly yelled, holding both his hands up flat, showing them his empty palms. “Nobody wants to get hurt here, right? We’re not trying to deceive anyone, we’re not yelling for help, and we’re not wearing any masks, right? No one’s trying something crazy, there are no clever ideas going on here.” …The hell was he saying?

“So you say, boy. You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“Adrien, I know what you’re trying to help, but I want you to think this through,” Douglas said, frowning, “There are a lot of ways this could go wrong.”

“I know, but we’re not at the end of our rope yet. We just need to hold here, right?” Julius blinked, staring at Adrien. There was a weird tone to his voice, and that phrasing…

“No we don’t,” Seth retorted, “You might. The only reason I haven’t moved yet is because of your mage there, boy. Ariel’s complete lack of help is being noted though.”

“I’M STILL CHAINED UP YOU HAPLESS PRICK!”

“Good to know captivity hasn’t humbled her though.” Huh. There was some fond amusement there, like when Julius’s students were teasing each other. Weird to think-Ohhhhhh shit that’s what Adrien was doing.

He turned his eyes back to Adrien, just barely spotted the glob of slime colored to look like the collar of his student’s shirt, then quickly flicked his eyes up and down like he was nodding. Gave him a headache, but he saw Adrien grin as Douglas sighed in exasperation, drawing Seth’s attention back to them. “What was that?”

“Oh, not much. The old dude here was just hoping you’d cut it out.” 

“…What-” And that’s when the entire balloon lurched and Julius took the brief, surprised loosening of Seth’s arm to drive his head back into the dragon’s face, which turned out to be a terrible idea as stars burst in his vision, causing him to blink rapidly even as Seth fell back and Adrien charged past him.

Ariel’s surprised shriek cut out as Adrien tackled her and Julius turned around right as Seth’s wings burst from his back so he ran and tackled the dragon too, shoving his sword straight into his chest and earning a surprised scream of pain as Seth seized with electricity.

And then Julius very quickly realized that was a terrible mistake as he suddenly felt himself plummeting, his arms still around Seth’s rapidly expanding torso, which was still coursing with electricity as the dragon roared a plume of frost upwards and suddenly grabbed at him, his claws digging deep–

The water hit suddenly and without warning, and then all Julius could see was a pair of glowing blue eyes, bright with rage and pain, as Seth shoved off of him, back in his dragon form and trailing a massive amount of blood from the wound in his chest. The dragon shook his head and abruptly twisted, rapidly swimming off through the water as Julius…as Julius just drifted.

It was odd. That fall hadn’t felt like much of a fall at all…Heh, rhyming. How low to the water had they been? Seth had shoved them lower earlier, and then the rope…Hm. He looked to his sword for the answers, its blade glowing yellow in the water. Weird how it wasn’t channeling electricity…he’d be fried if it were though, so maybe that was a good thing.

…Why was he feeling lightheaded? He should be feeling panicked. He was underwater. He’d nearly drowned before, he knew how that…there was a lot of mist around him. A lot of blood. Was it…all Seth’s blood?

He blinked through the stinging in his eyes, and looked upward. Or…downward? It was…very, very dark…Huh…….

At some point, something must’ve grabbed him, because he felt like he was moving. Not…in a bad way though. The green and blue glows felt nice…

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